Recording Pioneers- Part 7, William Barry Owen

 

Name:              William Barry Owen

Born:              15 April 1860

Resident:        Born in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts

Occupation:   Sent to London to raise investment funds for the Gramophone Company to expand into Europe

Loves:             Music, Musicians, Gambling, London high society parties

 

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In July 1897 William Barry Owen resigned from his post with the National Gramophone Company in the United States and sailed for Britain. He was sent by Emile Berliner, inventor of the Gramophone and flat disc to set up the company in England and find investors. When he arrived he met a young Welsh lawyer; Trevor Lloyd Williams who became his co-founder of The British Gramophone Company in 1899.

Owen was an excellent sales man, having refined his selling talents as a sales man during his law degree at Amherst College. He was also a gambler who enjoyed the high stakes of starting up new ventures and more importantly he enjoyed living the high life that could be achieved if successful and so he jumped at the potential high profits in Berliner’s new Gramophone.

Initially he threw himself into the work but found high society London to be a tough crowd to crack, the Gramophones were selling but he found it difficult to attract investors to help build the business. It was his idea to bring in the Lambert Typewriter as an insurance product in case the Gramophone flopped. However, as fate would have it, the Lambert typewriter failed to bring in much revenue and The Gramophone Company stopped production in 1904. At this point Owen seemed to loose interest in the business,  he remained on the board for two more years and then left The Gramophone Company altogether in 1906.

After resigning he left Britain and returned home to the United States where he made several unsuccessful attempts in the agricultural business. By 1910 he had spent all of his money and was riddled with debt. He spent the rest of his life living off a pension paid jointly by Victor Talking Machine and The Gramophone Company.

Recording Pioneers- Part 6

Frederick William Gaisberg 1873 – 1951

“Fred was clearly one of those Children with a natural talent for the keyboard, and his mother made the most of this opportunity from the moment she began to teach him when he was four.”

-Extract from ‘A Voice in Time’ – Jerrold Northrop Moore

 Name:               Frederick William Gaisberg

Born:              1 January 1873

Resident:        Born in Washington DC, immigrated to the United Kingdom as a young man of only 25 in 1898

Occupation:   Sound Recording Engineer, A&R Supreme

Loves:             Travelling, musicians, engineering

Fred Gaisberg

© Courtesy of EMI Group Archive Trust

Fred Gaisberg’s love affair with music began at the early age of just four.  From the age of eight until his voice broke Fred was a chorister at St John’s Episcopal Church, here he met and studied under one of Washington’s most celebrated artists of the time – the young master of the United States Marine Band, John Philip Sousa.

“I attended rehearsals in his then modest home in the Navy Yard in South Washington. He (Sousa) patted me on the head and made quite a pet of me… I was one of those music-mad youngsters who hovered by his podium and never missed a concert.”

-Fred Gaisberg recalling his childhood

Although he was an excellent singer, the piano remained his first love and after securing a scholarship to study piano he gained a reputation for his excellent playing and accompanying and was soon playing for charitable organisations and amateur organisation throughout the city. In 1889 in search of some more pocket money, the sixteen year old Gaisberg came across an advert for the Columbia Phonograph Company.  They were looking for someone to play the piano loudly and clearly enough for its sounds to be captured by the apparatus as the accompaniment for a musician to record.

One of the first musicians selected to record with Gaisberg was John York Atlee, a Whistler. Together they would churn out in three’s countless records of performances of ‘Whistling Coon’, ‘Mocking Bird’, and the ‘Laughing Song’.  These recordings were made on small hollow cylinders of wax, where a needle moved gradually in a lateral way etching the grooves that represented the sound waves into the wax.

Fred Gaisberg secured his first job working at the Columbia Phonograph Company. He spent the next few years working for various people within the growing phonograph industry, including Thomas Edison.

In 1894 he met Emile Berliner and his career took on a new direction. His fascination with Berliner’s novel recording process was the start of his career change from an accompanying pianist to a recording sound engineer. Very soon after meeting and working under Berliner, Gaisberg was sent to London to record music for the European market, working with Trevor Lloyd Williams and William Barry Owen.

Once he reached London he was introduced to another sound engineer – Sinkler Derby and together they continued to travel all over the world recording local music for the ever expanding Gramophone Company. His travels are well documented in “The Fred Gaisberg Diaries” which have been made available by Hugo Strötbaum.  Fred Gaisberg was without a doubt one of the single biggest contributors to the success of the Gramophone Company.  More details on exactly what he got up to can be found in our Gaisberg Travels blog series.

Fred Gaisberg and Sinkler Derby

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.

Setting up a record company #6 Getting the right people onboard

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #6. It’s late 1895 and the fledgeling gramophone enterprise has just raised $25,000 from the Philadelphian syndicate to expand the business. Berliner now begins to look around and take on more staff.

His first move was to increase his research staff. Fred Gaisberg suggested his brother Will, who was just about to leave school and was desperate to join his big brother in the recording game. Berliner was happy to take the younger Gaisberg on but Fred’s father thought otherwise. Will recalled in later years, “My father informed my brother that he did not think that he should let two of his sons start their careers in such an uncertain business as the talking machine. His friends with whom he had discussed it agreed with him. I was put to selling coal, and a school chum of mine, William Sinkler Darby was given the position.”

William Sinkler Darby would go on to have a long recording career and would travel the world with Fred Gaisberg making many of the first recordings in each country that they visited. We followed them in their Russian trip of 1900, where they picked up these wonderful bearskin coats (not so wonderful if you are a bear.) Darby is on the right, Fred on the left.

Was Will Gaisberg bitter? Probably a little. Did he while away his life in the coal business? No. His father’s reticence to allow him to join elder brother Fred restrained him for only a short while. In early 1901 Will followed his brother across the Atlantic to join him at the Gramophone Company in Maiden Lane.

Setting up a record company #5: Perfecting the gramophone

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #5. Its 1895. Whilst Berliner is perfecting the shellac disc and Fred Gaisberg is on the road raising money for the new gramophone business, Gaisberg can’t escape the fact that a major problem with the gramophone is that it remains 100% manually operated unlike the new cylinder playing phonograph (that Thomas Edison’s company had just released) which has a clockwork driven motor that makes the playback level consistent. Berliner’s gramophone discs may sound better than Edison’s cylinders but the gramophone itself still requires the steady hand of a decent operator to play properly.

Gaisberg later recalled, “My equipment was the simple hand-driven 7-inch turntable. As it was without a governor I had to rotate it with cool nerves and a steady notion, or the music would play out of tune.”

Whilst he was pitching the gramophone to the Philadelphian businessmen who would later fund the gramophone business, Gaisberg spotted an ad in a local paper that read “Why wear yourself out treading a sewing-machine? Fit one of our clockwork motors.” Fred saw that such a device might solve the problem with the gramophone. He began a search for somebody to build a clockwork motor that would take the gramophone to the next level. That search led him to the door of a young mechanic called Eldridge Johnson who worked in Camden, New Jersey who he introduced to Berliner.

Fred later recalled “I can see him now as he was when I went to that little shop across the river…tall, lanky, stooping and taciturn, deliberate in his movements and always assuming a low voice with a Down-East Yankee drawl…
His quick, inventive brain saw what [we were] trying to do. On his own account he built and submitted to our directors a clockwork gramophone motor which was simple, practical and cheap. It was the answer to our prayers and brought Johnson an order for two hundred motors.”

It would begin a long and prosperous relationship between Berliner and Johnson and they would go on to form the Victor Talking Machine Company, one of the recording giants of the first half of the twentieth century.

Setting up a record company #4: Making better records

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #4. We’ve reached 1895 and whilst Gaisberg and Karns are on the road trying to find investors for the new gramophone business, Emile Berliner is busy improving the quality of the new-fangled recording discs.

The great inventor Emile Berliner gazing into the distance. Thinking of discs.

Gaisberg later recalled how Berliner worked on the discs. “Berliner had been using “ebonite” or vulcanised rubber for pressing records. Ebonite required a great deal of pressure and would not retain the impression permanently. Pondering over this, he remembered that the Bell Telephone Company had abandoned vulcanised rubber and adopted a plastic for their telephone receivers.

The Durinoid Company of Newark NJ were button manufacturers who undertook to furnish pressings of a similar substance from the matrices supplied by Berliner. The new substance was a mixture of powdered shellac and byritis, bound with cotton flock and coloured with lamp black. It was rolled under hot calenders into “biscuits”. when heated these “biscuits” were easily moulded under pressure and when cooled they retained the impression.

I was present when Berliner received the first package of gramophone records from the Durinoid company. With trembling hands he placed the new disc on the reproducer, and sounds of undreamed quality issues from the record. It was evident that the new plastic material …had under pressure poured into every crevice of the sound track bringing out tones hitherto mute to us. Berliner shouted with excitement, and all of us including the venerable Werner Suess, our seventy eight year old mechanical genius…danced with joy around the machine.”

Berliner's team. A strange looking crew, particularly Gaisberg standing on the left, Berliner front left and Werner Suess front right, eighty-five years old and keen on dancing.


According to Gramophone Magazine “Shellac continued to be the basis of all gramophone records for nearly 50 years (until vinyl records appeared during the 1939-45 war) except for such odd novelties as edible ‘chocolate’, and celluloid faced postcards. Record diameters increased from a tiny 125mm (5 inches) through 175mm (7 inches) to the eventual 250 and 300mm (10- and 12-inch) standards, giving playing times of 1, 2, 3 and 4-1 minutes respectively. Double-sided records came in at the turn of the century.”

Setting up a record company #3: Raising finance

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #3. Its 1894. Berliner has developed the gramophone to a degree that it’s ready for market. Fred is on board to make demo recordings to show investors the potential of the new medium.

Money...it's a drag.

Berliner was not finding it easy to raise the money he needed to grow his gramophone business. Fred Gaisberg recalled that “a stream of punters and speculators, rich and poor, visited Berliner’s small laboratory. They were all amused and interested but sceptical. They would not part with their money and Berliner’s funds and courage were getting lower and lower…He often confided to me that something would have to be done or he would be forced to close down. I had been weeks without my modest salary, but as I was earning money with my piano playing in the evenings this was no great hardship for me.”

Fred decided to try to help and persuaded an establishment figure friend of his, one B.F. Karns, to help him try to raise money for Berliner. Karns proved less substantial than he appeared and in the first instance Fred ended up lending him money….

Karns did however get them in front of some movers and shakers including the Directors of newly established and prospering Bell Telephone Company “oozing opulence and exhaling fragrant Havana cigars” but despite being tickled by the gramophone they showed no interest in backing the fledgeling record business.

Alexander Graham Bell of the Bell Telephone Company and some of his directors but with no cigars

Karns also got them to meet “Mr (FAO) Schwarz, the greatest toy maker in America, who ….asked for a talking doll.”

FAO Schwarz. He wanted talking dolls.

Gaisberg and Karns spent much of the winter of 1894 and 1895 on the road trying to raise money. Karns talked money, Fred demo’d the gramophone. But by March all the money was gone. They found themselves stranded in New York by a blizzard “snowed up in a dollar a day hotel for one whole week and without funds and with all communications cut off. For food, we patronised the free-lunch counters when the bartender’s face was turned away. Altogether we spent a week of great discomfort.”

On the return to Washington they stopped off in the City of Brotherly Love and made one last pitch to a couple of Philadelphians. They were non-committal and Gaisberg and Karns proceeded back to Washington fed up and fundless.

As 1895 turned from spring to summer, the future of the Berliner gramophone looked bleak. Fred continued making what recordings he could and Berliner concentrated upon perfecting the technology. But as far as money was concerned, the cupboard was decidedly bare.

This last diversion to Philadelphia proved ulimately to have been worthwhile. By the end of the summer the Philadelphians had formed a syndicate of 5 (two steel jobbers, a clothing manufacturer and two building contractors) to pump $25,000 into a new company which was named The United States Gramophone Company.

Gaisberg and Berliner were out of the starting blocks.

Setting up a record company #2 Finding the right artists

This week we plan to tell the story of how Emile Berliner and Fred Gaisberg set up their record company in America. Seven blog entries on seven days. This is day #2.
Its 1893.Fred Gaisberg has joined Emile Berliner in his attempt to bring his new invention, the gramophone, to the market. It meant Fred leaving behind the Columbia Phonograph Company of Thomas Edison and working from Berliner’s lab at 1410 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.

Berliner's team at The United States Gramophone Company, front from left Berliner, Werner Suess. Back from left Gaisberg, William Sinkler Darby, Gloetzner, Joe Sanders, Zip Sanders.

This is a photograph of the early team who nurtured the gramophone project. Fred recalls the very early days when the team was just three people:

“Berliner did the recording, I scouted for artists, played the accompaniments, and washed up the acid tanks. Berliner’s nephew, Joe Sanders, made the matrices and pressed the samples.”

His artist’s were very varied and were selected to show off the potential of the new recording system. The first five were:
1) Billy Golden, who had introduced Gaisberg to Berliner. He sang “Turkey in de Straw”, a famous “negro” song.

2) O’Farrell an Irish comedian who recorded “Down Went Mcginty to the Bottom of the Sea.”
3) George W Graham who was a member of Indian Medicine Troupe who sold quack medicines at street corners and entertained the crowds accompanied by John O’Terrell on banjo. George recorded “his famous talk on ‘Liver Cure'”
4) Donovan, a train announcer, who recodrded nursery rhymes
5) Emile Berliner singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

No classical artists at this point, but from this initial selection of five recordings sprang the great recording catalogues of today.

Setting up a record company: #1 Get the technology right

When William Barry Owen and Trevor Williams shook hands to establish the UK’s first record company, The Gramophone Company, in 1897 they sent for Fred Gaisberg, an American “recording expert” to come over to England to help them by setting up the recording department and the UK’s first recording studios in Maiden Lane.

Fred’s involvement in the American parent company, The United States Gramophone Company, went back much longer – to its very inception. We plan to tell the story of how that record company came into being in seven blog entries over the next seven days….

You might remember from an earlier blog entry that Fred had been working for Thomas Edison’s Columbia Phonograph Company before meeting the eccentric inventor, Emile Berliner. Berliner had worked out how to record on flat discs that were a marked improvement on the cylinders being used by Edison. He called his playback device the gramophone. Fred asked Berliner for a job when he felt he was was ready to take the new invention to market.

Later in 1893 Fred recalls that he “received a postcard asking me to come and see him [Berliner]. In great anticipation I called at his house. he informed me that in recent months his laboratory experiments had culminated in the production of a recording and reproducing process sufficiently advanced to place on the market. He also confided to me that three of his relatives and friends had formed a small syndicate to exploit his gramophone. With the limited funds he wanted to make a small programme of songs and music for demonstration purposes in order to raise capital for promoting a company. He told me I was just the person he was looking for….My value to Berliner rested in the fact that I could collect quickly a variety of effective talent to make these demonstration records.”

Fred of course said yes to Berliner’s offer and they switched into business start up mode. Over the next six days we plan to highlight some of the key moments in the setting up of what would become the record business. All the great recordings from Sinatra to The Beatles to Lady Gaga can be traced back to the events of the next few years. 1893 to 1897 saw the invention of recording sound become a business.