The History of the Major Record Companies in the UK #2 Columbia

We’ve stumbled across a wonderful book called “The Talking Machine Industry” written by Ogilvie Mitchell in 1924. It is a bit of a hack job to be frank. Mr Mitchell’s style is frothy and he gallops across a range of subjects to do with the history of recorded music at that point (i.e. less than 50 years after Edison invents the phonograph). The book is one of a series of books about Common Commodities and Industries and appears to have been partly financed by adverts from the industry in question (and in return features some product placement). Long since out of print, it’s a fascinating read. We particularly enjoyed the review of the four big UK companies of the day and will reproduce a section about each of the big four over the next few days. This is the second instalment covering the Columbia Phongraph Company.

“In 1899 The Columbia Phonograph Company was established in Washington, U.S.A., thus it may be said to be among the very earliest of the concerns to enter the industry, and it has been one of the most successful. As early as 1887, however, the parent company of the Columbia, and literally the pioneers in the industry, had put machines and cylinders on the market under licence from Bell and Tainter. Being unable to carry out some of their contracts, the American Company made arrangements with several others in the various States to act as sales-agents, while the original company limited their efforts to the manufacturing side.The Columbia Company secured one of these sales-agencies, and were restricted by agreement to the three States of Columbia, Delaware and Maryland. This restriction did not last long, however, for the prosperity of the Columbia was such that presently it ousted all the other agencies, extending its business throughout the whole of the United States. Not content with that, it opened branches all over the world and subsequently swallowed up the American Graphophone Company itself.

Here it may be noted that, as we fancy we have mentioned before, it was T. H. Macdonald, of the Graphophone Company, who perfected the spring motor. Up till then electricity had been used for the driving power, but with the clockwork mechanism methods were simplified and the cost of machines considerably cheapened.

When the Columbia Company removed their chief offices from Washington to New York, Mr. Frank Dorian was placed in charge as general manager. This move occasioned a vast expansion of trade and Mr. Dorian was sent to Paris to superintend the establishment of the European connection . His energy proved invaluable. Rapid strides were made in Paris and a branch was soon opened in Berlin. The following year the London business was reorganized and its headquarters formed in a five storey building in Oxford Street This was made the controlling centre for Europe, and Columbia was flourishing like the green bay tree, Later their swiftly developing progress warranted a removal to larger premises in Great Eastern Street, closer to the seat of the British trade which lies in that neighbourhood. At that time, of course, their records were all cylinders, but they were doing admirable work.

It was about this time that they contrived to obtain a record of the voice of Pope Leo XIII, a circumstance which we have already noted. It was issued almost on the very day of the venerable Pontiff’s death, and so made a great sensation in Catholic circles. They also secured some valuable cylinders of famous singers of the time, and set a fashion later developed by the discs of the Gramophone Company.

Finding that, in England, the disc was superseding the cylinder, the Columbia built a factory at Wandsworth and started manufacturing lateral cut records. It was an excellent step on their part, for they got hold of some of the best voices and instrumentalists in the kingdom and their productions had a great vogue. This company has played a conspicuous part in the fortunes of the industry here, doing excellent pioneer work in various directions, and aiming to elevate the public taste in gramophone music.

With the advent of Mr. Louis Sterling (above) as European manager of the company fresh life was imparted into the business, and their instruments, the celebrated Grafonolas, have a great sale, while the records find purchasers by the million. The Regal, a cheaper record, is also issued by them and is much appreciated by gramophone users whose purses are not so well filled as those of the purchasers of the higher grade Columbia.

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“Stop Yer Tickling Jock”: The great Scottish singing swindle – Russell Hunting day #5

This is the final part of 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 between 1894 and 1899 including comedy records, obscene records (for which he received a 3 month jail sentence), found himself being ripped off by a record company and made dramatic recordings to appeal to patriotism during the Boer Wars.

By 1904 Hunting had moved to London and had settled down a little. He was working for the newly formed Sterling Phonograph Company which was owned by Louis Sterling. A Russian-born American citizen now living in England, Sterling had been an early employee of The Gramophone Company before setting up on his own and would later go on to become the first Managing Director of the newly formed EMI in 1931, working with Fred Gaisberg’s old friend Alfred Clark (who became the first Chairman of EMI).

Louis Sterling

Hunting discovered a new Australian singer called Peter Dawson. Dawson was talented but poor and hungry for success, which meant that unlike the established singers of the day who were still loathe to record their voices Dawson “accepted all and sundry engagements – “smokers”, seaside concert parties, and phonograph recording” remembered Gaisberg later.

Peter Dawson

Dawson proved a remarkable and flexible talent who could sing beautifully in a range of styles. Gaisberg, Sterling and Hunting proved equally flexible and agreed a “secret understanding” to work together to their mutual benefit. In short they would record Dawson together and then Sterling would use the recordings for supplying phonograph owners with cylinders and Gaisberg would use the same recording for gramophone.

The flexibility of the singer and the three executives would be highlighted when one of Gaisberg’s star turns, Harry Lauder, proved reluctant to make the number of recordings desired by Gaisberg. Lauder was a big star at the time who specialised in Scottish balladry and presented himself as a comic Highlander.

His big songs included “I love a lassie” and “Stop yer tickling, Jock”

Peter Dawson was a fantastic mimic. He later recalled, “At The Gramophone Company one day I gave an imitation of Lauder singing “I love a lassie”. I was astonished at the reaction among the recording staff. Fred Gaisberg, the chief, came up to me excitedly and said:

“Peter, can you do any more like that. I mean, can you sing Scottish?” I was amused at the way the little American put it, and answered “Yes of course. I can sing all of his songs including “Stop Yer Tickling Jock”….”

A little while later he asked me what I thought of singing Lauder’s songs….under another name.” That other name was “Hector Grant”

Hunting, Sterling and Gaisberg leapt upon the imitation. The records became widely popular and they even persuaded Dawson to disguise himself and don a kilt to go on tour as “Hector Grant.”

Lauder was livid that he was being copied in this way. But after a while Grant’s records became less successful and the “Hector Grant” project was ended. Dawson and Gaisberg had a conversation with Lauder some years later after World War I, which Dawson recalled:

“Some time later I met Harry Lauder at the recording studio. I was making a Peter Dawson record…We chatted about old times, and he suddenly turned to Fred Gaisberg and myself:

“Did ye no ken a chap by the name of Hector Grant? He had a grrrand voice. He must have been killed in the war.”

Fred grinned and in his quiet American way asked, “Didn’t you know, Harry, that Hector Grant was Peter?”

But with obvious disbelief he replied. “Nah, nah, ye canna tell me that. I saw him in Glasgie. Yon was a much older man…”

In 1905 Sterling sold his Sterling Phonograph Company to Hunting who renamed it The Russell Hunting Record Company Ltd. Russell Hunting had begun to make some real money. He had become a player.