The James A. Drake Interviews • Nina Morgana (Part 1)

NINA MORGANA
(Part 1 of 3)
By James A. Drake

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Born of Italian parents who had emigrated from Palermo, Sicily, to Buffalo, New York in 1890, Nina Morgana (1891-1984) first sang in public performances in her native city’s Italian district in 1900. [1]  After studying in Italy with Teresa Arkel from 1909-1913, she made well-received debuts in Alessandria and in Milan.  When she returned to America, she was chosen by Enrico Caruso as one of his assisting artists in a highly-publicized series of concerts in the United States.  Morgana made her Metropolitan Opera debut in the 1920-21 season, having previously sung with the Chicago Opera Association under the management of Mary Garden.

In June 1921, scarcely two months before Caruso’s sudden death, Morgana married the tenor’s full-time secretary, Bruno Zirato (1886-1972), who later became the general manager of the New York Philharmonic and also served as Arturo Toscanini’s representative in North and South America.  Essentially self-educated and invariably self-assured, Morgana was well-acquainted with Beniamino Gigli, as she discussed in a number of interviews conducted by the author from 1973-1979. 

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Bruno Zirato with Dorothy and Enrico Caruso on their wedding day, August 20, 1918. The location is the roof of the Knickerbocker Hotel, New York.
(G.G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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You and Beniamino Gigli made your Metropolitan Opera debuts during the same season, is that correct?

In the same season, yes, and less than twenty-four hours apart:  Gigli made his as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele on November 26, 1920, and I made mine as Gilda in Rigoletto on Saturday, November 27.  But strictly speaking, my debut was not my first performance at the Met.  Several months earlier, on March 28, I sang three arias at a Sunday Night Concert, with Pasquale Amato and [violinist] Albert Spalding also on the program. 

 

Was Caruso [was] to have sung the Duke in your debut in Rigoletto?

Yes, but he was ill, so Mario Chamlee sang the Duke at my debut. [2]  Giuseppe De Luca sang Rigoletto.  Chamlee and De Luca were also my partners in Barber of Seville during that same season.  I also sang Nedda in Pagliacci with Edward Johnson as Canio and Antonio Scotti as Tonio in my debut season.  I was to have sung Pagliacci with Caruso originally.

 

In operatic circles, it is widely known that you were “discovered” by Caruso.  When and where did this “discovery” take place?

I can tell you precisely:  it was on Saturday, May 9, 1908, at 3:00 p.m., in Buffalo, New York, in one of the four suites on the top floor of the Iroquois Hotel.   I can be more specific by telling you that Caruso’s suite was the one atop the front of the hotel, which faced Eagle Street.  The hotel, which had one-thousand rooms, was still new at that time; it had opened for business in conjunction with the Pan-American Exposition, which was held in Buffalo in 1901.

 

You performed at the Pan-American Exposition, correct?

Yes, I sang there in an exhibition called Venice in America, on the midway.  I was nine years old, and was billed as “Baby Patti” or “Child Patti” in the [Buffalo] newspapers.

 

It was at the Pan-American Exposition, on June 13, 1901, that President William McKinley was assassinated.  Do you recall anything about that tragic day?

The only memory I have is hearing adults around me saying very agitatedly, “The President has been shot!  The President has been shot!”  I was too young to know what “being shot” meant—and I also didn’t know what “president” meant, much less who the president was.  When I asked my parents about it, they tried to explain to me that in the United States, the president was “the king.”  Well, I didn’t know what a “king” was, so I just accepted the fact that someone important had been hurt in some way.

 

When you auditioned for Caruso, do you recall what you sang?

Yes, I sang “Caro nome.”  Just the “Caro nome,” without the recitative.  When I finished, Caruso patted me on the cheek and told my father, who came with me, that I had a very promising voice.  He told us that I would have to study in Italy, and he said he would write a letter on my behalf to the great Teresa Arkel, asking her to accept me as a pupil.  He did so, and about a year later, my father and I sailed to Italy.  During the day, while I was at Mme. Arkel’s having my lessons, my father worked as a laborer.

 

Obviously, Caruso detected the youthful promise in your voice, just as he did several years later with the young Rosa Ponselle.  Looking back, what do you think he heard in your voice that prompted him to refer you to Teresa Arkel?

Well, whatever he heard was not what Mme. Arkel heard!  In his letter to her, Caruso had written that he believed my voice would become a mezzo-sopranone, or in English, “a great big mezzo-soprano.”  When I sang for Mme. Arkel, however, she said that my voice would be fine for roles like Lucia, Amina in Sonnambula, and Adina in Elisir d’amore, which require an exceptional top.  And I had one, too.  By the time I left Mme. Arkel, I could sing the G above high-C effortlessly.  But vocally, I was certainly not going to be singing Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana.

 

When you were studying in Italy, was Caruso as famous there as he was in the U.S.?

Actually, no.  His recordings were well-known, of course, and hence his name was well-known, but since 1903 he had been at the Metropolitan Opera, not La Scala or one of the other houses in Italy.  The tenor who was admired when I was studying in Italy—not just admired, but adored—was Giuseppe Anselmi.  He was as famous there as Caruso was in the United States.  

Anselmi, whom I heard several times, had a gorgeous voice and a perfect technique, and was also extraordinarily handsome.  Anselmi was “all the rage,” so to say, as was Maria Galvany among sopranos.  It was Galvany, not Melba, who was adored in Italy, yet in America she was almost unknown other than on recordings.

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Giuseppe Anselmi

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A great tenor who sang during Anselmi’s time, and whom some historians claim was the equal of Caruso in certain roles, was Alessandro Bonci.  Did you see Bonci, and if so, what was your assessment of him?

The distance between Caruso and Bonci as tenors was about the size of the Grand Canyon.  They had nothing at all in common, either vocally or as men.  In Italy, it was rumored that Bonci was an unethical person.  He had played some part in obtaining a forged letter from Verdi, giving Bonci supposed permission to sing the “È scherzo od è follia” in a unique way.  I heard a recording of it, and Bonci’s performance was different yet acceptable.  But he was still in disrepute because he had paid someone to forge the letter from Verdi.

Personally, I saw Bonci as Faust in Boito’s Mefistofele, in which he was wearing an over-stated costume topped by a large hat with an even larger feather protruding from it.  Frankly, he looked silly on the stage.  Vocally, his singing was pleasant enough, and it reminded me somewhat of Lauri-Volpi because both of them had exceptional high ranges.  But Lauri-Volpi was handsome onstage, whereas Bonci was a feather-bearing little man in an overdone costume with high-heeled boots.

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Alessandro Bonci, 1910

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Earlier, you mentioned having sung with Edward Johnson in Pagliacci at the MetWhen Johnson’s name is mentioned in connection with the Metropolitan Opera, it is usually in reference to his tenure as General Manager, not as one of its significant tenors.  Do you recall the first time you heard him sing?

Yes, in Italy in 1910.  I sang with him there in Elisir d’amore.  At the time, he was singing under the Italianized name “Edoardo di Giovanni.”

 

Where in Italy did you make your debut? 

My very first performance on an opera stage was as the hidden “forest bird” in Siegfried, at the Teatro Dal Verme.   Tullio Serafin, who was young and handsome—his hair was brown and thick in those days—had come to Mme. Arkel to ask if she had a pupil who could sing the part.  She told him that I could do it, and I did—I sang it hidden in a papier-maché “tree.”  Giuseppe Borgatti was the star of the performance.

I was also in the premiere of Der Rosenkavalier at La Scala on March 1, 1911, which was led by Serafin.  The cast included Lucrezia Bori in the breeches role of Octavian, Ines Maria Ferraris as Sophie, and Pavel Ludikar as Baron Ochs.  During one of the curtain calls with the full cast, I held Strauss’s hand.

 

At the Met, Lucrezia Bori and Edward Johnson were famously paired as Romeo and Juliet.  But you knew both singers in Italy a decade before you made your Met debut?

Bori and Johnson were perfect for each other in Roméo et Juliette.  And, yes, I sang a number of performances with Johnson at the Met.  But his best partner among sopranos was Lucrezia Bori, not Nina Morgana.  I’m sure you have heard recordings of Bori, but have you seen photographs of her?

 

Yes, mostly studio portraits but a few candid ones, in various books about the history of the Met.

Most of her publicity photos were taken [of her] in profile, or else at an angle, rather than facing the camera lens.  She had an ocular condition called strabismus, which lay people refer to as having a “lazy eye” or, less kindly, as “cross-eyed.”  When she was relaxed, Bori’s right eye would tend to drift toward her nose.  My brother, Dante Morgana, a premiere ophthalmologist and surgeon, gave her exercises to train the muscles of her right eye to keep the eyeball centered.

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

 

Although fate deprived you of the opportunity to sing Pagliacci with Caruso, you sang not only Nedda but other major roles with almost all of the legendary tenors who inherited Caruso’s repertoire.

My best roles were Nedda in Pagliacci, Micaela in Carmen, and Musetta in Bohème.  Although I also sang Mimì in Bohème, [General Manager Giulio] Gatti-Casazza said that I was not only better as Musetta, but that I was the best Musetta of the several sopranos who sang the role under his management.  

 

Do you recall some of the casts in your performances of those operas?

I sang my first Micaela in Carmen with Giovanni Martinelli and Miguel Fleta alternating as Don José, and with José Mardones as Escamillo.  I know of no other basso profondo who could sing Escamillo—later, Pinza sang it, but his voice was a less powerful lyric sound compared to José Mardones.  But Mardones’ range was so marvelous that he could sing Escamillo easily and convincingly.  In some of my performance in Pagliacci, Antonio Scotti sang Tonio and the “new boy,” Lawrence Tibbett, was Silvio. 

In the 1924-1925 season, in a new production of Tales of Hoffmann, I sang the part of the mechanical doll Olympia, with Miguel Fleta as Hoffmann.  In that production, Bori sang the roles of Giulietta and Antonia, and she did them with great distinction.  Later, Queena Mario sang Antonia, but with no distinction at all.

Perhaps you know that Queena Mario’s birth name was Helen Tillotson, a perfectly fine name.  She claimed that [conductor and coach Wilfrid] Pelletier, to whom she was married, had suggested the ridiculous name “Queena,” but I think she made it up herself.  I used to make her mad by asking, “If you have a brother, is his name Kinga?”

 

You sang several times with Giovanni Martinelli, who, perhaps with the sole exception of Caruso, seems to have been beloved by everyone, even by the other great tenors of that era.

I sang Eudoxie in the revival of La Juive with Martinelli as Eléazar, Leon Rothier as the Cardinal, and Rosa Ponselle as Rachel, the role she had created [at the Met] with Caruso in 1919.  In fact, other than Martinelli singing Eléazar in place of Caruso, the revival had almost the same cast as the [Met] premiere.  Ponselle sang most of the performances, but not all of them.  Florence Easton sang several Rachels, as did Elisabeth Rethberg later.

Among the other great tenors of that period, I sang with Giacomo Lauri-Volpi for the first time in Rigoletto in 1926, with De Luca and Mardones.  For that performance, with Gatti-Casazza’s consent, I made a change in Gilda’s costume:  I wore a pink gown in the first scene.  I also sang with Lauri-Volpi in Africana, with Ponselle as Selika, and I sang with him again in Pagliacci in the 1929-1930 season.  In Africana, Gigli was cast instead of Lauri-Volpi in several of the performances I was in, and Florence Easton replaced Ponselle in some of them.  Most were conducted by Serafin.

 

Do you recall the tenors with whom you sang in Bohème?

As I said earlier, Musetta was one of my best and most frequent roles, and I was especially fortunate to sing several performances with Lauri-Volpi as Rodolfo [in 1932].  A few times, Rodolfo was sung by Martinelli.  It’s not a role that one would immediately associate with him, but the color of Martinelli’s voice was light enough for it, and he restrained the volume of his clarion voice.  I also sang some performances with Armand Tokatyan, who was a very fine tenor and deserves to be remembered better today.

I was also fortunate to be in the opera house on the opening night of the 1921-22 season, when Gigli sang Alfredo to Galli-Curci’s Violetta at her debut.  I knew Galli-Curci before then.  Both of us had sung in Chicago when Mary Garden was the general manager.

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

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If one-half of the stories that have been told and written about Mary Garden are true, she must have been a formidable person.

Indeed, she was, but probably no more so than Melba or Patti before her.  They ruled their kingdoms—and they made those kingdoms.  No woman who achieved what Patti, or Melba, or Geraldine Farrar, or Mary Garden achieved, could have done so without enormous self-confidence.  Mary Garden, at least as I knew her, was not imperious at all, but she knew very well what her value was. 

She could talk about herself in a way that may sound conceited in the retelling, but from her standpoint it was simply a matter of fact.  I remember walking to the Chicago Opera house with my sister Angie, who traveled with me, and seeing Mary Garden coming toward us.  She stopped us and said, “Did you see my Carmen last night?” Not “How are you,” or “Wonderful to see you today,” but “Did you see my Carmen last night?” 

We hadn’t seen it, so we said so.  “You must see my next one,” she replied.  “There is nothing like it, and there never will be.”  She said that without a trace of haughtiness.  It was as if she had said, “You should carry an umbrella tomorrow because it’s likely to rain.”    

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[1]  The family of Nina Morgana, which comprised seven children, is remarkable not only for her success, but also her siblings’ successes. In addition to her brother Dante Morgana (who, as she mentions in the interview, became a nationally-known eye surgeon), her brother Emilio Morgana entered the priesthood and became a close friend of the friar-author Thomas Merton.  Another brother, Charles Morgana (Giuseppe Carlo Morgana), was an automotive inventor and a close associate of Henry Ford.  His older sister, Angelina Morgana, followed their brother Dante into medical school, where she became the only female in her class in the Medical Department (as it was then known) of the University of Buffalo.   She withdrew because of the harassment she experienced from the all-male faculty.

[2]  Here Morgana’s normally precise memory has failed her: on the day of her Metropolitan Opera debut (Saturday, November 27, 1920) Caruso sang a matinee performance of La forza del destino, and hence was not “ill.”
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© 2018 by 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.

Photographs from the Library of Congress’ Bain Collection are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

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Coming in Part 2: Nina Morgana’s personal recollections of Caruso; Gigli’s premier at the Met; comparing the great tenors

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Collector’s Corner • Some January Finds (Arcadian Serenaders, Bennie Moten, The Missourians, William McCoy, Fleming & Townsend)

Pretty good pickings in January – Here are a few favorites from this month’s additions to the collection:

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ARCADIAN SERENADERS [WINGY MANNONE]: San Sue Strut  (E-)

St. Louis: November 1924
Okeh 40378

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BENNIE MOTEN’S KANSAS CITY ORCHESTRA: Get Low-Down Blues  (E)

Camden, NJ: September 7, 1928
Victor 21693

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BENNIE MOTEN’S KANSAS CITY ORCHESTRA: Kansas City Breakdown  (E)

Camden, NJ: September 7, 1928
Victor 21693

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THE MISSOURIANS: Missouri Moan  (E)

New York: June 3, 1929
Victor V-38067

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THE MISSOURIANS: Market Street Stomp  (E)

New York: June 3, 1929
Victor V-38067

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WILLIAM McCOY: Mama Blues  (EE-)

Dallas: December 6, 1927
Columbia 15269-D

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WILLIAM McCOY: Train Imitation and The Fox Chase  (EE-)

Dallas: December 6, 1927
Columbia 15269-D

An unusual example of a record issued in both the race  (14290-D) and country series (15269-D, which is missing from Brian Rust’s Columbia Master Book Discography [Greenwood Press]). The artist is African-American.

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REECE FLEMING & RESPERS TOWNSEND: She’s Just That Kind  (V+)

Memphis: June 6, 1930
Victor V-40297

 

Some Early Record-Pressing Plants

AUBURN BUTTON WORKS (Auburn, NY) — Founded in 1876  by John Hermon Woodruff, as Woodruff’s Button Factory, this  company was renamed Auburn Button Works in the late 1880s. It moved into the Washington Street buildings shown here in 1900. Auburn pressed the 7″ and 9″ brown-shellac Zonophone discs at an auxiliary plant in New York City.

The relationship was severed after Zonophone switched to Duranoid pressings in 1904, and the pressing equipment was moved to Auburn, where the International Record Company (producers of Excelsior, Lyric, et al.) was set up as a recording subsidiary. The company was forced to suspend production of its own records after losing a 1907 patent-infringement suit to Columbia. In the early 1920s the pressing plant was leased to Brunswick, then was sold to the Scranton Record Company in November 1924.

Auburn continued to manufacture other goods after spinning off the pressing business. Its final incarnation was as Auburn Plastics, Inc., which was incorporated on July 1, 1957, and dissolved (after many years of inactivity) on March 24, 1993.

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COLUMBIA PHONOGRAPH COMPANY (Bridgeport, CT) — Columbia’s sprawling Bridgeport complex housed most production operations other than recording. Acquired by the American Record Corporation in 1934, it continued to produce high-quality laminated pressings for ARC’s more expensive labels (Brunswick, Columbia, Liberty Music Shops, et al.), while pressing of ARC’s budget labels remained in Scranton. Conditions in the Bridgeport pressing plant were so bad by the mid-1930s that record producer John Hammond published a scathing exposé and attempted to unionize the workforce.

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VICTOR TALKING MACHINE COMPANY (Camden, NJ) — The largest record-production facility in the United States at the time, the Victor complex was a city unto itself, with its own printing plant, fire department, infirmary, auditorium, police force, docks, and rail line. The view above is from 1916; just twenty years earlier, future Victor founder Eldridge Johnson was building motors for Emile Berliner in a rented shack. The sole surviving structure now houses luxury apartments.

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LEEDS & CATLIN COMPANY (Middletown, CT) — In September 1905, Leeds & Catlin opened this pressing plant in the former Worcester Cycle Company factory, replacing its New York City plant. The move coincided with Leeds’ phase-out of its foil-labeled discs. Three months later, the company announced it had installed fifty additional presses to accommodate the ever-increasing demand for its new paper-labeled Imperial records. By the end of 1905, the Middletown plant was said to have an annual capacity of 150 million discs. This view appeared in a 1906 ad for Radium cylinders, Leeds’ short-lived attempt to re-enter the cylinder market.

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AMERICAN RECORD COMPANY / DOMESTIC / OKEH  (Springfield, MA) — The American Record Company (Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott) pressed their blue-shellac discs in this building during 1904–1906. Horace Sheble later pressed his Domestic discs here, using the same sort of blue shellac.

Following the demise of Domestic, Otto Heineman took over the plant in early 1918 for his newly launched Okeh label. Unable to keep up with orders for the first several years, Heineman contracted his overflow pressing to at least two outside plants.

In this view, Okeh is sharing space with the International Insulating Corporation, one of Heineman’s many other business ventures. This pressing plant was closed after Heineman opened a more modern facility in Newark, NJ, in 1921.

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BRUNSWICK-BALKE-COLLENDER COMPANY (Jersey City, NJ) — This was Brunswick’s second pressing plant; initially, it used a facility in Long Island City, NY. Brunswick also used the Auburn Button Works facility as an auxiliary pressing plant until November 1924, when the Scranton Button Company acquired Auburn’s pressing plant. Brunswick’s main pressing plant, in Muskegon, MI, opened in 1922. Vocalion’s masters were transferred there in March 1925. The Muskegon pressing plant was closed after the Brunswick and Vocalion labels were licensed to American Record Corporation, and in 1934 Decca Records purchased the largely obsolete equipment, much to its regret.

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STANDARD MUSIC ROLL COMPANY / THE ARTO COMPANY (Orange, NJ) — Employees assemble for a company photo in 1918 at the Standard Music Roll plant, before production of Arto records began (above). The photo was presented to president George Howlett Davis as a Christmas gift.

The Arto pressing plant was housed in a new structure, shown here in a 1919 architect’s sketch (below). Only the two-story structure on the right was actually built. In addition to the pressing plant, it housed Standard’s piano-roll flange factory. Although Arto claimed to operate its own studio, the vast majority of its masters were commissioned from outside sources, including Jones Recording Laboratories, Independent Recording Laboratories, New York Recording Laboratories, and Harry Marker’s H&M Laboratories (see Bell and Arto Records: A History and Discography, 1920–1928, available from Mainspring Press).

SCRANTON BUTTON COMPANY (Scranton, PA) — The largest independent American pressing plant for several decades, Scranton was closely affiliated with the Plaza Music Company / Regal Record Company group beginning in the early 1920s. Some accounts refer to this company in error as the Scranton Button Works.

Scranton sometimes invested in its clients (including National Music Lovers, in which it held a 49% stake) as a means of ensuring their continued business. At the time this view was published in 1924, the company has just acquired the Emerson recording division, which had been split from the radio division (the latter being the ancestor of the present-day Emerson corporation).

The plant was included in the 1929 merger that created the American Record Corporation. It continued to press budget labels for ARC until that company was sold to CBS, which had no use for the facility. Reorganized as the Scranton Record Company in 1939, it barely survived an entanglement with Eli Oberstein’s failed United States Record Corporation before re-emerging as a major independent plant. Capitol Records began purchasing  Scranton stock in 1944, and on March 26, 1946, it bought the company outright.

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NEW YORK RECORDING LABORATORIES (Grafton, Wisconsin) — Owned by the Wisconsin Chair Company (Port Washington, WI), this converted knitting mill on the Milwaukee River housed the pressing plant for Paramount and its many associated labels. It was a relatively primitive operation, and its pressings tend to reflect that. The pressing plant occupied the large structure on the left. Paramount’s now-legendary (and equally primitive) recording studio opened in late 1929, in the smaller building on the right. The studio building was demolished in 1938, the pressing-plant building in the mid-1940s.

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110 Years Ago at the Victor Talking Machine Company (November 1907)

November 1907 marked the return of the Victor studio to Camden, from Philadelphia, after an absence of more than six years. The impending move got only a vague mention in that month’s Talking Machine World, in a story on a visit by distributor Max Landay, who said, “I understand the company will remove their recording laboratory from Philadelphia to Camden, into premises that are ideal.” The move was documented by Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer:

During November [1907] we moved the Laboratory from 424 So. 10th St., Philadelphia, to the building S.W. Corner Front and Cooper Streets, Camden, N.J., in which we occupied the fourth floor. The first large type “D” recording machine was installed in the Camden Laboratory prior to our moving into same. [“D” refers to Wilbur N. Dennison, who assigned a large number of patents to Victor over the years.]

To repeat a point we’ve made often (and wish we didn’t still have to, but old myths die hard): Any discography showing a Camden recording location between early September 1901 and late November 1907 is in error. For a detailed, documented chronology of Victor’s early studio sites, see Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations, 1901-1920.

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Here’s the complete pictorial section of Victor’s November 1907 catalog, courtesy of Victor expert John Bolig:

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By the way, John’s landmark Victor Discography Series titles are selling out quickly as Mainspring winds down its book operation. Several are already out of print, and remaining inventory is in very short supply. If there are any titles you need, hurry over to the Mainspring Press website and order while you still can!

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NEW • The “World’s Greatest Operas” Discography (RCA Victor Series) by John Bolig

Our thanks to John Bolig for the first fully detailed discography of the RCA-produced “World’s Greatest Operas” records. Data are from original RCA documentation at the Sony archives in New York. All issues were anonymous, but as you’ll see, some first-rate talent was employed.

John’s complete listing of RCA’s “World’s Greatest Music” records (a substantially revised and expanded version of our very basic  listing that was posted a few weeks ago) has also been posted.

Note that this listing is only for the original RCA-produced series. Other producers took over the “World’s Greatest…” series after the RCA Victor connection was severed in 1940.

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NEW • The “World’s Greatest Music” Discography (RCA Victor Series) – Revised & Expanded by John Bolig

Our thanks to Victor expert John Bolig for revising and greatly expanding the very basic “World’s Greatest Music” listing that we posted a few weeks ago. The data are from RCA’s original documentation at the Sony archives in New York. A complete listing of RCA’s “World’s Greatest Operas” series is also being posted later today.

(By the way, several of John’s landmark Victor Discography titles have sold out recently. The remaining volumes are still available on the Mainspring Press website, but supplies are very limited. The listing below will give you a good idea of the high-quality data and attention to detail you’ll find in all of John’s books.)

Note that this listing is only for the original RCA-produced series of 1938-1940. Other producers took over the series after the RCA Victor connection was severed, and later pressings are not RCA products.
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Victor on the Road: Ralph Peer Goes to El Paso (Summer 1929)

Press coverage of Ralph Peer’s summer 1929 visit to El Paso, Texas, gives a taste of the excitement that was generated when  Victor and other large East Coast record companies came to far-flung locations seeking talent. Three local El Paso artists had already been chosen to record by the end of June, in advance of the Victor team’s arrival, and auditions continued through the second week of July:

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El Paso Herald (June 28, 1929)

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Among those whose recordings were issued were M. S. Dillehay, the Rodeo Trio (D. A. Champaigne, Kenneth Deshazo, and Phil Smith), and the Maxwell family string band from New Mexico, which someone at Victor named the “White Mountain Orchestra.” But the artist who got the most attention from the local press was another member of the Maxwell family, Billie Maxwell Warner, whose records were released under her maiden name:

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El Paso Herald (July 2, 1929)

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The local reporters poked a little fun at a couple of unnamed cowboys who came to audition:
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El Paso Herald (July 11, 1929)

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In the end, four of Billie Maxwell’ songs were released in the  Victor V-40000 country-music series. True to form, Peer had her listed as the “arranger” of these numbers, enabling him to file for copyright on what were actually public-domain folk tunes. Here’s her “Haunted Hunter,” which was also issued in Canada on the Aurora label. Both editions are rare:

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BILLIE MAXWELL, “THE COWGIRL SINGER” (vocal and guitar):
Haunted Hunter

El Paso, TX: July 11, 1929 — Released May 16, 1930
Victor V-40241 (mx. BVE 55234 – 1)
From a tape dubbing, courtesy of the late Gilbert Louey

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El Paso Evening Post (Decemebr 5, 1929)

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York? Fact-Checking the Victor Studio Locations (1901-1920)

Camden, Philadelphia, or New York: Fact-Checking the Victor Acoustic-Era Studio Locations
By Allan Sutton

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.The facts:

  • There is no documentary evidence that the Victor Talking Machine Company operated a recording studio in Camden, New Jersey, from September 1901 through early December 1907.
  • During that period, most Victor recording sessions were held in Philadelphia. A much smaller number, by Red Seal artists only, were held in New York at that time.
  • Very early Victor recording locations are only occasionally noted in the surviving company files.
  • Brian Rust and other early discographers, when confronted with this omission, behaved as usual — They guessed (incorrectly assuming Camden for September 1901 – November 1907 sessions that were actually held in Philadelphia), and then passed off their guesses as fact.

Now that the key points are out of the way, let’s look at the supporting evidence, from the memoirs of a man who was there at the time — Harry O. Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer. The following studio chronology is based upon Sooy’s memoirs (Sarnoff Library, Princeton, New Jersey), with corroborating circumstantial evidence from the surviving Victor files:

The Camden > Philadelphia > Camden Chronology
(1900 – 1907)

 

Late 1890s – February 1900: Collings Carriage Factory Building (Front & Market Streets), Camden, NJ

According to Sooy, this was the site of Eldridge R. Johnson’s first experimental recording studio. No documentation of the recordings made there is known to have survived

 

February 1, 1900 – c. August 1, 1901: Johnson Factory Building, Camden, NJ

In late 1899, Eldridge Johnson began construction of a four-story factory building in Camden. Sooy recalled having moved Johnson’s recording equipment from the carriage factory to the new building on or around February 1, 1900. By that time, according to Sooy, Johnson was recording masters for Berliner.

Recording of Johnson’s own masters (i.e., those issued on his various Victor predecessor labels) began on May 1, 1900. The last of Johnson’s Berliner masters for which a date is confirmed was recorded two days later.

Johnson’s studio was moved from Camden to Philadelphia in September 1901, according to Sooy (and the Victor Talking Machine Company was incorporated on October 3). The move was made to provide more space for the machine shop. Recording in Camden appears to have ended on August 1, 1901, and it would not resume there until December 9, 1907.

 

August 2 – September 4, 1901: No recording activity

 

September 5, 1901 – November 22, 1907: 424 S. 10th Street, Philadelphia

Sooy recalled that the Victor studio was moved to Philadelphia from its original Camden location during September 1901. The Victor files, which show that no recordings were made during August 2 – September 4, 1901, lend credence to  Sooy’s recollection.

Assuming this thirty-four day hiatus marks the Camden-to-Philadelphia transition, the last Camden session would have been Rogers & Pryor’s “Answer” (“pre-matrix” Victor 837, an August 1 remake of a May 31 session); and the first Philadelphia session would have been Frank Seiden’s “Rosinkes und Mandlein” (“pre-matrix” Victor 928, recorded September 5, 1901). The large numerical gap occurs because the Rogers & Pryor catalog number was allocated at the time of the original session.

Sooy recalled, “The moving of the Laboratory from Camden [to] Philadelphia was done…by Mr. MacEwan, a bob-tail horse and Mr. Nafey. Money in these days not being overly plentiful, MacEwan acted as teamster on the job, and Nafey, I guess, was boss; however, the moving was done in a very creditable manner… Upon entering our new quarters at 424 So. 10th St., or 10th and Lombard Sts., which was known as the colored belt of Philadelphia, we were furnished with considerable excitement in the neighborhood outside of making records.”

Philadelphia would host Victor’s main studio for six years. The studio was located on the second floor of a building formerly occupied by the Berliner Gramophone Company. A matrix-plating plant was housed in the basement, and a blank-processing department was opened on the third floor in January 1904. Stampers  were shipped to the Duranoid Company (and, for a time, to the Burt Company as well) for pressing. Victor also maintained a Philadelphia branch office in the Girard Building during this period.

As far as can be ascertained from documentary and circumstantial evidence, no Victor recording studio existed in Camden while the Philadelphia studio was in operation. Thus, the many modern citations of Camden recording sessions from September 5, 1901 through November 1907 are in error.

 

November 23 – December 8, 1907: No recording activity

 

From December 9, 1907: Front & Cooper Streets, Camden, NJ

During November 1907, the Philadelphia studio was closed, and a new studio was opened on the fourth floor of what would later come to be known as Building #15 in Camden. The transitional period is apparent in the Victor files, which show no recordings were made during November 23–December 8, 1907.

Assuming this sixteen-day hiatus marks the Philadelphia-to-Camden transition, the last Philadelphia recording would have been Alan Turner’s “The White Squall” (mx. B 4961, recorded November 22, 1907; delayed release on Victor 16006); and the first Camden recording would have been the Victor Orchestra’s “Army and Navy Medley Reel” (mx. B 4962, rejected takes 1 and 2, recorded December 9, 1907).

While many Red Seal sessions continued to be held in New York, the Camden studio was also used for Red Seal sessions beginning December 11, 1907. “From this time on,” Harry Sooy stated, “recording dates of a Red Seal nature were alternated between the Camden and New York laboratories to suit the convenience of the artists.”

On March 13, 1911, the studio was moved to the newly added seventh floor of Building #15. Additional studios were installed in the building over the years, the last major addition being a large room for orchestral sessions in late 1924. After RCA’s acquisition of Victor in 1929, the Camden studios were slowly phased out in favor of New York.

After attempts to record a large symphony orchestra in the regular studio proved unsatisfactory, the eighth-floor auditorium of the Executive Building in Camden was converted to a temporary studio in the autumn of 1917. The hundred-member Boston Symphony Orchestra under Karl Muck made its first recordings in the auditorium studio on October 2, followed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski on October 22.

In early 1918, Victor purchased the Trinity Church at 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, which it converted to a studio for large vocal and instrumental ensembles, as well as sessions requiring a pipe-organ regardless of ensemble size (the original church organ was eventually replaced with a more robust model). Recording commenced there on February 27, 1918. During 1928, the main floor of the church was used on occasion as a supplemental Vitaphone sound-stage, and a basement studio was used for soundtrack dubbing.

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Victor’s New York Studios (1903 – Early 1920s)

Initially, Victor maintained a New York studio solely for the convenience of its Red Seal artists. Less-stellar  artists were required to travel to Philadelphia (or later, to Camden). Sooy stated that all Red Seal sessions prior to July 22, 1907, were held in New York, and file evidence seems to support his assertion.

 

March 26, 1903 – October 8, 1904: Carnegie Hall Annex (Room 826), New York

Victor leased studio space in the annex, not in the theater itself as has been stated in some works. Enrico Caruso made his first Victor recordings there, and as far as can be ascertained, all Carnegie Hall sessions involved Red Seal artists. Sooy recalled, “It was a great relief to get out of Carnegie Hall, and away from the Vocal Studios where vocal teachers were constantly trying voices, good, bad and otherwise.” The Carnegie Hall Annex studio was not a full-time operation.

 

October 8, 1904 – June 1, 1909: 234 Fifth Avenue, New York

As with the Carnegie Hall studio, this location was reserved primarily for Red Seal sessions and was not a full-time operation.

 

After June 1, 1909:

By the later ’teens, Victor’s New York studios were being used for popular as well as classical sessions, and cities usually are listed in the files (see DAHR’s free online Victor data for locations of each session). Victor operated its main New York studios at the following addresses during the remainder of the acoustic era:
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June 2, 1909 – April 1912: 37–39 E. 29th Street, New York (first full-time New York studio)

April 1912 – January 18, 1917: 12–14 W. 37th Street, New York

January 19, 1917 — January 5, 1921: 46 W. 38th Street, New York

From January 6, 1921: National Association Building (28 W. 44th Street, 22nd floor), New York

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By the later 1920s, Victor was operating at least three New York studios simultaneously, including leased space in Liederkranz Hall. These studios, as well as Victor’s Midwestern and West Coast studios and its field-recording locations, will be the subject of a future article.

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

 

“Paramount’s Rise and Fall” Has Sold Out – Others to Follow Soon

Alex van der Tuuk’s Paramount’s Rise and Fall sold out this morning, after a long and successful run (in two editions) as one of our most important titles. We have no further copies available for sale.

The following titles are now in very short supply (less than one carton of each) as we continue to phase out book sales in favor of online data distribution, in affiliation with UC-Santa Barbara’s DAHR project. These titles will not be reprinted once current supplies are gone — Best to order soon, if interested:

Bolig: Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. II

Bolig: Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. IV

Bryant, et al.: American Record Co., Hawthorne & Sheble

Bryant, et al.: Leeds & Catlin Records

Charosh: Berliner Records in America

Sutton: Recording the ‘Twenties

You can browse and order all remaining titles on the Mainspring Press website, while supplies last.

Please note that Mainspring Press does not sell on Amazon.com; Mainspring titles on Amazon are being offered by third parties (sometimes at ridiculously inflated prices) with whom we are not affiliated. Most are used copies and are duly noted as such, but some copies being offered as “new” may be remaindered hurt/second-quality copies, which we have made available to resellers on occasion. Mainspring Press sells only on its own website, and on eBay as mspBooks.

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The Playlist • Victor in the South — Hot Bands (1925 – 1928)

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FATTY MARTIN’S ORCHESTRA: End o’ Main

Houston: March 19, 1925
Victor mx. B 32111 – 2 (commercially unissued on 78)

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FATTY MARTIN’S ORCHESTRA: Jimtown Blues

Houston: March 19, 1925
Victor mx. B 32111 – 4 (commercially unissued on 78)

Above two titles from c. 1960s custom vinyl pressings of the original stampers. Takes 1 and 3, respectively, were issued on Victor 19700 (released 1925, deleted 1926).

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ROSS DE LUXE SYNCOPATORS (Margaret Miller, vocal): Skad-o-Lee

Savannah: August 22, 1927
Victor 20961 (mx. BVE 39823 – 2)
Released: December 16, 1927 – Deleted: 1929

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ROSS DE LUXE SYNCOPATORS (Frank Houston, vocal): Florida Rhythm

Savannah: August 22, 1927
Victor 20961 (mx. BVE 39827 – 2)
Released: December 16, 1927 – Deleted: 1929

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MEMPHIS RAMBLERS: Hold It Still

Memphis (Auditorium): February 4, 1928
Victor 21270 (mx. BVE 41841 – 2)
Released: April 20, 1928 – Deleted: 1931

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WILLIAMSON’S BEALE STREET FROLIC ORCHESTRA: Scandinavian Stomp

Memphis (McCall Building): February 27, 1927
Victor mx. BVE 37959 – 1 (commercially issued on Victor 21410)
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WILLIAMSON’S BEALE STREET FROLIC ORCHESTRA: Midnight Frolic Drag

Memphis (McCall Building): February 27, 1927
Victor mx. BVE 37960 – 2 (commercially issued on Victor 21410)

Above two titles from c. 1960s custom vinyl pressings of the original stampers. Victor 21410 was released July 20, 1928, deleted in 1930, and sold 4,819 copies according to the production-history card.

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Discographic data from the original Victor files, courtesy of John Bolig and the Discography of American Historical Recordings. Sales figures were entered on the Victor production-history cards at an unknown time by an unknown person, and are of questionable accuracy.

CHARM: Another Outstanding Online Discographical Project

Not as widely known as the Discography of American Historical Recordings (although it certainly deserves to be), the UK-based CHARM website offers another outstanding online discography — in this case, of historical classical and operatic recordings. Hosted by the AHRC Research Centre for the History and Analysis of Recorded Music, CHARM is partnership of Royal Holloway, University of London (host institution) with King’s College, London, and the University of Sheffield.

CHARM is the perfect complement to DAHR, offering hard-to-find data on foreign as well as domestic recordings, primarily from the 1920s onward. The database includes much of The Gramophone Company’s 78-rpm output (from original file data compiled by the late Alan Kelly), as well 78s and some LP series from numerous other US, UK, and European companies, including Columbia and Decca, from data supplied by Michael Gray. *

The CHARM site includes a very flexible search engine, and results can be downloaded as comma-delimited text (.csv) or Microsoft Excel files. Here’s a small part of the results from our search on Cesare Formichi’s Columbia recordings:
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In addition, almost 5000 streaming sound files are available via the Find Sound Files facility. Sound files are transferred from 78-rpm discs held by the King’s Sound Archive at King’s College London.

Like DAHR and the affiliated National Juke Box site from the Library of Congress, CHARM is an entirely free service, with no registration or log-in required.

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* Dr. Alan Kelly compiled the monumental His Master’s Voice Discography for Greenwood Press during its glory days in the 1990s; when new owners pulled the plug, he completed the project on his own, self-publishing the entire run on a set of inexpensive CDs. In 2007 he was honored with the Association for Recorded Sound Collections’ Lifetime Achievement Award. Michael Gray — besides being one helluva nice guy — has had a distinguished career that includes a long run as director of the Voice of America’s Research Library and Digital Audio Archive projects. He served as series editor for Greenwood Press discographies, has written numerous books and articles, and is the recipient of ARSC’s 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award.

 

The Playlist • Broadway Headliners (1911 – 1913)


Photos from the Victor monthly supplements, courtesy of
John Bolig
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GEORGE M. COHAN: You Won’t Do Any Business If You Haven’t Got a Band (“A Little of Everything”)

Camden, NJ: May 4, 1911
Victor 60043 (mx. B 10268 – 1)
With studio orchestra (conductor not credited in the Victor files)

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NORA BAYES & JACK NORWORTH: Turn Off Your Light, Mr. Moon Man (“Little Miss Fix-It”)

Camden, NJ: April 24, 1911
Victor 70038 (mx. 9830 – 5)
With studio orchestra (conductor not credited in the Victor files)

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AL JOLSON: That Haunting Melody (“Vera Violetta”)

Camden, NJ: December 22, 1911
Victor 17037 (mx. B 11409 – 2)
With studio orchestra conducted by Walter B. Rogers. Although Rogers is not credited in the Victor files, Jolson addresses him by name in “Asleep in the Deep (Parody),” recorded at the same session.

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ELSIE JANIS: Fascinating Baseball Slide

Camden, NJ: October 22, 1912
Victor 60090 (mx. B 12527 – 1)
With studio orchestra (conductor not credited in the Victor files)

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DAVE MONTGOMERY & FRED STONE: Travel, Travel, Little Star (“The Old Town”)

Camden, NJ: January 24, 1911
Victor 70033 (mx. C 9845 – 1)
With studio orchestra (conductor not credited in the Victor files)

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DAVE MONTGOMERY & FRED STONE: Gay Paree

Camden, NJ: May 19, 1911
Victor 70042 (mx. C 9906 – 2)
With studio orchestra (conductor not credited in the Victor files)

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NAT W. WILLS: New York, What’s the Matter with You? (Ziegfeld’s “Follies of 1913”)

Camden, NJ: September 22, 1913
Victor 17461 (mx. B 13838 – 1)
Frank N. Darling, conductor, per Victor files (Darling was the conductor of the “Follies” orchestra).

 

The First Jazz Record Did Not Sell a Million Copies — Here’s the Evidence from the Production-History Cards for Victor 18255

Believe the old tale that the first jazz record (Victor 18255, by the Original Dixieland Jass Band) sold a million copies? Or more?

Not even close — and we finally have the evidence from the Victor Talking Machine Company itself.

We recently got the welcome news from record researcher and Phonostalgia host  Ryan Barna that microfilm copies of the “missing” blue production-history cards for Victor 18255 have been found in the Sony archives by Sam Brylawski — filed not under 18255, but under the catalog number of RCA’s 1967 LP reissue (LPV-547)! We then double-checked with Victor expert John Bolig, who was also able to locate his scans of the cards as well, and kindly forwarded them.

The most important news: The blue card states that 250,983 copies of Victor 18255 were pressed. Far short of the common million-seller claim, but more in line with what we’d expect for a best-seller of the period. Assuming this figure is correct, actual sales would have been a bit less (deducting free copies, breakage, dealer returns, leftover inventory destroyed when the record was deleted, etc.). In the interest of full disclosure, the blue-card figures could be off a bit, as John notes:

“Many years later somebody counted the pressings for a trial, and the company reported 250,983 copies had been pressed UP TO THAT TIME. I don’t know when that trial happened, but the record was deleted from the 1927 catalog. If the trial was earlier, more copies may have been pressed. If it was later, then the total is probably final and presumably accurate.”

It’s possible that this was the 1943 RCA–Decca trial, in which RCA submitted a tally of annual Victor record sales from 1901 through 1941. If so, 250,983 copies would likely have been the final tally; and presumably a reasonably accurate one, since the annual tally was formally entered into evidence at the trial.

Whatever the case, this is the only primary-source document  located in the Victor archives so far that relates to the sales of 18255  — and as such, we trust it far more than the claims of some aging ODJB band members, who didn’t produce any documentary evidence to back up their boast, or the countless pop-culture writers who have uncritically swallowed that tale.

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We don’t have permission from Sony to reproduce the card scans here. But the other key bits of information relating to Victor 18255, as relayed by both Ryan and John from the blue card and recording ledger information, are confirmation that these recordings were indeed originally made as trials, and were not accepted and assigned master numbers until March 1; that testing was not completed and approved until March 10 (eliminating any possibility of the March 5 release claimed by Rudi Blesh and others); and that the record was assigned to the May 1917 supplement (which would have been issued in late April). John suspects that the “March 1917 Special” notation might have been added to the card at a later date:

“The blue card for ‘Dixieland Jass Band, One Step’ (‘That Teasin’ Rag’) has handwriting on it that may have been added when the record was issued on LX-3007 [in 1954], and somebody using that pen and much darker ink seems to have added “Mar 1917 Special” above the “Date listed” cell that reads May 1917. That notation about a special release does not appear on the card for the other side. The writer penned the letter S twice in the same distinctive style on the word “Special” and on the words “Side 1” [the latter on a line referring to the 1954 LP reissue, which also gives the track number]. I doubt that employee was at Victor for the 1917 release and later for the LP release.

“I have dealt with these cards most of my life, and I seriously doubt that a record sent to the lab on March 9th could have been listed in a March special announcement. The absence of the notation on the other card supports my belief that a March announcement was almost impossible given the time required to design and print labels, press records and prepare them for distribution.”

 

Ryan has done some excellent sleuthing for ads and other materials confirming that Victor 18255 was on sale in some locations by late April (although apparently not before that) — in other words, a few weeks earlier than the “official” May 17 release date, but far later than Blesh’s logistically impossible March 5 date. He’ll be posting those ads and revealing the results of his investigation (which has turned up many interesting details regarding the initial release that we’ve not presented here) on the Phonostalgia site — be sure to pay him a visit.

— Allan Sutton

Free Download: John Bolig’s Victor Black Label Discography, Vol. 5 (1935 – 1942)

msp_bolig-j_vbld

John Bolig’s many fans will be happy to hear that his new Victor Black Label Discography, Volume 5 is now available as a free download, courtesy of UC-Santa Barbara’s online Discography of American Historical Recordings (< click this link to get to the download site).

Volume 5 — the first in this important series for which there will be no printed edition — covers the 25000, 26000, and 27000 series, from 1935 to 1942. Like all previous volumes, it was compiled from the original RCA documentation and contains no speculative or anecdotal material — just the (non-alternative) facts.

The download is in searchable PDF format (Adobe Acrobat or Reader) and can be printed out for personal use. For book enthusiasts, Mainspring Press still has  copies of Volumes 1–4 available (which are not available as free downloads), but quantities are very limited, so order soon to avoid missing out — they’re sure to become collectors’ items.