Beginning collectors of old 78s should not conclude that only rare 78s are worth seeking. Certain 78s sold well because the performances are outstanding. Many of my favorite 78s are "common" records.
I list what are among the best-selling records from 1900 to 1925, and they offer superb performances. Citing how many millions were sold is difficult. "Billboard" and "Your Hit Parade" did not keep track of hits until long after these records were popular. Beware of anyone who tries to say that a 78 from this period was a "number one hit." Assigning "number one" positions to 78s from early decades of the industry is anachronistic, misleading, basically dishonest.
If you have a box of "acoustic era" 78s, you may own some of these classics. I urge you to play them at least once. You may enjoy them, and you'll learn about America's taste in music decades ago.
1) Richard Jose:"Silver Threads Among the Gold"(1903).
This sentimental ballad may bring tears to your eyes--or you may laugh at the idea of previous generations moved by such corny lyrics. An aging man with silver hair sings to his wife that she will be "always young and fair to me." Songs idealizing the twilight years of married couples were common a century ago.
I love everything Jose recorded and also admire America's other great countertenor of the period, Will Oakland. I realize it is an acquired taste. If you ever find in a used book store the 1945 Richard Jose biography written by Grace Wilkinson, grab this rare book! By the way, I've compiled a cd of Richard Jose's 78s. Send email to me if you are interested in purchasing a copy.
2) Arthur Collins: "The Preacher and the Bear" (1905).
This was wildly popular as a cylinder and disc. Unlike all other songs on this list, Collins' popular "The Preacher and the Bear" has not yet been reissued on CD although a contemporary ragtime trio called Bo Grumpus has recorded this as an instrumental. Want to know the lyrics? I quote them in my Athur Collins article on my homepage.
Few record companies are willing to reissue songs containing the derogatory word "coon." I feel Collins was the greatest ragtime singer of the era, notwithstanding Bob Roberts' nickname "Ragtime Bob Roberts" and Gene Greene being known on vaudeville stages as the Ragtime King. If you want the lyrics to "The Preacher and the Bear," go to my article on my homepage about Arthur Collins.
3) Harry Lauder: "Roaming in the Gloaming" (1912)
The Scottish comic Harry Lauder was as popular on stage as Charlie Chaplin was in films. Chaplin remains a household name but Harry Lauder is forgotten except by a few 78 collectors. Go figure.
4) Alma Gluck: "Carry Me Back to Old Virginny" (1915).
This song still elicits strong feeling--some of it is negative. Newspapers have reported a controversy over this being Virginia's official song. Many are offended because the lyrics, given in black dialect, idealize the South of slavery days and speak fondly of "old master." Ironically, the song was composed by an African-American, James Bland. I think I have 15 duplicate copies of this disc is my garage, where my "extras" are stored. This record is ridiculously common, if that expression applies to any 78. I don't need so many copies of any record, but I cannot bring myself to throw such a fine recording into the trash. Records that I am quite happy to trash include those by Sammy Kaye, Kay Kyser, Harry James, Jesse Crawford. OK, if they are mint copies, I hang onto them--I just don't play them.
5) Len Spencer: "The Arkansas Traveler" (1902).
Some bluegrass musicians today perform this traditional favorite. The record is part music, part talk. A fiddler gives silly answers to questions posed by a traveler, as in this exchange: "Where does this road go to?" "It don't go anywhere--stays right where it is. Ha, ha, ha." The fiddler then plays his instrument. The fiddling is done by the great Charles D'Almaine.
6) Enrico Caruso: "Vesti la Giubba" (1907)
Every home in America seemed to have Caruso records. Many people bought "Vesti la Giubba," the famous aria Caruso sang while dressed in a clown outfit. Those who couldn't tolerate opera bought Caruso's performance of "O Sole Mio."
7) John McCormack: "I Hear You Calling Me" (1910)
Cynics today dismiss this sentimental song despite the beauty of the Irish tenor's voice. The lyrics speak of a deceased loved one, a meaningful theme for the record-buying public decades ago. Mortality rates were higher, and somewhat older people bought records in 1910 since 78s were expensive. Today, youngsters determine musical trends, so lyrics now cover different subjects.
8) Original Dixieland Jazz Band: "Livery Stable Blues" (1917)
This was not the band's best-selling disc. "Margie" (backed by the exotic "Palesteena") sold many more copies, but the ODJB's first Victor disc did sell well and is so important as the first jazz record that I include it here. Not everyone agrees with me that this is great jazz. Some dismiss the comic touches, like the musicians imitating cows, roosters, and horses with their instruments. Some jazz buffs resent the fact that white New Orleans musicians recorded jazz for the first time, not black musicians who played a greater role as originators. I like the other side even more: "Dixieland Jass Band One-Step." This is Victor 18255. Recorded on February 26, 1917--a milestone in American popular music. Ernest Borbee's Orchestra may have been the second band to make a recording that was issued as a "jass" record.
9) Paul Whiteman and His Orchestra:"Whispering"(1920)
This was a big hit at the beginning of Whiteman's recording career. I don't believe it was his biggest hit (contrary to what some books say) but I list it here anyway. Whiteman told Jim Walsh that "Three O'Clock In The Morning" was Whiteman's biggest seller, and since I have many duplicate copies in my garage, I believe this. "Whispering" is not really a COMMON record.
This bandleader had a remarkable career throughout the 1920s. He conducted the first performance of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" in 1924, with the composer himself playing piano. Collectors especially prize Whiteman's discs from the late '20s. Whiteman recognized Bix Beiderbecke's genius and gave Bix room for creativity during recording sessions. He hired an unknown Bing Crosby and launched the crooner's career. Many other great musicians were part of the Whiteman outfit.
10) Vernon Dalhart: "The Prisoner's Song"/"The Wreck of the Old 97" (1925)
I get weary of seeing this record, which seems to be in every batch of 78s from the 1920s that I buy. The record is always worn out, testimony to the fact that people loved both sides.