“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.

Russell Hunting day #4: Patriotic recordings

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 #4 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting.

In the autumn of 1899, the United Kingdom was embroiled in the Boer War and the newspapers were dominated by stories from the front. Fred Gaisberg had the idea for a mini drama to be acted out in the recording studio. But Gaisberg’s friend, Russell Hunting, fresh from his attempts at comedy and semi-pormographic recordings, had a better idea:

It was, as Gaisberg later recalled, for “a descriptive record entitled “The Departure of the Troop Ship”, with crowds at the quayside, bands playing the troops up the gang-plank, bugles sounding “All ashore”, farewell cries of “Don’t forget to write”, troops singing “Home Sweet home”, which gradually receded in the distance, and the far-away mournful hoot of the steamer whistle.

The record became enormously popular and eventually historic. It brought tears to the eyes of thousands, among them those of Melba, who declared in my presence that this record influenced her to make gramophone records more than anything else. I was directly and solely responsible for acquiring “The Departure of the Troopship” for my company, and together with my good colleague Russell Hunting, its author staged the recording. ”

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…..

Russell Hunting stories #1 1894: Mephistopheles in red tights haunts Fred Gaisberg

This week we are planning to run a five day series of blog entries about 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.

Patrick Feaster, a music historian, explained. “We have long thought of the phonograph as something that simply reproduced music but early uses of the phonograph were incredibly experimental. People were trying pretty much everything, trying to figure out what they could put on these recordings to make a buck, everything from hymns and prayers at one extreme to obscenity on the other end.”

Russell Hunting was a right man in the right place as the record business came into being. An intriguing mixture, he was part entrepreneur, part rogue, funny, unconventional, sometimes the artist and occasionally a business executive. Things appear to never have been dull when he was around. This is day #1 of 5 about the early years of Russell Hunting, a big extrovert so retrospectively elusive that we can only find this one very small photo of him.

Hunting was born in 1865 and would have been 12 years old when Edison invented the phonograph and 29 and working as a thespian by the time that he (perhaps inevitably) entered the orbit of Fred Gaisberg.

When Gaisberg threw in his lot with Emile Berliner’s new gramophone business, his primary role was to make recordings that Berliner could use to demonstrate the quality of his new invention. After he had completed the first batch in 1894 Hunting burst into his life, “The much advertised Burlesque show entitled Faust Up-to-Date visited the Albaugh Theatre next door to our lab which was at 1410 Pennslyvania Avenue, Washington. The stage manager was Russell Hunting. He also played the part of Mephistopheles, and, dressed in red tights was shot up from the bowels of the theatre into the midst of a bevy of dancers.

I knew him as the originator of the “Michael Casey” series of Phonograph records. They consisted of rapid-fire cross-talk between two Irish characters, with Hunting taking both parts. His fine voice had an infinite capacity for mimicry. In his spare time he made these cylinder records in his hotel room and they had become famous among exhibitors.

I argued with Berliner that by an investment of $25 ($2,200 in today’s money) for five titles, we would have a dazzling attraction in our campaign for capital. It was, for us, a huge investment, but we took the plunge…”

The Michael Casey records were comedy records. They were very popular and did brisk business with the patrons of the nickel in the slot phonograph listening machines. Hunting recorded the early ones before being replaced by a series of other actors who then played Michael Casey in much the same way that we’ve seen a number of different actors play James Bond. You can hear on of Hunting’s efforts “Casey at the Telephone” here

A wider catalogue of Hunting’s recordings are available on the Charm website, here
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