Here we are a decade beyond the new century. Where we are today in the enjoyment of music. The steps taken to get here have taken over a century.
In the beginning, listening to music could only be done with the performers right in front of you. There wasn’t a way to hear music at home.
Benjamin Franklin got ball rolling by discovering electricity. Another eccentric genius, Thomas Edison found many ways to use it. Not only could it light our homes, after all, he invented the light bulb, but it could provide entertainment.
By 1891, cylinders and the machines needed to play them were available to consumers.
The phonograph and the motion picture camera were other contributions. Along came radio and families sat around the house and were entertained. The early phonographs played music recorded on cylinders. In the 20th century came the phonograph. They had wind up motors and the tone arm had an acoustic head which produced the sound.
Gradually, using radio components, record players called “Victolas” were made by RCA Victor which had a big eared dog “Nipper” as its mascot and insignia. By 1919, 25 million 78 RPM records were sold in the U.S.
The twenties brought changes in music. Broadway was booming with many musicals on tap. Ira and George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and (Larry) Lorenz Hart, Jerome Kern and others were providing first rate popular songs for these plays. The most prominent singer of the day was Rudy Vallee. Vallee sung through a megaphone.
Another big star was Al Jolson, called the greatest entertainer of that era. I could never understand the appeal of his nasal voice coming out of his blackface which was supposed to portray him as a minstrel singer.
Russ Columbo was a popular romantic singer of that era but he died very young. From the state of Washington came Harry Lillis Crosby who sang in a rather introverted fashion. Crosby knew how to work with the newly invented microphone. His sound was mellow and quite musical. In the twenties he worked for Columbia records but in the next decade switched to Decca which gave him a more “modern” sound. Crosby set the standard for the singing of American popular music. He would later make a major contribution to the way music is recorded.
Popular music really took off. With sound now available in the movies, music was written for them too. Harold Arlen snd Johnny Mercer added their names to the other great composers. Record stores became to blossom. Americans loved their music.
Sadly, George Gershwin died before his 40th birthday. In addition to providing music for the stage, he wrote a jazz inpinged concerto “Rhapsody in Blue” which debuted in 1925 and a “pop-opera” Porgy and Bess which he, his brother Ira and Dubose Heywood collaborated on. He would be sorely missed.
In the thirties, big bands began to form. Duke Ellington had a unique sound which enlightened many new ears. By the end of the decade much music was provided instrumentally. Benny Goodman and his quartet set all sets of records as they performed at Carnegie Hall in 1938.
At the Chicago World’s Fair in 1939, new innovations were on display including a new fangled thing called television. The consumer world was about to change but all progress ended on December 7, 1941.
FDR practically shut the county down. Hundreds of thousands were off to war. Those left behind were in a miserable place. Automobile factories were shut down. Those lucky enough to own cars were gas rationed. My father worked in a retail appliance store. He went to school to learn electronics. During the war, he missed the draft as he worked for Republic Avaition on Long Island to maintain radios used in P-47 fighter planes. The store he worked at was closed during the war.
The war years saw another new singing voice develop, a skinny kid from Hoboken, NJ named Frank Sinatra. After a brief stint with Harry James, he signed with Tommy Dorsey, whose innovative breath control as a trombonest was utilized by his new singer. “Bobby Soxers” would scream and carry on over his live performances. Much of the hysteria was staged.
Music in the forties came from big bands. The people left in the states during the war, would go to a local school or legion hall and dance to the music. One thing that didn’t change was the way music was played. The 78 RPM record had been around with virtually no improvements for 25 years.
Popular music was recorded on ten inch records, classical was twelve inches. The audio rolled off at about 6,000 Hertz. The records was noisy, easily scratched and broken. The first actual record albums were made. Bounded by heavy cardboard with permanent sleeves. An album with four records was rather heavy.
The war effort lasted four long years. The fortunate ones who came home were a major part of the biggest changes in this country’s history. Many returning soldiers learned a trade, especially in automotive or electronics while in the service. If not, the G.I. bill would send these (mostly) men to school.
The five percent mortgage was a big help. Population in the USA soared as this was the ’baby boomer” era. William Levitt built hundreds of new houses in New York and Pennsylvania. The name “suburbs” was born. We were at peace, prosperity was at hand. Hundreds of new inventions and improvements would be made by people who gained knowlege during the war. In 1953, President Eisenhower would sign the interstate highway bill. Roads were bring built in all 48 states.
It was in the post war years where huge changes came to music lovers. Despite the war ending, we still had troops all over the world. Bing Crosby was in Germany to entertain the soldiers still away from home. He was rehearsing his songs one day when something happened that would open the door to much improved sound.
Crosby noticed offside a man with a large clumsy machine with two big revolving reels on it, monitoring his rehearsal. The man beckoned Crosby over, asking him if he’d like to hear it. Crosby was more interested in an impending golf game but politely gave the man his time.
Like many of his friends, Bing had a radio show. It was presented live because since his show included music, the radio station did not want to pre record it because the acetate discs were of poor quality.
The man played back his rehearsal to Crosby. His mouth fell open. He was told the device was a magnetic tape sound recorder. What Crosby heard was seemingly a duplicate of his performance. Crosby was so taken by this new innovation, he bought into the company and opened facilities in the states. The company was Ampex. He also learned that the tape could be edited.
Crosby was thrilled. He could now pre record his show and go night clubbing or play golf at his leisure. Crosby had no idea what was to follow.
Record companies gobbled up these machines. If you have recordings from the 40′s, you will notice a huge improvement in the recorded sound. CD’s from that era will bear that out.
This was just the start. Everything just fell into place. Peter Goldmark of CBS invented the long playing microgroove record which hit the shelves in 1948. Joining the 33 1/3rd LP in 1949, RCA came up with a seven inch 45 RPM record. Factories had to work overtime to produce record changers and phonographs to play these new disks.
We had an old 78 RPM changer that played our records. My father bought a new GE ”reluctance” cartridge. It was very low output so a preamp was needed. He saw the plans in a magazine. We had the quietest 78′s on the block. Also, he saw plans for the Williamson hi fidelity amplifer. Hobbyists built them in droves. This was the birth of high fidelity sound. The only speaker we had was a 15 incher which used to be in an organ. An AM-FM tuner (I forget what brand) was connected to the Williamson. RCA made a 45 RPM record changer which cost twelve dollars. Dad brought home some demonstration records RCA made and we had 45′s before they were available to the public.
Record stores had to double inventory as 78′s still were dominant but once you heard the new 45, the choice was obvious. The new discs were lightweight and durable and took up much less shelf room. 78′s hung on until they were discontinued in 1957.
The advent of the 45 RPM record gave another industry much business…the juke box. These devices showed up at diners, bars and dance halls. The music business was becoming bigger than ever.
The 50′s would bring more changes than any other decade in history. Television became the new consumer hot item. No other innovation has yet to boom like TV did. In 1951, CBS debuted a “situation comedy” called I love Lucy, starring the real life married team of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. On Monday nights at 9:00 PM eastern time, the country virtually stopped. TV was here to stay.
My father moved to TV repair after his store reopened. A busy man he was. The early TV’s were big hulking masses of tubes and capaciters. With screens as small as five inches. A “big” screen was 12 inches and cost around five hundred dollars, more than a month’s pay in 1951.
Early TV’s were a headache. The vertical and horizontal would “roll” and had to be readjusted often. I remember when my mother would run the washing machine, the picture would “shrink.” We only had 20 AMP electric service in the house.
Homes had TV antennas mounted on a chimney or the roof which were vulnerable to wind. The TV’s produced a lot of heat. Breakdowns were often.
Meanwhile music was undergoing changes. With the big band interest eroding, the ”stars” were pop singers. Hold overs from the 40′s like Frankie Laine, Sinatra, Vic Damone, Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald were joined by Doris Day, Tony Bennett, Guy Mitchell, Eddie Fisher, Rosemary Clooney and countless others.
Jazz became a more common byword. Small combos became popular. Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, George Shearing and Erroll Garner became prominent. Joining them was the be-bop era and progressive jazz.
Jazz singers were evolving too like Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Mel Torme, Chris Connor and June Christy just to name a few. Record buyers had many choices.
Then came regional music from the south. Emerging from bluegrass and the Grand Ole Opry came country and western. Songwriter/singer Hank Williams helped put it on the map. Some of his songs like “cold, cold heart,” and “hey good lookin’” would go mainstream. One of the first C & W successful singers was Eddy Arnold, who perfomed in a business suit. Many musicians shunned C & W which didn’t gain respectability until Ray Charles added his considerable touch to it in the 60′s.
How you bought records changed too. A well stocked record store, and every neighborhood had one, saw pop music 45′s and 78′s on their main floor while LP’s were sold from either the basement or second floor. The 33′s never sold nearly what the singles did. A single cost around eighty-nine cents while albums went for about three dollars. Many still didn’t have the “hardware” to play the lp’s.
The new record player often resembled a suitcase. It contained a record changer for all three speeds and had a “turnover” cartridge, one for the smaller microgrooves and the other for 78′s. VM (Voice of America) and Webcor (Webster Chicago) made many of those changers. The included 45 RPM spindle never seemed to work!
A new item were “hi fi consoles” which seem laughable today. These large devices were made mostly by companies like Philco, RCA, Magnovax and GE which also made TV’s. They may have sounded good for their time.
The Hi-fi era certainly grew in the 50′s. A group of men, mostly working in their basements, wanted a better sound. Avery Fisher, H.H. Scott, Sol Marantz and a dedicated bunch of others began the birth of serious sound. They came up with the idea of separate components which would mount on stands or on bookshelves. This didn’t go over with many housewives who didn’t like the sight of “those damned wires,” and no pretty cabinet to polish.
These men were like rebels. In 1953 Edgar Villchur patented a new kind of bass reflex speaker, The AR 3. He discovered you didn’t need a huge platform to have good sound. They were very popular. Almost every week would come a new product as the medium was being learned.
Recording devices were scarce. My father got a wire recorder made by Wilcox-Gay (The Webster Chicago co.). A spool of steel wire was fed over a head which moved up and down so the permanent take up reel would feed properly.
This was like a new toy for me. I was only about eight but I learned how to make recording off the tuner. It had a VU meter and I knew not to overload it. Talk about a headache! The wire would often break and always during rewind. What a mess. Often it would take hours to untangle it as it wrapped around the takeup reel. It would be dispatched to the cellar which might have saved my sanity.
The world of Hi-fi was becoming interesting. On the back on many lp’s came a full description of the components used during the recording process like the brand of microphones, the Ampex tape machine and the monitors used to check playback.
Bing Crosby’s good friend, guitarist Les Paul, got a hold of one of those early tape machines and fooled around with it. By disabling the erase head, he became the first to “overdub” and it can be heard on his recordings with his wife Mary Ford. They had a huge hit with “how high the moon” in which Mary was heard singing with herself.
Most radio stations played “pop” music. Patti Page and the others would be heard all the time. But a big change was coming. In 1953, a group from Detroit who sang and played guitar, sax and drums recorded a song for a small company in Philadelphia, Essex Records. It was Bill Haley and His Comets. The song was “crazy man, crazy.” No song had ever sounded like this one. It had high energy, kind of “rocked.” The record sat at no. eleven on Cashbox for three weeks, never going further up. It had made quite an impact. The next year, Haley and his band signed with a major company, Decca.
“Dim dim the lights” and an old Joe Turner blues number “Shake, rattle and roll” were big hits for Haley. Turner must have laughed himself silly over a milk-white band singing “I’m like a wide-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store.” Much music from the south had rather raunchy lyrics.
Meanwhile, Cleveland based disc jockey Alan Freed took a love for this new kind of music. Called “rhythm and blues” in the south, Freed moved to New York, and worked at WINS and played music called “rock ‘n roll.”
It didn’t take long. The nation’s youth finally had their own music. Freed wiped up the competition in New York. He staged live shows at venues like the Brooklyn Paramount and appeared in the first rock ‘n roll movie, “Rock, Rock Rock”. Early pioneers were found on the Chess label like the Moonglows and Chuck Berry.
Late in 1954, Haley released a new song “rock around the clock.” It soon faded from the top 40. It was revived for the movie “Blackbord Jungle,” where it became a huge hit. In 1955, it was the first R & R record to become no. 1. In fact it sold a reported 22 million copies (a lot of records for the 1955 population) second only to another Decca record, “white Christmas,” by Bing Crosby.
As tradition on Saturday nights, my family went to the stock car races at nearby Freeport, N.Y. This ten year old was terribly disappointed when it rained one summer night and we couldn’t go. TV was the alternative. In those days instead of re runs, they mostly had summer replacement shows. CBS had a Dorsey Brother’s variety show in Jackie Gleason’s slot. Appearing was a singer with a strange name who made rather odd body gyrations. Yes, it was Elvis Presley. It is often reported that Elvis’ debuted on TV with Ed Sullivan, which was not the case.
Elvis was with Sun records then. We soon forgot him. The following year, his manager, Col. Tom Parker signed him to a lucrative deal with RCA Victor. He was immediately on the charts and began his huge career. Elvis’ GNP was bigger than many countries.
He had one number one hit after another. In fact, in 1956, both sides “hound dog” and “don’t be cruel” of one record made it to number one. Many asked how that was possible. Martin Block who hosted the survey show on Satuurday mornings on WNEW explained that the survey was derived from record sales, juke box plays and sheet music sales.
In 1957, Elvis’s “love me” made it to no. 2 but it was never released as a single. It was included in an EP (extended play) 45. EP’s had four songs on them and usually cost about $1.50.
Rock and roll was taking over the music business. This was despite protests of many parents and fanatics who said the music was a “bad influence” on its youth. Most rock and roll were love songs. How bad was that?
The beginnings were rather sticky. Many songs had both “white” and “negro” versions. Freed had written “sincerely” with Moonglows’ singer Harvey Fuqua. It was one of the first big R & R hits but the McGuire Sisters’ version was bigger.
Pat Boone made a fortune singing many of Fats Domino’s hits. Years later, a black activist, trying to make a point, made a speech saying how Boone had robbed “Poor Fats.” Fats Domino loved Pat Boone. He and his partner Dave Bartholomew had written those songs and they wound up getting double royalties.
Singers weren’t as lucky. LaVerne Baker, a precursor to Aretha Franklin was one of the first female R & R stars. Georgia Gibbs made three hits of songs she had recorded. There nearly was a hair pulling incident at a show both were appearing.
Many early R & R singers were young black people who formed groups. Many had one hit record but never saw any money as slick record company owners short changed them. One had a second pressing plant which he kept secret so the singers cut per records sold was short.
Next: Part 2 stereo