Coming Next Week:
Gus Haenschen — The Radio Years, Part 2 (James A. Drake)
Collectors’ Corner: Some October 2019 Finds
Gus Haenschen — The Radio Years, Part 2 (James A. Drake)
Collectors’ Corner: Some October 2019 Finds
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.
Some radio historians credit you with pairing Billy Jones and Ernie Hare, and also for putting together The Revelers and making them popular nationally.  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.  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.
Al Bernard (left) and Ernest Hare, c. 1920.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.  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].
Billy Jones (left) and Ernest Hare, in the early days of radio
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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.” 
Gene Austin, c. 1927 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
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.”
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.
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.  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.
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)
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.”
Haenschen (inset, and back row, third from right) and Frank Black (far left) with The Champion Sparkers (1930)
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.
From Radio Revue (March 1930)
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.  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.
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).
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.  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.
Frank Black in the NBC studio (March 1930)
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.
From Radio Revue (December 1929)
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.
James Melton (left) and Frank Munn, c. 1930
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
 Victor held exclusive rights to The Revelers name on records; therefore, the group appeared on Brunswick as The Merrymakers.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Were actual bleachers used for recordings that were made in the studio?
Yes, depending on the size of the orchestra we were using for a particular session. A typical studio orchestra for us would be twelve or thirteen men. The brass players would usually be placed either on the sides of the bleachers or, in the case of the tuba, standing next to the bleachers. The strings were always placed as close to the horn as possible because the volume of the violin and viola was lower than the reed and brass sections.
In the reed section, the clarinets were placed in front of the saxophones because the saxes were much louder than the clarinets. Now, if the arrangement I approved called for a small group of instruments—say, a clarinet and two saxophones—to play several measures of this song being recorded, those players would rush toward the horn. As soon as they were finished playing their part, they would move away so that they wouldn’t be blocking the horn.
About the violins, did you use the so-called Stroh violins, or was the recording diaphragm sensitive enough to pick up a true violin? And did all of Brunswick’s studio orchestras use the banjo for rhythm?
We used Stroh violins in our earliest recordings. And, yes, banjos were used for rhythm—usually just one banjo place near the horn. We had excellent banjoists who played multiple string instruments. Probably the best banjoist we had was Harry Reser, who went on to lead the Clicquot Club Eskimos on radio. Harry played banjo, mandolin, lute, ukulele and guitar.
Horned Stroh instruments, like this violin, provided the volume needed to register well on acoustical recording equipment. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)
So did Nick Lucas, who was a regular in our studio orchestra. Nick played the mandolin principally, but he was also an excellent acoustic guitarist. Nick became a real student of the recording process, and convinced me to let him play the guitar rather than the mandolin, and to position himself and his guitar very near the horn—literally, almost touching the bottom edge of the horn.
Did he sing then, or was he playing in the studio orchestra?
Well, there came a time in 1923 or 1924 when Nick asked me to consider letting him sing, although his voice was a rather high tenor, and a very small voice at that. But around 1924 or maybe in early 1925, before we switched to electrical recording, Gene Austin made some records that sold very well for Victor. Gene was really the first “crooner.” 
Well, I decided to have Nick become Brunswick’s crooner. I thought it was a great idea, but Nick didn’t. When I told him that we would bill him as a crooner, he balked and said, “But I’m Italian and I’m from the trovatore tradition. I can’t be a crooner!” So we compromised, and Nick became Brunswick’s “crooning troubadour.”
Nick had a terrific sense of humor, and he used to kid me all the time about how he nearly had to stick his entire head into the acoustical recording horn for his voice to register. I can still hear him saying to me, “My head was so far into that horn that I could feel my lips kissing that damned diaphragm!” Of all the singers I can think of, Nick Lucas was the happiest when electrical recording came in. He could stand in front of a microphone and sing naturally.
During the acoustical period, singers seem to have used various “tricks,” for want of a better word, that they had to use to record consonants and sibilants that the recording diaphragm did not always pick up. I’m thinking, for example, of the “S” sound. How was that insensitivity of the recording diaphragm overcome?
That was gotten around by having the singer put a consonant with the “S.” The early recording artists, and we had all of them under contract under pseudonyms, knew exactly how to create the effect I am trying to describe. As an example, when Henry Burr, as Harry McClaskey or one of his other pseudonyms, would record “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,“ the “sh“ in the word “shade” would not record most of the time. So he would put a “J” after the “S” and sing “s-jade,” which the diaphragm would pick up.
When Brunswick began making and issuing its own recordings, did you have almost all of those same singers that Victor and Columbia had—singers like Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Elliot Shaw, Lewis James, Royal Dadmun, and Billy Murray?
We had all of them except Billy Murray, whose voice we felt was too well known because he had recorded for everybody since almost the very beginning of the industry. But we had all the others , and they were easy to work with because they were professional recording artists. That was their income.
We recorded them under pseudonyms, and each one of them had about three pseudonyms that he used for different companies.
The same for the women singers like Elsie Baker, who recorded under about three different names at Victor alone. Victor and Columbia used most of the male singers I mentioned in trios and quartets with different names—the Sterling trio, the Shannon Four, and so on. Individually, none of those singers was what anyone would call a great vocalist. But when they sang together in small groups, the effect was very, very good.
You recorded under pseudonyms yourself, correct?
Yes, mainly as Carl Fenton. I came up with that name by combining the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, which is called Fenton, with the first name of one of my mother’s relatives. He spelled his name with a “K,” and I changed it to a “C.” That was sort of a carryover from the songwriting and arranging I did before I joined Brunswick. Over the years I have written about fifty songs under assumed names.
The fictitious Carl Fenton’s Orchestra was Brunswick’s house dance band. Haenschen managed the group and wrote many of its arrangements, but he did not play on the recordings. 
Bandleaders sometimes sent surrogate groups on the road under their names in the 1920s. Here, a “Carl Fenton” orchestra plays Muncie, Indiana, on December 15, 1926 — the same day the actual orchestra was recording in New York.
For example, I got a call from Charlie Chaplin, whom I had gotten to know quite well, telling me that Mary Pickford needed a song for a United Artists movie she was making called “Rosita.” I wrote the melody under the name “Paul Dupont.” Two others I used from time to time were “Paul Krane” and “Walter Holliday.” One of the reasons I used pseudonyms was because I was associated by name with Brunswick, so if a song like “Rosita“ was scheduled to be recorded by Victor, my counterpart there—I should say my competitor there—would kill the song because my name was on it.
The person I’m talking about, incidentally, is Nat [Nathaniel] Shilkret, who was my counterpart at Victor. Shilkret was an excellent arranger and a very fine musician, but he was very difficult as a person and he took competition to a frankly silly degree. Because of that, any song that I had anything to do with was not going to be recorded by anybody and Victor. But since “Rosita” was written by “Paul Dupont,” the song sneaked by Shilkret and was recorded by several singers at Victor.
Recently I found out that even Rosa Ponselle had recorded that song for Victor. Now to be fair, that could be because Shilkret was not the director of Red Seal recordings. That was Rosario Bourdon, not Shilkret. And Ponselle, of course, was one of the biggest stars in the Victor Red Seal catalog, so if she wanted to sing it, they weren’t likely to say no to her.
Speaking of Ponselle, did Walter Rogers ever try to lure her or other Victor Red Seal vocalists to Brunswick as far as you know?
Yes, several of them. Walter knew Rosa Ponselle personally, so it was not hard for him to get to her with an offer. Although she had a manager, a wonderful woman named Libbie Miller, Rosa made all of her own decisions. What I heard was that she was being paid so well by Victor, and that she had had a bad experience when she recorded for Columbia, that she would not leave Victor because of the status of the Red Seal recording label and the amount of money they were paying her.
Although Brunswick’s Hall of Fame series boasted some stellar artists, Haenschen admitted it was “no match for the Victor Red Seal label.”
We could have more than matched what Victor was paying her, but our “Hall of Fame” series, which was what we called our classical recordings, was no match for the Victor Red Seal label. We did try to get Carmela Ponselle, her older sister, to leave Columbia for Brunswick. Walter [Rogers] talked to her privately several times, but she was quite indecisive, as I recall, and I think she was hoping to become a Red Seal artist like her sister. But as I said earlier, we had Elisabeth Rethberg, Sigrid Onegin, Maria Ivogun and others, so we did very well with them.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whom you mentioned earlier, was also an exclusive Brunswick artist. Later in the 1920s he went to Victor, but his start was with Brunswick. I realize that Walter Rogers was responsible for recording him, but do you remember any of the sessions with Lauri-Volpi?
It’s funny you should mention that because I had a small role in dealing with Lauri-Volpi. Our negotiations with him had gone smoothly, although he was rumored to be a very difficult person. It wasn’t that he was difficult, just that he would get very frustrated because didn’t speak English. Walter understood some Italian but could not speak the language, so he couldn’t communicate with Lauri-Volpi except through a translator.
Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog
As you probably know, Lauri-Volpi was an erudite man. He was a trial lawyer in Italy, and was also one of the most decorated soldiers in the Italian army during World War One. As it turned out, he spoke German and French fluently, and since German was my first language, I was able to talk with him as if we were both speaking English. That put him at ease, and almost every time he came for a recording session, Walter asked me to be there as a sort of intermediary.
The recording sessions went very smoothly, and Lauri-Volpi was always fully prepared and learned how to sing into the recording horn very ably. Yet his was one of the voices which simply did not register well in acoustic recordings. He was, so to say, the polar opposite of Mario Chamlee, whose voice was relatively small, as I explained earlier. Lauri-Volpi’s [Brunswick] records, on the other hand, sounded almost nothing like he did in person. His voice had incredible squillo—what singers call “ping”—especially in his high range, but our recording diaphragms didn’t capture it.
Let me ask you for your recollections about singers and instrumentalists who recorded for Brunswick during your years there. Please tell me what come to your mind when you hear their names. I’ll begin with Paul Ash.
I had known Paul from some of his tours on the West Coast, and from St. Louis. At the time we signed him he was leading a theater orchestra in San Francisco, at the Granada theater. I think we began recording him in 1922 or 1923, I’m not sure. Paul couldn’t use his theater arrangements in the recording studio because of the acoustic process, we did arrangements for him that approximated the style of his dance band, which he called “Synchro-Symphony.“ He did well for Brunswick, and Brunswick did well for him.
One of the most famous bands that Brunswick had was Red Nichols and His Five Pennies. The “Pennies” [at various times] included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others who became famous on their own in the late-1930s. Did you put together the “Five Pennies”?
No, they recorded for Brunswick after I left.  I used Red a lot in our studio sessions, but just as a member of our studio band. Although the name he picked for his group, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, is an obvious one, when I was at Brunswick we had a suggestion box in our outer office. We encouraged anybody who worked there to come up with names for new bands. If we ended up using one of the names, whoever suggested it got a cash bonus.
Some of the names were of non-existent hotels and cafés—but if they sounded good, we used them and then made up arrangements to give the new band a distinctive sound. The actual “band” was nothing more than the same dozen or so musicians that we used in every other [acoustical] session—but the arrangement and the made-up name usually worked, and the records sold well enough.
You also had Gene Rodemich’s orchestra under contract at Brunswick.
Yes, Gene was one of the first we signed at Brunswick. I had known Gene in St. Louis, where he had an orchestra exchange. I worked for him at that exchange, and I bought it from him when he decided to go to Chicago and then to New York with his band.
Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog
Next, Al Bernard. What do you recall of him?
Al Bernard was more of a novelty singer, rather like Frank Crumit was. He could do songs in different styles and did them well. Most of what he did were blues like “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” and such. And he did a lot of novelty songs—for instance, “Lindy Lou,” songs like that. He recorded for Columbia and may have recorded for Victor, but I’m not sure about that.  In the mid-1920s we also paired Al [Bernard] with Russell Robinson, and gave them the name “The Dixie Stars.” They did some of the same types of routines that Billy Jones and Ernie Hare did.
Al Bernard (left), and with Ernest Hare (right), Bernard’s performing partner before Hare joined Billy Jones. (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
What do you recall of the Brox Sisters?
They were a popular group that did three-part harmony on novelty songs and some blues and southern songs. They were actual sisters, siblings, which you might already know. They were only a couple of years apart. Lorayne was the eldest, then Bobbe, and the youngest was Patty. They had a good run in vaudeville on the Orpheum circuit. We signed them when they were performing in one of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues in the early 1920s, and we backed them with Gene Rodemich’s band. 
The Brox Sisters, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
Next, the Capitol Grand Orchestra. What do you recall of that orchestra?
It was the pit orchestra of the Capitol Grand Theater in Manhattan. The conductor at that time was a fellow named Dave [David] Mendoza, a very good conductor and arranger. A little later, Erno Rapee became the band’s conductor. As a pit band for a large theater, this was a sizable group, although we had to pare it down because of the limitations of the acoustical process. So we used mainly their brass, reeds, and some of their violas and cellos for their recordings.
By the way, the acoustical process was problematic for some instruments. For some reason, our recording diaphragms, both in the studio and in our field-recording machines, would vibrate excessively on one note played on a cello. We would have to get around that by having our cellists play that particular note one octave higher or one octave lower, depending on the arrangement.
Back to the Capitol Grand Orchestra, when they were at the Capitol Grand Theater they played all sorts of instrumental music, but we recorded them in classical pieces only—the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, Peer Gynt Suite, and overtures from Traviata and a few other operas.
You also signed a group called the Castlewood Marimba Band. What do you recall about them?
That was just the Yerkes [Jazzarimba] group under a different name. Marimba bands were very popular, and the Yerkes band had a distinctive sound.  Now, as the Castlewood group, they didn’t play jazz music. We had them record mainly Hawaiian songs, which were popular back then. Before I went to Brunswick and made “personal records” of my banjo orchestra at the Columbia studios in New York, I made one called “I Left Her on the Beach at Waikiki” [sic; “at Honolulu”]. There must’ve been twenty songs with the word “Waikiki“ in the titles. The Castlewood, or Yerkes, marimba band recorded a couple of those Waikiki pseudo-Hawaiian songs for us.
Haenschen and some popular Brunswick bandleaders gather on the roof of the recording studio for a publicity shot. (Talking Machine World, February 1923)
Among the major symphony orchestra is you had under contract at Brunswick was the Cleveland Orchestra, correct?
Yes, but we didn’t do much with them until electrical recording came in. The limitations of the acoustical process made symphonic recordings very difficult, very challenging. The conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra at that time was Nikolai Sololoff, who was born in Russia but emigrated as a teenager to this country and studied music at Yale University.
Do you know what percentage of Brunswick’s sales came from popular-music recordings as opposed to classical recordings?
Somebody in the company once calculated the percentage on a fifteen-part basis. Why fifteen was the number they chose, I have no idea, but I remember that thirteen-fifteenths of our revenue came from popular-music recordings. Only two-fifteenths, then, came from our classical recordings. But there was a prestige market in classical recording—the Victor Red Seal was the epitome of prestige back then—so at Brunswick, as long as our popular releases kept the profits up, we were able to sustain our classical wing.
During the 1920s, so-called “collegiate bands“ were very popular. Is it true that you tried to sign several of those groups including Waring’s Pennsylvanians and the Yale Collegians?
Yes, but we weren’t successful in either case. Fred Waring and I were very good friends, and I did everything in my power to get him to sign with Brunswick. But Fred had a very lucrative contract at Victor, so we weren’t successful. We played a lot of golf together, especially on the West Coast when I went there to record and set up a temporary studio in Los Angeles. I tried every tactic I could think of to get Fred to sign with Brunswick, but I could never get him to come with us.
His brother, Tom Waring, was more popular for a while than Fred, if I’m correct. Tom Waring wrote some beautiful songs, and was one of the early pop singers and pianists who made Vitaphone short films. Did you try to get both Warings under contract with Brunswick?
No, and that’s a touchy subject because the relationship between Fred and Tom wasn’t the best after their banjo orchestra became popular. This was before Waring’s Pennsylvanians, when it was just Tom and Fred and one or two other boys that they had grown up with. Tom wrote “Sleep,” which was the Warings’ theme song for years, and he also wrote “So Beats My Heart for You,” which is a great song, almost a classical song. Tom wasn’t a good pianist, nor was he much of a singer, but he got popular on his own. But there was a rift between them after a while, and Fred went his own way—very, very successfully.
Some of the singers and musicians who were with the Pennsylvanians almost since the beginning have said that the rift was because Tom was gay and that Fred couldn’t accept it. That was rumored, but is there anything to that?
As I say, the relationship between Tom and Fred was strained—and yes, that was rumored. But I have no idea personally, and even if [Tom Waring] was, it has nothing to do with his music or anything else for that matter. Like Fred, Tom was a very nice guy, and his songs are his legacy. But let me talk about Fred, because there are things about him that not a lot of people would know.
First of all, Fred doesn’t play any musical instrument. Tom was a self-taught pianist, but Fred didn’t play an instrument. In their banjo-orchestra days, he played the musical saw, but that doesn’t count that as a musical instrument. Fred never had any formal training as a conductor either, yet he became one of the best choral and orchestral conductors in the music industry. Robert Shaw credits Fred with convincing him to become a choral conductor.
Fred was also a “tinkerer.” He didn’t have any formal training as a machinist or an engineer, but he was intrigued by gadgets of any kind, and would always try to improve them. One of the reasons we became such good friends was because I was a machinist and a mechanical engineer. Fred often came to my little “factory“ on my acreage in Norwalk, and I designed and made gears and other parts for some of his inventions.
You might know this because you mentioned the Yale Collegians, but there’s a connection between Fred and Rudy Vallée and me. In the 1930s Rudy developed quite a liking for daiquiris. He also developed a disdain for having to wait so long for a bartender to chip enough ice with a hand pick to be able mix a daiquiri. We were at an American Federation of Musicians event when Rudy mentioned this to Fred Waring. That sparked Fred’s interest in developing what became known as the Waring blender [which Waring spelled “Blendor”].
Fred Waring and his “Blendor”
Fred talked about that blender design with me several times because he was trying to develop a combined electric motor and high-torque gearing system, or transmission, that would fit into the base of his blender. He had already designed the glass pitcher that would contain the ice and ingredients in daiquiris, and he designed a configuration of blades that was entirely his own. I had suggested something like propeller blades in miniature, but Fred tried that and the blades didn’t work very well. So he designed a bi-level set of blades—two near the bottom of the pitcher, and two more blades about an inch higher than the lower pair. That turned out to be much more efficient.
When he finally arrived at the ideal combination of an armature, field coils, and a transmission that gave the motor more than enough power to crush ice, he had “invented“ one of the best-selling appliances of all time. I still have one of the very first ones and that he gave me. Naturally, the very first one off the production line went to Rudy.
In his autobiography, Rudy Vallée maintains that the vocal trio which sang the chorus in George Olsen’s recording of “Who?” was responsible for the rise of jazz vocal trios such as the Rhythm Boys. Do you remember that recording, and what its impact was at that time?
I know Rudy has said that, but I tend to think it had an impact on him, and possibly [Bing] Crosby when he and Al Rinker and Harry Barris became [Paul] Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, but I don’t remember that particular recording having any impact on us at Brunswick. But it may have had an impact on Rudy, who was singing in a trio himself at that time. He was the saxophonist of the Yale Collegians and he also doubled on clarinet—he was a very good clarinetist—but the leader of the Collegians at that time was a fellow named Les Laden. Rudy succeeded him, if I remember rightly.
Today, Rudy Vallée is associated nostalgically with the “Roaring Twenties” of flappers, bathtub gin, raccoon coats and such. The year 1920 is now associated with the beginning of jazz on recordings, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is credited with making the first ones. Other sources maintain that either Ted Lewis or Paul Whiteman were the first to make jazz recordings. What do you recall of that time period?
It depends on what you define as “first.” In my opinion, it was Ted Lewis who was the first to make jazz recordings. He had an exclusive contract with Columbia, and he had made a name for himself and his band at Rector’s restaurant before Nick LaRocca and his group [the Original Dixieland Jazz Band] were playing at Reisenweber’s Café. 
Where would you place Paul Whiteman, who was billed as “King of Jazz” and made two recordings for Victor, “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman,” that seem to have sold over 100,000 copies.
Well, first of all, Ben Selvin had some big-selling records for Columbia, so Paul [Whiteman] wasn’t the only one who was recording “syncopated jazz,” as it was called then. Ben also recorded for Brunswick and sold a lot of records for us. But Ted Lewis, not Paul Whiteman, was the first to record jazz for a major label. 
What was your relationship with Paul Whiteman like? How would you describe it?
We knew each other through mutual friends when Paul began recording for Victor. When he announced the Aeolian Hall concert where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was introduced, he hadn’t told George [Gershwin] about it, so Paul had to get an orchestral arrangement together pretty fast because George had written the “Rhapsody” for piano, not an orchestra. I was one of about a dozen or more arrangers who were invited by Paul to review the arrangement that Ferde Grofé was writing for the “Rhapsody.” We would meet in the late afternoons or after dinner at different venues where Paul, George and Ferde Grofé would hold these meetings.
Paul Whiteman (center, standing), with Ferde Grofé at the piano
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Do you recall the other arrangers who were part of the group that Whiteman invited to review Grofé’s emerging score?
Not all of them, but I remember that Frank Black, Robert Russell Bennett, Isham Jones, Ben Selvin and I think Harry Akst were part of the group.
Who was more involved in those sessions—Whiteman, Gershwin or Grofé? And who had the final say in the resulting arrangement?
Ferde Grofé was the center of it because he was writing the arrangement. George was there during most of the sessions, but he didn’t say much. It was Paul who was in charge—it was his orchestra—and he handled those sessions wonderfully. I remember how he would take each of us aside as these sessions went on. He would lean over my shoulder and say, “How do you think it‘s going, Gus? Do you see any part that could be better?” He really “fathered” the “Rhapsody” as it was first played at Aeolian Hall.
Was the orchestra present for those sessions?
No. None of us needed the orchestra because we were hearing the arrangement as we were reading the copies that were handed to us at the start of each session. No professional arranger needs to hear an orchestra, or any instrument in an orchestra, because he knows the timbre and range of every instrument, and which ones go together better than others.
Were you at that now-famous Aeolian Hall concert?
No, but I was at two of the orchestral rehearsals of the “Rhapsody” after Ferde Grofé completed the arrangement. I don’t think he scored all of the piano passages that George [Gershwin] played in that premiere. George did a lot of improvising, from what I was told.
When I interviewed Elizabeth Lennox, she told me about an incident that happened between you and Paul Whiteman when you conducted a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”
That was the strangest thing that ever happened to me during a performance. I was asked to conduct the “Rhapsody,” which I had done on other occasions, so I was glad to do it again. Frank Black was the pianist, by the way. I was about a fourth of the way into the performance when suddenly I felt myself being lifted off the podium—lifted by Paul Whiteman, who was drunk. He hoisted me with his big arms wrapped around my chest. As he was lifting me, all he said was, “Sorry, Gus, this is my baby!”
How did the orchestra and the audience react?
The guys in the orchestra could see him coming to the podium, so they sensed that he was going to do something but they just kept playing and didn’t miss a beat. There was a kind of gasp in the audience, some murmuring that I could hear, but when the performance was over they applauded loudly. My guess is that many of them thought the whole thing was a stunt that had been planned so that Paul could make a surprise appearance and conduct his “baby.”
I do want to say about Paul that he was the first bandleader I know of who insisted on written arrangements for his recordings. During my first years at Brunswick, if somebody played a good “lick,” we’d use it on other recordings but we never wrote it down, never put it on score paper. We could have, because all of the guys in our bands were sight-readers. But we were only using about a dozen players for our [acoustical] recording sessions, so we didn’t use formal arrangements.
As the years went on, Paul Whiteman seemed to denigrate you whenever you did something new—for example, when you formed an all-string orchestra.
Yes, he said in some interviews that he was the first to have an all-string orchestra, the “Swinging Strings,” and that he was a violinist and cellist but I was a pianist and didn’t know how to arrange for an all-string orchestra.
Why do you think he reacted that way? He was still a top name in popular music, so it’s hard to understand what his motive was.
He was still a big name, but not like he had been in the 1920s. During the late-1930s and throughout the [Second World] War, the Dorsey brothers [Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey], [Benny] Goodman and [Artie] Shaw, Glenn Miller, and so many other bands eclipsed Paul’s popularity. Paul was still trying to establish himself as a “serious” conductor and was fronting what he called a “concert orchestra.”
Paul did everything to excess, including his drinking, which got worse after the War. I think he felt that these other bands had surpassed him with the public, and that he needed to make sure they [the public] knew that he had been the “King of Jazz” who started it all, and who had made the “Rhapsody in Blue” famous.
You probably know that he became a disc jockey on network radio, and he used those broadcasts to tell his version of the history of jazz—especially how he introduced the “Rhapsody” to the public. George [Gershwin] was dead, and Ferde Grofé had written “The Grand Canyon Suite” and was famous on his own by then, so the other principals in the birth of the “Rhapsody in Blue” weren’t there to tell their stories of how it came to be.
Going back to collegiate groups for a moment, at Brunswick you had a group called the Collegiate Choir. Was that group affiliated with a particular college or university?
No, not at all. It was just a group of vocalists we had under contract, ones we used for any number of groups like that. I doubt that many of them ever saw the inside of a college. 
You had a number of very well-known pianists under contract, including Zez Confrey. Did you direct and conduct his recordings?
Well, I directed them but there was nothing to conduct really. Zez was a very good novelty pianist who is known for “Kitten on the Keys,” which became a very popular piano piece. We would like to have had Felix Arndt under an exclusive contract, but we couldn’t get him. [Arndt had died in 1918] Yet we certainly made the most of his very popular composition “Nola,” which he named after his wife. I had my Brunswick band, the Carl Fenton Orchestra, record an arrangement of it.
Did you play the piano part yourself?
No. I was the recording director and in this case the bandleader, but I didn’t play on the recording. There was a sort of unwritten rule that Walter [Rogers] and I were not allowed to play in any of the recordings we directed. We had all sorts of great commercial pianists at Brunswick, including some in the administrative staff like Bill Wirges. So we had no trouble getting very good pianist for all of our recording sessions. But I did play in some of our first recordings—I remember playing piano on Rudy Wiedoeft’s first recordings with [Brunswick] soon after I joined the company in 1919.
Rudy Wiedoeft in the early 1920s
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
You also recorded one of the very popular dance bands of the World War One era, the Joseph C. Smith orchestra, which was associated with Victor for the most part. Some have wondered whether there was an actual musician and band leader named Joseph C. Smith. Was that a pseudonym or was this a real person?
Sure, he was real all right, and a very capable ensemble leader. He recorded for us, he recorded for Columbia under different names, and of course his band was a good-selling outfit for Victor. But his style was eclipsed by [Paul] Whiteman’s by the time we signed [Smith]. If I remember correctly, we just used him as the leader of a trio. I don’t think we ever used him as a bandleader like Victor did. 
You also recorded Bennie Krueger’s orchestra, correct?
Oh, yes. Bennie was one of the great saxophonists of all time, on a par with Rudy Wiedoeft. We were so pleased to have both of them under contract at Brunswick. They were good friends, by the way. Although Bennie didn’t write songs like Rudy did, they were pretty much equal so I would say as far as the instrument.
Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog
You also had Herb Wiedoeft, Rudy’s brother, under contract at Brunswick, am I right?
Yes, Herb came with us, and he was an excellent brass player and a very fine bandleader too. During the acoustic [recording] days, he brought a handful of his men to the studio and they sat in with our players. Later on, he got a lucrative contract at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and he called his group “The Cinderella Roof Orchestra,” from the rooftop dance floor at the Biltmore. I recorded Herb in Los Angeles when I went there to set up a temporary studio for Brunswick in the summer of 1923. You may know this, but Herb was killed in a car accident when he and his band were at the top of their popularity [in 1928].
© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.
Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)
 Lucas’ first vocal Brunswick recordings were made on December 23, 1924; Austin did not begin recording for Victor until January 1925.
 Burr, Campbell, and Dadmun made only vertical-cut Brunswicks, presumably before Haenschen’s arrival. Of that group, only Burr appeared under a “pseudonym” (as Harry McClaskey, his actual name) on Brunswick.
 Personnel of the “Fenton” orchestra varied by session. Full personnel were not listed in the Brunswick files, but “extras” were, including at various times Hymie Faberman and Red Nichols (cornet), Bennie Krueger and Rudy Wiedoeft (saxophones), Phil Ohman and Frank Black (piano), John Cali and Harry Reser (banjo), Joe and George Hamilton Green (xylophone, marimba), Edmund Thiele and Rubie Greenberg (violin), and John Helleberg (tuba).
 The Five Pennies recorded several sides for Brunswick prior to Haenschen’s departure, beginning on December 8, 1926 (Haenschen’s orchestra was recording in another studio on the same morning). Most of the Five Pennies’ many Brunswick recordings were made after Haenschen’s departure.
 Bernard made several recordings for Victor in 1919 and 1921, including vocal choruses with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
 Accompaniments were by Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra (sometimes with arrangements by Arthur Johnson, the sisters’ pianist), not Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, according to the Brunswick files.
 Haenschen is referring to Harry A. Yerkes, who managed several bands that performed under his name. (This was not the same individual as Columbia executive H. [Hulbert] A. Yerkes, as has been erroneously claimed in some works.) Yerkes left the band-management business in early 1925, and subsequent Castlewood recordings were made by a group that usually included Joe and/or George Hamilton Green, according to the Brunswick files.
 Haenschen apparently is referring to the band that recorded as Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra, a unit from which (including Ted Lewis) recorded for Victor as Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band. The Rector orchestra did not begin recording until June 1917, by which time Victor had already released the first true jazz recordings, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.
 Haenschen is in error here; see footnote 8. Whether the music Whiteman’s orchestra was performing in the early 1920s constitutes jazz in even the loosest sense of the word remains a topic for debate.
 Participants at various times included Rose Bryant, Wilfred Glenn, Charles Harrison, Theo Karle, Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, and Marie Tiffany, among others, according to the Brunswick files.
 Brunswick did record a number of titles by the full orchestra during 1922–1923, in addition to the trio selections.
Bain Collection, Library of Congress
Isabella Patricola was an immigrant success story. She and her brother Tom (another future vaudeville headliner) came to the United States from Italy with their father, who in Patricola’s words, “conceived the idea of making me self supporting.” Showing an early aptitude for the violin, Patricola was touring the country by the age of eight with a small-time vaudeville troupe. Her education was on a drop-in basis, attending school as a guest pupil in whatever town the family found itself.
Although the violin remained a part of Patricola’s stage act to the end, by the late 1910s she had become better known for her singing, delivering the latest Tin Pan Alley hits in powerhouse style. By the mid-1920s, she reportedly was one of the wealthiest women in vaudeville, drawing a substantial salary while dealing in real estate on the side. Here’s a bit of her story from the newspapers of the period (“Isabella” is the correct spelling, although “Isabelle” appears in some of these clippings):
Eight-year-old Patricola plays Great Fall, Montana (October 1894)
Patricola in Chicago (December 1911 and October 1912)
Patricola returns to Great Falls, Montana (February 1917). By this time, she was being billed as a singer as well as a violinst.
Patricola considers changing her name (Philadelphia, November 1921)
Despite what the first article claims, Patricola was an enthusiastic cook. (Pittsburgh, December 1921; and Allentown, Pennsylvania, April 1930)
Patricola was one of the earliest vaudeville headliners to broadcast commercially. This lengthy interview appeared in conjunction with a Pittsburgh radio and theater appearance in January 1923.
Vocalion signed Patricola in mid-1923. Although The Talking Machine World lists these two Vocalions as November 1923 releases, they actually went on sale on October 26.
“I’m no college graduate” — Patricola recalls her brief education
Patricola weds out of the limelight. (Washington, DC, June 1927)
Patricola’s real estate dealings helped to make her one of the wealthiest women in vaudeville. (February 1929)
“A big girl with a big voice” (Atlanta, February 1929)
Patricola wins a popularity contest sponsored by entertainment giant Radio-Keith-Orpheum, in which more than four-million radio listeners voted. (Boston, April 1929)
Still at it in October 1954 (Kansas City)
May 25, 1965
Patricola made her first commercial recordings in the spring of 1919, for Pathé’s vertical-cut discs, and her last in March 1929, for Edison’s failing record operation. Her violin playing can be heard only on two exceptionally rare 1929 Home-Talkie discs (special records that were synchronized with movies made for home use). We’ve been unable to locate any Home-Talkie releases so far, but here are a few favorites from Patricola’s more readily available output:
Camden, NJ: November 22, 1921
Victor 18838 (mx. B 25777 – 4)
Studio orchestra directed by Josef Pasternack
New York: Released October 1923
Vocalion 14669 (mx. 11867)
New York: Released January 1924
Vocalion 14701 (mx. 12129)
Fans of Arthur Fields and other early studio artists will cheer the latest release from Archeophone Records. Even if Fields isn’t your cup of tea, this new CD is enjoyable as a good sampling of American pop songs from the mid-1910s through the late 1920s.
The selection runs the gamut from some of Fields’ best-known recordings to rarities that include an Aeolian-Vocalion side with Ford Dabney’s Orchestra, one of the earliest black bands to crack the color barrier in American recording; “Pershing for President,” from an obscure vertical-cut Lyric issue; and a 1951 private recording on which Fields sings along with some Q.R.S. piano rolls.
As with all Archeophone releases, the transfer quality and production values are impeccable. If you’re not familiar with Archeophone’ work, be sure to visit their website. This is their 75th release, and the scope of their catalog is truly impressive.
The detailed biographical and program notes by Phonostalgia host Ryan Barna are especially praiseworthy, moving beyond the seminal but now outdated work of Hobbies columnist Jim Walsh and other early researchers. Ryan has that rare ability not only to successfully unearth the facts and properly document them, but also to put them in context and bring these early recording stars to life. Whether you like Fields or loath him (and there are plenty of folks in either camp), you’ll come away with a new appreciation for him. Highly recommended!
Ironically, Mainspring Press is located in a state that was (and largely still is) a dead-zone as far as commercial recording activity. The state’s first venture — the Colorado Phonograph Company, founded in 1889 and merged with the Utah Phonograph Company the following year — was a financial flop that quietly perished without having produced any known original recordings. It would be more than a half-century before Colorado finally could boast of its own commercial labels, albeit very minor ones.
Nevertheless, there are a couple of early disc labels with at least tenuous Colorado connections. The John Stenzel label, from what was then the small farming town of Windsor, still turns up on occasion in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming:
Stenzel operated a department store and boot factory in Windsor, and around 1915 he added Columbia phonographs and records to his line. In May 1920, Stenzel liquidated his inventory and soon re-opened in smaller quarters, where he specialized in phonographs and records.
The Windsor Beacon (May 6, 1920)
The Stenzel records appear to have been used as premiums, given away with the purchase of “special” Stenzel phonographs. The only example we’ve seen of these machines was a “stenciled” Columbia product similar to the model pictured below:
The Windsor Beacon (December 23, 1920)
The Stenzel discs, despite the label claim, were not “specially made” for him, and they have no Colorado connection per se, other than having been sold here. The examples we’ve seen are all standard Columbia E-series discs over which Stenzel pasted his own labels, and none show titles or artists. The few that we’ve heard are recordings of German oom-pah bands (The Windsor Beacon once noted that Stenzel’s clientele were largely “Germans”). The records were likely old surplus stock that Columbia and/or Stenzel had no better way of moving.
Our next specimen — the Colorado Scholarship Fund label of 1916, produced in conjunction with a Denver newspaper — has more substantial Colorado roots, although it was also a Columbia product:
Long before The Voice, American Idol, or even Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, there was the Colorado Scholarship Fund Contest of June 1916 — possibly the first amateur-talent contest for which the reward was a record deal, of sorts. The contest was widely publicized by the local press. Even The Talking Machine World, the foremost recording-industry trade paper of the day, covered it in detail. The event proved to be so popular that it was later staged in other cities.
The Talking Machine World (July 1916)
The winners were Alice Forsyth and Chauncey Parsons. Their record still turns up often in Colorado — generally to the disappointment of collectors, since aside from the interesting-looking label, it’s pretty dreadful (so much so, that we won’t post the sound-files, out of respect to two artists who were caught at an awkward stage in their development). In defense of Forsyth and Parsons, both were true amateurs at the time, and Forsyth reportedly was recovering from throat problems.
For all of its musical shortcomings, the record appears to have sold very well. It didn’t lead to a regular Columbia contract for either singer, and it was numbered in Columbia’s Personal Record series, thus ensuring that it would never be listed in a Columbia catalog. But apparently the experience encouraged Forsyth and Parsons to pursue professional careers. Both took up vocal studies at Denver’s Wilcox Studios shortly after the record’s release.
Forsyth remained in Denver until late 1919, when she joined the All-American Opera Company on tour, as an understudy to Anna Fitziu. By the early 1920s she had married and settled in Los Angeles, where she became a fixture on the local concert circuit and taught at Davis Musical College.
Alice Forsyth in Los Angeles, 1923
Parsons joined the Jambon Players, a group that entertained the troops overseas during World War I, then settled in Pittsburgh. In addition to regular concert and church work, he was a radio pioneer, broadcasting regularly over station KDKA beginning in 1921. During 1927–1928 he appeared on Broadway in Artists and Models, which ran for 151 performances at the Winter Garden. In the later 1920s he had his own program on KDKA and was a featured star on NBC’s Yeast Foamers program during 1929–1930.
Chauncey Parsons at Loew’s Aldine Theater (Pittsburgh), 1924
For more on the Colorado Phonograph Company, and the stories behind Colorado’s 1940s labels and recording operations (including Columbine, Dudley, Pikes Peak, and the Karl Zomar Library), be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950, available exclusively from Mainspring Press or Nauck’s Vintage Records. This is a special limited edition that we’re not making available to Amazon.com or other distributors or retailers — order soon to avoid missing out:
New York: April 4, 1924
Columbia 14020-D (mx. 81664 – 1)
Robert Robbins (violin); John Griffin (guitar)
Atlanta: October 31, 1928
Columbia 15330-D (mx. W 147369 – 1)
Chicago (Webster Hotel): September 21, 1926
Victor 20252 (mx. BVE 36284 – 1)
New York: March 27, 1929
Brunswick 4325 (mx. E 2953½ – A)
Kansas City: November 1929
Brunswick 4761 (mx. KC 602 – )
Take not shown on disc or in Brunswick files
New York: December 5, 1934
Columbia 3044-D (mx. CO 16273 – 1)
Although the compilers of The American Dance Band Discography and American Dance Bands on Records and Film claimed they consulted Ed Kirkeby’s recording files, that clearly was not the case for most of Kirkeby’s later sessions. They lumped sessions from the late 1920s onward under a massive “collective personnel” listing — a way of saying “If we throw enough crap at the wall, something’s bound to stick.”
In addition, the compilers sometimes list prominent musicians on sessions at which they were not present, without ever citing a credible source — because there are none, in these cases. See May 8, 1931, for one such instance (Rust and Johnson & Shirley seem particularly fond of claiming the Dorsey brothers were present for sessions on which the Kirkeby files confirm they don’t play).
The personnel for the American Record Corporation sessions listed below are transcribed from Ed Kirkeby’s own payroll books, and therefore negate all the guesswork in ADBD, ADBRF, and derivative discographies.
For the purposes of this post, only master numbers and titles are shown. Where spellings of names differ from those in modern works, we have used Kirkeby’s spelling. Unlisted vocalists were either Kirkeby himself or were singers employed by the studio, and thus do not appear in the payroll books. Vocalists listed here as “paid” were hired by Kirkeby on a per-session basis, and their names appear in the payroll books.
All vocalists, and other details (including take numbers, labels, catalog numbers, and label credits) will appear in a fully revised Plaza-ARC discography that’s being developed for the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings project.
American Record Corporation studio (1776 Broadway, New York)
February 9, 1931
10383 Headin’ for Better Times (take 4 and above) *
10405 Tie a Little String Around Your Finger
10406 Hello, Beautiful
Frank Cush, Ed Farley (trumpets); Al Philburn (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Tommy Bohn (reeds); Sam Hoffman, Sid Harris (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals). Kirkeby present.
*Earlier takes are by Joe Morgan’s Palais d’Or Orchestra. Inspected pressings from mx. 10383 use labels for the Morgan recording, in error.
March 18, 1931 (“Cameo” session [sic])
10416 I’ve Got Five Dollars (take 10) *
10417 Sweet and Hot (take 10) *
10507 Teardrops and Kisses
Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Al Philburn (trombone); Bobby Davis, _ Lodovar (reeds); M. Dickson, Sid Harris, Sam Hoffman (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); _ Klein (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals). Kirkeby present.
*Earlier takes are by Ben Pollack’s Orchestra. Inspected pressings from mxs. 10416 and 10417 use labels for the Pollack recordings, in error.
April 28, 1931
10578 Can’t You Read Between the Lines?
10579 Since an Angel Like Mary Loves a Devil Like Me
10580 If You Haven’t Got Love
Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Tommy Bohn, Ad Coster (reeds); Sid Harris, Sam Hoffman (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion). Jack Parker (paid vocalist). Kirkeby present.
May 8, 1931
10614 Mickey Mouse (We All Love You So)
10615 Popeye (The Sailor Man)
10616 I Wanna Sing About You
Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Tommy Bohn, Paul Mason (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); Billy Murray (paid vocalist). Kirkeby present.
Jimmy Dorsey (reeds) is not present, as is erroneously claimed in American Dance Bands on Record and Film.
May 22, 1931 – Accompanying vocals by Billy Murray & Walter Scanlan
10671 Let a Little Pleasure Interfere with Business
Jack Purvis (trumpet); Bobby Davis, Adrian Rollini (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Jack Powers (percussion).
This session is missing from American Dance Records on Records and Film.
September 3, 1931 (“9:30, went on to 2 o’clock”)
10791 I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do)
10795 There’s Nothing Too Good For My Baby
10797 Blue Kentucky Moon
Jack Purvis, Earle Isom (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Nye Mayhew (reeds); Harold Bagg (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).
November 13, 1931
11001 When I Wore My Daddy’s Brown Derby
11002 I Promise You
11003 Save the Last Dance for Me
Jack Purvis, Tony Giannelli, Earle Isom (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Harold Bagg (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); _ Smith (bass?); Jack Powers (percussion).
Erroneously attributed to “ARC Studio Band” (personnel unlisted) in American Dance Bands on Records and Film.
February 24, 1932
11343 What a Life! (American Record Corp. labels)
B-11344 What a Life! (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)
11345 My Mom
11346 (In the Gloaming) By the Fireside
11347 Too Many Tears
Bunny Berigan, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Ray Gold (piano); Noel Kilgen (guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).
Erroneously attributed to “ARC Studio Band” (personnel unlisted, other than Berigan) in American Dance Bands on Records and Film.
April 21, 1932
B-11726 That’s What Heaven Means to Me (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)
11727 That’s What Heaven Means to Me (American Record Corp. labels)
B-11728 Happy-Go-Lucky You (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)
11729 Happy-Go-Lucky You (American Record Corp. labels)
B-11730 In My Little Hideaway (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)
11731 In My Little Hideaway (American Record Corp. labels)
Bunny Berigan, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).
July 13, 1932
12066 No One But You
12067 I Love You More and More
12068 Every Hour
Sylvester Ahola, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Adrian Rollini (bass saxophone); George Hnida (bass); Herb Weil (percussion). Johnny Rude (reeds) was scheduled for this session but was not present.
Session missing from American Dance Records on Records and Film. Entered in the ARC files under the following false credits: Art Kahn’s Orchestra (12065, 12068), Owen Fallon’s Orchestra (12066), and Sleepy Hall & his Collegians (12067).
Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights,
and the World’s Biggest Banjo
(1891 – 1923)
Vess L. Ossman (left) and Vess, Jr. (undated photo)
Early mentions of Ossman in the New York papers: December 2, 1891 (top), at which time Harlem was an affluent new suburb; and February 12, 1899. Ruben “Ruby” Brooks made recordings in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Bettini cylinders, but he died in 1906.
Ossman participated in several recording demonstrations that have been documented, including this one for Berliner’s Gramophone on December 16, 1897. Three months earlier, Berliner’s New York studio had been opened rather reluctantly for a similar demonstration in which Ossman also participated, with management declaring, “We have yielded to the demand of popular and scientific interest in the process by which our indestructible Gram-o-Phone records are made.” The demonstration recordings are not known to have been released.
New York (December 1901)
Ossman went to England in the spring of 1900 (top), where he was a hit. He recalled his experiences in January 1918 (bottom).
Ossman in the “talkies” (Salt Lake City, November 1908). The Cameraphone Company was launched in 1908 by Eugene E. Norton, an engineer with the American Graphophone Company (Columbia). The process employed synchronized six-inch cylinder records and Columbia Twentieth Century phonographs for the sound source. (For more on Cameraphone and other early attempts at “talking pictures,” see A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press.)
Another Ossman appearance on-screen (Independence, Kansas, March 1913). These movies were made for Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone, which also employed synchronized cylinders.
A December 1916 El Paso dealer ad for Columbia records by Ossman and “Howard Van Epps” (a typo for Fred Van Eps, Ossman’s only significant rival).
Ossman and company on the road (Scranton, Pennsylvania, January 1917). The Peerless Records Makers were forerunners of the Eight Famous Victor artists, a traveling promotional troupe in which Fred Van Eps replaced Ossman.
In 1918, with his recording career over and his style becoming increasingly outdated, Ossman moved to Dayton, Ohio. He spent the remainder of his career performing in Dayton and other Midwestern cities. The ads above are all from Dayton, published in May 1918 (top left), October 1922 (top right), and December 1921 (bottom).
Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)
Vess Ossman Jr. continued to perform in the Dayton area into the early 1930s; the ad above is from November 1931. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a theater manager.
Ossman’s recorded output was truly monumental. Here are just a few favorites; his “Maple Leaf Rag” was the second recording to be made of that number, preceded only the U.S. Marine Band’s 1906 version.
Camden, NJ (Johnson factory building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3048
The pianist is uncredited but is likely Frank P. Banta (father of the novelty pianist Frank E. Banta) or C. H. H. Booth, Victor’s house accompanists at the time.
New York: Released June 1907
Columbia 3626 (M-1414)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince
New York: March 2, 1909
Victor 16779 (mx. B 6848 – )
The pianist is uncredited, contrary to some discographies. Ossman originally recorded this piece for Victor on January 26, 1906 (mx. B 3049).
New York: Released January 1911
D&R Record 3759 (Columbia mx. 4919 – 1)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince
New York: Released July 1909
Indestructible 1113 (cylinder)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle
Every week we get inquiries from folks wanting to purchase out-of-print Mainspring Press books, and unfortunately, our answer is always the same: Once they’re gone, they’re really gone, and your only recourse is the used-and-collectible book market, where (assuming you can even find a copy) you’re going to pay a stiff premium over the original list price.
Don’t let that happen to you with American Record Companies and Producers: An Encyclopedic History, 1888–1950, arguably one of the most important books to be published in the field in recent years. It’s a special limited edition, and there will be no reprints once the current supply sells out.
For a full description, entries list, and secure online ordering, visit the Mainspring Press website…and don’t wait too long!
The following is a revised and expanded version of several chapters that originally appeared in the author’s Recording the ‘Twenties (Mainspring Press, 2008)
Radio’s popularity posed a technological, as well as a commercial, challenge to the recording industry. Even the primitive radio loudspeakers of the early-to-mid 1920s delivered greater volume, wider frequency range, and a more accurate rendition of studio ambiance than the best acoustical phonographs and records. For the first time, listeners were hearing music reproduced with a relatively high degree of accuracy, and performed without the sonic contortions required by the acoustic recording process.
Although the acoustic process had been refined over the years, it had undergone little fundamental change since the nineteenth century. It was an entirely mechanical process, employing a simple horn to focus sound waves on a circular diaphragm of mica or other material, which vibrated in response to those sound waves to drive an engraving stylus. The results were captured on a wax master disc, which was then plated to produce a permanent matrix from which sub-masters and metal stampers were generated.
No microphone or amplification was involved in the acoustic process, nor was there the ability to edit or modify the finished recording except by primitive mechanical dubbing methods. Control over input was limited to the physical placement of performers in the studio, or to trial-and-error experimentation with different horns, diaphragms, and cutting heads. The state of the sound-recording art peaked in 1912, with the introduction of the Edison Diamond Disc, then stagnated.
Singers — crowded around metal recording horns and performing at full voice, with a studio orchestra huddled just a few feet away — sometimes complained they were unable to hear themselves above the din of the accompaniment. The acoustic method’s low sensitivity and erratic frequency response required that adjustments be made for some instruments. Violins and violas were replaced by Stroh instruments, horned contraptions sporting a metal resonator in place of the wooden body. Low woodwinds were substituted for cellos, tubas for stringed basses. Bass and snare drums, which could cause over-cutting of the wax, were moved to the far reaches of the studio, if not banished altogether. A full symphony orchestra was not recorded in the United States until 1917, and even then, the results barely hinted at the size of the ensemble.
The use of horned Stroh violins, like those seen in this 1920 photograph of J. C. Beck’s Orchestra, was one of many work-arounds necessitated by the insensitive acoustic recording process. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
The acoustic process provided no means for the engineer to monitor what was being recorded, and instantaneous playback of the wax master was impossible without inflicting damage on the master that rendered it unusable. The recordings systems suffered from multiple resonant points that could be corrected only to a limited extent, by laborious trial and error. Photographs taken in the Gramophone Company’s studio in London, and Columbia’s studio in New York, show recording horns wrapped with cloth strips to damp some of the resonances.
Even when such primitive corrections were successful, they were likely to be negated in playback by yet another set of resonances inherent in the acoustic phonographs of the day. Victor’s recording and reproduction systems in particular were plagued by marked mid-range resonances that produced a disconcerting “honking” effect.
Perhaps the public might have continued to accept acoustic recordings indefinitely, had it not been for the advent of radio and the consequent awareness that more accurate sound reproduction was indeed possible. As Bell Laboratories’ Stanley Watkins later observed,
“The fight [between radio and phonograph] was an uneven one as long as the quality of the recording was limited to the possibilities of the old acoustic method. The radio broadcasting technique with its sensitive microphone pickup allowed the artists freedom of action, permitted the use of full symphony ensembles, and made possible great improvement in quality through an ever-increasing knowledge of the use of studio acoustics.”
The initial interest in electrical sound recording, however, came not from the record companies, but from the telephone industry. Many late nineteenth-century experimenters had attempted to make direct electrical recordings using telephone parts. The technology proved to be of no practical use to the commercial recording industry because of the telephone’s intentionally limited frequency range, coupled with the inability at that early date to amplify the electrical signal. Emile Berliner experimented with telephonic recording in 1896, as reported many years later by his associate, Fred Gaisberg. “The result,” Gaisberg recalled, “was a thin metallic thread of sound. The experiment was years ahead of its time.”
The amplification problem was solved with the advent of Lee De Forest’s audion tube. By 1915, the Bell Telephone system was employing Dr. Harold D. Arnold’s vacuum-tube amplifier in long-distance telephone transmissions. At the same time, Arnold proposed that systematic research into electrical sound recording and reproduction be undertaken by Western Electric, where Henry C. Egerton had already patented an experimental electromagnetic disc-record pickup.
Henry Egerton’s patent for an electromagnetic pickup,
filed in November 1914
As might be expected of a telecommunications company, Western Electric’s early experiments in electrical sound recording and reproduction were applied largely to telephony. The company’s first commercially produced electrical recorder was Henry Egerton’s 1918 telephone answering machine. The cutter, which employed a principle similar to Egerton’s electromagnetic loudspeaker of 1917, recorded vertically cut wax cylinders. Although the machine was suitable for recording telephone calls and office dictation, it was neither intended for, nor capable of producing, commercial-quality musical recordings.
In 1919 Henry B. Wier, another Western Electric engineer, filed a patent application for a complete electrical sound-recording and playback system. Wier employed an obvious holdover from the acoustic process in his use of a recording horn to focus sound on the microphone. He was able to eliminate much of the distortion that plagued the acoustic recording process by using electrical wave filters to correct resonances in the system — the first practical application of frequency equalization.
Other components of Wier’s system, including the single-button carbon microphone, multiple microphone inputs and mixing controls, vacuum-tube amplifier, master gain control, electromagnetic disc cutter, and switchable loudspeaker and headset monitors, were adapted from the prior work of Egerton and other Western Electric engineers. However, Wier made the mistake, from a business standpoint, of specifying that each performer be confined to an individual, fully enclosed booth. Each booth was to be equipped with a widow through which to view the conductor, and was topped by a conical roof with a microphone inserted at its apex. Whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, Wier’s concept was utterly impractical for commercial use.
Henry Wier’s proposed system of isolating individual performers in separate booths, whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, was impractical
for commercial use.
Other shortcomings in Wier’s system were quickly addressed by Western Electric engineers Edward Craft and Edwin Colpitts, who filed a patent application on an electrical recording process in November 1919. Wier’s specification of individual musicians’ booths was immediately discarded. The use of relatively insensitive carbon microphones, another weakness in Wier’s system, was overcome by substituting multiple condenser microphones. 6 Many other components, however, were carried over from Wier’s process. In their patent application, Craft and Colpitts discussed at some length the advantage their system offered over the acoustical process:
“In making records for reproduction in the well-known types of sound reproducing machines, it has been necessary to take great precautions, particularly with respect to the relative location of the artist and the recording mechanism, and to employ artists who are specially trained in record making in order to obtain a record which will reproduce sound with any degree of faithfulness. Thus it has been common for the artist in the case of a voice record to sing or talk into a horn or mouthpiece and to vary the separation of the artist and horn to obtain the desired tonal effects. In the case of instrumental music or in the case of duets or an ensemble of singers, great care has been necessary in grouping the singers or artists relative to the recording point in order to obtain the desired result. In view of the difficulty of training artists and also in view of the difficulty of grouping a large number of instruments for efficient recording, it has been proposed to intercept or pick up the sound waves at a plurality of points and conduct them either acoustically or electrically to a common recording point… The artist or artists merely enter the room or auditorium in which the sound receivers are located, and without regard to the recording apparatus, proceed with their performance.”
Craft’s dispersed placement of microphones and use of multiple channels clearly had the potential to produce stereophonic recordings. Unfortunately, that possibility was not explored at the time. Instead, the multiple signals were mixed to a produce a monophonic recording.
The Craft–Colpitts system saw no use in the commercial disc record industry, but it was briefly adapted to provide synchronized sound to motion picture shorts in 1922. On Friday October 27, 1922, Craft demonstrated his system, synchronized to accompany an animated film, to an audience of electrical engineers at Yale University — the first public demonstration of an electrically recorded phonograph record reproduced by a fully electronic phonograph. Further attempts to develop the system for commercial use were soon scuttled, however. In early 1923 two Western Electric sales executives, George Evans Cullinan and Elbert Hawkins, decided that potential profits from licensing the system were likely to be insufficient to justify further development of the Craft–Colpitts system.
At General Electric, Charles A. Hoxie was also developing an electrical recording system, refining some work he had undertaken for the U.S. Navy during World War I. Unlike Western Electric’s electromagnetic system, Hoxie’s was an optical system. He filed a patent application for a basic photoelectric recording device on April 13, 1918, following up with an improved device in May 1921.
Charles Hoxie (top photo, right) with unidentified assistant in General Electric’s Schenectady laboratory. A complete Pallophotophone setup is pictured, with the recording unit to the right. The lower photo, from 1922, pictures only the projection unit; the system had not yet been adapted to disc recording.
Although the original invention was designed to record radio signals on photographic film, Hoxie began to adapt it for commercial applications after the war, at first for motion pictures, and then for disc recording. On December 27, 1921, a patent application was filed on his behalf for a complete electrical disc-recording system employing a photoelectric microphone, amplifier, and electromagnetic disk cutter. By 1922, experimental Pallophotophone recordings were being made on film, and development of disc-mastering capabilities was also under way.
Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in May 1923.
Hoxie named his system the Pallophotophone — literally, “shaking-light sound.” It was an apt allusion. The sound-collecting device, or Pallotrope, was a photoelectric microphone employing a light beam focused on a tiny, spring-mounted mirror that vibrated in response to sound waves. A short flared horn, attached to the front of the device, served rather inefficiently to collect and focus the sound.
A simplified explanation of the Pallophotophone system, published by Brunswick-Balke-Collender after it adopted the process in 1925.
By late 1922, it was clear to General Electric that Hoxie’s system had potential in the commercial recording market, and he received their backing to make refinements. In 1925, the Pallophotphone system would be adopted by Brunswick-Balke-Collender, with less-than-satisfactory results.
While work progressed at Western Electric and General Electric, many independent inventors were experimenting with electrical recording processes on their own, in the United States and elsewhere. The first publicly issued electrical recordings were made in England by Horace O. Merriman and Lionel Guest, although the process was not entirely electrical. On November 11, 1920, they recorded portions of the burial ceremony for the Unknown Warrior at London’s Westminster Abbey via a cable link to carbon microphones placed inside the building.
Announcement of the first issued electrical recordings,
Merrriman, as an officer in what would soon become the Royal Air Force, had been assigned in 1917 to develop a loudspeaker with sufficient volume to be heard from ground to air. When the R.A.F. abandoned loudspeaker research at the end of World War I, Merriman stated that he and Guest “considered what peace-time use could be made of the findings already made in the research for an electrical speaker. We decided to develop a method of making phonograph records by electricity using the Fessenden vibration motor.”
The Fessenden vibration motor was an electro-mechanical hybrid, driven by a microphone and amplifier, but activating a mechanical cutter. The cutter proved to be the weak link in the system. Lacking the sophisticated damping that would become the hallmark of Western Electric’s all-electric cutter, it produced recordings with high levels of distortion, particularly in the louder passages. Nevertheless, the improved frequency response provided sufficient impetus to pursue the process.
An illustration of the Merriman-Guest system, showing the Fessenden
Guest and Merriman designed the first self-contained recording van and set about making test records, initially only of speech. The team was soon experimenting with musical recordings as well, setting up in Columbia’s London studio, where acoustic and electrical recordings were made simultaneously. Comparing the two version, Merriman recalled, “The range of tone was greater on the electrically made records, but there was considerable distortion.” The process was soon judged unsuitable for Columbia’s use, and the relationship was terminated.
For the Westminster Abbey recordings, horns were attached to the carbon microphones, which were placed throughout the abbey and connected to the recording van by cables. In the end, only two musical selections were deemed acceptable for release. Pressed by Columbia and issued privately as part of a fund-raising project for the abbey, the record enjoyed modest sales, and a copper matrix was donated to the British Museum.
Guest and Merriman then spent a month recording organist Marcel Dupre at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before departing to the United States at the request of the Submarine Signal Company in Boston. It was a short-lived affiliation, and Guest, Merriman, and his wife went on to rent an apartment in Queens, where they set up an experimental electrical recording studio. Columbia made a series of experimental electrical recordings during November 1921, possibly using Guest’s and Merriman’s equipment. These tests, beginning with a session by Gladys Rice on November 3, 1921, are documented in the Columbia files, 11 but they were quickly suspended, and no issued records resulted.
Having made some technical strides, Merriman recalled that in 1923 he and Guest were invited to make simultaneous recordings during regular commercial Columbia sessions, placing their microphone alongside the recording horn. The resulting electrical recordings clearly exhibited greater frequency response and higher fidelity than their acoustic counterparts, in Merriman’s estimation. But in the meantime, Columbia had passed into the hands of receivers who had no interest in developing electrical recording, and Guest and Merriman abandoned their work. Back in England, the Gramophone Company appointed Brenchley E. G. Mittell to investigate electrical recording processes in November 1923, with no discernible results.
In the United States, Orlando Marsh had been developing an electrical recording system since approximately 1914. A 1931 advertising flyer declared, “Seventeen years ago, Marsh instituted the first electrical recording lab in the world.” At that time, Marsh is known to have been employed by George K. Spoor’s Essanay movie studio in Chicago. It seems likely that Marsh was responsible for the Spoor Sound-Scriber, a cylinder-record system designed to be synchronized with motion pictures. In 1977 researcher Tim Fabrizio discovered the device, along with a cracked celluloid cylinder, in the vault of the International Museum of Photography and restored it to working order.
Once repaired and played, the Spoor cylinder turned out to be a promotional skit for the process, on which a speaker declares that the recording “is accomplished by special telephonic apparatus. That is all I can say about the system.” Although it is impossible to say definitively whether the recording was electrical, Fabrizio noted a “thin, hollow, even garbled character…unlike any acoustical or home recording I had ever heard. Yet, there seemed an odd sensitivity to peripheral noise.”
The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording, made in the yard of Chicago’s Essanay movie studio (John R. T. Davies, via Malcolm Shaw)
The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording (matrix #2, a test pressing of which was discovered by the late John R. T. Davies), was of the George Spoor and the Wood Brothers Quartet singing “Bells of Shandon.” According to its handwritten label, the recording was made “in the open air 12 ft distance in the yard of the Essanay Co.” The recording probably dates to to the autumn of 1921. Marsh continued to record at Essanay through late 1922, then consolidated his office and studio in Chicago’s Kimball Building.
(Above) Orlando Marsh recording in the Chicago Theatre, 1924; note the old-fashioned phonograph horn being used to focus sound on the microphone. (Below) Orlando Marsh in his laboratory, date unknown.
By then, Marsh was producing electrically recorded masters for his own Autograph label, as well as for several short-run custom labels that included Messiah Sacred Records, Crown Records, Greek Record Company, and Ideal Sacred Records. Although these were the earliest electrical recordings to reach the American market (albeit primitive ones) — beating Columbia and Victor by three years — the labels carried no notation to that effect. The claim would not appear on Autograph labels until 1925. At that point, Marsh declared himself “The Originator of Electrical Recording,” but he never patented his process.
Among the market leaders, Thomas Edison had experimented sporadically with telephonic recording, to no avail. After World War I, he had even attempted to make recordings using surplus military radio equipment. Recalling those experiments, he stated, “I found when I tried [radio] for recording there was too much mutilation of sounds, which is rather difficult to overcome.”
Frank L. Dyer, a longtime Edison associate, filed a patent application for an electromagnetic recording head in February 1921, but apparently nothing was done to develop it, and Thomas Edison remained emphatically opposed to the process. His company would be the last to convert to electrical recording, one of several factors that led to its demise in 1929.
For a newcomer like the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, however, electrical recording must have seemed promising. In December 1920, Percy L. Deutsch, Brunswick’s vice-president and grandson of company founder J. M. Brunswick, initiated formal research into electrical recording. Although circumstantial evidence suggests that Deutsch was aware of General Electric’s experimentation with electrical recording processes, the initial experiments were carried out independently at Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters. Deutsch entrusted much of this work to inventor Benjamin Franklin Meissner, who had earned a reputation as an expert in wireless torpedo-guidance systems during World War I.
The Talking Machine World for December 1921 reported that Meissner had “for some months been working in the Brunswick experimental laboratories here [in Chicago] on various methods for converting sound waves into electrical waves, and reconverting these back to sound waves on the phonograph record.” Meissner conducted experimental electrical sessions at the Brunswick studio during much of 1921. Unfortunately, paper documentation of these sessions has vanished along with Brunswick’s early recording ledgers. Test pressings are rumored to survive, but to date, none has been reliably reported.
In December, TMW also broke the news of Brunswick’s experiments with wireless remote disc mastering in Chicago. On November 22, an operatic performance was transmitted from the Auditorium Theatre to a Magnavox receiver in the Brunswick laboratory. There, TMW reported, “the electrical waves were switched from the Magnavox directly to the recording apparatus.” Despite an apparently promising start, no commercially issued records resulted from Meissner’s experiments, and Brunswick seems to have abandoned its electrical experiments in 1922.
As Meissner was winding down his work at Brunswick, Albertis Hewitt was undertaking similar experiments at Victor. Hewitt and James W. Owen, another Victor engineer, had been experimenting with microphones since 1916, when they patented an improved design for use in “the recording or reproduction of sound.” Hewitt went on to patent many other devices relating to electrical recording and reproduction over the next eighteen years, all of which were assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company or the Radio Corporation of America. However, when Hewitt began experimentation in earnest at Victor in 1922, it was not with his own equipment, but with Pallophotophone equipment loaned to him by Charles Hoxie.
Hewitt’s experimental electrical installation was completed at Victor’s Camden studio on December 7, 1922, and the next day he conducted the first of many test sessions, beginning with staff pianist Myrtle Eaver. More tests were conducted over the next two weeks, involving Eaver and tenor William Robyn, with musical director Joseph Pasternack voicing his approval of the results. A final report on the Pallophotophone tests was drafted at the end of the month and apparently was buried, after which no more was heard of the device at Victor. Hewitt, however, continued to make some experimental recordings from radio broadcasts during 1922–1924 using an electrical recorder of his own design. In 1923 he undertook further microphone experiments for Victor.
In the end, nothing came of Hewitt’s research, and Victor continued to record acoustically. Probably unaware of Hewitt’s secret experiments, orchestra leader Paul Whiteman invested heavily in the electrical recording process of an unnamed English inventor in 1923, hoping to license it to Victor. For his efforts, Whiteman earned only a rebuff from company executives.
Frank Capps also experimented independently with electrical recording. On November 10, 1923, he recorded former president Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day speech, as broadcast on over radio station WEAF (New York). Capps — who allegedly was later involved in leaking news of Western’s Electric’s proposed Victor deal to Louis Sterling at Columbia’s English branch — sent his masters to be processed by the Compo Company in Canada, a venture headed by Emile Berliner’s son Herbert. It is tempting to speculate that Capps’ electrical masters were the impetus for Herbert Berliner’s own experiments, which resulted in the first Canadian electrical recordings.
While the phonograph companies were abandoning their in-house experiments, and Orlando Marsh was puttering with his homemade electrical equipment, Western Electric’s engineers were making steady progress toward a high-quality, commercially viable electrical recording system during 1922–1923. The team of Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry Harrison had recently taken over much of the project, signaling a definitive change in corporate attitude toward electrical recording methods.
Thus far, Western Electric’s engineers had worked under highly controlled conditions in laboratories that had little in common with concert halls or commercial recording studios. However, Maxfield was now determined to deal with the variables inherent in recording live performances in public venues. He had already experimented with remote electrical recording, establishing a wireless connection from New York’s Capitol Theatre to Western Electric’s experimental recording laboratory and broadcast station at 463 West Street in late 1922. By 1923, Western Electric was regularly making test recordings via the remote link from the Capitol Theatre. The company also made experimental recordings from radio broadcasts, including excerpts from the 1923–1924 New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s broadcasts over radio station WEAF.
The Capitol Theatre’s cavernous space presented an especially difficult challenge to the Western Electric team. After much experimentation in the theater, the engineers determined that the microphone placement needed to replicate what was heard by an average member of the audience was forty feet above floor level, and forty feet in front of the stage. The quality of these early electrical recordings varied tremendously, as surviving test pressings demonstrate. Several Western Electric experimental pressings have surfaced in recent years, the earliest of them a Capitol Theater performance dated July 20, 1923. Other surviving test pressings include public performances by the New York Philharmonic under Willem van Hoogstraten, made in December 1923, and some January 1924 recordings from WEAF radio broadcasts.
Maxfield emphasized the importance of the studio monitor, volume level indicator, and potentiometer in his process, establishing a degree of control unattainable with the acoustic process:
“Without the monitoring system, the fact that a record is unsatisfactory cannot be ascertained until the master record is made, plated, and reproduced…. In the case of “acoustical” recording from a symphony orchestra, the orchestra must play so that the fortissimo is suppressed and the pianissimo amplified in order to drive the stylus within proper bounds. With the present system, such an orchestra may play with natural force and effect, the current from the amplifier being kept within proper limits by manipulating the potentiometer as suggested by monitoring with loudspeaker and voltmeter.”
In October 1923, Maxfield filed a patent on an improved electrical recording system. Well aware of the failings of the earlier, cumbersome Wier and Craft–Colpitts processes, he greatly simplified the apparatus. At this juncture, Maxfield appears to have still been concerned primarily with the recording of live rather than studio performances, noting in his patent application, “The object of the present invention is to produce master phonograph records electrically without interfering with the public performance of the artist or artists.”
While Maxfield satisfactorily addressed the technical aspects of an electrical recording system, its suitability for commercial applications had so far gone largely unexplored. Little commercial demand could be anticipated for Maxfield’s live recordings, other than as a source of broadcast material. Consequently, Maxfield set out to refine his system for commercial studio use. In December 1923 he filed a patent application on a “studio for acoustic purposes,” stating,
“The object of the invention is to provide a studio in which sounds may be recorded or broadcasted with substantially all the natural effects that an auditor listening directly to the sounds would receive… More specifically, the invention provides a studio in which the walls are damped by a hanging curtain or applying other damping material to the walls, damping them to a degree such that the reverberation will be between .5 of a second and 1.0 second.… The curtains may be hung on horizontal poles or rods by any suitable fasteners which may be slideable on the rods, whereby the curtains may be adjusted to cover any desired surface to control the damping.… The ceiling as shown is not damped, but the floor is substantially covered with a heavy rug. Smaller rugs may be used on the floor and damping material may also be used on the ceiling if desired.”
Maxfield’s design for an electrical recording studio would be
adopted by Victor in 1925.
Henry Harrison made improvements to the electromagnetic cutter in early 1924. Charts included in his patent filing depict a fairly flat frequency response curve ranging from 35 to nearly 8,000 cycles per second. In contrast, the very best acoustic recordings could only offer a range of approximately 200 to 3,000 cycles per second, and few studios other than Edison’s performed even that well. However, much of the experimentation at Western Electric had been carried out using nonstandard disc formats designed to take full advantage of the new electromagnetic cutter, without regard for the needs of commercial producers. Oversized, vertically cut, and lacking the abrasive fillers required in commercial shellac pressings, these discs were superior from an engineering perspective, but they were totally incompatible with the millions of phonographs already in homes.
Anticipating resistance from an industry that was heavily invested in the standard ten- or twelve-inch lateral-cut shellac disc, the Western Electric engineers began to tailor their system to that format. The result was a recording curve designed to compress a modern, wide-range electrical recording into a groove configuration and disc format that were relics of the nineteenth century. With a reduced frequency range of approximately 100–5,000 cycles per second, the new Western Electric process still offered dramatic improvement over the best acoustic recordings, but fell far short of what could be achieved under laboratory conditions.
With a commercially viable system finally complete, Western Electric approached the Victor Talking Machine Company. In February 1924, Victor executives George W. Smith and Fenimore Johnson visited the Western Electric laboratories for a demonstration of the new electrically recorded discs. As they soon discovered, the process would not come cheaply. Western Electric demanded royalties on sales of all records made by their process, and further stipulated that Victor’s studios be rebuilt to Joseph Maxfield’s exact specifications.
Victor president Eldridge R. Johnson, coping with health problems and declining revenues from record sales, tabled the Western Electric proposal. The Victor Talking Machine Company had always developed its technology internally, but the Western Electric deal would require the active involvement of outsiders. In addition, the swift transition that adoption of the system would entail was at odds with Eldridge Johnson’s conservative approach to product development. Just four years earlier, he had declared to the press, “It will take twenty-five years more to perfect the talking machine.”
According to an oft-repeated story, Western Electric made its initial offer only to Victor. In the meantime, the tale continues, a bit of industrial spying was under way that would rob Victor of its potential edge. Under the supervision of Russell Hunting, Western Electric was pressing 16” test records at Pathé’s Brooklyn plant, which was the only U.S. plant equipped at that time to press the oversized discs. According to this tale, which appears with some variations in several early phonograph histories, Hunting leaked word of the process to his old business associate, Louis Sterling, at Columbia’s London headquarters. Purloined Western Electric tests are said to have arrived in London on December 24, 1924, with Sterling setting sail for the U.S. two days later, frantic to negotiate use of the Western Electric system for Columbia.
Unfortunately, this widely circulated account is seriously flawed in many respects, and it is contradicted by dated test pressings. Sterling did indeed sail to the United States in December 1924, but for the purpose of acquiring rights to the Western Electric system for English Columbia, under the same terms that Western Electric had already offered to both Columbia and Victor in the United States.
In fact, Western Electric had begun making test recordings for both of those companies many months before Sterling’s visit, as proven by a surprisingly large number of surviving test pressings. The earliest of these electrical tests to surface thus far, made for Columbia, shows a recording date of August 25, 1924, in the wax. Many other Columbia electrical tests exist that show dates throughout the late summer and autumn of 1924 in the wax.
Two Columbia-Western Electric tests, both from September 1924. By that time, electrical tests were being produced in sufficient quantity that a special label was introduced for them. (Courtesy of Kurt Nauck)
Columbia made some of its most notable performers available for these early Western Electric tests, including violinist George Enescu and soprano Florence Macbeth. Although files for the earliest tests have not been located, the excellent sound quality on surviving test pressings is clearly indicative of Western Electric’s work. The earliest surviving confirmation in Columbia’s files that Western Electric equipment was indeed in use is a notation for a session on November 10, 1924. Clearly, a Columbia–Western Electric alliance had been forged well before Sterling’s December dash to the States.
At the same time, Western Electric was also recording tests for Victor, despite Eldridge Johnson’s apparent lack of interest. Electrically recorded Victor test pressings, showing dates in the wax ranging from October 7 to December 17, 1924, survive in a private collection. Interestingly, neither Harry nor Raymond Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineers, mentioned these sessions in their memoirs. Harry Sooy recalled having first been apprised of “three or four records submitted by the Western Electric Company” on January 3, 1925. It is therefore likely that these early test sessions, which are not documented in the surviving Victor files, were conducted in Western Electric’s studios rather than Victor’s.
Although Victor was clearly considering the Western Electric process during the autumn of 1924, it took news of the impending Columbia–Western Electric deal to force Eldridge Johnson’s hand. Threatened with obsolescence at the hands of his old rival, Eldridge Johnson finally assented to Western Electric’s terms, which included an advance payment of $50,000 in addition to the royalty clause that had caused earlier caused him to balk. The deal was a closely guarded secret — so much so, that no mention of it appears in the minutes of Victor’s managing committee.
On January 27, 1925, Western Electric dispatched Joseph Maxfield to Camden to lay out the wiring for Victor’s first electrically equipped studio in Building No. 15. The Western Electric equipment was shipped to Camden on February 2 and arrived the following day. The first electrical session to be held there — an experimental piano solo recording by one Mr. Watkins — occurred on February 9. Over the next several days, experimental sessions continued with Helen Clark, Elsie Baker, Olive Kline, and other Victor studio artists.
While the Western Electric installation was under way at Victor, Columbia was readying its own Western Electric system for commercial use. In January 1925 the company had Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist,” make a series of electrical recordings. Gillham was an excellent choice to demonstrate the new system’s capabilities. His subdued crooning style was poorly suited the old acoustic system, but it registered quite well with the microphone. The results were good enough that three Gillham selections, recorded on February 25, 1925, were accepted for release.
Just one day after Gillham’s electrical Columbia session, the Eight Famous Victor Artists (a traveling promotional troupe featuring Billy Murray and Henry Burr) were assembled at Camden to make comparison recordings of “A Miniature Concert” using Victor’s acoustic and Western Electric’s electrical equipment. Initially, the acoustic version was approved for release, but in April there was a change of heart on the part of Victor management. Instead, the electrical tests, covering two sides of a 12” disc, were approved for a July 1925 release on Victor 35753.
Let the conversion begin: The Victor Recording Book sheet for the electrical version of “A Miniature Concert,” which was recorded as an experiment but was then approved for release in place of the acoustic version.
The “Miniature Concert” comprised the earliest electrical recordings to be released by Victor. They were not, however, the first Victor release to use an electrically recorded master. That honor is held by the Mask and Wig Club Male Quartet’s rendition of “Joan of Arkansas,” recorded on March 16, 1925, and released on Victor 19626 a month before “A Miniature Concert.”
At the end of February, with finalization of its Western Electric deal virtually assured, Columbia became the first major record producer to convert to fill-time electrical recording. Acoustic recording sessions for full-priced releases were suspended on February 28 at Columbia’s New York studio (acoustic equipment remained in use for several more years, but only for recordings allocated to Harmony and other low-priced labels).
Two of Gillham’s February sides were listed in the May 1925 Talking Machine World advance list for a June release on Columbia 328-D, the earliest electrical recordings to be issued by Columbia. In the same listing were four sides recorded electrically during a March 31 public performance by the 850-voice Associated Glee Clubs of America — the first “live” electrical recordings to be issued in the United States.
There was nothing in the new listings or advertisements that might alert the public that Columbia was employing a new recording technology, nor would there be for another year. The only clue, other than an obvious change in sound quality, was a circled-W logo in the pressing, required as part of the licensing agreement with Western Electric. Even that small hint was absent on some of the earliest pressings.
Columbia’s adoption of the electrical process had the unforeseen effect of driving the company into the cheap-record market. Having invested heavily in improvements to its acoustic studios in 1924, Columbia decided to recoup its costs by launching a low-priced label that would continue to use acoustically recorded masters. The result was the introduction of Harmony, a 50¢ brand, in September 1925. Velvet Tone, a companion label using the same masters and couplings as Harmony, followed in the summer of 1926. Both labels continued to use acoustically recorded masters through 1929, although the occasional electrical master (probably recorded for the full-priced line but rejected) found its way into the series.
Victor lagged a bit behind Columbia in its conversion. The electrical sessions of February through mid-March 1925 were still considered trials, although they yielded some recordings that were approved for release. The Western Electric contract was finally signed on March 18, and at the end of that month, Victor retired the recording horns in the Camden studios. However, the company was in the process of acquiring a new studio location in New York at the time; thus, Victor’s first New York electrical sessions were delayed until July 31, 1925.
Both companies began releasing electrical recordings with some regularity beginning in the early summer of 1925. However, neither Victor nor Columbia publicly acknowledged the conversion during 1925–26, allowing themselves time to dispose of obsolete acoustic stock while building new catalogs from scratch. The closest Victor came to publicly acknowledging the new process was Eldridge Johnson’s misleading statement, in response Brunswick’s introduction of the electric Panatrope in August 1925, that the company would soon introduce a new system representing “the ultimate in sound reproduction.” 25 Johnson coyly refused to elaborate on the new recordings to a New York Times reporter, even though they had already been on the market for several months. But the change was immediately obvious to dealers and consumers alike, and by the end of 1925 Victor dealers were openly referring to the new process, even if the manufacturer was not.
Victor’s Canadian branch took the opposite approach, heralding the new electrics in July 1925 with a national advertising campaign, and initiating deep price cuts on its now-obsolete acoustically recorded discs. The impetus might have come from Herbert Berliner’s upstart Compo Company, which had begun marketing electrically recorded discs on its Apex label in Canada. “New Victor V.E. Process a Master Stroke in Recording,” the ads proclaimed. “All the new July releases out today are recorded by the new V.E. process.”
Victor’s Canadian affiliate was the first to publicly announce the company’s conversion to electrical recording, in July 1925. Its American counterpart waited until 1926, as did Columbia.
In October 1926, Western Electric loaned Joseph Maxfield to Victor to pursue further improvements in the electrical process. Appointed as Victor’s manager of research and development in September 1927, Maxfield was given free rein to remake the Victor studios to his specifications. Remote recording locations were added or upgraded, including the Philadelphia Academy of Music and New York’s Liederkranz Hall. Camden’s former Trinity Baptist Church, converted to a Victor studio during the acoustic era, was thoroughly overhauled, including replacement of the original organ. A New York Times reporter who toured the studio observed,
“Hidden from view is the arched roof to which boomed hasannas and hymns… a flat, sound-proof and false ceiling of burlap is better for recording. An organ is there, to be sure, but it is a special one recently installed, and now there is a microphone before it. … Downstairs, where prayer books had been stored … is some $150,000 equipment bearing trademarks of Western Electric, Electrical Research Products, and Victor Talking Machine.”
For a time, the church did double duty as a temporary Vitaphone sound stage, with the lower level used for filming. Films were shot as silents, and the actors then dubbed their parts onto synchronized discs in the main church recording studio.
New, unfamiliar equipment and studios required that studio engineers be retrained or even replaced. Nathaniel Shilkret, one of the few veteran Victor musical directors to make the transition successfully, recounted his company’s problems in adapting the new process:
“Almost everything that had been learned about orchestration and recording seemed useless. The musician’s favorite tricks in orchestration became obsolete; the recorders’ art of handling the recording horns had no more value…. No doubt you will be interested to know that our first successful recordings were with the symphonic orchestras, large choirs and whispering vocalists. Then came the Salon Orchestra which improved immensely over the old recordings, after most of us were convinced that this new way of recording an intimate style of orchestra would never do at all. The piano quality of the new recordings, while not perfect, is surely superior to the old recordings. The tenor voice gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones. At times, hollow; but all voices finally were conquered. And to think that all this has happened in about one year and a half.”
Nathaniel Shilkret (front row, third from left) and orchestra in a
Maxfield-designed Victor studio.
Pressings were proving to be a weak link in the new system, with dealers complaining that the surfaces were noisy and prone to premature wear. The increased surface noise resulted from use of a coarser, more abrasive pressing material developed for the new electric discs, while the tendency toward premature wear resulted from the more heavily modulated groove.
One of Maxfield’s solutions to the latter problem was to slightly smooth the master recording by high-speed mechanical burnishing “at a pressure which is reasonably constant and of just sufficient magnitude to cause a very slight surface flow of the material without macerating it.” Charles O’Connell, a later Victor recording director, took a dim view of the practice, recalling that masters “Went flawless into these laboratories. They emerged pitted, peaked, and perverted. I say perverted because in some instances, in an effort to reduce the scratch that inexpert handling had brought to the records, a polishing stone was run through the grooves, eliminating some of the scratch and all of the high frequencies that give music color and brilliance.”
The general public, still playing its records on steel-needle acoustic machines with tracking forces measured in pounds rather than grams, would scarcely have noticed such technical flaws. Victor’s record sales rebounded in 1926, jumping to nearly 32 million copies from the previous year’s 25 million. The leap into electrical recording had come at a high cost to Victor’s shareholders, however. In July 1925, the company announced that it was suspending its quarterly dividends in view of “important improvements in the product [that] will require considerable outlay of funds.”
“A New Invention” (re: Marsh’s Kimball Building studio). Billboard (January 13, 1923), p. 58.
“Advance Record Bulletins for June 1925.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1925), p. 157.
“Advance Record Bulletins for July 1925.” Talking Machine World (June 15, 1925), p. 166.
Biel, Michael Jay. The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936. Dissertation, Northwestern University (1977), pp. 284–285.
Brooks, Tim. Columbia Master Record Book — Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.
“Camden in Film Field.” New York Times (August 26, 1928), p. 98.
Craft, Edward B., and Colpitts, Edwin H. U.S. Patent #1,540,317 (filed November 25, 1919).
Dyer, Frank L. “Magnetic Recorder.” U.S. Patent #1,544,379 (filed February 16, 1921; issued June 30, 1925).
Egerton, Henry Clifford. “Phonographic Transmitter.” U.S. Patent #1,246,895 (filed November 25, 1914; issued November 20, 1917).
— . “Telephonic Recording and Reproducing Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,284,623 (filed February 1, 1918; issued November 12, 1918).
Fabrizio, T. C. “Before the Jazz Singer” (re: Spoor Sound-Scriber). Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:5, 1977), pp. 3–6.
— . “The Spoor Sound-Scriber and its Relation to the Sound Synchronization of Motion Pictures,” and “Transcription of the ‘Spoor’ Cylinder.” Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:6, 1977), pp. 5–8.
Giovannoni, David. E-mail to author re early Victor–Western Electric test recordings (September 15, 2007).
Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).
Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).
Harrison, Henry C. “Device for the Transmission of Vibratory Energy.” U.S. Patent #1,663,884 (filed May 5, 1924; issued May 27, 1928).
“Historic Gramophone Records — Major Guest and the Abbey Service.” London Observer (December 12, 1920), p. 17.
Hoxie, Charles A. “Production of Phonographic Records.” U.S. Patent #1,637,903 (filed December 28, 1921; issued August 2, 1927).
— . “Recording Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,456,595 (filed April 13, 1918; issued May 29, 1924), assigned to General Electric Company.
Marsh Laboratories, Inc. (advertising flyer, 1931).
Maxfield, Joseph P. “Phonograph System.” U.S. Patent #1,661,539 (filed October 2, 1923; issued March 6, 1928).
— . “Studio for Acoustic Purposes.” U.S. Patent #1,719,481 (filed December l5, 1923; issued July 2, 1929).
Merriman, H. O. “Sound Recording by Electricity, 1919–1924.” Talking Machine Review (June 1976), pp. 666–670, 680–681.
Nauck, Kurt. Vintage Record Auction #33 (containing a large group of early Columbia–Western Electric test pressings). Spring, TX: Nauck’s Vintage Records (April–May 2003), p. 11.
O’Connell, Charles C. The Other Side of the Record, p. 126. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).
Owen, James W., and Albertis Hewitt. “Microphone.” U.S. Patent #1,509,818 (filed August 25, 1916; granted September 23, 1924), assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company.
“Record Opera via Wireless.” Talking Machine World (December 15, 1921), p. 118.
“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units, Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive.” Exhibit in: U.S. Dist. Court, D.D. of N.Y., January 26, 1943.
Shilkret, Nathaniel. “Modern Electrical Methods of Recording.” Phonograph Monthly Review (June 1927), p. 382.
Sooy, Harry O. “Memoir of My Career at Victor Talking Machine Company.” Unpublished manuscript, n.d. David Sarnoff Library, Princeton, NJ.
Tennyson, James R. “Oh, Canada!” New Amberola Graphic (July 1987), p. 5.
“The Future Development of the Talking Machine.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1920), p. 16.
Victor Talking Machine Company. Managing Committee Minutes, Vol. 1 (1924–1926).
— . Recording ledgers (Sony archives, New York); data courtesy of John R. Bolig.
“Victor Talking Machine Co. Omits Quarterly Dividend.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1925), p. 110.
Watkins, Stanley. “Madame, Will You Talk?” Bell Laboratories Record, August 1946 (Vol. XXIV, No. VIII), p. 291.
Whiteman, Paul (David A. Stein, editor). Music for the Millions, p. 5–7. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.
Wier, Henry B. “Recording of Music and Speech” (U.S. Patent application filed August 14, 1919). The patent was later divided into recording and playback sections, with the recording portion (#1,765,517) not being granted until June 24, 1930.
© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.
Among the first superstars of real country music (as opposed to the synthetic stuff cranked out by the likes of Vernon Dalhart), Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner worked their way up from humble beginnings in Georgia — Puckett performing for spare change on the streets of Atlanta, and Tanner competing at the “old-time fiddlers’ conventions” that were so popular at the time. Here’s a glimpse of their stories, from newspaper clippings of the period:
Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)
One of the earliest mentions of Gid Tanner, getting ready to perform at the spring convention of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association
(January 17, 1915)
Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)
Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)
Gainesville, Georgia (July 1924). The Skillet Lickers had yet to be formed at this point, leaving the makeup of Tanner’s Famous Orchestra an intriguing mystery.
Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers
Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)
Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)
Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)
Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.
At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)
Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)
And a few favorites from their vast output:
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie
Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Riley Puckett, vocal):
Atlanta: April 17, 1926
Columbia 15104-D (mx. W 142037 – 2)
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Gid Tanner, vocal):
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 30, 1935
Bluebird B-5658 (mx. BVE 82722 – 1)
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Ted Hawkins, mandolin):
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)
CLAYTON McMICHEN, RILEY PUCKETT, GID TANNER, LOWE STOKES, FATE NORRIS, BOB NICHOLS & BILL BROWN:
A Corn Licker Still in Georgia — Part 4
Atlanta: April 12, 1928
Columbia 15258-D (mx. W 140322 – 2)
Bill Brown (playing the hapless visitor on this side) was a manager in Columbia’s Atlanta office. This was not a pseudonym for Harry C. Browne, as columnist Jim Walsh once claimed.
GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine
Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)
The Rhythm Aces records were a musical triumph, but a
sales bust (Chicago Defender, August 1929)
A battle of the bands in Lansing, Michigan, August 1929. Particularly interesting is the note in the newspaper story concerning Smith’s full eleven-piece orchestra, which is not known to have recorded. The “famous quintet known as ‘Four Aces and a Joker'” mentioned in the article was the small unit that made the Brunswick recordings.
Jabbo Smith after his move to the Midwest, playing in Racine, Wisconsin
(top, May 1932) and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (bottom, May 1933).
Jabbo Smith performs to save to home (January 1977). The benefit raised only $700 of the $10,000 he needed, but the concert marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback.
Hobnobbing with Benny Goodman (February 1980) and
Dizzy Gillespie (November 1979)
Jabbo in California: Los Angeles (top, December 1980)
and San Francisco (August 1981)
New York (January 19, 1991)
And a couple of masterpieces from the Rhythm Aces series — Personnel, as given by Jabbo Smith to researcher Dick Spottswood in 1966 (and bearing little resemblance to the undocumented, apparently fabricated listings in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works), are: Smith (trumpet), Willard Brown (reeds), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass):
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”
(Jabbo Smith, vocal): Decatur Street Tutti
Chicago: April 4, 1929
Brunswick 7078 (mx. C 3233 – A)
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”:
Band Box Stomp
Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4100 – A)
Related Post: Sam Moore’s “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ”
Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”
The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.
Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of Betsy Loar)
Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.
In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of The Musical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”
Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.
Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)
Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”
Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.
During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.
Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).
But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version, Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.
SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag
New York: August 24, 1921 (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1)
Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.
Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.
Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”
An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)
The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”
By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.
From a 1924 Vocalion supplement
By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.
By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were rejected.
A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of Betsy Loar)
In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.
Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.
© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. Portions of this article previously appeared on the Mainspring Press website as “Rediscovering Sam Moore.”
Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.
Giraud Ross Eddinger (a.k.a. Eddie G. Ross and “Blackface” Eddie Ross) was among the last of his kind, an old-fashioned burnt-cork minstrel man in an age that was rapidly moving away from such fare. Ross apparently was not Canadian, as some writers have claimed, although he performed there often. He was born in Hillsdale, Michigan, married in nearby Jackson, and lived in Orlando, Florida, for much of his adult life.
A capable ragtime banjo soloist and composer, Ross tested for Edison in 1917 but was rejected. He made four tests for Victor. The first, “Ross’ Dog Trot” (recorded July 18, 1921, with piano accompaniment), was apparently enough to convince Victor, which on August 30 had him remake the title with studio orchestra for commercial release. The recording was made on a “special narrow-groove matrix,” no doubt accounting for its tendency to turn up in stripped-out condition. Ross later made three more Victor tests, in June and August 1922, including a “Whistling Medley” with monologue, the only confirmed instance of anyone having recorded his voice.
Ross made only six issued recordings, all of his own cakewalk-style titles that were already dated but still popular, as apparent sales of his first release (“Ross’ Dog Trot” / “Ross’ Reel”) proved. It’s still one of the most commonly encountered Victors of the period, and in 1927 it was transferred to Victor’s “Historical Catalog,” rather than being deleted entirely in the purge of acoustic material following Victor’s conversion to electrical recording.
Ross’ second release, in 1922 (for which an extra tuba was added to the studio orchestra), is not as frequently encountered. His final Victor, recorded in November 1923 with a more-modern accompaniment by Ross Gorman (saxophone) and Leroy Shield (piano), does not appear to have been a strong seller.
Eddie Ross in Canada (Ottawa, October 1914)
Ross reportedly was touring in vaudeville by 1909. One of his earliest known billings (October 1911) appears above, along with Ross’ wedding announcement, in Jackson, Michigan (June 1911).
With Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels in Corsicana, Texas (February 1918)
Back in Canada, this time on the Pantages vaudeville circuit
(Edmonton, June 1918)
Dealer ad for Ross’ first release (December 1921)
“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Reel
New York: August 31, 1921 (released December 1921)
Victor 18815 (mx. B 25542 – 2)
Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Special narrow-groove matrix,” per Victor files.
“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Juba
Camden, NJ: July 5, 1922 (released November 1922)
Victor 18926 (mx. B 26585 – 1)
Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Extra tuba [Adolph] Hirschberg,” per Victor files.
Review of Ross’ first release (Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1921)
Ross with the Al. G. Field Minstrels: Jackson, Mississippi (top, December 1926), and in his hometown of Orlando, Florida (bottom, January 1927)
In Orlando (February 1928)
One of Ross’ last documented appearances, with the Al. G. Field Minstrels (Dayton, Ohio, July 1931). He died on November 22, 1931.
© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.