Recording Pioneers- Part 6

Frederick William Gaisberg 1873 – 1951

“Fred was clearly one of those Children with a natural talent for the keyboard, and his mother made the most of this opportunity from the moment she began to teach him when he was four.”

-Extract from ‘A Voice in Time’ – Jerrold Northrop Moore

 Name:               Frederick William Gaisberg

Born:              1 January 1873

Resident:        Born in Washington DC, immigrated to the United Kingdom as a young man of only 25 in 1898

Occupation:   Sound Recording Engineer, A&R Supreme

Loves:             Travelling, musicians, engineering

Fred Gaisberg

© Courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

Fred Gaisberg’s love affair with music began at the early age of just four.  From the age of eight until his voice broke Fred was a chorister at St John’s Episcopal Church, here he met and studied under one of Washington’s most celebrated artists of the time – the young master of the United States Marine Band, John Philip Sousa.

“I attended rehearsals in his then modest home in the Navy Yard in South Washington. He (Sousa) patted me on the head and made quite a pet of me… I was one of those music-mad youngsters who hovered by his podium and never missed a concert.”

-Fred Gaisberg recalling his childhood

Although he was an excellent singer, the piano remained his first love and after securing a scholarship to study piano he gained a reputation for his excellent playing and accompanying and was soon playing for charitable organisations and amateur organisation throughout the city. In 1889 in search of some more pocket money, the sixteen year old Gaisberg came across an advert for the Columbia Phonograph Company.  They were looking for someone to play the piano loudly and clearly enough for its sounds to be captured by the apparatus as the accompaniment for a musician to record.

One of the first musicians selected to record with Gaisberg was John York Atlee, a Whistler. Together they would churn out in three’s countless records of performances of ‘Whistling Coon’, ‘Mocking Bird’, and the ‘Laughing Song’.  These recordings were made on small hollow cylinders of wax, where a needle moved gradually in a lateral way etching the grooves that represented the sound waves into the wax.

Fred Gaisberg secured his first job working at the Columbia Phonograph Company. He spent the next few years working for various people within the growing phonograph industry, including Thomas Edison.

In 1894 he met Emile Berliner and his career took on a new direction. His fascination with Berliner’s novel recording process was the start of his career change from an accompanying pianist to a recording sound engineer. Very soon after meeting and working under Berliner, Gaisberg was sent to London to record music for the European market, working with Trevor Lloyd Williams and William Barry Owen.

Once he reached London he was introduced to another sound engineer – Sinkler Derby and together they continued to travel all over the world recording local music for the ever expanding Gramophone Company. His travels are well documented in “The Fred Gaisberg Diaries” which have been made available by Hugo Strötbaum.  Fred Gaisberg was without a doubt one of the single biggest contributors to the success of the Gramophone Company.  More details on exactly what he got up to can be found in our Gaisberg Travels blog series.

Fred Gaisberg and Sinkler Derby

Recording Pioneers- Part 2

Alfred Clark 1873 – 1950


“The fine thread running through the very fabric of HMV history”

-Fred Gaisberg

Name:                  Alfred Clark

Born:                    19 December 1873

Resident:             Born in New York,  moved to France 1899 aged 26  then resident of the UK, 1909 -1950

Occupation:        Gramophone Company Managing Director, Chairman and EMI President

Loves:                  Classical music, sealing the deal, travelling the world

 

Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark
Copyright courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

 

Clark was born into an affluent New York family. He began his career in the newly forming recording industry with North American Phonograph in 1889, at the age of just 16. Throughout the 1890’s he also worked for Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope organisation, where he produced ‘Mary, Queen of Scots’ – Edison’s first scripted film.

“Clark had all the vision of youthful enthusiasm and it was not long before he had enticed to his recording studio the great stars of the Opera and concert halls…”

-Fred Gaisberg meeting Clark in Paris

 

He later went to join Emile Berliner as a sales manager at the Berliner Gramophone Company store in Philadelphia.  Around this time he also became involved in experimental work, redesigning and patenting a new design for the gramophone sound box with Eldridge Johnson.

Thomas Edison letter Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark letter of introduction from Thomas Edison

In 1899 at the age of just 26 Clark immigrated to France as an agent for Thomas Edison and Emile Berliner.  He joined forces with the Gramophone Company to form ‘Compagnie Française du Gramophone.’  He remained here until 1908 and after one year’s short break he became the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company in 1909.  He stayed in this post for 21 years until 1930, when he became The Gramophone Company’s Chairman.

Alfred Clark Copyright courtesy of  EMI Group Archive Trust

Alfred Clark
Copyright courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

 

 

He played a central part in the negotiations that led to the formation of Electric and Musical Industries Ltd (EMI Ltd) of which he was the first chairman. In 1946 he became EMI President. He stayed in this post for only 6 months before deciding to leave the company. Despite his incredible success Clark took a humble view of his career.

 

“…it has been a drab, plugging career, nothing spectacular, a business of laying one brick upon another…”

-Alfred Clark

“Magic”Johnson’s Aladdin caves: where to find out more about the great music inventor

By Carey Fleiner

For a man who is not well-remembered outside of specialist circles, Eldridge Johnson has left behind a lot of physical material and resources. For example, if you’d like to read Johnson’s personal papers, you can visit the American Heritage Center in Laramie, Wyoming, USA; Johnson’s son donated 48 boxes of personal and business papers there in 1975. You can access copies of some of these papers, including Johnson’s diaries from 1901 to 1930 at the EMI Archive in Hayes, Middlesex, England.

One autumn day at the EMI Archive(author’s photo)

 The Victor factory became the RCA complex in Camden, New Jersey, until the 1990s, where it, along with the Campbell Soup Factory, was one of the principle employers in the area; the Camden Historical Society has a number of materials and artifacts related to Victor and RCA-Victor.

Edison has his own museum, of course, but so does Eldridge R. Johnson, the Johnson Victrola Museum in Dover, Delaware, a dedicated building housing lovely things related to the man and all things Victor. The Museum was founded by Johnson’s son in 1975; the mid-‘70s were a boom-time in the US for little Museums because of a huge interest in preserving American culture at the time of the Bicentennial.

Exterior of the Johnson Victrola Museum (author’s photo)

The Museum is a two-story building nestled in the center of historic Dover; the ground backs up to a small church whose cemetery contains the remains of the Fenimore family (Mrs Johnson was Elsie Fenimore, you see.) The Museum holds literally thousands of Victor 78s (the last count the archivist gave me was ‘somewhere between 50 and 80 thousand.’ Think of the weight alone!) There are over 100 Victor and Victrola models from an example of the  earliest improved gramophone model for Berliner to the huge orthophonic machines of the last years of Victor.

Display of Victrola models (author’s photo)

There is a reproduction set-up of a typical record shop of Victor products, and numerous Victor advertising, ephemera, and memorabilia.

Mock-up of a turn-of-the-century record shop at the Museum (author’s photo)

Johnson’s office has been reproduced with his desk and comfy chair and many of his personal possessions, including his posthumous Grammy. Upstairs are more machines and horns related to the whole history of recording, many of which donated by a private collector with an apparently very understanding wife – so you can see an Edison tinfoil machine and a couple of Bell’s graphophones; if you’re looking for anything to do with Zonophone, there is a photo of Mr and Mrs Frank Seaman in one of the cabinets. The other Victor celebrity roosting in the museum is Nipper in lots and lots of forms.

One of many displays of Nipper toys and memorabilia at the Museum (author’s photo)

The pride and joy of the museum is one of the autograph Barraud paintings sent to Johnson from Barraud himself (and the third painting the artist made after the original ‘His Master’s Voice’ and a second one for the Gramophone Company).

Since Johnson secured use of Nipper ‘as he saw fit’ Nipper is more prevalent in the US, whereas in the UK, he is very strictly licensed by HMV. So keep in mind, these are Victor and RCA-Victor flavoured Nippers.

The museum is an Aladdin’s cave of wonderful machines and memorabilia – and while the Museum was closed down in 2009 due to budget cuts in response to the recession in 2008, the State of Delaware has re-opened the museum (as of May 2011) almost to its full schedule. The Museum’s holdings are also kept by the State Archives in Dover in a state-of-the-art facility – while you have to make a formal request to see things kept in the Archives, the Museum is free to the public.

The record business? Its always been about the technology.

Edison, Berliner, Johnson invented the record business. They brought into being the modern music industry. Capturing sounds from the air so that they could be played back in any place and at any time. Imagine the revolution in thinking that brought about. And what do the three fathers of the music business have in common? They were all techies, not “music guys”. In fact, the more we trawl back through the history of recorded music and the more we look around today’s Apple led world it becomes clearer that all the great surges in music consumption have been driven by technology not necessarily by the prevailing quality of music. Sure there have been exceptions – Sinatra, Presley, The Beatles, Michael Jackson who have shifted game changing volumes and were exceptional in many regards, but ultimately people bought 78′s, 45′s, LP’s and CD’s not Frankie, Elvis, Ringo or Jacko themselves. And what also drove that 50 year upward curve of music sales from 1950 to 2000 was that people sometimes bought the same recording on each of those new formats as they came out. Conversely if it was the quality of music that drove the sales increase for those 50 years, then that must mean in these days of declining sales that our music is of inferior quality?


So why the rant on this site dedicated to the history of recorded sound? Because at the weekend I took the plunge and bought a Spotify Premium package and finally joined the latest music revolution. I’ve been using Spotify for free for a year or so but much as I found it useful as search and listen engine I never enjoyed the experience of listening on the computer and I don’t have space for my computer on my hi-fi rack….so I played about on Spotify and then bought the occasional record I liked on CD to listen to properly.


No longer. With the Spotify Premium account I can still search and listen but now I transfer what I like the sound of to my phone and can listen on headphones as I commute and can easily plug into the high fi and the docking station. So now I have pretty much all the music I could possibly want in the world at my fingertips. To be played anywhere, anytime. Its Edison to the power of Elvis x The Beatles + Berliner. Quite, quite fantastic.

This morning I threw on three new albums, Gruff Rhys, Sbtrkt and Little Dragon. Never heard of them? Neither had I really. I chose them because of reviews I’d seen. Pre-Spotify I would never have explored further as they were not on my top list to check. Boy, they are now. All three albums contain superb work and I’d recommend all of you to try them. Get Spotify. Treat yourself to the Premium model. And start trying the new music once again. Its the greatest music discovery engine ever and so easy to use. Edison, Berliner and Johneson would approve.

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

Memoirs of a Musical Dog – Edison to The Beatles

As part of their Omnibus series, The BBC made a documentary about the history of recording in the late 1980′s which was called Memoirs of a Musical Dog. It aired on Friday May 27, 1988. It’s very good and thanks to the power of youtube, you can see it here:

Part One Early years of Edison and Berliner and Johnson including the origin of Nipper and His Masters Voice:

Part Two Fred Gaisberg recording Caruso recalled by his later assistant David Bicknell and Len Petts demonstrating a recording horn:

Part Three Electrical recording, Abbey Road, Menuhin remembering Elgar:

Part Four Gramophone accessories, Gracie Fields at the Hayes record factory, 1930′s picture discs, making 78 discs, recording messages home from the war:

Part Five The LP record, the 45 single, jukeboxes, The Beatles:

You would never guess this logo was designed in the 1980's

It was 123 years ago today. The first ever UK recordings.

I think we have to mark this particular anniversary.

We found this video on youtube described by the following text:

“On Friday 29th June 1888, from 2pm, a performance of Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt was captured on a number of wax cylinder recordings. This performance was part of the trienniel Handel Festivals mounted in the UK. They were recorded from the press gallery in Crystal Palace by Edison-representative Colonel Gouraud, as a way to test and show off Edison’s phonograph. Three of these cylinders still survive.

How the local paper featured the historic recording

The conductor was Sir August Manns, conducting an orchestra of some 500 musicians and a choir of over 4,000 voices, in front of an audience of 23,722 people.

These are the earliest deliberate recordings of music known to exist (earlier recordings from the 1870s are considered lost). Fortunately these can be played back at a quite definite pitch, as we know the pitch of the Crystal Palace organ at this time.

Unfortunately, the recordings are in very poor shape, audibly speaking. You are going to have a very hard time grappling with the sound, and trying to make out anything. Each cylinder contains a number of tracks.”

Here is the video:

There is a wonderful website that covers the Crystal Palace recordings in great detail and well worth a read. Its called Webrarian and you can see it here.

Rivalry and co-operation

We’ve seen that Alfred Clark left Berliner’s employ in favour of Edison and moved to Paris to set up a rival to the Gramophone Company in Europe. This put the two old friends, Alfred Clark and Fred Gaisberg, in direct competition for new recordings in 1899.

Clark, pictured above, proved to be a canny businessman. He contacted Trevor Williams, the Chairman of the Gramophone Company and persuaded him to pool resources rather than go head to head against each other.. The Gramophone Company would lead the recording programme. Clark would contribute towards the costs of the recording programme and in return would be able to use the recordings on the cylinders that he would sell for playing on Edison’s phonographs. The Gramophone company would be able to sell the same recordings on their own format. This co-operation seems extraordinary today but Clark was able to secure the deal and it had the consequence of putting more pressure on Fred Gaisberg to deliver more high quality recordings.

To this end, the Managing Director of the Gramophone Company, William Barry Owen, decided to step up the recording programme and send Gaisberg on what must be one of the first field recording trips – to the continent with special portable recording kit.

The first music industry format war hots up: cylinders v discs

(This blog entry is a bit of a catch up in the story of the Gramophone Company…..)

In 1899, Alfred Clark left Emile Berliner’s employment and went back to working for Thomas Edison’s rival business which sold cylinders rather than discs. Clark, you may remember had set up the world’s first record (disc) shop in Washington at the same time that Fred Gaisberg set up the first disc-recording studio in 1897. Fred and Alfred became firm friends during that time.

Fred had moved to London to help grow The Gramophone Company in 1898, leaving Clark behind in Washington. The opportunity of working with Edison gave Clark a chance to follow Gaisberg across the Atlantic but rather than move to London, Alfred Clark took up residence in Paris at the very end of that city’s “naughty nineties”. It must have been a great posting.

As you can see from this handwritten letter by Thomas Edison, Clark was Edison’s representative in the city and his role was to market the Edison cylinders and phonographs. He was also instructed to begin a programme of recordings to rival that being made by Fred Gaisberg. This would put Gaisberg and Clark head to head as they pursued new recordings for their rival companies.

The handwritten letter was kindly shared with us by the EMI Archive Trust. If you’d like to know more about the Trust and the artefacts that they look after, why not get in touch with them, here.