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Odeon in America

1921 American Odeon record, using Okeh masters
If ever a label suffered from an identity crisis, it was American Odeon. During the decade that it was produced domestically, Odeon served in turn as a sister label to Okeh, a reissue vehicle for aging European operatic recordings, an ethnic and foreign- language series, and a premium-quality classical label, only to end its life in the United States as it had begun: as an offshoot of Okeh's pop series. Despite high technical and musical quality, favorable reviews, and good press coverage, Odeon 78s never achieved the popularity in the United States that it enjoyed in Europe.

Odeon's Beginnings in Europe
Odeon was the creation of the International Talking Machine Company (24 Lehderstrasse, Berlin). The company was founded by Max Strauss and Heinrich Zunz with financial backing from Frederick M. Prescott, who had recently resigned as head of the European branch of Zon-O-Phone. Carl Lindström, who would eventually develop the new company into a major force in the international recording industry, entered the picture after International purchased his small manufacturing plant. Lindström's genius lay in invention and production, not music. Max Stauss once described Lindström as "unmusical and hard of hearing," not unlike his American counterpart, Thomas Edison.

The International Talking Machine Company introduced the Odeon label in Germany in 1903, and the company lost no time in applying for a U.S. trademark. Its application, filed at the Patent Office on November 5, 1903, claimed use of the Odeon brand on 78 records since October 1 of that year. The company soon attracted attention for its double-sided pressings (marketed initially in South America) at a time when single-sided records were the industry norm.

In July 1911, Carl Lindström acquired controlling interest in the International Talking Machine Company and began to expand the company aggressively, acquiring many smaller European labels in the process. The average American, however, remained unaware of Lindström's flagship label. Although German-made Odeon records were occasionally exported to the United States on special order, there does not seem to have been any serious attempt to market the label here before the early 1920s.

The First U.S. Odeons
The first Odeon discs produced in the United States were intended solely for export to Europe. In 1904 the International Talking Machine Company established a foothold of sorts in the United States through Frederick M. Prescott's brother John O. Prescott, who (in partnership with Ellsworth Hawthorne and Horace Sheble) was acting as sales agent for the newly formed American Record Company. American produced high-quality 7-inch and 10¾-inch 78 discs (most likely recorded at or around 80-rpm), pressed in a blue shellac compound the company termed "Empedite." They were laterally cut, in violation of the basic Berliner and Jones patents.

In 1905 or 1906, American began to produce American Odeon Records for export. The 10¾-inch blue-shellac discs bore labels nearly identical to those of their domestic counterparts, complete with pipe-smoking Indian and the slogan "Music Hath Charms," but with the addition of Odeon's pictorial trademark and the legend, "Patents in All Important Countries." An April 1906 Odeon catalog, apparently issued in London, listed several dozen "Blue ‘Odeon' Duplex Records, Taken and Manufactured by our American Co." As the name suggests, all issues were double-sided. In the United States, the American Record Company issued double-sided pressings sporadically, and then only on special order.

The American Odeon Record was not destined to survive long. In 1907, the American Record Company was forced to suspended operations after a patent infringement suit brought by Columbia (American Graphophone Co. [Columbia] v. American Record Co., Court of Appeals, 2nd District) was won on appeal by Columbia. American Record Company masters were later shipped to England, where they were pressed under such minor labels as Britannic, Defiant, Pelican, and The Leader.

The Heineman Connection
n 1916, Carl Lindström attempted to enter the U.S. market through Otto Heineman, a Lindström executive. A German citizen, Heineman had been stranded in the states at the outbreak of German hostilities in 1914. With little hope of returning home soon, he established the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company in New York in December 1915.

Heineman initially showed no interest in producing records, preferring instead to concentrate on high-quality phonograph motors, parts, and needles. In 1916, however, he signed a contract with Carl Lindström under which he agreed to press European Odeon masters for distribution within the United States, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, and Cuba. The contract further stipulated that Lindström would be allowed to press and distribute Heineman's American masters in Europe.

The arrangement was premature. Heineman had yet to produce records in 1916, and the U.S. declaration of war on Germany in 1917 forced Heineman to temporarily suspend his dealings with Lindström.

When Heineman finally issued his first records in May 1918, neither Odeon's brand nor content were in evidence. Heineman instead named his new label Okeh and produced his own domestically recorded masters. Even had the war not interfered, Heineman's vertically cut masters would have been useless to Lindström in Germany, which had used the lateral cut from the start.

The American Odeon Corporation
The Lindström-Heineman collaboration finally bore fruit in late 1920 or early 1921 when a joint venture, the American Odeon Corporation of New York, made its debut as an importer and distributor of foreign-language Odeon and Fonotipia records. Under terms of the 1916 contract, Heineman would be limited to issuing "religious prayers, declamation or songs in languages other than in English and rendered vocally, as well as records of special national instruments, or special national bands characteristic of the following Eastern countries: Old Empire of Russia, China, India (including Dutch East Indies) Balkan States, and which at the time of signing of this agreement are not used in the United States and which records, as aforesaid, are sold in the regular cheap class repertoires."

Heineman must soon have found the original terms of the Lindström contract too restrictive, for in March 1921 the American Odeon Corporation launched its own domestically produced Odeon label. At first featuring standard and popular fare recorded in the Okeh studios and pressed at the General Phonograph Corporation's plant, Odeon began advertising in the trade publications in April 1921, although its listings were conspicuously absent from the Talking Machine World Advance Record Bulletins until midsummer.

American Odeon initially offered two distinct series, prefixed Od- and Am-. Its Od- prefixed series was devoted primarily to popular fare and featured much the same artist roster as Okeh, including Joseph Samuels' Music Masters, Green Brothers Novelty Band, Lanin's Roseland Orchestra, Julius Lenzberg's Harmonists, and the usual free-lance vocalists and instrumental soloists. Although the masters were recorded in the Okeh studio, they were numbered in a separate O-8000 series that seems to have been reserved for Odeon's exclusive use. However, there are documented instances of master exchanges between the two labels.

The Am- prefixed series, produced in 12- and 10¾-inch formats, featured classical and operatic material, including decade-old material from the International Talking Machine Company as well as newer masters from the rapidly growing Lindström organization. Probably to the chagrin of Victor and Columbia, Odeon legally reissued vintage material by John McCormack, Jan Kubelik, Riccardo Stracciari, and other celebrities who had since gone on to sign exclusive contracts with those companies.

The End of the American Odeon Corporation
The American Odeon Corporation undoubtedly was a redundancy within the Lindström organization, which found itself suddenly financing two companies—General Phonograph and American Odeon—in a market that was glutted with new record companies and brands.

Not surprisingly, the American Odeon Corporation would prove to be short-lived. The Talking Machine World for January 15, 1922, noted that the company had been liquidated and its vice president, Miguel Voglhut, had retired. Subsequent production of Odeon in the United States was to be handled by Heineman's General Phonograph Corporation.

1921 classical Odeon issue and the 1929 ONY- series produced by Okeh

(Left) A 1921 Am- series pressing using old John McCormack material from the International Talking Machine Company. (Right) The rare ONY- pop series of 1929-1930 made extensive use of artist pseudonyms. This issue, credited to
"Eddie Gordon's Band," is actually by Miff Mole's Little Molers.

By March 1922, General Phonograph was offering a new Fo- prefixed series of Odeon discs, pressed under license from Lindström's Societa Italiana di Fonotipia and International Talking Machine Company subsidiaries. General Phonograph took full-page ads to announce its "new" Odeon releases, which included material by John McCormack, Riccardo Stracciari, Maria Ivogun, Frieda Hempel, Herman Jadlowker, Clare Dux, Emmy Destinn, Barbara Kemp, Pasquale Amato, Alessandro Bonci, and Adamo Didur. As before, this was somewhat dated material, and judging from the rarity of many issues, it offered little competition to the major American companies that had since signed exclusive contracts with these artists.

Odeon and the Ethnic Market
March 1922 also brought the announcement that Odeon had been revamped as "The Imported Record of Quality" under the auspices of Heineman's General Phonograph Corporation. It would compete in the ethnic and foreign-language market with General Phonograph's new orange-label Okeh series. Under the new corporate structure, Odeon would operate as a division of General Phonograph under the management of A. Thallmayer, a former Columbia executive who had developed that company's thriving foreign-language record division before joining Heineman in 1920.

For the next several years, American Odeon would focus primarily on ethnic and foreign-language material, as Lindström had first planned in 1916. Odeon's parent company had a long and distinguished history in ethnic recording. As early as 1905, the International Talking Machine Company claimed to have more than 7,000 titles in Arabic, Greek, and Turkish in its catalogue, and in 1906 this claim rose to 11,000 and was expanded to include material recorded on extended tours of India and the Orient.

Much of the early American Odeon catalog drew on European masters from the Lindström chain of labels—Beka, Da Capo, Favorite, Lyrophon, Odeon, and Parlophone. Pressings often indicate master sources with a Bk- (Beka) or Od- (Odeon) prefix.

In April 1922 the Talking Machine World announced that Odeon records were being issued in Bohemian, German, Hebrew-Jewish, Hungarian, Mexican, Polish, Russian, Scandinavian, and Slovak. French, Greek, and Turkish records, TMW noted, "will be added to the library in a few weeks, bearing both [Odeon and Okeh] labels." Thallmayer reported a particular demand for Jewish and Italian material and noted, "In the Italian library, three labels are used as, in addition to the Okeh and Odeon labels, the Fonotipia library is included in this language."

Odeon, Columbia, and the Classical Market
Although still primarily an ethnic label, Odeon in 1923 introduced album sets of complete symphonic works pressed from imported masters. In October 1925 the company announced the addition of Lauritz Melchior to its roster, and the same month saw the introduction of the Odeon Library of Orchestral Works of the Great Masters, an ambitious series of previously unrecorded symphonic and operatic scores, packaged in expensive album sets. Odeon rounded out its catalog with renditions of light classics and concert standards by the Marek Weber and Dajos Bela orchestras, which seem to have been among its best sellers. Electrical recordings were introduced in 1926.

In October 1926, General Phonograph sold its Odeon and Okeh record divisions to the Columbia Phonograph Company. Odeon was retained as a classical and foreign-language sideline and was credited to the Okeh Phonograph Corporation, of which Heineman retained the presidency. With its links to the Columbia-Lindström empire, Odeon in the late 1920s gained access to some of the choicest items from the European catalogs, and by 1927 it could boast of a roster that included Melchior, Emmy Bettendorf, Michael Bohnen, and Richard Tauber. Recorded in Europe and manufactured by Columbia as superb laminated pressings, the Odeons of the late 1920s rank among the finest products of their time. Much of this material would later be reissued on the Brunswick-Polydor and Decca Odeon-Parlophone Series labels.

Back to Basics: The Odeon ONY Series
In 1929, Okeh once more reinvented its version of Odeon, this time returning to its pop-music roots. The new Odeon series, with ONY-prefixed catalog numbers, featured current hits pressed from domestic masters and reportedly was intended for West Coast distribution. A sister label, the Parlophone PNY series, appeared at the same time.

The new Odeons drew on Okeh masters but often used alternate takes, including vocal-free versions of dance numbers that had been issued on Okeh with vocal refrains. Some material, however, was released exclusively on Odeon and its Parlophone counterpart. Many releases used artist pseudonyms - "Harlem Music Masters" for Duke Ellington's Orchestra, "Eddie Gordon's Band" for Miff Mole's Little Molers, "Cyril Merrivale" for Arthur Schutt, "Ted Shawne" for Louis Armstrong - although pseudonym use was more common on Parlophone than on Odeon.

Despite its outstanding recording and pressing quality, the Odeon ONY series doesn't seem to have sold well, and the label is relatively rare today. The series was discontinued in 1931, by which time Columbia had largely assumed control of its faltering Okeh subsidiary. Its end also marked the end of Odeon as an American label. In 1931 the European Odeon, Columbia, Electrola, HMV, Parlophone, and Pathé labels were consolidated under the umbrella of the Electric & Musical Industries (EMI), the beginning of a vast conglomerate that would eventually come to dominate the European recording industry.

The Odeon name would appear one more time on domestically pressed 78s in 1939–1940, on the Decca Odeon-Parlophone Series label. Decca reissued old Odeon classical material (some of it dating to the late 1920s) in some quantity, but its cheap pressings were a far cry from the glossy, laminated Odeons of a decade earlier. With the U.S. declaration of war against Germany, Decca's connections with Odeon were severed.

Advance Records Bulletin. Talking Machine World (monthly, various issues, 6/15/1921—12/15/1927)
American Odeon Corp. "Odeon and Fonotipia Records" (advertisement). Talking Machine World (11/15/1920)
Andrews, Frank: personal communication (3/23/1995)
"Columbia Co. Buys Okeh-Odeon Record Division of General Phonograph Corp." Talking Machine World (10/15/1926)
General Phonograph Corp. "Okeh Enters the Foreign Language Record Field" (advertisement). Talking Machine World (11/15/1920)
Heineman, Otto. "Announcement" (letter to the trade announcing acquisition of Okeh and Odeon by Columbia). New York (11/1/1926)
International Talking Machine Co. (Berlin): "Odeon." U.S. Patent Office: Trademark application #41,875 (filed 11/5/1903)
—— "Odeon." U.S. Patent Office: Trademark application #136,417 (filed 8/24/1920)
"New Selling Plans Stimulate Odeon Business." Talking Machine World (12/15/1923)
Odeon Disc Talking Machine Co.: "Blue ‘Odeon' Duplex Records Taken and Manufactured by our American Co." (catalog, 4/1906)
"Retirement of Miguel Voglhut." Talking Machine World (1/15/1922).
Vernon, Paul. "Odeon Records—Their Ethnic Output." Musical Traditions (8/15/1997)

Site © 2004 by MAINSPRING PRESS, LLC. Article © 1999 by Allan Sutton. Revision and additional content © 2001 by Mainspring Press. All worldwide rights are reserved. No portion of this material may be reproduced without prior written consent of the copyright holder(s).