From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone: Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the Instantaneous-Recording Industry

From Kodisk to Speak-O-Phone:
Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the
Instantaneous-Recording Industry
By Allan Sutton

Source documents courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

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Father and son: Victor Hugo Emerson and Adelbert Tewksbury (“A. T.”) Emerson (Doreen Wakeman)

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Victor Emerson’s next venture after resigning from the Emerson Phonograph Company in 1922 was the Metal Recording Disc Company. Beginning with the purchase of Henry Wadsworth’s patent on a process for manufacturing pre-grooved metal recording discs, Victor and his son Adelbert built an operation that would corner the market for bare-metal recording discs, in the process laying the groundwork for what would become the instantaneous-recording industry.

The Metal Disc Recording Corporation was incorporated in Manhattan on March 22, 1922, by L. E. Dresser, E. E. Ennison, and A. B. Hermans [1] W. Jay Ennison (Victor Emerson’s personal attorney) made the corporate filing and served as MDRC’s president, while Emerson served as treasurer. The corporate filing stated only that the company would “make phonographs,” with no mention of metal recording blanks.

It appears that the original plan was to manufacture a coin-operated automatic disc-recording and dispensing machine on which Henry L. Wadsworth had filed a patent in 1917. For recording purposes, Wadsworth stated his preference for a disc of varnish or shellac, the surface of which was to be slightly softened by the application of a solvent just prior to recording. [2]

Wadsworth soon came up with a more practical recording blank. In March 1918, he filed a patent on a pre-grooved, uncoated metal disc:

I have discovered that a substantially permanent record groove may be formed in the highly polished surface of a suitable fine grain metal, for example, copper, sheet aluminum, pewter, etc. For best results the surface of the blank is first properly prepared by filling the voids therein as by the application thereto of an element of wax-like nature… Aluminum possess all of the characteristics necessary to make a record by my process, and I prefer to use the metal.

On May 11, 1922 MDRC signed a memorandum of agreement with Wadsworth, agreeing to purchase both patents (the second of which was still pending) and the corresponding foreign patents. Wadsworth was paid $10,000 in cash and received 2,500 shares in the company. [3]

In the meantime, Emerson had filed his own patent embodying improvements to Wadsworth’s pre-grooved metal blanks, which he claimed would make the discs more suitable for use “in connection with the ordinary talking machine.” Chief among them was a wider groove that he claimed would offer less resistance to the cutting stylus. In his patent filing Emerson boasted, “I have produced a new type of disc record in which the public, that is the unskilled person, can utilize his talking machine for the purpose of recording and thereby making permanent and indestructible records.” [4]

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Victor Emerson’s metal-disc patent, showing the wide groove that Emerson claimed offered less resistance to the cutting stylus. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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With strong patent protection in place, the Metal Recording Disc Company was ready to commence operations. The idea of manufacturing Wadsworth’s automatic disc-recording machine apparently was dropped. Instead, the company focused on creating a market for pre-grooved aluminum discs and an accompanying recording attachment that could be used to make home recordings on ordinary phonographs.

There had been earlier, short-lived attempts to market home-recording devices for the disc phonograph, including the Landay Brothers’ widely advertised Land-O-Phone of 1906. None had been a technical or commercial success, in part because the discs usually were composed of wax or other materials that were easily damaged in playback. MDRC’s aluminum discs solved that problem, being largely immune to damage provided that they were played with thorn or fiber needles rather than steel.

MRDC sold its pre-grooved blanks under the Kodisk brand beginning in May 1922. [5] Recording was accomplished by simply shouting into the phonograph’s horn (preferably with the aid of a megaphone), allowing the phonograph’s own reproducer and stylus serving as the recording mechanism. For better results, the company offered a $6 recording attachment consisting of a pivoting recording horn attached to a reproducer. An early advertisement pictured the device being used by Irving Kaufman, a popular Emerson recording artist.

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Irving Kaufman plugs Kodisk, August 1922. As an exclusive Emerson recording artist for a time in the early 1920s, Kaufman would have been well-known to Victor Emerson. (Talking Machine World)

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Although MRDC at first warned that only Kodisk blanks were the genuine article, it was soon supplying other companies who sold the discs under their own names. The Plaza Music Company, which had recently taken over Emerson’s Regal label, marketed the blanks under the Echo brand. Even Eugene Widmann, president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation, got involved. [6] For a short time, Pathé phonographs could be purchased with a home-recording attachment employing the MRDC blanks. The idea apparently failed to interest many consumers, but it would not be Widmann’s last involvement with Emerson’s metal discs.

Unfortunately, due to the low volume inherent in the acoustic recording process and the mechanical resistance of the metal blanks, the recordings were often barely audible. As Douglas Cooke noted in his early account of the operation, “While an important step had been taken, there were still further obstacles to be overcome — the record was right, but mechanical recording was deficient.” [7] Interest in the Emerson–Wadsworth system of home recording faded in the mid-1920s. It would take the advent of commercial electric recording to rekindle that interest.

Little was heard of the Metal Recording Disc Company during 1925–1926. Management of the company had already passed to Victor Emerson’s son, Adelebert Tewskbury Emerson (or “A. T.,” as he called himself for business purposes) by the time Victor died on June 22, 1926. In early 1927, A. T. incorporated the Emerson Foundation Company to carry on the family’s business interests. H. T. Leeming, who had developed the inexpensive Regal label while an Emerson Phonograph executive in 1921, served as the company’s treasurer. [8]

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Emerson Foundation Company stock certificate #1. (Doreen Wakeman)

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On September 21, 1927, the Metal Disc Recording Company licensed Frederick H. Sanborn to manufacture blank metal discs, with or without pre-grooving, under the Emerson and Wadsworth patents. MDRC retained ownership of the underlying manufacturing rights, which it transferred to the Emerson Foundation Company on or about October 1, 1927. [9] Sanborn’s as-yet unnamed company was licensed to manufacture and sell the blanks in the United States, its territories and dependencies, and Cuba “in connection with installations of phonograph recording machines to make personal recordings on said discs at such installations.” [10]

Sanborn would be allowed to sell the blanks to his agents or sub-licensees, with several restriction. The blanks, and the machines on which they were to be recorded, were not be employed for commercial record production, broadcasting, home recording, or office dictation. The question of whether or not to enter the latter market, which at the time was dominated by Dictaphone and Ediphone, would resurface several times in the coming years. Ultimately, the machines and blanks would be marketed for dictation and other business purposes, but not until the early 1930s.

Sanborn was required to pay MDRC a royalty on each blank sold, ranging from ¼¢ for five-inch or smaller discs to 2¢ for ten-inch or larger. In addition, effective January 1, 1928, Sanborn would be required to manufacture and sell a minimum of 200,000 discs that year, and 500,000 discs in each succeeding year. The agreement prohibited Sanborn’s agents and licensees from duplicating recordings made on the blanks, effectively precluding their use in commercial record production.

By late 1927, Sanborn had acquired rights to an electrical recording system and was in the process of assembling a group of investors to develop and market that system. On December 30, 1927, Henry Blum, J. H. Schiller, and Helen Marsak, filed a certificate of incorporation for Speakeophone Incorporated in New York. Their names thus far had not appeared in connection with the metal-disc business, and they were inconsequential from an operating standpoint. The driving forces behind Speakeophone would be Frederick Sanborn, as president, and A. T. Emerson, as its largest stockholder. [11]

Speakeophone’s purpose, according to the incorporation filing, was:

To make, sell, lease, and otherwise deal in, metal or other discs for the recording, perpetuation or reproduction, or otherwise, of sound; and also recording and reproducing machines, their parts, thereof, and accessories therefor, relating to metal or other discs, and the making of phonographic records thereon, by any means, for the production, recording, or reproduction of sound. [12]

Incorporated as a separate entity, the Speak-O-Phone Corporation would serve as the public face of Speakeophone. It would handle distribution and licensing, while Speakeophone would continue to handle manufacturing. The distinction, although seemingly a fine one, would prove contentious in the later legal battle for control of the business.

The Speak-O-Phone Corporation filed a trademark application on the Speak-O-Phone name on August 28, 1928, claiming use since May 1. A second application covered the phrase, “A Snapshot of Your Voice,” a slightly revision of the old Kodisk slogan that would appear only on the earliest Speak-O-Phone discs. [13] The company planned to franchise walk-in Speak-O-Phone studio throughout the country.

The franchise operation Speak-O-Phone experienced steady growth. Licenses were granted to any financially qualified party wishing to open their own recording studio and willing to abide by a lengthy lease agreement that bound the licensee to purchase discs only from Speak-O-Phone.

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Page 1 of the Speak-O-Phone studio operating and lease agreement. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Before the advent of Speak-O-Phone, individuals wishing to make their own disc records had to deal with commercial record producers. Turnaround times were slow and costs were high, and most companies required customers to purchase multiple pressings. With the advent of Speak-O-Phone, anyone could walk into a studio, record their talk or performance, and walk out a few minutes later with an electrically recorded disc at prices ranging from 50¢ to $1.50 per side, depending upon the diameter.

The entire unit was housed in a cabinet the size of a large console phonograph. The licensee was responsible for set-up, maintenance, and repairs. Sound quality of the finished discs could vary, depending upon operator skill and the microphone selected (the choices, all carbon microphones, included the default Speak-O-Phone model, of unknown manufacture; a Western Electric model; and a couple of off-brands). But in the hands of a skilled operator working with a decent microphone, the technical results could be surprisingly good.

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Early Speak-O-Phone discs had full-size back-plates (top). They were soon replaced by the familiar Speak-O-Phone label (bottom left), which allowed for recording on both sides. The slotted, embossed-label Remsen blank — essentially just a rebranding of the Speak-O-Phone disc — was introduced in 1930. Another  version of the Remsen disc, not pictured here, had Remsen’s name and patent notice embossed in a circle around the regular Speak-O-Phone label. (Author’s collection)

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A demonstration studio — little more than a closet, judging from the advertisements — was opened to the public in the “economy basement” of Snellenberg’s Philadelphia department store on September 3, 1928. [14] By October, the studio was doing so much business that it was moved to a more prestigious location, in the fifth-floor music department.

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Speak-O-Phone’s first demonstration studio, in the “economy basement of Snellenberg’s department store in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Speak-O-Phone’s license #1 was granted to the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis store, which first advertised its studio on September 18. [15] Speak-O-Phone made international headlines in May 1929, when it installed a studio aboard the luxury liner Ile de France. It was back in the headlines on June 22, when Dorothy Caruso (Enrico’s widow) opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in New York. [16]

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Speak-O-Phone studio #1, in the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis department store, 1928. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone studio aboard the S. S. Ile de France, one of at least five ocean liners that licensed Speak-O-Phone equipment. (Doreen Wakeman)

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Dorothy Caruso, Enrico’s widow, opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in June 1929. (Doreen Wakeman / Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

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By the late summer of 1929, new Speak-O-Phone studios were being opened almost weekly. A 1930 list of contracts showed seventy-one active Speak-O-Phone installations at the time, in department stores, music and record shops, free-standing studios, colleges, and aboard at least five ocean liners.  [17]

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Speak-O-Phone brochures, c. 1929, announcing the opening of a new studio in Boston (top); and explaining the system and touting its profit potential to aspiring licensees (bottom). (Doreen Wakeman)

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Speak-O-Phone provided portfolios of customizable newspaper ads to its licensees and distributors. This copy was sent to Herman Germain, of the Plaza Music Company, retailers of Banner and other inexpensive records. Plaza had been one of the earliest sellers of rebranded Kodisk blanks in the early 1920s.

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On August 14, 1929, Emerson wrote to Sanborn proposing a new partnership with the Emerson Foundation Company to further develop the technology for commercial purposes, including dictation machines, to be called the Metal Recording Products Company. [18] The way was soon cleared for Speakeophone to transfer all licensing, distribution, and sales rights to Speak-O-Phone. The agreement between Speakeophone and Speak-O-Phone was signed on August 28, 1929, at which time Sanborn also signed over the rights to his electrical recording process to Speakeophone. [19]

Speakeophone further consolidated its control of the operation in October 1929, when the Emerson Foundation Company assigned it all of its remaining U.S. manufacturing, distribution, and sales rights in return for a royalty agreement on disc sales. [20] On February 17, 1930, however, Emerson suddenly reversed himself, writing to attorney Thomas H. Matters, “I believe that the Emerson Foundation Co., Inc., should immediately take steps to cancel all of the  arrangements which it has with the Speakeophone Corporation of America.”

At issue was some bad publicity over the company’s failure to deliver machines and records for which customers had paid. The issue came to a head after crooner Rudy Vallee publicly complained that he had not yet received a machine and discs for which he had paid $750 many months earlier. Complaints to the Better Business Bureau increased as a rumor flew that executive Jacques Blevins was misspending company funds. Emerson was also displeased over the company’s failure to pursue the home-recording and radio markets. [21]

The next few months would be marked by ongoing disputes between Emerson, Blevins, Sanford, and various shareholders, involving accusations of questionable loans, overdue notes, missing stock, and unpaid salaries, among other issues. Thomas H. Matters (who ten years earlier had been of the receivers for the Emerson Phonograph Company), was finally called in by Emerson in an attempt to resolve some of most contentious issues. The ongoing legal squabbling had no apparent effect on Speak-O-Phone’s day-to-day operations, which so far seemed to be weathering the early effects of the Great Depression reasonably well.

By April 1930, Eugene Widmann — now working in banking after having resigned as president of the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation three years earlier — was preparing to step into the fray. Blevins clearly wished to be out of the business. On April 8, he wrote to Widmann,

In connection with the proposal that you step into the situation and furnish the necessary capital to meet the requirement of the Corporation and develop its business, I propose to turn over to you the control of the business and its management and supervision on whatever basis you deem fair to the respective interests involved. [22]

At the same time, Blevins turned over a list of Speak-O-Phone accounts payable, notes payable, and studio contracts to Widmann, and Sanborn supplied him a breakdown of disc-production costs and an estimate of costs to produce attachments for home and radio recording. [23]

On April 11, Emerson informed Widmann that the Presto Machine Company could supply Speak-O-Phone fifty large studio recording machines within six to eight weeks and was also prepared to look into the production of home-recording equipment. Furthermore, Emerson reported, Presto was eager to take over production of the metal discs, with eighteen presses available and the capacity to “take care of unlimited quantities.” Emerson concluded his letter by writing, “I consider this an ideal plant for our work and for all of its future development.” [24] However, no agreement with Presto was forthcoming. The announcement that RCA Victor was about to introduce its own home-recording system may have dissuaded Emerson from further pursuing a Speak-O-Phone home system.

The long-simmering feud between Blevins and Sanborn came to a head toward the end of 1930, with Blevins complaining to Emerson that Sanborn had conducted “practically no business” since June, and had spent only $100 on sales. Blevins wrote to Emerson in January 1931, “In the interests if the creditors of Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America, I should like to see you and the other stockholders place a management in charge which will immediately take advantage of the demand for the product and give the business a progressive management.” [25]

As the sniping continued, Emerson finally moved to assume full control of Speakeophone Incorporated, canceling the Emerson Foundation Company’s contracts with Blevins and Sanborn. On January 20, 1931, he requested the return of their stock from the Harriman National Bank and Trust Company, which had been holding it in escrow. [26] Full manufacturing, licensing, and sales rights were transferred from the Metal Disc Recording Company to Speakeophone, which was now firmly under Emerson’s control (Speak-O-Phone now being little more than a trade name). In addition, MRDC lifted some earlier restrictions on its products’ use, although it inexplicably continued to prohibit their use for dictation purposes. [27]

On January 22, 1931, Emerson authorized the Emerson Foundation Company to sell any or all of its shares in Speakeophone Incorporated. [28] The move roughly coincided with the formation of H. T. Leeming’s Remsen Corporation, and it appears that Emerson accepted Remsen stock in exchange for some or all of his Speakeophone stock. By February, Emerson was negotiating to have Remsen take over manufacturing of the metal discs.

The Remsen Corporation left little in the way of a paper trail. It was affiliated in some way with inventor Douglas H. Cooke, who wrote a rambling, six-page document “not for public consumption” extolling the Remsen record’s virtues, although there is nothing to indicate that the Remsen disc was anything more than a rebranding of the regular Speak-O-Phone disc. [29]

According to Cooke, Remsen either owned or otherwise controlled (it is not clear which, from his wording) the Emerson and Wadsworth metal-disc patents, in addition to holding Cooke’s own pending patent on portable and home-recording machines. [30] When Cooke balked at the idea of manufacturing recorders, preferring to contract the work to outside suppliers, Emerson went to Widmann to with a proposal that they form a new company to manufacture recording machines. Widmann was not interested. [31]

On August 10, 1931, Sanborn wrote to Emerson, “Being completely out of Speak-O-Phone, I would like to clear it all up. The sum total of my loans to you is somewhere over $1,000. I would like to see this taken care of in some way… Trusting that Speakeophone is now doing all that you have expected from it.” [32] Emerson replied, “Am more than anxious to take care of the loan you were good enough to give me just as soon as I can… As to Speakeophone — Say Uncle Freddy, why pick on me?” [33]

On September 14, 1931, Emerson authorized sale of his Remsen stock through Widmann. [34] Speak-O-Phone would go on to flourish for a time in the 1930s, especially after finally getting into the dictation-machine market, although its bare-aluminum discs would be rendered obsolete by the Presto Recording Corporation’s superior lacquer-coated recording blanks. Speak-O-Phone’s later history will be the subject of a future posting.

 

The Sound of Speak-O-Phone

As many collectors have learned from disappointing purchases, surviving Speak-O-Phone discs are only rarely of any musical or historical interest. Here are two interesting exceptions. The first is by Martha Wilkins, a professional radio and concert performer who also sang occasional minor roles at the Metropolitan Opera. Her collection of personal records and air-checks from 1930 through 1948 now resides in the Mainspring collection.

The second (courtesy of David Giovannoni) is an excerpt from a 44-minute talk, extending over multiples discs, on the rosy future of dirigibles. The craft mentioned suggest the recording was made in 1933 or thereabouts. If any of you aviation-history buffs out there know who this might be, we would love to hear from you.

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MARTHA WILKINS: Indian Love Call
Norfolk, VA: May 22, 1930

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UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk on lighter-than-air aircraft (excerpt)
Unknown location: c. 1933

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Notes

 

[1] “New Incorporations.” New York Times (Mar 22, 1922), p. 23.

[2] Wadsworth, H. L. “Sound Recording and Reproducing Machine.” U.S. Patent #1,312,461 (filed Mar 7, 1917; granted Aug 5, 1919).

[3] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Disc Recording Company, Inc., and Henry L. Wadsworth (May 11, 1922.

[4] Emerson, Victor H. “Record for Talking Machines and Method of Making the Same.” U.S. Patent #1,444,960 (filed April 25, 1921; granted February 13, 1923).

[5] “Kodisk Placed on Market.” Talking Machine World (May 1922), p. 33.

[6] Cooke, Douglas H. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1930.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Stock certificate issued to A. T. Emerson (Mar 10, 1927).

[9] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 14, 1929).

[10] Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Recording Disc Company, Inc., and Frederick H. Sanborn (September 21, 1927).

[11] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[12] Certificate of Incorporation of Speakeophone Incorporated (Dec 30, 1927).

[13] Speak-O-Phone Corporation. U.S. trademark filings #268,321 (Aug 28, 1928) and #268,322 (Oct 10, 1928).

[14] “Tomorrow in Our Economy Basement” (ad). Philadelphia Inquirer (Sep 2, 1928).

[15] Famous-Barr Co. (advertisement). St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Sep 18, 1928).

[16] Speak-O-Phone Corp. List of Contracts (c. April 1930).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Sanborn, op. cit.

[19] Agreement Between Speakeophone, Incorporated, and Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America (Aug 28, 1929).

[20] Agreement Between Emerson Foundation Company, Inc., and Speakeophone, Incorporated (Oct 5, 1929).

[21] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum for Mr. Matters (Feb 17, 1930).

[22] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[23] Sanborn, Fredrick H. Latter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).

[24] Emerson, A. T. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 11, 1930).

[25] Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T, Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).

[26] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Harriman National Bank and Trust Company (Jan 20, 1931).

[27] Agreement Between Metal Disc Recording Co, Inc., and Speakeophone Incorporated (Jan 16, 1931; amended Mar 28, 1931).

[28] Emerson Foundation Company, Inc. Resolution (Jan 22, 1931).

[29] Cooke, op. cit. Cooke and a group of associates invented what he called the Chromatron recorder in the winter of 1927, which he claimed in the document was “developed quite independently of anything of the Remsen Corporation.” It is unclear whether this was the recording device that Remsen marketed.

[30] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to E. A. Widmann (Oct 28, 1930).

[31] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Aug 18, 1931); Widmann, E. A. Memorandum to A. T. Emerson (Aug 20, 1931).

[32] Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Aug 10, 1931).

[33] Emerson, A. T. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 17, 1931).

[34] Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Sep 14, 1931).


Our thanks to Doreen Wakeman (A. T. Emerson’s grand-daughter, and Victor’s great grand-daughter) for providing the source documents and many of the graphics used in this article.


 

© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company

100 Years Ago at the Emerson Phonograph Company
By Allan Sutton

Source material courtesy of Doreen Wakeman

 

The autumn of 1920 was a high-water mark for the Emerson Phonograph Company. A year earlier — after five years of producing only small-diameter discs — Victor Emerson had finally decided to take on the major companies, introducing standard ten-inch, full-priced records. Some popular stars and dance orchestras were being signed to exclusive contracts, there were the beginnings of a respectable operatic series, and the company was doing a strong business in records for the immigrant markets. In addition, Emerson had recently introduced a new line of phonographs starting at $80 and topping out at $1,000, a far cry from its first $3 offering of 1915.

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From Magazine of Wall Street (November 27, 1920)

 

Emerson’s facilities at the time were scattered around New York, with an executive suite at 3 West Thirty-Fifth Street, a sales office at 120 Broadway, and a studio at 365 Fifth Avenue. At some point, the decision was made to consolidate at a single location that could also house the company’s flagship phonograph and record store.

With production and optimism at an all-time high, in January 1920 the company signed a twenty-one lease for a building at 206 Fifth Avenue. A long, narrow five-story structure, it extended the full depth of the block, with an additional entrance at 1126 Broadway. It was already an old building, dating to 1856–1857 according to real estate records, but had recently been modernized and given a fresh facade by its new owner, the Emigrant Industrial Savings Bank.

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Emerson’s offices and studio space would be consolidated on the upper three floors, one of which reportedly was given over entirely to recording. The move was completed during February 1920, at which time the record store was still in the early planning stages. Walter K. Pleuthner, a somewhat eccentric painter, architect, and interior designer, was hired for the task.

Pleuthner drafted ambitious plans for a record store and phonograph showroom on the ground level, with entrances on both Fifth Avenue and Broadway. It was an extravagant design, with vaulted ceilings, leaded-glass windows, specially designed chandeliers, individual listening booths, two “cloisters,” and a central staircase leading to a second-floor auditorium, to be called Emerson Hall. The store opened in September 1920 but wasn’t widely advertised until November, when it was featured in a nationwide marketing campaign.

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From Architecture magazine (December 1921).
View full-size floor plan

 

Unfortunately, no one at Emerson foresaw the crippling recession of 1920–1921, which began in the same month the company leased the Fifth Avenue building. Burdened with excess inventory and deeply in debt, the Emerson Phonograph Company was placed in the hands of receivers on December 9, 1920. It carried on, but on a less ambitious scale, buoyed in part by its 1921 introduction of the inexpensive Regal label for the dime- and chain-store trade.

The company continued to operate at 206 Fifth Avenue for nearly two more years, although plans to hold concerts in Emerson Hall apparently never materialized. Victor Emerson resigned in March 1922 and launched a new business, manufacturing and selling blank metal recording discs. Reorganized under new ownership in August 1922, the Emerson Phonograph Company vacated the Fifth Avenue building in October for decidedly cheaper-looking quarters. The Fifth Avenue building still stands today, minus the Emerson logo that once graced its pediment.

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Our thanks for Doreen Wakeman, Victor Emerson’s great grand-daughter, for supplying some of the source material for this article.

A detailed history of the Emerson Phonograph Company can be found in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November (Will Ezell, George H. Tremer, Savoy Bearcats, Fess Williams, George E. Lee, Jimmie Noone)

Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November

A few favorite new additions to the jazz collection, for your listening pleasure. (Opera fans, we’ve not forgotten about you. In a few weeks, we’ll be posting some interesting Fonotipia and Russian Amour recordings that were recently added to the collection.)

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WILL EZELL: West Coast Rag  (V++)

Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. September 1927
Paramount 12549 (mx. 4787 – 2)

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GEORGE H. TREMER: Spirit of ’49 Rag   (EE–)

Birmingham (Starr Piano Co. store): August , 1927
Gennett 6242 (mx. GEX 779 – A)
Take A was received at the Richmond, Indiana, plant on August 6, 1927 (the rejected plain take followed on August 8).

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SAVOY BEARCATS: Bearcat Stomp  (E)

New York: August 23, 1926
Victor 20307 (mx. BVE 36060 – 3)
January 1927 Race release, deleted in 1928. Don Redman’s name is misspelled “Radman” on the labels and in the Victor files.

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FESS WILLIAMS’ ROYAL FLUSH ORCHESTRA: Alligator Crawl  (EE+)

New York: June 15, 1927
Brunswick 3589 (mx. E 23633)
Originally marked as a Race release in the recording ledger, which was subsequently crossed-out.

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JIMMIE NOONE’S APEX CLUB ORCHESTRA: Apex Blues  (E–)

Chicago: August 23, 1928
Vocalion 1207 (mx. C 2258 – B)

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GEORGE E. LEE & HIS ORCHESTRA: Ruff Scufflin’  (EE+)

Kansas City: November 6, 1929
Brunswick 4684 (mx. KC 585 -A or B)
The selected take is not indicated in the Brunswick files or on the pressing.

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Why don’t we list personnel?

Simple. The 1920s band personnel listed in works like Brian Rust’s or Tom Lords’  discographies generally are not from the original company recording files or other reliable primary-source documentation. Just where they are from is a question to which we rarely get an answer. When we do, all too often it turns out to be anecdotal or speculative (or just plain bat-shit crazy).

Most record companies didn’t start regularly documenting personnel until the later 1930s, when new union regulations made that necessary. Exactly where most of those 1920s and early 1930s personnel listings in the discographies came from — who knows? They rarely cite sources (which, according to Rust associate Malcolm Shaw, was sometimes just friends getting together over pints and playing “I hear so-and-so.”) That’s a shame, because some of the information in those books probably is from reliable sources; but without citations, there’s no way to separate the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, even when Rust had access to reliable primary-source materials, like Ed Kirkeby’s California Ramblers ledgers, he couldn’t resist meddling with the facts — for example, stating that Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller were present on sessions for which Kirkeby’s files clearly show they were not. So, take it all with the proverbial gain of salt. We certainly do.

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Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan: After the Fall (1921 – 1936)

Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan:
After the Fall (1921 – 1936)
By Allan Sutton

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Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan
(Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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At a time when online access to digitized archives was the stuff of science fiction, Ulysses (Jim) Walsh did a remarkable job of chronicling what he called the “Pioneer Recording Artists” for Hobbies magazine, using the limited material available to him. Many of us found our collecting experiences greatly enriched by his columns. They remain enjoyable reading long after his death, even if some of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to close examination. As a popular columnist who relied on colorful tales to keep readers coming back, Walsh often accepted anecdotes as fact without question, provided they suited his narrative, and he tended to embroider the facts to keep the story line going.

A case in point is his account of Arthur Collins’ accidental fall from the stage at the Princess Theater in Medina, Ohio, and his skewed take on the outcome of that event. [1]  Walsh gave the date of the accident as Thursday, October 20, 1921, an error that has been widely repeated in derivative works. But in fact, October 20 was simply the date on which the Medina Sentinel belatedly reported the incident. [2]  As noted in the Sentinel article, it had actually occurred on “Thursday of last week” — i.e., on October 14.

Both accounts have Collins falling into the basement from a stage that had been darkened as part of the Tone Test routine. Walsh has him plunging dramatically through an open trap-door — then, “reeling dizzily…fearfully bloody and almost out of his head … dazedly — almost instinctively,” making his way back up a ladder, with “the trooper’s [sic] instinct that ‘the show must go on.'”  The Sentinel, on the other hand, has him simply falling down a flight of stairs, then being given medical treatment after regaining the stage.

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The Medina Sentinel for October 20, 1921, confirming the date of Collins’ accident as “Thursday of last week” (i.e., October 14).

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So, a minor factual error, and an over over-abundance of purple prose on Walsh’s part, which might be easily overlooked had he not then gone on to thoroughly misrepresent what happened in the wake of the accident, erroneously declaring “For the duration of Collins’ illness, the Collins-Harlan partnership was broken up…”

That was not the case; Collins made a quick recovery, and one week after the accident, the team was back on the road, which is where our survey of the team’s advertising and press coverage, post-fall, begins.

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Collins makes a quick recovery: The Zanesville Tone Test was presented on October 21, 1921, one week after the accident in Medina.

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The Zanesville Time-Recorder commented on his steady stride and the “virile quality” of his voice at the October 21 Tone Test). With Collins apparently in passable health, the team went on to complete their tour, wrapping up in late November. After a month-long break, they went back on the road in early 1922, reaching California in February.

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Collins & Harlan in Visalia, California (February 1922)

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Harlan seems to have first ventured out on his own in the spring of 1922, when he was featured on several broadcasts sponsored by Okeh records, minus Collins. At that time, however, the team was still performing together.

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Harlan on the air (New York Herald, April 26, 1922). “Rubalogue” was a coined term for a monologue by a “rube” (or “hick,” in slightly more modern parlance).

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Although Collins and Harlan did little traveling together during the spring and summer of 1922, they recorded duets for Edison in July, August, and September. In the latter month, they hired Palmer Kellogg as their new road manager, apparently anticipating a busy fall travel season.

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From the Fremont, Ohio, News-Messenger (September 6, 1922)

 

A short time later, however, the act split temporarily, for reasons that remain to be determined. Perhaps Collins was experiencing health problems, albeit not necessarily related to his accident, which was now nearly a year behind him; all that is certain is that there was a sudden dearth of press coverage devoted to him. Whatever the cause, Harlan took the road with a widely publicized new solo act in the autumn of 1922.

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Harlan and his own company on tour, minus Collins (Coudersport, Pennsylvania, November 1922)

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Collins and Harlan reunited in the late spring of 1923. They returned to the Edison studio on July 25, but recording was now only an occasional undertaking for them. Increasingly, their old minstrel-show shtick was lost on younger, more sophisticated urban record buyers. They attempted some more up-to-date material for Edison, toning down the racial stereotypes that marred so much of their earlier work, but the records fail to attract much interest. However, their older material remained popular in the small cities and rural areas.

They were soon on the road again, now with their own small company, making grueling cross-country tours of predominantly small-town America. While they continued to perform Edison Tone Tests, they also began staging their own shows in churches, high-school auditoriums, YMCA’s, fraternal halls, movie theaters, and any other venue that would have them. Clearly, given the rigors these tours entailed, Collins was not the broken, infirm man that Walsh made him out to be.

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Together again: Collins and Harlan in St. Louis in October 1923, on the first leg of a tour that would take them as far west as Utah.

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Collins and Harlan wrapped up their 1923 western tour in the final days of that year. This ad for their appearance in Provo, Utah, ran on December 16.

 

The team had barely time to catch their breath from their last 1923 tour before again heading west. They arrived in California in January 1924, then worked their way back east during February, with stops in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. March and April were spent touring Pennsylvania, followed by sporadic appearances in the Middle Atlantic region during the spring and summer. A new feature had been added to the act — they would now make and play instantaneous recordings on stage, of themselves as well as aspiring local artists, using a process that remains to be discovered.

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The early 1924 western tour: Collins and Harlan in Grand Junction, Colorado (February 1924)

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The on-stage recording sessions were heavily promoted. Presumably they had been approved by the Edison organization, since many were conducted during Tones Test appearances. At least one ad made the misleading suggestion that these were Edison trial recordings that could lead to “fame and fortune” for the performers.

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Collins and Harlan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 1924), on their second tour of the year.

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Collins and Harlan and “Company,” as the added attraction at a movie screening in Allentown, Pennsylvania (March 1924)

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Collins and Harlan stayed close to home during the summer of 1924, making only occasional documented appearances in the Mid-Atlantic region. On October 3, they returned to the Edison studio to record the forgettable “Liver and Bacon.” Coupled with “Any Way the Wind Blows (My Sweetie Goes)” on Edison 54123, it would be their last issued record as a team. [3]  A short time later, they embarked on a two-month Tone Test tour of the Midwest, with stops in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

A two-month Tone Test tour followed in February–March 1925, playing mostly no-name venues in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Ending in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it would be their last major tour as a team.

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Collins and Harlan in Hinton, West Virginia, in February 1925, during their final major tour as a team.

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In 1926, Collins retired and moved with his wife to a suburb of Fort Myers, Florida, where he occasionally performed at the local social clubs and reportedly enjoyed tending his orange grove. He died at home on August 3, 1933. Walsh, quoting Mrs. Collins, has him expiring peacefully by her side in a pastoral setting:

“We were sitting on a bench under the trees, talking about a recent trip I had just returned from, when he put his head on my shoulder and quietly passed away.”

The Fort Meyers News-Press reported the event less poetically, although the basic facts are the same:

“After pushing the [lawn] mower, he sat down beside his wife for a minute’s rest and then suddenly slumped to the ground.” [4]

Harlan died at his home in Orange, New Jersey, on September 11, 1936 [5] — in his bath-tub, according to Walsh, who didn’t cite a source for that tidbit (nor have we found one so far).

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Notes

[1] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Arthur Collins — Part III.” Hobbies (Jan 1943), p. 13.

[2] “Edison Artist Nearly Killed.” Medina Sentinel (Oct 20, 1921), p. 1.

[3] Collins is not known to have made any further recordings. Harlan reportedly made unissued experimental recordings for Edison in 1926. His last commercially issued records were made with Steve Porter, for the ultra-cheap Grey Gull chain of labels, in 1928 and 1929.

[4] “Arthur Collins Dies Suddenly; Was Noted as Singer and Actor.” Fort Myers News-Press (Aug 3, 1933), p. 1.

[5] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Byron G. Harlan — Part II. Hobbies (Mar 1943), p. 14.

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Article © 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

Update: American Record Company Masters on Hawthorne & Sheble’s Star Label

Update: American Record Company Masters
on Hawthorne & Sheble’s Star Label

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The overwhelming majority of Star records were pressed from Columbia masters (see Star Records in Mainspring’s free Online Reference Library). However, a few anomalous issues — presumably pre-dating Hawthorne & Sheble’s switch to Columbia recordings, although their date of production remains unclear — use Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott’s American Record masters.

These obscure issues retain American Record’s original catalog numbers and, like their counterparts, have rubber-stamped label information. On some specimens, the Star label was pasted over the American Record Company original; on others, the label was affixed directly at time of pressing.

These issues don’t appear in any Star catalog or supplement we’ve seen thus far. The corresponding American Record Company issues were released between March and October 1906.

The latest addition to the list comes to us from Robert Johannesson (Kristianstad, Sweden) — in this case, an operatic recording that is fairly rare in the original American Record Company pressing, and no doubt even rarer as a Star disc.

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Courtesy of Robert Johannesson

 

The American Record–derived Stars appear to be far scarcer than the Columbia-derived Stars. Thus far, only the following have been confirmed by sources we know to be reliable. If you have other examples, we would like very much to hear from you (label scans are appreciated, if possible). You can e-mail us at:

 Star 031317
Cheyenne (Shy Ann)
Billy Murray Acc: Orchestra
Mx: X 837

Star 031368
La Golondrina (The Swallow)

Curti’s Mexican Orchestra (Carlos Curti, director)
Mx: —

Star 031369
El Matador — Paso Doble
Curti’s Mexican Orchestra (Carlos Curti, director)
Mx: —  [ctl. M 5284]

Star 031401
Rigoletto: Monologo

Cesare Alessandroni
Mx: X 196

Star 031406
Himno Nacional Mexicano

A. de G. Abello
Mx: X 777

Star 031432
The Bullfrog and the Coon

Ada Jones
Mx: X 1428  [ctl. M 5299]

 

Full details, including corresponding issues on other labels, can be found in the Star Records discography.

Latest Additions to the Phono-Cut Discography

Latest Additions to the Phono-Cut Discography

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Thanks to Robert Johannesson (Kristianstad, Sweden), we now have additional details for the following issues in The Phono-Cut Discography:

 

Phono-Cut 5182:

I Rosens Doft = side A (mx. 1374 [00])

Trollhättan = side B (mx. 1375 [0])

 

Phono-Cut 5253 (previously unconfirmed issue):

Fogeln’s Visa = side A (mx. 1525 [00])

Stephanie = side B (mx. 1446 [0]; catalog number 5209, on which this also appears, is also in the wax)

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These and other recently received additions will be incorporated in our next full revision of the discography (V.3), tentatively scheduled for early November. Our thanks for all who have taken the time to respond.

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It now appears almost certain that the “0” characters following many of the master numbers are take indicators. If so, that raises the question of whether “0” indicates take 1, or the absence of “0” indicates take 1 (in which case, “0” would be take 2, “00” take 3, etc. — similar to Gennett’s use of no letter for take 1, “A” for take 2, etc.). The relative rarity of “000” markings suggests the latter, but that is still just a guess at this point.

Browse the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library for more discographies, all free to download for personal, non-commercial use.

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Forgotten Black Musicians • Wendell P. Talbert

Forgotten Black Musicians • Wendell P. Talbert

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ROSA HENDERSON (Wendell P. Talbert, piano)
Good Woman’s Blues

New York: May 24, 1923
Victor 19084 (mx. B 28026 -2)

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ROSA HENDERSON (Wendell P. Talbert, piano)
Good Woman’s Blues

New York: May 24, 1923
Victor 19084 (mx. B 28027 -2)

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Like Noble Sissle, with whom he was associated off-and-on for many years, Wendell Talbert was largely a creature of the theater. Unlike Sissle, he left behind only a handful of issued recordings, and only in an accompanying role. As a result, he’s been largely overlooked by collectors and historians.

The earliest substantive reference we’ve found to Wendell Phillip (or Philips, depending on the account) Talbert shows him as a member of the Southern Jubilee Singers and Players in January 1912. This was a traveling organization that specialized in old-time “plantation” songs, traditional spirituals, and other fare that likely was selected at least in part for its appeal to white audiences.

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Talbert as tenor, cellist, and pianist with the Southern Jubilee Singers and Players (Bismarck [North Dakota] Tribune, January  27, 1912)

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By 1914, Talbert was a featured performer with William A. Hann’s Jubilee Singers, a group of “seven cultured ladies and gentlemen” whose offerings ran from “refined and wholesome humor” to spirituals and grand opera. Its members included soprano Florence Cole, who Talbert married in the same year. At about that time, Noble Sissle joined the troupe, initially filling in for Talbert on occasion, based upon some published programs from the period. Their paths would continue to cross for the next four decades.

.Wendell Talbert and Florence Cole-Talbert with Hann’s Jubilee Singers (Hutchinson [Kansas] Gazette, October 17, 1914)

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The Talberts divorced at some point, although the date remains unclear. One secondary source cites 1915, but news reports as late as 1917 continued to state that the couple were married. The latest such report we’ve located so far, in the Xenia [Ohio] Daily Gazette for May 24, 1917, refers to Cole-Talbert’s “talented husband, Prof. Wendell Talbert.” However, she continued to use Cole-Talbert as her professional name, perhaps leading to some confusion in the press.

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Florence Cole-Talbert is remembered primarily for her Black Swan recordings. She and Wendell had divorced by the time those recordings were made, but she continued to use her married name in stage work.

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Talbert appears to have left Hann in 1918 or 1919, when mentions of him vanish from the press. At some point in the early 1920s, he made the transition from old-time tunes and spirituals to jazz and blues, albeit of a rather tame sort. In July 1921, it was reported that he would be writing for the Chamberlain Company, a newly launched music publisher in Detroit. Anecdotal reports credit him with coming up with the name for Sissle & Blake’s “Shuffle Along,” and conducting the pit orchestra in one of the show’s touring companies, but those stories remain to be confirmed.

In 1923, Talbert resurfaced as the piano accompanist on a few records by vaudeville-blues singers Rosa Henderson (Victor) and Lethia Hill (Vocalion). His two recordings with Henderson were released in Victor’s first attempt at a race-record series:

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Victor’s first attempt at a race-record series, July 1923. Sissle’s and Talbert’s sessions were held a day apart. Sissle by this time was a major star, and it’s tempting to speculate that he might have arranged for Talbert to record for Victor.

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By late 1925, Talbert had remarried and was touring in vaudeville with his Chocolate Fiends, a large revue that starred Alethia Hill. In November of that year, he accompanied two sides by comedian Billy King on Okeh. His orchestra made a test recording of “Deep Henderson” for Brunswick of October 28, 1926, which unfortunately was not approved for issue.

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Talbert and company on the road (Indianapolis, December 1925)

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Talbert remarried in 1926 and publicly credited new wife Hallie for her help and inspiration. He continued to tour with the Chocoalte Fiends into the late 1920s, but made no further issued recordings that we know of.

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Pittsburgh Courier (October 2, 1926)

Pittsburgh Courier (October 9, 1926)

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Pittsburgh Courier (September 15, 1927)

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In the early 1930s, Talbert returned to his roots with his Dusky Troubadours, a choir that specialized in the same sort of material he had performed with Hann’s Jubilee Singers two decades earlier. The group broadcast over radio station WOR (Newark, New Jersey) on occasion. By 1934, Talbert had augmented the choir with an eighteen-piece orchestra.

 

Talbert with the USO during World War II (Louisville Courier-Journal, September 24, 1944)

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During World War II, Talbert served as musical advisor to the Colored USO of Central New Jersey. In July 1950, Talbert rejoined Noble Sissle, probably for the last time, in a fund-raiser for the New York Heart Association. He died in the early 1950s.

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Before There Were Victor Records…..

… There Was The Victor Record

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Now, we’re certainly not claiming that Eldridge Johnson swiped the name for his company from this once-famous newspaper in Victor, Colorado. But The Victor Record was founded in 1895 (six years before the Victor Talking Machine Company), and its reporting on the goings-on in Victor, Colorado — one of the richest gold-mining regions in the world at that time — attracted plenty of attention in the national and international press.

Victor at the start of the twentieth century was a lively place, to put it mildly, a workingman’s town perched atop a vast fortune in gold ore (the Gold Coin Mine, one of the richest, sat just two blocks from the commercial district). The good citizens celebrated July 4,1899, by blowing the top off an adjacent mountain with five tons of dynamite, an explosion that reportedly was felt for eighty miles and made international headlines:

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.Cardiff [Wales] Western Mail (July 7, 1899)

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Perhaps not surprisingly, much of Victor burned to the ground a little over a month later, again making headlines around the country:

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Wilmington [North Carolina] Morning Star (August 22, 1899)

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.The town was rebuilt quickly — this time in brick and stone, replacing the wooden structures that had originally been tossed up during the early days of the gold rush. Along with Cripple Creek (its bigger sister just up the road), Victor was a popular destination for celebrities at the turn of the century, including Theodore Roosevelt. Unfortunately for Mr. Roosevelt, his visit coincided with a period of open hostilities between pro- and anti-union factions, and he found himself threatened by an angry mob in Victor:

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Chickasa [Kansas] Daily Express (September 28, 1900)

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And lest you think whacko conspiracy theories and cries of “Fake News!” are anything new, consider one newspaper’s spurious take on the “alleged” riot:

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Stockton [California] Evening Mail (October 1, 1900)

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So, did Eldridge Johnson get the idea to name his company “Victor” from Victor? Pretty unlikely. But then again, the notion is no sillier than some of the other Victor naming myths we’ve heard…

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Information Needed on Pathe Recordings of Cuban Music

Information Needed on American Pathé
Recordings of Cuban Music

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A researcher who is preparing a discography of recordings of Cuban music has inquired about some 1926 American Pathé recordings. Unfortunately, we have been unable to locate any data on these record, aside from one release, so are hoping some our readers might be able to help.

The artists of interest are Sexteto America, Sexteto Occidente, and Maria Teresa Vera & Rafele Zequiera. Thus far, only one Pathé record by these artists has been confirmed — Pathé 06715 (mxs. 107234 / 107236), credited to Sexteto América and recorded c. November 1926.

Those masters fall within a block of ten numbers (107230 – 107239) for which the Record Research group and others found no data, and which in theory could be other recordings by these artists.

If you have any information on these or other 1920s Pathé recordings by Cuban artists, or a catalog or other reliable listing of the very elusive 06700 American Pathé catalog series, we would appreciate hearing from you. You can e-mail us as at


and we will pass your information along to the author.

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Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings in Chile (Fonografía Artística Records)

Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings in Chile
 By Renato D. Menare Rowe
(Santiago, Chile)

 

 

Related Article: The Marconi Velvet Tone Story

 

In Chile, the pioneer of sound recording, on cylinders and later on discs, was Efraín Band, creator and owner of the label Fonografía Artística. Some of Efraín Band’s Chilean recordings were pressed by Columbia on flexible discs (Marconi Velvet-Tone type), with the label Fonografía Artística. Some were coupled with original Columbia recordings of Mexican music.

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One of Band’s own standard shellac pressings (top), and a flexible version of the same record, pressed by Columbia.

 

Ephraim Band’s normal shellac pressings were announced at first, giving the title, and the phrase “propiedad de la casa Efraín Band” (“ownership of the Ephraim Band house”). Band’s recordings pressed by Columbia were also announced, but indicating only the title, for which a different matrix was recorded by Band. The numbering of shellac recordings was four figures, and the flexible recordings were the same, but with a zero in front.

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The following flexible Marconi-type discs were pressed by Columbia, from masters in their Mexican series, for sale in Chile on the Fonografía Artística label. The reverse sides are Band’s own recordings. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who has other confirmed examples.

 

010033-1-3    (Mx 5516)

La trigueñita – Canción popular
Maximiano Rosales
FA 010033
            (Original  Columbia C177 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev.: 02197 (02197-1-1)   El cazador – Cueca

 

10035-3-1   (Mx 5521)

Levántate vieja modorra – Canción popular
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrera Robinson
FA 010035
            (Original  Columbia C195 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev.: 02014 (02014.1.1)   El paseo en carreta

 

010041-4-2    (Mx 5576)

El amor y el desafío – Jota mexicana
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrera Robinson
FA 010041
            (Original  Columbia C194 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev: 02011 (02011-1-1)   Por amor cantan las aves – Tenor

 

010053-4-2    (Mx 5482)

Aires Nacionales Nº 1 (Miguel Ríos Toledano)
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrare Robinson
FA 010053
            (Original Columbia C146 – c. 1903-1908)
            Rev.: 02155 (02155.1.1)   El torito guapo – Cueca

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The South American Connection: Efraín Band’s Early Record Piracy Operation

The South American Connection: Efraín Band’s
Early Record Piracy Operation

 

The following translated excerpt from Efraín Band y los Inicios de la Fonografía en Chile, by Francisco Garrido Escobar and Renato D. Menare Rowe, exposes an early record-pirating operation in Santiago, Chile.

Band, who was also a legitimate record producer, obtained his pirated masters by electroplating other companies’ commercial pressings. Although the records he pressed from these masters are not known to have been marketed in the United States (where similar operations had been shut down earlier, by court order), they sometimes turn up here, usually to the bafflement of American collectors.

Our thanks to Renato D. Menare Rowe for permission to quote from this fascinating work. Read the complete article.

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Efraín Band employed a very simple method of illegally copying other companies’ records. It consisted of electroplating a regular commercial pressing to obtain a negative metal stamper from the disc, which could be used to press numerous shellac copies. While the resulting copies lacked the same quality as the originals, the advantage for Band was that he didn’t need to hire artists, and could sell these records at a much lower price than the imported records from which they were copied. In addition, Bain placed popular selections on each side, rather than coupling a popular selection with another that was not so well known, as the major companies used to do.

Among other examples of discs pirated by Efraín Band, it is worth highlighting Fonotipia Nos. 39046 and 39056, which coupled Charles Gounod’s “Ave Maria” Charles Gounod and “The Holy Book,” respectively, both by Giannina Rus. These appeared on a record which on one side has a World Records label 2805, and on the other corresponds to an Eagle Disc No. 2804, without indication of composers or artists. The fact that this record has both labels allows us to directly connect both labels with the same manufacturer.

Because this activity bordered on the illegal, the artists and composers usually were not shown on the labels, which were limited to indicating the rhythm or nature of the musical piece. It was not unusual that a “Tenor” turned out to be a great baritone, or that a “Tiple” was actually an internationally renowned mezzo-soprano. As can be seen, Band’s phonographic production was not limited to Chilean  repertoire, but covered all type of music.

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Band left tell-tale original markings clearly visible in his early pirated copies. These examples are from electroplated copies of Victor (top and center) and Gramophone Company (bottom) commercial pressings. In later years, however, he effaced the original markings.

 

In those years the main commercial house of Efraín Band was located in Calle Estado No. 359. However, the pirated discs were mostly marketed through traveling salespeople, who worked on commission. They toured provincial towns with a briefcase with “the latest news.” As one of those salespeople recalls, “I I sold him a lot of records and he paid me a good commission. I went out for a walk with a special briefcase. Once my briefcase was opened I sold all the records.”

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The Águila discs co-existed with another label created by Efraín Band, called Mundial Record. He then created the Mignon label, which was very short-lived. Later, these records were replaced by a new label called Royal Record, which bore a red label with gold lettering and a cat figure.

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The Royal Record labels boasted of international awards. The last to appear were Radio-Tone records, whose labels and envelopes claimed they were electrically recorded. Radio-Tone records remained in production for a long period, finally concluding in 1936 with the death of Efraín Band.

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On the oldest specimens of these discs, today called “pirates,” it is possible to distinguish in the wax the catalog numbers (and in some cases, even the matrix numbers) of the original recordings, which has allowed us to identify them fully. However, in later productions, like Radio-Tone, these numbers were carefully erased, along with any other evidence that would allow their later identification.

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Early Records Pirated by Efraín Band:
A Representative Listing
Compiled by Renato D. Menare Rowe
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Editor’s Note: Titles and descriptions are shown verbatim and unedited. All pressings are double-sided, with reverse-side numbers indicated, “Rev.” The records were issued in Chile on the following labels:

AG = Disco Águila
FA = Fonografía Artística
MI = Mignon Record
MU = Mundial Record

Discographical information (catalog and matrix numbers, and recording dates) has been supplemented in some instances with data from Alan Kelly and John R. Bolig.

 

 

2802   (FA)    Rev.: 2803

Tosca – E lucean le stelle – Tenor con acompañamiento de orquesta.

Enrico Caruso, con orquesta

   Victor 87044 (Mx. B-8346) — Nov 6, 1909

 

2803   (FA)    Rev.: 2803

Manon – Il sogno – Tenor con acompañamiento de orquesta.

Enrico Caruso, con piano

   Victor 81031 (Mx. B-1001) — Feb 1, 1904

 

2834   (AG)   Rev.: 2835

Rigoletto – Questa o quella – Tenor

Enrico Caruso, ac. Piano

   Victor 81025 (Mx. B-994) — Feb 1, 1904

 

2835   (AG)   Rev.: 2834

Rigoletto – La donna è mobile – Tenor

Enrico Caruso, ac. Orquesta

   Victor 87017 (Mx. B-6033) — Mar 16, 1908

 

2839   (MU)    Rev.: 2840

Mignon (Thomas) Ah, non credevi tu

Fernando de Lucia 

   Gramophone 2-52518 (Mx. 8054b) — May 1906

 

2840   (MU)   Rev.: 2839

Mignon (Thomas) La tua bell’alma

Fernando de Lucia

   Gramophone 2-52475 (Mx. 7342b) — 1905

 

2842   (AG)   Rev.: 2872

El Guaraní (Gomes) Sento una forza indomita

Giannina Russ – Gino Martínez-Patti.

   Fonotipia 39797

 

2844   (AG)   Rev.: 2845

Madama Butterfly [Tu, tu piccolo iddio]

Geraldine Farrar

   Victor 87030 (Mx. B-8270) — Oct 2, 1909

 

2845   (AG)   Rev.: 2844

Cavallería rusticana – Siciliana

Enrico Caruso

   Gramophone 53418-XIV (2876b) — Nov 30, 1902

 

2846   (AG)   Rev.: 2848

Cavallería rusticana – Brindis

Enrico Caruso

   Gramophone 52193-VII (Victor Mx. B-2344, as A2344) —
Feb 27, 1905

 

2848   (AG)– Rev.: 2846

Mefistofele – Giunto sul passo

Enrico Caruso

   Gramophone 52347-X (Mx. 1787) — Apr 11, 1902

 

2855   (AG)   Rev.: 2870

Aida – Celeste Aida – Tenor

Alessandro Bonci

   Fonotipia 39695 (Mx. Xph-1985) – 1905

 

2870   (AG)   Rev.: 2855

Fausto – Serenata – Bajo

Tu che fai l’adormentata

Adamo Didur

   Fonotipia 39486 – Feb 23, 1906

 

2872   (AG)   Rev.: 2842

Mefistofele (Boito) – Ave Signor

Nazareno De Angelis.

   Fonotipia 62176

 

2920   (MI)   Rev.: 2923

Il trovatore – Miserere

Enrico Caruso

   Victor 89030

 

2923   (MI)   Rev.: 2920

I pescatori di perle – Del tempio al limitar

Caruso y Ancona

   Victor 89007 (Mx. C-4327) — Mar 24, 1907

 

3425   (AG)   Rev.: 3424

La Casta Susana – Vals

Banda Rodríguez, Cond Walter B. Rogers

   Victor 65326-B — 1913

 

3439   (AG)   Rev.: 3823

Mariette

Victor Military Band

   Victor 17281-A (Mx. B-12854) — Jan 27, 1913

 

3620   (MU)    Rev.: 3622

Vieni sul mar – Tenor – Rep. Italiano – Orquesta.

Enrico Caruso, con orquesta

   Victor Mx. B-23139 – Sep 8, 1919

 

3622   (MU)    Rev.: 3620

Manon – Il sogno – Rep. Italiano – Orquesta.

Tito Schipa, con orquesta

   Victor Mx. B-26140 – May 2, 1922

 

3624   (MU)   Rev.: 3625

Granadinas – Canción

Tito Schipa

   Victor 66039 (Mx. B-26108) — Feb 3, 1922

 

3625   (MU)    Rev.: 3624

A la Orilla de un Palmar – Canción

Tito Schipa

   Victor 992 (Mx. B-27599) — Mar 12, 1923

 

3627   (MU)    Rev.: 3630

Rimpianto (Toselli)

Beniamino Gigli

   Victor 66102 (Mx. B-26167) — Sep 25, 1922

 

3630   (MU)    Rev.: 3627

Padre nuestro – Tango

Carlos Gardel

   Odeon 18078-A (Mx. 1485) 

 

3823   (AG)   Rev.: 3439

Whispering

Paul Whiteman Ambasador [sic] Orch

   Victor 18690-A (Mx. B-24393) – Aug 23, 1920

 

3836   (AG)   Rev.: 3837

Apple Blossoms – One step

Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra

   Victor 18646-A (Mx. B-23396) – Dec 26, 1919

 

3837   (AG)   Rev.: 3836

Arrah Goon [sic: Go On] – One step

Victor Military Band

   Victor 18082-B (Mx. B-17818) – Jun 8, 1916

 

3849   (AG)   Rev.: 3855
3849   (MU)   Rev.: 3855

My Man – Fox trot

Orquesta (Paul Whiteman & his Orchestra)

   Victor 18758 (Mx. B-25028) – Apr 4, 1921

 

3855   (MU)   Rev.: 3849

Cuentos de Hoffmann

Orquesta Rep. Dancing. Solo de violín

   Victor — 1916

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Renato D. Menare Rowe is a genealogist and a researcher and collector of historical recordings living in Santiago, Chile.

Francisco J. Garrido Escobar is an archaeologist and graduate in social anthropology (Universidad de Chile) and curatorial advisor of the Museum of Science and Science and Technology of Santiago.

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The RCA Victor Program Transcriptions • A History and Free Downloadable Discography

THE RCA VICTOR PROGRAM TRANSCRIPTIONS
Complete Discography
By John R. Bolig

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The latest addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library is a landmark in discographical research. Compiled by John Bolig from the RCA Victor files, it documents the original long-playing masters that were made especially for release as Program Transcriptions, as well listing full details of the 78-rpm source recordings that were used in assembling the more numerous dubbed masters.

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Free Download for Personal Use (pdf) (~1mb)
(Print-Restricted)

 

________________________________

 

The RCA Program Transcriptions Story
By Allan Sutton

 

Only seven million Victor records were sold in 1931, an 80% decline from 1929. [1] In the struggle to keep its record division afloat during the early Depression years, RCA executives instituted widespread layoffs and salary cuts, refused to renew any but the most profitable artists’ contracts, slashed or eliminated advances and royalties, gave in to distributors’ demands that it take back unsalable records in quantities far exceeding what was normally allowed, [2] and even began to entertain the notion of producing inexpensive records for the dime-store trade.

Against such a dismal backdrop, it might seem counter-intuitive that RCA engineering and marketing personnel were quietly planning to introduce an expensive new long-playing record. But while the Depression had squelched much of the demand for records, pockets of affluence remained, as evidenced by continued strength in Victor’s premium-priced Red Seal line. By the autumn of 1931, rumors were circulating that RCA was experimenting with a new type of record that would target that market.

News had leaked of an unusual Philadelphia Orchestra session, conducted by Leopold Stokowski at the Academy of Music, during which Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 was recorded without the usual side breaks at four-minute intervals. [3] As would soon be revealed, this was the first recording session for what would come to be marketed as the RCA Program Transcription. The results won a glowing endorsement from Stokowski, who reported shortly after the session,

We heard the complete symphony from the proof pressings and after the symphony was ended I realized that I had forgotten where I was, so intense was the state of the feeling and so sustained was the mood created. Now that the longest movement of a symphony can be played without interruption, recorded music can offer one of the best ways of listening to music…” [4]

Following a private demonstration in Victor’s New York studio, the Program Transcriptions and player were formally unveiled at New York’s Savoy-Plaza Hotel on September 17, 1931, to an audience of more than one-hundred prominent executives, performers, and reporters. RCA Victor president Edward Shumaker was on hand to greet Stokowsi, John Philip Sousa, and the other celebrities.

The carefully staged presentation began with a review of what were termed “musical milestones in the development of the phonograph.” [5] A Sousa march was played first on a Berliner Gramophone, which gave forth what one reporter described as “an indistinguishable squeak of varying pitch.” It was followed by the same selection as played on an acoustic Victrola, then on an Orthophonic phonograph, and finally on what was termed a “massive home entertainment instrument,” on which the new long-playing discs were demonstrated. [6]

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Silver labels (top) were reserved for the most expensive Program Transcriptions, employing Red Seal artists. The less-expensive gold-label series comprised a mixture of standard, popular, and light classical fare, and a few releases in this series were also pressed in standard shellac rather than the more expensive Victrolac. Program Transcriptions were also marketed by Victor’s Canadian branch (bottom), and some late releases were listed only in Victor’s export catalog.

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The Program Transcriptions were unlike any commercial disc records on the market, recorded at 331/3-rpm and (aside from a few anomalous shellac specimens) pressed in a thermoplastic resin that RCA named Victrolac. [7]  In the spring of 1931, F. C. Barton described the collaborative process RCA undertook in determining what material would be best-suited to then new discs, without disclosing who the collaborators might be:

Approximately a year ago, [a resin] that seems to hold promise of having the desired characteristics was found. The chemical engineers responsible for the development of this resin were called into conference with the engineers of the record manufacturers and a cooperative program was laid out in which the technics of the two groups were combined to further the development of the resin an to combine it successfully with other materials, to the end that a satisfactory record material might be evolved. A number of months of concentrated effort resulted in the production of the compound now known as Victrolac. [8]

Victrolac, as confirmed by later RCA advertising, [9] was simply a form of vinyl, the formulation of which was licensed by RCA from the Carbide & Carbon Chemicals Corporation division of Union Carbide. James Hunter assisted with the development and testing of the new material at RCA, [10] but it was Barton who first publicly disclosed the details.

Victrolac, Barton claimed, was much better suited to a finer groove than that of the standard shellac 78-rpm disc (which averaged 90 turns per inch). Although Barton’s recommendation of 120 to 130 turns per inch was not a true microgroove, it was still fine enough to provide playing times of up to ten or fifteen minutes per ten- or twelve-inch side, respectively, on a 331/ 3-rpm disc.

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RCA acknowledges that Victrolac and vinylite are one and the same (Broadcasting, February 1936)

 

A major advantage of Victrolac was that tracking weight could be reduced to three ounces — quite heavy by modern standards, but still a substantial reduction from normal tracking weights of the day. Unfortunately, RCA’s engineers did not address the issue of a permanent or even semi-permanent stylus, opting instead for  special chromium needles that required frequent changing. [11] By the autumn of 1931, RCA was also advertising its use of Victrolac in synchronized film soundtrack discs. [12] Victrolac pressings of a few Red Seals were made in 1932, but this appears to have been a short-lived experiment. [13]

Program Transcriptions and the equipment on which to play them went on sale a month after the Savoy-Plaza demonstration — the phonographs on October 10, followed by the records at the end of the month. The initial release was the Philadelphia Symphony’s recording of the Beethoven Fifth, from the session that had been leaked to the press. Retail prices initially ranged from $1.50 to $3.00 per disc — less than the cost of the same material on multiple 78s, but still beyond the reach of many. A columnist for The Phonograph Monthly Review blithely dismissed the cost factor, stating. “In some ways it is unfortunate that this development should come at a time of impaired public purchasing power, but the Depression will not last forever.” [14]

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Phonograph-radio combinations equipped to play the Program Transcriptions did not come cheaply. The Model RAE-26, with changer mechanism, originally listed at $247.50 (top), but dealer discounting became increasingly common as sales lagged.

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Unlike the Edison long-playing discs of 1926–1927, which had been cobbled together from 80-rpm masters, the recording of Beethoven’s Fifth (and of some other extended classical works that followed) was made specifically for release in long-playing format. Such was generally not the case, however, especially with the popular releases, most of which were compiled by dubbing from existing 78-rpm masters.

A new popular-series line was launched in early 1932, featuring two selections per side, but pressed in single-sided form. [15] Retailing for 85¢ (10¢ more than the same material on a double-sided ten-inch 78), the records had few takers. A plan to record complete Broadway shows never materialized.

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Releases like this sampling from The Mikado were typical of the lower-priced Program Transcriptions.

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Once the initial excitement over RCA’s Program Transcriptions subsided and records began to reach consumers, the complaints began to roll in. In July 1932 New York Times columnist Compton Pakenham conceded,

When the long-playing record first came to light we were accused of overstating the case for it. It might as well be admitted now that we have not heard it engage anything equal to the demonstration given at the New York laboratories of the Victor Company, and that certainly the various public expositions fell far short of it.” [16]

To make matters worse, RCA encountered delays in producing a promised low-cost adapter that would enable use of these records on existing phonographs, leaving potential customers no choice but to purchase a costly new outfit. RCA’s marketing department at first insisted that it had never promised such a device, then reversed itself after having been called out in The New York Times. In July 1932 the company announced that a $7.50 replacement motor board was finally in production, but the public-relations damage had already been done.

A January 1932 internal report termed sales of the long-playing records “surprisingly good,” considering their short time on the market and the shortage of phonographs on which to play them, and noted that they comprised 10% of record sales. However, the flow of new Program Transcriptions had begun to slacken. In February of that year, the English journal Gramophone observed,

The RCA Victor long-playing records continue to arouse much discussion, largely severely critical, but fail to show great sales strength. Only four have been issued recently, all single-sided ten-inchers… [17]

Stung by similar criticism in the U.S. press, RCA in the spring of 1932 announced that all new recordings of extended works scheduled for release as 78s would also be offered on specially made Program Transcriptions. In what would prove to be an expensive miscalculation, those works were to be recorded twice —  once in standard 78-rpm form, and once in long-playing format.

The most ambitious undertaking under the new plan was the recording of Arnold Schoenberg’s Gurre Lieder, by the Philadelphia Orchestra and various vocalists under the direction of Leopold Stokowski. After committing the work to standard 78-rpm masters over four days in early April, the entire performance was repeated for the corresponding Program Transcription release in a single non-stop four-hour session. Compton Pakenham damned the effort with faint praise, writing in The New York Times, “Prior to the Gurre-Lieder…there has not been a long-playing disk of sufficient significance to justify anyone objecting on the score that they have missed something.”  [18]

Victor officials adhered to the dual-recording plan for just a few more releases before conceding the costs of recording an identical work in two formats could not be justified. Many of the other extended works scheduled for release over the following months never materialized in Program Transcription form. For those that did, RCA’s engineers reverted to dubbing from the 78-rpm masters.

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The standard Program Transcription sleeve

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Whatever hopes RCA might have held out for the Program Transcriptions were dashed as economic conditions continued to deteriorate. An internal report noted in early 1932 that “due to absence of public buying, sales [of Program Transcriptions] have been low.” On the third anniversary of the Wall Street crash, RCA’s president admitted to the company’s board of directors,

The market for radio sets, records, and similar devices is buoyant in opinion but procrastinating in performance. The actual buying by distributors and retailers is on a hand-to-mouth basis. … The outlook for sales of radio sets and records does not look hopeful. [19]

The Program Transcription’s end came following Edward Wallerstein move from Brunswick to RCA in the summer of 1933. Wallerstein recalled,

When I became general manager of the Victor Division of RCA on July 1, 1933, my first act was to take [Program Transcriptions] off the market. The idea was good and they might have sold, but there were technical problems… The complaints from customers all over the U.S. were so terrific that we were forced to withdraw the LPs. [20]

The withdrawal was not as sudden or decisive as Wallerstein recalled, however.  New Program Transcription releases continued to appear with some regularity through December 1933, then with decreasing frequency through late 1934, as can be seen in John Bolig’s discography. Some of the 1934 releases were were listed only in the export catalog.

Only a few Program Transcriptions remained in Victor catalogs by 1936. Wallerstein would revisit the long-playing concept in 1939, as president of the newly created Columbia Recording Corporation. Determined not to repeat RCA’s mistakes, he assembled an outstanding engineering team, who were given the task of developing a true microgroove long-playing disc and player suitable for the mass market. Some progress had been made when work was stalled by the United States’ entry into World War II, but development resumed in earnest in the later 1940s. The resulting Columbia Microgroove LP, introduced in 1948, took the market by storm and signaled the beginning of the end for the 78-rpm record.

 

Notes

[1]    “Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units, Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive.” Exhibit in U.S. District Court, S.D. of N.Y. (Jan 26, 1943).

[2]  RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee Meeting (minutes, Jul 2, 1930), p. 3.

[3]  Observer (pseudonym). “Program Transcriptions.” Phonograph Monthly Review (October 1931), p. 4.

[4] Ibid., p. 5.

[5] “Phonograph Disks Run for Half-Hour.” New York Times (Sep 18, 1931), p. 48.

[6] “R.C.A.-Victor Co. Demonstrates New Record That Plays for Thirty Minutes.” Music Trade Review (Oct 1931), p. 27.

[7] The Victor L. Roeder Company (Philadelphia) had previously registered “Victrolac” as a trademark for an unrelated lacquer product (U.S. label registration # 29,920, published October 15, 1925). RCA subsequently copyrighted the Victrolac name for the vinyl compound, but a formal trademark filing has not been located thus far.

[8] Barton, F. C. “Victrolac Motion Picture Records.” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Editors (Apr 1932) , pp. 452–453.

[9]  “Four Years Ahead! Under the Copyrightred Name ‘Victrolac” RCA Victor has been using “Vinylite’ Since 1931!” (ad). Broadcasting (Feb 15, 1936), p. 48.

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

[11]  Barton, op. cit., pp. pp. 452–460.

[12] “Victrolac — The New 12-Inch, 4-Ounce Disc for Sound Picture Reproduction.” Motion Picture Herald (Oct 24, 1931), p. 31.

[13]  Victrolac pressings of Carpenter’s Song of Faith (Victor 1559 – 1560) are in the author’s collection, and other Victrolac Red Seal releases of the same period have been reliably reported.

[14]  “Program Transcriptions,” op. cit., p. 5.

[15]  RCA Victor Co., Inc. “Report to the Board of Directors” (Jan 15, 1932), p. 2.

[16]  Pakenham, Compton. “Newly Recorded Music.” New York Times (July 3, 1932), p. X5.

[17]  “Americana.” The Gramophone (February 1932), p. 44.

[18]  Pakenham, op. cit.

[19]  Radio Corporation of America. “Report to the Board of Directors at Meeting of October 28, 1932,” pp. 5–6.

[20]  Wallerstein, op. cit.

 

© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 2 • The James A. Drake Interviews

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 2
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> Read  The St. Louis Years — Part 1

 

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Scott Joplin

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There’s so much to ask you about Scott Joplin, so may I begin by noting that you are one of the few major figures in the music industry who can speak authoritatively about Scott Joplin because you worked with him.

I think your word choice, “worked with him,” makes my association with him sound more important than it was. I went several times to the Maple Leaf Club to pay him to help me learn to play ragtime the way he wrote and played it, and when he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, which was around 1900, [1] I did a lot more work with him. But I was just one of several pianists who were studying with him in St. Louis, so I don’t want to give the impression that we became colleagues or friends or anything that would suggest a close relationship.

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This St. Louis Dispatch article from February 28, 1901, pre-dates Joplin’s move to St. Louis, still referring to him as a “Sedalian.” The European trip never materialized.

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Even if you had wanted to do that, would it have been possible with segregation? Wasn’t St. Louis as segregated as the rest of the South and much of the Midwest?

There were what you might call “black areas” and “white areas” of St. Louis, but I have to say that being a river town there was more interaction between blacks and whites in St. Louis than in many other cities. [2]  I’ll give you what I think it was one of the reasons why the races got along better in and around St. Louis: Mark Twain’s novels. I can still remember so many passages from Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.

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About Scott Joplin, there are at least two photos of him—one as a young man about the time that his first ragtime pieces were published, and another when he was probably middle-aged. How would you describe his appearance when you were working with him?

 We were about the same height—I was six feet tall, and he may have been an inch shorter than I, if that much. He was stocky—he had put on a few pounds over the years, and his hair was rather thin. His speaking voice was in the baritone range, but it’s hard to describe how he spoke. The way I would put it is that he spoke with authority. He knew who he was, and how important he and his music were. [3]

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Joplin’s first St. Louis residence was an apartment at 2658A Morgan (since renamed Delmar Boulevard), which is now maintained as a Missouri state historic site. He and Belle later moved to a large house at 2117 Lucas, which has since been demolished.

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Did he live well? By that I mean, did he seem to enjoy his success?

Oh, yes—definitely. As I said, he moved from Sedalia to St. Louis, and he and his wife, whose name was Belle, had a sizable home with well-kept grounds. [4]  You have to remember that at that time, he was one of the most famous men in popular music in this country. He had written several of those great ragtime pieces by then and had also written one opera [A Guest of Honor] and was writing another one [Treemonisha]. So he was well-known, not just in Missouri but everywhere that ragtime, which he essentially “invented,” was being played.

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Joplin and company rehearse “A Guest of Honor.”
(The Sedalia Weekly Conservator, August 22, 1903).

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What was a typical session with him like? How much time did he allot for each of your “lessons” with him?

Usually each session was about an hour, sometimes more, but I’d say an hour on average. He would have me sit at the keyboard, and he would sit to my left on a piano stool.

 

Am I correct in assuming that you only played his music?

Sure, of course. That’s why I did everything to persuade to let me pay him to teach me how to refine my playing of his rags. I spent practically a whole year with him, usually once a week.

 

Was he a stickler about tempo?

Most definitely! He hated hearing his music played too fast. He told me, and I think everyone else he talked to about tempo, that ragtime must never be played fast. I think he may have even had that printed on the sheet music of his songs.

 

I don’t believe that Scott Joplin ever made a phonograph recording, but I’m told that he did make piano rolls, so at least we have some idea how he sounded.

No, you can’t say that because those piano rolls are not reliable. I know because I’ve heard a piano roll of him playing “Maple Leaf Rag,” and it’s definitely not the way he played it. Many piano rolls were embellished—notes and chords were added to them—and the Joplin roll of “Maple Leaf Rag” has a bunch of bass notes that he never played.

Those bass notes were added to the roll—maybe with his permission, and maybe not, I don’t know. But what I do know is that there are far more bass notes in that roll than he ever played. Now, the style I had developed as a pianist had a lot of bass, and Joplin noticed that right away when I started [studying] with him. He said to me, “You’re pretty heavy with that left hand, and I’m going to need you to cut out a lot of that when you’re playing my music.”

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Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” as originally published by John Stark in Sedalia (top), and a later, far more common printing made after Stark moved to St. Louis (center). A long-forgotten song version was published in 1903, with the addition of trite lyrics by Stark office-boy Sydney Brown (bottom). Joplin biographer Edward Berlin notes that the arrangement, which uses only the rag’s opening strain, “is uncharacteristic of Joplin and was probably made by someone else.”

 

You made piano rolls too, am I correct?

Yes, I made about a half-dozen of them when I brought my band to New York City to make recordings that I could sell in St. Louis. I went over to Newark, which was then the capital of the piano-roll industry. There were several labels that each company had. The biggest company was QRS, which is still in business. I made my rolls for a smaller label called “Artempo.”

 

Was there a special piano you had to play to make piano rolls?

Well, there were two methods—maybe more, I don’t know—but there were two methods that I learned about in Newark and each one had a specially made keyboard. [5] One method required the pianist to play at about half the tempo he’d use if he were playing it for an audience, for patrons of a club or some other public place. That particular method had the piano keyboard rigged up to a series of individual “blocks”—small rectangular blocks that were made of oak and were slightly rounded on each end.

The actual “roll” was two layers of brown paper that were separated by carbon paper. When the pianist struck a key, one of those “blocks” would strike the top layer of paper, which simultaneously made an imprint on the bottom layer. The carbon paper that was sandwiched between the two rolls is what made the imprint [on the bottom roll]. After the pianist had finished playing whatever tune it was, a technician would use a razor tool that looked like a scalpel to cut out those impressions that the blocks had made on the bottom layer of paper. That would become the “master roll,” the template for making identical rolls to sell to the public.

The other method was much better because the piano keyboard was rigged to a series of hole-punches that were air-powered. These small, round, sharp-pointed punches would keep poking holes in the roll of paper until the pianist lifted his finger and the tone stopped. Afterward, that vertical string of tiny holes would have a border drawn around them, and a worker would use a scalpel to cut a rectangular strip exactly the length of that string of tiny holes. When that missing strip passed over the pneumatic bar in the player piano, it would cause the appropriate piano key to be depressed. The advantage of that method was that the pianist could play at the tempo he was accustomed to using—not half-speed like that other method required.

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An excerpt from Scott Joplin’s School of Ragtime advising  pianists to “catch the swing, and never play ragtime fast at any time.” The advertisement is from February 1908.

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What sort of “tips” would Scott Joplin give you when you were playing his music and he was sitting there near you?

He would tap out the correct tempo, and would get me to augment chords and say slightly ahead of the beat in some measures, or slightly behind it in others. He like to use the metaphor of a swing—like a swing on a playground or a swing suspended by ropes from a tree limb. He’d say, for instance, that to get a swing moving you have to push it. So in a passage, or on a particular note, he’d say to me, “Now push it here,” which meant to play it more forte or to play it a little faster. If I was playing a passage a little too fast, he’d say to me, “Lay back now.” He would tell me to picture the swing when it reaches the peak of its arc—that moment where it’s just suspended in the air, right before gravity takes over and the swing begins a downward arc. He’d say, “Swing it now”—meaning to hold the chord, to pause before playing the next notes.

 

When Joplin died in 1917, it was reported that he had contracted syphilis when he was young. Medical journals of that period listed three stages of the disease—primary, secondary, and tertiary—and in the secondary stage, the gradual loss of muscle control in the hands and legs would be evident. Did you see any hint of that when you were with him?

None at all. Not only his playing, but everything about him—his concentration, his hearing, his walking, everything—was normal.

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From The New York Age: March 29 (top) and April 5, 1917

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I’m interested to know what you think of the ragtime revival today, and how accurate the playing of those who are making LPs of the Joplin repertoire is compared to his own playing.

This young man [Joshua] Rifkin plays “The Entertainer” the way Joplin played it, and he does a good job with “Maple Leaf Rag” too. He is careful not to play ragtime fast, which is the mistake most of these “revivers” make.

 

In the 1950s, there was also a “ragtime revival” on recordings by Crazy Otto, and on television by Big Tiny Little, Jr., and Joanne Castle on Lawrence Welk’s weekly program. What was your opinion of their “ragtime”?

Some of that got started by the popularity of Hoagy Carmichael’s “The Old Piano Roll Blues,” but then it turned into a pop-music trend with Crazy Otto’s records. Tiny Little was just one of several Crazy Otto imitators, but of course he had the advantage of being seen and heard on television ever week thanks to Welk. Tiny Little was [Little] Jack Little’s son, and although he was probably as good or better a pianist than Jack was, his so-called “ragtime” playing on the Welk show was just “showy.”

Neither he nor Crazy Otto or any of those other imitators of the Crazy Otto style had anything to do with real ragtime. They were playing on uprights that were deliberately out of tune, and their fingering amounted to nothing more than playing the same note an octave apart by playing the higher note with the “pinky” and the lower one with the thumb. Most of them used rolling chords in the bass, which was all wrong. That’s the kind of playing that belongs in a saloon, and it has nothing at all to do with the ragtime of Scott Joplin.

— J.A.D.

 

Editor’s Notes

[1]  Joplin biographer Edward Berlin has Joplin moving to St. Louis in the spring of 1901 (Berlin, Edward A. King of Ragtime: Scott Joplin and his Era, pp. 97–98. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), which is consistent with the February 1901 St. Louis Dispatch article showing Joplin still in Sedalia.

[2]  Berlin identifies the area in which Joplin resided as St. Louis’ “red-light” district, bounded roughly by 12th Street on the east, Beaumont on the west, Clark on the south, and Morgan on the north (Berlin, op. cit., p. 90).

[3]  Haenschen’s recollections are in agreement with those of other Joplin acquaintances and associates, who described him as “not much socially,” “quiet, serious,” “unassuming,” and “always studying.” (Berlin, op. cit., p. 97).

[4]  In the previous installment, Haenschen recalled having first seen Joplin at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition; but based upon his recollection of Belle Joplin and the large house, the lessons probably took place during 1902–1903. Those were the only years in which Joplin is known to have occupied a house in St. Louis (a thirteen-room structure at 2117 Lucas, a portion of which the Joplins rented to boarders). The Joplins separated in 1903, and Scott Joplin’s only other confirmed St. Louis addresses were apartments.

[5]  Haenschen is referring here to methods used to produce “hand-played” piano rolls, an innovation that first appeared c. 1912–1913, as distinct from the more common practice of having technicians mechanically perforate the rolls.

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For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

Latest Updates and Revisions to Our Online Publications (Aug 19, 2020)

Latest Updates and Revisions to
Our Online Publications
(Aug 19, 2020)

 

The publications referenced below can be downloaded free of charge, for personal use only, on the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library page.

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VICTOR 1904 MONTHLY SUPPLEMENTS

Pages 6–7 (June and July 1904) and 4–5 (September and October 1904) were shown incorrectly in the original posting. These have now been corrected, and the files are available for download. Our thanks to Joseph Barganski for reporting the problem.

 

Download Corrected Pages Only (pdf, ~5 mb)

Download Complete Corrected File (pdf, ~41 mb)

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STAR RECORDS DISCOGRAPHY

 

Steve Smolian has submitted the following revisions from first-hand inspection of the discs, both of which he believes to be by tenor Anton Moser.
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Star 2201
Change entry: The Parvis recording currently listed (sung in Italian) was reported anecdotally and is unconfirmed. Steve’s confirmed copy of Star 2201 is the same selection but is sung in German, possibly by Moser (source issue not yet determined).

Star 3318
Add entry: “Trompeter von Sackingsen: Ihr heisset mich Willkommen” (possibly Moser, sung in German; source issue not yet determined). We have also located a confirming listing in a recently acquired Star catalog that was not accessible at the time the discography was originally compiled.

These will be added to the present file the next time it is fully updated.

 

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NATIONAL MUSIC LOVERS & NEW PHONIC RECORDS

J. E. Knox has corrected the following entry and supplied supporting photo and sound files. This will be revised in the present file the next time it is fully updated:

 

New Phonic 1222
“Rose of the West” is a fox trot, not a waltz as stated in the current listing, and the uncredited vocalist is Leroy Montesanto.

Mr. Knox notes that this recording was also released on the reverse side of a special Romeo advertising record: “The Romeo sample record’s A side is an advertisement for Kress Stores. At its end, the announcer states, in distinct Brooklyn-ese, “On the re-voice side of this rekkid you will find one of the latest hits…” It’s hard to think of ‘Rose of the West’ in that regard!”

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