“Pre-Ledger” Starr / Gennett Recording Dates and Locations (1915 – 1922)

“Pre-Ledger” Starr / Gennett Recording Dates and Locations
(1915 – 1922)
By Allan Sutton

 

Much of the Starr Piano Company’s original documentation of Gennett records has survived, beginning with some 1921 sessions. What happened to the earlier materials is anyone’s guess; they’ve been missing for as long as anyone can remember.

In the absence of primary-source documentation, discographers have naturally guessed at recording dates and locations for the “pre-ledger” masters — some quite accurately, many others not even in the ballpark. Good or bad, those guesses have become entrenched as “fact,” and the picture gets increasingly muddled as others take a stab at things. Happily, it’s not a particularly difficult situation to sort out, given the amount of solid information on these records that exists in Mainspring’s archives.

This article is based upon the extensive data relating to Gennett’s 1915–1922 output that was compiled by members of the Record Research group (Walter C. Allen, Len Kunstadt, Carl Kendziora, et al.) and other trusted sources over many decades. The information that appears here comes from their first-hand inspection of the original records, coupled with corollary evidence gathered from release lists and trade-paper reports of the period, plus the occasional dated test pressing. Anecdotal accounts and most published discographies were disregarded, a wise decision that eliminated much unnecessary confusion and misinformation from the outset.

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VERTICAL-CUT MASTER SERIES

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(Left) The original Starr label design. Masters on this issue were recorded in the Richmond studio by Weber’s Prize Band, a Cincinnati group. (Right) A late Starr issue, redesigned to match the new Gennett label, using masters from the New York studio. (From American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia, 1891–1943, by Allan Sutton & Kurt Nauck)

 
100 SERIES – New York (c. Mid 1915 – Early 1916)

The earliest known Starr master series, from a New York studio. This was not necessarily Gennett’s own facility. Harry Gennett reported in October 1915 that a studio had not yet been opened in Richmond, and he made no reference to a New York studio, which probably explains the series’ abrupt abandonment in early 1916, when Gennett opened his own studio. (Gennett is known to have purchased the Phono-Cut masters, raising the possibility that these recordings might have been made on old Boston Talking Machine Company equipment — an intriguing area for future research.) Popular-song titles in the series are early 1915 – early 1916 publications. The highest numbers identified thus far are 172 (by Byron G. Harlan) and 173 (by an unidentified vocalist), both of which survive as test pressings. An unrelated lateral-cut 100 series was used in the early 1920s for some personal recordings.)

 

5000 SERIES – New York and Richmond, Indiana
(May 1916 – Early 1917)

Introduction of this series corresponds to the opening of Starr Piano’s Richmond studio in early 1916 and the expansion of its recording operation under the management of R. C. Mayer. It marks the first appearance of Richmond-studio masters, which are intermixed with New York recordings. The first (#5000, “Smiles and Caresses,” by the Starr Trio) exists as a test pressing, dated May 16, 1916. The lower-numbered masters were recorded in Richmond by regional artists, including John W. Dodd and Elizabeth Schiller (Indianapolis); John C. Weber’s Prize Band of America (Cincinnati); and Harry Maxwell, Roy Parks, and Harry Frankel (Richmond). Frankel (a.k.a. “Singin’ Sam” in later years) was a Starr Piano Company employee at the time, and he continued to be associated with the company in various roles into the 1930s.

At approximately #5180, the usual New York studio free-lancers begin to appear in this series (including Vernon Dalhart, Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, and Sybil Sanderson Fagan), along with the Richmond-studio artists. The highest-numbered masters for which data is confirmed feature late-1916 song titles. The 5000s were replaced by a new 1000 series in early 1917.

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(Left) The first Gennett label design, introduced in October 1917. The Gennett and Starr labels were produced simultaneously for a short time before the latter was discontinued. (Right) The familiar scroll design initially was reserved exclusively for the expensive Gennett Art Tone series. (ARLAC)

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1000 SERIES – New York (Mid-1917 – Late 1918)

The Richmond studio appears to have been mothballed at this point. Aside from Strickland Gillilan and Weber’s Prize Band (who are known to have performed in New York), the Richmond-studio artists no longer appear in this series. (Commercial recording resumed in Richmond in the summer of 1921; see Special and 11000 series, below.) The first confirmed example of a Starr master being used on a client label appears in this series, on the anomalous Rishell 1509 (a label normally supplied by Pathé, Rex, and Okeh).

The earliest 1000-series masters were released in July 1917, suggesting they were recorded from late April to late May. The Gennett label was introduced in October 1917 and soon supplanted Starr, but the original Starr master series remained in use. Popular-song titles on the highest-numbered 1000-series masters are late 1918 publications, which corresponds with the beginning of Gennett’s conversion to the lateral cut.

PHONO-CUT MASTERS (~ 500 – 1000 Range) – New York (1911 – 1912)

Phono-Cut masters from the defunct Boston Talking Machine Company were reissued on Starr’s early vertical-cut Remington discs. Confirmed examples range from #634 (“Maritana Overture” by Fred Hager’s Band, which was credited to the Colonial Military Band on the original Phono-Cut labels) to #1081 (Massenet’s “Elegie,” by violinist Sylvain Noack). Thus far, we’ve received no reports from reliable sources of Phono-Cut masters having appeared on the Starr label. Starr test pressings exist of several 500-series vertical-cut masters, which are suspected Phono-Cut recordings but thus far have not been confirmed as such.

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EARLY LATERAL-CUT MASTER SERIES

 

(Left) An early lateral-cut pressing from imported Edison Bell masters. (Right) The second incarnation of Starr’s Remington label (apparently a custom product) used masters from a lateral-cut 100 series that was used briefly for personal recordings. The earlier, vertical-cut Remington label used some old Phono-Cut masters. (ARLAC)

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6000 / 6500 and 7000 SERIES – New York  (1919 – 1922)

Gennett’s first lateral-cut master series (6000s and 7000s for 10”, 6500s for 12”), allocated to the New York studio. The earliest were listed in March 1919 for April release, suggesting January–February 1919 (or perhaps very late 1918) as the start of lateral recording.

Gennett ledgers survive for the New York masters beginning with # 7736, which was received in Richmond on January 25, 1922. This series remained in use by Gennett’s New York studio through March 1, 1926, ending at #9999. At that point, a new series was begun at X-1. The X- prefix was changed to GEX- in the autumn of 1926 (with occasional variations, including BEX-, EX-, HAX-, and WEX- that are beyond the scope of this article).

SPECIAL SERIES — Richmond (1921)

A test series, made in conjunction with the reopening of Gennett’s Richmond studio for commercial recording. Confirmed master numbers range from 1 (July 21, 1921) through 16 (September 3, 1921) and include recordings by Harry Gennett, Fred Gennett Jr., Fred G. Mayer, and Harry Frankel, all Starr Piano Company  employees. None are known to have been issued, but a test pressing exists of Fred Gennett Jr’s “Dickey Bean Soup” (which was not assigned a master number).

11000 SERIES — Richmond (From August 1921)

Commercial recording resumed in Richmond on August 20, 1921, at which time a separate 11000 master series was allocated to the studio. The first commercial session was by Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher on August 20, followed on August 24 by the omnipresent Harry Frankel. Gennett documentation survives for all 11000-series masters, although the earliest is rather sketchy.

The Richmond master series (which also covered recordings made in Chicago, Cincinnati, Birmingham, the Grand Canyon, and other locations) continued unbroken to #19997, in January 1939, by which time the company was producing mainly sound-effects and special-use recordings.

Other documented Richmond master series include the K- prefixed series of 1924 (containing a mixture of Ku Klux Klan material; tests for the Vaughan label,and unissued private recordings by Fred Gennett Jr. and other locals); an 11B00 series (not a mistaken entry for 11800) allocated to Vaughan in the mid-1920s; and a 61000 series used for radio transcriptions and other special-use recordings beginning in 1934.

100 SERIES — Richmond (Early 1920s)

Not to be confused with the earlier vertical-cut 100s, this series was used briefly for personal recordings.

85000 CONTROL SERIES — Assigned in Richmond (Mid 1920s)

Not true master numbers, these were “control” numbers assigned to masters obtained from outside sources, including Rodeheaver Laboratories, Marsh Laboratories, and the New York Recording Laboratories. Data on these recordings does not appear in the surviving Gennett documentation.

LICENSED FOREIGN MASTERS (Early 1920s)

Gennett leased foreign masters from Edison Bell in the early 1920s, including recordings by Billy Whitlock, Pamby Dick, Olly Oakley, H.M. Scots Guard Band, and other popular British artists. Most recordings are from the mid-to-late ‘teens, with master numbers ranging from the 100s to 1700s (with a few outliers that might be from other sources), and they usually show an “X” in the wax. Data on these recordings does not appear in the surviving Gennett documentation.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78 (1939 – 1951)

Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78
(1939 – 1951)
By Allan Sutton

 

The following is an abridged excerpt from the author’s Recording the ’Forties, which is in development for 2018 publication.

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In early 1939, Columbia Records’ Edward Wallerstein authorized research into a long-playing disc, with the backing of CBS management. CBS has just acquired the moribund label from the American Record Corporation, and Wallerstein was determined to restore it to its former glory.

Wallerstein assembled a first-rate research-and-development group that reported to Peter Goldmark, who attributed his early interest in longer-playing discs to a “sincere hatred” of the phonograph in its current form. Goldmark’s team included Columbia Records’ Jim Hunter, [1] Ike Rodman, Vin Liebler, and Bill Savory; Rene Snepvangers, who was transferred from CBS and charged with developing a suitable lightweight pickup; and Bill Bachman, who was poached from General Electric.

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There was nothing new about 33 1/3-rpm discs (the chosen format), which had been used for sound-track discs and radio transcriptions for a decade. Nor was a fine-groove disc anything revolutionary; Edison had introduced them in 1926, and in the mid-1930’s Wallerstein had witnessed RCA’s testing of the ultra-fine 0.001” (1-mil) microgroove that was to employed. Vinyl, the pressing medium selected by Hunter, was not new either, although it was not yet being used in commercial pressings. What was new was the bundling of those features into a consumer package.

Exhibiting remarkable foresight, Wallerstein ordered that Columbia’s new studios be equipped to record simultaneously on standard 78-rpm masters and 33 1/3-rpm 16″ acetate blanks. The latter were to be held in reserve as a stockpile of masters from which the long-playing discs could be transcribed when the time came.

Development of Columbia’s microgroove disc was well under way when the U.S.’s entry into World War II forced CBS to put the project on hold. Work did not resume in earnest until 1946. Late in the year, engineers demonstrated a long-playing record that unfortunately fell far short of Wallerstein’s expectations.

As costs mounted, CBS president William Paley became increasingly impatient for a launch and ordered Wallerstein, Hunter, and members of the engineering team to meet with him every two months. Every detail was carefully researched, from cutting angles to heated cutting styli, in the seemingly contradictory quest for higher fidelity and longer playing time. After considerable experimentation, which at one point involved recording live gunfire in the studio, the American-made   microphones were scrapped in favor of German models.

Columbia took another important step toward LP conversion in mid-1947, when it abandoned direct-to-disc mastering in favor of tape, using EMI and Ampex equipment. A seventeen-minute 33 1/3-rpm prototype disc, now referred to internally simply as the “LP,” [2] was rejected in the fall of 1947, with orders being given to extend the playing time to twenty minutes or longer.

The playing-time issue was soon resolved, but the LP was facing a more serious impediment in its journey to market. There were not yet any consumer-grade phonographs capable of playing the records. Although the recording technology had been largely perfected by the end of 1947, the development of affordable players had lagged, the same problem that had plagued RCA’s long-playing discs in the early 1930s. In addition to a 33 1/3-rpm turntable, a high-quality permanent stylus and lightweight tone-arm would be required to play the records properly.

After concluding that Columbia’s engineers had neither the time nor the expertise to create such a device, Wallerstein contracted with radio manufacturer Philco to develop and produce the first models. Working closely with the CBS team, Philco’s engineers quickly delivered an inexpensive, single-speed turntable that could be easily attached to the owner’s existing radio or phonograph.

In January 1948, Wallerstein was elected chairman of the board of Columbia Records, the presidency of which then passed to CBS vice-president Frank K. White. By that time, the microgroove LP was approaching its final form, with playing time now extended to twenty-two minutes on a 12″ side. After having kept the project under wraps for so long, Paley and Wallerstein began demonstrating the new records to others within the industry, in an attempt to garner licensing deals. Wallerstein demonstrated the LP to RCA president David Sarnoff in April 1948, in a meeting that did not go well and reportedly left Sarnoff seething. Demonstrations to Decca, and to the Electric and Musical Industries in England, were no more successful.

At the end of May 1948, Billboard reported that CBS executives were still “maintaining complete silence on the entire project” as far as the general public was concerned. That silence was finally broken on June 18, when Columbia hosted a preview of the new records and player for recording-industry executives, during which full technical details were publicly disclosed for the first time. Two days later, the press was given its first glimpse of the LP when Wallerstein demonstrated it to fifty reporters at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Columbia’s initial LP catalog, consisting of 101 records, was unveiled on the same day. Columbia then took its LP show on the road, demonstrating the new records to dealers on nationwide tour that wrapped up in Utah a month later. [3] The records were on sale to the general public by early September.

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Columbia’s LP were pressed in 10″ and 12″ formats (the latter reserved primarily for extended classical works) and retailed from $2.85 for standard 10″ releases to $4.85 for the 12″ Masterworks series. A 7″ LP, retailing for 60¢ and devoted largely to pop material, was introduced in January 1949.

The company had long been stockpiling classical masters in anticipation of the LP’s launch, at first on long-playing acetate transcriptions and later on tape, eliminating the need to piece together extended works from multiple 78-rpm discs. With the recording industry still in the grips of the second American Federation of Musicians recording ban, no new pop material was released. Instead, the pop LPs were cobbled together from pre-ban recordings that had previously been issued on 78s.

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Realizing that there was little patentable about the LP, and that it could succeed commercially only if the format was universally adopted, CBS executives rethought their licensing plans. In June 1948, the company made the LP format freely available to other companies, some of whom returned the favor by giving Columbia their LP pressing business, at least until they were able to retool their own plants. The result was an explosion of interest in the new format by major and minor labels alike. Legal, financial, and logistical issues would crop up, including the need to recalculate artists’ royalty (requiring negotiations with the AFM’s notoriously uncooperative James Caesar Petrillo), a demand by Standard Transcription that Columbia pay double recording rates for material taken from its masters, and the need to quickly supply radio stations with microgroove-capable equipment) but they did nothing to impede development. [4]

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The conversion to LP pressings was a fairly straightforward process. Vinyl and other plastic products were already  supplanting shellac as the favored pressing medium, and many  plants had experience working with the materials. The conversion to high-fidelity microgroove recording appeared to be more daunting, but Audio Record magazine assured its readers (comprising mainly independent-studio owners and engineers) that the transition would be “an easy one from the equipment point of view.” C. J. LeBel outlined the basic steps for recording engineers:

The most important [step] is provision for cutting at micro pitch — in the range of 224 to 260 lines per inch. Probably 224 to 240 lines is the most desirable for most applications. Some equipment already made has provisions for this without change… In other apparatus some change is necessary. An overhead feed mechanism relies on a change of lead-screw for change of pitch. To make this shift, then, it is only necessary to purchase and insert a new lead-screw.

The electrical characteristics are even simpler to achieve… we would use normal transcription recording characteristics. This would be either the NAB standard 16-db boost at 10,000 cycles, or the standard 10-db boost which many studios have found to be their usable limit. Columbia microgroove characteristic is the same as NAB, except that the response is slightly higher below 100 cycles. A simple equalizer will take care of this. For a great deal of the work the difference is negligible, and standard transcription equalization can be used. [5]

As eager as many companies were to adopt the new format, they  were quite ready to forsake the 78 entirely. London, which had added LPs to its line-up in 1949 and 45s in January 1950, took a step back  in April 1950 with its “Shellac Is Not Dead” campaign. Twelve new 78-rpm album sets and twenty new 78-rpm singles were announced, compared with only two 45s and one LP. The campaign was soon abandoned. [6]

Some dealers actively opposed the transition, seeing it as a form of price-cutting and fearing they would be left with a glut of unsalable 78s. Among them was David Krantz, president of the Philadelphia Retail Record Dealers’ Association, and producer of the minuscule Krantz Records label. In early 1949 he launched a campaign against the LP that succeeded only in losing business for his store and antagonizing some Columbia sales executives. His campaign ended abruptly in June 1950, when he and seven other Philadelphia record-store owners were arrested and charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to fix record prices. [7]

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Krantz and his kind, however, were the exceptions. Despite some initial trepidation, the LP format was quickly embraced by record companies and dealers, in no small part because of its potential for wringing additional profits out of material that had otherwise run its course in terms of sales. The vast majority of early LPs (and slightly later, extended-play 45s) were simply cobbled together from material that had been previously issued on 78s. Sales boomed as customers rushed to replace their old shellac pressings with the quieter, trendier long-playing editions.

Companies’ announcements of their impending LP launches were appearing regularly in the trade papers by late 1948. Some were premature, and there were some false starts. Savoy announced its first LP release in December 1948, dubbed from previously released Errol Garner recordings, then but retreated, not issuing LPs on a regular basis until March 1950. The Bihari brothers announced that Modern Records was about to launch LPs in the summer of 1949, but they did not begin to appear until October 1950. [8] Some record companies undertook the conversion piecemeal, testing the waters with the less-important segments of their catalogs before committing to large-scale LP output. Allegro, which Paul Puner had launched after leaving Musicraft, began by test-marketing LPs for the children’s market; Dial, which was predominantly a jazz label, began with a small group of LP classical albums using leased foreign masters.

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Atlantic, Mercury, and M-G-M took the LP plunge in early 1949, followed by Tempo in May, Decca in August, and a host of smaller labels as the year came to a close. The independent classical labels, in particular, were quick to embrace the LP. Among the earliest to do so was Vox, which began releasing LPs in early May 1949. [9] The albums were produced in two series, retailing for $4.85 for domestic recordings, or $5.85 for foreign recordings licensed from Polydor, its various affiliates, and Discophile Francais. Billboard reported that Columbia Records was giving the company its full cooperation in making the conversion. (Columbia was not being entirely altruistic, having gained Vox’s pressing business in the process.) In November, Vox announced that it was abandoning 78-rpm production entirely. [10] The prestigious Concert Hall Society began with a single “experimental” LP in January 1949, [11] and by the early 1950s it had followed Vox’s lead to become an LP-only line. Several new entrants in the classical field during 1949–1950, including Period and Renaissance, skipped 78s and went directly to LP production.

In response to all of this activity, phonograph manufacturers began turning out multi-speed changers as fast as they could retool their production lines. A February 1949 Billboard article listed dozens of new changers that could play both 78s and 33s. At the entry level were turntable attachments like Philco’s. For buyers flush with post-war cash, there were changers with built-in AM-FM radios, and Westinghouse even offered changer-television combinations that retailed from $625 to $725. [12]

RCA officials offered no public comment on the LP until early 1949, when they countered with what they hinted would be a revolutionary new format. RCA made much of the project’s top-secret status, which it code-named “Madame X,” but leaked enough information to keep the public intrigued. By early January, it was already known that “Madame X” was a small-diameter, 45-rpm disc with matching changer. [13] In February, Audio Record magazine reported,

No technical information has yet been released, but we have collected the available data… X is a thin 7” pressing of pure vinyl. The center hole is large — about 1½ inches in diameter. Maximum playing time is 5½ minutes. Fine grooves are employed, and the playback stylus is 1 mil… So far as we can tell, the recording characteristic is the same as that used on standard Victor records…

The point which has aroused the widest controversy is the speed: 45 rpm. It is rumored that 33 1/3 rpm was tried and discarded… A moment’s consideration will show that for a given diameter, 45 rpm will give 35% higher linear groove velocity than will 33 1/3 rpm. It would be possible to get the same linear groove velocity at 33 1/3 rpm by increasing the outside diameter to 9 ½ inches, which would increase the vinyl cost 82% over the 7 inch size. [14]

A month later, in the same publication, RCA engineer D. D. Cole came forth with a detailed description of the new records and matching phonograph, along with his company’s rationale for introducing them. [15] RCA’s contention was that the myriad problems inherent in recorded-sound reproduction could be solved only with an integrated system. Much attention was lavished on development of the compact changers that would be required to play the new records. Recalling the old premium-scheme phonographs of the early 1900s, [16] they were designed to foil the use of any record other than the 45, although Cole promised that multi-purpose changers were in development. The new record-and-changer combination was touted as the “first in history of the industry to be designed specifically to complement each other” — conveniently overlooking Columbia’s new LP player and RCA’s Program Transcription disc-and-player combination of the early 1930s. [17]

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RCA’s new records and players were introduced to the public with considerable fanfare in April 1949. Cole assured customers that 78-rpm records were in no imminent danger of disappearing, but his wording hinted that they were already becoming an after-thought: “RCA Victor,” Cole declared, “will continue to serve the standard market by making all selections recorded for the 45-rpm system also available on 78-rpm records.” [18] He announced a novel plan to allocate different colors of vinyl to each series: red for Red Seals, black for standard popular, green for country-and-western, yellow for children’s, cerise for rhythm-and-blues, light blue for international, and dark blue for what he termed “popular classics.” Marketing was undertaken on an international scale. Even before the records were placed on sale, RCA Victor sales manager Frank McCall was dispatched to Cuba on the first leg of a seven-week trip to promote the new format to Latin American distributors.

RCA executives had predicted that other record manufacturers would rush to adopt the new format, as they had with Columbia’s LP. But unlike the LP, the 45 embodied some patented features, and RCA initially demanded a licensing fee its use. In addition, the unusually thin pressings, thick raised label area, and oversized spindle holes required the purchase of new presses, or major retooling of existing ones. Both issues were seen as impediments by companies that were already heavily invested in the conversion to LPs.

Despite RCA’s hype, consumers were slow to warm to the 45, citing the lack of selection and other companies’ failure to adopt the format. Many who might otherwise have embraced the new format had already purchased LP players, which could not yet handle 45s.

In response, RCA began offering support to other producers in the form of technical advice or custom-pressing services, and it soon dropped the licensing requirement. Nevertheless, the rapid adoption of the 45 that RCA executives had anticipated failed to materialize. Capitol Records was the only major label to immediately test the new format. [19] By turning the pressing over to RCA, Capitol managed to get a small  selection of 45s to market by April 1949. [20] M-G-M followed several months later.

The smaller producers remained aloof. One of the few to attempt the conversion in 1949 was Gabor Szabo, who had managed RCA Victor’s foreign-record division until 1941,when he left to launch Standard Phono, and had since maintained an on-again off-again relationship with his old employer. In the summer of 1949, he briefly test-marketed an inexpensive 45-rpm disc, pressed in inferior “Websterlite” plastic rather than vinyl, then jettisoned  the idea. Thus, Chicago-based Rondo Records became the first small producer to reach the market with 45s, barely nudging out the even more minuscule Discovery Records for the honor in January 1950. [21]

In December 1949, Billboard reported a “major metamorphosis” in RCA’s approach to the 45 that hinted of sour grapes:

The company is now distinctly cool to the idea or necessity of persuading other diskeries to adopt 45. The reason for the attitude is two-fold. Firstly, RCA has had to go it alone; secondly, the company now figures it has carved out a sizable market for itself in 45, and any diskery venturing into this market would mean a lessening of RCA’s profit therein. [22]

In the same story, it was reported that Decca executives had begun “gauging and checking” the 45-rpm market. Columbia was planning to launch 45s as well. Edward Wallerstein, despite his openly expressed  disdain for the format, gave the go-ahead for Columbia to start producing  45s in late 1949, reassuring customers that his company would make “any record the public wanted.” [23]  London began offering 45s in January 1950, along with the tiny Goldband and Folkstar labels. Decca, having finally completed its gauging and checking, signed on in July, and the 45 finally began to gain some traction in the marketplace. By the mid-1950s, the 45 would become the preferred format for pop singles.

Classical enthusiasts, however, were decidedly cool toward yet another format that required side-changes every five minutes. Columbia executive Edward Wallerstein recalled,

RCA especially spent huge sums of advertising money trying unsuccessfully to convince the public that the 45 was really a good thing for classics. Our policy for advertising was not to compare the products. We were pushing LPs, and there was no comparison… Actually the introduction of 45s didn’t touch the sales of LPs at all. Columbia quickly began to issue single pops records on 45s, which were and indeed still are, the accepted medium for singles. I was amazed when I learned that during the period in which RCA held out against the LP-that is, from June 1948 to January 1950, it lost $4.5 million. [24]

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Trade-paper reports of the period confirmed that Columbia’s classical Masterworks LPs were outselling RCA’s 45-rpm Red Seal sets by a substantial margin. Sales of the 45-rpm Red Seal sets, already hobbled by consumer resistance, were further undermined by RCA’s ill-conceived decision, in June 1949, to place portions of its 78-rpm catalog on “clearance sale,” with discounts ranging from forty to fifty percent. Dealers reported that the largest sellers by far were 78-rpm Red Seal album sets, undercutting  demand for the more expensive, albeit far less bulky, 45-rpm versions.

After taking a loss on record sales in 1949, RCA finally capitulated and began preparing to produce its own LPs, becoming the last major label to do so. The impending arrival of a three-speed RCA changer was announced in early December 1949. On January 4, 1950, the company announced that it was making its classical library available in LP format; pop LPs followed several months later. Pressed in better material than the Columbia LPs, and featuring attractive album-cover artwork in place of Columbia’s boilerplate “tombstone” design, they were an immediate hit with dealers and customers alike.

The proliferation of new formats and adoption of the microgroove standard had been unsettling for many small producers. With standard 78s still selling in large numbers, and no clear winner yet in battle between LPs and 45s, prevailing wisdom was that it was essential to release recordings in all three formats, an expense that many smaller producers could not afford. As early as November 1948, Allegro president Paul Puner had written the Department of Commerce, requesting their intervention in an increasingly chaotic situation. His request for standardization was flatly declined by Assistant Secretary Thomas Blaidesell, who advised, “We can appreciate the present difficulties facing your industry, but do not feel, operating under a free economy as we do, that this department could intervene in situations of this kind unless directed to so do by law.” [25]

The same uncertainty plagued the jukebox industry. J. P. Seeburg’s vice-president, after conducting an extensive study of the situation, observed,

“The Battle of the Speeds,” a highly controversial subject with the public, has, apparently, been equally confusing to the record manufacturers themselves and it, therefore, becomes a very delicate and speculative issue for those of us who are on the outside observing the internal turmoil within the record industry.” [26]

He concluded that the LP was not suitable for jukebox use, but he was enthusiastic about the 45, praising its quality as “so far superior [to 78s]  that it is really amazing.” In addition to the 45’s obvious strengths, he liked the increased playing time over the standard 10” 78, which would he thought would encourage  jukebox operators to stock short classical pieces — a market he foresaw (quite incorrectly, it turned out) as potentially lucrative. Nevertheless, Seeburg announced that it had no immediate plans to introduce a 45-rpm machine.

Others in the jukebox industry shared Seeburg’s wait-and-see attitude. At the end of 1949, executives at Wurlitzer, AMI, and other jukebox manufacturers were still expressing concerns over whether the format would be widely adopted by other companies. Lester C. Rieck, sales manager of H. C. Evans & Company (the manufacturer of Constellation jukeboxes) told Billboard,

If this record is universally accepted by the record-playing public, then without a doubt a large library of selections will be made available. When this time comes, and only then, will the 45-rpm record prove to be a money-maker for music-machine operators… It is going to take time, possibly years, to completely outmode the playing of 78-rpm record. [27]

A Rock-Ola executive cited difficulties in adapting its mechanisms to the new discs. “We have run into so many difficulties in adapting them to our phonograph,”  he reported, “that we have just about shelved the idea for the present.” An Aereon official, although enthusiastic about the new discs and their potential, admitted that his company was not actively engaged in designing a machine to play them. [28].

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But when multi-speed jukeboxes finally began reaching the market in 1950–1951, the 45 was vindicated as a medium for popular music. Jukeboxes proved to be ideal demonstrators and salesmen for the little records, and demand for 45s soared. By the early 1950s, all of the major labels, and a rapidly growing number of smaller ones, were offering pop releases in both 78- and 45-rpm form. The tipping point would come in mid-decade, when 45s outsold 78s for the first time.

 

References

 

[1] Hunter had been part of the RCA team that developed Victrolac plastic pressings in the early 1930s, which originally were intended as movie soundtrack discs. RCA engineer F. C. Barton first publicly disclosed the details at the Spring 1931 meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Editors.

[2] CBS trademarked the LP name but failed to aggressively protect it. Eventually, it was dtermined that the term had slipped into generic usage, and CBS lost claim to it.

[3] “Firm Sets Exhibit of New Records.” Salt Lake Tribune (July 11, 1948), p. 10.

[4] “Standard Yelps When Col. Cuts LPs from Ordinary Disks Sans Double Rate.” Billboard (October 9, 1948), p. 19.

[5] LeBel, C. J. “Microgroove in Your Studio. Part 2, Equipment Requirements.” Audio Record (February 1949), p. 3. Le Bel was vice-president of Audio Devices, Inc., a major supplier of blank recording discs and tape.

[6] “London Insists Shellac Is Live.” Billboard (May 6, 1950), p. 22.

[7] “U.S. Dragnet Snares Eight Philly Firms.” Billboard (Jun 10, 1950), p. 11.

[8] “Modern Adds 33 to LP Disk Line.” Billboard (Oct 28, 1950), p. 16.

[9] “Vox Waxery Hits LPs Heavy Next Mo.; 8–10 Disk Starter.” Billboard (Apr 30, 1949), p. 18.

[10] “Vox to Drop 78s, Use LP Exclusively.” Billboard (Nov 12, 1949), p. 18.

[11] “Concert Hall 1st Indie with LP.” Billboard (Jan 8, 1949), p. 14.

[12] “Mfrs. Hustle to Produce Combos Handling Different Speeds; Much Blueprinting.” Billboard (February 26, 1949), pp. 18, 115.

[13] “RCA’s New Phono System.” Billboard (January 3, 1949), p. 13.

[14] “Report on ‘Madame X,’ RCA Victor’s New 45 RPM Record.” Audio Record (February 4, 1949), p. 4.

[15] Cole, D. D. “The How and Why of RCA Victor’s New Record Player.” Audio Record (March 1949), pp. 1–3. Cole was chief engineer of the RCA Victor Home Instrument Department.

[16] These were phonographs that were equipped with special features (usually oversized spindles) that prevented their use with standard records. Dealers sold them very cheaply, or even gave them away, knowing they would make their profit on the matching records. Details of these operations came be found in the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home (Mainspring Press).

[17] Program Transcriptions were the first commercially produced 33 1/3-rpm discs and could be played only on specially equipped RCA machines. One of Edward Wallerstein’s first orders, upon his arrival at RCA, was that these money-losing products be discontinued.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Capitol Records Out with 45 R.P.M. Music System in April.” Cash Box (Feb 19, 1949), p. 4.

[20] Capitol’s initial 45-rpm offerings were classical, using material licensed from Telefunken in Germany. Pop 45s were added later in the year, making Capitol the first company to offer the same material in all three speeds.

[21] “45’s for Rondo, Discovery Firm.” Billboard (Jan 7, 1950), pp. 11, 35.

[22] “RCA Sets 3-Speed Plans.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), pp. 14, 41.

[23] Ibid., p. 41.

[24] Wallerstein, Edward. “The Development of the LP.” High Fidelity (April 1976).

[25] “Commerce Dept. Passes Buck on LP Plea to FTC.” The Billboard (December 4, 1948), p. 23.

[26] “Seeburg Analyzes ‘45’ Disks — Believes Subject Vital to Industry’s Future.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), p. 15.

[27] Weiser, Norm. “Juke Makers Eye ‘45’ Wax; Availability Is Chief Factor.” Billboard (December 17, 1949), p. 17.

[28] Ibid.

 

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Black Swan Carusos, and Other Pirate Tales (1898 – 1951)

Black Swan Carusos, and Other Pirate Tales
(1898 – 1951)
By Allan Sutton

 

 

Record piracy — the unauthorized copying and selling of sound recordings — is a problem as old as the recording industry itself. Charges of cylinder piracy first surfaced in the early 1890s and became increasingly common as the decade progressed. Legal recourse was limited; sound recordings were not protected under copyright law at the time, and would not be for many more decades.

Pirating the early wax cylinders was simplicity in itself, requiring only a couple of phonographs, an inexpensive recording head, a cylinder to copy, and some blanks upon which to copy it. Disc records were not immune to piracy, either, although the process was more complicated. The earliest discs sold for use with the new Zonophone machines used masters that were electroplated from Berliner pressings, with the Berliner name and patent notice buffed out.

At about the same time, the Standard Talking Machine Company (comprising Albert T. Armstrong, Joseph W. Jones  Joseph A. Vincent, Emory Foster, and musical instrument manufacturer Charles G. Conn)  [1] began selling pirated Berliner discs under the Wonder brand, for sale with the Wonder Double-Bell Talking Machine, a two-horned phonograph apparently inspired by Conn’s line of double-belled band instruments. Standard issued a substantial disc catalog made up entirely of Berliner recordings that retained their original catalog numbers, with a “1” prefix added. The company quickly failed.

Armstrong’s next venture, the American Talking Machine Company, offered a new disc line, pressed in the same distinctive red fibrous material as the Wonder records. Berliner also claimed  these were pirated, although some known examples are not. American Talking Machine countered with the offer of a $1000 reward for the arrest and conviction of “parties circulating false and malicious statements” about their products. The manager of Berliner’s Philadelphia office was arrested, but little more came of the scuffle. The company failed in 1900, after the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) withdrew patent protection. [2]

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.(Top) The Wonder Record catalog was made up entirely of pirated Berliner Gramophone recordings; catalog numbers were Berliner’s, prefixed by a 1. (Bottom) Albert Armstrong’s American Talking Machine discs used some non-Berliner masters that are believed to have been original. His later American Vitaphone records used pirated Victor and Columbia recordings. The example shown here is a Columbia title by Billy Murray.

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The arrival in the early 1900s of molded cylinders, which required expensive equipment and a high degree of technical expertise to produce, put an end to cylinder piracy. Discs were another story.

By 1902, Armstrong and some former associates were back in business, as the American Vitaphone Company. [3] They  launched the earliest known “record club,” which amounted to an exchange program under which members could turn in their old records for partial credit toward new Columbia, Victor, or Zonophone discs. [4] For a time, Armstrong even offered to take in old Berliner machines, which he would refurbish for $12 and return to the customer with a new Concert Grand nameplate. Such record-exchange arrangements, however, were frowned upon by the major suppliers (which considered them to be illegal price-cutting), and Vitaphone’s “club” appears to have been short-lived. [5]

But what landed Armstrong and company in serious legal trouble was their introduction in 1902 of American Vitaphone discs, which were clearly pirated from Columbia and Victor recordings. Masters, again made by electroplating commercial pressings, often showed the original markings, and Armstrong even retained the Columbia and Victor catalog numbers. Shoddily pressed and barely advertised, the records did little if anything to undermine Victor or Columbia sales.

Victor finally took action in 1904, suing American Vitaphone for unfair competition as well as infringing its “red circular label applied to the center of a disc,” [6] for which it had recently been granted a U.S. trademark. [7] U.S. Circuit Court Judge Lacombe dismissed the red-label argument but ruled that American Vitaphone’s “re-duplication” of Victor recordings did indeed constitute unfair competition. [8] He granted an injunction on October 4 of that year, effectively ending the American Vitaphone operation. Armstrong died in early 1905, and in  November of that year, the American Express Company served notice that it would auction all unclaimed American Vitaphone property in its possession.

The Vitaphone decision had a temporary chilling effect on would-be pirates. Victor and Columbia instead turned their attention to vanquishing upstart companies, like Leeds & Catlin and Talk-O-Phone, that infringed their patents. The latter was still manufacturing phonographs, although it had not produced its own records since late 1903. [9] But in October 1908, Talk-O-Phone founder Winant Van Zant Pearce Bradley resurfaced in pirate mode with the Continental Record Company of New Baltimore, New York. Officially, the company was incorporated by Benjamin I. Carhart, E.O. Goodell, and J. C. Cady, Jr., none of whom were known entities in the recording industry. [10] In reality, as later testimony would reveal, the company was just a front for Bradley.

Following the now-familiar procedure, Continental obtained its stampers by electroplating commercial pressings of Victor and Fonotipia celebrity recordings. The stampers were sent to an undisclosed foreign location, widely suspected to be Japan, where a factory had recently opened that supposedly pressed  and exported “re-duplicated” records. Although the original markings were generally effaced from the stampers, Continental’s sales literature and labels openly acknowledged that the discs were “duplicates” of original records.”

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(Left) A Continental pressing from a pirated Fonotipia master, with the disclaimer, “This record is a duplicate of an original recording.” (Right) A Luxus pressing from a pirated Caruso Victor. Possibly of foreign origin, specimens turn up in the U.S. on occasion. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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In August 1909, following motions for preliminary injunctions, Victor and Fonotipia Ltd. brought separate actions against Bradley, which were tried together by Judge Chatfield. [11] Investigation revealed that the Continental Record Company, which claimed in its incorporation papers to be headquartered in New Baltimore (a rural village south of Albany, New York), had no verifiable office or plant there; its only confirmed employee was a local attorney. The company’s New York billing address, at 147 West Thirty-Fifth Street, turned out be occupied by an apparently unrelated storage company. Bradley claimed to have no connection with the company, except as its sales agent, but he was unable to produce witnesses who would testify to that effect.

During the trial, it was established beyond doubt that Bradley’s pressings were pirated from commercial releases. Despite his  claim that the records were equal in quality to the originals, examination revealed that the Continental pressings used inferior material, were less durable and more prone to warping than the originals, and exhibited  “a dulling or far-away effect” in playback.

Waldo G. Morse (the attorney who had represented Bradley’s Talk-O-Phone Company several years earlier) contended that Victor’s and Columbia’s licensing agreements and price controls amounted to restraint of trade, and that the artists whose work had been taken were necessary parties to the suit. Judge Chatfield rejected both arguments, holding that Bradley’s operation amounted to unfair competition, and granted an injunction. [12]

In his ruling, the judge opined, “The education of the public by the dissemination of good music is an object worthy of protection, and it is apparent that such results could not be attained if the production of the original records was stopped by the wrongful taking of both product and profit by anyone who could produce sound discs free from the expense of obtaining the original record.” Bradley moved on to other, non-phonographic endeavors, although his brothers remained involved in some legally questionable enterprises, including the patent-infringing International Record Company.

Little more was heard of illegal record operations, at least in the U.S., until 1921. In early April, the Opera Disc Company burst on the scene with an extensive catalog featuring Enrico Caruso, Geraldine Farrar, and many other exclusive Victor Red Seal artists. [13] The company had been incorporated several months earlier by New York securities broker Max Hesslein, in partnership with C. G. Galston and C. Rose. [14] Although the company named its label Musica, the public called them “Opera Discs” from the start. [15]

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.(Left) An early Opera disc issue, with the company’s label pasted over a DGG original. (Right) The more familiar version of the label, applied directly to the pressings.

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Manufactured in Germany by Deutsche Grammophon Gesellschaft (DGG) and exported by DGG’s Polyphonwerke branch, Opera Discs were not technically pirated. DGG’s predecessor, Deutschen Grammophon Aktiegescheellschaft (DGA), was the Gramophone Company’s German branch and as such held a vast number of Gramophone and Victor masters at its Hannover pressing plant. The masters were seized as spoils of war at the outbreak of German hostilities in 1914. Following the war’s end, DGA was reorganized as DGG, an independent entity. Although it no longer had corporate ties to the Gramophone or Victor companies, DGG claimed rights to any of those companies’ masters that had been in their possession at the time of the seizure.

What DGG did not possess were rights to distribute those recordings outside of Germany. Victor and the Gramophone Company immediately demanded that distribution be halted, to no avail. [16] The records continued to be sold into 1922, when the matter was finally referred to the Anglo-German Mixed Arbitral Tribunal in London. Although sales of the recordings in Germany were ruled to be legal and allowed to continue, DGG and Polyphonwerke were enjoined from exporting the records. [17] In the U.S., Victor sought but initially failed to obtain a permanent  injunction. [18] A definitive American ruling was not issued until March 31, 1923, when the  U.S. District Court in Brooklyn granted the injunction and ordered the Opera Disc Company to turn over all pressings, catalogs, and advertising material to Victor. [19]

American customers, it turned out, liked Opera Discs. The records were pressed in better material than their Victor counterparts, some dealers offered them below list price (which was roughly comparable to that of the corresponding Red Seals), and the catalog included European recordings by the likes of Battistini and Chaliapin that were not otherwise available in the U.S. They sold well overall; even today, many issues are still fairly easy to find.

A strong market for Victor knock-offs clearly existed, and record producer John Fletcher stepped in to fill the void that Opera Disc’s forced departure created. Fletcher, in partnership Harry Pace, had launched the Fletcher Record Company in April 1922, primarily to serve as the pressing plant for Pace’s Black Swan records. Fletcher had already failed with his earlier Operaphone and Olympic operations, and things would not go much better for his latest venture. His newly relaunched Olympic label attracted little interest, and sales of Black Swan’s race records were declining in the face of stepped-up competition from Okeh and others. As production faltered, Fletcher began making the same sort of bad decisions that had doomed his previous companies.

In late December 1922, an unnamed party approached Harry Pace with a proposition that the Fletcher plant press records from “masters made by Caruso himself in Germany.” (Since Caruso never recorded in Germany, the reference almost certainly was to the Victor and Gramophone Company masters being held by DGG in Germany.) Pace wisely declined, writing to Black Swan investor W. E. B. Du Bois that he did so “for fear of legal entanglements with the Victor Company who are too powerful to start any scrap with.” [20]

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.Fletcher Record Company pressings from pirated Victor recordings, 1923. Harry Pace opposed the idea but was overruled by Fletcher.

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But Fletcher, who controlled the manufacturing end of the partnership, overruled him. The Fletcher Record Company would manufacture the illegal pressings, which featured Caruso and other exclusive Victor artists. They were marketed by one or more shadowy entities whose backers probably will never be known, under the Pan American and Symphony Concert labels. [21] The labels showed no manufacturer’s name, but the records exhibited all the tell-tale characteristics of Fletcher’s pressings and label typography. Some appear to use the original DGG stampers; many others used stampers that had obviously been electroplated from commercial pressings, and not very expertly. Efforts to efface the original markings weren’t entirely successful, some small pits and other surface irregularities appear that are not present on the originals, and in one case, what appears to have been a stray hair was electroplated right along with the disc.

If Victor had any response to the new pirates, it was never reported in the trade papers. It would prove to be a moot point, anyway. By the spring of 1923 (probably the soonest the records could have made it to market), the Fletcher Record Company was failing. Pace pulled out in June, transferring his Black Swan pressing business to the New York Recording Laboratories’ plant, and Fletcher was bankrupt by year’s end. By then, the Symphony Concert records were being remaindered by one New York dealer for 19¢ each.

Record piracy did not resurface in any significant way until the later 1940s, with the sudden proliferation of small independent pressing plants eager for business of any kind, no questions asked. These tended to be full-fledged counterfeiting operations, copying not just the recordings, but the actual labels as well. The problem became so widespread that in the autumn of 1947 the Treasury Department launched an investigation that soon expanded to include the FBI and any number of state and local agencies. Initially, only small independent labels were targeted (particularly those specializing in race records), but it was not long before counterfeit Deccas began to surface.

In early April 1948, officials of Capitol, Columbia, Decca, and RCA Victor agreed to help underwrite the investigation, which by then had become national in scope. [22] A few minor offenders were caught, but the counterfeiting continued unabated. With no major culprits apprehended, the investigation eventually wound down, leaving the problem to worsen considerably. In September 1951, Billboard reported that one operation based in the New York area, which had so far eluded all efforts at detection, was believed to be pressing more than 50,000 counterfeit discs weekly. [23]

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References

 

[1] Unrelated to the later Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago, a premium-scheme operation that sold legally rebranded Columbia products.

[2] Details of this rather complicated arrangement can be found in the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home (Mainspring Press).

[3] Unrelated to Clinton Repp’s 1911 Vitaphone company, which manufactured a unique reproducerless phonograph, nor to the much Vitaphone sound-film system.

[4] “Rates for Exchanging Records to Club Members… How to Secure Free Life Membership in Exchange Club” (American Vitaphone Company bulletin, December 1, 1902).

[5] “Our Proposition Of You Are the Owner of an Old Style Gramophone Just Like This One.” ” (American Vitaphone Company bulletin, December 1, 1902).

[6] Victor Talking Machine Co. v. Armstrong et al., 132 F. 711

[7] Victor Talking Machine Company. U.S. trademark application #42,962 (filed June 9, 1904).

[8]  “Decision on Re-Duplication.” Talking Machine World (March 15, 1905), p. 11.

[9] Talk-O-Phone’s corporate predecessor, the Ohio Talking Machine Company, made original recordings in its Toledo studio during 1902–1903, employing Strobel’s Band (Charles J. Strobel being  president of the Toledo Baseball Club and the band’s financial backer, but not its director) and other local talent. In late 1903, at about the time of its reorganization as the Talk-O-Phone Company, it discontinued recording and instead began marketing the new Leeds & Catlin discs for use with its phonographs.

[10] “Recently Incorporated.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1908), p. 19, repeated in an untitled notice on p. 32). The former gave the location as New Baltimore, Maryland, in error.

[11] Fonotipia et al. v. Bradley, 171 F. 951; Victor Talking Machine Co. v. Same, 171 F.951.

[12] Signs Decree in ‘Dubbing’ Case.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1909), p. 45.

[13] “Phonograph Discs “Made in Germany.’” Brooklyn Daily Eagle (May 18, 1921), p. 16.

[14] “Incorporated.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1921), p. 54.

[15] Opera Disc Co. “Musica G.D.” U.S. trademark filing #145,643 (filed April 2, 1921). The filing claimed use of the Musica name on records since March 25, 1921.

[16] “Asks Record Injunction.” New York Times (December 10, 1921), p. 19.

[17]  “German Record Concerns Enjoined.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 61.

[18] “Hearing Held in the Victor Company–Opera Disc Company Suit.” Talking Machine World (March 15, 1922), p. 82.

[19] “Victor Co. Secures Injunction in Opera Disc Suit.” Talking Machine World (April 15, 1923), p. 106.

[20] Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (December 23, 1922). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts–Amherst. Largely forgotten today is the fact that Du Bois, perhaps as much as Pace, was a driving force in Black Swan’s creation. A major investor in the company, he was frequently consulted by Pace on matters ranging from financial and legal issues to artists and repertoire. Their correspondence, which survives but has been largely overlooked by researchers, presents a far more accurate picture of Black Swan’s inner workings than most modern texts.

[21] The Symphony Concert label was used earlier for legitimate pressings from Earle W. Jones’ masters, as well as being pasted over other companies’ surplus pressings. Examples are known of Symphony Concert labels pasted onto Opera Disc pressings, but other (presumably later) examples are clearly Fletcher’s work.

[22] “Major Diskers Crack Down on Coast Bootlegging of Hit Recordings.” Variety (April 7, 1948), p. 42.

[23]  Martin, Joe. “‘Disklegger’” Is Plague to Record Mfrs.” Billboard (September 1, 1951), p. 1.

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©2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company by Victor Emerson and John Bieling

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company
By Victor Emerson and John Bieling
Introduction by Allan Sutton

 

Chartered on February 19, 1889, as a licensee of the North American Phonograph Company, Newark-based New Jersey Phonograph was one of the earliest producers of cylinder recordings for entertainment purposes. Officers at the time of its founding included George G. Frelinghuysen (president), N. M. Butler (vice-president), and William L. Smith (general manager). In 1892, Smith was replaced by Victor Hugo Emerson (later of Emerson Records fame), who also served as the company’s recording engineer.

At the time of the company’s launch, the phonograph was being marketed primarily as a dictation machine, with music an afterthought; Edison didn’t begin making musical records for sale on a regular basis until May 24, 1889. New Jersey officials, however, reported difficulties in placing the machines with businesses. In May 1890, William Smith noted that the company was encountering organized opposition from stenographers (who feared losing their jobs to a mechanical contraption), and that many business leases were not being renewed.

The company would prove to be far more successful in the nascent entertainment field. The Phonogram for June–July 1891 listed New Jersey as one of the concerns “active in the securing of musical selections,” and the company itself confirmed in 1892 that it was making original recordings. The Phonogram for December of that year devoted a full page to portraits of New Jersey Phonograph recording artists, who included Will F. Denny, George J. Gaskin, John P. Hogan, Russell Hunting, Len Spencer, and George Washington Johnson.

Following a disastrous fire in the winter of 1892, New Jersey Phonograph moved its offices and studio to more picturesque quarters in a loft above the Armour meat-packing plant at 87–89 Orange Street in Newark. Banjoist Fred Van Eps, who made his earliest known recordings there, recalled, “They had the hams and carcasses downstairs and the records upstairs.”

On February 16, 1893, New Jersey Phonograph was reorganized as the United States Phonograph Company, although it continued to advertise under the New Jersey banner well into the year. [1] Frelinghuysen and Emerson retained their positions and were soon joined by George E. Tewksbury and Simon S. Ott, who had previously been associated with the Kansas and Nebraska Phonograph companies.

Detailed histories of these and all the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and their successors, will appear in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, coming in 2018. In the meantime, here are the recollections of two men who were there — recording engineer Emerson, and singer John Bieling.

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Victor Emerson
Speech at the American Graphophone Company’s 25th Anniversary Celebration (Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York – May 15, 1912)

.The real birth of the musical record business took place in New Jersey. The promoters of the enterprise, in those early days, believed the real commercial value of the phonograph or graphophone lay in its commercial features. [2] I know I was hired by a concern to take charge of the dictaphones [3] they had out at that time, and I was asked by Mr. Charles Cheever to make a report upon the subject, and take a week to do it and not to be afraid to tell the truth about the situation. I thought that with a week’s practice I would be able to tell the truth about it and make my report to Lippincott and Cheever. It was an adverse one, and I know that I lost my job the next day. [4]

I then went to work for the New Jersey Phonograph Company and, with my fair exper­ience with the dictaphone, I  thought that to keep my 15 dollars a week coming in I had better try to get them started on musical features. I was very busy “jollying” capitalists for about a week and figured it would cost about 15 dollars to try the stunt.

The Board of Directors consisted of Nicholas M. Butler (now President of Columbia College), S.S. Batten, President of the First National Bank in Newark, N.J., and George Frelinghuysen. They held a Directors’ Meeting and held that a 15 dollars risk was too great! I told them I would pay the 15 dollars if we lost. They asked me to put up the 15 dollars. I didn’t have 15 dollars, but told them they could take it out of my pay if things went wrong! That was a sure bet because. If it went wrong, I’m sure I would have lost my Job and I would have been in 15 dollars anyway!

They finally consented and I set up ten machines on Market Street, beside the Prudential Building, which they were about to tear down at that time. Just as I had finished setting up the ten machines I heard the most lovely music playing out in the street. The tune was “The Boulanger Patrol.” It was being played by a “mud-gutter band” of four pieces.

I asked the “orchestra leader” to come up in my office as I wanted to talk business with him. He had, evidently, never talked with a real businessman before and was very much embarrassed, but he finally said that he did not want to do that kind of business as he was making money in “the legitimate field” and he did not think it would be worth his while, but I told him that we were “sports,” and he could play sitting down on chairs instead of kicking the “bouquets” in the streets! And he finally said he would play for 3 dollars a day for four men.

All phonograph men are economists — if they were not, they would not be in this business, and so I “Jewed” him down to 50 cents and closed the contract! He played all day, and we made about 2,000 records. These cost us nothing because we got the “blanks,” on credit, from the Edison Works, and we never paid our bills — neither did anybody else — it was merely a habit at that time! I’m sure that the people who bought them from me never paid for them! To my knowledge, there never was a musical record sold before that time, [5] and so we held many “conflabs” and figured out what profits we had to make on those 2,000 records, consi­dering the large investment of 3 dollars!

As I said, they were about to tear down the Prudential Building and a man came over and said it would be a good scheme if I could exhibit a Phonograph over in the Prudential place. He was sure I would make some money out of it. I told him it was an expensive thing to do and he acknowledged it. But finally we rented the place at a cost of about 60 dollars. “Now,” he said, “What about records?” I told him we had some “John Philip Sousa Band” records, that we had made at a very large expense, and that we could sell them at 2 dollars, meaning 2 dollars per dozen. And he said, “All right, here is 24 dollars for twelve!” Well we sold all those records at, practically, 2 dollars and now the great question that concerned us was how to stock them.

I got the Manager to consent to give me 5 dollars of that 24 dollars and let me buy a cabinet. I went to a junk store and bought a second-hand kitchen closet. It had a nice, large, fat chop in it, which quite considerably increased the assets of the Company! At the same time gave us something to eat — if the worst came to the worst! The only other expense was 10 cents for chloride of lime; and we stocked those records. I thought it was fun to have a “Grand Concert” up in my office, and when the stock got low, I said to Mr. Smith we had better make some more. He asked “How many have you got left?” and I said “Six.” He said, “Well, gracious me, wait till we sell them all!”

The next great artist we had was George W. Johnson, the composer of “The Whist­ling Coon” and “The Laughing Song,” and I think that the phonograph companies have made more money on those two records than on any other two records in their catalogues. [6] I con­tracted with Johnson to sing at 25 cents a song and kept him busy all day and all night. But the price of whiskey went up at about that time, as you will remember, and it was the same problem then as now, you must give a man sufficient money so that he can live and have the necessities of life. So George “struck,” and I had to bow to the yoke!

Our next artist was [George] J. Gaskin. He was the leader of the Manhattan [sic: Manhansett] Quartet. He, very fortunately, broke his contract just as we were perfecting our duplicating machine. I want to say, by way of diversion, that this duplicating machine was originally invented by Frank Capps. He used to go in a shop parlor, in Chicago, borrow a record, take it home and duplicate it, and would return the other record, but in another color! That looked sus­picious to us and we traced him up, and found him climbing telegraph poles near Pretoria, Illinois! We bought him out and started him manufacturing duplicating machines for us.

But what I want to say about Gaskin is that he told me, one day, that he had a new quartet and that he was going to put it on the market and bust our business. Says he, “The very name will do it!” And I asked, “What name?” and he said, “The Mozart Quartet.” “Mozart, you know,” he added, “was a great musical “‘moke.’”

Well, gentlemen, from that beginning we ran into a business of probably 500,000 records per year in a short time, and I  would have done a large and profitable business were it not for the fact that Mr. Easton [president of the Columbia Phonograph Company] started in about that time and used to buy records from me and scooped up all my new customers with my own records. [7] The only thing that kept us alive was that the Columbia Phonograph Company actually did pay its bills and, at that time, it was about the only company that did.

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John Bieling
From “Reminiscences of Early Talking Machine Days” (The Talking Machine World, April 15, 1914)

Some twenty-two years ago I belonged down in the old Fourteenth Ward — born and raised there; around Spring Street and the Bowery. Four of us fellows used to “barber shop” on a Saturday night and Sunday, and by constant practice our voices blended in great shape in the real thing — good, old fashioned melodies and sentimental ballads. The quartet at that time was George J. Gaskin, Joe Riley, Walter Snow and myself. We called it the Manhansset Quartet. In 1892 we had been working together about a year, when one day Gaskin told us about a man named Emerson who was manager of a concern over in Newark, N. J., called the United States Phono Co., [8] who wanted a good quartet to make some records for him.

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1892

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All of us fellows worked in the day time and did our quartet work evenings. I was making stained glass windows at the time and never thought of making a regular profession of singing. Gaskin had to do some tall talking to persuade us to go over to Newark and work till all hours making these records. I assure you we were a pretty nervous quartet. The first time we went there we knew nothing of what was expected of us, but we took a chance.

Over the ferry, the train brought  us into Newark and Gaskin steered us into a loft over some meat packing house about 50 by 100 and 20 feet, littered with machine boxes and barrels in every state of shipping and handling piled up everywhere. [9]

We at last got ready to make our first record, and I assure you a funny sensation came over all of us. They had about nine horns all grouped together, each one leading to a separate machine connected with a piece of rubber hose. The operator then put the soft wax cylinders on the machines and let the recorder down and then said “All right, go ahead.” I assure you I almost forgot to sing when I heard the sizzling noise coming out of the horns. However, we got through with that round fairly well, considering our nervous state, and after that we began to make some records and they sounded pretty good. Well, that was the first time I got real money for singing and I felt like a millionaire going home that night.

We worked contentedly along these lines for about a year, in the meantime holding down my job at my trade during the day. All was serene. When — crash — someone invented a dubbing machine, which meant that they could make any amount of records from a master record, and we could see fewer engagements coming our way with this new scheme.

It certainly gave us a shock when we discovered that this new idea meant that one “master record” could be used to make duplicates until the wax wore out. This is how it was done: They built a machine with two mandrels, one under the other; on one they would put the cylinder with the song on, and on the other a blank cylinder; then start the machine and throw the sound from one to the other without the services of the quartet. It was tragic, but, like all labor-saving devices, it gave birth to a greater field of work to develop records in. Where we formerly sang the same song forty times, now we sang forty different selections, satisfying the rapidly growing market for “canned music.”

By this time our success as a quartet was quite famous, and we worked for all the record making companies then doing business. About this time, say 1895, we used to go over to Philadelphia and sing about once a month for a man named Berliner, a quiet, modest little German, who had us work in his little attic workshop and register our selections on a flat matrix…

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[1] Not to be confused with the much later U.S. Phonograph Company (Cleveland), the manufacturers of U-S Everlasting cylinders.

[2] Emerson here is referring to the phonograph’s use as a dictating machine, rather than as entertainment device. Each use  had its advocates, who often worked at cross-purposes during this period. The Texas Phonograph Company went so far as to ban any demonstrations of the machine’s musical capabilities in its Dallas offices and show-room, for fear of driving away potential business clients. Those wishing to hear a tune (for a fee) were directed to the company’s separate phonograph gallery, in an adjacent building.

[3] This is a generic reference to phonographs intended for business dictation, rather than the actual Dictaphone machine. “Dictaphone,” with a capital “D,” was not registered as a trademark until September 1907, by Columbia.

[4] The events referred to in the opening paragraphs occurred during early-to-mid 1892. Emerson resigned from United States Phonograph (New Jersey’s successor) in January 1897 to accept a recording engineer’s position with Columbia. Several associates followed him, helping themselves to some U.S. masters on their way out.

[5] Emerson is mistaken here. Edison had been selling musical cylinders since the late spring of 1889, followed by Columbia in early 1890. The reference to “2,000 records” is to individual copies, not the number of titles recorded.

[6] A pioneering African-American recording artist, George Washington Johnson’s main recorded repertoire consisted of approximately a half-dozen songs, which he repeated for numerous companies well into the early 1900s. Although Johnson’s records were very popular, it is unlikely that sales ever approached this level, given their relative scarcity today as compared to other surviving records of the period. Unfortunately, sales figures do not exist that could prove or disprove Emerson’s claim. Johnson didn’t compose “The Whistling Coon” as Emerson states, but he recorded it so often that the song became inextricably linked to him in the public’s mind.

[7] Emerson is referring here to master recordings, which Columbia purchased and duplicated for sale under its own brand. The copying of other companies’ recordings (done legally in this case, but not always in others) was a common practice during the brown-wax era.

[8] Successor to the New Jersey Phonograph Company. At the time the Manhansett first recorded, the company was still operating under the original New Jersey name.

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VICTOR EMERSON went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer and a key figure in the development of the Little Wonder record. He resigned from Columbia in 1914 to launch the Emerson Phonograph Company, which despite its initial success, was bankrupt by 1921. Forced out in the reorganization that followed, Emerson retired to California, where he died on June 22, 1926.

JOHN BIELING, although he never attained any great popularity as a soloist, continued to record prolifically as a member of various studio ensembles, including the Haydn (a.k.a. Edison Male) and American (a.k.a. Premier) quartets. After experiencing throat problems in 1913, he gave up singing to work as a traveling Victor salesman, then opened his own record store. Beginning in 1946, he hosted an annual reunion of pioneer recording artists. He died on March 29, 1948.

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Annotations ©2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. The Emerson and Beiling excerpts are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.

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Russian Interference: Boris Morros and ARA Records (1944 – 1957)

Russian Interference: Boris Morros and ARA Records
(1944 – 1957)
By Allan Sutton

 

Long before they ever got their hooks into members of the Trump administration, Russians were secretly meddling in America’s affairs. In the early 1940s, the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD) found a willing conspirator in Hollywood and set him up with a record company that served as a front for a major Soviet spy network. The relationship went undetected for years, but eventually the truth surfaced.

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Born in Russia, Boris Morros studied music under Rimsky-Korsokov in St. Petersburg, then moved to France following the 1917 revolution, leaving his family behind. In 1922 he brought the Chauve Souris revue to the United States, decided to stay, and was granted citizenship. By the early 1930s, he had moved to Hollywood and was working for Paramount Pictures as an entry-level musical director.

In May 1934, Morros was secretly contacted by a member of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), who requested his help in planting Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be his handler, but the relationship soured after it was discovered that Morros had greatly overstated his credentials and degree of influence within the movie industry. The Russians stayed in touch, however.

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Boris Morros in the late 1930s

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Morros advanced quickly at Paramount, and by 1940 he was a well-known figure in Hollywood. Contacted again by the NKVD, in December 1941 he agreed to organize covers for two Soviet spies. In exchange, the Soviets agreed to stop harassing Morros’ family members, who had stayed behind in Russia. In March 1944, Zubilin assigned NKVD officer Jack Soble to be Morros’ new handler. “Our comrade,” Zubilin told Soble, “is completely devoted to the motherland and is one of our most trusted and loyal agents.”

As part of his cover, Morros launched a publishing house, the Boris Morros Music Company. The affiliated American Recording Artists label was launched a short time later, with $130,000 in funding from Soviet sympathizers Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern. Soble found Morros’ office to be “a big, showy, elaborate place, in keeping with his flamboyant personality and expensive tastes. The record laboratory, however, was a tiny rented place.”

Alfred Stern was awarded presidency of the new record company. He was ordered fill sales positions with as many undercover Soviet agents as possible, while Morros was left to handle the recording operation and keep up appearances. As Soble later confessed, the entire operation was “a ‘blind’ for a widespread Soviet espionage network. Bosses and “salesmen” [were] Russian intelligence agents… The stars, of course, had no way of knowing that they were being used as attractive window-dressing for an outfit organized to be a clearinghouse for spies throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America.”

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ARA records were heavily promoted; this ad is from September 1945. As Jack Soble later confirmed, ARA’s stars had no idea their label was a front for Soviet espionage. (1945)

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The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected. Members of the press lauded the new operation as a  promising addition to the growing roster of independent West Coast labels. The company’s first releases, announced in late June 1944, sold well. With extensive contacts in the entertainment industry, Morros assembled an impressive artist roster that came to include Hoagy Carmichael, Frances Langford, Smiley Burnette, Phil Harris, Art Tatum, and Bob Crosby’s Bobcats. Widely advertised, the records were handled by many major national distributors.

Within a few months of ARA’s  launch, however, a personality clash between Morros and Stern began to take its toll. Another Soviet agent, Stephan Ghoundenko (a.k.a. “The Professor”), was brought in to straighten out the difficulties. Stern resigned and was replaced by Mark Leff. Morros soon appeared to lose interest in the company, turning management and artists-and-repertoire duties over to his son Richard and a new hire, Dave Gould.

A short time later, Soble received a one-word message from Moscow: “Dissolve.” Morros refused, instead paying back $100,000 of the Sterns’ loan and soldiering on. Stern’s warning to his superiors that Morros could no longer be trusted went largely unheeded. He was allowed to remain in the spy ring, as a courier, while remaining the nominal head of ARA.

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The ARA label underwent several redesigns during its relatively short life.

 

To all appearances, ARA was an American success story. The company was reorganized in March 1946, as ARA, Inc., coinciding with its purchase of Symphony Records (a small West Coast classical label that featured the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jacques Rachmilovich) and its expansion into the children’s and country-and-western markets. But problems were beginning to surface. That summer, the pressing plant was closed, ostensibly to take inventory, and did not reopen.

Despite Leff’s insistence that the hiatus was temporary, new releases and advertising were scaled back. In July, Leff announced that he was selling his interest in ARA to an undisclosed firm or firms. Late in the month, Billboard reported that ARA’s operations were “practically at a standstill now,” with an investment of more than  $75,000 tied up in recordings that had yet to be released. By then, rumors were circulating that Cosmo Records was contemplating a takeover.

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Originally a pop and jazz label, ARA later expanded into the classical, children’s, and country-and-western markets.

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Hoagy Carmichael was the first of several ARA artists to defect, moving to Decca in August 1946. Later that month, a group headed by music publisher Ralph Peer made an offer for the company. It was declined, as was a subsequent offer by Apollo Records. ARA, Inc., was placed in receivership in September 1946, just in time to thwart a seizure by the Internal Revenue Service.

ARA’s assets were scheduled to be auctioned piecemeal on October 22, 1946, but the sale was called off after a tangle of legal problems (including questions over whether ARA’s masters were unencumbered and could be reused without restrictions) surfaced. The sale was postponed until November 25, 1946, when all of ARA’s property was auctioned in Los Angeles by order of the U.S. District Court. The masters’ legal status would remain in limbo for several more years.

By late 1946, litigation surrounding ARA was running rampant. An audit had revealed many irregularities in the company’s operations, including some suspicious loan repayments to three of Leff’s other companies. In January 1947, former ARA treasurer Irving Zeitlin was subpoenaed to explain the firm’s erratic accounting methods, a procedure that Billboard estimated could “drag out for months because of many loose ends connected with operation of the former waxery.” Civil suits continued to be filed for several more years.

In the meantime, Morros had turned. On July 14, 1947, he informed the FBI of his activities for the Russians. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts. Still posing as a Soviet courier, Morros developed a friendship with U.S. Army Intelligence officer George Zlatkovski and his wife Jane, who were actually Soviet agents. Morros continued to meet with Soble and the Zlatkovskis, in the U.S. and abroad, through October 1954.

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The Sterns and Morros at the time of the 1957 trial

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Morros’ involvement with the Russians and the FBI remained a well-guarded secret until January 1957, when U.S. Attorney Paul W. Williams indicted Jack Soble, along with his wife Myra and associate Jacob Albam, on charges of seeking U.S. defense secrets for transmission to the Soviet government. A month later, it was disclosed that Morros (whose whereabouts were said to be unknown) would act as a key prosecution witness in the case. The Sobles and Albam were convicted and given prison sentences. The Sterns, summoned to appear before a grand jury, refused  extradition from Mexico and were fined $50,000 for contempt. The identities of at least fourteen other Soviet agents, some of whom held embassy posts in the U.S., were exposed during the course of the trial.

By the summer of 1957, Morros had offers from two studios to produce a movie about his exploits and was being praised by the press as “an incredibly brave American.” His 1959 autobiography, My 10 Years as a Counterspy (co-authored with Samuel Charters) served as the basis for the 1960 film, “Man on a String.” Morros died in New York on January 8, 1963.

 

References

 

Bundschu, Barbara. “Walked Double-Dealing Tightrope: Film Producer Broke Spy Ring.” Camden [NJ] Courier-Post (Jul 11, 1957), p. 1.

“ARA Into Longhair Disks.” Billboard (Jun 29, 1946), p. 38.

“ARA Into Receivership; Will Go on Block Piecemeal After Audit.” Billboard (Sep 28, 1946), p. 16.

“ARA to Hold Bankruptcy Sale.” Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 17.

“Bankruptcy Referee Calls ARA Treasurer to Explain Accounts.” Billboard (Jan 11, 1947), p. 14.

“Boris Morros Dies.” Billboard (Jan 26, 1963), p. 4.

“50G Repaid to Other Leff Corporations Questioned by Trustee in ARA Hassle.” Billboard (Nov 23, 1946), p. 14.

“Key Spy Case Figure Named.” Baltimore Sun (Feb 26, 1957), p. 1.

“Leff Selling Interest in ARA Waxery.” Billboard (Jul 27, 1946), p. 20.

“Masters Free, Clear, Says ARA Receiver.” Billboard (Oct 26, 1946), p. 40.

Morros, Boris (with Samuel Charters). My Ten Years as a Counterspy. New York: Viking Press (1959).

“Morrros Cuts First Disks.” Billboard (Jul 1, 1944), p. 17.

“Morros Jr. Pacts 3 Names for ARA.” Billboard (Nov 24, 1945), p. 20.

“New Indie Pops.” Cash Box (Oct 13, 1947), p. 25.

“Public Judicial Auction Sale by Order of the United States District Court” (legal notice).Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 18

“Radio Interests, MGM Named in ARA Talk.” Billboard (Aug 3, 1946), p. 18.

Soble, Jack (with Jack Lotte).”How I Spied on United States.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 17, 1957), p. 167.

— . “How Spy Ring Got in the Music Business.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 20, 1957), p. 63.

— . “Husband-Wife Spy Team in Action.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 28, 1957), p. 70.

— . “Low Form of Soviet Union Spy Life.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 24, 1957), p. 110.

Wilson, Earl. “Boris Morros’ Undercover Story.” Delaware County Daily Times (Jun 14, 1957), p. 41.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Boston Talking Machine Company and the Little Wonder Phonograph (1910 – 1913)

 Boston Talking Machine Company and the Little Wonder Phonograph (1910 – 1913)
By Allan Sutton

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When the Boston Talking Machine Company introduced its Little Wonder phonograph in 1911, Little Wonder records were still three years in the future. Little Wonder phonographs and discs were unrelated, the products of two entirely different companies.

Boston Talking Machine was launched in the spring of 1910 by  Josiah B. Millet (an acoustic engineer, inventor, and publisher of The American Business Encyclopaedia and Legal Advisor) and was financed largely by Henry and Henrietta Whitney. Millet assembled a stellar staff, including George Cheney, formerly of Zonophone and Sonora (recording engineer); Louis Valiquet, formerly of Zonophone (consulting engineer); Loring Leeds, formerly of Leeds & Catlin (general manager); and Fred Hager, formerly of Zonophone (musical director). Isaac W. Norcross was also briefly associated with the venture but severed the relationship in August or September 1910. The company produced Phono-Cut discs, the third American vertical-cut label to be introduced (preceded only by Sonora and Sapphire).

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Boston Talking Machine’s records were marketed by the Phono-Cut Record Company beginning in early 1911. The Colonial Phono-Cut, a short-lived (and now quite rare) single-sided variant, used Phono-Cut’s master numbers for its catalog numbers. It was no bargain, at just a nickel less than its double-sided sibling.

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Boston Talking Machine’s Little Wonder phonograph was a compact device with cast-iron base and a reproducer that could be rotated to play either vertical- or lateral-cut discs. The tonearm terminated within a small pivoting external horn, from which the sound was reflected.

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Boston Talking Machine’s Little Wonder phonograph, with the reproducer in vertical-cut position (from Tim Brooks & Merle Sprinzen’s Little Wonder Records and Bubble Books, Mainspring Press). The ads are from 1912 (middle) and 1913 (bottom), the latter just before the name was changed to Wondrola.

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Around June 1913, for reasons that remain undiscovered, the Little Wonder phonograph was renamed Wondrola. The change had nothing to do with Little Wonder discs (a Columbia product that would not be introduced or trademarked for another year) but coincided with Boston Talking Machine’s growing  financial troubles. The company had discontinued recording in early 1913, and during the summer it lost its largest retailer with the closing of Chicago’s O’Neill-James Company. On October 2, Boston Talking Machine  was placed in receivership. According to Henry Whitney, the company was “financially embarrassed and unable to meet its obligations.”

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Around June 1913, the Little Wonder machines began to be marketed under the Wondrola name. By then, Boston Talking Machine was failing financially and just a few months away from being placed in receivership.

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Charles E. Whitman purchased Boston Talking Machine’s assets in January 1915, for $30,000. The Phono-Cut masters were sold to the Starr Piano Company’s Fred Gennett, who reissued selected titles on Remington, a short-lived, inexpensive side-line to Gennett’s Starr label. Contrary to some hobbyists’ accounts, the Keen-O-Phone Company did not acquire or reissue Phono-Cut masters.

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A c. 1915 Remington disc pressed by the Starr Piano Company (Gennett) from Phono-Cut masters. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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In November 1915, the remaining Phono-Cut pressings were sold to the Wonder Talking Machine Company (New York), a newly formed venture headed by former U-S Everlasting executive Harry B. McNulty. The company issued a catalog of long-deleted Phono-Cut discs in April 1916, which retailed for just 25¢ each (40¢ less than the original list price), but its main offering was a new line of  Wondertone lateral-cut phonographs:

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References

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Blacker, George, et al. Phono-Cut research materials and discographical data (unpublished; Mainspring Press collection).

“Boston Concern in Trouble.” Music Trade Review (Oct 11, 1913), p. 48

Boston Talking Machine Co. “Sales Bulletin” (1913).

“Boston Talking Machine Co. Affairs.” Talking Machine World (Dec 15, 1913), p. 18.

“Boston Talking Machine Co. in Hands of Receiver.” Louisville Courier-Journal (Oct 3, 1913), p. 6.

“Buys Boston T.M. Co. Assets.” Music Trade Review (Nov 13, 1915), p. 49.

“Court Confirms Sale.” Music Trade Review (Feb 1915), p. 74.

“Geo. K. Cheney to Boston.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1910), p. 14.

“Issue an Interesting Catalog.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1916), p. 60.

“L. L. Leeds Resigns as Manager.” Talking Machine World (Sep 15, 1913), p. 19.

“New Company being Organized.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1910), p. 14.

“Pioneer in the ‘Talker’ Field—The Achievements of L. P. Valiquet Constitute a Veritable History of the Industry.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1920), p. 155.

“Represent New Line.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1913), p. 21.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Princess Records and the Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Company (1910 – 1911)

Princess Records and the Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Company (1910 – 1911)

By Allan Sutton

 

The Sapphire Record and Talking Machine Company was among the earliest U.S. producers of vertical-cut discs, preceded only by the Sonora Phonograph Company. * (The Boston Talking Machine – Phono-Cut Record operation, previously thought to have been the first, was in fact the third to go into production). The company was incorporated in June 1910 by P. B. Verblanck, M. Wagner, and Dezso Tauber, with capital stock of $100,000. Tauber, who had recently resigned as manager of R. H. Macy’s phonograph department, served as the company’s general manager.

Within a short time of its launch, Sapphire was taken over by George Otis Draper, the well-connected son of General William F. Draper (a U.S. ambassador to Italy) and nephew of a former Massachusetts governor. Draper was an inventor, entrepreneur,  and self-proclaimed financial expert who was involved with various manufacturing, textile, lumber, quarrying, and real-estate ventures. Between 1909 and 1911, he authored More: A Study of Financial Conditions Now Prevalent, lost the better part of a $1.15-million inheritance, presided over the failure of Sapphire, and was petitioned into personal bankruptcy.

 

(Left) A Princess popular-series release, possibly pressed from Sonora masters. (Right) A Princess Grand Opera release, confirmed as using Sonora masters by the Record Research group. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Sapphire’s mailing address had been changed to that of Draper’s personal office in New York’s Metropolitan Tower by the time the company became fully operational. Of the original investors, only Tauber appears to have retained any hand in the company’s management following Draper’s takeover. Sapphire’s trademark application of August 13, 1910, claimed use of the Princess brand on phonographs and records since August 1 of that year, although no Princess records are known to have been released that early.

In January 1911, The Talking Machine World announced that Sapphire’s records were finally “ready to come into the market.” The same article reported that the Indestructible Phonographic Record Company’s Frederick W. Matthews was serving as studio manager. (Thus far, Indestructible had been involved only in the production of cylinders.) By then, the company was also marketing Sonora universal-type phonographs, re-branded as Princess, which were manufactured by Paillard in Switzerland.

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The rarely seen Empire Sapphire Record (not connected with the better-known Empire label of 1917–1921) used material from the Princess catalog and might have been produced after the Indestructible takeover. Catalog numbers were the same as on Princess, minus the “S” prefix. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Many Princess recordings are original to the label and quite likely were made in the Indestructible studio, given Matthews’ involvement with the company. The Record Research associates also discovered many instances of Sapphire releases using masters obtained from Sonora, which had taken over the former American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) studio and was in the early stages of financial failure.

Sapphire’s popular-series releases retailed for 75¢ each, and early issues used a separate catalog number on each side; single numbers with -A/-B side designation appeared on late  issues. There was also a Sonora-derived Princess Grand Opera Record series, retailing for $1, which did not feature any particularly noteworthy performers. Some of the same material was issued on the obscure Empire Sapphire Record label, which has no known connection to the Empire label of 1917–1921.

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A December 1912 Indestructible ad for remaindered Princess phonographs and records. The model shown is a re-branded Sonora machine, manufactured by Paillard in Switzerland.

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In April 1911, TMW reported that the Sapphire Record and Talking Machine Company’s owners “concluded they better quit than go ahead, as the enterprise required more capital than was anticipated.” In the same month, the company was sold to Indestructible, which marketed surplus Princess phonographs and records at deep discounts for the next two years but did not continue production of the Princess line. Indestructible would later re-enter the disc market with their own Federal label, the impending arrival of which was announced quite prematurely in July 1917.

Several claims filed against Sapphire by Metropolitan Life, the Merchant’s Exchange National Bank, and others, were finally settled in the autumn of 1911. Draper himself was petitioned into bankruptcy on December 30, 1911, which he attributed to having made poor investments.

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* Columbia produced vertical-cut wax discs in the late 1890s, for use with the short-lived Toy Graphophone, and recorded  experimental vertical disc masters in the early 1900s that were not issued commercially, but the company was not a regular producer of vertical-cut discs.

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References

 

“Absorbs the Sapphire Co.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1911), p. 25.

“An Ideal Xmas Gift—The Princess Talking Machine” (ad). Hicksville [OH] Tribune (Dec 12, 1912), p. 11.

Blacker, George, Carl Kendziora, et al. “Princess Record Discography” (unpublished). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press.

“Business Troubles. Judgements.” New York Times (Sep 1, 1911), p. 14.

Directory of Directors in the City of New York. New York: The Audit Company (1911).

“George Otis Draper Fails; Solver of Money Problems.” Chicago Tribune (Dec 31, 1911), p. 2.

“Incorporated.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1910), p. 45.

“New Incorporations.” The American Machinist (Aug 4, 1910), p. 237.

Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Co. “Princess.” U.S. trademark filing #51,385 (Aug 13, 1910).

“To Make Records and Machines.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1911), p. 61.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Forgotten American Record Producers: Earle W. Jones

Forgotten American Record Producers:
Earle W. Jones
By Allan Sutton

 

Earle W. Jones isn’t a name that sparks instant recognition among many modern record collectors. Jones wasn’t even mentioned in Brian Rust’s problematic American Record Label Book; some more recent works mention him in passing but misspell his name “Earl.” And yet, he was one of the most prolific of the small independent record producers that operated during the postwar phonograph boom of 1919–1922.

In March 1955, record researcher Dan Mahony ran across Jones in the Alicat Book Shop in Yonkers. A series of interview ensued, which unfortunately were not taped. Mahony instead jotted down some notes and summarized what he considered the salient points in a private report to members of the Record Research group. [1] Jones’ memory, assuming Mahony reported his recollections accurately, proved to be wildly unreliable. The few credible portions of Jones’ interviews are cited throughout this article, but his account is riddled with demonstrable errors.

Jones reportedly got his start as an employee of the Columbia Graphophone Company in the early 1900s. In August 1916, he and Edward R. Harris filed a patent on a process of recording masters on coated glass, which they referred to as “phonoautograms,” the term first used a half-century earlier for Leon Scott’s phonographic tracings. The masters could then be copied to film, from which a photographically sensitized copper stamper could be produced. It was not an original idea; Emile Berliner had patented a similar process in the late 1880s. The patent (#1,461,849) was not approved until late 1923, and there is no evidence that Jones ever used the process commercially. Jones, in his 1955 interview, also claimed to have made electrical recordings with Victor Emerson as early as 1915–1916. However, no evidence of any such activity has been found. [2]

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Jones’ first known display ad (April 1917)

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Jones did not produce any labels of his own, but he recorded masters for many small companies, Lyric being his primary customer. The Jones Central Recording Laboratories (“Central” was soon dropped from the name) were first listed in the 1917 Talking Machine World “Trade Directory,” with the notation that the company “manufactures records in any quantity.” Jones’  studio was at 662 6th Avenue in New York. He also claimed to operate studios at 104 6th Avenue (New York), Madison Avenue at 59th Street (New York), and 76 Court Street (Brooklyn) at various times, although these might have been leased from other companies, based upon a statement he made in 1955. The company also installed its own master-plating plant in the spring of 1917. Jones reported, “Our laboratories are now complete, from the making of the wax to the manufacture of the finished product. We have just affiliated ourselves with a very large concern, who will press all our records.” [3]

The Talking Machine World for April 1917 reported that Jones Laboratories had greatly expanded its facilities over the past few months. “Arrangements are now being completed whereby this concern will manufacture records for several additional houses, TMW stated. “ Its capacity has been augmented considerably, and with its present equipment, records of all sizes up to twelve inches (hill and dale cut), can be produced by these laboratories in any quantity. The company has already signed large contracts with a number of companies for the coming year.” [4] Jones encouraged clients to submit their lists of desired titles, to which he would match the appropriate artists and accompaniments, make the recordings, and deliver finished masters and stampers (and pressings, if desired) to the client.

 

Jones as full-service provider (1917)

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It has long been suspected that Jones recorded the original fine-groove vertical-cut masters for Jacques M. Kohner’s Lyric label (some later fine-grooves masters were dubbed for Lyric by Pathé, from their own masters). A hint appears in a 1919 report that Jones had invented a ten-inch disc with playing time approaching five minutes, [5] just like the fine-groove Lyrics. In addition, Jones later supplied many lateral-cut masters to Lyric and other labels associated with Kohner.

On February 21, 1919, the Piqua (Ohio) Daily Call made the remarkable announcement that the Meteor Motor Car company was “taking over” the Jones Recording Laboratories’ studio at 662 Fifth Avenue in New York. Meteor, a manufacturer of ambulances and hearses, had recently introduced a line of phonographs, manufactured in its Piqua factory, and the company had decided to add a matching line of records. They were to be pressed “temporarily” in an unnamed Pennsylvania factory, which almost certainly would have been the Scranton Button Company. The Record Research group confirmed the existence of fine-groove vertical-cut Meteor discs (now quite rare) with 1919 song titles. However, the “takeover” appears to have been short-lived.

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(Left) A later Jones-produced Meteor pressing, using masters from his main 41000 series (not to be confused with a similarly numbered Emerson series). “Dear Old Girl,” on the reverse side, was also issued on Arto and affiliated labels. The label shows Victor Emerson’s universal-cut patent. (Right) A lateral-cut Lyric pressing using Jones’ 41000-series masters.

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By early 1920, Jones was producing lateral-cut masters that he made available to independent labels. [6]  A large number were produced for Lyric, but Jones also accepted commissions from outside companies. According to Jones, he always cut multiple takes of commissioned selections, giving the contracting party their choice of one take. He retained rights to the unused takes, which he then parceled out to other labels, [7] an arrangement that probably explains the frequent use of artist pseudonyms on  Jones’ recordings.

Jones employed numerous disjointed blocks of matrix numbers, some of which contain only a few known recordings. The largest and most widely circulated block was the 41000 series (not to be confused with Emerson’s identically numbered series of the same period). It was allocated to Lyric, but the recordings also appeared widely on labels marketed by the Arto Company and Clarion Record Company, among others. The series was begun before July 1920, as proven by the existence of several 41000 masters by Billy Murray, who became exclusive to Victor in that month.

Jones actively solicited clients. He traveled to Saint Louis, probably in early 1920, to sell Shapleigh Hardware on the idea of adding records to its Harmograph line. [8] However, he supplied Harmograph only with old “standards” from his backlist; Harmograph’s later pop releases were supplied by several other companies.

In July 1921 Jones entered into a reciprocal agreement with the Siemon Hard Rubber Company, an independent pressing plant in which he was an investor. He would provide masters to Siemon’s pressing customers, including original commissioned recordings. One of the first takers was the newly formed Gaelic Record Company, a small label that specialized in Irish music. Jones recalled that the bagpipes and drums used during one session caused such severe vibration in the studio that he had to pack his recording equipment in sand. [9] He was also commissioned by Alexander Maloof, a prominent Syrian-born composer and musician who launched his Maloof label in 1920.

.

(Left) Jones produced the first version of Harmograph, supplying it with “standards” from his extensive master pool. The same recordings could be had on many other labels, often for less than the dollar that Harmograph charged. (Right) An early Cameo release, minus its trademark, produced during Jones’ brief tenure as vice-president. This example was a new recording, but some early Cameo releases were just recyclings of old Jones masters.

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Such arrangements were to be short lived, however. In late 1921, the Jones Recording Laboratories were acquired by the newly formed Cameo Record Corporation, of which Jones was awarded a vice-presidency. He moved his recording equipment to the new Cameo studio, and in an act of true cronyism, contracted pressing to the ill-equipped Siemon Hard Rubber Company.

On Jones’ brief watch, Cameo launched as a rather shoddy 50¢ label whose early offerings included reissues of old Jones masters in mediocre Siemon pressings. In March 1922, Jones resigned his vice-presidency for reasons that went unexplained in the trade press, and for which Jones himself offered no explanation in 1955. His place was taken by Henry Waterson’s son, Henry Jr. With Jones gone, Cameo flourished.

Following his departure from Cameo, Jones launched Standard Records, Inc., a master-brokering operation unrelated to the earlier Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago. The company acted as clearinghouse for obsolete masters to which Jones held the rights.  Marked with “J” or “S” indicators in the wax (the latter not to be confused with Okeh’s S-prefixed master numbers) the masters were parceled out to Bell, Cleartone, and other minor labels looking to pad out their catalogs during 1922–1923. Most were old Jones Laboratories recordings (sometimes assigned new master numbers) that had already appeared on Arto, Lyric, and other failing or defunct labels.

Jones returned to Cameo later in 1923, as a recording engineer. No longer holding an executive title, he resigned on July 1, 1924, to pursue “important plans in the industry.” [10] A short time later, he was listed as an incorporator (along with M. M. Nassau and J. J. Hanrahan) of the Moon Record Corporation, which had recently been chartered in New York to produce phonographs and records. What Moon produced, if anything, has not been discovered.

By 1931, Earle W. Jones was operating as Jones Research Sound Products, which acquired the patent of Hobart Simpson and Thomas Burhans (#1,928,935) for use in its production of 16mm sound-on-film motion pictures. He claimed to have set up Commodore’s pressing plant in the 1940s for Milt Gabler, whom he described as a “robber.” Gabler, Jones claimed in 1955, still owed him “plenty dough.” [11]

After that misadventure, Jones’ reappeared in the Patent Office records in 1949, with a filing on an improved electrical recording head. At the time of the Mahony interviews, Jones was in the process of suing RCA for infringing his patent, which he claimed was being successfully employed by at least two small companies. Unfortunately for posterity, Mahony “retained bloody little” of Jones’ lengthy discussion of the patent and lawsuit, and after that, Jones’ trail grow cold.

 

© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

________

Notes

[1] Mahony, Dan. Notes on Earle W. Jones interviews (March 23–April 22, 1955, unpublished). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

[2] Mahony, op. cit.

[3] “Install Large Plating Plant.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1917), p. 120.

[4] “Expand Laboratory Facilities.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1917), p. 30.

[5] “Manufacture Records Soon.” Piqua [OH] Daily Call (Feb 21, 1919), p. 1.

[6] Some labels show Victor Emerson’s universal-cut patent, but auditioned examples are standard lateral-cut recordings.

[7] Mahony, op. cit.

[8] In the Mahony interview, Jones gave the date as “about 1919,” but the Harmograph trademark filing claims the name was first used on records on September 4, 1920. Poorly pressed by the Siemon Hard Rubber Company, their labels bear the ironic slogan, “Quality Counts.”

[9] Mahony. op. cit.

[10] “Earle W. Jones Resigns as Recording Engineer.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1924), p. 18. Jones gave the date as 1925, in error, in his 1955 interview.

[11] Mahony, op. cit.

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The Final Days of Edison Record Production (Oct-Dec 1929)


T
he Final Days of Edison Record Production

From Original Documentation at the
Edison National Historic Site

__________________

 

The following documents from Blue Folder No. 40 (Edison National Historic Site archives) offer a revealing, behind-the-scenes look at operations during the final days of Edison’s Phonograph Division.


Subject: Discontinuing the Record Business

Arthur Walsh to Charles Edison
(October 12, 1929)

.

On or about 1912 the Edison Industries began to manufacture and sell the disc type of record and from that date to this, as far as I can estimate, it has always been a losing business. Without going too far back into history, I have looked over the financial statements of the past five years. The five years show a loss on account of records, as follows:.

Statement of net book loss on disc records according to the financial statements during the past five years:
1924
150,477
1925
102,345
1926
367,443
1927
322,228
1928
390,535
Total
$1,332,928

.

 

In 1929 the estimated net book loss will exceed $500,000….In July 1929 we announced the Edison Lateral Cut Record, which was ultimately to supersede the Hill & Dale Record, previously sold. At the present time we are making both types. The sales in September ran 29,766 for Lateral Cut and 8,479 for Hill and Dale.

Below an attempt has been made to recapitulate the advantages and disadvantages of continuing in the record business…

ADVANTAGES:

1. Help to sell more [radio-phonograph] Combinations.

2. Possible idle equipment and plant.

3. Keeping faith with old owners.

4. Avoid possible embarrassment to trade in discontinuing project just started [lateral-cut discs], which might cause trade to feel we might cut out radio just as abruptly.

5. Possibility of Record Business being reborn, if Combinations become increasingly popular.

6. As Mr. Thomas A. Edison is the inventor of the Phonograph & Record, there is possibility of loss of prestige, if abandoned.

7. Absorbs portion of Thomas A. Edison Industries overhead, which would increase other costs unless something else is found for factory and space.

8. Eliminate loss thru voiding contracts with recording artists, which would be small in comparison with potential losses if business does not succeed.

DISADVANTAGES:

1. Heavy losses, as indicated above.

2. Export situation — Cannot sell Records in Continental Europe, Dependencies or Colonies of a European Country.

3. Unfavorable situation regarding portables, which we do not manufacture but buy and sell at a book loss merely to help sales of records.

4. Increasingly high recording costs due largely to excessive fees demanded by popular artists whose reputations aid in selling records.

5. Necessity for investing large sums for promotion and advertising to increase sales.

6. It is a dying business and without sales of Phonographs it may be merely a question of time until the Phonographs now in hands of public will be discarded.

7. Cheap competition makes sales increasingly difficult. The public is interested chiefly in jazz music and buy cheaper grades of records which can be discarded in few weeks at little loss when popularity wanes.

8. To become world power in record business it will be necessary to establish recording units with plating a pressing factories in Chicago, and the West Coast, in Europe, South America, Australia and the Orient; the question being, can money so invested have the potential profit as money invested in other things.

9. Mr. Walsh and co-workers spending time on record sales and production out of proportion to return.

10. Possibility that present type of record may become obsolete. Mr. Sarnoff of R.C.A. announced at meeting few weeks ago that home talking pictures would play large part in future home entertainment which may be subtle warning that Victor is going into film recording.


Discontinuing Recording

W. H. Miller
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

.

Stop all recording at once. … [Note: The last Edison recording session was a private one for Margaret Rogge Becker, held on the morning of October 19. Subsequent “Edison” sessions, for the Ediphone training cylinders, were contracted to Western Electric.]

Prepare list of Recording Equipment to be retained for recording Broadcast Records.

Retain Electrical Recording Agreements — if they won’t cost us anything. …


Negotiating Release of Contracts with Artists

W. H. Miller
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

.

Discontinue — at once — all recording.

Contact artists at once — advise them of decision and ask them to cancel contracts; also, to treat confidentially until announcement is made public. This is particularly important in the case of Martinelli who should be given opportunity of making new arrangement with another company before an announcement is made.

In cases of refusal to cancel — negotiate cash release always bearing in mind, artists’ expenses, etc. to obtain consent and endeavor to sell their contracts. No arrangement is to be consummated without approval.

All contracts are to be disposed of in one way or another by December 31, 1929.


Sale of Finished Stock

R. R. March and A. J. Clark
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

.

Liquidate inventories of finished stocks, wherever located, by December 31st.Prepare estimated liquidation value of stocks as compared with inventory value.

Consideration to be given to plan to sell entire stocks thru regular jobbers and dealers, piecemeal, and/or entire stocks as job lots to one source of distribution, the question being, can we dump such records to one jobber because of other jobbers’ stocks that they may not want to sell at reduced prices.

Be prepared to sell Needle [lateral-cut] Reproducers at cost to disgruntled Hill and Dale [vertical-cut] users.

All records to be sold by December 31st.All Schuberts and Beethovens [phonographs]… are to be sold with needle [lateral-cut] attachments by December 31st, even if these must be sold for as low a price as $10.00 each.Inventories on hand December 15th to be turned over to Mr. Clark for salvage.

Contact F. R. Schell and set aside records of both types to be retained for [Henry Ford] Museum purposes.


Disposition of Master Moulds

W. H. Miller and A. J. Clark
(Undated; probably week of October 14, 1929)

.

Contact Messrs Buchanan and Schell to ascertain moulds to be retained for [Henry Ford] Museum purposes and after setting these aside, Mr. Miller will endeavor to sell needle type [lateral-cut] moulds to other companies, provided this can be done without obligation on our part to artists who recorded such records.

All moulds not thus sold and those not required for Museum are to be sold thru Mr. A. J. Clark.

___

[ Note: No masters were sold, as far as can be ascertained. However, the existence at ENHS of a Brunswick sample pressing (below) using Edison lateral-cut masters suggests that the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co. might have been contemplating the purchase of some masters. Edison’s New York studio was taken over by Crown Records in early 1930, but no Edison material appeared on Crown. ]

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Discontinuing [Blue] Amberol Record Sales

W. S. Williams
(October 22, 1929)

.

… While phonographs are still carried in Cylinder inventory, they were turned over to Mr. Clark some time ago for sale as scrap or junk. ..

A total of 32,408 B.A. [Blue Amberol] Records were sold for $6008.75 between July 1 and October 15. Of this number of records 15,185 were sold under the special $.20 offer which expired September 30. The balance of sales were to jobbers and dealers and to individuals at $.35 each.

Sales have greatly decreased since September 30 as shown by the following comparison of orders, shipments and cancellations.

..

Orders
Received
Shipments
Cancellations
August
11,347
7,463
2,900
September
21,076
13,664
6,095
October
1–19
2,954
5,588
1,324

.

Cancellations, which have been exceedingly high due to inability to ship records of customers’ selections, have been very costly because of paper work involved in refunding advance payments. As of October 19, there were unfilled orders on hand for only 43 [cylinder] records.It is apparent from the above that it is now opportune to either
discontinue entirely or take action to endeavor to increase sales…

Therefore, the following recommendations are made.

(1) Entirely discontinue sales [of Blue Amberol cylinders] on October
26.

(2) Burn all [cylinder] records in stock, including 212,566 not carried
in inventory, thus releasing 600 packing cases which may be salvaged
thru Disc Record Sales at $.90 each.

(3) Release the remaining [cylinder division] employees — thus
saving $86.50 weekly.

(4) Close books of Division by December 31. …


To the Trade — Re: Discontinuance of Commercial
Record Production

Arthur Walsh
(October 29, 1929)

.

As you know, the Edison Radio is a pronounced success. Present demand is about three time production. We feel that this demand will increase steadily…

Our present manufacturing facilities are inadequate to satisfy the demand for Edison Radios. These facilities must be increased immediately.

After a careful weighing of the record business and its prospects, we have decided to discontinue the production of records, except for special purposes, and to devote our great record plant to the production of radio, and kindred new developments in the radio and home entertainment field.This step is being taken regretfully because the phonograph for home entertainment was one of Mr. Edison’s favorite inventions. But, this is a case where sound business judgement must prevail over sentiment.

We must add that we are happy in the knowledge that there are many competent manufacturers, now producing excellent records, with adequate facilities to take care of all present and future phonograph owners…

We will, therefore, on November 1st discontinue the production of commercial phonograph records such as have been heretofore sold through you.On and after the same date, the name of Radio-Phonograph Division will be changed to Radio Division.

 

Faithfully yours,

THOMAS A. EDISON, INCORPORATED. Radio-Phonograph Division Arthur Walsh Vice President.


To All Dealers

The Edison Distributing Corporation
(November 13, 1929)

.

Under date of October 29th a letter was mailed to you from Thomas A. Edison, Inc., Orange, N. J., announcing the “Discontinuance of Commercial Record Production.”

At this time we have in stock a limited supply of Edison Hill and Dale, and Lateral Cut Needle Records, which we will offer you, subject to prior sale, F. O. B. Chicago.

The Edison Hill and Dale Records at five cents each in lots of fifty or more to be selected by us, or ten cents each in lots of fifty or more of your selection.

Lateral Cut or Needle Records of the seventy-five cent series at fifteen cents each in lots of fifty or more of our selection, and twenty cents each, you selection. The two dollar series are priced at forty cents each.

Under no circumstances are the records returnable. …

 

________

These documents (excluding editorial comments) are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission. Please credit the Edison National Historical Site (West Orange, NJ) when quoting.

.

Shutting Down the Recording Industry: James Caesar Petrillo and the AFM Recording Ban (1942-1944)

Shutting Down the Recording Industry: James Caesar Petrillo and the AFM Recording Ban (1942-1944)
By Allan Sutton

.

The following is an excerpt from the author’s Recording the ‘Forties,
in preparation for 2018 publication.

____________

 

For professional musicians who wanted to broadcast or record in the 1940s, membership in the American Federation of Musicians was essential. Among the few to resist was the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose management was firmly opposed to unionization. Only under pressure from RCA’s David Sarnoff did the BSO’s management finally capitulate; the orchestra, under the direction of Serge Koussevitsky, was unionized and allowed to return to the RCA studios, after a long hiatus. But the BSO found itself almost immediately shut out again, this time by an industry-wide recording ban ordered by AFM president James Caesar Petrillo. [1]

.

Petrillo testifies before the National War Labor Board (1943)

.

Petrillo had long pursued a very public vendetta against what he termed “canned music,” blaming it for the downturn in  “live” performances. Widely reviled within the recording industry as an inflexible, obscenity-spewing petty dictator, he did not hesitate to employ strong-arm tactics against those who opposed him. In early 1941, he appointed Ben Selvin to undertake a fact-finding mission intended to prove that recorded music was responsible for the declining employment of union musicians. [2]

Selvin’s questionnaires, individualized for commercial record companies, transcription producers, radio stations, advertising agencies, and jukebox operators, were mailed throughout the spring. A long-time AFM member, Selvin delivered the figures Petrillo wanted. Based upon the initial responses, involving the radio-transcription business, he concluded, “The amount of money spent for musical talent on recorded [versus live] programs is much higher than anyone in the industry would have guessed.”  [3]

Petrillo made his case at the AFM’s convention on June 9, 1941. He contended that although AFM members earned approximately $3 million annually in royalties from recordings, they lost $100 million as the result of what he termed “reduced employment opportunities” from the substitution of recorded for live music:

There are 800 radio stations in the United States and Canada, and 550 of them have no live music. They just use canned music twenty-four hours a day. There is a question of who survives—we or they. If the stations can’t get records and won’t hire live bands, that will be their funeral, not ours… We are scabbing on ourselves.

Admitting he had no verifiable statistics to back up his claims, Petrillo nevertheless estimated that eight- to nine-thousand AFM musicians could be put back to work if recordings were banned  and establishments were forced to rely on live music.

The issue came to a head in June 1942, when Petrillo forced a strike by unwilling members of the Ringling Brothers–Barnum & Bailey Circus Band. Director Merle Evans’ assurance that he and his musicians were “perfectly satisfied” with salaries and working conditions were ignored, and John Ringling North’s request to personally negotiate with Petrillo went unanswered. [4] Petrillo’s  demands included higher wages, with time-and-a-half for Sunday performances, which were refused. After a brief postponement to allow the band to play a benefit for handicapped children, the strike order was enforced. “We wanted to play today,” Evans told a Billboard reporter on June 6, “but the union refused to let us.” Management responded by substituting recorded music over a public-address system during the band’s involuntary absence. [5] It apparently was lost on Petrillo that by ordering the strike, gainfully employed musicians had been replaced by recordings—the very situation he had recently railed against at the AFM conference.

Having successfully shut down a circus band, Petrillo next banned the broadcasting of a popular high-school music festival in Interlochen, Michigan, declaring that the teen-aged musicians were not union members. The action brought universal condemnation from the public, the broadcast industry, and members of Congress. Iowa Senator D. W. Clark filed a formal, if ineffectual, resolution charging Petrillo with depriving the students of their freedom to make their musical talents known, while undermining the national music education program. [6] Stanley E. Hubbard, president of station KSPT (St. Paul, Minnesota), issued a scathing denouncement of Petrillo that read in part,

Ten days ago, [Petrillo] forbade the broadcast…from the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich., in which 160 teen-age boys and girls from 40 states hoped to play for their folks at home. He stopped eight Chinese Boy Scouts from blowing a fanfare in Chicago unless eight union musicians were hired to stand by while the scouts tooted… That is the kind of power Fuehrer Petrillo wields today… That is the power, and that is the man, and that is the kind of outrageous tyranny which we and the other radio stations in this country…are fighting.” [7]

Undeterred, Petrillo was soon threatening to bar AFM musicians from making radio transcriptions. Key figures in the broadcast industry responded swiftly with a threat of their own. Five years earlier, broadcasters had informally agreed to retain house orchestras in response to Petrillo’s charge that their use of recorded music was causing widespread unemployment of union musicians. Now, Broadcasting magazine predicted,

If transcriptions and recordings are banned, as ordered by Mr. Petrillo, it is generally expected that the [broadcast] industry, almost as a unit, will be disposed to release staff orchestras, since the gentlemen’s agreement will have been violated… In a nutshell, the overall view appears to be that AFM has walked out on its 1937 agreement by banning transcription performance, and that the next move is up to Mr. Petrillo. [8]

Petrillo’s next move was to threaten a strike that had the potential to destroy a recording industry already crippled by wartime personnel and materials shortages. On June 27, 1942, he served notice to all transcription and record companies that he intended to ban recording by union musicians beginning on August 1. [9] The New York Times reported,

As part of a campaign to force radio stations, soda fountains, bars and restaurants to employ union musicians instead of using recordings, Mr. Petrillo has informed all the record manufacturers that the 140,000 members of his A.F. of L. organization will not make “records, electrical transcriptions or any other form of electrical reproduction of music” after July 31…

Even if Mr. Petrillo’s economics were not fantastic, it is intolerable that a labor leader should dicatate to the American people what kind of music it shall or shall not hear. But if we need waste little time in exposing the nonsense in Mr. Petrillo’s economics, we should waste less in denouncing Mr. Petrillo as an individual. It is much more important to remind ourselves that it is our political muddle-headedness and spinelessness that have made the Petrillo type of dictator possible. [10]

Petrillo agreed informally to exempt the production of transcriptions for the armed forces and government agencies involved in the war effort, although he soon reneged on even that meager concession. Recordings for motion-picture soundtracks would be allowed, provided that the recordings did not find their way onto the airwaves or commercially issued records. Private recording for home use was allowed to continue under the ban, but only if the manufacturers of recording blanks guaranteed the records would not be broadcast or used in jukeboxes—an obvious impossibility. Blanks and portable recording units remained readily available, and an underground market soon sprang up for custom-duplicated discs from private recording sessions, live performances, and broadcast captures.

There would be no immediate concessions from the record companies, nor full-fledged support from most AFM musicians. Black band-leaders in Philadelphia loudly protested the ban, claiming a potential loss of a half-million dollars in income. [11] In New York, Eli Oberstein recruited union musicians for clandestine hotel-room recording sessions, the results of which were issued on his Hit label under some imaginative aliases. Some small labels turned to non-union talent, giving at least a temporary  boost to some rural and African-American artists the AFM had declined to accept.

Record-company executives, according to the New York Times, were content “to sit back and try to outwait Mr. Petrillo,” allowing the mounting public outrage to work in their favor. Directors and officials of the National Association of Broadcasters met informally with record company executives to plan their strategies, but apparently neither group felt any compulsion to meet with Petrillo.

The record companies were allowed to continue manufacturing and selling their pre-ban recordings, so with the strike looming, they scrambled to stockpile enough new material to sustain them during the work stoppage. “This they did on a 24-hour-per-day schedule,” Billboard reported; “when August 1 arrived, they emerged from their studios with enough masters to last well into 1943.” [12] The same article predicted a return to normal recording operations around January 1943, “assuming that all goes as expected.” It did not.

The Justice Department failed in a last-minute attempt to delay the ban, but Petrillo’s actions quickly drew fire from members of Congress. Senator Clark, still seething over the Interlochen incident, took the floor on August 29 to denounce Petrillo as a thug whose actions jeopardized national morale during a time of crisis:

An ugly note has reared its head, causing great disunity in the war effort. That ugly note is a gentleman by the name of James Caesar Petrillo. By virtue of his power, by virtue of his gangster acts, if you please, he undertakes to put out of business a whole industry and prevent working people in that industry from making a living.” [13]

At Clark’s urging, a Senate resolution was drafted empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission to investigate whether the recording ban constituted restraint of trade under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. [14]  AFM’s counsel moved for dismissal on the grounds that anti-trust laws did not apply to label disputes; the Department of Justice countered with a request for an injunction forbidding the AFM to enforce the ban, which was denied.  As the ban dragged on, the case was referred to the Supreme Court, which in February 1943 upheld a lower-court decision that the ban was merely a labor dispute, and thus not covered under the Sherman act. [15]

Of the major consumer publications, only Life magazine sided with Petrillo. Robert Coughlan’s fawning, six-page feature article, published two days after the recording ban took effect, depicted Petrillo as a rough but good-hearted defender of the working class who was only looking out for his “boys.” [16] Coughlan was largely alone in his assessment. Three weeks after his story appeared, the American Institute of Public Opinion released the results of a George Gallup poll concerning Petrillo and the AFM action. Seventy-five percent of participants said they opposed the ban, and seventy-three percent favored intervention by the federal government. Dr. Gallup reported,

A majority of those who disapprove Petrillo’s actions feel strongly, even vehemently, about the subject. Typical of their views were such statements as, “he’s a petty dictator,” “he’s suffering from a bad case of overgrown ego,”  “it’s disgraceful,” and “he ought to go over and join Mussolini.” [17]

Some small-label producers attempted to negotiate with Petrillo, to no avail. Hazard E. Reeves (Reeves Sound Studios) and E. V. Brinckerhoff (Brinckerhoff Studios) launched a trade association comprising thirteen New York–area recording studios that Reeves felt would give them a negotiating advantage. [18] So far as is known, they received no acknowledgment  from Petrillo. Neither, initially, did Muscicraft president Paul Puner. In February 1943, he attempted to contact Petrillo with a proposal that Musicraft, as a small company, be allowed to pay a lower royalty rate than what Petrillo was demanding, in return for which Musicraft would affirm its support of the AFM’s basic principles. [19]

After receiving no response, Puner followed up on March 11 with a letter requesting a prompt reply. Petrillo’s reply was a curt rejection letter. [20] Puner persisted, next dispatching what Billboard termed an “impassioned wire” to Petrillo offering to negotiate with him under any circumstances, at a date of Petrillo’s choosing. This time Puner received a note stating the matter would be referred to the AFM’s International Executive Board on April 15. [21] Eventually Puner received a final rejection from Petrillo, who dismissed the offer as “peanuts.” [22]  Clearly, Petrillo was not looking to negotiate settlements on a company-by-company basis. [23]

The major labels at first seemed well-positioned to weather what they expected to be a short strike. For a time they made-do by drawing down their stockpiles of new masters, combing the vaults for unissued pre-strike recordings, and reissuing vintage material, including re-pressings of some 1920s jazz classics. But as the strike dragged on, they were forced to become more creative. In mid-January 1943, Billboard reported that Decca was about to release the last of its pre-ban masters, and speculated that Victor and Columbia might to have to follow suit. [24] With no more new material to offer, Decca’s solution was to resume recording, substituting vocal ensembles (vocalists generally not being AFM members, and thus not legally bound to honor the strike) for instrumental backing. The idea was soon being copied by Columbia, Victor, and a host of minor labels.

“The wholly vocal disks are not being taken seriously as a long-term substitute,” Billboard reported. [25] But  they infuriated Petrillo, who resorted to his usual strong-arms tactics in an attempt to stem the flow. “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and other leading vocalists have been contacted,” he told a reporter, “and have promised AFM they won’t make records.” [26] Petrillo next  stepped up pressure on the recording-studio directors.  In June 1943, he summoned Muzak’s Ben Selvin and RCA’s Leonard Joy before the board of Local 802 to demand they take no actions “against the best interests of the union.” A Billboard reporter observed,

Although AFM officials made no threats, their “requests” can be quickly enforced, as arrangers and copyists employed for vocal waxings are AFM members. The union has made it plain that it expects cooperation from all its members, and indicated that practically all the record and transcription firms have executives who hold union cards. [27]

One producer refused to be cowed. New band recordings continued to flow on Eli Oberstein’s Hit label, although they were not by any recognizable groups. One anonymous informant, identified in a 1976 interview only as “the music director of a major label,” remembered participating in a clandestine Oberstein session:

One day I found this ad for an arranger… I was told to report to a certain room at the Hotel Claridge at nine that night…and there was Eli Oberstein. In the room with him was a nine-piece orchestra and a disc cutter. Eli had hung blankets over the windows so that the noise from the street wouldn’t be too loud and had stuffed towels under the door so that we wouldn’t bother other guests. Between nine and six the following morning, that band must have cut a dozen hit tunes. I sat right there and did the arrangements, and they sight-read them. Eli paid us all in cash as we left. I don’t know who those guys were, but they were good. [28]

The records were attributed to such apparently fictitious band-leaders as Johnny Jones, Peter Piper, and Willie Kelly, [29] leading to a popular guessing game among record reviewers (and later, discographers) as to who was actually responsible. In his later years, Pee Wee Irwin reportedly admitted that, being short of cash at the time, he had taken a risk and directed the “Willie Kelly” sessions for Oberstein. [30]

The band recordings caught the attention of Petrillo, who questioned whether Oberstein had obtained AFM clearance to record the titles. But it was Arthur Fields’ vocal rendition of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” on the Oberstein’s Hit label [31] that sparked what would become an epic clash between Oberstein and the AFM. The record included a sparse instrumental backing, placing it within the AFM’s jurisdiction. Oberstein initially claimed that it was a pre-ban recording made with a “local pickup crew.” [32] He also insisted that “Arthur Fields” was simply “a name that’s been used for house dates for years,” which was not entirely without some basis in fact. [33] When that explanation failed to satisfy AFM officials, Oberstein changed his story dramatically. The masters, he said, had come from Mexico, leading insiders to joke that he must mean Mexico, New Jersey. [34] “Call it bootlegging,” Oberstein told Down Beat magazine, “but it’s legal.” [35]

Oberstein apparently did have connections with one or more Mexican studios, as evidenced by the earlier release of some Mexico City recordings on his Varsity label. But “Der Fuehrer’s Face” appeared to be from the same American studio as Hit’s pre-ban recordings, and the voice was unmistakably that of Arthur Fields, a New Yorker who was unlikely to have journeyed south of the border just to cut record. [36]

Oberstein’s tale failed to convince the officials of AFM Local 802, who summoned him before the board to demand he reveal the names of the musicians involved. Oberstein ignored the summons and was given until October 22, 1942, to either face the board or be judged “guilty without explanation.” [37] The outcome was eagerly awaited by industry officials, some of whom expressed hope that Oberstein would successfully defy the union. [38]  They would be disappointed.

Examination of the union logs failed to reveal any evidence that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” had been recorded prior to the ban. Finally facing the AFM board on October 22, Oberstein elaborated on his revised tale, claiming the masters had been purchased by an unnamed “associate” from an unknown Mexican studio through one Manuel Valdez, who was not available to corroborate the story because he was “on his way back to Mexico.” [39] Oberstein went on to claim that Victor and Decca were also obtaining many of their pop-tune recordings  from Mexican studios, which officials of both companies vehemently denied. [40]

On December 24, Oberstein submitted to another grilling by the AFM board, at which he agreed to turn over a list of all masters he supposedly had obtained from Mexico. It was not forthcoming, but in the meantime, union officials were investigating some suspicious artist credits on Oberstein releases that had them “scratching their heads,” according to a Billboard report. No one had heard of Oberstein’s mysterious new band leaders, and their names did not appear on Local 802’s membership rolls. The break for Petrillo came after it was discovered that “Peter Piper” was identified on the union rolls as a pseudonym for Jack Small, who was immediately summoned to testify before the AFM’s trial board. [41]

Petrillo finally had his evidence that Eli Oberstein was secretly recording with union musicians, in defiance of the AFM ban. Oberstein was expelled from the union in June 1943, on the grounds that his continued release of instrumental recordings was “damaging to the interests of the Federation.” [42] Having vanquished Oberstein, Petrillo went after his associates. Nineteen music publishers whose songs had been recorded by Hit during the ban were summoned to Petrillo’s office. There, they were pressured into withholding recording rights from any company (like Classic Records, the maker of Hit) whose operations were deemed “unfair” by the union. [43]

However, Petrillo largely failed in his attempts to intimidate the transcription companies. Many were involved in work for the war effort and could rely on support from Congress, which had already made clear its disdain for Petrillo. Having reneged on his early promise not to interfere with war-related transcription work, Petrillo found himself facing a group of influential executives who charged him with bypassing governmental agencies. They asked that the matter be referred to the National War Labor Board. Just hours after the executives released their statement on June 23, 1943, Petrillo agreed to accept mediation, narrowly avoiding intervention by the board.

Petrillo brushed off his defeat at a press conference, dismissing the transcription business as too small to be of any interest to the AFM. [44]  Several month later, V-Disc director Robert Vincent, with the backing of Pentagon officials, began applying pressure to Petrillo to exempt the V-Disc recording program from the AFM  ban. Petrillo finally acquiesced on October 27, 1943, but only after insisting on a long list of conditions.

In the meantime, negotiations between AFM officials and a committee comprising representatives of CBS, Decca, and RCA had broken down. However, Decca attorney Milton Diamond continued to meet privately with Petrillo. [45] On September 18, 1943, president Jack Kapp announced that Decca and its World Broadcasting subsidiary had signed four-year contracts with the AFM that would allow them to  resume recording immediately. [46]  The terms were not immediately disclosed, although within the month Petrillo let it be known that they included payment of a percentage of Decca’s gross revenue directly to the AFM. [47] The proceeds—later revealed to be a flat half-cent royalty per new recording sold—were to be held in an “employment fund” that was intended to finance make-work projects for AFM members deprived of “normal employment opportunities” because of competition from recorded music. [48]

Capitol Records, which had barely begun operations before the ban was enacted, capitulated on October 9, agreeing to the same terms as Decca. [49] Four independent transcription companies signed slightly modified agreements several weeks later, amidst charges from the National Association of Broadcasters that the payment plans were “as economically and socially unsound as extortion is immoral and illegal.” [50]

With the prospect of Decca and Capitol dominating the pop-record market, industry observers predicted a rush by other labels to sign with the AFM. Within a matter of months, virtually all had done so, leaving RCA and Columbia as the last significant holdouts. “Privately,” Broadcasting magazine reported, “industry leaders made no bones about their feeling that had been ‘sold out’ and are now ‘over a barrel.’” [51]

In April 1944, attorneys for RCA and Columbia called for the War Labor Board to allow their companies to resume recordings, pending a challenge to the AFM’s “employment fund” provision. When a meeting between record-company and AFM officials ended in a stalemate, more-radical solutions (including a temporary government takeover of the Columbia and RCA facilities) were floated in some quarters. [52]

Facing rapidly escalating pressure from politicians and industry officials, the National War Labor Board ordered an end to the recording ban on June 15, which went unheeded. At a show-cause hearing held on August 18, Petrillo refused to comply with order, and the case was referred to the Office of Economic Stabilization for enforcement. President Roosevelt finally weighed in on October 4, 1944, declaring in a strongly worded telegram to Petrillo,

It is the opinion of the Director of Economic Stabilization that under all the present circumstances, the noncompliance by your union is not unduly impeding the war effort. But this noncompliance may encourage other instances of noncompliance which will impede the war effort… Therefore, in the interest of respecting the considered decision of the Board, I request your union to accept the directive orders of the National War Labor Board. What you regard as your loss will certainly be your country’s gain.” [53]

However, it would not be the AFM’s loss. After considering the matter for a week, Petrillo rejected the president’s request in a rambling nine-page response. Since nearly every other record and transcription company had already settled with the AFM, Petrillo declared, he saw no reason to offer any concessions to the final holdouts, for whom the ban remained in effect. [54] With no viable alternatives left, Columbia and RCA (including the latter’s NBC Thesaurus division) finally capitulated to Petrillo’s demands on the evening of Saturday, November 11, 1944, with a formal signing set for the following Monday.

After a twenty-eight–month hiatus, RCA resumed commercial recording activities on Sunday, November 12, at 1:43 pm. Columbia followed suit six hours later. [55] RCA recording manager James W. Murray conceded, “We had no alternative but to meet the demands that we make direct payment to the union’s treasury or to abandon our record business.”

Columbia’s Edward Wallerstein fixed the blame firmly on Washington, declaring, “We are finally accepting because of the government’s unwillingness or incapacity to enforce its orders.” [56] Although Petrillo denied that the contracts offered to CBS and RCA were punitive, they contained clauses not found in those the AFM had signed with other companies, including a provision allowing artists to cancel their recording contracts in the event of another AFM strike.

In the end, industry experts estimated that the AFM ban had done little damage to most record companies, and might actually have helped some. There had been no significant decline in record sales or profits during the first two years of the ban. The lack of significant growth was attributed more to wartime shortages, and the fact that a vast number of record customers were out of  the market until their enlistments ended, than to the ban. In addition, Capitol and other promising newcomers had gained a competitive edge by signing early with the AFM and resuming production while the two industry behemoths remained locked in battle with Petrillo. [57] The end of the ban also marked the beginning of a shift by start-up companies to the West Coast, where support for the AFM was relatively weak and non-union talent plentiful. Recording companies large and small were about to enjoy an unprecedented boom, but Petrillo was not finished with them yet.

 

© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Notes

[1] O’Connell, Charles. The Other Side of the Record, pp. 260-261. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).

[2] Selvin, who had begun his recording career in the late ’teens as the director of a popular dance orchestra, was by this time the vice-president of Associated Music Publishers, and a long-time member of the American Federation of Musicians.

[3] “Cost of Record Music Talent Is Found Above Expectations.” Broadcasting (April 14, 1941), p. 54.

[4] “Settlement Talk Rumored After RB Drops Band in Pay Dispute.” The Billboard (June 13, 1942), p. 38. The strike involved the main circus band, under Merle Evans’ direction, as well as the smaller sideshow band directed by Arthur Wright.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo; Clark and Vandenberg Hits Music ‘Tyranny’ by AFM.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[7] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians, Seeking to Wreck Radio.” Broadcasting (July 27, 1942), p. 8.

[8] “Industry Remains Calm on Petrillo Ban.” Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[9] “Highlights of the Petrillo Recording Ban that Went Before; From 1942 to 1944.” Billboard (November 1, 1947), p. 20.

[10] “Mr. Petrillo Gives the Word.” New York Times (July 10, 1942), reprinted in Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[11] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians,” op. cit.

[12] “Shellac Shortage, Petrillo and War Have Little Fellows Groggy.” Billboard (August 29, 1942), p. 19.

[13] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo,” op. cit.

[14] “D of J Must Prove That AFM Conspires; ‘Labor Disputes’ Can’t Be Hit By Trust Laws.” Billboard (August 1, 1942), p. 19.

[15] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Tecord Ban.” The Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook, p. 147.

[16] Coughlan, Robert. “Petrillo.” Life (August 3, 1942), pp. 68–70, 72, 74, 76.

[17] “75% of People Against Petrillo.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[18] “Independents Form Record Association.” Broadcasting (August 10, 1942), p. 58.

[19] “Tiny Disker Tries to Steal Play from Big Firms with Petrillo Personally, But No Dice.” Billboard (April 3, 1943).

[20] “AFM Rejects Plan.” Broadcasting (March 29, 1943). P. 52.

[21] “Musicraft Asks Petrillo Again, Get Second ‘No.’” Billboard (April 10, 1943), p. 22

[22] Chasins, Gladys. “Recording Ban Grows Tighter; Vocalists Agree to Stop Recording Until AFM Lifts Ban.” Billboard (July 3, 1943).

[23] “Petrillo Won’t Settle Individually with Discers; April 15 Meeting Set.” Variety (March 31, 1943), p. 35.

[24] “Petrillo Stands Pat.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[25] “Tune Pile Getting Low.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[26] Chasins, op. cit.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Quoted in Angus, Robert: “Pirates, Prima Donas, and Plain White Wrappers.” High Fidelity (December 1976). An attempt by record researcher George Blacker in the 1980s to discover the anonymous music directors’ identity was unsuccessful.

[29] Pee Wee Irwin reportedly told writer Roy Evans that he was responsible for the Willie Kelly side

[30] Evans, Roy. Undated letter to George Blacker. William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press.

[31] Hit 7023, released on October 14, 1942.

[32] “Big Recording Whodunit; 802 to Investigate Oberstein’s Recording of Mysterious Bands.” Billboard (October 17, 1942), p. 20.

[33] “802 No Savvies New ‘Hit’ Discs of Current Pops.” Metronome (November 1942), p. 8. Fields (nee Finkelstein) was one of the most prolific studio singers of the 1920s, and his name had been used on occasion as a cover for Fred Hall’s band, as well as other groups that remain to be identified. He was largely forgotten by 1942; so much so, that some reporters failed to recognize the voice and thus accepted Oberstein’s suggestion that the name was fictional. A Billboard article on November 28, 1942, stated, “Admittedly, the name carrying the billing is merely a handy handle for label purposes.”

[34] “Whither Disk Biz, Petrillo?” Billboard (July 26, 1947), p. 23.

[35] “Discs Cut in Mexico, Says EO.” Down Beat (November 1, 1942); clipping, n.p.

[36] In a bizarre twist, Fields claimed not have made the recording  (despite indisputable aural evidence to the contrary) and reportedly sued for an injunction halting distribution and sales of the record (“Now Oberstein Says Discs Are Mexican.” Billboard, October 31, 1942, p. 21). Further references to the supposed suit have not been found, and based on the large number of surviving copies of Hit 7023, it seems unlikely an injunction was granted.

[37] “Discs Cut…,” op. cit.

[38] “Big Recording Whodunit,” op. cit.

[39] “Oberstein Defends Records.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[40] Ibid.

[41] “Oberstein’s ‘Peter Piper’ May Be 802’s Jack Small; Union Wants Some Answers.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[42] Oberstein was later readmitted to the union, but only after threatening a half-million dollar defamation suit against Petrillo, the AFM, and its officers, raising fears that “a lot of dirty linen will be washed in public” (“Obie Planning 500G Suit”; Billboard, July 10, 1943). Classic Records’ recording license was restored in early November 1943 (“AFM Okays Classic Recording License;” Billboard, November 13, 1943, p. 16).

[43] “Calls on Pubs to Put Screws on Black Market Recorders.” Billboard (June 5, 1943), p. 21.

[45] Robertson, Bruce.“Disc Meeting Discusses Performance Fee.” Broadcasting (August 9, 1943), p. 12.

[46] “Petrillo’s Permission.” Motion Picture Herald (September 25, 1943), p. 8. The AFM contracts signed by Decca, World, and the many companies that followed were effective as of January 1, 1944, but Petrillo allowed them to resume recording immediately upon signing.

[47] Robertson, Bruce. “Other Disc Firms May Yield to AFM Pact.” Broadcasting (October 4, 1943), p. 9.

[48] Ibid.

[49] “Capitol Records Signs with AFM.” Broadcasting (October 18, 1943), p. 60.

[50] “NAB Hits AFM Fees; Four Disc Firms Sign.” Broadcasting (October 25, 1943), p. 9.

[51] Robertson, “Other Disc Firms,” op. cit.

[52] “Editorial: Jimmy’s Opportunities.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944), p. 44.

[53] “FDR Telegram to Petrillo.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944).

[54] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Record Ban,” op cit.

[55] Ibid.

[56] Stone, Floyd E. “Victorious Caesar Petrillo Talks; Hollywood Waits.” Motion Picture Herald (November 18, 1944), p. 13.

[57] “Ban Background and Effects.” Billboard 1944 Music Year Book, p. 146.

Mainspring Press News • November 2017

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Leeds & Catlin Discography in Preparation for the Discography of American Historical Recordings Site

We’re planning to submit our Leeds & Catlin data to the University of California-Santa Barbara’s online DAHR project within the next several months. The work incorporates additions and revisions  (thankfully, very few) to our Leeds & Catlin Records: A History and Discography (Bryant & Sutton, 2015). A limited number of copies are still available if you prefer your data in print form, but be sure to order soon.

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Update: The Encyclopedia of American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950

We continue to make steady progress on the Encyclopedia of American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950, with the addition of thirty-one new company entries since the last listing was posted in October. In addition, we recently acquired a substantial amount of high-quality reference material that is already proving indispensable in expanding and fact-checking the existing entries.

This was to have been an online-only offering, but many of you have asked for a printed version as well. No promises just yet, but we’re currently looking into that possibility (among other options, two important academic publishers have expressed interest).

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Mainspring Press Book Availability

Recording the ‘Twenties (Sutton) and Berliner Records in America (Charosh) have recently sold out. The following titles are now in very short supply, with less than a carton remaining of each:

  • Race Records and the American Recording Industry, 1919-1945 (Sutton)
  • Leeds & Catlin Records: A History and Discography (Bryant & Sutton)
  • American Records Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, and International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton)
  • Victor Special Labels, 1928-1942 (Bolig)
  • Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders (Nauck & Sutton)

Remaining inventory is selling out quickly as we wind-down our book operation, and these titles will not be reprinted. Be sure to visit the Mainspring Press website to see what’s still available.

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Where Did the Playlists Go?

We discontinued our free MP3 Playlist feature over the summer. Conventional wisdom was that free music would draw new visitors in droves (which it did), and they would return the favor by occasionally springing for a book or two (which they did not).

Although we saw a massive increase in site traffic as the word spread, that didn’t translate into any significant increase in books sales. Nor did sales fall after we discontinued the feature (just the opposite, in fact; the second half of 2017 has seen our strongest sales, and bottom-line, in some time). In the end, it was an expensive feature that just didn’t pay its way.

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110 Years Ago at the Victor Talking Machine Company (November 1907)

November 1907 marked the return of the Victor studio to Camden, from Philadelphia, after an absence of more than six years. The impending move got only a vague mention in that month’s Talking Machine World, in a story on a visit by distributor Max Landay, who said, “I understand the company will remove their recording laboratory from Philadelphia to Camden, into premises that are ideal.” The move was documented by Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer:

During November [1907] we moved the Laboratory from 424 So. 10th St., Philadelphia, to the building S.W. Corner Front and Cooper Streets, Camden, N.J., in which we occupied the fourth floor. The first large type “D” recording machine was installed in the Camden Laboratory prior to our moving into same. [“D” refers to Wilbur N. Dennison, who assigned a large number of patents to Victor over the years.]

To repeat a point we’ve made often (and wish we didn’t still have to, but old myths die hard): Any discography showing a Camden recording location between early September 1901 and late November 1907 is in error. For a detailed, documented chronology of Victor’s early studio sites, see Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations, 1901-1920.

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Here’s the complete pictorial section of Victor’s November 1907 catalog, courtesy of Victor expert John Bolig:

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By the way, John’s landmark Victor Discography Series titles are selling out quickly as Mainspring winds down its book operation. Several are already out of print, and remaining inventory is in very short supply. If there are any titles you need, hurry over to the Mainspring Press website and order while you still can!

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The Chicago Premium-Scheme Labels Revisited (1904 – 1920)

The Chicago Premium-Scheme Labels Revisited
(1904 – 1920)
By Allan Sutton

 

In 1902, the Victor Talking Machine Company began producing inexpensive Type P “Premium” phonographs that retailers could give away as an incentive to purchase other merchandise. There had been similar premium schemes earlier, employing both disc and cylinder machines as the bait, but Victor’s machines were the first to enjoy any significant popularity. Unlike later premium-scheme models, the Type P played standard records.

Beginning in 1904, several Chicago distributors took the idea a step further, employing a tied-products model (sometimes referred to as the “razor-and-blade ploy”). The phonographs were modified in various ways, most often with nonstandard spindles or mandrels, to ensure that they were compatible only with the matching records. They usually were the manufacturers’ cheapest or discontinued models, given new brand names. According to the distributors’ sales pitch, any loss the dealer took by giving the machines away would quickly be recouped by sales of the compatible, high-margin records to a captive audience.

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ROBERT JOHNS AND THE STANDARD TALKING MACHINE COMPANY

The first to successfully exploit the tied-product models on a large scale was the Chicago-based Standard Talking Machine Company. Launched in 1904, and it was advertising nationally by December of that year. In reality, as later court records make clear, Standard Talking Machine was simply a trade name of Robert Johns, a jobber in pottery and other household goods who was affiliated with the East Liverpool China Company of East Liverpool, Ohio. Standard initially occupied offices at 196–202 Monroe Street and was unrelated to several other identically named firms. (An identically named company was incorporated in Chicago in March 1905, with a meager capitalization of $2,500, but none of its incorporators are persons known to have been associated with Johns’ operation, and its connection, if any, remains unclear.)

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Early Standard ads, from (top to bottom) December 1904, January 1905, and March 1905. These dealers gave away the machines with the purchase of other merchandise; later offers often required the purchase of two-dozen or more Standard records to receive the free machines. Standard’s first phonograph offering, shown here, was Columbia’s bare-bones Model AU; refitted with a ½” spindle, it became the Standard Model AA. More-substantial models were soon made available.

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East Liverpool China was a major manufacturer of tableware and crockery. Much of its output was employed in premium schemes, being given away to stimulate the sale of more profitable items. Johns would employ that model for Standard Talking Machine, offering a free phonograph to individual customers or dealers who purchased a specified number of discs. (Terms of the plans varied considerably, and retailers at first had some leeway to set their own conditions. in later years, Standard also wholesaled the discs outright, unencumbered by any “free” phonograph offers.) The phonographs employed oversized (½”) spindles to thwart the use of ordinary pressings, forcing owners to purchase Standard discs. That was the theory, at least; in reality, there were some fairly easy work-arounds, the simplest of which involved simply drilling-out ordinary discs to fit the oversized spindles.

American Graphophone (Columbia) supplied the records and phonographs, which were rebranded with the Standard name. The phonographs were obsolete or low-end Columbia models with slight modifications, the most obvious being the oversized spindles.

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A rare, early sunken-label Standard 7″ pressing (left), with Standard’s conditions sticker pasted over the Columbia original (right). Produced only briefly, the sunken-label pressings used delicate, tissue-thin labels that that were original to the discs (i.e., not paste-overs).

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Standard originally offered both 7″ and 10″ black-and-silver label single-sided discs, using the same catalog numbers as the corresponding Columbia issues. The 7″ series was phased out after Columbia discontinued production of small-diameter discs in 1906. The black-and-silver (and later, black-and-gold) labels were applied at the time the discs were pressed, disproving the widely circulated tale that all Standard records were simply relabeled dead stock. The later Standard catalogs, in particular, were reasonably up-to-date, sometimes lagging Columbia’s release of a new title by just a few months.

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Contrary to some hobbyists’ accounts, Standard was not solely a dumping-ground for Columbia’s dead inventory (although it did serve that purpose admirably). Current hits sometimes turned up on Standard just a few months after they were released on Columbia. This 1914 Standard catalog includes new titles that Columbia released in the late spring of that year.

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There were, of course, plenty of relabeled surplus Columbia pressings as well, including many titles whose sales potential had long since been exhausted. They are easily distinguished by their slightly oversized labels (at first in green-and-white labels, later in black-and-white), which were pasted over the Columbia originals.

 

BUSY BEE AND THE O’NEILL-JAMES COMPANY

At about the same time that Robert Johns was organizing Standard Talking Machine, Columbia began supplying Arthur J. O’Neill with cylinder phonograph and records for use in premium schemes, under the Busy Bee trademark. The O’Neill-James Company (originally of 185 Dearborn Street, and later Fifth Avenue at Lake Street, Chicago) was founded by O’Neill, Winifred B. James, and Sherwin N. Bisbee, with an initial capital stock offering of $25,000. Incorporation papers for the O’Neill-James Company were filed with the Illinois Secretary of State on April 14, 1904, and the final certificate of incorporation was issued on April 22.

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A December 1904 ad for the Busy Bee cylinder phonograph, in this case given free with a $10 purchase. The machine was Columbia’s bottom-of-the-line Type Q, fitted with a nonstandard mandrel that prevented the use of ordinary cylinders. More-substantial models were later offered.

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O’Neill was a master of the tied-product model, having already employed it successfully in selling non-phonographic goods. In 1904, the O’Neill-James Company began marketing a slightly modified version of the inexpensive Columbia Model Q cylinder phonograph under the Busy Bee brand. By substituting a mandrel with a nonstandard taper, O’Neill was able to create a captive market for Busy Bee cylinders, which Columbia manufactured with a corresponding nonstandard inner taper. Following the same model, in late 1905 or early 1906 O’Neill-James introduced Busy Bee disc phonographs with a large, rigid rectangular lug projecting from the turntable, which required the use of special Busy Bee discs with a corresponding cut-out through the label area. This proved to be less effective than the cylinder design, since the lug could be removed from the turntable with a bit of effort.

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John O. Prescott (of Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott / American Record Company) belatedly filed his patent for pressing Busy Bee discs, with their characteristic rectangular slots, in January1907 — the same month that Columbia won its case against the American Record Company, effectively putting it out of business. Later Busy Bee discs were supplied by several other manufacturers, including Columbia (indirectly, by way of Hawthorne & Sheble minus Prescott).

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The sequence of Busy Bee’s suppliers can be determined from its catalogs and supplements. The earliest advertised Busy Bee discs were single-sided 7″ American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) pressings, duplicating material from that company’s short-lived 7″ series, but pressed in standard black shellac rather than American’s distinctive blue. Busy Bee probably was the unnamed customer that The Talking Machine World reported had ordered a half-million 7″ pressings in February 1906. American Record’s Busy Bee releases included recordings made as early as 1904 (and some later Columbia-made releases used 1903 recordings), which has led some collectors to mistakenly assume that the label was introduced earlier than was actually the case.

American also supplied 10¾” (and, slightly later, 10″) Busy Bee pressings drawn from its catalog of 1904–1906, again pressed in standard black shellac. Some early 10¾” Busy Bee issues used the full American Record catalog numbers, but most used only the last four digits of the corresponding American issues (e.g., American Record Company 031129 = Busy Bee 1129). Like other American Record Company client-label pressings, these records often have spoken announcements that omit the artist and company credits.

Records from several suppliers appear concurrently in later Busy Bee catalogs, in different numerical blocks. Leeds & Catlin was a major supplier to Busy Bee and produced some of the highest-numbered 7″ issues. They also remade some issues that replaced the earlier American Record Company–derived versions, retaining the original titles and catalog numbers but often using different artists (much to the befuddlement of some early discographers).

Leeds’ 10″ single-sided Busy Bee issues (shown as “Grand Busy Bee Records” in the catalog, although not on the labels, and numbered in an A-prefixed series) used the same recordings as Leeds, Imperial, Sun, and related labels. They are easily recognized by Leeds’ mirror-image master-number stampings. Some of the same material was later issued in double-sided form in a short-lived D- prefixed catalog series, examples of which rank among the rarest Busy Bee issues. A wide outer band was added to labels on double-sided pressings to accommodate the disclaimers that normally appeared on the reverse-side stickers.

Masters in Busy Bee’s 2000, 3000, 4400, and 5000 catalog series are from Columbia, by way of Hawthorne & Sheble, which substituted their Star catalog numbers for Columbia’s along the way. The short-lived “Grand Busy Bee Twelve-Inch” series was from the same source, using the same 1200-series catalog numbers as Star, with the addition of a T- prefix. Most of the Columbia-derived Busy Bee discs were pressed in the Hawthorne & Sheble plant, on solid stock. A few late Star issues were laminated pressings,  almost certainly made by Columbia (which held the patent on that process) but still showing Hawthorne & Sheble’s markings and substitute catalog numbers in the wax. The Universal Talking Machine Company (Zonophone) also supplied pressing to Busy Bee for a short time before a Columbia lawsuit put an end to that relationship.

 

HARMONY AND THE GREAT NORTHERN MANUFACTURING COMPANY

Harmony, a new premium-scheme label, appeared in 1907. The records were originally marketed by the Great Northern Manufacturing Company (147–153 Fifth Avenue, Chicago), which actually was the recently reorganized East Liverpool China Company. Thus, the Harmony and Standard labels shared a common connection from the start, although at first they used different suppliers and distributors.

Great Northern marketed a wide array of crockery, tableware, and similar merchandise. Harmony records initially were part of a premium-scheme operation in which inexpensive phonographs were given free to retailers who purchased a certain quantity of Great Northern’s household goods. The company oversaw a network of traveling salesmen who peddled Harmony discs and the accompanying “free” phonographs to small-town and rural dealers. Complaints over deceptive advertisements and sales contracts were common, as exemplified by the 1911 case of Great Northern Mfg. Co. v. Brown, in which Great Northern was found guilty of misrepresentation and fraud in the wording of their advertising materials.

Harmony phonographs were manufactured with ¾” spindles, a ¼” step up from Standard. The records originally were pressed by Hawthorne & Sheble, using many of the same renumbered Columbia masters that appeared on Busy Bee. All known Hawthorne & Sheble-produced Harmony issues are single-sided pressings, with no artist credits on the labels. Hawthorne & Sheble also manufactured the early Harmony phonographs, which infringed patents on lateral recording and reproduction.

Hawthorne & Sheble’s Harmony series was discontinued in 1909, after H&S was forced into bankruptcy. Production for Great Northern was taken over by Columbia, which reintroduced Harmony as a double-sided brand, using the same couplings and catalog numbers as corresponding Columbia releases. The Columbia pressings included reissues of material recorded as early as 1903 and, unlike the earlier Hawthorne & Sheble series, they often credited the performers on the labels.

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An early Columbia-produced Harmony (left), still crediting the Great Northern Manufacturing Company; the anonymous baritone is veteran minstrel-show producer Lew Dockstader. Later versions of the Harmony label (right) credited the Harmony Talking Machine, a trade name of Robert Johns’ reorganized Standard Talking Machine Company.

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As with Standard, the labels usually were applied directly at the time of pressing, dispelling the notion that all Harmony records were relabeled surplus stock. However, many surplus Columbia pressings were also sold under Harmony paste-over labels. One of the most interesting examples is Paul Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” the original Columbia issue of which was quickly replaced by a Collins & Harlan remake. The unsold Southe pressings ended up as anonymous Harmony paste-overs (and perhaps Standard as well, although we’ve not seen one). Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” by the way, is not nearly the great rarity that Hobbies columnist Jim Walsh once made it out to be. A fair number of the original Columbia pressings apparently got into circulation before the delisting, and in addition to the paste-overs,  the recording even appeared later on the Climax and D&R labels, in entirely different couplings.

,Great Northern ended its involvement with the record business in late 1911. Although the company was still selling household goods late as January 1918, Harmony records from 1912 onward were marketed by the Harmony Talking Machine Company, a trade name of Robert Johns’ Standard Talking Machine Company.

 

THE BUSY BEE–TO–ARETINO TRANSITION

Although Busy Bee records continued to sell well during this period, the O’Neill-James Company’s reliance on distant, competing suppliers eventually led to the line’s downfall. Shipments from the East Coast pressing plants were often late, and O’Neill filed several lawsuits during 1908–1909 to recover damages and overcharges on rail shipments of the records. There were legal obstacles as well. In 1909, Victor sued Columbia for “the supplying of records to O’Neill-James Company of Chicago for use on infringing machines manufactured by Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company.” In turn, Columbia sued Victor’s Universal Talking Machine subsidiary to prevent it from supplying Zonophone pressings to O’Neill-James and Aretino. In the meantime, Leeds & Catlin had been forced to discontinue operations after losing to Victor in a patent-infringement suit that was decided in the latter’s favor by the Supreme Court.

With its supply line severed, O’Neill-James dropped the Busy Bee line in 1909. The last known advertisements for Busy Bee records appeared during the summer of that year. O’Neill-James continued to use the Busy Bee brand for vacuum cleaners and other household appliances for a time.

Busy Bee was not O’Neill’s only record venture, however. On June 3, 1907, he had launched The Aretino Company, which according to a Talking Machine World report was controlled by O’Neill-James. Aretino marketed phonographs equipped with massive 3″ spindles. They initially were supplied by the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company, then later by Columbia. O’Neill’s patent application of April 11, 1907, covering the oversized spindle, as well as square and polygonal spindles that were never put into production, was granted on December 31, 1907. He also patented and sold adapters that allowed Aretino discs to be used on Busy Bee and ordinary turntables. Aretino’s gaping spindle holes reduced the labels to narrow bands with barely enough room for even basic label information.

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Arthur J. O’Neill’s 1907 patent on the Aretino disc, along with square- and hexagonal-spindle versions that were never produced. The specimen pictured is a scarce Leeds & Catlin double-sided pressing, produced just shortly before the company was forced out of business by an adverse Supreme Court decision in 1909.

 

The earliest known Aretino releases were anonymous, single-sided pressings from Leeds & Catlin masters, with A-prefixed catalog numbers (not to be confused with Columbia’s A-prefixed Double Discs). Leeds also produced a series of now-rare D-prefixed double-sided Aretino pressings shortly before suspending operations in 1909. Single-sided pressings from Hawthorne & Sheble matrices, showing Busy Bee catalog numbers in the pressing (which were simply renumberings of Columbia masters) have also been reported.

Ironically (considering that Victor had successfully sued Aretino for patent infringement in 1909), O’Neill turned to Victor’s Zonophone subsidiary as its source of pressings following Leeds & Catlin’s demise. The series was brought to a quick halt by the American Graphophone Company (Columbia), which in the same year sued Universal to prevent its supplying discs to Aretino, the O’Neill-James Company, and other companies whose machines infringed its patents.

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Aretino products were used in several different premium schemes. Some companies gave the machines away with the purchase of other merchandise (top). More often, they were given away with the purchase of a specified number of records (bottom). In the case shown here, the phonograph would not have been truly “free,” since the records were marked up by a total of $6.30 to partially compensate for the cost of the machine.

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After the O’Neill-James Company’s Busy Bee label was discontinued in 1909, the company took over distribution of Aretino records, although its name never appeared on the labels. With Zonophone, Hawthorne & Sheble, and Leeds & Catlin eliminated a suppliers, O’Neill was forced to turn to Columbia, which agreed to supply the records on consignment. Columbia pressed double-sided discs for Aretino in at least two series, both of which drew on standard Columbia masters: An A-prefixed series (which duplicated Columbia’s couplings and should not be confused with Leeds & Catlin’s earlier single-sided A-prefixed series), and a D-prefixed series (which used different couplings). Columbia also produced a few 12″ Aretino pressings. Some late Aretino pressings are known with ordinary spindle holes.

The last known advertisements for Aretino record appeared in the summer of 1915, shortly before O’Neill-James Company (which had recently become a Pathé distributor) was declared bankrupt on June 12. Post-mortem reports claimed that the company’s financial troubles had begun during 1906–1907, with losses incurred from patent litigation, and were compounded by the failure of the Boston Talking Machine Company (the makers of Phono-Cut records), for which O’Neill-James was a jobber.

Columbia filed suit in July 1915 to recover unsold records it had shipped on consignment to O’Neill-James. The petition was dismissed on December 7, and the company’s trustee requested permission to sell the remaining inventory. Some of the records found their way to the obscure Duplex Record Company (unrelated to the earlier Duplex Phonograph Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan), which filled the large center holes and covered over the patch with its own Duplex labels. Similar Aretino patch-up jobs have been seen with Musique labels.

O’Neill announced his intention to re-enter the record business, but nothing further was reported in that regard. Following his death in 1916, the remains of O’Neill James and Aretino businesses were merged with the Johns brothers’ Harmony, Standard, and United operations to form the Consolidated Talking Machine Company of Chicago.

 

DOUBLE AND REVERSIBLE

The D & R Record Company was the last significant new entrant in the Chicago premium-scheme market. Launched in 1908, it was advertising nationally by December of that year. The acronym stood for “Double and Reversible,” a strong selling point at a time when double-sided discs were making their first inroads. Early D & R ads promised that a “splendid talking machine” would be given away to advertise the new records:

We are not selling talking machines, but actually giving them away, without money and without price. We are doing this to quickly advertise and introduce our wonderful D&R (Double and Reversible) Talking Machine Records in every home. … Bear in mind that you simply agree to buy “D&R” Records as you need them — and the machine becomes yours without once cent of cost…. We are absolutely independent. Hence this remarkable offer. Our business is selling records — not machines.

D&R’s early advertising was often vague, with no mention of the strings attached to the free machine. Later D&R advertisements were more forthcoming, disclosing that the machines were indeed free, but only to customers who signed agreements to purchase from twelve to twenty D&R records, depending upon the model of phonograph desired.

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Early D&R advertisements were often vague regarding what was required to secure a “free” machine. This one, from 1909, mentions near the bottom of the ad that a monthly record purchase is required, but doesn’t state how many had to be purchased, or the price.

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Initially, D&R’s records were supplied by Leeds & Catlin, which had recently begun producing double-sided pressings for other client labels. After Leeds was forced to discontinue production in 1909, the label was turned over to Columbia. Unlike the other Chicago premium-scheme labels, the D&R discs were not “handicapped” in any way. They were pressed with ordinary spindle holes, and the artists were usually credited on the labels.

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An early Leeds & Catlin D&R (left). Much to the confusion of some discographers, Leeds retained the original Imperial single-face numbers on its couplings,one of which was chosen to serve as the D&R catalog number; thus, one side will be correctly numbered, while the other will not. For the specimen above, #45179 is actually the number of Henry Burr’s “Will the Angels Let Me Play,” on the reverse side. Columbia’s later D & R offerings included Paul Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” which had been almost immediately dropped from Columbia’s own catalog in favor of a Collins & Harlan remake.

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D&R also differed from its counterparts in not using Columbia’s catalog numbers or couplings. Many D&R couplings — such as banjoist Vess L. Ossman’s tremendously popular “St. Louis Tickle” and “The Smiler,” each of which had been paired with negligible “filler” titles on Columbia — were more appealing than Columbia’s own. By the end of 1912, however, D & R was no more.

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THE STANDARD – HARMONY – UNITED CONSOLIDATION

While O’Neill-James was struggling, and D&R was just getting its foot in the door, Roberts Johns was building Standard Talking Machine into a major business with strong nationwide sales. He was now managing three premium-scheme operations operating out of three separate offices — the Standard, Harmony, and United Talking Machine companies.

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The latter was a newly added line, sporting 1½” spindles and spindle holes. Also supplied by Columbia, United offered basically the same material as Standard and Harmony. Its dealings were not always the most ethical, if the number of lawsuit filed against the company is any indication. The case of United Talking Machine Co. v. Metcalf (175 S.W. 357) reveals its selling methods. Like Harmony, United employed traveling salesmen who required retailers to sign binding sales contracts. For $20.80, dealers were supposed to receive 32 discs United records (paying the full list price of 65¢ per record), a “free” Symphony Hornless Talking Machine, and a package of 100 needles. Under terms of their contracts, United retailers were required to give away the machines to customers who purchased a specified number of records. The retailers were assured verbally (never in writing) that they would easily recoup their losses on the machine give-aways from sales of the matching discs. Dealers could also order individual records, without the “free” machines, for 39¢ each wholesale. However, as testimony in several lawsuits revealed, the contract terms were not always made clear to United’s customers (who were often rural shopkeepers with little business acumen), the records proved to be unsalable to owners of ordinary phonographs, and the “free” machines did not always arrive as promised.

Such complaints did nothing to stall the growth of the Standard, Harmony, and United operations, which in 1912 were finally consolidated in the Heiser Building at Dearborn and Harrison Streets in Chicago. The Standard Talking Machine Company was reorganized and incorporated in 1913 to manage all three lines, with Robert Johns handling the Standard and United divisions, and Thomas E. Johns handling Harmony. Although each marketed essentially the same merchandise, court records make it clear that the three divisions continued to maintain separate legal identities.

Labeling errors sometimes occurred after the 1912 consolidation. It is not uncommon, for example, to find pressings with Standard labels on one side and Harmony labels on the other. Around 1914, decorative concentric rings were added to the Harmony and Standard labels, spaced at the exact intervals to serve as drilling guides for those label’s larger spindle holes. In a final blurring of the lines, some late Standard issues were produced with regular spindle holes, some Harmony issues appeared with Standard holes, and some pressings carried Harmony labels on one side and Standard labels on the other.

Robert Johns died in February 1915, and Standard appears to have suspended operations a short time later.

 

THE CONSOLIDATED TALKING MACHINE COMPANY

 In January 1916, the Standard, Harmony, United, and Aretino operations were merged as the Consolidated Talking Machine Company. Operating at 227 West Lake Street (later, 227–229 West Washington Street) in Chicago, Consolidated advertised itself as “Successors to Standard Talking Machine Co., United Talking Machine Co., Harmony Talking Machine Co., O’Neill-James Co., Aretino Co.” It offered surplus inventory from those companies for several years, along with a repair service for obsolete premium-scheme machines and with its own line of Consola phonographs.

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Although the company soon introduced its own Consolidated label, it was still advertising surplus Standard, Harmony, and United pressings as late as 1918 when, amazingly, the retail price of those records was raised from 75¢ to $1 each, probably killing what few sales might otherwise have remained. Like the various lines they eventually replaced, Consolidated-label records were simply modified Columbia pressings, often with Consolidated labels pasted over the originals. Harmony-type pressings (¾” spindle hole) pressings seem to have been the default, but Consolidated records are also known with normal, ½” (Standard-type), and 1½” (United-type) spindle holes, reflecting the company’s commitment to supply records for nearly the full range of nonstandard-spindle machines (Busy Bee and Aretino being the notable exceptions).

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The once-orderly allocation of spindle-hole sizes became rather haphazard during Standard Talking Machine’s last days. The Harmony pressing above has a Standard (½”) hole rather than Harmony’s usual ¾” hole, with circular drilling guides for Harmony and United. Consolidated offered pressings to fit all of the Johns brothers’ obsolete premium-scheme machines, as well as ordinary phonographs. The late example shown here has typeset label information, which was typewritten or rubber-stamped on earlier labels.

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Consolidated’s couplings and catalog numbers were identical with those of the corresponding Columbia releases, but Columbia’s “A” prefixes often were dropped from the catalog numbers. The labels were cheaply printed, with a blank space for typed or rubber-stamped titles and credits (some late printings used typeset label information). Catalog numbers confirm that Consolidated continued to purchase and relabel Columbia pressings through at least early 1920. The records were later sold at a deep discount, but any remaining stock probably was destroyed when the Consolidated Building burned in January 1924.

In the meantime, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company had become affiliated with the General Phonograph Corporation (the makers of Okeh records), and it went on to become a major distributor for Okeh. Consolidated invoices and letterheads from the early 1920s state that the company was a “Manufacturer of Talking Machines, Repair Parts, Records, and Accessories and Distributor of Okeh Records, Bubble Books, and Granby Phonographs.”

Consolidated underwent a major shift in its method of operation in the early 1920s, as it became more closely affiliated with General Phonograph. Under E. A. Fearne’s expert management, the company became actively involved in recruiting and promoting Okeh’s race-record talent. Beginning in 1923 it provided space for Chicago’s Okeh studio, and a branch office for Ralph Peer, in the Consolidated Building. The last remnant of the Chicago premium-scheme operations, Consolidated Talking Machine Company finally closed in the early 1930s.

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Selected References

Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Illinois (Fiscal Years Beginning October 1, 1902, and Ending September 30, 1904), p. 113. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Company (1905).

Blacker, George, William R. Bryant, et al. Busy Bee ephemera, research notes, and discographical data (unpublished, n.d.). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press archive.

D & R (Double & Reversible) Talking Machine Records. (1909 catalog).

Grand Busy Bee Records — Catalog D (undated).

Great Northern Mfg. Co. v. Brown. Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (February 12, 1915). 113 Me. 51, 92 A. 993.

Johns v. Jaycox et al. March 9, 1912. 67 Wash. 403, 121 P. 854.

Johns v. Wilbur. May 28, 1915. 169 A.D. 905.

O’Neill, Arthur J., Assignor to the Aretino Company. “Talking Machine.” U.S. Patent #874,985 (filed April 11, 1907; issued December 31, 1907).

O’Neill-James Co. Grand Busy Bee Records, Catalogue D (n.d.).

Standard Talking Machine Co.: Standard Double-Disc Record Catalogue (1911–1914 inclusive).

United Talking Mach. Co. v. Metcalf. Court of Appeals of Kentucky (April 22,

Untitled obituary (Robert Johns). The Pottery & Glass Salesman (February 25, 1915), p. 29.

 

© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

 

 

Forgotten Phonograph-Gadget Inventors: Louis Devineau

Louis Devineau surfaced in Cleveland in the late 1890s as a French instructor, and by the early 1900s he was working for the Federal Manufacturing Company, a Cleveland automobile-chassis manufacturer. He was also patenting some interesting after-market accessories for the phonograph, beginning with a folding horn in 1905. His light-weight self-supporting horn was first advertised for sale in September 1907:

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Devineau’s Biophone, one of many attempts to convert cylinders players to disc, or vice-versa, was quite the monstrosity. A model incorporating some obvious departures from the original patent drawing made it to market in late 1907, although it does not appear to have been a commercial success:

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Devineau eventually endeared himself to some local  politicians, and by 1908 he was serving as secretary of the Cleveland Sinking Fund Commission, which he apparently treated as his private treasury. In February 1909, a $12,840 shortage was discovered, with Devineau nowhere to be found. The papers reported that he had last been heard from in Belgium. A warrant was issued for his arrest on embezzlement charges, but nothing more was reported.

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