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.

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The original Vee-Jay (sorry, MTV): a doo-wop classic

Jumping 42 years ahead from the last post, this installment of Zayde’s Turntable gives us one of the classic doo-wop groups singing the song that made them famous. Vee-Jay Records 147 is a must-own for anyone serious about ‘50s doo-wop, rock, or R&B and it takes us from the last post, with one of the earlier 78s of the 20th century, to one of the last batch of 78s released before the onslaught of the 45RPM and the LP (33-1/3RPM).

The Vee-Jay label was founded in 1953 by the husband and wife team of Vivian Carter (“Vee”) and James Bracken (“Jay”) and was the first major record company to be owned and operated by African-Americans. Vee-Jay was a R&B powerhouse – their very first song made it onto the Top Ten of the national R&B charts. While they stayed fairly consistent with R&B and blues artists throughout the 1950s the company branched into soul in the 1960s and was the first to nationally release a recording by The Pips (later Gladys Knight and the Pips). After soul the label added on rock and roll acts, which is where some of their most famous talent would end up performing: The Four Seasons (Vee-Jay’s first non-black artists) and The Beatles. Down the road they added Little Richard and even an album with Jimi Hendrix and Billy Preston in 1965. The label started dabbling in other genres, including a small jazz line, some gospel albums, and even (on 33-1/3PM LP) some comedy records.

Vee-Jay only issued only style of label on their 78s (left) before changing exclusively to LP and 45-RPM records.

Vee-Jay was at its commercial peak from 1962 to 1964 thanks to The Four Seasons and their distribution of early Beatles albums (tracks included “Love Me Do,” “P.S. I Love You,” and “Twist and Shout” among several others). Beatles record sales exploded for Vee-Jay in 1964 after the British Invasion and the company’s high-water mark was the sale of 2.6 million Beatles singles in just one month.

This album is in fair condition. It has moderate wear and scratches on both sides, with the expected impact on the quality of the recorded audio (pops, hisses, etc.; the audio of my versions, linked to below, is not ideal and I strongly encourage you to search elsewhere on YouTube for better quality audio of these two great tracks). The B-side has two dried paint drops on it, which cause the disk to skip briefly at each point. It is an electrically recorded 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with lateral grooves and a ¼” spindle hole. The label is not paper glued onto the vinyl, as was common on most 78s, but is, instead, painted directly onto the vinyl. The record catalog number is Vee-Jay 147. The A-side recording features the El Dorados singing their chart-topping hit “At My Front Door” by John Moore (?) and Ewart Abner (1923-1997); the master number is 55-257 and it was recorded on April 24, 1955. It runs 2 minutes and 32 seconds and was produced by Tollie Music.

The B-side recording also features the El Dorados singing “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” by Bob Drews and Riley Hampton (1918-2006); the master number is 55-274 and it was recorded on June 8, 1955. It runs 2 minutes and 19 seconds and was also produced by Tollie Music. Les Docks sets the value at $7-$10. To my surprise, I was not able to find any other copy of the 78RPM version of this album for sale online; there were fully 18 people selling the 45RPM version of the album (many calling it “rare”), for between $4 and $65, with an average asking price of $25. Given that the album is not terribly scarce and the quality of my copy of it is only fair, I would set the value of my Vee-Jay 147 closer to $4-$7.

The El Dorados, 1954

In Chicago in 1952 Pirkle Lee Moses pulled together a doo-wop vocal group that called themselves “Pirkle Lee and the Five Stars.” The other members included tenors Louis Bradley and Arthur Bassett, second tenor and baritone Jewel Jones, and baritone/bass singers James Maddox and Richard Nickens. Pirkle left the group briefly to serve in the Air Force and when he returned in 1954 they changed the group’s name to “The El Dorados.” Carter, from Vee-Jay, heard them sing in Chicago in 1954 and signed the group to the label. Their first three Vee-Jay albums were flops commercially but, in 1955, they released their fourth Vee-Jay record, number 147. It was a smash hit, quickly rising to #1 on the Billboard R&B chart and #17 on the pop chart. Their next album with Vee-Jay, number 165, also placed in the R&B top ten in 1956. That year Basset and Nickens left the group and The El Dorados tried to make a go as a quartet. It didn’t work out, though, and the group went their separate ways in 1957: Pirkle, still in Chicago, reformed the group with all new members and Bradley, Jones, and Maddox moved to California and formed a new group called The Tempos. Pirkle’s new group wasn’t to Vee-Jay’s liking and the label dropped them in 1958, after releasing a total of just eleven El Dorado singles from 1954-1958.

“At My Front Door,” also called “Crazy Little Mama,” was a smash hit and propelled the El Dorados to significant fame in the 1950s. It was covered by Pat Boone (in a version that was panned by some critics), Myron and the Van Dells, and Ringo Starr, among many, many others over the years. As a doo-wop/motown classic it is a standard for countless contemporary groups that perform the style (search YouTube for either version of the song’s title and you’ll see). In 1955 the wildly prolific piano roll artist J. Lawrence Cook (1899-1976) made the piano roll version under the pseudonym Pep Doyle. It was such a hit that Vee-Jay made it the title track on their first ever LP: “Crazy Little Mama” in 1957.

The cover of the LP (VJLP-1001), with the title track “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)” by the 1955 El Dorados. Click to hear the original 78-RPM version from the album in my collection.

Ewart Abner, around the time Vee-Jay 147 was made.

Ewart Abner, credited on “At My Front Door,” joined the label in 1955, first as manager, then as vice president, and ultimately, as president from 1961 to 1963, when it was the most successful black-owned record company in the world. It was under Abner’s leadership that the label got The Beatles first U.S. albums – as a “throw in” in a deal with Trans-Global/EMI for the artist they really wanted, Frank Ifield. Cash flow problems caused by Ewart Abner’s tapping the company treasury to cover personal gambling debts led to the company’s active demise. He also kept many of the company’s books, not on paper, but in his head. When Beatlemania, and the ensuing blizzard of lawsuits, descended, Vee-Jay was overwhelmed and forced to temporarily cease operations in the second half of 1963, leading to royalty disputes with the Four Seasons and, of course, EMI. The Four Seasons then left Vee-Jay for Philips Records, and EMI’s Capitol Records picked up the U.S. rights for both the Beatles and Frank Ifield. Abner went on to become a key executive, and eventually president, of Motown Records, and principal of Chicago-based Constellation Records.

As for Abner’s partner on the hit, composer John C. Moore, I could find very little in my research outside of a connection to several other Motown and doo-wop records from artists such as Pat Boone, Dee Clark, and the Righteous Brothers. His most common reference, however, is in connection with the El Dorados “At My Front Door.”

“What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” is the doo-wop song on the flip side of the album. It’s not a bad tune, but didn’t make the cut for the LP version of “At My Front Door (Crazy Little Mama)”. In fact, Vee-Jay and its affiliates did not place this track on any of their reissues on 45RPM or 33-1/3PM. It wouldn’t appear again on an album until the Collectables CD #7245 from October 2000 “The Very Best of the El Dorados.”

Bob Drews in 1961.

Bob Drews, who composed the song, was a moderately well-known radio personality of the period who ricocheted around radio stations throughout the 1950s and 1960s. A Billboard magazine ad placed by Vee-Jay in 1955 to promote the album touts him as “Dee-Jay Bob Drews”; interestingly the ad suggests that Drews composed both “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” and “At My Front Door,” though he is not credited with the latter track on the album itself. In 1955 Drews could be heard on WAAF in Chicago, before making the move to WRIT in Milwaukee in March of 1956. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of December 5, 1958 puts Drews in the Keystone State that year with this little dig: “Good Old Bob Drews, formerly of WAMP, will take over the 7 to 10 wake-up show on WMCK come Monday. Drews plans a give-away contest to get his program off to a good start. First prize will be a strait jacket [sic]. This is very appropriate, as listener [sic] to the ‘New Good Old Bob Drews Show’ will quickly discover.” By April of 1960 Drews was spinning a weekend show on WCAE out of Philadelphia and a regular program over WEEP in Pittsburgh. In 1961 Drews was on the move again; a Billboard Music Week column refers to him as host of the “Good Old Bob Drews Show” on WWL-TV in New Orleans. The column posed the question “Which recording artist would you like to interview the most and why?” to a series of DJs; Drews picked Annette Funicello to be on his show, but “for an off-the-record interview give me Julie London.”

Julie London, perhaps placing a call for an off-the-record interview with Bob Drews. But probably not.

Riley Hampton (on alto sax, the second musician from the right in the front row of the band) playing with the Red Saunders band. The dancers in front of the band were “The Hambone Kids.” Search YouTube for “Red Saunders Hambone Kids” to hear the band, including Hampton, playing.

Riley Hampton was an important, yet sadly unknown Chicago-based arranger who has been behind some of the most significant doo-wop, Motown, and R&B hits ever written. Hampton, originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, was playing with a band in Detroit in the early 1940s when he left the group to take a spot in the Jimmy Murray band in Pittsburgh. In 1942 the band was taken over by Fletcher Henderson and the following year Hampton was drafted into the Army. Upon his return in 1946 he returned to the Henderson Band, then playing at the Club DeLisa in Chicago. He played under a variety of directors at the club, finally finding a regular seat in the Red Saunders band at the same venue in 1952. Within a few years the musically talented Hampton was finding more work as a composer and arranger than as a performer.

Etta James found fame with “At Last,” arranged by Riley Hampton.

By 1955 he was a regular arranger for Vee-Jay, working on a number of songs – including “What’s Buggin’ You, Baby?” – before hanging up his sax for good around 1959 and being named the house bandleader for Chess Records. It was with Chess and a handful of other labels throughout the 1960s that Hampton was part of some of the recordings that made him famous, including Etta James smash hit “At Last.” James gospel style blues singing found a striking balance with Hampton’s pop-like string and horn-focused arrangements. The mixture was magical, producing most of James’ Top Ten R&B hits and launching her career as a major soul singer. Hampton went on to arrange for Walter Jackson (on Okeh), Curtis Mayfield, Ramsey Lewis, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Dee Clark, Eddie Holland, Barbara Lewis, Billy Eckstine, Gene Chandler, Major Lance, Billy Butler and the Enchanters, the Impressions, and the Supremes.

Unlike many of the records in my collection and on this blog, the story of Vee-Jay 147 persists into the present time. After a few decades of fits and starts, Vee-Jay today operates as “The Vee-Jay Limited Partnership” under the management of Michele Tayler. The Connecticut company primarily overseeing the licensing and republication of Vee-Jay songs. The most recent I could find, from twelve years ago, was remastered and released by Collectables Records on CD, including a “Best of Vee-Jay” box set and individual “Best of the Vee-Jay Years” CDs.

As for the El Dorados, in 1969 Pirkle revived the group, with new members. Simultaneously the singer Johnny Carter, formerly of the Tempos, formed his own vocal group also called the El Dorados. After several years of competition, the two groups merged in the 1970s. The combined group toured and made records for many, many years and, when Pirkle died in 2000, the group renamed itself “Pirkle Lee Moses Jr’s El Dorados” in his honor. The group, under that name, continued to tour until 2009. After discovering the group persisted, in some fashion, until close to today, I went online to see if I could find out more about the group today – where are they performing, how to contact them, what they are singing in concert these days. Unfortunately, I could not find anything. I’d like to think that 2009 wasn’t their last live gig and if anyone reading this can tell me whether or not that was their last song, I would love to find out.

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.

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.

A historic Harmony

This week on Zayde’s Turntable is an album of no true monetary value to a collector, but I wanted to learn a bit more about it because it captures an important historical moment in American history.

First, a word about the label. Harmony Records were pressed from 1925 until the early 30s and was owned outright by Columbia Records. It was often used as a low-price outlet for Columbia’s reissues and, in the 1950s, Columbia revived the label for a series of LPs with nothing but reissued tracks (about five songs per side). Columbia continued to release reissues on the LP version of the label into the mid 1970s.

Harmony labels (with the ca. 1950s version on the left and ca. 1930 versions center and right).

Perhaps the most interesting facets of the original Harmony Records is their role in straddling one of the most significant technological shifts in recording history: the movement from acoustic recording to electrical recording. Reportedly Columbia had just completed a major overhaul of their acoustic recording system when the new fad – electrical recording – came onto the scene. Rather than scrap their significant investment in the acoustical studio they simply continued to utilize it for their “lower end” Harmony label. The result is some of the finest, and last, acoustically recorded commercial records.

Acoustical recording is a mechanical process in which the artists performed live, their music being captured in a massive machine with a diaphragm; a needle connected to the diaphragm literally cut the recording into master disc (or cylinder). Level control was achieved by actually having a performer move physically closer to or further from the machine.

The Victor Orchestra recording acoustically. Auto-tune function not available on this model; sorry, Ms. Black.

Electrical recording was introduced in 1925 and is still, in many respects, the manner by which audio recordings are made. Electrical recording systems allow for microphones, over-dubbing, level adjustment, and, these days, even more. In its earliest incarnations, however, the process still physically cut a master record with a needle, meaning that a mistake at any point in the recording rendered the entire take – and record – useless. (Some labels would reissue scrapped takes of popular songs on later albums, though it was far more common to simply reissue the originally released take.)

This album, the only Harmony label in my collection (according to my notes from the late 1990s) is in Good to Very Good condition, with some slight wear and one light scratch to one side (the scratch does not effect the record’s playability and both my Symphony phonograph needle and my Crosley Archiver needle were able to navigate it without problem). It is a standard 10-inch diameter 78-RPM black vinyl disc with ¼” spindle hole. The record catalog number is Harmony 418-H and the master number is 144218/144219.

Harmony Records #418-H

Harmony records include a unique Columbia code.

Peculiar to all post-1924 Columbia records is a third identifying number pressed into the vinyl of the end gap of the record at the 12-o’clock position: 3-B-5 on the A-side 1-B-6 on the B-side. The first number is the take number, the middle letter designates the “mother” (the metal master disc), and the final number indicates the “stamper” (the metal “negative” of the mother). One stamper could press out about 1,000 copies of a record before it was no longer useable (hence the need for a “mother” that could create more stampers). With this information we know that the A-side song took three takes and the B-side song took only one take. At least two mothers were created (probably more), and at least 5 stampers for the A-side and 6 for the B-side – meaning, at a minimum, about 10,000 to 12,000 copies of this record were made.

The A-side recording is “Lucky Lindy,” lyrics by L. Wolfe Gilbert and music by Abel Baer, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The B-side recording is “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.),” lyrics by Howard Johnson and music by Al Sherman, and runs approximately 2 minutes and 55 seconds. Both songs are sung by tenor Jack Kaufman, backed up by an unnamed orchestra. While I could find no indication of a specific recording date, it is likely from 1927 or early 1928.

Both songs were written on the occasion of “Lucky” Charles Lindbergh’s celebrated May 1927 trans-Atlantic solo flight. The record-setting event engendered a remarkable level of patriotic fervor and an incredible number of musical tributes, perhaps more so than any other event in American history until then or since. Ironically, the flight was considered an illustration of mankind’s (and America’s specifically) technological prowess and ingenuity – I say ironic because this particular record was recorded in what was then an antiquated technology, the acoustic method. Lindbergh became celebrated more than any star of Hollywood or radio and there was a rush to capture that spirit by the leading cultural medium of the day: recorded music.

Charles Lindbergh, around the time of his famous 1927 flight.

To say the quantity of songs written about Lindbergh’s flight exceeds that written to mark any single event in American history before or since is not an exaggeration. Not even including the still recognizable dance craze inspired by the flight (the Lindy Hop), in all in the two years following Lindbergh’s journey the U.S. Copyright Office received three hundred applications on songs related to the flight and the pilot. Thirty songs alone had the same title – “Spirit of St. Louis,” Lindbergh’s plane. Another twelve were entitled “Lindy” (there was some confusion over the spelling, resulting in Lindberg, Lindburg, Linberg, Linderburg, and Linbergh). The third most popular title was “Lone Eagle” – a commonly used metaphor for the pilot that combined jingoistic American symbolism with the physical feat of flying itself. Other Lindbergh tributes included “Won’t You Take Me to Heaven, Please, Lucky Lindy Do,” “America Did It Again,” “Like an Angel He Flew into Our Hearts,” “Plucky Lindy’s Lucky Day,” “Just Like a Butterfly through Sun and Rain, and “He Did It, the Thing that Couldn’t Be Done.” The Hoover for President campaign benefited from “If He’s Good Enough for Lindy.” The volume of musical tributes was so great that one Tin Pan Alley songwriting team even wrote one entitled “This Song Is Not About Lindbergh.”

Lindbergh received a hero's welcome on his return to the U.S.

In 1929 Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, and Bertolt Brecht penned an opera entitled “Der Lindberghflug” (Lindbergh’s Flight), though Brecht would later remove all references to the pilot and rename the piece “Der Ozeanflug” (Ocean Flight) in 1950 in reaction to Lindbergh’s perceived Nazi sympathies. Indeed Lindbergh’s apparent right-wing political viewpoints also engendered negative musical references, though not for some decades after his flight. In the 1940s Woody Guthrie’s “Lindbergh” skewered the celebrated pilot for his affiliation with the far right America First Party (“They say America First, but they mean America Next”). Guthrie probably would have found the lyric “Lucky Lindy, right all along…” on the A-side of this record to be a bit too true.

On the A-side we have the prolific recording artist and vaudevillian Jack Kaufman singing Gilbert and Baer’s “Lucky Lindy” – perhaps the single most popular and widely produced of the Lindbergh paeans. Gilbert and Baer had just finished composing the piece on May 21, 1927 when word of Lindbergh’s safe landing at Le Bourget was announced on the radio. It was performed that very evening at several venues around New York City; Leo Feist printed the sheet music that very weekend and it was on sale by Monday. On Tuesday the number was headlining at the Paramount Theater, being performed on the cinema’s massive Wurlitzer in between films. The song was probably featured on every major label by most of the leading singers of the day. I can find evidence of (in addition to the Harmony recording) a ca. 1927 recording by Vernon Dalhart on Perfect (#12345), another Jack Kaufman recording (possibly the same) also from around 1927 on Velvet Tone (#1418-V), a Domino Records (#17260) recording with baritone Ernest Hare, another Ernest Hare recording on Banner (#1994-A) (which one EBay seller is currently listing for $1), and a May 26, 1927 (yes, five days after Lindbergh landed) Victor scroll recording (#20681-A) by Nat Shillkret and the Victor Orchestra. Not one of these albums appears in Les Docks’ guide to “collectible” records – in fact, I could not locate a single of the Lindbergh tribute songs anywhere in his compendium. This simply further illustrates that, today, value is determined more by scarcity than historical import, musical quality, or even the featured artist.

The sheet music for "Lucky Lindy" was on sale just a few days after Lindbergh landed.

Songwriter Abel Baer (1893-1976).

Abel Baer (1893-1976), a World War I veteran, originally trained to be a dentist, but abandoned that career in 1920 when he joined a music publisher as a staff writer. His works include many Tin Pan Alley hits, including “Mama Loves Papa,” “When the One You Love, Loves You,” and “I’m Sitting Pretty.” Less celebrated today is his World War II jingle “We’ve Got A Job To Do On The Japs, Baby.” Two years after penning “Lucky Lindy” – probably his greatest commercial success – Baer moved to Hollywood and wrote songs for the films “Paramount on Parade,” “True to the Navy,” and “Frozen Justice.” His credits also include the Broadway scores of “Lady Do” and “Old Bill M.P.”

Lyricist Wolfe Gilbert (1888-1954).

Louis Wolfe Gilbert (1886-1970) started as a singer in a quartet on Coney Island, before being discovered by an English producer and being brought to London to perform as part of The Ragtime Octet. He started writing music in 1912 and made the move to Hollywood in 1915, writing – eventually – over 250 songs for film, television, and radio, including “Ramona” – the very first motion picture theme song, as well as numbers for the Eddie Cantor Show and the lyrics for the hit children’s program “Western Hop-Along Cassidy” on NBC. Gilbert was an astute self-promoter and one of the first songwriters to publish and market his own catalog; his acumen for the business led to his selection to serve as director of ASCAP from 1941 to 1944.

The B-side recording is Kaufman singing “Lindbergh (The Eagle of the U.S.A.)” – again keeping with the eagle symbolism. It is clearly the more jingoistic of the two songs, with Al Sherman, the writer, appropriating snippets of melody from classic American anthems (listen for a bit of the “Star Spangled Banner” and “Yankee Doodle” in the clip below). Like “Lucky Lindy,” this tune was released within days, perhaps even hours, of Lindbergh’s successful landing in France in May 1927. In addition to this recording I was able to identify several contemporaneous recordings: three issues of Vernon Dalhart singing it, one recorded on May 23 (two days after he landed!) on a Victor scroll record (#20674-A – note how close the catalog number is to the “Lucky Lindy” Victor recording, illustrating how closely together the two albums were released), one on Edison Blue Amberol cylinder (#5362), and one on Perfect (#12345; the reverse side of the same disc with “Lucky Lindy,” exactly as with this Harmony record, though with a different artist; one seller on EBay currently lists this disc for slightly overpriced cost of $30). There was also a Harry Crane recording on Oriole Records (#922-A) and another issue of the Jack Kaufman recording found here on Velvet Tone (#1418-V – again, identical to this record, in this case in both song selection and artist).

Sheet music to "The Eagle of the U.S.A."

Lyricist Howard Johnson (1887-1941) was likewise a veteran of World War I. After getting out of the Navy in 1917 Johnson, a pianist, joined ASCAP and began his career as a songwriter. In addition to penning “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream” Johnson was behind many of the most popular ballads of the period. One of Johnson’s (now ironic) pieces was the 1917 song “China, We Owe A Lot To You” (music by Milton Ager). No kidding.

Songwriter Al Sherman (1897-1973).

Al Sherman (1897-1973) came to America from Prague in 1909. Speaking little English and serving as a surrogate father for his four siblings after their father left them, Sherman taught himself piano and quickly became one of the most in-demand improvisers in America. He developed a reputation for providing “mood music” and his skills were sought by many of the leading film stars of the silent movies; in 1916 Universal signed Sherman to do bit parts in the films himself. In 1918 he joined the Remick Music Company as a staff pianist, composing numbers alongside some of the top songwriters of the day, including George Gershwin. Sherman also organized and directed his own orchestra that played in both Miami Beach and New York City. Sherman’s sons, Robert and Richard, would continue in their father’s footsteps, eventually writing the music for the classic films “Mary Poppins” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” Sherman’s own Tin Pan Alley credits include over 500 songs, most notably “Over Somebody Else’s Shoulder,” “For Sentimental Reasons,” and “Potatoes Are Cheaper, Tomatoes Are Cheaper, Now’s The Time To Fall In Love,” which became his signature tune and “helped raise the spirits of the Depression generation.” His songs made or furthered the careers of a remarkable roster of musicians: Maurice Chevalier, Fred Waring, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Tommy Dorsey, Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, Ruddy Vallee, Ozzie Nelson, Lawrence Welk, Peggy Lee, Patti Page, and Duke Ellington and the Cotton Club Orchestra. His music can be heard in the Broadway hits “Ziegfeld Follies,” “George White’s Scandals,” “The Passing Show,” and “Earl Carroll’s Vanities.” His film music includes songs for “The Big Pond,” “Sweetie,” “The Sky’s the Limit,” and “Sensations of 1945.”

Cyndi Lauper in 1983. Her cover of one of Sherman's songs earned her a Grammy award.

Sherman’s music continued to influence American musicians even into the 1980s, when Cyndi Lauper’s rendition of Sherman’s “He’s So Unusual” – titled “She’s So Unusual” (1983) – even featured scratches and hisses designed to sound like a vintage 78-RPM record. The song hit #4 on the Billboard pop charts and won a Grammy for Best Album Package; it made #494 on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” and sold more than 16 million copies worldwide.

The vocalist on both sides of the album is tenor Jack Kaufman, one of the famous singing brothers Irving, Phillip, and Jack Kaufman, who originally hailed from Syracuse, New York, about an hour from where Zayde’s Turntable currently resides. Irving has been called the “most recorded singer between 1914 and 1930” and his two brothers, who performed for a while as “The Kaufman Brothers” (until Phillip’s death in 1918), were quite prolific in their own respects.

Jack (left) and Phil Kaufman in a promotional poster from around 1910.

Jack and Phil’s early vaudeville acts seemed to include quite a bit of the reviled “blackface” routines. An undated period newspaper review of their act states:

“The Kaufman Brothers… [began] their act by impersonating the Russian dancers and the Parisian vocalist who had just preceded them.” … “Especially worthy of attention are their parodies of Italian songs. Both men… play ‘swell coons’ attractively.” … “Their entrance is made in bangy, bangy coon-shouter style… These brothers have excellent voices, but are too full of monkeyshines to take time to sing properly.” … “Ragtime and Italian songs are their long suit.” … “They sing exceptionally well, but otherwise just indulge in effervescent nonsense and wear red vests and checkerboard suits.” … “Their Yiddiher Opera brought a storm of applause.”

They grew to become “second stringers” – vaudeville acts that filled out the bill for larger stars like Irene Franklin and Will Rogers.

Newspaper cartoons depicting Phil and Jack Kaufman in their blackface performance (top row and bottom left, 1910-1911; bottom right, 1914).

Jack and Phil Kaufman in an undated photo appear in blackface as part of their vaudeville act.

After Phil’s death, Irving joined with Jack and the two performed together for a number of years. The partnership dissolved in 1923, though they reunited briefly again starting in 1928. It was during this five year hiatus that Jack, performing and recording as a solo artist now, cut this album for Harmony Records. Irving and Jack (and, earlier Phil) were studio workhorses and recorded separately and together probably more albums during the Tin Pan Alley period than any other musical family, appearing by name or by pseudonym on quite literally hundreds of records for dozens of labels. Jack’s sense of theatricality, a maybe even bombast, comes across in the two recordings on this album – listen to his rolling R’s and energy, due probably to both the enthusiasm around the event and his own personality. The last Kaufman recording was made by the busiest of the brothers, Irving, in 1974, meaning the Kaufman era of original recordings lasted a remarkable 60 years.

Lindbergh and his plane.

Lindbergh and his plane - the inspiration for over 300 songs.

This May America will celebrate the 85th anniversary of Lucky Lindbergh’s historic non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic. The air mail pilot took off from Long Island a virtual unknown and landed, 3600 miles and one day later, in Paris, France as a national hero and icon. One can imagine the songwriters, musicians, studio executives, sheet music publishers, and recording technicians scrambling for that one week in late May in 1927, trying to be the first to get a piece of that Lindbergh magic. In some ways it may not seem so different than today’s commercialism. But, when I put that record onto Zayde’s Turntable and try to imagine the energy, the (much needed) optimism, and the pride that must have been coursing through the singer, the band, and the original listener, playing this disc for the very first time in 1927, I can’t help but think that it is, maybe in some way, just a bit different.