The English Singers / Roycroft Records Ad (1928)

MSP_english-singers-1928We recently found this unusual ad for The English Singers among the late George Blacker’s papers. He noted that it came from a 1928 issue of Elks’ Magazine (unfortunately, the top has been clipped, so we’re not sure of the month).

The English Singers were the main attraction on Roycroft records, a joint venture of The Roycrofters (the arts-and-crafts society founded in the late 1890s by author Elbert Hubbard, better known for furniture and decorative wares), publishers William H. Wise & Company, and the Cameo Record Corporation. It seems odd that The Roycrofters, with their reputation for fine materials and workmanship, would license their name to a company whose specialty was grinding out cheap records for the dime-store trade. Nevertheless, the English Singers’ releases drew praise from many prominent musicians and critics.

The Roycrofter’s trademark filing states the Roycroft name was first used on records on February 15, 1928. The recordings were numbered within Cameo’s own master series but were commissioned for exclusive release on Roycroft. They could be purchased individually or in sets, packed in nicely illustrated containers that are now considerably scarcer than the records. The English Singers’ records are the most likely Roycroft issues to be encountered today.

However, there was much more to the label. Cameo’s later Roycroft issues featured John Jacob Niles and others performing traditional British ballads and similar fare. There was also a handful of classical instrumental releases, including two piano solos recorded by composer Rudolph Gruen in late 1928 (a particularly rare issue). The final Roycroft series was produced in November 1929 by the American Record Corporation, which had acquired Cameo. They were a marked departure, devoted to popular fare by “Cheerio” (a pseudonym for Charles K. Field) and other performers from his radio show.

The Photo Gallery • Arthur Pryor at Work and Play

Undated Bain News Service publicity shots, from the G. G. Bain Collection at the Library of Congress (along with one of our favorite early Pryor sides). Most were taken at Coney Island’s spectacular Luna Park.


ARTHUR PRYOR’S BAND: The St. Louis Rag (Tom Turpin)

Philadelphia: March 23, 1904
Monarch Record 2783  (mx. B 1154 – 1)



The Playlist • Ada Brown and Mary H. Bradford with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (1923)

MSP_moten-1923A 1923 Okeh promotional photo of Bennie Moten’s Orchestra, with Mary H. Bradford (fourth from left) and Ada Brown (sixth from left).


Evil Mama Blues

St. Louis: September 1923
Okeh 8101 (mx. S 8458 – a)


Ill Natured Blues

St. Louis: September 1923
Okeh 8123 (mx. S 8456 – a)


Waco Texas Blues

St. Louis: September 1923
Okeh 8123 (mx. S 8463 – a)


From 1980s tape transfers supplied by the late Mike Stewart. Charles Hibbard was the recording engineer for Okeh’s 1923–1924 “recording expeditions,” according to reports in various issues of The Talking Machine World.

The Playlist • Murry / Murray K. Hill (1908 – 1910)

Oops — That’s really Murray K. Hill where Frank Coombs’ photo should be (from a scrambled 1911 U-S Everlasting ad). Then there’s the “Murray” vs. “Murry” debate; it turns up both ways on records and in catalogs, playbills, and news reports. No matter, it’s not a real name anyway (Hill was born Joseph Tunnicliffe Pope).


MURRAY K. HILL: A Bunch of Nonesense

Camden, NJ: November 9, 1909 — Released February 1910
Victor 16446 (mx. B 8354 – )
Take number is not shown in the wax (takes 1 and 2 were mastered)


MURRAY K. HILL: The Tale of the Cheese

Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 35093 (mx. C 8356 – 3)


 MURRAY K. HILL: Grandma’s Mustard Plaster

New York: Listed September 1909 — Released October 25, 1909
Edison Amberol 291 (four-minute cylinder)


MURRAY K. HILL (announced by Edward Meeker): The Stranded Minstrel Man

New York: Listed September 1908 — Released October 1, 1908
Edison Amberol 16 (four-minute cylinder)


A Fresh Look at the Pathe – Perfect Dance Series (Coming This Spring)


This spring, we’ll be releasing Volume 2 in The Pathé-Perfect Discography, covering the so-called Dance Series (which of course contains a fair amount of outright jazz). The text was completed this week, and we’re projecting a March press date.

Knowing the many errors, omissions, and questionable assumptions that plague previous dance band discographies, we decided to rebuild from the ground up — employing only data that the Record Research group, Bill Bryant, and their trusted associates obtained from first-hand inspection and aural comparison of their virtually complete holdings. What you will see in this discography is exactly what appears on the labels, under the labels, and in the exposed wax, of every issue. Any speculative band or vocalist identifications are clearly disclosed as such, along with explanations of how those decisions were  reached.

Pathé-Perfect Volume 2 clearly identifies not only which master (including “assigned” master or control numbers) and true take (as distinct from dubbing numbers and miscellaneous markings  that others have mistaken for takes) was used on every issue, but also how those variants relate to one other (identical or alternate masters and takes, unrelated recordings, etc.) — an invaluable feature when it comes to the Cameo and American Record Corporation joint releases.

Previous dance band discographies use a format that fudges the connections — They group corresponding Pathé, Cameo, and / or ARC titles under a common date, suggesting that they’re somehow related (which isn’t always the case, as synchronized comparisons reveal), but offering few concrete details. Thanks to a newly created relational database populated with only reliable first-hand data, we now know that most Pathé–Cameo–ARC joint issues aren’t quite the train-wrecks portrayed in previous works. Pathé-Perfect Volume 2 sorts it all out for you, item-by-item.

When the RR group began this project in the 1950s, records of this type were still cheap and abundant, especially in the New York area where the group was based — a distinct advantage over their foreign counterparts, who were working a continent away from the richest vein of original source material. (If you’ve ever seen the famous photo of Len Kunstadt dwarfed by ceiling-high towers of 78, that’s just a minute portion of their holdings, which eventually filled three buildings). Between them, the members amassed a nearly complete collection of dance-series Pathé, Perfect, and corresponding issues (often in multiple copies) to which they could refer.

The group published a very basic Perfect dance-band listing in Record Research, but then went on to greatly multiply the data, which they largely kept to themselves in anticipation of publishing it in book form. They held regular meetings, over the course of two decades, at which these and many other records were compared simultaneously, using synchronized turntables, to determine corresponding takes, alternates, assigned master numbers, and the like. The results were carefully logged in what they called “SAC” (synchronized aural comparison) reports. Speculation was allowed only as a means to spark discussion and more rigorous investigation. No guesswork ever made it into the final SAC reports.

In the mid-1980s the group turned the project over to Bill Bryant, who began to organize the mass of raw data, fill in the missing pieces (with help from a large group of trusted collectors and dealers), and make the missing connections. Unfortunately, other projects intervened, and despite the headway that Bill made, the work was still unfinished at the time of his sudden death in 1995. Mainspring acquired publication rights in 2011 and now has brought the work up-to-date, including notation of errors, discrepancies, and questionable assumptions found in other currently available dance-band discographies. In addition, data have been added from the surviving ARC ledgers, musicians’ and contractors’ files, the rare Dealers’ Advance Lists, the now largely lost Form 19 cards, and other primary-source materials.

African-American Stars on the Radio (1932)

Radio Digest in the early 1930s had plenty of photos of white men in burnt-cork, doing the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” bit, but photos of actual black performers are a rarity. RD made an exception in November 1932, when it ran a two-page spread headlined “Darktown Harmonizers.” We’ll spare you the embarrassing text, but here are the photos, all of stars who also had a substantial following among white audiences. The Mills Brothers didn’t actually play the instruments noted in the caption; they imitated them vocally (and amazingly well).




The Playlist • Snooks Friedman’s Memphis Stompers (1928)



Memphis Auditorium: February 4, 1928
Victor 21270 (mx. BVE 41841 – 2)
Released: April 20, 1928 — Deleted: 1931



Memphis Auditorium: February 4, 1928
Victor 21641 (mx. BVE 41840 – 1)
Released: October 19, 1928 — Deleted: 1930


THE MEMPHIS STOMPERS: Goofer Feathers Blues

Memphis Auditorium: February 11, 1928
Victor 21641 (mx. BVE 41883 – 1)
Released: October 19, 1928 — Deleted: 1930

Discographical data are from the original Victor recording ledgers and production files at the Sony archive (New York), courtesy of John Bolig. All of the above are marked as “Race” releases in the Victor files, although the band was white.

New Year’s Resolutions for Discographers

Every year we have to reject work from aspiring (or, in some sad cases, published) discographers because they fail to meet basic standards for original research and source documentation. Discography has grown up in the past few decades, evolving from a hobbyists’ free-for-all into a serious discipline grounded in established academic principles — which doesn’t mean it still can’t be fun, just that it’s finally outgrown an awkward adolescence.

For anyone thinking about compiling a detailed discography, I’d like to suggest a few New Year’s resolutions, which (except for #5) are pretty much what we were all taught in high school:

(1) Cite Your Sources. Especially for things like group personnel or pseudonym identification, which have a long history of being fabricated. And cite the source within close proximity to the facts in question; listing a source in the Acknowledgments and letting it go at that isn’t a source citation, it’s — well, an acknowledgment. The mantra here is “Who Says?” (courtesy of Tim Brooks’ ARSC review of a recent dance-band discography). To which I would add, “And how do they know?”

(2) Choose Your Sources Carefully. Original recording ledgers and other primary-source materials aren’t always available, but that doesn’t mean that the foggy memories of this-or-that musician, forty years after the fact, are an equally reliable substitute; nor that trade-paper blurbs (with a few exceptions) or band photos can tell you who was actually in the studio on a given date. Are sources like these worth noting in your work? Definitely. Are they absolute proof of anything? Not so much.

(3) Show Your Work. If your source is a conclusion that you or your associates reached on your own, state how you or they arrived at that conclusion. If it’s the result of careful, reasoned analysis based on compelling circumstantial evidence, say so. If it’s the result of some record-club buddies pulling an “I hear Bix” all-nighter, say that too (if you must include such material at all, which I hope you won’t). Either way, your readers need to know.

(4) Do Original Research. Most new discographies will necessarily revisit ground that’s already been covered to some extent in previously published works. However, simply cobbling together and republishing others’ work without adding any substantial new material or insights isn’t doing research, it’s doing plagiarism.

(5) Question Authority. Don’t perpetuate others’ errors in your work.Some “authorities” in the field haven’t followed the current literature or undertaken any significant new research in years. All discographers occasionally miss things or make mistakes; many fail to disclose that their material is anecdotal or speculative; and some just plain make things up. If something in a published discography or article looks fishy, revisit Resolution (4).

(6) If You Don’t Know, Say So (to quote Bert Williams). “Probably,” “possibly,” “uncertain,” and “unknown” aren’t dirty words. I’ll take them any day over undocumented guesswork passed off as fact.

 — Allan Sutton (Publisher, Mainspring Press)

Five Mainspring Press Books Nominated for 2015 ARSC Awards

ARSC-logoWe’re pleased to announce that the following titles have been nominated for 2015 Awards for Excellence in Historical Recorded Sound Research by The Association for Recorded Sound Collections. The goal of the ARSC Awards Program is “to recognize and draw attention to the finest work now being published in the field of recorded-sound research.” The winners will be announced in September.


The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941
John R. Bolig

The Pathé–Perfect Discography, Vol. 1
William R. Bryant, Allan Sutton & The Record Research Associates

Bell and Arto Records: A History and Discography, 1920–1928
William R. Bryant & The Record Research Associates,
edited and annotated by Allan Sutton

Eli Oberstein’s United States Record Corporation: A History and Discography
Allan Sutton & The Record Research Associates

Ajax Records: A History and Discography
William R. Bryant & The Record Research Associates

The Playlist • Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta (October 1928)

BLIND WILLIE McTELL: Statesboro Blues

Atlanta: October 17, 1928 — Released: January 4, 1929
Victor V-38001 (mx. BVE 47187 – 3)



Atlanta: October 17, 1928   — Released: March 8, 1929
Victor V-38032 (mx. BVE 47186 – 3)

BLIND WILLIE McTELL: Loving Talking Blues

Atlanta: October 17, 1928 — Released: March 8, 1929
Victor V-38032 (mx. BVE 47188 – 3)


The Playlist • “Hot Nuts” “Nasty Swing” and Other Bluebird Favorites

The first volume of John Bolig‘s Bluebird Discography goes to press next week and will release in February. In the meantime, enjoy a few of our Bluebird favorites. Discographical data are from the original RCA recording ledgers and production-history cards, courtesy of John.



(Vocal by TED TINSLEY): Hot Nuts

Camden, NJ (Church Studio 2): September 12, 1933
Bluebird B-6278 (mx. BS 77815 – 1)
Released: February 26, 1936


AT THE PIANO (Vocal by Tempo King): Papa Tree Top Tall

New York (Studio 3): August 21, 1936
Bluebird B-6535 (mx. BS 0232 – 1)
Released: September 9, 1936


Drifting Along

San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 1, 1937
Bluebird B-6976 (mx. BS 07435 – 1)
Released: May 26, 1937


CLIFF CARLISLE: That Nasty Swing

Charlotte, NC (Southern Radio Building): June 16, 1936
Bluebird B-6631 (mx. BS 102651 – 1)
Released: November 4, 1936
Accompanying personnel are not listed in the files or credited on the labels; published personnel listings are speculative.


TOMMY McCLENNAN: Bottle It Up and Go

Chicago (Studio A): November 22, 1939
Bluebird B-8373 (mx. BS 044241 – 1)
Released: March 1, 1940


Country Music on the Radio (1931–1933)

From various early-1930s issues of Radio Digest.

Before they hooked up with Carson Robison, college-educated John and Bill Mitchell recorded novelty banjo-and-vocal numbers for Victor (as “The Mitchell Brothers”) and for Pathé (as “McGavock & Tillman,” a factoid we recently ran across in Ed Kirkeby’s logbook).

Karl Davis and Hartford Connecticut Taylor were the stars of the Cumberland Ridge Runners; they made many records on their own, as “Karl & Harty.” A young Red Foley was in this group briefly, but he doesn’t appear in this photo.

“Mac and Bob” were Lester McFarland and Robert A. Gardner, who comprised one of the most prolific recording teams of the 1920s and early 1930s. As the photo suggests, they weren’t all that “country,” but the public bought their down-home act — and their records, by the truckload.

The Nashville-based Pickard Family had a unique sound, driven by “Ma’s” piano and “Dad’s” bluesy harmonica. You can read more about them in The Pickard Family on the Air.


Recommended Reading: “Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music,” by Barry Mazor

Barry Mazor: Ralph Peer and the Making of Popular Roots Music. A Cappella Books (Chicago Review Press), 2015.

MSP_peer-mazor_coverRalph Peer turned the American recording industry on its head, and for the better. When he first went to work for Okeh in 1920, records were being marketed largely to middle- and  upper-class whites. Victor, rather than offer black buyers their own music and artists, instead instructed its dealers to sell them “uplifting” Red Seals. Okeh, despite the release of its ground-breaking “Crazy Blues,” was in the same rut.

Peer certainly was a perfect fit for the recording industry as it stood in the early-to-mid 1920s. He came from an affluent Midwestern family, preferred the classics to the blues, raised exotic orchids, and drove a Cadillac so huge that it wouldn’t fit into the garage the Carter Family constructed especially for his visit to their Virginia spread.

But Peer took a very different direction, instead seeking out performers, genres, and markets that the old order had staunchly ignored. He’s best-remembered today for having “discovered” Jimmie Rodgers and the Carters, but he was a driving force in establishing “race” recording programs at Okeh and Victor, building the Latin American record market, and creating a new business model for interaction between artists, talent scouts, music publishers, and record companies that is still followed today.

Barry Mazor tells Ralph Peer’s story engagingly and accurately, and his documentation is impressive. There are those who detest Peer and those who believe he was one of the most important figures in American recording (we tend toward the latter), and both camps will find plenty here to justify their views.The treatment is sympathetic but never fawning. If there’s one flaw, it’s the scarcity of information on Peer’s contemporaries, like Frank Walker and Arthur Satherley, who played nearly as important roles with other companies.

The book is nicely illustrated with rare photos, many of then courtesy of the Peer family — the shot of Peer and Mr. and Mrs. Jimmie Rodgers enjoying the Jersey shore in their bathing suits is worth the price of admission alone. A must-read!

(Available on and in better bookstores.)



The Vintage Phonograph Gallery • Electric-Motor Columbia Grafonola (1915)

This ad for the electric-motor Columbia Grafonola dates to 1915. Large urban areas had been wired for electricity by that time, but rural electrification wouldn’t be completed until the Great Depression. That factor, combined with the steep prices of these machines, apparently limited their sales. They’re not seen very frequently today, and when they do turn up, they’re sometimes missing their motors, some of which no doubt were “repurposed” after the machines had outlived their usefulness.



Edison Gold Moulded (Two-Minute) Cylinders: Listing Dates (1902–1904)

Here’s a handy summary of early Gold Moulded cylinder listing dates, from The Edison Phonograph Monthly for November 1904. The actual recording dates have been lost for the most part — the Studio Cash Books, the only surviving session documentation for the early Gold Moulded period, list artists and the payments they received for each date, but not the titles they recorded. On average, recording dates would have been 2–3 months in advance of the listing; but as we know from later, more fully documented sessions, Edison often withheld release for many months, or occasionally, years.

Edison remade many of these early Gold Moulded selections (retaining the original catalog numbers) for various reasons over the years, including damaged or worn masters, changes in artists or accompaniments, or improvements in recording technology. Three main versions of # 8256, for example, have already been confirmed: the original by Morgan & Stanley, with piano accompaniment (listed in December 1902); a remake by the same artists, upgraded to orchestral accompaniment (listed 1905–1907, replacing the piano-accompanied version); and finally, a remake by Mr. & Mrs. Waterous (listed in February 1908).

As a result, many low-numbered Gold Moulded cylinders are actually later recordings than their numbers would seem to indicate. We’ll be sorting all of that out for you in our new Edison Two-Minute Cylinders (1896–1912): A Provisional Cylinderography, coming in 2015! In the meantime, be sure to check out the award-winning Edison Amberol and Edison Blue Amberol cylinderographies, available from Mainspring Press and major libraries.