Russell Hunting stories #2 1896: obscenity, filth, lasciviousness; the record business discovers smut sells!

This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about Russell Hunting, a maverick who was involved at the start of the very start of the record business when its pioneers were searching to find the best business model to capitalise on the new sound-recording and playback technology. Hunting tried all sorts of ways to make money. One or two of them sailed close to the wind. None were boring. This is day #2 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting.

Fred Gaisberg recorded Russell Hunting doing his “Michael Casey” comedy routines in 1894. Hunting’s next move was to try something a little racier. Just as the invention of the printing press in the 1400’s and the internet more recently were seized upon by the pornographers of their day, people experimented with recorded smut. Russell Hunting among them. He recorded a series of obscene recordings under new pseudonyms, including Manly Tempest and Willy Fathand, and and marketed them to saloons, amusement arcades and other gathering places with nickel-in-the-slot phonographs. These saloons were where most people listened to records in those days. The playback machines were too expensive for home entertainment for most people in the very early days of the business.

These rude recordings were popular and successful but they were seized upon by a newspaper who called them “the abuse of a great invention.” Soon Anthony Comstock, the crusading founder of the recently formed New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, was on the trail of indecent cylinders, chasing down distributors and performers. Comstock was a formidable opponent. He was a super-charged fore-runner of Mary Whitehouse who rigorously sought to stamp out “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” material wherever he could find it. Comstock also opposed any information relating to birth control and human reproduction. He became a hero figure to J.Edgar Hoover who visited Comstock in his old age and studied his methods. You would never guess what Comstock was like from his picture…

Comstock was not daft, however. On June 24, 1896, a detective working for Comstock came to Hunting’s Manhattan home, posing as a collector of saucy songs. He hired Hunting to record two cylinders of smut and, when Hunting had fulfilled his side of the bargains, promptly arrested our Hero who was later sentenced to three months in prison for violating obscenity ordinances that normally governed written literature and visual images.

But don’t worry, dear reader. A number of these recording were recently discovered, cleaned up and released as a CD called “Actionable Offences” by Archeophone Records and are available for purchase here. Phworrrr!!!!

And Russell Hunting would serve his time, dust himself down and step back on the rollercoaster that was his life in recorded music…..

Setting up a new record company #7 Sell your product!

This week we aimed to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America in the late 19th Century. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #7. The final day; we made it! Its 1896. The new Philadelphian investors have decided that the United States Gramophone Company needs a permanent recording studio and a retail shop for gramophone players and discs and that it should be based in Philadelphia itself. Fred was selected to set up the recording studio which was above a shoe shop in Twelfth Street, Philadelphia. A new colleague Alfred Clark, then 22, was chosen to establish the gramophone shop. Clark and Gaisberg had similar backgrounds, both had also previously worked for Edison. Clark however was a much snappier dresser as Gaisberg later recalled.

“He was..a youth big and well proportioned, perfectly dressed in a tailor made suit which struck a note of distinction. Further his dark eyes and curly brown hair set off by a boyish blush whenever he spoke made him irresistible, quite apart from his wisdom and the fact that he had emerged from shadow of the great Edison.”

Gaisberg and Clark headed to the City of Brotherly Love to start this new record business, Gaisberg with his recording and Clark with his retail. A&R and distribution. Both would go on to play vital roles in the development of The Gramophone Company; Fred would make many of its recordings and Clark would eventually become Managing Director of the Gramophone Company and then the first Chairman of successor company EMI.

But back in 1896 all of this was ahead of them. Gaisberg fondly remembered the early days in Philadelphia.”Clark and I had living rooms adjoining the studio and so were frequently in each other’s company and exchanged views on the artist’s life, the gramophone industry and it’s future. That it had a future neither of us doubted. We were both in on the ground floor and had all the enthusiasm of youth.

There were evenings when we stopped at home and enjoyed the leather perfumed atmosphere of the studio over the shoe-shop. There was a piano, as usual mounted on a two foot high platform, and the recording machine invited exciting experiments in sound recording. Clark had a violin he was very fond of and occassionally tucked under his chin….

We..often found ourselves as guests in the homes of our (investor) directors..and in the more modest homes of Eldridge R Johnson and B.G. Royal then the small mechanics who ran the small tool shop across the river in Camden. At that time they were making the first two hundred spring-motor gramophones for the company. Their little shop was destined to expand into the great Victor Talking Machine before the decade was over.”

So as we look back on the 7 blog entries of this week that tell the story of how Fred Gaisberg and Emile Berliner set up the United States Gramophone Company we can see the years 1893-1896 were key to the development of the gramophone business. Berliner had, with the help of Eldridge Johnson, perfected his disruptive gramophone technology and the discs that it played. He had raised money to develop the business and had brought on board three key members of staff – Gaisberg as a PAID employee, Clark and Sinkler Darby. Technology + Capital + People = Business. Oh, and they found an artist or two.

What next? Well…1897 would see the push to internationalise the business. Next stop: World domination.