January 2, 2005

Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934.  By Ross Laird and Brian Rust.  Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.  778pp.  Artist index.  ISBN 0-313-31142-0. $129.95.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

 Another tree falls in the discographical forest.  Of the great labels of the 1920s, we now have major discographies of Columbia, Victor (from 1925-on) and Brunswick, as well as such smaller labels as Black Swan, Paramount (partial) and Edison (more or less).  The long-dormant “Victor Project,” which is supposed to produce a comprehensive documentation of that label, seems to have a pulse once again.  And of course there are sweeping multi-label discographies of the jazz, blues, country and dance band fields, among others.

Missing has been a label discography for OKeh, one of the most important of the minors.  Founded in 1918 by Otto K. Heineman as an offshoot of his phonograph supply business, it grew into a leading second-tier label in the early 1920s, was absorbed by Columbia in 1926, and survived until the latter was sold to ARC in 1934.  (Later incarnations of the OKeh label, in the 1940s-1950s, are beyond the scope of this book.).  Along the way OKeh pioneered the recording of blues with Mamie Smith in 1920, mounted one of the most active field recording programs in locations around the U.S., and was home to spectacular jazz recordings by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, Clarence Williams and many more.  It had country releases by Fiddlin’ John Carson, Emmett Miller and others, and pop hits by Sophie Tucker, Al Bernard, Jones and Hare, Aileen Stanley and the extremely popular Vincent Lopez Orchestra.  Not to mention “The OKeh Laughing Record.”

Two of the world’s leading discographers, Ross Laird and Brian Rust, have joined to bring us the first general study of this important label.  The book opens with an good 18-page overview of company history (taken largely from original sources such as Talking Machine World), a meticulously detailed list of those interesting recording field trips, an outline of catalog series and a roster of company executives.

The main body of the book lists the recordings and is organized by matrix number (which is to say more or less chronologically), in the familiar, easy-to-scan “Rust” format. Headings show artist, accompaniment and place and date of recording, and under that appears matrix numbers on the left, titles in the middle, and issues on the right.  OKeh files still exist for 1926-on, after the Columbia takeover, so data for that period is quite complete with exact dates, matrix numbers, takes, issues, etc.  Since files are mostly missing before 1926 those listings were reconstructed from catalogs and copies seen.  The compilers have cast their net widely and there are thousands of listings here, but inevitably some remain untraced.  At the back of the volume there are twenty pages of “untraced issues,” displaying in issue order release numbers for which the compilers are still missing matrix numbers, or in some cases any information at all.  Unfortunately a missing matrix number means the selection does not appear in the main body of the book.  This might not be so bad but inexplicably the artist index does not cover this section, so any attempt to use the volume to compile an artist discography will miss these issues entirely.

How many are missing?  I checked about two dozen of my own earliest OKehs and found none that were unlisted, two for which the discography was missing matrix numbers, and a handful for which the discography had other missing or incorrect data (usually minor, such as an additional issued take).  (For you completists, the two for which I can add matrix numbers are OKeh 1122 on page 702, which has mxs. 461-A and 406-B respectively on the sides as shown; and 4229 on page 706, mxs. 7622-C and 7648-B).  All in all this is a pretty good record.  But do check your collections!

A more serious cavil with OKeh Records is the indexing.  As noted the artist index is incomplete and there is no title index, much less such niceties as an issue number index.  Composers aren’t listed either, so those wishing to do song research using this volume will be frustrated.  I suppose the publisher didn’t want to add the pages necessary, but in a $130 volume one would hope to get something close to state of the art discography.  Not here.  This is perhaps another argument for issuing major discographies on CD-ROM, where complete access by any entry point is possible, and space is not an issue.  Inasmuch as label discographies are generally used as the source for other, thematic studies (of songs, artists, etc.), access is important.

There is also little information on recording personnel beyond the name of the featured artist.  For those details you will need to consult one of the genre discographies previously mentioned.

The only prior book-length discography of OKeh of which I am aware is Okeh Race Records , The 8000 ‘Race’ Series by Laurie Wright (Chigwell, Essex, UK: L. Wright, 2001).  Its listings are now subsumed within the larger Laird and Rust volume.  If you have the Wright book don’t throw it out, however, since it does have composers, a tune index and other detail.

All in all, Discography of OKeh Records is a major contribution to the musical map of the 1920s, and to some very important musical genres therein including blues, jazz, and ethnic music.  While it has its shortcomings we discographers have learned to appreciate what we can get, and you will get a lot here.

A thumbnail list of key 1920s label discographies:

Gregory, Charles, Edison Diamond Disc Record Labels & Discography (primarily 1921-1929). Melvindale, MI: self published, 2003.  4 vol.

Laird, Ross, Brunswick Records, A Discography of Recordings, 1916-1931. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001.  4 vol.

Rust, Brian, The Victor Master Book, Vol. 2 (1925-1936), Hatch End, UK: self-published, 1969.

Rust, Brian, and Tim Brooks, The Columbia Master Book Discography, 1901-1934. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999.  4 vol.

Thygesen, Helge, Mark Berresford and Russ Shor, Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance.  Nottingham, England: VJM Publications, 1996.

Vreede, Max E., Paramount 12000/13000 Series. London: Storyville Publications, 1971.

Wile, Raymond R., Edison Disc Recordings (1912-1929). Philadelphia: Eastern National Park and Monument Association, 1978.

Wile, Raymond R., and Ronald Dethlefson, Edison Disc Artists & Records, 1910-1929. 2nd edition.  Brooklyn, NY: APM Press, 1990. (Artist index)


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