1945 - 1970s
EBONY, Chicago, Southern and Harlem were independent labels operated by music business veteran J. Mayo Williams (1893 or 1894-1980), Williams had already enjoyed success as a professional football player and as an Artists and Repertoire man for Paramount and Decca when he went out on his own in January 1945.
There were three phases to his independent label operations. From 1945 to 1949, he operated the Chicago (later Southern), and Harlem labels, dividing his time between New York City and Chicago (he was also involved with Ebony Distributors, out of New York).
He started a red Ebony label in 1945, but seems to have shelved it after a year. But in 1947, he picked up with a new, very small Ebony operation in Chicago, with a new label design (on black or on red), an "Ink," Inc. logo, and no formal ties to Harlem-Chicago-Southern. To achieve wider distribution, he often struck deals in his early period with other companies, notably Syd Nathan's King Records, Ivan Ballen's 20th Cenury and Apex labels, and his former employer, Decca. The need become more urgent after he closed his New York office and its distribution wing (probably around the beginning of 1948).
After a brief hiatus in 1950 and 1951, he reopened an Ebony label based in Chicago; between 1952 and 1959, it was responsible for 31 known releases. For a little while, Williams licensed some of these Ebony masters to Art Sheridan's Chance label and Joe Brown's JOB. After being sidelined by illness in 1959, Williams regrouped and started a final incarnation of Ebony, which was responsible for at least 24 releases through 1971; some of these were licensed to Decca's Trend subsidiary.
Williams always had a nose for talent, but eccentric concepts of marketing and no flair for popular music production. Consequently, releases on his labels have drawn little attention over the years.
During the Chicago-Southern-Harlem era, Wiliams featured such artists as Bob Camp, Lee Brown, Dossie Terry, J. T. Brown, Johnny Temple, Brother John Sellers, the Famous Blue Jay Singers, the Dixieaires, and Tab Smith. He also gave bluesmen Jimmy Rogers, Muddy Waters, and Leroy Foster their first opportunities to record commercially—though not to get a whole lot of publicity. The first Chicago-based Ebony label recorded Lil "Caldonia" Palmore.
During the Ebony II period, Williams recorded blues artists Birmingham Junior, Freddie Hall, Little Brother Montgomery, Earl Dranes, and Alfred "Blues King" Harris, gospel performers such as Brother George Curry, a doowop group (the Eagle-Aires), and R and B acts including Joe "Cool Breeze" Bell and more of Lil Palmore (who was now going as Cal Palmer). He also indulged in some trickery, overdubbing a 1945 Tab Smith instrumental with heavy drumming by Jack Cooley and marketing the resulting hybrid as "Tab's Rocker" and "Cooley's Cowboy Rock."
The Ebony III period was less successful artistically (Williams intensified the overdubbing, applying it now to Decca recordings from the 1930s, and his new sessions gave undue attention to organ combos and lounge singers) but it provided opportunies to veterans such as Lil Hardin Armstrong and newcomers such as Bonnie "Bombshell" Lee.
By 1973, Williams had a bunch of leftover Ebony 45s that he wanted to unload in quantity. Williams' manner of numbering his releases was wayward (there's no telling how many different Ebony 1000s he put out), his Ebony II and III operations had a makeshift distribution network confined to Chicago, and most of his records are very rare today; we are sure some remain to be discovered.
Source: The Red Saunders Research Foundation