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John Fletcher:
From Sousa's Band to Black Swan, and Beyond

Fletcher Record Company's Olympic record label

John Fletcher isn't a name normally bandied about in discussions of recording industry pioneers. Compared to Edison or Berliner, his contributions were negligible, and his involvement with Black Swan almost certainly contributed to that label's demise. Yet, he was typical of many entrepreneurs who challenged the major players during the record industry's early boom years and, in doing so, produced some interesting records.

Fletcher began his career as a professional musician and first recorded as a member of the Edison studio orchestra in the late 1890s. In a July 1918 interview with the Talking Machine World, Fletcher recalled, "My first phonographic experience was as a player in the old Edison cylinder laboratory in Orange, N.J., when you had to get up at 5 o'clock in the morning, be on the job, in your chair, and ready to play at 8 o'clock."

Fletcher moved on to Sousa's Band as a cornetist around 1900 and is almost certainly the "__Fletcher" cited in the collective band personnel in early editions of Brian Rust's Jazz Records. (Rust inexplicably dropped Fletcher's name from editions 4 and 5, but it has now been restored to its rightful place in Mainspring's newly revised edition, Jazz and Ragtime Records). Fletcher recorded with the Sousa group for Victor and later recalled, "the band was engaged for three weeks to make records for the Victor Company. At the time, the company's laboratory consisted of a small room on the third floor in a building in the neighborhood of Tenth and Lombard streets, Philadelphia, and it was in this small room that I got my first insight into the mysteries of sound recording."

Fletcher toured Europe with Sousa's Band, then joined the New York Symphony Orchestra upon his return to the States, but his growing interest in sound recording soon eclipsed his musical aspirations. "During this time," he told TMW, "I realized how imperfect were the methods then in vogue to record symphonic music with a few instruments, and I finally resolved to devote my future career to recording the various instruments comprising the grand orchestra, in sufficient numbers to produce the musical sensation caused by the combined tonality of such a large number of instruments."

Fletcher eventually left the symphony and began to experiment with recording processes, finally devising a fine-groove vertical cut playable with an ordinary steel needle. Fletcher's patent application claimed his invention produced a record that "has been found to be extremely durable in use," a claim not supported by many of the surviving specimens. By the time patent #1,269,696 was finally was granted on the process in mid-1918, Fletcher had abandoned it.

The Birth of Operaphone
In 1914, Fletcher, in partnership with George Thomas, founded the Operaphone Manufacturing Corporation of New York. A trademark application, filed belatedly by Fletcher on September 13, 1919, claimed use of the Operaphone name on records beginning March 1, 1915. The new corporation opened an office at 200 Fifth Avenue, New York, a studio at an unknown New York location, and a pressing plant at Creek and Meadow Streets in Long Island City, New York. Despite its name and Fletcher's lofty ambitions, the Operaphone label featured primarily popular and light classical fare by the usual New York-area studio free-lance performers.

Operaphone initially produced seven-inch fine-groove vertically discs bearing paint-filled pressed labels and retailing for 25¢ each. By Fletcher's own account, this was a short-lived series, and the company quickly abandoned it in favor of eight-inch pressings selling for 35¢, again with pressed labels. Fletcher used the same groove pitch as Edison, but if he was hoping to promote his discs for use on the Edison Diamond Disc machines, he was quickly disappointed. The heavy Edison reproducer ground Fletcher's soft shellac pressings into gray oblivion in short order.

Fletcher erred further by coupling dissimilar material on his earliest releases - backing a current vaudeville hit with a concert band selection, for example - the same mistake Columbia had come to regret several years earlier. By September 1916 Fletcher acknowledged his error and announced that Operaphone would seek more compatible couplings on future releases.

In August 1916, the company announced with some fanfare that it was replacing its homely pressed labels with paper labels and noted that production at the Operaphone pressing plant had tripled in eight months. Fletcher also entered the client-label market, pressing 8" Operaphone discs under an array of custom labels that included All Star, Elginola, and the earliest Crescent and Domestic series. He soon arranged Canadian distribution for Operaphone through the Canadian Phonograph Company of Toronto.

In the end, however, the eight-inch Operaphone disc failed to win favor with the public. Despite Fletcher's claims of technical superiority, the discs were weakly recorded, and the fine groove was prone to mistracking and premature wear. In his 1918 TMW interview, Fletcher stated that he produced 200 eight-inch releases before abandoning the effort, which "incurred tremendous expenses with returns that were hardly commensurate."

Fletcher Reorganizes Operaphone
In April 1918, Fletcher reorganized his company as the Operaphone Company, Inc., closed the studio, and moved his offices to the Depew Building (489 Fifth Avenue, New York). The first Operaphone discs issued under the new company's auspices were a obvious departure from the earlier series: standard ten-inch steel-needle vertical-cut discs using a normal-width groove. Less obvious was the fact that Fletcher had gotten out of the recording business, at least temporarily.

1918 Operaphone advertisement
A 1918 advertisement for the steel-needle series

With his studio closed, Fletcher turned for his material to Pathé, which at that time recorded its masters on oversized cylinders. The cylinders could then be dubbed in various disc formats by means of the pantograph, a mechanical transcribing device that introduced the characteristic rumbling and clanking heard on acoustic Pathé products. All known releases in these series duplicated material on Pathé's sapphire discs, although artists were usually disguised by pseudonyms and the discs bore no physical resemblance to their Pathé counterparts. The series seems to have sold poorly and is fairly rare today.

In conjunction with his new series, Fletcher announced that he was "planning to devote more time to...the recording of the entire symphonic repertoire." In fact, Fletcher had issued only overly familiar symphonic snippets to that point and was no longer selecting repertoire, since he was simply leasing existing Pathé material. His plan was never put into action.

Operaphone records, transcribed from Pathe masters
The short-lived steel-needle series of 1918 (left). It was replaced in 1919 by the more common universal-cut series (right), which survived until the end of 1920. Both series were pressed from transcribed Pathé masters.

A final Operaphone series appeared in 1919. Fletcher again turned to Pathé for his material, but this time the masters were transcribed in the universal-cut format under the Smallwood patent (#639,452), which had been bought and slightly refined by Victor Emerson. The universal cut was an attempt to combine a lateral and vertical groove into a format that would play on any type of phonograph.

As with the previous Operaphone series, all known issues duplicated material on Pathé sapphire discs, although many employed artist pseudonyms. The records were also pressed under various minor labels, including Empire and World. Assuming that Fletcher was paying royalties to Pathé for masters and to Emerson for use of the universal cut, his profit margin on this last series must have been slim indeed.

The Operaphone-Olympic Transition
Operaphone's disappearance coincides neatly with Pathé's entry into the lateral-cut market with its own Actuelle brand. The last known Operaphone discs were advertised in December 1920, and in early 1921 John Fletcher arranged to sell the idle Operaphone plant to a new venture, the Olympic Disc Record Corporation. Fletcher was retained by the new company in an unspecified "executive capacity," according to the Talking Machine World, which announced Olympic's formation in March 1921. The same publication advertised Olympic's first releases on the following April 15.

Olympic got off to an unsteady start as a subsidiary of the Remington Phonograph Corporation. Philo E. Remington, president of the company and grandson of the founder of the Remington firearms and typewriter companies, apparently had plans to produce records prior to Olympic's creation. On July 20, 1920, he filed a trademark application for the Reminola brand. Although Remington's trademark application claimed use on records since May 5, 1920, no evidence has been found that the label was produced commercially.

For the new label, Fletcher was once again in charge of a studio, and from the start he repeated past mistakes. Although Olympic was marketed as a premium-priced label, it offered primarily bland pop and light classical fare by the usual studio freelancers. A short-lived opera series, with plot synopses printed on the labels, featured such lesser lights as Regina Viccarino and Henrietta Wakefield, and at one point Broadway star Greek Evans was pressed into service as an operatic baritone. Technical quality was mediocre at best, and with few stars on its roster, Olympic could not compete with Columbia, Victor, and other comparably priced labels.

The last records released under the Olympic Disc Record Corporation name appeared shortly before the parent Remington Phonograph Corporation failed in December 1921. Philo Remington attempted to reorganize as the Remington Radio Corporation in 1922 but suspended operations after being indicted for stock fraud.

Black Swan and the Fletcher Record Company
Fletcher soon attempted to regain control of the Olympic operation. In April 1922, he purchased Olympic's trademark, masters, and facilities in partnership with Harry Pace, a pioneer black record producer. Pace had introduced his Black Swan label in 1921 and had sought out independent pressing plants, including Olympic, where his business had been flatly rejected by Remington.

With Remington now out of the picture, Pace approached Fletcher, and the two acquired the idled Olympic facilities in Long Island City to form the Fletcher Record Company, Inc. In a teaming of black and white businessmen unprecedented for its day, Fletcher served as president, Pace as vice president and treasurer. Initially, the new company served only as a studio and pressing plant for Black Swan. Under the Fletcher-Pace partnership, Fletcher oversaw physical production of Black Swan, while Pace continued to determine artists and repertoire.

On July 15, 1922, the Talking Machine World announced, "There is some likelihood that in the early fall, Mr. Fletcher will revive the Olympic label." A new series of Olympic discs did indeed appear in the autumn of 1922, under the Fletcher Record Company imprint. Numbered in 1400 (dance) and 1500 (vocal) series, these Olympics featured newly recorded material as well as reissues of older Olympic masters, many of which Fletcher also licensed to Banner, Majestic, Melody, La Belle, Oriole, Phantasie Concert Record, and other minor brands. Fletcher also produced the short-lived Arthur Fields Melody Record, a custom label that recording star Fields attempted, without much success, to market through his Arthur Fields Song Shop.

By mid-1922, Fletcher's hand was beginning to show in the Black Swan operation. Pace, who in 1921 had pledged to employ only black talent, began to reissue material from the all-white Olympic catalog on Black Swan. Olympic's telltale catalog numbers remained clearly visible in the wax. Performances by white band leaders Sam Lanin, Rudy Weidoeft, and Irving Weiss were credited to Fletcher Henderson (Pace's musical director) or were issued under other pseudonyms. White freelance vocalists (including Al Bernard, Charles Hart, Aileen Stanley, and Arthur Hall, as well as whistler Margaret McKee) were also represented under assumed names. Perhaps the most blatantly misleading issues were those credited to Ethel Waters' Jazz Masters, which were actually the work of several different white novelty trios. It was a cynical approach, unworthy of Pace (although not uncharacteristic of Fletcher), and a bad miscalculation at a time when Okeh, Paramount, and Columbia were developing strong race-record catalogs with authentic black talent.

By early 1923 Pace was nearly bankrupt. Black Swan suspended operations in July of that year, depriving Fletcher of a major portion of his pressing business. The Olympic label stumbled along through the end of 1923, failing to make any inroads into an already glutted market. The last Olympic discs issued under the Fletcher Record Company imprint appeared in December 1923, the month in which John Fletcher declared bankruptcy.

A Final Failure in Chicago
Fletcher made a final attempt to revive his ill-fated label in Chicago in 1924. The Capitol Roll & Record Company, successor to the Columbia Music Roll Company of Chicago, was organized in or around July 1924 and found a ready-made source of masters and expertise in John Fletcher. Under the new corporate structure, announced in the Talking Machine World for August 15, 1924, piano roll production was to be managed by L. M. Severson of the Operators' Piano Company, while record production was to be supervised by Fletcher.

Supertone record produced for Sears, Roebuck by John Fletcher
A rare Fletcher-produced Supertone. This issue used masters newly recorded in Chicago for Capitol Roll & Record, but many others simply recycled Fletcher's old New York Olympic material.

With Fletcher came rights to the Olympic trademark and masters. According to TMW, "Olympic records are now [August 1924] being produced in the fine modern plant at Kedzie and Chicago avenues, and the first bulletin will be issued in September." But the new Olympic bulletin did not appear until November, and even with the delay, TMW noted, "This is in effect a small catalog and covers about 100 selections."

That disappointing start aside, TMW reported, the new studio was "quite busy of late." Fletcher had already made some tentative master swaps with Paramount and obtained contracts to press the Supertone label for Sears, along with several other short-lived custom labels. Nevertheless, the November 1924 catalog was Olympic's last, and by early 1925 Chicago had seen the last of Olympic's final incarnation.

References
"Announces Olympic Records." Talking Machine World (11/15/1924)
"Arthur Fields Song Shop Opened." Talking Machine World (1/15/1923)
"Fields Song Shop Bankrupt." Talking Machine World (9/15/1923)
Fletcher, John: "Sound Record." U.S. Patent Office: Patent #1,269,696 (assigned to Operaphone Manufacturing Corp., New York)
"John Fletcher, General Manager of the Operaphone Co., Has Had Interesting Experiences in the Musical and Recording Worlds." Talking Machine World (7/15/1918)
Kendziora, Carl, and Armanac, Perry: "The Labels Behind Black Swan." Record Research 221/222 (4/1986)
"Now the Fletcher Record Company - Plant of Olympic Disc Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will Be Operated by a New Corporation." Talking Machine World (7/15/1922)
Operaphone Co.: "Operaphone." U.S. Patent Office: Trademark application #122,654 (filed 9/13/1919)
"Purchase Black Swan Business." Talking Machine World (4/15/1924)
"Receiver for the Fletcher Record Co." Talking Machine World (12/15/1923)
Thygesen, Helge, Mark Berresford, and Russ Shor. Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottinghman, UK: VJM Publications, 1996.
"To Make Records and Rolls." Talking Machine World (8/15/1924)
"To Revise Operaphone Catalog - All Operaphone Records to Bear Two Selections of the Same Type." Talking Machine World (9/15/1916)


Site © 2004 by Mainspring Press. Article © 2001 by Allan R. Sutton. Label photos © 2000 by Kurt R. Nauck III. All rights reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without prior written consent of the copyright holder(s).