Sunday, January 10, 2016

Forgotten Early Studio History

I hope I've made it clear enough on this blog that I find the old studio pianists and house musicians very important to the whole of the history of recorded sound. Their work and (sometimes reluctant)commitment to the early studios are overlooked by most collectors out there, only because they weren't specifically listed in most of the surviving record ledgers. Their names are known, regardless of the unlisted accreditation. The few collectors who know of them do not know of their hardship under the managers, and their quiet complaints, but those who don't, have a hell of a lot to learn. Yes, naturally, the singers were meant to be the main sound on the records, and the piano always came second, as it still does to most, but it is always important(*if the pianist is known*), to acknowledge their part on the record. It is fully understood that not all who have these records can hear the differences for identification, but those who can, could certainly pay a good deed to those studio pianists. Since these records were made just before musicians in unions worked in the studios, these musicians were worked until they physically couldn't work any more. Frank P. Banta was in a musician's union, but they did not interfere with his recording, as that was too new of a business for the members to get involved with reasonably. This is also why Fred Hylands helped found a union the year  Columbia dropped him.  

Frank P. Banta is only known the most of these studio pianists because of his son Frank Edgar, who was a very popular pianist in the 1920's. His son recalled his father vaguely in the 1940's, recalling him being a pianist for Edison, and recalled that he was a shorter man with a slight figure, rather introverted, with a very thoughtful sense of humor. Banta in known more to-day because the Edison ledgers are still complete and very much do exist now. This is the same for the surviving Victor ledgers, which to list Banta in many areas as well(*but don't list Hylands*). 

Imagine if you will for a moment that the ledgers existing were reversed, by this I mean that say all of Columbia's ledgers weren't burned or destroyed, and all of Edison's were gone. That would mean that we'd be guessing  all of these Edison cylinders just like we do with Columbia's. That would also mean that Fred Hylands would be known by many more pianists, and record collectors alike. Assuming that Columbia kept very complete notes on everything they recorded, this would solve many mysteries that have gone unsolved, and all of their experimental devices wouldn't have been destroyed, meaning that we would all know what Columbia's staff was really doing in the late-1890's and early 1900's. More of the Climax/Columbia/Zon-O-Phone/Victor scandal of 1901 would be complete in its already fascinating story. It would make for a very different view on the early recording business, very different than knowing the complete history of Victor and Edison. The issues of The Phonoscope are only a small peek into Columbia's doings in the late-1890's. 

The fact that I have been able to find who Columbia's main pianist(was there more than one? I don't know) was in the piano accompaniment era(from the beginning to about the end of 1905), is amazing in itself, since all of their ledgers are gone. 
Speaking of that, Cliff Kennedy told me what happened to those ledgers and masters back in November. Cliff told Ryan Wishner and I that those ledgers, matrixes, tests, unissued masters, experimental machines and records, were burned and destroyed. Just before they were, a few luckiest collectors were able handpick and choose what they wanted from the warehouse laden with the now-forgotten history. They chose some unissued masters, machines, rare records, wax matrixes---but not the books of dates and pay records. One sheet of records must have had some information that is now gone. If I were part of these selected few, I would bring several large bags, and put all of the paper ledgers I could in them, because the ledgers themselves are worth more than all of the records that survive. This is a reason why Len Spencer's pocket notebook kept by the Library of Congress probably wasn't just a personal reminder pad of his, it also contained recording date notes, cash records,  personnel notes, and who knows what else!(if anyone has gone to the LOC and had had the chance to read any of Spencer's notebook, please comment on this post!!). 
Columbia's ledgers had to be very complete, yet complicated, because of how much recording work that was being done in the late-1890's, and the artists themselves must have also contributed, by writing down all the information needed(such as Spencer using his notebook). Keeping track of all the recording work going on could not have been done by a single person, or even by two or three people for that matter. It's surprising that none of Fred Rabenstein's cashbooks exist, because he was interviewed by Jim Walsh in the 1930's and 40's. 
Also, if the main studio pianists(Fred Hylands, Frank P. Banta and Edward Issler) had all lived at least another twenty-five years(no one actually knows how long Issler lived), their views on the early recording business would have been shared, and the perspective all collectors have on the business probably would be very different. In a sense, it was the death of Frank Banta that ended the piano accompaniment era on records, even if it lasted a little longer at Edison, and two more years at Columbia, it wasn't the same without Banta. By 1903, Hylands had become terribly weary from all the work he did, and very stressed from having to be there 7 or more hours nearly every day for the past five years, as well as keeping a pit orchestra job, all while being short on money from his failed publishing firms and union. If the studio pianists had lived long enough for Jim Walsh to find them, they would have been pretty broken from living hard lives, but would probably have been willing to discuss with Walsh. Banta would probably have lost much of his money in the crash of 1929, but would have similar financial stability to Arthur Collins. Hylands would have lost everything without a doubt. Somehow, the hints of gambling, irresponsibility, and anxiety from Hylands, tells me that he would have probably been in so much hard luck during the Depression that he would have committed suicide. I know, that's a very disturbing and sinister thing to say on many fronts, but if you ponder Hylands' mindset, he had already been through so much by the time he died in 1913(though he was slimmer by 1913...), and if he had lived longer, it would have further exacerbated his troubles. 
Banta would probably have survived a few years of the depression, and would have recalled his recording days very much if anyone had bothered to send letters to him like Walsh did with Dan Quinn. 

Banta would probably have written a book later in life, much like Dan Quinn fantasized about doing in the 1930's. It would be somewhat similar to Fred Gaisberg's book, that many people use sections from in articles and biographies of artists that Gaisberg knew of. The amount of information Banta could have given is limitless, same for Fred Hylands or Edward Issler. Issler would have given a full picture of the earliest commercial recordings made, as he was involved in the business starting in 1889, and he was the pianist that all the record companies wanted until Gaisberg came along in 1893. He would have had all sorts of stories that other artists, even fellow studio pianists would never have endured. Issler would have seen the court battle between Edison and North American in 1894 first hand, as he must have been a witness in the courtroom discussion, being the main pianist who worked for both companies. He would have also seen the fall of the U. S. phonograph company in 1896-97. Issler(probably speaking still with a German dialect), would have been a fantastic source to know what being a studio pianist was like, and how complicated and "dirty" the earliest recording business was like, he would have had more knowledge about this than Banta or Hylands had. 

If only Columbia's ledgers weren't destroyed. And Banta, Hylands, or Issler had lived longer. Then this wouldn't be such a mysterious area of study. Also, those who got to pick and choose from the Columbia ledgers, are beginning to die out, further making the history of Columbia's company lost. 

 Even with all of those flames, this building does still stand however:
Back in 1889:

I hope you enjoyed this! 

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