“American Record Companies and Producers 1888 – 1950” Wins 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence

American Record Companies and Producers 1888 – 1950
Wins 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence

 

We’re pleased to announce that American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950 has received the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ 2019 Award for Excellence in Recorded Sound Research – Best Historical Research on Record Labels and General Recording Topics. This is the thirteenth  ARSC award for Mainspring Press.

Launched in 1991, the ARSC awards “Recognize those publishing the very best work today in recorded sound research. In giving these awards, ARSC recognizes the contributions of these individuals and aims to encourage others to emulate their high standards and to promote readership of their work.”

American Record Companies and Producers is available exclusively from Mainspring Press and Nauck’s Vintage Records. We encourage you to order soon, as this is a limited edition that will not be reprinted.

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760 pages • 7″ x 10″ full-cloth hardcover
Sewn library binding
Acid-free paper

Limited Edition

ISBN # 978-0-9973333-3-6
Library of Congress Control # 2018960581

$75 – Free Shipping to U.S.
Foreign Shipping Extra
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> Details, Subject List, and Secure Online Ordering

Now’s the Time to Order “American Records Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950”

Every week we get inquiries from folks wanting to purchase out-of-print Mainspring Press books, and unfortunately, our answer is always the same: Once they’re gone, they’re really gone, and your only recourse is the used-and-collectible book market, where (assuming you can even find a copy) you’re going to pay a stiff premium over the original list price.

Don’t let that happen to you with American Record Companies and Producers: An Encyclopedic History, 1888–1950, arguably one of the most important books to be published in the field in recent years. It’s a special limited edition, and there will be no reprints once the current supply sells out.

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For a full description, entries list, and secure online ordering, visit the Mainspring Press website…and don’t wait too long!

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1
By Allan Sutton


The following is a revised and expanded version of several chapters that originally appeared in the author’s
Recording the ‘Twenties (Mainspring Press, 2008)

 

Radio’s popularity posed a technological, as well as a commercial, challenge to the recording industry. Even the primitive radio loudspeakers of the early-to-mid 1920s delivered greater volume, wider frequency range, and a more accurate rendition of studio ambiance than the best acoustical phonographs and records. For the first time, listeners were hearing music reproduced with a relatively high degree of accuracy, and performed without the sonic contortions required by the acoustic recording process.

Although the acoustic process had been refined over the years, it had undergone little fundamental change since the nineteenth century. It was an entirely mechanical process, employing a simple horn to focus sound waves on a circular diaphragm of mica or other material, which vibrated in response to those sound waves to drive an engraving stylus. The results were captured on a wax master disc, which was then plated to produce a permanent matrix from which sub-masters and metal stampers were generated.

No microphone or amplification was involved in the acoustic process, nor was there the ability to edit or modify the finished recording except by primitive mechanical dubbing methods. Control over input was limited to the physical placement of performers in the studio, or to trial-and-error experimentation with different horns, diaphragms, and cutting heads. The state of the sound-recording art peaked in 1912, with the introduction of the Edison Diamond Disc, then stagnated.

Singers — crowded around metal recording horns and performing at full voice, with a studio orchestra huddled just a few feet away — sometimes complained they were unable to hear themselves above the din of the accompaniment. The acoustic method’s low sensitivity and erratic frequency response required that adjustments be made for some instruments. Violins and violas were replaced by Stroh instruments, horned contraptions sporting a metal resonator in place of the wooden body. Low woodwinds were substituted for cellos, tubas for stringed basses. Bass and snare drums, which could cause over-cutting of the wax, were moved to the far reaches of the studio, if not banished altogether. A full symphony orchestra was not recorded in the United States until 1917, and even then, the results barely hinted at the size of the ensemble.

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The use of horned Stroh violins, like those seen in this 1920 photograph of J. C. Beck’s Orchestra, was one of many work-arounds necessitated by the insensitive acoustic recording process. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

 

The acoustic process provided no means for the engineer to monitor what was being recorded, and instantaneous playback of the wax master was impossible without inflicting damage on the master that rendered it unusable. The recordings systems suffered from multiple resonant points that could be corrected only to a limited extent, by laborious trial and error. Photographs taken in the Gramophone Company’s studio in London, and Columbia’s studio in New York, show recording horns wrapped with cloth strips to damp some of the resonances.

Even when such primitive corrections were successful, they were likely to be negated in playback by yet another set of resonances inherent in the acoustic phonographs of the day. Victor’s recording and reproduction systems in particular were plagued by marked mid-range resonances that produced a disconcerting “honking” effect.

Perhaps the public might have continued to accept acoustic recordings indefinitely, had it not been for the advent of radio and the consequent awareness that more accurate sound reproduction was indeed possible. As Bell Laboratories’ Stanley Watkins later observed,

“The fight [between radio and phonograph] was an uneven one as long as the quality of the recording was limited to the possibilities of the old acoustic method. The radio broadcasting technique with its sensitive microphone pickup allowed the artists freedom of action, permitted the use of full symphony ensembles, and made possible great improvement in quality through an ever-increasing knowledge of the use of studio acoustics.”

The initial interest in electrical sound recording, however, came not from the record companies, but from the telephone industry. Many late nineteenth-century experimenters had attempted to make direct electrical recordings using telephone parts. The technology proved to be of no practical use to the commercial recording industry because of the telephone’s intentionally limited frequency range, coupled with the inability at that early date to amplify the electrical signal. Emile Berliner experimented with telephonic recording in 1896, as reported many years later by his associate, Fred Gaisberg. “The result,” Gaisberg recalled, “was a thin metallic thread of sound. The experiment was years ahead of its time.”

The Early Western Electric Experiments

The amplification problem was solved with the advent of Lee De Forest’s audion tube. By 1915, the Bell Telephone system was employing Dr. Harold D. Arnold’s vacuum-tube amplifier in long-distance telephone transmissions. At the same time, Arnold proposed that systematic research into electrical sound recording and reproduction be undertaken by Western Electric, where Henry C. Egerton had already patented an experimental electromagnetic disc-record pickup.

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Henry Egerton’s patent for an electromagnetic pickup,
filed
in November 1914

 

As might be expected of a telecommunications company, Western Electric’s early experiments in electrical sound recording and reproduction were applied largely to telephony. The company’s first commercially produced electrical recorder was Henry Egerton’s 1918 telephone answering machine. The cutter, which employed a principle similar to Egerton’s electromagnetic loudspeaker of 1917, recorded vertically cut wax cylinders. Although the machine was suitable for recording telephone calls and office dictation, it was neither intended for, nor capable of producing, commercial-quality musical recordings.

In 1919 Henry B. Wier, another Western Electric engineer, filed a patent application for a complete electrical sound-recording and playback system. Wier employed an obvious holdover from the acoustic process in his use of a recording horn to focus sound on the microphone. He was able to eliminate much of the distortion that plagued the acoustic recording process by using electrical wave filters to correct resonances in the system — the first practical application of frequency equalization.

Other components of Wier’s system, including the single-button carbon microphone, multiple microphone inputs and mixing controls, vacuum-tube amplifier, master gain control, electromagnetic disc cutter, and switchable loudspeaker and headset monitors, were adapted from the prior work of Egerton and other Western Electric engineers. However, Wier made the mistake, from a business standpoint, of specifying that each performer be confined to an individual, fully enclosed booth. Each booth was to be equipped with a widow through which to view the conductor, and was topped by a conical roof with a microphone inserted at its apex. Whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, Wier’s concept was utterly impractical for commercial use.

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Henry Wier’s proposed system of isolating individual performers in separate booths, whatever its merits from an engineering standpoint, was impractical
for commercial use.

 

Other shortcomings in Wier’s system were quickly addressed by Western Electric engineers Edward Craft and Edwin Colpitts, who filed a patent application on an electrical recording process in November 1919. Wier’s specification of individual musicians’ booths was immediately discarded. The use of relatively insensitive carbon microphones, another weakness in Wier’s system, was overcome by substituting multiple condenser microphones. 6 Many other components, however, were carried over from Wier’s process. In their patent application, Craft and Colpitts discussed at some length the advantage their system offered over the acoustical process:

“In making records for reproduction in the well-known types of sound reproducing machines, it has been necessary to take great precautions, particularly with respect to the relative location of the artist and the recording mechanism, and to employ artists who are specially trained in record making in order to obtain a record which will reproduce sound with any degree of faithfulness. Thus it has been common for the artist in the case of a voice record to sing or talk into a horn or mouthpiece and to vary the separation of the artist and horn to obtain the desired tonal effects. In the case of instrumental music or in the case of duets or an ensemble of singers, great care has been necessary in grouping the singers or artists relative to the recording point in order to obtain the desired result. In view of the difficulty of training artists and also in view of the difficulty of grouping a large number of instruments for efficient recording, it has been proposed to intercept or pick up the sound waves at a plurality of points and conduct them either acoustically or electrically to a common recording point… The artist or artists merely enter the room or auditorium in which the sound receivers are located, and without regard to the recording apparatus, proceed with their performance.”

Craft’s dispersed placement of microphones and use of multiple channels clearly had the potential to produce stereophonic recordings. Unfortunately, that possibility was not explored at the time. Instead, the multiple signals were mixed to a produce a monophonic recording.

The Craft–Colpitts system saw no use in the commercial disc record industry, but it was briefly adapted to provide synchronized sound to motion picture shorts in 1922. On Friday October 27, 1922, Craft demonstrated his system, synchronized to accompany an animated film, to an audience of electrical engineers at Yale University — the first public demonstration of an electrically recorded phonograph record reproduced by a fully electronic phonograph. Further attempts to develop the system for commercial use were soon scuttled, however. In early 1923 two Western Electric sales executives, George Evans Cullinan and Elbert Hawkins, decided that potential profits from licensing the system were likely to be insufficient to justify further development of the Craft–Colpitts system.

Charles Hoxie, General Electric, and the Pallophotophone

At General Electric, Charles A. Hoxie was also developing an electrical recording system, refining some work he had undertaken for the U.S. Navy during World War I. Unlike Western Electric’s electromagnetic system, Hoxie’s was an optical system. He filed a patent application for a basic photoelectric recording device on April 13, 1918, following up with an improved device in May 1921.

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Charles Hoxie (top photo, right) with unidentified assistant in General Electric’s Schenectady laboratory. A complete Pallophotophone setup is pictured, with the recording unit to the right. The lower photo, from 1922, pictures only the projection unit; the system had not yet been adapted to disc recording.

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Although the original invention was designed to record radio signals on photographic film, Hoxie began to adapt it for commercial applications after the war, at first for motion pictures, and then for disc recording. On December 27, 1921, a patent application was filed on his behalf for a complete electrical disc-recording system employing a photoelectric microphone, amplifier, and electromagnetic disk cutter. By 1922, experimental Pallophotophone recordings were being made on film, and development of disc-mastering capabilities was also under way.

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Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in May 1923.

 

Hoxie named his system the Pallophotophone — literally, “shaking-light sound.” It was an apt allusion. The sound-collecting device, or Pallotrope, was a photoelectric microphone employing a light beam focused on a tiny, spring-mounted mirror that vibrated in response to sound waves. A short flared horn, attached to the front of the device, served rather inefficiently to collect and focus the sound.

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A simplified explanation of the Pallophotophone system, published by Brunswick-Balke-Collender after it adopted the process in 1925.

 

By late 1922, it was clear to General Electric that Hoxie’s system had potential in the commercial recording market, and he received their backing to make refinements. In 1925, the Pallophotphone system would be adopted by Brunswick-Balke-Collender, with less-than-satisfactory results.

 

Merriman and Guest’s Electro-Mechanical Hybrid

While work progressed at Western Electric and General Electric, many independent inventors were experimenting with electrical recording processes on their own, in the United States and elsewhere. The first publicly issued electrical recordings were made in England by Horace O. Merriman and Lionel Guest, although the process was not entirely electrical. On November 11, 1920, they recorded portions of the burial ceremony for the Unknown Warrior at London’s Westminster Abbey via a cable link to carbon microphones placed inside the building.

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Announcement of the first issued electrical recordings,
December 1920.

 

Merrriman, as an officer in what would soon become the Royal Air Force, had been assigned in 1917 to develop a loudspeaker with sufficient volume to be heard from ground to air. When the R.A.F. abandoned loudspeaker research at the end of World War I, Merriman stated that he and Guest “considered what peace-time use could be made of the findings already made in the research for an electrical speaker. We decided to develop a method of making phonograph records by electricity using the Fessenden vibration motor.”

The Fessenden vibration motor was an electro-mechanical hybrid, driven by a microphone and amplifier, but activating a mechanical cutter. The cutter proved to be the weak link in the system. Lacking the sophisticated damping that would become the hallmark of Western Electric’s all-electric cutter, it produced recordings with high levels of distortion, particularly in the louder passages. Nevertheless, the improved frequency response provided sufficient impetus to pursue the process.

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An illustration of the Merriman-Guest system, showing the Fessenden
“vibration motor.”

 

Guest and Merriman designed the first self-contained recording van and set about making test records, initially only of speech. The team was soon experimenting with musical recordings as well, setting up in Columbia’s London studio, where acoustic and electrical recordings were made simultaneously. Comparing the two version, Merriman recalled, “The range of tone was greater on the electrically made records, but there was considerable distortion.” The process was soon judged unsuitable for Columbia’s use, and the relationship was terminated.

For the Westminster Abbey recordings, horns were attached to the carbon microphones, which were placed throughout the abbey and connected to the recording van by cables. In the end, only two musical selections were deemed acceptable for release. Pressed by Columbia and issued privately as part of a fund-raising project for the abbey, the record enjoyed modest sales, and a copper matrix was donated to the British Museum.

Guest and Merriman then spent a month recording organist Marcel Dupre at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris before departing to the United States at the request of the Submarine Signal Company in Boston. It was a short-lived affiliation, and Guest, Merriman, and his wife went on to rent an apartment in Queens, where they set up an experimental electrical recording studio. Columbia made a series of experimental electrical recordings during November 1921, possibly using Guest’s and Merriman’s equipment. These tests, beginning with a session by Gladys Rice on November 3, 1921, are documented in the Columbia files, 11 but they were quickly suspended, and no issued records resulted.

Having made some technical strides, Merriman recalled that in 1923 he and Guest were invited to make simultaneous recordings during regular commercial Columbia sessions, placing their microphone alongside the recording horn. The resulting electrical recordings clearly exhibited greater frequency response and higher fidelity than their acoustic counterparts, in Merriman’s estimation. But in the meantime, Columbia had passed into the hands of receivers who had no interest in developing electrical recording, and Guest and Merriman abandoned their work. Back in England, the Gramophone Company appointed Brenchley E. G. Mittell to investigate electrical recording processes in November 1923, with no discernible results.

Orlando Marsh and the First American
Electrical Disc Recordings

In the United States, Orlando Marsh had been developing an electrical recording system since approximately 1914. A 1931 advertising flyer declared, “Seventeen years ago, Marsh instituted the first electrical recording lab in the world.” At that time, Marsh is known to have been employed by George K. Spoor’s Essanay movie studio in Chicago. It seems likely that Marsh was responsible for the Spoor Sound-Scriber, a cylinder-record system designed to be synchronized with motion pictures. In 1977 researcher Tim Fabrizio discovered the device, along with a cracked celluloid cylinder, in the vault of the International Museum of Photography and restored it to working order.

Once repaired and played, the Spoor cylinder turned out to be a promotional skit for the process, on which a speaker declares that the recording “is accomplished by special telephonic apparatus. That is all I can say about the system.” Although it is impossible to say definitively whether the recording was electrical, Fabrizio noted a “thin, hollow, even garbled character…unlike any acoustical or home recording I had ever heard. Yet, there seemed an odd sensitivity to peripheral noise.”

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The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording, made in the yard of Chicago’s Essanay movie studio (John R. T. Davies, via Malcolm Shaw)

 

The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording (matrix #2, a test pressing of which was discovered by the late John R. T. Davies), was of the George Spoor and the Wood Brothers Quartet singing “Bells of Shandon.” According to its handwritten label, the recording was made “in the open air 12 ft distance in the yard of the Essanay Co.” The recording probably dates to to the autumn of 1921. Marsh continued to record at Essanay through late 1922, then consolidated his office and studio in Chicago’s Kimball Building.

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(Above) Orlando Marsh recording in the Chicago Theatre, 1924; note the old-fashioned phonograph horn being used to focus sound on the microphone. (Below) Orlando Marsh in his laboratory, date unknown.

By then, Marsh was producing electrically recorded masters for his own Autograph label, as well as for several short-run custom labels that included Messiah Sacred Records, Crown Records, Greek Record Company, and Ideal Sacred Records. Although these were the earliest  electrical recordings to reach the American market (albeit primitive ones) — beating Columbia and Victor by three years — the labels carried no notation to that effect. The claim would not appear on Autograph labels until 1925. At that point, Marsh declared himself “The Originator of Electrical Recording,” but he never patented his process.

Early Experimentation at the Major Companies

Among the market leaders, Thomas Edison had experimented sporadically with telephonic recording, to no avail. After World War I, he had even attempted to make recordings using surplus military radio equipment. Recalling those experiments, he stated, “I found when I tried [radio] for recording there was too much mutilation of sounds, which is rather difficult to overcome.”

Frank L. Dyer, a longtime Edison associate, filed a patent application for an electromagnetic recording head in February 1921, but apparently nothing was done to develop it, and Thomas Edison remained emphatically opposed to the process. His company would be the last to convert to electrical recording, one of several factors that led to its demise in 1929.

For a newcomer like the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, however, electrical recording must have seemed promising. In December 1920, Percy L. Deutsch, Brunswick’s vice-president and grandson of company founder J. M. Brunswick, initiated formal research into electrical recording. Although circumstantial evidence suggests that Deutsch was aware of General Electric’s experimentation with electrical recording processes, the initial experiments were carried out independently at Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters. Deutsch entrusted much of this work to inventor Benjamin Franklin Meissner, who had earned a reputation as an expert in wireless torpedo-guidance systems during World War I.

 The Talking Machine World for December 1921 reported that Meissner had “for some months been working in the Brunswick experimental laboratories here [in Chicago] on various methods for converting sound waves into electrical waves, and reconverting these back to sound waves on the phonograph record.” Meissner conducted experimental electrical sessions at the Brunswick studio during much of 1921. Unfortunately, paper documentation of these sessions has vanished along with Brunswick’s early recording ledgers. Test pressings are rumored to survive, but to date, none has been reliably reported.

In December, TMW also broke the news of Brunswick’s experiments with wireless remote disc mastering in Chicago. On November 22, an operatic performance was transmitted from the Auditorium Theatre to a Magnavox receiver in the Brunswick laboratory. There, TMW reported, “the electrical waves were switched from the Magnavox directly to the recording apparatus.” Despite an apparently promising start, no commercially issued records resulted from Meissner’s experiments, and Brunswick seems to have abandoned its electrical experiments in 1922.

As Meissner was winding down his work at Brunswick, Albertis Hewitt was undertaking similar experiments at Victor. Hewitt and James W. Owen, another Victor engineer, had been experimenting with microphones since 1916, when they patented an improved design for use in “the recording or reproduction of sound.” Hewitt went on to patent many other devices relating to electrical recording and reproduction over the next eighteen years, all of which were assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company or the Radio Corporation of America. However, when Hewitt began experimentation in earnest at Victor in 1922, it was not with his own equipment, but with Pallophotophone equipment loaned to him by Charles Hoxie.

Hewitt’s experimental electrical installation was completed at Victor’s Camden studio on December 7, 1922, and the next day he conducted the first of many test sessions, beginning with staff pianist Myrtle Eaver. More tests were conducted over the next two weeks, involving Eaver and tenor William Robyn, with musical director Joseph Pasternack voicing his approval of the results. A final report on the Pallophotophone tests was drafted at the end of the month and apparently was buried, after which no more was heard of the device at Victor. Hewitt, however, continued to make some experimental recordings from radio broadcasts during 1922–1924 using an electrical recorder of his own design. In 1923 he undertook further microphone experiments for Victor.

In the end, nothing came of Hewitt’s research, and Victor continued to record acoustically. Probably unaware of Hewitt’s secret experiments, orchestra leader Paul Whiteman invested heavily in the electrical recording process of an unnamed English inventor in 1923, hoping to license it to Victor. For his efforts, Whiteman earned only a rebuff from company executives.

Frank Capps also experimented independently with electrical recording. On November 10, 1923, he recorded former president Woodrow Wilson’s Armistice Day speech, as broadcast on over radio station WEAF (New York). Capps — who allegedly was later involved in leaking news of Western’s Electric’s proposed Victor deal to Louis Sterling at Columbia’s English branch — sent his masters to be processed by the Compo Company in Canada, a venture headed by Emile Berliner’s son Herbert. It is tempting to speculate that Capps’ electrical masters were the impetus for Herbert Berliner’s own experiments, which resulted in the first Canadian electrical recordings.

Western Electric Courts the Recording Industry

While the phonograph companies were abandoning their in-house experiments, and Orlando Marsh was puttering with his homemade electrical equipment, Western Electric’s engineers were making steady progress toward a high-quality, commercially viable electrical recording system during 1922–1923. The team of Joseph P. Maxfield and Henry Harrison had recently taken over much of the project, signaling a definitive change in corporate attitude toward electrical recording methods.

Thus far, Western Electric’s engineers had worked under highly controlled conditions in laboratories that had little in common with concert halls or commercial recording studios. However, Maxfield was now determined to deal with the variables inherent in recording live performances in public venues. He had already experimented with remote electrical recording, establishing a wireless connection from New York’s Capitol Theatre to Western Electric’s experimental recording laboratory and broadcast station at 463 West Street in late 1922. By 1923, Western Electric was regularly making test recordings via the remote link from the Capitol Theatre. The company also made experimental recordings from radio broadcasts, including excerpts from the 1923–1924 New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra’s broadcasts over radio station WEAF.

The Capitol Theatre’s cavernous space presented an especially difficult challenge to the Western Electric team. After much experimentation in the theater, the engineers determined that the microphone placement needed to replicate what was heard by an average member of the audience was forty feet above floor level, and forty feet in front of the stage. The quality of these early electrical recordings varied tremendously, as surviving test pressings demonstrate. Several Western Electric experimental pressings have surfaced in recent years, the earliest of them a Capitol Theater performance dated July 20, 1923. Other surviving test pressings include public performances by the New York Philharmonic under Willem van Hoogstraten, made in December 1923, and some January 1924 recordings from WEAF radio broadcasts.

Maxfield emphasized the importance of the studio monitor, volume level indicator, and potentiometer in his process, establishing a degree of control unattainable with the acoustic process:

“Without the monitoring system, the fact that a record is unsatisfactory cannot be ascertained until the master record is made, plated, and reproduced…. In the case of “acoustical” recording from a symphony orchestra, the orchestra must play so that the fortissimo is suppressed and the pianissimo amplified in order to drive the stylus within proper bounds. With the present system, such an orchestra may play with natural force and effect, the current from the amplifier being kept within proper limits by manipulating the potentiometer as suggested by monitoring with loudspeaker and voltmeter.”

In October 1923, Maxfield filed a patent on an improved electrical recording system. Well aware of the failings of the earlier, cumbersome Wier and Craft–Colpitts processes, he greatly simplified the apparatus. At this juncture, Maxfield appears to have still been concerned primarily with the recording of live rather than studio performances, noting in his patent application, “The object of the present invention is to produce master phonograph records electrically without interfering with the public performance of the artist or artists.”

While Maxfield satisfactorily addressed the technical aspects of an electrical recording system, its suitability for commercial applications had so far gone largely unexplored. Little commercial demand could be anticipated for Maxfield’s live recordings, other than as a source of broadcast material. Consequently, Maxfield set out to refine his system for commercial studio use. In December 1923 he filed a patent application on a “studio for acoustic purposes,” stating,

“The object of the invention is to provide a studio in which sounds may be recorded or broadcasted with substantially all the natural effects that an auditor listening directly to the sounds would receive… More specifically, the invention provides a studio in which the walls are damped by a hanging curtain or applying other damping material to the walls, damping them to a degree such that the reverberation will be between .5 of a second and 1.0 second.… The curtains may be hung on horizontal poles or rods by any suitable fasteners which may be slideable on the rods, whereby the curtains may be adjusted to cover any desired surface to control the damping.… The ceiling as shown is not damped, but the floor is substantially covered with a heavy rug. Smaller rugs may be used on the floor and damping material may also be used on the ceiling if desired.”

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Maxfield’s design for an electrical recording studio would be
adopted by Victor in 1925.

 

Henry Harrison made improvements to the electromagnetic cutter in early 1924. Charts included in his patent filing depict a fairly flat frequency response curve ranging from 35 to nearly 8,000 cycles per second. In contrast, the very best acoustic recordings could only offer a range of approximately 200 to 3,000 cycles per second, and few studios other than Edison’s performed even that well. However, much of the experimentation at Western Electric had been carried out using nonstandard disc formats designed to take full advantage of the new electromagnetic cutter, without regard for the needs of commercial producers. Oversized, vertically cut, and lacking the abrasive fillers required in commercial shellac pressings, these discs were superior from an engineering perspective, but they were totally incompatible with the millions of phonographs already in homes.

Anticipating resistance from an industry that was heavily invested in the standard ten- or twelve-inch lateral-cut shellac disc, the Western Electric engineers began to tailor their system to that format. The result was a recording curve designed to compress a modern, wide-range electrical recording into a groove configuration and disc format that were relics of the nineteenth century. With a reduced frequency range of approximately 100–5,000 cycles per second, the new Western Electric process still offered dramatic improvement over the best acoustic recordings, but fell far short of what could be achieved under laboratory conditions.

Columbia and Victor Go Electric

With a commercially viable system finally complete, Western Electric approached the Victor Talking Machine Company. In February 1924, Victor executives George W. Smith and Fenimore Johnson visited the Western Electric laboratories for a demonstration of the new electrically recorded discs. As they soon discovered, the process would not come cheaply. Western Electric demanded royalties on sales of all records made by their process, and further stipulated that Victor’s studios be rebuilt to Joseph Maxfield’s exact specifications.

Victor president Eldridge R. Johnson, coping with health problems and declining revenues from record sales, tabled the Western Electric proposal. The Victor Talking Machine Company had always developed its technology internally, but the Western Electric deal would require the active involvement of outsiders. In addition, the swift transition that adoption of the system would entail was at odds with Eldridge Johnson’s conservative approach to product development. Just four years earlier, he had declared to the press, “It will take twenty-five years more to perfect the talking machine.”

According to an oft-repeated story, Western Electric made its initial offer only to Victor. In the meantime, the tale continues, a bit of industrial spying was under way that would rob Victor of its potential edge. Under the supervision of Russell Hunting, Western Electric was pressing 16” test records at Pathé’s Brooklyn plant, which was the only U.S. plant equipped at that time to press the oversized discs. According to this tale, which appears with some variations in several early phonograph histories, Hunting leaked word of the process to his old business associate, Louis Sterling, at Columbia’s London headquarters. Purloined Western Electric tests are said to have arrived in London on December 24, 1924, with Sterling setting sail for the U.S. two days later, frantic to negotiate use of the Western Electric system for Columbia.

Unfortunately, this widely circulated account is seriously flawed in many respects, and it is contradicted by dated test pressings. Sterling did indeed sail to the United States in December 1924, but for the purpose of acquiring rights to the Western Electric system for English Columbia, under the same terms that Western Electric had already offered to both Columbia and Victor in the United States.

In fact, Western Electric had begun making test recordings for both of those companies many months before Sterling’s visit, as proven by a surprisingly large number of surviving test pressings. The earliest of these electrical tests to surface thus far, made for Columbia, shows a recording date of August 25, 1924, in the wax. Many other Columbia electrical tests exist that show dates throughout the late summer and autumn of 1924 in the wax.

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Two Columbia-Western Electric tests, both from September 1924. By that time, electrical tests were being produced in sufficient quantity that a special label was introduced for them. (Courtesy of Kurt Nauck)

 

Columbia made some of its most notable performers available for these early Western Electric tests, including violinist George Enescu and soprano Florence Macbeth. Although files for the earliest tests have not been located, the excellent sound quality on surviving test pressings is clearly indicative of Western Electric’s work. The earliest surviving confirmation in Columbia’s files that Western Electric equipment was indeed in use is a notation for a session on November 10, 1924. Clearly, a Columbia–Western Electric alliance had been forged well before Sterling’s December dash to the States.

At the same time, Western Electric was also recording tests for Victor, despite Eldridge Johnson’s apparent lack of interest. Electrically recorded Victor test pressings, showing dates in the wax ranging from October 7 to December 17, 1924, survive in a private collection. Interestingly, neither Harry nor Raymond Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineers, mentioned these sessions in their memoirs. Harry Sooy recalled having first been apprised of “three or four records submitted by the Western Electric Company” on January 3, 1925. It is therefore likely that these early test sessions, which are not documented in the surviving Victor files, were conducted in Western Electric’s studios rather than Victor’s.

Although Victor was clearly considering the Western Electric process during the autumn of 1924, it took news of the impending Columbia–Western Electric deal to force Eldridge Johnson’s hand. Threatened with obsolescence at the hands of his old rival, Eldridge Johnson finally assented to Western Electric’s terms, which included an advance payment of $50,000 in addition to the royalty clause that had caused earlier caused him to balk. The deal was a closely guarded secret — so much so, that no mention of it appears in the minutes of Victor’s managing committee.

On January 27, 1925, Western Electric dispatched Joseph Maxfield to Camden to lay out the wiring for Victor’s first electrically equipped studio in Building No. 15. The Western Electric equipment was shipped to Camden on February 2 and arrived the following day. The first electrical session to be held there — an experimental piano solo recording by one Mr. Watkins — occurred on February 9. Over the next several days, experimental sessions continued with Helen Clark, Elsie Baker, Olive Kline, and other Victor studio artists.

While the Western Electric installation was under way at Victor, Columbia was readying its own Western Electric system for commercial use. In January 1925 the company had Art Gillham, “The Whispering Pianist,” make a series of electrical recordings. Gillham was an excellent choice to demonstrate the new system’s capabilities. His subdued crooning style was poorly suited the old acoustic system, but it registered quite well with the microphone. The results were good enough that three Gillham selections, recorded on February 25, 1925, were accepted for release.

Just one day after Gillham’s electrical Columbia session, the Eight Famous Victor Artists (a traveling promotional troupe featuring Billy Murray and Henry Burr) were assembled at Camden to make comparison recordings of “A Miniature Concert” using Victor’s acoustic and Western Electric’s electrical equipment. Initially, the acoustic version was approved for release, but in April there was a change of heart on the part of Victor management. Instead, the electrical tests, covering two sides of a 12” disc, were approved for a July 1925 release on Victor 35753.

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Let the conversion begin: The Victor Recording Book sheet for the electrical version of “A Miniature Concert,” which was recorded as an experiment but was then approved for release in place of the acoustic version.

 

The “Miniature Concert” comprised the earliest electrical recordings to be released by Victor. They were not, however, the first Victor release to use an electrically recorded master. That honor is held by the Mask and Wig Club Male Quartet’s rendition of “Joan of Arkansas,” recorded on March 16, 1925, and released on Victor 19626 a month before “A Miniature Concert.”

At the end of February, with finalization of its Western Electric deal virtually assured, Columbia became the first major record producer to convert to fill-time electrical recording. Acoustic recording sessions for full-priced releases were suspended on February 28 at Columbia’s New York studio (acoustic equipment remained in use for several more years, but only for recordings allocated to Harmony and other low-priced labels).

Two of Gillham’s February sides were listed in the May 1925 Talking Machine World advance list for a June release on Columbia 328-D, the earliest electrical recordings to be issued by Columbia. In the same listing were four sides recorded electrically during a March 31 public performance by the 850-voice Associated Glee Clubs of America — the first “live” electrical recordings to be issued in the United States.

There was nothing in the new listings or advertisements that might alert the public that Columbia was employing a new recording technology, nor would there be for another year. The only clue, other than an obvious change in sound quality, was a circled-W logo in the pressing, required as part of the licensing agreement with Western Electric. Even that small hint was absent on some of the earliest pressings.

Columbia’s adoption of the electrical process had the unforeseen effect of driving the company into the cheap-record market. Having invested heavily in improvements to its acoustic studios in 1924, Columbia decided to recoup its costs by launching a low-priced label that would continue to use acoustically recorded masters. The result was the introduction of Harmony, a 50¢ brand, in September 1925. Velvet Tone, a companion label using the same masters and couplings as Harmony, followed in the summer of 1926. Both labels continued to use acoustically recorded masters through 1929, although the occasional electrical master (probably recorded for the full-priced line but rejected) found its way into the series.

Victor lagged a bit behind Columbia in its conversion. The electrical sessions of February through mid-March 1925 were still considered trials, although they yielded some recordings that were approved for release. The Western Electric contract was finally signed on March 18, and at the end of that month, Victor retired the recording horns in the Camden studios. However, the company was in the process of acquiring a new studio location in New York at the time; thus, Victor’s first New York electrical sessions were delayed until July 31, 1925.

Both companies began releasing electrical recordings with some regularity beginning in the early summer of 1925. However, neither Victor nor Columbia publicly acknowledged the conversion during 1925–26, allowing themselves time to dispose of obsolete acoustic stock while building new catalogs from scratch. The closest Victor came to publicly acknowledging the new process was Eldridge Johnson’s misleading statement, in response Brunswick’s introduction of the electric Panatrope in August 1925, that the company would soon introduce a new system representing “the ultimate in sound reproduction.” 25 Johnson coyly refused to elaborate on the new recordings to a New York Times reporter, even though they had already been on the market for several months. But the change was immediately obvious to dealers and consumers alike, and by the end of 1925 Victor dealers were openly referring to the new process, even if the manufacturer was not.

Victor’s Canadian branch took the opposite approach, heralding the new electrics in July 1925 with a national advertising campaign, and initiating deep price cuts on its now-obsolete acoustically recorded discs. The impetus might have come from Herbert Berliner’s upstart Compo Company, which had begun marketing electrically recorded discs on its Apex label in Canada. “New Victor V.E. Process a Master Stroke in Recording,” the ads proclaimed. “All the new July releases out today are recorded by the new V.E. process.”

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Victor’s Canadian affiliate was the first to publicly announce the company’s conversion to electrical recording, in July 1925. Its American counterpart waited until 1926, as did Columbia.

 

In October 1926, Western Electric loaned Joseph Maxfield to Victor to pursue further improvements in the electrical process. Appointed as Victor’s manager of research and development in September 1927,  Maxfield was given free rein to remake the Victor studios to his specifications. Remote recording locations were added or upgraded, including the Philadelphia Academy of Music and New York’s Liederkranz Hall. Camden’s former Trinity Baptist Church, converted to a Victor studio during the acoustic era, was thoroughly overhauled, including replacement of the original organ. A New York Times reporter who toured the studio observed,

“Hidden from view is the arched roof to which boomed hasannas and hymns… a flat, sound-proof and false ceiling of burlap is better for recording. An organ is there, to be sure, but it is a special one recently installed, and now there is a microphone before it. … Downstairs, where prayer books had been stored … is some $150,000 equipment bearing trademarks of Western Electric, Electrical Research Products, and Victor Talking Machine.”

For a time, the church did double duty as a temporary Vitaphone sound stage, with the lower level used for filming. Films were shot as silents, and the actors then dubbed their parts onto synchronized discs in the main church recording studio.

New, unfamiliar equipment and studios required that studio engineers be retrained or even replaced. Nathaniel Shilkret, one of the few veteran Victor musical directors to make the transition successfully, recounted his company’s problems in adapting the new process:

“Almost everything that had been learned about orchestration and recording seemed useless. The musician’s favorite tricks in orchestration became obsolete; the recorders’ art of handling the recording horns had no more value…. No doubt you will be interested to know that our first successful recordings were with the symphonic orchestras, large choirs and whispering vocalists. Then came the Salon Orchestra which improved immensely over the old recordings, after most of us were convinced that this new way of recording an intimate style of orchestra would never do at all. The piano quality of the new recordings, while not perfect, is surely superior to the old recordings. The tenor voice gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones. At times, hollow; but all voices finally were conquered. And to think that all this has happened in about one year and a half.”

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Nathaniel Shilkret (front row, third from left) and orchestra in a
Maxfield-designed Victor studio.

 

Pressings were proving to be a weak link in the new system, with dealers complaining that the surfaces were noisy and prone to premature wear. The increased surface noise resulted from use of a coarser, more abrasive pressing material developed for the new electric discs, while the tendency toward premature wear resulted from the more heavily modulated groove.

One of Maxfield’s solutions to the latter problem was to slightly smooth the master recording by high-speed mechanical burnishing “at a pressure which is reasonably constant and of just sufficient magnitude to cause a very slight surface flow of the material without macerating it.” Charles O’Connell, a later Victor recording director, took a dim view of the practice, recalling that masters “Went flawless into these laboratories. They emerged pitted, peaked, and perverted. I say perverted because in some instances, in an effort to reduce the scratch that inexpert handling had brought to the records, a polishing stone was run through the grooves, eliminating some of the scratch and all of the high frequencies that give music color and brilliance.”

The general public, still playing its records on steel-needle acoustic machines with tracking forces measured in pounds rather than grams, would scarcely have noticed such technical flaws. Victor’s record sales rebounded in 1926, jumping to nearly 32 million copies from the previous year’s 25 million. The leap into electrical recording had come at a high cost to Victor’s shareholders, however. In July 1925, the company announced that it was suspending its quarterly dividends in view of “important improvements in the product [that] will require considerable outlay of funds.”

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COMING IN PART 2: Herbert Berliner, General Electric, RCA,
and the Minor-Label Systems

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Selected References

“A New Invention” (re: Marsh’s Kimball Building studio). Billboard (January 13, 1923), p. 58.

“Advance Record Bulletins for June 1925.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1925), p. 157.

“Advance Record Bulletins for July 1925.” Talking Machine World (June 15, 1925), p. 166.

Biel, Michael Jay. The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936. Dissertation, Northwestern University (1977), pp. 284–285.

Brooks, Tim. Columbia Master Record Book — Vol. 1. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.

“Camden in Film Field.” New York Times (August 26, 1928), p. 98.

Craft, Edward B., and Colpitts, Edwin H. U.S. Patent #1,540,317 (filed November 25, 1919).

Dyer, Frank L. “Magnetic Recorder.” U.S. Patent #1,544,379 (filed February 16, 1921; issued June 30, 1925).

Egerton, Henry Clifford. “Phonographic Transmitter.” U.S. Patent #1,246,895 (filed November 25, 1914; issued November 20, 1917).

— . “Telephonic Recording and Reproducing Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,284,623 (filed February 1, 1918; issued November 12, 1918).

Fabrizio, T. C. “Before the Jazz Singer” (re: Spoor Sound-Scriber). Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:5, 1977), pp. 3–6.

— . “The Spoor Sound-Scriber and its Relation to the Sound Synchronization of Motion Pictures,” and  “Transcription of the ‘Spoor’ Cylinder.” Antique Phonograph Monthly (V:6, 1977), pp. 5–8.

Giovannoni, David. E-mail to author re early Victor–Western Electric test recordings (September 15, 2007).

Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).

Guest, Lionel George William, and Merriman, Horace Owen. “Improved Means for Recording Sound.” British Patent Office: Patent Application #141,790 (filed January 18, 1919; issued April 19, 1920).

Harrison, Henry C. “Device for the Transmission of Vibratory Energy.” U.S. Patent #1,663,884 (filed May 5, 1924; issued May 27, 1928).

“Historic Gramophone Records — Major Guest and the Abbey Service.” London Observer (December 12, 1920), p. 17.

Hoxie, Charles A. “Production of Phonographic Records.” U.S. Patent #1,637,903 (filed December 28, 1921; issued August 2, 1927).

— . “Recording Apparatus.” U.S. Patent #1,456,595 (filed April 13, 1918; issued May 29, 1924), assigned to General Electric Company.

Marsh Laboratories, Inc. (advertising flyer, 1931).

Maxfield, Joseph P. “Phonograph System.” U.S. Patent #1,661,539 (filed October 2, 1923; issued March 6, 1928).

— . “Studio for Acoustic Purposes.” U.S. Patent #1,719,481 (filed December l5, 1923; issued July 2, 1929).

Merriman, H. O. “Sound Recording by Electricity, 1919–1924.” Talking Machine Review (June 1976), pp. 666–670, 680–681.

Nauck, Kurt. Vintage Record Auction #33 (containing a large group of early Columbia–Western Electric test pressings). Spring, TX: Nauck’s Vintage Records (April–May 2003), p. 11.

 O’Connell, Charles C. The Other Side of the Record, p. 126. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).

Owen, James W., and Albertis Hewitt. “Microphone.” U.S. Patent #1,509,818 (filed August 25, 1916; granted September 23, 1924), assigned to the Victor Talking Machine Company.

“Record Opera via Wireless.” Talking Machine World (December 15, 1921), p. 118.

“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units, Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive.” Exhibit in: U.S. Dist. Court, D.D. of N.Y., January 26, 1943.

Shilkret, Nathaniel. “Modern Electrical Methods of Recording.” Phonograph Monthly Review (June 1927), p. 382.

Sooy, Harry O. “Memoir of My Career at Victor Talking Machine Company.” Unpublished manuscript, n.d. David Sarnoff Library, Princeton, NJ.

Tennyson, James R. “Oh, Canada!” New Amberola Graphic (July 1987), p. 5.

“The Future Development of the Talking Machine.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1920), p. 16.

Victor Talking Machine Company. Managing Committee Minutes, Vol. 1 (1924–1926).

— . Recording ledgers (Sony archives, New York); data courtesy of John R. Bolig.

 “Victor Talking Machine Co. Omits Quarterly Dividend.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1925), p. 110.

Watkins, Stanley. “Madame, Will You Talk?” Bell Laboratories Record, August 1946 (Vol. XXIV, No. VIII), p. 291.

Whiteman, Paul (David A. Stein, editor). Music for the Millions, p. 5–7. New York: Hermitage Press, 1948.

Wier, Henry B. “Recording of Music and Speech” (U.S. Patent application filed August 14, 1919). The patent was later divided into recording and playback sections, with the recording portion (#1,765,517) not being granted until June 24, 1930.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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UPDATE: Last Call for these Mainspring Press Titles

As you probably know, Mainspring Press is exiting the book business after twenty years, in favor of online data distribution. Many titles have already sold out, and we are down to a carton or less of the following, none of which will be reprinted. All remaining copies are being offered at special close-out discounts:
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Bryant: The Emerson Discography (Complete 10″ and 12″ Series)
Bryant: American Zonophone Discography (Popular Series, 1904–1912)
Sutton: Edison Amberol Records (Complete, 1908–1913)
Sutton: Pseudonyms on American Records, 3rd Edition

 

SOLD OUT  Bolig: The Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 3 (20000 – 21000 Series)

SOLD OUT  Bolig: The Victor Discography—Special Labels

SOLD OUT Nauck & Sutton: Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders

SOLD OUT  Sutton: Edison Blue Amberol Records

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American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (December 2018) is Mainspring’s final publication in book form. The only authoritative, fully documented guide to all commercial American record producers (disc and cylinder), it’s a limited edition and has been selling briskly — Order soon to avoid missing out:

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“American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950” Is in Stock – Special Limited Edition

NOW IN STOCK
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American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950
An Encyclopedic History
By Allan Sutton

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760 pages • 7″ x 10″ full-cloth hardcover
Heavy-duty sewn library binding


Special Limited Edition of 300 Copies

ISBN # 978-0-9973333-3-6
Library of Congress Control # 2018960581

Visit MAINSPRING PRESS for details, subject list, and ordering

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Forgotten American Record Producers: Earle W. Jones

Forgotten American Record Producers:
Earle W. Jones
By Allan Sutton

 

Earle W. Jones isn’t a name that sparks instant recognition among many modern record collectors. Jones wasn’t even mentioned in Brian Rust’s problematic American Record Label Book; some more recent works mention him in passing but misspell his name “Earl.” And yet, he was one of the most prolific of the small independent record producers that operated during the postwar phonograph boom of 1919–1922.

In March 1955, record researcher Dan Mahony ran across Jones in the Alicat Book Shop in Yonkers. A series of interview ensued, which unfortunately were not taped. Mahony instead jotted down some notes and summarized what he considered the salient points in a private report to members of the Record Research group. [1] Jones’ memory, assuming Mahony reported his recollections accurately, proved to be wildly unreliable. The few credible portions of Jones’ interviews are cited throughout this article, but his account is riddled with demonstrable errors.

Jones reportedly got his start as an employee of the Columbia Graphophone Company in the early 1900s. In August 1916, he and Edward R. Harris filed a patent on a process of recording masters on coated glass, which they referred to as “phonoautograms,” the term first used a half-century earlier for Leon Scott’s phonographic tracings. The masters could then be copied to film, from which a photographically sensitized copper stamper could be produced. It was not an original idea; Emile Berliner had patented a similar process in the late 1880s. The patent (#1,461,849) was not approved until late 1923, and there is no evidence that Jones ever used the process commercially. Jones, in his 1955 interview, also claimed to have made electrical recordings with Victor Emerson as early as 1915–1916. However, no evidence of any such activity has been found. [2]

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Jones’ first known display ad (April 1917)

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Jones did not produce any labels of his own, but he recorded masters for many small companies, Lyric being his primary customer. The Jones Central Recording Laboratories (“Central” was soon dropped from the name) were first listed in the 1917 Talking Machine World “Trade Directory,” with the notation that the company “manufactures records in any quantity.” Jones’  studio was at 662 6th Avenue in New York. He also claimed to operate studios at 104 6th Avenue (New York), Madison Avenue at 59th Street (New York), and 76 Court Street (Brooklyn) at various times, although these might have been leased from other companies, based upon a statement he made in 1955. The company also installed its own master-plating plant in the spring of 1917. Jones reported, “Our laboratories are now complete, from the making of the wax to the manufacture of the finished product. We have just affiliated ourselves with a very large concern, who will press all our records.” [3]

The Talking Machine World for April 1917 reported that Jones Laboratories had greatly expanded its facilities over the past few months. “Arrangements are now being completed whereby this concern will manufacture records for several additional houses, TMW stated. “ Its capacity has been augmented considerably, and with its present equipment, records of all sizes up to twelve inches (hill and dale cut), can be produced by these laboratories in any quantity. The company has already signed large contracts with a number of companies for the coming year.” [4] Jones encouraged clients to submit their lists of desired titles, to which he would match the appropriate artists and accompaniments, make the recordings, and deliver finished masters and stampers (and pressings, if desired) to the client.

 

Jones as full-service provider (1917)

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It has long been suspected that Jones recorded the original fine-groove vertical-cut masters for Jacques M. Kohner’s Lyric label (some later fine-grooves masters were dubbed for Lyric by Pathé, from their own masters). A hint appears in a 1919 report that Jones had invented a ten-inch disc with playing time approaching five minutes, [5] just like the fine-groove Lyrics. In addition, Jones later supplied many lateral-cut masters to Lyric and other labels associated with Kohner.

On February 21, 1919, the Piqua (Ohio) Daily Call made the remarkable announcement that the Meteor Motor Car company was “taking over” the Jones Recording Laboratories’ studio at 662 Fifth Avenue in New York. Meteor, a manufacturer of ambulances and hearses, had recently introduced a line of phonographs, manufactured in its Piqua factory, and the company had decided to add a matching line of records. They were to be pressed “temporarily” in an unnamed Pennsylvania factory, which almost certainly would have been the Scranton Button Company. The Record Research group confirmed the existence of fine-groove vertical-cut Meteor discs (now quite rare) with 1919 song titles. However, the “takeover” appears to have been short-lived.

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(Left) A later Jones-produced Meteor pressing, using masters from his main 41000 series (not to be confused with a similarly numbered Emerson series). “Dear Old Girl,” on the reverse side, was also issued on Arto and affiliated labels. The label shows Victor Emerson’s universal-cut patent. (Right) A lateral-cut Lyric pressing using Jones’ 41000-series masters.

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By early 1920, Jones was producing lateral-cut masters that he made available to independent labels. [6]  A large number were produced for Lyric, but Jones also accepted commissions from outside companies. According to Jones, he always cut multiple takes of commissioned selections, giving the contracting party their choice of one take. He retained rights to the unused takes, which he then parceled out to other labels, [7] an arrangement that probably explains the frequent use of artist pseudonyms on  Jones’ recordings.

Jones employed numerous disjointed blocks of matrix numbers, some of which contain only a few known recordings. The largest and most widely circulated block was the 41000 series (not to be confused with Emerson’s identically numbered series of the same period). It was allocated to Lyric, but the recordings also appeared widely on labels marketed by the Arto Company and Clarion Record Company, among others. The series was begun before July 1920, as proven by the existence of several 41000 masters by Billy Murray, who became exclusive to Victor in that month.

Jones actively solicited clients. He traveled to Saint Louis, probably in early 1920, to sell Shapleigh Hardware on the idea of adding records to its Harmograph line. [8] However, he supplied Harmograph only with old “standards” from his backlist; Harmograph’s later pop releases were supplied by several other companies.

In July 1921 Jones entered into a reciprocal agreement with the Siemon Hard Rubber Company, an independent pressing plant in which he was an investor. He would provide masters to Siemon’s pressing customers, including original commissioned recordings. One of the first takers was the newly formed Gaelic Record Company, a small label that specialized in Irish music. Jones recalled that the bagpipes and drums used during one session caused such severe vibration in the studio that he had to pack his recording equipment in sand. [9] He was also commissioned by Alexander Maloof, a prominent Syrian-born composer and musician who launched his Maloof label in 1920.

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(Left) Jones produced the first version of Harmograph, supplying it with “standards” from his extensive master pool. The same recordings could be had on many other labels, often for less than the dollar that Harmograph charged. (Right) An early Cameo release, minus its trademark, produced during Jones’ brief tenure as vice-president. This example was a new recording, but some early Cameo releases were just recyclings of old Jones masters.

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Such arrangements were to be short lived, however. In late 1921, the Jones Recording Laboratories were acquired by the newly formed Cameo Record Corporation, of which Jones was awarded a vice-presidency. He moved his recording equipment to the new Cameo studio, and in an act of true cronyism, contracted pressing to the ill-equipped Siemon Hard Rubber Company.

On Jones’ brief watch, Cameo launched as a rather shoddy 50¢ label whose early offerings included reissues of old Jones masters in mediocre Siemon pressings. In March 1922, Jones resigned his vice-presidency for reasons that went unexplained in the trade press, and for which Jones himself offered no explanation in 1955. His place was taken by Henry Waterson’s son, Henry Jr. With Jones gone, Cameo flourished.

Following his departure from Cameo, Jones launched Standard Records, Inc., a master-brokering operation unrelated to the earlier Standard Talking Machine Company of Chicago. The company acted as clearinghouse for obsolete masters to which Jones held the rights.  Marked with “J” or “S” indicators in the wax (the latter not to be confused with Okeh’s S-prefixed master numbers) the masters were parceled out to Bell, Cleartone, and other minor labels looking to pad out their catalogs during 1922–1923. Most were old Jones Laboratories recordings (sometimes assigned new master numbers) that had already appeared on Arto, Lyric, and other failing or defunct labels.

Jones returned to Cameo later in 1923, as a recording engineer. No longer holding an executive title, he resigned on July 1, 1924, to pursue “important plans in the industry.” [10] A short time later, he was listed as an incorporator (along with M. M. Nassau and J. J. Hanrahan) of the Moon Record Corporation, which had recently been chartered in New York to produce phonographs and records. What Moon produced, if anything, has not been discovered.

By 1931, Earle W. Jones was operating as Jones Research Sound Products, which acquired the patent of Hobart Simpson and Thomas Burhans (#1,928,935) for use in its production of 16mm sound-on-film motion pictures. He claimed to have set up Commodore’s pressing plant in the 1940s for Milt Gabler, whom he described as a “robber.” Gabler, Jones claimed in 1955, still owed him “plenty dough.” [11]

After that misadventure, Jones’ reappeared in the Patent Office records in 1949, with a filing on an improved electrical recording head. At the time of the Mahony interviews, Jones was in the process of suing RCA for infringing his patent, which he claimed was being successfully employed by at least two small companies. Unfortunately for posterity, Mahony “retained bloody little” of Jones’ lengthy discussion of the patent and lawsuit, and after that, Jones’ trail grow cold.

 

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

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Notes

[1] Mahony, Dan. Notes on Earle W. Jones interviews (March 23–April 22, 1955, unpublished). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

[2] Mahony, op. cit.

[3] “Install Large Plating Plant.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1917), p. 120.

[4] “Expand Laboratory Facilities.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1917), p. 30.

[5] “Manufacture Records Soon.” Piqua [OH] Daily Call (Feb 21, 1919), p. 1.

[6] Some labels show Victor Emerson’s universal-cut patent, but auditioned examples are standard lateral-cut recordings.

[7] Mahony, op. cit.

[8] In the Mahony interview, Jones gave the date as “about 1919,” but the Harmograph trademark filing claims the name was first used on records on September 4, 1920. Poorly pressed by the Siemon Hard Rubber Company, their labels bear the ironic slogan, “Quality Counts.”

[9] Mahony. op. cit.

[10] “Earle W. Jones Resigns as Recording Engineer.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1924), p. 18. Jones gave the date as 1925, in error, in his 1955 interview.

[11] Mahony, op. cit.

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Forgotten Phonograph-Gadget Inventors: Louis Devineau

Louis Devineau surfaced in Cleveland in the late 1890s as a French instructor, and by the early 1900s he was working for the Federal Manufacturing Company, a Cleveland automobile-chassis manufacturer. He was also patenting some interesting after-market accessories for the phonograph, beginning with a folding horn in 1905. His light-weight self-supporting horn was first advertised for sale in September 1907:

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Devineau’s Biophone, one of many attempts to convert cylinders players to disc, or vice-versa, was quite the monstrosity. A model incorporating some obvious departures from the original patent drawing made it to market in late 1907, although it does not appear to have been a commercial success:

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Devineau eventually endeared himself to some local  politicians, and by 1908 he was serving as secretary of the Cleveland Sinking Fund Commission, which he apparently treated as his private treasury. In February 1909, a $12,840 shortage was discovered, with Devineau nowhere to be found. The papers reported that he had last been heard from in Belgium. A warrant was issued for his arrest on embezzlement charges, but nothing more was reported.

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If you enjoy early phonographs and related items, Be sure to check out Vintage Phonograph Ads, 1895-1925, available from Mainspring Press.

Some Oddball Phonograph Patents (1902 – 1906)

This bizarre phonograph, employing a record and turntable in the form of a truncated cone, was patented by Louis P. Valiquet, of Zonophone fame. One advantage was said to be that the record was less likely to slip on the turntable than a standard flat disc.

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Emile Berliner’s device for increasing volume, employing six synchronized turntables. A later “improvement” stacked the turntables vertically.

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F. F. Shanks of Chicago patented this reproducer-less device consisting of an extended rod that carried the sound vibrations directly from the stylus to an attachment of the user’s choosing (the filing mentions a snare-drum head, banjo, or other stringed instrument), which served as a resonator.

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A more direct approach to musical-instrument-as reproducer, in this case a complete violin. A version of this machine was actually manufactured in France.

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For when the “just stuff a sock in it” approach won’t do, here’s a  marvelous piece of German over-engineering. This sadistic-looking device was patented by Albert Conze of Berlin and specified a muffler-ball of leather, cork, or felt. Edison later employed the same general idea in his Diamond Disc machines, but with the adjusting mechanism neatly tucked away below the bedplate.

The Birth of Commercially Viable Magnetic Sound Recording (1900)

In 1900, Danish inventor Valdemar Poulsen patented the first commercially viable magnetic sound recorder, which he boldly predicted would “replace the phonographs hitherto in use.” References to the potential for magnetic recording can be found dating back to the late 1870s, and there were later patent filings  on  magnetic recorders of questionable utility, including one by Victor Emerson that employed “the crumbling action of a magnetic needle” (1904). But Poulson’s magnetic wire-recorder, the application for which had a rather bumpy ride through the U.S. Patent Office, was the first to find its way into commercial production.

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The device was featured at the Paris Exposition in 1900, where Emperor Franz Joseph reportedly made a recording. In late 1903, Stilson Hutchins chartered the American Telegraphone Company to market the machines in the United States. The ad below appeared in 1906:

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Intended to record phone calls and dictation, the Telegraphone lacked the amplification and technical capabilities that would have been needed were it ever to “replace the phonographs hitherto in use.” Although it was not a commercial success, American Telegraphone somehow survived into 1920, when it was placed in receivership.

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For more on recording-industry pioneers of the early 1900s, be sure to check out A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900 – 1919, available from Mainspring Press and many libraries.

The John Fletcher Story — Part 1: “Music for Everybody” (1900 – 1921)

THE JOHN FLETCHER STORY
Part 1: “Music for Everybody” (1900 – 1921)
By Allan Sutton

This article is a substantially expanded version of a posting that originally appeared on the Mainspring Press website in 2001.

 

John Fletcher isn’t a name that normally comes up in discussions of recording industry pioneers. He managed to fail at virtually every venture he undertook (and there were many), and his involvement with Black Swan almost certainly contributed to that label’s demise. And yet, he was typical of many entrepreneurs who challenged the major companies during the record industry’s early boom years and, in doing so, managed to produce some intriguing records.

Fletcher, who began his career as a professional musician, claimed to have first recorded as a member of the Edison studio orchestra in the late 1890s. In a July 1918 interview with the Talking Machine World, Fletcher recalled, “My first phonographic experience was as a player in the old Edison cylinder laboratory in Orange, N.J., when you had to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning, be on the job, in your chair, and ready to play at 8 o’clock.” [1]

By the early 1900s, John Fletcher was performing and recording with  Sousa’s Band, as a cornetist. He is almost certainly the “_Fletcher” cited by Brian Rust in early editions of Jazz Records (the name was deleted in some later editions, with no explanation offered).

Fletcher recalled, “The band was engaged for three weeks to make records for the Victor Company. At the time, the company’s laboratory consisted of a small room on the third floor in a building in the neighborhood of Tenth and Lombard streets, Philadelphia, and it was in this small room that I got my first insight into the mysteries of sound recording.” [2] (A search of the Victor files failed to turn up a contiguous three-week block of Sousa sessions. Perhaps Fletcher was referring to the period of May 31 through June 26, 1902, during which the band was in the studio on thirteen days.)

Fletcher toured Europe with Sousa’s Band, then reportedly joined the New York Symphony Orchestra upon his return. He is known to have made at least two recordings as a cornet soloist, for Indestructible cylinders in 1908 and 1910, [3] but his growing interest in sound recording soon eclipsed any desire to continue working as a musician. “During this time,” he told TMW, “I realized how imperfect were the methods then in vogue to record symphonic music with a few instruments, and I finally resolved to devote my future career to recording the various instruments comprising the grand orchestra, in sufficient numbers to produce the musical sensation caused by the combined tonality of such a large number of instruments.” [4]

Fletcher began to experiment with recording processes. He eventually devised what he termed “an extremely narrow” vertical-cut groove playable with an ordinary steel needle, for which he filed a patent application on July 3, 1915. Fletcher claimed that his process produced a record “found to be extremely durable in use,” a claim not supported by many of the surviving specimens in which it was employed. By the time the patent was finally granted in mid-1918, Fletcher had abandoned the fine-groove vertical cut.

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Fletcher’s fine-groove vertical-cut patent, 1915 (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.)

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On December 15, 1914, The Talking Machine World reported that Fletcher, E. F. Gerner, and M. Naughton had filed incorporation papers in New York for the Operaphone Manufacturing Corporation, which was to produce phonographs and records. [5] George Thomas served as president of the company, and Fletcher managed recording and manufacturing. The company opened a New York office at 2 Rector Street (which was later moved to 200 Fifth Avenue), a pressing plant at 156 Meadow Street in Long Island City, and a recording studio at an unknown location. The latter was moved into the pressing plant in late 1916. [6]

The exact date on which Operaphone records were first sold remains uncertain, but a trademark application, filed belatedly by Fletcher on September 13, 1919, claimed use of the Operaphone name on records beginning March 1, 1915. [7] The initial offerings were seven-inch discs employing Fletcher’s fine-groove vertical cut, bearing pressed labels (using a “frosted” background, reminiscent of the Edison Diamond Disc, but with sharply raised type) and retailing for 25¢ each. Fletcher did little advertising during Operaphone’s earliest days; in fact, Crescent (an Operaphone client label) began advertising in The Talking Machine World a month before Operaphone itself. [8]

Fletcher was pursuing two conflicting goals — the production of a cheap record that virtually anyone could afford (reflected in his “Music for Everybody” slogan), and the recording of serious symphonic repertoire, an inherently costly undertaking. In the end, he opted for the former. Despite its name and Fletcher’s lofty ambitions, the Operaphone label leaned heavily toward current popular tunes, public-domain “standards,” and light-classical snippets, most often rendered by the house band or the usual studio free-lance performers.

There were occasional selections by more distinguished artists, including retired Metropolitan Opera soprano Gertrude Rennyson and Broadway star May Naudain, but they were the exceptions. Some other Operaphone artists, like “Dan Perry,” were purely fictitious; “Perry” turns out to have been studio denizen Arthur Collins, based upon unmistakable aural evidence.

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An early “frosted”-label Operaphone pressing (left), and a re-pressing of the same master using the later etched label. “Dan Perry” was actually Arthur Collins in disguise. (Author’s collection)

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By the time that Operaphone finally began advertising regularly in early 1916, Fletcher had discontinued seven-inch discs and was producing eight-inch fine-groove pressings that he claimed would play “as long as the average twelve-inch records of other makers,” which in fact they did not. The copy was later revised to read, “more music than the ten-inch records of other makes,” which was still a bit of an exaggeration. Truth-in-advertising finally prevailed in 1917, when the wording was changed to “play at least as long as high-priced ten-inch records.”

The initial eight-inch Operaphone releases were listed in the January 1916 edition of The Talking Machine World, as February releases. [9] Retailing for 35¢, the eight-inch discs initially used the same dim, “frosted” labels as the seven-inch discs, which were soon replaced by more legible embossed labels with paint-filled type. In August 1916 the company finally announced, with some fanfare, that it was switching to paper labels. [10]

Fletcher also erred by sometimes coupling mismatched selections on his early releases, placing, for instance, a tired old hearts-and-flowers ballad on the flip side of a current pop tune—the same error Columbia had committed, then corrected, several years earlier. In September 1916, Fletcher promised that Operaphone would offer more compatible couplings on future releases. [11]

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The first paper Operaphone label (left), introduced in August 1916. The design had already appeared very briefly in etched form. Crescent was Operaphone’s earliest known client label. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Despite such a bumpy start, Operaphone reported in August 1916 that production at the pressing plant had tripled in eight months. [12] Fletcher had also expanded his client list beyond Crescent and was now pressing eight-inch Operaphone discs under an array of labels that included All Star, Elginola, and the earliest version of  Domestic. He soon secured Canadian distribution for Operaphone through the Canadian Phonograph Company of Toronto. During the spring of 1917, offices were moved to 489 Fifth Avenue, to allow easier access to the Long Island plant (which now also housed the recording studio) via the Queensboro subway line. [13]

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Advertisements for eight-inch Operaphone discs, 1916

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To all outward appearances, the Operaphone Manufacturing Corporation was a thriving business in the spring of 1917. And then it seemingly vanished, without explanation or even a passing mention in the trade papers. Fletcher finally alluded to the closing in his 1918 interview, recalling, “After facing abnormal conditions, due to the steadily increasing prices of raw materials, the Operaphone Company seized the psychological moment to shut down its factory… .” [14]

In short, Fletcher had badly under-priced his goods. A price increase might have been feasible had the eight-inch Operaphone disc been a high-quality product, but it was far from that. Weakly recorded, pressed in poor material, and offering little out of the ordinary in the way of artists or repertoire, the records had nothing to recommend them other than their unusually low price. Fletcher later admitted that the eight-inch discs “incurred tremendous expenses with returns that were hardly commensurate.” [15]

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One year later, a new type of Operaphone record suddenly appeared on the market, with no prior notice of its impending arrival. First advertised in April 1918, the records were credited to a reorganized Operaphone Company, Inc. [16] They were an obvious departure from the earlier series, being ten-inch vertical-cut discs that employed a groove of normal dimensions. What was not obvious was that John Fletcher, although still running the company, was no longer making his own recordings.

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Pathé supplied the masters for Operaphone’s new ten-inch series, the labels of which carry Pathé’s usual “U.S. Consumption Only” disclaimer. Many issues, like this one, were pseudonymous; “Albert Faber” was actually Eleanor Rae Ball.

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Fletcher, having mothballed his Long Island City studio, was now obtaining his recordings from the Pathé Phonograph Company. Pathé recorded its masters on oversized cylinders, which could be dubbed in any number of disc formats using the pantograph, a mechanical transcribing device that contributed to the rumbling and clanking heard on acoustic Pathé products.

The new ten-inch Operaphone discs used material from the Pathé catalog, but Pathé’s involvement would not have been apparent to the average record buyer. Having been transcribed using a steel-needle cut, the discs bore no physical resemblance to their sapphire-cut Pathé counterparts, and the artists often were masked by pseudonyms. A TMW reporter opined that the new records “mark a distinct improvement over the former Operaphone products,” but expressed no suspicions as to their true source. [17]

In conjunction with his new series, Fletcher announced that he was “planning to devote more time to…the recording of the entire symphonic repertoire.” In fact, Fletcher so far had not devoted any time to such an undertaking, beyond releasing a few orchestral lollipops on Operaphone. Unsurprisingly, given his track record and the fact that he was now simply leasing existing Pathé material, his plan was never implemented.

During the summer of 1919, a subtle change appeared in the wording of Operaphone’s advertising. Previously, the records had been touted as playing on “all universal tone-arm machines” (i.e., an arm that could be converted to play either lateral- or vertical-cut discs, usually by simply pivoting the reproducer into the proper position). In June, that was amended to read simply, “play on all phonographs.” The reason was that Pathé had begun dubbing Operaphone masters in a universal-cut format that was playable (albeit with rather mediocre result) on lateral or vertical machines without the need for a convertible arm. The earlier label, which pictured a reproducer in the vertical-cut position, was replaced by a redesigned version that dispensed with the illustration and listed the Smallwood universal-cut patent, #639,452.

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The final Operaphone label, showing Smallwood’s universal-cut patent number. Pathé was careful to disguise its more prestigious artists on Operaphone; “Rosner’s Dance Orchestra” was actually Joseph Knecht’s Waldorf Astoria Orchestra, and “Helene Buepre” was Claudia Muzio. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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As with the previous Operaphone series, material came from the Pathé catalog, the artists were often disguised, and the records bore no physical resemblance to their Pathé sapphire-ball counterparts. The records were also pressed under several client labels, including Empire and World. Oddly, a comparison of Talking Machine World advance listings reveals that in some cases, the Operaphone release dates preceded those of the corresponding Pathé records by a month or more. This unusual reversal of normal client-label procedure might have been explained by the fact that Operaphone by then had become a full-fledged Pathé subsidiary. The corporate relationship was never acknowledged to the general public, but it was disclosed in various editions of Moody’s. [18]

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Operaphone’s June 1920 list. “Wilbur Fairbanks” was Noble Sissle in disguise. The many other Operaphone aliases are unmasked in the author’s Pseudonyms on American Records — Third Revised and Expanded Edition (Mainspring Press).

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By the autumn of 1920, there were subtle signs that all was not well with Operaphone. In September, the company opted for a cheaper black-and-white advertisement in TMW, instead of its customary two-color. The color was back in October, but the company did not advertise in December, at the height of the all-important holiday sales season, and no new releases appeared in TMW’s advance list that month. A new ad, with only ten releases rather than the usual twelve, appeared in January 1921—perhaps not coincidentally, the same month in which Pathé entered the lateral-cut market with its new Actuelle label.

A small ad in February, with no new releases listed, would be Operaphone’s last. A month later, TMW reported that the Operaphone Company was “winding up its affairs and will shortly withdraw from the records field.” [19] In the same issue, John Fletcher was listed as secretary of a freshly launched venture — the Olympic Disc Record Corporation. [20]

 

Coming Up:

Part 2 – Fist-Fight in the Boardroom: The Remington-Olympic Saga (1921)

Part 3 – A Not-So-Black Swan (1922–1923)

Part 4 – Beating a Dead Horse in Chicago (1924–1925)

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[1] “Noted Career in Record Field.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1918), p. 96.
[2] Ibid. Victor moved into the Philadelphia studio in November 1901, according to recording engineer Harry O. Sooy, and did most of its recording there until early November 1907, when a  new Camden studio opened. Contrary to numerous discographies, no Victor recording was done in Camden during this period; for details, see “Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? The Victor Studio Conundrum (1900–1920),” on the Mainspring Press website.

[3] “Pretty Peggy” (Indestructible 940, released c. December 1908); and “Infantry Calls, No. 1” (Indestructible 1308, released April 1910).

[4] “Noted Career in Record Field,” op. cit.

[5] “To Make Phonographs.” Talking Machine World (December 15, 1914), p. 43.

[6] “All Departments Under One Roof.” Talking Machine World (November 15, 1916), p. 71.

[7] Operaphone Company: “Operaphone.” U.S. trademark application #122,654 (filed 9/13/1919).

[8] “Crescent Records for Quick Delivery” (ad). Talking Machine World (December 15, 1915), p. 19. Crescent’s fine-groove discs of 1915–1916 were simply Operaphone pressings under a different label. The company later used other suppliers.

[9] “Record Bulletins for February, 1916—Operaphone Manufacturing Company.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1916), p. 81.

[10] “Announce New Record Labels.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1916), p. 26.

[11] “To Revise Operaphone Catalog–All Operaphone Records to Bear Two Selections of the Same Type.” Talking Machine World (9/15/1916), p.82.

[12] “Announce New Record Labels,” op. cit.

[13] “Operaphone Corp. Moves Offices.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1917), p. 6.

[14] “Noted Career in Record Field,” op. cit.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Ten Inch Operaphone Records—Hill and Dale—Double Disc” (ad). Talking Machine World (April 15, 1918), p. 96.

[17] “Exhibitors of Talking Machines and Supplies at Music Show.” Talking Machine World (June 15, 1918), p. 101.

[18] “Pathé Frères Phonograph Co.” (lists Operaphone as Pathé subsidiary). Moody’s Manual of Railroads and Corporation Securities. New York: Moody Manual Co. (1922), p. 940.

[19] “Operaphone Co. to Withdraw.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1921), p. 71.

[20] “New Concern to Make Records.” Talking Machine World (March 15, 1921), p. 3.

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

 

Vintage Phonograph Gallery • The Kraemer (Hawthorne & Sheble) Spring-Loaded Tone Arm (1907)

Thomas Kraemer’s spring-loaded tone arm was featured on Hawthorne & Sheble’s Star phonographs beginning in 1907. A key feature was a small coiled spring that was said to propel the reproducer, thus supposedly skirting Victor’s Berliner patent, which specified that the record groove served that purpose. The courts weren’t swayed by that argument, finding the spring was too weak to serve any real purpose. Victor eventually forced Hawthorne & Sheble into bankruptcy, over unrelated patent-infringement claims in the Starola enclosed-horn machines, in 1909. There’s much more on Hawthorne & Sheble in A Phonograph in Every Home, available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.

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MSP_H&S-kraemer_1907