American Quartet--With Billy Murray

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.

The name "American Quartet" was employed by a few ensembles, including one that made, around 1901, discs for the Victor Talking Machine Company and cylinders for the Lambert Company of Chicago. But the group with this name that enjoyed the most popularity was formed in 1909 and originally consisted of first tenor John Bieling; second tenor Billy Murray; baritone Steve Porter; and bass William F. Hooley.

This version of the American Quartet, with Billy Murray's distinctive lead, was among the three most popular quartets to make records in the acoustic era, the other two being the Haydn and the Peerless.

This American Quartet came into being soon after Billy Murray signed contracts that restricted his services to Victor for discs and Edison for cylinders. Jim Walsh writes in the February 1970 issue of Hobbies, "For several years [Murray] had been singing frequently on Victor records with the assistance of the Haydn Quartet, but now it was decided there was a need for a foursome in which he would star. So John Bieling and Hooley were borrowed from the Haydn Quartet (in which, however, they continued to sing) and Porter was brought in from the Peerless, where he had been singing baritone." Arthur Collins joined the Peerless as Porter's replacement--possibly Collins was in the Peerless all along, and Walsh was mistaken about Porter being it.

Victor christened this group the American Quartet whereas Edison called it the Premier Quartet (in 1919, when the group worked for other companies, it was sometimes called the Premier American Quartet).

Earlier groups used the name. The March 1899 issue of The Phonoscope establishes that John Bieling, Jere Mahoney, S. H. Dudley, and William F. Hooley recorded for Edison as the Edison Male Quartet, for Berliner as the Haydn Quartet, and for other companies as the American Quartet. The July 1899 issue of that publication indicated that a group making cylinders for Reed, Dawson and Company (located at 74 Cortland Street, New York, and 516 Broad Street, Newark) was "The Original American Quartet." Whether this group was the one cited in March is unknown.

Walsh notes that in 1900 after Harry Macdonough succeeded Mahoney as second tenor, the group was represented by its own manufacturing firm, the short-lived American Record Company, which specialized in producing cylinders as requested by customer order. The 1902 Edison Bell catalog listed a series of recordings credited to the American Quartet.

The name was on a number of early Victor discs. Fagan and Moran's Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings: Pre-Matrix Series shows a quartet recording as the American Quartet beginning in 1901. Members were tenor Albert C. Campbell, tenor W. T. Leahy, baritone S. H. Dudley, and bass William F. Hooley. By August 31, 1904, this quartet's records were no longer listed, and any of its titles remaining in the catalog were remakes by the Haydn Quartet.

When the American Quartet with Murray was formed in 1909, the tenor must have seemed very young to other members--he was 31. Bieling was almost 40; Porter was 44; and Hooley was 47. The American Quartet's debut release, "Denver Town," was recorded in February 1909 and was announced in Victor's May 1909 supplement. Composed by George L. Botsford and Harry Breen, this song was part of a cowboy trend that spread because of the popularity of Harry Williams and Egbert Van Alstyne's "Cheyenne" (Murray's recordings of it enjoyed brisk sales). Botsford arranged most of the material cut by the American Quartet over the next several years. Page 142 of the September 1923 issue of Metronome states that Botsford is "in charge of the harmony and quartet department of the Remick [publishing] company."

A Victor catalog supplement called the American Quartet "a new organization of male voices which makes its bid for popular favor with a 'cowboy' number, now quite in vogue. No praise for this new quartet is needed here, as the record speaks for itself--the voices being well-balanced, the words distinct and the music sung with spirit and precision."

First issued on single-faced Victor 5683, priced at 60 cents, "Denver Town" was reissued months later on double-sided 16521, coupled with "A Night Trip to Buffalo." The latter sketch had first been cut by one of the earlier variants of the American Quartet at the turn of the century and was redone by the Haydn shortly thereafter. Victor literature called the updated American version "much improved and funnier" than its antecedents.

The Edison company also selected "Denver Town" as the first release of the Premier Quartet or Quartette. Announcing its release in June on Standard 10155, the April 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly as well as the June 1909 installment of New Phonogram called it "another cowboy song, telling how a cowboy wooed and won his bride. It is sung by a new combination of artists, including Will Oakland, John H. Biehling [sic], Billy Murray and W.F. Hooley. Unaccompanied." Walsh doubted that Oakland participated, noting that Oakland wasn't involved with the Victor record and that quartets never consisted of a countertenor, two tenors, and a bass. Baritones were so important to male quartets that when Porter could not show up for a session dedicated to new takes of "Casey Jones" by the American approximately one year later, orchestra leader Walter B. Rogers served as a last-minute replacement, taking the baritone role. Walsh states in the February 1970 issue of Hobbies that in its first few years "the Quartet cut into wax many of the greatest song hits in American musical history, and a large number of its discs and cylinders had sales that were remarkable for that period."

In December 1912 Edison's company began marketing disc phonographs and Diamond Discs. Company executives made overtures to Victor, which still had Murray under exclusive contract for discs, about renegotiating the old arrangement. An agreement was reached and Murray's earliest credited Diamond Discs--"California and You," "I'm Goin' Back to Louisiana," and "My Croony Melody"--were released in the latter part of 1914 (he is on a few earlier Diamond Discs but is not credited). The Quartet's earliest Edison discs were issued several months later under the Premier name: "Tennessee, I Hear You Calling Me" (50233), "I'm On My Way to Dublin Bay" (50245), and "Moonlight Bay" (50258). They were recorded with tenor Robert D. Armour taking Bieling's place.

Bieling's throat problems brought change to the American Quartet. He had been a part of the first commercial recording group, the Manhansett Quartet, making cylinders with that unit by 1894. In early years he was in high demand as both a duet singer and as a quartet first tenor. This was at a time when many studio takes were necessary to produce sufficient copies of a recording to satisfy public demand. Macdonough described him as having "a voice in a million, to stand up under the work it did."

But Bieling's voice suffered from constant use. According to Quentin Riggs, trouble began with the recording of Amberol 552, "A Cowboy Romance," featuring Len Spencer and Company. The September 1910 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly indicates that the production was elaborate, being rendered "wonderfully realistic by the clatter of hoofs, the whinnying of horses, and the `yipping' of the cowboys." Many takes were required, and making yipping sounds for hours caused Bieling's voice to suffer a strain from which it never recovered. The singer later in life assigned blame for his weakened voice to Edison studio manager W. H. A. Cronkhite, who was infamous among artists because he worked them hard to obtain perfect performances during sessions.

Bieling quit in mid-1913. His last Quartet record, "Floating Down the River" (Victor 17438), was recorded in June or July and released in November 1913. He was replaced in late 1913 by Robert D. Armour, a young tenor who had come to New York from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in 1909 to pursue a singing career. Armour stayed with the quartet until mid-1915 and was replaced by John Young. Armour probably sang on all American Quartet releases for Victor between the number sequence 17534 and 17783. His involvement with the Haydn Quartet was evidently limited to the group's last two records, "The Woman Thou Gavest Me" (Victor 17544) and "'Cross the Great Divide" (Victor 17545), both released in April 1914.

In mid-1915 John Young was recruited to replace Armour. Young had enjoyed success as "Harry Anthony" of the gospel duo Harry Anthony and James F. Harrison (nicknamed "The Come-to-Jesus Twins" by Murray). He sang in, and managed, the Criterion Quartet. The new edition of the American Quartet enjoyed great success, beginning with its first Victor release, "War Song Medley" (17823). Walsh stated that virtually all of its records could be classified as "big sellers."

The Quartet changed again when Hooley died October 12, 1918 in a New York City hospital. Hooley's decline in health had been relatively sudden. He attended a Victor session on August 1, 1918. Bass singer Donald Chalmers, a member of the Criterion Quartet like Young, was selected as Hooley's replacement.

After Murray became a free-lance artist in 1918 the American Quartet recorded for several companies--not only Victor and Edison but Columbia, Okeh, Emerson, Pathe, and Vocalion. Walsh noted a wide range of names given the group. While most companies designated the group as the "Premier American Quartet" (Pathe used the term "Premier American Male Quartet"), Columbia switched between "American" and "Premier American." Okeh stayed with "American Quartet." The Aeolian-Vocalion record of "Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland" was credited to the "Murray Quartet."

After two years, the Murray-Porter-Young-Chalmers ensemble was retired as a recording entity. In the summer of 1920 Henry Burr, not only a singer of sentimental songs but an ambitious businessman, approached Murray with a proposition. Burr wanted to negotiate an exclusive contract with Victor, a package deal involving Murray and the Peerless Quartet members (Burr, second tenor; Albert Campbell, first tenor; John H. Meyer, baritone; and Frank Croxton, bass). The management agreed to a contract, and in the autumn of 1920 Murray and his associates became exclusive Victor artists. Murray and Burr were to receive $35,000 each per year (an impressive salary in the 1920s), and Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton were to receive $10,000 each per year. According to the contract, the American Quartet would thereafter consist of Murray, Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton. The Peerless Quartet personnel would be unchanged.

With Murray exclusive to Victor beginning on July 1, 1920, Edison executives in mid-1920 assembled a new group of singers for its Premier Quartet, picking first tenor Charles Hart, second tenor Billy Jones, baritone Steve Porter (the only member from the old quartet), and bass Harry J. Donaghy. Edison continued to use the Premier name. Donaghy told Walsh that the new quartet's first Edison recording was "Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee!" It was released as Blue Amberol 4041 in August 1920, then on Diamond Disc 50666 in September. At least some record buyers must have recognized a change in the Premier's sound. The new ensemble was known on other labels as either the Harmonizers or Harmonizers Quartet. Never very popular, the Harmonizers disbanded by mid-1922. Diamond Disc 50944, featuring "Huckleberry Finn," was the last Premier Quartet record to be issued. It was released in September 1922 but had been recorded in 1917, so "Huckleberry Finn" features the voices of the original Premier Quartet.

The American became defunct just as Victor switched to the electric recording process. No electrically recorded performances featured the name American Quartet. The Quartet's final release, "Alabamy Bound" (19680), was issued in August 1925. Two months earlier, Victor had begun issuing electric discs (without identifying them to the buying public as being electric), but "Alabamy Bound" was an acoustic recording, cut on May 20, 1925, in the New York City studio, which did not have electrical recording equipment as early as the Camden studio. The disc was in the catalog for only fourteen months.

Walsh questioned whether all records of the final edition of the American included Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton, saying that "some of the 'last ditch' American Quartet records sound to my ears more as if they had been made by Young, Murray, Porter, and Chalmers than by the later group. It sounds to me, for instance, as if Young, rather than Campbell, sings first tenor in 'The High Brown Blues' and 'The Little Red School House'; and the bass seems more like Chalmers than Croxton."

Victor recording logs confirm that Walsh's suspicions were correct. Murray was indeed reunited with his old associates on the following dates: March 31, May 3, May 5, August 31, and September 13, 1922. Presumably the other American Quartet members were unavailable.

Riggs notes that in addition to the above coupling (Victor 18904), at least two other titles were recorded in 1922 by the 1918-1920 formation of the group: "Some Sunny Day" (Victor 18903) and "Childhood Days" (Victor 18959).

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