Tales from the Columbia Vaults: The Unauthorized Vinyl “Test” Pressings (1960)

(This article was originally posted on September 17, 2012. We are reposting it, with some minor revisions, in response to many requests.)

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victor_re-pressing

A c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing of Duke Ellington’s 1931 “Creole Rhapsody” (Victor). Obsolete labels were sometimes flipped over and used as blanks on these pressings; this example uses an old Yorkville label from the late 1930s.

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We often see modern, blank-labeled vinyl “test” pressings of very old recordings on auction lists. They’re original-stamper pressings, usually of unissued or extremely rare material, and the surface quality is generally superb. Collectors have long been curious about the origin and legality of these pressings. We recently discovered the answer among the late Bill Bryant’s papers (at least, as far as the Columbia-related pressings are concerned) which includes copies of the late William Moran’s voluminous correspondence with various collectors and dealers.

The “inside job” we detail below was not unique. Someone within Decca, for instance, made large numbers of unauthorized vinyl pressings of rare 1920s jazz material from Gennett and Brunswick-Vocalion masters at around the same time the CBS insiders were pulling unauthorized “test” pressings from old masters by the score. The same happened at RCA, although that company (unlike CBS) allowed such pressings to be ordered legitimately through its Custom Products department, for a rather stiff fee. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s many new pressings from previously unissued material were pulled at RCA in connection with its “X” and “Vintage” reissue programs. Although supposedly intended for internal use by those involved in the projects, a substantial number seem to have been pressed, based on how many have since made their way into auction lists and collectors’ hands.

This, however, is the first time that such detailed information on unauthorized pressings has surfaced from a company insider. Illegal? Certainly — But whether anyone involved was a villain (other than perhaps the record companies) 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.

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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 Bridgeport, Connecticut plant 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, 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 outsiders 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 process was a complicated one, and it involved many Columbia employees at a time when (according to X) worker morale was at a low ebb. To make the early stampers compatible with a modern press, 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 for him, if desired.

Moran’s want-list initially included only early operatics, 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 the 1908 vertical-cut disc tests (an idea that Columbia 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 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.

© 2016 Mainspring Press LLC.

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