Arthur Collins (7 February 1864 - 3 August 1933)
- by Tim Gracyk
Excerpt from POPULAR AMERICAN RECORDING PIONEERS: 1895-1925, by Tim Gracyk. The book was published in late 2000.
This baritone was among the half dozen most prolific recording artists during the acoustic era, with nearly every American company employing him as a solo artist, as member of the duo Collins and Harlan, and as member of quartets and minstrel companies. Known for singing "coon" and "ragtime" songs in black dialect, he was closely associated with the comic song "The Preacher and the Bear," which he recorded for many companies. One trademark was a short laugh, often interjected between lines in songs.
In the December 1942 issue of Hobbies, Jim Walsh attributed Collins' popularity to these qualities: "There probably has never been a sweeter, more naturally musical baritone voice than his....Then, too, Arthur Collins managed invariably to get into the wax the impression of a warm, lovable personality. The unctuous sound of his chuckles in dialect work is unfailingly charming. His negro [sic] heroes usually were in hard luck, but they bore up bravely and saw the funny side of their own misfortunes."
But his repertoire was not limited to "coon" songs. His Peerless Quartet work alone establishes that he was a versatile baritone.
Arthur Francis Collins was born in the home of his grandfather, Reverend Joseph Perry (a chaplain in the U.S. Navy), on Gerard Avenue in Philadelphia. The oldest of ten children, he was about 14 when his father--Captain Arthur Collins, a devout Quaker--retired from sea-faring occupations and bought a home in Barnegat, New Jersey, where he opened a country store. Collins' wife supplied this information to Walsh, who reported it in the November 1942 issue of Hobbies.
Collins joined the lifesaving station on the New Jersey coast. By 17 he was singing at church festivals and concerts, and his parents sent him to Philadelphia to take voice lessons. He joined the Old King Company, an unsuccessful touring company. He then joined a company starring Fay Templeton, but this company also failed. He next sang in summer operas in St. Louis and eventually toured with Francis Wilson in Merry Monarch and The Lion Tamer, remaining with Wilson for ten years, according to the October 1916 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly.
In 1895 in New York City's St. Timothy's Episcopal Church he married an Irish-born singer named Anna Leah Connolly (18 May 1867 - 14 May 1949), and Collins left show business to study shorthand, typewriting, and bookkeeping. Around 1898 the marriage produced a son. Page 65 of the September 15, 1918 issue of Talking Machine World features a photograph of a proud Collins "saying good-bye to son," with 20-year old Sergeant Arthur Perry Collins taking leave in uniform, headed for France.
Collins worked for a cigar company but resigned after six months when his right arm became lame. After recovering, he worked for the De Wolf Hopper Company, singing in Wang, and soon received a letter from Edison's National Phonograph Company inviting him to make a trial recording.
(Also see the long entry for COLLINS AND HARLAN in the book.)
He went to Orange, New Jersey, at the earliest opportunity. The singer's wife reported to Walsh that the date was May 16, 1898. On Edison records he was often accompanied by Vess L. Ossman, such as on the popular "All Coons Look Alike To Me," recorded in late 1899 and issued as Edison Record 7317. He also recorded "All Coons Look Alike To Me" to the banjo accompaniment of William Stanley Grinsted, who was called George S. Williams when he worked as a banjoist in these years (he was later known to record buyers as singer Frank C. Stanley). One of his most popular numbers in the earliest years was Thurland Chattaway's "Mandy Lee," recorded in early 1900 for Edison (7404) and in two sessions for Victor in that year.
Walsh states in Ronald Dethlefson's Edison Blue Amberol Recordings 1915-1929, "By a hasty count, which may be off a few notches, he made, from 1898 to 1912, no fewer than 227 solo two-minute cylinders, including both brown wax and the louder and less fragile Gold Moulded type, introduced in 1902....the team [Collins and Harlan] recorded approximately 65 Blue Amberol duets."
Collins is mentioned for the first time in the trade journal The Phonoscope in the February 1899 issue. It is noted that he was among the artists making Giant Tone cylinders. He probably made cylinders for a few other small firms around this time.
He began making Berliner discs on November 25, 1899, recording at that first session "My Hannah Lady" (0754), "I've Just Received A Telegram From Baby" (0753), "All I Wants Is My Black Baby Back" (0756), "Mandy Lee" (0757), and others. He cut "I Don't Allow No Coons to Hurt My Feelings" for Berliner 0887 on January 13, 1900, and around this time (probably at the same session) recorded "You're Talking Ragtime" (0888), a song composed by the Beaumont Sisters. He recorded over 50 titles for Berliner's National Gramophone Company. Although most are "coon" songs or ragtime numbers, a few titles from 1900 indicate his versatility, such as "The Mick Who Threw the Brick," "The Blue and the Gray" (associated around that time with Richard Jose, who sang it often on vaudeville stages), and "On The Road to Mandalay" (the date is too early for this to be the Oley Speaks composition; it was probably the Walter W. Hedgecock version of Kipling's verse set to music).
Collins' rendition of "My Girl's an Hawaiian Maiden" is performed in the "coon" style. It may be the first time "Hawaiian" appears on a record (John Terrell had recorded "My Honolulu Lady," Berliner 1924, a year earlier).
Since he worked regularly for Berliner, he naturally was among Victor's earliest artists, recording often in its first year. His first session for Eldridge R. Johnson's new company was on July 20, 1900. Accompanied by a pianist, he recorded seven titles. He returned the next day to record another eight titles, this time accompanied by the Metropolitan Orchestra. Collins may have been the first singer on Victor records accompanied by more than piano. Some selections cut during early sessions had already been performed by Collins for Berliner's National Gramophone Company, but new titles included a rube number titled "Old Bill Jones" (162) and Paul Dresser's patriotic "The Blue and the Gray" (164).
Collins' wife reported to Walsh that the singer preferred the term "The King of Ragtime Songs" to "coon singer." Nonetheless, he was regularly marketed as a "coon singer" in trade publications. The December 1904 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly, announcing the January 1905 release of "Abraham" on Standard 8873, states, "'Abraham' is Arthur Collins' coon song contribution for the month." His wife also reported to Walsh that Collins "particularly loved to sing the old plantation-type of music, especially the Foster songs. 'Old Black Joe' was his masterpiece and audiences all over the country demanded it always."
The May 10, 1901 catalog for Zon-o-phone lists nine titles sung by Collins, mostly "coon" songs, such as "Coon, Coon, Coon" (9900).
For a year before teaming with Byron G. Harlan, Collins had a partner in tenor Joe Natus. They made 19 Edison cylinders in 1901-1902 and several Victor discs. One Victor session was on March 5, 1902, during which the two sang Cole and Johnson's "Tell Me Dusky Maiden" (1296), among other songs. The June 1903 Edison Phonograph Monthly announces that "I Must Have a Been a Dreamin'" (Standard 7850), sung by Arthur Collins and Joe Natus, would be "hereafter...sung by Collins and Harlan."
Collins was in a short-lived Edison ensemble called the Big Four Quartet, which cut five titles issued in 1901. Harlan was one of the quartet tenors (Natus was the other; A.D. Madeira was bass), and Collins and Harlan possibly first sang together at a recording session as members of this Edison quartet.
Collins was the first to record the song that would become Bert Williams' signature song, "Nobody," with music by Williams and words by Alex Rogers. Announcing the September release of the Collins version on Edison 9084, the August 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "The song fits Mr. Collins like a glove. The story is of a coon for whom nobody does nothing, therefore he does nothing for nobody. Nobody told him that the tobasco [sic] sauce wasn't catchup [sic], in fact 'nobody' told him 'nothing,' causing him lots of trouble." Williams recorded "Nobody" nearly a year later for Columbia.
One song written by Bert Williams was recorded by Collins but never by Williams himself: "That's A Plenty" (Columbia A724).
A Theodore Morse song that Collins popularized was "When Uncle Joe Plays A Rag On His Old Banjo," which led to a nickname for Collins. Walsh reports in Dethlefson's Edison Blue Amberol Recordings 1915-1929 that Collins was "so dark and swarthy that in after years his recording artist friends called him 'Old Joe, the Pirate,' taking 'Joe' from the title of one of his most popular records...The 'Pirate' alluded to Collins' sailing career as well as his complexion." Walsh continues with this observation on the size of the two: "His partner Harlan was taller and equally fat, and Billy Murray once annoyed them during one of their public performances by introducing them as the 'Half-Ton Duo.'"
Collins remained popular as a solo recording artist. He helped popularize the Thomas S. Allen song "Any Rags?" For Victor he cut it on October 26, 1903. He recorded it earlier for Edison, and the October 1903 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly states, "A monthly list without a coon song by Arthur Collins would be like a play with a prominent actor missing. Mr. Collins' November selection, No. 8525, is 'Any Rags.'" The song's title refers to a junkman's business cry ("Any rags, any bones, any bottles today?"), not to ragtime songs--though Collins recorded many of these, such as "Bill Simmons" and "Ragtime Don't Go With Me No More."
Perhaps more than any other acoustic era recording artist, Collins recorded many numbers by black songwriters, including Ernest Hogan ("All Coons Look Alike To Me"), Will Marion Cook and Joe Jordan ("Lovie Joe"), J. Rosamond Johnson and Bob Cole ("There's Always Something Wrong"), Cecil Mack and Chris Smith ("All In, Down and Out"), Alex Rogers and Bert Williams ("Nobody"), and Henry Creamer and John Turner Layton ("The Cute Little Wigglin' Dance").
Collins recorded "The Preacher and the Bear" soon after it was published in 1904. Normally credited to Joe Arzonia, the song was actually written by George Fairman (1881-1962) of Front Royal, Virginia. In 1955 Fairman wrote to Jim Walsh that in 1902 or 1903, shortly after he composed it, he sold for $250 all rights to the song to Arzonia, owner of a cafe in which Fairman played piano, adding that songwriter Arthur Longbrake was a frequent patron of that cafe. Longbrake, who established the Eclipse Music Company, shares credit with Arzonia on sheet music, which sold well when published by the Joe Morris Music Company. Eager to repeat the success of "The Preacher and the Bear," Collins cut other songs composed by Longbrake, enjoying mild success with "Nobody Knows Where John Brown Went" and "Brother Noah Gave Out Checks for Rain." He had less success with Longbrake's "Parson Jones' Three Reasons."
He first cut "The Preacher and the Bear" in early 1905, Zon-O-Phone 120 being the first record issued (in April 1905). It was issued as two-minute Edison Standard 9000 in May 1905. In announcing its release, the April 1905 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly twice gives the name Arzonia as "Arzoma" and then simply summarizes what the song narrates, nowhere suggesting that Edison executives anticipated great sales for this.
He recorded it for Columbia around this time on cylinder 32720 as well as single-sided disc 3146, both being issued in June (the song was later on double-sided A307). Collins delivers these words on the disc version:
A preacher went out a-huntin'
'Twas on one Sunday morn
I thought it was against his religion
But he took his gun along
He shot himself some very fine quail
And one big frizzly hare
And on his way returning home
He met a great big grizzly bear
Well, the bear marched out in the middle of the road
And he waltzed to the coon, you see
The coon got so excited
That he climbed a persimmon tree
The bear sat down upon the ground
And the coon climb'd out on a limb
He cast his eyes to the Lord in the sky
And these words said to Him:
Oh Lord, didn't you deliver Daniel from the lion's den?
Also delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then
Three Hebrew chillun from the fiery furnace?
So the Good Book do declare
Now Lord, if you can't help me
For goodness sakes, don't you help that bear!
[SPOKEN] Now, Mr. Bear, let's you and I reason this here thing out together [growl]--nice bear! [growl]--good old bear [growl]--Say, Mr. Bear, if I should give you just one nice big juicy bite, would you go away? [growl] Oh, you wouldn't, eh? Well, I'll stay right here!
When the Edison company issued the first batch of four-minute wax Amberol cylinders on October 1, 1908, an expanded "Preacher and the Bear" was included (Amberol 18). The September 1908 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly announces, "This comic coon song has run second in popularity to none in the list of Edison two-minute Records...Our new Amberol Record gives an extra verse, chorus, and scene." When the Edison Amberol cylinder gave way to the Blue Amberol in November 1912, the popular song was issued as Blue Amberol 1560, and it remained a steady seller. The February 1919 issue of Edison Amberola Monthly lists "eighteen Amberol Records that head the best sellers for the year 1918," and Blue Amberol 1560 is included.
He recorded it for Victor on May 9, 1905 (single-sided 4431 was issued in September) and in 1908 returned to the Victor studio for a new take (double-sided 17221 features the 1908 take). He sang it for virtually every company, including small firms that sprang up in the World War I years. For example, he sings it on Majestic 105, issued in January 1917. During the acoustic recording era, Collins was the only American singer to record "The Preacher and the Bear." Remarkably, Columbia as late as 1921 offered two versions on disc--A307 and A2290 (the former was dropped at the time Columbia's 1922 catalog was printed). all other Collins titles had been dropped from the Columbia catalog aside from "Railroad Rag." Riley Puckett was the first American aside from Collins to record it. In December 1925, shortly after Collins' retirement, Puckett cut it for Columbia 15045-D. Al Bernard sang it for Brunswick, Romeo, and Vocalion. Ernest Hare cut it for Federal. Albert Whelan recorded it in England. The Golden Gate Quartet sang a gospel arrangement of it during an RCA Victor session on August 4, 1937. In 1947 Phil Harris enjoyed a hit with the song on RCA Victor 20-2143--lyrics were changed slightly, with substitutions found for the word "coon."
"The Preacher and the Bear" as performed by Collins was available to record buyers as late as 1941 on Montgomery Ward M-8128. It was the same performance that had been issued in 1908 on Victor 17221 and was listed in the hillbilly, or country, section of mail order catalog from 1933 to 1941, which indicates that rural audiences were especially fond of the number. On Columbia A293, Collins sings "The Parson and the Turkey," a successor to the famous bear song.
As a solo artist, he never used any other name although pseudonyms were occasionally used for Harlan as solo artist--Cyrus Pippins, Deacon Treadway, Bert Terry, others.
Collins joined the Peerless Quartet in 1909 when Steve Porter left to join the American Quartet. Collins remained with the Peerless for a decade and toured with a group known in the World War I era as the Record Makers, later as the Victor Record Makers (after Collins had left, it was called the Eight Famous Victor Artists, then the Eight Popular Victor Artists). With this touring group Collins performed at concerts some solo numbers (invariably giving as an encore "The Preacher and the Bear"), some songs with partner Harlan, and some tunes as member of the Peerless.
In the Peerless Quartet, Collins sometimes sang the lead, such as on "Pull For the Shore" (Victor 17667), a song ostensibly about a boat stuck in a storm but really about a girl and a handsome suitor at sea engaging in too much petting for a father's comfort. This song by Jeff Branen and Edward O'Keefe may have brought back memories to Collins, who had spent much time on the sea in early years.
He left the Peerless and the Victor Eight troupe around 1919. The March 1919 issue of Voice of the Victor lists Collins as a member, and page 125 of the May 1919 Talking Machine World includes Collins when listing names of the "Popular Record Makers" touring in May. But he was not always present for Peerless recordings. Some Columbia records made in 1917 include bass Frank Croxton, with Meyer singing baritone instead of Collins. One of the last Peerless records featuring Collins is a World War I specialty titled "A Battle In The Air." Backed by "A Submarine Attack Somewhere At Sea," it was issued on Columbia A2626 in November 1918. The label gives composer credit of "The Battle In The Air" to Albert Campbell, Arthur Collins, and Theodore Morse. Campbell and Collins presumably wrote the dialogue spoken on the record. Campbell later reported to Walsh that Collins could not get along with manager Henry Burr.
From 1916 to 1920, Collins sang several numbers with lyrics about jazz, such as "Old Man Jazz," issued as Blue Amberol 4093 in October 1920. Promotional literature states, "'Old Man Jazz' is a colored song, between whose lines we listen to jazzy music from clarinet, trombone, drum and other instruments. Their notes are certainly enlivening. Arthur Collins is a master in recording this song."
Collins was never issued on lateral Brunswicks though he was on at least one green-labeled Canadian- issued vertical Brunswick disc of the World War I period. It features "The Ragtime Volunteers Are Off To War" and "The Darktown Strutters' Ball" (5175).
On October 20, 1921 during an Edison Tone Test demonstration at the Princess Theater in Medina, Ohio, Collins exited the stage in the dark so the audience could guess whether the singing heard came from the singer himself or a Diamond Disc machine, and the baritone suffered serious injuries when he fell through a trap-door accidently left open. After a recovery period, he made a solo recording for Gennett--"I Ain't Got Enough For To Pass Around" (4866), issued in June 1922--and more recordings with Harlan for Edison.
The last reference in Talking Machine World to a Collins and Harlan performance is in the December 15, 1925 issue, which reports that they gave a concert in Muncie, outside Indianapolis, in early December "under the auspices of the Edison store."
Until 1926 Collins lived on Long Island, New York. The November 1919 issue of Edison Amberola Monthly includes a photograph of him "giving one of his cows the 'once over' down on his farm." According to Walsh in the January 1943 issue of Hobbies, Collins "specialized in breeding fancy horses and cattle." When he retired in 1926, Collins moved to Tice, Florida. He was wealthy by this time, Collins' wife having made wise investments over the years, according to Walsh. His voice remained strong despite a weak heart, and he sometimes sang at Masonic meetings in the Ft. Myers area. Walsh learned about how Collins died from the baritone's wife: on August 3, 1933, the singer was sitting on a bench under his beloved orange trees, put his head on his wife's shoulder, and quietly passed away.