Joe Batten’s Book: The Story of Sound Recording

SOTH would like to thank our latest contributor Michael Lloyd-Davies for his insightful review on the memoirs of Joe Batten – pioneer recording manager.   

By Michael Lloyd-Davies

 

 In his foreward to Joe Batten’s memoirs, Joe is described by Sir Compton McKenzie as “that other great recorder” bracketed with Freddy Gaisberg. Joe Batten’s story is perhaps wider in its horizons. The core of the book is the excitement of pioneer recording from wax-cylinder to L.P., in which mechanical hazards and progress are described as an explorer could write of his adventures.

The period before the First World War saw sound recording grow from being a novelty toy to become an industry full of innovation and eventually accepted as a serious medium and art form by both artists and the public.

Joe was one of the pioneers who began as a pianist accompanying vocalists in recording rooms as early studios were known, to become the artistic manager for Edison Bell, and later, the Columbia Graphophone Company which merged in 1931 with The Gramophone Company to form Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI).

At EMI he formed the Special Recording Department which was located at new studios at Abbey Road. This venture began making sponsored shows for the Commercial Radio companies which were springing up in the mid 1930’s. The department was almost immediately shut down at the outset of the Second World War but re-opened to make recordings for the troops through ENSA up to 1945.

In the last five years of his 50 year career in the music industry, Joe made some notable recordings including two historical events, the silver wedding of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth and the wedding of H.R.H. Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Inevitably Joe Batten amassed a vast number of friends and memories in the musical concert and light opera fields and it is fitting that the book (out of print since the first edition in 1956) should close with select memories of the life and times at The Savage Club, London’s last bohemian rendezvous where Joe Batten concluded his life as he began it – accompanist to those spontaneous musical evenings which from the West End to the East were once such a feature of London Life.

Joe retired in 1950 but died five years later before his memoirs were published.

Joe Batten’s Book: The Story of Sound Recording is now available via Kindle Book Store: www. https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B007Q1U4RA

CLARA BUTT (1872–1936)

 By Tony Locantro

In Victorian and Edwardian times, there was a great vogue for female singers with deep,  contralto voices, who drew huge audiences to concerts of arias from operas and oratorios as well as popular ballads. Clara Butt (1872–1936) was one of the most famous and was under exclusive contract to The Gramophone Company from 1899, when she made her first recording on a 7-inch Berliner disc. A number of composers wrote songs specially for her, including Sir Edward Elgar (Sea Pictures) and Samuel Liddle (‘Abide With Me’).

She was such an important artist that the company gave her an exclusive rich dark blue label. Imagine the shock at The Gramophone Company’s headquarters at Hayes when it became known in 1915 that Madame Butt had been poached by the company’s arch-rival, the Columbia Graphophone Company! She re-recorded all her principal repertoire for Columbia and remained with them until the end of her career. Sir Thomas Beecham once remarked of her powerful voice that on a clear day one could have heard her across the English Channel.

  

Listen to Clara Butt rendition of Land of Hope and Glory (Benson/Elgar) Recorded: June 25, 1930. If you’re a SOTH subscriber following by email please go to the actual blog to get the full posting.

Thank you to our friends at the EMI Archive Trust in providing these fine images.

 

The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #3 Pathe Freres

This is the third extract from a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924 covering the Pathe Freres Company.

Charles Pathe

Emile Pathe

Charles and Emile Pathe originally ran a bistro in Paris. They moved into music retailing, first selling Edison products before beginning to record and sell their own records. They also moved into film making and distribution and expanded both sides of the entertainment business into wider Europe and the USA. In 1924, when this book was published, Pathe were hitting financial difficulties and, four years later, the French and British Pathé phonograph assets were sold to the British Columbia Graphophone Company which would in turn soon become part of EMI. In July 1929, the assets of the American Pathé record company were merged into the newly formed American Record Corporation.

This is what Ogilvie Mitchell had to say in 1924:

“Pathe Freres, who had been doing a very large continental trade, came into the English market in 1902. By the exercise of a little ingenuity, aided by Mr. J. E. Hough, they had previously circumvented the Edison embargo. No sooner, however, were they free to export their goods from France to England than they began to do an extensive trade with us. The Pathe discs are phono-cut, i.e. they are of the hill and dale variety invented by Edison, and therefore require to be played with a special needle. To this end the firm supplies asound box of its own with a permanent attachment of a ball-pointed sapphire. Quite recently it has brought out a reproducer which by a simple contrivance permits of a steel needle to be used for the lateral cut disc as well.

In the early days Pathe records were played from the centre outward to the periphery of the disc, but since the company erected a British factory on this side the Channel they have reversed their old system and the record is now played in the same manner as other discs. Those old discs were splendid fellows, nearly 14 ins. across and embodied the voices of many of the best continental artists. The firm actually prevailed upon Sara Bernhardt to record her incomparable tones, and in the years to come that disc ought to be worth much more than its weight in gold. The records are now somewhat reduced in size, conforming more to the width of ordinary makes, but the best of them at the present time are the most expensive on sale in England.

It is worthy of mention that Pathe Freres were the first to introduce the language-teaching record, and it is quite possible that they may revert to this very useful method of instruction now that there is a demand for easy systems of learning foreign tongues.

Besides building a factory here in England, Messrs. Pathe” have established a large business in America, which we understand is extremely prosperous. M. Jacques Pathe is at the head of affairs in London, and is a shrewd and competent director. He fought in the war for his country and received high commendation for his service. Although it has nothing to do with this little book it may not be out of place to state that Pathe Freres are a firm with very extensive interests in the kinematograph world. The House of Pathe, with its defiant chanticleer as a trade-mark has branches in every corner of the civilized globe, and its machines and discs are familiar to everyone who has the slightest knowledge of the reproduction of sound.”

Victor Ludorum. The Forgotten Man of Music History: Eldridge R.Johnson

By Carey Fleiner

Quick – show of hands – tell me everything you know about Eldridge R. Johnson….well, if you’re poking around this website, you probably have heard of him, but many people have not. If you’re one of the ‘nots’ — perhaps you’ve heard of his company The Victor Talking Machine Company which he founded 1901 (or at least its later incarnation as RCA-Victor). Perhaps you’ve heard of the Victrola, and in fact you might refer to every type of old-fashioned, wind-up record player as a Victrola. And surely you’ve seen Nipper the Dog, one of the first and most successful trademarks in business and advertising history. But this guy with the funny name and that – what’s he got to do with talking machines, fox terriers, and, for that matter, EMI?

Eldridge R Johnson around age 35

Eldridge Reeves Johnson (1867-1945) is an obscure figure in music history, and his name is certainly not as recognisable as Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell. It’s a bit of his own fault, really, as Johnson, while promoting his company and its products vigorously, himself stayed in the background – unlike his contemporary Edison, or modern moguls such as Bill Gates or Richard Branston, whose names are as well-known as their products. Nevertheless, Johnson founded one of the ‘Big Three’ early record companies – The Victor Talking Machine Company (1901-1927) held its own against Edison Records (1888-1929) and Columbia Records (1888-present). The Victor Company was a sister-company with the Gramophone Company (independent from 1897-1931) in the UK; the Gramophone Company merged with the Columbia Graphophone Company in 1931 to become EMI, so Johnson and the Victor Talking Machine Company are part of EMI’s pedigree.

Over ten instalments, we shall present 10 Interesting Facts about Eldridge R. Johnson, one of the founders of the modern recording industry. Before Johnson Fact #1, however, here’s a little background on the man himself.

Johnson was born in 1867 in Wilmington, Delaware, USA, and grew up about 60 miles further south in Dover, Delaware, then a rural community. He went to high school at the Dover Academy in Dover, Delaware, now part of the grounds of Wesley College [http://www.wesley.edu/], and he hoped to go to university. It’s unknown which school or course of study he had in mind; when Johnson, then aged 15, approached his high school principal about going on to higher education, he was told he was ‘too stupid’ to attend university, and should go to trade school instead.

ERJ in the 1890s

Johnson was gutted, and this comment stuck with and influenced him the rest of his personal and professional life. He was put on a train and sent north to be apprenticed to a machine shop in Philadelphia, and, according to the biography written by his son, ERJ cried all the way to his destination.

Was Johnson ‘too stupid’? As a boy, he asked a lot of questions – at home and at school. Nowadays this is regarded as the sign of an inquisitive mind, praised, and encouraged, but in those days, asking so many questions was interpreted as being daft.

Nevertheless, despite the low pay and long hours initially, Johnson applied himself to the work and his apprentice job, and to his displeasure (initially) he turned out to be quite mechanically apt. He worked in Philadelphia, then became attached to the Standard Machine Shop in Camden, New Jersey (where he filed his first patent to improve a bookbinding machine at the shop – Johnson seems to have been that guy who shows up in a place and quickly fixes all of the mechanical problems plaguing the company). At one point he went West to seek his fortune as the owner of this new shop planned to leave the business to his own son, but after a few adventures, Johnson realised there was more opportunity for work back on the East Coast. He returned to the little shop in Camden and inherited it after all, as the son had died suddenly and the owner was in financial peril. So Johnson took over the little shop and began to build a reputation for himself in the area as a mechanical engineer. Although he devoted himself to his work, he was also driven to educate himself in the classics and refined arts, and his diaries reveal later trips to the opera, visits to museums, and lists of literary texts to read. He never stopped asking questions, and turned his inquisitiveness into a business success – whether he was asking his workers about their lives and working conditions, or his customers about suggestions they had about or wanted from his products.

This same, small machine should would eventually be surrounded by the Victor Talking Machine factory complex.

Johnson’s shop in Camden in the 1890s

In 1896, a representative from Emile Berliner’s Gramophone Company brought to Johnson’s shop one of Berliner’s ‘egg-beater’ or hand-driven gramophones.

Berliner’s original eggbeater gramophone

Berliner had patented his gramophone in 1887, but he himself was no mechanic – he wanted a spring-loaded motor for the machine to make it fully automatic, more than just a toy, as this would give him the edge in the extremely competitive world of sound-recording. Learning of Johnson’s mechanical skills, he sent the machine to the workshop in Camden. Johnson gave the little gramophone a look over, and took on the job – adding a spring-loaded motor (of his own design) would be quite easy.

Berliner gramophone with Johnson’s spring-motor

Here are two clips of Berliner’s original gramophone in action: the egg-beater in action and Johnson’s added motor:


…and another short clip (in French) showing the eggbeater, then the improved gramophone, with a shot of Johnson’s clockwork motor with the cover off:

This invention alone would have sufficed to ensure Johnson’s role in the history of the recording industry: not only did this motor free the user from having to hand-crank the machine, but it also standardised the recording speed at about 78 rpm – instead of a toy, the gramophone could be regarded as a proper tool for recording and promoting both popular and classical music and artists.

Of course that was to come – Johnson’s initial impression of that first gramophone was less than enthusiastic; he famously said that the sounded like “a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head.”’ Nevertheless, Johnson was intrigued and went into a subcontractor partnership with Berliner, building gramophones and gramophone parts. He also improved the quality of the recording process on the gramophone by experimenting with electroplating wax disks to make more precise and sturdier master matrices – the wax of which, by the way, came from melted down wax cylinders made by rival Edison.

This partnership also meant that he also entered into association and later partnership with Berliner’s UK component, The Gramophone Company (headed at that time by William Owen).

William Owen, head of the Gramophone Company around 1900

Almost at once he was embroiled in the Byzantine politics of betrayal, backstabbing, and litigation involving Berliner’s company and a breakaway company called Zonophone (who were, in effect, attempting to pass a law forbidding Berliner to sell his own products.)

Long story short – Johnson won a successful lawsuit against Zonophone, saving Berliner, The Gramophone Company, and Johnson himself from financial ruin. Johnson’s original company, The Consolidated Talking Machine Company, became in 1901 The Victor Talking Machine Company, in cooperation and with the blessing of the Gramophone Company in England.

Between 1901 and 1927, Victor was one of the most successful businesses in the world. Johnson’s motto for the company was its ‘secret process,’ that is, ‘We seek to improve everything we do every day.’

Johnson’s motto serves as the mission statement at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

This motto reveals much about his own personality, drive for success, and care for his employees and customers. And because the company was his top priority, this motto provides a clue why we don’t associate Johnson with Victor as we might associate Nipper, the great singer Enrico Caruso, or the Victrola itself.

Johnson was a multi-millionaire very quickly with his company; when he finally sold Victor in 1927, he was worth close to $29 million. Problems with melancholia and depression had affected his relationship with his business over the years, and concerns that Victor was falling behind the competition with radio led him to sell his company 1927 (Victor was purchased by RCA in 1929), and he lived the rest of his life as a generous philanthropist while happily indulging his passion for his yacht and sailing. He died in 1945.

ERJ in his later years enjoying time on his yacht Caroline