Columbia Repertoire History: Popular Recordings, 1901-1925

Columbia Master Book, Volume I, Tim Brooks, ed.

The initial Climax recording program was designed to build up a catalog quickly, and not surprisingly consisted mostly of “standard” songs and marches rather than current popular hits. Master no. 1 was the orchestra selection “In a Clock Store,” in which various timepieces clang and bang, perhaps an appropriate analogy for the busy Climax studio. Others among the first few dozen recordings included nineteenth century art songs and show tunes (“The Lost Chord,” “The Heart Bowed Down”), snatches from opera (“Si Puo?” from I Pagliacci), the Broadway hit “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” and the inevitable “The Holy City.” Artists included names familiar to buyers of cylinders and discs of the period: Emilio de Gogorza (as “Ed Franklin”), Dudley and Macdonough, Joseph Natus, William F. Hooley, Edward M. Favor, J. J. Fisher, John Kaiser and banjoist Ruby Brooks. All of these were non-exclusive artists who worked for almost every label in the New York area. The little known Julia Allen was one of the few women recorded. Violinist Fred Hager, previously associated primarily with Zon-O-Phone, appears to have been the Climax studio bandleader.

There were few celebrity recordings. One was a single record of Broadway stars Max and Gus Rogers, in their sketch “The Rogers Brothers Playing Golf” (no. 296), the only known recording by these important entertainers. Reputedly three of the original chorus girls from the smash hit show Florodora took part in the sextette recording, “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” (647), but if so nothing was written about it at the time.76 A major project was Len Spencer’s minstrel series, nos. 641-646, in which a troupe of performers realistically recreated parts of an old fashioned minstrel show (Spencer, with his Imperial Minstrels, had been producing minstrel vignettes for various companies since 1894). Black performer George W. Johnson, one of the few African-Americans to record commercially in the 1890s, remade his specialties “The Laughing Song” and “The Whistling Coon” for the new discs.

As noted earlier, the recording laboratory appears to have been separate from that of Columbia, which continued to tum out the strong selling cylinders. One obvious difference between Climax discs and Columbia cylinders was the studio musicians. The orchestra leader on disc was generally Fred Hager, while cylinders featured the Columbia Orchestra (led, presumably, by Charles A. Prince). Band selections on Climax are by the “Climax Band,” while on cylinder they are usually by Gilmore’s Band.

Among the best sellers of 1902, judging by the number of surviving copies, were Harry Spencer’s “Arkansaw Traveler” (21) and the ragtime instrumentals “Creole Belles” (330) and “At a Georgia Camp Meeting” (406). Classical snippets such as the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore and “The William Tell Overture” always did well, as did standard selections such as “The Holy City” and “The Jolly Coppersmith.” A few selections first made around this time remained in the Columbia catalog for nearly 30 years.77 Len Spencer’s sketches “Backyard Conversation Between Two Jealous Irish Washerwomen” (398, with Steve Porter) and “Scene at a Dog Fight” (887, with Gilbert Girard), classics of their genre, were available on Columbia until 1928, and on the budget Velvet Tone label after that. The Climax/Columbia Quartette’s “Onward Christian Soldiers” (754) marched on and on in the catalog until 1930. Cal Stewart’s “Uncle Josh” routines were best sellers that remained available for years, although he frequently remade his routines.

A topical novelty that turns up often is the notorious “Address by the Late President McKinley at the Pan American Exposition” (833). McKinley gave the speech at the opening of the great exposition in May 1901, four months before he was assassinated at the same location. The title implies that it is McKinley himself who is speaking, but it is not. Columbia finally came clean in a later Marconi label release, where the speaker was identified as Harry Spencer. The Climax/Columbia Quartette also eulogized the martyred leader in “Hymns and Prayers from the Funeral Service over President McKinley” (453), which includes chimes and the quartette rendering “Lead Kindly Light” and “Nearer My God to Thee” in suitably solemn tones.

Other notable early recordings include a series of “clever imitations” of famous stage personalities (660, 662, 744), which seldom turn up today; and five titles by the great nineteenth century cornetist Jules Levy (917-921), made the year before he died. The versatile Len Spencer produced “An Evening with the Minstrels” in early 1903 (1109A through 1109L). Played back-to-back, the 12 discs constituted a continuous half hour minstrel show hosted by Len and his brother Harry, featuring a wide range of Columbia talent in gags, specialties and songs.

Artists with large numbers of releases during the later single-face era included baritone George Alexander, balladeer Henry Burr, comedians Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan (together and separately), the Columbia Quartette, comic singer Billy Murray, popular baritone J. W. Myers, “coon singer” Bob Roberts and storyteller Cal Stewart. Producer Len Spencer lent his highly melodramatic delivery to a variety of skits (which he often wrote) as well as songs. The female voice did not record well, and was less often heard. Perhaps the most popular female singer of the period was foghorn-voiced Ada Jones, alone and partnered with Len Spencer or Billy Murray.

The Spencer brothers were two of the most active figures in early recording history. Harry (Henry) Spencer (1875-1946) is often confused with his older brother Len (1867-1914) on record. Both had deep, resonant baritone voices, although Len, who recorded more widely, tended to have a more florid style of delivery. Harry specialized in spoken word recordings, and was Columbia’s regular studio announcer in the early 1900s.78

Myers and Stewart signed exclusive contracts with Columbia for brief periods, but by and large most of these New York “studio men” were heard on many other labels as well.79

No individual sales figures survive for this early period, but one of the biggest sellers must have been Arthur Collins’ ingratiating rendition of the story-song, “The Preacher and the Bear.” He recorded it in 1905 for all three major labels (Columbia, Victor, Edison), as well as many minor ones. Also very frequently found in piles of old records is “The Herd Girl’s Dream,” by the violin, flute and harp trio of Stehl, Lufsky and Sürth. Issued at the very end of the single-faced era, during the summer of 1908, it was immediately reissued on double-faced discs and sold steadily for many years.

Columbia, like Victor (and to a lesser extent Edison), enhanced its lists with occasional recordings by well-known celebrities. These brought prestige although most did not sell well. They represent important historic documents, and are of special interest to collectors. Among the earliest were a pair of recordings by renowned actor Joseph Jefferson, who made both disc and cylinder versions of scenes from his most famous play, Rip Van Winkle, in mid-1903. Columbia was especially grateful to Jefferson. The old actor was evidently such a publicity hound that he agreed to make the recordings for free, a gesture that cash-strapped Columbia deeply appreciated! It was not Jefferson’s first time in front of a recording horn. He was said to have recorded while playing Dr. Pangloss in The Heir at Law (1890), and later made Berliner discs. He even filmed some scenes from Rip Van Winkle for Biograph. He died in 1905 at the age of 76.80

Later stage personalities on Columbia included Thomas Q. Seabrooke (1904), Emma Carus (1904) and Lew Dockstader (1905), the last of the great minstrel stars. A coup in 1906—and for posterity—was the signing of Broadway stars Bert Williams and George Walker, the most successful black entertainers of the day. Williams and Walker had previously recorded for Victor in 1901, but those primitive recordings had limited distribution and were already out of print. Walker made only one Columbia recording, a duet with Williams. It would be his last, as he retired in 1909 and died two years later. Williams, however, would become one of Columbia’s biggest stars. During the 1906 sessions he made his first recording of his signature song, “Nobody,” which became a substantial hit.

Among the other recordings of historical interest from this period were a 1905 talk by Admiral Robert Peary, who was about to leave for the North Pole. (He didn't make it, and the records were not released. Peary finally reached the Pole in 1909, then recorded his reminiscences for Victor.) In 1905 Columbia released in the U.S. a pair of cylinders made by the aged Pope Leo XIII in 1903. These were the first recordings of a Pontiff and had been recorded in Rome by Gianni Bettini. They evidently were not widely distributed. No clear copies are known to survive, although a disc dubbing made long ago is at the Library of Congress.

Major recording stars of the teens included Bert Williams and Al Jolson, who moved over from Victor in 1913. Jolson’s first session for Columbia, in June 1913, produced one of his all-time hits, “You Made Me Love You.” However probably the biggest unit sellers were standard selections such as “The Herd Girl’s Dream” and numerous Hawaiian selections recorded during the Hawaiian craze of the mid-teens. Judging by figures in the Columbia files, a typical successful record at this time might ship 15,000-20,000 copies. Hawaiian guitarists Louise and Ferera’s “Drowsy Waters” (A2016), released in 1916, shipped 25,000 copies initially but by the early 1920s had reached 322,000 copies in print. Similarly “Aloha Oe” by the Toots Paka Hawaiian Company (A 1616, 306,000 copies), “Hilo, Hawaiian March” by the Irene West Royal Hawaiian Troupe (A1812, 279,000) “Kalima Waltz” by Palie K. Lua and David Kaili of West’s troupe (A1874, 226,000) were long-term mega-sellers.

Novelty hits were unpredictable, but could also score huge sales. Two series that did extremely well in the teens were Joe Hayman’s English “Cohen” series, beginning with “Cohen on the Telephone” in 1913; and Julian Rose’s “Levinsky at the Wedding” discs (1917). The first two installments of the Levinsky series shipped more than 200,000 copies each.

Many celebrities were recorded during this period, among them Broadway stars Bert Williams, Jolson, Weber and Fields (1912), Lillian Russell (unissued, 1912), Chauncey Olcott (1913), Nora Bayes (1918), Van and Schenck (1918) and Eddie Cantor (1922); and vaudevillians Gene Greene (1911), Marion Harris (1920), and Blossom Seeley (1921). Other famous personalities who stepped before the Columbia recording horn included songwriter Irving Berlin, then still in vaudeville (1910), naturalist and boy scout leader Ernest Thompson Seton (1913), Margaret Woodrow Wilson (1914), gospel singer Homer Rodeheaver (1916), composer Percy Grainger (1918) and war hero Lieut. Gitz-Rice (1918).

The dance craze that swept American during 1913-1914, spearheaded by the fabulous Vernon and Irene Castle, brought a sudden demand for dance records. Victor had managed to sign Vernon Castle himself to supervise a series of records by his “house” orchestras—the Castle House Orchestra for waltzes, and James Reese Europe’s black orchestra for the hot numbers. Columbia responded in early 1914 by engaging noted dance instructor G. Hepburn Wilson to “supervise” its dance records by Prince’s Orchestra and others. Wilson remained with Columbia for at least five years. In addition, elegant dancer Joan Sawyer, a chief rival of the Castles, lent her name to two Columbia dance records by her personal orchestra, which was then appearing at her Persian Garden club in New York. Although Columbia did not admit it, “Joan Sawyer’s Persian Garden Orchestra” was in fact a black orchestra led by Clef Club President Dan Kildare, and only the second black orchestra to record commercially in the U.S. (after Jim Europe).81

A series of special dance instruction discs (A1540-A1543) was released in August 1914.

Columbia was a little slow in responding when recorded jazz arrived noisily on the scene in early 1917. The explosion was sparked by the sensational success on Victor of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a band that Columbia had earlier tested but failed to issue. During the following months Columbia rushed out sides by Borbee’s Jass Orchestra (1917), Earl Fuller’s Rector Novelty Orchestra (1917), Harry Yerkes’ Jazarimba Orchestra (1918), W. C. Handy (1918) and Wilbur Sweatman (1918). The company finally released its own Original Dixieland Jazz Band sides in September 1917, but they paled in comparison with the vibrant recordings the group had made for Victor.

With the arrival of the 1920s jazz and dance bands were the rage. Columbia featured the Louisiana Five (1919), Ted Lewis’ Jazz Band (1919), Earl Oliver’s Happy Six (1919). Art Hickman’s San Francisco orchestra (1920), Sam Lanin’s orchestra (1920), Ray Miller (1922), the California Ramblers (1922), Frank Westphal and his Rainbo Orchestra (1922), the Paul Specht Orchestra (1922), the Georgians (1923), Jan Garber (1923), the Original Memphis Five (1923) and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra (1923). Charles A. Prince continued to lead the studio band and orchestra until 1922, and was assigned many of the passing hits of the day. His infectious recording of “Dardanella” (A2851) shipped 832,000 copies, possibly the biggest selling regular Columbia release of the entire acoustic era. One suspects buyers bought it for the song, not Prince’s name; practically everybody recorded this monster hit, including classical violinist Sascha Jacobsen.

After Prince’s departure the name “The Columbians” was frequently applied to studio band recordings.

The blues explosion on record began in 1920 with the unexpected success of Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” on the small Okeh label. Columbia’s first authentic blues artist was Mary Stafford, who recorded Mamie’s big hit for the company in early 1921. She stayed with the label for about a year, followed by the Southern Negro Quartet (1921), Edith Wilson with Johnny Dunn’s Jazz Hounds (1921), Leona Williams and her Dixie Band (1922) and then Bessie Smith (1923). Bessie’s “Down Hearted Blues” in 1923 shipped a phenomenal 275,000 copies, establishing her as the number one blues singer of the era.

Country music made its appearance during the summer of 1924 with the initial recordings by fiddler/showman Gid Tanner and banjo player Riley Puckett (of the Skillet Lickers), along with banjo picker Ernest Thompson. Country entered the mainstream later that year with popular singer Vernon Dalhart’s twangy version of “The Prisoner’s Song” on Victor, which became something of a national disease. Dalhart recorded the song for every other label in sight (his Columbia version was issued in January 1925), and promptly converted to country music. He seldom recorded anything else for the rest of his career. 

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The Columbia Master Book Discography, 4 Volumes, Complied by Brian Rust and Tim Brooks. Reprinted by permission.