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

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

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

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

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1

The Birth of Electrical Recording – Part 1
By Allan Sutton


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

The Early Western Electric Experiments

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Charles Hoxie, General Electric, and the Pallophotophone

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Merriman and Guest’s Electro-Mechanical Hybrid

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

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Announcement of the first issued electrical recordings,
December 1920.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Orlando Marsh and the First American
Electrical Disc Recordings

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

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

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The earliest confirmed Marsh disc recording, made in the yard of Chicago’s Essanay movie studio (John R. T. Davies Collection, courtesy of the Borthwick Institute for Archives, University of York)

 

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

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(Above) Orlando Marsh recording in the Chicago Theatre, 1924; note the old-fashioned phonograph horn being used to focus sound on the microphone. (Below) Orlando Marsh in his laboratory, probably in the later 1920s.

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

Early Experimentation at the Major Companies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Electric Courts the Recording Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Columbia and Victor Go Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

____________________________________________________

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

____________________________________________________

 

Selected References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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UPDATE: Last Call for these Mainspring Press Titles

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

 

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

SOLD OUT  Bolig: The Victor Discography—Special Labels

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

SOLD OUT  Sutton: Edison Blue Amberol Records

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

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Recording-Industry Pioneers • Victor Emerson’s Personal Photographs

 Victor Emerson’s Personal Photographs

 

These remarkable photographs come to us courtesy of Colette LaPointe, Victor Emerson’s great-great-granddaughter.

Emerson is one of the undeservedly forgotten pioneers of the recording industry, a gifted inventor and recording engineer, and a progressive businessman. Emerson’s own company, launched in 1915 after his departure from Columbia, was highly successful for several years, but ultimately did not survive the great recession of the early 1920s intact. Its history is covered in detail in American Record Company and Producers, 1888-1950, newly released by Mainspring Press).

Other photos from this group will appear in an expanded Emerson biography, which we will be posting soon.

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Victor Emerson (left) and unknown companion, c. 1880s

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A rare glimpse inside what is likely the New Jersey Phonograph Company or its successor, the United States Phonograph Company. Equipment more clearly visible in the full-size print dates this to the early-to-mid 1890s. The Bell-Tainter Graphophone (lower left, with goose-neck horn) would have been used for office dictation.

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Emerson in 1897. In January of that year, he resigned from United States Phonograph and joined the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) as a recording engineer.

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On a trip to London (undated)

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Victor Emerson at home (undated photos)

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A Few Emerson Favorites (MP3)

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GEORGE HAMILTON GREEN: Triplets

New York; released June 1920
Emerson 10169 (mx. 4882 – 1)

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EDDIE NELSON: I’ve Got the Joys

New York; released  October 1921
Emerson 10426 (mx. 41919 – 3)

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EUBIE BLAKE: Sounds of Africa [Charleston Rag]

New York; released October 1921
Paramount 14004 (1940s dubbing from a test pressing of mx. 41886 – )

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EUBIE BLAKE (vocal refrains by Irving Kaufman):
Sweet Lady — Medley

New York; released December 1921
Emerson 10450 (mx. 41985 – 2)

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ORIGINAL MEMPHIS FIVE (as Lanin’s Southern Serenaders):
Shake It and Break It

New York; released November 1921
Emerson 10439 (mx. 41924 – 1)

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Emerson Records: A History and Discography covers all 10″ and 12″ Emerson issues, including releases on subsidiary, client, and foreign  labels. Supplies are very limited, and we will not be reprinting — order soon!

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This Month in Recording-Industry History: A Random Chronology, February 1889 – February 1949

This Month in Recording-Industry History:
A Random Chronology, February 1889 – February 1949
By Allan Sutton

 

For more information on any of these topics, see American Record Company and Producers, 1888 – 1950: An Encyclopedic History, newly released by Mainspring Press.

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February 1889 — Traveling with an “improved phonograph,” Edison engineer Theo Wangemann makes experimental live musical recordings at various New York and Boston locations. Wangemann is also present at an exhibition during which cornetist Theodore Hoch and vocalist Effie Stewart are recorded via telephone. [1]

February 18, 1889 — The New Jersey Phonograph Company is organized in Newark. [2] The company is not particularly successful in promoting the phonograph for business use, but it flourishes in the entertainment field. In February 1893 it is reorganized as the United States Phonograph Company (not to be confused with the later producer of U-S Everlasting cylinders).

February 7, 1890 — The Chicago Central Phonograph Company officially commences business, according to its stock offering notice. [3] In May 1890, general manager George Hoit reports, “The entertainment department is quite a feature with us and will be more so in the near future.” The Chicago Tribune reports in July 1892, “Everybody who comes to town with any reputation as an actor, a vocalist, or a good story-teller, is importuned to try his hand, or rather his voice, in the department where amusement cylinders are manufactured… [Some] stories are of a Rabelaisian character, to be reserved by purchasers for private edification and instruction, but the bulk of them will pass muster for general use.” [4]

February 16, 1893 — Henry Lewis, Andrew Taylor, and J. Marvin Carson file a certificate of organization for the United States Phonograph Company, successor to the New Jersey Phonograph Company. New Jersey president George Frelinghuysen and general manager Victor Emerson retain their positions and are joined by George Tewksbury and Simon Ott, who were previously associated with the Kansas and Nebraska Phonograph companies. The company shares a building with a Swift’s meat-packing plant, where banjoist Fred Van Eps recalled, “They had the hams and carcasses downstairs and the records upstairs.”

February 19, 1895 — Emile Berliner’s patent #534,543 (originally filed on March 30, 1892) is finally granted. [5] One of the most important and most litigated patents in the phonograph industry, it contains thirty-five new claims and improvements, including the key specification was that the stylus be propelled by the lateral-cut groove itself. Later acquired by the Victor Talking Machine Company, and cross-licensed to American Graphophone (Columbia), the patent assures control of the lateral-cut disc market by those two companies.

February 1898 — A venture of soprano Estella Mann, the Lyric Phonograph Company places its first advertisement this month. Although Mann is widely credited in modern works as the first female to own and manage a record company, it appears from a Phonosocope notice that John Havens actually managed the company. [6] Nevertheless, The Phonoscope praises Mann for “the manner in which she has clung to her business as many difficulties have confronted her in the past. This lady possesses a nerve which is seldom seen in the opposite sex.”

February 3, 1898 — The Universal Talking Machine Company is incorporated to compete with Emile Berliner’s Gramophone venture. Its Zonophone products prove to be popular, and in 1903 Victor president Eldridge Johnson reluctantly acquires a majority interest in the company. Universal Talking Machine is never owned outright by the Victor Talking Machine Company, contrary to many accounts. [7]

February 1902 — Victor president Eldridge Johnson sells the Globe Record Company (which he had acquired a month earlier) to the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) for his original $10,000 purchase price, along with Columbia president Edward Easton’s promise to abandon pending patent-infringement suits against Victor. Victor Emerson, Columbia’s recording manager, takes possession of the Globe masters and recording equipment on February 13, 1902. The acquisition provides Columbia its long sought-after entry into the disc market. Globe’s Climax label is quickly withdrawn in favor of Columbia’s own.

February 1902 — Nipper, the “Victor dog,” appears on Victor labels for the first time, although he had already been featured prominently in Victor advertising. The company registers several alternate versions during 1903–1904. One substitutes a woman in evening gown for Nipper, while another substitutes an ape. Aside from a special variation for the Asian market, with a man in Chinese garb substituted for Nipper (because, according to The Music Trade Review, the Chinese find the depiction of dogs “distasteful”), none appears on a commercially issued record.

February 1902 — The first catalog of Edison Gold Moulded cylinders is published, comprising remakes of 678 brown-wax titles (most of which retain their original catalog numbers) and a single new release (#8003), the first Edison recording to be offered only in molded form. Production of brown-wax cylinders, excepting recording blanks and the five-inch Concert Records, is discontinued on July 25, 1902.

February 1904 — John O. Prescott announces plans to open a pressing plant. [8] The new operation, to be called the American Record Company, is affiliated with the International Talking Machine Company in Germany (the producers of Odeon records). Prescott serves as general manager, in partnership with Ellsworth A. Hawthorne and Horace Sheble. The ornate lithographed labels depict a pipe-smoking American Indian listening to a phonograph, with the slogan, “Music Hath Charms.” Hawthorne claims that the inspiration came from a friend who had observed the calming effect that phonograph music had on a group of American Indians he was escorting to the St. Louis Exposition. The blue-shellac discs, introduced in October 1904, attract a great deal of attention, including that of the American Graphophone Company (Columbia), which in 1907 finally succeeds in shutting the company down for patent infringement. [9]

February 1, 1904 – The Victor Talking Machine Company makes the first American recordings by tenor Enrico Caruso. The session is held in Victor’s Carnegie Hall Annex studio, with C. H. H. Booth accompanying on piano. (Although the pianist is listed as unknown in some discographies, recording engineer Harry Sooy confirmed it was Booth). Sooy recalled that Caruso “had a very bad frog, or husky spot, in his voice in the record entitled ‘Tosca—E lucevan le stele,’ and when Mr. Child played this selection for him, we fully expected he would want to remake it, but he absolutely refused, claiming that it was an emotional effect.” [10]

February 23, 1907 – Victor dispatches Harry Sooy, in the company of his wife, on a recording expedition to Cuba. Sooy returns a month later with 171 recordings for the Cuban market. [13]

February 1907 — Columbia Phonograph Company managers receive advance copies of the first Marconi Velvet Tone Records catalog. A lightweight laminated celluloid disc, pressed from standard Columbia masters, the records feature the likeness of radio inventor Guglielmo Marconi, whose only contribution is to lend his name to the venture. Marconi is granted the title of “consulting physicist,” given a quick tour of the Columbia plant, treated to a banquet, then sent back to Italy. In fact, the records are the invention of Columbia engineer Thomas Macdonald. [14]

February 3, 1908 — Victor completes the installation of a new recording machine in its New York studio and hosts a mass gathering of celebrity artists, with Sembrich, Severina, Jacoby, Caruso, Scotti, Daddi, and Journet present for recordings of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor and the quartet from Rigoletto. According to engineer Harry Sooy recalled, “These were, indeed big engagements and everybody concerned were on their toes with anxiety. And, when we heard the finished records, they were not considered good enough.” The entire group returns on February 7 for successful remakes. There is tremendous publicity surrounding the release of the sextet, which at $7 is the most expensive record in the Victor catalog. [15]

February 8, 1908 — It is announced that the Talk-O-Phone Company of Toledo, Ohio, has been petitioned intro bankruptcy. [11] The company has been one of the most persistent infringers of Victor’s and Columbia patents, but operations are finally halted by the granting of a permanent injunction in April. [12] Co-owner Albert Irish files for personal bankruptcy, claiming liabilities of $464,790 in connection with personal loans and notes to the company. The moral, Irish tells The Talking Machine World, is “don’t fool with buzz-saws.” He is later indicted for embezzlement in an unrelated case.

February 1910 — Victor introduces a purple-label series, priced midway between black labels and Red Seals. Something of a catch-all line, its catalog runs the gamut from popular recordings by Broadway headliners to classical and operatic material by concert artists deemed not quite worthy of Red Seal status. The initial offering is dominated by Harry Lauder, who records twenty-four titles during a single December 1909 session in advance of the launch. [16]

February 1910 — All Zonophone recording activity is transferred to the Victor studios, under the supervision of Victor personnel. A new “Z”-prefixed master-numbering series is started for Zonophone masters, which are not to be used on standard Victor releases. The Universal Talking Machine Company’s Zonophone studio is closed, and some employees are laid off. Others are hired by Victor, including former Zonophone musical director Edward (Eddie) King, who is assigned to Victor’s New York studio. [17]

February 28, 1911 — Thomas A. Edison, Inc., is chartered to combine the inventor’s widely diversified companies, including the National Phonograph Company, under a single corporate entity.

February 11, 1915 — Harry Sooy and other members of the Victor Recording Department travel to Independence Hall in Philadelphia to record Mayor Smith tapping the Liberty Bell. The ceremony is transmitted by telephone to San Francisco to signal the official opening of the Pan American Exposition. Sooy is unimpressed: “Don’t ask me whether or not the Liberty Bell sounds like a bell, because I shall tell you, ‘It does not.’” [18]

February 26, 1917 — The Original Dixieland Jazz Band makes the first jazz recordings (“Livery Stable Blues” / “Dixieland Jass Band One-Step”), which are released on Victor 18255 in April 1917. Marketed as a novelty offering, the record becomes a surprise hit, but in the meantime, the ODJB has moved on (first to Columbia, then to Aeolian-Vocalion). In 1918, the band returns to Victor, which this time offers it a lengthier contract. [19]

February 1920 — The Scranton Button Company (a major independent pressing plant) reports the theft of an estimated ten-thousand records by a ring of female employees, who are said to have smuggled the records out in “pockets made in their underskirts.” [20]

February 1921 — The Arto company releases two blues-inflected titles featuring singer Lucille Hegamin (who had earlier been rejected by Victor), in the wake of Okeh’s success with Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues.” The popularity of Hegamin’s early releases helps to fuel other companies’ interest in the new race-record market.

February 1921 — The General Phonograph Corporation (Okeh) begins recording masters for the short-lived American Odeon Corporation, under the management of Miguel Voglhut. A redundant entity within the Carl Lindström organization, American Odeon is liquidated in early 1922, [21] and General Phonograph takes over U.S. production and marketing of the Odeon label, as a classical and ethnic line.

February 1921 — The Emerson Phonograph Company launches its Regal Record Company subsidiary, headed by Emerson general manager H. T. Leeming. The 50¢ Regal record retails for 25¢ less than most brands and uses the same recordings as the full-priced Emerson line, albeit usually disguised by artist pseudonyms. The records sell well, revealing a strong market for moderately priced discs that will soon be crowded with competitors.

February 24, 1921— Victor executive Belford G. Royal announces that a Victor recording studio and matrix-processing plant is to be built in South America. Charles Althouse, who has headed many of Victor’s foreign recording expeditions and speaks Spanish fluently, is chosen to manage to new operation.  [22]

February 1922 — The Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (Bridgeport, Connecticut) begins pressing Puritan records from the New York Recording Laboratories’ Paramount masters, for East Coast distribution. [23] The couplings and catalog numbers often deviate from those on NYRL’s own version of Puritan, much to the confusion of early discographers.

February 1922 — Cameo records are introduced by the Cameo Record Corporation, which had begun recording in November 1921 under the supervision of Earle W. Jones. Originally a 50¢ budget-priced line, Cameo is meant to compete with Emerson’s popular Regal label. The quality soon declines, along with the price.

February 1922 — The Nordskog Phonograph Recording Company is incorporated in Los Angeles. It is owned and operated by Andrae (Arne) Nordskog, who claims that his is the first West Coast recording company. Disputing that claim is Theophilus Fitz, whose competing Golden Record Company had been incorporated two months earlier but not yet produced any recordings. Nordskog is already recording (pre-incorporation) by the time Golden’s studio opens in late January 1922. [24]

February 17, 1922 — The Marsh Laboratories are incorporated in Chicago to develop, manufacture, buy, sell, and lease sound recordings. [25] Formerly affiliated with the Essanay movie studio, Orlando Marsh employs an electrical recording process (which he never patents) that uses a double-button carbon microphone attached to various sound-focusing devices, including an antiquated phonograph horn. Although Marsh’s recordings suffer from a variety of ailments, including limited frequency response, distortion, and low volume levels, they demonstrate the commercial potential of electrical recording three years before Victor and Columbia begin recording electrically.

February 27, 1922 — Hearings begin in U.S. District Court (Brooklyn) in Victor Talking Machine Co. v. Opera Disc Distributing Co. and Max Hesslein. At issue is Opera Disc’s sale of imported German pressings from Victor’s Red Seal masters. Copyright laws do not protect sound recordings, so Victor’s attorneys attack Opera Disc on the grounds that the company was founded while a state of war still technically existed between the United States and Germany, making sale of the records illegal. Lawyers for Opera Disc counter that the U.S. courts have no jurisdiction in matters regarding official acts of foreign nations. The case is ultimately decided in Victor’s favor, with the granting of a permanent injunction that shuts down Opera Disc. [26]

February 26, 1923 —Victor engineer Harry Sooy is instructed to begin preparing equipment in anticipation of opening a permanent studio in California. [27] In March, the company discloses to its staff that the location will be in Oakland.

February 1924 — Brunswick signs Al Jolson to a highly publicized “million-dollar” contract, making him the highest-paid popular recording artist of the period. Jolson is later given a seat on Brunswick’s board of directors.

February 1924 — Western Electric officials offer to license the company’s electrical recording system to the Victor Talking Machine Company. When Victor president Eldridge Johnson balks at the terms, Western Electric extends its offer to Columbia, which begins conducting experimental electrical recording sessions during the summer of 1924. [28]

February 1925 — Herbert S. Berliner, of the Compo Company (Canada) begins installing electrical recording equipment in his New York studio, which at the time is being used to produce Ajax race records. The studio is later frequently used by Pathé, during its transition to electrical recording, and it also records a few masters for Gennett. [29]

February 3, 1925 — Western Electric recording equipment arrives at Victor’s Camden studios for testing. Western Electric engineer Maxfield inspects the layout the following day and pronounces it satisfactory. [30] The shipment also includes one of Bell Laboratories’ new exponential-horn acoustical phonographs, which Victor will manufacture and market under the Orthophonic brand.

February 8, 1925 — Harry Sooy makes the first experimental Victor electrical recording (a piano solo by a staff musician), with Maxfield and other Western Electric personnel present. On February 10, Victor holds its first non-experimental electrical recording session (again with Western Electric personnel present), by contralto Helen Clark. The results are not approved for release. [31]

February 25, 1925 — Singer-pianist Art Gillham records three titles for Columbia, on Western Electric equipment, that will become Columbia’s first electrically recorded releases. [32]

February 26, 1925 — Victor makes acoustic and electric recordings of a routine by the Eight Famous Victor Artists (Henry Burr, Billy Murray, et al.) for comparison purposes. Although the acoustic is initially chosen, the electric is substituted at the last moment, becoming the earliest Victor electrical recording to be released (Victor 35753). [33]

February 23–24, 1927 — The Chicago Record Company holds the initial sessions for its new Black Patti label, in Gennett’s temporary Chicago studio. Gennett charges the company $30 per master. [34]

February 6, 1930 — The Durium Products Corporation releases its first Hit of the Week record. A 15¢ single-sided disc, Hit of the Week is sold at newsstands, with a new release appearing every Thursday. Durium Products had been formed a year earlier to exploit a linseed oil-based plastic product originally developed in 1927 by Dr. Hal Trueman Beans, Dr. Louis Hammett, and Dr. George H. Walden, Jr., all of whom were chemistry professors at Columbia University. [35]

February 10, 1930 — The Cova Recording Corporation is chartered by S. M. Levy. The company revives the dormant Q. R. S. label, as a cheaply produced 25¢ line. Unlike its predecessor, this version of Q.R.S. is not a race-record label, instead offering mostly mediocre pop fare. Masters are supplied by the Stanley Recording Company. [36]

February 1932 — RCA Victor begins pressing low-cost discs for the Crown Record Company, under the supervision of Eli Oberstein, from Crown’s own masters. [37] Crown had previously pressed in a former Edison facility. [38] Seven years later, Oberstein dubs many of these masters for reissue (usually under pseudonyms) on his new Varsity label.

February 1934 — RCA Victor discontinues the Electradisk label, leaving Bluebird and Sunset as its only budget-priced brands (other than the Montgomery Ward client label). Sunset is discontinued several months label, and Bluebird takes its place as RCA’s flagship budget label.

February 26, 1935 — Decca Records and the Decca Distributing Corporation file a lawsuit charging the Brunswick Record Corporation, Columbia Phonograph Company, Consolidated Film Industries and its American Record Corporation subsidiary, RCA-Victor, RCA Manufacturing Company, and various officers of those companies, with maintaining a monopoly on the sale of phonograph records in New York state. Decca seeks $1 million in damages. [39] Nothing comes of it.

February 26, 1936 — Associated Cinema Studios is incorporated in San Francisco by capitalist Mark L. Gerstle, following his purchase of Freeman Lang Enterprises (a pioneering West Coast custom-recording operation). [40] Owner of The Emporium department store, Gerstle reportedly is more interested in sailing his yacht than making recordings, so he entrusts management of the Los Angeles studio to former Freeman Lang vice-president Frank W. Purkett. Associated Cinema caters to local broadcasters and movie studios, specializing in transcriptions and sound-on-film recording, but it also produces some mildly risqué “party” records for such labels as Hollywood Hot Shots, Hot Shots from Hollywood, Racy Records, and Torchies from Hollywood.

February 1937 — Musicraft Records announces its first releases. The company was founded several months earlier by former attorney Milton L. Rein and music teacher Henry Cohen, originally to specialize in high-quality, premium-priced recordings of esoteric classical fare that was receiving little or no exposure on the major labels. [41] The earliest releases earn high praise from the critics but sell in only minuscule quantities, and in the 1940s Musicraft morphs into a pop label.

February 1939 — Solo Art makes it first recordings. Devoted entirely to jazz piano, the company is owned by Brooklyn bartender Dan Qualey, who finances the start-up by soliciting subscribers among his bar clientele, collecting $10 in advance with the promise that they will receive ten records annually through the mail. The venture is discontinued in 1940, after Qualey runs out of funds.

February 22, 1939 — Eli Oberstein resigns his position as head of RCA Victor’s Bluebird division. Although he does not immediately announce his intentions, he is already laying the groundwork for his own record company. Incorporated later that year, his United States Record Corporation produces inexpensive Varsity and Royale records.

February 1940 — Eli Oberstein’s United States Record Corporation introduces Inco records. [42] They are intended as a marketing experiment, retailing for 35¢ at newsstands operated by the International News Company. Priced the same as USRC’s Varsity records, and offering the same material, they fail to attract any interest and are discontinued after several weeks.

February 25, 1941 — Donald Gabor’s Continental Record Company holds its first recordings session, in RCA Victor’s New York studio. A Hungarian immigrant, Gabor arrives in the United States in 1938 and is given a job as an RCA shipping clerk, from which he advances to a management position in the company’s foreign-record division before resigning in early 1941 to launch Continental.

February 1946 — Lionel and Gladys Hampton launch their Hamp-Tone label, which is described as “a show-window for promising Negro talent of all types — hot jazz, folk music and spirituals as well as dramatic and classical entertainment.” [43] Chicago Defender editor Charles Browning undertakes a cross-country tour to promote the records to jukebox operators, [44] but the venture closes in late 1946 after the Hamptons run out of masters.

February 5, 1946 — Dial Records holds its first recording session, in Glendale, California, by a pickup grouped credited as Dizzy Gillespie’s Jazzmen. The session is a poorly organized affair, with saxophonist Charlie Parker failing to appear, and the studio overrun with gawkers. Owner Ross Russell recalls, “After that, I made it my business to keep hangers-on, dope heads, and parasites out of the studio.” [45]

February 1947 — Universal Recording Studios’ Bill Putnam records Jerry Murad’s Harmonicats using a primitive form of artificial reverberation that involves recording from a speaker placed in the men’s rest room. [46]

February 28, 1948Billboard reports that Capitol Records has ordered Wesley Tuttle, Benny Goodman, and Stan Kenton to report for recording sessions in defiance of the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban. Tuttle immediately contacts AFM Local 47 and is told to ignore the order. The situation turns into a standoff as rumors swirl that Capitol is preparing to test the legality of the ban in court. [47] No case is brought, however.

February 1949 — The Radio Corporation of America prepares to introduce 45-rpm discs, in an attempt to counter Columbia’s popular new LPs. Initially dubbed “Madame X,” the project is veiled in secrecy until March 1949, when RCA Victor chief engineer D. D. Cole publicly unveils the new records, along with the inexpensive changers that are required to play them. [48] After an unsuccessful attempt to license the format, RCA makes it available to other companies. The public is slow to embrace the 45 until the early 1950s, when it begins to gain traction as the favored format for pop “singles.” Classical enthusiasts tend to favor LPs, complaining that 45s are nearly as inconvenient as 78s for playing extended works.

References

[1] “A Concert by Telephone,” New York Morning Sun, Feb. 5, 1889; “Interesting Phonograph and Telephone Experiments at a Lecture,” Newark [NJ] News, Feb 5, 1889.

[2] Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May

28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.

[3] Lobdell, Farwell & Co., Inc. (stock offer notice). Chicago Tribune (Jun 8, 1890).

[4] “Phonographic Ears.” Chicago Tribune (Jul 10, 1892).

[5] Berliner, Emile. “Gramophone.” U.S. Patent #534,543 (filed Mar 30, 1892; granted Feb 19, 1895).

[6] Untitled notice (re: John Havens as manager of Lyric). Phonoscope (Apr 1899).

[7] Bryant, William R. (Allan Sutton, editor). The American Zonophone Discography, Vol. 1. Denver: Mainspring Press (2012).

[8] Untitled notice (re: Pressing plant). Music Trade Review (Feb 27, 1904).

[9] Bryant, William R., George Blacker, et al. American Record Co. ephemera, research notes, and discographical data. William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press collection.

[10] Sooy, Harry O. Memoir of My Career at Victor Talking Machine Company (manuscript). Sarnoff Library.

[11] “Petitioned into Bankruptcy.” Music Trade Review (Feb 8,1908).

[12] “Now Perpetually Enjoined.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1908).

[13] Sooy, op. cit.

[14] “Talking Machine Record.” U.S. Patent #862,407 (filed Jul 9, 1906).

[15] Sooy, op. cit.

[16] Bolig, John. The Victor Discography: Green, Blue, and Purple Labels. Denver: Mainspring Press (2006).

[17] Bryant, William R. (Allan Sutton, editor). The American Zonophone Discography, Vol. 1. Denver: Mainspring Press (2012). Portions of the Z- series ledgers, which are housed in the Sony Music archives (New York), are the only surviving American Zonophone recording files.

[18] Sooy, op. cit.

[19] The claim that the ODBJ made test records for Columbia in January 1917 (first advanced by Brian Rust, who later retracted it) is untrue. The band was invited to make Columbia Personal Records at that time, but there is no evidence that they accepted.

[20] “10,000 Phonograph Records Stolen; Arrests Are Made.” Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times-Leader (Feb 17, 1920).

[21] “Retirement of Miguel Voglhut.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1922).

[22] Sooy, op. cit.

[23] “Introduce the Puritan Record” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1922).

[24] “Recording Laboratory in Santa Monica.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1922).

[25] Statement of Incorporation: Marsh Laboratories, Inc. (Feb 17, 1922). State of Illinois, Office of the Secretary

of State.

[26] “Hearing Held in the Victor Co.—Opera Disc Co. Suit.” Talking Machine World (Mar 15, 1922).

[27] Sooy, op. cit.

[28] Sutton, Allan. Recording the ’Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–1929. Denver: Mainspring Press (2008).

[29] Bryant, William R., with the Record Research Associates (Allan Sutton, editor). Ajax Records: A History and Discography. Denver: Mainspring Press (2013).

[30] Sooy, op. cit.

[31] Sooy, op. cit.

[32] Sutton, Allan. Recording the ’Twenties, op. cit.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Gennett master ledgers, February 1927. Reports that Gennett charged $40 are in error; the ledgers show a $30 charge for all Chicago Record Company masters.

[35] “Durium Records.” Time (Feb 17, 1930).

[36] “New 25¢ Disc Brand.” Variety (Jan 29, 1930).

[37] RCA Victor production-history cards. Sony Music Archives, New York.

[38] “Crown Records (Two Hits for a Bit)” (ad). Warren [PA] Times Mirror (Jan 13, 1931).

[39] “Record Makers Ask $1,000,000 Damages.” New York Times (Feb 27, 1935).

[40] “Associated Cinema Studios.” Broadcasting (Mar 15, 1936).

[41] “Discs for Dilettanti.” Time (Nov 1, 1937).

[42] Business Week (Apr 20, 1940).

[43] “Introducing a Record Company with a Reason!” (ad). Billboard (May 11, 1946).

[44] Gore, Byrde. “Byrde’s Eye View ’Round the Wax Circle.” Cash Box (Sep 2, 1946).

[45] Kennedy, Rick, and Randy McNutt. “Dial Records,” in Little Labels—Big Sound. Bloomington: University of Indiana Press (1999).

[46] “Putnam Springs New Waxing Technique with ‘Vitacoustic.’” Billboard (Apr 5, 1947).

[47] “Cap Orders Talent to Wax Despite Ban.” Billboard (Feb 28, 1948).

[48] Cole, D. D. “The How and Why of RCA Victor’s New Record and Player.” Audio Record (Mar 1949).

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

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Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard (Mary Howard Recordings / MHR Records)

Female Recording-Industry Pioneers • Mary Shipman Howard

An excerpt from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888 – 1950 (Mainspring Press)

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MARY HOWARD RECORDINGS  (Discs)

Record Production: 1942 — Mid 1950s
Offices: 37 E. 49th St., New York
Original-Master Source(s): Own studio at above address
Pressing: New York Record Company (Brooklyn)

Record Products: Mary Howard Recordings, MHR; masters for New Music Recordings and possibly other independent labels; radio transcriptions, air-checks, custom and private recordings

Mary Shipman Howard was the first American woman to own and operate a successful modern recording studio. A classically trained musician, she began experimenting with a portable recording machine in the late 1930s. After failing to find employment as a recording engineer, in 1940 she accepted a secretary’s position in the National Broadcasting Company’s New York engineering department.

When the draft began taking a toll on NBC’s male staff, Howard was tapped to replace a departing engineer. Initially, she was assigned to supervise (but not actively participate in) recording sessions for RCA Victor where, she recalled, “I didn’t do anything except sit with my eyes falling out of my head, and my ears dropping off. It was fascinating.”

In the meantime, Howard had opened her own private studio nearby, as a part-time venture offering private recording services, although she apparently had not yet fully mastered her craft. In 1942, composer and recorder virtuoso Harold Newman withheld payment to her, citing unsatisfactory work. The case was settled out of court, and Newman went on to launch his own Hargail label.

The Newman incident aside, Howard was soon attracting a small but select clientele, including composer-pianist Charles Ives (who visited the studio several to make private recordings) and Arturo Toscanini (who commissioned her to make air-checks of his  broadcasts). In late 1945 or early 1946, Mary Howard Recordings became a full-time operation, with the assistance of Joyce Fraser. The studio quickly gained a reputation among musicians for its high-quality work. During the later 1940s, Howard’s staff grew to include Donald Plunkett (chief engineer), Langdon Macdonald (recording engineer), Bob Dixon (production manager), Betty Jane Keilus (commercial manager), and Joseph Roberts (publicity consultant).

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Mary Howard (upper left) and chief recording engineer Don Plunkett in the studio (Audio Record, February 1948)

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Although custom recording was her primary focus, Howard briefly produced her own Mary Howard Recordings and MHR labels commercially, on a modest scale. The initial offerings (one album each by the Herman Chittison Trio and Ethel Waters, and one single each by Dale Belmont and Walter “Foots” Thomas) were announced by Billboard in July 1947, as July and August releases. Pressings were produced by the New York Record Company in Brooklyn and were distributed locally by Wesley Smith in New York. However, little advertising was done, and sales appear to have been meager.

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In addition to its own commercial recordings, Howard’s studio occasionally produced masters for other labels, including New Music Recordings (the revival of New Music Quarterly Recordings) in 1948. A feature article in Audio Record for February of that year reported that the studio was “waiting patiently for the [American Federation of Musicians’ recording] ban to be lifted so they can ‘get going’ again.” However, commercial activity appears to have dwindled following the end of the recording ban, and no mention has been found of Howard’s own labels after 1948. Her Ethel Waters masters were later acquired by Mercury Records.

Mary Howard was one of the first small-studios operators to adopt tape mastering, employing Ampex equipment. She also implemented strict quality-control procedures throughout the company and required that her employees have a working knowledge of the entire production process. In a 1948 Audio Record interview, Howard lamented “a prevalence in large organizations for specialization — cutting technicians, studio technicians, maintenance, etc. — which often results in poor recording because of lack of interest or information in all phases of the recording operation. If interest and enthusiasm were carried all the way through the recording organization, and management, perhaps time might be found to raise the general recording standards in America.”

Mary Howard Recordings continued to offer custom recording services and produce limited-edition, privately issued pressings (including LPs) into the 1950s. The company was last listed by Radio Annual in 1956, as a transcription producer. By then, Howard had moved to Connecticut, where she later remarried and became well-known as dog-show judge and breeder of pugs. She died on November 17, 1976.

© 2108 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Selected References

Lowry, Cynthia. “Broadway.” Munster [IN] Times (Jan 17, 1951), p. 27.

“Mary Howard Recordings Releases First Six Sides.” Billboard (Jul 26, 1947), p. 21.

“Mary Pickhardt Dies; Recorder.” Hartford [CT] Courant (Nov 27, 1976), p. 4.

Shipman, Mary Howard. Interview by Vivian Perlis (Washington, CT; Sep 24, 1969), in Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History (Perlis, editor), pp. 209–211. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press (2002).

“The War Gave Mary Howard Her Big Chance to Make Good in Recording.” Audio Record (Feb 1948), pp. 1, 4.

“Transcriptions—Recordings: Mary Howard Recordings.” Radio Annual (1949), p. 765.

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Mary Howard on Charles Ives

Excerpted from Charles Ives Remembered: An Oral History
(Vivian Perlis, editor), University of Illinois Press

 

“I was the first private person ever to own a Scully lathe. Nobody could afford it. I couldn’t afford it either, but I got a loan from the bank. It was wonderful fun while it lasted, and the most fun were the people who suddenly, by word of mouth only, came to have me make recordings of them.

“Among them, Mr. Ives… Ives came two or three times. The reason he came was that he got letters from conductors and performers who were going to play something, asking how they should interpret the music. He would come storming into the studio — ‘Interpret, interpret! What are they talking about? If they don’t know anything about music — well alright, I’ll tell them.’ So he’d sit down at the piano and play very loudly, and sing and make a running commentary while he was doing it. ‘This is how you do it. Now you’re stupid. Don’t you know, this is how you do it… .’

“I had a very erratic elevator in my building. I’d hear a great crash and then a great shout, and I’d know that Ives was out of it. Then he’d sit down and talk about the elevator in no uncertain terms for three minutes… Ives was absolutely full of beans and it wasn’t bad temper. It was just excitement… He’d pound and pound, and Mrs. Ives would say, ‘Now please take a rest.’ He drank quantities of iced tea, and he’d calm down and then go back at it again, saying, ‘I’ve got to make them understand.’

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Rosa Ponselle Discusses Her Recordings

ROSA PONSELLE ON HER RECORDINGS
An Interview by James A. Drake

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(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Do you recall when you made your very first recording?

Don’t ask me about dates because I’m terrible at them, but I remember being given a contract by the Columbia company around the time I made my Met debut.  No, it was before my debut—I’m pretty sure it was before it because I made the recording in the spring, and my debut with Caruso in Forza del destino was in the fall, in November [1918].

 

So you were still in vaudeville with [your sister] Carmela when you made the recording?

No, we were “on strike” from the Keith Circuit in 1917, or that’s what we told [Keith Circuit booker] Eddie Darling at the time.  But Romano Romani, whom I credit with “discovering” me, was an arranger and conductor for Columbia, and he and my so-called manager, [William] Thorner, convinced me to accept a contract from Columbia rather than Victor.  What I didn’t know until a few years later, when I did go with Victor, was that they had wanted me from the time I made my Met debut.  After my debut was a sensation, as the critics called it, Victor wanted to offer me a big contract and have me record arias and duets from Forza with Caruso.

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Before the name change: Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo in vaudeville
(New York Clipper, August 8, 1917).

Carmela (left) and Rosa Ponselle (center) with Rosa’s secretary, Edith Prilik.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Were you at all aware of Victor’s interest when Columbia wanted you to sign with them?

No, but I should’ve been because [Columbia] really rushed the contract through, and then had me make this test record.  Some of my friends said I should have Thorner try to see if Victor would take me, but he gave me this song and dance about how if I went with Victor I would just be a “beginner” and wouldn’t get much to record, but that at Columbia I would be “the queen” and would be their big star.

 

Do you remember the title of your test recording for Columbia?

Sure.  “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with Romani accompanying me at the piano.  That would have been in the spring of 1918, maybe March or April.

 

Where were the Columbia studios in New York City, where you made your recordings?

It was on the top floor of a new building, the Gotham, near Central Park.  It was a beautiful new building, and the studios obviously were brand-new, too.  I think there were four studios that took up that whole top floor.  I know it was at least twenty-four stories, that building, and the studios were on the top floor.

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Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
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Describe the process that making those recordings involved.

Well, there was just a small orchestra for accompaniment—mainly brasses and reeds, and these special [Stroh] violins that had a nickeled horn, like a curved megaphone, instead of a wooden body.  Those odd-looking violins were made just for recording purposes because their horns were fastened to a metal bridge, which made them very loud compared to a real violin—but they sounded awful!

 

How many were in the accompanying band, if you recall?

Maybe ten or a dozen players at most for vocal recordings.  They were on bleachers, I guess you could call them, a few feet above the floor.  The bleachers were shaped like a half-moon, so that the instruments were pointing toward the horn.  I remember that there was no player right behind me when I was singing.  The players were at my left and right, but with no one behind me because the sound of their instrument would have been right in back of my head.

 

When you were making a recording, could you see the recording machinery and the person who was running the equipment?

No.  All of that was behind a wall.  There was a little window in the wall so that the man directing the recording where the singer and the orchestra was could communicate with the people running the equipment.

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Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Was there a signal that someone gave to start the recording?

At Columbia, that was Romani’s job.  He would get a hand signal through the little window that I was just describing, and he would raise his baton and the recording would begin.  Now at Victor, I remember a buzzer that was used as a signal to start the recording.  That was before the microphone came in, of course.  After that, there was a system of lights, kind of like traffic lights.  The red light meant “stand by,” and the green one meant that the recording machine was already going.

 

Do you remember any directions you were given about how to sing into the recording horn?

Oh, that damned horn!  It was a real ordeal having to make a record with that horn, especially if you had a good-sized voice like mine.  You had to sing every note at almost the same volume—so if the score called for a pianissimo, you couldn’t sing it because the recording machine would barely pick it up.  You couldn’t sing too loud, either.  If you did, they [i.e., the recording engineers] said that it would “blast” the groove and ruin the record.  So anything forte, especially fortissimo, had to be sung by looking upward so that some of the sound wouldn’t do directly into the middle of the horn.  Or they would tell you to take a step back from the horn right before you would sing a note fortissimo.

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“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”

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Both you and your sister Carmela were offered Columbia contracts, correct?

Yes, they wanted to capitalize on our reputation in vaudeville.  We were one of the top acts on the Keith Circuit before I went to the Met, and our act consisted of fifteen minutes of mainly duets that I had done the arrangements for.  Three that always got us huge ovations were our duets of the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, “’O sole mio,” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.”  We recorded those for Columbia, and they sold well.

 

What is your opinion of your Columbia recordings?  Are there any that you remember especially well?

Well, those duets with Carmela, and another one from our vaudeville act, “Kiss Me Again,” which was my solo.  That record turned out pretty well.  One that didn’t like was the “Casta diva,” which I had to sing at a horrible tempo and with none of the dynamics that I used in the opera house.  I just thought of another duet recording that I liked:  the Trovatore “Mira d’acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo!” which I made with Riccardo Stracciari.  My God, what a voice he had—just like a shower of diamonds!  Now, of all of the solo opera arias I made for Columbia, I consider the “Selva opaca” from William Tell to be the best one.

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The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.

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Was it hard for you to leave Columbia after being so successful with them, and go to Victor?

It was bittersweet, I would say.  The men at Columbia were so nice to me—they really did treat me like “the queen,” just as Romani and Thorner said they would.  And it was bittersweet because although I made a lot more money at Victor, Caruso had died two or three years earlier, so I never got to record with him.

 

Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?

No, she stayed with Columbia.  And by the way, I didn’t “audition” for Victor.  I was at the Met by then, and Victor did everything they could to get me to sign with them.

 

What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?

Well, the ones that were done with the horn and the small orchestra for accompaniment were made in their Manhattan studios.  When the microphone came along and everything was electrical, I made a lot of my records at this church that Victor had converted into a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey.  The acoustics of that church were ideal.

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From the “1930” Victor catalog (published November 1, 1929). Of Ponselle’s acoustically recorded issues, all but #6437 had been deleted by the time this catalog appeared.

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When the electrical-recording process was introduced in 1925, do you recall how different it felt to make a recording with the new technology?

Oh, yes!  It was like night and day.  The orchestra was much, much larger, and they used regular instruments—real violins, in other words—and you could have a good-sized chorus and a pipe organ if the music you were recording called for them.

 

You made a number of recordings with a chorus, and one of your fan’s favorites is “La vergine degli angeli” with [Ezio] Pinza.  Do you consider that one of your best electrical Victor records?

No—it’s one of my least favorites.  My part, that is, not Pinza’s.  He sings beautifully on that record.  What I don’t like about it is that somebody in the control room turned up the volume on my microphone.  It’s a prayer, so it’s supposed to be sung piano—but because of the way they turned up the volume on the microphone when I was singing my part, it’s way too loud, nothing like a prayer would be sung.

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Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)

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How about your Forza trio recordings with Martinelli and Pinza?  Do you like those Victors?

Yes, they’re all right.  The blend of the voices turned out well.

 

Of all the duet recordings you made for Victor, the “Tomb Scene” discs from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli are prized by everyone who has heard them.  Is it true that you didn’t like them and that Martinelli had to convince you to allow them to be released?

That’s true, yes.  There again, the balance between our voices was wrong.  We recorded those duets twice, you know.  The first time was with the horn, and I wouldn’t let those be released because we were both too loud and the pace was too fast.  It’s like one of the Columbias that I made with that damned horn, the “Vergine degli angeli” with Charles Hackett.  He was an excellent singer—not the most beautiful voice, but a real artist—yet the recording was just awful.  It was all too loud, no subtlety at all.  The same with those first “Tomb Scene” recordings that I made with Martinelli and that damned horn.

When Victor persuaded us to re-record those duets after the microphone came in, the sound was much better, of course, but I thought the balance between our voices was still off, so I said I wouldn’t go along with putting them out.  Finally, Martinelli persuaded me to okay them.  He said, “Look, Rosa, the public will understand.  You sing so beautifully and your voice sounds just like it does on the stage.”  I could never say no to Martinelli, so I went along with him and let them be released.  When I hear them now, I’m glad I did.

 

What is your opinion of your Norma recordings, both the “Casta diva” and the “Mira, o Norma” with Marion Telva?

I’m fine with them, especially the “Mira, o Norma.”  Telva and I were in synch on every note.  We did that in the studio the way we did it onstage.  We held hands, and I would squeeze her hand gently a fraction of a second before I would begin a note.  Every time we did that duet, we were completely in synch because of the way we held hands.

 

Were any of your Victor Red Seals of older ballads like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, who conducted most of Victor’s popular-music recordings?

No, never.  I don’t remember him—I mean, I must have been introduced to him, but I wouldn’t know him if he walked into this room right now.  Rosario Bourdon conducted my Victor recordings.

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An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.

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As you hardly need me to tell you, you are one of the very few opera stars who made acoustical recordings, electrical recordings, and modern long-playing recordings.  You’ve talked about the day-and-night difference between making acoustical and electrical recordings, but what was it like by comparison to make high-fidelity long-playing recordings for your old company, RCA Victor?

What I wouldn’t have given to have had that recording system when I was in the prime of my career!  It was so easy making recordings that way!

 

Those LPs were made right here at Villa Pace, correct?

Yes, in the foyer, where the high ceiling and the walls and tile floor give the voice such resonance.  They set up the microphones there.  They brought in a seven-foot piano for [accompanist] Igor Chichagov, because it would have been too much trouble to move my concert Baldwin piano into the foyer.  And do you know that the man who oversaw those recordings was one of the men I worked with at Victor in Camden?  His name was Mr. Maitsch.  It was such a happy moment when he came here and we got to work together again.

 

The master recordings for those LPs were made on magnetic tape.  You had had some experience with having your singing tape-recorded by Lloyd Garrison, who recorded private albums that you sent to friends.  How different was it working the RCA’s technicians and their state-of-the-art equipment?

Well, the sound quality of the RCA equipment was leagues ahead of what Lloyd had used.  He had an ordinary [Webcor] tape recorder, but he did have a very good microphone that he bought for our private recordings.  But the RCA microphones were the ones they used in their studios, so of course they were the top microphones.

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Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)

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How many “takes” did you do of each of the songs you recorded for your LPs?

Well, if I liked the way it sounded, I just sang a song once.  Sometimes, they would ask me to do a second “take” just as a back-up—and sometimes I didn’t like the way I did a number, so I recorded it a second or maybe even a third time.  Now, that I didn’t realize until later, when I heard them on the discs for the first time, was that they [i.e., the sound engineers] had spliced different portions from different “takes.”  Now, that was something else I wish we’d have had in the old days.  I have a good ear, though, and when I listen closely I can sometimes tell where they did the splicing.  I can tell because the resonance changes just enough for my ear to detect it.

 

Did you rehearse a lot before you began recording the selections for those LPs each afternoon and evening?

Oh, hardly at all.  I just picked what I wanted to sing, and I handed the score to Igor [Chichagov] to play it while I sang it.  Now, he will tell you that he’s not happy with some of his playing because I didn’t want to rehearse.  I just wanted to keep going, and record as many songs as I could in one long day.  On a couple of the songs, I played my own accompaniment because it was easier for me to pace my phrasing.

 

Is there any one of the songs on which you played your own accompaniment that you remember especially well?

Yes, yes—“Amuri, amuri,” which is a Sicilian folk song.  It’s such an emotional song!  It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check while we were recording it.  Afterward, I was a wreck and we had to stop for quite a while until I could get my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged.

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© James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Mainspring Press Updates (Feb-March 2018): Leeds & Catlin Online Database / American Record Companies & Producers 1888-1950

Leeds & Catlin Database Going to DAHR in March

Our Leeds & Catlin database is going to the University of California Barbara–Santa Barbara in March, to be incorporated in their free online Discography of Historical American Recordings. It includes all the latest updates to Leeds Records: A History and Discography (now out of print). Watch for the online release later this year.

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Nearing Completion:

American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History

Approx. 748 pages (hardcover)
Release date, imprint, and price to be announced

 

American Record Companies and Producers 1888–1950 covers all producers of original recordings for the retail, subscription, and jukebox markets in detail — from the dawn of the wax-cylinder era through the advent of the LP, from the behemoths to the smallest and most obscure. (Not covered are companies that produced only reissues, children’s records, or pressings from imported masters; personal recordings; promo and one-off labels, etc).

The book is based on reliable primary-source materials (100% Wikipedia-free!), including company and legal documents, original recording and production files, trade-press and newspaper reports, accounts of the persons involved, etc. — all fully cited. Anecdotal accounts, when they appears at all, are clearly identified as such.

The work differs from our earlier American Record Labels and Companies in that it is organized by companies or producers rather than by label names. So, for example, you will still find all the information you need on the Black Swan label under the Pace Phonograph Corporation entry, or on the Phono-Cut and Colonial labels under the Boston Talking Machine Company entry. There will be a label index (in addition to general topic and song title indexes) to help you navigate.

Being primarily a business history, the book does not have label illustrations; however, we are looking into the possibility of having a label DVD produced as a stand-alone product at some point, if there is sufficient interest.

 

 

“Pre-Ledger” Starr / Gennett Recording Dates and Locations (1915 – 1922)

“Pre-Ledger” Starr / Gennett Recording Dates and Locations
(1915 – 1922)
By Allan Sutton

 

Much of the Starr Piano Company’s original documentation of Gennett records has survived, beginning with some 1921 sessions. What happened to the earlier materials is anyone’s guess; they’ve been missing for as long as anyone can remember.

In the absence of primary-source documentation, discographers have naturally guessed at recording dates and locations for the “pre-ledger” masters — some quite accurately, many others not even in the ballpark. Good or bad, those guesses have become entrenched as “fact,” and the picture gets increasingly muddled as others take a stab at things. Happily, it’s not a particularly difficult situation to sort out, given the amount of solid information on these records that exists in Mainspring’s archives.

This article is based upon the extensive data relating to Gennett’s 1915–1922 output that was compiled by members of the Record Research group (Walter C. Allen, Len Kunstadt, Carl Kendziora, et al.) and other trusted sources over many decades. The information that appears here comes from their first-hand inspection of the original records, coupled with corollary evidence gathered from release lists and trade-paper reports of the period, plus the occasional dated test pressing. Anecdotal accounts and most published discographies were disregarded, a wise decision that eliminated much unnecessary confusion and misinformation from the outset.

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VERTICAL-CUT MASTER SERIES

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(Left) The original Starr label design. Masters on this issue were recorded in the Richmond studio by Weber’s Prize Band, a Cincinnati group. (Right) A late Starr issue, redesigned to match the new Gennett label, using masters from the New York studio. (From American Record Labels and Companies: An Encyclopedia, 1891–1943, by Allan Sutton & Kurt Nauck)

 
100 SERIES – New York (c. Mid 1915 – Early 1916)

The earliest known Starr master series, from a New York studio. This was not necessarily Gennett’s own facility. Harry Gennett reported in October 1915 that a studio had not yet been opened in Richmond, and he made no reference to a New York studio, which probably explains the series’ abrupt abandonment in early 1916, when Gennett opened his own studio. (Gennett is known to have purchased the Phono-Cut masters, raising the possibility that these recordings might have been made on old Boston Talking Machine Company equipment — an intriguing area for future research.) Popular-song titles in the series are early 1915 – early 1916 publications. The highest numbers identified thus far are 172 (by Byron G. Harlan) and 173 (by an unidentified vocalist), both of which survive as test pressings. An unrelated lateral-cut 100 series was used in the early 1920s for some personal recordings.)

 

5000 SERIES – New York and Richmond, Indiana
(May 1916 – Early 1917)

Introduction of this series corresponds to the opening of Starr Piano’s Richmond studio in early 1916 and the expansion of its recording operation under the management of R. C. Mayer. It marks the first appearance of Richmond-studio masters, which are intermixed with New York recordings. The first (#5000, “Smiles and Caresses,” by the Starr Trio) exists as a test pressing, dated May 16, 1916. The lower-numbered masters were recorded in Richmond by regional artists, including John W. Dodd and Elizabeth Schiller (Indianapolis); John C. Weber’s Prize Band of America (Cincinnati); and Harry Maxwell, Roy Parks, and Harry Frankel (Richmond). Frankel (a.k.a. “Singin’ Sam” in later years) was a Starr Piano Company employee at the time, and he continued to be associated with the company in various roles into the 1930s.

At approximately #5180, the usual New York studio free-lancers begin to appear in this series (including Vernon Dalhart, Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, and Sybil Sanderson Fagan), along with the Richmond-studio artists. The highest-numbered masters for which data is confirmed feature late-1916 song titles. The 5000s were replaced by a new 1000 series in early 1917.

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(Left) The first Gennett label design, introduced in October 1917. The Gennett and Starr labels were produced simultaneously for a short time before the latter was discontinued. (Right) The familiar scroll design initially was reserved exclusively for the expensive Gennett Art Tone series. (ARLAC)

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1000 SERIES – New York (Mid-1917 – Late 1918)

The Richmond studio appears to have been mothballed at this point. Aside from Strickland Gillilan and Weber’s Prize Band (who are known to have performed in New York), the Richmond-studio artists no longer appear in this series. (Commercial recording resumed in Richmond in the summer of 1921; see Special and 11000 series, below.) The first confirmed example of a Starr master being used on a client label appears in this series, on the anomalous Rishell 1509 (a label normally supplied by Pathé, Rex, and Okeh).

The earliest 1000-series masters were released in July 1917, suggesting they were recorded from late April to late May. The Gennett label was introduced in October 1917 and soon supplanted Starr, but the original Starr master series remained in use. Popular-song titles on the highest-numbered 1000-series masters are late 1918 publications, which corresponds with the beginning of Gennett’s conversion to the lateral cut.

PHONO-CUT MASTERS (~ 500 – 1000 Range) – New York (1911 – 1912)

Phono-Cut masters from the defunct Boston Talking Machine Company were reissued on Starr’s early vertical-cut Remington discs. Confirmed examples range from #634 (“Maritana Overture” by Fred Hager’s Band, which was credited to the Colonial Military Band on the original Phono-Cut labels) to #1081 (Massenet’s “Elegie,” by violinist Sylvain Noack). Thus far, we’ve received no reports from reliable sources of Phono-Cut masters having appeared on the Starr label. Starr test pressings exist of several 500-series vertical-cut masters, which are suspected Phono-Cut recordings but thus far have not been confirmed as such.

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EARLY LATERAL-CUT MASTER SERIES

 

(Left) An early lateral-cut pressing from imported Edison Bell masters. (Right) The second incarnation of Starr’s Remington label (apparently a custom product) used masters from a lateral-cut 100 series that was used briefly for personal recordings. The earlier, vertical-cut Remington label used some old Phono-Cut masters. (ARLAC)

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6000 / 6500 and 7000 SERIES – New York  (1919 – 1922)

Gennett’s first lateral-cut master series (6000s and 7000s for 10”, 6500s for 12”), allocated to the New York studio. The earliest were listed in March 1919 for April release, suggesting January–February 1919 (or perhaps very late 1918) as the start of lateral recording.

Gennett ledgers survive for the New York masters beginning with # 7736, which was received in Richmond on January 25, 1922. This series remained in use by Gennett’s New York studio through March 1, 1926, ending at #9999. At that point, a new series was begun at X-1. The X- prefix was changed to GEX- in the autumn of 1926 (with occasional variations, including BEX-, EX-, HAX-, and WEX- that are beyond the scope of this article).

SPECIAL SERIES — Richmond (1921)

A test series, made in conjunction with the reopening of Gennett’s Richmond studio for commercial recording. Confirmed master numbers range from 1 (July 21, 1921) through 16 (September 3, 1921) and include recordings by Harry Gennett, Fred Gennett Jr., Fred G. Mayer, and Harry Frankel, all Starr Piano Company  employees. None are known to have been issued, but a test pressing exists of Fred Gennett Jr’s “Dickey Bean Soup” (which was not assigned a master number).

11000 SERIES — Richmond (From August 1921)

Commercial recording resumed in Richmond on August 20, 1921, at which time a separate 11000 master series was allocated to the studio. The first commercial session was by Homer Rodeheaver and Virginia Asher on August 20, followed on August 24 by the omnipresent Harry Frankel. Gennett documentation survives for all 11000-series masters, although the earliest is rather sketchy.

The Richmond master series (which also covered recordings made in Chicago, Cincinnati, Birmingham, the Grand Canyon, and other locations) continued unbroken to #19997, in January 1939, by which time the company was producing mainly sound-effects and special-use recordings.

Other documented Richmond master series include the K- prefixed series of 1924 (containing a mixture of Ku Klux Klan material; tests for the Vaughan label,and unissued private recordings by Fred Gennett Jr. and other locals); an 11B00 series (not a mistaken entry for 11800) allocated to Vaughan in the mid-1920s; and a 61000 series used for radio transcriptions and other special-use recordings beginning in 1934.

100 SERIES — Richmond (Early 1920s)

Not to be confused with the earlier vertical-cut 100s, this series was used briefly for personal recordings.

85000 CONTROL SERIES — Assigned in Richmond (Mid 1920s)

Not true master numbers, these were “control” numbers assigned to masters obtained from outside sources, including Rodeheaver Laboratories, Marsh Laboratories, and the New York Recording Laboratories. Data on these recordings does not appear in the surviving Gennett documentation.

LICENSED FOREIGN MASTERS (Early 1920s)

Gennett leased foreign masters from Edison Bell in the early 1920s, including recordings by Billy Whitlock, Pamby Dick, Olly Oakley, H.M. Scots Guard Band, and other popular British artists. Most recordings are from the mid-to-late ‘teens, with master numbers ranging from the 100s to 1700s (with a few outliers that might be from other sources), and they usually show an “X” in the wax. Data on these recordings does not appear in the surviving Gennett documentation.

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

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Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78 (1939 – 1951)

Speed Bump: LPs, 45s, and the Slow Demise of the 78
(1939 – 1951)
By Allan Sutton

 

The following is an abridged excerpt from the author’s Recording the ’Forties, which is in development for 2018 publication.

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In early 1939, Columbia Records’ Edward Wallerstein authorized research into a long-playing disc, with the backing of CBS management. CBS has just acquired the moribund label from the American Record Corporation, and Wallerstein was determined to restore it to its former glory.

Wallerstein assembled a first-rate research-and-development group that reported to Peter Goldmark, who attributed his early interest in longer-playing discs to a “sincere hatred” of the phonograph in its current form. Goldmark’s team included Columbia Records’ Jim Hunter, [1] Ike Rodman, Vin Liebler, and Bill Savory; Rene Snepvangers, who was transferred from CBS and charged with developing a suitable lightweight pickup; and Bill Bachman, who was poached from General Electric.

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There was nothing new about 33 1/3-rpm discs (the chosen format), which had been used for sound-track discs and radio transcriptions for a decade. Nor was a fine-groove disc anything revolutionary; Edison had introduced them in 1926, and in the mid-1930’s Wallerstein had witnessed RCA’s testing of the ultra-fine 0.001” (1-mil) microgroove that was to employed. Vinyl, the pressing medium selected by Hunter, was not new either, although it was not yet being used in commercial pressings. What was new was the bundling of those features into a consumer package.

Exhibiting remarkable foresight, Wallerstein ordered that Columbia’s new studios be equipped to record simultaneously on standard 78-rpm masters and 33 1/3-rpm 16″ acetate blanks. The latter were to be held in reserve as a stockpile of masters from which the long-playing discs could be transcribed when the time came.

Development of Columbia’s microgroove disc was well under way when the U.S.’s entry into World War II forced CBS to put the project on hold. Work did not resume in earnest until 1946. Late in the year, engineers demonstrated a long-playing record that unfortunately fell far short of Wallerstein’s expectations.

As costs mounted, CBS president William Paley became increasingly impatient for a launch and ordered Wallerstein, Hunter, and members of the engineering team to meet with him every two months. Every detail was carefully researched, from cutting angles to heated cutting styli, in the seemingly contradictory quest for higher fidelity and longer playing time. After considerable experimentation, which at one point involved recording live gunfire in the studio, the American-made   microphones were scrapped in favor of German models.

Columbia took another important step toward LP conversion in mid-1947, when it abandoned direct-to-disc mastering in favor of tape, using EMI and Ampex equipment. A seventeen-minute 33 1/3-rpm prototype disc, now referred to internally simply as the “LP,” [2] was rejected in the fall of 1947, with orders being given to extend the playing time to twenty minutes or longer.

The playing-time issue was soon resolved, but the LP was facing a more serious impediment in its journey to market. There were not yet any consumer-grade phonographs capable of playing the records. Although the recording technology had been largely perfected by the end of 1947, the development of affordable players had lagged, the same problem that had plagued RCA’s long-playing discs in the early 1930s. In addition to a 33 1/3-rpm turntable, a high-quality permanent stylus and lightweight tone-arm would be required to play the records properly.

After concluding that Columbia’s engineers had neither the time nor the expertise to create such a device, Wallerstein contracted with radio manufacturer Philco to develop and produce the first models. Working closely with the CBS team, Philco’s engineers quickly delivered an inexpensive, single-speed turntable that could be easily attached to the owner’s existing radio or phonograph.

In January 1948, Wallerstein was elected chairman of the board of Columbia Records, the presidency of which then passed to CBS vice-president Frank K. White. By that time, the microgroove LP was approaching its final form, with playing time now extended to twenty-two minutes on a 12″ side. After having kept the project under wraps for so long, Paley and Wallerstein began demonstrating the new records to others within the industry, in an attempt to garner licensing deals. Wallerstein demonstrated the LP to RCA president David Sarnoff in April 1948, in a meeting that did not go well and reportedly left Sarnoff seething. Demonstrations to Decca, and to the Electric and Musical Industries in England, were no more successful.

At the end of May 1948, Billboard reported that CBS executives were still “maintaining complete silence on the entire project” as far as the general public was concerned. That silence was finally broken on June 18, when Columbia hosted a preview of the new records and player for recording-industry executives, during which full technical details were publicly disclosed for the first time. Two days later, the press was given its first glimpse of the LP when Wallerstein demonstrated it to fifty reporters at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Columbia’s initial LP catalog, consisting of 101 records, was unveiled on the same day. Columbia then took its LP show on the road, demonstrating the new records to dealers on nationwide tour that wrapped up in Utah a month later. [3] The records were on sale to the general public by early September.

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Columbia’s LP were pressed in 10″ and 12″ formats (the latter reserved primarily for extended classical works) and retailed from $2.85 for standard 10″ releases to $4.85 for the 12″ Masterworks series. A 7″ LP, retailing for 60¢ and devoted largely to pop material, was introduced in January 1949.

The company had long been stockpiling classical masters in anticipation of the LP’s launch, at first on long-playing acetate transcriptions and later on tape, eliminating the need to piece together extended works from multiple 78-rpm discs. With the recording industry still in the grips of the second American Federation of Musicians recording ban, no new pop material was released. Instead, the pop LPs were cobbled together from pre-ban recordings that had previously been issued on 78s.

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Realizing that there was little patentable about the LP, and that it could succeed commercially only if the format was universally adopted, CBS executives rethought their licensing plans. In June 1948, the company made the LP format freely available to other companies, some of whom returned the favor by giving Columbia their LP pressing business, at least until they were able to retool their own plants. The result was an explosion of interest in the new format by major and minor labels alike. Legal, financial, and logistical issues would crop up, including the need to recalculate artists’ royalty (requiring negotiations with the AFM’s notoriously uncooperative James Caesar Petrillo), a demand by Standard Transcription that Columbia pay double recording rates for material taken from its masters, and the need to quickly supply radio stations with microgroove-capable equipment) but they did nothing to impede development. [4]

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The conversion to LP pressings was a fairly straightforward process. Vinyl and other plastic products were already  supplanting shellac as the favored pressing medium, and many  plants had experience working with the materials. The conversion to high-fidelity microgroove recording appeared to be more daunting, but Audio Record magazine assured its readers (comprising mainly independent-studio owners and engineers) that the transition would be “an easy one from the equipment point of view.” C. J. LeBel outlined the basic steps for recording engineers:

The most important [step] is provision for cutting at micro pitch — in the range of 224 to 260 lines per inch. Probably 224 to 240 lines is the most desirable for most applications. Some equipment already made has provisions for this without change… In other apparatus some change is necessary. An overhead feed mechanism relies on a change of lead-screw for change of pitch. To make this shift, then, it is only necessary to purchase and insert a new lead-screw.

The electrical characteristics are even simpler to achieve… we would use normal transcription recording characteristics. This would be either the NAB standard 16-db boost at 10,000 cycles, or the standard 10-db boost which many studios have found to be their usable limit. Columbia microgroove characteristic is the same as NAB, except that the response is slightly higher below 100 cycles. A simple equalizer will take care of this. For a great deal of the work the difference is negligible, and standard transcription equalization can be used. [5]

As eager as many companies were to adopt the new format, they  were quite ready to forsake the 78 entirely. London, which had added LPs to its line-up in 1949 and 45s in January 1950, took a step back  in April 1950 with its “Shellac Is Not Dead” campaign. Twelve new 78-rpm album sets and twenty new 78-rpm singles were announced, compared with only two 45s and one LP. The campaign was soon abandoned. [6]

Some dealers actively opposed the transition, seeing it as a form of price-cutting and fearing they would be left with a glut of unsalable 78s. Among them was David Krantz, president of the Philadelphia Retail Record Dealers’ Association, and producer of the minuscule Krantz Records label. In early 1949 he launched a campaign against the LP that succeeded only in losing business for his store and antagonizing some Columbia sales executives. His campaign ended abruptly in June 1950, when he and seven other Philadelphia record-store owners were arrested and charged by the Justice Department with conspiracy to fix record prices. [7]

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Krantz and his kind, however, were the exceptions. Despite some initial trepidation, the LP format was quickly embraced by record companies and dealers, in no small part because of its potential for wringing additional profits out of material that had otherwise run its course in terms of sales. The vast majority of early LPs (and slightly later, extended-play 45s) were simply cobbled together from material that had been previously issued on 78s. Sales boomed as customers rushed to replace their old shellac pressings with the quieter, trendier long-playing editions.

Companies’ announcements of their impending LP launches were appearing regularly in the trade papers by late 1948. Some were premature, and there were some false starts. Savoy announced its first LP release in December 1948, dubbed from previously released Errol Garner recordings, then but retreated, not issuing LPs on a regular basis until March 1950. The Bihari brothers announced that Modern Records was about to launch LPs in the summer of 1949, but they did not begin to appear until October 1950. [8] Some record companies undertook the conversion piecemeal, testing the waters with the less-important segments of their catalogs before committing to large-scale LP output. Allegro, which Paul Puner had launched after leaving Musicraft, began by test-marketing LPs for the children’s market; Dial, which was predominantly a jazz label, began with a small group of LP classical albums using leased foreign masters.

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Atlantic, Mercury, and M-G-M took the LP plunge in early 1949, followed by Tempo in May, Decca in August, and a host of smaller labels as the year came to a close. The independent classical labels, in particular, were quick to embrace the LP. Among the earliest to do so was Vox, which began releasing LPs in early May 1949. [9] The albums were produced in two series, retailing for $4.85 for domestic recordings, or $5.85 for foreign recordings licensed from Polydor, its various affiliates, and Discophile Francais. Billboard reported that Columbia Records was giving the company its full cooperation in making the conversion. (Columbia was not being entirely altruistic, having gained Vox’s pressing business in the process.) In November, Vox announced that it was abandoning 78-rpm production entirely. [10] The prestigious Concert Hall Society began with a single “experimental” LP in January 1949, [11] and by the early 1950s it had followed Vox’s lead to become an LP-only line. Several new entrants in the classical field during 1949–1950, including Period and Renaissance, skipped 78s and went directly to LP production.

In response to all of this activity, phonograph manufacturers began turning out multi-speed changers as fast as they could retool their production lines. A February 1949 Billboard article listed dozens of new changers that could play both 78s and 33s. At the entry level were turntable attachments like Philco’s. For buyers flush with post-war cash, there were changers with built-in AM-FM radios, and Westinghouse even offered changer-television combinations that retailed from $625 to $725. [12]

RCA officials offered no public comment on the LP until early 1949, when they countered with what they hinted would be a revolutionary new format. RCA made much of the project’s top-secret status, which it code-named “Madame X,” but leaked enough information to keep the public intrigued. By early January, it was already known that “Madame X” was a small-diameter, 45-rpm disc with matching changer. [13] In February, Audio Record magazine reported,

No technical information has yet been released, but we have collected the available data… X is a thin 7” pressing of pure vinyl. The center hole is large — about 1½ inches in diameter. Maximum playing time is 5½ minutes. Fine grooves are employed, and the playback stylus is 1 mil… So far as we can tell, the recording characteristic is the same as that used on standard Victor records…

The point which has aroused the widest controversy is the speed: 45 rpm. It is rumored that 33 1/3 rpm was tried and discarded… A moment’s consideration will show that for a given diameter, 45 rpm will give 35% higher linear groove velocity than will 33 1/3 rpm. It would be possible to get the same linear groove velocity at 33 1/3 rpm by increasing the outside diameter to 9 ½ inches, which would increase the vinyl cost 82% over the 7 inch size. [14]

A month later, in the same publication, RCA engineer D. D. Cole came forth with a detailed description of the new records and matching phonograph, along with his company’s rationale for introducing them. [15] RCA’s contention was that the myriad problems inherent in recorded-sound reproduction could be solved only with an integrated system. Much attention was lavished on development of the compact changers that would be required to play the new records. Recalling the old premium-scheme phonographs of the early 1900s, [16] they were designed to foil the use of any record other than the 45, although Cole promised that multi-purpose changers were in development. The new record-and-changer combination was touted as the “first in history of the industry to be designed specifically to complement each other” — conveniently overlooking Columbia’s new LP player and RCA’s Program Transcription disc-and-player combination of the early 1930s. [17]

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RCA’s new records and players were introduced to the public with considerable fanfare in April 1949. Cole assured customers that 78-rpm records were in no imminent danger of disappearing, but his wording hinted that they were already becoming an after-thought: “RCA Victor,” Cole declared, “will continue to serve the standard market by making all selections recorded for the 45-rpm system also available on 78-rpm records.” [18] He announced a novel plan to allocate different colors of vinyl to each series: red for Red Seals, black for standard popular, green for country-and-western, yellow for children’s, cerise for rhythm-and-blues, light blue for international, and dark blue for what he termed “popular classics.” Marketing was undertaken on an international scale. Even before the records were placed on sale, RCA Victor sales manager Frank McCall was dispatched to Cuba on the first leg of a seven-week trip to promote the new format to Latin American distributors.

RCA executives had predicted that other record manufacturers would rush to adopt the new format, as they had with Columbia’s LP. But unlike the LP, the 45 embodied some patented features, and RCA initially demanded a licensing fee its use. In addition, the unusually thin pressings, thick raised label area, and oversized spindle holes required the purchase of new presses, or major retooling of existing ones. Both issues were seen as impediments by companies that were already heavily invested in the conversion to LPs.

Despite RCA’s hype, consumers were slow to warm to the 45, citing the lack of selection and other companies’ failure to adopt the format. Many who might otherwise have embraced the new format had already purchased LP players, which could not yet handle 45s.

In response, RCA began offering support to other producers in the form of technical advice or custom-pressing services, and it soon dropped the licensing requirement. Nevertheless, the rapid adoption of the 45 that RCA executives had anticipated failed to materialize. Capitol Records was the only major label to immediately test the new format. [19] By turning the pressing over to RCA, Capitol managed to get a small  selection of 45s to market by April 1949. [20] M-G-M followed several months later.

The smaller producers remained aloof. One of the few to attempt the conversion in 1949 was Gabor Szabo, who had managed RCA Victor’s foreign-record division until 1941,when he left to launch Standard Phono, and had since maintained an on-again off-again relationship with his old employer. In the summer of 1949, he briefly test-marketed an inexpensive 45-rpm disc, pressed in inferior “Websterlite” plastic rather than vinyl, then jettisoned  the idea. Thus, Chicago-based Rondo Records became the first small producer to reach the market with 45s, barely nudging out the even more minuscule Discovery Records for the honor in January 1950. [21]

In December 1949, Billboard reported a “major metamorphosis” in RCA’s approach to the 45 that hinted of sour grapes:

The company is now distinctly cool to the idea or necessity of persuading other diskeries to adopt 45. The reason for the attitude is two-fold. Firstly, RCA has had to go it alone; secondly, the company now figures it has carved out a sizable market for itself in 45, and any diskery venturing into this market would mean a lessening of RCA’s profit therein. [22]

In the same story, it was reported that Decca executives had begun “gauging and checking” the 45-rpm market. Columbia was planning to launch 45s as well. Edward Wallerstein, despite his openly expressed  disdain for the format, gave the go-ahead for Columbia to start producing  45s in late 1949, reassuring customers that his company would make “any record the public wanted.” [23]  London began offering 45s in January 1950, along with the tiny Goldband and Folkstar labels. Decca, having finally completed its gauging and checking, signed on in July, and the 45 finally began to gain some traction in the marketplace. By the mid-1950s, the 45 would become the preferred format for pop singles.

Classical enthusiasts, however, were decidedly cool toward yet another format that required side-changes every five minutes. Columbia executive Edward Wallerstein recalled,

RCA especially spent huge sums of advertising money trying unsuccessfully to convince the public that the 45 was really a good thing for classics. Our policy for advertising was not to compare the products. We were pushing LPs, and there was no comparison… Actually the introduction of 45s didn’t touch the sales of LPs at all. Columbia quickly began to issue single pops records on 45s, which were and indeed still are, the accepted medium for singles. I was amazed when I learned that during the period in which RCA held out against the LP-that is, from June 1948 to January 1950, it lost $4.5 million. [24]

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Trade-paper reports of the period confirmed that Columbia’s classical Masterworks LPs were outselling RCA’s 45-rpm Red Seal sets by a substantial margin. Sales of the 45-rpm Red Seal sets, already hobbled by consumer resistance, were further undermined by RCA’s ill-conceived decision, in June 1949, to place portions of its 78-rpm catalog on “clearance sale,” with discounts ranging from forty to fifty percent. Dealers reported that the largest sellers by far were 78-rpm Red Seal album sets, undercutting  demand for the more expensive, albeit far less bulky, 45-rpm versions.

After taking a loss on record sales in 1949, RCA finally capitulated and began preparing to produce its own LPs, becoming the last major label to do so. The impending arrival of a three-speed RCA changer was announced in early December 1949. On January 4, 1950, the company announced that it was making its classical library available in LP format; pop LPs followed several months later. Pressed in better material than the Columbia LPs, and featuring attractive album-cover artwork in place of Columbia’s boilerplate “tombstone” design, they were an immediate hit with dealers and customers alike.

The proliferation of new formats and adoption of the microgroove standard had been unsettling for many small producers. With standard 78s still selling in large numbers, and no clear winner yet in battle between LPs and 45s, prevailing wisdom was that it was essential to release recordings in all three formats, an expense that many smaller producers could not afford. As early as November 1948, Allegro president Paul Puner had written the Department of Commerce, requesting their intervention in an increasingly chaotic situation. His request for standardization was flatly declined by Assistant Secretary Thomas Blaidesell, who advised, “We can appreciate the present difficulties facing your industry, but do not feel, operating under a free economy as we do, that this department could intervene in situations of this kind unless directed to so do by law.” [25]

The same uncertainty plagued the jukebox industry. J. P. Seeburg’s vice-president, after conducting an extensive study of the situation, observed,

“The Battle of the Speeds,” a highly controversial subject with the public, has, apparently, been equally confusing to the record manufacturers themselves and it, therefore, becomes a very delicate and speculative issue for those of us who are on the outside observing the internal turmoil within the record industry.” [26]

He concluded that the LP was not suitable for jukebox use, but he was enthusiastic about the 45, praising its quality as “so far superior [to 78s]  that it is really amazing.” In addition to the 45’s obvious strengths, he liked the increased playing time over the standard 10” 78, which would he thought would encourage  jukebox operators to stock short classical pieces — a market he foresaw (quite incorrectly, it turned out) as potentially lucrative. Nevertheless, Seeburg announced that it had no immediate plans to introduce a 45-rpm machine.

Others in the jukebox industry shared Seeburg’s wait-and-see attitude. At the end of 1949, executives at Wurlitzer, AMI, and other jukebox manufacturers were still expressing concerns over whether the format would be widely adopted by other companies. Lester C. Rieck, sales manager of H. C. Evans & Company (the manufacturer of Constellation jukeboxes) told Billboard,

If this record is universally accepted by the record-playing public, then without a doubt a large library of selections will be made available. When this time comes, and only then, will the 45-rpm record prove to be a money-maker for music-machine operators… It is going to take time, possibly years, to completely outmode the playing of 78-rpm record. [27]

A Rock-Ola executive cited difficulties in adapting its mechanisms to the new discs. “We have run into so many difficulties in adapting them to our phonograph,”  he reported, “that we have just about shelved the idea for the present.” An Aereon official, although enthusiastic about the new discs and their potential, admitted that his company was not actively engaged in designing a machine to play them. [28].

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But when multi-speed jukeboxes finally began reaching the market in 1950–1951, the 45 was vindicated as a medium for popular music. Jukeboxes proved to be ideal demonstrators and salesmen for the little records, and demand for 45s soared. By the early 1950s, all of the major labels, and a rapidly growing number of smaller ones, were offering pop releases in both 78- and 45-rpm form. The tipping point would come in mid-decade, when 45s outsold 78s for the first time.

 

References

 

[1] Hunter had been part of the RCA team that developed Victrolac plastic pressings in the early 1930s, which originally were intended as movie soundtrack discs. RCA engineer F. C. Barton first publicly disclosed the details at the Spring 1931 meeting of the Society of Motion Picture Editors.

[2] CBS trademarked the LP name but failed to aggressively protect it. Eventually, it was dtermined that the term had slipped into generic usage, and CBS lost claim to it.

[3] “Firm Sets Exhibit of New Records.” Salt Lake Tribune (July 11, 1948), p. 10.

[4] “Standard Yelps When Col. Cuts LPs from Ordinary Disks Sans Double Rate.” Billboard (October 9, 1948), p. 19.

[5] LeBel, C. J. “Microgroove in Your Studio. Part 2, Equipment Requirements.” Audio Record (February 1949), p. 3. Le Bel was vice-president of Audio Devices, Inc., a major supplier of blank recording discs and tape.

[6] “London Insists Shellac Is Live.” Billboard (May 6, 1950), p. 22.

[7] “U.S. Dragnet Snares Eight Philly Firms.” Billboard (Jun 10, 1950), p. 11.

[8] “Modern Adds 33 to LP Disk Line.” Billboard (Oct 28, 1950), p. 16.

[9] “Vox Waxery Hits LPs Heavy Next Mo.; 8–10 Disk Starter.” Billboard (Apr 30, 1949), p. 18.

[10] “Vox to Drop 78s, Use LP Exclusively.” Billboard (Nov 12, 1949), p. 18.

[11] “Concert Hall 1st Indie with LP.” Billboard (Jan 8, 1949), p. 14.

[12] “Mfrs. Hustle to Produce Combos Handling Different Speeds; Much Blueprinting.” Billboard (February 26, 1949), pp. 18, 115.

[13] “RCA’s New Phono System.” Billboard (January 3, 1949), p. 13.

[14] “Report on ‘Madame X,’ RCA Victor’s New 45 RPM Record.” Audio Record (February 4, 1949), p. 4.

[15] Cole, D. D. “The How and Why of RCA Victor’s New Record Player.” Audio Record (March 1949), pp. 1–3. Cole was chief engineer of the RCA Victor Home Instrument Department.

[16] These were phonographs that were equipped with special features (usually oversized spindles) that prevented their use with standard records. Dealers sold them very cheaply, or even gave them away, knowing they would make their profit on the matching records. Details of these operations came be found in the author’s A Phonograph in Every Home (Mainspring Press).

[17] Program Transcriptions were the first commercially produced 33 1/3-rpm discs and could be played only on specially equipped RCA machines. One of Edward Wallerstein’s first orders, upon his arrival at RCA, was that these money-losing products be discontinued.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Capitol Records Out with 45 R.P.M. Music System in April.” Cash Box (Feb 19, 1949), p. 4.

[20] Capitol’s initial 45-rpm offerings were classical, using material licensed from Telefunken in Germany. Pop 45s were added later in the year, making Capitol the first company to offer the same material in all three speeds.

[21] “45’s for Rondo, Discovery Firm.” Billboard (Jan 7, 1950), pp. 11, 35.

[22] “RCA Sets 3-Speed Plans.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), pp. 14, 41.

[23] Ibid., p. 41.

[24] Wallerstein, Edward. “The Development of the LP.” High Fidelity (April 1976).

[25] “Commerce Dept. Passes Buck on LP Plea to FTC.” The Billboard (December 4, 1948), p. 23.

[26] “Seeburg Analyzes ‘45’ Disks — Believes Subject Vital to Industry’s Future.” Billboard (December 10, 1949), p. 15.

[27] Weiser, Norm. “Juke Makers Eye ‘45’ Wax; Availability Is Chief Factor.” Billboard (December 17, 1949), p. 17.

[28] Ibid.

 

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

Princess Records and the Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Company (1910 – 1911)

Princess Records and the Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Company (1910 – 1911)

By Allan Sutton

 

The Sapphire Record and Talking Machine Company was among the earliest U.S. producers of vertical-cut discs, preceded only by the Sonora Phonograph Company. * (The Boston Talking Machine – Phono-Cut Record operation, previously thought to have been the first, was in fact the third to go into production). The company was incorporated in June 1910 by P. B. Verblanck, M. Wagner, and Dezso Tauber, with capital stock of $100,000. Tauber, who had recently resigned as manager of R. H. Macy’s phonograph department, served as the company’s general manager.

Within a short time of its launch, Sapphire was taken over by George Otis Draper, the well-connected son of General William F. Draper (a U.S. ambassador to Italy) and nephew of a former Massachusetts governor. Draper was an inventor, entrepreneur,  and self-proclaimed financial expert who was involved with various manufacturing, textile, lumber, quarrying, and real-estate ventures. Between 1909 and 1911, he authored More: A Study of Financial Conditions Now Prevalent, lost the better part of a $1.15-million inheritance, presided over the failure of Sapphire, and was petitioned into personal bankruptcy.

 

(Left) A Princess popular-series release, possibly pressed from Sonora masters. (Right) A Princess Grand Opera release, confirmed as using Sonora masters by the Record Research group. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Sapphire’s mailing address had been changed to that of Draper’s personal office in New York’s Metropolitan Tower by the time the company became fully operational. Of the original investors, only Tauber appears to have retained any hand in the company’s management following Draper’s takeover. Sapphire’s trademark application of August 13, 1910, claimed use of the Princess brand on phonographs and records since August 1 of that year, although no Princess records are known to have been released that early.

In January 1911, The Talking Machine World announced that Sapphire’s records were finally “ready to come into the market.” The same article reported that the Indestructible Phonographic Record Company’s Frederick W. Matthews was serving as studio manager. (Thus far, Indestructible had been involved only in the production of cylinders.) By then, the company was also marketing Sonora universal-type phonographs, re-branded as Princess, which were manufactured by Paillard in Switzerland.

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The rarely seen Empire Sapphire Record (not connected with the better-known Empire label of 1917–1921) used material from the Princess catalog and might have been produced after the Indestructible takeover. Catalog numbers were the same as on Princess, minus the “S” prefix. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Many Princess recordings are original to the label and quite likely were made in the Indestructible studio, given Matthews’ involvement with the company. The Record Research associates also discovered many instances of Sapphire releases using masters obtained from Sonora, which had taken over the former American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) studio and was in the early stages of financial failure.

Sapphire’s popular-series releases retailed for 75¢ each, and early issues used a separate catalog number on each side; single numbers with -A/-B side designation appeared on late  issues. There was also a Sonora-derived Princess Grand Opera Record series, retailing for $1, which did not feature any particularly noteworthy performers. Some of the same material was issued on the obscure Empire Sapphire Record label, which has no known connection to the Empire label of 1917–1921.

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A December 1912 Indestructible ad for remaindered Princess phonographs and records. The model shown is a re-branded Sonora machine, manufactured by Paillard in Switzerland.

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In April 1911, TMW reported that the Sapphire Record and Talking Machine Company’s owners “concluded they better quit than go ahead, as the enterprise required more capital than was anticipated.” In the same month, the company was sold to Indestructible, which marketed surplus Princess phonographs and records at deep discounts for the next two years but did not continue production of the Princess line. Indestructible would later re-enter the disc market with their own Federal label, the impending arrival of which was announced quite prematurely in July 1917.

Several claims filed against Sapphire by Metropolitan Life, the Merchant’s Exchange National Bank, and others, were finally settled in the autumn of 1911. Draper himself was petitioned into bankruptcy on December 30, 1911, which he attributed to having made poor investments.

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* Columbia produced vertical-cut wax discs in the late 1890s, for use with the short-lived Toy Graphophone, and recorded  experimental vertical disc masters in the early 1900s that were not issued commercially, but the company was not a regular producer of vertical-cut discs.

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References

 

“Absorbs the Sapphire Co.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1911), p. 25.

“An Ideal Xmas Gift—The Princess Talking Machine” (ad). Hicksville [OH] Tribune (Dec 12, 1912), p. 11.

Blacker, George, Carl Kendziora, et al. “Princess Record Discography” (unpublished). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press.

“Business Troubles. Judgements.” New York Times (Sep 1, 1911), p. 14.

Directory of Directors in the City of New York. New York: The Audit Company (1911).

“George Otis Draper Fails; Solver of Money Problems.” Chicago Tribune (Dec 31, 1911), p. 2.

“Incorporated.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1910), p. 45.

“New Incorporations.” The American Machinist (Aug 4, 1910), p. 237.

Sapphire Record & Talking Machine Co. “Princess.” U.S. trademark filing #51,385 (Aug 13, 1910).

“To Make Records and Machines.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1911), p. 61.

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

Crown Records Studio Mystery Solved (Partially)

The Crown Record Company was incorporated in New York on October 25, 1930, as a subsidiary of the Plaza Music Company,  after Plaza was squeezed out of the record business in the American Record Corporation merger.

The studio in which Crown recorded has been a subject of debate for years, with some suggesting (not implausibly) that it might have taken over Grey Gull’s studio. But this ad from the Warren [PA] Times Mirror for January 13, 1931, tells an entirely different story:

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So there you have it, although we’re not out of the woods entirely. Edison had two studios in New York (one of them more a supplemental facility) when it shut down record production in late 1929, and there’s no way of knowing from the ad which was purchased. There was also an experimental studio within Edison’s Orange NJ plant, which can almost certainly be ruled out.

Nor can we tell what equipment was used. Edison internal documents reveal that the company at the time it ended record production had multiple RCA-Photophone recording units in its possession, which normally were rented rather than sold. Did the Photophone lease transfer to Crown, or was some other recording equipment included in the deal? The answers probably can be found in the Edison National Historic Site archives given enough time, should someone have any of that to spare (we don’t, at the moment, but it’s on the to-do-sooner-or-later list if no one else steps up).

The phrase “and made” suggests that Edison’s former pressing plant or equipment was used, but again, we can’t be certain until documentation is found at ENHS. It’s long been known that RCA’s Camden NJ plant later pressed Crown records under contract, but that didn’t begin until February 1932, as confirmed by the RCA production-history cards.

 

Mainspring Press Website Changes – August 2017

We will be deleting the Articles section of the Mainspring Press website later this month. Some articles date back to the early 2000s, and many could use some updating. The best and most popular of the group will be revised and reposted as blog features over the next few months.

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The rest will go to their well-earned rest in offline storage. You’re still welcome to download the articles for personal use while they’re available — just keep in mind that copyrights and publication restrictions continue to apply, even to deleted articles.

 

John O. Prescott: From “Blue Indians” to Hopi Indians

John O. Prescott ranks high on the list of undeservedly forgotten recording pioneers. Although eclipsed by his brother Frederick (founder of the International Zonophone Company and the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company, the producers of Odeon records), John O’s accomplishments — which ranged from co-founding what would become the Nipponophone Company in 1910 to serving as Gennett’s chief technician in the 1920s — were equally impressive.

John Prescott’s role in the American Record Company (which was backed by brother Fred’s Odeon operation) and its marketing arm, Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott, is covered in detail in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and need not be repeated here. What we’ll be examining in this article is Prescott’s career after American Record’s demise.
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The American Record Company discs — nicknamed “Blue Indian records” by the trade, for their distinctive blue pressings and American Indian trademark — were quite successful until Columbia succeeded in shutting the company down for patent infringement in January 1907. [1] The partnership split, with Ellsworth A. Hawthorne and Horace Sheble regrouping as the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company, and John Prescott going his own way. Little more was heard of Prescott until November 1907, when The Talking Machine World reported, “He left last week for a fortnight’s hunting on Long Island, and on returning he may have something of interest to announce to the trade relative to his work in a fresh field.” [2]

The “something of interest” probably was the Twoforone Champion Record (presumably a double-sided disc), for which Prescott filed a trademark application on February 24, 1908. [3] Prescott had been quietly preparing to resume record production ever since the collapse of the American Record Company. In January 1907 he had applied for a U.S. patent on a new pressing process that included a provision for double-sided discs. [4] Two months later, TMW reported that he had taken over the former American Record Company studio, which he was managing in the guise of “The Laboratory Association.” [5] But with the means of production all in place (but not the necessary patents, assuming it was to have been a lateral-cut disc), Champion apparently failed to launched.

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Prescott’s trademark filing for Champion Records (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office).

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Instead, Prescott retired to his home in Summit, New Jersey, where his new neighbor was brother Fred (who, having sold his interest in International Talking Machine and returned home a wealthy man, was now happily engaged in his new hobby of raising chickens). But Prescott could not remain idle for long, and in May 1909 he sailed on the Lusitania for what was to have been a brief visit to London. Instead, he ended up on an extended tour that took him from England and France (where he was highly impressed by Emil Pathé’s demonstration of the vertical-cut disc) to Russia, then on to China and Korea—and, finally, to Japan, where his career would soon take an unexpected turn. Prescott was no fan of the country, as he made clear upon his return in August 1909. “Excuse me from permanently living in Japan,” he declared. “The beautiful pictures we see there of entrancing landscapes … are on postal cards only … Nobody has any money excepting the very rich, and they are comparatively few in the teeming millions of ordinary Japs.” [6]

Back in the U.S., Prescott leased the Laboratory Association studio to the Sonora Phonograph Company in September 1909. The company was planning to produce its own discs in both vertical- and lateral-cut formats (Sonora’s April 1910 TMW ad depicted a vertical-cut Sonora disc and a lateral-cut Crown disc, although the latter is not known to have been produced). However, Prescott does not appear to have had any involvement with the company, other than as landlord. The studio initially was managed for Sonora by former Zonophone engineer George Cheney, who departed for Phono-Cut before production got fully under way. [7]

In the meantime, Prescott had returned to Japan, despite his professed dislike of the place. In January 1910, The Talking Machine World reported that he was managing a recording studio in Tokyo. [8] The owner of that studio (whose name was not given by TMW) was the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company, Ltd., the only record manufacturer operating in Japan at that time. [9] Financed, owned, and managed by American businessmen, including Prescott, the company initially produced the Symphony Record label.

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The now-rare Symphony label was soon supplanted by the Nipponophone brand. Nipponophone got its start as the sales agent for the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company. (Author’s collection)

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Japan-American’s sales agent was the Nipponophone Company, which soon substituted its own Nipponophone label for Symphony. By the autumn of 1910, the Japan-American / Nipponophone combine was producing and marketing records on a fairly large scale under Prescott’s management.

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Prescott (seated at left) in Japan, 1910

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In addition to his expertise, Prescott brought along a ready-made catalog of Western recordings — the American Record Company masters. Nipponophone’s “Foreign Records” catalog of c. 1910–1911 included a substantial number of old American recordings that were renumbered and offered in new couplings, sans artist credits, with the occasional amusing mistranslation  (“A Gay Gossoon” became “A Gay Cartoon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” became “Dream of the Rabbit King”). [10] The records were intended for foreign residents and tourists, but demand for them must have been meager, and they are extraordinarily rare today. A badly damaged specimen, showing the original American numbers in the wax, was found on the West Coast many decades ago. A second specimen was later reported, but as so often happens, the supposed owner did not respond to a request for a confirming photograph or other proof of its existence.

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A page from Nipponophone’s “Foreign Record” catalog listing anonymous reissues from American Record Company masters. The uncredited artists included Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Frank C. Stanley, Len Spencer, and Steve Porter. (Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press)

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By the end of 1910, Prescott had enough of Japan. He resigned from the Japan-American Phonograph Company, and his place was taken by Thomas Kraemer, [11] who had been associated with the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company. Prescott’s stay had done nothing to improve his opinion of that country, its climate, or its workforce. Upon his return to the States in early 1911, he complained,

“The air is so humid that you soon fall into a condition of lassitude difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. To be sure, if you can adapt yourself to Oriental ways; that is, take things as they come in an indifferent, easy-going way, perhaps one could manage. An active American, coming from home full of life, snap, and ginger, and wanting to take hold and accomplish something the way we do it here, is forced to give up or become Orientalized. Excuse me, I am not built that way.” [12]

In June 1911, Prescott departed once again for Europe, where he “expected to look the trade over a little” before attending the coronation of George V in London. [13] Perhaps not coincidentally, his trip occurred at about the time that the London-based Disc Record Company, Ltd., acquired some American Record Company masters, which were parceled out to Britannic, Defiant, Pelican, The Leader, and other minor labels for the British and export markets. Whether the masters came from Prescott, from the Lindstrom organization (which had taken over the International Talking Machine Company’s assets), or from some other source, has not been established.

Little more was heard of John Prescott until August 1912, when The Talking Machine World reported that he had been in Constantinople for “a year or more,” managing an unnamed record company. [14] For the next eight years, Prescott’s name would be largely absent from the American trade papers.

Prescott eventually resurfaced in the 1920s. In 1920, brother Fred had placed some rather boastful ads in The Talking Machine World soliciting work as a consultant, but it was John who landed a steady job, at the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett Records division in Richmond, Indiana.

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Brother Frederick in search of work, 1920 (Talking Machine World)

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In August 1921, Gennett resumed recording in Richmond, after a hiatus there of nearly five years. [15] John Prescott was hired as chief technician of the Richmond facility, with duties that included wax formulation and oversight of the pressing plant. He also seems to have had some say in regard to master approval, and notes referring to “J. O” are sprinkled throughout the Richmond recording ledgers of the mid-1920s. It’s tempting to speculate that he was responsible for naming the company’s budget-priced Champion label, hearkening back to his aborted 1908 venture, but documentary evidence of that is lacking.

The “Blue Indian” man finally came face-to-face with actual Indians in May 1926, as part of a Gennett team that traveled to Arizona’s Grand Canyon to record traditional Hopi songs. The expedition was undertaken in association with the Smithsonian Institution, under the supervision of Dr. J. Walter Fewkes, head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Ethnology. Music Trade Review reported that the Santa Fe Railroad was assisting in moving the recording apparatus from Richmond and had obtained government permission to transport the Indians and their ponies the one-hundred miles from their reservation to the Grand Canyon.

Along with Gennett recording engineer Ezra C. A. (Wick) Wickemeyer, Prescott oversaw the cutting of fourteen masters (# 12526 – 12537, with a single take each for first ten sides, and two takes each for last two) in a makeshift studio at the El Tovar Hotel. The company, having experienced mixed results in its initial attempts at electrical recording, dispatched its more trustworthy acoustic equipment. Twelve masters were received in Richmond on June 2, followed by the two alternate takes on June 15. The masters were processed for commercial release under standard Gennett catalog numbers, after which they were deposited with the Smithsonian. [16]

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KAKAPTI: Ma’Qutu (Rabbit Hunt) (as “Makwatu”)  
El Tovar Hotel. Grand Canyon, Arizona: Late May 1926
Gennett 5759 (mx. 12530)

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Exactly when Prescott left Gennett has not been discovered, but he apparently continued to work in the sound-recording field at least into the early 1930s. On January 27, 1929, he and Frederick A. Kolster filed a patent on a photo-electric sound-recording system that they assigned to the Federal Telegraph Company of Newark, New Jersey. [17] After that, Prescott’s trail grows cold. He died in Pasadena, California, on July 14, 1946.

 

[1] American Graphophone Co. v. American Record Co., 151 F. 595.

[2] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (November 15, 1907), p. 79.

[3] Prescott, John O. “Twoforone Champion Record.” U.S. Trademark application #32,975 (filed February 24, 1908). Prescott was well acquainted with double-sided pressing methods. American Record had pressed double-sided discs as special-order items, under Ademor N. Petit’s patent #749,092, which was controlled by Frederick Prescott. Assuming the Twoforone was double-sided and had been launched in a timely manner, it likely would have beaten Columbia’s Double Disc to market.

[4] Prescott, John O. “Mechanism for Making Sound Records.” U.S. Patent #847,820 (filed January 15, 1907).

[5] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (March 15, 1907), p. 39.

[6] “’Talker’ Conditions in Foreign Countries.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1909), p. 41.

[7] “Geo. K. Cheney to Boston.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1910), p. 14.

[8] “J. O. Prescott in Japan.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1910), p. 3.

[9] “The Talking Machine Trade in Japan.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1911), p. 4.

[10] The Nipponophone Company, Ltd. “Foreign Records” (Tokyo, c. 1910–1911). A listing of the Nipponophone issues can be found in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015), available from Mainspring Press.

[11] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (April 15, 1911), p. 30.

[12] “Returns from Japan.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1911), p. 35.

[13] “J. O. Prescott in Europe.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1911), p. 54.

[14] “A Visitor from Turkey.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1912), p. 25.

[15] “Starr Recording in New York.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1917), p. 100. Gennett recorded in Richmond during 1915–1916, using often-obscure Midwestern artists. Recording activities were moved to New York in late 1916 or early 1917, to take advantage of better-known East Coast talent and accommodate those who “found it rather inconvenient to travel out to Richmond.” Regular recording sessions resumed in Richmond on August 20, 1921, according to the Gennett ledgers.

[16] “To Record Hopi Indian Songs on Gennett Records.” Music Trade Review (May 29, 1926), p. 81.

[17] Prescott, John O., and Frederick A. Kolster. “Sound-Reproducing System.” U.S. Patent # 1,776,046 (filed January 7, 1929).

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