American Recording Pioneers

Cal Stewart’s Recording Contracts

By Allan Sutton

Cal Stewart's impact on the early recording industry went far beyond the success of his "Uncle Josh" records. His insistence on being paid royalties, at a time when other studio artists accepted modest flat rates as a matter of course, was revolutionary for its day.

As one of the most popular early recording comedians, Cal Stewart found his services in great demand, and in late 1903 Columbia signed him to an exclusive three-year contract. There is no indication, however, that the Columbia contract offered Stewart anything more than the usual flat-rate per selection, as was standard practice at the time. Royalties on record sales, when offered at all, usually were reserved for the most renowned concert and operatic celebrities.

Victor welcomed Stewart back in its February 1907 supplement, attributing his long
absence to a world tour, rather than his Columbia contract.
(Courtesy of John R. Bolig)

Stewart returned to Victor in late 1906, and to Edison in 1908. In an August 1908 memo from Walter Miller to other Edison staff members, Miller reported,

I have bargained with Mr. Cal Stewart to make 20 of his old recitations, and to date have already made 10... You might want to get out a special list of 10 at once inasmuch as we are requesting jobbers and dealers not to handle cylinder records of other makes, and I understand that their principal reason for handling these other records is that we have none of the Stewart records. 1

Stewart's new Edison records sold well — so well, apparently, that in 1911 Stewart made an unprecedented demand of the Edison company. Miller reported on May 4, 1911,

I have several letters of late from Cal Stewart in which he positively refuses to make any more records for phonograph companies of any kind unless he is paid on a royalty basis. I have talked this matter over with the Committee, and inasmuch as we now have clerks keeping track of royalties of grand opera and copyrighted selections, I do not see any particular reason why we should refuse to pay him on a royalty basis.

I have looked up the inventory of his records and find they are big sellers. I wrote and asked him what he expected to receive if placed on a royalty basis, and he replied that he would agree to a royalty of 1¢ and selections made on this basis to be exclusive... We are now paying him $100 per selection. The last eight Amberol records he made for us showed an average advance sale of 14,758 per selection... 2

Edison studio cash book entry for a Stewart Amberol session on July 30, 1908. At
the time, Stewart was being paid a flat $85 per accepted title, with no royalties.
(Edison National Historic Site)

After some internal discussion and additional negotiations with Stewart, the Edison contract was signed on May 16, 1911. In the course of negotiations, Stewart agreed to accept only ½¢ per record, in exchange for which he was to record exclusively for Edison for five years. The contract also stipulated that Stewart produce a minimum of four acceptable titles per year, a quota he never fulfilled. In fact, Stewart did not produce acceptable recordings under his new contract until May 1915, at which point it appears likely that Edison terminated the agreement. Stewart was back at Columbia on June 2, 1915, nearly a year before his Edison contract was due to expire, and was soon freelancing for other labels once again.

Although Stewart's insistence on royalties probably served neither party well, it set a precedent. In July 1920, Billy Murray was finally granted royalties by Victor, followed by Henry Burr and other popular studio performers.

1 Miller, Walter H. Memorandum to Messrs. Dyer, Wilson, and Dolbeer. West Orange, NJ: August 2, 1908 (Edison National Historic Site).

2 Miller Walter H. Memorandum to Messrs. Dyer, Wilson, and Dolbeer. West Orange, NJ: May 4, 1908 (Edison National Historic Site).


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