The Eldridge Johnson Story: Bringing Music To The People!

By Carey Fleiner

In 1984, Eldridge Reeves Johnson received a Grammy Award.This posthumous Grammy, The Trustee Award, was presented to Johnson in recognition of his services to the industry; the inscription reads, ‘Eldridge R Johnson: Industry pioneer whose inventions revealed the true potential of the early Victrola as a home entertainer rather than a scientific toy.’ While in this entry, I’d like to focus on the significance of the inscription, here’s first two bits of trivia: one, the machine that has sat on top of every Grammy since their inception in 1959 is in fact modeled after Johnson’s original improved gramophone. Two, the little machine is not a Victrola, which was a very specific type of Victor machine – but the use of the word shows Johnson’s success as an advertising man.

ERJ’s Grammy award, housed at the Johnson Victrola Museum, Dover, Delaware, USA (author’s photo)

Berliner in the States and the Gramophone Company in the UK saw the potential of the gramophone as a source of entertainment, and Johnson refined this concept. His mission was to promote Victor and its products towards home entertainment, bringing culture and enlightenment to the masses. In the early days of recorded sound, inventors such as Eduard de Martinville, the Bells, and Edison were more interested in the scientific principles behind or business uses of the machines. Outside of toys and the jukeboxes in workmen’s clubs, entertaining the proles was very low on Edison’s, and other inventors,’ list of priorities, and subsequently not taken seriously.

Edison’s list of the possible uses for talking machines

Many advertisements, especially those aimed at a male audience, touted the technological achievement and capabilities (or sometimes, rather exaggerated capabilities) of the machines.

The earliest advertisement for a tin foil machine

Not only were recording machines regarded as toys, their poor playback capabilities ensured that their novelty value wore out fast – and because the early recording machines were so primitive, ‘serious musicians’ would not make recordings as they felt the limitations of the machines and records were an affront to their art. The spring-loaded motor Johnson added to the gramophone changed all of this

The patent diagram for Johnson’s spring-loaded clockwork motor built for Berliner

It was the first of a number of inventions by Johnson to improve the recording and playback capabilities of his machines culminating with the orthophonic Victor models in the late 1920s.

The orthophonic machines were quite loud and frequently used in dancehalls

These machines were still hand-cranked, but the records themselves were recorded on electrically-driven machines, vastly improving the playback sound.

Unlike his peers, Johnson did not regard home entertainment as vulgar; in fact, he saw it as an extension of his own desire to become cultured and self-educated.

Victor machines were deliberately priced across a wide range so that they were just as affordable as they were beautiful. They ranged in price from $25 to thousands of dollars; in 1901, the average weekly take home pay in a working-class family was $2.50 per week (based on data from the 1900 US census); nevertheless, Victor was in the black from the beginning – even the cheapest machines were within reach, because Victor was one of the first companies in the United States to allow purchase on credit. Johnson figured every household could spare a few pennies every week towards a player, and of course, every week when they went to the furniture store or record shop to pay towards their machine, they might also be tempted to buy a new Although Victor had started out simply making machines, they got into the recording business pretty early, and these records were promoted to bring art, culture, and entertainment into anyone’s home. Victor advertising, especially in women’s magazines, emphasised this. Johnson also had a good ear for potential artists in Victor’s stable – not only adding popular artists of the day such as Billy Murray:

and Ada Jones:

They also frequently sang duets together for Victor:
Victor concentrated especially upon recording classical singers and musicians. Fred Gaisberg had already enticed Enrico Caruso to sing for the Gramophone Company in England – this was a huge coup for the nascent recording industry, as opera singers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were the celebrity royalty of the day, traveling in upper class circles and living literally in palaces along the Riviera.

Caruso’s first recording session as sketched by the man himself

Victor and the Gramophone were fiercely in competition with one another, and once Caruso began to record both popular and classical music for Gaisberg and then Victor many others followed suit.

These included Nellie Melba:

and Luisa Tetrazzini

All of the big names were on Victor, and Victor cleaned up by signing these stars to exclusive contracts.

An advertisement showing Victor’s stable of stars

To emphasize the distinction of Victor’s classical line, they introduced a red label for their opera and classical music stars
– except for Dame Melba, who demanded, and received, an exclusive mauve label.
Melba Mauve — one of Dame Nellie’s pink records


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