Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Digby Bell and other Rare performers on records

Digby Bell(1849-1917), only made a single record for Edison in 1909, and six records for Victor in 1909 as well. I am amazed at how some of these record companies searched around for many of these old performers who were popular in the 1870's, 80's, and early 90's, and were able to have them record. It is similar to how the Edison company got an older Jules Levy(a famous Victorian cornetist) to record a single record in 1896, the year that he died. 

Digby Bell was a popular dramatic/comical performer of the late 1870's and 1880's, who was a Gilbert and Sullivan actor, and a dramatic actor, much to the likeness of DeWolf Hopper. Bell's voice boomed in Victor and Edison's studios, as can be heard from the few that exist now, and from what was captured, Bell was a true Victorian speaker and monologuist. You hear Bell's one Edison cylinder Here. And here is one of his six Victors from the same year. What a wonderful and rare voice! His records are fascinating to listen to, and they are very similar to DeWolf Hopper's also very few but penetrating records. 

Hopper might be a familiar name to more than record collectors, as he was the man who introduced and was famous for "Casey at the Bat", and for being a very complicated character. Hopper's recordings made in the acoustic era were made very strategically. From what you can hear on his 1906 recording of "Casey at the Bat", he stood VERY FAR away from the horn. The echoes of the Victor room are almost eerie when Hopper rose his voice in the middle of a monologue. The disc could barely take the volume and power in Hopper's voice. 
There's Hopper, around 1887. Now since I keep describing the record, here's Hopper's 1906 recording of "Casey at the Bat". How his voice boomed! I don't know of any other speaker's voice that made such an effect in Victor's studio. The only other recording by Hopper that's available online is this extraordinary cylinder from 1890. I am astounded that this cylinder exists. And it sounds great for its age! Some cylinders like this just survive the odds, and still manage to sound decent, it's amazing really.  Anyhow, back to Hopper. Hopper did not record any of his famous songs from Sousa's El Capitan, but Len Spencer did. From the Columbia record list seen here, you can see that Spencer recorded ALL of the songs from El Capitan, imitating Hopper's voice and vocal style as well. You can now see why Hopper was imitated by so many other singers in his day. 
Yes indeed, all the singers who were on early records were all performers, and all popular ones too, but some were almost more perfect as performers before the recording horns, such as both of the Spencer's. 

The next performer I would like to speak of is May Irwin: 

May Irwin was really the most popular "Rag" singer before it was an official craze in 1897, as she was singing all of Ben Harney's hits in 1895 and 1896, when there wasn't yet a name for this type of syncopated music. It seemed inevitable that the studio managers would have Irwin record sooner or later, but it just took a while for Victor to get her in their studio. It took until 1907 for Victor to finally have her sing for their gramophones. You can hear all of her Victors on this playlist of records here. Irwin was a fantastic performer in the studio, more so than many of the booming voices before. She wasn't too loud for the horns, nor was she too quiet, she still had to stand slightly far from the edge of the horn, but not several feet away like DeWolf Hopper. She recorded three of her long-time signature songs at that one 1907 session, including her most famous "Bully Song" from 1896. That song was recorded countless times by all the studio stars back in the 1890's, but getting Irwin herself to finally record it was making it sound just as it was supposed to sound, even if it was over ten years after she made a "hit" with it on the stage. Sometimes is can be surprising to hear so many racial slurs in a single song, like her "Bully Song", and most of her other recordings. But those "coon" songs were what she was know for, so there was not a doubt that when they got her in to record, that she would have to sing her signature songs. Which just happened to be "Coon songs". 

The last performer I would like to speak of is a pair actually, and they are ones I have spoken of on this blog before.
Irene Franklin and Burt Green

I know I have spoken many times of these two, but they were just so great on this records they made! These two were a thing that the record companies took great pride in having them in their studios, because it took effort to get them off the stage for such a short time to make a few records. They were a very popular act on the stages all over the U. S. from New York to San Francisco, doing all sorts of songs, and not just the ones that they wrote, which were one of the main attractions of their act. It's odd though, of the few Edison cylinders they made, they didn't record their biggest hit, which was "Redhead", they only did that on Columbia. I don't know why, but that was just how it turned out. When the studio managers decided that they would record Irene Franklin, they couldn't skip out on Burt Green, as his piano accompaniment was part of the act, so inevitably, they had Burt come in and play piano behind Franklin. Burt wasn't exactly the most amazing pianist on the vaudeville stage, but he certainly had a great ear for Rag-Time, and imitating the best of the best that he eloped with in vaudeville. He and Irene worked perfectly together, as they were both imperfect performers in their own obvious ways. 
Here is their signature song "Redhead" recorded in September of 1915.
What a queer record! It's so odd, but fascinating! Burt's piano accompaniment is still reminiscent of his old friend Fred Hylands(who mind you had been dead for two years when this was recorded!), with all of those single deep bass notes, some older-sounding syncopation, and of course, all of those trills! That little thing in the middle where Burt plays that crazy little thing with messy notes, that's also reminiscent of Hylands, and of earlier vaudeville. It has such a weird chorus though, those chord changes are so frequent and almost hard to keep up with, and he played those fifths in his left hand octaves, which is very characteristic of mid-western pianists. It's so odd to hear a pianist like him play those fifths, but if you're really listening closely to the piano accompaniment you can hear it. This isn't like listening to a brown wax cylinder with Hylands on piano where you can't really hear all the notes, this was recorded in 1915, when the technology was much more advanced for some reason.

 And ya know what, now that I really get to listen closely to the piano, I think it's the same one that Hylands once played on! That's really interesting! that would make some sense, as it was recorded for Columbia anyhow, and they wouldn't have had to use it since 1906, and between '06 and 1915 they would have only used it maybe a handful of times. 
When Burt got "Redhead" published in 1908(or maybe just before it), Fred must have come to him once again and told him what he thought of the song, as well as Burt's new lady friend. Fred must have laughed at it, approvingly of course! Being a redhead, Fred must have loved it, and he probably played it through for Burt, giving him new ideas like always. 

I will be doing another one of these performer record posts eventually, including singers like Sophie Tucker, Arthur Pryor, the Sousa Band, and more.

I hope you enjoyed this!  

1 comment:

  1. I loved it. I thought I was the only person in the world who knows who Digby Bell was. Thanks.