and Fall of the Arthur Fields Song Shop (1922-1923)
By Ryan Barna
Fields (1888-1953) was a successful singer, songwriter, vaudevillian, recording
artist, army recruiter, and publisher. Best remembered as the co-author of the
1914 song hit, “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” his songwriting career spanned over four
decades, from 1911 until the time of his death in 1953, and his recording career
from 1914 to 1942. As a studio vocalist, he was the first white singer to
release records with a black band accompaniment (he made several sides for
Aeolian Vocalion in the years 1917 to 1919, with Ford Dabney’s Band, when the
latter was featured in Ziegfeld’s Midnight Frolic), and is also remembered by
record collectors for the countless vocal refrains he contributed on jazz
recordings, particularly those by bandleader Fred Hall.
One aspect of his career that was overlooked by his early biographers (including his own press interviews) was his one-time attempt to market himself through his own music retail outlet in 1923.
Fields was still a household name in the record business in 1922. Even though he recorded less material for major labels like Victor and Columbia, the public still recognized his name, thanks to the rise of smaller record companies increasing his output. He was still a prominent vaudeville singer at the time—whenever he would appear in theaters, newspapers hailed his coming, knowing that the audiences would finally get to see and hear “the phonograph singer” before their eyes. Now that the country was pulling itself out of a recession, it seemed like the perfect time to increase his income by marketing his name through his own business, and not just by records, sheet music, and vaudeville bills like he had done for years.
In December 1922, with his business partner Louis A. Duhan, Fields opened the Arthur Fields Song Shop at 2094 Seventh Avenue, as a storefront under the Hotel Theresa (the shop never moved, as some authors claimed). Nothing is known about his business partner, Duhan. He does not appear in any early 1920s New York City directories, or in the censuses. (There was a Louis A. Duhain who was a real estate agent, but this is clearly not the same person because of conflicting residences.) According to the Manhattan land conveyances, Duhan had some experience in transacting property nearby on the West side of West 124th Street, the next block over from the Hotel Theresa.
The formal opening of the Song Shop took place on January 2, 1923, although it was clear that it was already operating weeks earlier. On December 11, 1922, a business certificate was granted to Fields and Duhan, stating that they were “conducting and transacting the business of a Song Shop and sale of phonographic records and piano rolls at No. 2094 Seventh Avenue, Manhattan, New York City.”
The property from which the Song Shop operated was owned by the
estate of Gustavus Sidenberg. Sidenberg owned the property since 1892, and
constructed the Hotel Theresa on the site of the old Hotel Winthrop in 1912,
naming the new hotel after his late wife. When Sidenberg passed away in 1915,
his estate executors and trustees continued to lease the storefronts along the
hotel, but strangely, according to a scrutinizing search of the block and lot
transactions, no lease was granted to Fields, Duhan, or to anyone while the Song
Shop was in business. The business license could not be found in the Department
of Consumer Affairs either, if one was ever filed.
But it seemed obvious that Fields was trying to conquer the realm of music retail by offering a wide range of musical merchandise. The store not only carried records and piano rolls (as the certificate indicated), but phonographs, sheet music, musical instruments and, as a record duster boasted, “EVERYTHING IN MUSIC.”
Arthur Fields Melody Records
Among the phonograph records sold (which probably included Banner and Vocalion records) were a special custom-made label for the Song Shop, called the Arthur Fields Melody Record. These labels were manufactured by the Fletcher Record Company, Inc. of Long Island City, New York. John Fletcher formed the new company with Black Swan’s Harry Pace in 1922. In early February 1923, the New York Clipper announced that Fletcher had been producing four disc brands: Black Swan, La Belle, Melody, and Olympic. (The latter would serve as the “parent” label for this new group of labels.) It was practical of Fletcher to manufacture special labels for specific businesses, and other special labels that followed included Mac-Levin, Majestic, and the Arthur Fields Melody Record.
Based on inspected copies, the Arthur Fields Melody Records duplicated material from Olympic’s 1400 dance series, and 1500 vocal series, and typically used the same couplings and catalog numbers from their parent Olympic issues (the recordings were also issued on Black Swan, La Belle, Mac-Levin, Majestic, Melody, Puritan, and Triangle). One exception is known—a single-sided issue containing Fields’ solo of “Lost (A Wonderful Girl)” was assigned its own catalog number (#5101), taken from Olympic #1513 as “Russell Paige.” In fact, solos by Fields in Olympic’s 1500 series credited him under pseudonyms such as “Russell Paige” and “Walter Hale,” whereas the Arthur Fields Melody Records correctly credited him on the labels.
The earliest published account of the Arthur Fields Melody Record (from a collector’s perspective) was written by Carl Kendziora, Jr., in his “Behind the Cobwebs” column in Record Research magazine (January 1961). At the time, only one issue was known (#1516), and Kendziora did not know that they were affiliated with Fields’ Song Shop. At this writing, there are at least six known releases, with at least three label variations. (See the following illustrations and discography for examples.)
Harlem’s famous Hotel Theresa stands today as a historic structure regarding black history, where famous jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Billie Holiday once stayed and played. Virtually no one remembers that it once housed the white singer Arthur Fields’ short-lived music store from 1922-1923. Photo by Ryan Barna.
It was obvious that in May 1923, Fields had plans to return to vaudeville, but instead of going solo, he would perform with the famous Avon Comedy Four (with Joe Smith, Charles Dale, and Harry Goodwin). The reason behind this career change is uncertain, whether one of the members invited him, or if he already saw bankruptcy lying ahead for himself and needed another job to rely on. Either way, he debuted with them on June 2, 1923 at Proctor’s in Newark, New Jersey, performing their old sketch of “A Hungarian Rhapsody.” Throughout the month of July, Fields abandoned the recording studios and enjoyed a successful tour with the Four in the Midwest, playing in major theaters in Chicago, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis. He was not around to manage his Song Shop, which was now heading for the worst.
Fields probably returned to New York City in late July 1923. On August 1st as a first step in filing for bankruptcy, Fields and Duhan filed an assignment to Jesse S. Libien, a printer. Libien was now put in charge of the business, probably to sell or exchange the Song Shop’s assets to help ease Fields’ debts. Twenty days later, on August 21st, Fields filed a petition for bankruptcy alone, with his debt totaling an astonishing $14,973, with assets unknown. Due to the lack of surviving documentation and witnesses, the full story behind the store’s demise may never be known. A few theories of what might have occurred include:
Mismanagement? Fields was unavailable in July to supervise the operation of his store, although the massive debt he owed suggests that it had been accumulating for months, and that it did not occur suddenly in July. But management flaws could have played a role (marketing, inventory, prices, appearance, etc).
Lack of advertising? The store was not listed in the New York City directory
published in March 1923, nor was it advertised in any inspected New York City
newspapers. No ad space was taken out in phonograph trade journals like Talking
Machine World either. How did New Yorkers know that the store existed?
More supply than demand? Several businesses met their fate with this problem, and judging by the massive inventory the store carried (records, phonographs, sheet music, piano rolls, musical instruments, etc.), this very well could have been the case.
We may never know the full details of his bankruptcy either, including how much he owed other businesses, like the Fletcher Record Company. The proceedings were transcribed into a court ledger, and then the original documents were discarded. According to the New York Times, the principal creditors were:
Bernard Meyer $6,000 (role unknown; a search in the local newspapers, the New York City directories, the 1920 census, and the Manhattan land conveyances is inconclusive as to why Fields owed him such a large amount)
The Aeolian Company $695 (makers of player pianos, piano rolls, musical instruments, and Vocalion records)
Plaza Music Company $406 (makers of musical instruments and distributors of sheet music and Banner records)
H. Gordon $720 (probably Hamilton S. Gordon, the music publisher).
After August, Fields disappeared from the recording studios again, touring the next two months with the Avon Comedy Four in California. He would not return to New York City again until March 1924, and between March and June, he alternated between the recording studios and the stage, making recordings on an occasional basis. His season with the Four ended at the Orpheum Theater in Brooklyn, during the week of June 16th. At this time, Fields returned to recording on a regular basis, but found that he was no longer in demand with the major companies. Edison did not use him again until 1926, and Victor until 1932. Brunswick only used him occasionally as an uncredited band vocalist on their label, and Columbia used him sparingly for their high-priced “D” series, mostly reserving him for their budget labels like Harmony and Clarion. These four major companies were already updating their catalogs with new and exclusive talent, thus shifting Fields’ energy to smaller companies like Regal, Pathé, Grey Gull, Emerson, etc. The Song Shop’s failure must have been embarrassing for Fields, and it coincidentally marked the end of his enjoyment as a prominent artist.
However, as a studio vocalist, he managed to wax several records with many hot bands of the decade; among them are Bailey’s Lucky Seven, the California Ramblers, Ross Gorman, the Grey Gull studio band, and Fred Hall’s Orchestra. Fields met Hall in 1926 while working for the Emerson Recording Laboratories, Inc. Hall was Emerson’s studio director, and the two struck up a partnership that would last for the next fifteen years. The team became prolific songwriters, mostly writing material for the “B” sides of inexpensive discs, with Fields singing the vocal refrains behind Hall’s hot accompaniments and scat vocals. The two would go on to write, record, broadcast, and film stereotypical “hillbilly” compositions, and succeeded as businessmen when they founded the Piedmont Music Company, Inc. in 1931, to meet the demand for sheet music copies to their “hillbilly” compositions (the corporation was sold to the Edward B. Marks Music Corp. in 1944). Fields and Hall’s successful radio programs and songwriting earned them a lot of publicity during the 1930s, and his early attempt as an all-music retailer was quickly overshadowed.
The Arthur Fields Melody Records are among the most elusive 78rpm labels in existence. The Hotel Theresa still stands today, but the lot where the Song Shop operated is now one half of a White Castle hamburger restaurant.
The story of Arthur Fields and his partnership with Fred Hall will be discussed in detail in a future update.
“About You! And You!! And You!!!” New York Clipper, June 6, 1923, p. 15.
“Art Fields and Fred Hall Re-sign With Rex Cole for Another Year,” Metronome, March 1931, p. 24.
“Arthur Fields Song Shop Opened,” Talking Machine World, January 15, 1923, p. 45.
“Business Records: Assignments,” New York Times, August 2, 1923, p. 25.
“Business Records: Petitions Filed—By,” New York Times, August 22, 1923, p. 24.
Certificate of Louis A. Duhan and Arthur Fields Conducting Business Under the Name of Arthur Fields’ Song Shop, Certificate #15342, filed December 21, 1922 in the New York County Clerk’s office.
“Fields Song Shop Bankrupt,” Talking Machine World, September 15, 1923, p. 51.
“Fletcher Making Tour [sic: Four],” New York Clipper, February 7, 1923, p. 18.
“Hotel Theresa, Twelve Story Structure for West Harlem,” New York Times, August 18, 1912, p. X11.
“In Brooklyn Theaters: The Avon Comedy Four Tops Orpheum Bill,” Brooklyn Daily Eagle, June 17, 1924, p. 9.
Kendziora, Carl [Jr.], “Behind the Cobwebs,” Record Research, January 1961, p. 8.
Manhattan Conveyances (1917-1937), Blocks 1901-1910 and 1921-1930, New York City Register’s Office.
The petition of Arthur Fields to be Adjudged a Bankrupt, United States District Court, Case #35348.
R. L. Polk & Co.’s Trow General Directory of New York City (1922-1923) (New York: R. L. Polk & Co., Inc., March 1923).
“Route Department,” Billboard, various issues, 1923-1924.
Thygesen, Helge, Mark Berresford, and Russ Shor, Black Swan: The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance (Nottingham: VJM Publications, 1996).
All selections were recorded by the Fletcher Record Company, Inc., in their studio at Long Island City, Queens, New York, between November 1922 and January 1923.
Part I: Unidentified dance orchestras. All selections are instrumental fox trots.
Burning Sands (Domenico Savino as “D. Onivas”)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1419-A (as “Palm Beach Society Orchestra”), Black Swan 2110-A (as “Laurel Dance Orchestra”), La Belle 1419-A (as “Palm Beach Society Orchestra”), Olympic 1419-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Puritan 11200-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Triangle 11200- A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”)
You Remind Me of My Mother (from Little Nellie Kelly)
(George M. Cohan)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1419-B (as “Palm Beach Society Orchestra”), Black Swan 2110-B (as “Laurel Dance Orchestra”), La Belle 1419-B (as “Palm Beach Society Orchestra”), Olympic 1419-B (as “Broadway Melody Makers”)
Crinoline Days (from Music Box Revue) (Irving Berlin)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1420-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Black Swan 2106-A (as “Brashear’s California Orchestra”), La Belle 1420-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Mac-Levin 1420-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Olympic 1420-A (as “Broadway Melody Makers”)
Lady of the Evening (from Music Box Revue) (Irving Berlin)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1420-B (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Black Swan 2106-B (as “Brashear’s California Orchestra”), La Belle 1420-B (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Mac-Levin 1420-B (as “Broadway Melody Makers”), Olympic 1420-B (as “Broadway Melody Makers”)
Parade of the Wooden Soldiers (from M. Nikita Balieff’s Chauve-Souris) (Leon Jessel)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1428-A (as “Wallace Downey Dance Orchestra”), Olympic 1428-A (as “Wallace Downey Dance Orchestra”),
The Glow Worm (Paul Lincke)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1428-B (as “Wallace Downey Dance Orchestra”), Olympic 1428-B (as “Wallace Downey Dance Orchestra”)
Part II: Vocal solos by Arthur Fields with orchestra accompaniments.
Lost (A Wonderful Girl) (Benny Davis—James F. Hanley)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 5101 (single- sided issue; correctly credited)
Black Swan 2107-A (as “Harold Graves”)
La Belle 1513-A (as “Russell Paige”)
Olympic 1513-A (as “Russell Paige”)
Note: Runout on some copies will show #475-2.
You Know You Belong to Somebody Else (So Why Don’t You Leave Me Alone?) (Eugene West—James V. Monaco)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1514-A (correct ly credited)
La Belle 1514-A (as “Russell Paige”)
Mac-Levin 1514-A (as “Russell Paige”)
Majestic 1514-A (as “Russell Paige”)
Olympic 1514-A (as “Russell Page”)
I Gave You Up (Just Before You Threw Me Down) (Bert Kalmar—Harry Ruby—Fred E. Ahlert)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1514-B (correct ly credited)
La Belle 1514-B (as “Russell Paige”)
Majestic 1514-B (as “Russell Paige”)
Mac-Levin 1514-B (as “Russell Paige”)
Olympic 1514-B (as “Russell Paige”)
Puritan 11212-A (correctly credited)
Note: Runout on some copies will show #495.
Crying for You (Ned Miller—Chester Cohn)
Arthur Fields 1516-A (correctly credited)
Majestic 1516-A (as “Walter Hale”)
Melody 1516-A (as “Walter Hale”)
Olympic 1516-A (as “Walter Hale”)
Wanita (Wanna Eat? Wanna Eat?) (from The Passing Show of 1922) (Sam Coslow—Al Sherman)
Arthur Fields Melody Record 1516-B (correct ly credited)
Majestic 1516-B (as “Walter Hale”)
Melody 1516-B (as “Walter Hale”)
Olympic 1516-B (as “Walter Hale”)
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