Eldridge R. Johnson's First Numbered Record

By Tim Gracyk

The first numbered record of Eldridge R. Johnson's Consolidated Talking Machine Company Victor V features George Broderick reciting Eugene Field's poem "Departure." The disc is assigned catalog number A-1, as we know from an early Consolidated catalog reprinted by Allen Koenigsberg as well as Ted Fagan and William R. Moran's The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings. I have never seen an original copy of the disc but Edgar Hutto sent to me a tape of Broderick's performance.

The "A" was used for discs that were 7 inches in diameter. Fagan and Moran state on page lxvii, "At first this letter was used to precede all numbers regardless of record size," but I know only of 7 inch discs in the A series. The serial number and the disc number were identical in the earliest years, a separate matrix system being adopted a few years later.

To say A-1 was Johnson's first released disc would be misleading since it was made available with a group of other early discs. It is the disc to have the earliest number. Had there been any series in addition to the "A" series in 1900, we would have to consider that to determine the first numbered disc. But there was only the "A" series when Johnson began a recording log on June 28, 1900.

Rare Audio Restoration of Eldridge R. Johnson's First Disc

Click below to hear a very rare restoration of "Departure." restored from a fresh transfer of the disc, using recently developed, highly sophisticated signal processing software, courtesy of Nat Johnson.

Nat Johnson was formerly Senior Producer and Head of Reissues at RCA Records in New York. Currently, he operates his own audio preservation company, Rockport Restoration Studios in Massachusetts. His restoration page is: http://www.natjohnson.com/restoration.htm


To use "A" in addition to "1" at a time when there was no competing series would seem redundant, but Johnson was evidently already planning a 10 inch series and perhaps others. Victor's first "M" disc, or 10 inch disc, was M-3001, featuring S.H. Dudley singing "When Reuben Comes to Town," recorded for the 10 inch format on January 3, 1901 (the "M" is not on 10 inch discs whereas the "A" is on 7 inch discs). In short, Johnson may have planned for more than one series when beginning his recording log, but the 10 inch series did not in fact begin until some months after the 7 inch "A" series was introduced.

Broderick recorded two takes of "Departure" on June 28, 1900 but these presumably were not issued. Takes 3 and 4 were recorded on November 3, 1900. Take 3 was issued as disc A-1, according to what is underlined in Fagan and Moran's EDVR. At least I assume what was sent to me on cassette is take 3. In the Fagan and Moran book, takes are underlined that are, according to the authors, "known to have been issued." I recently asked Moran the question "Known by whom?" and he explained the process used for determining which takes were issued and therefore which takes were to be underlined in EDVR's first volume. That complex process will be explained in a future article. Briefly, Fagan and Moran inspected discs and also made deductions while studying original logs. Collectors of pioneer recordings have found that some takes not underlined in EDVR were in fact issued.

Broderick was a noted bass singer in the 1880s and 1890s. That he was in the original American casts of Gilbert and Sullivan light operas is testimony to his pre-eminence as a singer. His recording career seems to have lasted less than a year, beginning and ending in 1900. He recorded for Edison, Berliner, Zon-O-Phone and Johnson's new company but late in 1900 moved to his wife's hometown of Aurora, Illinois, which ended his recording work. He died in 1905.

Broderick is featured on 14 two-minute Edison Standard cylinders, two of them being recitations recorded in 1900: "Sheridan's Ride" (7694) and Kipling's "Absent Minded Beggar" (7649). The Kipling work was also recorded by Broderick for an Edison Concert cylinder (B359).

That Johnson's first numbered record features a recitation is not surprising since this was an era when reciting verse--on the vaudeville stage, at dinner parties--was commonplace. But this particular work recited by this artist is unusual.

Johnson's employment of Broderick was natural given the fact that Broderick had been recording for Berliner at least as early as March 10, 1900 and that Johnson's company basically evolved from Berliner's. The 14 titles Broderick recorded for Berliner consist of operatic arias (Mephisto's Serenade from Gounod's Faust; 01063), light opera numbers ("Gypsy Love Song" from Victor Herbert's The Fortune Teller; 01257), bass standards ("Down Deep Within the Cellar"; 01053), and various popular songs of the day ("The Yarn of the Dates"; 01072).

What is unusual is that Johnson used Broderick primarily for recitations. Broderick had recorded no recitations for Berliner, which employed other performers for speaking performances, including Len Spencer, George Graham, David C. Bangs, John Terrell, and Russell Hunting. George Graham and William F. Hooley recorded several in late 1899. Paul Charosh's Berliner Gramophone Records shows three recitations being recorded for the company in 1900, two by Press Eldridge and one by George Graham.

Broderick recorded 19 separate titles for Johnson over five recording dates, beginning on May 1, 1900 and ending on June 28, 1900. He returned once more, on November 3, 1900, to record new takes of previously recorded titles, with the third take of "Departure" from this session judged good enough to be issued.

Whether the idea to record "Departure" was suggested by Johnson and his associates, or whether Broderick suggested it because it was in his performing repertoire, is impossible to say. The poem must have been chosen for recording purposes because of its brevity, ideal for a 7" disc. The recording lasts 98 seconds.

Most of Broderick's recordings for Johnson were made at a time when the Johnson actually worked for Berliner. The Consolidated Talking Machine Company had not yet been formed when Broderick did the bulk of his work for Johnson.

Broderick's recitation of "Departure" was not the earliest recorded performance to be issued by Johnson's company. Some takes recorded during Broderick's earliest recording session for Johnson, on May 1, 1900, ended up on discs, including his renditions of Shield's "Friar of Orders Grey" (A-139) and de Koven's "The Armorer's Song" (A-141).

And Broderick performances were not the earliest to be issued by Johnson. The earliest recorded performance issued by Johnson appears to be disc A-2, which featured George Graham performing "The Colored Preacher," recorded on May 14, 1900. According to Fagan and Moran's EDVR, Dan Quinn made a recording for Johnson as early as January 30, 1900 ("She Knew A Lobster When She Saw One") but it was not issued.

Why was Johnson recording Broderick in May 1900? Why was Johnson recording Quinn months earlier on January 30, 1900? Emile Berliner's disc company was strong at that time. Frank Seaman would not file for the injunction that brought the Berliner company to a halt until June 25, which was six months away. Paul Charosh's Berliner Gramophone Records shows S.H. Dudley recording "The Colonel" (0929), from the show Whirl-i-gig, for Berliner on the day that Quinn recorded for Johnson. Were the recordings made at the same location, with Dudley recording during one part of the day and Quinn during another?

It is more likely they were made at different locations. Johnson did much experimentation. We cannot know for certain how much of Johnson's experiments with recording was done with Berliner's knowledge, but possibly Johnson was recording with Berliner's full support since only through experimentation could recording and playback technology be improved. Johnson's experiments could hardly have been a secret since Johnson used many artists who worked regularly for Berliner. On the other hand, it would not be surprising if Johnson's patent lawyer knew more about Johnson's experiments than Berliner.

In January 1900, Johnson's shop was at 108 N. Front St., Camden, New Jersey. He moved to 120 N. Front St. in February. Talking machines were made at these shops, and they may have served as early recording studios. Johnson also leased space on the 13th floor of the Stephen Girard Building in Philadelphia, and perhaps this was a site for recording. In a few years recording would be done at 424 South 10th Street, which had previously been listed as the location for the Berliner Gramophone Company.

That "Departure" is A-1 does not necessarily mean Johnson viewed it as better or more significant than other recordings available at the time. "Departure" may have become A-1 by a random process of assigning takes with release numbers, with that process being unknown today.

On the other hand, "Departure" was possibly selected for A-1 because the poem is about a young man saying farewell to his parents and getting on a train, the implication being that the man is starting a new life, leaving behind a community of poor farmers (the father stresses that he did not have much money to spend when shopping for a farewell gift) for greater opportunities in a big city. The opportunity for sound effects--a train whistling and moving on tracks--must have appealed to those making the recording.

But it seems unlikely that the choice of "Departure" for A-1 has a special meaning. Even if Johnson's new company is like a young man beginning a new life (with the Berliner Company being the father figure?), the poem in fact focuses on two elderly parents. The father does the talking in this dramatic monologue. The father and son wait for the latter's train at a station, and we learn about a mother at home in a sickbed. The overall tone is gloomy due to the mother being ill and possibly close to death. Listeners can only speculate on what the young man is feeling. The poem's subject matter--a son leaving home, leaving a simple rural environment (probably for the "wicked" city)--is typical of the period.

The now largely forgotten American poet Eugene Field, a newspaper man who wrote verse as well as stories, died in Chicago on November 4, 1895. His work remained enormously popular at the turn of the century. His "Little Boy Blue" and "Dutch Lullaby (Wynken, Blynken, and Nod)" were especially loved--both, in fact, were set to music by Reginald DeKoven as well as Ethelbert Nevin. John McCormack's recording of Nevin's "Little Boy Blue" (Victor 64605) sold very well. Evan Williams was another Red Seal artist to record songs set to Field's words, not only Nevin's "Little Boy Blue" but "Wynken, Blynken, and Nod" as set to music by Passiello. Edison artists who recorded "Little Boy Blue" are Harry Macdonough, Elisabeth Spencer, and Anna Case.

Victor

I find no evidence that Field's sentimental "Departure" was well-known in 1900. The 12-volume set The Writings In Prose And Verse of Eugene Field, published by Scribner's, has no poem titled "Departure." That a 12-volume set has nothing titled "Departure" suggests the poem was one of his uncollected newspaper verses or was excerpted from a longer work. If the latter is the case, I have not discovered the longer work from which "Departure" was taken and cannot compare my transcription of Broderick's recitation with the original text. One phrase is unintelligible but this may be due to record wear or pressing imperfections. Broderick is not at fault. Blessed with a sonorous basso voice, he is very articulate.

David Banks informs me that Eugene Field himself had been highly regarded for his recitations. Field's was a basso voice, according to descriptions of Field's recitations.

In the opening announcement, Johnson's company is not mentioned despite most other companies at this time using spoken announcements for company identification. Announcements on the earliest Zon-O-Phones say "for the Zon-O-phone," with later ones saying "Zon-O-Phone record!" But Johnson followed Berliner's practice of stating only title and performer. Spoken announcements on Berliners never mention the name "Berliner."

Below is my transcription of Johnson's first disc (it opens with Broderick announcing the poem's name and the performer's own name):

Eugene Field's poem "Departure"
Rendered by George Broderick
Well, Bill, shake hands and say goodbye 'Afore you go away
We hate to see you leave us
We'd much rather have you stay
Mother and me's gettin' old
We can't be with you long
She's been failing for some time now
And will never be as strong as she was
'Afore the ague laid her up so long in bed
And more than likely when you get back
You'll find your mother dead
Her cold lips were quivering
When you went to say goodbye
And tears splashed on her pillow
When she asked you to try
And be a good boy for her sake,
Bill, when you get far away
We hate to see you leave us
We'd much rather have you stay
[Train whistle]
Well, Bill, your train's a-comin'
Here's some stuff the children sent
Driftwood more than likely
And me and mother went
And had our pictures took
So as to give you one
To remember us by in the years
When we'll be dead and gone
And here's a little Bible mother sent to give to you
We didn't have much money
But I reckon it will do as well
As if we weren't poor
And had more change to spare
So take it, Bill, with mother's love
And try to keep it
Where it'll always be the handiest
When you get far away
We hate to see you go, Bill
We'd much rather have you stay
[Sound of a train departing]
Good-bye, Bill!
God bless him!