Arthur E. Satherley
Birth: 10-19-1889 - Death: 02-10-1986 | Birthplace: Bristol, England
“He tried to do a job and he did do a job. He was the recording genius for Columbia Records for a good number of years. . . . [H]e was a good judge of what the market needed.”
Such was one record-business pioneer’s—Ralph Peer’s—estimate of another: Arthur Edward “Uncle Art” Satherley. Producer, talent scout, and salesman, Satherley easily ranks among early country music’s half-dozen essential businessmen. Like his fellow pioneer Peer, he was equally important to the early recording of blues (then called “race music”) in the years before World War II, as he was to the recording of country music (then known as “hillbilly”).
An Episcopal minister’s son born in Bristol, England, young Satherley shared turn-of-the-century Europe’s fascination with the American West. In his midtwenties, he came to the United States and went to work grading lumber for the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, Wisconsin. When Thomas Edison purchased a subsidiary of Wisconsin Chair, Satherley spent a brief period as one of the inventor’s secretaries. In 1918 Satherley joined Wisconsin Chair’s new record label, Paramount, first in manufacturing, then as a salesman. By the mid-1920s, after earning a reputation as an expert in the infant genres of hillbilly and race music, Satherley was spending more time scouting and recording talent than working as a salesman.
He left Paramount in 1929 for the American Record Corporation (ARC); when Columbia Records bought ARC in 1938, he became Columbia’s country and race music A&R chief. “What I was interested in,” he would recall, “was the acceptance of the public. Does the public want it? Not what I want, or the artist wanted. Would the public want it?”
The leitmotif in Satherley’s self-appraisals is a fierce pride in his empathy, despite his English rearing, with rural Americans. “I was brought up on the farm,” he recalled. “I said my prayers on a sheepskin at night on a stone floor [under] a thatched roof. I have shucked wheat with my hands, and oats and barley. I have done much around the farmyard. So you see, I have understood country music from my early childhood days.”
Country artists Satherley recorded include the Pickard Family, Carson Robison, Vernon Dalhart, the Allen Brothers, the Callahan Brothers, Cliff & Bill Carlisle, Doc Roberts, Asa Martin, Al Dexter, Roy Acuff (whom Satherley called a “pure, unadulterated country person, a pure, unadulterated country American”), Bill Monroe, Tex Ritter, Red Foley, George Morgan, Spade Cooley, Ted Daffan, and Johnny Bond (whose records were Satherley’s final productions). He recorded race artists Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, Leroy Carr, Memphis Minnie, and others.
Two country stars with whom Satherley worked especially closely were Gene Autry and Bob Wills. Satherley was largely responsible for Autry’s recording success—he produced Autry’s early hit “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine.” Satherley’s persistent lobbying among his movie-business acquaintances helped get the young singer started in films. Satherley also played a large role in securing Autry’s cowboy image in radio. Satherley was introduced to Wills in 1935 by his assistant Don Law (his eventual successor as Columbia Records’ country A&R chief) and produced hundreds of Wills’s records (and always took credit for naming the bandleader’s signature tune, “San Antonio Rose”). Late in life, Wills called his departure from Satherley’s stewardship—Wills left Columbia for MGM in October 1947—the worst decision of his career.
Satherley resigned from Columbia as a vice president in 1952, spent a long retirement primarily in Southern California, and died February 10, 1986. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1971.
“I’m the only living man who’s been through this business with his hands,” Satherley said in the late 1970s, “running the factories, making the records, making the formulas, finding the material, seeing that the pressing’s done, selling [the records], and finding the artists. Nearly fifty years at it. And always of no fixed abode, just traveling, finding country people to make these recordings. And now considered the daddy of it all. That’s what they call me, the daddy of all recordings country: country black, country white.” - Tony Scherman
- Adapted from the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum’s Encyclopedia of Country Music, published by Oxford University Press.