The Victor Record Pages
By Allan Sutton
Ask a random group of collectors who made the earliest Victor electrical recording to be issued, and you’re likely to get answers ranging from the Mask & Wig Club to the Associated Glee Clubs of America to the International Novelty Orchestra. Titles by all of these groups have been claimed as the earliest issued Victor electric by such diverse sources as The Fabulous Phonograph and The American Dance Band Discography. None of those answers is correct. Oddly, the correct answer — the Eight Popular Victor Artists — does not even have a listing in Brian Rust’s rather problematic Victor Master Book.
Oakland, California pressing (indicated by the small "O" above
Victor president Eldridge R. Johnson was not necessarily averse to electrical recording. Albertis Hewitt, a Victor engineer, had been patenting microphones since 1915, and during 1922 he conducted secret electrical recording experiments in the Victor studios using a Hoxie Pallophotophone. A final report on the Pallophotophone was not favorable, but Hewitt went on to experiment with other electrical equipment of his own making at Victor into 1923 or possibly even 1924. None of these experimental recordings appear to have been documented in the company files. Tangible proof of Hewitt’s work finally surfaced in 2006, when one of his Victor electrical test pressings was discovered.1
What Johnson was averse to were the demands Western Electric made in 1924, when it first offered to license its new electrical equipment to Victor. The apocryphal tale of how Johnson at first refused Western Electric, only to find his hand forced in early 1925, after Columbia adopted the process, has been repeated in countless books and articles — and is utterly without basis in fact. Suffice it to say that by late 1924, both Victor and Columbia were using Western Electric’s equipment for experimental recording sessions. Details and corroborating evidence can be found in Recording the 'Twenties: The Evolution of the American Recording Industry, 1920–29.
On Thursday, February 26, 1925, Victor and Western
Electric engineers oversaw the first electrical recording session that
would produce usable masters for Victor. For the occasion, eight performers
were summoned to the Camden studios — vocalists Billy
Murray, Henry Burr, Albert Campbell, John H. Meyer, and Frank Croxton;
comedian Monroe Silver; saxophonist Rudy Wiedoeft; and pianist Frank Banta.
2 The group was slated to record a “Miniature Concert”
on two 12" masters, the contents of which are noted on the Victor
Recording Book sheet (below).
For comparison’s sake, the group first shouted its way through several takes in front of the traditional acoustic recording horns (mxs. C-318741-1,-2 and C-31875-1,-2,-3). They then moved to the new Western Electric-equipped studio and repeated the process, this time cutting one take per side in front of a microphone. The electrical masters initially were logged as unnumbered experiments. Eventually, they would be assigned the same serial numbers as the acoustics, but with a new prefix (“CVE”) indicating not only that these were electrical recordings, but that Victor now owed a royalty to Western Electric for each copy sold.
The experimental electrics were shelved, and on March 3, one take of each acoustically recorded master was given the “M” designation, indicating that they, and not the electrics, were to be mastered for issue. However, there seems to have been a sudden change of heart. On April 9, the acoustics’ “M” designation was canceled, and instead the electrical takes were numbered and marked for mastering. 3 The electrically recorded “Miniature Concert,” covering two sides of Victor 35753, was eventually approved for a July 1925 release. 4
Here, fine distinctions become important. Mxs. CVE-31874-3 and CVE-31875-4 were the earliest electrically recorded masters to be released by Victor. They were not, however, the the first Victor release to use electrically recorded masters. That honor is held by Victor 19626, a rather incongruous coupling of “Joan of Arkansas,” by the Mask & Wig Club Male Double Male Quartet, and “Buenos Aires,” by the International Novelty Orchestra. Although both sides were recorded several weeks after the “Miniature Concert”—on March 16 and March 20, 1925, respectively—Victor released the disc in June 1925, a month before the “Miniature Concert” was listed. Its conspicuous absence from the Talking Machine World’s “Advance Record Bulletins” (which were prepared a month in advance of publication) suggests there might have been some last-minute consternation concerning its suitability for release.
While the oddly coupled Victor 19629 attracted little attention, the “Miniature Concert” appears to have been at least a modest hit, based on the large number of surviving copies. Victor would not publicly acknowledge for another year that they were using an electrical recording process, for fear of suddenly rendering their massive acoustic catalog obsolete. But by the summer of 1925, dealers and customers were noticing the obvious improvement in sound. By then, Victor’s recording horns had already been retired, and a new era in sound-recording technology was under way.
1 Information on Hewitt’s Victor experiments comes from his own daily diary, as reported in Michael Biel's The Making and Use of Recordings in Broadcasting Before 1936 (Dissertation, Northwestern University, 1977. pp. 284–285.) The 1922 test pressing was auctioned in January 2007 to a private collector.
2 This group comprised the Eight Popular Victor Artists, a touring promotional troupe that Victor underwrote. Researcher Anna-Maria Manuel is making a detailed study of this group and its wide-ranging travels. She has documented their broadcast work in Billy Murray on the Radio.
3 Victor Talking Machine Co.: Recording Book, pp. 4761, 4761-A (2/26/1925). Sony-BMG Archive (New York).
4 “Advance Record Bulletins, July, 1925.” Talking Machine World (6/15/1925), p. 166.
5 “Advance Record Bulletins, June, 1925.” Talking Machine World (5/15/1925), p. 157.
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