Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Define Prolific

In my three-tiered approach to music blogging for 2009, I have brought you Week One of the 1950s charts, in summary. On Wednesdays, I will alternate between Really Old Music (ROM) and Really Interesting Female Artists (RIFA). Today, we look at our first ROM.

First, I want to give you a glimpse into the difficulties the pioneers of music faced. At the very beginning in the late 1880s (once people realized recording devices would be a great way to capture music), the entire process was acoustic—no microphones, no second track for overdubs. If you were going to record a duet, you waited until both artists were available. The recording pickup was either a small horn or a large, long one. Depending on the strength of an artist’s voice, he or she had to stand a specified distance from the horn. One of these weeks, I’ll bring you a distance test, in which a singer sang at varying distances from the horn so the recording’s producer could create the most appealing recording possible.

Again, at the very beginning, one take equaled one cylinder for sale. If twenty orders came in for a particular song, the singer made twenty takes. The cylinder was recorded by hand for both the recording and playback process, though battery-operated players came along quickly, as hand-cranking could be a bit tedious.

So could all those recording takes, so in short order (1890) Edison’s company figured out a way to duplicate a handful, and then more than one hundred, copies of a recording. But one hundred copies still meant a lot of takes for songs that sold well.

Another issue with early music was the inability of acoustic recording equipment to record string instruments acceptably. Thus, the accompaniment for most pioneer singers consisted of horn ensembles or solo piano. Until 1925, this was the way things were done. After that, electricity powered voices and allowed the recording of quiet instruments. Bass and treble recording and playback improved greatly at that point.

But in 1903, the world of recorded music was still very young when a man named Henry Burr released his first significant recording, “The Rosary.”

Henry Burr was one of multiple pseudonyms for Harry McClaskey, born in 1882 in New Brunswick. Harry’s other principal pseudonym was Irving Gillette, used for Edison recordings, but he used a different name for nearly every label. On Columbia, Henry Burr rose quickly to stardom, and his listeners seem to have figured out that Irving Gillette was Harry in disguise.

Henry formed part of the first big wave of popular music, the tenors and quartets. The tenors were often Irish, and they all sang in a classical style. Henry himself received serious training in New York, and the proximity to the recording industry allowed him to become Columbia’s new tenor, to replace the fading George J. Gaskin.

Apart from his solo work, Henry formed part of the Columbia Male Quartet, which renamed itself the Peerless Quartet before 1910. He also recorded duets with a number of artists, most notably Frank Stanley and Albert Campbell. Though the charts of the time were haphazard and subject to interpretation, Henry logged 116 solo chart hits, as well as 48 with Campbell and 12 with Stanley. The Peerless Quartet scored 108 hits. Thus, looking at just these combinations, Henry Burr hit the charts, which generally allowed for ten songs per chart, 284 times.

Henry cornered a prestigious market when he became the primary voice for George M. Cohan’s songs. Henry devoted much of 1916-1918 to recordings that would comfort and invigorate American music fans during the Great War. In his 25-year recording career, he hit the #1 spot at least 31 times with his various collaborations and solo work. He was also one of the first artists to sing on the radio, and he got into the radio business when his recording career ended.

But all of this pales when you consider the following: Harry McClaskey recorded at least 5,000 releases, and with the need for multiple takes, he made more than 12,000 actual recordings. No one has come close to that total for prolific recording.

Henry Burr popularized a large number of songs we consider to be the kind you learn to play when you are at the midpoint of your piano lessons, songs you hear on old TV: “In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree” (#1, 1905), “Peg O’ My Heart” (#2, 1913), “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” (with Albert Campbell, #1, 1919), “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” (Peerless Quartet, #1, 1911), “Shine On, Harvest Moon” (with Frank Stanley, #2, 1909), and the like.

Today, I’ll give you a listen to several hits, including a #10 hit from 1927 that was revived on his label, Victor, in the hands of another artist, who took it to #1 in 1960.

Online fact sources include Wikipedia, the amazing Henry Burr website, Archeophone Records and Tinfoil.com. Joel Whitburn’s Pop Memories, 1890-1954 includes considerable information on the early era. Some recordings (marked UCSB) are available to you free at the UC Santa Barbara Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project.

Saturday, I’m back to the 1950s charts. And for next Wednesday, I’ll feature a female singer-songwriter from south of my home state of Indiana, which means she lives pretty far from here. See you Saturday!

In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree, 1905

Shine On, Harvest Moon, 1909

Are You Lonesome To-night?, 1927

Softly and Tenderly, 1909


jb said...

Welcome to the very small club of music bloggers who know anything about the Pioneer Era (pre-1920) of Recording. In a world where game shows are being preserved and released on DVD, I wonder why RCA and Columbia haven't opened the vaults and released some of these historic recordings.

Lizzle-ba-Dizzle said...

I had to laugh when I played "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree", because after a couple of seconds of pondering, I remembered where I knew it from: from intense practice during my second year of piano lessons! :)

Anyway, it seems that I am very fond of "ROM". I am glad this is one of the topics you chose!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff. I think the oldest recording I have is an 1890s version of "Die Wacht Am Rhein" (the song the Germans sing in Rick's Café when Victor Laszlo gets the band to play La Marseillaise". I find it sort of eerie to listen to such old stuff.