Sunday, September 11, 2016

Russell Hunting and Charles Carson--Columbia's criminals

It's clear that I find Russell Hunting the most interesting of all of these early recording stars, with all of the controversial ideas and messes he made. 
All of Hunting's genius and off-colour ideas and doings come from his days as a Shakespearian actor in the 1880's. He was one who loved going onstage in multi-coloured tights and long blond wigs to replicate the Venetian Renaissance; this sort of thing was what he did often as a performer. This was so not just in the 1880's, it seems that someone like Fred Gaisberg found Hunting's willingness to perform as the devil character in a show not the most respectable thing. It's ironic to think of that, but Hunting was personifying the very character that he was seen as to the recording managers. 

The few early recording stars who clung to the Christian movement despised Hunting's mindset and would have tried their best to remain far away from him. Someone like Dan Quinn or J. J Fisher would have kept their distance from him. Doing that must have been somewhat hard to do since they saw Hunting rather often at the studio, before and after the whole Comstock scandal. 

Charles Carson was a member of the original"Columbia clan" that was formed by Hunting in 1892, and he was a small figure when it began. Carson began as an electrician at Columbia's still relatively small headquarters around 1892, but soon was integrated into the exclusive circles of Russell Hunting. He knew not what he was in for when Hunting only was inventing new ways of making copies of cylinders, and only recording comical "Casey" sketches. Not long after then, the idea of recording smut stories struck Hunting's mind, as the saloonkeepers needed new ways of getting people to attend the saloon, and not just for drinking. To satisfy this need, Hunting provided the solution of slot machines, with his naughty recordings dwelling just under the curved glass. It was a brilliant idea, and it got him more business than all of the rest of the "clan" would have thought. His home at 45 Clinton place in Manhattan was a hotspot for saloonkeepers and general customers to call and get their crates full of Hunting's smut. It took a few years for the New York Society for the Suppression of the Vice to take notice of this selling of smut, and they began as early as 1894 trying to track down the sources of these recordings, which seems like it was harder than is should have been. the issue with trying to track down Hunting in this long investigation must have been the fact that he used several pseudonyms, probably to purposely cause the law trouble in finding him. 
One of these sections from The New York Telegram was where I found a really interesting article highlighting the arrests of Hunting and Carson. Carson was Hunting's chief clerk when selling the smut records to the public, and kept track of where everything went to, also kept the lawmen away. Of course, once the Comstock crew went out to Coney Island to raid the slot machines upon hearing that some of these recordings were out there, the records were destroyed, the the source of them was finally found. At this, one of Comstock's detectives went out to the address, 45 Clinton Place, and posed as a kind patron of these obscene recordings. After witnessing Hunting make two of these records, he was then arrested, along with Charles Carson, who was Hunting'g clerk and kept track of the records bought and sold. Of course, with that status, the Comstock team had to arrest him as well. According to the papers, their bail was set at 2,000 dollars, though they only went to prison for three months. The impact that Hunting made on the new recording business was so monumental that there was really no way to reverse it, even if Comstock's detectives went out and destroyed what they thought was all of these records. It really wasn't as we know. There were still bunches of them stored in collections of the studio stars, and the managers. 

That's what's the most mysterious and fascinating about this whole thing, the fact that the studio managers and performers had some of these records in their collections. We know that Edison's manager Walter Miller had a vast collection of records that have been extremely well-preserved over the years. Most of the remaining Hunting smut cylinders came from Miller's collection, which is the strangest thing in so many ways. Victor, Georgie(as the Columbia staff called him), and Clyde Emerson would more likely have kept a collection of these recordings, since Victor and George were known for have not been the most "good" of people, according to Dan Quinn's Christian beliefs that is(dig through The Phonoscope, you'll find what I mean here). I'm surprised that Victor's collection didn't remain as is, unlike Miller's, which remained intact and well-preserved for decades. I'm not sure what happened to Emerson's collection, but it was likely split up when all of Columbia's ledgers were destroyed, since no one really had any use for it in that time anyway...
It's great to wonder what sort of records the Emerson's had stashed away in their collections, or any of the studio stars for that matter. 

Imagine the kinds of records that the Spencer's kept. 

Just putting that out there, since the two of them probably kept the widest variety of recordings, and also films as well. They probably kept all of those supposedly lost films made by the Columbia staff in the mid to late 1890's. We still have yet to know if these films exist, as it would be amazing if they did. Looking to the story of the few Hunting smut cylinders that survive, there are plenty of things that aren't supposed to exist, but still do somehow. Anything's possible. 

Speaking of films and photographs, in my last post I mentioned that Spencer's Lyceum was advertised in hundreds of newspapers and theatrical magazines as a place to show films, and that this seems to reveal that his love and fascination for films and photography didn't go away. A while ago, I was speaking with my friend Ryan Wishner, and we seems to theorize that there's a possibility of Len Spencer taking this very photograph:
It's a stretch, but something about it makes it seem like a full Columbia effort, since only Harry Spencer's in the picture, and it can be well assumed that brother Len was at almost every one of these exhibitions. With that, he might have taken this picture, and that would give this an insurmountable value. It was published in The Phonoscope after all, and that is also another clue as to who might have taken this picture. Also, if Spencer took this picture, he decided to do so a night when Fred was there, keep that in mind. 

Before I close off, I must share some of the amazing new recordings that Ryan Wishner and I slowed down in order to get the correct pitch, and to hear the piano better. 

Here's a newly pitch corrected 1899 cylinder of "Turkey in the Straw" by Billy Golden:

Pretty much everything in the piano accompaniment can be heard clearly here. I was able to hear things I hadn't before, and was able to clearly catch Hylands' playing characteristics much better. By the way, for you music geeks out there, it was originally pitched too fast in A, and now it's at a just a tad flat A Flat, which it historically accurate, considering the age and tuning norms. When I need Hylands referencing, I will be reverting back to this record, this slower transfer in fact. 

This next one is the corrected early-1898 recording of "The Bob White Polka" by George Schweinfest:
(Hylands is on piano here by the way, and it seems not one of his good takes)
This one was played frustratingly fast on the Santa Barbara cylinder website, and now you can hear it slower and at the correct tempo and pitch(excuse the speed fluctuation...). Now that it can be heard better, you can really hear how awful the piano sounds. If you're looking for that stereotypical piano sound usually associated with Rag-Time pianists, this record gets the point across(and it's not even Rag-Time!). the room this was recorded in even distorts the sound a little bit, making it sounds even more like  19th-century piano. The thing is, I like that sound, even if it is out-of-tune and wirey, it's charming and actually historically accurate! This record proves that point. 

This final one is another great Golden and Hylands collaboration, with Len Spencer doing the announcement. This record had always to me, and some of the Rag-Time scholars, to be one of the most authentic examples of recorded folk Rag-Time from pre-1900. My friend John Reed-Torres even made the point that this was recorded a year before Joplin's "Maple Leaf Rag" was published, and it already sounds the way that is does. 
(Hylands threw in some fun diminished chords if you're listening closely! much like "Maple Leaf Rag")
Just throwing this out there, but there are some great and rarely heard blues riffs hidden in Hylands' playing on this record, and remember, this was recorded in 1898, and Hylands was IMPROVISING. 

Hope you enjoyed this! 

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