RCA Enters the Cheap-Record Market (1931 -1934)

RCA Enters the Cheap-Record Market (1931 – 1934)
By Allan Sutton

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In early 1931, RCA Victor executives took what was, for them, an unprecedented plunge into the budget-label market. It was a move that would have been unimaginable to Victor founder Eldridge Johnson, who had adamantly opposed cheap records from the start. By 1931, however, Johnson had been retired for five years, and the former Victor Talking Machine Company — now just a division within the sprawling Radio Corporation of America — was in the hands of executives who were more interested in radio, and the commercial development of television, than in a struggling record business.

The minutes of RCA’s management committee tell the tale. At meeting after meeting, it was reported that record sales were continuing to plunge. At the same time, the company was accumulating a mountain of scrap records that needed recycling. The solution, first proposed on February 11, 1931, was to put some of that scrap to use in a cheap disc that had been developed by RCA’s Engineering Department, to be sold in “chain store outlets such as Kresge, Grant, etc.”

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The initial “cheap record” proposal: Minutes of the RCA Victor Management Committee, February 11, 1931.
(Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE)

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The result was RCA Victor’s first attempt to produce a cheap label — the 35¢ Timely Tunes, for sale by Montgomery Ward. Some recordings were made exclusively for the new label, using special ABRC- and BRC- master-number prefixes that usually aren’t shown in modern discographies. Most of the artists on the newly made recordings were masked by pseudonyms, with Gene Autry masquerading as “Gene Johnson” and “Jimmy Smith,” Frank Luther as “Eddie Bell,” Johnny Hamp as “Carl Graub,” and Nathaniel Shilkret as “Ronald Sachs,” to name but a few.

The remainder comprised reissues of deleted Victor recordings, usually with the artists correctly credited. The entire Timely Tunes catalog, consisting of forty records, was released in a single batch on July 1, 1931, after which the label was quietly retired. Timely Tunes made virtually no impact, and little more was heard of the “cheap record” idea at RCA until early 1932.

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Pseudonym use was rampant on Timely Tunes. “Jim New” was country singer Newton Gaines.

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In February 1932, RCA took over pressing for the Crown Record Company in an attempt to put some of its idled factory capacity to use. A struggling start-up cobbled together by former Plaza Music Company executives, Crown marketed a mediocre 25¢ record that at the time was bring pressed in a former Edison facility. RCA’s involvement was limited to pressing the discs, under the supervision of Eli Oberstein, with Crown supplying its own masters. However marginal the venture, it at least signaled RCA’s continued willingness to be involved with budget-label production.

In June 1932, RCA Victor started making recordings expressly for sale at cut-rate prices in the Woolworth Company’s department stores. The timing could not have been better for RCA. In the same month, Columbia suspended production of its budget-priced line, which included the once-popular Clarion, Harmony, and Velvet Tone labels. Crown was already flirting with bankruptcy, and the few other budget labels that had survived the early Depression years, including Cameo and Perfect, had been absorbed by the American Record Corporation, a division of Herbert Yates’ Consolidated Film Industries.

A July 15 report to RCA’s board of directors noted, “We are making a definite drive to obtain as much of the cheap record business as is possible. Durium [Hit of the Week] have closed their American business, and the American Record Company [sic] is constantly becoming weaker.* We have hopes of obtaining a very big part of what may be left of the cheap record business.”

RCA maintained a separate ledger for the Woolworth recordings, which, like the earlier Timely Tunes recordings, were not intended for release on the full-priced Victor label. The master numbers were given special prefixes (ESHQ- for 8”, BSHQ- for 10”). To keep costs low, pressings consisted of 50% recycled scrap, and RCA employed its in-house recording equipment rather than the superior Western Electric system, which would have required royalty payments to WE.

A June 15 report to RCA’s board directors contains the curious claim that the company had already placed “experimental” 10¢ and 20¢ records in selected Woolworth stores. What these records might have been remains unclear. Documented recording sessions for Woolworth’s had begun just two days earlier, on the morning of June 13, in Victor’s New York Studio 1. The day began with four titles by Graham Prince and his Palais d’ Or Orchestra and ended with a three-hour marathon by Gene Kardos and his Orchestra, the latter yielding a dozen titles in mixed 8” and 10” formats. Another full day of recording followed on June 14. Clearly, these records could not have arrived at Woolworth’s in time to have been mentioned in the June 15 report, leaving us to wonder what that “experimental” batch might have comprised.

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RCA’s Electradisk label, produced for Woolworth’s. Sunrise, RCA’s fourth budget label, was largely redundant, using the same material as Bluebird (note the Bluebird catalog number under the Sunrise number).

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The June 13–14 recordings were in fact released in July, according to the Victor files, and bore Electradisk labels. Woolworth’s sold out initial run by the end of August, at which time the 8” series was dropped. The experiment was pronounced a success, and in September, Woolworth’s executives decided to place the 10” Electradiscs in a minimum of fifty stores. With that go-ahead from the chain store, recording activity (which had stalled after June 14) resumed on September 28, now under the direction of Eli Oberstein. The disappearance of Woolworth’s special BSHQ- master prefix at that time suggests that RCA might have already been looking ahead to “repurposing” some of these recordings on other labels — which is exactly what happened.

Electradisk proved to be a hit for Woolworth’s, mixing newly made recordings with reissues of deleted Victor and Timely Tunes material. Use of artist pseudonyms was rampant on the new recordings. Tom Berwick’s Orchestra (with Oberstein conducting per the RCA files, and not Sid Peltyn, as some discographies claim) appeared as “Rex Blaine and his Orchestra,” “The New Yorkers, “The Pennsylvania Collegians,” “Sid Peltyn and his Orchestra,” “Harold Mooney and his Orchestra,” and “Bob Miller’s Memphis Orchestra,” among others. The real Bob Miller (a country-style singer) appeared as “Bill Palmer.” However, much of the reissued Victor material appeared with correct artist credits.

Electradisc was quickly joined by another new budget label that would do much to halt and then reverse RCA Victor’s downward slide. Bluebird — RCA’s third attempt to crack the budget-label market — proved to be the charm. Launched without fanfare in the summer of 1932, it was destined to become one of RCA Victor’s most popular brands. Initially, however, Bluebird was just a companion label to Electradisk, and was also made exclusively for Woolworth’s.

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(Left) The original 1932 Bluebird client-label design for Woolworth’s, lacking any mention of RCA Victor. (Right) The 1933 redesign, reflecting Bluebird’s transition to an RCA-owned brand.

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Bluebird’s belated 1937 trademark application declared April 5, 1933 as the date of brand’s first use. That date, approximately eight months after Bluebird was actually launched, apparently reflects its transition from a Woolworth’s client label to a fully owned RCA brand. The earliest indication in the ledgers of a change in Bluebird’s status appears on May 18, 1933, which for the first time lists “recordings for Woolworth and Bluebird.” The label had proven public appeal, and in the spring of 1933, Bluebird was reintroduced to the public as RCA’s flagship budget label. The original label design was retained, but the RCA and Victor trademarks (missing from the Woolworth issues) were added, and the rather dull black-on-blue color scheme was replaced by light-blue on buff.

Initially, management of the Bluebird division fell largely to Ralph Peer, who had signed Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family for Victor in 1927. Peer had begun his relationship with Victor as an independent talent scout, making a good living by publishing his artists’ songs, controlling their copyrights, and earning a commission on their record sales. However, his position within the company eventually changed from independent contractor to employee. By the time Bluebird was introduced, he was just another RCA manager, quietly plotting his transition to full-time music publisher. Nevertheless, his influence is still apparent in the early Bluebird catalog, which was largely aimed at the same lower-income markets he had developed so successfully for Victor. Under Peer’s control, much of the early Bluebird catalog was cobbled together from deleted Victor recordings by the likes of Rodgers, the Carters, and others he had discovered.

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Ralph Peer’s influence is evident in these 1934 Bluebird ads.

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RCA’s executives at first seemed hesitant to promote Bluebird. The first known advertisements of the records as RCA Victor products, which appeared in May and June 1933, were placed not by RCA, but by local merchants. The company itself did little to publicize the label until early 1934, when it began touting Bluebirds as “The fastest-selling low-priced records.” The Radio-Music Merchant (successor to The Talking Machine World) did not begin publishing Bluebird advance listings until May of that year.

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Although Bluebird records were officially priced at 35¢, some discounting was allowed in the label’s early days. These Bluebird ads — among the earliest to appear after the Woolworth connection was severed — ran in the summer of 1933.

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Sunrise, yet another RCA budget brand, was launched in August 1933, for reasons unknown. It simply duplicated portions of the Bluebird catalog; the corresponding Bluebird catalog numbers even appeared on the labels, in small type below the Sunrise numbers. A month later, the first RCA-produced Montgomery Ward records appeared in that retailer’s Fall catalog.

The label was the creation of Ward’s executive Sewell Avery, who had approached RCA with a proposal for an ultra-cheap disc that could be advantageous for both companies: Ward’s would obtain high-quality, low-cost records featuring nationally recognized artists, while RCA would generate business for its pressing plant (which was still operating well below capacity), and wring out some additional revenue by recycling previously issued Victor and Bluebird recordings. The discs were openly credited to RCA Victor in Ward’s advertising, but never on the labels. Well-pressed and retailing for only 21¢ each, or 10 for $1.79, Montgomery Ward records were an undeniable bargain for consumers, although RCA’s margins must have been razor-thin.

RCA was now suffering from a case of label bloat, producing three largely redundant budget brands of its own, in addition to pressing for Montgomery Ward. The company continued to produce the latter through 1941 (aside from several short-lived dalliances with other producers), but Electradisk and Sunrise were targeted for elimination. After allowing Electradisk to languish for several months, RCA finally scuttled the label in February 1934. Sunrise somehow survived until May of that year. With the passing of those labels, Bluebird claimed its place as RCA’s sole budget brand.

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* The RCA executives were mistaken in their assessment of the American Record Corporation. ARC had recently been licensed to produce the Brunswick and Vocalion labels (along with Brunswick’s cut-rate Melotone line), and its acquisition of Columbia in April 1934 would elevate the company to the nation’s second-largest record producer.

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Selected References

“Bluebird.” U.S. trademark filing (June 8, 1937). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Bolig, John R. The Bluebird Discography, Vol. 1. Denver: Mainspring Press (2015).

— . The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1942. Denver: Mainspring Press (2014).

“RCA Victor” (advertisement, with first known trade-publication listing of new Bluebird releases). Radio-Music Merchant (May 1934), p. 14.

RCA Victor Co., Inc. Crown Records production-history cards. New York: Sony Music Archives.

—. Minutes of the Management Committee (1931). Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE.

—. President’s Reports to the Board of Directors (1931–1932). Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE.

—. Recording ledgers and production history cards. New York: Sony Music Archives.

 

For more on RCA Victor and its predecessor companies, see American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950: An Encyclopedic History, newly released by Mainspring Press

 

© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard (Mary Howard Recordings / MHR Records)

Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard

An excerpt from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950 (Mainspring Press)

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MARY HOWARD RECORDINGS  (Discs)

Record Production: 1942 — Mid 1950s
Offices: 37 E. 49th St., New York
Original-Master Source(s): Own studio at above address
Pressing: New York Record Company (Brooklyn)

Record Products: Mary Howard Recordings, MHR; masters for New Music Recordings and possibly other independent labels; radio transcriptions, air-checks, custom and private recordings

Mary Shipman Howard was the first American woman to own and operate a successful modern recording studio. A classically trained musician, she began experimenting with a portable recording machine in the late 1930s. After failing to find employment as a recording engineer, in 1940 she accepted a secretary’s position in the National Broadcasting Company’s New York engineering department.

When the draft began taking a toll on NBC’s male staff, Howard was tapped to replace a departing engineer. Initially, she was assigned to supervise (but not actively participate in) recording sessions for RCA Victor where, she recalled, “I didn’t do anything except sit with my eyes falling out of my head, and my ears dropping off. It was fascinating.”

In the meantime, Howard had opened her own private studio nearby, as a part-time venture offering private recording services, although she apparently had not yet fully mastered her craft. In 1942, composer and recorder virtuoso Harold Newman withheld payment to her, citing unsatisfactory work. The case was settled out of court, and Newman went on to launch his own Hargail label.

The Newman incident aside, Howard was soon attracting a small but select clientele, including composer-pianist Charles Ives (who visited the studio several to make private recordings) and Arturo Toscanini (who commissioned her to make air-checks of his  broadcasts). In late 1945 or early 1946, Mary Howard Recordings became a full-time operation, with the assistance of Joyce Fraser. The studio quickly gained a reputation among musicians for its high-quality work. During the later 1940s, Howard’s staff grew to include Donald Plunkett (chief engineer), Langdon Macdonald (recording engineer), Bob Dixon (production manager), Betty Jane Keilus (commercial manager), and Joseph Roberts (publicity consultant).

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Mary Howard (upper left) and chief recording engineer Don Plunkett in the studio (Audio Record, February 1948)

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Although custom recording was her primary focus, Howard briefly produced her own Mary Howard Recordings and MHR labels commercially, on a modest scale. The initial offerings (one album each by the Herman Chittison Trio and Ethel Waters, and one single each by Dale Belmont and Walter “Foots” Thomas) were announced by Billboard in July 1947, as July and August releases. Pressings were produced by the New York Record Company in Brooklyn and were distributed locally by Wesley Smith in New York. However, little advertising was done, and sales appear to have been meager.

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In addition to its own commercial recordings, Howard’s studio occasionally produced masters for other labels, including New Music Recordings (the revival of New Music Quarterly Recordings) in 1948. A feature article in Audio Record for February of that year reported that the studio was “waiting patiently for the [American Federation of Musicians’ recording] ban to be lifted so they can ‘get going’ again.” However, commercial activity appears to have dwindled following the end of the recording ban, and no mention has been found of Howard’s own labels after 1948. Her Ethel Waters masters were later acquired by Mercury Records.

Mary Howard was one of the first small-studios operators to adopt tape mastering, employing Ampex equipment. She also implemented strict quality-control procedures throughout the company and required that her employees have a working knowledge of the entire production process. In a 1948 Audio Record interview, Howard lamented “a prevalence in large organizations for specialization — cutting technicians, studio technicians, maintenance, etc. — which often results in poor recording because of lack of interest or information in all phases of the recording operation. If interest and enthusiasm were carried all the way through the recording organization, and management, perhaps time might be found to raise the general recording standards in America.”

Mary Howard Recordings continued to offer custom recording services and produce limited-edition, privately issued pressings (including LPs) into the 1950s. The company was last listed by Radio Annual in 1956, as a transcription producer. By then, Howard had moved to Connecticut, where she later remarried and became well-known as dog-show judge and breeder of pugs. She died on November 17, 1976.

© 2108 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Selected References

Lowry, Cynthia. “Broadway.” Munster [IN] Times (Jan 17, 1951), p. 27.

“Mary Howard Recordings Releases First Six Sides.” Billboard (Jul 26, 1947), p. 21.

“Mary Pickhardt Dies; Recorder.” Hartford [CT] Courant (Nov 27, 1976), p. 4.

Shipman, Mary Howard. Interview by Vivian Perlis (Washington, CT; Sep 24, 1969), in Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History (Perlis, editor), pp. 209–211. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2002).

“The War Gave Mary Howard Her Big Chance to Make Good in Recording.” Audio Record (Feb 1948), pp. 1, 4.

“Transcriptions—Recordings: Mary Howard Recordings.” Radio Annual (1949), p. 765.

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Mary Howard on Charles Ives

Excerpted from Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History
(Vivian Perlis, editor), University of Illinois Press

 

“I was the first private person ever to own a Scully lathe. Nobody could afford it. I couldn’t afford it either, but I got a loan from the bank. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, and the most fun were the people who suddenly, by word of mouth only, came to have me make recordings of them.

“Among them, Mr. Ives… Ives came two or three times. The reason he came was that he got letters from conductors and performers who were going to play something, asking how they should interpret the music. He would come storming into the studio — ‘Interpret, interpret! What are they talking about? If they don’t know anything about music — well alright, I’ll tell them.’ So he’d sit down at the piano and play very loudly, and sing and make a running commentary while he was doing it. ‘This is how you do it. Now you’re stupid. Don’t you know, this is how you do it… .’

“I had a very erratic elevator in my building. I’d hear a great crash and then a great shout, and I’d know that Ives was out of it. Then he’d sit down and talk about the elevator in no uncertain terms for three minutes… Ives was absolutely full of beans and it wasn’t bad temper. It was just excitement… He’d pound and pound, and Mrs. Ives would say, ‘Now please take a rest.’ He drank quantities of iced tea, and he’d calm down and then go back at it again, saying, ‘I’ve got to make them understand.’

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Collectors’ Corner (MP3): Some January Finds – Sophie Tucker, Fletcher Henderson, Curtis Mosby, Wingy Mannone, Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell

Collectors’ Corner (MP3): Some January Finds – Sophie Tucker, Fletcher Henderson, Curtis Mosby, Wingy Mannone, Jelly Roll Morton, Luis Russell

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Some good jazz and personality pickings in January, plus another bumper-crop of cylinders that we’ll get around to posting when time allows. In the meantime, here are a few electrical-era favorites from this month’s finds:

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SOPHIE TUCKER: I Never Can Think of the Words (EE-)

London: October 1930
Broadcast Twelve 5195 (L-0763 – 1)
With Ted Shapiro (piano) and the Winter Garden Theatre Orchestra (Sydney Baynes, cond.)

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FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA (June Cole, vocal):
Sweet Thing (E- to V++)

New York: December 13, 1926
Columbia (British) 4417 (W 143125 – 6)

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CURTIS MOSBY & HIS DIXIELAND BLUE BLOWERS (Henry Starr, vocal):
In My Dreams (I’m Jealous of You)
(V++)

Los Angeles: October 14, 1927 (Pacific Coast regional release, June 1928)
Columbia 1191-D (mx. W 144763 – 3)

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CURTIS MOSBY & HIS DIXIELAND BLUE BLOWERS: Weary Stomp (E- to V++)

Los Angeles: October 14, 1927 (Pacific Coast regional release, June 1928)
Columbia 1191-D (mx. W 144761 – 2)

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JOE [WINGY] MANNONE’S HARMONY KINGS (Mannone, vocal):
Ringside Stomp
(V++)

New Orleans: April 11, 1927
Columbia 1044-D (mx. W 143952 – 2)

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JELLY ROLL MORTON & HIS RED HOT PEPPERS: Georgia Swing (V+)

Liederkranz Hall, New York: June 11, 1928 (released February 22, 1929)
Victor V-38024 (mx. BVE 45619 – 2)

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LUIS RUSSELL & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Dixie Jazz Band): The Way He Loves Is Just Too Bad (E- to V+)

New York: September 13, 1929
Oriole 1726 (American Record Corp. mx. 9007 – 1, as control 2533 – 1)

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Pioneer Midwestern Cylinder Companies – Two Excerpts from “American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950”

PIONEER MIDWESTERN CYLINDER COMPANIES

Two excerpts from
American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950

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IOWA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1889

Offices: Metropolitan Block, Sioux City, IA (to 5/1892); 5th & Jackson Sts., Sioux City (from 5/1892)

A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in Iowa. The state originally was to have been covered by the Nebraska Phonograph Company, which was first organized in November 1888 but apparently failed to launch at that time. A reorganized Nebraska Phonograph was formed on January 31, 1889, at which time the Iowa territory was abandoned and reallocated to the newly formed Iowa Phonograph Company.

Iowa Phonograph’s officers included W. P. Manley (president), C. J. Brackenbush (vice-president), Whitfield Stinson (secretary), and G. A. Beach (general manager). Among its directors was Erastus A. Benson, who had been a director of the short-lived Central Nebraska Phonograph Company and was also serving as president of the reorganized Nebraska Phonograph Company. Interviewed by a reporter for The Sioux City Journal, Benson expounded at length on the phonograph’s business uses but mentioned its potential as a entertainment device only in passing, noting, “songs of the finest singers and musical productions” could be had.

In July 1889, Beach secured permission to record members of the well-known Bostonians theatrical troupe (including Jesse Bartlett Davis, H. C. Barnabee, and Marie Stone) during their performance of The Bohemian Girl at the Peavey Grand in Sioux City. When the results proved barely audible without the aid of ear-tubes, additional recordings of the troupe were taken in the company’s offices, with mixed results. A reporter for the Journal concluded, “It is very doubtful if the phonograph will become an important factor in the musical world until is has reached a greater degree of perfection…[it] talks plainly enough but does not as yet sing or whistle becomingly.”

A month later, the recently arrived Walter S. Gray gave a private exhibition to three Journal reporters at which he played cylinders by local performers, including Beach himself. “The instrumental work sounded somewhat ‘choppy’…metallic and strident,” one reporter observed. “The phonograph…imparts to singing a ‘machiney’ flavor.”

In late May 1890, the Iowa Phonograph Company was said to have “hardly got a start,” due to a lack of trust among local business owners after the company placed some unreliable machines in local offices. However, its entertainment business fared better. In August 1890, it was reported that the company was looking into the possibility of making and distributing recordings of the bands that were to perform at that year’s Corn Palace festivities.

In February 1893, Beach employed his son Charles (who at the time was embroiled in a scandalous affair with one of the Beach household’s servants) to record tenor solos for Iowa Phonograph. A month later, he was replaced as general manager by Whitfield Stinson. The company appears to have been inactive by the end of 1893, although its corporate charter was not officially cancelled until 1909.

Selected References

“Corn Palace Preparations.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 22, 1890), p. 22.

North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.

“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 247.

“Phonographing Opera.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Jul 14, 1889), p. 6.

Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.

Smythe, R. M. Obsolete American Securities and Corporations, p. 523. New York: R. M. Smythe (1911).

“The Iowa Phonograph Company.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Mar 13, 1893), p. 9.

“The Iowa Phonograph Company Ready for Business.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Feb 1, 1889), p. 6.

“The Phonograph.” Nebraska State Journal (Nov 14, 1888), p. 8.

“The Phonograph. An Exhibition of its Powers, More Especially in a Musical Manner.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 7, 1889), p. 6.

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OHIO PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1888

Offices: 220 Walnut St., Cincinnati (1888–early 1889); St. Paul Building, 27 W. 4th St., Cincinnati (from early 1889); 163 Elm St., Cincinnati (mid-1894); 427 Vine St., Cincinnati; 122 Euclid Ave., Cleveland (branch office)

A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in the state of Ohio. A certificate of incorporation was filed on November 30, 1888, by James L. Andem, J. W. Dawson, George Moerlin, Frank Overbeck, and W. J. Overbeck. (Newspapers of the period sometimes stumbled over Andem’s name; he is referred to as Amden, Anderson, and even Adams in various reports.)

The Ohio Phonograph Company was headquartered in Cincinnati, under Andem’s management. Arthur E. Smith managed the Cleveland branch office before resigning in the spring of 1892. In September 1892, Andem published the first detailed phonograph operators’ manual, his sixty-four page Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph.

The company opened coin-operated phonograph arcades in Cleveland and Cincinnati in September and November 1890, respectively. Each housed ten to twelve machines, with a single selection on each, and titles were changed each morning. The Phonogram reported, “On Saturdays and Sundays these exhibition parlors are crowded, and oftentimes quite an effort must be made before one can get possession of the coveted hearing-tubes when a cabinet contains a popular selection… Attached to the side of each machine is a napkin and holder to enable parties to cleanse the hearing tubes before listening, in case they desire to do so.”

Many selections in the Ohio Phonograph catalog were likely obtained from the North American Phonograph and New Jersey Phonograph / United States Phonograph companies. However, there are reliable reports from the period that the company also made and marketed its own recordings. It recorded and demonstrated a “choice selection of airs” by Cincinnati baritone Tim Sullivan in February 1891. Four months later, Andem reported that the company had “hired a gentleman from an adjoining territory [Kentucky] to sing a number of banjo songs.” A December 1891 advertisement suggested that Dan Kelly’s “Pat Brady” comic recordings were original, which was later confirmed by a Phonogram report declaring that “Mr. Kelly spends his spare time in making records for the Ohio Phonograph Company.” The Phonoscope for November 1896 reported that Ohio Phonograph was making “some very fine band records.”

The Edison Phonographic News for July–August 1896 confirmed that Ohio Phonograph was operating a studio in Cincinnati, “which, although in the heart of the city, affords perfect quietness.” It was briefly managed by Calvin G. Child, who left the company in late 1896 to work for Emile Berliner and would later be a key figure in the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

In January 1894, J. W. Dawson filed suit against Andem, charging that he had consistently elected a board of directors “subservient to his will,” had been “extravagant in his management” of the company, and had appointed himself agent of a rival company handling graphophones. The company’s sales for 1893 were said to be $6,244 less than in the previous year, while expenses were $4953 more. On January 11, 1897, Ohio Phonograph was placed in the hands of a receiver, although its liabilities were said to be “trifling.”

Andem reorganized the Ohio Phonograph Company in the spring of 1897 as the Edison Phonograph Company of Ohio (q.v.), a large regional concern that had no connection to Thomas Edison’s companies and was eventually ordered to stop using the Edison name. The artists recording for Andem at that time, as listed in The Phonoscope for May 1897, appear to have been local performers. Andem went on to serve as secretary of the New York Phonograph Company during the period in which that company was engaged in a prolonged (and ultimately fruitless) legal battle with Edison’s National Phonograph Company.

Another Ohio Phonograph Company, based in Columbus and operated by H. H. Meyers (who sold it to F. A. Drake in 1899) appears to have been unrelated to Andem’s operation and is not known to have produced recordings.

Selected References

“A Noted Record Maker, Dan Kelly, of Cincinnati, O.” Phonogram (Mar-Apr 1893), p. 363.

“A Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Aug–Sep 1892), p. v.

“A Row Among Stockholders of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Cincinnati Enquirer (Jan 28, 1894), p. 16.

“Cincinnati Illustrated.” Edison Phonographic News (Jul–Aug 1896), p. 21.

“General News.” Phonoscope (Dec 1896), p. 9

“Humorous Talking Records for the Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 265.

New and Selected Records for the Phonograph, for Sale by the Ohio Phonograph Company (1894 catalog).

North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.

“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 243.

“Phonograph Company Incorporated.” Columbus [IN] Republic (Dec 1, 1888), p. 1.

“Phonograph Company Liquidating.” New Orleans Times-Picayune (Jan 12, 1897), p. 4.

Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.

Proceedings of Second Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States, Held at New York, June 16, 17 & 18, 1891, pp. 62–63. New York: Linotype Reporting & Printing Company (1891).

“The Automatic Phonograph in St. Louis—A New Industry Yet in Its Infancy.” Phonogram (Jun–Jul 1891), p. 139.

“The Exhibition Parlors of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), pp. 248–249.

“Trade Notes.” Phonoscope (Nov 1896), p. 9.

Untitled notice (re: Tim Sullivan recordings). Cincinnati Enquirer (Feb 11, 1889), p. 8.
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©2018 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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For information on all of the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and dozens of other early cylinder producers, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950: An Encyclopedic History, available exclusively from Mainspring Press. This is a limited edition — order soon!

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

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

Article updated 1/4/2019 — Long before the Trump presidency, the Mueller investigation, and the latest revelations coming from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable sources, the Russians were infiltrating American society. The saga of Boris Morros, then, is particularly timely. In Morros’ case, his conscience finally won out. He confessed to the FBI and ultimately redeemed himself by serving admirably as a double agent for the next decade.

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In May 1934, Boris Morros, a musical director for Paramount Pictures, was secretly contacted by a member of the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which under orders from the Kremlin was attempting to plant Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be Morros’ “handler.”

A decade later, Zubilin arranged for American Soviet operatives  Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern to buy into Morros’ music-publishing operation. With $130,000 from the Sterns, Morros launched the American Recording Artists (ARA) label, which (in addition to producing some fairly decent records) served as a cover for an extensive Soviet spy ring. The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected, and label was a success—at least briefly.

Morros redeemed himself on July 14, 1947, when he came clean to the FBI. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts for the next ten years.

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

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

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Boris Morros in the late 1930s

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Morros advanced quickly at Paramount, and by 1940 he was a well-known figure in Hollywood. With his newfound celebrity, he once again caught the attention of the Soviets. In December 1941, he was contacted again by the NKVD, who blackmailed him into organizing covers for two Soviet spies. In exchange, the Soviets agreed to stop harassing some of Morros’ family members who remained in Russia. In March 1944, Zubilin assigned NKVD officer Jack Soble to be Morros’ new “handler.” “Our comrade,” Zubilin told Soble, “is completely devoted to the Motherland and is one of our most trusted and loyal agents.”

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

Alfred Stern was awarded presidency of the new record company. He was ordered fill sales positions with as many undercover Soviet agents as possible, while Morros was left to handle the recording operation and present an “American” front to the public.

As Soble later confessed, the entire operation was “a ‘blind’ for a widespread Soviet espionage network. Bosses and “salesmen” [were] Russian intelligence agents… The stars, of course, had no way of knowing that they were being used as attractive window-dressing for an outfit organized to be a clearinghouse for spies throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America.”

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Sterns and Morros at the time of the 1957 trial

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

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

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Boris Morros Recalls Russia’s Strong-Arm Tactics During His Time at ARA Records (1944 – 1945)

 

A brief excerpt from Morros’ 1959 memoir, My Ten Years as a Counterspy (New York: Viking Press)

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“That summer [1944]  it became known all over the music trade that I had latched on to an angel with a wide-open checkbook. I was even approached with offers to buy Muzak, the company that supplies “canned music” to restaurants and hotels all over the coun­try. We visited ex-Senator William E. Benton of Connecticut, who was then an official of the Muzak corporation, but Stern, who was the one who would put up the money, decided that the price of $600,000 asked for the properties was too high. He would go no higher than $400,000…

“During August, Stern visited Hollywood, and I made the aston­ishing discovery that he already knew more about music, both artistically and commercially, than Paul Whiteman, myself, and Stravinsky combined. Meanwhile, I had surmounted many of our difficulties, and records were being produced. That fall we had a hit recording by Joe Reichman’s band. This was “Nobody’s Home on the Range,” a travesty of the song “Home on the Range,” which had boomed into renewed popularity because it was President Roosevelt’s favorite.

“But Stern disapproved of almost everything we were doing. He disliked my office staff, including my sales manager. He wanted the man discharged, and wished me to switch control of the sales department to his office. Above all, he thought that we should con­centrate on songs of a more cultural type. For example, he disap­proved of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” as a vulgar title, and pre­dicted it would never be popular. He asked a million questions such as “Why don’t we sign up Bing Crosby instead of his brother Bob?” It was tiresome to have to point out that someone had had the same idea years before.

“This was the man to whom I had to explain a few months before what a bar of music was, what the refrain was, the man who asked the usual foolish question, “What is written first—the words or the music?”

“All that fall Stern showered me with daily letters of five to eight pages each. On hearing that we needed record-pressing equip­ment, he rushed out and bought $17,000 worth of second-hand presses that were so outmoded they could not be used.

“I am afraid I was not very patient with my vice-president. By this time I had three shifts working in our little plant. They were turning out thirty thousand platters a day. They had to. Our “No­body’s Home on the Range” record was headed for the hit class.

“Shortly after the partnership arrangement started, both Soble and Stern began pressing me to open a branch in Mexico City. They were still at it, though I had stalled that deal with the argu­ment that before we could do any such thing we must have enough numbers to distribute to Justify a catalogue. However, I was getting more infuriated every day with Stern’s silly letters of abuse and criticism. By now he was disapproving not only of the songs but of the arrangements.

“At the end of the year I decided that life was too short to bother with this money man, and so informed Soble. But it was not until March—this was in 1945—that Jack decided he must do something to calm down both of us. He came with Stern to California to settle our differences. They arrived toward the end of the month and visited the plant.

“‘He is a musical ignoramus on all levels,” I told Soble. “I feel it is impossible to go along with him. The only thing we can do now is to break up this ridiculous partnership.’

“‘Artistic temperament!” clucked Jack Soble.

“The next day they came back to the plant. When the angry words started to fly all over again, Soble suggested that we go to my home in Beverly Hills. I suppose he did not want our employ­ees to hear the dispute. My visitors stayed in Hollywood about a week. Soble, trying to act as peacemaker, kept repeating that the Cause was the one thing that counted, not my petty grievances or Alfred’s. We Just had to get along.

“I have never pretended to be an even-tempered man. During that stormy week I called Stern every foul name I could think of in all the languages I knew—and I know profanity as it is spoken and spluttered around the world. Stern, the Harvard man, just sat there and took it with the uncomprehending look of a hurt child.

“When the week was over with the issue unresolved, Soble said he had to get back to New York. But he was sure that some way to reconcile our differences would occur to him. He asked me to go with them on their trip East so that we would have further talks while traveling. I got a compartment that connected with the drawing room they shared.

En route Soble came up with what he considered the sure-fire solution: if I would agree to continue working with Stern he would invest another $100,000 in the company.

“I refused this, telling Soble, “I don’t want any more of his money. In fact I would be happy to buy back his twenty-five-per­cent share of the business for what he paid for it.”

“‘This is going to make Vasya Zubilin very, very angry,’ Soble said. ‘I’m afraid that he will be very hard on your family in Russia —unless you cooperate.'”

“‘You said you were going to investigate this whole matter,’ I reminded him. ‘You have not been impartial. What I want is a simple thing: to be left alone to do my job, unbothered by nincom­poops.'” I glared at Stern.

“On reaching New York, we had a final meeting at the Tavern-on-the-Green Restaurant. When it ended, we were as far apart as ever.

“A couple of nights later Martha Dodd Stern visited me in my hotel room at the Sherry-Netherland. She was all sweetness and light. Martha blamed herself for neglecting to take a more active part in the business. ‘If I had, Boris,’ she said, ‘there would have been no such misunderstandings between you two tried and true Communists.’ She kept pounding at the point Soble had: The wel­fare of the Party should be our only consideration.

“‘Sorry, Martha, my dear,’ I said, ‘you are being very charming and sweet, wistful and feminine—but too many wrong things have been done, too many said.’

“My lawyers began drawing up the papers for dissolving the partnership in April. I paid Stern $100,000 for his one-quarter interest in the Boris Morros Company and its record-making sub­sidiary, American Recording Artists.

“He rendered an account of how the $30,000 allotted him had been spent. I was amazed to see that he had given Zubilin $5,000 cash and charged it to the company. He had also charged petty items, including the purchase of a record player and two dozen tennis balls for Zubilin, as well as the full cost of his and Soble’s trip to Hollywood.

“But I was glad to get rid of him. I thought I was also extricating myself from Jack Soble’s spy ring. To put it mildly, I was being naively optimistic.

“I had been willing to pay a high price for the privilege of disas­sociating myself. To raise the $100,000 in cash to pay off Stern, I was forced to sell my share of a film property. But they still wished me to engage in a new venture with Alfred K. Stern.

“Jack Soble kept coming to see me. ‘What can I do, Boris?’ he said. ‘You have put me in the difficult position of having to write a bad report on you to Moscow. I am holding it back. I am afraid that Zubilin will be unable to control himself when he hears that you have split up with Alfred. I’d hate to feel responsible for the extermination of your relatives in Russia. Wouldn’t you?'”

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Selected References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records: The Authoritative History

Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records:
The Authoritative History
By Allan Sutton

Text from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888–1950:
An Encyclopedic History
(Mainspring Press, 2018)

This new account, incorporating previously unpublished information from internal company documents and Pace’s and Du Bois’ personal correspondence (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries) is a preliminary study for the author’s full-length Black Swan history and discography, currently in preparation.

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Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Company was the second black-owned and operated record company (preceded only by George W. Broome’s short-lived venture), and the first to succeed commercially, if only briefly.

A 1903 graduate of Atlanta University, Pace initially worked in banking, but his interests turned increasingly to music. He and W. C. Handy collaborated on their first song in 1907, and in 1912 the pair formed the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. The company had its first major hit in 1914, with the publication of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and in 1918 it relocated to New York. Pace resigned in late 1920 to launch his recording operation, taking some key personnel with him. Handy recalled, “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace. Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”

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W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)

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On December 27, 1920, Pace wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois that he had formed a corporation to manufacture phonograph records. He held open the possibility of involving others, telling Du Bois, “I made the capital stock elastic enough so as to take others into it if the idea met very favorable consideration.” The letter makes clear that it was Du Bois who suggested the name “Black Swan,” in honor of the pioneering African-American diva, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Pace reported to Du Bois that he had already made test recordings by Ford Dabney’s Orchestra and was hoping to do the same with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert and a very young Marian Anderson.

Pace invited Du Bois to join the new company’s board and provide whatever funding he could. The Pace Phonograph Corporation was formally chartered as a Delaware corporation in January 1921, with Du Bois initially purchasing a single share. The officers at the time of incorporation were Pace (president and treasurer) and D. L. Haynes (secretary). Directors, in addition to Du Bois, included Levi C. Brown, T. K. Gibson, William Lewis, John E. Nail, and Emmett J. Scott. Pace and Du Bois found eager investors not only in Harlem, but in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, and other far-flung locations. Among them was comedian Bert Williams, who according to an advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.”

Harry Pace’s townhouse at 257 West 138th Street served as Black Swan’s first office. Among the employees Pace took from Pace & Handy Music was Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., a young pianist from Georgia whom Handy had recently hired as a song demonstrator. Henderson’s defection garnered him the position of recording director and house accompanist, although Pace later admitted he felt that Henderson was not fully qualified. William Grant Still, one of W. C. Handy’s staff arrangers, also made the move.

The studio in which Pace initially recorded remains a subject of debate. The location is not mentioned in any of Pace’s or Du Bois’ known correspondence, nor is there any suggestion in those letters that Pace equipped his own studio or hired a recording engineer. A New York Age article from June 1921 confirms that Pace did not yet have his own studio, reporting that the company was “planning to establish its own laboratory [i.e., studio] in the near future.” If any of Pace’s pre-production tests have survived, they have not been located for inspection. However, most of the early issued masters appear to have been recorded by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon physical and aural characteristics.

Black Swan records were in production by the early spring of 1921, with initial releases planned for May. Pressing was to be handled by John Fletcher’s Olympic Disc Record Corporation plant in Long Island City. Newly incorporated, Olympic commenced operations in March 1921, the same month in which the earliest issued Black Swan recordings are believed to have been made. Like Black Swan, Olympic advertised its first records as May releases, and their physical characteristics were identical with those of the earliest Black Swan pressings, confirming Harry Pace’s recollection that they were pressed in what he termed the “Remington factory” (the Remington Phonograph Company being Olympic’s parent corporation).

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(Left) An early first-state Black Swan label, showing the sunken ring around the spindle hole and other tell-tale Olympic pressing-plant characteristics. (Right) A second-state label, pressed by the New York Recording Laboratories. Based upon the typeface, it appears that both labels were supplied by the same printer.

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From the start, Pace found himself torn between two disparate markets within the African-American community — a relatively small, affluent group that championed what it saw as culture and refinement (mirroring Pace’s own background and musical preferences), and a larger working-class group with a growing appetite for jazz and blues records. In August 1921, Pace told The Talking Machine World, “While it is true that we will feature to a great extent ‘blue’ numbers of the type that are in current favor, we will also release many numbers of a higher standard.” In his attempts to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution his choice of artists and repertoire.

The first three Black Swan records were announced as ready for delivery on May 4, 1921. Pace’s preference for “numbers of a “higher standard” was immediately apparent. For the inaugural release (#2001), he chose two old concert pieces, “At Dawning” and “Thank God for a Garden,” sung by soprano Revella Hughes, with violin, cello, and piano accompaniment. There followed two equally straightforward sides by concert baritone Carroll C. Clark, then two blues-inflected pop tunes by vaudevillian Katie Crippen. The company sold a modest 10,300 records during its first month of sales, according to a report in The Crisis.

The black press (particularly The Chicago Defender) cast Pace’s attempt to launch Black Swan as nothing less than an epic struggle between good and evil. The venture had barely been launched when the Defender proclaimed that “a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.” If there was an uproar, it went unreported in trade journals like The Talking Machine World, which covered Black Swan to the same extent as the other small startups of the period, was supportive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.

One of the Defender’s most absurd claims, flying in the face of what are now well-established facts, was that the Remington Phonograph Company had purchased the Olympic pressing plant for the sole purpose of denying service to Pace — conveniently ignoring the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed for Pace, albeit briefly. What actually caused Pace to move his pressing business from Olympic was a surge in orders. In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (the New York Recording Laboratories’ headquarters), Pace reported, “I am here arranging for an increased fall and winter production together with a line of Black Swan Phonographs.”

The NYRL pressing plant, although geographically remote, had the capacity for large-scale record production that Olympic lacked, and the company was actively courting new customers. Since Pace was already using NYRL’s New York studio, the move from Olympic made logistical sense, consolidating all Black Swan production within a single company. Black Swan pressings from the summer of 1921 into the spring of 1922 show the unmistakable characteristics of NYRL’s work.

The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough, and Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest releases failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to bring national attention to Black Swan. The situation changed with Pace’s signing of Ethel Waters in April 1921. Already a veteran of the southern vaudeville circuits, Waters was attracting a strong following at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem.

Waters had already recorded two titles for Criterion Laboratories, an independent studio that supplied several small labels, but there had been no immediate takers (Cardinal eventually released them in September 1921), and Waters decided to visit Pace. Her first Black Swan release (“Down Home Blues” / “Oh Daddy”) was released in July 1921 and became a sizable hit. In October, Pace signed Waters to an exclusive Black Swan contract that reportedly made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time. In November, she was sent on an extended tour as the star of the Black Swan Troubadours, eventually playing in twenty-one states.

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Black Swan’s first hit: “Down Home Blues” (here advertised in August 1921) brought national attention to Ethel Water and Black Swan. Pace plugged many of Waters’ subsequent releases as “Another ‘Down Home Blues'” (the example above is from late 1922), but none approached the popularity of the original.

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Thanks largely to Waters’ records, Black Swan developed a small following among white customers, including some stage and film stars. It was widely reported that actress Marilyn Miller had presented a “large selection” of Black Swan records to Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) on their wedding day. The Dallas Express reported, “It is now becoming quite a fad with many stars of the theatrical profession, who have found something different in these all-Colored records, to have them sent to their friends in various parts of the country.”

Pace, however, failed to capitalize on that momentum. He placed no advertising in the white consumer publications and made little effort to court the important trade publications. His advertisements in The Talking Machine World, which did not begin running until August 1921, often appeared to be halfhearted efforts, sometimes simply listing a few artists’ names, or dwelling on past hits rather than fresh releases.

Trixie Smith, Pace’s next star, was signed in January 1922, shortly after she took first place at the Fifteenth Regiment Blues Contest in Harlem. With Waters and Smith on his roster, Pace found it easier to attract new singers. However, the oft-repeated tale that he auditioned Bessie Smith, and rejected her after she stopped to spit in the midst of her test recording, is apocryphal. It appears to have originated in the 1940s with W. C. Handy, who was prone to spinning colorful tales and is unlikely to have been present at the alleged session, given his strained relationship with Pace.

With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, distribution proved to be a stumbling block. Pace was unable to obtain national coverage through the major jobbers. Although racial prejudice was likely a factor in some cases, small white-owned startups had experienced the same problem for many years. In Pace’s case, however, the major distributors’ lack of confidence probably was compounded by his inexperience in the record business and Black Swan’s targeting of a still-unproven market.

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Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.

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Pace countered by recruiting small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell the records wherever and however they could. In June 1921, he hired Paul Robeson (who was then a student at Rutgers) as a part-time salesman, but missed the opportunity to record him. That autumn, Pace hired C. Udell Turpine (given as Turpin in some accounts) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpine brought along several professional salesmen from a previous venture, but he continued to build Pace’s network of small retailers and individual salespeople as well, advertising in The Crisis, “We want men and women with a backbone and a desire to earn $100 a week…men and women who don’t care what $20 a week people think.”

In March 1922, Pace published a Black Swan distributor map in The Crisis that looked impressive at first glance, with all forty-eight states covered to varying degrees. The heaviest concentrations were east of the Mississippi, but nearly every state had a distributor or jobber, and at least a few retail dealers. However, the largest number of dots on the map represented “agents,” those independent salespeople who peddled the records door-to-door, on street corners, or wherever else they could.

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Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis for March 1922.

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In January 1922, The New York Age perhaps unintentionally revealed the company’s financial fragility when it reported that Black Swan had made a profit of slightly more than $3,300 on sales of $104,628.74 in 1921. Although the reporter seemed impressed by the latter figure, it was minuscule by industry standards of the day. Given that Black Swan records initially retailed for $1 (reduced to 85¢ late in the year), and normal wholesale rates were 50% of list price, Black Swan’s 1921 sales probably amounted to between a quarter- and a half-million records, depending upon the ratio of wholesale to direct retail sales. In the same year, Victor sold nearly fifty-five million records.

April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of the Red Label series, an obvious play on Victor’s prestigious Red Seals. Victor, which for years had taken legal action against competitors’ use of red labels on classical records, does not appear to have taken any such action in Black Swan’s case, casting further doubt on the Defender’s claims that the white recording establishment was out to destroy Pace.

The Red Label listing included operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert and Antoinette Garnes, and concert selections by Hattie King Reavis. In December 1922, Pace tried to secure concert tenor Roland Hayes for Black Swan, only to be informed by Hayes that he was under contract to Aeolian in England. The series sputtered along until being discontinued in May 1923, marking the end of Pace’s involvement in the classical market.

In April 1922, Pace, in partnership with John Fletcher and Michael Naughton, purchased the trademark, masters, and facilities of Fletcher’s defunct Olympic venture. The Fletcher Record Company, Inc., was chartered in New York on May 26, 1922. With Fletcher as president and Pace as vice president and treasurer, it was the first American record company to have a racially mixed executive team, a situation that received only a passing mention the trade papers.

The Fletcher Record Company initially served as the new studio and pressing plant for Black Swan records. The Pace Phonograph Corporation remained in business as a separate entity, and Pace-produced Black Swan labels continued to credit the Pace Phonograph Corporation. Following the acquisition, Pace reported, “We are now issuing ten numbers a month instead of three…. We do our own recording, plating, pressing, as well as printing of every description, in the above plant.” However, the operation soon proved to be unprofitable. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.”

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Fletcher-era Black Swan pressings; note the return of the sunken ring surrounding the spindle hole, which is absent on the New York Record Laboratories’ and Bridgeport Die & Machine Company’s Black Swan pressings. Black Swan 60006 is a reissue from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, with xylophonist George Hamilton Green disguised as “Raymond Green.”

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Fletcher revived his Olympic label later that year, with an all-white artist roster. Pace had already reissued some older Olympic recordings on Black Swan, under pseudonyms, breaking his pledge to use only black artists. By July 1922, so much outside material was being released under the Black Swan label that the catalog was split into ten separately numbered series. Of those, only the 14000 race series (replacing the original 2000s) and 7100 operatic series remained pure Pace productions, reserved exclusively for black artists. The remainder (which included Hawaiian, novelty, sacred, novelty, and classical series) were made up almost entirely of pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s Olympic catalog. In an ironic twist, the nation’s first successful race-record label was now producing its own racially segregated catalog, while continuing the claim that it employed only black talent.

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Pace broke his pledge to use only black artists even before going into partnership with John Fletcher. By the time this ad appeared in The Crisis in late 1922, the Black Swan catalog contained many pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, including the “Xmas records” advertised here.

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The aliases employed by Black Swan for Olympics’ white artists were obviously contrived to suggest black performers. Various Harry Yerkes groups became “Joe Brown’s Alabama Band” or “Sammy Swift’s Jazz Band,” Rudy Wiedeoft’s Californians became “Haynes’ Harlem Syncopators,” xylophonist George Hamilton Green became “Raymond Green,” and novelty whistler Margaret McKee was renamed “Bessie Johnson.” Recordings by Irving Weiss’ Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Fred Van Eps’ Quartet, and Wiedoeft’s Palace Trio were released as “Ethel Waters’ Jazz Masters” while Waters was on tour and likely unaware of the subterfuge. Some Olympic recordings by conventional white dance bands were credited to “Henderson’s Dance Orchestra” or “Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra,” with no first name given but obviously meant to imply Fletcher Henderson’s involvement, even after Henderson had left the company.

At least one newspaper was taken in. A reporter for the Defender praised the Baltimore Blues Orchestra, “a new musical organization…doing exclusive recording for Black Swan records,” unaware that name was simply a disguise for several white dance bands from the Olympic roster. Whether record buyers suspected a ruse went unreported, but Black Swan sales began to stall.

Pace reported sales of only 256,202 Black Swan records for fiscal year 1922. In his November 1922 financial statement, he disclosed that Black Swan had experienced “the greatest slump since we began business” during July. The slump persisted into early October, by which time Pace seemed resigned to average monthly sales of only 25,000 records. “I am trying to devise some sales plan whereby this figure can be greatly increased,” he wrote to Du Bois, “but regret to say that I have not yet hit upon it.” In the same month, Pace set up a dummy collection agency to handle delinquent accounts. Although it netted only $544 in its first month, he seemed pleased with that figure and reported that the operation was “still pulling them in.”

Pace advertised a new stock issue in October 1922, promising a “certain” 6% return in three years, plus 6% dividends.” The stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming. On January 20, 1923, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was reorganized as the Black Swan Record Company. The change marked the end of Pace’s entanglement with John Fletcher, who would file for bankruptcy in December 1923. With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for his pressings, using the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut to handle the occasional overflow. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.

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Letterheads for the original Pace Phonograph Corporation (above) and the Black Swan Phonograph Company (below), a 1923 reorganization of the original corporation following Pace’s split with John Fletcher.

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The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter had been the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she signed with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed in November 1922 and was replaced as recording manager by William Grant Still. Pace, who had not been satisfied with Henderson’s work, predicted that “Still will bring wider experience and more technical musical knowledge than Henderson has had, and I believe will greatly improve the work of the records,” which did not prove to be the case. The major artist exodus occurred after reorganization, beginning with Trixie Smith’s defection to Paramount in March 1923.

Smith was followed in short order by Josie Miles, Julia Moody, Lena Wilson, and others, many of whom subsequently signed on as free-lance artists with music-publisher and talent-broker Joe Davis. In the meantime, Ethel Waters had begun touring on her own, and when the Black Swan Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discovery that the business was barely operating.

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Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.

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The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, but only a handful of new Black Swan releases were forthcoming after July, and some that were announced apparently are not known to have been  released. Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan session, in or around early August. The label’s final release (Ethel Waters’ “Sweet Man Blues” / “Ethel Sings ’Em,” recorded in June at her final Black Swan session) was advertised in The Chicago Defender for December 22, 1923. Black Swan advertised in the Defender for the last time on February 23, 1924. Even then, Pace was still soliciting “agents in every community.”

Pace’s debts (which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services) had become unmanageable by the end of 1923. In January 1924, NYRL executive M. A. Supper traveled from Wisconsin to New York to negotiate a buyout of Pace’s operation. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. The Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but purely as a holding company. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be licensed to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.

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A redesigned Black Swan label appeared in early 1923 (left), following Pace’s split with John Fletcher. Pressings bearing this label were produced by both the New York Recording Laboratories and the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (the example pictured here came from the latter). The ill-fated Paramount–Black Swan Record was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, after licensing Pace’s masters.

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Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when NYRL’s advertising logo was changed to read “Paramount Records (Combined with Black Swan).” A hybrid Paramount–Black Swan label, combining both companies’ trademarks, was introduced with some fanfare a month later, but it never developed into anything more than a reissue vehicle for previously released Black Swan recordings. Having failed to attract much interest after ninety-nine releases, the Paramount–Black Swan label stalled. The Paramount licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount–Black label had been discontinued.

Pace spent another working to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, a period he characterized in a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors as “worry for me and punishing effort which appears to be wholly unappreciated by some.” He then turned his back on the recording industry, went on earn a law degree from the University of Chicago, and in later years operated an insurance business.

 

Selected References

“A Consolidation.” Chicago Defender (Apr 19, 1924), p. 6.

“A New York Incorporation.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1921), p. 157.

Allen, Walter C. “Report on Black Swan.” Unpublished manuscript (Jun 12, 1961). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press collection.

“Black Swan Artists Broadcast.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 43.

“Black Swan Takes Over Company.” Chicago Defender (Apr 1922).

“Black Swan Records—New Firm Announces First List of Productions.” Chicago Defender (May 4, 1921), p. 8.

“C. Udell Turpin Takes Charge.” Talking Machine World (Oct 15, 1921), p. 46.

“Demand for Ethel Waters Record.” Talking Machine World (Aug 15, 1921), p. 89.

“Distribution System of Black Swan Phonograph Records.” The Crisis (Mar 1922), p 221.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Letter to Roland Hayes (New York, Nov 24, 1922), re: Invitation to record for Black Swan. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

Du Bois, W. E. B., et al. “To the Stockholders of the Black Swan Phonograph Company” (New York, Jan 2, 1926). Du Bois Papers.

“Gives Jack Pickford Black Swan Records as Wedding Present.” Dallas Express (Nov 11, 1922), p. 1.

Handy, W. C. (Arna Bomtemps, editor). Father of the Blues—An Autobiography, pp. 202–203. New York: Macmillan (1941).

“New Incorporations.” New York Times (May 26, 1922), p. 34.

“New Incorporations—Capital Increases.” New York Times (Feb 1, 1923), p. 28

“New Incorporations—Delaware Charters.” New York Times (Feb 5, 1921), p. 22

“New York Charters—Name Changes.” New York Times (Jan 30, 1923), p. 27

“New Incorporations—New York Charters.” New York Times (Jun 25, 1921), p. 13.

“Now the Fletcher Record Company—Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New ­Corporation.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1922), p. 57.

Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 27, 1920), re: Company launch and Du Bois’ proposal of the Black Swan name. Du Bois Papers.

 — . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Mar 21, 1922), re: Financial statement through Dec 31, 1921.

 — . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 23, 1922), re: Roland Hayes, and proposal to press imported Caruso masters.  Du Bois Papers.

 — . Letter to Du Bois, et al. (New York, Jan 19, 1927), re: Ongoing attempts to liquidate Black Swan debt.

 — . Postcard to W. E. B. Du Bois (Port Washington, WI, Jun 24, 1921), re: Preparations for increased record production. Du Bois Papers.

 — . Stockholder Notice (New York, Jan 1, 1923), re: Organization of Black Swan Phonograph Company. Du Bois Papers.

Pace Phonograph Corp. “Black Swan Records.” U.S. trademark filing #149,558 (Jun 23, 1921).

“Pace Phonograph Corp. Changes Name.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1923), p. 124.

“Phonograph Company Making Rapid Progress.” New York Age (Jun 18, 1921), p. 6.

“Purchase Black Swan Business.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1924), p. 168.

“Report of Pace Phonograph Corporation” (Nov 8, 1922). Du Bois Papers.

“Robeson Casts His Chances with Pace Phonograph Co.” Chicago Defender (Jun 18, 1921), p. 9.

“The Horizon” (re: First-month record sales). The Crisis (Aug 1921), p. 176.

“The Horizon” (re: Black Swan distribution and record sales). The Crisis (Mar 1922), p. 220.

“The Swanola—A New Phonograph” (ad). The Crisis (Oct 1921), p. 284.

Thygesen, Helge, et al. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottingham, UK: VJM Publications (1996).

“To the Investing Public.” The Crisis (Nov 1922), p. 282.

“White Phonograph Record Companies Object to Colored Men Making Phonograph Records.” Dallas Express (Feb 26, 1921), p. 3.

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