“These Songs Glorify Depravity”: John McClelland and the Birth of the Dirty-Record Industry

“These Songs Glorify Depravity”: John McClelland and
the Birth of the Dirty-Record Industry
By Allan Sutton

In the early 1930s, comedians Dwight Fiske and Ray Bourbon launched what would come to be called “party labels,” proving there was a ready market for recordings of mildly suggestive material that the major companies wouldn’t touch. But the most prolific (if now long-forgotten) producer of party records in the 1930s was one John Collins McClelland. A well-known Los Angeles entrepreneur, McClelland controlled thousands of jukeboxes and other coin-operated entertainment devices through his National Amusement Company.

McClelland also operated several  side-ventures with ties to National Amusement, some of which appear to have been little more than shell corporations. Among them was the Los Angeles–based Novelty Record Distributors, a.k.a. Novelty Record Company, Hollywood Specialty Recordings, et al. Launched in 1935, it released “adult” material under the Hot Shots from Hollywood label. [1]  In an ironic twist, Milton Swanstrom was recruited as sales manager from the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Company, one of several jukebox manufacturers that had recently taken a strong stance against such records. [2] Perhaps not coincidentally, David Rockola wrote after Swanstrom’s departure,

 

I feel that the use of suggestive songs and questionable ‘ditties’ is jeopardizing the good, clean, well-established and well-thought-of legitimate business of the music operator. People can be very modern and liberal and still dislike to take their wives and children where they will unconsciously and unintentionally be compelled to hear ribald words on a phonograph record. [3]

 

The Hot Shots from Hollywood discs initially were marketed  purely for jukebox use, with the same selection pressed on both sides. Unlike many later party labels, they were professional productions, recorded at the Associated Cinema Studios in Hollywood and nicely pressed by the Allied Record Manufacturing Company, which had taken over Columbia’s former Los Angeles pressing plant. Early releases featured Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, a stage and radio star of the 1920s whose career was in something of a decline. The records were only mildly suggestive and apparently did nothing to sully Edwards’ reputation. In 1940, he would go on to voice Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.”

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The Hots Shots from Hollywood label was recast as Hollywood Hot Shots for the under-the-counter consumer market. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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The records were an immediate hit with local jukebox operators. In August 1936, Billboard reported that Midwestern distribution was being handled by the firm of Gerber & Glass (a major supplier to   jukebox operators), which was “swamped with orders.” [4] Production initially lagged far behind demand. Although Milton Swanstrom reported “increasing business” on October 8, only 806 discs were shipped that week. [5]

In December 1936, McClelland — after noting that demand for the Cliff Edwards records was still exceeding production capacity — announced a new, more mainstream approach for Novelty Record Distributors that “broadens the field and places it in the diversified class, using name singers and orchestra.” [6] Among them were Ben Light, John “Candy” Candido (of the popular duet, Candy & Coco), and Cleo Brown (a pop-blues singer and frequent guest on Bing Crosby’s and Jimmy Dorsey’s 1930s radio broadcasts). McClelland even hired the team of Mac Maurada and Mac McGreevy to pen his lyrics. [7]

Billboard described the material as “new and distinct types of songs never before recorded [that] give the patron a big laugh in addition to beautiful and rhythmic dance music.” [8] Brown recorded five titles for Hot Shots in late 1936, including “Is Jenny Getting Any Anymore?” and “Who’ll Chop Your Suey?” They were standard double-entendre fare, little more suggestive than what Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and other blues artists had recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There were many issues by an impromptu jazz-inflected group labeled the Hollywood Hooters, and Ben Light contributed such titles as “Her Fuller Brush Man” and “Stick It–Shove It–Stuff It” with his Surf Club Boys.

McClelland eventually overcame his production problems, and in 1937 he moved into the consumer market, shortening his label’s name to Hollywood Hot Shots in the process. Now with a different selection on each side, the records were advertised to the general public, albeit cautiously, as “The Life of the Party — Recorded in Hollywood with that ‘Hollywood Touch.’” Generally kept behind the counter, they retailed for $1.25 each, [9] four times the price of a popular mainstream label like Decca or Vocalion. There was even a catalog of sorts, and mail-order service if desired.

McClelland’s off-color recordings soon began showing up on a group of obscure party labels that were clustered in Los Angeles. They were credited to Amusement Record Distributors, Hollywood Specialty Recordings, and other shadowy operations. Most left little or no paper trail, but they appear to have been nothing more than offshoots of, or smoke-screens for, Novelty Record Distributors.

New arrivals included Torchies from Hollywood and Racy Records, both of which got their start by reissuing McClelland’s Hot Shots sides. Despite the reclining semi-nude (and later, fully nude) model on the labels, Racy Records generally promised much more stimulating fare than they actually delivered. Good-Humor, which appears to have have had at least tenuous ties to McClelland, retailed for a whopping $2.50 per record, virtually ensuring its failure.

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The Racy Records label in its original form (top). The later version was more graphic, although content remained rather tame by modern standards. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Inevitably, there was a backlash from that those who demanded “obscene” records be banned, particularly on jukeboxes. Among them was columnist Earl J. Morris, who urged the removal of all “filthy records” from jukeboxes. “Children drop nickels to hear these tunes,” Morris warned. “These songs glorify depravity.” [10] Bowing to public pressure, states and municipalities began acting to outlaw the sale and use of party records. One William Nevin, handed a suspended sentence in Boston for possessing obscene records, asked that his records be returned, only to be informed that the police would attend to them. [11] In Miami, police officers handed over the names of those they arrested for stocking jukeboxes with forbidden records to the appropriate jukebox distributors, who then sent warning letters to the offenders. [12]

The federal government finally became involved in late 1937, when it launched an investigation of the records and their producers [13] under mounting pressure from representatives of the jukebox trade, who complained to the Justice Department that the use of such records on their machines gave jukeboxes “a black eye.” [14] Ultimately, the matter was turned over to the Post Office, which had the power to investigate those suspected of sending “pornographic” materials through the mail. The primary person of interest, it would turn out, was John McClelland.

The investigation was made public on January 4, 1938. [15] Four days later, McClelland was arrested aboard an ocean liner in Honolulu harbor, reportedly bound for Australia. McClelland claimed that he was on vacation and was not attempting to elude prosecution in Los Angeles, [16] where a federal commissioner’s warrant had been issued charging him with using the mails to transport obscene records. [17] It was alleged that McClelland had manufactured approximately 60,000 such records and was mailing 4,000 advertising circulars per month, which themselves were held to be obscene. [18] McClelland was returned to Los Angeles, where he was indicted by a federal grand jury. [19]

None of the commercial party-record offerings of the 1930s were truly pornographic, even by the prudish standards of the day. Most offered little more than trite double-entendre lyrics or sniggering, adolescent humor, punctuated by the occasional expletive. The handful of unabashedly obscene recordings that circulated during the decade, like Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” (from a withheld 1935 American Record Corporation master) were mostly illegally produced dubbings from test pressings that somehow escaped from legitimate producers.

By 1940, many party record labels carried warnings that jukebox use was prohibited. In the same year, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (Local 737) got into the censorship business by refusing to install or service jukeboxes containing “objectionable” records. [20] The American Society of Composers, Authors and  Publishers joined the fray in 1940, formally condemning writers and publishers of “salacious and suggestive songs.”

Increased policing dampened the party-record business in the early 1940s, but it took the supply and personnel shortages of World War II to bring production of the records to a near-standstill. When production finally ratcheted back up after the war, demand emerged for a new sort of party record devoted to truly pornographic material, which is a tale for another installment.

 

References

[1] “P. O. Inspectors Nab Record Distributor.” Oakland [CA] Tribune (Jan 15, 1938), p. 3.

[2] “Mrs. Swamstrom Is Buried.” Billboard (Nov 14, 1936), p. 76.

[3] “Music Operators Again Cuationed.” Billboard (Dec 26, 1936), p. 124.

[4] “Paul Gerber Leaves for Coast.” Billboard (Aug 8, 1936), p. 73.

[5] “Los Angeles.” Billboard (October 24, 1936), p. 87.

[6] “Los Angeles.” Billboard (Dec 5, 1936), p. 79.

[7] “Endurance Shows.” Billboard (Ocotber 24, 1936), p. 28.

[8] “Gerber…,” op. cit.

[9] “Hollywood Hot-Shot Records.” Undated sales flyer (c. 1937–1938).

[10] Morris, Earl J. “Grand Town Day and Night.” Pittsburgh Courier (Jul 15, 1939), p. 20.

[11] Asks Return of Evidence by Which He Was Convicted.” Fitchburg Sentinel (May 1, 1938), p. 7.

[12] “Smutty Records.” Miami News (Nov 24, 1937), p. 1.

[13] “Investigate Traffic in Obscene Phonograph Records.” Catholic Advance (Feb 5, 1938), pp. 1

[14] “U.S. Starts Probe of Risqué Records.” Pittsburgh Press (Jan 4, 1938), p. 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Man Held Here for L.A. Federals.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 11, 1938), pp. 1, 2.

[17] “Pornographic Record Seller Seized Here.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 11, 1938), p. 1, 4.

[18] “Investigate Traffic…,” op. cit.

[19] “Obscene Record Defendant to Sail.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 15, 1938), p. 4.

[20] “Juke Trade Leaders Decry Use of Smutty Disks, Scoff at Raid.” Billboard (Dec 14, 1946), pp. 3–4

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

 

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