February 21, 1999

The MGM Labels: A Discography.  Compiled by Michel Ruppli and Ed Novitsky.  Greenwood Press, 1998.  ISBN: 0-313-30052-6.  3 volumes, price $325 (a discount may be available to ARSC members).

Reviewed by Tim Brooks, with assistance from David Hamilton

The latest multi-volume label discography from Greenwood Press has arrived, and it has all the impressive value and nagging problems of previous compilations from the prolific Michel Ruppli.  Ruppli and co-compiler Ed Novitsky previously worked together on The Mercury Labels (Greenwood, 1993), and they have undertaken the massive task of documenting MGM and its subsidiary labels with the same zeal and same general approach as in their previous work.

MGM’s story is perhaps a little less romantic than those of some other minor labels that grew to prominence.  Decca was born in the hopeless depths of the depression; Capitol founded by a songwriter and his friends on the eve of a prolonged recording strike that almost wiped them out; Chess by a couple of hustler-brothers in Chicago; Motown by a former Detroit assembly line worker; and so on.  MGM was merely the result of a decision by the board of directors of a huge corporation to exploit the music in its film library.  The label was born in 1947 with a silver spoon in its spindle hole–ample resources and enviable access to famous stars.

However we do not buy discographies because of who founded the label, but because of who they recorded.  MGM West Coast recording began with film personalities Lauritz Melchior and Van Johnson, and the soundtrack from the then-current musical “Till the Clouds Roll By,” but the label almost immediately expanded into many diverse fields.  An early break snared the scrawny kid who in his short lifetime would become the “King of Country Music,” the legendary Hank Williams, Sr.  Virtually his entire catalog is on MGM.  Country music was also represented by Bob Wills, Arthur Smith, Marvin Rainwater and Sheb Wooley.  Pop stars of the ’50s on MGM included Joni James, Billy Eckstein, Tommy Edwards, LeRoy Holmes and David Rose, and the label was home to several icons of rock’s first and second generations, including Conway Twitty, Connie Francis, Herman’s Hermits and the Animals.  Jazz was well represented, especially after the absorption of the Verve label in 1961.  There was also a substantial classical catalog, much of it produced in Europe.

Recording began in New York and Los Angeles in late 1946, supplemented by field recordings beginning in mid 1947, mainly in Nashville and Cincinnati.  Masters were also purchased from various interesting smaller labels, including Joe Davis, Musicraft and ARA.  All are documented here.  After the label was taken over by the Polygram international recording conglomerate in the 1970s, the MGM name was phased out.  The last listing is from 1982.

The MGM Labels is organized partially by era and partially by subject.  Volume 1 covers 1946-1960, including all domestic sessions and leased and purchased masters.  There is also a conversion table for 78 rpm to 45 rpm numbering.  Volume 2 spans 1960-1982, with appendixes for the subsidiary Cub and Orbit labels.  Volume 3 is a bit of a catch-all.  It includes 40 pages of “additional sessions,” for which no master numbers or dates are available.  One interesting item (p.27) is “We Wrote ’em and We Sing ’em,” a special 1960 dj issue on which six rock-era writer-performers, including Otis Blackwell and Eddie Cooley,  do their own numbers.  There are also sections for soundtracks, historical and spoken word recordings (“The Kennedy Years,” Jayne Mansfield reading Shakespeare), reissues from the Clef and Verve labels, foreign masters, classical recordings, and additional labels distributed by MGM (Air, Ava, Charter, Hickory, Kama Sutra, etc.).  The second half of the volume is dedicated to indexes: by issue number, composer (classical only), films and plays, and a general artist index covering all three volumes.  There are also separate artist indexes in volumes 1 and 2.

The main listings are in standard “Rust” format, with a header listing featured artist, personnel where known (about half the time), and the location and date of recording.  Below that appear the matrices made, with title and issues for each.  It appears that most of this information came straight from the Polygram/MGM files, although once again M. Ruppli fails to give his readers much of a clue exactly what his sources were or what their reliability might be.  The acknowledgments thank the British National Sound Archive, La Phonotheque Nationale in Paris and “discographies accompanying various Bear Family reissues” (whose careful research and attention to detail Ruppli and Novitsky would do well to emulate).  There is also a three page bibliography of books and articles with the general note that they were “used throughout the set.”  Isn’t that helpful?

This cavalier attitude toward sources of information, and their varying reliability, is the bane of modern discography.  Ruppli and Novitsky have now enshrined in print mountains of very specific information including dates, personnels, etc.  Did the entry you are looking at come from the Polygram/MGM files?   Or was it from the back of an album cover, or from some unspecified article by a fan in Hot Buttered Soul?  We will never know.

There are several other annoyances which a user should not have to tolerate in a $325 reference set.  The lack of a title index makes it difficult to find a recording unless you already have a record number.  There is an artist index, but MGM’s more prolific artists have scores of pages cited after their names, scattered throughout the three volumes.  Happy hunting.  Additionally, Ruppli and Novitsky apparently do not believe in “running heads,” the page headers which tell readers where they are in a volume.  These are particularly helpful in books containing long lists of numbers.  Here there is just the page number at the top of the page–given twice, for some reason.  You will find yourself flipping back and forth a lot to try to figure out what section you are in.

The classical section will be a disappointment to those interested in MGM’s serious music output.  Apparently the files (if that’s where the data came from) did not contain either master number or recording dates for most issues, so the authors list known albums in composer order.  Most have no personnel and little or no recording detail.  A “year mastered” is shown to provide at least a clue what era these performances might be from.  Surely this section could have been fleshed out with further research among experts in the field.

I asked David Hamilton, a respected author and critic, to comment on the classical section.  His informative reply is worth quoting verbatim.

“MGM’s involvement in classical recordings began only with the LP era, and entailed, first, a substantial series of original recordings, made in American and Europe, issued primarily in the E 3000 series.  (Early titles, and some very popular ones later, were also issued on 45 RPM.)  Along with ‘popular classics,’ the label’s original director, Edward Cole, brought to disc off‑the‑beaten works by earlier composers and a substantial list of contemporary music, with an emphasis on American works.

“After that series faded, MGM was for a time the American distributor of Deutsche Grammophon recordings.  Full‑price items were sold on imported pressings with the original German catalog numbers, while a budget series was pressed by MGM in the United States using DG’s Heliodor label (only the latter product is listed in the present discography).  The discography’s prefatory information has very little to say, either about the origins of the MGM classical series or about the relationship with DG; even the time period involved remains vague.

“The principal listing in the classical section of this MGM discography is arranged alphabetically by composer, with additional sections for recitals and recordings leased from foreign labels, principally Deutsche Grammophon.  In the section devoted to listings by issue number, classical items are listed (principally in Part 5, ‘Album numerical’) in short form, with cross‑references to the principal listing.  In general, coupling information is accessible only through this numerical listing.  There are no separate indexes for the classical section, but its contents are indexed in the composer and general artist indexes for the entire discography.

“The degree of detail offered about musical content and performers varies considerably: for the Heliodor issue of Mozart’s ‘Magic Flute,’ we learn only that it involves ‘Orchestra cond. by Ferenc Fricsay,’ and specific excerpts are only occasionally listed for operatic highlight recordings.  On p. 241, track titles are given for LPs of Debussy piano music, but not the titles of the collective works they comprise.  The composers of the works on ‘Electronic Music from the University of Illinois’ (HS‑25047) are not identified.  (This is one among a number of items on the Heliodor label not leased from Deutsche Grammophon, whose own operations were then still principally focussed in Germany; a prominent one was the complete recording of Moore’s ‘The Ballad of Baby Doe’ with New York City Opera forces.)  The standard of consistency and detail in the classical section of this work falls distinctly short of what users would expect in a serious discography.”

One might hope that a discography evolves, and more and more information becomes available, standards of research and presentation would gradually rise–if only to protect us from the ravages of “errors endlessly repeated.”  Unfortunately it appears that we will have to look to the next generation of discographers, not the last, for that.

Nevertheless the compilers have given us, for the first time, the entire immense framework of MGM’s output (2,733 pages altogether).  Most of the data probably is correct, and most of it presumably did come from the company’s own files.  The fact that the work is sloppy around the edges is lamentable, but should not obscure the massive achievement of what has been accomplished.  The set will no doubt be the primary reference on MGM’s output for a long time to come.


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