Cataloger's Corner: Trumpet Records

Carolina Kings of Harmony, "There's a Narrow Path to Heaven," Trumpet Records TR-207, 1953
Carolina Kings of Harmony, “There’s a Narrow Path to Heaven,” Trumpet Records TR-207, 1953

Newly cataloged at the SFC is a 1953 release by the Carolina Kings of Harmony on Trumpet Records, call no. 78-16736. Trumpet Records was based at 309 N. Farish Street in Jackson, Mississippi, at a combined furniture and record store in one of the city’s African American commercial districts. When Lillian McMurry and her husband (both white) first moved into the space, Lillian found some 78rpm R&B records that the previous tenant had left behind. Upon listening to the records, she fell in love with the sound and decided to sell recordings by black artists out of the store. She also attended blues and gospel performances by touring musicians at the Alamo Theater down the street and got the idea to start her own label featuring those genres.
Photo of Lillian McMurry, undated. From the William R. Ferris Collection, 1910s-2011, Folder PF-20367/978.
Photo of Lillian McMurry, undated. From the William R. Ferris Collection, 1910s-2011, Folder PF-20367/978.

In the summer of 1950, Lillian established her label as the Diamond Record Company—and then learned that Diamond was already in use as a record label name. Since she planned to record music with a spiritual theme, she chose Trumpet Records as a second option—“trumpet” referring to the angel Gabriel’s signature instrument. Lillian searched for talent at the Alamo, in her shop’s listening booths (where customers often sang along to the records), and through word-of-mouth. When she heard about vocalist and harmonica player Sonny Boy Williamson II, she canvassed the area until she found him. Sonny Boy went on to record a number of songs for Trumpet between 1951-1955 before signing to Chess Records. According to Marc Ryan in his book on Trumpet Records, Sonny Boy had such respect for Lillian that he observed her requests to leave all weapons outside the recording studio, as well as to stop all foul language on the Trumpet premises.
The Carolina Kings of Harmony met Lillian and signed a contract with Trumpet after a tour stop in Jackson. Consisting of lead singer Weldon Gill (who also ran a diner in Lewisburg, NC), along with William Battle, T.D. Jones, Vernon Joyner, Bennie Ruffin, Paul Cooley, the group recorded four sides in April 1953 in Raleigh, NC. Dubs of the recordings were then sent on to the Audio Company of America in Texas for mastering. Two of the tracks, “Going On Home to Glory” and “There’s a Narrow Path to Heaven” were released as Trumpet 207; the other 2 were not released until the 1994 Alligator Records compilation, In the Spirit: The Gospel and Jubilee Recordings of Trumpet Records.
We’ve included an excerpt from “There’s a Narrow Path to Heaven” here: There’s a Narrow Pathway to Heaven, Carolina Kings of Harmony
Though Trumpet Records only lasted until 1955 (partly because there was so much competition in the Southern gospel and blues market at the time), it has since become known as the first nationally known Mississippi-based label. Additionally, Lillian McMurry is now recognized as a key figure in the birth of American rock ‘n’ roll and as someone who resisted racial segregation of 1950s Mississippi. In 1998 she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame. Her papers, including significant documentation of Trumpet Records, are available for research at University of Mississippi’s Special Collections.