Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard
An excerpt from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950 (Mainspring Press)
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).
Mary Howard (upper left) and chief recording engineer Don Plunkett in the studio (Audio Record, February 1948)
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.
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.
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.
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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