Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recording Muzzles and Razors in the air--early stories from Fred Gaisberg

Yes indeed, Fred Gaisberg, the teenager dropped into the wild and woolly recording business in its earliest days. 

Many of us have had the opportunity to read from his diaries of trekking through Europe and Asia with Sinkler Darby, and have thoroughly enjoyed his vivid and witty descriptions of Madrid and the French countryside. Before all of that across the pond, he had a well-established life and recording career in the U.S. Someone in my immediate record collecting community has yet to buy a copy of Gaisberg's memoir written in the 1930's. Any time an original copy of his original book comes up somewhere, it is always sold for an extreme amount of money, an amount that no record collector in reality could afford to pay on a single item. Some of the information in his book(that is quoted everywhere), reminds us that the book is certainly worth the 2,000 or more of any currency it's worth. The amount of fantastic stories and anecdotes that Gaisberg told in his books are certainly worth the money paid. 

When speaking with Charlie Judkins last weekend, it seems that he finally got a hold of one of the books about Gaisberg(The one called A Voice in Time). It's not the infamously rare and valuable one, but it's the one that was about his life and travels in America, to Europe, and Asia. Of course, the "good stuff" to the two of us was certainly the tales he told from 1890's Washington. According to all sources(including him) he began working at the Columbia Phonograph company in 1889, which would have made him their first official studio pianist. Also, keep in mind that he was 16 when they hired him. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, and this is clear by the way that he described the very beginning. The thing that really got us hooked was of course his tales of Len Spencer from the very beginning. Amid his early days working there, it didn't take long for him to run into all of the limited amount of talent Columbia employed at the time. One of the first figures he met with was of course "the handsome Len Spencer"(hmm?Okay...) as he once stated. This story reveals a whole lot about Spencer, what we have often expected from him, and what turned out to be true. 

Gaisberg did not specify the office of Columbia, but he stated that he was at Pennsylvania Avenue(obviously Columbia's old headquarters), so it's hard to not know what he meant by that. He stated that the first time he met Spencer, Spencer was signing autographs for a group of "admiring darkies"(black kids) for a few cents each. Wow. Didn't really expect Spencer to have a black fan base. The image of him doing that really is kind of heart-warming, yet a little unexpected so early on in his recording. This is the sort of thing that we'd expect from Spencer in the exhibition days of Columbia in the late-90's. The fact that he was doing this so early on says a lot not only about him, but early Columbia. This was when Columbia had very slim management, and when those passing by the studio would gather outside the steps and essentially get a free concert. So with this, it seems groups of black kids built admiration for Spencer's singing, convinced he was black until they saw him. That really is somewhat surprising, since we wouldn't normally expect such offensive and stereotypical songs as Spencer's repertoire to be at all appreciated by the black community. Well, apparently we were wrong. This is one of those occasions that could very well change our viewpoint of what blacks thought of their own culture and society in the U.S. Makes me wonder what the black people who came to exhibitions thought of meeting with Spencer. Like any time encountering him, it must have been interesting, and slightly shocking. Again, our understanding of Spencer's relationship with black people has officially been changed with this new information. 

With all of this, we also have learned that Spencer not only had a black fan base, but also embodied many of the black stereotypes he spoke of so often on records. Other than just enough looking the part with his mess of curly brown hair and gaudy gold chains, he was a dedicated gambler. 

Of course, now that I know this, it seems I think now that Spencer dragged Hylands into gambling all their profits and such during the publishing firm. Yes, it seems likely that Hylands already had a taste for gambling, but after Spencer came along, that seemed to have inevitably been boosted. 
We know of Spencer as a rough-and-tumble sort of figure, more so than any of the early recording stars, with that scar on his face at whatnot. Contrary to what I have written previously on this matter regarding Spencer, it seems Gaisberg told the story of his scar differently. 

It's a little different than I had previously been told, but it's actually better the way Gaisberg told it. 
Here's how he spoke about Spencer, including the razor fight, and everything else:

Perhaps because of his unsavory reputation, my particular pet and hero of mine was the handsome Len Spencer. His father, the originator of the florid Spencerian handwriting, was the chief bugbear of thousands of schoolboys, myself included. The son had many and varied gifts. As a popular baritone, I accompanied him at concerts and for record-making. I first saw him seated at a small table in Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounded by admiring darkies, writing out visiting cards at six for a dime. His beautiful, ornate Spencerian writing, ending up with two doves, looked like engraving. Later I was always to remember his handsome face disfigured by a scar, the result of a razor-slash in an up-river gambling brawl. He was said to have been an adroit poker-player. His records of "Anchored", "Sailing", "The Palms", and "Nancy Lee" were important items of our repertoire. 

Well, there ya have it, Spencer in a nutshell. It's really surprising how much admiration he had for him, despite his certainly wild nature. Also, the way that he words his relationship with Spencer in the studio is also particularly interesting, "my particular pet and hero", especially since he's referring to recording for Columbia so early on. If we had a description of Spencer's relation with Issler or Hylands from a little later, I have the feeling that we'd hear something dramatically different. Issler would think of Spencer like an assistant and engineer, much like how Gaisberg was to Berliner. Hylands would have thought of Spencer like a sidekick to his rough-and-tumble antics(though Spencer was what stabilized their friendship). 
Without a doubt, Gaisberg understood how to best describe Spencer's beautiful script.
It certainly was like an engraving. 

Before all of that was written in the book, Gaisberg told his story of being with Sousa as a child:
I also sung in Sousa's choir, which was organised for Sunday evening concerts, and I attended rehearsals in his then modest home in the Navy Yard in south Washington. He patted me on the head and made quite a pet of me... I can still see the small room that one entered direct from the street, and a very old "tin-panny" square piano from which he conducted rehearsals. In hot weather the front door used to be left open and a circle of negro children would surround the entrance, silently enjoying the music we made. 
On Saturday afternoons in the spring and summer, the Marine Band formerly gave concerts on the lawn in the grounds of the White House... I was one of those music-mad youngsters who hovered by his podium and never missed a concert. On windy days his music used to become unmanageable, and he would turn round and beckon to me. It was then my pride to stand beside him to turn over and hold down the music. 

How great is that? Imagine little Gaisberg tagging along behind Sousa and the Marine Band. Everything about that is heartwarming and comical. It's funny that Gaisberg was accompanist to Quinn, who was also a choir boy until about age 12. Quinn probably told him that early on, and caused some surprise to Gaisberg. Imagining Sousa bitching at ten-year-old Gaisberg about his music not co-operating  at a concert is fantastic to the highest degree. It doesn't get much better than that, in terms of stories relating to early recording stars. 
His first time hearing of and meeting Berliner is also fantastic:

It was Billy Golden who asked me one day... If I would go with him to see a funny German who had started experimenting with a flat-disc talking machine records and wanted to make some trials. I was only too eager to see him at work. 
We found Emile Berliner in his small laboratory on New York avenue and received a warm welcome from the inventor. Billy was right, Berliner certainly did make me smile. Dressed in a monkish frock he paced up and down the small studio buzzing on a diaphragm[nice pun there Fred].
"Hello! Hello!" he recited in guttural, broken English. "Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vonder vot you are."

Hmm. How unexpected of Billy Golden. Normally, we wouldn't expect such a thing from him, but certainly he was well aware of everything that was going on in the early business. Being at Columbia meant for that in the first place, since they were the ones who invented the dubbing/pantographing process. Even for a hick, Golden knew his way around in the business. 
Here's how Gaisberg described his first session with Berliner(on the day that he and Golden called):

Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden's mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at the piano, the sounding-board of which was also boxed up and connected to the diaphragm by a hose resembling an elephant's trunk. Berliner said "Are you ready?" and upon our answering "Yes", he began to crank like a barrel-organ, and said "Go." 
The song finished, Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for a few minutes. Then, taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc. Placing it on the reproducing machine, also operated by hand like a coffee-grinder, he played back the the resulting record from the etched groove. 
To our astonished ears cam Billy Golden's voice. Berliner proudly explained to us just how this method was superior to the phonograph. He said that in his process the recording stylus was vibrated laterally on a flat surface, thus always encountering an even resistance, and this accounted for a more natural tone. 
Acquainted as I was with the unnatural reproduction of the old cylinder-playing phonographs, I was spell-bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before I departed that day I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development. 

And a few months later, he received a card from Berliner asking him to come along to his lab once again, to officially make some records. Well, it seems we know why early Berliner records sounded to great now. This strange and horrific sounding method of using muzzles and all of these tubes was the ticket to the signature Berliner sound, which as we know, was clear and full in the beginning. This is why we get fantastic records like Quinn's 1895 Berliner of "The Streets of Cairo". Now that we know all of that, we can all picture this strange method being done with those earliest Berliners. Another with this, not with piano though, is one of George Graham's first records, his "Street Fakir" from 1896. That muzzle was right there, and this is why it sounds like the speaker and piano were right in front of the diaphragm. 

Also! Here's his description of getting Graham to record for Berliner:

Then there was George Graham... a member of and Indian Medicine Troupe doing one-night stands in the spring and summer and in winter selling quack medicines at the street corners. His tall, lanky figure, draped in a threadbare Prince Albert coat and adorned with a flowing tie, his wide-brimmed Stetson hat and his ready stream of wit combined to extract the dimes and nickels from his simple audience in exchange for a bottle of coloured water. 
I discovered him one day on the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue selling a liver cure to a crowd of spell-bound negroes. He was assisted by John O'Terrell, who strummed the banjo and sang songs to draw the crowd. I brought this pair to Emile Berliner. Always a student of humanity, he was delighted... George recorded...his famous talk on "Liver Cure" in which he cited the instance of a sick man taking one bottle of his liver cure, and when he died the liver was so strong that they had to take it out kill it with a club.

Yep, that was this guy:
The image that Gaisberg pieces together with Graham is really very vivid, and puts us right there at where he found him. Of course, this is ever more tangible by seeing the two picture we have of him. It's all fitting together. 

His description of Charlie Tainter is also one of the best articulated of his character descriptions in this early portion. Here's a picture before the description:
That's him in the late-1870's. 

Charles Sumner Tainter was a scientist as well as mechanical genius. I can see him now working at a watch-makers lathe with a glass to his eye; he had a touch as delicate as a woman's. I never knew anyone who lived so abstemiously...
Tainter was an Englishman an a confirmed tea-drinker. Indeed, he taught me how to brew and enjoy it. The perfume of that special China blend of his haunts me still. Between the cups he would mount the diaphragm and adjust the angle of the cutting stylus. In his clear Yorkshire voice he would test them with:
"Caesar, Caesar, can you hear what I say---this, which; s-ss-sss."
The stress was alway laid on the sibilants, these being the most difficult sounds to record. In playing back the test, at the slightest indication of the "s" sound, he would smile with joy and treat himself to another cup. 

Certainly one of the best characters who Gaisberg truly admired, more than most of us would think, since Tainter hadn't much to do with Gaisberg early on. 

Before I finish, here's his full description of AtLee, who turned out to be his very first project while employed at Columbia in 1889:

[AtLee's]pompous announcements which introduced each performance in tones that made the listener visualise a giant. In reality he was a mere shrimp of a man, about five feet in his socks, that little government clerk with a, deep powerful voice.Of this and his fine flowing moustache he was mighty proud. After his office hours, from nine to four, as a wage-slave of the U. S. Government, he would return to his modest home where I would join him. In the parlour stood an old upright piano and a row of three phonographs lent to him by the Columbia Phonograph Company. Together we would turn out, in threes, countless records of performances of "Whistling Coon", "The Mocking bird" and "The Laughing song". I can still hear that reverberating announcement:


I was then only sixteen, some professor...

AtLee has pretty much seemed exactly the same in other descriptions of him out there, not much is different from what we've already heard, but of course, Gaisberg's diction is priceless. It seems as though working for AtLee was horrid for him, though it must have secretly been a joy. 

There were more stories, but that will make this post just as unmanageable as Sousa's music blowing in the wind, so I'll stop here. 
Hope you enjoyed this! 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Fascinating new Theories

After conversing with Ryan Wishner last evening, we came to some interesting conclusions and notions that had not previously been discussed. Before I get into all that, I must revise some of what I said in the last post, and add to it. It seems that with a little help, we've been able to find some more on these two:
All-right, so it seems that we've figured out the birthdates for everyone in Issler's orchestra! Now that's better than collectors have known for many a decade! So, lets list them in chronological order, birthdate and deathdate:

David Brown Dana(1850-c.1914)

Edward Issler(1856-1943)

George Schweinfest(1862-1949)

William Tuson(1864-1943)

Got it! It seemed really surprising to Charlie Judkins and I to find that not only was Dana older than the others, but he was older than everyone had expected, and than all the old recording sources gu-estimated. With his birthdate being 1850, Dana would have been 39 when he began recording with Issler. He would have been in his 40's when recording regularly with Issler which is very unusual for the time, and really puts it in to an interesting perspective. Also, something to correct from the last post, Dana was not originally from Patterson New Jersey, that's where he was in the 1880's, he was originally from Rhode Island. Something interesting to note, Dana's father John was a machinist. This fact further cements the strange connections of machinery/engineering and musicians in general. If there's an engineering mindset in a family, there's going to inevitably be a musician in the family somewhere, it's just how it happens. 
Think about it,
Ben Harney was a fantastic mathematician before he found music.

Hylands' father was a Locomotive engineer. 

Dana's father was a machinist.

Banta tuned and repaired pianos as a child

It's all starting to fit together. Finally was have somewhere to start with Dana, though we don't know when he died. The guesses that many sources online state are actually not too inaccurate, since from what we can find, he certainly died in the mid-1910's, but the exact year is what we can't find. Either way, he was in his sixties when he died, which was certainly better than average in the era. We found Tuson's dates, which were much more exact than expected, since these Issler members seem to be a real project in terms of piecing together. Tuson lived a long life like Schweinfest, at almost 80 when he died, that's nearing Issler and Schweinfest's age(they were both 87 when they died). Not much else was found on Tuson, though the dates were really what we needed to start, since no one seemed to have found them before then. 
Now that we got that out of the way...

Now back to the beginning of the post. 
So last evening, many of these new theories we discussed were some that need to be shared. Most of these seem as though they were completely wild and outrageous. To begin, we go back to that strange connection in the last post between Thomas Hindley and the Issler crew. 

It's likely that the only reason this piece was recorded so many times in the 1890's is because Hindley was a close friend of the studio musicians. By that, I mean the first studio musicians, Issler and his orchestra. The sole fact that Hindley was mentioned in a single section working in the same pit orchestra as Dana and Tuson suggests a direct connection between "Patrol Comique" and the earliest recording stars. It does seem a little strange that such a somewhat obscure piece like that was recorded so many times in a short period, by essentially all the popular studio musicians. 

This brings me to another theory, what about Hindley directly? What if...he  was in the recording studios? It wouldn't come as a shock if Hindley just happened to be one of those studio pianists for the more obscure record companies early on(1889-1894). Really think about this, what is the composition of "Patrol Comique" like? Well, if you were to ask me, I would say it sounds an awful lot like the style that was associate with Fred Hylands, and only Hylands in this matter, because it doesn't really sound like Issler as much as it does Hylands. Okay, here's the piece as written:
Not only do we see well founded syncopation, we see alternating an ever-interesting left hand playing. Hmm...
I'm not saying that Hindley is on any of those dozen or so takes of "Patrol Comique" out there, but with all of this being said, there's a slight possibility of this being so. Of course, the likelihood of this is so slight that it shouldn't be well-noted. However, the possibility of such a pianist as Hindley being a studio star is a little more than just a coincidence. After doing some digging on Hindley, he appears to have been the music director of the famous fifth avenue theater in New York in the 1880 in to the later-1890's. 
Here's a not-so-great drawing of him from a New York Theatrical Paper, dated 1891(though the picture's probably from c.1887)
It was stated that oddly enough, Hindley was from Manchester England, and he emigrated to the U. S. in 1870. Okay, so it seems he was probably around Dana's age, because it says that he got work in orchestras out in the U. S. by 1871. It seems that he was a cornet and piano player, which is an odd combination, but makes sense since he was mentioned as working with Dana, who was also a cornetist. He seemed to be mentioned in theatrical papers similarly to Hylands, since they were both music directors, and worked in various popular orchestra pits in vaudeville. Funny to think that Hindley was likely connected to the recording studios, as well as being a pit rival and director of Hylands, and even a musical writer! Wow. Seems we've kind of found a Hylands double! Well, he was doing all of this a little earlier than Hylands was, but the amount of parallels seem to be surprising. 
Wow! The similarities between Hindley and Hylands are astonishing!
It must be noted that Dana was in Newark NJ in the 1870's, as well as Issler, and Hindley just the same. So without a doubt it seems that these characters knew each other, and were likely friends from working in similar pits and with similar companies. While more unfolds about Hindley, I will report in coming blog posts, since this strange connection of him maybe being a studio pianist is not just a small crazy thing. We need to keep this in mind when listening to brown wax. There's not much we can do with this information as of now, but we need to save it for when more unfolds. 

Okay, now to another fantastic theory. 
We certainly know that freaky chap. Yes indeed, Len Spencer. So, his beginnings in recording may seem pretty clear on the surface, but in reality, they're missing a lot of the essential pieces of information. First of all, the dates are often a little fuzzy, some people say 1889, 1888, and even 1887. Why the hell does this matter? It's just a date.

Well, I'll tell you why it matters. 

This may seem a little outlandish, but think about this. I firmly stand on 1887 as the date he began working with the phonograph. Only because he must have started having to run errands for his father to fix the new-fangled machine(phonograph) owned by the college. The local company in Washington at the time(1887) was Bell and Tainter. Of course, during this time, the boys(Bell and Tainter) were working on all sorts of strange sound devices, though their latest triumph over Edison was the Graphophone. They also invented the idea of wax cylinders(Ha! take that Edison!). 

With this being said, young busy teacher Len Spencer had to run some errands for his old dad. Think of it like how young people now have to often help old people with their cell phones. Same thing. Len's curiosity soon boiled over for this graphophone thingy. But of course, since Len was curious, he soon got to a different idea. Doing something different from office dictation(what it was intended for). Spencer recorded sound effects like tapping a pen on a table, hitting a wine glass with a spoon, and soon wondered, "What do I sound like?"

There you go folks. In 1887, Len Spencer was likely one of the first to ever think that recording music was a good idea, and had public potential(NOT JUST AS EXPERIMENTS!!!) and therefore likely made the first commercial recordings of popular music. This is Len Spencer folks. Just before Columbia  was formed, he was already pitching the idea to Bell and Tainter that the future of the graphophone was music! Oddly enough, it was around 1888 that Bell and Tainter began experimenting with recording music for their contraption. Well, there you go, because of Spencer, Bell and Tainter(who in 1889 fell into Columbia) became the first commercial recording company. We know that Spencer recorded commercially by 1889, but it's likely that in 1888, he was doing the same he did for Columbia, for Bell and Tainter. Thanks to Frank Dorian, we know how Spencer started, at Columbia that is. 

See there's your issue. Dorian didn't know about his association with Bell and Tainter, which would HAVE  to have been what he was using if he was conducting all of those experiments in 1887 and 1888. Columbia was not selling their own machines under patent until 1889(ish). Spencer likely made trips to the Volta Lab several times in 1887 and 1888, until he learned of Columbia getting set up at their famous Lab on Pennsylvania Avenue:
Thinking of dandy Spencer, he probably rode a fancy bicycle to the Volta and early Columbia labs to buy and steal parts and pieces from them for his experiments. Of course sooner than later Master Easton took to the young man and allowed him to record and conduct his experiments under their roof rather than awkwardly doing so at the business college. It also must have been out of the fact that the slim management Columbia hired at the time were well-interested in Spencer's curious desire to promote recording music. We know that in 1889, that was when recording music took off for all the record companies. Spencer's influence was no longer present after that. 
We also know that 1889 was when studio musicians were hired for the first time, since recording music was the future at that point. In about early March of 1889, Ed Issler became the first studio pianist, and around the same time, Issler brought in his newly-formed parlor orchestra.

Whew! With all of that being said, I'll save the Rag-time theories for the next post. Those were just as important as these listed above, but will make this post too long. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

Monday, April 3, 2017

Piecing together Issler and Issler's Orchestra

After doing some digging on these fantastic musicians, a little more about their coming together is clear. of course, we have yet to fully understand how Issler joined all of them together, but some of the digging has proved well and is giving us hints, and opening more ideas. This is all fitting into place now, especially after having more information on Issler in the first place, finding the others has proved interesting just the same. 

Let's begin with the beloved George Schweinfest. We know him well as the premiere piccolo and flautist of the 1890's recording business, more specifically with Issler's orchestra. Similarly to Issler, Schweinfest was a first generation American in his family, with both his parents being born in Bavaria(also like Issler!), his father's name being Casper and mother being Barbara. With this being so, it's likely that young George spoke German growing up, which would have meant for a slight dialect reminiscent in his speech later. Though of course, the records that we know he announces are interesting when trying to analyze this, take this record as an example "Robin Adair" from c.1899. It's still hard to know, though I am convinced that the voice at the beginning of the record just above is indeed the voice of Schweinfest. From what I could find on Schweinfest, he seemed to have lived a rather normal-seeming life at home, much like Hager did. He had a wife and three kids by 1900, which wouldn't make his being a musician too strange. Unlike Issler, his family life seemed much smoother and care-free, as it should have been, since being a studio musician wasn't an easy line. It really is a relief when learning of these recording stars and their family life wasn't so horrid, since that paired with working in the studio couldn't have been easy on any of the family of the recording star. We know that Schweinfest lived much longer than the other studio musicians, in fact, he lived longest into the 20th century compared to the other studio musicians of the 1890's. Recall that he died in almost 1950! With that being said, he essentially outlived everyone. The digging I did on Schweinfest didn't provide much in terms of newspaper mentioning, which was a little surprising. Despite that, he left a fantastic and well spread family, which means there are likely descendants of him. 
Such a kind sweet face. He really must have been a great guy, since there is absolutely nothing suspicious with him, and he certainly was easily agreeable. Being able to take Hylands after working with Issler for ten years is admirable to the highest degree. Also the fact that he was able fully to transition to Rag-Time in 1896 is also a very respectable thing, since he wasn't trained to play such a thing for sure, only to later compose a full-fledged cake-walk. 
Respect levels for him are extremely high with me. 

Anyway, now to move to Dana and Tuson. These two seem to be paired together earlier than expected, which is why I'm putting them together. I hate to use this terminology but, Dana and Tuson were a sort of "package" to Issler, since they already had been playing in groups since as early as 1888. On my search for them(separately mind you), I found several sections where Dana was mentioned as being in the same orchestra with Tuson, which seemed strange, being that I wasn't expecting them to be together. What made this ever more unusual is the fact that I couldn't find any traces of them together with Issler. In speaking of this, it must be noted that Dana was born in Patterson New Jersey in 1855, which would have made him 33-34 when he began working with Tuson. Interestingly enough, where Dana and Tuson worked was in a pit orchestra for a theater, and in the same section from 1888 I noticed that Thomas Hindley was also mentioned as a musician in the same pit. Any one of you early Rag-Time enthusiasts would recognise that name somewhat, because he was the composer of this piece here:
Yes indeed, "Patrol Comique" composed by Hindley in 1886, two years before that newspaper section where he was mentioned with Dana and Tuson. Oddly enough, this connection with Hindley intertwines two completely different lines of the early history of Rag-Time, one is a composer of an 1880's cake-walk and the other contributed to the earliest recordings of syncopated music. So now that we know all of this, maybe it was Hindley that helped the Issler crew along with better understanding the essence of black music, or he was involved to some extent. Clearly the Issler crew understood how to play all of this new-fangled(so-called, remember it had been around for decades by the 1880's), syncopated music. This of course, like anything, makes me want to know more about Thomas Hindley, since he was clearly able to well catch the early essence of a cake-walk better than many composers in the 1880's. Of course, none of this Hindley banter has anything to do with Issler, because only Dana and Tuson worked with him as far as we know. All of this strange connecting just gives a better understanding of how there were multiple pianists who played what we would call cake-walks in the 1880's and earliest years of the 1890's.  This all illustrates that playing similarly to how Issler improvises on these two recordings below:
(remember! This is the oldest recording of genuine Rag-Time out there, as far as we know)
just wasn't too uncommon in the late-1880's and early 1890's. This also goes for Dana and Tuson, especially since they were more directly connected with Hindley in the 1880's. 

Also, just a side-note about the 1891 "Whistling Coon", it may be the oldest example of recorded genuine Rag-Time(genuine because it's got written in syncopation, syncopated improvisation, and it's a former slave singing the song), and despite not having heard all of these fabled recordings from the years before 1891, such as the Issler and Schweinfest piano duets and solos, it's a safe bet to say all of this, because there's no recordings from before '91 of Johnson. Johnson really makes the recording genuine, more than any slight syncopation Issler or Schweinfest played for North American in 1889. 

Now onto some of the background about what I found on Issler. 
There he is, at Columbia's piano in 1897. 
Issler is turning out to be a little more complicated and interesting than expected. Unlike good Schweinfest, who lived a very normal family life under a light Catholic pledge, Issler lived more like a true musician. Of course, when I say this,  I don't mean that Issler was constantly in a state of suffering like Hylands. Issler lived more like a swell and stumbled into an interesting family life. Issler got married to Hannah Wade in 1880(puts into perspective how much older he was...) and had his first daughter Helen in 1883. As we know in the earlier days of his family life, he made a living as a general musician and music teacher(must have been a hard teacher as Charlie Judkins has jokingly stated!). Everything seemed all-right for the Issler's through the rest of the 1880's and the 1890's, until of course Ed began seeing trouble at work. 

Alright, this brings me to another subject that has rightfully resurfaced this week. We audibly and visually know that Issler remained at Columbia until at least the end of 1897, but after hearing all of those U.S. Phonograph records from those LP's, this notion has become in need of amendment.  After going back and listening to some odds and ends of 1898-99 Columbia, it seems the pianist is a little too stiff to be Hylands. Of course, these are records that are just slightly less like Hylands to where it's a little suspicious, here you go:
"The Laughing Coon" 1899

"How'd You Like to be the Iceman"(with Denny) 1899
One thing it for certain, these two records were not only recorded in the same year, but with the same pianist. The only reason these two takes sound more like Issler is the fact that they are just a little more stiff, sounding almost exactly the same as the pianist on "Uncle Jefferson" by Golden from 1897. The same stiff syncopation on "Uncle Jefferson" is present on both of these recordings, and despite the smoothness of Issler behind Johnson in 1891("The Whistling Coon"), it didn't turn out as nicely when he was seriously trying to play full-fledged Rag-Time at the height of the first half of the Rag-Time era(1896-1905). With all of this, it's finally seeming likely that Issler worked alongside Hylands for at least a few years longer than we thought before. So, as of now, Issler worked at Columbia until 1900 at the latest. But since we are doing a comparison here, listen to these two Johnson Columbia records from 1898-99, and compare them to the two listed above:
one of the best examples of Hylands accompaniment

and another take of the same thing
The first one is more likely Hylands than anyone else, and the other take has a similar story, especially since he ironically plays "Mister Johnson" at the end. 

So---with all of this, Issler was most certainly dropped from Columbia by 1901, because no longer after that do we hear that archaic style with all the 19th century embellishments and strictly perfect rhythm. After 1900, it seems that Issler saw some issues with his family life, as in the 1900 census, we can see Ed is living with his wife Hannah, daughter Helen, and brother-in-law Willie. In 1910, it's all different, he's listed as living with a woman named Jennie who was 16 years younger than he, still with Helen, but the brother-in-law is gone. Of course, we don't know what happened to wife no.1, but it's likely that she died. In 1900, it is stated that she and Ed had been married for 20 years, so it would seem a little strange if either one of them called for a divorce after that long, but that's always a possibility. Seems similar to how Hylands' wife dealt with being widowed to Fred, though she more light-heartedly ran off with another actor man, back where she started with Fred in Chicago(always seems a little funny to me).  According to the 1910 census, Ed had been married to Jennie for five years by then, and according to this as well, Ed is labeled as "M squared"(married twice), which is just kind of funny to say in terms of marriage. Even with whatever hit wife 1, Ed and Jennie made for a couple of swells, being mentioned in local papers often in the teen's for hosting gatherings at their house and Helen playing for the guests. Also, interesting thing to note, Helen was not yet married by 1920 by that point, and she was almost 40 by that point, just an interesting thing to note, also that she was a pianist(well, durr of course, if you were related to the first ever studio pianist, you'd be a musician too right?)
With all of that, Issler seems like a little more complicated a man than Schweinfest. I get the feeling that Issler was very intense, and a complicated, moody sort of man; so into his music that not much else mattered. He was a union type it would seem, but we cannot find him mentioned in connection to any musician unions. Being picky about pay was likely part of why he was dropped from Columbia, and refused some other jobs after 1900. Yep, it's seeming that the years after getting thrown out of Columbia and disbanding his original orchestra were hard times for him. Other than that, things seemed to have gone rather well for him after the 1900's passed by, as that was when they were being considered older swells from Newark(well, at least Ed was by that point), with Ed working in orchestras until the 1930's. 

Before I end here, here's a fantastic(not very well labeled...) transfer of a 1900 Columbia of "Dancing on the Housetops":
There's some loud low notes in that piano accompaniment. Throughout the record this is so. Classic early Rag-Time!

Hope you enjoyed this! 

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Digging into early records and Spencer

Last Saturday, Charlie Judkins sent me a fantastic bunch of recordings that were from an LP of "North American" cylinders(this is in quotes because not all of them are from this company). This LP is essentially a compilation of interesting takes from 1892-1897 from a variety of early companies. The companies included are Columbia, Edison, U. S. of New Jersey, North American, and maybe even Bell and Tainter if we're that lucky. 

Many of the records that were in these two LP's would have borne this lovely logo on a slip or indigo rectangular box. The majority of the "good stuff" on the LP's were made by the U. S. Phonograph company, such as the Issler's orchestra records. The solos by piccolo and xylophone were made for North American as suggested by the LP. The amount of recordings that came along with this find can be considered a treasure trove, since there's so much to listen to all at once, and it's all good! Two of the LP's indicated North American cylinders, and another indicated Berliner discs, and those are all certainly as the title suggests. 

Since it's not completely full of interesting stuff, here's the link to the Berliner discs:
Where do I begin? 
Well, that recording of "The Charlatan March" by the Metropolitan orchestra is really great, especially since we know that orchestra was led by Banta. And yes, if you're wondering it is indeed the same group by the same name that recorded for Victor after 1900. 
"the Sidewalks of New York" by Gaskin is really nice as well, especially since I have friends who have been waiting for a good transfer of such a thing by Gaskin for a while. Well, here you go. 
We've all heard "The Streets of Cairo" by Quinn, and the transfer on this one is not the best oddly enough, there are better transfers of it out there. 

We know what the best record from this LP is. It's certainly Hunting's "Oh Uncle John". That's absolutely worth the wait to hear it. Since it's Hunting, it's more than likely that he's actually playing his own accompaniment. In fact, since the piano isn't very good, I would bet he's on piano. If you really want to hear this record, go to 24:31 for this specific transfer! It's fully worth it! 

The next record worth the buffering of the long video for is the fantastic transfer of "Thoughts of Home Polka" by Messrs. Stengler and McNiece. That is an exceptional Berliner in terms of sound! It sounds like an early Berliner(from 1893-96), but it's from 1899, in the period were Berliner records sounded notoriously awful. Take a listen!

The last interesting take on this LP is the strange "Imitation of Steam Calliope" by the Brilliant Quartette. wow! that really does sound like a calliope! It's really impressive how accurate that sounds. The things that these vocal quartets did in the 1890's never fails to impress. 

Alright, now for what this post is really meant to be on. 
So,to begin, here's the link to the first LP that was sent to me:

After having the chance to hear a bunch of very early Spencer records(not just announcing!), I have come to an interesting conclusion. Listen to that fantastic recording of "Laugh you Little Niggers" in the link above, skip to 9:48 for this record. It seems that in his earlier days of recording, Spencer was much more energetic, and in some ways, more accurate in imitating the early minstrel show performers. 
His imitation of that old black character seemed a little different from how it was in the late-1890's. From a wilder character to a calmer almost pimp-like figure. I know that seemed beyond a little kind to say, but really do a comparison of his 1895 U.S. phonograph record of "Laugh You Little Niggers"(again, excuse the racist title), to one of his classic late-1890's Columbia's with Hylands:
What a contrast! The 1899 cylinder is much looser(because of the piano accompaniment durr...), and the overall feeling of the music is completely different from the 1895 record. Another comparison can be heard on his 1894 Imperial Minstrels records, two of which you can hear on the other LP that goes along with the one in the link a little farther above in the post. 
Here's the link to the other one:
The Imperial Minstrels record is at 31:40.
This is one of those long spoken of records that Spencer spent so much time and money on as a sort of project. The song Spencer sings on this record is that great syncopated piece recorded by quartets in the late 1890's, "A High Old Time", with a small orchestra as accompaniment. Spencer's singing early on can be well summed up on this one recording, since it has all of the same aspects of the 1895 "Laugh You Little Niggers"(sorry again...) are present just the same. It seemed his earlier style of singing(much to the likeness of Arthur Collins)  was not only more energetic, but louder, and more inspired by the concept of "negro shouts" than his singing later in the 1890's. It's more antiquated, as well as more of what we'd expect from what we've heard about younger Spencer. Oddly enough, since I have perfect pitch, I can well notice that Spencer's tone overall early on was much better than it was later. Hmm... getting a little suspicious... There's not really a way to explain how this could have gradually happened, in fact I actually have no idea how that would have come about. The only thing to keep in mind here with this is that Spencer was an untrained singer, similar to Quinn, and it's possible that he just happened to have near perfect pitch, which is why his singing(at least early on) was near perfect as far as pitch goes. This is starting to open up some new theories about Spencer, some that couldn't have been formulated before hearing these earlier records. Here's a theory that's fitting into place just as I'm writing this:

Earlier on, Spencer was a little more high-strung(though it's clear according to how he died that he always was) than after the mid-1890's. With this, his nature for perfection began to gradually fade around 1897, as the end of the round era passed around that time, and the need for perfection and habits he had formulated with rounds were needed to be broken. It didn't help that Fred Hylands was constantly pulling at him in the studio beginning in 1897, and that further calmed his firey nature. Working with the young and temperamental Hylands forced Spencer to become more patient, while at the same time more daring. 

This seems to make more sense now, because there's clearly a distinct contrast between Spencer's earlier records and his later ones. This contrast had to be for some reason, and the theory above could be a possible explanation. Clearly Spencer read Hylands early on, and realized that working with him was one of the best things he would do, but also the most toxic. We know very well that Spencer working with Hylands was one of the best duos in the acoustic era, both in dynamics, but also in their strange business relationship(that still doesn't make much sense). As I've said before, this partnership(Hylands and Spencer) remains one of the most complicated of the early recording business, more so than Collins and Harlan, and Russell Hunting and Charles Carson. Though their partnership lasted only a few years, it was full of all sorts of strange things, and it's surprising how long it lasted with the types of personalities the two of them had. Spencer was restless and a perfectionist, Hylands was disorganized and spontaneous. Yet with all of this contrast, we still get fantastic recordings like these: 

This is exactly why Spencer never ceases to lose my interest. 

Now for some more early records! In the two links above(the links to the LP's), you can hear "The Wren Polka", and "Bobolink Schottische" both by George Schweinfest. These records very well represent the genius of Edward Issler, since he's on piano on both of them. You can also hear Issler on not only dozens of his orchestra recordings scatted all over the LP's(which seems to be over 50% of what's on them anyway), but also on those two cornet solos by Dana of "Ben Bolt" and the "Tit-Willow Song", also you can hear him on "The Wood Nymph Galop" by Charles Lowe, which is announced by Spencer, indicating a U. S. record. 
The "Wren Polka" by Schweinfest is likely a North American record, because it is not announced by Spencer, and it has a different studio and piano sound than the obvious U. S. records. That recording in particular sounds like potentially the oldest recording on the LP's, other than that one U. S. Marine band record from 1891. If I were to date that Schweinfest solo, I would give it a date of 1892. With all that being said, who thinks this record below is a North American record?
Hmm. it sounds like an early record, much like the others exhibited here. It's certainly likely, even if it's played too fast on the machine. 
Since we're on identifying of record companies, found something out this week that changes much about a few records we know very well. 
Those so-called "Independent" cylinders on the Santa Barbara website are actually older than expected, because they're actually from the U. S. Phonograph Company, not Columbia. 
Here are the links to the two main recordings that were mislabeled:

Wow! U. S. records sound really nice! Of course, these two records may be quiet, but they catch many notes on the piano that we never often hear, especially when the pianist(Issler) plays the final chord. The lowest note is always present it seems. To understand how closely related the Charles Lowe records are, listen to the second transfer on the red LP, "Dancing in the Sunlight", and the second to last transfer on the blue LP, "Wood Nymph Galop". They all sound the same, with the exact same balancing between the piano and xylophone. So with that being said, that FANTASTIC banjo imitation behind Ossman on "The Darkey's Dream" is not by Hylands, by Issler(as far as we can guess), because as we know about Ossman, there's always the chance Banta was on piano. 
Though after having a handful of listens to the "Darkey's Dream" with this new information present, the pianist is almost certainly Issler, since much of the quick playing he's doing can be compared to other records of his, such as his c.1891 North American of "The Bell Buoy" with Myers. You can also compare his style of waltz playing on "The Bell Buoy" to how he plays it on "the Carnival of Venice" as well as the second recording on the Red LP, "The Tit-Willow Song" by Dana on U. S. from 1895. Well, this is what you get from the one company who was infamous for their ridiculous amount of rounds. Recall that Victor Emerson ran U. S. before he did Columbia. 

This is all starting to fit into place! We can finally understand Issler's playing to a fuller extent now with all of these recordings. Issler is making out to be a fantastic pianist(not that he wasn't already!). Again, the first studio pianist was the best, which doesn't normally happen in a new business; the first of something being the best for many decades. Issler was hard to beat, with his technically superior playing, and perfect rhythm. These factors make playing along his his records much easier and less confusing, though his improvisations are something to keep track of. With all of this, Issler is essentially studio pianist god. I don't mean to make this seem a little strange, but he certainly was one of a kind, and there never was a studio pianist like him that came later, in all the history of recording. 
Issler, the first and the best studio pianist. 
It's a shame he was so picky and hard to work with toward the end of his recording career(this is why he was dropped from all recording by 1901).
After listening to all of these early records, other than my respect for Issler growing, my love for Schweinfest has grown just the same. We still have yet to hear him play a piano solo(same for Issler), but he certainly was a musician to admire, being just as competent as Issler, and being able to change with the times just as well as Fred Hager. Consider this, after working with Issler in and out of the studio since at least 1886, Schweinfest had to begin working with Hylands in 1897 at Columbia, and slowly saw his musical companion fade, eventually seeing his end in the studio(working with him to the end mind you), and agreed with no issues to work with Hylands, and we know how dramatically different Hylands was from Issler. Schwinfest even wrote syncopated pieces, such as his 1900 piece "Coon Jine"(which we have yet to hear), composed as a cake-walk. 
There you go. Published by Roger Harding because Hylands wouldn't. 
Hope to find a copy of that exceedingly rare music. 

Anyway, I could go on and on about all of this, I got to the point already. 

Hope you enjoyed this!