Saturday, January 30, 2016

Fred Gaisberg, the "Columbia Clan" and other things

Fred Gaisberg, the unexpected early recording star. 

In 1892, Gaisberg was a 19-year-old concert pianist in the Washington D.C. area, who had been a close follower and performer with the newly-formed Sousa band. Gaisberg once recalled that Sousa took such a liking to the youth Gaisberg that he often had him play a solo or two at every performance by his band, and sometimes played onstage with them. That must have been around the time that the Columbia phonograph Company's small staff manager Frank Dorian found him. 
(that's Dorian in 1892!)
Dorian saw potential in the youth, and he then went to "CEO" Edward Easton for his approval. Gaisberg knew nothing of recording at all, so first getting him to understand the workings of balancing techniques(keep in mind that this was 1892, when many ideas like pantographing and dubbing did not exist just yet). Gaisberg was getting into the business to early on that he knew the earliest methods of recording very well, but from his wits, he soon learned the flaws of these ideas. He became a regular studio pianist for Columbia by early in 1893, and somewhat became a member of the "clan" that Columbia was beginning in 1892-93. Who was part of this "clan" so early on? Well, here's a little list of it to get an idea:
Russell Hunting, Victor Emerson, Len Spencer, Frank Capps(inventor), Charles Carson(Columbia's first electrical man!), Billy Golden, Edward Issler(who was also a sound balancing genius), George Schweinfest, Dan W. Quinn, and a few more staff members. 

That was how small their clan was in 1892-93, it is so early on that Gaskin could not be listed, Vess Ossman, Steve Porter, and all the late-1890's artists had not come on the scene just yet. Gaisberg quickly became part of this group, even if it was not exactly something he wanted to do. Being the piano player for all of those rowdy Columbia people had become a tradition that their pianist be part of the main staff. Gaisberg was the start of this long-running custom(or curse, if you think of it a different way...). He worked for Columbia all through 1893 and through most of 1894, until Emile Berliner came back to at last to produce his discs in the U. S. Berliner had heard of the young Columbia pianist Gaisberg, and plucked him out of Columbia to have him work for the small staff that Berliner had. This is when he began to really work like a studio pianist. 

He only got a little taste of it when he began working for Atlee at Columbia in '93, but when working for Berliner and Columbia, he began to feel it. Since Berliner's staff was all a group of young clumsy chaps, they all had to work together to get things done around there, and get all the artists recorded correctly. Berliner got them to work very well together, and he observed their every move, to make sure things were being done right. It was in late-1894 that Gaisberg had many stories from, working for Berliner in that time was always interesting, and meeting all the singers and performers made the days even more curious. He recalled Russell Hunting coming in several times in late-1894, coming in with a black sack of clothes for what he did after he made records---perform in comic opera. He didn't want to imagine Hunting onstage doing all of that, in those strange costumes, and everything else. One time this happened, Hunting explained to Gaisberg what it was he was doing, which was playing Mephistopheles in a local production of the musical "Faust Up-to-date". He only saw and heard Hunting as his normal self, and him describing his roles to him did not make him the least bit comfortable. That's only a little of what else he had to deal with at Berliner. He saw Billy Golden, George Gaskin, David Bangs and more. 
He continued to work at Berliner and Columbia from 1894 to 1896, until George Schweinfest stepped in at Columbia and wanted to take some of the studio work off his hands. It certainly did help, even though he still had to come in and make some records at Columbia. Schweinfest was his sub in the 1896-97 period. After mid-1897, we pretty much know what happened at Columbia...(at least I hope we do.) In 1898, Berliner chose Gaisberg and Sinkler Darby to go out to London and make records there. That's when Gaisberg broke from the "clan", but he began his own out in London in 1898-1900. 

It's actually alright that he broke from the "Columbia Clan" when he did, because the "clan" was becoming much more complicated and full of weird personalities that Gaisberg certainly wouldn't have fully approved of. Think back to what he thought about Russell Hunting. 

In 1898, this "clan" became the much more "sporty" bunch that they were known for, as Steve Porter was in the group, leading the yacht races of course, Fred Hylands was one of the "society leaders" of the group as well. In 1898, the "Columbia Clan" was this:

Len Spencer, Steve Porter, George Gaskin, Roger Harding, Fred Hylands, J. W. Myers, Russell Hunting, Vess Ossman, Billy Golden, George Schweinfest, George P. Watson, Dan Quinn, Will F. Denny, Tom Clark(leader of the Columbia orchestra) and a few more staff members. 

But by the year after that, "the clan" had expanded to people who weren't recording artists(like Burt Green for example), thanks to Hylands and Spencer with their publishing firm. The whole staff of all record companies expanded in 1899-1900 also because of Hylands and Spencer, as Sallie Stembler made some records, it is questioned, but Fred's wife Marie:
(from a piece of music Hylands published, durr...)
She may have made a few records under the pleading of her husband, and if so, probably under a pseudonym of some kind.  I don't know what her name could have been on records, if she made any, but it would be weird either way if she did. 
Edison's staff had their "clan" as well, but they weren't really all together working as one over there. Most of the Edison "clan" later became Columbia artists anyhow. It's a group of eccentrics that only could work under Victor Emerson. 
Speaking of Emerson, he became the studio manager of Columbia in 1897, after Frank Dorian had been chosen to go and manage their newly-established Paris office. That was when the "beatings" began. Under Victor Emerson, the Columbia staff were worked until they dropped, even when the "round" era had passed by 1898. Emerson was at all the sessions, and made sure work was getting done every day in his studio. Emerson was always considered a real pain to all the studio artists, and they always played pranks on him, and got him lavish gifts for his birthday. 

That's an illustration from the January, 1897 issue of The Phonoscope of the Columbia headquarters. That was where all of those records were made from 1897 to 1905. They once described the place as a true spectacle of modern times, lit with hundreds of electric lights, and with all sorts of eccentrics and dandies coming in and out of the glass doors at any hour of the day. It was at this very place that these two pictures were taken:
(see the glass doors way in the back?) that's right. 
and of course this one:
Yep. now do you see it? Those same odd-looking windows really give it away. 

That's where they worked, and it was certainly always a "hot time" there at 27th and Broadway in the late-1890's! 

I hope you enjoyed this! 

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