Author Archive: jb

King of the Comic Singers


(Pictured: an 1896 advertisement placed by singer Dan W. Quinn, looking for gigs. Posted with permission of Archeophone.)

In 1892, 31-year-old ironworker Dan W. Quinn was invited to sing for a political club in Hoboken, New Jersey. The night’s entertainment also included a “recording test.” Members of the audience were invited to speak or sing into a recording horn, and the recordings were then played back—quite a novelty at the time. Quinn’s recording sounded so good that the man who owned the machine urged him to visit a “recording laboratory” and do a real voice test.

A singer needed a certain piercing quality to reproduce well on acoustic recordings, which is why so many singers of the Pioneer Era sound like orators trying to reach the back row. Quinn did not view himself as that kind of singer, however: “I always sang quietly,” he said, but “there must have been some latent penetrating power.” Indeed there was. Over the next few years, Quinn made thousands of recordings. The technology of the 1890s permitted only a handful of copies to be made at a time, so singers had to perform over and over again. In addition, master recordings did not last very long, so if a recording company wanted to keep selling a particular song, it needed to keep remaking masters. During a five-month period in 1896, Quinn claimed to have made 15,000 records.

Quinn’s recordings were most popular between 1900 and 1904. But he mysteriously stopped recording in 1906, although he continued to perform. He spent the next several years as an artist manager and booker before recording again in 1915. He was 55 years old then, and his last few recordings weren’t up to his earlier standards. He recorded for the last time in 1919 and spent the rest of his life as a manager. Dan W. Quinn died in 1938.

Quinn’s recordings languished in attics and basements after that, and most of what was known about him came from a 1934 series of articles that appeared in a magazine called Music Lovers Guide. This month, Archeophone Records released the Dan W. Quinn Anthology: King of the Comic Singers 1894-1917, a compilation restoring 30 Quinn recordings, some unheard for a century. It’s accompanied by a magnificent booklet that illuminates Quinn’s life and career far beyond what he revealed in the 1934 articles.

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Tales of the Pioneers

(Pictured:  a 1903 advertisement for Columbia cylinders.)

If this blog is about any one thing, it’s about the ways we have listened to music, how it affected us in the past, and how it affects us still. I’m interested in this not merely as a reflection of my own life and my own experiences, but the way music resonates for everybody. It’s partly for this reason that I have a long-standing fascination with the Pioneer Era of Recording.

The Pioneer Era began in the middle of the 1880s, when Thomas Edison’s 1877 invention of the phonograph was sufficiently refined so that it could be operated by non-experts, and entrepreneurs developed a market for sound recordings. A colorful era followed. There was a battle between competing technologies: the Edison cylinder vs. Emile Berliner’s flat gramophone discs. Giant recording companies such as Columbia and Victor rose to prominence, and their names remained familiar for the next century. The Pioneer Era also had a Wild West aspect, where the line between innovation and infringement, of both copyrights and patents, was blurry, and where gambling entrepreneurs made and lost fortunes.

The Pioneer Era is generally considered to have ended around 1920 or 1925 with the development of electric recording, which brought greater fidelity than the old acoustic methods, making older records sound tinny and dated. The styles of the Pioneer Era faded in popularity as jazz began its two-decade rise as America’s most popular musical form. Succeeding waves of popular styles drove the styles of the Pioneer Era deeper and deeper into obscurity.

Although many of the Era’s songs remained familiar as time went by, the artists who performed them were largely forgotten. This is understandable, given that the Pioneer Era was a time when a song itself was almost always more important to the audience than any specific performance of that song. Nevertheless, some stars of the Pioneer Era were important innovators who blazed trails that other stars would follow. They were the first to record some of the most enduring songs ever written. Some were household names, at least among households wealthy enough to own a cylinder player or gramophone, as ubiquitous in their time as Bing Crosby and Elvis Presley would become. The forgotten styles of the Pioneer Era—from ragtime to barbershop to bombastically declaimed patriotic songs and operatic arias to the infamous “coon songs”—open windows into the American spirit and psyche in the period from the Gay Nineties to the Roaring Twenties.

For a long time, students of the Pioneer Era could only dig around in attics, basements, antique stores, and junk shops, looking for century-old recordings and the equipment to play them on—and then they had to hope that all of it was in playable condition. They had to pore over record company archives, old catalogs, magazines, and newspapers, concert bills, and other printed sources to find information about the stars and the songs. The Internet made Pioneer Era scholarship more accessible, putting ancient recordings and documents within a couple of clicks of amateurs such as I. Improvements in technology have made restoration of old recordings possible, minimizing noise, boosting fidelity, and enhancing the listening experience.

But it wasn’t until relatively recently that students of the Pioneer Era could easily own these old recordings. In 1998, Archeophone Records began issuing compilations devoted to particular stars and years of the Pioneer Era. It’s a cliché to say that their releases are lovingly produced, but they clearly are. Not only do the packages look great, the booklets accompanying them are remarkable works of scholarship. They often represent the only significant research that’s been done into the lives and works of their subjects.

Archeophone has received 11 Grammy Award nominations and won one for their historical reissues, and their latest is an anthology of songs by a man who, in the 1890s, would have been the first recorded singer many Americans ever heard. He began singing on record in 1894, and 10 years later was one of the most bankable stars in recorded music. I’ll tell you more about him, and about the new anthology of his songs, on Monday.

Up and Down the Dial

(Pictured: Tim Reid, Loni Anderson, Jan Smithers, and Howard Hesseman, 2014.)

Even if Johnny Fever and Venus Flytrap never wear headphones on the air, WKRP in Cincinnati gets radio station dynamics right: the relationships among people and departments, and the types of people who inhabit such an unusual workplace.

Although he loosens up as the series goes on, Andy Travis is a bit of a mystery man at the start. Some PDs’ personalities are utterly submerged in the job; they’re cordial but impenetrable. Try as you might, you’re never going to break though to a truly personal connection. Their self-imposed distance is a function of their “town to town, up and down the dial” careers. A well-traveled PD can have hundreds of acquaintances, but few real friends.

There are lots of Johnny Fevers in real stations: they’ve been in big markets and small, been married and divorced, seen and done things that make for good stories. Now they’re a little older, a little tired, and would just like to find a place to fit in, and be as happy as possible in an industry structured to make happiness elusive. (I suspect Johnny would agree that you can love radio, but you shouldn’t expect it to love you back.)

I knew a guy who had a little Venus Flytrap in him, in that he affected a self-consciously hip look—in his case, dark colors, sharp creases, every hair in place, and an impressive porn-star mustache. (You could say he was as much Jennifer as Venus: not to be caught dead looking anything less than perfect.) He knew he was very attractive to women, but he was also married to a very jealous one. He called me on the hotline one day: “Would you please tell my wife what time you saw me this afternoon?” “Two o’clock?” I stammered. I couldn’t make out what I heard next, only her voice in an accusatory tone. He came back on. “I was there at 4:30, don’t you remember?” Well, yeah, he had been in the studio at 4:30, but I hadn’t paid close enough attention to be anyone’s alibi.

Watching WKRP gives a viewer an interesting window into workplace sexism, not just in radio stations and not just 35 years ago, but in workplaces everywhere right now. Herb hits on Jennifer, and Johnny makes occasional crude come-ons (“I want to father your children”). Even visitors to the office are mesmerized by her. In 1980, it was straight-up funny. What makes it funny now is the way Jennifer continually brushes it off. What makes it uncomfortable now is that such remarks are tame compared to some I have heard directed at women in radio stations and other offices—and not just in the 1980s.

Every good radio sales rep has a little Herb in him/her. Few are as all-out obsequious, although what makes Herb funny to radio people is that we’ve all known reps who tried too hard, promised too much, or whose main talent was a gift for bullshit. An iron unwillingness to take no for an answer is helpful too—more than one client has signed on the dotted line just to get the sales rep out of his office.

Station managers often ascend from the sales department, which can make them allies of sales and adversaries of programming. I have worked for managers who made little secret of their allegiance, but I’ve also worked for the other kind. Mr. Carlson does a fairly good job of balancing the two sides, although honestly compels me to report that for an ex-program director such as I, few moments are as satisfying as when he chooses Andy over Herb.

Les Nessman’s greatest moment in journalism was not when he won all those awards—it was his dispassionate description of the bombing in “Turkeys Away.” He remained unrattled in the midst of chaos, which is a vital reporter’s trait. What Les lacks is a sense of proportion. I worked with a newsman who had a similar problem. He came into my studio one Sunday morning and breathlessly said, “Fire on the west side. I’ll send back a report when I get there.” A half-hour later, I put him on the air. It took a while to figure it out, but the conflagration he was describing live turned out to be a burning doghouse in somebody’s back yard.

Radio has always been a business where people do more than one thing. Jocks are only on the air part of the day, and most have other responsibilities off the air. Sportscasters sometimes double as sales reps, and office staffers may have responsibilities in a number of different areas. The consolidation and streamlining of station operations in the last decade or so has made everybody into a utility player, so people like Bailey Quarters are everywhere. At WKRP, she’s willing to do everything—sales assistant, promotions assistant, newscaster, singer on the funeral home jingle, whatever.

Holy smokes, I just realized that in 2015, at the company I work for, I’m a Bailey.

“I Want to Show You Another Way”

(Pictured: John and Yoko perform “Instant Karma” in 1970 with former Beatles roadie Mal Evans on tambourine and Klaus Voorman on bass.)

I have read Peter Lee’s stuff for several years, and maybe you have too, at his blog Hooks and Harmony. He doesn’t post often, but when he does, he always offers a fresh perspective. As it happens, we now know what’s been keeping him from blogging (apart from a family and a career and the need to mow the lawn and such): he’s about to publish a novel called The Death and Life of Mal Evans.

Evans is often described as the Beatles’ roadie. He was that, but he was also personal aide, errand-boy, and fixer for each of the Beatles individually. Evans took the whole ride, from the Cavern Club to the Sullivan show to the days with the Maharishi and onward to the bitter end. He’d bang a wood block in the recording studio and he’d run to the pub for bottles of beer. In his post-Beatle years, he stayed on the fringes at Apple before separating from his wife and moving to Los Angeles in 1973. On January 5, 1976, a week before he was to deliver the manuscript of an autobiography to a publisher, he got into a tussle with his live-in girlfriend. She called the police, and when they arrived, Evans pointed a gun at them. The cops shot him to death. After the shooting, it was discovered that he’d been holding an air rifle. He was 40 years old.

The Death and Life of Mal Evans begins with the shooting, but instead of dying, Evans hears a voice that tells him, “I want to show you another way.” And with that, he’s transported back to September 1969, where he gets the chance to change history through a simple act nobody will know about but him, and thereby keep the Beatles from breaking up. Over the next several years, he and the Beatles (and their fans) live through an alternate timeline in which there are more Beatles albums, and in which the members’ careers take unexpected turns.

Unexpected, maybe, but not unpredictable. What makes counterfactual history hard to do well is the amount of research and the level of craft it takes to plausibly project into a different reality the lives people lived in our reality, without rendering those people unrecognizable as themselves. You can’t just throw people into a different timeline and have at it. That’s just writing fiction with familiar names. Peter says the novel is the product of a decade’s work. What John, Paul, George, and Ringo say and do, and how they act, in their alternate 1970s, rings true. The albums they make as a quartet in the 70s ring true as well, and one of the novel’s major pleasures is seeing those albums come together. It’s been meticulously planned and is scrupulously written. It’s terrific entertainment, too. It moves quickly, and that’s a good thing, because once you’re into the story, you want to know what happens next.

I have been blogging in one forum or another for over 12 years now, 500 or 700 or 1,000 words at a time. It’s easy: I think about something for few minutes, type up whatever half-assed conclusions I choose to draw, and hit “publish.” It’s the perfect diversion for somebody with a short attention span and a poor work ethic. For that reason, I have tremendous admiration for Peter and The Death and Life of Mal Evans. He’s channeled his passion for the Beatles into an involving story, which is going to be a real book with pages and covers and everything. It will be available at Amazon next month, and you should buy it.

(Note From the Proprietor: Even after all this time, I’m never entirely sure what will strike a chord with the readership. Tuesday’s post clearly did. Thanks for your kind words about it. They’re greatly appreciated.)

On Melvin Road

One of the more striking numbers in Van Morrison’s catalog is called “On Hyndford Street,” a memory of childhood spoken over ambient music. On the flip is something similar, about a single summer day from no specific year, but many years ago. I can’t decide if it’s off-topic for this blog or squarely on it.

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Breakdown Dead Ahead

(Pictured: There are lots of pictures of attractive women on the Internet. A significant percentage are of Blondie’s Debbie Harry.)

We’ll wrap up this week of posts about 1980 with the American Top 40 show from the week of May 24, 1980, which was the week after I started rockin’ the night shift at WXXQ. We were an album-rock station, although you would have heard some of the week’s Top 40 hits on our air. Some of them listed below (with a couple of additions for cause).

40. “Love Stinks”/J. Geils Band. Later in the summer, I’d try to make a hit out of “Just Can’t Wait” from the same album.

38. “It’s Still Rock and Roll to Me”/Billy Joel. Not merely debuting in the 40, but on the Hot 100 at this lofty position.

28. “The Seduction”/James Last. Not on our playlist that summer, but mentioned here because James Last, famed more in Europe than here for lushly orchestrated easy-listening music, died a couple of days ago at age 85. “The Seduction” was from the American Gigolo soundtrack, which also included Blondie’s “Call Me.”

24. “Pilot of the Airwaves”/Charlie Dore. We didn’t play this either, but Charlie Dore was the subject of an interesting interview with a British journalist earlier in the week, so go read it. As a radio guy I’m prejudiced, but “Pilot of the Airwaves” is the best thing on this countdown.

23. “Train in Vain”/The Clash. “Train in Vain” was not listed on either the label or the jacket of London Calling, so at the college radio station, we hand-labeled it. But one of the jocks just couldn’t figure it out. He’d play the wrong track every damn time.

22. ‘You May Be Right”/Billy Joel. Insert your own opinion here. I got nothin’.

17. “Another Brick in the Wall”/Pink Floyd. Casey introduces this by reading a letter from a guidance counselor who objects strongly to it, from the sentiments it expresses, to the ominous sound of it, to the way it makes teachers feel bad, all in the aggrieved tone of somebody who still thinks Guy Lombardo is the shit. Casey mentions that “the song’s creator” (Roger Waters, name not mentioned) wrote it as part of a larger work (The Wall, title not mentioned) that is critical of conformity and oppression in general, not just in schools. I am sure that wouldn’t have satisfied the letter writer. I am also sure I detected a wee touch of mockery in Casey’s tone as he read the letter.

16. “Breakdown Dead Ahead”/Boz Scaggs. Casey reports that listeners to a San Francisco radio station had recently voted the Boz track “Loan Me a Dime” as the song they’d most want to have on a desert island. You could do worse than to take “Breakdown Dead Ahead,” the hardest-rockin’ single Boz ever made. (Unintentionally hilarious video at that link.)

15. “Brass in Pocket”/Pretenders. I liked this when I heard it the other day, but I can’t remember having an opinion about it one way or the other in 1980.

14. “Coming Up”/Paul McCartney. Casey plays the studio version, on which Paul’s voice is processed almost to unrecognizability. He mentions that it’s a double-sided hit, but doesn’t say that the other side is the live version, which is far better.

11. “Against the Wind”/Bob Seger. By this point in the countdown I am starting to feel as if this show will never end—a common problem with the four-hour shows—and the repetitive blandness of the music doesn’t help. (See also #4, #13, #18, #19, #21, #26, #28, #30, #31, #34, #37, #39, and this old post about a different week in the summer of ’80.) The liveliest things on the show are the extras, which are disco hits from the summer of 1979. I never thought I’d be glad to hear “Ring My Bell” and “Bad Girls.”

10. “Cars”/Gary Numan. The single weirdest thing in my vinyl library might be the picture-disc 45 of Numan’s earlier single “Are Friends Electric?”

5. “Sexy Eyes”/Dr. Hook. We didn’t play this either, but I’m including it because you can’t name another Top 5 hit that’s gone further down the memory hole.

1. “Call Me”/Blondie. In its sixth and final week at the top. I don’t think we played this song on WXXQ either, but listening to the countdown the other day, I was so happy to hear something uptempo amidst all the adult-contemporary schlock that it almost sounded good to me.

This post isn’t very good, I fear. It is the summer 1980 Top 40 of posts.


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