Collectors’ Corner (Free MP3’s) • Some Early April Finds:
Charlie Segar, L. C. Williams, Claude Casey’s Pine
State Playboys, Jelly Roll Morton,
Seven Hot Air-Men
Spring is bustin’ out all over, and so are the 78s. A few favorite finds from the last several weeks, a couple of them from dealers and the rest from lucky estate-sale and junk-shop finds:
SEVEN HOT AIR-MEN [ED KIRKEBY]: Lowdown Rhythm (E-)
New York: May 23, 1929
Columbia 1850-D (mx. W 148618 – 2) Ed Kirkeby’s “hot” unit, after his California Ramblers went the big-band route. Personnel from the Kirkeby log: Phil Napoleon (trumpet); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Pete Pumiglio (reeds); Chauncey Gray (piano); Tommy Felline (guitar); Ward Lay (string bass); Stan King (percussion).
JELLY ROLL MORTON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Courthouse Bump (EE+)
Camden, NJ: July 9, 1929
Victor V-38093 (mx. BVE 49453 – 2) Other than Morton, the personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works are anecdotal (no source cited, and not original Victor file data). Note that personnel were added to some RCA documentation long after the fact, probably in conjunction with the Bluebird reissue program in the 1940s. They appear to have been taken from the none-too-reliable Charles Delauney discography and unfortunately are often mistaken for original Victor documentation, which lists only the instrumentation (not the players).
CHARLIE SEGAR: [Pine Top’s] Boogie Woogie (E)
Chicago: January 11, 1935
Decca 7075 (mx. C 9646 – A)
CHARLIE SEGAR: Cow Cow Blues(E)
Chicago: January 11, 1935
Decca 7075 (mx. C 9645 – A)
CLAUDE CASEY & HIS PINE STATE PLAYBOYS:
Pine State Honky Tonk (EE-)
Rock Hill, SC (Andrew Jackson Hotel): September 27, 1938
Bluebird B-7883 (mx. BS 027737 – 1)
L. C. WILLIAMS: You Never Miss The Water (E- to V++)
Houston (Bill Quinn studio): c. June 19, 1947
Gold Star unnumbered acetate Issued commercially on Gold Star 614. For a detailed history of Bill Quinn’s studios and labels, along with more than 1200 other entries, check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950(limited edition, available from Mainspring Press while supplies last).
We pay top collector prices for records of this type (must be true, non-grainy E- or better; V+ may be acceptable for rarer items). Why settle for dealer prices for your higher-end disposables? Let us know what you have, grade honestly and accurately with all defects noted (including any label damage), and state your best price.
Collectors’ Corner: Some March 2019 Finds
Fats Waller with Tom Morris, Fletcher Henderson,
Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, East Texas Serenaders,
Uncle Dave Macon
THOMAS MORRIS & HIS HOT BABIES with THOMAS [FATS] WALLER (E)
Camden, NJ (Church studio): December 1, 1927
Victor 21358 (mx. BVE 40097 – 2) “Race release,” per Victor files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Waller and Morris, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Victor file data).
RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider (E+)
New York: August 15, 1927
Brunswick (British) 01536 (mx. E 24232) Stock arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Nichols, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).
DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as The Jungle Band): Tiger Rag,
Part 2 (EE+)
New York: January 8, 1929
Brunswick (French) A 9279 (mx. E 28941 – A) Irving Mills arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Tidal Wave (E)
New York: September 12, 1934
Decca 213 (mx. 32602 – A) The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Decca file data).
EAST TEXAS SERENADERS: Acorn Stomp (E)
Dallas: December 2, 1927
Brunswick 282 (mx. DAL-720- )
UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT-JAR DRINKERS: Tom and Jerry (E- to V+)
Collectors’ Corner • Some February Finds: 1920s Pop (Annette Hanshaw, Banjo Buddy, Al Jolson, Bernie Cummins, Cass Hagan, Baker & Silvers)
Some favorites from a recent estate-sale cache of late 1920s pop singers and hot dance bands:
PHIL BAKER, assisted by SID SILVERS: At the Theater (E)
New York: September 21, 1927
Victor 20970 (mxs. BVE 39117 – 1 / 39118 – 2) Victor files show only BVE 39117 – 3 as having been mastered.
HAROLD SANDELMAN (as BANJO BUDDY): Let’s Misbehave (E)
New York: March 7, 1928
Brunswick 3865 (mx. E 26855 or E 26856) William F. Wirges (conductor), “Mr. Daulton – monitoring,” per the Brunswick files; accompanying personnel are unlisted. The take used is not indicated in the files or visible in the pressing.
ANNETTE HANSHAW (as PATSY YOUNG) with THE NEW ENGLANDERS: I Want to Be Bad (EE+)
New York: March 14, 1929
Velvet Tone 1878-V (Columbia mx. [W] 148077 – 2) Accompanying personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
CASS HAGAN & HIS PARK CENTRAL HOTEL ORCHESTRA (Franklyn Baur, Lewis James, Elliott Shaw, vocal): The Varsity Drag (E–)
New York (Okeh studio): September 2, 1927
Columbia 1114-D (mx. W 144617 – 2) Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
BERNIE CUMMINS’ ORCHESTRA (Bernie Cummins, vocal): When You’re with Somebody Else (E)
New York (Brunswick Room #2): January 7, 1928
Brunswick 3772 (mx. E 25875) Karl Radlach, arranger, per Brunswick files. Personnel listed in Rust’s American Dance Band Discography and derivative works are speculative (not Brunswick file data).
AL JOLSON with WILLIAM F. WIRGES’ ORCHESTRA: Blue River (E–)
New York: November 11, 1927
Brunswick 3719 (mx. E 25189) William F. Wirges (conductor / arranger); Harry Reser (banjo) present as an “extra,” per the Brunswick files; other personnel unlisted.
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.
GILMORE’S BAND: By the Sycamore Tree — Medley
Columbia XP 32413
New York – Released April 1904
BOB ROBERTS: I Wants a Graphophone
Busy Bee 261 (Columbia mx.)
New York – Released July 1905
GOLDIN HEBREW QUARTET: Die Seider Nacht
Columbia XP 32786
New York – Released October 1905
KUDZUOKA SOKICHI: Komori Uta – Japanese Lullaby
Edison Gold Moulded 12822
New York – Released August 1903
EDWARD M. FAVOR: O’Brien Has No Place to Go
New York – Released September 1908
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
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.
SOPHIE TUCKER: Knock Wood
Edison Amberol 852
New York – Released October 1911
ELIDA MORRIS: Stop! Stop! Stop! (Come Over and Love Me Some More)
New York – Released April 1911
BOB ROBERTS: Fables
Edison Blue Amberol 1632
New York – Released March 1913
ADA JONES: Oh, Mr. Dream Man (Please Let Me Dream Some More)
U-S Everlasting 1504
New York – Released 1912
VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle
New York – Released October 1911
Do you recall when you made your very first recording?
Don’t ask me about dates because I’m terrible at them, but I remember being given a contract by the Columbia company around the time I made my Met debut. No, it was before my debut—I’m pretty sure it was before it because I made the recording in the spring, and my debut with Caruso in Forza del destino was in the fall, in November .
So you were still in vaudeville with [your sister] Carmela when you made the recording?
No, we were “on strike” from the Keith Circuit in 1917, or that’s what we told [Keith Circuit booker] Eddie Darling at the time. But Romano Romani, whom I credit with “discovering” me, was an arranger and conductor for Columbia, and he and my so-called manager, [William] Thorner, convinced me to accept a contract from Columbia rather than Victor. What I didn’t know until a few years later, when I did go with Victor, was that they had wanted me from the time I made my Met debut. After my debut was a sensation, as the critics called it, Victor wanted to offer me a big contract and have me record arias and duets from Forza with Caruso.
Before the name change: Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo in vaudeville
(New York Clipper, August 8, 1917).
Carmela (left) and Rosa Ponselle (center) with Rosa’s secretary, Edith Prilik.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Were you at all aware of Victor’s interest when Columbia wanted you to sign with them?
No, but I should’ve been because [Columbia] really rushed the contract through, and then had me make this test record. Some of my friends said I should have Thorner try to see if Victor would take me, but he gave me this song and dance about how if I went with Victor I would just be a “beginner” and wouldn’t get much to record, but that at Columbia I would be “the queen” and would be their big star.
Do you remember the title of your test recording for Columbia?
Sure. “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with Romani accompanying me at the piano. That would have been in the spring of 1918, maybe March or April.
Where were the Columbia studios in New York City, where you made your recordings?
It was on the top floor of a new building, the Gotham, near Central Park. It was a beautiful new building, and the studios obviously were brand-new, too. I think there were four studios that took up that whole top floor. I know it was at least twenty-four stories, that building, and the studios were on the top floor.
Describe the process that making those recordings involved.
Well, there was just a small orchestra for accompaniment—mainly brasses and reeds, and these special [Stroh] violins that had a nickeled horn, like a curved megaphone, instead of a wooden body. Those odd-looking violins were made just for recording purposes because their horns were fastened to a metal bridge, which made them very loud compared to a real violin—but they sounded awful!
How many were in the accompanying band, if you recall?
Maybe ten or a dozen players at most for vocal recordings. They were on bleachers, I guess you could call them, a few feet above the floor. The bleachers were shaped like a half-moon, so that the instruments were pointing toward the horn. I remember that there was no player right behind me when I was singing. The players were at my left and right, but with no one behind me because the sound of their instrument would have been right in back of my head.
When you were making a recording, could you see the recording machinery and the person who was running the equipment?
No. All of that was behind a wall. There was a little window in the wall so that the man directing the recording where the singer and the orchestra was could communicate with the people running the equipment.
Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Was there a signal that someone gave to start the recording?
At Columbia, that was Romani’s job. He would get a hand signal through the little window that I was just describing, and he would raise his baton and the recording would begin. Now at Victor, I remember a buzzer that was used as a signal to start the recording. That was before the microphone came in, of course. After that, there was a system of lights, kind of like traffic lights. The red light meant “stand by,” and the green one meant that the recording machine was already going.
Do you remember any directions you were given about how to sing into the recording horn?
Oh, that damned horn! It was a real ordeal having to make a record with that horn, especially if you had a good-sized voice like mine. You had to sing every note at almost the same volume—so if the score called for a pianissimo, you couldn’t sing it because the recording machine would barely pick it up. You couldn’t sing too loud, either. If you did, they [i.e., the recording engineers] said that it would “blast” the groove and ruin the record. So anything forte, especially fortissimo, had to be sung by looking upward so that some of the sound wouldn’t do directly into the middle of the horn. Or they would tell you to take a step back from the horn right before you would sing a note fortissimo.
“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”
Both you and your sister Carmela were offered Columbia contracts, correct?
Yes, they wanted to capitalize on our reputation in vaudeville. We were one of the top acts on the Keith Circuit before I went to the Met, and our act consisted of fifteen minutes of mainly duets that I had done the arrangements for. Three that always got us huge ovations were our duets of the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, “’O sole mio,” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.” We recorded those for Columbia, and they sold well.
What is your opinion of your Columbia recordings? Are there any that you remember especially well?
Well, those duets with Carmela, and another one from our vaudeville act, “Kiss Me Again,” which was my solo. That record turned out pretty well. One that didn’t like was the “Casta diva,” which I had to sing at a horrible tempo and with none of the dynamics that I used in the opera house. I just thought of another duet recording that I liked: the Trovatore “Mira d’acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo!” which I made with Riccardo Stracciari. My God, what a voice he had—just like a shower of diamonds! Now, of all of the solo opera arias I made for Columbia, I consider the “Selva opaca” from William Tell to be the best one.
The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.
Was it hard for you to leave Columbia after being so successful with them, and go to Victor?
It was bittersweet, I would say. The men at Columbia were so nice to me—they really did treat me like “the queen,” just as Romani and Thorner said they would. And it was bittersweet because although I made a lot more money at Victor, Caruso had died two or three years earlier, so I never got to record with him.
Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?
No, she stayed with Columbia. And by the way, I didn’t “audition” for Victor. I was at the Met by then, and Victor did everything they could to get me to sign with them.
What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?
Well, the ones that were done with the horn and the small orchestra for accompaniment were made in their Manhattan studios. When the microphone came along and everything was electrical, I made a lot of my records at this church that Victor had converted into a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey. The acoustics of that church were ideal.
From the “1930” Victor catalog (published November 1, 1929). Of Ponselle’s acoustically recorded issues, all but #6437 had been deleted by the time this catalog appeared.
When the electrical-recording process was introduced in 1925, do you recall how different it felt to make a recording with the new technology?
Oh, yes! It was like night and day. The orchestra was much, much larger, and they used regular instruments—real violins, in other words—and you could have a good-sized chorus and a pipe organ if the music you were recording called for them.
You made a number of recordings with a chorus, and one of your fan’s favorites is “La vergine degli angeli” with [Ezio] Pinza. Do you consider that one of your best electrical Victor records?
No—it’s one of my least favorites. My part, that is, not Pinza’s. He sings beautifully on that record. What I don’t like about it is that somebody in the control room turned up the volume on my microphone. It’s a prayer, so it’s supposed to be sung piano—but because of the way they turned up the volume on the microphone when I was singing my part, it’s way too loud, nothing like a prayer would be sung.
Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)
How about your Forza trio recordings with Martinelli and Pinza? Do you like those Victors?
Yes, they’re all right. The blend of the voices turned out well.
Of all the duet recordings you made for Victor, the “Tomb Scene” discs from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli are prized by everyone who has heard them. Is it true that you didn’t like them and that Martinelli had to convince you to allow them to be released?
That’s true, yes. There again, the balance between our voices was wrong. We recorded those duets twice, you know. The first time was with the horn, and I wouldn’t let those be released because we were both too loud and the pace was too fast. It’s like one of the Columbias that I made with that damned horn, the “Vergine degli angeli” with Charles Hackett. He was an excellent singer—not the most beautiful voice, but a real artist—yet the recording was just awful. It was all too loud, no subtlety at all. The same with those first “Tomb Scene” recordings that I made with Martinelli and that damned horn.
When Victor persuaded us to re-record those duets after the microphone came in, the sound was much better, of course, but I thought the balance between our voices was still off, so I said I wouldn’t go along with putting them out. Finally, Martinelli persuaded me to okay them. He said, “Look, Rosa, the public will understand. You sing so beautifully and your voice sounds just like it does on the stage.” I could never say no to Martinelli, so I went along with him and let them be released. When I hear them now, I’m glad I did.
What is your opinion of your Norma recordings, both the “Casta diva” and the “Mira, o Norma” with Marion Telva?
I’m fine with them, especially the “Mira, o Norma.” Telva and I were in synch on every note. We did that in the studio the way we did it onstage. We held hands, and I would squeeze her hand gently a fraction of a second before I would begin a note. Every time we did that duet, we were completely in synch because of the way we held hands.
Were any of your Victor Red Seals of older ballads like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, who conducted most of Victor’s popular-music recordings?
No, never. I don’t remember him—I mean, I must have been introduced to him, but I wouldn’t know him if he walked into this room right now. Rosario Bourdon conducted my Victor recordings.
An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.
As you hardly need me to tell you, you are one of the very few opera stars who made acoustical recordings, electrical recordings, and modern long-playing recordings. You’ve talked about the day-and-night difference between making acoustical and electrical recordings, but what was it like by comparison to make high-fidelity long-playing recordings for your old company, RCA Victor?
What I wouldn’t have given to have had that recording system when I was in the prime of my career! It was so easy making recordings that way!
Those LPs were made right here at Villa Pace, correct?
Yes, in the foyer, where the high ceiling and the walls and tile floor give the voice such resonance. They set up the microphones there. They brought in a seven-foot piano for [accompanist] Igor Chichagov, because it would have been too much trouble to move my concert Baldwin piano into the foyer. And do you know that the man who oversaw those recordings was one of the men I worked with at Victor in Camden? His name was Mr. Maitsch. It was such a happy moment when he came here and we got to work together again.
The master recordings for those LPs were made on magnetic tape. You had had some experience with having your singing tape-recorded by Lloyd Garrison, who recorded private albums that you sent to friends. How different was it working the RCA’s technicians and their state-of-the-art equipment?
Well, the sound quality of the RCA equipment was leagues ahead of what Lloyd had used. He had an ordinary [Webcor] tape recorder, but he did have a very good microphone that he bought for our private recordings. But the RCA microphones were the ones they used in their studios, so of course they were the top microphones.
Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)
How many “takes” did you do of each of the songs you recorded for your LPs?
Well, if I liked the way it sounded, I just sang a song once. Sometimes, they would ask me to do a second “take” just as a back-up—and sometimes I didn’t like the way I did a number, so I recorded it a second or maybe even a third time. Now, that I didn’t realize until later, when I heard them on the discs for the first time, was that they [i.e., the sound engineers] had spliced different portions from different “takes.” Now, that was something else I wish we’d have had in the old days. I have a good ear, though, and when I listen closely I can sometimes tell where they did the splicing. I can tell because the resonance changes just enough for my ear to detect it.
Did you rehearse a lot before you began recording the selections for those LPs each afternoon and evening?
Oh, hardly at all. I just picked what I wanted to sing, and I handed the score to Igor [Chichagov] to play it while I sang it. Now, he will tell you that he’s not happy with some of his playing because I didn’t want to rehearse. I just wanted to keep going, and record as many songs as I could in one long day. On a couple of the songs, I played my own accompaniment because it was easier for me to pace my phrasing.
Is there any one of the songs on which you played your own accompaniment that you remember especially well?
Yes, yes—“Amuri, amuri,” which is a Sicilian folk song. It’s such an emotional song! It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check while we were recording it. Afterward, I was a wreck and we had to stop for quite a while until I could get my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged.
Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?
Yes. Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s. I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika. But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933]. Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà. The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.
Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932. Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.” I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill. In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.” Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.
You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala. I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.
The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg.  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met. It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì. It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded. I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice. So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.
Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?
Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920. He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno. [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now. Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920. The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.
Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang? The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.
Yes, we had a copy of it. Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.
Do you still have that test pressing?
No. My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.
When did you make your test recordings for Victor?
In 1920. On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.
Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?
Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal. It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it. I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.
How many test recordings did you make that day?
Just two. I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.
Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?
No. I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.
Were you pleased with what you heard?
With “Come per me sereno,” yes. But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”
Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?
It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn. I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me. .
NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno
Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.) .
Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?
There were two reasons, really. The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly. As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me. After he died, of course, that became a moot point. The other reason had to do with my husband. Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.
You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano. Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds. To what extent did he really “know” music?
He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach. He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them. He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines. It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep. I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.
But he could not read music, correct?
No, not at all. Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch. Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.
Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?
Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire. As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.” Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought. As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”
Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?
It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons. Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited. Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons. They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème. And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home. So that was that.
Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini. From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.
He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time: “Per Dio! If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!” When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.
Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice. Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso. But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.
Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.
Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend. One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.
We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood. That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served. From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.
When we got into the car, he exploded! “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”
You sang under Toscanini. Do you recall how many times?
The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.
How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals?
“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind. He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel! He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig. Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza. It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.
Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?
Definitely not! He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!
Did he finish the rehearsal?
Yes, but he rushed through it. He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best. At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!
Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him. Do you recall how many you sang with him?
In all, there were eleven. The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920. He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall , two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.
Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?
No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers. He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci. I think he did one with Mary Garden, too. One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli. Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him? But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him. He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.
Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him. And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him. But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso. The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.
This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)
What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?
The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program. He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar. Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.
Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program. Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections. After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.
After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together. Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him. That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it! Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.
After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?” That’s when the fun would begin!
He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!” This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta, Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.” Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”
You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?
Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place. I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika [on April 12, 1932]. When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.
Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias: he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.” After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs. He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me. Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.
After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys. That was the last selection on the printed program. As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore. Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you! He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”
If that isn’t a tour de force, what is? I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert. Gigli’s entire career was that way: fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.
Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)
 Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune: “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”
JOSEPH C. SMITH’S ORCHESTRA, Featuring HARRY RADERMAN & HIS LAUGHING TROMBONE: Yellow Dog Blues — Medley Fox Trot, introducing “Hooking Cow Blues”
New York: October 1, 1919 — Released December 1919 (Deleted 1926)
Victor 18618 (mx. B 23282 – 1)
BESSIE SMITH (acc: Fletcher Henderson’s Hot Six):
Yellow Dog Blues
New York: May 6, 1925
Columbia 14075-D (mx. W 140586 – 1)
DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Yellow Dog Blues
New York: June 25, 1928
Brunswick 3987 (mx. E 27771 – A or B) The selected take (of two made) is not indicated in the Brunswick files or on inspected pressings.
MEMPHIS JUG BAND: Rukus Juice and Chittlin’
Chicago: November 8, 1934
Okeh mx. C 801 – 1 From a c. 1960s vinyl pressing from the original stamper. This recording was issued commercially on Okeh 8955, as part of the final group of Okeh race releases made before the 8000 series was scuttled.
MR. O’CONNELL (as BILLY REYNOLDS): I Got It (The Fidg-e-ty Fidge)
New York (master shipment date): March 17, 1923
Gennett 5111 (mx. 8282 – A) With uncredited orchestra
A mystery artist — We’re going out on a limb here by lumping whoever this is in with the vaudevillians, but his style certainly suggests some stage experience. The Gennett log sheet attributes this only to a “Mr. O’Connell” (not M. J. O’Connell, based on the aural evidence), and the record was issued under the equally obscure name of “Billy Reynolds.” Anyone know anything about him?
EDDIE NELSON: I’ve Got the Joys
New York — Released October 1921 Emerson 10426 (mx. 41919 – 3) With studio orchestra probably directed by Arthur Bergh
Eddie Nelson (1894–1940; not to be confused with song-writer Ed G. Nelson) was a California native who toured in vaudeville with a succession of partners. His first major role in a musical comedy was in the 1921 production of “Sun-Kist” (Globe Theater, New York), from which he took his nickname. Nelson was a hit in London in 1927, where a reviewer opined, “He is starring at a very big salary…and evidently jusitifies it.” He made one Vitaphone short in 1928, and additional single-reelers in the 1930s as “Sun-Kist Nelson.”
JANE GREEN: Somebody Like You
New York: January 30, 1925 — Released April 24, 1925; Deleted 1926
Victor 19604 (mx. B 31451 – 6) With studio orchestra directed by Nathaniel Shilkret
Another California native, Jane Green got her start as a child actress in Los Angeles, toured in vaudeville as a teenager, then headlined at the major New York houses from 1918 into the late 1920s. Her Broadway credits include “The Century Revue” and “The Midnight Rounders” (1920), “Nifites of 1923,” and various editions of the “Grenwich Village Follies.” She began broadcasting over station WOR (Newark, NJ) in 1925.