The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent: The Marconi Velvet Tone Story

The Records Guglielmo Marconi Didn’t Invent:
The Marconi Velvet Tone Story
By Allan Sutton

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Related Article: Columbia Marconi-Type Pressings
in Chile (
Fonografía Artística Records)

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.Although shellac-based pressing materials were the industry norm virtually from the start of commercial disc-record production, there were periodic attempts to press in celluloid, beginning with Emile Berliner’s 1890 German discs. Nicole Frères introduced celluloid-coated cardboard discs in Europe in 1903.

In the United States, the Lambert Company introduced molded celluloid cylinders in 1900. But celluloid would not be used commercially for disc records in the U.S. until 1906, when the American Graphophone Company (Columbia) announced its Marconi Velvet Tone disc — a lightweight semi-flexible laminated celluloid disc — with tremendous fanfare. The records bore the name and likeness of Guglielmo Marconi, who was riding a wave of international acclaim as the inventor of radio.

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The earliest Marconi labels showed the inventor’s receding hairline (right), which was retouched on later printings.

 

Hoping to capitalize on Marconi’s popularity, Columbia offered him a position as “consulting physicist” on what it termed its “great experimental staff” in the summer of 1906. Columbia president Edward Easton was dispatched to London to personally interview the inventor.

On August 16 of that year, The New York Times reported that Marconi had sailed for the United States in connection with his new duties. Following his arrival in New York on September 8, he was treated to a lavish banquet at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as Columbia’s guest of honor. Edward Easton, music department superintendent Victor Emerson, factory manager Thomas Macdonald, and other Columbia officials spoke at some length, vaguely alluding to Marconi’s experimental radio work, but without mentioning how that might possibly relate to phonograph records.

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Columbia announces its collaboration with Marconi, September 1906. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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On September 10, Thomas Macdonald escorted Marconi on a whirlwind tour of Columbia’s plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, followed by a luncheon at Macdonald’s home. Marconi boarded a ship back to Italy the next day, after telling a reporter for The Music Trade Review that he had not yet given the matter sufficient study to announce any new ideas.

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In this highly retouched photo, factory manager Thomas Macdonald is at the wheel, with Marconi beside him. Columbia president Edward Easton sits immediately behind them. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Macdonald and Marconi in the Bridgeport factory, from The Columbia Record. (Courtesy of Steve Smolian)

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Little more was heard of the alliance until November, when The Columbia Record ran a self-congratulatory piece that still failed to mention what, if anything, Marconi might be developing in the record field. An article in the London Music Trade Review noted that Marconi had not yet “disclosed what his views are on this and other talking machine ideas.”

Marconi had good reason to remain silent — he apparently had no hand in developing the discs that would bear his name. His sole contribution apparently was to allow Columbia the use of his name and likeness. Searches of U.S. and Italian patents have consistently failed to reveal any filings by Marconi that might relate to these discs.

However, the groundwork had already been laid for what would come to marketed as the Marconi record. On August 19, 1905 — a year before Marconi was tapped as Columbia’s “consulting physicist” — Victor Emerson had filed a patent on a lightweight disc pressed in a celluloid–shellac mixture. Emerson noted that the proportions of celluloid to shellac could be varied to produce a lightweight disc, with or without a cardboard backing.

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Victor Emerson’s 1905 patent for a lightweight celluloid–shellac disc, which Emerson subsequently assigned to American Graphophone. (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office)

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Thomas Macdonald took Emerson’s idea a step further. On July 9, 1906 — nearly six weeks before Marconi’s brief visit to the States — he filed a patent application on a flexible, lightweight laminated disc with a playing surface of pure celluloid:

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Thomas Macdonald’s patent on what would be marketed as the Marconi record even specified the embossed pattern that is found on the reverse sides. There is no reference to Guglielmo Marconi anywhere in the patent filing. (U.S. Patent & Trademark Office)

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Thus, American Graphophone already held two patents covering all the essential features of the “Marconi” disc by the time the inventor was invited to serve as a Columbia consultant.

Macdonald’s patent specifications were exactly those that would come to be embodied in the Marconi Velvet Tone Record. Macdonald specified a flexible paper or cardboard core laminated between two thin sheets of celluloid — one to receive the impression of the sound recording, and the other to receive either a second sound recording or “a roughened surface…covered by fine lines close together and crossing at right angles.” Columbia addressed Macdonald’s claim that needles need not be changed after each playing by marketing semi-permanent gold-plated needles for use with the records.

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Marconi discs carried a large warning sticker on the blank reverse sides. The “fine lines close together and crossing at right angles” specified in Macdonald’s patent can be seen on the outer edge.

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Columbia reportedly sent advance copies of the first Marconi catalog to dealers in February 1907, the same month in which the records were announced in The Talking Machine World. A few dealers began advertising the records in March, inviting customers to come and listen, but it appears to have been a trial balloon. Little advertising appeared during the summer of 1907, and Columbia itself did not make its “first announcement” of the new records in The Talking Machine World until September.

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(Top) One of the earliest dealer advertisements for Marconi records was published in Washington DC on March 20, 1907. The Chattanooga ad (center) appeared on April 18; “Fifteen Hundred” apparently refers to the quantity of discs for sale, not the number of individual selections. Columbia’s own “first announcement” (bottom) did not appear in The Talking Machine World until September 1907.

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Bearing Marconi’s name, portrait, and facsimile signature, the records were touted as “Wonderful as Wireless.” American Graphophone filed a trademark application on the Velvet Tone trademark (but not Marconi’s name, which likely would not have been approved under U.S. trademark guidelines) on May 1, 1907. The records were a deluxe product, pressed in smooth black celluloid and packaged in heavy paper sleeves with glassine windows. Elaborate, oversized patent notice labels, affixed to the blank reverse sides, warned that the records could be safely played only with special gold-plated semi-permanent needles. Marconi’s receding hairline, which is evident on the early labels, was retouched in later printings.

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Despite their premium price and exotic appearance, Marconi records were pressed from standard Columbia masters, including material recorded several years earlier. The discs were produced in 10″ and 12″ series. The standard 10″ series substituted special catalog numbers for Columbia’s own, starting at 01 and reaching into the low 0400s before being discontinued. Twelve-inch discs were assigned the same 30000-series catalog numbers as corresponding Columbia releases.

Double-sided Marconi pressings are known, as are Marconi-type pressings with standard Columbia labels, but these probably were prototypes or samples. Thus far, no evidence has been found that they were intended for retail sale.

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Relatively few Marconi sleeves have survived.

 

Columbia apparently envisioned an international market for the Marconi discs, and various export versions are known. The best-known are the specially numbered Fonogramas Marconi, manufactured at Bridgeport for Mexican or South American distribution. A Chinese Marconi-type record (labeled Columbia Concert Record) and a Marconi sleeve with text in Japanese have also been reported. Several extremely rare Marconi-type  pressings from Italian Fonotipia masters, bearing special Fonotipia–Marconi Velvet Tone labels, are also known to exist.

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A rare Fonogramas Marconi disc made for the Mexican market.  (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Sales of the Marconi records lagged, however. Retailing for more than the ordinary Columbia releases they duplicated, requiring the use of expensive special (albeit reusable) needles, easily damaged, and having a tendency to slip on the turntable, Marconi discs do not seem to have engaged the general public. Production was discontinued in 1908, leaving Columbia with a large unsold inventory. By 1910 the discs were being remaindered by Simpson, Crawford & Co. (New York) for 17¢ each, or six for $1. The special gold-plated needles were given away with a minimum purchase.

Today, Marconi records are highly prized by collectors. They range from fairly scarce (for some of better-selling popular issues) to extremely rare (particularly for the export and Fonotipia-Marconi issues). The original paper envelopes can also be hard to find. Well-cared-for Marconi discs have remarkably quiet surfaces revealing recorded details that can be lost in Columbia’s usual grainy shellac pressings. Unfortunately, many surviving copies suffer from lamination cracks or needle damage, which can reduce their monetary value to “wall-hanger” level.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Beniamino Gigli Discography — Updates (Free Download)

Beniamino Gigli Discography — Updates
(Free Download)

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The latest revision of John Bolig’s Gigli discography is now available to download free for personal use. The most notable feature is a thorough revision of data for the 1946 Aida recordings, thanks to expert input from David Cutler (who first alerted John to the fact that Gigli was not in Italy on one of the recording dates cited by another source) and John Banks.

 

Download Version 2.0 – Free for Personal Use (pdf) (~1.5mb)
(Print-restricted)

 

This copyrighted publication is intended for personal, non-commercial use only. Unauthorized reproduction or distribution in any form and by any means (including but not limited to e-book or digital 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.

 

August 10, 1920 • Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” Turns 100 • Mamie Smith and the Birth of the “Blues Craze”

August 10, 1920 • Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues”
Turns 100

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MAMIE SMITH & HER JAZZ HOUNDS: Crazy Blues

New York: c. August 10, 1920 (released October 1920)
Okeh 4169 (mx. S 7529 – B)

Transferred at 80 rpm, the correct playing speed for Okeh records of this period

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Mamie Smith and the Birth of the “Blues Craze”
By Allan Sutton

Excerpted from
Race Records and the American Recording Industry
(Mainspring Press, 2016)

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While George Broome was busy launching the first Black-owned record company in 1919, another relative newcomer, the General Phonograph Corporation, was struggling to carve out a niche in a glutted market.  Founded in mid-1918, and backed in part by the Berlin-based Carl Lindstrom conglomerate, the company was an outgrowth of the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company, a manufacturer of phonograph motors and parts. Its Okeh label, like other start-ups of the period, relied heavily on the usual studio free-lance performers. The early artist roster was so lackluster that for the for the first eighteen months of its existence Okeh often listed only song titles in its trade-press advertising, without bothering to mention the performers.[1]

Okeh’s unlikely saviors would be Perry Bradford and Mamie Smith — the former a struggling Harlem songwriter and music publisher, the latter a recent arrival in Harlem who was slowly gaining a following as a cabaret singer. Setting up shop in New York in 1918, Bradford quickly earned the nickname “Mule” for his tenacious promotion of blues-inflected pop tunes. [2] Bradford recalled meeting resistance from members of the local Black musical establishment, who found his material to be “low-class,” unpleasant reminders of life in the South.[3] Bradford claimed that he “walked out several pairs of shoes trying to show…the value of the blues,” and he was not alone. W. C. Handy recalled,

I caught another glimpse of the same prejudice when I tried to introduce colored girls for recording our blues. In every case the managers quickly turned thumbs down. “Their voices were not suitable.” “Their diction was different from white girls. “They couldn’t possibly fill the bill”… Viola McCoy, who was under contract with me, made test records for seven companies, all of whom turned her down. [4]

Bradford was particularly impressed by Mamie Smith, a singer he first heard performing with comedian Tutt Whitney’s Smart Set company. She soon left to pursue solo work in the local cabarets, at which point Bradford hired her to appear in his Made in Harlem, a quickly cobbled-together production that opened at Harlem’s Lincoln Theater in 1918. There, she scored a hit singing his “Harlem Blues.” Determined to capitalize on Smith’s popularity, Bradford shopped her around to the local record companies, with no success.

In early 1920, Bradford finally got a foot in the door. Edward King, Victor’s New York studio manager, agreed to schedule a test session for Mamie Smith. [5] On January 10, 1920, Smith made an unnumbered trial recording of Bradford’s “That Thing Called Love” with Bradford at the piano. [6] When Victor showed no interest, Bradford renewed his search and found an unlikely champion in Okeh’s Fred Hager, a veteran white recording artist and studio director whose career had begun in the 1890s. For the last decade, Hager had moved from one failed label to the next while relying on his music publishing business to keep him afloat financially. Now well into his forties, and with Okeh so far showing only faint promise, he must have been open to new opportunities.

Hager agreed to schedule an Okeh recording session for Mamie Smith. Short of cash, Bradford tapped band leader George Morrison (freshly arrived with his orchestra from Denver, at the behest of Columbia records) for a loan to buy Smith some suitable attire. As Morrison recalled,

[Bradford] came up to my hotel, at the time I was recording. He says, “Morrison, you wanna make some money? I’ve got a sure bet — sure thing…  And he took me up there to this house, and there she was in this old house, and the old lamp light burning — in the daytime, now, mind you. It was simply awful in there — whooo! simply awful. And who was it? Mamie Smith… She was up there ironing. Perry said, “Kid, we’ve got it made! Mr. Morrison here’s gonna finance this thing, and we’ve got it made….

And so I went and got a hundred and fifty dollars and I bought Mamie a hat — great big old hat, and then I bought her some lingerie, and shoes. I dressed her from the inside out. Everything. I had never heard of that woman — never seen her before. Mamie said she was gonna pay me back. She was going to record for Okeh records.[7]

On or about February 14, 1920,[8] Mamie Smith reported for her first Okeh session in the company’s studio on West 45th Street, where she recorded Bradford’s “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” accompanied by the so-called Rega Orchestra, a cover name for Okeh’s white studio band. [9]  Hager directed the session in the company of Ralph Peer, a newly arrived Okeh employee who within a few years would play a major role in the development of race records.[10]

“That Thing Called Love” / “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” (Okeh 4113) was listed in the June 1920 Talking Machine World advance bulletin as a July release. Cataloged in Okeh’s Tenth Supplement alongside the latest offerings by Billy Murray, the Waldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra, and other mainstream white artists, it was the first pop release by a Black female soloist. Okeh avoided any mention of Smith’s race, describing the record merely as “Contralto with orchestra,” [11]  but the African-American press was quick to spread the news. On March 13, two months before Okeh formally announced the record, The Chicago Defender broke the news:

Well, you’ve all heard the famous stars of the white race chirping their stuff on the different makes of phonograph records. Caruso has warbled his Jones to the delight of millions; Tetrazzini has made ’em like it heavy, and Nora Bayes has tickled their ears with a world of delight; but we have never — up to now — been able to hear one of our own ladies deliver the canned goods. Now we have the pleasure of being able to say that at last they have recognized the fact that we are here for their service; the Okeh Phonograph Company [sic] has initiated the idea by engaging the handsome, popular and capable vocalist, Mamie Gardener Smith of 40 W. 135th Street, New York City, and she has made her first record… [12]

Many questionable or false claims have been made over the years regarding Mamie Smith and her first record. Smith was by no means the first Black woman to make commercial recordings.[13] Nor does her first record appear to have been the sensational hit sometimes portrayed by modern writers, based on its relative scarcity today and its failure to make Okeh’s own list of top sellers for the summer of 1920.[14] However, the mechanical royalties were good enough that Bradford was able to repay George Morrison’s loan,[15] and Okeh decided to gamble on another Mamie Smith release.

Mamie Smith returned to the Okeh studio on or around August 10.[16]  Her first release had featured two Pace & Handy publications, but for Smith’s second session, Bradford chose to promote two titles from his own catalog — “Crazy Blues” and “It’s Right Here for You (If You Don’t Get It, ’T’ain’t No Fault of Mine).” The former was a retitling and slight reworking of two earlier Bradford pieces (“The Broken-Hearted Blues” and “The Harlem Blues) that he had already sold to other publishers, a move that would soon land him in serious legal trouble.

In a marked departure from the first Smith session, the stiff Rega Orchestra was replaced on Bradford’s recommendation by a hastily assembled band he dubbed the Jazz Hounds. Their raucous, uninhibited style, unlike anything heard so far on records, took Okeh’s studio staff by surprise. As Bradford recalled, the session became a battle of wills between himself and recording engineer Charles Hibbard, whose insistence that the band soften its approach was roundly ignored. [17] Rising above the cacophony, Smith shouted her way through Bradford’s lyrics, which in the case of “Crazy Blues” included a threat to “get myself a gun and shoot myself a cop” — a line that most companies of that period  almost certainly would have censored.

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Okeh announces the release of “Crazy Blues” (October 1920)


“Crazy Blues” was released with considerable fanfare in October 1920, and this time there was no dodging the race issue. A full-page ad in The Talking Machine World featured Smith’s portrait. [18]  The record caused a sensation among Black and white buyers alike. Trade papers soon were awash in planted stories like this one, masquerading as press releases:

The advertising department of the General Phonograph Corp., New York, received recently an interesting letter from a Mamie Smith enthusiast in North Carolina. … It reads: “I rite you to please send me one of your latest catalog of latest popular songs and musical comedy hits popular dancing numbers I got the Crazy Blues all ready and if you have any other latest Blues sung by Mamie Smith and her jazz hounds send along 2 or 3 C.O.D. with the catalog I want something that will almost make a preacher come down out of the pulpit and go to dancing and hang his head and cry I want all you send to be Blues.” [19]

Early Okeh advertisements make it clear that Mamie Smith’s records were not intended solely for Black customers, contradicting widely published claims by such modern writers as Daphne Duval Harrison that the records “were sold exclusively to Blacks.” [20] In one Okeh distributor’s full-page, Mamie Smith was even pictured along with the celebrated tenor John McCormack.

Smith’s records were widely advertised by white dealers, and several even found their way into Canada, where they were pressed under the Phonola and Sun labels. A full-page ad for “Crazy Blues” in November 1920 employed a stereotypical minstrel-show theme that was clearly aimed at white buyers, with a cartoon figure in blackface proclaiming in minstrel-show dialect, “I’s heard Blues, but I’s telling you Mamie’s beats ’em all. O! Man, her voice is as sweet as honey! It jes flows and flows and ev’ry note gets richer until I can just sit back and expire with joy.”[21]

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Okeh chose a stereotypical “minstrel” theme for its
November 1920 ad.

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In the same month, Okeh announced that it was supplying dealers with special Thanksgiving window displays featuring Mamie Smith, “colored queen of syncopation,” alongside several of its white artists. By then, the records were turning up in all sorts of unlikely venues. The Talking Machine World reported that even the manager of the Summit-Cherry Markets of Toledo, Ohio, was stocking Mamie Smith records in his grocery stores:

Demand for Mamie Smith numbers has been particularly large, and Mr. Richards has expressed himself on numerous occasions as being very enthusiastic about the line and well pleased with his merchandising policy of bringing music to the attention of housewives when they are doing their marketing.[22]

Okeh dealers reported that they were delighted with the “unlimited sales possibilities” of blues records.[23]  Unfortunately, Okeh’s sales data have not survived, but the large number of surviving copies of “Crazy Blues,” and the many variations seen in early pressings and labelings  (strong indicators that  outside plants were used to keep up with demand) are certainly evidence of a strong seller. However, claims that “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies the first month, and a million copies within seven months of release — which originated with Bradford’s self-aggrandizing (and often demonstrably inaccurate) autobiography, and which have since been slavishly repeated in countless works — are questionable, given what is known of record sales in general during this period. [24]

But Bradford’s boastful sales claims pale in comparison with those made by some modern pop-culture writers, who have inflated them considerably over the years, without ever citing a documentary source (because there is none; the Okeh files for this period have not survived, and there was not yet a method of certifying sales results within the recording industry):

“For months, the disc sold some 7,500 copies a week.” (Paul Oliver, Blues Fell This Morning, 1960)

“It sold 75,000 copies in the first month, and over a million in the first half-year.” (Gunther Schuller, Early Jazz, 1968)

“The disc is reputed to have sold a million copies within a few weeks.” (Louis Barfe, Where Have All The Good Times Gone?, 2004)

“A wild success, selling over a million copies in less than a year, and finally ending up selling over two million copies.” (Red Hot Jazz website, 2008)

 

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By January 1921, Okeh had released eight sides by Mamie Smith. In the same month, Harry Pace began laying the groundwork for Black Swan, the second Black-owned record company.

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Whatever the actual sales might have been, they seem to have justified the risk that Fred Hager and Okeh’s management had taken in issuing and promoting “Crazy Blues.” Anecdotal tales have appeared over the years of dealer resistance and even outright hostility, and although none has been convincingly documented, they likely have some basis in fact, given the rampant racial prejudice of the time. In later years, Perry Bradford expressed his appreciation for the opportunity that Fred Hager had afforded him and Mamie Smith:

May God bless Mr. Hagar [sic], for despite the many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerve and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which echoed around the world… He prised open that old “prejudiced door” for the first colored girl, Mamie Smith, so she could squeeze into the large horn — and shout with her strong contralto…” [25]

Now well on her way to national stardom, Smith needed more professional management than Bradford alone could offer. In early 1921 she agreed to let the Standard Amusement Company handle her stage appearances. The company lost no time in sending Mamie Smith & her All Star Revue on the road, in a production that featured Smith singing her Okeh hits, interspersed with comic acts, a magician, a juggler, and dance numbers by the Jazz Hounds. [26] By April of that year, the troupe had completed a circuit that began in Chicago, worked its way through the Midwest down to Texas, then swung through the deep South before eventually heading north to end in Philadelphia.

Smith returned to New York just in time to see “Crazy Blues” become embroiled in a legal controversy that temporarily halted sales of all recordings of the song. In May 1921, two major music-publishing houses — Frederick V. Bowers, Inc., and Shapiro, Bernstein & Company — filed for a temporary injunction restraining Bradford and wife Marion L. Dickerson from publishing and selling “Crazy Blues.”

The lawsuit also sought to restrain fourteen record and piano-roll companies from distributing any recording of the song, and from paying any royalties on sales to Bradford, his company, or his wife. [27] Bowers alleged that twelve bars of “Crazy Blues” came from “The Broken-Hearted Blues,” which his firm purchased from Bradford in 1918. Shapiro, Bernstein & Company alleged that “Crazy Blues” incorporated parts of “The Harlem Blues,” which they had purchased from Bradford in the same year. [28]

The settlement required Bradford to pay substantial damages to both companies. The lesson seems to have been lost on him, however. A similar legal scrap in 1923, over the authorship of “He May Be Your Man, But He Comes to See Me Sometimes,” saw Bradford convicted for subornation of perjury, for which he served four months in jail.

In the meantime, the working relationship between Bradford and Smith was becoming increasingly strained. The inevitable split came during the summer of 1921, while Bradford was preparing his new stage production, Put and Take. Exactly what transpired between the two is unclear in Bradford’s rather jumbled account, but the result was that the starring role went not to Smith, but to Edith Wilson, for whom Bradford quickly negotiated a Columbia recording contract. [29]

For Mamie Smith, it meant the loss of the Jazz Hounds (by now under the nominal direction of cornetist Johnny Dunn), who went along to Columbia with Wilson as part of the package deal. Smith was allowed to continue to use the Jazz Hounds name in her stage act, but on records, the name as well as the band itself now belonged to Columbia.

With demand for new Mamie Smith releases still running high, and another extended tour scheduled to begin on September 23, [30] Okeh spent the late summer of 1921 stockpiling new Smith recordings, minus the Jazz Hounds, with unsettling results. A group of white musicians, reputedly drawn from Joseph Samuels’ commercial dance orchestra, was pressed into service in place of Bradford’s band. Variously known as Samuels’ Jazz Band, the Synco Jazz Band, or the Tampa Blue Jazz Band, the group had been churning out stiff, cliché-laden “jazz” records for many of the smaller labels since 1919.

Beginning with “Daddy, Your Mama Is Lonesome for You” and “Sax-O-Phoney Blues” (Okeh 4416) in August 1921, the ill-conceived collaboration dragged on into September, yielding twelve issued titles before Smith left for her tour. While she was away, Okeh attempted to cover its tracks by publishing a photo purportedly taken during the recording of “Sax-O-Phoney Blues” that showed Black musicians accompanying Smith. [31] The subterfuge should have been apparent to anyone who compared the photo to the record, since the instrumentation does not match, and the two saxophonists who figure so prominently in “Sax-O-Phoney” are nowhere to be seen. [32]

Ultimately, Mamie Smith would be eclipsed by far better singers cashing in on the blues craze she had started. She returned from her tour to find Edith Wilson and the Jazz Hounds already selling well for Columbia. Okeh kept Smith on until the summer 1923, but as Perry Bradford recalled,

I didn’t bother Mamie anymore, because she was coming down the ladder… Mamie’s records were falling down and melting away like snow balls on a hot July day, and Okeh was feeling the pinch of competition. [33]

 

Notes

[1] “Okeh Records” (monthly advertisements). Talking Machine World, May 1918–December 1919.

[2] The “Mule” nickname appeared in print as early as May 1919, in a column by songwriter Tom Lemonier (“Lemonier’s Letter.” Chicago Defender, May 24, 1919, p. 9).

[3] Charters, Samuel B., and Leonard Kunstadt: Jazz: A History of the New York Scene, p. 82. New York: Doubleday (1962). Much of this information comes from Dan Burely’s 1940 profiles of Perrfy Bradford and Mamie Smith in the Amsterdam News.

[4] Handy, W. C. Father of the Blues, p. 200. New York: Macmillan (1941).

[5] King is remembered today primarily for having ejected cornetist  Bix Beiderbecke from his first recording session with the Jean Goldkette Orchestra.

[6] Victor trial session ledgers. Sony Archives, New York. Bradford was not credited by name in the ledger, but stated his biography that he was the accompanist. Bradford recalled being given a test pressing, which apparently no longer exists.

[7] Morrison, George. Interview by Gunther Schuller. Quoted in Schuller, Gunther: Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development, p. 367. New York: Oxford University Press (1968).

[8] The recording date of February 14, 1920, was supplied many years later by Perry Bradford (an often unreliable source) and should be considered approximate. The Okeh recording files for this period have not survived.

[9] “Rega” was a pseudonym for Fred Hager, as confirmed by multiple entries in the U.S. Copyright Register; “Milo Rega” was a pseudonym for Hager in collaboration with his long-time associate, Justin Ring. The accompanying personnel shown for this session in Dixon, Godrich & Rye’s Blues and Gospel Records is incorrect, having apparently been based on the erroneous assumption that the Jazz Hounds accompanied this session. Photographs of the Rega Orchestra in The Talking Machine World and other trade publications show an all-white group with Hager present.

[10] Charters and Kunstadt, op. cit., p. 84

[11] “Okeh Records Tenth Supplement” (advertisement). Talking Machine World (July 15, 1920).

[12] “Making Records.” Chicago Defender (March 13, 1920), p. 6.

[13] That honor might have been held by May C. Hyers, who recorded at least fourteen titles, including several syncopated songs, on cylinders for the Kansas City Phonograph Company, c. 1898.

[14] “Six Best Sellers.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1920), p. 144.

[15] Morrison, George. Interview by Gunther Schuller, op. cit.

[16] See note 6 concerning the accuracy of Okeh recording dates.

[17] In his autobiography, Bradford made the questionable claim that the session took eight hours to complete, which would have been unprecedented given what we know of studio practices during this  period. Bradford also erroneously claimed that the recordings were “hill & dale” (i.e., vertically cut), and his  recollection of the band personnel present at the session (particularly cornetist Johnny Dunn) has been widely questioned by modern jazz scholars.

[18] “Okeh Records — To Hear Is to Buy!” (advertisement). Talking Machine World (October 15, 1920).

[19] “Has Designs on the Preacher.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1921),  p. 127.

[20] Harrison, Daphne Duval. Black Pearls: Blues Queens of the 1920s, p. 46. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press (1988).

[21] “Okeh Records” (advertisement). Talking Machine World, (November 15, 1920).

[22] “Doing Big Okeh Record Trade.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 21), p. 146.

[23] “Records for the Okeh Library.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1920), p. 200.

[24] Million-sellers appear to have been very rare occurrences in the early 1920s, based on surviving company documentation. Although sales figures for most of the smaller companies have long since vanished, some reliable statistics that survive in the Victor and Columbia archives offer a good picture of record sales in the early 1920s, in the process debunking some other “million-seller” myths.  Paul Whiteman’s “Whispering” (Victor 18690), for example, is often said to have sold nearly 1.5 million copies, although the Victor files show sales of only 214,575 copies. A similar case is Ben Selvin’s “Dardanella” (Victor 18633), which is said in Faber’s Companion to Twentieth Century Music to have sold an incredible six million copies, although the Victor files shows that only 961,144 copies were pressed.

[25] Bradford, Perry. Born with the Blues, p. 119. New York: Oak Publications (1965).

[26] “Mamie Smith Co.” Chicago Defender (April 2, 1921), p. 6

[27] “Songwriter Faces Two Suits.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1921), p. 149.

[28] Bowers admitted that he had not copyrighted “The Broken-Hearted Blues” owing to an oversight on his part that he attributed to “changes in the personnel” at his firm.” Bradford was the initial publisher of “The Harlem Blues,” but he assigned copyright to Shapiro, Bernstein & Company, as was duly registered with the Copyright Office.

[29] Put and Take opened at the Town Hall (New York) on August 23, 1921, and Wilson made her first Columbia recordings on or about September 12.

[30] “Mamie Smith on Extended Tour.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1921), p. 64.

[31] “Making Sax-O-Phoney Blues.” Talking Machine World (November 15, 1921), p. 160.

[32] On March 9, 1940, clarinetist Bob Fuller told New York Amsterdam News columnist Dan Burely that he and cornetist Bubber Miley were present in the purported “Sax-O-Phoney” session photo.

[33] Bradford, op. cit.,  p. 157.

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© 2016 by Allan R. Sutton

Collector’s Corner • Some July Additions (Free MP3 Downloads): Rev. Gates, De Ford Bailey, Georgia Cotton Pickers, Clarence Williams, Duke Ellington, Red Nichols

Collector’s Corner • Some July 2020 Additions
(Free MP3 Downloads)

A few favorite July additions to the collection, for your enjoyment

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REV. J. M. GATES & CONGREGATION: A Sure-Enough Soldier (E)

Atlanta: February 20, 1928
Victor 21523 (mx. BVE 41916 – 1)

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DE FORD BAILEY: Dixie Flyer Blues (E–)

New York: April 18, 1927
Brunswick 146 (mx. E 22501)

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GEORGIA COTTON PICKERS: She’s Coming Back Some Cold Rainy Day (E)

Atlanta: December 8, 1930
Columbia 14577-D (mx. W 151106 – 2)

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CLARENCE WILLIAMS’ JAZZ KINGS: I Need You (E)

New York: May 29, 1928
Columbia 14326-D (mx. W 146366 – 3)

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DUKE ELLINGTON & HIS ORCHESTRA (as Joe Turner & his Memphis Men): Mississippi Moan (E–)

New York: April 4, 1929
Columbia 1813-D (mx. W 148172 – 3)

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RED NICHOLS & HIS FIVE PENNIES: Eccentric (E)

New York: August 15, 1927
Brunswick 3627 (mx. E 24228)

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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)

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.The Victor Pict-Ur-Music Story

By Allan Sutton

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As producer of the synchronized Vitaphone-system soundtrack discs, the Victor Talking Machine Company played a key role in the transition to fully synchronized sound films. During 1927–1928, Victor’s church studio in Camden, New Jersey — housed in the converted 1872 Trinity Baptist Church building — was reconfigured to do double duty as a recording and film studio. While Victor’s long-established studio continued to operate in one corner of the main level, a portion of the sprawling structure was converted to a film stage, and soundtrack production facilities were installed in the basement. To minimize conflicts with Victor’s regular recording sessions, the sound-film division operated on split day and night shifts totaling fifteen hours a day, seven days a week, during periods of peak activity. [1]

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Victor’s church studio in Camden, New Jersey, was reconfigured during 1927–1928 to accommodate a film stage and soundtrack production facilities.

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The nationwide conversion to “talkies” would be drawn out over a half-decade. The largest theaters were quick to install Western Electric’s new, fully synchronized Vitaphone equipment, but smaller or less well-financed venues often found it too costly to convert, and continued to screen silent films. For them, Victor came up with a less-expensive alternative — a library of background-music discs, supplied with projectionists’ cue sheets that were customized to individual films.

On February 1, 1928, Victor’s Mercantile Committee formally proposed production of special records “for use in motion picture theaters in connection with the reproducing instrument of the Electrical Research Products Co., Inc. [a Western Electric subsidiary] … to bear special label which has been approved by the Patent & Copyright Department.” [2] The motion was approved, although a label name had yet to be decided upon. The company finally settled on “Pict-Ur-Music,” which it belatedly registered with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office on September 4, 1928. Victor’s filing claimed use of the name in commerce beginning June 6 of that year. [3]

Production proceeded cautiously at first. The committee’s original request for 300 pressings of each disc was scaled back to 150 before production began, and only existing commercial Victor recordings were to be used. “Additional requirements,” the committee report cautioned, “should be carefully watched by the Record Planning Division.” [4]

By early spring, preliminary production and distribution plans were being hammered out for the new “library.” The records would be leased to theaters, rather than being sold outright, and would be licensed for use only on Electrical Research Products playback equipment, which included a non-synchronized dual turntable. There was to be no interchangeability between Vitaphone and Pict-Ur-Music products or licenses.

On March 7, Victor’s Managers Committee presented a financial analysis showing a potential profit to the company ranging from 13.2% to 53.77%, depending upon various rental-fee and contract-duration models. A surcharge was proposed for theaters that could “stand this additional charge by reason of their increased box-office earnings.” [5] Ultimately, Victor settled on a sliding scale, based upon theater capacity, ranging from $1,200 annually for theaters with 800 seats or less, to $2,000 for those seating 1,500 or more. [6]

Victor, it appeared at first, had picked an inopportune time to introduce the concept. The “talkies” were under attack from the American Federation of Musicians, which argued that they were displacing musicians who, until then, had provided the live background music for silent films. [7] By mid-April, news of the records’ impending release had leaked to the press, further inflaming union officials. “Victor’s idea,” Variety warned, represented “a means to eliminate pit musicians.”  [8]

Victor successfully turned that argument against the new records on its head, promoting them to theater owners as a safety net in the event of a threatened musicians’ strike. [9] Ultimately, the AFM backed off its threat, but Victor’s marketing spin had succeeded. By August 1928, Motion Picture News reported, the Pict-Ur-Music records were becoming so popular that “a number of houses have already dispensed with their orchestras, and more seem destined to be out of the pits in the near future.” [10]

Details concerning the new records continued to emerge throughout the spring of 1928. High-quality pressings were to be made using a special virgin-shellac compound. Variety reported that the playback system was “primed for economy to appeal to small picture houses and lesser exhibitors,” with  a total installation cost of about $3,000 — far less than that of a synchronized Vitaphone system:

The phonograph records as in Vitaphone are cued to synchronize with the film, and for small-capacity houses of 800 seats and under the illusion is fairly accurate, requiring no elaborate house wiring to bring the horns behind or under the screen… The ‘canned’ accompaniments…make no pretext of reproducing anything but musical sounds.” [11]

Implementation of the Pict-Ur-Music program got under way in June 1928. Participating theaters received the complete initial “library” in a single shipment, along with a filing cabinet and an index that classified each selection according to “mood or theme.” The records were to be returned at the end of the lease period, although judging from the number still in existence, exhibitors did not always comply.

The original Pict-Ur-Music library was drawn almost entirely from previously released Victor recordings. The repertoire leaned heavily toward classical snippets and old standards, as rendered by Victor’s studio musicians and ensembles, but there were also a few offerings by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers, Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, and the Dixieland Jug Blowers.

Artists received no catalog or label credit. It remains to be discovered whether those who were entitled to royalties on their commercial releases received payment for the corresponding Pict-Ur-Music discs, although it seems unlikely, given that the records were leased rather than sold. Victor absorbed the costs of any ASCAP fees for use of the compositions. [12]

Despite the original directive that only existing recordings be used, Victor appears to have begun making original recordings with the library’s use in mind as early as February 1928, when the project was first given the go-ahead. [13] Many recordings by a Victor studio orchestra under Bruno Reibold’s direction, made during the spring of 1928 but never listed in the commercial catalogs, found their way into the expanded Pict-Ur-Music catalog of September 1928. By then, sessions credited to a “Victor Orchestra (for Motion Pictures)” and “Non-Synchronous Motion Picture Orchestra,” both under Josef Pasternack’s direction, were appearing regularly in the Victor recording ledgers. [14]

When that proved insufficient to satisfy the growing demand from film producers, Victor created a separate department in Camden, under the direction of J. L. Crewe, to provide scoring services and oversee recordings made especially for Pict-Ur-Music. Movie producers were encouraged to send their latest releases to the Camden facility, where an in-house group would develop customized cue sheets keyed to the appropriate recordings. [15] The result was the creation of a large group of original recordings that never appeared on regular commercial Victor releases.

The cue sheets for each new release were mailed to participating theaters free of charge. They were keyed to running time, and it was the projectionist’s job to fade selections in and out at the appropriate moment, using the dual turntable. As Victor’s instructions to operators made clear, the job required unbroken attention and, at times, quick thinking. Splices or censors’ deletion could shorten the running time of a scene, requiring the operator to recalculate cue-sheet timings on-the-fly. Should a disc be damaged or lost, the projectionist was to quickly substitute another selection of similar “mood or theme.” For films lacking cue sheets, musical selection was left up to the projectionist. “Of course in your comedies,” the company advised, “you would immediately look under ‘Gay-Spirited,’ ‘Jazz,’ ‘Comedies,’ etc.” [16]

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Construction of a Hollywood plant for pressing Pict-Ur-Music and Vitaphone discs was approved in June 1928, [17] and the Camden Courier-Post reported a month later that the building was “being rushed to completion.” [18] At the same time, funds were allocated to build twelve presses for sixteen-inch Pict-Ur-Music discs. [19] It does not appear that such records were ever produced, but a twelve-inch Pict-Ur-Music series was launched in late 1928. At first, it was derived largely from existing commercial releases that included selections by the Philadelphia, San Francisco, and London symphony orchestras. Some later twelve-inch releases were made to order by the “Non-Synchronous Motion Picture Orchestra” under Pasternak.

A long-playing (33 1/3-rpm) Pict-Ur-Music disc was announced in September 1929, for use as “overture, trailer, and exit” music. [20] However, advertising for the new records disappeared after only four releases, and reliable data on these apparently short-lived records is still being tracked down. RCA would revive the idea in October 1932, with its long-playing Theatre Records.

In March 1929, Victor launched a companion series of special sound-effects records that probably found wider use in radio broadcasts and live theater than in the movie houses. [21] Here, Victor faced stiff competition from Gennett, which had been producing a line of popular (if much less well-recorded) sound-effects discs since 1928. Victor’s series was discontinued after only twenty releases. An additional twenty-four sound-effects releases appeared briefly in 1932, drawn largely from imported Gramophone Company recordings made in London. Portions of several of those recordings were later pirated by Gennett. [22]

Although the sound-effects discs failed to attract much attention, the Pict-Ur-Music service proved to be popular. In just three months, from September 12 through December 12, 1928, Pict-Ur-Music contract signings increased by nearly 250%, with only three cancellations for the period. [23] New signings received an additional boost in early 1929, after it was decided to decouple Pict-Ur-Music discs from the Electrical Research Product Company’s equipment. The records could now be rented by theaters using “any kind of non-synchronous instrument, provided it gives fair tone quality.” [24]

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Early Pict-Ur-Music labels (left) stated that the records were licensed for use only on Electrical Research Products’ equipment. That restriction was lifted in early 1929, as reflected by the later label design (right).

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However, for the Radio Corporation of America — Victor’s cost-conscious new owners — Pict-Ur-Music’s demise must have appeared imminent. With more and more movie houses installing fully synchronized equipment for the “talkies,” production of silent films was coming to an end, and with it, the need for background music. By January 1930, work was under way on an agreement that would transfer the “record library” business from RCA’s Victor division to its Photophone subsidiary. [25]

As set out in a memorandum on February 11, 1930, the Victor division would continue to record and press Pict-Ur-Music records, but it would bill Photophone for those services. In addition to the recording and production costs, Photophone would pay RCA Victor 22¢ per ten-inch disc, 32¢ for twelve-inch. Victor would be allowed to continue collecting revenue from any unexpired leases. Beyond that, however, the company largely washed its hands of the Pict-Ur-Music operation.

Photophone would be solely responsible for marketing the records, maintaining inventory, and handling fulfillment. The company was to purchase Victor’s existing Pict-Ur-Music inventory, although it would not be required to take obsolete material. The memo noted, “The present stocks consist largely of records returned from theaters, for which full value has been received… Photophone will not desire to take over any quantities of these records beyond those which it can reasonably expect to move during the present year.” Records that Photophone refused were to be scrapped. [26]

Photophone’s takeover was apparent even before terms of the transfer were finalized. General Electric’s Photophone playback equipment had already been substituted for Electrical Research Products’. On February 1, Photophone began advertising Pict-Ur-Music and sound-effects records for sale outright, in sets ranging from 150 to 541 records, with no contract required. [27] Lowell G. Calvert was put in charge of Photophone’s recording operations, although no new Pict-Ur-Music discs are known to have been produced under his management.

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RCA Photophone’s dual turntable was promoted for use with the Pict-Ur-Music discs after the requirement was dropped that they be used only with Electrical Research Products equipment.

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In November 1930, Photophone requested that RCA Victor continue to supply records without a formal production agreement. A response has not been found, but by then, the Pict-Ur-Music program was nearing its end. On January 14, 1931, RCA ordered that 150,000 surplus Pict-Ur-Music discs be scrapped. [28]  Nevertheless, the non-synchronous operation muddled along into January 1932, at which time RCA’s management finally conceded, “Due to the fact that most theaters are now equipped to play sound-on-film, the business now is very slim.” [29]  In the same month, Photophone’s operations were merged with those of RCA Victor, after which nothing more was heard of Pict-Ur-Music.

 

In October 1932, RCA Victor unexpectedly launched a new line of Theatre Records (using the British spelling). Unlike the Pict-Ur-Music discs, these were not supplied with cue sheets or tied to any specific movie. Consisting entirely of reissued commercial recordings — in a choice of 78-rpm or dubbed 33 1/3-rpm formats — they were intended simply to entertain (and, of course, plug Victor records) during pre-show and intermission periods. The series appears to have been a knee-jerk reaction to the American Record Corporation, which had introduced a similar line eight month earlier. Virtually no marketing was done for the series, which came to an end several months later, after eighty releases.

 

Notes

[1]     Green, Abel. “Victor’s Film Sounders.” Variety (Oct 3, 1928), p. 7.

[2]     Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Feb 1, 1928), p. 2.

[3]     Victor Talking Machine Co. “Pict-Ur-Music.” U.S. trademark application #287,903 (filed Sep 4, 1928).

[4]     Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Feb 1, 1928), op. cit.

[5]     Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Mar 7, 1928), p. 3.

[6]    “Records.” Harrison’s Reports (Sep 29, 1928), p. 156.

[7]     “Three Unions Clash Over Sound Device.” Variety (May 9, 1928), p. 13.

[8]     “Victor Experimenting with Small House ‘Talker.’” Variety (Apr 11, 1928), p. 16.

[9]     “Substitutes for Orchestra If Striking.” Variety (May 30, 1928), p. 25.

[10]    “Victor Planning Expansion of Non-Synchronous Service.” Motion Picture News (Aug 4, 1928), p. 397.

[11]    “Victor Experimenting…,” op. cit.

[12]    Ibid.

[13]    Bolig, John R. The Victor Discography: Special Labels, 1928–1941. Denver: Mainspring Press (2014).

[14]     Ibid.

[15]    Harrison’s Reports, op. cit.

[16]    Victor Talking Machine Company. Library of Victor “Pict-Ur-Music” to Accompany Motion Pictures. Revised Edition (Sep 1928), pp. 2–4.

[17]    Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jun 13, 1928), p. 8. Victor’s original West Coast plant, in Oakland, California, continued to press the standard commercial releases.

[18]    “Victor Engaged in Creation of Talking-Movies.” Camden Courier-Post (Jul 25, 1928), p. 1.

[19]    Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jun 13, 1928), p. 7. Three of the presses were allocated to the Oakland plant, the rest to Camden. Most likely, this was simply a reporting error, and the presses were actually intended for the sixteen-inch Vitaphone discs.

[20]     “Now You Can get Victor Quality (Victor Pict-Ur-Music) Overture, Trailer, and Exit Record Service for 33 1/3 R.P.M. Turntables” (ad). Film Daily (Sep 29, 1929), p. 7.

[21]     Examples are known with standard Victor black “scroll” labels as well as the more common Pict-Ur-Music style labels (without the Pict-Ur-Music logo).

[22]    Gennett matrix ledger (May 3–7, 1937).

[23]     Victor Talking Machine Co. Managers Committee minutes (Sep 12, 1928, and Dec 12, 1928), p. 3

[24]     “Disc Record Libraries.” Harrison’s Reports (Mar 2, 1929), p. 36.

[25]     RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee minutes (Jan 12, 1930), p. 8.

[26]     Memorandum, G. W. Jaggers to E. C. Grimley (Feb 11, 1930). Attachment to RCA Victor Managers Committee minutes.

[27]     “Victor Pict-Ur-Music Library Records” (Photophone ad). Exhibitors Herald-World (Feb 1, 1930), p. 6.

[28]     RCA Victor Co. Managers Committee minutes (January 14, 1931), p. 4.

[29]    RCA Victor Co. Report to the Board of Directors (Jan 15, 1932), p. 3.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

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Champion Records Identification Guide (George Blacker) • First Release in the New Mainspring Press Archive Series

Free to Download for Personal Use

Champion Records Identification Guide

Compiled by George Blacker
Mainspring Press Archive Series, No. 1

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The Champion Records Identification Guide is the first offering in the new Mainspring Press Archive Series.

This series will post material in our archive “as-is” — scanned directly from the original documents, without editing or alterations — as a first step toward developing them into fully edited final works.

Other projects currently under consideration for the series include additional manuscripts by George Blacker, Carl Kendziora, and other members of the original Record Research team; the more interesting portions of the Gennett master ledgers; Helene Chmura’s reconstruction of the American Record Corporation master ledgers; and Perry Armagnac’s transcription of the Ed Kirkeby session and payroll books (made under Kirkeby’s personal supervision).

We encourage collectors and researchers to submit verifiable additions and corrections, from first-hand observation of the original discs or ancillary materials. Submission information will be found in the file.

You are welcome to print out and circulate this file for personal research purposes; but as with all Mainspring online publications, sale or other commercial use is prohibited.

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~15 mb)
(Free for Personal Use)

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New Discography — Star Records (Hawthorne & Sheble) • Free Download

Free to Download for Personal Use

STAR RECORDS (HAWTHORNE & SHEBLE)
The Complete Discography
Data Compiled by William R. Bryant
Edited and Annotated by Allan Sutton

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When the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company launched its Star label in 1907, it turned to Columbia as its source of masters — a seemingly ironic move, since Columbia had just forced Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott’s American Record Company out business. But there’s more to the story, as you’ll see in the introduction to this new discography.

Other than a few relabeled American Record Company discs, Star records were legal reissues of Columbia recordings, pressed in Hawthorne & Sheble’s own plant using Columbia masters from which all tell-tale markings had been effaced, and new catalog numbers substituted. Until 1909, the vast majority showed no artist credits on the labels or in the catalogs.

The discography includes artist identifications, as determined  from the corresponding Columbia releases; the original Columbia source issues and release dates; the Star release dates, taken from the original catalogs and supplements; corresponding H&S pressings on labels like Busy Bee and Harmony; and a listing of confirmed American Record relabelings.

You’ll also find a timeline covering the history of Hawthorne & Sheble from 1893 through 1910, and a selection of Star record and phonograph advertisements.

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (~ 4.5 mb)
(Free for Personal Use — Print-Restricted)

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Phono-Cut Records is a part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is 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.

 

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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.

 

New Discography: Sonora Vertical-Cut Records (Free Download for Personal Use)

Free to Download for Personal Use

SONORA VERTICAL-CUT RECORDS
A Preliminary Discography

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The newest addition to Mainspring Press’ free Online Reference Library explores the Sonora Phonograph Company’s rare and obscure 1910 vertical-cut discs.

Sonora’s attempts to enter the phonograph and record market were stymied from the start by attorneys for the Victor Talking Machine Company. Having been legally enjoined from making standard lateral-cut recordings (although they went so far as to advertise a lateral disc under the Crown label), Sonora took a bold but ill-advised step, becoming the first American producer to reach the market with vertical-cut discs.

Unfortunately, no significant market yet existed for such records in the United States, nor was Sonora able to create one. The company failed in 1911, and its masters were taken over by the producers of the newly launched Princess label, which was equally unsuccessful in winning over converts to the vertical cut. The Sonora name and “Clear as a Bell” trademark subsequently passed through a long succession of other owners.

Sonora Vertical-Cut Records is the only in-depth study of these records, compiled from first-hand inspection of the original discs and ancillary materials. It is a preliminary discography, and we will be updating it online as needed; information on submitting data will be found in the file. Also included is a timeline summarizing the Sonora Phonograph Company’s history, adapted from American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950 (the very few remaining copies are available from Mainspring Press).

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Download Acrobat / Reader file (pdf) (< 1 mb)

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Phono-Cut Records is a part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is 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.

 

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Gus Haenschen: The St. Louis Years — Part 1 (The James A. Drake Interviews)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen:
The St. Louis Years — Part 1

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Gus Haenschen (a.k.a. Carl Fenton) served as director of popular music for Brunswick records from 1919 until he resigned in 1927 to pursue a career in commercial broadcasting. His interviews with Jim Drake covering The Brunswick Years and The Radio Years have been posted previously. Beginning with this installment, Haenschen backtracks to recall his formative years in and around St. Louis..

 

As you mentioned, Frank Hummert* was also from St. Louis. Do you recall when you met him, and what he was doing in St. Louis at the time?

Frank got into the exporting business with a partner named Hatfield and their company, Hummert Hatfield, did very well. Being a river city, St. Louis was a natural for importing and exporting. Around the time of the St. Louis Exposition in 1904, when the city was growing rapidly, Frank got a real-estate license and soon had his own company. That’s how I met him.

My family was looking for a home, and my sister Alice, who was a telephone operator at the time, saw one of Frank’s ads in the newspaper. He arranged for us to rent a house on Russell Avenue until we could buy one. We had been living in a house my father had bought in Fenton, one of the suburbs, but we had a crisis in our family and had to sell that house and go into a rental until we could get back on our feet.

 

Is it difficult for you to talk about that period in your life?

No, not at all. The problem was my father. I never got along with him. He was a drinker—which is the main reason I don’t drink—and drunk or sober he was a womanizer, so he was rarely home. When he did show up, he was drinking most of the time, and he was disrespectful not only to my mother but to also my grandmother, who was living with us.

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Gus Haenschen at Washington University, St. Louis (from The Hatchet, 1912)

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Your birth name is Walter Gustave Haenschen. Are you named for your father?

His first name was Walter, but his middle name was Rudolf, or “Rudolph” as he anglicized it. All through my years in St. Louis, and in fact in my early years in New York, I was “Walter G. Haenschen.” My middle name, Gustave, came from my paternal grandfather, whose name was Gustavus but shortened it to “Gustav” without the “e.” He had been a very successful partner in a grain company, Haenschen & Orthwein, and that company helped make St. Louis a major player in the grain market. Before then, Chicago was the grain capital in the northern Midwest, and New Orleans was the grain capital in the south.

My grandfather and his partner, Charlie Orthwein, had become friends when they were working for a wholesale grocery company in St. Louis. The grain business was the fastest-growing part of the grocery industry, so my grandfather and Charlie Orthwein managed to get contracts with some of the big graineries in Chicago and New Orleans. So they created Haenschen & Orthwein and did very, very well. My grandfather’s territory was northern Missouri, and Orthwein’s was the southern part of the state. Eventually, my grandfather sold his share of the business to Orthwein and retired. I was very proud of my grandfather, so eventually I adopted his name, although legally I’m still Walter G. Haenschen.

 

What was your mother’s maiden name?

Freida Gessler—she was named after her mother, who lived with us in the Fenton house. My father left her for another woman when I was nine years old, and he divorced her a year later [in 1899]. That’s why we had to sell the house in Fenton and find a rental until we could get back on our feet as a family.

 

You and your sister were too young to go to work when your father left, so how did the family manage until you and she were old enough to be employed?

When we sold the house, we had enough cash to live on, so that wasn’t a problem at first. My mother was a very fine seamstress, so she became a dressmaker and that gave us some steady cash. We also took in a German girl as a boarder, so the rent she paid for her room and the use of one of our bathrooms added to the coffers. My sister Alice, who is four years younger than I, took night classes at a business college and became a bookkeeper. She got a job as a clerk with a very large bank, so she was bringing in steady money too.

By the time I turned thirteen, I was playing the piano in dime stores, demonstrating sheet music to customers, and playing in movie theaters accompanying [silent] films. In the summer months I was a lifeguard and a stunt diver at the Olympic-size pool that was built for the St. Louis Exposition. I also taught swimming and diving in the summertime, and all year long I was playing the piano anywhere I could get work.

 

How did you meet Gene Rodemich?

Gene was a year younger than I but was already well known in St. Louis as a pianist, bandleader, and the head of an orchestra exchange. We hit it off right away, and we were a good complement to one another. Gene was a good all-around pianist, but he played entirely by ear. Because I was a good sight-reader, he hired me as an arranger and also had me “sub” for him when he was over-booked. He had started writing songs, but because he couldn’t read music and couldn’t score them, he had me do them and also had me write the orchestrations for his band.

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Gene Rodemich, from a November 1916 feature
in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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Actually, I knew Gene’s father before I knew Gene. When I was doing stunt-diving during the summers, I got a pretty good reputation as a high-diver. But one afternoon, I mistimed a dive and hit the edge of the diving board with my upper teeth. I lost all four upper front teeth and had to wait for the swelling to go down enough for a dentist to make me a bridge that matched my natural teeth. That dentist was Gene Rodemich’s father.

At that time, Gene was not only holding down a full-time engagement as the pianist at the Grand Central Theater in St. Louis, but was also writing songs and running this orchestra exchange which put together orchestras of freelance musicians for various events. Two of his songs were local hits—one was called “Easy Melody,” which was essentially a ragtime piece, and the other was a ballad, “Dreams Come True.” I did the arrangements for almost all of the songs his band played.

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A Rodemich-Haenschen collaboration, 1913

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Being a dentist with a very large practice, Gene’s father was very successful, so the family lived well—they had a couple servants, I remember, and Gene had a nice car. Because he came from money, he could afford to take risks, and the orchestra exchange he created would have been a big risk if he didn’t have money to pay the musicians he put together for dance bands. But the orchestra exchange became a good money-maker, and eventually I bought it from him.

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Haenschen takes over Gene Rodemich’s orchestra exchange (top, April 1914). The teaser ad (bottom) is from January 1917.

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The orchestra exchange supplied the musicians for weddings, and I played at a lot of them, including Frank Hummert’s wedding to his first wife [Adeline Woodlock Hummert]. It was through one of those wedding engagements that I got an invitation to play at a big party that the brewery owner Augustus Stroh gave at his mansion. That event, which happened when I was working for Gene Rodemich’s exchange, was a turning point in my career.

 

In what way was it a turning point?

I wanted to go to college and become an engineer, but I couldn’t afford the tuition. Augustus Busch, who was on the board of trustees and was a big donor to Washington University, took a liking to me and got me admitted to the University’s school of engineering. He was a founding member of a very wealthy country club, the Sunset [Hill] Country Club, so he made sure that I played piano at a lot of the events there.

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Haenschen at the Sunset Hill Country Club, as orchestra leader (top, June 1914) and swimming star (bottom, June 1918).

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He was also an investor in the St. Louis Cardinals, so I got the idea that if I could put together a band, I could play between innings at the games. Mr. Stroh thought it was a good idea, so he told me that if I had a band, he would help me with the management so I could play between innings. I had a friend named Tom Schiffer, who played traps [trap drums], and he and I began putting together a band from the roster in the Rodemich orchestra exchange.

 

He’s identified as “Theodore Thomas Schiffer” in most sources that I have been able to locate—but he was called “Tom”?

Those were the days of Theodore Roosevelt, who was famously known as “Teddy,” although nobody called him that to his face from what I was told. Because of “T.R.,” any boy named Theodore was bound to be called “Teddy,” which Schiffer didn’t like. So he decided to be called “Tom” instead.

 

Did it take you long to put together a band?

No, because I had the pick of the roster of the orchestra exchange. Tom [Schiffer] was my full-time partner so he played in every gig I could get, but the other guys I hired would vary according to which ones were available on any given date. But the instruments were pretty much the same: a banjo or a mandolin, a trumpet, a trombone, two saxes, one clarinet, a Sousaphone, Tom Schiffer on the trap drums, and me leading the group.

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 How did you get the band on the field between innings?

The whole band was seated on a wooden platform, a large pallet, that had four small-diameter wheels and tires, and a hitch to pull it onto the field with a Model T Ford. We might do just two numbers between innings. Naturally, we began with “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and then we’d play a rag or some other up-tempo tune. Whatever we played, we played loud!

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Between your classes at Washington University, your engagements at the Sunset Country Club, and the many others you were booking in and around St. Louis, how did you manage to get where you were going on time?

On a motorcycle. I had two of them at different times. Both were used, and I bought them from the Mound City Cycle Company. The first was a one-cylinder Royal, which was okay, but then I “upgraded” to a twin-cylinder Indian cycle with what used to be called “touch tires.” These were very durable tube tires that would take fast cornering very well and were good on any road surface.

When I rode I had to wear a cap, goggles, and what was called a “rain suit,” which was sort of a jumpsuit made out of tweed that was coated to make it waterproof. You had to have it recoated about once a year. It had a big zipper around the middle of this one-piece suit, so I could get in and out of it quickly.

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Haenschen takes a motorcycle trip, July 1912

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I always slipped on rubber galoshes to keep my shoes clean, and the legs of the rain suit were bell-bottomed so they would cover the tops of the galoshes. That rain suit helped keep my dress suit and shirt and tie clean. If it wasn’t for that twin-cylinder Indian, I wouldn’t have been able to make it from the University to wherever I was playing. But I made it on time every time, so I got a reputation for being very dependable.

 

We know from your collection that you made several trips to Sedalia, Missouri. Did you ride your motorcycle there? And what took you to Sedalia?

No, I took the interurban [train] to Sedalia. I went there because Scott Joplin, who was the “father of ragtime” and whose “Maple Leaf Rag” was a big hit, had agreed to let me meet him to talk about taking some lessons from him. I arranged to meet him at the Maple Leaf Café, where was playing. He named the rag after the café. I had seen him from a distance in St. Louis during the 1904 World’s Fair. He had written a rag called “[The] Cascades,” and during the first week of the fair [April 30–May 6, 1904], he had played it several times, and had made an arrangement for John Philip Sousa to conduct.

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Festival Hall at the St. Louis World’s Fair. Scott Joplin, who Haenschen recalled having seen at the fair, named his classic rag for the Cascade Gardens that fronted the hall.

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You were a teenager during the World’s Fair. Are there particular memories that you have of that event?

Oh, yes. I was fifteen at the time, and I have all sorts of memories of the fair. I went several times, and took my mother, grandmother, and my sister with me one of those times. One of the “wonders” we rode in was an electric streetcar, in front of the Palace of Electricity. Streetcars were pulled by horses in those days, so seeing this large, shiny electric streetcar was really something. The tracks were almost 2,000 feet long, if my memory is right, and you could ride the streetcar as often as there was an open seat in it. What seemed so amazing was that it would accelerate really fast but there was no noise, just the barely audible whine of the motor.

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Night-time illumination at the Palace of Electricity

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Electricity was a major draw at the fair. There was a Palace of Electricity, and Edison had helped raise a lot of funds for that exhibit. Westinghouse had his own building, and he had donated funds for the construction of an observation tower that was actually a radio tower. [Alexander Graham] Bell had invented a wireless telephone, and the generator for the wireless signal was inside the Palace of Electricity. Outside the building, there was a row of telephone receivers that didn’t have any wires. Workers from the Bell Company acted as guides, handing people a receiver so they could hear music or conversations that were being transmitted without wires.

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The fair’s pipe organ

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Another memory I have is the enormous pipe organ that was built specially for the fair. It was built in Los Angeles, and had six manuals, twenty-two rows of stops, and the largest and most numerous pipes of any organ in the nation at that time. The fair was supposed to open with a concert on that organ played by Charles Galloway, a famous Missouri organist. Unfortunately, there were problems with the organ and the concert had to be delayed for about six weeks. But when Galloway gave that concert, it was one of the great events of the fair.

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A New York-to-St. Louis auto caravan arrives at the fair.

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Weren’t automobiles and even airplanes a major attraction at the fair?

There were over one hundred cars on display—steam cars, electric cars, and gasoline cars. Most of the heads of the manufacturing companies came at different times during the fair—Henry Ford came, and I heard that [Walter] Baker, the inventor of the Baker Electric, was also there to demonstrate his cars. I don’t remember seeing but one airplane, which was on display rather than in the air. It was a Wright Brothers machine like the one they flew at Kitty Hawk.

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Haenschen recalled having seen a Wright Brothers plane at the 1904 exposition. Baldwin’s Airship was also there, as part of the St. Louis Department of Transportation’s display (bottom).

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Most of the buildings at world fairs were built to be temporary. Was that true of the ones at the St. Louis Fair?

Yes—many of them were made of plaster and hemp, but they were beautifully sculpted and painted and most of them still looked new at the end of the fair. They were constantly touched up. Now, Festival Hall, where Joplin introduced “Cascades,” was one of the permanent buildings, and it became part of the Washington University campus.

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The fair’s buildings were acquired in 1906 by the Chicago House Wrecking Company, which resold the more-permanent buildings and scrapped the remaining structures.

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.After the fair, the permanent buildings and the cascades and the pool where the Olympic swimming events were held were renamed the Exhibition Pavilion, which was later changed to the Forest Park Pavilion. It was still a draw when I was at Washington University. That pool was where I did most of my stunt diving, and it’s what got me an emergency appointment with Gene Rodemich’s dentist father.

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* Frank and Anne Hummert later founded Air Features, a broadcast production company with which Haenschen worked; see The Radio Years — Part 3.

 

For More:

Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years

Gus Haenschen: The Radio Years

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© 2020 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

Phono-Cut Discography Updated (Version 2.0)

Phono-Cut Discography Update (Version 2.0)
Free Download

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The latest version of the Phono-Cut discography is now available to download free for your personal use. Our thanks to Robert Coon, Glenn Longwell, and Steven Nordhougen, who contributed significant new data to Version 2.

Phono-Cut is an ongoing project, and we welcome additions and corrections (preferably with label photos or scans for verification) for future updates. Information on submitting data will be found in the file.

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Download Free for Personal Use (pdf) (~2 mb)


Phono-Cut Records is a part of the free
Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library,
courtesy of Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is 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.

 

New Discography • National Music Lovers and New Phonic Records (2nd Edition) — Free Download

New Free Discography Download
NATIONAL MUSIC LOVERS AND
NEW PHONIC RECORDS

Second Edition

By Allan Sutton

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The latest title in Mainspring Press’ free Online Reference Library, this new edition once and for all untangles the mess that was National Music Lovers and New Phonic by stripping away the anecdotal, speculative, and even outright-fabricated “data” that’s appeared in so many discographies over the years. We started from scratch, using information gathered solely from trusted contributors’ first-hand inspection of the original discs and ancillary materials.

The many questionable, unsubstantiated artist attributions that appear in works like The American Dance Band Discography and American Dance Bands on Records and Film are still here, but are now where they belong — mentioned in footnotes, along with an explanation in each case of why those claims are either baseless or demonstrably incorrect. 

Numerous entries have been added or updated since the original 2011 edition, with the discovery of still more alternate versions, special pressings, and previously untraced releases. Discographical details that were vague or lacking in the first edition have now been filled-in, thanks to our growing circle of trusted contributors, and our acquisition of the previously unpublished findings of the Record Research group, which investigated NML and New Phonic extensively for several decades — even running comparisons on a synchronized dual turntable to determine master sources, takes, and other fine details.

No guesswork here. Enjoy!

 

Download Free Personal-Use Edition (pdf, ~3.5 mb)

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National Music Lovers & New Phonic Records is the latest addition to free Record Collectors’ Online Reference Library, courtesy of
Mainspring Press, the leader in forensic discography.

This copyrighted publication is 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.

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“These Songs Glorify Depravity”: John McClelland and the Birth of the Dirty-Record Industry

“These Songs Glorify Depravity”: John McClelland and
the Birth of the Dirty-Record Industry
By Allan Sutton

In the early 1930s, comedians Dwight Fiske and Ray Bourbon launched what would come to be called “party labels,” proving there was a ready market for recordings of mildly suggestive material that the major companies wouldn’t touch. But the most prolific (if now long-forgotten) producer of party records in the 1930s was one John Collins McClelland. A well-known Los Angeles entrepreneur, McClelland controlled thousands of jukeboxes and other coin-operated entertainment devices through his National Amusement Company.

McClelland also operated several  side-ventures with ties to National Amusement, some of which appear to have been little more than shell corporations. Among them was the Los Angeles–based Novelty Record Distributors, a.k.a. Novelty Record Company, Hollywood Specialty Recordings, et al. Launched in 1935, it released “adult” material under the Hot Shots from Hollywood label. [1]  In an ironic twist, Milton Swanstrom was recruited as sales manager from the Rock-Ola Manufacturing Company, one of several jukebox manufacturers that had recently taken a strong stance against such records. [2] Perhaps not coincidentally, David Rockola wrote after Swanstrom’s departure,

 

I feel that the use of suggestive songs and questionable ‘ditties’ is jeopardizing the good, clean, well-established and well-thought-of legitimate business of the music operator. People can be very modern and liberal and still dislike to take their wives and children where they will unconsciously and unintentionally be compelled to hear ribald words on a phonograph record. [3]

 

The Hot Shots from Hollywood discs initially were marketed  purely for jukebox use, with the same selection pressed on both sides. Unlike many later party labels, they were professional productions, recorded at the Associated Cinema Studios in Hollywood and nicely pressed by the Allied Record Manufacturing Company, which had taken over Columbia’s former Los Angeles pressing plant. Early releases featured Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards, a stage and radio star of the 1920s whose career was in something of a decline. The records were only mildly suggestive and apparently did nothing to sully Edwards’ reputation. In 1940, he would go on to voice Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio.”

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The Hots Shots from Hollywood label was recast as Hollywood Hot Shots for the under-the-counter consumer market. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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The records were an immediate hit with local jukebox operators. In August 1936, Billboard reported that Midwestern distribution was being handled by the firm of Gerber & Glass (a major supplier to   jukebox operators), which was “swamped with orders.” [4] Production initially lagged far behind demand. Although Milton Swanstrom reported “increasing business” on October 8, only 806 discs were shipped that week. [5]

In December 1936, McClelland — after noting that demand for the Cliff Edwards records was still exceeding production capacity — announced a new, more mainstream approach for Novelty Record Distributors that “broadens the field and places it in the diversified class, using name singers and orchestra.” [6] Among them were Ben Light, John “Candy” Candido (of the popular duet, Candy & Coco), and Cleo Brown (a pop-blues singer and frequent guest on Bing Crosby’s and Jimmy Dorsey’s 1930s radio broadcasts). McClelland even hired the team of Mac Maurada and Mac McGreevy to pen his lyrics. [7]

Billboard described the material as “new and distinct types of songs never before recorded [that] give the patron a big laugh in addition to beautiful and rhythmic dance music.” [8] Brown recorded five titles for Hot Shots in late 1936, including “Is Jenny Getting Any Anymore?” and “Who’ll Chop Your Suey?” They were standard double-entendre fare, little more suggestive than what Ethel Waters, Bessie Smith, and other blues artists had recorded in the late 1920s and early 1930s. There were many issues by an impromptu jazz-inflected group labeled the Hollywood Hooters, and Ben Light contributed such titles as “Her Fuller Brush Man” and “Stick It–Shove It–Stuff It” with his Surf Club Boys.

McClelland eventually overcame his production problems, and in 1937 he moved into the consumer market, shortening his label’s name to Hollywood Hot Shots in the process. Now with a different selection on each side, the records were advertised to the general public, albeit cautiously, as “The Life of the Party — Recorded in Hollywood with that ‘Hollywood Touch.’” Generally kept behind the counter, they retailed for $1.25 each, [9] four times the price of a popular mainstream label like Decca or Vocalion. There was even a catalog of sorts, and mail-order service if desired.

McClelland’s off-color recordings soon began showing up on a group of obscure party labels that were clustered in Los Angeles. They were credited to Amusement Record Distributors, Hollywood Specialty Recordings, and other shadowy operations. Most left little or no paper trail, but they appear to have been nothing more than offshoots of, or smoke-screens for, Novelty Record Distributors.

New arrivals included Torchies from Hollywood and Racy Records, both of which got their start by reissuing McClelland’s Hot Shots sides. Despite the reclining semi-nude (and later, fully nude) model on the labels, Racy Records generally promised much more stimulating fare than they actually delivered. Good-Humor, which appears to have have had at least tenuous ties to McClelland, retailed for a whopping $2.50 per record, virtually ensuring its failure.

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The Racy Records label in its original form (top). The later version was more graphic, although content remained rather tame by modern standards. (Kurt Nauck collection)

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Inevitably, there was a backlash from that those who demanded “obscene” records be banned, particularly on jukeboxes. Among them was columnist Earl J. Morris, who urged the removal of all “filthy records” from jukeboxes. “Children drop nickels to hear these tunes,” Morris warned. “These songs glorify depravity.” [10] Bowing to public pressure, states and municipalities began acting to outlaw the sale and use of party records. One William Nevin, handed a suspended sentence in Boston for possessing obscene records, asked that his records be returned, only to be informed that the police would attend to them. [11] In Miami, police officers handed over the names of those they arrested for stocking jukeboxes with forbidden records to the appropriate jukebox distributors, who then sent warning letters to the offenders. [12]

The federal government finally became involved in late 1937, when it launched an investigation of the records and their producers [13] under mounting pressure from representatives of the jukebox trade, who complained to the Justice Department that the use of such records on their machines gave jukeboxes “a black eye.” [14] Ultimately, the matter was turned over to the Post Office, which had the power to investigate those suspected of sending “pornographic” materials through the mail. The primary person of interest, it would turn out, was John McClelland.

The investigation was made public on January 4, 1938. [15] Four days later, McClelland was arrested aboard an ocean liner in Honolulu harbor, reportedly bound for Australia. McClelland claimed that he was on vacation and was not attempting to elude prosecution in Los Angeles, [16] where a federal commissioner’s warrant had been issued charging him with using the mails to transport obscene records. [17] It was alleged that McClelland had manufactured approximately 60,000 such records and was mailing 4,000 advertising circulars per month, which themselves were held to be obscene. [18] McClelland was returned to Los Angeles, where he was indicted by a federal grand jury. [19]

None of the commercial party-record offerings of the 1930s were truly pornographic, even by the prudish standards of the day. Most offered little more than trite double-entendre lyrics or sniggering, adolescent humor, punctuated by the occasional expletive. The handful of unabashedly obscene recordings that circulated during the decade, like Lucille Bogan’s “Shave ‘Em Dry” (from a withheld 1935 American Record Corporation master) were mostly illegally produced dubbings from test pressings that somehow escaped from legitimate producers.

By 1940, many party record labels carried warnings that jukebox use was prohibited. In the same year, members of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (Local 737) got into the censorship business by refusing to install or service jukeboxes containing “objectionable” records. [20] The American Society of Composers, Authors and  Publishers joined the fray in 1940, formally condemning writers and publishers of “salacious and suggestive songs.”

Increased policing dampened the party-record business in the early 1940s, but it took the supply and personnel shortages of World War II to bring production of the records to a near-standstill. When production finally ratcheted back up after the war, demand emerged for a new sort of party record devoted to truly pornographic material, which is a tale for another installment.

 

References

[1] “P. O. Inspectors Nab Record Distributor.” Oakland [CA] Tribune (Jan 15, 1938), p. 3.

[2] “Mrs. Swamstrom Is Buried.” Billboard (Nov 14, 1936), p. 76.

[3] “Music Operators Again Cuationed.” Billboard (Dec 26, 1936), p. 124.

[4] “Paul Gerber Leaves for Coast.” Billboard (Aug 8, 1936), p. 73.

[5] “Los Angeles.” Billboard (October 24, 1936), p. 87.

[6] “Los Angeles.” Billboard (Dec 5, 1936), p. 79.

[7] “Endurance Shows.” Billboard (Ocotber 24, 1936), p. 28.

[8] “Gerber…,” op. cit.

[9] “Hollywood Hot-Shot Records.” Undated sales flyer (c. 1937–1938).

[10] Morris, Earl J. “Grand Town Day and Night.” Pittsburgh Courier (Jul 15, 1939), p. 20.

[11] Asks Return of Evidence by Which He Was Convicted.” Fitchburg Sentinel (May 1, 1938), p. 7.

[12] “Smutty Records.” Miami News (Nov 24, 1937), p. 1.

[13] “Investigate Traffic in Obscene Phonograph Records.” Catholic Advance (Feb 5, 1938), pp. 1

[14] “U.S. Starts Probe of Risqué Records.” Pittsburgh Press (Jan 4, 1938), p. 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “Man Held Here for L.A. Federals.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 11, 1938), pp. 1, 2.

[17] “Pornographic Record Seller Seized Here.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 11, 1938), p. 1, 4.

[18] “Investigate Traffic…,” op. cit.

[19] “Obscene Record Defendant to Sail.” Honolulu Advertiser (Jan 15, 1938), p. 4.

[20] “Juke Trade Leaders Decry Use of Smutty Disks, Scoff at Raid.” Billboard (Dec 14, 1946), pp. 3–4

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

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The Birth of Electrical Recording — Part 2 (Compo, Brunswick, Edison, and the Minor Labels)

The Birth of Electrical Recording — Part 2
By Allan Sutton

 

>  Read Part 1

 

 

The Canadian Connection: Herbert Berliner’s Home-Grown
Electrical System

While the electrical conversion was getting under way in the United States, the Compo Company’s Herbert S. Berliner was developing his own electrical-recording system in Canada. The son of inventor Emile Berliner, Herbert had gone his own way after openly expressing dissatisfaction with what he saw as the Victor Talking Machine Company’s predatory relationship with Emile’s Berliner Gramophone Company. In the autumn of 1918, while still vice-president of Berliner Gramophone, Herbert launched the Compo Company as an independent pressing plant in Lachine, Quebec.

On July 7, 1921, Berliner made the first documented test recordings in Compo’s newly opened Montreal studio. They were followed on July 13 by what would be Compo’s first commercially issued recordings, two selections by the team of Tremblay & Germain. Apex, Compo’s flagship label, was formally announced on September 2, 1921.

By January 1924, Berliner had opened a New York studio, which initially was reserved for the production of Ajax race records for the American market. In the same month, he began making experimental electrical recordings in Compo’s Montreal studio, using equipment reportedly of his own design.

On December 4, 1924, Berliner began recording some commercial masters in both acoustic and electric versions. The switch-over to full-time electrical recording followed quickly, on January 22, 1925. Compo’s first electrical releases began reaching Canadian dealers in the early spring of 1925, just ahead of the first Columbia and Victor electrical releases in the United States. There was a mixture of acoustic and electric releases into the early summer of 1925, as the last of the acoustic masters worked their way through the system.

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Compo hints that something’s changed in the spring of 1925. Several months later, the company began marketing the new records as “Apex Electrophonic.”

 

Berliner’s New York studio appears to have been converted to electrical recording during February–March 1925, a period in which the Compo day books show no commercial recording in New York. After resuming briefly, New York operations were again suspended in April 1925, coinciding with the demise of Ajax.

The New York studio reopened on July 22, 1925, in a new location. Electrically equipped and now operating as the Berliner Recording Laboratories, it served for several years as an independent provider of masters to American companies that had yet to make the electrical conversion. It supplied many electrically recorded masters to the Pathé Phonograph and Radio Corporation beginning in January 1926, primarily by Pathé’s higher-priced talent (more run-of-the-mill artists continued to record acoustically for Pathé at the same time).

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Recording ledger sheets for New York Berliner sessions commissioned by Gennett (top) and Pathé (bottom). Gennett subsequently substituted its own false master numbers for the actual Compo E-series numbers, which has caused some less-than-knowledgeable discographers to assign an incorrect recording date. For the George Hall session, true Pathé master numbers (107450 and 107451) were assigned from the start.

 

During the summer and autumn of 1926, the Starr Piano Company commissioned electrically recorded masters from Berliner that were renumbered within the Gennett master sequence, with the addition of a BEX- prefix (which is not shown in most modern discographies). However, Pathé was by far Berliner’s major client, commissioning a large number of recordings into early 1927 — at first Compo master numbers, but later assigning numbers  from Pathé’s own series. Compo files for the latter sessions often contain instructions to “Charge Pathé,” although some of the recordings were also issued on Compo-owned labels in Canada. Berliner’s last documented New York studio recordings were made in the spring of 1927. The studio appears to have been closed after Pathé began making its own electrical recordings, possibly having purchased the equipment from Berliner.

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Notice of Compo’s experiment with commercial releases from radio broadcasts (August 1925). Berliner’s off-the-air recordings were issued under a special Apex Radia-Tone label.

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Berliner also experimented with recordings from radio broadcasts during the mid-1920s, which he issued on the Apex Radia-Tone label in Canada. The first release consisted of two hymns by the choir and congregation of the American Presbyterian Church (Montreal), with pipe-organ accompaniment, as broadcast on August 9, 1925. In 1926, after much carefully documented experimentation, Berliner began recording pipe-organ solos by Norton Payne, which were transmitted by wire from Montreal’s Capitol Theatre to the nearby studios of radio station CKAC. The records sold well in Canada, prompting a 1928 follow-up series by Leo Le Sieur (performing in Montreal’s Midway Theatre) that also appeared on numerous low-priced American labels, sometimes under pseudonyms.

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Compo as a full-service provider of electrical recordings

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Brunswick’s “Light-Ray” Debacle (or, Western Electric to the Rescue)

Back in the U.S. the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company found itself shut out of the supposedly exclusive licensing agreements that Western Electric had recently negotiated with Columbia and Victor. Now the third-largest American record producer, Brunswick suddenly found itself in dire need of an electrical process. The company’s earlier in-house electrical experiments having come to naught (see Part 1), Brunswick vice-president Percy Deutsch turned to General Electric, hoping to license their photoelectric Pallophotophone recording system — the same basic system that Victor had tested and rejected in 1922.

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Charles Hoxie and the Pallophotophone (1922).

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Elmer C. Nelson, assistant manager of Brunswick’s Boston branch, described the process in layman’s terms:

A powerful beam of light is centered on a minute crystal mirror (weighing one two-hundredth part of a milligram) very much smaller than the head of a pin. This delicate mirror, which is held in place by a magnetic force, is vibrated by sound waves and will respond to the slightest whisper. The mirror reflects the powerful light playing upon it … This dancing beam of light acts upon an electric magnetic wire, and a weak electrical impulse is set up. This electrical impulse is carried over wires to an amplifying unit, and thence to a cutting device which cuts the wax …

 

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A highly simplified explanation of the Hoxie–General Electric system as adapted for disc mastering, used in Brunswick’s promotional materials.

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In early 1925, General Electric president Harold Swope approved the licensing of Hoxie’s process to Brunswick through the Radio Corporation of America. Brunswick and RCA had been involved in cooperative efforts since late 1924, when Brunswick agreed to install RCA Radiolas in some of its phonographs and began sponsoring broadcasts of its recording artists over RCA’s radio station, WJZ (New York).

One immediate result of this agreement was the suspension of recording activity in Brunswick’s new Chicago studio, which had opened in February 1925 and was still operating only sporadically. Unlike the earlier in-house experiments, which had been carried out in Chicago, experiments with the new GE equipment would be conducted in New York, with its long-established studios, access to inexpensive freelance studio artists, and proximity to General Electric’s headquarters.

The General Electric equipment was first installed in Room #3 in  Brunswick’s Eastern headquarters at 799 Seventh Avenue in Manhattan. The company’s first electrically recorded commercial masters were produced there beginning April 7, 1925, while a steadily diminishing number of acoustic sessions continued in Rooms #1 and #2. The last acoustic master intended for release in Brunswick’s main series was made in New York on June 1, 1925, an unissued recording of “Got No Time” credited to the fictitious Carl Fenton’s Orchestra. “Carl Fenton” was merely a pseudonym for Brunswick musical director Walter G. (Gus) Haenschen, who would struggle mightily with the new process before finally scrapping it completely.

Recording activity was suspended in the New York studios during July, presumably to accommodate conversion of the older studios. Still mixing electric and acoustic sessions, Brunswick began releasing a few electrically recorded discs into the monthly lists — unannounced as such, and interspersed with the far more numerous acoustic recordings — as early as June 1925.

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“Music by Photography” (1926). Brunswick musical director Gus Haenschen recalled the system was so flawed that it was eventually scrapped it in favor of a secret licensing deal with Western Electric.

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On May 2, 1925, Brunswick also began recording electrical masters for its recently acquired Vocalion subsidiary, although acoustic recording would remain the norm for most issues intended for Vocalion label (which Brunswick officials persisted in treating as the ugly step-sister) until October 23, 1925. The Chicago studio, idled since March, was converted to GE equipment during the summer of 1925. After some prolonged testing, regularly scheduled electrical sessions began in Chicago on September 22, 1925, yielding two unissued titles by the Abe Lyman and Paul Ash orchestras. However, the company continued to use the acoustic process for some Spanish-language recordings made on the West Coast as late as May 1927.

The changeover had not been easy for Brunswick, nor had the early results been promising. The photoelectric microphones proved to be highly sensitive to extraneous noise and vibrations, requiring heavy draping of the studio. Consequently, the earliest Light-Ray recordings suffered from low volume and a distant, muffled sound. In attempting to increase the volume, the engineers overcompensated and introduced sometimes-severe distortion. The results at first were a questionable improvement over Brunswick’s high-quality acoustic recordings. Gus Haenschen recalled:

What a mess it was!… The results were all over the place because that damned process was totally unpredictable.  Most of the time, the test pressings of the recordings had so much distortion that they were worthless.  The distortion might be in the bass in one test pressing, and then in the middle or upper range in another.  About the time we thought we had solved the distortion problem in one part of the range, it would be in another part [of the range]. 

The microphone we had to use may have been the source of the problem.  It looked like an oversized telephone.  It had a flared cup that funneled the sound into the internal parts of the microphone, like telephones were equipped with back then…. That microphone was mounted on a steel pole that could be adjusted up or down in height, and the cast-iron base was on casters so it could be moved around.  But no matter where we put the thing in relation to the performers, we couldn’t get consistent, distortion-free recordings.”

Haenschen and the Brunswick and GE engineers struggled to make the most of a highly flawed system. The worst distortion had been tamed by early 1926, although the results still fell far short of what Columbia and Victor were achieving with their Western Electric equipment. Despite the unreliability of their GE equipment, Brunswick began dispatching it from Chicago to remote locations in early 1926. After an initial trip to nearby Mundelein, Illinois in March, to record the St. Mary of the Lake Seminary Choir, the Brunswick engineers began to venture farther afield. A GE-equipped team traveled to Toronto in April, to Cleveland in May, and to St. Louis in June.

Like Victor and Columbia, Brunswick initially suppressed any public announcement of its new recording process. However, it was the first company of the three to announce its conversion, breaking the news in a press release on August 12, 1925. At that time, Percy Deutsch made the curious claim that Brunswick’s first electrical recordings would be issued in October, when in fact the company had been surreptitiously issuing electrics since June. Perhaps he was trying to distance Brunswick from the company’s earliest, horrendously flawed electrics.

The announcement was tied to the introduction of Brunswick’s new all-electric phonograph, the Panatrope. The first fully integrated, entirely electrical phonograph to reach market, the Panatrope was formally unveiled on August 25, in an open letter to the trade over Brunswick vice-president Percy Deutsch’s signature. (Some small manufacturers had already offered “electric” phonographs, but these were modified acoustic machines, usually involving the placement of a microphone on the acoustic reproducer or in the tone-arm, which was connected by wire to a radio receiver and external speaker. The Panatrope, in contrast, was a fully self-contained unit employing a true electrical pickup engineered for compatibility with the unit’s own electronics.)

An advertising blitz followed in anticipation of the holiday season. General sales manager A. J. Kendrick, positioning the Panatrope as an entirely new device, declared,

We are dropping the word “phonograph” except as applied to those phonographs which we will, for the time being, continue to merchandise, or until we have decided to entirely discontinue the production and selling of phonographs … the trend of the times, both in scientific development as well as public demand and tendency, is entirely toward electrical applications and progress.”

On November 11, 1925, Brunswick hosted a gala demonstration of the Panatrope at New York’s Aeolian Hall, enlisting the aid of David Sarnoff, Otto Kahn, and other New York businessmen, celebrities, and socialites. RCA president Alfred Goldsmith first addressed the audience by radio from Washington DC. Then, taking a page from Edison, the Brunswick executives treated their guests to a sort of modified Tone Test involving live-versus-recorded performances by pianist Leopold Godowsky, tenor Mario Chamlee, and other Brunswick Gold Label celebrities. The next day, Deutsch demonstrated the new machine and records to an enthusiastic standing-room-only crowd in the Wanamaker Auditorium. While neither the Panatrope nor the Light-Ray records were technically very polished at that  point, Brunswick for the time being had soundly upstaged competitors Victor and Columbia in the advertising arena. The show was then taken on the road.

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Brunswick mounted a national advertising blitz for its flawed “Light-Ray” records (June 1926)

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Brunswick soon dubbed its new recording process “Light-Ray,” likening it to “music by photography.” Deutsch, flush with enthusiasm for his new product, announced that due to the “greater delicacy” of the groove produced by the GE process, Brunswick was able to produce a 500-line-per-inch groove that would allow playing times of up to forty minutes on a twelve-inch disc. If such records were made, there is no trace of them in the Brunswick files, and they never reached the public. Brunswick’s commercial releases had a maximum playing time only marginally longer than that of their competitors, a gain realized in part by adopting a slightly finer groove spacing, and in part by later reducing the label diameter, allowing the recordable area to extend closer to the center of the disc.

But Percy Deutsch was clearly aware of the Light Ray process’ shortcoming, admitting in October 1925 that “Mr. Hoxie’s invention has been modified considerably.” Ultimately, those improvements would still prove inadequate to keep pace with Columbia and Victor. In a move that remained a well-guarded industry secret until Gus Haenschen finally disclosed it to interviewer Jim Drake many years later, Brunswick officials secretly negotiated a licensing agreement with Western Electric:

We junked that “Light-Ray” thing and made a deal with Western Electric to be able to use their process instead.  Back then, it was possible to make confidential deals like that and have them stay confidential.  Anyway, from then on the sound quality of our recordings was on a par with Victor’s.

Given the delicate nature of that arrangement, no clue appears in the Brunswick recording files as to when the transition occurred, but the improvement in audio quality does indeed become quite apparent during the course of 1927. A few early Western Electric masters show an inconspicuous “W” in the wax, the only visual evidence that a change had occurred.

 

The Electrical Bandwagon

While the major American record manufacturers enjoyed the technical support of two major corporations in converting to electrical recording, the smaller companies were left to implement electrical systems — or at least, the appearance they were employing electrical systems — on their own. The result, at first, was a flurry of new brand names suggesting that electricity might somehow be involved, without actually claiming that such was the case.

In May 1925, General Phonograph Corporation president Otto Heineman announced that Okeh’s veteran recording engineer, Charles Hibbard, had perfected a new recording process. “However,” Heineman warned, “we are not quite ready to tell anyone about the details of this new process, which we must keep secret for the time being.” When a reporter for The Talking Machine World questioned Heineman on the system, Heineman replied “with the suggestion that the new process is not electrical,” and aural evidence supports that claim. Okeh’s Ralph Peer cagily reported that the process could “be applied to either acoustic or electric recording and has been of particular value in eliminating the uncertainties from electrical recording,” but stopped short of claiming that records made by the new Truetone process were actually electrical.

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Charles Hibbard in the Okeh studio, late 1925

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Sonically, the new process was a step backwards in some regards. Although the overall response curve was generally smoother, the new recordings suffered from a peculiar “boxy” sound. After its acquisition by Columbia in late 1926, Okeh was, of course, licensed to use the Western Electric system, which it did superbly in the talented hands of Hibbard, Tommy Rockwell, and others. The “Truetone” process was promptly abandoned, although Okeh’s earliest Western Electric releases still bore old Truetone labels and showed only an inconspicuous “E” in the wax, rather than the tell-tale circled-W indicating the  Western Electric process.

Pathé’s New Process Recording system, announced in the early autumn of 1925, was also acoustic, despite Pathé’s allusions to experiments in “electrical and photo-electrical sound wave reproducing methods.” In reality, it was nothing more than an ultra-low speed version of Pathé’s traditional acoustic dubbing process, which involved copying cylinder masters to disc by means of a pantograph. The process seems primarily to have increased the rumble and other mechanical noise that had long plagued Pathé’s pantographed disc masters, in exchange for a slight gain in high-end response.

When Pathé finally did decide to produce electrical recordings in early 1926, it contracted the work to Herbert Berliner’s New York studio, as noted earlier in this article. Pathé began recording its own electrical masters at some point in 1927, coinciding with the last of Herbert Berliner’s New York sessions for the label. Touted to the trade as “Pathéphonic” (a term that did not appear on the record labels, being reserved mainly for Pathé’s new line of phonographs), the process produced rather muffled-sounding recordings.

The Cameo Record Corporation’s electrical system produced even more murky-sounding results. Experimentation had begun in mid-1925, following Cameo’s merger with David Grimes Radio. Inventor of the Grimes Inverse Duplex Circuit, David Grimes operated an audio research laboratory and radio factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. Given that, it appears likely that Cameo’s electrical recording system (which was not otherwise identified as to source in the trade papers) originated there. After a few isolated electrical sessions, Cameo commenced full-time electrical recording around March 1926. Although Cameo’s electrical recordings sound muddy to modern ears, The Talking Machine World professed fondness for them, declaring “the bass notes are particularly ‘rounded’ in the manner that is at present so popular.”

Exactly what processes were employed by many of the other small companies will probably remain a mystery. Most apparently resorted to cobbled-together systems, with predictably poor results. The Plaza Music Company-Regal Record Company alliance — producers of Banner, Domino, Regal, and a large group of dime-store and mail-order client labels — issued several electrical recordings as early as July 1925, although it is not certain that they were Plaza’s own recordings. Regular electrical sessions began in late November 1925, and some electrical recordings of the crudest sort appeared among the March 1926 releases. The changeover was formally announced the following month, on the Banner and Regal labels. Plaza’s recording quality improved to some extent in 1927, after the Crystalate Gramophone Record Manufacturing Company of Great Britain acquired a part-interest in the company, but it remained substandard.

Even America’s shoddiest record producer — the Grey Gull Record Company, purveyors of gritty  20¢ discs that favored such artist credits as “Mr. X” — managed to cobble together an electrical system in the spring of 1926, which introduced distortion the likes of which have rarely been surpassed on commercially issued phonograph records.

 

Gennett: One Step Forward, One Step Backward

The Starr Piano Company’s Gennett records division lagged behind all other companies except Edison in converting to electrical recording. Like Pathé, Gennett commissioned some electrical recordings from Compo in early 1926. The company also recorded a few of its own electrical masters at about the same time, using General Electric equipment. The resulting records were issued with a small “GE” logo added to the standard Gennett label, and were of reasonably good quality. Gennett’s initial flirtation with the new process proved brief, however.

The Gennett files document frequent problems with the GE equipment. The Indiana studio proved to be especially problematic, with manager Fred Wiggins confiding to one performer, “We have been put out so many times in regard to the new electrical recordings that we have decided to put back our horn recording apparatus here in Richmond.” The “electric” notation disappears from Gennett’s New York and Richmond matrix ledgers in mid-March 1926. It does not reappear until October 1926, and then only sporadically at first, intermixed with the more numerous acoustically recorded masters.

With a small stock of electrical masters finally ready for release, the Gennett Electrobeam disc was formally announced in January 1927. The records, sporting a new label reminiscent of Victor’s scroll design, were touted as “Lightning Tuned to Music.” Some of the problems at the Richmond studio were resolved in early 1927, after Gordon Soule replaced E. C. A. “Eck” Wickemeyer as Gennett’s chief recording engineer.

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Gennett engineer Gordon Soule and unidentified assistant on the road in 1927 with a GE electrical set-up. The presence of the antiquated acoustic horn and reproducer is puzzling; the photo caption offers no information on what purpose they might have served.

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By 1927, the GE equipment was functioning reliably enough that Soule took it on the road to Chicago, Birmingham, and other locations, recording some exceptionally interesting local jazz and blues performers in the process. But the General Electric system still left much to be desired, being prone to distortion, and in 1928 Gennett turned to the Radio Corporation of America for help.

General Electric had recently transferred its work on optical sound-film recording to RCA, which announced its new Photophone film recording system in April 1928. The Photophone system was designed primarily to record variable-density film soundtracks. However, one component of the system — based on one of Hoxie’s 1921 Pallophotophone patents — was an electromagnetic disc cutter. Thus, the system was readily adaptable to disc-record mastering. On July 1, RCA licensed the system to Gennett. The deal pre-dated any large-scale use of Photophone in the motion picture industry, which began only after RCA spun off Photophone as a separate corporation in association with Keith-Albee-Orpheum and Film Booking Offices.

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Gennett announces its long-delayed conversion (1926)

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The Photophone Gennett masters were a marked improvement over what had been achieved with the balky General Electric equipment. Curiously, the RCA Photophone credit appeared only Supertone, a Sears Roebuck client label produced by Gennett, never on Gennett’s own labels.

 

Edison’s Reluctant Conversion

While even small operations like Grey Gull moved ahead with electrical recording of a sort, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., clung tenaciously to the acoustic process. Frank L. Dyer, one of Edison’s chief engineers, had patented an electromagnetic recording head as early as 1921, but apparently no effort was made to develop the device. Charles and Theodore Edison’s attempts to persuade their father to investigate both radio and electrical recording were rebuffed.

After conducting some experiments with electrical reproduction (but apparently not electrical recording) in the autumn of 1925, Charles and Theodore persuaded their father to hire Bertil Hauffmann, a Swedish engineer, to conduct similar experiments. By then almost totally deaf, Edison reportedly auditioned Hauffmann’s phonograph with the aid of an ear trumpet, pronounced the results “distorted,” and fired the engineer.

Development of an Edison electrical phonograph was put on hold. No electrical recording seems to have been attempted during Hauffmann’s brief stay, but the Edison files reveal ongoing experimentation with alternatives, including what was presumably the unauthorized acoustic dubbing of some electrically recorded Victor discs on several occasions, for unknown reasons.

Nevertheless, it was becoming clear that Edison would have to take some action in the face of an industry-wide electrical conversion. The late 1925 Tone Test tour had been largely ignored by the press for the first time, eclipsed by Brunswick’s public demonstrations of its new electrical phonographs and records. What followed was a series of technical and marketing disasters that included the purely acoustic Edison Dance Reproducer and the fine-groove but still acoustic Long Playing discs.

It had long been apparent to Charles Edison and others that the company would have to convert to electrical recording, and that to continue to introduce acoustic products that were obsolete before ever reaching the marketplace was simply postponing the inevitable. In addition to an alarming decline in sales that he attributed in part to the company’s failure to convert, manager Walter Miller noted that artists who had become accustomed to the microphone were now reluctant to continue working in front of primitive recording horns. In the spring of 1927, Charles Edison took the unprecedented step of going outside the company for help, inviting General Electric to conduct test sessions in the Edison studio. Such a move would have been unthinkable under his father’s management.

Testing of the General Electric equipment probably began in May 1927, when J. Donald Parker and B.A. Rolfe’s Orchestra were paid for unspecified experimental recordings at Edison’s New York studio. Electrical recording of commercial masters finally began on a sporadic basis on June 30, 1927, with a session by vocalist Juan Pulido. On July 1, acoustic sessions were resumed, and they would be intermixed with electric sessions for the next month. The acoustic process would not be fully abandoned until August 1927, making Edison the last American record company to adopt an electrical process. At some point, Edison switched to more reliable RCA Photophone equipment, the presence of which is confirmed in a 1929 insurance-company inventory of the company’s assets.

In September 1927, after offering hints to the trade for many weeks, the Edison company publicly announced a new acoustic phonograph, the Edisonic. The machine was designed to play Edison’s new electrical recordings, which were erroneously credited to “Mr. Edison’s secret process of recording.” If there was a secret at all, it was that Thomas Edison had nothing to do that process, which was entirely the work of General Electric. An all-electric Edison phonograph was finally unveiled in the summer of 1928, in conjunction with Edison’s purchase of a substantial interest in the Splitdorf Radio Corporation. Splitdorf’s flawed radio and electrical phonograph circuitry reportedly required a substantial expenditure to bring it up to company standards.

The company continued to champion the vertical cut even as it struggled to keep the Phonograph Division afloat. The sole dissenter was Arthur Walsh, the division’s vice-president and general manger. On April 25, 1927, he suggested what until then would have constituted heresy in the Edison organization—that the company produce “a disc record that plays on any phonograph” (in other words, a standard lateral-cut record). Confronted with steadily declining sales figures, management took his suggestion and in late 1927 and authorized the development of a lateral-cut disc, to be marketed as the Edison Needle Type. Charles Edison delegated the management of the project to Walsh, the company’s most progressive and outspoken executive.

An experimental electrically recorded lateral-cut master was recorded on October 1, 1927, and by the end of the year, forty-two lateral recordings had been assigned experimental numbers. Development got under way in earnest on January 6, 1928, with production of the first in a new series of N-prefixed lateral masters intended for commercial release. The vertical-cut Diamond Disc was to remain in production, so a split microphone line was installed, allowing vertical and lateral cutting machines to be operated simultaneously, thus avoiding the need to dub from one format to the other. However, the Edison engineers encountered many problems in working with the unfamiliar lateral cut, and hundreds of masters were rejected during 1928, often for seemingly minor flaws. Lateral-cut masters were not judged acceptable for release with any regularity until late in the year.

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Band-leader B. A. Rolfe and friends demonstrate the new Edison Needle-Type Electric discs and acoustic portable phonograph in 1929. The portables were manufactured by an outside vendor. (Edison National Historic Site)

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Following the same pattern that had marred its launch of the Diamond Disc in 1912–1913, and the ill-fated Long Playing records in 1927, Edison announced the Needle Type prematurely, then dribbled the product out in fits and starts over a thirteen-month span. The new records were first announced in the spring of 1928, and some sample pressings were exhibited to dealers. The company then went largely silent on the subject until January 1929, when it announced once again that release of the new records was imminent. Needle Type records finally began shipping to dealers in July.

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A 1929 promotional photo for the Needle Type Electrics
(Edison National Historic Site)

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The Edison Needle Type electrics garnered generally favorable reviews from the critics, although from a technical standpoint they fell short of the results being achieved by Columbia, Okeh, and Victor. Surviving files reveal that the company lowered its strict standards in an attempt to keep a steady flow of new lateral-cut discs coming, sometimes authorizing the release of substandard or previously rejected masters. Ultimately, Edison’s conversion to electrical recording and the lateral cut came too late to save the record business operation. By the early autumn of 1929, Edison’s managers were quietly preparing to dismantle the Phonograph Division.

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As the 1920s drew to a close, the acoustically recorded phonograph record was fast becoming a relic of the past. Columbia and Victor had begun disposing of their obsolete acoustic recordings in 1926. Victor announced a final solution of sorts in the summer of 1926, introducing an exchange plan it termed “a new proposition [that] will take care of surplus stocks of all mechanically cut records.” In October 1926, Columbia also announced an exchange plan intended to clear old material from dealers’ shelves by encouraging the exchange of obsolete acoustic stock for new electrical releases. By 1927, the Columbia and Victor catalogs had been purged of most acoustic recordings.

The acoustically recorded items that remained were primarily items by deceased operatic stars that were still of some commercial value (although even Caruso’s ghost would soon suffer the indignity of having his records “modernized” with new electrically recorded accompaniments), or were slow-selling children’s or “educational” records that would not have justified the expense of remaking. Columbia’s cut-rate Harmony–Velvet Tone line, the last to regularly use acoustic masters, finally switched to all-electric in late 1929.

While the new electrical recordings were earning accolades from technicians and reviewers, the general public’s response was sometimes quite the opposite. The overwhelming majority of phonographs in American homes were still acoustic, but even the most flawed of the new electric recordings boasted volume levels and frequency ranges that exceeded the capabilities of mechanical devices. The result was distorted reproduction and accelerated record wear — particularly with Victor’s primitive but ubiquitous Exhibition and Victrola No. 2 reproducers.

For those who could afford them, however, there were expensive new exponential-horn phonographs — still acoustic, but far more capable than their predecessors of reproducing electrical recordings — and a growing selection of all-electric models, many with built-in radios. For less affluent consumers, countless after-market manufacturers offered their new reproducers, needles, and gadgets — some acoustic, some electric, and many of dubious merit, but all claiming to be better suited to the new recordings. The phonograph industry was discovering the economic benefits of forced obsolescence.

 

Selected References

 

“And Now Full Volume” (Edisonic advertisement). Saturday Evening Post (June 19, 1925), p. 122.

“Announce the Electrobeam Gennett Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1927), p. 18.

“Banner and Domino Records Are Electrically Recorded.” Talking Machine World (March 15, 1926), p. 46.

“Brunswick Co. Announces Details of Merchandising Plan of its New Line.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1925), p. 6.

“Brunswick Panatrope Enthusiastically Received at Initial New York Presentation.” Talking Machine World, (November 15, 1925), p. 180.

“Cameo Record Corp. Has New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (April 15, 1926), p. 80.

“Charles Edison Elected President and Chief Executive of T. A. Edison, Inc.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1926), p. 1

“Chas. L. Hibbard Perfects New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1925), p. 1.

Compo Company day books and recording session sheets (transcripts and photocopies). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Dannemann, P. E. Letter to Thomas A. Edison, Inc., concerning Photophone equipment (Dec 26, 1929).  Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ.

“Demonstration of Brunswick Panatrope at Chicago Headquarters Arouses Enthusiasm.” Talking Machine World, (October 15, 1925), p. 150.

Drake, James A. Interview with Walter G. (Gus) Haenschen. From Gus Haenschen—The Brunswick Years. Mainspring Press Blog (2019).

“Edison Introduces Radio and Radio-Phonograph Combinations.” Talking Machine World (August 1928), p. 72.

Kendziora, Carl. Compo Company ephemera and research notes (unpublished). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Laird, Ross: Brunswick Records, A Discography of Recordings, 1916–1931 (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001).

“Lightning Tuned to Music” (Gennett advertisement). Talking Machine World (March 15, 1927), n.p.

Nelson, Elmer C. “Brunswick Electrical Recording.” Phonograph Monthly Review (October 1926), p. 19.

“Pathé Corp. Announces New Recording Process.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1925), p. 188.

“Phonograph Records Made from Radio” (Compo Company ad). Montreal Gazette (Aug 15, 1925), p. 5.

“Revolutionary Sound Reproducing Method Announced by Brunswick Co.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1925), p. 58.

“Special Record Returning Privilege Is Announced by Columbia Phonograph Co.” Talking Machine World (October 15, 1929), p. 192.

Starr Piano Company. Gennett matrix ledgers, 1926–1927 (photocopies). William R. Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press Collection.

Sutton, Allan. American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History (Denver: Mainspring Press, 2018).

Urner, Dave. “A Brunswick Dealer Sixty Years Ago.” Interview by Ron Dethlefson. Antique Phonograph Monthly (VI:4, 1980), p. 3.

 “General Phono. Corp. Uses New Recording Principle.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1926), p. 1.

“Victor Co. Announces New Record Exchange Plan.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1926), p. 6.

Walsh, Arthur. “Reviewing the Phonograph Situation” (report to Charles Edison, April 25, 1927). Edison National Historic Site, West Orange, NJ.

Wiggins, Fred. Letter to Doc Roberts, November 22, 1926, re electrical recording problems. Quoted in Kennedy, Rick. Jelly Roll, Bix, and Hoagy: Gennett Studios and the Birth of Recorded Jazz, p. 159. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

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© 2020 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.

 

 

Collector’s Corner (Free MP3s)• Some May 2020 Additions: Louisville Jug Band, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, Fletcher Henderson, Cliff Jackson, Carolina Tar Heels

Collector’s Corner (Free MP3s) • Some May 2020 Additions
Louisville Jug Band, Big Bill Broonzy, Memphis Minnie & Kansas Joe, Fletcher Henderson, Cliff Jackson, Carolina Tar Heels

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Some of this month’s favorite new additions to the collection, for your entertainment. We’re always looking to purchase more records of this type, if in top condition; let us know what you have on your disposables list.

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CLIFFORD HAYES’ LOUISVILLE JUG BAND (as Old Southern Jug Band): Blues, Just Blues, That’s All  (E– to V++)

St. Louis: November 24, 1924
Vocalion 14958  (mx. Ch 336)

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MEMPHIS MINNIE & KANSAS JOE: You Got to Move (You Ain’t Got to Move) — Part 2  (EE–)

Chicago: August 31, 1934
Decca 7038  (mx. C 9389)

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BIG BILL (BROONZY): C and A Blues  (E-)

Chicago: June 20, 1935
Oriole 5-12-65  (ARC mx. C 1020 – B)
Probably Louis Lasky, second guitar.

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FLETCHER HENDERSON & HIS ORCHESTRA: Hop Off  (EE+)

Chicago: September 14, 1928
Brunswick 4119  (mx. C 2315 – A or -B)
The take used is not indicated in the pressing or the Brunswick files. This recording was made just two weeks after Henderson sustained serious injuries in an auto accident in Kentucky, while on an extended tour with the band.

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CLIFF JACKSON & HIS KRAZY KATS (as Tuxedo Syncopators):
Horse Feathers 
(V+)

New York: c. January 1930
Madison 5098  (Grey Gull mx. 3866 – A / Madison ctl. 337)

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(racist language)

CAROLINA TAR HEELS: Shanghai in China  (E–)

Charlotte, NC: August 11, 1927
Victor 20941  (mx. BVE 39795 – 3)
Gwen Foster (vocal, guitar, harmonica) and Dock Walsh (vocal, banjo), per the Victor files.

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