Friday, October 07, 2005

Top 5: Not on Sale at Best Buy

We're putting the Wayback Machine in overdrive today: When I grabbed the first book at hand for research on this week's Friday Top 5, it happened to be Joel Whitburn's Pop Memories 1890-1954, which might be the single most astounding music reference book ever written.

Billboard magazine, the bible from which most of Whitburn's research is derived, began publishing a formal chart of best-selling records in 1940. To assemble chart statistics before that time, Whitburn turned to other sources--the very existence of which is pretty astounding, too. For example, the first magazine dedicated to the recording industry, Phonogram, was established in 1891, only 14 years after Thomas Edison first demonstrated the phonograph. Billboard debuted in 1913, but magazines such as Talking Machine World and Variety were more important sources of record sales information for the early years. In addition to record sales, Whitburn also researched sheet music sales--from the mid-19th century onward, playing music at home, on the spinet or the parlor organ, was a widely popular form of entertainment, and it remained more popular than recorded music well into the 20th century.

The era from the Edison's invention of the phonograph in 1877 to 1920 is known as the pioneer era of recording, and it's a fascinating time to study. Some of the best-selling records in all history were recorded in that era, but the vast majority of them are are utterly forgotten today. This is often due to their primitive sound. Through much of the period, records were oblong cylinders, and they were recorded acoustically, by artists performing directly into a recording horn, which caused a needle to carve the signal directly onto a wax cylinder. Cylinders (eventually metallic instead of wax) were the primary medium for recording until around 1912, although they weren't replaced entirely by flat records until the '20s. The 1920s also saw the development of electrical recording, in which performers worked into microphones. The technology increased the frequency response of recordings, which simply means they sounded better. But many records from the pioneer era are forgotten for another reason--their style and subject matter is so completely foreign to modern ears that they may as well have been recorded on another planet.

So here's today's Top Five--the top five records of the year, 100 years ago--1905. These were enormously popular in their time, either as recordings or as sheet music. The phenomenon of "media penetration" was nothing then like it was now, so nobody can reasonably argue that the artists mentioned here were as ubiquitous as Britney Spears is now--but it's reasonable to guess these songs were at least somewhat familiar to a goodly number of Americans, especially in urban areas, where records and sheet music were easier to acquire. (And I'm cheating a little by counting five places instead of five records. If you don't like that, get your own blog.)

5. "Come Take a Trip in My Air Ship"/Billy Murray.
Murray was the biggest-selling male star of the pioneer era, by himself and in duets with Ada Jones, who was the biggest-selling female star of the pioneer era. That's star power. This recording was inspired by the Wright Brothers' flight at Kitty Hawk.

4. Tie: "Give My Regards to Broadway"/Billy Murray and "Where the Morning Glories Twine Around the Door"/Byron G. Harlan. As Whitburn says, Murray "established himself as the official interpreter of George M. Cohan, since he recorded the definitive hit version of nearly every Cohan song from 1905 on." Cohan tunes don't get much more famous than "Give My Regards to Broadway." Harlan, meanwhile, was a neighbor of Thomas Edison and famous for sentimental ballads, of which "Morning Glories" is surely one. He also recorded comedy duets with Arthur Collins, about whom we'll say more in a bit.

3. Tie: "In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree"/Henry Burr and "In My Merry Oldsmobile"/Billy Murray. In addition to being the official interpreter of George M. Cohan, Murray was also clearly a guy who sang about hot new technology--airships and automobiles. And despite the fact that he appeared on an unfathomable number of records in various combinations (not just with Jones, but with the fabulously popular Heidelberg Quartet, Haydn Quartet, and American Quartet), it's Burr who appeared on more recordings than anyone else in history--over 12,000.

2. "Yankee Doodle Boy"/Billy Murray. Murray, Cohan, yada yada yada.

1. "The Preacher and the Bear"/Arthur Collins.
Collins came out of the minstrel-show tradition I wrote about earlier this week, a white man in blackface doing songs in black dialect. He was the most popular of the minstrel performers on record. "The Preacher and the Bear," a comedy routine, was not just his biggest hit, it's the biggest hit of the entire pioneer era and the first record to sell two million copies. (We'd call that "going platinum" today.) Not that you'd be likely to hear it anywhere today--to call it "politically incorrect" is too mild. It derives its humor from the predicament of a black preacher--referred to only once as a preacher but several times as a "coon"--driven up a tree by a bear. As a minstrel performer, Collins was best known as a performer of "coon songs," the mere titles of which come across as painfully and often idiotically racist to modern ears. (sample: "All Coons Look Alike to Me.") Nevertheless, if you're talking about the history of recorded music, Collins has earned his place--although as we noted at the beginning of this post, the pioneers don't usually get their due.

For a motherlode of stuff about the pioneer era, you could scarcely do better than Tim Gracyk's website on antique record machines and the pioneer era. It features bios of the major pioneers, including Murray, Burr, Collins, Jones, and others.

(This post has been edited since it first appeared.)


At 1:15 AM, Blogger Trish said...

Very, very cool! My grandparents had a cylinder phonograph player with a large oak horn they gave my mother, who in turn learned to play it for us. I grew up listening to the oldies, the REAL oldies! One of my favorites was THE PREACHER AND THE BEAR...I LOVE the history, and thanks SO much for sharing. By the way, where DO you find this information?!


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