Fred Gennett, Class of 1905

Fred was born December 20, 1885 in Nashville, TN, and died November 27, 1965, in Richmond.

Becoming a World Renowned Business

To establish a thriving business is an accomplishment. To expand it and make it world renown is another. But to have sons take it over and keep it growing over time is a major accomplishment.

Fred Gennett was instrumental in not only modifying the Starr Piano business into a recording business but also in putting Richmond on the map for many types of musical artists.

It began with Henry Gennett, Fred’s father marrying and becoming president to the Starr Piano Company.  He came from Nashville TN in 1893, the same year that Starr Pianos were made known world wide at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Henry had three sons and a daughter- Clarence (8/25/1879 to 1/13/1953), Harry – ( 7/11/1877 – 11/5/1952) Fred and Rose – 7/10/1891- ?)  He lived at 1829 E Main Street in a mansion he built for his family in 1900. Fred, the youngest and third son was raised in this house.

Fred graduated from Richmond High School in 1905 and married his classmate, Hazel Bertha Reid on Dec 7, 1907.  Her diary tells of Fred being a character, joiner, and athlete, enjoying baseball and basketball.  She was a musician, sharing his interests in music and theater.

Fred served as secretary under his father, who was president of Starr-Gennett.  Fred’s brothers Clarence served as treasurer and Harry was vice president.  The family worked together to provide more than 600 jobs in Richmond at the turn of the century.  By 1915, at its height of production, 15,000 upright, grand and player pianos were manufactured in the valley 6 story building that sat on 23 acres. In 1907, Henry Gennett started the Starr Piano Company in Los Angeles, CA, with an eight story building built there. He began shipping pianos from there.

Father Henry had developed other Starr plants at port sites around the country so that quality pianos could be shipped around the world. Stores in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Birmingham, AL, Portland and San Francisco provided America’s middle and upper class a piano, a main stay in homes at that time.

As an officer of the company, Fred traveled to Chicago and New York, working with the salesmen there.  Staying competitive with the manufacturing of the pianos was essential to the well-being of the business. When copper rose to 24 Cents per  pound during WWI, the Gennetts looked  to Indiana Wire to produce piano strings normally made of copper and lead to being made of copper, more lead and aeluim, a radio active metal.  This would save 50 cents per piano.

“The Cradle of Jazz”

On the encouragement of Fred Wiggins in Chicago, Fred Gennett was persuaded to undertake a new line of product, the phonograph, which was quickly replacing the piano in homes by 1910.  Along with the phonograph, the recordings were sold.  Victor and Columbia were the two biggest names at the time.

Phonographs and records were not only sold in music stores like the Starr Piano stores, but by catalogs such as the Sears, also located in Chicago.

Fred Gennett encouraged his brothers to venture into the recording business.  With the help of Wiggins in Chicago, Fred brought artists to Richmond by train to record.  It was 1915.

Starr Gennett, as it was called after WWI, recorded niche music such as jazz, blue grass, hillbilly, blues, vandeville, speeches, Ku Klux Klan and even opera.   Fred brought them back to Richmond where they recorded music in the 6 floor building that was still manufacturing pianos.  In the 1920’s, 45% of all white men in Wayne County belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.  It was profitable to record Klan speeches as well as artists such as Jelly Roll Martin and Louis Armstrong in the same building.

Innovation and Marketing

Fred lived at 144 S 21st Street in 1920.     In 1920, 3 million records were sold throughout the US.   Gennett Records were renamed Electobeam Gennett in the 1920’s as technology changed and the quality of the recordings improved.

Henry Gennett died 6/3/1922.  At that time, Harry became president, Fred became treasurer and Clarence became vice president.  In 1927, Fred took portable recording equipment  to the Grand Canyon in Arizona to record the Hopi Indians in an attempt to sell the recording there to the tourists of the Canyon.

Also in 1927, the Starr piano store in Birmingham, AL recorded gospel, ragtime and country music.  Starr piano had located at various port cities around the US that later became regional recording studios for the record company.

As the phonograph was replaced by the radio in homes, the type of recordings changed.  Sound effect records that were used by radio stations in the 1930’s replaced the former records.

The End of an Era

Sales declined with the onset of the Great Depression.

In 1935, the Starr Gennett piano and recording studios were sold to Decca Records in Richmond.  In 1941, the shellac that was used for records was rationed as a war commodity, en ding the life of records for Starr Gennett as they sold their allotment to other studios.

In 1958, Decca sold to Mercury Records and in 1969, Mercury merged with Cinram which continued in Richmond until 2009.

Fred died in 1965, having made a success of the business his father had grown.  He did it by adapting to the changing needs of the times in the industry.  His life was filled with many triumphs as well heartaches.  His son, Harry Jr was killed at 17 in a car wreck in 1933.  He was the father of two other sons,

As a driving force in Richmond from his high school years and for the next 30 years, Fred Gennett helped put Richmond into music history and label our town, “The Cradle of Jazz”.  The quality of the pianos, the inventiveness of the recordings and the effect it had on the financial well-being of the community was largely due to Fred Gennett.

  380 Hub Etchison Parkway, Richmond, IN 47374

 (765) 973-3338