Columbia Phonograph Company Window Displays (1904 – 1907)

Columbia Phonograph Company Window Displays
(1904 – 1907)

 

The Lost Art of Window Dressing,
from The Columbia Record

 

 

Columbia Phonograph Co.
Rochester, New York (1906)

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Columbia Phonograph Co.
Cleveland (1906)

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

.Columbia Phonograph Co.
Detroit (1906)

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Atlanta (1906)

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Columbia Phonograph Co.
New York (1904)

 

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Cleveland (1905)

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.Columbia Phonograph Co.
Kansas City (1904)

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

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


 

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

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

Original recordings from the Mainspring Press Collection

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

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

 


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

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

 


BESSIE WEISMAN (acc. uncredited orchestra)

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

 


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

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

 


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

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

 


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

 


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

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

 


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

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

 

Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are Now Available Online

Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are
Now Available Online

 

A Growing Treasure-Trove of Historical Documents Is Now Easily Accessible to Researchers and the Phono-Curious

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Thomas Edison at his New Jersey mining operation

 

For vintage-record and phonograph collectors of a certain age, Raymond R. Wile is a legendary name that needs no introduction. For younger folks, or those who are newer to the field: Ray was among the foremost experts on the early U.S. phonograph and recording industries in general, and Edison in particular. His long-running series of articles in the ARSC Journal set new standards for research in the field.

Ray’s work was based on his astonishing archive of primary-source documents, painstakingly sought-out and copied long before the Internet made such quests considerably easier. At the time of his death several years ago, there was the inevitable question of where this invaluable (and massive) collection should reside.

Realizing that donating the collection to a large institution would probably be condemning it to a black hole — as happened to the late Jim Walsh’s materials at the Library of Congress, which left them uncatalogued for years, and has yet to make them available online — the family made the wise decision to hand  custodianship to a private individual with expertise in the field, who would contractually agree to curate, index, and make the materials easily available to the public, online and free of charge, within a reasonable time.

The individual selected was Ryan Barna, who many of you know from his Phonostalgia website, Archeophone program notes, and other writings — and it’s proven to be an excellent choice. Ryan has been doing a remarkable job of sorting, scanning, and posting these invaluable documents, beginning with selected court cases (oh, how those early companies loved to sue each other!), internal Edison documents, and other materials that are not readily obtainable elsewhere.

To date, Ryan has posted 200 documents on the Internet Archive site, and that’s just the beginning. CLICK HERE to access the currently available documents, or Google “Raymond R. Wile Research Library.” Be sure to check out the site and show your support for the important work Ryan is doing.

 

UPDATES: Addition to the Indestructible Cylinder Listing / Upcoming Gus Haenschen Installment

UPDATES
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• Addition to the Indestructible Cylinder Listing
• Upcoming Gus Haenschen Installment

 

Thanks to Joel Reese (Local History Librarian at the Iredell County Public Library, Statesville, NC), we can finally confirm that Indestructible 1363 — unaccounted-for in our Indestructible cylinderography — is “Narcissus,” by an unidentified orchestra. A revised version of the Indestructible file, incorporating this and other recent updates, will be posted later this year.

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The eagerly awaited next installment in Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series is now in preparation! This chapter will be of special interest to ragtime enthusiasts and record collectors, covering (among many other things) Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including the legendarily rare “Maple Leaf Rag.” In the meantime, if you haven’t already done so, be sure to browse the other installments in this fascinating series.

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Columbia Artists’ Sales Ranking: A Representative Sampling, 1919–1920

Columbia Artists’ Sales Ranking: A Representative Sampling, 1919–1920
Compiled from the Original Columbia Files
by Allan Sutton

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The following statistics provide some insight into who were Columbia’s best- and worst-selling artists of 1919–1920. Compiled from the company’s record-shipment sheets, they show average shipping figures for records that were released from June 1919 through May 1920 by selected artists. They represent the total number shipped; i.e., from time of release until time of deletion (the latter averaging about two-to-three years from release for these records).

It is important to note that these are the number of records shipped to distributors, not the number sold — actual sales statistics for these records are long-gone. Sales would have been somewhat less than the number shipped, since shipping figures do not reflect unsold copies exchanged or returned for credit (although those numbers likely would not have been large, due to strict limits the company placed on such transactions). And it is not known if these figures include review and other complimentary copies, which would not count as sales. Nevertheless, they provide a good gauge of relative sales, and of an artist’s relative popularity.

These figures put to rest any notion of rampant “million-sellers” in the early 1920s. Although Victor had several 1919–1920 releases that probably approached or even slightly surpassed that mark, Columbia (the nation’s second-largest label) did not. One of its top-selling releases for this period (A2895, coupling Ted Lewis’ “Bo-La-Bo” and the Kentucky Serenaders’ “Venetian Moon”) eventually shipped approximately 512,000 copies — and that’s more than double the total number shipped for the typical Columbia “hit” of the period. Total shipments in the 80,000–150,000 range were more the norm, and were still considered highly respectable.

This is just a preliminary survey (in preparation for what will be a detailed statistical analysis at some point), and one should not to jump to any far-reaching conclusions from a selective, one-year sampling. Some points to bear in mind:

 

  • These figures do not reflect artists’ sales ranking during the full run of their Columbia tenure. Some, like Bert Williams, already had many substantial best-sellers behind them, and would have made a stronger showing here had those been included in the tally. Others, like Ted Lewis, were just getting started and would go on to rack up even more impressive figures than are shown here.

 

  • These are average total shipments; shipments of individual releases could vary considerably. Individual Jolson releases during this period, for example, shipped anywhere from 70,705 to 283,004 copies over their life-span.

 

  • Sales of the 1920 releases, in particular, were undermined by the start of a severe recession. Columbia’s average sales declined dramatically in 1921, and they remained depressed well into 1922. Generally, peak sales occurred for only a few months after release; thus, those records released in 1919 had already seen their biggest sales before the recession hit, while those released toward the middle of 1920 saw their sales cut short by the economic crisis. As a result, the figures for artists who are more heavily represented by 1920 than 1919 releases are skewed slightly downward.

 

  • Columbia’s tendency to put different artists on each side of a record also has the potential to skew results. Some popular names (including Billy Murray, Arthur Fields, Charles Harrison, and Henry Burr) do not appear here because their records so often have other artists on the reverse sides, raising the question: Which artist’s side “sold” the disc? Shipment of these and similar artists’ Columbia releases generally hover around the 70,000–90,000 range for the period, but with many outliers on either end of the sales spectrum.

 

  • Records by Al Jolson and some other major stars were coupled with lesser artists’ recordings during this period. In these cases, we’re assuming that it was the “star” side, and not the reverse-side filler, that sold the records. It seems highly likely, for example, that far more customers bought A2836 for Jolson’s Broadway hit, “You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet,” than for Billy Murray’s “Come on and Play with Me,” a “dog” of a title if ever there was one. Therefore, that release is tallied with Jolson’s sales, not Murray’s.

 

  • Some records by Fox, Fuller, Hickman, the Jockers Brothers, Jolson, and Stewart were heavily discounted to distributors during 1922–1923, as part of Columbia’s “59¢ Retired Record” clearance. This revived the sales of some records that otherwise had long-since reached the end of the line in terms of sales, adding another 1,000–5,000 copies to the final tally.

 

Average Total Shipments of Columbia Records
by Selected Artists

(June 1919 – May 1920 Releases)

 

Al Jolson • 208,258

Ted Lewis’ Jazz Band • 178,913

Columbia Saxophone Sextet • 173,836

Louisiana Five • 170,162

Art Hickman’s Orchestra • 150,245

Irving and/or Jack Kaufman • 146,729

Bert Williams • 134,984

Kalaluki Hawaiian Orchestra • 124,542

Nora Bayes • 123,567

Wilbur Sweatman’s Original Jazz Band • 121,174

Van & Schenck • 116,686

Fisk University Jubilee Quartet • 103,100

Cal Stewart • 101,904 *

Sascha Jacobsen • 94,235

Harry Fox • 89,001

Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra • 83,698

Jockers Brothers • 76,027

Oscar Seagle • 58,106

Louis Graveure • 34,731

Yvette Guilbert • 1,781

 

*Columbia’s release of multiple, previously unissued Stewart recordings soon after his death in December 1919 might account for this high figure. After an unusually strong showing in early 1920, sales of these records declined quickly and dramatically.

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© 2021 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

Columbia Race Record Shipments (1921 – 1923)

Columbia Race Record Shipments (1921 – 1923)

Compiled from the Original Columbia Documentation
by Allan Sutton

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Columbia did a healthy business with its jazz and “blues” records by Black artists in the early 1920s, as this representative sampling from Columbia’s files confirms. On average, shipments were on a par with many records by Columbia’s White pop performers of the period, and they far exceeded those of some prestigious Symphony Series artists. Columbia at the time was marketing these records across racial lines, but that would soon change, with its introduction of the segregated 13000-D / 14000-D series.

Not surprisingly, Bessie Smith was Columbia’s sales champ in this category, although none of her records came close to the million-seller mark, as some pop-culture writers have claimed (nor did any Columbia record during the early 1920s). Columbia underestimated the sale potential of her first release, with an initial pressing run of only 20,000 copies, which turned out to be insufficient to even fill the advance orders. During 1923, she handily outsold such White headliners as Eddie Cantor and Al Jolson, as will be seen in a future installment.

Most of these records had a relatively short life in the catalog, averaging a little over two years. As with ephemeral material in general, the largest sales occurred within the first few months of release, then dropped steadily. Most of the records listed here, if not already deleted, were cut from the catalog during the summer of 1925, when Columbia began purging its acoustically recorded material. The most notable exception was Bessie Smith’s A3844, which managed to avoid the axe until November 1929.

The following is a representative sampling from the Columbia files. It is important to note that these are the number of records shipped, not the actual number sold (actual sales statistics for this period have not survived).

Not reflected in these figures are unsold copies that were returned for credit, although those numbers likely would not have been large, since Columbia placed strict limits on such transactions. And it is not known if these figures include sample, review, and other complimentary copies, which would not count as sales. Nevertheless, they provide a good gauge of relative sales and, by projection, the degree of relative scarcity today. None are true rarities, of course (and a few, like A3844, are still downright common), but some can be surprisingly elusive, especially in decent condition.

 

A3365 • Stafford: Crazy Blues / Royal Garden Blues
Shipped: 116,188

A3511 • Stafford: Down Home Blues / Monday Morning Blues
Shipped: 18,482

A3537 • E. Wilson w/ Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: West Texas Blues / I Don’t Want Nobody
Shipped: 25,800

A3541 • Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Bugle Blues / Birmingham Blues
Shipped: 16,870

A3579 • Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Put and Take / Moanful Blues *
Shipped: 23,582

A3653 • E. Wilson w/ Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: He May Be Your Man / Rules and Regulations
Shipped: 56,819

A3696 • L. Williams: Sugar Blues / The Meanest Man in the World
Shipped: 40,553

A3736 • L. Williams: Uncle Bud / Mexican Blues
Shipped: 18,568

A3739 • Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Four O’Clock Blues / Hawaiian Blues
Shipped: 100,872

A3746 • E. Wilson w/ Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Evil Blues / Pensacola Blues
Shipped: 62,979

A3787 • E. Wilson w/ Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Dixie Blues / He Used to Be Your Man
Shipped: 50,661

A3815 • L. Williams: I’m Going Away / Bring It with You When You Come
Shipped: 26,885

A3835 • L. Williams: If Your Man Is Like My Man / That Teasin’ Squeezin’ Man
Shipped: 18,004

A3839 • Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Hallelujah Blues / Spanish Dreams
Shipped: 26,080

A3844 • B. Smith: Down Hearted Blues / Gulf Coast Blues
Shipped: 276,990

A3888 • B. Smith: Baby Won’t You Please Come Home / Oh Papa Blues
Shipped: 152,7679

A3893 • Dunn’s Jazz Hounds: Vampin’ Sal / Sweet Lovin’ Mama
Shipped: 16,899

A3897 • L. Miles: Sweet Smelling’ Mama / Haitian Blues
Shipped: 14,765

A3910 • B. Smith: Mama’s Got the Blues / Outside of That
Shipped: 96,413

A3915 • Gulf Coast Seven: Daybreak Blues / Fade Away Blues
Shipped: 28,425

A3915 • L. Wilson w/ Jazz Hounds: Deceitful Blues / Memphis Tennessee
Shipped: 15,701

A3920 • L. Miles: Family Trouble Blues / Triflin’ Man
Shipped: 9,629

A3921 • A. Brown: Michigan Water Blues / Tired o’ Waitin’ Blues
Shipped: 17,098

A3922 • Baxter: You Got Ev’rything / Taylor: My Pillow and Me
Shipped: 13,624

A3936 • B. Smith: Bleeding Hearted Blues / Midnight Blues **
Shipped: 133,626+

A3939 • B. Smith: Yodling Blues / Lady Luck Blues
Shipped: 45,664

A3942 • B. Smith: Nobody in Town / If You Don’t I Know Who Will
Shipped: 65,887

A3950 • J. P. Johnson: Worried and Lonesome Blues / Weeping Blues
Shipped: 13,447

A3951 • Henderson’s Hot Six: Gulf Coast Blues / Midnight Blues
Shipped: 14,536

A3958 • R. Henderson: Afternoon Blues / I Need You
Shipped: 10,716

A3959 • Fowler: Blues Mixture / Satisfied Blues
Shipped: 7,388

A3965 • Ridley: I Don’t Let No One Man Worry Me / Alabama Bound Blues
Shipped: 18,504

A3966 • C. Smith: Play It / All Night Blues
Shipped: 25,778

A3978 • Gulf Coast Seven: Papa Better Watch Your Step / Memphis Tennessee
Shipped: 20,084

A3992 • C. Smith: I Want My Sweet Daddy Now / Irresistible Blues
Shipped: 20,734

A3995 • Henderson’s Orch: Dicty Blues / Doo Doodle Oom
Shipped: 21,155

A4000 • C. Smith: I Never Miss the Sunshine / Awful Moanin’ Blues
Shipped: 62,435

A4001 • B. Smith: Graveyard Dream Blues / Jail House Blues
Shipped: 206,293

 

* Although some discographies question whether this was a Dunn recording, it is credited to Johnny Dunn’s Original Jazz Hounds on the Columbia accounting sheet.

** Total sales at time of first deletion in Aug 1925. The record was reinstated in the catalog from Jan 1926 to Mar 1928; sales figures for that period are not noted.

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In upcoming installments, we’ll be looking at Columbia shipping figures for pop, ethnic, and classical releases.

 

© 2021 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings in Chile (Fonografía Artística Records)

Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings in Chile
 By Renato D. Menare Rowe
(Santiago, Chile)

 

 

Related Article: The Marconi Velvet Tone Story

 

In Chile, the pioneer of sound recording, on cylinders and later on discs, was Efraín Band, creator and owner of the label Fonografía Artística. Some of Efraín Band’s Chilean recordings were pressed by Columbia on flexible discs (Marconi Velvet-Tone type), with the label Fonografía Artística. Some were coupled with original Columbia recordings of Mexican music.

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One of Band’s own standard shellac pressings (top), and a flexible version of the same record, pressed by Columbia.

 

Ephraim Band’s normal shellac pressings were announced at first, giving the title, and the phrase “propiedad de la casa Efraín Band” (“ownership of the Ephraim Band house”). Band’s recordings pressed by Columbia were also announced, but indicating only the title, for which a different matrix was recorded by Band. The numbering of shellac recordings was four figures, and the flexible recordings were the same, but with a zero in front.

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The following flexible Marconi-type discs were pressed by Columbia, from masters in their Mexican series, for sale in Chile on the Fonografía Artística label. The reverse sides are Band’s own recordings. We would be interested in hearing from anyone who has other confirmed examples.

 

010033-1-3    (Mx 5516)

La trigueñita – Canción popular
Maximiano Rosales
FA 010033
            (Original  Columbia C177 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev.: 02197 (02197-1-1)   El cazador – Cueca

 

10035-3-1   (Mx 5521)

Levántate vieja modorra – Canción popular
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrera Robinson
FA 010035
            (Original  Columbia C195 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev.: 02014 (02014.1.1)   El paseo en carreta

 

010041-4-2    (Mx 5576)

El amor y el desafío – Jota mexicana
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrera Robinson
FA 010041
            (Original  Columbia C194 –  c. 1903–1908)
            Rev: 02011 (02011-1-1)   Por amor cantan las aves – Tenor

 

010053-4-2    (Mx 5482)

Aires Nacionales Nº 1 (Miguel Ríos Toledano)
Maximiano Rosales y Rafael Herrare Robinson
FA 010053
            (Original Columbia C146 – c. 1903-1908)
            Rev.: 02155 (02155.1.1)   El torito guapo – Cueca

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Good Listening • “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business” (Archeophone)

Good Listening:

The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
(Archeophone 6011)

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If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.

The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s  impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of  recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.

The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.

Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.

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On the Mainspring Press Blog:
James A. Drake: The Gus Haenschen Interviews

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Samantha Bumgarner: Newspaper Highlights (1924 – 1960)

Samantha Bumgarner: Newspaper Highlights
(1924 – 1960)

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North Carolina native Samantha Bumgarner inspired Pete Seeger to take up the banjo, performed for British royalty, and (with Eva Davis) was the first female country music performer to make records.

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The team of Bumgarner and Davis cut five titles in Columbia’s New York studio on April 22, 1924, three of which were released. Bumgarner returned to the studio the following day, without Davis, to record seven more titles, five of which were released.

Bumgarner’s records appear to have sold reasonably well throughout the Appalachian region; we’ve found copies as far north as the South Mountain area in Pennsylvania, and as far west as the Alleghenies in West Virginia. But Bumgarner failed to attract a national following, and Columbia did not invite her or Davis back.

However, Bumgarner would remain active in the Asheville, North Carolina, area for several decades. Beginning in 1928 she was a star attraction at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival, an annual Asheville event founded and managed by folklorist/performer Bascom Lamar Lunsford. Pete Seeger, who heard Bumgarner perform there in the mid-1930s, claimed her as his inspiration for taking up the five-string string banjo.

In June 1939, Lunsford took Bumgarner to perform for King George VI and Queen Elizabeth at a White House concert staged by the WPA, which featured such diverse talent as Marian Anderson, Kate Smith, Josh White, the Golden Gate Quartet, and the Coon Creek Girls. Bumgarner continued to perform into the late 1950s.

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Asheville, North Carolina (July 1924). The caption is reversed; Bumgarner is on the right.

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August 1940

.Bumgarner (with Bill McCanlass, top) performing at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville (August 1942)

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At the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (Asheville,
September 1949)

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Asheville (March 1960)

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December 25, 1960

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April 23, 1924, was a busy date at the Columbia studio, with Bumgarner recording in the morning, followed that afternoon by  Bessie and Clara Smith. Here are two historic sides from that day:

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SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Fly Around, My Pretty Little Miss

New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 146-D (mx. 81716 – 1)

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SAMANTHA BUMGARNER: Georgia Blues

New York: April 23, 1924
Columbia 166-D (mx. 81719 – 1)

 

 

Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh Weathersby): Newspaper Highlights, 1892 – 1919

Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh Weathersby):
Newspaper Highlights,
1892 – 1919

 

Of all the pioneer studio artists, Cal Stewart (1856 – 1919) left the most abundant paper trail. Stewart was a master of self-promotion, and unlike most of his contemporaries in the recording business, record-making comprised only a small (if lucrative) portion of his activities.

Stewart spent much of his time on the road, giving recording demonstrations, making free promotional appearances in connection with his records, and mounting traveling theatrical productions complete with orchestra and supporting cast. He also dabbled in the book business, launching his own publishing venture to produce the popular Uncle Josh Weathersby’s Punkin Centre Stories in 1903.

Below are some of the most interesting clippings from Stewart’s long career. Diehard Uncle Josh fans can hear and download more than 170 Stewart recordings (including some rare brown-wax issues) on the University of California-Santa Barbara’s cylinder record site.

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“Happy Cal Stewart” in January 1892, as The Original Jersey Farmer (top); and in January 1897, with his Uncle Josh persona now fully developed.

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From The Phonoscope for February 1899, and probably placed by or for Stewart himself, based upon the lack of a specific record-company affiliation.

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Stewart on the road with his own “capable company and special scenery” (Allentown, Pennsylvania, September 1900)

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Numerous ads appeared in the early 1900s for Stewart’s record-making demonstrations. These examples date from December 1900 (top) and March 1902. This was toward the end of the brown-wax cylinder era, when all that was required to make records was a supply of blanks and an off-the-shelf cylinder phonograph with recording attachment. Note Stewart’s offer in the Bentel ad to make original records to order, a topic ripe for discographic investigation.

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An early announcement for Stewart’s popular book. Despite the  title, it also included many of his poems, which he never recorded. Early editions were printed on heavy, high-quality paper and credited to the Punkin Centre Company of Chicago. Later printings, often on cheaper paper and with less decorative bindings, bore a variety of imprints. (November 1903)

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Stewart’s take on the “rube” stereotype (Minneapolis, July 1906)

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Oakland, California, was one of many towns that claimed a close connection with the widely traveled Stewart. (May 1909)

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Stewart’s “Politics” (top, January 1910) eventually morphed into “Running for Governor” (bottom, November 1913), an elaborate  traveling theatrical production that included five vaudeville acts in addition to Stewart and supporting cast.

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Davenport, Iowa (December 1913)

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Stewart on “naturalness” in acting (Muncie, Indiana, November 1914)

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Making a promotional appearance for his records
(Stevens Point, Wisconsin, October 1916)

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Cal Stewart plays Kansas in April 1919, at Kingman (top) and Lyons (bottom). “Gypsy Rossini” was Rossini Waugh Stewart, his second wife.

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One of Stewart’s last documented public performances
(Hannibal, Missouri, September 24, 1919)

Chicago (December 10, 1919). In a different obituary, cause of death was given as “tumor of the brain.”

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Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights, and the World’s Biggest Banjo (1891 – 1923)

Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights,
and the World’s Biggest Banjo
(1891 – 1923)

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Vess L. Ossman (left) and Vess, Jr. (undated photo)

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Early mentions of Ossman in the New York papers: December 2, 1891 (top), at which time Harlem was an affluent new suburb; and February 12, 1899.  Ruben “Ruby” Brooks made recordings in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Bettini cylinders, but he died in 1906.

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Ossman participated in several recording demonstrations that have been documented, including this one for Berliner’s Gramophone on December 16, 1897. Three months earlier, Berliner’s New York studio had been opened rather reluctantly for a similar demonstration in which Ossman also participated, with management declaring, “We have yielded to the demand of popular and scientific interest in the process by which our indestructible Gram-o-Phone records are made.” The demonstration recordings are not known to have been released.

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New York (December 1901)

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Ossman went to England in the spring of 1900 (top), where he was a hit. He recalled his experiences in January 1918 (bottom).

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Ossman in the “talkies” (Salt Lake City, November 1908). The Cameraphone Company was launched in 1908 by Eugene E. Norton, an engineer with the American Graphophone Company (Columbia). The process employed synchronized six-inch cylinder records and Columbia Twentieth Century phonographs for the sound source. (For more on Cameraphone and other early attempts at “talking pictures,” see A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press.)

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Another Ossman appearance on-screen (Independence, Kansas, March 1913). These movies were made for Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone, which also employed synchronized cylinders.

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A December 1916 El Paso dealer ad for Columbia records by Ossman and “Howard Van Epps” (a typo for Fred Van Eps, Ossman’s only significant rival).

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Ossman and company on the road (Scranton, Pennsylvania, January 1917). The Peerless Records Makers were forerunners of the Eight Famous Victor artists, a traveling promotional troupe in which Fred Van Eps replaced Ossman.

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In 1918, with his recording career over and his style becoming increasingly outdated, Ossman moved to Dayton, Ohio. He spent the remainder of his career performing in Dayton and other Midwestern cities. The ads above are all from Dayton, published in May 1918 (top left), October 1922 (top right), and December 1921 (bottom).

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Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)

Vess Ossman Jr. continued to perform in the Dayton area into the early 1930s; the ad above is from November 1931. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a theater manager.

 

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Ossman’s recorded output was truly monumental. Here are just a few favorites; his “Maple Leaf Rag” was the second recording to be made of that number, preceded only the U.S. Marine Band’s 1906 version.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome Intermezzo

Camden, NJ (Johnson factory building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3048
The pianist is uncredited but is likely Frank P. Banta (father of the novelty pianist Frank E. Banta) or C. H. H. Booth, Victor’s house accompanists at the time.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Maple Leaf Rag

New York: Released June 1907
Columbia 3626 (M-1414)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: The Buffalo Rag

New York: March 2, 1909
Victor 16779 (mx. B 6848 – )
The pianist is uncredited, contrary to some discographies. Ossman originally recorded this piece for Victor on January 26, 1906 (mx. B 3049).

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VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle

New York: Released January 1911
D&R Record 3759 (Columbia mx. 4919 – 1)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Hoop-E-Kack

New York: Released July 1909
Indestructible 1113 (cylinder)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle

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Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)

Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers:
Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)

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Among the first superstars of real country music (as opposed to the synthetic stuff cranked out by the likes of Vernon Dalhart), Riley Puckett and Gid Tanner worked their way up from humble beginnings in Georgia — Puckett performing for spare change on the streets of Atlanta, and Tanner competing at the “old-time fiddlers’ conventions” that were so popular at the time. Here’s a glimpse of their stories, from newspaper clippings of the period:

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Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)

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One of the earliest mentions of Gid Tanner, getting ready to perform at the spring convention of the Georgia Old-Time Fiddlers’ Association
(January 17, 1915)

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Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)

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Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)

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Gainesville, Georgia (July 1924). The Skillet Lickers had yet to be formed at this point, leaving the makeup of Tanner’s Famous Orchestra an intriguing mystery.

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Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers

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Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
(April 1927)

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Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)

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Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)

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Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)

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Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.

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At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)

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Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
(November 1934)

One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)

 

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And a few favorites from their vast output:

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie

Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Riley Puckett, vocal):
Alabama Jubilee

Atlanta: April 17, 1926
Columbia 15104-D (mx. W 142037 – 2)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Gid Tanner, vocal):
Soldier’s Joy

San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 30, 1935
Bluebird B-5658 (mx. BVE 82722 – 1)

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GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS (Ted Hawkins, mandolin):
Hawkins’ Rag

San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)

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CLAYTON McMICHEN, RILEY PUCKETT, GID TANNER, LOWE STOKES, FATE NORRIS, BOB NICHOLS & BILL BROWN:
A Corn Licker Still in Georgia — Part 4

Atlanta: April 12, 1928
Columbia 15258-D (mx. W  140322 – 2)
Bill Brown (playing the hapless visitor on this side) was a manager in Columbia’s Atlanta office. This was not a pseudonym for Harry C. Browne, as columnist Jim Walsh once claimed.

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GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine

Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Rosa Ponselle Discusses Her Recordings

ROSA PONSELLE ON HER RECORDINGS
An Interview by James A. Drake

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(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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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 [1918].

 

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.

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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)

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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.

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Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
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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.

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Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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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.

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“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”

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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.

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The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)

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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.

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An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.

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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.

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Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)

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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.

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

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

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 1 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Born of Italian parents who had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Buffalo, New York in 1890, Nina Morgana (1891-1984) first sang in public performances in her native city’s Italian district in 1900. [1]  After studying in Italy with Teresa Arkel from 1909-1913, she made well-received debuts in Alessandria and in Milan.  When she returned to America, she was chosen by Enrico Caruso as one of his assisting artists in a highly-publicized series of concerts in the United States.  Morgana made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1920-21 season, having previously sung with the Chicago Opera Association under the management of Mary Garden.

In June 1921, scarcely two months before Caruso’s sudden death, Morgana married the tenor’s full-time secretary, Bruno Zirato (1886-1972), who later became the general manager of the New York Philharmonic and also served as Arturo Toscanini’s representative in North and South America.  Essentially self-educated and invariably self-assured, Morgana was well-acquainted with Beniamino Gigli, as she discussed in a number of interviews conducted by the author from 1973-1979. 

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Bruno Zirato with Dorothy and Enrico Caruso on their wedding day, August 20, 1918. The location is the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.
(G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You and Beniamino Gigli made your Metropolitan Opera debuts during the same season, is that correct?

In the same season, yes, and less than twenty-four hours apart:  Gigli made his as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele on November 26, 1920, and I made mine as Gilda in Rigoletto on Saturday, November 27.  But strictly speaking, my debut was not my first performance at the Met.  Several months earlier, on March 28, I sang three arias at a Sunday Night Concert, with Pasquale Amato and [violinist] Albert Spalding also on the program. 

 

Was Caruso [was] to have sung the Duke in your debut in Rigoletto?

Yes, but he was ill, so Mario Chamlee sang the Duke at my debut. [2]  Giuseppe De Luca sang Rigoletto.  Chamlee and De Luca were also my partners in Barber of Seville during that same season.  I also sang Nedda in Pagliacci with Edward Johnson as Canio and Antonio Scotti as Tonio in my debut season.  I was to have sung Pagliacci with Caruso originally.

 

In operatic circles, it is widely known that you were “discovered” by Caruso.  When and where did this “discovery” take place?

I can tell you precisely:  it was on Saturday, May 9, 1908, at 3:00 p.m., in Buffalo, New York, in one of the four suites on the top floor of the Iroquois Hotel.   I can be more specific by telling you that Caruso’s suite was the one atop the front of the hotel, which faced Eagle Street.  The hotel, which had one-thousand rooms, was still new at that time; it had opened for business in conjunction with the Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901.

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

Yes, I sang there in an exhibition called Venice in America, on the midway.  I was nine years old, and was billed as “Baby Patti” or “Child Patti” in the [Buffalo] newspapers.

 

It was at the Pan-American Exposition, on June 13, 1901, that President William McKinley was assassinated.  Do you recall anything about that tragic day?

The only memory I have is hearing adults around me saying very agitatedly, “The President has been shot!  The President has been shot!”  I was too young to know what “being shot” meant—and I also didn’t know what “president” meant, much less who the president was.  When I asked my parents about it, they tried to explain to me that in the United States, the president was “the king.”  Well, I didn’t know what a “king” was, so I just accepted the fact that someone important had been hurt in some way.

 

When you auditioned for Caruso, do you recall what you sang?

Yes, I sang “Caro nome.”  Just the “Caro nome,” without the recitative.  When I finished, Caruso patted me on the cheek and told my father, who came with me, that I had a very promising voice.  He told us that I would have to study in Italy, and he said he would write a letter on my behalf to the great Teresa Arkel, asking her to accept me as a pupil.  He did so, and about a year later, my father and I sailed to Italy.  During the day, while I was at Mme. Arkel’s having my lessons, my father worked as a laborer.

 

Obviously, Caruso detected the youthful promise in your voice, just as he did several years later with the young Rosa Ponselle.  Looking back, what do you think he heard in your voice that prompted him to refer you to Teresa Arkel?

Well, whatever he heard was not what Mme. Arkel heard!  In his letter to her, Caruso had written that he believed my voice would become a mezzo-sopranone, or in English, “a great big mezzo-soprano.”  When I sang for Mme. Arkel, however, she said that my voice would be fine for roles like Lucia, Amina in Sonnambula, and Adina in Elisir d’amore, which require an exceptional top.  And I had one, too.  By the time I left Mme. Arkel, I could sing the G above high-C effortlessly.  But vocally, I was certainly not going to be singing Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana.

 

When you were studying in Italy, was Caruso as famous there as he was in the U.S.?

Actually, no.  His recordings were well-known, of course, and hence his name was well-known, but since 1903 he had been at the Metropolitan Opera, not La Scala or one of the other houses in Italy.  The tenor who was admired when I was studying in Italy—not just admired, but adored—was Giuseppe Anselmi.  He was as famous there as Caruso was in the United States.  

Anselmi, whom I heard several times, had a gorgeous voice and a perfect technique, and was also extraordinarily handsome.  Anselmi was “all the rage,” so to say, as was Maria Galvany among sopranos.  It was Galvany, not Melba, who was adored in Italy, yet in America she was almost unknown other than on recordings.

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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A great tenor who sang during Anselmi’s time, and whom some historians claim was the equal of Caruso in certain roles, was Alessandro Bonci.  Did you see Bonci, and if so, what was your assessment of him?

The distance between Caruso and Bonci as tenors was about the size of the Grand Canyon.  They had nothing at all in common, either vocally or as men.  In Italy, it was rumored that Bonci was an unethical person.  He had played some part in obtaining a forged letter from Verdi, giving Bonci supposed permission to sing the “È scherzo od è follia” in a unique way.  I heard a recording of it, and Bonci’s performance was different yet acceptable.  But he was still in disrepute because he had paid someone to forge the letter from Verdi.

Personally, I saw Bonci as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he was wearing an over-stated costume topped by a large hat with an even larger feather protruding from it.  Frankly, he looked silly on the stage.  Vocally, his singing was pleasant enough, and it reminded me somewhat of Lauri-Volpi because both of them had exceptional high ranges.  But Lauri-Volpi was handsome onstage, whereas Bonci was a feather-bearing little man in an overdone costume with high-heeled boots.

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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Earlier, you mentioned having sung with Edward Johnson in Pagliacci at the MetWhen Johnson’s name is mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Opera, it is usually in reference to his tenure as General Manager, not as one of its significant tenors.  Do you recall the first time you heard him sing?

Yes, in Italy in 1910.  I sang with him there in Elisir d’amore.  At the time, he was singing under the Italianized name “Edoardo di Giovanni.”

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

My very first performance on an opera stage was as the hidden “forest bird” in Siegfried, at the Teatro Dal Verme.   Tullio Serafin, who was young and handsome—his hair was brown and thick in those days—had come to Mme. Arkel to ask if she had a pupil who could sing the part.  She told him that I could do it, and I did—I sang it hidden in a papier-maché “tree.”  Giuseppe Borgatti was the star of the performance.

I was also in the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala on March 1, 1911, which was led by Serafin.  The cast included Lucrezia Bori in the breeches role of Octavian, Ines Maria Ferraris as Sophie, and Pavel Ludikar as Baron Ochs.  During one of the curtain calls with the full cast, I held Strauss’s hand.

 

At the Met, Lucrezia Bori and Edward Johnson were famously paired as Romeo and Juliet.  But you knew both singers in Italy a decade before you made your Met debut?

Bori and Johnson were perfect for each other in Roméo et Juliette.  And, yes, I sang a number of performances with Johnson at the Met.  But his best partner among sopranos was Lucrezia Bori, not Nina Morgana.  I’m sure you have heard recordings of Bori, but have you seen photographs of her?

 

Yes, mostly studio portraits but a few candid ones, in various books about the history of the Met.

Most of her publicity photos were taken [of her] in profile, or else at an angle, rather than facing the camera lens.  She had an ocular condition called strabismus, which lay people refer to as having a “lazy eye” or, less kindly, as “cross-eyed.”  When she was relaxed, Bori’s right eye would tend to drift toward her nose.  My brother, Dante Morgana, a premiere ophthalmologist and surgeon, gave her exercises to train the muscles of her right eye to keep the eyeball centered.

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Lucrezia Bori (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

Although fate deprived you of the opportunity to sing Pagliacci with Caruso, you sang not only Nedda but other major roles with almost all of the legendary tenors who inherited Caruso’s repertoire.

My best roles were Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in Bohème.  Although I also sang Mimì in Bohème, [General Manager Giulio] Gatti-Casazza said that I was not only better as Musetta, but that I was the best Musetta of the several sopranos who sang the role under his management.  

 

Do you recall some of the casts in your performances of those operas?

I sang my first Micaela in Carmen with Giovanni Martinelli and Miguel Fleta alternating as Don José, and with José Mardones as Escamillo.  I know of no other basso profondo who could sing Escamillo—later, Pinza sang it, but his voice was a less powerful lyric sound compared to José Mardones.  But Mardones’ range was so marvelous that he could sing Escamillo easily and convincingly.  In some of my performance in Pagliacci, Antonio Scotti sang Tonio and the “new boy,” Lawrence Tibbett, was Silvio. 

In the 1924-1925 season, in a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, I sang the part of the mechanical doll Olympia, with Miguel Fleta as Hoffmann.  In that production, Bori sang the roles of Giulietta and Antonia, and she did them with great distinction.  Later, Queena Mario sang Antonia, but with no distinction at all.

Perhaps you know that Queena Mario’s birth name was Helen Tillotson, a perfectly fine name.  She claimed that [conductor and coach Wilfrid] Pelletier, to whom she was married, had suggested the ridiculous name “Queena,” but I think she made it up herself.  I used to make her mad by asking, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

 

You sang several times with Giovanni Martinelli, who, perhaps with the sole exception of Caruso, seems to have been beloved by everyone, even by the other great tenors of that era.

I sang Eudoxie in the revival of La Juive with Martinelli as Eléazar, Leon Rothier as the Cardinal, and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel, the role she had created [at the Met] with Caruso in 1919.  In fact, other than Martinelli singing Eléazar in place of Caruso, the revival had almost the same cast as the [Met] premiere.  Ponselle sang most of the performances, but not all of them.  Florence Easton sang several Rachels, as did Elisabeth Rethberg later.

Among the other great tenors of that period, I sang with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi for the first time in Rigoletto in 1926, with De Luca and Mardones.  For that performance, with Gatti-Casazza’s consent, I made a change in Gilda’s costume:  I wore a pink gown in the first scene.  I also sang with Lauri-Volpi in Africana, with Ponselle as Selika, and I sang with him again in Pagliacci in the 1929-1930 season.  In Africana, Gigli was cast instead of Lauri-Volpi in several of the performances I was in, and Florence Easton replaced Ponselle in some of them.  Most were conducted by Serafin.

 

Do you recall the tenors with whom you sang in Bohème?

As I said earlier, Musetta was one of my best and most frequent roles, and I was especially fortunate to sing several performances with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo [in 1932].  A few times, Rodolfo was sung by Martinelli.  It’s not a role that one would immediately associate with him, but the color of Martinelli’s voice was light enough for it, and he restrained the volume of his clarion voice.  I also sang some performances with Armand Tokatyan, who was a very fine tenor and deserves to be remembered better today.

I was also fortunate to be in the opera house on the opening night of the 1921-22 season, when Gigli sang Alfredo to Galli-Curci’s Violetta at her debut.  I knew Galli-Curci before then.  Both of us had sung in Chicago when Mary Garden was the general manager.

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Mary Garden (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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If one-half of the stories that have been told and written about Mary Garden are true, she must have been a formidable person.

Indeed, she was, but probably no more so than Melba or Patti before her.  They ruled their kingdoms—and they made those kingdoms.  No woman who achieved what Patti, or Melba, or Geraldine Farrar, or Mary Garden achieved, could have done so without enormous self-confidence.  Mary Garden, at least as I knew her, was not imperious at all, but she knew very well what her value was. 

She could talk about herself in a way that may sound conceited in the retelling, but from her standpoint it was simply a matter of fact.  I remember walking to the Chicago Opera house with my sister Angie, who traveled with me, and seeing Mary Garden coming toward us.  She stopped us and said, “Did you see my Carmen last night?” Not “How are you,” or “Wonderful to see you today,” but “Did you see my Carmen last night?” 

We hadn’t seen it, so we said so.  “You must see my next one,” she replied.  “There is nothing like it, and there never will be.”  She said that without a trace of haughtiness.  It was as if she had said, “You should carry an umbrella tomorrow because it’s likely to rain.”    

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[1]  The family of Nina Morgana, which comprised seven children, is remarkable not only for her success, but also her siblings’ successes. In addition to her brother Dante Morgana (who, as she mentions in the interview, became a nationally-known eye surgeon), her brother Emilio Morgana entered the priesthood and became a close friend of the friar-author Thomas Merton.  Another brother, Charles Morgana (Giuseppe Carlo Morgana), was an automotive inventor and a close associate of Henry Ford.  His older sister, Angelina Morgana, followed their brother Dante into medical school, where she became the only female in her class in the Medical Department (as it was then known) of the University of Buffalo.   She withdrew because of the harassment she experienced from the all-male faculty.

[2]  Here Morgana’s normally precise memory has failed her: on the day of her Metropolitan Opera debut (Saturday, November 27, 1920) Caruso sang a matinee performance of La forza del destino, and hence was not “ill.”
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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 2: Nina Morgana’s personal recollections of Caruso; Gigli’s premier at the Met; comparing the great tenors

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