March 5, 1975

The Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900-1950. By Roger Kinkle. New Rochelle, NY: Arlington House Publishers, 1974. 2,644 pages. $75

 Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Roger Kinkle’s Complete Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz: 1900-1950 is a major publishing event for record and music collectors, if only because of its size–four volumes, 2,644 pages in all. It is at once a directory to songs, artists, films, Broadway shows and even selected vintage recordings, and is arranged in convenient reference format, as follows: Volume 1 contains a heading for each year from 1900 to 1950, after which is listed popular songs of that year, Broadway musicals, “representative” disc recordings (after 1909) and movie musicals (after 1927). Volumes 2 & 3 have biographies of 2,105 singers, bandleaders, composers and others associated with the music world, averaging about a quarter page each. After the highlights of each individual’s career are listed some of his or her recordings and shows. Volume 4 contains 350 pages of indexes to the persons, songs, shows and movies listed in the other volumes. This volume also contains a number of other listings, including Downbeat and Metronome poll winners, Academy Award nominees, a guide to release dates for major record labels (1924-1945) and numerical listings of records released on nine major labels (mid-1920s to the 1940s).

Roger Kinkle has been for many years a mail-order record dealer (as well as a professional musician) in the Midwest, and he has obviously been keeping lists of everything that came his way. His special interest appears to be jazz and dance bands, and his Encyclopedia is clearly slanted in that direction, both in its biographies and its record listings. However much else has been included. The advertising for this set stresses its physical size and well it should, for there is certainly enough here to offer something of interest to almost everyone.

Having said that, this reviewer is obligated to advise the potential buyer of the Encyclopedia’s major flaws, for at $75 this will be a major purchase for most collectors and they will want to know what it not in it, as well as what it. To be concise, author Kinkle appears to have opted for quantity rather than quality. The two are not necessarily incompatible, even in a large work, as several of the jazz discographers have demonstrated. But here, although there are over 2,600 pages, most sections exhibit a lack in the precision and detail one might expect to find in an encyclopedia.

For example a 12-page overview of popular music history from 1900 to 1950 in Volume 1 is mostly a recitation of names, combined with some rather vague generalities and a few major errors. For one thing, the author mistakenly assumes that the record industry first began to record popular songs in 1909 (p.xvi). This will come as something of a surprise to collectors of early 1900s Victor Grand Prize and Columbia black and silver discs, and Edison moulded cylinders, as well as the even earlier brown wax cylinders and Berliner 7″ discs of the 1890s, all of which contained large amounts of popular music. Perhaps this statement is justification for the exclusion, throughout the Encyclopedia, of any record listings prior to 1909.

The biographies, which make up more than two-thirds of the Encyclopedia, do not cover the earliest record pioneers (sorry, no Gaskin, Golden, Edward M. Favor or Len Spencer here), but do include just about everybody else. Those covering personalities of the thirties and later are best, and are often quite interesting, both for reference and for browsing. There are also entries for earlier figures such as Billy Murray, Vess L. Ossman and Ada Jones. Unfortunately Mr. Kinkle tells use virtually nothing about such people, even though they may have ranked as the most popular recording artists of their day. Sometimes the disparity between their “biographies” and the coverage given minor figures of later years, particularly jazz-oriented musicians, is grotesque. For example Billy Murray, whose records probably sold more copies than anyone’s in history, gets just six lines consisting of a few generalities (“Early entertainer beginning shortly after turn of century…”), no birth or death dates, and a list of a few of his most common records from the teens and twenties. A couple of pages further on Vido Musso, a minor jazz sideman of the swing era, rates a biography six times as long, filled with specific dates and places in his career, plus a full page of his recordings. Does this really reflect their relative importance in an Encyclopedia of Popular Music and Jazz?

There are many other examples of such imbalance. Early figures suffer the most, such as Henry Burr, Joseph C. Smith and Harry Macdonough (who gets just three lines, while Gisele MacKenzie gets a quarter page nearby!), but also some later ones such as Art KahnCall of these have short Abiographies@ which say little or nothing. In many cases the author has not even bothered to look up birth and death dates, those these are standard entries at the top of the rest of the biographies. Such information is readily available; see Jim Walsh=s directory in Hobbies magazine for December, 1961.

Biographies for more recent personalities are better, although even these contain a large proportion of unsubstantiated generalities and value judgments such as “great,” “brilliant,” etc. The aforementioned Mr. Musso was “gutsy, uninhibited”; saxophonist Boots Mussulli had a “beautiful tone”; Buddy Morrow was a “brilliant trombonist with great technique”; etc. Mr. Kinkle’s personal preferences do not belong in an encyclopedia.

Occasionally the vagueness is seriously misleading. In Joseph C. Smith’s three-line “biography” we are told simply that he was a “bandleader of 20s.” In fact his fame was established prior to World War I, and his was the first “name” dance orchestra to become famous via records, hence his historical importance. Mitch Miller did not have a popular TV series during the “late 50s to early 60s”; the correct dates are 1961-1964, with a summer series in 1966. One might expect to find that sort of specific information an encyclopedia, but you will not find it here. However while a great many statements, especially in the biographies, are frustratingly vague or subjective, they are usually not factually wrong. Therefore while the reader will not always learn much (depending on the artist), he will seldom get wrong information.

It would be possible to go on for pages about the deficiencies of the Encyclopedia, but that would obscure its genuine values. Its strongest points are undoubtedly the huge indexes, which were made possible by computerization and which are probably the most comprehensive now in print, at least for songs. “Looking it up in Kinkle” will no doubt become standard for dating songs, at least for awhile. Incidentally the author claims to have dated songs and records by their year of popularity, rather than year of publication, which would be a laudable innovation if it had been uniformly carried out–but it wasn’t. Some famous songs are off from their year of popularity by as much as two years!

The listing of releases of nine major labels can be helpful too. These contain catalog numbers arranged in numerical order, plus titles and artists. There are no matrix numbers, recording dates or–unfortunately–alphabetical indexes, but the lists are reasonably complete and are certainly handy for quickly checking what’s on Brunswick 4444, for example. (Even here the superficial nature of the research creeps in; many of the missing numbers could have been readily located in already published discographies.)

The one-and-a-half page introduction to record collecting is trivial, in substance a plug for Kinkle’s own and a few other sales lists. The dating guide for major record labels was apparently lifted with only minor changes, and without credit, from Arthur Feher’s venerable chart, originally published in the Index to Jazz in 1947 and reprinted in various places since then. It is generally adequate but specifically inaccurate; but then aren’t they all! Again solid research in original supplements and company files could have produced a better one.

Part of the problem with this Encyclopedia is likely to be its name. Arlington House has a penchant for labeling its publications “Complete” or “Encyclopedia” when they obviously are not (e.g. Brian Rust’s Complete Entertainment Discography). This might be good marketing but it is a disservice to the genuine and substantial value of these books which is only diminished by their inability to live up to such all-encompassing titles. When the reader opens a “Complete Encyclopedia” he is likely to expect just that. A little more truth in labeling might be in order.

In summary, Roger Kinkle’s Encyclopedia, at $75, is a major investment for most collectors and should be carefully considered. Arlington House has always been a reputable and fair organization, apart from its titling habits, and to its credit is offering the Encyclopedia on a 30-day trial basis with a money-back guarantee. Perhaps some collectors may want to examine it on this basis. Despite its regrettable lapses in scholarship, I strongly recommend the Encyclopedia as a popular song-and-record dating guide (the largest now in print) and a handy compendium of at least some information on most of the major figures in popular music and jazz during the first half of the century.

This page was last modified on November 5th, 2011.
© 2011 Tim Brooks All rights reserved HomeTV HistoryRecord Industry HistoryCopyright IssuesConsulting ServicesBook and CD ReviewsAbout My BooksGeorge W. Johnson, the First Black Recording StarLinks & ResourcesDartmouth CollegePress RoomFAQ