Gaisberg’s Travels

On the 23rd of July 1898 Fred Gaisberg, at the age of 25 set sail on the 9 a.m. SS Umbria Cunard ship from New York to Liverpool. He was sent by the inventor of the Gramophone, Emile Berliner to London as one of the first sound engineers to set up a recording studio in London to cater to the European market. GAISBERG_DIARIES_11.pdf - Adobe Reader

Fred’s personal preparations for life across the sea were simple. “My baggage consisted of a complete recording outfit plus a twenty-five dollar bicycle with pneumatic tyres, and a notebook stuffed with receipts addresses and advice… “

GAISBERG_DIARIES_1.pdf - Adobe ReaderAt only 25 years old one can only imagine the excitement, curiosity and fear Gaisberg would have felt as his cousin, Carrie, waved him goodbye from the New York harbour. He must have wondered…would he like the new people? Would London be welcoming? Would the journey be comfortable?

Gaisberg (L) and Joseph Sanders (C) aboard the SS Umbria en-route to Liverpool, July 1898Copyright: EMI Group Archive Trust

Gaisberg (L) and Joseph Sanders (C) aboard the SS Umbria en-route to Liverpool, July 1898Copyright: EMI Group Archive Trust

Although he must have been anxious he was certainly ambitious, taking the opportunity to meet potential contacts and artists while aboard. During his journey he met the music hall comedian Bert Shepherd, whose wide repertoire and contagious laugh drew in Gaisberg. The two became friends and before leaving the SS Umbria Gaisberg  secured a promise from shepherd to visit the studio in London once it was set up.

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Kylie Minogue, banned drugs and sex songs, and 19th century “exotic” dancers…harumph!

In 2007 the Australian National Film & Sound Archive set up a “hall of fame” for recordings that comprise the history of the recorded sound in Australia. They call it “Sounds of Australia” and each year they induct notable recordings into it. This year’s entries have just been announced and its received a lot of publicity because Kylie Minogue’s recording of “I Should Be So Lucky” is one of them. Anything the lovely Kylie touches causes a flurry of internet activity and this is no exception. In many of the internet posts the other 9 inductees are ignored and forgotten. Here are the nominations for three of them:

1. The first recordings of indigineous Australians in 1898 by the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to Torres Straits under Alfred Cort Haddon, who also took the following footage.


“The Cambridge Anthropological Expedition to the Torres Strait in 1898, led by Professor AC Haddon, was the first British expedition to use the phonograph for research purposes. These are the first audio recordings of the songs and music of Indigenous Australians. The recordings were transferred to magnetic tape from wax cylinders by the British Institute of Recorded Sound in 1978. The collection features songs and speech from Mer / Murray Island, Mabuiag / Jervis Island, Saibai Island, Tudu Island and Iama / Yam Island. The original wax cylinder recordings are in the collection of the British Library and 38 can be heard on the Library’s Archival Sound Recordings site. Copies are also held by AIATSIS as collection BNA 01.”

2. I’ll Never Find Another You — The Seekers


“After some success in the Melbourne folk clubs and an LP on W&G Records, The Seekers set sail on a cruise ship (employed as entertainers) in early 1964 as a way of getting to the UK. Within a few months they had been signed to Columbia Records and recording at Abbey Road Studios. Their first single for Columbia was I’ll Never Find Another You, written by Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty) released in December 1964. By February it was No. 1 on the British and Australian charts and reached No. 4 on the American charts. They were the first Australian group to have a top five hit on all three charts at the same time, and the single eventually sold 1.75 million copies.”

3. Living in the 70s — Skyhooks


“Skyhooks’ debut album was notable for having six of the ten tracks banned on commercial radio for drug and sex references, however You Just Like Me ‘Cos I’m Good In Bed was the first song broadcast on the ABC’s new youth station 2JJ in January 1975. Regardless of the controversy it was the first successful Australian pop record to set songs in a local, suburban setting — as one writer has put it ‘legitimising Australian songwriting’ with Balwyn, Carlton and Toorak mentioned in three of the song titles. The album entered the charts in October 1974, where it stayed in the top 100 for 54 weeks and was the best selling album in Australia in 1975. The best selling single from the album Horror Movie also reached No. 1 nationally.”

The full list of 2011 inductees is here and the complete list is here

And if you though you were going to get away without hearing the Kylie song….? You should be so lucky.Here it comes:

Recorded music sales are growing exponentially. Supply can’t keep up with demand….

….in 1898!

We followed how the Gramophone Company and its German sister company had some significant teething problems with the production of discs during the first year of business in 1898.

Whilst the English company was dependent upon its discs coming from Germany it had also agreed to source its gramophones from the American manufacturing plant run by Eldridge Johnson. The American company would send over gramophone parts and the UK company would assemble the gramophones in the Maiden Lane offices before despatching to their 600 retailers.

The huge demand for gramophones stretched this supply chain to the limit during the first year of trading in 1898 particularly as the busy Christmas season approached.

Fred Gaisberg recalled: “We looked upon that first Christmas as our last opportunity to turn a debit balance into credit but our stock of machines was cleared out early in December. Shipments of parts from America were held up, and the dealers were “sitting on our doorsteps” demanding goods. When eventually the cases did arrive, a few days before Christmas, everybody from the manager down to the office boy worked into the early hours assembling the parts. With faces and hands smeared with black lead from the spring-cages, we must have been a comical sight.

Nevertheless, early on Christmas Eve our stock rooms in Maiden Lane were cleared of machines and records, so we “trooped” into Rule’s to celebrate our achievement with drinks all round.”

You can almost hear the excitement of working in a start up business…Fabulous stuff.

The main problem with starting new businesses…

…is getting all the ducks in a row. The early recording business proved no different.

Emile Berliner decided to set up his European disc pressing factory in Germany rather than England in 1898. In doing so he created the German Gramophone Company – aka Deutsche Grammophon (DG).

Berliner’s European operations were therefore split in two. DG was to manufacture the discs in Hanover. The Gramophone Company (of England)‘s role was to find the artists, make the recordings and sell the resultant discs.

Whilst Fred Gaisberg set up the Maiden Lane recording studio in Covent Garden, London, his old friend from America, Joe Sanders, was establishing the disc factory in Hanover. Fred’s task was perhaps the simpler of the two and he quickly set up the studio and created a backlog of recordings that needed pressing as discs. Sanders struggled to provide a manufacturing solution as quickly. He was dependent upon the pressing machines being first made and then delivered from America. They proved slow in arriving.

In the meantime the company sold the 150,000 records that they had imported from the States. These were quickly running out. The gramophone was already proving a huge success in Europe. Generating sales was not turning out to be the problem for the new business, but they were finding it difficult to make enough discs to meet the new demand. Alfred Clark who ultimately became Managing Director remembers the early days of the business in a later article for Gramophone Magazine (here) and recalls that “from its earliest days the company made large profits”. By Xmas of its first year of business The Gramophone company had established a distribution network of more than 600 shops selling gramophones and discs, including the oldest record shop in the world; Spillers Records of Cardiff.

Joe Sanders received his manufacturing presses in the autumn of 1898 but the factory that was being built in Hanover to house them was not ready. To meet the demand for discs in the run up to Christmas of that year he erected a huge tent next door to where the manufacturing plant was being built and produced the entire European supply of discs from under a big top. Even with such constraints he was able to deliver discs within a month of the recordings being sent from London which is a quite remarkable achievement. The proper factory was completed in 1899 and you can see the presses in action within it, here:

How Deutsche Gramophone was born

We saw how Trevor Williams and William Barry Owen set up The Gramophone Company in England in 1897-8 to exploit Emile Berliner’s new gramophone technology by finding & recording artists and marketing and selling their records – as well as selling the gramophones to play them on.

Under their deal with Berliner, Williams and Owen agreed that gramophones were to be manufactured in the US and then shipped to The Gramophone Company for European distribution. Their first order was for 3,000 machines, which they would sell for £10 (equivalent of circa £910 buying power today).

The Gramophone Company’s first stock of records also came from the States. The initial order was for 150,000 American manufactured discs. Berliner and the European management decided that a European disc manufacturing facility would be needed quickly because the boat from USA was not only too expensive but too slow for the new enterprise.

Berliner decided to set up a separate company to manufacture the European discs. His brother Joseph offered to invest in the enterprise on the proviso that the pressing plant be located in Hanover, Germany, where he lived. Berliner, who was apparently wary of British Trades Unionism, agreed to the plan in 1898. The new company was called The German Gramophone Company – or, in German, Deutsche Grammophon. It would go on to become one of the greatest record companies of all time and remains today a separate label functioning within the Universal Music empire.

Berliner sent over one of his American team, his nephew Joe Sanders, to set up the plant. He’s standing second from the right in this picture of Berliner’s early US team. Berliner is seated front left.

London’s first recording studios

In an earlier blog entry we touched upon (EMI predecessor) The Gramophone Company’s first recording studio which was located two doors up from Rules Restaurant at 31 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. This would have been the very first recording studio in London, pre-dating Abbey Road Studios by 33 years!

Those kind people at the EMI Archive Trust have dug out a photo of the studio as it looked upon opening in 1898.

London's first recording studio

The lady sitting at the studio piano is Amy Williams who was the Recording Department secretary and also accompanied the vocalists. This role is the equivalent of a modern day A&R assistant getting to play on all the label’s records! You can see that the piano is raised so that its sound can be captured in the (one and only one!) recording horn which itself would be adjusted to the height of a singer’s mouth.

I’m not sure who the man is that is standing behind the recording horn. It’s not Gaisberg as he does not have a the trademark Gaisberg moustache. Fred is most likely behind the camera as he was a keen photographer.

You can see that the room is not particularly uplifting. Fred described it thus: “Yes, grimy was the word for it. The smoking room of the old Coburn Hotel was our improvised studio. There stood the recording machine on a high stand: from this projected a long, thin trumpet into which the artist sang. Close by, on a high movable platform, was an upright piano.”

31 Maiden Lane was then being used as a hotel (The Coburn Hotel) which was clearly run down when The Gramophone Company took over its basement to use as a recording studio. Its now being used a pizza restaurant called Fire and Stone.

31 Maiden Lane - now Fire & Stone

The invention of the modern music star in a hotel bedroom in Milan

Caruso making a gramophone recording: a self caricature, 1902

Fred Gaisberg was one of the men who invented the recording industry. In 1893 he worked in the States as the assistant to Emile Berliner, who had just invented the gramophone disc, and then Gaisberg went on to open and run the world’s first recording studio. In 1898 Gaisberg moved to London to make the first European gramophone recordings. He had a great career going on to become a shareholder and senior executive at The Gramophone Company, that turned into EMI, where he personally sketched out the design for Abbey Road Studios, but his first love was the discovering and recording of world class artists. One of the first artists he recorded was Enrico Caruso who went on to become the world’s first recording superstar.

Gaisberg had what he called “portable”recording equipment that he took with him on his journeys around the world to record local artists. It was not really that portable as it took six crates to ship it with him but Gaisberg nevertheless used it to make some of the most significant recordings at the very dawn of the recording business.

In 1902 he was in Milan and after hearing a young Caruso singing at La Scala was determined to record the singer. Caruso, like many of the great stars of the day was reluctant to be recorded and demanded a huge fee of 100 pounds for ten songs (which was the standard Gramophone Company contract in those days). Gaisberg telegrammed his record company for permission to press ahead with the record, but quickly received back the negative response “FEE EXORBITANT FORBID YOU TO RECORD”. Believing Caruso to be an extremely special talent and backing his judgement to the hilt, Fred chose to ignore the order and underwrote the payment to Caruso out of his own pocket.

In the middle of the day on April 11th Caruso arrived at the Grande Hotel “dressed like a dandy, twirling a cane.” He was taken up to the room where Gaisberg had set up the recording equipment but the singer initially appeared impatient to get the job over as quickly as possible to earn his 100 pounds and proceed to lunch.

Once the young singer began to sing, however, he threw himself fully into the recording process. The songs were, according to Fred himself, “all about 2 and a half minutes long and one after another, as fast as we could put the waxes on the machine, Caruso poured the fresh gold of that beautiful voice on to them.”

As a souvenir of the occassion, Caruso who was a decent cartoonist, drew the picture of himself recording for Gaisberg that is at the top of this article. He even included his version of Barraud’s Dog and Trumpet picture which was a Gramophone Company logo. Caruso pocketed his 100 pound payment and left Gaisberg in the hotel room with the post euphoric realisation that The Gramophone Company would need to sell an unheard of 2,000 copies to recoup the cost of the 100 pound fee. At this time very very few people had gramophones and so the market for discs was tiny. This is the first of the recordings that Fred had paid for:

The ten sides of Caruso did become a huge success both for the Gramophone Company, who made a profit of 15,000 pounds on the recordings (which meant that had sold in excess of 300,000 copies; the first true world wide hit records!), and for Caruso who became famous and much sought after all over the world, these recordings acting as viral marketing for the Caruso brand.

He became hugely successful and made many more recordings; 290 in total, most for the American company that became RCA Victor. He sang to great and lucrative acclaim at all the major concert halls and great opera houses of the world, made a couple of (ironically silent, of course) movies and was the featured of the first ever public radio broadcast in America in 1910.

Fred Gaisberg had recognised a special talent in Caruso and by recording it and making it available to be listened to throughout the world, he helped move the gramophone business to a popular tipping point as people bought gramophones to be able to hear Caruso’s sensational voice and in doing so gave recording stars access to a level of worldwide audience that had been hitherto impossible to reach. Fred had in fact helped to create the blueprint for the modern music star.