Fred Van Eps -- Banjoist

By Tim Gracyk

Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries


Van Eps, Fred (30 December 1878 - 22 November 1960)

This remarkable banjoist was born in Somerville, New Jersey. On his father's side, he was a descendant of early Dutch settlers in New York's Mohawk Valley. His mother's lineage began in America with the emigration in the 1600s of a man named Hansen from Bergen, Norway. His name was erroneously given as "Van Epps" at the turn of the century by Edison's company.

Van Eps first studied the violin at seven after being encouraged by his father, John Perry Van Eps, who worked as a watchmaker. When twelve, he became fascinated by the banjo upon hearing it played by a conductor for the Jersey Central Railroad, George W. Jenkins. The father initially rebuffed his son's entreaties for a banjo but his mother finally purchased one for him and engaged Jenkins to teach Fred how to play. Because the conductor did not read music, his instructional technique consisted of playing his repertoire of songs over and over while showing the boy where to position fingers.

Van Eps moved with his family to nearby Plainfield in 1892 and in 1893, as he reported later in life, heard his first Vess L. Ossman cylinder, "The White Star Line March." Uli Heier and Rainer E. Lotz's The Banjo on Record: A Bio-Discography (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1993) shows that Ossman recorded that song around 1896 for Edison and Columbia. To improve his playing by ear, Van Eps listened closely to cylinders, which he avidly collected. He told Jim Walsh that he learned to play the banjo as a boy by buying and studying Ossman's brown wax cylinders.

Van Eps recalled during an interview with Walsh in September 1955: "...I bought a Type M Edison two-minute cylinder phonograph. It cost me $100--a lot of money then--but I paid for it the next week by attaching 14 ear tubes, taking it to the Fireman's Fair and letting people listen at five cents a play. I've got those tubes yet that fit in your ears. Lots of people came up who had never heard a phonograph before. Mine was the first in Plainfield, which even then was quite a decent sized city. To tell the truth, the machine was something of a nuisance because it was so much of a curiosity. People would come to my home and ask to be allowed to listen to it..."

The machine enabled Van Eps to make records for himself. He noted, "I got my blanks from the [Edison] people--20 cents each. All the machines in those days had a shaving attachment. If you didn't like the results you simply shaved them off and tried again."

After experimentation with home recording, Van Eps approached Edison's National Phonograph Company in West Orange in 1897. He was hired for regular Wednesday afternoon engagements at the studio and paid the standard fee for the period--$1 for each round, which was a sizable increase over the $16 a week he had been earning repairing watches at his father's business.

His first studio accompanist was pianist Frank P. Banta, a longtime Edison staff musician. Despite competition from such accomplished banjoists as Ossman, Ruby Brooks (a member of the vaudeville team of Brooks and Denton), and the banjo duo of Cullen and Collins, Van Eps cylinders sold well. He supplemented his income by teaching and playing with local orchestras. Edison company literature often gives his name as Van Epps. In 1900 a New York City musical instruments dealer, John A. Haley, reprinted a letter by the banjoist which endorsed Haley's products, and he signed the letter "Fred F. Van Epps, Banjoist. Studio, 60 Westervelt Avenue."

The banjo team of Van Eps and William D. Bowen play "Jack Tar March" on single-sided Columbia 1613, released in January 1904. It was the first Columbia disc to include a Van Eps performance. "Jack Tar March" was also available as cylinder 32324. (Vess L. Ossman cut the same title for the company around this time, and his takes of "Jack Tar March" were issued on disc 1618 and cylinder 32329.) It was the only title cut by Bowen in the acoustic era. According to Heier and Lotz's The Banjo on Record: A Bio-Discography, Van Eps in the late 1940s and early 1950s again worked with Bowen at banjo concerts, with some performances taped by Stan Higgins and issued on the Americana label.

More successful than "Jack Tar March" was his Victor debut record, "The Burglar Buck," released in April 1910. Soon he was recording for virtually all companies.

Van Eps found that remaking Ossman numbers was lucrative. He explained to Walsh, "To some extent, it was because of accidents happening to the original masters or defects appearing in the matrices. Then, too, as time went on the methods by which Ossman had recorded became outmoded. However, the records were still popular, and Victor wanted them remade by the latest processes. But since Ossman wasn't readily available and his playing no longer was what it had been, they had me do the remakes, usually with young Frank Banta [son of Frank P. Banta] at the piano."

The Van Eps Trio also recorded heavily from 1912 to 1922. Van Eps assembled the group to furnish music both on records and for dances. Within a couple of years the Trio evolved from two banjos (the other banjoist was Fred's brother Bill) and a piano (Felix Arndt) to an ensemble that substituted drums (played by Eddie King) for one of the banjos (by 1914 Banta, still in his teens, sometimes replaced Arndt). Victor executive John S. Macdonald--he recorded as Harry Macdonough--insisted that drums provided a steadier rhythm than a second banjo but Van Eps was unenthusiastic about the change.

After several years, he was able to modify the Trio for Victor sessions in the following manner, as he told Walsh: "I couldn't convince John Macdonald that the saxophone, which had become extremely popular, would be a more suitable instrument [than the drums]. But at last I got the best of him. Russell Hunting, the famous pioneer 'Casey' monologist, had returned to this country after years abroad as supervisor of Pathe's European recording activities, and was manager of Pathe's New York studio. I talked Russell into letting me make a Van Eps Trio record of a fox-trot called 'The Hawaiian Blues,' with Nathan Glantz playing a sax, in place of the usual drums. It went over well, and when Macdonald heard it he told me to go ahead and use a saxophone from then on in my Victor recordings. The good results we got on Pathe were a challenge to him...He thought he just couldn't let Pathe get ahead of Victor!" By late 1916 Van Eps and Banta began making Pathe discs that give credit on labels to the Van Eps-Banta Dance Orchestra.

Xylophonist Joe Green was later added and the ensemble was known as both the Van Eps Quartet and the Van Eps Specialty Four. In 1914, Van Eps also formed the Van Eps Banjo Orchestra, which never included more than five instrumentalists. The group generally included two banjos and Felix Arndt on piano.

In the spring or summer of 1914 the Van Eps Banjo Orchestra was among the first artists to record in America for the newly established Pathe Freres Phonograph Company, the American branch of the French firm Pathe Freres Compagnie. "Down Home Rag," "Florida Rag," "My Hindoo Man," "Too Much Ginger" and other titles were cut for etched Pathe discs, and since a pressing plant was not yet operational in America (it was being set up at 10-34 Grand Avenue in Brooklyn), masters were sent to Europe so discs could be pressed there. Near spindle holes of early discs is the phrase "Made in France."

With America's record industry booming during the World War I era, especially with new companies emerging, Van Eps' services as a studio session artist were in heavy demand. Nearly all sessions were in New York City but in 1919 and again 1920 the Van Eps Trio and Quartet made records in Montreal, Canada for HMV.

Around May 1917 Van Eps joined a touring group of recording artists, called at different times the Record Makers, the Phonograph Singers, the Eight Victor Record Makers, the Popular Talking Machine Artists, and the Peerless Record Makers. He replaced Vess L. Ossman, who allegedly had not gotten along with manager Henry Burr. Surviving programs show Ossman performing in April 1917, but in the May 1917 issue of Talking Machine World Ossman's name is missing from a list of members. The group was called the Eight Famous Record Artists by June 1920, and after five members--Burr, Billy Murray, Albert Campbell, John Meyer, and Frank Croxton--signed exclusive Victor contracts in 1920, "Victor" was added to the name. Van Eps continued to record for various labels, as did group members Frank Banta and Monroe Silver. The troupe regularly scheduled three-month tours throughout the U.S. and Canada.

He also formed with Burr a company to manufacture and sell a banjo that Van Eps designed. The June 1921 issue of Talking Machine World states, "A new instrument firm to be known as the Van Eps-Burr Corp. has been formed under the laws of the State of New York with a capital of $50,000. The incorporators are H.H. McClaskey [Burr], M.T. Kirkeby and F. Van Eps." The Van Eps Recording Banjo was modeled after the one he used in his recording and concert work. It had an aluminum resonator with a sound hole in the head, which was made of calfskin. He spent much time marketing and promoting the banjo, which remained on the market until around 1930. By then electric recording had become nearly universal and the loud volume produced by his model was no longer necessary.

Walsh indicates in the December 1973 issue of Hobbies that Van Eps left the Eight Famous Victor Artists soon after a dispute with Burr about their banjo company. Walsh writes, "The upshot was that Van Eps left the troupe and took over undivided operation of the banjo factory, while Burr engaged [Rudy] Wiedoeft in his place." Page 138 of the July 1922 issue of Talking Machine World states that Van Eps dropped out of the group in July 1922 because engagements in New York City prevented him from traveling.

His last Edison Diamond Disc featured "Dinah" backed by "I'm Sitting On Top of the World" (51702), both recorded on February 17, 1926. The latter title also issued on Blue Amberol 5138 whereas "Dinah" was included on Edison Sample Advertising Record #5. In 1927 he cut a few titles issued on Grey Gull labels, and his career as a recording artist during the 78 era was essentially over.

Van Eps continued to give banjo lessons during the 1930s. However, the instrument was falling out of favor with the general public and he eventually could no longer earn a living as a musician.

In the 1950s he attempted a recording comback. In the April 1952 issue of Hobbies, Walsh announced, "Mr. Van Eps,...whose address is R.D. 2, Plainfield, New Jersey, has made a new album of six recordings, which he is issuing under the 'Five String Banjo' label. Accompaniments are by his son, Robert, a brilliant pianist....If this album meets with the success it deserves he undoubtedly will issue others. Meanwhile, he has a large business, manufacturing radio equipment at Plainfield." The recordings were made in 1950, followed by more. Heier and Lotz state in The Banjo on Record: A Bio-Discography, "In 1956 Fred Van Eps recorded an LP...that was issued on his own '5 String Banjo' label." Another son, George Van Eps (7 August 1913 - 30 November 1998), became an expert banjo player. He switched to guitar and, as a studio musician in the 1930s and 1940s, played with Benny Goodman, Ray Noble, Red Norvo, and others. He performed for audiences as late as November 1998.

Fred Van Eps continued to experiment with the instrument. He noted to Walsh in 1955, "After playing in one way for around 40 years I worked out a new technique in the 1930s. It seems that before then no one had ever taken stock of the banjoist's working tools and tried to find out what the hands could and could not do. My investigation showed that of the three basic motions of the right hand, two were unnatural and awkward, therefore tiresome, and contrary to the design of the hand. What I did was to retain the one good move and use in place of the awkward two a highly natural move--thumb, first finger, second finger, in rotation, in this order. That is the natural sweep of the hand and is very fast, bringing the banjo up to violin or flute velocity. I can now play 14 notes per second."

Van Eps died in Burbank, California, at age 81.