Love me some Durium

In March, just before “the big hiatus,” my last featured record was Hit of the Week #1088, with the Vincent Lopez Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing Walter Donaldson’s foxtrot “Little White Lies.”

As you may recall, HOTW was a Depression-era label that pressed their albums on a paper-like product called Durium instead of on the standard shellac. The result was a very inexpensive and easy to transport record (albeit one-sided).

I was just sent this fun blog that is maintained by a fellow collector who has chosen to specialize in HOTW records. As with so many other collectibles, there are niche collectors who seek out records by specific artists, in specific genres, or, in this case, from a specific label.

In 2005 Archeophone Records released a four-volume set of 8 CDs with every HOTW master. The point being the music – the exact same music – is available in modern, convenient, and cleaned-up form. So why the Durium Project? Because to some the medium is as important as the content. The medium in itself has value as a historical, aesthetic, and even scientific object.

The notion of a paper recording medium is as close to the ephemeral nature of today’s digital music, that exists in microchips and in the “cloud,” as the great era of 78s ever came.

Ironically in attempting to make a media that delivered the music in as cheap and easily replaceable a format as possible, Hit of the Week created a unique historical artifact in its own right. It is one that captures a moment in American history and, through its constitution alone, illustrates the economic conditions of the nation.

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Developer of LP records passes away

Howard H. Scott, at right, with Aaron Copland (1974).

The New York Times has the full obit of Howard H. Scott. Scott, a piano student at Julliard, was drafted into the Army during World War II. When he returned in 1946, Scott was hired by Columbia Masterworks to work with a team of engineers on a secret project: the creation of a vinyl long-playing record that could replace the fragile shellac 78 r.p.m.

Where 78 r.p.m. discs could hold only about 4 minutes of music per side, the new, more durable LPs, spinning at 33-1/3 r.p.m., could hold around 22 minutes per side, increasing the amount of music per record by an incredible 550%. Scott’s musical training was essential to the project’s success.

In the days before magnetic tape came into wide use, the process of transferring music to the new discs (soon to be known as LPs) was complex. Long pieces of music, split among multiple 78 r.p.m. records, needed to be stitched together on the new discs without interruption. To do that, Mr. Scott and his colleagues lined up overlapping segments of music on 78s, and — with Mr. Scott snapping his finger in coordination — switched the audio signal at just the right moment from one turntable to the other.

Ironically, Scott was central to another revolution in recorded sound medium later in his career. From 1986 to 1993, when he retired, Scott was the producer at Columbia’s corporate descendent – Sony – in charge of the transition of the company’s recordings from LP to CD. Scott passed away on September 22nd in Reading, Pennsylvania; he was 92.

Paper, not plastic

This week on Zayde’s Turntable we find a somewhat untraditional type of record. While the song and the performer are not that remarkable I was looking forward to posting about one of the several albums in my collection from the intriguing “Hit of the Week” label.

Examples of “Hit of the Week” label, with the monochrome illustrations on the back of some of the records depicted on the right.

“Hit of the Week” (HOTW) were a very unique series of albums issued in the 1930s, at the height of the Great Depression, which were made – not of the standard shellac – but instead of a patented paper/resin product called Durium. Simply put, HOTW records, first issued in February 1930, were an ultra-cheap record for the impoverished nation. Each week the newest HOTW record appeared in flimsy rice-paper sleeves on newsstands  (not, as with other records, at record stores) for just 15 cents – the cheapest record available at the time. Despite the fact that they were printed on paper stock and not vinyl, HOTW records had remarkably good audio quality, often matching or exceeding the quality of shellac records of the same period. The single-sided records were sometimes issued with liner notes or the featured artist’s picture illustrated on the back (a feature missing from this particular album, however). By the summer of 1930, at its peak, HOTW were selling nearly 500,000 records each week (at 15 cents per record, that makes a weekly gross of $75,000 – or about $970,000 in today’s dollars); however, the continually worsening economy quickly claimed even the super cheap HOTW record company. Sales crashed and in March 1931 the company went into receivership. Two months later they were purchased by an advertising agency that attempted to revive the label, expanding the discs to five minutes in length, with two songs per record – still only on one side, and raising the price to 20 cents. The changes did not work and the final HOTW was produced in June 1932. The advertising industry continued to utilize Durium printed records throughout the decade, primarily as 5” and 3” promotional records. The agencies would even print the mailing address and affix postage directly onto the reverse of the miniature paper records. HOTW records are today relatively popular with collectors – even those with less remarkable songs or singers – largely due to the medium upon which they are pressed. HOTW did publish a number of A-list musicians’ works, however, including Duke Ellington (who appeared on the label as part of the group the “Harlem Hot Chocolates”), Eddie Cantor, Rudy Vallee, and Gene Austin.

Hit of the Week #1088.

Rear of Hit of the Week #1088, lacking an illustration.

This album is in Very Good condition. It has a small chip at the edge, but it does not intrude on the grooves at all and has no effect on the recorded audio. It is an acoustically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM brownish red Durium paper/resin disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Hit of the Week 1088. The A-side recording features the Vincent Lopez (1895-1975) Orchestra directed by Hymie Wolfson playing the foxtrot “Little White Lies” by Walter Donaldson (1893-1947). The vocalist is Lew Conrad and it runs 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The album was recorded in July 1930 and released by HOTW on September 11, 1930. Les Docks sets the value at $3-$6 and there is one dealer selling it on EBay for $4.

Columbia 45-RPM featuring Eartha Kitt’s 1963 cover of “Little White Lies.”

Donaldson originally wrote the 1930 foxtrot “Little White Lies” for Fred Waring’s Pennsylvanians, who recorded it on July 25, 1930 for Victor, with Clare Hanlon providing the vocals. As this HOTW version attests, several artists ended up recording the popular tune in 1930, including – besides Lopez on HOTW – Ted Wallace on Columbia, Earl Burtnett on Brunswick, Johnny Marvin on Victor, Marion Harris on Brunswick, Lee Morse on Columbia, and Harry Reser and Annette Hanshaw on budget labels like HOTW. Jesse Crawford recorded an instrumental organ cover for Victor in 1930, as well. Ella Fitzgerald recorded a version of it for Decca in 1939 with Chick Webb’s orchestra. The greatest heights that the song achieved on the US charts was when a 1947 recording of the tune by Dick Haymes for Decca lasted 23 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at #3 in 1948. Dinah Shore’s 1947 cover of it for Columbia records lasted one week on the charts at #28 and a 1957 version on Bally Records by Betty Johnson lasted one week at #25 in that year. The song was a hit overseas, too, with Ruby Murray recording it for UK Columbia in 1957 and Eartha Kitt doing likewise in 1963 for the same label. According to Paul McCartney the song was a favorite of both him and John Lennon when they were growing up in Liverpool, and likely had some influence on their later output.

This 1930 edition of the sheet music for “Little White Lies” features a photograph of Vincent Lopez. Donaldson’s publishing company simultaneously released versions of the same music with the photographs of a number of other performers who released recordings of the tune, including Ethel Merman, Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, and Jesse Crawford.

Songwriter and publisher Walter Donaldson.

Donaldson, the son of a piano teacher, began writing original music for school productions as a young boy, demonstrated sheet music for customers in five-and-dime stores, and accompanied nickelodeon films in his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He saw his first published work when he was 22 and continued to perform, even after his enlistment in the Army, when he would entertain troops and play the piano at War Bond rallies. After his service in the Army during World War I Donaldson was picked up by the Irving Berlin Music Company to be one of their stable of in-house songwriters, a gig he kept until 1928 when he set up his own music publishing company. Around the same time he moved from New York to Hollywood, to join many of his fellow Tin Pan Alley songwriters in composing music for the burgeoning film industry; his film music credits include Glorifying the American Girl, Suzi, The Great Ziegfeld, Panama Hattie, Follow the Boys, and Nevada. By the time of his death in 1947 the tremendously prolific Donaldson had penned around 600 original songs, including some major smash hits that are synonymous with Tin Pan Alley and the music of the 1930s to this very day: “My Blue Heaven,” “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” recorded by John Pizzarelli, “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” “I’ve Had My Moments” made famous by Frank Sinatra, “You’re Driving Me Crazy” rendered by Mel Torme, “Makin’ Whoopee,” and “Love Me or Leave Me” sung by Lena Horne. Remarkably, Donaldson’s publishing company is still in existence to this day and maintains a terrific website with the composer’s complete biography, his catalog with representative recordings (including a 1995 recording of Julie London singing “Little White Lies” for Liberty records), and information about licensing any of the composter’s 600 odd songs.

Bandleader Vincent Lopez.

Lopez, like Donaldson, was a Brooklyn kid. The song of Portuguese immigrants, Lopez was on track to become a priest before he found a new calling in music and formed his own dance orchestra in 1917. With Lopez at the piano, the band played numerous hotel and dance gigs throughout New York City. Lopez’s piano technique has been called “flamboyant and florid” and was a direct influence on later performers on the instrument, including Liberace. Numerous musicians who would later go on to fame in their own right spent some time in Lopez’s band, including Artie Shaw, Xavier Cugat, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Rudy Vallee, and Glenn Miller. In November 1921 the Lopez orchestra became one of the first to broadcast a regular radio program – a 90-minute weekly show on WJZ out of Newark. The notoriety from the show propelled Lopez to the front line of famous bandleaders of the 1940s and secured both his band and himself roles in a number of the hottest musical movies of the 1940s.

Vincent Lopez leads his orchestra in a photograph from the 1920s.

In 1941 Lopez and his band began a long-term residency as the house band of the Hotel Taft in New York City, delighting audiences into the late 1950s with swing, dance tunes, Dixieland jazz, country-western, and even, in the 1950s, with rock and roll songs. The liner notes to a “Best of the Big Bands” CD compilation from the 1990s offers this description of the show at the Taft:

The Lopez band practically defined the style of popular hotel orchestras of the time…Lopez was also an innovator when it came to the audience participation stunts that generated publicity. Wednesdays through Fridays, for instance, Lopez would have everybody in stitches at the Grill Room with his “Shake the Maracas” show, in which people came great distances to demonstrate their personal skill with the maracas and compete for such prizes as miniature piano cigarette lighters and autographed photos of the bandleader. On many an afternoon, tourists (and hooky-playing office workers) would head off to the Taft for an hour-long 1:00 PM dance session, often broadcast as “Luncheon With Lopez” over the Mutual Radio Network. He even sponsored “Fashions in Music,” a weekly afternoon fashion show in which models would display the latest in day and evening wear to the instrumental melodies of the band. Such novelties may have diminished the impact of his music, but it never affected his pocketbook – or his ability to hire the best musicians in town. For many years, a spot in the Lopez band was a real plum for a musician who also desired a stable family life; the show at the Taft always ended at 9:00 PM sharp, giving a sideman ample time to change into street clothes and be home in time to kiss the kids goodnight and watch the eleven o’clock news.

Singer Lew Conrad.

Lew Conrad was, like Donaldson, the son of a musical family, with both parents sharing a background as vocalists. They decided they did not want their son to be a – gasp – singer, so they had him take up the violin instead. Conrad was promoted by his parents as a violin prodigy for the vaudeville circuit, but he really did not enjoy that realm of the entertainment world. After graduating from Tufts Conrad took his violin to the Cleveland Symphony for a year, before landing a singing and violin gig with the Leo Reisman Band. Conrad also did recording sessions with the studio orchestras of Nat Shilkret and Ben Selvin, until, in 1929, he landed an audition for NBC, who offered him a contract. Conrad’s fame peaked between 1931 and 1933, shortly after he recorded this record for HOTW. His musical performances were being heard nationwide nine times a week on NBC network radio and in 1933 his band was featured in an installment of a series of musical film shorts. His fame seemed to have tapered off, for unknown reasons, into the late 1930s, with the last news account of the band performing coming in 1941.

During times of severe economic hardship the American people have gone with less or gone without, but our innate appetite for entertainment seems to persist, albeit in a diminished form. Consider the last twelve years of movie attendance: during the recession in 2008 1.37 billion tickets were sold at cinemas, just about the same as the number sold in 2000, before the recession after 9/11/2001. At the same time, the dollar amount spent on tickets when considering those two years increased by $2.37 billion – or 32%. This means that despite a tremendous jump in ticket prices and the hit to the economy, people were still willing to shell out for a movie ticket. The HOTW story, as a label, illustrates is just how truly awful the Great Depression was for the average American family. Despite our national natural thirst for escapism entertainment even the cheapest record label of the period felt the sting of the economic collapse. And while Americans were turning to new forms of entertainment around the same time – “talkie” film features, for example – the notion that the industry that was then, and is still today, our leading entertainment industry couldn’t cope is a telling piece of evidence of the disruption of the Depression. On a lighter note, I think any record collector with a stack of HOTW albums in their collection would tell you that the audio quality is generally just as good as their vinyl discs. And they’re a hell of a lot easier to move – and less likely to shatter when you drop one by mistake, as you will inevitably do. Perhaps if the Depression had not been as bad as it was Durium records would have replaced shellac more broadly as the preferred material for record albums. Considering the trajectory of recorded music, from 78-RPM to LP to tapes and CDs, it is interesting to imagine what innovations would have happened, not happened, or happened differently, if the principle medium of recording was so changed.

Fame – and obscurity – on a Decca “sunburst”

This week’s album was again drawn at random from my collection and provides perhaps one of the only recordings of an obscure tune largely lost to history and an early recording of one of the most popular jazz songs ever written, with the normally sung lyrics replaced by a truly unique and remarkable trumpet performance.

The Decca "sunburst" label (left) compared to their more common later label at right.

The label is the Decca “sunburst” – Decca had, very generally speaking, three styles of label: sunburst, flat blue, and flat black. Sunburst labels are usually of more interest to collectors as they mark the earliest records issued by the company (from its formation in 1934 through 1937). On sunburst labels an art deco style “Decca” pops out with block letters and a false perspective angle. Decca would later reissue many of their sunburst recordings on the flat blue and flat black labels after 1937. Because of the tremendous quantity of Decca records issued after 1937 and the overall higher value attributed with first issues compared to re-issues, sunburst labels are usually of greater monetary value. This is comparable to what happened with Victor: savvy collectors know that if a Victor label is a plain circle it is almost certainly of little to no value and is very likely to be a reissue. Victor “scroll” labels, on the other hand, are older and more likely to be original issues.

Decca 620

This album is in Fair condition; there is a hairline crack through the disc at about 8 o’clock, however the needle on my Crosley Archiver was able to navigate it without difficulty. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Decca 620 A/B and the master number is 60065A/60063A. The A-side recording features the jazz fox trot “Basin Street Blues,” written by Spencer Williams (1889-1965); it runs 2 minutes and 59 seconds. The B-side recording features the fox trot with vocal chorus “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” written by Walter G. Samuels (1903-1994), Leonard Whitcup (1903-1979), and Teddy Powell (1905-1993); it runs 2 minutes and 37 seconds. The artist on both sides is jazz trumpeter and bandleader Clyde McCoy (1903-1990) and his orchestra. The album was recorded on October 14, 1935. Other owners of the album are selling it online for $1, $3, $4 (not the “sunburst” version, however), $4.25, and $5. Les Docks sets its value at $7-$10, which – given the prices for it online – seems a bit generous.

Clyde McCoy, jazz trumpeter and bandleader.

Clyde McCoy, of the Hatfield and McCoy feud McCoys, grew up in Kentucky but moved to Ohio as a young boy with his parents. In Ohio he took up the trumpet and quickly moved from playing at church and school functions to performing on the riverboats. After a successful temporary gig at a Knoxville Resort, McCoy proposed taking the same band to New York. When success in the Big Apple eluded the band they headed west, first to Los Angeles, and eventually to Chicago.  It was in the Windy City where he first performed his best know song, “Sugar Blues,” which was written for him by Clarence Williams and Lucy Fletcher; the song placed on the charts in 1931, 1935, and again as late as 1941. Later musicians, including Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald, and Johnny Mercer also covered it. Near overnight radio success with the original recording led to contracts first with Columbia and later Decca in 1935 (the same year this album was recorded, making it one of the earlier Decca records from McCoy). McCoy’s act grew in complexity and became almost vaudevillian in nature, including tremendous “battle of the bands” type face-offs between McCoy’s band and another A-list group of the time. All of these battles ended as “friendly ties.”

The bottom of the 1967 Voy Clyde McCoy Wah Wah Pedal for electric guitar featured McCoy's image. This pedal has clearly seen some use.

McCoy’s most lasting influence on music was not any one song but, rather, a musical effect. A talented trumpet player, McCoy could create an amazing variety of sounds and effects with his advanced technique; foremost, and most popular with audiences, was the distinctive “wah wah” sound, created by fluttering a specific type of horn mute in the bell of his trumpet (I read some unconfirmed accounts that he actually used a toilet plunger, not a mute). You can hear it distinctly at 1:53 in “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” below and throughout “Basin Street Blues” (click on the link to the Vogue Picture Record recording of it elsewhere online). The effect became so popular and such a recognizable trademark sound for McCoy that the Thomas Organ Company built it into the Vox Clyde McCoy Wah-Wah Pedal for electric guitar in the mid 1960s. The Clyde McCoy Pedal, later named a Cry Baby Pedal, has become a staple effect for guitarists of all genres. In 2002 Vox reissued the Clyde McCoy Pedal with its original vintage look, including with McCoy’s image and signature on the bottom – a feature that the original pedal from the 1960s sported as well. If you regularly skip listening to the clips or the links to the full recordings on this blog, this is not one to miss – McCoy’s talents with the trumpet are quite unique and well worth a listen.

Songwriter Spencer Williams, composer of "Basin Street Blues."

Spencer Williams was a composer, singer, and pianist who helped author some of the earliest standards of the American jazz era. Born in New Orleans Williams was one of the chief collaborators for Fats Waller. In addition to “Basin Street Blues” – perhaps his most enduring song (it is still being recorded by musicians to this day – he penned “Squeeze Me,” “She’ll Be Comin’ Around That Mountain,” “I Ain’t Got Nobody,” “Royal Garden Blues, and “I’ve Found a New Baby” among many, many others.

“Basin Street Blues” is a standard of Dixieland jazz bands to this day. It was published in 1926 but really became famous when Louis Armstrong issued a recording of it in 1928. Basin Street is the main thoroughfare of Storyville, which had been the red-light district of New Orleans’ French Quarter from 1870 through the early decades of the 20th century. McCoy’s recording became part of his portfolio of trademark songs and proved so popular it was later reissued on a Vogue Picture Record in 1946 (click the link to see a video of the record, with McCoy’s picture on it, and also listen to the recording in its entirety).

Original 1926 sheet music for "Basin Street Blues."

The song has been recorded by Bob Wills, Ben Pollack, Tommy Duncan, Louis Prima, Dr. John, Connee Boswell with Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald with the Sy Oliver Orchestra, Jo Stafford and Frankie Laine, saxophonist David Sanborn, “turntablist” Kid Koala, Sam Cooke, Jack Teagarden, and Liza Minnelli. Some may also recognize the tune from its more recent use on the soundtrack to the major feature film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The song’s lyrics went through an interesting, albeit temporary, metamorphosis in the mid-1950s that is quite revealing of the prevailing attitudes towards race relations at that precise time in American society: the lyric referring to Basin Street as the place where “the dark and light folks” meet was altered to the less controversial line that it is the place where “the young and old folks” meet. Thankfully most contemporary recordings (after the Civil Rights era) returned to the original lyrics as Williams wrote them. The McCoy recording, as you might have guessed, replaces the vocal line with McCoy’s own remarkable performance on the trumpet.

 

If “Basin Street Blues” is an enduring standard still recorded to this day, than “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band”  is the complete opposite. The song was entered into copyright on September 21, 1935 by Chappell and Company of New York. I can find no other mention of it being recorded by any artist excepting this one by McCoy for Decca. The tune is an up-beat song about how a musician will win the girls and make the football players’ jealous through his skills in the college band: band geek’s revenge, Tin Pan Alley-style. It is not a bad song, but simply proved unmemorable and never became a commercial success, despite the fact that one might assume it would be popular with college pep bands of the time. If it was, there is no record of it being performed and no other recording of it by any such band that I could locate.

Walter Samuels was an enormously prolific composer, who wrote music for films and television starting in 1932 (Blondie of the Follies) and ending in 1989 (Harlem Nights with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor). Interestingly there was a sizable gap between his song “Chuck a Luckin” on the soundtrack to People Are Funny in 1946 and his tune “March Winds and April Showers” for a 1978 episode of Pennies from Heaven. In all he wrote 32 songs that eventually appeared on a soundtrack. A review of his soundtrack songs, his works for Broadway, and his singles reveals no real chart-toppers.

Like Samuels, Whitcup wrote numerous songs (23 in all) that appeared on film and television soundtracks from 1932 (again, Blondie of the Follies) through 2008, when his tune “From the Vine Came the Grape” was used posthumously for the TV movie That’s Amore!. Indeed many of his songs continued to be used in soundtracks after his death in 1979, including what is probably his most famous number: the song “Frenesi,” written in 1939, which appears on the soundtrack to 1980’s Raging Bull.

Composer and moderately successful bandleader Teddy Powell.

Teddy Powell, born Teodoro Paolella, was a jazz guitarist, big band leader, and composer. Powell started as a violinst, then moved to the banjo, and finally picked up the guitar and formed his own band at the age of 15. The band stayed intact for 24 years – a remarkable feat in the 1930s and 1940s, when most groups were dissolving, dividing, and reorganizing on an almost yearly basis. Powell’s band was not one of the big A-list gigs, reaching fame for only one brief period in 1939, though they were able to hire on some highly regarded musicians from other top orchestras – including Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey’s. They may have gone upward from that 1939 point, but a tragic fire at a New Jersey nightclub where they were playing in 1941 destroyed all of their instruments. The group never recovered and dissolved in 1944, just missing out on the high-water mark for big band music in the early 1940s.

In researching “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band” I was not surprised to discover almost no information about it online – no recording history, no critical reviews, no references to its performance, no complete recordings, and no description of its lyrics. It is, for all intents, a song that never existed outside of this Decca record. Indeed countless songs – thousands upon thousands – from the first decades of recorded music have likely suffered a similar fate, whether deserved or not. Therefore I have decided to post the lyrics and the entire song here on Zayde’s Turntable, so that any future researcher who might – for whatever reason – have an interest in the tune will find it online, saved for posterity, in at least one location. It seems ironic that despite the hundreds of millions of websites today, not one has the details of this song, which is – after all – only 77 years old.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

To win the heart of my co-ed with melody.

I’m gonna play in the varsity band,

And make you football heroes jealous as can be.

I’ll never make the team,

But you can safely bet,

I’ll make my college win this game by playing my cornet.

The girlies cheer,

‘Cause I’m the band-leading man,

I’m gonna play in the varsity band.

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Rah! Rah! Rah Rah Rah!

Decca 620 offers both an enduring classic and a song lost to history. Listening to it made me better understand that all recorded music – records, CDs, cassettes (even 8-tracks) – presents us with a complete program of songs selected for a reason and performed as a whole or in some order for (usually) a specific artistic purpose. I love iTunes and the ability of the listener to craft their own song lists; and the release of singles is, of course, a long-standing practice of the music industry, but there’s something to be said for taking an “album” in whatever form and appreciating all (or both) of the songs on it as an artistic whole. If nothing else it forces us, as listeners, to keep songs that would otherwise be lost to time for whatever reason – be they ahead of their time and not fitting with popular taste in the day when they were released or be they simply bad.  No matter why, if we wanted “Basin Street Blues” we would need to have “I’m Gonna Play in the Varsity Band,” too. Both of them would be on our turntables, if only one of them would stay in our minds and in our ears.

The masters’ voices

This week on Zayde’s Turntable I’ve decided to feature one of the few non-musical records in my collection. While most of my spoken word albums are comic monologues, this one is a notable exception. It is also one of a handful of records I own that were originally from overseas – in this case, from England.

The label is “His Master’s Voice,” the more famous brand name of what was originally called simply the Gramophone Company, a British manufacturer of phonographs. The iconic image was based on an 1899 painting by English artist Francis Barraud.

Nipper listening to a recording of his late master, Mark Barraud.

When Barraud’s brother Mark died, the artist inherited his dog, Nipper. In the original painting, Barraud captured Nipper listening intensely to the sound of Mark’s recorded voice playing from a cylinder phonograph trumpet. Barraud marketed the image hopefully to numerous phonograph manufacturers and finally found a buyer in the Gramophone Company, who first required the artist to change the painting to depict one of their disc playing phonographs in place of the cylinder machine. Barraud assented and the image became the company’s logo in 1900. In 1902 the Gramophone Company’s American sister corporation, the Victor Talking Machine Company, also acquired the rights to the image and deployed it more aggressively. The image became so broadly associated with the companies that in 1908 the Gramophone Company changed its name entirely to “His Master’s Voice” (HMV). The subsequent history of the HMV trademark and brand is one of countless corporate consolidations and mergers, far too convoluted to get into here.

The many types of HMV labels. Good boy, Nipper.

His Master's Voice B.8883

This album is in Good condition, with some minor wear to the label and the vinyl, but nothing that impacts its playability or sound significantly. It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is His Master’s Voice B.8883 and the master number is OEA.75730/OEA.75740. The A-side recording features Part 1 of an excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s comedy of manners “The Importance of Being Earnest,” in which Lady Bracknell interviews John Worthing; it runs 3 minutes and 2 seconds. The B-side recording features Part 2 of the same scene; it runs 3 minutes and 13 seconds. The role of Lady Bracknell is performed by Dame Edith Evans (1888-1976) and the role of John Worthing is performed by Sir John Gielgud (1904-2000).

A spoken record, capturing a bit of one of the most legendary performances in 20th century theater.

Edith Evans (standing) as Lady Bracknell and John Gielgud as John Worthing.

Roger Wilmut dates the record as being from 1938 in his podcast, but according to WorldCat the only existing copy in an academic collection, at Stanford, is dated from 1939. I believe 1939 is correct, as the renowned production itself took place in London that year and it is unlikely that HMV would wish to make a recording of a theatrical production before it opened. Furthermore the 1939 issue of Peter Hugh Reed’s “The American Music Lover: the record connoisseur’s magazine” lists it among the newly released albums for that year. Finally, also endorsing the 1939 year of issue is volume 22 of the “London Mercury,” published that year, which also first lists the record as newly released – and also includes the original selling price (3 shillings). Les Docks does not include it in his catalog of record valuations and it is not listed for sale by any dealer anywhere that I could find, making it impossible to say how much the record is worth today.

CD artwork for EMI's re-release of the Evans/Gielgud recordings.

EMI, one of the long line of companies to own some piece of the HMV trademark, released a CD some time ago with this scene and more from the recordings of Gielgud and Evans’ performances from 1939, suggesting this record was one of a set released around the time of the production.

The play is widely regarded as Wilde’s crowning achievement and is, at the very least, his most enduring theatrical work. It premiered in London in 1895 and has been staged countless times around the world, including three film adaptations (the first, in 1952, featured Dame Evans in the role of Lady Bracknell, where she had won acclaim following the 1939 production). A witty satire of Victorian conventions and attitudes the play won early praise from the start (though a few critics, wary of theater that seemed to lack a meaningful social message, were less than pleased by it, calling it even into the 1930s no more than a “trivial comedy” that lacked “realistic accessories”) and had it not been for Wilde’s own ignominious demise it would have doubtless had a longer original run than its brief 86 performances. It was a popular and enjoyable bit of theatrical fare for the late 19th century stage.

Dame Evans as Lady Bracknell in the 1952 film version.

I will leave it to the reader to discover the plot of the play elsewhere – or, and I highly recommend it, you can simply get the play script from your library and enjoy it yourself. There are also numerous outlets to get video or DVD both online and off of stellar performances (and a few subpar ones) of this play, including a 2002 film version with Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Dame Judi Dench, and Tom Wilkinson. If you are not familiar with it, I strongly encourage you to take an afternoon and read it or watch it; it is a classic, an enjoyable and witty piece of work, and, if you get the right performance, an amazing vehicle for some of theater’s most brilliant comic and satirical performances.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in a photograph from May 23, 1889.

This disc, most fortunately, captures the vocal performances of two of the actors who are most indelibly associated with Wilde’s play. Gielgud and Evans first appeared in a staging of the play at the Lyric Hammersmith Theater in 1930, but they are most fondly remember for the London 1939 revival of the play at the Globe Theater (not that Globe, a different one) which opened on August 16th of that year. While the duration of the clip that I can share here is somewhat abbreviated, there are still other sources where you can access more of their performances (including at Roger Wilmut’s podcast, linked above, which also includes a wonderful performance by John Barrymore in a scene from Shakespeare’s “Henry VI, part 3” recorded in 1928). In this scene the young John Worthing is being interrogated by Lady Bracknell, whose daughter he is courting. As she discovers the young gentleman’s provenance (it involves Victoria’s Station and a handbag) her modest approval of him quickly reverses. The entire scene runs just over six minutes and is worth a listen via one of the above links.

Caricatures of the 1939 cast, by Stanley Parker of 'The Sketch' magazine. The image features (clockwise from top) John Gielgud as John Worthing, Peggy Ashcroft as Cecily Cardew, Jack Hawkins as Algernon Moncrieff and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies as Gwendolen Fairfax, with Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell in the center.

Unfortunately the outbreak of war in Europe meant that the curtain fell on the play (and all others on stage in London at the time) almost immediately after it opened. Gielgud kept busy by giving a series of afternoon lectures on “Shakespearean Peace and War” at the Globe Theater that raised 500 Pounds for the Polish Relief Fund (Gielgud’s father was of Polish descent). A revival finally happened in 1946/1947, with Evans replaced by Margaret Rutherford.

Gielgud in costume for the 1947 revival.

Gielgud (on right) in the 1947 revival.

Another shot from the 1947 production, with Gielgud kneeling.

Samantha Ellis’ write-up of Dame Evans for The Guardian in 2003 is worth a read for a concise background on this remarkable actor, if you are not already familiar with her work. Evans not only appeared on stage in countless productions – largely, though not exclusively, portraying haughty aristocratic women – but she also did some film work, receiving three Oscar nominations, a BAFTA award, and a Golden Globe. Her performance as Lady Bracknell, both in 1939 and in the 1952 film, however, was likely the single most recognizable and infamous role of her life. Her delivery of Lady Bracknell’s simple line “A handbag?” has become the stuff of theatrical legend. In her 60 year career Evans portrayed over 150 different roles and appeared in works by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde, Shaw, Congreve, Wycherley, Bagnold, Fry, and Coward. In addition to Bracknell and originating six of Shaw’s most famous characters, Evans’ portrayal of Rosalind in “As You Like It” in 1926 and 1936 and the Nurse in “Romeo and Juliet” in 1932, 1934, 1935, and 1961 were both considered definitive performances that shaped how many future actors approached their own interpretations of those characters.

Sir John Gielgud in 1973.

John Gielgud well might be one of the most famous actors of the 20th century, as well as one of the most talented.  He is one of only ten artists who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, and Tony Award in competitive categories. His first major success was his acclaimed 1937 Broadway performance of Hamlet, which broke box office records, however he had been appearing on stage in England as early as 1929, including a previous performance of the broody Dane, and his first appearance as John Worthing in 1930. Gielgud would make Hamlet part of his artistic life for the duration of his career however, taking the performance to the original Elsinore Castle in Denmark, reviving it in 1944, touring a production he directed in 1945 to the Far East, and, in later years, taking the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, first opposite Richard Burton, then Richard Chamberlain, and lastly in a radio production with his protégé Kenneth Branagh. Also among his early Shakespeare successes was a 1935 “Romeo and Juliet” in which he famously both directed and alternated the roles of Mercutio and Romeo with Laurence Olivier (the young Olivier’s first Shakespeare leading role). The gig with Olivier went sour, however (it’s said that Olivier resented the older actor’s direction).

Gielgud as Richard II in 1936.

The full list of this master’s performances is far too long and too complicated to detail here. Full books can and have been written about his life and his contributions to the theater, both as an actor and as one of the finest directors of the era. He played Hamlet, alone, over 500 times in six productions. He has appeared in most of Shakespeare’s plays, in most of the classics of western theater. He has appeared on most London stages and many of New York’s, opposite (though mostly leading) some of the biggest names in show business in the 20th century. His original “Ages of Man” – a one-man performance of Shakespearean experts – earned him a Tony, a Grammy (for the recording), and an Emmy for the producer when it was broadcast on television. Gielgud’s final on stage Shakespearean performance was his 1977 Julius Caesar at the Royal National Theater.

Gielgud, again in 1973.

In his later years Gielgud moved away from the classics and embraced newer playwrights, including Edward Albee and Harold Pinter, with his final stage performance coming in 1988. Tangential with his acting career was his directing career, including a Tony Award for “Big Fish, Little Fish” in 1961, though most critics believed his most powerful and lasting works were the Shakespeare productions he both directed and performed in. Gielgud did not limit his performances to the stage or screen, however, as his prolific recordings of radio dramas for the BBC attest (including a 1950s series with Gielgud as Sherlock Holmes, Ralph Richardson as Watson, Gielgud’s brother Val as Mycroft, and Orson Welles as Professor Moriarty…I know, awesome, right?). His final radio production was in the lead role of “King Lear” in 1994, staged to celebrate his 90th birthday, with a cast including Judi Dench, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, and Simon Russell Beale.

Gielgud as Pope Pius V in "Elizabeth" (1998), his final speaking role in a film.

Gielgud’s film career was slow to start, but began as early as 1924. It did not truly pick up speed in the 1940s and 1950s. In the 1960s Gielgud famously renounced his aversion to film as an art and quickly appeared in so many films and television productions, of numerous variety, that it was jokingly said he was “prepared to do almost anything for his art.” Surprisingly, despite the vast number of films in which he appeared, very few were of poor quality, and many won awards – an Oscar, New York Film Critics Circle, BAFTA, etc. His final television appearance was in “Merlin” in 1998 and his final speaking film role was as Pope Pius V in “Elizabeth,” also in 1998.

There are interesting parallels in the story behind this record. In 1895 the original run of “The Importance of Being Earnest” came to an abrupt end, as did the 1939 production captured on this album, though in 1895 it was due to the playwright’s fall from grace and in 1940 it was due to the outbreak of war. Indeed, even Wilde’s fall into disrepute is somewhat mirrored by Gielgud’s own struggle with negative attention, in his case following his 1953 conviction for attempting to pick up a man in a public lavatory. Whereas Wilde’s troubles ended up spurring a downward spiral of depression and sickness that culminated in his early death, however, Gielgud followed a different path: with the encouragement of friends and colleagues he stood strong, stayed in the theater (and even moved boldly into film work) and is now largely credited for being a leading figure in the movement that resulted in the decriminalization of homosexuality in England.

A closing observation: I titled this week’s entry “the masters’ voices,” referring to both Evans and Gielgud as masters of their craft. Naturally this recording is not entirely identical to their performances on stage in 1939, but, for that era, this is the closest we can come to capturing, reliving, and experiencing those performances. Many who follow the theater, as I do, read numerous accounts of these groundbreaking, and often character-defining, performances, but the most we can hope to experience them today is through static photographs and less than objective critical reviews. Of course, we lose a fundamental part of the performance when we cannot see the action, too; but, in a sense, as the voice is the instrument of a master actor, we have in this recording (and others like it from the period) a perfect vehicle to convey the power of live theater: a medium that combines just a bit of the actor’s magic, through their voice, and just a bit of our own imagination. And our own imagination is, after all, the most important ingredient in theatre.

What to do with old records?

This week’s entry is coming soon, but I thought I’d share this interesting column from Gramophone writer Jeremy Nichols. I especially like this observation:

The era of the commercial shellac disc lasted roughly from 1890 to 1960 (the last remaining 78s in EMI’s British catalogues were finally withdrawn on March 31,1962). That’s 70 years, far longer than the LP or CD eras, let alone that of any of the new digital formats.