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