Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)
Joseph T. Pope got his start in show business performing “blackface” routines in small-time minstrel shows. By the early 1900s, he had set out on his own, under the name of Murray K. Hill. (The spelling varied between “Murry” and “Murray” on record labels and in ads and newspaper stories; “Murray” appears to have been the more common spelling, and it was used in his obituaries.)
Although Hill continued to occasionally appear in blackface into the early 1900s, he was much better-known for his topical songs and rapid-fire comic monologues. Attired in tails and an old-fashioned top hat, he specialized in satirizing current events and mangling American history. He wrote his own material, boasting that he operated a “song and story factory.” “The Last Survivor,” a popular vaudeville act introduced in 1908, was based on his early minstrel-show experiences.
Hill traveled widely on the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but his style became increasingly outdated in the ‘teens and early ‘twenties. After making his last nationally advertised tour in 1922, he settled down with his family in Chicago, but still occasionally performed in the Midwest into the 1930s.
Dayton, Ohio (August 1901)
Hill recalls his experiences during the Evansville race riots
“The Last Survivor,” August 1908: Los Angeles (top), and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (bottom)
Butte, Montana (July 1908)
Los Angeles (August 1910)
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 1910)
Wichita, Kansas (October 1911)
The San Francisco Call (January 27, 1913)
Fort Wayne, Indiana (January 1915)
Wichita, Kansas (January 1915)
Chicago (October 23, 1942)
Hill recorded prolifically from the spring of 1907 through the spring of 1911, for Columbia, Edison, Indestructible, U-S Everlasting, Victor, and Zonophone (a final Edison cylinder release, in 1914, probably was from an earlier, previously withheld master). Here’s a small sampling:
MURRAY K. HILL: A Bunch of Nonsense
Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 16446 (mx. B 8320 – ) Introducing “The Last Survivor” and “In the Good Old Steamboat Days”
MURRAY K. HILL: The Tale of the Cheese
Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 35093 (mx. C8356 – 3)
MURRAY K. HILL: A String of Laughs
New York: Listed April 1909
Edison Amberol 101 (cylinder) Introducing “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”
MURRAY K. HILL: Don’t Go Up in That Big Balloon, Dad
New York: Listed April 1910
Edison Gold Moulded 10375 (cylinder)
Advertisement for Clarence Williams’ first record, on the C&S label (1922). The C&S Phonograph Record Company was a short-lived venture of Thomas Chappelle and Juanita Stinnette Chappelle, who encouraged Williams to marry singer Eva Taylor.
With Sara Martin, one of Okeh’s early race-series stars
With wife Eva Taylor (July 1923)
“Papa De-Da-Da” was among the Blue Five sides featuring
Louis Armstrong. (July 1925)
A vocal release by Williams and Clarence Todd, here misspelled “Dood.” Todd, along with Eva Taylor, was a member of the Clarence Williams Trio, which broadcast regularly for several years. (July 1925)
Williams was Okeh’s New York studio workhorse in the mid-1920s. Here, his Blue Five accompany a young Sippie Wallace. (August 1925)
New York (June 1926)
Williams’ ill-fated Bottomland opened on June 27, 1927, and closed after only nineteen performances.
New York Age (January 3, 1953). Member of the Clarence Williams Trio pictured above are (left to right) are Williams, Eva Taylor, and Clarence Todd.
Working the New York clubs (1951 and 1955)
. New York (November 9, 1965)
And a sampling from Williams’ tremendous recorded output:
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Jingles
New York: October 1927
Paramount 12587 (mx. 2882 – 2) Featuring Coleman Hawkins, on loan from Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra
CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS BOTTOMLAND ORCHESTRA:
Slow River (export version)
New York: June 7, 1927
Brunswick (German) A-457 (mx. E 23502) The standard version (mx. E 23500) includes vocal chorus by Evelyn Thompson (Preer).
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ WASHBOARD FIVE (Williams, vocal):
Walk That Broad
New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 40115 – A)
CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: The Keyboard Express
New York: August 1, 1928
Columbia 14348-D (mx. W 146825 – 3)
CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Memphis Jazzers): Close Fit Blues
New York: March 1929
Van Dyke 7801 (Grey Gull mx. 3394 – B)
Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, and The Skillet Lickers: Newspaper Highlights (1915 – 1951)
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:
Riley Puckett appeals for aid (Atlanta Constitution,
October 22, 1915)
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)
Another early mention of Tanner (Atlanta, April 1916)
Hillbilly hubris (February 1919)
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.
Columbia’s first full-page ad for Tanner and Puckett (May 1924), pre-dating formation of the Skillet Lickers
Montgomery, Alabama, with Puckett misidentified as a fiddler
Greenville, South Carolina (May 1928)
Centreville, Alabama (July 1928)
Election night before the advent of television. Note the mention of Puckett also playing piano. (Alexander City, Alabama,
November 1, 1928)
Ashville, Alabama (November 21, 1929). Note the absence of fiddler Clayton McMichen and the substitution of Claude Davis for Riley Puckett.
At the movies: The Skillet Lickers share a bill with “Working Girls”
(Chillicothe, Ohio, December 1931)
Puckett, Tanner, and friends on Bluebird records
One of the last ads for the Skillet Lickers, with only Tanner remaining from the original group (Jasper, Alabama, April 1951)
And a few favorites from their vast output:
GID TANNER & HIS SKILLET LICKERS
(Riley Puckett, lead vocal): Dixie
Atlanta: March 29, 1927
Columbia 15158-D (mx. W 143795 – 2)
San Antonio (Texas Hotel): March 29, 1934
Bluebird B-5435 (mx. BVE 82677 – 1)
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.
GID TANNER (vocal with own banjo): You’ve Got to Stop Drinking Shine
Atlanta: December 6, 1930
Columbia 15716-D (mx. W 151062 – 1)
The Rhythm Aces records were a musical triumph, but a
sales bust (Chicago Defender, August 1929)
A battle of the bands in Lansing, Michigan, August 1929. Particularly interesting is the note in the newspaper story concerning Smith’s full eleven-piece orchestra, which is not known to have recorded. The “famous quintet known as ‘Four Aces and a Joker'” mentioned in the article was the small unit that made the Brunswick recordings.
Jabbo Smith after his move to the Midwest, playing in Racine, Wisconsin
(top, May 1932) and Sheboygan, Wisconsin (bottom, May 1933).
Jabbo Smith performs to save to home (January 1977). The benefit raised only $700 of the $10,000 he needed, but the concert marked the beginning of a remarkable comeback.
Hobnobbing with Benny Goodman (February 1980) and
Dizzy Gillespie (November 1979)
Jabbo in California: Los Angeles (top, December 1980)
and San Francisco (August 1981)
New York (January 19, 1991)
And a couple of masterpieces from the Rhythm Aces series — Personnel, as given by Jabbo Smith to researcher Dick Spottswood in 1966 (and bearing little resemblance to the undocumented, apparently fabricated listings in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works), are: Smith (trumpet), Willard Brown (reeds), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass):
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”
(Jabbo Smith, vocal): Decatur Street Tutti
Chicago: April 4, 1929
Brunswick 7078 (mx. C 3233 – A)
JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES – “Four Aces and the Joker”:
Band Box Stomp
Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4100 – A)
Three stand-out items from a big stack of Plaza-group labels we found at a recent Colorado estate sale. “Feeling,” from the pre-Armstrong period, is a much livelier version than the Vocalion. The two Orioles are Louis Armstrong items; Oriole was strictly a mid-Atlantic label at the time and early releases rarely turn up out here, so these were a real surprise. “How Come” is still fairly easy to find on the various Plaza labels, but “Naughty Man” is scarce (especially in decent condition), having been issued only on Oriole. Columbia’s very similar version of “Naughty Man” is much easier to find, although a trifle sluggish compared with the Oriole.
FLETCHER HENDERSON’S DANCE ORCHESTRA: Feeling the Way I Do
(E- to V++)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. May 6, 1924
Regal 9568 (mx. 5497 – 1)
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Sam Hill & his Orchestra): How Come You Do Me Like You Do? (E-)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. November 17, 1924
Oriole 304 (mx. 5728 – 2 / Oriole ctl. 2110)
SORRY – We originally posted the Columbia version due to a mislabeled MP3 file. Here’s the correct Oriole version:
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Sam Hill & his Orchestra): Naughty Man (E-)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. November 24, 1924
Oriole 437 (mx. 5749 – 3, as 35749 on label)
Note: Oriole is the only confirmed form of original issue.
There’s much more on Henderson and other early Harlem bands in the works — check back regularly!
One aspect of Fletcher Henderson’s career that’s been generally overlooked by most of his biographers is his use of “satellite” bands — those second-string groups that busy bandleaders dispatched under their names to tour the boondocks or play low-prestige events like college and civic-group dances. This was a common practice in the 1920s, known to have been engaged in by Harry A. Yerkes*, Ed Kirkeby, and other popular band leaders and managers.
The first mention of a suspected Henderson satellite band appeared in March 1925. Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra, it was reported, was a new unit that would “bid for popular favor against Mr. Henderson’s original Roseland Orchestra.”
An early mention of Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra (March 1925)
Whether Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra was a separate unit, as the article suggests, or perhaps just a small group drawn from the main band, remains unclear. No recordings credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Rainbow Orchestra are known. The name (sometimes spelled “Rainbo”) appeared in newspaper ads off-and-on for a few months, mostly in connection with a touring band that played the smaller cities in Pennsylvania and central New York state.
There is far more certainty surrounding Fletcher Henderson’s Collegians. This appears to have been a group of younger musicians who were employed primarily as a touring band. The name first appeared in the autumn of 1925, with one advertisement describing the group as “A Fletcher Henderson unit of young colored boys full of ‘pep.’”
Altoona, Pennsylvania (October 2, 1925)
Based on strong circumstantial and aural evidence, it seems virtually certain that the Collegians were a Henderson satellite band. There are confirmed instances of the group appearing in far-flung locations on the same dates that Henderson’s main band is known to have been performing, recording, or broadcasting in New York city. The Plaza Music Company released three very un-Hendersonlike sides credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Collegians, and they can come as a bitter disappointment to unwary collectors. The mundane stock arrangements and total absence of Henderson’s own readily recognizable soloists strongly suggest that these recordings were the work of a band that was his in name only:
FLETCHER HENDERSON’S COLLEGIANS (Andy Razaf, vocal):
Dear, On a Night Like This
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): November 26, 1927 Regal 8441 (mx. 7622 – 3)
Ads for Henderson’s Collegians vanished in early 1928. In the meantime, another apparent satellite band had surfaced — Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (not to be confused with The Dixie Stompers, an alias that Columbia used to mask the actual Henderson band, or a small unit derived from it, on its low-priced Harmony and Velvet Tone labels). Ads for the Stompers began appearing in the autumn of 1927. An article from October of that year reported that Henderson’s brother Horace was directing the group:
Horace Henderson as director of Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (Pittsburgh, October 1927)
The Stompers’ itinerary is well documented in newspapers of the period. Like the Collegians, they are known to have been traveling on some dates when the main Henderson band was performing or recording in New York or Chicago. Occasional ads declaring that “Fletcher Henderson himself” would appear suggest that his presence with the group might have been something out of the ordinary. The Stompers spent the autumn of 1927 and early winter of 1928 crisscrossing Pennsylvania and parts of New York state. Aside from Pittsburgh, the band played mostly smaller cities and college towns.
Benny Carter as director of Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers (Mansfield, Ohio, September 1928). Several months later, Horace Henderson took over the Stompers name for his own band.
One Bennett Carter took over direction of the Stompers in the summer of 1928. Better known to modern listeners as saxophonist and arranger Benny Carter, he began working with Fletcher Henderson’s main band later that year, playing a key role in reshaping what had become a rather slipshod outfit following Henderson’s late-August auto accident.
Horace Henderson subsequently appropriated the Stompers name for his own band, ads for which began running in early 1929. Occasional ads for Fletcher Henderson’s Stompers continued to appear into mid-1930, intermixed with a larger number for Horace Henderson’s Stompers, mostly involving one- or two-night stands in Pittsburgh and some smaller Pennsylvania cities.
* Not the same individual as Hulbert A. Yerkes, a Columbia records executive who went by the initials “H. A,” causing some writers to conflate the two.
Collectors’ Corner (Free MP3’s) • Some Early April Finds:
Charlie Segar, L. C. Williams, Claude Casey’s Pine
State Playboys, Jelly Roll Morton,
Seven Hot Air-Men
Spring is bustin’ out all over, and so are the 78s. A few favorite finds from the last several weeks, a couple of them from dealers and the rest from lucky estate-sale and junk-shop finds:
SEVEN HOT AIR-MEN [ED KIRKEBY]: Lowdown Rhythm (E-)
New York: May 23, 1929
Columbia 1850-D (mx. W 148618 – 2) Ed Kirkeby’s “hot” unit, after his California Ramblers went the big-band route. Personnel from the Kirkeby log: Phil Napoleon (trumpet); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Pete Pumiglio (reeds); Chauncey Gray (piano); Tommy Felline (guitar); Ward Lay (string bass); Stan King (percussion).
JELLY ROLL MORTON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Courthouse Bump (EE+)
Camden, NJ: July 9, 1929
Victor V-38093 (mx. BVE 49453 – 2) Other than Morton, the personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works are anecdotal (no source cited, and not original Victor file data). Note that personnel were added to some RCA documentation long after the fact, probably in conjunction with the Bluebird reissue program in the 1940s. They appear to have been taken from the none-too-reliable Charles Delauney discography and unfortunately are often mistaken for original Victor documentation, which lists only the instrumentation (not the players).
CHARLIE SEGAR: [Pine Top’s] Boogie Woogie (E)
Chicago: January 11, 1935
Decca 7075 (mx. C 9646 – A)
CHARLIE SEGAR: Cow Cow Blues(E)
Chicago: January 11, 1935
Decca 7075 (mx. C 9645 – A)
CLAUDE CASEY & HIS PINE STATE PLAYBOYS:
Pine State Honky Tonk (EE-)
Rock Hill, SC (Andrew Jackson Hotel): September 27, 1938
Bluebird B-7883 (mx. BS 027737 – 1)
L. C. WILLIAMS: You Never Miss The Water (E- to V++)
Houston (Bill Quinn studio): c. June 19, 1947
Gold Star unnumbered acetate Issued commercially on Gold Star 614. For a detailed history of Bill Quinn’s studios and labels, along with more than 1200 other entries, check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950(limited edition, available from Mainspring Press while supplies last).
We pay top collector prices for records of this type (must be true, non-grainy E- or better; V+ may be acceptable for rarer items). Why settle for dealer prices for your higher-end disposables? Let us know what you have, grade honestly and accurately with all defects noted (including any label damage), and state your best price.
Collectors’ Corner • Some February Finds: 1920s Pop (Annette Hanshaw, Banjo Buddy, Al Jolson, Bernie Cummins, Cass Hagan, Baker & Silvers)
Some favorites from a recent estate-sale cache of late 1920s pop singers and hot dance bands:
PHIL BAKER, assisted by SID SILVERS: At the Theater (E)
New York: September 21, 1927
Victor 20970 (mxs. BVE 39117 – 1 / 39118 – 2) Victor files show only BVE 39117 – 3 as having been mastered.
HAROLD SANDELMAN (as BANJO BUDDY): Let’s Misbehave (E)
New York: March 7, 1928
Brunswick 3865 (mx. E 26855 or E 26856) William F. Wirges (conductor), “Mr. Daulton – monitoring,” per the Brunswick files; accompanying personnel are unlisted. The take used is not indicated in the files or visible in the pressing.
ANNETTE HANSHAW (as PATSY YOUNG) with THE NEW ENGLANDERS: I Want to Be Bad (EE+)
New York: March 14, 1929
Velvet Tone 1878-V (Columbia mx. [W] 148077 – 2) Accompanying personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
CASS HAGAN & HIS PARK CENTRAL HOTEL ORCHESTRA (Franklyn Baur, Lewis James, Elliott Shaw, vocal): The Varsity Drag (E–)
New York (Okeh studio): September 2, 1927
Columbia 1114-D (mx. W 144617 – 2) Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
BERNIE CUMMINS’ ORCHESTRA (Bernie Cummins, vocal): When You’re with Somebody Else (E)
New York (Brunswick Room #2): January 7, 1928
Brunswick 3772 (mx. E 25875) Karl Radlach, arranger, per Brunswick files. Personnel listed in Rust’s American Dance Band Discography and derivative works are speculative (not Brunswick file data).
AL JOLSON with WILLIAM F. WIRGES’ ORCHESTRA: Blue River (E–)
New York: November 11, 1927
Brunswick 3719 (mx. E 25189) William F. Wirges (conductor / arranger); Harry Reser (banjo) present as an “extra,” per the Brunswick files; other personnel unlisted.
Collector’s Corner • Some August Finds (Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Johnson’s Cracker Jacks, Tiny Parham)
August highlights: A nice little stack of Victor V-38000s in generally decent shape, hiding where one would least expect to find them; and some hot Bluebirds (reissues, sure, but old reissues in great shellac, unbeatable for “listening” copies).
July was a cylinder month, with a big local haul; we’ll try to get some of the most interesting titles posted next month. In the meantime, here are a few August favorites (VJM grading; Victor file data courtesy of John Bolig):
KING OLIVER & HIS ORCHESTRA: The Trumpet’s Prayer(E- -)
New York: February 1, 1929 / Released: March 29, 1929
Victor V-38039 (BVE 48334 – 1)
TINY PARHAM & HIS MUSICIANS: Subway Sobs (E- to V++)
Chicago: February 2, 1929 / Released: April 19, 1929
Victor V-38041 (BVE 48849 – 1)
BENNIE MOTEN’S KANSAS CITY ORCHESTRA: Rite Tite (V+)
Chicago: July 17, 1929 / Released: January 17, 1930
Victor V-38104 (BVE 55423 – 1)
BENNIE MOTEN’S KANSAS CITY ORCHESTRA: Sweetheart of Yesterday (E)
Chicago: October 24, 1929
Bluebird B-6851 (BVE 57316 -1R, from -2) 1937 dubbed reissue of Victor V-38114. Label shows James Rushing vocal, in error.
JOHNSON’S CRACKER JACKS (Benny Jackson, vocal): The Duck’s Yas Yas Yas (E)
Egleston Auditorium, Atlanta: February 22, 1932
Bluebird B-6278 (BVE 71625 -1) 1936 original-master reissue of Victor 23329
BENNIE MOTEN’S ORCHESTRA featuring WILLIAM (COUNT) BASIE: Prince of Wales [sic] (E)
Church Studio #2, Camden, NJ: December 13, 1932
Bluebird B-6851 (BS 74854 – 1) 1937 original-master reissue of Victor 23393
Nina Morgana, c. 1920 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
On the subject of broadcasts, you sang with Gigli in one of the earliest Saturday matinee broadcasts, am I correct?
Yes. Radio became more and more important in the early and middle-1930s. I remember singing Inès in of one of the first radio broadcasts from the Met [on March 19, 1933], with Gigli as Vasco and Rethberg as Selika. But the most memorable broadcast I can recall was the silver-anniversary gala for Gatti-Casazza [on February 26, 1933]. Lily Pons sang the Lucia Sextet with Lauri-Volpi, Tancredi Pasero—what a voice!—and Armando Borgioli, and dear old Angelo Badà. The broadcast was quite special because Alma Gluck spoke on the air, and [Marcella] Sembrich and [Ernestine] Schumann-Heink were present for the gala.
Gigli also had a very memorable appearance in a broadcast that was billed as a “surprise party” in 1932. Certain parts of the playbill were titled after dishes that one would find on a restaurant menu—one scene was called “Russian Caviar,” another was “Wiener Schnitzel,” and “French Champaign.” I sang in the one called “Italian Minestrone” on the playbill. In the “French Champaign” segment, Gigli came onstage in the costume of Carmen and sang the “Habanera.” Not in falsetto, but in his real voice.
You mentioned Lily Pons singing in the Lucia Sextet at Gatti-Casazza’s silver-anniversary gala. I believe you sang in the Sextet at his farewell gala in March 1935.
The Lucia Sextet was the opening selection of the farewell for Gatti, but the most talked-about performance of that Gala was Melchior singing the last act of Otello with Elisabeth Rethberg.  Five days after that farewell gala, I sang my last performance at the Met. It was in Bohème—I sang Musetta, and Rethberg sang Mimì. It was a Saturday matinee broadcast, and a fragment of it was recorded. I have heard it, but the sound quality is so poor that I can barely make out my own voice. So the only sound recordings I have of my voice are the tests I made for Victor, which Caruso had made possible.
Were you present for any of Caruso’s recording sessions?
Just once, when he recorded “Rachel! Quand du Seigneur,” in September 1920. He invited me to come to the Victor studios with Bruno. [Caruso] recorded something else that day—a song, but I can’t recall its title now. Of course, Bruno was at all of Caruso’s recording sessions from 1917 until 1920. The first one he was present for was the recording of the Rigoletto Quartet and the Lucia Sextet in January 1917.
Do you recall seeing a test recording of the opening tenor measures of “Bella figlia dell’amore,” which Caruso sang? The test recording was cut off when the others in the ensemble began to sing.
Yes, we had a copy of it. Caruso inscribed the label to himself—either “To Enrico from Enrico,” or “To Caruso from Caruso,” something of that sort.
Do you still have that test pressing?
No. My husband managed not only to lose that one, but he also misplaced the private recording Caruso made of the “Coat Song” from Bohème.
When did you make your test recordings for Victor?
In 1920. On Thursday afternoon, April 29, 1920.
Were you intimidated at all by the conical recording “horn”?
Well, it wasn’t “conical,” it was octagonal. It was suspended by an adjustable chain, and there were two large mahogany doors below it. I wasn’t intimidated by it not only because I had watched Caruso make the Juive recording, but also because the director at Victor, Mr. [Josef] Pasternack, who accompanied me at the piano, explained the recording process to me in detail.
How many test recordings did you make that day?
Just two. I sang Chadwick’s “He Loves Me,” and then “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula.
Were you able to hear the test recordings played back to you soon after you finished making the recordings?
No. I was invited to the Victor studios in Manhattan to hear the recordings played, and was given both of the discs after they were played for me.
Were you pleased with what you heard?
With “Come per me sereno,” yes. But my voice sounded too distant in “He Loves Me.”
Do you recall what type of piano, a grand or an upright, was used in your recordings, and where the piano was located?
It was a grand piano with the lid raised to its maximum, pointed toward the horn. I stood on a stool in front of the horn, with the bend of the piano immediately behind me. .
NINA MORGANA (Josef Pasternack, piano): Come per me sereno
Victor test: April 29, 1920
(A busy day at Victor; others who cut tests on this date, ahead of Nina Morgana, included Lew Brown, William Robyn, Fred Whitehouse, and the Finnish Mixed Quartette. Data from the Discography of American Historical Recordings.) .
Do you know why your recordings were never released commercially?
There were two reasons, really. The first was that Caruso died unexpectedly. As soon as he recovered from his illness, he was to have recorded “É il sol dell’anima” with me. After he died, of course, that became a moot point. The other reason had to do with my husband. Bruno wanted only one “star” in our home, and being a traditional Italian man, he had to be the center of attention.
You were a classically-trained soprano who was taught through the solfeggio method by a legendary soprano. Mr. Zirato had no musical education at all, and yet he spent his career in the operatic and symphonic worlds. To what extent did he really “know” music?
He knew [opera] libretti as well as any conductor or coach. He knew them so thoroughly that he had an annoying habit of speaking the lines while a singer was singing them. He did that throughout every performance I attended with him, and no matter how many times I stuck my elbow into his arm to shut him up, he couldn’t stop reciting the lines. It annoyed everyone around us because his voice was so deep. I felt that he did it [i.e., reciting lines in his box seat while they were being sung onstage] to show off, to impress everyone around us with his vast knowledge of the repertoire.
But he could not read music, correct?
No, not at all. Nor did he have a very good sense of pitch. Unless a singer or an instrumental soloist was flat or sharp by at least a half-tone, his ear couldn’t detect it.
Did you sing at home, and did he give you any opinions about your singing?
Occasionally, I would go to the piano and accompany myself in arias that I loved but which were not a part of my repertoire. As I said earlier, I loved singing tenor arias such as “M’appari,” “Che gelida manina,” and “Come un bel dí di Maggio.” Once, I remember accompanying myself and seeing Bruno come to the piano, put his hands on the raised lid, and listen to me singing—or so I thought. As soon as I finished, he said to me, “My podiatrist says I have beautiful feet.”
Would you have continued to sing under the Johnson administration if you had been given more performances and more opportunities to sing the major coloratura roles?
It wouldn’t have been possible under the circumstances, for several reasons. Caruso had been my entré to the Met, and when he died I knew that my chances for the major coloratura roles would be limited. Galli-Curci came [to the Met], and then Lily Pons. They were Gatti-Cassazza’s and then Johnson’s coloraturas, and I was limited mainly to Amina in Sonnambula, an occasional Gilda, and more often than not, Musetta in Bohème. And as I said, my husband wanted to be the only celebrity in our home. So that was that.
Some twenty-five years after Caruso’s passing, you and your husband became very close to Arturo Toscanini. From some interviews that Toscanini gave, we know that although he admired and respected both Caruso and Gigli, he was not at all shy about criticizing them for taking on roles that were inappropriate for their young voices.
He repeated to Bruno and me many times his exclamation upon hearing Caruso in Italy for the first time: “Per Dio! If this young Neapolitan tenor keeps singing like this, he will have the whole word talking about him!” When Caruso began to take on gradually heavier roles, Toscanini was prone to lecture him—and later Gigli, and all of the rest of us—about the danger of impairing the voice by imposing the requirements of dramatic parts upon an essentially lyrical voice and technique.
Toscanini thought that Gigli was superb in Bohème, Elisir d’amore, and Rigoletto, but that Africana, Trovatore, and Aida were too weighty for his voice. Just as Toscanini had been critical of Caruso for taking on heavier roles too early in his career, he was critical of all of the other tenors who came after Caruso. But Toscanini, musical genius that he was, could be susceptible to irresistible personalities.
Two that come to mind were Giovanni Martinelli, who could do no wrong in Maestro’s eyes, and Geraldine Farrar, with whom he [Toscanini] had a prolonged love affair. Perhaps you know the story of the clashes between Toscanini and Farrar—especially his remark that she was not a “star” because the only stars are in the night sky, and her retort that audiences came to see her on the stage, not to stare at the back of Toscanini’s head in the orchestra pit.
Geraldine Farrar selling Liberty Bonds, 1918 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Because of my husband’s close association with Toscanini through the New York Philharmonic, Bruno and I were often invited to the relatively few social events that Toscanini would attend. One of the most memorable of these events was a dinner that Farrar gave for Toscanini at her home in Connecticut in the early 1950s.
We rode there with Toscanini in his chauffeured car, and unlike other invitations that he initially accepted and almost immediately regretted, the invitation from Farrar put him in a very good mood. That mood changed abruptly when the main course was served. From then until we left, which was as soon as we politely could, Toscanini sat at her dinner table, glaring at his plate.
When we got into the car, he exploded! “I slept with that woman for seven years,” he shouted, “and she knows I hate fish!”
You sang under Toscanini. Do you recall how many times?
The only performance I remember distinctly was a Beethoven Ninth Symphony with Richard Crooks, Sophie Braslau, and Ezio Pinza, and the Schola Cantorum in 1928.
How was the Maestro’s temperament during the rehearsals?
“Vesuvian” is the word that comes to my mind. He broke at least one, maybe two batons, and he threw his pocket watch on the floor and crushed it with his heel! He pointed out poor Crooks and told him that he sang like a sick pig. Then he used a very crude Italian expression for Pinza. It would embarrass me to repeat it [but] he told Pinza that his singing had the same worth that the pig’s food has after the pig has digested and eliminated it.
Were you spared his wrath, since you knew him personally?
Definitely not! He told me that Madame Arkel, whom he had known very well in Italy, should have forbade me ever to mention her name in public because my singing was a disgrace to her name!
Did he finish the rehearsal?
Yes, but he rushed through it. He was still enraged at the end [of the rehearsal], and shouted at us to get out of his sight and not come back until we were prepared to give our very best. At the next rehearsal, I can assure you that Morgana, Braslau, Crooks, and Pinza and everyone else associated with the performance sang better than we ever knew we could!
Arturo Toscanini, c. 1921 (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Returning to Enrico Caruso, you sang a number of concerts with him. Do you recall how many you sang with him?
In all, there were eleven. The first one was in the ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in February 1919, and the last was in New Orleans on June 26, 1920. He had asked me to sing some upcoming concerts that fall , two in Canada and three in the Midwest, but I was already scheduled to make my debut at the Metropolitan, so I had rehearsals and other obligations to attend to.
Did you sing most of the joint concerts that Caruso gave during World War One?
No, but I attended most of the ones he gave with other singers. He did concerts with Louise Homer, Claudia Muzio, Frances Alda, and Galli-Curci. I think he did one with Mary Garden, too. One concert I remember particularly well was with De Luca, Alda, and Martinelli. Can you imagine one of these tenors today inviting another famous tenor to appear with him? But Caruso invited Martinelli to sing with him. He was very fond of Martinelli, as I’ve told you.
Before Caruso invited me to appear with him, Carolina White and Mabel Garrison had sung [concerts] with him. And Ganna Walska sang at least one [concert] with him. But those were not really “joint concerts,” because Carolina White, Garrison, Ganna Walska and I were billed as “assisting artists” to Caruso. The [concerts] he did with Mary Garden, Galli-Curci, Alda, Muzio, and Homer were truly joint concerts because they were first-rank artists.
This program from October 1918 appears to contradict Morgana’s recollection that she toured with Caruso only during 1919–1920; however, another copy, in the Ann Arbor District Library, has the notation, “Postponed to Spring.” (William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press)
What did Caruso typically sing, and what did you sing—not only on the printed program, but as encores?
The violinist Elias Breeskin toured with us, so he would open the program. He had his own accompanist—ours was Salvatore Fucito—and [Breeskin] would usually play [the Dvorak] “Humoresque” or something similar. Then I would sing either “Come per me sereno” from Sonnambula or “Ombra leggiera” from Dinorah, Those were the two arias I sang in all of our concerts.
Caruso would then sing “Celeste Aida,” which was always his first aria on the program. Breeskin would then return to the platform and play two, sometimes three selections. After that, I would sing an aria—again, either the Sonnambula or Dinorah aria, whichever one I hadn’t opened with—and Caruso would sing “Vesti la giubba,” which would always earn him a standing ovation.
After the ovation, he would motion for me to join him at the center of the stage, and we would sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” together. Always—always—at the end of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” he would take me by the hands, and swing me around him. That delighted him to no end, and the audience loved it! Then he would motion for Breeskin and his accompanist, and also Fucito, to stand with us and take our bows.
After all of us left the stage, the applause would go on and on, and in the midst of it Caruso would walk back onto the stage from the wings—just two or three feet from the wings—and he would arch his eyebrows and turn the palms of his hands upward with a big smile, as if to say, “Would you like to hear more?” That’s when the fun would begin!
He would point to me, and then point to himself, as if to say, “Go ahead and sing something of mine!” This was all rehearsed, of course, and I would proceed to sing “M’appari” from Marta, Next, he would motion for Breeskin to join him for the Massenet “Elégie.” Then Caruso would sing three Tosti songs—and always the final one would be “’A vucchella.”
You also sang a joint concert with Gigli, am I correct?
Yes, it was in Boston during a two-concert appearance in which his assisting artist was scheduled to be Anna Fitziu, but she was indisposed and he asked me to take her place. I had sung a number of times in Philadelphia—in fact, I was in one of Gigli’s last performances there, a performance of L’Africana with Rethberg as Sélika [on April 12, 1932]. When I replaced Anna Fitziu as his assisting artist, Gigli told me to sing whatever I wanted to sing, so I chose my two tried-and-true arias, the Dinorah and Sonnambula, and both were well received.
Gigli opened that concert, as he did many others that he gave, with the two Elisir arias: he sang “Quanto è bella” and followed it with “Una furtiva lagrima.” After I sang “Come per me sereno,” he sang three Italian songs. He sang “Amarilli,” then “Primavera,” and before he sang the third one—“Tre giorni son che Nina”—he extended his hand to me, and he sang it to me. Then I sang “Ombra leggiera,” after which he sang “O paradiso,” which earned him another standing ovation.
After “O paradiso,” he left the stage for a few minutes, and when he returned he sang three French selections—two songs whose titles I don’t recall at the moment, and then the Aubade from Le Roi d’Ys. That was the last selection on the printed program. As the applause continued, I came onstage and sang “Caro nome” as an encore. Then Gigli sang five encores, mind you! He began with “Santa Lucia,” then he sang three Tosti songs—“L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra,” “Serenata,” and “Marechiare”—and he ended with “’O sole mio.”
If that isn’t a tour de force, what is? I can assure you that his voice was just as fresh, just as dolcissima, in “’O sole mio” as it was in “Quanto è bella” and “Una furtiva lagrima” at the start of the concert. Gigli’s entire career was that way: fresh and sweet and beautiful from beginning to end.
Nina Morgana with the author (Ithaca, New York, 1980)
 Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune: “After a spirited curtain-raiser extracted from the immortal opus of Donizetti with Mme. Nina Morgana lending her gifts and skill and feeling and intensity as the unhappy heroine, the novelty of the evening was disclosed to us. This was a performance of the last Act of Verdi’s Otello with Mr. Melchior embodying the Moor of Venice for the first time in New York and Mme. Rethberg playing Desdemona. It is twenty-two years since the music of Otello was heard at the Metropolitan.”
The famed Variety reporter, Ripley’s Believe It or Not commentator, and paratrooping World War II correspondent gives his uncensored take on Korea in this rare, privately issued send-up of Edward R. Murrow’s I Can Hear It Now.
COL. BARNEY AND ASSOCIATES IN KOREA: I Can Smell It Now
RCA custom pressing (mx. E0-LQB-13611), c. 1951 Note: The final portion of the record, consisting of repeated musical numbers, has been deleted from this transfer.
Before Victor snagged Louis Armstrong, their chief trumpet star was Henry Allen, Jr. (the “Red” business didn’t appear on labels consistently until later). His orchestra on Victor was actually that of Luis Russell, which was under contract to Okeh at the time. (This wasn’t Luis Russell’s only instance of rebranding. Many of King Oliver’s big-band sides were also by the Russell band, sometimes with only minimal participation by Oliver himself.)
Original shellac pressings of recordings like these are lovely to behold, we’ll grant you, and some can bring a king’s ransom if in truly outstanding shape (which most aren’t — and for all the newbies out there overpaying on eBay for wiped-out crap copies, keep in mind: it’s all about condition-condition-condition, even for the scarce stuff).
But for pure musical enjoyment, nothing beats a custom virgin-vinyl disc carefully hand-pressed from a well-preserved original stamper, like these (and since only a few copies were pressed, and were not sold to the public, they’re actually much rarer than the original shellacs). The vinyls used here were pressed in the 1950s or 1960s, most likely in conjunction with RCA’s “X-“ or “Vintage” LP reissue program. A lot of these custom pressings found their way to collectors in England; those used here, and many used elsewhere on the blog, eventually found their way back via the late Malcolm Shaw.
HENRY ALLEN, JR. & HIS ORCHESTRA [Luis Russell’s Orchestra]: It Should Be You
New York (46th Street Studio): July 16, 1929
mx. BVE 55133 – 3 (commercially issued on Victor V-38073)
HENRY ALLEN, JR. & HIS ORCHESTRA [Luis Russell’s Orchestra]: Swing Out
New York (studio unlisted): July 17, 1929
mx. BVE 53930 – 2 (commercially issued on Victor V-38080)
HENRY ALLEN, JR. & HIS ORCHESTRA [Luis Russell’s Orchestra; vocal by Allen]: Roamin’
New York (24th Street Studio): July 15, 1930
mx. BVE 62345 – 2 (commercially issued on Victor 23006)
HENRY ALLEN, JR. & HIS ORCHESTRA [Luis Russell’s Orchestra; vocal by Allen]: Patrol Wagon Blues
New York (24th Street Studio): July 15, 1930
mx. BVE 62343 – 2 (commercially issued on Victor 23006)
All from c. 1950s–1960s blank-labeled custom vinyl pressings from the original stampers. Discographical data from the original RCA files (Sony archives, NYC), courtesy of John Bolig.
Houston: March 19, 1925
Victor mx. B 32111 – 2 (commercially unissued on 78)
FATTY MARTIN’S ORCHESTRA: Jimtown Blues
Houston: March 19, 1925
Victor mx. B 32111 – 4 (commercially unissued on 78)
Above two titles from c. 1960s custom vinyl pressings of the original stampers. Takes 1 and 3, respectively, were issued on Victor 19700 (released 1925, deleted 1926).
ROSS DE LUXE SYNCOPATORS (Margaret Miller, vocal): Skad-o-Lee
Savannah: August 22, 1927
Victor 20961 (mx. BVE 39823 – 2)
Released: December 16, 1927 – Deleted: 1929
ROSS DE LUXE SYNCOPATORS (Frank Houston, vocal): Florida Rhythm
Savannah: August 22, 1927
Victor 20961 (mx. BVE 39827 – 2)
Released: December 16, 1927 – Deleted: 1929
MEMPHIS RAMBLERS: Hold It Still
Memphis (Auditorium): February 4, 1928
Victor 21270 (mx. BVE 41841 – 2)
Released: April 20, 1928 – Deleted: 1931
WILLIAMSON’S BEALE STREET FROLIC ORCHESTRA: Scandinavian Stomp
Memphis (McCall Building): February 27, 1927
Victor mx. BVE 37959 – 1 (commercially issued on Victor 21410) .
WILLIAMSON’S BEALE STREET FROLIC ORCHESTRA: Midnight Frolic Drag
Memphis (McCall Building): February 27, 1927
Victor mx. BVE 37960 – 2 (commercially issued on Victor 21410)
Above two titles from c. 1960s custom vinyl pressings of the original stampers. Victor 21410 was released July 20, 1928, deleted in 1930, and sold 4,819 copies according to the production-history card.