The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The Radio Years — Part 3

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In this installment, Haenschen takes us inside Frank and Anne Hummert’s radio programming empire and offers a glimpse of a coming sea-change in the recorded-sound industry — the introduction of tape mastering and editing.

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

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After the “Champion Spark Plug Hour,” your files indicate that your next major radio appearance was the “RCA Demonstration Hour,” a mid-afternoon program on the NBC Blue network in August 1929. What are your recollections of that program?

That was a one-time program that [RCA founder and president David] Sarnoff wanted. He specified that he wanted familiar classical melodies featured on that program.

 

According to newspaper accounts of the broadcast, you conducted “Gustave Haenschen’s Little Symphony Orchestra” and also “The Singing Strings.” Do you recall any of the arrangements you used on the “Demonstration Hour”?

Only a few that Frank [Black] had arranged for our “Singing Strings”—the Meditation from Thais, an arrangement of the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, familiar classical melodies of that sort. The program was very well received because NBC and RCA really promoted it. That was the advantage of being with NBC during its early days. [NBC founder David] Sarnoff was very accessible to us, and his energy and vision were inspiring because radio was still new, and we were new to radio.

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Program listing for the “RCA Demonstration Hour” (July 1929)

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With very few exceptions, your radio shows were owned by Air Features, Inc., and from your personal archives I gather that you and all of the artists who performed on those programs were also employed by Air Features. Was Air Features a subsidiary of NBC or an independent production company?

The short answer is that Air Features was the name that two of the most important and powerful people in the radio industry came up with for their incorporation papers. From about 1930 till 1950, these two people, Frank and Anne Hummert, produced, directed and controlled 135 radio programs of every kind imaginable. Soap operas, which they essentially invented, were their bread and butter as far as most of the public knew, but they also produced and aired cooking shows, detective shows, kids’ shows, game shows, and of course musical programs.

To appreciate what Frank and Anne built, just add up the number of hours each week that their programs were on the air—an average of 36 hours of airtime every week. That was unheard of from independent producers, and it’s still the most airtime any producer or for that matter any performer has ever had on the air at the same time.

 

That’s more than Arthur Godfrey, who seemed to “own” television and radio in the 1950s, had on the air every week.

Not just “more,” but much more. At his peak, Godfrey accounted for about 15 hours a week on the air—not quite half of the total weekly airtime the Hummerts’ shows commanded. And their shows were on all three networks: the two NBC networks, the Red and the Blue, and on CBS.

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Anne and Frank Hummert

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In your archives, there are few photos of the Hummerts, and they look more like a father-daughter team than a husband and wife. Frank Hummert appears to be considerably older, very bony-looking, with thinning hair and a slight curvature in his neck. Anne Hummert, on the other hand, looks like she could be his daughter. Her personal trademark seemed to be her white-framed glasses and ever-present stenography pad. Were they as eccentric as photos of them suggest?

“Eccentric” fits them pretty well. They had become very, very wealthy from their radio shows, although Frank had been wealthy by most any standards before he hired Anne as an assistant. Frank had been an advertising executive for most of his working life, and had also made a lot of money in residential real estate when he was young. But that was years before he met Anne, when he was married to his first wife. She died young, and as often happens when a man loses his wife, Frank threw himself into his work. His work became his whole life. Then years later, he married Anne.

 

Do you know how they met?

Sure, of course. Her name was Anne Schumacher at that time. She was a college graduate [of Goucher College] with a real gift for writing. She had gotten a job writing for The Baltimore Sun while she was still in college, and the city desk editor, John Ashenhurt, took a liking to her. He and Anne got married in the late-1920s, I think in 1927 or 1928, and Anne became pregnant not too long after they got married.

Then Ashenhurst got an offer from one of the newspapers in Chicago, so they moved there. It was all right at first, but Anne had been used to working and was now stuck at home raising their baby. She was eager to find any kind of writing job she could get, and could work from home as much as possible.

Chicago was home to a lot of advertising agencies, and one of the biggest was called “Blackett-Sample-Hummert.” From what Frank told me, he had been offered a partnership in the agency but turned it down because he didn’t want to be tied to them. He and they compromised by putting his name on the agency because Frank was the key to their success. He turned out so many catch phrases, or slogans, for all kinds of products, and he was raking in money for the agency, so he was able to have his name on the agency without being tied to them.

 

When did he meet Anne [Ashenhurst]?

Frank was known for working almost around the clock, so he had several assistants—that agency was a very big operation—but a lot of them didn’t last because they couldn’t keep up with the workload he demanded. He happened to hire Anne to fill one of those assistant jobs when somebody quit. Well, he soon found out that she could outwork anybody. He kept testing her by giving her more and more to do, but the more responsibilities he gave her, the more ads she turned out. She was as driven and as meticulously organized as he was.

 

Was it Anne Hummert who conceived of the so-called “soap opera”?

No, no—that was Frank’s idea. Around the time [William S.] Paley got into radio in the late-1920s, his new network, CBS, was following the lead of NBC for daytime programs. It was obvious that women, or “homemakers” as they were called, were the audience for daytime radio. The two NBC networks put on daytime programs that were geared to women, including dramas, but those programs weren’t “serials”—in other words, Tuesday’s program didn’t pick up where Monday’s left off.

Frank had always been a movie fan, and like most of us who went to the movies in the 1910s, he saw how popular a serial called The Perils of Pauline was with movie audiences. That serial was so popular that other movie studios started producing serials, and they sold a ton of tickets.

What Frank [Hummert] did was to take the movie-serial concept and put it on radio. Then he got companies he was dealing with as an advertiser to sponsor them. Procter and Gamble was one of his biggest clients, and he got them to sponsor these daytime radio serials. That’s where the phrase “soap opera” came from. The “soap” was from Procter and Gamble, and “opera” was from the plots of these daily dramas, which had more twists and turns than Il Trovatore.

 

So, then, Frank Hummert came up with the idea of a daytime radio serial—but didn’t Anne Hummert write most of them?

Oh, no—that would have been impossible! It’s really hard to imagine today how many programs Frank and Anne Hummert had on the air on all three networks. They were producing sixty soap operas every week. Each of those shows aired Monday through Friday, so that meant that they had to have 300 scripts a week just for the soap operas—and soap operas were only part of [the Hummerts’] weekly schedule. There were all of the musical programs, not to mention the detective shows, kids’ shows, sports programs, and all the other shows they were responsible for every week.

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The Hummerts’ “soap opera factory” (1944)

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How did the Hummerts manage so large an operation?

Well, there are two answers to that question: their drive, which was phenomenal, and their ability to stay ahead of the growth of this empire that they built. Those two ingredients—the fact that both of them were so driven, and the fact that they could create and produce so many programs every year while also thinking up new ones and foreseeing how to manage their current programs and preparing the new ones simultaneously—that’s what made them so successful.

 

Yet they could walk down the busiest streets in Manhattan and no one knew who they were.

That’s right, and that’s just how they wanted it. You have to understand that they were in the entertainment industry. They were in show business but they weren’t entertainers—they weren’t “show people,” they were business people. For them, all of the trappings that entertainers typically want—their name in lights on a marquee, crowds of fans wanting autographs, and all of that fluff meant nothing to Frank and Anne Hummert. What mattered to them was power, wealth, and above all anonymity. The name of their holding company was Air Features, Inc., not Hummert, Inc.

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Anne and Frank Hummert (center and right) at CBS

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How would you describe your role in Air Features? What was the range of your responsibilities with the company?

I was the Director of Musical Programs for the whole corporation, so I was responsible for putting together, overseeing, and in several cases arranging and conducting all of the Hummert musical programs. There were fifteen different programs every week during the 1930s and 1940s, and I was the one who had to put together the orchestras, choruses and soloists, review and approve all of the [musical] arrangements for every program, review every script for the announcers, and oversee all of the rehearsals for every one of those programs.

 

How in the world did you do all of that?

I guess the way I would answer that is by saying that like the Hummerts, I was in the “business” of entertainment, and I had already had similar responsibilities at Brunswick, and even more when we created World Broadcasting and built it into a very large enterprise. I was used to getting the maximum amount done in a minimum amount of time. I could get all of the top studio musicians because they had worked with me already and knew what I was like to work for. The same with the arrangers, especially Frank Black. Between us, we hired dozens and dozens of arrangers.

 

Is it true that the Hummerts would only pay scale to musicians?

Well, that was their policy, but I had a lot of discretion about how much I could give as bonuses to players or singers who were making a lot of money for us. In the early 1930s, during the worst of the Depression, if you were a studio musician, steady work was the most important thing to you. If I approved hiring you at Air Features—and I would only do that for musicians I had already worked with, or ones who the best players recommended to me—then you had all the work you could possibly want. You might not like the music you had to play, but you were guaranteed long-term work as long as you were doing your best for us on the air.

 

About the selections for each program, did you choose them?

Technically, no—Anne Hummert picked every song for every program. But she was so busy with the soap operas and the other shows that I would draft the selections for each program, and she would approve most of them as soon as she read the draft. I knew what she liked, which was a mix of waltzes, love songs, operetta arias, and some “light” classical music, so I suggested what I knew she wanted to hear.

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Bob Hannon, Evelyn MacGregor, and Victor Arden reviewing music for the Air Features series, “Waltz Time.”

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How could she possibly monitor that many weekly music programs?

She couldn’t, any more than she and Frank could monitor sixty soap operas and the twenty or more other programs that they produced. They contracted for air-checks for all the programs, but they rarely had time to listen to them. But what they would do was to drop in unannounced at rehearsals. They could tell in two or three minutes how a rehearsal was going, and if they didn’t like some aspect of what they were hearing, whoever was responsible for that program would have a memo in his mail slot by the end of that same day, telling them what was good and what wasn’t good. The fact that they would drop in unannounced to any rehearsal is what kept the actors, announcers, and all the musicians in top form.

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The Hummerts drop in on a rehearsal.

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With your own schedule, being responsible for every facet of fifteen weekly musical programs on all three major networks at one time or another, how much rehearsal time could you put in before a broadcast?

I limited all of my shows’ rehearsals to thirty minutes before airtime. That meant the players and soloists were to be in the studio one hour before airtime, to spend the first half of that hour going over the arrangements and warming up. At exactly thirty minutes before airtime, they were to be in place, either sitting behind a music stand or on a riser if they were in the chorus, or standing near the microphones if they were soloists.

I would start the rehearsal by saying, for example, “Number 8, first ten bars of the refrain,” and whoever was scheduled to sing or play the eighth number on the program had to begin performing it immediately. As soon as I heard that it was right, I would motion for them to stop and then I’d pick another number and have the orchestra or the chorus perform several bars of that selection.

Keep in mind that these were many of the top studio musicians in the industry, so this was their livelihood. They knew that rehearsal time was kept to a minimum, and that if they weren’t in peak form and ready to go when the “On the Air” light went on, they weren’t going to be on the payroll anymore.

 

You mentioned that Frank Hummert was a widower when he hired Anne as an assistant. It seems as if she rose to the top of his agency in no time at all, and then was overseeing all of their soap operas—and somewhere during that timeframe, they got married.

Frank was in the advertising business, as I said, when he came up with the idea of matching clients with these daytime serials that he came up with. He had hired Anne as just another assistant, but what made her stand out was that she could conceive characters and scenarios for entire shows on her own. If my memory is accurate, she started at a fairly low rung on the ladder, but the whirlwind of shows she conceived and wrote is what made her stand out. Frank promoted her to a vice presidency after she had been there only two years, and he made her a partner in the firm about a year and a half later.

 

Considering the difference in their ages and backgrounds, what did they have in common?

There were several things, beginning with their frugality. They were living in Chicago when they got married, but the radio networks were in New York City, so for a year or more they commuted to Manhattan by train. They would take the Twentieth Century Limited on Sunday, stay in an apartment they rented in New York until Thursday afternoon, and then take the train back to Chicago. On the way there, they would listen to parts of Friday’s broadcasts while they were in their first-class cabin in the sleeping car.

When the money really started rolling in, they moved to Manhattan and took a palatial apartment on Fifth Avenue. They ran their household with the same efficiency as their radio shows. When my wife Roxie and I would be invited there for dinner, we’d always eat a light meal before we went there because all that Anne served was tomato soup out of a can, and some canned peaches or pears for dessert. Frank and Anne were non-drinkers—as we were—but they knew my tastes, there was always a cold bottle of Coke at my place at their kitchen table. My wife will tell you that I keep Coca-Cola in business.

Frank and Anne never “entertained” in the social sense of the word. Very few people were ever invited to their apartment. If you were among the few who were, and you were given a tour of their huge apartment, Anne would walk in front of you, pointing out this or that furniture and other décor—and as soon as she would take you from one room to the next, you’d hear Frank behind you turning off the lights!

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August 1933 advertisement for “The Maxwell House Show Boat”

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One of the most heralded shows you produced for Air Features took place on June 15, 1933, when the premiere broadcast of “The Maxwell House Show Boat” was aired “live.” All of the aluminum airchecks from that premiere have been saved and almost all are in remarkable condition. According to one of the stars of the premiere, Lanny Ross, you had scheduled Don Voorhees to conduct the program, but that he had taken sick an hour or so before the “live” broadcast and you substituted for him. Do you recall that last-minute turn of events?

Yes, but I insisted that because the program had been promoted heavily with Don as the conductor, the broadcast should be done with his name mentioned as the conductor. I had no need to have my name announced as the actual conductor, and Don was a good conductor whom we used a lot at World Broadcasting, so I wanted him to get the credit and the money for that premiere broadcast. I’m glad to know that the air-checks still exist, and I hope to hear them again.

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A different take on Voorhees’ departure from “The Maxwell House Show Boat” (Akron Beacon-Journal, December 25, 1933)

 

The next radio program I found in your archives was called “The Chevrolet Chronicles.” According to press clippings, the program was conducted alternately by you and Frank Black. What was the format of the program?

That program didn’t last long, and it was mainly because the format wasn’t right. The one broadcast I remember was with Eddie Rickenbacker, the famous American “ace” of the 94th Squadron in World War One, who spoke about the progress in air transportation and the need for the U.S. to have the best air force in the world. We arranged some World War One songs for that program, but the format didn’t leave much room for expanding it to something that listeners would wait for week after week.

 

Decades later, in the early-1950s, you were on radio again with Chevrolet, but in commercials rather than on a weekly program. In each of the commercials, you arranged the music to fit the repertoire with which the artist was most associated, and after the first verse of “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet,” each artist would say, “Thank you, Gus Haenschen, for your beautiful music.” Do you remember those commercials?

Oh, sure, very well. I was retained by the Campbell-Ewald [advertising] agency to come up with celebrity commercials endorsing the Chevrolet. Dinah Shore was already associated with Chevrolet, which was her sponsor. General Motors and Campbell-Ewald wanted a broader representation from famous singers, so I was given a sizable budget to recruit them. I’m please to say that the roster I put together included many of the singers I had performed with, and in some cases had helped their careers when they were young.

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Thomas L. Thomas, Margaret Daum, and Haenschen on the long-running “American Album of Familiar Music” (August 1950).

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Who were some of those singers, and what did they sing in these commercials?

What they sang was just the Chevrolet jingle, “See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet.”  I called on John Charles Thomas, Thomas L. Thomas, Gisele Mackenzie, Dick Powell, Dorothy Kirsten, Jan Peerce, and even Lauritz Melchior to record these commercials.  We recorded them on audiotape and then pressed them on microgroove transcription discs, which were sent to stations across the country from all three radio networks at the same time.

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Dick Powell (left) with Haenschen, during production of Campbell-Ewald’s Chevrolet commercials (Gus Haenschen Collection)

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You allowed your name to be mentioned as the conductor, which seems unusual for you.

That was Campbell-Ewald’s idea, not mine. We allowed three takes for each commercial. Audiotape had come in by then, so it was much easier to edit and correct any mistakes.  Except for Melchior’s, almost all of the other commercials were recorded in one or two takes. But Melchior was having trouble with his top tones that day, and was also garbling some of the words, so his [commercial] took about six or seven takes. I can still hear him trying to sing, “See da You-Hess-Hay in your Chev-rrro-let / America is da gr-gr-greatest land of all,” and ending it with an A-natural on the last take, “And see it in your Chev-rrro-let!”

He couldn’t get the A-natural during take after take, so we finally had to have him sing the line a tone lower, and a bit slower, so that our engineers could increase the playback speed and splice in the A-natural. When it was aired, that commercial got the most attention because of the way Melchior sang it. That series of commercials won an annual award, and I got a hefty bonus by Campbell-Ewald. That was a very good year from me.

 — J. A. D.

 

Previous Installments in the
Gus Haenschen Series:

Brunswick Years – Part 1  |  Brunswick Years – Part 2
Brunswick Years – Part 3  |  Brunswick Years – Part 4
Radio Years – Part 1  |  Radio Years – Part 2

Text © 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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

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

 

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years – Part 4 (Conclusion)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 4
(Conclusion)

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The industry recovered when the economy rebounded in the mid-1920s, even though radio was growing rapidly. What enabled the recording industry to prosper despite the rapid growth of radio?

Well, I can only give you the opinion I had at the time. I think that what kept the recording industry going in those years was that almost everyone owned a phonograph and had buying phonograph records since the turn of the [twentieth] century. So people were accustomed to the phonograph as a sort of “musical instrument,” and the biggest company in our industry, Victor, spent so much money on advertising that the public kept on buying records.

There was another angle to it, now that I think about it. Phonographs had been portable almost from the start. If you’ve ever seen Edison cylinder phonographs from the 1890s, they were in a wooden case that had a lid with a carrying handle on it. The motor was powered by springs, so it wasn’t electrical and didn’t have to be connected to a battery or an electrical outlet.

All of the [recording] companies made portable phonographs, and they became more and more compact. We [Brunswick] made one that was only about fourteen inches square and maybe three inches thick [the Parisian Portable Phonograph]. It was spring-wound, and the removable crank was inside the lid. For a horn, it had a paper cone that folded up so it too could be stored inside the case. There was even space to store a few records inside the lid. [1]

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Brunswick marketed, but did not manufacture, the Parisian Portable, which was identical with the Polly Portable Phonograph Company’s machine (see Note 1); even the setup instructions, printed on a cardboard disc, were the same (center right). For a time, Polly Portable gave away a special record with each phonograph purchased (center left).

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That little portable was smaller than any briefcase, so it could be taken and used anywhere. That wasn’t true of a radio because they weren’t portable in those days. They had to be connected to a power source, usually a series of batteries, and they also required an antenna—a very long wire antenna. Radios also had to be grounded, meaning that the chassis had to be connected by a wire to a piece of metal that was literally in the ground.

As radio receivers improved, so did reception—provided that the antenna wire was long enough and mounted high enough, because the AM signal was affected by hills and other parts of the landscape. What many people did, if they had an attic in their house, was to string a long line of bare wire around the attic walls. You had to put porcelain insulators near the beginning of the wire and also near the end that was attached to the radio chassis, to prevent a bolt of lightning from going into the radio during a storm.

Between the antenna wire and the ground wire, which most people clamped to a pipe in the house’s plumbing, radios weren’t portable. As radio sales increased and the [radio] receivers improved, several table-top antennas were developed and marketed, but in rural areas and hilly terrain, they weren’t very effective. It wasn’t until many years later that truly portable radios were developed. So by comparison, portable phonographs were really “portable,” and as long as acoustical records were played on them, they sounded pretty good because the frequency range of acoustical recordings was limited.

 

To what extent did electrical recording enable the phonograph to compete with the frequency range of high-quality radios in the 1920s?

Electrical recording rejuvenated the [recording] industry for a while, but it was still no match for radio, which got better and better because of the constant improvement in [radio] transmitters and receivers. I only wish we [Brunswick] had gotten into electrical recording when Victor did.

 

But didn’t Brunswick begin issuing electrical recordings soon after Victor introduced the Orthophonic Victrola and their first electrical recordings in the spring of 1925?

 I wish! Victor [and Columbia] bought [sic; licensed] the Western Electric system and manufactured a phonograph that was built to reproduce the wide frequency range of the new electrical recordings. And it was an acoustical machine, not an electrical one. The engineers who developed the [Western Electric] system designed every component—the diaphragm in the reproducer, the tonearm, and especially the horn—to be able to reproduce all the frequencies of their electrical recordings.

The [Orthophonic] horn they designed was sort of like the shell of a pearly [i.e., chambered] nautilus, meaning that the horn had several interlocking chambers that were almost ten feet long if the horn would have been made in a straight line, like a very long, square-shaped megaphone, rather than chambered like the Orthophonic horn was.

 

Was Brunswick aware of the Western Electric process that Victor introduced in its new Orthophonic phonograph and recordings?

Oh, sure. We [Brunswick] had been approached by several experimenters who were working on electrical recording. There was a fellow named [Charles A.] Hoxie who approached us with his process. Percy Deutsch dealt with Hoxie and another fellow named [Benjamin F.] Meissner who had an electrical-recording system. [2] Anyway, we waited too long to make a decision, and when we did, we ended up with the worst of all systems.

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Charles Hoxie’s Pallophotophone (shown above in November 1922 and February 1923) was originally designed to record on film. Later adapted to produce disc masters, the Pallophotophone was licensed in 1925 by Brunswick, which dubbed it the “Light-Ray” process for marketing purposes. Haenschen’s recalled, “That damned process was totally unpredictable.”

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You’re referring to the Pallotrope [Pallophotophone], or the “Light-Ray” process as Brunswick called it in their advertisements?

Yes—and what a mess it was! The way it was advertised gave the impression that this beam of light was reflected by a minuscule mirror that drove the cutter for the wax master. Some of our Promotion Department’s bulletins even gave the impression that a beam of light actually played the records. But the phonograph we put out for these new recordings used essentially the same components that our phonographs always had: a tonearm, a reproducer, and a removable stylus. There was no beam of light that played the record.

 

But Brunswick did use the “light ray” method in the recording studios, correct?

For a while, yes, but the results were all over the place because that damned process was totally unpredictable. Most of the time, the test pressings of the recordings had so much distortion that they were worthless. The distortion might be in the bass in one test pressing, and then in the middle or upper range in another. About the time we thought we had solved the distortion problem in one part of the range, it would be in another part [of the range].

The microphone we had to use may have been the source of the problem. It looked like an oversized telephone. it had a flared cup that funneled the sound into the internal parts of the microphone, like telephones were equipped with back then. If there was any tiny mirror suspended in that contraption, I would want to see it for myself. To me, the casing that held this supposed mirror looked more like an oversized diaphragm like the ones you’d see in a telephone.

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(Top) A simplified diagram of the Pallophotophone system as adapted for “Light-Ray” disc recording. (Bottom) Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in 1926.

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That microphone was mounted on a steel pole that could be adjusted up or down in height, and the cast-iron base was on casters so it could be moved around. But no matter where we put the thing in relation to the performers, we couldn’t get consistent, distortion-free recordings.

 

Brunswick kept advertising the “light ray” system for a couple years after it was publicly introduced. Were you able to get consistent results finally?

No. That process was so unpredictable that we were having to call the performers back to record another “take” of the same performance, hoping that the thing might work this time. We were spending so much time calling back the performers for more “takes”—and in any business, time is money, so we junked that “light ray” thing and made a deal with Western Electric to be able to use their process instead. Back then, it was possible to make confidential deals like that and have them stay confidential. Anyway, from then on the sound quality of our recordings was on a par with Victor’s.

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From The Talking Machine World (February 1926)

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After Brunswick quietly adopted the Western Electric process, what happened to Frank Hofbauer, who had designed the recording machines and had made the masters of Brunswick acoustical recordings?

Frank stayed with us for several years. We didn’t stop making acoustical recordings altogether, so he was still vital to us, especially after we acquired Vocalion. A lot of those Vocalions of that time, and I’m speaking of the middle- to late-1920s, were still acoustical. [3]  So Frank was still very much an important man for Brunswick. Incidentally, he was still living in the same house in [East Orange,] New Jersey, where he had lived when he worked with Edison.

 

Were you or any Brunswick executives invited to Edison’s laboratories, and if so did you meet the great man in person?

It was customary for us to host the executives from other companies, including Edison’s, and vice-versa. We were invited—and by “we” I mean Frank [Hofbauer], Percy Deutsch, Bill Brophy and Walter [Rogers] and I—to the Edison recording studios, which were on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and also to his laboratories in [West Orange,] New Jersey. Edison wasn’t there—I think he was in Florida then—but several of the Edison men made quite a fuss over seeing Frank [Hofbauer] again. Walter Miller, who I think ran Edison’s recording studios at the time, took us through the complex. What I remember the most about it was being shown this cubbyhole under a staircase where the “Old Man,” as he was called, took naps when he felt like it.

 

You also toured the Victor and Columbia studios?

Columbia, yes—that’s when they were on the top floor of the Gotham building in New York, which was new at the time. We didn’t tour the Victor complex, which was in [Camden,] New Jersey, but we had an even bigger treat. The founder of Victor, Eldridge Johnson, had a yacht—and when I say “yacht,” I mean a real ship. It was named “Caroline,” which I think was his wife’s name. Mr. Johnson took all of us on a cruise in Delaware Bay, and we had the best of everything on that ship. Will Darby went with us, and of course he and Mr. Johnson went back to the [Emile] Berliner days.

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Eldridge R. Johnson in the early 1920s (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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When I was introduced to him, he asked me what my background was, so I told him I was a mechanical engineer and a machinist. I mentioned that I had my own small “factory,” as I call it, and that all of my time away from Brunswick was spent at my lathes and other machines making metal parts and welding and that sort of thing. Well, that got him to reminisce about his machine shop in Camden, where he had developed the Victor phonograph, the one that became the Victor trademark with the dog listening to the horn.

 

How would you describe his personality and his demeanor based on what you observed during that cruise?

He had a very courtly manner, and he was well-spoken. I don’t know how much formal education he had, but I saw photographs of the machine shop where he had developed his spring motor and talking machine, so I know that he probably worked seven days a week in that little shop just to make ends meet. But when he started Victor, and then it grew and grew and he became very wealthy, he learned how to comport himself like other very wealthy men. He had the finest clothes, the best wines, best cigars, several homes, and that beautiful yacht. My guess is that he learned all of that by observation.

 

Returning to the performers you had under contract, there are two dance bands that I want to ask you about, the Isham Jones orchestra, which you had mentioned earlier, and also the Ray Miller band.

 There’s not much to say about Ray Miller’s band because he had next to nothing to do with it. We hired him when he got a very good engagement at the Arcadia ballroom on Broadway, which was new at the time. Ray was a mediocre player—a drummer, but not a very good one—and I didn’t even let him play in his recordings. I put that entire band together myself. I picked really good players who were in our studio band, the same guys who were in my Carl Fenton band, and I conducted them. Ray wasn’t even there for some of the recordings because he didn’t add anything. He was just the front man.

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Ray Miller’s Orchestra, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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The difference between Ray Miller and Isham Jones is like the difference between day and night. Isham was a consummate musician—an excellent sax man who could also double on clarinet, and a real leader. Every man in his orchestra loved playing for him. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was a celebrity because he wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have a “show biz” ego or any of that. But man, could he lead a band!

He was very interested in the recording process, and he worked with me on the arrangements that were necessary for acoustical recordings. He picked up all of that very easily, and he did his own arrangements for most of his recordings with [Brunswick]. As I think I mentioned, he also co-wrote some very fine tunes with Gus Kahn, and we recorded them—“I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It Had To Be You,” and “Swingin’ Down the Lane” were all very solid hits.

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Isham Jones’ Orchestra in Chicago (Library of Congress)

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I often think back to working with Isham in our studios because he was such a pleasure to work with. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known—he would do as many “takes” as necessary until he felt the playing was tight and perfect. He knew just where to place his men in relation to the [recording] horns, and he would be there in his shirtsleeves on the hottest days, wiping his forehead between “takes”—he didn’t have to wear his toupee in the studio, like he did when he was playing in public—and he would urge the guys to do it one more time if he felt that a “take” wasn’t perfect. He was one of our favorites at Brunswick—and he was also Al Jolson’s favorite, too.

 

About the one and only Al Jolson, I’m sure you have a lot to say!

He was the biggest star we ever had, and Brunswick wouldn’t have been so successful so quickly if it hadn’t been for Al Jolson. I directed most of our recordings of Al, not all of them but I think most of them, which meant that we had to record him after his shows, which could last until three o’clock in the morning. It also meant that we had to rely on our portable recording equipment, and rent the best space we could find in whatever city Al was playing in order to keep our Jolson inventory well stocked.

 

He was said to be very difficult to work with unless everything was done his own way. How was he to work with from your standpoint?

He was never difficult at all—and he would listen to my suggestions, which were deliberately spare because he had his own distinctive style, a style that spawned hundreds of imitators over the years. I knew how to treat him, so he was open to the very few suggestions I ever made. He wasn’t like that with others, though. If some arranger, director or conductor did suggest that he sing a song a certain way, he would either give them a withering stare until they walked away, or he would reach into one of the front pockets of his trousers and pull out a thick wad of $100 bills with a rubber band around them and would say “This is how much money I make in one night. Show me what you make.” But he never did that to me.

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Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” was one of the most heavily promoted records of 1928.

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Being the biggest star in show business, Al could even get away with chewing out some of the big-name songwriters. He would tell Gershwin in Yiddish to go to hell for making any suggestion about how a song like “Swanee” should be sung. But there was one he never argued with: Irving Berlin. When you listen to Jolson’s [Brunswick] recording of Berlin’s song “Remember,” you’ll hear Jolson sing it that way it was written.

That was because Berlin had told him bluntly that he had written this song for the woman he loved—Ellin Mackay, whom he married—and that if he heard one hint of a “Mammy-ism” on Jolson’s [Brunswick] record, hell would freeze over before he would give Jolson another song. As you can hear on the record, Jolson sang “Remember” exactly as he was told to sing it by Irving Berlin himself. I liked that record because it showed that Jolson could sing beautifully when he wanted to.

 

Your tuba player, John Helleberg, who later played the string bass for your Brunswick recording sessions, told me a story about Jolson recording a song during a session that was not going well. I feel sure you know the story, and will ask you to tell it here.

That happened in St. Louis, when he was appearing there in “Bombo.” [4] We were having trouble with the field-recording equipment. I think the song we were recording was “California, Here I Come.” We ended up doing four, five, or maybe six takes as I recall. Jolson was not a patient man, and after having sung the same song so many times already, he was getting pretty frustrated, and so were we. Finally, I said to him that we would do one last take, and that was enough, that we would just have to make do with that take.

Well, the equipment cooperated, and during the last chorus Jolson unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall down to his shoe tops—and what he did next I’ll leave to your imagination. The rest of us were doing our best to stifle a belly laugh until we got the signal that the stylus had been lifted from the wax master. Then we all broke up laughing, and even Jolson laughed at what he had done. Yet when you listen to that recording, you have no idea what was going on while it was being made, because Jolson’s incredible verve is what you hear.

 

There was also an incident in which he wanted to make a recording of an opera aria, correct?

Yes, unfortunately. I have never known a pop singer, including Jolson, who didn’t want to try to sing opera arias. For Al, the aria he thought he should record for us was the Prologue from Pagliacci. [5]  As anyone who knew Al would tell you, saying no to Al Jolson was just not done—especially not by any of us at Brunswick, where he was our biggest draw.

I wrote the arrangement for the small orchestra we were forced to use in the acoustical-recording days, and Al arrived about 3:00 a.m., as usual, just bursting to record that Prologue. Frank Hofbauer, our recording engineer, was a good-sized fellow with a pronounced German accent, and I remember him putting a blank wax disc on the recording lathe and waved his hand through a small glass window that separated the recording studio from the room that held the recording equipment. That was the signal for Jolson to begin singing the Prologue—which he did, and to my surprise the first two lines, which he sang in phonetic Italian, were at least credible.

But the Italian text got to him and he blew the next line and the one after that—and then he started joking around in English, adding a couple choice Yiddish words, while the band continued playing. At that point, Frank Hofbauer lifted the cutting stylus from the wax disc so the recording would stop. He opened the little window that separated his room from the studio—but before he could say a word, Al could see from his facial expression that Frank was irritated.

Then Al turned on the “Jolson charm,” telling Frank that it had been childish of him [Jolson] to waste valuable studio time by clowning around for two minutes after he knew that there could be no record because he had messed up the Italian lines. As he was apologizing to Frank, he begged for two things: a pressing from that wax master, even though it was incomplete, and another chance to record the Prologue. “Believe me, Frank,” he said, “I can sing it like an Italian baritone if you’ll just put another wax disc on your machine. Please, Frank, won’t you give Jolie”—that’s how he referred to himself—“one more chance to prove to you what I can do?”

Frank looked at me, and I gave him a look back that said, “He’s our biggest star so give him another shot at it.” About five minutes later, when the second attempt was underway, I wished I hadn’t done that to Frank because Jolson clearly had no intention of singing the Prologue. Instead, he sang the first line in Italian, and then started “singing” the crudest lines you can imagine—some in English, and some in Yiddish.

While Jolson was busy clowning around in front of the [recording] horn, Frank came storming out of his room carrying the thick wax disc in his hands. He marched up to Jolson and said, “You t’ink I vant to go to prison?” Then he threw the disc at Jolson’s feet and, of course, it broke into pieces on the floor.

Jolson didn’t say a word; he just left the studio. I told the guys in the band to take a break. It was my band, incidentally, which I led as Carl Fenton.

While the guys were taking their break, I walked with Frank into the room where his recording equipment was. He swore that he would quit before ever recording Al Jolson again. It took a while but he finally calmed down, although he still had some unrepeatable German words for what he thought of Jolson. Since I grew up speaking German, and Frank and I frequently spoke German to each other in the studio, he didn’t need to translate any of his epithets for me.

Although Frank made a very good salary at Brunswick, he was a frugal man by nature and he drove an old Model T. When I say “old,” I mean one with a brass radiator, the kind Ford was selling when I was just starting college. But being mechanical, Frank loved cars and was especially fond of a brand called Hupmobile, which was very popular in those days.

About two weeks after the Jolson incident happened, a messenger came to the studio asking to see a ‘Mister Hofbauer,’ for whom there was a gift that was too large to fit in our elevators. When Frank went downstairs, the messenger handed him the keys to a brand-new 1924 Hupmobile touring car, a four-door convertible with every option you could think of. It was painted Navy blue, with a matching leather interior and convertible top. On the dashboard was a brass plaque that read, “To Frank Hofbauer from his friend Al Jolson.”

That was Jolson for you. When he wanted you or needed you, he’d find out what you like, buy the top of the line of whatever it was, and have it engraved so that you’d never forget it, and that everyone you knew would be aware that it was a gift from “Jolie.”

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Jolson mugging for the Bain News Service cameras
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Did you stay in touch with him over the years? And were you surprised when he made a comeback in the 1940s when “The Jolson Story” became such a hit?

Yes, I stayed in touch with him in passing, and was always happy to see him. About his famous comeback, I wasn’t too surprised about it because he had always been popular and had made a number of films that were very successful. He didn’t like radio because he wanted to be seen, not just heard, but he did well enough on radio and [his] films kept his image before the public.

He also took very good care of himself. Al had had tuberculosis when he was young, so he always made sure he got plenty of rest. When he was living in New York, he would lie down for three or four hours in the afternoon, to make sure he was rested for his evening show. When he moved to California, he used to lie in the sun for three or four hours and get a tan while he was resting.

But no, I wasn’t totally surprised when “The Jolson Story” made him almost as big as he had been in the 1920s, when he was our top star at Brunswick. What did surprise me is that the kid who played him, Larry Parks, looked nothing like him and wasn’t a singer at all. Yet he was able to mime to Jolson’s voice on the sound track, and he was able to copy some of Al’s gestures well enough to give a credible impersonation. But it was Jolson’s voice and the energy in his singing that made the movie such a hit.

 

Did you see him during that comeback, that second career?

Yes, in Hollywood, and although he had aged, he was the same Al Jolson that I had known in the 1920s. No one on earth could make you feel greater than Al Jolson when he singled you out for attention. In my case, I think he had very good memories of our working together at Brunswick, so when he had that fantastic comeback and I saw him in Hollywood, he treated me like a long-lost friend.

He had known my wife, Roxanna, at Brunswick because she was the secretary to Milton Diamond, who managed our [Brunswick] radio division. That’s how I met her—she was Rose Anna Hussey at the time, but she changed her first name to Roxanna. We were married in April 1925, and for our wedding some of the biggest gifts we got were from Al Jolson. Not only that, but after our honeymoon he invited us to the Winter Garden, and during the performance he had a spotlight put on us and introduced us to the audience. When I saw him in Hollywood after his comeback, he asked me about “Roxie,” as she’s called, and also wanted to know all about our kids and what they were doing now that they were adults.

We were having lunch one day, and I said to him, “Al, I would have written all of those arrangements for your songs in ‘The Jolson Story.’ How come you didn’t call me?” I knew, of course, that Saul Chaplin, who was a friend of mine, was one of the arrangers that the studio had used. He said to me, “Why, Gussie”—that was always his nickname for me—“Gussie, I did use your arrangements! I told those studio guys that I wasn’t going to use anybody’s arrangements but Gus Haenschen’s! Oh, maybe they added a couple more clarinets or whatever, but those are your arrangements. I demanded it!”

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Jolson lied to Haenschen about having used the latter’s arrangements in
“The Jolson Story” (1946).

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He had me so convinced that I actually believed him. It wasn’t until later, when I listened to the recordings from the soundtrack, that I realized the only similarity between my Brunswick arrangements and the ones he sang on the film were that the arrangements had the same chords. Other than that, they were entirely different. But when Al told me how he had insisted that the studio had to use my arrangements, he was so convincing that I believed him! That same power which he used to convince me is what had made him a star in the early 1900s, and what made him a star again forty years later.

 

In what year did you leave Brunswick—and if I may ask, why did you leave?

I resigned at the end of June in 1927, but it wasn’t by choice. When we began doing the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we were learning all about the radio industry, which was new at the time. The big stations on the East Coast had studio orchestras, and so did the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities. But there were hundreds of small stations between the coasts which had to make do with a pianist and maybe an organist if the studio could accommodate a theater organ.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if someone could produce and distribute high-quality recordings of orchestras playing really innovative arrangements, and then lease them to these small stations all over the country, there was a fortune to be made. When the telegrams and letters kept pouring in after every “Brunswick Hour” broadcast, we—and I’m speaking of Frank Black, Bill Brophy, Ben Selvin and I—went to Percy Deutsch and sold him on the idea of Brunswick starting its own transcription service. He thought it was a terrific idea, so he wanted to be one of the founding partners in what would be a new, separate division of Brunswick’s phonograph and radio business.

By then, transcriptions were relatively common, but they weren’t what we had in mind. They were recordings taken from a radio receiver and recorded on aluminum discs. In the [radio] industry, they were called “air-checks” because they weren’t intended to be heard by anybody but the network people and the sponsors or their agencies. So these were literally “checks” of the radio signals that were transmitted over the air, and the quality of the aluminum discs was way below what any station would ever put on the air.

Instead of air-checks, we began recording orchestral arrangements on the same wax masters that we used for our [Brunswick] studio recordings. We made the recordings in two sizes, twelve-inch and sixteen-inch, and recorded them at 33-1/3 r.p.m., which extended the playing time considerably. Most were lateral-cut, but we also made vertical-cut transcriptions. We were using the Western Electric system by then, so the sound quality of our transcriptions was very high, more than sufficient for a small radio station to play them and give their listeners the impression of a “live” orchestra.

By about 1926, we had already gotten Western Electric to license us to use their recording system, and we had negotiated with several pressing plants to make large quantities of these oversized discs. The pressings had to be made from the best material, without any abrasives in the sides or the bottom of the groove. We couldn’t use the Brunswick studios to make these recordings, so we set up our own studios, Sound Studios, at 50 West 57th Street in Manhattan.

We hired [recording] engineers who had been trained by Western Electric, and we employed them with the stipulation that they had to be available as needed. We also put together a roster of the best musicians who worked for us at Brunswick and Columbia—Ben Selvin was my counterpart at Columbia by then—and all of us did the arrangements for the studio orchestras we put together. Eventually, we had one of the largest and most diverse libraries of recordings here or abroad.

We did all of this with our own money, not Brunswick’s, but we were acting on the assumption that Percy Deutsch had told the Brunswick parent company what we were doing. Well, he didn’t—but we didn’t know that until we were called to a meeting that we weren’t told about until the day it took place. The meeting was held in a hotel and we were told it was important, and to be there on time. I called Percy about it, and I got concerned when he said that he didn’t know anything about it, but that he would be there too. Ben didn’t go because he was a silent partner in Sound Studios, so Brunswick didn’t know that he was one of the investors.

We went to this hotel conference room expecting to be briefed on something new that Brunswick was developing. But as soon as we walked in, we were told to sit on one side of this conference table. On the other side were Brunswick lawyers, and they got right to the point. We were told to make a choice between being employed by Brunswick and closing down our Sound Studios operation, or else submit our resignations. The other alternative was to be fired and forfeit any earnings that we were due to collect, other than from our Brunswick stock.

Percy Deutsch was given a harsh reprimand by the main one of these lawyers—and [Deutsch] was a Brunswick family member. That will give you an idea how confrontational this meeting was. The lawyers gave us fifteen minutes to make a decision, and we were told not to leave that room while we were deliberating.

Frankly, it wasn’t hard for any of us to make the decision to resign because we knew that the future was radio, and that we could fill a niche that somebody else would fill if we didn’t. So Bill Brophy and Frank [Black] and I submitted our resignations, and signed a confidential agreement that Brunswick would announce our departures by saying that we were pursuing other aspects of radio and recording, or something to that effect.

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The Talking Machine World reports Haenschen’s resignation from Brunswick (July 1927) and his involvement with Percy Deutsch’s new venture (October 1927).

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I left with a very good settlement, money-wise, and felt relieved because I could concentrate all my time and energy in our new business. When we started putting together our plan for a new transcription business for radio, Sonora, which had put out some good phonographs, had gotten into the [recording] distribution business by merging with several smaller companies.  

We thought about acquiring Sonora because it was in financial trouble—it was never run very well—but there was some litigation going on about Sonora, so we scratched that and decided to develop our own distribution business. [6]

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Although Haenschen recalled that Percy Deutsch “scratched the idea” of acquiring Sonora, Deutsch and associates did acquire the company in late 1927 (see Note 6). Haenschen (top left) and Frank Black (bottom left) served as studio director and arranger, respectively, for the new venture.

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We formed a corporation called “World Broadcasting Service,” which we changed to “World Broadcasting System” a bit later. Now we were in a new venture, and all of us were like kids on Christmas morning. The World Broadcasting System grew rapidly—and it happened just in time because Brunswick got into pre-recorded programming the very next year.”

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

No, none at all because I was in radio, and it became a much bigger career for me than Brunswick was. I’m not the sort who suffers from nostalgia or re-thinks what might have been. I’ve never had time for that. I’ve always lived in the present while also looking to the future. But now that you’ve taken me back to my nine years at Brunswick, they were happy years for me—I met my wife there, and I worked with many of the greatest artists and entertainers of that time. I think I was very, very lucky to have been part of the founding of a record company that grew very rapidly and became one of the three largest companies in the [recording] industry. I was at the right place at the right time.
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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] Brunswick did not develop or manufacture these unique portables. They were produced by the Thorn Machine Products Company (Syracuse, New York) beginning in late 1926 and were marketed concurrently by the Polly Portable Phonograph Company (New York) as the Polly Portable, and by Brunswick as the Parisian Portable. Other than the brand name and some very minor cosmetic differences, the Polly Portable and the Brunswick Parisian Portable were identical. The Polly Portables were being remaindered for as little as $2.98 each by early 1929. Both models were last advertised in mid-1931.

[2] In November 1921, Meissner transmitted portions of an operatic performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater to a Magnavox receiver in Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters, which was connected to what news reports termed an “electrical recording device.” Although Meissner’s work with Brunswick came to naught, he went on to design a number of other electronic devices, including the Meissner Electronic Piano in 1930.

[3] Haenschen is mistaken here. Brunswick began recording electrically in April 1925, and electrical and acoustical sessions for the Brunswick label were intermixed during April and May. The final acoustical session for the Brunswick label was held on June 1, and the final acoustical session for the Vocalion label followed on October 23, 1925, after which all Brunswick and Vocalion sessions were electrical.

[4] UPDATE: The titles were actually “Lazy” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time,” with Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra (“California, Here I Come” was from a slightly earlier Chicago session, accompanied by Isham Jones’ Orchestra). Although the Brunswick files list the Jolson-Rodemich session as having been held in Chicago, and the masters were assigned “Ch” (Chicago) numbers, the session was actually held in Saint Louis, as confirmed in a St. Louis Globe-Democrat article reported to us by Colin Hancock, via Jim Drake.

[5] In addition to the Pagliacci prologue, Jolson also recorded an unspecified aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia at this session (July 3, 1924), accompanied by Haenschen’s orchestra. Both titles were assigned master numbers (three takes each), indicating that those recordings were not destroyed at the time, although they were never issued by Brunswick.

[6] Deutsch and associates did soon acquire Sonora, albeit in a roundabout manner. In October 1927, they formed the Acoustics Products Company (the successor to Sound Studios) to take over the Bidhamson Company and Premier Laboratories, which owned a controlling interest in Sonora. Deutsch served as president of Acoustic Products and employed both Haneschen and Frank Black in its Sonora Recording Laboratories division. In January 1928 the company announced that a new Sonora label was to be launched, under Haenschen’s management, but it never appeared (the familiar Sonora label of the 1940s was an unrelated venture).

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 1

The James A. Drake Interviews
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Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 1

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> Part 2  | > Part 3

 

Walter Gustave “Gus” Haenschen — perhaps best known to modern collectors as the fictitious band leader “Carl Fenton” — served as Brunswick’s manager of popular recordings from 1919 to June 1927, when he resigned to embark on what would become a successful career in broadcasting.

Compiled by Jim Drake from transcriptions of his interviews with Haenschen during 1972-1979 in Ithaca, New York; Norwalk, Connecticut; and New York City, this remarkable account appears here in its entirety for the first time. The four initial installments will cover Haenschen’s years with Brunswick, offering a firsthand look at operations in what was then America’s third-largest record company.

 

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In what seemed to be no time at all, in retrospect, Brunswick became a serious rival to the Victor Talking Machine Company, the dominant corporation in the recording industry.  What made Brunswick so successful so rapidly?

Well, there were several reasons. First, the Brunswick company was able to offer recording artists a “package“ that not even Victor could match.  We [Brunswick] could offer not only a much higher amount for retainer, but could also give the artist a higher percentage of royalties from the sales of the recordings.

Another advantage that we had was flexible release dates.  We adopted a flexible release-date policy very early in my time there.  Victor, you see, was at the top of the pyramid in the industry, Columbia was one or two tiers down from Victor, and [the] Edison [company], which had been a major competitor in the early years of the industry, had only a fraction of the market by 1919 even though they had the superior technology.  

Victor had a fixed day or date each month, and that would be the date that their new releases would be announced to the trade and the public.  If my memory serves me right, Columbia had the same policy, although I can’t say for sure after all these years.  But Victor was our main competitor, or so we liked to think, and by issuing new releases whenever the moment was right, we could very often “scoop” them.

Our flexible release-date policy was especially important where Broadway shows were concerned.  Take a musical like “Good News” or “No, No, Nanette,” for example.  At the premiere of shows like those, there would be representatives in the audience from Victor, Columbia other record companies, and several of us from Brunswick.   All of us would have one purpose in going to the premiere:  to figure out in advance which of the songs in the show would catch on and therefore sell records.

What was difficult was trying to second-guess the audience by trying to determine whether they were reacting principally to the production, the staging, the performer, or mainly the song.  If we had a hunch from the audience’s reaction that we were right, we could get an arrangement together, record it, and have it in our dealers’ shops weeks before Victor’s or Columbia‘s monthly release date rolled around.  That’s where our flexible-release policy gave us an edge.  We could release a new Brunswick record any day of the week.

 

You spoke about the type of backing Brunswick had.  Would you elaborate on that? 

What I have been calling “Brunswick” here—the phonograph and record company, in other words—was just one subsidiary of the Brunswick-Balke-Collander Company.  Even in 1919, when I was hired, it was an old and well-established company that had made its name in billiards and bowling equipment, and saloon fixtures of all kinds.  Most of the saloon fixtures were made in the mammoth [Brunswick] factory in Saginaw, Michigan, where they employed some of the finest woodworkers and cabinet makers in the world.

Prohibition cut deeply into the saloon fixture business, which is how the parent company decided to get into the recording industry.  A fellow by the name of B. Edward Bensinger, or Ed as we called him, headed the parent company, and he and the board of directors approved a plan to manufacture phonographs, using the equipment and skill they had in the Saginaw factory. 

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Brunswick-Balke-Collender’s facilities included a massive factory in Dubuque, Iowa, and a pressing plant (one of several) in Jersey City.

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Brunswick was only making phonograph cabinets at first, and then they began making their own line of phonographs. This would’ve been about 1909 or 1910, and it was how I became involved with Brunswick when I was a college student at Washington University in St. Louis, my hometown.

I had an orchestra in those days and knew popular music pretty well, and I had a fairly good background in classical music.  After classes and on weekends, I worked at what was then the largest department store in St. Louis.  It was called Scrugg-Vandervoort [Scruggs, Vandervort & Barney], and it took up almost an entire city block.  I began working there part-time in the Music Department, which took up the entire sixth floor and included pianos, player and reproducing pianos, and all of the major brands of phonographs.

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The Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney building, St. Louis (1907)

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Our store was the largest victor dealership in St. Louis.  But during the holiday season each year, we had all kinds of trouble getting Victor to deliver the Victrolas our customers had ordered.  One holiday season when we were particularly troubled by Victor’s backlogging, I succeeded in getting the management to introduce and heavily promote Brunswick phonographs.  Well, the sales exceeded everybody’s expectations.  That made me something of a fair-haired boy at Scruggs-Vandervoort, and also put me in a very good light with the Brunswick sales representatives for getting them a large contract.

 

The Victrola was the biggest selling phonograph of that era. How were you able to persuade buyers that the Brunswick phonograph was equal to or even better than a Victrola?

As you do in any sales business, I pointed out the advantages that the Brunswick had over the Victrola. At the time, and this was in the early 1910s before World War One, a Victor phonograph would only play lateral-cut recordings.  Just as Edison was committed to vertical-cut recordings to the exclusion of any other type, so the Victor Talking Machine Company was committed purely to lateral cut recordings.

There was another company, Pathé, which had at one point a fairly good market share.  Pathé recordings were vertical-cut, like Edison Diamond Discs, but they had much wider grooves and used a ball-shaped sapphire stylus for playback.  Well, Brunswick had made a series of vertical-cut recordings before I joined the company.  I’m not sure when they did them, but I don’t recall any Brunswick vertical-cut records when I was working at Scruggs-Vandervoort.  

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(Left) Vertical-cut Brunswicks were recorded in the U.S. but sold only in Canada. They later were pressed with updated labels (right) stating “Jewel Point Record” (right), again for sale only in Canada.

 

Our recording engineer at Brunswick, Frank Hofbauer, was the one who had recorded them.  He told me that none of those records was ever sold in the U.S.  They were only sold in Canada, which was the main market from what I understood, and some were exported to England for sale there.  But that was before I was with the company, and after I left Scruggs-Vandervoort to join the Navy. 

 

What was it about the Brunswick phonograph that you highlighted as selling points to customers at Scruggs-Vandervoort?

The biggest selling point for Brunswick machines was the tonearm, which was called the Ultona.  It was really a marvelous design from an engineering standpoint because it would play both vertical-cut and lateral-cut recordings, and it had the appropriate stylus for each type of record.  By rotating the playback head, you could select either to use a disposable steel needle to play Victor or Columbia recordings, or a ball stylus—we used emerald rather than sapphire for the ball stylus on the Ultona—to play Pathé recordings. 

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Louis Taxon of Rockport, Illinois, patented the Ultona reproducer and arm in 1917 and assigned his patent to the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company.

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The Ultona had two good-sized mica diaphragms mounted back-to-back, each with its own damping rings, in a nickel-plated “head” that could be rotated to play each type of record.  One of the two diaphragms had an elliptical stylus for playing Edison Diamond Discs.  The [Ultona] also had a sliding weight build into its tonearm, inside the tube that connected the reproducer to the sound box.  That sliding weight was necessary for playing Edison records because it lightened the pressure of the stylus on the grooves of an Edison disc. 

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A June 1919 ad for the Brunswick Ultona. There were already many “universal” reproducers and phonographs on the market, but the Ultona was better-engineered, and the only one to be produced by a major national corporation of Brunswick’s stature.

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It was the Ultona tonearm that made the Brunswick an “all in one” phonograph, and it was priced competitively with the Victor machines.  That “all in one” feature, plus the beautiful cabinetry and a wide selection of styles and finishes and prices of Brunswick phonographs, were the selling points I used at Scruggs-Vandervoort.  

 

Did any of the founding members of Brunswick-Balke-Collander have an involvement in the phonograph part of the corporation?

The founder, John M. Brunswick, had died in the last [nineteenth] century, and his son-in-law, Moses Bensinger, who had married J. M.’s daughter, Eleanora Brunswick, had died just after the turn of the century.  Ed [Benjamin Edward] Bensinger  was a son of Moses Bensinger.  Ed has a son who’s named after him, but who goes by “Ted.”  The first Brunswick, J. M. Brunswick, had bought out another billiard maker, Hugh Collender, who also died before the company became involved in the phonograph business. 

The third founder, Julius Balke (Sr.), also died before the phonograph division was organized.  But Julius Balke’s son, who was named after him [Julius Balke, Jr.], and Ed Bensinger were major stockholders and executives in the overall corporation.  They were what I would call appropriately active in the phonograph division, meaning that they weren’t intrusive and never interfered in what we were planning or what we were releasing.  But they kept a close eye on the phonograph division.

 

How did the new Brunswick phonograph affect the public profile of the Brunswick parent company?

Well, the phonograph division was what gave Brunswick-Balke-Collender a reputable name with the public.  As I said, the company had been known for elaborate saloon fixtures, billiard tables, and bowling equipment.  In the early-1900s, most bowling was done in large bars.  Bowling alleys came later.  So the company was associated with the tavern and bar business, which was anything but reputable in the eyes of most women.  But when Brunswick began producing not only phonographs but a line of recordings, the company was now seen in the same light as Victor.  So in effect, the phonograph business made Brunswick reputable in ways the company had never been, as far as the general public was concerned.

 

When did you join Brunswick?

I enlisted in the Navy in 1917 with hopes of being sent to the front in France, but probably because I was an engineer, I spent my entire tour of duty at the Navy Yard in Brooklyn machining metal parts, doing a lot of welding and working on ship propellers.  I did go to sea, but it was just to repair ship engines in other ports.  When I was mustered out and I docked in New York City in June of 1919, to my complete surprise I was literally met at the dock by Brunswick executives.

I was taken to the Plaza Hotel where Brunswick had a large suite for me and all of my family from St. Louis, whom they had brought to New York to be with me.  They give me a car to use and paid for anything that I wanted my family to see or do in Manhattan.  They gave me two days to do all of that, and then I was to meet with them in another suite at the Plaza.

There, they offered me a position which they had just created for the new record division.  I was to be the founding director of popular music releases. When they told me what they were going to pay me, I actually thought I had misheard them.  They offered me $50,000 a year plus stock options, and also told me to order any make of automobile that I wanted, with any accessories I wanted on it, and that it would be mine as long as I was with the company.  One of the men said, “We don’t mean a Model T [Ford], we want you to get the car you want.”  I took them up on it and ordered an emerald-green Buick convertible.  I’ve driven new Buicks ever since then.

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Early Brunswick managers. These photos appeared in a January 1920 Talking Machine World article announcing the launch of Brunswick records in the U.S.

 

At that meeting I was introduced to one of the great men in the recording industry, Walter B. Rogers, who had been a cornetist with the Sousa band and was also the musical director at Victor.  Walter had been one of the early instrumental soloists, a cornetist for the [Emil] Berliner and early Victor companies in the early 1900s. I was told that Walter would be the director of classical-music releases, and that we would work together as a team to direct all recordings that Brunswick would release.  We were also responsible for auditioning prospective singers and instrumentalists.  Later on, Walter had his own band at Brunswick, and made a lot of successful recordings for the company.

 

Some sources indicate that Walter Rogers didn’t join the company until 1922, but that you were with Brunswick as early as 1916. 

No, no—that’s totally wrong.  Walter Rogers was one of the very first employees at Brunswick.  Now, I’m not in a position to know exactly how he was paid.  I suppose it’s possible that he was on some kind of retainer, or an exclusive consulting contract, and was paid that way.  That’s possible, but I doubt it.  Anyway, he and Frank Hofbauer were the first two members of the phonograph division as far as I know.

 

What was the range of your responsibilities as director of popular-music recordings?

I had to approve all arrangements that were used in the sessions, changing them where necessary—and in most of the vocal sessions I did the studio conducting, too.  When we were recording a dance band, I just directed the overall session, of course.  Acoustical recordings were tough to arrange for, and sometimes the musical groups we would be recording, would naturally want to use their best arrangements.  But we had to revise their arrangements for the limitations of the recording process. 

It was a far different matter, you see, when a dance band was recording a song than playing at in a night club or a ballroom. When a band would play in public, especially in the early-1920s, they tended to follow what was then a current fashion by adding fifth notes to major chords.  It sounded great in a ballroom, but in an acoustical-recording session the fifth note would sometimes give the impression of a minor chord just because of the recording process.  So it would be my job to scrutinize all these arrangements and delete or otherwise revise troublesome parts.

 

Were you involved at all in the development of the Brunswick recording process?

No, none of it.  As I talked about earlier, Brunswick had been involved with Pathé, but that was before my time.  Everything was in place by the time I was hired—the first recording studios, or “recording rooms” as we called them—and a lot of test recordings had been made by the time when I got the offer to become the director of popular-music releases.

 

What was Frank Hofbauer’s background, and why did he become so important to Brunswick?

Frank had worked directly for Thomas Edison and brought all of his knowledge to the design and development of the recording lathes, diaphragms, and cutting styluses for Brunswick.  Before that, he had been with one of the very early companies in the industry, the Leeds Phonograph Company [sic; the Leeds & Catlin Company].  Frank was the man who was responsible for the incredible quality of the Brunswick recording process. 

 

How old was Frank Hofbauer when he joined Brunswick?

I would say he was in his late-fifties, maybe even sixty when he went with Brunswick.  He was really one of the pioneers in the recording end of the industry.  We [Brunswick] also had another very important man in the industry, a fellow named Darby, who had worked with Emile Berliner in the early days of the industry.

 

In what seemed to be a time when men preferred to be known by their initials, Darby’s name is often shown in print as “W.S.K. Darby,” or just plain “S. K. Darby.”  What was he called when you worked with him?

He was called “Will” at Brunwick.

 

For the recording equipment in the studios, did Frank Hofbauer use the Dennison recording machines which Victor used?

No, he had to design his own machines.  We couldn’t use Dennison machines because Victor owned the patent on them.  The design that Frank came up with had a cast-iron frame rather like the harp-shaped frame of a grand piano.  Because of his work with Edison, Frank settled on a groove width of 1/250th of an inch, and a speed of 80 r.p.m.  He used the same formula for wax recording blanks that he had used at Edison, and he also had an electric coil on the cutting stylus, which heated the cutter and made a cleaner groove in the wax master.

 

Were Frank Hofbauer’s recording machines powered by electricity or by clockwork-style weights?

By cast lead weights.  Electricity was not reliable in 1919.  There would be voltage surges and often variances in the voltage that would cause fluctuations in the speed of the motor, and therefore in the speed of the finished recording.  Most electric motors of that time also had a detectable sound when they were running. 

Although leather belts were used to connect motors to machinery, some of that motor noise could be captured by the recording diaphragm.  There was also the problem of power outages, which were much more common then than they are now.  So, the system of weights and pulleys was completely reliable, no matter what the weather. 

 

Did Frank Hofbauer also design field-recording machines?

Oh, yes—those were a necessity.  We used them when we were traveling to other cities and states to make recordings. The field recording machine—and there were a half-dozen of them because there always had to be a back-up machine and also because we started doing a lot of field recording in the first two or three years of the company—was an A-frame design with the lathe, turntable and diaphragm and the cutting stylus mounted on top of the frame.

 

Could you describe one of these portable machines in more detail?

Well, the frame itself was about five feet high, tapered, and had four legs.  The legs were four-by-fours, solid oak, and the recording turntable and lathe and cutting head were mounted on top of an oak platform.  There was oval-shaped lead weight suspended below the deck. That lead weight powered the turntable and the lathe.  There were places all around the tops of the legs where steel rods could be attached to hold up to three recording horns. 

The horns were attached by rubber tubes to the cutting head, meaning the recording diaphragm.  The horns could be tilted downward if necessary, as in, for example, recording a grand piano with the lid open.  The usual configuration for a session like that would be to have one horn angled downward to pick up the sounds of the piano strings, and the singer or instrumentalist would be playing or singing into a second horn. The field recorder could be disassembled for shipping fairly easily.

 

Was there a specific formula for the making of the wax master from which the recordings were made?

Yes, the formula was Frank Hofbauer’s, and it was probably the same one that Edison had used for the wax masters. 

 

Apart from your success selling Brunswick photographs in St. Louis, why do you think the company chose you to be the founding director of popular music releases?

After a while I found out why, and it was because Walter Rogers had been impressed with me when my little orchestra, Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra, made trial recordings at Victor in 1916.  It was just my trio, with a banjoist and with Tom [Theodore Thomas] Schiffer on traps and my banjoist. 

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Theodore Schiffer (drums) and Gus Haenschen (piano) performing in Scruggs-Vandervoort-Barney’s Victrola department, summer of 1916.

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Although none of those trial recordings was ever approved, Walter took a liking to me.  So it was he more than anyone else who was responsible for my being picked to head the new popular music releases division of the company.

 

Where were the Brunswick studios located when you joined the company?

They were using a temporary studio on East 21 Street.  That didn’t last very long because I remember that we moved the studios to the top two floors, the twelfth and thirteenth floors, of a brand-new building, the Brunswick Building, at 16 East 36th Street in Manhattan.  There, we had executive offices on the twelfth floor and two recording studios on the top floor.  Later, we moved to the top floor of an even bigger Brunswick building at 799 Seventh Avenue.   

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The Brunswick Building at 799 Seventh Avenue, New York. Studios, on the top floor, were taken over by Decca Records in 1934.

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One of our two main competitors, Columbia, had their studios on the thirteenth floor of another downtown building, the Gotham.  The reason we [i.e.,Brunswick and Columbia] built studios on the highest floor of a tall building was to be as far above the noise of traffic in Manhattan, while also being able to have large windows that could be opened during warm weather to keep the studios cool. 

 

We forget that there was a time when air-conditioning didn’t exist.

That’s right—there was no air conditioning back then, and we couldn’t use electric fans during recording sessions because even the quietest of them made just enough of a breeze to cause sheet music to flutter.  Our studios had wire lines stretched from one wall to the other above the recording horn, and the arrangement—not an actual score, but a sheet of paper showing the order of the choruses—was attached to the lines by metal clips.  If you had fans running, even slow-speed ceiling fans, it didn’t take much air to cause those sheets of paper to flutter

At 16 East 36th Street, we had large windows that helped cool the studio, except when it rained.  When that happened, we resorted to fans—not ceiling fans, but several large Westinghouse fans that were mounted on a wood frame so that the blades were an inch or two above a long tub filled with large blocks of ice. 

We used rheostats to control the speed of the fans so that they could run more slowly when we were recording.  As soon as a “take” was finished, we’d turn the rheostats to maximum voltage and hope that the rain would stop.  Sometimes there would be thunderstorms, and we had no choice but to wait out the storm because a thunderclap could ruin the wax master. 

 

Do you have any recollection of the first recording ever issued on the Brunswick label and after you joined a company?

The first singer I can remember making records was Elizabeth Lennox, a wonderful mezzo soprano—more of a contralto, really—who is still my friend.  On the instrumental side, we had a fine violinist, Elias Breeskin, and if my memory is correct, his recordings were the first ones that Brunswick really promoted.

 

What would a typical workday be for you and Walter Rogers, and how much interaction was there between you?

We worked together very, very closely.  Walter would ask me to check the placing of instruments in relation to the singer or the instrumentalist and the recording horn.  My recordings were said to have a very good balance, although I don’t know where that got started exactly—but Walter would ask me to give him my opinion about instrument placements.  I can remember sitting through different takes with Sigrid Onegin, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, Edith Mason, Maria Ivogun, Giuseppe Danise, Michael Bohnen, Leopold Godowsky, and Joseph Hofmann among the other great artists we had under contract. 

I have particularly fond memories of Sigrid Onegin, Elisabeth Rethberg and Michael Bohnen.   We were especially lucky with Onegin and Rethberg since both of them were just at the beginning of their American careers when we got them under exclusive contracts.  They were also two of the dearest, loveliest people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing.

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Michael Bohnen (left) and Richard Bonelli (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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Michael Bohnen was big, fun-loving fellow.  Because my family were immigrant Germans, German was my first language and so I spoke German with Bohnen in the studio. I remember one time him coming into the studio looking like hell!  He had welts all over his face, and a few fresh cuts, and his shirt was a mess.  Naturally we asked what it happened to him and he sort of kiddingly said that he had cut himself shaving. Chances are that somebody insulted his heritage, and in good Germanic fashion he probably let them know with his fists that he was not too happy about it!  But what a fine musician he was—and he was as great an actor as he was a singer. 

 

I’m assuming that not all of your memories of Brunswick’s classical artists are as endearing as the ones you just mentioned.

 Two that I could have done without were Claire Dux and Marie Tiffany, even though I had good working relationships with both of them through Walter [Rogers].  Claire Dux had one stock answer every time she encountered any sort of opposition about anything she wanted.  She’d look at you with a well-rehearsed kind of innocence and say, “But—but—I am the golden Claire!”  You can imagine how many responses our studio musicians dreamed up for that line!

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A Brunswick dealer’s ad capitalizing on Marie Tiffany’s appearance in Phoenix, Arizona (November 1920)

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Marie Tiffany, as you might know, later married Bill Brophy, who was my boss, essentially.  She was extremely ambitious career-wise, although her opera career never reached the heights she probably hoped for.  Her ambition, and then her relationship with Bill Brophy, sometimes made things a little tense.  Although he married her, she had been his mistress for some time.  

 

What was the hierarchy of the phonograph division of Brunswick?  Who was the head of it, and who reported to whom?

The head of the company was Ed Bensinger, and the next in line under him was Bill [William A.] Brophy, who was the general manager of the phonograph and recording division.  Technically, Percy Deutsch reported to Bill Brophy, but since he was a Brunswick family member, he had more influence than Bill had.  There was also a “Music Department” in the company’s executive structure, which was put in about the time I joined Brunswick.  It was headed by a fellow named Henry P. Eames, and I think his supervisor was Bill Brophy. 

Bill Brophy was also Frank Hofbauer’s supervisor, as I recall.  Then there were Walter Rogers and I, Walter being responsible for classical-music releases and I being responsible for the popular-music ones.  We reported to Bill Brophy.  There were other departments which had general managers and other executives—the Sales department, the Promotion department—and also regional managers for various parts of the country.

 

Were you involved in any with the annual catalogs that Brunswick issued?

No—those were done by the Promotion department.  Today, we would call it the “Advertising Department.”  It was also responsible for the monthly supplements, the printed advertisements in newspapers and magazines, and all of the company’s announcements and news releases. 

If I had had any say about those catalogs, I would have urged that we not issue them at all because of our flexible-release date policy.  We could have issued monthly supplements to our dealers instead of an annual catalog.  But we were expected to print an annual catalog because Victor and Columbia issued them. 

“We [Brunswick] compiled and published in our annual catalogs all of the records that were available to dealers as of October of the previous year. In other words, the Brunswick catalog for 1925 listed all of the recordings that had been released as of mid-October 1924.”

Like the Victor and Columbia catalogs, ours were divided into two sections, each printed on different-colored paper.  All of the recordings, popular and classical, were printed in alphabetical order, with the price listed for each recording.  Unlike Victor, which issued all of their Red Seals in single-sided form until 1922 or 1923, we issued only double-sided recordings, either ten-inch or twelve-inch. 

All of our popular-music records were priced at $.75 for a double-sided disc.  Our classical recordings, which were printed on gold-colored paper in the second part of the catalog, were priced at $1.00 or a maximum of $2.00 for a double-sided recording.

 

Did Brunswick issue many of the same titles that Victor and Columbia had issued?

Yes, we were a case of what you might call “follow the leader.”  For example, duets like “Whispering Hope” by Louise Homer and Alma Gluck were very popular Victor Red Seals, so we had Marie Tiffany and Elizabeth Lennox record the very same arrangement for us at Brunswick.  We also copied the arrangements and phrasing of Victors instrumentalists like Fritz Kreisler.  We had Max Rosen record many of Kreisler’s most popular Victor recordings, so he became Brunswick’s Kreisler.   We even had our own “Caruso.”  That was Mario Chamlee.

 

Did you audition Chamlee?

Not in the usual sense, no.  Archie Chalmondeley—that was his real name—was still in his khakis when he made a “personal recording” at the Brunswick studios.  Every record company did “personal recordings,” typically after-hours or on a Sunday, because the singer or instrumentalist had to pay for them out-of-pocket and also had to pay for the piano accompanist. 

Archie had made a personal recording in our studio, but we didn’t know anything about it because that was not “commercial,” not part of our responsibilities.  Frankly, we thought that those were just “vanity recordings.”  I know because I made several of them at Columbia when I had my band in St. Louis.  Anyway, Frank Hofbauer suggested to Walter Rogers and me that this young tenor’s “personal recording” sounded very impressive. 

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An early advertisement for Mario Chamlee’s records,
December 1920

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The acoustical-recording process was hit-and-miss, and some voices recorded well and others didn’t.  Archie’s voice on that recording sounded almost like Caruso’s.  In person, he didn’t sound like that—actually, he sounded more like Tito Schipa—but our recording equipment made him sound like Caruso.  Well, we really capitalized on that.  We signed Archie to an exclusive contract and changed his last name to “Chamlee.”  His first series of Brunswick discs show his name as “Archer Chamlee,” but at Walter’s suggestion his first name was changed to “Mario.”

Walter [Rogers], who had conducted many of Caruso’s Victor Red Seal recordings, coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing and dynamics.  If you listen to Chamlee’s Brunswicks of arias and songs that Caruso made famous at Victor, some of Mario’s recordings could pass for Caruso’s if you didn’t look at the label on the record.

Richard Bonelli was another “find” for Brunswick.  Do you recall his audition?

Yes.  He was “Dick Bunn” when we auditioned him, but at Walter’s suggestion he Italianized his last name to “Bonelli.”  His voice wasn’t that large, yet it recorded “big”—even more so than John Charles Thomas, who was nationally known and far more experienced than Dick Bonelli.  And just as Walter had coached Chamlee to mimic Caruso’s phrasing, he did the same with Dick, using Titta Ruffo’s Victor recordings.  Just as Mario became Brunswick’s Caruso, Dick Bonelli became our Ruffo.

 

Your files show that John Charles Thomas was one of the first vocalists who was given an exclusive contract by Brunswick.  Did you play any role in that?

Yes, I’m happy to say that I did.  Walter [Rogers] knew of John from his success in light opera, but he didn’t know John personally, which I did.  I had met him in 1914, when I was at T. B. Harms during the time that Gene Buck was writing the lyrics to my tune that became “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1914.  John Charles Thomas was then singing in a Shubert production of a musical called “The Peasant Girl.”  I got to know him then, and we became friends.  I watched him grow into a real Broadway star, especially in “Maytime.” 

When I joined Brunswick, he was one of the first singers I had in mind for our recordings, and he was one of the first to know that I had accepted an offer with Brunswick and that I wanted him in our catalog.  But he had just signed a contract with Aeolian Vocalion, and he couldn’t get out of it.  So we [Brunswick] had to wait until we acquired the Vocalion company and its artists.  From then on, John and any of the other performers who had made records for Vocalion were recorded in our new studios, when the Brunswick building at 16 East 36th Street was finished. — To be continued

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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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James A. Drake is the author of seven books and more than fifty academic and commercial articles. Two of his biographies, Ponselle: A Singer’s Life (Doubleday & Company), and Richard Tucker: A Biography (E. P. Dutton Company), with forewords by tenor Luciano Pavarotti, were selected as Books of the Month by the National Book Clubs of America. His other books include Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography; Teaching Critical Thinking; Popular Culture and American Life; and Lily Pons: A Centennial Portrait (with K. B. Ludecke). He was also a contributing author to the 24-volume American National Biography (Oxford University Press, 1999) and The International Dictionary of Opera (St. James Press, 2000) and served on the editorial board of The Opera Quarterly.

 

> Part 2  | > Part 3

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Isabella Patricola • Newspaper Highlights (1894 – 1965)

Isabella Patricola • Newspaper Highlights (1894 – 1965)

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Bain Collection, Library of Congress

 

Isabella Patricola was an immigrant success story. She and her brother Tom (another future vaudeville headliner) came to the United States from Italy with their father, who in Patricola’s words, “conceived the idea of making me self supporting.” Showing an early aptitude for the violin, Patricola was touring the country by the age of eight with a small-time vaudeville troupe. Her education was on a drop-in basis, attending school as a guest pupil in whatever town the family found itself.

Although the violin remained a part of Patricola’s stage act to the end, by the late 1910s she had become better known for her singing, delivering the latest Tin Pan Alley hits in powerhouse style. By the mid-1920s, she reportedly was one of the wealthiest women in vaudeville, drawing a substantial salary while dealing in real estate on the side. Here’s a bit of her story from the newspapers of the period (“Isabella” is the correct spelling, although “Isabelle” appears in some of these clippings):

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Eight-year-old Patricola plays Great Fall, Montana (October 1894)

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Patricola in Chicago (December 1911 and October 1912)

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Patricola returns to Great Falls, Montana (February 1917). By this time, she was being billed as a singer as well as a violinst.

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Patricola considers changing her name (Philadelphia, November 1921)

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Despite what the first article claims, Patricola was an enthusiastic cook. (Pittsburgh, December 1921; and Allentown, Pennsylvania, April 1930)

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Patricola was one of the earliest vaudeville headliners to broadcast commercially. This lengthy interview appeared in conjunction with a Pittsburgh radio and theater appearance in January 1923.

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Vocalion signed Patricola in mid-1923. Although The Talking Machine World lists these two Vocalions as November 1923 releases, they actually went on sale on October 26.

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“I’m no college graduate” — Patricola recalls her brief education
(October 1925)

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Patricola weds out of the limelight. (Washington, DC, June 1927)

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Patricola’s real estate dealings helped to make her one of the wealthiest women in vaudeville. (February 1929)

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“A big girl with a big voice” (Atlanta, February 1929)

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Patricola wins a popularity contest sponsored by entertainment giant Radio-Keith-Orpheum, in which more than four-million radio listeners voted. (Boston, April 1929)

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Still at it in October 1954 (Kansas City)

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May 25, 1965

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Patricola made her first commercial recordings in the spring of 1919, for Pathé’s vertical-cut discs, and her last in March 1929, for Edison’s failing record operation. Her violin playing can be heard only on two exceptionally rare 1929 Home-Talkie discs (special records that were synchronized with movies made for home use). We’ve been unable to locate any Home-Talkie releases so far, but here are a few favorites from Patricola’s more readily available output:
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ISABELLA PATRICOLA: I’ve Got My Habits On

Camden, NJ: November 22, 1921
Victor 18838 (mx. B 25777 – 4)
Studio orchestra directed by Josef Pasternack

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ISABELLA PATRICOLA (with Ben Selvin’s Orchestra):
Walk, Jenny, Walk

New York: Released October 1923
Vocalion 14669 (mx. 11867)

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ISABELLA PATRICOLA (with Ben Selvin’s Orchestra):
Somebody’s Wrong

New York: Released January 1924
Vocalion 14701 (mx. 12129)

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Two Early Colorado Record Labels (1916 – c. 1920)

Two Early Colorado Record Labels
(1916 – c. 1920)
By Allan Sutton

 

Ironically, Mainspring Press is located in a state that was (and largely still is) a dead-zone as far as commercial recording activity. The state’s first venture — the Colorado Phonograph Company, founded in 1889 and merged with the Utah Phonograph Company the following year — was a financial flop that quietly perished without having produced any known original recordings. It would be more than a half-century before Colorado finally could boast of its own commercial labels, albeit very minor ones.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of early disc labels with at least tenuous Colorado connections. The John Stenzel label, from what was then the small farming town of Windsor, still turns up on occasion in northern Colorado and southern Wyoming:

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Stenzel operated a department store and boot factory in Windsor, and around 1915 he added Columbia phonographs and records to his line. In May 1920, Stenzel liquidated his inventory and soon re-opened in smaller quarters, where he specialized in phonographs and records.

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The Windsor Beacon (May 6, 1920)

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The Stenzel records appear to have been used as premiums, given away with the purchase of “special” Stenzel phonographs. The only example we’ve seen of these machines was a “stenciled” Columbia product similar to the model pictured below:

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The Windsor Beacon (December 23, 1920)

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The Stenzel discs, despite the label claim, were not “specially made” for him, and they have no Colorado connection per se, other than having been sold here. The examples we’ve seen are all standard Columbia E-series discs over which Stenzel pasted his own labels, and none show titles or artists. The few that we’ve heard are recordings of German oom-pah bands (The Windsor Beacon once noted that Stenzel’s clientele were largely “Germans”). The records were likely old surplus stock that Columbia and/or Stenzel had no better way of moving.

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Our next specimen — the Colorado Scholarship Fund label of 1916, produced in conjunction with a Denver newspaper — has more substantial Colorado roots, although it was also a Columbia product:

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Long before The Voice, American Idol, or even Major Bowes’ Original Amateur Hour, there was the Colorado Scholarship Fund Contest of June 1916 — possibly the first amateur-talent contest for which the reward was a record deal, of sorts. The contest was widely publicized by the local press. Even The Talking Machine World, the foremost recording-industry trade paper of the day, covered it in detail. The event proved to be so popular that it was later staged in other cities.

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The Talking Machine World (July 1916)

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The winners were Alice Forsyth and Chauncey Parsons. Their  record still turns up often in Colorado — generally to the disappointment of collectors, since aside from the interesting-looking label, it’s pretty dreadful (so much so, that we won’t post the sound-files, out of respect to two artists who were caught at an awkward stage in their development). In defense of Forsyth and Parsons, both were true amateurs at the time, and Forsyth reportedly was recovering from throat problems.

For all of its musical shortcomings, the record appears to have sold very well. It didn’t lead to a regular Columbia contract for either singer, and it was numbered in Columbia’s Personal Record series, thus ensuring that it would never be listed in a Columbia catalog. But apparently the experience encouraged Forsyth and Parsons to pursue professional careers. Both took up vocal studies at Denver’s Wilcox Studios shortly after the record’s release.

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Forsyth remained in Denver until late 1919, when she joined the All-American Opera Company on tour, as an understudy to Anna Fitziu. By the early 1920s she had married and settled in Los Angeles, where she became a fixture on the local concert circuit and taught at Davis Musical College.

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Alice Forsyth in Los Angeles, 1923

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Parsons joined the Jambon Players, a group that entertained the troops overseas during World War I, then settled in Pittsburgh. In addition to regular concert and church work, he was a radio pioneer, broadcasting regularly over station KDKA beginning in 1921. During 1927–1928 he appeared on Broadway in Artists and Models, which ran for 151 performances at the Winter Garden. In the later 1920s he had his own program on KDKA and was a featured star on NBC’s Yeast Foamers program during 1929–1930.

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Chauncey Parsons at Loew’s Aldine Theater (Pittsburgh), 1924

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For more on the Colorado Phonograph Company, and the stories behind Colorado’s 1940s labels and recording operations (including Columbine, Dudley, Pikes Peak, and the Karl Zomar Library), be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950, available exclusively from Mainspring Press or Nauck’s Vintage Records. This is a special limited edition that we’re not making available to Amazon.com or other distributors or retailers — order soon to avoid missing out:

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Davenport, Iowa (December 1913)

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

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

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

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

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

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Collector’s Corner • Some June 2019 Finds (Free MP3 Downloads)

 

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BESSIE SMITH: Sorrowful Blues  (V++)

New York: April 4, 1924
Columbia 14020-D (mx. 81664 – 1)
Robert Robbins (violin); John Griffin (guitar)

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TOM DARRBY & JIMMIE TARLTON: Heavy-Hearted Blues  (E-)

Atlanta: October 31, 1928
Columbia 15330-D (mx. W 147369 – 1)

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JELLY ROLL MORTON’S RED HOT PEPPERS: Dead Man Blues  (EE-)

Chicago (Webster Hotel): September 21, 1926
Victor 20252 (mx. BVE 36284 – 1)

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THE COTTON PICKERS (Hoagy Carmichael & Scrappy Lambert, vocal): Rampart Street Blues  (E)

New York: March 27, 1929
Brunswick 4325 (mx. E 2953½ – A)

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JULIA LEE with GEORGE E. LEE’S WONDER SINGING ORCHESTRA:
He’s Tall, Dark and Handsome
  (E-)

Kansas City: November 1929
Brunswick 4761 (mx. KC 602 – )
Take not shown on disc or in Brunswick files
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MILLS BLUE RHYTHM BAND: Dancing Dogs (E-)

New York: December 5, 1934
Columbia 3044-D (mx. CO 16273 – 1)

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Ed Kirkeby’s 1931 – 1932 American Record Corporation Sessions: The “Missing” Personnel, from Kirkeby’s Payroll Books

Ed Kirkeby’s 1931 – 1932 American Record Corporation Sessions: The “Missing” Personnel
From the payroll books of Ed Kirkeby

 

Although the compilers of The American Dance Band Discography and American Dance Bands on Records and Film claimed they consulted Ed Kirkeby’s recording files, that clearly was not the case for most of Kirkeby’s later sessions. They lumped sessions from the late 1920s onward under a massive “collective personnel” listing — a way of saying “If we throw enough crap at the wall, something’s bound to stick.”

In addition, the compilers sometimes list prominent musicians on sessions at which they were not present, without ever citing a credible source — because there are none, in these cases. See May 8, 1931, for one such instance (Rust and Johnson & Shirley seem particularly fond of claiming the Dorsey brothers were present for sessions on which the Kirkeby files confirm they don’t play).

The personnel for the American Record Corporation sessions listed below are transcribed from Ed Kirkeby’s own payroll books, and therefore negate all the guesswork in ADBD, ADBRF, and derivative discographies.

For the purposes of this post, only master numbers and titles are shown. Where spellings of names differ from those in modern works, we have used Kirkeby’s spelling. Unlisted vocalists were either Kirkeby himself or were singers employed by the studio, and thus do not appear in the payroll books. Vocalists listed here as “paid” were hired by Kirkeby on a per-session basis, and their names appear in the payroll books.

All vocalists, and other details (including take numbers, labels, catalog numbers, and label credits) will appear in a fully revised Plaza-ARC discography that’s being developed for the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings project.

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American Record Corporation studio (1776 Broadway, New York)

 

February 9, 1931

10383             Headin’ for Better Times (take 4 and above) *

10405              Tie a Little String Around Your Finger

10406              Hello, Beautiful

Frank Cush, Ed Farley (trumpets); Al Philburn (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Tommy Bohn (reeds); Sam Hoffman, Sid Harris (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals). Kirkeby present.

*Earlier takes are by Joe Morgan’s Palais d’Or Orchestra. Inspected pressings from mx. 10383 use labels for the Morgan recording, in error.

________

 

March 18, 1931  (“Cameo” session [sic])

10416              I’ve Got Five Dollars (take 10) *

10417              Sweet and Hot  (take 10) *

10507              Teardrops and Kisses

Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Al Philburn (trombone); Bobby Davis, _ Lodovar (reeds); M.  Dickson, Sid Harris, Sam Hoffman (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); _ Klein (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals). Kirkeby present.

*Earlier takes are by Ben Pollack’s Orchestra. Inspected pressings from mxs. 10416 and 10417 use labels for the Pollack recordings, in error.

________

 

April 28, 1931

10578              Can’t You Read Between the Lines?

10579              Since an Angel Like Mary Loves a Devil Like Me

10580              If You Haven’t Got Love

Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Tommy Bohn, Ad Coster (reeds); Sid Harris, Sam Hoffman (violins); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion). Jack Parker (paid vocalist). Kirkeby present.

________

 

May 8, 1931

10614              Mickey Mouse (We All Love You So)

10615             Popeye (The Sailor Man)

10616              I Wanna Sing About You

Jack Purvis, Fred Van Eps Jr. (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Tommy Bohn, Paul Mason (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); Billy Murray (paid vocalist). Kirkeby present.

Jimmy Dorsey (reeds) is not present, as is erroneously claimed in American Dance Bands on Record and Film.

________

 

May 22, 1931 – Accompanying vocals by Billy Murray & Walter Scanlan

10670              Skippy

10671              Let a Little Pleasure Interfere with Business

Jack Purvis (trumpet); Bobby Davis, Adrian Rollini (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Jack Powers (percussion).

This session is missing from American Dance Records on Records and Film.

________

 

September 3, 1931  (“9:30, went on to 2 o’clock”)

10791              I Don’t Know Why (I Just Do)

10795              There’s Nothing Too Good For My Baby

10796              Guilty

10797              Blue Kentucky Moon

Jack Purvis, Earle Isom (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Nye Mayhew (reeds); Harold Bagg (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).

________

 

November 13, 1931

11000              Concentratin’

11001              When I Wore My Daddy’s Brown Derby

11002              I Promise You

11003              Save the Last Dance for Me

Jack Purvis, Tony Giannelli, Earle Isom (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Harold Bagg (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); _ Smith (bass?); Jack Powers (percussion).

Erroneously attributed to “ARC Studio Band” (personnel unlisted) in American Dance Bands on Records and Film.

________

 

February 24, 1932

11343              What a Life! (American Record Corp. labels)

B-11344          What a Life! (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)

11345              My Mom

11346              (In the Gloaming) By the Fireside

11347              Too Many Tears

Bunny Berigan, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Ray Gold (piano); Noel Kilgen (guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).

Erroneously attributed to “ARC Studio Band” (personnel unlisted, other than Berigan) in American Dance Bands on Records and Film.

________

 

April 21, 1932

B-11726          That’s What Heaven Means to Me (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)

11727              That’s What Heaven Means to Me (American Record Corp. labels)

B-11728          Happy-Go-Lucky You (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)

11729              Happy-Go-Lucky You (American Record Corp. labels)

B-11730          In My Little Hideaway (Brunswick Record Corp. labels)

11731              In My Little Hideaway (American Record Corp. labels)

Bunny Berigan, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone); Bobby Davis, Elmer Feldkamp, Paul Mason (reeds); Lew Cobey (piano); Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Ward Lay (bass); Jack Powers (percussion); unlisted (vocals).

________

 

July 13, 1932

12065              Waiting

12066              No One But You

12067              I Love You More and More

12068              Every Hour

Sylvester Ahola, Ted Sandow (trumpets); Carl Loeffler (trombone);  Ed Sexton (banjo/guitar); Adrian Rollini (bass saxophone); George Hnida (bass); Herb Weil (percussion). Johnny Rude (reeds) was scheduled for this session but was not present.

Session missing from American Dance Records on Records and Film. Entered in the ARC files under the following false credits: Art Kahn’s Orchestra (12065, 12068), Owen Fallon’s Orchestra (12066), and Sleepy Hall & his Collegians (12067).

___________________

Related postings (correcting errors and omissions in The American Dance Band Discography and American Dance Bands on Records and Film):

Correct Personnel for Cameo’s Late 1927–Early 1928 California Ramblers Sessions, from Ed Kirkeby’s Files

Correct Personnel for Gennett’s 1926–1927 “Vagabonds” Sessions, from Ed Kirkeby’s Files

Correct Personnel for Grey Gull’s 1929–1930 California Ramblers Sessions, from Ed Kirkeby’s Files

Correct Personnel for Okeh’s 1927 “Goofus Five” Sessions, from Ed Kirkeby’s Files

Correct Personnel for Okeh’s 1927 “Ted Wallace” Sessions, from Ed Kirkeby’s Files

“Lloyd Dayton & his Music” Finally Identified, from the Ed Kirkeby Files

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Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights, and the World’s Biggest Banjo (1891 – 1923)

Vess L. Ossman, “The Banjo King”: Newspaper Highlights,
and the World’s Biggest Banjo
(1891 – 1923)

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Vess L. Ossman (left) and Vess, Jr. (undated photo)

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Early mentions of Ossman in the New York papers: December 2, 1891 (top), at which time Harlem was an affluent new suburb; and February 12, 1899.  Ruben “Ruby” Brooks made recordings in the late 1890s and early 1900s, including Bettini cylinders, but he died in 1906.

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Ossman participated in several recording demonstrations that have been documented, including this one for Berliner’s Gramophone on December 16, 1897. Three months earlier, Berliner’s New York studio had been opened rather reluctantly for a similar demonstration in which Ossman also participated, with management declaring, “We have yielded to the demand of popular and scientific interest in the process by which our indestructible Gram-o-Phone records are made.” The demonstration recordings are not known to have been released.

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New York (December 1901)

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Ossman went to England in the spring of 1900 (top), where he was a hit. He recalled his experiences in January 1918 (bottom).

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Ossman in the “talkies” (Salt Lake City, November 1908). The Cameraphone Company was launched in 1908 by Eugene E. Norton, an engineer with the American Graphophone Company (Columbia). The process employed synchronized six-inch cylinder records and Columbia Twentieth Century phonographs for the sound source. (For more on Cameraphone and other early attempts at “talking pictures,” see A Phonograph in Every Home: Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1900–1919, available from Mainspring Press.)

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Another Ossman appearance on-screen (Independence, Kansas, March 1913). These movies were made for Thomas Edison’s short-lived Kinetophone, which also employed synchronized cylinders.

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A December 1916 El Paso dealer ad for Columbia records by Ossman and “Howard Van Epps” (a typo for Fred Van Eps, Ossman’s only significant rival).

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Ossman and company on the road (Scranton, Pennsylvania, January 1917). The Peerless Records Makers were forerunners of the Eight Famous Victor artists, a traveling promotional troupe in which Fred Van Eps replaced Ossman.

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In 1918, with his recording career over and his style becoming increasingly outdated, Ossman moved to Dayton, Ohio. He spent the remainder of his career performing in Dayton and other Midwestern cities. The ads above are all from Dayton, published in May 1918 (top left), October 1922 (top right), and December 1921 (bottom).

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Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)

Vess Ossman Jr. continued to perform in the Dayton area into the early 1930s; the ad above is from November 1931. He later moved to Kansas City, where he worked as a theater manager.

 

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Ossman’s recorded output was truly monumental. Here are just a few favorites; his “Maple Leaf Rag” was the second recording to be made of that number, preceded only the U.S. Marine Band’s 1906 version.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome Intermezzo

Camden, NJ (Johnson factory building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3048
The pianist is uncredited but is likely Frank P. Banta (father of the novelty pianist Frank E. Banta) or C. H. H. Booth, Victor’s house accompanists at the time.

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Maple Leaf Rag

New York: Released June 1907
Columbia 3626 (M-1414)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: The Buffalo Rag

New York: March 2, 1909
Victor 16779 (mx. B 6848 – )
The pianist is uncredited, contrary to some discographies. Ossman originally recorded this piece for Victor on January 26, 1906 (mx. B 3049).

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VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle

New York: Released January 1911
D&R Record 3759 (Columbia mx. 4919 – 1)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Charles A. Prince

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Hoop-E-Kack

New York: Released July 1909
Indestructible 1113 (cylinder)
With studio orchestra probably directed by Joseph Lacalle

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Clarence Williams: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1965)

Clarence Williams: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1965)

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Advertisement for Clarence Williams’ first record, on the C&S label (1922). The C&S Phonograph Record Company was a short-lived venture of Thomas Chappelle and Juanita Stinnette Chappelle, who encouraged Williams to marry singer Eva Taylor.

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With Sara Martin, one of Okeh’s early race-series stars
(June 1923)

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With wife Eva Taylor (July 1923)

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“Papa De-Da-Da” was among the Blue Five sides featuring
Louis Armstrong. (July 1925)

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A vocal release by Williams and Clarence Todd, here misspelled “Dood.” Todd, along with Eva Taylor, was a member of the Clarence Williams Trio, which broadcast regularly for several years. (July 1925)

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Williams was Okeh’s New York studio workhorse in the mid-1920s. Here, his Blue Five accompany a young Sippie Wallace. (August 1925)

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New York (June 1926)

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Williams’ ill-fated Bottomland opened on June 27, 1927, and closed after only nineteen performances.

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New York Age (January 3, 1953). Member of the Clarence Williams Trio pictured above are (left to right) are Williams, Eva Taylor, and Clarence Todd.

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Working the New York clubs (1951 and 1955)

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.     New York (November 9, 1965)

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And a sampling from Williams’ tremendous recorded output:

 

CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ ORCHESTRA: Jingles

New York: October 1927
Paramount 12587 (mx. 2882 – 2)
Featuring Coleman Hawkins, on loan from Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS BOTTOMLAND ORCHESTRA:
Slow River (export version)

New York: June 7, 1927
Brunswick (German) A-457 (mx. E 23502)
The standard version (mx. E 23500) includes vocal chorus by Evelyn Thompson (Preer).

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ WASHBOARD FIVE (Williams, vocal):
Walk That Broad

New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 40115 – A)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: The Keyboard Express

New York: August 1, 1928
Columbia 14348-D (mx. W 146825 – 3)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Memphis Jazzers): Close Fit Blues

New York: March 1929
Van Dyke 7801 (Grey Gull mx. 3394 – B)

Enrico Caruso’s “MeToo” Moment: The Monkey House Scandal (1906)

Enrico Caruso’s “MeToo” Moment:
The Monkey House Scandal (1906)

 

It could be a story ripped from today’s headlines — A prominent entertainer is accused of molestation by a woman who gives the police a false address (and, it was later discovered, only her maiden name), then promptly vanishes. She fails to appear at the trial.

With the mysterious accuser absent, a police officer of questionable background serves as the chief witness. Two women who accuse Caruso of similar behavior in the past also testify, one of them anonymous and fully veiled. A skeptical judge orders Caruso to pay a $10 fine, the minimum penalty the court can impose.

The trial draws an ethnically mixed crowd, with “Italians” cheering Caruso enthusiastically. But the New York Times also reports “a crowd of young Americans…shouting derisively, yelling, whistling, and hooting.”

Out in the heartland, a Richmond, Indiana, newspaper spreads what appears to have been “fake news,” claiming that Caruso is blaming a monkey for having assaulted the supposed victim. The story is ignored by the more reputable papers.

“Hanna Graham,” Caruso’s accuser and a supposed widow, is  tracked down shortly after the trial ends and is found to actually be Hannah Graham Stanhope, the wife of an amateur baseball player. She gives a lengthy account of the alleged molestation to a New York newspaper, which Caruso’s attorney dismisses on the grounds that she refused to testify under oath. The New York Police Commissioner promises to investigate the matter, but nothing more is heard in that regard.

In the end, Caruso appeals, loses, and pays his $10 fine. He then leaves for Paris, only to learn that he might by barred from re-entering the U.S. as an “undesirable immigrant” (it didn’t happen).

 

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November 17, 1906

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November 21, 1906

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November 22, 1906

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“Fake news” in the heartland? The Richmond, Indiana, Palladium might have been misled by a tongue-in-cheek piece that ran a day earlier in another Midwestern newspaper. The “monkey-pinch” story did not appear in more reputable papers. (November 19, 1906)

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November 24, 1906

 

May 16, 1906

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Uncle Dave Macon: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1952)

Uncle Dave Macon: Newspaper Highlights (1922 – 1952)
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Before he was “Uncle”: Dave Macon in Nashville, November 1922 (top left), September 1923 (top right), and January 1923 (bottom)

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Macon’s earliest releases (left, 1924) were solo efforts, accompanied by his own banjo. In May 1927 (right), he traveled to New York for a series of marathon sessions that netted multiple takes of thirty-eight titles in five days — considerably more than the twenty-five reported in this Nashville Tennessean article, which misidentifies the McGee brothers as “Mack D. Brothers.”

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Dayton, Ohio (December 1926, left), and Atlanta, Georgia
(March 1925)

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Madison, Wisconsin (July 1931)

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Zanesville, Ohio (December 1937)

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Waynesboro, Virginia (July 1938)

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Gaffney, South Carolina, with son Dorris (July 1939)

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Tallahassee, Florida (January 1938, left), and Lincoln, Nebraska,
December 1937

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Macon had a starring role in Paramount Pictures’ Grand Ole Opry, which had its premier in Nashville. (June 1940)

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Cullman, Alabama (August 1940). Macon was a well-known figure in and around Cullman, where he often performed at E. C. Wheeler’s farm auctions.

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Ashland, Alabama (July 1940, left), and McComb, Mississippi
(April 1944)

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Troy, Alabama (February 1942). The Grand Ole Opry continued to feature stereotypical “blackface” fare long after it had fallen out of favor with much of the American public.

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Tampa, Florida (March 1943)

..

Shreveport, Louisiana (July 1943)

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Bryan, Texas (April 1947)

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Macon’s “retirement” was short-lived, and he was soon on the road again. (Nashville, May 30, 1950)

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee (March 22, 1952)

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Murfreesboro, Tennessee (March 23, 1952)

____________________________

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And a few favorites from the Fruit Jar Drinkers sessions:

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS:
Sail Away Ladies

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 7, 1927
Vocalion 5155 (mx. E 4936)
Personnel per Brunswick files: Uncle Dave Macon (vocal/banjo); Sam McGee (guitar); Kirk McGee, Mazy Todd (fiddles, the latter listed as “Maize”)

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS:
Rock About My Sara Jane

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 7, 1927
Vocalion 5152 (mx. E 4925)
Same personnel as above

 

UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT JAR DRINKERS: Tom and Jerry

New York (Brunswick studio, room #1): May 9, 1927
Vocalion 5165 (mx. E 4959)
Same personnel as above

 

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Country Music Record Fans: For information on hundreds of country music record companies and labels, from the behemoths to the smallest, most obscure regionals, be sure to check out American Record and Producers, 1888 – 1950, a special limited edition available from Mainspring Press while supplies last.

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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.

,

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.

.

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.

,

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

Merriman and Guest’s Electro-Mechanical Hybrid

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

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Announcement of the first issued electrical recordings,
December 1920.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Orlando Marsh and the First American
Electrical Disc Recordings

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Early Experimentation at the Major Companies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Western Electric Courts the Recording Industry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Columbia and Victor Go Electric

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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Selected References

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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