The Playlist • Around the World on Victor Records — Some “Ethnic” Favorites, 1905 – 1923 (MP3)

The Playlist • Around the World on Victor Records:
Some Ethnic Favorites, 1905 – 1923

Original Recordings from the Mainspring Press Collection

(Discographical data from the Victor Talking Machine Co.
and Gramophone Co. files)

 

A sampling of Victor’s extensive Foreign Catalog offerings from the acoustic era. Being  intended primarily for the export or domestic immigrant markets, most of these records were pressed in small runs and segregated in special catalogs that the average American record buyer never saw. As such, many are quite scarce today, especially in anything approaching decent condition.

.

.

 

ANONYMOUS: Andikristo

Constantinople: March 20, 1909
Victor 63512  (Gramophone Co. mx. 12578b)
Artists are uncredited in the Gramophone Co. files and on the labels.

.

 

GREEK MANDOLINATA OF THE STEAMSHIP KING ALEXANDER: Diavolopedo

New York: January 19, 1923
Victor 77380  (mx. B 27418 – 2)

 .

 

ALEXANDER MALOOF: A Trip to Syria — Original Syrian Dance

New York: September 16, 1913
Victor 65830  (mx. B 13868 – 2)
Concurrent issue on Victor 17443 (domestic catalog).

.

 

ELENKRIEG’S ORCHESTRA: Die Zilberne Chasene

New York: December 2, 1915
Victor 67569  (mx. B 16843 – 1)

.

 

FRANCISCO LOPEZ & SALVADOR FLORES: Flores de Pascuas

Caracas, Venezuela: January 27, 1917
Victor 72682  (mx. G 1794 – 1)
Recording expedition headed by George K. Cheney and Charles S. Althouse.

.

 

MARIANO ESCOBEDO & DOMINGO NUÑEZ (Emilio Sirvas, guitar): Tu Seperación

Lima, Peru: September 20, 1913
Victor 65996  (mx. L 277 – 1)
Recording expedition headed by Frank L. Rambo and Charles S. Althouse.

.

.

JESÚS ABREGO & LEOPOLO PICAZO: Amigo, Amigo

Mexico City: July 18, 1905
Victor 98084  (mx. 23 Z – )
Recording expedition headed by William Nafey and Samuel H. Rous (who, in addition to recording prolifically under the name of “S. H. Dudley,” was a Victor manager and later wrote the early editions of The Victor Book of the Opera).

.

The Playlist • Some May – June 2022 Additions (Free MP3 Transfers)

The Playlist • Some May – June 2022 Additions
(Free MP3 Transfers)

Some favorite new arrivals to the collection, for your listening pleasure.

We’re always looking to acquire top-quality 1920s jazz records in top condition; your lists of disposables — with ruthlessly honest grading and all defects (especially any graininess) noted, along with your asking prices — are always welcome.

.

.

JELLY ROLL MORTON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Pretty Lil  (EE+)

Camden, NJ: July 9, 1929
Victor V-38078  (mx. BVE 49454 – 2)

.

KING OLIVER & HIS ORCHESTRA: The Trumpet’s Prayer  (EE+)

New York: February 1, 1929
Victor V-38039  (mx. BVE 48334 – 1)
Oliver present as director, per the Victor files.

.

CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Lazy Mama  (E+)

New York: June 23, 1928
Okeh 8592  (mx. W 400818 – B)

.

NEW ORLEANS OWLS: Piccadilly  (E)

New Orleans: April 14, 1926
Columbia 1158-D  (mx. W 142019 – 3)

.

CLIFF CARLISLE: That Nasty Swing  (EE–)

Charlotte, NC (Southern Radio Building): June 16, 1936
Bluebird B-6631  (mx. BS 102651 -1)
Cliff Carlisle (steel guitar); other accompanists unlisted in RCA files.

.

TED BROUGHTON & ROY RODGERS (as The Hawaiian Songbirds): Happy Hawaiian Blues  (V++ to E–)

Dallas: October 1928
Perfect 11342  (Brunswick mx. DAL 697 – A)

.

SOL HOOPII’S NOVELTY TRIO: Alekoki  (E+)

Los Angeles: March 24, 1928
Columbia 1368-D  (mx. W 145908 – 4)

Revisiting Black Swan: Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label

Revisiting Black Swan: The Documented History
Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the
Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label
By Allan Sutton

 

This new account draws on company documents and correspondence between Pace and Du Bois (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries), as well as information newly uncovered while researching John Fletcher’s involvement with Black Swan and the affiliated Fletcher Record Company.

.

.

.

Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was the second black-owned and operated record company (preceded only by George W. Broome’s short-lived venture), and the first to succeed commercially, albeit briefly.

A 1903 graduate of Atlanta University, Pace initially worked in banking, but his interests turned increasingly to music. He and W. C. Handy collaborated on their first song in 1907, and in 1912 the pair formed the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. The company had its first major hit in 1914, with the publication of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and in 1918 it relocated to New York. Pace resigned in late 1920 to launch his recording operation, taking some key personnel with him. Handy recalled, “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace. Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”

Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Birth of Black Swan

On December 27, 1920, Pace wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois that he had formed a corporation to manufacture phonograph records. He held open the possibility of involving others, telling Du Bois, “I made the capital stock elastic enough so as to take others into it if the idea met very favorable consideration.”

The letter also makes clear that it was Du Bois who suggested the name “Black Swan” (in honor of the pioneering African-American diva, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield). Pace wrote,

I note your suggestion about the name “Black Swan” and it strikes me very favorably indeed. I debated very seriously  whether I should use a fanciful name or whether I should capitalize on my own name and use it… All of this, of course, had been done before I talked with you on the subject.

Pace reported to Du Bois that he had Ford Dabney’s Orchestra under contract and had already made test recordings by the group, which apparently were never issued. He was hoping to do the same, he told Du Bois, with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert, a very young Marian Anderson, and one or two “local folks who are getting in shape, and whom I am trying out with a view of having them record as soon as we are ready to make the permanent masters.”

.

W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)

.

Pace invited Du Bois to join the new company’s board and provide whatever funding he could. The Pace Phonograph Corporation was formally chartered as a Delaware corporation in January 1921, with Du Bois initially purchasing a single share. The officers at the time of incorporation were Pace (president and treasurer) and D. L. Haynes (secretary). Directors, in addition to Du Bois, included Levi C. Brown, T. K. Gibson, William Lewis, John E. Nail, and Emmett J. Scott. Pace and Du Bois found eager investors not only in Harlem, but in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, and other far-flung locations.

Among Pace’s investors was comedian Bert Williams, who according to a misleadingly worded advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.” It would not be only time that Pace took some liberties in describing Williams’ relationship to Black Swan. Following Williams’ death, Pace took a full-page ad The Crisis, in which he claimed that Williams had intended to move to Black Swan once his Columbia contract expired. Canny businessman that he was, it seems unlikely that Williams would have abandoned a company whose annual sales of his records alone exceeded Black Swan’s total annual sales.

.

Pace’s April 1922 ad in The Crisis includes the questionable claim that Bert Williams planned to leave “a White Company” for Black Swan.

.

Harry Pace’s townhouse at 257 West 138th Street served as Black Swan’s first office. Among the employees Pace took from Pace & Handy Music was Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., a young pianist from Georgia whom Handy had recently hired as a song demonstrator. Henderson’s defection garnered him the position of recording director and house accompanist, although Pace later admitted he felt that Henderson was not fully qualified for the job. William Grant Still, one of W. C. Handy’s staff arrangers, also made the move.

The studio in which Pace initially recorded remains a subject of debate. The location is not mentioned in any of Pace’s or Du Bois’ known correspondence, nor is there any suggestion in those letters that Pace equipped his own studio or hired a recording engineer. A New York Age article from June 1921 confirms that Pace did not yet have his own studio, reporting that the company was “planning to establish its own laboratory [i.e., studio] in the near future.”

If any of Pace’s pre-production test recordings have survived, they have not been located for inspection. Most of the early issued masters appear to have been made by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon some distinctive physical and aural characteristics. (NYRL at that time was recording masters for other small labels as well — most notably Arto and Grey Gull, as confirmed in band manager Ed Kirkeby’s session logs — which were assigned master numbers in each label’s own series).

Black Swan Comes to Market

Black Swan records were in production by the early spring of 1921, with initial releases planned for May. Pressing was to be handled by John Fletcher’s Olympic Disc Record Corporation plant in Long Island City. Newly incorporated, Olympic commenced operations in March 1921, the same month in which the earliest issued Black Swan recordings are believed to have been made. Like Black Swan, Olympic advertised its first records as May releases, and their physical characteristics were identical with those of the earliest Black Swan pressings, confirming Harry Pace’s recollection that they were pressed in what he termed the “Remington factory” (the Remington Phonograph Company being Olympic’s parent corporation).

.

(Left) An early first-state Black Swan label, showing the sunken ring around the spindle hole and other tell-tale Olympic pressing-plant characteristics. (Right) A second-state label, pressed by the New York Recording Laboratories. Based upon the typeface, it appears that both labels were supplied by the same printer.

.

From the start, Pace found himself torn between two disparate markets within the African-American community — a relatively small, affluent group that championed what it saw as culture and refinement (mirroring Pace’s own background and musical preferences); and a far larger working-class group with a growing appetite for jazz and blues records. In August 1921, Pace told The Talking Machine World, “While it is true that we will feature to a great extent ‘blue’ numbers of the type that are in current favor, we will also release many numbers of a higher standard.” In his attempt to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution in his choice of artists and repertoire.

The first three Black Swan records were announced as ready for delivery on May 4, 1921. Pace’s preference for “numbers of a “higher standard” was immediately apparent. For the inaugural release (#2001), he chose two old concert war-horses, “At Dawning” and “Thank God for a Garden,” sung by soprano Revella Hughes, with violin, cello, and piano accompaniment. There followed two equally straightforward sides by concert baritone Carroll C. Clark, then two blues-inflected pop tunes by vaudevillian Katie Crippen.

Pace reported first-month sales of 10,300 Black Swan records to Du Bois, who forwarded that figure to The Crisis. The editors, apparently unaware that figure was a minuscule fraction of the major labels’ sales for the same period, seemed impressed.

The black press (particularly The Chicago Defender) cast Pace’s attempt to launch Black Swan as nothing less than an epic struggle between good and evil. The venture had barely been launched when the Defender proclaimed that “a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.” If there was an uproar, it went unreported in trade journals like The Talking Machine World, which covered Black Swan to the same extent as the other small startups of the period, was positive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.

Pressing-Plant Woes

One of the Defender‘s most absurd claims, flying in the face of what are now well-established facts, was that the Remington Phonograph Company had purchased the Olympic pressing plant for the sole purpose of denying service to Pace—conveniently glossing over the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed Black Swan records, albeit briefly.

What actually caused Pace and Olympic to part company was a surge in orders that Olympic apparently was not prepared to handle. It was decided instead to contract pressing to the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount). In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (NYRL’s headquarters), Pace reported, “I am here arranging for an increased fall and winter production together with a line of Black Swan Phonographs.”

The NYRL pressing plant, although geographically remote, had the capacity for large-scale record production that Olympic lacked, and the company was actively courting new customers. Since Pace was already using NYRL’s New York studio, the move from Olympic made logistical sense, consolidating all Black Swan production within a single company. Black Swan pressings from the summer of 1921 into the spring of 1922 show the unmistakable characteristics of NYRL’s work.

Ethel Waters Sparks a Surge in Sales

The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough by the press and public. Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest offerings failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to make Black Swan profitable. The situation changed with Pace’s signing of Ethel Waters in April 1921. Already a veteran of the southern vaudeville circuits, Waters was attracting a strong following at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem.

Waters had already recorded two titles for Criterion Laboratories, an independent studio that supplied several small labels, but there had been no immediate takers (Cardinal eventually released them in September 1921), and Waters decided to visit Pace. Her first Black Swan release (“Down Home Blues” / “Oh Daddy”) was released in July 1921 and became a sizable hit. In October, Pace signed Waters to an exclusive Black Swan contract that reportedly made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time. In November, she was sent on an extended tour as the star of the Black Swan Troubadours, eventually playing in twenty-one states.

.

Black Swan’s first hit: “Down Home Blues” (here advertised in August 1921) brought national attention to Ethel Water and Black Swan. Pace plugged many of Waters’ subsequent releases as “Another ‘Down Home Blues'” (the example above is from late 1922), but none approached the popularity of the original.

.

Thanks largely to Waters’ records, Black Swan developed a small following among white customers, including some stage and film stars. It was widely reported that actress Marilyn Miller had presented a “large selection” of Black Swan records to Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) on their wedding day. The Dallas Express reported, “It is now becoming quite a fad with many stars of the theatrical profession, who have found something different in these all-Colored records, to have them sent to their friends in various parts of the country.”

Pace, however, failed to capitalize on that momentum. He placed no advertising in the white consumer publications and made little effort to court the important trade publications. His advertisements in The Talking Machine World, which did not begin running until August 1921, often appeared to be halfhearted efforts, sometimes simply listing a few artists’ names, or dwelling on past hits rather than fresh releases.

Trixie Smith, Pace’s next star, was signed in January 1922, shortly after she took first place at the Fifteenth Regiment Blues Contest in Harlem. With Waters and Smith on his roster, Pace found it easier to attract new singers. However, the oft-repeated tale that he auditioned Bessie Smith, and rejected her after she stopped to spit in the midst of her test recording, is apocryphal. It appears to have originated in the 1940s with W. C. Handy, who was prone to spinning colorful tales and is unlikely to have been present at the alleged session, given his strained relationship with Pace.

April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s quixotic attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of a Red Label series, an obvious play on Victor’s prestigious Red Seals. Victor, which for years had taken legal action against competitors’ use of red labels on classical records, does not appear to have taken any such action in Black Swan’s case, casting further doubt on the Defender‘s claims that the white recording establishment was out to destroy Pace.

The Red Label listing included operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert and Antoinette Garnes, and concert selections by Hattie King Reavis. In December 1922, Pace tried to secure concert tenor Roland Hayes for Black Swan, only to be informed by Hayes that he was under contract to Aeolian in England. The series sputtered along until being discontinued in May 1923, marking the end of Pace’s production of original classical recordings.

Marketing Black Swan

With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, spotty marketing and distribution were hobbling sales. Pace was unable to obtain national coverage through the major jobbers. Although racial prejudice was likely a factor in some cases, small white-owned startups had experienced the same problem for many years. In Pace’s case, however, the major distributors’ lack of confidence probably was compounded by his inexperience in the record business and Black Swan’s targeting of a still-unproven market.

.

Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.

.

Pace countered by recruiting small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell the records wherever and however they could. In June 1921, he hired Paul Robeson (who was then a student at Rutgers) as a part-time salesman, but missed the opportunity to record him. That autumn, Pace hired C. Udell Turpin (spelled Turpine in some accounts, but Turpin in company correspondence) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpin brought along several professional salesmen from a previous venture, but he continued to build Pace’s network of small retailers and individual salespeople as well, advertising in The Crisis, “We want men and women with a backbone and a desire to earn $100 a week…men and women who don’t care what $20 a week people think.”

.

Pace depended heavily on heavily on independent salespeople, like Mrs. L. A. Shaw of Dallas, Texas.

.

In March 1922, Pace published a Black Swan distributor map in The Crisis that looked impressive at first glance, with all forty-eight states covered to varying degrees. The heaviest concentrations were east of the Mississippi, but many states had a distributor or jobber, and at least a few retail dealers. However, the largest number of dots on the map represented “agents,” those independent salespeople who peddled the records door-to-door, from their homes, or wherever else they could.

..

Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis
for March 1922.

.

In January 1922, The New York Age perhaps unintentionally revealed the company’s financial fragility when it reported that Black Swan had made a profit of slightly more than $3,300 on sales of $104,628.74 in 1921. Although the reporter seemed impressed by the latter figure, it was minuscule by industry standards of the day. Given that Black Swan records initially retailed for $1 (reduced to 85¢ late in the year), and normal wholesale rates were 50% of list price, Black Swan’s 1921 sales probably amounted to between a quarter- and a half-million records, depending upon the ratio of wholesale to direct retail sales. In the same year, Victor sold nearly fifty-five million records.

Enter John Fletcher

On March 25, 1922, assets of John Fletcher’s bankrupt Olympic Disc Record Corporation were auctioned by order of the company’s receiver. The purchaser was Fletcher himself, in partnership with Harry Pace and Michael Naughton. For their winning bid, they acquired ownership of Olympic’s trademarks and masters, but more importantly for Pace, the company’s Long Island City studio and pressing plant.

The Fletcher Record Company was incorporated in New York on May 26, 1922. Fletcher, Pace, and Naughton were listed as directors of the new company, which was chartered simply to “deal in merchandise.” With Fletcher serving as president, and Pace as vice-president and treasurer, the Fletcher Record Company was the first American record company to have a racially integrated executive team, although there appears to have been only minimal interaction between Pace and Fletcher.

The Fletcher Record Company initially served only as a supplier to Pace, providing Black Swan masters and pressings to order; its name never appeared on a Black Swan label. The Pace Phonograph Corporation continued to function as an autonomous entity, with a separate board of directors, and with Harry Pace still largely in control of who and what appeared on Black Swan. It would not be long however, before disguised Olympic recordings began turning up in the Black Swan catalog.

Initially, at least, the arrangement eliminated the production bottlenecks that has plagued Black Swan from the start. Pace was soon able to report, “We are now issuing ten numbers a month instead of three…. We do our own recording, plating, pressing, as well as printing of every description, in the above plant.” However, the operation soon proved to be unprofitable.

.

Fletcher-era Black Swan pressings; note the return of the sunken ring surrounding the spindle hole, which is absent on the New York Record Laboratories’ and Bridgeport Die & Machine Company’s Black Swan pressings. Black Swan 60006 is a reissue from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, with xylophonist George Hamilton Green disguised as “Raymond Green.”

Pace Breaks his Pledge to Use Only Black Artists

Fletcher revived his Olympic label later that year, with an all-white artist roster. Pace had already reissued some older Olympic recordings on Black Swan, under pseudonyms, breaking his pledge to use only black artists.

By July 1922, so much outside material was being released under the Black Swan label that the catalog was split into ten separately numbered series. Of those, only the 14000 race series (replacing the original 2000s) and 7100 operatic series remained purely Pace productions, employing only black artists. The remainder (which included Hawaiian, novelty, sacred, novelty, and classical series) were made up almost entirely of pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s Olympic catalog. In an ironic twist, the nation’s first successful race-record label was now producing its own racially segregated catalog, while continuing to falsely claim that it employed only black talent.

.

Pace broke his pledge to use only black artists even before going into partnership with John Fletcher. By the time this ad appeared in The Crisis in late 1922, the Black Swan catalog contained many pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, including the “Xmas records” advertised here.

.

The aliases employed by Black Swan for Olympics’ white artists were obviously contrived to suggest black performers. Various Harry Yerkes groups became “Joe Brown’s Alabama Band” or “Sammy Swift’s Jazz Band,” Rudy Wiedeoft’s Californians became “Haynes’ Harlem Syncopators,” and novelty whistler Margaret McKee was renamed “Bessie Johnson.” Recordings
by Irving Weiss’ Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Fred Van Eps’ Quartet, and Wiedoeft’s Palace Trio were released as “Ethel Waters’ Jazz Masters” while Waters was on tour and likely unaware of the use of her name on records with which she nothing to do. Some Olympic recordings by conventional white dance bands were credited to “Henderson’s Dance Orchestra” or “Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra,” with no first name given but obviously meant to imply Fletcher Henderson’s involvement, even after Henderson had left the company.

At least one newspaper was taken in by the bogus artist credits. A reporter for The Chicago Defender praised the Baltimore Blues Orchestra, “a new musical organization…doing exclusive recording for Black Swan records,” unaware that name was simply a disguise for several white dance bands from the Olympic roster. Whether record buyers were more savvy than that reporter is unknown, but Black Swan sales began to stall.

Black Swan in Decline

Pace reported sales of only 256,202 Black Swan records for fiscal year 1922. In his November 1922 financial statement, he disclosed that Black Swan had experienced “the greatest slump since we began business” during July.

The slump persisted into early October, by which time Pace seemed resigned to average monthly sales of only 25,000 records. “I am trying to devise some sales plan whereby this figure can be greatly increased,” he wrote to Du Bois, “but regret to say that I have not yet hit upon it.” In the same month, Pace set up a dummy collection agency to handle delinquent accounts. Although the operation netted only $544 in its first month, Pace seemed pleased with that figure and reported that the operation was “still pulling them in.”

Pace advertised a new stock issue in October 1922, promising a “certain” 6% return in three years, plus 6% dividends.” But the stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming.

Exit John Fletcher

By late 1922, it was clear to Harry Pace that he needed to disentangle himself from John Fletcher’s pressing plant. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.” On January 20, 1923, he reorganized the Pace Phonograph Corporation as the Black Swan Record Company, ending what had become an unprofitable relationship with John Fletcher. Fletcher carried on alone, but his revived Olympic label failed to attract much attention.

With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for pressings, using the affiliated Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut as a secondary supplier. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.

.

.

Letterheads for the original Pace Phonograph Corporation (above) and the Black Swan Phonograph Company (below), a 1923 reorganization of the original corporation following Pace’s split with John Fletcher.

Artist Exodus

The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter was the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she left to sign with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed that autumn. His replacement was William Grant Still, who took over as Black Swan’s new recording director on November 13. Pace, who later stated that he had not been satisfied with Henderson’s work, predicted that “Still will bring wider experience and more technical musical knowledge than Henderson has had, and I believe will greatly improve the work of the records.” Preoccupied with his theatrical work and growing stature as a serious composer, Still brought about no apparent improvement in Black Swan’s recorded output.

The company’s reorganization and declining fortunes spurred a second and far more damaging artist exodus that began with Trixie Smith’s defection to Paramount in March 1923. Smith was followed in short order by Josie Miles, Julia Moody, Lena Wilson, and others. Many subsequently signed on as free-lance recording artists with music publisher and booking agent Joe Davis, who shopped them around to whatever labels would have them.

In the meantime, Ethel Waters had foregone membership in the Black Swan Troubadours and was now touring independently, in what could only be seen as an ominous sign for Black Swan. When the Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discover that Black Swan was barely operating.

.

Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.

.

The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, with little to celebrate. In or around early August, Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan recording session.

Only a handful of new Black Swan releases would be forthcoming after July, and some that were advertised are not known to have been released. The label’s final release (Ethel Waters’ “Sweet Man Blues” / “Ethel Sings ‘Em,” recorded in June at her final Black Swan session) was advertised in The Chicago Defender on  December 22, 1923. Black Swan advertised in the Defender for the last time on February 23, 1924. Even then, Pace was still soliciting “agents in every community.”

“Every Effort Should Be Made to Dispose of the Assets”

By the autumn of 1923, Du Bois was looking to cash out of the failing operation. On October 1, he wrote to Pace,

Is there any market for Black Swan stock? I have got to be out of the country attending the Pan-African Conference for three months and I want to finance my house payments while I am gone. If you think of any way I can help myself by the sale or a hypothecation of any part of my stock, kindly let me know.

Pace offered no aid, noting that “summer has been very dull for us.” By then the company had gone dormant for all practical purposes, and its stock was virtually worthless. Its debts, which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services, were accumulating at an alarming rate. At year’s end, Black Swan’s board of directors approved a resolution that read, in part,

To make the corporation successful..will require not simply time, but the uninterrupted and undivided services of all the executive officers. We believe that any division of time or of interest will be fatal to the interest of this corporation. If, however, the president and other officials feel that the present condition of the corporation does not warrant them in giving their full services, we think that every effort should be made to dispose of the assets of the organization… .

Paramount Takes Over

In January 1924, Maurice Supper traveled to New York from Paramount’s Wisconsin headquarters to negotiate a buyout of Black Swan. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.

Under terms of the agreement with Paramount, the Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but only on paper, to serve as a holding company for the protection of its shareholders. It would have no further involvement in recording or production. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name, trademark,  and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute the existing Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be leased to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty on sales.

.

A redesigned Black Swan label appeared in early 1923 (left), following Pace’s split with John Fletcher. Pressings bearing this label were produced by both the New York Recording Laboratories and the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (the example pictured here came from the latter). The ill-fated Paramount – Black Swan reissue label was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, which leased Pace’s masters.

.

Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when Paramount’s advertising logo was changed to read “Paramount Records (Combined with Black Swan).” A hybrid Paramount – Black Swan label, combining both companies’ trademarks, was introduced with some fanfare a month later, but it never developed into anything more than a reissue vehicle for previously released Black Swan recordings. Having failed to attract much interest after ninety-nine releases, the Paramount – Black Swan label stalled. The licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount – Black Swan label had already been discontinued.

Winding Down Black Swan

Pace spent the next several years attempting to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, at one point asking stockholders to contribute $10 for each share they owned. He recalled, “I did not get even the courtesy of a reply from one percent  of the stockholders, and not a dollar were they willing to risk to safeguard $100 invested.”

Pace contributed a few thousand dollars of his own money and made vague allusions to engaging in “other activities” with the potential to raise some funds. The company’s only other significant revue was coming from the heavily mortgaged Seventh Avenue building, which was netting just $2,500 annually in rent.The masters were deemed worthless; a message to stockholders noted “it is doubtful if anything is going to be realized” from their sale.

In a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors, Pace characterized his efforts as a “worry for me and punishing effort which appears to be wholly unappreciated by some.” He then turned his back on the recording industry, went on earn a law degree from the University of Chicago, and in later years operated an insurance business.

 

Selected References

“A Consolidation.” Chicago Defender (Apr 19, 1924), p. 6.

“A New York Incorporation.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1921), p. 157.

Allen, Walter C. “Report on Black Swan.” Unpublished manuscript (Jun 12, 1961). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

“Black Swan Artists Broadcast.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 43.

“Black Swan Takes Over Company.” Chicago Defender (Apr 1922).

“Black Swan Records—New Firm Announces First List of Productions.” Chicago Defender (May 4, 1921), p. 8.

“C. Udell Turpin Takes Charge.” Talking Machine World (Oct 15, 1921), p. 46.

“Demand for Ethel Waters Record.” Talking Machine World (Aug 15, 1921), p. 89.

“Distribution System of Black Swan Phonograph Records.” The Crisis (Mar 1922), p 221.

Du Bois, W. E. B. Letter to Roland Hayes (New York, Nov 24, 1922), re: Invitation to record for Black Swan. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).

— . Letter to Harry Pace (New York, Oct 1, 1923), re: sale of stock.

Du Bois, W. E. B., et al. “To the Stockholders of the Black Swan Phonograph Company” (New York, Jan 2, 1926). Du Bois Papers.

“Gives Jack Pickford Black Swan Records as Wedding Present.” Dallas Express (Nov 11, 1922), p. 1.

Handy, W. C. (Arna Bomtemps, editor). Father of the Blues—An Autobiography, pp. 202–203. New York: Macmillan (1941).

“New Incorporations.” New York Times (May 26, 1922), p. 34.

“New Incorporations—Capital Increases.” New York Times (Feb 1, 1923), p. 28

“New Incorporations—Delaware Charters.” New York Times (Feb 5, 1921), p. 22

“New York Charters—Name Changes.” New York Times (Jan 30, 1923), p. 27

“New Incorporations—New York Charters.” New York Times (Jun 25, 1921), p. 13.

“Now the Fletcher Record Company—Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New ­Corporation.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1922), p. 57.

Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 27, 1920), re: Company launch and Du Bois’ proposal of the Black Swan name. Du Bois Papers.

— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Mar 21, 1922), re: Financial statement through Dec 31, 1921.

 — . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 23, 1922), re: Roland Hayes, and proposal to press imported Caruso masters. Du Bois Papers.

 — . Letter to Du Bois, et al. (New York, Jan 19, 1927), re: Ongoing attempts to liquidate Black Swan debt.

— . Postcard to W. E. B. Du Bois (Port Washington, WI, Jun 24, 1921), re: Preparations for increased record production. Du Bois Papers.

— . Stockholder Notice (New York, Jan 1, 1923), re: Organization of Black Swan Phonograph Company. Du Bois Papers.

Pace Phonograph Corp. “Black Swan Records.” U.S. trademark filing #149,558 (Jun 23, 1921).

“Pace Phonograph Corp. Changes Name.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1923), p. 124.

“Phonograph Company Making Rapid Progress.” New York Age (Jun 18, 1921), p. 6.

“Purchase Black Swan Business.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1924), p. 168.

“Report of Pace Phonograph Corporation” (Nov 8, 1922). Du Bois Papers.

“Robeson Casts His Chances with Pace Phonograph Co.” Chicago Defender (Jun 18, 1921), p. 9.

“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units,
Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive” (Exhibit: Victor record sales). U.S. District Court, S.D. of N.Y., Jan. 26 1943

“The Horizon” (re: First-month Black Swan record sales). The Crisis (Aug 1921), p. 176.

“The Horizon” (re: Black Swan distribution and record sales). The Crisis (Mar 1922), p. 220.

“The Swanola—A New Phonograph” (ad). The Crisis (Oct 1921), p. 284.

Thygesen, Helge, et al. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottingham, UK: VJM Publications (1996).

“To the Investing Public.” The Crisis (Nov 1922), p. 282.

“White Phonograph Record Companies Object to Colored Men Making Phonograph Records.” Dallas Express (Feb 26, 1921), p. 3.

 

Of Related Interest

This new addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library includes listings for all Black Swan records using Olympic masters. It is free to download for personal, non-commercial use.

 

_________________

© 2022 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. Please contact  Mainspring Press for information on reproducing of any portion of this work in excess of customary fair-use standards.

 

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

Conducted by telephone on May 8, 1978
First publication February 2022

.

Irving Berlin, 1944 (Samuel Johnson Woolf,
National Portrait Gallery)

.

I can’t find the words to thank you enough, Mr. Berlin, for taking your valuable time to talk with me today. 

You know, kid, you wrote me so many letters that you made me feel guilty! And Izzy [Irving] Caesar put this together, so here you are and here I am. Your letters have a lot of things in them about my songs, so what can I tell you that you don’t already know?

 

I was always hoping that you received the letters, and Mr. [Helmy] Kresa assured me that you did see them. Years ago, I received a very nice reply from Mr. [Abraham L.] Berman about one of your early songs. 

What did Abe say?

 

Well, I wrote to ask for permission to quote part of the chorus of “Blue Skies” in an article I was writing for my college magazine. Mr. Berman explained very tactfully the policy of your publishing company. I really treasure that letter from him. 

I’m not going to tell him that or he’ll raise his rates. Abe has been with me a long time, you know.

 

May I ask you some questions about your parents and any memories you may have of Russia and emigrating to this country?

I’m going to give you a little test first. I want to see how much you know about my early songs. Here’s my test for you: Tell me the lyrics of “Fiddle Up” [i.e., “The Ragtime Violin”].

.

“Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin…”

.

I think I can do that. “Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin / Lay right on it, rest your fingers on it / Doggone you better begin / To play an overture upon your violin.”

You’re close, but you made a couple mistakes. It’s “rest your chin upon it,” not “rest your fingers on it,” and it’s “Doggone you’d better begin,” not “Doggone you better begin.” But you do know the song. Here’s another test for you: give me the lyrics of both melodies in “Play a Simple Melody.” Can you do that?

 

I’ll do my best. I learned your song from the Victor record that Billy Murray and Elsie Baker made soon after you had published the song. Her part, the “simple” part, goes “Won’t you play a simple melody / Like my mother sang to me / One with good old-fashioned harmony / Play a simple melody!” His part of the duet goes, “Musical demon / Set your honey a-dreamin’ / Won’t you play me some rag / Just change that classical nag / To some sweet musical drag / If you will play from a copy / Of a tune that is choppy / You’ll get all my applause / And that is simply because / I want to listen to rag!”

Very good. Now do you know the verse to the “rag” part?

 

I think it’s “I don’t care for your long-haired musicians/ with their classic melodies / They’re all full of high-toned ambitions / but their music doesn’t please / Give me something snappy and popular / The kind that darkies play / Lots of rhythm and like all rhythm / And that’s why I say.”

You’re pretty good, kid! Of course, today you can’t use “darkies,” so when someone asks for permission to perform it, I have them use my revised lyric, which is “the kind that jazz boys play.” Now let me ask you a question. Is Izzy [Irving Caesar] on the line, or are we talking privately here?

 

I’m in his office, but he’s not here at the moment, so we’re talking privately. 

I hope to hell you don’t share his politics! Izzy is a goddamned Socialist, you know. [Eugene V.] Debs would have been President if Izzy had had his way. I like him and I talk to him about ASCAP business, but never about politics! Now, what were you asking me about coming to this country?

.


Irving Caesar (right) with Gus Haenschen in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

.

I’m interested to know whether you have any memories of Russia and of crossing the Atlantic in steerage. 

I was only about five years old when we came here, so I don’t really remember anything about Russia. And the only thing I remember about the ocean crossing is that it took forever. And there was a guy who was in the bunk above me who was carrying a pocket knife. It fell out of his pocket when he was asleep, and it hit me on my forehead. The blade wasn’t open, but that knife left a little scar that I still have. 

 

Do you remember anything about the town in which you were born in Russia?

No. I was too young, and all I wanted to do was to get to America. Well, I can’t really say that because I was just doing what my father had our family doing, which was to get out of Russia.

 

Do you remember anything about Ellis Island and the processing your family was put through?

Not really, except that there were long lines and that they changed the spelling of our family’s name. They spelled it “Baline,” but my father always spelled it “Beilin.”

 

When did “Baline” become “Berlin”?

I did that—I changed it when I started working for [music publisher] Ted Snyder. If you look at the cover of “Marie from Sunny Italy,” my first published song, the cover says “I. Berlin.” I still went by my real name, which is Isidore, in those early days. I changed it to “Irving” because of Washington Irving. I loved his stories.

.

“I.” Berlin’s first published song (1907)

 

If I may ask you about “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” did you write it specifically for Emma Carus?

No, I didn’t write it for anybody in particular, but I plugged it to her and she put it over in vaudeville. But any of those big-voiced singers, ones like Nora Bayes or Sophie Tucker, could have put it over. You know, it still amazes me how fast that song went coast-to-coast.

.

Emma Carus, from The Columbia Record for April 1904
(Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

.

In those years, Sophie Tucker was billed as a “coon shouter.” Was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” a “coon song,” as many songs were then called?

No. Those “coon songs” were dead before I wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It isn’t a ragtime song either. It’s a song about ragtime, or a ragtime band, but it’s not a ragtime song like “Maple Leaf Rag” or one of those other [Scott] Joplin rags.

 

I’m sure you know that music historians have analyzed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the point of exhaustion, trying to show that it’s a coon song. 

These so-called “historians” don’t know a goddamned thing about my music, or anybody else’s for that matter. They’re like that fucking “tune detective” [Sigmund Spaeth] who was always trying to prove that Jerry Kern, or Cole Porter, or me or whoever, were stealing from classical composers. Some of them even said that about Stephen Foster! They can all go to hell!

.
Although use of the term “coon song” was declining by the time “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, Edison appended it to its version. Victor and Columbia did not.

.

No one can dispute that the greatest American songwriter is Irving Berlin. After all, when Mr. [Jerome] Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music, Irving Berlin is American music,” that said everything.

He was a great songwriter, a great friend, and a great man. You know that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein talked me into doing “Annie Get Your Gun” after Jerry died. He was supposed to write it.

 

Recently, Robert Russell Bennett was asked to name the greatest American songwriter of this century, and he promptly answered “Irving Berlin.” He said that no other composer has written so many totally different songs, over such a lengthy period of time, and with no musical training.

He’s a hell of an arranger, Robert Russell Bennett. And his Victory at Sea is a masterpiece.

 

I know this is a difficult question, but are there songwriters whom you especially admire?

Of the ones before the First World War, Victor Herbert was the one I would put at the top. After the Second World War, Dick Rodgers belongs at the top. Between the wars, I would put Cole Porter at the top.

 

Is it true that you personally persuaded Cole Porter to come to New York so that you would finally have some “competition,” so to speak,” from a songwriter who wrote both the words and the music of his songs?

No, no—I would never have done that. I couldn’t have done that because he was very independent. He could afford to be because he came from a rich family. He came to New York because his family, I think it was his mother, encouraged him to become a songwriter because that’s what he wanted to do.

 

So there’s nothing true at all about you wanting him to come to New York because you wanted a “competitor”?

That’s such crap! Who told you that stuff?

.

Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, and Irving Berlin

.

Kitty Carlisle is the one who told me that you not only wanted but relished the competition with Cole Porter.

Well, I don’t know where she got that but it’s just plain crap. She’s another rich kid, you know. Her father, whose name was Kahn but changed it to “Conn,” was a big-shot doctor or lawyer or something, and she wanted to be an opera singer. She’s a pretty girl—a pretty face and a nice figure, and a pretty tall girl too—and she was in the same circles that Cole was, but I’m sure he never told her anything about me wanting some “competition.” I had all I could handle from all the songwriters that were around back then.

 

She said that you and Cole Porter did kid each other about each other’s songs. Is that true?

Well, yes, but it was all in fun because Cole and I were good friends. I will say that I used to ride him about settling for a word that just didn’t seem right for a line.

 

Can you give me an example?

The one I really rode him about was in the lyrics of “Night and Day,” which is a great, great song, a very sophisticated song. If you know [the song], you’ll know that the bridge goes “Night and day, under the hide of me / There’s an oh so yearning burning inside of me.” Well, “under the hide of me” just doesn’t fit that song and I rode him about it because I thought he just got lazy and threw in “hide” because he needed a rhyme for “inside.” People don’t have “hide,” cows have hide.

I did ride him another time about that same word when his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” got to be a big hit. I called him and said, “Cole, there’s a mistake in the sheet music for that song. Shouldn’t it be ‘I’ve Got You Under My Hide?'” He got a laugh out of that. Now, that too is a very sophisticated song. It doesn’t follow the pattern of most popular songs, any more than “Night and Day” does. Of course, Cole also wrote what I’d call “lighter” songs, ones like “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes.” It’s sad to think about what happened to him—that terrible horse-riding accident, and how it crippled him for the rest of his life.

 

Robert Russell Bennett points out that Cole Porter was a Yale graduate and a formally trained pianist but that you graduated from Hester Street, and you taught yourself to play the piano. Did you teach yourself when you were a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in the Bowery?

Basically, yes. And I say “basically” because Mike Salter, who owned the Pelham, played by ear on the black keys. After-hours, around 4:00 in the morning, I started picking out notes on the black keys too, first with one finger and then one hand and then I picked up some basic chords with the left hand. But I can only play in the key of F-sharp unless I use a transposing piano. Do you what a transposing piano is?

.

Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in the early 1900s
.

I didn’t until I watched you demonstrate how one of those pianos work on the Tony Martin television show. You showed the audience how it worked, and you sang “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

You saw that, did you? That wasn’t my own piano but it was similar to the ones I had. My first one had a wheel instead of a lever to shift the keys.

.

Irving Berlin at his Weser transposing piano

.

Is it true that you named your reproducing piano “the Buick”?

Yes. I drove a Buick at that time. The lever that shifted the keyboard was like the gearshift in that Buick. 

 

When you opened the Music Box Theater, there was a lot of skepticism in the newspapers about whether it would succeed. Is it fair to say that you had a lot at risk when you built the theater?

I had a hell of a lot at risk! The newspaper men said there were already too many theaters on Broadway, and that the Music Box would never attract much of an audience. But I put on four revues there, a new one each year, and they were all big hits. I also had the confidence of George [M.] Cohan, and I always trusted his opinions. George knew Broadway like nobody else.

.

The Music Box in the 1950s

.

Where would you place George M. Cohan among songwriters?

He wasn’t just a songwriter, he was a Broadway star, so you have to take that into consideration. He did everything—he was a dancer, a singer, and a songwriter. He didn’t write that many songs, all in all, but the ones he wrote were hits. Who doesn’t know “Give My Regards to Broadway”? Who doesn’t know “Over There?” That song helped us win the First World War!

.


George M. Cohan, from the September 1910 Victor catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

.

There are some singers to whom you have given songs that are among the best-loved songs in all of American music. I’d like to ask you about the songs and the singers. Kate Smith will be forever associated with “God Bless America.” Did you write it expressly for her?

No, I didn’t write it for her, but I picked her to introduce it because she was just right for it. She has a big, gorgeous voice, and she sings songs—my songs, anyway—exactly as they’re written. She doesn’t take liberties with the music like so many singers tend to do. Anything that Kate sings, everybody in the balcony is going to hear every word because she has the best diction, and the most natural voice.

 

You wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” expressly for Ethel Merman, isn’t that correct?

Well, yes, the whole part of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun was [written] for Ethel. She was a veteran by then, of course—she had done Girl Crazy, among other shows, and I had known her for a long time. Like Kate [Smith], when you give Ethel a song, everybody in the theater is going to hear every word. She’s always been one of the hardest working performers in show business..

 
Original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun

.

People don’t know this about Ethel, but she’s very, very organized. Ethel is a compulsive “lister.” She used to be a secretary, I think, or did some kind of office work where she learned how to write in that special code that secretaries write. I can’t think of the word for it right now.

 

Perhaps you’re thinking of “shorthand”?

Yes, that’s it, shorthand. She makes lists of everything she needs to do every day, and she crosses them off one at a time until she’s done. She learns lyrics that same way—she writes them out, over and over, until she learns them.

 

Just as “God Bless America” will always be associated with Kate Smith, “White Christmas” will be forever associated with Bing Crosby.

Yes, but with Rosemary Clooney too, since they sang it together in that movie [Holiday Inn].

 

Do you think that the fact “White Christmas” is not a traditional carol—that is, not a religious but a secular song—is one of the reasons why it’s so popular?

I can’t say. To me, being Jewish, I never thought of Christmas in religious terms. I think of it as an American holiday, and I wrote “White Christmas” as a holiday song. The same with Easter. Of course, Easter is a very important time for Christians, just as Passover is for Jews. But when I wrote “Easter Parade,” I was writing about an American holiday, just like I wrote “White Christmas” about a holiday.

 

Is Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” your personal favorite?

Well, it’s the one most everybody knows. What I don’t like about it is that he didn’t sing my verse. I worked goddamned hard on that verse. Judy Garland always did [the verse] when she sang “White Christmas.” But Crosby certainly did well by me with “White Christmas.”

 

Is it true that you didn’t think “White Christmas” would be the hit that it became?

I had another song in that same revue that I thought would be the hit: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” I really thought that would be the bigger hit.

 

Which brings me to the next singer I want to ask you about: Fred Astaire.

A lot of people don’t think of Fred as a singer because it’s his dancing that he’s famous for. He has always been kidded about his voice being too light, not big enough and such. When he and his sister [Adele] were in vaudeville—and they were in big-time vaudeville—nobody had any trouble hearing Fred. What I like the most about him is that he sings a song exactly the way it’s written, and he has great diction. You hear every word of the verse and the refrain when Fred sings one of your songs.

.


Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire, 1948

.

If I may ask, there are said to be singers—not just singers but instrumental performers too—whom you have had trouble with because unlike Fred Astaire they didn’t stay with the song as you wrote it and added some “flourishes” of their own. Is that true at all?

Why don’t you tell me if I had trouble with any singers or any other performers? Which ones did I have trouble with supposedly?

 

One was the theater organist Jesse Crawford. From what I’ve heard, you were very displeased with his recording of “Remember” because he made a change to a song that was very personal to you because you wrote it for Mrs. [Ellin] Berlin.

That’s half-true. The part that’s true is that he changed a chord in the song—the chord for the word “said” in “the night you said ‘remember.'” He played the wrong chord, and he did it because he preferred the chord he played rather than the chord I wrote. I called the guy who was running Victor at that time—his name was Shilkret, Nat Shilkret—and I raised hell about that change but Victor didn’t make Crawford do the record over again with the right chord. But I have to say, though, that Crawford made some fine records of my songs. I remember “At Peace with the World” in particular. I like the way he played it.

 

You said the story was only half-true. What was the half the wasn’t true, if I may ask?

Oh—yes, I forgot to finish what I was saying. The part that isn’t true is that I wrote “Remember” for Ellin. I wrote some waltzes for her that I’m very proud of, but “Remember” wasn’t one of them. I mean, I didn’t write it for her personally.

.

Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay c. 1929

.

Another performer whom you’re said to have had trouble with is Rudy Vallée over “Say It Isn’t So,” which you gave him to introduce on radio.

Yeah, I did, because when he sang it the first time he made a change in the melody. Instead of singing the line “say it isn’t so” the way I had written it, he sang the word “isn’t” two notes higher, which ruined the effect of the song. After that, I had a little talk with him and he never did that again. He did well by me, especially in the score for the movie “Second Fiddle,” and except for that one incident with “Say It Isn’t So,” he sang my songs exactly the way I wrote them.

 

On his [Columbia] recording of “Say It Isn’t So,” he sings the verse you wrote, which to me gives the refrain its full meaning in my opinion.

Let me hear you do the verse.

 

Well, I can’t sing it, but I can recite it: “You can’t stop people from talking / And they’re talking, I hear / And the things they’re saying / Fill my heart with fear / Now, I could never believe them / When they say you’re untrue / I know that they’re mistaken / But I want to hear it from you.”

You know why I gave it to him? He had just gone through a very bad divorce from his first wife [Faye Webb], who had left him for somebody else. So it was a perfect fit for the situation he was in—and he made it a hit.

 

Do you have a favorite version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”?

There have been so many, but the one I like the most is the one Kate Smith did in her [1963] concert at Carnegie Hall.

 

There have been hit recordings of many of your songs in which the singer or the bandleader turned the song into something very different, I suspect, from what you had in mind. I’m thinking of the recording of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey.

I hate that goddamned record, and I told off that stupid fucking Dorsey about it! I put that in the same trash can with that son of a bitch Presley ruining “White Christmas”! Oh, don’t get me started on Presley and that rock-and-roll shit!

 

Did you write “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” especially for John Steel? And was his performance like the one Dennis Morgan sang in The Great Ziegfeld?

That song was interpolated in the Follies, and John Steel was the one who sang it, but I didn’t write it for him. In the actual Follies, the song was set on a large staircase—staircases were a Ziegfeld trademark—but it wasn’t on the scale of the [staircase] in that movie. But Dennis Morgan did the song very well in that film. I take that back—he mimed the song that Allan Jones did for the soundtrack. Dennis Morgan was a baritone, not a tenor, so he couldn’t sing it like John Steel did.

 

Eddie Cantor sang several of your songs. Were you pleased with the way he performed them?

He didn’t do that many of my songs. Well, some in the Follies, but not that many. He was a good showman, and he learned it from the best: Gus Edwards. Do you know who he was?

 

Yes, because of his children’s revues and his eye for budding talent like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Price and Georgie Jessel for his “newboys” shows.

Gus and Will [D.] Cobb wrote some great songs for those kids. You never know how a youngster will turn out as a performer when they get older, but Cantor and Georgie Price and some of the girls in Gus’s shows did well when they got older.

.

Georgie Price (left) and Eddie Cantor (right) were among the headliners who got their start in Gus Edwards’ “kid” shows. (Photos from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

Would you include Georgie Jessel among the Gus Edwards “newsboys” who did well as an adult performer?

I don’t like to say bad things about anybody in this business but I don’t know—and I’m not the only one who will say this—I don’t know how Jessel has kept his name before the public. He was in Yiddish theater as a comedian but he was never a big name. All he did were those routines with the telephone calling his mother, but that had been done long before he was doing it. He only had one song that made money—”My Mother’s Eyes”—but it’s such a corny song. It was corny when it first came out.

 

I notice that whenever he’s on television on one of the “talk shows,” he talks about show business as if he was there at the start of it. Mr. Caesar says of him that Jessel trades on nostalgia and that he was nostalgic when he was four years old.

That’s a pretty good line. And I have to say I agree.

 

I have a favorite recording of your great songs, and I believe you personally authorized it. The album is called “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy: The Best of Irving Berlin,” by Jay Blackton’s orchestra and chorus.

I didn’t “authorize” it, but Jay conducted the orchestra for “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and “Miss Liberty,” so he knows what I listen for when I hear my songs performed. So I like that album very much. It’s also the first recording of my song “Colors,” which I wrote a couple years before that album came out.

.

Jay Blackton’s “Best of Irving Berlin” LP

.

If I may ask you about another of your contemporaries, George Gershwin, there’s a story that he applied for a job at your publishing company, to work as a transcriber and a song plugger. Is that true?

I don’t have any memory of it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did, I don’t remember it. Years later, of course, George and I were very close friends. We were in Hollywood together only a couple of years before he died. Of course, I knew about him when he was working under Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, when he wrote “Swanee” with Izzy [Irving Caesar]. Buddy DeSilva, you know, got [Al] Jolson to listen to “Swanee,” and as soon as Al started singing it, George had a big hit on his hands.

 

You have been quoted as saying that George Gershwin is the only songwriter who became a composer.

Yes, and I meant it. It’s a long way from “Swanee” to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Who knows how far he would have gone as a serious composer if he had lived?

 

One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times is whether the melody or the lyrics come to you first.

There’s really no answer to that. Sometimes I get the melody, and at other times I get a phrase and then the phrase becomes the lyric, and the lyric inspires the melody.

 

Do you ever use what I’ve heard other songwriters refer to as “dummy lyrics” to serve as place-holders until you work out the melody?

I’ve never used “dummy lyrics.” Some songwriters do, and occasionally they become the permanent lyric. Victor Herbert wrote a “dummy lyric” for “Kiss Me Again,” and when he looked at it again, he decided to keep it: “Sweet summer breeze / Whispering trees”—that was a “dummy lyric.” Izzy [Irving Caesar] probably has the most famous of all “dummy lyrics” in “Tea For Two” to Vincent Youmans’ melody—“Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two, and two for tea.”

 

Do many songs come to you fully formed?

No—none of them. I’ve sweated my way through all of them. That’s just the way I work. Some songwriters work from noodling on the piano until they get something. Gershwin did that because he was a hell of a pianist, and he was an educated musician. But I don’t have any training, and I can’t always play what I hear in my head.

 

Mr. [Robert Russell] Bennett told us that you hear the chords in your mind, and that he would play variations on a chord until you told him that he had played the one you were hearing in your mind.

That’s right. That’s especially true of “Remember.” In my mind, I could hear the chords I wanted for the melody, but I couldn’t play them myself, so he played variations on the chords until I heard the ones that were in my mind. That’s why the change that [Jesse] Crawford made on that record bothered me so much.

 

So much has been written about you, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s biography of you in 1925. Do you regard his book, The Story of Irving Berlin, as the definite account of your life?

Up to that year, yes, but there are parts of it that are a little exaggerated.

 

You have never considered an autobiography?

Every publisher in New York has offered me big money, really big money, to write an account of my life, but I wouldn’t do it then or now for any amount of money. I like to let my music speak for my life.

 

If you were to choose a biographer today, who would be among the top contenders from your standpoint?

The only one I would count on is Ed Jablonski. Ed is one of my long-time “telephone friends.” Miles Krueger says he wants to write a book about me, and so do others, but they’ll want to psychoanalyze me, and I can’t stand that kind of a book.

 

Do you recall the feature article called “Blue Skies to You, Irving Berlin,” by Tom Prideaux in Life Magazine?

Yes—that was a very nice article. Tom is another one of my “telephone friends.”

 

That article was published a week before your 80th birthday, which was celebrated on television on the Ed Sullivan show. Were you pleased with that telecast?

That was quite a night, and Ellin [Berlin] and I and our daughters and their families were very happy with the cast and the songs that were performed on the show.

.

Ed Sullivan celebrates Irving Berlin’s 80th birthday

.

The story of your courtship of the lovely lady who became Mrs. Irving Berlin has been told and re-told, and there are parts of the re-telling that I’d like to ask you about but I’m very reluctant to intrude into that part of the past. But may I ask one question that concerns your music?

If it’s about my music, go ahead and ask me.

 

The great waltzes that you wrote during that period—“All By Myself,” All Alone,” “Remember,” “What’ll I Do?” and of course “Always”—are interpreted as musical reflections of what was going through your mind and heart while the two of you were being kept apart. Is that true?

[Author’s note: Regarding “All By Myself,” I was waiting for him to say, “Kid, it’s a fox trot, not a waltz!” or something harsher after I realized I had made a mistake—yet he let it pass.]

You already asked me about “Remember,” and I told you I didn’t write that one for her. The others you mentioned I would say are yes and no. “All By Myself” was before Ellin—I wrote it for one of the Music Box Revues. In that one, as I’ve had to do with one or two other songs, I had to update the lyrics. Originally, I wrote “I sit alone in my cozy Morris chair / So lonely there, playing solitaire.” But when Morris chairs went out of fashion, I changed that line to “I sit alone with a table and a chair / so lonely there, playing solitaire.”

 

Am I correct that you also updated some of the lyrics of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?

Yeah, that’s another one. It was set in Harlem, so I wrote, “Have you seen the well to do / Up on Lennox Avenue,” but when Fred Astaire did it I changed “Lennox Avenue” to “Park Avenue.”

 

Returning to the songs you wrote when you were courting Mrs. Berlin, was “What’ll I Do” one of them?

No, “What’ll I Do” was before I met her. In fact, when I did meet her, which was at a party that a woman named Frances Wellman, a friend of mine who happened to be a friend of hers, [Ellin] said to me that she loved my song “What Shall I Do.” I had to tell her that the name of the song was really “What’ll I Do.” You see, she’s very educated—she went to all the best private schools—so to her the title of the song had to be “What Shall I Do.”

But all the others you mentioned, and especially “Always,” which was my wedding gift to her, were written about her. But I wasn’t in some kind of love-sick depression during that time. Between 1922 and 1925, I wrote a lot of songs that did well and they had nothing to do with my life. They were for revues, for shows.

.

Marriage certificate for Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay,
January 1926

.

Back to the Ed Sullivan telecast of your 80th birthday, did you have any input in the musical selections he chose for the program?

Ed asked me for my opinion about the songs and some of the arrangements that [orchestra conductor] Ray Bloch used. And Ed asked me what I would like to have as a finale, so I chose “God Bless America” and I sang it myself, with a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They get the royalties from that song, you know.

 

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but at the very end of the show, when you were in a close-up with Mr. Sullivan and he was paying tribute to you on your birthday, you made a wonderful comment.

Yeah? What did I say?

 

When that huge birthday cake was wheeled onto the stage, Mr. Sullivan said that the entire program was one of the most memorable in all his years on the air. You said, “Well, Ed, you’ve got to admit that I’ve given you some pretty good material to work with.” That was a priceless understatement! And speaking of birthdays, today is May 8, and three days from now will be your birthday. May we close with wishing you a very, very happy birthday!

I wish I had written “Happy Birthday.” Can you imagine the royalties I’d have? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve done pretty well.

.

 

__________________

Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

.

The Playlist • Some October Additions to the Collection

The Playlist • Some October Additions to the Collection

 

A few of this month’s new favorite finds, for your enjoyment. Always looking to acquire similar material in fine condition (true E– minimum, with exceptions made only for real rarities). You are welcome to email your lists of disposables. Please be brutally honest in your assessment of condition, and use standard VJM grading; note all defects, including grainy surfaces and any label discoloration or damage; and state your asking price (no trade offers, please).

.

.

 

REV. A. W. NIX & CONGREGATION: Pay Your Honest Debts  (EE+)

Chicago: c. January 1930
Vocalion 1470  (mx. C 5197 – )
The take selected is not shown in the pressing, and the surviving Brunswick documentation for this period is largely missing or incomplete.

 

 

JIM JACKSON: Bootlegging Blues  (EE+)

Memphis Auditorium: February 14, 1928
Unissued Victor mx. BVE 41904 – 1  (test pressing)
This take is unlisted in Blues and Gospel Records (Dixon, Godrich & Rye), although it is documented in the Victor files. Take 2 was issued on Victor 21268 in April 1928.

 

 

MEMPHIS MINNIE: New Caught Me Wrong Again  (E)

Chicago: June 22, 1937
Vocalion 03966  (mx. C 2056 – 1)
Accompanying personnel are unlisted in the surviving American Record Corporation documentation. Blues and Gospel Records suggests Blind John Davis as the probable pianist but doesn’t hazard a guess on the bassist.

 

 

CAROLINA TAR HEELS: Shanghai in China  (E+)

Charlotte NC: August 11, 1927
Victor 20941  (mx. BVE 39795 – 2)
Contains racist lyrics, but an otherwise great record. Personnel per Victor ledger: Gwen Foster (vocal, guitar, harmonica); Dock Walsh (vocal, banjo). Victor’s dealer-stock tag describes this as a clarinet polka!

 

 

 

CARROLL DICKERSON’S SAVOY ORCHESTRA: Black Maria  (EE+)

Chicago: May 25, 1928
Brunswick 3990  (mx. C 1977 – A)

 

 

RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Back Beats  (E)

New York: March 3, 1927
Brunswick 3490  (mx. E 21721 – 2)

 

 

HOPI INDIAN CHANTERS (GROUP OF M. W. BILLINGSLEY):
Chant of the Snake Dance
  (E+)

New York: March 30, 1926
Victor 20043  (mx. BVE 35252 – 2)

.

The Playlist • Some August – September Additions to the Collection

The Playlist (Free MP3s)
Some August – September Additions to the Collection

 

Some favorite recent additions to the collection, for your enjoyment. August and September have been very good months.

If you have similar material for disposal (strong E– or better, except for true rarities) lists are always welcome. Please include your asking price, and be brutally honest with the grading: E+ should look and sound like the day the record came off the press, with E just a touch less fine, and no more than a whisper of needle wear on E–. Be sure to note all defects, including any audible scratches, stressed grooves, cracks, needle drops or gouges, warping, surface graininess or dulling, and label damage. Click here for e-mail contact info.

.

.

THOMAS A. DORSEY & MOZELLE ALDERSON (as Georgia Tom & Jane Lucas): Terrible Operation Blues  (EE–)

Richmond, IN: November 11, 1930
Champion 16171  (mx. GN 17276 – B)

Acc: Dorsey (piano), Big Bill Broonzy (guitar).

.

 

SYLVESTER WEAVER: Penitentiary Bound Blues  (E+)

New York: August 31, 1927
Okeh 8504  (mx. W 81402 – B)

.

 

TOMMY McCLENNAN: Bottle It Up and Go  (E+)

Chicago (Victor Studio A): November 22, 1939
Bluebird B-8373  (mx. BS 044241 – 1)

.

 

CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Lazy Mama  (E+)

New York: June 3, 1928
Okeh 8592  (mx. W  400818 – A)

.

 

JELLY ROLL MORTON’S RED HOT PEPPERS: Tank Town Bump  (E)

Camden, NJ: July 12, 1929
Victor V-38075  (mx. BVE 49459 – 2)

..

 

DICK JUSTICE: Cocaine  (E)

Chicago: May 20, 1929
Brunswick 395  (mx. C 3156 – )

Two takes were recorded. The take used is not shown in the Brunswick files or on the pressing.

 

CHRIS BOUCHILLON: Speed Maniac  (EE+)

Atlanta: October 30, 1928
Columbia 15373-D  (mx. W 147339 – 2)

.

 

HARRY RESER & MAURICE ATEN (as Len & Joe Higgins): Slippery Elm Tree  (E–)

New York: October 17, 1928
Columbia 15354-D  (mx. W 147124 – 1)

Artist identities are confirmed on the Columbia matrix card. Reser self-published this composition as “Slippery Elm” in 1928; someone at Columbia added “Tree” to the title, per the matrix card.

.

The Playlist • Some Vintage Mexican and Tejano Favorites (1906 – 1938)

The Playlist • Some Vintage Mexican and Tejano Favorites
(1906 – 1938)

 

Original Recordings from the Mainspring Press Collection

.

.

 

 

CARLOS CURTI’S MEXICAN ORCHESTRA: El Amor es la vida
New York; Released June 1906
American Record Co. 031367  (mx. not visible)
Mislabeled 031361. This was in a cache of American Record Co. discs found in Wyoming, and what a nice surprise it was to discover it’s really not 031361 (which is one of those sorry minstrel-show routines by White folks pretending to be Black).

 

 

TRIO ARRIAGA (Joaquin J. Arriaga, mandolin): Bolero (Curti)
Mexico City; U.S. release September 1910
Edison Amberol 6101

 

 

MAXIMIANO ROSALES: Maria, yo te amo
Probably Mexico City: 1906
Columbia C154 (mx. 5538 – 2)
Although some publications list this as a New York recording, Rosale’s recordings for other companies are known to have been made in Mexico City. Unfortunately, the original Columbia documentation for this series (which included both foreign and domestic recordings) has long-since vanished.

 

 

JESÚS ABREGO & LEOPOLDO PICAZO: La Rancherita
Mexico City; U.S. release February 1910
Edison Amberol 6058

 

 

ENRIQUE ESPINOZA: El Borrachito
Los Angeles: c. October 1925
Sunset 1126 (mx. 777)

 

 

LIDYA MENDOZA: Una cruz
San Antonio (Blue Bonnet Hotel): October 25, 1938
Montgomery Ward M-7982  (mx. BS 028629 – 1)
Acc: Own guitar; probably Maria Mendoza (mandolin); unknown (maracas). Accompanists are not listed in the RCA files.

 

 

LIDYA MENDOZA: Esperanza
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): October 22, 1936
Montgomery Ward M-7115 (mx. BS 02811 – 1)
Acc: Own guitar

 

 

MELQUIADES RODRÍGUEZ (as El Ciego Melquiades): Paulita
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): August 15, 1935
Montgomery Ward M-4870 (mx. BS 94591 – 1)
Acc: Probably Enrique Morales (guitar), who the RCA files credit on the vocal-instrumental sides that he and Rodríguez recorded on the same day. Session supervised by Eli Oberstein.

,

.

Victor’s 1930 Mexican-series catalog, published after the RCA – Victor merger. Material for the Mexican and Mexican-American markets was still being released on the 75¢ Victor label at this point; but in 1933, RCA began shifting most releases for those markets to its 35¢ Bluebird line, from which many found their way onto Montgomery Ward’s 21¢ house label.


 

Columbia Phonograph Company Window Displays (1904 – 1907)

Columbia Phonograph Company Window Displays
(1904 – 1907)

 

The Lost Art of Window Dressing,
from The Columbia Record

 

 

Columbia Phonograph Co.
Rochester, New York (1906)

.

Columbia Phonograph Co.
Cleveland (1906)

.

Columbia Phonograph Co.
Langely & Winchell, Boston (1906)

.Columbia Phonograph Co.
Detroit (1906)

.


Atlanta (1906)

.

Columbia Phonograph Co.
New York (1904)

 

.
Cleveland (1905)

.

.Columbia Phonograph Co.
Kansas City (1904)

.

Columbia Phonograph Co.
Brooklyn (1907), with a poster advertising “A Lemon in the Garden of Love,” by Billy Murray. Although it states “Made on Cylinder Only,” Columbia soon issued Murray’s disc version as well.

______________________________

 

Except where noted, the stores are Columbia’s own retail locations.
.
Our thanks to Steve Smolian for the loan of his rare original editions of The Columbia Record.


 

The Playlist • Some Vintage Yiddish Favorites (1916 – 1924)

The Playlist • Some Vintage Yiddish Favorites
(1916 – 1924)

Original recordings from the Mainspring Press Collection

.

 


ABE SCHWARTZ’S ORCHESTRA (as Jewish-Russian Orchestra)
Tantzt, Tantzt, Yiddelach

New York: c. ­November 1917
Columbia E4133 (mx. 58784 – 2)

 


MICHAL MICHALESKO (acc. Joseph M. Rumshinky’s Orchestra)
Leicht Bentchen

New York: c. December 1923
New Emerson 13241 (mx. 42488 – 2)

 


BESSIE WEISMAN (acc. uncredited orchestra)

Vie Is Mein Yukele?
New York: c. June 1923
New Emerson 13229 (mx. 42361 – 1)

 


JOE FELDMAN (acc. orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, director)
Shmendriks Kalle

Camden, NJ: April 25, 1923
Victor 73961 (mx. B 27781 – 2)

 


AARON LEBEDEFF (acc. Abe Schwartz’s Orchestra)
Ich Bin a Border Bei Mei Weib

New York: c. January 1923
Vocalion 14502 (mx. 10588 )

 


ABE SCHWARTZ’S ORCHESTRA (as Yiddisher Orchester)
Noch der Havdoleh
New York: c. February 1918
Columbia E3839 (mx. 84011 – 1)

 


NELLIE CASMAN (acc. uncredited orchestra)
Shpet Bei Nacht
New York: c. February 1924
Pathé 03672 (mx. N-105165 [- 2] )

A reworking of Bert Kalmar & Ted Snyder’s 1911 hit, “In the Land of Harmony,” with new title and lyrics in Yiddish.

 


RHODA BERNARD (acc. studio orchestra, Walter B. Rogers, director)
Roll Your Yiddish Eyes for Me

Camden, NJ: March 1, 1916
Victor 17994 (mx. B 17241 – 1)

 

The Playlist (Free MP3s) • Grey Gull’s Mystery Black Bands (1929 – 1930)

The Playlist (Free MP3s)
Grey Gull’s Mystery Black Bands (1929 – 1930)

.

.

Amongst all the garbage that was Grey Gull are these often-overlooked gems by some unknown black groups. The band names are meaningless; they were also used to cover groups ranging from Clarence Williams’ Orchestra to several obviously white groups, including the so-called Grey Gull house band. Several bear some resemblance to 1929–1930 sides by known J. C. Johnson and Walter Bennett bands on other labels.

We don’t know who the musicians are, despite countless published guesses — some of them reasonable, and some so far off the mark as to be real head-scratchers (such as Brian Rust attributing the January 1930 titles to Grey Gull’s coarse and buffoonish house band). The only clue is that the composers are the same for all titles in each group — J. C. Johnson for the August 1929 sides, Porter Grainger for November 1929, and Claude Austin for January 1930 — so it’s likely that they and/or their publishers had a hand in booking these sessions.

You can see what else Rust had to say about them in our free downloadable edition of Jazz Records, 1892-1942 (the sixth and final edition). But like so much else you’ll find there, take it with the proverbial grain of salt. In early editions of JR, Rust attributed the cornet on “Harlem’s Araby” to King Oliver. Then, in Edition 4, he did a complete flip-flop and changed it to white novelty trumpeter Mike Mosiello. Finally, he changed it to Unknown in Edition 6, after some prodding by his editor — which of course was the correct answer all along.

So, enjoy these on their own terms, whoever they’re by.

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “MOONLIGHT REVELERS”):
Alabama Shuffle

New York: c. August 1929
Grey Gull 1767

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “MOONLIGHT REVELERS”):
Baby Know How

New York: c. August 1929
Grey Gull 1775

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “JAZZOPATORS”):
Don’t Know and Don’t Care
New York: c. November 1929
Grey Gull 1803

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “MEMPHIS JAZZERS”):
In Harlem’s Araby
New York: c. November 1929
Grey Gull 1804

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “LEVEE SYNCOPATORS”):
The Rackett
New York: c. January 1930
Grey Gull 1843 (take A)

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “NEW ORLEANS PEPSTERS”):
The Rackett
New York: c. January 1930
Van Dyke 81843 (take B)

.

UNKNOWN BAND (as “NEW ORLEANS PEPSTERS”):
Harlem Stomp Down

New York: c. January 1930
Grey Gull 1836

 

Colin Bain’s New Beniamino Gigli Biography Now Available from Barry Ashpole

Colin Bain’s New Beniamino Gigli Biography
Now Available from Barry Ashpole

.

GIGLI: THE MASTER TENOR

COLIN BAIN
BARRY R. ASHPOLE, General Editor & Publisher

560 pages with 16 pages of photos
Limited edition book or e-book

.

Beniamino Gigli fans, rejoice. Colin Bain’s long-awaited biography has released and is available online from Barry Ashpole at Gigli: The Master Tenor, a gorgeous website that also hosts some interesting ancillary materials.

From the Gigli site:

More than twenty years in the making, Gigli: The Master Tenor by Colin Bain (Barry R. Ashpole, General Editor) promises to be a definitive biography of Beniamino Gigli (1890–1957), offering a detailed, intimate portrait of the singer and his extraordinary career.

Based on thousands of official and personal documents secured by the author as well as interviews with opera stars, musicians, teachers, and loved ones — including extensive interviews with members of the Gigli family and household — the new biography spans a lifetime, opening and closing in Recanati, Italy, ancestral home of the Gigli family where Beniamino reportedly sang as soon as he learned to talk.

All proceeds from the sale of the biography (limited edition and e-book) are being donated to Médecins Sans Frontières (Canada).

.

And for those of you who might have missed it, John Bolig’s Gigli Discography is available from the Mainspring Online Reference Library. It’s free to download for personal use.

.

.

Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November (Will Ezell, George H. Tremer, Savoy Bearcats, Fess Williams, George E. Lee, Jimmie Noone)

Collector’s Corner • Some New Record Arrivals for October – November

A few favorite new additions to the jazz collection, for your listening pleasure. (Opera fans, we’ve not forgotten about you. In a few weeks, we’ll be posting some interesting Fonotipia and Russian Amour recordings that were recently added to the collection.)

.

.

WILL EZELL: West Coast Rag  (V++)

Chicago (Marsh Laboratories): c. September 1927
Paramount 12549 (mx. 4787 – 2)

.

GEORGE H. TREMER: Spirit of ’49 Rag   (EE–)

Birmingham (Starr Piano Co. store): August , 1927
Gennett 6242 (mx. GEX 779 – A)
Take A was received at the Richmond, Indiana, plant on August 6, 1927 (the rejected plain take followed on August 8).

.

SAVOY BEARCATS: Bearcat Stomp  (E)

New York: August 23, 1926
Victor 20307 (mx. BVE 36060 – 3)
January 1927 Race release, deleted in 1928. Don Redman’s name is misspelled “Radman” on the labels and in the Victor files.

.

FESS WILLIAMS’ ROYAL FLUSH ORCHESTRA: Alligator Crawl  (EE+)

New York: June 15, 1927
Brunswick 3589 (mx. E 23633)
Originally marked as a Race release in the recording ledger, which was subsequently crossed-out.

.

JIMMIE NOONE’S APEX CLUB ORCHESTRA: Apex Blues  (E–)

Chicago: August 23, 1928
Vocalion 1207 (mx. C 2258 – B)

.

GEORGE E. LEE & HIS ORCHESTRA: Ruff Scufflin’  (EE+)

Kansas City: November 6, 1929
Brunswick 4684 (mx. KC 585 -A or B)
The selected take is not indicated in the Brunswick files or on the pressing.

__________

Why don’t we list personnel?

Simple. The 1920s band personnel listed in works like Brian Rust’s or Tom Lords’  discographies generally are not from the original company recording files or other reliable primary-source documentation. Just where they are from is a question to which we rarely get an answer. When we do, all too often it turns out to be anecdotal or speculative (or just plain bat-shit crazy).

Most record companies didn’t start regularly documenting personnel until the later 1930s, when new union regulations made that necessary. Exactly where most of those 1920s and early 1930s personnel listings in the discographies came from — who knows? They rarely cite sources (which, according to Rust associate Malcolm Shaw, was sometimes just friends getting together over pints and playing “I hear so-and-so.”) That’s a shame, because some of the information in those books probably is from reliable sources; but without citations, there’s no way to separate the good from the bad.

Unfortunately, even when Rust had access to reliable primary-source materials, like Ed Kirkeby’s California Ramblers ledgers, he couldn’t resist meddling with the facts — for example, stating that Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller were present on sessions for which Kirkeby’s files clearly show they were not. So, take it all with the proverbial gain of salt. We certainly do.

.

.

Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan: After the Fall (1921 – 1936)

Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan:
After the Fall (1921 – 1936)
By Allan Sutton

.

Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan
(Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

.

At a time when online access to digitized archives was the stuff of science fiction, Ulysses (Jim) Walsh did a remarkable job of chronicling what he called the “Pioneer Recording Artists” for Hobbies magazine, using the limited material available to him. Many of us found our collecting experiences greatly enriched by his columns. They remain enjoyable reading long after his death, even if some of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to close examination. As a popular columnist who relied on colorful tales to keep readers coming back, Walsh often accepted anecdotes as fact without question, provided they suited his narrative, and he tended to embroider the facts to keep the story line going.

A case in point is his account of Arthur Collins’ accidental fall from the stage at the Princess Theater in Medina, Ohio, and his skewed take on the outcome of that event. [1]  Walsh gave the date of the accident as Thursday, October 20, 1921, an error that has been widely repeated in derivative works. But in fact, October 20 was simply the date on which the Medina Sentinel belatedly reported the incident. [2]  As noted in the Sentinel article, it had actually occurred on “Thursday of last week” — i.e., on October 14.

Both accounts have Collins falling into the basement from a stage that had been darkened as part of the Tone Test routine. Walsh has him plunging dramatically through an open trap-door — then, “reeling dizzily…fearfully bloody and almost out of his head … dazedly — almost instinctively,” making his way back up a ladder, with “the trooper’s [sic] instinct that ‘the show must go on.'”  The Sentinel, on the other hand, has him simply falling down a flight of stairs, then being given medical treatment after regaining the stage.

.

The Medina Sentinel for October 20, 1921, confirming the date of Collins’ accident as “Thursday of last week” (i.e., October 14).

.

So, a minor factual error, and an over over-abundance of purple prose on Walsh’s part, which might be easily overlooked had he not then gone on to thoroughly misrepresent what happened in the wake of the accident, erroneously declaring “For the duration of Collins’ illness, the Collins-Harlan partnership was broken up…”

That was not the case; Collins made a quick recovery, and one week after the accident, the team was back on the road, which is where our survey of the team’s advertising and press coverage, post-fall, begins.

..

Collins makes a quick recovery: The Zanesville Tone Test was presented on October 21, 1921, one week after the accident in Medina.

.

The Zanesville Time-Recorder commented on his steady stride and the “virile quality” of his voice at the October 21 Tone Test). With Collins apparently in passable health, the team went on to complete their tour, wrapping up in late November. After a month-long break, they went back on the road in early 1922, reaching California in February.

.

Collins & Harlan in Visalia, California (February 1922)

.

Harlan seems to have first ventured out on his own in the spring of 1922, when he was featured on several broadcasts sponsored by Okeh records, minus Collins. At that time, however, the team was still performing together.

.

Harlan on the air (New York Herald, April 26, 1922). “Rubalogue” was a coined term for a monologue by a “rube” (or “hick,” in slightly more modern parlance).

.

Although Collins and Harlan did little traveling together during the spring and summer of 1922, they recorded duets for Edison in July, August, and September. In the latter month, they hired Palmer Kellogg as their new road manager, apparently anticipating a busy fall travel season.

.

From the Fremont, Ohio, News-Messenger (September 6, 1922)

 

A short time later, however, the act split temporarily, for reasons that remain to be determined. Perhaps Collins was experiencing health problems, albeit not necessarily related to his accident, which was now nearly a year behind him; all that is certain is that there was a sudden dearth of press coverage devoted to him. Whatever the cause, Harlan took the road with a widely publicized new solo act in the autumn of 1922.

.

Harlan and his own company on tour, minus Collins (Coudersport, Pennsylvania, November 1922)

.

Collins and Harlan reunited in the late spring of 1923. They returned to the Edison studio on July 25, but recording was now only an occasional undertaking for them. Increasingly, their old minstrel-show shtick was lost on younger, more sophisticated urban record buyers. They attempted some more up-to-date material for Edison, toning down the racial stereotypes that marred so much of their earlier work, but the records fail to attract much interest. However, their older material remained popular in the small cities and rural areas.

They were soon on the road again, now with their own small company, making grueling cross-country tours of predominantly small-town America. While they continued to perform Edison Tone Tests, they also began staging their own shows in churches, high-school auditoriums, YMCA’s, fraternal halls, movie theaters, and any other venue that would have them. Clearly, given the rigors these tours entailed, Collins was not the broken, infirm man that Walsh made him out to be.

.

Together again: Collins and Harlan in St. Louis in October 1923, on the first leg of a tour that would take them as far west as Utah.

.

Collins and Harlan wrapped up their 1923 western tour in the final days of that year. This ad for their appearance in Provo, Utah, ran on December 16.

 

The team had barely time to catch their breath from their last 1923 tour before again heading west. They arrived in California in January 1924, then worked their way back east during February, with stops in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. March and April were spent touring Pennsylvania, followed by sporadic appearances in the Middle Atlantic region during the spring and summer. A new feature had been added to the act — they would now make and play instantaneous recordings on stage, of themselves as well as aspiring local artists, using a process that remains to be discovered.

.

The early 1924 western tour: Collins and Harlan in Grand Junction, Colorado (February 1924)

.

The on-stage recording sessions were heavily promoted. Presumably they had been approved by the Edison organization, since many were conducted during Tones Test appearances. At least one ad made the misleading suggestion that these were Edison trial recordings that could lead to “fame and fortune” for the performers.

.

Collins and Harlan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 1924), on their second tour of the year.

..

Collins and Harlan and “Company,” as the added attraction at a movie screening in Allentown, Pennsylvania (March 1924)

.

Collins and Harlan stayed close to home during the summer of 1924, making only occasional documented appearances in the Mid-Atlantic region. On October 3, they returned to the Edison studio to record the forgettable “Liver and Bacon.” Coupled with “Any Way the Wind Blows (My Sweetie Goes)” on Edison 54123, it would be their last issued record as a team. [3]  A short time later, they embarked on a two-month Tone Test tour of the Midwest, with stops in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

A two-month Tone Test tour followed in February–March 1925, playing mostly no-name venues in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Ending in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it would be their last major tour as a team.

.

Collins and Harlan in Hinton, West Virginia, in February 1925, during their final major tour as a team.

.

In 1926, Collins retired and moved with his wife to a suburb of Fort Myers, Florida, where he occasionally performed at the local social clubs and reportedly enjoyed tending his orange grove. He died at home on August 3, 1933. Walsh, quoting Mrs. Collins, has him expiring peacefully by her side in a pastoral setting:

“We were sitting on a bench under the trees, talking about a recent trip I had just returned from, when he put his head on my shoulder and quietly passed away.”

The Fort Meyers News-Press reported the event less poetically, although the basic facts are the same:

“After pushing the [lawn] mower, he sat down beside his wife for a minute’s rest and then suddenly slumped to the ground.” [4]

Harlan died at his home in Orange, New Jersey, on September 11, 1936 [5] — in his bath-tub, according to Walsh, who didn’t cite a source for that tidbit (nor have we found one so far).

.

Notes

[1] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Arthur Collins — Part III.” Hobbies (Jan 1943), p. 13.

[2] “Edison Artist Nearly Killed.” Medina Sentinel (Oct 20, 1921), p. 1.

[3] Collins is not known to have made any further recordings. Harlan reportedly made unissued experimental recordings for Edison in 1926. His last commercially issued records were made with Steve Porter, for the ultra-cheap Grey Gull chain of labels, in 1928 and 1929.

[4] “Arthur Collins Dies Suddenly; Was Noted as Singer and Actor.” Fort Myers News-Press (Aug 3, 1933), p. 1.

[5] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Byron G. Harlan — Part II. Hobbies (Mar 1943), p. 14.

______________

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

 

The RCA Victor Program Transcriptions • A Free Downloadable Discography

THE RCA VICTOR PROGRAM TRANSCRIPTIONS
Complete Discography
By John R. Bolig

.

The latest addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference

Library is a landmark in discographical research. Compiled by John Bolig from the RCA Victor files, it documents the original long-playing masters that were made especially for release as Program Transcriptions, as well listing full details of the 78-rpm source recordings that were used in assembling the more numerous dubbed masters.

.

Free Download for Personal Use (pdf) (~1mb)
(Print-Restricted)

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

 

Collector’s Corner • Some July Additions (Free MP3 Downloads): Rev. Gates, De Ford Bailey, Georgia Cotton Pickers, Clarence Williams, Duke Ellington, Red Nichols

Collector’s Corner • Some July 2020 Additions
(Free MP3 Downloads)

A few favorite July additions to the collection, for your enjoyment

.

.

.

REV. J. M. GATES & CONGREGATION: A Sure-Enough Soldier (E)

Atlanta: February 20, 1928
Victor 21523 (mx. BVE 41916 – 1)

.

.

DE FORD BAILEY: Dixie Flyer Blues (E–)

New York: April 18, 1927
Brunswick 146 (mx. E 22501)

.

.

GEORGIA COTTON PICKERS: She’s Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day (E)

Atlanta: December 8, 1930
Columbia 14577-D (mx. W 151106 – 2)

.

.

CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: I Need You (E)

New York: May 29, 1928
Columbia 14326-D (mx. W 146366 – 3)

.

.

DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Joe Turner & his Memphis Men): Mississippi Moan (E–)

New York: April 4, 1929
Columbia 1813-D (mx. W 148172 – 3)

.

.

RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Eccentric (E)

New York: August 15, 1927
Brunswick 3627 (mx. E 24228)

.

%d bloggers like this: