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

Free to Download for Personal Use

SONORA VERTICAL-CUT RECORDS
A Preliminary Discography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

“A mighty fortress is this book – and it guards an accumulation of knowledge of unparalleled proportions.”
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and documentation.”

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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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> Part 1  |  > Part 2  |  > Part 3

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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 Haenschen 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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John O. Prescott: From “Blue Indians” to Hopi Indians

John O. Prescott ranks high on the list of undeservedly forgotten recording pioneers. Although eclipsed by his brother Frederick (founder of the International Zonophone Company and the Berlin-based International Talking Machine Company, the producers of Odeon records), John O’s accomplishments — which ranged from co-founding what would become the Nipponophone Company in 1910 to serving as Gennett’s chief technician in the 1920s — were equally impressive.

John Prescott’s role in the American Record Company (which was backed by brother Fred’s Odeon operation) and its marketing arm, Hawthorne, Sheble & Prescott, is covered in detail in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015) and need not be repeated here. What we’ll be examining in this article is Prescott’s career after American Record’s demise.
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The American Record Company discs — nicknamed “Blue Indian records” by the trade, for their distinctive blue pressings and American Indian trademark — were quite successful until Columbia succeeded in shutting the company down for patent infringement in January 1907. [1] The partnership split, with Ellsworth A. Hawthorne and Horace Sheble regrouping as the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company, and John Prescott going his own way. Little more was heard of Prescott until November 1907, when The Talking Machine World reported, “He left last week for a fortnight’s hunting on Long Island, and on returning he may have something of interest to announce to the trade relative to his work in a fresh field.” [2]

The “something of interest” probably was the Twoforone Champion Record (presumably a double-sided disc), for which Prescott filed a trademark application on February 24, 1908. [3] Prescott had been quietly preparing to resume record production ever since the collapse of the American Record Company. In January 1907 he had applied for a U.S. patent on a new pressing process that included a provision for double-sided discs. [4] Two months later, TMW reported that he had taken over the former American Record Company studio, which he was managing in the guise of “The Laboratory Association.” [5] But with the means of production all in place (but not the necessary patents, assuming it was to have been a lateral-cut disc), Champion apparently failed to launched.

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Prescott’s trademark filing for Champion Records (U.S. Patent and Trademark Office).

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Instead, Prescott retired to his home in Summit, New Jersey, where his new neighbor was brother Fred (who, having sold his interest in International Talking Machine and returned home a wealthy man, was now happily engaged in his new hobby of raising chickens). But Prescott could not remain idle for long, and in May 1909 he sailed on the Lusitania for what was to have been a brief visit to London. Instead, he ended up on an extended tour that took him from England and France (where he was highly impressed by Emil Pathé’s demonstration of the vertical-cut disc) to Russia, then on to China and Korea—and, finally, to Japan, where his career would soon take an unexpected turn. Prescott was no fan of the country, as he made clear upon his return in August 1909. “Excuse me from permanently living in Japan,” he declared. “The beautiful pictures we see there of entrancing landscapes … are on postal cards only … Nobody has any money excepting the very rich, and they are comparatively few in the teeming millions of ordinary Japs.” [6]

Back in the U.S., Prescott leased the Laboratory Association studio to the Sonora Phonograph Company in September 1909. The company was planning to produce its own discs in both vertical- and lateral-cut formats (Sonora’s April 1910 TMW ad depicted a vertical-cut Sonora disc and a lateral-cut Crown disc, although the latter is not known to have been produced). However, Prescott does not appear to have had any involvement with the company, other than as landlord. The studio initially was managed for Sonora by former Zonophone engineer George Cheney, who departed for Phono-Cut before production got fully under way. [7]

In the meantime, Prescott had returned to Japan, despite his professed dislike of the place. In January 1910, The Talking Machine World reported that he was managing a recording studio in Tokyo. [8] The owner of that studio (whose name was not given by TMW) was the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company, Ltd., the only record manufacturer operating in Japan at that time. [9] Financed, owned, and managed by American businessmen, including Prescott, the company initially produced the Symphony Record label.

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The now-rare Symphony label was soon supplanted by the Nipponophone brand. Nipponophone got its start as the sales agent for the Japan-American Phonograph Manufacturing Company. (Author’s collection)

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Japan-American’s sales agent was the Nipponophone Company, which soon substituted its own Nipponophone label for Symphony. By the autumn of 1910, the Japan-American / Nipponophone combine was producing and marketing records on a fairly large scale under Prescott’s management.

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Prescott (seated at left) in Japan, 1910

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In addition to his expertise, Prescott brought along a ready-made catalog of Western recordings — the American Record Company masters. Nipponophone’s “Foreign Records” catalog of c. 1910–1911 included a substantial number of old American recordings that were renumbered and offered in new couplings, sans artist credits, with the occasional amusing mistranslation  (“A Gay Gossoon” became “A Gay Cartoon,” “Dream of the Rarebit Fiend” became “Dream of the Rabbit King”). [10] The records were intended for foreign residents and tourists, but demand for them must have been meager, and they are extraordinarily rare today. A badly damaged specimen, showing the original American numbers in the wax, was found on the West Coast many decades ago. A second specimen was later reported, but as so often happens, the supposed owner did not respond to a request for a confirming photograph or other proof of its existence.

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A page from Nipponophone’s “Foreign Record” catalog listing anonymous reissues from American Record Company masters. The uncredited artists included Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Frank C. Stanley, Len Spencer, and Steve Porter. (Bryant Papers, Mainspring Press)

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By the end of 1910, Prescott had enough of Japan. He resigned from the Japan-American Phonograph Company, and his place was taken by Thomas Kraemer, [11] who had been associated with the Hawthorne & Sheble Manufacturing Company. Prescott’s stay had done nothing to improve his opinion of that country, its climate, or its workforce. Upon his return to the States in early 1911, he complained,

“The air is so humid that you soon fall into a condition of lassitude difficult, if not impossible, to overcome. To be sure, if you can adapt yourself to Oriental ways; that is, take things as they come in an indifferent, easy-going way, perhaps one could manage. An active American, coming from home full of life, snap, and ginger, and wanting to take hold and accomplish something the way we do it here, is forced to give up or become Orientalized. Excuse me, I am not built that way.” [12]

In June 1911, Prescott departed once again for Europe, where he “expected to look the trade over a little” before attending the coronation of George V in London. [13] Perhaps not coincidentally, his trip occurred at about the time that the London-based Disc Record Company, Ltd., acquired some American Record Company masters, which were parceled out to Britannic, Defiant, Pelican, The Leader, and other minor labels for the British and export markets. Whether the masters came from Prescott, from the Lindstrom organization (which had taken over the International Talking Machine Company’s assets), or from some other source, has not been established.

Little more was heard of John Prescott until August 1912, when The Talking Machine World reported that he had been in Constantinople for “a year or more,” managing an unnamed record company. [14] For the next eight years, Prescott’s name would be largely absent from the American trade papers.

Prescott eventually resurfaced in the 1920s. In 1920, brother Fred had placed some rather boastful ads in The Talking Machine World soliciting work as a consultant, but it was John who landed a steady job, at the Starr Piano Company’s Gennett Records division in Richmond, Indiana.

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Brother Frederick in search of work, 1920 (Talking Machine World)

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In August 1921, Gennett resumed recording in Richmond, after a hiatus there of nearly five years. [15] John Prescott was hired as chief technician of the Richmond facility, with duties that included wax formulation and oversight of the pressing plant. He also seems to have had some say in regard to master approval, and notes referring to “J. O” are sprinkled throughout the Richmond recording ledgers of the mid-1920s. It’s tempting to speculate that he was responsible for naming the company’s budget-priced Champion label, hearkening back to his aborted 1908 venture, but documentary evidence of that is lacking.

The “Blue Indian” man finally came face-to-face with actual Indians in May 1926, as part of a Gennett team that traveled to Arizona’s Grand Canyon to record traditional Hopi songs. The expedition was undertaken in association with the Smithsonian Institution, under the supervision of Dr. J. Walter Fewkes, head of the Smithsonian’s Department of Ethnology. Music Trade Review reported that the Santa Fe Railroad was assisting in moving the recording apparatus from Richmond and had obtained government permission to transport the Indians and their ponies the one-hundred miles from their reservation to the Grand Canyon.

Along with Gennett recording engineer Ezra C. A. (Wick) Wickemeyer, Prescott oversaw the cutting of fourteen masters (# 12526 – 12537, with a single take each for first ten sides, and two takes each for last two) in a makeshift studio at the El Tovar Hotel. The company, having experienced mixed results in its initial attempts at electrical recording, dispatched its more trustworthy acoustic equipment. Twelve masters were received in Richmond on June 2, followed by the two alternate takes on June 15. The masters were processed for commercial release under standard Gennett catalog numbers, after which they were deposited with the Smithsonian. [16]

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KAKAPTI: Ma’Qutu (Rabbit Hunt) (as “Makwatu”)  
El Tovar Hotel. Grand Canyon, Arizona: Late May 1926
Gennett 5759 (mx. 12530)

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Exactly when Prescott left Gennett has not been discovered, but he apparently continued to work in the sound-recording field at least into the early 1930s. On January 27, 1929, he and Frederick A. Kolster filed a patent on a photo-electric sound-recording system that they assigned to the Federal Telegraph Company of Newark, New Jersey. [17] After that, Prescott’s trail grows cold. He died in Pasadena, California, on July 14, 1946.

 

[1] American Graphophone Co. v. American Record Co., 151 F. 595.

[2] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (November 15, 1907), p. 79.

[3] Prescott, John O. “Twoforone Champion Record.” U.S. Trademark application #32,975 (filed February 24, 1908). Prescott was well acquainted with double-sided pressing methods. American Record had pressed double-sided discs as special-order items, under Ademor N. Petit’s patent #749,092, which was controlled by Frederick Prescott. Assuming the Twoforone was double-sided and had been launched in a timely manner, it likely would have beaten Columbia’s Double Disc to market.

[4] Prescott, John O. “Mechanism for Making Sound Records.” U.S. Patent #847,820 (filed January 15, 1907).

[5] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (March 15, 1907), p. 39.

[6] “’Talker’ Conditions in Foreign Countries.” Talking Machine World (September 15, 1909), p. 41.

[7] “Geo. K. Cheney to Boston.” Talking Machine World (May 15, 1910), p. 14.

[8] “J. O. Prescott in Japan.” Talking Machine World (Jan 15, 1910), p. 3.

[9] “The Talking Machine Trade in Japan.” Talking Machine World (January 15, 1911), p. 4.

[10] The Nipponophone Company, Ltd. “Foreign Records” (Tokyo, c. 1910–1911). A listing of the Nipponophone issues can be found in American Record Company, Hawthorne & Sheble, International Record Company: Histories and Discographies (Bryant & Sutton, Mainspring Press, 2015), available from Mainspring Press.

[11] Untitled notice. Talking Machine World (April 15, 1911), p. 30.

[12] “Returns from Japan.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1911), p. 35.

[13] “J. O. Prescott in Europe.” Talking Machine World (July 15, 1911), p. 54.

[14] “A Visitor from Turkey.” Talking Machine World (August 15, 1912), p. 25.

[15] “Starr Recording in New York.” Talking Machine World (February 15, 1917), p. 100. Gennett recorded in Richmond during 1915–1916, using often-obscure Midwestern artists. Recording activities were moved to New York in late 1916 or early 1917, to take advantage of better-known East Coast talent and accommodate those who “found it rather inconvenient to travel out to Richmond.” Regular recording sessions resumed in Richmond on August 20, 1921, according to the Gennett ledgers.

[16] “To Record Hopi Indian Songs on Gennett Records.” Music Trade Review (May 29, 1926), p. 81.

[17] Prescott, John O., and Frederick A. Kolster. “Sound-Reproducing System.” U.S. Patent # 1,776,046 (filed January 7, 1929).

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