Charles Harrison -- Popular Tenor
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from: Another Book About Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925: The Unpublished Entries
Charles Harrison (11 September 1878 - 2 February 1965)
This tenor was one of the busiest recording artists of the acoustic era. Performances were issued on major labels, including Victor, Columbia, and Edison. He was also prominent on minor labels, such as Domino, Regal, Melotone, and other "dime-store" labels.
A Jersey City native, Charles William Harrison studied voice under Leo Koeffler and was tenor at various churches, including the New York Fifth Avenue Brick Presbyterian Church until 1920. He began his recording career on January 31, 1911, with the Columbia Phonograph Company. He sang "Cujus Animam," using the original Latin text from Rossini's Stabat Mater (A5275), and it was issued in May 1911. The Rossini number also served as his first Edison selection, which was issued exactly one year later.
In the March 1952 issue of Hobbies, Jim Walsh quotes a letter in which Harrison recalls his recording debut: "The lead tenor of our quartet knew the manager of the Columbia laboratory, so we made some 'test' recordings. During the session he spoke about a test of his own solo voice, and I for once put on a bold front and said I would also like to make a test...the manager did not know me, but he said they were looking for a tenor who could sing a high D flat. The other fellow said that I could do it and that they need look no further...I was booked for a test of the 'Cujas [sic] Animam' from Rossini's 'Stabat Mater,' sung in English, with piano, as I did not know Latin! The test came out well enough for them to book me with orchestra for the same selection in Latin. I had a friend...whose brother was a priest, so he gave me the phonetic pronunciation, and I went to it. When this came through the processing I was handed a contract for six months."
Harrison continues, "Right away, as my records began to come out, Victor and Edison got on my trail, but I was tied up, so could do nothing. Nearing the end of the six months, I demanded a raise in the fee or a new contract, but found that I had unwittingly signed for an additional year at the same rates. I at once refused to continue, as I apparently had been duped, so went to both Victor and Edison on a non-exclusive basis, designed to keep me at least with 'the big three.' In 1919-1920, I was recording for 18 laboratories, working every day in New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Montreal, etc."
Some of his early Columbia discs identify him as Charles W. Harrison, but the simple name Charles Harrison soon became standard. Over a dozen pseudonyms were used for him on small labels. Most common are Hugh Donovan and Billy Burton. Others include Charles Hilton and Norman Terrell.
He made Edison records in 1912 and was even in an early experimental sound film made by Edison. He worked regularly for the company until 1916, cutting mostly "serious" music, then returned in the 1920s. Amberol 1003 featuring "Cujus Animam" was issued in May 1912, followed in June by a wax Amberol featuring an aria translated to English from Ambroise Thomas' Mignon, "Never the Maiden Dreamed" (1033). Later he recorded some waltz songs, including Albert Gumble's "When I Waltz With You" (Blue Amberol 1556), issued in December 1912.
In announcing the July release of "All Hail, Thou Dwelling Lowly!" from Gounod's Faust (Amberol 1057), the June 1912 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "Mr. Harrison, who recently left Calvary Church of East Orange, N.J., to become tenor soloist for the Brick Presbyterian Church, New York, has made a remarkably clear Record..." In July, Harrison's first duet recording on Edison was issued: "Absent" (Amberol 1045), sung with Elizabeth Spencer. Edison records of Harrison were issued regularly until February 1917. He stopped working for the company for nearly a decade, returning in April 1925. The last Harrison cylinder from his first period with Edison was Blue Amberol 3075: "After All."
As a solo artist he made 29 Diamond Discs, with two from the early Edison period, the rest made upon his return to the company in 1925. The first Edison record issued after Harrison returned was Diamond Disc 51546: "If You See That Gal of Mine (Send Her Home)." He toured widely, participating in Edison Tone-Tests Recitals. Partners on Diamond Discs are Vernon D. Archibald, Helen Clark, and Agnes Kimball.
The tenor balladeer enjoyed success as a solo artist for other companies. Issued in mid-1913 was his first Victor record, "When I Met You Last Night in Dreamland" (17317). He wrote decades later to Walsh, "When I began recording for Victor, they wanted a tenor who could make [John] McCormack records on a cheaper disc...so I was told to do some...McCormack songs...A few months after these were released I was switched to other ballads and songs, and when I inquired about this was told by the recording manager that McCormack had raised h___ [sic] because Harrison records were cutting into his royalties." Popular Victor records include "I Hear You Calling Me" (17321, 1913), "Peg O' My Heart" (17412, 1913), and "Ireland Must Be Heaven, For My Mother Came From There" (18111, 1916).
He was a founding member of the Columbia Stellar Quartet, organized by recording manager George Jell. The group worked closely with Columbia musical director Charles A. Prince. The singers were first tenor Harrison; second tenor John Barnes Wells (Reed Miller soon took his part); baritone Andrea Sarto; and bass Frank Croxton. The group's first Columbia disc featured "Sally In Our Alley" backed by "The Girl I Left Behind Me" (A1440). Harrison was the only original member to remain with the quartet until it disbanded (when Reed left, Harrison switched from first tenor to second tenor, so his voice leads on the final records made in 1921).
He was also a member of the Columbia Mixed Quartet, which featured the voices of soprano Grace Kerns, contralto Mildred Potter, and bass Frank Croxton. Soprano Beulah Gaylord Young later replaced Kerns; contralto Rose Bryant replaced Potter. He sang in the Columbia Mixed Quartet and Mixed Chorus, often taking lead parts.
In September 1925 Harrison joined Albert Campbell, John H. Meyer, and Frank Croxton to form a Peerless Quartet that was an alternative to Henry Burr's quartet of the same name. Advertisements in late 1925 issues of Talking Machine World announced that the new Peerless (with Harrison) was available for concerts. Other artists were recruited to form a company known as the Peerless Entertainers, available for bookings by November 1925: the artists were the Peerless Quartet members, saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft, pianist-composer Lieutenant Gitz Rice, and baritone Arthur Fields. By early 1926 Harrison worked in mixed choruses with Wilfred Glenn, Elliott Shaw, and other Shannon Quartet members, and in early 1927 Harrison was included for a short time in the Revelers (this was the same as the Shannon Quartet), making such sides as "Yankee Rose," "In A Little Spanish Town," and "Honolulu Moon." He replaced Franklyn Baur; in turn, Harrison was replaced by James Melton.
He formed the American Singers Quartet around 1927. Other original members were tenor Redferne Hollinshead, baritone Vernon Archibald, and Frank Croxton. Lambert Murphy later replaced Hollinshead. The group made four Diamond Discs (one of the four titles, "Why Adam Sinned," was also issued in 1929 as dubbed Blue Amberol 5509). By the time the American Singers recorded for Victor in 1930, Walter J. Preston had replaced Archibald. The group's single Victor session was on March 13, 1930, and soon afterwards "Dear Old Girl" backed by "On the Banks of the Wabash" was issued on Victor 22387. This same coupling--"Dear Old Girl" backed by "On the Banks of the Wabash"--had been popular in the acoustic era as Victor 17397, with Harry Macdonough singing the lead on each.
As a solo artist, Harrison made few electric recordings, in contrast to his being incredibly prolific before 1925. His one Victor recording in the Orthophonic era, made on February 4, 1927, went unissued: "Rosie O'Ryan (Sure I Love You)." Several of Harrison's Diamond Discs are from late 1920s and were recorded by the electric process. A single Harrison needle-cut Edison disc was issued in August, 1929: "I'll Always Be In Love With You," from Coquette (14007). During a Victor session on December 23, 1930, he was one of four singers (the others were Frank Croxton, Walter J. Preson, and Lambert Murphy) to provide quartet assistance for featured vocalist Rudy Vallee.
He sang on radio and by 1924 organized the Eveready Mixed Quartet for the popular variety show The Eveready Hour, broadcast on WEAF. The Eveready group often consisted of Harrison, soprano Beulah Gaylord Young, contralto Rose Bryant, and bass Wilfred Glenn (this is close to the Columbia Mixed Quartet personnel). Tom Griselle accompanied on piano. Harrison also led a male quartet on the radio show. Harrison, Bryant, and Griselle sit among others in a photograph of "the Eveready Group" in Graham McNamee's book You're on the Air (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1926).
In 1925 he married Beulah Gaylord Young. Born on March 13, 1873, this soprano started making Columbia records around the time the tenor began working for the company though she was far less prolific. One of her performances, "Run Home and Tell Your Mother" (A1042), cut on July 7, 1911, was issued under the pseudonym Molly Ames. The 1916 Pathe record of "Georgia Moon" (30427) features "Chas. Harrison and Beulah Gaylord" (no "Young").
By the early 1930s Charles with his wife taught singing classes. Page 148 of the January 25, 1932 issue of Musical America includes an advertisement for "The Harrison Summer Course of Vocal Study at Harrison (Long Lake) Maine," and a photograph shows "Some Members of Class of 1931." Walsh reports in the March 1952 issue of Hobbies that in December 1947 Harrison began teaching voice for the Newark Conservatory of Music. For the last two decades of his life he lived at 49 Fairview Avenue, New Providence. In May 1954 he recorded a ten-inch LP, Charles Harrison Sings Again, issued on the Canadian Gavotte label.
He died on February 2, 1965, and was buried in the churchyard of the United Methodist Church in New Providence. His widow moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, to live with a son from a previous marriage. She died in March 1966.