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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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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Early Columbia Cylinder Phonograph Outfits (Chicago Projecting Company, c. 1901 – 1902)

Some tantalizing ads for Columbia cylinder outfits from a rare catalog issued by the Chicago Projecting Company (225 Dearborn Street). In addition to projectors, films, stereoptions and slides, and related items, the company stocked a wide array of Columbia and and Victor merchandise.

The catalog is undated but includes Victor Monarch “pre-matrix” discs that were recorded as late as October 1901, suggesting a late 1901 or early 1902 publication. By that time, high-volume molded cylinders were beginning to enter the market, and the ear-tubes, oversized “exhibition horns,” and Concert-type cylinders offered here were on the verge of obsolescence.

One page implies that the company was making its own cylinders, picturing an unbranded cylinder and bragging that “our records…made with much greater care than the ordinary records,” while another shows a Concert-type cylinder in a special Chicago Projecting Company box (but with a Columbia lid). In fact, they were all Columbia cylinders, using Columbia’s catalog numbers.

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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.

 

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.

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).

 

Discography of American Historical Recordings – Update: Part 1 of the American Zonophone Discography Is Now Online

If you’ve been following the Mainspring Press blog lately, you know that we are no longer publishing any new printed discographies, but instead licensing our discographical data to the University of California–Santa Barbara’s online Discography of American Historical Recordings. As much as I love books, I’ve long felt that digital databases offer a clear advantage for archiving and disseminating this sort of material (not to mention eliminating the ever-increasing costs of production, printing, shipping, and labor).

DAHR is staffed by, and associated with, some of the most knowledgeable people in the field. In recent years it has emerged as the largest and most authoritative source of discographical data relating to the 78-rpm era. A tremendous amount of Victor, Columbia, Brunswick-Vocalion, and Decca data from the original company files have already been digitized and made freely available as searchable databases, and much more is to come.

Now we can add American Zonophone to the list, with thanks to Sam Brylawski, David Seubert, and the DAHR staff for helping to make that possible. The first Zonophone installment (covering the 10″ and 12″ standard-catalog releases of 1904–1912) is now online and includes the latest revisions and updates to the printed volume that was published by Mainspring in 2012.
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The next Zonophone installment, covering the 7″ and 9″  releases of 1900–1906, is undergoing final editing and fact-checking here, for submission to DAHR within the next month or two (there are no plans for a printed edition). Much of this material is previously unpublished and includes the first systematic cataloging of remakes, reissues, relabelings, altered stampers, etc.

For book enthusiasts, the Zonophone 10” / 12” volume can still be purchased on the Mainspring Press website, although supplies are running low — We’d advise ordering soon if interested, since  Mainspring will not be reprinting any of its discographies once current the current inventory has sold out.

— Allan Sutton

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

Forgotten American Recording Pioneers • Alexander Maloof

msp_maloof-labels

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Alexander Maloof was a second-generation Syrian immigrant who carved a niche for himself in the 1920s with the Maloof and Music of the Orient labels. Although known primarily for championing Middle Eastern music, Maloof was also a capable pop composer. He was a survivor as well — when times got tough in the early 1930s, he kept himself afloat by recording pipe-organ solos for skating rinks and funeral homes.

Maloof’s exact birth date remains questionable. His Social Security death record states that he was born on August 10, 1886. However, his tombstone states 1887; the 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census files state 1885, while the 1940 Census goes far afield with “about 1895″; and a copyright filing with the U.S. Patent & Trademark office lists 1884. Although various publications in the 1920s stated that Maloof was Turkish or Egyptian, his passport application and Social Security records state that he was born in Syria. The family, headed by Chames Maloof, apparently arrived in the U.S. in or around 1894, based on a 1925 report. On October 29 of that year, Maloof filed a declaration of intent to apply for naturalized citizenship.

By the early 1910s, Maloof was becoming well-known on the New York musical scene. In 1913 he recorded two of his original piano compositions — “Al-Ja-Za-Yer” (made as a test on July 24, and subsequently accepted for release) and “A Trip to Syria” (on September 16) — for the Victor Talking Machine Company. In a unusual move, the titles were assigned to both the ethnic and standard catalogs, as Victor 65830 and Victor 17443, respectively. Apparently, neither release sold well enough to earn Maloof a second Victor session.

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ALEXANDER MALOOF (piano): A Trip to Syria

New York: September 16, 1913
Victor 17443 (mx. B 13808 – 2)

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The E. T. Paull Music Company published two of Maloof’s dance numbers, “Ticklish Sensation” and “The Egyptian Glide,” in 1914. The latter was available in two arrangements — Maloof’s own tango version, and a one-step-step/two-step/trot arrangement credited to Paull himself. By the late ’teens, Maloof was operating his own music studio in New York and was attracting notice for concert appearances at which he featured his original compositions.

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The tango version of Maloof’s “Egyptian Glide” (1914). E. T. Paull also provided a “One-Step,Two-Step, Trot” arrangement.

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The Maloof Phonograph Company was launched in 1920 to  specialize in traditional Middle Eastern fare. Its earliest labels show either no copyright date, or a 1920 copyright, which does not appear to have been formally registered. The earliest pressings are from masters in a three-digit M-prefixed series of unknown origin, some of which show master-broker Earle W. Jones’ characteristic handwritten “J” in the wax. Physical characteristics suggest that they were pressed by the Siemon Hard Rubber Company, with which Jones was affiliated.

By late 1922 production of the Maloof label had shifted to the Starr Piano Company (Gennett), corresponding to a new (and  also apparently unregistered) 1922 label copyright date. Maloof would become one of Gennett’s most active clients, rivaling that other highly prolific customer — Homer Rodeheaver — for the amount of time booked in Gennett’s studios.

A second Maloof line, Music of the Orient (credited to the likely fictitious “Orient Company”) appeared in or around 1923, also produced by Gennett, and using some of the same masters as the Maloof label. Although Maloof’s masters were numbered in the standard Gennett series, most were recorded for his exclusive use.

The Maloof and Music of the Orient labels seem to have disappeared by late 1925, but Maloof and his associates continued to record in Gennett’s New York studios into the summer of 1931, covering everything from Egyptian and Syrian folk music to old warhorses like “Home Sweet Home” and assorted Christian hymns. Gennett picked up the occasional title for its own use, but most were pressed as Personal records, at Maloof’s own expense. In-between, there was a visit to Victor’s New York studio on February 15, 1926, with his Oriental Orchestra. The session yielded four ethnic-catalog releases, one of which (“Egyptiana”) was also issued in the Mexican series, where it was retitled “Somali.”

Maloof held the dubious honor of having recorded the last masters ever made in Gennett’s legendary Long Island City studio, in late June 1931. (June 30, shown on the ledger sheet, is  the date on which masters were received in Richmond, not the recording date. The ledger sheet for the final Long Island session is headed “1932” in error; master numbers are contiguous with the May–June 1931 sessions listed on the previous sheets.) Maloof’s final Gennett sessions included organ solos intended for use in the company’s Chapel series, which was marketed to funeral parlors.

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From the Gennett ledgers — Top: The final session in the Long Island City studio, in late June 1931.  Bottom: One of several earlier 1931 Maloof sessions. Note that the recordings were dubbed to new N-series masters; several dubbings from these sessions were released commercially on Champion and Superior in the early 1930s, and even on Decca’s revived version of the Champion label in the mid-1930s.

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Chames Maloff died in1930, and Alexander moved to Los Angeles in 1931. He was living there by September 2 of that year, when his application for citizenship was finally accepted. However, he seems to have returned East on occasion, launching his new Orient label (credited to the Maloof Music Company of Englewood, New Jersey, and using newly recorded material) at some point in the 1940s. He died in Los Angeles on May 1, 1968.

 

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The Maloof family plot in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery,
Los Angeles. George Maloof made a few recordings for his brother’s label in 1920. (Courtesy of Irv Lightner)

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The Playlist • Tiny Parham & his Musicians (Chicago, 1929)

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TINY PARHAM & HIS MUSICIANS:  Fat Man Blues

Chicago: October 26, 1929 — Released: May 16, 1930
Victor V-38126 (mx. BVE 57335 – 2)

 

TINY PARHAM & HIS MUSICIANS:  Pig Feet and Slaw

Chicago: October 26, 1929 — Delayed Release: September 27, 1933
Victor 23410 (mx. BVE 57333 – 2)

 

TINY PARHAM & HIS MUSICIANS:  Steel String Blues

Chicago: October 26, 1929 — Delayed Release: September 27, 1933
Victor 23410 (mx. BVE 57337 – 3)

 

TINY PARHAM & HIS MUSICIANS:  Subway Sobs

Chicago: February 2, 1929 — Released: April 19, 1929
Victor V-38041 (mx. BVE 48849 – 1)

 

The original Victor files do not name band personnel for these selections (nor for most other jazz recordings of this period); the personnel listings in Jazz Records and other discographies are from uncited sources and should be considered speculative.

The Playlist • Harlem Bands on Victor, 1926–1930 — Savoy Bearcats, Fletcher Henderson, Lloyd Scott, Charlie Johnson, Red Allen

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SAVOY BEARCATS: Bearcat Stomp

New York: August 23, 1926
Released: January 1927 — Deleted: 1928
Victor 20307 (mx. BVE 36060 – 3)
Don Redman’s last name is misspelled “Radman” on the labels and in the Victor files.

 

SAVOY BEARCATS: Stampede

New York: October 11, 1926
Released: April 8, 1927 — Deleted: 1929
Victor 20460 (mx. BVE 36030 – 7; remake of August 9, 1927)
The Victor files erroneously show three violins (but no reeds) present.

 

FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Shufflin’ Sadie

New York: March 11, 1927
Victor mx. BVE 38160 – 1 (commercially unissued in 78-rpm form)
Leonard Joy, director, per Victor files (Joy was a Victor house conductor); Henderson not listed as being present, although a pianist is audible. From a c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing from the original stamper.

 

LLOYD SCOTT’S ORCHESTRA: Happy Hour Blues

New York: January 10, 1927
Released: May 13, 1927 — Deleted: 1929
Victor  20495 (mx. BVE 37531 – 2)
Ralph Peer, session supervisor, per Victor files.

 

CHARLIE JOHNSON & HIS PARADISE BAND: The Boy in the Boat

New York: September 19, 1928
Bluebird B-10248 (mx. BVE 47531 – 1)
Bluebird B-10248 (released May 1939) is the original form of issue for take 1; take 2 was issued in December 1928, on Victor 21712. Victor files list “The Rock” as alternate title.

 

JOE STEELE & HIS ORCHESTRA: Top and Bottom

New York: June 4, 1929
Victor mx. BVE 53809 – 2 (commercially unissued in 78-rpm form)
From a c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing from the original stamper. Take 1 was issued on Victor V-38066 on August 16, 1929.

 

HENRY ALLEN, JR. & HIS ORCHESTRA (Henry [Red] Allen, vocal): Patrol Wagon Blues

New York (24th Street studio): July 15, 1930
Released: October 24, 1930
Victor mx. BVE 62345 – 2 (issued on Victor 23006)
Loren L. Watson, session supervisor, per Victor files. From a c. 1960s custom vinyl pressing from the original stamper.

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The Playlist • Sounds of 1901 (Victor Monarch Records)

A 1901 sampler, from Eldridge R. Johnson’s studios. Several of these recordings pre-date Johnson’s creation of the Victor Talking Machine Company, on October 3, 1901. At the time, Johnson and Harry O. Sooy (his chief recording engineer) were producing remarkably well-balanced, forward-sounding masters that were markedly superior (even with the surface noise) to the later thin, tinny “Victor sound.”

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METROPOLITAN ORCHESTRA: Plantation Pastimes

Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): March 2, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3163 (-1)

 

DAN W. QUINN: Ain’t That a Shame

Philadelphia (424 S. 10th Street): November 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3525 (-2)
The spoken intro is damaged and has been deleted from this transfer.

 

DAN W. QUINN: I Ain’t A-Going to Weep No More

Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): February 27, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3149 (-1)

 

JOSEPH NATUS: The Fatal Rose of Red

Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): February 16, 1901 (?)
Monarch Record 683 (renumbering of Victor Monarch 3114)
Natus remade this selection on November 26, 1901. Moran & Fagan’s transcription of the Victor files shows the original version as being used on all renumbered pressings, but this might be in error; the original master was returned as no longer usable on October 3, 1902, pre-dating the 1903–style  (sunken-label) stamper used for this transfer.

 

VESS L. OSSMAN: Salome — Intermezzo

Camden, NJ (Johnson Factory Building): January 21, 1901
Victor Monarch Record 3049 (-1)

 

Studio locations are per Harry Sooy, Victor’s chief recording engineer at the time. The piano accompanists are uncredited in the Victor files and on the labels. Victor’s usual pianists during this period were C. H. H. Booth and Frank P. Banta (the latter the father of 1920s novelty pianist Frank E. Banta). The occasional speed fluctuations are defects in the original recordings.

The Playlist • Victor Tip-Toes Into the Race Record Market (1923)

Victor’s management remained aloof in the face of the blues craze until mid-1923, when they reluctantly decided to try a few blues-inflected titles by black singers. They made only a minimal effort, turning to publisher/talent-broker Joe Davis, who ran a booming business dispatching pre-packaged singers and accompanists, armed with his latest hits, to record-company executives who lacked the skills or desire to develop a race-record catalog on their own. Davis’ singers (some of whom had come to him from the defunct Black Swan operation) were a competent if undistinguished lot, able to make quick work of whatever was handed them for very little money.

In the group of recordings presented here, Rosa Henderson, Lena Wilson, Lizzie Miles, and their accompanists all came from Davis’ stable. They were local cabaret and vaudeville performers, and their work paled in comparison with the greats like Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, and Ma Rainey, who were beginning to appear on competing labels whose managers made the effort to scout truly great talent. But it was a start, at least, for what was then one of the most hidebound, complacent companies in the industry.

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Victor’s first “blues” ad (Chicago Defender, August 4, 1923)

That summer, Victor took what was (for it) the unprecedented step of placing a large display ad in The Chicago Defender, the nation’s leading black newspaper, announcing their new “blues” records. Besides the first titles by Davis’ singers, there was a comedy skit by Moss & Frye; a couple of pop-ish duets by Sissle & Blake; and two generic-sounding fox trots by Arthur Gibbs & his Gang. Victor also dredged up their 1921 medley sides by the “Shuffle Along” pit orchestra for the list.

For the full story of Victor’s involvement in the race-record market, be sure to check out Race Records and the American Recording Industry, 1919–1945: An Illustrated History, the latest release from Mainspring Press.

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LIZZIE MILES (CLARENCE JOHNSON, piano): You’re Always Messin’ ‘Round with My Man

New York: May 23, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19083 (mx. B 28025 – 3)

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LENA WILSON (PORTER GRAINGER, piano): ‘T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do

New York: May 9, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19085 (mx. B 27894 – 3)

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NOBLE SISSLE (EUBIE BLAKE, piano): Down-Hearted Blues

Camden, NJ: May 25, 1923 — First advertised August 4, 1923
Victor 19086  (mx. B 27976 – 3)

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LIZZIE MILES (Clarence Johnson, piano): Cotton Belt Blues

New York: July 19, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19124 (mx. B 28298 – 4)

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ROSA HENDERSON (with uncredited band): Midnight Blues

New York: July 19, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19124 (mx. B 28299 – 4)
The accompaniment is credited to Fletcher Henderson’s Orchestra in most discographies, with no source cited, although the aural evidence does suggest that at least some of Henderson’s men were present. The Victor files show only “Colored Orchestra – Edward T. King, director” (King was the Manager and Chief Petty Tyrant of Victor’s New York studio at the time).

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JAMES P. JOHNSON: Bleeding-Hearted Blues

Camden, NJ: July 25, 1923 — Released October 1923
Victor 19123 (mx. B 28197 – 6)

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