The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years – Part 4 (Conclusion)

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 4
(Conclusion)

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The industry recovered when the economy rebounded in the mid-1920s, even though radio was growing rapidly. What enabled the recording industry to prosper despite the rapid growth of radio?

Well, I can only give you the opinion I had at the time. I think that what kept the recording industry going in those years was that almost everyone owned a phonograph and had buying phonograph records since the turn of the [twentieth] century. So people were accustomed to the phonograph as a sort of “musical instrument,” and the biggest company in our industry, Victor, spent so much money on advertising that the public kept on buying records.

There was another angle to it, now that I think about it. Phonographs had been portable almost from the start. If you’ve ever seen Edison cylinder phonographs from the 1890s, they were in a wooden case that had a lid with a carrying handle on it. The motor was powered by springs, so it wasn’t electrical and didn’t have to be connected to a battery or an electrical outlet.

All of the [recording] companies made portable phonographs, and they became more and more compact. We [Brunswick] made one that was only about fourteen inches square and maybe three inches thick [the Parisian Portable Phonograph]. It was spring-wound, and the removable crank was inside the lid. For a horn, it had a paper cone that folded up so it too could be stored inside the case. There was even space to store a few records inside the lid. [1]

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Brunswick marketed, but did not manufacture, the Parisian Portable, which was identical with the Polly Portable Phonograph Company’s machine (see Note 1); even the setup instructions, printed on a cardboard disc, were the same (center right). For a time, Polly Portable gave away a special record with each phonograph purchased (center left).

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That little portable was smaller than any briefcase, so it could be taken and used anywhere. That wasn’t true of a radio because they weren’t portable in those days. They had to be connected to a power source, usually a series of batteries, and they also required an antenna—a very long wire antenna. Radios also had to be grounded, meaning that the chassis had to be connected by a wire to a piece of metal that was literally in the ground.

As radio receivers improved, so did reception—provided that the antenna wire was long enough and mounted high enough, because the AM signal was affected by hills and other parts of the landscape. What many people did, if they had an attic in their house, was to string a long line of bare wire around the attic walls. You had to put porcelain insulators near the beginning of the wire and also near the end that was attached to the radio chassis, to prevent a bolt of lightning from going into the radio during a storm.

Between the antenna wire and the ground wire, which most people clamped to a pipe in the house’s plumbing, radios weren’t portable. As radio sales increased and the [radio] receivers improved, several table-top antennas were developed and marketed, but in rural areas and hilly terrain, they weren’t very effective. It wasn’t until many years later that truly portable radios were developed. So by comparison, portable phonographs were really “portable,” and as long as acoustical records were played on them, they sounded pretty good because the frequency range of acoustical recordings was limited.

 

To what extent did electrical recording enable the phonograph to compete with the frequency range of high-quality radios in the 1920s?

Electrical recording rejuvenated the [recording] industry for a while, but it was still no match for radio, which got better and better because of the constant improvement in [radio] transmitters and receivers. I only wish we [Brunswick] had gotten into electrical recording when Victor did.

 

But didn’t Brunswick begin issuing electrical recordings soon after Victor introduced the Orthophonic Victrola and their first electrical recordings in the spring of 1925?

 I wish! Victor [and Columbia] bought [sic; licensed] the Western Electric system and manufactured a phonograph that was built to reproduce the wide frequency range of the new electrical recordings. And it was an acoustical machine, not an electrical one. The engineers who developed the [Western Electric] system designed every component—the diaphragm in the reproducer, the tonearm, and especially the horn—to be able to reproduce all the frequencies of their electrical recordings.

The [Orthophonic] horn they designed was sort of like the shell of a pearly [i.e., chambered] nautilus, meaning that the horn had several interlocking chambers that were almost ten feet long if the horn would have been made in a straight line, like a very long, square-shaped megaphone, rather than chambered like the Orthophonic horn was.

 

Was Brunswick aware of the Western Electric process that Victor introduced in its new Orthophonic phonograph and recordings?

Oh, sure. We [Brunswick] had been approached by several experimenters who were working on electrical recording. There was a fellow named [Charles A.] Hoxie who approached us with his process. Percy Deutsch dealt with Hoxie and another fellow named [Benjamin F.] Meissner who had an electrical-recording system. [2] Anyway, we waited too long to make a decision, and when we did, we ended up with the worst of all systems.

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Charles Hoxie’s Pallophotophone (shown above in November 1922 and February 1923) was originally designed to record on film. Later adapted to produce disc masters, the Pallophotophone was licensed in 1925 by Brunswick, which dubbed it the “Light-Ray” process for marketing purposes. Haenschen’s recalled, “That damned process was totally unpredictable.”

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You’re referring to the Pallotrope [Pallophotophone], or the “Light-Ray” process as Brunswick called it in their advertisements?

Yes—and what a mess it was! The way it was advertised gave the impression that this beam of light was reflected by a minuscule mirror that drove the cutter for the wax master. Some of our Promotion Department’s bulletins even gave the impression that a beam of light actually played the records. But the phonograph we put out for these new recordings used essentially the same components that our phonographs always had: a tonearm, a reproducer, and a removable stylus. There was no beam of light that played the record.

 

But Brunswick did use the “light ray” method in the recording studios, correct?

For a while, yes, but 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. If there was any tiny mirror suspended in that contraption, I would want to see it for myself. To me, the casing that held this supposed mirror looked more like an oversized diaphragm like the ones you’d see in a telephone.

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(Top) A simplified diagram of the Pallophotophone system as adapted for “Light-Ray” disc recording. (Bottom) Charles Hoxie (center) demonstrates the Pallophotophone to RCA executives James G. Harboard (left) and David Sarnoff (right) in 1926.

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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.

 

Brunswick kept advertising the “light ray” system for a couple years after it was publicly introduced. Were you able to get consistent results finally?

No. That process was so unpredictable that we were having to call the performers back to record another “take” of the same performance, hoping that the thing might work this time. We were spending so much time calling back the performers for more “takes”—and in any business, time is money, so 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.

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From The Talking Machine World (February 1926)

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After Brunswick quietly adopted the Western Electric process, what happened to Frank Hofbauer, who had designed the recording machines and had made the masters of Brunswick acoustical recordings?

Frank stayed with us for several years. We didn’t stop making acoustical recordings altogether, so he was still vital to us, especially after we acquired Vocalion. A lot of those Vocalions of that time, and I’m speaking of the middle- to late-1920s, were still acoustical. [3]  So Frank was still very much an important man for Brunswick. Incidentally, he was still living in the same house in [East Orange,] New Jersey, where he had lived when he worked with Edison.

 

Were you or any Brunswick executives invited to Edison’s laboratories, and if so did you meet the great man in person?

It was customary for us to host the executives from other companies, including Edison’s, and vice-versa. We were invited—and by “we” I mean Frank [Hofbauer], Percy Deutsch, Bill Brophy and Walter [Rogers] and I—to the Edison recording studios, which were on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and also to his laboratories in [West Orange,] New Jersey. Edison wasn’t there—I think he was in Florida then—but several of the Edison men made quite a fuss over seeing Frank [Hofbauer] again. Walter Miller, who I think ran Edison’s recording studios at the time, took us through the complex. What I remember the most about it was being shown this cubbyhole under a staircase where the “Old Man,” as he was called, took naps when he felt like it.

 

You also toured the Victor and Columbia studios?

Columbia, yes—that’s when they were on the top floor of the Gotham building in New York, which was new at the time. We didn’t tour the Victor complex, which was in [Camden,] New Jersey, but we had an even bigger treat. The founder of Victor, Eldridge Johnson, had a yacht—and when I say “yacht,” I mean a real ship. It was named “Caroline,” which I think was his wife’s name. Mr. Johnson took all of us on a cruise in Delaware Bay, and we had the best of everything on that ship. Will Darby went with us, and of course he and Mr. Johnson went back to the [Emile] Berliner days.

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Eldridge R. Johnson in the early 1920s (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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When I was introduced to him, he asked me what my background was, so I told him I was a mechanical engineer and a machinist. I mentioned that I had my own small “factory,” as I call it, and that all of my time away from Brunswick was spent at my lathes and other machines making metal parts and welding and that sort of thing. Well, that got him to reminisce about his machine shop in Camden, where he had developed the Victor phonograph, the one that became the Victor trademark with the dog listening to the horn.

 

How would you describe his personality and his demeanor based on what you observed during that cruise?

He had a very courtly manner, and he was well-spoken. I don’t know how much formal education he had, but I saw photographs of the machine shop where he had developed his spring motor and talking machine, so I know that he probably worked seven days a week in that little shop just to make ends meet. But when he started Victor, and then it grew and grew and he became very wealthy, he learned how to comport himself like other very wealthy men. He had the finest clothes, the best wines, best cigars, several homes, and that beautiful yacht. My guess is that he learned all of that by observation.

 

Returning to the performers you had under contract, there are two dance bands that I want to ask you about, the Isham Jones orchestra, which you had mentioned earlier, and also the Ray Miller band.

 There’s not much to say about Ray Miller’s band because he had next to nothing to do with it. We hired him when he got a very good engagement at the Arcadia ballroom on Broadway, which was new at the time. Ray was a mediocre player—a drummer, but not a very good one—and I didn’t even let him play in his recordings. I put that entire band together myself. I picked really good players who were in our studio band, the same guys who were in my Carl Fenton band, and I conducted them. Ray wasn’t even there for some of the recordings because he didn’t add anything. He was just the front man.

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Ray Miller’s Orchestra, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

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The difference between Ray Miller and Isham Jones is like the difference between day and night. Isham was a consummate musician—an excellent sax man who could also double on clarinet, and a real leader. Every man in his orchestra loved playing for him. If you passed him on the street, you wouldn’t think he was a celebrity because he wasn’t flashy, he didn’t have a “show biz” ego or any of that. But man, could he lead a band!

He was very interested in the recording process, and he worked with me on the arrangements that were necessary for acoustical recordings. He picked up all of that very easily, and he did his own arrangements for most of his recordings with [Brunswick]. As I think I mentioned, he also co-wrote some very fine tunes with Gus Kahn, and we recorded them—“I’ll See You in My Dreams,” “It Had To Be You,” and “Swingin’ Down the Lane” were all very solid hits.

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Isham Jones’ Orchestra in Chicago (Library of Congress)

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I often think back to working with Isham in our studios because he was such a pleasure to work with. He was one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known—he would do as many “takes” as necessary until he felt the playing was tight and perfect. He knew just where to place his men in relation to the [recording] horns, and he would be there in his shirtsleeves on the hottest days, wiping his forehead between “takes”—he didn’t have to wear his toupee in the studio, like he did when he was playing in public—and he would urge the guys to do it one more time if he felt that a “take” wasn’t perfect. He was one of our favorites at Brunswick—and he was also Al Jolson’s favorite, too.

 

About the one and only Al Jolson, I’m sure you have a lot to say!

He was the biggest star we ever had, and Brunswick wouldn’t have been so successful so quickly if it hadn’t been for Al Jolson. I directed most of our recordings of Al, not all of them but I think most of them, which meant that we had to record him after his shows, which could last until three o’clock in the morning. It also meant that we had to rely on our portable recording equipment, and rent the best space we could find in whatever city Al was playing in order to keep our Jolson inventory well stocked.

 

He was said to be very difficult to work with unless everything was done his own way. How was he to work with from your standpoint?

He was never difficult at all—and he would listen to my suggestions, which were deliberately spare because he had his own distinctive style, a style that spawned hundreds of imitators over the years. I knew how to treat him, so he was open to the very few suggestions I ever made. He wasn’t like that with others, though. If some arranger, director or conductor did suggest that he sing a song a certain way, he would either give them a withering stare until they walked away, or he would reach into one of the front pockets of his trousers and pull out a thick wad of $100 bills with a rubber band around them and would say “This is how much money I make in one night. Show me what you make.” But he never did that to me.

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Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” was one of the most heavily promoted records of 1928.

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Being the biggest star in show business, Al could even get away with chewing out some of the big-name songwriters. He would tell Gershwin in Yiddish to go to hell for making any suggestion about how a song like “Swanee” should be sung. But there was one he never argued with: Irving Berlin. When you listen to Jolson’s [Brunswick] recording of Berlin’s song “Remember,” you’ll hear Jolson sing it that way it was written.

That was because Berlin had told him bluntly that he had written this song for the woman he loved—Ellin Mackay, whom he married—and that if he heard one hint of a “Mammy-ism” on Jolson’s [Brunswick] record, hell would freeze over before he would give Jolson another song. As you can hear on the record, Jolson sang “Remember” exactly as he was told to sing it by Irving Berlin himself. I liked that record because it showed that Jolson could sing beautifully when he wanted to.

 

Your tuba player, John Helleberg, who later played the string bass for your Brunswick recording sessions, told me a story about Jolson recording a song during a session that was not going well. I feel sure you know the story, and will ask you to tell it here.

That happened in St. Louis, when he was appearing there in “Bombo.” [4] We were having trouble with the field-recording equipment. I think the song we were recording was “California, Here I Come.” We ended up doing four, five, or maybe six takes as I recall. Jolson was not a patient man, and after having sung the same song so many times already, he was getting pretty frustrated, and so were we. Finally, I said to him that we would do one last take, and that was enough, that we would just have to make do with that take.

Well, the equipment cooperated, and during the last chorus Jolson unbuckled his belt and let his trousers fall down to his shoe tops—and what he did next I’ll leave to your imagination. The rest of us were doing our best to stifle a belly laugh until we got the signal that the stylus had been lifted from the wax master. Then we all broke up laughing, and even Jolson laughed at what he had done. Yet when you listen to that recording, you have no idea what was going on while it was being made, because Jolson’s incredible verve is what you hear.

 

There was also an incident in which he wanted to make a recording of an opera aria, correct?

Yes, unfortunately. I have never known a pop singer, including Jolson, who didn’t want to try to sing opera arias. For Al, the aria he thought he should record for us was the Prologue from Pagliacci. [5]  As anyone who knew Al would tell you, saying no to Al Jolson was just not done—especially not by any of us at Brunswick, where he was our biggest draw.

I wrote the arrangement for the small orchestra we were forced to use in the acoustical-recording days, and Al arrived about 3:00 a.m., as usual, just bursting to record that Prologue. Frank Hofbauer, our recording engineer, was a good-sized fellow with a pronounced German accent, and I remember him putting a blank wax disc on the recording lathe and waved his hand through a small glass window that separated the recording studio from the room that held the recording equipment. That was the signal for Jolson to begin singing the Prologue—which he did, and to my surprise the first two lines, which he sang in phonetic Italian, were at least credible.

But the Italian text got to him and he blew the next line and the one after that—and then he started joking around in English, adding a couple choice Yiddish words, while the band continued playing. At that point, Frank Hofbauer lifted the cutting stylus from the wax disc so the recording would stop. He opened the little window that separated his room from the studio—but before he could say a word, Al could see from his facial expression that Frank was irritated.

Then Al turned on the “Jolson charm,” telling Frank that it had been childish of him [Jolson] to waste valuable studio time by clowning around for two minutes after he knew that there could be no record because he had messed up the Italian lines. As he was apologizing to Frank, he begged for two things: a pressing from that wax master, even though it was incomplete, and another chance to record the Prologue. “Believe me, Frank,” he said, “I can sing it like an Italian baritone if you’ll just put another wax disc on your machine. Please, Frank, won’t you give Jolie”—that’s how he referred to himself—“one more chance to prove to you what I can do?”

Frank looked at me, and I gave him a look back that said, “He’s our biggest star so give him another shot at it.” About five minutes later, when the second attempt was underway, I wished I hadn’t done that to Frank because Jolson clearly had no intention of singing the Prologue. Instead, he sang the first line in Italian, and then started “singing” the crudest lines you can imagine—some in English, and some in Yiddish.

While Jolson was busy clowning around in front of the [recording] horn, Frank came storming out of his room carrying the thick wax disc in his hands. He marched up to Jolson and said, “You t’ink I vant to go to prison?” Then he threw the disc at Jolson’s feet and, of course, it broke into pieces on the floor.

Jolson didn’t say a word; he just left the studio. I told the guys in the band to take a break. It was my band, incidentally, which I led as Carl Fenton.

While the guys were taking their break, I walked with Frank into the room where his recording equipment was. He swore that he would quit before ever recording Al Jolson again. It took a while but he finally calmed down, although he still had some unrepeatable German words for what he thought of Jolson. Since I grew up speaking German, and Frank and I frequently spoke German to each other in the studio, he didn’t need to translate any of his epithets for me.

Although Frank made a very good salary at Brunswick, he was a frugal man by nature and he drove an old Model T. When I say “old,” I mean one with a brass radiator, the kind Ford was selling when I was just starting college. But being mechanical, Frank loved cars and was especially fond of a brand called Hupmobile, which was very popular in those days.

About two weeks after the Jolson incident happened, a messenger came to the studio asking to see a ‘Mister Hofbauer,’ for whom there was a gift that was too large to fit in our elevators. When Frank went downstairs, the messenger handed him the keys to a brand-new 1924 Hupmobile touring car, a four-door convertible with every option you could think of. It was painted Navy blue, with a matching leather interior and convertible top. On the dashboard was a brass plaque that read, “To Frank Hofbauer from his friend Al Jolson.”

That was Jolson for you. When he wanted you or needed you, he’d find out what you like, buy the top of the line of whatever it was, and have it engraved so that you’d never forget it, and that everyone you knew would be aware that it was a gift from “Jolie.”

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Jolson mugging for the Bain News Service cameras
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Did you stay in touch with him over the years? And were you surprised when he made a comeback in the 1940s when “The Jolson Story” became such a hit?

Yes, I stayed in touch with him in passing, and was always happy to see him. About his famous comeback, I wasn’t too surprised about it because he had always been popular and had made a number of films that were very successful. He didn’t like radio because he wanted to be seen, not just heard, but he did well enough on radio and [his] films kept his image before the public.

He also took very good care of himself. Al had had tuberculosis when he was young, so he always made sure he got plenty of rest. When he was living in New York, he would lie down for three or four hours in the afternoon, to make sure he was rested for his evening show. When he moved to California, he used to lie in the sun for three or four hours and get a tan while he was resting.

But no, I wasn’t totally surprised when “The Jolson Story” made him almost as big as he had been in the 1920s, when he was our top star at Brunswick. What did surprise me is that the kid who played him, Larry Parks, looked nothing like him and wasn’t a singer at all. Yet he was able to mime to Jolson’s voice on the sound track, and he was able to copy some of Al’s gestures well enough to give a credible impersonation. But it was Jolson’s voice and the energy in his singing that made the movie such a hit.

 

Did you see him during that comeback, that second career?

Yes, in Hollywood, and although he had aged, he was the same Al Jolson that I had known in the 1920s. No one on earth could make you feel greater than Al Jolson when he singled you out for attention. In my case, I think he had very good memories of our working together at Brunswick, so when he had that fantastic comeback and I saw him in Hollywood, he treated me like a long-lost friend.

He had known my wife, Roxanna, at Brunswick because she was the secretary to Milton Diamond, who managed our [Brunswick] radio division. That’s how I met her—she was Rose Anna Hussey at the time, but she changed her first name to Roxanna. We were married in April 1925, and for our wedding some of the biggest gifts we got were from Al Jolson. Not only that, but after our honeymoon he invited us to the Winter Garden, and during the performance he had a spotlight put on us and introduced us to the audience. When I saw him in Hollywood after his comeback, he asked me about “Roxie,” as she’s called, and also wanted to know all about our kids and what they were doing now that they were adults.

We were having lunch one day, and I said to him, “Al, I would have written all of those arrangements for your songs in ‘The Jolson Story.’ How come you didn’t call me?” I knew, of course, that Saul Chaplin, who was a friend of mine, was one of the arrangers that the studio had used. He said to me, “Why, Gussie”—that was always his nickname for me—“Gussie, I did use your arrangements! I told those studio guys that I wasn’t going to use anybody’s arrangements but Gus Haenschen’s! Oh, maybe they added a couple more clarinets or whatever, but those are your arrangements. I demanded it!”

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Jolson lied to Haenschen about having used the latter’s arrangements in
“The Jolson Story” (1946).

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He had me so convinced that I actually believed him. It wasn’t until later, when I listened to the recordings from the soundtrack, that I realized the only similarity between my Brunswick arrangements and the ones he sang on the film were that the arrangements had the same chords. Other than that, they were entirely different. But when Al told me how he had insisted that the studio had to use my arrangements, he was so convincing that I believed him! That same power which he used to convince me is what had made him a star in the early 1900s, and what made him a star again forty years later.

 

In what year did you leave Brunswick—and if I may ask, why did you leave?

I resigned at the end of June in 1927, but it wasn’t by choice. When we began doing the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we were learning all about the radio industry, which was new at the time. The big stations on the East Coast had studio orchestras, and so did the ones in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and other major cities. But there were hundreds of small stations between the coasts which had to make do with a pianist and maybe an organist if the studio could accommodate a theater organ.

It didn’t take a genius to figure out that if someone could produce and distribute high-quality recordings of orchestras playing really innovative arrangements, and then lease them to these small stations all over the country, there was a fortune to be made. When the telegrams and letters kept pouring in after every “Brunswick Hour” broadcast, we—and I’m speaking of Frank Black, Bill Brophy, Ben Selvin and I—went to Percy Deutsch and sold him on the idea of Brunswick starting its own transcription service. He thought it was a terrific idea, so he wanted to be one of the founding partners in what would be a new, separate division of Brunswick’s phonograph and radio business.

By then, transcriptions were relatively common, but they weren’t what we had in mind. They were recordings taken from a radio receiver and recorded on aluminum discs. In the [radio] industry, they were called “air-checks” because they weren’t intended to be heard by anybody but the network people and the sponsors or their agencies. So these were literally “checks” of the radio signals that were transmitted over the air, and the quality of the aluminum discs was way below what any station would ever put on the air.

Instead of air-checks, we began recording orchestral arrangements on the same wax masters that we used for our [Brunswick] studio recordings. We made the recordings in two sizes, twelve-inch and sixteen-inch, and recorded them at 33-1/3 r.p.m., which extended the playing time considerably. Most were lateral-cut, but we also made vertical-cut transcriptions. We were using the Western Electric system by then, so the sound quality of our transcriptions was very high, more than sufficient for a small radio station to play them and give their listeners the impression of a “live” orchestra.

By about 1926, we had already gotten Western Electric to license us to use their recording system, and we had negotiated with several pressing plants to make large quantities of these oversized discs. The pressings had to be made from the best material, without any abrasives in the sides or the bottom of the groove. We couldn’t use the Brunswick studios to make these recordings, so we set up our own studios, Sound Studios, at 50 West 57th Street in Manhattan.

We hired [recording] engineers who had been trained by Western Electric, and we employed them with the stipulation that they had to be available as needed. We also put together a roster of the best musicians who worked for us at Brunswick and Columbia—Ben Selvin was my counterpart at Columbia by then—and all of us did the arrangements for the studio orchestras we put together. Eventually, we had one of the largest and most diverse libraries of recordings here or abroad.

We did all of this with our own money, not Brunswick’s, but we were acting on the assumption that Percy Deutsch had told the Brunswick parent company what we were doing. Well, he didn’t—but we didn’t know that until we were called to a meeting that we weren’t told about until the day it took place. The meeting was held in a hotel and we were told it was important, and to be there on time. I called Percy about it, and I got concerned when he said that he didn’t know anything about it, but that he would be there too. Ben didn’t go because he was a silent partner in Sound Studios, so Brunswick didn’t know that he was one of the investors.

We went to this hotel conference room expecting to be briefed on something new that Brunswick was developing. But as soon as we walked in, we were told to sit on one side of this conference table. On the other side were Brunswick lawyers, and they got right to the point. We were told to make a choice between being employed by Brunswick and closing down our Sound Studios operation, or else submit our resignations. The other alternative was to be fired and forfeit any earnings that we were due to collect, other than from our Brunswick stock.

Percy Deutsch was given a harsh reprimand by the main one of these lawyers—and [Deutsch] was a Brunswick family member. That will give you an idea how confrontational this meeting was. The lawyers gave us fifteen minutes to make a decision, and we were told not to leave that room while we were deliberating.

Frankly, it wasn’t hard for any of us to make the decision to resign because we knew that the future was radio, and that we could fill a niche that somebody else would fill if we didn’t. So Bill Brophy and Frank [Black] and I submitted our resignations, and signed a confidential agreement that Brunswick would announce our departures by saying that we were pursuing other aspects of radio and recording, or something to that effect.

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The Talking Machine World reports Haenschen’s resignation from Brunswick (July 1927) and his involvement with Percy Deutsch’s new venture (October 1927).

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I left with a very good settlement, money-wise, and felt relieved because I could concentrate all my time and energy in our new business. When we started putting together our plan for a new transcription business for radio, Sonora, which had put out some good phonographs, had gotten into the [recording] distribution business by merging with several smaller companies.  

We thought about acquiring Sonora because it was in financial trouble—it was never run very well—but there was some litigation going on about Sonora, so we scratched that and decided to develop our own distribution business. [6]

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Although Haenschen recalled that Percy Deutsch “scratched the idea” of acquiring Sonora, Deutsch and associates did acquire the company in late 1927 (see Note 6). Haenschen (top left) and Frank Black (bottom left) served as studio director and arranger, respectively, for the new venture.

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We formed a corporation called “World Broadcasting Service,” which we changed to “World Broadcasting System” a bit later. Now we were in a new venture, and all of us were like kids on Christmas morning. The World Broadcasting System grew rapidly—and it happened just in time because Brunswick got into pre-recorded programming the very next year.”

 

Looking back, do you have any regrets?

No, none at all because I was in radio, and it became a much bigger career for me than Brunswick was. I’m not the sort who suffers from nostalgia or re-thinks what might have been. I’ve never had time for that. I’ve always lived in the present while also looking to the future. But now that you’ve taken me back to my nine years at Brunswick, they were happy years for me—I met my wife there, and I worked with many of the greatest artists and entertainers of that time. I think I was very, very lucky to have been part of the founding of a record company that grew very rapidly and became one of the three largest companies in the [recording] industry. I was at the right place at the right time.
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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] Brunswick did not develop or manufacture these unique portables. They were produced by the Thorn Machine Products Company (Syracuse, New York) beginning in late 1926 and were marketed concurrently by the Polly Portable Phonograph Company (New York) as the Polly Portable, and by Brunswick as the Parisian Portable. Other than the brand name and some very minor cosmetic differences, the Polly Portable and the Brunswick Parisian Portable were identical. The Polly Portables were being remaindered for as little as $2.98 each by early 1929. Both models were last advertised in mid-1931.

[2] In November 1921, Meissner transmitted portions of an operatic performance at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater to a Magnavox receiver in Brunswick’s Chicago headquarters, which was connected to what news reports termed an “electrical recording device.” Although Meissner’s work with Brunswick came to naught, he went on to design a number of other electronic devices, including the Meissner Electronic Piano in 1930.

[3] Haenschen is mistaken here. Brunswick began recording electrically in April 1925, and electrical and acoustical sessions for the Brunswick label were intermixed during April and May. The final acoustical session for the Brunswick label was held on June 1, and the final acoustical session for the Vocalion label followed on October 23, 1925, after which all Brunswick and Vocalion sessions were electrical.

[4] UPDATE: The titles were actually “Lazy” and “My Papa Doesn’t Two-Time No Time,” with Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra (“California, Here I Come” was from a slightly earlier Chicago session, accompanied by Isham Jones’ Orchestra). Although the Brunswick files list the Jolson-Rodemich session as having been held in Chicago, and the masters were assigned “Ch” (Chicago) numbers, the session was actually held in Saint Louis, as confirmed in a St. Louis Globe-Democrat article reported to us by Colin Hancock, via Jim Drake.

[5] In addition to the Pagliacci prologue, Jolson also recorded an unspecified aria from Il Barbiere di Siviglia at this session (July 3, 1924), accompanied by Haenschen’s orchestra. Both titles were assigned master numbers (three takes each), indicating that those recordings were not destroyed at the time, although they were never issued by Brunswick.

[6] Deutsch and associates did soon acquire Sonora, albeit in a roundabout manner. In October 1927, they formed the Acoustics Products Company (the successor to Sound Studios) to take over the Bidhamson Company and Premier Laboratories, which owned a controlling interest in Sonora. Deutsch served as president of Acoustic Products and employed both Haneschen and Frank Black in its Sonora Recording Laboratories division. In January 1928 the company announced that a new Sonora label was to be launched, under Haenschen’s management, but it never appeared (the familiar Sonora label of the 1940s was an unrelated venture).

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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 3

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> Part 1  | > Part 2

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It was in Los Angeles that you recorded Charlie Chaplin with Abe Lyman’s orchestra, am I right?

Yes, Abe Lyman’s band with Charlie listed on the records—we did two sides, as I recall—as “guest conductor.”

 

Although it’s known today that Chaplin wrote the scores for all of his films, I doubt that it was known then. How did you come to record him as a “guest conductor”? Did you know him at that time?

Not personally, no, but of course I was a fan of his movies. Charlie contacted me through Abe Lyman. That’s how those records came about. Charlie wrote songs all the time, and he wanted to have about a dozen of them recorded. When Abe [Lyman] told me that Charlie was interested in having his songs recorded, I told Percy Deutsch about it and he said to pay Charlie whatever he wanted because having the name Charlie Chaplin on Brunswick records would be one of our “exclusives” and would sell a lot of records for us.

 

Did you negotiate a contract with Chaplin?

He didn’t want a contract. Money wasn’t a factor because he was already one of the wealthiest movie stars and was also one of the “big four” [Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, David Wark Griffith, and Chaplin] who founded United Artists. What he wanted to do was to have his songs recorded, and he also wanted to conduct them and then play a violin solo in some of the recordings. So basically, he agreed to try out some recordings with us, and if there was a demand for more, he would talk to us about royalties and such.

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Publicity shots from the May 1923 session (the exact date has not survived in the Brunswick files). In the top photo, Gus Kahn is seated at the piano, with (left to right) Haenschen, Chaplin, and Abe Lyman.

 

What do you remember about making the recordings?

Charlie was so excited that he wanted me to show him everything about the recording process. I took Frank Hofbauer to Los Angeles with me because he was our “expert,” and he would design the permanent studios we intended to build there and would also do the recordings we made in the temporary studio we used. So I spent almost a full day with Charlie, showing him how the recording process worked.

Then Abe [Lyman] and Gus Kahn and I spent part of an afternoon with Charlie. Gus worked directly with Charlie to write the arrangements for the first two songs we were going to record. Everything was going well until Charlie played the violin for us. He was self-taught, and he played left-handed so he had his violin strung the opposite of a standard violin. His playing was so amateurish that there was no way we were going to allow him to play any solo passages on a Brunswick recording.

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Although Chaplin’s record was widely advertised, it was not a big seller for Brunswick. Some dealer ads, like the lower example, claimed that Chaplin played violin on the record, which Haenschen recalled was not the case.

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Because Abe [Lyman] knew him well, I left it to Abe to have to tell Charlie that he couldn’t play on an actual recording. But we agreed that Charlie should really conduct the recording session, which he did—not with a baton or with his hands, but with his violin bow. The day we made the first two recordings, he brought a camera crew with him. They set up all sorts of lights around the studio, and the crew filmed him and us during the whole session. It was a fun experience, and afterward Charlie treated all of us to a dinner at his studios.

Unfortunately, the “try out” that all of us had envisioned didn’t sell any records. Looking back, I can see why. At that time [1923], movies were silent and Charlie was seen but never heard. And as you said, very few people knew—or cared—that he wrote the scores for his films. Movie audiences weren’t listening to his music, they were watching him on the screen. In the silent-movie days, no one associated Charlie Chaplin with sound recordings, so the fact that he was listed on two Brunswick sides as the “guest conductor” of the Abe Lyman band didn’t mean anything from a promotion standpoint.

But that wasn’t the end of it—in fact, in some ways it was just the beginning. Charlie wanted to record all of the songs he had mentioned, about a dozen of them, and he was relentless about it. He sent me telegrams day and night, he nearly drove Abe Lyman crazy, and then he sent me scores that he had had someone make of all the songs. I had to find more ways of saying no than I had ever known until then. Finally, he stopped “campaigning” and went back to working day and night on his movies.

But about the time [Chaplin] had given up on us, Rudolph Valentino contacted us and wanted to make records too. [1] Everyone knew that Valentino was a splendid dancer, and of course he was the biggest name in movies in the mid-1920s. He told Bill Brophy and me that he had studied voice in Italy, and would sing on our recordings. We had no reason to dispute what he said, so we agreed to record him in New York. We did—and the two songs he sang on those recordings were the worst ever made by Brunswick or any other company.

 

What did he sing? Was it an opera aria or a song?

I can only remember one of them, the “Kashmiri Song,” which he sang in English. He spoke English fluently, by the way. [John] McCormack and so many other real singers had recorded it, and it’s a good song so we figured Valentino could sing it credibly. Of course, we also figured that having his name on a Brunswick label, and introducing him to the public as not just the great lover, the movie star, but also as a singer would be another exclusive for us.

Well, the recording was an absolute disaster! If he had ever had a voice lesson, it didn’t “take” because his timbre was awful, and his intonation was even worse. He was either under-pitch or above-pitch throughout most of the recording. The other one we made with him was a popular Spanish song [”El Relicario”] that he sang in Spanish—and it was even worse than the “Kashmiri Song.” Both of the test pressings were so bad that we would never have released them. If we did, we would have been the laughingstock of the industry.

 

Was Valentino as relentless as Chaplin was about pressuring you to release them?

Percy Deutsch and two other executives, Ed Bensinger and Bill Brophy, kept putting off Valentino by telling him that Brunswick would prefer to wait to release his record in connection with his next biggest film. They kept putting him off for almost two years, and then—and this sounds awful—he solved Brunswick’s problem by dying in 1926.

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Brunswick did not release the Valentino recordings, although a catalog number to them was assigned following his death. In 1930 it dubbed the recordings, with spoken introductions, for a special release by the obscure Celebrities Recording Company.

 

Those recordings were released after his death. Did Brunswick release them after all?

No, no. Some record company—it wasn’t Brunswick—put out a sort of “memorial record” with a pompous introduction explaining that these two songs were the only time that the voice of Valentino was ever recorded. I don’t know how those test recordings got released. Maybe somebody got the test pressings from his estate, I don’t know. I had left Brunswick by then, so I don’t know if the company got an injunction or sued whoever it was that released them. [2]

 

In your files there are letters between you and Oliver Hardy about making records for Brunswick. Do you recall your dealings with Hardy?

Yes, and they were very pleasant. I met him when I went to Los Angeles to set up the temporary studio, the one where we recorded Chaplin. You may know this, but everybody who knew Hardy called him “Babe,” not “Ollie” or “Oliver.” He had been a singer before he got into [motion] pictures, and he had a very pleasant tenor voice. The problem was that he and Stan Laurel were making silent pictures, so no one knew that Hardy could sing. But he could really sing—and he did when he and Laurel made sound pictures. He was also a hell of a golfer, by the way. Like Bing [Crosby], he was almost a par golfer.

 

Your files also contain some correspondence with two other film stars, Ramon Navarro and John Boles, who wanted to make records with Brunswick. Do you recall dealing with them?

With Navarro, yes, in Los Angeles. He was a competent “salon pianist,” but as with Hardy, no one knew that he had any musical ability. The same with John Boles. Although I did meet with him and he was a very nice guy, [Boles] was another case of a silent movie star who could sing credibly but no one knew it, so there was no point in having him make records for us. As a movie star, he was nowhere near Valentino, but [Boles] could sing—his voice was a light baritone, or maybe a tenor with a limited top [range] and a fast vibrato—but he made several successful sound films later on. [3]

 

Among the vocalists you recorded at Brunswick, there are two tenors I’d like to ask you about. The first is Frank Munn, whom you discovered. How did that come about?

Being a machinist myself, I had a lot of friends who were master machinists. I kept hearing about this rotund machinist who had this beautiful tenor voice, but had lost part of his index finger in an accident and was now driving trucks. After a while I found out his name, so I looked him up in the phone book and found that he was living in a little apartment in the Bronx.

Frank was a very shy man, and when I introduced myself to him and told him that I heard he was a singer, he seemed kind of lost for words. I could see how reticent he was, so I asked him where he liked to eat, and then told him I want to treat him to lunch on a Sunday. He was still very reticent when we got together, and I think it was because he had found out that I was with a major record company. I actually had to convince him to audition for us—that’s how shy he was.

Frank was what used to be called a “Mister Five-by-Five.” He was about 5’ 5” and he weighed close to 300 pounds, so he was almost as round as he was tall. He had two suits and two dress shirts that had to be custom-tailored for him due to his size. He was single back then, but later he married a wonderful woman, Ruth, who was the dream of his life. She took wonderful care of him, and they were such a great couple. Being so overweight, he was extremely sensitive about it, but in her eyes he was as handsome as a movie star—and she loved to hear him sing.

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Frank Munn, from Radio Revue for February 1930

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We [Brunswick] were already doing the “Brunswick Hour” when I met Frank, and we had ironed out the problems with electrical recording by then. His voice recorded so well that it amazed all of us. I didn’t know it at the time, but he had made some personal recordings and had even done a trial recording for Edison. [4] But those were acoustic recordings, and like Nick Lucas, Frank didn’t have the kind of voice that recorded well acoustically. [5] But on electrical recordings and on radio, Frank’s voice was just beautiful.

Because of his obesity, his boyish face, very light skin, and the timbre of his speaking voice—which was exactly like his singing voice—and his shyness, you wouldn’t take Frank for being a strong man. Well, one day in the studio we found out just how strong he was. It was a hot summer day, and we were re-doing the studios—we had three of them, and one studio was still equipped with one of the very heavy acoustic recorders that Frank Hofbauer had designed. We needed to get it out of there, and four workmen were hired to remove it.

Well, only two showed up—and we waited and waited for the other two, but they never showed. We were on a tight schedule and weren’t doing any recording while the studios were all being redone, so I was infuriated about these two workmen not showing up. It was very hot—this was in July, I think—and tempers were getting short. Frank was there to rehearse in another room with several men from our Brunswick Male Chorus. He was always punctual, and had arrived early for this rehearsal.

When he saw what was going on, he said to me, “I can help with this,” and he picked up one side of this very heavy machine as if it didn’t weigh ten pounds! The other two workmen were struggling to keep it off the ground, but Frank was not only lifting and moving what it would have taken two men to do, he was also telling the other two to move this way and that way until that machine was out of the room.

Word got around that Frank was super-strong, and when some of the guys would tell him they had heard about it, Frank reacted very modestly but you could tell it meant something to him. From then on, we made bets about what he could lift. One bet that I especially remember was whether he could lift the rear end of a Ford sedan high enough that the rear tires would not be touching the pavement. One of our [Brunswick] fellows had a four-door Model T with a back bumper on it, and I watched Frank Munn put on a pair of leather gloves and lift the entire rear end of that Ford until the tires were almost two inches above the pavement!

 

Frank Munn’s voice has a very sweet quality, for want of a better word, on his recordings. Had he studied voice formally?

Frank never had any lessons as far as I know. His voice was just “natural.” It wasn’t large, nor did it have much of a range. When I wrote arrangements for Frank’s recordings, I tried not to have him sing above an A-flat because he didn’t have much of a top. But the timbre of his voice gave the impression that he was singing higher. To me, the best things about his singing were his intonation, his phrasing, which was always on the beat, and his natural diction—no rolling of the Rs and that sort of thing.

Frank was ideal for recording and for radio because he was never seen by an audience, so he didn’t have to worry about his obesity. He didn’t like having photos taken, but we used the best professionals and they lighted him in ways that emphasized his dark hair and his eyes and his smile, not his body. When he had to pose for longer shots, he would stand behind a piano so that the photo would be of his upper body.

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A hand-colored photo of Virginia Rea and Frank Munn, with Haenschen at the piano (1928)

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I remember a photo session with Frank, Virginia Rea and me—I was seated at the piano, and they were in formal dress standing in front of microphones—which became the cover picture for one of the monthly radio magazines that were popular back then. The photo was hand-colored, and the background was quite dark. Frank positioned himself slightly behind Virginia [Rea], and his black tuxedo blended into the dark background. He was very fond of that magazine-cover photo.

 

Another tenor you had under contract at Brunswick was Theo Karle. What do you recall of him?

We made a lot of recordings with Theo Karle. If I had to liken him to another tenor, at least on recordings, I’d say that he was Brunswick’s Giovanni Martinelli. He had an unusual timbre that on [acoustical] recordings sounded somewhat like Martinelli’s. He recorded tenor arias from Italian and French operas but did them in English, and also sang oratorio selections for us. We recorded him singing operetta selections—he was the main tenor in our Brunswick Light Opera Company—and he also recorded several Irish ballads. His wasn’t a great voice, but it recorded well and he was very easy to work with.

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Allen McQuhae (left) and Theo Karle

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Another tenor I want to ask you about it your Irish tenor, Allen McQuhae. Was he Brunswick’s John McCormack?

If he thought he was, someone should have disabused him of it. He was an “Irish tenor” only in the sense that he was born there, and sang some of McCormack’s repertoire. Most of his earlier [career] was spent in the Midwest—Cleveland, Detroit, Cincinnati—singing with their symphonies. At that time, he was singing French and Italian arias, and some oratorio pieces. I think he had also done some singing in Canada, which is where he emigrated after leaving Ireland.

Personally, I never thought much of his voice or of his singing. His timbre wasn’t that distinctive or attractive, and the dynamic he preferred the most was forte. There was very little subtlety in his singing, and nothing memorable about it either. We used him more as a pop singer than an “Irish tenor” at Brunswick. He had made some recordings for Edison, and they weren’t very good, so to be honest about it, I wasn’t in favor of giving him a contract. I wanted Joe White, but he was already under contract to Victor so I couldn’t get him.

 

You’re referring to Joseph White, the “Silver-Masked Tenor”?

That’s right, Joe White of the [B. F.] Goodrich Silvertown Cord Orchestra. To me, Joe sounded the most like McCormack of any of the tenors I had heard. He and I became very good friends, and I would love to have had him under contract at Brunswick. But he was already with Victor and was doing very well as Goodrich’s star tenor. He had sung on radio before Victor put him under contract, and he had also sung in Europe if my memory is right. But it was as the Silver-Masked Tenor at Victor that he was best known on radio and recordings.

Joe has a son who sang under the name “Bobby White” on several radio shows, particularly “Coast to Coast on a Bus” with my friend Milton Cross [as announcer]. Bobby had an unusually beautiful voice as a boy, and Joe oversaw his training and taught him all of his [the father’s] songs. Joe was still singing, but then he had an accident and broke one of his legs. As I recall, the break wouldn’t heal, and that leg had to be amputated. Through all of that, Joe made certain that Bobby would make the transition into adulthood as a tenor, and he surely did a wonderful job. Today, Bobby—or Robert—White is a nationally known concert tenor and gives recitals all over the world.

 

Am I correct that you also had Ted Fiorito under contract at Brunswick?

Well, at that time Ted was the pianist of the Oriole Orchestra, which he led with a violinist, Dan Russo. They made a good number of recordings for us as the Orioles [sic; Oriole Orchestra or Oriole Terrace Orchestra]. Several of their recordings were done in Chicago because their orchestra had a long engagement at the Edgewater Beach Hotel there.

 

One of the most unusual groups you recorded at Brunswick was the Mound City Blue Blowers, a group which became nationally known in its own right. How did they come to your attention?

Through Al Jolson. The credit for the Mound City Blue Blowers goes to Jolson. We were recording him at the Statler [Hotel] in Chicago, and these three young guys had been bugging Jolson to give them a hearing. Finally he got tired of it, so he passed the buck to me and got me to give them an audition. I think we made a couple of test pressings, unwillingly, and we sort of tossed off the whole thing by telling them that we’d have to issue their records on a trial basis, and if they sold anything we might talk to them later.

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(Top) The Mound City Blue Blowers c. early 1925, comprising (left to right) Dick Slevin, Jack Bland, Eddie Lang, and Red McKenzie. The group originally was a trio, minus Lang, although Brunswick’s ad for their first record pictured a quartet.

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The one who put together the group—it [initially] was a trio—was Red McKenzie, who was from St. Louis. Red went on to have a very fine career, but when we auditioned the Blue Blowers I wouldn’t have given him or the other two a snowball’s chance in hell. All Red did was play a comb with tissue paper wrapped around it.

Yet here was something different about the sound of the group, so it gave me something to work with. One of the three played banjo—Bland, Jack Bland, was his name—but he was no Harry Reser, so I backed him with Eddie Lang on guitar and I also put Frank Trumbauer in the next set of Blue Blowers recordings we made. Well those records sold, and sold, and then sold some more. We couldn’t believe it because these young guys were nothing more than a “kitchen band,” what with jugs and all of that. [6] But here they were, selling a lot of records for us.

 

Returning to classical Brunswick artists, and in particular violinists, you spoke about Elias Breeskin and Max Rosen earlier. Let me ask you about other violinists you recorded at Brunswick: Fredric Fradkin, William Kroll, Bronislaw Huberman and Mishel Piastro.

Kroll wasn’t a soloist—not for Brunswick, I mean. He was the violinist in a trio, the Elschuco Trio, with a pianist [Aurelio Giorni] and Willem Willeke, who was a superb cellist. Max Rosen, as I said, was [Brunswick’s] Fritz Kreisler. The others were not in his class, although Huberman was a close second to Rosen. Huberman had studied with Joachim, and had been a sort of prodigy when he came to this country. He had played all over Europe by then. We recorded him in the standard repertoire that Victor had in its catalogs.

Piastro and Fradkin were competent violinists, but they didn’t sell a lot of records and didn’t have the following, the careers, that Rosen and Huberman had. Breeskin was a fine violinist, and we got a lot of mileage out of having him at Brunswick because he was the violinist Caruso chose as an assisting artist for his U.S. concert tours in World War One. By the way, another [violinist] Caruso had as an assisting artist in some of his concerts was Xavier Cugat. Back then, he was “Francis X. Cugat.”

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Haenschen recalled getting “a lot of mileage out of having [Breeskin] at Brunswick” because of his association with Caruso.

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Among the legendary pianists Brunswick had under contract were Josef Hofmann, Leopold Godowsky and Elly Ney. First, let me ask you about Josef Hofmann. It was rumored that because his reach [i.e., the span of his hands] was somewhat short compared to, say, Rachmaninoff, that he used a special piano that had slightly narrower keys than a standard concert grand.

That was much later, not when he was with us. It would have been quite a trick to have one of those special Steinways hauled from his studio onto the top floor of the Brunswick building. No, when he recorded for us, he used the same grand pianos that the others you mentioned used. We had four grands, all of them seven-feet models. Two were Steinways and the other two were Knabe grands.

Hofmann always played one of the Steinways, but it had a standard keyboard. It’s true that his reach was short compared to Godowsky’s, but even Godowsky said that Hofmann had the finest technique of all the concert pianists of that time. Hofmann had very strong hands, incidentally, and he could get more volume out of any of our pianos than even Godowsky could. That’s saying something because Leopold Godowsky was one of the greatest pianists ever. One thing about Josef Hofmann just came to my mind: he had a special chair built for him—he had a number of them, actually—and he would only record in that special chair.

 

Do you mean a “chair” rather than a piano stool or bench—that is, a seat with a back on it?

Yes, an actual chair with a back on it. The height of the back was maybe twelve inches, not much more than that, and it was angled slightly forward. There was something about the height and the angle of the back that kept him in a position that was ideal for his playing. That’s what he used in his concerts, and he always used it in our recording sessions. He was a wonderful guy, always a lot of fun to work with.

Another point about his style that always struck me when I watched him recording for us: his fingers were never more an inch above the keys, and his wrists were always on the same plane as the tops of the keys. He didn’t go in for showy stuff—no bringing his arms up to his shoulders and then down to the keys, or any of that Liberace fluff.

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Elly Ney (left), and Josef Hofmann (right, in the Columbia studio)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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And Elly Ney?

Elly was a great pianist, and one of the few women pianists who had very successful careers at that time. She was German but spoke English well. She was a bit on the flamboyant side and had a really captivating personality. There was a very famous pianist in Vienna, [Theodor] Leschetizky, who taught a lot of famous concert pianists. Elly’s concert promoters always highlighted that she was a pupil of Leschetizky. One day I remember Walter [Rogers] asking her what he was like as a teacher. She said, “I don’t really know. I only had two lessons with him!”

 

One of the most interesting of Brunswick artists was Marion Harris, who seems to have influenced not only Rudy Vallée but many other performers. How did you get her to record for Brunswick?

Marion was our biggest-selling female artist in our popular-music division, and she was ahead of ones like Ruth Etting, Belle Baker, and Kate Smith when they were starting out. Marion had been a headliner in vaudeville so she was very much in demand, and she had made some recordings for Columbia [7] before we got her to come to Brunswick.

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Marion Harris and Isham Jones’ Orchestra (Jones second from left)
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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The first recordings I remember making with Marion was when we put her with Isham Jones’s band. Her voice came through spectacularly—I was going to say “loud and clear”—on all of the acoustic records she made with us. Hers was one of those voices like [Mario] Chamlee’s, which the old [acoustical] process captured wonderfully. She was always available whenever we wanted her, and we recorded more songs with her than probably any other female pop singer in our catalog.

 

Brunswick also had Margaret Young, who sang some of the same blues songs as Marion Harris. What do you recall of her?

There was nothing original about Margaret Young. She had been in vaudeville, and then she patterned herself after Marion Harris. But [Young] wasn’t in the same league as Marion—not by a long shot. For every Margaret Young record, we probably sold twenty times as many Marion Harris records during the acoustical days. When we went into radio with our “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts, we made sure Marion was on as many of those [broadcasts] as possible. Really, Marion was the first white woman to sing jazz and blues the way the great Negro singers sang them.

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Margaret Young (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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That brings me to the topic of what were called “race records” in the 1920s. Did Brunswick have a separate catalog of these “race records”?

Yes, although we limited it mostly to the Vocalion label. Vocalion was a low-priced label that we thought would be attractive to Negro buyers. [8]  Now, we did have a very fine black singer, Edna Hicks, and some other blues singers whose names I’m sorry that I don’t remember. We had several different catalogs, just like Victor did. One of them was a “Jewish catalog” that featured singers like Isa Kremer, who sang Yiddish folk songs, and several great cantors as well. Like Victor and Columbia, we also had catalogs in other languages, which were distributed in Europe, South America and Asia.

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Although Brunswick had a race-record program, its Vocalion label served as the company’s primary outlet for race material. Originally managed by Jack Kapp, the race department was taken over by Mayo Williams in 1928, after Kapp was promoted to general manager.

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The Vocalion label also included what today would be called “country and western,” correct?

Yes, although it was called “hillbilly music” back then. Jack Kapp was the manager of Vocalion after we acquired the label.

 

Jack Kapp, who founded the American Decca label?

Yes, that Jack Kapp—and I apologized to him so many times for the way I dealt with him at Brunswick that he finally told me to stop it! I couldn’t stand anything “hillbilly,” but Jack would scour the hills of Kentucky and West Virginia for these backwoods yodelers and fiddlers, and he would record them wherever he could come up with a makeshift recording studio.

I had to meet with Jack quarterly, sometimes more frequently, so he could play these field recordings to get my approval for them. He knew that I hated that kind of music, but he was always trying to “convert” me. He’d be playing a test pressing and he’d say to me, “Now, isn’t that a good guitar lick? And how about that harmonica!” I’d roll my eyes and tell him, “What you call a ‘good guitar lick’ is what I call bad guitar playing!”

We’d go ’round and ’round arguing about these hillbilly players, and I always ended up approving whatever he brought. The reason I did was because, first, they sold a lot of records in rural areas that never bought Brunswick records until then, and second because Jack kept finding better and better talent. Plus, Jack was so enthusiastic about discovering new talent that his enthusiasm rubbed off on me and everyone else he worked with.

 

Were you surprised at how successful he made Decca?

Honestly, when he pitched the Decca idea to me and invited me to invest in it, I said no because I didn’t think there was a market for phonograph records anymore. There had been all kinds of improvements in the technology, of course, but I was so involved in radio that I didn’t pay any attention to phonograph records. I had put all of that in the rear-view mirror when I left Brunswick, and when I heard that Jack had been named manager of Brunswick after the 1929 stock-market crash, I felt sorry for him. But what I should have considered was how determined, how driven, Jack was.

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Jack Kapp (right) during his Decca years, with former Brunswick  stars Al Jolson and Bing Crosby

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These days, we hear a lot about “visionaries.” Jack Kapp was a real visionary. His success with Decca kept the recording industry going, and his investors—especially Bing Crosby—believed in him and put a lot of money into Decca. A lot of the artists Jack had worked with at Brunswick followed him to Decca. Just when Decca was doing very well, there was a shortage of shellac that Jack had to contend with. That happened when we [the U.S.] entered World War Two. But he weathered the shellac shortage, and Decca grew during the war.

Then came the revolution in the industry when Columbia brought out the long-playing record, RCA came out with the 45 r.p.m. format, and magnetic tape revolutionized how recordings were made. It was Jack Kapp, in my opinion, who kept the industry going during the middle of the Depression. Without him, I’m not sure that there would have been much of an industry left because the vast majority of Americans barely had enough money to buy food.

 

Earlier, when you were speaking about Marion Harris, you mentioned two topics that I want to ask you about: electrical recording and the “Brunswick Hour.” Frank Black was played an important role in the “Brunswick Hour,” if I’m correct. How did you and Frank Black meet?

Walter [Rogers] and I hired Frank as a staff pianist and an arranger for our classical and popular recordings at Brunswick. I’m not sure when we hired him, but I would guess 1921 or 1922, after we were well-established in the industry. Frank was the fastest and most versatile arranger I’ve ever known, and I’ve known and worked with a lot of them. As you said, he had an important role in the “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts. He wrote many of the arrangements for them and was the pianist in them too.

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Frank Black (undated photo, and a 1937 caricature)

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How would you compare the two of you as pianists?

Frank was the better pianist—he was much more versatile than I was. I played in one style, which we called “ragtime” back then, but [which] came to be known as “stride” when James P. Johnson and other black pianists became well known. That was the style I learned in St. Louis, the style that Scott Joplin helped me to refine. Frank, on the other hand, could play in almost any style, and he could hold his own with some of the classical pianists. But his most important role for us at Brunswick was his extraordinary speed and output of very imaginative arrangements.

 

What led you to become a partner of his in radio, where the two of you became nationally known as a team?

That started with the first broadcast we did of “The Brunswick Hour.” Between us, Frank and I wrote all the arrangements for that first broadcast. We just clicked when it came to writing arrangements for radio broadcasts.

 

Those “Brunswick Hour” broadcasts were well-received by the critics, and certainly by the public. Was that your first performance on radio?

Yes. Before that, my only experience with radio was building them for me and my family and friends. [David] Sarnoff envisioned radio becoming the dominant form of entertainment, and between 1920 and about 1924 radio technology improved to the degree that the [radio] sets had cone-type loudspeakers that made it possible for a whole family to listen to a broadcast. Until then, loudspeakers that were used with one- or two-tube receivers were basically megaphones connected to a diaphragm like the one in a telephone receiver.

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The earliest “Brunswick Hour” programs featured a “Music Memory Contest” that was suspended after several broadcasts. (March 1925)

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Do you remember how you felt about hearing radio broadcasts through an electrical amplifier and loudspeaker, compared to listening to an acoustical phonograph record?

Well, hearing the full range of sound coming through a cone-type loudspeaker made what we were doing in our recording studios seem almost primitive by comparison. It was obvious that radio was going to replace phonographs as the source of entertainment.

When you look back, you can see why radio was the future. Our twelve-inch phonograph records had a playing time of about four minutes at the most. A radio program could be any length, from fifteen minutes to an hour or more, and it was free in those days. Later, when sponsors came in [to fund radio broadcasts] and network programs aired commercials at the beginning and end of a [radio] show, radio was still free of charge to the people at home.

 

Do you recall the financial recession of 1921–1922 and its effects on the recording industry?

Oh, yes. Phonograph sales went to hell, and so did record sales. Like Victor, Brunswick weathered that downturn better than the other smaller companies. In our case, it was because of the parent company’s diversity and the money they could afford to lose in the phonograph division. But I would say that by 1923, anyone in the recording industry could see what was going to happen [with radio] because acoustical recordings cost money and their sound was inferior compared to a high-quality radio broadcast in the middle-1920s.
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©2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

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Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] The Valentino session (May 14, 1923) preceded Chaplin’s by two years.

[2] Brunswick catalog number 3299 was finally assigned to the recordings in 1926, but the release was cancelled. Both selections were remastered by Brunswick in August 1930, with the addition of a spoken introduction, for the apparently unrelated Celebrities Recording Company (Los Angeles).

[3] Hardy, Navarro, and Boles made no known recordings for Brunswick.

[4] This recording, made for Edison on November 18, 1924 (one month before Munn’s first Brunswick session), was eventually approved for release in October 1926.

[5] However, Munn’s earliest Brunswick recordings are acoustic.

[6] Trumbauer was added beginning with a session on March 13, 1924, Lang beginning with a session on December 10, 1924. Jugs were not used.

[7] And Victor.

[8] Vocalion records initially were reduced to 50¢ from 75¢ following the label’s acquisition by Brunswick, but were soon reinstated as a standard 75¢ line following dealer protests. However, Haenschen is correct in observing that Vocalion served as Brunswick’s primary race-record outlet. Jack Kapp was in charge of the race catalog, which probably explains Haenschen’s limited recollections.

 

> Part 1  | > Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews • Walter Gustave (Gus) Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 2

The James A. Drake Interviews
Gus Haenschen: The Brunswick Years — Part 2

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> Part 1  | > Part 3

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Were actual bleachers used for recordings that were made in the studio?

Yes, depending on the size of the orchestra we were using for a particular session. A typical studio orchestra for us would be twelve or thirteen men. The brass players would usually be placed either on the sides of the bleachers or, in the case of the tuba, standing next to the bleachers. The strings were always placed as close to the horn as possible because the volume of the violin and viola was lower than the reed and brass sections.

In the reed section, the clarinets were placed in front of the saxophones because the saxes were much louder than the clarinets. Now, if the arrangement I approved called for a small group of instruments—say, a clarinet and two saxophones—to play several measures of this song being recorded, those players would rush toward the horn. As soon as they were finished playing their part, they would move away so that they wouldn’t be blocking the horn.

 

About the violins, did you use the so-called Stroh violins, or was the recording diaphragm sensitive enough to pick up a true violin? And did all of Brunswick’s studio orchestras use the banjo for rhythm?

We used Stroh violins in our earliest recordings. And, yes, banjos were used for rhythm—usually just one banjo place near the horn. We had excellent banjoists who played multiple string instruments. Probably the best banjoist we had was Harry Reser, who went on to lead the Clicquot Club Eskimos on radio. Harry played banjo, mandolin, lute, ukulele and guitar.

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Horned Stroh instruments, like this violin, provided the volume needed to register well on acoustical recording equipment. (National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

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So did Nick Lucas, who was a regular in our studio orchestra.  Nick played the mandolin principally, but he was also an excellent acoustic guitarist. Nick became a real student of the recording process, and convinced me to let him play the guitar rather than the mandolin, and to position himself and his guitar very near the horn—literally, almost touching the bottom edge of the horn.

 

Did he sing then, or was he playing in the studio orchestra?

Well, there came a time in 1923 or 1924 when Nick asked me to consider letting him sing, although his voice was a rather high tenor, and a very small voice at that. But around 1924 or maybe in early 1925, before we switched to electrical recording, Gene Austin made some records that sold very well for Victor. Gene was really the first “crooner.”  [1]

Well, I decided to have Nick become Brunswick’s crooner.  I thought it was a great idea, but Nick didn’t. When I told him that we would bill him as a crooner, he balked and said, “But I’m Italian and I’m from the trovatore tradition.  I can’t be a crooner!”  So we compromised, and Nick became Brunswick’s “crooning troubadour.”

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Nick Lucas

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Nick had a terrific sense of humor, and he used to kid me all the time about how he nearly had to stick his entire head into the acoustical recording horn for his voice to register. I can still hear him saying to me, “My head was so far into that horn that I could feel my lips kissing that damned diaphragm!”  Of all the singers I can think of, Nick Lucas was the happiest when electrical recording came in. He could stand in front of a microphone and sing naturally.

 

During the acoustical period, singers seem to have used various “tricks,” for want of a better word, that they had to use to record consonants and sibilants that the recording diaphragm did not always pick up.  I’m thinking, for example, of the “S” sound.  How was that insensitivity of the recording diaphragm overcome?

That was gotten around by having the singer put a consonant with the “S.” The early recording artists, and we had all of them under contract under pseudonyms, knew exactly how to create the effect I am trying to describe. As an example, when Henry Burr, as Harry McClaskey or one of his other pseudonyms, would record “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree,“ the “sh“ in the word “shade” would not record most of the time. So he would put a “J” after the “S” and sing “s-jade,” which the diaphragm would pick up.

 

When Brunswick began making and issuing its own recordings, did you have almost all of those same singers that Victor and Columbia had—singers like Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, Elliot Shaw, Lewis James, Royal Dadmun, and Billy Murray?

We had all of them except Billy Murray, whose voice we felt was too well known because he had recorded for everybody since almost the very beginning of the industry.  But we had all the others [2], and they were easy to work with because they were professional recording artists. That was their income.

We recorded them under pseudonyms, and each one of them had about three pseudonyms that he used for different companies.

The same for the women singers like Elsie Baker, who recorded under about three different names at Victor alone. Victor and Columbia used most of the male singers I mentioned in trios and quartets with different names—the Sterling trio, the Shannon Four, and so on. Individually, none of those singers was what anyone would call a great vocalist. But when they sang together in small groups, the effect was very, very good.

 

You recorded under pseudonyms yourself, correct?

Yes, mainly as Carl Fenton. I came up with that name by combining the St. Louis suburb where I grew up, which is called Fenton, with the first name of one of my mother’s relatives. He spelled his name with a “K,” and I changed it to a “C.” That was sort of a carryover from the songwriting and arranging I did before I joined Brunswick. Over the years I have written about fifty songs under assumed names.

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The fictitious Carl Fenton’s Orchestra was Brunswick’s house dance band. Haenschen managed the group and wrote many of its arrangements, but he did not play on the recordings. [3]
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Bandleaders sometimes sent surrogate groups on the road under their names in the 1920s. Here, a “Carl Fenton” orchestra plays Muncie, Indiana, on December 15, 1926 — the same day the actual orchestra was recording in New York.

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For example, I got a call from Charlie Chaplin, whom I had gotten to know quite well, telling me that Mary Pickford needed a song for a United Artists movie she was making called “Rosita.” I wrote the melody under the name “Paul Dupont.”  Two others I used from time to time were “Paul Krane” and “Walter Holliday.” One of the reasons I used pseudonyms was because I was associated by name with Brunswick, so if a song like “Rosita“ was scheduled to be recorded by Victor, my counterpart there—I should say my competitor there—would kill the song because my name was on it.

The person I’m talking about, incidentally, is Nat [Nathaniel] Shilkret, who was my counterpart at Victor.  Shilkret was an excellent arranger and a very fine musician, but he was very difficult as a person and he took competition to a frankly silly degree. Because of that, any song that I had anything to do with was not going to be recorded by anybody and Victor.  But since “Rosita” was written by “Paul Dupont,” the song sneaked by Shilkret and was recorded by several singers at Victor.

Recently I found out that even Rosa Ponselle had recorded that song for Victor. Now to be fair, that could be because Shilkret was not the director of Red Seal recordings. That was Rosario Bourdon, not Shilkret.  And Ponselle, of course, was one of the biggest stars in the Victor Red Seal catalog, so if she wanted to sing it, they weren’t likely to say no to her.

 

Speaking of Ponselle, did Walter Rogers ever try to lure her or other Victor Red Seal vocalists to Brunswick as far as you know?

Yes, several of them. Walter knew Rosa Ponselle personally, so it was not hard for him to get to her with an offer. Although she had a manager, a wonderful woman named Libbie Miller, Rosa made all of her own decisions. What I heard was that she was being paid so well by Victor, and that she had had a bad experience when she recorded for Columbia, that she would not leave Victor because of the status of the Red Seal recording label and the amount of money they were paying her.

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Although Brunswick’s Hall of Fame series boasted some stellar artists, Haenschen admitted it was “no match for the Victor Red Seal label.”

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We could have more than matched what Victor was paying her, but our “Hall of Fame” series, which was what we called our classical recordings, was no match for the Victor Red Seal label.  We did try to get Carmela Ponselle, her older sister, to leave Columbia for Brunswick. Walter [Rogers] talked to her privately several times, but she was quite indecisive, as I recall, and I think she was hoping to become a Red Seal artist like her sister.  But as I said earlier, we had Elisabeth Rethberg, Sigrid Onegin, Maria Ivogun and others, so we did very well with them.

 

Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, whom you mentioned earlier, was also an exclusive Brunswick artist. Later in the 1920s he went to Victor, but his start was with Brunswick.  I realize that Walter Rogers was responsible for recording him, but do you remember any of the sessions with Lauri-Volpi?

It’s funny you should mention that because I had a small role in dealing with Lauri-Volpi.  Our negotiations with him had gone smoothly, although he was rumored to be a very difficult person.  It wasn’t that he was difficult, just that he would get very frustrated because didn’t speak English.  Walter understood some Italian but could not speak the language, so he couldn’t communicate with Lauri-Volpi except through a translator.

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Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

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As you probably know, Lauri-Volpi was an erudite man.  He was a trial lawyer in Italy, and was also one of the most decorated soldiers in the Italian army during World War One.  As it turned out, he spoke German and French fluently, and since German was my first language, I was able to talk with him as if we were both speaking English.  That put him at ease, and almost every time he came for a recording session, Walter asked me to be there as a sort of intermediary.

The recording sessions went very smoothly, and Lauri-Volpi was always fully prepared and learned how to sing into the recording horn very ably. Yet his was one of the voices which simply did not register well in acoustic recordings.  He was, so to say, the polar opposite of Mario Chamlee, whose voice was relatively small, as I explained earlier.  Lauri-Volpi’s [Brunswick] records, on the other hand, sounded almost nothing like he did in person.  His voice had incredible squillo—what singers call “ping”—especially in his high range, but our recording diaphragms didn’t capture it.

 

Let me ask you for your recollections about singers and instrumentalists who recorded for Brunswick during your years there.  Please tell me what come to your mind when you hear their names.  I’ll begin with Paul Ash.

I had known Paul from some of his tours on the West Coast, and from St. Louis.  At the time we signed him he was leading a theater orchestra in San Francisco, at the Granada theater. I think we began recording him in 1922 or 1923, I’m not sure.  Paul couldn’t use his theater arrangements in the recording studio because of the acoustic process, we did arrangements for him that approximated the style of his dance band, which he called “Synchro-Symphony.“  He did well for Brunswick, and Brunswick did well for him.

 

One of the most famous bands that Brunswick had was Red Nichols and His Five Pennies.  The “Pennies” [at various times] included Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and others who became famous on their own in the late-1930s.  Did you put together the “Five Pennies”?

No, they recorded for Brunswick after I left. [4]  I used Red a lot in our studio sessions, but just as a member of our studio band.   Although the name he picked for his group, Red Nichols and His Five Pennies, is an obvious one, when I was at Brunswick we had a suggestion box in our outer office.  We encouraged anybody who worked there to come up with names for new bands.  If we ended up using one of the names, whoever suggested it got a cash bonus.

Some of the names were of non-existent hotels and cafés—but if they sounded good, we used them and then made up arrangements to give the new band a distinctive sound.  The actual “band” was nothing more than the same dozen or so musicians that we used in every other [acoustical] session—but the arrangement and the made-up name usually worked, and the records sold well enough.

 

You also had Gene Rodemich’s orchestra under contract at Brunswick.

Yes, Gene was one of the first we signed at Brunswick.  I had known Gene in St. Louis, where he had an orchestra exchange.  I worked for him at that exchange, and I bought it from him when he decided to go to Chicago and then to New York with his band.

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Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

 

Next, Al Bernard.  What do you recall of him?

Al Bernard was more of a novelty singer, rather like Frank Crumit was. He could do songs in different styles and did them well.  Most of what he did were blues like “Memphis Blues” and “Beale Street Blues” and such.  And he did a lot of novelty songs—for instance, “Lindy Lou,” songs like that. He recorded for Columbia and may have recorded for Victor, but I’m not sure about that. [5]  In the mid-1920s we also paired Al [Bernard] with Russell Robinson, and gave them the name “The Dixie Stars.” They did some of the same types of routines that Billy Jones and Ernie Hare did.

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Al Bernard (left), and with Ernest Hare (right), Bernard’s performing partner before Hare joined Billy Jones. (G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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What do you recall of the Brox Sisters? 

They were a popular group that did three-part harmony on novelty songs and some blues and southern songs.  They were actual sisters, siblings, which you might already know. They were only a couple of years apart.  Lorayne was the eldest, then Bobbe, and the youngest was Patty.  They had a good run in vaudeville on the Orpheum circuit.  We signed them when they were performing in one of Irving Berlin’s Music Box Revues in the early 1920s, and we backed them with Gene Rodemich’s band. [6]

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The Brox Sisters, c. 1924 (G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

 

Next, the Capitol Grand Orchestra. What do you recall of that orchestra?

It was the pit orchestra of the Capitol Grand Theater in Manhattan. The conductor at that time was a fellow named Dave [David] Mendoza, a very good conductor and arranger.  A little later, Erno Rapee became the band’s conductor.  As a pit band for a large theater, this was a sizable group, although we had to pare it down because of the limitations of the acoustical process.  So we used mainly their brass, reeds, and some of their violas and cellos for their recordings.

By the way, the acoustical process was problematic for some instruments.  For some reason, our recording diaphragms, both in the studio and in our field-recording machines, would vibrate excessively on one note played on a cello. We would have to get around that by having our cellists play that particular note one octave higher or one octave lower, depending on the arrangement.

Back to the Capitol Grand Orchestra, when they were at the Capitol Grand Theater they played all sorts of instrumental music, but we recorded them in classical pieces only—the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, Peer Gynt Suite, and overtures from Traviata and a few other operas.

 

You also signed a group called the Castlewood Marimba Band.  What do you recall about them?

That was just the Yerkes [Jazzarimba] group under a different name.  Marimba bands were very popular, and the Yerkes band had a distinctive sound. [7]  Now, as the Castlewood group, they didn’t play jazz music.  We had them record mainly Hawaiian songs, which were popular back then.  Before I went to Brunswick and made “personal records” of my banjo orchestra at the Columbia studios in New York, I made one called “I Left Her on the Beach at Waikiki” [sic; “at Honolulu”]. There must’ve been twenty songs with the word “Waikiki“ in the titles.  The Castlewood, or Yerkes, marimba band recorded a couple of those Waikiki pseudo-Hawaiian songs for us.

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Haenschen and some popular Brunswick bandleaders gather on the roof of the recording studio for a publicity shot. (Talking Machine World, February 1923)

 

Among the major symphony orchestra is you had under contract at Brunswick was the Cleveland Orchestra, correct?

Yes, but we didn’t do much with them until electrical recording came in.  The limitations of the acoustical process made symphonic recordings very difficult, very challenging. The conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra at that time was Nikolai Sololoff, who was born in Russia but emigrated as a teenager to this country and studied music at Yale University.

 

Do you know what percentage of Brunswick’s sales came from popular-music recordings as opposed to classical recordings?

Somebody in the company once calculated the percentage on a fifteen-part basis.  Why fifteen was the number they chose, I have no idea, but I remember that thirteen-fifteenths of our revenue came from popular-music recordings.  Only two-fifteenths, then, came from our classical recordings.  But there was a prestige market in classical recording—the Victor Red Seal was the epitome of prestige back then—so at Brunswick, as long as our popular releases kept the profits up, we were able to sustain our classical wing.

 

During the 1920s, so-called “collegiate bands“ were very popular.  Is it true that you tried to sign several of those groups including Waring’s Pennsylvanians and the Yale Collegians?

Yes, but we weren’t successful in either case.  Fred Waring and I were very good friends, and I did everything in my power to get him to sign with Brunswick.  But Fred had a very lucrative contract at Victor, so we weren’t successful.  We played a lot of golf together, especially on the West Coast when I went there to record and set up a temporary studio in Los Angeles.  I tried every tactic I could think of to get Fred to sign with Brunswick, but I could never get him to come with us.

 

His brother, Tom Waring, was more popular for a while than Fred, if I’m correct.  Tom Waring wrote some beautiful songs, and was one of the early pop singers and pianists who made Vitaphone short films.  Did you try to get both Warings under contract with Brunswick?

No, and that’s a touchy subject because the relationship between Fred and Tom wasn’t the best after their banjo orchestra became popular.  This was before Waring’s Pennsylvanians, when it was just Tom and Fred and one or two other boys that they had grown up with.  Tom wrote “Sleep,” which was the Warings’ theme song for years, and he also wrote “So Beats My Heart for You,” which is a great song, almost a classical song.  Tom wasn’t a good pianist, nor was he much of a singer, but he got popular on his own.  But there was a rift between them after a while, and Fred went his own way—very, very successfully.

 

Some of the singers and musicians who were with the Pennsylvanians almost since the beginning have said that the rift was because Tom was gay and that Fred couldn’t accept it.  That was rumored, but is there anything to that?

As I say, the relationship between Tom and Fred was strained—and yes, that was rumored.  But I have no idea personally, and even if [Tom Waring] was, it has nothing to do with his music or anything else for that matter.  Like Fred, Tom was a very nice guy, and his songs are his legacy.  But let me talk about Fred, because there are things about him that not a lot of people would know.

First of all, Fred doesn’t play any musical instrument.  Tom was a self-taught pianist, but Fred didn’t play an instrument.  In their banjo-orchestra days, he played the musical saw, but that doesn’t count that as a musical instrument.  Fred never had any formal training as a conductor either, yet he became one of the best choral and orchestral conductors in the music industry.  Robert Shaw credits Fred with convincing him to become a choral conductor.

Fred was also a “tinkerer.”  He didn’t have any formal training as a machinist or an engineer, but he was intrigued by gadgets of any kind, and would always try to improve them.  One of the reasons we became such good friends was because I was a machinist and a mechanical engineer.   Fred often came to my little “factory“ on my acreage in Norwalk, and I designed and made gears and other parts for some of his inventions.

You might know this because you mentioned the Yale Collegians, but there’s a connection between Fred and Rudy Vallée and me.   In the 1930s Rudy developed quite a liking for daiquiris.  He also developed a disdain for having to wait so long for a bartender to chip enough ice with a hand pick to be able mix a daiquiri.  We were at an American Federation of Musicians event when Rudy mentioned this to Fred Waring.  That sparked Fred’s interest in developing what became known as the Waring blender [which Waring spelled “Blendor”].

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Fred Waring and his “Blendor”

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Fred talked about that blender design with me several times because he was trying to develop a combined electric motor and high-torque gearing system, or transmission, that would fit into the base of his blender.  He had already designed the glass pitcher that would contain the ice and ingredients in daiquiris, and he designed a configuration of blades that was entirely his own.  I had suggested something like propeller blades in miniature, but Fred tried that and the blades didn’t work very well.  So he designed a bi-level set of blades—two near the bottom of the pitcher, and two more blades about an inch higher than the lower pair.  That turned out to be much more efficient.

When he finally arrived at the ideal combination of an armature, field coils, and a transmission that gave the motor more than enough power to crush ice, he had “invented“ one of the best-selling appliances of all time. I still have one of the very first ones and that he gave me.  Naturally, the very first one off the production line went to Rudy.

 

In his autobiography, Rudy Vallée maintains that the vocal trio which sang the chorus in George Olsen’s recording of “Who?” was responsible for the rise of jazz vocal trios such as the Rhythm Boys.  Do you remember that recording, and what its impact was at that time?

I know Rudy has said that, but I tend to think it had an impact on him, and possibly [Bing] Crosby when he and Al Rinker and Harry Barris became [Paul] Whiteman’s Rhythm Boys, but I don’t remember that particular recording having any impact on us at Brunswick.  But it may have had an impact on Rudy, who was singing in a trio himself at that time.  He was the saxophonist of the Yale Collegians and he also doubled on clarinet—he was a very good clarinetist—but the leader of the Collegians at that time was a fellow named Les Laden.  Rudy succeeded him, if I remember rightly.

 

Today, Rudy Vallée is associated nostalgically with the “Roaring Twenties” of flappers, bathtub gin, raccoon coats and such.  The year 1920 is now associated with the beginning of jazz on recordings, and the Original Dixieland Jazz Band is credited with making the first ones.  Other sources maintain that either Ted Lewis or Paul Whiteman were the first to make jazz recordings.  What do you recall of that time period?

It depends on what you define as “first.”  In my opinion, it was Ted Lewis who was the first to make jazz recordings.  He had an exclusive contract with Columbia, and he had made a name for himself and his band at Rector’s restaurant before Nick LaRocca and his group [the Original Dixieland Jazz Band] were playing at Reisenweber’s Café. [8]

 

Where would you place Paul Whiteman, who was billed as “King of Jazz” and made two recordings for Victor, “Whispering” and “The Japanese Sandman,” that seem to have sold over 100,000 copies. 

Well, first of all, Ben Selvin had some big-selling records for Columbia, so Paul [Whiteman] wasn’t the only one who was recording “syncopated jazz,” as it was called then.  Ben also recorded for Brunswick and sold a lot of records for us.  But Ted Lewis, not Paul Whiteman, was the first to record jazz for a major label. [9]

 

What was your relationship with Paul Whiteman like?  How would you describe it?

We knew each other through mutual friends when Paul began recording for Victor.  When he announced the Aeolian Hall concert where Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” was introduced, he hadn’t told George [Gershwin] about it, so Paul had to get an orchestral arrangement together pretty fast because George had written the “Rhapsody” for piano, not an orchestra.  I was one of about a dozen or more arrangers who were invited by Paul to review the arrangement that Ferde Grofé was writing for the “Rhapsody.”  We would meet in the late afternoons or after dinner at different venues where Paul, George and Ferde Grofé would hold these meetings.

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Paul Whiteman (center, standing), with Ferde Grofé at the piano
(G. G. Bain Collection, Library of Congress)

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Do you recall the other arrangers who were part of the group that Whiteman invited to review Grofé’s emerging score?

Not all of them, but I remember that Frank Black, Robert Russell Bennett, Isham Jones, Ben Selvin and I think Harry Akst were part of the group.

 

Who was more involved in those sessions—Whiteman, Gershwin or Grofé?  And who had the final say in the resulting arrangement?

Ferde Grofé was the center of it because he was writing the arrangement.  George was there during most of the sessions, but he didn’t say much.  It was Paul who was in charge—it was his orchestra—and he handled those sessions wonderfully.  I remember how he would take each of us aside as these sessions went on.  He would lean over my shoulder and say, “How do you think it‘s going, Gus?  Do you see any part that could be better?”  He really “fathered” the “Rhapsody” as it was first played at Aeolian Hall.

 

Was the orchestra present for those sessions?

No.  None of us needed the orchestra because we were hearing the arrangement as we were reading the copies that were handed to us at the start of each session.  No professional arranger needs to hear an orchestra, or any instrument in an orchestra, because he knows the timbre and range of every instrument, and which ones go together better than others.

 

Were you at that now-famous Aeolian Hall concert?

No, but I was at two of the orchestral rehearsals of the “Rhapsody” after Ferde Grofé completed the arrangement.  I don’t think he scored all of the piano passages that George [Gershwin] played in that premiere.  George did a lot of improvising, from what I was told.

 

When I interviewed Elizabeth Lennox, she told me about an incident that happened between you and Paul Whiteman when you conducted a performance of “Rhapsody in Blue.”

That was the strangest thing that ever happened to me during a performance.  I was asked to conduct the “Rhapsody,” which I had done on other occasions, so I was glad to do it again.  Frank Black was the pianist, by the way.  I was about a fourth of the way into the performance when suddenly I felt myself being lifted off the podium—lifted by Paul Whiteman, who was drunk.  He hoisted me with his big arms wrapped around my chest.  As he was lifting me, all he said was, “Sorry, Gus, this is my baby!”

 

How did the orchestra and the audience react?

The guys in the orchestra could see him coming to the podium, so they sensed that he was going to do something but they just kept playing and didn’t miss a beat.  There was a kind of gasp in the audience, some murmuring that I could hear, but when the performance was over they applauded loudly.  My guess is that many of them thought the whole thing was a stunt that had been planned so that Paul could make a surprise appearance and conduct his “baby.”

I do want to say about Paul that he was the first bandleader I know of who insisted on written arrangements for his recordings.  During my first years at Brunswick, if somebody played a good “lick,” we’d use it on other recordings but we never wrote it down, never put it on score paper.  We could have, because all of the guys in our bands were sight-readers.  But we were only using about a dozen players for our [acoustical] recording sessions, so we didn’t use formal arrangements.

 

As the years went on, Paul Whiteman seemed to denigrate you whenever you did something new—for example, when you formed an all-string orchestra. 

Yes, he said in some interviews that he was the first to have an all-string orchestra, the “Swinging Strings,” and that he was a violinist and cellist but I was a pianist and didn’t know how to arrange for an all-string orchestra.

 

Why do you think he reacted that way?  He was still a top name in popular music, so it’s hard to understand what his motive was.

He was still a big name, but not like he had been in the 1920s.  During the late-1930s and throughout the [Second World] War, the Dorsey brothers [Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey], [Benny] Goodman and [Artie] Shaw, Glenn Miller, and so many other bands eclipsed Paul’s popularity.  Paul was still trying to establish himself as a “serious” conductor and was fronting what he called a “concert orchestra.”

Paul did everything to excess, including his drinking, which got worse after the War.  I think he felt that these other bands had surpassed him with the public, and that he needed to make sure they [the public] knew that he had been the “King of Jazz” who started it all, and who had made the “Rhapsody in Blue” famous.

You probably know that he became a disc jockey on network radio, and he used those broadcasts to tell his version of the history of jazz—especially how he introduced the “Rhapsody” to the public.  George [Gershwin] was dead, and Ferde Grofé had written “The Grand Canyon Suite” and was famous on his own by then, so the other principals in the birth of the “Rhapsody in Blue” weren’t there to tell their stories of how it came to be.

 

Going back to collegiate groups for a moment, at Brunswick you had a group called the Collegiate Choir. Was that group affiliated with a particular college or university?

No, not at all. It was just a group of vocalists we had under contract, ones we used for any number of groups like that.  I doubt that many of them ever saw the inside of a college. [10]

 

You had a number of very well-known pianists under contract, including Zez Confrey.  Did you direct and conduct his recordings?

Well, I directed them but there was nothing to conduct really.  Zez was a very good novelty pianist who is known for “Kitten on the Keys,” which became a very popular piano piece. We would like to have had Felix Arndt under an exclusive contract, but we couldn’t get him. [Arndt had died in 1918]  Yet we certainly made the most of his very popular composition “Nola,” which he named after his wife.  I had my Brunswick band, the Carl Fenton Orchestra, record an arrangement of it.

 

Did you play the piano part yourself?

No.  I was the recording director and in this case the bandleader, but I didn’t play on the recording.  There was a sort of unwritten rule that Walter [Rogers] and I were not allowed to play in any of the recordings we directed.  We had all sorts of great commercial pianists at Brunswick, including some in the administrative staff like Bill Wirges.  So we had no trouble getting very good pianist for all of our recording sessions.  But I did play in some of our first recordings—I remember playing piano on Rudy Wiedoeft’s first recordings with [Brunswick] soon after I joined the company in 1919.

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Rudy Wiedoeft in the early 1920s
(G. G. Bain Collection,
Library of Congress)

 

You also recorded one of the very popular dance bands of the World War One era, the Joseph C. Smith orchestra, which was associated with Victor for the most part.  Some have wondered whether there was an actual musician and band leader named Joseph C. Smith.  Was that a pseudonym or was this a real person?

Sure, he was real all right, and a very capable ensemble leader.  He recorded for us, he recorded for Columbia under different names, and of course his band was a good-selling outfit for Victor. But his style was eclipsed by [Paul] Whiteman’s by the time we signed [Smith]. If I remember correctly, we just used him as the leader of a trio.  I don’t think we ever used him as a bandleader like Victor did. [11]

 

You also recorded Bennie Krueger’s orchestra, correct?

Oh, yes.  Bennie was one of the great saxophonists of all time, on a par with Rudy Wiedoeft.  We were so pleased to have both of them under contract at Brunswick. They were good friends, by the way. Although Bennie didn’t write songs like Rudy did, they were pretty much equal so I would say as far as the instrument.

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Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra, from the 1924 Brunswick catalog

.

You also had Herb Wiedoeft, Rudy’s brother, under contract at Brunswick, am I right?

Yes, Herb came with us, and he was an excellent brass player and a very fine bandleader too.  During the acoustic [recording] days, he brought a handful of his men to the studio and they sat in with our players.  Later on, he got a lucrative contract at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, and he called his group “The Cinderella Roof Orchestra,” from the rooftop dance floor at the Biltmore.  I recorded Herb in Los Angeles when I went there to set up a temporary studio for Brunswick in the summer of 1923.  You may know this, but Herb was killed in a car accident when he and his band were at the top of their popularity [in 1928].

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© 2019 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

 

Editor’s Notes (Added with interviewer’s approval)

[1] Lucas’ first vocal Brunswick recordings were made on December 23, 1924; Austin did not begin recording for Victor until January 1925.

[2] Burr, Campbell, and Dadmun made only vertical-cut Brunswicks, presumably before Haenschen’s arrival. Of that group, only Burr appeared under a “pseudonym” (as Harry McClaskey, his actual name) on Brunswick.

[3] Personnel of the “Fenton” orchestra varied by session. Full personnel were not listed in the Brunswick files, but “extras” were, including at various times Hymie Faberman and Red Nichols (cornet), Bennie Krueger and Rudy Wiedoeft (saxophones), Phil Ohman and Frank Black (piano), John Cali and Harry Reser (banjo), Joe and George Hamilton Green (xylophone, marimba), Edmund Thiele and Rubie Greenberg (violin), and John Helleberg (tuba).

[4] The Five Pennies recorded several sides for Brunswick prior to Haenschen’s departure, beginning on December 8, 1926 (Haenschen’s orchestra was recording in another studio on the same morning). Most of the Five Pennies’ many Brunswick recordings were made after Haenschen’s departure.

[5] Bernard made several recordings for Victor in 1919 and 1921, including vocal choruses with the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

[6] Accompaniments were by Bennie Krueger’s Orchestra (sometimes with arrangements by Arthur Johnson, the sisters’ pianist), not Gene Rodemich’s Orchestra, according to the Brunswick files.

[7] Haenschen is referring to Harry A. Yerkes, who managed several bands that performed under his name. (This was  not the same individual as Columbia executive H. [Hulbert] A. Yerkes, as has been erroneously claimed in some works.) Yerkes left the band-management business in early 1925, and subsequent Castlewood recordings were made by a group that usually included Joe and/or George Hamilton Green, according to the Brunswick files.

[8] Haenschen apparently is referring to the band that recorded as Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra, a unit from which (including Ted Lewis) recorded for Victor as Earl Fuller’s Famous Jazz Band. The Rector orchestra did not begin recording until June 1917, by which time Victor had already released the first true jazz recordings, by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band.

[9] Haenschen is in error here; see footnote 8. Whether the music Whiteman’s orchestra was performing in the early 1920s constitutes jazz in even the loosest sense of the word remains a topic for debate.

[10] Participants at various times included Rose Bryant, Wilfred Glenn, Charles Harrison, Theo Karle, Elizabeth Lennox, Virginia Rea, and Marie Tiffany, among others, according to the Brunswick files.

[11] Brunswick did record a number of titles by the full orchestra during 1922–1923, in addition to the trio selections.

 

> Part 1  | > Part 3

 

 

 

The James A. Drake Interviews: William S. Bachman on the Development of the Columbia LP

WILLIAM S. BACHMAN ORAL-HISTORY INTERVIEW
James A. Drake (Interviewer)

Friday, October 28, 1977    

Ithaca, New York

..

 

How did you and Dr. [Peter] Goldmark divide your work on the Columbia LP project?

Well, we didn’t, really.  Peter was so involved in television [development] that he essentially turned over the LP to me.  He was senior to me, of course, so it was his project and I was his collaborator, but he asked me to run the LP development on a day-to-day basis.

 

To what extent was Mr. [William S.] Paley involved in the LP project?

Not at all until it came time to introduce it publicly.  Mr. Paley was never that interested in the Columbia Records division.  Visionary that he was, he knew that whichever company came up with the best color television system would dominate that industry.  He knew that RCA was working on a color system, and nothing gave Bill Paley more gratification than beating General [David] Sarnoff to the market with the best possible system.

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Although Peter Goldmark took credit for the LP, the actual development work was carried out by William Bachman and other CBS and Columbia Records staffers.

 

Do you know whether General Sarnoff was involved in the 45 r.p.m. system that RCA Victor introduced after your success with the LP?

I don’t want to say that Columbia and RCA had “spies,” but the engineering end of the commercial recording industry is not really that big, so it’s never that hard to find out some information—not all, but some—about what the competition is up to.  Now, I will admit that our two companies put out “junk rumors” every once in a while, just to get a rise out of the other [company]—but that was a waste of time because the engineers could tell in a heartbeat whether a rumor had any substance to it.

 

What was your impression of the RCA Victor 45 when you first heard one?

Well, they marketed a complete system, just as we did with the LP.  But the RCA 45 system was more complicated from a design standpoint because they had to develop a turntable with a changer that would operate faster than any 78 turntable operated.  They were able to do that because the 45 disc was a vinyl compound and therefore was unbreakable, so their turntable could change discs very fast compared to the standard 78 ones, because there was no risk of the disc that was being dropped onto the turntable would crack or break.

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Columbia’s LP-player  attachment (originally manufactured for Columbia by Philco Radio) was often discounted or given away with record purchases. That practice, along with Columbia’s decision to make the new format freely available to other labels, helped to quickly popularize the LP. (January 1949)

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I gather that RCA’s rapid changer was meant to give the consumer the impression that for classical-music recordings, the new changer would work so fast that the time lapse between the disc on the turntable and the one being dropped into place would be minimal.

That was a big part of RCA’s promotion—that and the fact that they had a stable of artists who were the top singers, instrumentalists, and symphony orchestras on their Red Seal label.  And RCA really pushed that promotional angle when they introduced the “EP,” or “Extended Play” version of the 45.  But we had the LP before RCA had the 45, and we also had Mitch Miller and [RCA] didn’t.  Mitch Miller created more careers of pop singers than you could count, and they were all on our label.  We ended up with our share of the great conductors and orchestras too, and we also had Lily Pons and some other great opera singers, but the classical market was never much when you looked at it from a return-on-investment standpoint.  The classical market was a prestige thing, but it never accounted for more than ten or maybe fifteen percent of [Columbia’s] revenue.

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Ads for RCA’s competing 45-rpm system stressed Victor’s stable of stars in the pop and classical fields. Ultimately, the 45 was solidly trounced by the LP in the latter category. (July 1949)

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When you began the LP project, did you go back to the RCA Victor long-playing discs of the early 1930s?

No, never.  Those Victors were a complete failure, you know. There wasn’t anything new about them, even when Victor launched them.  Maybe the grooves were a little bit narrower than the regular 78s that RCA was putting out.  But there was nothing new about the speed because 33-1/3 r.p.m. was already the standard for cutting [radio] transcription discs and also for the old Vitaphone discs.  So there was nothing new about the speed.  And the playback stylus specs were the same that Victor’s 78 players had in those days. 

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“A stale joke in the industry” — RCA’s failed 33-1/3 rpm Program Transcriptions of the early 1930s. (December 1931)

 

Thanks for clarifying that.  Occasionally, there are still some rumblings that the Columbia LP was sort of “inspired,” for the lack of a better word, by the Victor long-playing discs of 1932.  

Those Victors were already a stale joke in the industry, so we would have been wasting our time if we had started by going back to them.  But I will admit that we did pay a lot of attention to an earlier long-playing record, the one that Edison had developed in the mid-1920s.  Do you know about those Edisons?

 

Yes, but I’ve never actually seen or heard one.  

Let me tell you, those records were a masterpiece of engineering.  And not just in the lab, but in their commercial form.  I got two of those thick, long-playing discs from a friend of mine who collected old records.  They were vertical-cut records, like everything Edison put out.  And they were recorded acoustically, not electrically.  The groove specs were almost unbelievable when we put them under a microscope and had them measured.  Now remember, we were cutting the LP with a 1/200-inch groove.  But Edison had cut his with a 1/450-inch groove!  

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Edison’s long-playing 80-rpm discs, introduced in 1926, boasted total playing times of 24 minutes (10″) and 40 minutes (12″). A commercial failure, they were discontinued two years later.

 

And they played at the standard 78 speed, isn’t that correct?

Well, if I remember rightly, Edison used 80 r.p.m. as the standard speed for those old Diamond Discs.  And he didn’t vary the speed like Victor used to do in the acoustical days.  There’s a lady [Aida Favia-Artsay] who has done a study of all of the Caruso records that he made at Victor.  The recording speeds that they were using could vary as much as five r.p.m. from one session to the next. 

 

Yes, I know her, and know her book.  She even included a stroboscope disc with the book so that listeners could check the turntable speeds for themselves, and hear Caruso at score pitch.  

Back to Edison, do you know that the stylus he developed for those records, his diamond stylus, was elliptical, not round?

 

Did he file a patent on that?

No, but it’s there in his notebooks at West Orange.  And each side of those Edisons, by the way, played for twenty-five minutes.  At 80 r.p.m.!  Can you imagine that?  How the “Old Man,” as his staff always called him, could make recording lathes that would consistently cut 1/450-inch grooves is still amazing to me.  That’s one of the truly great engineering feats in the history of this industry.  But, of course, Edison had invented the phonograph, so I guess anything he did was bound to be the best. 

 

Did you ever know anyone who worked directly with Edison in the 1920s?

No.  But I certainly read all of the patents he filed about recording technology.  Do you know that he didn’t file a patent for one of the most important cutting styluses that he designed?

 

I don’t think I’m familiar with that.  What was its design?  

It was a heated cutting stylus.  It had a heating coil on it.

 

But don’t you hold the patent for the heated-coil stylus?

Yes, I do.  And I wouldn’t have that patent if Edison had ever filed one.  He had been using a heated cutting stylus before World War One.  I guess he thought it was so obvious that a heated stylus would cut a much better groove in a warm wax [recording] blank that he didn’t give any thought to patenting it.  But the heating-coil stylus is right there in his lab books at West Orange.  

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Whether Thomas Edison would have been “excited” over the Columbia LP is questionable, given the commercial failure of his company’s long-playing system two decades earlier. (August 1948)

.

Do you have any idea why Edison resisted electrical recording?

I don’t know for sure.  That was a little before my time.  But Gus [Haenschen] might know because he was already a big guy when electrical recording came in.  You know, do you, that Gus is an engineer?

Yes.  He’s such an icon here that we know his résumé by heart.  So I know that he graduated in engineering from Washington University, Class of 1912.  

In mechanical engineering.  Which, you know, is one of the reasons why he was so successful at Brunswick.  He could “talk the talk” as a musician with the singers and the bands that he put under contract, and he could talk engineering with his recording engineers and technicians.  He had the respect of both sides.  And he was there when Brunswick switched to electrical recording.  In fact, he probably oversaw the switch.  

 

Yes, he said that he did oversee it with Percy Deutsch and Walter Rogers.

When are you going to see him next?  You have to ask him about the light ray.  He’ll get a kick out of that!  And tell him I was the one who told you to ask him about it.  

 

The Pallatrope?

Yes, or maybe it was the Panatrope.  The one was the recording process, and the other was the phonograph, I think.  Or maybe it was the radio part.  Anyway, Gus will get a kick out of it because that [process] was a debacle. The recordings were pretty bad, full of distortion.

Was the Brunswick light-ray process as innovative as the Western Electric one?

I wouldn’t say “innovative,” no.  It was just a selenium-cell process.  Edison and also Bell, I think, were experimenting with selenium cells in the recording process way back in the 1880s or 1890s.  So there was nothing new about that when Brunswick started pushing it in the 1920s.  Ask Gus was the poor guy who was partly in charge of it, but I don’t think Brunswick stayed with that light-ray system.  Even though [Brunswick’s publicity department] kept advertising it all over the place, I’m pretty sure they junked it and made a deal with Western Electric for the Westrex system.     

And I will also ask him about Edison’s reluctance to go electrical when Victor, Columbia, and Brunswick made the switch.  Did you know Maxfield and Harrison, the developers of the Western Electric process?

Not personally, no.  Again, that was a little before my time.  But the Westrex system that they developed at Bell Labs and Western Electric was a major step forward.  They took the frequency range from about 2,500 Hz in the acoustical days, to about 15,000 Hz.  Now, 2,500 Hz would have been on a very good day in the acoustical era.  And what a difference [their] new condenser microphones made.  Carbon mikes went by the wayside fairly quickly after that. 

Were you involved in the development of Full Frequency Range Recording, or ff/rr as it was called then?

No—that was [British] Decca’s.  The full frequency-range system extended the lows to about 80 Hz.  The highs were still around 15,000 Hz, but the signal-to-noise ratio was really low.  That’s was what set the ff/rr apart.  You can hear a big difference between an ff/rr and a standard recording.  That depends somewhat, of course, on what the content is.

 

On the Columbia “20/20” private album celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the introduction of the LP, you say that some of the content of the first LPs was done by splicing tapes of 78s.  Is that correct?

Yes, in some cases.  We began making high-quality vinyl pressings of 78s in our “Masterworks” series so that we could splice them seamlessly for the LP if we had to. 

 

Did you tape-record the 78 vinyl pressings and then edit the tape to make the transitions seamless from one pressing to the next?

No, because that would have added a variable that we didn’t want.  If we had gone to tape and then edited the gap between one 78 and the next one, doing that would have introduced tape “hiss,” which we would have to correct with filters. So what we did was to use two studio-grade 78 turntables and we would stop the one [turntable] and start the other.  Our tech staff got so good at timing the starting and stopping of the turntables that there is no audible change in the content of the final LP recording.

 

One last question about the LP and the 45 disc and the so-called “War of the Speeds”:  at that time did you think the 78 record would continue to be a commercial product just as it had since the turn of the [twentieth] century?

Yes and no. A lot of us thought that the 78 would still be viable if it was pressed in vinyl.  I know for a fact that RCA thought that the 78 would disappear and that their 45 would replace it—and RCA had no doubt that the LP was going to flourish because of the obvious advantages it had over any other format.  In hindsight, we [i.e., Columbia] were rather dismissive of the RCA 45 because there was nothing really new about it, other than the speed—and we didn’t think much of the speed either.  We used to joke that RCA came up with 45 r.p.m. by subtracting 33 from 78!

                                                                

© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved.

____________________________

For more on the development of the LP and 45, be sure to check out American Record Companies and Producers, 1888–1950: An Encyclopedic History, the latest release from Mainspring Press.

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Conclusion)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
Part 3 (Conclusion)
James A. Drake

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(Smithsonian Institution)

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One of the more famous Met broadcasts was the performance of Aida on February 26, 1938, in which Martinelli became ill and had to be replaced.  What are your recollections of that broadcast?

They’re not very pleasant, for several reasons.  I had no idea that backstage before the performance, Martinelli had told [general manager] Edward Johnson that he was not feeling well, and was worried that he would become ill in the midst of the performance.  Which is exactly what happened.  All of a sudden, almost at the end of “Celeste Aida,” Martinelli seemed to cough, or so I thought—but actually, he vomited, and turned away from the audience as best he could.

As I remember it, the orchestra completed the rest of “Celeste Aida,” when suddenly the curtain was rung down.  This was all happening “live” on the air, of course, and I had no idea what was happening backstage.  What I did was what announcers do when something goes awry:  they keep talking while trying to give the impression of composure, of business as usual, hoping all the while that whatever has gone wrong will be fixed and that the show will go on.

So I kept on talking—and talking, and talking, and more talking.  I always kept a copy of the Victor Book of the Opera with me in the box that we used as our broadcasting booth.  Over the years, there were several editions of that book.  Although it was written for sales purposes, the Victor Book of the Opera contained summaries of all of the great Italian, French and German operas.  That afternoon, while all the hubbub was going on backstage and I was stuck with an open microphone and time to fill, I read aloud several pages of the Victor Book of the Opera.

Then someone slipped me a handwritten note that said, “G. M. sick, canned crabmeat and too much beer last p.m.”  Stupidly, at least in retrospect, I said on the air, “I have just been handed a note saying that Mr. Martinelli owes his indisposition to a night of eating canned crabmeat and drinking beer.”  In the meantime, as I recall, Mr. [Edward] Johnson managed to track down Frederick Jagel, who arrived in a cab and was quickly put into costume, and the broadcast was underway again.

By the end of that performance, as I was told afterward, lawyers from several breweries and distilleries, and also from an organization that represented the seafood business, had telephoned or had sent telegrams to the Met, threatening to file suit on the basis of what I had said on the air.  Somehow or other, the threats never turned into actual lawsuits.  I learned the hard way to weigh my words very carefully if a broadcast is interrupted for any reason.

 

There was another interruption in a broadcast—in this case, it was a 1953 broadcast of Tristan und Isolde in 1953.  What led to that interruption?

Yes, that one was planned, as opposed to the interruption in the Aida broadcast.  At the beginning of the second act of a Tristan und Isolde broadcast, while the orchestra was playing, I read a script that had been handed to me before we went on the air.  The script was an appeal for donations to the Metropolitan Opera Guild.  It was a rather standard appeal, asking listeners to send in contributions.

Although I read the script as fast as I could without overly rushing it, the audience in the theater grew very impatient, and they began booing loudly.  Although some listeners did send in donations, they were outweighed by nasty telephone calls, letters, and telegrams from other listeners.  The on-the-air appeal was well intentioned, but turned out to be a fiasco.

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(Radio Annual, 1949)

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A few weeks after that fiasco, there was another fundraising appeal that became very successful.  This was the “Jamboree” broadcast from the Ritz Theater in Manhattan.  It was the first telecast of a Metropolitan Opera event, if I recall correctly.

It was mainly broadcast on radio, although the network [ABC] did televise part of the performance through several stations along the East Coast.  This wasn’t a Met broadcast per se, but rather a special fundraising event.  It was a ninety-minute program, and was meant to be “lighter fare” in order to attract more donations.

 

Among the many “firsts” you are credited with is the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, which you were chosen to oversee as well as to announce.  Do you have lingering memories about those “Auditions of the Air”?

Yes—I think all of us who were associated were the “Auditions of the Air” will remember Leonard Warren’s audition.  Under Edward Johnson’s management, [conductor] Wilfrid Pelletier was more or less in charge of the “Auditions of the Air.”  Almost always, Pelletier had already heard the singers who were going to perform in the “Auditions”—but he had never heard Warren until we did what we call a “level check,” which is when the audio engineers test the volume of the sound coming from the stage.

I was in the booth with Pelletier and a couple of the audio men when Warren’s voice came through the speaker that was mounted next to the control board.  Warren was singing the “Pari siamo” from Rigoletto.  The sound of that voice was just unbelievable!  In my mind’s eye I can still see Pelletier looking through the glass window in the booth while Warren was singing on the stage.  Pelletier would look at Warren, then look at the audio fellows and me, and then look down at the stage again.

After a few moments, he said to us, “Who put that record on?”  He thought that the audio boys had played a prank on him by having the fellow on the stage—Leonard Warren—pretend to be singing while mouthing the words to a recording by Riccardo Stracciari.  That’s how refined Warren’s singing was when he auditioned on the air.

 

Were you in the opera house when he died?

No, thankfully, I wasn’t there.  I believe that happened on a Friday evening [March 4, 1960], in the second act of Forza del destino.  From what I heard about it, Warren and Tucker had sung “Solenne in quest’ora,” then Warren sang the recitative and aria, “Urna fatale,” and suddenly he collapsed onto the floor of the stage.  I was at home that evening, preparing for the broadcast the next afternoon, which was Der Fliegende Holländer with Leonie Rysanek and George London.  [Thomas] Schippers, who had conducted that fatal Forza performance, also conducted the Holländer performance.  When we went on the air, I relayed to the radio audience what had happened the previous evening, and the tragic news about Leonard Warren, and that in his memory the orchestra would perform the prelude to the third act of La Traviata.  I believe that [Rudolf] Bing and Schippers had chosen that prelude because Germont was one of Warren’s many great roles.

 

Warren had sung the role of Paolo Albiani to the Simon Boccanegra of Lawrence Tibbett in a number of performances.  Do you recall those performances?

Yes, there were several with Tibbett in the title role, Elisabeth Rethberg as Amelia, Martinelli as Gabriele Adorno, and Warren as Albiani—but I don’t remember much about Warren in them.  Yet I remember very clearly the first time I heard Tibbett.

 

That was at his debut?  

No, it was in a special program in 1924.  I don’t think it was called a “gala,” but it was a special program in which scenes from three or maybe four different operas were presented.  I went because Maria Jeritza was scheduled to sing a scene from Thaїs.   I had been fortunate enough to be in the audience at the Met premiere of Thaїs, with Farrar and Amato [as Athanaёl] in 1917, and I was eager to hear Jeritza in a scene from Thaїs.  One of the other operas from which a scene was performed was Carmen, and Lawrence Tibbett was the Escamillo.

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Are there other “Auditions of the Air” that stand out in your memory?

Yes, Richard Tucker’s audition was another memorable one.  Pelletier had “discovered” Tucker through Paul Althouse, whom Tucker was studying with.  Pelletier told all of us that Tucker, who was a cantor at the time, would win the “Auditions of the Air” just as easily Leonard Warren had won two or three years earlier.  During the audition, Tucker sang well—but he didn’t win.  He lost to another tenor, Elwood Gary, who sang the Italian tenor aria from Rosenkavalier in the audition, and sang it in several performances that season.  But Tucker made up for lost time, didn’t he!

 

Perhaps because they’re related by marriage, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce are often linked in discussions about American tenors at the Met.  What are your assessment of them?

Well, I’ll always remember Jan Peerce’s debut not only because it was a broadcast [performance], but also because of the circumstances under which it took place that day.  As was always my habit, I arrived at the opera house at 11:00 a.m., so that I could relax a little while getting ready to go on the air.  The broadcast that day was Traviata, and Peerce was to make his debut as Alfredo with Tibbett as the elder Germont and Jarmila Novotna as Violetta.  Gennaro Papi was to conduct the performance.

About fifteen minutes or so before the curtain was to go up, Papi had a seizure of some type—a heart attack, or maybe a stroke—and he was rushed to the hospital.  Either he died in the ambulance, or was already gone when the ambulance came—I don’t remember which it was, but Mr. [Edward] Johnson was there, of course, and he had to make a decision on the spot about what to do.

He managed to locate [conductor Ettore] Panizza at his home, and Panizza said he would rush to the Met immediately.  But the curtain was ready to go up, and we were ready to go on the air, so Mr. Johnson had Frank St. Leger conduct the orchestra until Panizza arrived.  In the meantime, [Johnson] told the cast members what had happened—I think he told them that Papi had been taken ill, not that he had died—and he reassured them that the performance would be fine.

 

What instructions did Edward Johnson give you about what to say to the radio audience as regards Papi’s condition and Panizza stepping in to conduct the performance?

He told me to proceed as if nothing had happened, but to say “Ettore Panizza” instead of “Gennaro Papi” when I mentioned the conductor during the broadcast.  A few minutes before the curtain went up and we went on the air, Mr. Johnson walked onto the stage in front of the curtain and told the audience that Panizza would be conducting the performance.  He didn’t give any explanation, just that brief announcement.

 

Did you detect any nervousness or uncertainty on Jan Peerce’s part, given those extraordinary circumstances?

None at all.  He was extraordinarily composed, and he sang the entire performance beautifully.  I’m sure that the suddenness of what had happened was in the back of his mind, but Peerce was a trouper and, as the saying goes, “the show must go on.”  Looking back, I was probably more rattled in the broadcast booth than Jan Peerce was on the stage.

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Was the offstage animosity between Peerce and Tucker generally known among their colleagues and also within the Met administration?

There was a general awareness of it, yes—but neither of them ever showed it publicly, at least not that I can recall.  When the Met went on tour every year, they and their wives were always on the train with us, and there was no evident strain between the two men professionally.  And both men were very well liked by the other singers in the company.

They were also very generous.  I remember a broadcast during which Tucker had a handwritten note delivered to me from his dressing room.  He had received a number of letters from the mother or father of a young girl who was blind, who never missed a Metropolitan Opera broadcast.  Evidently, the young girl was quite a Richard Tucker fan.  Shortly before the curtain went up, as he was waiting in his dressing room, he wrote me a note asking me to please mention that he was dedicating the performance to this young girl.

 

You have heard approximately three generations of great singers during your tenure at the microphone for the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts.  In your opinion, how have American singers fared during those many years?

Well, there have always been great opera singers who were American-born.  One of the first great Wagnerian bass-baritones was an American, Putnam Griswold.  Another was David Bispham—those were the days of Jean and Edouard de Reszke, which was before my time.  Then there were the American tenors we spoke about—and I want to mention others such as Eugene Conley, Barry Morell, and John Alexander, who were excellent tenors in the roles that they sang.

Although Peerce is retired now, Tucker seems to get better with age.  He has also become a credible actor, especially in Pagliacci.  Last year [1973], they [i.e., the Metropolitan Opera and the Public Broadcasting System] filmed a double-bill “Cav and Pag” for television, with Franco Corelli as Turiddu and Tucker as Canio.  Teresa Stratas was Nedda, and MacNeil sang Tonio.  Tucker was on fire in Pagliacci!  I know that he hopes to sing Eléazar in La Juive, which is like singing Otello.  And speaking of American singers, James McCracken is superb in Otello.  His timbre is not to everyone’s liking, but he has put a firm stamp on the role of Otello.

The same with baritones—Tibbett, Warren, Richard Bonelli, Robert Merrill, Cornell MacNeil, Sherill Milnes—and bass-baritones like James Morris and Spiro Malas, and bassos like Jerome Hines or, in an earlier time, Herbert Witherspoon and Clarence Whitehill, whom I was very fortunate to hear.

Among mezzo-sopranos, in my opinion, Louise Homer was the equal of the best European mezzos, just as Margaret Harshaw and Nan Merriman were, and Rosalind Elias and Marilyn Horne are today.  With sopranos, the list is very long, from Clara Louise Kellogg during the era of Jenny Lind, and a bit later Lillian Blauvelt and Farrar, and Helen Jepson and Grace Moore, just to name a few from the past.  After the [Second World] War, we had Eleanor Steber and Dorothy Kirsten, and Patrice Munsel and Roberta Peters among the coloraturas.  And we are so fortunate to have Leontyne Price!  She is a real “national treasure.”

 

Do you recall Marian Anderson’s Met debut?

I don’t recall her debut, which was in Ballo in maschera, but I remember the broadcast of Ballo in 1955, which was just a short time after her actual debut.  Incidentally, both Peerce and Tucker were cast in that production of Ballo.  The cast included Zinka Milanov as Amelia, Merrill as Renato, Marian Anderson as Ulrica, Roberta Peters as Oscar, and with Peerce and Tucker alternating in the role of Riccardo.  I think it’s fair to point out that Marian Anderson was past her prime when she came to the Met.  Although I met her, I can’t say that I knew her personally.

 

On the topic of fairness, It would be quite unfair, but also quite irresistible, to ask you to name your favorites among those American singers.

Well, I’m not supposed to have “favorites” as an announcer.  But as an opera lover and an American citizen, I have the right to have my favorites among those of my countrymen—and countrywomen—who are professional opera singers.  Among the women, my all-time favorites are, were, and always will be Rosa Ponselle and Geraldine Farrar.

 

What about Maria Callas, since she is American-born?

She was born here, yes—but I don’t think she is regarded as an “American” in the sense that, say, Rosa Ponselle is.  My recollection is that [Callas’s] parents had emigrated from Greece, and that she was only in her teens when her mother took her back there to live.  I remember her first broadcast performance, which was a Lucia with Giuseppe Campora as Edgardo in 1956.

And I remember when she came back to the Met [in March 1965] two sing two performances of Tosca.  They were just a few days apart—one was with Corelli, and the other with Tucker as Cavaradossi—but neither performance was a broadcast.  I don’t know why she was engaged only for two performances of one role.  She was a “superstar” by then.  Incidentally, I find “superstar” an amusing word.  Today, it isn’t enough to be a star.  You have to be a “superstar”!

 

Who is on your personal list of favorite American male singers?

The finest all-around American tenor, in my judgment, was [Richard] Crooks.  He was unsurpassed in the lyric repertoire, especially the French roles.  I had the privilege of broadcasting his debut, as Des Grieux in Manon, in 1933.  He was the epitome of elegance, onstage and offstage.  In the heavier tenor roles, I would pick Tucker, especially in Fanciulla, Manon Lescaut, and Pagliacci.

Among baritones, although I admired Warren very much, and I admire Sherill Milnes today, it was Lawrence Tibbett whom I thought was the finest baritone we [Americans] have ever produced.  Tibbett could—and did—sing everything.  His Iago, with Martinelli as Otello and Rethberg as Desdemona, was amazing.  To me, he was on a par with Ponselle—and there is no peak higher than that.

 

There are four American singers who are primarily thought of as “light-opera singers”:  Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald, John Charles Thomas, and Mario Lanza.  Did you hear any of them in person?

Yes, three of them—John Charles Thomas, Nelson Eddy, and Jeanette MacDonald—were guest artists on the RCA Magic Key radio program, which I hosted on NBC.  I had heard John Charles Thomas in operetta in the early days of his career.  I remember him in Maytime and Naughty Marietta—and I remember his first Metropolitan Opera broadcast, which was as Amonasro in Aida with Rethberg and Martinelli. [2]

It is now fashionable to label John Charles Thomas and the other singers you mentioned as “movie singers,” as opposed to “real” singers.  But all of them had sung in opera, and had done so very credibly even though they went on to radio, recordings, and the movies.  Nelson Eddy, for example, had been a fine Silvio in Pagliacci.  John Charles Thomas was an excellent Germont—and vocally [he was] every bit as good as Tibbett.  He was not the artist that Tibbett was, but he had a big, bold, absolutely natural sound that was thoroughly American.

Jeanette MacDonald, in the later years of her career, sang several roles with opera companies.  The same is true of Mario Lanza.  He sang a couple of [operatic] roles, as I recall, and he coached with Sergei Koussevitsy during the time that Leonard Bernstein, George London, and Frances Yeend were with Koussevitsy.  I met Lanza when I was in Los Angeles, as I mentioned earlier, and he was at the RCA Victor studios recording the selections that were used in the film “The Great Caruso.”  Very generously, he asked me if I’d like to sit in on one of the recording sessions.

Take my word for it, Mario Lanza had a first-rate tenor voice!  As with Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald, the fact that Mario Lanza became a movie star shouldn’t be used against him.  It works the other way around, too.  Tibbett sang popular music quite frequently, just as Robert Merrill and Jan Peerce have.  So it’s all a matter of circumstances.

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[2] The Metropolitan Opera Annals indicate that Frederick Jagel, rather than Giovanni Martinelli, sang the role of Radamès in the performance to which Cross is referring, which took place on Saturday, January 25, 1936.

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Memorabilia from Milton Cross’ time as a kiddie-show host on radio (see Part 1).

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© 2018 by James A. Drake. All rights are reserved. Short excerpts may be quoted without permission, provided the source and a link to this posting are cited. All other use requires prior written consent of the copyright holder. Please e-mail Mainspring Press with questions, comments, or reproduction requests for the author.

The Bain Collection (Library of Congress) and Smithsonian Institution photographs are in the public domain and may be reproduced without permission.

 

The James A. Drake Interviews • Milton Cross (Part 1)

MILTON CROSS INTERVIEW
(Part 1 of 3)
James A. Drake

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Radio Annual, 1949

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Born in Manhattan on April 16, 1897, Milton Cross became one of radio’s first full-time announcers, and remained so until his death on January 3, 1975.  His association with the Saturday afternoon radio broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee performances began literally with the first such broadcast:  a performance of Hansel and Gretel that aired on Christmas afternoon, December 25, 1931.  Although Christmas Day fell on a Friday that year, the National Broadcasting Company decided to continue broadcasting Metropolitan Opera performances over its Blue Network (which later became the American Broadcasting Company, the corporate name of the ABC network) every Saturday afternoon, a holiday from work for most American men and women.

In addition to his 43 consecutive seasons as radio’s Voice of the Metropolitan Opera,” Milton Cross served as an announcer for a variety of other radio programs including “RCA Magic Key” (a music program sponsored by RCA Victor), “Information Please” (an early quiz show), “Coast to Coast on a Bus” (a children’s show featuring child performers), and “The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street” (a highly popular jazz-and-blues program).  He also narrated a number of film “shorts” (i.e., five- to fifteen-minute sound films that were shown between feature films in movie theaters), as well as educational and entertainment recordings for children, including “Peter and the Wolf” (Musicraft Records, 1949) and “The Magic of Music” (Cabot Records, 1964).

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Were either of your parents, or any of your siblings, involved in music?

Not professionally, no.   My father, Robert Cross, and my mother, Margret, who was called “Maggie” within the family, had six children, and I was the fifth of their brood of six.  My father was a machinist, a tool-and-die maker.  He worked in several factories over the years, usually because he was offered a higher wage from another factory.  He earned a good, steady income, and was never out of work.

As was the fashion in those days, our family had an upright piano.  My oldest sister turned out to be a pretty good pianist.  She and two of my other sisters sang a lot around that upright [piano].  Our family also owned a phonograph, a Victrola, which my parents bought through an installment plan when I was about ten years old.  In those days, a Victrola was almost considered a musical instrument.

 

Do you recall the style of your family’s Victrola?  Did it have an external “morning-glory” horn, or an internal horn?

It had an internal horn.  It was a fairly standard mahogany upright, with its distinctive lid, and the doors behind which the horn—or “speaker,” as we would say today—was located, and the long double doors behind which were shelves for the special record albums.  These were large albums—they were designed to hold twelve-inch records.  The albums were essentially binders with individual “sleeves” for each record.  [These albums] had alphabetical letters imprinted on their spines, and on the inside cover was an index that was blank, so that the record buyer could fill in whatever the title of the recording in each sleeve was.

In those days, the Victor Company had, if I remember correctly, four colors of labels for their recordings.  The black label was for popular music, the music of “Tin Pan Alley,” as it was then called.  The black label [Victor] records had two sides, and were available in two diameters, ten-inch and twelve-inch.  They were priced, I think, at seventy-five cents, and they were intended for the hoi polloi, to use a slang expression for the general public, the “masses.”

Victor also had a blue label, which was a bit more expensive and which featured recordings that were made by well-known theatrical figures.  There was also a purple label, which was used for top-drawing Broadway stars like George M. Cohan.  I was fortunate to see several of George M. Cohan’s hit musical comedies—I remember seeing Forty-Five Minutes to Broadway, George Washington, Jr., and Little Nellie Kelly—and in the late-1920s, when I was doing radio-announcing, I got to know the great man.

I was fortunate to have had that same experience with (Sir) Harry Lauder, the comic Scotsman whose Victor recordings were very, very popular.  My father had come to the United States from Edinboro, so I had a special liking for Harry Lauder.  Looking back, George M. Cohan and Harry Lauder, and Nora Bayes among the women [of vaudeville], were the most significant entertainers that the Victor Company had in its catalogs in the years before World War One.   And, of course, Al Jolson too.  After George M. Cohan, Jolson became the biggest star on Broadway.

Of all the Victor labels, the elite one was the “Red Seal,” which was strictly for classical artists.  The Red Seal is still used by RCA for its classical discs and tapes.  When I was in my teens, Victor Red Seals were the most expensive of all phonograph records, and they were issued only in single-sided form.  The reverse side [of a Red Seal record] was either blank—just a smooth black surface with a hole in the center, in other words.  If there was anything at all on the blank side, it would be the word “Victor” pressed into the black surface in large letters.  In some instances, there was a printed synopsis on the blank side, a kind of decal with white lettering which described the music that was heard on the playable side of the record.

I would estimate that my family owned maybe 100 Victor recordings when I was growing up, and that about thirty of them were Red Seals, which were quite expensive.  I remember that the Lucia Sextet cost $7.00, and it was just a one-sided record.

 

There were at least three Red Seal recordings of the Lucia Sextet.  Which one do you recall owning?

We had two, actually—one with [Marcella] Sembrich, and another with [Luisa] Tetrazzini in the title role.  Caruso was the Edgardo in both recordings.  We also had two of the Red Seals of the Rigoletto quartet, “Bella figlia dell’amore,” one with Sembrich as Gilda and the other with Tetrazzini.

 

Do you recall some of the other recordings that you listened to on the family Victrola?

We had several black-label discs such as Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” “Over the Waves” by an accordionist called Pietro [Deiro], and several lovely ballads by Harry Macdonough and also Henry Burr.  Every family that owned a Victrola had records by Henry Burr, either solos or duets with another tenor named Albert Campbell.  And there was a very popular soprano, Elsie Baker, who made black-label records for Victor.  Later, I became acquainted with her through the Victor Company.  There was a famous pair of Red Seals that Rosa Ponselle and Giovanni Martinelli recorded of the Tomb Scene from Aida.  Elsie Baker sang the contralto part at the close of the “O terra addio!”

Those singers were very popular on the Victor black label.  I listened to them, but not with the enthusiasm that I listened to the Red Seals we had of Evan Williams, John McCormack, Emma Calvé, Emma Eames, Geraldine Farrar, Luisa Tetrazzini, Louise Homer, Nellie Melba, Pasquale Amato, Antonio Scotti, Titta Ruffo, Frieda Hempel, Johanna Gadski, and, of course, Enrico Caruso.  With the exception of Melba, whom I never met, it was my happy destiny to be able to hear, to meet, and in some cases to work with all of those great Red Seal artists.

 

You mentioned Evan Williams.  Where did you hear him?

I heard him in concert twice at Aeolian Hall, first in 1913 and again in 1916.  I can recall some of the selections he sang:  Handel’s “Total Eclipse” from Samson, Mendelssohn’s “Be Thou Faithful Until Death,” “Lend Me Your Aid,” and “Ah, Moon of My Delight,” among them.  His encores were “For You Alone,” “Open the Gates of the Temple,” and “Face To Face.”  In the 1916 concert, he added a group songs by Harry T. Burleigh, which was quite unusual because Burleigh was a Negro composer.

After that [1916] concert, I went backstage and asked Evan Williams to sign my autograph book.  He was very genial, and very outgoing.  He was also very energetic despite having just sung a very demanding number of classical songs, oratorio selections, and one or two opera arias in English translation.

 

Did Evan Williams sound like his Victor recordings?

Except for the piano accompaniment [which he used] in the two concerts I attended, he sounded very much like his recordings.  In the theater, his voice was a good deal more “round” than it sounded on recordings.  His upper voice had the clarion quality of a heldentenor.  But what I remember best about Evan Williams was how welcoming, how warm and kind and sincere he was with those of us who wanted his autograph.

 

You made several Victor recordings yourself, correct?

Well, I made two or three recordings—just as an announcer, however, not as a singer.  That was in the late-1920s, when I was reasonably well known in the New York area.  But I would love to have been a singer!  I studied voice, but I just didn’t have the “goods.”  I spent about six months studying under Percy Rector Stevens, who was the teacher of Reinald Werrenrath and some other notable singers.  But I never could “free the top.”  I could never get through the passaggio and into the upper register.

 

But you sang at least three times, based on air-checks I’ve listened to, on “Coast to Coast on a Bus.”  Do you remember your vocal performances on that show?

Yes, I did them somewhat reluctantly but I assumed that relatively few adults were listening in, so they wouldn’t mind my less than perfect voice.

 

On the Easter Sunday program in 1938, you sang “The Message of the Violet.”  Do you remember singing that?

Yes, I remember saying that I had learned it from hearing my older sister sing it so many times around our piano.  I have an air-check of it.  My singing of it confirms that I couldn’t get through the passaggio, [that I] couldn’t free up the top.

 

Did you have any role in auditioning the children who were chosen to perform on the broadcasts?

No.  The show had two writers, Tom DeHuff and Madge Tucker, and Madge was in charge of all the auditions.

 

Did they write all the dialogue with the children, including your own words—or did you write those?

They wrote every word, although occasionally I changed some of the phrases in my script to fit my voice and style.  But that was a really fast-pace show, and I had to accelerate my normal speaking rate in order to keep up with the kids in the cast.  By airtime, they were so well rehearsed that they rarely missed a cue.

 

There were several children who emerged from “Coast to Coast” as major performers, either on radio, Broadway, or the Met.  Of those child stars, which ones do you remember in particular?

Well, Ann Blyth was one, and I saw her as an adult when I was in Hollywood and was invited by Mario Lanza to one of his recording sessions for “The Great Caruso.”  The one who had the most successful career in opera was Risё Stevens, who of course had a role in the movie “Going My Way” with Bing.  And the boy I remember so well was Bobby White, who has a very successful career as a lyric tenor.  He has become a very, very fine artist.

He is also, as far as I can remember, the first child of another great singer I worked with in my younger days.  His father, Joe White, who was billed as the “Silver-Masked Tenor” for part of his radio career, was a friend of mine, and I had worked with him as early as 1923 at WJZ.  Bobby White was a boy alto, and has become well known for his bel canto work as well as his Irish songs, which he sings in the vein of McCormack.

 

Returning to the commercial recordings you made for Victor, what do you recall of the studios, the microphones, and the recording process?

The first recording I did for Victor was a reconstruction of Lindbergh’s reception in Paris, in which my voice was mixed with a recording of the shouts and cries of the crowd.  I was also asked to narrate a “tone demonstration” on the Orthophonic label, which was new at the time.  This was just a demonstration disc that Victor gave away with the new Orthophonic Victrolas. [1]  It was really a sales pitch hidden slightly under the tone of some “expert.”  Nat [Nathaniel] Shilkret conducted the orchestra for the musical portions.

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The U.S. and Canadian pressings of Cross’ radio demonstration disc, recorded November 2, 1929.

 

Although you became an announcer, as you have pointed out, you had managed to land a job as a singer on radio at the start of your long and distinguished career.

Yes and no.  Yes, I got a job as a singer and an announcer on [station] WJZ, which was then located in Newark, New Jersey.   The Westinghouse Company owned the station.  I was enrolled in the Damrosch Institute at the time, intending to become what was called a “music supervisor” in the New York City school system.  In fact, one of my classmates was Peter Wilhousky, who just retired a year or so ago as the supervisor of music instruction for the New York school system.  Peter was one of the friends who talked me into auditioning there.  “You sing a little, Milt, and you have a good speaking voice,” they said, “so why not give it a try?”  Those were the days of the crystal set, which all of us built from kits, and my friends said that they wanted to hear a familiar voice coming through their earphones.

Another friend who encouraged me was Keith McLeod, a pianist, who had gotten a job playing several hours a week after school and on weekends at WJZ.  Keith McLeod urged me to write to the station manager, a fellow named Popano, and ask him if I could sing on the air.  The station was still new—it had just come on the air a few months earlier—and Mr. Popano answered my letter and invited me to sing at the studio.  There was no audition or anything—and it didn’t pay anything, either—but with Keith accompanying me, I sang several ballads and an oratorio aria.

About two weeks later, I got a letter from Mr. Popano invited me to sing on the air again.  It was after that second broadcast that he asked me if I’d like to work there after school, from 4:00 till 10:00 five nights a week.  I told him I would like it very much but that I didn’t know anything about radio.  He laughed and said that a few months ago, he didn’t know anything either.  He was educated as a mechanical engineer, and was working for Westinghouse when they decided to start WJZ.  He was put in charge of setting up the studio.

When I say “studio,” I need to clarify that the first WJZ studio was cobbled together in the ladies’ room of a first-floor store.  The workmen partitioned off part of the powder room with large sheets of canvas that were suspended from the floor to ceiling.  About a year later, when the station got very popular, Westinghouse built what used to be called a “living-room studio,” which was spacious and was acoustically designed for radio broadcasting.  By that time, I was doing more announcing than singing.

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WJZ’s studio — Newark, New Jersey, 1922. Not shown is the entrance and reception area, behind the curtain at the right. (Scientific American)

 

Do you recall what year that would have been?

My first time on the air at WJZ was in 1921, in June or July, during the summer vacation from school.  I remember singing “In the Gloaming,” “Silver Threads Among the Gold,” and Barlett’s “A Dream,” and I also recall reciting William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” in those first two broadcasts.

 

You mentioned that radio sets in those days were hand-built.  Describe what building a crystal set involved.

A typical “set” was just a crystal, plus a piece of wire called a “cat’s whisker” which had to be positioned very precisely on the surface of the crystal, plus a coil of wire that was wrapped around a tube of cardboard—generally, an empty Quaker Oats container.  That coil of wire served as the tuner.  To listen to one of those early sets, you had to use headphones.  This was before vacuum tubes and loudspeakers.  Radio was considered an eccentric hobby in 1921.

 

Your speaking voice, which doesn’t seem to have changed during your long career, is that of a tenor.  Perhaps stereotypically, most of us tend to think that announcers should have deep baritone voices.  Were most of the announcers baritones when network radio became well established in the 1930s?

No, that trend came somewhat later.  In the early days [of radio], the few of us who were full-time announcers had tenor voices.  If you listen to fragments of my earliest Met broadcasts, and also the broadcasts which my friend and competitor, Graham McNamee, announced, you’ll hear that our speaking voices are in the tenor range.

Most of the great orators of the early 1900s, ones like William Jennings Bryan, had tenor-like speaking voices.  Even Franklin D. Roosevelt had a tenor’s speaking voice.  The reason is that before there was any such thing as electrical amplification, a speaking voice had to carry on its own to several hundred people in a crowd.  A tenor voice will carry much farther than a baritone or a bass voice, all other things being equal.

The baritone speaking voice didn’t become the norm in the public arena until Thomas E. Dewey became a national political figure, and Lowell Thomas became popular on radio and in newsreels.  By then, microphones and amplifiers and loudspeakers were the “stock in trade.”

 

All of those electrical components, especially the microphone, evolved during your long career.  Do you recall the first microphone that you used at WJZ? 

Yes, it was a carbon-type microphone that looked more like a telephone than what we would think of as a microphone today.  In the early years of the Met broadcasts, we used two condenser microphones that were mounted next to each other.  That way, if one of the two developed problems during a broadcast, the microphone next to it would pick up and carry the signal to the amplifiers.  Sometime later, we had what were called “ribbon microphones.”  They had much broader frequency-range capabilities than the earlier microphones had.

 

In a famous photograph of you in Box 44 at the “Old Met,” you appear to be only a few inches, perhaps a foot at most, from the two condenser microphones.  Were you actually that close to the microphone?  Or was that merely for the sake of the photo?

With the old carbon microphones, I had to speak directly into them, and had to be as close as possible to the center part, which housed the diaphragm.  As announcers, we spoke into carbon and also condenser microphones in the same way we speak directly into a telephone—in other words, just a few inches away from the mouthpiece.  But we couldn’t speak directly into them without causing a popping sound on certain syllables.  For instance, when I would use the phrase, “This afternoon’s performance …,” the “p” in “performance” would cause a popping sound if I were speaking squarely into the microphone.  So we spoke at about a 45-degree angle to the microphone.

We called that “speaking across the microphone”—meaning, speaking at an angle to the [condenser] microphone.  With the later ribbon-type microphones, we could speak right into them because they were designed for it.  Beneath their metallic cover, ribbon microphones had a layer of fabric that served as a wind screen.

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Milton Cross broadcasting from the Metropolitan Opera House

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In approximately what year did nationwide radio programming seem to become indispensable in the daily life of the American people?

I would say in 1927.  I’m not sure why, but that seemed to be the year.  I think a major factor in it, frankly, was William S. Paley’s entrance into radio, which happened around that time.  Paley put together a coast-to-coast radio network.  He bought a company in California that owned a dozen or so stations, and he also bought a New England chain of stations around that same time.  So in very short order, he made CBS into a formidable rival to NBC.

 

Was the daily schedule of radio programming a twelve-hour schedule?

No, not until the later 1920s, or maybe even the early 1930s.  That’s when the “soap operas” began to take off.  Before then, it wasn’t unusual just to broadcast piano or organ music in the afternoons.  That started to change when CBS went on the air at 8:00 a.m. every day, starting with a fifteen-minute newscast.  Until then, there was very little on the air in the early morning hours.  In the afternoons, before the “soaps” became staples, I would read poetry on the air, with the organ in the background, just to fill the time.

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[1] The Victor recording ledgers, or “logs,” which are now available online from the University of California at Santa Barbara under the title “Discography of American Historical Recordings,” identify the recording as follows:  “Matrix Number BVE 56985, Victor Radio Tone Demonstration, ‘No Compromise with Purity of Tone,’ Milton J. Cross, Narrator, and the Victor Symphony Orchestra, Nathaniel Shilkret, Director.”  The ledgers indicate that the recording was made on Saturday, November 2, 1929, at the Victor studios in Camden, New Jersey.

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