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360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story

Sean Wilentz

(Chronicle; US: Oct 2012)

This tasteful coffee-table book could have been subtitled “the marriage of art and commerce”. It shows and tells the history of one of the most important record labels in the world through an abundance of photographs and an impressive text by the noted historian Sean Wilentz, who is also the author of a book about Bob Dylan. Only RCA Victor, Columbia’s arch-rival, has as rich a vault of music, so the book is as much a story of 125 years of making music for posterity as it is a paean to the performers, producers, engineers and executives who made Columbia such a long-lasting and classy brand.


First, let’s stipulate that the book’s sumptuous reproduction of artist photo portraits and colorful labels, ads and jackets is a triumph. You don’t even have to open the book; the cover is a montage of stickers from legendary platters.


Surely by design, the eye is drawn to two above the title: Dylan’s Time Out of Mind and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. Then you notice Johnny Cash, Benny Goodman, Al Jolson, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. For any music lover who came of age in the era before downloading playlists, this is a sentimental trip down memory lane.


Inside, there are fabulous full-page or double-page candid photos and publicity stills of such major artists as the very young Frank Sinatra; the very, very young Bob Dylan; a smirking young Billy Joel; Count Basie and his shadow; Billie Holiday and her dog; a grinning Miles Davis; and a sexy Beyonce. Even if you don’t read a word of the text, you get your money’s worth lingering over the images.


One literally epic omission should be noted: Michael Jackson.


His Thriller, the biggest-selling album of all time, issued on Columbia’s subsidiary Epic label, is mentioned only briefly in the text. Even more astonishing, there is not a single photo of Jackson, his Epic releases or stills from his path-breaking videos.


Wilentz refers to Epic as “subsidiary-turned-rival… now very much its own label, although attached to CBS” but never explains what that means. This seems crazy, especially since other subsidiaries, including Okeh, whose connection to Columbia Wilentz calls “murky,” are given their due. 


Returning to what is in the book, Columbia also has contributed to more than a century of music technology. Wilentz describes how far we’ve come from the days of yodelers recorded directly onto wax cylinders. Beginning with Edison’s patenting of the “phonograph” in 1878, we see the progression from novelty recordings of whistling to higher and higher fidelity, and at the same time the production of devices on which to hear them.


No MP3 player is mentioned, undoubtedly because Columbia got out of the hardware business a long time ago. Yet the vicious early competition between the “graphophone” versus the “phonograph” sounds like a harbinger of the Betamax/VHS war years later.


Negotiating between art and commerce has always been tricky. Early on, several leading Columbia acts were whites and blacks who imitated and even mocked African-Americans by performing in blackface, such as Jolson (white), famous for “Mammy”, and George Washington Johnson (black), whose signature song was “The Whistling Coon”.


By World War I, there were record players in the trenches. Meanwhile discs were replacing wax cylinders, and Victor had introduced what would be a remarkably durable trademark: a terrier in front of a “Victrola” listening to “his master’s voice.” Throughout, Wilentz is up-front about RCA Victor’s many contributions to the industry.


In the ‘20s, Columbia helped create a new culture in the United States and abroad through such towering talents as Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke and Bessie Smith.  Victor experimented with new, one-sided discs played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute but they became “ripped to shreds” after just a few plays. As the Depression set in, they were abandoned.


Bad economic times and the repeal of Prohibition proved good for the popularity of jukeboxes in bars as Columbia and Victor battled for the services of stars such as opera singers Enrico Caruso and Rosa Ponselle.


By then, radio was a force. Instead of killing the market for records, it promoted them. The term DJ was coined in 1935 by Walter Winchell to describe Martin Block, who hosted WNEW’s popular program from New York, “The Make Believe Ballroom”. The power of DJs surged during World War II when constraints on shellac and a musician’s strike just about halted the production of new records by the major labels, and especially delayed the popularity of the burgeoning bebop jazz sound.


According to Wilentz, William Paley’s purchase of Columbia and its radio affiliates in 1928 eventually led to the poaching of the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy from RCA to counteract NBC’s widely heard broadcasts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, originally created for conductor Arturo Toscanini.


Even more important an addition was Frank Sinatra, first of the teen idols, who signaled the emergence of a youth culture that has influenced the entertainment business ever since. When Sinatra was announced in 1942 on a Paramount Theater bill, “torrents of shrieking” came from girls in the audience. “What the fuck was that?” band leader Benny Goodman wondered, knowing barely anything about Sinatra’s appeal. 


That was just the start. Wilentz writes: “During World War II, a new cohort of swooning bobby-soxers made Sinatra [a] megastar – his tender bel canto voice, long-breath phrasing, and shambling skinniness conveying romance, virility, and vulnerability all at once.” 


The next great technological impact came when the LP was introduced in 1948. Suddenly listeners could here 22 ½ minutes per side on a two-sided 12-inch record at a cost of $4.85 an album, compared with $7.25 for a five-platter album of 78s. CBS gave RCA the chance to license LP technology, but RCA chose instead to introduce the 45 rpm for singles.


Nevertheless, the most nostalgic photo in the entire book for me is a double-page spread of a shelf packed with nearly 100 LPs, their spines showing titles ranging from Broadway shows to jazz, spoken-word classical, gospel, and country albums. What a ride! LPs held sway for more than four decades. (Of course, they are still around.)


Wilentz is great at capturing the sweep of cultural history while telling Columbia’s story, although he may have gone overboard covering its beginnings. He also is good at pointing out the company’s mistakes. Sinatra did not make his greatest recordings with Columbia but with Capitol. Mitch Miller, Columbia’s star talent scout in the ‘50s, signed Tony Bennett, but he disliked rock ‘n’ roll, hindering the label’s growth in the greatest market popular music has ever known.


It was partly a business choice, Wilentz argues. Only in the mid-‘60s, when rock “reoriented” itself toward albums rather than singles, did rock make a major difference to Columbia’s bottom line. Still, Columbia by then was an old fogey label in a rock and soul world. Thanks to John Hammond, it caught and held Dylan. But it had Aretha Franklin too, and lost her.


Finally, Clive Davis, bowled over by the Monterey Pop festival in 1967, dragged Columbia into the rock age. The company signed Big Brother and the Holding Company with Janis Joplin, Simon and Garfunkel, Chicago, Santana, the Byrds, Blood Sweat and Tears and later Bruce Springsteen, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, and Adele, among others. Classical music became almost a boutique market. Jazz sales declined; only Miles Davis, forever trying new styles, and Wynton Marsalis withstood the tide.


In recent years, the industry has shifted yet again. The final pages of 360 Sound are filled with images of too few not-yet-legendary stars like Beyonce and Adele, and too many of aging legends like Bennett, Dylan and Springsteen.


“Fulfilling its commitments to musical excellence as well as financial success will require unprecedented acuity and innovation in the digital era,” Wilentz observes.


Sure. The truth is the future belongs to Spotify and iTunes. And you can’t slap a round red-and-black brand sticker on a playlist.

Rating:

Grace Lichtenstein is a journalist and the author of six books. For many years she was a reporter and bureau chief for The New York Times. Her book reviews have appeared in the Times, Washington Post and other publications. She regularly reviews music books for MusicMediaMonthly.com She lives in Manhattan.


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