Columbia Phonograph Company audio-engineering team arrives in Spokane and begins recording various local musical talents on September 23, 1927.

  • By Peter Blecha
  • Posted 7/08/2016
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 11225

On Friday, September 23, 1927, a mobile field crew of a half-dozen men from the big-time, New York City-based Columbia Phonograph Company begins a two-day round of recording sessions with various local musicians in Spokane. This is not the first time that a major label has sent technicians out into the boondocks to capture provincial talents with their recording devices -- Brunswick came through the Northwest as far back as 1923, and Columbia visited Seattle in 1926 (and will travel around the Northwest yet again in 1928) -- but this time the Spokane Daily Chronicle covers the crew's arrival and activities for its Eastern Washington readers.

Roll On, Columbia

The Columbia Phonograph Company traced its origins back to 1887 when it initially sold Edison brand cylinder recordings and phonographs in the District of Columbia area. By 1894 it began marketing recordings under its own brand and in 1901 it introduced the familiar black "wax" disc sound-carrier format. In early 1925 the label began employing the new electric recording technique, which used microphones instead of acoustic horns to capture sounds. Before long, Columbia -- which had relocated to New York -- took an interest in sending teams of audio engineers out into various regions of the country to record local sounds including, famously, the 1928 sessions in Johnson City, Tennessee, where some of the first true country songs were saved for posterity. But, prior to that, Columbia's team arrived in Spokane with a set of portable equipment that was valued at an impressive $10,000.

The Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that Lloyd D. Marsh, the Seattle-based Pacific Coast representative for Columbia, had served as the advance man making arrangements in Spokane in late August. According to Marsh:

"It is the plan of the Columbia Phonograph company ... to bring the recording instruments to the city every three or four years to develop local talent nationally ... The company believes worthwhile talent is available in the city and every effort will be made to present the music public the finest group of vocalists and instrumentalists available. Only local musicians will be recorded here" ("Local Talent").

The actual selection of which artists to record would be made by Columbia's director of recording studios, Arthur Bergh of New York City, and they would be instructed to perform songs provided by "nationally known publishers" ("Local Records"). The goal for Columbia's expedition was to cut enough songs to supply material for 24 or 25 different records.

The newspaper also quoted Marsh explaining some technical details about the recording process and the record business: "All impressions will be made electrically and exhaustive tests will be made before the recordings are put into wax. The releases will be exploited by the company and the accepted offerings will distributed throughout the world" ("Local Records").

I. R. Van Ausdle and William Hoffman of Van Ausdle-Hoffman Music Co., a Spokane sheet-music and instrument retailer founded in 1913 and located at Wall Street and Riverside Avenue, played a central role in this endeavor, probably advising Marsh and Bergh as to who were the most worthy musical talents in the local community. Marsh also arranged to have access to Spokane's finest dancehall, the Garden Dancing Palace, for the recording session: "Two days will be required to put into condition the rooms to be used for making the records as they must be specially prepared" ("Local Records"). Besides setting up the recording gear at the Garden, one imagines that some efforts were made to create soundproofing from general neighborhood noise, and baffling to isolate an ensemble's various instruments within the building.

Garden Dancing Palace

The Garden Dancing Palace, located at 333 West Sprague Street in downtown Spokane, originally opened as Whitehead's Dancing Palace back on Christmas Eve 1919. Founded by local bandleader/vocalist/drummer Charles Whitehead (1880-1947) and some partners, the brick building featured a massive wooden dance-floor that could accommodate as many as 1,200 dancers who circulated around a centrally located, octagonal, gazebo-like bandstand. Among the young fans of the Charles Whitehead Jazz Band was a young Harry "Bing" Crosby (1903-1977), who would go on to his own major music career within a few years. One can easily imagine that Crosby's musical pals, and future music stars themselves, Mildred Bailey (1907-1951) and her brother Al Rinker, were also frequent attendees at the Palace, and his youngest brother, future bandleader and singing star Bob Crosby (1913-1993), actually got his start performing in the room.

The times, and music itself, were changing as the Jazz Era evolved during the Roaring Twenties, and in 1924 a new general manager took over operations at the Palace and the name was changed. With Whitehead serving as conductor of the Spokane Symphony Orchestra, newer dance bands got their chances to play the room and by 1925 advertising began to appear for both dances and dancing lessons. "Dance at the beautiful Garden Dancing Palace" invited an ad in a local high school's yearbook, "Tons of ice will cool this beautiful ballroom for comfortable summer dancing!" (The Tiger, June 1926). Another read, "Joyous dancing is always a specialty at this beautiful ballroom ... Learn the Charleston and other newest dances correctly. Famous for its beauty and refinement" (The Tiger, January 1926). And in still another: "Students! Give your Private Dancing Party at The Garden. We have just refinished our Balcony Dance Floor so as to accommodate private dance parties. We offer a special rate of 50c per couple for student parties and can accommodate anything from 5 to 75 couples" (The Tiger, June 1925).

Local Talents

It was on the Garden's balcony level that the Columbia recording crew -- led by "recording expert" John Gloetzner ("Start Recording ...") and electrical engineer R. T. Friebus -- set up its gear in preparation for recording what would be end up being five separate musical acts: Carl Haworth; George Taylor; Paul Gelvin; the room's latest house band, the Garden Dancing Palace Orchestra; and the Elks Quartet of Spokane. The quartet, based out of local Elks Lodge No. 228, would later be billed by Columbia as a group that "has been known and loved by all Spokane for the past 25 years" ("Columbia Record Presentation Dance"). The quartet was Charles F. Eaton (first tenor), William Clark (second tenor), Jake Hill (first bass), and George Chant (second bass), with Professor N. A. Krantz as accompanist.

Haworth was the area's local banjo king, and Taylor and Gelvin were tenor vocalists. Lastly, the Garden Dancing Palace Orchestra, led by Lillian Frederick (piano and violin) and featuring vocalist Bill Doric, was a dozen-strong dance outfit whose "peppy tuneful melodies" resulted in the release of two records by the label that year ("Columbia Record Presentation"). Among the members of that band was a young saxophonist, Dudley Wilson (1901-1985), who would go on to serve many years as the head of Spokane Musicians Union AFM Local 105.

A Record-Presentation Dance

After the Columbia engineers had completed their tasks and left town -- on their way to Seattle where they would record the Jackie Souders Orchestra, radio singer Douglas Richardson, and the Lions Quartet -- the label selected which recordings it wanted to market, had discs made in its new pressing plant in Oakland, California, and got set to release them all to Columbia record dealers on November 29. But first came the big "Columbia Record Presentation" and dance at the Garden on Thursday evening, October 27, 1927. The festivities would include the debut spinning of all six new Columbia phonograph discs cut by the five artists signed by the label. A large display ad in the Spokane Daily Chronicle the day before exclaimed: "All Selections Recorded by the Columbia Phonograph Company in Spokane Will Be Presented by the Artists in Person and the Records Will Also Be Played by the New Columbia Viva-Tonal Electric! The marvel of the 20th Century" ("Columbia Record Presentation"). And on the day of the show the Spokane Daily Chronicle reported that "Mayor Charles Fleming has been asked to preside" over the event and that "The musicians who made impressions here during the recording last month will be introduced at the concert" ("Garden to Feature ...").

Attendees would be the first members of the public to hear the discs played on a Columbia phonograph -- and in the presence of the artists themselves. The records spun were the Elks Quartet's two songs, "The Vacant Chair" and "Who Knows?" (Columbia 1144-D), George Taylor's "Just Once Again" (Columbia 1145-D), Carl Haworth's "Waitin' for the Springtime" (Columbia 1146-D), Paul Gelvin's "When Twilight Comes," and the Garden Dancing Palace Orchestra's versions of "Night Time in Picardy" and "My Wild Irish Rose" (Columbia 1147-D), plus "Sunshine" and "I'm Afraid You Sing That Song to Somebody Else" (Columbia 1171-D).

Columbia's 1928 Return

Columbia's publicly stated plan to return to Spokane at a later date to record additional tracks was realized. On June 28, 1928, company engineers set up their gear and recorded Carl Haworth again, this time plunking "I Get the Blues When It Rains" and "Willows" (Columbia 1502-D), while singer Walter McKinney cut a dozen tracks.

That same day and the following one, the label recorded the Garden Dancing Palace Orchestra performing two dozen tracks, with "When Erastus Plays His Old Kazoo" (Columbia 1599-D) and "Rose Room" and "Deep Hollow" (Columbia 1501-D) being released as discs that same year. Meanwhile the Garden hosted regular dances right on up into 1941, when it was converted into the Garden Lanes bowling alley (it later became the humble-if-history-steeped parking garage that it remains today).

Sources: "Local Talent on Phonograph: Columbia Company Will Record Local Talent Starting September 24," Spokane Daily Chronicle, August 30, 1927, p. 1; "Local Records," Ibid., August 30, 1927, p. 3; "Start Recording for Phonograph," Ibid., September 23, 1927, p. 2; "Columbia Record Presentation," display ad, Ibid., October 26, 1927, p. 24; "Garden to Feature Spokane Records -- Concert Tonight Advance Hearing of Local Artists on Phonograph," Ibid., October 27, 1927, p. 19; "Local Artists Finish Records -- Spokane Musicians Make 48 Master Impressions for Columbia Firm," Ibid., June 29, 1928, p. 3; "Students!," advertisement, The Tiger (Lewis and Clark High School yearbook), June 1925, p. 150; "Joyous dancing ...," advertisement, The Tiger, January 1926, p. 119; "Dance at the beautiful Garden ...," advertisement, The Tiger, June 1926, p. 129; Jesse Tinsley, "Then and Now: Whitehead's Dancing Palace," The Spokesman-Review, March 21, 2016 (http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2016/mar/21/whiteheads-dancing-palace//); Treva Lind, "Staying in Tune for a Century," Spokane Journal of Business, August 15, 2013 (http://www.spokanejournal.com/local-news/staying-in-tune-for-a-century/).

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