Saturday, April 15, 2017

Recording Muzzles and Razors in the air--early stories from Fred Gaisberg

Yes indeed, Fred Gaisberg, the teenager dropped into the wild and woolly recording business in its earliest days. 

Many of us have had the opportunity to read from his diaries of trekking through Europe and Asia with Sinkler Darby, and have thoroughly enjoyed his vivid and witty descriptions of Madrid and the French countryside. Before all of that across the pond, he had a well-established life and recording career in the U.S. Someone in my immediate record collecting community has yet to buy a copy of Gaisberg's memoir written in the 1930's. Any time an original copy of his original book comes up somewhere, it is always sold for an extreme amount of money, an amount that no record collector in reality could afford to pay on a single item. Some of the information in his book(that is quoted everywhere), reminds us that the book is certainly worth the 2,000 or more of any currency it's worth. The amount of fantastic stories and anecdotes that Gaisberg told in his books are certainly worth the money paid. 

When speaking with Charlie Judkins last weekend, it seems that he finally got a hold of one of the books about Gaisberg(The one called A Voice in Time). It's not the infamously rare and valuable one, but it's the one that was about his life and travels in America, to Europe, and Asia. Of course, the "good stuff" to the two of us was certainly the tales he told from 1890's Washington. According to all sources(including him) he began working at the Columbia Phonograph company in 1889, which would have made him their first official studio pianist. Also, keep in mind that he was 16 when they hired him. He had no idea what he was getting himself into, and this is clear by the way that he described the very beginning. The thing that really got us hooked was of course his tales of Len Spencer from the very beginning. Amid his early days working there, it didn't take long for him to run into all of the limited amount of talent Columbia employed at the time. One of the first figures he met with was of course "the handsome Len Spencer"(hmm?Okay...) as he once stated. This story reveals a whole lot about Spencer, what we have often expected from him, and what turned out to be true. 

Gaisberg did not specify the office of Columbia, but he stated that he was at Pennsylvania Avenue(obviously Columbia's old headquarters), so it's hard to not know what he meant by that. He stated that the first time he met Spencer, Spencer was signing autographs for a group of "admiring darkies"(black kids) for a few cents each. Wow. Didn't really expect Spencer to have a black fan base. The image of him doing that really is kind of heart-warming, yet a little unexpected so early on in his recording. This is the sort of thing that we'd expect from Spencer in the exhibition days of Columbia in the late-90's. The fact that he was doing this so early on says a lot not only about him, but early Columbia. This was when Columbia had very slim management, and when those passing by the studio would gather outside the steps and essentially get a free concert. So with this, it seems groups of black kids built admiration for Spencer's singing, convinced he was black until they saw him. That really is somewhat surprising, since we wouldn't normally expect such offensive and stereotypical songs as Spencer's repertoire to be at all appreciated by the black community. Well, apparently we were wrong. This is one of those occasions that could very well change our viewpoint of what blacks thought of their own culture and society in the U.S. Makes me wonder what the black people who came to exhibitions thought of meeting with Spencer. Like any time encountering him, it must have been interesting, and slightly shocking. Again, our understanding of Spencer's relationship with black people has officially been changed with this new information. 

With all of this, we also have learned that Spencer not only had a black fan base, but also embodied many of the black stereotypes he spoke of so often on records. Other than just enough looking the part with his mess of curly brown hair and gaudy gold chains, he was a dedicated gambler. 

Of course, now that I know this, it seems I think now that Spencer dragged Hylands into gambling all their profits and such during the publishing firm. Yes, it seems likely that Hylands already had a taste for gambling, but after Spencer came along, that seemed to have inevitably been boosted. 
We know of Spencer as a rough-and-tumble sort of figure, more so than any of the early recording stars, with that scar on his face at whatnot. Contrary to what I have written previously on this matter regarding Spencer, it seems Gaisberg told the story of his scar differently. 

It's a little different than I had previously been told, but it's actually better the way Gaisberg told it. 
Here's how he spoke about Spencer, including the razor fight, and everything else:

Perhaps because of his unsavory reputation, my particular pet and hero of mine was the handsome Len Spencer. His father, the originator of the florid Spencerian handwriting, was the chief bugbear of thousands of schoolboys, myself included. The son had many and varied gifts. As a popular baritone, I accompanied him at concerts and for record-making. I first saw him seated at a small table in Pennsylvania Avenue, surrounded by admiring darkies, writing out visiting cards at six for a dime. His beautiful, ornate Spencerian writing, ending up with two doves, looked like engraving. Later I was always to remember his handsome face disfigured by a scar, the result of a razor-slash in an up-river gambling brawl. He was said to have been an adroit poker-player. His records of "Anchored", "Sailing", "The Palms", and "Nancy Lee" were important items of our repertoire. 

Well, there ya have it, Spencer in a nutshell. It's really surprising how much admiration he had for him, despite his certainly wild nature. Also, the way that he words his relationship with Spencer in the studio is also particularly interesting, "my particular pet and hero", especially since he's referring to recording for Columbia so early on. If we had a description of Spencer's relation with Issler or Hylands from a little later, I have the feeling that we'd hear something dramatically different. Issler would think of Spencer like an assistant and engineer, much like how Gaisberg was to Berliner. Hylands would have thought of Spencer like a sidekick to his rough-and-tumble antics(though Spencer was what stabilized their friendship). 
Without a doubt, Gaisberg understood how to best describe Spencer's beautiful script.
It certainly was like an engraving. 

Before all of that was written in the book, Gaisberg told his story of being with Sousa as a child:
I also sung in Sousa's choir, which was organised for Sunday evening concerts, and I attended rehearsals in his then modest home in the Navy Yard in south Washington. He patted me on the head and made quite a pet of me... I can still see the small room that one entered direct from the street, and a very old "tin-panny" square piano from which he conducted rehearsals. In hot weather the front door used to be left open and a circle of negro children would surround the entrance, silently enjoying the music we made. 
On Saturday afternoons in the spring and summer, the Marine Band formerly gave concerts on the lawn in the grounds of the White House... I was one of those music-mad youngsters who hovered by his podium and never missed a concert. On windy days his music used to become unmanageable, and he would turn round and beckon to me. It was then my pride to stand beside him to turn over and hold down the music. 

How great is that? Imagine little Gaisberg tagging along behind Sousa and the Marine Band. Everything about that is heartwarming and comical. It's funny that Gaisberg was accompanist to Quinn, who was also a choir boy until about age 12. Quinn probably told him that early on, and caused some surprise to Gaisberg. Imagining Sousa bitching at ten-year-old Gaisberg about his music not co-operating  at a concert is fantastic to the highest degree. It doesn't get much better than that, in terms of stories relating to early recording stars. 
His first time hearing of and meeting Berliner is also fantastic:

It was Billy Golden who asked me one day... If I would go with him to see a funny German who had started experimenting with a flat-disc talking machine records and wanted to make some trials. I was only too eager to see him at work. 
We found Emile Berliner in his small laboratory on New York avenue and received a warm welcome from the inventor. Billy was right, Berliner certainly did make me smile. Dressed in a monkish frock he paced up and down the small studio buzzing on a diaphragm[nice pun there Fred].
"Hello! Hello!" he recited in guttural, broken English. "Tvinkle, tvinkle, little star, how I vonder vot you are."

Hmm. How unexpected of Billy Golden. Normally, we wouldn't expect such a thing from him, but certainly he was well aware of everything that was going on in the early business. Being at Columbia meant for that in the first place, since they were the ones who invented the dubbing/pantographing process. Even for a hick, Golden knew his way around in the business. 
Here's how Gaisberg described his first session with Berliner(on the day that he and Golden called):

Berliner placed a muzzle over Golden's mouth and connected this up by a rubber hose to a diaphragm. I was at the piano, the sounding-board of which was also boxed up and connected to the diaphragm by a hose resembling an elephant's trunk. Berliner said "Are you ready?" and upon our answering "Yes", he began to crank like a barrel-organ, and said "Go." 
The song finished, Berliner stopped cranking. He took from the machine a bright zinc disc and plunged it into an acid bath for a few minutes. Then, taking it out of the acid, he washed and cleaned the disc. Placing it on the reproducing machine, also operated by hand like a coffee-grinder, he played back the the resulting record from the etched groove. 
To our astonished ears cam Billy Golden's voice. Berliner proudly explained to us just how this method was superior to the phonograph. He said that in his process the recording stylus was vibrated laterally on a flat surface, thus always encountering an even resistance, and this accounted for a more natural tone. 
Acquainted as I was with the unnatural reproduction of the old cylinder-playing phonographs, I was spell-bound by the beautiful round tone of the flat gramophone disc. Before I departed that day I exacted a promise from Berliner that he would let me work for him when his machine was ready for development. 

And a few months later, he received a card from Berliner asking him to come along to his lab once again, to officially make some records. Well, it seems we know why early Berliner records sounded to great now. This strange and horrific sounding method of using muzzles and all of these tubes was the ticket to the signature Berliner sound, which as we know, was clear and full in the beginning. This is why we get fantastic records like Quinn's 1895 Berliner of "The Streets of Cairo". Now that we know all of that, we can all picture this strange method being done with those earliest Berliners. Another with this, not with piano though, is one of George Graham's first records, his "Street Fakir" from 1896. That muzzle was right there, and this is why it sounds like the speaker and piano were right in front of the diaphragm. 

Also! Here's his description of getting Graham to record for Berliner:

Then there was George Graham... a member of and Indian Medicine Troupe doing one-night stands in the spring and summer and in winter selling quack medicines at the street corners. His tall, lanky figure, draped in a threadbare Prince Albert coat and adorned with a flowing tie, his wide-brimmed Stetson hat and his ready stream of wit combined to extract the dimes and nickels from his simple audience in exchange for a bottle of coloured water. 
I discovered him one day on the corner of Seventh and Pennsylvania Avenue selling a liver cure to a crowd of spell-bound negroes. He was assisted by John O'Terrell, who strummed the banjo and sang songs to draw the crowd. I brought this pair to Emile Berliner. Always a student of humanity, he was delighted... George recorded...his famous talk on "Liver Cure" in which he cited the instance of a sick man taking one bottle of his liver cure, and when he died the liver was so strong that they had to take it out kill it with a club.

Yep, that was this guy:
The image that Gaisberg pieces together with Graham is really very vivid, and puts us right there at where he found him. Of course, this is ever more tangible by seeing the two picture we have of him. It's all fitting together. 

His description of Charlie Tainter is also one of the best articulated of his character descriptions in this early portion. Here's a picture before the description:
That's him in the late-1870's. 

Charles Sumner Tainter was a scientist as well as mechanical genius. I can see him now working at a watch-makers lathe with a glass to his eye; he had a touch as delicate as a woman's. I never knew anyone who lived so abstemiously...
Tainter was an Englishman an a confirmed tea-drinker. Indeed, he taught me how to brew and enjoy it. The perfume of that special China blend of his haunts me still. Between the cups he would mount the diaphragm and adjust the angle of the cutting stylus. In his clear Yorkshire voice he would test them with:
"Caesar, Caesar, can you hear what I say---this, which; s-ss-sss."
The stress was alway laid on the sibilants, these being the most difficult sounds to record. In playing back the test, at the slightest indication of the "s" sound, he would smile with joy and treat himself to another cup. 

Certainly one of the best characters who Gaisberg truly admired, more than most of us would think, since Tainter hadn't much to do with Gaisberg early on. 

Before I finish, here's his full description of AtLee, who turned out to be his very first project while employed at Columbia in 1889:

[AtLee's]pompous announcements which introduced each performance in tones that made the listener visualise a giant. In reality he was a mere shrimp of a man, about five feet in his socks, that little government clerk with a, deep powerful voice.Of this and his fine flowing moustache he was mighty proud. After his office hours, from nine to four, as a wage-slave of the U. S. Government, he would return to his modest home where I would join him. In the parlour stood an old upright piano and a row of three phonographs lent to him by the Columbia Phonograph Company. Together we would turn out, in threes, countless records of performances of "Whistling Coon", "The Mocking bird" and "The Laughing song". I can still hear that reverberating announcement:


I was then only sixteen, some professor...

AtLee has pretty much seemed exactly the same in other descriptions of him out there, not much is different from what we've already heard, but of course, Gaisberg's diction is priceless. It seems as though working for AtLee was horrid for him, though it must have secretly been a joy. 

There were more stories, but that will make this post just as unmanageable as Sousa's music blowing in the wind, so I'll stop here. 
Hope you enjoyed this! 

1 comment:

  1. Please keep in mind that while fascinating in its own right, Gaisberg was not the best authority to rely on ; he was a good storyteller, and that is how I can best describe him. He had so much embellishments, exaggerations, and faulty memory all at once in much of his public writings, including his autobiography "The Music Goes Round" - so you also have to read the diaries or earlier writings (say, pre-1930, some of which appeared on the British "Gramophone" magazine) too.