We’re happy to announce the latest revision of Dick Spottswood’s Columbia E Series, 1908 – 1923, an invaluable guide to Columbia’s main ethnic series. As part of Mainspring’s Online Reference Library, it’s free to download for your personal use.
For those not familiar with the sheer scope of the E series — which encompassed everything from folk tunes and skits to operatic arias (some by the likes of Formichi and other notables) to British music-hall tunes — browsing these now largely forgotten records should prove intriguing.
Dick Spottswood is a pioneer researcher in the field of historical ethnic and country-music recordings, a veteran record producer and collector, and host of The Spottswood Show, which he’s been known to call “The Obsolete Music Hour.” His published works include the ground-breaking six-volume Ethnic Music on Records; Country Music Sources (with Guthrie T. Meade Jr. and Douglas S. Reade); and, most recently, The Blue Sky Boys, a 2019 ARSC Award winner.
The Keen-O-Phone Company was part of the first wave of American vertical-cut record producers in the early 1910s. Too early to market, with little demand having yet developed for vertical-cut products, Keen-O-Phone suspended operations in early 1914. Its assets were leased by a new company, the Rex Talking Machine Corporation, which took up production where Keen-O-Phone left off.
After a series of financial ups and downs (detailed in the discography’s introductory timeline), Rex was forced to liquidate in early 1917. A group of its stockholders and creditors purchased the company’s assets and resumed operations under the Imperial Talking Machine Company banner. But the new venture fared no better than its predecessor, and after failing in early 1918, some of its assets were acquired by Otto Heineman in preparation for launching his new Okeh label.
Fred Hager retained possession of the masters, which he sold to any unnamed purchaser in the 1930s. They’ve long-since vanished, along with the Keen-O-Phone, Rex, and Imperial files. Therefore, this is a “forensic discography” (an apt term coined by David Giovannoni), a reconstruction compiled from first-hand observation of the original discs, catalogs, and ancillary materials.
George Blacker began work on this project in the 1960s, with support from members of the Record Research group (Walter C. Allen, Carl Kendziora, Len Kunstadt, et al.) and, later, William R. Bryant and his circle of trustworthy collaborators. The completed discography, published here for the first time, has been updated, edited, and annotated by Allan Sutton, with significant revisions and additions contributed by David Giovannoni and Ryan Barna.
This work is offered for personal, non-commercial use only. Sale or other commercial use, as well as any other unauthorized reproduction, distribution, or alteration (including conversion to digital databases or e-books) is prohibited. Please read and honor the conditions of use included with this file, so that we can continue to offer these free publications.
CARUSO RECORDS WITH BERLINER LABELS
FOUND IN CANADA
By Michael Jarvis and John Bolig
Jarvis: One of the results of the world-wide Coronavirus pandemic is the lockdown and subsequent social distancing required of us all. So, I’ve been stuck at home vacuuming and I happily realized I have unprecedented free time to explore my record collection.
About fifteen years ago I was offered part of a large record collection that was being dispersed. Among the discs were a quantity of early Canadian Berliners: pre-Victor brown labels, as well as a number of Monarchs, and early 10” and 12” Red Seal labels. At the time I quickly sorted and filed them. I knew there were two early Caruso recordings in there, but never paid much heed as the performances were already known (“Recondita armonia” from the opera Tosca, and the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana.)
Fast-forward to last week, when, with lots of time on my hands, I looked them up in the Discography of American Historical Recordings, where “Recondita” was listed as “Canadian issue not verified”. I had the disc in my hand (which totally verified it DOES exist), contacted DAHR with the information, and then began a lovely correspondence with David Seubert. David then contacted John Bolig, who was, as he put it, “flipping out” over this. And, here we are…
Bolig: The discovery of two Caruso records with Berliner labels was a bit humiliating for me. I have produced two Caruso discographies, and I had never seen one of his records with a Berliner label. The records were produced in Canada in about 1904 before Emile Berliner called his company “His Master’s Voice”, and before he applied Victor-style red labels to recordings that he imported and marketed there. The discovery, and how Michael Jarvis contacted me is interesting, but how we determined the matrix data for the records is fascinating and it worked perfectly for us.
Jarvis: Both discs are single-sided 10”, and pressed in that lovely brown shellac that Berliner seemed to prefer in this period. I don’t know if that particular shellac helps with surface noise reduction, but relatively speaking, the surfaces of both discs are very quiet. Both labels are brown with gold writing, both have the brass grommet in the spindle hole. There is no information in the dead wax, apart from the record numbers. “Recondita armonia” plays at perfectly fine at ca.78 rpm, but at that same speed in the second record, the “Siciliana” from Cavalleria Rusticana, Caruso sounds like Alvin the Chipmunk. Something was slightly amiss…
Bolig: The titles for the two records convinced me that Berliner had secured two of Caruso’s 1904 recordings, but we had to make sure that the Berliners matched those pressed by the Victor Talking Machine Company. Unfortunately, there were no markings in the space next to the label that were of much help to us. They had been buffed out by the Canadian plant. Listening to the records did not seem to be an option, so I suggested a technique that I have used for years to compare two recordings.
Comparing different takes has always been a challenge for collectors. Listening to the records and hoping to hear clues about differences can be highly subjective, and there is an assumption that both versions were pitched properly and that the condition of the record surface was comparable. I have been measuring groove width for about sixty years and I have only found two takes by an artist that measured exactly the same despite the fact that they were different takes. Rosa Ponselle recorded an aria twice and both versions have exactly the same dimensions.
I pulled out the Victor recordings that Caruso made of the two arias in February of 1904, and I measured the width of the grooved area. Next, I measured the distance across the label from one end of the grooved area to the other. I sent my measurements for the two Victor recordings to Mr. Jarvis, and one was a perfect match; the other was a bit of a surprise. Mr. Jarvis sent me different measurements for the aria from Cavalleria Rusticana!
I remembered that Victor had issued some imported G&T recordings in 1903 and that one of them was of Caruso singing the “Siciliana”. I made the two measurements of Victor catalog number 5012 and it was a perfect match to within 1/16 of an inch to those made by Mr. Jarvis. No doubt about it, the second record was recorded by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1902. Two men, armed with rulers, and working 3,000 miles apart had correctly identified the two Berliner records.
Jarvis: So, mystery solved!
Early Canadian Berliners do turn up from time to time, especially in Canada. In fact, just a few weeks ago I found, on Vancouver Island, BC, a strange pressing by Berliner of a Laughing Song from a G&T master, recorded in Oslo in 1904 (and announced in Norwegian!) I encourage you, especially if you’re in Canada, to pick up these discs if you come across them. If there are two hitherto unknown Canadian Caruso pressings, who knows what else there might be from this fascinating period of recording history? There was a practice of sometimes reserving alternate takes for the Canadian market, so if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to check the rest of my collection with the DAHR to see if I can complicate David and John’s lives further.
The Victrola in Rural Schools
(Revised Edition, July 1919)
The Victrola in Rural Schools was published to promote the Victor School Machine (technically the Model XXV, Victor’s last external-horn phonograph) and the company’s extensive catalog of “educational” records.
And just to make sure the kiddies also got some culture, the booklet recommended a healthy dose of classical and operatic Red Seals. It’s fun to imagine how Galli-Curci’s rendition in Italian of the “Bell Song” from Lakme (“Have students note the exquisite tone, the long-sustained notes, the echo effects, the trills”) might have gone over in, say, Pumpkin Center, Colorado. .
Advice to Teachers:
“Do not permit promiscuous and irresponsible playing of records.”
“Respect for good music may be inculcated if silence be invariably required while records are being played.”
“Simply hearing records played is only the first step. There must be discriminating hearing, correlation, discussion, relation to facts historical, geographical, etc., appreciation of mood, thought, color, story, etc. Then there must necessarily come response, tests, etc.”
“Listen intently while Record No. 18145 is played… Develop the meaning of such unusual words as ‘palaces,’ ‘hallow,’ ‘drear wild,’ ‘woodbine,’ ‘dazzles,’ ‘thatched,’ etc.”
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The Victor Discography: Blue, Green, and Purple Labels (1910 – 1926)
By John R. Bolig
In February 1910, Victor flooded the market with fifteen new recordings by Harry Lauder, setting off a shouting match with Edison over who had exclusive rights to the comedian. Victor had previously issued some of Lauder’s British recordings on its standard black label, but these new releases were different — recorded in the U.S., and issued on a striking new royal-purple label.
Over the next few months, it became apparent that the new purple-label discs were not reserved for Lauder alone. Victor Herbert’s popular orchestra was lured away from an already-peeved Edison, and selections began to appear by some of Broadway’s top stars (many of them previously unrecorded). For budget-conscious classical enthusiasts, there were well-known concert artists deemed not quite worthy of Red Seal status, but still perfectly respectable. For the adventure-minded, Ernest Shackleton and Robert Peary recounted their polar expeditions.
Several months after the purples were launched, Victor introduced yet another line, the double-sided blue-label series. At first, it served only as a reissue vehicle for imported operatic recordings licensed from The Gramophone Company, along with some Arabic selections (now incredibly rare) recorded in Cairo and Beirut. But in February 1913, the blue label was recast as a double-sided companion to the single-sided purples, and the latter were slowly phased out.
The blue-label line was one of Victor’s most diverse, running the gamut from comedy monologues and Broadway hits to opera (grand, light, and in-between), classical (from the usual lollipops to complete extended works), the premier recording of Rhapsody in Blue, cantorials, exotic imports from around the globe, bird imitations, exercise records by boxer Gene Tunney — and, of course, copious helpings of Harry Lauder’s interminable ruminating.
The obscure green-label series was an “educational” line, best known for its vocal-instruction series produced under the supervision of Oscar Saenger. But perhaps its most intriguing offering was the “American Speech” series (issued at first on the Red Seal label, then transferred to green, and later to brown), which captured a wide range of American dialects, some of which have since vanished or evolved nearly beyond recognition.
It’s all here, carefully transcribed from the original Victor files. We think you’ll be amazed by the scope and diversity of these under-studied and often under-appreciated records.
Victor monthly supplement excerpts courtesy of John Bolig
The Victor Light Opera Company Discography
By John R. Bolig
Victor’s “Gems from…” discs were among the first records many of us encountered as budding young collectors. Like them or not, they were still seemingly everywhere. Even now, you’re bound to run across them if you scrounge enough estate sales, junk shops, and !!RARE !!L@@K!! eBay listings.
They had been tremendous sellers, capitalizing on a popular American phenomenon of the day — grand opera sung in English by troupes of competent, if not-quite-stellar, artists. As the twentieth century began, countless small civic and private opera companies were making the glories of Verdi and Puccini accessible to the far-flung general public at affordable prices and in a language most could understand, just as the “Gems from…” series would do.
But Victor went a step farther, adding medleys from the latest hit Broadway shows that the average American was unlikely to be able to attend in person. In the process, the good folks at Victor unwittingly preserved many now-forgotten songs (albeit it in abridged versions, and sometimes taken at break-neck tempos) that otherwise went unrecorded. The company had no qualms about using stage shots from the actual productions, picturing the actual stars (who almost never performed on the records), in advertising new “Gems” releases.
The Victor Light Opera Company was a fiction, of course. It never staged any live productions, and it never appeared in public. Its “cast” members — mainly Victor’s studio work-horses — changed from one recording session to another and (with one notable exception) were not credited on the labels. But their names are preserved in the Victor ledgers and, thanks to John Bolig’s expert sleuthing and generosity in sharing his work, are now available to you in this unique publication. Enjoy!
New Revised Edition by Allan Sutton Data Compiled by William R. Bryant and The Record Research Associates
Introducing the latest edition of Mainspring Press’ 2011 U-S Everlasting cylinderography (now out of print), fully revised using data from William R. Bryant’s and the Record Research group’s extensive research collections (a part of the Mainspring Press archive). In addition to the complete popular/standard catalog, this edition covers the Foreign, Grand Opera, Medicophone, and Singaphone series.
Mainspring Press has suspended all sales and shipping outside of the U.S. due to delays and stoppages in foreign postal and customs services. Unfortunately, we will have to cancel any order placed for foreign delivery until further notice.
U.S. customers may continue to order as usual, provided delivery is to a U.S. ZIP code. Please note that at this time, all titles except American Records Companies and Producers, 1888-1950 (of which only a few copies remain) have sold out and will not be restocked.
We’re exiting the book business after twenty successful years, but you can continue to enjoy Mainspring Press discographies thanks to our rapidly growing Online Reference Library. Titles are free to download for your personal use and include new editions of some favorite out-of-print publications, plus exciting new offerings.
INDESTRUCTIBLE CYLINDERS: The Complete American and British Issues, 1907–1921
New Revised Edition by Allan Sutton Data Compiled by William R. Bryant and The Record Research Associates
Introducing the latest edition of Mainspring Press’ 2011 Indestructible cylinderography (now out of print), fully revised using data from William R. Bryant’s and the Record Research group’s extensive research collections (a part of the Mainspring Press archive).
The Missing Link: How Gus Haenschen Got Us from Joplin to Jazz and Shaped the Music Business
If you’ve been following Jim Drake’s Gus Haenschen interview series on the blog, here’s the accompanying soundtrack, on a newly released CD. Archeophone Records has compiled a superb sampling of recordings by Haenschen and some of the bands and singers he oversaw in the studio, along with some interesting related items.
The star attraction is a complete run of Haenschen’s 1916 Columbia Personal Records, including his Banjo Orchestra’s impossibly rare “Maple Leaf Rag” — a wonderfully relaxed performance that stands in striking contrast to Vess Ossman’s break-neck rendition of a decade earlier. It’s interesting to compare this with recordings of the same piece by Brun Campbell, the only other confirmed Joplin pupil to have recorded it (Haenschen recalled paying Joplin “around $25 a month” for instruction). Unfortunately, the Personal Records were made at a time when Columbia’s recording and pressing quality were at their all-time worst, but Archeophone has done a remarkable job of recovering what’s there while preserving the integrity of the original recordings.
The rest of the CD is devoted largely to jazz, pop vocal, and dance numbers of 1920–1924 by artists Haenschen recorded for Brunswick, ranging from some fine regional bands captured on their home turf, to the rather dreadful (but historically interesting) Charlie Chaplin–Abe Lyman collaboration. Brunswick’s acoustic recording technology was far superior to Victor’s or Columbia’s and comes through brilliantly through in these clean transfers. A nice bonus is an excerpt from Jim Drake’s 1975 interview with Haenschen and songwriter Irving Caesar.
Archeophone productions are notable for their accompanying booklets, and this one (at a generous thirty pages) is no exception, with an expertly researched and well-written biography and listening guide by Colin Hancock, a detailed discography, and many rare illustrations. For more details, visit Archeophone Records.
Ajax has been called “the forgotten race record label.” It was an odd creature, the product of Emile Berliner’s rebellious son Herbert, and his Canadian-based Compo Company; but the masters were recorded in New York (for the most part), and the records, although pressed in Canada, were intended for the African-American market in the U.S.
Although the “Ajax Record Company” was officially headquartered in Chicago, it was little more than a sales and distribution office, managed by Compo Company personnel. Unfortunately, Ajax never recorded there (the sides listed as Chicago recordings in some discographies were actually made in Montreal, as the surviving Compo ledgers confirm). Berliner instead brought locally available artists to his New York branch studio. Most of them were contracted by promoter and publisher Joe Davis (who oversaw the recording sessions along with Berliner), and few measured up to the Chicago-based artists that Paramount was promoting so successfully at the time. Nevertheless, there are some gems to be found in the Ajax catalog.
Although Compo’s files have survived, those of its Ajax subsidiary (which used a separate series of master numbers) have not. Therefore, this is a reconstruction, based in part on first-hand inspection of the now-rare original discs, and in part on what can be inferred from surviving documentation, including relevant portions of the Compo ledgers, and listing and release dates from The Chicago Defender,The Talking Machine World, and other period publications. Recording-date ranges have been extrapolated based upon Berliner’s monthly week-or-so absences from Montreal (as noted in the ledgers), which are believed to correspond with his visits to the New York studio, and which correlate very nicely with the confirmed release dates. Personnel listings are based upon the recollections of Louis Hooper, Joe Davis, and others who were present at the recording sessions.
Like all of our free downloadable titles, this publication is offered for your personal use only. Sale or other commercial use is prohibited, as is any unauthorized duplication, distribution, or alteration, including conversion to e-books or online databases.
.In February 1920*, a vaudeville blues singer named Mamie Smith showed up at the General Phonograph Corporation’s Okeh studio, in the company of songwriter and publisher Perry Bradford, having been rejected by Victor a month earlier. Bradford was shopping around two of his new titles — “That Thing Called Love” and “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down.”
Bradford recalled that Fred Hager, General Phonograph’s musical director, was interested in both songs, especially if Sophie Tucker would agree to record them for Okeh. She wouldn’t, so Bradford took a chance and instead pitched Mamie Smith to Hager, recalling:
“[I] handed Mr. Hager this new line of jive: ‘There’s a colored girl, the one I told you about up in Harlem. Well, she will do more with these songs than a monkey can do with a peanut; she sings jazz songs with more soulful feeling than other girls, for it’s only natural with us…
“May God bless Mr. Hager, for despite many threats, it took a man with plenty of nerve and guts to buck those powerful groups and make the historical decision which echoed aroun’ the world. He pried open that old ‘prejudiced door’…
“After Mamie finished recording ‘That Thing Called Love’ and ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ that snowy morning in February 1920, I was itching to jump and yell, right there in the studio, ‘Hallelujah, it’s done!’ It was a happy moment, for I’d schemed and used up all my bag of tricks to get that date.”
Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie’s record, nor did it need to. During the five months it took the company to finally release the disc, Bradford made sure that news of the session reached The Chicago Defender and other black-owned newspapers, and word-of-mouth did the rest. When Okeh 4113 finally appeared in July, it found an eager audience.
Okeh initially did nothing to promote Mamie Smith’s first release. By the time this ad appeared in the autumn of 1920, her second release, “Crazy Blues,” was on its way to becoming a hit, and Okeh was promoting her aggressively.
The record’s release was a symbolic victory, if not a musical one. Accompanied by Okeh’s plodding Rega Orchestra (“Rega” being a pseudonym for Hager, as confirmed in the federal copyright registers), Mamie played it straight. There is little to distinguish her performances on these sides from those of Marion Harris and some other white comediennes of the period, who in turn were trying to sound a little black-ish.
MAMIE SMITH: That Thing Called Love
New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7275 – E) Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer
MAMIE SMITH: You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down
New York: Probably February 10 or 18, 1920*
Okeh 4113 (mx. S-7276 – D) Accompanied by the Rega Orchestra (house group directed by Fred Hager); Charles Hibbard, recording engineer
That would all change six months later, when Mamie Smith returned to Okeh and cut loose on Bradford’s “Harlem Blues” (renamed “Crazy Blues” for the occasion, a hastily made decision that would come back to bite Bradford, and badly; but that’s a story for another post). This time she was accompanied by the Jazz Hounds, a raucous little band that Bradford had thrown together for the session. They sorely taxed recording engineer Charles Hibbard’s patience, Bradford recalled, but produced what is generally acknowledged as the first true blues recording — or, perhaps more accurately, the first blues-like recording by a black woman. Whichever take you prefer, there’s no disputing that Mamie Smith’s records sparked the early-1920s blue craze and resultant birth of the race-record industry, which would provide opportunities for black performers that had been undreamed-of a decade earlier..
* When Was Mamie Smith’s First Session?
Okeh’s recording files for this period have long-since been destroyed, so we have to rely on circumstantial evidence — in this case, the weather reports. Discographies traditionally put the date at Saturday, February 14, with no source cited. But that’s almost certainly a bad guess, if Bradford’s recollection of a “snowy morning” is accurate. The weather in Manhattan on the 14th was fair and dry, as it had been (and would continue to be) for much of the month. It did snow there on Tuesday the 10th and Wednesday the 18th — either date being a far more likely candidate than the sunny-and-mild 14th.
Quoted excerpts are from Perry Bradford’s autobiography, Born with the Blues (New York: Oak Publications, 1965).