A Record Bash

A horror story of improper 78 packing and a photograph documenting the carnage has been making the rounds on the phonograph group boards this week. It seems that, even with the buyer having described safe packing techniques, it all went wrong. Maybe it was the seller trying to cram 60 discs into one priority mail box. Our theory is that the seller didn’t like being told what to do and stomped them before tossing the shards in the box. One observer remarked that the seller probably dropped the box repeatedly until the crunching noises ended. A quick search of the groups will tell you that this situation is far more common than it should be, though most of the destruction is limited to a few records at a time. We’ve certainly had a few nightmares too—as well as a few really oddly packed records that made their way to us unbroken purely by miracle . One recalls an Arthur Collins Berliner, taped between 2 pieces of particle board and mailed to us inside a pizza box.

Box of broken records

A box of broken records. (Image by Ric at Kahuna Archives, via the 78s and Phonograph group on Facebook.)

Continue reading

On the Blossom Trail

Blo

Blossom Seeley and Benny Fields. This union is how most people remember Blossom, but it’s only a quarter of the story of her marriages and professional partnerships (Adam Swanson Collection)

A while back we announced that we were working on a CD compilation of the recordings by Blossom Seeley, one of the most successful vaudeville artists of all time. Some of you have wondered what ever happened to the project, and we have an answer for you.

After doing a little poking around into the life and career of the entertainer, we realized what a remarkable figure she is—and that pretty much everything that is known about her early years is untrue. So we decided to do a thorough research job and to publish a much more detailed biography than ever before attempted or contemplated. This just requires time, and so that’s the reason for the delay.

Blossom made her first record in 1911 and then didn’t make another until 1921, but she did a lot of living on and off-stage before and in between those two visits to the Columbia studio. Going through trade magazines, newspapers, and other primary sources shows the extent of this woman’s drive, the ecstatic praise she received over years of performing, and the reach of her influence. Behind it all was a trail of tears: a lost childhood, three wrecked marriages, two abandoned children, an assault case on a famous paramour, an attempted suicide, jealously and manipulation of colleagues and competitors, and enough gossip to make Britney Spears raise an eyebrow.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading