The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

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Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

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Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

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[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

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Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) and Smithsonian Institution photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

Highlights from the Pathe Records Catalog (August 1916)

From the Bill Bryant papers at Mainspring Press. Note the issue by Rector’s New York Dance Orchestra (Leopold Kohls, director), which is missing from American Dance Bands on Records and Film. A bit of trivia for the organ fans out there, from a page not pictured: Pathé’s “exclusive” studio organ was a Mason & Hamlin (a popular line of reed organs), model not mentioned.

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Antique Phonograph Ephemera • 1904 Zonophone Gatefold Card

From the 1904 transitional period, soon after the Universal Talking Machine had been purchased by Victor’s Eldridge R. Johnson but was still marketing its own (pre-Victor) phonographs. The “Zonophone Company” name on the inner panel was used only briefly, dating this piece to fairly early in the year. (Many thanks, Jorge – I owe you a finder’s fee!)

Mainspring’s American Zonophone discographical data — now including all general-catalog 7″, 9″, 10″, 11″, and 12″ pressings — can be found on the free Discography of American Historical Recordings website, hosted by the University of California–Santa Barbara. If you prefer books, Bill Bryant’s 10″ / 12″ American Zonophone discography is still available on the  Mainspring Press website at special close-out pricing (but quantities are very limited).

Mainspring Press News • May – June 2017

Mainspring Press to Donate Reference Collection to the University of California–Santa Barbara

Mainspring Press has begun making arrangements to donate its extensive reference collection to the University of California at Santa Barbara, one of the major centers for discographical research in the U.S.

Highlights of the collection include the Bill Bryant and Record Research-group papers. The latter  include approximately 70,000 index cards (compiled and maintained by Len Kunstadt, Walter C. Allen, George Blacker, and other highly respected researchers from 1952 through the late 1980s) containing complete discographical details of pre-1935 American records for which no original files exist. There is also an extensive collection of “SAC” (synchronized aural comparison) ledgers, in which the RR members painstakingly sorted out different takes, false master numbers, and control numbers on troublesome labels like Bell, Paramount, and the Plaza group, as well as a wealth of other rare and unpublished material.

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Len Kunstadt (left) with one of his notorious ten-foot-high stacks of 78s. Len and the Record Research group eventually filled three warehouses with their holdings, many of which were acquired purely for research purposes. Bill Bryant (right) inherited the RR research papers and unpublished manuscripts, along with the exclusive publication rights, from George Blacker in the 1990s.

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Bill Bryant’s papers includes numerous large binders of equally reliable discographical data (his own, as well as substantial contributions from the likes of Ed Kirkeby, Dick Spottswood, Ray Wile, Quentin Riggs, and Jim Walsh, among others); complete photocopied and/or microfilmed sets of the Gennett master ledgers, Edison studio cash books, and Decca 78-rpm ledgers; and other essential primary-source material.

Transfer of selected materials to UCSB probably will begin in late 2017.


Second Edition of Dick Spottswood’s Ethnic Music on American Records, 1893 – 1942 Coming This Summer as a Free Download

The revised and expanded edition of Dick Spottswood’s legendary ethnic-record discography will be posted as a free download later this summer, exclusively on the Mainspring Press blog.

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Dick Spottswood (right) with Skip James (Bryant collection)

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The first edition of this pioneering work (published in 1990, and now long out-of-print) topped out at more than 3,700 pages. In the three decades since its release, Dick has made substantial additions and revisions that will appear here for the first time. The second edition is being made available completely free of charge for personal use, courtesy of the author.


American Zonophone 7″ and 9″ Discography In Final Preparation for Posting on DAHR

The second volume of Bill Bryant’s American Zonophone Discography is undergoing final file preparation and will appear on UC-Santa Barbara’s online Discography of American Historical Recordings within the next few weeks. This volume includes all 7″ and 9″ general-catalog releases (1899 – 1905), as well as Zonophone’s first, short-lived 10″ series of 1902. An illustrated history and label guide are included.

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Unidentified Zonophone storefront, c. 1899 (Bryant collection)

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This is Mainspring’s first direct-to-online venture (with many more planned); a printed edition will not be produced.

 

DAHR Update: American Zonophone 7″ and 10″ Data (1899 – 1905)

The final editing of Mainspring’s 7″ / 9″ American Zonophone data has been completed, and conversion to online format for the Discography of American Historical Recordings will begin later this month. Thanks to the editors at UC-Santa Barbara, some previously undocumented remakes and other details have been added from UCSB’s holdings of the original discs.
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The level of detail far exceeds anything published so far on American Zonophone, including listings of all known remakes (the company remade like there was no tomorrow in its early days!), alternate versions, relabelings and reissues, catalog listing dates, Oxford releases, breakdown by issued diameters, and other fine details you won’t find anywhere else. There will also be an illustrated, footnoted historical introduction that puts some old Zonophone myths to rest, and a guide to label types.

This is Mainspring’s first direct-to-online venture (i.e., there will be no printed edition). We’ll keep you updated on its progress.

 

Discography of American Historical Recordings – Update: Part 1 of the American Zonophone Discography Is Now Online

If you’ve been following the Mainspring Press blog lately, you know that we are no longer publishing any new printed discographies, but instead licensing our discographical data to the University of California–Santa Barbara’s online Discography of American Historical Recordings. As much as I love books, I’ve long felt that digital databases offer a clear advantage for archiving and disseminating this sort of material (not to mention eliminating the ever-increasing costs of production, printing, shipping, and labor).

DAHR is staffed by, and associated with, some of the most knowledgeable people in the field. In recent years it has emerged as the largest and most authoritative source of discographical data relating to the 78-rpm era. A tremendous amount of Victor, Columbia, Brunswick-Vocalion, and Decca data from the original company files have already been digitized and made freely available as searchable databases, and much more is to come.

Now we can add American Zonophone to the list, with thanks to Sam Brylawski, David Seubert, and the DAHR staff for helping to make that possible. The first Zonophone installment (covering the 10″ and 12″ standard-catalog releases of 1904–1912) is now online and includes the latest revisions and updates to the printed volume that was published by Mainspring in 2012.
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The next Zonophone installment, covering the 7″ and 9″  releases of 1900–1906, is undergoing final editing and fact-checking here, for submission to DAHR within the next month or two (there are no plans for a printed edition). Much of this material is previously unpublished and includes the first systematic cataloging of remakes, reissues, relabelings, altered stampers, etc.

For book enthusiasts, the Zonophone 10” / 12” volume can still be purchased on the Mainspring Press website, although supplies are running low — We’d advise ordering soon if interested, since  Mainspring will not be reprinting any of its discographies once current the current inventory has sold out.

— Allan Sutton

A Preliminary Guide to American Zonophone Recording Dates (And What They Tell Us About Early Zonophone Operations)

American Zonophone recording dates have always been a puzzle to collectors. Aside from a portion of the 1911 ledger that somehow escaped destruction, and dates gleaned from test pressings, primary-source documentation is lacking. And because the company often waited many months or even years to release recordings, attempting to extrapolate from release dates is bound to produce false results (or “alternative facts,” as El Presidente would have it).

Fortunately, some dated Zonophone test pressings exist that provide reliable anchor-points in establishing approximate date ranges, which are shown in the table below. Keep in mind that these dates are approximate and subject to ongoing refinement, and should always be cited as “circa.” In reality, the numerical breaks would not have been as tidy as those shown here, which assume relatively consistent monthly output (more about that below). However, they should serve as a reasonably accurate guide, give-or-take a month in either direction.

These dates also mesh well with known listing and/or release dates. However, It’s important to note that Zonophone at this time assigned entirely new master numbers to remakes, and it produced a  lot of remakes. So if you find a c. December 1905 master number on a May 1904 release, the chart isn’t out-of-whack; you have a remake. Remakes are listed in detail in the data we plan to post with DAHR later this year.

 

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The numerical ranges reveal a great deal about the Universal Talking Machine Company’s Zonophone recording operation. From mid-1903 (when master numbers first started appearing on Zonophone pressings) through the end of 1904, the company averaged a staggering 250 masters per month — more than double Victor’s output for the same period.

This activity can be attributed in part to Zonophone’s need to play “catch-up.” In mid-1903, the company began replacing its etched-label series with new paper-labeled discs. Although some of the etched-label recordings were pressed into service to fill out the new series, many new masters would be required to essentially rebuild the Zonophone catalog from scratch. Then, in March 1904, the company was forced to withdraw its entire catalog of bogus “Victor Herbert’s Band” recordings, requiring extensive remake work throughout the spring and early summer to replace those issues with legal versions (see the previous post).

In early 1905, there was a sudden dramatic drop in recording activity. Total output that year fell to approximately 1130 masters, more in line with Victor’s output. The drop can be attributed in part to Zonophone’s decision to replace the seven- and nine-inch series with a new ten-inch line. Although the company continued to record small-diameter masters through the end of 1905 (isolated examples as late as November–December 1905 have been confirmed), output of those masters quickly fell to negligible levels. Zonophone’s new ten-inch series was limited to just 25 single-sided releases per month in the main catalog, with a smattering of additional operatic, ethnic, and twelve-inch releases from time to time.

We certainly can’t rule out Victor president Eldridge Johnson as having had a hand in the slowdown. Although the majority owner of the Universal Talking Machine Company, Johnson did not meddle in Zonophone’s artist-and-repertoire matters. But he  certainly would have had his say on business issues from the start, as can be seen in the 1904 decision to transfer Zonophone’s pressing operations from the Auburn Button Works to the Duranoid Company, Victor’s primary pressing plant at the time. From the start, Johnson made it clear that his sole motive in purchasing Universal was to rein-in a competitor — and what better way to do so than by capping its production? *

If you’re fortunate enough to own any dated American Zonophone test pressings, we’d be grateful for the information. The more data that become available, the more closely we can approximate the actual date ranges. At present, we’re working to extend the dating guide through the end of Zonophone’s independent period in 1909–1910, at which point its recording activities were transferred to the Victor studios.

— Allan Sutton

* For a myth-busting account of the Universal Talking Machine Company–Eldridge Johnson saga, be sure to check the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

Dick Spottswood’s Columbia “C” Series Discography (1908 – 1923) • Free Download Now Available

We’re happy to announce that the next installment in Dick Spottswood’s Columbia ethnic-series discography is now available for free download. This section covers the C-prefixed series, which was intended for the Spanish-speaking markets — a tantalizing mixture of performances by Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other Latino artists (most of them recorded in their native countries by traveling Columbia engineers), operatic arias and light classics from domestic and imported masters, and various odd-and-ends “repurposed” from other catalogs.
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Click here
to download the discography in PDF format (approximately 5 megabytes). As with the previous installment, this material may be copied or distributed for personal use, provided that the source is cited. Sale or other commercial use is prohibited.

Dick’s latest update of his Columbia “E” series discography will be posted soon.

110 Years Ago at the Victor Talking Machine Company: 1906 Catalog Cover Art

In February 1906 Victor began featuring original artwork on its monthly supplement covers, in place of the uniform boilerplate design that it had used since early 1904. Unfortunately, with the exception of the May 1907 issue, the illustrations are unsigned. The last original cover artwork appeared on the November 1907 issue, after which Victor reverted to using a plain stock design, which varied only in its color scheme from month to month.

Original catalogs courtesy of John R. Bolig

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The Playlist • Cow Cow Davenport — Vocalion Solos (1928–1929)

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COW COW DAVENPORT: Slum Gullion Stomp

Chicago: June 22, 1929
Vocalion 1434 (mx. C 3696 – )

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COW DAVENPORT: Texas Shout

Chicago: May 22, 1929
Vocalion 1291 (mx. C 3531 – )

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COW COW DAVENPORT with IVY SMITH: State Street Jive

Chicago: July 16, 1928
Vocalion 1198 (mx. C 2064 – A)

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COW COW DAVENPORT with IVY SMITH: Alabama Strut

Chicago: October 2, 1928
Vocalion 1253 (mx. C 2379 – )

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All selections are from tape dubbings made by the late Mike Stewart. Two takes (-A and -B) were made for each title, per the Brunswick-Vocalion ledgers, but except for “State Street,” the selected takes are not shown in the ledgers or pressings. Brian Rust’s Jazz Records shows non-existent take -C for “Slum Gullion.”