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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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

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

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

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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

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

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Conclusion)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 3 (Conclusion)
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.

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(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
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I’d like to ask you more about the unique way you perform the lyrics of your songs.  On your Columbia recordings, your early acoustic ones, you seem to sing more than you did when you made your electrical Columbias, and your Decca recordings several years later. 

Well, that had to do more with the way recording was done back then, and also the way that records were promoted.  All of the record companies put out annual catalogs that [listed] their records according to categories.  So there would be a section for dance records, a section for symphonic records, a section for popular music—ballads, waltzes, and what-not—and a section for humorous records, monologs and such, and always a special section for records of opera arias and an overture or section from a symphony.  There may have been one or two others [i.e., categories], but that was the idea, the way these catalogs were put together.

When I made my first records for Columbia with my own band, around 1919, if the label of the record had the words “vocal refrain” or “vocal chorus,” the people who bought the record expected to hear singing.  Not necessarily ballad-singing, but you couldn’t just talk the lyrics, you had to sing them.

When I recorded “When My Baby Smiles at Me” the first time, I was singing into a metal horn, and my band was on bleachers that were in a circle, or semi-circle, right behind me.  If you listen to that [Columbia] record, I sing the line “when my baby smiles at me” just like it’s written.  On any of the later [recordings], I did it like this:  “When my baby”—and I say “baby,” I don’t sing it—“smiles at me”—I sing the words “smiles at,” but on “me,” I speak it.  On the first record, I sang the next line, “My thoughts go roaming to paradise,” all on pitch, singing it “straight,” in other words.  The recording director wanted to hear that “g” in “roaming” on the recording.  Later, I would do it like this:  “My thoughts to roamin’—roamin’—way up there to paradise, yessir,” and I’d “talk” the line.

 

Do you remember where did you make your first recordings for Columbia?

In New York.  The very first ones were [recorded] in space they rented on an upper floor of a building on Sixth Avenue.  Then they built a new set of studios on the top floor of the Gotham Building when it was finished.  Those were nice studios because the building had, I think, twenty-three stories, and the studios were on the top floor, so none of the sounds of the traffic way down below could be heard.  There were big windows on three sides of each studio—there were two separate studios, back to back—and in good weather, the windows would be open and it would be very comfortable in there.

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Were you offered a contract by Victor when you were at Columbia?

 No.  They had other bands by the late-1920’s—[Jean] Goldkette, [George] Olsen, and of course Whiteman—and I was happy at Columbia.  I did well for them, and they did well for me.  They designed a special silver label for my records.  That was the first time any of the record companies designed a special label for a performer.  That became my trademark at Columbia.

 

Another trademark of yours is your white-tipped cane, which you seem to be able to do anything with.  You twirl it so fast that if it had lights on it, they would be a blur.  How long has that been a part of your show, your act?

The baton-twirling?  I had learned it as a kid, and I got to lead a very big medicine show when it came into Circleville.

 

Do you remember the name of the medicine show?  I understand that there were a lot of them in the Midwest at the turn of the century.

It was called Hamlin’s Medicine Show.  It was quite a production—like a circus coming to town.  There would be posters put up everywhere weeks ahead, and the show would come into town led by a marching band.  [Oscar] Ameringer used many of us in the cadet band, along with others, especially brass players, to lead the parade of the Hamlin wagons into town.

I used to practice almost day and night twirling that brass baton.  It wasn’t like the white-tipped walking sticks I use in my act, not like what I use in “Me and My Shadow.”  This one was longer, and it had a kind of bulb on one end.  It was a tapered tube with the other end rounded off.  I got so I could throw it in the air, catch it behind my back, do all sorts of tricks with it.  I wasn’t the only bandleader who could “twirl,” you know.  George Olsen used a baton in his floor shows.  I think he had been a drum major.

 

As you hardly need me to say, there is an ongoing debate about who was first “jazz king,” Ted Lewis or Paul Whiteman.  Would you comment on that debate?

To start with, look at the dates.  When I was playing with Earl Fuller in 1916-1917, Paul was playing viola in a symphony orchestra.  That was his background and training.  His father was the conductor, or maybe director, of the Denver Symphony, which is where Paul got his start.  Then listen to his first records, and compare them to mine.  He didn’t make any recordings till at least two or maybe three years after I was recording with the Fuller band.  Where he was lucky is that he was signed by Victor, and two of the songs his band recorded in one of their first sessions, “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman,” were big hits.

Frankly, I never thought of Paul as a jazzman.  He loved that “King of Jazz” title, and that “talkie” [of the same title] definitely put him over with the public more than his first records ever did, but if you listen to his radio shows and read some of the interviews he gave, what he talks about is not jazz in the New Orleans style, but what he liked to call “symphonic jazz.”  Of course, he got that from being the one who introduced “Rhapsody in Blue,” and the one who recorded it with George [Gershwin] at the piano.  But he didn’t have as much to do with that premiere as he claims he did.  Ferde Grofé and Gershwin were the ones who wrote the arrangement.

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Sharing the limelight with Paul Whiteman (October 1928)

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Paul was a solid musician—no question about that.  He had that symphonic training, and he was taught by his father.  But as any of the fellows who were in his bands will tell you, he was not a very good player, and just a so-so conductor.  If you talk to Joe Venuti and ask him about Paul as a violist and violinist, Joe will tell you that [Whiteman’s] playing could be almost embarrassing.  Yet he’d insist on playing a violin solo from the podium, always with a spotlight trained on him, and he’d be sharp or flat throughout the solo.

 

Did you get to know each other when you were both with Columbia in the late-1920’s?

Not really, no.  The reason he left Victor and came to Columbia was because the head man at Victor, Nat Shilkret, had an ego like Paul did, and he wanted to decide what Paul would record.  Paul thought he had made so much money for Victor that nobody there should be trying to tell him what to do.  And there was another fellow [at Victor], Eddie King, who didn’t like jazz at all, and he was a “yes man” to Shilkret.

Now, Ben Selvin, who got the A&R job at Columbia around 1925 or 1926, knew Paul and knew how much interference he was getting from Shilkret, so Ben talked Columbia into giving Whiteman a much better contract.  Not so much better money-wise, but better because Paul could pick all of his players and arrangers, and could record whatever he wanted.  And as they had done for me, the [Columbia] management designed a special label for Paul’s records.

 

As you know, there are music historians who maintain that jazz and blues began with a black players in New Orleans, and that white musicians, especially Whiteman, “stole” the music from its black originators and commercialized it.  To the best of my knowledge, no one ever said that about you.  Do you have any thoughts about that?

Everybody who started playing jazz around the time I did, knew that this was New Orleans music and that the players who brought it to the north, whether we’re talking about the Midwest or New York, were blacks and Creoles.  Louis Armstrong was the giant of all of them, and everybody knew where Satchmo was from.  He was King Oliver’s star player.  Same with Sidney Bechet.  Practically every one of those early jazz and blues players you can name, whether it’s Jelly Roll Morton, or Lucky Roberts, or James P. Johnson, or the blues singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith and Ethel Waters, they were all from the South.

 

I was thinking more about why Paul Whiteman, but not Ted Lewis, has come to be seen as the one who “stole” black music, commercialized it, and made a fortune from it without ever acknowledging its real origins.

I can only give you my opinion, and it’s that Paul promoted himself was the “King of Jazz.”  If you’re going to advertise yourself as the King of Jazz, and you make a movie called “King of Jazz” and you’re the star of it, then you’re almost saying that this is your music, your invention, and that you’re the best one who can play it.

I never did any of that.  And I never pretended to play “symphonic jazz,” or anything like it.  And I didn’t lead a band, let alone try to be a conductor.  My band was the backdrop for my act, which has always been a stage act.  I’ve never promoted myself as a bandleader because I’m not one.  I came out of vaudeville, and my place is the stage, not a podium in front of a big band.

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Ted Lewis at the Columbia pressing plant, late 1920s
(CBS archives)

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You have been so generous with your time this afternoon, and I don’t want to take any more advantage of it than you have allowed me to.  But I would like to end this interview on the same topic we began, which is the clarinet.  I can’t think of a well-known clarinetist of the 1930’s and 1940’s who didn’t play in one of your bands.  In fact, I can’t think of any big-band member who didn’t play in one of your bands!  If you won’t mind giving me your thoughts about these clarinetists, I’ll really appreciate it.  Let me begin with the two best-known ones, Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw.  You hired both of them for your studio sessions, am I correct?

Yes, both of them played with me at different times when they were studio players.  I had Benny play my some of my solos in my Columbia [electrical] records.  Both are great players, but if you’re asking me which one I consider the best, it’s Shaw.  I haven’t heard high-register playing like Shaw’s since Al Nunez.  I’m not taking anything away from Benny, who’s a terrific improviser.  But Shaw was tops in my book.  I just wish he hadn’t walked away from it when he did.

 

Four other names, if I may:  Johnny Dodds, Jimmy Lytell, Pee Wee Russell, and Lawrence Welk’s discovery, Pete Fountain. 

Johnny Dodds was the real thing, one hell of a clarinetist!  You know, he replaced Al Nunez when Al had some medical [dental] problems.  To me, he wasn’t anywhere near the player that Al Nunez was.  You know, Pee Wee [Russell], who was probably the closest thing to the old New Orleans players, said that Al Nunez was the greatest jazz clarinetist who ever lived.  That tells you a lot about both of them, because if they held one of those old “carving contests” like they had in New Orleans, Pee Wee could outplay just about anybody you’d put up next to him.

You mentioned Jimmy Lytell, who’s a favorite of mine.  Jim can play anything you put in front of him—a hell of a studio clarinetist—and he can improvise with the best of them.  And Jim is an Albert [system] player.  Did you know that?  Of course, that makes him special to me because he didn’t switch like the others did.

Now, about Pete Fountain, there’s no question that he’s a first-rate clarinetist.  I don’t see how he can last with Welk, any more than he could have years ago with, and I’m just picking names, Guy Lombardo or Shep Fields or Kay Kyser or Wayne King.  Those fellows got where they were by sticking to a formula, and it’s not a formula that leaves much room for a “hot” soloist.  Welk doesn’t pay anybody either—he pays scale, or just a little over scale.  He’s lucky to have Pete Fountain because Pete draws people who wouldn’t tune in Welk.

But Welk’s show is really a musical variety show, sort of a cross between the “Hit Parade” and a vaudeville bill—a pop song by the whole band, then an Irish tenor, and the Lennon Sisters, and a violinist, then the kid with the electric guitar, and then Pete Fountain.  For a New Orleans jazzman, that’s not much of an opportunity to play.  So we’ll see how long that lasts with Pete.

 

On a talk show recently, Artie Shaw and Beverly Sills were asked how they manage criticism, whether from music critics or gossip columnists like Dorothy Kilgallen.  In so many words, they said you must have, or else you must develop, thick skin and then consider the source.  You have had a few critics during your long career, and one of them seems to be Eddie Condon.  As you may have heard, he said in his recent book that “Ted Lewis could really make the clarinet talk, and when it did, it said, ‘Please put me back in my case.’”

If he really wrote that, if those were his own words and not his ghostwriter’s, he can’t take any credit for being original.  That line has been around as far back as I can remember, and it applies to any instrument that comes in a case, whether it’s a violin or a trombone or a clarinet.  But, look, he’s trying to make some money to pay the rent, so he thinks he has to put down other people in the business.  It doesn’t bother me not only because it’s not original, but because you have to consider the source.  Eddie Condon is no Eddie Lang.  Eddie Condon plays a four-string guitar.  A four-string guitar?  Please!  That’s nothing but an oversized ukulele.  And maybe I shouldn’t have given Eddie all the work I gave him!

 

I can’t thank you enough for the time you have given me for this interview.  I’m a proud Ted Lewis fan, and will never forget how kind you were to me ten years ago when I asked for your autograph.  And I assure you that I’ll never forget how generous you have been to me today.  Thank you again and again and again.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Additional content from Mainspring Press

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SOPHIE TUCKER with TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Some of these Days

Chicago: November 23, 1926
Columbia 1826-D (mx. W 142955 – 2)

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RUTH ETTING with TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Keep Sweeping the Cobwebs Off the Moon

New York: December 23, 1927
Columbia 1242-D (mx. W 145395 – 2)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Milenberg Joys

New York: June 22, 1925
Columbia 439-D (mx. W 140709 – 2)

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Part 2)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 2 of 3
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.
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(October 1925)

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Going back to the very beginning of your career, who was “Cricket”?

Cricket Smith was his name.  He had a band that he and several other Negro barbers had put together.  Not that all of the players were barbers.  They were black musicians who happened, some of them, to be barbers.

 

In interviews I’ve read, you have given a lot of credit to “Cricket” and his influence on your playing style.  How would you describe what you learned from him?

Syncopation.  I learned that from [Cricket Smith’s] band.  What they played was totally different from what we thought of as a “band,” which was a marching band, a military band, in those days.  Very oom-pah-pah.  The black band players were playing in a syncopated style.

 

Were they trained musicians, any of them?

They didn’t read music.  They played by ear, and they would play a melody to suit themselves.  The sheet music might have, say, eight bars of half-notes and quarter notes, and a rest here and there.  But since these fellows couldn’t read music, they held onto a note if they wanted to, or added what you call “grace notes” here and there, which made their playing swing.

 

How did you come to know Cricket Smith?

I used to sweep out his shop.  I was good at sweeping out stores.  My father had a dry-goods store, and one of my “jobs” was to sweep the inside of our store, and sweep the walkway outside it.

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From “The Jazz ‘King’s’ Climb: He Blew His Own Horn” (Harrisburg [PA] Telegraph, January 9, 1920)

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What was the name of his store?

The name?  You mean my father’s name, or the name of the store?

 

Both, if you please.

My father’s name was Ben, or Benny as he was called, Benjamin Friedman.  Benjamin and Paulina Friedman—they were my parents. The store was Friedman’s Bazaar.  It was on West Main Street in Circleville.  It was about, maybe, seven or eight blocks from the house I grew up in.  It was a two-story home, or three-story if you count the attic, which we also used, on West Mound Street in Circleville, at 158 West Mound.

 

How many were in your immediate family?

I’m the second oldest of five kids; my brother Edgar was the first, then me, then my brother Milt (or Milton), Leon, and Max.  We also had a clerk at my father’s shop living with us, and at times we also had a laundress living with us.

 

You began in a municipal band in your hometown, am I right?

It was what used to be called a “cadet band,” and it was formed by a German bandmaster.  In Circleville, in fact in the big Ohio cities, it was the Germans who were usually the bandmasters.  And were the teachers, too.

 

That would have been Oscar Ameringer who formed and led that band? 

Yes, Oscar Ameringer.  He called himself “Professor” Ameringer.  Just like I call myself “Professor Lewis” when I do “Medicine Man for the Blues.”

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Oscar Ameringer, 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress
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Was he the Oscar Ameringer who became a prominent Socialist, and either founded or wrote for labor-union newspapers?

Yes, indeed.  He came to Circleville from Cincinnati, and I think he lived in Columbus for a while, too.  He was very friendly with John L. Lewis, the mine-worker leader.  Oscar was our bandmaster in Circleville.  And he kicked me out of that band.  Do you know that story?

 

I’ve heard a version of it, but I’d much rather hear it from Ted Lewis personally!

Well, we were playing a concert in the park, and one of the pieces was the “Poet and Peasant Overture.”  Being German, Oscar Ameringer liked the Suppé overtures, especially “Poet and Peasant” and the “Light Cavalry” one.  They were popular back then.   Our band had played [“Poet and Peasant”] so many times that frankly, I was sick of it.

In the middle, and again toward the end of the overture, there’s a passage in ¾ time and the woodwinds, especially the clarinets, are more prominent in those parts.  The brass section “rules the roost” in the opening of the overture, then the strings and brass, then the woodwinds.  Anyway, I think I played the first [section] the way it’s written.  But in the second [section], I stood up and “noodled” my way all the way through that passage.  I was all over the place, improvising in the upper register.  Well, as soon as that concert was over, I got fired!

 

Did Ameringer re-hire you after he calmed down?

No, and it wasn’t long after that when I went to Columbus and started playing there.   Later on, after I got well known in New York, he apologized to me about ten times.

 

What took you to Columbus from Circleville?

Well, my father wanted me to go to college, to learn how to run a business and maybe become part of the family business.  So he paid my tuition to go to a business college in Columbus.

 

Was that Bliss College?

I think it was called Columbus Business College back then, but it’s still going, I think.  I was only there one term, one semester, and it wasn’t for me.  The classes mere mostly in the morning, and I’m not a morning type of fellow.  Show-business folks are night-time folks, you know.  So I didn’t stay in business college.  But if I do say so myself, I don’t pretty well in business.  Not the kind my father had in mind, but in show business.

 

Do you recall where you lived in Columbus?

A boarding house on East Town Street, about two blocks from Town and High Street.  I think it’s still there.

 

Do you recall the name of the store you worked in?

Yes, Goldsmith’s Music Store, on South High Street near where the Capitol building is.  At that time, it was a very large operation.  They sold all kinds of musical instruments, and phonographs, and player pianos, and they also sold and demonstrated sheet music for customers.  I did odd jobs there—sweeping up, and raising and lowering the awnings, and doing deliveries, mainly.  I did learn how to adjust keys and springs on the clarinet, and how to shave reeds, and how to put in pads.  But I was just an errand boy.

 

May I ask you about your religious upbringing?  Although I’m a goy, I study with two rabbis at Ohio State, one Orthodox, Rabbi Marvin Fox, and one Reformed—the great man Rabbi [Jerome D.] Folkman, who has made this interview possible for me.  Not being Jewish, I don’t know if there are strict lines that separate Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed Judaism, but if you had to characterize your family when you were growing up in Circleville, in which tradition would you place your family?

First of all, in Circleville there were only, I think, five families including ours that were Jewish.  My father came from what you’d call a Conservative background today.  There was no temple in Circleville, and the Jewish families that lived there, if they got together much at all for religious purposes, got together in one of their homes.  Honestly, I don’t remember much of anything about what it meant to be Jewish until I came to Columbus and saw the beautiful synagogues there.  I’m sure you know the name Lazarus, the department-store family.  The patriarch was Simon Lazarus, and he and several other wealthy Jewish families donated the money and headed the fund drives for those wonderful temples in the East end.

As for me, to be honest I’m not [an] observant Jew.  Adah and I were married by a rabbi after [our] civil ceremony because we wanted a mitzvah, a blessing, for our marriage.  But being on the road like I’ve been throughout my career, I couldn’t follow the dietary laws and say all the prayers you’re supposed to say before and after meals, and at sunrise and sunset and throughout the day.  But I’m Jewish and I’m proud of it, and I really like this temple [Temple Israel] where my brother belongs.  And everybody here loves Rabbi Folkman.  I bet he’s a good professor.

 

Indeed he is—and please tell him I said so, although he’s not going to give me any bonus points for a compliment!  Staying with the subject of Columbus and your time there, did you play any of the vaudeville houses in Columbus?

Much later, yes, but not at the time I’m talking about.  At Goldsmith’s, I met a man named Gus Sun, who had a vaudeville circuit that played the East Coast.  He hired me, and it was through him that I got to New York.  I was hired by a band that played at Rector’s, which was a very posh restaurant in Manhattan.

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(The Talking Machine World, October 1925)

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Was that your first band, meaning the first one that was called the “Ted Lewis Band?”

No, my first band was a little before that.  I had put together a band in 1915, just five pieces, two clarinets, two cornets, and a Sousaphone.  We played shows at Coney Island.  We also played a few dates at the Brighton Beach Pavilion.

 

When you formed that first band and were playing at Coney Island, were you playing in the style we hear on your first Columbia recordings?

No.  We were playing songs that were suited to that type of a small band.  We weren’t improvising.  We were playing “straight.”

 

When would you say that you first began playing jazz, then?

Well, the group that popularized jazz was the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  Nick LaRocca was the one who made that group what it was.  When they got the gig at Reisenweber’s in New York, and then when Victor picked them up and started promoting their records, that’s when jazz really took off.  Now, I had been playing in that style before the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.  I was with a band called Earl Fuller’s Novelty Orchestra.

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Earl Fuller special label. By this time this was issued in early 1920, Lewis had left to form his own band, and Fuller would soon exit the music business. The recordings were reissued on Arto 9009, a September 1920 release.  (Courtesy of Kurt Nauck)

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When and how did you become associated with the Earl Fuller band?

It was either at the end of 1915 or early in 1916.  Earl heard my little five-piece “nut band,” as I called it, and he liked my style, so he offered me a job.  It wasn’t until I got to know him that I found out he was an Ohioan, too.  He was from Warren, Ohio.

 

Did Earl Fuller just lead the band, or did he play in it too?

Earl was a pianist, what we used to call a “novelty pianist” in the style of Zez Confrey and Felix Arndt.  Do you know those names?

 

Yes, “Kitten on the Keys” and “Nola” and so many other piano pieces that I wish I could play!

Are you a musician too?

 

No, sir, except in a very liberal use of the word “musician.”  I play clarinet at a little bar on High Street, a block north of the [Ohio State University] campus.  The owner is a ragtime pianist, and three nights a week I am his clarinetist.  But I hesitate to say that I am a clarinetist in the presence of the great Ted Lewis!

If the money and the tips are helping you get your doctor’s degree, it doesn’t matter how well you play.

 

I’ll remember that, sir.  Going back to your days with Earl Fuller, were the Fuller band and the Original Dixieland band the major jazz bands in Manhattan around the time that the U.S. entered World War One?

No, there were others in and around New York that were novelty bands, although what they were playing was our [New York] version of New Orleans jazz.  Ben Selvin was there, and he had a novelty band, and Gus Haenschen had a banjo orchestra that he’d brought from St. Louis.  The Warings, Fred and Tom, had a banjo orchestra, and there was the Original New Orleans Jazz Band too.  So there were several, and all of them were copying the Original Dixieland Jazz Band—not the “live” band, but their Victor records.  Victor really promoted those records.

 

You left Earl Fuller’s band, as we were talking about earlier, to form your own band.  Was that a mutual decision?

Well, yes and no.  He was older, and doing three shows a night, every night but Monday, was wearing thin for him.  And to be honest about it, I had an act pretty much planned out, and I needed my own band to do my act the way I had conceived of it.  I was full of pep and eager to get started, and I talked to several of the guys in the [Fuller] band, and they were willing to take a chance on sticking with me, so they came along.

 

Did you and Earl Fuller become competitors, then?

Not really.  He was winding down, tired of the grind.  When I was with him, the band had done several trial recordings for Victor, but very few of them were released.  We had better luck with Columbia, and that’s how I got into Columbia and why I stayed with them after I had my own band.  Columbia, you know, was the David to Victor’s Goliath.  Columbia would try new things that Victor was reluctant to do.

Victor, as I said, promoted the Original Dixieland records pretty well, but that wasn’t what the [Victor] management wanted in 1917 and 1918.  Their biggest selling band was the [Joseph C.] Smith band, which was a “society” outfit.  Now that changed when they got [Paul] Whiteman, but that was after the Original Dixieland fellows had run their course.  Earl, you see, wanted to be like Joseph C. Smith and be a society band.  And that was exactly what I didn’t want to be.

 

Did you and Earl Fuller stay in contact after you became famous on your own?

Just incidentally.  Earl went into radio when it became big.  He stayed in radio, pretty much in the Midwest.  Somewhere around World War Two, I think, he was the musical director for a big station in Cincinnati.  So he did all right for himself—another Ohio boy who made good in the music business.

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COMING IN PART 3: Columbia records, Paul Whiteman, Lewis on jazz

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Additional content from Mainspring Press

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Beginning in the later 1920s, Ted Lewis sometimes let younger musicians handle the clarinet work. These three examples feature Don Murray, best remembered for his work with Bix Beiderbecke, Frank Trumbauer, and the Jean Goldkette Orchestra.

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Jungle Blues
New York: April 3, 1928
Columbia 1525-D (mx. W 145954 – 4)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND (Lewis, vocal): A Jazz Holiday

New York: April 3, 1928
Columbia 1525-D (mx. W 145953 – 3)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND (Lewis, vocal): Maybe – Who Knows?

Los Angeles: May 26, 1929
Columbia 1854-D (mx. 148562 – 3)

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Ted Lewis (Part 1)

INTERVIEW WITH TED LEWIS
Part 1 of 3
 James A. Drake

 

This interview was conducted in 1968 at Temple Israel, in Columbus, Ohio,
courtesy of Rabbi Jerome D. Folkman.

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I’d like to ask you several questions about the clarinet.  When I had the privilege of meeting you between your shows at the Ohio State Fair about ten years ago, the clarinet you used in your show was an Albert system.  I know of some players who started with the Albert and then switched to Boehm.  Did you ever do that?  Can you play both systems?    

The Albert [system] was popular with the ragtime fellows, but the Boehm was what many of the New York fellows were playing.  I tried to learn it, but it was so different than the Albert that I just couldn’t stick to it.  So I stayed with the Albert.

 

Do you recall the name, or brand, of your first B-flat clarinet?

Yes, it was a Lambert.  It was a good name in clarinets.  Made in Paris, and imported over here.

 

Is that the instrument you were playing when you joined the Earl Fuller band?

Well, I still had the Lambert when I went with Earl, but not too long after I settled in New York, I tried out a clarinet made by a fellow named Brancati, O. M. Brancati, who had a store on Lexington Avenue.  I heard that he had an arrangement with Vandoren in Paris to ship him barrels, pads, keys, spring, and such.  His [Brancati’s] workmen would assemble and adjust the instruments to suit the client.

 

Do you have a preference in mouthpieces?

I think I’ve tried them all at one time or another.  For a while, I was playing with a glass mouthpiece.  The one I learned on was a wood mouthpiece.  It was okay because it was well seasoned, but I was always worried that I might drop it and put a chip in the tip.  I worried about that with the glass mouthpiece too.  I used a hard-rubber mouthpiece on and off, and it was very stable.  I use Bakelite mouthpieces most of the time.

 

I wondered if you were using a plastic mouthpiece these days.

I should try one of the newer ones.  Plastic has come a long way, and I hear that some of them are pretty good.

 

You use a standard metal ligature.  Did you always use a metal one?

Yes, and I’ve had several different ones.  The one I liked the best had three screws instead of two.  Now, the old players, the ones who came up from New Orleans, they used string for a ligature.  Some of them used fishing line to hold the reed in place.

 

Of the several New Orleans clarinets who came to New York when the jazz movement started, did any of them have an influence on your playing?

Oh, yes—there were several, as you say, but Al [Alcide] Nunez was the one I really admired.  All of the New Orleans fellows he played with thought Al was the tops.  He had a nickname, “Yaller,” which was the way the fellows who played with him pronounced “yellow.”  I don’t know if you know this, but Al was with the band that became the Original Dixieland Jazz Band when they were just a five-piece band playing in Chicago.  About the time I started with Earl Fuller’s band, word was coming out of Chicago that Al Nunez was the hottest clarinetist of them all.

 

What was it about his playing that influenced your style?

In one word, everything!  If you listen to the records he made with the Louisiana Five, you hear how easily he could play in the upper register—and I mean an octave above what almost any other clarinetist could play.  You don’t hear his low register in those records, because it didn’t record very well, but his low-register playing was almost like what you’d hear from a classical clarinetist.  Oh, he could do the growling, “reedy” low notes that you hear Sidney Bechet play when he’s on clarinet.  But Al could play like a conservatory graduate when he wanted to.  Every note he played had the same quality, high to low and low to high, and his vibrato never varied from top to bottom.

 

Your own clarinet sound and your high-register playing are really distinctive.  Has your tone and your style changed a lot from when you were starting out with the Earl Fuller band?

You mean my “wah-wah” vibrato?  That’s the style I developed when I was with [the] Fuller [band].  We were a novelty act, a “clown band.”  The kind of music we played, meaning the songs we played, were called “nut songs” back then.  I developed that high-register “wah-wah” as my part of the act.  I always held the clarinet pointed upward, and moved it all around—left and right, up and down—while I was playing.  Sometimes I would do a dance while I was playing, or I’d mimic a guy marching with big, high steps.  That’s where the top hat came in, too.

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In your show, and also in your second RKO album, in the introduction you make to “Wear a Hat with a Silver Lining,” you talk about your famous hat.  “Since nineteen-six / it’s played the sticks / from Maine to Mandalay” is one of my favorite lines.  Can I induce you to talk about how you acquired your famous hat?

I tell that story in my act—I won it in a dice game.  That’s not the shabby one I wear onstage, though.  That first hat was a pretty nice, shiny top hat.  It wasn’t my exact size, so I wore it cocked to the side.  I have about a dozen of them.

 

What prompted you to make that battered hat a kind of signature, along with your clarinet and your distinctive way of delivering a song?

Well, the top hat was always associated with high society.  You know, “a top hat, a white tie, and tails,” as Irving Berlin wrote.   If you wore a top hat, people might say that your nose was up in the air, that you were stuck up.  If a fellow put on airs, somebody might say, “He’s high-hatting us,” meaning that he’s got his nose in the air.  So to take a beat-up top hat and wear it was a little like what Chaplin did with the derby.  It was taking a high-society hat and putting it on a riverboat tramp.  It was my trademark, but there were others who used a battered hat for a similar effect.  Harpo Marx was one.

 

But why a beat-up top hat, when you were always dressed in a dark suit or a tux? 

The contrast was what I was after.  I wore the hat like the Currier and Ives comic characters did.  That’s where I got that from.

 

Would that have been from the “Darktown” series of Currier & Ives?

You’ve seen those, have you?  That’s where all of the Negro acts came from.  They patterned themselves after those [Darktown] characters.  If you’re familiar with the great Bert Williams, you’ll know that a couple of his characters from his “Follies” acts were made up and dressed up like those Currier & Ives Darktown characters.

 

Back to the clarinet, do you recall the first clarinet you learned to play?

Well, the first one was the E-flat, the smallest clarinet, and then when I got big enough I went to the B-flat [clarinet].  The E-flat one was a metal Albert [system] clarinet.  That’s the one I learned on.

 

Was the clarinet your first instrument?

No, I started with a piccolo, believe it or not.  I was just a tyke and my fingers weren’t long enough to reach the keys of a clarinet.

 

In a Columbia catalog supplement from the late-1920’s, there is a photo of you playing saxophone.  Did you “double” on sax and clarinet in your band, or any of the bands you played with before you formed your own group?

Only when I had to, meaning when another sax player was necessary for an arrangement.  The sax was the electric guitar of the 1920’s, you know.  You may have heard of Rudy Wiedoeft—

 

Yes, the composer of “Saxophobia,” and the man from whom Rudy Vallée borrowed his first name.

That’s right.  Rudy Wiedoeft, and a group called the Six Brown Brothers, and also a fellow who worked for me from time to time, Benny Krueger, were the ones who were considered the top men on sax in those days.

 

Staying with Rudy Valleé for a moment—and he was just here [in Columbus] about two months ago, and I interviewed him about this—he said that when he put together his first band, the Yale Collegians, he did an impersonation of you.  His impersonation of you, along with the one he did of Maurice Chevalier, became part of his show at the Paramount Theater.  I would guess that you and Maurice Chevalier and Al Jolson have been impersonated more than any other performers.  Would you agree?

If you’re talking about performers in general, not just singers and musicians, I think you’d have to add Groucho [Marx] to that list.  But, yes, I saw Rudy’s impersonation in one of his shorts [short films], and it was pretty good because he could imitate my swaying and my “strut,” you might call it.  And he could play the clarinet in my style, too.

Of the stars you just mentioned, I think I’m the easiest to imitate because I don’t really sing, I “talk” a song.  Chevalier and Jolson “talked” lyrics too, but they were singers.  They talked a little just for an effect.  Now in my case, a fellow can get himself an old battered top hat, and a white-tipped cane, and a clarinet—even if it’s just a prop and they don’t play it.  And if they can mimic my inflections and my gestures, why, they can do me pretty easily.

 

Were you and Al Jolson friends?

I knew Al, of course, but Al was a fellow who didn’t socialize much.  I’ve belonged to the Friars Club for more years than I can remember, and I love going there and playing cards with my friends in show business.  Al wasn’t like that, you see.  Al was always “on,” even when he wasn’t onstage.  He had to be in the spotlight, no matter where he was or what he was doing.  Everybody in the business knew Al and respected him as a great performer, a big star, but Al was a loner.

 

Your delivery of a song is so distinctive that I think it’s right to say it’s unique.  How did you develop it?  Where did it stem from?

From Cohan.  George M. Cohan.  He “talked” a song, you know.  I saw every one of his hit shows, and each one was greater than the one before it.  Have you seen the movie with Jimmy Cagney?

 

Yes, several times.

Jimmy Cagney was a dancer, you know, but his style was nothing like Cohan’s.  But when you see him dancing as Cohan in that movie, you’d swear you were seeing George M. Cohan.  Now, Jimmy doesn’t sound like Cohan, but he “talks” the lyrics like Cohan did.  The only difference was that Cohan would sing more of the lyrics than Jimmy Cagney does in that film.  Jimmy’s not a singer, he’s a dancer.  Cohan could sing “straight” when he wanted to.

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

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Ted Lewis (clarinet) with Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band

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EARL FULLER’S FAMOUS JAZZ BAND (Ted Lewis, clarinet):

Jazz De Luxe

New York: June 13, 1918
Edison 50541 (mx. 6224)

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TED LEWIS & HIS BAND: Barnyard Blues [Livery Stable Blues]

New York: June 5, 1924
Columbia 170-D (mx. 81808 – 2)

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COMING IN PART 2: Cricket Smith, more on Earl Fuller,
Lewis starts his own band

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“American Idol,” 1916 Style

“American Idol,“ 1916 Style
By Allan Sutton

 

Long before The Voice, American Idol, Horace Heidt, or even Major Bowes, there was the Colorado Scholarship Fund contest of June 1916 — possibly the first amateur-talent contest for which the reward was a record deal (of sorts). The contest was widely publicized in the Colorado newspapers, and even The Talking Machine World (the major trade-paper of the day) covered it in detail:

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The record still turns up often in Colorado, generally to the dismay of collectors, since aside from the interesting-looking label, it’s pretty dreadful (so much so, that we won’t post the sound-file, out of respect to two artists caught at an awkward stage in their development). In defense of Ms. Forsyth and Mr. Parsons, both were truly amateurs at the time, and Forsyth had recently suffered throat problems, according to a local paper.

For all its shortcomings, the record appears to have sold very well. It didn’t lead to a Columbia contract for either singer (and was numbered in Columbia’s Personal Record series, ensuring it would never be listed in a Columbia catalog), but apparently the experience encouraged them to pursue professional careers. Both took up vocal studies at Denver’s Wilcox Studios shortly after the record’s release.

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Forsyth remained in Denver until late 1919, when she joined the All-American Opera Company on tour, as an understudy to Anna Fitziu. By the early 1920s she had married and settled in Los Angeles, where she became a fixture on the local concert circuit and taught at Davis Musical College.

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Alice Forsyth in Los Angeles, 1923

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Parsons joined the Jambon Players, a group that entertained the troops overseas during World War I, then settled in Pittsburgh. In addition to regular concert and church work, he was a radio pioneer, broadcasting regularly over station KDKA beginning in 1921. During 1927–1928 he appeared on Broadway in Artists and Models, which ran for 151 performances at the Winter Garden. In the later 1920s he had his own program on KDKA and was a featured star on NBC’s Yeast Foamers program during 1929–1930.

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Chauncey Parsons at Loew’s Aldine Theater (Pittsburgh), 1924

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The Colorado contest was so successful that it was later repeated in other cities.

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Some Early Record-Pressing Plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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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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).

 

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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:

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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.