ALFRED SCHULTZ: PARAMOUNT’S PRESSING FOREMAN
By Alex van der Tuuk
In 1997 I ran across the name of Janet Erickson in an article on Grafton and its recording history. It appeared that she was the daughter of Alfred Schultz, pressing foreman at the Grafton pressing plant of the New York Recording Laboratories Incorporated for more than a decade. Seasoned collectors will of course know that the New York Recording Laboratories were best known as the producers of the Paramount record label, nowadays famed for its unparalleled catalogue of blues and jazz recordings. As soon as I found Janet Erickson’s address, I started corresponding with her. Since then, we have been in communication by letter and telephone. What follows is basically her story of her father and his work.
According to the Social Security Death Index, Alfred Schultz was born on January 29, 1902 in Cedarburg, Wisconsin. Around 1919 or 1920, at the age of 18 years, Alfred started working at the NYRL’s pressing plant in Grafton. Being single, he remained living with his mother in Cedarburg, only a few miles away from Grafton.
Alfred always had music around the house. When I visited his son Curtis Schultz in Grafton in 2000, Curtis showed me a pile of his father’s sheet music, going way back to 1917 (Darktown Strutters' Ball), 1921 (The Jazz-Me Blues and Shuffle Along) and 1923 (You Didn't Want Me When I Wanted You).
While working at the pressing plant, possibly around 1923, Schultz was offered a job in Chicago by the plant manager. According to his daughter it would have been a clerical job and would have meant a significant step upwards in his career. But because he lived with his mother, he decided he would not want to leave her on her own.
By 1925 Alfred had met his future wife, and their daughter Janet was born shortly after their marriage, in August 1926. Since the manager of the plant in Grafton wanted Alfred Schultz to live close to the factory, he was offered to live at the old Wilke House, a stone house which was built in 1851. It was more suitable for Schultz to live at close range, so whenever he was needed, it was easier for him to drop in.
The pressing facility started to press its first recordings on June 29, 1917. Initially only a handful of presses were in operation. Sometimes, the New York Recording Laboratories placed advertisements promoting their facilities, in order to obtain contracts to press records, at that time a thriving and profitable business as many smaller record companies did not own their own pressing facilities and contracted out their pressing requirements. By late 1918 new presses were added due to the increase in customers requiring their contract pressing facilities. By the mid 1920s, when the New York Recording Laboratories was at the height of its success, the floor which housed the pressing department consisted of two rows of 26 presses each. Each pressing shell, which contained one side of a recorded song, produced as many as 700 pressings before it wore out. There are even accounts that some pressings ran as high as 1200 before a new shell was ‘grown’ from a mother.
Temperatures at the pressing department were as high as 114 degrees Fahrenheit. Employees sometimes pulled jokes on Schultz, such as putting a Limburger cheese in the pocket of his overcoat. The cheese melted when Schultz entered the department!
According to Janet Erickson, her father was occupied with his work every waking moment of every day. Close to the pressing department was a small, rectangular room, remembered as the "test room". Here, Alfred would listen to the so-called test pressings. The room had two victrolas to play the new records on. The room had many cubby holes and shelves; they contained file cards and ledgers, "manilla coloured", his daughter remembered. After listening to the test record, Alfred would write the artist's name and title on the white label, sometimes adding his review with a pencil ("Good", "Bad", "Wrong Music" etc.). He then would fill in a recording card for each title with its matrix or identification number. His handwriting on test pressings and file cards (as listed in Max Vreede's Paramount 12000/13000 series; Storyville, 1971) has been identified by family members.
Alfred Schultz worked from memory - he knew all the serial numbers by heart. When somebody wanted to find a certain record, they did not bother looking for it, but called in Alfred, gave him the serial number and he pulled out the record or master immediately. He even took his work home. Here, he went on to evaluate the white-labelled tests on their victrola. Janet Erickson remembered: "I was very fortunate to get to hear all the fresh, new recordings as he would proudly play them for me. One time, Dad brought home a green, round metal object to show to us. He said he would have to take it back the very next day. I'm not sure what it was called, but I think it was "the master"."
The test pressings were needed to decide which record and take number would be suitable to issue. Of every title recorded two or three different takes were recorded. The records were then divided between three company executives to decide which ‘take’ would be issued. Two out of three had to have consensus about title, artist, take number, sound quality and if the recorded performance was good enough to issue. Besides Alfred Schultz, Walter Klopp, who was the pressing plant manager, also dealt with these so-called tests. Others involved over the years were Arthur Satherly and Art Laibly. Satherly was one of the first people to be asked by the board of directors of the Wisconsin Chair Company to set up a recording company from scratch. He worked for the New York Recording Laboratories from 1917, holding a variety of positions, until 1928 when he moved to QRS and eventually to the American Record Company and finally Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. He remained a life-long friend of the Schultz family and kept in touch by writing letters about his work in later years for MGM. Laibly became sales and recording manager in the mid-1920s, remaining in the post until 1931. Janet Erickson remembered that Laibly had a black secretary, named Althea (sic: actually Aletha Dickerson).
Alfred Schultz and Walter Klopp became very close friends. Klopp became a household name at the Schultz house, where they played cards at the kitchen table. When the recording studio was opened in late 1929, Klopp had Alfred Schultz deal with the artists, simply because he had a way with people and made them feel at ease. He would often bring African-American performers who came to Grafton to record to their back yard. Many of these performers liked to go fishing for catfish, so he would give them fishing poles to take to the Milwaukee river. Art Satherly referred to him as "Fisherman Schultz", when he addressed a letter to the family.
Janet remembered her father telling about artists who visited the plant. At the age of two, Janet sat on Ma Rainey's lap in Schultz's office. This would have been in 1928. "I called her grandma. Dad was embarrassed and she replied: "It's alright, Al. I am a grandma." I also shared a sweet with her. She wore all black attire. And she loved children". Rainey's recording career at that time was coming to an end. She recorded her last batch of recordings in Chicago in December of that year. The reason Ma Rainey’s visit to the plant is not known, but the same had happened to Blind Lemon Jefferson in late 1927 or early 1928. Since he and Ma Rainey were Paramount's biggest stars, it is possible that it was some sort of publicity stunt on behalf of the factory's employees.
Other artists that were remembered to have been around the house or in the
Grafton studio were: Amos and Andy (the pressing plant produced records for
Marsh Laboratories of Chicago. In later years many Marsh tests with Amos and
Andy titles were found by record collectors); Bill Carlsen and Jack Teter from
Milwaukee (both recorded in Grafton, separately and together, Teter being the
vocalist for Bill Carlsen's orchestra. Teter was a personal friend to Alfred).
Besides marching bands, Schultz also mentioned Ethel Waters and Fats Waller to
his daughter (either to have been there or as recording artists for Paramount).
During the 1930 -1931 period, Alfred Schultz joined Art Laibly on talent scouting trips to Chicago, where they attended several shows. Since Schultz had a flair for dealing with the artists who came to Grafton to record, Walter Klopp had him deal exclusively with prospective talent on these trips. When Art Laibly, at that time recording and general manager, was dismissed from the company (for not producing a hit record), Walter Klopp took over as recording engineer. While Klopp controlled the recording room, Schultz became more involved in recording procedures in the studio. To his granddaughter Vicky he explained the recording process in a highly simplified way: "The recording stars would sing into an object that was shaped like a megaphone. They would sing into the large end. The sounds of their voices and the instruments played travelled on a wire overhead, over a pulley onto a needle and rotating disc. He said that was how the voices were transferred to the master disc. I believe he said clay was mixed with shellac to press the records".
The recording room was small, in comparison with modern studios. It was also wet and clammy due to the lack of heating. In the winter it was cold; during the summer it was baking hot and humid. In an effort to reduce the dampness Alfred draped the studio with burlap, covering the walls and windows with blankets and towels (although this may have been done to reduce echo and to soundproof the room from extraneous outside noise - MB).
When recording, "Dad would often carry me as a toddler to the recording studio and I had to be very quiet". Above the studio's door a light bulb was present. It was painted red. When the bulb was switched on, indicating the start of a recording session, everybody had to be quiet. "I learned this very quickly - to be quiet - so I could be with my Dad". According to Janet her father had a lot to do with the acoustics and "white noise". "White noise is a hissing back ground noise that has to be tuned out". He also decided where the artists' position would be towards the microphone. There were some chairs in the room for the artists to sit on while recording. A piano and guitar were standard equipment in the studio. Janet: "When the artists performed and did that sort of ad-libbing - stopped singing and talked - Dad would always smile and chuckle. Oh, how he loved blues. He called Charlie Patton "Ole Charlie"."
After recording, the wax masters were packed in dry ice and stored in boxes. There was no refrigerator to keep the wax masters at constant temperature; consequently temperature and humidity changes in the studio adversely affected the condition of the wax masters.
Adjoining the engineer's room, where the recording machine stood, was a small, gloomy, dark room, where gallons of whiskey and gin were stored. Sometimes drinks were served as an aperitif prior to the recordings. The company's secretary, Clara Kuehn, was present at several recording sessions and may have been involved in serving drinks to the artists. In later years, after the close of the recording studio, the FBI and the local police raided the factory because of the whiskey and gin that was stored there (no official FBI reports have been found).
With the onset of the Great Depression, and in the face of stiff competition from radio, business dropped dramatically and recording activity was at a low ebb. When things got shaky at the plant during the depression, Walter Klopp offered Alfred a job to go to Chicago and deal with the artists. It had become obvious that the Grafton plant was on its last legs and Walter Klopp did not want Alfred to be without a job. It was the second time Klopp offered Schultz to go to Chicago in order to deal with the artists. Janet explained: "Chicago was becoming more sophisticated with equipment for acoustic and sound effects and performers appreciated that so they went to Chicago for recording sessions. Most of the artists lived there anyway, so it was more convenient to do recordings there". However, Alfred's wife did not want him to go to Chicago, a decision that made him jobless within a short time.
Although Walter Klopp wanted to remodel the studio, financing the operation would have been prohibitive. The closure of the factory affected Alfred deeply. He was very upset and emotional about the closure of the place he had worked for more than a decade. Although the family remained living in the stone house until 1936, Alfred never set foot again in the plant. A lot of employees had bad feelings about the closure of the factory. Records and masters were, according to stories, skimmed into the Milwaukee river. Nobody cared about the operation anymore - they were just fed up with the whole deal. Janet felt that the employees were one big family and were very disappointed when the factory closed. It affected virtually the whole of Grafton, since there was hardly any other local industry. Janet remembers seeing trucks around the factory at the age of 7 (1933), when the factory was cleared out. Cordell Hackett-Shine's sisters, Lorraine and Dorothy, kept working there for the shipping department after the close of the recording studio and eventually helped clear out the factory.
Alfred Schultz eventually picked up some jobs, including one at Fox Farms, together with his brother Melvin and his mother. In later years he worked for the Tecumseh Products Co. in Grafton until he retired in the 1970s. He died in July 1983.
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