Tales from the Vault: The Unauthorized Columbia Vinyl Pressings (1960)

Tales from the Vault: The Unauthorized Columbia
Vinyl Pressings (1960)
By Allan Sutton

 

An earlier version of this article was originally posted on September 17, 2012. We are reposting it, with some minor revisions, in response to many requests.

 

We often see relatively modern, blank-labeled vinyl “test” pressings of very old recordings on auction lists. They’re not actually test pressings, but rather, custom pressings made many years after the fact from the original stampers. They usually feature unissued or extremely rare material, and the surface quality is generally superb.

Collectors have long been curious about where they came from, and whether they were made legally. Long answer short, on the latter: Some were authorized by the masters’ owners (particularly in the case of Decca and RCA, although some questionable activity went on there as well), and some were not (largely in the case of Columbia).

A few years ago, we uncovered details of a “sneaky Pete” operation at Columbia among Bill Bryant’s papers, which include copies of the late William Moran’s correspondence with a Columbia insider he tapped to carry out his plan. Moran (a well-heeled private collector) masterminded the operation, which was  carried out by factory insiders in 1960. The mission was to quietly pull new vinyl pressings, without the company’s knowledge or authorization, from acoustic masters that were about to be scrapped.

Was the activity Illegal? Certainly. But whether any party involved was a villain (other than perhaps CBS, which at the time seemed hell-bent on destroying its recorded heritage) depends on your point of view. Our take is that those involved performed a valuable service in preserving important historic material that was subsequently trashed and written off by irresponsible corporate owners. Here are the facts:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Audio Oddities: William S. Hart Seeks a Friend Lost in Alaska (1932)

Audio Oddities: William S. Hart Seeks a Friend
Lost in Alaska (1932)

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In September 1932, old-time cowboy-movie star William S. Hart commissioned Columbia to produce a personal recording. Hart was trying to locate a friend who had gone missing in the wilds of Alaska, and Columbia apparently promised to distribute 100,000 copies of his appeal around the world (or so Hart claimed; if so, most of them have long-since vanished). The results were issued on a little 5½” picture disc that is not easy to find today.

The reverse side was standard Wild West fare, an old tale about Wild Bill Hickok emptying eight shots into eight bad men. But the “A” side, Hart’s appeal for help in locating his lost friend, reveals far more about the man himself. His popularity had waned as younger and more flamboyant movie cowboys like Tom Mix came on the scene, and Hart sounds wistful as he explains that he can no longer make the movies his audiences once craved.

There’s another interesting aspect to this record, for those with a discographical bent. The masters bears the highest numbers found so far in what began as Columbia’s 5½” Little Wonder series in 1914, then later morphed into other uses. The masters were originally recorded sequentially, as P-W 1809 (side 1) and P-W 1810 (side 2).

But for some reason, 1809 was subsequently re-recorded as 1813 — one number higher than the highest reported in Brooks & Sprinzen’s Little Wonder discography. If you’re lucky enough to own a copy of that book (which actually covers the whole 5½” series, not just Little Wonder), you’ll need to pencil-in 1813 at the end; and by all means, let us know if you find any higher numbers.

Equally interesting is the fact that the copies we’ve used here are unauthorized vinyl pressings made surreptitiously at the Columbia plant in 1960, after it was discovered that CBS was planning to scrap most of the acoustic masters. Private collector Bill Moran tapped a factory insider to coordinate pressing of important engendered masters, without the company’s knowledge or authorization, from his wish-list of artists. The records were smuggled out by sympathetic managers in their briefcases. You can read the full story in the next post.

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WILLIAM S. HART: Greetings from Bill Hart

New York: September 8, 1932
Columbia un-numbered custom vinyl pressing
(mx. P-W 1813 – 1)

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WILLIAM S. HART: Untitled

New York: September 8, 1932
Columbia un-numbered custom vinyl pressing
(mx. P-W 1810 – 3)

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Hart’s scarce 1932 5½” picture disc, and one of the unauthorized 1960 vinyl pressings from those masters (see next post), made on a 10″ blank. Engineer’s notes around the outer margin of P-W 1813 read “110 lines – 78 R.P.M – 72 point – recorder # L52 – rerecorded.” (Mainspring Press collection).

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Our thanks to Steve the Record Maven for parting with the vinyls.

 

Article © 2020 by Mainspring Press. All rights are reserved.

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

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

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

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

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

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Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)

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Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)

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

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

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

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Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)

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Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)

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

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

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

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

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

 

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And a few favorites from their vast output:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PIONEER MIDWESTERN CYLINDER COMPANIES

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

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IOWA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1889

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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OHIO PHONOGRAPH COMPANY

Founded: 1888

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selected References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The James A. Drake Interviews: William S. Bachman on the Development of the Columbia LP

WILLIAM S. BACHMAN ORAL-HISTORY INTERVIEW
James A. Drake (Interviewer)

Friday, October 28, 1977    

Ithaca, New York

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How did you and Dr. [Peter] Goldmark divide your work on the Columbia LP project?

Well, we didn’t, really.  Peter was so involved in television [development] that he essentially turned over the LP to me.  He was senior to me, of course, so it was his project and I was his collaborator, but he asked me to run the LP development on a day-to-day basis.

 

To what extent was Mr. [William S.] Paley involved in the LP project?

Not at all until it came time to introduce it publicly.  Mr. Paley was never that interested in the Columbia Records division.  Visionary that he was, he knew that whichever company came up with the best color television system would dominate that industry.  He knew that RCA was working on a color system, and nothing gave Bill Paley more gratification than beating General [David] Sarnoff to the market with the best possible system.

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Although Peter Goldmark took credit for the LP, the actual development work was carried out by William Bachman and other CBS and Columbia Records staffers.

 

Do you know whether General Sarnoff was involved in the 45 r.p.m. system that RCA Victor introduced after your success with the LP?

I don’t want to say that Columbia and RCA had “spies,” but the engineering end of the commercial recording industry is not really that big, so it’s never that hard to find out some information—not all, but some—about what the competition is up to.  Now, I will admit that our two companies put out “junk rumors” every once in a while, just to get a rise out of the other [company]—but that was a waste of time because the engineers could tell in a heartbeat whether a rumor had any substance to it.

 

What was your impression of the RCA Victor 45 when you first heard one?

Well, they marketed a complete system, just as we did with the LP.  But the RCA 45 system was more complicated from a design standpoint because they had to develop a turntable with a changer that would operate faster than any 78 turntable operated.  They were able to do that because the 45 disc was a vinyl compound and therefore was unbreakable, so their turntable could change discs very fast compared to the standard 78 ones, because there was no risk of the disc that was being dropped onto the turntable would crack or break.

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Columbia’s LP-player  attachment (originally manufactured for Columbia by Philco Radio) was often discounted or given away with record purchases. That practice, along with Columbia’s decision to make the new format freely available to other labels, helped to quickly popularize the LP. (January 1949)

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I gather that RCA’s rapid changer was meant to give the consumer the impression that for classical-music recordings, the new changer would work so fast that the time lapse between the disc on the turntable and the one being dropped into place would be minimal.

That was a big part of RCA’s promotion—that and the fact that they had a stable of artists who were the top singers, instrumentalists, and symphony orchestras on their Red Seal label.  And RCA really pushed that promotional angle when they introduced the “EP,” or “Extended Play” version of the 45.  But we had the LP before RCA had the 45, and we also had Mitch Miller and [RCA] didn’t.  Mitch Miller created more careers of pop singers than you could count, and they were all on our label.  We ended up with our share of the great conductors and orchestras too, and we also had Lily Pons and some other great opera singers, but the classical market was never much when you looked at it from a return-on-investment standpoint.  The classical market was a prestige thing, but it never accounted for more than ten or maybe fifteen percent of [Columbia’s] revenue.

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Ads for RCA’s competing 45-rpm system stressed Victor’s stable of stars in the pop and classical fields. Ultimately, the 45 was solidly trounced by the LP in the latter category. (July 1949)

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When you began the LP project, did you go back to the RCA Victor long-playing discs of the early 1930s?

No, never.  Those Victors were a complete failure, you know. There wasn’t anything new about them, even when Victor launched them.  Maybe the grooves were a little bit narrower than the regular 78s that RCA was putting out.  But there was nothing new about the speed because 33-1/3 r.p.m. was already the standard for cutting [radio] transcription discs and also for the old Vitaphone discs.  So there was nothing new about the speed.  And the playback stylus specs were the same that Victor’s 78 players had in those days. 

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“A stale joke in the industry” — RCA’s failed 33-1/3 rpm Program Transcriptions of the early 1930s. (December 1931)

 

Thanks for clarifying that.  Occasionally, there are still some rumblings that the Columbia LP was sort of “inspired,” for the lack of a better word, by the Victor long-playing discs of 1932.  

Those Victors were already a stale joke in the industry, so we would have been wasting our time if we had started by going back to them.  But I will admit that we did pay a lot of attention to an earlier long-playing record, the one that Edison had developed in the mid-1920s.  Do you know about those Edisons?

 

Yes, but I’ve never actually seen or heard one.  

Let me tell you, those records were a masterpiece of engineering.  And not just in the lab, but in their commercial form.  I got two of those thick, long-playing discs from a friend of mine who collected old records.  They were vertical-cut records, like everything Edison put out.  And they were recorded acoustically, not electrically.  The groove specs were almost unbelievable when we put them under a microscope and had them measured.  Now remember, we were cutting the LP with a 1/200-inch groove.  But Edison had cut his with a 1/450-inch groove!  

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Edison’s long-playing 80-rpm discs, introduced in 1926, boasted total playing times of 24 minutes (10″) and 40 minutes (12″). A commercial failure, they were discontinued two years later.

 

And they played at the standard 78 speed, isn’t that correct?

Well, if I remember rightly, Edison used 80 r.p.m. as the standard speed for those old Diamond Discs.  And he didn’t vary the speed like Victor used to do in the acoustical days.  There’s a lady [Aida Favia-Artsay] who has done a study of all of the Caruso records that he made at Victor.  The recording speeds that they were using could vary as much as five r.p.m. from one session to the next. 

 

Yes, I know her, and know her book.  She even included a stroboscope disc with the book so that listeners could check the turntable speeds for themselves, and hear Caruso at score pitch.  

Back to Edison, do you know that the stylus he developed for those records, his diamond stylus, was elliptical, not round?

 

Did he file a patent on that?

No, but it’s there in his notebooks at West Orange.  And each side of those Edisons, by the way, played for twenty-five minutes.  At 80 r.p.m.!  Can you imagine that?  How the “Old Man,” as his staff always called him, could make recording lathes that would consistently cut 1/450-inch grooves is still amazing to me.  That’s one of the truly great engineering feats in the history of this industry.  But, of course, Edison had invented the phonograph, so I guess anything he did was bound to be the best. 

 

Did you ever know anyone who worked directly with Edison in the 1920s?

No.  But I certainly read all of the patents he filed about recording technology.  Do you know that he didn’t file a patent for one of the most important cutting styluses that he designed?

 

I don’t think I’m familiar with that.  What was its design?  

It was a heated cutting stylus.  It had a heating coil on it.

 

But don’t you hold the patent for the heated-coil stylus?

Yes, I do.  And I wouldn’t have that patent if Edison had ever filed one.  He had been using a heated cutting stylus before World War One.  I guess he thought it was so obvious that a heated stylus would cut a much better groove in a warm wax [recording] blank that he didn’t give any thought to patenting it.  But the heating-coil stylus is right there in his lab books at West Orange.  

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Whether Thomas Edison would have been “excited” over the Columbia LP is questionable, given the commercial failure of his company’s long-playing system two decades earlier. (August 1948)

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Do you have any idea why Edison resisted electrical recording?

I don’t know for sure.  That was a little before my time.  But Gus [Haenschen] might know because he was already a big guy when electrical recording came in.  You know, do you, that Gus is an engineer?

Yes.  He’s such an icon here that we know his résumé by heart.  So I know that he graduated in engineering from Washington University, Class of 1912.  

In mechanical engineering.  Which, you know, is one of the reasons why he was so successful at Brunswick.  He could “talk the talk” as a musician with the singers and the bands that he put under contract, and he could talk engineering with his recording engineers and technicians.  He had the respect of both sides.  And he was there when Brunswick switched to electrical recording.  In fact, he probably oversaw the switch.  

 

Yes, he said that he did oversee it with Percy Deutsch and Walter Rogers.

When are you going to see him next?  You have to ask him about the light ray.  He’ll get a kick out of that!  And tell him I was the one who told you to ask him about it.  

 

The Pallatrope?

Yes, or maybe it was the Panatrope.  The one was the recording process, and the other was the phonograph, I think.  Or maybe it was the radio part.  Anyway, Gus will get a kick out of it because that [process] was a debacle. The recordings were pretty bad, full of distortion.

Was the Brunswick light-ray process as innovative as the Western Electric one?

I wouldn’t say “innovative,” no.  It was just a selenium-cell process.  Edison and also Bell, I think, were experimenting with selenium cells in the recording process way back in the 1880s or 1890s.  So there was nothing new about that when Brunswick started pushing it in the 1920s.  Ask Gus was the poor guy who was partly in charge of it, but I don’t think Brunswick stayed with that light-ray system.  Even though [Brunswick’s publicity department] kept advertising it all over the place, I’m pretty sure they junked it and made a deal with Western Electric for the Westrex system.     

And I will also ask him about Edison’s reluctance to go electrical when Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick made the switch.  Did you know Maxfield and Harrison, the developers of the Western Electric process?

Not personally, no.  Again, that was a little before my time.  But the Westrex system that they developed at Bell Labs and Western Electric was a major step forward.  They took the frequency range from about 2,500 Hz in the acoustical days, to about 15,000 Hz.  Now, 2,500 Hz would have been on a very good day in the acoustical era.  And what a difference [their] new condenser microphones made.  Carbon mikes went by the wayside fairly quickly after that. 

Were you involved in the development of Full Frequency Range Recording, or ff/rr as it was called then?

No—that was [British] Decca’s.  The full frequency-range system extended the lows to about 80 Hz.  The highs were still around 15,000 Hz, but the signal-to-noise ratio was really low.  That’s was what set the ff/rr apart.  You can hear a big difference between an ff/rr and a standard recording.  That depends somewhat, of course, on what the content is.

 

On the Columbia “20/20” private album celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the LP, you say that some of the content of the first LPs was done by splicing tapes of 78s.  Is that correct?

Yes, in some cases.  We began making high-quality vinyl pressings of 78s in our “Masterworks” series so that we could splice them seamlessly for the LP if we had to. 

 

Did you tape-record the 78 vinyl pressings and then edit the tape to make the transitions seamless from one pressing to the next?

No, because that would have added a variable that we didn’t want.  If we had gone to tape and then edited the gap between one 78 and the next one, doing that would have introduced tape “hiss,” which we would have to correct with filters. So what we did was to use two studio-grade 78 turntables and we would stop the one [turntable] and start the other.  Our tech staff got so good at timing the starting and stopping of the turntables that there is no audible change in the content of the final LP recording.

 

One last question about the LP and the 45 disc and the so-called “War of the Speeds”:  at that time did you think the 78 record would continue to be a commercial product just as it had since the turn of the [twentieth] century?

Yes and no. A lot of us thought that the 78 would still be viable if it was pressed in vinyl.  I know for a fact that RCA thought that the 78 would disappear and that their 45 would replace it—and RCA had no doubt that the LP was going to flourish because of the obvious advantages it had over any other format.  In hindsight, we [i.e., Columbia] were rather dismissive of the RCA 45 because there was nothing really new about it, other than the speed—and we didn’t think much of the speed either.  We used to joke that RCA came up with 45 r.p.m. by subtracting 33 from 78!

                                                                

© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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For more on the development of the LP and 45, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History, the latest release from Mainspring Press.