Popular Music for Orchestra – A Brief History ( Part 7 )

Dick O'Connor

Sonic recording and reproduction revolutionized our relationship with music. Impressions of the theatre, the concert hall, public entertainment and celebration, could now be heard in our living rooms, kitchens, and boudoirs on a daily basis. Performances of the great, the singular, and the competent became our personal possessions, establishing a more affecting, if secondary, intimacy between artist and auditor that permanently altered how we listen and respond to music, the qualities we expect from it, and the value we place upon it. Recording too invested the participating vocalist and instrumentalist with a new business respectability not only as the purveyor of a service but as the creator of a tangible good. Music itself became a commodity in a turn of events that would significantly impact not only the spheres of entertainment, culture, business, and technology, but also the communication habits, social interaction, and indeed the psychic unity of the nation’s, and the earth’s, inhabitants.

Style, technique, content, and context were now rapidly transmitted to and absorbed by legions of enthusiastic, waiting listeners, increasing musical knowledge, exciting curiosity, stimulating imitation and creativity, all of which contributed to rising standards of musicianship, standards that would, unfortunately, in time curtail the considerable casual music-making of amateurs by comparison, causing the parlor piano, organ, or violin to give way to the living room console, hi-fi, and CD burner, and replacing the portable banjo and ukulele with the wind-up phonograph, the transistor radio, and the “boom-box”. When recordings became a staple of every kind of media the professional and semi-professional musician would suffer as well. The juke-box and wide-screen TV displaced the pianist at the corner watering hole, the disco and Karaoke bar succeeded the nightclub, the disc-jockey supplanted the orchestra, chorus, soloists, arrangers, copyists, conductor, announcer, and studio audience of network radio, and MTV superseded the television variety show and spectacular as recorded sound more and more permeated the venues of daily life.

From the inception of commercial recording popular music for orchestra was available and sold moderately well. Characteristic offerings of this type from the industry’s first thirty years ( c.1889 – 1920 ) were marches ( National Emblem, Happy Days, Boy Scouts of America, Sousa’s works ) , march-derived cakewalks and ragtime ( Creole Belles, Dill Pickles, Maple Leaf Rag, The Booster ) , Tin Pan Alley ragtime tunes ( Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Waiting For the Robert E. Lee, International Rag ) , “selections” medleys from popular operettas and musical shows ( A Trip To Chinatown, Floradora, The Red Mill, The Pink Lady, Have A Heart, Katinka ) , pop songs ( In the Good Old Summertime, Hearts and Flowers, Indiana, Shine On Harvest Moon, Poor Butterfly ) , and pop-song medleys ( Ta-Ra-Ra-Boom, Teasing, Summertime, On the Mississippi ) , including, from about 1910, “oldies”, personality, and songwriter retrospective medleys ( Moonlight Bay Medley, Bayes and Norworth, Harry Lauder, Ted Snyder, Charles K. Harris ) , favorite dance pieces ( Dancing In the Dark, Hiawatha Two-Step, Merry Widow Waltz, Cubanola Glide, Everybody’s Doin’ It, Memphis Blues, Missouri Waltz ) , light descriptive, character, and novelty intermezzi ( The Glow Worm, Echoes of the Marne, Christmas Morning With the Kiddies, Jovial Joe, Noisy Bill, In the Clock Store, Toy Shop Symphony ) , and patriotic music. Also marketed were transcribed excerpts from well-loved classics, light classics, operas, and ballets ( William Tell Overture, Narcissus, Then You’ll Remember Me from The Bohemian Girl, Sextet from The Bartered Bride, Characteristic Dance from The Nutcracker ) , as recordings of American symphonic orchestras would not become available until 1917. Solidly and squarely arranged in a straightforward, fulsome style with little subtlety, these early instrumental recordings were appealing for their novelty and the popularity of their tunes, and only in the most primitive way represent the sound of an actual concert band or theatre orchestra of the period.

The dance band craze of the 1920s and 30s all but obliterated these styles of recorded music. A more frenetic pace, heavier rhythm, jazz-influenced “hot” solos, and busier, frequently changing orchestration that emphasized novel and distorted instrumental sounds, quirky contrapuntal countermelodies, contrasting colors and ensemble weights, and jerky interplay between groups within the orchestra, marked popular ensemble discs of the new era. So too did the increasing influence of music publishing, broadcasting, and motion picture interests. Records had been effectively used to demonstrate, publicize, and popularize the songs of Tin Pan Alley since before the turn of the century. Now they not only became a requirement for a song’s success, but started to outsell the song itself. Furthermore they began to create popular music superstars, artists whose primary identification was with a particular recording firm but who often moved into musical theatre, concerts, vaudeville, and motion pictures, displacing more established stars. One result of this influence was the annoying but eventually inevitable inclusion of song-plugging vocalists on otherwise instrumental dance recordings. Another was the flood of untried, untested, and trivial pop creations that saturated the market as publishers and their parent companies experimented with various methods, formulas, and strategies of obtaining a “hit”, which often involved the payment of production, pressing, and promotion costs as well as additional fees for special performers, musicians, and arrangers. Discerning phonograph owners caring little for dance music might find solace in the quiet, gentle, more sensitive salon interpretations of popular material issued from the mid-twenties or in the growing number of classical and show music releases, but often turned to radio instead.

The earliest recording orchestras were twelve to twenty-piece contingents from popular concert bands – Duffy and Imgrund’s 5th Regiment Band, the U.S. Marine Band, Gilmore’s, Sousa’s, later Arthue Pryor’s and Conway’s, but from the mid 1890s record companies themselves assembled groups of musicians for specific projects. Repeated use of favorite available instrumentalists led to the establishment of the first regular studio orchestras several years later. By 1905, when instrumental accompaniment had become standard on most vocal sessions, these orchestras contained some of the New York City area’s finest players. Consisting of wind instruments ( for band music ) or mixed strings and winds with perhaps a piano, harp, rhythm or percussion instrument, they seldom exceeded twenty pieces long after recording technology had developed to the point of being able to successfully handle much larger ensembles.

Vital to the creative day-to-day operations and success of the recording enterprise were the companies’ music directors. They coached and helped develop contracted artists, selected repertoire ( visiting publishers, musical shows, vaudeville theatres, concerts, nightclubs, etc. ) , arranged, adapted, composed, and edited music for studio orchestra, hired musicians ( then, as now, individual instrumentalists often made significant creative contributions in the studio ) , and prepared, rehearsed, and conducted recording sessions. The proper accomplishment of these duties required technique, taste, and tact, organizational skills, a sense of what was commercially feasible and desirable, an understanding of the recording studio’s acoustical opportunities and vicissitudes, and the ability to marshal, deploy, and direct their forces in a timely fashion toward a fruitful finish. Flexibility and a working knowledge of many styles of music were highly useful assets as well, for a music director in the course of a day’s work might move from symphony and sentimental song to show selection, from concert band and comic quartet to dance combo, or from anthem and operatic aria to educational instruction. At Columbia Tom Clark, Frederick Hager, Charles Prince, and at Victor Eddie King and Walter Bowman Rogers pioneered this position. All were recording instrumentalists identified with popular wind bands. Hager would continue his career with the Edison, Zon-o-phone, Keen-o-Phone, Rex, and other labels, Rogers would work for Par-o-ket, Paramount, Emerson, and Brunswick as well, and King would later move over to Columbia. They were succeeded by Rosario Bourdon, Josef Pasternack, and Nathaniel Shilkret ( all with Victor ) , Eugene Jaudas ( Edison ) , Adrian Schubert ( Banner, Domino, Regal, Crown ) from symphonic backgrounds, and dance band leaders Gustave Haenschen ( Brunswick, World Broadcasting Company ) , Nathan Glantz ( Gennett, Banner ) , Lou Gold ( Okeh, Banner ) , and Sam Lanin ( Columbia, Gennett ) . Ben Selvin ( Vocalion, Brunswick, Columbia ) , Hugo Frey ( Victor ) , and Louis Katzman ( Brunswick ) were dance musicians with classical training. Justin Ring ( Okeh, Banner, Decca ) , a wind band man, had been active since before the turn of the century as a composer and orchestrator. The first fifty years of recording saw yet another generation of music directors begin work just before and during the depression, among them Frank Black (Brunswick, World Recording Company), Victor Young (Brunswick, Decca), Leonard Joy (RCA, Decca), Johnny Green (Brunswick), and Henri Rene (RCA).

Not all these men were arrangers. Eddie King supervised sessions, Pasternack was a classical conductor, and Sam Lanin essentially a contractor. Rosario Bourdon and Ben Selvin in time chose to concentrate, respectively, on conducting and supervision, subcontracting their scoring obligations. The majority, however, did their own writing, or the lion’s share of it, setting high artistic and creative standards that within the business would only be surpassed by their better-known and frequently brilliant mid-century counterparts at Decca ( Gordon Jenkins, Toots Camarata, Jack Pleis ) , Capitol ( Paul Weston, Frank DeVol, Nelson Riddle ) , RCA ( Hugo Winterhalter, Harold Mooney, Marty Gold, Ray Martin, Sid Ramin, Ray Ellis) , Columbia ( Winterhalter, Percy Faith, Weston, Ray Conniff, Ray Ellis ), Mercury ( David Carroll, Richard Hayman, Mooney, Quincy Jones ) , MGM ( Leroy Holmes ) , Coral ( Pleis, Dick Jacobs ) , Cadence ( Archie Bleyer ) , Dot ( Billy Vaughn ) , ABC Paramount ( Don Costa ) , Scepter/Wand ( Burt Bacharach ) , and, in England, at HMV ( Frank Cordell ) , Decca ( Stanley Black, Johnny Douglas ) , EMI ( Ray Martin, Norrie Paramor, Tony Osborne ) , Philips ( Angela Morley ) , and Parlaphone ( Ron Goodwin ) , to name only a few.

Depressions, wartime shortages, exclusive, incompatible systems, and company failures combined with continuing scientific advances that quickly rendered studio equipment obsolete and entertainment competition from radio, motion pictures, theatres, nightclubs, and finally television to slow the growth of the recording industry. Only in the late 1950s would it offer the consumer a truly accurate acoustical product and attain a comfortable business maturity. Decades of affluence and cultural crush would follow, sending sales skyrocketing and and bringing the industry unprecedented influence. The constant and exhaustive search for absolute fidelity had yielded a wealth of technologies that opened new worlds of sound and made possible new avenues of expression, heightened levels of communication, and an even greater intimacy of performer and public. Fidelity lost its relevance as the studio now not only defined what was normal and acceptable musical sound but became itself a tool and medium for musical creativity. Recording changed not only how we listen to music but how we make music.

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