January 7, 2006

Edison Blue Amberol Records: A Discography.  Compiled by Allan Sutton.  Denver, CO: Mainspring Press, 2005.  xi + 378pp (softcover).  ISBN 0-9671819-5-X.  $35.00.  Available from www.mainspringpress.com.

Reviewed by Tim Brooks

Allan Sutton’s Mainspring Press, which has begun to make a name for itself with a line of well-researched and reasonably-priced books on recording history, brings forth another one with this useful discography of Edison Blue Amberol Cylinders.  The familiar celluloid cylinders were manufactured from 1912 until the end of commercial cylinder production in 1929 and have long been a favorite of collectors because of their durability and quality–technically, if not always musically.  This is in fact not the first Blue Amberol listing.  Although the author does not mention it, Edison was one of the first major labels to be thoroughly cataloged by latter-day enthusiasts.  The earliest major discography of the label of which I am aware was compiled by Dr. Duane Deakins in the late 1950s and published as a series of booklets, one of them listing Blue Amberols indexed by title, artist and number.  (This handy booklet was later reprinted by various dealers, with Deakins’ name removed.)  A numerical listing of the label by Sydney Carter was published by the City of London Phonograph and Gramophone Society in 1963.  Other valuable sources of information on Edison recordings include Ron Dethlefson’s two volumes on the history and sales literature of Blue Amberols, Allen Koenigsberg’s classic Edison Cylinder Records listing the company’s wax cylinders back to 1889, and books by Ray Wile, Charles Gregory and others listing the Diamond Disc output.

This new book supercedes the long-out-of-print Deakins and Carter Blue Amberol listings by adding much new information, including, for the first time, recording dates.  It begins with a concise history of the series, followed by numerical lists of the main popular series (1501 to 5732), “specials,” the 28000 Concert Series, 29000 Grand Opera and Royal Purple series, 23000 British issues that used U.S. masters, and assorted noncommercial and private issues.  There are lists of wax Amberols that were reissued on Blue Amberol, discs dubbed to Blue Amberol, and disc masters issued only on Blue Amberol, along with full title and artist indexes.  Who could ask for anything more?

The individual entries are fairly comprehensive, containing cylinder number, release date, source of the recording (original recording, disc master, wax Amberol), recording date, principal artist, accompaniment, title, and composers.  The accuracy of entries appears to be good, which is not surprising given that a great deal of documentation on Edison’s activities survives in the form of catalogs, trade paper listings and company files.

What’s missing?  Not much, although the artist identification is pretty basic, usually consisting of the principal artist only with no information on back-up personnel, band members or the instrumentation of ensembles (actual or estimated).  For example the first entry, for no. 1501, identifies the artist as the “American Standard Orchestra,” with no information on the conductor, composition of the group or possible soloists (is that Marshall Lufsky playing the flute solo at the end, I wonder?).  Nor do the main listings indicate the type of performance.  For that you have to refer to the artist index (for example if you happen to stumble on “La Chanson des Nids” by Giammatteo and Brissett on no. 4205, you’ll have to go to the index, and do some searching, to determine that it’s a clarinet duet).  The members of vocal groups are summarized in an appendix at the end, but not identified for individual titles.  The contents of most medleys are enumerated (and indexed too!), although the contents of minstrel records are not.

It may be that much of this information was not readily available to the author at the present time.  He apologizes for the omission of some detail (including take numbers, alternate versions and some recording dates), explaining that the closure of the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey, for renovations has made company files temporarily inaccessible.  Hopefully additional information will be included in future editions.  In the meantime readers are referred to such works as Brian Rust’s Jazz Records and Tony Russell’s Country Music Records for some of the missing detail.

I do not mean to dwell on what isn’t here, because what is in the book represents a considerable advance over what we’ve had previously.  The book is well organized, easy to use, and sensibly priced, and can be unequivocally recommended to anyone interested in Blue Amberol cylinders.

Incidentally, many of these cylinders can be heard over the Internet on the new website of the University of California-Santa Barbara collection, at http://cylinders.library.ucsb.edu.  The website contains links to other sites which also make available early recordings on the web.


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