Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78 (1939 – 1951)

Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78
(1939 – 1951)
By Allan Sutton

 

The following is an abridged excerpt from the author’s Recording the ’Forties, which is in development for 2018 publication.

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In early 1939, Columbia Records’ Edward Wallerstein authorized research into a long-playing disc, with the backing of CBS management. CBS has just acquired the moribund label from the American Record Corporation, and Wallerstein was determined to restore it to its former glory.

Wallerstein assembled a first-rate research-and-development group that reported to Peter Goldmark, who attributed his early interest in longer-playing discs to a “sincere hatred” of the phonograph in its current form. Goldmark’s team included Columbia Records’ Jim Hunter, [1] Ike Rodman, Vin Liebler, and Bill Savory; Rene Snepvangers, who was transferred from CBS and charged with developing a suitable lightweight pickup; and Bill Bachman, who was poached from General Electric.

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There was nothing new about 33 1/3-rpm discs (the chosen format), which had been used for sound-track discs and radio transcriptions for a decade. Nor was a fine-groove disc anything revolutionary; Edison had introduced them in 1926, and in the mid-1930’s Wallerstein had witnessed RCA’s testing of the ultra-fine 0.001” (1-mil) microgroove that was to employed. Vinyl, the pressing medium selected by Hunter, was not new either, although it was not yet being used in commercial pressings. What was new was the bundling of those features into a consumer package.

Exhibiting remarkable foresight, Wallerstein ordered that Columbia’s new studios be equipped to record simultaneously on standard 78-rpm masters and 33 1/3-rpm 16″ acetate blanks. The latter were to be held in reserve as a stockpile of masters from which the long-playing discs could be transcribed when the time came.

Development of Columbia’s microgroove disc was well under way when the U.S.’s entry into World War II forced CBS to put the project on hold. Work did not resume in earnest until 1946. Late in the year, engineers demonstrated a long-playing record that unfortunately fell far short of Wallerstein’s expectations.

As costs mounted, CBS president William Paley became increasingly impatient for a launch and ordered Wallerstein, Hunter, and members of the engineering team to meet with him every two months. Every detail was carefully researched, from cutting angles to heated cutting styli, in the seemingly contradictory quest for higher fidelity and longer playing time. After considerable experimentation, which at one point involved recording live gunfire in the studio, the American-made   microphones were scrapped in favor of German models.

Columbia took another important step toward LP conversion in mid-1947, when it abandoned direct-to-disc mastering in favor of tape, using EMI and Ampex equipment. A seventeen-minute 33 1/3-rpm prototype disc, now referred to internally simply as the “LP,” [2] was rejected in the fall of 1947, with orders being given to extend the playing time to twenty minutes or longer.

The playing-time issue was soon resolved, but the LP was facing a more serious impediment in its journey to market. There were not yet any consumer-grade phonographs capable of playing the records. Although the recording technology had been largely perfected by the end of 1947, the development of affordable players had lagged, the same problem that had plagued RCA’s long-playing discs in the early 1930s. In addition to a 33 1/3-rpm turntable, a high-quality permanent stylus and lightweight tone-arm would be required to play the records properly.

After concluding that Columbia’s engineers had neither the time nor the expertise to create such a device, Wallerstein contracted with radio manufacturer Philco to develop and produce the first models. Working closely with the CBS team, Philco’s engineers quickly delivered an inexpensive, single-speed turntable that could be easily attached to the owner’s existing radio or phonograph.

In January 1948, Wallerstein was elected chairman of the board of Columbia Records, the presidency of which then passed to CBS vice-president Frank K. White. By that time, the microgroove LP was approaching its final form, with playing time now extended to twenty-two minutes on a 12″ side. After having kept the project under wraps for so long, Paley and Wallerstein began demonstrating the new records to others within the industry, in an attempt to garner licensing deals. Wallerstein demonstrated the LP to RCA president David Sarnoff in April 1948, in a meeting that did not go well and reportedly left Sarnoff seething. Demonstrations to Decca, and to the Electric and Musical Industries in England, were no more successful.

At the end of May 1948, Billboard reported that CBS executives were still “maintaining complete silence on the entire project” as far as the general public was concerned. That silence was finally broken on June 18, when Columbia hosted a preview of the new records and player for recording-industry executives, during which full technical details were publicly disclosed for the first time. Two days later, the press was given its first glimpse of the LP when Wallerstein demonstrated it to fifty reporters at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Columbia’s initial LP catalog, consisting of 101 records, was unveiled on the same day. Columbia then took its LP show on the road, demonstrating the new records to dealers on nationwide tour that wrapped up in Utah a month later. [3] The records were on sale to the general public by early September.

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Columbia’s LP were pressed in 10″ and 12″ formats (the latter reserved primarily for extended classical works) and retailed from $2.85 for standard 10″ releases to $4.85 for the 12″ Masterworks series. A 7″ LP, retailing for 60¢ and devoted largely to pop material, was introduced in January 1949.

The company had long been stockpiling classical masters in anticipation of the LP’s launch, at first on long-playing acetate transcriptions and later on tape, eliminating the need to piece together extended works from multiple 78-rpm discs. With the recording industry still in the grips of the second American Federation of Musicians recording ban, no new pop material was released. Instead, the pop LPs were cobbled together from pre-ban recordings that had previously been issued on 78s.

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Realizing that there was little patentable about the LP, and that it could succeed commercially only if the format was universally adopted, CBS executives rethought their licensing plans. In June 1948, the company made the LP format freely available to other companies, some of whom returned the favor by giving Columbia their LP pressing business, at least until they were able to retool their own plants. The result was an explosion of interest in the new format by major and minor labels alike. Legal, financial, and logistical issues would crop up, including the need to recalculate artists’ royalty (requiring negotiations with the AFM’s notoriously uncooperative James Caesar Petrillo), a demand by Standard Transcription that Columbia pay double recording rates for material taken from its masters, and the need to quickly supply radio stations with microgroove-capable equipment) but they did nothing to impede development. [4]

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The conversion to LP pressings was a fairly straightforward process. Vinyl and other plastic products were already  supplanting shellac as the favored pressing medium, and many  plants had experience working with the materials. The conversion to high-fidelity microgroove recording appeared to be more daunting, but Audio Record magazine assured its readers (comprising mainly independent-studio owners and engineers) that the transition would be “an easy one from the equipment point of view.” C. J. LeBel outlined the basic steps for recording engineers:

The most important [step] is provision for cutting at micro pitch — in the range of 224 to 260 lines per inch. Probably 224 to 240 lines is the most desirable for most applications. Some equipment already made has provisions for this without change… In other apparatus some change is necessary. An overhead feed mechanism relies on a change of lead-screw for change of pitch. To make this shift, then, it is only necessary to purchase and insert a new lead-screw.

The electrical characteristics are even simpler to achieve… we would use normal transcription recording characteristics. This would be either the NAB standard 16-db boost at 10,000 cycles, or the standard 10-db boost which many studios have found to be their usable limit. Columbia microgroove characteristic is the same as NAB, except that the response is slightly higher below 100 cycles. A simple equalizer will take care of this. For a great deal of the work the difference is negligible, and standard transcription equalization can be used. [5]

As eager as many companies were to adopt the new format, they  were quite ready to forsake the 78 entirely. London, which had added LPs to its line-up in 1949 and 45s in January 1950, took a step back  in April 1950 with its “Shellac Is Not Dead” campaign. Twelve new 78-rpm album sets and twenty new 78-rpm singles were announced, compared with only two 45s and one LP. The campaign was soon abandoned. [6]

Some dealers actively opposed the transition, seeing it as a form of price-cutting and fearing they would be left with a glut of unsalable 78s. Among them was David Krantz, president of the Philadelphia Retail Record Dealers’ Association, and producer of the minuscule Krantz Records label. In early 1949 he launched a campaign against the LP that succeeded only in losing business for his store and antagonizing some Columbia sales executives. His campaign ended abruptly in June 1950, when he and seven other Philadelphia record-store owners were arrested and charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to fix record prices. [7]

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Krantz and his kind, however, were the exceptions. Despite some initial trepidation, the LP format was quickly embraced by record companies and dealers, in no small part because of its potential for wringing additional profits out of material that had otherwise run its course in terms of sales. The vast majority of early LPs (and slightly later, extended-play 45s) were simply cobbled together from material that had been previously issued on 78s. Sales boomed as customers rushed to replace their old shellac pressings with the quieter, trendier long-playing editions.

Companies’ announcements of their impending LP launches were appearing regularly in the trade papers by late 1948. Some were premature, and there were some false starts. Savoy announced its first LP release in December 1948, dubbed from previously released Errol Garner recordings, then but retreated, not issuing LPs on a regular basis until March 1950. The Bihari brothers announced that Modern Records was about to launch LPs in the summer of 1949, but they did not begin to appear until October 1950. [8] Some record companies undertook the conversion piecemeal, testing the waters with the less-important segments of their catalogs before committing to large-scale LP output. Allegro, which Paul Puner had launched after leaving Musicraft, began by test-marketing LPs for the children’s market; Dial, which was predominantly a jazz label, began with a small group of LP classical albums using leased foreign masters.

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Atlantic, Mercury, and M-G-M took the LP plunge in early 1949, followed by Tempo in May, Decca in August, and a host of smaller labels as the year came to a close. The independent classical labels, in particular, were quick to embrace the LP. Among the earliest to do so was Vox, which began releasing LPs in early May 1949. [9] The albums were produced in two series, retailing for $4.85 for domestic recordings, or $5.85 for foreign recordings licensed from Polydor, its various affiliates, and Discophile Francais. Billboard reported that Columbia Records was giving the company its full cooperation in making the conversion. (Columbia was not being entirely altruistic, having gained Vox’s pressing business in the process.) In November, Vox announced that it was abandoning 78-rpm production entirely. [10] The prestigious Concert Hall Society began with a single “experimental” LP in January 1949, [11] and by the early 1950s it had followed Vox’s lead to become an LP-only line. Several new entrants in the classical field during 1949–1950, including Period and Renaissance, skipped 78s and went directly to LP production.

In response to all of this activity, phonograph manufacturers began turning out multi-speed changers as fast as they could retool their production lines. A February 1949 Billboard article listed dozens of new changers that could play both 78s and 33s. At the entry level were turntable attachments like Philco’s. For buyers flush with post-war cash, there were changers with built-in AM-FM radios, and Westinghouse even offered changer-television combinations that retailed from $625 to $725. [12]

RCA officials offered no public comment on the LP until early 1949, when they countered with what they hinted would be a revolutionary new format. RCA made much of the project’s top-secret status, which it code-named “Madame X,” but leaked enough information to keep the public intrigued. By early January, it was already known that “Madame X” was a small-diameter, 45-rpm disc with matching changer. [13] In February, Audio Record magazine reported,

No technical information has yet been released, but we have collected the available data… X is a thin 7” pressing of pure vinyl. The center hole is large — about 1½ inches in diameter. Maximum playing time is 5½ minutes. Fine grooves are employed, and the playback stylus is 1 mil… So far as we can tell, the recording characteristic is the same as that used on standard Victor records…

The point which has aroused the widest controversy is the speed: 45 rpm. It is rumored that 33 1/3 rpm was tried and discarded… A moment’s consideration will show that for a given diameter, 45 rpm will give 35% higher linear groove velocity than will 33 1/3 rpm. It would be possible to get the same linear groove velocity at 33 1/3 rpm by increasing the outside diameter to 9 ½ inches, which would increase the vinyl cost 82% over the 7 inch size. [14]

A month later, in the same publication, RCA engineer D. D. Cole came forth with a detailed description of the new records and matching phonograph, along with his company’s rationale for introducing them. [15] RCA’s contention was that the myriad problems inherent in recorded-sound reproduction could be solved only with an integrated system. Much attention was lavished on development of the compact changers that would be required to play the new records. Recalling the old premium-scheme phonographs of the early 1900s, [16] they were designed to foil the use of any record other than the 45, although Cole promised that multi-purpose changers were in development. The new record-and-changer combination was touted as the “first in history of the industry to be designed specifically to complement each other” — conveniently overlooking Columbia’s new LP player and RCA’s Program Transcription disc-and-player combination of the early 1930s. [17]

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RCA’s new records and players were introduced to the public with considerable fanfare in April 1949. Cole assured customers that 78-rpm records were in no imminent danger of disappearing, but his wording hinted that they were already becoming an after-thought: “RCA Victor,” Cole declared, “will continue to serve the standard market by making all selections recorded for the 45-rpm system also available on 78-rpm records.” [18] He announced a novel plan to allocate different colors of vinyl to each series: red for Red Seals, black for standard popular, green for country-and-western, yellow for children’s, cerise for rhythm-and-blues, light blue for international, and dark blue for what he termed “popular classics.” Marketing was undertaken on an international scale. Even before the records were placed on sale, RCA Victor sales manager Frank McCall was dispatched to Cuba on the first leg of a seven-week trip to promote the new format to Latin American distributors.

RCA executives had predicted that other record manufacturers would rush to adopt the new format, as they had with Columbia’s LP. But unlike the LP, the 45 embodied some patented features, and RCA initially demanded a licensing fee its use. In addition, the unusually thin pressings, thick raised label area, and oversized spindle holes required the purchase of new presses, or major retooling of existing ones. Both issues were seen as impediments by companies that were already heavily invested in the conversion to LPs.

Despite RCA’s hype, consumers were slow to warm to the 45, citing the lack of selection and other companies’ failure to adopt the format. Many who might otherwise have embraced the new format had already purchased LP players, which could not yet handle 45s.

In response, RCA began offering support to other producers in the form of technical advice or custom-pressing services, and it soon dropped the licensing requirement. Nevertheless, the rapid adoption of the 45 that RCA executives had anticipated failed to materialize. Capitol Records was the only major label to immediately test the new format. [19] By turning the pressing over to RCA, Capitol managed to get a small  selection of 45s to market by April 1949. [20] M-G-M followed several months later.

The smaller producers remained aloof. One of the few to attempt the conversion in 1949 was Gabor Szabo, who had managed RCA Victor’s foreign-record division until 1941,when he left to launch Standard Phono, and had since maintained an on-again off-again relationship with his old employer. In the summer of 1949, he briefly test-marketed an inexpensive 45-rpm disc, pressed in inferior “Websterlite” plastic rather than vinyl, then jettisoned  the idea. Thus, Chicago-based Rondo Records became the first small producer to reach the market with 45s, barely nudging out the even more minuscule Discovery Records for the honor in January 1950. [21]

In December 1949, Billboard reported a “major metamorphosis” in RCA’s approach to the 45 that hinted of sour grapes:

The company is now distinctly cool to the idea or necessity of persuading other diskeries to adopt 45. The reason for the attitude is two-fold. Firstly, RCA has had to go it alone; secondly, the company now figures it has carved out a sizable market for itself in 45, and any diskery venturing into this market would mean a lessening of RCA’s profit therein. [22]

In the same story, it was reported that Decca executives had begun “gauging and checking” the 45-rpm market. Columbia was planning to launch 45s as well. Edward Wallerstein, despite his openly expressed  disdain for the format, gave the go-ahead for Columbia to start producing  45s in late 1949, reassuring customers that his company would make “any record the public wanted.” [23]  London began offering 45s in January 1950, along with the tiny Goldband and Folkstar labels. Decca, having finally completed its gauging and checking, signed on in July, and the 45 finally began to gain some traction in the marketplace. By the mid-1950s, the 45 would become the preferred format for pop singles.

Classical enthusiasts, however, were decidedly cool toward yet another format that required side-changes every five minutes. Columbia executive Edward Wallerstein recalled,

RCA especially spent huge sums of advertising money trying unsuccessfully to convince the public that the 45 was really a good thing for classics. Our policy for advertising was not to compare the products. We were pushing LPs, and there was no comparison… Actually the introduction of 45s didn’t touch the sales of LPs at all. Columbia quickly began to issue single pops records on 45s, which were and indeed still are, the accepted medium for singles. I was amazed when I learned that during the period in which RCA held out against the LP-that is, from June 1948 to January 1950, it lost $4.5 million. [24]

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Trade-paper reports of the period confirmed that Columbia’s classical Masterworks LPs were outselling RCA’s 45-rpm Red Seal sets by a substantial margin. Sales of the 45-rpm Red Seal sets, already hobbled by consumer resistance, were further undermined by RCA’s ill-conceived decision, in June 1949, to place portions of its 78-rpm catalog on “clearance sale,” with discounts ranging from forty to fifty percent. Dealers reported that the largest sellers by far were 78-rpm Red Seal album sets, undercutting  demand for the more expensive, albeit far less bulky, 45-rpm versions.

After taking a loss on record sales in 1949, RCA finally capitulated and began preparing to produce its own LPs, becoming the last major label to do so. The impending arrival of a three-speed RCA changer was announced in early December 1949. On January 4, 1950, the company announced that it was making its classical library available in LP format; pop LPs followed several months later. Pressed in better material than the Columbia LPs, and featuring attractive album-cover artwork in place of Columbia’s boilerplate “tombstone” design, they were an immediate hit with dealers and customers alike.

The proliferation of new formats and adoption of the microgroove standard had been unsettling for many small producers. With standard 78s still selling in large numbers, and no clear winner yet in battle between LPs and 45s, prevailing wisdom was that it was essential to release recordings in all three formats, an expense that many smaller producers could not afford. As early as November 1948, Allegro president Paul Puner had written the Department of Commerce, requesting their intervention in an increasingly chaotic situation. His request for standardization was flatly declined by Assistant Secretary Thomas Blaidesell, who advised, “We can appreciate the present difficulties facing your industry, but do not feel, operating under a free economy as we do, that this department could intervene in situations of this kind unless directed to so do by law.” [25]

The same uncertainty plagued the jukebox industry. J. P. Seeburg’s vice-president, after conducting an extensive study of the situation, observed,

“The Battle of the Speeds,” a highly controversial subject with the public, has, apparently, been equally confusing to the record manufacturers themselves and it, therefore, becomes a very delicate and speculative issue for those of us who are on the outside observing the internal turmoil within the record industry.” [26]

He concluded that the LP was not suitable for jukebox use, but he was enthusiastic about the 45, praising its quality as “so far superior [to 78s]  that it is really amazing.” In addition to the 45’s obvious strengths, he liked the increased playing time over the standard 10” 78, which would he thought would encourage  jukebox operators to stock short classical pieces — a market he foresaw (quite incorrectly, it turned out) as potentially lucrative. Nevertheless, Seeburg announced that it had no immediate plans to introduce a 45-rpm machine.

Others in the jukebox industry shared Seeburg’s wait-and-see attitude. At the end of 1949, executives at Wurlitzer, AMI, and other jukebox manufacturers were still expressing concerns over whether the format would be widely adopted by other companies. Lester C. Rieck, sales manager of H. C. Evans & Company (the manufacturer of Constellation jukeboxes) told Billboard,

If this record is universally accepted by the record-playing public, then without a doubt a large library of selections will be made available. When this time comes, and only then, will the 45-rpm record prove to be a money-maker for music-machine operators… It is going to take time, possibly years, to completely outmode the playing of 78-rpm record. [27]

A Rock-Ola executive cited difficulties in adapting its mechanisms to the new discs. “We have run into so many difficulties in adapting them to our phonograph,”  he reported, “that we have just about shelved the idea for the present.” An Aereon official, although enthusiastic about the new discs and their potential, admitted that his company was not actively engaged in designing a machine to play them. [28].

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But when multi-speed jukeboxes finally began reaching the market in 1950–1951, the 45 was vindicated as a medium for popular music. Jukeboxes proved to be ideal demonstrators and salesmen for the little records, and demand for 45s soared. By the early 1950s, all of the major labels, and a rapidly growing number of smaller ones, were offering pop releases in both 78- and 45-rpm form. The tipping point would come in mid-decade, when 45s outsold 78s for the first time.

 

References

 

[1] Hunter had been part of the RCA team that developed Victrolac plastic pressings in the early 1930s, which originally were intended as movie soundtrack discs. RCA engineer F. C. Barton first publicly disclosed the details at the Spring 1931 meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Editors.

[2] CBS trademarked the LP name but failed to aggressively protect it. Eventually, it was dtermined that the term had slipped into generic usage, and CBS lost claim to it.

[3] “Firm Sets Exhibit of New Records.” Salt Lake Tribune (July 11, 1948), p. 10.

[4] “Standard Yelps When Col. Cuts LPs from Ordinary Disks Sans Double Rate.” Billboard (October 9, 1948), p. 19.

[5] LeBel, C. J. “Microgroove in Your Studio. Part 2, Equipment Requirements.” Audio Record (February 1949), p. 3. Le Bel was vice-president of Audio Devices, Inc., a major supplier of blank recording discs and tape.

[6] “London Insists Shellac Is Live.” Billboard (May 6, 1950), p. 22.

[7] “U.S. Dragnet Snares Eight Philly Firms.” Billboard (Jun 10, 1950), p. 11.

[8] “Modern Adds 33 to LP Disk Line.” Billboard (Oct 28, 1950), p. 16.

[9] “Vox Waxery Hits LPs Heavy Next Mo.; 8–10 Disk Starter.” Billboard (Apr 30, 1949), p. 18.

[10] “Vox to Drop 78s, Use LP Exclusively.” Billboard (Nov 12, 1949), p. 18.

[11] “Concert Hall 1st Indie with LP.” Billboard (Jan 8, 1949), p. 14.

[12] “Mfrs. Hustle to Produce Combos Handling Different Speeds; Much Blueprinting.” Billboard (February 26, 1949), pp. 18, 115.

[13] “RCA’s New Phono System.” Billboard (January 3, 1949), p. 13.

[14] “Report on ‘Madame X,’ RCA Victor’s New 45 RPM Record.” Audio Record (February 4, 1949), p. 4.

[15] Cole, D. D. “The How and Why of RCA Victor’s New Record Player.” Audio Record (March 1949), pp. 1–3. Cole was chief engineer of the RCA Victor Home Instrument Department.

[16] These were phonographs that were equipped with special features (usually oversized spindles) that prevented their use with standard records. Dealers sold them very cheaply, or even gave them away, knowing they would make their profit on the matching records. Details of these operations came be found in the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home (Mainspring Press).

[17] Program Transcriptions were the first commercially produced 33 1/3-rpm discs and could be played only on specially equipped RCA machines. One of Edward Wallerstein’s first orders, upon his arrival at RCA, was that these money-losing products be discontinued.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Capitol Records Out with 45 R.P.M. Music System in April.” Cash Box (Feb 19, 1949), p. 4.

[20] Capitol’s initial 45-rpm offerings were classical, using material licensed from Telefunken in Germany. Pop 45s were added later in the year, making Capitol the first company to offer the same material in all three speeds.

[21] “45’s for Rondo, Discovery Firm.” Billboard (Jan 7, 1950), pp. 11, 35.

[22] “RCA Sets 3-Speed Plans.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), pp. 14, 41.

[23] Ibid., p. 41.

[24] Wallerstein, Edward. “The Development of the LP.” High Fidelity (April 1976).

[25] “Commerce Dept. Passes Buck on LP Plea to FTC.” The Billboard (December 4, 1948), p. 23.

[26] “Seeburg Analyzes ‘45’ Disks — Believes Subject Vital to Industry’s Future.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), p. 15.

[27] Weiser, Norm. “Juke Makers Eye ‘45’ Wax; Availability Is Chief Factor.” Billboard (December 17, 1949), p. 17.

[28] Ibid.

 

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

The Chicago Premium-Scheme Labels Revisited (1904 – 1920)

The Chicago Premium-Scheme Labels Revisited
(1904 – 1920)
By Allan Sutton

 

In 1902, the Victor Talking Machine Company began producing inexpensive Type P “Premium” phonographs that retailers could give away as an incentive to purchase other merchandise. There had been similar premium schemes earlier, employing both disc and cylinder machines as the bait, but Victor’s machines were the first to enjoy any significant popularity. Unlike later premium-scheme models, the Type P played standard records.

Beginning in 1904, several Chicago distributors took the idea a step further, employing a tied-products model (sometimes referred to as the “razor-and-blade ploy”). The phonographs were modified in various ways, most often with nonstandard spindles or mandrels, to ensure that they were compatible only with the matching records. They usually were the manufacturers’ cheapest or discontinued models, given new brand names. According to the distributors’ sales pitch, any loss the dealer took by giving the machines away would quickly be recouped by sales of the compatible, high-margin records to a captive audience.

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ROBERT JOHNS AND THE STANDARD TALKING MACHINE COMPANY

The first to successfully exploit the tied-product models on a large scale was the Chicago-based Standard Talking Machine Company. Launched in 1904, and it was advertising nationally by December of that year. In reality, as later court records make clear, Standard Talking Machine was simply a trade name of Robert Johns, a jobber in pottery and other household goods who was affiliated with the East Liverpool China Company of East Liverpool, Ohio. Standard initially occupied offices at 196–202 Monroe Street and was unrelated to several other identically named firms. (An identically named company was incorporated in Chicago in March 1905, with a meager capitalization of $2,500, but none of its incorporators are persons known to have been associated with Johns’ operation, and its connection, if any, remains unclear.)

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Early Standard ads, from (top to bottom) December 1904, January 1905, and March 1905. These dealers gave away the machines with the purchase of other merchandise; later offers often required the purchase of two-dozen or more Standard records to receive the free machines. Standard’s first phonograph offering, shown here, was Columbia’s bare-bones Model AU; refitted with a ½” spindle, it became the Standard Model AA. More-substantial models were soon made available.

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East Liverpool China was a major manufacturer of tableware and crockery. Much of its output was employed in premium schemes, being given away to stimulate the sale of more profitable items. Johns would employ that model for Standard Talking Machine, offering a free phonograph to individual customers or dealers who purchased a specified number of discs. (Terms of the plans varied considerably, and retailers at first had some leeway to set their own conditions. in later years, Standard also wholesaled the discs outright, unencumbered by any “free” phonograph offers.) The phonographs employed oversized (½”) spindles to thwart the use of ordinary pressings, forcing owners to purchase Standard discs. That was the theory, at least; in reality, there were some fairly easy work-arounds, the simplest of which involved simply drilling-out ordinary discs to fit the oversized spindles.

American Graphophone (Columbia) supplied the records and phonographs, which were rebranded with the Standard name. The phonographs were obsolete or low-end Columbia models with slight modifications, the most obvious being the oversized spindles.

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A rare, early sunken-label Standard 7″ pressing (left), with Standard’s conditions sticker pasted over the Columbia original (right). Produced only briefly, the sunken-label pressings used delicate, tissue-thin labels that that were original to the discs (i.e., not paste-overs).

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Standard originally offered both 7″ and 10″ black-and-silver label single-sided discs, using the same catalog numbers as the corresponding Columbia issues. The 7″ series was phased out after Columbia discontinued production of small-diameter discs in 1906. The black-and-silver (and later, black-and-gold) labels were applied at the time the discs were pressed, disproving the widely circulated tale that all Standard records were simply relabeled dead stock. The later Standard catalogs, in particular, were reasonably up-to-date, sometimes lagging Columbia’s release of a new title by just a few months.

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Contrary to some hobbyists’ accounts, Standard was not solely a dumping-ground for Columbia’s dead inventory (although it did serve that purpose admirably). Current hits sometimes turned up on Standard just a few months after they were released on Columbia. This 1914 Standard catalog includes new titles that Columbia released in the late spring of that year.

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There were, of course, plenty of relabeled surplus Columbia pressings as well, including many titles whose sales potential had long since been exhausted. They are easily distinguished by their slightly oversized labels (at first in green-and-white labels, later in black-and-white), which were pasted over the Columbia originals.

 

BUSY BEE AND THE O’NEILL-JAMES COMPANY

At about the same time that Robert Johns was organizing Standard Talking Machine, Columbia began supplying Arthur J. O’Neill with cylinder phonograph and records for use in premium schemes, under the Busy Bee trademark. The O’Neill-James Company (originally of 185 Dearborn Street, and later Fifth Avenue at Lake Street, Chicago) was founded by O’Neill, Winifred B. James, and Sherwin N. Bisbee, with an initial capital stock offering of $25,000. Incorporation papers for the O’Neill-James Company were filed with the Illinois Secretary of State on April 14, 1904, and the final certificate of incorporation was issued on April 22.

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A December 1904 ad for the Busy Bee cylinder phonograph, in this case given free with a $10 purchase. The machine was Columbia’s bottom-of-the-line Type Q, fitted with a nonstandard mandrel that prevented the use of ordinary cylinders. More-substantial models were later offered.

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O’Neill was a master of the tied-product model, having already employed it successfully in selling non-phonographic goods. In 1904, the O’Neill-James Company began marketing a slightly modified version of the inexpensive Columbia Model Q cylinder phonograph under the Busy Bee brand. By substituting a mandrel with a nonstandard taper, O’Neill was able to create a captive market for Busy Bee cylinders, which Columbia manufactured with a corresponding nonstandard inner taper. Following the same model, in late 1905 or early 1906 O’Neill-James introduced Busy Bee disc phonographs with a large, rigid rectangular lug projecting from the turntable, which required the use of special Busy Bee discs with a corresponding cut-out through the label area. This proved to be less effective than the cylinder design, since the lug could be removed from the turntable with a bit of effort.

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John O. Prescott (of Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott / American Record Company) belatedly filed his patent for pressing Busy Bee discs, with their characteristic rectangular slots, in January1907 — the same month that Columbia won its case against the American Record Company, effectively putting it out of business. Later Busy Bee discs were supplied by several other manufacturers, including Columbia (indirectly, by way of Hawthorne & Sheble minus Prescott).

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The sequence of Busy Bee’s suppliers can be determined from its catalogs and supplements. The earliest advertised Busy Bee discs were single-sided 7″ American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) pressings, duplicating material from that company’s short-lived 7″ series, but pressed in standard black shellac rather than American’s distinctive blue. Busy Bee probably was the unnamed customer that The Talking Machine World reported had ordered a half-million 7″ pressings in February 1906. American Record’s Busy Bee releases included recordings made as early as 1904 (and some later Columbia-made releases used 1903 recordings), which has led some collectors to mistakenly assume that the label was introduced earlier than was actually the case.

American also supplied 10¾” (and, slightly later, 10″) Busy Bee pressings drawn from its catalog of 1904–1906, again pressed in standard black shellac. Some early 10¾” Busy Bee issues used the full American Record catalog numbers, but most used only the last four digits of the corresponding American issues (e.g., American Record Company 031129 = Busy Bee 1129). Like other American Record Company client-label pressings, these records often have spoken announcements that omit the artist and company credits.

Records from several suppliers appear concurrently in later Busy Bee catalogs, in different numerical blocks. Leeds & Catlin was a major supplier to Busy Bee and produced some of the highest-numbered 7″ issues. They also remade some issues that replaced the earlier American Record Company–derived versions, retaining the original titles and catalog numbers but often using different artists (much to the befuddlement of some early discographers).

Leeds’ 10″ single-sided Busy Bee issues (shown as “Grand Busy Bee Records” in the catalog, although not on the labels, and numbered in an A-prefixed series) used the same recordings as Leeds, Imperial, Sun, and related labels. They are easily recognized by Leeds’ mirror-image master-number stampings. Some of the same material was later issued in double-sided form in a short-lived D- prefixed catalog series, examples of which rank among the rarest Busy Bee issues. A wide outer band was added to labels on double-sided pressings to accommodate the disclaimers that normally appeared on the reverse-side stickers.

Masters in Busy Bee’s 2000, 3000, 4400, and 5000 catalog series are from Columbia, by way of Hawthorne & Sheble, which substituted their Star catalog numbers for Columbia’s along the way. The short-lived “Grand Busy Bee Twelve-Inch” series was from the same source, using the same 1200-series catalog numbers as Star, with the addition of a T- prefix. Most of the Columbia-derived Busy Bee discs were pressed in the Hawthorne & Sheble plant, on solid stock. A few late Star issues were laminated pressings,  almost certainly made by Columbia (which held the patent on that process) but still showing Hawthorne & Sheble’s markings and substitute catalog numbers in the wax. The Universal Talking Machine Company (Zonophone) also supplied pressing to Busy Bee for a short time before a Columbia lawsuit put an end to that relationship.

 

HARMONY AND THE GREAT NORTHERN MANUFACTURING COMPANY

Harmony, a new premium-scheme label, appeared in 1907. The records were originally marketed by the Great Northern Manufacturing Company (147–153 Fifth Avenue, Chicago), which actually was the recently reorganized East Liverpool China Company. Thus, the Harmony and Standard labels shared a common connection from the start, although at first they used different suppliers and distributors.

Great Northern marketed a wide array of crockery, tableware, and similar merchandise. Harmony records initially were part of a premium-scheme operation in which inexpensive phonographs were given free to retailers who purchased a certain quantity of Great Northern’s household goods. The company oversaw a network of traveling salesmen who peddled Harmony discs and the accompanying “free” phonographs to small-town and rural dealers. Complaints over deceptive advertisements and sales contracts were common, as exemplified by the 1911 case of Great Northern Mfg. Co. v. Brown, in which Great Northern was found guilty of misrepresentation and fraud in the wording of their advertising materials.

Harmony phonographs were manufactured with ¾” spindles, a ¼” step up from Standard. The records originally were pressed by Hawthorne & Sheble, using many of the same renumbered Columbia masters that appeared on Busy Bee. All known Hawthorne & Sheble-produced Harmony issues are single-sided pressings, with no artist credits on the labels. Hawthorne & Sheble also manufactured the early Harmony phonographs, which infringed patents on lateral recording and reproduction.

Hawthorne & Sheble’s Harmony series was discontinued in 1909, after H&S was forced into bankruptcy. Production for Great Northern was taken over by Columbia, which reintroduced Harmony as a double-sided brand, using the same couplings and catalog numbers as corresponding Columbia releases. The Columbia pressings included reissues of material recorded as early as 1903 and, unlike the earlier Hawthorne & Sheble series, they often credited the performers on the labels.

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An early Columbia-produced Harmony (left), still crediting the Great Northern Manufacturing Company; the anonymous baritone is veteran minstrel-show producer Lew Dockstader. Later versions of the Harmony label (right) credited the Harmony Talking Machine, a trade name of Robert Johns’ reorganized Standard Talking Machine Company.

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As with Standard, the labels usually were applied directly at the time of pressing, dispelling the notion that all Harmony records were relabeled surplus stock. However, many surplus Columbia pressings were also sold under Harmony paste-over labels. One of the most interesting examples is Paul Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” the original Columbia issue of which was quickly replaced by a Collins & Harlan remake. The unsold Southe pressings ended up as anonymous Harmony paste-overs (and perhaps Standard as well, although we’ve not seen one). Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” by the way, is not nearly the great rarity that Hobbies columnist Jim Walsh once made it out to be. A fair number of the original Columbia pressings apparently got into circulation before the delisting, and in addition to the paste-overs,  the recording even appeared later on the Climax and D&R labels, in entirely different couplings.

,Great Northern ended its involvement with the record business in late 1911. Although the company was still selling household goods late as January 1918, Harmony records from 1912 onward were marketed by the Harmony Talking Machine Company, a trade name of Robert Johns’ Standard Talking Machine Company.

 

THE BUSY BEE–TO–ARETINO TRANSITION

Although Busy Bee records continued to sell well during this period, the O’Neill-James Company’s reliance on distant, competing suppliers eventually led to the line’s downfall. Shipments from the East Coast pressing plants were often late, and O’Neill filed several lawsuits during 1908–1909 to recover damages and overcharges on rail shipments of the records. There were legal obstacles as well. In 1909, Victor sued Columbia for “the supplying of records to O’Neill-James Company of Chicago for use on infringing machines manufactured by Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company.” In turn, Columbia sued Victor’s Universal Talking Machine subsidiary to prevent it from supplying Zonophone pressings to O’Neill-James and Aretino. In the meantime, Leeds & Catlin had been forced to discontinue operations after losing to Victor in a patent-infringement suit that was decided in the latter’s favor by the Supreme Court.

With its supply line severed, O’Neill-James dropped the Busy Bee line in 1909. The last known advertisements for Busy Bee records appeared during the summer of that year. O’Neill-James continued to use the Busy Bee brand for vacuum cleaners and other household appliances for a time.

Busy Bee was not O’Neill’s only record venture, however. On June 3, 1907, he had launched The Aretino Company, which according to a Talking Machine World report was controlled by O’Neill-James. Aretino marketed phonographs equipped with massive 3″ spindles. They initially were supplied by the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company, then later by Columbia. O’Neill’s patent application of April 11, 1907, covering the oversized spindle, as well as square and polygonal spindles that were never put into production, was granted on December 31, 1907. He also patented and sold adapters that allowed Aretino discs to be used on Busy Bee and ordinary turntables. Aretino’s gaping spindle holes reduced the labels to narrow bands with barely enough room for even basic label information.

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Arthur J. O’Neill’s 1907 patent on the Aretino disc, along with square- and hexagonal-spindle versions that were never produced. The specimen pictured is a scarce Leeds & Catlin double-sided pressing, produced just shortly before the company was forced out of business by an adverse Supreme Court decision in 1909.

 

The earliest known Aretino releases were anonymous, single-sided pressings from Leeds & Catlin masters, with A-prefixed catalog numbers (not to be confused with Columbia’s A-prefixed Double Discs). Leeds also produced a series of now-rare D-prefixed double-sided Aretino pressings shortly before suspending operations in 1909. Single-sided pressings from Hawthorne & Sheble matrices, showing Busy Bee catalog numbers in the pressing (which were simply renumberings of Columbia masters) have also been reported.

Ironically (considering that Victor had successfully sued Aretino for patent infringement in 1909), O’Neill turned to Victor’s Zonophone subsidiary as its source of pressings following Leeds & Catlin’s demise. The series was brought to a quick halt by the American Graphophone Company (Columbia), which in the same year sued Universal to prevent its supplying discs to Aretino, the O’Neill-James Company, and other companies whose machines infringed its patents.

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Aretino products were used in several different premium schemes. Some companies gave the machines away with the purchase of other merchandise (top). More often, they were given away with the purchase of a specified number of records (bottom). In the case shown here, the phonograph would not have been truly “free,” since the records were marked up by a total of $6.30 to partially compensate for the cost of the machine.

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After the O’Neill-James Company’s Busy Bee label was discontinued in 1909, the company took over distribution of Aretino records, although its name never appeared on the labels. With Zonophone, Hawthorne & Sheble, and Leeds & Catlin eliminated a suppliers, O’Neill was forced to turn to Columbia, which agreed to supply the records on consignment. Columbia pressed double-sided discs for Aretino in at least two series, both of which drew on standard Columbia masters: An A-prefixed series (which duplicated Columbia’s couplings and should not be confused with Leeds & Catlin’s earlier single-sided A-prefixed series), and a D-prefixed series (which used different couplings). Columbia also produced a few 12″ Aretino pressings. Some late Aretino pressings are known with ordinary spindle holes.

The last known advertisements for Aretino record appeared in the summer of 1915, shortly before O’Neill-James Company (which had recently become a Pathé distributor) was declared bankrupt on June 12. Post-mortem reports claimed that the company’s financial troubles had begun during 1906–1907, with losses incurred from patent litigation, and were compounded by the failure of the Boston Talking Machine Company (the makers of Phono-Cut records), for which O’Neill-James was a jobber.

Columbia filed suit in July 1915 to recover unsold records it had shipped on consignment to O’Neill-James. The petition was dismissed on December 7, and the company’s trustee requested permission to sell the remaining inventory. Some of the records found their way to the obscure Duplex Record Company (unrelated to the earlier Duplex Phonograph Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan), which filled the large center holes and covered over the patch with its own Duplex labels. Similar Aretino patch-up jobs have been seen with Musique labels.

O’Neill announced his intention to re-enter the record business, but nothing further was reported in that regard. Following his death in 1916, the remains of O’Neill James and Aretino businesses were merged with the Johns brothers’ Harmony, Standard, and United operations to form the Consolidated Talking Machine Company of Chicago.

 

DOUBLE AND REVERSIBLE

The D & R Record Company was the last significant new entrant in the Chicago premium-scheme market. Launched in 1908, it was advertising nationally by December of that year. The acronym stood for “Double and Reversible,” a strong selling point at a time when double-sided discs were making their first inroads. Early D & R ads promised that a “splendid talking machine” would be given away to advertise the new records:

We are not selling talking machines, but actually giving them away, without money and without price. We are doing this to quickly advertise and introduce our wonderful D&R (Double and Reversible) Talking Machine Records in every home. … Bear in mind that you simply agree to buy “D&R” Records as you need them — and the machine becomes yours without once cent of cost…. We are absolutely independent. Hence this remarkable offer. Our business is selling records — not machines.

D&R’s early advertising was often vague, with no mention of the strings attached to the free machine. Later D&R advertisements were more forthcoming, disclosing that the machines were indeed free, but only to customers who signed agreements to purchase from twelve to twenty D&R records, depending upon the model of phonograph desired.

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Early D&R advertisements were often vague regarding what was required to secure a “free” machine. This one, from 1909, mentions near the bottom of the ad that a monthly record purchase is required, but doesn’t state how many had to be purchased, or the price.

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Initially, D&R’s records were supplied by Leeds & Catlin, which had recently begun producing double-sided pressings for other client labels. After Leeds was forced to discontinue production in 1909, the label was turned over to Columbia. Unlike the other Chicago premium-scheme labels, the D&R discs were not “handicapped” in any way. They were pressed with ordinary spindle holes, and the artists were usually credited on the labels.

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An early Leeds & Catlin D&R (left). Much to the confusion of some discographers, Leeds retained the original Imperial single-face numbers on its couplings,one of which was chosen to serve as the D&R catalog number; thus, one side will be correctly numbered, while the other will not. For the specimen above, #45179 is actually the number of Henry Burr’s “Will the Angels Let Me Play,” on the reverse side. Columbia’s later D & R offerings included Paul Southe’s “Cubanola Glide,” which had been almost immediately dropped from Columbia’s own catalog in favor of a Collins & Harlan remake.

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D&R also differed from its counterparts in not using Columbia’s catalog numbers or couplings. Many D&R couplings — such as banjoist Vess L. Ossman’s tremendously popular “St. Louis Tickle” and “The Smiler,” each of which had been paired with negligible “filler” titles on Columbia — were more appealing than Columbia’s own. By the end of 1912, however, D & R was no more.

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THE STANDARD – HARMONY – UNITED CONSOLIDATION

While O’Neill-James was struggling, and D&R was just getting its foot in the door, Roberts Johns was building Standard Talking Machine into a major business with strong nationwide sales. He was now managing three premium-scheme operations operating out of three separate offices — the Standard, Harmony, and United Talking Machine companies.

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The latter was a newly added line, sporting 1½” spindles and spindle holes. Also supplied by Columbia, United offered basically the same material as Standard and Harmony. Its dealings were not always the most ethical, if the number of lawsuit filed against the company is any indication. The case of United Talking Machine Co. v. Metcalf (175 S.W. 357) reveals its selling methods. Like Harmony, United employed traveling salesmen who required retailers to sign binding sales contracts. For $20.80, dealers were supposed to receive 32 discs United records (paying the full list price of 65¢ per record), a “free” Symphony Hornless Talking Machine, and a package of 100 needles. Under terms of their contracts, United retailers were required to give away the machines to customers who purchased a specified number of records. The retailers were assured verbally (never in writing) that they would easily recoup their losses on the machine give-aways from sales of the matching discs. Dealers could also order individual records, without the “free” machines, for 39¢ each wholesale. However, as testimony in several lawsuits revealed, the contract terms were not always made clear to United’s customers (who were often rural shopkeepers with little business acumen), the records proved to be unsalable to owners of ordinary phonographs, and the “free” machines did not always arrive as promised.

Such complaints did nothing to stall the growth of the Standard, Harmony, and United operations, which in 1912 were finally consolidated in the Heiser Building at Dearborn and Harrison Streets in Chicago. The Standard Talking Machine Company was reorganized and incorporated in 1913 to manage all three lines, with Robert Johns handling the Standard and United divisions, and Thomas E. Johns handling Harmony. Although each marketed essentially the same merchandise, court records make it clear that the three divisions continued to maintain separate legal identities.

Labeling errors sometimes occurred after the 1912 consolidation. It is not uncommon, for example, to find pressings with Standard labels on one side and Harmony labels on the other. Around 1914, decorative concentric rings were added to the Harmony and Standard labels, spaced at the exact intervals to serve as drilling guides for those label’s larger spindle holes. In a final blurring of the lines, some late Standard issues were produced with regular spindle holes, some Harmony issues appeared with Standard holes, and some pressings carried Harmony labels on one side and Standard labels on the other.

Robert Johns died in February 1915, and Standard appears to have suspended operations a short time later.

 

THE CONSOLIDATED TALKING MACHINE COMPANY

 In January 1916, the Standard, Harmony, United, and Aretino operations were merged as the Consolidated Talking Machine Company. Operating at 227 West Lake Street (later, 227–229 West Washington Street) in Chicago, Consolidated advertised itself as “Successors to Standard Talking Machine Co., United Talking Machine Co., Harmony Talking Machine Co., O’Neill-James Co., Aretino Co.” It offered surplus inventory from those companies for several years, along with a repair service for obsolete premium-scheme machines and with its own line of Consola phonographs.

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Although the company soon introduced its own Consolidated label, it was still advertising surplus Standard, Harmony, and United pressings as late as 1918 when, amazingly, the retail price of those records was raised from 75¢ to $1 each, probably killing what few sales might otherwise have remained. Like the various lines they eventually replaced, Consolidated-label records were simply modified Columbia pressings, often with Consolidated labels pasted over the originals. Harmony-type pressings (¾” spindle hole) pressings seem to have been the default, but Consolidated records are also known with normal, ½” (Standard-type), and 1½” (United-type) spindle holes, reflecting the company’s commitment to supply records for nearly the full range of nonstandard-spindle machines (Busy Bee and Aretino being the notable exceptions).

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The once-orderly allocation of spindle-hole sizes became rather haphazard during Standard Talking Machine’s last days. The Harmony pressing above has a Standard (½”) hole rather than Harmony’s usual ¾” hole, with circular drilling guides for Harmony and United. Consolidated offered pressings to fit all of the Johns brothers’ obsolete premium-scheme machines, as well as ordinary phonographs. The late example shown here has typeset label information, which was typewritten or rubber-stamped on earlier labels.

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Consolidated’s couplings and catalog numbers were identical with those of the corresponding Columbia releases, but Columbia’s “A” prefixes often were dropped from the catalog numbers. The labels were cheaply printed, with a blank space for typed or rubber-stamped titles and credits (some late printings used typeset label information). Catalog numbers confirm that Consolidated continued to purchase and relabel Columbia pressings through at least early 1920. The records were later sold at a deep discount, but any remaining stock probably was destroyed when the Consolidated Building burned in January 1924.

In the meantime, the Consolidated Talking Machine Company had become affiliated with the General Phonograph Corporation (the makers of Okeh records), and it went on to become a major distributor for Okeh. Consolidated invoices and letterheads from the early 1920s state that the company was a “Manufacturer of Talking Machines, Repair Parts, Records, and Accessories and Distributor of Okeh Records, Bubble Books, and Granby Phonographs.”

Consolidated underwent a major shift in its method of operation in the early 1920s, as it became more closely affiliated with General Phonograph. Under E. A. Fearne’s expert management, the company became actively involved in recruiting and promoting Okeh’s race-record talent. Beginning in 1923 it provided space for Chicago’s Okeh studio, and a branch office for Ralph Peer, in the Consolidated Building. The last remnant of the Chicago premium-scheme operations, Consolidated Talking Machine Company finally closed in the early 1930s.

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If you enjoyed this posting, be sure to check out A Phonograph in Every Home: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900-1919, available from Mainspring Press. Quantities are limited — order soon.

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Selected References

Biennial Report of the Secretary of State of the State of Illinois (Fiscal Years Beginning October 1, 1902, and Ending September 30, 1904), p. 113. Springfield: Illinois State Journal Company (1905).

Blacker, George, William R. Bryant, et al. Busy Bee ephemera, research notes, and discographical data (unpublished, n.d.). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press archive.

D & R (Double & Reversible) Talking Machine Records. (1909 catalog).

Grand Busy Bee Records — Catalog D (undated).

Great Northern Mfg. Co. v. Brown. Supreme Judicial Court of Maine (February 12, 1915). 113 Me. 51, 92 A. 993.

Johns v. Jaycox et al. March 9, 1912. 67 Wash. 403, 121 P. 854.

Johns v. Wilbur. May 28, 1915. 169 A.D. 905.

O’Neill, Arthur J., Assignor to the Aretino Company. “Talking Machine.” U.S. Patent #874,985 (filed April 11, 1907; issued December 31, 1907).

O’Neill-James Co. Grand Busy Bee Records, Catalogue D (n.d.).

Standard Talking Machine Co.: Standard Double-Disc Record Catalogue (1911–1914 inclusive).

United Talking Mach. Co. v. Metcalf. Court of Appeals of Kentucky (April 22,

Untitled obituary (Robert Johns). The Pottery & Glass Salesman (February 25, 1915), p. 29.

 

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

 

 

 

The Playlist • Cathedral Organ Classics — Commette, Dupre, Schweitzer (1929 – 1935)

MSP_HMV-D1898b

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A while back, we were lucky enough to acquire the late James Bratton’s collection of historic pipe-organ 78s at an estate sale in Denver. Bratton was a prominent organist, instructor, and journal editor who moved to Colorado from Baltimore (where he’d studied at the Peabody Conservatory) in the early 1970s. We’ll be posting some of the most interesting recordings from his collection on the blog from time to time. (The crackle heard on the third selection is an unfortunate characteristic of many British HMV pressings of the period, even on pristine copies like this one.)

 

EDOUARD COMMETTE (Organ of St. Jean Cathedral, Lyons, France):
Symphony No. 2 (Widor): Finale

Columbia 50285-D (mx. [W] LX 1004 – 1)
Lyons, France: April 18, 1929

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EDOUARD COMMETTE (Organ of St. Jean Cathedral, Lyons, France):
Symphony No. 4 (Widor): Toccata

Columbia 50285-D (mx. [W] LX 1005 – 1)
Lyons, France: April 18, 1929

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MARCEL DUPRE (Organ of Alexandra Palace, London):
Variations from Fifth Symphony (Widor) — Conclusion

His Master’s Voice D.1898 (mx. CR 2750 – 2)
London (relay to van): March 17, 1930

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ALBERT SCHWEITZER (Organ of All Hallows Church, London): Toccata and Fugue in D Minor (Bach)

London: December 1935
Columbia 11022-D (English Columbia mxs. AX7716 – 1 / AX7714 – 1)
Master numbers are correct as shown; the two parts were recorded out-of-sequence, and intervening mx. AX7715 was assigned to an unrelated title..

MSP_col_11022-D_schweitzer

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CHARM: Another Outstanding Online Discographical Project

Not as widely known as the Discography of American Historical Recordings (although it certainly deserves to be), the UK-based CHARM website offers another outstanding online discography — in this case, of historical classical and operatic recordings. Hosted by the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, CHARM is partnership of Royal Holloway, University of London (host institution) with King’s College, London, and the University of Sheffield.

CHARM is the perfect complement to DAHR, offering hard-to-find data on foreign as well as domestic recordings, primarily from the 1920s onward. The database includes much of The Gramophone Company’s 78-rpm output (from original file data compiled by the late Alan Kelly), as well 78s and some LP series from numerous other US, UK, and European companies, including Columbia and Decca, from data supplied by Michael Gray. *

The CHARM site includes a very flexible search engine, and results can be downloaded as comma-delimited text (.csv) or Microsoft Excel files. Here’s a small part of the results from our search on Cesare Formichi’s Columbia recordings:
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In addition, almost 5000 streaming sound files are available via the Find Sound Files facility. Sound files are transferred from 78-rpm discs held by the King’s Sound Archive at King’s College London.

Like DAHR and the affiliated National Juke Box site from the Library of Congress, CHARM is an entirely free service, with no registration or log-in required.

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* Dr. Alan Kelly compiled the monumental His Master’s Voice Discography for Greenwood Press during its glory days in the 1990s; when new owners pulled the plug, he completed the project on his own, self-publishing the entire run on a set of inexpensive CDs. In 2007 he was honored with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Michael Gray — besides being one helluva nice guy — has had a distinguished career that includes a long run as director of the Voice of America’s Research Library and Digital Audio Archive projects. He served as series editor for Greenwood Press discographies, has written numerous books and articles, and is the recipient of ARSC’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

The Playlist • Annette Hanshaw (1927–1930)

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ANNETTE HANSHAW & HER SIZZLIN’ SYNCOPATORS: Who’s That Knockin’ at My Door?

New York: September 1927
Perfect 12372 (mx. 107766 – )
Various works cite an undocumented recording date of September 8.

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ANNETTE HANSHAW & HER SIZZLIN’ SYNCOPATORS: I’ve Got “It” (But It Don’t Do Me No Good)

New York: May 5, 1930
Velvet Tone 2155-V (mx. W 150388 – 3)

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ANNETTE HANSHAW (as Dot Dare): Is There Anything Wrong in That?

New York: November 22, 1928
Diva 2792-V (mx. W 147483 – 3)

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ANNETTE HANSHAW (as Patsy Young): I Want To Be Bad

New York: March 14, 1929
Velvet Tone 1878-V (mx. W 148077 – 2)

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ANNETTE HANSHAW: I Think You’ll Like It

New York: October 28, 1929
Mx. W 149196 – 2
From a c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing of the original stamper.

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No accompanying personnel are listed in the company files for any of these sessions, although experienced collectors will readily recognize Joe Venuti, Eddie Lang, Frank Signorelli, Benny Goodman, and others on various sides. Speculative personnel, based on aural evidence, can be found in our free download of Brian Rust’s Jazz & Ragtime Records (Personal-Use Edition, 1917–1934).

Dick Spottswood’s Columbia “C” Series Discography (1908 – 1923) • Free Download Now Available

We’re happy to announce that the next installment in Dick Spottswood’s Columbia ethnic-series discography is now available for free download. This section covers the C-prefixed series, which was intended for the Spanish-speaking markets — a tantalizing mixture of performances by Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, and other Latino artists (most of them recorded in their native countries by traveling Columbia engineers), operatic arias and light classics from domestic and imported masters, and various odd-and-ends “repurposed” from other catalogs.
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msp_columbia-cuba_1915-4

msp_columbia-mexico-1

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Click here
to download the discography in PDF format (approximately 5 megabytes). As with the previous installment, this material may be copied or distributed for personal use, provided that the source is cited. Sale or other commercial use is prohibited.

Dick’s latest update of his Columbia “E” series discography will be posted soon.

The Playlist • Some Columbia “E” Series Favorites (1908 – 1920)

Be sure to check out Dick Spottswood’s excellent new Columbia “E” Series Discography, available as a free download courtesy of the author and Mainspring Press.

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ABE SCHWARTZ’S ORCHESTRA: Sher — Part 2 [Jewish]

New York: c. October 1920
Columbia E4905 (mx. 86691 – 2)

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STEFAN RADIN (accordion): Malo Kolo [Serbian]

New York: c. June 1917
Columbia E3638 (mx. 58373 – 1)

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TAMBURASKO DRUSTVO: Ah, haj, Boze doj [Serbian]

New York: c. March 1918
Columbia E4190 (mx. 84187 – 1)

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VINDENSKA SALON KAPELA: Tance detektivu — Americká Melodie [Czech]

Unknown location and date (U.S. release 1913)
Columbia E1532 (mx. 66953 – 1)

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CHINESE NOVELTY ORCHESTRA: Chinese One-Step — Part 1 [Chinese]

Unknown location and date (U.S. release 1920)
Columbia E4506 (mx. 85544 – 1)

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ARISTIDE SIGISMONDI: ’E guaie ’e Nicola [Italian]

New York: c. March 1917
Columbia E3436 (mx. 58149 – 1)

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BAND with VOCAL CHORUS: Schorsch’l, kauf mir ein Automobil [German (British composition)]

Berlin: c. September 1908
Columbia E654 (mx. 41669 – 1)
A retitling of “The Perman’s Brooklyn Cake Walk” (a.k.a. “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend”), with added lyrics that have nothing to do with either title.

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BILLY WILLIAMS: I’ve Found Kelly [English (Australian artist)]

London: 1911
Columbia E1777 (mx. 27411 – 1)

Dick Spottswood’s Columbia “E” Series Discography Now Available for Free Download

We’re pleased to offer Dick Spottswood’s newly updated, 300-page Columbia “E” Series Discography as a free download for your personal use, courtesy of the author.

To download, click the “Free Online Discographies” link in the menu to your left. You’ll need Adobe Acrobat or Acrobat Reader (Versions 5.0 and later) to view the file. This file is offered for personal, non-commercial use only; please review the use notice before downloading.

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MSP_columbia-E2

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Dick is one of the great pioneers in discographical research on vernacular music of all sorts, as well as a long-time author, record producer, and radio host.

During the 1950s, Dick began canvassing for forgotten sound recordings containing a broad range of music — originally, jazz, blues, and country, later tackling the largely unexplored field of early ethnic records. In the 1960s he began sharing his finds on  countless reissues, including those on his own Melodeon and Piedmont labels, and co-founded Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. He later produced and annotated the important fifteen-LP series,  Folk Music in America, for the Library of Congress.

Dick’s masterworks are his multi-volume Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942 (University of Indiana Press, 1990);  and Country Music Sources, with Meade & Meade (John Edwards Memorial Forum and University of North Carolina Press, 2002) — both winners of ARSC Awards for Excellence, and works that we use constantly — and Banjo on the Mountain: Wade Mainer’s First Hundred Years, with Stephen Wade (University of Mississippi Press, 2010).

In addition to his other books and articles, Dick’s been an important contributor to many major discographical projects, both in print and online. He’s a founding member of The Association for Recorded Sound Collections, which honored him with their Lifetime Achievement Award in 2003. The International Bluegrass Music Association presented him their Distinguished Service Award in October 2009.

The Record Marconi Didn’t Invent: The True Story Behind the “Marconi” Velvet Tone Record (1906–1908)

(This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in 2011 on the Mainspring Press website. © 2016 by Allan Sutton)

 

By 1905 the lateral-cut disc record had assumed the basic form that it would take for the next four decades. Brittle shellac-based thermoplastic compounds — basically unchanged since their first use in Berliner’s discs in the 1890s — remained the standard pressing material. The notable exception in the United States was the Marconi Velvet Tone disc, a semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc produced by the American Graphophone Company (Columbia).

 

MSP_marconi-10-12_composite

Ten-inch Marconi issues (left) used their own catalog numbers, which don’t correspond to Columbia’s. Twelve-inch issues (right) used Columbia’s catalog numbers; this example also shows Marconi’s receding hairline, which was retouched (left)
on later printings.

 

Capitalizing on Guglielmo Marconi’s reputation as the inventor of radio, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” in 1906. On August 16 of that year, the New York Times reported that Marconi had sailed for the United States in connection with his new duties. Upon arrival, the inventor was treated to a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s Bridgeport, Connecticut plant, then was shuttled to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, Victor H. Emerson, and other Columbia officials spoke briefly, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work without mentioning how it might possibly relate to phonograph records.

Marconi boarded a ship back to Italy the next day, after telling a reporter for The Music Trade Review that he had not yet given the matter sufficient study to announce any new ideas. Little more was heard of the alliance until February 1907, when Columbia dealers received advance copies of the first Marconi Velvet Tone Record catalog. The records, bearing Marconi’s portrait and facsimile signature, were advertised as “Wonderful as Wireless,” although they used ordinary acoustically recorded Columbia masters.

Marconi, however, apparently had no hand in developing the discs that bore his name. His sole contribution appears to have been allowing Columbia to license his name and likeness. Searches of U.S. and Italian patents have consistently failed to reveal any filings by Marconi that might relate to these discs.

However, on July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — Columbia’s chief engineer, Thomas H. Macdonald, had filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a celluloid playing surface:

 

marconi-patent
Thomas Macdonald’s patent on the “Marconi” disc even specified the embossed pattern that is found on the reverse sides. There is no reference to Guglielmo Marconi anywhere in the patent filing. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

 

Macdonald’s patent wasn’t approved until August 6, 1907, by which time the Marconi discs had already been in production for six months. In the meantime, Columbia’s chief recording engineer, Victor Emerson, had filed his own patent on a disc pressed from a shellac–celluloid compound, which he promptly assigned to American Graphophone. Although it’s certainly possible that this or a similar mixture, rather than pure celluloid, was employed in the Marconi discs, chemical testing would be required to determine if that was the case:

MSP-PATENTS-US_838968
Victor Emerson’s 1906 patent for a hybrid celluloid-shellac disc. Emerson also patented a laminated shellac disc, which Macdonald then refined and patented himself. Assigned to American Graphophone, it became the basis for the familiar Columbia laminated pressings.

 

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the “Marconi” discs. Macdonald specified a flexible paper or cardboard core laminated between two thin sheets of celluloid — one to receive the impression of the sound recording, and the other to receive either a second sound recording or “a roughened surface…covered by fine lines close together and crossing at right angles.” Columbia addressed Macdonald’s claim that needles need not be changed after each playing by marketing semi-permanent gold-plated needles for use with the records.

 

MSP_marconi_notices

Marconi discs carried a large warning sticker on the blank reverse sides. The “fine lines close together and crossing at right angles” specified in Maconald’s patent can be seen on the outer edge.

The surface quality of the celluloid Marconi Velvet Tone Record was indeed exceptional for its day, especially when compared with Columbia’s standard, rather gritty shellac pressings. Columbia was soon manufacturing Marconi-style records for export as well as domestic sales, and even produced some double-sided issues and a few pressings from imported Fonotipia masters.

Sales lagged, however. The records were more expensive than the ordinary Columbia pressings they duplicated, and the surfaces could be badly damaged if played with ordinary steel needles. They tended to slip on the turntable despite the textured reverse sides. Production was discontinued in 1908, and by 1910 the discs were being remaindered by a New York department store for 17¢ each, and a packet of the once-pricey gold-plated needles was given free with larger purchases.

Oddball Record Updates • 1907 Mercury Record; Indestructible Dictaphone Training Cylinder

A couple of unusual special-use records that we’ve not seen before, courtesy of Tim Brooks (Mercury) and David Giovannoni (Indestructible). If anyone has other examples of these, or more information on them, we’d like to hear from you.

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MERCURY RECORD (1907)

MSP-TB_mercury-1907

 

The Mercury Record above obviously has nothing to do with the well-known label that was founded in 1945. It was made by American Graphophone (Columbia) for the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company. The company exhibited telegraphic equipment at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, although it was not formally incorporated until April 4, 1905. It was chartered in Jersey City, New Jersey, by George R. Beach (a prominent bankruptcy attorney who served as a receiver in at least two phonograph-related cases), Walter P. Phillips, and Thaddeus R. McCartie.

So, what to make of the Bridgeport address? On closer investigation, Electric Novelty’s official business address (15 Exchange Place, Jersey City) turns out to have been the office of George R. Beach, an unlikely venue for this sort of operation. The consistent use of the Bridgeport address (where Columbia had its factory), and the specially customized “conditions” sticker (below), suggest that Columbia was handling all operations and fulfillment for Beach, or possibly had even closer ties to his company.

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MSP-TB_mercury-1907B

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Numbers embossed under the label are T503-1-1, and M-1700-1-1. Tim notes, “That’s apparently a Columbia ‘M’ number, and it falls into a blank section in Bill [Bryant]’s M-number log. Judging by other M-numbers I would date it as 1907 or 1908, around the end of the period in which M-numbers were used. It’s embossed rather than hand-written like most M-numbers. The record doesn’t seem to have been assigned a standard Columbia number of the period (which were in the 3000s). This would seem to add more weight to the theory that the M-numbers were the true matrix number during this period, and the 3000s were in fact catalog numbers assigned after the fact.”

The copyright filings below, from the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries for July–December 1907, mesh nicely with Tim’s 1907–1908 estimate for the Mercury label:
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MSP_electric-novelty

At the end of 1912, the Governor of New Jersey declared Electric Novelty & Talking Machine to be in default after having failed to pay its 1910 taxes. Apparently things were resolved; the company was still listed as an active corporation in the 1914 register, and the ad above appeared in May 1915. The “Diamond Disk” notation is puzzling; clearly, this was still a Columbia-affiliated venture, based on the photo. Could there have been an Edison Diamond Disc version as well, or was that just an ad writer’s flight of fancy? (We suspect the latter, but will check our copies of the Edison files.)

 

INDESTRUCTIBLE DICTAPHONE RECORD

MSP_DGIO_ind-dictaphone

Many collectors are familiar with Edison’s Ediphone training cylinders, but this is the first such cylinder we’ve seen for the competing Dictaphone. It’s a standard 4″ celluloid Indestructible, with 150 grooves per inch (as was usual for dictating machines; standard “entertainment” cylinders were 100-gpi (two-minute) or 200-gpi (four-minute). Like this example, the first Indestructibles had raised lettering on the rim, suggesting a very early Indestructible master. However, David notes that it has “the look and feel of a late 4-minute Indestructible.” Unfortunately, it didn’t have its original box; has anybody seen one?

 

MSP_dictaphone-gerson_1908

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The Dictaphone began life as the Columbia Commercial  Graphophone, an example of which is shown above, mounted in Gerson cabinet. The Dictaphone name was first registered as a trademark, by the Columbia Phonograph Co., Gen’l., on September 18, 1907; the first Indestructible cylinders were released a little over a month later.

The Columbia–Indestructible affiliation was cemented (for a time, anyway) in 1908, when the former bought the latter outright. There’s much more to that story, of course, which can be found in Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderopgraphy (Nauck & Sutton), still available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

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1923 Columbia Recording Studio and Factory Film on YouTube

MSP-LOC_immortal-voice-open

An incredible find from the Library of Congress — Bray Studios’  1923 silent film, The Immortal Voice. Now posted on YouTube, it takes the viewer through Columbia’s entire recording and production process.

Filmed in Columbia’s New York studio and Bridgeport, Connecticut factory, it begins with an acoustical recording session by Rosa Ponselle and orchestra — staged for the camera, of course, but giving a good idea of how a real session might have looked, and how closely the musicians had to huddle (look for the horned Stroh violins, a necessary evil in the acoustic days).

From there the film traces the path of the wax master, from auditioning and plating to the pressing of a finished disc. At the end is a surprise tribute to Victor’s Enrico Caruso, with footage purporting to be him onstage at the Met — making it pretty unlikely that the film was commissioned by Columbia.

Our thanks to the ever-vigilant John Bolig for passing along the link.

The Playlist • “Yellow Dog Blues,” Four Very Different Ways (1919–1934)

MSP_smith-columbia-14075-D

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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)

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BESSIE SMITH (acc: Fletcher Henderson’s Hot Six):
Yellow Dog Blues

New York: May 6, 1925
Columbia 14075-D (mx. W 140586 – 1)

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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.

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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.

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The Playlist • Johnny Dunn (Featuring Edith Wilson and Jelly Roll Morton), 1922–1928

MSP_dunn-j_composite

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JOHNNY DUNN’S ORIGINAL JAZZ HOUNDS:
Hallelujah Blues

New York: February 14, 1923
Columbia A3939 (mx. 80859 – 3)

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EDITH WILSON AND THE ORIGINAL JAZZ HOUNDS:
Wicked Blues

New York: January 20, 1922
Columbia A3558 (mx. 80150 – 4)

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EDITH WILSON WITH JOHNNY DUNN’S ORIGINAL JAZZ HOUNDS: What Do You Care? (What I Do)

New York: July 13, 1922
Columbia A3674 (mx. 80450 – 4)

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JOHNNY DUNN & HIS BAND [Jelly Roll Morton, piano]: Sergeant Dunn’s Bugle Call Blues

New York: March 13, 1928
Columbia 14306-D (mx. W 145759 – 2)

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JOHNNY DUNN & HIS BAND [Jelly Roll Morton, piano]: Ham and Eggs [Big Fat Ham]

New York: March 13, 1928
Columbia 14358-D (mx. W 145760 – 2)

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The Playlist • Armand J. Piron’s New Orleans Orchestra / Ida G. Brown (1923–1925)

piron-columbia

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ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA (Armand J. Piron and Charles Bocage, vocal):
Kiss Me Sweet

New York: December 1923
Okeh 40021 (mx. S 72133 – D)

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ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA:
Mama’s Gone, Goodbye

New York: December 11, 1923
Victor 19233 (mx. B 29122 – 2)

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ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA:
Sud Bustin’ Blues

New York: December 21, 1923
Columbia 14007-D (mx. 81435 – 3)

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ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA:
Ghost of the Blues

New York: February 15, 1924
Columbia 99-D (mx. 81569-3)

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ARMAND J. PIRON’S NEW ORLEANS ORCHESTRA:
Red Man Blues

New Orleans: March 25, 1925
Victor 19646 (mx. B 32121 – 3)

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IDA G. BROWN & HER BOYS: Kiss Me Sweet

New York (Independent Recording Laboratories): February 1924
Banner 1343 (mx. 5430 – 2)
The accompanists are believed to have been members of Piron’s Orchestra, based on aural and circumstantial evidence; the original Plaza-IRL documentation for this period no longer exists.

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Tales from the Columbia Vaults: The Unauthorized Vinyl “Test” Pressings (1960)

(This article was originally posted on September 17, 2012. We are reposting it, with some minor revisions, in response to many requests.)

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victor_re-pressing

A c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing of Duke Ellington’s 1931 “Creole Rhapsody” (Victor). Obsolete labels were sometimes flipped over and used as blanks on these pressings; this example uses an old Yorkville label from the late 1930s.

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We often see modern, blank-labeled vinyl “test” pressings of very old recordings on auction lists. They’re original-stamper pressings, usually of unissued or extremely rare material, and the surface quality is generally superb. Collectors have long been curious about the origin and legality of these pressings. We recently discovered the answer among the late Bill Bryant’s papers (at least, as far as the Columbia-related pressings are concerned) which includes copies of the late William Moran’s voluminous correspondence with various collectors and dealers.

The “inside job” we detail below was not unique. Someone within Decca, for instance, made large numbers of unauthorized vinyl pressings of rare 1920s jazz material from Gennett and Brunswick-Vocalion masters at around the same time the CBS insiders were pulling unauthorized “test” pressings from old masters by the score. The same happened at RCA, although that company (unlike CBS) allowed such pressings to be ordered legitimately through its Custom Products department, for a rather stiff fee. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s many new pressings from previously unissued material were pulled at RCA in connection with its “X” and “Vintage” reissue programs. Although supposedly intended for internal use by those involved in the projects, a substantial number seem to have been pressed, based on how many have since made their way into auction lists and collectors’ hands.

This, however, is the first time that such detailed information on unauthorized pressings has surfaced from a company insider. Illegal? Certainly — But whether anyone involved was a villain (other than perhaps the record companies) depends on your point of view. Our take is that those involved performed a valuable service in preserving important historic material that was subsequently trashed and written off by irresponsible corporate owners.

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In October 1960, a disgruntled CBS employee (who we’ll call “X”) contacted Bill Moran to alert him that the Columbia Records division was house-cleaning its Bridgeport, Connecticut plant and was planning to scrap many of its masters, including its holdings of Fonotipia and other imported recordings, the E- series foreign and ethnic material, and all of the early 16” radio transcriptions.

X’s letters to Moran provide a rare insider’s look at exactly what remained in Bridgeport in 1960. He reported that some “ancient stuff” (including cylinders, cylinder-phonograph parts, and display-model phonographs) still existed but had recently been “removed to some other part of the plant.” The earliest recording files had not survived, and there had been no effort to copy or microfilm what remained; in addition, the files had recently been placed off-limits to outsiders and employees, other than company librarian Helene Chmura, and photocopying was forbidden. The master-scrapping was already under way by the time X wrote to Moran — He reported that the metal parts were being hauled out in bucket loaders, ground up, and sold to a scrap dealer by the ton.

X’s formal recommendation that some of this material be preserved was ignored by management, so in late October he sent a list of endangered masters to Moran, with the suggestion that Moran ask Stanford University to intervene, and hinting that in the meantime he could supply Moran with unauthorized vinyl pressings of virtually anything in the vaults — He claimed he was already doing just that for some Columbia employees. The process is documented in an exchange of letters between X and Moran that began on October 31, 1960. On November 11 he wrote to Moran,

I have been securing test pressings without authority for the past two months. I had to “thread my way” until I could enlist help. Luckily he [the test pressman] is cooperative… I have been limiting my operation to twice a week and taking out parcels only every other week. One week I took out 16 [parcels], last week 19… I have managed to get a few humans in the plant (there are a few) to break regulations for me… I will attempt, over a period of time, to secure for you the materials you desire. These, if I get them, will be gratis.

The process was a complicated one, and it involved many Columbia employees at a time when (according to X) worker morale was at a low ebb. To make the early stampers compatible with a modern press, the metal and composition backings had to be removed and replaced, and new holes had  to be drilled in the stampers, which were then forwarded to the polishing department, from which they were sent to the test pressman. While all of this was going on under management’s nose, X was assuring Moran that he could even have new metal stampers plated for him, if desired.

Moran’s want-list initially included only early operatics, but was soon expanded to include political speeches from Nation’s Forum, rare personal recordings by the likes of Irving Berlin and Booker T. Washington, and even one of the 1908 vertical-cut disc tests (an idea that Columbia ended up not pursuing commercially).

X soon upped the frequency and pressing quantities of his clandestine runs. Many copies were handed out as favors to Columbia employees who were in on the activity, including Helene Chmura, the archive’s highly esteemed librarian. Chmura knew of X’s activities and had warned him to be careful, but reportedly she was happy to accept a group of custom Lotte Lehmann pressings. In November, X told Moran he was looking into ways of supplying him with copies of the restricted files that were in Chmura’s charge.

On November 16, X wrote to Moran, “Last Friday I took out 18 tests, including duplicates, in an open parcel… On Monday Bill [the chief of security] suggested that I not take out so many so often.” He went on to boast,

I have the run of the plant and have taken full advantage of it — women in duplicating will make photostats, Helene will make photocopies; the polisher will prepare masters for pressings… The Chief of Security Police allows me to make off with the records; the librarian’s files are at my disposal.

X promised Moran even larger shipments of the unauthorized pressings in a letter dated November 23:

I’ll send you a ton of pressings if I can discover how this can be arranged… One of the chaps in the Methods & Procedures Office this afternoon told me that he can smuggle pressings out for me if I cannot continue my present methods. These boys have briefcases which never are examined by the bulldogs. I have been furnishing two of these M&P men with records made to order.

A day later, X wrote to Moran to update him on his secret copying of the recording files, reporting that he was “lifting it right out from under [Helene Chmura’s] nose.” And that’s the final letter in our “X” file.

© 2016 Mainspring Press LLC.

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