June 6, 2004

Edison Diamond Disc Record Labels & Discography.  By Charles Gregory.  Melvindale, MI: self published, 2003.  4 volumes, 1,402 pp.  Illustrations.  ISBN 0-9745432-0-9.  $199 (spiral bound) or $212 (perfect bound), plus $9 shipping.  Available from Charles Gregory, 17697 Palmer, Melvindale, MI 48122 (charles_gregory@ameritech.net).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Thomas A. Edison was an American icon during his lifetime.  Today, more than seventy years after his death, he is still a hero to many collectors, and this unusual four volume work is a unique tribute to him and his phonographic endeavors.  Self-published by Michigan collector Charles Gregory (who “since the age of fourteen… has maintained a fascination with the life of Thomas Alva Edison”), it is part scrap book and part reference guide to the popular 50000-series Diamond Discs.  Dominating the cover is the familiar picture of Edison examining a Diamond Disc; cleverly inset is a smaller but identical shot of the inventor examining a cylinder.  Apparently the original version of the photo was the one showing the cylinder, with the Diamond Disc drawn in later, a symbolic change indeed.

The first 189 pages of volume one–practically a book in itself–consists of a grab-bag of information about Diamond Discs.  It includes an index to artists in the 50000 series (not all of whom are in this book; see below); an essay on “red star” records, which have long confused collectors; an article by Ron Dethlefson on Edison’s production methods; an article and listing by Ray Wile on preliminary couplings intended for early Diamond Discs, some of which never saw the light of day; a long and interesting article by Jack Stanley on Thomas Edison’s role in choosing artists and repertoire to be recorded, with many quotes from his notebooks; Ray Wile’s listing of Blue Amberol cylinders that were dubbed from unissued Diamond Discs; a 64-page reprint of two illustrated booklets from the 1910s/1920s containing pictures of all principal Edison artists; excerpts from a Jim Walsh article on Vernon Dalhart railroad songs; Edison “personal” and advertising records; and reprints of assorted articles and pictures from Edison literature of the 1920s (including a gallery of dealers’ delivery trucks!).

Although not indicated, some of these articles are reprints.  The two Wile articles are from the New Amberola Graphic, while the Dethlefson piece originally appeared in his book Edison Disc Artists & Records, 1910-1929.[i]  The Dalhart article looks like the liner notes from an old reissue LP.  It is good to have all this material in one place.

There is a lot of interesting but scattered information here.  For example, did you know that it took 20 minutes to press each Diamond Disc, and moulds were originally good for only about 400 or 500 copies, which is why multiple takes were used?  That Edison listened to his own 80-rpm discs at about 70 rpm?  There is a surviving phonograph with Edison’s teeth-marks in it, but that is not how the increasingly deaf inventor normally “listened” to records.  Elizabeth Spencer was one of his favorite sopranos, her voice so fascinating him that he had doctors study her head, to see why she sounded so nice.  (Young Tom must have been a riot on a date; “Hortense, I really like you.  May I measure your cranium?”)  The old man’s notes on potential talent always make for entertaining reading.  Of one “bull baritone” he wrote, “He should be put in front of ocean liners to scare icebergs away.”  Of soprano Emma Van Holstein: “She sings in places so weak I can hardly hear, then she lets out a yell like a wild indian–such interpretation is not dramatic it’s idiotic.”  Of Irish tenor Tom Burke (during World War I): “If he is the McCormack of Europe, Europe is in far worse condition than the papers make out.”  Of Yiddish tenor Leonard Brown: “No tune.  Is there no melody in Jewish music?  If they enjoy this they would enjoy small pox.”

Unfortunately there is no index, so while these essays make for interesting reading the information contained in them (and elsewhere in the book) will be difficult for researchers to access.

The articles are only the preliminaries.  What sets this work apart, beginning on page 190 of volume one and continuing through volumes two, three and four (1,400 page in all), are reproductions of thousands of 50000-series Diamond Disc paper labels, arranged in numerical order.  A few caveats.  Diamond Discs were introduced in 1912 and originally had etched labels, which are infernally hard to read; paper labels were not introduced until 1921.  It is the 1920s paper labels that are reproduced here.  Thus not all 50000-series Diamond Discs are represented, only those from 1921-on, along with a large but incomplete selection of earlier releases that remained in the catalog and gained paper labels later on.  The first number originally issued with a paper label was 50813 (“The Last Waltz” by Betsy Lane Shepherd and Lewis James) in August 1921, although a few numbers after that did not have them.  The earliest paper labels had white lettering on a black background, but after a few months this was replaced by the familiar black-on-white.  In all, the author states, 5,050 labels are reproduced.

Accompanying each label are several pieces of information.  First is the recording date for each side.  Then comes the “pairing”date, or date on which Edison executives decided which two selections should be coupled on this release (this is a rather meaningless date, not normally shown in discographies, but Edison fans seem fond of it).  Next is the month of release, the re-recording date if new masters were subsequently substituted for the original ones, and the cut-out date.  These dates are in different fonts and are arrayed around each label like a halo, a rather odd layout for a discography, albeit one you get used to.  There is no personnel listing for the recordings (other than what appears on the label), as would be found in a normal discography.

The long parade of labels is interspersed with pictures of artists and phonographs, portions of release announcements, and other related graphics.  Promotional literature states that 135 monthly supplements and more than a thousand other illustrations are included.  The supplements are generally located in the vicinity of the labels to which they relate, but there are many gaps and you may have to do some searching to find the announcement you want.  Many other series (80000s, 82000s, etc.) are listed in these supplements as well.

There is, in short, a great deal of information here for the Diamond Disc collector or researcher.  The release information has appeared before in Ray Wile’s more comprehensive Edison Disc Recordings, which covers all numerical series, but the recording dates (from the Edison Cash Books) are new, and useful.[ii]  (Ray notes that he has obtained additional information since his material was published, which may appear in an updated edition.)  A drawback is the rather poor quality of the illustrations, especially the photographs, most of which look like poor xeroxes.  The rather simple Edison labels reproduce clearly enough, although I don’t think anyone will mistake them for originals.  If it’s simply information you’re after, however, it’s here.

Fittingly the set ends with a reproduction of the October 29, 1929 letter to dealers announcing the discontinuance of commercial record production, along with two pages of wise sayings by The Master (“Everything comes to him that hustles while he waits,” “I would like to live about three hundred years, I think I have ideas enough to keep me busy that long,” and on a mellower note, “A flower, a lovely child, a full-rigged ship in a stiff breeze–what is more beautiful?”).

Edison Diamond Disc Record Labels & Discography is expensive and, not surprisingly, a limited edition.  When it sells out that will no doubt be the end of it, so those interested in this unique and extensive work are advised to obtain a set while they can.


[i]. Ray Wile, “Cylindrical Diamond Discs!”, New Amberola Graphic no. 100, pp.9-16; Wile, “The Preliminary Matchings of the Earliest Edison Diamond Disc Records,” New Amberola Graphic no. 109, pp.3-6; Ron Dethlefson, Edison Disc Artists & Records 1910-1929 (Brooklyn, NY: APM Press, 1985), pp.148-151.

[ii]. Raymond R. Wile, Edison Disc Recordings (Philadelphia: Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1978).  The Wile book, which is sold at the Edison National Historic Site, does not have an index of artists, although Wile compiled one privately in 1972.  A somewhat complementary listing is Edison Diamond Discs 50001-52651 by musician Fred J. Karlin (Santa Monica, CA: Bona Fide Publishing Co., 1972), which adds composers, contents of medleys, and shows and films in which the songs appeared.  There appears to be no title index available of songs recorded on Diamond Discs.

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