Now’s the Time to Order “American Records Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950”

Every week we get inquiries from folks wanting to purchase out-of-print Mainspring Press books, and unfortunately, our answer is always the same: Once they’re gone, they’re really gone, and your only recourse is the used-and-collectible book market, where (assuming you can even find a copy) you’re going to pay a stiff premium over the original list price.

Don’t let that happen to you with American Record Companies and Producers: An Encyclopedic History, 1888–1950, arguably one of the most important books to be published in the field in recent years. It’s a special limited edition, and there will be no reprints once the current supply sells out.

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For a full description, entries list, and secure online ordering, visit the Mainspring Press website…and don’t wait too long!

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1
By Allan Sutton


The following is a revised and expanded version of several chapters that originally appeared in the author’s
Recording the ‘Twenties (Mainspring Press, 2008)

 

Radio’s popularity posed a technological, as well as a commercial, challenge to the recording industry. Even the primitive radio loudspeakers of the early-to-mid 1920s delivered greater volume, wider frequency range, and a more accurate rendition of studio ambiance than the best acoustical phonographs and records. For the first time, listeners were hearing music reproduced with a relatively high degree of accuracy, and performed without the sonic contortions required by the acoustic recording process.

Although the acoustic process had been refined over the years, it had undergone little fundamental change since the nineteenth century. It was an entirely mechanical process, employing a simple horn to focus sound waves on a circular diaphragm of mica or other material, which vibrated in response to those sound waves to drive an engraving stylus. The results were captured on a wax master disc, which was then plated to produce a permanent matrix from which sub-masters and metal stampers were generated.

No microphone or amplification was involved in the acoustic process, nor was there the ability to edit or modify the finished recording except by primitive mechanical dubbing methods. Control over input was limited to the physical placement of performers in the studio, or to trial-and-error experimentation with different horns, diaphragms, and cutting heads. The state of the sound-recording art peaked in 1912, with the introduction of the Edison Diamond Disc, then stagnated.

Singers — crowded around metal recording horns and performing at full voice, with a studio orchestra huddled just a few feet away — sometimes complained they were unable to hear themselves above the din of the accompaniment. The acoustic method’s low sensitivity and erratic frequency response required that adjustments be made for some instruments. Violins and violas were replaced by Stroh instruments, horned contraptions sporting a metal resonator in place of the wooden body. Low woodwinds were substituted for cellos, tubas for stringed basses. Bass and snare drums, which could cause over-cutting of the wax, were moved to the far reaches of the studio, if not banished altogether. A full symphony orchestra was not recorded in the United States until 1917, and even then, the results barely hinted at the size of the ensemble.

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The use of horned Stroh violins, like those seen in this 1920 photograph of J. C. Beck’s Orchestra, was one of many work-arounds necessitated by the insensitive acoustic recording process. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

The acoustic process provided no means for the engineer to monitor what was being recorded, and instantaneous playback of the wax master was impossible without inflicting damage on the master that rendered it unusable. The recordings systems suffered from multiple resonant points that could be corrected only to a limited extent, by laborious trial and error. Photographs taken in the Gramophone Company’s studio in London, and Columbia’s studio in New York, show recording horns wrapped with cloth strips to damp some of the resonances.

Even when such primitive corrections were successful, they were likely to be negated in playback by yet another set of resonances inherent in the acoustic phonographs of the day. Victor’s recording and reproduction systems in particular were plagued by marked mid-range resonances that produced a disconcerting “honking” effect.

Perhaps the public might have continued to accept acoustic recordings indefinitely, had it not been for the advent of radio and the consequent awareness that more accurate sound reproduction was indeed possible. As Bell Laboratories’ Stanley Watkins later observed,

“The fight [between radio and phonograph] was an uneven one as long as the quality of the recording was limited to the possibilities of the old acoustic method. The radio broadcasting technique with its sensitive microphone pickup allowed the artists freedom of action, permitted the use of full symphony ensembles, and made possible great improvement in quality through an ever-increasing knowledge of the use of studio acoustics.”

The initial interest in electrical sound recording, however, came not from the record companies, but from the telephone industry. Many late nineteenth-century experimenters had attempted to make direct electrical recordings using telephone parts. The technology proved to be of no practical use to the commercial recording industry because of the telephone’s intentionally limited frequency range, coupled with the inability at that early date to amplify the electrical signal. Emile Berliner experimented with telephonic recording in 1896, as reported many years later by his associate, Fred Gaisberg. “The result,” Gaisberg recalled, “was a thin metallic thread of sound. The experiment was years ahead of its time.”

The Early Western Electric Experiments

The amplification problem was solved with the advent of Lee De Forest’s audion tube. By 1915, the Bell Telephone system was employing Dr. Harold D. Arnold’s vacuum-tube amplifier in long-distance telephone transmissions. At the same time, Arnold proposed that systematic research into electrical sound recording and reproduction be undertaken by Western Electric, where Henry C. Egerton had already patented an experimental electromagnetic disc-record pickup.

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Henry Egerton’s patent for an electromagnetic pickup,
filed
in November 1914

 

As might be expected of a telecommunications company, Western Electric’s early experiments in electrical sound recording and reproduction were applied largely to telephony. The company’s first commercially produced electrical recorder was Henry Egerton’s 1918 telephone answering machine. The cutter, which employed a principle similar to Egerton’s electromagnetic loudspeaker of 1917, recorded vertically cut wax cylinders. Although the machine was suitable for recording telephone calls and office dictation, it was neither intended for, nor capable of producing, commercial-quality musical recordings.

In 1919 Henry B. Wier, another Western Electric engineer, filed a patent application for a complete electrical sound-recording and playback system. Wier employed an obvious holdover from the acoustic process in his use of a recording horn to focus sound on the microphone. He was able to eliminate much of the distortion that plagued the acoustic recording process by using electrical wave filters to correct resonances in the system — the first practical application of frequency equalization.

Other components of Wier’s system, including the single-button carbon microphone, multiple microphone inputs and mixing controls, vacuum-tube amplifier, master gain control, electromagnetic disc cutter, and switchable loudspeaker and headset monitors, were adapted from the prior work of Egerton and other Western Electric engineers. However, Wier made the mistake, from a business standpoint, of specifying that each performer be confined to an individual, fully enclosed booth. Each booth was to be equipped with a widow through which to view the conductor, and was topped by a conical roof with a microphone inserted at its apex. Whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, Wier’s concept was utterly impractical for commercial use.

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Henry Wier’s proposed system of isolating individual performers in separate booths, whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, was impractical
for commercial use.

 

Other shortcomings in Wier’s system were quickly addressed by Western Electric engineers Edward Craft and Edwin Colpitts, who filed a patent application on an electrical recording process in November 1919. Wier’s specification of individual musicians’ booths was immediately discarded. The use of relatively insensitive carbon microphones, another weakness in Wier’s system, was overcome by substituting multiple condenser microphones. 6 Many other components, however, were carried over from Wier’s process. In their patent application, Craft and Colpitts discussed at some length the advantage their system offered over the acoustical process:

“In making records for reproduction in the well-known types of sound reproducing machines, it has been necessary to take great precautions, particularly with respect to the relative location of the artist and the recording mechanism, and to employ artists who are specially trained in record making in order to obtain a record which will reproduce sound with any degree of faithfulness. Thus it has been common for the artist in the case of a voice record to sing or talk into a horn or mouthpiece and to vary the separation of the artist and horn to obtain the desired tonal effects. In the case of instrumental music or in the case of duets or an ensemble of singers, great care has been necessary in grouping the singers or artists relative to the recording point in order to obtain the desired result. In view of the difficulty of training artists and also in view of the difficulty of grouping a large number of instruments for efficient recording, it has been proposed to intercept or pick up the sound waves at a plurality of points and conduct them either acoustically or electrically to a common recording point… The artist or artists merely enter the room or auditorium in which the sound receivers are located, and without regard to the recording apparatus, proceed with their performance.”

Craft’s dispersed placement of microphones and use of multiple channels clearly had the potential to produce stereophonic recordings. Unfortunately, that possibility was not explored at the time. Instead, the multiple signals were mixed to a produce a monophonic recording.

The Craft–Colpitts system saw no use in the commercial disc record industry, but it was briefly adapted to provide synchronized sound to motion picture shorts in 1922. On Friday October 27, 1922, Craft demonstrated his system, synchronized to accompany an animated film, to an audience of electrical engineers at Yale University — the first public demonstration of an electrically recorded phonograph record reproduced by a fully electronic phonograph. Further attempts to develop the system for commercial use were soon scuttled, however. In early 1923 two Western Electric sales executives, George Evans Cullinan and Elbert Hawkins, decided that potential profits from licensing the system were likely to be insufficient to justify further development of the Craft–Colpitts system.

Charles Hoxie, General Electric, and the Pallophotophone

At General Electric, Charles A. Hoxie was also developing an electrical recording system, refining some work he had undertaken for the U.S. Navy during World War I. Unlike Western Electric’s electromagnetic system, Hoxie’s was an optical system. He filed a patent application for a basic photoelectric recording device on April 13, 1918, following up with an improved device in May 1921.

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Charles Hoxie (top photo, right) with unidentified assistant in General Electric’s Schenectady laboratory. A complete Pallophotophone setup is pictured, with the recording unit to the right. The lower photo, from 1922, pictures only the projection unit; the system had not yet been adapted to disc recording.

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Although the original invention was designed to record radio signals on photographic film, Hoxie began to adapt it for commercial applications after the war, at first for motion pictures, and then for disc recording. On December 27, 1921, a patent application was filed on his behalf for a complete electrical disc-recording system employing a photoelectric microphone, amplifier, and electromagnetic disk cutter. By 1922, experimental Pallophotophone recordings were being made on film, and development of disc-mastering capabilities was also under way.

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Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in May 1923.

 

Hoxie named his system the Pallophotophone — literally, “shaking-light sound.” It was an apt allusion. The sound-collecting device, or Pallotrope, was a photoelectric microphone employing a light beam focused on a tiny, spring-mounted mirror that vibrated in response to sound waves. A short flared horn, attached to the front of the device, served rather inefficiently to collect and focus the sound.

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A simplified explanation of the Pallophotophone system, published by Brunswick-Balke-Collender after it adopted the process in 1925.

 

By late 1922, it was clear to General Electric that Hoxie’s system had potential in the commercial recording market, and he received their backing to make refinements. In 1925, the Pallophotphone system would be adopted by Brunswick-Balke-Collender, with less-than-satisfactory results.

 

Merriman and Guest’s Electro-Mechanical Hybrid

While work progressed at Western Electric and General Electric, many independent inventors were experimenting with electrical recording processes on their own, in the United States and elsewhere. The first publicly issued electrical recordings were made in England by Horace O. Merriman and Lionel Guest, although the process was not entirely electrical. On November 11, 1920, they recorded portions of the burial ceremony for the Unknown Warrior at London’s Westminster Abbey via a cable link to carbon microphones placed inside the building.

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Announcement of the first issued electrical recordings,
December 1920.

 

Merrriman, as an officer in what would soon become the Royal Air Force, had been assigned in 1917 to develop a loudspeaker with sufficient volume to be heard from ground to air. When the R.A.F. abandoned loudspeaker research at the end of World War I, Merriman stated that he and Guest “considered what peace-time use could be made of the findings already made in the research for an electrical speaker. We decided to develop a method of making phonograph records by electricity using the Fessenden vibration motor.”

The Fessenden vibration motor was an electro-mechanical hybrid, driven by a microphone and amplifier, but activating a mechanical cutter. The cutter proved to be the weak link in the system. Lacking the sophisticated damping that would become the hallmark of Western Electric’s all-electric cutter, it produced recordings with high levels of distortion, particularly in the louder passages. Nevertheless, the improved frequency response provided sufficient impetus to pursue the process.

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An illustration of the Merriman-Guest system, showing the Fessenden
“vibration motor.”

 

Guest and Merriman designed the first self-contained recording van and set about making test records, initially only of speech. The team was soon experimenting with musical recordings as well, setting up in Columbia’s London studio, where acoustic and electrical recordings were made simultaneously. Comparing the two version, Merriman recalled, “The range of tone was greater on the electrically made records, but there was considerable distortion.” The process was soon judged unsuitable for Columbia’s use, and the relationship was terminated.

For the Westminster Abbey recordings, horns were attached to the carbon microphones, which were placed throughout the abbey and connected to the recording van by cables. In the end, only two musical selections were deemed acceptable for release. Pressed by Columbia and issued privately as part of a fund-raising project for the abbey, the record enjoyed modest sales, and a copper matrix was donated to the British Museum.

Guest and Merriman then spent a month recording organist Marcel Dupre at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before departing to the United States at the request of the Submarine Signal Company in Boston. It was a short-lived affiliation, and Guest, Merriman, and his wife went on to rent an apartment in Queens, where they set up an experimental electrical recording studio. Columbia made a series of experimental electrical recordings during November 1921, possibly using Guest’s and Merriman’s equipment. These tests, beginning with a session by Gladys Rice on November 3, 1921, are documented in the Columbia files, 11 but they were quickly suspended, and no issued records resulted.

Having made some technical strides, Merriman recalled that in 1923 he and Guest were invited to make simultaneous recordings during regular commercial Columbia sessions, placing their microphone alongside the recording horn. The resulting electrical recordings clearly exhibited greater frequency response and higher fidelity than their acoustic counterparts, in Merriman’s estimation. But in the meantime, Columbia had passed into the hands of receivers who had no interest in developing electrical recording, and Guest and Merriman abandoned their work. Back in England, the Gramophone Company appointed Brenchley E. G. Mittell to investigate electrical recording processes in November 1923, with no discernible results.

Orlando Marsh and the First American
Electrical Disc Recordings

In the United States, Orlando Marsh had been developing an electrical recording system since approximately 1914. A 1931 advertising flyer declared, “Seventeen years ago, Marsh instituted the first electrical recording lab in the world.” At that time, Marsh is known to have been employed by George K. Spoor’s Essanay movie studio in Chicago. It seems likely that Marsh was responsible for the Spoor Sound-Scriber, a cylinder-record system designed to be synchronized with motion pictures. In 1977 researcher Tim Fabrizio discovered the device, along with a cracked celluloid cylinder, in the vault of the International Museum of Photography and restored it to working order.

Once repaired and played, the Spoor cylinder turned out to be a promotional skit for the process, on which a speaker declares that the recording “is accomplished by special telephonic apparatus. That is all I can say about the system.” Although it is impossible to say definitively whether the recording was electrical, Fabrizio noted a “thin, hollow, even garbled character…unlike any acoustical or home recording I had ever heard. Yet, there seemed an odd sensitivity to peripheral noise.”

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The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording, made in the yard of Chicago’s Essanay movie studio (John R. T. Davies Collection, courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York)

 

The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording (matrix #2, a test pressing of which was discovered by the late John R. T. Davies), was of the George Spoor and the Wood Brothers Quartet singing “Bells of Shandon.” According to its handwritten label, the recording was made “in the open air 12 ft distance in the yard of the Essanay Co.” The recording probably dates to to the autumn of 1921. Marsh continued to record at Essanay through late 1922, then consolidated his office and studio in Chicago’s Kimball Building.

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(Above) Orlando Marsh recording in the Chicago Theatre, 1924; note the old-fashioned phonograph horn being used to focus sound on the microphone. (Below) Orlando Marsh in his laboratory, probably in the later 1920s.

By then, Marsh was producing electrically recorded masters for his own Autograph label, as well as for several short-run custom labels that included Messiah Sacred Records, Crown Records, Greek Record Company, and Ideal Sacred Records. Although these were the earliest  electrical recordings to reach the American market (albeit primitive ones) — beating Columbia and Victor by three years — the labels carried no notation to that effect. The claim would not appear on Autograph labels until 1925. At that point, Marsh declared himself “The Originator of Electrical Recording,” but he never patented his process.

Early Experimentation at the Major Companies

Among the market leaders, Thomas Edison had experimented sporadically with telephonic recording, to no avail. After World War I, he had even attempted to make recordings using surplus military radio equipment. Recalling those experiments, he stated, “I found when I tried [radio] for recording there was too much mutilation of sounds, which is rather difficult to overcome.”

Frank L. Dyer, a longtime Edison associate, filed a patent application for an electromagnetic recording head in February 1921, but apparently nothing was done to develop it, and Thomas Edison remained emphatically opposed to the process. His company would be the last to convert to electrical recording, one of several factors that led to its demise in 1929.

For a newcomer like the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, however, electrical recording must have seemed promising. In December 1920, Percy L. Deutsch, Brunswick’s vice-president and grandson of company founder J. M. Brunswick, initiated formal research into electrical recording. Although circumstantial evidence suggests that Deutsch was aware of General Electric’s experimentation with electrical recording processes, the initial experiments were carried out independently at Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters. Deutsch entrusted much of this work to inventor Benjamin Franklin Meissner, who had earned a reputation as an expert in wireless torpedo-guidance systems during World War I.

 The Talking Machine World for December 1921 reported that Meissner had “for some months been working in the Brunswick experimental laboratories here [in Chicago] on various methods for converting sound waves into electrical waves, and reconverting these back to sound waves on the phonograph record.” Meissner conducted experimental electrical sessions at the Brunswick studio during much of 1921. Unfortunately, paper documentation of these sessions has vanished along with Brunswick’s early recording ledgers. Test pressings are rumored to survive, but to date, none has been reliably reported.

In December, TMW also broke the news of Brunswick’s experiments with wireless remote disc mastering in Chicago. On November 22, an operatic performance was transmitted from the Auditorium Theatre to a Magnavox receiver in the Brunswick laboratory. There, TMW reported, “the electrical waves were switched from the Magnavox directly to the recording apparatus.” Despite an apparently promising start, no commercially issued records resulted from Meissner’s experiments, and Brunswick seems to have abandoned its electrical experiments in 1922.

As Meissner was winding down his work at Brunswick, Albertis Hewitt was undertaking similar experiments at Victor. Hewitt and James W. Owen, another Victor engineer, had been experimenting with microphones since 1916, when they patented an improved design for use in “the recording or reproduction of sound.” Hewitt went on to patent many other devices relating to electrical recording and reproduction over the next eighteen years, all of which were assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company or the Radio Corporation of America. However, when Hewitt began experimentation in earnest at Victor in 1922, it was not with his own equipment, but with Pallophotophone equipment loaned to him by Charles Hoxie.

Hewitt’s experimental electrical installation was completed at Victor’s Camden studio on December 7, 1922, and the next day he conducted the first of many test sessions, beginning with staff pianist Myrtle Eaver. More tests were conducted over the next two weeks, involving Eaver and tenor William Robyn, with musical director Joseph Pasternack voicing his approval of the results. A final report on the Pallophotophone tests was drafted at the end of the month and apparently was buried, after which no more was heard of the device at Victor. Hewitt, however, continued to make some experimental recordings from radio broadcasts during 1922–1924 using an electrical recorder of his own design. In 1923 he undertook further microphone experiments for Victor.

In the end, nothing came of Hewitt’s research, and Victor continued to record acoustically. Probably unaware of Hewitt’s secret experiments, orchestra leader Paul Whiteman invested heavily in the electrical recording process of an unnamed English inventor in 1923, hoping to license it to Victor. For his efforts, Whiteman earned only a rebuff from company executives.

Frank Capps also experimented independently with electrical recording. On November 10, 1923, he recorded former president Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day speech, as broadcast on over radio station WEAF (New York). Capps — who allegedly was later involved in leaking news of Western’s Electric’s proposed Victor deal to Louis Sterling at Columbia’s English branch — sent his masters to be processed by the Compo Company in Canada, a venture headed by Emile Berliner’s son Herbert. It is tempting to speculate that Capps’ electrical masters were the impetus for Herbert Berliner’s own experiments, which resulted in the first Canadian electrical recordings.

Western Electric Courts the Recording Industry

While the phonograph companies were abandoning their in-house experiments, and Orlando Marsh was puttering with his homemade electrical equipment, Western Electric’s engineers were making steady progress toward a high-quality, commercially viable electrical recording system during 1922–1923. The team of Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry Harrison had recently taken over much of the project, signaling a definitive change in corporate attitude toward electrical recording methods.

Thus far, Western Electric’s engineers had worked under highly controlled conditions in laboratories that had little in common with concert halls or commercial recording studios. However, Maxfield was now determined to deal with the variables inherent in recording live performances in public venues. He had already experimented with remote electrical recording, establishing a wireless connection from New York’s Capitol Theatre to Western Electric’s experimental recording laboratory and broadcast station at 463 West Street in late 1922. By 1923, Western Electric was regularly making test recordings via the remote link from the Capitol Theatre. The company also made experimental recordings from radio broadcasts, including excerpts from the 1923–1924 New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s broadcasts over radio station WEAF.

The Capitol Theatre’s cavernous space presented an especially difficult challenge to the Western Electric team. After much experimentation in the theater, the engineers determined that the microphone placement needed to replicate what was heard by an average member of the audience was forty feet above floor level, and forty feet in front of the stage. The quality of these early electrical recordings varied tremendously, as surviving test pressings demonstrate. Several Western Electric experimental pressings have surfaced in recent years, the earliest of them a Capitol Theater performance dated July 20, 1923. Other surviving test pressings include public performances by the New York Philharmonic under Willem van Hoogstraten, made in December 1923, and some January 1924 recordings from WEAF radio broadcasts.

Maxfield emphasized the importance of the studio monitor, volume level indicator, and potentiometer in his process, establishing a degree of control unattainable with the acoustic process:

“Without the monitoring system, the fact that a record is unsatisfactory cannot be ascertained until the master record is made, plated, and reproduced…. In the case of “acoustical” recording from a symphony orchestra, the orchestra must play so that the fortissimo is suppressed and the pianissimo amplified in order to drive the stylus within proper bounds. With the present system, such an orchestra may play with natural force and effect, the current from the amplifier being kept within proper limits by manipulating the potentiometer as suggested by monitoring with loudspeaker and voltmeter.”

In October 1923, Maxfield filed a patent on an improved electrical recording system. Well aware of the failings of the earlier, cumbersome Wier and Craft–Colpitts processes, he greatly simplified the apparatus. At this juncture, Maxfield appears to have still been concerned primarily with the recording of live rather than studio performances, noting in his patent application, “The object of the present invention is to produce master phonograph records electrically without interfering with the public performance of the artist or artists.”

While Maxfield satisfactorily addressed the technical aspects of an electrical recording system, its suitability for commercial applications had so far gone largely unexplored. Little commercial demand could be anticipated for Maxfield’s live recordings, other than as a source of broadcast material. Consequently, Maxfield set out to refine his system for commercial studio use. In December 1923 he filed a patent application on a “studio for acoustic purposes,” stating,

“The object of the invention is to provide a studio in which sounds may be recorded or broadcasted with substantially all the natural effects that an auditor listening directly to the sounds would receive… More specifically, the invention provides a studio in which the walls are damped by a hanging curtain or applying other damping material to the walls, damping them to a degree such that the reverberation will be between .5 of a second and 1.0 second.… The curtains may be hung on horizontal poles or rods by any suitable fasteners which may be slideable on the rods, whereby the curtains may be adjusted to cover any desired surface to control the damping.… The ceiling as shown is not damped, but the floor is substantially covered with a heavy rug. Smaller rugs may be used on the floor and damping material may also be used on the ceiling if desired.”

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Maxfield’s design for an electrical recording studio would be
adopted by Victor in 1925.

 

Henry Harrison made improvements to the electromagnetic cutter in early 1924. Charts included in his patent filing depict a fairly flat frequency response curve ranging from 35 to nearly 8,000 cycles per second. In contrast, the very best acoustic recordings could only offer a range of approximately 200 to 3,000 cycles per second, and few studios other than Edison’s performed even that well. However, much of the experimentation at Western Electric had been carried out using nonstandard disc formats designed to take full advantage of the new electromagnetic cutter, without regard for the needs of commercial producers. Oversized, vertically cut, and lacking the abrasive fillers required in commercial shellac pressings, these discs were superior from an engineering perspective, but they were totally incompatible with the millions of phonographs already in homes.

Anticipating resistance from an industry that was heavily invested in the standard ten- or twelve-inch lateral-cut shellac disc, the Western Electric engineers began to tailor their system to that format. The result was a recording curve designed to compress a modern, wide-range electrical recording into a groove configuration and disc format that were relics of the nineteenth century. With a reduced frequency range of approximately 100–5,000 cycles per second, the new Western Electric process still offered dramatic improvement over the best acoustic recordings, but fell far short of what could be achieved under laboratory conditions.

Columbia and Victor Go Electric

With a commercially viable system finally complete, Western Electric approached the Victor Talking Machine Company. In February 1924, Victor executives George W. Smith and Fenimore Johnson visited the Western Electric laboratories for a demonstration of the new electrically recorded discs. As they soon discovered, the process would not come cheaply. Western Electric demanded royalties on sales of all records made by their process, and further stipulated that Victor’s studios be rebuilt to Joseph Maxfield’s exact specifications.

Victor president Eldridge R. Johnson, coping with health problems and declining revenues from record sales, tabled the Western Electric proposal. The Victor Talking Machine Company had always developed its technology internally, but the Western Electric deal would require the active involvement of outsiders. In addition, the swift transition that adoption of the system would entail was at odds with Eldridge Johnson’s conservative approach to product development. Just four years earlier, he had declared to the press, “It will take twenty-five years more to perfect the talking machine.”

According to an oft-repeated story, Western Electric made its initial offer only to Victor. In the meantime, the tale continues, a bit of industrial spying was under way that would rob Victor of its potential edge. Under the supervision of Russell Hunting, Western Electric was pressing 16” test records at Pathé’s Brooklyn plant, which was the only U.S. plant equipped at that time to press the oversized discs. According to this tale, which appears with some variations in several early phonograph histories, Hunting leaked word of the process to his old business associate, Louis Sterling, at Columbia’s London headquarters. Purloined Western Electric tests are said to have arrived in London on December 24, 1924, with Sterling setting sail for the U.S. two days later, frantic to negotiate use of the Western Electric system for Columbia.

Unfortunately, this widely circulated account is seriously flawed in many respects, and it is contradicted by dated test pressings. Sterling did indeed sail to the United States in December 1924, but for the purpose of acquiring rights to the Western Electric system for English Columbia, under the same terms that Western Electric had already offered to both Columbia and Victor in the United States.

In fact, Western Electric had begun making test recordings for both of those companies many months before Sterling’s visit, as proven by a surprisingly large number of surviving test pressings. The earliest of these electrical tests to surface thus far, made for Columbia, shows a recording date of August 25, 1924, in the wax. Many other Columbia electrical tests exist that show dates throughout the late summer and autumn of 1924 in the wax.

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Two Columbia-Western Electric tests, both from September 1924. By that time, electrical tests were being produced in sufficient quantity that a special label was introduced for them. (Courtesy of Kurt Nauck)

 

Columbia made some of its most notable performers available for these early Western Electric tests, including violinist George Enescu and soprano Florence Macbeth. Although files for the earliest tests have not been located, the excellent sound quality on surviving test pressings is clearly indicative of Western Electric’s work. The earliest surviving confirmation in Columbia’s files that Western Electric equipment was indeed in use is a notation for a session on November 10, 1924. Clearly, a Columbia–Western Electric alliance had been forged well before Sterling’s December dash to the States.

At the same time, Western Electric was also recording tests for Victor, despite Eldridge Johnson’s apparent lack of interest. Electrically recorded Victor test pressings, showing dates in the wax ranging from October 7 to December 17, 1924, survive in a private collection. Interestingly, neither Harry nor Raymond Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineers, mentioned these sessions in their memoirs. Harry Sooy recalled having first been apprised of “three or four records submitted by the Western Electric Company” on January 3, 1925. It is therefore likely that these early test sessions, which are not documented in the surviving Victor files, were conducted in Western Electric’s studios rather than Victor’s.

Although Victor was clearly considering the Western Electric process during the autumn of 1924, it took news of the impending Columbia–Western Electric deal to force Eldridge Johnson’s hand. Threatened with obsolescence at the hands of his old rival, Eldridge Johnson finally assented to Western Electric’s terms, which included an advance payment of $50,000 in addition to the royalty clause that had caused earlier caused him to balk. The deal was a closely guarded secret — so much so, that no mention of it appears in the minutes of Victor’s managing committee.

On January 27, 1925, Western Electric dispatched Joseph Maxfield to Camden to lay out the wiring for Victor’s first electrically equipped studio in Building No. 15. The Western Electric equipment was shipped to Camden on February 2 and arrived the following day. The first electrical session to be held there — an experimental piano solo recording by one Mr. Watkins — occurred on February 9. Over the next several days, experimental sessions continued with Helen Clark, Elsie Baker, Olive Kline, and other Victor studio artists.

While the Western Electric installation was under way at Victor, Columbia was readying its own Western Electric system for commercial use. In January 1925 the company had Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist,” make a series of electrical recordings. Gillham was an excellent choice to demonstrate the new system’s capabilities. His subdued crooning style was poorly suited the old acoustic system, but it registered quite well with the microphone. The results were good enough that three Gillham selections, recorded on February 25, 1925, were accepted for release.

Just one day after Gillham’s electrical Columbia session, the Eight Famous Victor Artists (a traveling promotional troupe featuring Billy Murray and Henry Burr) were assembled at Camden to make comparison recordings of “A Miniature Concert” using Victor’s acoustic and Western Electric’s electrical equipment. Initially, the acoustic version was approved for release, but in April there was a change of heart on the part of Victor management. Instead, the electrical tests, covering two sides of a 12” disc, were approved for a July 1925 release on Victor 35753.

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Let the conversion begin: The Victor Recording Book sheet for the electrical version of “A Miniature Concert,” which was recorded as an experiment but was then approved for release in place of the acoustic version.

 

The “Miniature Concert” comprised the earliest electrical recordings to be released by Victor. They were not, however, the first Victor release to use an electrically recorded master. That honor is held by the Mask and Wig Club Male Quartet’s rendition of “Joan of Arkansas,” recorded on March 16, 1925, and released on Victor 19626 a month before “A Miniature Concert.”

At the end of February, with finalization of its Western Electric deal virtually assured, Columbia became the first major record producer to convert to fill-time electrical recording. Acoustic recording sessions for full-priced releases were suspended on February 28 at Columbia’s New York studio (acoustic equipment remained in use for several more years, but only for recordings allocated to Harmony and other low-priced labels).

Two of Gillham’s February sides were listed in the May 1925 Talking Machine World advance list for a June release on Columbia 328-D, the earliest electrical recordings to be issued by Columbia. In the same listing were four sides recorded electrically during a March 31 public performance by the 850-voice Associated Glee Clubs of America — the first “live” electrical recordings to be issued in the United States.

There was nothing in the new listings or advertisements that might alert the public that Columbia was employing a new recording technology, nor would there be for another year. The only clue, other than an obvious change in sound quality, was a circled-W logo in the pressing, required as part of the licensing agreement with Western Electric. Even that small hint was absent on some of the earliest pressings.

Columbia’s adoption of the electrical process had the unforeseen effect of driving the company into the cheap-record market. Having invested heavily in improvements to its acoustic studios in 1924, Columbia decided to recoup its costs by launching a low-priced label that would continue to use acoustically recorded masters. The result was the introduction of Harmony, a 50¢ brand, in September 1925. Velvet Tone, a companion label using the same masters and couplings as Harmony, followed in the summer of 1926. Both labels continued to use acoustically recorded masters through 1929, although the occasional electrical master (probably recorded for the full-priced line but rejected) found its way into the series.

Victor lagged a bit behind Columbia in its conversion. The electrical sessions of February through mid-March 1925 were still considered trials, although they yielded some recordings that were approved for release. The Western Electric contract was finally signed on March 18, and at the end of that month, Victor retired the recording horns in the Camden studios. However, the company was in the process of acquiring a new studio location in New York at the time; thus, Victor’s first New York electrical sessions were delayed until July 31, 1925.

Both companies began releasing electrical recordings with some regularity beginning in the early summer of 1925. However, neither Victor nor Columbia publicly acknowledged the conversion during 1925–26, allowing themselves time to dispose of obsolete acoustic stock while building new catalogs from scratch. The closest Victor came to publicly acknowledging the new process was Eldridge Johnson’s misleading statement, in response Brunswick’s introduction of the electric Panatrope in August 1925, that the company would soon introduce a new system representing “the ultimate in sound reproduction.” 25 Johnson coyly refused to elaborate on the new recordings to a New York Times reporter, even though they had already been on the market for several months. But the change was immediately obvious to dealers and consumers alike, and by the end of 1925 Victor dealers were openly referring to the new process, even if the manufacturer was not.

Victor’s Canadian branch took the opposite approach, heralding the new electrics in July 1925 with a national advertising campaign, and initiating deep price cuts on its now-obsolete acoustically recorded discs. The impetus might have come from Herbert Berliner’s upstart Compo Company, which had begun marketing electrically recorded discs on its Apex label in Canada. “New Victor V.E. Process a Master Stroke in Recording,” the ads proclaimed. “All the new July releases out today are recorded by the new V.E. process.”

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Victor’s Canadian affiliate was the first to publicly announce the company’s conversion to electrical recording, in July 1925. Its American counterpart waited until 1926, as did Columbia.

 

In October 1926, Western Electric loaned Joseph Maxfield to Victor to pursue further improvements in the electrical process. Appointed as Victor’s manager of research and development in September 1927,  Maxfield was given free rein to remake the Victor studios to his specifications. Remote recording locations were added or upgraded, including the Philadelphia Academy of Music and New York’s Liederkranz Hall. Camden’s former Trinity Baptist Church, converted to a Victor studio during the acoustic era, was thoroughly overhauled, including replacement of the original organ. A New York Times reporter who toured the studio observed,

“Hidden from view is the arched roof to which boomed hasannas and hymns… a flat, sound-proof and false ceiling of burlap is better for recording. An organ is there, to be sure, but it is a special one recently installed, and now there is a microphone before it. … Downstairs, where prayer books had been stored … is some $150,000 equipment bearing trademarks of Western Electric, Electrical Research Products, and Victor Talking Machine.”

For a time, the church did double duty as a temporary Vitaphone sound stage, with the lower level used for filming. Films were shot as silents, and the actors then dubbed their parts onto synchronized discs in the main church recording studio.

New, unfamiliar equipment and studios required that studio engineers be retrained or even replaced. Nathaniel Shilkret, one of the few veteran Victor musical directors to make the transition successfully, recounted his company’s problems in adapting the new process:

“Almost everything that had been learned about orchestration and recording seemed useless. The musician’s favorite tricks in orchestration became obsolete; the recorders’ art of handling the recording horns had no more value…. No doubt you will be interested to know that our first successful recordings were with the symphonic orchestras, large choirs and whispering vocalists. Then came the Salon Orchestra which improved immensely over the old recordings, after most of us were convinced that this new way of recording an intimate style of orchestra would never do at all. The piano quality of the new recordings, while not perfect, is surely superior to the old recordings. The tenor voice gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones. At times, hollow; but all voices finally were conquered. And to think that all this has happened in about one year and a half.”

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Nathaniel Shilkret (front row, third from left) and orchestra in a
Maxfield-designed Victor studio.

 

Pressings were proving to be a weak link in the new system, with dealers complaining that the surfaces were noisy and prone to premature wear. The increased surface noise resulted from use of a coarser, more abrasive pressing material developed for the new electric discs, while the tendency toward premature wear resulted from the more heavily modulated groove.

One of Maxfield’s solutions to the latter problem was to slightly smooth the master recording by high-speed mechanical burnishing “at a pressure which is reasonably constant and of just sufficient magnitude to cause a very slight surface flow of the material without macerating it.” Charles O’Connell, a later Victor recording director, took a dim view of the practice, recalling that masters “Went flawless into these laboratories. They emerged pitted, peaked, and perverted. I say perverted because in some instances, in an effort to reduce the scratch that inexpert handling had brought to the records, a polishing stone was run through the grooves, eliminating some of the scratch and all of the high frequencies that give music color and brilliance.”

The general public, still playing its records on steel-needle acoustic machines with tracking forces measured in pounds rather than grams, would scarcely have noticed such technical flaws. Victor’s record sales rebounded in 1926, jumping to nearly 32 million copies from the previous year’s 25 million. The leap into electrical recording had come at a high cost to Victor’s shareholders, however. In July 1925, the company announced that it was suspending its quarterly dividends in view of “important improvements in the product [that] will require considerable outlay of funds.”

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COMING IN PART 2: Herbert Berliner, General Electric, RCA,
and the Minor-Label Systems

____________________________________________________

 

Selected References

“A New Invention” (re: Marsh’s Kimball Building studio). Billboard (January 13, 1923), p. 58.

“Advance Record Bulletins for June 1925.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1925), p. 157.

“Advance Record Bulletins for July 1925.” Talking Machine World (June 15, 1925), p. 166.

Biel, Michael Jay. The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936. Dissertation, Northwestern University (1977), pp. 284–285.

Brooks, Tim. Columbia Master Record Book — Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

“Camden in Film Field.” New York Times (August 26, 1928), p. 98.

Craft, Edward B., and Colpitts, Edwin H. U.S. Patent #1,540,317 (filed November 25, 1919).

Dyer, Frank L. “Magnetic Recorder.” U.S. Patent #1,544,379 (filed February 16, 1921; issued June 30, 1925).

Egerton, Henry Clifford. “Phonographic Transmitter.” U.S. Patent #1,246,895 (filed November 25, 1914; issued November 20, 1917).

— . “Telephonic Recording and Reproducing Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,284,623 (filed February 1, 1918; issued November 12, 1918).

Fabrizio, T. C. “Before the Jazz Singer” (re: Spoor Sound-Scriber). Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:5, 1977), pp. 3–6.

— . “The Spoor Sound-Scriber and its Relation to the Sound Synchronization of Motion Pictures,” and  “Transcription of the ‘Spoor’ Cylinder.” Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:6, 1977), pp. 5–8.

Giovannoni, David. E-mail to author re early Victor–Western Electric test recordings (September 15, 2007).

Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).

Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).

Harrison, Henry C. “Device for the Transmission of Vibratory Energy.” U.S. Patent #1,663,884 (filed May 5, 1924; issued May 27, 1928).

“Historic Gramophone Records — Major Guest and the Abbey Service.” London Observer (December 12, 1920), p. 17.

Hoxie, Charles A. “Production of Phonographic Records.” U.S. Patent #1,637,903 (filed December 28, 1921; issued August 2, 1927).

— . “Recording Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,456,595 (filed April 13, 1918; issued May 29, 1924), assigned to General Electric Company.

Marsh Laboratories, Inc. (advertising flyer, 1931).

Maxfield, Joseph P. “Phonograph System.” U.S. Patent #1,661,539 (filed October 2, 1923; issued March 6, 1928).

— . “Studio for Acoustic Purposes.” U.S. Patent #1,719,481 (filed December l5, 1923; issued July 2, 1929).

Merriman, H. O. “Sound Recording by Electricity, 1919–1924.” Talking Machine Review (June 1976), pp. 666–670, 680–681.

Nauck, Kurt. Vintage Record Auction #33 (containing a large group of early Columbia–Western Electric test pressings). Spring, TX: Nauck’s Vintage Records (April–May 2003), p. 11.

 O’Connell, Charles C. The Other Side of the Record, p. 126. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).

Owen, James W., and Albertis Hewitt. “Microphone.” U.S. Patent #1,509,818 (filed August 25, 1916; granted September 23, 1924), assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company.

“Record Opera via Wireless.” Talking Machine World (December 15, 1921), p. 118.

“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units, Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive.” Exhibit in: U.S. Dist. Court, D.D. of N.Y., January 26, 1943.

Shilkret, Nathaniel. “Modern Electrical Methods of Recording.” Phonograph Monthly Review (June 1927), p. 382.

Sooy, Harry O. “Memoir of My Career at Victor Talking Machine Company.” Unpublished manuscript, n.d. David Sarnoff Library, Princeton, NJ.

Tennyson, James R. “Oh, Canada!” New Amberola Graphic (July 1987), p. 5.

“The Future Development of the Talking Machine.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1920), p. 16.

Victor Talking Machine Company. Managing Committee Minutes, Vol. 1 (1924–1926).

— . Recording ledgers (Sony archives, New York); data courtesy of John R. Bolig.

 “Victor Talking Machine Co. Omits Quarterly Dividend.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1925), p. 110.

Watkins, Stanley. “Madame, Will You Talk?” Bell Laboratories Record, August 1946 (Vol. XXIV, No. VIII), p. 291.

Whiteman, Paul (David A. Stein, editor). Music for the Millions, p. 5–7. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.

Wier, Henry B. “Recording of Music and Speech” (U.S. Patent application filed August 14, 1919). The patent was later divided into recording and playback sections, with the recording portion (#1,765,517) not being granted until June 24, 1930.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Ed Kirkeby’s Freelance Artist Bookings (1921 – 1923)

Ed Kirkeby’s Freelance Artist Bookings (1921 – 1923)

By Allan Sutton

 

Wallace Theodore (Ed) Kirkeby is remembered today primarily as the manager of the California Ramblers, one of the most popular and prolific hot dance bands of the 1920s. But he began his career as a freelance talent broker, securing recording sessions for the likes of Fred Van Eps, Arthur Fields, and Charles Harrison.

In 1922, Kirkeby began booking occasional sessions for the Original Memphis Five and the Superior Jazz Band. (These were not the same band, contrary to some discographies; see Mainspring’s Bell and Arto Records: A History and Discography for a discussion of the evidence contained in the Kirkeby materials).

Kirkeby booked his first “Negro recordings” in 1923, with Pathé, using several singers affiliated with Perry Bradford and Clarence Williams. In the meantime, his California Ramblers had begun to attract national attention, and in late 1923 he began dropping his freelance artists to concentrate almost exclusively on the band.

Kirkeby’s 1921–1923 booking activities (excluding the Ramblers sessions) are summarized below. This is not a complete list, but it will give you a good idea of the wide scope of Kirkeby’s work in the three years before the Ramblers zoomed to national prominence. His logs (of which Mainspring Press owns copies that were transcribed and annotated by Perry Armagnac in the 1950s, under Kirkeby’s personal supervision) also provide valuable insights into how studios were booked or leased, and how masters were shuttled around, during the early 1920s.

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A. C. GILBERT CO. (Bob-O-Link children’s records, by NYRL)

Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921

 

THE AEOLIAN CO. (Vocalion)

Broadway Quartet, 1922; Everett Clarke, 1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Melody Men, 1921; Reed Miller, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922; Shannon Four, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922

 

THE ARTO CO. (Arto, Bell, et al.)

Al Bernard, 1922; Everett Clarke, 1922; Vaughn De Leath, 1922; Arthur Fields, 1921–1923; Arthur Hall, 1922; Sister Harris, 1923; Charles Harrison, 1921–1923; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Harold Miller, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Reed Miller, 1922; George Reardon, 1921; Superior Jazz Band, 1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922; Herbert Wiley, 1922

 

CAMEO RECORD CORP. (Cameo, Muse, et al.)

Arthur Fields, 1922

 

COLUMBIA PHONOGRAPH CO. (Columbia, Little Wonder)

Broadway (probably Stellar) Quartet, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921–1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1922

 

THE COMPO CO.(Canada; Apex, et al.)

Monroe Silver, 1921; possibly others, client listed as just “Canada”

 

CRITERION LABORATORIES (Clarion, Cardial, et al.; also masters for Arto, q.v.)

Vernon Dalhart, 1921; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Van Eps Quartet, 1921

 

EMERSON PHONOGRAPH CO. (Emerson, Regal, et al.)

The Adler Trio, 1921; Everett Clarke, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921–1922; Charles Harrison, 1922; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Fred Van Eps, 1921

 

FEDERAL RECORD CORP. (Federal, Resona, et al.)

Vernon Dalhart, 1921; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Taylor Trio, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921

 

GREY GULL RECORDS (Grey Gull, Radiex, et al., from commissioned masters)

Grey Gull Quartet, 1922; Arthur Fields, 1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922

 

INDEPENDENT RECORDING LABORATORY (masters for Arto, q.v, and the Plaza Music Co. group)

Arthur Fields, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1923

 

J. K. REYNARD STUDIO (masters for Arto, q.v.)

Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921

 

MARKER LABORATORY (masters for Arto, Cameo, et al.)

Arthur Fields, 1922

 

NEW YORK RECORDING LABORATORIES (Paramount, et al.; also masters for Grey Gull, q.v., and the Cardinal group, q.v. at Criterion)

The Adler Trio, 1921; Everett Clarke, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921; Sam Ash, 1921; Broadway Quartet, 1922; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Gilbert Girard, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Melody Men, 1921; Monroe Silver, 1921–1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921; Van Eps Quartet, 1921; Beaulah Gaylord Young, 1921

 

OLYMPIC DISC RECORD CORP.  (Olympic)

Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921; Fred Van Eps / Van Eps Quartet, 1921

 

PATHE PHONOGRAPH CO. (Pathé, Perfect, et al.);

Frank Banta (accompaniments), 1923; Flo Bert, 1923; Carroll Clark, 1923; Ruth Coleman (“Clarence Williams’ girl”), 1923; Emma Gover, 1923; Fletcher Henderson (accompaniments), 1923; Arthur Fields, 1922; Sister Harris & The Nubian Five, 1923; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; Mary Jackson (“Negro recordings”), 1923; “Jazz Band” (uncredited), 1923; Lucy Jameson (“Negro recordings”), 1923; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Mitchell Brothers (issued as “McGavock & Tillman”), 1923; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Gladys Rice, 1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922

 

PLAZA MUSIC CO.see Independent Recording Laboratory

 

STARR PIANO CO. (New York studio only) (Gennett)

Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921

 

STRONG RECORD CO. (masters for Arto)

Original Memphis Five, 1923

 

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Some of these company or studio names look unfamiliar?
You’ll find their stories, along with more than 1,200 other detailed and fully documented entries, in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950 — a limited edition available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

 

UPDATE: Last Call for these Mainspring Press Titles

As you probably know, Mainspring Press is exiting the book business after twenty years, in favor of online data distribution. Many titles have already sold out, and we are down to a carton or less of the following, none of which will be reprinted. All remaining copies are being offered at special close-out discounts:
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Bryant: The Emerson Discography (Complete 10″ and 12″ Series)
Bryant: American Zonophone Discography (Popular Series, 1904–1912)
Sutton: Edison Amberol Records (Complete, 1908–1913)
Sutton: Pseudonyms on American Records, 3rd Edition

 

SOLD OUT  Bolig: The Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 3 (20000 – 21000 Series)

SOLD OUT  Bolig: The Victor Discography—Special Labels

SOLD OUT Nauck & Sutton: Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders

SOLD OUT  Sutton: Edison Blue Amberol Records

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American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (December 2018) is Mainspring’s final publication in book form. The only authoritative, fully documented guide to all commercial American record producers (disc and cylinder), it’s a limited edition and has been selling briskly — Order soon to avoid missing out:

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Pioneer Midwestern Cylinder Companies – Two Excerpts from “American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950”

PIONEER MIDWESTERN CYLINDER COMPANIES

Two excerpts from
American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950

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IOWA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1889

Offices: Metropolitan Block, Sioux City, IA (to 5/1892); 5th & Jackson Sts., Sioux City (from 5/1892)

A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in Iowa. The state originally was to have been covered by the Nebraska Phonograph Company, which was first organized in November 1888 but apparently failed to launch at that time. A reorganized Nebraska Phonograph was formed on January 31, 1889, at which time the Iowa territory was abandoned and reallocated to the newly formed Iowa Phonograph Company.

Iowa Phonograph’s officers included W. P. Manley (president), C. J. Brackenbush (vice-president), Whitfield Stinson (secretary), and G. A. Beach (general manager). Among its directors was Erastus A. Benson, who had been a director of the short-lived Central Nebraska Phonograph Company and was also serving as president of the reorganized Nebraska Phonograph Company. Interviewed by a reporter for The Sioux City Journal, Benson expounded at length on the phonograph’s business uses but mentioned its potential as a entertainment device only in passing, noting, “songs of the finest singers and musical productions” could be had.

In July 1889, Beach secured permission to record members of the well-known Bostonians theatrical troupe (including Jesse Bartlett Davis, H. C. Barnabee, and Marie Stone) during their performance of The Bohemian Girl at the Peavey Grand in Sioux City. When the results proved barely audible without the aid of ear-tubes, additional recordings of the troupe were taken in the company’s offices, with mixed results. A reporter for the Journal concluded, “It is very doubtful if the phonograph will become an important factor in the musical world until is has reached a greater degree of perfection…[it] talks plainly enough but does not as yet sing or whistle becomingly.”

A month later, the recently arrived Walter S. Gray gave a private exhibition to three Journal reporters at which he played cylinders by local performers, including Beach himself. “The instrumental work sounded somewhat ‘choppy’…metallic and strident,” one reporter observed. “The phonograph…imparts to singing a ‘machiney’ flavor.”

In late May 1890, the Iowa Phonograph Company was said to have “hardly got a start,” due to a lack of trust among local business owners after the company placed some unreliable machines in local offices. However, its entertainment business fared better. In August 1890, it was reported that the company was looking into the possibility of making and distributing recordings of the bands that were to perform at that year’s Corn Palace festivities.

In February 1893, Beach employed his son Charles (who at the time was embroiled in a scandalous affair with one of the Beach household’s servants) to record tenor solos for Iowa Phonograph. A month later, he was replaced as general manager by Whitfield Stinson. The company appears to have been inactive by the end of 1893, although its corporate charter was not officially cancelled until 1909.

Selected References

“Corn Palace Preparations.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 22, 1890), p. 22.

North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.

“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 247.

“Phonographing Opera.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Jul 14, 1889), p. 6.

Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.

Smythe, R. M. Obsolete American Securities and Corporations, p. 523. New York: R. M. Smythe (1911).

“The Iowa Phonograph Company.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Mar 13, 1893), p. 9.

“The Iowa Phonograph Company Ready for Business.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Feb 1, 1889), p. 6.

“The Phonograph.” Nebraska State Journal (Nov 14, 1888), p. 8.

“The Phonograph. An Exhibition of its Powers, More Especially in a Musical Manner.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 7, 1889), p. 6.

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OHIO PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1888

Offices: 220 Walnut St., Cincinnati (1888–early 1889); St. Paul Building, 27 W. 4th St., Cincinnati (from early 1889); 163 Elm St., Cincinnati (mid-1894); 427 Vine St., Cincinnati; 122 Euclid Ave., Cleveland (branch office)

A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in the state of Ohio. A certificate of incorporation was filed on November 30, 1888, by James L. Andem, J. W. Dawson, George Moerlin, Frank Overbeck, and W. J. Overbeck. (Newspapers of the period sometimes stumbled over Andem’s name; he is referred to as Amden, Anderson, and even Adams in various reports.)

The Ohio Phonograph Company was headquartered in Cincinnati, under Andem’s management. Arthur E. Smith managed the Cleveland branch office before resigning in the spring of 1892. In September 1892, Andem published the first detailed phonograph operators’ manual, his sixty-four page Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph.

The company opened coin-operated phonograph arcades in Cleveland and Cincinnati in September and November 1890, respectively. Each housed ten to twelve machines, with a single selection on each, and titles were changed each morning. The Phonogram reported, “On Saturdays and Sundays these exhibition parlors are crowded, and oftentimes quite an effort must be made before one can get possession of the coveted hearing-tubes when a cabinet contains a popular selection… Attached to the side of each machine is a napkin and holder to enable parties to cleanse the hearing tubes before listening, in case they desire to do so.”

Many selections in the Ohio Phonograph catalog were likely obtained from the North American Phonograph and New Jersey Phonograph / United States Phonograph companies. However, there are reliable reports from the period that the company also made and marketed its own recordings. It recorded and demonstrated a “choice selection of airs” by Cincinnati baritone Tim Sullivan in February 1891. Four months later, Andem reported that the company had “hired a gentleman from an adjoining territory [Kentucky] to sing a number of banjo songs.” A December 1891 advertisement suggested that Dan Kelly’s “Pat Brady” comic recordings were original, which was later confirmed by a Phonogram report declaring that “Mr. Kelly spends his spare time in making records for the Ohio Phonograph Company.” The Phonoscope for November 1896 reported that Ohio Phonograph was making “some very fine band records.”

The Edison Phonographic News for July–August 1896 confirmed that Ohio Phonograph was operating a studio in Cincinnati, “which, although in the heart of the city, affords perfect quietness.” It was briefly managed by Calvin G. Child, who left the company in late 1896 to work for Emile Berliner and would later be a key figure in the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company.

In January 1894, J. W. Dawson filed suit against Andem, charging that he had consistently elected a board of directors “subservient to his will,” had been “extravagant in his management” of the company, and had appointed himself agent of a rival company handling graphophones. The company’s sales for 1893 were said to be $6,244 less than in the previous year, while expenses were $4953 more. On January 11, 1897, Ohio Phonograph was placed in the hands of a receiver, although its liabilities were said to be “trifling.”

Andem reorganized the Ohio Phonograph Company in the spring of 1897 as the Edison Phonograph Company of Ohio (q.v.), a large regional concern that had no connection to Thomas Edison’s companies and was eventually ordered to stop using the Edison name. The artists recording for Andem at that time, as listed in The Phonoscope for May 1897, appear to have been local performers. Andem went on to serve as secretary of the New York Phonograph Company during the period in which that company was engaged in a prolonged (and ultimately fruitless) legal battle with Edison’s National Phonograph Company.

Another Ohio Phonograph Company, based in Columbus and operated by H. H. Meyers (who sold it to F. A. Drake in 1899) appears to have been unrelated to Andem’s operation and is not known to have produced recordings.

Selected References

“A Noted Record Maker, Dan Kelly, of Cincinnati, O.” Phonogram (Mar-Apr 1893), p. 363.

“A Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Aug–Sep 1892), p. v.

“A Row Among Stockholders of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Cincinnati Enquirer (Jan 28, 1894), p. 16.

“Cincinnati Illustrated.” Edison Phonographic News (Jul–Aug 1896), p. 21.

“General News.” Phonoscope (Dec 1896), p. 9

“Humorous Talking Records for the Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 265.

New and Selected Records for the Phonograph, for Sale by the Ohio Phonograph Company (1894 catalog).

North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.

“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 243.

“Phonograph Company Incorporated.” Columbus [IN] Republic (Dec 1, 1888), p. 1.

“Phonograph Company Liquidating.” New Orleans Times-Picayune (Jan 12, 1897), p. 4.

Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.

Proceedings of Second Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States, Held at New York, June 16, 17 & 18, 1891, pp. 62–63. New York: Linotype Reporting & Printing Company (1891).

“The Automatic Phonograph in St. Louis—A New Industry Yet in Its Infancy.” Phonogram (Jun–Jul 1891), p. 139.

“The Exhibition Parlors of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), pp. 248–249.

“Trade Notes.” Phonoscope (Nov 1896), p. 9.

Untitled notice (re: Tim Sullivan recordings). Cincinnati Enquirer (Feb 11, 1889), p. 8.
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©2018 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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For information on all of the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and dozens of other early cylinder producers, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950: An Encyclopedic History, available exclusively from Mainspring Press. This is a limited edition — order soon!

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Updated: Russian Interference – Boris Morros and ARA Records (1944 – 1957)

Russian Interference: Boris Morros and ARA Records
(1944 – 1957)
By Allan Sutton

Article updated 1/4/2019 — Long before the Trump presidency, the Mueller investigation, and the latest revelations coming from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable sources, the Russians were infiltrating American society. The saga of Boris Morros, then, is particularly timely. In Morros’ case, his conscience finally won out. He confessed to the FBI and ultimately redeemed himself by serving admirably as a double agent for the next decade.

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In May 1934, Boris Morros, a musical director for Paramount Pictures, was secretly contacted by a member of the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which under orders from the Kremlin was attempting to plant Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be Morros’ “handler.”

A decade later, Zubilin arranged for American Soviet operatives  Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern to buy into Morros’ music-publishing operation. With $130,000 from the Sterns, Morros launched the American Recording Artists (ARA) label, which (in addition to producing some fairly decent records) served as a cover for an extensive Soviet spy ring. The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected, and label was a success—at least briefly.

Morros redeemed himself on July 14, 1947, when he came clean to the FBI. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts for the next ten years.

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Born in Russia, Boris Morros studied music under Rimsky-Korsokov in St. Petersburg, then moved to France following the 1917 revolution, leaving his family behind. In 1922 he brought the Chauve Souris revue to the United States, decided to stay, and was granted citizenship. By the early 1930s, he had moved to Hollywood and was working for Paramount Pictures as an entry-level musical director.

In May 1934, Morros was secretly contacted by a member of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), who requested his help in planting Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be his handler, but the relationship soured after it was discovered that Morros had greatly overstated his credentials and degree of influence within the movie industry. The Russians stayed in touch, however.

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Boris Morros in the late 1930s

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Morros advanced quickly at Paramount, and by 1940 he was a well-known figure in Hollywood. With his newfound celebrity, he once again caught the attention of the Soviets. In December 1941, he was contacted again by the NKVD, who blackmailed him into organizing covers for two Soviet spies. In exchange, the Soviets agreed to stop harassing some of Morros’ family members who remained in Russia. In March 1944, Zubilin assigned NKVD officer Jack Soble to be Morros’ new “handler.” “Our comrade,” Zubilin told Soble, “is completely devoted to the Motherland and is one of our most trusted and loyal agents.”

As part of his cover, Morros launched a publishing house, the Boris Morros Music Company. The affiliated American Recording Artists label was launched a short time later, with $130,000 in funding from American Soviet sympathizers Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern. Soble found Morros’ office to be “a big, showy, elaborate place, in keeping with his flamboyant personality and expensive tastes. The record laboratory, however, was a tiny rented place.”

Alfred Stern was awarded presidency of the new record company. He was ordered fill sales positions with as many undercover Soviet agents as possible, while Morros was left to handle the recording operation and present an “American” front to the public.

As Soble later confessed, the entire operation was “a ‘blind’ for a widespread Soviet espionage network. Bosses and “salesmen” [were] Russian intelligence agents… The stars, of course, had no way of knowing that they were being used as attractive window-dressing for an outfit organized to be a clearinghouse for spies throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America.”

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ARA records were heavily promoted; this ad is from September 1945. As Jack Soble later confirmed, ARA’s stars had no idea their label was a front for Soviet espionage. (1945)

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The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected. Gullible members of the press lauded the new operation as a  promising addition to the growing roster of independent West Coast labels. The company’s first releases, announced in late June 1944, sold well. With extensive contacts in the entertainment industry, Morros assembled an impressive artist roster that came to include Hoagy Carmichael, Frances Langford, Smiley Burnette, Phil Harris, Art Tatum, and Bob Crosby’s Bobcats. Widely advertised, the records were handled by many major national distributors.

Within a few months of ARA’s  launch, however, a personality clash between Morros and Stern began to take its toll. Another Soviet agent, Stephan Ghoundenko (a.k.a. “The Professor”), was brought in to straighten out the difficulties. Stern resigned and was replaced by Mark Leff. Morros soon appeared to lose interest in the company, turning management and artists-and-repertoire duties over to his son Richard and a new hire, Dave Gould.

A short time later, Soble received a one-word message from Moscow: “Dissolve.” Morros refused, instead paying back $100,000 of the Sterns’ loan and soldiering on. Stern’s warning to his superiors that Morros could no longer be trusted went largely unheeded. He was allowed to remain in the spy ring, as a courier, while remaining the nominal head of ARA.

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The ARA label underwent several redesigns during its relatively short life.

 

To all outward appearances, ARA was an American success story. The company was reorganized in March 1946, as ARA, Inc., coinciding with its purchase of Symphony Records (a small West Coast classical label that featured the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jacques Rachmilovich) and its expansion into the children’s and country-and-western markets. But problems were beginning to surface. That summer, the pressing plant was closed, ostensibly to take inventory, and it did not reopen.

Despite Leff’s insistence that the hiatus was temporary, new releases and advertising were scaled back. In July, Leff announced that he was selling his interest in ARA to an undisclosed firm or firms. Late in the month, Billboard reported that ARA’s operations were “practically at a standstill now,” with an investment of more than  $75,000 tied up in recordings that had yet to be released. By then, rumors were circulating that Cosmo Records was contemplating a takeover.

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Originally a pop and jazz label, ARA later expanded into the classical, children’s, and country-and-western markets.

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Hoagy Carmichael was the first of several ARA artists to defect, moving to Decca in August 1946. Later that month, a group headed by music publisher Ralph Peer made an offer to acquire  the company. It was declined, as was a subsequent offer by Apollo Records. ARA, Inc., was placed in receivership in September 1946, just in time to thwart a seizure by the Internal Revenue Service.

ARA’s assets were scheduled to be auctioned piecemeal on October 22, 1946, but the sale was called off after a tangle of legal problems (including questions over whether ARA’s masters were unencumbered and could be reused without restrictions) surfaced. The sale was postponed until November 25, 1946, when all of ARA’s property was auctioned in Los Angeles by order of the U.S. District Court. The masters’ legal status would remain in limbo for several more years.

By late 1946, litigation surrounding ARA was running rampant. An audit had revealed many irregularities in the company’s operations, including some suspicious loan repayments to three of Leff’s other companies. In January 1947, former ARA treasurer Irving Zeitlin was subpoenaed to explain the firm’s erratic accounting methods, a procedure that Billboard estimated could “drag out for months because of many loose ends connected with operation of the former waxery.” Civil suits continued to be filed for several more years.

In the meantime, Morros’ conscience had gotten the better of him, and he had quietly turned on his handlers. On July 14, 1947, he informed the FBI of his activities for the Russians. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts. Still posing as a Soviet courier, Morros developed a friendship with U.S. Army Intelligence officer George Zlatkovski and his wife Jane, who were actually Soviet agents. Morros continued to meet with Soble and the Zlatkovskis, in the U.S. and abroad, through October 1954.

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The Sterns and Morros at the time of the 1957 trial

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Morros’ involvement with the Russians and the FBI remained a well-guarded secret until January 1957, when U.S. Attorney Paul W. Williams indicted Jack Soble, along with his wife Myra and associate Jacob Albam, on charges of seeking U.S. defense secrets for transmission to the Soviet government. A month later, it was disclosed that Morros (whose whereabouts were said to be unknown) would act as a key prosecution witness in the case. The Sobles and Albam were convicted and given prison sentences. The Sterns, summoned to appear before a grand jury, refused  extradition from Mexico and were fined $50,000 for contempt. The identities of at least fourteen other Soviet agents, some of whom held embassy posts in the U.S., were exposed during the course of the trial.

By the summer of 1957, Morros had offers from two studios to produce a movie about his exploits and was being praised by the press as “an incredibly brave American.” His 1959 autobiography, My 10 Years as a Counterspy (co-authored with Samuel Charters) served as the basis for the 1960 film, “Man on a String.” Morros died in New York on January 8, 1963.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Boris Morros Recalls Russia’s Strong-Arm Tactics During His Time at ARA Records (1944 – 1945)

 

A brief excerpt from Morros’ 1959 memoir, My Ten Years as a Counterspy (New York: Viking Press)

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“That summer [1944]  it became known all over the music trade that I had latched on to an angel with a wide-open checkbook. I was even approached with offers to buy Muzak, the company that supplies “canned music” to restaurants and hotels all over the coun­try. We visited ex-Senator William E. Benton of Connecticut, who was then an official of the Muzak corporation, but Stern, who was the one who would put up the money, decided that the price of $600,000 asked for the properties was too high. He would go no higher than $400,000…

“During August, Stern visited Hollywood, and I made the aston­ishing discovery that he already knew more about music, both artistically and commercially, than Paul Whiteman, myself, and Stravinsky combined. Meanwhile, I had surmounted many of our difficulties, and records were being produced. That fall we had a hit recording by Joe Reichman’s band. This was “Nobody’s Home on the Range,” a travesty of the song “Home on the Range,” which had boomed into renewed popularity because it was President Roosevelt’s favorite.

“But Stern disapproved of almost everything we were doing. He disliked my office staff, including my sales manager. He wanted the man discharged, and wished me to switch control of the sales department to his office. Above all, he thought that we should con­centrate on songs of a more cultural type. For example, he disap­proved of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” as a vulgar title, and pre­dicted it would never be popular. He asked a million questions such as “Why don’t we sign up Bing Crosby instead of his brother Bob?” It was tiresome to have to point out that someone had had the same idea years before.

“This was the man to whom I had to explain a few months before what a bar of music was, what the refrain was, the man who asked the usual foolish question, “What is written first—the words or the music?”

“All that fall Stern showered me with daily letters of five to eight pages each. On hearing that we needed record-pressing equip­ment, he rushed out and bought $17,000 worth of second-hand presses that were so outmoded they could not be used.

“I am afraid I was not very patient with my vice-president. By this time I had three shifts working in our little plant. They were turning out thirty thousand platters a day. They had to. Our “No­body’s Home on the Range” record was headed for the hit class.

“Shortly after the partnership arrangement started, both Soble and Stern began pressing me to open a branch in Mexico City. They were still at it, though I had stalled that deal with the argu­ment that before we could do any such thing we must have enough numbers to distribute to Justify a catalogue. However, I was getting more infuriated every day with Stern’s silly letters of abuse and criticism. By now he was disapproving not only of the songs but of the arrangements.

“At the end of the year I decided that life was too short to bother with this money man, and so informed Soble. But it was not until March—this was in 1945—that Jack decided he must do something to calm down both of us. He came with Stern to California to settle our differences. They arrived toward the end of the month and visited the plant.

“‘He is a musical ignoramus on all levels,” I told Soble. “I feel it is impossible to go along with him. The only thing we can do now is to break up this ridiculous partnership.’

“‘Artistic temperament!” clucked Jack Soble.

“The next day they came back to the plant. When the angry words started to fly all over again, Soble suggested that we go to my home in Beverly Hills. I suppose he did not want our employ­ees to hear the dispute. My visitors stayed in Hollywood about a week. Soble, trying to act as peacemaker, kept repeating that the Cause was the one thing that counted, not my petty grievances or Alfred’s. We Just had to get along.

“I have never pretended to be an even-tempered man. During that stormy week I called Stern every foul name I could think of in all the languages I knew—and I know profanity as it is spoken and spluttered around the world. Stern, the Harvard man, just sat there and took it with the uncomprehending look of a hurt child.

“When the week was over with the issue unresolved, Soble said he had to get back to New York. But he was sure that some way to reconcile our differences would occur to him. He asked me to go with them on their trip East so that we would have further talks while traveling. I got a compartment that connected with the drawing room they shared.

En route Soble came up with what he considered the sure-fire solution: if I would agree to continue working with Stern he would invest another $100,000 in the company.

“I refused this, telling Soble, “I don’t want any more of his money. In fact I would be happy to buy back his twenty-five-per­cent share of the business for what he paid for it.”

“‘This is going to make Vasya Zubilin very, very angry,’ Soble said. ‘I’m afraid that he will be very hard on your family in Russia —unless you cooperate.'”

“‘You said you were going to investigate this whole matter,’ I reminded him. ‘You have not been impartial. What I want is a simple thing: to be left alone to do my job, unbothered by nincom­poops.'” I glared at Stern.

“On reaching New York, we had a final meeting at the Tavern-on-the-Green Restaurant. When it ended, we were as far apart as ever.

“A couple of nights later Martha Dodd Stern visited me in my hotel room at the Sherry-Netherland. She was all sweetness and light. Martha blamed herself for neglecting to take a more active part in the business. ‘If I had, Boris,’ she said, ‘there would have been no such misunderstandings between you two tried and true Communists.’ She kept pounding at the point Soble had: The wel­fare of the Party should be our only consideration.

“‘Sorry, Martha, my dear,’ I said, ‘you are being very charming and sweet, wistful and feminine—but too many wrong things have been done, too many said.’

“My lawyers began drawing up the papers for dissolving the partnership in April. I paid Stern $100,000 for his one-quarter interest in the Boris Morros Company and its record-making sub­sidiary, American Recording Artists.

“He rendered an account of how the $30,000 allotted him had been spent. I was amazed to see that he had given Zubilin $5,000 cash and charged it to the company. He had also charged petty items, including the purchase of a record player and two dozen tennis balls for Zubilin, as well as the full cost of his and Soble’s trip to Hollywood.

“But I was glad to get rid of him. I thought I was also extricating myself from Jack Soble’s spy ring. To put it mildly, I was being naively optimistic.

“I had been willing to pay a high price for the privilege of disas­sociating myself. To raise the $100,000 in cash to pay off Stern, I was forced to sell my share of a film property. But they still wished me to engage in a new venture with Alfred K. Stern.

“Jack Soble kept coming to see me. ‘What can I do, Boris?’ he said. ‘You have put me in the difficult position of having to write a bad report on you to Moscow. I am holding it back. I am afraid that Zubilin will be unable to control himself when he hears that you have split up with Alfred. I’d hate to feel responsible for the extermination of your relatives in Russia. Wouldn’t you?'”

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Selected References

Bundschu, Barbara. “Walked Double-Dealing Tightrope: Film Producer Broke Spy Ring.” Camden [NJ] Courier-Post (Jul 11, 1957), p. 1.

“ARA Into Longhair Disks.” Billboard (Jun 29, 1946), p. 38.

“ARA Into Receivership; Will Go on Block Piecemeal After Audit.” Billboard (Sep 28, 1946), p. 16.

“ARA to Hold Bankruptcy Sale.” Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 17.

“Bankruptcy Referee Calls ARA Treasurer to Explain Accounts.” Billboard (Jan 11, 1947), p. 14.

“Boris Morros Dies.” Billboard (Jan 26, 1963), p. 4.

“50G Repaid to Other Leff Corporations Questioned by Trustee in ARA Hassle.” Billboard (Nov 23, 1946), p. 14.

“Key Spy Case Figure Named.” Baltimore Sun (Feb 26, 1957), p. 1.

“Leff Selling Interest in ARA Waxery.” Billboard (Jul 27, 1946), p. 20.

“Masters Free, Clear, Says ARA Receiver.” Billboard (Oct 26, 1946), p. 40.

Morros, Boris (with Charles Samuels). My Ten Years as a Counterspy. New York: Viking Press (1959).

“Morrros Cuts First Disks.” Billboard (Jul 1, 1944), p. 17.

“Morros Jr. Pacts 3 Names for ARA.” Billboard (Nov 24, 1945), p. 20.

“New Indie Pops.” Cash Box (Oct 13, 1947), p. 25.

“Public Judicial Auction Sale by Order of the United States District Court” (legal notice).Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 18

“Radio Interests, MGM Named in ARA Talk.” Billboard (Aug 3, 1946), p. 18.

Soble, Jack (with Jack Lotte).”How I Spied on United States.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 17, 1957), p. 167.

— . “How Spy Ring Got in the Music Business.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 20, 1957), p. 63.

— . “Husband-Wife Spy Team in Action.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 28, 1957), p. 70.

— . “Low Form of Soviet Union Spy Life.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 24, 1957), p. 110.

Wilson, Earl. “Boris Morros’ Undercover Story.” Delaware County Daily Times (Jun 14, 1957), p. 41.

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Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records: The Authoritative History

Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records:
The Authoritative History
By Allan Sutton

Text from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888–1950:
An Encyclopedic History
(Mainspring Press, 2018)

This new account, incorporating previously unpublished information from internal company documents and Pace’s and Du Bois’ personal correspondence (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries) is a preliminary study for the author’s full-length Black Swan history and discography, currently in preparation.

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Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Company 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, if only 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.”

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

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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 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 reported to Du Bois that he had already made test recordings by Ford Dabney’s Orchestra and was hoping to do the same with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert and a very young Marian Anderson.

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 them was comedian Bert Williams, who according to an advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.”

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. 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 tests have survived, they have not been located for inspection. However, most of the early issued masters appear to have been recorded by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon physical and aural characteristics.

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).

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(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.

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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 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 attempts to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution 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 pieces, “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. The company sold a modest 10,300 records during its first month of sales, according to a report in The Crisis.

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 supportive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.

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 ignoring the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed for Pace, albeit briefly. What actually caused Pace to move his pressing business from Olympic was a surge in orders. In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (the New York Recording Laboratories’ 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.

The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough, and Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest releases failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to bring national attention to Black Swan. 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.

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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.

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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.

With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, distribution proved to be a stumbling block. 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.

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

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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 Turpine (given as Turpin in some accounts) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpine 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.”

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 nearly every state 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, on street corners, or wherever else they could.

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

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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.

April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of the 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 involvement in the classical market.

In April 1922, Pace, in partnership with John Fletcher and Michael Naughton, purchased the trademark, masters, and facilities of Fletcher’s defunct Olympic venture. The Fletcher Record Company, Inc., was chartered in New York on May 26, 1922. With Fletcher as president and Pace as vice president and treasurer, it was the first American record company to have a racially mixed executive team, a situation that received only a passing mention the trade papers.

The Fletcher Record Company initially served as the new studio and pressing plant for Black Swan records. The Pace Phonograph Corporation remained in business as a separate entity, and Pace-produced Black Swan labels continued to credit the Pace Phonograph Corporation. Following the acquisition, Pace reported, “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. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.”

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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.”

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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 pure Pace productions, reserved exclusively for 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 the claim that it employed only black talent.

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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.

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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,” xylophonist George Hamilton Green became “Raymond Green,” 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 subterfuge. 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. A reporter for the 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 suspected a ruse went unreported, but Black Swan sales began to stall.

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 it netted only $544 in its first month, he 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.” The stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming. On January 20, 1923, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was reorganized as the Black Swan Record Company. The change marked the end of Pace’s entanglement with John Fletcher, who would file for bankruptcy in December 1923. With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for his pressings, using the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut to handle the occasional overflow. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.

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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.

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The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter had been the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she signed with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed in November 1922 and was replaced as recording manager by William Grant Still. Pace, who 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,” which did not prove to be the case. The major artist exodus occurred after reorganization, beginning 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 of whom subsequently signed on as free-lance artists with music-publisher and talent-broker Joe Davis. In the meantime, Ethel Waters had begun touring on her own, and when the Black Swan Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discovery that the business was barely operating.

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

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The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, but only a handful of new Black Swan releases were forthcoming after July, and some that were announced apparently are not known to have been  released. Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan session, in or around early August. 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 for 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.”

Pace’s debts (which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services) had become unmanageable by the end of 1923. In January 1924, NYRL executive M. A. Supper traveled from Wisconsin to New York to negotiate a buyout of Pace’s operation. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. The Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but purely as a holding company. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be licensed to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.

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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 Record was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, after licensing Pace’s masters.

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Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when NYRL’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 Paramount licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount–Black label had been discontinued.

Pace spent another working to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, a period he characterized in a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors as “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).

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.

“The Horizon” (re: First-month 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.

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For equally in-depth coverage of more than than 1,200 other American record companies, be sure to check out:

A special limited edition available only from Mainspring Press

 

“American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950” Is in Stock – Special Limited Edition

NOW IN STOCK
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American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950
An Encyclopedic History
By Allan Sutton

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760 pages • 7″ x 10″ full-cloth hardcover
Heavy-duty sewn library binding


Special Limited Edition of 300 Copies

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

Visit MAINSPRING PRESS for details, subject list, and ordering

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Collector’s Corner (MP3s) • Some Recent Cylinder Finds: Sophie Tucker, Elida Morris, Murry K. Hill, Goldin Hebrew Quartet, Kukzuoka Sokichi & Others

Collector’s Corner • Some Recent Cylinder Finds: Sophie Tucker, Elida Morris, Murry K. Hill, Goldin Hebrew Quartet, Kukzuoka Sokichi & Others

 

Cylinders seemed to turn up everywhere the past couple of months; here are a few favorites. A heads-up — There’s politically incorrect language (by current standards, but perfectly normal for its day) on many of these. We don’t censor history.

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GILMORE’S BAND: By the Sycamore Tree — Medley

Columbia XP 32413
New York – Released April 1904

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BOB ROBERTS: I Wants  a Graphophone

Busy Bee 261 (Columbia mx.)
New York – Released July 1905

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GOLDIN HEBREW QUARTET: Die Seider Nacht

Columbia XP 32786
New York – Released October 1905

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KUDZUOKA SOKICHI: Komori Uta – Japanese Lullaby

Edison Gold Moulded 12822
New York – Released August 1903

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EDWARD M. FAVOR: O’Brien Has No Place to Go

Indestructible 841
New York – Released September 1908

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MURRY K. HILL: A String of Laughs, intro. “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”

Edison Amberol 401
New York – Released April 1909

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NAT M. WILLS: Down in Jungle Town — Parody

Edison Gold Moulded 10178
New York  – Released June 1909

A great send-up of “Ted” (Theodore Roosevelt). Wills starts out knocking Roosevelt for using English guns, instead of American, on his African safari.

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SOPHIE TUCKER: Knock Wood

Edison Amberol 852
New York – Released October 1911

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ELIDA MORRIS: Stop! Stop! Stop! (Come Over and Love Me Some More)

Indestructible 1457
New York – Released April 1911

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BOB ROBERTS: Fables

Edison Blue Amberol 1632
New York – Released March 1913

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ADA JONES: Oh, Mr. Dream Man (Please Let Me Dream Some More)

U-S Everlasting 1504
New York – Released 1912

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VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle

Indestructible 1453
New York – Released October 1911

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Leeds & Catlin Data Now Available Online at DAHR

Leeds & Catlin Data Now Available Online at DAHR

 

As part of Mainspring Press’ ongoing transition to digital data distribution, we’re happy to announce that our Leeds & Catlin discography has now been incorporated into the University of California-Santa Barbara’s free online Discography of American Historical Recordings.

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The listings were expertly adapted from Leeds & Catlin Records: A History and Discography (William R. Bryant & Allan Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and include the latest revisions to that work. All brands are covered, from the well-known Leeds, Imperial, and Sun labels to such truly obscure items as 20th Century and Duquesne.

The American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) and International Record Company databases are currently in preparation for DAHR. Mainspring’s American Zonophone data, including the previously unpublished volume covering 7″, 9″, and 11″ issues, was transferred to DAHR last year.

Highlights from the Pathe Records Catalog (August 1916)

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

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Antique Phonograph Ephemera • 1904 Zonophone Gatefold Card

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

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

Some Early Record-Pressing Plants

AUBURN BUTTON WORKS (Auburn, NY) — Founded in 1876  by John Hermon Woodruff, as Woodruff’s Button Factory, this  company was renamed Auburn Button Works in the late 1880s. It moved into the Washington Street buildings shown here in 1900. Auburn pressed the 7″ and 9″ brown-shellac Zonophone discs at an auxiliary plant in New York City.

The relationship was severed after Zonophone switched to Duranoid pressings in 1904, and the pressing equipment was moved to Auburn, where the International Record Company (producers of Excelsior, Lyric, et al.) was set up as a recording subsidiary. The company was forced to suspend production of its own records after losing a 1907 patent-infringement suit to Columbia. In the early 1920s the pressing plant was leased to Brunswick, then was sold to the Scranton Record Company in November 1924.

Auburn continued to manufacture other goods after spinning off the pressing business. Its final incarnation was as Auburn Plastics, Inc., which was incorporated on July 1, 1957, and dissolved (after many years of inactivity) on March 24, 1993.

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COLUMBIA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY (Bridgeport, CT) — Columbia’s sprawling Bridgeport complex housed most production operations other than recording. Acquired by the American Record Corporation in 1934, it continued to produce high-quality laminated pressings for ARC’s more expensive labels (Brunswick, Columbia, Liberty Music Shops, et al.), while pressing of ARC’s budget labels remained in Scranton. Conditions in the Bridgeport pressing plant were so bad by the mid-1930s that record producer John Hammond published a scathing exposé and attempted to unionize the workforce.

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VICTOR TALKING MACHINE COMPANY (Camden, NJ) — The largest record-production facility in the United States at the time, the Victor complex was a city unto itself, with its own printing plant, fire department, infirmary, auditorium, police force, docks, and rail line. The view above is from 1916; just twenty years earlier, future Victor founder Eldridge Johnson was building motors for Emile Berliner in a rented shack. The sole surviving structure now houses luxury apartments.

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LEEDS & CATLIN COMPANY (Middletown, CT) — In September 1905, Leeds & Catlin opened this pressing plant in the former Worcester Cycle Company factory, replacing its New York City plant. The move coincided with Leeds’ phase-out of its foil-labeled discs. Three months later, the company announced it had installed fifty additional presses to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for its new paper-labeled Imperial records. By the end of 1905, the Middletown plant was said to have an annual capacity of 150 million discs. This view appeared in a 1906 ad for Radium cylinders, Leeds’ short-lived attempt to re-enter the cylinder market.

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AMERICAN RECORD COMPANY / DOMESTIC / OKEH  (Springfield, MA) — The American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) pressed their blue-shellac discs in this building during 1904–1906. Horace Sheble later pressed his Domestic discs here, using the same sort of blue shellac.

Following the demise of Domestic, Otto Heineman took over the plant in early 1918 for his newly launched Okeh label. Unable to keep up with orders for the first several years, Heineman contracted his overflow pressing to at least two outside plants.

In this view, Okeh is sharing space with the International Insulating Corporation, one of Heineman’s many other business ventures. This pressing plant was closed after Heineman opened a more modern facility in Newark, NJ, in 1921.

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BRUNSWICK-BALKE-COLLENDER COMPANY (Jersey City, NJ) — This was Brunswick’s second pressing plant; initially, it used a facility in Long Island City, NY. Brunswick also used the Auburn Button Works facility as an auxiliary pressing plant until November 1924, when the Scranton Button Company acquired Auburn’s pressing plant. Brunswick’s main pressing plant, in Muskegon, MI, opened in 1922. Vocalion’s masters were transferred there in March 1925. The Muskegon pressing plant was closed after the Brunswick and Vocalion labels were licensed to American Record Corporation, and in 1934 Decca Records purchased the largely obsolete equipment, much to its regret.

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STANDARD MUSIC ROLL COMPANY / THE ARTO COMPANY (Orange, NJ) — Employees assemble for a company photo in 1918 at the Standard Music Roll plant, before production of Arto records began (above). The photo was presented to president George Howlett Davis as a Christmas gift.

The Arto pressing plant was housed in a new structure, shown here in a 1919 architect’s sketch (below). Only the two-story structure on the right was actually built. In addition to the pressing plant, it housed Standard’s piano-roll flange factory. Although Arto claimed to operate its own studio, the vast majority of its masters were commissioned from outside sources, including Jones Recording Laboratories, Independent Recording Laboratories, New York Recording Laboratories, and Harry Marker’s H&M Laboratories (see Bell and Arto Records: A History and Discography, 1920–1928, available from Mainspring Press).

SCRANTON BUTTON COMPANY (Scranton, PA) — The largest independent American pressing plant for several decades, Scranton was closely affiliated with the Plaza Music Company / Regal Record Company group beginning in the early 1920s. Some accounts refer to this company in error as the Scranton Button Works.

Scranton sometimes invested in its clients (including National Music Lovers, in which it held a 49% stake) as a means of ensuring their continued business. At the time this view was published in 1924, the company has just acquired the Emerson recording division, which had been split from the radio division (the latter being the ancestor of the present-day Emerson corporation).

The plant was included in the 1929 merger that created the American Record Corporation. It continued to press budget labels for ARC until that company was sold to CBS, which had no use for the facility. Reorganized as the Scranton Record Company in 1939, it barely survived an entanglement with Eli Oberstein’s failed United States Record Corporation before re-emerging as a major independent plant. Capitol Records began purchasing  Scranton stock in 1944, and on March 26, 1946, it bought the company outright.

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NEW YORK RECORDING LABORATORIES (Grafton, Wisconsin) — Owned by the Wisconsin Chair Company (Port Washington, WI), this converted knitting mill on the Milwaukee River housed the pressing plant for Paramount and its many associated labels. It was a relatively primitive operation, and its pressings tend to reflect that. The pressing plant occupied the large structure on the left. Paramount’s now-legendary (and equally primitive) recording studio opened in late 1929, in the smaller building on the right. The studio building was demolished in 1938, the pressing-plant building in the mid-1940s.

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Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company by Victor Emerson and John Bieling

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company
By Victor Emerson and John Bieling
Introduction by Allan Sutton

 

Chartered on February 19, 1889, as a licensee of the North American Phonograph Company, Newark-based New Jersey Phonograph was one of the earliest producers of cylinder recordings for entertainment purposes. Officers at the time of its founding included George G. Frelinghuysen (president), N. M. Butler (vice-president), and William L. Smith (general manager). In 1892, Smith was replaced by Victor Hugo Emerson (later of Emerson Records fame), who also served as the company’s recording engineer.

At the time of the company’s launch, the phonograph was being marketed primarily as a dictation machine, with music an afterthought; Edison didn’t begin making musical records for sale on a regular basis until May 24, 1889. New Jersey officials, however, reported difficulties in placing the machines with businesses. In May 1890, William Smith noted that the company was encountering organized opposition from stenographers (who feared losing their jobs to a mechanical contraption), and that many business leases were not being renewed.

The company would prove to be far more successful in the nascent entertainment field. The Phonogram for June–July 1891 listed New Jersey as one of the concerns “active in the securing of musical selections,” and the company itself confirmed in 1892 that it was making original recordings. The Phonogram for December of that year devoted a full page to portraits of New Jersey Phonograph recording artists, who included Will F. Denny, George J. Gaskin, John P. Hogan, Russell Hunting, Len Spencer, and George Washington Johnson.

Following a disastrous fire in the winter of 1892, New Jersey Phonograph moved its offices and studio to more picturesque quarters in a loft above the Armour meat-packing plant at 87–89 Orange Street in Newark. Banjoist Fred Van Eps, who made his earliest known recordings there, recalled, “They had the hams and carcasses downstairs and the records upstairs.”

On February 16, 1893, New Jersey Phonograph was reorganized as the United States Phonograph Company, although it continued to advertise under the New Jersey banner well into the year. [1] Frelinghuysen and Emerson retained their positions and were soon joined by George E. Tewksbury and Simon S. Ott, who had previously been associated with the Kansas and Nebraska Phonograph companies.

Detailed histories of these and all the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and their successors, will appear in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, coming in 2018. In the meantime, here are the recollections of two men who were there — recording engineer Emerson, and singer John Bieling.

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Victor Emerson
Speech at the American Graphophone Company’s 25th Anniversary Celebration (Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York – May 15, 1912)

.The real birth of the musical record business took place in New Jersey. The promoters of the enterprise, in those early days, believed the real commercial value of the phonograph or graphophone lay in its commercial features. [2] I know I was hired by a concern to take charge of the dictaphones [3] they had out at that time, and I was asked by Mr. Charles Cheever to make a report upon the subject, and take a week to do it and not to be afraid to tell the truth about the situation. I thought that with a week’s practice I would be able to tell the truth about it and make my report to Lippincott and Cheever. It was an adverse one, and I know that I lost my job the next day. [4]

I then went to work for the New Jersey Phonograph Company and, with my fair exper­ience with the dictaphone, I  thought that to keep my 15 dollars a week coming in I had better try to get them started on musical features. I was very busy “jollying” capitalists for about a week and figured it would cost about 15 dollars to try the stunt.

The Board of Directors consisted of Nicholas M. Butler (now President of Columbia College), S.S. Batten, President of the First National Bank in Newark, N.J., and George Frelinghuysen. They held a Directors’ Meeting and held that a 15 dollars risk was too great! I told them I would pay the 15 dollars if we lost. They asked me to put up the 15 dollars. I didn’t have 15 dollars, but told them they could take it out of my pay if things went wrong! That was a sure bet because. If it went wrong, I’m sure I would have lost my Job and I would have been in 15 dollars anyway!

They finally consented and I set up ten machines on Market Street, beside the Prudential Building, which they were about to tear down at that time. Just as I had finished setting up the ten machines I heard the most lovely music playing out in the street. The tune was “The Boulanger Patrol.” It was being played by a “mud-gutter band” of four pieces.

I asked the “orchestra leader” to come up in my office as I wanted to talk business with him. He had, evidently, never talked with a real businessman before and was very much embarrassed, but he finally said that he did not want to do that kind of business as he was making money in “the legitimate field” and he did not think it would be worth his while, but I told him that we were “sports,” and he could play sitting down on chairs instead of kicking the “bouquets” in the streets! And he finally said he would play for 3 dollars a day for four men.

All phonograph men are economists — if they were not, they would not be in this business, and so I “Jewed” him down to 50 cents and closed the contract! He played all day, and we made about 2,000 records. These cost us nothing because we got the “blanks,” on credit, from the Edison Works, and we never paid our bills — neither did anybody else — it was merely a habit at that time! I’m sure that the people who bought them from me never paid for them! To my knowledge, there never was a musical record sold before that time, [5] and so we held many “conflabs” and figured out what profits we had to make on those 2,000 records, consi­dering the large investment of 3 dollars!

As I said, they were about to tear down the Prudential Building and a man came over and said it would be a good scheme if I could exhibit a Phonograph over in the Prudential place. He was sure I would make some money out of it. I told him it was an expensive thing to do and he acknowledged it. But finally we rented the place at a cost of about 60 dollars. “Now,” he said, “What about records?” I told him we had some “John Philip Sousa Band” records, that we had made at a very large expense, and that we could sell them at 2 dollars, meaning 2 dollars per dozen. And he said, “All right, here is 24 dollars for twelve!” Well we sold all those records at, practically, 2 dollars and now the great question that concerned us was how to stock them.

I got the Manager to consent to give me 5 dollars of that 24 dollars and let me buy a cabinet. I went to a junk store and bought a second-hand kitchen closet. It had a nice, large, fat chop in it, which quite considerably increased the assets of the Company! At the same time gave us something to eat — if the worst came to the worst! The only other expense was 10 cents for chloride of lime; and we stocked those records. I thought it was fun to have a “Grand Concert” up in my office, and when the stock got low, I said to Mr. Smith we had better make some more. He asked “How many have you got left?” and I said “Six.” He said, “Well, gracious me, wait till we sell them all!”

The next great artist we had was George W. Johnson, the composer of “The Whist­ling Coon” and “The Laughing Song,” and I think that the phonograph companies have made more money on those two records than on any other two records in their catalogues. [6] I con­tracted with Johnson to sing at 25 cents a song and kept him busy all day and all night. But the price of whiskey went up at about that time, as you will remember, and it was the same problem then as now, you must give a man sufficient money so that he can live and have the necessities of life. So George “struck,” and I had to bow to the yoke!

Our next artist was [George] J. Gaskin. He was the leader of the Manhattan [sic: Manhansett] Quartet. He, very fortunately, broke his contract just as we were perfecting our duplicating machine. I want to say, by way of diversion, that this duplicating machine was originally invented by Frank Capps. He used to go in a shop parlor, in Chicago, borrow a record, take it home and duplicate it, and would return the other record, but in another color! That looked sus­picious to us and we traced him up, and found him climbing telegraph poles near Pretoria, Illinois! We bought him out and started him manufacturing duplicating machines for us.

But what I want to say about Gaskin is that he told me, one day, that he had a new quartet and that he was going to put it on the market and bust our business. Says he, “The very name will do it!” And I asked, “What name?” and he said, “The Mozart Quartet.” “Mozart, you know,” he added, “was a great musical “‘moke.’”

Well, gentlemen, from that beginning we ran into a business of probably 500,000 records per year in a short time, and I  would have done a large and profitable business were it not for the fact that Mr. Easton [president of the Columbia Phonograph Company] started in about that time and used to buy records from me and scooped up all my new customers with my own records. [7] The only thing that kept us alive was that the Columbia Phonograph Company actually did pay its bills and, at that time, it was about the only company that did.

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John Bieling
From “Reminiscences of Early Talking Machine Days” (The Talking Machine World, April 15, 1914)

Some twenty-two years ago I belonged down in the old Fourteenth Ward — born and raised there; around Spring Street and the Bowery. Four of us fellows used to “barber shop” on a Saturday night and Sunday, and by constant practice our voices blended in great shape in the real thing — good, old fashioned melodies and sentimental ballads. The quartet at that time was George J. Gaskin, Joe Riley, Walter Snow and myself. We called it the Manhansset Quartet. In 1892 we had been working together about a year, when one day Gaskin told us about a man named Emerson who was manager of a concern over in Newark, N. J., called the United States Phono Co., [8] who wanted a good quartet to make some records for him.

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1892

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All of us fellows worked in the day time and did our quartet work evenings. I was making stained glass windows at the time and never thought of making a regular profession of singing. Gaskin had to do some tall talking to persuade us to go over to Newark and work till all hours making these records. I assure you we were a pretty nervous quartet. The first time we went there we knew nothing of what was expected of us, but we took a chance.

Over the ferry, the train brought  us into Newark and Gaskin steered us into a loft over some meat packing house about 50 by 100 and 20 feet, littered with machine boxes and barrels in every state of shipping and handling piled up everywhere. [9]

We at last got ready to make our first record, and I assure you a funny sensation came over all of us. They had about nine horns all grouped together, each one leading to a separate machine connected with a piece of rubber hose. The operator then put the soft wax cylinders on the machines and let the recorder down and then said “All right, go ahead.” I assure you I almost forgot to sing when I heard the sizzling noise coming out of the horns. However, we got through with that round fairly well, considering our nervous state, and after that we began to make some records and they sounded pretty good. Well, that was the first time I got real money for singing and I felt like a millionaire going home that night.

We worked contentedly along these lines for about a year, in the meantime holding down my job at my trade during the day. All was serene. When — crash — someone invented a dubbing machine, which meant that they could make any amount of records from a master record, and we could see fewer engagements coming our way with this new scheme.

It certainly gave us a shock when we discovered that this new idea meant that one “master record” could be used to make duplicates until the wax wore out. This is how it was done: They built a machine with two mandrels, one under the other; on one they would put the cylinder with the song on, and on the other a blank cylinder; then start the machine and throw the sound from one to the other without the services of the quartet. It was tragic, but, like all labor-saving devices, it gave birth to a greater field of work to develop records in. Where we formerly sang the same song forty times, now we sang forty different selections, satisfying the rapidly growing market for “canned music.”

By this time our success as a quartet was quite famous, and we worked for all the record making companies then doing business. About this time, say 1895, we used to go over to Philadelphia and sing about once a month for a man named Berliner, a quiet, modest little German, who had us work in his little attic workshop and register our selections on a flat matrix…

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[1] Not to be confused with the much later U.S. Phonograph Company (Cleveland), the manufacturers of U-S Everlasting cylinders.

[2] Emerson here is referring to the phonograph’s use as a dictating machine, rather than as entertainment device. Each use  had its advocates, who often worked at cross-purposes during this period. The Texas Phonograph Company went so far as to ban any demonstrations of the machine’s musical capabilities in its Dallas offices and show-room, for fear of driving away potential business clients. Those wishing to hear a tune (for a fee) were directed to the company’s separate phonograph gallery, in an adjacent building.

[3] This is a generic reference to phonographs intended for business dictation, rather than the actual Dictaphone machine. “Dictaphone,” with a capital “D,” was not registered as a trademark until September 1907, by Columbia.

[4] The events referred to in the opening paragraphs occurred during early-to-mid 1892. Emerson resigned from United States Phonograph (New Jersey’s successor) in January 1897 to accept a recording engineer’s position with Columbia. Several associates followed him, helping themselves to some U.S. masters on their way out.

[5] Emerson is mistaken here. Edison had been selling musical cylinders since the late spring of 1889, followed by Columbia in early 1890. The reference to “2,000 records” is to individual copies, not the number of titles recorded.

[6] A pioneering African-American recording artist, George Washington Johnson’s main recorded repertoire consisted of approximately a half-dozen songs, which he repeated for numerous companies well into the early 1900s. Although Johnson’s records were very popular, it is unlikely that sales ever approached this level, given their relative scarcity today as compared to other surviving records of the period. Unfortunately, sales figures do not exist that could prove or disprove Emerson’s claim. Johnson didn’t compose “The Whistling Coon” as Emerson states, but he recorded it so often that the song became inextricably linked to him in the public’s mind.

[7] Emerson is referring here to master recordings, which Columbia purchased and duplicated for sale under its own brand. The copying of other companies’ recordings (done legally in this case, but not always in others) was a common practice during the brown-wax era.

[8] Successor to the New Jersey Phonograph Company. At the time the Manhansett first recorded, the company was still operating under the original New Jersey name.

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VICTOR EMERSON went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer and a key figure in the development of the Little Wonder record. He resigned from Columbia in 1914 to launch the Emerson Phonograph Company, which despite its initial success, was bankrupt by 1921. Forced out in the reorganization that followed, Emerson retired to California, where he died on June 22, 1926.

JOHN BIELING, although he never attained any great popularity as a soloist, continued to record prolifically as a member of various studio ensembles, including the Haydn (a.k.a. Edison Male) and American (a.k.a. Premier) quartets. After experiencing throat problems in 1913, he gave up singing to work as a traveling Victor salesman, then opened his own record store. Beginning in 1946, he hosted an annual reunion of pioneer recording artists. He died on March 29, 1948.

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Annotations ©2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. The Emerson and Beiling excerpts are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.

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Boston Talking Machine Company and the Little Wonder Phonograph (1910 – 1913)

 Boston Talking Machine Company and the Little Wonder Phonograph (1910 – 1913)
By Allan Sutton

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When the Boston Talking Machine Company introduced its Little Wonder phonograph in 1911, Little Wonder records were still three years in the future. Little Wonder phonographs and discs were unrelated, the products of two entirely different companies.

Boston Talking Machine was launched in the spring of 1910 by  Josiah B. Millet (an acoustic engineer, inventor, and publisher of The American Business Encyclopaedia and Legal Advisor) and was financed largely by Henry and Henrietta Whitney. Millet assembled a stellar staff, including George Cheney, formerly of Zonophone and Sonora (recording engineer); Louis Valiquet, formerly of Zonophone (consulting engineer); Loring Leeds, formerly of Leeds & Catlin (general manager); and Fred Hager, formerly of Zonophone (musical director). Isaac W. Norcross was also briefly associated with the venture but severed the relationship in August or September 1910. The company produced Phono-Cut discs, the third American vertical-cut label to be introduced (preceded only by Sonora and Sapphire).

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Boston Talking Machine’s records were marketed by the Phono-Cut Record Company beginning in early 1911. The Colonial Phono-Cut, a short-lived (and now quite rare) single-sided variant, used Phono-Cut’s master numbers for its catalog numbers. It was no bargain, at just a nickel less than its double-sided sibling.

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Boston Talking Machine’s Little Wonder phonograph was a compact device with cast-iron base and a reproducer that could be rotated to play either vertical- or lateral-cut discs. The tonearm terminated within a small pivoting external horn, from which the sound was reflected.

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Boston Talking Machine’s Little Wonder phonograph, with the reproducer in vertical-cut position (from Tim Brooks & Merle Sprinzen’s Little Wonder Records and Bubble Books, Mainspring Press). The ads are from 1912 (middle) and 1913 (bottom), the latter just before the name was changed to Wondrola.

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Around June 1913, for reasons that remain undiscovered, the Little Wonder phonograph was renamed Wondrola. The change had nothing to do with Little Wonder discs (a Columbia product that would not be introduced or trademarked for another year) but coincided with Boston Talking Machine’s growing  financial troubles. The company had discontinued recording in early 1913, and during the summer it lost its largest retailer with the closing of Chicago’s O’Neill-James Company. On October 2, Boston Talking Machine  was placed in receivership. According to Henry Whitney, the company was “financially embarrassed and unable to meet its obligations.”

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Around June 1913, the Little Wonder machines began to be marketed under the Wondrola name. By then, Boston Talking Machine was failing financially and just a few months away from being placed in receivership.

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Charles E. Whitman purchased Boston Talking Machine’s assets in January 1915, for $30,000. The Phono-Cut masters were sold to the Starr Piano Company’s Fred Gennett, who reissued selected titles on Remington, a short-lived, inexpensive side-line to Gennett’s Starr label. Contrary to some hobbyists’ accounts, the Keen-O-Phone Company did not acquire or reissue Phono-Cut masters.

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A c. 1915 Remington disc pressed by the Starr Piano Company (Gennett) from Phono-Cut masters. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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In November 1915, the remaining Phono-Cut pressings were sold to the Wonder Talking Machine Company (New York), a newly formed venture headed by former U-S Everlasting executive Harry B. McNulty. The company issued a catalog of long-deleted Phono-Cut discs in April 1916, which retailed for just 25¢ each (40¢ less than the original list price), but its main offering was a new line of  Wondertone lateral-cut phonographs:

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References

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Blacker, George, et al. Phono-Cut research materials and discographical data (unpublished; Mainspring Press collection).

“Boston Concern in Trouble.” Music Trade Review (Oct 11, 1913), p. 48

Boston Talking Machine Co. “Sales Bulletin” (1913).

“Boston Talking Machine Co. Affairs.” Talking Machine World (Dec 15, 1913), p. 18.

“Boston Talking Machine Co. in Hands of Receiver.” Louisville Courier-Journal (Oct 3, 1913), p. 6.

“Buys Boston T.M. Co. Assets.” Music Trade Review (Nov 13, 1915), p. 49.

“Court Confirms Sale.” Music Trade Review (Feb 1915), p. 74.

“Geo. K. Cheney to Boston.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1910), p. 14.

“Issue an Interesting Catalog.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1916), p. 60.

“L. L. Leeds Resigns as Manager.” Talking Machine World (Sep 15, 1913), p. 19.

“New Company being Organized.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1910), p. 14.

“Pioneer in the ‘Talker’ Field—The Achievements of L. P. Valiquet Constitute a Veritable History of the Industry.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1920), p. 155.

“Represent New Line.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1913), p. 21.

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© 2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.