Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights,
and the World’s Biggest Banjo (1891 – 1923)
Vess L. Ossman (left) and Vess, Jr. (undated photo)
Early mentions of Ossman in the New York papers: December 2, 1891 (top), at which time Harlem was an affluent new suburb; and February 12, 1899. Ruben “Ruby” Brooks made recordings in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Bettini cylinders, but he died in 1906.
Ossman participated in several recording demonstrations that have been documented, including this one for Berliner’s Gramophone on December 16, 1897. Three months earlier, Berliner’s New York studio had been opened rather reluctantly for a similar demonstration in which Ossman also participated, with management declaring, “We have yielded to the demand of popular and scientific interest in the process by which our indestructible Gram-o-Phone records are made.” The demonstration recordings are not known to have been released.
New York (December 1901)
Ossman went to England in the spring of 1900 (top), where he was a hit. He recalled his experiences in January 1918 (bottom).
Ossman in the “talkies” (Salt Lake City, November 1908). The Cameraphone Company was launched in 1908 by Eugene E. Norton, an engineer with the American Graphophone Company (Columbia). The process employed synchronized six-inch cylinder records and Columbia Twentieth Century phonographs for the sound source. (For more on Cameraphone and other early attempts at “talking pictures,” see A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press.)
Another Ossman appearance on-screen (Independence, Kansas, March 1913). These movies were made for Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone, which also employed synchronized cylinders.
A December 1916 El Paso dealer ad for Columbia records by Ossman and “Howard Van Epps” (a typo for Fred Van Eps, Ossman’s only significant rival).
Ossman and company on the road (Scranton, Pennsylvania, January 1917). The Peerless Records Makers were forerunners of the Eight Famous Victor artists, a traveling promotional troupe in which Fred Van Eps replaced Ossman.
In 1918, with his recording career over and his style becoming increasingly outdated, Ossman moved to Dayton, Ohio. He spent the remainder of his career performing in Dayton and other Midwestern cities. The ads above are all from Dayton, published in May 1918 (top left), October 1922 (top right), and December 1921 (bottom).
Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)
Vess Ossman Jr. continued to perform in the Dayton area into the early 1930s; the ad above is from November 1931. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a theater manager.
Ossman’s recorded output was truly monumental. Here are just a few favorites; his “Maple Leaf Rag” was the second recording to be made of that number, preceded only the U.S. Marine Band’s 1906 version.
VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome Intermezzo
Camden, NJ (Johnson factory building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3048 The pianist is uncredited but is likely Frank P. Banta (father of the novelty pianist Frank E. Banta) or C. H. H. Booth, Victor’s house accompanists at the time.
VESS L. OSSMAN: Maple Leaf Rag
New York: Released June 1907
Columbia 3626 (M-1414) With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince
VESS L. OSSMAN: The Buffalo Rag
New York: March 2, 1909
Victor 16779 (mx. B 6848 – ) The pianist is uncredited, contrary to some discographies. Ossman originally recorded this piece for Victor on January 26, 1906 (mx. B 3049).
VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle
New York: Released January 1911
D&R Record 3759 (Columbia mx. 4919 – 1) With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince
VESS L. OSSMAN: Hoop-E-Kack
New York: Released July 1909
Indestructible 1113 (cylinder) With studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle
Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”
The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.
Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of Betsy Loar)
Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.
In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of TheMusical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”
Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.
Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)
Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”
Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.
During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.
Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).
But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version, Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.
SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag
New York: August 24, 1921 (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1) Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.
Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.
Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”
An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)
The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”
By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.
From a 1924 Vocalion supplement
By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.
By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were rejected.
A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of Betsy Loar)
In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.
Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.
Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.
“Blackface” Eddie Ross: A Clipping Archive
(1911 – 1931)
Giraud Ross Eddinger (a.k.a. Eddie G. Ross and “Blackface” Eddie Ross) was among the last of his kind, an old-fashioned burnt-cork minstrel man in an age that was rapidly moving away from such fare. Ross apparently was not Canadian, as some writers have claimed, although he performed there often. He was born in Hillsdale, Michigan, married in nearby Jackson, and lived in Orlando, Florida, for much of his adult life.
A capable ragtime banjo soloist and composer, Ross tested for Edison in 1917 but was rejected. He made four tests for Victor. The first, “Ross’ Dog Trot” (recorded July 18, 1921, with piano accompaniment), was apparently enough to convince Victor, which on August 30 had him remake the title with studio orchestra for commercial release. The recording was made on a “special narrow-groove matrix,” no doubt accounting for its tendency to turn up in stripped-out condition. Ross later made three more Victor tests, in June and August 1922, including a “Whistling Medley” with monologue, the only confirmed instance of anyone having recorded his voice.
Ross made only six issued recordings, all of his own cakewalk-style titles that were already dated but still popular, as apparent sales of his first release (“Ross’ Dog Trot” / “Ross’ Reel”) proved. It’s still one of the most commonly encountered Victors of the period, and in 1927 it was transferred to Victor’s “Historical Catalog,” rather than being deleted entirely in the purge of acoustic material following Victor’s conversion to electrical recording.
Ross’ second release, in 1922 (for which an extra tuba was added to the studio orchestra), is not as frequently encountered. His final Victor, recorded in November 1923 with a more-modern accompaniment by Ross Gorman (saxophone) and Leroy Shield (piano), does not appear to have been a strong seller.
Eddie Ross in Canada (Ottawa, October 1914)
Ross reportedly was touring in vaudeville by 1909. One of his earliest known billings (October 1911) appears above, along with Ross’ wedding announcement, in Jackson, Michigan (June 1911).
With Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels in Corsicana, Texas (February 1918)
Back in Canada, this time on the Pantages vaudeville circuit
(Edmonton, June 1918)
Dealer ad for Ross’ first release (December 1921)
“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Reel
New York: August 31, 1921 (released December 1921)
Victor 18815 (mx. B 25542 – 2) Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Special narrow-groove matrix,” per Victor files.
“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Juba
Camden, NJ: July 5, 1922 (released November 1922)
Victor 18926 (mx. B 26585 – 1) Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Extra tuba [Adolph] Hirschberg,” per Victor files.
Review of Ross’ first release (Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1921)
Ross with the Al. G. Field Minstrels: Jackson, Mississippi (top, December 1926), and in his hometown of Orlando, Florida (bottom, January 1927)
In Orlando (February 1928)
One of Ross’ last documented appearances, with the Al. G. Field Minstrels (Dayton, Ohio, July 1931). He died on November 22, 1931.
Response to the initial Personal Use Edition of the late Brian Rust’s JR-6 (1917-1934) has been so positive that we’re now making the complete work (1897-1942) available free of charge for the benefit of the collecting and research communities, in keeping with Brian’s wishes.
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A 1901 sampler, from Eldridge R. Johnson’s studios. Several of these recordings pre-date Johnson’s creation of the Victor Talking Machine Company, on October 3, 1901. At the time, Johnson and Harry O. Sooy (his chief recording engineer) were producing remarkably well-balanced, forward-sounding masters that were markedly superior (even with the surface noise) to the later thin, tinny “Victor sound.”
METROPOLITAN ORCHESTRA: Plantation Pastimes
Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): March 2, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3163 (-1)
DAN W. QUINN: Ain’t That a Shame
Philadelphia (424 S. 10th Street): November 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3525 (-2) The spoken intro is damaged and has been deleted from this transfer.
DAN W. QUINN: I Ain’t A-Going to Weep No More
Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): February 27, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3149 (-1)
JOSEPH NATUS: The Fatal Rose of Red
Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): February 16, 1901 (?)
Monarch Record 683 (renumbering of Victor Monarch 3114) Natus remade this selection on November 26, 1901. Moran & Fagan’s transcription of the Victor files shows the original version as being used on all renumbered pressings, but this might be in error; the original master was returned as no longer usable on October 3, 1902, pre-dating the 1903–style (sunken-label) stamper used for this transfer.
VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome — Intermezzo
Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3049 (-1)
Studio locations are per Harry Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer at the time. The piano accompanists are uncredited in the Victor files and on the labels. Victor’s usual pianists during this period were C. H. H. Booth and Frank P. Banta (the latter the father of 1920s novelty pianist Frank E. Banta). The occasional speed fluctuations are defects in the original recordings.
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.
Edison Two-Minute and Concert Cylindersis the first study of these records to be compiled from the surviving company documentation (including the factory plating ledgers, studio cash books, remake and deletion notices, catalogs, supplements, and trade publications), along with first-hand inspection of the original cylinders. All American-catalog issues from 1897 through 1912, including the Grand Opera series, are covered.
Unlike previously published guides, which don’t list Edison’s numerous and often confusing remakes, this new volume lists all versions — even indicating those initially supplied by Walcutt & Leeds — along with the listing or release dates and the distinguishing details (changes in artists, accompaniments, announcements, etc.) for each. Plating dates for brown-wax pantograph masters and early Gold Moulded masters, which provide valuable clues to the long-lost recording dates, are published here for the first time.
Other features include composer and show credits, medley contents, accompaniment details, pseudonym identification, an illustrated footnoted history of Edison cylinder production during the National Phonograph Company period, user’s guide, and indexes.
From the Victor monthly supplements (1915 –1916), courtesy of John R. Bolig. Full discographical details of the artists’ recordings from this period, compiled from the original recording ledgers and production cards, can be found in John’s Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 1 (16000 / 17000 Series), available from Mainspring Press and many major libraries.