Brunswick Records: The Early Years


Brunswick enjoyed in 1916 a working relationship with the Pathe Phonograph Company. Brunswick did not manufacture records at the time. The two companies agreed that Brunswick would produce machines that played, among other types, Pathe discs. Moreover, Brunswick dealers would carry Pathe discs. In turn, Pathe (a maker of phonographs as well as records) bought many cabinets from Brunswick. Perhaps if the relationship had lasted, Brunswick would not have turned within a few years to record manufacturing.

By 1919 Benjamin Bensinger--who, as president of Brunswick, was frustrated that music lovers turned to other companies for records to play on Brunswick machines--judged the time ripe to introduce Brunswick discs in the U.S. market (some were already being sold in Canada). This was despite rising shellac costs in late 1919 and early 1920. The April 1920 issue of Talking Machine World reports that shellac shipments from India were small due to a tiny Kushmi crop in the fall of 1919. Early 1920 was a time of escalating prices in general. Effective February 15, retail prices on Brunswick machines were raised.

The September 1919 issue of Talking Machine World announced Brunswick's intention of recording famous violinist Elias Breeskin. The November 1919 issue stated that Percy L. Deutsch, grandson of John M. Brunswick, was appointed Artists Secretary, and S.J. Turner was Advertising Manager for the new Brunswick records.

The January 1920 issue officially announced Brunswick records to the U.S. trade. A full-page advertisement shows the design for the new Brunswick label and indicates that the new company wished to be judged by its classical recordings: "After long preparation, we announce Brunswick Records...No one who enjoys beautiful music and wishes to hear eminent artists deliver the composer's vision, can fail to become enthusiastic over this newest Brunswick accomplishment."

An article announced that William A. Brophy was General Manager of Brunswick's new record department. The article states, "Mr. Brophy is a New York man, and prior to his association with the Leeds Phonograph Co. in 1916 was for years prominent in banking circles and represented large financial interests on many boards..."

Walter G. Haenschen (later known to the trade as "Carl Fenton") managed the Popular Records Department and Frank Hofbauer, who had earlier worked for Edison, was director for recording rooms. Pianist Henry Purmont Eames, former student of Clara Schumann and the great Padereweski, was evidently recruited to add prestige to the new label. He is identified as Music Department Director while Walter B. Rogers, who was directly involved with recording operations, is called "General Musical Director." The article states about Rogers, "He has been director of several famous bands, among them being the New York Seventh Regiment Band. He was for some time cornet soloist with the noted band under the baton of John Philip Sousa. He was with the Victor Talking Machine Company from 1904 to 1916 as musical director."

Two pressing plants were established, one in Long Island City, New York, and one in Jersey City, New Jersey. In early 1920 temporary recording laboratories were at 19 East 21st Street in New York City. The January 15, 1920 issue of Talking Machine World states that the labs "in the near future will move into permanent quarters at 15 West Thirty-sixth street as soon as the building there is completed." The labs in fact moved to 16-18 East 36th Street. Until January 1924 New York executive offices were at 35 West 32nd St.

In late 1919 Brunswick began to record and press regular lateral shellac records. The All Star Trio and Gene Rodemich's Orchestra made their first Brunswick records in October, the Green Brothers Novelty Band in November, and Paul Biese and His Novelty Orchestra in December. These artists would record often for Brunswick in the early 1920s with the exception of Biese, whose dance band recorded a handful of titles in late 1919 and never recorded again for Brunswick though member Arnold Johnson would return to lead his own band for some recordings.

Brunswick discs first appeared in U.S. stores in January, 1920. Labels had a black background with the now-familiar early Brunswick design. A gold ring borders the label. Two eccentric white circles merge at the top where there is scrollwork. Below a "B" in Gothic print is "Brunswick" in script letters. The elaborate and multi-color design made it an expensive label to produce. All 10-inch popular records (the 2000 series) sold for 75 cents each and 12-inch records (20000 series) sold for $1.25. Early celebrity records (5000 series) had a lavender background, with popular artists in the series priced at 75 cents, others at $1.00.

Brunswick did not use the conventional matrix/take numbering system for recordings but instead used a separate matrix number for each take. Thus, one selection could have several matrix numbers. In addition to having the record number printed on the label, each record has the record number pressed into the shellac just outside the label although sometimes the pressed number extends under and into the actual label. Most pressed record numbers can be found at the bottom of the record label between the 5 and 7 o'clock positions, but many have the number in other positions around the label, including some with the numbers in different locations on the two sides of the same record.

For discs made up to 1924 the record matrix number can also be found pressed into the shellac near the outer edge of the label. For example, discs of the Cotton Pickers' "Duck's Quack," recorded in New York on June 27, 1923, has the record number 2461-B pressed into the shellac in the 8 o'clock position, with matrix number 10952 in the opposite 2 o'clock position. Acoustic recordings made in Los Angeles were sometimes given an "A" matrix number prefix; some made in Chicago were given a "CH" suffix.

Carl Fenton's Orchestra recorded several sides for Brunswick in October, 1919. There was no individual musician named Carl Fenton. As indicated earlier, the band was led by conductor/arranger Walter Haenschen, whose own name was evidently judged ill-suited for commercial recordings. His was basically a studio band though Carl Fenton's Orchestra occasionally played in public, usually to promote new Brunswick retail establishments.

Haenschen was important to Brunswick when it entered the American disc market. The pianist had earlier tried to launch a recording career with other companies. Around 1916 W.G. "Gus" Haenschen's Banjo Orchestra of St. Louis recorded Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" on Columbia 61070, a private recording. At the same session the orchestra recorded W.H. Tyers' "Admiration" (Columbia 61071). The January 1920 issue of Talking Machine World states that he graduated from Washington University in St. Louis in 1912. It identifies Haenschen as a composer: "He has composed several songs, one of which was the sensation of the 1914 Follies, where it was known as 'Underneath the Japanese Moon.'"

On September 5 and 6, 1916, Haenschen traveled with an ensemble again from St. Louis to New York, this time to make test records for the Victor Talking Machine Company, but nothing came of these tests. At least for part of the 1910s he juggled a performing career with his job as manager of the talking machine department of the large Scruggs, Vandervoot & Barney store in downtown St. Louis, making enough of a reputation for Talking Machine World to note in its September 1918 issue that "Gus Hanschen [sic]...enlisted in the engineering department of the army recently." The article gives this background information about the musician who would become a key Brunswick executive within two years: "Mr. Hanschen is a graduate engineer, but had never followed that business. After he left school he continued his music studies, and before he entered the talking machine business he was locally famous as an exponent of ragtime music and he managed and led an orchestra that was extremely popular during the dancing revival. For the last two years his orchestra supplied music for the open air dances given by the city in the parks."

Early Brunswick record catalogues include a small photograph of Carl Fenton's Orchestra. Haenschen remained with Brunswick until 1927. Sometime after April 1927 Ruby Greenberg, who played violin as a member of Carl Fenton's Orchestra, purchased rights to use the Carl Fenton name and recorded a number of sides for Gennett Records in 1927, 1928, and 1929. Haenschen remained active in the musical field. He was a musical conductor on Voice of Firestone broadcasts, helped the career of Frank Munn, and served as accompanist for Jessica Dragonette.

Most Brunswick records were recorded in New York and Chicago. The May 1920 issue of Talking Machine World announced the opening of Brunswick's primary recording laboratory and identified executives most responsible for what was issued on early discs: "Early in May the Brunswick recording laboratories moved into their permanent New York home at 16-18 East Thirty-sixth street where they occupy the two top floors of the newly constructed thirteen-story building...On the twelfth floor are the main offices which are furnished in mahogany and white. Here William A. Brophy, general manager of the record division, has his offices...The top floor is occupied by two recording rooms completely equipped with modern devices for recording. Behind these is the machine shop where the matrices are given a few final touches in the hands of experienced workers under the guidance of Frank Hofbauer...Next to the recording rooms are the offices of Walter Haenschen, in charge of the popular and dance record division,and Walter Rogers, general musical director."

The July 1921 issue of Talking Machine World states that Brunswick had "opened an experimental laboratory and recording room on the sixth floor of its Chicago headquarters. The object of this laboratory is to record the work of Isham Jones and other Western talent...This is the first time that a permanent laboratory of this kind has been established in Chicago."

The Chicago-based Isham Jones Orchestra was important to Brunswick within months of the company entering the American disc market, from mid-1920 to 1932 recording exclusively and frequently for Brunswick. The name on early discs, "Isham Jones Rainbo Orchestra," reflected the band's engagement at Chicago's famous dance palace, the Rainbo Gardens, at the intersection of North Clark St. and Lawrence Avenue. Some early Jones performances were issued only on Brunswick's early prestigious 5000-series "lavender" label. A few titles were issued on the prestige label and Brunswick's regular popular label, such as Jones doing "Look For The Silver Lining," issued as Brunswick 5045 as well as 2224.

The band's recording of "Wabash Blues," issued in November 1921 on Brunswick 5065 and later on 2237, proved especially popular. "Ma" was the disc's A side but "Wabash Blues" on the B side was the hit. It featured the "laughing" cornet of Louis Panico, who joined the ensemble around mid-1921. The label itself says "Laughing Cornet--Louis Panico," following the example of Victor's popular "Yellow Dog Blues" (Victor 18618--also a B side), the label of which cites not only Joseph C. Smith's Orchestra but "Harry Rederman [sic] and his Laughing Trombone." The record of "Wabash Blues" became even more famous when played by Jeanne Eagels on stage at every performance of Rain on Broadway and around Manhattan. After Brunswick signed famous personalities to record for the company--Marion Harris in 1922, Al Jolson in 1924--the Isham Jones Orchestra was used as an accompanying band for initial recording sessions.

The earliest Gene Rodemich Orchestra records may have been cut in the band's hometown of St. Louis. Herb Wiedoeft's Cinderella Roof Orchestra cut its first Brunswick records in August 1923 in Los Angeles. (Herb Wiedoeft, based in Seattle and San Francisco, would record exclusively for Brunswick until his death on May 12, 1928, caused by his car skidding off the Medford-Klamath Falls Highway near Medford, Oregon. Band member Jesse Stafford assumed leadership of the band and it continued to record for Brunswick into the 1930s.)

The Talking Machine World throughout the 1920s reported Brunswick recording studios being erected in various locations, with perhaps the last new location being reported in the May and June issues of 1929, when the Chicago recording studio was moved from the Brunswick Building to the 21st floor of the Furniture Mart at 666 Lake Shore Drive. Jack Kapp was director of recording by this time.

Compared to other lateral records of these late acoustic years, Brunswick records are well-recorded and bright in the higher register. They have a good record surface. Many collectors consider them to be among the best acoustic records made. Records by pianist Leopold Godowsky were considered sensationally good at the time. Brunswick discs were recorded at 80 rpm and Brunswick advertised that its records contained a spiral groove at the end of the record to "ensure a perfect and automatic stopping of the record when the playing is completed. It is merely necessary in playing Brunswick records to set the Automatic Stop in the last spiral groove once and each record played will stop automatically."

Around 1980 researcher Ron Dethlefson interviewed David Urner, who was once a Brunswick dealer in Bakersfield, California. In an interview published in Antique Phonograph Monthly (Vol. VI, No. 4), Urner said that in 1920 he added Brunswick records and phonographs to his appliance store. He held exclusive rights to sell Brunswick products in his area. The records and phonographs sold well though Urner admitted that early Brunswick phonographs had limitations because "the mechanical reproducer didn't have a very large range of tone." Many machines were sold on terms, usually a 12 to 18-month contract with 10% down. Urner recalled that Model 117 was one of his best selling models and that the Brunswick company usually brought out new records once a month. A company representative would come by with new releases.

One Brunswick announcement of 1920 stated that new records were available at all Brunswick dealers on the 16th of each month in the East and in Denver and the West on the 20th.

Despite depressed business conditions, 1921 proved to be one of the best years for sales of phonograph records in the U.S. Retail sales reached $105.6 million. A single record cost about twenty cents to manufacture and it was estimated that the sale of 5,000 records effectively covered all production costs. Sales above that figure were mostly profit. With the expiration of several basic recording patents permitting the production and sale of laterally cut records, small record producing companies were soon formed, most producing cheaper records than those issued by the established companies.

Columbia was in financial troubles due to stock speculations and overproduction of records and phonographs. It was involuntarily forced into bankruptcy and receivership, which made Brunswick second only to Victor.

Brunswick produced a 50-page record catalogue in early 1921. New dealerships were continually added to Brunswick's list of U.S. retail outlets. In the trade this was referred to as "opening accounts." Furniture, music, piano, and even department stores added the Brunswick line. Many dealerships opened to sell only Brunswick phonographs and records, but it was not unusual for a retail firm selling a different brand of phonographs and records to add Brunswick products. In November 1918 the famous West Coast music firm of the Wiley B. Allen Company added the Brunswick line; in May 1919 the Gimbel Bros. department store in New York City did the same.

In May 1922 San Francisco's famous Emporium department store announced it was adding Brunswick phonographs and records to its complete line of Victor products. In January 1924, the Hurley Department Store of Camden, New Jersey (in Victor's back yard!) announced it would sell Brunswick phonographs and records.

The opening of a new dealership was often a major event with announcements in local newspapers. When the Brunswick Shop of Terrell, Texas, held a formal opening in December of 1920, a special program of records was presented, and the Louisiana Five performed for crowds. At the opening of the Bungalow Shop in Lowell, Massachusetts, on July 23, 1921, Carl Fenton's Orchestra made a special appearance. When Hale Brothers in Cleveland, Ohio, became a Brunswick outlet in June of 1922, the Isham Jones Orchestra presented a live program for the event.

Brunswick's active Dealers' Service Department made available to dealers colorful window displays, cut-outs, posters, and advertising cards. These were sent to dealers free. A booklet, "The Brunswick Dealer Service Portfolio," gave sales tips and described advertising methods. Brunswick advertised its products in many national newspapers and magazines, and advertisements for use by dealers in local papers were provided with space left for the dealer's name and address. For dealers with large window areas Brunswick provided a special window display service to which dealers could subscribe. Elaborate and beautiful cloth valences were made available. The week of September 25, 1921, was celebrated in the Chicago area as the "Isham Jones Orchestra Week" and local Brunswick dealers were provided with special displays and show cards for the event.

In November of 1921 Brunswick began its own phonograph house organ, The Brunswick Dispatch, to keep dealers informed of company developments and to give marketing suggestions. The first issue contained some 20 pages.

By the end of January, 1922, Brunswick had pressed enough records to publish a record catalogue of 96 pages. Carl Fenton's Orchestra had nearly 40 sides listed. Artists included the All Star Trio, Al Bernard, Zez Confrey, the Green Brothers Novelty Band, Ernest Hare, Charles Hart, Billy Jones, the Isham Jones Orchestra, Bennie Krueger's Orchestra, Wiedoeft's Californians, and Gene Rodemich's Orchestra. Rodemich was from St. Louis and local fans called him the "Ragtime Paderewski" because he was a classically trained pianist who had a gift for playing ragtime.

Following Victor and Columbia precedents, Brunswick signed several operatic and concert artists to complete its catalogue and enhance its reputation. Exclusive artists included baritone Richard Bonelli; tenor Mario Chamlee (Brunswick literature announced that his voice was considered "ideal" by company recording engineers); baritone Giuseppe Danise; soprano Claire Dux; soprano Florence Easton; pianist Leopold Godowsky; tenor Theo Karle; contralto Elizabeth Lennox; soprano Virginia Rea; violinist Max Rosen; soprano Marie Tiffany; violinist Bronislaw Huberman; pianist Elly Ney; tenor Tino Pattiera; and mezzo-soprano Irene Pavloska.

Early classical records were one-sided and featured the usual Brunswick logo but with a green background (the ten-inch 10000 series, the twelve-inch 30000 series). The April 1922 issue of Talking Machine World announced "double-faced operatic records, to be known as Gold Label records," adding that "artists whose recordings are now listed under the Green Label series will make the new records, the first releases of which appear in the lists for April and May. These new records will retail at from $1.50 to $2.00, comparing with prices of from $1.00 to $1.50 asked for the single-faced discs..." Records in the ten-inch 13000 series, mostly blue labeled, sold for $1.25.

In September a full-page advertisement in Talking Machine World announced that Marion Harris, "Reigning Queen of Popular Songdom and World-Wide Vaudeville Favorite," was an exclusive Brunswick artist. Harris had been successful as a Columbia artist in the early 1920s but that company's financial difficulties evidently induced Harris to sign with the prospering Brunswick label. The delight of Brunswick executives at signing Marion Harris to an exclusive contract is reflected in this caption beside her small photograph in the 1923 catalogue, issued at the end of 1922: "A supreme artist in her own particular field is Marion Harris, vaudeville's darling, known from coast to coast as 'the Queen of Blues Singers.'"

When Harris performed at the Club Royale Cafe in Los Angeles in the summer of 1923, a local Brunswick dealer, the Fitzgerald Music Company, hawked her records in the cafe's lobby. A special over-lay label was prepared for these discs. Labels featured the name of the Club Royale Cafe along with Harris's signature. The Fitzgerald Music Company name was at the bottom. This over-lay was designed to be glued over the regular Brunswick label, but it did not obscure the Brunswick name nor the title of the record. These special souvenir records were priced at $1.00 each and sales averaged 100 records each evening. It was a novel way to sell records.

Another artist who signed in 1922 to record only for Brunswick--and, like Harris, had earlier recorded for both Victor and Columbia--was New York bandleader Joseph C. Smith, whose orchestra was then regularly featured at the Hotel Plaza. Whereas Harris enjoyed great success as a Brunswick artist, Smith's ten Brunswick discs sold poorly. With these Brunswick discs of 1922 and 1923, and then a handful of HMV discs recorded in Canada, Smith's recording career was over.

Arnold Johnson was another bandleader to sign with Brunswick in 1922. His orchestra at the time played regularly at the Pelham Heath Inn in New York. In introducing Johnson, the November 1922 issue of Talking Machine World states, "Mr. Johnson, several years ago, was director of the orchestra at Tait's famous cafe in San Francisco." Not mentioned is Johnson's success as a composer of popular songs. One Johnson composition popular a few years earlier, "Johnson 'Jass' Blues," recorded on May 10, 1917 by the Frisco Jass Band, was issued by Edison in September 1917 as Blue Amberol 3254 and in November 1917 as Diamond Disc 50470. With lyrics added by Byron Gay, it was recorded as "Oh!" or "O!" in 1919 by Ted Lewis, Paul Biese, Billy Murray and others.

Victrola and 78 Journal Issue 11

Johnson recorded 17 titles for Brunswick within the year but did not record again until early 1928, again for Brunswick. Noting his return, the May 1928 issue of Talking Machine World states, "Arnold Johnson will be remembered as one of the outstanding orchestra leaders of a few years ago who left the music world for other ventures, but the lure was too great, and he is back again with a new organization of young men."

In December 1922 Brunswick made available to dealers a colored picture envelope to send to the homes of record buyers. Inside was the monthly listing of new releases, with photographs of Brunswick artists and phonograph models.

The January 1923 issue of Talking Machine World announced on its front page that Brunswick had newly signed the Capitol Grand Orchestra, led by Erno Rapee. Consisting of 75 members, the New York orchestra was considered the largest theater orchestra of its time. Its first Brunswick disc, issued in January, featured "Orpheus in Hades Overture, Parts 1 and 2."

As announced in Talking Machine World's February 1923 issue, the company began releasing new titles daily instead of monthly.

By 1923 the Brunswick record catalogue had grown to 121 pages. The Brox Sisters, Marion Harris, and Margaret Young had been added to the list of popular artists. The a capella Sacred Harp Singers from Texas recorded a number of old-fashioned choir songs. Paul Ash and His Granada Orchestra, the Castlewood Marimba Band, and Arnold Johnson and His Orchestra were new additions. The catalogue lists a set of records made by golfing sensation Chuck "Chick" Evans, Jr.--the first golf lessons on phonograph records! "Chick" describes the principal points of golfing on 5 records which came in a box containing charts showing 34 poses of "Chick" in action. Evans stated that all proceeds from the sale of the set would be donated to American golf caddies.

Violinist Fredric Fradkin, pianist Josef Hofmann, contralto Sigrid Onegin, sopranos Nina Koshetz and Maria Ivogun, and Vessella's Italian Band were added as Exclusive Artists.

In November the Chappell Piano Company Ltd. of New Bond Street, London, became "Sole Sales Concessionaires" for Brunswick in the U.K. Chappell did not sell Brunswick phonographs but marketed Cliftophones, made by Cliftophone, Ltd. Nor did Chappell sell American Brunswick records. Using Brunswick masters, Chappell instead pressed records using Brunswick Cliftophone labels. Most of the records contained American issue numbers.

In 1923 Brunswick opened a record pressing plant in Muskegon, Michigan, and production plants in Knoxville, Rockford, Toronto, and Paris, France (as the Compagnie Brunswick Francaise). A subsidiary company was established in Havana, Cuba. Branch agencies were located in most U.S. cities as well as Mexico City, Toronto, Winnipeg, Montreal, Edmonton, and Buenos Aires, Argentina.