Revisiting Black Swan: Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label

Revisiting Black Swan: The Documented History
Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Fletcher, and the
Saga of the Second Black-Owned Record Label
By Allan Sutton

 

This new account draws on company documents and correspondence between Pace and Du Bois (W. E. B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries), as well as information newly uncovered while researching John Fletcher’s involvement with Black Swan and the affiliated Fletcher Record Company.

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Founded in December 1920 by Harry Herbert Pace, the Pace Phonograph Corporation 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, albeit 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.”

Harry Pace, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Birth of Black Swan

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 also 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 wrote,

I note your suggestion about the name “Black Swan” and it strikes me very favorably indeed. I debated very seriously  whether I should use a fanciful name or whether I should capitalize on my own name and use it… All of this, of course, had been done before I talked with you on the subject.

Pace reported to Du Bois that he had Ford Dabney’s Orchestra under contract and had already made test recordings by the group, which apparently were never issued. He was hoping to do the same, he told Du Bois, with operatic soprano Florence Cole-Talbert, a very young Marian Anderson, and one or two “local folks who are getting in shape, and whom I am trying out with a view of having them record as soon as we are ready to make the permanent masters.”

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W. E. B. Du Bois (left) and Harry Pace (right)

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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 Pace’s investors was comedian Bert Williams, who according to a misleadingly worded advertisement in The Crisis, “put thousands of dollars into the making of Black Swan records.” It would not be only time that Pace took some liberties in describing Williams’ relationship to Black Swan. Following Williams’ death, Pace took a full-page ad The Crisis, in which he claimed that Williams had intended to move to Black Swan once his Columbia contract expired. Canny businessman that he was, it seems unlikely that Williams would have abandoned a company whose annual sales of his records alone exceeded Black Swan’s total annual sales.

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Pace’s April 1922 ad in The Crisis includes the questionable claim that Bert Williams planned to leave “a White Company” for Black Swan.

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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 for the job. 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 test recordings have survived, they have not been located for inspection. Most of the early issued masters appear to have been made by the New York Recording Laboratories, based upon some distinctive physical and aural characteristics. (NYRL at that time was recording masters for other small labels as well — most notably Arto and Grey Gull, as confirmed in band manager Ed Kirkeby’s session logs — which were assigned master numbers in each label’s own series).

Black Swan Comes to Market

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).

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(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.

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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 far 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 attempt to present Black Swan as a respectable operation to potential investors, Pace understandably erred on the side of caution in 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 war-horses, “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.

Pace reported first-month sales of 10,300 Black Swan records to Du Bois, who forwarded that figure to The Crisis. The editors, apparently unaware that figure was a minuscule fraction of the major labels’ sales for the same period, seemed impressed.

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 positive in its reporting on the company, and readily accepted Pace’s advertising.

Pressing-Plant Woes

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 glossing over the fact that Olympic had indeed pressed Black Swan records, albeit briefly.

What actually caused Pace and Olympic to part company was a surge in orders that Olympic apparently was not prepared to handle. It was decided instead to contract pressing to the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount). In a postcard to Du Bois, mailed on June 24, 1921, from Port Washington, Wisconsin (NYRL’s 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.

Ethel Waters Sparks a Surge in Sales

The initial Black Swan releases were received politely enough by the press and public. Carroll Clark’s first offering appears to have been a relatively good seller, based upon the number of surviving copies. But the earliest offerings failed to generate the sort of excitement that would be needed to make Black Swan profitable. 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.

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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.

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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.

April 1922 saw Harry Pace’s quixotic attempt to cast Black Swan as a contender in the classical field with the introduction of a 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 production of original classical recordings.

Marketing Black Swan

With demand for Black Swan records growing steadily, spotty marketing and distribution were hobbling sales. 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.

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Lacking a national distributor, Harry Pace recruited small-time retailers and enterprising individuals to sell his records wherever and however they could.

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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 Turpin (spelled Turpine in some accounts, but Turpin in company correspondence) as his sales manager. A Columbia University business school graduate, Turpin 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.”

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Pace depended heavily on heavily on independent salespeople, like Mrs. L. A. Shaw of Dallas, Texas.

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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 many states 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, from their homes, or wherever else they could.

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Black Swan record distribution, as depicted in The Crisis
for March 1922.

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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.

Enter John Fletcher

On March 25, 1922, assets of John Fletcher’s bankrupt Olympic Disc Record Corporation were auctioned by order of the company’s receiver. The purchaser was Fletcher himself, in partnership with Harry Pace and Michael Naughton. For their winning bid, they acquired ownership of Olympic’s trademarks and masters, but more importantly for Pace, the company’s Long Island City studio and pressing plant.

The Fletcher Record Company was incorporated in New York on May 26, 1922. Fletcher, Pace, and Naughton were listed as directors of the new company, which was chartered simply to “deal in merchandise.” With Fletcher serving as president, and Pace as vice-president and treasurer, the Fletcher Record Company was the first American record company to have a racially integrated executive team, although there appears to have been only minimal interaction between Pace and Fletcher.

The Fletcher Record Company initially served only as a supplier to Pace, providing Black Swan masters and pressings to order; its name never appeared on a Black Swan label. The Pace Phonograph Corporation continued to function as an autonomous entity, with a separate board of directors, and with Harry Pace still largely in control of who and what appeared on Black Swan. It would not be long however, before disguised Olympic recordings began turning up in the Black Swan catalog.

Initially, at least, the arrangement eliminated the production bottlenecks that has plagued Black Swan from the start. Pace was soon able to report, “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.

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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.”

Pace Breaks his Pledge to Use Only Black Artists

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 purely Pace productions, employing only 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 to falsely claim that it employed only black talent.

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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.

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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,” 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 use of her name on records with which she nothing to do. 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 by the bogus artist credits. A reporter for The Chicago 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 were more savvy than that reporter is unknown, but Black Swan sales began to stall.

Black Swan in Decline

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 the operation netted only $544 in its first month, Pace 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.” But the stock would soon be virtually worthless, and no dividends were forthcoming.

Exit John Fletcher

By late 1922, it was clear to Harry Pace that he needed to disentangle himself from John Fletcher’s pressing plant. Pace Phonograph’s financial report of November 8, 1922, noted, “The factory has been a severe drain on our cash.” On January 20, 1923, he reorganized the Pace Phonograph Corporation as the Black Swan Record Company, ending what had become an unprofitable relationship with John Fletcher. Fletcher carried on alone, but his revived Olympic label failed to attract much attention.

With the Fletcher connection severed, Pace returned to the New York Recording Laboratories for pressings, using the affiliated Bridgeport Die & Machine Company in Connecticut as a secondary supplier. A new three-color label design and the release of a new catalog in May 1923 apparently did little to boost sales.

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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.

Artist Exodus

The problems at Black Swan had not gone unnoticed by Pace’s artists. Alberta Hunter was the first star of any magnitude to leave the label. Reportedly unhappy with Pace’s lackluster marketing efforts, she left to sign with Paramount in July 1922. Fletcher Henderson departed that autumn. His replacement was William Grant Still, who took over as Black Swan’s new recording director on November 13. Pace, who later stated that he 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.” Preoccupied with his theatrical work and growing stature as a serious composer, Still brought about no apparent improvement in Black Swan’s recorded output.

The company’s reorganization and declining fortunes spurred a second and far more damaging artist exodus that began 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 subsequently signed on as free-lance recording artists with music publisher and booking agent Joe Davis, who shopped them around to whatever labels would have them.

In the meantime, Ethel Waters had foregone membership in the Black Swan Troubadours and was now touring independently, in what could only be seen as an ominous sign for Black Swan. When the Troubadours embarked on their 1923 tour, Josie Miles took her place. Waters quit the label in June, after returning from a transcontinental tour to discover that Black Swan was barely operating.

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Ethel Waters returned from her 1923 Black Swan tour to find the company barely operating. She left the label a short time later.

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The Black Swan office hosted a second-anniversary celebration during the first week of June 1923, with little to celebrate. In or around early August, Fae Barnes filled what is believed to have been the last Black Swan recording session.

Only a handful of new Black Swan releases would be forthcoming after July, and some that were advertised are not known to have been released. 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 on  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.”

“Every Effort Should Be Made to Dispose of the Assets”

By the autumn of 1923, Du Bois was looking to cash out of the failing operation. On October 1, he wrote to Pace,

Is there any market for Black Swan stock? I have got to be out of the country attending the Pan-African Conference for three months and I want to finance my house payments while I am gone. If you think of any way I can help myself by the sale or a hypothecation of any part of my stock, kindly let me know.

Pace offered no aid, noting that “summer has been very dull for us.” By then the company had gone dormant for all practical purposes, and its stock was virtually worthless. Its debts, which reportedly included a substantial sum due the New York Recording Laboratories for pressing services, were accumulating at an alarming rate. At year’s end, Black Swan’s board of directors approved a resolution that read, in part,

To make the corporation successful..will require not simply time, but the uninterrupted and undivided services of all the executive officers. We believe that any division of time or of interest will be fatal to the interest of this corporation. If, however, the president and other officials feel that the present condition of the corporation does not warrant them in giving their full services, we think that every effort should be made to dispose of the assets of the organization… .

Paramount Takes Over

In January 1924, Maurice Supper traveled to New York from Paramount’s Wisconsin headquarters to negotiate a buyout of Black Swan. On April 2, The Port Washington Herald reported that Pace had agreed to sell. With Pace’s abandonment of Black Swan, the race-record business was now entirely in the hands of white-owned record companies.

Under terms of the agreement with Paramount, the Black Swan Record Company was to remain in existence, but only on paper, to serve as a holding company for the protection of its shareholders. It would have no further involvement in recording or production. NYRL would take over the Black Swan trade name, trademark,  and goodwill, and it would continue to manufacture and distribute the existing Black Swan recordings. The Black Swan masters would be leased to NYRL, rather than being sold outright, in return for which Pace would be paid a monthly royalty on sales.

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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 reissue label was introduced in June 1924 by NYRL, which leased Pace’s masters.

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Consumers saw the first evidence of the new arrangement in May 1924, when Paramount’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 licensing agreement was finally terminated in January 1926, by which time the Paramount – Black Swan label had already been discontinued.

Winding Down Black Swan

Pace spent the next several years attempting to liquidate Black Swan’s remaining debt of $18,006, at one point asking stockholders to contribute $10 for each share they owned. He recalled, “I did not get even the courtesy of a reply from one percent  of the stockholders, and not a dollar were they willing to risk to safeguard $100 invested.”

Pace contributed a few thousand dollars of his own money and made vague allusions to engaging in “other activities” with the potential to raise some funds. The company’s only other significant revue was coming from the heavily mortgaged Seventh Avenue building, which was netting just $2,500 annually in rent.The masters were deemed worthless; a message to stockholders noted “it is doubtful if anything is going to be realized” from their sale.

In a final January 1927 appeal to Du Bois and other investors, Pace characterized his efforts as a “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.

 

Selected References

“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).

— . Letter to Harry Pace (New York, Oct 1, 1923), re: sale of stock.

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.

“Sales by Class of Record and Total Sales of Records by Units,
Years 1901 and 1941 Inclusive” (Exhibit: Victor record sales). U.S. District Court, S.D. of N.Y., Jan. 26 1943

“The Horizon” (re: First-month Black Swan 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.

 

Of Related Interest

This new addition to the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library includes listings for all Black Swan records using Olympic masters. It is free to download for personal, non-commercial use.

 

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© 2022 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. Please contact  Mainspring Press for information on reproducing of any portion of this work in excess of customary fair-use standards.

 

Free Download • Emerson Records: The Complete Discography, 1915–1928

Free Download Now Available

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EMERSON RECORDS: THE COMPLETE
DISCOGRAPHY, 1915–1928
Edited and annotated by Allan Sutton

Primary Data Contributors:
William R. Bryant, The Record Research
Associates, and Mark McDaniel

 

The first online version of Mainspring’s Emerson discography, Emerson Records begins with a thorough revision of the original print edition (ten- and twelve-inch issues), incorporating additions and corrections received since its publication nine years ago. To that, we’ve added what was to have been Volume 2, which was still a work-in-progress at the time Mainspring exited the book business:

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All currently confirmed corresponding issues on subsidiary and client labels are included (with takes and label credits noted individually for each record), along with a first attempt to document Emerson masters not issued on the Emerson label, and Emerson’s often-elusive Melodisc releases. Pages are fully searchable, and there are bookmark tabs to guide you to the various sections.

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The James A. Drake Interviews: Artie Shaw

The James A. Drake Interviews: Artie Shaw

 

ARTIE SHAW.

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James A. Drake, Interviewer
Westport, Connecticut (November 1974)

On a late-autumn afternoon in 1974, Gustave (Gus) Haenschen, a radio and recording pioneer for whom many of the leaders of the “Big Band Era” had played in the early years of their careers, drove from his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, where I joined him, to nearby Westport where Artie Shaw was renting a house. When Haenschen turned into the driveway, Shaw was standing at the edge of the sidewalk. As soon as Haenschen get out of his car, Shaw put his arms around Haenschen’s midsection and lifted him off the ground, repeating “Gus … Gus … Gus” until Haenschen said, “I love you too, Artie, but I’m 85 years old so put me down!”

 Having seen Shaw on talk shows, where his prickly personality was always on display, and knowing his reputation for correcting interviewers mid-sentence and citing logical flaws in their questions, I was taken by his open display of affection toward Haenschen, whom he hadn’t seen for almost 25 years. Although he knew that the purpose of the visit was for me to record an interview with him, Shaw promptly put me to the test. Probably because of Haenschen’s presence and my own research, I managed to pass his test and he responded in detail to my questions and gave candid, often blunt assessments of his and other bandleaders’ assets and liabilities.

 

Let me begin by thanking you, Mr. Shaw, for taking time to grant us this interview.

I’m doing this because Gus [Haenschen] asked me to do it. Gus is one of the great men in the music business. You, on the other hand, I don’t know at all. Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you want from me?

 

Well, I want to ask you questions about your career, and specifically about–

You’re a little late, sonny. I got out of the Artie Shaw business in 1954. So you’re exactly twenty years late.

 

I realize that you’re not actively performing, but your career is very significant in American popular music and popular culture. But you certainly don’t need for me to tell you that. 

As I just told you, I quit being Artie Shaw twenty years ago. I’m through talking about my “career,” as you called it. 

 

Well, then, what would you like to talk about?

Target shooting. Which you don’t know shit about. Have you ever heard of skeet shooting?

 

Yes, I have.

Do you know what a five-round drill at 100 yards is?

 

Yes, it’s an event that’s usually timed, and each shooter must put five rounds as close to the center as possible using open sights. Those with the tightest group are the winners.

Do you see that rifle [pointing to a rack on a wall]? What is it?

 

I can’t tell what the caliber is, but the rifle itself looks like an Anschutz or maybe a Weatherby with a full Mannlicher-style stock.

You’re doing all right so far. And by the way, it’s a .22 Hornet. What’s the best shotgun for skeet shooting?

 

Well, I know that the shotguns most skeet shooters prefer are made in the U.K. They’re James Purdy double-barreled side-by-side 12-gauge shotguns, which are hand-crafted to fit each buyer.

Well, I’ll be goddamned—you proved me wrong. You want to see some Purdys? Follow me to my gun room.

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[After an interval of approximately twenty minutes, the interview resumed.]


Okay, go ahead and ask me anything you want, with one exception: I don’t want to talk about my ex-wives. So let’s stick to music. 

 

What role did Charles E. Rochester play in your career?

You’ve done some homework. Charlie Rochester was the president and general manager of the Lexington Hotel in New York. When I was playing there, we had a clash that made me despise him until I realized that he was telling me was right. I didn’t understand it at the time.

 

What did you and he clash about?

I had signed with an agent after I put my first band together, and the agent got me a gig at the Lexington. We played there for about a week, but the ballroom we played in was practically empty. I didn’t really pay much attention to it because I was focused on the band and our arrangements. Well, at the end of the first week of our engagement, my agent told me that Rochester was displeased with my band because we weren’t drawing enough customers. So I asked my agent to arrange for me to meet with [Rochester].

When I went to his office, he said to me, “Your band isn’t pulling its weight, and if this keeps up, I’m going to have to let you go.” I said, “What do you mean we’re not pulling our weight? This is one hell of a band, and we’re playing our hearts out night after night.” He interrupted me and said that the band wasn’t pulling in customers, to which I said that pulling in customers was not my job. My job was to lead a quality band, irrespective of how many customers are on the dance floor, or at the bar, or having dinner at the tables in the room.

He said to me, “You’ve got it all wrong, kid. I’m not running a concert hall here. This is a hotel dining room, and it’s been practically empty every night this week. Your job is to provide the kind of entertainment that will fill this room. If you want to take off your pants every night and shit on the stage, and if it draws enough customers to fill this room, I’ll pay you to shit on the stage every night. You’re in show business, kid, and you’d better understand the ‘business’ part if you want to have a career.”

That was tough to hear, but he did me a favor by explaining show business to me because he smashed the picture that I had in my mind. I had thought that musical perfection, which was what I was always striving for, would always draw an audience. But it doesn’t because audiences in hotels and movie theaters and what-not aren’t educated about music. They want a show—and that’s why it’s called show business. I was mad as hell at him until I realized that he had just done me a favor. I was in a business. And that’s what I hated—the “business” of show business. That’s why I quit so many times until I finally quit for good.

 

Your fame as a bandleader is as a clarinetist, but did you study the clarinet formally? Was it your first instrument?

No, I was a sax player, alto and tenor. I’m an auto-didact, and I learned the sax on my own. I came to the clarinet after I had been playing sax in studio orchestras. I was in a lot of this man’s [Haenschen’s] sax sessions, especially during those World Broadcasting recording sessions. That’s why I keep saying to you, Gus, that you kept food on our tables.

There wasn’t enough work after the stock market crash, but those World Broadcasting sessions that you and Ben Selvin and Frank Black and Lenny Joy and the other directors you had working with you were our salvation. We could do three of those if we were free and had the stamina, and those smorgasbords you had for us were just the best—and you let us take food home. Believe me, the guys I’m still in touch with talk about those sessions the way I do.

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Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw (circled at left) in the saxophone section at a World Broadcasting session conducted by Leonard Joy. James Melton is circled at the right.

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Since we’re in the presence of Mr. Haenschen, what do you recall about playing under his direction?

Well, first of all, Gus is probably the only guy in the music business who has no enemies. No one in the business is more beloved by the guys who played under him than Gus Haenschen. And I’m not just saying that because he’s sitting here.

 

What do you recall of the sessions with other directors, in particular Ben Selvin and Frank Black?

I don’t think Ben did as many as most of the others—certainly not as many as you did, Gus, and that Frank Black did. I didn’t like Frank Black—he was prissy, no sense of humor, and always gave me the impression that he wanted to be at Carnegie Hall conducting Beethoven instead of directing arrangements for radio. I don’t know how the others felt about him, but I didn’t think much of him.

The difference with Gus was, and any of the guys who played under both of them will tell you this, was that he treated every one of us with respect. He ran a tight organization but never an oppressive organization, yet he never hesitated to call out any player who made mistakes or wasn’t giving a hundred percent.

I don’t know if he’ll remember this, but he nailed [Benny] Goodman when he and I were in the sax section of one of [Haenschen’s] radio bands. Goodman was a good clarinetist—a damned good clarinetist, to give him his due—but he was a horrible saxophonist. Any high-school beginner would have a better tone than Goodman had on a sax.

There was a fairly complicated passage in one arrangement that we were rehearsing, and I played it well. It was tricky, but not really hard. Gus wanted it played one more time, so Goodman leaned over to me and said, “Let me play it this time.” It didn’t matter to me, so I let him play it.

Well, about five or six notes into it, Gus waved at the orchestra from the podium to stop our playing. “Who just played that sax phrase?” he said. You remember this, Gus? [Haenschen nods yes.] Well, Goodman jumped up and said he had played it. Gus said to him, “Sit down, Benny, and give that passage back to Artie!” To this day, I’m sure that sticks in Goodman’s craw.

 

Were you and Benny Goodman actually rivals?

In Goodman’s mind, such as it is, apparently so. Years later I met his daughter, who told me that her father referred to me as “the competition.” “The competition”? All I was trying to do was to make music as perfectly as I could. It wasn’t about competition, ever. But addled little Benny told his daughter that I was “the competition.” Go figure. 

 

One legendary story that I’ve heard is that Mr. Goodman felt that he had bested you when Toscanini chose him to be the soloist for the NBC Symphony broadcast of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” but that you jinxed him. Is any of that true?

Yeah. I ran into him on Seventh Avenue one afternoon, and he made a point of trotting over to me to tell me that Toscanini had picked him for the “Rhapsody” broadcast. I don’t know what he expected me to say, but what I did say was, “Really? Well, you’ll be so nervous that you’ll fuck up the opening solo, and millions of people will hear you squeak when you fuck it up.”

Which is exactly what he did—and that cracked note, that out-of-tune squeak, is there for posterity. On any other day, he could play that solo part easily. But I got inside his head, and he fucked it up on the air. He’ll never live that down.

 

Another legend about Benny Goodman is the “death ray,” the stare that he gives any band member who makes any mistake, even in a first rehearsal. Was he that way when you were playing together in those early days?

That “death ray” is total horse shit! As a man, Goodman is a mouse, and mentally he’s what psychologists call an “idiot savant.” Now, when you copy this tape, or you transcribe it or whatever you’re going to do with it, I don’t want to come off saying that Goodman is an idiot. So let me say it again: idiot savant.

If it weren’t for the fact that he married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had. Hammond is a Vanderbilt descendant, so he comes from money, and he knows a hell of a lot about the music business because he’s been in it since the late-1920s. He’s the one who shaped Goodman’s career.

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Benny Goodman with Artie Shaw (left) and producer John Hammond (right). “If it weren’t for the fact that [Goodman] married John Hammond’s sister, I doubt that he would have had anything like the career he’s had.”

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All Goodman knows and cares about is a goddamned clarinet. He has no interest, no knowledge, and no curiosity about anything other than a clarinet. Which is about as shallow as a human being can get. Several years ago, and this was when I was still playing, I was asked to help put together a benefit to sell war bonds. So I called Goodman and asked him to meet me for lunch at the ‘21.’ Well, I spent about ten or fifteen minutes explaining this benefit, when all of a sudden he says to me, “What mouthpiece do you use?”

I just looked at him and said, “What the hell does that have to do with what I was talking to you about?” He said, “Well, the clarinet is our instrument, isn’t it?” I said yes, of course it’s our “instrument,” but it’s just an instrument—just a tool, just one among many different instruments that make up an orchestra. But, you see, that’s the only thing he could talk about: a clarinet, a goddamned tube of wood with holes and keys.

 

We’d like to talk about your childhood a bit. Where did you grow up, and what occupations did your father and mother have?

I was born on the Lower East Side in New York. My birth certificate says May 23, 1910, and I assume it’s accurate. My mother, whose name was Sarah, worked in the garment industry as a young girl. My father, whose Anglicized name was Harold, was a garment worker too. He was a dressmaker. And he had a photography business on the side. His darkroom was in a closet in the flat we were living in.

He had to have a steady supply of water to rinse off the chemicals from his negatives and prints, so one of my jobs was to keep refilling a big wash pan that he used for that purpose. He and my mother moved around a lot until he was able to get steady work in New Haven. So that’s really where I grew up.

 

How did your parents influence your involvement in music?

They didn’t. In fact, my father was contemptuous of music. Whenever he heard me practice the clarinet, he would refer to it as a blosser, which is a Yiddish word for a noise-maker that you blow through, like the ones you see people blowing into on New Year’s Eve. No, my father had nothing but contempt for music and musicians. Well, except maybe for the violin and the famous violinists of those days—Mischa Elman, Efrem Zimbalist, and so on—because the violin is a “Jewish” instrument and almost all of those great violinists were Jews.

 

Were you raised in the Jewish faith?

I had a bar mitzvah, but that’s about it. We didn’t go to the synagogue very often, and anyway I wasn’t interested in “Jewish” anything. I didn’t go out of my way to hide it, but I don’t look Jewish—not like Goodman, who definitely looks Jewish—and the name “Shaw,” although it’s not my real name, is British. I’d bet that if you took a survey of people who claim to be fans of mine, and you asked them whether I was a Jew or a Gentile, they’d say I was a Gentile, a goy.

 

Just for the record, what is your birth name?

Arthur Arshawsky. Arthur Jacob Arshawsky. That’s the spelling our family used, although I’ve seen other variations like “Arshavski.”

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Artie Shaw (née Arshawsky) in the early 1930s

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When did you begin studying music?

I was a bookworm as a kid, and wasn’t interested in stickball and the other stuff that boys my age were interested in. But my mother insisted that I learn an instrument, so I picked the saxophone because it was the popular instrument at that time. I had a couple lessons, but I mostly taught myself the sax. In those days, the C-melody sax was very popular because of Rudy Wiedoeft. He was the most famous saxophonist of his time. He’s the guy Rudy Vallée named himself after, if you don’t know that.

[Wiedoeft] wrote and played a lot of what I’d call “novelty tunes” like “Saxophobia” that seemed impossible to play and that every sax student wanted to be able to play. But he was also a virtuoso and wrote classical compositions for the sax. Like everybody else did when I started out, I learned the C-melody [sax] and then went on to the tenor and alto saxes.

 

Did you teach yourself the clarinet as well?

I did because in those days the real demand in studio work was for “doublers,” guys who could play clarinet and sax. I learned the [clarinet] fingering system from a book, and for me it wasn’t that hard even though the fingering is different than the sax, which has the same fingering in the upper and lower registers.

The upper register of the clarinet has totally different fingering, and [the clarinet] has several open holes. Sax keys all have pads. Another big difference is what reed players call the “embouchure,” or the way that your lips and your tongue interact when you’re playing the instrument properly. The clarinet requires a different embouchure.

 

There are two clarinet “systems,” the Boehm and the Albert. Which system were you taught?

There are four systems, depending on how you want to count them. There’s not only Boehm and Albert, but also the Öhler and the relatively new one, the Mazzeo system. Like most kids of my generation, my first clarinet was an Albert, but I switched to the Boehm [system] pretty early.

 

Every clarinetist who has heard your recordings wonders how you were able to play ultra-high notes so easily. One rumor has it that you used a synthetic reed and a specially designed mouthpiece to be able to play above the high-C in the upper register. Is any of that true?

Oh, hell no! For some reason, the upper register just came easily to me. Which is just the opposite for most clarinetists. Take this guy who did “Stranger on the Shore” a few years ago. I can’t remember his name right now, but do you know who I mean?

 

I believe it’s Acker Bilk you’re thinking of.

He plays mainly in the lower register. His tone is raw and there’s too much vibrato in it, but there’s something appealing about his low-register playing. He sold a hell of a lot of records of “Stranger on the Shore.” When he goes into the upper register, his tone changes and I can tell he’s not comfortable in that register. With me, it was just the opposite. I could play beautifully in the lower register, if I may say so myself—and anybody can listen to [my] records and judge it for themselves.

As much as I detest hearing [my] “Begin the Beguine” recording—and I detest it because I was asked to play “Begin the Beguine” so goddamned many times, everywhere I played—you can hear my lower register because I recorded it in [the key of] C, and the first bars are from low G to a middle E. I’ll also put my recording of “Star Dust” against anybody else’s. I’m not modest about that [studio] recording because that was as close to perfection as I could get.

 

Are there other recordings you’re especially proud of?

If you’re talking about a single, there’s a Decca I made of “These Foolish Things” that’s not easy to find. It’s with the full band, and I play a cadenza that I don’t think can ever be bettered. That and “Star Dust,” with Billy Butterfield on the trumpet, are my best work on recordings.

My ease in alt, the very high notes in the upper register, had nothing to do with mouthpieces. I used a standard hard-rubber mouthpiece for almost all of my work. In fact, most of us “doublers” would carry just the [clarinet] mouthpiece with the reed and ligature and the cap on it and borrow a clarinet from somebody else during a session.

 

Did you use one brand of clarinet during your whole career?

I had three. Two of them were Selmers. A Selmer has what I’d call a “shout” to it—a lot of volume, which is what you need in a big band. I did almost all of my playing with one of those two Selmers. You always have two because clarinets are delicate in a way—a pad can come loose, or a spring can come off the key, or maybe a spring will break, and you’re out of luck if you don’t have a back-up. So I had two identical Selmers, and a little later I used a Buffet [clarinet], which has a softer, more intimate sound than a Selmer.

This register thing, while I’m on the subject, isn’t something that a professional clarinetist gives any thought to when he’s performing. Registers and fingering and those kinds of things are for students and teachers. A professional gives no more thought to fingering and registers than he would his left or right arm. Your arms have distinct parts—joints in the shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, not to mention veins, arteries, tendons and nerves. But when you’re using your arms, you don’t think about those individual parts. Your arms move naturally, as a whole.

A “pro” plays the clarinet that same way. You play the instrument as a whole. You don’t give a damn about fingering and registers because you mastered them long, long ago. You don’t care what key you’re playing in, or how many high notes the arrangement calls for because you can play anything in any key.

Let me go back to mouthpieces, which you asked about. I never had anything special done to the mouthpieces I used. The same with reeds: I used a #3 or sometimes a #4 cane reed, and I would wet-sand the reeds until they sounded just right to me. I did try a couple synthetic reeds toward the end of my career, but they weren’t any good. Today, they’re probably a lot better, I don’t know. It wouldn’t matter anyway because I haven’t touched a clarinet since I quit the business.

 

Is it true that you didn’t read music when you began playing professionally?

Yes—I played by ear at first. I was playing sax then. In those days, the sax is what the electric guitar is today. Everybody wanted to be a sax player, and although I was basically self-taught, I had a very good tone and I had no trouble getting work in and around New Haven. One day, I got an audition for a pit band at one of the Poli vaudeville theaters in Connecticut. When I got there, the leader handed me the sheet music of the arrangement and told me to play it for my audition. I told him I didn’t read music, so of course he told me I couldn’t get the gig.

I asked him if he would give me an audition again a month later. He said he would give me another shot at it, if I learned to read music. One month later, with the help of a piano teacher I knew, I was able to sight-read quite well, and from then on I was never out of work. When I played in two Midwest bands—the Austin Wylie band in Cleveland, and the Joe Cantor band in Cincinnati—I wasn’t just their lead clarinet and sax player, but I also wrote most of the arrangements for those bands.

 

You have had a second career, and a very successful one, as a writer. There is a story that your writing is what got you to California the first time you went there.

Before I quit school, which was when I was sixteen, I wrote an essay that won first prize, which was an all-expenses-paid trip to Hollywood. That was the start of my writing career. I’ve written several books, and The Trouble with Cinderella in particular sold very well. I’ve been writing all my life, and I’m still writing today. I’m working on a book that will probably be the death of me. The manuscript is over 1,000 pages so far, and I’m nowhere near the end. At the rate I’m going, even though I work on it nearly every day, that book will probably become my “unfinished symphony.”

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Artie Shaw, author

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When you went to Hollywood, it is said that you got to sit in with one of the top bands of that era.

 I was sixteen and playing sax by then, and I was able to play with an outfit that was a sort of “first,” a band that was led by a drummer. [Gus Haenschen interjects, “Abe Lyman’s orchestra. I went there to sign and record him for Brunswick.”] He was the first drummer I know of who led a band. He had his complete set [of drums] on the stage with him. He was a nice guy for a big band leader—at least he was to me. He asked me to play for him, and he let me sit in a few times. And he paid me too.

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Abe Lyman (at the drums) and his orchestra in “Paramount on Parade.” Lyman was “was a nice guy for a big band leader,” Shaw recalled, “at least he was to me.”

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Two other drummers who became bandleaders, Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, played with your orchestras at different times, if I’m correct.

Not Krupa, no. Buddy Rich, yes.

 

I’m sure you heard Gene Krupa in his prime, so how did he compare with Buddy Rich in your estimation?

No contest—Rich is the best damned drummer, period. He’s a feisty son of a bitch and off the bandstand when the band was playing at the Lincoln Hotel, we got into shouting matches because he thought his way was the right way for any arrangement. I had to threaten to fire him more times than I could count. But let me tell you, on the bandstand he could do it all.

He’s a perfectionist, which is something I’m familiar with, and he has a reputation for berating players, which is also something I’m familiar with. Now, Krupa was a competent drummer and he led a band that was okay but nothing more—and in a carving contest, Buddy Rich would have eaten him alive.

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Artie Shaw, with Cab Calloway looking over his shoulder. Standing behind them are Tony Pastor, Helen Foster, and Buddy Rich.

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Did you hear Krupa when he was with Red Nichols and the Five Pennies?

I heard the records but didn’t hear the band “live.” Gus, didn’t you record him at Brunswick? [Haenschen replies that he did, but that most of Nichols’ Brunswick recordings were done after Haenschen left Brunswick.] Most of us who were around then had no respect for Nichols because he copied Bix Beiderbecke. It was the same with Charlie Barnet, who copied Duke Ellington note for note. It was the same with Nichols. He copied Bix and got away with it because Bix destroyed himself.

 

You knew Bix Beiderbecke personally, am I correct?

 I knew Bix very well—we were roommates for a time. Other than Satchmo, who’s in a class of his own, Beiderbecke was the greatest cornet player I ever heard. He was a genius in his own way—he wrote intricate, elegant music and even recorded some of it on the piano. As a cornetist he was different from Satchmo, very different, but he had the purest tone I ever heard. But Bix—it’s such a sad story because you couldn’t get him off alcohol. He got so bad that he couldn’t play.

 

On the subject of brass “legends,” I’d like to ask you about several beginning with Tommy Dorsey. He and Jimmy Dorsey, together or separately, are now considered big-band and jazz legends. You knew both of them, so how would you assess them as players?

Tommy Dorsey had the purest tone of any trombonist I have ever heard, and his phrasing was first-rate, but he was definitely not a “jazzman.” He was what I call a “melodist,” someone who can play a melodic line with such a pure tone, but that was all. If you want to talk about jazz trombonists, you talk about Jack Teagarden, not Tommy Dorsey. Jimmy Dorsey, on the other hand, was one of the best “doublers” in the business. He was an equally fine clarinetist, and unlike Tommy he could play jazz, he could really improvise.

 

Where would you place Glenn Miller?

A few inches from the bottom of the barrel. The bottom belongs to ones like Shep Fields, who blew into a glass of water with a straw for his “rippling rhythm.” Who the hell would want a band to be identified by that? That’s like [Lawrence] Welk with that goddamned champagne cork popping.

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Shaw rated Glenn Miller (left) “the Lawrence Welk of the big band era.” Shep Fields (right) “blew into a glass of water with a straw…who the hell would want a band to be identified by that?”

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Glenn Miller was said to be a fine arranger and worked to get a sound that would give his band definition.

A lot of that came from that movie [“The Glenn Miller Story”]. That and the fact that [Miller] was lost at sea during the war. That was too bad, but almost all of us were overseas and played for the troops in war zones. I was in the Navy and I was playing to GIs at Guadalcanal. So were lots of other bandleaders. Miller’s sound was about as distinctive as Welk’s, now that I think of it. Miller was the Lawrence Welk of the big-band era. Welk can’t play his own instrument worth a shit, and neither could Miller. He’d say that himself—he even said it to a few of his players. He said he didn’t want to take his trombone out of the case if Tommy Dorsey was around, let alone Teagarden.

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Shaw and his orchestra entertain the fleet during World War II.

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Have there been other bandleaders whom to your knowledge were inept, for want of a better word, as players?

Guy Lombardo would be at the top of that list. The reason he leads the band is because he’s the only one of the Lombardo brothers who couldn’t play an instrument. He used to have a violin on the bandstand to give the impression that he played it, but he didn’t and couldn’t. But what the hell, he found a niche, never changed anything, and is still playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.

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The Lombardos (Guy holding the baton): “Playing the same stuff his band was playing forty years ago. There’s no challenge to that.”

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Now, Fred Waring can’t read music but he conducts choral music now—which he learned from [Robert] Shaw, if you don’t know that. I know he couldn’t play anything but a banjo-uke by ear. He had a brother who wrote a couple of good songs and he played piano by ear, and they had a dance bad in the 1920s but Fred got more interested in choral music. I give him credit for what he’s done because he’s a stickler for phrasing and he’s been at it for what, forty years or so?

 

There are three others I’d like to ask you about. The first is Sammy Kaye. Was he a good player himself?

He was a “doubler,” and he was equally bad on sax as he was on clarinet. Totally unoriginal. He had some good players but he couldn’t keep the best ones because they couldn’t stand the derivative crap he was playing.

 

The two others I have in mind are Will Osborne and Ozzie Nelson.

Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”—who formed their own bands. Both of them were nothing but Rudy Vallée imitators as “crooners.” That’s how they got their start. Osborne came up with a gimmick for his “sound.” He had his trombones play glissandos and [he] called it “slide rhythm.” The only good thing about his band was that he stopped singing.

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.Ozzie Nelson (left) and Will Osborne (right): “Both of them were singers—if you can call what they did “singing”…the only thing Nelson could do was wave a baton.”

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Nelson was on television so long that most people don’t remember that he ever had a band. Which is good because the only thing he could do was wave a baton. One of his sons—the older one, not the one with the rock-and-roll hits—said to some interviewer that he was amazed his father had any career in music because he couldn’t read music, could barely play a sax, and couldn’t sing either. His wife—they weren’t married at the time—was the singer. He had the good sense to hire good arrangers and have others rehearse the band because he couldn’t do it himself. 2

 

I assume Rudy Vallée is on your “bottom of the barrel list.”

No, he isn’t—not at all. He was stuck with that “crooner” label, but if you put aside his singing and the megaphone and all that, he was a good clarinetist and a good sax player. He learned a lot from Rudy Wiedoeft—that’s where he got his first name, as I think I said before—and he got a lot out of his players. Where he was a real innovator was on radio with his variety shows. He invented the network variety show. He did on radio what Ed Sullivan does on television except that Vallée himself introduced each performer and did all the segues himself.

 

Continuing with players who led bands, and this time I’m asking about trumpeters who led bands, where would you place Harry James?

 A very good horn player, and a very good bandleader. Not top-tier, but very good. Of course, he gave Sinatra his start, and then [Tommy] Dorsey hired Sinatra.

 

There’s a story that Frank Sinatra asked you instead of Tommy Dorsey to hire him as your vocalist. Is that true?

Yes, and his pitch to me was that I was using women singers instead of him. I had different women singers at different times—Peg LaCentra, Helen Forrest, Billie Holliday—and as I told Frank, I don’t like “boy singers.” He said to me that I did have a boy singer, Tony Pastor, my lead sax man. Frank said, “You call that a singer?” I said yes, Tony does vocals on certain songs we play, and I like him. Frank has never forgiven me for turning him down, but it was the right decision from my standpoint. I wasn’t about to subject myself or the band to a bunch of screaming bobbysoxers.

 

Later, you had Mel Torme as a vocalist.

Yes, later, and he was fine for certain songs. He’s also easy to work with and sees himself as part of an ensemble and not just “the singer.”

 

Back to trumpeters, where would you place Dizzy Gillespie and Be-bop?

On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have. To hear [Gillespie] tell it, and the writers who bought into his berets and his horn with a hard-on and the image he tried to make for himself, thought that be-bop was a new “idiom,” whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. He also ridiculed Satchmo—he said that Satchmo and the whole New Orleans style was outmoded.

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Harry James (left): “Not top-tier, but very good.” Dizzy Gillespie (right): “On the underside of the barrel. Be-bop is pure shit, and it died like it should have.”

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Do you remember the first time you heard Louis Armstrong?

Not only do I remember it, but if there was a moment in my life where I could say that something changed me, it was going to Chicago to hear him “live” at the Savoy Ballroom. I was lucky enough to get close enough to the bandstand—it was just a carpeted riser—to hear him play “West End Blues.” The cadenza that he opened “West End Blues” with blew me away. I had never heard anything like it, and every note of it is still fresh in my mind.

Something you have to understand to appreciate him is the difference between valve instruments then and now. Today, a trumpet player can play like lightning because the valves are machined to a degree of precision that wasn’t done in Satchmo’s day. And the springs are different too, which makes a high-end trumpet today easier to play than a trumpet or cornet or valve trombone forty or fifty years ago.

The instruments of today can make a great player even greater. Take the trumpeter who’s with Johnny Carson, Doc Severinsen, who’s a damned good player. If you handed him a horn that Satchmo played in 1920 and had him put his mouthpiece in it and try to play it, he wouldn’t sound so great. None of the ones today would.

 

All the big bands had theme songs, but yours was unlike any other that I can think of. Why did you make “Nightmare” your theme song?

Because I was told I had to have a theme song for a radio broadcast I was doing that night. I wrote it in about an hour and played it on the air that night. I wrote several arrangements of it to fit different time slots. I could stretch it out or keep it short, depending on how much airtime I was given.

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(Left) “Art” Shaw with his New Music on Brunswick, May 1937. (Right) The first commercial recording of “Nightmare,” Shaw’s hastily written new theme song. It was initially issued on Brunswick; the Vocalion was a later release using an alternate take from the same session.

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What would have been the typical instrumentation in most of your bands?

Mostly four saxes, two or three trumpets, two trombones, a string bass, a guitar, and drums, either trap drums or whatever was best for a particular arrangement. In the early 1950s I added a string section, which was not done in swing bands, although [Paul] Whiteman had done it long before I did. My string section had ten violins, three violas, two cellos, and a string bass.

 

Speaking of Paul Whiteman, you were on the bill of his Carnegie Hall concert on Christmas day 1938. You played “St. Louis Blues,” and I’m wondering if the arrangements was your own.

No, It was done by Irving Szathmary, who worked for Whiteman. That was quite a concert because Satchmo was on the program. I did play “St. Louis Blues” but on the printed program the title was “A Mess of Blues” in case I wanted to play more than just the “St. Louis Blues,” but I decided to stick with that as a framework for improvising. I began it at a blues tempo, then switched to a jazz tempo, and at the end I gave a nod to Whiteman, or Whiteman and Gershwin, by playing the glissando from the opening of “Rhapsody in Blue.” I have to say, I did some of my best playing in that concert. 1

 

What prompted you to name songs that you wrote after streets and airlines?

 Songs have to have titles or they don’t get published, so I just used whatever came to my mind at the time. “Summit Ridge Drive” came from the street I was living on at the time. “Nonstop Flight” came from the nonstop flights I had to take so many times.

 

Your song “Shoot the Liquor to Me, Johnny” wasn’t named after a street or a subway stop. Where did you get that title?

Do both of us a favor and get the title right: it’s “Shoot the Liquor to Me, John Boy.” That’s the working title, but the real title is “Sanfronia B.” Calvin Boze wrote it, and the lyrics were too raunchy at the time to sing on radio or records. Just like “Nightmare,” I had different arrangements of different length so I could fit it into any time slot. I chose it as a showpiece for each section of the band, for Buddy Rich, and for me.

What I had in mind when I arranged it was a “call and response” where I would improvise on the clarinet and each section of the band would have to play what I had just played. It was all carefully rehearsed, including the part near the end where one of the players would shout “Higher!” I would go from the top G to A-flat and then A, then do a descending credenza.

 

Even the name of the Gramercy Five, if I’m correct, came from your telephone number at that time.

Again, why not? I need a title for the group, and my phone number started with “Gramercy 5” back when telephone exchanges had both letters and numbers.

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The Gramercy Five on a seven-inch Bell 78 in 1952. Bell’s roster included some well-known big-band era names, like Artie Shaw and Cab Calloway, who were past their primes from a commercial standpoint but attracting audiences.

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Your Gramercy Five recordings have been re-released in LP form, and surely will be re-released in formats that we can’t even envision yet. I know that the players you chose for those sessions varied, but whom did you choose and why?

I had Billy Butterfield on trumpet, and after Billy I had Roy Eldridge. Irv Kluger was on drums, Joe Roland on vibes, Tal Farlowe on guitar, Ray Conniff on trombone, and if I used a piano in the session I wanted Hank Jones. I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music at the time, and I was intrigued by how a harpsichord would sound so I had Johnny Guarnieri on harpsichord. I chose all of them because they were “explorers” who could follow me wherever I was going in those sessions.

 

There was a time in the 1940s when you shaved your head. There are photos of you with what looks like the kind of haircut that a Marine boot camp is known for. Why prompted you to do that?

As I said, I was listening to a lot of classical instrumental music. Stravinsky was my first foray into classical, and then came Debussy, and from there it was Bartok. Naturally, what they were doing, especially Stravinsky, got into some of my arrangements and I got criticized for it. Some of the magazines said I was becoming a “long-hair,” which was a euphemism for a classical musician.

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Artie Shaw at NBC, and with his “retaliatory” shaved head

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My way of retaliating was that if they were going to call me a “long-hair,” how about I cut off all my hair? What are they going to call me then? Unfortunately, I was starting to lose my hair and ended up being as bald as a billiard ball. But shaving my hair down to the scalp made a point at the time. At least I thought it did.

 

Do you consider your Gramercy Five records to be jazz?

No. There isn’t really a name for what we did in those sessions. I was exploring, and they were exploring with me. Sometimes it took a dozen or more “takes” before I felt I had gotten what I wanted. Now, doing ten or twelve or fifteen “takes” would drive most players nuts. But not those guys—they were “explorers” and we were exploring together on those recordings. And as I said, I used my Buffet clarinet in those sessions because its tone was intimate. I played so close to the microphone that at times you can hear the keys clicking as I’m playing.

 

You played classical clarinet compositions. How different was it to play, say, the Mozart Clarinet Concerto or the Brahms Quintet from the type of popular music you were known for?

You have to use less vibrato and less volume when you play classical clarinet. My tone was the same, just softer and with less vibrato. There too I used the Buffet, which is what most classical clarinetists play, or did at that time. 3

 

This is a difficult question for me to ask because I can’t find the right words for it, but film footage of your playing tends to show that you were self-taught because of the positions of your fingers.

I don’t know what you mean by that. Are you talking about alternative fingerings in the upper register?

 

No, I’m referring to how high you lift each finger, no matter how fast you’re playing. Clarinet teachers always stress the importance of keeping the fingers close to the keys so that fast passages can be played more easily. But you raised your fingers very high, no matter at what tempo you were playing.

Like I said, I’m an auto-didact and I learned where to put the fingers and thumbs from charts in a book. It didn’t say anything about keeping the fingers close to the keys. Now, I did make sure that the keys themselves, the ones with holes and the ones with pads, were close to the holes in the body of the instrument. But I never gave any thought to how high I raised my fingers.

 

Have you ever been tempted to take one of your clarinets out of its case and play it again?

I swore I never would, but several years ago I decided to try out my favorite Selmer. I took it all apart, cleaned all the holes, oiled the keys, changed all the pads, re-corked the different sections, took out a couple of the reeds that still looked good, and tried to see what I could do.

I asked my wife to leave the house—I didn’t want anyone around because I knew my fingering would be off and my embouchure would be too weak. I worked at it for about two hours, but I couldn’t even get a decent tone in the lower register. So I put it away for good.

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Artie Shaw lecturing at age eighty

 

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Notes

1  Although the title of Shaw’s part in the program was titled “The Blues” rather than “A Mess of Blues,” he received some of the finest reviews of his career from the major critics of that period. From The New York Times, December 26, 1938: “As if to appease the in-the-groovers, Artie Shaw’s clarinet soloing of his own composition, ‘The Blues,’ was a distinguished 16-minute performance with the full Whiteman band. Irving Szathmary scored it and Shaw got things out of his clarinet that were amazing in sheer virtuosity. His blends of the immortal ‘St. Louis Blues’ were but incidental to the major Magyar mood of the ‘Blues.'” From Variety, review by Abel Green: “The audience loosed its enthusiasm on the appearance of Artie Shaw, variously described in the program as ‘The greatest clarinet player in New York,’ ‘The greatest clarinet player in the United States’ and ‘The greatest clarinet player in the world.’ Playing ‘The Blues,’ a composition of his own, arranged by Irving Szathmary, Mr. Shaw’s wild improvisation evoked from Mr. [narrator Deems] Taylor the remark that ‘you just can’t do things like that with a clarinet.'”

 

2  Rudy Vallee and Ozzie Nelson appeared in the 1946 Paramount musical comedy “People Are Funny.” In their only scene together, Vallee notices a small megaphone on the piano and says to Nelson, “Hmm … a megaphone. How well I remember them. I used to have one myself—at Yale, you know—as a bit of a singer. I had a rather unusual quality. This enhanced it.”

 

3  Shaw used a Buffet A-clarinet and a Buffet E-flat clarinet for performances of classical instrumental music.

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Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. No portion of this interview may be reproduced, distributed, or used for commercial purposes, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the copyright owner.

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Coming in April: Artie Shaw Uncensored (Jim Drake) • The Complete Emerson Discography

Coming in April:
Artie Shaw — The James A. Drake Interview

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Who the hell are you and what the fuck do you want from me?

Well, I want to ask you questions about your career, and specifically about —

You’re a little late, sonny … I quit being Artie Shaw twenty years ago. I’m through talking about my “career,” as you called it.

Well, then, what would you like to talk about?

Target shooting. Which you don’t know shit about …

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… And so begins one of Artie Shaw’s most outspoken and provocative interviews, which despite Shaw’s initial refusal to discuss his musical career, soon turns to just that. Conducted in-person in Shaw’s “gun room,” the interview is presented here uncut and uncensored.

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The Complete Emerson Discography (1915 –1928)

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The followup to Mainspring Press’ 10″ / 12″ Emerson discography (published in 2013, and long out-of-print), The Complete Emerson Discography has been thoroughly revised and expanded to include all of the small-diameter issues, with input from some of the field’s leading collectors and researchers.

Also included are details of Emerson masters that were never issued on the Emerson label, including the recordings made especially for Panhellenion, Polonia, Constantinople, Marathon, Goodson, and Talk-O-Photo, among others. There’s also a provisional listing for 7″ Melodisc, the first systematic attempt to document that elusive label. Despite the many gaps that remain in the Melodisc listings, we are confident that it can be completed with the help of our many followers.

At more than 500 fully searchable pages, The Complete Emerson Discography will be free to download for personal, non-commercial use, as part of the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library.

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Keen-O-Phone / Rex / Imperial Discography – New Version 2.0 Now Available

Keen-O-Phone, Rex, and Imperial Records:
The Complete Discography (1912 – 1918)
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Edited and Annotated by Allan Sutton

Data Compiled by George Blacker, et al.
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New Version 2.0 (Updated 3/18/2002) Is Now Available
for Free Download

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Download New Version 2.0 (PDF, ~ 1 mb)

Free for personal, non-commercial use only

 

Keen-O-Phone, Rex, and Imperial Records is just one of the many titles available for free download in the Mainspring Press Online Reference Library. Browse the Catalog Page for all current offerings in this ever-expanding list of discographies and other reference works for collectors of historic sound recordings, courtesy of some of the leading researchers in the field.

 

New Online Discography: Olympic Records (1921 – 1924)

Olympic Records, 1921 – 1924
A Provisional Discography
by Allan Sutton

 

The Latest Addition to the
Mainspring Press Free Online Reference Library

 

Download OLYMPIC RECORDS, 1921 – 1924  (PDF, ~1mb)
Free to Download for Personal, Non-Commercial Use

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Now long-forgotten, John Fletcher failed at virtually every commercial venture he undertook, and yet he managed to produce some interesting records in the process. The Olympic label would be produced by three different Fletcher-backed ventures in rapid succession, over the span of just four years — including one in which Black Swan’s Harry Pace found himself unfortunately entangled after what seemed like a promising start.

Attempts to produce a definitive Olympic discography have been ongoing since the early 1950s, when a group of collectors and researchers affiliated with Record Research magazine began compiling detailed data on Olympic and related labels from first-hand inspection of the original discs. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance (Thygesen, Berresford, and Shor, 1996) included the first commercially published Olympic discography, albeit a somewhat sketchy one. It served well as a very basic starting point, but much work remained to be done. The opportunity to do so finally arose after Mainspring Press acquired the Record Research group’s discographical data, which have now been merged with more recent findings from other equally trustworthy contributors to produce the discography.

The discography contains details of all records originally marketed by the Olympic Disc Record Corporation, Fletcher Record Company, and Capitol Roll & Record Company, including client-label and other derivative issues. It is still very much a provisional discography at this point — a first attempt to sort out and disseminate what is currently known for certain concerning these records. It also identifies and corrects some misinformation found in several well-known jazz and dance-band discographies, which has been debunked through synchronized aural comparisons of the Olympic recordings to supposed matches on other labels.

An introductory essay covers Fletcher’s career during this period and clarifies his business relationship with Harry Pace and the Black Swan operation. Black Swan collectors  will find some fresh surprises, with a number of the Fletcher-period Black Swan issues now definitively traced back to World War War I-era Pathé recordings that found their way onto the label via Fletcher’s old universal-cut Operaphone dubbings. And for newer arrivals to collecting, you’ll find all the information you need to keep you from paying a king’s ransom for “Henderson’s Orchestra” or “Ethel Water Jazz Masters” Black Swans that are really just white dance bands from the Olympic catalog in disguise!

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IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

IRVING BERLIN • The James A. Drake Interview

Conducted by telephone on May 8, 1978
First publication February 2022

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Irving Berlin, 1944 (Samuel Johnson Woolf,
National Portrait Gallery)

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I can’t find the words to thank you enough, Mr. Berlin, for taking your valuable time to talk with me today. 

You know, kid, you wrote me so many letters that you made me feel guilty! And Izzy [Irving] Caesar put this together, so here you are and here I am. Your letters have a lot of things in them about my songs, so what can I tell you that you don’t already know?

 

I was always hoping that you received the letters, and Mr. [Helmy] Kresa assured me that you did see them. Years ago, I received a very nice reply from Mr. [Abraham L.] Berman about one of your early songs. 

What did Abe say?

 

Well, I wrote to ask for permission to quote part of the chorus of “Blue Skies” in an article I was writing for my college magazine. Mr. Berman explained very tactfully the policy of your publishing company. I really treasure that letter from him. 

I’m not going to tell him that or he’ll raise his rates. Abe has been with me a long time, you know.

 

May I ask you some questions about your parents and any memories you may have of Russia and emigrating to this country?

I’m going to give you a little test first. I want to see how much you know about my early songs. Here’s my test for you: Tell me the lyrics of “Fiddle Up” [i.e., “The Ragtime Violin”].

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“Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin…”

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I think I can do that. “Fiddle up, fiddle up, on your violin / Lay right on it, rest your fingers on it / Doggone you better begin / To play an overture upon your violin.”

You’re close, but you made a couple mistakes. It’s “rest your chin upon it,” not “rest your fingers on it,” and it’s “Doggone you’d better begin,” not “Doggone you better begin.” But you do know the song. Here’s another test for you: give me the lyrics of both melodies in “Play a Simple Melody.” Can you do that?

 

I’ll do my best. I learned your song from the Victor record that Billy Murray and Elsie Baker made soon after you had published the song. Her part, the “simple” part, goes “Won’t you play a simple melody / Like my mother sang to me / One with good old-fashioned harmony / Play a simple melody!” His part of the duet goes, “Musical demon / Set your honey a-dreamin’ / Won’t you play me some rag / Just change that classical nag / To some sweet musical drag / If you will play from a copy / Of a tune that is choppy / You’ll get all my applause / And that is simply because / I want to listen to rag!”

Very good. Now do you know the verse to the “rag” part?

 

I think it’s “I don’t care for your long-haired musicians/ with their classic melodies / They’re all full of high-toned ambitions / but their music doesn’t please / Give me something snappy and popular / The kind that darkies play / Lots of rhythm and like all rhythm / And that’s why I say.”

You’re pretty good, kid! Of course, today you can’t use “darkies,” so when someone asks for permission to perform it, I have them use my revised lyric, which is “the kind that jazz boys play.” Now let me ask you a question. Is Izzy [Irving Caesar] on the line, or are we talking privately here?

 

I’m in his office, but he’s not here at the moment, so we’re talking privately. 

I hope to hell you don’t share his politics! Izzy is a goddamned Socialist, you know. [Eugene V.] Debs would have been President if Izzy had had his way. I like him and I talk to him about ASCAP business, but never about politics! Now, what were you asking me about coming to this country?

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Irving Caesar (right) with Gus Haenschen in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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I’m interested to know whether you have any memories of Russia and of crossing the Atlantic in steerage. 

I was only about five years old when we came here, so I don’t really remember anything about Russia. And the only thing I remember about the ocean crossing is that it took forever. And there was a guy who was in the bunk above me who was carrying a pocket knife. It fell out of his pocket when he was asleep, and it hit me on my forehead. The blade wasn’t open, but that knife left a little scar that I still have. 

 

Do you remember anything about the town in which you were born in Russia?

No. I was too young, and all I wanted to do was to get to America. Well, I can’t really say that because I was just doing what my father had our family doing, which was to get out of Russia.

 

Do you remember anything about Ellis Island and the processing your family was put through?

Not really, except that there were long lines and that they changed the spelling of our family’s name. They spelled it “Baline,” but my father always spelled it “Beilin.”

 

When did “Baline” become “Berlin”?

I did that—I changed it when I started working for [music publisher] Ted Snyder. If you look at the cover of “Marie from Sunny Italy,” my first published song, the cover says “I. Berlin.” I still went by my real name, which is Isidore, in those early days. I changed it to “Irving” because of Washington Irving. I loved his stories.

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“I.” Berlin’s first published song (1907)

 

If I may ask you about “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” did you write it specifically for Emma Carus?

No, I didn’t write it for anybody in particular, but I plugged it to her and she put it over in vaudeville. But any of those big-voiced singers, ones like Nora Bayes or Sophie Tucker, could have put it over. You know, it still amazes me how fast that song went coast-to-coast.

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Emma Carus, from The Columbia Record for April 1904
(Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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In those years, Sophie Tucker was billed as a “coon shouter.” Was “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” a “coon song,” as many songs were then called?

No. Those “coon songs” were dead before I wrote “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.” It isn’t a ragtime song either. It’s a song about ragtime, or a ragtime band, but it’s not a ragtime song like “Maple Leaf Rag” or one of those other [Scott] Joplin rags.

 

I’m sure you know that music historians have analyzed “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to the point of exhaustion, trying to show that it’s a coon song. 

These so-called “historians” don’t know a goddamned thing about my music, or anybody else’s for that matter. They’re like that fucking “tune detective” [Sigmund Spaeth] who was always trying to prove that Jerry Kern, or Cole Porter, or me or whoever, were stealing from classical composers. Some of them even said that about Stephen Foster! They can all go to hell!

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Although use of the term “coon song” was declining by the time “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” was published, Edison appended it to its version. Victor and Columbia did not.

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No one can dispute that the greatest American songwriter is Irving Berlin. After all, when Mr. [Jerome] Kern said, “Irving Berlin has no ‘place’ in American music, Irving Berlin is American music,” that said everything.

He was a great songwriter, a great friend, and a great man. You know that Dick Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein talked me into doing “Annie Get Your Gun” after Jerry died. He was supposed to write it.

 

Recently, Robert Russell Bennett was asked to name the greatest American songwriter of this century, and he promptly answered “Irving Berlin.” He said that no other composer has written so many totally different songs, over such a lengthy period of time, and with no musical training.

He’s a hell of an arranger, Robert Russell Bennett. And his Victory at Sea is a masterpiece.

 

I know this is a difficult question, but are there songwriters whom you especially admire?

Of the ones before the First World War, Victor Herbert was the one I would put at the top. After the Second World War, Dick Rodgers belongs at the top. Between the wars, I would put Cole Porter at the top.

 

Is it true that you personally persuaded Cole Porter to come to New York so that you would finally have some “competition,” so to speak,” from a songwriter who wrote both the words and the music of his songs?

No, no—I would never have done that. I couldn’t have done that because he was very independent. He could afford to be because he came from a rich family. He came to New York because his family, I think it was his mother, encouraged him to become a songwriter because that’s what he wanted to do.

 

So there’s nothing true at all about you wanting him to come to New York because you wanted a “competitor”?

That’s such crap! Who told you that stuff?

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Cole Porter, Audrey Hepburn, and Irving Berlin

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Kitty Carlisle is the one who told me that you not only wanted but relished the competition with Cole Porter.

Well, I don’t know where she got that but it’s just plain crap. She’s another rich kid, you know. Her father, whose name was Kahn but changed it to “Conn,” was a big-shot doctor or lawyer or something, and she wanted to be an opera singer. She’s a pretty girl—a pretty face and a nice figure, and a pretty tall girl too—and she was in the same circles that Cole was, but I’m sure he never told her anything about me wanting some “competition.” I had all I could handle from all the songwriters that were around back then.

 

She said that you and Cole Porter did kid each other about each other’s songs. Is that true?

Well, yes, but it was all in fun because Cole and I were good friends. I will say that I used to ride him about settling for a word that just didn’t seem right for a line.

 

Can you give me an example?

The one I really rode him about was in the lyrics of “Night and Day,” which is a great, great song, a very sophisticated song. If you know [the song], you’ll know that the bridge goes “Night and day, under the hide of me / There’s an oh so yearning burning inside of me.” Well, “under the hide of me” just doesn’t fit that song and I rode him about it because I thought he just got lazy and threw in “hide” because he needed a rhyme for “inside.” People don’t have “hide,” cows have hide.

I did ride him another time about that same word when his “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” got to be a big hit. I called him and said, “Cole, there’s a mistake in the sheet music for that song. Shouldn’t it be ‘I’ve Got You Under My Hide?'” He got a laugh out of that. Now, that too is a very sophisticated song. It doesn’t follow the pattern of most popular songs, any more than “Night and Day” does. Of course, Cole also wrote what I’d call “lighter” songs, ones like “You’re the Top” and “Anything Goes.” It’s sad to think about what happened to him—that terrible horse-riding accident, and how it crippled him for the rest of his life.

 

Robert Russell Bennett points out that Cole Porter was a Yale graduate and a formally trained pianist but that you graduated from Hester Street, and you taught yourself to play the piano. Did you teach yourself when you were a singing waiter at the Pelham Café in the Bowery?

Basically, yes. And I say “basically” because Mike Salter, who owned the Pelham, played by ear on the black keys. After-hours, around 4:00 in the morning, I started picking out notes on the black keys too, first with one finger and then one hand and then I picked up some basic chords with the left hand. But I can only play in the key of F-sharp unless I use a transposing piano. Do you what a transposing piano is?

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Mike Salter’s Pelham Café in the early 1900s
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I didn’t until I watched you demonstrate how one of those pianos work on the Tony Martin television show. You showed the audience how it worked, and you sang “Call Me Up Some Rainy Afternoon.”

You saw that, did you? That wasn’t my own piano but it was similar to the ones I had. My first one had a wheel instead of a lever to shift the keys.

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Irving Berlin at his Weser transposing piano

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Is it true that you named your reproducing piano “the Buick”?

Yes. I drove a Buick at that time. The lever that shifted the keyboard was like the gearshift in that Buick. 

 

When you opened the Music Box Theater, there was a lot of skepticism in the newspapers about whether it would succeed. Is it fair to say that you had a lot at risk when you built the theater?

I had a hell of a lot at risk! The newspaper men said there were already too many theaters on Broadway, and that the Music Box would never attract much of an audience. But I put on four revues there, a new one each year, and they were all big hits. I also had the confidence of George [M.] Cohan, and I always trusted his opinions. George knew Broadway like nobody else.

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The Music Box in the 1950s

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Where would you place George M. Cohan among songwriters?

He wasn’t just a songwriter, he was a Broadway star, so you have to take that into consideration. He did everything—he was a dancer, a singer, and a songwriter. He didn’t write that many songs, all in all, but the ones he wrote were hits. Who doesn’t know “Give My Regards to Broadway”? Who doesn’t know “Over There?” That song helped us win the First World War!

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George M. Cohan, from the September 1910 Victor catalog
(Courtesy of John Bolig)

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There are some singers to whom you have given songs that are among the best-loved songs in all of American music. I’d like to ask you about the songs and the singers. Kate Smith will be forever associated with “God Bless America.” Did you write it expressly for her?

No, I didn’t write it for her, but I picked her to introduce it because she was just right for it. She has a big, gorgeous voice, and she sings songs—my songs, anyway—exactly as they’re written. She doesn’t take liberties with the music like so many singers tend to do. Anything that Kate sings, everybody in the balcony is going to hear every word because she has the best diction, and the most natural voice.

 

You wrote “There’s No Business Like Show Business” expressly for Ethel Merman, isn’t that correct?

Well, yes, the whole part of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun was [written] for Ethel. She was a veteran by then, of course—she had done Girl Crazy, among other shows, and I had known her for a long time. Like Kate [Smith], when you give Ethel a song, everybody in the theater is going to hear every word. She’s always been one of the hardest working performers in show business..

 
Original cast album of Annie Get Your Gun

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People don’t know this about Ethel, but she’s very, very organized. Ethel is a compulsive “lister.” She used to be a secretary, I think, or did some kind of office work where she learned how to write in that special code that secretaries write. I can’t think of the word for it right now.

 

Perhaps you’re thinking of “shorthand”?

Yes, that’s it, shorthand. She makes lists of everything she needs to do every day, and she crosses them off one at a time until she’s done. She learns lyrics that same way—she writes them out, over and over, until she learns them.

 

Just as “God Bless America” will always be associated with Kate Smith, “White Christmas” will be forever associated with Bing Crosby.

Yes, but with Rosemary Clooney too, since they sang it together in that movie [Holiday Inn].

 

Do you think that the fact “White Christmas” is not a traditional carol—that is, not a religious but a secular song—is one of the reasons why it’s so popular?

I can’t say. To me, being Jewish, I never thought of Christmas in religious terms. I think of it as an American holiday, and I wrote “White Christmas” as a holiday song. The same with Easter. Of course, Easter is a very important time for Christians, just as Passover is for Jews. But when I wrote “Easter Parade,” I was writing about an American holiday, just like I wrote “White Christmas” about a holiday.

 

Is Bing Crosby’s version of “White Christmas” your personal favorite?

Well, it’s the one most everybody knows. What I don’t like about it is that he didn’t sing my verse. I worked goddamned hard on that verse. Judy Garland always did [the verse] when she sang “White Christmas.” But Crosby certainly did well by me with “White Christmas.”

 

Is it true that you didn’t think “White Christmas” would be the hit that it became?

I had another song in that same revue that I thought would be the hit: “Be Careful, It’s My Heart.” I really thought that would be the bigger hit.

 

Which brings me to the next singer I want to ask you about: Fred Astaire.

A lot of people don’t think of Fred as a singer because it’s his dancing that he’s famous for. He has always been kidded about his voice being too light, not big enough and such. When he and his sister [Adele] were in vaudeville—and they were in big-time vaudeville—nobody had any trouble hearing Fred. What I like the most about him is that he sings a song exactly the way it’s written, and he has great diction. You hear every word of the verse and the refrain when Fred sings one of your songs.

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Irving Berlin with Fred Astaire, 1948

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If I may ask, there are said to be singers—not just singers but instrumental performers too—whom you have had trouble with because unlike Fred Astaire they didn’t stay with the song as you wrote it and added some “flourishes” of their own. Is that true at all?

Why don’t you tell me if I had trouble with any singers or any other performers? Which ones did I have trouble with supposedly?

 

One was the theater organist Jesse Crawford. From what I’ve heard, you were very displeased with his recording of “Remember” because he made a change to a song that was very personal to you because you wrote it for Mrs. [Ellin] Berlin.

That’s half-true. The part that’s true is that he changed a chord in the song—the chord for the word “said” in “the night you said ‘remember.'” He played the wrong chord, and he did it because he preferred the chord he played rather than the chord I wrote. I called the guy who was running Victor at that time—his name was Shilkret, Nat Shilkret—and I raised hell about that change but Victor didn’t make Crawford do the record over again with the right chord. But I have to say, though, that Crawford made some fine records of my songs. I remember “At Peace with the World” in particular. I like the way he played it.

 

You said the story was only half-true. What was the half the wasn’t true, if I may ask?

Oh—yes, I forgot to finish what I was saying. The part that isn’t true is that I wrote “Remember” for Ellin. I wrote some waltzes for her that I’m very proud of, but “Remember” wasn’t one of them. I mean, I didn’t write it for her personally.

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Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay c. 1929

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Another performer whom you’re said to have had trouble with is Rudy Vallée over “Say It Isn’t So,” which you gave him to introduce on radio.

Yeah, I did, because when he sang it the first time he made a change in the melody. Instead of singing the line “say it isn’t so” the way I had written it, he sang the word “isn’t” two notes higher, which ruined the effect of the song. After that, I had a little talk with him and he never did that again. He did well by me, especially in the score for the movie “Second Fiddle,” and except for that one incident with “Say It Isn’t So,” he sang my songs exactly the way I wrote them.

 

On his [Columbia] recording of “Say It Isn’t So,” he sings the verse you wrote, which to me gives the refrain its full meaning in my opinion.

Let me hear you do the verse.

 

Well, I can’t sing it, but I can recite it: “You can’t stop people from talking / And they’re talking, I hear / And the things they’re saying / Fill my heart with fear / Now, I could never believe them / When they say you’re untrue / I know that they’re mistaken / But I want to hear it from you.”

You know why I gave it to him? He had just gone through a very bad divorce from his first wife [Faye Webb], who had left him for somebody else. So it was a perfect fit for the situation he was in—and he made it a hit.

 

Do you have a favorite version of “How Deep Is the Ocean”?

There have been so many, but the one I like the most is the one Kate Smith did in her [1963] concert at Carnegie Hall.

 

There have been hit recordings of many of your songs in which the singer or the bandleader turned the song into something very different, I suspect, from what you had in mind. I’m thinking of the recording of “Marie” by Tommy Dorsey.

I hate that goddamned record, and I told off that stupid fucking Dorsey about it! I put that in the same trash can with that son of a bitch Presley ruining “White Christmas”! Oh, don’t get me started on Presley and that rock-and-roll shit!

 

Did you write “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” especially for John Steel? And was his performance like the one Dennis Morgan sang in The Great Ziegfeld?

That song was interpolated in the Follies, and John Steel was the one who sang it, but I didn’t write it for him. In the actual Follies, the song was set on a large staircase—staircases were a Ziegfeld trademark—but it wasn’t on the scale of the [staircase] in that movie. But Dennis Morgan did the song very well in that film. I take that back—he mimed the song that Allan Jones did for the soundtrack. Dennis Morgan was a baritone, not a tenor, so he couldn’t sing it like John Steel did.

 

Eddie Cantor sang several of your songs. Were you pleased with the way he performed them?

He didn’t do that many of my songs. Well, some in the Follies, but not that many. He was a good showman, and he learned it from the best: Gus Edwards. Do you know who he was?

 

Yes, because of his children’s revues and his eye for budding talent like Eddie Cantor and Georgie Price and Georgie Jessel for his “newboys” shows.

Gus and Will [D.] Cobb wrote some great songs for those kids. You never know how a youngster will turn out as a performer when they get older, but Cantor and Georgie Price and some of the girls in Gus’s shows did well when they got older.

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Georgie Price (left) and Eddie Cantor (right) were among the headliners who got their start in Gus Edwards’ “kid” shows. (Photos from the Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Would you include Georgie Jessel among the Gus Edwards “newsboys” who did well as an adult performer?

I don’t like to say bad things about anybody in this business but I don’t know—and I’m not the only one who will say this—I don’t know how Jessel has kept his name before the public. He was in Yiddish theater as a comedian but he was never a big name. All he did were those routines with the telephone calling his mother, but that had been done long before he was doing it. He only had one song that made money—”My Mother’s Eyes”—but it’s such a corny song. It was corny when it first came out.

 

I notice that whenever he’s on television on one of the “talk shows,” he talks about show business as if he was there at the start of it. Mr. Caesar says of him that Jessel trades on nostalgia and that he was nostalgic when he was four years old.

That’s a pretty good line. And I have to say I agree.

 

I have a favorite recording of your great songs, and I believe you personally authorized it. The album is called “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy: The Best of Irving Berlin,” by Jay Blackton’s orchestra and chorus.

I didn’t “authorize” it, but Jay conducted the orchestra for “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Call Me Madam,” and “Miss Liberty,” so he knows what I listen for when I hear my songs performed. So I like that album very much. It’s also the first recording of my song “Colors,” which I wrote a couple years before that album came out.

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Jay Blackton’s “Best of Irving Berlin” LP

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If I may ask you about another of your contemporaries, George Gershwin, there’s a story that he applied for a job at your publishing company, to work as a transcriber and a song plugger. Is that true?

I don’t have any memory of it. I’m not saying it didn’t happen, but if it did, I don’t remember it. Years later, of course, George and I were very close friends. We were in Hollywood together only a couple of years before he died. Of course, I knew about him when he was working under Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, when he wrote “Swanee” with Izzy [Irving Caesar]. Buddy DeSilva, you know, got [Al] Jolson to listen to “Swanee,” and as soon as Al started singing it, George had a big hit on his hands.

 

You have been quoted as saying that George Gershwin is the only songwriter who became a composer.

Yes, and I meant it. It’s a long way from “Swanee” to “Rhapsody in Blue” and “Concerto in F.” Who knows how far he would have gone as a serious composer if he had lived?

 

One question that I’m sure you’ve been asked a thousand times is whether the melody or the lyrics come to you first.

There’s really no answer to that. Sometimes I get the melody, and at other times I get a phrase and then the phrase becomes the lyric, and the lyric inspires the melody.

 

Do you ever use what I’ve heard other songwriters refer to as “dummy lyrics” to serve as place-holders until you work out the melody?

I’ve never used “dummy lyrics.” Some songwriters do, and occasionally they become the permanent lyric. Victor Herbert wrote a “dummy lyric” for “Kiss Me Again,” and when he looked at it again, he decided to keep it: “Sweet summer breeze / Whispering trees”—that was a “dummy lyric.” Izzy [Irving Caesar] probably has the most famous of all “dummy lyrics” in “Tea For Two” to Vincent Youmans’ melody—“Picture you upon my knee / Just tea for two, and two for tea.”

 

Do many songs come to you fully formed?

No—none of them. I’ve sweated my way through all of them. That’s just the way I work. Some songwriters work from noodling on the piano until they get something. Gershwin did that because he was a hell of a pianist, and he was an educated musician. But I don’t have any training, and I can’t always play what I hear in my head.

 

Mr. [Robert Russell] Bennett told us that you hear the chords in your mind, and that he would play variations on a chord until you told him that he had played the one you were hearing in your mind.

That’s right. That’s especially true of “Remember.” In my mind, I could hear the chords I wanted for the melody, but I couldn’t play them myself, so he played variations on the chords until I heard the ones that were in my mind. That’s why the change that [Jesse] Crawford made on that record bothered me so much.

 

So much has been written about you, beginning with Alexander Woollcott’s biography of you in 1925. Do you regard his book, The Story of Irving Berlin, as the definite account of your life?

Up to that year, yes, but there are parts of it that are a little exaggerated.

 

You have never considered an autobiography?

Every publisher in New York has offered me big money, really big money, to write an account of my life, but I wouldn’t do it then or now for any amount of money. I like to let my music speak for my life.

 

If you were to choose a biographer today, who would be among the top contenders from your standpoint?

The only one I would count on is Ed Jablonski. Ed is one of my long-time “telephone friends.” Miles Krueger says he wants to write a book about me, and so do others, but they’ll want to psychoanalyze me, and I can’t stand that kind of a book.

 

Do you recall the feature article called “Blue Skies to You, Irving Berlin,” by Tom Prideaux in Life Magazine?

Yes—that was a very nice article. Tom is another one of my “telephone friends.”

 

That article was published a week before your 80th birthday, which was celebrated on television on the Ed Sullivan show. Were you pleased with that telecast?

That was quite a night, and Ellin [Berlin] and I and our daughters and their families were very happy with the cast and the songs that were performed on the show.

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Ed Sullivan celebrates Irving Berlin’s 80th birthday

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The story of your courtship of the lovely lady who became Mrs. Irving Berlin has been told and re-told, and there are parts of the re-telling that I’d like to ask you about but I’m very reluctant to intrude into that part of the past. But may I ask one question that concerns your music?

If it’s about my music, go ahead and ask me.

 

The great waltzes that you wrote during that period—“All By Myself,” All Alone,” “Remember,” “What’ll I Do?” and of course “Always”—are interpreted as musical reflections of what was going through your mind and heart while the two of you were being kept apart. Is that true?

[Author’s note: Regarding “All By Myself,” I was waiting for him to say, “Kid, it’s a fox trot, not a waltz!” or something harsher after I realized I had made a mistake—yet he let it pass.]

You already asked me about “Remember,” and I told you I didn’t write that one for her. The others you mentioned I would say are yes and no. “All By Myself” was before Ellin—I wrote it for one of the Music Box Revues. In that one, as I’ve had to do with one or two other songs, I had to update the lyrics. Originally, I wrote “I sit alone in my cozy Morris chair / So lonely there, playing solitaire.” But when Morris chairs went out of fashion, I changed that line to “I sit alone with a table and a chair / so lonely there, playing solitaire.”

 

Am I correct that you also updated some of the lyrics of “Puttin’ on the Ritz”?

Yeah, that’s another one. It was set in Harlem, so I wrote, “Have you seen the well to do / Up on Lennox Avenue,” but when Fred Astaire did it I changed “Lennox Avenue” to “Park Avenue.”

 

Returning to the songs you wrote when you were courting Mrs. Berlin, was “What’ll I Do” one of them?

No, “What’ll I Do” was before I met her. In fact, when I did meet her, which was at a party that a woman named Frances Wellman, a friend of mine who happened to be a friend of hers, [Ellin] said to me that she loved my song “What Shall I Do.” I had to tell her that the name of the song was really “What’ll I Do.” You see, she’s very educated—she went to all the best private schools—so to her the title of the song had to be “What Shall I Do.”

But all the others you mentioned, and especially “Always,” which was my wedding gift to her, were written about her. But I wasn’t in some kind of love-sick depression during that time. Between 1922 and 1925, I wrote a lot of songs that did well and they had nothing to do with my life. They were for revues, for shows.

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Marriage certificate for Irving Berlin and Ellin Mackay,
January 1926

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Back to the Ed Sullivan telecast of your 80th birthday, did you have any input in the musical selections he chose for the program?

Ed asked me for my opinion about the songs and some of the arrangements that [orchestra conductor] Ray Bloch used. And Ed asked me what I would like to have as a finale, so I chose “God Bless America” and I sang it myself, with a chorus of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They get the royalties from that song, you know.

 

I don’t know if you’ll remember this, but at the very end of the show, when you were in a close-up with Mr. Sullivan and he was paying tribute to you on your birthday, you made a wonderful comment.

Yeah? What did I say?

 

When that huge birthday cake was wheeled onto the stage, Mr. Sullivan said that the entire program was one of the most memorable in all his years on the air. You said, “Well, Ed, you’ve got to admit that I’ve given you some pretty good material to work with.” That was a priceless understatement! And speaking of birthdays, today is May 8, and three days from now will be your birthday. May we close with wishing you a very, very happy birthday!

I wish I had written “Happy Birthday.” Can you imagine the royalties I’d have? Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I’ve done pretty well.

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__________________

Text © 2022 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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The Playlist • Some New Favorite Additions for February 2022

The Playlist • Some New Favorite Additions for February 2022

 

Double-vaxxed, boosted, and gearing up to hit the road in search of more musical treasures (sure hope them microchips in that there vaccine don’t get me tracked by none of them alien spy satellite thangs).

In the meantime, here’s a  sampling of some favorite records among those that have come to roost here in the last month or so. Enjoy!

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REV. J. M. GATES & CONGREGATION: Clean the Corners of Your Mind  (E)

Atlanta: April 25, 1930
Okeh 8817  (mx. W 480017 – A, remastered from W 403931 – B)

All recordings from Gates’ April 1930 Okeh sessions were remastered and assigned new numbers on June 16 and 18, 1930 (no cause cited in the matrix cards; a number of other Okeh and Columbia “field” masters of the period were similarly remastered, presumably to address technical issues).

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JOHNNY DUNN’S ORIGINAL JAZZ BAND: Dixie Blues  (E–)

New York: March 13, 1923
Columbia A3878  (mx. 80898 – 1)

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CARROLL DICKERSON’S SAVOY ORCHESTRA: Missouri Squabble  (E)

Chicago: May 25, 1928
Brunswick 3990  (mx. C 1976 – B)

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STATE STREET RAMBLERS: Pleasure Mad  (E+)

Richmond IN: April 23, 1928
Gennett mx. GE 13688 – A
c. 1960s blank-label vinyl pressing from the original master.

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STATE STREET RAMBLERS: Some Do and Some Don’t  (E+)

Richmond IN: April 23, 1928
Gennett mx. GE 13690 – B
c. 1960s blank-label vinyl pressing from the original master.

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JIMMY SMITH with HARRY HOLDEN (harmonica with guitar): Smith and Holden Blues (as “Mountain Blues”)  (EE–)

New York: March 31, 1926
Victor 20020 (mx. BVE 35254 – 2)
Entered in the Victor ledger under the correct title.

 

COMING UP NEXT: Jim Drake’s no-holds-barred
1978 interview with a feisty Irving Berlin,
published here for the first time.

 

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i78s Now Has More Than 8,000 Vintage Sheet Music Covers Online

i78s Now Has More Than 8,000 Vintage
Sheet Music Covers Online

 

By David Giovannoni and Kathy Sheram

 

Click here for more information on i78s.org, the exciting new 78- and cylinder-streaming website. Registration is free, simple, and secure.

 

Over 8,000 records at i78s are now illustrated with sheet music covers from the Giovannoni–Sheram Collection.

Registered users can check them out by browsing through any list of records. When you see the SHEET MUSIC tab, there’s something to look at. (Roughly one-in-five records are linked to sheet music covers.)

Here a few examples. [Note that these scans are only for demonstration purposes, and not indicative of the high quality you’ll see on the site. Click the link below each image to stream a recording of the selection; if you’re a registered i78s user and currently logged on to the site, you will also be able to view both the front and back covers. To access all 41,000 recordings, the associated discographical data, and 8,000 sheet music covers, you’ll need to register on the site.]

 

Here’s the Unique Quartette cover that spawned the Celebrated reissue:

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https://i78s.org/preview/65dec4a2e54cafcda08e972c85d44c1b

 

This isn’t a sexy cover, but look at the publisher….

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https://i78s.org/preview/d1fe9c18e0f398890c2b6078d69871a7

 

We often have multiple copies of sheet music selections, so records of the same title can link to different sheets. Here’s one with Bobby North’s picture and another with Belle Baker’s:

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https://i78s.org/preview/eb218f5cd40074798514e13c7544cdb3

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https://i78s.org/preview/57227eec9f3784068d229766cb83bf50

 

Sometimes there’s cool bonus material on the sheets (see backside):

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https://i78s.org/preview/ce836db7600c215f0327666764317478

 

Later this month, i78s will gain the ability to search data from the sheets (composer, publisher, artists on cover) and include hits in its search results. For instance, a search for the “Unique Quartet” will bring up the records linked to the Unique Quartette cover photo on “Where the Sweet Magnolias Bloom.” We hope these upgrades will help contextualize the recordings and make the site richer and more useful to more folks.

As always, your thoughts and suggestions are welcome. Many thanks, and enjoy!

 

Second Edition of “Leeds & Catlin Records, 1899 – 1909” Now Available for Free Download

Second Edition of “Leeds & Catlin Records, 1899 – 1909”
Now Available for Free Download

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Leeds & Catlin Records, 1899 – 1909

Second Edition

Allan Sutton

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Thanks to widespread input from the collecting community, Leeds & Catlin Records has been substantially revised and expanded since its initial publication in 2015.

This new edition is being made available, free of charge, as a PDF download for your personal use, as part of the Mainspring Online Reference Library. We will be updating the file periodically, and users are encouraged to e-mail us with additional, verifiable data or revisions.

As with all titles in this series, commercial or other unauthorized reproduction or distribution in any form is prohibited. Please review and observe the conditions of use outlined on the copyright page, so that we can continue to offer these publications as a free service.

Download LEEDS & CATLIN RECORDS For Personal Use
(PDF format / 31mb)

 

Be sure to check out  i78s.org, where you can now explore and stream more than 41,000 vintage discs and cylinders, including a choice selection of Leeds & Catlin recordings.

Among the many innovative features of this new site: Transfers have been made at the correct playing speeds (which often are not 78rpm) that can be adjusted on-the-fly should you desire; and you can switch between flat (unaltered) transfers, for purists; or judiciously processed audio for more pleasurable listening, with the worst noise removed but the original sound quality preserved. Registration is quick-and-easy, and it’s free.

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Some New Favorite Additions to the Collection • December 2021 (Free MP3 Downloads)

Some New Favorite Additions to the Collection for November–December 2021 (Free MP3 Downloads)

 

A few new favorites who’ve come to roost here in the past month, for your listening pleasure.

Be sure to check out the previous post about i78s.org, where you can now explore and stream more than 41,000 vintage discs and cylinders. Neat features: Transfers have been made at the correct playing speeds (which often is not 78 rpm), and you can switch between flat (unaltered) transfers, for purists; or judiciously processed audio for more pleasurable listening, with the worst noise removed but the original sound quality preserved. Registration is quick-and-easy, and it’s free.

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JABBO SMITH & HIS RHYTHM ACES: Band Box Stomp (V++)

Chicago: August 22, 1929
Brunswick 7111 (mx. C 4101 – )

Personnel given for the Rhythm Aces sessions in various accounts are often at odds and don’t cite a credible documentary source (because there isn’t one; the Brunswick ledgers for this period don’t list personnel). So we’ll go with the personnel that Jabbo himself recalled for this side, as reported to the ever-reliable Dick Spottswood, to wit: Jabbo Smith (trumpet), Willard Brown (saxophones), Earl Frazer (piano), Ikey Robinson (banjo), Lawson Buford (brass bass). Memories get fuzzy, of course, but we’re much more inclined to trust someone who was actually there than folks from the “I hear so-and-so” school of research.

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WALTER BARNES & HIS ROYAL CREOLIANS: If You’re Thinking of Me (EE+)

Chicago: July 25, 1929
Brunswick 4480 (mx. C 3941 – )

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WALTER BARNES & HIS ROYAL CREOLIANS: Birmingham Bertha  (E)

Chicago: July 25, 1929
Brunswick 4480 (mx. C 3942 – )

The vocalist is uncredited in the Brunswick ledger and on the labels (May Alix has been widely cited, based on aural evidence). An alternate take of “Birmingham Bertha,” without vocal, was recorded at the same session, for release in Germany.

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FESS WILLIAMS & HIS ROYAL FLUSH ORCHESTRA: Number Ten  (E+)

New York: June 24, 1927
Brunswick 3596  (mx. E 23747)

Fess Williams, arranger (per the Brunswick ledger).

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NEW ORLEANS WANDERERS: Perdido Street Blues  (EE–)

Chicago: July 13, 1926
Columbia 698-D (mx. W 142426 – 1)
..

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Louis Armstrong’s Hot Five, with George Mitchell substituting for Armstrong (who was under exclusive contract to Okeh at the time). Columbia originally logged this session as “Armstrong’s Band,” then changed it to “Johnny Dodds and the New Orleans Wanderers,” although Dodds’ name was omitted from the labels. (“Trans. to 5008-S” refers to a late-1940s reissue on the Special Editions label.)

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ANONYMOUS: Chevrolet One Minute Dramatization [selections]  (E)

Sound Studios of New York: c. Late 1933
Unnumbered  (mxs. 6048 – 6 / 6050 – )

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Three of the (unintentionally) funnier tracks from a six-track disc plugging the new 1934 Chevrolet with “knee-action” front wheels. Sound Studios of New York was a custom-recording operation associated with the World Broadcasting System.

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PEERLESS QUARTET: That Fussy Rag  (E)

Probably Camden NJ: June 20, 1910
Victor 5787  (mx. B 9128 -2 or -3)

This is the scarce original version (takes 2 and 3 were mastered; the take used is not indicated in the pressing). It was quickly replaced by the more commonly encountered remake of August 31, 1910. The arranger added an awkwardly positioned repeat at the 1:38 mark to stretch the playing time of Victor Smalley’s little gem.

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Enjoy 41,000 Vintage Recordings Free at i78s.org

Enjoy 41,000 Vintage Recordings Free at i78s.org

 

Vintage-record enthusiasts have cause to celebrate with the recent launch of i78s.org, created and hosted by David Giovannoni. Many of you know David for his role in recovering the Scott Phonoautograms (which pre-date Edison’s first recording by nearly two decades) and other important work in the field of early recorded sound.

At the moment there are more than 41,000 digitized discs and cylinders on the site, from David’s own eclectic collection and those of several other advanced collectors, and that number will no doubt increase as others come onboard. You’ll find some exceedingly rare, unusual, and even one-of-a-kind recordings here. Offerings run the gamut from popular mainstream hits to the virtually unknown or just-plain-weird.

Registration is simple, requiring only a valid e-mail address and a password. No personal information is required, and there are no third-party cookies, trackers, spyware, ads, or other such nastiness. Plus, it’s free.

Once you’re registered and logged in, you’ll find a well-designed and relatively intuitive interface. Be sure to take the video tour, on which David walks you through the various screens and reveals some features and settings that might not be immediately apparent. One setting, for example, allows you to switch between three display modes tailored to users with different needs, from those who just want to stream some tunes, to us hardcore types who like to delve into discographical and historical minutiae.

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You can customize your i78s experience through
an array of special settings.

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Navigation is easy once you’ve familiarized yourself with the layout and features. There are multiple search options, and results appear in a menu on the right side of the screen.

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Multiple options make it easy to browse or search the 41,000+ recordings that are currently posted.

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Once you’ve located a record you’d like to hear or know more about, just click on the link, and a window will open on the left side of screen. The upper portion has two tabs by default, one to display the discographic data, and one to display a high-quality label scan. A nice bonus, for selected records, is a third tab marked Supplemental Materials, which displays ancillary items like record sleeves and original documents or advertisements.

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The Supplemental Materials tabs, available for selected recordings, allows you to view ancillary materials like record sleeves, original ads, and related documents.

 

To stream your chosen selection(s), simply click the arrow icon in the lower left-hand panel. You can also save selections to a custom playlist. Transfers have been made at the correct playing speed, which (as most advanced collectors know) often is not 78 rpm — the sort of expertise and attention to detail that’s lacking in similar sites managed by hobbyists or librarians, rather than by experts in the field of early sound recordings.

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Clicking on an item from the search results opens a panel displaying discographical information and label images. Audio files are launched or added to your playlist in the bottom panel, which also allows you to change the playback speed and switch between flat and processed audio mode.

 

An especially useful feature is the ability to switch between flat and processed audio files. For purists and masochists, the flat file reproduces every snap-crackle-and-pop in glorious detail. But if you’re more into enjoyment, the default Processed Audio option removes the worst of the noise, without altering the original sound quality. The transfers are very cleanly done and, for the most part, made from records that are in decent condition considering their age and, in many cases, extreme rarity.

I could go on, but instead, let me urge you to jump over the site ASAP, and start enjoying all the features this remarkable resource has to offer.

—Allan Sutton

THE GUS HAENSCHEN INTERVIEWS: The St. Louis Years (Conclusion), and Final Thoughts

THE GUS HAENSCHEN INTERVIEWS:
The St. Louis Years (Conclusion), and Final Thoughts

James A. Drake

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Read All Installments in the Gus Haenschen
Interview Series:


THE ST. LOUIS YEARS

Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |   Part 4

THE BRUNSWICK YEARS
Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |    Part 4

THE RADIO YEARS
Part 1    |    Part 2    |    Part 3    |    Part 4

 

 

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THE ST. LOUIS YEARS — Part 4 (Conclusion)

During the years in which you were living in St. Louis, did you see and hear any of the artists whom you later met and perhaps recorded or conducted?

Back then, there were singers and instrumentalists everyone who wanted to be regarded as “cultured” went to hear. I’m thinking in particular of John McCormack, Fritz Kreisler, Alma Gluck, and of course Caruso. Going to see and hear them was a sort of “rite of passage” in St. Louis. Eventually, I met all of them except Caruso, but I never worked with them.

 

Let’s begin with McCormack, whom you met several years later and with whom, as you mentioned in another of our [interview] sessions, you had in common the same Manhattan dentist. Where in St. Louis did you hear McCormack, and what do you recall about his concert?

I heard him at the Odeon Theater, which was the largest of the real theaters in St. Louis at that time. I say “real theater” because some musical performances were held at the Coliseum, which was larger but was not a theater per se. It was a multi-purpose venue for all sorts of shows and events. But the Odeon, which had been built about 1900, was the best of the several theaters we had in those days. [1]  As a matter of fact, the operetta I wrote as a student, “The Love Star,” was performed at the Odeon.

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St. Louis theaters that Haenschen recalled included the Odeon (top) and Orpheum (center). In 1918 the Rialto took over the former Princess Theater building, which is pictured here (bottom).

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Was the Odeon a vaudeville theater too?

Well, no, although the big vaudeville stars performed there, it wasn’t part of a vaudeville circuit. There were several vaudeville houses in St. Louis—the Columbia, the Rialto, and the Orpheum—which featured what were typical [vaudeville] bills in those days. [2] Most of them had four shows a day, one of them being a matinee. Most of them had pit bands with about seven or eight instruments—usually a piano, violin, bass, clarinet, cornet, trombone, and drums.

 

Did you ever play in any of those pit bands?

No, but my little banjo orchestra was a kind of back-up for an act that didn’t show up in time for one of the shows. If I couldn’t get the whole band together in time, just Tom Schiffer and I would play, or maybe Mary Wade would sing with me accompanying her. We would “sub” for the act that didn’t show up. Gene Rodemich also “subbed” for acts that didn’t show.

 

Returning to John McCormack’s concert, was it a “standing room only” event?

Oh, yes. There were bleachers on the stage to accommodate all the people who had bought tickets. They were seated behind McCormack, and from time to time he would turn around and sing to them. Except maybe for Fritz Kreisler, who had a very similar effect on audiences and whose concerts were always sold out, I don’t think there was ever a concert singer who had the “draw” of John McCormack. I lost count of how many encores he sang after doing everything on the printed program. The audience couldn’t get enough of him. [3]

 

As you know, Milton Cross found McCormack to be irascible and seemingly insecure because of his sharp criticism of any singer who sang “his” songs. When you met McCormack years later, what was your impression of him?

The time I could say I met him was at a party that Fannie Hurst, whom I had known from Washington University, gave for him in New York City. I was still at Brunswick then, so this would have been in the 1920s. Now, make no mistake about it, John McCormack knew exactly who he was and he carried himself that way. I remember he was wearing a swallow-tail coat and pin-striped trousers. He was portly, but his posture was perfect and he had that crown of thick, wavy hair. He had quite a presence!

Particularly at an event given in his honor, he wasn’t about to “work the room” introducing himself to the guests. He stood apart from the rest of us, and one at a time we were taken over to him to meet him. He had a very distinctive way of reacting to being introduced—I remember this very, very clearly. I was taller than he was and was always conscious of my posture, so as Fannie took me to him I figured I would bend down just enough to be at eye level with him.

Instead, when I started to extend my hand, he thrust his hand toward me, gripped my hand, and pulled me down to his level. Then he drew me just close enough to him that he looked me directly in the eyes and after Fannie gave him my name, he said to me, “Mister Haenschen.” Now, as I’m telling this to you, it doesn’t sound like much. But unless somebody had been introduced to him face-to-face, it’s hard to describe the effect McCormack had when he drew you close to him and gave you his complete attention with those eyes of his. It was really mesmerizing. That’s an over-used word but it fits the effect that John McCormack had when you were introduced to him the way I was.

 

Were you able to get an impression of McCormack as a person from Fannie Hurst or others who had various dealings with him?

Yes, but I didn’t get the impression of him that Milt[on Cross] did. What I heard about [McCormack] was that he wasn’t combative, he just liked to argue for the sake of arguing. In other words, he’d say something just to get a rise out of somebody. He seemed to think of arguing as almost a sport.

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Haenschen recalled that John McCormack (left) “seemed to think of arguing as almost a sport,” while praising Fritz Kreisler (right) as “one of the most modest top-level artists I have ever known.” (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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What was your impression of Fritz Kreisler as a person?

I got to know him pretty well, and since German was my first language, he and I spoke in German when we were together. He was the nicest, kindest, and one of the most modest top-level artists I have ever known. He knew his limitations as a violinist compared to, say, Mischa Elman, but Elman and every other violinist I can think of considered Fritz Kreisler a friend rather than a “competitor.” His concerts were standing-room-only, and when he was playing you could almost hear a pin drop. That old show-business saying about holding an audience in the palm of the hand is as good a description as I can think of to convey to you the effect Fritz Kreisler had on audiences.

 

You also mentioned hearing Alma Gluck, and also Caruso.

I heard them together at the Coliseum, in a performance of La Bohème when I was a sophomore at Washington University. [4] Alma Gluck sang Mimì, Caruso sang Rodolfo, and Pasquale Amato sang Marcello. In those days, St. Louis was part of the Metropolitan Opera tour, so we had at least one performance of an opera, sometimes two operas, every spring. When I was still in high school, I saw touring performances of Aida and Bohème with Caruso at the Odeon. [5]

I was so eager to see Aida because of Caruso’s famous [recordings of] “Celeste Aida,” and also because Emma Eames, who was a beautiful woman with a beautiful and rather large soprano voice, sang the title-role. In both operas, Riccardo Stracciari, whom I thought had the finest baritone voice I had ever heard and was also a very good-looking man, was in the cast. So was [basso] Marcel Journet, who also fit that description.

 

Speaking of recordings, I want to ask you about the recordings you made and what you remember of them.

You mean those personal recordings that I paid to have made at the Columbia studios and that Scruggs-Vandervoort let me sell in the phonograph department? I don’t have any of them, but Tom Schiffer still has a couple of them. We made just two [recordings] at first, and both were just Tom and me—he on the trap drums and me on the piano.

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Scruggs-Vandervoort announces Haenschen’s first two Columbia Personal Records, June 27, 1916.

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We recorded medleys that we named [on the record labels] “Sunset Medley” and “Country Club Medley” because we had gotten steady work at the Sunset Hills Country Club that [brewer Adolphus] Busch had founded a couple years earlier. I think Tom must have kept a diary because he said we made those two records in May 1916. As I told you before, we ordered 200 of those records and sold them at Scruggs-Vandervoort and also at the Stix-Baer department store, where I also played from time to time. [6]

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(Above) Scruggs-Vandervoort advertised Haenschen’s later Columbia Personals on November 12, 1916. (Below) A sampling of Haenschen’s rare Personal records; Haenschen recalled that only two-hundred copies were pressed of each. (All but 60781 courtesy of Steve Nordhougen)

 

You also made some test recordings for Victor, correct?

Yes, at the Victor studios in New York City. That was a few months after Tom and I made those two medleys at Columbia. I took the whole band to New York, and we made two or three test recordings hoping that we’d get a recording contract from Victor. Tom says we made those trial recordings over two days, and I think we recorded my rag “Zillo.” I don’t remember the other song we did, but nothing came of the whole thing—no contract from Victor. Let me take that back, though, because something very good did come out of that experience at Victor: I met Walter Rogers, the man who would be my counterpart in classical-music recording when I was hired by Brunswick.

 

Do you remember any of the other personal recordings you made at the Columbia studios?

I only remember one, and that’s because of my involvement with Scott Joplin. I recorded “Maple Leaf Rag,” with my full band. By “full band” I mean two banjos, an alto sax, and Schiffer and me. One of my banjo players could play the violin in a ragtime style, and the sax player also doubled on the clarinet. I was at the piano, of course, and Tom took his whole set of drums for those sessions.

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Only a single copy of Haenschen’s “Maple Leaf Rag” is confirmed to exist. It was located by Colin Hancock, who notes, “It belonged to the late Trebor Tichenor and was inherited by his daughter Virginia and her husband Marty Eggers… It was quite a saga, but against all odds we found it!” So far, rumors of other copies have proven to be just that, but readers are encouraged to e-mail us with photographic evidence of other specimens. (Photo courtesy of Colin Hancock)

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Tom remembers that we recorded two songs with the full band. One was a popular song called “Admiration,” a one-step that we played in a “hot” style for the time, and the other one—and for some reason I mis-remembered the title—was “I Left Her on the Beach at Honolulu.” I think I said “Waikiki,” but it was “Honolulu.” Those records were made so long ago that I have very few memories of them except “Maple Leaf Rag.” But we sold every one of those discs, so even though I had to pay to have them made, they turned out to be a very good investment. [7]

 

When you first went to New York after Max Dreyfus wired you and you worked with George Gershwin when he was writing “La, La Lucille,” Irving Caesar wrote the lyrics for two of the songs. Now that you and he have been reunited after not having seen each other since those days with Max Dreyfus at T. B. Harms, Caesar has spoken somewhat disparagingly about Gershwin. He says that Gershwin would never have been acclaimed as a classical composer, that some of his piano works were derivative and in some cases were little more than counter-melodies to others’ compositions. What do you make of those statements, which he made in the interview I recorded of the two of you?

I’ll tell you in one word: jealousy. After he wrote the lyrics for “Swanee” with George, and Al Jolson made it a national hit, Irving wanted to be George’s only lyricist. He figured he would be because he spent time with the Gershwin family in their apartment, so he knew George’s family. He and George were spending a lot of time together, and I think [Caesar] took for granted that he would always be George’s lyricist. What he didn’t take into account, and to be fair to him very few others did either, was how gifted Ira Gershwin was. Ira was an introvert, just the opposite of George—but George knew how gifted Ira was, and the proof is in what they wrote together.

As I told Irving that day we had our “reunion” in his office, he should be counting his lucky stars that the Broadway musical he contributed some of the most memorable lyrics to in 1925, “No, No, Nanette,” is a smash hit on Broadway almost fifty years later. Two of the biggest hits of that show were “Tea For Two” and “I Want to Be Happy,” and he wrote the lyrics to both of them. He claims he also wrote most of the music for “Tea For Two,” but Vincent Youmans wrote the melody, as he did for “I Want to Be Happy” and every other song in that show—so at most, Irving may have made a suggestion or two to Youmans about one of those songs.
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Gus Haenschen and Irving Caesar enjoy a “reunion” in New York’s Brill Building, May 1972. (Author’s photo)

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Audio compilation courtesy of Robert Fells. The conversation was recorded by the author in May 1972, in Caesar’s Brill Building office. The introductory recording is Haenschen playing “Underneath the Japanese Moon,” from his and Schiffer’s 1916 recording of “Country Club Medley.” The concluding performance is the author’s recording of Haenschen playing the same song in his home in May 1974, at the age of eighty-five.

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Irving has been making the rounds of the talk shows lately because he’s the only surviving member of the team that wrote the songs. When he talks about “Tea For Two” he always wants to sing the verse he wrote because the words to “Tea For Two” are so mundane—which is what they were meant to be in the show because they were written for a character who was naïve. The lyrics to the verse that Irving wrote are much better than the refrain, so he likes to highlight those when he talks about and sings “Tea For Two” on these talk shows. I don’t think he appreciates how lucky he is to have a hit show on Broadway and be able to take credit for his contributions to that show.

 

When you moved permanently to New York when Brunswick made you the offer to become the founding Director of Popular Music recordings, one of your long-time orchestra members, John Helleberg, told me in an interview that you had informed everyone you worked with that you were never going to get married and instead were going to enjoy life to its fullest by staying single. What changed your mind?

Roxanne changed my mind—or rather I changed my mind after I got to know her well. She was young and pretty and one of the most valued staff members at Brunswick because she was Milton Diamond’s personal secretary. Anyone who knew Milt will tell you that he was no bargain to work for, but he could never praise Roxie enough. Because I had to meet with Milt a lot, I got to know Roxie better and better, and I finally decided to propose to her. It made perfect sense to me because she was the only woman I felt I would ever meet who could understand the demands of my work. When we announced our engagement at Brunswick, you can’t imagine how much kidding I had to take about that vow of mine to stay single.

 

How did marriage change you?

Well, at first it didn’t because we were both still working at Brunswick. But we wanted to have a family, and not only Milt Diamond but everyone else who knew us at Brunswick understood why she wanted to resign and become a wife and ultimately a mother. She also liked my idea of buying land in Connecticut so I could get away from New York and enjoy life in the country and raise children there. That’s when I bought sixty acres in Norwalk and built our home and also my workshop there.

 

How did becoming a parent change you?

That was the biggest change of all, and if you ever have children you’ll understand what a change it is in your life. I can tell you that it made me a much better man, being a father. I was used to doing whatever I wanted whenever I wanted, and Roxie was the same way. But when we became parents, everything changed. Not so much for her, but for me because I was now living for our children and not just for myself.

 

In one of our earlier interviews you mentioned being the father of four children, but I have only met three of them—your daughters Barbara and Betty, and your son Richard.

Did I say four? I’m surprised that I still slip and say that when I’m not thinking. This is something that’s a little hard for me to talk about. Before Richard, Roxie was pregnant and everything seemed to be coming along well throughout the pregnancy. In those days you didn’t know whether you were having a boy or girl until the baby came out and the doctor told you if it was a boy or girl. I had hoped for a boy, and as it turned out it was a boy—but it was stillborn, which just crushed me. Roxie and I had agreed that if it was a boy, we would name him Frank Munn Haenschen. Thank God I never told Frank about that because of what happened. But in a way, losing that baby boy at birth made it even harder for me because I had so wanted for Frank to be his godfather. But Richard came along, and he and I are not just father and son but friends.

 

I have heard from people who worked for you on radio—and I’m thinking of Conrad Thibault and Elizabeth Lennox in particular—who have said that to see you and Richard walking together in midtown Manhattan was to see two handsome men who looked almost like brothers. Having met Richard, I have to admit that he not only looks so much like you, but even his speaking voice is almost the same as yours.

As I say, he’s not just my son, he’s my friend. He also handles my investments—he’s a stockbroker and a very successful one. By the way, he’s named after one of my “stars” at Brunswick: Richard Bonelli. My daughter Betty, who full name is Elizabeth, is named for Elizabeth Lennox. The only one who isn’t named after one of my Brunswick singers is Barbara. Her full name is Barbara Roxanne, by the way. Roxie picked “Barbara,” but I insisted that her second name had to be her mother’s name. But back to Richard, he and I are real pals and he’s learned some machining from me over the years.

 

He has told me that when the two of you still walk down any of the major streets in midtown Manhattan, people still look at you because you both have white hair now—identical white hair.

Yes, just as I never went from the dark brown hair I had as a young man to some gray here and there, my hair just turned pure white, as did Richard’s. And he parts his hair the same way I part mine.

 

After being in your home, I can imagine what a wonderful place it was for your children when they were growing up. Your home is both large and very well designed, and is not far from the swimming pool you had put in so you could do laps and keep in shape. Did you design the house yourself?

Yes, and I built a lot of it myself—but that’s our second house, not our first one. The house you’ve been in is about 5,000 square feet under roof, which is fine for Roxie and me and any guests we have for dinner, and for our kids who are now adults and have families of their own. Our first house, which I had an architect design, was 15,000 square feet and had several full-size guest rooms plus quarters for my “houseman,” as we used to call men who lived on the property and did the handy work, and quarters for our cook and maids. We did a lot of entertaining there.

I had the pool put in not so much for myself but for the kids and their friends. Roxie and I wanted our house and grounds to be the place where all of our kids’ friends would congregate. In the summers, our pool was where all the kids’ friends came and would stay most of the day. That gave us an insight into who our kids were associating with and what kind of influence they were having on our children. Although I did use the pool myself, I really had it put in for the kids.

 

That wasn’t all you did, from what your son Richard has told me, on that sixty acres of land. He said you became a big-time farmer. What prompted you to do that?

It was something I had never done, so I decided to use that acreage to create a real farm. Not just crops, but a dairy farm and a horse farm too. I had two large barns built, one for the cows and the other for the farm equipment I bought. I also had chicken coups built, a pen for sheep, and stalls for the horses. As you might guess, I didn’t buy any of the farm machinery new because that’s no fun. I bought older, used tractors and a combine and other machinery, and Frank Munn and I rebuilt the engines and gears for them. I had them painted the original color, so everything looked and worked like new.

 

Richard said that even a casual suggestion could prompt you to plant a new crop. He said that as Christmas approached, he and his sisters wanted to go with you to pick the best pine for a Christmas tree. He said that next thing he knew, you had laid out the acreage to plant a pine forest!

I did, and we gave away some of the best ones to our friends for Christmas trees. And as he told you, this wasn’t just a few trees, it was a real forest of pine trees. I had also planted lots of different fruit trees, especially apple trees. Every year, our corn crop alone was bountiful.

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The Haenschen family on the farm
(St. Louis Dispatch, June 20, 1943)

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When harvest time came, how did you manage that?

I had a lot of “hired hands” who worked other farms, and they would come and do most of the harvesting work. I had several old wagons that I had restored, and we would go to the farmer’s markets in those wagons. We used the horses to pull them. In the wintertime, we would hitch the horses to an old sleigh that I had rebuilt and had made special runners for. The kids and all their friends loved riding in that sleigh!

 

When did you put away your bib overalls and give up farming?

When the kids went off to college. That’s when I built the house you’ve been in, and I also added on to my workshop so I could spend more time in it. And I began selling off part of the acreage since I no longer needed it. Of the original sixty acres, I still have about thirty, which is more than enough for me. It’s all grass now, and in the winter I put a plow on one of my tractors and clear the roadway, and in the summertime I use another tractor to pull a “gang mower” like they use on golf courses.

 

It’s interesting to me that your address is simply “Old Rock Lane,” with no house number or any other designation.

That’s what I named the road when I bought the original sixty-acre parcel. Now that I’ve sold about half of it, there will be subdivisions on the acreage I sold, so in time there will be house numbers on Old Rock Lane.

 

You wrote the music to at least one of the songs in a musical called “Come Seven.” The one song I’m referring to is “Read ‘Em and Weep.” Do you remember that song?

Yes, but neither it nor the show amounted to much of anything. Al Bernard, whom we later used at Brunswick, wanted to do a blackface show like Eddie Cantor did in the Follies and then did on his own. Al pitched the idea of the show to me, and I wasn’t interested because those kinds of shows were on the wane and I didn’t want to be associated with one. He kept after me about this card-playing scene he had in mind, and he had the words but he couldn’t come up with a melody. So I wrote the music for that one song, but as I say nothing much came of it or the show.

 

One “show” you were very much involved with until you decided to retire a couple years ago was the weekly Saturday matinee broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. How did you get that assignment?

When the contract for producing the broadcasts was up, Gerry (Gerald H.) Johnston won the new contract. Gerry has his own radio “empire,” but he has no interest whatsoever in opera. His only interest is in broadcasting football games. So he hired Henry Souvaine, who had written some songs with Yip Harburg for the Ziegfeld Follies and worked for a while for Frank Hummert as an arranger and a conductor. Seeing what they had done, he decided to go into the production end of radio and he did very, very well with it. For the Met, he produced the intermission features. He worked with Edward Johnson, who was the Met’s general manager then, and he overlapped with the [Rudolf] Bing administration for a couple years but then he died.

 

Had you known Henry Souvaine before you worked with him at the G. H. Johnston Company?

Actually, he played for us in some of our World Broadcasting transcription sessions. He was a competent violinist. But that was before he got into the production end of radio.

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Gus Haenschen conducting at CBS

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Lauritz Melchior for Chevrolet, with Bud Collier announcing and Gus Haenschen conducting, 1949.  (Author’s collection; dubbing and audio restoration courtesy of Robert Fells)

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Although Milton Cross used to broadcast from a specially constructed box in the “Old Met,” the Met broadcasts are now done from the Johnston studio in Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center. I know that Mr. Cross was never comfortable with doing the announcing without being able to witness the action on the stage.

It wasn’t just that, it was what Geraldine Souvaine put him through that made him so uncomfortable. She is a foul-mouthed witch who wants to be thought of as “one of the boys.” After Henry died and she took over, she was all right for a while but when Gerry Johnston got the production contract, she turned into a nightmare—especially for Milt.

She started putting pressure on him by refusing to let him write his own commentary. She had somebody on her staff write it, and he wasn’t allowed to change a word. She had already decided she wanted him out, and after he lost his wife she showed him not the slightest sympathy and instead told him that he was an old man and might have a heart attack or a stroke in the middle of a broadcast. So she put the guy she was grooming to be his replacement at a microphone near Milt, which completely unnerved him.

When the stress he was under began to show in his voice, she gave him a choice of either resigning or being fired. He was such a lost soul, and he simply wanted to die. I last talked to him a few days before Christmas, when I called to wish him happy holidays, but he was so depressed that I ended up being down myself after I hung up the phone. He told me he hoped this would be his last Christmas.

 

He died soon after that, on January 3, 1975. I know that you and Mrs. Haenschen attended his funeral service.

The chapel was standing room only, which would have pleased him. Almost all the great singers of the past and present were there to honor his memory. What I remember the most is that [Richard] Tucker and [Robert] Merrill were among the pallbearers—and not even a week after that, Tucker died of a heart attack while he and Merrill were on tour. That hit all of us hard because Tucker was like a rock, and he would have completed thirty consecutive seasons that weekend if he had lived to celebrate his anniversary. I thought it was very fitting that the Metropolitan Opera board granted his family’s wish to have his funeral held on the stage of the opera house. I remember that the house was filled.

 

This interview session brings us to the present time. I gave you some questions in advance so you could think about them before answering them. Let me begin with the fact that a week ago you conducted the Ithaca College orchestra and Roberta Peters in the annual spring concert at the College. What was your assessment of the orchestra and of her performance?

Well, it’s difficult for me to conduct with the confidence I used to have because—and I discovered this in the middle of a concert I was conducting at the College four or five years ago—I’ve lost my hearing in the higher-frequency range. I’ll never forget when I found it out because I was conducting the orchestra and all of a sudden I thought that all the violinists had completely missed their cues because I couldn’t hear them. I remember turning to them and seeing their bows moving, but not being able to hear them. Luckily, Ithaca College is nationally known for its speech pathology and audiology program, and the professor who heads it, [T.] Walter Carlin, had special hearing aids designed for me. They work fine for speech but not very well for hearing music.

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Gus Haenschen at Ithaca College with guest artist
Roberta Peters at his final concert, 1979.

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What was your opinion of Roberta Peters’ performance? I know you have nominated her to be on the College’s board of trustees.

I nominated her because I’m 89 years old and I won’t be here forever, and the School of Music needs a nationally known performing artist to be on the board of trustees. The other professional schools have their own trustees—in fact, the School of Television and Film Studies has two trustees, Rod Serling and Jessica Savitch, the newswoman who’s a graduate of that program. Roberta should be a good trustee because she’s still a “name,” and she’s married to Bert Fields, who owns a string of hotels in New York City. They aren’t luxury hotels—in fact, some of them are just short of being fleabags—but he has money and she can get him to donate to the College.

 

But what about her performance during the concert you just conducted?

I’ve been trying to duck that question but I can see that you’re not going to let me. I guess a polite way to answer that question is to say that she’s very creative from the standpoint of explaining her repertoire at this stage of her career. As some other singers have done in the past, she decided that she no longer needed any teachers and that she could be her own teacher. What she succeeded in doing was to lose her top tones, the ones that got her into the Met in the first place. Where I give her high marks for creativity is that she tells interviews that her voice has “evolved” from a coloratura to a lyric soprano. Now, that’s creative! She can still sing a high-C, but she used to be able to sing the high-F in the [opera] house before her voice “evolved.”

Not too long ago she decided to try television acting, and she did a guest appearance in one of these medical shows that are so popular. She didn’t need to read the reviews to know that she couldn’t act at all, so that was the end of her television acting career. As long as she becomes a trustee and takes care of the School of Music, then she’ll be serving the purpose I had in mind when I nominated her.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

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Gus Haenschen’s sixtieth-birthday portrait

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Now for the questions I gave you in advance so you’d have time to think about them before we taped this last session. The first one is, whom do you consider to have been the most influential people in the radio and recording industries during your long career?

That’s easy to answer, and no one in the industry who’s been in it as long as I have will disagree with my choice: Ben Selvin. He has done it all and has done it better than anyone else—especially considering how broad his influence has been. He began, as I did, leading a ragtime band just as jazz was coming in. He recorded for just about every label in those early days, and then he became a silent partner with Percy Deutsch and Frank Black and me when we formed World Broadcasting. Just as we had planned, he got the A&R post at Columbia, which gave him access to all the stars they had under contract. Then he went on to form Muzak, which he said was prompted by what we did at World Broadcasting.

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Ben Selvin, c. 1925, with a misleading caption. Until he joined the Columbia staff in 1928, Selvin was never truly exclusive to any one company, since his orchestra recorded prolifically for numerous labels under a bewildering array of pseudonyms.

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He also wrote the definitive report that [James Caesar] Petrillo retained him to write on behalf of the A. F. of M. [American Federation of Musicians] against the recording companies when Petrillo ordered a strike [in 1942] that lasted almost two years. Petrillo thought he could tell Ben what to write, but Ben did one of the finest analyses of the royalties issue that could ever have been done—and he did it his way, not Petrillo’s. After that, while still heading Muzak, Ben became an advisor to Majestic Records after they adopted his suggestion to record light classical albums. [8]

 

A sidebar question about Petrillo: Did you know him and did he ever work for or with you?

No, he was in Chicago when I was at Brunswick, but we did use him when we did field recordings in Chicago. Even then, he was moving up in the Chicago local union [Local 810] and I think he became president. He was a far better union organizer than he was as a musician. He was an adequate trumpet player, but no more than adequate and would never have played the lead in any band. I think his limited ability as a player is what prompted him to become a conductor. He became the conductor of the studio orchestra at one of the big Chicago radio stations [WBBM].

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Widely reviled, union boss James Caesar Petrillo brought the record industry to a near-standstill twice in the 1940s when he banned recording by A.F. of M. members.

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The trouble with Petrillo was that the more power he got when he was made head of the A. F. of M., the more egotistical he got, and he also became really eccentric. He refused to shake hands with anyone, and instead would stick out his pinkie finger for you to shake. By the way, he had a brother named Caesar James Petrillo, who didn’t have any interest in the limelight and was a much better musician.

 

What effect did the A.F. of M. ban have on your radio shows, and how did you deal with the ban?

I always had good-sized choral groups with my orchestras on radio. During the ban I just hired more singers for the chorus. I still paid the orchestra players anyway, because most of us thought that the ban would be over a lot sooner than it turned out to be.

 

Did you have a runner-up for Ben Selvin when you thought about the most influential people in the radio and recording industries?

Yes, if I had to name a runner-up it would be Jack Kapp for saving the recording industry with his American Decca label and getting big-name stars like Jolson and Bing Crosby to invest in Decca. Jack had a wonderful way with top stars, and he had both the drive and the patience you need to work with them and get them to record songs that you know will be just right for them and will really sell discs. Jack was excellent at that. But his influence was not as broad as Ben Selvin’s.

There’s a third one I admire greatly too, and that’s Fred Waring. Fred has had one of the longest and most successful careers of anyone I can think of. What he’s done for choral music, and for training future choral directors at his annual training camps at his country club, is really marvelous. He’ll be the first to say that he owes much of the Pennsylvanians’ success to Robert Shaw, who got his start with Fred and who’s now the top in his field. If you want to measure success by taking into account that Fred can’t really read music and could only play basic chords on a banjo ukulele, then Fred Waring is a huge success.

 

Before I ask you the questions I gave you in advance, is there anything we’ve discussed that you may want to amend?

Yes, and I’m glad you asked because I said that Ted Lewis, whom I’ve known since we started in the business, was the first to play true jazz when he and his band were at Rector’s. I was at the Friars Club for lunch with someone not long ago, and I saw Ted there. He loves playing cards with a group there. I told him what I’d said, and also told him I still wished I’d have gotten him away from Columbia and signed him with us at Brunswick. He told me that no, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was the first to play and record jazz during their time at Reisenweber’s. He said that Rector’s hired him and his band because they wanted to give Reisenweber’s some competition. So I want to correct that because what I said was wrong.

I want to say something else about Nat Shilkret, my “competitor” at Victor, because I don’t think I did justice to him. Now, I could never understand his aloofness and frankly his rudeness to me, considering that Brunswick was no competitor to the gigantic Victor Company. Yet it was his job to make Victor’s light classical and popular-music recordings the top sellers in our industry, and he did that exceptionally well. In a way, at least looking back to that time, I should have been flattered that he regarded me as “competition” because we were just following the leader, Victor, and he was the “head man” for most Victor popular releases.

But that’s just part of what he was—and though you never hear about him these days, he’s still alive but has had cancer and I’m told that he lives with his son here in New York. Nat Shilkret was the most versatile musician I can think of, and I’ve worked with the best. He was a prodigy who began with the clarinet, and he was a virtuoso clarinetist, but was also an equally good pianist, violinist, cellist, mandolin player, guitar player, banjoist, and trombonist.

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Nathaniel Shilkret (front row, center) with the Victor Salon Orchestra, c. 1925–1926. (Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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He played under all the great symphony conductors, and he was also a composer. He wrote a concerto for the trombone which was premiered by the New York Symphony under [Leopold] Stokowski, with Tommy Dorsey as the soloist. That concerto was very difficult, and I heard that not even Jack Teagarden wanted to audition for Stokowski. Two of the popular songs Nat wrote, “The Lonesome Road” and “Jeannine, I Dream of Lilac Time,” he gave to Gene Austin to record but they’ve been done by just about everyone since then. He even put Gene’s name on the sheet music as a lyricist, which of course gave Gene more incentive to make it a hit.

Nat conducted many of “The Victor Hour” broadcasts, and did a lot of radio conducting, just as I did. He also went to Hollywood and wrote the scores for several films. Before then, he had come up with the idea and figured out the logistics to make “electrical recordings” of Caruso by superimposing the electrically recorded Victor studio orchestra over the original acoustically recorded orchestra.

The way he did it, from what some of the orchestra players told me, was to have them wear one earphone so they could hear the original recording being played. They would follow Nat’s baton so they would begin playing over the old orchestra when Caruso was between phrases. Those recordings were heavily promoted in the newspapers and on radio, and he even persuaded [Luisa] Tetrazzini to be interviewed in a newsreel while listening to the re-recording of Caruso singing the aria from Martha. That and the re-recording of “Vesti la giubba” were, I think, the best of those re-recordings.

 

Now for the questions I find the hardest to ask you. What do you hope for in the future, and what do you fear if anything?

You know that I’m staring at turning 90, and I can’t believe that I have lived this long. The top priority for me is to keep my health because without it I’m no good to anybody. I have never had any real health problems, but as you know I had what could have been a fatal accident driving back to Norwalk from Ithaca. I don’t remember anything except waking up in an emergency room and not knowing why I was there. Apparently, I had blacked out and my car had gone off the road and into a tree.

Luckily, I had my seat belt on, and the car didn’t hit the tree head-on. I didn’t break any bones and was all right in just a few days, but from now on I have to have an envelope in my glove compartment with my photo, my name and address and telephone number, and the name of the person who should be contacted if that ever happens again. The only good thing that came out of it was another new Buick.

 

 What don’t you want, and what if anything do you fear?

What I don’t want is to outlive Roxie. The odds are that I won’t because she’s a fair amount younger than I. And God forbid that any of my children or their children should die! As for death, I don’t have any fear of it because I don’t believe there’s any such thing as an afterlife. Roxie was raised as a Roman Catholic but for some reason she switched to the Anglican religion and raised our kids as Anglicans. She saw to it that they were baptized and took communion and whatever other rituals there are in the Anglican religion. I don’t know because I’m not a “God man” and never have been.

 

 What is the hardest part of being almost 90 years old?

Well, the hardest part is having to go to the funerals of people you worked with, sometimes the ones you discovered or helped jump-start their careers. It was hard watching Jim Melton destroy himself with alcohol, and it was really hard on me when Frank Munn died. I loved that man because he was so naturally gifted, and yet so modest because of his shyness. The last time I saw him, which was several years after he had retired, he told me before I came to his home that I might not recognize him.

His wife had devised a very simple diet for him. He would fill his plate as he would normally, and then he would put half of it back in the skillet or pan. He lost over 100 pounds using that method, but he looked like a deflated balloon. His skin was just hanging from his frame. But he could still sing. I know because I sat down at the Steinway upright in his living room and got him to sing for me. He still had that lovely lyric voice that I had first heard soon after I was hired by Brunswick.

 

 On a positive note, what do you still enjoy?

I have to tell you that one of the things I’ve enjoyed the most are these interviews—not the ones you’ve done with me so much as the ones I was able to arrange with the men and women who played in my bands over the years. I’m glad you talked me into this oral-history project, and that you and [co-director] Marty [Martin W.] Laforse did the interviews with so much preparation and research. And I especially enjoyed sitting at the piano here in my home with both of you and playing “Underneath the Japanese Moon.” That was the song that made my career, and I play that for my grandkids now.

I’m lucky that I don’t have any arthritis and can still play pretty well for a man my age. And I still have my old friend Tom Schiffer in St. Louis. By the way, he’s now called “Ted,” and I kid him that he changed from “Tom” to “Ted” only because Ted Kennedy is so popular. I talk to Tom every couple weeks, and I tell him that I’m going to fly to St. Louis so we can start up our band again. Wouldn’t that be something!

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Gus Haenschen’s last formal portrait, c. 1972

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Author’s Note: Walter Gustave Haenschen died at age 90 in a hospital near his home in Norwalk, Connecticut, on March 26, 1980. His wife said that during the space of one week he had steadily lost the use of his legs. She was at his side when he passed away.
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March 29, 1980

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A decade later, in 1991, Roxanne Haenschen was driving and apparently lost consciousness. Her car went off the road, and she died of injuries sustained in the accident. Their eldest daughter, Barbara Roxanne Haenschen Mulliken, died in 1997, and their son Richard Stephen Haenschen died in 2016. At this writing their youngest daughter, Elizabeth (Betty) Haenschen Martin, is in good health and is living in Oregon.

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Lakeview Cemetery, New Canaan, Connecticut
(Courtesy of Peter Passaro)

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Theodore Thomas Schiffer died in St. Louis on December 26, 1980, nine months to the day after the passing of his lifelong friend Gus Haenschen.

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(Courtesy of Robert Fells)

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The author is grateful to Peter Passaro, of the New Canaan Cemetery, for providing a photo of the gravestone of Gustave and Roxanne Haenschen. A special thanks goes to to Robert M. Fells for digitizing an excerpt of the author’s interview of Gus Haenschen and Irving Caesar, and for attaching to that interview digital restorations of Haenschen performing “Underneath the Japanese Moon” in 1916 and in 1984, and his restoration of the audio advertisement featuring Lauritz Melchior singing under the direction of Gus Haenschen.

 

Notes

 

[1]   “Mr. [W. Albert] Swasey is doing much to advance the interests of St. Louis. He is … one of the foremost architects of the country. The Odeon and Masonic Temple, which he is now erecting on Grant Avenue, is designed to be the artistic and musical center of the Empire City of the Southwest.” St. Louis Post, August 24, 1899.

[2]   The Columbia Theater, located in the Calumet Building in St. Louis, and the Rialto, which was completed in 1918 and located on Grand Avenue, were under the management of the States Booking Exchange, which had regional offices in Atlanta, Indianapolis, and Chicago in addition to its headquarters in St. Louis. The much larger Orpheum Theater was part of the national Keith-Orpheum circuit. The dimensions and other details of the three theaters appeared in the 1919 edition of Vaudeville Trails Thru the West, a handbook for vaudeville performers, agents, and managers compiled and published by Herbert Lloyd.

[3]  The critics’ reactions to the McCormack concert bear out Haenschen’s recollections. “Mr. McCormack appeared at his best and fairly reveled in the rich cadences and tonal beauties of the selections which constituted his share of the entertainment. These included the favorite Irish melodies … [but] the more ambitious selections invaded the operatic realm and tested the timbre and technique of the tenor. In the aria, ‘Ah, the Cold of the Morning [Che gelida manina]’ from Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ Mr. McCormack attained a true artistic triumph. It evoked a wild demonstration.” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, March 12, 1912. (Courtesy of Rev. Dr. Doreen McFarlane)

[4]  The cast of the Aida performance at the Odeon Theater on April 17, 1907 included Emma Eames, Josephine Jacoby, Riccardo Stracciari, Marcel Journet, and conductor Arthur Vigna. Two days later, Gina Ciaparelli (later Gina C. Viafora), Bella Alten, Riccardo Stracciari, and Marcel Journet were heard in La Bohème, again with Vigna conducting.

[5]   The performance Haenschen attended of La Bohème at the Coliseum in St. Louis featured Alma Gluck, Vera Courtenay, Pasquale Amato, and Andres de Segurola, conducted by Vittorio Podesti.

[6]   In 2020, Archeophone Records released a comprehensive CD titled “The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business,” a compilation of all known Columbia personal recordings made by Gus Haenschen and his banjo orchestra plus recordings of songs by Haenschen which were recorded by various artists on Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick discs. The credits in the booklet for the CD, produced by Richard Martin and Meaghan Hennessy and edited by Martin, credit the “concept, biographical essay and track notes” of the album to Colin Hancock, who assembled most of the recordings from various collectors and traveled to St. Louis to transcribe the only existing copy of Haenschen’s personal recording of Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag.”

[7]   The Victor ledgers show that Haenschen’s Banjo Orchestra made trial recordings of “The Murray Walk” on September 5, 1916, and “Zillo” and a second “take” of “The Murray Walk” on September 6, 1916. The sessions are marked “Not documented” in the ledgers, and other than one pressing each of the three trial recordings, no other pressings seem to have been made and none of the pressings is known to exist.

[8]   “Ben Selvin, director of artists and repertoire for Muzak recordings in N. Y., has been hired by Majestic Records to act in an advisory capacity in the recording of light classical music. He acts in the same capacity for all recordings done by WOR, N.Y., for its ‘Feature’ label. Selvin retains his Muzak post.” (Variety, April 18, 1945).

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© 2021 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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The Playlist • Some October Additions to the Collection

The Playlist • Some October Additions to the Collection

 

A few of this month’s new favorite finds, for your enjoyment. Always looking to acquire similar material in fine condition (true E– minimum, with exceptions made only for real rarities). You are welcome to email your lists of disposables. Please be brutally honest in your assessment of condition, and use standard VJM grading; note all defects, including grainy surfaces and any label discoloration or damage; and state your asking price (no trade offers, please).

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REV. A. W. NIX & CONGREGATION: Pay Your Honest Debts  (EE+)

Chicago: c. January 1930
Vocalion 1470  (mx. C 5197 – )
The take selected is not shown in the pressing, and the surviving Brunswick documentation for this period is largely missing or incomplete.

 

 

JIM JACKSON: Bootlegging Blues  (EE+)

Memphis Auditorium: February 14, 1928
Unissued Victor mx. BVE 41904 – 1  (test pressing)
This take is unlisted in Blues and Gospel Records (Dixon, Godrich & Rye), although it is documented in the Victor files. Take 2 was issued on Victor 21268 in April 1928.

 

 

MEMPHIS MINNIE: New Caught Me Wrong Again  (E)

Chicago: June 22, 1937
Vocalion 03966  (mx. C 2056 – 1)
Accompanying personnel are unlisted in the surviving American Record Corporation documentation. Blues and Gospel Records suggests Blind John Davis as the probable pianist but doesn’t hazard a guess on the bassist.

 

 

CAROLINA TAR HEELS: Shanghai in China  (E+)

Charlotte NC: August 11, 1927
Victor 20941  (mx. BVE 39795 – 2)
Contains racist lyrics, but an otherwise great record. Personnel per Victor ledger: Gwen Foster (vocal, guitar, harmonica); Dock Walsh (vocal, banjo). Victor’s dealer-stock tag describes this as a clarinet polka!

 

 

 

CARROLL DICKERSON’S SAVOY ORCHESTRA: Black Maria  (EE+)

Chicago: May 25, 1928
Brunswick 3990  (mx. C 1977 – A)

 

 

RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Back Beats  (E)

New York: March 3, 1927
Brunswick 3490  (mx. E 21721 – 2)

 

 

HOPI INDIAN CHANTERS (GROUP OF M. W. BILLINGSLEY):
Chant of the Snake Dance
  (E+)

New York: March 30, 1926
Victor 20043  (mx. BVE 35252 – 2)

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The Man Who Crippled the Recording Industry: James Caesar Petrillo and the American Federation of Musicians Recording Bans

THE MAN WHO CRIPPLED THE RECORDING INDUSTRY
James Caesar Petrillo and the American Federation of
Musicians Recording Bans (1942 – 1948)
By Allan Sutton

An excerpt from the upcoming Recording the ’Forties*

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For professional musicians in the 1940s, membership in the American Federation of Musicians was essential. Among the few to resist were members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose management was firmly opposed to unionization. Under pressure from RCA’s David Sarnoff, BSO officials finally capitulated, and the newly unionized orchestra was allowed to return to the RCA studios. No sooner had it done so than the BSO found itself shut out again, this time by an industry-wide recording ban ordered by AFM president James Caesar Petrillo. [1]

Petrillo had long held a vendetta against what he termed “canned music,” blaming it for the downturn in live performances. Widely viewed by recording-industry officials as a coarse, obscenity-spewing petty dictator, Petrillo did not hesitate to employ strong-arm tactics against anyone who opposed him.

In early 1941, Petrillo recruited bandleader-turned-recording director Ben Selvin to undertake a survey intended to prove that recorded music was responsible for the declining employment of union musicians. [2]  Selvin’s questionnaires, individually tailored for commercial record companies, transcription producers, radio stations, advertising agencies, and jukebox operators, were mailed in the spring of 1941. Based upon the initial responses, involving the radio-transcription business, Selvin concluded, “The amount of money spent for musical talent on recorded [as opposed to live] programs is much higher than anyone in the industry would have guessed.” [3]

Armed with Selvin’s rather flimsy findings, Petrillo presented his case at the AFM’s convention on June 9, 1941. He contended that although AFM members earned approximately $3 million annually in royalties from recordings, they lost $100 million as the result of what he termed “reduced employment opportunities” from the substitution of recorded for live music. Petrillo estimated that eight- to nine-thousand AFM musicians could be put to work if records were not available and establishments were forced to rely on live music, while admitting that he had no firm statistics to back up his claims.

The issue came to a head in June 1942, when Petrillo ordered members of the Ringling Brothers–Barnum and Bailey Circus Band to strike. Director Merle Evans’ assurance that he and his musicians were “perfectly satisfied” with salaries and working conditions were ignored, and John Ringling North’s request to personally negotiate with Petrillo went unanswered. [4]

Petrillo’s  demands included higher wages, with time-and-a-half for Sunday performances, which were rejected. After a brief postponement to allow the band to play a benefit for handicapped children, the strike order was enforced. Circus officials responded by substituting recorded music over a public-address system during the band’s involuntary absence. [5]  It apparently was lost on Petrillo his strike order caused live musicians to be replaced by recordings — the very situation he had recently railed against at the AFM conference.

Having defeated a circus band, Petrillo next targeted American youth. In July he banned the broadcasting of a popular high-school band festival in Interlochen, Michigan. The action brought universal condemnation from the public, the broadcast industry, and members of Congress. Petrillo was unrepentant. “When amateur musicians occupy the air,” he proclaimed, “it means less work for professionals.” [6]

The incident prompted the Federal Communications Commission to launch an investigation of Petrillo, but it resulted in only a mild rebuke from chairman James Fly, and a vague recommendation that a committee be formed to study the situation. [7]  Iowa Senator D. W. Clark filed a formal, if ineffectual, resolution charging Petrillo with depriving the students of their freedom to make their musical talents known, while undermining the national music education program. [8]  Stanley E. Hubbard, president of radio station KSPT (St. Paul, Minnesota), issued a scathing denouncement of Petrillo that read in part,

[Petrillo] forbade the broadcast…from the National Music Camp at Interlochen, Mich., in which 160 teen-age boys and girls from 40 states hoped to play for their folks at home. He stopped eight Chinese Boy Scouts from blowing a fanfare in Chicago unless eight union musicians were hired to stand by while the scouts tooted… That is the kind of power Fuehrer Petrillo wields today. [9]

Undeterred, Petrillo next threatened to bar AFM musicians from making radio transcriptions. Key figures in the broadcast industry responded swiftly, with a threat of their own. Five years earlier, broadcasters had informally agreed to retain house orchestras, whether needed or not, after Petrillo complained that radio’s reliance on recorded music was causing widespread unemployment of union musicians. Now, Broadcasting magazine predicted,

If transcriptions and recordings are banned, as ordered by Mr. Petrillo, it is generally expected that the [broadcast] industry, almost as a unit, will be disposed to release staff orchestras, since the gentlemen’s agreement will have been violated… In a nutshell, the overall view appears to be that AFM has walked out on its 1937 agreement by banning transcription performance, and that the next move is up to Mr. Petrillo. [10]

Petrillo’s next move was to escalate the threat of a recording ban by union musicians, extending it to commercial recordings as well as transcriptions. On June 8, 1942, he announced,

We will make records for home consumption, but we won’t make them for jukeboxes. We will make them for the armed forces of the United States and its allies, but not for commercial and sustaining radio programs.” [11]

But Petrillo was not content to stop there. Within several weeks, he decided to extend the ban to all recordings, including those made for home use. On June 27, he served notice to transcription and record companies that all recording by union musicians would cease on August 1. [12]  The New York Times reported,

As part of a campaign to force radio stations, soda fountains, bars and restaurants to employ union musicians instead of using recordings, Mr. Petrillo has informed all the record manufacturers that the 140,000 members of his A.F. of  L. organization will not make “records, electrical transcriptions or any other form of electrical reproduction of music” after July 31…

Even if Mr. Petrillo’s economics were not fantastic, it is intolerable that a labor leader should dictate to the American people what kind of music it shall or shall not hear. But of we need waste little time in exposing the nonsense in Mr. Petrillo’s economics, we should waste less in denouncing Mr. Petrillo as an individual. It is much more important to remind ourselves that it is our political muddle-headedness and spinelessness that have made the Petrillo type of dictator possible. [13]

In last-minute effort to fend off the Petrillo threat, U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle announced on July 23 that he would file for injunction under federal anti-trust laws to prevent implementation of the ban. [14]   But on August 1, with Biddle having yet to act, Petrillo’s recording ban went into effect.

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August 1, 1942

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Petrillo agreed informally to exempt transcriptions for the armed forces and government agencies involved with the war effort, although he soon reneged on even that meager concession. Recordings for motion-picture soundtracks would still be allowed, provided that the recordings did not find their way onto the airwaves or commercially issued records.

Private home recording would also be permitted, but only if the manufacturers of recording blanks would guarantee the recordings would not be broadcast or used in jukeboxes, a provision that was obviously impossible to enforce. There would be no cooperation from the blank manufacturers, who disclaimed any responsibility for the uses to which their products were put. With recording blanks and inexpensive portable recording units readily available, a lively underground market soon developed for custom-duplicated discs from private recording sessions, live performances, and broadcast captures.

There would be no immediate concessions from the record companies, nor full-fledged support from most AFM musicians. Black band-leaders in Philadelphia loudly protested the ban, claiming a potential loss of a half-million dollars in income. [15]  In New York, union musicians attended clandestine hotel-room recording sessions for Eli Oberstein’s Hit label, which issued the results under some imaginative aliases.

Record-company executives, according to the New York Times, were content “to sit back and try to outwait Mr. Petrillo,” allowing public outrage to work in their favor. Directors and officials of the National Association of Broadcasters met informally with record company executives to coordinate their strategies, but apparently neither group felt any compulsion to meet with Petrillo.

The record companies were allowed to continue manufacturing and selling their pre-ban recordings, and with Petrillo’s deadline looming, they scrambled to stockpile enough new recordings to sustain them through the work stoppage. “This they did on a 24-hour-per-day schedule,” Billboard reported. “When August 1 arrived, they emerged from their studios with enough masters to last well into 1943.” [16]  The same article predicted a return to normal recording operations around January 1943, “assuming that all goes as expected.” It did not.

Petrillo’s actions continued to draw fire from members of Congress. Iowa Senator D. W. Clark, still seething over the Interlochen incident, took the floor on August 29 to denounce Petrillo as a thug whose actions jeopardized national morale during a time of crisis. [17]  At Clark’s urging, a Senate resolution was drafted empowering the Interstate Commerce Commission to investigate whether the recording ban constituted restraint of trade under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. [18]

The Justice Department’s request for injunction was denied in October by a federal judge in Petrillo’s home district of Chicago. Refusing to hear the defense’s arguments, he dismissed the case on the grounds that anti-trust laws did not apply to labor unions. [19]   As the ban dragged on, the case was referred to the Supreme Court, which in February 1943 upheld the lower-court’s decision that the ban was merely a labor dispute, and thus not covered under the Sherman Act. [20]

Of the major publications, only Life magazine sided with Petrillo post-ban. A fawning, six-page feature article by Robert Coughlan, published two days after the recording ban took effect, depicted Petrillo as a gruff but good-hearted defender of the working class who was only looking out for his “boys.” [21]

Coughlan was largely alone in his assessment. Three weeks after his story appeared in Life, the American Institute of Public Opinion released the results of a George Gallup poll concerning Petrillo and the AFM strike. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they opposed the ban, and seventy-three percent favored intervention by the federal government. Dr. Gallup reported,

A majority of those who disapprove Petrillo’s actions feel strongly, even vehemently, about the subject. Typical of their views were such statements as, “he’s a petty dictator,” “he’s suffering from a bad case of overgrown ego,”  “it’s disgraceful,” and “he ought to go over and join Mussolini.” [22]

The producers of several small labels attempted to negotiate directly with Petrillo, to no avail. Hazzard E. Reeves of Reeves Sound Studios, and E. V. Brinckerhoff of Brinckerhoff Studios, formed a trade association comprising thirteen New York–area recording studios, which Reeves felt would give them an advantage in negotiating with the AFM. [23]  But so far as can ascertained, they received no acknowledgment  from Petrillo. Neither, initially, did Musicraft president Paul Puner.

In February 1943, Pruner attempted to contact Petrillo with a proposal that Musicraft, as a small company, be allowed to pay a lower royalty rate than what Petrillo was demanding. In return, Musicraft would publicly affirm its support of the AFM’s basic principles. [24]  After receiving no acknowledgment, Puner followed up on March 11 with a letter requesting a prompt reply.

Petrillo’s reply was a curt brush-off. [25]  Undeterred, Puner next sent what Billboard termed an “impassioned wire” to Petrillo, desperately offering to negotiate with him under any circumstances, at a date of Petrillo’s choosing. This time Puner received a note stating the matter would be referred to the AFM’s International Executive Board on April 15. [26]  Eventually Puner received a personal rejection letter from Petrillo, who dismissed Musicraft’s offer as “peanuts.” [27]   Clearly, Petrillo was not looking to accommodate small producers or negotiate settlements on a company-by-company basis. [28]

At the outset, the major labels seemed well-positioned to weather what was expected to be a short-lived strike. For a time they made do by drawing down their existing stockpile of masters, combing the vaults for unissued pre-ban recordings, and reissuing some previously deleted material. But they were soon forced to become more creative.

In mid-January 1943, Billboard reported that Decca was about to release the last of its pre-ban recordings, and speculated that Victor and Columbia might soon have to follow suit. [29]  With no more new material to offer, Decca’s solution was to substitute vocal ensembles (vocalists not being AFM members, and thus not bound to honor the ban) for instrumental backing. The idea was soon copied by Columbia, Victor, and a host of minor labels.

“The wholly vocal disks are not being taken seriously as a long-term substitute,” Billboard reported. [30]  But  they infuriated Petrillo, who resorted to personal intimidation in an attempt to stem the flow. “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, and other leading vocalists have been contacted,” he warned a reporter, “and have promised AFM they won’t make records.” [31]

Petrillo stepped up the pressure on recording-studio directors as well. In June 1943, he summoned former ally Ben Selvin, along with RCA’s Leonard Joy, before the board of Local 802 to demand they take no actions “against the best interests of the union.” A Billboard reporter observed,

Although AFM officials made no threats, their “requests” can be quickly enforced, as arrangers and copyists employed for vocal waxings are AFM members. The union has made it plain that it expects cooperation from all its members, and indicated that practically all the record and transcription firms have executives who hold union cards. [32]

One producer refused to be cowed. New instrumental recordings continued to appear on Eli Oberstein’s new Hit label, although they were not credited to any recognizable bands. One anonymous informant, identified in a 1976 interview only as “the music director of a major label,” remembered participating in a clandestine Oberstein session:

One day I found this ad for an arranger… I was told to report to a certain room at the Hotel Claridge at nine that night… and there was Eli Oberstein. In the room with him was a nine-piece orchestra and a disc cutter. Eli had hung blankets over the windows so that the noise from the street wouldn’t be too loud and had stuffed towels under the door so that we wouldn’t bother other guests. Between nine and six the following morning, that band must have cut a dozen hit tunes. I sat right there and did the arrangements, and they sight-read them. Eli paid us all in cash as we left. I don’t know who those guys were, but they were good. [33]

The band sides were attributed to such patently fictitious conductors as Johnny Jones, Peter Piper, and Willie Kelly, leading to a long-standing guessing game among modern discographers as to who was actually responsible. [34]  Pee Wee Irwin reportedly admitted in later years that, being short of cash at the time, he had taken the risk and directed the “Willie Kelly” sessions for Oberstein. [35]

The band recordings soon caught Petrillo’s attention, since there was no evidence that Oberstein had obtained recording licenses for the issued titles. But it was Arthur Fields’ vocal rendition of “Der Fuehrer’s Face” for Hit  that touched-off what would become an epic clash between Oberstein and Petrillo. [36]

Although Fields as a vocalist was not bound to honor the AFM ban, the record’s sparse instrumental backing placed it within the union’s jurisdiction. Oberstein initially claimed that the recording had been made with a “local pickup crew.” [37]  He later changed his story, claiming the masters had come from Mexico, leading some insiders to joke that he must mean Mexico, New Jersey. [38]  “Call it bootlegging,” Oberstein told a Down Beat reporter, “but it’s legal.” [39]

Oberstein’s tale failed to convince officials of AFM Local 802, who summoned him before the board to demand he reveal the names of the musicians involved. Oberstein ignored the summons and was given until October 22, 1942, to either testify or be judged “guilty without explanation.” [40]  The outcome was eagerly awaited by industry officials, some of whom expressed hope that Oberstein would successfully defy the union. [41]  They would be disappointed.

Examination of the union logs failed to reveal any evidence that “Der Fuehrer’s Face” was an AFM-licensed recording. Finally facing the AFM board on October 22, Oberstein elaborated on his latest tale, claiming the masters had been purchased by an unnamed “associate” from an unknown Mexican studio through one Manuel Valdez, who was not available to corroborate the story because he was “on his way back to Mexico.” [42]  Oberstein went on to claim that Victor and Decca were also obtaining many of their pop-tune recordings  from Mexican studios, which officials of both companies vehemently denied. [43]

On December 24, Oberstein submitted to another grilling by the AFM board, at which he agreed to turn over a list of all masters he supposedly had obtained from Mexican sources. In the meantime, union officials were investigating some suspicious artist credits on Oberstein’s labels that had them “scratching their heads,” according to a Billboard report. No one had heard of Oberstein’s mysterious new band leaders, none of whose names appeared on Local 802’s rolls. The break for Petrillo came after Oberstein’s “Peter Piper” was spotted in the union rolls as a pseudonym for Jack Small, who was immediately summoned to testify before the AFM’s trial board. [44]

Petrillo finally had his evidence that Eli Oberstein was recording with union musicians in defiance of the AFM ban. Oberstein was expelled from the union and had his recording license revoked in June 1943, on the grounds that his continued release of instrumental recordings was “damaging to the interests of the Federation.” [45]  Petrillo was not finished with Oberstein, however. Nineteen music publishers whose songs had been recorded by Hit during the ban were summoned to Petrillo’s office, where the trade press predicted they would be strong-armed into withholding recording rights from any company, such as Oberstein’s Classic Records (the makers of Hit), that was deemed “unfair” by the AFM. [46]

While Petrillo succeeded in largely crippling the consumer record industry, he was less successful in his attempts to intimidate the transcription companies. Many were involved in work for the war effort and could rely on support from Congress, which had already made clear its disdain for Petrillo. Having reneged on his early promise not to interfere with war-related transcription work, Petrillo found himself facing a group of influential executives who charged him with bypassing governmental agencies and undermining the war effort. They asked that the matter be referred to the War Labor Board.

Just hours after the executives released their statement on June 23, 1943, Petrillo agreed to accept mediation, narrowly avoiding intervention by the Labor Board for the time being. He attempted to minimize his defeat at a press conference, dismissing the burgeoning transcription industry as too small to be of any interest to the AFM. [47]  Several month later, V-Disc director Robert Vincent, with the backing of Pentagon officials, began applying pressure to Petrillo to exempt the V-Disc recording program from the AFM recording ban. Petrillo finally acquiesced on October 27, 1943, but only after insisting on a long list of conditions.

In the meantime, negotiations between AFM officials and a committee comprising representatives of CBS (Columia), Decca, and RCA had broken down. However, Decca attorney Milton Diamond had continued to meet privately with Petrillo. [48]  On September 18, 1943, Decca president Jack Kapp announced that his company and its World Broadcasting transcription subsidiary had signed four-year contracts with the AFM that would allow them to resume recording immediately. [49]  

The terms were not immediately disclosed, although within the month Petrillo let it be known that they included payment of a percentage of Decca’s gross revenue directly to the AFM. [50] The proceeds — later revealed to be a flat half-cent royalty per new recording sold — were to be held by AFM officials in an “employment fund” that reportedly would finance make-work projects for AFM members deprived of “normal employment opportunities” because of competition from recorded music. [51]

Capitol Records, which had barely launched before the ban was enacted, capitulated on October 9, agreeing to the same terms as Decca. [52]  Four independent transcription companies signed slightly modified agreements several weeks later, amidst accusations from the National Association of Broadcasters that the payment plans were “as economically and socially unsound as extortion is immoral and illegal.” [53]

Many industry observers predicted that other producers would rush to sign with the AFM in a bid to counter Capitol’s and Decca’s early advantage. Within a matter of months, virtually all of the record and transcription capitulated, leaving only RCA and Columbia as the last significant holdouts. “Privately,” Broadcasting magazine reported, “industry leaders made no bones about their feeling that had been ‘sold out’ and are now ‘over a barrel.’” [54]

In April 1944, attorneys for RCA and Columbia called for the War Labor Board to lift the AFM ban and allow their companies to resume recordings, pending a challenge to the AFM’s “employment fund” provision. When a meeting between record-company and AFM officials ended in a stalemate, more radical solutions (including a temporary government takeover of the Columbia and RCA facilities) were floated in some quarters. [55]

.

A hostile James Petrillo testifies before the National War Labor Board in 1943.

.

Facing rapidly escalating pressure from the recording and broadcast industries, the National War Labor Board ordered an end to the AFM ban on June 15, which went unheeded. After Petrillo refused to cooperate at a show-cause hearing on August 18, the case was referred to the Office of Economic Stabilization. President Roosevelt finally weighed in on October 4, 1944, declaring in a strongly worded telegram to Petrillo,

It is the opinion of the Director of Economic Stabilization that under all the present circumstances, the noncompliance by your union is not unduly impeding the war effort. But this noncompliance may encourage other instances of noncompliance which will impede the war effort… Therefore, in the interest of respecting the considered decision of the Board, I request your union to accept the directive orders of the National War Labor Board. What you regard as your loss will certainly be your country’s gain.” [56]

However, it would not be the AFM’s loss. After considering the matter for a week, Petrillo rebuffed the president in a rambling nine-page response. Since virtually every other record and transcription company had already settled with the AFM, Petrillo declared, he saw no reason to offer any concessions to the last two major holdouts. [57]

With no alternatives left, Columbia and RCA (including the latter’s NBC Thesaurus transcription division) finally capitulated to Petrillo’s demands on the evening of Saturday, November 11, 1944, with a formal signing set for the following Monday. After a twenty-eight–month hiatus, RCA resumed commercial recording activities on Sunday, November 12, at 1:43 pm. Columbia followed suit six hours later. [58]

RCA recording manager James W. Murray conceded, “We had no alternative but to meet the demands that we make direct payment to the union’s treasury or to abandon our record business.” Columbia’s Edward Wallerstein fixed the blame firmly on Washington lawmakers, declaring, “We are finally accepting because of the government’s unwillingness or incapacity to enforce its orders.” [59]  Although Petrillo denied that the contracts offered to CBS and RCA were punitive, they contained restrictive clauses not found in those the AFM had signed with other companies, including a provision that allowed artists to cancel their recording contracts in the event of an AFM strike.

In the end, industry experts estimated that the AFM ban had done little damage to most record companies, and might actually have benefited some. There had been no decline in record sales or profits during the ban. There had been a lack of significant growth within the industry, but that was attributed more to wartime shortages, and the fact that a vast number of record customers were out of the market until their enlistments were up, than to the ban. In addition, Capitol and other promising newcomers had gained a competitive edge by signing with the AFM and resuming production while the two industry behemoths remained locked in their losing battle with Petrillo. [60]

 

*         *         *

Recording companies — whether large, small, or still in the planning stages — would enjoy an unprecedented postwar boom. As early as October 1943, a Billboard columnist had observed,

Old-timers who remember how recording companies mushroomed in the days that followed the wind-up of World War I would blink in amazement if they could peak at the post-war blueprints now being drawn by dozens of minor diskers with major American ambitions. And there’ll be business enough for all of them, in the opinion of one of the most astute and important record men in the field today. No less than 300,000,000 annual record sale is the figure at which he pegs the post-war potential. [61]

Petrillo monitored that boom with a growing sense of indignation as record-company profits soared and broadcasters made even greater use of transcriptions. Current AFM contracts, signed at the end of the 1942–1943 recording ban and due to expire on December 31, 1947, were now deemed inadequate in light of the recording industry’s strong rebound and rapid growth.

At the AFM’s summer 1947 convention, Pertrillo once again threatened to shut down all commercial recording activity to force further concessions. Members of the House labor subcommittee immediately launched an investigation into the union, only to have it temporarily squelched by a young Richard Nixon, who favored giving Petrillo “a chance to be a good boy.” [62]

For public consumption, Petrillo made the same case as in 1942: Recorded music puts “live” musicians out of work, and musicians do not receive a fair proportion of the profits from record companies and jukebox operators. [63]  This time, however, there was speculation that Petrillo had a hidden agenda. Suspicions arose that he was using the recording companies as pawns in a scheme to pressure Congress to reject the Lea-Vanderberg and Taft-Hartley acts, which had the potential to undermine some union involvement in both the recording and broadcast fields. [64]

Petrillo was said to be especially concerned with preserving his union’s royalty-funded welfare plan, a concession he had wrung from the record companies at the end of the ban. Not subject to outside oversight or regulation, the fund was widely rumored to be enriching union officials at the expense of those it was intended to help. Under the proposed Taft-Hartley Act, it would have to be administered jointly by the AFM and the record companies, with benefits paid directly to the musicians rather than to the AFM — changes that Petrillo was determined to prevent. If record-industry officials were to join him in lobbying Congress to defeat those bills, Petrillo  hinted, then perhaps a new recording ban might be averted.

That alliance never materialized, and both bills were signed into law. Petrillo sprang into action with his usual barrage of threats hyperbole, and personal intimidation, declaring that “none of the union’s 220,000 members ever will record again.” [65]  But this time, the industry’s response was not what he had expected. The four major producers — Capitol, Columbia, Decca, and RCA — brushed off Petrillo’s threat, claiming to have already stockpiled enough new recordings to sustain them for at least a year (or two, in Capitol’s case). One unnamed record-company executive even welcomed the opportunity a ban would provide to weed out some competitors, telling Billboard,

We have the catalogs the smaller record companies don’t. Should a new record ban develop, Petrillo will be helping us to get rid of small-label competition. We’ll spread “revival” disks all over the market, and the minor companies could not follow suit… Year-long holiday is just what we need to clear up the backlog of orders for old discs. How many of the smaller companies can sweat out a year without new pop diskings? [66]

The same report noted that the record companies were paying $2 million in royalties into the AFM’s welfare fund annually, a large portion of which would dry up in the event of a ban. Petrillo’s threat to launch his own record company evaporated after Justice Department attorneys warned  that doing so could cause jeopardize the union’s protection as a labor organization under the Wagner Act.

After weighing Petrillo’s limited legal options, his increasingly close scrutiny by the federal officials, and the union’s potential financial losses should Petrillo impose a recording ban, many record-company executives decided to outwait him. Their confidence must have been bolstered considerably in October, after they received an invitation from the National Association of Broadcasters to join them in what was termed “an all-industry front against the AFM.” [67]

Petrillo also made the mistake of tipping his hand far too early. With a full five months remaining on their AFM contracts, the record companies began stockpiling masters at a feverish pace. There was even a song tribute to the effort, Jon and Sondra Steele’s “They All Recorded to Beat the Ban,” which became a surprise hit for the minuscule (and until then, utterly obscure) Damon Recording Studios of Kansas City. In an attempt to stem the stockpiling, the AFM refused to issue recording licenses to any new companies, to no avail.

Recording activities reached a new peak in October, when a rumor began circulating that Petrillo might move the ban forward by two months, to November 1. Billboard correctly predicted that “the next few weeks may see a good many label switches, in addition to the signing of still more talent.” [68]  Anxious producers went on signing sprees and attempted to lure competitors’ stars with better contracts. Universal, a small Chicago start-up, signed three new bands within a week. Aristocrat, a six-month-old race label, added more than a dozen new artists. Mercury talent scout Jimmy Hilliard, although reportedly “well-entrenched” with the label’s existing roster, signed nine new artists, in addition to purchasing masters from the defunct Vogue operation. Transcription producer Frederick W. Ziv, who had just signed a long-term contract with Guy Lombardo when the rumor surfaced, recalled,

We began a frantic race against time… Guy Lombardo and his crew sweated it out with us. We had them over at a New York recording studio virtually day and night. Occasionally we would take half an hour off to eat at a nearby restaurant, but mostly we had food brought in. Sofas and chairs served for cat-naps… We produced enough in the series to give us a respectable backlog and an assurance that our sales force could go out and sell Lombardo to the hilt, which they did. [69]

On the West Coast, some small independent producers threatened to withhold any further royalty payments to the AFM and openly announced plans to record with non-union talent, or to employ union musicians under aliases, as Eli Oberstein had done during the first AFM ban. Coast Records announced that it would step up its importation of Peerless discs from Mexico, and several other small labels hinted that they were already in contact with Mexican suppliers. [70]

Some enterprising individuals planned to cut masters on their own and offer them to the major labels, despite not holding active AFM recording licenses, only to discover that most companies would not accept them for fear of AFM reprisals. [71]  That did not deter one Dick Charles, an aspiring songwriter who recruited a group of high-school musicians to record his “Man on the Carousel” in his living room. The Dana label took a chance and issued the recording, with no repercussions reported. “Jocks already have been whirling ‘Carousel,’” Billboard reported, “and copies are due on retail shelves sometime this week.” [72]

November 1 came and went, and no ban was ordered. By then, however, it appeared certain that the AFM would refuse to renew its record-company contracts, and that a recording ban would be ordered on December 31. To skirt the new Taft-Hartley Act and avoid possible intervention by the Justice Department, Petrillo would not officially term the action a strike. Instead, union musicians would be instructed to “merely quit work” on that date. [73]

Richard Nixon, having belatedly realized that Petrillo would not be a “good boy” after all, now insisted that the Justice Department prosecute Petrillo and the AFM for conspiracy in restraint of trade if the recording ban was implemented. But he was thwarted by Justice Department attorneys, who after initially expressing puzzlement over Petrillo’s wording, concluded that “quitting work” was not synonymous with “striking,” and therefore was not an issue with which the department should become involved.

Once the ban was in effect, record producers began revisiting strategies that had been developed during the first AFM strike. Non-instrumental accompanists made a comeback, but on a grander scale than previously. For an April 1948 session by Jack Smith and the Clark Sisters, Capitol brought in a sixteen-voice chorus and a band consisting of kazoos and other toy instruments, presumably played by non-union talent. To lend a fuller sound to its vocal offerings by the Sportsmen Quartet, the company overdubbed accompanying tracks by the same group. Tower’s first post-ban session employed an eight-voice chorus, two harmonicas, and a ukulele to accompany singer Jack Owens. The King label recruited the non-union Harmi-Kings harmonica trio. [74]   Several small concerns skirted the ban by licensing European dance-band recordings, on which they overdubbed vocals by American artists.

Columbia was quick to point out that it had recently opened a new studio in Mexico City, far beyond the AFM’s reach. Bob Thiele, the president of Signature Records, also announced that he planned to move some recording operations to Mexico. [75]  But the largest Mexican recording operation was mounted by Standard Transcriptions, which had employed Mexican musicians during the first AFM ban. During the summer of 1948, Standard president Jerry King announced that his company was planning a Mexican trek that Billboard predicted would be “the largest single recording series yet attempted since the Petrillo ban.” Special arrangements were commissioned so that vocal choruses could be overdubbed by American singers once the masters arrived in the U.S.

King also offered to cut masters in Mexico for the other major transcription companies, the only restriction being that arrangements had to differ from those used his own recordings. [76]  There were no takers, but that apparently did not deter other producers from floating similar offers. For RCA and CBS, the Mexican option proved to be problematic. Union musicians were already on strike at Victor’s Mexico City operation, and a work stoppage reportedly was being planned for Columbia’s Mexican facilities.

There was a renewed interest in importing foreign-label pop recordings as well. Even before the ban, several companies had begun negotiating for the rights to foreign recordings, albeit primarily for the classical market. Keynote’s John Hammond had already secured U.S. pressing and distribution rights to what were claimed to be ten-thousand Czech recordings, and Capitol was in secret negotiations with Telefunken in Germany for its classical and foreign-language catalogs. Now it was reported that Capitol and Columbia were looking to license foreign pop material as well, from British sources. [77]  They idea was largely abandoned after encountering stiff resistance from Hardie Ratcliffe, assistant general secretary of the British Musicians’ Union, and a staunch Petrillo supporter.

Capitol Records, whose launch had been hampered by the earlier AFM action, was the first major label to openly defy the new ban. On February 21, 1948, it was reported that the company had ordered several of its most popular artists, including Benny Goodman, Stan Kenton, and Wesley Tuttle, to report for recording sessions in defiance of the ban. Tuttle immediately contacted AFM Local 47 for guidance and was told to ignore the order. The situation turned into a standoff as rumors swirled that Capitol was preparing to test the legality of the ban in court. [78]

On the same day the Capitol news broke, Jerry King ordered band-leader Ike Carpenter to report for a February 25 Standard Transcriptions session, openly admitting that he intended to use Carpenter as a “guinea pig” to test the validity of the ban. The matter was referred to Local 47, which made it clear that Carpenter would face expulsion if he reported for the date. [79]

On April 10, 1948, a group of record-company that included James Murray (Victor), Frank White (Columbia), Milton Rackmil (Decca), A. Halsey Cowan (Signature), and Jack Pearl (representing the Phonograph Record Manufacturers’ Association, a consortium of small independent labels) met to discuss the advisability of approaching Petrillo personally. This time, in marked contrast to the earlier AFM ban, the record-company executives did not appear particularly concerned about the situation, or about appeasing Petrillo. Billboard reported,

No conclusions were reached, but the reps decided to think the matter over and go into it further at another meeting late next week… One disc exec reported that he “don’t much give a damn” about bringing the ban to an early close, and intimated he felt that such was the prevalent attitude among fellow diskers. [80]

The ban dragged on through the summer months, with disbursement and use of royalties paid to the union by record companies the major sticking point. But with the work stoppage was now costing many union members jobs, and crimping the flow of royalties into AFM’s coffers, Petrillo faced mounting internal pressure to resolve the standoff. In September he presented a sketchy proposal under which the royalty payments would be used to fund work for unemployed musicians. Among the many missing details was any mention of the new royalty rates the AFM intended to demand. Several major-label executives reported that they were taking Petrillo’s proposal home for further study but remained noncommittal. [81]  By mid-October, both sides acknowledged that they were at a complete stalemate.

Two weeks later, Petrillo and recording-industry representatives unexpectedly announced that they had agreed to terms of a new contract involving concessions from both sides, but particularly from the beleaguered union boss. An earlier demand for payment of royalties on all discs sold during the ban was dropped, in exchange for which the record companies agreed to a slight increase in the royalty rate for records that retailed for more than a dollar (comprising a small portion of total sales, primarily involving higher-end classical records). The proposed solution, including revisions to the way the royalty fund was administered, was to be submitted to the Justice Department, which would rule on its legality under the Taft-Hartley Act.

By the first week of November, one trade publication was predicting that the first post-ban recordings would begin reaching the market within a matter of days. [82]  The prediction proved to be more than a month premature. Recording could not begin until the Justice Department (which had become bogged down in an internal debate over the need to channel the request through the Labor Department) issued its advisory opinion on the new contract. With approval finally imminent, Billboard reported on November 11 that the record companies were gearing up to resume recording. [83]

A new five-year pact was finalized on Monday, November 13, and it was generally expected that record companies would rush to sign with AFM and resume recording, as they had in 1943. However, reactions were mixed among industry officials. At RCA headquarters, the mood was described as “festive.” But when a Billboard reporter encountered Decca’s Jack Kapp enjoying a leisurely lunch and asked why he wasn’t in the recording studio, Kapp replied, “What for? There’s nothing we particularly want to record.” [84]

The small independent labels, many of which were getting by reasonably well with non-union talent, were especially slow to sign. On December 25, Billboard reported, “In New York, indie diskeries have as yet shown no mad rush to take out AFM recording licenses.” On the West Coast, only three independent labels had signed with the AFM by that date. [85]

For union recording artists, the settlement proved to be a mixed blessing. Record-company executives had spent the year evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of their artists. Not all were welcomed back to the studios when recording resumed, as Billboard reported on Christmas day 1948:

Brandishing fountain pens in one hand and axes in the other, diskery artists-and-repertoire staffs geared for action on the talent front following the inking of the new recording contract. To date, the pens have been mightier than the axes, but it was plainly indicated that the axes should claim a considerable number of victims before the end of the week. Meanwhile, most of the a. and r. [artists and repertoire] men are propounding a “fewer but better” policy. [86]

The settlement effectively marked the end of James Caesar Petrillo’s decade-long rampage against the recording industry. He would go on to mount further skirmishes, particularly against radio and television producers, but would score no significant victories. In 1958, facing a potential revolt among Los Angeles musicians who believed his policies discouraged the hiring of union members by television studios, he resigned as president of the AFM. [87]

 

Notes

[1] O’Connell, Charles. The Other Side of the Record, pp. 260–261. New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1947).

[2] Selvin, who had begun his recording career in the late ’teens as the director of a popular dance orchestra, was by this time the vice-president of Associated Music Publishers, and a long-time member of the American Federation of Musicians.

[3] “Cost of Record Music Talent Is Found Above Expectations.” Broadcasting (April 14, 1941), p. 54.

[4] “Settlement Talk Rumored After RB Drops Band in Pay Dispute.” Billboard (June 13, 1942), p. 38. The strike involved the main circus band, under Merle Evans’ direction, as well as the smaller sideshow band directed by Arthur Wright.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “Union Head Protests.” Phoenix Arizona Republic (July 14, 1942), p. 2.

[7] “Action Against ‘Canned Music’ Scored by J. L. Fly.” Wilkes-Barre [PA] Times Leader (Jul 21, 1942), p. 2.

[8] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo; Clark and Vandenberg Hits Music ‘Tyranny’ by AFM.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[9] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians, Seeking to Wreck Radio.” Broadcasting (July 27, 1942), p. 8.

[10] “Industry Remains Calm on Petrillo Ban.” Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[11] “Petrillo to Put Curb on Making of Records.” Chicago Tribune (June 9, 1942), p. 17.

[12] “Highlights of the Petrillo Recording Ban that Went Before; From 1942 to 1944.” Billboard (November 1, 1947), p. 20.

[13] “Mr. Petrillo Gives the Word.” New York Times (July 10, 1942), reprinted in Broadcasting (July 13, 1942), p. 12.

[14] U. S. Trust Suit Against Petrillo on Recording Bar.” St. Louis Dispatch (Jul 23, 1942), p. 1.

[15] “Hubbard Labels Petrillo as ‘Fuehrer’ of Musicians,” op. cit.

[16] “Shellac Shortage, Petrillo and War Have Little Fellows Groggy.” Billboard (August 29, 1942), p. 19.

[17] “Senate Quiz on Petrillo,” op. cit.

[18] “D of J Must Prove That AFM Conspires; ‘Labor Disputes’ Can’t Be Hit By Trust Laws.” Billboard (August 1, 1942), p. 19.

[19] “The Petrillo Decision.” Reno [NV] Gazette-Journal (Oct 16, 1942), p. 4.

[20] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Record Ban.” The Billboard 1944 Music Yearbook, p. 147.

[21] Coughlan, Robert. “Petrillo.” Life (August 3, 1942), pp. 68–70, 72, 74, 76.

[22] “75% of People Against Petrillo.” Billboard (September 5, 1942), p. 62.

[23] “Independents Form Record Association.” Broadcasting (August 10, 1942), p. 58.

[24] “Tiny Disker Tries to Steal Play from Big Firms with Petrillo Personally, But No Dice.” Billboard (April 3, 1943).

[25] “AFM Rejects Plan.” Broadcasting (March 29, 1943). P. 52.

[26] “Musicraft Asks Petrillo Again, Get Second ‘No.’” Billboard (April 10, 1943), p. 22

[27] Chasins, Gladys. “Recording Ban Grows Tighter; Vocalists Agree to Stop Recording Until AFM Lifts Ban.” Billboard (July 3, 1943).

[28] “Petrillo Won’t Settle Individually with Diskers; April 15 Meeting Set.” Variety (March 31, 1943), p. 35.

[29] “Petrillo Stands Pat.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[30] “Tune Pile Getting Low.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[31] Chasins, Gladys. “Recording Ban Grows Tighter; Vocalists Agree to Stop Recording Until AFM Lifts Ban.” Billboard (July 3, 1943).

[32] Chasins, op. cit.

[33] Quoted in Angus, Robert: “Pirates, Prima Donas, and Plain White Wrappers.” High Fidelity (December 1976). An attempt by researcher George Blacker in the 1980s to discover the anonymous music directors’ identity was unsuccessful.

[34] Pee Wee Irwin reportedly told writer Roy Evans that he was responsible for the Willie Kelly side.

[35] Evans, Roy. Undated letter to George Blacker (William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press collection).

[36] Hit 7023, released on October 14, 1942.

[37] “Big Recording Whodunit; 802 to Investigate Oberstein’s Recording of Mysterious Bands.” Billboard (October 17, 1942), p. 20.

[38] “Whither Disk Biz, Petrillo?” Billboard (July 26, 1947), p. 23.

[39] “Discs Cut in Mexico, Says EO.” Down Beat (November 1, 1942). Oberstein apparently did have connections with one or more Mexican studios, as evidenced by the earlier release of some Mexico City recordings on his Varsity label; but “Der Fuehrer’s Face” appears to have been recorded in the same American studio as Hit’s pre-ban recordings, and the voice was unmistakably that of Arthur Fields, who is highly unlikely to have journeyed from New York to Mexico City just to fill a recording date for a cut-rate label. In a bizarre twist, Fields himself reportedly filed for an injunction to  halt sales and distribution of the record (“Now Oberstein Says Discs Are Mexican.” Billboard, October 31, 1942, p. 21). Little more was reported on the case, but based on the large number of surviving copies of Hit 7023, it seems unlikely the injunction was granted.

[40] “Discs Cut…,” op. cit.

[41] “Big Recording Whodunit,” op cit.

[42] “Oberstein Defends Records.” Billboard (October 31, 1942), p. 62.

[43] Ibid.

[44] “Oberstein’s ‘Peter Piper’ May Be 802’s Jack Small; Union Wants Some Answers.” Billboard (January 16, 1943), p. 20.

[45] Oberstein was later re-admitted to the union, but only after threatening to file a half-million dollar defamation suit against Petrillo, the AFM, and its officers, raising fears that “a lot of dirty linen will be washed in public” (“Obie Planning 500G Suit”; Billboard, July 10, 1943). Obertein’s Classic Records recording license was restored in early November 1943 (“AFM Okays Classic Recording License;” Billboard, November 13, 1943, p. 16).

[46] “Calls on Pubs to Put Screws on Black Market Recorders.” Billboard (June 5, 1943), p. 21.

[48] Robertson, Bruce.“Disc Meeting Discusses Performance Fee.” Broadcasting (August 9, 1943), p. 12.

[49] “Petrillo’s Permission.” Motion Picture Herald (September 25, 1943), p. 8. The AFM contracts signed by Decca, World Broadcasting, and the many companies that followed were effective as of January 1, 1944, but Petrillo allowed those companies to resume recording immediately upon signing.

[50] Robertson, Bruce. “Other Disc Firms May Yield to AFM Pact.” Broadcasting (October 4, 1943), p. 9.

[51] Ibid.

[52] “Capitol Records Signs with AFM.” Broadcasting (October 18, 1943), p. 60.

[53] “NAB Hits AFM Fees; Four Disc Firms Sign.” Broadcasting (October 25, 1943), p. 9.

[54] Robertson, “Other Disc Firms,” op. cit.

55] “Editorial: Jimmy’s Opportunities.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944), p. 44.

[56] “FDR Telegram to Petrillo.” Broadcasting (October 9, 1944).

[57] “Chronological Chart of Events in the A.F.M. Record Ban,” op cit.

[58] Ibid.

[59] Stone, Floyd E. “Victorious Caesar Petrillo Talks; Hollywood Waits.” Motion Picture Herald (November 18, 1944), p. 13.

[60] “Ban Background and Effects.” The Billboard 1944 Music Year Book, p. 146.

[61] “Post-War Deluge of Diskers.” Billboard (October 2, 1943), p. 1

[62] “AFM ‘Stop Work’ Disk Move Irks Congressmen But It Puzzles Justice Department.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[63] “For the Record — Mr. Petrillo.” Billboard (January 17, 1948), p. 25.

[64] “Whither Disk Biz, Petrillo? Waxers Seen as Pawns in Larger Strategy by AFM, But Big Firms Hold Aces.” Billboard (July 26, 1947), pp. 3, 23.

[65] “Petrillo Says He’s Obeying Taft-Hartley.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[66] Ibid.,  p 23

[67] “NAB Bids for Disker Reps.” Billboard (October 25, 1947), p. 17.

[68] “Ban Starts Wax Talent Flurry; Rush Is On to Beat Deadline.” Billboard (Ocotber 25, 1947), p. 34.

[69] Ziv, Frederick W. “It Could Only Be Done with Discs.” Audio Record (June–July 1948), pp. 1, 3.

[70] “Small Coast Labels Talk ‘Bootleg’ Wax as Big Countermove to Petrillo.” Billboard (November 1, 1947), p. 22.

[71] “Check the Angles!” Billboard (December 20, 1947), p. 20.

[72] “High School Tootlers Heard on Dana Disk.” Billboard (May 8, 1948), p. 21.

[73] “Dec. 31 Disk Ban Due Hourly; Petrillo Nix on Recordings Held Certain.” Billboard (October 18, 1947), p. 17.

[74] “Ban Side-Stepping Quickens.” Billboard (April 10, 1948), p. 17.

[75] “Dec. 31 Disk Ban Due Hourly,”op. cit.

[76] “Standard Treks to Mexico for Wax-Cutting Session.” Billboard (July 3, 1948), p. 37.

[77] “Ban Side-Stepping Quickens,” op. cit.

[78] “Cap Orders Talent to Wax Despite Ban.” Billboard (February 28, 1948), pp. 3, 17.

[79] “Ike Carpenter Guinea Pig in Petrillo Case.” Billboard (February 28, 1948), pp. 3, 17.

[80] “Diskers Weight Bid to Petrillo to Raise Ban.” Billboard (April 17, 1948), p. 32.

[81] “Petrillo’s Latest Proposal Gives Lawyers a Workout.” Billboard (September 25, 1948),p. 36.

[82] “Petrillo, Record Firms Agree; To End Union Ban.” Motion Picture Herald (November 6, 1948), p. 34.

[83] “Diskeries Set to Cut; A&R Men Polish Ax.” Billboard (December 18, 1948), p. 3.

[84] “A PS (Petrillo and Sarnoff) to Ban’s End; Other Assorted Items.” Billboard (December 25, 1948), p. 3.

[85] Coast Diskers Cold-Shoulder New Recording.” Billboard (January 1, 1949), p. 40.

[86] “Talent Roster Revamping Started by A. & R. Staffers.” Billboard (December 25, 1948), p. 21.

[87] Serrin, William. “James Petrillo Dead; Led Musicians.” New York Times (October 25, 1984), p. 15.

 

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Article © 2021 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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* Recording the ’Forties is currently in development for publication in 2022, along with expanded editions of the three previous volumes in the Evolution of American Recording series.

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