BILL & TED'S EXCELLENT DISCOGRAPHY
by Dick Spottswood
Back in the early 1960s a pair of classical vocal collectors got fed up with not being able to learn the salient facts about the records on their shelves. Charles Delaunay's original Hot Discographie (1936) was the first attempt at comprehensive genre discography, and the first to document at least most of the then-known universe of jazz recordings. It provided dates and places of recording, matrix numbers (i.e. serial numbers assigned to metal masters), catalog numbers, and names and instruments of participating musicians (the latter albeit sketchily and mostly inaccurately- odd, considering the majority of the participants were still alive and musically active!). Recordings were grouped by performer and displayed chronologically by matrix number, as they were created in separate sessions. Delaunay was the first to document recorded sound with specific and systematic information. Soon thereafter jazz-minded producers began to identify sidemen on record labels and occasionally include recording dates (again, of often dubious provenance) on re-issues, to the delight of serious fans.
Delaunay's book went through subsequent editions, and was not superseded until Brian Rust's Jazz Records, 1897-1931 (1961), and its later incarnations which extended the timeline to the American Federation of Musicians’ recording ban in 1942.1 The scope of Brian’s magnum opus was enlarged to include obscure material, issued and unissued, by both well-known and forgotten artists. Brian largely succeeded in capturing the universe of pre-World War II American and English jazz on 78 rpm records, but his coverage of European jazz was sketchy and concentrated on those bands which included American musicians or musicians who were internationally-known. Five subsequent editions have refined, amended and corrected earlier data; a companion work, Blues & Gospel Records, first appeared in 1963 and has since gone through four editions.2
Given those indispensable resources, it is little wonder that Ted Fagan (1921-1987) and Bill Moran (1919-2004) were frustrated at the lack of comparable references for classical records. In 1966, at Bill's suggestion, Ted obtained permission to conduct research in RCA's files, thinking that he would try to isolate and document classical performances that appeared on Victor's Red Seal series. He soon realized that this approach would yield less information than he wanted and, in his words, “with the naďve ignorance of the uninitiated, I blithely suggested that we copy out all available information.”3
Born to Jewish-English parents in Buenos Aires, Ted was educated in an English boarding school and returned to Argentina to earn a Civil Engineering degree in 1943. On a 1946 trip to New York, he took a job as an interpreter at the United Nations. During meetings, Ted sat in a sound-proof booth above the General Assembly and provided simultaneous English translations whenever Spanish was spoken on the floor. His meticulous work earned his promotion to Chief Interpreter in 1974. With typically wry humor, he enjoyed telling people that Fidel Castro insisted on his (Ted's) voice representing him whenever he addressed the UN. While his career advanced, Ted made friends with those in charge at RCA, and he was allowed to borrow company documents and copy data from them in the booth when he wasn't translating. He created countless index cards, arranging them so that data from multiple sources could be combined for clarity and accuracy. Correlating, absorbing and processing those ancient documents became an all-consuming task requiring much patience and many years.
Upon retiring from the UN in 1976, Ted sold his Byram, Connecticut home and moved to Palo Alto, Caifornia, keeping his high-rise Manhattan flat as a pied-á-terre for occasional returns. Soon I was following his example and creating my own index cards, having received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities to prepare the discography Ethnic Music on Records. I met Ted for the first time in 1978, as I was beginning a fourteen-month stay in New York to collect information from Columbia and Victor, from the Edison site in nearby West Orange, New Jersey, and from the Gennett files housed at the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University.
The Endowment grants were administered through the John Edwards Memorial Forum in Los Angeles, whose Executive Secretary, Norm Cohen, generously invited me to camp on his living room couch in Los Angeles for a couple of months in the winter of 1980, while I reviewed microfilms in the JEMF collection of recording documents copied from Decca and Brunswick files. With further generosity, Ted offered me the spare bedroom at his Palo Alto home for several weeks in the spring to consult more microfilms containing chronological data on RCA sessions after 1935, with information that RCA had disposed of years earlier. At the same time Ted and I were able to compare notes and mutually review the information each of us had independently assembled.
By then, Greenwood Press had bravely committed to publishing Bill and Ted's Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records, as it was grandly titled, in as many volumes as it took to document Victor activities from January 1900 through the end of 1950. Soon Ted bought a home computer and proceeded to assemble material for EDVR's Pre-Matrix Series volume.4 He coined the term "pre-matrix" as shorthand for the period from 1900 through the spring of 1903, when the actual master recordings were used as stampers to make individual pressings, a process that allowed merely a few hundred copies at most to be produced before the master wore out. Popular items were replaced by repeat performances by (usually) the original artist on new masters; less successful records weren't repressed.
On April 24, 1903, Victor began to use a three-step mastering process that allowed multiple stampers to be made from a single master, and popular performances to be repressed without re-recording. A new matrix series was created to replace the old numbering system and it became the starting point for Bill and Ted's second volume, subtitled Matrix Series 1 through 4999. It covered new performances recorded and mastered through the first week of January 1908, along with subsequent re-recordings of enduring items made through 1930, and documented by Victor as new takes of old matrices. Though the new EDVR volume was copyrighted in 1986, copies didn't begin to circulate until after Ted's sudden death from an asthma attack in his Manhattan apartment on January 31, 1987, three weeks before his 66th birthday. At the time he and Bill were preparing a third volume, designed to display matrix numbers, domestic or foreign, used for each Victor release. Unfortunately the volume never appeared.
Ted's papers, including data assembled for EDVR, were bequeathed to Stanford University, where plans included producing further volumes of the discography. Unfortunately the size of the project and difficulties in the transition to a database were overwhelming and nothing more was produced until after Bill's death in 2004. In 2002 Bill asked the University of California at Santa Barbara to take over the project, generously bequeathing his collection to the University along with an endowment to allow work on EDVR to continue. Today David Seubert is project director and Sam Brylawski is project manager and editor.
My work, Ethnic Music on Records,5 covers only recordings made in the US and its possessions, a lot of material Victor either produced abroad or reissued from HMV in Europe was omitted. Part of that gap is now being filled thanks to the extensive work done by Alan Kelly in documenting pre-1930 78 rpm recordings in his Gramophone Company Matrix Series (available from him on CD-ROM).6 Another large component is the "Overseas Recordings," Victor-speak for performances captured south of the border (i.e. Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean), starting in 1905 when Victor first recorded outside the US in Mexico City. Victor's subsidiary label Zonophone (or Zon-O-Phone) recorded in Havana, Buenos Aires and Hawaii around the same time. Perhaps as early as 1904, China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines became destinations after agreements between the Gramophone Company and Victor specified which parts of the region would reflect their mutual spheres of interest. India, British Malaya and other areas then under English colonial status remained with The Gramophone Company; earlier records made by them in China and Japan beginning in 1903 were reissued by Victor. Both companies actively pursued their respective global markets, creating consumer demand for phonographs by recording local talent on site in familiar and remote locales, transporting wax masters back to corporate headquarters and shipping finished pressings to jobbers and retailers back where the records were originally made. Sadly no known documentation of Victor's Far East recording activity exists, and tracking the music made there will rely on skeletal information from surviving catalogs and discs.
The 1983 and 1986 EDVR discographies were largely assembled by Ted, while Bill reviewed entries, examined discs, added corrected playback speeds for Red Seal vocal records, and wrote introductory essays. Their original books include performer and title indices, and a "Chronological Listing of Domestic Recording Sessions" that summarize what was recorded on a given date. Now their work has evolved into an online database created by the University of California at Santa Barbara, and is accessible throughout the world free of charge at http://victor.library.ucsb.edu. Though is still very much a work in progress, it has useful features that are only possible with database applications. Access points include matrix numbers, titles, performers, composers, catalog numbers, date and place of recording, and more. Scanned original documents include recording diaries, label index cards, Victor catalogs and some actual discs, and entries are checked against existing discographies. Corrections and additions can be made at any time, ensuring that EDVR online can be easily updated as new information comes to light and is verified.
When I submitted a draft of this piece to Mark Berresford, he wondered if EDVR will influence the "debate over the future of discography - whether it is going to go exclusively online or whether there is a future for hard copy heavyweight discographies." For what it's worth, I expect that both will persist and evolve. Printed genre and performer discographies have historically served as references that can be quickly pulled from the shelf, consulted, and put back. Comprehensive and expensive Greenwood Press labelographies of Brunswick, Columbia, Decca and others, and valuable books devoted to Gramophone, Favorite, Syrena, and other European labels have proliferated in recent years along alongside genre discographies. Unfortunately the expense of these works has tended to outweigh their usefulness, and many collectors have reluctantly done without them.
When Greenwood undertook publication of The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings in the early 1980s, it committed to a huge series of 35-40 expensive volumes. Given that kind of scope, it now seems more realistic, not to mention more democratic, to place everything online, with free access and improved coverage. Now that computers routinely aid in the creation of discographies, it makes sense that they also play a role in their consumption. To address Mark's question more concisely, I think - and hope - print discographies will survive because they're convenient, and that online sources will become a valuable supplement because they can be easily updated and corrected, because access points are more numerous, and because the internet offers the potential for universal dissemination. The amount of discography available to us now is exponentially greater than it was when EDVR began, and access to it is free - I hope other discographies can follow its example. (What it does not address is the “to wiki or not to wiki question – viz: should an online discography be amendable and updatable by the users, whether under the watchful eyes of a group of reputable moderators. One only has to look at online groups such as the Bix forum to realize the potential hazard of this approach if left unchecked! - Ed)
Bill's financial support and his painstaking work with Ted remain at the heart of this most Excellent Discography that has outlived and commemorated them. Though I often had occasion to correspond with Bill by mail and telephone, we met only once toward the end of his life. Fortunately I came to know Ted better, and I valued his insights and our friendship even more highly than our fruitful collaborations. He was cultivated in the best sense of the word and wrote on diverse historical topics, including a play, Elizabeth Rex, which was produced in 1979. He had a quick and subtle wit, and you had to be careful that a joke or observation from him didn't go over your head. His judgments of others (including a few discographers) could be scathing, but he was generous with friends, even if their erudition (like mine) didn't match his. I enjoyed listening to music with him; even though I had little grounding in classical vocal music, he would make his favorite records come alive by patiently explaining what made them and their performers special.
I wish Ted and Bill were still with us. Though they'd no doubt find a few things to criticize about their legacy, they'd celebrate its expanded scope and progress towards becoming the comprehensive document whose goal brought them together nearly half a century ago.
1. Today the work is available as: Jazz and Ragtime Records (1897-1942), by Brian Rust and Malcolm Shaw. (Denver: Mainspring Press, 2002).
2. Dixon, Robert M. W., John Godrich, Howard Rye, and Robert M. W. Dixon. Blues & Gospel Records, 1890-1943, 4th ed. (Oxford [England]: Clarendon Press, 1997).
3. Fagan, Ted and Bill Moran. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings: Matrix Series 1 through 4999. (New York, Westport, CT and London, Greenwood Press, 1986), p. xii.
4. The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings: Pre-Matrix Series. (New York, Westport, CT and London, Greenwood Press, 1983).
5. Spottswood, Richard K. Ethnic Music on Records: A Discography of Ethnic Recordings Produced in the United States, 1893 to 1942. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990).
6. Details on Alan Kelly publications are at http://www.normanfield.com/kelly.htm