Columbia Repertoire History: Popular Recordings, 1925-1934

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

Even before the advent of electrical recording the phonograph industry had acknowledged the rapid spread of radio. Songs such as “Mr. Radio Man (Tell My Mamma to Come Back Home)” and “Radio Lady o’ Mine” clogged record stores as well as the airwaves. There was also a short fad for having radio announcers appear on records, to “announce the next number”—a throwback to the announcements once found on cylinders and discs. The “Solemn Old Judge” of station WLS, Chicago (George D. Hay) introduced vaudevillians Ford and Glenn (on 303-D) and bandleader Art Kahn (336-D), while Lamdin Kay of WSB, Atlanta, did the honors for Ed and Grace McConnell (314-D). Later, Phillips Carlin of New York powerhouse WEAF introduced radio’s Ipana Troubadours (680-D).

The real answer to radio was not parody or gimmicks, however, but sound quality that could match the sound that was coming out of the electronic speakers in more and more homes. Columbia and Victor introduced electrical recording in the summer of 1925 without fanfare, but the difference must have been noticeable even on older machines. Suddenly the treble sparkled, and the bass boomed—albeit accompanied on occasion by noticeable hum and distortion, as the engineers got used to their new equipment.

An article in the May 30, 1925 Billboard magazine remarked that bandleaders were experimenting with their instrumentation in order to cope with the new demands of electrical recording. Harsh sounding banjos might be on the way out, while pianos, drums and cellos, which had never recorded well acoustically, could have a new lease on life.82 Also in vogue were soft-voiced crooners, and even “whispering” tenors. Art Gillham, a radio performer billed as “The Whispering Pianist,” began on Columbia in late 1924, but came into his own when the microphone arrived; Victor’s answer to Gillham, in 1925, was the even more famous Whispering Jack Smith.

Leading the phonograph’s recovery were dance bands, now increasingly cheery and increasingly featuring vocalists. Among the better-known names joining Columbia in the late 1920s were Harry Reser’s Clicquot Club Eskimos (1926), the Paul Ash Orchestra (1926), Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians (1927), and Will Osborne (1929). The early 1930s brought a flood of new baton wielders to Columbia: Ted Wallace, Anson Weeks (“Dancin’ with Anson”), Bert Lown, Smith Balew, Claude Hopkins, Art Kassel, Enric Madriguera, Freddie Rich, Phil Harris, Joe Haymes, Paul Ash, George Olsen, Ben Bernie, Benny Goodman, Ben Pollack and Emil Coleman among them.

Ben Selvin, a prolific freelancer who had been directing Columbia studio groups including the Knickerbockers and the Cavaliers since 1924, became exclusive to Columbia from 1927-1934. Of course the biggest coup of all was snaring Paul Whiteman, “The King of Jazz,” from Victor in 1928. Leading a band loaded with some of the greatest sidemen of the day (Bix Beiderbecke, Frankie Trumbauer, Andy Secrest, Matty Malneck, arrangers Bill Challis and Ferde Grofe, vocalist Bing Crosby) Whiteman made some classic recordings during his two years with the label.

Vocal stars on Columbia Viva-tonal discs included Ethel Waters (1925), Ruth Etting (1926), Kate Smith (1927), Lee Morse (1927), and Cliff “Ukulele Ike” Edwards (1928). Stage and screen stars included Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Buchanan (1926), Jimmy Durante (1929), Ken Maynard (1930), Charles “Buddy” Rogers (1930), and George Burns and Gracie Allen (1933). Controversial radio evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson cooed into the microphone in 1926 (“Come… come, unto me”), and George Gershwin was heard in 1927. Radio sensation Rudy Vallee, who had made personal recordings at Columbia in the early 1920s, made a brief appearance on the company’s budget labels in 1928-1929 before moving to Victor (he returned to Columbia from 1932-1933).

The biggest single hit record of the era, however, was an innocuous novelty by two blackface comics who were appearing in Earl Carroll’s Vanities. Moran and Mack had previously been turned down by Victor, and Columbia issued their “lazy” comedy routine in June 1927 with no special expectations. To everybody’s astonishment the “Two Black Crows, Parts 1&2” (935-D) took off like wildfire, eventually selling more than one million copies—one of only a handful of recordings to do so prior to the 1940s. Subsequent installments were also huge sellers

Blues and country records continued to sell well, and were now listed in separate series in separate catalogs. In 1927 the rather remarkable “Fiddler’s Convention in Georgia” (15140-D) featured Clayton McMichen, Gid Tanner, Riley Puckett, Bob Nichols, Fate Norris and Bert Layne all on one disc. 

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