How often did recording artists visit recording laboratories to make records during the earliest phase of the recording industry, back in the late nineteenth century? How much did they get paid each time? Who were their piano accompanists, and how much did they get paid? What were the salaries of the recordists and other staff?
Internal documentation can help answer these questions, but little of it has been published so far, with that little being limited to recording ledgers from the very beginning and very end of the period. On the one hand, there’s the First Book of Phonograph Records, which lists many—but not all—of the recording sessions carried out at Thomas Edison’s own laboratory between May 1889 and April 1892, and which has been published in facsimile by Mason Vander Lugt. It’s a fascinating source, but it concerns a recording program that was still largely experimental. On the other hand, information from the recording ledgers of Eldridge Johnson’s operations—which became the Victor Talking Machine Company—has been reworked into standardized discographic formats, most recently as part of the Discography of American Historical Recordings. That data dates back to 1900, the last year of the nineteenth century. But to the best of my knowledge, no internal documentation of any company’s day-to-day recording activities has ever been published for any period between May 1892 and December 1899. The closest thing is probably the documentation of Edison cylinder mould production published by Ray Wile in ARSC Journal 32:2 (Fall 2001), but that data has only an indirect relationship to recording activities themselves.
Back in February 2012, I visited Thomas Edison National Historical Park to give a presentation about Theo Wangemann, the person Edison had hired to develop musical recording techniques for the cylinder phonograph, and I spent a day beforehand combing through some of the Edison Papers in an effort to resolve a few pieces of his biography. Among other things, I asked to see the financial journals of the New York Phonograph Company so that I could confirm whether Wangemann had worked for that company or not. The New York Phonograph Company—and the initially separate Metropolitan Phonograph Company, with which it merged early on—had enjoyed an exclusive right to exploit the phonograph in the state of New York and played an important role in the development of the recording industry between 1889 and 1893. As it happened, Wangemann’s name didn’t turn up in the company’s journals as I’d thought it might. But I saw that they contained a lot of other interesting information, and I had time to photograph one volume in its entirety—the one covering the period from May 1892 through the end of the company’s operations. There was another, earlier journal on hand as well, but my time there was unfortunately limited.
What’s significant for present purposes is that the journals list every payment the New York Phonograph Company made for the “musical record” side of its business, the majority of which went to performers who had come in to make records. This data has been tapped in the past, but only to a limited extent. In Lost Sounds: Blacks and the Birth of the Recording Industry, Tim Brooks cites “recently discovered journals and cash books at the Edison National Historical Site” (p. 535, n. 24) as his source of information about how many times particular African American performers visited the New York Phonograph Company, when, and how much they were paid. But the same journals provide comparable information for all performers, as well as for recordists and staff. So I decided to assemble all of this information into a “calendar” such as the company might have hung on the wall to keep track of appointments, providing a comprehensive view of activities in the “musical records” department. You can download this calendar in PDF format here.
Unlike recording ledgers, the journal doesn’t list any specific record titles. For example, it tells us that George Gaskin visited the laboratory on August 31, 1892, but we don’t know what selections he performed while he was there. On the other hand, we know he was paid ten dollars for his work. And we know who his piano accompanist was, since there’s a separate entry for that. That’s information recording ledgers don’t typically provide.
Here’s what the original records look like, with receipts and expenditures presented on alternating pages:
Next, here’s a piece of my calendar, with the entries corresponding to the above facsimile marked off in red:
Finally, here’s a key to the structure of the calendar entries and its relationship to details of the original entries:
- Records not separated by a line were listed individually in the “Total” column but summed together in the “Mus. Record” column.
- Records separated by a single line are adjacent, on the same day, but not summed in the “Mus. Record” column.
- Records separated by a double line are not adjacent.
- Records separated by a broken line are adjacent spanning a page break, and (possibly for that reason) not summed together.
- Numbers in parentheses (e.g., 3:9348) refer to the page number followed by the transaction number.
I’ve tried to present each name in the form actually used in the source entry, although these are occasionally hard to decipher, so it’s likely I’ve misread something somewhere. One consequence is that there can be some inconsistency in the way names appear in my calendar from entry to entry; among other things, I suspect that “W. Golding” and “W. Golden” both refer to Billy Golden. Some names never appear with their correct spellings: thus, W. E. “Nankeville” or “Nankvelle” is actually Will E. Nankivelle. Many names belong to well-known phonograph performers, but others don’t, and I’ve so far traced only some of the latter. To cite just a few cases, “C. Torsiello” (4/21/93) was presumably the bandleader and composer Cesare Torsiello; Mountjoy Walker (5/16/92, 4/6/93, 4/15/93, 5/11/93, 5/20/93, 6/29/93) was an actor and comedian whose hiatus from recording appears to have been due to a broken leg (see here and here); and the Fenz Brothers (2/20/93) were billed in live performances as vocal duettists from Vienna. None of those particular people, as far as I’m aware, was previously known to have made any records, so this information adds to our knowledge about participation in the early recording industry. And since the identification of brown wax phonograph cylinders from this period generally hinges on recognizing the names heard in spoken announcements, anything that adds to the universe of known performers also has the potential to illuminate actual surviving recordings.
What grabs your interest in my calendar will depend on what interests you in general. But I’d like to highlight just a few points below that caught my own attention.
For example: on May 29, 1893, there was a seven dollar payment made for “Recd. Birds.” I assume that’s an abbreviation for “Record Birds.” But what could it mean? Did the New York Phonograph Company actually make—or at least try to make—a few commercial records of birdsong? If so, that may have been a first: not necessarily the recording of bird vocalizations as such, which Richard Lynch Garner and M. Prévôt du Haudray are already alleged to have done by then as scientific investigators, but rather the recording of bird vocalizations for commercial purposes.
Several names come up alongside the same amounts week after week on Fridays or, less often, Saturdays. I assume these were the names of salaried staff connected with the Musical Records department.
Two people in this category are known to have directed recording sessions: Edward Clarance and George B. Lull, each with a weekly salary of $20. Clarance directed recording from the beginning of the new journal through late July 1892, after which he seems to have reverted to less regular appearances as a performer (an example of one of his own vocal recordings, “Down on the Farm,” can be heard at UCSB). He wasn’t replaced for some time thereafter, but in late March 1893, George B. Lull stepped in for a couple of months at the same rate of pay. An article entitled “Improvements in Phonograph Records,” Phonogram 3:3-4 (Mar.-Apr. 1893), 374, describes Lull’s work for the company in this period, noting that he had formerly managed the company’s “automatic” (nickel-in-the-slot) department and been a music professor in Poughkeepsie (the 1892 New York state census has him down as a “telephone agent” in nearby Orangetown). Then, at the start of June 1893, Clarance took over the position once again until recording activities shut down. For an excellent account of the company’s recording operations during this period, see the article “Singing to the Cylinders” in the New York Sun of June 25, 1893, which reports among other things that Clarance voiced all the company’s spoken announcements and made on-location records of the Grace Church chimes.
Other names are tied to lower salaries, and I suspect these belong to people who handled day-to-day record-keeping, inventory, packaging, and so forth.
- Miss Jennie L. Stewart (usually “J. L.,” but also “L. J.” in early entries) received $8 per week from the beginning of the new journal, with some irregularities in pay surrounding a vacation in July 1892. Payday was usually Friday, though occasionally Saturday; but towards the end of 1892, Stewart often began receiving additional, separate payments ranging from $1 to $4, mostly on Saturdays, with the possibility of multiple supplementary payments on a single day (see March 11, 1893)—maybe overtime pay on occasions when a backlog had built up? Often the $8 salary is shown going to “Miss Stewart,” and the additional payments to “J. L. Stewart,” but there’s enough overlap in references to confirm that these were the same person. In May 1893, Stewart’s weekly salary went up to $10 and the supplementary payments ceased. Stewart may have been the administrative head of the Musical Records department.
- William A. Barry received $5 per week through July 1892.
- Miss M. A. Jackson received $5 per week starting in July 1892, and while she overlapped Barry by a few weeks, she might have been training in as his replacement—likely both assisted Stewart in some capacity. Jackson got a raise to $6 per week in May 1893, at the same time Stewart’s salary went up to $10 per week.
- Miss Newcomb(e) in January 1893 also looks like a staff member earning a salary for just two weeks, though it’s hard to tell for sure.
Certain names usually appear next to the names of known vocal performers or solo instrumentalists, and these are probably the names of piano accompanists. One is the well-documented accompanist Frank P. Banta. Another, Ed DeBarrie, wasn’t previously known to have played any role in the early recording industry but is identified in other sources as a musician: we find listings for B. Edward De Barrie in the 1880 federal census as a twenty-eight-year-old “pianist” at 131 Third Avenue in New York City; for Edward DeBarrie in the 1884 New York City directory at 189 First Avenue as a “musician,” and for Edward Debarrie in 1888 at 393 Bowery as a “teacher,” with a death record of November 26, 1892, at age 36. It’s worth noting that DeBarrie often received significantly larger payments than the vocalists listed alongside him, which tells us something about how much the company valued his skills. It’s also worth noting that DeBarrie last appears on July 2, 1892, just a few months before his death; that Banta first appears on July 30, 1892; and that J. W. Randolph, who seems to have been the only other regular accompanist during and after DeBarrie’s involvement (and whom I haven’t traced further), stops appearing after August 16, 1892. Banta might well have been understood as a replacement for the highly-paid DeBarrie after the latter became unavailable, perhaps due to sickness or injury. In that light, consider the following passage from “Singing to the Cylinders”:
One young lady, an actress, who wanted a trial, forgot to bring with her the music of the song she was to sing.
“That doesn’t matter,” said Mr. Frank Banta, who always plays the piano accompaniments, “just hum it over once and I’ll catch it.”
“Oh, no,” said the young lady, “I always play my own accompaniments. I guess I can get along without the music.”
The young lady had a good voice, and Mr. Clarance, desiring to humor her a little, winked to Mr. Banta, who left the piano, and she took his place and sang to her own instrumental accompaniment. Any audience would have encored her, for the notes rolled out as fast as they do from a drum. When she finished Mr. Clarance started the phonograph for her benefit and let her hear her playing. There was a rumbling and jarring accompanied by some wild shrieks, and she confessed that she was a failure.
“Perhaps you will now be willing to receive instructions,” said Mr. Clarance. “It took Mr. Banta two months to get the knack of playing for a phonograph, and we haven’t time to instruct you.”
Occasionally a name such as Banta’s turns up in isolation, in which case I suspect the person had been called in to accompany a performer who wasn’t being paid, perhaps in an audition or test, as in the case described above. Alternatively, I suppose these entries might represent sessions for making solo piano records, though that seems much less likely, given how rarely such records are mentioned (or found).
One name that turns up repeatedly in the journal is John B. Holding. “Singing to the Cylinders” identifies him as a “musician and bandmaster” and credits him with arranging the descriptive specialty “The Night Alarm” for the phonograph, presenting a remarkable account of how the various sound effects were contrived in the recording laboratory (you can hear a rendition of it credited to Holding’s Military Band at UCSB, although the stated date of 1892 and the attribution to the United States Phonograph Company are mutually incompatible, since that company wasn’t formed until 1893). The same article quotes Edward Clarance as follows:
Gilmore’s band always gives good results. Twenty-five of the members sit in this room and play just as though they were in the open air or a hall. The band comes high, and I take as many ‘records’ as possible, using twelve phonographs. I generally get ten good ‘records’ out of the twelve in that way. The cylinders are not lost when the ‘record’ isn’t perfect, as they can be shaved and all the noise literally cut off of them, so that they can be used again, but with the music of Gilmore’s band on them they can be sold for $3. Cylinders with songs are worth from $1 to $2.
There are no references to “Gilmore’s Band” itself in the company journal, but the following letter from Holding published in the Phonoscope for May 1897 provides some clarification:
The authority to use the name of Gilmore and his men for phonograph record-making work was granted to me by Mr. Gilmore some time before his death [on September 24, 1892]. The Band to-day is composed of the same musicians who worked so longer under the direction of this famous master.
Many payments made to Holding fall into a distinctive $50-62 range and probably reflect engagements of “Gilmore’s Band” under his leadership. Based on the figures Clarance cites, the company would have made its money back through roughly two “rounds” with twelve phonographs (disregarding cost of recording labor, supplies, and so on).
The most prolific female recording artist listed in the journal, Emma Thibault (3/24/93, 3/29/93, 4/14/93, 5/19/93), was described as follows in the Phonogram for March and April 1893:
The gifted artist, Miss Ella Thiebault, of Daly’s troupe, sings to the phonograph many charming airs, although it was thought that the high and delicate notes of a woman’s voice could not be distinctly recorded. The popular song, “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,” which is interpreted with odd cries and ejaculations that are catching and effective by this favorite actress, has been in great demand.
I imagine the reference to “Daly’s troupe” points to Augustin Daly of Daly’s Theatre. The Phonogram article is likely the source of “Ella Thiebault” in a list of early female phonograph performers in Allen Koenigsberg’s Patent History of the Phonograph, but “Thibault”—as found in the journal—seems to be the correct spelling; we’re presumably dealing with the same Ella A. Thibault listed as a “vocalist” in the 1894 city directory. The other female recording artists named in the journal are:
- Miss Bennett, 6/8/93
- Belle Clayton, 7/28/92
- Miss M. C. Godey, 4/22/93, 5/23/93, 5/26/93
- Miss L. Jocelyn, 6/12/93
- Bessie Mecklend, 8/9/92
- Lillian Randall, 5/19/92
- Miss B. Thomas, 6/2/93, 6/9/93
- Miss Wentworth, 6/13/93
Bessie “Mecklend” was presumably the saxophonist Bessie Meeklens, while Lillian Randall was a whistler. “B. Thomas” was Bertha Thomas, who is identified in “Singing to the Cylinders” as performing on the Grace Church chimes. I haven’t traced the others.
African American Performers
Tim Brooks has already mined the journal entries for George W. Johnson, the Unique Quartette, and the Standard Quartette; and Charles A. Asbury (about whom see the important Archeophone release here) also turns up a number of times. But I’d like to draw attention here to an entry of July 12, 1892, that names two African American performers not otherwise even known to have made records. Evidently they did, at least this once.
Samuel Sisco, Jr., is listed in the 1880 federal census as a Black musician in New York City, age 27, with wife Cordelia; and again in the 1900 federal census as a Black musician in Manhattan, born in September 1852, with a different wife, Emma, whom he’d married in 1898, as well as a child, Irene. The 1870 federal census lists him as a “Coach Driver” in the household of his father Samuel Sisco, Sr., a 47-year-old whitewasher (who, as other documents show, had served in the 31st Colored Regiment in the Civil War), and mother Phoebe, a 47-year-old “Washer & Ironer”; then, in the 1905 New York State census, he’s listed as “Coachman,” and in the 1915 state census and the 1920 and 1930 federal censuses as “Janitor.” The 1855 New York state census shows him as one year and ten months old, pointing to a birth year of 1853 rather than 1852, and his birthplace and the birthplaces of his parents are given inconsistently as a mix of New York and New Jersey.
William A. DeMount is listed in the 1898 New York City directory as an actor. The 1900 federal census further shows him as a Black actor in Manhattan, born in September 1869, with a wife Martha, also an actor, born January 1871; but there’s also a later Manhattan marriage record of September 30, 1901, for William Demount, born in New York City, son of Theodore Demount; and Martha Striker, daughter of Howard Williams and Jerrema Frisby; both parties identified as widowed. That same year he was billed as a “sketch artist” performing with someone named McKernan. Soon after, he went on a European performing tour with his wife, of which the Freeman of January 25, 1902, reported: “Mr. and Mrs. Wm. A. DeMount have returned to the city from England. Mrs. DeMount is seriously ill. A testimonial benefit will be given for her on the evening of Jan. 30th., at the Colored Professional Club of New York’s rooms.” We then read in the issue for February 22, 1902: “Mrs. Sidonia DeMount, wife of ‘Jeff’ DeMount singing comedian, after an illness of several months died Saturday February 15 in this city and was buried on the 17th inst. The DeMounts had only recently returned from an extensive tour in Europe and it was while they were thus engaged that Mrs. DeMount contracted a severe cold that resulted in her death.” As this last report suggests, DeMount sometimes went by the name “Jeff” or “Uncle Jeff,” mostly in stage appearances, but also elsewhere: the copyright in the song “You Can’t Prove It By Me” (1898) is listed variously as belonging variously to “Wm. A. DeMount” (here) or “Jeff De Mont” [sic] (here), with coauthor “Hen Wise.” The Trenton Times of October 15, 1906, noted an appearance by “The Metropolitan Trio of New York City, Vocal and instrumental entertainers, including William A. DeMount, the famous colored comedian.” About this time, he also began to involve himself in management: the 1910 federal census lists him as a theater proprietor lodging in Baltimore. According to Trow’s Directory, he was both the Secretary and a Director of the Gus Faulkner Amusement Company, apparently formed in 1906 by Augustus C. Faulkner “for the purpose of opening arcades in Birmingham, Ala.; Richmond and Norfolk, Va., and Washington, D. C., that will cater exclusively to the Negro population” (see item in the Talking Machine World here, at p. 74). The Baltimore Afro-American Ledger of April 17, 1909, announced the formation of the Amazon Amusement Company, likewise with Faulkner and DeMount as directors, “for the purpose of opening and conducting amusements for colored people throughout the South; such as theatres, skating rinks, pleasure parks, and many other amusements.” It was then associated with the Home Theatre at Gold Street and Pennsylvania Avenue in Baltimore, a “Negro moving picture house,” which I’m guessing is the theater of which DeMount was proprietor in 1910. Next, in 1911, DeMount appeared in vaudeville with Andrew Trible in a partnership billed as “De Boys Wid De Ziz”; the two copyrighted a sketch called “Just two Picks.” The Freeman of September 21, 1912, identified DeMount as “the world’s greatest and highest salaried single man in vaudeville today.”
There’s plenty of other interesting information in the same journal besides, which I may make the subject of one or more future posts. For example, it also lists receipts for musical records, as well as expenditures and receipts associated with phonograph exhibitions. But for now, I hope you’ll find the attached calendar of interest. Enjoy!