Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Saturdays at Berliner and Little Swirls

Within the past few days, I've noticed some curious things. After doing some digging through Berliners, it is becoming more apparent that this label was the most accomodating for its artists. Despite rusty old Berliner himself presiding over the studio often, the days without Gaisberg were basically a mess. Gaisberg left the U.S. toward the end of 1898, and he rarely returned to the old studio, doing so perhaps twice a year at most after then. 
Amid the Berliner studies I've done recently, the specific Berliners that are of the most focus are the Berliners that Spencer made. As most of us know, Spencer joined the Berliner team rather late, as that was the first time Spencer associated with a non-Columbia affiliated Company. Most of his fellows joined with Berliner at the very beginning, that being around 1894 and 1895. Spencer was too busy running errands for the Emerson's and two timing with Columbia and U.S. to join when everyone else did. he didn't get on the Berliner boat until 1899, which is right near the end of their official existence. Hist first Berliner session was April 15, 1899. You can see what he recorded in the link below:
This was a pretty nice session, as I have heard one of the records he made that day. The first one was a nice one to start off with. 
Okay, yes he may have had his first session there Mid-April 1899, but he was there with the others of the Columbia staff the previous year, as that's what this picture documented: 
They all took a visit to the Berliner studio, and luckily we have hard evidence that Spencer was there, even if he did not record for them at the time, and didn't actually do so until a year later. 
Now here's the thing about Spencer's Berliner's that are interesting. The bulk of his Berliner records were made on Saturdays in April of 1899. It's strange to notice this odd pattern, and luckily with Berliner, all of the ledgers are left so we can observe this. A few of them were made on Fridays, and after April, but in general, he wasn't there too often. He made just enough Berliners to be considered a regular for at least a month. 

But why Saturdays?
And why April?

Well, the first question leads us into the theory world. One theory I discussed with a friend is that the Berliner staff was very slim on Saturday evenings and at knowing this, Spencer took advantage of this to come in and make bunches of records with his faithful accompanist Fred Hylands. The reason this was hypothecized is because of how strange and out of whack his Berliners are, they're quite different from his Columbia records recorded around the same time(if not some of the same days). They're much less tame than the Columbia's. That's saying quite a lot in terms of Spencer and Hylands. Those Berliner's are rather wild, and are strange in balancing. The balancing usually varies record to record, which is also unusual. Many Berliner records are strange in these same aspects, but the Spencer Berliners are especially interesting. Here's why:

His singing is not particularly the best on these...
The piano playing is all over the place.
Spencer doesn't seem to do the usual moving back and forth to balance the tones of voice. 
The piano playing is very pushy and sometimes out of sync with Spencer. 
Spencer dramatically changes his tone of voice through the course of one of them I've heard. 

All of these factors make the theory of slim staff plausible. These records may actually be the best examples of how Spencer and Hylands sounded when they were pretty out of it. Spencer was already not the best singer on the earliest records, but on these Berliners, his limited skill shines through like chimes on brown wax. The accompaniment is almost certainly Hylands, because of specific characteristics of blending with Spencer, though the style is a little misleading on a few of them, since it's Hylands at his weirdest. I've heard quite a few questionable Columbia's of theirs, but all the Berliners are far beyond those. 
Imagine it, the two of them(remember that they were publishing partners at this time) stumbling into Berliner's back door(in the picture above) after recording most of the day at Columbia. They greet Mr. Berliner, or whoever was there at that time, already a little tipsy from work earlier in the day, ready as ever to record a handful of hot coon songs. 

It's interesting that most of what Spencer recorded on those Saturdays at Berliner were coon songs, there was very little room for anything else. That further points to the pianist on those being Hylands. Even though it rarely happened, to a certain extent, many of these artists had to cater to the accompanist, even though they were basically just slaves to the performers and record consumers. When Hylands was still relatively new at Columbia in 1898, we hear a whole lot of records where he's practically featured behind one of the singers. Artists with so much adoration for Hylands, like Spencer, would have catered to Hylands' distinct style as well, Spencer's Berliners being the perfect example of this taken to a different level than his Columbias from the same time.  To add to the catering point, there are plenty of examples of this happening with Banta, such as on Denny's 1901 Edison of "Go Way Back and Sit Down". 
It would seem incomplete if I just spoke about all of these records and not have any of them here to listen to. 
I'm just going to list a bunch of them here:
"Hello Ma Baby"
(notice how pushy the piano playing progresses to by the end of the record)
"Whistling Rufus"
"You'll get all that's-a-coming to you"
(one of those other voices has to be Hylands) 
"You don't stop the World from Going 'Round"
These are all coon songs. All of the others I've heard are also coon songs. 
There are others, but I can't share all of them, and haven't heard all of them. That's a goal though at this point, hearing all of his Berliners(that were issued). Since he didn't make that many, it's possible to hear them all. The overall quality of the music varies so much from record to record that hearing all of them would be fascinating. 

One more thing to note, while speaking with a friend about the Spencer Berliners, it also was brought up how much inspiration Spencer took from George W. Johnson. Not at all had this crossed my mind before this conversation. It makes so much sense. What's good about Spencer is that we can often tell exactly who he's imitating on certain records. Throughout listening to him, I've been able to catch Ben Harney, May Irwin, and DeWolf Hopper. The distinct way that Spencer whistled(that you can hear on the record of "Whistling Rufus" above) is very similar to how Johnson whistled on his records. It's interesting to hear Spencer's inspiration, directly on the same record labels around the same time. Not too often do we get to hear the performers' inspiration in the brown wax era. At this point it makes more sense why Spencer really started performing early "coon songs" around 1894. Before then, most of his records consisted of popular, comic, and sacred songs. It wasn't really until he joined forces with Quinn and Johnson that he really started performing coon songs as we know them. Also, keep in mind that the era of the coon song began around this time as well. By 1895, Spencer was known as the premier "Ethiopian delineator" on records. It's curious to see such as close friend of his and fellow recording star being partially the source of his inspiration. 

Now onto something rather different...
Digging through that 1888-1893 book of handwritten ledgers has been a recent obsession. While searching around in that book for the first George W. Johnson recording dates, I was bound to get stuck in something else amid the pages. That's exactly what happened...I noticed a few curious things throughout the pages, and it has to do with the handwriting on them. 

From session to session, the handwriting on the pages seems to vary here and there, depending on who's actually in the studio that day. What I noticed going through those ledgers is that the handwriting is specific to who's in the studio, which can indicates a few things. Most of the time this would point to a certain person's handwriting being all over the place in the book, after a certain point in time. After flipping through months of seeing that mysterious Henry Geisemann(it was spelled a few different ways throughout) as solo pianist and accompanist, by August 1889 we see Issler mentioned almost every day consecutively. 
These pages are fascinating, and the handwriting on many of them, while it varies in quality, is always the same person on each page that Issler is mentioned. 
The neatness of the handwriting varies from page to page. Here are a few various ways that Issler was signed in the ledgers:
What a cast of writing!
These were all written by the same person, but who that is exactly is what I'm wondering here. The writing is all over this book of ledgers, and since Issler was often running the studio when he was there, it wouldn't surprise me if that just happens to be his writing. One thing I noticed about this writing, is that it has that lefty look to it, much like George Gaskin's or Len Spencer's. It may depend on the way that he had to write the information, say at an awkward angle, but the smudges are often suspect. Issler was certainly one I would put as possibly a lefty. He was brilliant enough, and enough of a maverick to be put in this very special category. It's somewhat funny how much the handwriting varies from page to page, sometimes being very neat and well drawn, but other times looking a complete mess that's nearly indecipherable. 

Oh the days of the rounds, it seems even the handwriting in the ledgers shows the wear and tiredness. 

So now that there's the possibility of Issler being a lefty, it seems he joins the group that Spencer fit into. We know Spencer was a lefty naturally, and later at heart. Spencer's known signing of other people's names also becomes evident when seeing the names of George W. Johnson and Ada Jones looking in that weirdly slanted kind of out of whack style. Considering Spencer's status, it's likely he wrote with his right hand much more often, but when signing for others, he switched around. Also, it's interesting to note the similarities that lie in the names that were written on Hylands Spencer and Yeager music to that slogan on their logo:
Forget that I ever said all of that extra weird writing on the logo was Hylands. That was all Spencer it turns out. All of those beautiful little wind-like swirls and the little flying heart(or whatever that is) is all Spencer's hand. 
There are those little swirlies!
Well there ya go. That solves the mystery of who was responsible for that funky slogan as well as the little pen sketches that we know so well on Hylands music. Spencer was weird, as we already know, and seeing those little pen sketches in greater context puts that into perspective. This is really making me hope that he did more pen sketches...
Thinking of how adventurous he was, that wouldn't surprise me. 

Anyhow, those little swirlies are just lovely. 

Hope you enjoyed this!

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