Gennett Odd-and-Ends • How to Pronounce “Gennett” (1920) / H. Ross Franklin Orchestra Personnel (1922)

We’ve heard “Gennett” pronounced every which-way over the years, and apparently so had the Gennett family, who finally placed an ad in 1920 to set the record straight. Here you have it, from the folks who knew best:

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Muncie [IN] Evening Post, January 16, 1920

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For anyone owning the H. Ross Franklin Orchestra’s Gennett personal record — all two of you, perhaps? — here are the rather obscure personnel (not listed in the American Dance Band Discography and derivative works) who were present at that session on March 6, 1922. This list is transcribed verbatim from The Fort Wayne [IN] Journal-Gazette for April 2, 1922, and probably contains some misspellings:

H. Ross Franklin [piano] directing: Vern C. McDermitt (trumpet); Benjamin West (trombone); Glendon C. Davis (clarinet); Harold D. Smith (alto saxophone); Lawrence G. Pape (oboe); Steward C. Loranze (violin); Edward Melching (banjo); Paul E. Dickerson (brass bass); John Kehne (percussion).

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The Journal-Gazette reported that this session entailed “eight hours of strenuous effort.” A third title, “You Know,” was also recorded, but so far we’ve not found any reliable evidence that it was issued. Let us know if you have a copy, and be sure to include a photo or scan for confirmation. Franklin’s orchestras cut two additional sides for Gennett in October 1928, but both were rejected.

For more on Franklin and several of his musicians, see Duncan Schiedt’s superb The Jazz State of Indiana (Indiana Historical Society, 1999).

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Advertisements for eight-inch Operaphone discs, 1916

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

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

*     *     *     *     *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Coming Up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[15] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Record Marconi Didn’t Invent: The True Story Behind the “Marconi” Velvet Tone Record (1906–1908)

(This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in 2011 on the Mainspring Press website. © 2016 by Allan Sutton)

 

By 1905 the lateral-cut disc record had assumed the basic form that it would take for the next four decades. Brittle shellac-based thermoplastic compounds — basically unchanged since their first use in Berliner’s discs in the 1890s — remained the standard pressing material. The notable exception in the United States was the Marconi Velvet Tone disc, a semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc produced by the American Graphophone Company (Columbia).

 

MSP_marconi-10-12_composite

Ten-inch Marconi issues (left) used their own catalog numbers, which don’t correspond to Columbia’s. Twelve-inch issues (right) used Columbia’s catalog numbers; this example also shows Marconi’s receding hairline, which was retouched (left)
on later printings.

 

Capitalizing on Guglielmo Marconi’s reputation as the inventor of radio, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” in 1906. On August 16 of that year, the New York Times reported that Marconi had sailed for the United States in connection with his new duties. Upon arrival, the inventor was treated to a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s Bridgeport, Connecticut plant, then was shuttled to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, Victor H. Emerson, and other Columbia officials spoke briefly, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work without mentioning how it might possibly relate to phonograph records.

Marconi boarded a ship back to Italy the next day, after telling a reporter for The Music Trade Review that he had not yet given the matter sufficient study to announce any new ideas. Little more was heard of the alliance until February 1907, when Columbia dealers received advance copies of the first Marconi Velvet Tone Record catalog. The records, bearing Marconi’s portrait and facsimile signature, were advertised as “Wonderful as Wireless,” although they used ordinary acoustically recorded Columbia masters.

Marconi, however, apparently had no hand in developing the discs that bore his name. His sole contribution appears to have been allowing Columbia to license his name and likeness. Searches of U.S. and Italian patents have consistently failed to reveal any filings by Marconi that might relate to these discs.

However, on July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — Columbia’s chief engineer, Thomas H. Macdonald, had filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a celluloid playing surface:

 

marconi-patent
Thomas Macdonald’s patent on the “Marconi” disc even specified the embossed pattern that is found on the reverse sides. There is no reference to Guglielmo Marconi anywhere in the patent filing. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

 

Macdonald’s patent wasn’t approved until August 6, 1907, by which time the Marconi discs had already been in production for six months. In the meantime, Columbia’s chief recording engineer, Victor Emerson, had filed his own patent on a disc pressed from a shellac–celluloid compound, which he promptly assigned to American Graphophone. Although it’s certainly possible that this or a similar mixture, rather than pure celluloid, was employed in the Marconi discs, chemical testing would be required to determine if that was the case:

MSP-PATENTS-US_838968
Victor Emerson’s 1906 patent for a hybrid celluloid-shellac disc. Emerson also patented a laminated shellac disc, which Macdonald then refined and patented himself. Assigned to American Graphophone, it became the basis for the familiar Columbia laminated pressings.

 

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the “Marconi” discs. Macdonald specified a flexible paper or cardboard core laminated between two thin sheets of celluloid — one to receive the impression of the sound recording, and the other to receive either a second sound recording or “a roughened surface…covered by fine lines close together and crossing at right angles.” Columbia addressed Macdonald’s claim that needles need not be changed after each playing by marketing semi-permanent gold-plated needles for use with the records.

 

MSP_marconi_notices

Marconi discs carried a large warning sticker on the blank reverse sides. The “fine lines close together and crossing at right angles” specified in Maconald’s patent can be seen on the outer edge.

The surface quality of the celluloid Marconi Velvet Tone Record was indeed exceptional for its day, especially when compared with Columbia’s standard, rather gritty shellac pressings. Columbia was soon manufacturing Marconi-style records for export as well as domestic sales, and even produced some double-sided issues and a few pressings from imported Fonotipia masters.

Sales lagged, however. The records were more expensive than the ordinary Columbia pressings they duplicated, and the surfaces could be badly damaged if played with ordinary steel needles. They tended to slip on the turntable despite the textured reverse sides. Production was discontinued in 1908, and by 1910 the discs were being remaindered by a New York department store for 17¢ each, and a packet of the once-pricey gold-plated needles was given free with larger purchases.

Oddball Record Updates • 1907 Mercury Record; Indestructible Dictaphone Training Cylinder

A couple of unusual special-use records that we’ve not seen before, courtesy of Tim Brooks (Mercury) and David Giovannoni (Indestructible). If anyone has other examples of these, or more information on them, we’d like to hear from you.

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MERCURY RECORD (1907)

MSP-TB_mercury-1907

 

The Mercury Record above obviously has nothing to do with the well-known label that was founded in 1945. It was made by American Graphophone (Columbia) for the Electric Novelty and Talking Machine Company. The company exhibited telegraphic equipment at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, although it was not formally incorporated until April 4, 1905. It was chartered in Jersey City, New Jersey, by George R. Beach (a prominent bankruptcy attorney who served as a receiver in at least two phonograph-related cases), Walter P. Phillips, and Thaddeus R. McCartie.

So, what to make of the Bridgeport address? On closer investigation, Electric Novelty’s official business address (15 Exchange Place, Jersey City) turns out to have been the office of George R. Beach, an unlikely venue for this sort of operation. The consistent use of the Bridgeport address (where Columbia had its factory), and the specially customized “conditions” sticker (below), suggest that Columbia was handling all operations and fulfillment for Beach, or possibly had even closer ties to his company.

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MSP-TB_mercury-1907B

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Numbers embossed under the label are T503-1-1, and M-1700-1-1. Tim notes, “That’s apparently a Columbia ‘M’ number, and it falls into a blank section in Bill [Bryant]’s M-number log. Judging by other M-numbers I would date it as 1907 or 1908, around the end of the period in which M-numbers were used. It’s embossed rather than hand-written like most M-numbers. The record doesn’t seem to have been assigned a standard Columbia number of the period (which were in the 3000s). This would seem to add more weight to the theory that the M-numbers were the true matrix number during this period, and the 3000s were in fact catalog numbers assigned after the fact.”

The copyright filings below, from the Library of Congress’ Catalog of Copyright Entries for July–December 1907, mesh nicely with Tim’s 1907–1908 estimate for the Mercury label:
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MSP_electric-novelty

At the end of 1912, the Governor of New Jersey declared Electric Novelty & Talking Machine to be in default after having failed to pay its 1910 taxes. Apparently things were resolved; the company was still listed as an active corporation in the 1914 register, and the ad above appeared in May 1915. The “Diamond Disk” notation is puzzling; clearly, this was still a Columbia-affiliated venture, based on the photo. Could there have been an Edison Diamond Disc version as well, or was that just an ad writer’s flight of fancy? (We suspect the latter, but will check our copies of the Edison files.)

 

INDESTRUCTIBLE DICTAPHONE RECORD

MSP_DGIO_ind-dictaphone

Many collectors are familiar with Edison’s Ediphone training cylinders, but this is the first such cylinder we’ve seen for the competing Dictaphone. It’s a standard 4″ celluloid Indestructible, with 150 grooves per inch (as was usual for dictating machines; standard “entertainment” cylinders were 100-gpi (two-minute) or 200-gpi (four-minute). Like this example, the first Indestructibles had raised lettering on the rim, suggesting a very early Indestructible master. However, David notes that it has “the look and feel of a late 4-minute Indestructible.” Unfortunately, it didn’t have its original box; has anybody seen one?

 

MSP_dictaphone-gerson_1908

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The Dictaphone began life as the Columbia Commercial  Graphophone, an example of which is shown above, mounted in Gerson cabinet. The Dictaphone name was first registered as a trademark, by the Columbia Phonograph Co., Gen’l., on September 18, 1907; the first Indestructible cylinders were released a little over a month later.

The Columbia–Indestructible affiliation was cemented (for a time, anyway) in 1908, when the former bought the latter outright. There’s much more to that story, of course, which can be found in Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders: An Illustrated History and Cylinderopgraphy (Nauck & Sutton), still available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

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Tales from the Columbia Vaults: The Unauthorized Vinyl “Test” Pressings (1960)

(This article was originally posted on September 17, 2012. We are reposting it, with some minor revisions, in response to many requests.)

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victor_re-pressing

A c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing of Duke Ellington’s 1931 “Creole Rhapsody” (Victor). Obsolete labels were sometimes flipped over and used as blanks on these pressings; this example uses an old Yorkville label from the late 1930s.

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We often see modern, blank-labeled vinyl “test” pressings of very old recordings on auction lists. They’re original-stamper pressings, usually of unissued or extremely rare material, and the surface quality is generally superb. Collectors have long been curious about the origin and legality of these pressings. We recently discovered the answer among the late Bill Bryant’s papers (at least, as far as the Columbia-related pressings are concerned) which includes copies of the late William Moran’s voluminous correspondence with various collectors and dealers.

The “inside job” we detail below was not unique. Someone within Decca, for instance, made large numbers of unauthorized vinyl pressings of rare 1920s jazz material from Gennett and Brunswick-Vocalion masters at around the same time the CBS insiders were pulling unauthorized “test” pressings from old masters by the score. The same happened at RCA, although that company (unlike CBS) allowed such pressings to be ordered legitimately through its Custom Products department, for a rather stiff fee. In addition, during the 1950s and 1960s many new pressings from previously unissued material were pulled at RCA in connection with its “X” and “Vintage” reissue programs. Although supposedly intended for internal use by those involved in the projects, a substantial number seem to have been pressed, based on how many have since made their way into auction lists and collectors’ hands.

This, however, is the first time that such detailed information on unauthorized pressings has surfaced from a company insider. Illegal? Certainly — But whether anyone involved was a villain (other than perhaps the record companies) depends on your point of view. Our take is that those involved performed a valuable service in preserving important historic material that was subsequently trashed and written off by irresponsible corporate owners.

*      *      *       *

In October 1960, a disgruntled CBS employee (who we’ll call “X”) contacted Bill Moran to alert him that the Columbia Records division was house-cleaning its Bridgeport, Connecticut plant and was planning to scrap many of its masters, including its holdings of Fonotipia and other imported recordings, the E- series foreign and ethnic material, and all of the early 16” radio transcriptions.

X’s letters to Moran provide a rare insider’s look at exactly what remained in Bridgeport in 1960. He reported that some “ancient stuff” (including cylinders, cylinder-phonograph parts, and display-model phonographs) still existed but had recently been “removed to some other part of the plant.” The earliest recording files had not survived, and there had been no effort to copy or microfilm what remained; in addition, the files had recently been placed off-limits to outsiders and employees, other than company librarian Helene Chmura, and photocopying was forbidden. The master-scrapping was already under way by the time X wrote to Moran — He reported that the metal parts were being hauled out in bucket loaders, ground up, and sold to a scrap dealer by the ton.

X’s formal recommendation that some of this material be preserved was ignored by management, so in late October he sent a list of endangered masters to Moran, with the suggestion that Moran ask Stanford University to intervene, and hinting that in the meantime he could supply Moran with unauthorized vinyl pressings of virtually anything in the vaults — He claimed he was already doing just that for some Columbia employees. The process is documented in an exchange of letters between X and Moran that began on October 31, 1960. On November 11 he wrote to Moran,

I have been securing test pressings without authority for the past two months. I had to “thread my way” until I could enlist help. Luckily he [the test pressman] is cooperative… I have been limiting my operation to twice a week and taking out parcels only every other week. One week I took out 16 [parcels], last week 19… I have managed to get a few humans in the plant (there are a few) to break regulations for me… I will attempt, over a period of time, to secure for you the materials you desire. These, if I get them, will be gratis.

The process was a complicated one, and it involved many Columbia employees at a time when (according to X) worker morale was at a low ebb. To make the early stampers compatible with a modern press, the metal and composition backings had to be removed and replaced, and new holes had  to be drilled in the stampers, which were then forwarded to the polishing department, from which they were sent to the test pressman. While all of this was going on under management’s nose, X was assuring Moran that he could even have new metal stampers plated for him, if desired.

Moran’s want-list initially included only early operatics, but was soon expanded to include political speeches from Nation’s Forum, rare personal recordings by the likes of Irving Berlin and Booker T. Washington, and even one of the 1908 vertical-cut disc tests (an idea that Columbia ended up not pursuing commercially).

X soon upped the frequency and pressing quantities of his clandestine runs. Many copies were handed out as favors to Columbia employees who were in on the activity, including Helene Chmura, the archive’s highly esteemed librarian. Chmura knew of X’s activities and had warned him to be careful, but reportedly she was happy to accept a group of custom Lotte Lehmann pressings. In November, X told Moran he was looking into ways of supplying him with copies of the restricted files that were in Chmura’s charge.

On November 16, X wrote to Moran, “Last Friday I took out 18 tests, including duplicates, in an open parcel… On Monday Bill [the chief of security] suggested that I not take out so many so often.” He went on to boast,

I have the run of the plant and have taken full advantage of it — women in duplicating will make photostats, Helene will make photocopies; the polisher will prepare masters for pressings… The Chief of Security Police allows me to make off with the records; the librarian’s files are at my disposal.

X promised Moran even larger shipments of the unauthorized pressings in a letter dated November 23:

I’ll send you a ton of pressings if I can discover how this can be arranged… One of the chaps in the Methods & Procedures Office this afternoon told me that he can smuggle pressings out for me if I cannot continue my present methods. These boys have briefcases which never are examined by the bulldogs. I have been furnishing two of these M&P men with records made to order.

A day later, X wrote to Moran to update him on his secret copying of the recording files, reporting that he was “lifting it right out from under [Helene Chmura’s] nose.” And that’s the final letter in our “X” file.

© 2016 Mainspring Press LLC.

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Three ARSC 2015 Awards for Mainspring Press Books: Eli Oberstein, Victor Special Labels, Ajax Records

We’re honored to announce that three Mainspring Press titles have received 2015 awards from the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. Details and secure online ordering are available on the Mainspring Press website.

The ARSC Award for Excellence—Best Label Discography went to Eli Oberstein’s United States Record Corporation: A History and Discography, 1939–1940:

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2015 Certificates of Merit were awarded to The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941; and Ajax Records: A History and Discography:

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ORDER SOON if you’re interested in Oberstein or Victor Special Labels. Both titles have been on the market for a while, so supplies are running low (and in addition, there’s recently been a big library run on USRC). We won’t be reprinting either title once our current supplies are gone.

Sorry, Ajax has already sold out (it was a 2013 title — the wheels sometimes turn very slowly at ARSC), although we might consider reprinting this one if there’s sufficient interest — Let us know.

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

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

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Vox Comes to America, Advertises Chaliapin’s Daughter (1923)

Vox LPs are well-known to classical collectors, but the German company had attempted to enter the American market long before the high-fidelity era. The ads below, from The Talking Machine World for November and December 1923, announced the company’s first arrival in the U.S.

Although Vox made a high-quality record, most of its artists were unfamiliar to the average American. For their early U.S. advertisements, Vox apparently settled on Feodor Chaliapin’s daughter Lydia as the one name that Americans might readily recognize. The recognition factor, probably coupled with some lingering anti-German sentiment, seems have doomed Vox’s attempt from the start. After failing to attract much attention, the Vox Corporation of America was dissolved on March 11, 1927. Vox’s second American venture, launched in the late 1940s, fared far better.

We’ve seen just one example of the a Vox domestic red-label disc (pressed from a foreign master). Although Vox called them “Red Seals” in the ad below, that name was a registered trademark of the Victor Talking Machine Company, and it does not appear on the label of the inspected copy. We’ve yet to see a Vox “Green Seal.” The domestic label design differs markedly from the designs used on Vox’s foreign-made pressings, which were exported to the U.S. for a time and still turn up on occasion.

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Clinton Repp’s Vitaphone Phonograph

Clinton B. Repp’s Vitaphone* machine was an oddity for its day, dispensing with the usual reproducer and hollow tone-arm assembly. Instead, the sound vibrations were transmitted by a solid wooden tone-arm to a stationery reproducer positioned at the horn linkage. Edward Amet had employed a similar idea in his glass-arm Echophone (U.S. patent #562,693, filed in November 1895), but Repp’s was a much more sophisticated design. It was also a universal phonograph, able to play lateral- or vertical-cut discs at a time when the latter were first appearing in the American market:
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Repp’s patent #1,003,655, filed on June 24, 1909, used a cylinder machine for illustrative purposes. We don’t know of any Repp cylinder machines having been produced, but the same basic design was incorporated in the Vitaphone disc machine:
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VITAPHONE_patent The Vitaphone Company launched a nationwide ad campaign in 1911, which naturally caught the attention of Victor’s patent attorneys.  On October 6, 1911, Victor applied for an  injunction, claiming infringement of its Berliner patent. On November 13, Judge Lacombe ruled in Victor’s favor and ordered issuance of a temporary injunction. Vitaphone appealed and continued to operate. The company advertised heavily during 1912, assuring dealers that its unique product infringed no patents (although it actually did):
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VITAPHONE-patent-letter The company even arranged to have Columbia press Vitaphone records, which were sold in Canada. More legal wrangling ensued, but in the end the legal issues became largely moot, as there apparently was too little demand for the product to keep Vitaphone afloat.

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* Of no relation to the earlier American Vitaphone Company (although Repp had sold their products in Cuba and Mexico), the Warner Brothers’ sound-film system, or any of the various other ventures using the Vitaphone name.