Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are Now Available Online

Ray Wile’s Research Materials Are
Now Available Online

 

A Growing Treasure-Trove of Historical Documents Is Now Easily Accessible to Researchers and the Phono-Curious

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Thomas Edison at his New Jersey mining operation

 

For vintage-record and phonograph collectors of a certain age, Raymond R. Wile is a legendary name that needs no introduction. For younger folks, or those who are newer to the field: Ray was among the foremost experts on the early U.S. phonograph and recording industries in general, and Edison in particular. His long-running series of articles in the ARSC Journal set new standards for research in the field.

Ray’s work was based on his astonishing archive of primary-source documents, painstakingly sought-out and copied long before the Internet made such quests considerably easier. At the time of his death several years ago, there was the inevitable question of where this invaluable (and massive) collection should reside.

Realizing that donating the collection to a large institution would probably be condemning it to a black hole — as happened to the late Jim Walsh’s materials at the Library of Congress, which left them uncatalogued for years, and has yet to make them available online — the family made the wise decision to hand  custodianship to a private individual with expertise in the field, who would contractually agree to curate, index, and make the materials easily available to the public, online and free of charge, within a reasonable time.

The individual selected was Ryan Barna, who many of you know from his Phonostalgia website, Archeophone program notes, and other writings — and it’s proven to be an excellent choice. Ryan has been doing a remarkable job of sorting, scanning, and posting these invaluable documents, beginning with selected court cases (oh, how those early companies loved to sue each other!), internal Edison documents, and other materials that are not readily obtainable elsewhere.

To date, Ryan has posted 200 documents on the Internet Archive site, and that’s just the beginning. CLICK HERE to access the currently available documents, or Google “Raymond R. Wile Research Library.” Be sure to check out the site and show your support for the important work Ryan is doing.

 

A Victor Playing-Speed Cover-Up

A Victor Playing-Speed Cover-Up

 

It’s long been known, particularly among classical collectors, that most acoustic Victor “78s” were not recorded at 78 rpm. Hundreds of Red Seals of 1905–early 1920s vintage have been expertly pitched-to-score over the years, and the overwhelming majority of those tested play in correct pitch at speeds ranging from 75.0 to 76.6 rpm. Only a small handful of those tested from this period play at or very near 78 rpm.

Victor officials insisted to the public that 78 rpm was the correct playing speed, which could well have been true during the company’s early days (see the first entry in “Caruso at the Correct Speed,” below). But that had not been the case for many years when, in 1917, a catalog writer accidentally let the cat out of the bag:

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An in-house admission that Victor was recording at 76 rpm, from a meeting of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Executive Committee on April 25, 1917 (Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, DE)

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And so, a cover-up was ordered, and “78” would remain the official Victor playing speed, as far as the public was to know — even as the company continued to record consistently in the 75–76 rpm range. (78 rpm would finally be made standard with Victor’s adoption of electrical recording in 1925, although minor deviations occasionally occurred even after that.)

Of course, this just confirms what most collectors’ ears have been telling them for years. Nudge the speed down to where it belongs on your Victor acoustics, and you’ll find that voices sound less cartoonish, tempos less hurried, and the records perhaps just a little less “tinny.”

 

Caruso at the Correct Speed:
A Random Sampling by Session Date

The following correct playing speeds have been established by multiple reliable sources. Note the use of ~78 rpm in 1904, followed by a steady downward trend in speed (aside from the occasional anomaly) as the years progressed.

Our thanks to John Bolig, in whose Caruso Records: A History and Discography these appear:

Feb 1, 1904 — 78.26
Feb 27, 1905 — 76.6
Feb 11, 1906 — 76.6
Feb 20, 1907 — 76.0
Feb 7, 1908 — 78.26
Nov 6, 1909 — 75.0
Jan 6, 1910 — 76.6
Dec 27, 1911 — 76.6
Jan 19, 1912 — 76.6
Feb 24, 1913 — 76.6
Mar 9, 1914 — 76.6
Jan 7, 1915 — 75.0
Feb 5, 1916 — 75.0
Apr 15, 1917 — 75.0
Jul 10, 1918 — 75.0
Feb 10, 1919 — 76.6
Sep 14, 1920 — 75.0
Sep 16, 1920 — 75.0

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The Victor Pict-Ur-Music Story & John Bolig’s Victor Film and Theater Records Discography (Free Download)

Latest Addition to the Mainspring Press Free
Online Reference Library:

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Download Free Personal-Use Edition (pdf, ~1.5 mb)

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

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Two New Online Publications from John Bolig (Free Downloads)

Download Free for Personal Use

Two New Online Publications from John Bolig

 

HISTORIC MASTERS:
An Updated Discography
John R. Bolig

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The Historic Masters program was launched in the early 1970s by the British Institute of Recorded Sound, in affiliation with EMI, to produce new pressings of long-deleted or previously unissued operatic recordings. It made available some of the rarest recordings of the early 78 era, pressed directly from the original metal parts on high-quality vinyl. Now out of print, Historic Masters releases are sought out by collectors as a less costly (and usually less noisy) alternative to the scarce original editions, or in some cases, as first editions of previously unissued material.

Unfortunately, the care that went into producing the pressings wasn’t always reflected in the label copy, which can contain errors and omissions in regard to the discographical data. John Bolig remedies that situation in his new discography, drawing on the original Gramophone Company file data. Titles are given in their full and correct form, in the language in which the selections were sung — a practice not always observed on the HM labels. In addition, correct playing speeds have been revised, where needed, with the assistance of Grammy Award nominee Ward Marston.

 

Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~ 1 mb)
(Free for Personal Use)

Publication © 2020 by John R. Bolig.
All rights are reserved.

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THE VICTOR MONTHLY SUPPLEMENTS:
Volume 1: 1904
From the collection of
John R. Bolig

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Victor’s monthly catalog supplements are a treasure trove of discographical and historical data, photos, and biographical snippets. Mainspring is digitizing these remarkable pamphlets, beginning with the 1904 run. The 1905 and 1906 editions are currently in preparation for release later this summer.

 

Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~40 mb)
(Free for Personal Use)

Compilation and digital restorations © 2020 by Mainspring Press LLC. Images may be printed out for personal use. Resale or other commercial use is prohibited.

 


These publications are part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in historical recorded-sound research.

These copyrighted publication are intended for personal, non-commercial use only. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution by any means, including but not limited to e-book or online database conversion, is prohibited. Please read, and be sure to observe, our terms of use as outlined in the file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.

 

Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

Caruso Records with Berliner Labels Found in Canada (Michael Jarvis & John Bolig)

CARUSO RECORDS WITH BERLINER LABELS
FOUND IN CANADA
By Michael Jarvis and John Bolig

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Jarvis:
One of the results of the world-wide Coronavirus pandemic is the lockdown and subsequent social distancing required of us all. So, I’ve been stuck at home vacuuming and I happily realized I have unprecedented free time to explore my record collection.

About fifteen years ago I was offered part of a large record collection that was being dispersed. Among the discs were a quantity of early Canadian Berliners: pre-Victor brown labels, as well as a number of Monarchs, and early 10” and 12” Red Seal labels. At the time I quickly sorted and filed them. I knew there were two early Caruso recordings in there, but never paid much heed as the performances were already known (“Recondita armonia” from the opera Tosca, and the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana.)

Fast-forward to last week, when, with lots of time on my hands, I looked them up in the Discography of American Historical Recordings, where “Recondita” was listed as “Canadian issue not verified”. I had the disc in my hand (which totally verified it DOES exist), contacted DAHR with the information, and then began a lovely correspondence with David Seubert. David then contacted John Bolig, who was, as he put it, “flipping out” over this. And, here we are…

 

Bolig: The discovery of two Caruso records with Berliner labels was a bit humiliating for me. I have produced two Caruso discographies, and I had never seen one of his records with a Berliner label. The records were produced in Canada in about 1904 before Emile Berliner called his company “His Master’s Voice”, and before he applied Victor-style red labels to recordings that he imported and marketed there. The discovery, and how Michael Jarvis contacted me is interesting, but how we determined the matrix data for the records is fascinating and it worked perfectly for us.

 

Jarvis: Both discs are single-sided 10”, and pressed in that lovely brown shellac that Berliner seemed to prefer in this period. I don’t know if that particular shellac helps with surface noise reduction, but relatively speaking, the surfaces of both discs are very quiet. Both labels are brown with gold writing, both have the brass grommet in the spindle hole. There is no information in the dead wax, apart from the record numbers. “Recondita armonia” plays at perfectly fine at ca.78 rpm, but at that same speed in the second record, the “Siciliana” from Cavalleria Rusticana, Caruso sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk. Something was slightly amiss…

 

Bolig: The titles for the two records convinced me that Berliner had secured two of Caruso’s 1904 recordings, but we had to make sure that the Berliners matched those pressed by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Unfortunately, there were no markings in the space next to the label that were of much help to us. They had been buffed out by the Canadian plant. Listening to the records did not seem to be an option, so I suggested a technique that I have used for years to compare two recordings.

Comparing different takes has always been a challenge for collectors. Listening to the records and hoping to hear clues about differences can be highly subjective, and there is an assumption that both versions were pitched properly and that the condition of the record surface was comparable. I have been measuring groove width for about sixty years and I have only found two takes by an artist that measured exactly the same despite the fact that they were different takes. Rosa Ponselle recorded an aria twice and both versions have exactly the same dimensions.

I pulled out the Victor recordings that Caruso made of the two arias in February of 1904, and I measured the width of the grooved area. Next, I measured the distance across the label from one end of the grooved area to the other. I sent my measurements for the two Victor recordings to Mr. Jarvis, and one was a perfect match; the other was a bit of a surprise. Mr. Jarvis sent me different measurements for the aria from Cavalleria Rusticana!

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I remembered that Victor had issued some imported G&T recordings in 1903 and that one of them was of Caruso singing the “Siciliana”. I made the two measurements of Victor catalog number 5012 and it was a perfect match to within 1/16 of an inch to those made by Mr. Jarvis. No doubt about it, the second record was recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902. Two men, armed with rulers, and working 3,000 miles apart had correctly identified the two Berliner records.

 

Jarvis: So, mystery solved!

Early Canadian Berliners do turn up from time to time, especially in Canada. In fact, just a few weeks ago I found, on Vancouver Island, BC, a strange pressing by Berliner of a Laughing Song from a G&T master, recorded in Oslo in 1904 (and announced in Norwegian!) I encourage you, especially if you’re in Canada, to pick up these discs if you come across them. If there are two hitherto unknown Canadian Caruso pressings, who knows what else there might be from this fascinating period of recording history? There was a practice of sometimes reserving alternate takes for the Canadian market, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check the rest of my collection with the DAHR to see if I can complicate David and John’s lives further.

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The Victrola in Rural Schools (July 1919 Edition)

The Victrola in Rural Schools
(Revised Edition, July 1919)

 

The Victrola in Rural Schools was published to promote the Victor School Machine (technically the Model XXV, Victor’s last external-horn phonograph) and the company’s extensive catalog of “educational” records.

And just to make sure the kiddies also got some culture, the booklet recommended a healthy dose of classical and operatic Red Seals. It’s fun to imagine how Galli-Curci’s rendition in Italian of the “Bell Song” from Lakme (“Have students note the exquisite tone, the long-sustained notes, the echo effects, the trills”) might have gone over in, say, Pumpkin Center, Colorado.
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Advice to Teachers:

“Do not permit promiscuous and irresponsible playing of records.”

“Respect for good music may be inculcated if silence be invariably required while records are being played.”

“Simply hearing records played is only the first step. There must be discriminating hearing, correlation, discussion, relation to facts historical, geographical, etc., appreciation of mood, thought, color, story, etc. Then there must necessarily come response, tests, etc.”

“Listen intently while Record No. 18145 is played… Develop the meaning of such unusual words as ‘palaces,’ ‘hallow,’ ‘drear wild,’ ‘woodbine,’ ‘dazzles,’ ‘thatched,’ etc.”

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Newest Free Download: The Victor Discography — Blue, Green, and Purple Labels by John R. Bolig

Newest Free Download

The Victor Discography: Blue, Green, and Purple Labels
(1910 – 1926)
By John R. Bolig

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In February 1910, Victor flooded the market with fifteen new recordings by Harry Lauder, setting off a shouting match with Edison over who had exclusive rights to the comedian. Victor had previously issued some of Lauder’s British recordings on its standard black label, but these new releases were different — recorded in the U.S., and issued on a striking new royal-purple label.

Over the next few months, it became apparent that the new purple-label discs were not reserved for Lauder alone. Victor Herbert’s popular orchestra was lured away from an already-peeved Edison, and selections began to appear by some of Broadway’s top stars (many of them previously unrecorded). For budget-conscious classical enthusiasts, there were well-known concert artists deemed not quite worthy of Red Seal status, but still perfectly respectable. For the adventure-minded, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Peary recounted their polar expeditions.

Several months after the purples were launched, Victor introduced yet another line, the double-sided blue-label series. At first, it served only as a reissue vehicle for imported operatic recordings licensed from The Gramophone Company, along with some Arabic selections (now incredibly rare) recorded in Cairo and Beirut. But in February 1913, the blue label was recast as a double-sided companion to the single-sided purples, and the latter were slowly phased out.

The blue-label line was one of Victor’s most diverse, running the gamut from comedy monologues and Broadway hits to opera (grand, light, and in-between), classical (from the usual lollipops to complete extended works), the premier recording of Rhapsody in Blue, cantorials, exotic imports from around the globe, bird imitations, exercise records by boxer Gene Tunney — and, of course, copious helpings of Harry Lauder’s interminable ruminating.

The obscure green-label series was an “educational” line, best known for its vocal-instruction series produced under the supervision of Oscar Saenger. But perhaps its most intriguing offering was the “American Speech” series (issued at first on the Red Seal label, then transferred to green, and later to brown), which captured a wide range of American dialects, some of which have since vanished or evolved nearly beyond recognition.

It’s all here, carefully transcribed from the original Victor files. We think you’ll be amazed by the scope and diversity of these under-studied and often under-appreciated records.

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Download File for Personal Use (print-restricted) (pdf , ~2mb)
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The Victor Light Opera Company is the latest addition to Mainspring’s rapidly growing Free Online Reference Library. As with all titles in the Library, this is a copyrighted publication and is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. You can help ensure that we continue to offer these free titles (and protect yourself from potential legal problems) by honoring our terms of use, as outlined at the beginning of each file.

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Victor monthly supplement excerpts courtesy of John Bolig

Latest Free Download • The Victor Light Opera Company Discography (John R. Bolig)

Latest Free Download

The Victor Light Opera Company Discography
(1909–1930)
By John R. Bolig
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Victor’s “Gems from…” discs were among the first records many of us encountered as budding young collectors. Like them or not,  they were still seemingly everywhere. Even now, you’re bound to run across them if you scrounge enough estate sales, junk shops, and !!RARE !!L@@K!! eBay listings.

They had been tremendous sellers, capitalizing on a popular American phenomenon of the day — grand opera sung in English by troupes of competent, if not-quite-stellar, artists. As the twentieth century began, countless small civic and private opera companies were making the glories of Verdi and Puccini accessible to the far-flung general public at affordable prices and in a language most could understand, just as the “Gems from…” series would do.

But Victor went a step farther, adding medleys from the latest hit Broadway shows that the average American was unlikely to be able to attend in person. In the process, the good folks at Victor  unwittingly preserved many now-forgotten songs (albeit it in abridged versions, and sometimes taken at break-neck tempos) that otherwise went unrecorded. The company had no qualms about using stage shots from the actual productions, picturing the actual stars (who almost never performed on the records), in advertising new “Gems” releases.

The Victor Light Opera Company was a fiction, of course. It never staged any live productions, and it never appeared in public. Its “cast” members — mainly Victor’s studio work-horses — changed from one recording session to another and (with one notable exception) were not credited on the labels. But their names are preserved in the Victor ledgers and, thanks to John Bolig’s expert sleuthing and generosity in sharing his work, are now available to you in this unique publication. Enjoy!

 

The Victor Light Opera Company is the latest addition to Mainspring’s rapidly growing Free Online Reference Library. As with all titles in the Library, this is a copyrighted publication and is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. You can help ensure that we continue to offer these free titles (and protect yourself from potential legal problems) by honoring our terms of use, as outlined at the beginning of each file.

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Download File for Personal Use (print-restricted) (pdf , ~1mb)

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Buy Direct from Mainspring Press:

Winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence in Historical Recorded-Sound Research, this unique volume contains more than 1,100 entries covering the record companies, independent studios, and individual producers — and the thousands of disc and cylinder brands they produced for the commercial market (including consumer, jukebox, and subscription labels) — from the birth of commercial recording to the start of the LP era.

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
– Tim Fabrizio, ARSC Journal

American Record Companies and Producers will forever be the ultimate resource.”
– John R. Bolig, author of The Victor Discographies

“I am in awe of the scope, breadth, detail
and documentation.”

– James A. Drake, author of Ponselle: A Singer’s Life and Richard Tucker: A Biography


DETAILS AND SECURE ONLINE ORDERING

 

 

110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the Fisk University Jubilee Quartet (Plus Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “When Malindy Sings”)

110 Years Ago at Victor: Introducing the
Fisk University Jubilee Quartet

With Photographs from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s
When Malindy Sings

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Victor announces the first Fisk Jubilee Singers releases
(catalog courtesy of John Bolig)

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On February 19, 1910, the Victor Talking Machine Company released the first recordings by a quartet from the Fisk Jubilee Singers — a widely celebrated group that nevertheless had been ignored thus far by the recording companies. They were not the first black vocal group to record, by any means (see Tim Brooks’ Lost Sounds for more on that), but those groups had failed to gain traction in the record market, and their names were mostly dim memories by the time Victor released its first Fisk records.

Blues-and-gospel purists often dismiss these records as pandering to white audiences with “sanitized” or “Europeanized” treatment of traditional spirituals. But that was precisely the strategy — to present black music and performers in a concert setting, in a bid to attract white audiences who might otherwise have never considered attending a performance or purchasing a record by a black artist — and it succeeded wonderfully. Victor’s initial Fisk offerings were outstanding sellers and are still among the most commonly encountered records of the period. The Fisk singers, with periodic personnel changes, went on to make dozens of recordings for Victor, Edison, and Columbia from 1910 to early 1926.

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FISK UNIVERSITY JUBILEE QUARTET: I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray

Camden NJ: December 8, 1909
Victor 16448 (mx. B 8422 – 2)
Released February 10, 1909; Deleted 1923.

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For their other February 1910 Fisk release, Victor slipped into more typical “good-old-plantation-days” mode, having the group record Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” and backing it with J. A. Myers’ recitation of the Paul Laurence Dunbar poem, “When Malindy Sings.” Although Dunbar was African-American, and his work can be deeply moving at times, he employed stereotypical minstrel-show dialect that is almost unreadable, and difficult to stomach,  today. Myers’ recitation is an anomaly among the Fisk Jubilee Singers’ recorded output.

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From Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1903). The book is notable for its photographs by members of the Hampton Institute Camera Club, headed by Leigh Richard Miner; names of the individual photographers unfortunately were not given. (Mainspring Press collection):

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The Mitchell Brothers (John & Bill Mitchell) • Newspaper Highlights (1915–1939)

The Mitchell Brothers (John & Bill Mitchell)
Newspaper Highlights (1915–1939)

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Although remembered primarily as members of Carson Robison’s synthetic-cowboy band in the 1930s, that was John and Bill Mitchell’s second act. Their first show-business career had begun much earlier, as a novelty banjo-and-vocal act. They were performing professionally by the time they were in prep school, honed their skills with the University of Washington’s “Pain Killer” Banjo Band in the late ’teens, and by the early 1920s were traveling the vaudeville circuits. By the time Robison tapped the brothers for his Bucakroos in 1932, they had retired from the stage and were running an oil-burner business, but Robison finally persuaded them to join his new band by dangling a trip to England as an incentive.

The Mitchells’ first recording session was brokered by California Ramblers manager Ed Kirkeby, who at that time was still managing other artists as well as his own band. It was held for Pathé on April 26, 1923, according to Kirkeby’s files, and the resulting sides — “Blue Hoosier Blues” and “Banjo Blues” (issued simultaneously on Pathé 021002 and Perfect 11123) — were inexplicably issued under the alias, “McGavock & Tillman” (and later, disguised as “Harper & Coralie” for a Cameo reissue).

In late 1924, the Mitchells signed with Victor and recorded several sides acoustically over a couple of months. Unfortunately, the records were released in February 1925, just as the company was upgrading to electrical recording, and they were deleted when much of the acoustic catalog was purged in 1926. They returned to Victor in October of that year for a final side.

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Capsule biography of the Mitchell Brothers (Kenosha [WI] Evening News, January 26, 1927)

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One of the earliest ads for the Mitchell Brothers (Hot Springs, Arkansas, April 1915), while they were still prep-school students.

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John and Bill Mitchell (left) as members of the University of Washington “Pain Killer” Banjo Band, Decemeber 1919.

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Playing the Liberty in Spokane, Washington, May 1921 (top) and September 1922.

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Seattle, June 1921

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Announcement of the Mitchell Brothers’ first record to be issued under their own name (Victor 19531), January 1925. The recordings were made in New York on November 26, 1924.

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Nashville, July 1926

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The Mitchell Brothers with Carson Robison’s make-believe cowboy band (variously billed as the Pioneers or the Buckaroos), March 1934. Pearl Pickens, who had attended Julliard, and was Bill Mitchell’s wife.

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A 1939 Screen and Radio Weekly account of the Buckaroos’ formation. Note the reference to college graduates John and Bill Mitchell as “a couple of cowhands,” typical of the shtick that went along with synthetic country-and-western groups like Robison’s.    

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MITCHELL BROTHERS: Nobody Knows What a Redhead Mama Can Do

New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31599 – 2)

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MITCHELL BROTHERS: Popular Medley (Linger While; Doo Wacka Doo; Eliza; Doodle Doo Doo)

New York: January 9, 1925
Victor 19561 (mx. B 31598 – 4)

John Mitchell (tenor vocal, banjo); Bill Mitchell (baritone vocal, banjo)

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We still have some copies of American Record Labels & Producers 1888-1950 (winner of the 2019 ARSC Award for Excellence), but stocks are running low on this special limited edition. Order soon to ensure delivery in time for Christmas!

 

Correcting “Country Music” (PBS) • Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story

Correcting Country Music (PBS)
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Jimmie Rodgers’ Record Royalties: The Actual Story
By Allan Sutton

 

Ken Burns’ Country Music (PBS) offers up its share of errors and hoary, now-debunked anecdotes, some of which are sufficiently egregious that they’re worth addressing here. For starters, there’s the matter of the royalties paid on Jimmie Rodgers’ Victor record sales.

As the Burns team would have, Rodgers enjoyed sudden wealth from the royalties on sale of his records — but that was not the case. In fact, during his first two years with Victor, Rodgers not only received no royalties on his record sales, but was one of Victor’s lowest-paid artists.

Any sudden wealth that might have come Rodgers’ way from 1927 into early 1929 would have come from live-performance fees and sales of his sheet music (which Ralph Peer published, and on which he held the copyrights), not from record-sale royalties — because none were paid during that time.

Fortunately, there is reliable, primary-source documentation concerning this matter, in the official minutes of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s Managers’ Committee — a source with which the Burns team was obviously unfamiliar and in which, had they looked, they would have found some fascinating glimpses into the workings of Ralph Peer and the nascent market for country music records.

As the minutes make clear, in three separate entries at various times, Rodgers was paid no royalties on sales of his records from 1927 until mid-February 1929. During that period, he received only a flat payment of $75 per approved title, with an agreement to  raise that figure to $100 in July 1929 and to $150 in July 1930, but still without a royalties provision. By comparison, Victor at the time was paying pseudo-hillbilly Vernon Dalhart a $400 advance per title, against an artist royalty of 1¢ per side (½¢ for duets) on his record sales.

In early 1929, Rodgers finally “expressed dissatisfaction” with the existing pay agreement, and Victor executives approved a revised package, superseding the original agreement. Beginning on February 15, 1929, Rodgers was to receive a $100 advance per approved selection, against an artist royalty of ½¢ per side. The change was reported in the Managers’ Committee’s minutes for March 6, 1929:

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That still fell far short of what Victor had been paying Dalhart. However, Dalhart had priced himself out Victor’s good graces some months earlier, insisting on a $25,000 annual guarantee and the right to record for any other companies he chose. (Managers’ Committee minutes, June 6, 1928). Estimating that Victor would have to sell 2.5 million records a year just to meet that guarantee, management decided not to renew Dalhart, who soon began a long downward spiral.

Dalhart’s loss of his Victor contract almost certainly worked to Rodgers’ advantage, with Victor officials noting, “While [Dalhart] is practically the leading artist of his type, we have other artists which we can build up to take his place… .”  And build they certainly did, in Rodgers’ case.

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For the stories behind the many country music labels and producers you won’t hear mentioned on Ken Burns’ Country Music, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950, a special limited edition available exclusively from Mainspring Press and Nauck’s Vintage Records.

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Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag” to “Spooning and Ballooning”

Sam Moore: From “Laughing Rag”
to “Spooning and Ballooning”
By Allan Sutton

 

Related Post: Sam Moore’s “Guitar Accordion Pipe Organ”

 

Sam Moore’s 1921 Victor recording of “Laughing Rag” is an astonishing record for the period, blending Southern folk, Hawaiian, and ragtime influences in a way unlike anything that had been heard on records up to that time. Music historian Dick Spottswood has praised Moore’s performance on that record for its “aggressive mainland verve…which stands halfway between Hawaiian and the 1920s country guitar rags of Sam McGee, Blind Blake, Roy Harvey, and Sylvester Weaver.”

The Moores had already established a reputation as musical family when Samuel Pasco Moore was born in Monticello, Florida, on June 28, 1887. His father, Samuel Lewis Moore, was a Civil War veteran and holder of a Confederate Cross of Honor. Music, however, was only an avocation for the family, which operated a successful construction business.

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Sam Moore with his family and banjo, both circa 1895
(courtesy of  Betsy Loar)

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Proficient on the violin by age seven, Sam was later sent to Macon, Georgia, to study under Professor W. C. Kaler. After a badly healed broken arm ended his aspirations as a violinist, Moore turned to the banjo and guitar and also began to experiment with everyday objects — most notably, the ordinary hand-saw — as musical instruments.

In 1919, Moore left home to audition for Florenz Ziegfeld in New York. The result was a six-moth run at Ziegfeld’s Roof Garden. For a time, the newly arrived Georgian was the toast of New York society, even serving as guest of honor at a reception hosted by the editors of The   Musical Courier that was attended by Enrico Caruso and other luminaries. “Those eminent artists,” a New York paper reported, “were so delighted by Mr. Moore’s playing on a carpenter’s hand-saw, that they hovered so closely around him that he hardly had room to play.”

Moore traveled to Chicago during the summer of 1920. There he met Harry Skinner, an employee of Lyon & Healy, the city’s leading music retailer. In September, Moore made a well-advertised appearance in Lyon & Healy’s  auditorium, at which he played his hand-saw.

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Moore’s appearance at Lyon & Healy (Chicago, September 1920)

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Skinner introduced Moore to his new invention, an eight-string steel guitar named the octo-chorda. (Although several accounts credit Moore with its invention, a 1926 news article confirms that Moore’s eight-string steel guitar was “the recent invention of Harry Skinner of Lyons & Healy in Chicago.”) Together, Moore and Skinner composed a showpiece for the octo-chorda, titled “Laughing Rag.”

Moore was soon traveling on the Keith and Orpheum vaudeville circuits, sometimes with Horace D. Davis. A great-grandson of Robert E. Lee, who also performed under the name of John Powell, Davis was an accomplished guitarist.

During the summer of 1921, Moore recorded “Laughing Rag” as an octo-chorda solo for the Gennett, Okeh, and Victor labels. Gennett 4747 was the first to be recorded, in New York on June 11, 1921, with piano accompaniment by Frank Banta. The recording was erroneously entered in the Gennett files as a hand-saw solo, and was even advertised as such in some newspapers, but the records are correctly labeled.

Okeh 4412 was released in November, coupled with Moore’s “Chain Gang Blues,” using an uncredited accompanist. Moore recorded two more octo-chorda solos for Okeh at about the same time — “Wang Wang Blues” and  “Tuck Me to Sleep in My Old ‘Tucky Home” (the latter with Davis, coupled on Okeh 4423).

But Moore’s most successful recording of “Laughing Rag,” musically as well as in terms of sales, was made for the Victor Talking Machine Company in their New York studio on August 24, 1921, originally as part of a trial session. For this version,  Moore used Horace Davis to accompany on the harp-guitar, an odd hybrid instrument with six primary strings plus an additional set of strings that resonated sympathetically.

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SAM MOORE & HORACE DAVIS: Laughing Rag

New York: August 24, 1921  (Released March 1922)
Victor 18849 (mx. B 25543 – 1)
Recorded as a test and later accepted for commercial release, per the Victor files. Originally scheduled for release on Victor 18846, coupled with Moore & Davis’ “Cry Baby Blues,” which was canceled before release.

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Victor inexplicably delayed its release of “Laughing Rag” for seven months, only to discover that they had a hit on their hands. The guitar interplay between Moore and Davis proved to be irresistible. Victor’s version remains a perennial favorite with collectors and has been commercially reissued several times, most recently on RCA’s “Classic Ragtime” CD. But of the fourteen titles Moore and Davis recorded for Victor between August 1921 and September 1922, only three were issued, the other two being straightforward “Hawaiian” numbers.

Unfortunately for modern listeners, “Laughing Rag” was an anomaly. In 1922, Moore and Davis split, and Moore teamed with Carl Freed, a ukulele- and guitar-playing comedian who also played the musical spoons. Together, they developed a novelty vaudeville act entitled “Spooning and Ballooning,” in which Moore played an inflated rubber balloon and other gadgets to Freed’s spoon accompaniment. The Columbus [Georgia] Ledger for April 9, 1924, reported that “Among the most appreciative of Sam Moore’s audiences are the negroes who go north… [they] often talk to the performer from the galleries, which makes the act ‘go big’…”

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An early review of “Spooning and Ballooning” (Altoona, Pennsylvania, October 1922)

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The long-running “Spooning and Ballooning” plays Allentown, Pennsylvania
(March 1924)

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Although Moore’s guitar work is what interests most modern collectors, his use of offbeat instruments is what captivated audiences in the 1920s. In April 1924 Moore’s father told the Columbus Courier, “That boy can music out of anything. When he was a small boy, I’ve seen him get music out of a pitchfork.” Moore didn’t leave any known recordings on the pitchfork, but he made a number of hand-saw records, beginning with “Mother Machree” for Gennett, on the reverse side of “Laughing Rag.”

By the time Moore recorded for Columbia in 1922, however, the musical-saw fad was fading in New York. Moore’s April 7, 1922, Columbia session yielded a single release (A3750), which appears to have sold poorly. A few Moore saw-solo releases followed during 1923–1924 on Brunswick and Vocalion, on some of  which Horace Davis made a reappearance, but again, sales appear to have been small.

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From a 1924 Vocalion supplement

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By the mid-1920s, with several firms marketing cheap musical saws and instruction courses, the hand-saw was largely relegated to the status of an amateur’s novelty instrument. Moore carried on, championing the hand-saw as well as a host of other instruments that had fallen from (or, in the case of the rubber balloon, never attained) grace. Interest in “Spooning and Ballooning” faded, and Moore and Freed eventually went their own ways.

By 1927, Moore was once again working with Horace Davis, but no issued recording resulted. Together, they recorded Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” for Brunswick on November 8, which was to have been coupled with a remake of “Laughing Rag” on Brunswick 3713. However, there is no evidence in the Brunswick files that the latter title was recorded, and Brunswick 3713 was canceled before release. Two October 1928 Brunswick duets with ukulele player Edmund Evans were  rejected.

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A formal 1920s portrait of Sam Moore (left), and a snapshot taken during his stint with KFSO radio’s “Country Store” (courtesy of  Betsy Loar)

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In the 1930s, Moore left the stage for radio work, writing for and performing on several NBC shows into the 1940s. For a time he teamed with his wife, Carolyn, in a stereotypical “blackface” act called “Sambo & Mandy” for local radio broadcasts and personal appearances.

Moore suffered from asthma, and eventually he settled in San Francisco for health reasons. There he was featured in the cast of KFSO’s “Country Store.” He died in San Francisco on November 13, 1959, at the age of 72.

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© 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. Portions of this article previously appeared on the Mainspring Press website as “Rediscovering Sam Moore.”

Thanks to Betsy (Moore) Loar, the grand-daughter of Sam Moore, for sharing her rare photos and other source materials. Discographical data are from the original company files, via the University of California–Santa Barbara’s Discography of American Historical Recordings site and John R. Bolig.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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Inside the Victor Talking Machine Company Pressing Plant (1928)

Two rare shots of a behemoth record press inside Victor’s Camden NJ plant, taken in 1928 for a Keystone Stereoview Company series on American industry. These were operated by foot-pedal. Note the finished scroll-label pressing in the top photo.

Conditions in the Victor pressing plant reportedly were better than in most. Columbia’s Bridgeport plant was a notoriously nasty place prior to its purchase by CBS; so much so, that in the mid-1930s John Hammond wrote a  scathing exposé that resulted in its eventual unionization.
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