Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Vess Ossman and a little of Columbia's Transition period

At the West Coast Ragtime Festival this past weekend, I spoke with a very kind and knowledgeable Banjo historian named Peter Pardee. His plans for the future in studies of the banjo and the banjo in Rag-Time include a seminar about the subject in great detail, which seems exceedingly interesting. This got me thinking, after seeing a few rare images of the great Fred Bacon from his collection on his computer.

Among these recording stars, Vess Ossman remains an interesting one as far as the studio instrumentalists go. 
Cute and fresh-faced Vess in c.1893-94, looking very Germanic as he always did. 
Vess often could be interpreted as a small man, as before I knew any better, I had thought just that, but in reality, he was a tall and slim figure, appearing very fitting to play the banjo, with his long legs corresponding to the long neck of the instrument, and his long fingers gliding about gracefully on the harp-like strings. 
His skills on the banjo had been known to the masses since the late-1880's, and with that, he had authority in the community of legitimate banjoists that was sprawling all over the east coast. He was much like Mike Bernard, just that her played banjo rather than piano. Of course, just like Bernard, Ossman's success got to him rather quick, and its effects stayed with him for many years, which made some musicians refuse working with him more than once. He always had that notorious short temper of his, and often seemed helplessly in love with his Eunice, whom he married in 1891 when she was only 16 to his 21. Remember that he ran off with her the year before that, and couldn't legally marry her just yet, even if he already attempted to have a child with her before they had married. All of that was considered a mild scandal of course, since something like that was often looked down upon in that era. 

Ossman's story before recording is always interesting and fun to speak of, since it's more scandalous and eventful than the pre-recording stories of other early recording stars. 

One thing about Ossman's records that remains a mystery is the pianist on his 1895-97 Columbia records, as it seems likely that he dragged in Frank P. Banta for these sessions, since he was still working regularly with Banta. one record that has been recently transferred and put up on the Santa Barbara website is Ossman's c.1896 Columbia of "The Liberty Bell March":
(the record is played too fast, so there will probably be a slowed down version of it pretty soon)
If you really focus on the music, you can hear how clear and dead the recording is. It practically sounds like and original recording, since the sounds that pantographing usually made are not present at all, even the sound of the long tube to make the copies is not present at all. The exceptional sound quality, minus the mold noise, is really what makes me think the date is c.1896. The sound of the recording room is nonexistent on this recording, which is very weird, since Columbia's rooms had a signature echo sound and fullness to them, that for some reason, this one hasn't whatsoever. After taking a few listens to the announcement at the beginning, it seems that the voice is that of Len Spencer, which is a little unexpected from such a strange recording. That fact makes the date little more speculative, and maybe a year or two later, though that's not likely, since the sound quality is that of an original "round" from the mid-1890's. With that being said, the pianist is probably either Edward Issler or Frank P. Banta. This recording is very similar to his January-February 1897 recording of "Stars and Stripes Forever", with Edward Issler on piano. Now that this recording has been studied extensively in terms of the piano accompaniment, we now know the pianist is Issler. It helps that this image:
was taken in 1897-ish, just around the time that Ossman recorded "Stars and Stripes Forever". The only thing about his recording of that that sets it apart from the strange "Liberty Bell" cylinder is the fact that the recording room can at least be heard a little better, and it helps that Issler(or Gaisberg) plays the piccolo part at the end so loudly. In fact, since I'm listening to the "Stars and Stripes" recording when writing this, it seems exceedingly anomalous how well that piccolo part was recorded in the piano accompaniment. It seems like they specifically did something different to the balance of the instruments to have that become the most well-recorded thing on the entire recording. That little characteristic right there is what leads me to believe that Issler is more likely on piano, since only he would have mastered how to record every note of the piano(even Spencer couldn't have surpassed his ability in doing this). Of course, like any of these transition era Columbia's(late 1896-1897), it's a bout on its own to try to dissect the piano accompaniment for any means of identification. It must be noted that both of these Ossman brown waxes are from the tail-end of the "round" era, and were recorded when Len Spencer was still bragging about making three hundred rounds a week. Here is the section from The Phonoscope that stated this:
This was from the August-September 1897 issue, which is very late for the round era, and it is taken from a section on the duplication machine, of which Hunting credits his friend Frank Capps for inventing. Spencer went on boasting of his stamina to sing three hundred rounds or more a week, and before 1896 probably more than that, including his placement as the sound effects man and announcer for Issler's Orchestra. Since he had done all of these rounds, he had among the highest authority of the studio stars by 1898, even though Issler was at the one who really had done the most rounds by 1898, no matter what unfathomable number Spencer bluffed or bragged. 

That's about all I got to say for now, in the next post I will get in-depth into Columbia's transition period and the fall of the U. S. Phonograph Company. 

Hope you enjoyed this! The West Coast Ragtime Festival was very fun, and all of "the squad" made it ever more enjoyable. Thanks everyone! 

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