Winston Holmes: Kansas City's unsung entrepreneur

By Marissa Baum & Luke Harbur

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Portrait of Winston Holmes and his wife Addie. Photo courtesy of The Black Archives of Mid-America.

The legacy of local entrepreneurs in Kansas City goes as far back as Francois Chouteau, who established a trading post at present-day Kansas City in 1821. Later followed Hallmark Cards, founded by Joyce C. Hall in 1917; Arthur Bryant’s in 1940; Ewing Marion Kauffman’s Marion Laboratories in 1950; Cerner Corporation in 1979; Garmin in 1989; and many more.

But an entrepreneur you don’t hear about is Winston Holmes, an innovator and businessman who launched Kansas City’s only race record label in 1925, right here on 18th & Vine.

During the Jim Crow era, discrimination and income inequality meant that nearly no black artists were recorded, despite their presence in an array of musical genres. Recording companies were entirelyowned by white people, but “race” media — music, films, and publications — was created by and for African Americans. Winston Holmes was born in Liberty, Missouri, Aug. 10, 1879. When he was young, his parents, William and Lucinda, moved the family to Kansas City.Holmes attended grade school at Lincoln Elementary, which later became Lincoln College Preparatory Academy.

After a temporary career touring the United States as a semi-professional boxer and entertainer, Holmes returned to KC and married. He started a new career tuning pianos, and he saved enough money to invest in a new business venture. In 1920, Holmes and his wife, Addie, opened the Winston Holmes Music Company, which sold records, phonographs, and pianos, and also provided services including piano tuning and repair.

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Ad in The Kansas City Call for Meritt Records Jan 2nd, 1925. Photo courtesy of The Kansas City Call.

Holmes’ local business success garnered national attention. His contacts in the music industry From 1922 to 1923, Holmes helped close record deals for Lottie Beaman and Bennie Moten & His Orchestra in Chicago for OKeh Records. Holmes became a local champion for Kansas City jazz, spreading its reach to a national audience. Holmes saw an opportunity to increase his impact by creating a recording studio for local African American artists, who had been forced to travel long distances to record in other cities. He and his wife moved their music shop to a larger space, purchased recording equipment, and founded Meritt Records.* Meritt Records is the only known race record company to have existed in Kansas City.

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Label of City of Dead, Holmes' first production for Meritt Records.

In 1925 Meritt Records debuted its first record: City Of The Dead / Cabbage Head Blues, by Lena and Sylvester Kimbrough and the Paul Banks Kansas Trio. Holmes later produced records by Rev. J.C. Burnett, Rev. J.C. Gatewood, and George E. Lee And His Novelty Singing Orchestra. Since music production was costly, recordings by Meritt Records were made in limited quantities, but they sold well alongside other albums in Holmes’ shop. At the peak of business, race record revenue reached upwards of $500 daily.

By 1929, signs of The Great Depression, technical limitations, and lack of national distribution stunted Holmes’ business. National record labels started hiring black musicians and paid more than independent labels. Holmes folded Meritt Records, and by 1935 he and his wife closed their music shop and operated business from home. Holmes passed away nine years later at age 67. Most race record labels faded away after radio became the primary medium for music in the 1940s. But Holmes, along with Kansas City’s rich history of entrepreneurship, reminds us of why this city continues breeding passion for business, art, and community.

*Other found spellings for the record label company include “Merit Records,” found in advertisements for The Kansas City Call, and “Merritt Records,” found in the text body of discogs.com.