Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) is the most celebrated singer in history.
Artistically, the Italian tenor's career represented a watershed
in the evolution of vocal art and his voice remains a beacon against
which singers of past and present are most often compared. On a
personal level, Caruso was a man of the people. He exhibited few
if any of the airs and graces associated with many of his contemporaries
and which, by comparison, are faintly mimicked by the divos and
divas of more recent times.
Caruso's dynamic career and his truly remarkable influence on opera
and song are well documented in the printed word. And, something
of his colorful personality has been captured in countless photographs,
newsreels and two silent films. More importantly, his great legacy
survives in his many studio recordings, the earliest of which have
remained available in one form or another for a staggering one hundred
years! In this age of "manufactured" obsolescence and
passing fancies his is an accomplishment that cannot and will not
be matched nor repeated.
Caruso's recordings have been exhaustively researched and studied,
more so than any other singer in the history of recorded sound:
Caiden ; Drummond ; Brunn ; Secrist ; Freestone
& Drummond [I960]; Favia-Artsay ; Bolig [1973, 2002];
Sokol ; Moran .
John Bolig's Caruso Records: A
History and Discography [Denver, CO: Mainspring Press, 2002]
is the latest "chapter" in what might be reasonably described
as "a work in progress". Given the academic interest in
the years since the singer's death in 1921, coupled with this particular
author's own tenacity - this will be his second published discography
on Caruso in 30 years - it would seem prudent to opinion that this
most recent endeavor may not necessarily be the last word on the
subject. Unquestionably, it is by far the most comprehensive work
to date, building as it does on the author's 50 years-plus of inquiry
and research and the Herculean efforts of those that have published
Not coincidentally, the history of researching and documenting the
recorded legacy of Enrico Caruso parallels the evolution of discography.
Following is an interview with John Bolig conducted by editor of
the ARSC Journal Barry R. Ashpole. The author's new work
and discography in general are discussed.
Where and when did your search for Enrico Caruso's recordings begin?
The reissues in RCA Victor's red vinyl Heritage Series were my first
exposure to the voice of Caruso and I realized immediately that
I was listening to something very important and very good. This
would have been in the late 1940s and I soon discovered that copies
of the tenor's recordings on the original shellac 78-rpm discs were
still readily available.
At the time, I was living in New Haven, CT, and came to realize
that the current RCA Victor catalogs did not necessarily list all
of the recordings by the tenor. I began writing letters to the company
in search of information on titles and quickly discovered that even
RCA Victor did not have a comprehensive list of Caruso's recorded
The first discography I came across was compiled by Jack Caiden
and published in 1946 as an appendix to Dorothy Caruso's book Enrico
Caruso, His Life and Death. It listed 234 recordings. [Editor's
note: H.J. Drummond compiled the discography included in
the U.K. edition.]
In the early 1950s, RCA began releasing many of Caruso's recordings
on 45 and 33 1/3-rpm long playing records. I bought them all, but
they did not sound right. They had been altered or enhanced in some
way and what I heard bothered me. I vastly preferred the original
78s and was determined to acquire every record listed by Caiden.
I was able to add pressings by HMV and Opera Disc to my collection,
none of which were listed in Caiden's discography.
In 1957, John Secrist compiled what was (at the time) the definitive
Caruso discography and it was published as part of Francis Robinson's
Caruso, His Life in Pictures. Secrist listed 266 titles;
each identified unreleased takes. It was evident that Caruso had
made about 490 recordings in all and I was intrigued about the records
that had not been published. I again wrote to RCA Victor and, after
several years of correspondence, I was invited to meet with John
Pfieffer, who at the time was responsible for the reissue of Caruso's
recordings. He gave me access to the company's logbooks, and from
that day on I was granted carte blanche to access the documents
and RCA didn't have to answer my letters anymore.
From a collector's perspective, what are you looking for in a discography?
A discography should meet minimum standards. It should be complete,
each recording treated as a separate entity. The title listed should
be cross-referenced to show alternate catalog numbers. Anything
else listed in the primary logbooks should be included. I probably
wrote twenty different drafts of my first Caruso discography, each
one intended to make my life as a collector easier.
I received a great deal of encouragement from Larry Witten, the
benefactor who helped create the Historical Sound Recordings section
of the Yale University Music Library. He reviewed some of the early
drafts of my first Caruso discography and when he donated his collection
to Yale he invited me to assist the library staff in shelving the
I was amazed to find that Yale had no inventory of its phonograph
records. At the time there were no such things. We simply opened
boxes and crates and put records on shelves, and we taught ourselves
how to establish a major collection. I learned more in two years
as a volunteer than one can possibly imagine. Mr. Witten rewarded
my efforts by giving me copies of Caruso records I needed for my
What prompted publication of your first Caruso discography?
In 1970, I moved to Dover, DE, and discovered a museum only blocks
away from where I lived that was dedicated to the career of Eldridge
Reeves Johnson (industry pioneer and founding president of The Victor
Talking Machine Company). I became acquainted with the curator,
Mary Molek, and she implored me to publish a book about Caruso's
records. The Recordings of Enrico Caruso was published
in 1973 (the centennial of the tenor's birth).
This first discography was a chronological listing of 496 records,
cross-referenced, listing playing speeds, recording dates and considerably
more information than had been published before. It was the first
discography of its type and, despite some minor flaws, it remains
a useful reference tool.
The Recordings of Enrico Caruso
included many features adopted by later researchers and, as such,
is something of a benchmark in this field of research. But how did
this discography differ from earlier efforts to document the tenor's
Freestone and Drummond's Enrico Caruso: His Recorded Legacy
(1960) and Favia-Artsay's Caruso on Records (1965) list
and discuss Caruso's published recordings. Each has been long out
of print and neither of them is complete. More Caruso recordings
have been discovered and released since these books were first published.
I do not have the musical knowledge that those people had and it
is interesting to read their accounts of what they hear on each
record. They frequently disagree and each had strong opinions about
various recordings. Importantly, the authors had heard Caruso in
performance, so they had some idea of what was missing from the
Favia-Artsay, in particular, made an amazing contribution, listing
the correct playing speed for each recording. Using sheet music
and opera scores, she pitched each record and determined the rpm
required to play back the record accurately. She single-handedly
forced collectors to buy variable speed record players. [Editor's
note: Caruso on Records included a pair of disc
stroboscopes to help set phonograph turntables at the proper speeds:
60 cps and 50cps for use, respectively, in the USA and abroad.]
When new Caruso recordings were discovered I begged her to revise
her book, but she refused because she felt that the tenor had never
approved of the unpublished copies. Aida could pitch LP records,
but she refused to do so.
of Caruso's place in the history of vocal art and of his attraction
as a person and as an artist?
This must be decided by others. Anybody who has heard a Caruso record
seems to have an instant realization that there was something very
special about his singing. He doesn't sound like a tenor, but he
surely is. The range of material that he recorded is rarely attempted
by lesser tenors. He used several different voices when he recorded,
and this can best be heard when listening to his duets and ensemble
Caruso could roar like a lion or purr like a kitten. The recording
technique used during his lifetime was of decidedly low fidelity.
And, regrettably, we have no idea how he really sounded in a live
There was a magic moment in the history of recorded sound and it
is sometimes exaggerated or its significance may be lost on today's
listeners. In 1902 there were two competing record formats - cylinders
and discs - and the public had not decided which it preferred. The
record catalogs in 1902 contained very few records, and even fewer
by celebrities. There was very little public demand for record players,
but the industry was on the verge of being able to reliably reproduce
sound and of mass-producing records.
Caruso's first ten records were offered for sale in the summer
of 1902, they created a sensation and a demand for record players.
The public decided against cylinder records in favor of the disc
format. The Caruso records were so good that they actually sounded
like music when played.
Caruso became a celebrity and he was very much in demand for public
performance. Other artists, many of whom had refused to record,
changed their minds and signed contracts with recording companies.
And, as a consequence, became more famous, but none as famous
or as popular as Caruso.
The tenor's voice recorded well. He had a gift and the recording
horn was very kind to him.
are several biographies and, as noted, almost an equal number
of discographies on Caruso. So, why write another book about the
tenor and his recordings?
The answer is quite simple. Allan Sutton, the publisher at Mainspring
Press, had a rudimentary Caruso discography on his web site and
it received more "hits" than anything else he had listed
at the time. He contacted me and since I had continued my research
there was more information to add to the 1973 discography, hence
the new book.
(In Caruso Records: A History and Discography, the
author includes more topics related to the tenor's recordings
and, as a consequence, it consists of considerably more text than
the earlier published edition. The basic discography is similar
to the 1973 version, but includes listings of additional 78s not
known at that time. The author also takes the opportunity to correct
errors in spelling and to add dates previously overlooked.
also comments on records that were not recorded at score pitch,
something that Favia-Artsay may not have suspected, points out
the author. His personal bias against 45 and 33-1/3-rpm long-playing
records is reflected by their absence, for which Bolig makes no
apology. He comments: "In my view, there isn't one record
in those formats worth owning. I am, however, very comfortable
with the restorations that were released on CD by Ward Marston.
He's done this work twice: the Pearl set released in the early
1990s is outstanding, and the set he is currently working on for
Naxos is even better."
are some excellent Victor artists who have never been studied properly.
Emilio De Gogorza, Marcel Journet, Geraldine Farrar, Louise Homer
and Alma Gluck come to mind. They sold a great many records and
they had thousands of devoted fans. In my view, the work that has
been done on their behalf has been scarce and disappointing. I recently
saw a Gluck discography that was a nice but long overdue contribution
to the literature.
The new discography is extensively cross-referenced in several
indexes: titles, catalog numbers, double-sided couplings, listing
of artists who appeared on the recording, etc. There are several
other tables that contain breakdowns by year and by type of material
recorded, and there is an extensive listing of release dates and
catalogs listings for the Victor records. Bolig also notes examples
of records that had errors on the original labels, e.g.,
the Madama Butterfly duet with Geraldine Farrar is always
listed as "O quanti occhi fisi," but she never sang
the phrase on the recording.
The listing of catalog numbers in Victor catalogs is noteworthy
because it indicates that some of Caruso records were deleted
after a comparatively short life, accounting in part for the scarcity
today of some titles.
Bolig discusses the re-recordings or "re-creations"
of some of Caruso's recordings with a full orchestra. Selected
listings of sheet music are included in the book, together with
comments on Caruso's film appearances and a short discussion about
the recordings of the tenor's children, daughter, Gloria, and
son, Enrico Jr.)
You made one significant and unexpected discovery while working
on The Gramophone & Typewriter Company (G&T) records.
A collector called to tell me that he had a copy of 52378 that
appeared different from mine and he wondered if there were two
takes released of the record in question, "Germania: Studenti,
udite." We met and compared our respective copies. My copy
had "Repro" impressed into the record surface; his did
The recordings were one in the same except for that difference.
His was a first edition, mine a stamper II second edition pressing.
I contacted a number of collectors and dealers inquiring about
markings on G&Ts. Some had quite a few copies in their collections
or inventories and a pattern emerged as I wrote down what they
told me. Quite a few of the G&Ts had the letters "CO."
impressed to the right of the label, but none of them had the
symbol on first stamper pressings. I contacted Peter Martland
in England, an expert on the business of the G&T company,
and he mentioned that he recalled a note - "somewhere"
- that G&T had placed the symbol on records that were made
from copied stampers. But, it was not possible to copy stampers
in 1902! The original wax disc was processed into a stamper and
the wax was destroyed when that was done. When the one and only
stamper was damaged or worn out the artist was usually asked to
return to the studio to make a new version.
The first ten Caruso records (recorded in Milan in April 1902)
were selling so well that G&T figured out a solution to their
problem: it appears they pressed the now-worn stampers into wax
and made a fresh impression of each of them. From the new impressions,
the company made a new stamper. And, as a consequence, the recordings
marked as stamper II (or higher) do not sound nearly as good as
first edition pressings.
There is no other explanation that explains how G&T continued
to press Caruso records. Those marked "CO." confirm
that something of that nature had been done because, in all other
respects, the latter are identical to the first edition pressings.
In other words, the records were not transcribed, they were not
pantographed, nor was a new stamper made by electroplating a shellac
The five-step process developed by Victor was introduced in Europe
in December 1902 and with that process it was possible to make
virtually an infinite number of duplicate stampers. However, it
arrived too late to preserve the first Caruso G&T records
in pristine condition.
Do any questions remain unanswered?
There are a few. I have not speculated about what private recordings
Caruso may have made or commented on the hoards of Victor test
pressings that have been rumored from time to time. There are,
however, two unusual references found in the EMI archives that
indicate that Caruso may have made records in London in 1908.
And, several years ago, I discovered a letter in John Secrist's
papers at the Library of Congress in which Frances Alda mentions
that she had two copies of the Carmen duet with Caruso.
One of the two records was in Secrist's collection when he died,
but what of the other copy? I mentioned my suspicion to a collector
who knew Alda's heirs and he followed the lead for several years
until they sold him the soprano's record collection. The second
duet was there and it will be released by Naxos as part of the
new Marston edition.
There have been many rumors that the Farrar/Caruso duets from
Tosca exist. Not true, to the best of my knowledge. I
own half of her record collection and another collector bought
the other half. There were dozens of test pressings in her collection,
but none of them were duets with Caruso.
Any further gaps in information?
A number of Caruso's G&Ts and Victor recordings were pressed
in Russia during the communist era. I have never seen a complete
list and I have only a handful of the Russian pressings. I have
no idea how many they may have published, or where they got the
Is it reasonable to expect that collectors will ever see a complete
Since publication of Caruso Records, I have learned that
B.G. Royal, not Will Gaisberg, recorded four of the November 1902
recordings. The recordings with "-R" embossed next to
the matrix number were his. This is just one example of new information
coming to light "after the fact".
I have also heard from a number of collectors who have Zonofono
records that were pressed by G&T with copied stampers! The
whole issue of copied stampers fascinates me. We know that G&T
had the Zonofono stampers and that they used them for several
years, but it never crossed my mind that the company would make
copies of the stampers. The Zonofonos are marked with the symbol
"CO" at the 9 o'clock position next to the label. Furthermore,
several other G&T records, by Caruso and other artists, have
been reported with this mark.
And, a record I bought recently is a 1903 pressing by the Victor
Talking Machine Company that is labeled as Gioconda: Cielo
e mar. The catalogue number on the label is 81008, and that number
is also embossed above the label. Also embossed above the label
is catalogue number 5008, and the matrix number 2873-R is inscribed
below the label.
The number 5008 was originally assigned to Aida: Celeste
Aida when Victor imported G&T stampers early in 1903. When
the company renumbered the 5000 series later that year it continued
to show the earlier number above the label. Celeste Ai'da was
assigned 91007, and Cielo e mar was assigned 91008. This record,
which has an incorrect label and the incorrect catalog number
embossed above the label, is Celeste Aida! On later pressings
of Celeste Aida the embossed catalog number 91007 has been repaired,
and the first catalog number - 5008 - has been deleted from the
One can only wonder how many copies of this record with two major
errors were ever sold. If Victor files are accurate, only 996
copies of 91008, Cielo e mar, were stamped, but at least one copy
was actually another recording.
In considering discography in general, what are some of the obstacles
or barriers still facing researchers today?
Not many, if one is willing to travel and to work in musty old
libraries. Victor's archives are not as well preserved as those
of EMI, but both companies are taking discography seriously today.
That was not true thirty years ago. And, there are some collectors
who are so generous that one cannot begin to thank them. There
are a few who disappoint me, but they remain the exception.
One of the finer hours for Caruso collectors was the research
of Martin Sokol that established the recording sequences for the
AICC and Zonofono records. [Editor's note: See
"The 'Pre-Victor' Recordings of Enrico Caruso," Antique
Phonograph Monthly 1977;5(4):3-12.] Martin's work rendered
my 1973 discography somewhat obsolete because I had relied on
earlier authorities that were wrong.
Another excellent contribution was that of Peter Martland. He
totally revised, and debunked, the importance of Fred Gaisberg
in Caruso's career. [Editor's note: See "Caruso's
First Recordings: Myth and Reality" ARSC Journal
1994;26(2):193-201.] Martland wrote about, and provided proof,
of every aspect of the Caruso G&T sessions in April and November
of 1902, and he also forwarded copies of the tenor's Victor contracts
The Internet has sped up the exchange of information and the resolution
of differences between collectors and discographers. Work that
would take months now takes hours. For example, I'm currently
working on another project to compile listings of Victor records
between 1900 and 1929, and I received documentation from several
collectors in South America that would have been impossible 25
Any general comments about the quality of discographical work
I'm not always pleased with the effort expended by some discographers.
In fact, I am embarrassed by some of the hyperbole expressed by
some of them. I greatly admire Caruso, but I refuse to believe
that he was perfect or that I have the right to call him by his
good restorations of the above artists' recordings is often nearly
impossible. If they had been obscure artists of secondary importance
I would understand why so little work has been done with those
singers, but they were top-of-the-line Victor artists.
are some discographers whose work intrigues me. I have never met
Brian Rust, Alan Kelly or Bill Moran, but I find their work invaluable.
Rust's attention to detail is outstanding, but I wish he had indexed
things more. Kelly's research is remarkable because he has to
piece together information from so many different sources. My
greatest regret is that the work of Fagan and Moran has not been
completed. Another fine example of discography is Dick Spottswood's
opus on ethnic records.
Of the single artist discographies, the McCormack book by Worth
and Cartwright is outstanding. There are so many good discographies
that I hate to single out one or two. Once in a while I'm totally
disappointed. For example, the recent Billy Murray discography
was a worthwhile undertaking that simply does not meet the test
of good discography. And, there is a listing on 78s by several
record companies on the Internet that is very one-dimensional;
merely a "good start" in my estimation.
Caruso was probably one of the first artists whose recorded work
demanded a discographical effort. And, there are some replications
that aren't very good. I participated in one of them when I wrote
a severely truncated discography that was included in Michael
Scott's The Great Caruso. Bill Moran published one in
which the European records were listed chronologically, but the
Victor records are listed alphabetically. Sometimes these things
are done because of limitations placed on us by publishers, for
example, to fit the last few pages of a biography, but they aren't
particularly useful and they deserve bad reviews.
I admire The Record Collector and my only criticism of
this publication is that some of their featured artists were not
at all important, and that the authors sometimes get carried away
in their estimations of their hero's true value. There has to
be a measure of objectivity for these things to be done properly.
I surmise that my optimism concerning the evolution of discography
can be detected from the above comments, but it seems that for
every two steps forward we take one backward. There are excellent
models of good discographies and researchers should attempt to
emulate the best rather than rush into print.
There will be criticism of some aspects of my current book and
I'm not going to be thrilled by that, but I worked hard to produce
a discography that would be useful to collectors of Caruso's records
in their original format. I also tried to provide information
of interest to people who are curious about his development as
an artist and to those interested in some aspects of the record
industry. People who collected LPs will be disappointed. They
can throw them all away and buy the Naxos CDs produced by Ward
Marston. I did.