October 25, 1987

The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings (1903‑1908). By Ted Fagan and William Moran. Greenwood Press, 648 pp. + liv, $65.00.

A Review for APM by Tim Brooks

Eighty‑four years ago confusion reigned at the Victor plant.  Business was booming beyond all expectations, and Eldridge Johnson, the owner, had to face the fact the the simple numbering system he had set up three years before to keep track of his recording sessions just wasn’t adequate.  So, in the midst of all the frantic activity‑‑new artists, new recordings, constant re‑recording to take advantage of improved recording methods, different size records and new series being introduced, phonograph manufacture, and so on‑‑he introduced two elaborate new systems to maintain order in his recording lab activities.  One was for factory use (a system of matrix numbers and codes) and the other for dealers and customers (a whole new array of catalog number series).

For a while his clerks and technicians, not to mention his customers, went crazy.  Numbers got misassigned, engineers lost track of what take they were on (“didn’t Collins record that song last month?”), and sometimes things didn’t get written down at all (“What take did we issue?  Was that the old system or the new system?”).  Eventually things settled down.  In the years that followed Victor expanded into a huge, sprawling corporation with elaborate record keeping.  Sixty years later, two rather obsessive record collectors came along and decided to try to sort out exactly what had happened back in those early years.  Unfortunately by the 1960s nearly everyone who had been involved was dead.  One exception, an elderly lady who as a girl had worked in the Victor listing department, refused to have anything to do with their project.  Once was enough for her!

We are now 20 years beyond the point at which those two collectors wrote their first letter to Victor, asking to examine the files.  The fruits of Ted Fagan’s and William Moran’s exhaustive research are finally becoming available.  Their latest volume, the second in what promises to be a long series, documents the confused but seminal days of 1903‑1908 when Victor’s recording program was taking shape.  Fagan and Moran have resolved most of the confusion in Victor’s own files; thus this book is an even better reference to the recordings than the files themselves.  Eldridge Johnson would have loved to have a copy!

Like volume one, which covered 1900‑1903, this new volume is organized by matrix number‑‑no. 1 (originally recorded April 24, 1903) through no. 4999 (January 7, 1908).  It is fairly bursting with detail on Victor recordings of the period.  For each matrix we have artist, title, composer, “takes” recorded (with dates), and the disposition of each‑‑whether issued, unissued, and/or reissued years later.  The book even lists LP reissues that came out half a century later, as well as later “takes” of early matrix numbers, even if they were made long after the original sessions (some high‑numbered takes included here were made as late as 1930).

In keeping with the compilers’ catholic approach, all types of music and speech are represented, including vaudeville, coon songs, band numbers, show tunes, standard numbers, and the beginnings of Victor’s vast classical repertoire.  Are you interested in Billy Murray’s first Victor session, or Enrico Caruso’s?  Silas Leachman’s last?  Or maybe in unissued recordings by Emma Juch or Pol Plancon or Ada Jones?  There is literally something here for everybody interested in this period.

Notes and indexes enrich the main listings.  These include the shows or operas from which selections are taken, Canadian and British issues, the proper speeds at which many classical selections should be played (according to the authors), and more.  There are 28 pages of “notes” about individual recordings, a chronological list of recording sessions, and artist and title indexes.  A special section lists “Overseas recordings” made by Victor in Latin America between 1905 and 1907.  Data on Victor’s imports from British G&T will be included in the next volume.

The authors’ policy is to provide special articles as a bonus with each volume, and this one contains more than 50 pages of informative text on the early history of Victor.  Among the subjects covered are Victor’s first exchange of matrices with G&T, the introduction of the famous Red Seal label, the short history of 8‑inch and 14‑inch discs, a thorough discussion of matrix numbering and physical characteristics of Victor discs (takes, stampers, speeds, runoff grooves, etc.), an illustrated guide to labels of the period, and information about Victor’s acquisition of Zonophone (“The Zonophone Company has been an awful drain on us” lamented Johnson in a memorandum).  Such arcane matters as the meaning of the small “D” in the wax (indicating a Dennison recording machine) and how to identify dubbings (yes, Victor occasionally released acoustically dubbed recordings) are detailed perhaps for the first time.  Almost anyone, no matter how expert, should learn something from these carefully researched articles.

What doesn’t the EDVR have?  Unfortunately Victor had by this time stopped noting the number of copies of each recording pressed, so we do not have that fascinating bit of information, as we did for many entries from 1900‑1903.  More importantly, the files‑‑and therefore this book‑‑contain relatively little information on the individual personnel present at many of the sessions.  We know it’s Sousa’s Band, but led by who?  Trios, quartets and choruses do not generally have their members listed, and the studio orchestras (“Victor Dance Orchestra,” etc.) could be just about anybody.  Sometimes the “usual” membership is given in the artist index, but we miss the detailed session‑by‑session personnel listings that are standard in the best discographies (e.g., those of Brian Rust).  Apparently the information just isn’t available for this early period.

The organization of the volume, while acceptable, is not ideal.  Information on any one recording may be found in several places‑‑dates under the main matrix listing, artist information (including the artist’s first name!) in the artist index or sometimes in the sessions listing, and discussion of individual recordings in the “Notes.”  Most of this is cross indexed, but with so much skipping around it’s easy to miss important information about a recording.  It would have been vastly preferable to put all information about an individual recording in one place (presumably under the matrix entry), and have all other indexes simply refer to that one place. One also hopes that the next volume will be proofed a bit more thoroughly.  While the problem is hardly fatal, there are an annoying number of typos and minor errors, especially in spellings and in the indexes (the recording you’re trying to locate may not be where the index says it is!).

Perhaps the most interesting part of this volume is the section of “notes” discussing individual recordings.  It is here that we find information on still‑unresolved mysteries, background on unusual recordings, and sometimes an explanation of their contents (contents of medleys, differences between takes, etc.).  Master researcher Bill Bryant provided much of this data, and Quentin Riggs and the late Milford Fargo also contributed.  In one curious note, concerning Silas Leachman’s “Turkey In the Straw” (catalog no. 804), Riggs says that the singer exclaims “Lawdy! Lawdy! Come on, Mr. Booth,” proving the presence of Victor pianist C.H.H. Booth.  Bryant rebuts, saying “No! What he says is ‘Mr. Coon!'”  I have to agree with Bill; my own copy sounds much more like the latter than the former.  The EDVR compilers take no sides, drolly decreeing that “the matter shall be settled with 10‑inch records at ten paces.”

There are previews here of what will come next in the EDVR series.  The matrix listings will continue in 5000‑number chunks, however the next volume planned is a catalog number index correlating catalog number to matrix number, and covering the entire acoustic period, 1900‑1925.  This will make it easy to find the record you’re holding in your hand in the main listings, since only the catalog number (not the matrix) is shown on most Victor labels.  (Of course the reader can already find a given recording fairly readily via each volume’s artist or title index.)  Bonuses planned for the next volume include a listing and discussion of the famous 5000 classical series (Victor’s first, consisting mostly of imports) and an article on Victor’s other catalog series of the pre‑1925 period.  Then it’s back to the matrix listings, and into the 1910’s.

The death of co‑compiler Ted Fagan in early 1987 makes this impressive volume a lasting tribute to his enormous contribution to discography.  It also, unfortunately, puts the future of the project in some doubt.  William Moran has said that he will carry on, but even though most of the needed information has been posted out from the Victor files there is a tremendous amount of editing, compiling and resolving of discrepancies to be done if the high standards of the first two volumes are to be maintained.  Moran has asked for the support of fellow collectors, and we hope it is forthcoming, both in terms of sales of these early volumes and contributions of data in response to his published appeals.  Libraries and any serious collector of the period should certainly have these volumes; they are not cheap, but information of this quality and quantity will be found nowhere else.  And if by any chance the early volumes one day do go out of print, they will be worth a fortune.


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