OOPS! Thanks to an MP3 file-naming goof, we accidentally posted the Columbia version of Fletcher Henderson’s “Naughty Man” yesterday. The correct Oriole version has now been posted.
Three stand-out items from a big stack of Plaza-group labels we found at a recent Colorado estate sale. “Feeling,” from the pre-Armstrong period, is a much livelier version than the Vocalion. The two Orioles are Louis Armstrong items; Oriole was strictly a mid-Atlantic label at the time and early releases rarely turn up out here, so these were a real surprise. “How Come” is still fairly easy to find on the various Plaza labels, but “Naughty Man” is scarce (especially in decent condition), having been issued only on Oriole. Columbia’s very similar version of “Naughty Man” is much easier to find, although a trifle sluggish compared with the Oriole.
FLETCHER HENDERSON’S DANCE ORCHESTRA: Feeling the Way I Do
(E- to V++)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. May 6, 1924
Regal 9568 (mx. 5497 – 1)
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Sam Hill & his Orchestra): How Come You Do Me Like You Do? (E-)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. November 17, 1924
Oriole 304 (mx. 5728 – 2 / Oriole ctl. 2110)
SORRY – We originally posted the Columbia version due to a mislabeled MP3 file. Here’s the correct Oriole version:
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Sam Hill & his Orchestra): Naughty Man (E-)
New York (Independent Recording Laboratory): c. November 24, 1924
Oriole 437 (mx. 5749 – 3, as 35749 on label)
Note: Oriole is the only confirmed form of original issue.
There’s much more on Henderson and other early Harlem bands in the works — check back regularly!
Collectors’ Corner: Some March 2019 Finds
Fats Waller with Tom Morris, Fletcher Henderson,
Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, East Texas Serenaders,
Uncle Dave Macon
THOMAS MORRIS & HIS HOT BABIES with THOMAS [FATS] WALLER (E)
Camden, NJ (Church studio): December 1, 1927
Victor 21358 (mx. BVE 40097 – 2)
“Race release,” per Victor files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Waller and Morris, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Victor file data).
RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider (E+)
New York: August 15, 1927
Brunswick (British) 01536 (mx. E 24232)
Stock arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Nichols, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).
DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as The Jungle Band): Tiger Rag,
Part 2 (EE+)
New York: January 8, 1929
Brunswick (French) A 9279 (mx. E 28941 – A)
Irving Mills arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).
FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Tidal Wave (E)
New York: September 12, 1934
Decca 213 (mx. 32602 – A)
The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Decca file data).
EAST TEXAS SERENADERS: Acorn Stomp (E)
Dallas: December 2, 1927
Brunswick 282 (mx. DAL-720- )
UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT-JAR DRINKERS: Tom and Jerry (E- to V+)
New York: May 9, 1927
Vocalion 5165 (mx. E 2759)
As you probably know, Mainspring Press is exiting the book business after twenty years, in favor of online data distribution. Many titles have already sold out, and we are down to a carton or less of the following, none of which will be reprinted. All remaining copies are being offered at special close-out discounts:
Bryant: The Emerson Discography (Complete 10″ and 12″ Series)
Bryant: American Zonophone Discography (Popular Series, 1904–1912)
Sutton: Edison Amberol Records (Complete, 1908–1913)
Sutton: Pseudonyms on American Records, 3rd Edition
Bolig: The Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 3 (20000 – 21000 Series)
Bolig: The Victor Discography—Special Labels
Nauck & Sutton: Indestructible and U-S Everlasting Cylinders
Sutton: Edison Blue Amberol Records
American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (December 2018) is Mainspring’s final publication in book form. The only authoritative, fully documented guide to all commercial American record producers (disc and cylinder), it’s a limited edition and has been selling briskly — Order soon to avoid missing out:
Collectors’ Corner • Some February Finds: 1920s Pop (Annette Hanshaw, Banjo Buddy, Al Jolson, Bernie Cummins, Cass Hagan, Baker & Silvers)
Some favorites from a recent estate-sale cache of late 1920s pop singers and hot dance bands:
PHIL BAKER, assisted by SID SILVERS: At the Theater (E)
New York: September 21, 1927
Victor 20970 (mxs. BVE 39117 – 1 / 39118 – 2)
Victor files show only BVE 39117 – 3 as having been mastered.
HAROLD SANDELMAN (as BANJO BUDDY): Let’s Misbehave (E)
New York: March 7, 1928
Brunswick 3865 (mx. E 26855 or E 26856)
William F. Wirges (conductor), “Mr. Daulton – monitoring,” per the Brunswick files; accompanying personnel are unlisted. The take used is not indicated in the files or visible in the pressing.
ANNETTE HANSHAW (as PATSY YOUNG) with THE NEW ENGLANDERS: I Want to Be Bad (EE+)
New York: March 14, 1929
Velvet Tone 1878-V (Columbia mx. [W] 148077 – 2)
Accompanying personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
CASS HAGAN & HIS PARK CENTRAL HOTEL ORCHESTRA (Franklyn Baur, Lewis James, Elliott Shaw, vocal): The Varsity Drag (E–)
New York (Okeh studio): September 2, 1927
Columbia 1114-D (mx. W 144617 – 2)
Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).
BERNIE CUMMINS’ ORCHESTRA (Bernie Cummins, vocal): When You’re with Somebody Else (E)
New York (Brunswick Room #2): January 7, 1928
Brunswick 3772 (mx. E 25875)
Karl Radlach, arranger, per Brunswick files. Personnel listed in Rust’s American Dance Band Discography and derivative works are speculative (not Brunswick file data).
AL JOLSON with WILLIAM F. WIRGES’ ORCHESTRA: Blue River (E–)
New York: November 11, 1927
Brunswick 3719 (mx. E 25189)
William F. Wirges (conductor / arranger); Harry Reser (banjo) present as an “extra,” per the Brunswick files; other personnel unlisted.
Victor Emerson’s Personal Photographs
These remarkable photographs come to us courtesy of Colette LaPointe, Victor Emerson’s great-great-granddaughter.
Emerson is one of the undeservedly forgotten pioneers of the recording industry, a gifted inventor and recording engineer, and a progressive businessman. Emerson’s own company, launched in 1915 after his departure from Columbia, was highly successful for several years, but ultimately did not survive the great recession of the early 1920s intact. Its history is covered in detail in American Record Company and Producers, 1888-1950, newly released by Mainspring Press).
Other photos from this group will appear in an expanded Emerson biography, which we will be posting soon.
Victor Emerson (left) and unknown companion, c. 1880s
A rare glimpse inside what is likely the New Jersey Phonograph Company or its successor, the United States Phonograph Company. Equipment more clearly visible in the full-size print dates this to the early-to-mid 1890s. The Bell-Tainter Graphophone (lower left, with goose-neck horn) would have been used for office dictation.
Emerson in 1897. In January of that year, he resigned from United States Phonograph and joined the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) as a recording engineer.
On a trip to London (undated)
Victor Emerson at home (undated photos)
A Few Emerson Favorites (MP3)
GEORGE HAMILTON GREEN: Triplets
New York; released June 1920
Emerson 10169 (mx. 4882 – 1)
EDDIE NELSON: I’ve Got the Joys
New York; released October 1921
Emerson 10426 (mx. 41919 – 3)
EUBIE BLAKE: Sounds of Africa [Charleston Rag]
New York; released October 1921
Paramount 14004 (1940s dubbing from a test pressing of mx. 41886 – )
EUBIE BLAKE (vocal refrains by Irving Kaufman):
Sweet Lady — Medley
New York; released December 1921
Emerson 10450 (mx. 41985 – 2)
ORIGINAL MEMPHIS FIVE (as Lanin’s Southern Serenaders):
Shake It and Break It
New York; released November 1921
Emerson 10439 (mx. 41924 – 1)
Emerson Records: A History and Discography covers all 10″ and 12″ Emerson issues, including releases on subsidiary, client, and foreign labels. Supplies are very limited, and we will not be reprinting — order soon!
PIONEER MIDWESTERN CYLINDER COMPANIES
Two excerpts from
American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950
IOWA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY
Offices: Metropolitan Block, Sioux City, IA (to 5/1892); 5th & Jackson Sts., Sioux City (from 5/1892)
A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in Iowa. The state originally was to have been covered by the Nebraska Phonograph Company, which was first organized in November 1888 but apparently failed to launch at that time. A reorganized Nebraska Phonograph was formed on January 31, 1889, at which time the Iowa territory was abandoned and reallocated to the newly formed Iowa Phonograph Company.
Iowa Phonograph’s officers included W. P. Manley (president), C. J. Brackenbush (vice-president), Whitfield Stinson (secretary), and G. A. Beach (general manager). Among its directors was Erastus A. Benson, who had been a director of the short-lived Central Nebraska Phonograph Company and was also serving as president of the reorganized Nebraska Phonograph Company. Interviewed by a reporter for The Sioux City Journal, Benson expounded at length on the phonograph’s business uses but mentioned its potential as a entertainment device only in passing, noting, “songs of the finest singers and musical productions” could be had.
In July 1889, Beach secured permission to record members of the well-known Bostonians theatrical troupe (including Jesse Bartlett Davis, H. C. Barnabee, and Marie Stone) during their performance of The Bohemian Girl at the Peavey Grand in Sioux City. When the results proved barely audible without the aid of ear-tubes, additional recordings of the troupe were taken in the company’s offices, with mixed results. A reporter for the Journal concluded, “It is very doubtful if the phonograph will become an important factor in the musical world until is has reached a greater degree of perfection…[it] talks plainly enough but does not as yet sing or whistle becomingly.”
A month later, the recently arrived Walter S. Gray gave a private exhibition to three Journal reporters at which he played cylinders by local performers, including Beach himself. “The instrumental work sounded somewhat ‘choppy’…metallic and strident,” one reporter observed. “The phonograph…imparts to singing a ‘machiney’ flavor.”
In late May 1890, the Iowa Phonograph Company was said to have “hardly got a start,” due to a lack of trust among local business owners after the company placed some unreliable machines in local offices. However, its entertainment business fared better. In August 1890, it was reported that the company was looking into the possibility of making and distributing recordings of the bands that were to perform at that year’s Corn Palace festivities.
In February 1893, Beach employed his son Charles (who at the time was embroiled in a scandalous affair with one of the Beach household’s servants) to record tenor solos for Iowa Phonograph. A month later, he was replaced as general manager by Whitfield Stinson. The company appears to have been inactive by the end of 1893, although its corporate charter was not officially cancelled until 1909.
“Corn Palace Preparations.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 22, 1890), p. 22.
North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.
“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 247.
“Phonographing Opera.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Jul 14, 1889), p. 6.
Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.
Smythe, R. M. Obsolete American Securities and Corporations, p. 523. New York: R. M. Smythe (1911).
“The Iowa Phonograph Company.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Mar 13, 1893), p. 9.
“The Iowa Phonograph Company Ready for Business.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Feb 1, 1889), p. 6.
“The Phonograph.” Nebraska State Journal (Nov 14, 1888), p. 8.
“The Phonograph. An Exhibition of its Powers, More Especially in a Musical Manner.” Sioux City [IA] Journal (Aug 7, 1889), p. 6.
OHIO PHONOGRAPH COMPANY
Offices: 220 Walnut St., Cincinnati (1888–early 1889); St. Paul Building, 27 W. 4th St., Cincinnati (from early 1889); 163 Elm St., Cincinnati (mid-1894); 427 Vine St., Cincinnati; 122 Euclid Ave., Cleveland (branch office)
A sub-company of the North American Phonograph Company, licensed to deal in Columbia graphophones and Edison phonographs in the state of Ohio. A certificate of incorporation was filed on November 30, 1888, by James L. Andem, J. W. Dawson, George Moerlin, Frank Overbeck, and W. J. Overbeck. (Newspapers of the period sometimes stumbled over Andem’s name; he is referred to as Amden, Anderson, and even Adams in various reports.)
The Ohio Phonograph Company was headquartered in Cincinnati, under Andem’s management. Arthur E. Smith managed the Cleveland branch office before resigning in the spring of 1892. In September 1892, Andem published the first detailed phonograph operators’ manual, his sixty-four page Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph.
The company opened coin-operated phonograph arcades in Cleveland and Cincinnati in September and November 1890, respectively. Each housed ten to twelve machines, with a single selection on each, and titles were changed each morning. The Phonogram reported, “On Saturdays and Sundays these exhibition parlors are crowded, and oftentimes quite an effort must be made before one can get possession of the coveted hearing-tubes when a cabinet contains a popular selection… Attached to the side of each machine is a napkin and holder to enable parties to cleanse the hearing tubes before listening, in case they desire to do so.”
Many selections in the Ohio Phonograph catalog were likely obtained from the North American Phonograph and New Jersey Phonograph / United States Phonograph companies. However, there are reliable reports from the period that the company also made and marketed its own recordings. It recorded and demonstrated a “choice selection of airs” by Cincinnati baritone Tim Sullivan in February 1891. Four months later, Andem reported that the company had “hired a gentleman from an adjoining territory [Kentucky] to sing a number of banjo songs.” A December 1891 advertisement suggested that Dan Kelly’s “Pat Brady” comic recordings were original, which was later confirmed by a Phonogram report declaring that “Mr. Kelly spends his spare time in making records for the Ohio Phonograph Company.” The Phonoscope for November 1896 reported that Ohio Phonograph was making “some very fine band records.”
The Edison Phonographic News for July–August 1896 confirmed that Ohio Phonograph was operating a studio in Cincinnati, “which, although in the heart of the city, affords perfect quietness.” It was briefly managed by Calvin G. Child, who left the company in late 1896 to work for Emile Berliner and would later be a key figure in the formation of the Victor Talking Machine Company.
In January 1894, J. W. Dawson filed suit against Andem, charging that he had consistently elected a board of directors “subservient to his will,” had been “extravagant in his management” of the company, and had appointed himself agent of a rival company handling graphophones. The company’s sales for 1893 were said to be $6,244 less than in the previous year, while expenses were $4953 more. On January 11, 1897, Ohio Phonograph was placed in the hands of a receiver, although its liabilities were said to be “trifling.”
Andem reorganized the Ohio Phonograph Company in the spring of 1897 as the Edison Phonograph Company of Ohio (q.v.), a large regional concern that had no connection to Thomas Edison’s companies and was eventually ordered to stop using the Edison name. The artists recording for Andem at that time, as listed in The Phonoscope for May 1897, appear to have been local performers. Andem went on to serve as secretary of the New York Phonograph Company during the period in which that company was engaged in a prolonged (and ultimately fruitless) legal battle with Edison’s National Phonograph Company.
Another Ohio Phonograph Company, based in Columbus and operated by H. H. Meyers (who sold it to F. A. Drake in 1899) appears to have been unrelated to Andem’s operation and is not known to have produced recordings.
“A Noted Record Maker, Dan Kelly, of Cincinnati, O.” Phonogram (Mar-Apr 1893), p. 363.
“A Practical Guide to the Use of the Edison Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Aug–Sep 1892), p. v.
“A Row Among Stockholders of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Cincinnati Enquirer (Jan 28, 1894), p. 16.
“Cincinnati Illustrated.” Edison Phonographic News (Jul–Aug 1896), p. 21.
“General News.” Phonoscope (Dec 1896), p. 9
“Humorous Talking Records for the Phonograph” (ad). Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 265.
New and Selected Records for the Phonograph, for Sale by the Ohio Phonograph Company (1894 catalog).
North American Phonograph Company. “Local Companies.” Phonogram (Jan 1891), p. 4.
“Organization and Progress of the Phonograph Companies of the United States.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), p. 243.
“Phonograph Company Incorporated.” Columbus [IN] Republic (Dec 1, 1888), p. 1.
“Phonograph Company Liquidating.” New Orleans Times-Picayune (Jan 12, 1897), p. 4.
Proceedings of the First Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States (Chicago, May 28–29, 1890). Milwaukee: Phonograph Printing Company.
Proceedings of Second Annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States, Held at New York, June 16, 17 & 18, 1891, pp. 62–63. New York: Linotype Reporting & Printing Company (1891).
“The Automatic Phonograph in St. Louis—A New Industry Yet in Its Infancy.” Phonogram (Jun–Jul 1891), p. 139.
“The Exhibition Parlors of the Ohio Phonograph Company.” Phonogram (Nov–Dec 1891), pp. 248–249.
“Trade Notes.” Phonoscope (Nov 1896), p. 9.
Untitled notice (re: Tim Sullivan recordings). Cincinnati Enquirer (Feb 11, 1889), p. 8.
©2018 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.
For information on all of the other North American Phonograph sub-companies, and dozens of other early cylinder producers, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888-1950: An Encyclopedic History, available exclusively from Mainspring Press. This is a limited edition — order soon!
Russian Interference: Boris Morros and ARA Records
(1944 – 1957)
By Allan Sutton
Article updated 1/4/2019 — Long before the Trump presidency, the Mueller investigation, and the latest revelations coming from The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other reputable sources, the Russians were infiltrating American society. The saga of Boris Morros, then, is particularly timely. In Morros’ case, his conscience finally won out. He confessed to the FBI and ultimately redeemed himself by serving admirably as a double agent for the next decade.
In May 1934, Boris Morros, a musical director for Paramount Pictures, was secretly contacted by a member of the Soviet Union’s People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), which under orders from the Kremlin was attempting to plant Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be Morros’ “handler.”
A decade later, Zubilin arranged for American Soviet operatives Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern to buy into Morros’ music-publishing operation. With $130,000 from the Sterns, Morros launched the American Recording Artists (ARA) label, which (in addition to producing some fairly decent records) served as a cover for an extensive Soviet spy ring. The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected, and label was a success—at least briefly.
Morros redeemed himself on July 14, 1947, when he came clean to the FBI. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts for the next ten years.
Born in Russia, Boris Morros studied music under Rimsky-Korsokov in St. Petersburg, then moved to France following the 1917 revolution, leaving his family behind. In 1922 he brought the Chauve Souris revue to the United States, decided to stay, and was granted citizenship. By the early 1930s, he had moved to Hollywood and was working for Paramount Pictures as an entry-level musical director.
In May 1934, Morros was secretly contacted by a member of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD), who requested his help in planting Russian operatives throughout Hollywood. Vasily M. Zubilin was assigned to be his handler, but the relationship soured after it was discovered that Morros had greatly overstated his credentials and degree of influence within the movie industry. The Russians stayed in touch, however.
Boris Morros in the late 1930s
Morros advanced quickly at Paramount, and by 1940 he was a well-known figure in Hollywood. With his newfound celebrity, he once again caught the attention of the Soviets. In December 1941, he was contacted again by the NKVD, who blackmailed him into organizing covers for two Soviet spies. In exchange, the Soviets agreed to stop harassing some of Morros’ family members who remained in Russia. In March 1944, Zubilin assigned NKVD officer Jack Soble to be Morros’ new “handler.” “Our comrade,” Zubilin told Soble, “is completely devoted to the Motherland and is one of our most trusted and loyal agents.”
As part of his cover, Morros launched a publishing house, the Boris Morros Music Company. The affiliated American Recording Artists label was launched a short time later, with $130,000 in funding from American Soviet sympathizers Alfred K. and Martha Dodd Stern. Soble found Morros’ office to be “a big, showy, elaborate place, in keeping with his flamboyant personality and expensive tastes. The record laboratory, however, was a tiny rented place.”
Alfred Stern was awarded presidency of the new record company. He was ordered fill sales positions with as many undercover Soviet agents as possible, while Morros was left to handle the recording operation and present an “American” front to the public.
As Soble later confessed, the entire operation was “a ‘blind’ for a widespread Soviet espionage network. Bosses and “salesmen” [were] Russian intelligence agents… The stars, of course, had no way of knowing that they were being used as attractive window-dressing for an outfit organized to be a clearinghouse for spies throughout the United States, Canada, Central and South America.”
ARA records were heavily promoted; this ad is from September 1945. As Jack Soble later confirmed, ARA’s stars had no idea their label was a front for Soviet espionage. (1945)
The Russian’s involvement with ARA went undetected. Gullible members of the press lauded the new operation as a promising addition to the growing roster of independent West Coast labels. The company’s first releases, announced in late June 1944, sold well. With extensive contacts in the entertainment industry, Morros assembled an impressive artist roster that came to include Hoagy Carmichael, Frances Langford, Smiley Burnette, Phil Harris, Art Tatum, and Bob Crosby’s Bobcats. Widely advertised, the records were handled by many major national distributors.
Within a few months of ARA’s launch, however, a personality clash between Morros and Stern began to take its toll. Another Soviet agent, Stephan Ghoundenko (a.k.a. “The Professor”), was brought in to straighten out the difficulties. Stern resigned and was replaced by Mark Leff. Morros soon appeared to lose interest in the company, turning management and artists-and-repertoire duties over to his son Richard and a new hire, Dave Gould.
A short time later, Soble received a one-word message from Moscow: “Dissolve.” Morros refused, instead paying back $100,000 of the Sterns’ loan and soldiering on. Stern’s warning to his superiors that Morros could no longer be trusted went largely unheeded. He was allowed to remain in the spy ring, as a courier, while remaining the nominal head of ARA.
The ARA label underwent several redesigns during its relatively short life.
To all outward appearances, ARA was an American success story. The company was reorganized in March 1946, as ARA, Inc., coinciding with its purchase of Symphony Records (a small West Coast classical label that featured the Santa Monica Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Jacques Rachmilovich) and its expansion into the children’s and country-and-western markets. But problems were beginning to surface. That summer, the pressing plant was closed, ostensibly to take inventory, and it did not reopen.
Despite Leff’s insistence that the hiatus was temporary, new releases and advertising were scaled back. In July, Leff announced that he was selling his interest in ARA to an undisclosed firm or firms. Late in the month, Billboard reported that ARA’s operations were “practically at a standstill now,” with an investment of more than $75,000 tied up in recordings that had yet to be released. By then, rumors were circulating that Cosmo Records was contemplating a takeover.
Originally a pop and jazz label, ARA later expanded into the classical, children’s, and country-and-western markets.
Hoagy Carmichael was the first of several ARA artists to defect, moving to Decca in August 1946. Later that month, a group headed by music publisher Ralph Peer made an offer to acquire the company. It was declined, as was a subsequent offer by Apollo Records. ARA, Inc., was placed in receivership in September 1946, just in time to thwart a seizure by the Internal Revenue Service.
ARA’s assets were scheduled to be auctioned piecemeal on October 22, 1946, but the sale was called off after a tangle of legal problems (including questions over whether ARA’s masters were unencumbered and could be reused without restrictions) surfaced. The sale was postponed until November 25, 1946, when all of ARA’s property was auctioned in Los Angeles by order of the U.S. District Court. The masters’ legal status would remain in limbo for several more years.
By late 1946, litigation surrounding ARA was running rampant. An audit had revealed many irregularities in the company’s operations, including some suspicious loan repayments to three of Leff’s other companies. In January 1947, former ARA treasurer Irving Zeitlin was subpoenaed to explain the firm’s erratic accounting methods, a procedure that Billboard estimated could “drag out for months because of many loose ends connected with operation of the former waxery.” Civil suits continued to be filed for several more years.
In the meantime, Morros’ conscience had gotten the better of him, and he had quietly turned on his handlers. On July 14, 1947, he informed the FBI of his activities for the Russians. In return for a promise from the Justice Department not to prosecute, he agreed to serve as a double agent, reporting on Soviet intelligence efforts. Still posing as a Soviet courier, Morros developed a friendship with U.S. Army Intelligence officer George Zlatkovski and his wife Jane, who were actually Soviet agents. Morros continued to meet with Soble and the Zlatkovskis, in the U.S. and abroad, through October 1954.
The Sterns and Morros at the time of the 1957 trial
Morros’ involvement with the Russians and the FBI remained a well-guarded secret until January 1957, when U.S. Attorney Paul W. Williams indicted Jack Soble, along with his wife Myra and associate Jacob Albam, on charges of seeking U.S. defense secrets for transmission to the Soviet government. A month later, it was disclosed that Morros (whose whereabouts were said to be unknown) would act as a key prosecution witness in the case. The Sobles and Albam were convicted and given prison sentences. The Sterns, summoned to appear before a grand jury, refused extradition from Mexico and were fined $50,000 for contempt. The identities of at least fourteen other Soviet agents, some of whom held embassy posts in the U.S., were exposed during the course of the trial.
By the summer of 1957, Morros had offers from two studios to produce a movie about his exploits and was being praised by the press as “an incredibly brave American.” His 1959 autobiography, My 10 Years as a Counterspy (co-authored with Samuel Charters) served as the basis for the 1960 film, “Man on a String.” Morros died in New York on January 8, 1963.
© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.
Boris Morros Recalls Russia’s Strong-Arm Tactics During His Time at ARA Records (1944 – 1945)
A brief excerpt from Morros’ 1959 memoir, My Ten Years as a Counterspy (New York: Viking Press)
“That summer  it became known all over the music trade that I had latched on to an angel with a wide-open checkbook. I was even approached with offers to buy Muzak, the company that supplies “canned music” to restaurants and hotels all over the country. We visited ex-Senator William E. Benton of Connecticut, who was then an official of the Muzak corporation, but Stern, who was the one who would put up the money, decided that the price of $600,000 asked for the properties was too high. He would go no higher than $400,000…
“During August, Stern visited Hollywood, and I made the astonishing discovery that he already knew more about music, both artistically and commercially, than Paul Whiteman, myself, and Stravinsky combined. Meanwhile, I had surmounted many of our difficulties, and records were being produced. That fall we had a hit recording by Joe Reichman’s band. This was “Nobody’s Home on the Range,” a travesty of the song “Home on the Range,” which had boomed into renewed popularity because it was President Roosevelt’s favorite.
“But Stern disapproved of almost everything we were doing. He disliked my office staff, including my sales manager. He wanted the man discharged, and wished me to switch control of the sales department to his office. Above all, he thought that we should concentrate on songs of a more cultural type. For example, he disapproved of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” as a vulgar title, and predicted it would never be popular. He asked a million questions such as “Why don’t we sign up Bing Crosby instead of his brother Bob?” It was tiresome to have to point out that someone had had the same idea years before.
“This was the man to whom I had to explain a few months before what a bar of music was, what the refrain was, the man who asked the usual foolish question, “What is written first—the words or the music?”
“All that fall Stern showered me with daily letters of five to eight pages each. On hearing that we needed record-pressing equipment, he rushed out and bought $17,000 worth of second-hand presses that were so outmoded they could not be used.
“I am afraid I was not very patient with my vice-president. By this time I had three shifts working in our little plant. They were turning out thirty thousand platters a day. They had to. Our “Nobody’s Home on the Range” record was headed for the hit class.
“Shortly after the partnership arrangement started, both Soble and Stern began pressing me to open a branch in Mexico City. They were still at it, though I had stalled that deal with the argument that before we could do any such thing we must have enough numbers to distribute to Justify a catalogue. However, I was getting more infuriated every day with Stern’s silly letters of abuse and criticism. By now he was disapproving not only of the songs but of the arrangements.
“At the end of the year I decided that life was too short to bother with this money man, and so informed Soble. But it was not until March—this was in 1945—that Jack decided he must do something to calm down both of us. He came with Stern to California to settle our differences. They arrived toward the end of the month and visited the plant.
“‘He is a musical ignoramus on all levels,” I told Soble. “I feel it is impossible to go along with him. The only thing we can do now is to break up this ridiculous partnership.’
“‘Artistic temperament!” clucked Jack Soble.
“The next day they came back to the plant. When the angry words started to fly all over again, Soble suggested that we go to my home in Beverly Hills. I suppose he did not want our employees to hear the dispute. My visitors stayed in Hollywood about a week. Soble, trying to act as peacemaker, kept repeating that the Cause was the one thing that counted, not my petty grievances or Alfred’s. We Just had to get along.
“I have never pretended to be an even-tempered man. During that stormy week I called Stern every foul name I could think of in all the languages I knew—and I know profanity as it is spoken and spluttered around the world. Stern, the Harvard man, just sat there and took it with the uncomprehending look of a hurt child.
“When the week was over with the issue unresolved, Soble said he had to get back to New York. But he was sure that some way to reconcile our differences would occur to him. He asked me to go with them on their trip East so that we would have further talks while traveling. I got a compartment that connected with the drawing room they shared.
“En route Soble came up with what he considered the sure-fire solution: if I would agree to continue working with Stern he would invest another $100,000 in the company.
“I refused this, telling Soble, “I don’t want any more of his money. In fact I would be happy to buy back his twenty-five-percent share of the business for what he paid for it.”
“‘This is going to make Vasya Zubilin very, very angry,’ Soble said. ‘I’m afraid that he will be very hard on your family in Russia —unless you cooperate.'”
“‘You said you were going to investigate this whole matter,’ I reminded him. ‘You have not been impartial. What I want is a simple thing: to be left alone to do my job, unbothered by nincompoops.'” I glared at Stern.
“On reaching New York, we had a final meeting at the Tavern-on-the-Green Restaurant. When it ended, we were as far apart as ever.
“A couple of nights later Martha Dodd Stern visited me in my hotel room at the Sherry-Netherland. She was all sweetness and light. Martha blamed herself for neglecting to take a more active part in the business. ‘If I had, Boris,’ she said, ‘there would have been no such misunderstandings between you two tried and true Communists.’ She kept pounding at the point Soble had: The welfare of the Party should be our only consideration.
“‘Sorry, Martha, my dear,’ I said, ‘you are being very charming and sweet, wistful and feminine—but too many wrong things have been done, too many said.’
“My lawyers began drawing up the papers for dissolving the partnership in April. I paid Stern $100,000 for his one-quarter interest in the Boris Morros Company and its record-making subsidiary, American Recording Artists.
“He rendered an account of how the $30,000 allotted him had been spent. I was amazed to see that he had given Zubilin $5,000 cash and charged it to the company. He had also charged petty items, including the purchase of a record player and two dozen tennis balls for Zubilin, as well as the full cost of his and Soble’s trip to Hollywood.
“But I was glad to get rid of him. I thought I was also extricating myself from Jack Soble’s spy ring. To put it mildly, I was being naively optimistic.
“I had been willing to pay a high price for the privilege of disassociating myself. To raise the $100,000 in cash to pay off Stern, I was forced to sell my share of a film property. But they still wished me to engage in a new venture with Alfred K. Stern.
“Jack Soble kept coming to see me. ‘What can I do, Boris?’ he said. ‘You have put me in the difficult position of having to write a bad report on you to Moscow. I am holding it back. I am afraid that Zubilin will be unable to control himself when he hears that you have split up with Alfred. I’d hate to feel responsible for the extermination of your relatives in Russia. Wouldn’t you?'”
Bundschu, Barbara. “Walked Double-Dealing Tightrope: Film Producer Broke Spy Ring.” Camden [NJ] Courier-Post (Jul 11, 1957), p. 1.
“ARA Into Longhair Disks.” Billboard (Jun 29, 1946), p. 38.
“ARA Into Receivership; Will Go on Block Piecemeal After Audit.” Billboard (Sep 28, 1946), p. 16.
“ARA to Hold Bankruptcy Sale.” Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 17.
“Bankruptcy Referee Calls ARA Treasurer to Explain Accounts.” Billboard (Jan 11, 1947), p. 14.
“Boris Morros Dies.” Billboard (Jan 26, 1963), p. 4.
“50G Repaid to Other Leff Corporations Questioned by Trustee in ARA Hassle.” Billboard (Nov 23, 1946), p. 14.
“Key Spy Case Figure Named.” Baltimore Sun (Feb 26, 1957), p. 1.
“Leff Selling Interest in ARA Waxery.” Billboard (Jul 27, 1946), p. 20.
“Masters Free, Clear, Says ARA Receiver.” Billboard (Oct 26, 1946), p. 40.
Morros, Boris (with Charles Samuels). My Ten Years as a Counterspy. New York: Viking Press (1959).
“Morrros Cuts First Disks.” Billboard (Jul 1, 1944), p. 17.
“Morros Jr. Pacts 3 Names for ARA.” Billboard (Nov 24, 1945), p. 20.
“New Indie Pops.” Cash Box (Oct 13, 1947), p. 25.
“Public Judicial Auction Sale by Order of the United States District Court” (legal notice).Cash Box (Nov 11, 1946), p. 18
“Radio Interests, MGM Named in ARA Talk.” Billboard (Aug 3, 1946), p. 18.
Soble, Jack (with Jack Lotte).”How I Spied on United States.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 17, 1957), p. 167.
— . “How Spy Ring Got in the Music Business.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 20, 1957), p. 63.
— . “Husband-Wife Spy Team in Action.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 28, 1957), p. 70.
— . “Low Form of Soviet Union Spy Life.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Nov 24, 1957), p. 110.
Wilson, Earl. “Boris Morros’ Undercover Story.” Delaware County Daily Times (Jun 14, 1957), p. 41.
Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Black Swan Records:
The Authoritative History
By Allan Sutton
Text from American Record Companies and Producers,
1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (Mainspring Press, 2018)
This new account, incorporating previously unpublished information from internal company documents and Pace’s and Du Bois’ personal correspondence (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries) is a preliminary study for the author’s full-length Black Swan history and discography, currently in preparation.
Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Company was the second black-owned and operated record company (preceded only by George W. Broome’s short-lived venture), and the first to succeed commercially, if only briefly.
A 1903 graduate of Atlanta University, Pace initially worked in banking, but his interests turned increasingly to music. He and W. C. Handy collaborated on their first song in 1907, and in 1912 the pair formed the Pace & Handy Music Company in Memphis. The company had its first major hit in 1914, with the publication of Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” and in 1918 it relocated to New York. Pace resigned in late 1920 to launch his recording operation, taking some key personnel with him. Handy recalled, “With Pace went a large number of our employees, persons especially trained for the requirements of our business and therefore hard to replace. Still more confusion and anguish grew out of the fact people did not generally know that I had no stake in the Black Swan record company.”
W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)
On December 27, 1920, Pace wrote to W. E. B. Du Bois that he had formed a corporation to manufacture phonograph records. He held open the possibility of involving others, telling Du Bois, “I made the capital stock elastic enough so as to take others into it if the idea met very favorable consideration.” The letter makes clear that it was Du Bois who suggested the name “Black Swan,” in honor of the pioneering African-American diva, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. Pace reported to Du Bois that he had already made test recordings by Ford Dabney’s Orchestra and was hoping to do the same with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert and a very young Marian Anderson.
Pace invited Du Bois to join the new company’s board and provide whatever funding he could. The Pace Phonograph Corporation was formally chartered as a Delaware corporation in January 1921, with Du Bois initially purchasing a single share. The officers at the time of incorporation were Pace (president and treasurer) and D. L. Haynes (secretary). Directors, in addition to Du Bois, included Levi C. Brown, T. K. Gibson, William Lewis, John E. Nail, and Emmett J. Scott. Pace and Du Bois found eager investors not only in Harlem, but in Arkansas, Georgia, Ohio, and other far-flung locations. Among them was comedian Bert Williams, who according to an advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.”
Harry Pace’s townhouse at 257 West 138th Street served as Black Swan’s first office. Among the employees Pace took from Pace & Handy Music was Fletcher Hamilton Henderson, Jr., a young pianist from Georgia whom Handy had recently hired as a song demonstrator. Henderson’s defection garnered him the position of recording director and house accompanist, although Pace later admitted he felt that Henderson was not fully qualified. William Grant Still, one of W. C. Handy’s staff arrangers, also made the move.
The studio in which Pace initially recorded remains a subject of debate. The location is not mentioned in any of Pace’s or Du Bois’ known correspondence, nor is there any suggestion in those letters that Pace equipped his own studio or hired a recording engineer. A New York Age article from June 1921 confirms that Pace did not yet have his own studio, reporting that the company was “planning to establish its own laboratory [i.e., studio] in the near future.” If any of Pace’s pre-production tests have survived, they have not been located for inspection. However, most of the early issued masters appear to have been recorded by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon physical and aural characteristics.
Black Swan records were in production by the early spring of 1921, with initial releases planned for May. Pressing was to be handled by John Fletcher’s Olympic Disc Record Corporation plant in Long Island City. Newly incorporated, Olympic commenced operations in March 1921, the same month in which the earliest issued Black Swan recordings are believed to have been made. Like Black Swan, Olympic advertised its first records as May releases, and their physical characteristics were identical with those of the earliest Black Swan pressings, confirming Harry Pace’s recollection that they were pressed in what he termed the “Remington factory” (the Remington Phonograph Company being Olympic’s parent corporation).
(Left) An early first-state Black Swan label, showing the sunken ring around the spindle hole and other tell-tale Olympic pressing-plant characteristics. (Right) A second-state label, pressed by the New York Recording Laboratories. Based upon the typeface, it appears that both labels were supplied by the same printer.
From the start, Pace found himself torn between two disparate markets within the African-American community — a relatively small, affluent group that championed what it saw as culture and refinement (mirroring Pace’s own background and musical preferences), and a larger working-class group with a growing appetite for jazz and blues records. In August 1921, Pace told The Talking Machine World, “While it is true that we will feature to a great extent ‘blue’ numbers of the type that are in current favor, we will also release many numbers of a higher standard.” In his attempts to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution his choice of artists and repertoire.
The first three Black Swan records were announced as ready for delivery on May 4, 1921. Pace’s preference for “numbers of a “higher standard” was immediately apparent. For the inaugural release (#2001), he chose two old concert pieces, “At Dawning” and “Thank God for a Garden,” sung by soprano Revella Hughes, with violin, cello, and piano accompaniment. There followed two equally straightforward sides by concert baritone Carroll C. Clark, then two blues-inflected pop tunes by vaudevillian Katie Crippen. The company sold a modest 10,300 records during its first month of sales, according to a report in The Crisis.
The black press (particularly The Chicago Defender) cast Pace’s attempt to launch Black Swan as nothing less than an epic struggle between good and evil. The venture had barely been launched when the Defender proclaimed that “a great uproar was caused among white phonograph record companies who resented the idea of having a Race company enter what they felt was an exclusive field.” If there was an uproar, it went unreported in trade journals like The Talking Machine World, which covered Black Swan to the same extent as the other small startups of the period, was supportive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.
One of the Defender’s most absurd claims, flying in the face of what are now well-established facts, was that the Remington Phonograph Company had purchased the Olympic pressing plant for the sole purpose of denying service to Pace — conveniently ignoring the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed for Pace, albeit briefly. What actually caused Pace to move his pressing business from Olympic was a surge in orders. In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (the New York Recording Laboratories’ headquarters), Pace reported, “I am here arranging for an increased fall and winter production together with a line of Black Swan Phonographs.”
The NYRL pressing plant, although geographically remote, had the capacity for large-scale record production that Olympic lacked, and the company was actively courting new customers. Since Pace was already using NYRL’s New York studio, the move from Olympic made logistical sense, consolidating all Black Swan production within a single company. Black Swan pressings from the summer of 1921 into the spring of 1922 show the unmistakable characteristics of NYRL’s work.
The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough, and Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest releases failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to bring national attention to Black Swan. The situation changed with Pace’s signing of Ethel Waters in April 1921. Already a veteran of the southern vaudeville circuits, Waters was attracting a strong following at Edmond’s Cellar in Harlem.
Waters had already recorded two titles for Criterion Laboratories, an independent studio that supplied several small labels, but there had been no immediate takers (Cardinal eventually released them in September 1921), and Waters decided to visit Pace. Her first Black Swan release (“Down Home Blues” / “Oh Daddy”) was released in July 1921 and became a sizable hit. In October, Pace signed Waters to an exclusive Black Swan contract that reportedly made her the highest-paid black recording artist at the time. In November, she was sent on an extended tour as the star of the Black Swan Troubadours, eventually playing in twenty-one states.
Black Swan’s first hit: “Down Home Blues” (here advertised in August 1921) brought national attention to Ethel Water and Black Swan. Pace plugged many of Waters’ subsequent releases as “Another ‘Down Home Blues'” (the example above is from late 1922), but none approached the popularity of the original.
Thanks largely to Waters’ records, Black Swan developed a small following among white customers, including some stage and film stars. It was widely reported that actress Marilyn Miller had presented a “large selection” of Black Swan records to Jack Pickford (Mary’s brother) on their wedding day. The Dallas Express reported, “It is now becoming quite a fad with many stars of the theatrical profession, who have found something different in these all-Colored records, to have them sent to their friends in various parts of the country.”
Pace, however, failed to capitalize on that momentum. He placed no advertising in the white consumer publications and made little effort to court the important trade publications. His advertisements in The Talking Machine World, which did not begin running until August 1921, often appeared to be halfhearted efforts, sometimes simply listing a few artists’ names, or dwelling on past hits rather than fresh releases.
Trixie Smith, Pace’s next star, was signed in January 1922, shortly after she took first place at the Fifteenth Regiment Blues Contest in Harlem. With Waters and Smith on his roster, Pace found it easier to attract new singers. However, the oft-repeated tale that he auditioned Bessie Smith, and rejected her after she stopped to spit in the midst of her test recording, is apocryphal. It appears to have originated in the 1940s with W. C. Handy, who was prone to spinning colorful tales and is unlikely to have been present at the alleged session, given his strained relationship with Pace.
With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, distribution proved to be a stumbling block. Pace was unable to obtain national coverage through the major jobbers. Although racial prejudice was likely a factor in some cases, small white-owned startups had experienced the same problem for many years. In Pace’s case, however, the major distributors’ lack of confidence probably was compounded by his inexperience in the record business and Black Swan’s targeting of a still-unproven market.
Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.
Pace countered by recruiting small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell the records wherever and however they could. In June 1921, he hired Paul Robeson (who was then a student at Rutgers) as a part-time salesman, but missed the opportunity to record him. That autumn, Pace hired C. Udell Turpine (given as Turpin in some accounts) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpine brought along several professional salesmen from a previous venture, but he continued to build Pace’s network of small retailers and individual salespeople as well, advertising in The Crisis, “We want men and women with a backbone and a desire to earn $100 a week…men and women who don’t care what $20 a week people think.”
In March 1922, Pace published a Black Swan distributor map in The Crisis that looked impressive at first glance, with all forty-eight states covered to varying degrees. The heaviest concentrations were east of the Mississippi, but nearly every state had a distributor or jobber, and at least a few retail dealers. However, the largest number of dots on the map represented “agents,” those independent salespeople who peddled the records door-to-door, on street corners, or wherever else they could.
Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis for March 1922.
In January 1922, The New York Age perhaps unintentionally revealed the company’s financial fragility when it reported that Black Swan had made a profit of slightly more than $3,300 on sales of $104,628.74 in 1921. Although the reporter seemed impressed by the latter figure, it was minuscule by industry standards of the day. Given that Black Swan records initially retailed for $1 (reduced to 85¢ late in the year), and normal wholesale rates were 50% of list price, Black Swan’s 1921 sales probably amounted to between a quarter- and a half-million records, depending upon the ratio of wholesale to direct retail sales. In the same year, Victor sold nearly fifty-five million records.
April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of the Red Label series, an obvious play on Victor’s prestigious Red Seals. Victor, which for years had taken legal action against competitors’ use of red labels on classical records, does not appear to have taken any such action in Black Swan’s case, casting further doubt on the Defender’s claims that the white recording establishment was out to destroy Pace.
The Red Label listing included operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert and Antoinette Garnes, and concert selections by Hattie King Reavis. In December 1922, Pace tried to secure concert tenor Roland Hayes for Black Swan, only to be informed by Hayes that he was under contract to Aeolian in England. The series sputtered along until being discontinued in May 1923, marking the end of Pace’s involvement in the classical market.
In April 1922, Pace, in partnership with John Fletcher and Michael Naughton, purchased the trademark, masters, and facilities of Fletcher’s defunct Olympic venture. The Fletcher Record Company, Inc., was chartered in New York on May 26, 1922. With Fletcher as president and Pace as vice president and treasurer, it was the first American record company to have a racially mixed executive team, a situation that received only a passing mention the trade papers.
The Fletcher Record Company initially served as the new studio and pressing plant for Black Swan records. The Pace Phonograph Corporation remained in business as a separate entity, and Pace-produced Black Swan labels continued to credit the Pace Phonograph Corporation. Following the acquisition, Pace reported, “We are now issuing ten numbers a month instead of three…. We do our own recording, plating, pressing, as well as printing of every description, in the above plant.” However, the operation soon proved to be unprofitable. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.”
Fletcher-era Black Swan pressings; note the return of the sunken ring surrounding the spindle hole, which is absent on the New York Record Laboratories’ and Bridgeport Die & Machine Company’s Black Swan pressings. Black Swan 60006 is a reissue from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, with xylophonist George Hamilton Green disguised as “Raymond Green.”
Fletcher revived his Olympic label later that year, with an all-white artist roster. Pace had already reissued some older Olympic recordings on Black Swan, under pseudonyms, breaking his pledge to use only black artists. By July 1922, so much outside material was being released under the Black Swan label that the catalog was split into ten separately numbered series. Of those, only the 14000 race series (replacing the original 2000s) and 7100 operatic series remained pure Pace productions, reserved exclusively for black artists. The remainder (which included Hawaiian, novelty, sacred, novelty, and classical series) were made up almost entirely of pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s Olympic catalog. In an ironic twist, the nation’s first successful race-record label was now producing its own racially segregated catalog, while continuing the claim that it employed only black talent.
Pace broke his pledge to use only black artists even before going into partnership with John Fletcher. By the time this ad appeared in The Crisis in late 1922, the Black Swan catalog contained many pseudonymous reissues from Fletcher’s all-white Olympic catalog, including the “Xmas records” advertised here.
The aliases employed by Black Swan for Olympics’ white artists were obviously contrived to suggest black performers. Various Harry Yerkes groups became “Joe Brown’s Alabama Band” or “Sammy Swift’s Jazz Band,” Rudy Wiedeoft’s Californians became “Haynes’ Harlem Syncopators,” xylophonist George Hamilton Green became “Raymond Green,” and novelty whistler Margaret McKee was renamed “Bessie Johnson.” Recordings by Irving Weiss’ Ritz-Carlton Orchestra, Fred Van Eps’ Quartet, and Wiedoeft’s Palace Trio were released as “Ethel Waters’ Jazz Masters” while Waters was on tour and likely unaware of the subterfuge. Some Olympic recordings by conventional white dance bands were credited to “Henderson’s Dance Orchestra” or “Henderson’s Novelty Orchestra,” with no first name given but obviously meant to imply Fletcher Henderson’s involvement, even after Henderson had left the company.
At least one newspaper was taken in. A reporter for the Defender praised the Baltimore Blues Orchestra, “a new musical organization…doing exclusive recording for Black Swan records,” unaware that name was simply a disguise for several white dance bands from the Olympic roster. Whether record buyers suspected a ruse went unreported, but Black Swan sales began to stall.
Pace reported sales of only 256,202 Black Swan records for fiscal year 1922. In his November 1922 financial statement, he disclosed that Black Swan had experienced “the greatest slump since we began business” during July. The slump persisted into early October, by which time Pace seemed resigned to average monthly sales of only 25,000 records. “I am trying to devise some sales plan whereby this figure can be greatly increased,” he wrote to Du Bois, “but regret to say that I have not yet hit upon it.” In the same month, Pace set up a dummy collection agency to handle delinquent accounts. Although it netted only $544 in its first month, he seemed pleased with that figure and reported that the operation was “still pulling them in.”
Pace advertised a new stock issue in October 1922, promising a “certain” 6% return in three years, plus 6% dividends.” The stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming. On January 20, 1923, the Pace Phonograph Corporation was reorganized as the Black Swan Record Company. The change marked the end of Pace’s entanglement with John Fletcher, who would file for bankruptcy in December 1923. With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for his pressings, using the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut to handle the occasional overflow. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.
Letterheads for the original Pace Phonograph Corporation (above) and the Black Swan Phonograph Company (below), a 1923 reorganization of the original corporation following Pace’s split with John Fletcher.
The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter had been the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she signed with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed in November 1922 and was replaced as recording manager by William Grant Still. Pace, who had not been satisfied with Henderson’s work, predicted that “Still will bring wider experience and more technical musical knowledge than Henderson has had, and I believe will greatly improve the work of the records,” which did not prove to be the case. The major artist exodus occurred after reorganization, beginning with Trixie Smith’s defection to Paramount in March 1923.
Smith was followed in short order by Josie Miles, Julia Moody, Lena Wilson, and others, many of whom subsequently signed on as free-lance artists with music-publisher and talent-broker Joe Davis. In the meantime, Ethel Waters had begun touring on her own, and when the Black Swan Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discovery that the business was barely operating.
Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.
The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, but only a handful of new Black Swan releases were forthcoming after July, and some that were announced apparently are not known to have been released. Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan session, in or around early August. The label’s final release (Ethel Waters’ “Sweet Man Blues” / “Ethel Sings ’Em,” recorded in June at her final Black Swan session) was advertised in The Chicago Defender for December 22, 1923. Black Swan advertised in the Defender for the last time on February 23, 1924. Even then, Pace was still soliciting “agents in every community.”
Pace’s debts (which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services) had become unmanageable by the end of 1923. In January 1924, NYRL executive M. A. Supper traveled from Wisconsin to New York to negotiate a buyout of Pace’s operation. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. The Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but purely as a holding company. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be licensed to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.
A redesigned Black Swan label appeared in early 1923 (left), following Pace’s split with John Fletcher. Pressings bearing this label were produced by both the New York Recording Laboratories and the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company (the example pictured here came from the latter). The ill-fated Paramount–Black Swan Record was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, after licensing Pace’s masters.
Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when NYRL’s advertising logo was changed to read “Paramount Records (Combined with Black Swan).” A hybrid Paramount–Black Swan label, combining both companies’ trademarks, was introduced with some fanfare a month later, but it never developed into anything more than a reissue vehicle for previously released Black Swan recordings. Having failed to attract much interest after ninety-nine releases, the Paramount–Black Swan label stalled. The Paramount licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount–Black label had been discontinued.
Pace spent another working to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, a period he characterized in a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors as “worry for me and punishing effort which appears to be wholly unappreciated by some.” He then turned his back on the recording industry, went on earn a law degree from the University of Chicago, and in later years operated an insurance business.
“A Consolidation.” Chicago Defender (Apr 19, 1924), p. 6.
“A New York Incorporation.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1921), p. 157.
Allen, Walter C. “Report on Black Swan.” Unpublished manuscript (Jun 12, 1961). William R. Bryant papers, Mainspring Press collection.
“Black Swan Artists Broadcast.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1922), p. 43.
“Black Swan Takes Over Company.” Chicago Defender (Apr 1922).
“Black Swan Records—New Firm Announces First List of Productions.” Chicago Defender (May 4, 1921), p. 8.
“C. Udell Turpin Takes Charge.” Talking Machine World (Oct 15, 1921), p. 46.
“Demand for Ethel Waters Record.” Talking Machine World (Aug 15, 1921), p. 89.
“Distribution System of Black Swan Phonograph Records.” The Crisis (Mar 1922), p 221.
Du Bois, W. E. B. Letter to Roland Hayes (New York, Nov 24, 1922), re: Invitation to record for Black Swan. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries).
Du Bois, W. E. B., et al. “To the Stockholders of the Black Swan Phonograph Company” (New York, Jan 2, 1926). Du Bois Papers.
“Gives Jack Pickford Black Swan Records as Wedding Present.” Dallas Express (Nov 11, 1922), p. 1.
Handy, W. C. (Arna Bomtemps, editor). Father of the Blues—An Autobiography, pp. 202–203. New York: Macmillan (1941).
“New Incorporations.” New York Times (May 26, 1922), p. 34.
“New Incorporations—Capital Increases.” New York Times (Feb 1, 1923), p. 28
“New Incorporations—Delaware Charters.” New York Times (Feb 5, 1921), p. 22
“New York Charters—Name Changes.” New York Times (Jan 30, 1923), p. 27
“New Incorporations—New York Charters.” New York Times (Jun 25, 1921), p. 13.
“Now the Fletcher Record Company—Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New Corporation.” Talking Machine World (Jul 15, 1922), p. 57.
Pace, Harry H. Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 27, 1920), re: Company launch and Du Bois’ proposal of the Black Swan name. Du Bois Papers.
— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Mar 21, 1922), re: Financial statement through Dec 31, 1921.
— . Letter to W. E. B. Du Bois (New York, Dec 23, 1922), re: Roland Hayes, and proposal to press imported Caruso masters. Du Bois Papers.
— . Letter to Du Bois, et al. (New York, Jan 19, 1927), re: Ongoing attempts to liquidate Black Swan debt.
— . Postcard to W. E. B. Du Bois (Port Washington, WI, Jun 24, 1921), re: Preparations for increased record production. Du Bois Papers.
— . Stockholder Notice (New York, Jan 1, 1923), re: Organization of Black Swan Phonograph Company. Du Bois Papers.
Pace Phonograph Corp. “Black Swan Records.” U.S. trademark filing #149,558 (Jun 23, 1921).
“Pace Phonograph Corp. Changes Name.” Talking Machine World (Feb 15, 1923), p. 124.
“Phonograph Company Making Rapid Progress.” New York Age (Jun 18, 1921), p. 6.
“Purchase Black Swan Business.” Talking Machine World (Apr 15, 1924), p. 168.
“Report of Pace Phonograph Corporation” (Nov 8, 1922). Du Bois Papers.
“Robeson Casts His Chances with Pace Phonograph Co.” Chicago Defender (Jun 18, 1921), p. 9.
“The Horizon” (re: First-month record sales). The Crisis (Aug 1921), p. 176.
“The Horizon” (re: Black Swan distribution and record sales). The Crisis (Mar 1922), p. 220.
“The Swanola—A New Phonograph” (ad). The Crisis (Oct 1921), p. 284.
Thygesen, Helge, et al. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottingham, UK: VJM Publications (1996).
“To the Investing Public.” The Crisis (Nov 1922), p. 282.
“White Phonograph Record Companies Object to Colored Men Making Phonograph Records.” Dallas Express (Feb 26, 1921), p. 3.
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Two rare shots of a behemoth record press inside Victor’s Camden NJ plant, taken in 1928 for a Keystone Stereoview Company series on American industry. These were operated by foot-pedal. Note the finished scroll-label pressing in the top photo.
Conditions in the Victor pressing plant reportedly were better than in most. Columbia’s Bridgeport plant was a notoriously nasty place prior to its purchase by CBS; so much so, that in the mid-1930s John Hammond wrote a scathing exposé that resulted in its eventual unionization.
Collector’s Corner • Some Recent Cylinder Finds: Sophie Tucker, Elida Morris, Murry K. Hill, Goldin Hebrew Quartet, Kukzuoka Sokichi & Others
Cylinders seemed to turn up everywhere the past couple of months; here are a few favorites. A heads-up — There’s politically incorrect language (by current standards, but perfectly normal for its day) on many of these. We don’t censor history.
GILMORE’S BAND: By the Sycamore Tree — Medley
Columbia XP 32413
New York – Released April 1904
BOB ROBERTS: I Wants a Graphophone
Busy Bee 261 (Columbia mx.)
New York – Released July 1905
GOLDIN HEBREW QUARTET: Die Seider Nacht
Columbia XP 32786
New York – Released October 1905
KUDZUOKA SOKICHI: Komori Uta – Japanese Lullaby
Edison Gold Moulded 12822
New York – Released August 1903
EDWARD M. FAVOR: O’Brien Has No Place to Go
New York – Released September 1908
MURRY K. HILL: A String of Laughs, intro. “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”
Edison Amberol 401
New York – Released April 1909
NAT M. WILLS: Down in Jungle Town — Parody
Edison Gold Moulded 10178
New York – Released June 1909
A great send-up of “Ted” (Theodore Roosevelt). Wills starts out knocking Roosevelt for using English guns, instead of American, on his African safari.
SOPHIE TUCKER: Knock Wood
Edison Amberol 852
New York – Released October 1911
ELIDA MORRIS: Stop! Stop! Stop! (Come Over and Love Me Some More)
New York – Released April 1911
BOB ROBERTS: Fables
Edison Blue Amberol 1632
New York – Released March 1913
ADA JONES: Oh, Mr. Dream Man (Please Let Me Dream Some More)
U-S Everlasting 1504
New York – Released 1912
VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle
New York – Released October 1911
Leeds & Catlin Data Now Available Online at DAHR
As part of Mainspring Press’ ongoing transition to digital data distribution, we’re happy to announce that our Leeds & Catlin discography has now been incorporated into the University of California-Santa Barbara’s free online Discography of American Historical Recordings.
The listings were expertly adapted from Leeds & Catlin Records: A History and Discography (William R. Bryant & Allan Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and include the latest revisions to that work. All brands are covered, from the well-known Leeds, Imperial, and Sun labels to such truly obscure items as 20th Century and Duquesne.
The American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) and International Record Company databases are currently in preparation for DAHR. Mainspring’s American Zonophone data, including the previously unpublished volume covering 7″, 9″, and 11″ issues, was transferred to DAHR last year.
SORTING OUT PARAMOUNT’S TWO “NATIONAL” LABELS
(1922 – 1924)
By Allan Sutton
During 1922–1924, the New York Recording Laboratories supplied Paramount masters to two unrelated National labels that operated under completely different business models. Unfortunately, discographers (particularly foreign ones who have access to only a small sampling of the actual discs, or who trust reports from unreliable sources) have muddled them together over the years.
Some progress has been made lately in sorting out a related situation (the two faces of Puritan, with more capable discographers now distinguishing between the United Phonographs/New York Recording Laboratories and Bridgeport Die & Machine versions of the label in their work). Hopefully, this article will spark a similar effort in regard to the two Paramount-derived National labels of the early 1920s.
The National Record Exchange Company (Iowa City, Iowa) launched its version of the National label in early 1922 and contracted production to NYRL. National Record Exchange was founded by Francis Waldemar Kracher, who filed for copyright on the slogan, “Get new records on our exchange plan,” on March 6, 1922. The company’s trademark application claimed use of the brand on phonographs (without mentioning records) since February 10, 1922. The records were used in an exchange scheme, rather than being sold outright.
National Record Exchange agents were scattered across the country. This ad appeared in the Santa Ana [California] Register on August 7, 1922.
The National Record Exchange’s 12000-series catalog numbers correspond to those on NYRL’s version of the Puritan label (which in turn were derived from the corresponding Paramount catalog numbers), plus 10000 — thus, in the example pictured below, National 12130 = Puritan (NYRL) 11130 = Paramount 20130. A lesser-known 8000 series featured a mixture of standards, light classics, and ethnic material from the Paramount catalog. Catalog numbers for that series correspond to Paramount’s, minus 25000 (for example, National 8113 = Paramount 33113).
(From Allan Sutton & Kurt Nauck’s American Record Labels & Companies:
An Encyclopedia, 1891–1943)
National Record Exchange agents were scattered across the country, but like some earlier exchange plans, the idea seems not to have caught on. The label appears to have been discontinued in 1924, and today, the records range from uncommon to rare, depending upon the issue.
The National Certificate Corporation employed a very different model for their version of the National label, which launched at approximately the same time as the National Record Exchange. In an early version of the trading-stamp scheme, National Certificate gave away coupons with purchases made from participating dealers, which could be redeemed for National records and other goods.
An August 1922 ad encouraging consumers to patronize stores that gave
National Certificate coupons.
Production was also contracted to NYRL, but in this case, manufacturing was handed off to the Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut, using Paramount masters. BD&M manufactured the East Coast version of NYRL’s Puritan label, along with Broadway, Triangle, and a host of other brands originally pressed from Paramount masters. BD&M Puritans sometimes used NYRL Puritan’s couplings and catalog numbers, but quite often, the company recoupled selections and/or reassigned NYRL’s Puritan catalog numbers to different recordings. The same situation applied with National.
Two BD&M National pressings from Paramount masters, both unlisted in the Van Rijn–Van der Tuuk Paramount discography and similar works. These use the same couplings and catalog numbers as BD&M’s version of the Puritan label. Both selections were also issued by the National Record Exchange, under different catalog numbers derived from the corresponding Paramount numbers. (ARLAC)
The coupon model appears to have been little more popular than the exchange model, based upon the relative rarity of National Certificate’s records. The last confirmed releases use Paramount masters recorded during the summer of 1923, and thus far, no advertising for the records after early 1924 has been found. An unrelated National label, manufactured by Grey Gull for the possibly fictitious National Record Company (location not stated), made a brief appearance in 1925.
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ROSA PONSELLE ON HER RECORDINGS
An Interview by James A. Drake
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Do you recall when you made your very first recording?
Don’t ask me about dates because I’m terrible at them, but I remember being given a contract by the Columbia company around the time I made my Met debut. No, it was before my debut—I’m pretty sure it was before it because I made the recording in the spring, and my debut with Caruso in Forza del destino was in the fall, in November .
So you were still in vaudeville with [your sister] Carmela when you made the recording?
No, we were “on strike” from the Keith Circuit in 1917, or that’s what we told [Keith Circuit booker] Eddie Darling at the time. But Romano Romani, whom I credit with “discovering” me, was an arranger and conductor for Columbia, and he and my so-called manager, [William] Thorner, convinced me to accept a contract from Columbia rather than Victor. What I didn’t know until a few years later, when I did go with Victor, was that they had wanted me from the time I made my Met debut. After my debut was a sensation, as the critics called it, Victor wanted to offer me a big contract and have me record arias and duets from Forza with Caruso.
Before the name change: Rosa and Carmela Ponzillo in vaudeville
(New York Clipper, August 8, 1917).
Carmela (left) and Rosa Ponselle (center) with Rosa’s secretary, Edith Prilik.
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)
Were you at all aware of Victor’s interest when Columbia wanted you to sign with them?
No, but I should’ve been because [Columbia] really rushed the contract through, and then had me make this test record. Some of my friends said I should have Thorner try to see if Victor would take me, but he gave me this song and dance about how if I went with Victor I would just be a “beginner” and wouldn’t get much to record, but that at Columbia I would be “the queen” and would be their big star.
Do you remember the title of your test recording for Columbia?
Sure. “Pace, pace mio Dio,” with Romani accompanying me at the piano. That would have been in the spring of 1918, maybe March or April.
Where were the Columbia studios in New York City, where you made your recordings?
It was on the top floor of a new building, the Gotham, near Central Park. It was a beautiful new building, and the studios obviously were brand-new, too. I think there were four studios that took up that whole top floor. I know it was at least twenty-four stories, that building, and the studios were on the top floor.
Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
Describe the process that making those recordings involved.
Well, there was just a small orchestra for accompaniment—mainly brasses and reeds, and these special [Stroh] violins that had a nickeled horn, like a curved megaphone, instead of a wooden body. Those odd-looking violins were made just for recording purposes because their horns were fastened to a metal bridge, which made them very loud compared to a real violin—but they sounded awful!
How many were in the accompanying band, if you recall?
Maybe ten or a dozen players at most for vocal recordings. They were on bleachers, I guess you could call them, a few feet above the floor. The bleachers were shaped like a half-moon, so that the instruments were pointing toward the horn. I remember that there was no player right behind me when I was singing. The players were at my left and right, but with no one behind me because the sound of their instrument would have been right in back of my head.
When you were making a recording, could you see the recording machinery and the person who was running the equipment?
No. All of that was behind a wall. There was a little window in the wall so that the man directing the recording where the singer and the orchestra was could communicate with the people running the equipment.
Ponselle with Romano Romani (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)
Was there a signal that someone gave to start the recording?
At Columbia, that was Romani’s job. He would get a hand signal through the little window that I was just describing, and he would raise his baton and the recording would begin. Now at Victor, I remember a buzzer that was used as a signal to start the recording. That was before the microphone came in, of course. After that, there was a system of lights, kind of like traffic lights. The red light meant “stand by,” and the green one meant that the recording machine was already going.
Do you remember any directions you were given about how to sing into the recording horn?
Oh, that damned horn! It was a real ordeal having to make a record with that horn, especially if you had a good-sized voice like mine. You had to sing every note at almost the same volume—so if the score called for a pianissimo, you couldn’t sing it because the recording machine would barely pick it up. You couldn’t sing too loud, either. If you did, they [i.e., the recording engineers] said that it would “blast” the groove and ruin the record. So anything forte, especially fortissimo, had to be sung by looking upward so that some of the sound wouldn’t do directly into the middle of the horn. Or they would tell you to take a step back from the horn right before you would sing a note fortissimo.
“[Thorner] gave me this song and dance about how…at Columbia I would be ‘the queen’ and would be their big star.”
Both you and your sister Carmela were offered Columbia contracts, correct?
Yes, they wanted to capitalize on our reputation in vaudeville. We were one of the top acts on the Keith Circuit before I went to the Met, and our act consisted of fifteen minutes of mainly duets that I had done the arrangements for. Three that always got us huge ovations were our duets of the Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffmann, “’O sole mio,” and “Comin’ thro’ the Rye.” We recorded those for Columbia, and they sold well.
What is your opinion of your Columbia recordings? Are there any that you remember especially well?
Well, those duets with Carmela, and another one from our vaudeville act, “Kiss Me Again,” which was my solo. That record turned out pretty well. One that didn’t like was the “Casta diva,” which I had to sing at a horrible tempo and with none of the dynamics that I used in the opera house. I just thought of another duet recording that I liked: the Trovatore “Mira d’acerbe lagrime” and “Vivrà! contende il giubilo!” which I made with Riccardo Stracciari. My God, what a voice he had—just like a shower of diamonds! Now, of all of the solo opera arias I made for Columbia, I consider the “Selva opaca” from William Tell to be the best one.
The Ponselle sisters’ early Columbia output included selections they had featured in their vaudeville and concert performances.
Was it hard for you to leave Columbia after being so successful with them, and go to Victor?
It was bittersweet, I would say. The men at Columbia were so nice to me—they really did treat me like “the queen,” just as Romani and Thorner said they would. And it was bittersweet because although I made a lot more money at Victor, Caruso had died two or three years earlier, so I never got to record with him.
Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?
No, she stayed with Columbia. And by the way, I didn’t “audition” for Victor. I was at the Met by then, and Victor did everything they could to get me to sign with them.
What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?
Well, the ones that were done with the horn and the small orchestra for accompaniment were made in their Manhattan studios. When the microphone came along and everything was electrical, I made a lot of my records at this church that Victor had converted into a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey. The acoustics of that church were ideal.
From the “1930” Victor catalog (published November 1, 1929). Of Ponselle’s acoustically recorded issues, all but #6437 had been deleted by the time this catalog appeared.
When the electrical-recording process was introduced in 1925, do you recall how different it felt to make a recording with the new technology?
Oh, yes! It was like night and day. The orchestra was much, much larger, and they used regular instruments—real violins, in other words—and you could have a good-sized chorus and a pipe organ if the music you were recording called for them.
You made a number of recordings with a chorus, and one of your fan’s favorites is “La vergine degli angeli” with [Ezio] Pinza. Do you consider that one of your best electrical Victor records?
No—it’s one of my least favorites. My part, that is, not Pinza’s. He sings beautifully on that record. What I don’t like about it is that somebody in the control room turned up the volume on my microphone. It’s a prayer, so it’s supposed to be sung piano—but because of the way they turned up the volume on the microphone when I was singing my part, it’s way too loud, nothing like a prayer would be sung.
Ponselle made her radio debut on the first Victor Hour broadcast of the 1927 season. (Radio Digest Illustrated, January 1927)
How about your Forza trio recordings with Martinelli and Pinza? Do you like those Victors?
Yes, they’re all right. The blend of the voices turned out well.
Of all the duet recordings you made for Victor, the “Tomb Scene” discs from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli are prized by everyone who has heard them. Is it true that you didn’t like them and that Martinelli had to convince you to allow them to be released?
That’s true, yes. There again, the balance between our voices was wrong. We recorded those duets twice, you know. The first time was with the horn, and I wouldn’t let those be released because we were both too loud and the pace was too fast. It’s like one of the Columbias that I made with that damned horn, the “Vergine degli angeli” with Charles Hackett. He was an excellent singer—not the most beautiful voice, but a real artist—yet the recording was just awful. It was all too loud, no subtlety at all. The same with those first “Tomb Scene” recordings that I made with Martinelli and that damned horn.
When Victor persuaded us to re-record those duets after the microphone came in, the sound was much better, of course, but I thought the balance between our voices was still off, so I said I wouldn’t go along with putting them out. Finally, Martinelli persuaded me to okay them. He said, “Look, Rosa, the public will understand. You sing so beautifully and your voice sounds just like it does on the stage.” I could never say no to Martinelli, so I went along with him and let them be released. When I hear them now, I’m glad I did.
What is your opinion of your Norma recordings, both the “Casta diva” and the “Mira, o Norma” with Marion Telva?
I’m fine with them, especially the “Mira, o Norma.” Telva and I were in synch on every note. We did that in the studio the way we did it onstage. We held hands, and I would squeeze her hand gently a fraction of a second before I would begin a note. Every time we did that duet, we were completely in synch because of the way we held hands.
Were any of your Victor Red Seals of older ballads like “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” conducted by Nathaniel Shilkret, who conducted most of Victor’s popular-music recordings?
No, never. I don’t remember him—I mean, I must have been introduced to him, but I wouldn’t know him if he walked into this room right now. Rosario Bourdon conducted my Victor recordings.
An early 1950s promotional photo for RCA’s
Treasury of Immortal Performances reissues.
As you hardly need me to tell you, you are one of the very few opera stars who made acoustical recordings, electrical recordings, and modern long-playing recordings. You’ve talked about the day-and-night difference between making acoustical and electrical recordings, but what was it like by comparison to make high-fidelity long-playing recordings for your old company, RCA Victor?
What I wouldn’t have given to have had that recording system when I was in the prime of my career! It was so easy making recordings that way!
Those LPs were made right here at Villa Pace, correct?
Yes, in the foyer, where the high ceiling and the walls and tile floor give the voice such resonance. They set up the microphones there. They brought in a seven-foot piano for [accompanist] Igor Chichagov, because it would have been too much trouble to move my concert Baldwin piano into the foyer. And do you know that the man who oversaw those recordings was one of the men I worked with at Victor in Camden? His name was Mr. Maitsch. It was such a happy moment when he came here and we got to work together again.
The master recordings for those LPs were made on magnetic tape. You had had some experience with having your singing tape-recorded by Lloyd Garrison, who recorded private albums that you sent to friends. How different was it working the RCA’s technicians and their state-of-the-art equipment?
Well, the sound quality of the RCA equipment was leagues ahead of what Lloyd had used. He had an ordinary [Webcor] tape recorder, but he did have a very good microphone that he bought for our private recordings. But the RCA microphones were the ones they used in their studios, so of course they were the top microphones.
Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)
How many “takes” did you do of each of the songs you recorded for your LPs?
Well, if I liked the way it sounded, I just sang a song once. Sometimes, they would ask me to do a second “take” just as a back-up—and sometimes I didn’t like the way I did a number, so I recorded it a second or maybe even a third time. Now, that I didn’t realize until later, when I heard them on the discs for the first time, was that they [i.e., the sound engineers] had spliced different portions from different “takes.” Now, that was something else I wish we’d have had in the old days. I have a good ear, though, and when I listen closely I can sometimes tell where they did the splicing. I can tell because the resonance changes just enough for my ear to detect it.
Did you rehearse a lot before you began recording the selections for those LPs each afternoon and evening?
Oh, hardly at all. I just picked what I wanted to sing, and I handed the score to Igor [Chichagov] to play it while I sang it. Now, he will tell you that he’s not happy with some of his playing because I didn’t want to rehearse. I just wanted to keep going, and record as many songs as I could in one long day. On a couple of the songs, I played my own accompaniment because it was easier for me to pace my phrasing.
Is there any one of the songs on which you played your own accompaniment that you remember especially well?
Yes, yes—“Amuri, amuri,” which is a Sicilian folk song. It’s such an emotional song! It was all I could do to keep my emotions in check while we were recording it. Afterward, I was a wreck and we had to stop for quite a while until I could get my heart out of my throat and back where it belonged.
© James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.
The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.