Mystery Banjo Players Identified?

Last week we wondered whether record titles, such as those listed in a ca. 1891 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company, might not all have been actually recorded. Then we traced the offerings of Charles Asbury in New Jersey/U.S. Phono. Co. and Columbia catalogs from 1892 through 1897 to see which of his records were “hits”—cylinders likely to have been made again and again over that six-year period. Let’s revisit that 1891 New Jersey pamphlet.

New Jersey Catalog ca. 1891. (Composite; Library of Congress)

As we noted, the names of artists were not provided. This fact surprises many of us today, as we can’t imagine buying a record just to buy a record. It’s the talent that we’re interested in. But in 1891, the recording business was brand new, and the identities of the performers would have meant nothing to consumers. That would change quickly, as experienced exhibitors and arcade owners came to recognize and seek out cylinders by the best performers for their operations.

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Charles Asbury’s Top “Hits”

April 1894 New Jersey catalog (Library of Congress)

We said on Monday that maybe by comparing the early catalogs of cylinder companies we can figure out which titles were recorded for certain because they continued getting listed month after month and year after year. A title that appears in a catalog once and then disappears—perhaps that title never actually got made because no clients showed interest in it.

In the case of Charles A. Asbury, whose work we release today on 4 Banjo Songs, 1891-1897: Foundational Recordings of America’s Iconic Instrument, there were 16 selections by him in the October 1892 catalog of the New Jersey Phonograph Company. That number decreases to nine in early 1894, but all nine were titles included among the 16 from earlier. So these are the “winners.”

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Records Never Made


A ca. 1891 catalog for the New Jersey Phonograph Company (Library of Congress)

Back in March we attended the Society for American Music conference in Kansas City and got to catch up with Tim Brooks, author of Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry (both the book and the CD notes). Tim posed the following head-exploding question: Did we believe that all of the titles listed in the early phonograph company catalogs were actually recorded? That is, did a title on a list indicate that the artist had actually made said cylinder, which was then waiting for a hungry buyer, or did it mean that the artist would make the record if demand required it? What about the ones nobody ever requested?

Have we been hunting down records that never existed?

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Studio Geniuses

Have you seen The Wrecking Crew yet? It’s a documentary about some of the most prolific studio musicians of all time: people like Tommy Tedesco (guitar), Carol Kaye (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Plas Johnson (sax), Glen Campbell (guitar), Leon Russell (keyboards) and dozens of others. They were the de facto “sound of the ’60s,” as they played, uncredited, on thousands of records. The group were not called “The Wrecking Crew” at the time; rather, historians came up with the name later on to describe the changing of the guard from the old studio musicians of the 1930s and ’40s to this new batch of upstarts that came along in the late ’50s and stirred everything up.

These guys could and would play anything, including rock ‘n’ roll, and that provided them an opening with the young producers. So apparently, it’s not the Association you hear performing on “Windy,” nor the Byrds on “Mr. Tambourine Band,” nor the Monkees on most of their early stuff (we all knew that already). It’s various members of the Wrecking Crew. Nobody agrees on who was a member of this skilled group or whether they were really a group or a brand at all. They were simply the top-notch union musicians of the day, and they answered the phone when it rang.

A couple of the most fascinating parts of the program are when it takes an in-depth look at the work required of the Crew by some of the most peculiar and demanding personalities of the era: Brian Wilson and Phil Spector. Wilson taped nearly a hundred hours to get “Good Vibrations” just the way he heard it in his head. For members of the Crew, sessions with the Beach Boy were just an item slated on their schedule, several days a week for seven months, taking up long hours, often after midnight. The musicians interviewed spoke glowingly of Brian: how musically knowledgeable and innovative he was, how dedicated he was to teaching them their parts, what a stickler he was for detail. They all called Wilson a “genius”—but if it weren’t for the competence and professionalism of the Crew, we’re led to believe that those sessions might still be going on today.

100 years of studio geniuses: Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Silas Leachman

100 years of studio geniuses: Brian Wilson, Phil Spector, and Silas Leachman

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Sophie Tucker and The Blue Amberol that Wasn’t

You may have noticed that three different CDs of ours include the all-time classic, “Some of These Days,” by Sophie Tucker, recorded in 1911 for Edison. It first appeared on our Stomp and Swerve CD in 2003, and then again on Origins of the Red Hot Mama in 2009, and yet again on 1911: “Up, Up a Little Bit Higher,” which came out last year. There’s no questioning its significance in the history of American song. But how popular was it really at the time?

The American Quartet, with Billy Murray in the lead, recorded the Shelton Brooks song first: December 27, 1910, for Victor 16834. Elise Stevenson and the Columbia Quartette made it for Columbia A1029 on May 29, 1911. Sophie Tucker’s version for Edison was recorded around February-March 1911 and released in June 1911 on four-minute wax Amberol 691. The great thing about these original renditions is that you get the verses along with the chorus; when the song became popular again in the 1920s, nobody recorded the verses. Sophie’s is definitely the best of the bunch, and pop researcher Joel Whitburn suggests that it was a very popular record.

Here’s the second half of the song (from our 1911 yearbook):


Try to find a copy of the original cylinder today. When it does show up at auction, it goes for big money (we’re talking close to a thousand bucks), just like all of Tucker’s cylinders. One imperfect sign of a hit record is the persistence of copies today, and “Some of These Days” fails this test. We got to thinking about this the other day because we still are not clear why Sophie stopped making records between 1911 and late 1918. It’s true that most stage stars did not have recording careers—either they didn’t like recording or had schedules that never allowed for it—but Sophie’s activities in the studio both early on and in after-years shows that she wasn’t afraid of the acoustic horn or the electric microphone. Stars like Nora Bayes and Al Jolson, on the other hand, kept one foot firmly on the stage and the other inside the studio. As a result we have a trove of their recordings today.

 Edison Amberol lid for

Edison Amberol lid for “Some of These Days” (Courtesy Edison National Historic Site)

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to

A number of artists appeared on the sheet music to “Some of These Days,” including Sophie’s rival Blossom Seeley. Seeley did not record the song.  (Courtesy Adam Swanson)

Tucker began making records at a very tenuous time in the Edison business narrative. She debuted in early 1910 with selections on the old two-minute wax format, which was slowly being phased out in favor of the longer-playing wax Amberols, which had been introduced in 1908. Moreover, the wax compound Edison used for these late two-minute records was especially brittle and subject to degradation. Add that up and you see these are difficult records to find—especially in playable condition.

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Edison’s Talking Dolls

If you’re in the New York City area, you may want to reserve a spot at the Edison National Historic Site (ENHS) for tomorrow’s talk on Edison’s talking dolls, which were made by an experimental division of his lab during the 1888-1890 period. Our friends, Robin and Joan Rolfs, owners of two of the preciously rare original dolls, will be giving the main presentation. The details can be found on the Thomas Edison National Historic Park’s Facebook page.

Woman recording a talking doll cylinder

(Scientific American, courtesy of ENHS)

Eight talking-doll cylinder recordings still exist in one form or another today, and Archeophone is proud to have provided audio restorations for the ENHS project. Two of the original specimens, the earliest ones of all, were made of metal! The other six are made of brown wax and probably all date to about 1890. Some of the records were transferred using standard contact technology (such as the Archeophone universal cylinder playback system—not associated with us), others had to be scanned optically (using the IRENE system), and some are older recordings of the dolls actually playing their internal treasures and being recorded with a microphone.

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The American Talking Machine Company

As many of you know, especially those of you trying to hunt down those choice Paramount blues sides from the late ’20s, a record doesn’t have to be old to be rare and desirable. It’s just a matter of whether the maker of the record stayed in business long enough or had any kind of market reach.

Behold the case of the American Talking Machine (ATM) Company, maker of the Vitaphone talking machine and bright red-brick-colored seven-inch Vitaphone discs to go with it. This company was the second business to challenge Berliner’s Gramophone flat discs. The first, Wonder records, made in 1898 by the Standard Talking Machine Company, were obvious pirates of Berliner discs and Standard was quickly sued out of existence. Good luck finding one of these discs today. The ATM Company, however, was buoyed up by the patents of the American Graphophone Company (all licensed to Columbia)—which gave them a little more time to penetrate the market in late 1899.

American Talking Machine Record #285, “Say You Love Me Sue” by Dan W. Quinn (David Giovannoni Collection.)


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