Country Music on Early Radio Transcriptions:
Carson Robison’s “Brown Fence” Program (1931)
By Allan Sutton
Carson Robison (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
With so much research now completed (or soon to be) on early commercial recordings, we’ve lately begun delving into radio transcriptions of the 1920s and early 1930s. Most transcriptions from this period were produced by the major commercial record companies (Brunswick, Columbia, Victor, and briefly, even Edison). It’s an area that’s ripe for discographical research. Although most of the actual discs have long-since vanished, some solid documentary evidence remains, such as the Columbia Phonograph Company matrix cards (the source for this posting).
We’ll start with Carson Robison’s “Brown Fence & Wire Company Program,” which aired over some widely scattered non-network stations in February 1931. These are original recordings, unlike some other early Columbia transcriptions that used dubbings from commercial releases (as was done, for example, on some of Gus Van’s “Mars Milky Way Minstrels” programs). A team of four engineers was employed, including Clyde Emerson (Victor Emerson’s younger brother), in what amounted to a three-day recording marathon.
From the Louisville Courier-Journal (February 4, 1931)
The Columbia matrix cards don’t identify the other members of Robison’s group, or which members performed on which selections. That information probably would have appeared in the recording ledgers, which are not known to have survived. But we’re in luck, in this case. A Louisville Courier-Journal article identified Frank Luther (née Francis Crow) and his brother Phil (née Philip Crow, misspelled “Crew”), with banjo player John Cali, all of whom also made many commercial recordings with Robison during this period.
Columbia matrix card for Program 2, Record B
BROWN FENCE & WIRE CO. PROGRAM
Artists: Carson Robison Group Carson Robison (vocal, whistling, guitar); Frank & Phil Luther (vocal); John Cali (banjo); unknown (accordion)
Announcer: L. A. Witten
Production: Columbia Phonograph Co., Inc. (New York) Recording Engineers: Emerson, Freiberg, Gloetzner, Theroux
Sponsor: Brown Fence & Wire Co. (Cleveland and Memphis) Placement: Hubbell Advertising Agency (Cleveland)
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 3
In Part 2, Gus Haenschen recalled his early years in St. Louis — most notably, his piano lessons with Scott Joplin and music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich.
In Part 3, Haenschen is now attending Washington University and first attracts national attention after a song he’s composed for a college musical is picked up for the 1914 edition of Ziegfeld’s Follies.
In “The Hatchet,” the official student publication [of Washington University], you’re listed as being in the School of Arts and Sciences, as well as in the School of Engineering and Architecture.
That was because I was taking music composition in Arts and Sciences while taking all my requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree in the School of Engineering.
How were you able to write an operetta while meeting all the course requirements for the Mechanical Engineering degree?
I wrote it on my own — it was called “The Love Star,” and I had written it as a member of one of the popular clubs the University had. You see, I was taking music courses while I was studying engineering. I took two courses in composition and was a member of the Quadrangle Club. The University had a lot of student clubs, and many of them were performing-arts clubs.
The Quadrangle was one of the two most popular clubs on campus. It was named after the design of part of the campus — the first series of buildings, the first four or five, were designed as Gothic quadrangles by the same architects who did similar buildings for the University of Pennsylvania. The first building, by the way, was named for Adolphus Busch, Busch Hall, which was completed in 1903, but it didn’t open until 1905 because of the 1904 Exposition.
Did you join the Quadrangle Club as a freshman, or were first-year students allowed to participate in student clubs?
Well, that club didn’t exist until I was a first-term junior [in 1910]. It was by invitation only, and because I was pretty well known in St. Louis due to my band and my partnership with Gene Rodemich, I was invited to join. I wrote “The Love Star” during the spring and summer of my junior year, and it was produced by the Quadrangle Club about two years, as I recall, after I had graduated. I was invited back to oversee it.
The Washington University Quadrangle, c. early 1920s
Were there other student clubs that produced musicals and plays?
Oh, yes — the other popular one was the Thyrsus Club, which Fannie Hurst belonged to and I think was either president or vice-president of during her senior year. She was in the Class of 1909, and I got to know her then and, of course, much later in New York. She was cast in several of the plays during her senior year, and she wrote a very popular musical comedy [“The Official Chaperone”] that was produced by the Thyrsus Club during her senior year.
From its history, I know that Washington University was co-educational after 1900, but was the undergraduate student body primarily male during your years there?
Not primarily, no. When I was a freshman, the male-student population was about 60% and the female population was 40%. When I came back in 1914 for the production of “The Love Star,” the female-student percentage had grown to almost 50%, so the enrollment of men and women students was just about equal by then.
Was the University integrated when you were a student?
No, unfortunately. I say “unfortunately” for two reasons. The first is that we’ll never know how many George Washington Carvers might have gone there or become researchers there. Washington University has been a research university for most of its history, especially since World War II, and we’ll never know how many more patents and how many more Nobel Prize winners we would have had if the University had not been segregated. And just imagine what the fine arts and the performing arts might have been like if we had had black students and white students in the same classes.
You said that segregation was unfortunate for two reasons. What is the second reason?
Well, the University was not only coeducational by policy, but also the staff that handled the admissions operations when I was a student really went after the brightest young women in high-school classes throughout the state. During my third year, the University started building a medical center. It wasn’t just a medical school, but a medical research center. It was finished just a couple years after I graduated, and within two or three years the medical school admitted its first women students. If the same push had been made for admitting black students — not just to the medical school and the law school but to all the schools and their programs — the University would have been a different place. But that didn’t happen till after World War II.
Your mention of the law school prompts me to mention that in your archives there are letters from another famous graduate of Washington University who credits you with getting him admitted: Clark Clifford. Was he also from St. Louis?
No, he was from Kansas but his ambition was to become a lawyer in St. Louis, so when it came time for him to go to college, he wanted to go to Washington University. He was a top student in high school and probably would have gotten into Washington University anyway, but he needed an alumni sponsor so he wrote to me and asked if I would meet with him. I did and was very impressed with him, so I made some calls on his behalf and also wrote a formal letter of recommendation for him. He got his bachelor’s degree there, and also graduated from the Washington University Law School.
You and he are probably the last ones to see it, but the two of you could almost pass for brothers.
Both of us have been told that, but I think it’s because we’re almost the same height and weight, we have the same hairline, and the same crop of wavy hair. But I have a bigger nose and he has a smaller one, so maybe that’s why I don’t see the similarity that others say they see.
Look-alikes: Haenschen (left) and Clark Clifford
You have another thing in common: Both of you are Navy veterans.
Yes, but in different wars. Clark is about fifteen years younger than I, and he was an officer during the last year of World War II. But it was because of his connection with Missouri, the home state of President Truman, that he became an advisor to Truman after he [Clifford] got out of the Navy. He planned Truman’s campaign for the presidency [in 1948] and I think was the one who convinced Truman that an old-style “whistle-stop campaign” would give him the edge over [candidate Thomas E.] Dewey.
In one of his letters to you, Clifford urges you to “make up something outrageous” when talking to reporters. What “reporters” is he referring to?
When I would take one of my radio shows to Washington, D.C., on tour, if I was in a restaurant or sometimes just walking down a street, some reporter would mistake me for Clark Clifford and would ask me a question about a policy or some pending legislation or whatever. I didn’t do it very often, but Clark was always goading me to give some outrageous statement just so that the reporter would have to tell his editor, and the editor would have to call Clark’s office to confirm or deny what he said. Then Clark would tell the editor that he had never talked to any such reporter. I wasn’t a good enough actor to pull that off more than once or maybe twice.
Returning to the Ziegfeld Follies, one song from “The Love Star” not only became popular but became the gateway to your career.
Yes, it did. My original title for it was “The Moorish Glide,” and somehow it got to New York where Max Dreyfus, the head of the T. B. Harms Company, wired me to come to New York to talk with him about turning it into a production number in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Haenschen’s original self-published edition of “The Moorish Glide” (top); and the better-known T. B. Harms version, with addition of the new title
Max liked the melody, so he bought it. At first he gave the tune to a very popular dance team on the Keith [vaudeville] Circuit called “Maurice and Walton.” Walton was the name of the female partner, Florence Walton, and most people thought her partner, Maurice, was also named Walton, but his real name was Maurice Mouvet. They used the tune in part of their act, so at first it was called “The Maurice Glide.” The tango was really popular at that time, so the title was changed from “The Maurice Glide” to “The Maurice Tango.”
When did the song become “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Follies?
That happened when Max decided that it would be a good tune to use as a filler between scenes in the Follies. Because the tune itself was so short, he told me that it would need a good verse and, of course, good lyrics for the verse and the refrain. Max assigned Gene Buck to give it a title, write the lyrics, and work with me on a verse. Gene told me that the tune would be interpolated — in other words, not part of a production number — and that it would be sung by a boy and girl whose characters wouldn’t have names per se. One would be called “The Lone Boy,” and he would sing it to “The Lone Girl.”
Song portfolio from the Ziegfeld’s 1914 Follies, including “Underneath the Japanese Moon”
Because of the popularity of Madame Butterfly, the trend at that time was to use Japanese themes, so Gene [Buck] gave it the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” although it appeared in the first program as “Underneath a Japanese Moon.” When the “a” was changed to “the” I don’t really know, but the sheet music version that T. B. Harms published had the title “Underneath the Japanese Moon.”
Victor’s versions of “The Moorish (Maurice) Glide” and “Underneath the Japanese Moon” were both issued in August 1914.
To have a song whose music you wrote in the Ziegfeld Follies must have been one of the highlights of your career. What do you remember about the opening night?
I was in an upper box as a guest of Gene Buck, and like every other edition of the Follies, this one was chock full of girls. Most were already famous from prior Follies — Ann [billed as “Anna”] Pennington and Kay Laurell were among the glamor girls that Ziegfeld was known for — and Leon Errol was not only in the cast but also produced that edition of the Follies. As for my little contribution, Cyril [Morton] Horne sang Gene Buck’s lyrics and mytune to Louise Meyers. That was a thrill for me, as you can imagine — but an even bigger thrill was that Bert Williams performed one of his songs right before my little tune was sung. Bert Williams was one of the biggest stars of the Follies — one of the biggest stars of that era, really, almost on a par with Jolson.
Did you get to meet Bert Williams?
I never got to meet him but wish I had because to me he was a comic genius. When you look at how many famous comedians Ziegfeld had in those years — Leon Errol, W. C. Fields, Ed Wynn, and then Will Rogers — it was Bert Williams who topped them all. Gene Buck, who worked with all of them, used to say that Bert Williams was the greatest comic who ever lived. Think about that: not the greatest comic the Follies ever had, or the greatest comic of that time, but the greatest comic who ever lived.
I’ve wondered whether you or Walter Rogers tried to persuade Bert Williams to record for Brunswick.
Around the time we started making recordings at Brunswick, he left the Follies so he could go on his own.The shows he starred in got good reviews when they opened, but they didn’t have very long runs and his popularity started to slip. He was also having health problems, and he contracted either pneumonia or the Spanish flu and died from it [in 1922].
Returning to your Follies song, didn’t Max Dreyfus not only buy it from you but also put you on a retainer with T. B. Harms?
Yes, he put me on a retainer as an arranger. Max, you see, was an arranger himself. He had written some songs early in his career but none of them became popular, and he had much more success as an arranger. He and his brother Louis bought the T. B. Harms Company, which was an old publishing firm when he and Louis acquired it. What Max was the best — and I mean the best in the entire publishing business — at spotting raw talent. He had discovered Jerome Kern, and about ten years later he did the same with George Gershwin.
You had a music-publishing company in St. Louis, am I correct?
Well, briefly, but it didn’t amount to much. The big publishing house in St. Louis was the Stark Music Company, which was founded by John Stark. He was the one who published Scott Joplin’s music. Mr. Stark had heard Joplin in Sedalia, where both of them were living, and from what his [Stark’s] son, E. J. [Stark] told me, Mr. Stark had persuaded Joplin to become a full-time songwriter. By the time both of them had moved to St. Louis, the Stark company was the biggest publisher of ragtime songs.
“September Love,” from Haenschen’s music-publishing venture with Gene Rodemich, and a rare John Stark edition of an early Haenschen collaboration
I demonstrated songs for Mr. Stark in and around St. Louis, and he published a couple of the songs I had written. They didn’t go anywhere — didn’t sell many copies — so I tried my hand and starting a little publishing company. I went to Mr. Stark and he offered to [print] copies of songs under my own imprint. I didn’t have enough money to make a go of starting a publishing company, so I talked to Gene Rodemich about it and he got his father put money in it. We put out a few songs we had written, but as I say, it didn’t amount to much.
Back to “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” when you received the retainer from Max Dreyfus did you move to New York City?
I couldn’t because I had my band in St. Louis, I had the orchestra exchange, and I also had my family to support, so I went back and forth to New York and would stay a week, sometimes two weeks if I could manage it. Even though I wasn’t full-time with T. B. Harms, I was a part of a stable of young arrangers and songwriters including [George] Gershwin, whose career had not really begun yet. I worked with George on his first Broadway musical, “La, La Lucille.” George had written songs before then, but this was his first full score for a musical. Max worked with him to make slight changes in the melodies of a few of the songs, and he had several of us — including Robert Russell Bennett, whom Max had just hired — work with George on the arrangements.
How much involvement did you as an arranger have in the lyrics of the songs in “La, La Lucille”?
None at all. Max had a different group for the lyrics. Buddy DeSylva and Arthur Jackson wrote the lyrics for most of them, and Irving Caesar, whom Max had hired around the time he put me on a retainer, wrote the lyrics for one of the songs, “There’s More to the Kiss.” He and George collaborated on the biggest hit of their early partnership, “Swanee,” which I was fortunate to have Al Jolson record when I was hired at Brunswick. 
Do you recall recording a medley from “La, La Lucille” at Brunswick, under your “Carl Fenton” name?
A record that I made? Do you mean that I directed at Brunswick?
This was a recording session that you played in, a piano-duet medley of songs from “La, La Lucille.”
Yes, now that you mention it, I do remember that one. I did the arrangement, and Frank Banta and I played the duet.By the way, that’s Frank Banta, Jr. [Frank E.], I’m talking about. His father [Frank P.] was also a pianist and had made early recordings. Frank, Jr., was an excellent pianist and worked not only for us at Brunswick but for Victor and Columbia, and probably Edison too.
So much has been written about George Gershwin’s composing, arranging, and piano style. Did you work with him enough to see how he wrote? And what did you think of him as a pianist, being a very fine one yourself?
It’s hard to compare him with any other pianist of that time because he had a style that was unique. He wasn’t a stride pianist, although he could play in that style. He didn’t have the biggest hands or the longest reach — he wasn’t in the same league as James P. Johnson or Luckey Roberts, who had the longest reach of any pianist I ever saw — but his ability with chords is what made him stand out. His melodies came from chords. You can hear it in his “Preludes.” If you listen to them closely, you’ll hear how he finds melodic lines from the chords he’s playing.
One more question about Max Dreyfus. The general public only knows his name from the film “Rhapsody in Blue,” in which he was played by Charles Coburn. Was there any resemblance between Coburn and the real Max Dreyfus?
None at all. If Max look like anybody, it was Mister Magoo — as bald as a billiard ball, and short in stature. But what a great, great man he was! All of us learned more from Max Dreyfus than we could ever put into words. He had a gentle, patient way of getting not only more work but the highest quality work from everyone around him. You were inspired just being in his presence. He always made you feel as if you were the only person who had his attention when he was talking to you, even though he might be going from one small cubicle with, say, Gershwin plunking out of tune on an upright piano, to another cubicle with another young writer who was working on lyrics, and doing that twelve hours a day, six days a week.
Max never criticized anything you brought to him. Instead, in his almost grandfatherly way he would compliment you by highlighting certain lines or measures that he thought were really good, and then very tactfully call attention to any weaknesses that he sensed in the song. Then he would offer you at least one suggestion as to how you might improve it. There was no one else like Max Dreyfus in the music-publishing industry. Even Irving Berlin, who had his own publishing company, respected him. To all of us who worked with him — and he was “Mr. Max” to us — Max Dreyfus was Tin Pan Alley.
— J. A.D. (12/7/2020)
Actually, “The Maurice Tango” is a entirely different composition, by Silvio Hein. It was published by Harms in 1912, before “The Maurice Glide.”
Although Williams never recorded for Brunswick, the company signed Ham Tree Harrington, a well-known imitator, after Williams’ death. Harrington recorded a number of titles for Brunswick in the Williams style between 1923 and 1925, none of which appear to have sold well.
Haenschen is mistaken here, unless perhaps he was recalling an undocumented Brunswick trial session, which is not possible to confirm. Jolson recorded “Swanee” for Columbia, to which he was under exclusive contract at the time. Brunswick’s cover version was by the team of Al Bernard and Frank Kamplain.
Brunswick 2012, in medley with “Tee-Oodle-Um-Bum-Bo” and “Nobody But You” (Carl Fenton’s Orchestra, Piano Passages by Carl Fenton and Frank Banta). Recorded in late 1919, this was the second-earliest release under Haenschen’s “Carl Fenton” pseudonym.
Colin Bain’s New Beniamino Gigli Biography
Now Available from Barry Ashpole
GIGLI: THE MASTER TENOR
COLIN BAIN BARRY R. ASHPOLE, General Editor & Publisher
560 pages with 16 pages of photos Limited edition book or e-book
Beniamino Gigli fans, rejoice. Colin Bain’s long-awaited biography has released and is available online from Barry Ashpole at Gigli: The Master Tenor, a gorgeous website that also hosts some interesting ancillary materials.
From the Gigli site:
More than twenty years in the making, Gigli: The Master Tenor by Colin Bain (Barry R. Ashpole, General Editor) promises to be a definitive biography of Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957), offering a detailed, intimate portrait of the singer and his extraordinary career.
Based on thousands of official and personal documents secured by the author as well as interviews with opera stars, musicians, teachers, and loved ones — including extensive interviews with members of the Gigli family and household — the new biography spans a lifetime, opening and closing in Recanati, Italy, ancestral home of the Gigli family where Beniamino reportedly sang as soon as he learned to talk.
All proceeds from the sale of the biography (limited edition and e-book) are being donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (Canada).
The first additions and revisions to the newly posted International Record Company Discography have already arrived, from Scott Vaughan, thanks to whom we can remove Excelsior [X] 2060 from the “untraced” list. The selection is “If Mister Boston Lawson Has His Way” (from George H. Cohan’s “Little Johnny Jones”), shortened on the label to simply “Boston Lawson.” There is no artist credit, but Billy Murray is readily recognizable:
Excelsior [X] 2060 BILLY MURRAY: If Mr. Boston Lawson Has His Way
Image and MP3s courtesy of Scott Vaughan
Other additions and an important revision from Scott, all confirmed from his submitted scans and/or MP3 files:
340 — The correct selection is actually “My Maryland,” a march composed by W. S. Mygrant, despite labels that read “Maryland, My Maryland.” (The latter is the state song of Maryland, which uses the melody to “O Tannenbaum,” a.k.a. “Oh Christmas Tree,” and which is interpolated midway through Mygrant’s piece): .
1576 — A copy of Central 1576 labeled for this title actually uses Excelsior 340 (see comments above).
3148 — Also on Excelsior 3148, credited to Wm. Fredericks on the label. (Other inspected labels by this artist spell the name Frederichs. Does anyone know who this was, and which is the correct spelling?)
3175 — Also on Excelsior 3175
3207 — Also on Excelsior 3207
These revisions will be added to the permanent discography the next time we update the file, probably within the next month or two. Verifiable additions and corrections to all of our online discographies are always welcome and can be e-mailed to:
The International Record Company Discography — Second Edition
Free to Download for Personal Use*
By Allan Sutton Data Compiled by William R. Bryant and The Record Research Associates
The latest addition to Mainspring’s free Online Reference Library, The International Record Company Discography is a revised and updated version of the 2015 Mainspring Press book (now out of print), with new data from Mark McDaniel, Ryan Barna, David Giovannoni, and other reliable collector-researchers with whom we’re honored to work.
IRC — the recording subsidiary of the Auburn Button Works, which pressed the records — was one of several large operations that infringed the basic Berliner and Jones patents on lateral-cut recording. Like its counterparts, Leeds & Catlin and the American Record Corporation (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott), IRC eventually was driven out of business under relentless legal pressure from Victor and Columbia. You can find a detailed history of the company in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, available from Mainspring Press.
*As with all titles in the Online Reference Library, this one may be downloaded free of charge for your personal use only. It is protected under federal copyright law and subject to the following conditions: Sale or other commercial use is prohibited, as is any unauthorized duplication, e-book or other digital conversion, or distribution via the Internet or by any means (print, digital, or otherwise). Please abide by these conditions to so that we can continue to make these valuable works freely available.
It’s long been known, particularly among classical collectors, that most acoustic Victor “78s” were not recorded at 78 rpm. Hundreds of Red Seals of 1905–early 1920s vintage have been expertly pitched-to-score over the years, and the overwhelming majority of those tested play in correct pitch at speeds ranging from 75.0 to 76.6 rpm. Only a small handful of those tested from this period play at or very near 78 rpm.
Victor officials insisted to the public that 78 rpm was the correct playing speed, which could well have been true during the company’s early days (see the first entry in “Caruso at the Correct Speed,” below). But that had not been the case for many years when, in 1917, a catalog writer accidentally let the cat out of the bag:
An in-house admission that Victor was recording at 76 rpm, from a meeting of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Executive Committee on April 25, 1917 (Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE)
And so, a cover-up was ordered, and “78” would remain the official Victor playing speed, as far as the public was to know — even as the company continued to record consistently in the 75–76 rpm range. (78 rpm would finally be made standard with Victor’s adoption of electrical recording in 1925, although minor deviations occasionally occurred even after that.)
Of course, this just confirms what most collectors’ ears have been telling them for years. Nudge the speed down to where it belongs on your Victor acoustics, and you’ll find that voices sound less cartoonish, tempos less hurried, and the records perhaps just a little less “tinny.”
Caruso at the Correct Speed: A Random Sampling by Session Date
The following correct playing speeds have been established by multiple reliable sources. Note the use of ~78 rpm in 1904, followed by a steady downward trend in speed (aside from the occasional anomaly) as the years progressed.
Our thanks to John Bolig, in whose Caruso Records: A History and Discography these appear:
Feb 1, 1904 — 78.26
Feb 27, 1905 — 76.6
Feb 11, 1906 — 76.6
Feb 20, 1907 — 76.0
Feb 7, 1908 — 78.26
Nov 6, 1909 — 75.0
Jan 6, 1910 — 76.6
Dec 27, 1911 — 76.6
Jan 19, 1912 — 76.6
Feb 24, 1913 — 76.6
Mar 9, 1914 — 76.6
Jan 7, 1915 — 75.0
Feb 5, 1916 — 75.0
Apr 15, 1917 — 75.0
Jul 10, 1918 — 75.0
Feb 10, 1919 — 76.6
Sep 14, 1920 — 75.0
Sep 16, 1920 — 75.0
If there was one bright spot in 2020 (aside from the defeat of Donald Trump), it was that some collectors suddenly became more amenable to thinning their holdings, for any number of reasons. And so, some very fine things found an appreciative new home here in the final months of an otherwise horrid period. Here are a few favorite newcomers that I hope you’ll enjoy as you toast the start of a new year and a new era.
If you have records of this type to sell, in equally fine condition, your lists of disposables are always welcome. Please use standard VJM grading, note all defects no matter how seemingly minor (especially any graininess in the pressing), be brutally honest in your grading, and state your asking price. (Due to exorbitant shipping costs and delays and mishandling by Customs, I am purchasing only from U.S. sources.) — Allan Sutton
BLIND LEMON JEFFERSON: Shuckin’ Sugar Blues (EE–)
Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. October 1926 Paramount 12454 (mx. 3077 – 2 / ctl. 498)
BLIND BOY FULLER: Untrue Blues (EE+)
New York: February 9, 1937 Melotone 7-10-56 (mx. 20641 – 2)
BIG BILL BROONZY: You Know I Got a Reason (EE+)
Chicago: September 3, 1936 Melotone 6-11-72 (mx. C 1457 – 2)
Chicago: May 20, 1929 Brunswick 395 (mx. C 3516 – ) Two takes were recorded; the issued take is not indicated in the pressing or the Brunswick files.
COON-SANDERS ORCHESTRA (Carleton A. Coon, vcl): Bless You, Sister (E)
Chicago: December 12, 1928 Victor 21895 (mx. BVE 48726 – 2) (regional release, per Victor files)
Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:
Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.
“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal
“American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies
“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography
Tales from the Vault: The Unauthorized Columbia Vinyl Pressings (1960)
By Allan Sutton
An earlier version of this article was originally posted on September 17, 2012. We are reposting it, with some minor revisions, in response to many requests.
We often see relatively modern, blank-labeled vinyl “test” pressings of very old recordings on auction lists. They’re not actually test pressings, but rather, custom pressings made many years after the fact from the original stampers. They usually feature unissued or extremely rare material, and the surface quality is generally superb.
Collectors have long been curious about where they came from, and whether they were made legally. Long answer short, on the latter: Some were authorized by the masters’ owners (particularly in the case of Decca and RCA, although some questionable activity went on there as well), and some were not (largely in the case of Columbia).
A few years ago, we uncovered details of a “sneaky Pete” operation at Columbia among Bill Bryant’s papers, which include copies of the late William Moran’s correspondence with a Columbia insider he tapped to carry out his plan. Moran (a well-heeled private collector) masterminded the operation, which was carried out by factory insiders in 1960. The mission was to quietly pull new vinyl pressings, without the company’s knowledge or authorization, from acoustic masters that were about to be scrapped.
Was the activity Illegal? Certainly. But whether any party involved was a villain (other than perhaps CBS, which at the time seemed hell-bent on destroying its recorded heritage) depends on your point of view. Our take is that those involved performed a valuable service in preserving important historic material that was subsequently trashed and written off by irresponsible corporate owners. Here are the facts:
* * * *
In October 1960, a disgruntled CBS employee (who we’ll call “X”) contacted Bill Moran to alert him that the Columbia Records division was house-cleaning its plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was planning to scrap many of its masters, including its holdings of Fonotipia and other imported recordings, the E- series foreign and ethnic material, the personal- and custom-series recordings, and all of the early 16” radio transcriptions.
X’s letters to Moran provide a rare insider’s look at exactly what remained in Bridgeport in 1960. He reported that some “ancient stuff” (including cylinders, cylinder-phonograph parts, and display-model phonographs) still existed but had recently been “removed to some other part of the plant.” The earliest recording files had not survived, and there had been no effort to copy or microfilm what remained; in addition, the files had recently been placed off-limits to researchers and employees, other than company librarian Helene Chmura, and photocopying was forbidden. The master-scrapping was already under way by the time X wrote to Moran — He reported that the metal parts were being hauled out in bucket loaders, ground up, and sold to a scrap dealer by the ton.
X’s formal recommendation that some of this material be preserved was ignored by management, so in late October he sent a list of endangered masters to Moran, with the suggestion that Moran ask Stanford University to intervene, and hinting that in the meantime he could supply Moran with unauthorized vinyl pressings of virtually anything in the vaults — He claimed he was already doing just that for some Columbia employees. The process is documented in an exchange of letters between X and Moran that began on October 31, 1960. On November 11 he wrote to Moran,
I have been securing test pressings without authority for the past two months. I had to “thread my way” until I could enlist help. Luckily he [the test pressman] is cooperative… I have been limiting my operation to twice a week and taking out parcels only every other week. One week I took out 16 [parcels], last week 19… I have managed to get a few humans in the plant (there are a few) to break regulations for me… I will attempt, over a period of time, to secure for you the materials you desire. These, if I get them, will be gratis.
The plan had many moving parts, involving multiple Columbia factory employees at a time when (according to X) worker morale was at a low ebb. To make the early stampers compatible with Columbia’s modern presses, the metal and composition backings had to be removed and replaced, and new holes had to be drilled in the stampers, which were then forwarded to the polishing department, from which they were sent to the test pressman. While all of this was going on under management’s nose, X was assuring Moran that he could even have new metal stampers plated, if desired.
Moran’s want-list initially included only early operatic recordings, but was soon expanded to include political speeches from Nation’s Forum, rare personal recordings by the likes of Irving Berlin and Booker T. Washington, and even one of Columbia’s 1908 vertical-cut disc tests (an idea the company ended up not pursuing commercially).
X soon upped the frequency and pressing quantities of his clandestine runs. Many copies were handed out as favors to Columbia employees who were in on the activity, including Helene Chmura, the archive’s highly esteemed librarian. Chmura knew of X’s activities and had warned him to be careful, but reportedly she was happy to accept a group of custom Lotte Lehmann pressings. In November, X told Moran he was looking into ways of supplying him with copies of the restricted recording files that were in Chmura’s charge.
On November 16, X wrote to Moran, “Last Friday I took out 18 tests, including duplicates, in an open parcel… On Monday Bill [the chief of security] suggested that I not take out so many so often.” He went on to boast,
I have the run of the plant and have taken full advantage of it — women in duplicating will make photostats, Helene will make photocopies; the polisher will prepare masters for pressings… The Chief of Security Police allows me to make off with the records; the librarian’s files are at my disposal.
X promised Moran even larger shipments of the unauthorized pressings in a letter dated November 23:
I’ll send you a ton of pressings if I can discover how this can be arranged… One of the chaps in the Methods & Procedures Office this afternoon told me that he can smuggle pressings out for me if I cannot continue my present methods. These boys have briefcases which never are examined by the bulldogs. I have been furnishing two of these M&P men with records made to order.
A day later, X wrote to Moran to update him on his secret copying of the recording files, reporting that he was “lifting it right out from under [Helene Chmura’s] nose.” And that’s the final letter in our “X” file.
Audio Oddities: William S. Hart Seeks a Friend
Lost in Alaska (1932)
In September 1932, old-time cowboy-movie star William S. Hart commissioned Columbia to produce a personal recording. Hart was trying to locate a friend who had gone missing in the wilds of Alaska, and Columbia apparently promised to distribute 100,000 copies of his appeal around the world (or so Hart claimed; if so, most of them have long-since vanished). The results were issued on a little 5½” picture disc that is not easy to find today.
The reverse side was standard Wild West fare, an old tale about Wild Bill Hickok emptying eight shots into eight bad men. But the “A” side, Hart’s appeal for help in locating his lost friend, reveals far more about the man himself. His popularity had waned as younger and more flamboyant movie cowboys like Tom Mix came on the scene, and Hart sounds wistful as he explains that he can no longer make the movies his audiences once craved.
There’s another interesting aspect to this record, for those with a discographical bent. The masters bears the highest numbers found so far in what began as Columbia’s 5½” Little Wonder series in 1914, then later morphed into other uses. The masters were originally recorded sequentially, as P-W 1809 (side 1) and P-W 1810 (side 2).
But for some reason, 1809 was subsequently re-recorded as 1813 — one number higher than the highest reported in Brooks & Sprinzen’s Little Wonder discography. If you’re lucky enough to own a copy of that book (which actually covers the whole 5½” series, not just Little Wonder), you’ll need to pencil-in 1813 at the end; and by all means, let us know if you find any higher numbers.
Equally interesting is the fact that the copies we’ve used here are unauthorized vinyl pressings made surreptitiously at the Columbia plant in 1960, after it was discovered that CBS was planning to scrap most of the acoustic masters. Private collector Bill Moran tapped a factory insider to coordinate pressing of important engendered masters, without the company’s knowledge or authorization, from his wish-list of artists. The records were smuggled out by sympathetic managers in their briefcases. You can read the full story in the next post.
WILLIAM S. HART: Greetings from Bill Hart
New York: September 8, 1932
Columbia un-numbered custom vinyl pressing
(mx. P-W 1813 – 1)
WILLIAM S. HART: Untitled
New York: September 8, 1932
Columbia un-numbered custom vinyl pressing
(mx. P-W 1810 – 3)
Hart’s scarce 1932 5½” picture disc, and one of the unauthorized 1960 vinyl pressings from those masters (see next post), made on a 10″ blank. Engineer’s notes around the outer margin of P-W 1813 read “110 lines – 78 R.P.M – 72 point – recorder # L52 – rerecorded.” (Mainspring Press collection).
Our thanks to Steve the Record Maven for parting with the vinyls.
Victor and A. T. Emerson Launch the
By Allan Sutton
Source documents courtesy of Doreen Wakeman
Father and son: Victor Hugo Emerson and Adelbert Tewksbury (“A. T.”) Emerson (Doreen Wakeman)
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  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. 
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. 
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.” 
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)
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.  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.
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)
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.  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.”  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. 
Emerson Foundation Company stock certificate #1. (Doreen Wakeman)
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.  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.” 
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. 
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. 
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.  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.
Page 1 of the Speak-O-Phone studio operating and lease agreement. (Doreen Wakeman)
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.
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)
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.  By October, the studio was doing so much business that it was moved to a more prestigious location, in the fifth-floor music department.
Speak-O-Phone’s first demonstration studio, in the “economy basement of Snellenberg’s department store in Philadelphia. (Philadelphia Inquirer)
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.  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. 
Speak-O-Phone studio #1, in the Famous-Barr Company’s St. Louis department store, 1928. (Doreen Wakeman)
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)
Dorothy Caruso, Enrico’s widow, opened Speak-O-Phone studio #7 in June 1929. (Doreen Wakeman / Brooklyn Daily Eagle)
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. 
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)
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.
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.  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. 
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.  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. 
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. 
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. 
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.”  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.” 
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.  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. 
On January 22, 1931, Emerson authorized the Emerson Foundation Company to sell any or all of its shares in Speakeophone Incorporated.  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. 
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.  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. 
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.”  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?” 
On September 14, 1931, Emerson authorized sale of his Remsen stock through Widmann.  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.
MARTHA WILKINS: Indian Love Call Norfolk, VA: May 22, 1930
UNKNOWN SPEAKER: Talk on lighter-than-air aircraft (excerpt) Unknown location: c. 1933
 “New Incorporations.” New York Times (Mar 22, 1922), p. 23.
 Wadsworth, H. L. “Sound Recording and Reproducing Machine.” U.S. Patent #1,312,461 (filed Mar 7, 1917; granted Aug 5, 1919).
 Memorandum of Agreement Between the Metal Disc Recording Company, Inc., and Henry L. Wadsworth (May 11, 1922.
 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).
 “Kodisk Placed on Market.” Talking Machine World (May 1922), p. 33.
 Cooke, Douglas H. Unpublished manuscript, c. 1930.
 Emerson Foundation Co., Inc. Letter to Sanborn, op. cit.
 Agreement Between Speakeophone, Incorporated, and Speak-O-Phone Corporation of America (Aug 28, 1929).
 Agreement Between Emerson Foundation Company, Inc., and Speakeophone, Incorporated (Oct 5, 1929).
 Emerson, A. T. Memorandum for Mr. Matters (Feb 17, 1930).
 Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).
 Sanborn, Fredrick H. Latter to E. A. Widmann (April 8, 1930).
 Emerson, A. T. Letter to E. A. Widmann (April 11, 1930).
 Blevins, Jacques E. Letter to A. T, Emerson (Jan 31, 1931).
 Emerson, A. T. Letter to Harriman National Bank and Trust Company (Jan 20, 1931).
 Agreement Between Metal Disc Recording Co, Inc., and Speakeophone Incorporated (Jan 16, 1931; amended Mar 28, 1931).
 Emerson Foundation Company, Inc. Resolution (Jan 22, 1931).
 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.
 Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to E. A. Widmann (Oct 28, 1930).
 Emerson, A. T. Memorandum to E. A. Widmann (Aug 18, 1931); Widmann, E. A. Memorandum to A. T. Emerson (Aug 20, 1931).
 Sanborn, Frederick H. Letter to A. T. Emerson (Aug 10, 1931).
 Emerson, A. T. Letter to Frederick H. Sanborn (Aug 17, 1931).
 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
WILL EZELL: West Coast Rag (V++)
Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. September 1927
Paramount 12549 (mx. 4787 – 2)
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).
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.
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.
JIMMIE NOONE’S APEX CLUB ORCHESTRA: Apex Blues (E–)
Chicago: August 23, 1928
Vocalion 1207 (mx. C 2258 – B)
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.
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.
Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan:
After the Fall (1921 – 1936)
By Allan Sutton
Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.  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.  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.
The Medina Sentinel for October 20, 1921, confirming the date of Collins’ accident as “Thursday of last week” (i.e., October 14).
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.
Collins makes a quick recovery: The Zanesville Tone Test was presented on October 21, 1921, one week after the accident in Medina.
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.
Collins & Harlan in Visalia, California (February 1922)
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.
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).
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.
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.
Harlan and his own company on tour, minus Collins (Coudersport, Pennsylvania, November 1922)
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.
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.
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.
The early 1924 western tour: Collins and Harlan in Grand Junction, Colorado (February 1924)
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.
Collins and Harlan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 1924), on their second tour of the year.
Collins and Harlan and “Company,” as the added attraction at a movie screening in Allentown, Pennsylvania (March 1924)
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.  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.
Collins and Harlan in Hinton, West Virginia, in February 1925, during their final major tour as a team.
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.” 
Harlan died at his home in Orange, New Jersey, on September 11, 1936  — in his bath-tub, according to Walsh, who didn’t cite a source for that tidbit (nor have we found one so far).
 Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Arthur Collins — Part III.” Hobbies (Jan 1943), p. 13.
 “Edison Artist Nearly Killed.” Medina Sentinel (Oct 20, 1921), p. 1.
 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.
 “Arthur Collins Dies Suddenly; Was Noted as Singer and Actor.” Fort Myers News-Press (Aug 3, 1933), p. 1.
 Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Byron G. Harlan — Part II. Hobbies (Mar 1943), p. 14.