Ralph Sylvester Peer (May 22, 1892 – January 19, 1960) was an American talent scout, recording engineer and record producer in the field of music in the 1920s and 1930s. Peer pioneered field recording of music when in June 1923 he took remote recording equipment south to Atlanta, Georgia to record regional music outside the recording studio in such places as hotel rooms, ballrooms, or empty warehouses.
Peer, born in Independence, Missouri, spent some years working for Columbia Records, in Kansas City, Missouri, until 1920 when he was hired as recording director of General Phonograph’s Okeh Records label in New York. In the same year he supervised the recording of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”, the first blues recording specifically aimed at the African-American market. In 1924 he supervised the first commercial recording session in New Orleans, Louisiana, recording jazz, blues, and gospel music groups there.
He is also credited with what is often called the first country music recording, Fiddlin’ John Carson’s disc “Little Old Log Cabin In The Lane”/”That Old Hen Cackled and The Rooster’s Goin’ To Crow”.
In August 1927, while talent hunting in the southern states with Victor Records he recorded both Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the same session at a makeshift studio in Bristol, Tennessee, known as the Bristol sessions. This momentous event could be described as the genesis of country music as we know it today.
Rodgers, who later became known as the Father Of Country Music, cut “The Soldier’s Sweetheart” and “Sleep, Baby, Sleep”, while the Carters’ first sides included “Single Girl, Married Girl”. In July 1929, he recorded the first female country singer, Billie Maxwell.
In his autobiography, Nathaniel Shilkret, Manager of the Victor’s Foreign Department from about 1920 through 1926 and then Director of Light Music until 1933, notes that about a year after he hired Peer, Peer asked for a raise, which Shilkret approved. Shilkret comments on Peer’s business acumen in making a very profitable trade for this raise: “[Victor executive] Walter Clark met Peer, who sold Clark an idea. No raise, but a royalty of one cent per record side that he would divide with the artist…. When I heard of this I was stunned. No one on the musical staff had been offered royalty for his arrangements or compositions, and here was a man collecting royalties with other men’s compositions!”
Peer went on to publish and record other country and jazz artists and songs through his company Southern Music Publishing Company. Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong and Count Basie were on Southern’s roster. Then into popular music with songs such as Hoagy Carmichael and Stuart Gorrell’s “Georgia On My Mind”.
The company became influential in the 1930s, and success came through Peer’s introducing Central American music to the world. In 1940 there was a major development when a dispute between the copyright organization American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and US radio stations led to the inauguration of the rival Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI). BMI supported music by blues, country and hillbilly artists, and Peer, through his Peer-International company, soon contributed a major part of BMI’s catalogue.
During and after World War II Peer published songs such as “Deep In The Heart Of Texas” and “You Are My Sunshine” (sung by Jimmie Davis, covered by Bing Crosby and many others), “Humpty Dumpty Heart” (Glenn Miller), “You’re Nobody Till Somebody Loves You” (Russ Morgan), “The Three Caballeros” ( Andrews Sisters), “Say A Prayer For The Boys Over There” (Deanna Durbin), “I Should Care” and “The Coffee Song” (both Frank Sinatra). In 1945, he published Jean Villard Gilles and Bert Reisfeld’s composition “Les trois cloches” (“The Three Bells”), which was recorded by The Browns.
In the 1950s, Peer published “Mockingbird Hill”, a million seller for Patti Page, “Sway” ( Dean Martin and Bobby Rydell), and the novelty “I Know An Old Lady” (Burl Ives). Then came rock ‘n’ roll and Southern published hits by Buddy Holly, Little Richard, The Big Bopper and The Platters.
In the late 1940s, he took an avid interest in horticulture, growing, and becoming an expert on, camellias. He died in Hollywood, California, in 1960. His widow, Monique Iversen Peer became president of his company (Peer-Southern Organization). Their son, Ralph Peer, II joined the firm in the late 60s and became CEO in 1980.
Peer was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984.