“Bandleader to Storekeeper”: Isham Jones in Colorado

“Bandleader to Storekeeper”:
Isham Jones in Colorado

By Allan Sutton

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Paul Whiteman wasn’t the only 1920s bandleader with Colorado connections. Isham Jones — one of Whiteman’s closest rivals at the time — liked what he saw while playing at Denver’s Elitch Gardens in the mid-1930s. He began purchasing land around Shaffers Crossing, where he eventually built a modern lodge. Lying in the foothills thirty-five miles southwest of Denver, the Crossing was (and, thankfully, still largely is) little more than a spot on the map.

In the early 1940s, with his popularity on the wane, Jones disbanded his orchestra and moved to his lodge at Shaffers Crossing, where he settled into the life of a rural shopkeeper and part-time treasure-hunter:

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Isham Jones tending the store at Shaffers Crossing (1945)

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Jones never found the hidden gold (supposedly stashed in the area in 1864 by members of the notorious Reynolds Gang, fleeing a posse from Leadville), although folks continue to hunt for it to this day. In the late 1940s, he sold his land, which is now a rural subdivision outside the small town of Pine Junction. There’s still a Jones Road, a Jones Creek, and a deteriorating octagonal structure that locals say he used as an impromptu dance hall, but that’s about all that remains to commemorate his stay.

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Locals say that Jones used this large octagonal structure near Shaffers Crossing as an impromptu dance hall. A rectangular extension at the rear of the building is said to have served as the bandstand.

 

Shaffers Crossing is located along present-day Highway 285, which in part follows an old stagecoach route connecting Denver and South Park. Part of Jones’ former holdings now abut Staunton State Park, home to some of the best hiking in the foothills.

 

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Collector’s Corner • Some November 2019 Additions — Lucille Hegamin, Lottie Beaman, Five Harmaniacs, Louis Armstrong with Luis Russell, Jimmie Davis, Speckled Red, Feodor Chaliapin

Collector’s Corner • Some November 2019 Additions
Lucille Hegamin, Lottie Beaman, Five Harmaniacs, Louis Armstrong with Luis Russell, Jimmie Davis, Speckled Red, Feodor Chaliapin

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Eclectic’s the word for our November additions to the collection — Enjoy!

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LUCILLE HEGAMIN & HER BLUE FLAME SYNCOPATORS: You’ll Want My Love  (EE– )

New York (probably New York Recording Laboratories): Released June 1921
Arto 9063 (no visible mx. number)

Hegamin never produced another hit to rival “Arkansas Blues,” and her sales seemed to decline with each subsequent Arto release, if the number if surviving copies is any indication. Based on aural and physical characteristics, this master was recorded by NYRL (Paramount), one of at least a half-dozen studios from which Arto commissioned its masters, per data in Ed Kirkeby’s 1921–1923 logs; for details, see American Record Company and Producers, 1888–1950.

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LOTTIE BEAMAN: Honey Blues  (V+, with worn label)

Chicago (probably Rodeheaver Recording Laboratories): c. February 1924
Paramount 12201 (mx. 1695 – 1)
Accompanied by Miles and Milas Pruitt, as The Pruett Twins (sic).

This seems an opportune spot to debunk the old tale that Marsh Laboratories recorded Paramount’s acoustic Chicago masters (the problem being, the best Marsh researchers have never found any evidence that Marsh made acoustic recordings). Paramount house pianist and session arranger Lovie Austin recalled in a 1950 interview that these sessions actually were held in Homer Rodeheaver’s studio (a for-hire operation that at one point employed Vocalion’s former recording engineer), and aural characteristics support her recollection. See ARCP for more details.

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FIVE HARMANIACS: What Makes My Baby Cry?  (E)

New York: February 8, 1927
Victor 20507 (mx. BVE 37750 – 2)
Walter Howard (speaking); no other personnel listed in the Victor files

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FIVE HARMANIACS: It Takes a Good Woman (To Keep a Good Man at Home)  (EE–)

New York: February 8, 1927
Victor 20507 (mx. BVE 37750 – 2)
No personnel listed in the Victor files

Headed by Texas entertainer Claude Shugart, the Five Harmaniacs defy easy categorization. They started out singing cowboy ballads in a vaudeville act titled “Round-Up Tunes,” but in 1926 they headed off in a new direction that caught the attention of the record companies. Now billing themselves as  “A Genuine Musical Novelty,” they began featuring  jazz- and blues-inflected tunes in a style inspired by southern jug and skiffle bands (Brunswick even released two of their titles in its race-record series). But they continued to wear their cowboy outfits on national tours, and sometimes reverted to their original repertoire when playing in and around Texas.

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LUIS RUSSELL’S ORCHESTRA with LOUIS ARMSTRONG (as LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS ORCHESTRA): Rockin’ Chair  (E– to V+)

New York:  December 13, 1929
Okeh 8756  (mx. W 403496 – C)
Louis Armstrong (vocal); Hoagy Carmichael (speaking)

In December 1929, Armstrong began fronting Luis Russell’s New York band. After touring the mid-Atlantic region, Armstrong and the Russell band made a triumphant return to Chicago in February 1930, where The Chicago Defender reported, “such an ovation as was given him has not been seen in these parts for a long time.” The unfortunate inclusion here of Hoagy Carmichael (uncredited on the labels, but confirmed in the recording files) was a record-company gimmick, the beginning of a drive to move Armstrong and his records into the mainstream.

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RUFUS PERRYMAN (as SPECKLED RED): Do the Georgia  (E)

Aurora, Illinois (Leland Hotel): December 17, 1938
Bluebird B-7985 (mx. BS 030840 – 1)
Rufus Perryman (vocal, piano); Robert Lee McCoy (guitar); Willie Hatcher (mandolin)

The curious choice of Aurora, Illinois, as an RCA recording location was made in 1937, after the Chicago chapter of the American Federation of Musicians targeted the company for making substandard payments to its race-record artists. Rather than pay decently, RCA moved just beyond the reach of the Chicago local. The company slipped back into Chicago in 1939, only to be threatened with revocation of its AFM recording license if it didn’t begin paying union scale.

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JIMMIE DAVIS: Bear Cat Mama from Horner’s Corners  (V++)

Memphis Auditorium: November 29, 1930
Montgomery Ward M-4283 (Victor mx. BVE 64760 – 2)

1934 original-stamper reissue of Victor 23517. The guitarists are unlisted in the Victor ledger. Tony Russell’s Country Music Records suggests Oscar Woods (guitar) and Ed Schaffer (steel guitar), which if correct, would make this one of the very few racially integrated country-music recordings of the period. Davis went on to make his name with a more sappy sort of country music that included his own “You Are My Sunshine,” the enormous popularity of which helped propel him to the governorship of Louisiana in 1944.

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FEODOR CHALIAPIN & FLORENCE AUSTRAL: Faust – Church Scene (complete in two parts)  (E)

Hayes, Middlesex, England: October 26, 1925
His Master’s Voice D.B.899 (mxs. Cc 7067- 2 / Cc 7075 – 1)
Albert Coates, conductor

From Chaliapin’s first electrical recording session. This was his second issued recording of the Church Scene, the first having been made in Moscow in 1910 with soprano Maria Michailowa.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 3

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In this installment, Haenschen takes us inside Frank and Anne Hummert’s radio programming empire and offers a glimpse of a coming sea-change in the recorded-sound industry — the introduction of tape mastering and editing.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

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After the “Champion Spark Plug Hour,” your files indicate that your next major radio appearance was the “RCA Demonstration Hour,” a mid-afternoon program on the NBC Blue network in August 1929. What are your recollections of that program?

That was a one-time program that [RCA founder and president David] Sarnoff wanted. He specified that he wanted familiar classical melodies featured on that program.

 

According to newspaper accounts of the broadcast, you conducted “Gustave Haenschen’s Little Symphony Orchestra” and also “The Singing Strings.” Do you recall any of the arrangements you used on the “Demonstration Hour”?

Only a few that Frank [Black] had arranged for our “Singing Strings”—the Meditation from Thais, an arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, familiar classical melodies of that sort. The program was very well received because NBC and RCA really promoted it. That was the advantage of being with NBC during its early days. [NBC founder David] Sarnoff was very accessible to us, and his energy and vision were inspiring because radio was still new, and we were new to radio.

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Program listing for the “RCA Demonstration Hour” (July 1929)

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With very few exceptions, your radio shows were owned by Air Features, Inc., and from your personal archives I gather that you and all of the artists who performed on those programs were also employed by Air Features. Was Air Features a subsidiary of NBC or an independent production company?

The short answer is that Air Features was the name that two of the most important and powerful people in the radio industry came up with for their incorporation papers. From about 1930 till 1950, these two people, Frank and Anne Hummert, produced, directed and controlled 135 radio programs of every kind imaginable. Soap operas, which they essentially invented, were their bread and butter as far as most of the public knew, but they also produced and aired cooking shows, detective shows, kids’ shows, game shows, and of course musical programs.

To appreciate what Frank and Anne built, just add up the number of hours each week that their programs were on the air—an average of 36 hours of airtime every week. That was unheard of from independent producers, and it’s still the most airtime any producer or for that matter any performer has ever had on the air at the same time.

 

That’s more than Arthur Godfrey, who seemed to “own” television and radio in the 1950s, had on the air every week.

Not just “more,” but much more. At his peak, Godfrey accounted for about 15 hours a week on the air—not quite half of the total weekly airtime the Hummerts’ shows commanded. And their shows were on all three networks: the two NBC networks, the Red and the Blue, and on CBS.

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Anne and Frank Hummert

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In your archives, there are few photos of the Hummerts, and they look more like a father-daughter team than a husband and wife. Frank Hummert appears to be considerably older, very bony-looking, with thinning hair and a slight curvature in his neck. Anne Hummert, on the other hand, looks like she could be his daughter. Her personal trademark seemed to be her white-framed glasses and ever-present stenography pad. Were they as eccentric as photos of them suggest?

“Eccentric” fits them pretty well. They had become very, very wealthy from their radio shows, although Frank had been wealthy by most any standards before he hired Anne as an assistant. Frank had been an advertising executive for most of his working life, and had also made a lot of money in residential real estate when he was young. But that was years before he met Anne, when he was married to his first wife. She died young, and as often happens when a man loses his wife, Frank threw himself into his work. His work became his whole life. Then years later, he married Anne.

 

Do you know how they met?

Sure, of course. Her name was Anne Schumacher at that time. She was a college graduate [of Goucher College] with a real gift for writing. She had gotten a job writing for The Baltimore Sun while she was still in college, and the city desk editor, John Ashenhurt, took a liking to her. He and Anne got married in the late-1920s, I think in 1927 or 1928, and Anne became pregnant not too long after they got married.

Then Ashenhurst got an offer from one of the newspapers in Chicago, so they moved there. It was all right at first, but Anne had been used to working and was now stuck at home raising their baby. She was eager to find any kind of writing job she could get, and could work from home as much as possible.

Chicago was home to a lot of advertising agencies, and one of the biggest was called “Blackett-Sample-Hummert.” From what Frank told me, he had been offered a partnership in the agency but turned it down because he didn’t want to be tied to them. He and they compromised by putting his name on the agency because Frank was the key to their success. He turned out so many catch phrases, or slogans, for all kinds of products, and he was raking in money for the agency, so he was able to have his name on the agency without being tied to them.

 

When did he meet Anne [Ashenhurst]?

Frank was known for working almost around the clock, so he had several assistants—that agency was a very big operation—but a lot of them didn’t last because they couldn’t keep up with the workload he demanded. He happened to hire Anne to fill one of those assistant jobs when somebody quit. Well, he soon found out that she could outwork anybody. He kept testing her by giving her more and more to do, but the more responsibilities he gave her, the more ads she turned out. She was as driven and as meticulously organized as he was.

 

Was it Anne Hummert who conceived of the so-called “soap opera”?

No, no—that was Frank’s idea. Around the time [William S.] Paley got into radio in the late-1920s, his new network, CBS, was following the lead of NBC for daytime programs. It was obvious that women, or “homemakers” as they were called, were the audience for daytime radio. The two NBC networks put on daytime programs that were geared to women, including dramas, but those programs weren’t “serials”—in other words, Tuesday’s program didn’t pick up where Monday’s left off.

Frank had always been a movie fan, and like most of us who went to the movies in the 1910s, he saw how popular a serial called The Perils of Pauline was with movie audiences. That serial was so popular that other movie studios started producing serials, and they sold a ton of tickets.

What Frank [Hummert] did was to take the movie-serial concept and put it on radio. Then he got companies he was dealing with as an advertiser to sponsor them. Procter and Gamble was one of his biggest clients, and he got them to sponsor these daytime radio serials. That’s where the phrase “soap opera” came from. The “soap” was from Procter and Gamble, and “opera” was from the plots of these daily dramas, which had more twists and turns than Il Trovatore.

 

So, then, Frank Hummert came up with the idea of a daytime radio serial—but didn’t Anne Hummert write most of them?

Oh, no—that would have been impossible! It’s really hard to imagine today how many programs Frank and Anne Hummert had on the air on all three networks. They were producing sixty soap operas every week. Each of those shows aired Monday through Friday, so that meant that they had to have 300 scripts a week just for the soap operas—and soap operas were only part of [the Hummerts’] weekly schedule. There were all of the musical programs, not to mention the detective shows, kids’ shows, sports programs, and all the other shows they were responsible for every week.

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The Hummerts’ “soap opera factory” (1944)

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How did the Hummerts manage so large an operation?

Well, there are two answers to that question: their drive, which was phenomenal, and their ability to stay ahead of the growth of this empire that they built. Those two ingredients—the fact that both of them were so driven, and the fact that they could create and produce so many programs every year while also thinking up new ones and foreseeing how to manage their current programs and preparing the new ones simultaneously—that’s what made them so successful.

 

Yet they could walk down the busiest streets in Manhattan and no one knew who they were.

That’s right, and that’s just how they wanted it. You have to understand that they were in the entertainment industry. They were in show business but they weren’t entertainers—they weren’t “show people,” they were business people. For them, all of the trappings that entertainers typically want—their name in lights on a marquee, crowds of fans wanting autographs, and all of that fluff meant nothing to Frank and Anne Hummert. What mattered to them was power, wealth, and above all anonymity. The name of their holding company was Air Features, Inc., not Hummert, Inc.

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Anne and Frank Hummert (center and right) at CBS

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How would you describe your role in Air Features? What was the range of your responsibilities with the company?

I was the Director of Musical Programs for the whole corporation, so I was responsible for putting together, overseeing, and in several cases arranging and conducting all of the Hummert musical programs. There were fifteen different programs every week during the 1930s and 1940s, and I was the one who had to put together the orchestras, choruses and soloists, review and approve all of the [musical] arrangements for every program, review every script for the announcers, and oversee all of the rehearsals for every one of those programs.

 

How in the world did you do all of that?

I guess the way I would answer that is by saying that like the Hummerts, I was in the “business” of entertainment, and I had already had similar responsibilities at Brunswick, and even more when we created World Broadcasting and built it into a very large enterprise. I was used to getting the maximum amount done in a minimum amount of time. I could get all of the top studio musicians because they had worked with me already and knew what I was like to work for. The same with the arrangers, especially Frank Black. Between us, we hired dozens and dozens of arrangers.

 

Is it true that the Hummerts would only pay scale to musicians?

Well, that was their policy, but I had a lot of discretion about how much I could give as bonuses to players or singers who were making a lot of money for us. In the early 1930s, during the worst of the Depression, if you were a studio musician, steady work was the most important thing to you. If I approved hiring you at Air Features—and I would only do that for musicians I had already worked with, or ones who the best players recommended to me—then you had all the work you could possibly want. You might not like the music you had to play, but you were guaranteed long-term work as long as you were doing your best for us on the air.

 

About the selections for each program, did you choose them?

Technically, no—Anne Hummert picked every song for every program. But she was so busy with the soap operas and the other shows that I would draft the selections for each program, and she would approve most of them as soon as she read the draft. I knew what she liked, which was a mix of waltzes, love songs, operetta arias, and some “light” classical music, so I suggested what I knew she wanted to hear.

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Bob Hannon, Evelyn MacGregor, and Victor Arden reviewing music for the Air Features series, “Waltz Time.”

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How could she possibly monitor that many weekly music programs?

She couldn’t, any more than she and Frank could monitor sixty soap operas and the twenty or more other programs that they produced. They contracted for air-checks for all the programs, but they rarely had time to listen to them. But what they would do was to drop in unannounced at rehearsals. They could tell in two or three minutes how a rehearsal was going, and if they didn’t like some aspect of what they were hearing, whoever was responsible for that program would have a memo in his mail slot by the end of that same day, telling them what was good and what wasn’t good. The fact that they would drop in unannounced to any rehearsal is what kept the actors, announcers, and all the musicians in top form.

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The Hummerts drop in on a rehearsal.

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With your own schedule, being responsible for every facet of fifteen weekly musical programs on all three major networks at one time or another, how much rehearsal time could you put in before a broadcast?

I limited all of my shows’ rehearsals to thirty minutes before airtime. That meant the players and soloists were to be in the studio one hour before airtime, to spend the first half of that hour going over the arrangements and warming up. At exactly thirty minutes before airtime, they were to be in place, either sitting behind a music stand or on a riser if they were in the chorus, or standing near the microphones if they were soloists.

I would start the rehearsal by saying, for example, “Number 8, first ten bars of the refrain,” and whoever was scheduled to sing or play the eighth number on the program had to begin performing it immediately. As soon as I heard that it was right, I would motion for them to stop and then I’d pick another number and have the orchestra or the chorus perform several bars of that selection.

Keep in mind that these were many of the top studio musicians in the industry, so this was their livelihood. They knew that rehearsal time was kept to a minimum, and that if they weren’t in peak form and ready to go when the “On the Air” light went on, they weren’t going to be on the payroll anymore.

 

You mentioned that Frank Hummert was a widower when he hired Anne as an assistant. It seems as if she rose to the top of his agency in no time at all, and then was overseeing all of their soap operas—and somewhere during that timeframe, they got married.

Frank was in the advertising business, as I said, when he came up with the idea of matching clients with these daytime serials that he came up with. He had hired Anne as just another assistant, but what made her stand out was that she could conceive characters and scenarios for entire shows on her own. If my memory is accurate, she started at a fairly low rung on the ladder, but the whirlwind of shows she conceived and wrote is what made her stand out. Frank promoted her to a vice presidency after she had been there only two years, and he made her a partner in the firm about a year and a half later.

 

Considering the difference in their ages and backgrounds, what did they have in common?

There were several things, beginning with their frugality. They were living in Chicago when they got married, but the radio networks were in New York City, so for a year or more they commuted to Manhattan by train. They would take the Twentieth Century Limited on Sunday, stay in an apartment they rented in New York until Thursday afternoon, and then take the train back to Chicago. On the way there, they would listen to parts of Friday’s broadcasts while they were in their first-class cabin in the sleeping car.

When the money really started rolling in, they moved to Manhattan and took a palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue. They ran their household with the same efficiency as their radio shows. When my wife Roxie and I would be invited there for dinner, we’d always eat a light meal before we went there because all that Anne served was tomato soup out of a can, and some canned peaches or pears for dessert. Frank and Anne were non-drinkers—as we were—but they knew my tastes, there was always a cold bottle of Coke at my place at their kitchen table. My wife will tell you that I keep Coca-Cola in business.

Frank and Anne never “entertained” in the social sense of the word. Very few people were ever invited to their apartment. If you were among the few who were, and you were given a tour of their huge apartment, Anne would walk in front of you, pointing out this or that furniture and other décor—and as soon as she would take you from one room to the next, you’d hear Frank behind you turning off the lights!

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August 1933 advertisement for “The Maxwell House Show Boat”

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One of the most heralded shows you produced for Air Features took place on June 15, 1933, when the premiere broadcast of “The Maxwell House Show Boat” was aired “live.” All of the aluminum airchecks from that premiere have been saved and almost all are in remarkable condition. According to one of the stars of the premiere, Lanny Ross, you had scheduled Don Voorhees to conduct the program, but that he had taken sick an hour or so before the “live” broadcast and you substituted for him. Do you recall that last-minute turn of events?

Yes, but I insisted that because the program had been promoted heavily with Don as the conductor, the broadcast should be done with his name mentioned as the conductor. I had no need to have my name announced as the actual conductor, and Don was a good conductor whom we used a lot at World Broadcasting, so I wanted him to get the credit and the money for that premiere broadcast. I’m glad to know that the air-checks still exist, and I hope to hear them again.

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A different take on Voorhees’ departure from “The Maxwell House Show Boat” (Akron Beacon-Journal, December 25, 1933)

 

The next radio program I found in your archives was called “The Chevrolet Chronicles.” According to press clippings, the program was conducted alternately by you and Frank Black. What was the format of the program?

That program didn’t last long, and it was mainly because the format wasn’t right. The one broadcast I remember was with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous American “ace” of the 94th Squadron in World War One, who spoke about the progress in air transportation and the need for the U.S. to have the best air force in the world. We arranged some World War One songs for that program, but the format didn’t leave much room for expanding it to something that listeners would wait for week after week.

 

Decades later, in the early-1950s, you were on radio again with Chevrolet, but in commercials rather than on a weekly program. In each of the commercials, you arranged the music to fit the repertoire with which the artist was most associated, and after the first verse of “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” each artist would say, “Thank you, Gus Haenschen, for your beautiful music.” Do you remember those commercials?

Oh, sure, very well. I was retained by the Campbell-Ewald [advertising] agency to come up with celebrity commercials endorsing the Chevrolet. Dinah Shore was already associated with Chevrolet, which was her sponsor. General Motors and Campbell-Ewald wanted a broader representation from famous singers, so I was given a sizable budget to recruit them. I’m please to say that the roster I put together included many of the singers I had performed with, and in some cases had helped their careers when they were young.

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Thomas L. Thomas, Margaret Daum, and Haenschen on the long-running “American Album of Familiar Music” (August 1950).

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Who were some of those singers, and what did they sing in these commercials?

What they sang was just the Chevrolet jingle, “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”  I called on John Charles Thomas, Thomas L. Thomas, Gisele Mackenzie, Dick Powell, Dorothy Kirsten, Jan Peerce, and even Lauritz Melchior to record these commercials.  We recorded them on audiotape and then pressed them on microgroove transcription discs, which were sent to stations across the country from all three radio networks at the same time.

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Dick Powell (left) with Haenschen, during production of Campbell-Ewald’s Chevrolet commercials (Gus Haenschen Collection)

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You allowed your name to be mentioned as the conductor, which seems unusual for you.

That was Campbell-Ewald’s idea, not mine. We allowed three takes for each commercial. Audiotape had come in by then, so it was much easier to edit and correct any mistakes.  Except for Melchior’s, almost all of the other commercials were recorded in one or two takes. But Melchior was having trouble with his top tones that day, and was also garbling some of the words, so his [commercial] took about six or seven takes. I can still hear him trying to sing, “See da You-Hess-Hay in your Chev-rrro-let / America is da gr-gr-greatest land of all,” and ending it with an A-natural on the last take, “And see it in your Chev-rrro-let!”

He couldn’t get the A-natural during take after take, so we finally had to have him sing the line a tone lower, and a bit slower, so that our engineers could increase the playback speed and splice in the A-natural. When it was aired, that commercial got the most attention because of the way Melchior sang it. That series of commercials won an annual award, and I got a hefty bonus by Campbell-Ewald. That was a very good year from me.

 — J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 2

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Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

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Both Conrad Thibault and Annamary Dickey have commented on what an unusual team you and Frank Black were. They said that in every observable way, the two of you seem to have nothing in common except being pianists, arrangers, and conductors. Considering those differences, would enable the two of you to work together so well in radio?

I can see the differences they’re talking about, but they didn’t see how Frank and I interacted as business partners. What made it work, really, was Frank’s sense of humor—which was never on display in the studio—and the fact that we accepted our differences. Frank was extremely ambitious and ultimately it paid off for him: he became the Music Director for NBC. He had wanted to become a nationally known conductor of classical music. He knew that I had no such goal and that I was more interested in leading a balanced life, being not only married but the father of four kids. I can conduct most of the classical vocal and symphonic repertory, but as Frank knew, my real interest was in popular music.

 

There are almost no photos in which Frank Black is shown smiling, so it’s hard to detect any sense of humor from photographs of him.

Yes, but he had one. After he got a doctoral degree, he began insisting that he be billed and called “Dr. Frank Black.” He wanted an honorary degree because NBC always referred to Walter Damrosch as “Dr. Walter Damrosch.” He had graduated from Haverford [College], and his fame on radio netted him an honorary degree from there. I have two honorary doctorates but to me they’re nothing more than that—they’re honors, not degrees. And by the way, they come with a price tag on them because you’re expected to give money to the college.

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Frank Black in the 1930s (left), and billed as “Dr. Frank Black”
on a World War II–era V Disc

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Anyway, I really used to give it to him about this “Dr. Black” business. I would be in my office and would deliberately buzz our switchboard operator and say, “Please put me through to Dr. Black, and when he asks you who’s calling, tell him it’s Dr. Haenschen.” I used to razz him about it—never in front of a performer, of course—but I might say to him, “Jeez, Frank, this elbow of mine is really giving me trouble. Would you take a look at it and write a prescription for me?” He’d laugh because the razzing was a private thing between us.

 

Did you socialize together?

From time to time I would invite him to join Roxie and me and the Meltons on my boat. Frank was very fond of Jim Melton, and they worked together on several of Jim’s radio shows. He always wanted Frank as his conductor, and Frank liked working with Jim. So Jim and his wife Marjo [Marjorie], and sometimes just Jim and Frank and I, would cruise around Long Island on Sundays.

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Haenschen aboard the yacht that Frank Munn and
James Melton helped him restore (1929)

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I’ve seen photos of what you call your “boat” but those who were on it say it was a full-fledged yacht.

Technically, it was because 56 feet qualifies as a yacht. It was a mess when I bought it. It was built before World War One, and I had to redo it completely, which I enjoyed. I had two very able “helpers” in Jim Melton and Frank Munn, along with my son Richard and several of his friends. Jim Melton was a self-taught woodworker, and of course Frank had been a machinist, so I called on both of them to help me redo this yacht. Frank [Munn] and I did most of the machining in my shop at the house, and Jim did some of the finishing with marine-grade varnish. We’d work on it for three or four hours, and then we’d go in the house and Roxie would have our cook make whatever we wanted to eat.

That boat—or yacht—project, along with Jim’s collection of antique cars, had a lot to do with how he and Frank Munn became good friends. I couldn’t count how many gears, pulleys, and body panels I made in my shop for Jim’s growing collection of cars. Frank [Munn] would come over and he would work with me to sketch the parts and do the [specifications]. I did all the welding because I was pretty good with either gas or electric welding, which Frank hadn’t done a lot of. As Jim watched us making these special parts, he came to admire Frank more and more.

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Antique-car enthusiast James Melton at the wheel, with members of the Denver Horseless Carriage Club (1950).

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It was the same with the yacht. Frank [Munn] and I tore out the steam powerplant that the boat originally had, and I put in a twelve-cylinder gasoline engine that I had bored out, and I added a supercharger to maximize the horsepower. I put in a smaller gas engine to drive an AC generator so we could cook electrically and use electric lights, fans, and other appliances. I designed the new drive system, and Frank [Munn] and I made the transmission and machined the main drive shaft. I bought the propeller, and after working on so many of them when I was in the Navy, I knew how to balance it to get the most out of it.

 

What you call your “shop” is a little like what you call a “boat.” Your “shop” is a metal-working factory, and I think you’ll agree with that.

Well, all right, I’ll go along with “factory” because I can make just about anything there, I built it when I bought the acreage we live on in Norwalk [Connecticut], and as you probably noticed, all of the machines were originally belt-driven. I left all of the drive shafts in place, including the big Westinghouse motor that powered them, but then I adapted each piece of machinery to be run by a separate motor.

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Haenschen as blacksmith (St. Louis Globe-Democrat,
April 23, 1939)

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Your son Richard told me a story that I’m sure you’ll remember because it involved Frank Munn and the entryway to the cabin.

That was a hell of a thing. After I finished replacing the beams on the door frame of the cabin, Richard said to me, “Dad, that the space is too narrow for Frank to be able to go into the cabin.” That’s where the galley was, so we served our meals in the cabin. I couldn’t redo the entrance at that point, but I was so glad that Richard caught it because I special-ordered dining tables and large swivel chairs for the deck, and I had an electric awning that could cover the entire back of the deck so that I could always eat there with Frank. And on that subject, this will tell you about Jim Melton: he was just tall enough, about six-feet-three, that he had to watch his head when he went into the cabin. He used that as an excuse to eat on the deck with Frank and me.

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 (Left to right) Frank Munn, Lucy Monroe, and Gus Haenschen in a 1936 publicity shot for “The American Album of Familiar Music.” The program made its debut on NBC on October 11, 1931.

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The sad fact about James Melton was that he died young, apparently from alcohol poisoning. Would you ever have predicted that his life would come to such a tragic end?

No, I didn’t see it coming but later on, when I had to deal with that in my own family, I learned more about alcoholism. Being hyperactive is often a factor in alcohol abuse, and it was in Jim Melton’s case. Anyone who knew Jim will tell you that he was hyperactive. He had to be doing something all the time, and it was very hard for him to relax. He couldn’t sit and have a leisurely conversation with you—he just wasn’t made that way.

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Melton in the movies (1935)

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When he would come over to our house, if the weather was nice, I would ask him to help our son Richard get better at football. Jim had played football in high school, and maybe at the University of Florida when he went there. So he would go outside and throw pass after pass to Richard and any friends of Richard who might be visiting that day. That would help him burn off some of his energy, and then he’d be calm for a while.

 

What was it about him that enabled him to get so many radio programs in prime time, with some of the biggest-name sponsors?

He had a way with people, especially people in power, but his eagerness almost always got in his way. For instance, he got to know Henry Ford II and his wife, and on a boat trip with them he talked Henry Ford into sponsoring a radio program for him. If he dealt with Ford the way he did with other sponsors, he’d get what he wanted and then would either want more—usually more money—or else he would stop socializing with them, or do something that sent a message that he had gotten what he wanted and that was that. I always thought that Henry Ford gave it just to put a stop to Jim badgering him about sponsoring a show for him. He could be very pushy that way—and after a while Ford pulled the plug on that show.

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Frank Black (left), Dorothy Warenskjold (center), and James Melton during a “Ford Festival” broadcast in the early 1950s.

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He even managed to get Irving Berlin to let him do an entire program about “Annie Get Your Gun” a week or so before the Broadway premiere—and Berlin was even part of the broadcast.

Yes, but there were reasons for that. At first, Berlin wasn’t as confident about “Annie Get Your Gun” as he was with the shows he had done when he was younger. As I remember it, it wasn’t until Dick Rogers told him how perfect the score was that Berlin felt that the show was going to be a hit. From then on, Berlin took every opportunity to promote the premiere. Melton’s show had good ratings at the time, so it was a good program for Berlin to promote “Annie.” And trust me, there wasn’t one word in Melton’s script, or one bar of music, that Berlin didn’t approve during the rehearsals.

If you look at the number of radio shows that [Melton] had, many of them didn’t last. He had to be the singer and the emcee, which was a big mistake because he minimized the announcer’s role. All he wanted the announcer to say was, “And now, here’s our star, James Melton,” then introduce the commercials, and say “Tune in next week” at the end of the show. He thought he was a great emcee but he was adequate at best. Frank Black often had to tell him that he was talking too fast when he was introducing whatever song he was going to sing next.

 

Were you surprised when he made the transition from popular music into the tenor ranks of the Metropolitan Opera?

The Met had always been his goal. I remember his debut in The Magic Flute very well, which was done in English in that production. Jim had very good guidance. [Wilfrid] Pelletier helped refine his phrasing in the French and Italian roles. [Melton] looked great onstage because he was tall, broad-shouldered, and very trim. He was especially good in Traviata, which I saw him in several times.

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James Melton as Pinkerton in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly.

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He had always wanted to sing Pinkerton in Butterfly, which he did at the Met, but it wasn’t his best role. The tessitura was a little too high for his voice. He was at his best when he could sing a B-flat. Now, he could sing the B-natural and even the high-C, [but] they didn’t have the “ping” that a tenor needs to have if he sings Pinkerton.

 

Did you stay in touch with him after it became apparent that he was becoming more and more dysfunctional?

No. I had to cut him off. I had already seen enough in my life, going back to my own father, of how destructive alcohol can be to a family. Jim called me at home at all hours of the night, drunk and wanting money from me, so finally I just cut him off completely. He died in some fleabag hotel, drunk and alone. Roxie and I stayed close to Marjo and their daughter Margo, and we felt helpless because of the way he left them. He abandoned them. One thing that struck me was that his alcoholism never affected his voice. He made some low-budget recordings a year or so before he died, and he sounded just like he did twenty years earlier.

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(Top) In 1948, Melton moved to Florida with his collection of antique cars and opened Autorama, a tourist attraction that closed following his death in 1961. (Bottom) Melton on a cut-rate Tops LP in the 1950s, an ignominious ending for a one-time Victor Red Seal star.

 

His style seems to have changed, though. After he left The Revelers, he sounded like an Irish tenor, but after the war he sounded more “mainstream” for want of a better word.

He was trying to sound like [John] McCormack at first, almost to the point that he sounded like an impersonator. He stopped that after he had a bad experience with McCormack.

 

Did you know John McCormack?

In a funny way, yes. We had the same dentist, a very well-known oral surgeon in Manhattan. I was surprised that McCormack let him do this—although it’s probably because McCormack didn’t have to pay him—but the dentist was very proud of a special set of dentures he had designed for McCormack to use in his concerts.

These dentures were very lightweight, and the upper plate had no artificial “roof”—it was just a U-shaped denture that left the roof of the mouth exposed. They were cosmetic, not for eating, and the dentist was so proud of them that he had a set in a display case in his waiting room, with a thank-you note that McCormack had signed.

Anyway, I was introduced to McCormack several times but I can’t say that I knew him. I had heard him in concert when I was in college, and maybe four or five times later on. There was nobody like him on a concert platform.

 

Returning to you and “Dr. Black,” how did the two of you and your other partners go about developing the World Broadcasting Company?

For the first three years, World Broadcasting was all-consuming. We had to hire lots of musicians, arrangers, and engineers for Sound Studios, which we built and where we did the recording sessions. The small independent stations were clamoring for more and more recordings, so we had to run Sound Studios almost like a factory. We started recording at 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday, and took a half-hour break at 2:00 p.m., which usually lasted about forty-five minutes by the time we were recording again. We would record till 6:00 p.m., and that would be a typical daytime session.

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(Top) World Broadcasting / Sound Studios’ 1931 announcement of Western Electric Noiseless Transcriptions, embodying vinylite pressings and other improvements. (Bottom left) A standard World Broadcasting transcription label, mid-1930s; (bottom right) Sound Studios’ special “Superman” transcription label, 1940s.

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Since most of the guys we hired to play for us were in bands and had nighttime gigs, we started holding a midnight session that would last till 3:00 a.m. We did those on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. We always had the best catered food—a really impressive buffet—at every daytime session and at those midnight ones as well. But the food, good as it was, wasn’t what enabled us to get anybody we wanted in our sessions. The key was that we paid everyone 25% over scale for each session. This was during the worst of the Depression, so a really driven guy like Artie Shaw would do a morning and afternoon session before playing an evening gig with whatever band he was playing in.

 

Aside from you, Ben Selvin, and Frank Black, who were the conductors you retained for the World Broadcasting sessions?

We used everybody we could get—Vic Arden, Ed Smalle, Ben Bernie, Jack Denny, Jerry Freedman, Harold Stanford, Don Donnie, Gene Ormandy, Don Voorhees, and of course Ben [Selvin]. For the first year, Ben, Vic [Arden] and Frank [Black] and I conducted the daytime sessions.

 

Were Abe Lyman and Gus Arnheim with you at World Broadcasting?

No, they were in California by then. But we did give some aspiring conductors their starts as well. We may have been the first to have André Kostelanetz conduct, and also Edwin McArthur. Both were pianists and arrangers for us.

 

I’d like to make it a matter of record that when you and Eugene Ormandy happened to see each other here at Philharmonic Hall when he was with a group, he made a point of introducing you to each of his friends and said you had given him his start, but as a dance-band leader.

It’s true, and we also used Gene as an arranger.

 

We’ll also make it a matter of record that you said to him, “Good to see you, Gene, and if this symphonic gig doesn’t work out, I think I can get you some dance-band work.” From your files, it appears that every future leader of one of the big bands—Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, the Dorsey brothers, Harry James, Glenn Miller—all played in World Broadcasting sessions. So did Jan Peerce, among the vocalists you used a lot at World Broadcasting.

He wasn’t “Jan Peerce” back then. He was “Pinky Pearl” when we first hired him. He was exactly the kind of performer we were always looking for. He was a violinist and a singer, and he could play “straight” violin as well as jazz violin. As he told you, his inspiration was Joe Venuti, the greatest of them all. Jan wasn’t the improviser that Joe Venuti was, but he was very, very good. As a singer, he could do songs from operettas like The Student Prince, Rose Marie, and the others, but he could also sing like a crooner. We used him under lots of different names.

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Jan Peerce (left) and Ben Selvin

 

I know that you wanted to get his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, for some World Broadcasting sessions, but I take it that Peerce blocked it. Is that right?

I had no idea that there was such animosity between them, but I found out when I mentioned to Jan that I’d like to use Tucker for some studio sessions. Tucker was doing the “Chicago Theatre of the Air” every week, and he was building a name for himself through those broadcasts.

 

Was Peerce already at the Met at that time?

Yes, and he was doing very, very well. He was managed by [Sol] Hurok, and he was one of Hurok’s personal favorites. I don’t know what [Peerce’s] problem with Tucker was, but Jan blew his top when I brought up his name, and it really put me off. I knew several of the guys who helped Jan when he was coming up, and I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t let anybody help his brother-in-law. But fate has a way of taking care of things, and Tucker is the “king of the Met” and Jan isn’t there anymore. He did well on Broadway, though, in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

I was able to help Tucker after all, and I know that Jan found out about it. I had heard from John Charles Thomas that he was having trouble getting a summer replacement on “The Westinghouse Hour,” so I suggested Tucker to John, and Tucker ended up being his summer replacement.

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(Left to right) Conductor Emil Cooper, Richard Tucker, Paul Althouse (Tucker’s teacher), Jan Peerce, and Edward Johnson after Tucker’s Metropolitan Opera debut (January 25, 1945)

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Who were some of the other singers who made World Broadcasting transcriptions?

Most of the singers we had at Brunswick—Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, Frank Luther, Billy Hillpot, Billy Mann, Morton Downey, Scrappy Lambert, and of course Frank Munn—worked for us at World Broadcasting. We also used Irving Kaufman, and sometimes his brother Jack, when they were available.

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A 1939 ad for World Broadcasting’s Library Service. Along with Associated, NBC, and others, World offered a subscription service that provided radio stations with long-playing, multi-selection transcriptions by nationally known artists—some of whom appeared under aliases because they held exclusive contracts with the commercial labels.

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Vaughn Monroe shows up in some of the World Broadcasting sessions. Was he one of your singers?

No, Vaughn played trumpet with us, although he did sing in trios, quartets and such. He was like Jim Melton, who doubled as a sax player for us while he was in The Revelers.

 

Let’s stay with the saxophone, because just about every sax player seems except Carmen Lombardo played in those Sound Studios sessions. I’m assuming that you know all of the Lombardos, am I right?

Oh, sure. I had tried to get them during my last year at Brunswick. Ben [Selvin] signed them to Columbia, and he really helped them. You know why Guy is the leader, don’t you? It’s because he’s the only one of the brothers who wasn’t a good musician. Supposedly, he played the violin but he wasn’t any good, yet he was nice-looking and he had a good speaking voice so he became the leader. Carmen [Lombardo] is the one who came up with the Lombardo sound, and he was always the behind-the-scenes leader of the band. Guy’s real passion is boating. I think he’s still competing in big-league powerboat racing.

 

Your friend Tony Randall is on a television campaign to bring back Carmen as the band’s vocalist. Do you think that will happen?

As long as Carmen doesn’t have to be interviewed, he might do it for Tony because they’re good friends. Anybody who knows Carmen will tell you that he’s nothing like the caricature of him. Of the brothers, Carmen is the one who’s known for liking the ladies, and they like him. He also has a great sense of humor. So do Victor and Lebert and Guy. Their philosophy has always been that the more they get made fun of, the more attention the band gets, and they laugh all the way to the bank. But make no mistake about it, Carmen is the leader and the main arranger, and always has been. The precision of that sax section is Carmen’s doing. They play so tightly that even their vibratos are in synch.

 

One of the sax players you used in many World Broadcasting sessions was Fred MacMurray, whom I never knew was a musician.

Fred was a very good tenor-sax man. He was with George Olsen’s band, but he did as much freelance work as he could get. He did some singing with George, as did Fran Frey, another of George’s sax men. We used Fran in some of our sessions, but not as much as Fred. Later on, Sid Caesar did some work for us [at World broadcasting] and he played in one of my radio bands.

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Future comedians Fred MacMurray (top left) and Sid Caesar (top right) did session work for Haenschen at World Broadcasting, as saxophone players. Below, Caesar with the Coast Guards’ Brooklyn Barracks Band (center, standing with clarinet).

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The comedian Sid Caesar?

Yes, that Sid Caesar—a hell of a good tenor sax man. He had been playing sax in the Catskills while he was doing comedies and impersonations there. He was in the Coast Guard during the war, but he was stationed in New York and he played for us as often as he could.

 

How would the great sax players of what’s now called the “Big Band Era” compare with such greats as Rudy Wiedoeft and Benny Krueger, whom you recorded at Brunswick?

If Rudy or Benny were still here, they would tell you that the Brown brothers, or the Six Brown Brothers as they were billed, were every bit as good as they were. Tom Brown led the band, which was a saxophone quintet at first—two alto saxes plus a bass, baritone and tenor sax. The other brothers—Bill, Percy, Alec, Fred, and Vernie—played the bass, baritone, and tenor saxes. For me, though, Rudy Wiedoeft was the best sax player I ever worked with, but I also knew him better than the others.

Rudy, Benny [ Krueger] and all of the top-notch sax players back then had what reed players call a “diaphragmatic vibrato.” Some of the later sax players used jaw muscles for the vibrato. Tex Beneke could do both, but a lot of the time he used the “jaw vibrato.” If you watch film of Tex playing, and then watch Rudy Wiedoeft, you won’t see any movement of the jaw in Rudy’s playing. That’s the difference between a vibrato that comes from the diaphragm, like an opera singer has, and a “jaw vibrato.” Sax players can get away with a jaw vibrato, but a clarinetist can’t because the embouchure, or the way the lips are placed on the mouthpiece, is much tighter than on a saxophone.

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Haenschen plays Detroit (May 2, 1940)

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You had another reed player who has done very well for himself: Mitch Miller.

Mitch was one of the best oboists in the business—I can’t think of any other oboist who could match him.

 

He and Percy Faith, with John Hammond, remade Columbia Records. Was Percy Faith in any of the Sound Studios sessions?

No, he wasn’t in New York in those days. He’s Canadian, and the Lombardos helped him get work in Chicago as an arranger and conductor. He worked for Jack Kapp at Decca, and later on he conducted “The Contented Hour.”

 

That was one of your radio shows, wasn’t it?

Yes, and most of the band had also done World Broadcasting sessions with me. Both of the Dorseys, Glenn Miller, and I think Artie [Shaw] were in “The Contented Hour” band during my time with the show.

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Do you remember if Benny Goodman was in that band? Was he a “doubler” like Shaw was?

Benny Goodman is one of the finest clarinetists I’ve heard, but he was also one of the worst sax players I ever heard. What amazed me was that he couldn’t tell the difference. He couldn’t hear how bad his tone on the sax was. Now, Artie, on the other hand, was every bit as fine a sax player as he was a clarinetist. The same with Jimmy Dorsey, who was equally good on both instruments. I would put Jimmy Dorsey and Artie Shaw up against any sax players, even Rudy Wiedoeft, and they would hold their own.

 

Do you recall the incident that Artie Shaw talked about, the incident between Benny Goodman and him during a rehearsal that you were conducting?

That was for one of our radio shows, not World Broadcasting—but yes, I remembered it when Artie brought it up. The two of them were side-by-side in the sax section, and Artie always played the lead and Benny the second part. All I remember is that when we ran through a passage a second time, the lead sax was under pitch and had this buzzy sort of tone. I stopped and said, “Who played that?” Benny jumped up and said, “I did!”

I remember questioning Artie, and him saying that Benny had asked him to play the lead for change. All I said was, “Don’t do that again” and went on with the rehearsal. If I didn’t know Benny, I’d think he still holds that against me. But I know him, and he’s just plain dense. There are so many stories about what an oddball he is, and most of them are true.

 

Did you have black players in the World Broadcasting sessions, along with white players?

Definitely. The sax players, for instance, included Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, who were terrific players, and they were good clarinetists too.

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Benny Carter (top) and Johnny Hodges.

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Was there any resistance from white players?

Not unless they wanted to get fired. Seriously, though, every player we had—and I can’t think of a single exception—were in awe of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Duke Ellington because they set the standards for jazz. I had recorded Duke at Brunswick, but that was before he developed his own style. That’s just a short list if you think of the pianists of that era—James P. Johnson in particular, and Fats Waller, who was a classical organist in addition to a terrific pianist.

A lot of the small stations in the South and the Midwest wanted gospel songs, so we brought in groups from the Tuskegee and the Fisk University singers. Often we used members of the choirs of the big congregations in Harlem.

 

Especially in the Midwest, there must have been a demand for “hillbilly” music. Did you import any performers like the ones Jack Kapp brought to you at Brunswick?

No. When Jack [Kapp] was recording those backwoods players, he was using field-recording equipment most of the time. We never did field recordings. All of our sessions were done at Sound Studios.

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1937

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You had some of the finest brass players ever—and yet there was one whom neither you nor Ben Selvin have any memory of: Bix Beiderbecke. When I interviewed both of you and brought up that name, Mr. Selvin said, “Oh, he was great,” or words to that effect, and then he said, “Didn’t you think so, Gus?” Your reply, which I transcribed, was, “Benny, I don’t know how many people have asked me about him, and to tell you the truth I never heard of him.” That prompted Mr. Selvin to say, “I thought I was the only one! I’ve been shown pictures of this guy, and I swear he was never in any band that I recorded!”

But that’s the truth. The stories I’ve heard are that even Louis Armstrong considered him an equal. I find that very hard to believe, but Artie [Shaw] said he roomed with [Beiderbecke] and that he was in several World Broadcasting sessions. Jim Lytell remembered him very well, too. All I can say is that if the guy was in any band that I directed, he must have sneaked in, played, and sneaked out.

 

It’s more remarkable that Ben Selvin had no memory of Beiderbecke because it was Ben Selvin who got Paul Whiteman to sign with Columbia, and Bix Beiderbecke was in the Whiteman band at that time. Is it possible that both of you didn’t know all the players you used at World Broadcasting and on some of your radio shows?

Well, if you want to be literal about it, it’s possible but very, very unlikely, especially at World Broadcasting. We always had five or six players on call for every instrument in those sessions. We had to have that many because of the number of recording sessions day after day.

Now, it is possible that a player we didn’t use very often—and keep in mind that we hired players based on recommendations from the other players on our payroll—it’s possible that some player might not stand out because of the type of music we were recording. We weren’t recording jazz, we were recording pop instrumental music.

To be honest about it, most of the players who were “regulars,” and I’ll use the Dorseys as an example, played in our sessions for the money because that’s all that was in it for them. I’m sure Tommy Dorsey couldn’t stand many of our arrangements, but it was steady work and very well-paying work. Payday was every Friday, and if a player needed an advance, we’d give it to them and deduct it at the end of the week.

You have to remember that these guys were known to each other, but not to the public. In 1932, Artie Shaw could walk down any street in broad daylight and nobody would know he was. Ten years later, he would be hounded everywhere he went. But during the worst of the Depression, all of these players needed the money, and we were paying more than they were getting anywhere else. Our sessions went like clockwork, so they were in and out, and maybe back again for a second or even a third session. World Broadcasting was a business, and we ran it like one. We were the Ford Motor Company of the radio business.

J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

 

RCA Radiotron Celebrity Cartoon Ads (1933) • Ruth Etting, Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen, et al.

RCA Radiotron Celebrity Cartoon Ads (1933) • Ruth Etting, Bing Crosby, Fanny Brice, Paul Whiteman, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor, Burns & Allen et al.

 

In the spring of 1933, the Radio Corporation launched a national  advertising blitz for Radiotron and Cunningham tubes, featuring popular radio and recording stars in biographical snippets done in the style of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” At least ten of these ads appeared from March through early April, when the series came to a sudden halt. A second, shorter series ran during the autumn of 1933.

From the Spring 1933 Series:.

..

From the Fall 1933 Series:

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 1

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering the Brunswick years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen recalls his equally remarkable career in radio.

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Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally. [1] What do you recall of them, and your role in their popularity on radio?

Where do these stories get started? I had almost nothing to do with the radio success of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, nor with The Revelers’ success. At Brunswick I had directed a lot of recordings of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, but as separate performers. In fact, one of our early Brunswick recordings of a male duet was with Ernie Hare and Al Bernard, not Billy Jones. [2]  If you look at the Brunswick files, you’ll see that I had put a lot of male duos together—Frank Bessinger and Frank Wright, Ed Smalle and Billy Hillpot, for example.

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Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Ernie Hare was with [Brunswick] almost from the start. We used him mainly for popular ballads. I don’t think we signed Billy Jones until a year or so after we had Ernie [Hare] under contract. Billy was a light baritone [sic; tenor], and we had him record ballads and novelty songs for us. I can only remember two recordings we did of Jones and Hare together. [3] One was some novelty song, nothing memorable, but it didn’t sound anything like the Jones and Hare of network radio. A little later, we wrote an arrangement of a novelty song, one of many that sprang up after the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb, a ditty called “Old King Tut.” These were acoustical recordings, as I recall, and of the two only “Old King Tut” sold very well for [Brunswick].

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Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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While we’re talking about record sales, you may remember when Gene Austin made a comeback in the 1950s. He was a guest on Red Skelton’s television show, and Skelton told viewers that he had done research on Austin’s career and that he had sold over 80,000,000 recordings in the 1920s and 1930s. Is that figure even remotely possible?

That’s nonsense—absolute nonsense! When you interviewed Ben Selvin and me, you’ll remember that we had a big laugh about how many of Ben’s recordings of “Dardanella” were sold. Some so-called researcher claimed that that recording sold 6,000,000 copies. As he and I said when we laughed about it, during the 1920s if a record sold 100,000 copies it was considered a big money-maker. In the early-1930s, as I said before, the record market almost dried up because of the Depression. And let me tell you, Gene Austin probably got a big laugh out of Red Skelton’s “research.” [4]

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Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Thanks for clarifying that. Going back to the subject of Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, did they work for you at all on radio?

Not that I recall. They got into radio early, and they attracted very good sponsors. You probably know their radio theme songs: “We two boys, Jones and Hare / Entertain you folks out there / That’s our hap-hap-happiness,” when they were sponsored by the Happiness Candy Company, and “We’re Billy Jones and Ernie Hare / We’re the Interwoven Pair,” when Interwoven Hosiery sponsored their show. They became one of the most popular duos on radio, but I didn’t have anything to do with it and I certainly didn’t “put them together.”

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Jones and Hare, as caricatured by Gaspano Ricca in 1929. The caption refers to their split with the Happiness Candy Company, and subsequent loss of their “Happiness Boys” billing.

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Did you play any role in The Revelers and their radio popularity?

Frank Black gets the credit for The Revelers. It was Frank’s up-tempo arrangements and the hours and hours he spent rehearsing them that made The Revelers one of the most popular groups on radio. [5] Until he began working with them, they were just another male quartet—the Shannon Quartet, or the “Shannon Four” as we billed them at Brunswick. I’m not sure about this but as I remember it, the original group, the Shannon Quartet, had Charles Harrison, Wilfred Glenn, Elliot Shaw, and Lewis James. Ed Smalle was their pianist, and sometimes he sang with them while he was at the piano.

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The Revelers in the late 1920s: Frank Black, Elliott Shaw, Lewis James (back row, left to right); James Melton, Wilfred Glenn (front row, left to right)

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When Frank [Black] took over as accompanist and arranger, he changed the Shannon Four to a quintet by adding Franklyn Baur as the lead tenor. Between Frank Black’s innovative, tight-harmony arrangements and Franklyn Baur’s voice as the new lead tenor, plus the name change from “Shannon Four” to “The Revelers,” the quintet really took off on radio. Frank [Black] and I did feature them on our first radio program after I left Brunswick, “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” I wrote the introductory theme song for the show, which I titled “March of the Champions,” and we called our studio orchestra “The Champion Sparkers.”

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Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)

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Did you know Franklyn Baur very well? I ask because the arc of his career was rather short, and he seems to have disappeared from radio and recording for reasons that are unclear.

I knew Baur only as a performer for us, but I didn’t socialize with him or have any involvement with him other than in rehearsals and on the air. There’s no question, at least in my mind, that he made the difference in the success of The Revelers. He had a distinctive voice—a good tone quality, very good intonation, and a range that was more than adequate for the music he sang. He was a good musician with a precise sense of rhythm, which was necessary for the type of arrangements Frank [Black] wrote for The Revelers.

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From Radio Revue (March 1930)

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Do you recall anything specific about working with Franklyn Baur?

He was easy to work with for the most part, although as The Revelers got more press, he tended to want more of the limelight for himself. That created some tension with the others in the group because they were more experienced—most of them were veterans in the [recording] industry, while he was a newcomer by comparison—and, so to say, they were not as impressed with Baur as Baur was with himself.

One funny thing about Baur that used to drive Frank Black nuts was that Baur “conducted” while he was singing. He’d “conduct” with his hand and index finger, and Frank [Black] felt that he did it just to call more attention to himself. Frank had to lay down the law with him about that, but [Baur] would still do it every once in a while.

 

The conventional wisdom about Franklyn Baur’s brief career was that he wanted to become an operatic tenor and performed a recital of French and Italian arias and songs at Town Hall, but received negative reviews and abruptly retired because of those reviews.

That’s not true. His Town Hall recital [on December 4, 1933] went very well and the reviews in The New York Times and the other major newspapers were very good. He toured as a recitalist for another two years, maybe more, but as happened with other pop-music tenors before him, he sang too often—he was still on radio too—and some of the arias he chose for his recitals were wrong for his voice. [6] He developed a nodule on one of his vocal cords, and unfortunately the operation to remove the node wasn’t successful and left him with an impaired voice. That’s what shortened his career.

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Baur’s December 1933 Town Hall recital received generally positive reviews. These excerpts are from the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (top left), Brooklyn Times Union (bottom left), and Hartford (CT) Courant (right).

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After Franklyn Baur left The Revelers to pursue his recital career, did James Melton replace him as the lead tenor?

Frank Luther took Baur’s place at first, if my memory is correct, and then Jim Melton succeeded Frank Luther. [7] Melton was a better tenor than Baur, and his performances with The Revelers were exceptional. At that point in Melton’s singing career—he was a tenor-sax man with us before he began singing and before he replaced Frank Luther in The Revelers—he was young and eager and very easy to work with. But he too had bigger ambitions and as time went on, his ambition got in his way. As good as Baur had been for The Revelers, Frank [Black] and I thought that Melton was even better.

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Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)

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Back to your and Frank Black’s first radio programs, I had the impression that “The Palmolive Hour,” which you directed, was your and his first radio show, and that Frank Munn and Virginia Rea sang under the pseudonyms “Paul Oliver” and “Olive Palmer.”

“The Palmolive Hour” was our second show. It was better known because it was in a better time slot and was promoted a lot more than “The Champion Spark Plug Hour.” And yes, Frank Munn was our tenor on the “Champion” program, just as he was on the “Palmolive” show, but he sang under his own name on the “Champion” program. Incidentally, I never asked Frank to sign any exclusive contract with us. I wanted him to be able to perform on as many programs as he was offered and could also continue recording for Brunswick and any other labels. Frank and I had become very close friends by then, and I wanted to see him have the best career he could possibly have.

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From Radio Revue (December 1929)

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I’m not sure this is the right time and place to ask to you recount the conflict between James Melton and Frank Munn, but I will ask you to repeat what happened, and what your role was during and after the incident.

Well, it happened in midtown Manhattan after a late-afternoon rehearsal for “The Palmolive Hour.” As I’ve said, Frank was very sensitive about his weight, so he only felt comfortable in certain public places. One of them was his favorite restaurant, just a small place in midtown Manhattan that served good food and treated him like the star he was. He and I had dinner there a lot, and we always enjoyed the time we spent together because Frank was such a sweet guy.

As we were leaving the restaurant and waiting for our driver, I saw Jim Melton approaching us. He was wearing a tuxedo, so he was probably going to a performance after eating a light dinner. In those days, by the way, not only the soloists and the conductor but everyone in the orchestra wore tuxedos. At NBC, the feeling was that through radio we were coming into the listener’s home, and that we should be formally attired even though no one but the studio personnel could see us.

As Frank [Munn] and I were leaving the restaurant and I saw Jim Melton walking toward us with a small group around him, I could tell from his gait and from the look on his face that he was drunk. I don’t like to say this, but Jim Melton was an obnoxious drunk—I don’t know how else to describe him when had been drinking. He walked up to me and said to me, in front of Frank Munn, “Why do you let this fat pig sing on your show instead of me?” Then he turned to Frank and began calling a “pig,” “hog,” and a string of vile curse words.

Melton kept it up and kept it up, and then said sarcastically to Frank, “Oh, Mr. Munn, you’re such a big star, I want your autograph!” Frank just looked down at the sidewalk while Melton was acting out this mocking rant. It went on until suddenly Frank grabbed Melton’s arm in a vice grip—a group so hard that Melton’s knees buckled and he was writhing in pain. Calmly, Frank used his other hand to retrieve from his vest pocket his prized Duofold “Big Red” fountain pen. After uncapping it with his teeth, he wrote his signature across the starched white “bib” of Melton’s tuxedo.

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James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930

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When he [Frank Munn] finally capped his pen with his teeth and let go of Melton’s already swelling forearm, he stared at Melton and said, “If I ever hear of you saying terrible things about me again, I will hunt you down and I will break you in half!” By then I had stepped between them, but there was no need because Melton was moaning, his forearm was swelling rapidly and he was coming out of his drunken state.

The next morning at my home, I got a frantic call from Jim [Melton], telling me that his wife told him what he had done the night before and how sorry he was for the insults he had hurled at Frank Munn. He pleaded with me to ask Frank, if he would agree to it, to come to my home so that Melton could meet him there and apologize to him face-to-face.

Jim [Melton] arrived first, his forearm wrapped in medical tape and in a sling, and soon Frank Munn arrived at my house. We sat at my dining-room table, and Melton was so distraught that he actually began to cry. He asked Frank how he could ever forgive him for what he had said the night before. Frank never took his eyes off Melton, and never said a word until he saw how genuinely sorry Melton was.

At that point, Frank extended his hand across the table and waited until Melton grasped his in a tearful handshake. “Jim,” Frank said reassuringly, “it never happened. I have always been an admirer of your singing.” Melton broke down again, but when he regained his composure he assured Frank had he also admired Frank’s voice and artistry. That whole incident was scary, believe me, because I knew Frank Munn’s raw strength. He could have easily fractured or even broken Jim Melton’s forearm. Yet from then on, the two men became each other’s biggest promoter.

James A. Drake
Merritt Island, Florida

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1929

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Editor’s Notes

[1] Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.

[2] Bernard and Hare both began recording for Brunswick in late 1919, immediately after the company switched to the lateral-cut process. As a duet, they first appeared on Brunswick 2004, the fourth lateral-cut release in the standard Brunswick series.

[3] Jones began recording for Brunswick c. November 1920. His initial session produced one solo and one duet with Ernest Hare. The team of Jones and Hare actually made numerous recordings for Brunswick from 1920 through 1925, some with top billing, and others as vocalists with dance orchestras that included Haneschen’s own.

[4] Haenschen is correct in asserting that these figures are grossly inflated. In early 1928, for example, the Managers’ Committee of the Victor Talking Machine Company reported the following average sales per release for several of the company’s popular artists: The Revelers (71,900 copies per release); Jesse Crawford (70,000); Johnny Johnson’s Statler Pennsylvanians (47,134 copies); Roger Wolfe Kahn’s Orchestra (46,000); Irene Bordoni (32,134). The figures were significantly lower for Red Seal artists. Rosa Ponselle, one of the line’s better sellers, averaged only 10,740 copies per release for the same period.

[5] Ed Smalle was The Revelers’ original pianist and arranger. Frank Black began working with the group in late 1926, based upon evidence in the Victor files, which reveal that other pianists (including Frank Banta and Milton Rettenberg) were occasionally substituted for Black at the group’s recording sessions.

[6] Baur was also one of the most prolific recording artists of the 1920s, making countless sides (often under pseudonyms) for cheap labels like Banner and Grey Gull, in addition to his work for the more respectable brands.

[7] Luther, soon to be better known for his country-music duets with Carson Robison, replaced Baur c. September 1927 and stayed only briefly, being replaced in late November by Melton, based upon the Victor files.

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Read  Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

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“American Record Companies and Producers 1888 – 1950” Wins 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence

American Record Companies and Producers 1888 – 1950
Wins 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence

 

We’re pleased to announce that American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950 has received the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ 2019 Award for Excellence in Recorded Sound Research – Best Historical Research on Record Labels and General Recording Topics. This is the thirteenth  ARSC award for Mainspring Press.

Launched in 1991, the ARSC awards “Recognize those publishing the very best work today in recorded sound research. In giving these awards, ARSC recognizes the contributions of these individuals and aims to encourage others to emulate their high standards and to promote readership of their work.”

American Record Companies and Producers is available exclusively from Mainspring Press and Nauck’s Vintage Records. We encourage you to order soon, as this is a limited edition that will not be reprinted.

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760 pages • 7″ x 10″ full-cloth hardcover
Sewn library binding
Acid-free paper

Limited Edition

ISBN # 978-0-9973333-3-6
Library of Congress Control # 2018960581

$75 – Free Shipping to U.S.
Foreign Shipping Extra
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> Details, Subject List, and Secure Online Ordering

Correcting “Country Music” (PBS) • Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story

Correcting Country Music (PBS)
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Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story
By Allan Sutton

 

Ken Burns’ Country Music (PBS) offers up its share of errors and hoary, now-debunked anecdotes, some of which are sufficiently egregious that they’re worth addressing here. For starters, there’s the matter of the royalties paid on Jimmie Rodgers’ Victor record sales.

As the Burns team would have, Rodgers enjoyed sudden wealth from the royalties on sale of his records — but that was not the case. In fact, during his first two years with Victor, Rodgers not only received no royalties on his record sales, but was one of Victor’s lowest-paid artists.

Any sudden wealth that might have come Rodgers’ way from 1927 into early 1929 would have come from live-performance fees and sales of his sheet music (which Ralph Peer published, and on which he held the copyrights), not from record-sale royalties — because none were paid during that time.

Fortunately, there is reliable, primary-source documentation concerning this matter, in the official minutes of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Managers’ Committee — a source with which the Burns team was obviously unfamiliar and in which, had they looked, they would have found some fascinating glimpses into the workings of Ralph Peer and the nascent market for country music records.

As the minutes make clear, in three separate entries at various times, Rodgers was paid no royalties on sales of his records from 1927 until mid-February 1929. During that period, he received only a flat payment of $75 per approved title, with an agreement to  raise that figure to $100 in July 1929 and to $150 in July 1930, but still without a royalties provision. By comparison, Victor at the time was paying pseudo-hillbilly Vernon Dalhart a $400 advance per title, against an artist royalty of 1¢ per side (½¢ for duets) on his record sales.

In early 1929, Rodgers finally “expressed dissatisfaction” with the existing pay agreement, and Victor executives approved a revised package, superseding the original agreement. Beginning on February 15, 1929, Rodgers was to receive a $100 advance per approved selection, against an artist royalty of ½¢ per side. The change was reported in the Managers’ Committee’s minutes for March 6, 1929:

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That still fell far short of what Victor had been paying Dalhart. However, Dalhart had priced himself out Victor’s good graces some months earlier, insisting on a $25,000 annual guarantee and the right to record for any other companies he chose. (Managers’ Committee minutes, June 6, 1928). Estimating that Victor would have to sell 2.5 million records a year just to meet that guarantee, management decided not to renew Dalhart, who soon began a long downward spiral.

Dalhart’s loss of his Victor contract almost certainly worked to Rodgers’ advantage, with Victor officials noting, “While [Dalhart] is practically the leading artist of his type, we have other artists which we can build up to take his place… .”  And build they certainly did, in Rodgers’ case.

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For the stories behind the many country music labels and producers you won’t hear mentioned on Ken Burns’ Country Music, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, a special limited edition available exclusively from Mainspring Press and Nauck’s Vintage Records.

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Collector’s Corner (Free MP3 Downloads) • Some August–September 2019 Finds: Nat M. Wills, Fanny Brice, California Ramblers, King Oliver, Paul Howard, Bennie Moten

Collector’s Corner (Free MP3 Downloads)
Some August–September 2019 Finds: Nat M. Wills, Fanny Brice, California Ramblers, King Oliver, Paul Howard, Bennie Moten

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NAT M. WILLS: If a Table at Rector’s Could Talk (from Ziegfeld’s
Follies of 1913
(E)

Camden, NJ: September 22, 1913
Victor 17461 (mx. B 13840 – 1)
Orchestra directed by Frank N. Darling (director of the Follies pit orchestra), per the Victor files. Brian Rust’s Complete [sic] Entertainment Discography erroneously lists this as a New York session under the direction Walter B. Rogers.

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FANNY BRICE: [The] Sheik of Avenue B  (E)

Camden, NJ: July 14, 1922
Victor 45323 (mx. B 26800 – 2)
Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon, per the Victor files.

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CALIFORNIA RAMBLERS (as Palace Garden Orchestra):
After You’re [sic] Gone
  (E)

New York: June 24, 1927
Pathé 36653 (mx. 107644 – )
Personnel per manager Ed Kirkeby’s log: Chelsea Quealey (trumpet); Bobby Davis, Sam Ruby (clarinet, saxophones); Adrian Rollini (bass saxophone, goofus); Jack Rusin (piano); Tommy Felline (banjo); Herb Weil (percussion); unlisted (whistling). Rust’s Jazz Records erroneously lists Max Farley rather than Sam Ruby.

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KING OLIVER & HIS DIXIE SYNCOPATORS (as Savannah Syncopators): Wa Wa Wa  (E–)

Chicago: May 29, 1926
Brunswick 3373 (Vocalion mx. E 3181)
Subsequently assigned Brunswick mx. E 20637, but this pressing shows the Vocalion mx. number, in the usual truncated form. Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are undocumented (no source cited; not Brunswick-Vocalion file data).

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BENNIE MOTEN’S KANSAS CITY ORCHESTRA: Band Box Shuffle  (E+)

Chicago: October 23, 1929
Bluebird B-6710 (mx. 57303 – 1R, transcribed from
mx. BVE 57303 – 2 on January 4, 1937)
Dubbed reissue of Victor 23007; Rust’s Jazz Records erroneously shows both sides of Bluebird B-6710 as using the original (undubbed) masters. Personnel listed in Jazz Records and similar works are undocumented (no source cited, and no personnel listed in the Victor files, other than Moten, director; and William [Count] Basie, piano).

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PAUL HOWARD’S QUALITY SERENADERS: Quality Shout  (V++)

Culver City, CA (Hal Roach Studios): April 29, 1929
Victor V-38122 (mx. PBVE 50831 – 5)
Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are undocumented (no source cited; not Victor file data).

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PAUL HOWARD’S QUALITY SERENADERS (Lionel Hampton, vocal): Stuff  (V++)

Culver City, CA (Hal Roach Studios): April 29, 1929
Victor V-38122 (mx. PBVE 50877 – 1)
Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are undocumented (no source cited; no personnel listed in the Victor files, other than Hampton).

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Always looking to buy collector-grade 1920s and early 1930s jazz and blues 78s that we need, at fair collectors’ prices. True E– or better preferred, strong V+ may be acceptable for some scarcer items; but nothing lower, except for extreme rarities. We welcome lists of accurately, honestly graded disposables (VJM scale) with all defects, including label damage and any surface grain, noted, along with your asking prices. Act soon, before the coming recession (bet on it; the financial experts are) drives prices down, as happened during the Bush Economic Collapse — Oh, the great stuff  that came out of hiding at near fire-sale prices during those years!

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CORRECTION: Al Jolson’s Saint Louis Session (or, Why You Can’t Always Trust Original Recording Files)

[Note: The original version of this posting incorrectly referred to a Kansas City session; the correct location was Saint Louis. Our apologies for the error.]

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In Part 4 of Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview, Haenschen recalled a Saint Louis session at which Al Jolson had trouble recording “California, Here I Come” with Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra. However, that recording was actually made in Chicago, with Isham Jones’ Orchestra.

Moreover, the Brunswick files showed no instance of Jolson ever having recorded in Saint Louis. But now, thanks to a newspaper report supplied by Colin Hancock to Jim, we know better.

The clipping below, from the St. Louis Globe-Democrat for March 16, 1924, makes it clear beyond any doubt that Jolson and Rodemich recorded in that city, and that Haenschen simply confused the title from a slightly earlier Jolson-Jones session, which produced “California, Here I Come,” with the Jolson-Rodemich session that produced “Lazy” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time.”

The latter session, which is the one Haenschen apparently described in the interview, is erroneously listed in the Brunswick files as having taken place in Chicago rather than Saint Louis — even though the file notes that four of the orchestra members were “paid by Mr. Haenschen in St. Louis.” The company assigned “Ch” (Chicago series) master numbers to these recordings, a practice that would persist for all of the 1924–1926 Saint Louis sessions; in those cases, however, the correct city was noted in the files.

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years – Part 4 (Conclusion)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 4
(Conclusion)

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The industry recovered when the economy rebounded in the mid-1920s, even though radio was growing rapidly. What enabled the recording industry to prosper despite the rapid growth of radio?

Well, I can only give you the opinion I had at the time. I think that what kept the recording industry going in those years was that almost everyone owned a phonograph and had buying phonograph records since the turn of the [twentieth] century. So people were accustomed to the phonograph as a sort of “musical instrument,” and the biggest company in our industry, Victor, spent so much money on advertising that the public kept on buying records.

There was another angle to it, now that I think about it. Phonographs had been portable almost from the start. If you’ve ever seen Edison cylinder phonographs from the 1890s, they were in a wooden case that had a lid with a carrying handle on it. The motor was powered by springs, so it wasn’t electrical and didn’t have to be connected to a battery or an electrical outlet.

All of the [recording] companies made portable phonographs, and they became more and more compact. We [Brunswick] made one that was only about fourteen inches square and maybe three inches thick [the Parisian Portable Phonograph]. It was spring-wound, and the removable crank was inside the lid. For a horn, it had a paper cone that folded up so it too could be stored inside the case. There was even space to store a few records inside the lid. [1]

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Brunswick marketed, but did not manufacture, the Parisian Portable, which was identical with the Polly Portable Phonograph Company’s machine (see Note 1); even the setup instructions, printed on a cardboard disc, were the same (center right). For a time, Polly Portable gave away a special record with each phonograph purchased (center left).

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That little portable was smaller than any briefcase, so it could be taken and used anywhere. That wasn’t true of a radio because they weren’t portable in those days. They had to be connected to a power source, usually a series of batteries, and they also required an antenna—a very long wire antenna. Radios also had to be grounded, meaning that the chassis had to be connected by a wire to a piece of metal that was literally in the ground.

As radio receivers improved, so did reception—provided that the antenna wire was long enough and mounted high enough, because the AM signal was affected by hills and other parts of the landscape. What many people did, if they had an attic in their house, was to string a long line of bare wire around the attic walls. You had to put porcelain insulators near the beginning of the wire and also near the end that was attached to the radio chassis, to prevent a bolt of lightning from going into the radio during a storm.

Between the antenna wire and the ground wire, which most people clamped to a pipe in the house’s plumbing, radios weren’t portable. As radio sales increased and the [radio] receivers improved, several table-top antennas were developed and marketed, but in rural areas and hilly terrain, they weren’t very effective. It wasn’t until many years later that truly portable radios were developed. So by comparison, portable phonographs were really “portable,” and as long as acoustical records were played on them, they sounded pretty good because the frequency range of acoustical recordings was limited.

 

To what extent did electrical recording enable the phonograph to compete with the frequency range of high-quality radios in the 1920s?

Electrical recording rejuvenated the [recording] industry for a while, but it was still no match for radio, which got better and better because of the constant improvement in [radio] transmitters and receivers. I only wish we [Brunswick] had gotten into electrical recording when Victor did.

 

But didn’t Brunswick begin issuing electrical recordings soon after Victor introduced the Orthophonic Victrola and their first electrical recordings in the spring of 1925?

 I wish! Victor [and Columbia] bought [sic; licensed] the Western Electric system and manufactured a phonograph that was built to reproduce the wide frequency range of the new electrical recordings. And it was an acoustical machine, not an electrical one. The engineers who developed the [Western Electric] system designed every component—the diaphragm in the reproducer, the tonearm, and especially the horn—to be able to reproduce all the frequencies of their electrical recordings.

The [Orthophonic] horn they designed was sort of like the shell of a pearly [i.e., chambered] nautilus, meaning that the horn had several interlocking chambers that were almost ten feet long if the horn would have been made in a straight line, like a very long, square-shaped megaphone, rather than chambered like the Orthophonic horn was.

 

Was Brunswick aware of the Western Electric process that Victor introduced in its new Orthophonic phonograph and recordings?

Oh, sure. We [Brunswick] had been approached by several experimenters who were working on electrical recording. There was a fellow named [Charles A.] Hoxie who approached us with his process. Percy Deutsch dealt with Hoxie and another fellow named [Benjamin F.] Meissner who had an electrical-recording system. [2] Anyway, we waited too long to make a decision, and when we did, we ended up with the worst of all systems.

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Charles Hoxie’s Pallophotophone (shown above in November 1922 and February 1923) was originally designed to record on film. Later adapted to produce disc masters, the Pallophotophone was licensed in 1925 by Brunswick, which dubbed it the “Light-Ray” process for marketing purposes. Haenschen’s recalled, “That damned process was totally unpredictable.”

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You’re referring to the Pallotrope [Pallophotophone], or the “Light-Ray” process as Brunswick called it in their advertisements?

Yes—and what a mess it was! The way it was advertised gave the impression that this beam of light was reflected by a minuscule mirror that drove the cutter for the wax master. Some of our Promotion Department’s bulletins even gave the impression that a beam of light actually played the records. But the phonograph we put out for these new recordings used essentially the same components that our phonographs always had: a tonearm, a reproducer, and a removable stylus. There was no beam of light that played the record.

 

But Brunswick did use the “light ray” method in the recording studios, correct?

For a while, yes, but the results were all over the place because that damned process was totally unpredictable. Most of the time, the test pressings of the recordings had so much distortion that they were worthless. The distortion might be in the bass in one test pressing, and then in the middle or upper range in another. About the time we thought we had solved the distortion problem in one part of the range, it would be in another part [of the range].

The microphone we had to use may have been the source of the problem. It looked like an oversized telephone. it had a flared cup that funneled the sound into the internal parts of the microphone, like telephones were equipped with back then. If there was any tiny mirror suspended in that contraption, I would want to see it for myself. To me, the casing that held this supposed mirror looked more like an oversized diaphragm like the ones you’d see in a telephone.

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(Top) A simplified diagram of the Pallophotophone system as adapted for “Light-Ray” disc recording. (Bottom) Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in 1926.

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That microphone was mounted on a steel pole that could be adjusted up or down in height, and the cast-iron base was on casters so it could be moved around. But no matter where we put the thing in relation to the performers, we couldn’t get consistent, distortion-free recordings.

 

Brunswick kept advertising the “light ray” system for a couple years after it was publicly introduced. Were you able to get consistent results finally?

No. That process was so unpredictable that we were having to call the performers back to record another “take” of the same performance, hoping that the thing might work this time. We were spending so much time calling back the performers for more “takes”—and in any business, time is money, so we junked that “light ray” thing and made a deal with Western Electric to be able to use their process instead. Back then, it was possible to make confidential deals like that and have them stay confidential. Anyway, from then on the sound quality of our recordings was on a par with Victor’s.

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From The Talking Machine World (February 1926)

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After Brunswick quietly adopted the Western Electric process, what happened to Frank Hofbauer, who had designed the recording machines and had made the masters of Brunswick acoustical recordings?

Frank stayed with us for several years. We didn’t stop making acoustical recordings altogether, so he was still vital to us, especially after we acquired Vocalion. A lot of those Vocalions of that time, and I’m speaking of the middle- to late-1920s, were still acoustical. [3]  So Frank was still very much an important man for Brunswick. Incidentally, he was still living in the same house in [East Orange,] New Jersey, where he had lived when he worked with Edison.

 

Were you or any Brunswick executives invited to Edison’s laboratories, and if so did you meet the great man in person?

It was customary for us to host the executives from other companies, including Edison’s, and vice-versa. We were invited—and by “we” I mean Frank [Hofbauer], Percy Deutsch, Bill Brophy and Walter [Rogers] and I—to the Edison recording studios, which were on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and also to his laboratories in [West Orange,] New Jersey. Edison wasn’t there—I think he was in Florida then—but several of the Edison men made quite a fuss over seeing Frank [Hofbauer] again. Walter Miller, who I think ran Edison’s recording studios at the time, took us through the complex. What I remember the most about it was being shown this cubbyhole under a staircase where the “Old Man,” as he was called, took naps when he felt like it.

 

You also toured the Victor and Columbia studios?

Columbia, yes—that’s when they were on the top floor of the Gotham building in New York, which was new at the time. We didn’t tour the Victor complex, which was in [Camden,] New Jersey, but we had an even bigger treat. The founder of Victor, Eldridge Johnson, had a yacht—and when I say “yacht,” I mean a real ship. It was named “Caroline,” which I think was his wife’s name. Mr. Johnson took all of us on a cruise in Delaware Bay, and we had the best of everything on that ship. Will Darby went with us, and of course he and Mr. Johnson went back to the [Emile] Berliner days.

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Eldridge R. Johnson in the early 1920s (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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When I was introduced to him, he asked me what my background was, so I told him I was a mechanical engineer and a machinist. I mentioned that I had my own small “factory,” as I call it, and that all of my time away from Brunswick was spent at my lathes and other machines making metal parts and welding and that sort of thing. Well, that got him to reminisce about his machine shop in Camden, where he had developed the Victor phonograph, the one that became the Victor trademark with the dog listening to the horn.

 

How would you describe his personality and his demeanor based on what you observed during that cruise?

He had a very courtly manner, and he was well-spoken. I don’t know how much formal education he had, but I saw photographs of the machine shop where he had developed his spring motor and talking machine, so I know that he probably worked seven days a week in that little shop just to make ends meet. But when he started Victor, and then it grew and grew and he became very wealthy, he learned how to comport himself like other very wealthy men. He had the finest clothes, the best wines, best cigars, several homes, and that beautiful yacht. My guess is that he learned all of that by observation.

 

Returning to the performers you had under contract, there are two dance bands that I want to ask you about, the Isham Jones orchestra, which you had mentioned earlier, and also the Ray Miller band.

 There’s not much to say about Ray Miller’s band because he had next to nothing to do with it. We hired him when he got a very good engagement at the Arcadia ballroom on Broadway, which was new at the time. Ray was a mediocre player—a drummer, but not a very good one—and I didn’t even let him play in his recordings. I put that entire band together myself. I picked really good players who were in our studio band, the same guys who were in my Carl Fenton band, and I conducted them. Ray wasn’t even there for some of the recordings because he didn’t add anything. He was just the front man.

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Ray Miller’s Orchestra, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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The difference between Ray Miller and Isham Jones is like the difference between day and night. Isham was a consummate musician—an excellent sax man who could also double on clarinet, and a real leader. Every man in his orchestra loved playing for him. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was a celebrity because he wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have a “show biz” ego or any of that. But man, could he lead a band!

He was very interested in the recording process, and he worked with me on the arrangements that were necessary for acoustical recordings. He picked up all of that very easily, and he did his own arrangements for most of his recordings with [Brunswick]. As I think I mentioned, he also co-wrote some very fine tunes with Gus Kahn, and we recorded them—“I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It Had To Be You,” and “Swingin’ Down the Lane” were all very solid hits.

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Isham Jones’ Orchestra in Chicago (Library of Congress)

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I often think back to working with Isham in our studios because he was such a pleasure to work with. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known—he would do as many “takes” as necessary until he felt the playing was tight and perfect. He knew just where to place his men in relation to the [recording] horns, and he would be there in his shirtsleeves on the hottest days, wiping his forehead between “takes”—he didn’t have to wear his toupee in the studio, like he did when he was playing in public—and he would urge the guys to do it one more time if he felt that a “take” wasn’t perfect. He was one of our favorites at Brunswick—and he was also Al Jolson’s favorite, too.

 

About the one and only Al Jolson, I’m sure you have a lot to say!

He was the biggest star we ever had, and Brunswick wouldn’t have been so successful so quickly if it hadn’t been for Al Jolson. I directed most of our recordings of Al, not all of them but I think most of them, which meant that we had to record him after his shows, which could last until three o’clock in the morning. It also meant that we had to rely on our portable recording equipment, and rent the best space we could find in whatever city Al was playing in order to keep our Jolson inventory well stocked.

 

He was said to be very difficult to work with unless everything was done his own way. How was he to work with from your standpoint?

He was never difficult at all—and he would listen to my suggestions, which were deliberately spare because he had his own distinctive style, a style that spawned hundreds of imitators over the years. I knew how to treat him, so he was open to the very few suggestions I ever made. He wasn’t like that with others, though. If some arranger, director or conductor did suggest that he sing a song a certain way, he would either give them a withering stare until they walked away, or he would reach into one of the front pockets of his trousers and pull out a thick wad of $100 bills with a rubber band around them and would say “This is how much money I make in one night. Show me what you make.” But he never did that to me.

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Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” was one of the most heavily promoted records of 1928.

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Being the biggest star in show business, Al could even get away with chewing out some of the big-name songwriters. He would tell Gershwin in Yiddish to go to hell for making any suggestion about how a song like “Swanee” should be sung. But there was one he never argued with: Irving Berlin. When you listen to Jolson’s [Brunswick] recording of Berlin’s song “Remember,” you’ll hear Jolson sing it that way it was written.

That was because Berlin had told him bluntly that he had written this song for the woman he loved—Ellin Mackay, whom he married—and that if he heard one hint of a “Mammy-ism” on Jolson’s [Brunswick] record, hell would freeze over before he would give Jolson another song. As you can hear on the record, Jolson sang “Remember” exactly as he was told to sing it by Irving Berlin himself. I liked that record because it showed that Jolson could sing beautifully when he wanted to.

 

Your tuba player, John Helleberg, who later played the string bass for your Brunswick recording sessions, told me a story about Jolson recording a song during a session that was not going well. I feel sure you know the story, and will ask you to tell it here.

That happened in St. Louis, when he was appearing there in “Bombo.” [4] We were having trouble with the field-recording equipment. I think the song we were recording was “California, Here I Come.” We ended up doing four, five, or maybe six takes as I recall. Jolson was not a patient man, and after having sung the same song so many times already, he was getting pretty frustrated, and so were we. Finally, I said to him that we would do one last take, and that was enough, that we would just have to make do with that take.

Well, the equipment cooperated, and during the last chorus Jolson unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall down to his shoe tops—and what he did next I’ll leave to your imagination. The rest of us were doing our best to stifle a belly laugh until we got the signal that the stylus had been lifted from the wax master. Then we all broke up laughing, and even Jolson laughed at what he had done. Yet when you listen to that recording, you have no idea what was going on while it was being made, because Jolson’s incredible verve is what you hear.

 

There was also an incident in which he wanted to make a recording of an opera aria, correct?

Yes, unfortunately. I have never known a pop singer, including Jolson, who didn’t want to try to sing opera arias. For Al, the aria he thought he should record for us was the Prologue from Pagliacci. [5]  As anyone who knew Al would tell you, saying no to Al Jolson was just not done—especially not by any of us at Brunswick, where he was our biggest draw.

I wrote the arrangement for the small orchestra we were forced to use in the acoustical-recording days, and Al arrived about 3:00 a.m., as usual, just bursting to record that Prologue. Frank Hofbauer, our recording engineer, was a good-sized fellow with a pronounced German accent, and I remember him putting a blank wax disc on the recording lathe and waved his hand through a small glass window that separated the recording studio from the room that held the recording equipment. That was the signal for Jolson to begin singing the Prologue—which he did, and to my surprise the first two lines, which he sang in phonetic Italian, were at least credible.

But the Italian text got to him and he blew the next line and the one after that—and then he started joking around in English, adding a couple choice Yiddish words, while the band continued playing. At that point, Frank Hofbauer lifted the cutting stylus from the wax disc so the recording would stop. He opened the little window that separated his room from the studio—but before he could say a word, Al could see from his facial expression that Frank was irritated.

Then Al turned on the “Jolson charm,” telling Frank that it had been childish of him [Jolson] to waste valuable studio time by clowning around for two minutes after he knew that there could be no record because he had messed up the Italian lines. As he was apologizing to Frank, he begged for two things: a pressing from that wax master, even though it was incomplete, and another chance to record the Prologue. “Believe me, Frank,” he said, “I can sing it like an Italian baritone if you’ll just put another wax disc on your machine. Please, Frank, won’t you give Jolie”—that’s how he referred to himself—“one more chance to prove to you what I can do?”

Frank looked at me, and I gave him a look back that said, “He’s our biggest star so give him another shot at it.” About five minutes later, when the second attempt was underway, I wished I hadn’t done that to Frank because Jolson clearly had no intention of singing the Prologue. Instead, he sang the first line in Italian, and then started “singing” the crudest lines you can imagine—some in English, and some in Yiddish.

While Jolson was busy clowning around in front of the [recording] horn, Frank came storming out of his room carrying the thick wax disc in his hands. He marched up to Jolson and said, “You t’ink I vant to go to prison?” Then he threw the disc at Jolson’s feet and, of course, it broke into pieces on the floor.

Jolson didn’t say a word; he just left the studio. I told the guys in the band to take a break. It was my band, incidentally, which I led as Carl Fenton.

While the guys were taking their break, I walked with Frank into the room where his recording equipment was. He swore that he would quit before ever recording Al Jolson again. It took a while but he finally calmed down, although he still had some unrepeatable German words for what he thought of Jolson. Since I grew up speaking German, and Frank and I frequently spoke German to each other in the studio, he didn’t need to translate any of his epithets for me.

Although Frank made a very good salary at Brunswick, he was a frugal man by nature and he drove an old Model T. When I say “old,” I mean one with a brass radiator, the kind Ford was selling when I was just starting college. But being mechanical, Frank loved cars and was especially fond of a brand called Hupmobile, which was very popular in those days.

About two weeks after the Jolson incident happened, a messenger came to the studio asking to see a ‘Mister Hofbauer,’ for whom there was a gift that was too large to fit in our elevators. When Frank went downstairs, the messenger handed him the keys to a brand-new 1924 Hupmobile touring car, a four-door convertible with every option you could think of. It was painted Navy blue, with a matching leather interior and convertible top. On the dashboard was a brass plaque that read, “To Frank Hofbauer from his friend Al Jolson.”

That was Jolson for you. When he wanted you or needed you, he’d find out what you like, buy the top of the line of whatever it was, and have it engraved so that you’d never forget it, and that everyone you knew would be aware that it was a gift from “Jolie.”

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Jolson mugging for the Bain News Service cameras
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Did you stay in touch with him over the years? And were you surprised when he made a comeback in the 1940s when “The Jolson Story” became such a hit?

Yes, I stayed in touch with him in passing, and was always happy to see him. About his famous comeback, I wasn’t too surprised about it because he had always been popular and had made a number of films that were very successful. He didn’t like radio because he wanted to be seen, not just heard, but he did well enough on radio and [his] films kept his image before the public.

He also took very good care of himself. Al had had tuberculosis when he was young, so he always made sure he got plenty of rest. When he was living in New York, he would lie down for three or four hours in the afternoon, to make sure he was rested for his evening show. When he moved to California, he used to lie in the sun for three or four hours and get a tan while he was resting.

But no, I wasn’t totally surprised when “The Jolson Story” made him almost as big as he had been in the 1920s, when he was our top star at Brunswick. What did surprise me is that the kid who played him, Larry Parks, looked nothing like him and wasn’t a singer at all. Yet he was able to mime to Jolson’s voice on the sound track, and he was able to copy some of Al’s gestures well enough to give a credible impersonation. But it was Jolson’s voice and the energy in his singing that made the movie such a hit.

 

Did you see him during that comeback, that second career?

Yes, in Hollywood, and although he had aged, he was the same Al Jolson that I had known in the 1920s. No one on earth could make you feel greater than Al Jolson when he singled you out for attention. In my case, I think he had very good memories of our working together at Brunswick, so when he had that fantastic comeback and I saw him in Hollywood, he treated me like a long-lost friend.

He had known my wife, Roxanna, at Brunswick because she was the secretary to Milton Diamond, who managed our [Brunswick] radio division. That’s how I met her—she was Rose Anna Hussey at the time, but she changed her first name to Roxanna. We were married in April 1925, and for our wedding some of the biggest gifts we got were from Al Jolson. Not only that, but after our honeymoon he invited us to the Winter Garden, and during the performance he had a spotlight put on us and introduced us to the audience. When I saw him in Hollywood after his comeback, he asked me about “Roxie,” as she’s called, and also wanted to know all about our kids and what they were doing now that they were adults.

We were having lunch one day, and I said to him, “Al, I would have written all of those arrangements for your songs in ‘The Jolson Story.’ How come you didn’t call me?” I knew, of course, that Saul Chaplin, who was a friend of mine, was one of the arrangers that the studio had used. He said to me, “Why, Gussie”—that was always his nickname for me—“Gussie, I did use your arrangements! I told those studio guys that I wasn’t going to use anybody’s arrangements but Gus Haenschen’s! Oh, maybe they added a couple more clarinets or whatever, but those are your arrangements. I demanded it!”

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Jolson lied to Haenschen about having used the latter’s arrangements in
“The Jolson Story” (1946).

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He had me so convinced that I actually believed him. It wasn’t until later, when I listened to the recordings from the soundtrack, that I realized the only similarity between my Brunswick arrangements and the ones he sang on the film were that the arrangements had the same chords. Other than that, they were entirely different. But when Al told me how he had insisted that the studio had to use my arrangements, he was so convincing that I believed him! That same power which he used to convince me is what had made him a star in the early 1900s, and what made him a star again forty years later.

 

In what year did you leave Brunswick—and if I may ask, why did you leave?

I resigned at the end of June in 1927, but it wasn’t by choice. When we began doing the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we were learning all about the radio industry, which was new at the time. The big stations on the East Coast had studio orchestras, and so did the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities. But there were hundreds of small stations between the coasts which had to make do with a pianist and maybe an organist if the studio could accommodate a theater organ.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if someone could produce and distribute high-quality recordings of orchestras playing really innovative arrangements, and then lease them to these small stations all over the country, there was a fortune to be made. When the telegrams and letters kept pouring in after every “Brunswick Hour” broadcast, we—and I’m speaking of Frank Black, Bill Brophy, Ben Selvin and I—went to Percy Deutsch and sold him on the idea of Brunswick starting its own transcription service. He thought it was a terrific idea, so he wanted to be one of the founding partners in what would be a new, separate division of Brunswick’s phonograph and radio business.

By then, transcriptions were relatively common, but they weren’t what we had in mind. They were recordings taken from a radio receiver and recorded on aluminum discs. In the [radio] industry, they were called “air-checks” because they weren’t intended to be heard by anybody but the network people and the sponsors or their agencies. So these were literally “checks” of the radio signals that were transmitted over the air, and the quality of the aluminum discs was way below what any station would ever put on the air.

Instead of air-checks, we began recording orchestral arrangements on the same wax masters that we used for our [Brunswick] studio recordings. We made the recordings in two sizes, twelve-inch and sixteen-inch, and recorded them at 33-1/3 r.p.m., which extended the playing time considerably. Most were lateral-cut, but we also made vertical-cut transcriptions. We were using the Western Electric system by then, so the sound quality of our transcriptions was very high, more than sufficient for a small radio station to play them and give their listeners the impression of a “live” orchestra.

By about 1926, we had already gotten Western Electric to license us to use their recording system, and we had negotiated with several pressing plants to make large quantities of these oversized discs. The pressings had to be made from the best material, without any abrasives in the sides or the bottom of the groove. We couldn’t use the Brunswick studios to make these recordings, so we set up our own studios, Sound Studios, at 50 West 57th Street in Manhattan.

We hired [recording] engineers who had been trained by Western Electric, and we employed them with the stipulation that they had to be available as needed. We also put together a roster of the best musicians who worked for us at Brunswick and Columbia—Ben Selvin was my counterpart at Columbia by then—and all of us did the arrangements for the studio orchestras we put together. Eventually, we had one of the largest and most diverse libraries of recordings here or abroad.

We did all of this with our own money, not Brunswick’s, but we were acting on the assumption that Percy Deutsch had told the Brunswick parent company what we were doing. Well, he didn’t—but we didn’t know that until we were called to a meeting that we weren’t told about until the day it took place. The meeting was held in a hotel and we were told it was important, and to be there on time. I called Percy about it, and I got concerned when he said that he didn’t know anything about it, but that he would be there too. Ben didn’t go because he was a silent partner in Sound Studios, so Brunswick didn’t know that he was one of the investors.

We went to this hotel conference room expecting to be briefed on something new that Brunswick was developing. But as soon as we walked in, we were told to sit on one side of this conference table. On the other side were Brunswick lawyers, and they got right to the point. We were told to make a choice between being employed by Brunswick and closing down our Sound Studios operation, or else submit our resignations. The other alternative was to be fired and forfeit any earnings that we were due to collect, other than from our Brunswick stock.

Percy Deutsch was given a harsh reprimand by the main one of these lawyers—and [Deutsch] was a Brunswick family member. That will give you an idea how confrontational this meeting was. The lawyers gave us fifteen minutes to make a decision, and we were told not to leave that room while we were deliberating.

Frankly, it wasn’t hard for any of us to make the decision to resign because we knew that the future was radio, and that we could fill a niche that somebody else would fill if we didn’t. So Bill Brophy and Frank [Black] and I submitted our resignations, and signed a confidential agreement that Brunswick would announce our departures by saying that we were pursuing other aspects of radio and recording, or something to that effect.

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The Talking Machine World reports Haenschen’s resignation from Brunswick (July 1927) and his involvement with Percy Deutsch’s new venture (October 1927).

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I left with a very good settlement, money-wise, and felt relieved because I could concentrate all my time and energy in our new business. When we started putting together our plan for a new transcription business for radio, Sonora, which had put out some good phonographs, had gotten into the [recording] distribution business by merging with several smaller companies.  

We thought about acquiring Sonora because it was in financial trouble—it was never run very well—but there was some litigation going on about Sonora, so we scratched that and decided to develop our own distribution business. [6]

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Although Haenschen recalled that Percy Deutsch “scratched the idea” of acquiring Sonora, Deutsch and associates did acquire the company in late 1927 (see Note 6). Haenschen (top left) and Frank Black (bottom left) served as studio director and arranger, respectively, for the new venture.

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We formed a corporation called “World Broadcasting Service,” which we changed to “World Broadcasting System” a bit later. Now we were in a new venture, and all of us were like kids on Christmas morning. The World Broadcasting System grew rapidly—and it happened just in time because Brunswick got into pre-recorded programming the very next year.”

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

No, none at all because I was in radio, and it became a much bigger career for me than Brunswick was. I’m not the sort who suffers from nostalgia or re-thinks what might have been. I’ve never had time for that. I’ve always lived in the present while also looking to the future. But now that you’ve taken me back to my nine years at Brunswick, they were happy years for me—I met my wife there, and I worked with many of the greatest artists and entertainers of that time. I think I was very, very lucky to have been part of the founding of a record company that grew very rapidly and became one of the three largest companies in the [recording] industry. I was at the right place at the right time.
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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] Brunswick did not develop or manufacture these unique portables. They were produced by the Thorn Machine Products Company (Syracuse, New York) beginning in late 1926 and were marketed concurrently by the Polly Portable Phonograph Company (New York) as the Polly Portable, and by Brunswick as the Parisian Portable. Other than the brand name and some very minor cosmetic differences, the Polly Portable and the Brunswick Parisian Portable were identical. The Polly Portables were being remaindered for as little as $2.98 each by early 1929. Both models were last advertised in mid-1931.

[2] In November 1921, Meissner transmitted portions of an operatic performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater to a Magnavox receiver in Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters, which was connected to what news reports termed an “electrical recording device.” Although Meissner’s work with Brunswick came to naught, he went on to design a number of other electronic devices, including the Meissner Electronic Piano in 1930.

[3] Haenschen is mistaken here. Brunswick began recording electrically in April 1925, and electrical and acoustical sessions for the Brunswick label were intermixed during April and May. The final acoustical session for the Brunswick label was held on June 1, and the final acoustical session for the Vocalion label followed on October 23, 1925, after which all Brunswick and Vocalion sessions were electrical.

[4] UPDATE: The titles were actually “Lazy” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time,” with Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra (“California, Here I Come” was from a slightly earlier Chicago session, accompanied by Isham Jones’ Orchestra). Although the Brunswick files list the Jolson-Rodemich session as having been held in Chicago, and the masters were assigned “Ch” (Chicago) numbers, the session was actually held in Saint Louis, as confirmed in a St. Louis Globe-Democrat article reported to us by Colin Hancock, via Jim Drake.

[5] In addition to the Pagliacci prologue, Jolson also recorded an unspecified aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia at this session (July 3, 1924), accompanied by Haenschen’s orchestra. Both titles were assigned master numbers (three takes each), indicating that those recordings were not destroyed at the time, although they were never issued by Brunswick.

[6] Deutsch and associates did soon acquire Sonora, albeit in a roundabout manner. In October 1927, they formed the Acoustics Products Company (the successor to Sound Studios) to take over the Bidhamson Company and Premier Laboratories, which owned a controlling interest in Sonora. Deutsch served as president of Acoustic Products and employed both Haneschen and Frank Black in its Sonora Recording Laboratories division. In January 1928 the company announced that a new Sonora label was to be launched, under Haenschen’s management, but it never appeared (the familiar Sonora label of the 1940s was an unrelated venture).

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

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> Part 1  | > Part 2

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It was in Los Angeles that you recorded Charlie Chaplin with Abe Lyman’s orchestra, am I right?

Yes, Abe Lyman’s band with Charlie listed on the records—we did two sides, as I recall—as “guest conductor.”

 

Although it’s known today that Chaplin wrote the scores for all of his films, I doubt that it was known then. How did you come to record him as a “guest conductor”? Did you know him at that time?

Not personally, no, but of course I was a fan of his movies. Charlie contacted me through Abe Lyman. That’s how those records came about. Charlie wrote songs all the time, and he wanted to have about a dozen of them recorded. When Abe [Lyman] told me that Charlie was interested in having his songs recorded, I told Percy Deutsch about it and he said to pay Charlie whatever he wanted because having the name Charlie Chaplin on Brunswick records would be one of our “exclusives” and would sell a lot of records for us.

 

Did you negotiate a contract with Chaplin?

He didn’t want a contract. Money wasn’t a factor because he was already one of the wealthiest movie stars and was also one of the “big four” [Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, David Wark Griffith, and Chaplin] who founded United Artists. What he wanted to do was to have his songs recorded, and he also wanted to conduct them and then play a violin solo in some of the recordings. So basically, he agreed to try out some recordings with us, and if there was a demand for more, he would talk to us about royalties and such.

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Publicity shots from the May 1923 session (the exact date has not survived in the Brunswick files). In the top photo, Gus Kahn is seated at the piano, with (left to right) Haenschen, Chaplin, and Abe Lyman.

 

What do you remember about making the recordings?

Charlie was so excited that he wanted me to show him everything about the recording process. I took Frank Hofbauer to Los Angeles with me because he was our “expert,” and he would design the permanent studios we intended to build there and would also do the recordings we made in the temporary studio we used. So I spent almost a full day with Charlie, showing him how the recording process worked.

Then Abe [Lyman] and Gus Kahn and I spent part of an afternoon with Charlie. Gus worked directly with Charlie to write the arrangements for the first two songs we were going to record. Everything was going well until Charlie played the violin for us. He was self-taught, and he played left-handed so he had his violin strung the opposite of a standard violin. His playing was so amateurish that there was no way we were going to allow him to play any solo passages on a Brunswick recording.

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Although Chaplin’s record was widely advertised, it was not a big seller for Brunswick. Some dealer ads, like the lower example, claimed that Chaplin played violin on the record, which Haenschen recalled was not the case.

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Because Abe [Lyman] knew him well, I left it to Abe to have to tell Charlie that he couldn’t play on an actual recording. But we agreed that Charlie should really conduct the recording session, which he did—not with a baton or with his hands, but with his violin bow. The day we made the first two recordings, he brought a camera crew with him. They set up all sorts of lights around the studio, and the crew filmed him and us during the whole session. It was a fun experience, and afterward Charlie treated all of us to a dinner at his studios.

Unfortunately, the “try out” that all of us had envisioned didn’t sell any records. Looking back, I can see why. At that time [1923], movies were silent and Charlie was seen but never heard. And as you said, very few people knew—or cared—that he wrote the scores for his films. Movie audiences weren’t listening to his music, they were watching him on the screen. In the silent-movie days, no one associated Charlie Chaplin with sound recordings, so the fact that he was listed on two Brunswick sides as the “guest conductor” of the Abe Lyman band didn’t mean anything from a promotion standpoint.

But that wasn’t the end of it—in fact, in some ways it was just the beginning. Charlie wanted to record all of the songs he had mentioned, about a dozen of them, and he was relentless about it. He sent me telegrams day and night, he nearly drove Abe Lyman crazy, and then he sent me scores that he had had someone make of all the songs. I had to find more ways of saying no than I had ever known until then. Finally, he stopped “campaigning” and went back to working day and night on his movies.

But about the time [Chaplin] had given up on us, Rudolph Valentino contacted us and wanted to make records too. [1] Everyone knew that Valentino was a splendid dancer, and of course he was the biggest name in movies in the mid-1920s. He told Bill Brophy and me that he had studied voice in Italy, and would sing on our recordings. We had no reason to dispute what he said, so we agreed to record him in New York. We did—and the two songs he sang on those recordings were the worst ever made by Brunswick or any other company.

 

What did he sing? Was it an opera aria or a song?

I can only remember one of them, the “Kashmiri Song,” which he sang in English. He spoke English fluently, by the way. [John] McCormack and so many other real singers had recorded it, and it’s a good song so we figured Valentino could sing it credibly. Of course, we also figured that having his name on a Brunswick label, and introducing him to the public as not just the great lover, the movie star, but also as a singer would be another exclusive for us.

Well, the recording was an absolute disaster! If he had ever had a voice lesson, it didn’t “take” because his timbre was awful, and his intonation was even worse. He was either under-pitch or above-pitch throughout most of the recording. The other one we made with him was a popular Spanish song [”El Relicario”] that he sang in Spanish—and it was even worse than the “Kashmiri Song.” Both of the test pressings were so bad that we would never have released them. If we did, we would have been the laughingstock of the industry.

 

Was Valentino as relentless as Chaplin was about pressuring you to release them?

Percy Deutsch and two other executives, Ed Bensinger and Bill Brophy, kept putting off Valentino by telling him that Brunswick would prefer to wait to release his record in connection with his next biggest film. They kept putting him off for almost two years, and then—and this sounds awful—he solved Brunswick’s problem by dying in 1926.

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Brunswick did not release the Valentino recordings, although a catalog number to them was assigned following his death. In 1930 it dubbed the recordings, with spoken introductions, for a special release by the obscure Celebrities Recording Company.

 

Those recordings were released after his death. Did Brunswick release them after all?

No, no. Some record company—it wasn’t Brunswick—put out a sort of “memorial record” with a pompous introduction explaining that these two songs were the only time that the voice of Valentino was ever recorded. I don’t know how those test recordings got released. Maybe somebody got the test pressings from his estate, I don’t know. I had left Brunswick by then, so I don’t know if the company got an injunction or sued whoever it was that released them. [2]

 

In your files there are letters between you and Oliver Hardy about making records for Brunswick. Do you recall your dealings with Hardy?

Yes, and they were very pleasant. I met him when I went to Los Angeles to set up the temporary studio, the one where we recorded Chaplin. You may know this, but everybody who knew Hardy called him “Babe,” not “Ollie” or “Oliver.” He had been a singer before he got into [motion] pictures, and he had a very pleasant tenor voice. The problem was that he and Stan Laurel were making silent pictures, so no one knew that Hardy could sing. But he could really sing—and he did when he and Laurel made sound pictures. He was also a hell of a golfer, by the way. Like Bing [Crosby], he was almost a par golfer.

 

Your files also contain some correspondence with two other film stars, Ramon Navarro and John Boles, who wanted to make records with Brunswick. Do you recall dealing with them?

With Navarro, yes, in Los Angeles. He was a competent “salon pianist,” but as with Hardy, no one knew that he had any musical ability. The same with John Boles. Although I did meet with him and he was a very nice guy, [Boles] was another case of a silent movie star who could sing credibly but no one knew it, so there was no point in having him make records for us. As a movie star, he was nowhere near Valentino, but [Boles] could sing—his voice was a light baritone, or maybe a tenor with a limited top [range] and a fast vibrato—but he made several successful sound films later on. [3]

 

Among the vocalists you recorded at Brunswick, there are two tenors I’d like to ask you about. The first is Frank Munn, whom you discovered. How did that come about?

Being a machinist myself, I had a lot of friends who were master machinists. I kept hearing about this rotund machinist who had this beautiful tenor voice, but had lost part of his index finger in an accident and was now driving trucks. After a while I found out his name, so I looked him up in the phone book and found that he was living in a little apartment in the Bronx.

Frank was a very shy man, and when I introduced myself to him and told him that I heard he was a singer, he seemed kind of lost for words. I could see how reticent he was, so I asked him where he liked to eat, and then told him I want to treat him to lunch on a Sunday. He was still very reticent when we got together, and I think it was because he had found out that I was with a major record company. I actually had to convince him to audition for us—that’s how shy he was.

Frank was what used to be called a “Mister Five-by-Five.” He was about 5’ 5” and he weighed close to 300 pounds, so he was almost as round as he was tall. He had two suits and two dress shirts that had to be custom-tailored for him due to his size. He was single back then, but later he married a wonderful woman, Ruth, who was the dream of his life. She took wonderful care of him, and they were such a great couple. Being so overweight, he was extremely sensitive about it, but in her eyes he was as handsome as a movie star—and she loved to hear him sing.

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Frank Munn, from Radio Revue for February 1930

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We [Brunswick] were already doing the “Brunswick Hour” when I met Frank, and we had ironed out the problems with electrical recording by then. His voice recorded so well that it amazed all of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had made some personal recordings and had even done a trial recording for Edison. [4] But those were acoustic recordings, and like Nick Lucas, Frank didn’t have the kind of voice that recorded well acoustically. [5] But on electrical recordings and on radio, Frank’s voice was just beautiful.

Because of his obesity, his boyish face, very light skin, and the timbre of his speaking voice—which was exactly like his singing voice—and his shyness, you wouldn’t take Frank for being a strong man. Well, one day in the studio we found out just how strong he was. It was a hot summer day, and we were re-doing the studios—we had three of them, and one studio was still equipped with one of the very heavy acoustic recorders that Frank Hofbauer had designed. We needed to get it out of there, and four workmen were hired to remove it.

Well, only two showed up—and we waited and waited for the other two, but they never showed. We were on a tight schedule and weren’t doing any recording while the studios were all being redone, so I was infuriated about these two workmen not showing up. It was very hot—this was in July, I think—and tempers were getting short. Frank was there to rehearse in another room with several men from our Brunswick Male Chorus. He was always punctual, and had arrived early for this rehearsal.

When he saw what was going on, he said to me, “I can help with this,” and he picked up one side of this very heavy machine as if it didn’t weigh ten pounds! The other two workmen were struggling to keep it off the ground, but Frank was not only lifting and moving what it would have taken two men to do, he was also telling the other two to move this way and that way until that machine was out of the room.

Word got around that Frank was super-strong, and when some of the guys would tell him they had heard about it, Frank reacted very modestly but you could tell it meant something to him. From then on, we made bets about what he could lift. One bet that I especially remember was whether he could lift the rear end of a Ford sedan high enough that the rear tires would not be touching the pavement. One of our [Brunswick] fellows had a four-door Model T with a back bumper on it, and I watched Frank Munn put on a pair of leather gloves and lift the entire rear end of that Ford until the tires were almost two inches above the pavement!

 

Frank Munn’s voice has a very sweet quality, for want of a better word, on his recordings. Had he studied voice formally?

Frank never had any lessons as far as I know. His voice was just “natural.” It wasn’t large, nor did it have much of a range. When I wrote arrangements for Frank’s recordings, I tried not to have him sing above an A-flat because he didn’t have much of a top. But the timbre of his voice gave the impression that he was singing higher. To me, the best things about his singing were his intonation, his phrasing, which was always on the beat, and his natural diction—no rolling of the Rs and that sort of thing.

Frank was ideal for recording and for radio because he was never seen by an audience, so he didn’t have to worry about his obesity. He didn’t like having photos taken, but we used the best professionals and they lighted him in ways that emphasized his dark hair and his eyes and his smile, not his body. When he had to pose for longer shots, he would stand behind a piano so that the photo would be of his upper body.

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A hand-colored photo of Virginia Rea and Frank Munn, with Haenschen at the piano (1928)

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I remember a photo session with Frank, Virginia Rea and me—I was seated at the piano, and they were in formal dress standing in front of microphones—which became the cover picture for one of the monthly radio magazines that were popular back then. The photo was hand-colored, and the background was quite dark. Frank positioned himself slightly behind Virginia [Rea], and his black tuxedo blended into the dark background. He was very fond of that magazine-cover photo.

 

Another tenor you had under contract at Brunswick was Theo Karle. What do you recall of him?

We made a lot of recordings with Theo Karle. If I had to liken him to another tenor, at least on recordings, I’d say that he was Brunswick’s Giovanni Martinelli. He had an unusual timbre that on [acoustical] recordings sounded somewhat like Martinelli’s. He recorded tenor arias from Italian and French operas but did them in English, and also sang oratorio selections for us. We recorded him singing operetta selections—he was the main tenor in our Brunswick Light Opera Company—and he also recorded several Irish ballads. His wasn’t a great voice, but it recorded well and he was very easy to work with.

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Allen McQuhae (left) and Theo Karle

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Another tenor I want to ask you about it your Irish tenor, Allen McQuhae. Was he Brunswick’s John McCormack?

If he thought he was, someone should have disabused him of it. He was an “Irish tenor” only in the sense that he was born there, and sang some of McCormack’s repertoire. Most of his earlier [career] was spent in the Midwest—Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati—singing with their symphonies. At that time, he was singing French and Italian arias, and some oratorio pieces. I think he had also done some singing in Canada, which is where he emigrated after leaving Ireland.

Personally, I never thought much of his voice or of his singing. His timbre wasn’t that distinctive or attractive, and the dynamic he preferred the most was forte. There was very little subtlety in his singing, and nothing memorable about it either. We used him more as a pop singer than an “Irish tenor” at Brunswick. He had made some recordings for Edison, and they weren’t very good, so to be honest about it, I wasn’t in favor of giving him a contract. I wanted Joe White, but he was already under contract to Victor so I couldn’t get him.

 

You’re referring to Joseph White, the “Silver-Masked Tenor”?

That’s right, Joe White of the [B. F.] Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra. To me, Joe sounded the most like McCormack of any of the tenors I had heard. He and I became very good friends, and I would love to have had him under contract at Brunswick. But he was already with Victor and was doing very well as Goodrich’s star tenor. He had sung on radio before Victor put him under contract, and he had also sung in Europe if my memory is right. But it was as the Silver-Masked Tenor at Victor that he was best known on radio and recordings.

Joe has a son who sang under the name “Bobby White” on several radio shows, particularly “Coast to Coast on a Bus” with my friend Milton Cross [as announcer]. Bobby had an unusually beautiful voice as a boy, and Joe oversaw his training and taught him all of his [the father’s] songs. Joe was still singing, but then he had an accident and broke one of his legs. As I recall, the break wouldn’t heal, and that leg had to be amputated. Through all of that, Joe made certain that Bobby would make the transition into adulthood as a tenor, and he surely did a wonderful job. Today, Bobby—or Robert—White is a nationally known concert tenor and gives recitals all over the world.

 

Am I correct that you also had Ted Fiorito under contract at Brunswick?

Well, at that time Ted was the pianist of the Oriole Orchestra, which he led with a violinist, Dan Russo. They made a good number of recordings for us as the Orioles [sic; Oriole Orchestra or Oriole Terrace Orchestra]. Several of their recordings were done in Chicago because their orchestra had a long engagement at the Edgewater Beach Hotel there.

 

One of the most unusual groups you recorded at Brunswick was the Mound City Blue Blowers, a group which became nationally known in its own right. How did they come to your attention?

Through Al Jolson. The credit for the Mound City Blue Blowers goes to Jolson. We were recording him at the Statler [Hotel] in Chicago, and these three young guys had been bugging Jolson to give them a hearing. Finally he got tired of it, so he passed the buck to me and got me to give them an audition. I think we made a couple of test pressings, unwillingly, and we sort of tossed off the whole thing by telling them that we’d have to issue their records on a trial basis, and if they sold anything we might talk to them later.

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(Top) The Mound City Blue Blowers c. early 1925, comprising (left to right) Dick Slevin, Jack Bland, Eddie Lang, and Red McKenzie. The group originally was a trio, minus Lang, although Brunswick’s ad for their first record pictured a quartet.

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The one who put together the group—it [initially] was a trio—was Red McKenzie, who was from St. Louis. Red went on to have a very fine career, but when we auditioned the Blue Blowers I wouldn’t have given him or the other two a snowball’s chance in hell. All Red did was play a comb with tissue paper wrapped around it.

Yet here was something different about the sound of the group, so it gave me something to work with. One of the three played banjo—Bland, Jack Bland, was his name—but he was no Harry Reser, so I backed him with Eddie Lang on guitar and I also put Frank Trumbauer in the next set of Blue Blowers recordings we made. Well those records sold, and sold, and then sold some more. We couldn’t believe it because these young guys were nothing more than a “kitchen band,” what with jugs and all of that. [6] But here they were, selling a lot of records for us.

 

Returning to classical Brunswick artists, and in particular violinists, you spoke about Elias Breeskin and Max Rosen earlier. Let me ask you about other violinists you recorded at Brunswick: Fredric Fradkin, William Kroll, Bronislaw Huberman and Mishel Piastro.

Kroll wasn’t a soloist—not for Brunswick, I mean. He was the violinist in a trio, the Elschuco Trio, with a pianist [Aurelio Giorni] and Willem Willeke, who was a superb cellist. Max Rosen, as I said, was [Brunswick’s] Fritz Kreisler. The others were not in his class, although Huberman was a close second to Rosen. Huberman had studied with Joachim, and had been a sort of prodigy when he came to this country. He had played all over Europe by then. We recorded him in the standard repertoire that Victor had in its catalogs.

Piastro and Fradkin were competent violinists, but they didn’t sell a lot of records and didn’t have the following, the careers, that Rosen and Huberman had. Breeskin was a fine violinist, and we got a lot of mileage out of having him at Brunswick because he was the violinist Caruso chose as an assisting artist for his U.S. concert tours in World War One. By the way, another [violinist] Caruso had as an assisting artist in some of his concerts was Xavier Cugat. Back then, he was “Francis X. Cugat.”

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Haenschen recalled getting “a lot of mileage out of having [Breeskin] at Brunswick” because of his association with Caruso.

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Among the legendary pianists Brunswick had under contract were Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky and Elly Ney. First, let me ask you about Josef Hofmann. It was rumored that because his reach [i.e., the span of his hands] was somewhat short compared to, say, Rachmaninoff, that he used a special piano that had slightly narrower keys than a standard concert grand.

That was much later, not when he was with us. It would have been quite a trick to have one of those special Steinways hauled from his studio onto the top floor of the Brunswick building. No, when he recorded for us, he used the same grand pianos that the others you mentioned used. We had four grands, all of them seven-feet models. Two were Steinways and the other two were Knabe grands.

Hofmann always played one of the Steinways, but it had a standard keyboard. It’s true that his reach was short compared to Godowsky’s, but even Godowsky said that Hofmann had the finest technique of all the concert pianists of that time. Hofmann had very strong hands, incidentally, and he could get more volume out of any of our pianos than even Godowsky could. That’s saying something because Leopold Godowsky was one of the greatest pianists ever. One thing about Josef Hofmann just came to my mind: he had a special chair built for him—he had a number of them, actually—and he would only record in that special chair.

 

Do you mean a “chair” rather than a piano stool or bench—that is, a seat with a back on it?

Yes, an actual chair with a back on it. The height of the back was maybe twelve inches, not much more than that, and it was angled slightly forward. There was something about the height and the angle of the back that kept him in a position that was ideal for his playing. That’s what he used in his concerts, and he always used it in our recording sessions. He was a wonderful guy, always a lot of fun to work with.

Another point about his style that always struck me when I watched him recording for us: his fingers were never more an inch above the keys, and his wrists were always on the same plane as the tops of the keys. He didn’t go in for showy stuff—no bringing his arms up to his shoulders and then down to the keys, or any of that Liberace fluff.

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Elly Ney (left), and Josef Hofmann (right, in the Columbia studio)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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And Elly Ney?

Elly was a great pianist, and one of the few women pianists who had very successful careers at that time. She was German but spoke English well. She was a bit on the flamboyant side and had a really captivating personality. There was a very famous pianist in Vienna, [Theodor] Leschetizky, who taught a lot of famous concert pianists. Elly’s concert promoters always highlighted that she was a pupil of Leschetizky. One day I remember Walter [Rogers] asking her what he was like as a teacher. She said, “I don’t really know. I only had two lessons with him!”

 

One of the most interesting of Brunswick artists was Marion Harris, who seems to have influenced not only Rudy Vallée but many other performers. How did you get her to record for Brunswick?

Marion was our biggest-selling female artist in our popular-music division, and she was ahead of ones like Ruth Etting, Belle Baker, and Kate Smith when they were starting out. Marion had been a headliner in vaudeville so she was very much in demand, and she had made some recordings for Columbia [7] before we got her to come to Brunswick.

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Marion Harris and Isham Jones’ Orchestra (Jones second from left)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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The first recordings I remember making with Marion was when we put her with Isham Jones’s band. Her voice came through spectacularly—I was going to say “loud and clear”—on all of the acoustic records she made with us. Hers was one of those voices like [Mario] Chamlee’s, which the old [acoustical] process captured wonderfully. She was always available whenever we wanted her, and we recorded more songs with her than probably any other female pop singer in our catalog.

 

Brunswick also had Margaret Young, who sang some of the same blues songs as Marion Harris. What do you recall of her?

There was nothing original about Margaret Young. She had been in vaudeville, and then she patterned herself after Marion Harris. But [Young] wasn’t in the same league as Marion—not by a long shot. For every Margaret Young record, we probably sold twenty times as many Marion Harris records during the acoustical days. When we went into radio with our “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we made sure Marion was on as many of those [broadcasts] as possible. Really, Marion was the first white woman to sing jazz and blues the way the great Negro singers sang them.

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Margaret Young (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That brings me to the topic of what were called “race records” in the 1920s. Did Brunswick have a separate catalog of these “race records”?

Yes, although we limited it mostly to the Vocalion label. Vocalion was a low-priced label that we thought would be attractive to Negro buyers. [8]  Now, we did have a very fine black singer, Edna Hicks, and some other blues singers whose names I’m sorry that I don’t remember. We had several different catalogs, just like Victor did. One of them was a “Jewish catalog” that featured singers like Isa Kremer, who sang Yiddish folk songs, and several great cantors as well. Like Victor and Columbia, we also had catalogs in other languages, which were distributed in Europe, South America and Asia.

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Although Brunswick had a race-record program, its Vocalion label served as the company’s primary outlet for race material. Originally managed by Jack Kapp, the race department was taken over by Mayo Williams in 1928, after Kapp was promoted to general manager.

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The Vocalion label also included what today would be called “country and western,” correct?

Yes, although it was called “hillbilly music” back then. Jack Kapp was the manager of Vocalion after we acquired the label.

 

Jack Kapp, who founded the American Decca label?

Yes, that Jack Kapp—and I apologized to him so many times for the way I dealt with him at Brunswick that he finally told me to stop it! I couldn’t stand anything “hillbilly,” but Jack would scour the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia for these backwoods yodelers and fiddlers, and he would record them wherever he could come up with a makeshift recording studio.

I had to meet with Jack quarterly, sometimes more frequently, so he could play these field recordings to get my approval for them. He knew that I hated that kind of music, but he was always trying to “convert” me. He’d be playing a test pressing and he’d say to me, “Now, isn’t that a good guitar lick? And how about that harmonica!” I’d roll my eyes and tell him, “What you call a ‘good guitar lick’ is what I call bad guitar playing!”

We’d go ’round and ’round arguing about these hillbilly players, and I always ended up approving whatever he brought. The reason I did was because, first, they sold a lot of records in rural areas that never bought Brunswick records until then, and second because Jack kept finding better and better talent. Plus, Jack was so enthusiastic about discovering new talent that his enthusiasm rubbed off on me and everyone else he worked with.

 

Were you surprised at how successful he made Decca?

Honestly, when he pitched the Decca idea to me and invited me to invest in it, I said no because I didn’t think there was a market for phonograph records anymore. There had been all kinds of improvements in the technology, of course, but I was so involved in radio that I didn’t pay any attention to phonograph records. I had put all of that in the rear-view mirror when I left Brunswick, and when I heard that Jack had been named manager of Brunswick after the 1929 stock-market crash, I felt sorry for him. But what I should have considered was how determined, how driven, Jack was.

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Jack Kapp (right) during his Decca years, with former Brunswick  stars Al Jolson and Bing Crosby

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These days, we hear a lot about “visionaries.” Jack Kapp was a real visionary. His success with Decca kept the recording industry going, and his investors—especially Bing Crosby—believed in him and put a lot of money into Decca. A lot of the artists Jack had worked with at Brunswick followed him to Decca. Just when Decca was doing very well, there was a shortage of shellac that Jack had to contend with. That happened when we [the U.S.] entered World War Two. But he weathered the shellac shortage, and Decca grew during the war.

Then came the revolution in the industry when Columbia brought out the long-playing record, RCA came out with the 45 r.p.m. format, and magnetic tape revolutionized how recordings were made. It was Jack Kapp, in my opinion, who kept the industry going during the middle of the Depression. Without him, I’m not sure that there would have been much of an industry left because the vast majority of Americans barely had enough money to buy food.

 

Earlier, when you were speaking about Marion Harris, you mentioned two topics that I want to ask you about: electrical recording and the “Brunswick Hour.” Frank Black was played an important role in the “Brunswick Hour,” if I’m correct. How did you and Frank Black meet?

Walter [Rogers] and I hired Frank as a staff pianist and an arranger for our classical and popular recordings at Brunswick. I’m not sure when we hired him, but I would guess 1921 or 1922, after we were well-established in the industry. Frank was the fastest and most versatile arranger I’ve ever known, and I’ve known and worked with a lot of them. As you said, he had an important role in the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts. He wrote many of the arrangements for them and was the pianist in them too.

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Frank Black (undated photo, and a 1937 caricature)

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How would you compare the two of you as pianists?

Frank was the better pianist—he was much more versatile than I was. I played in one style, which we called “ragtime” back then, but [which] came to be known as “stride” when James P. Johnson and other black pianists became well known. That was the style I learned in St. Louis, the style that Scott Joplin helped me to refine. Frank, on the other hand, could play in almost any style, and he could hold his own with some of the classical pianists. But his most important role for us at Brunswick was his extraordinary speed and output of very imaginative arrangements.

 

What led you to become a partner of his in radio, where the two of you became nationally known as a team?

That started with the first broadcast we did of “The Brunswick Hour.” Between us, Frank and I wrote all the arrangements for that first broadcast. We just clicked when it came to writing arrangements for radio broadcasts.

 

Those “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts were well-received by the critics, and certainly by the public. Was that your first performance on radio?

Yes. Before that, my only experience with radio was building them for me and my family and friends. [David] Sarnoff envisioned radio becoming the dominant form of entertainment, and between 1920 and about 1924 radio technology improved to the degree that the [radio] sets had cone-type loudspeakers that made it possible for a whole family to listen to a broadcast. Until then, loudspeakers that were used with one- or two-tube receivers were basically megaphones connected to a diaphragm like the one in a telephone receiver.

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The earliest “Brunswick Hour” programs featured a “Music Memory Contest” that was suspended after several broadcasts. (March 1925)

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Do you remember how you felt about hearing radio broadcasts through an electrical amplifier and loudspeaker, compared to listening to an acoustical phonograph record?

Well, hearing the full range of sound coming through a cone-type loudspeaker made what we were doing in our recording studios seem almost primitive by comparison. It was obvious that radio was going to replace phonographs as the source of entertainment.

When you look back, you can see why radio was the future. Our twelve-inch phonograph records had a playing time of about four minutes at the most. A radio program could be any length, from fifteen minutes to an hour or more, and it was free in those days. Later, when sponsors came in [to fund radio broadcasts] and network programs aired commercials at the beginning and end of a [radio] show, radio was still free of charge to the people at home.

 

Do you recall the financial recession of 1921–1922 and its effects on the recording industry?

Oh, yes. Phonograph sales went to hell, and so did record sales. Like Victor, Brunswick weathered that downturn better than the other smaller companies. In our case, it was because of the parent company’s diversity and the money they could afford to lose in the phonograph division. But I would say that by 1923, anyone in the recording industry could see what was going to happen [with radio] because acoustical recordings cost money and their sound was inferior compared to a high-quality radio broadcast in the middle-1920s.
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©2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] The Valentino session (May 14, 1923) preceded Chaplin’s by two years.

[2] Brunswick catalog number 3299 was finally assigned to the recordings in 1926, but the release was cancelled. Both selections were remastered by Brunswick in August 1930, with the addition of a spoken introduction, for the apparently unrelated Celebrities Recording Company (Los Angeles).

[3] Hardy, Navarro, and Boles made no known recordings for Brunswick.

[4] This recording, made for Edison on November 18, 1924 (one month before Munn’s first Brunswick session), was eventually approved for release in October 1926.

[5] However, Munn’s earliest Brunswick recordings are acoustic.

[6] Trumbauer was added beginning with a session on March 13, 1924, Lang beginning with a session on December 10, 1924. Jugs were not used.

[7] And Victor.

[8] Vocalion records initially were reduced to 50¢ from 75¢ following the label’s acquisition by Brunswick, but were soon reinstated as a standard 75¢ line following dealer protests. However, Haenschen is correct in observing that Vocalion served as Brunswick’s primary race-record outlet. Jack Kapp was in charge of the race catalog, which probably explains Haenschen’s limited recollections.

 

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