February 2, 1997

The Decca Labels: A Discography.  Compiled by Michel Ruppli.  Greenwood Press, 1996.  Six volumes.  ISSN 0192-334X.  $595.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Within the next few years we will have been blessed with general discographies of virtually all of the major labels of the twentieth century.  Largely responsible for this explosion is Greenwood Press and its stable of authors, including the prolific Michel Ruppli.  So far he has been responsible, alone and with others, for bulging volumes on Atlantic, Chess, King, Savoy, Prestige, Aladdin/Imperial and Mercury, the latter a five-volume set (compiled with Ed Novitsky) that won the ARSC Award for Excellence in 1994.

Other authors have tackled Berliner (Charosh), Edison cylinders and discs (Wile, Koenigsberg, others), HMV in certain countries (Alan Kelly) and Liberty (Michael Kelly).  Nearing completion are Brunswick (Laird) and pre-1934 Columbia (this writer and Brian Rust), although coverage of the biggest label of all–Victor (by Fagan and Moran)–seems to be stuck in neutral.  The most recent volume in that set, covering 1903-1908, was published more than a decade ago.

Recently another giant freighter hove into the discographical harbor bearing the entire 1934-1973 output of the famous Decca label.  At six volumes, 5,952 pages, and 20 pounds, Ruppli’s gargantuan The Decca Labels ain’t cheap–but it will be a must for libraries and serious discographers who are interested in this era.

Decca, for anyone who might be unaware, was the Cinderella story of the twentieth century record industry.  Founded during the depths of the Depression by former Brunswick executive Jack Kapp (with English financing), it became fabulously successful in the 1940s and 1950s, and was one of the “big three” labels of that era, along with Columbia and RCA Victor.  Its strong suit was always popular music, although it built up huge catalogs in the country, jazz and ethnic (e.g. Caribbean) fields as well.  It also had a substantial classical repertoire, which is thoroughly covered here.  Decca made the transition into the rock & roll era, and in fact virtually launched that musical explosion into mainstream America with Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” in 1955.  However by the 1960s it had become primarily a country label.  In 1969 it was swallowed up by the giant MCA entertainment conglomerate which, uninterested in tradition, changed the label name to MCA in 1973, marking the cut-off point for this discography.

The Decca Labels is sensibly organized by master number, which means that listings are roughly in chronological order of recording.  Since Decca maintained different master series for its studios in different cities, these series appear in different volumes.  Following is an overview of the contents of each volume.

Volume 1: Los Angeles and San Francisco (1934-1973); acquired broadcast recordings and World Transcriptions (1940s-50s).

Volume 2: Chicago (1934-1941); New York (1934-1942); Southern States (Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, 1934-1941); Caribbean (1935-1940); masters acquired from 1920s-30s labels.

Volume 3: New York and Chicago (1943-1956); Signature label (1940s); World Transcriptions (1943-1946); Other transcriptions.

Volume 4: New York (1956-1973); additional plays, poems & readings, film soundtracks, and miscellaneous recordings issued by Decca.

Volume 5: Country sessions in Nashville and other Southern and Midwestern cities (1946-1973); Domestic classical recordings; Foreign classical recordings; Foreign popular and jazz recordings.

Volume 6: Numerical index by issue number for singles, albums and CDs, on Decca and subsidiary labels, cross-referenced to original recording date; general indexes of all six volumes by artist and composer (classical).

The main listings include session personnel (where known), recording location and date, master and (sometimes) take, title, and “original” issues on Decca and related labels.  Modern reissues and compilation LPs/CDs are generally not shown.  As the author points out, these are so numerous and ever-changing as to be impossible to trace.  Composers are given only for classical pieces.  Sidemen in bands and combos are listed where known, which is perhaps half the time.  Each volume has its own artist index, supplementing the general index in volume six.

A thousand artist discographies could be drawn from these pages.  Foremost is Bing Crosby, whose golden baritone was largely responsible for the label’s early success (indeed, Decca was sometimes known as “The House That Crosby Built”).  His recording of “White Christmas” for years held the title of the biggest selling record of all time (it was recorded twice, in 1942 and 1947, with an identical arrangement and supporting chorus, reportedly because the masters wore out).  Others with long histories on Decca include the Andrews Sisters, Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Dorsey, Ella Fitzgerald, Red Foley, Guy Lombardo, Fred Waring, Lawrence Welk, Brenda Lee and Ernest (and Justin) Tubb.  Some surprising names turn up, including stars usually associated with other labels: Rosemary Clooney, Benny Goodman, Henry Mancini.  And in the 1930s Decca was home to quite a few relics of the 1920s, including Gene Austin, Harry Reser, Ben Bernie, Noble Sissle, Ethel Waters, Ruth Etting, Irene Bordoni and Muriel Pollock.  Masters acquired from other labels are fully documented, and the reader may be surprised to find full details on sessions from as early as 1922 (Husk O’Hare on Gennett).  Masters were also acquired from Paramount, QRS, Brunswick, Vocalion and even Columbia.

Interested in Judy Garland?  Here is her first session, November 27, 1935, resulting in two unissued sides.  For something less well covered, how about the Honolulu Symphony Orchestra?  As you might imagine they play “Aloha Oe” (theme and variations), among other things.

Decca began its recording history with a burst of activity.  Its first session was held on Thursday, August 2, 1934, in New York, with an artist named Charles Bourne doing “I Got Rhythm.”  The records were not issued and who he was or what sort of performance he gave is not indicated (was he a vocalist?  An instrumentalist?).  He is not even in the index, a phantom, as it were, from Decca’s past.  Los Angeles sessions began the following day with the better known Stuart Hamblen, and before the end of the month Decca was also recording in Chicago and El Paso.  Bing Crosby strolled in on August 8, 1934, and was a frequent visitor to the Decca studios for many years thereafter.

Master numbering began with DLA-1 in Los Angeles, but inexplicably Jack Kapp chose to begin his numbering in New York and Chicago where Brunswick had left off in those cities several years before (in the 38000s and C-9000s, respectively).  Thereafter the pace of recording continued to be heavy, in all locations.  It even continued during the recording bans of 1942-1943 and 1948, albeit with vocalists (and an occasional harmonica player) only and at a greatly reduced rate.  A handful of sessions in New York during the 1943 strike are shown as including an orchestra, which is puzzling.  Some of these are clearly in error.  I have several Dick Haymes sides made during these sessions, and they have vocal accompaniment by the Song Spinners, but not the orchestra indicated in the discography.

In later years Decca launched the highly successful Coral label (Teresa Brewer, the Ames Brothers, Buddy Holly, etc.), and it is also fully covered here.

Although not explicitly acknowledged, the basic source for The Decca Labels was microfilms of Decca company files located at the Country Music Foundation and researched for M. Ruppli by Bill Daniels.  The files are not complete however, and a great deal of additional information was provided by researchers who are credited in the acknowledgments.  Particularly helpful was discographical work done by Bear Family for its reissues of MCA material.

One of the most significant gaps in the files (and in Ruppli’s research) is in the area of Decca’s classical recordings.  Master numbers and recording dates are unknown for almost all of these, and as a result the classical section (only) has been arranged alphabetically by composer.  Some information has been filled in, evidently from catalogs and labels, and the section can best be regarded as a start at documenting Decca’s activities in this field.

Each volume opens with a brief history of the label, discussion of the organization of the set and a bibliography.  The same text is repeated at the beginning of every volume, so you don’t have to worry about finding volume 1 to make sense of volume 5.  Unfortunately Ruppli follows the custom of too many contemporary discographers by being rather vague about his sources.  Much in these volumes apparently came from sources other than the Decca files, but aside from what can be inferred from the people acknowledged and the books listed in the bibliography, the reader is left in the dark as to where this additional information came from and how reliable it might be.

Such limitations, while annoying, do not undermine the tremendous value of this set.  Decca now becomes the first of the mid-century “Big Three” to receive the full discographical treatment.  The Decca Labels will be essential to researchers in many fields of music for years to come.  Greenwood offers ARSC members a discount on this expensive set, on request.


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