Saturday, January 2, 2016

Character Studies--John Yorke Atlee(1853-1933)

That's Atlee in the center.

Atlee is a largely forgotten character in the early recording business, only because he was know for being a whistler, even though he was more than just that. He did more than most would think, though he wasn't part of the "young and eccentric" crowd at Columbia, he was in and out of their antics between 1893 and 1900. No one really knows what Atlee's story really was, which is odd because he was the oldest regular member of Columbia's staff(older than George W. Johnson by a few years!). He would have been old enough to remember the civil war in its best detail, and would have seen all the big laws be passed in the U. S. government between 1865 and 1877, and since he was working in Washington D.C. in the late 1880's, he would have known his way around in Capitol Hill. Whatever his past was, he worked a job where he would have realised that he had the talent to be a great whistler in early Vaudeville. The recording idea never struck him at first, but in 1893, one of the young staff members of the local Columbia phonograph company found him(somehow!), and offered him a job at the relatively young Columbia Phonograph company. He only came in the evenings, as during the day, he worked as a patent examiner at the U.S. Patent office(or was it at the treasury department? Someone confirm that for me please!). I have a feeling that Fred Gaisberg and Len Spencer had something to do with getting him to record for them.  Anyhow, in 1893, 20-year-old Fred Gaisberg was volunteered to go out to Atlee's house in the evenings and accompany him on the piano. 

Gaisbreg described working with Atlee as very tiring and long, as Atlee wanted to stay up very late and make records. Even when Gaisberg was pleading to him that he was tired and wanted to get home, Atlee would firmly disagree. 

Atlee was a funny little man, one who you wouldn't guess was twice the age of everyone he worked with at Columbia. Gaisberg was his first accompanist, back in '93, and he wore out that man more than anyone else ever did. Atlee gave Gaisberg his first laboring job---being a studio pianist. Atlee would expect Gaisberg to be at his house at a specific time every evening(for a short time in 1893), and if he was late, Atlee would surely yell at him. Once they got to work, the rounds seemed endless, and it was teaching young Gaisberg to save his energy for later rounds, because he would throw out his "chops" everywhere on all of these rounds, not realising that they had a hundred or so more. He learned this the hard way, like Fred Hylands did. Around when it became after midnight, that was when Gaisberg would begin to plead for his release. Atlee would keep him for at least another hour, until he himself would become tired, and at last set Gaisberg free. That was how it went for a few months in 1893 and 1894, with the same pattern every day or so. Doing that for Atlee taught Gaisberg what being a studio pianist was really like, and whether he felt he was up to it or not, that's what he would be doing for many years. Atlee dropped off from major recording in 1895, and returned in 1897, back to Columbia he went, with a new piano player, and many new staff members. He became a member of the exhibition group at Columbia, coming to perform at the tedious and tiresome exhibitions. He worked George Schweinfest(the pianist in earlier 1897), almost just as much as he did with Gaisberg, though that wasn't of any use, because Schweinfest had to accompany everyone, not just him. In later 1897, not long after Frank Dorian had established the Paris office for Columbia, in comes a new pianist, and he's a whole lot different from any of the pianists he had known before---Fred Hylands. All of Atlee's cylinders in 1898 have Hylands behind him, and those are very different from the records he made with Gaisberg years before that. He wasn't exactly a "regular" at Columbia, but he did come to exhibitions rather regularly(as he's in the picture at the top of this post). His height always made for some interesting balancing methods, as he was only just five feet tall, so he always had to stand on something. Probably some thick blocks of wood, or a small stool. This was especially needed in Columbia's big recording room, as Hylands was a real force in that room. Even if he did not really know Hylands, Atlee still bossed him around, and told him what he should play. Hylands would accept, though reluctantly, as always. In 1900, Atlee broke from Columbia to begin his own record company, in which he made many records, but only a few exist now. This company soon fell, and he left recording for good, disappearing much like J. W. Myers did. He died in 1910, but it is not known what he did in the decade or so before that.  He was soon forgotten, and this is why few know of him now, record nerds and music historians alike. 

Anyhow, here are a few of Atlee's cylinders.

I hope you enjoyed this! 


  1. John Yorke AtLee was my husband's great grandfather. The family didn't know him or what happened to him after he dropped out of the recording industry. After many years of research I found that he was born 22 Mar 1853 & died 24 Nov 1933 in Philadelphia. The dates you have are for his older brother, Goodwin Yorke AtLee. Someone at one time ran across Goodwin's dates and assumed it was John because the middle names were the same. In actuality all seven children had the middle name of Yorke, including the girls. Since then the mistaken dates for John has been perpetuated across the internet. I've tried a couple of times to get it fixed but that is pretty hard. I would love to share any other info with you about John if you are interested. What you wrote was very interesting and some of it I had not heard before. Also we've never seen any pictures of him.

    1. Thank you thank you thank you! This really helps me out so much and I would love to know more about him and the family! I will go and change the dates now, and will make a point of this on the blog post I'll publish to-night, and I will specifically mention that the dates are wrong, and persist despite what you have have been able to find.