Many may wonder about who those great pianists were behind all of these popular singers on cylinders and early disc records. Clearly they were great, well-rounded musicians who were asked to become a record company’s house pianist for a reason, and the major factor of this often varies from the different people going out to hire these pianists. Some wanted strong and powerful, light and airy, Ragtime heavy, Ragtime light, more pedal, less pedal, you name it. The record companies(such as Victor or Columbia) all wanted a different piano sound behind their artists, to make their records more distinct, and in some ways, better than they already were.
Each record company had a different pianist, although some crossed over to other record companies occasionally. They each had their own feel on the piano and style, though being in the same time period, they all played the same types of music, though some played certain things better than their rival pianists. Such as Ragtime, it was a contagious fad that every house pianist of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s had to learn how to play it somewhat as it was bound to be recorded by the record companies in it’s heyday.
The two house pianists that will be focused on here are Edison’s pianist, Mr. Frank P. Banta, and Columbia’s house pianist Frederic Hylands. These two were pianists who came from completely different musical backgrounds; one classical and the other more out of folk music and early forms of Ragtime. From the records they’re on they had completely different styles of piano, and one was on the records more often than the other.
This man was a complete mystery until about a year ago, when a few friends of mine and I went through old newspapers, magazines, and census records. The first thing someone can notice when they’re reading through Russell Hunting’s magazine The Phonoscope is that the name “Fred.(or Freddy) Hylands” is mentioned more than a handful of times throughout the issues. That sparked the interest right away. So what has been dug up on this supposedly well-loved and respected “heavy-weight piano artist”(From a page from The Phonoscope)
is rather surprising, as it seems that he was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana around early 1872 to a rather middle class family whose father was a railroad worker, but around 1887 he opened a grocery store which soon also became a saloon. Now this is most likely where young Frederic began to fiddle around on the piano and play various things that he heard at the saloon. So basically Hylands came from the same background as Brun Campbell, who is often known for being the only white student of Scott Joplin’s. And from the way that he played, his feel was very natural, loose, and sounds like he had perfect pitch, as he could completely improvise some of the wonderful things he played on those Columbia brown cylinders, and other versions of the songs from the same year don’t have anything close to what Hylands decided to play. Hylands probably had an idea of what Banta was playing, and Banta probably had an idea of what Hylands was playing, as they were both well-known pianists and bandleaders in their day in the same area of the country.
Hylands most likely attended the 1893 world’s fair in Chicago, as his sister got married there the same year, and he lived in Chicago for several years after 1893. At the fair, he must have gotten a good heavy dose of the wide variety of music that was being played there, as some historians have come to believe that this world’s fair was where “Rag Time” was first played publicly to the masses. And at this possibility, Hylands most likely got an earful of this new, upbeat, catchy, syncopated music. And also while living in Chicago, he must have heard the famous “Coon Shouter” Silas Leachman who was said to have the most awe-inspiring natural ear for music, but was said never to be able to read or write it, if so, not very well. Leachman was also an early Ragtimer, in the sense that he recorded Ragtime later when it was more popular in the way that someone who had been involved with for a while would, just the same as Hylands did. Hylands’ Ragtime sounded like that of a natural pianist and that of a player who had heard of “Rag Time” early in its life, as early as when “Rag” was just a slang word for a boardinghouse party....