Sunday, November 29, 2015

Character Studies---Byron G. Harlan(1861-1936)

I don't really understand why I neglect to speak about Byron Harlan very much anymore(and yes, I will do a post on Arthur Collins!) He had a very long an interesting story, that many record historians are now starting to examine more closely, and have found some small things that were bigger roles in his life than previously thought. Harlan was a kind "country-yap" as many would have called him, with a wonderful voice and a great sense of mimicry. He was a professionally trained singer who originally learned to sing opera back in 1880's Chicago. After getting very well-trained vocally and musically, he took these skills with him when he began to tour around in vaudeville troupes and light opera companies. By 1892, he was a very popular singer, at that time he was under the famous Charles Hoyt, doing a few shows here and there on Broadway. By 1895, he was a theatrical director and ran his own company that functioned as a vaudeville group and a minstrel show. Harlan was at each of these performances playing some important role, either singing, or being the "middle-man" of the minstrel show. By 1897, he was a success, doing several shows a week in varying east coast theaters. In 1898, Harlan was performing solo at many popular stages, from Huber's to Pastor's theater. This was the year that he met all the famous recording stars, which in many ways must have been completely by accident. He met Fred Hylands, Len Spencer, Burt Green, Ada Jones, and a handful more. This is really when they start to consider him for hire at Columbia. For some reason, this never happened when it should have, even though Hylands proudly advertised Harlan on covers of his sheet music in 1899(hmm...). It was the boys at Edison that found him and took him in first, they were quicker to make up their minds than Hylands and his crew. Since Edison hired him first, Columbia held back to take him until 1901.  He was an immediate hit with Mr. Edison himself, as for some reason, Walter Miller liked Harlan so much, that he must have told "the old man" that he would enjoy to have Harlan sing at his very exclusive dinner parties. Edison did just that, and invited Harlan to many of these exclusive gatherings, which in many ways, gave Harlan a sort of authority over many of the other artists coming in, like Arthur Collins, Harry MacDonough, Will F. Denny, Frank P. Banta, and most of the regulars at that time. Edison was on close terms with Harlan until Edison died in the early 30's. Harlan was said to have been one of the few who could actually call Edison "Tom" in his presence, and that's saying a whole lot. When Columbia hired Harlan in 1901, he wasn't an immediate success with them, as Hylands liked him, but not really the rest of the staff. It wasn't until 1902 that he really started to gain some ground, as when Arthur Collins proved he had had enough of Joseph Natus, that sparked an even better idea for the Victor and Edison people. Collins and Harlan was finally created in October of 1902, by the staff at Victor. When this duo was created, it started a whole now chapter in Harlan's life, as he was no longer dealing with everyone around him, it was then Collins that he would be dealing with for the next twenty-three years. 

Harlan was an interesting character in the studio, much to the likeness of Fred Hylands. He and Fred seemed like two peas in a pod, even if Hylands was just his accompanist at Columbia only. He owned the room when he entered it, whether it be Columbia or Edison, or even Victor, but this was before Arthur Collins. When Arthur Collins came along, Harlan could not own the room any longer. Collins and Harlan with Fred Hylands was really a very strong and fun group to witness at Columbia, as they knew Hylands like a book, and they practically knew all the cues he would give, even if they didn't really know what he was trying to play. It was really comical, as half the time, Hylands was louder than Collins and Harlan. If they had known it, they both would have thrown Hylands out. But when those sessions were on, it was three ego powerhouses in one, so whoever had the most power was able to shine through the best, and for some reason, Hylands was able to rule over Collins and Harlan sometimes. And he was just the piano player! It must have broken Harlan's heart to hear that Hylands was dropped from Columbia's staff in later 1905, but that was when Collins and Harlan was really a big money-making asset for the record companies. It was really a great idea, as they were both not really outstanding solo artists before 1901, so putting them together made them even stronger singers. It worked invariably. The record buyers loved their harmonization, and their wonderful vaudeville-style sketches on many of the records. Harlan was still a successful solo artist, making numerous records for Victor, Columbia, Zon-O-Phone, Leeds, and Edison. He remained just as popular as Collins, even though Collins was singing all that "Ragtime" and "Coon songs". Harlan was singing all those pretty sentimental songs, and occasionally doing a "rube'' sketch with Frank Stanley. He and Frank Stanley were also a popular duo, as they blended very well, and Stanley was a much more modest fellow to cool the ego factor in the recording rooms. By 1908, Collins and Harlan were a common name on records, just as much as Len Spencer's was ten years before. They were recording all the Rag-Time, popular songs, and occasionally an older minstrel number. Harlan was a seemingly nice and amiable fellow, but when he worked with Collins, it was a little different. Harlan was very particular about things, but so was Collins, so many small conflicts came and went. They argued about songs they wanted to do sometimes, only one argument has been documented in full, but it is certain that they had many more of them along the way. Collins openly stated that he was the more important member of the duo, and that did not stand well with Harlan, as Harlan thought a similar way about this role, even though they were both equally popular no matter where year it was in their partnership. If their popularity was down, both their careers would suffer, if their popularity was up, they would both share the success. There was no better member other duo, so all of that conflict was useless. By the mid-teen's however, they were dropping in popularity, as they were singers who had been in the business since the late-1890's, and it was very rare for 1890's recording stars to remain popular in the business for twenty years. They had achieved this, as by 1922, they were still making records as Collins and Harlan, even if they were not really that popular by 1917. Edison's staff just couldn't let them go, as Mr. Edison still really liked them as people and recording artists. Harlan was no longer a popular artist by 1924, so he only made records occasionally, as he had the money from recording to enjoy his semi-retirement. Collins was gone by 1925, taking his wealth with him, and moved out to Florida. Harlan still had to work sometimes, as he was not really as great with his money. Harlan had never really been so great with his money, and it didn't help that he was a close friend of Fred Hylands' for so many years(that was usually something that seemed great when they knew him, but later it would come back to bite them). Collins knew that Harlan wasn't good with his money, and that must have contributed to why he refused to help him when the Crash of 1929 struck, other than just not wanting to have anything to do with the recording business in his retirement.  Harlan was a broken mess in the 1930's, living in a terrible old house in West Orange, NJ, that Jim Walsh once described as a terrible "run-down" old place that was certainly miserable. Harlan loved recalling those old recording days, but he felt that not a soul cared about those old names recording companies anymore, so this is why not much information came out of those letters from Harlan to Walsh in the early 30's. It's a sad ending to a long and fascinating story, but he died in September of 1936, broke, leaving his daughter and wife. 
His wife Ethel did indeed give a fair amount of information to Walsh in the 1940's, and that is where much of the information about him came from, I do not know what happened to his daughter, but she did live a long time as far as I know. 

I hope you enjoyed this!

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