IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

Conducted by telephone on May 8, 1978
First publication February 2022

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Irving Berlin, 1944 (Samuel Johnson Woolf,
National Portrait Gallery)

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I can’t find the words to thank you enough, Mr. Berlin, for taking your valuable time to talk with me today. 

You know, kid, you wrote me so many letters that you made me feel guilty! And Izzy [Irving] Caesar put this together, so here you are and here I am. Your letters have a lot of things in them about my songs, so what can I tell you that you don’t already know?

 

I was always hoping that you received the letters, and Mr. [Helmy] Kresa assured me that you did see them. Years ago, I received a very nice reply from Mr. [Abraham L.] Berman about one of your early songs. 

What did Abe say?

 

Well, I wrote to ask for permission to quote part of the chorus of “Blue Skies” in an article I was writing for my college magazine. Mr. Berman explained very tactfully the policy of your publishing company. I really treasure that letter from him. 

I’m not going to tell him that or he’ll raise his rates. Abe has been with me a long time, you know.

 

May I ask you some questions about your parents and any memories you may have of Russia and emigrating to this country?

I’m going to give you a little test first. I want to see how much you know about my early songs. Here’s my test for you: Tell me the lyrics of “Fiddle Up” [i.e., “The Ragtime Violin”].

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“Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin…”

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I think I can do that. “Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin / Lay right on it, rest your fingers on it / Doggone you better begin / To play an overture upon your violin.”

You’re close, but you made a couple mistakes. It’s “rest your chin upon it,” not “rest your fingers on it,” and it’s “Doggone you’d better begin,” not “Doggone you better begin.” But you do know the song. Here’s another test for you: give me the lyrics of both melodies in “Play a Simple Melody.” Can you do that?

 

I’ll do my best. I learned your song from the Victor record that Billy Murray and Elsie Baker made soon after you had published the song. Her part, the “simple” part, goes “Won’t you play a simple melody / Like my mother sang to me / One with good old-fashioned harmony / Play a simple melody!” His part of the duet goes, “Musical demon / Set your honey a-dreamin’ / Won’t you play me some rag / Just change that classical nag / To some sweet musical drag / If you will play from a copy / Of a tune that is choppy / You’ll get all my applause / And that is simply because / I want to listen to rag!”

Very good. Now do you know the verse to the “rag” part?

 

I think it’s “I don’t care for your long-haired musicians/ with their classic melodies / They’re all full of high-toned ambitions / but their music doesn’t please / Give me something snappy and popular / The kind that darkies play / Lots of rhythm and like all rhythm / And that’s why I say.”

You’re pretty good, kid! Of course, today you can’t use “darkies,” so when someone asks for permission to perform it, I have them use my revised lyric, which is “the kind that jazz boys play.” Now let me ask you a question. Is Izzy [Irving Caesar] on the line, or are we talking privately here?

 

I’m in his office, but he’s not here at the moment, so we’re talking privately. 

I hope to hell you don’t share his politics! Izzy is a goddamned Socialist, you know. [Eugene V.] Debs would have been President if Izzy had had his way. I like him and I talk to him about ASCAP business, but never about politics! Now, what were you asking me about coming to this country?

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Irving Caesar (right) with Gus Haenschen in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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I’m interested to know whether you have any memories of Russia and of crossing the Atlantic in steerage. 

I was only about five years old when we came here, so I don’t really remember anything about Russia. And the only thing I remember about the ocean crossing is that it took forever. And there was a guy who was in the bunk above me who was carrying a pocket knife. It fell out of his pocket when he was asleep, and it hit me on my forehead. The blade wasn’t open, but that knife left a little scar that I still have. 

 

Do you remember anything about the town in which you were born in Russia?

No. I was too young, and all I wanted to do was to get to America. Well, I can’t really say that because I was just doing what my father had our family doing, which was to get out of Russia.

 

Do you remember anything about Ellis Island and the processing your family was put through?

Not really, except that there were long lines and that they changed the spelling of our family’s name. They spelled it “Baline,” but my father always spelled it “Beilin.”

 

When did “Baline” become “Berlin”?

I did that—I changed it when I started working for [music publisher] Ted Snyder. If you look at the cover of “Marie from Sunny Italy,” my first published song, the cover says “I. Berlin.” I still went by my real name, which is Isidore, in those early days. I changed it to “Irving” because of Washington Irving. I loved his stories.

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“I.” Berlin’s first published song (1907)

 

If I may ask you about “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” did you write it specifically for Emma Carus?

No, I didn’t write it for anybody in particular, but I plugged it to her and she put it over in vaudeville. But any of those big-voiced singers, ones like Nora Bayes or Sophie Tucker, could have put it over. You know, it still amazes me how fast that song went coast-to-coast.

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Emma Carus, from The Columbia Record for April 1904
(Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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In those years, Sophie Tucker was billed as a “coon shouter.” Was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” a “coon song,” as many songs were then called?

No. Those “coon songs” were dead before I wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It isn’t a ragtime song either. It’s a song about ragtime, or a ragtime band, but it’s not a ragtime song like “Maple Leaf Rag” or one of those other [Scott] Joplin rags.

 

I’m sure you know that music historians have analyzed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the point of exhaustion, trying to show that it’s a coon song. 

These so-called “historians” don’t know a goddamned thing about my music, or anybody else’s for that matter. They’re like that fucking “tune detective” [Sigmund Spaeth] who was always trying to prove that Jerry Kern, or Cole Porter, or me or whoever, were stealing from classical composers. Some of them even said that about Stephen Foster! They can all go to hell!

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Although use of the term “coon song” was declining by the time “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, Edison appended it to its version. Victor and Columbia did not.

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No one can dispute that the greatest American songwriter is Irving Berlin. After all, when Mr. [Jerome] Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music, Irving Berlin is American music,” that said everything.

He was a great songwriter, a great friend, and a great man. You know that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein talked me into doing “Annie Get Your Gun” after Jerry died. He was supposed to write it.

 

Recently, Robert Russell Bennett was asked to name the greatest American songwriter of this century, and he promptly answered “Irving Berlin.” He said that no other composer has written so many totally different songs, over such a lengthy period of time, and with no musical training.

He’s a hell of an arranger, Robert Russell Bennett. And his Victory at Sea is a masterpiece.

 

I know this is a difficult question, but are there songwriters whom you especially admire?

Of the ones before the First World War, Victor Herbert was the one I would put at the top. After the Second World War, Dick Rodgers belongs at the top. Between the wars, I would put Cole Porter at the top.

 

Is it true that you personally persuaded Cole Porter to come to New York so that you would finally have some “competition,” so to speak,” from a songwriter who wrote both the words and the music of his songs?

No, no—I would never have done that. I couldn’t have done that because he was very independent. He could afford to be because he came from a rich family. He came to New York because his family, I think it was his mother, encouraged him to become a songwriter because that’s what he wanted to do.

 

So there’s nothing true at all about you wanting him to come to New York because you wanted a “competitor”?

That’s such crap! Who told you that stuff?

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Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, and Irving Berlin

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Kitty Carlisle is the one who told me that you not only wanted but relished the competition with Cole Porter.

Well, I don’t know where she got that but it’s just plain crap. She’s another rich kid, you know. Her father, whose name was Kahn but changed it to “Conn,” was a big-shot doctor or lawyer or something, and she wanted to be an opera singer. She’s a pretty girl—a pretty face and a nice figure, and a pretty tall girl too—and she was in the same circles that Cole was, but I’m sure he never told her anything about me wanting some “competition.” I had all I could handle from all the songwriters that were around back then.

 

She said that you and Cole Porter did kid each other about each other’s songs. Is that true?

Well, yes, but it was all in fun because Cole and I were good friends. I will say that I used to ride him about settling for a word that just didn’t seem right for a line.

 

Can you give me an example?

The one I really rode him about was in the lyrics of “Night and Day,” which is a great, great song, a very sophisticated song. If you know [the song], you’ll know that the bridge goes “Night and day, under the hide of me / There’s an oh so yearning burning inside of me.” Well, “under the hide of me” just doesn’t fit that song and I rode him about it because I thought he just got lazy and threw in “hide” because he needed a rhyme for “inside.” People don’t have “hide,” cows have hide.

I did ride him another time about that same word when his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” got to be a big hit. I called him and said, “Cole, there’s a mistake in the sheet music for that song. Shouldn’t it be ‘I’ve Got You Under My Hide?'” He got a laugh out of that. Now, that too is a very sophisticated song. It doesn’t follow the pattern of most popular songs, any more than “Night and Day” does. Of course, Cole also wrote what I’d call “lighter” songs, ones like “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes.” It’s sad to think about what happened to him—that terrible horse-riding accident, and how it crippled him for the rest of his life.

 

Robert Russell Bennett points out that Cole Porter was a Yale graduate and a formally trained pianist but that you graduated from Hester Street, and you taught yourself to play the piano. Did you teach yourself when you were a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in the Bowery?

Basically, yes. And I say “basically” because Mike Salter, who owned the Pelham, played by ear on the black keys. After-hours, around 4:00 in the morning, I started picking out notes on the black keys too, first with one finger and then one hand and then I picked up some basic chords with the left hand. But I can only play in the key of F-sharp unless I use a transposing piano. Do you what a transposing piano is?

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Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in the early 1900s
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I didn’t until I watched you demonstrate how one of those pianos work on the Tony Martin television show. You showed the audience how it worked, and you sang “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

You saw that, did you? That wasn’t my own piano but it was similar to the ones I had. My first one had a wheel instead of a lever to shift the keys.

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Irving Berlin at his Weser transposing piano

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Is it true that you named your reproducing piano “the Buick”?

Yes. I drove a Buick at that time. The lever that shifted the keyboard was like the gearshift in that Buick. 

 

When you opened the Music Box Theater, there was a lot of skepticism in the newspapers about whether it would succeed. Is it fair to say that you had a lot at risk when you built the theater?

I had a hell of a lot at risk! The newspaper men said there were already too many theaters on Broadway, and that the Music Box would never attract much of an audience. But I put on four revues there, a new one each year, and they were all big hits. I also had the confidence of George [M.] Cohan, and I always trusted his opinions. George knew Broadway like nobody else.

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The Music Box in the 1950s

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Where would you place George M. Cohan among songwriters?

He wasn’t just a songwriter, he was a Broadway star, so you have to take that into consideration. He did everything—he was a dancer, a singer, and a songwriter. He didn’t write that many songs, all in all, but the ones he wrote were hits. Who doesn’t know “Give My Regards to Broadway”? Who doesn’t know “Over There?” That song helped us win the First World War!

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George M. Cohan, from the September 1910 Victor catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

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There are some singers to whom you have given songs that are among the best-loved songs in all of American music. I’d like to ask you about the songs and the singers. Kate Smith will be forever associated with “God Bless America.” Did you write it expressly for her?

No, I didn’t write it for her, but I picked her to introduce it because she was just right for it. She has a big, gorgeous voice, and she sings songs—my songs, anyway—exactly as they’re written. She doesn’t take liberties with the music like so many singers tend to do. Anything that Kate sings, everybody in the balcony is going to hear every word because she has the best diction, and the most natural voice.

 

You wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” expressly for Ethel Merman, isn’t that correct?

Well, yes, the whole part of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun was [written] for Ethel. She was a veteran by then, of course—she had done Girl Crazy, among other shows, and I had known her for a long time. Like Kate [Smith], when you give Ethel a song, everybody in the theater is going to hear every word. She’s always been one of the hardest working performers in show business..

 
Original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun

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People don’t know this about Ethel, but she’s very, very organized. Ethel is a compulsive “lister.” She used to be a secretary, I think, or did some kind of office work where she learned how to write in that special code that secretaries write. I can’t think of the word for it right now.

 

Perhaps you’re thinking of “shorthand”?

Yes, that’s it, shorthand. She makes lists of everything she needs to do every day, and she crosses them off one at a time until she’s done. She learns lyrics that same way—she writes them out, over and over, until she learns them.

 

Just as “God Bless America” will always be associated with Kate Smith, “White Christmas” will be forever associated with Bing Crosby.

Yes, but with Rosemary Clooney too, since they sang it together in that movie [Holiday Inn].

 

Do you think that the fact “White Christmas” is not a traditional carol—that is, not a religious but a secular song—is one of the reasons why it’s so popular?

I can’t say. To me, being Jewish, I never thought of Christmas in religious terms. I think of it as an American holiday, and I wrote “White Christmas” as a holiday song. The same with Easter. Of course, Easter is a very important time for Christians, just as Passover is for Jews. But when I wrote “Easter Parade,” I was writing about an American holiday, just like I wrote “White Christmas” about a holiday.

 

Is Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” your personal favorite?

Well, it’s the one most everybody knows. What I don’t like about it is that he didn’t sing my verse. I worked goddamned hard on that verse. Judy Garland always did [the verse] when she sang “White Christmas.” But Crosby certainly did well by me with “White Christmas.”

 

Is it true that you didn’t think “White Christmas” would be the hit that it became?

I had another song in that same revue that I thought would be the hit: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” I really thought that would be the bigger hit.

 

Which brings me to the next singer I want to ask you about: Fred Astaire.

A lot of people don’t think of Fred as a singer because it’s his dancing that he’s famous for. He has always been kidded about his voice being too light, not big enough and such. When he and his sister [Adele] were in vaudeville—and they were in big-time vaudeville—nobody had any trouble hearing Fred. What I like the most about him is that he sings a song exactly the way it’s written, and he has great diction. You hear every word of the verse and the refrain when Fred sings one of your songs.

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Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire, 1948

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If I may ask, there are said to be singers—not just singers but instrumental performers too—whom you have had trouble with because unlike Fred Astaire they didn’t stay with the song as you wrote it and added some “flourishes” of their own. Is that true at all?

Why don’t you tell me if I had trouble with any singers or any other performers? Which ones did I have trouble with supposedly?

 

One was the theater organist Jesse Crawford. From what I’ve heard, you were very displeased with his recording of “Remember” because he made a change to a song that was very personal to you because you wrote it for Mrs. [Ellin] Berlin.

That’s half-true. The part that’s true is that he changed a chord in the song—the chord for the word “said” in “the night you said ‘remember.'” He played the wrong chord, and he did it because he preferred the chord he played rather than the chord I wrote. I called the guy who was running Victor at that time—his name was Shilkret, Nat Shilkret—and I raised hell about that change but Victor didn’t make Crawford do the record over again with the right chord. But I have to say, though, that Crawford made some fine records of my songs. I remember “At Peace with the World” in particular. I like the way he played it.

 

You said the story was only half-true. What was the half the wasn’t true, if I may ask?

Oh—yes, I forgot to finish what I was saying. The part that isn’t true is that I wrote “Remember” for Ellin. I wrote some waltzes for her that I’m very proud of, but “Remember” wasn’t one of them. I mean, I didn’t write it for her personally.

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Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay c. 1929

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Another performer whom you’re said to have had trouble with is Rudy Vallée over “Say It Isn’t So,” which you gave him to introduce on radio.

Yeah, I did, because when he sang it the first time he made a change in the melody. Instead of singing the line “say it isn’t so” the way I had written it, he sang the word “isn’t” two notes higher, which ruined the effect of the song. After that, I had a little talk with him and he never did that again. He did well by me, especially in the score for the movie “Second Fiddle,” and except for that one incident with “Say It Isn’t So,” he sang my songs exactly the way I wrote them.

 

On his [Columbia] recording of “Say It Isn’t So,” he sings the verse you wrote, which to me gives the refrain its full meaning in my opinion.

Let me hear you do the verse.

 

Well, I can’t sing it, but I can recite it: “You can’t stop people from talking / And they’re talking, I hear / And the things they’re saying / Fill my heart with fear / Now, I could never believe them / When they say you’re untrue / I know that they’re mistaken / But I want to hear it from you.”

You know why I gave it to him? He had just gone through a very bad divorce from his first wife [Faye Webb], who had left him for somebody else. So it was a perfect fit for the situation he was in—and he made it a hit.

 

Do you have a favorite version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”?

There have been so many, but the one I like the most is the one Kate Smith did in her [1963] concert at Carnegie Hall.

 

There have been hit recordings of many of your songs in which the singer or the bandleader turned the song into something very different, I suspect, from what you had in mind. I’m thinking of the recording of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey.

I hate that goddamned record, and I told off that stupid fucking Dorsey about it! I put that in the same trash can with that son of a bitch Presley ruining “White Christmas”! Oh, don’t get me started on Presley and that rock-and-roll shit!

 

Did you write “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” especially for John Steel? And was his performance like the one Dennis Morgan sang in The Great Ziegfeld?

That song was interpolated in the Follies, and John Steel was the one who sang it, but I didn’t write it for him. In the actual Follies, the song was set on a large staircase—staircases were a Ziegfeld trademark—but it wasn’t on the scale of the [staircase] in that movie. But Dennis Morgan did the song very well in that film. I take that back—he mimed the song that Allan Jones did for the soundtrack. Dennis Morgan was a baritone, not a tenor, so he couldn’t sing it like John Steel did.

 

Eddie Cantor sang several of your songs. Were you pleased with the way he performed them?

He didn’t do that many of my songs. Well, some in the Follies, but not that many. He was a good showman, and he learned it from the best: Gus Edwards. Do you know who he was?

 

Yes, because of his children’s revues and his eye for budding talent like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Price and Georgie Jessel for his “newboys” shows.

Gus and Will [D.] Cobb wrote some great songs for those kids. You never know how a youngster will turn out as a performer when they get older, but Cantor and Georgie Price and some of the girls in Gus’s shows did well when they got older.

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Georgie Price (left) and Eddie Cantor (right) were among the headliners who got their start in Gus Edwards’ “kid” shows. (Photos from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you include Georgie Jessel among the Gus Edwards “newsboys” who did well as an adult performer?

I don’t like to say bad things about anybody in this business but I don’t know—and I’m not the only one who will say this—I don’t know how Jessel has kept his name before the public. He was in Yiddish theater as a comedian but he was never a big name. All he did were those routines with the telephone calling his mother, but that had been done long before he was doing it. He only had one song that made money—”My Mother’s Eyes”—but it’s such a corny song. It was corny when it first came out.

 

I notice that whenever he’s on television on one of the “talk shows,” he talks about show business as if he was there at the start of it. Mr. Caesar says of him that Jessel trades on nostalgia and that he was nostalgic when he was four years old.

That’s a pretty good line. And I have to say I agree.

 

I have a favorite recording of your great songs, and I believe you personally authorized it. The album is called “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy: The Best of Irving Berlin,” by Jay Blackton’s orchestra and chorus.

I didn’t “authorize” it, but Jay conducted the orchestra for “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and “Miss Liberty,” so he knows what I listen for when I hear my songs performed. So I like that album very much. It’s also the first recording of my song “Colors,” which I wrote a couple years before that album came out.

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Jay Blackton’s “Best of Irving Berlin” LP

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If I may ask you about another of your contemporaries, George Gershwin, there’s a story that he applied for a job at your publishing company, to work as a transcriber and a song plugger. Is that true?

I don’t have any memory of it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did, I don’t remember it. Years later, of course, George and I were very close friends. We were in Hollywood together only a couple of years before he died. Of course, I knew about him when he was working under Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, when he wrote “Swanee” with Izzy [Irving Caesar]. Buddy DeSilva, you know, got [Al] Jolson to listen to “Swanee,” and as soon as Al started singing it, George had a big hit on his hands.

 

You have been quoted as saying that George Gershwin is the only songwriter who became a composer.

Yes, and I meant it. It’s a long way from “Swanee” to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Who knows how far he would have gone as a serious composer if he had lived?

 

One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times is whether the melody or the lyrics come to you first.

There’s really no answer to that. Sometimes I get the melody, and at other times I get a phrase and then the phrase becomes the lyric, and the lyric inspires the melody.

 

Do you ever use what I’ve heard other songwriters refer to as “dummy lyrics” to serve as place-holders until you work out the melody?

I’ve never used “dummy lyrics.” Some songwriters do, and occasionally they become the permanent lyric. Victor Herbert wrote a “dummy lyric” for “Kiss Me Again,” and when he looked at it again, he decided to keep it: “Sweet summer breeze / Whispering trees”—that was a “dummy lyric.” Izzy [Irving Caesar] probably has the most famous of all “dummy lyrics” in “Tea For Two” to Vincent Youmans’ melody—“Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two, and two for tea.”

 

Do many songs come to you fully formed?

No—none of them. I’ve sweated my way through all of them. That’s just the way I work. Some songwriters work from noodling on the piano until they get something. Gershwin did that because he was a hell of a pianist, and he was an educated musician. But I don’t have any training, and I can’t always play what I hear in my head.

 

Mr. [Robert Russell] Bennett told us that you hear the chords in your mind, and that he would play variations on a chord until you told him that he had played the one you were hearing in your mind.

That’s right. That’s especially true of “Remember.” In my mind, I could hear the chords I wanted for the melody, but I couldn’t play them myself, so he played variations on the chords until I heard the ones that were in my mind. That’s why the change that [Jesse] Crawford made on that record bothered me so much.

 

So much has been written about you, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s biography of you in 1925. Do you regard his book, The Story of Irving Berlin, as the definite account of your life?

Up to that year, yes, but there are parts of it that are a little exaggerated.

 

You have never considered an autobiography?

Every publisher in New York has offered me big money, really big money, to write an account of my life, but I wouldn’t do it then or now for any amount of money. I like to let my music speak for my life.

 

If you were to choose a biographer today, who would be among the top contenders from your standpoint?

The only one I would count on is Ed Jablonski. Ed is one of my long-time “telephone friends.” Miles Krueger says he wants to write a book about me, and so do others, but they’ll want to psychoanalyze me, and I can’t stand that kind of a book.

 

Do you recall the feature article called “Blue Skies to You, Irving Berlin,” by Tom Prideaux in Life Magazine?

Yes—that was a very nice article. Tom is another one of my “telephone friends.”

 

That article was published a week before your 80th birthday, which was celebrated on television on the Ed Sullivan show. Were you pleased with that telecast?

That was quite a night, and Ellin [Berlin] and I and our daughters and their families were very happy with the cast and the songs that were performed on the show.

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Ed Sullivan celebrates Irving Berlin’s 80th birthday

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The story of your courtship of the lovely lady who became Mrs. Irving Berlin has been told and re-told, and there are parts of the re-telling that I’d like to ask you about but I’m very reluctant to intrude into that part of the past. But may I ask one question that concerns your music?

If it’s about my music, go ahead and ask me.

 

The great waltzes that you wrote during that period—“All By Myself,” All Alone,” “Remember,” “What’ll I Do?” and of course “Always”—are interpreted as musical reflections of what was going through your mind and heart while the two of you were being kept apart. Is that true?

[Author’s note: Regarding “All By Myself,” I was waiting for him to say, “Kid, it’s a fox trot, not a waltz!” or something harsher after I realized I had made a mistake—yet he let it pass.]

You already asked me about “Remember,” and I told you I didn’t write that one for her. The others you mentioned I would say are yes and no. “All By Myself” was before Ellin—I wrote it for one of the Music Box Revues. In that one, as I’ve had to do with one or two other songs, I had to update the lyrics. Originally, I wrote “I sit alone in my cozy Morris chair / So lonely there, playing solitaire.” But when Morris chairs went out of fashion, I changed that line to “I sit alone with a table and a chair / so lonely there, playing solitaire.”

 

Am I correct that you also updated some of the lyrics of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?

Yeah, that’s another one. It was set in Harlem, so I wrote, “Have you seen the well to do / Up on Lennox Avenue,” but when Fred Astaire did it I changed “Lennox Avenue” to “Park Avenue.”

 

Returning to the songs you wrote when you were courting Mrs. Berlin, was “What’ll I Do” one of them?

No, “What’ll I Do” was before I met her. In fact, when I did meet her, which was at a party that a woman named Frances Wellman, a friend of mine who happened to be a friend of hers, [Ellin] said to me that she loved my song “What Shall I Do.” I had to tell her that the name of the song was really “What’ll I Do.” You see, she’s very educated—she went to all the best private schools—so to her the title of the song had to be “What Shall I Do.”

But all the others you mentioned, and especially “Always,” which was my wedding gift to her, were written about her. But I wasn’t in some kind of love-sick depression during that time. Between 1922 and 1925, I wrote a lot of songs that did well and they had nothing to do with my life. They were for revues, for shows.

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Marriage certificate for Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay,
January 1926

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Back to the Ed Sullivan telecast of your 80th birthday, did you have any input in the musical selections he chose for the program?

Ed asked me for my opinion about the songs and some of the arrangements that [orchestra conductor] Ray Bloch used. And Ed asked me what I would like to have as a finale, so I chose “God Bless America” and I sang it myself, with a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They get the royalties from that song, you know.

 

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but at the very end of the show, when you were in a close-up with Mr. Sullivan and he was paying tribute to you on your birthday, you made a wonderful comment.

Yeah? What did I say?

 

When that huge birthday cake was wheeled onto the stage, Mr. Sullivan said that the entire program was one of the most memorable in all his years on the air. You said, “Well, Ed, you’ve got to admit that I’ve given you some pretty good material to work with.” That was a priceless understatement! And speaking of birthdays, today is May 8, and three days from now will be your birthday. May we close with wishing you a very, very happy birthday!

I wish I had written “Happy Birthday.” Can you imagine the royalties I’d have? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve done pretty well.

.

 

__________________

Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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Enjoy 41,000 Vintage Recordings Free at i78s.org

Enjoy 41,000 Vintage Recordings Free at i78s.org

 

Vintage-record enthusiasts have cause to celebrate with the recent launch of i78s.org, created and hosted by David Giovannoni. Many of you know David for his role in recovering the Scott Phonoautograms (which pre-date Edison’s first recording by nearly two decades) and other important work in the field of early recorded sound.

At the moment there are more than 41,000 digitized discs and cylinders on the site, from David’s own eclectic collection and those of several other advanced collectors, and that number will no doubt increase as others come onboard. You’ll find some exceedingly rare, unusual, and even one-of-a-kind recordings here. Offerings run the gamut from popular mainstream hits to the virtually unknown or just-plain-weird.

Registration is simple, requiring only a valid e-mail address and a password. No personal information is required, and there are no third-party cookies, trackers, spyware, ads, or other such nastiness. Plus, it’s free.

Once you’re registered and logged in, you’ll find a well-designed and relatively intuitive interface. Be sure to take the video tour, on which David walks you through the various screens and reveals some features and settings that might not be immediately apparent. One setting, for example, allows you to switch between three display modes tailored to users with different needs, from those who just want to stream some tunes, to us hardcore types who like to delve into discographical and historical minutiae.

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You can customize your i78s experience through
an array of special settings.

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Navigation is easy once you’ve familiarized yourself with the layout and features. There are multiple search options, and results appear in a menu on the right side of the screen.

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Multiple options make it easy to browse or search the 41,000+ recordings that are currently posted.

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Once you’ve located a record you’d like to hear or know more about, just click on the link, and a window will open on the left side of screen. The upper portion has two tabs by default, one to display the discographic data, and one to display a high-quality label scan. A nice bonus, for selected records, is a third tab marked Supplemental Materials, which displays ancillary items like record sleeves and original documents or advertisements.

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The Supplemental Materials tabs, available for selected recordings, allows you to view ancillary materials like record sleeves, original ads, and related documents.

 

To stream your chosen selection(s), simply click the arrow icon in the lower left-hand panel. You can also save selections to a custom playlist. Transfers have been made at the correct playing speed, which (as most advanced collectors know) often is not 78 rpm — the sort of expertise and attention to detail that’s lacking in similar sites managed by hobbyists or librarians, rather than by experts in the field of early sound recordings.

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Clicking on an item from the search results opens a panel displaying discographical information and label images. Audio files are launched or added to your playlist in the bottom panel, which also allows you to change the playback speed and switch between flat and processed audio mode.

 

An especially useful feature is the ability to switch between flat and processed audio files. For purists and masochists, the flat file reproduces every snap-crackle-and-pop in glorious detail. But if you’re more into enjoyment, the default Processed Audio option removes the worst of the noise, without altering the original sound quality. The transfers are very cleanly done and, for the most part, made from records that are in decent condition considering their age and, in many cases, extreme rarity.

I could go on, but instead, let me urge you to jump over the site ASAP, and start enjoying all the features this remarkable resource has to offer.

—Allan Sutton

Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are Now Available Online

Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are
Now Available Online

 

A Growing Treasure-Trove of Historical Documents Is Now Easily Accessible to Researchers and the Phono-Curious

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Thomas Edison at his New Jersey mining operation

 

For vintage-record and phonograph collectors of a certain age, Raymond R. Wile is a legendary name that needs no introduction. For younger folks, or those who are newer to the field: Ray was among the foremost experts on the early U.S. phonograph and recording industries in general, and Edison in particular. His long-running series of articles in the ARSC Journal set new standards for research in the field.

Ray’s work was based on his astonishing archive of primary-source documents, painstakingly sought-out and copied long before the Internet made such quests considerably easier. At the time of his death several years ago, there was the inevitable question of where this invaluable (and massive) collection should reside.

Realizing that donating the collection to a large institution would probably be condemning it to a black hole — as happened to the late Jim Walsh’s materials at the Library of Congress, which left them uncatalogued for years, and has yet to make them available online — the family made the wise decision to hand  custodianship to a private individual with expertise in the field, who would contractually agree to curate, index, and make the materials easily available to the public, online and free of charge, within a reasonable time.

The individual selected was Ryan Barna, who many of you know from his Phonostalgia website, Archeophone program notes, and other writings — and it’s proven to be an excellent choice. Ryan has been doing a remarkable job of sorting, scanning, and posting these invaluable documents, beginning with selected court cases (oh, how those early companies loved to sue each other!), internal Edison documents, and other materials that are not readily obtainable elsewhere.

To date, Ryan has posted 200 documents on the Internet Archive site, and that’s just the beginning. CLICK HERE to access the currently available documents, or Google “Raymond R. Wile Research Library.” Be sure to check out the site and show your support for the important work Ryan is doing.

 

First Batch of Additions and Revisions to “The International Record Company Discography” (2nd Edition)

First Batch of Additions and Revisions to
The International Record Company Discography
(2nd Edition)

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The first additions and revisions to the newly posted International Record Company Discography have already arrived, from Scott Vaughan, thanks to whom we can remove Excelsior [X] 2060 from the “untraced” list. The selection is “If Mister Boston Lawson Has His Way” (from George H. Cohan’s “Little Johnny Jones”), shortened on the label to simply “Boston Lawson.” There is no artist credit, but Billy Murray is readily recognizable:

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Excelsior [X] 2060
BILLY MURRAY: If Mr. Boston Lawson Has His Way

Image and MP3s courtesy of Scott Vaughan

_______________________________

 

Other additions and an important revision from Scott, all confirmed from his submitted scans and/or MP3 files:

 

340 — The correct selection is actually “My Maryland,” a march composed by W. S. Mygrant, despite labels that read “Maryland, My Maryland.” (The latter is the state song of Maryland, which uses the melody to “O Tannenbaum,” a.k.a. “Oh Christmas Tree,” and which is interpolated midway through Mygrant’s piece):
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1576 — A copy of Central 1576 labeled for this title  actually uses Excelsior 340 (see comments above).

 

3148 — Also on Excelsior 3148, credited to Wm. Fredericks on the label. (Other inspected labels by this artist spell the name Frederichs. Does anyone know who this was, and which is the correct spelling?)

 

3175 — Also on Excelsior 3175

 

3207 — Also on Excelsior 3207

 

These revisions will be added to the permanent discography the next time we update the file, probably within the next month or two. Verifiable additions and corrections to all of our online discographies are always welcome and can be e-mailed to:

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Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan: After the Fall (1921 – 1936)

Arthur Collins & Byron G. Harlan:
After the Fall (1921 – 1936)
By Allan Sutton

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Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan
(Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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At a time when online access to digitized archives was the stuff of science fiction, Ulysses (Jim) Walsh did a remarkable job of chronicling what he called the “Pioneer Recording Artists” for Hobbies magazine, using the limited material available to him. Many of us found our collecting experiences greatly enriched by his columns. They remain enjoyable reading long after his death, even if some of what he wrote doesn’t hold up to close examination. As a popular columnist who relied on colorful tales to keep readers coming back, Walsh often accepted anecdotes as fact without question, provided they suited his narrative, and he tended to embroider the facts to keep the story line going.

A case in point is his account of Arthur Collins’ accidental fall from the stage at the Princess Theater in Medina, Ohio, and his skewed take on the outcome of that event. [1]  Walsh gave the date of the accident as Thursday, October 20, 1921, an error that has been widely repeated in derivative works. But in fact, October 20 was simply the date on which the Medina Sentinel belatedly reported the incident. [2]  As noted in the Sentinel article, it had actually occurred on “Thursday of last week” — i.e., on October 14.

Both accounts have Collins falling into the basement from a stage that had been darkened as part of the Tone Test routine. Walsh has him plunging dramatically through an open trap-door — then, “reeling dizzily…fearfully bloody and almost out of his head … dazedly — almost instinctively,” making his way back up a ladder, with “the trooper’s [sic] instinct that ‘the show must go on.'”  The Sentinel, on the other hand, has him simply falling down a flight of stairs, then being given medical treatment after regaining the stage.

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The Medina Sentinel for October 20, 1921, confirming the date of Collins’ accident as “Thursday of last week” (i.e., October 14).

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So, a minor factual error, and an over over-abundance of purple prose on Walsh’s part, which might be easily overlooked had he not then gone on to thoroughly misrepresent what happened in the wake of the accident, erroneously declaring “For the duration of Collins’ illness, the Collins-Harlan partnership was broken up…”

That was not the case; Collins made a quick recovery, and one week after the accident, the team was back on the road, which is where our survey of the team’s advertising and press coverage, post-fall, begins.

..

Collins makes a quick recovery: The Zanesville Tone Test was presented on October 21, 1921, one week after the accident in Medina.

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The Zanesville Time-Recorder commented on his steady stride and the “virile quality” of his voice at the October 21 Tone Test). With Collins apparently in passable health, the team went on to complete their tour, wrapping up in late November. After a month-long break, they went back on the road in early 1922, reaching California in February.

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Collins & Harlan in Visalia, California (February 1922)

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Harlan seems to have first ventured out on his own in the spring of 1922, when he was featured on several broadcasts sponsored by Okeh records, minus Collins. At that time, however, the team was still performing together.

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Harlan on the air (New York Herald, April 26, 1922). “Rubalogue” was a coined term for a monologue by a “rube” (or “hick,” in slightly more modern parlance).

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Although Collins and Harlan did little traveling together during the spring and summer of 1922, they recorded duets for Edison in July, August, and September. In the latter month, they hired Palmer Kellogg as their new road manager, apparently anticipating a busy fall travel season.

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From the Fremont, Ohio, News-Messenger (September 6, 1922)

 

A short time later, however, the act split temporarily, for reasons that remain to be determined. Perhaps Collins was experiencing health problems, albeit not necessarily related to his accident, which was now nearly a year behind him; all that is certain is that there was a sudden dearth of press coverage devoted to him. Whatever the cause, Harlan took the road with a widely publicized new solo act in the autumn of 1922.

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Harlan and his own company on tour, minus Collins (Coudersport, Pennsylvania, November 1922)

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Collins and Harlan reunited in the late spring of 1923. They returned to the Edison studio on July 25, but recording was now only an occasional undertaking for them. Increasingly, their old minstrel-show shtick was lost on younger, more sophisticated urban record buyers. They attempted some more up-to-date material for Edison, toning down the racial stereotypes that marred so much of their earlier work, but the records fail to attract much interest. However, their older material remained popular in the small cities and rural areas.

They were soon on the road again, now with their own small company, making grueling cross-country tours of predominantly small-town America. While they continued to perform Edison Tone Tests, they also began staging their own shows in churches, high-school auditoriums, YMCA’s, fraternal halls, movie theaters, and any other venue that would have them. Clearly, given the rigors these tours entailed, Collins was not the broken, infirm man that Walsh made him out to be.

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Together again: Collins and Harlan in St. Louis in October 1923, on the first leg of a tour that would take them as far west as Utah.

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Collins and Harlan wrapped up their 1923 western tour in the final days of that year. This ad for their appearance in Provo, Utah, ran on December 16.

 

The team had barely time to catch their breath from their last 1923 tour before again heading west. They arrived in California in January 1924, then worked their way back east during February, with stops in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado. March and April were spent touring Pennsylvania, followed by sporadic appearances in the Middle Atlantic region during the spring and summer. A new feature had been added to the act — they would now make and play instantaneous recordings on stage, of themselves as well as aspiring local artists, using a process that remains to be discovered.

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The early 1924 western tour: Collins and Harlan in Grand Junction, Colorado (February 1924)

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The on-stage recording sessions were heavily promoted. Presumably they had been approved by the Edison organization, since many were conducted during Tones Test appearances. At least one ad made the misleading suggestion that these were Edison trial recordings that could lead to “fame and fortune” for the performers.

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Collins and Harlan in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (May 1924), on their second tour of the year.

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Collins and Harlan and “Company,” as the added attraction at a movie screening in Allentown, Pennsylvania (March 1924)

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Collins and Harlan stayed close to home during the summer of 1924, making only occasional documented appearances in the Mid-Atlantic region. On October 3, they returned to the Edison studio to record the forgettable “Liver and Bacon.” Coupled with “Any Way the Wind Blows (My Sweetie Goes)” on Edison 54123, it would be their last issued record as a team. [3]  A short time later, they embarked on a two-month Tone Test tour of the Midwest, with stops in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan.

A two-month Tone Test tour followed in February–March 1925, playing mostly no-name venues in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Ending in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, it would be their last major tour as a team.

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Collins and Harlan in Hinton, West Virginia, in February 1925, during their final major tour as a team.

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In 1926, Collins retired and moved with his wife to a suburb of Fort Myers, Florida, where he occasionally performed at the local social clubs and reportedly enjoyed tending his orange grove. He died at home on August 3, 1933. Walsh, quoting Mrs. Collins, has him expiring peacefully by her side in a pastoral setting:

“We were sitting on a bench under the trees, talking about a recent trip I had just returned from, when he put his head on my shoulder and quietly passed away.”

The Fort Meyers News-Press reported the event less poetically, although the basic facts are the same:

“After pushing the [lawn] mower, he sat down beside his wife for a minute’s rest and then suddenly slumped to the ground.” [4]

Harlan died at his home in Orange, New Jersey, on September 11, 1936 [5] — in his bath-tub, according to Walsh, who didn’t cite a source for that tidbit (nor have we found one so far).

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Notes

[1] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Arthur Collins — Part III.” Hobbies (Jan 1943), p. 13.

[2] “Edison Artist Nearly Killed.” Medina Sentinel (Oct 20, 1921), p. 1.

[3] Collins is not known to have made any further recordings. Harlan reportedly made unissued experimental recordings for Edison in 1926. His last commercially issued records were made with Steve Porter, for the ultra-cheap Grey Gull chain of labels, in 1928 and 1929.

[4] “Arthur Collins Dies Suddenly; Was Noted as Singer and Actor.” Fort Myers News-Press (Aug 3, 1933), p. 1.

[5] Walsh, Ulysses “Jim.” “Favorite Pioneer Recording Artists. Byron G. Harlan — Part II. Hobbies (Mar 1943), p. 14.

______________

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

 

Keen-O-Phone, Rex, and Imperial Records (1912 – 1918) • New Downloadable Discography

KEEN-O-PHONE, REX, AND IMPERIAL RECORDS
The Complete Discography (1912 – 1918)
.
George Blacker

Edited and annotated by Allan Sutton

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The latest addition to Mainspring Press’ free
Online Reference Library

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The Keen-O-Phone Company was part of the first wave of American vertical-cut record producers in the early 1910s. Too early to market, with little demand having yet developed for vertical-cut  products, Keen-O-Phone suspended operations in early 1914. Its assets were leased by a new company, the Rex Talking Machine Corporation, which took up production where Keen-O-Phone left off.

After a series of financial ups and downs (detailed in the discography’s introductory timeline), Rex was forced to liquidate in early 1917. A group of its stockholders and creditors purchased the company’s assets and resumed operations under the Imperial Talking Machine Company banner. But the new venture fared no better than its predecessor, and after failing in early 1918, some of its assets were acquired by Otto Heineman in preparation for launching his new Okeh label.

Fred Hager retained possession of the masters, which he sold to any unnamed purchaser in the 1930s. They’ve long-since vanished, along with the Keen-O-Phone, Rex, and Imperial files. Therefore, this is a “forensic discography” (an apt term coined by David Giovannoni), a reconstruction compiled from first-hand observation of the original discs, catalogs, and ancillary materials.

George Blacker began work on this project in the 1960s, with support from members of the Record Research group (Walter C. Allen, Carl Kendziora, Len Kunstadt, et al.) and, later, William R. Bryant and his circle of trustworthy collaborators. The completed discography, published here for the first time, has been updated, edited, and annotated by Allan Sutton, with significant revisions and additions contributed by David Giovannoni and Ryan Barna.

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~1 mb)
(Free for Personal Use — Print-Restricted)

This work is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. Sale or other commercial use, as well as any other unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or alteration (including conversion to digital databases or e-books) is prohibited. Please read and honor the conditions of use included with this file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

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Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh Weathersby): Newspaper Highlights, 1892 – 1919

Cal Stewart (Uncle Josh Weathersby):
Newspaper Highlights,
1892 – 1919

 

Of all the pioneer studio artists, Cal Stewart (1856 – 1919) left the most abundant paper trail. Stewart was a master of self-promotion, and unlike most of his contemporaries in the recording business, record-making comprised only a small (if lucrative) portion of his activities.

Stewart spent much of his time on the road, giving recording demonstrations, making free promotional appearances in connection with his records, and mounting traveling theatrical productions complete with orchestra and supporting cast. He also dabbled in the book business, launching his own publishing venture to produce the popular Uncle Josh Weathersby’s Punkin Centre Stories in 1903.

Below are some of the most interesting clippings from Stewart’s long career. Diehard Uncle Josh fans can hear and download more than 170 Stewart recordings (including some rare brown-wax issues) on the University of California-Santa Barbara’s cylinder record site.

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“Happy Cal Stewart” in January 1892, as The Original Jersey Farmer (top); and in January 1897, with his Uncle Josh persona now fully developed.

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From The Phonoscope for February 1899, and probably placed by or for Stewart himself, based upon the lack of a specific record-company affiliation.

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Stewart on the road with his own “capable company and special scenery” (Allentown, Pennsylvania, September 1900)

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Numerous ads appeared in the early 1900s for Stewart’s record-making demonstrations. These examples date from December 1900 (top) and March 1902. This was toward the end of the brown-wax cylinder era, when all that was required to make records was a supply of blanks and an off-the-shelf cylinder phonograph with recording attachment. Note Stewart’s offer in the Bentel ad to make original records to order, a topic ripe for discographic investigation.

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An early announcement for Stewart’s popular book. Despite the  title, it also included many of his poems, which he never recorded. Early editions were printed on heavy, high-quality paper and credited to the Punkin Centre Company of Chicago. Later printings, often on cheaper paper and with less decorative bindings, bore a variety of imprints. (November 1903)

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Stewart’s take on the “rube” stereotype (Minneapolis, July 1906)

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Oakland, California, was one of many towns that claimed a close connection with the widely traveled Stewart. (May 1909)

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Stewart’s “Politics” (top, January 1910) eventually morphed into “Running for Governor” (bottom, November 1913), an elaborate  traveling theatrical production that included five vaudeville acts in addition to Stewart and supporting cast.

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Davenport, Iowa (December 1913)

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Stewart on “naturalness” in acting (Muncie, Indiana, November 1914)

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Making a promotional appearance for his records
(Stevens Point, Wisconsin, October 1916)

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Cal Stewart plays Kansas in April 1919, at Kingman (top) and Lyons (bottom). “Gypsy Rossini” was Rossini Waugh Stewart, his second wife.

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One of Stewart’s last documented public performances
(Hannibal, Missouri, September 24, 1919)

Chicago (December 10, 1919). In a different obituary, cause of death was given as “tumor of the brain.”

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Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)

Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)

 

Joseph T. Pope got his start in show business performing “blackface” routines in small-time minstrel shows. By the early 1900s, he had set out on his own, under the name of Murray K. Hill. (The spelling varied between “Murry” and “Murray” on record labels and in ads and newspaper stories; “Murray” appears to have been the more common spelling, and it was used in his obituaries.)

Although Hill continued to occasionally appear in blackface into the early 1900s, he was much better-known for his topical songs and rapid-fire comic monologues. Attired in tails and an old-fashioned top hat, he specialized in satirizing current events and mangling American history. He wrote his own material, boasting that he operated a “song and story factory.” “The Last Survivor,” a popular vaudeville act introduced in 1908, was based on his early minstrel-show experiences.

Hill traveled widely on the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but his style became increasingly outdated in the ‘teens and early ‘twenties. After making his last nationally advertised tour in 1922, he settled down with his family in Chicago, but still occasionally performed in the Midwest into the 1930s.

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Dayton, Ohio (August 1901)

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Hill recalls his experiences during the Evansville race riots
(October 1906).

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“The Last Survivor,” August 1908: Los Angeles (top), and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (bottom)


Butte, Montana (July 1908)

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Los Angeles (August 1910)

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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 1910)

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Wichita, Kansas (October 1911)

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The San Francisco Call (January 27, 1913)

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Fort Wayne, Indiana (January 1915)

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Wichita, Kansas (January 1915)

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Chicago (October 23, 1942)

 

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Hill recorded prolifically from the spring of 1907 through the spring of 1911, for Columbia, Edison, Indestructible, U-S Everlasting, Victor, and Zonophone (a final Edison cylinder release, in 1914, probably was from an earlier, previously withheld master).  Here’s a small sampling:

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MURRAY K. HILL: A Bunch of Nonsense

Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 16446 (mx. B 8320 – )
Introducing “The Last Survivor” and “In the Good Old Steamboat Days”

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MURRAY K. HILL: The Tale of the Cheese

Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 35093 (mx. C8356 – 3)

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MURRAY K. HILL: A String of Laughs

New York: Listed April 1909
Edison Amberol 101 (cylinder)
Introducing “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”

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MURRAY K. HILL: Don’t Go Up in That Big Balloon, Dad

New York: Listed April 1910
Edison Gold Moulded 10375 (cylinder)

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Ed Kirkeby’s Freelance Artist Bookings (1921 – 1923)

Ed Kirkeby’s Freelance Artist Bookings (1921 – 1923)

By Allan Sutton

 

Wallace Theodore (Ed) Kirkeby is remembered today primarily as the manager of the California Ramblers, one of the most popular and prolific hot dance bands of the 1920s. But he began his career as a freelance talent broker, securing recording sessions for the likes of Fred Van Eps, Arthur Fields, and Charles Harrison.

In 1922, Kirkeby began booking occasional sessions for the Original Memphis Five and the Superior Jazz Band. (These were not the same band, contrary to some discographies; see Mainspring’s Bell and Arto Records: A History and Discography for a discussion of the evidence contained in the Kirkeby materials).

Kirkeby booked his first “Negro recordings” in 1923, with Pathé, using several singers affiliated with Perry Bradford and Clarence Williams. In the meantime, his California Ramblers had begun to attract national attention, and in late 1923 he began dropping his freelance artists to concentrate almost exclusively on the band.

Kirkeby’s 1921–1923 booking activities (excluding the Ramblers sessions) are summarized below. This is not a complete list, but it will give you a good idea of the wide scope of Kirkeby’s work in the three years before the Ramblers zoomed to national prominence. His logs (of which Mainspring Press owns copies that were transcribed and annotated by Perry Armagnac in the 1950s, under Kirkeby’s personal supervision) also provide valuable insights into how studios were booked or leased, and how masters were shuttled around, during the early 1920s.

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A. C. GILBERT CO. (Bob-O-Link children’s records, by NYRL)

Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921

 

THE AEOLIAN CO. (Vocalion)

Broadway Quartet, 1922; Everett Clarke, 1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Melody Men, 1921; Reed Miller, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922; Shannon Four, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922

 

THE ARTO CO. (Arto, Bell, et al.)

Al Bernard, 1922; Everett Clarke, 1922; Vaughn De Leath, 1922; Arthur Fields, 1921–1923; Arthur Hall, 1922; Sister Harris, 1923; Charles Harrison, 1921–1923; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Harold Miller, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Reed Miller, 1922; George Reardon, 1921; Superior Jazz Band, 1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922; Herbert Wiley, 1922

 

CAMEO RECORD CORP. (Cameo, Muse, et al.)

Arthur Fields, 1922

 

COLUMBIA PHONOGRAPH CO. (Columbia, Little Wonder)

Broadway (probably Stellar) Quartet, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921–1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1922

 

THE COMPO CO.(Canada; Apex, et al.)

Monroe Silver, 1921; possibly others, client listed as just “Canada”

 

CRITERION LABORATORIES (Clarion, Cardial, et al.; also masters for Arto, q.v.)

Vernon Dalhart, 1921; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Van Eps Quartet, 1921

 

EMERSON PHONOGRAPH CO. (Emerson, Regal, et al.)

The Adler Trio, 1921; Everett Clarke, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921–1922; Charles Harrison, 1922; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Fred Van Eps, 1921

 

FEDERAL RECORD CORP. (Federal, Resona, et al.)

Vernon Dalhart, 1921; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Taylor Trio, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921

 

GREY GULL RECORDS (Grey Gull, Radiex, et al., from commissioned masters)

Grey Gull Quartet, 1922; Arthur Fields, 1922; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922

 

INDEPENDENT RECORDING LABORATORY (masters for Arto, q.v, and the Plaza Music Co. group)

Arthur Fields, 1922; Original Memphis Five, 1923

 

J. K. REYNARD STUDIO (masters for Arto, q.v.)

Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921

 

MARKER LABORATORY (masters for Arto, Cameo, et al.)

Arthur Fields, 1922

 

NEW YORK RECORDING LABORATORIES (Paramount, et al.; also masters for Grey Gull, q.v., and the Cardinal group, q.v. at Criterion)

The Adler Trio, 1921; Everett Clarke, 1921; Arthur Fields, 1921; Sam Ash, 1921; Broadway Quartet, 1922; Dorothy Dodd, 1921; Gilbert Girard, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; The Melody Men, 1921; Monroe Silver, 1921–1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921; Van Eps Quartet, 1921; Beaulah Gaylord Young, 1921

 

OLYMPIC DISC RECORD CORP.  (Olympic)

Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921; Fred Van Eps / Van Eps Quartet, 1921

 

PATHE PHONOGRAPH CO. (Pathé, Perfect, et al.);

Frank Banta (accompaniments), 1923; Flo Bert, 1923; Carroll Clark, 1923; Ruth Coleman (“Clarence Williams’ girl”), 1923; Emma Gover, 1923; Fletcher Henderson (accompaniments), 1923; Arthur Fields, 1922; Sister Harris & The Nubian Five, 1923; Charles Harrison, 1921–1922; Mary Jackson (“Negro recordings”), 1923; “Jazz Band” (uncredited), 1923; Lucy Jameson (“Negro recordings”), 1923; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Mitchell Brothers (issued as “McGavock & Tillman”), 1923; Original Memphis Five, 1922–1923; Gladys Rice, 1922; Nevada Van Der Veer, 1921–1922

 

PLAZA MUSIC CO.see Independent Recording Laboratory

 

STARR PIANO CO. (New York studio only) (Gennett)

Arthur Fields, 1921; Charles Harrison, 1921; The (Merry) Melody Men, 1921; Stellar Quartet, 1921

 

STRONG RECORD CO. (masters for Arto)

Original Memphis Five, 1923

 

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Some of these company or studio names look unfamiliar?
You’ll find their stories, along with more than 1,200 other detailed and fully documented entries, in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950 — a limited edition available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

 

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company by Victor Emerson and John Bieling

Recollections of the New Jersey Phonograph Company
By Victor Emerson and John Bieling
Introduction by Allan Sutton

 

Chartered on February 19, 1889, as a licensee of the North American Phonograph Company, Newark-based New Jersey Phonograph was one of the earliest producers of cylinder recordings for entertainment purposes. Officers at the time of its founding included George G. Frelinghuysen (president), N. M. Butler (vice-president), and William L. Smith (general manager). In 1892, Smith was replaced by Victor Hugo Emerson (later of Emerson Records fame), who also served as the company’s recording engineer.

At the time of the company’s launch, the phonograph was being marketed primarily as a dictation machine, with music an afterthought; Edison didn’t begin making musical records for sale on a regular basis until May 24, 1889. New Jersey officials, however, reported difficulties in placing the machines with businesses. In May 1890, William Smith noted that the company was encountering organized opposition from stenographers (who feared losing their jobs to a mechanical contraption), and that many business leases were not being renewed.

The company would prove to be far more successful in the nascent entertainment field. The Phonogram for June–July 1891 listed New Jersey as one of the concerns “active in the securing of musical selections,” and the company itself confirmed in 1892 that it was making original recordings. The Phonogram for December of that year devoted a full page to portraits of New Jersey Phonograph recording artists, who included Will F. Denny, George J. Gaskin, John P. Hogan, Russell Hunting, Len Spencer, and George Washington Johnson.

Following a disastrous fire in the winter of 1892, New Jersey Phonograph moved its offices and studio to more picturesque quarters in a loft above the Armour meat-packing plant at 87–89 Orange Street in Newark. Banjoist Fred Van Eps, who made his earliest known recordings there, recalled, “They had the hams and carcasses downstairs and the records upstairs.”

On February 16, 1893, New Jersey Phonograph was reorganized as the United States Phonograph Company, although it continued to advertise under the New Jersey banner well into the year. [1] Frelinghuysen and Emerson retained their positions and were soon joined by George E. Tewksbury and Simon S. Ott, who had previously been associated with the Kansas and Nebraska Phonograph companies.

Detailed histories of these and all the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and their successors, will appear in American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, coming in 2018. In the meantime, here are the recollections of two men who were there — recording engineer Emerson, and singer John Bieling.

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Victor Emerson
Speech at the American Graphophone Company’s 25th Anniversary Celebration (Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, New York – May 15, 1912)

.The real birth of the musical record business took place in New Jersey. The promoters of the enterprise, in those early days, believed the real commercial value of the phonograph or graphophone lay in its commercial features. [2] I know I was hired by a concern to take charge of the dictaphones [3] they had out at that time, and I was asked by Mr. Charles Cheever to make a report upon the subject, and take a week to do it and not to be afraid to tell the truth about the situation. I thought that with a week’s practice I would be able to tell the truth about it and make my report to Lippincott and Cheever. It was an adverse one, and I know that I lost my job the next day. [4]

I then went to work for the New Jersey Phonograph Company and, with my fair exper­ience with the dictaphone, I  thought that to keep my 15 dollars a week coming in I had better try to get them started on musical features. I was very busy “jollying” capitalists for about a week and figured it would cost about 15 dollars to try the stunt.

The Board of Directors consisted of Nicholas M. Butler (now President of Columbia College), S.S. Batten, President of the First National Bank in Newark, N.J., and George Frelinghuysen. They held a Directors’ Meeting and held that a 15 dollars risk was too great! I told them I would pay the 15 dollars if we lost. They asked me to put up the 15 dollars. I didn’t have 15 dollars, but told them they could take it out of my pay if things went wrong! That was a sure bet because. If it went wrong, I’m sure I would have lost my Job and I would have been in 15 dollars anyway!

They finally consented and I set up ten machines on Market Street, beside the Prudential Building, which they were about to tear down at that time. Just as I had finished setting up the ten machines I heard the most lovely music playing out in the street. The tune was “The Boulanger Patrol.” It was being played by a “mud-gutter band” of four pieces.

I asked the “orchestra leader” to come up in my office as I wanted to talk business with him. He had, evidently, never talked with a real businessman before and was very much embarrassed, but he finally said that he did not want to do that kind of business as he was making money in “the legitimate field” and he did not think it would be worth his while, but I told him that we were “sports,” and he could play sitting down on chairs instead of kicking the “bouquets” in the streets! And he finally said he would play for 3 dollars a day for four men.

All phonograph men are economists — if they were not, they would not be in this business, and so I “Jewed” him down to 50 cents and closed the contract! He played all day, and we made about 2,000 records. These cost us nothing because we got the “blanks,” on credit, from the Edison Works, and we never paid our bills — neither did anybody else — it was merely a habit at that time! I’m sure that the people who bought them from me never paid for them! To my knowledge, there never was a musical record sold before that time, [5] and so we held many “conflabs” and figured out what profits we had to make on those 2,000 records, consi­dering the large investment of 3 dollars!

As I said, they were about to tear down the Prudential Building and a man came over and said it would be a good scheme if I could exhibit a Phonograph over in the Prudential place. He was sure I would make some money out of it. I told him it was an expensive thing to do and he acknowledged it. But finally we rented the place at a cost of about 60 dollars. “Now,” he said, “What about records?” I told him we had some “John Philip Sousa Band” records, that we had made at a very large expense, and that we could sell them at 2 dollars, meaning 2 dollars per dozen. And he said, “All right, here is 24 dollars for twelve!” Well we sold all those records at, practically, 2 dollars and now the great question that concerned us was how to stock them.

I got the Manager to consent to give me 5 dollars of that 24 dollars and let me buy a cabinet. I went to a junk store and bought a second-hand kitchen closet. It had a nice, large, fat chop in it, which quite considerably increased the assets of the Company! At the same time gave us something to eat — if the worst came to the worst! The only other expense was 10 cents for chloride of lime; and we stocked those records. I thought it was fun to have a “Grand Concert” up in my office, and when the stock got low, I said to Mr. Smith we had better make some more. He asked “How many have you got left?” and I said “Six.” He said, “Well, gracious me, wait till we sell them all!”

The next great artist we had was George W. Johnson, the composer of “The Whist­ling Coon” and “The Laughing Song,” and I think that the phonograph companies have made more money on those two records than on any other two records in their catalogues. [6] I con­tracted with Johnson to sing at 25 cents a song and kept him busy all day and all night. But the price of whiskey went up at about that time, as you will remember, and it was the same problem then as now, you must give a man sufficient money so that he can live and have the necessities of life. So George “struck,” and I had to bow to the yoke!

Our next artist was [George] J. Gaskin. He was the leader of the Manhattan [sic: Manhansett] Quartet. He, very fortunately, broke his contract just as we were perfecting our duplicating machine. I want to say, by way of diversion, that this duplicating machine was originally invented by Frank Capps. He used to go in a shop parlor, in Chicago, borrow a record, take it home and duplicate it, and would return the other record, but in another color! That looked sus­picious to us and we traced him up, and found him climbing telegraph poles near Pretoria, Illinois! We bought him out and started him manufacturing duplicating machines for us.

But what I want to say about Gaskin is that he told me, one day, that he had a new quartet and that he was going to put it on the market and bust our business. Says he, “The very name will do it!” And I asked, “What name?” and he said, “The Mozart Quartet.” “Mozart, you know,” he added, “was a great musical “‘moke.’”

Well, gentlemen, from that beginning we ran into a business of probably 500,000 records per year in a short time, and I  would have done a large and profitable business were it not for the fact that Mr. Easton [president of the Columbia Phonograph Company] started in about that time and used to buy records from me and scooped up all my new customers with my own records. [7] The only thing that kept us alive was that the Columbia Phonograph Company actually did pay its bills and, at that time, it was about the only company that did.

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John Bieling
From “Reminiscences of Early Talking Machine Days” (The Talking Machine World, April 15, 1914)

Some twenty-two years ago I belonged down in the old Fourteenth Ward — born and raised there; around Spring Street and the Bowery. Four of us fellows used to “barber shop” on a Saturday night and Sunday, and by constant practice our voices blended in great shape in the real thing — good, old fashioned melodies and sentimental ballads. The quartet at that time was George J. Gaskin, Joe Riley, Walter Snow and myself. We called it the Manhansset Quartet. In 1892 we had been working together about a year, when one day Gaskin told us about a man named Emerson who was manager of a concern over in Newark, N. J., called the United States Phono Co., [8] who wanted a good quartet to make some records for him.

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1892

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All of us fellows worked in the day time and did our quartet work evenings. I was making stained glass windows at the time and never thought of making a regular profession of singing. Gaskin had to do some tall talking to persuade us to go over to Newark and work till all hours making these records. I assure you we were a pretty nervous quartet. The first time we went there we knew nothing of what was expected of us, but we took a chance.

Over the ferry, the train brought  us into Newark and Gaskin steered us into a loft over some meat packing house about 50 by 100 and 20 feet, littered with machine boxes and barrels in every state of shipping and handling piled up everywhere. [9]

We at last got ready to make our first record, and I assure you a funny sensation came over all of us. They had about nine horns all grouped together, each one leading to a separate machine connected with a piece of rubber hose. The operator then put the soft wax cylinders on the machines and let the recorder down and then said “All right, go ahead.” I assure you I almost forgot to sing when I heard the sizzling noise coming out of the horns. However, we got through with that round fairly well, considering our nervous state, and after that we began to make some records and they sounded pretty good. Well, that was the first time I got real money for singing and I felt like a millionaire going home that night.

We worked contentedly along these lines for about a year, in the meantime holding down my job at my trade during the day. All was serene. When — crash — someone invented a dubbing machine, which meant that they could make any amount of records from a master record, and we could see fewer engagements coming our way with this new scheme.

It certainly gave us a shock when we discovered that this new idea meant that one “master record” could be used to make duplicates until the wax wore out. This is how it was done: They built a machine with two mandrels, one under the other; on one they would put the cylinder with the song on, and on the other a blank cylinder; then start the machine and throw the sound from one to the other without the services of the quartet. It was tragic, but, like all labor-saving devices, it gave birth to a greater field of work to develop records in. Where we formerly sang the same song forty times, now we sang forty different selections, satisfying the rapidly growing market for “canned music.”

By this time our success as a quartet was quite famous, and we worked for all the record making companies then doing business. About this time, say 1895, we used to go over to Philadelphia and sing about once a month for a man named Berliner, a quiet, modest little German, who had us work in his little attic workshop and register our selections on a flat matrix…

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[1] Not to be confused with the much later U.S. Phonograph Company (Cleveland), the manufacturers of U-S Everlasting cylinders.

[2] Emerson here is referring to the phonograph’s use as a dictating machine, rather than as entertainment device. Each use  had its advocates, who often worked at cross-purposes during this period. The Texas Phonograph Company went so far as to ban any demonstrations of the machine’s musical capabilities in its Dallas offices and show-room, for fear of driving away potential business clients. Those wishing to hear a tune (for a fee) were directed to the company’s separate phonograph gallery, in an adjacent building.

[3] This is a generic reference to phonographs intended for business dictation, rather than the actual Dictaphone machine. “Dictaphone,” with a capital “D,” was not registered as a trademark until September 1907, by Columbia.

[4] The events referred to in the opening paragraphs occurred during early-to-mid 1892. Emerson resigned from United States Phonograph (New Jersey’s successor) in January 1897 to accept a recording engineer’s position with Columbia. Several associates followed him, helping themselves to some U.S. masters on their way out.

[5] Emerson is mistaken here. Edison had been selling musical cylinders since the late spring of 1889, followed by Columbia in early 1890. The reference to “2,000 records” is to individual copies, not the number of titles recorded.

[6] A pioneering African-American recording artist, George Washington Johnson’s main recorded repertoire consisted of approximately a half-dozen songs, which he repeated for numerous companies well into the early 1900s. Although Johnson’s records were very popular, it is unlikely that sales ever approached this level, given their relative scarcity today as compared to other surviving records of the period. Unfortunately, sales figures do not exist that could prove or disprove Emerson’s claim. Johnson didn’t compose “The Whistling Coon” as Emerson states, but he recorded it so often that the song became inextricably linked to him in the public’s mind.

[7] Emerson is referring here to master recordings, which Columbia purchased and duplicated for sale under its own brand. The copying of other companies’ recordings (done legally in this case, but not always in others) was a common practice during the brown-wax era.

[8] Successor to the New Jersey Phonograph Company. At the time the Manhansett first recorded, the company was still operating under the original New Jersey name.

.

________

VICTOR EMERSON went on to serve long and well as Columbia’s chief recording engineer and a key figure in the development of the Little Wonder record. He resigned from Columbia in 1914 to launch the Emerson Phonograph Company, which despite its initial success, was bankrupt by 1921. Forced out in the reorganization that followed, Emerson retired to California, where he died on June 22, 1926.

JOHN BIELING, although he never attained any great popularity as a soloist, continued to record prolifically as a member of various studio ensembles, including the Haydn (a.k.a. Edison Male) and American (a.k.a. Premier) quartets. After experiencing throat problems in 1913, he gave up singing to work as a traveling Victor salesman, then opened his own record store. Beginning in 1946, he hosted an annual reunion of pioneer recording artists. He died on March 29, 1948.

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Annotations ©2017 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. The Emerson and Beiling excerpts are in the public domain and may be freely reproduced.

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Update • The Zonophone Records Victor Herbert Didn’t Make (1900 – 1904)

A preliminary version of this article appeared on the Mainspring Press website in April 2011. The events surrounding this case should already be familiar to well-read collectors [1], but until now, Universal Talking Machine’s actions following the decision have not been explored in a systematic manner.

In the time since the original article was posted, we’ve been fortunate in acquiring the late Bill Bryant and associates’ unpublished discography of seven- and nine-inch Zonophone records, which sheds new light on how the company handled the situation after being ordered to withdraw its bogus (but highly popular) “Victor Herbert’s Band” records in early 1904.

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msp_zono-1565

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A group advertised as “Victor Herbert’s Band” was prominently featured in the early Zonophone catalogs. The name was in regular use by late 1900; Zonophone’s October 1900 sales bulletin (the earliest we’ve located so far) listed twenty-three selections credited to the band, three of which were accompaniments to singer Bert Morphy. [2]

What buyers of those records didn’t realize — and many collectors still don’t realize today — is that neither Victor Herbert nor his band had anything to do with them.

Based upon testimony later presented at trial, the records were actually made by the 22nd Regiment Band of the New York National Guard, and this apparently was where the Victor Herbert claim — tenuous though it was — originated. Herbert had conducted this band during the 1890s, which for a time was billed as “Victor Herbert’s 22nd Regiment Band.” [3] But he left that position in 1898, before Zonophone commenced recording operations, to serve as principal conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony. By the time the first “Herbert’s Band” Zonophones were advertised in 1900, Victor Herbert had left Pittsburgh and was touring (but not recording) with a new orchestra that bore his name.
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msp_zono-10-1901_herbert1

A portion of the Herbert listing from the October 1900 catalog.

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By early 1904, Zonophone was offering more than 120 bogus “Victor Herbert’s Band” titles in both seven- and nine-inch versions, occupying three-and-a-quarter catalog pages [4], and Herbert finally took action. In January, he applied to Judge Leventritt, of the New York Supreme Court, for an injunction restraining the Universal Talking Machine Company from using his name “for the purposes of trade.”

Herbert’s suit was based on a recently enacted New York state law that prohibited the use of a person’s name for advertising purposes without prior written consent. In addition, Herbert’s attorney argued, the records were not up to his client’s standards and “tended to lower the estimation in which his music has been held by the public.” Peter B. Olney, Universal’s counsel, opposed the injunction on the grounds that Herbert had long known that his name was being used on Zonophone records, but had not asked the company to discontinue the practice [5]. His argument was rejected.

Action was delayed while Herbert tended to business in the West [6], but on March 3, 1904, Judge Leventritt ruled in Herbert’s favor and granted an injunction [7]. In his ruling, the judge affirmed his belief that Herbert “never gave the claimed permission” for Zonophone to use his name, and also expressed his opinion that the matter could be settled “without controversy” pending a full trial [8]. The injunction was allowed to stand, and it appears that the matter of damages was resolved out of court.

The injunction left a gaping hole in Zonophone’s catalog that the company scrambled to fill. Its initial response was a frenzy of remake activity during the spring of 1904, employing the house band under Fred Hager’s direction. Many of these remakes bear master numbers in the 2300–2700 range, indicating approximate recording dates of April–June 1904. [9]

Remaking the “Herbert” titles would be immensely time-consuming (and in the case of the slower-selling titles, probably unprofitable), so in the interim the company adopted a second, stopgap strategy. The “Herbert’s Band” recordings were not illegal, per se; only the use of Herbert’s name presented any legal problem. Thus, the company resorted to printing new labels, minus the Herbert credit, for use on the existing “Herbert” recordings while the remake work proceeded. The changeover is easy to pinpoint in the Zonophone sales lists. The “Herbert’s Band” records were still proudly advertised in the February 1904 catalog. But in the May 1904 catalog, the same recordings were listed with no band credit. A short time later, a new name appeared that would permanently replace Herbert’s — the Zon-O-Phone Concert Band. [10]

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msp_zono_feb-may-04

Herbert is still credited in the February 1904 catalog (left). The
May 1904 catalog (right) lists the same recordings, but with
no band credit.

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Relabeling did not entirely solve the problem, since the relabeled records still had their original spoken announcements crediting Victor Herbert. Bill Bryant and his associates identified many specimens bearing the new Zon-O-Phone Concert Band labels, but retaining the incriminating “Herbert” announcements. And so, at some point, the company began tooling the announcements off the stampers. Pressings from 9” Zonophone mx. 87, for example, are known with and without the announcement but otherwise are aurally identical. [11]

By the time that Zonophone 7” and 9” pressings were discontinued in 1905, the last of the relabeled “Herbert” recordings had either been dropped from the catalog or been remade by the Zonophone house band, and the scandal soon faded from memory. Victor Herbert and his actual orchestra would go on to make many popular recordings beginning with Edison in 1909, which went to great lengths to assure customers that they were getting the real thing.

— Allan Sutton

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[1] Passing references to the case appear in various early writings on phonograph history. A more detailed account was published in 2010, in the author’s A Phonograph Home (Mainspring Press); and in 2016, Steve Smolian made an excellent ARSC presentation on the subject.

[2] “October Bulletin. Zonophone Records” (October 1900 catalog), unnumbered pp. 2–3.

[3] Gould, Neil. Victor Herbert: A Theatrical Life, p. 119. Fordham University Press (2011).

[4] “The New Universal Zonophone Records” (February 1904 catalog), pp. 3–6. Copy for this catalog would have been prepared in late 1903 or very early 1904.

[5] “Victor Herbert Brings Suit.” Music Trade Review (January 30, 1904), p.40.

[6] “That Zonophone Litigation.” Music Trade Review (February 20, 1904), p. 27.

[7] “Herbert Gets Injunction.” Music Trade Review (March 9, 1904), p. 4.

[8] Victor Herbert v. Universal Talking Machine Company. New York Law Journal (March 3, 1904).

[9] Recording-date ranges has been estimated based upon known recording dates from test pressings of the period.

[10] “Zon-O-Phone Records for May.” Music Trade Review (April 23, 1904), p. 29. Copy for this list would have been prepared in late March or very early April, after the injunction was upheld. The “Zon-O-Phone Concert Band” was simply the house ensemble under Fred Hager’s direction. This was the same Fred Hager who in 1920 gave the go-ahead for Mamie Smith to make what is generally regarded as the first blues record.

[11] Zonophone C 5057 (mx. 87), 9” paper-label issue. In this and similar cases, visual inspection coupled with synchronized aural comparison confirmed that the recordings are identical, aside from deletion of the announcement, and ruled out any possibility that the altered masters are dubbings (Bill Bryant data, Mainspring Press archive). The practice was not unique to Zonophone; Columbia tooled announcements off the stampers it used on its client labels.

__________________________________

Bill Bryant’s Zonophone data (accumulated over several decades, and including submissions from Tim Brooks, Paul Charosh, Dick Spottswood, Jim Walsh, the Record Research associates, and many other reputable collectors and discographers) occupies several-thousand index cards, a large carton of contributor correspondence, and several iterations of Bill’s exhaustively detailed ledger. That information (much of it previously unpublished) has finally been collated and entered into a database in preparation for submission to the online Discography of American Historical Recordings later this year. A print edition is not planned.

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A Gallery of 1898 Recording Artists

These extracts are from an August 1898 Phonoscope feature, “Gallery of Talent Employed for Making Records” (entries without photographs are not shown).

All of the artists pictured were active into the early 1900s, and far beyond in many cases, but Russell Hunting and Steve Porter had the longest and most distinguished recording-industry careers.  In addition to his prolific recording activities, Hunting was the editor of The Phonoscope (the industry’s first trade journal) in the 1890s, and he was still active in the later 1920s as American Pathé’s technical director.

Stephen Carl (Steve) Porter spent several years abroad in the early 1900s, including a stint as a recording engineer with the Nicole company, for which he made ethnic recordings in India and Burma. Upon his return to the U.S. he resumed recording (often in a stereotypical “dumb Irish” role that belied his brilliance), organized and managed the Rambler Minstrels (a popular recording and for-hire act that featured Billy Murray), and successfully filed for patents on various devices, including the Port-O-Phone, an early hearing aid. His activities are covered in detail in Steve Porter: Global Entrepreneur, on the Mainspring Press website.

 

MSP_PS-artists_aug-1898

Uncle Josh Asks for Thomas Edison’s Autograph

An undated letter to Edison studio head Walter Miller from Cal Stewart, requesting an autographed photo of Thomas Edison. The Scott Printing Company in Stewart’s hometown of Muncie, Indiana, was one of several Midwestern printing companies with which he had connections. You can read about Stewart’s publishing activities in “Uncle Josh’s Punkin Centre Stories: Cal Stewart as Author, Publisher, and Entrepreneur,” on the Mainspring Press website. (Photocopy from unknown source, Bill Bryant papers)
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MSP_stewart-cal_edison-lett

Harry Macdonough Recalls his Recording Career (1931)

John S. Macdonald — better known to record buyers as the tenor “Harry Macdonough” — led a dual life. He was one of the best-selling recording artists of the early 1900s, while at the same time working his way up the ladder at Victor, from studio manager to manager of artists and repertoire manager, and eventually, to sales manager. Here are some of his recollections, as recounted to Ulysses (Jim) Walsh in 1931. The letter was written just as Walsh was beginning to undertake the research that would culminate in his long-running “Pioneer Recording Artists” column for Hobbies magazine. For more on Macdonald’s remarkable career (much of which he downplays in his letter), see “Harry Macdonough, Victor’s Singing Executive” on the Mainspring Press website.

BAIN_macdonald-macdonough(Photo from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress. Letter from copies of the
Jim Walsh papers in the Bill Bryant collection, Mainspring Press.)

WALSH-PAPERS_macdonald-1931

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