(P)REDATING GRAFTON'S L-MATRIX SERIES

By Alex van der Tuuk

broadwayads.jpg (96920 bytes)Dating the recording sessions for the New York Recording Laboratories has always been open for discussion since the earliest days of record collecting and, despite the sterling work of many researchers over the years, the precise details of recording dates still remain a mystery.

The NYRL started recording in New York City in a studio at 1140 Broadway in early 1918. The first pressing by the NYRL, together with the United Phonographs Corporation part of the Wisconsin Chair Company in Port Washington, Wisconsin, was produced in Grafton on June 29, 1917. This was three days before the official incorporation of the NYRL. Prior to that it is rumoured an independent studio in Flatbush, Brooklyn recorded and pressed records for the Puritan 2000 series, UPC’s first released series ever.

For the next fifteen years the NYRL used studio facilities in New York City, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Richmond, Indiana and Grafton, Wisconsin, as well as leasing many other masters from different record companies.

Grafton already housed the pressing facilities for the record companies in a red, wood building originating from 1848. The barn-like factory was built next to the Milwaukee River in order to harness waterpower for generating electricity. An empty building across from the pressing plant, connected by a viaduct, was used to house a recording studio in 1929. With the opening of the studio recording artists had to come to Grafton to record.

When WCC’s board of directors decided, against the will of plant engineer Walter A. Klopp, to close the recording studio and the pressing plant by July or August 1932, it would take another fifteen months before the factory closed its doors definitely and the building cleared. Three or four truck loads with original metal masters and metal mothers were shipped by truck up to Port Washington, where they were stored until summer 1942, along with the recording ledgers. On the USA’s entry into World War II the Government started scrap metal drives and the owners of the WCC realised they had a lot of metal they no longer needed. All the metal parts, together with the recording ledgers were loaded in freight cars and shipped off2.

The loss of the recording ledgers was a devastating loss for later discographers and researchers. That such ledgers indeed existed was proven when, in March 2000, a blank file card turned up in the archives of the Cedarburg Historical Society.

Since the late 1940s and early 1950s many attempts have been undertaken to compile a comprehensive list for the Grafton recordings from 1929 to 1932. The late Max Vreede spent many years of his life on the nigh-impossible task of compiling a complete matrix list for all NYRL recordings. One of his results is the epic book ‘Paramount 12/13000 Series’, published in 1971 by Storyville Publications. Another major manuscript is his unpublished NYRL Matrix File. In the 1980s Guido van Rijn helped him update many of his lists. This resulted in the publication of some of this research - the L-series matrix list for Grafton recordings in 78 Quarterly, issue No. 9 in 1996.

The lack of direct evidence made it difficult to put the sessions in an accurate timetable. The only evidence seemed to be a test pressing of Irene Scruggs. This test of L-348, according to Blues and Gospel Records, fourth (and earlier) edition, has a May 28, 1930 date written on the label. The test, as the text further mentions, was in the possession of Irene Scruggs herself, together with several others when she visited the United Kingdom during 1952 and 1953 with her daughter Leazar "Baby" Scruggs. This specific date was the only verifiable information to base the L- Matrix series on.

As early as January 1980 the authenticity of the date was called into doubt by the German collector Dietrich von Staden: "The same date is given for L-426 by Son House, and it seems doubtful to me that any record company did such a lot of recording in just one day – to put it mildly"3. The whereabouts of the test is unknown since at least 1980, as von Staden stated that the recording was no longer in the possession of Irene Scruggs, who then lived in Germany. Trying to get a photocopy of the label I wrote to several record collectors, unsuccessfully4.

Checking articles published in 1952 and 1953 when Scruggs was in England, a double-sided test with L-325, backed with How I’m Feeling (matrix 5127-2, possibly a ‘Marsh’ recording by Blind Blake) is mentioned by James Asman, as well as a copy of Pm 12978 (You’ve Got What I Want and Cherry Hill Blues). While Asman mentions several other Scruggs tests, he does not mention a test of L-3485. In 1980 von Staden details the same list of records Scruggs at that time still had in her possession, except the notorious L-348 test. It makes one wonder whether the test ever existed!6

Lacking this piece of evidence, things are further complicated by the fact that Son House, in early interviews conducted shortly after his rediscovery in 1964, stated that the recording sessions with Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson took place in July or August 1930. The information on the July date comes from a September 1964 letter from collector Nick Perls addressed to John Godrich. The August date is based on an interview by Alan Wilson with Son House in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on November 5, 1964. Son House told how he came from Clarksdale, MS, to Lula to visit his aunt and stayed there after meeting a girl friend and getting acquainted with Patton.

A.W. : This was in 1930?

S.H. : Uh huh (i.e. yes)

A.W. : Was this before you recorded?

S.H. : Yeah, yeah. Just before in August.

A.W. : August, you said?

S.H. : Uh huh (i.e. yes)

Son House claimed he based his Dry Spell Blues on the drought of that year. David Evans checked the Clarksdale newspapers and found out that there was no sense of a serious drought until the middle of July 1930. The first alarmist headline was July 87.

House’s statement is strengthened by the existence of a test of Bud Spaight’s Harmony Kings of L-372-1. A test with the same title bears the following information: T 7/10- #1, indicating a July 10, 1930 recording date8, or the day the test was processed or evaluated for issue by company executives.

spaight.jpg (136899 bytes)

The Patton/ House/ Brown/Johnson session started at matrix number L-398. If the above is true, then there’s no valid evidence that their session took place at or around May 28, 1930. A July or August recording date for Patton et al. seems to be in order.

Another complication for dating the L-matrix series is some recently published information in Storyville 2000/2001. In Laurie Wright’s "Pieces Of The Jigsaw", page 189, new information is given, taken from the Chicago Defender of July 12, 1930:

IRENE SCRUGGS, THE BLUES SINGER, AND BABY SCRUGGS, 9-YEAR-OLD SINGER AND DANCER, ARE AT 3151 INDIANA AVE., WHILE IRENE RECORDS FOR PARAMOUNT RECORDS.

Another Chicago Defender item of July 19, 1930 is mentioned by Wright, when Scruggs played the Vendome Theatre "last night". Wright states that Pm 12944 [with matrix numbers L-325/26] is mentioned in this article, meaning that this record was issued only recently. Pm 12944 was issued in the July 1930 Dealer’s List, according to the Vreede book. As Pm 12944 had already been issued by late June or early July and Scruggs was to make another set of recordings for the Paramount label, as the Chicago Defender of July 12 indicates, would this be the recording session during which she recorded L-347, L-348 and L-353?

Is it not just possible that the May 28, 1930 date only refers to matrix numbers L-325 and L-326?

Two leads point to separate recording sessions. Firstly, the Chicago Defender of June 14, 1930 gives the following information:

GEE, BUT WE WERE GLAD TO MEET IRENE SCRUGGS, THE "CHOCOLATE BROWN" PARAMOUNT ARTIST OF 1816 MORGAN ST. ST LOUIS. IRENE IS AT PRESENT IN CHICAGO MAKING A SPECIAL LINE OF RECORDS, AND CAN BE PAGED AT 3151 INDIANA AVE.

This clipping refers to a recording session one month prior to the earlier mentioned Defender clipping. Interestingly, Scruggs is nicknamed the Chocolate Brown, a name that was used to hide Scruggs’ identity on Pm 12944 and 12978.

Secondly, in the February 1960 Matrix magazine Max Vreede published an early update on the Paramount 12/13000 series. He gives the following information:

L-325 & L-326 WERE RECORDED 28 MAY 1930. AT THE SAME DATE AN UNISSUED TITLE "HOW I’M FEELING" WAS ALSO RECORDED. THE ACC. IS DEFINITELY BY BLIND BLAKE. ALL THIS IS CONFIRMED BY MISS SCRUGGS HERSELF, THE DATA COMING FROM TEST PRESSINGS IN HER POSSESSION. (…) L-348 & L-353 WERE RECORDED ABOUT A WEEK AFTER L-325/69

The first part is contradicting the information in Blues and Gospel Records. Vreede got the information first hand when he visited Scruggs in the early 1950s in England. Vreede’s assumption that L-348 and L-353 were recorded about a week after L-325/6, is strengthened by the existence of a test of L-359 by Bud Spaight’s Harmony Kings. This test has the following information written on the label: 6/14 # 2. An undated newsclipping states that Spaight’s band made four recordings in Grafton ‘last Monday afternoon’, including L-359 and L-361. If the Spaight test is marked with 6/14 (a Saturday), then this could very well be the processing date or the day tests were evaluated for issue. Therefore, in all likelihood, the session would have taken place on the previous Monday, June 9, 193010. Scruggs, then, would have recorded L-348 and L 352 prior to this date. It makes one wonder what recording session the Chicago Defender of July 12, 1930 referred to.

A time gap between the two sessions would not be unusual at that time, taken into consideration that the NYRL was at a very low ebb and had been since early 1930. Recording sessions may have been much more delayed than we presume. During my March 2000 trip to Grafton and Port Washington, I interviewed Ed Kleist (born ca. 1915). While on his way to school Kleist was asked to start working in the shipping department by Harry Dickerman. This was around June 1929. "When I started working there I worked twelve hours in a day. Just at the rush time. The first couple of months there was a rush, after that it collapsed. This would be very early 1930"11.

Emry Arthur, recording artist for the Pm 3000 series, started working in the Grafton pressing plant, believing that since he was an employee at the factory it would be easier for him to record. A letter he wrote, now owned by Charles K. Wolfe, dated March 18, 1930 tells us the following:

I HAVE GOT THE SONGS READY TO RECORD, BUT THERE IS NO USE TO TRY TO GET THIS CO. TO LET ME RECORD THEM UNLESS SOMEONE ELSE PAYS ME. IT DON’T SEEM LIKE THEY ARE VERY BUSY JUST NOW. WE HAVE BEEN CUT BACK TO 8 HOURS A DAY AND THINGS SURE DO LOOK BAD JUST NOW. IF THEY DON’T GET SOME WORK TO DO IN THE FACTORY BEFORE LONG, I AM LOOKING TO GET LAYED (sic) OFF…

Their publishing company’s activity, the Chicago Music Publishing Company, also stopped after April 1930. This last group of copyright registrations included only five songs recorded during the first months after the opening of the Grafton studio. These are L-30, L-36, L-69, L-75 and an unissued title registered to Florida-based Paramount dealer and talent scout W.R. Calaway, Chain Store Blues. These copyrights were registered at the Library of Congress on April 9, 1930. No other songs were registered after this batch, which strengthens the idea that the NYRL’s business activity was at a very low ebb. The WCC’s board of directors by this time tried to sell the company to talent scout Henry Speir from Jackson, MS. Gayle Dean Wardlow, who interviewed him at length in the 1960s, told me that Speir took the Delta Big Four to Grafton to record in (late) April 193012. Matrix numbers for this session starts at L-311. Other more or less adjoining sessions may further pinpoint recording dates.

To give some idea of just how difficult it is to ascertain NYRL recording dates in the absence of ledgers, let us take as an example the Henry Townsend recording session. The fourth edition of Blues and Gospel Records lists the recording date of Townsend’s two known recordings on L-464 and L 469 as circa May 1931. Based on the May 28, 1930 "Scruggs test" the Townsend session in Van Rijn/Vreede’s list in 78 Quarterly is set for circa June 1, 1930. In Henry Townsend’s biography, Bill Greensmith based Townsend’s Grafton recording session on his claim that Oliver Cobb, a popular St. Louis trumpet player, drowned shortly after their mutual recording session. Townsend stated, "Oliver was playing up until the time he went to record for Paramount. Whatever weekend it was before we went to Wisconsin, he was probably engaged". Greensmith then found out that no advertised jobs were to be found for Cobb after December 7, 1930 in the St. Louis Argus. Greensmith further states that " if Cobb died as a result of a swimming accident in Lake Michigan as Henry claims, the time period would suggest the summer months" and therefore "The probable date of the Paramount session is summer 1931"13.

A contradiction to this story is the fact that a private recording for the 93rd birthday of WCC’s president J.M. Bostwick (1837-1935) was recorded and given matrix number L-503. This one-sided recording bears the Paramount label with L-503 as its issue number. Anthony Olinger sings Mother Machree accompanied by Aletha Dickerson on piano, who by then still worked for the NYRL as recording manager and would do so until mid-1931. Bostwick’s birth date is known to be September 29, and the record was remembered to have been played on his birthday in his house in Milwaukee14. It took the NYRL about a week to transfer a recorded song into a product ready for sale. Therefore L-503 must have been recorded at least a week before September 29, 1930. This indicates that Townsend et al recorded prior to this date. Townsend claimed that Oliver Cobb was probably engaged the weekend before they went to Wisconsin to get recorded. Incidentally an Oliver Cobb engagement at Chicago’s Warwick Hall was mentioned in the Chicago Defender of September 6, 1930: "Oliver Cobb’s Orchestra from St. Louis and Roberts’ Harmony Syncopators battled last week at Warwick Hall. The Roberts unit will journey to St. Louis soon". There are no other references for Oliver Cobb for August and September 1930 in the Chicago Defender15. Bearing this in mind as well as looking at the chronology of the L-matrix list, it is possible that Cobb went to Grafton via Chicago and therefore recorded early September 1930 together with a group St. Louis, MO artists, including Townsend.

For recordings made in 1931 in Grafton more "hard" evidence has been found. A metal mother of Skip James’ Devil Got My Woman with L746-1 indented near the spindle hole was in the possession of the late John Steiner. A date has been etched in the rim: 2/4/31, which in the American dating system of month/date/year equates to February 4, 1931. The same date, in the same handwriting, was written with pencil on the mother’s envelope. As it took four days to make a matrix from a wax recording, James’ sessions took place at or around January 31, 1931.

Three previously unknown sessions for 1931 can now be added to the L-matrix list. The first is a recording session for Romy Gosz’ orchestra, a polka band from Wisconsin. On April 20, 1931 Gosz and his band recorded six titles in the Grafton studio. The titles were given the following matrix numbers: L-941 to L-946. The songs were issued in the Broadway 8000 series. The exact date comes from Gosz’ 1931 notebook. A second session by this band was done on July 17, 1931. Matrix numbers are: L-1077 to L-1084. The date also comes from Gosz’ notebook. These two sessions both predate several sessions in the L-matrix sessions by two months16.

A third session comprises the following L-matrix numbers: L-1270, 1279, 1281, 1283 and 1284. The recordings were made by another polka band from Wisconsin: The South Side Orchestra of Two Rivers. Surviving band member Alfred Puls, who played tuba in the band during these recordings, supplied the date for the session: November 22, 193117.

Surviving band leader and vocalist of the Sig Heller Ochestra, Sig Heller (born 1911), recorded four sides with his band in Grafton, one of them is listed in the Vreede/van Rijn list: L-1207. When I found out that Heller was still alive by 1999, I asked him for information on his recording sessions, as he also recorded at the very end of the L-matrix list. He came up with two letters from the NYRL in which he was invited to record. The first letter was dated October 16, 1931 and included four songs to be recorded. Two of them, Who Am I (L-1206) and Blue Kentucky Moon (L-1207) were issued on Broadway 1500. Heller still had a copy of the record hanging framed on his wall in his office. In an interview conducted in March 2000 Heller recollected that he recorded two weeks after receiving the letter, which would approximate his session around early November 1931. He further explained it had to be on a Saturday or Sunday, because the band members went to college on weekdays18.

The Heller and Puls sessions imply that King Solomon Hill, Ben Curry, the Famous Blue Jay Singers of Birmingham and Marshall Owens recorded in between these two dates opposed to the January 1932 date which is given in Blues and Gospel Records. Also Blind Blake’s session on L-1267 and L-1272 would have taken place around November 22, 1931. Gayle Dean Wardlow wrote me that this confirmed the idea that Blake returned to Florida for the winter months, returning in the spring to Chicago19.

A second invitation to Heller to come to Grafton for additional recordings was put to paper on June 16, 1932. The recordings on matrix numbers L-1613 to L-1618 were recorded before July 15, 1932, as Heller and his and boarded the liner Duchess of York in Montreal, heading for the United Kingdom; a trip that took the band away for three weeks. Less than twenty-odd furhter recordings were to be made before the studio closed.

Hopefully new information will further unravel this mysterious series. Maybe Irene Scruggs’ test of L-348 will even turn up!!

With the above information in mind a new timetable for the L-matrix series can be made up.

Milwaukee (?), WI

A-1 Papa Charlie Jackson

A-2 Ibid late September 1929

Grafton, WI

L-225 to L-250 Tommy Johnson, Ishmon Bracey, Charley Taylor and Kid Ernest Moliere mid-December 1929

L-276 to L-277 Walter and Byrd, Rev. Emmett Dickinson after December 18, 192920

January to at least March 1930: hardly any business

L-311 Delta Big Four late April 1930

L-325 to L-326 Irene Scruggs c. May 23, 1930

L-347 to L-352 Irene Scruggs early June, 1930

L-359 to L-361 Bud Spaight’s Harmony Kings ?June 9, 1930

L-371 to L-372 Bud Spaight’s Harmony Kings ?July 3, 1930

L-398 to L-433 Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown and Louise Johnson July/August 1930

L-464 Henry Townsend early September, 1930

L-500 Irene Scruggs c. September 20, 1930

L-540 Cardinal Trio c. October 19, 1930

L-746 to L766 Skip James circa January 31, 1931

L-891 Bill Carlsen Orchestra c. March 1931

L-941 to L-946 Romy Gosz and his Orchestra April 20, 1931

L-1077 to L-1084 Romy Gosz an his Orchestra July 17, 1931

L-1206 to L-1207 Sig Heller Orchestra early November 1931

L-1270 to L-1284 South Side Orchestra of Two Rivers November 22, 1931

L-1613 to L-1618 Sig Heller Orchestra early July 1932

Footnotes.

1.Interview with John Steiner, March 20, 2000 in Milwaukee, WI

2 Telephone conversation with Brian Wilburn, June 14, 2002

3 This January 1980 letter by Dietrich von Staden was published in Storyville magazine in 1987

4 Major collectors and researchers like Joe Bussard, Gayle Dean Wardlow, Richard Nevins of Yazoo Records, Pete Whelan, Joe Lauro, Russ Shor, Mark Berresford, Paul Swinton, Rolf von Arx, Kurt Nauck, Guido van Rijn, Karl-Gert zur Heide, David Evans, Bob Dixon and others were not able to provide information on the whereabouts of this specific test

5 James Asman: Spotlight On Scruggs, 1952

6 Von Staden: ibid

7 Letter from David Evans, July 17, 1999

8 Letter from John Wilby, March 18, 2002

9 Matrix issue No. 27, page 18

10 Email from Mark Berresford, August 8, 2002

11 Interview with Ed Kleist, March 18, 2000 in Grafton, WI

12 Letter from Gayle Dean Wardlow, July 18, 1999

13 Bill Greensmith: A Blues Life, pages 52, 53 and 118, note 7

14 Interview with Howard Bostwick, March 20, 2000

15 Letter from Rolf von Arx, August 20, 2001

16 Most of these titles were reissues in 1979 by Greg Leider from Fredonia, WI on his Polkaland label. Copies of the pages of Gosz’ notebook were supplied by Leider to this author

17 In a telephone conversation on October 21, 1999 Greg Leider told that the information came from surviving band member Alfred Puls. Puls verified the information in a personal letter to the author on November 23, 1999

18 See also VJM issue No. 125, Spring 2002: Sigfried Heller: "Tinkle The dance Tunes", pages 4--8

19 Letter from Gayle Dean Wardlow, June 31, 2000

20 Based on the fact that Blind Lemon Jefferson died in the night of December 18/19, 1929, see Paul Swinton: A Twist Of Lemon, Blues and Rhythm, issue No. 121.

ARTICLES MAIN PAGE

HOME