New Online Discography: Olympic Records (1921 – 1924)

Olympic Records, 1921 – 1924
A Provisional Discography
by Allan Sutton

 

The Latest Addition to the
Mainspring Press Free Online Reference Library

 

Download OLYMPIC RECORDS, 1921 – 1924  (PDF, ~1mb)
Free to Download for Personal, Non-Commercial Use

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Now long-forgotten, John Fletcher failed at virtually every commercial venture he undertook, and yet he managed to produce some interesting records in the process. The Olympic label would be produced by three different Fletcher-backed ventures in rapid succession, over the span of just four years — including one in which Black Swan’s Harry Pace found himself unfortunately entangled after what seemed like a promising start.

Attempts to produce a definitive Olympic discography have been ongoing since the early 1950s, when a group of collectors and researchers affiliated with Record Research magazine began compiling detailed data on Olympic and related labels from first-hand inspection of the original discs. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance (Thygesen, Berresford, and Shor, 1996) included the first commercially published Olympic discography, albeit a somewhat sketchy one. It served well as a very basic starting point, but much work remained to be done. The opportunity to do so finally arose after Mainspring Press acquired the Record Research group’s discographical data, which have now been merged with more recent findings from other equally trustworthy contributors to produce the discography.

The discography contains details of all records originally marketed by the Olympic Disc Record Corporation, Fletcher Record Company, and Capitol Roll & Record Company, including client-label and other derivative issues. It is still very much a provisional discography at this point — a first attempt to sort out and disseminate what is currently known for certain concerning these records. It also identifies and corrects some misinformation found in several well-known jazz and dance-band discographies, which has been debunked through synchronized aural comparisons of the Olympic recordings to supposed matches on other labels.

An introductory essay covers Fletcher’s career during this period and clarifies his business relationship with Harry Pace and the Black Swan operation. Black Swan collectors  will find some fresh surprises, with a number of the Fletcher-period Black Swan issues now definitively traced back to World War War I-era Pathé recordings that found their way onto the label via Fletcher’s old universal-cut Operaphone dubbings. And for newer arrivals to collecting, you’ll find all the information you need to keep you from paying a king’s ransom for “Henderson’s Orchestra” or “Ethel Water Jazz Masters” Black Swans that are really just white dance bands from the Olympic catalog in disguise!

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Forgotten Black Musicians • Wendell P. Talbert

Forgotten Black Musicians • Wendell P. Talbert

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ROSA HENDERSON (Wendell P. Talbert, piano)
Good Woman’s Blues

New York: May 24, 1923
Victor 19084 (mx. B 28026 -2)

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ROSA HENDERSON (Wendell P. Talbert, piano)
Good Woman’s Blues

New York: May 24, 1923
Victor 19084 (mx. B 28027 -2)

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Like Noble Sissle, with whom he was associated off-and-on for many years, Wendell Talbert was largely a creature of the theater. Unlike Sissle, he left behind only a handful of issued recordings, and only in an accompanying role. As a result, he’s been largely overlooked by collectors and historians.

The earliest substantive reference we’ve found to Wendell Phillip (or Philips, depending on the account) Talbert shows him as a member of the Southern Jubilee Singers and Players in January 1912. This was a traveling organization that specialized in old-time “plantation” songs, traditional spirituals, and other fare that likely was selected at least in part for its appeal to white audiences.

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Talbert as tenor, cellist, and pianist with the Southern Jubilee Singers and Players (Bismarck [North Dakota] Tribune, January  27, 1912)

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By 1914, Talbert was a featured performer with William A. Hann’s Jubilee Singers, a group of “seven cultured ladies and gentlemen” whose offerings ran from “refined and wholesome humor” to spirituals and grand opera. Its members included soprano Florence Cole, who Talbert married in the same year. At about that time, Noble Sissle joined the troupe, initially filling in for Talbert on occasion, based upon some published programs from the period. Their paths would continue to cross for the next four decades.

.Wendell Talbert and Florence Cole-Talbert with Hann’s Jubilee Singers (Hutchinson [Kansas] Gazette, October 17, 1914)

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The Talberts divorced at some point, although the date remains unclear. One secondary source cites 1915, but news reports as late as 1917 continued to state that the couple were married. The latest such report we’ve located so far, in the Xenia [Ohio] Daily Gazette for May 24, 1917, refers to Cole-Talbert’s “talented husband, Prof. Wendell Talbert.” However, she continued to use Cole-Talbert as her professional name, perhaps leading to some confusion in the press.

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Florence Cole-Talbert is remembered primarily for her Black Swan recordings. She and Wendell had divorced by the time those recordings were made, but she continued to use her married name in stage work.

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Talbert appears to have left Hann in 1918 or 1919, when mentions of him vanish from the press. At some point in the early 1920s, he made the transition from old-time tunes and spirituals to jazz and blues, albeit of a rather tame sort. In July 1921, it was reported that he would be writing for the Chamberlain Company, a newly launched music publisher in Detroit. Anecdotal reports credit him with coming up with the name for Sissle & Blake’s “Shuffle Along,” and conducting the pit orchestra in one of the show’s touring companies, but those stories remain to be confirmed.

In 1923, Talbert resurfaced as the piano accompanist on a few records by vaudeville-blues singers Rosa Henderson (Victor) and Lethia Hill (Vocalion). His two recordings with Henderson were released in Victor’s first attempt at a race-record series:

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Victor’s first attempt at a race-record series, July 1923. Sissle’s and Talbert’s sessions were held a day apart. Sissle by this time was a major star, and it’s tempting to speculate that he might have arranged for Talbert to record for Victor.

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By late 1925, Talbert had remarried and was touring in vaudeville with his Chocolate Fiends, a large revue that starred Alethia Hill. In November of that year, he accompanied two sides by comedian Billy King on Okeh. His orchestra made a test recording of “Deep Henderson” for Brunswick of October 28, 1926, which unfortunately was not approved for issue.

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Talbert and company on the road (Indianapolis, December 1925)

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Talbert remarried in 1926 and publicly credited new wife Hallie for her help and inspiration. He continued to tour with the Chocoalte Fiends into the late 1920s, but made no further issued recordings that we know of.

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Pittsburgh Courier (October 2, 1926)

Pittsburgh Courier (October 9, 1926)

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Pittsburgh Courier (September 15, 1927)

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In the early 1930s, Talbert returned to his roots with his Dusky Troubadours, a choir that specialized in the same sort of material he had performed with Hann’s Jubilee Singers two decades earlier. The group broadcast over radio station WOR (Newark, New Jersey) on occasion. By 1934, Talbert had augmented the choir with an eighteen-piece orchestra.

 

Talbert with the USO during World War II (Louisville Courier-Journal, September 24, 1944)

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During World War II, Talbert served as musical advisor to the Colored USO of Central New Jersey. In July 1950, Talbert rejoined Noble Sissle, probably for the last time, in a fund-raiser for the New York Heart Association. He died in the early 1950s.

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Marian Anderson: Black Swan’s Missed Opportunity

Marian Anderson: Black Swan’s Missed Opportunity

By Allan Sutton

 

One December 27, 1920, Harry Pace wrote to W. E. B. DuBois concerning several artists he wanted to audition for his as-yet unnamed record label, in which DuBois was a major investor. In the same letter, Pace approved DuBois’ suggestion that the label be named “Black Swan.”

The other interesting revelation in this letter is that Pace hoped to make a test recording of the young Marian Anderson:

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Harry Pace to W. E. B. DuBois (New York: December 27, 1920). W. E. B. DuBois Papers, University of Massachusetts-Amherst Special Collections.

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If Pace made test recordings by any of these artists, they have yet to be found. Cole-Talbert was eventually signed by Black Swan, and her output can be heard on the new Black Swans CD. Although Pace states that he had signed Ford Dabney, no Black Swan records by his orchestra were forthcoming.

Pace failed to follow through with Anderson, an artist who could have done for Black Swan’s operatic series what Ethel Waters did for its pop catalog.

She wasn’t the only opportunity Pace let slip through his fingers, in the way of concert artists. In June 1921 he hired Paul Robeson as a salesman, but did not record him.

In both cases, his losses would become Victor’s gains. In Anderson’s case, Victor musical director Josef Pasternack signed her in 1923, although she was placed in the lowly black-label series (as was Robeson, two years later). It would take many years, and a change of ownership at Victor, before Anderson was finally granted the Red Seal status she so richly deserved.

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MARIAN ANDERSON: Go Down, Moses

Camden, NJ: May 29, 1924
Victor 19370 (mx. B 29896 – 9)
With studio orchestra directed by Charles Prince

 

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Text © 2019 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.