From the "Introduction" of Tim Gracyk's Book

Great book for any collector of old 78 r.p.m discs!

Below is an excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in 2001. You may order a copy from various internet sources, such as

Popular American Recording Pioneers Book

This book covers artists who, from the 1890s to the mid-1920s, made records of music that was "popular" in nature, as opposed to records of operatic arias, symphonic works, or concert pieces. Today we call this period the industry's acoustic era. A pre-electric method for recording was used, with musicians performing into a horn, not a microphone.

The year 1895 in this book's title is a bit arbitrary but around this time the commercial recording industry began to look like a real industry. It actually began around 1889 but suffered years of financial uncertainty, with even the North American Phonograph Company thrown into bankruptcy after the Panic of 1893. Companies suffered setbacks in subsequent years, but after 1895 there was no question that a recording industry would exist.

The year 1925, which marks the beginning of the electric recording era, is a convenient cut-off point. The earlier process required musicians to perform into a large horn or what some would later recall as being a funnel or tube. It was essentially an inverted megaphone. Studios were equipped with horns of all sizes, shapes and lengths--some round, some square, some flared at the mouth. Horns were carefully selected to suit the orchestras or voices that would be recorded during a session. Sound was carried via the horn into a recording machine, which was usually in an adjacent room. The energy of sound waves activated a diaphragm attached to a stylus which transferred vibration patterns to the surface of a blank recording disc or cylinder. Today this is called an acoustic recording process. Not all records issued after 1925 were made with a microphone. Columbia for four years continued to use non-electric recording equipment for its budget-priced labels, including Harmony, Velvet Tone, and Diva.


Some of the 100 artists with separate entries in the book include the American Quartet, Billy Murray (new information!), Ada Jones, Steve Porter, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, Paul Whiteman, George J. Gaskin, Carl Fenton, Sam Ash, Frank C. Stanley, Aileen Stanley, Henry Burr, the Peerless Quartet, Arthur Collins, Byron G. Harlan, Sam Lanin, Bert Williams, Frisco Jazz Band, Olive Kline, J. W. Myers, Ben Selvin, the Green Brothers, Marion Harris, Haydn Quartet, Arthur Fields, Conway's Band, countertenor Richard Jose, Irving Kaufman, Will F. Denny...many, many more!

Len Spencer

When I began collecting cylinders and old discs, I wanted to learn about the artists on these records. This was not easy since facts were scattered in elusive books, old catalogs, and rare trade journals. Even many articles by Jim Walsh, who decades ago shared all he knew about singers he most admired, were difficult to locate. Spending thousands of dollars, I amassed reference materials. Compiling information into a single volume seemed inevitable. If enough copies of my encyclopedia end up on the reference shelves of other enthusiasts, then biographical information about artists covered here will not be lost, which is my chief goal. Even decades from now people will buy 78s and cylinders at flea markets or through the Internet, and some will wonder, "Is anything known about the fine artists performing on these old records?" This book compiles information for future generations as well as today's enthusiasts.

Included are many who made in the early 1890s some of the earliest commercial records. Some others covered in this encyclopedia began recording shortly after the turn of the twentieth century, the industry no longer in its infancy. Several with entries did not have sessions until the early 1920s, with a few entries covering musicians who made their first records as late as 1924.

Careers did not abruptly end with the advent of electric recording, so in some entries electric recordings are discussed. However, in the case of Paul Whiteman and a few others with very long careers, electric era recordings are not discussed.

Eight Famous Record Artists

Excluded are those who enjoyed far greater success during the electric era than during the acoustic. Gene Austin made a few dozen acoustic recordings, but he was more successful in the early years of the microphone and therefore has no entry. Marion Harris made acoustic and electric records, but she was more important as an acoustic recording artist and is naturally included. Vernon Dalhart's peak years of popularity were in the early electric era, roughly from 1925 to 1927, but Dalhart was incredibly prolific in the acoustic era. He should be included, but my book had grown too big by the time I realized that Dalhart should be included. I put a Dalhart article on my homepage instead of in the book itself.

Franklyn Baur and Nathaniel Shilkret were arguably more popular in the electric era but each began recording in the acoustic era, Shilkret being especially busy as the leader of orchestras that made records for the Victor Talking Machine Company's foreign and ethnic market. Since no other book contains much information about Baur or Shilkret, I happily made room for them.

Both Baur and Shilkret were active in studios when companies changed from acoustic to electric recording, and their observations about that transition are interesting. In an interview for the September 1927 issue of Phonograph Monthly Review, Baur discussed the different demands made on singers by the two recording processes: "The invention of the electrical process was of greater significance than the average layman realizes. Not only are the finished records incomparably better from every standpoint, but the strain on the singer is immeasurably eased. A record can be made in exactly one-third the time it used to take, and no longer is it necessary for us to nearly crack our throats singing into that hated horn..." Shilkret wrote about the transition from acoustic to electric recording in the trade journal's May 1927 issue, pointing out difficulties at first with recording tenor voices: "The tenor voice gave us plenty of grief for a while. At first they sounded rather thick, like baritones. At times hollow; but all voices finally were conquered."

This encyclopedia covers American artists who recorded Tin Pan Alley numbers, Broadway show tunes, ragtime, "coon" songs, novelty numbers, quartet arrangements, parlor ballads, early jazz (sometimes called "jass"), blues, dance music, hymns, and early country. Several here recorded some opera as well as "popular" material, with three examples from Victor's roster being Lucy Isabelle Marsh, Reinald Werrenrath, and Olive Kline. Books about opera singers overlook these fine singers, which is not surprising since they enjoyed no fame in opera houses, and I happily pay tribute to their studio work here. Their recordings issued on Victor's black, purple, blue, and red labels sold well.

Thousands--individuals, duos, trios, small and large ensembles--made records, so obviously not all acoustic era artists could be included. We will never know the names of everyone featured on records. In the 1890s some regional companies recruited local talent, and not all catalogs and records have survived. Many early catalogs and record labels failed to identify musicians, instead using generic terms such as "tenor" and "soprano," the identity of some remaining a mystery.

Victor Dog

Many recorded a few titles and never again entered a studio. Few record collectors will have heard of singers Frank Butts and Morris Manley, but they have entries, serving as reminders that now-forgotten men and women made small contributions to the industry. In contrast to such performers were the studio regulars, the professional recording artists who were responsible for a vast number of titles. It is remarkable how much was recorded by a relatively small number of people!

My book covers most of the incredibly prolific artists. I also selected as subjects for entries a manageable number of musicians who did not record often but who left behind notable performances. Some readers discovering that favorites are missing may ask, "Since Art Hickman is here, why not Ted Lewis? Since Nora Bayes and other vaudeville stars are included, why not Eddie Cantor nor Al Jolson?" Lewis, Cantor, and Jolson did make records in the acoustic era, but their popularity arguably peaked during the electric era, and I decided to leave them out, comfortable in the knowledge that they are already the subjects of books and magazine articles. I regret that the omission of artists will strike some readers as glaring, but to cover all non-classical acoustic era recording artists of consequence was not possible.


Will Denny

Some entries are short, others quite long, length being partly determined by how much reliable information is available. Most entries give basic biographical information--where and when artists were born (if known), where and when they died--and discuss when artists began recording and stopped, how much they recorded, what they were best known for, and which companies employed them.

To do justice to the long careers of artists covered here was not always possible. Omissions and errors were inevitable, and I hope in an expanded edition to address oversights and correct mistakes. Recognizing that careful documentation is essential to a reference work's credibility, I also plan to provide more extensive documentation in a future edition.

Jim Walsh wrote in the August 1951 issue of Hobbies, "A set of books the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica would be required to publish an exhaustive account of all the American performers who made records at some time from Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 to the advent of the electric recording in 1925...When I wake in the middle of the night one of the things I worry about is the disconcerting knowledge that I could turn out an article a month for the next hundred years and still have left artists worth writing about at the end of my century of exertion."

Regrettably, Walsh did not compile that hypothetical set of books. He uses the adjective "exhaustive." Perhaps he was deterred because he thought such a project must be comprehensive. By setting more modest goals, I found that compiling information for this book was manageable and always enjoyable.

One of my goals is to preserve in this book much information that Walsh presented in the monthly magazine Hobbies from January 1942 to May 1985 as well as in earlier publications, such as the obscure Music Lover's Guide. Some information not documented in my encyclopedia, such as real names of many singers as well as some birth and death dates, came from Walsh articles. Whenever possible, I examined the sources that Walsh consulted--trade journals, obituaries, catalogs.

For many artists covered here, Walsh had written nothing. He had no interest in early dance bands and detested jazz. For these entries I worked more or less from scratch, taking information from a variety of sources, most of which I cite in the entries. Fortunately, trade journals such as Talking Machine World and Edison Phonograph Monthly say much about the lives of record artists.


Henry Burr

Notwithstanding the scarcity of brown wax cylinders and trade journals from before 1895, this encyclopedia covers some of the earliest recording artists. Giving an exact date for when the industry began in earnest is difficult. Thomas A. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877 but the technology had to be refined before recordings could be marketed. The industry was essentially born in early 1889 when sales franchises were established in various regions in the United States of Jesse H. Lippincott's North American Phonograph Company, a syndicate begun in July 1888. The Proceedings of the 1890 Convention of Local Phonograph Companies (reprinted in 1974 by the Country Music Foundation Press) establish that the industry was truly in its infancy in 1890. Specific recording artists are not named in the transcript of the proceedings. There were no "hit" records as early as 1890.

Edison at first anticipated that his invention would best serve businessmen, especially for dictation. Edison himself recorded messages for friends via cylinders. But some companies shrewdly promoted cylinder technology for entertainment, and the general public eagerly deposited coins into the machines set up where crowds gathered for amusement. Brown wax cylinders wore out quickly, so there was a steady demand for newly made cylinders, including new titles so the public would not weary of the same selections. This was before individuals had machines in their homes. Only by the mid-1890s would a few companies make machines specifically for the home entertainment market, such as Columbia's Type G Baby Grand model.

Page 17 of the June 1907 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly quotes an 1889 memorandum in which Edison employee Charles Batchelor (an important inventor in his own right) writes of "enormous orders for musical cylinders." Thomas A. Edison had replied to Batchelor, "We are making about 50 [records] per day and I am rigging up to furnish 300 daily. Please send orders (written) to Laboratory. We will book them, fill the orders by sending them to Phono. Co., and make charges so that we will not be out of pocket." The Edison trade publication then adds analysis, citing current production figures of 1907: "As we have manufactured as many as 110,000 Records in a single day recently, it follows that for every one produced when this memo was written, 2,200 have since been turned out in the same space of time!"

Blue Amberol Records

Two remarkable booklets listing early recordings are duplicated in Allen Koenigsberg's Edison Cylinder Records, 1889-1912. One is titled "The First Book of Phonograph Records." Compiled by Edison employee A. Theo E. Wangemann (1855-1906), it lists records made from May 24, 1889 to April 23, 1892. The other, from January 1890, was issued by the North American Phonograph Company, itself established on July 14, 1888 by Jesse Lippincott after he secured the right to both the Edison and American Graphophone Company patents. It is possible that no cylinders listed in these documents exist today.

Few people today have any opportunity to hear the earliest surviving recordings, which are white wax and brown wax cylinders of the early 1890s. Any collector who owns a copy of a pre-1895 record generally owns the sole surviving copy of that record. Tinfoil recordings of earlier years, which were not commercial products, are not played since to play them is to destroy them. Many pre-1895 cylinders in archives and private collections have deteriorated to such an extent that their contents are unrecognizable. Some brown wax cylinders and Berliner discs of the late 1890s that have survived are not much better (clean cylinders from this period on the right equipment deliver a more satisfying sound than Berliner discs of comparable condition).

Virtually nobody today plays records of the 1890s for the pure joy of listening. Although some superb musicians perform on records of the 1890s, technology did not do justice to what was happening in the studio, and deterioration of original copies makes assessing performances even more difficult. However, such records are valuable because they open a window into an era. They allow us to hear how memorable songs were interpreted long ago; they help us understand how the industry got on its feet and how some artists who would record for many years began their careers.


Cal Stewart

What motivated recording artists of the past? What were their personalities like? Which records most pleased them? Did they enjoy recording, or did they view it as just a way to earn money? How did they spend leisure hours? How did colleagues view them? For virtually all artists, such questions are impossible to answer today. We do know a little about those who met or corresponded often with Jim Walsh, the Boswell of recording pioneers (it is interesting that many who were interviewed late in life by Walsh owned few or no copies of their old records). Walsh noted which artists were especially generous, courteous, and helpful to him. This does not necessarily help us know their true personalities.

If scrapbooks or diaries of pioneering artists have survived, they are not housed in any archive where researchers can study them. Information about the private lives of some artists has been handed down from enthusiasts of earlier generations, but even when sources can be documented, interpretation is difficult and corroboration impossible. Consider Jim Walsh's reference to Billy Murray's feelings for Aileen Stanley on a cassette that Walsh made in 1976. The cassette reissues some Murray records. Walsh states, "Billy, I understand, had quite a crush on Aileen when their partnership first began, but it did not result in marriage." It is an interesting comment, but what exactly does it mean? Does it belong in an encyclopedia? Is it worth quoting anywhere except here as an example of the problematic nature of isolated bits of information? We do not know Walsh's source. Did he hear it firsthand from Murray or from a third party? What we think we know about the personalities of the recording artists is sometimes hearsay, and little of it is repeated here.

Should an encyclopedia include facts that are not flattering to artists? A mild example--hardly scandalous--is found in the March 27, 1924 edition of the New York Times, which reports that singers Van and Schenck "pleaded a charge of illegal possession of liquor in the Silver Slipper Cabaret, Forty-eighth Street and Seventh Avenue, of which they were alleged to be part owners." This is not in their entry since I would be sorry if readers were to recall from the encyclopedia nothing about Van and Schenck except that the singing team evidently knew some bootleggers. Fortunately, we know more about Van and Schenck than what is reported in that New York Times article, but there is not enough information anywhere for a researcher today to say with certainty what the two singers were like as individuals.

The inclusion of some in this encyclopedia and exclusion of others may reflect my own views about whose recordings are important, significant, or enjoyable. But I try not to rank artists. Likewise, entries do not generally identify the "best" records of artists. While it is possible to defend judgements about best or worst records, there is insufficient space in this encyclopedia for providing the analysis needed to defend judgements about quality.


Frank Stanley

Although some entries identify specific records as being popular, entries do not cite numbers of copies sold since no reliable sales figures exist. We do not know what record was first to sell a million copies or two million. Some artists late in life bragged to reporters or correspondents that one of their records was first to sell a certain number, but companies had no reason to provide musicians with exact or even approximate sales figures unless royalties were owed, and few who covered "popular" material were paid royalties. With sales figures known only to company executives, some artists may have concluded that they could guess at or even exaggerate sales without risk of contradiction. After all, who could prove them wrong?

Sales figures not taken from primary sources lack credibility, but few documents related to sales of this period are available to researchers, largely because few such documents have survived. Company advertisements that made bold claims about sales have questionable value, and entries avoid presenting as fact what is clearly promotional hyperbole. A Columbia advertisement in the April 6, 1912 issue of the Saturday Evening Post proclaims that "The Herd Girl's Dream"--a violin, flute, and harp trio played by George Stehl (later Stell), Marshall P. Lufsky, and Paul Surth--had "the largest sale of any record in the world." It was genuinely popular, first on single-faced Columbia 3908, then on double-faced A587, finally on double-sided A1157. But as Jim Walsh points out in the April 1967 issue of Hobbies, Columbia executives did not have sales figures of competitors in the U.S. and abroad, so they were in no position to identify the world's best selling record.

Consider how various sources discuss "Dardanella" as played by Selvin's Novelty Orchestra on Victor 18633, which was genuinely popular when issued in early 1920. In an article announcing that Ben Selvin had signed a three-year contract with Columbia, page 128 of the November 1927 issue of Talking Machine World states, "Ben Selvin has the distinction of recording the famous phonograph record of 'Dardanella' back in 1919, the record which sold more copies than any other up to the recent phenomenal success of Columbia's 'Two Black Crows' records." The trade journal does not indicate how it arrived at the conclusion that Selvin's disc was the best-selling record of the acoustic era though it is likely that Selvin himself was the article's primary source--he regularly issued press releases.

In the early 1960s RCA Victor employee Benjamin L. Aldridge wrote a brief history of Victor's early years after examining company files, and in his list of sales figures for some Victor records popular before 1927, he cites 961,144 as the number of copies that sold. According to Aldridge, "Dardanella" was one of the company's best sellers yet it did not hit the million mark! (The list is duplicated on page lxii of Ted Fagan and William R. Moran's Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings: Matrix Series). Phil Hardy and Dave Laing's undocumented Faber Companion to 20th-Century Popular Music (Faber and Faber, 1990) claims that "more than six million copies" were sold and that "when Selvin retired in 1963, RCA-Victor presented him with a gold disc for its huge sales." Sadly, no source is cited for the six million figure, which seems wildly exaggerated.

Examples of writers citing specific numbers for record sales but without mentioning sources are too plentiful. James Lincoln Collier states in his "Jazz" entry in The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz (St. Martin's Press, 1988) that "Three O'Clock in the Morning" performed by Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra "sold 3,500,000 copies, one for every other phonograph in the country." How he arrived at such figures--over three million for a disc, seven million for all phonographs--is a mystery. (Does he refer to all talking machines made from the 1890s to the mid-1920s? Almost no phonograph manufacturers issued information about units sold, so estimating how many phonographs were in use during any given year is no simple matter.)

Aldridge suggests that "Three O'Clock in the Morning" sold better than any other popular number cut by Victor, topping his list at 1,723,034 copies sold. Record collectors can verify that it turns up often! But this is the combined sales of the song as performed by four different Victor artists. The version by Joseph C. Smith and His Orchestra sold well, as did John McCormack's.

Arthur Collins

Though we cannot know how many copies of specific titles were sold, entries do state that certain records were relatively popular and identify the best selling records of some artists. Collectors get a sense for what one record sold best for a particular artist after studying trade journals, examining boxes of 78s at swap meets, scrutinizing auction lists, and talking to other collectors about what records show up often. (It will be difficult for collectors of the twenty-first century to figure out from duplicate copies what records had sold well in the acoustic era since finding large collections of 78s for sale stopped being easy for most collectors in the 1990s.)

We can debate which versions or takes sold best, but collectors agree that some titles from the acoustic era pop up again and again. They include Richard Jose's "Silver Threads Among The Gold," Arthur Collins' "The Preacher and the Bear," Billy Murray's "Grand Old Rag [or Flag]," "The Arkansaw Traveler" (Len Spencer is on Victor discs and Edison cylinders but Harry Spencer appears to be on Columbia versions), Nat Wills' "'No News' or 'What Killed the Dog,'" Collins and Harlan's "Bake Dat Chicken Pie," Joe Hayman's "Cohen on the Telephone" (Columbia executive George Clarence Jell told Jim Walsh that over two million copies sold), Selvin's "Dardanella," Paul Whiteman's "Three O'Clock In The Morning" (some researchers have erroneously identified Whiteman's "Whispering" as his biggest seller), Wendell Hall's "It Ain't Gonna Rain No Mo'," Okeh's "Laughing Record," and Vernon Dalhart's "The Prisoner's Song." Among Victor's Red Seal records that sold well, Alma Gluck's "Carry Me Back To Old Virginny" (74420), issued in mid-1915, may be easiest to find today. A good rule of thumb is that if one owns six copies of any one record after buying various collections, then the record was probably a huge seller.

Some secondary sources exaggerate the popularity of certain records. Such claims are not repeated in this book. For example, a few jazz historians claim that "Tiger Rag" was the best-selling record of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, but it is safer to assert only that it was the ODJB number most often covered by later bands. An artist's most influential record is not necessarily that artist's best seller. Collectors know from experience that several copies of the ODJB's "Margie," issued in early 1921, will turn up before a copy of "Tiger Rag" appears. "Tiger Rag" was genuinely popular but it was issued in August 1918 when the Victor Talking Machine Company was unable to issue huge quantities of any disc since shellac was being diverted from the record industry for the making of munitions. Victor advertisements in early 1919 proclaimed, "Don't blame the dealer for the shortage of Victor products--the Government needed us!"

Some titles remained available in catalogs for a long period but that does not necessarily mean they sold well. George M. Cohan's "Life's A Funny Proposition After All" was available on Victor 60042 from 1911 until 1927, but it is not a common record. Admittedly, it is easier to find than Cohan's other six Victor discs. The two Nora Bayes records that remained available as late as 1925 in Victor's catalog (45123 and 45136) are among her rarest.

A few writers in recent years, following the example of Joel Whitburn's badly researched Pop Memories: 1890- 1954 (Record Research Inc., 1986), have cited precise chart numbers for early recordings--what records after being released were Number One, Number Two, Number Three, and so on. It is a deplorable trend, and my encyclopedia never refers to chart positions. Primary sources provide no basis for assigning chart numbers. No company files tell us precise numbers; trade journals never systematically ranked records (dealers at times reported to Talking Machine World that certain records were selling well but this is meaningless, and some salesmen might have been trying to create interest in merchandise that they wished would sell better); record catalogs contain no information about sales; sheet music sales are irrelevant (in any case, sales figures cited on sheet music covers were often exaggerated).

Nobody today can create accurate charts or rank best-sellers of the acoustic era because not enough information was published or compiled by the various companies, and the further back in time we go, the more difficulty we have in identifying hits. Even if one had access to sales figures of the 1890s, a chart of hits means little for an era when records of many popular titles were made in the hundreds, not thousands or millions. Moreover, markets were regional, not national. For example, many "original" records were made and sold only by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company in 1898, while Peter Bacigalupi in San Francisco also marketed on the Pacific coast cylinders available nowhere else. All chart positions concerning records of the acoustic recording era are fictitious, and since they are misleading, they do much harm.


Vess Ossman

Entries rarely discuss technical developments, such as improvements in recording and playback equipment, yet the state of technology in any given year helped determine who recorded at that time. That is a point worth developing here.

In the 1890s male singers far outnumbered female singers, and trade journals at the turn of the century were frank about technology of the time not doing justice to female voices. When records were issued of Minnie Emmett and Corinne Morgan, promotional literature actually stressed that finally the female voice had been successfully recorded, which was an admission that the female voice posed special challenges. The June 1903 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "It has always been a difficult matter to make successful Records of female voices, and after months of careful experimentation our Record Department has succeeded in getting perfect results in quartettes and duets. It is now at work on solos, and expects before long to list some very good songs by female voices." Contraltos and mezzo-sopranos were better served than sopranos, whose high notes were sometimes shrieks on early playback technology.

Edward B. Marks, recalling his experience of running the Universal Phonograph Company in the late 1890s, writes in They All Sang (Viking Press, 1935), "The women's voices never sounded right, but their names looked good in the catalog." Marks refers specifically to Lottie Gilson and Annie Hart. It is likely that other female pioneers were recorded in the 1890s mainly to add variety to catalogs. The January 1899 issue of The Phonoscope includes an advertisement in which the Lyric Phonograph Company (1270 Broadway, New York City) boldly declares itself the "only company making full toned record [sic] of the female voice." This refers to mezzo-soprano Estella L. Mann, shown in the advertisement singing into three recording horns. She owned and operated the company.

In short, anyone struck by how infrequently female singers were recorded in early years must consider the state of technology at the time. It was not sexist attitudes of the day that prevented women from entering studios although some were pressured by husbands to give up recording careers. Elise Stevenson wrote to Jim Walsh in the late 1940s that her departure from the recording field while at the peak of her popularity was due to the wish of husband Rusling Wood, a businessman who asked that she concentrate on being a housewife and mother. The marriage of Grace Spencer in 1903 to Dr. Willard Foster Doolittle ended her recording career. (Within a year or two, Ada Jones would become the first truly important female recording artist--at least of "popular" material.)

Ada Jones

When speculating about why certain recording pioneers abruptly stopped recording or significantly reduced their output, we should consider that some may have owed their initial success to having the right voice in the right place at the right time. As time went on and technology improved, some artists became less essential to companies. It is difficult to prove, but this may apply to any number of singers--J.J. Fisher, for example. His was a good voice but he was never prominent on the concert stage (at this time virtually no prominent singers embraced the new recording medium, the sound being too crude to help anyone's professional reputation). His success around 1898 was undoubtedly the result of Fisher having not only a voice that recorded just right but the patience to make records. It is possible that his services were no longer in great demand by 1902 because of advancements in technology. Improved equipment meant studios finally had their pick of any number of singers. Also, the permanent master, widely adopted at the time, reduced recording opportunities and therefore income for artists who had been earning a living by hopping from studio to studio. Fisher became an insurance salesman and real estate dealer.

In the 1890s George J. Gaskin's voice could be duplicated better than most voices. Edward B. Marks writes in They All Sang, "Few voices reproduced well, and these, for some reason, were not always voices one should have wished to reproduce...George had one of the best reproducing voices in the old phonograph days--one of the tinniest voices in the world." With improvements in technology at the recording and playback ends, studios in time could do justice to a great number of singers. Was Gaskin, with his "tinny" voice, judged dispensable? Gaskin later made PathÅ and Rex discs, which is evidence of his willingness to record, but he was not an important or popular recording artist after 1904.

Dan W. Quinn's voice was one that happened to record well at a time when technology was crude. Quinn recounted how he began recording in early 1892 in a letter sent to Jim Walsh, who quotes it at length in "Reminiscences of Dan W. Quinn," published in the July 1934 issue of Music Lovers' Guide: "I was lucky enough to have a voice and style of singing that were just 'made' for recording...I don't know what it was about my voice that made it 'go,' as I always sang quietly. There must have been some latent penetrating power." Quinn made records for many years but was most important in the 1890s, his popularity declining quickly after the turn of the century.

Likewise, S. H. Dudley's voice was good but not extraordinary. As technology became more sophisticated, the baritone recorded less often. Did technical advancements lead to a reduced output? Recording technology by 1902 could do justice to any number of baritones, and more singers were willing to enter a studio. Dudley, using his real name Sam Rous, had other talents and remained active in the industry--among other responsibilities, he wrote text for early Victor catalogs and the related monthly supplements.

Due to crude technology in the industry's early years, stamina was more important than artistry. Indeed, if artists of the 1890s attempted anything subtle in delivery, it could go undetected by the recording equipment. In the days before the permanent master, singers with the "right" voices who were willing and able to perform by the round--singing one song ten times in a row, then another song ten times, and so on--could earn a living. Year after year, some artists made new takes of the same popular songs. Nobody who listens to the recordings of George W. Johnson is likely to conclude that he was a first-rate singer or brilliant interpreter of song. Johnson's willingness to perform a few songs often (he recorded thousands of takes of "The Laughing Song") was the key to his success. He sang for virtually every company a handful of titles over and over, the advent of the permanent master record evidently ending his career. Of all the important pioneers, Johnson had the most limited repertoire.

Billy Murray

Consider Silas Leachman. Walsh's article on Leachman in the July 1955 issue of Hobbies emphasizes the singer's strength as well as his versatility, which would have been important to a studio (again, George W. Johnson stands out as an artist who succeeded without being versatile). Walsh quotes an 1895 Scientific American article that had stated about Leachman, "[H]e has been practicing loud singing for four years. He has been doing this work until his throat has become calloused so that he no longer becomes exhausted after singing a short time. As soon as he has finished one song he slips off the wax cylinders, puts on three fresh ones without leaving his seat, and goes right on singing until a passing train compels him to stop for a short time." Clearly Leachman's talents were not strictly musical. Walsh also quotes an article from the October 1905 issue of the English trade journal Talking Machine News. Linzey A. Willcox had written about Leachman, "I believe that musically his records were not a success, but for clearness of words they 'took on' tremendously." Later, Leachman was an inspector of personnel for the Chicago police, and his Chicago Tribune obituary makes no mention of his records, his recording career evidently forgotten or deemed unimportant.

Just as 1925 was an important year in marking the transition from acoustic to electric recording, so 1902 was important since major companies at that time adopted the permanent master record. This made recording less lucrative for artists who in the 1890s had been paid to sing during any one session the same handful of songs over and over. Masters were used in the 1890s but they wore out after a few dozen duplicates were made. The gold-moulded cylinder process finally adopted in 1902 for commercially issued cylinders was revolutionary, and disc companies developed ways of creating identical negative stampers--a copper master would be made from the original wax master (a process that destroyed the fragile wax master), a mother shell would be made from the copper master, and several stamper shells would be made from the mother. It was at this time that Victor adopted the matrix system and the "sunken," as opposed to "flush," Monarch label.

The permanent master meant that once a song was successfully recorded, an artist rarely needed to cover it again for a company. Sessions for some artists became less frequent. A few may have given up their recording careers because the improved technology made this line of work less lucrative. It is interesting that in 1902 Frank C. Stanley gave up a banking job to be a professional singer. He obviously did not feel threatened by the advent of the permanent master. But others around this time did the opposite, leaving the recording field for more traditional work.

The state of technology in some years determined who made records in another sense. For most of the acoustic era nearly all recording activity was done on the East coast, especially in New York City. Setting up recording equipment in various cities was not feasible, unlike today when modern technology makes it possible for artists to make quality recordings in any location. It is true that in the 1890s companies in various cities made original recordings, but such companies in San Francisco, Kansas City, and elsewhere stopped making their own "original" cylinders after the permanent wax master was adopted by the industry. From around 1900 to the early 1920s almost all commercial recording sessions were in New York City or in New Jersey (the Edison company had a studio in Orange; Victor had a studio in Camden). Artists who moved away from this area stopped making records; likewise, American musicians who never traveled to New York or New Jersey were simply not recorded. That changed a little in the early 1920s when recording engineers began traveling to new locations with portable equipment.


In considering technical matters, we must also remember that performing into a studio's horn was never like working on a stage. An ability or willingness to adjust to studio conditions helped determine who recorded often and who did not. In an interview for the March 23, 1913 issue of Providence Journal, Lucy Isabelle Marsh stated, "Singing to [make] records, or making canned music--you may call it that without giving offence, for, although it savors of slang, we ourselves use it in the recording laboratory--is not materially different from concert work after one has become accustomed to the strange environment..."

The environment was "strange" even in that singers heard their own voices differently than in a large auditorium. This was due to the size and acoustics of a studio but also to the voice being projected into a horn. Cupping a hand to the back of an ear helped a singer only a little in hearing his or her own voice. Relatively few musicians made enough recordings to grow accustomed to studio conditions. If the records of some stage celebrities who attended only a recording session or two are lackluster (and some mementos of once-famous artists are disappointing), it may be due largely to these artists not spending enough time in a studio to become comfortable in the relatively unusual recording environment.

Studios were bare and often stifling in these days before air conditioning. There was no audience to inspire brilliant performances unless one counts the studio pianist providing accompaniment. Soon after the turn of the twentieth century, a handful of house musicians provided accompaniment, and most were also near the horn, uncomfortably close to the featured artist (incidentally, accompanying musicians were seated in chairs of differing heights, some instruments being elevated so they would be recorded properly). Because they were crowded near the recording horn, musicians did not always have space for music racks. A photograph duplicated in the January 1983 issue of Hobbies shows that Columbia's studio had wires hanging from the ceiling, and these are designed to hold musical scores; a different photograph in the May 1922 issue of The American Magazine again shows a studio (the same?) with such wires. For several reasons, accompaniment in a studio did not sound quite like that in a theater, at least not in early days. For example, an accompanying violinist used a Stroh violin, which had a specially attached diaphragm and horn (patented in 1899, the device was invented by John Matthias Augustus Stroh and manufactured by his son Charles).

To perform take after take under these conditions required patience. Multiple takes were often needed since there was no way to edit blemishes from a performances, no way to splice together different takes. A mistake--or a cough or sneeze from an accompanying musician within range of the recording horn--usually meant beginning again.

Richard Jose

Above is Richard Jose, the first countertenor to make records.

In the October 1954 issue of Hobbies, Aida Favia-Artsay quotes soprano Mabel Garrison, who began making records in 1916: "It was nerve-wracking! Every little imperfection--and not only due to singing--meant another recording. Sometimes everything would work out perfectly, but a violinist might slightly touch his violin with a bow, and the record would have to be done again." Actually, not every performance on issued records is perfect since mistakes are audible on some records. Even if musicians performed flawlessly, additional takes might be required because of problems at the recording end.

Victor's September 1917 catalog supplement includes an article titled "How Recordings Are Made In The Victor Laboratory," and it stresses how trying the recording process could be: "There is only a bare auditorium stripped of every bit of unnecessary furniture...Spoken directions cannot be given once the recording instrument is set in motion...So communication between artist and operator is by signs. The artist who makes a record sings into the horn and sees nothing else except a bare wall and the face of the operator at a tiny window."

In later years artists would recall the difficulties of recording into horns. Researcher Milford Fargo interviewed tenor Walter Van Brunt and quoted his words at an Edison National Historic Site gathering in October 1976: "My voice evidently cut a little more than Ada's [Ada Jones was among his regular singing partners], and I would stand back of her shoulder. I'd put my arm around her lots of times. Especially where I was singing harmony I'd have to get back a little so I wouldn't drown Ada's voice out. When Ada would sing solo, she'd stand in; and when I had a solo part, Ada would move over. On the interludes between verses we'd both duck down to let the sound of the orchestra past us. Then we'd have to come up. We ducked down on the introductions and the tags...If you had a headache, it wasn't so good. When we were both singing, then I'd put my arm around her and we almost had our heads together pointing right straight into the horn. It was just a small opening, and it was made out of a material that wouldn't vibrate. She would stand on a box [since] she was shorter....Most companies had a music rack to put your stuff on....You didn't hold [sheet music] because it would rattle."


For stars of the stage, fees earned for making records in the early years hardly made up for the undignified conditions. In an era before million sellers, record companies were unable to pay much. It is true that by 1904 Victor paid handsomely to sign opera luminaries and even assigned royalties, but such artists brought much-needed prestige to the fledgling industry, so the company wrote off high fees as an advertising expense.

Okeh Records

In the 1890s some celebrities did make records, perhaps in some cases for the novelty of the experience--after all, it was the best way to hear one's voice as others heard it. The Berliner Gramophone Company somehow induced famous orators to make discs. For example, Chauncey M. Depew recited into the recording horn "A Story at a College Dinner" and two other orations, presumably repeating what he had said at some public functions. At this time Depew was president of the New York Central Railroad (he was later a U.S. Senator), and any fees earned for making the records would not have motivated Depew. It is likely that someone--perhaps Fred Gaisberg-- convinced Depew that his oratory skills should be preserved for posterity.

But Broadway stars naturally expected to be paid handsomely for their performances, and few made records in the 1890s. As recording and playback technology improved, and as prospering companies were able to pay larger fees, more Broadway celebrities made records, some having many sessions, such as Al Jolson, who was well paid. By 1910 most Broadway stars who made records earned royalties (Victor used a purple label for such artists whereas studio singers who were issued on the regular black label earned flat fees for each session or monthly salaries). But no stage performer of any renown during the industry's first two decades cultivated recording careers the way, for example, Frank C. Stanley or Len Spencer did. Stage celebrities could ill afford the time that a Stanley or Spencer spent in a studio.

We must recognize a distinction between stage personalities who happened to make some recordings--when they found time in their busy schedules--and artists who made their living largely by recording regularly, perhaps finding a little time on the side for theatrical performances, vaudeville, or concert recitals. Few stars of the stage made records regularly. Exceptions are Bert Williams, Nora Bayes, and Al Jolson, but even their output is minuscule compared with that of Henry Burr, Harry Macdonough, Lewis James, Vernon Dalhart, Irving Kaufman, and others who, for a long time, earned a living by recording....

NOTE: This is roughly half of the encyclopedia's introduction. I call it an encyclopedia because the detailed articles on the 100 recording pioneers are organized alphabetically.

Irving Kaufman making a record in Okeh's recording studio!


In a series of articles for the rare Phonograph Monthly Review, Nat Shilkret gives interesting details about his earliest years in the recording studios, including what it was like to record into a horn instead of microphone!

May Hyers

To the right is a page from a mid-1898 catalog issued by the Kansas City Talking Machine Company. May C. Hyers was the first African-American female to make recordings. Her records were issued as brown wax cylinders, but none are known to have survived.

She covered a variety of genres from sentimental favorites, such as "Ben Bolt," to hits of the day, including "Pumpkin Colored Coon" (KCTM cylinder #203).

The image of Hyers was made in the months that record companies began to take notice of a new American musical form, namely ragtime. The words "rag" and "ragtime" were first added to record titles and record catalogs in the summer of 1898.