Interview About Paramount Talent Scout and Salesman Harry Charles
Phone interview with Harry Charles Jr. (HC) born in 1924 and Jeanne Kingsford (JK) born in 1927. Conducted by Angela Mack (AM) 12/10/06 (not recorded)
AM: This is Angela Mack from Grafton, WI. I am very glad that we were able to be connected. I am wondering if I can type out our conversation today for historical purposes.
HC: Sure, before we begin, my sister reminded me that he wrote a 10 to 12 autobiography. Jean still has it. We grew up with our father in Birmingham, Alabama.
AM: How did he get to become a talent scout?
HC: I was too young to remember. But he told me stories. He said that he found talent to take them to Chicago. I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure that it was Chicago. I remember one time my mother and father took me to New York City. He had business there for a week. I have a feeling that it had to do with that kind of business. I was just too young, but I remember how bored I was. We stayed in an apartment.
JK: I do have copies of copy writes of songs with the names of the songs and the artists but I don’t remember what is on them.
AM: What do they look like?
JK: They look like little note cards (about 2×3 or 4). I have 6 to 8 of those. I have one copy of some sheet music that he wrote. It was published by EE Forbes in Birmingham. He worked for them.
AM: What kind of company was EE Forbes?
JK: A piano company.
HC: They handled the distribution of Paramount records in this part of the country. Our mother worked there too. Her name is Kathleen Staples.
AM: What sort of work did she do?
HC: She was a sales clerk. She sold the records and sheet music.
JK: Dad was in collections when he first started.
HC: Fundamentally he was a salesman. Later in his years he had a successful piano and organ company.
JK: It was even called Harry Charles Piano Company. It was in Birmingham on 1st ave.
HC: Prior to that, he rented space in a furniture store and put pianos in there on the 2nd floor. The first one that he had burned down. He had about 30 pianos on the 2nd floor. He had 29 in one room. There was one piano on display and somebody burned them all.
AM:Did he play piano?
HC: He wouldn’t know one note from another! (laughing)…..but he WAS a salesman.
He even opened a store to sell refrigerators. When he had the piano company, he was on radio and television advertising for his company. He used talent from churches to play and sing and preach on the program. Finally he had a very big show at the auditorium. He rented the municipal auditorium. You still have flyers from that with the date on them, don’t you Jean?
HC: He invited all of the colored churches to send their choirs down to sing. It was amazing. He advertised that he had a 1,000 voices. I’m not sure if it was that many but it was big. He filled the stage with the choirs.
AM: Did you see that show?
HC: Yes. He was very friendly everyone knew him. Many people are even named after him in this area.
HC: One little anecdote is that on Pearl Harbor day, he had all 3 radio stations in Birmingham giving his advertisement. The announcement interrupted his sales shpeal.
AM: I bet that upset him.
JK: No, he was very patriotic. He wasn’t upset at all.
AM: I am assuming that your father was Caucasian. It sounds like he got along well with the African American community.
JK: He had a good report with the African American community. They loved his southern accent. I think it was because of his accent. He was everybody’s friend.
HC: He was very charismatic and it came across on his commercials.
AM: Did you ever meet any of the musicians?
HC: Yes. He had one group sing on his show. There was a woman by the name of RJ Pope who was a phenomenal singer.
AM: Was she African American?
HC: Yes. There was a group singing with her. He ran commercials non stop. They were 15 minute commercials. He would talk as if he was in the piano store. He would say, “On this piano we have such and such and on this piano we have such and such.” He would go from one piano to another. Our mother played the piano.
AM: Did you meet RJ Pope?
HC: Oh sure I did. I met RJ Pope. She was completely confident. She ruled the roost. JK: She was the boss of the singers (choir).
HC: I remember there was a male singer who got invited to sing on the show. RJ Pope didn’t like him. It was competition for her.
AM: Tell me more about his commercials.
HC: He had live commercials that were 15 minutes each on all 3 stations. It was impromptu. He made it up as he went along. He did this for about 10 years.
AM: What years did he own the piano company?
HC: Roughly 1940 to 1979. During the later years, he switched to TV commercials.
He had radio commercials until TV became popular.
AM: Did he have artists play on his TV commercials?
HC: He did not usually have artists go on the TV commercials.
JK: Not the kind that you are looking for.
HC: They sold Kimbel pianos and Kimbel would send some talent.
JK: They sold used pianos of all kinds.
HC: Gulbransen was the name of the piano manufacture.
AM: What years was he a talent scout?
HC: It was 1925 to 1930 as my guess. I know that he was done by 1931.
AM: What did he do after that?
HC: Well, this was a very difficult time, the Great Depression. It was very tough. He did nothing because it was the depression. The conditions that we lived in…..well, we lived in a very poor place. Yet he would buy a crate of eggs for $5 whole sell and try to sell them. He would go door to door.
AM: So he was still selling.
HC: He used to say, “If you can read the classified ads, you can make a living.” He was born in 1900. Me and my brother who is now deceased were involved in the piano company. I helped in the piano store that he had in the 2nd World War. He bought a recording machine and recorded wives (1942) to give to husbands in military. Those were metal records. I know that because I used to run the recording machine.
AM: Where did he get it?
HC: I have no idea.
AM: What ever happened to it?
HC: I don’t know.
AM: What did it look like?
HC: It was a turntable. It shed tiny slivers of metal as it turned around. It didn’t have a needle.
AM: Do you have any metal records, records from that era, or records with white labels on them?
JK: No records. We just arrived at my brother’s house. Could we call you back tomorrow? I will look into some of these things and get back to you.
HC: One last thing, in Birmingham when he did all of the commercials on TV, we used channel 6. I bet that they may have recordings of these. I do know that we recorded them. Channel 6 is still in existence.
AM: Did he record his radio commercials?
HC: I don’t think so. I think they were just impromptu and never recorded.
Updated Tuesday, December 19, 2006