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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Davenport, Iowa (December 1913)

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

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

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

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

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

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Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)

Murray K. Hill: Newspaper Highlights (1901 – 1942)

 

Joseph T. Pope got his start in show business performing “blackface” routines in small-time minstrel shows. By the early 1900s, he had set out on his own, under the name of Murray K. Hill. (The spelling varied between “Murry” and “Murray” on record labels and in ads and newspaper stories; “Murray” appears to have been the more common spelling, and it was used in his obituaries.)

Although Hill continued to occasionally appear in blackface into the early 1900s, he was much better-known for his topical songs and rapid-fire comic monologues. Attired in tails and an old-fashioned top hat, he specialized in satirizing current events and mangling American history. He wrote his own material, boasting that he operated a “song and story factory.” “The Last Survivor,” a popular vaudeville act introduced in 1908, was based on his early minstrel-show experiences.

Hill traveled widely on the Sullivan & Considine vaudeville circuit in the U.S. and Canada, but his style became increasingly outdated in the ‘teens and early ‘twenties. After making his last nationally advertised tour in 1922, he settled down with his family in Chicago, but still occasionally performed in the Midwest into the 1930s.

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Dayton, Ohio (August 1901)

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Hill recalls his experiences during the Evansville race riots
(October 1906).

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“The Last Survivor,” August 1908: Los Angeles (top), and Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada (bottom)


Butte, Montana (July 1908)

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Los Angeles (August 1910)

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Victoria, British Columbia, Canada (June 1910)

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Wichita, Kansas (October 1911)

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The San Francisco Call (January 27, 1913)

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Fort Wayne, Indiana (January 1915)

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Wichita, Kansas (January 1915)

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Chicago (October 23, 1942)

 

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Hill recorded prolifically from the spring of 1907 through the spring of 1911, for Columbia, Edison, Indestructible, U-S Everlasting, Victor, and Zonophone (a final Edison cylinder release, in 1914, probably was from an earlier, previously withheld master).  Here’s a small sampling:

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MURRAY K. HILL: A Bunch of Nonsense

Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 16446 (mx. B 8320 – )
Introducing “The Last Survivor” and “In the Good Old Steamboat Days”

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MURRAY K. HILL: The Tale of the Cheese

Camden, NJ: November 10, 1909
Victor 35093 (mx. C8356 – 3)

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MURRAY K. HILL: A String of Laughs

New York: Listed April 1909
Edison Amberol 101 (cylinder)
Introducing “Don’t” and “Four-Hundred Nursery Rhymes Brought Up to Date”

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MURRAY K. HILL: Don’t Go Up in That Big Balloon, Dad

New York: Listed April 1910
Edison Gold Moulded 10375 (cylinder)

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

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

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

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

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

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New York (December 1901)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dayton, Ohio (December 7, 1923)

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

 

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

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome Intermezzo

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

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Maple Leaf Rag

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

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VESS L. OSSMAN: The Buffalo Rag

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

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VESS L. OSSMAN: St. Louis Tickle

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

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VESS L. OSSMAN: Hoop-E-Kack

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

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“Blackface” Eddie Ross: A Clipping Archive (1911 – 1931)

“Blackface” Eddie Ross: A Clipping Archive
(1911 – 1931)

 

Giraud Ross Eddinger (a.k.a. Eddie G. Ross and “Blackface” Eddie Ross) was among the last of his kind, an old-fashioned burnt-cork minstrel man in an age that was rapidly moving away from such fare. Ross apparently was not Canadian, as some writers have claimed, although he performed there often. He was born in Hillsdale, Michigan, married in nearby Jackson, and lived in Orlando, Florida, for much of his adult life.

A capable ragtime banjo soloist and composer, Ross tested for Edison in 1917 but was rejected. He made four tests for Victor. The first, “Ross’ Dog Trot” (recorded July 18, 1921, with piano accompaniment), was apparently enough to convince Victor, which on August 30 had him remake the title with studio orchestra for commercial release. The recording was made on a “special narrow-groove matrix,” no doubt accounting for its tendency to turn up in stripped-out condition. Ross later made three more Victor tests, in June and August 1922, including a “Whistling Medley” with monologue, the only confirmed instance of anyone having recorded his voice.

Ross made only six issued recordings, all of his own cakewalk-style titles that were already dated but still popular, as apparent sales of his first release (“Ross’ Dog Trot” / “Ross’ Reel”) proved. It’s still one of the most commonly encountered Victors of the period, and in 1927 it was transferred to Victor’s “Historical Catalog,” rather than being deleted entirely in the purge of acoustic material following Victor’s conversion to electrical recording.

Ross’ second release, in 1922 (for which an extra tuba was added to the studio orchestra), is not as frequently encountered. His final Victor, recorded in November 1923 with a more-modern accompaniment by Ross Gorman (saxophone) and Leroy Shield (piano), does not appear to have been a strong seller.

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Eddie Ross in Canada (Ottawa, October 1914)

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Ross reportedly was touring in vaudeville by 1909. One of his  earliest known billings (October 1911) appears above, along with Ross’ wedding announcement, in Jackson, Michigan (June 1911).

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With Neil O’Brien’s Minstrels in Corsicana, Texas (February 1918)

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Back in Canada, this time on the Pantages vaudeville circuit
(Edmonton, June 1918)

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Dealer ad for Ross’ first release (December 1921)

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“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Reel

New York: August 31, 1921 (released December 1921)
Victor 18815 (mx. B 25542 – 2)
Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Special narrow-groove matrix,” per Victor files.

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“BLACKFACE” EDDIE ROSS: Ross’ Juba

Camden, NJ: July 5, 1922 (released November 1922)
Victor 18926 (mx. B 26585 – 1)
Studio orchestra directed by Rosario Bourdon. “Extra tuba [Adolph] Hirschberg,” per Victor files.

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Review of Ross’ first release (Leavenworth, Kansas, December 1921)

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Ross with the Al. G. Field Minstrels: Jackson, Mississippi (top, December 1926), and in his hometown of Orlando, Florida (bottom, January 1927)

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In Orlando (February 1928)

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One of Ross’ last documented appearances, with the Al. G. Field Minstrels (Dayton, Ohio, July 1931). He died on November 22, 1931.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.

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Collector’s Corner (Free MP3 Downloads) • Some Spring 2019 “Pioneer” Finds

We’ve been promising some “pioneer” titles for a while, so here finally is a nice little group of Victor single-siders from our Spring 2019 pickings:

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ARTHUR PRYOR’S BAND: Mr. Rooster  (E)

Unlisted location: September 23, 1910
Victor 5791 (mx. B 9072 – 3)

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BLANCHE RING: Yip! I Adee! I Aye  (EE-)

Camden, NJ: March 20, 1909
Victor 5692 (mx. B 6914 – 3)

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EDDIE MORTON: Just a Friend of the Family  (EE-)

Philadelphia: July 25, 1907
Victor 5281 (mx. B 4710 – 2)

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EDDIE MORTON: The Right Church, But the Wrong Pew  (E-)

Camden, NJ: June 11, 1908
Victor 5501 (mx. B 6263 – 3)

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BILLY MURRAY & AMERICAN QUARTET: That Fellow with the Cello Rag  (E-)

Camden, NJ: April 4, 1911
Victor 5844 (mx. B 9946 – 5)
Take 3 (February 10, 1911) was mastered but then marked Destroy.

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GENE GREENE: King of the Bungaloos [original version]  (E- to V++)

Camden, NJ: April 19, 1911
Victor 5854 (mx. B 10211 – 3)

 

Data from the original Victor files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings website. Thanks to John Bolig for the Victor catalog materials.

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Three Victor Records That Will Teach You To Speak French Correctly in Cases of Emergency (1917)

Three Victor Records That Will Teach You To Speak French Correctly in Cases of Emergency (1917)

 

Just turned up this rare flyer for Victor 18419 – 18421 (French Lessons Nos. 1 – 6), a set made to assist U.S. troops in France during World War I. The French portions were spoken by one Alexander Guy Holborn Spiers, who had previously recorded some French lessons for Victor with Harry Humphrey. The English portions were by none other than concert baritone Reinald Werrenrath.

The three-record set originally was packed in a special “waterproof container” with accompanying booklets, which are usually missing when these records are found today. They remained in the catalog long after the war ended, finally being deleted in 1926.

Apparently some careful advance planning was involved in producing this piece. It shows a publication date of October 22, 1917 — four days before the recordings were made! (As always, thanks to John Bolig for the discographical details from the original Victor files.)

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Collectors’ Corner (Free MP3’s): Some March 2019 Finds • Fats Waller with Tom Morris, Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, East Texas Serenaders, Uncle Dave Macon

Collectors’ Corner: Some March 2019 Finds
Fats Waller with Tom Morris, Fletcher Henderson,
Duke Ellington, Red Nichols, East Texas Serenaders,
Uncle Dave Macon
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THOMAS MORRIS & HIS HOT BABIES with THOMAS [FATS] WALLER  (E)

Camden, NJ (Church studio): December 1, 1927
Victor 21358 (mx. BVE 40097 – 2)
“Race release,” per Victor files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Waller and Morris, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Victor file data).

 


RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Ida, Sweet as Apple Cider  (E+)

New York: August 15, 1927
Brunswick (British) 01536 (mx. E 24232)
Stock arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works, other than Nichols, should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).

 


DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as The Jungle Band): Tiger Rag,
Part 2
 (EE+)

New York: January 8, 1929
Brunswick (French) A 9279 (mx. E 28941 – A)
Irving Mills arrangement, per the Brunswick files. The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Brunswick file data).

 


FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Tidal Wave  (E)

New York: September 12, 1934
Decca 213 (mx. 32602 – A)
The personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and derivative works should be considered speculative (no source cited, not from Decca file data).

 


EAST TEXAS SERENADERS: Acorn Stomp  (E)

Dallas: December 2, 1927
Brunswick 282 (mx. DAL-720- )

 


UNCLE DAVE MACON & HIS FRUIT-JAR DRINKERS: Tom and Jerry (E- to V+)

New York: May 9, 1927
Vocalion 5165 (mx. E 2759)

Bix’s End: Clippings from Bix Beiderbecke’s Final Years (December 1929 – August 1931)

Bix’s End: Clippings from Bix Beiderbecke’s Final Years (December 1929 – August 1931)

 

A sobering look at Bix Beiderbecke’s final years, after his drinking became unmanageable and he was put on what would turn out to be permanent leave by Paul Whiteman. Back in Davenport, Beiderbecke was reduced to living with his parents and playing college and social-club dances with obscure local bands. There were sporadic, unsuccessful attempts at a comeback — in September 1930 he cut three sides in New York credited to Bix Beiderbecke & his Orchestra (actually a Victor studio creation under the direction of others) that received polite reviews but failed to sell, and in the spring of 1931 he returned briefly to Jean Goldkette’s orchestra in Detroit. But ultimately, he was unable to overcome his addiction, and he died in New York in August 1931.

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Davenport, December 1929

 

Davenport, January 1930

 

Davenport, April 1930

 

Davenport, December 1930

 

New York, October 1930

 

Detroit, April 1931

 

Davenport, August 7, 1931. The portraits were taken approximately five or six years apart, the lower one being from his early Wolverines period.

Collectors’ Corner (Free MP3 Downloads) • Some February Finds: 1920s Pop (Annette Hanshaw, Banjo Buddy, Al Jolson, Bernie Cummins, Cass Hagan, Baker & Silvers)

Collectors’ Corner • Some February Finds: 1920s Pop (Annette Hanshaw, Banjo Buddy, Al Jolson, Bernie Cummins, Cass Hagan, Baker & Silvers)

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Some favorites from a recent estate-sale cache of late 1920s pop singers and hot dance bands:

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PHIL BAKER, assisted by SID SILVERS: At the Theater  (E)

New York: September 21, 1927
Victor 20970 (mxs. BVE 39117 – 1 / 39118 – 2)
Victor files show only BVE 39117 – 3 as having been mastered.

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HAROLD SANDELMAN (as BANJO BUDDY): Let’s Misbehave  (E)

New York: March 7, 1928
Brunswick 3865 (mx. E 26855 or E 26856)
William F. Wirges (conductor), “Mr. Daulton – monitoring,” per the Brunswick files; accompanying personnel are unlisted. The take used is not indicated in the files or visible in the pressing.

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ANNETTE HANSHAW (as PATSY YOUNG) with THE NEW ENGLANDERS: I Want to Be Bad  (EE+)

New York: March 14, 1929
Velvet Tone 1878-V (Columbia mx. [W] 148077 – 2)
Accompanying personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).

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CASS HAGAN & HIS PARK CENTRAL HOTEL ORCHESTRA (Franklyn Baur, Lewis James, Elliott Shaw, vocal): The Varsity Drag  (E–)

New York (Okeh studio): September 2, 1927
Columbia 1114-D (mx. W 144617 – 2)
Personnel listed in Rust’s Jazz Records and similar works are speculative (not Columbia file data).

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BERNIE CUMMINS’ ORCHESTRA (Bernie Cummins, vocal): When You’re with Somebody Else  (E)

New York (Brunswick Room #2): January 7, 1928
Brunswick 3772 (mx. E 25875)
Karl Radlach, arranger, per Brunswick files. Personnel listed in Rust’s American Dance Band Discography and derivative works are speculative (not Brunswick file data).

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AL JOLSON with WILLIAM F. WIRGES’ ORCHESTRA: Blue River  (E–)

New York: November 11, 1927
Brunswick 3719 (mx. E 25189)
William F. Wirges (conductor / arranger); Harry Reser (banjo) present as an “extra,” per the Brunswick files; other personnel unlisted.

 

Collectors’ Corner (MP3 Downloads) • Some February Finds – Victor Jazz and Blues Classics on Vinyl

Collectors’ Corner (MP3 Downloads) • Some February Finds – Victor Jazz and Blues Classics on Vinyl

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Several favorites from a nice batch of c. 1960-1970s RCA blank-labeled vinyl pressings from the original Victor stampers. These were made in very small quantities, often in conjunction with reissue programs or for other special purposes, and were not intended for sale. As a result, they rarely turn up in general circulation (as these did, much to our surprise, at a recent estate sale). They are not true “test pressings — although many dealers represent them as such — but are still highly desirable because of their limited availability and superior surfaces. Enjoy!

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MEMPHIS JUG BAND: He’s in the Jail House Now

Memphis Auditorium: November 21, 1930
BVE 62990 – 2  (original issue Victor 23256)

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MEMPHIS JUG BAND (Memphis Minnie [McCoy], vocal): Bumble Bee Blues

Memphis Auditorium: May 26, 1930
BVE 59993 – 2  (original issue Victor V-38599)

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LOUIS DUMAINE’S JAZZOLA EIGHT (Leonard Mitchell, vocal): Franklin Street Blues

New Orleans: March 7, 1927
BVE 37979 – 1  (original issue Victor 20580)

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THE MISSOURIANS: Ozark Mountain Blues

New York: June 3, 1929
BVE 53803 -2  (original issue Victor V-38071)

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THOMAS [FATS] WALLER: Messin’ Around with the Blues

Camden, NJ (Church studio): January 14, 1927
BVE 37361 – 3  (original issue Victor 20655)

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CHARLIE JOHNSON & HIS PARADISE BAND: The Rock [issued as “The Boy in the Boat”]

New York: September 19, 1928
BVE 47531 – 1  (alternate take; original issue in 1939 on Bluebird B-10248)

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Discographical data are from the original Victor files, courtesy of John Bolig.

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RCA Enters the Cheap-Record Market (1931 -1934)

RCA Enters the Cheap-Record Market (1931 – 1934)
By Allan Sutton

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In early 1931, RCA Victor executives took what was, for them, an unprecedented plunge into the budget-label market. It was a move that would have been unimaginable to Victor founder Eldridge Johnson, who had adamantly opposed cheap records from the start. By 1931, however, Johnson had been retired for five years, and the former Victor Talking Machine Company — now just a division within the sprawling Radio Corporation of America — was in the hands of executives who were more interested in radio, and the commercial development of television, than in a struggling record business.

The minutes of RCA’s management committee tell the tale. At meeting after meeting, it was reported that record sales were continuing to plunge. At the same time, the company was accumulating a mountain of scrap records that needed recycling. The solution, first proposed on February 11, 1931, was to put some of that scrap to use in a cheap disc that had been developed by RCA’s Engineering Department, to be sold in “chain store outlets such as Kresge, Grant, etc.”

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The initial “cheap record” proposal: Minutes of the RCA Victor Management Committee, February 11, 1931.
(Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE)

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The result was RCA Victor’s first attempt to produce a cheap label — the 35¢ Timely Tunes, for sale by Montgomery Ward. Some recordings were made exclusively for the new label, using special ABRC- and BRC- master-number prefixes that usually aren’t shown in modern discographies. Most of the artists on the newly made recordings were masked by pseudonyms, with Gene Autry masquerading as “Gene Johnson” and “Jimmy Smith,” Frank Luther as “Eddie Bell,” Johnny Hamp as “Carl Graub,” and Nathaniel Shilkret as “Ronald Sachs,” to name but a few.

The remainder comprised reissues of deleted Victor recordings, usually with the artists correctly credited. The entire Timely Tunes catalog, consisting of forty records, was released in a single batch on July 1, 1931, after which the label was quietly retired. Timely Tunes made virtually no impact, and little more was heard of the “cheap record” idea at RCA until early 1932.

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Pseudonym use was rampant on Timely Tunes. “Jim New” was country singer Newton Gaines.

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In February 1932, RCA took over pressing for the Crown Record Company in an attempt to put some of its idled factory capacity to use. A struggling start-up cobbled together by former Plaza Music Company executives, Crown marketed a mediocre 25¢ record that at the time was bring pressed in a former Edison facility. RCA’s involvement was limited to pressing the discs, under the supervision of Eli Oberstein, with Crown supplying its own masters. However marginal the venture, it at least signaled RCA’s continued willingness to be involved with budget-label production.

In June 1932, RCA Victor started making recordings expressly for sale at cut-rate prices in the Woolworth Company’s department stores. The timing could not have been better for RCA. In the same month, Columbia suspended production of its budget-priced line, which included the once-popular Clarion, Harmony, and Velvet Tone labels. Crown was already flirting with bankruptcy, and the few other budget labels that had survived the early Depression years, including Cameo and Perfect, had been absorbed by the American Record Corporation, a division of Herbert Yates’ Consolidated Film Industries.

A July 15 report to RCA’s board of directors noted, “We are making a definite drive to obtain as much of the cheap record business as is possible. Durium [Hit of the Week] have closed their American business, and the American Record Company [sic] is constantly becoming weaker.* We have hopes of obtaining a very big part of what may be left of the cheap record business.”

RCA maintained a separate ledger for the Woolworth recordings, which, like the earlier Timely Tunes recordings, were not intended for release on the full-priced Victor label. The master numbers were given special prefixes (ESHQ- for 8”, BSHQ- for 10”). To keep costs low, pressings consisted of 50% recycled scrap, and RCA employed its in-house recording equipment rather than the superior Western Electric system, which would have required royalty payments to WE.

A June 15 report to RCA’s board directors contains the curious claim that the company had already placed “experimental” 10¢ and 20¢ records in selected Woolworth stores. What these records might have been remains unclear. Documented recording sessions for Woolworth’s had begun just two days earlier, on the morning of June 13, in Victor’s New York Studio 1. The day began with four titles by Graham Prince and his Palais d’ Or Orchestra and ended with a three-hour marathon by Gene Kardos and his Orchestra, the latter yielding a dozen titles in mixed 8” and 10” formats. Another full day of recording followed on June 14. Clearly, these records could not have arrived at Woolworth’s in time to have been mentioned in the June 15 report, leaving us to wonder what that “experimental” batch might have comprised.

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RCA’s Electradisk label, produced for Woolworth’s. Sunrise, RCA’s fourth budget label, was largely redundant, using the same material as Bluebird (note the Bluebird catalog number under the Sunrise number).

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The June 13–14 recordings were in fact released in July, according to the Victor files, and bore Electradisk labels. Woolworth’s sold out initial run by the end of August, at which time the 8” series was dropped. The experiment was pronounced a success, and in September, Woolworth’s executives decided to place the 10” Electradiscs in a minimum of fifty stores. With that go-ahead from the chain store, recording activity (which had stalled after June 14) resumed on September 28, now under the direction of Eli Oberstein. The disappearance of Woolworth’s special BSHQ- master prefix at that time suggests that RCA might have already been looking ahead to “repurposing” some of these recordings on other labels — which is exactly what happened.

Electradisk proved to be a hit for Woolworth’s, mixing newly made recordings with reissues of deleted Victor and Timely Tunes material. Use of artist pseudonyms was rampant on the new recordings. Tom Berwick’s Orchestra (with Oberstein conducting per the RCA files, and not Sid Peltyn, as some discographies claim) appeared as “Rex Blaine and his Orchestra,” “The New Yorkers, “The Pennsylvania Collegians,” “Sid Peltyn and his Orchestra,” “Harold Mooney and his Orchestra,” and “Bob Miller’s Memphis Orchestra,” among others. The real Bob Miller (a country-style singer) appeared as “Bill Palmer.” However, much of the reissued Victor material appeared with correct artist credits.

Electradisc was quickly joined by another new budget label that would do much to halt and then reverse RCA Victor’s downward slide. Bluebird — RCA’s third attempt to crack the budget-label market — proved to be the charm. Launched without fanfare in the summer of 1932, it was destined to become one of RCA Victor’s most popular brands. Initially, however, Bluebird was just a companion label to Electradisk, and was also made exclusively for Woolworth’s.

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(Left) The original 1932 Bluebird client-label design for Woolworth’s, lacking any mention of RCA Victor. (Right) The 1933 redesign, reflecting Bluebird’s transition to an RCA-owned brand.

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Bluebird’s belated 1937 trademark application declared April 5, 1933 as the date of brand’s first use. That date, approximately eight months after Bluebird was actually launched, apparently reflects its transition from a Woolworth’s client label to a fully owned RCA brand. The earliest indication in the ledgers of a change in Bluebird’s status appears on May 18, 1933, which for the first time lists “recordings for Woolworth and Bluebird.” The label had proven public appeal, and in the spring of 1933, Bluebird was reintroduced to the public as RCA’s flagship budget label. The original label design was retained, but the RCA and Victor trademarks (missing from the Woolworth issues) were added, and the rather dull black-on-blue color scheme was replaced by light-blue on buff.

Initially, management of the Bluebird division fell largely to Ralph Peer, who had signed Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family for Victor in 1927. Peer had begun his relationship with Victor as an independent talent scout, making a good living by publishing his artists’ songs, controlling their copyrights, and earning a commission on their record sales. However, his position within the company eventually changed from independent contractor to employee. By the time Bluebird was introduced, he was just another RCA manager, quietly plotting his transition to full-time music publisher. Nevertheless, his influence is still apparent in the early Bluebird catalog, which was largely aimed at the same lower-income markets he had developed so successfully for Victor. Under Peer’s control, much of the early Bluebird catalog was cobbled together from deleted Victor recordings by the likes of Rodgers, the Carters, and others he had discovered.

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Ralph Peer’s influence is evident in these 1934 Bluebird ads.

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RCA’s executives at first seemed hesitant to promote Bluebird. The first known advertisements of the records as RCA Victor products, which appeared in May and June 1933, were placed not by RCA, but by local merchants. The company itself did little to publicize the label until early 1934, when it began touting Bluebirds as “The fastest-selling low-priced records.” The Radio-Music Merchant (successor to The Talking Machine World) did not begin publishing Bluebird advance listings until May of that year.

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Although Bluebird records were officially priced at 35¢, some discounting was allowed in the label’s early days. These Bluebird ads — among the earliest to appear after the Woolworth connection was severed — ran in the summer of 1933.

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Sunrise, yet another RCA budget brand, was launched in August 1933, for reasons unknown. It simply duplicated portions of the Bluebird catalog; the corresponding Bluebird catalog numbers even appeared on the labels, in small type below the Sunrise numbers. A month later, the first RCA-produced Montgomery Ward records appeared in that retailer’s Fall catalog.

The label was the creation of Ward’s executive Sewell Avery, who had approached RCA with a proposal for an ultra-cheap disc that could be advantageous for both companies: Ward’s would obtain high-quality, low-cost records featuring nationally recognized artists, while RCA would generate business for its pressing plant (which was still operating well below capacity), and wring out some additional revenue by recycling previously issued Victor and Bluebird recordings. The discs were openly credited to RCA Victor in Ward’s advertising, but never on the labels. Well-pressed and retailing for only 21¢ each, or 10 for $1.79, Montgomery Ward records were an undeniable bargain for consumers, although RCA’s margins must have been razor-thin.

RCA was now suffering from a case of label bloat, producing three largely redundant budget brands of its own, in addition to pressing for Montgomery Ward. The company continued to produce the latter through 1941 (aside from several short-lived dalliances with other producers), but Electradisk and Sunrise were targeted for elimination. After allowing Electradisk to languish for several months, RCA finally scuttled the label in February 1934. Sunrise somehow survived until May of that year. With the passing of those labels, Bluebird claimed its place as RCA’s sole budget brand.

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* The RCA executives were mistaken in their assessment of the American Record Corporation. ARC had recently been licensed to produce the Brunswick and Vocalion labels (along with Brunswick’s cut-rate Melotone line), and its acquisition of Columbia in April 1934 would elevate the company to the nation’s second-largest record producer.

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Selected References

“Bluebird.” U.S. trademark filing (June 8, 1937). Washington, D.C.: U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Bolig, John R. The Bluebird Discography, Vol. 1. Denver: Mainspring Press (2015).

— . The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1942. Denver: Mainspring Press (2014).

“RCA Victor” (advertisement, with first known trade-publication listing of new Bluebird releases). Radio-Music Merchant (May 1934), p. 14.

RCA Victor Co., Inc. Crown Records production-history cards. New York: Sony Music Archives.

—. Minutes of the Management Committee (1931). Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE.

—. President’s Reports to the Board of Directors (1931–1932). Hagley Museum, Wilmington, DE.

—. Recording ledgers and production history cards. New York: Sony Music Archives.

 

For more on RCA Victor and its predecessor companies, see American Record Companies and Producers, 1888 – 1950: An Encyclopedic History, newly released by Mainspring Press

 

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

Collector’s Corner – Some September Finds • Billy Murray & Friends, The Plantation Orchestra, Clarence Williams’ Washboard Five, Louis Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom Five, Bill Cox

Collector’s Corner (September 2018) • Billy Murray and Friends, The Plantation Orchestra, Clarence Williams’ Washboard Five, Louis Armstrong’s Savoy Ballroom Five, Bill Cox

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September was a real mixed bag collecting-wise, everything from pioneer stuff to some 1920s jazz classics to a big stack of early 1930s Champions (plus a slew of nice cylinders that are still being gone through for a future posting). Here are a few favorites from the September additions:

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BILLY MURRAY:
Eskimo Rag
  (EE-)

Camden, NJ: June 17, 1912
Victor 17166 (mx. B 12112 – 2)
Released November 1912; Deleted November 1914

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ELSIE BAKER (as EDNA BROWN) & AMERICAN QUARTET:
Mysterious Moon  (E-)

Camden, NJ: June 18, 1912
Victor 17166 (mx. B 12114 – 2)
Released November 1912; Deleted November 1914

Elsie Baker is identified in the Victor files, as is the American Quartet (Billy Murray, lead tenor and speech), who are not credited in the labels.

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THE PLANTATION ORCHESTRA:
Smiling Joe
 
(V++)

London: December 1, 1926
Columbia (British) 4185  (mx. A 4544 -1)

This was the pit orchestra from the Blackbirds Revue, an American production featuring Florence Mills that played the London Pavilion in 1926.

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ WASHBOARD FIVE (Williams, vocal):
Have You Ever Felt That Way?
(E-)

New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 401153 – A)

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

New York: September 26, 1928
Okeh 8629 (mx. W 401152 – A)

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LOUIS ARMSTRONG & HIS SAVOY BALLROOM FIVE:
Mahogany Hall Stomp (EE-)

New York: March 5, 1929
Okeh 8680 (mx. W 401691 – B)

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BILL COX (as LUKE BALDWIN):
My Rough and Rowdy Ways
(E-)

Richmond, IN: April 28, 1930
Champion 16009 (mx. GE 16544)

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Going to Press in October:

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

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

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

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Do you recall when you made your very first recording?

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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____________________________________________________________________________________________

Watch Ponselle and Romani recording in the Columbia studio
(from the Library of Congress):
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____________________________________________________________________________________________

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Describe the process that making those recordings involved.

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Did Carmela audition for Victor with you?

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

 

What do you remember about your first Victor recording sessions?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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Ponselle records at home (July 4, 1954)

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

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Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

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Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

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[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

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Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

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