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.