American Recording Pioneers
John S. Macdonald — known to
millions of record buyers as “Harry Macdonough” — was
among the best-selling and most prolific studio singers of the acoustic
era. What those customers did not know was that “Macdonough”
was the alias of an important Victor
Talking Machine Company manager, and later executive, for whom singing
was largely a sideline.
S. Macdonald’s signature appeared on countless Victor documents
Macdonald’s first documented
recording session was a test engagement for Edison
on October 17, 1898. Supposedly at the urging of Edison studio manager
Walter Miller, Macdonald took the pseudonym of “Harry Macdonough,”
apparently unaware that he was appropriating the name of a popular New
York musical comedy star. Once the problem was discovered, Macdonald sent
a letter of apology to his namesake, yet he continued to use the name.
1 The fact that neither Miller nor Macdonald
was aware of a star of the real Macdonough’s magnitude 2
reflects the cultural vacuum in which the early record companies sometimes
seemed to operate.
writeup from the 1922 Victor catalog. By then, Macdonald had been retired
Although Macdonald went on to become one of Victor’s best-selling artists, he soon came to live a double life at that company, serving at first as an assistant studio manager, the working his way up the corporate ladder to the executive level. The two aspects of his career were kept carefully separated. Record catalogs never let on that “Harry Macdonough” was an alias for a high-ranking Victor staffer, while the trade papers only rarely alluded to the fact that John S. Macdonald also happened to be one of Victor’s best-selling singers.
Even more so than Billy Murray, who often split his time among other companies, Macdonald was Victor’s studio workhorse. In addition to his vast output of credited solos and duets, Macdonald sang on countless releases by the Lyric Trio, Lyric Quartet, Orpheus Quartet, and other Victor house groups, for which he received no label credit. The Victor files document his participation in 147 of the Victor Light Opera Company’s “Gems from...” sides, and aural evidence suggests he is on many other early VLOC sides for which exact personnel were not logged. Macdonough apparently took on any role demanded of him, up to and including brand opera; when Victor needed an inexpensive Lucia “Sextet” for its new purple-label line, for example, Macdonald was drafted to sing the tenor part in English. He can be heard on several dozen of Victor’s prestigious Red Seal releases, albeit uncredited, singing in the choruses backing John McCormack, Frances Alda, and other stellar artists. 3
Singing, however, would prove to be a sideline
for Macdonald. Reports in the early phonograph trade papers state the
he began working as a Victor studio manager as early as 1901–02.
This date cannot be verified and is highly questionable, given that Macdonald
was still recording for Edison as late as 1906–07. Like other companies,
Victor closely guarded its business and trade secrets, and it seems improbable
that the company would have put Macdonald in a position of such trust
while he was still working for a competitor. However, his name did
appear on Victor’s New York studio letterhead by 1910, initially
as assistant to Calvin Child. 4 By the
mid-1910s, Macdonald was the New York studio’s full-fledged manager.
letterhead from Victor’s New York studio, showing Macdonald as second-in-command
Macdonald shouldered considerable responsibility as the manager of Victor’s New York studio. In addition to scheduling and managing Victor’s artists and overseeing the recording sessions, he assisted in making artist-and-repertoire decisions and was involved in sometimes-delicate artist contract negotiations. For fifteen years, his signature appeared as Victor’s witness on the contracts of artists ranging from Billy Murray to Enrico Caruso. Poised and articulate, Macdonald became one of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s favored spokesmen, often serving as the company’s contact person for influential trade papers like The Talking Machine World.
Macdonald was not the only Victor performer to be employed by the company in other capacities. Samuel H. Rous, one of Macdonald’s studio cohorts from the earliest days of the company, worked for many years in Victor’s catalog department. He was the first editor of The Victor Book of the Opera—certainly a career leap for someone who until then was best known for his stereotypical minstrel-show and “coon songs” records issued under the alias of S. H. Dudley. Like Macdonald, Rous also took the name of a well-known stage star as his recording alias, and also professed ignorance of his namesake’s existence. Unlike Macdonald, there is no record of Rous having offered an apology to the wronged party, who in this case happened to be black.
By 1917, the demands of running Victor’s New York studio had become so great that Macdonald curtailed most of his recording work to concentrate on management. He still made the occasional solo or filled in with the Victor Light Opera Company or other house group, but even that meager activity came to end in 1920, when he was promoted to Victor’s national sales manager. Total sales of Macdonough’s records will never be known, but the glut of surviving copies suggests that his sales were easily on a par with those of Billy Murray and Henry Burr, two of Victor’s other black-label best-sellers.
In October 1923 Macdonald was promoted again, to director of artists and repertoire, to replace the retiring Calvin Childs, one of Victor’s founding fathers. 5 Macdonald oversaw Victor’s A&R program into the mid-1920s, staunchly upholding the company’s conservative musical standards while sidestepping the burgeoning country and race-record markets that Columbia, Okeh, and others were exploiting so successfully. Changes were coming at Victor, however.
In February 1925, Macdonald found himself with a new boss as Edward E. Shumaker, a longtime Victor executive, and a corporate director since 1920, was elected vice-president. While there are no documented instances of friction between the two, Shumaker’s progressive ideas about expanding Victor’s markets and modernizing its catalog must have been at odds with Macdonough’s very traditional approach. Then too, rumors were already circulating that Victor president Eldridge R. Johnson — in poor health and showing little enthusiasm for innovations like radio or electrical recording — was seeking a buyer for his company. Speculation was rampant that Johnson was grooming Shumaker to take over the presidency.
No doubt sensing that changes lay ahead, Macdonald resigned from the Victor Talking Machine Company in October 1925. 6 Curiously, he made his move to Columbia — at that time, a far more progressive company than Victor in catering to the race, country, and other new markets that Macdonald had so assiduously avoided. Macdonald, however, would not have to cope with those issues. Shortly after his arrival at Columbia, the A&R duties were turned over to Arthur Bergh. 7 Macdonald was assigned to the recording department, working with his old Victor crony Eddie King, and charged with “executive” duties that seem to have mostly to do with technical development. He was still employed by Columbia at the time of his death on September 26, 1931.
1 Macdonald, John S. Undated letter to Jim Walsh. Quoted in Gracyk, The Encyclopedia of Popular American Recording Pioneers (preliminary manuscript).
2 The real Harry Macdonough appeared in nearly forty New York musical comedies or revues from 1893 through 1913, having his greatest success as the star of Foxy Quiller in 1900.
3 Details of Macdonough’s extensive uncredited recordings can be found in various volumes in John Bolig’s Victor Discography Series (Mainspring Press, 2003 [ongoing]).
4 Victor Talking Machine Co. Recording Laboratory memos, 1910 (Sony-BMG archive, New York).
5 “Retirement of Calvin G. Child.” Talking Machine World (10/15/1923), p. 1.
6 “J. S. Macdonald in Charge of Columbia Recording Dept.” Talking Machine World (11/15/1923), p. 6.
Bergh worked as a house conductor for Emerson beginning in or around 1915.
By 1923 he was conducting for Okeh, and was transferred to Columbia after
it acquired that company in 1926.
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