The Public's Appetite
The decision attracted little public attention, as the ramifications of this complex case involving new technologies were not grasped. After all, the decision did nothing immediately to affect Victor’s dominant position in the recording market. Victor’s sales of phonographs and records by the end of 1921 had reached an astounding $50 million. However, Starr Piano and its Gennett Records had helped set the stage for dramatic change in the competitive nature of the recording business. “Other companies have likewise entered the field imbued with the success of the Starr Piano Company in defending its position,” Starr Piano wrote in its press statement. “The Brunswick record, the Vocalion record, the OKeh record, and many others of lesser fame have been dependent upon the success of this litigation equally with the Starr Piano Company for their continuance in business.”
Indeed, the court decisions gradually opened the floodgates. With lateral-cut recording technology securely in the public domain, smaller recording labels switched to this process. New labels were formed. The heightened competition between labels in the 1920s promoted improvements in recording processes, reduced record prices, and generated more recording activity than could have been imagined before the advent of Gennett Records.
The informal alliance between Starr Piano’s Gennett Records Division and the other small competitors did not end with the Starr court victory. Through the 1920s, the Gennett family maintained loose business ties with these other record companies, as hundreds of Gennett master discs were pressed for several different labels. With the onset of the Roaring Twenties, the Gennett family’s small, Indiana-based record company had earned a respectable place in the rapidly evolving recording industry.
Ezra Wickemeyer and the Richmond Recording Studio
Starr Piano entered the 1920s in the right business. While the radical industrial shift to a peacetime economy after World War I caused a national recession, the nation was poised for years of unprecedented consumerism. U.S. troops returned from European battlefields seeking domestic stability. Within a short time, the public appetite for household goods, such as pianos and phonographs, was stronger than ever. Meanwhile, competition between a growing number of new record labels, abetted by Starr Piano’s winning its legal battle with Victor Records, sparked a proliferation in the sheer number of new record releases available to phonograph owners.
Times were good in Richmond’s Starr Valley. By 1920, the company was annually producing about 15,000 pianos, 3,000 phonographs, and 3,000,000 records. With the switch to lateral-cut records in the early 1920s, the Gennett label prospered, with a sizable catalog offering classical, sacred, popular, and military band music, as well as specialty foreign-language and instructional discs.
While Gennett Records was now among the nation’s larger record companies, it was still dwarfed by the East Coast’s recording giants. Victor and Columbia secured exclusive contracts with most of the era’s leading classical and pop artists. Whenever Gennett produced hits by promising entertainers, Victor and Columbia seemed to snatch them away with a lucrative contract. Furthermore, they pressed their records with better materials and had better sound quality than the Gennett discs, which were recorded in both the New York and the Richmond studios but were all pressed in the Richmond plant.
Yet the competitors’ dominance did not keep the frugal Gennett Records division from churning out thousands of new releases, which sold by the millions through Starr Piano stores and independent distributors, known in the business as “jobbers.” In fact, most Gennett discs that surface today in antique stores or on Internet auctions are the blue-labeled, acoustically recorded discs of the early 1920s.
By 1922, Gennett’s Richmond recording studio, hidden back in the Starr Piano factory complex, busily recorded musicians at a pace comparable to the company’s Manhattan studio. The previous year, construction of the Richmond studio was largely the handiwork of Ezra Wickemeyer, a key figure in the Gennett Records story. From August 1921 to mid-1927, he was the “recording director” in Richmond, waxing thousands of musicians near his childhood neighborhood.
Wickemeyer never knew a world without Starr Piano. Born in Richmond in 1893 as the son of a German immigrant carpenter, he grew up with his parents and four siblings in his maternal grandmother’s two-story brick house at 300 South Third Street only twenty-five yards from the steep ridge overlooking Starr Valley, on which the Chesapeake & Ohio (C&O) Railroad locomotives thundered toward downtown. This intimate neighborhood, with its narrow streets and houses nestled together just south of downtown, was a German enclave where workers took the short stroll each morning to the piano factory and returned after a long day with sawdust stuck to the sweat of their arms.
As a twelve-year-old boy in February 1905, Wickemeyer made headlines across the state after surviving a dramatic gas explosion at the family home. Newspaper accounts reported that his mother smelled natural gas and instructed young Ezra to lead a repairman to the basement. The man foolishly lit a match, and the blast collapsed two exterior walls. In flames and screaming, the boy fought his way out. His mother, in the kitchen with her four other children, led them through a blown-out wall. Newspapers reported that Grandma, in the backyard when the blast occurred, collapsed from emotion. The strange, bombed-out house attracted hundreds of curiosity seekers for days. “Although suffering intensely, the boy (Wickemeyer) displayed nerve and presence of mind,” Richmond’s The Evening Item published in a page-one story.
The young boy grew into an outgoing, stocky man of average height with a receding hairline and eyeglasses. The severe burns suffered as a child left prominent, thick scars on his hands, face, and upper forehead, which may have explained his ever-present hat. He was also rarely seen without a cigarette daggling from his lips. After high school, Wickemeyer worked as a grocery clerk and attended Richmond Business College. In 1914 at age twenty-one, he became a stenographer (writer of office shorthand) at Starr Piano, where his uncle and future father-in-law were woodworkers. His sister also became a Starr Piano employee. When the Gennetts expanded the company’s product scope, Wickemeyer moved into the recording division. On his military draft card filed in 1917, he reported living at his parents’ home in Richmond while working as a “recorder of phonograph records” at Gennett’s Manhattan office. After serving in World War I, he returned to Richmond and worked in the Starr Piano office. He married a local woman, Katherine Helmich, and they rented an apartment at 112 S. Seventh Street, a half-mile from Starr Valley. When the Gennetts decided to establish a second recording studio in an existing building at the piano factory, Wickemeyer’s stenographer days ended. “Uncle Ez was known as a guy who could put things together, and he set up the Richmond studio, and that got him involved in the recording end,” said his nephew Robert Helmich.
The single-story, rectangular studio building was situated along a row of factory and warehouse buildings on a concrete floodwall against the Whitewater River. The building had previously been a kiln for curing wood used in manufacturing pianos. Next to the studio was the factory’s flood pump house. In the spring, the small river’s active waters moved swiftly past the back of the studio. A secondary railroad spur ran along the buildings, about three feet from the studio’s front door, for slow-moving cars hauling freight through the crowded Starr factory. The trains could generate enough commotion to interrupt recording sessions, so the studio was generally aware of their schedule. In later years, a red light outside the studio alerted the entire factory that recording sessions were under way.
Over the decades, musicians have described how train noise interrupted sessions or completely ruined recordings at the Richmond studio. The culprits were the steam locomotives of the C&O line, which passed above Starr Piano along the high eastern ridge of the gorge near the Wickemeyer homestead. From the railroad line, one has a bird’s-eye view of the entire Starr Valley below. This railroad line, situated about fifty yards from the recording studio, produced noise and vibration at the most unpredictable times. In fact, some collectors of vintage records are convinced that certain Gennett discs contain the faint sound of churning trains in the background. “It could be a nuisance with the railroad tracks down there, but you didn’t think a lot about it and went on,” said Marion McKay, a 1920s bandleader who recorded numerous times at the Richmond studio.
The recording studio, about 125 × 30 feet, adjoined a control room on the other side of the wall. A potbelly stove kept the room warm. Sawdust between the interior and exterior walls was a feeble attempt at soundproofing. This was before the era of acoustic wall tiles, so the studio was “deadened” by monk’s cloth draperies from ceiling to floor. On one wall hung a large Mohawk rug, which had once been on a floor in Harry Gennett’s home. The Richmond studio could end up so dead that people standing twenty feet apart practically had to yell at each other to be heard. On occasion, Gennett staffers faced the wrath of musicians of large orchestras who complained they couldn’t hear each other’s instruments. In such cases, the Gennett technicians tried to improve the room’s resonance by simply pulling back the drapes.
Before the advent of electronic recording in the mid-1920s, recording companies engaged in “acoustic” recording. The process required musicians to gather around and play into a couple of large megaphone-like horns, one to two feet in diameter. The horns transferred the sound, via a diaphragm, to the recording stylus, which engraved the sound vibrations onto a polished, soft wax master disc. Because the horns, the diaphragm, and stylus were all connected as one piece, the horns moved with the stylus as it inscribed grooves across three inches of the rotating wax master. Consistent with industry practice, the Gennett studios experimented with horns of various sizes, depending upon the type of instruments or voices to be reproduced. In the Richmond studio, the horns, affixed to a multi-pronged pipe, protruded from a small opening in the wall. Just behind and under the horns, through the opening in the wall, was the large recording machine, also called a recording lathe, which turned the blank wax master disc. In order to avoid picking up excess noise during recording, a curtain at the opening in the wall enclosed the horns. The curtain also kept the musicians from being distracted by Wickemeyer or one of his technicians who operated the large recording lathe. After a disc was etched, Wickemeyer pulled open the curtain and directly faced the musicians a few steps away.
Because no electricity was involved in operating the system, the Gennett turntable on the recording lathe operated by a cable and pulley system, much like a grandfather clock. The center pin on the turntable was attached to one end of the cable, which had a large weight on the other end. When the weight was lowered down a shaft, the turntable spun. If the studio had been extremely cold overnight, the grease on the turntable’s gear would gum up by morning, and recording would have to be delayed until the room was heated. The pulley system occasionally gave the turntable an inconsistent rotation speed. Thus, while a 78-rpm disc should be recorded while rotating 78 times per minute, some early Gennett discs were cut at uneven speeds or entirely at speeds slightly faster than 78 rpm. Because early phonographs were spring-wound, the discrepancy was not very noticeable to record buyers. But some Gennett discs played on an electronic phonograph seem to slide in and out of tune. However, by 1923 the Richmond studio evidently had installed an electric motor to regulate the turntable speed, as virtually no pitch variation is detectable on Gennett’s classic jazz recordings of 1923–24.
The cutting stylus on the recording lathe, which etched sound vibrations from the recording horns onto the polished wax master, could be made of glass, mica, diamond, or, most often, sapphire. The Gennett staffers brushed powdered graphite into the grooves of the wax master to ensure smooth etching by the stylus. Recordings were made on a blank wax disc, consisting primarily of the carnauba wax commonly used in candles. The blank disc, about 13 inches in diameter and 1.5 inches thick, was first polished to a mirror-like finish on two large machines, called the “shaver” and the “polisher.” Preparing the wax discs could be tedious. The shaving machine was not always reliable, recalled Gennett staffer Rena Clark, and hard impurities in the wax discs could damage the machine’s delicate sapphire shaver.
With the Richmond studio situated in the hinterlands, its business depended on signing bands passing through town. Thus, the company’s front office would frequently book recording time for artists without giving the studio staff much advance notice. A band might show up at the studio, and only a couple of wax discs would be polished and ready for recording. Clark would scramble to polish the rough wax discs on the sensitive machinery while the band stood around waiting.
Before actual recording began, Wickemeyer established the sound balance by placing the performers at various distances from the horns. Balancing took place only after numerous wax test records of the performers were made and played back through the horns. Certain musicians, such as banjo players, sat on high stools in front of the horns. Naturally, louder brass players were positioned in back. If necessary, Wickemeyer made dozens of wax takes until he felt the sound balance was correct. In addition to establishing sound balance, the test pressings played back through the acoustic horns exposed some musicians as simply incompetent. Wickemeyer would politely send them on their way. Other, more diplomatic sound engineers pretended to record them, knowing full well nothing would be released.
Once Wickemeyer settled on the proper placement of musicians, actual recording could begin. During the recording, the engineer would flick on a red light in the studio to alert the musicians that two minutes and thirty seconds had passed and that the song should end soon. Generally, the Gennett policy was to produce three master discs of each song attempted by the musicians. Each song was given a master number, which was inscribed in the inner circle of the wax disc. If the first take of a song was designated No. 6543, for example, then the second and third takes were designated 6543-A and 6543-B, and so on.
The Richmond studio’s location in the bottom of a humid river gorge made recording during the summer months unpleasant enough. But in order to keep the wax discs soft during recording, the unventilated studio had to be kept uncomfortably hot throughout the year. In recalling his recording sessions in Starr Valley, McKay remembered first and foremost the horrendous climate in the studio: “The temperature was always way up. It could be in February and still 80 to 85 degrees in there.” The small fans placed to each side of the recording horns offered little relief. In photographs taken in the Richmond studio, the musicians appear as if they had performed in a sauna.
What with the studio temperature, the need for numerous test recordings, and the company’s desire to process as many songs as possible in a one-day session, the musicians were put through an exhausting exercise. “Wickemeyer was a good guy to work with, pretty reasonable,” said McKay. “They [the Gennett staff] didn’t give you any problems; they had plenty of their own problems getting the right sound and balance. You had to be pretty patient sitting through all the playbacks. But nobody minded since recording was such a new thing to everybody. We didn’t know any different.”
In fact, the musicians who recorded in the Starr factory almost universally held a nostalgic affection for those long, tedious recording sessions by the railroad tracks. “How could you forget it?” asked Bu Dant, a horn player with Hoagy Carmichael’s 1928 pickup band for a late-night session in Starr Valley. “When I think of all the places where I’ve recorded music, that spot in the old piano factory in Richmond had to be one of the most unusual.” Baby Dodds, drummer for King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, held a similar sentiment, when he said in the late 1950s, “I’ve made a lot of recordings, but the biggest kick I got out of any recording session was when the King Oliver band went out to Richmond, Indiana, to record for the Gennett Company.”
After a recording session concluded, and the musicians went on their way, the studio staffers took the fragile wax master discs, which were gently packed in cloth-lined boxes, to the plating department in another building in the Starr factory. Copper-plated master discs were then made from the wax masters. Because the studio used powdered graphite in cutting the original wax master disc, rough spots could appear on the copper plating. The staffers very carefully scraped away the rough spots with the help of magnifying glasses, dentist chisels, and engraving tools. If they failed, the copper master was melted down and used again. For example, master discs from a historic Bix Beiderbecke recording session in Richmond were destroyed for this very reason.
From the copper master, a few test pressings and a “mother” disc were produced. The mother disc, from which final record pressings were derived, was made from very highly durable shellac-based materials. It was sent to the matrix department for storage. Meanwhile, the test pressings went to the Starr Piano administrative building, where Gennett family members, company managers, studio engineers, or whoever was available, played them on a phonograph to determine which selections would be pressed into finished records. In one case, the company sent test pressings of fiddler Doc Roberts, one of their most reliable recording artists in the late 1920s, to his Kentucky farm for his evaluation. But that was rare. Such decisions fell almost exclusively to the small Gennett staff in Richmond, which also evaluated the metal master discs shipped in by railroad from the Manhattan studio. In fact, the control the Richmond staff exercised over the selections was a regular source of consternation at the New York studio, where the staff regularly complained about the quality of discs that Wickemeyer recorded in Richmond.
When the best takes were selected, the matrix department pulled the corresponding mother discs, from which they produced metal “stampers.” The stampers were used to press the shellac-based records sold to the public. After about 500 records, the stamper would wear out. New metal stampers were then duplicated from the mother disc, and the pressing would continue.
No recording artist ever got rich from the releases selected by the Gennett staff. Some musicians were paid a basic flat fee, anywhere from $15 to $50 per recording session. Many of the black artists received even less. Most of Gennett’s more popular artists signed a royalty contract that guaranteed quarterly payments of one penny for each copy of each side sold. (Later, an additional royalty payment of one-half cent per release was paid when selections were also issued on the Gennett discount labels.)
A breakage allowance of up to 10 percent of these minuscule royalties could be deducted to cover the costs of records broken during shipping. Occasionally, Gennett provided its recording artists with a stack of personal discs to be used for promotional purposes. One must remember that most entertainers in the 1920s viewed their record releases as vehicles for promoting their live shows, not as primary sources of income. The obvious exceptions were the leading artists on the Victor and Columbia labels, such as crooner Rudy Vallee or bandleader Paul Whiteman.
Musicians traveled to the Gennett recording studios on their own dime, and once they arrived, the number of songs to be waxed was uncertain. Some Gennett contracts with performers stated that the company was not obligated to produce more than three recordings during a session. If the musicians showed promise, however, the Gennett staff would have them churn out as many songs as possible, usually over a period of one or two days.
Gennett’s meager payment to artists, combined with an efficient plating and pressing organization employing fewer than a hundred people in the Starr Valley, enabled Gennett Records to churn out millions of records profitably in the early 1920s. As America became the melting pot of nationalities, the Gennett Records catalogs during the period reflected wildly diverse musical tastes: the National Marimba Orchestra, Green Brothers Xylophone Orchestra, Gonzalez’s Mexican Band, Lieutenant Matt’s 106th Infantry Band, the Knights of Columbus Band, the Orpheus Trio, the Italian Degli Arditi Orchestra, the Hawaiian Guitars, and the Heidelberg Quartet. Gennett also pressed records in German, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Hungarian, and Czechoslovakian, which were popular with the wave of immigrants pouring into New York.