Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, but it is rarely mentioned in the same breath that his machine played hollow cylinders, not discs. Initially, the term phonograph was not generic, but specific to Edison’s machine. In the era of their invention, the generic term for cylinder and disc players was “talking machine.” This paper will foreground the invention, development and commercialization of disc based talking machines, also known as record players or gramophones. The topic has been covered before, in books like Roland Gelatt’s The Fabulous Phonograph (1955), Oliver Read and Walter L. Welch’s From Tinfoil To Stereo (1959), W.E. Butterworth’s Hi Fi: From Edison’s Phonograph To Quad Sound (1977), Evan Eisnberg’s The Recording Angel (2nd ed. 2005), and Mark Coleman’s Playback (2005). Scholars, most notably Raymond R. Wile, have dug into libraries, archives, and courthouses to ferret out minute details. Biographies of some of the key players have been published, and corporations have endorsed histories glorifying their role in the evolution of these technologies.
After briefly recounting technological and corporate history, this paper takes as its subject the experiences of three brothers, Harry, Raymond and Charles Sooy who worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The company was the United States’ dominant disc-playing hardware maker, that also operated Victor records. The Sooys were working class descendants of eighteenth century Dutch Huguenot immigrants to the United States. Working in the Recording Laboratory, they found their hands on the new and rapidly evolving technology of sound recording and mass production of discs. Theirs is as much a success story of America’s industrial revolution as Henry Ford’s.
As Victor employees, the Sooys recorded whomever the company sent to their recording rooms or went on location to do remote recordings. Whether it was a politician’s speech, a dance band, an ethnic comedian, singer, bird whistler, or Caruso himself, the Sooys and the men they trained ran Victor’s recording machines for the full range of material found in the company’s acoustic era catalogs. Salaried industrial workers, they figured out how to satisfactorily record many configurations of audio entertainment before the domestication of electricity. They are unsung pioneers of popular music production. Drawing heavily on their unpublished memoirs, which are now in the public domain, accounts of their contributions can now circulate more widely.1 The Sooys were Victor’s first family of recording.
The distinction of inventing the record player goes to Emile Berliner, a German immigrant to the United States, who named his machine the gramophone. Berliner first showed his machine to patent attorney Joseph Lyons in spring 1887, to strategize its protection, prior to showing it publicly (Wile,R: 1990, p.4). Berliner’s gramophone was inspired by, and in some ways modeled after Leon Scott deMartinville’s phonautograph which had made a tracing of sound waves on a blackened glass disc, but could not play them back.2 Berliner filed a patent application (#237,060) on May 4th, 1887. His work advanced rapidly after that point and he reapplied for a portion of it (September 26, 1887) and was granted letters patent on November 8, 1887. A British patent application made on November 7, 1887 (series 1888, No. 15232) shows his machine and processes had moved well beyond the content of his initial American application (Wile, R: 1990, p.6).
With patent in hand, Berliner began seeking publicity for his invention. An article appeared in Electrical World, November 12th 1887, which led to a story in the journal of Philadelphia’s Franklin Institute (For The Promotion Of The Mechanic Arts) early the following year (Wile, R: 1990, p. 8). An invitation followed for Berliner to present a paper and make a demonstration to the Institute’s members, which he did, on May 16, 1888 as “Etching The Human Voice” (Wile, F: 1974, p. 170). On that occasion, he demonstrated recording and playback, referred to the discs as “records,” was working toward the creation of “master discs” for the creation of multiple copies, and speculated that in the future, prominent singers would earn royalties on the sale of their “phonautograms.” At this early date Berliner had a viable machine and process AND a fairly accurate conception of how the invention could be part of a successful business. Where Edison focused solely on promoting the phonograph as an office-dictating machine, Berliner envisioned keeping recording proprietary and selling the playback only machines and records for profit. It was in 1890 that Berliner’s machine was first made available commercially, in Germany. Machines that played 12.5 cm. discs were sold, but only for a few years (Wile, R: 1990, p.16).
Berliner returned to the United States from Germany late in 1890, after demonstrating his machine to the German scientific establishment including Siemens and Von Helmholz. They had judged the gramophone as superior to Edison’s machine, in side-by-side tests (Wile, F: 1974, p. 203). Scientific acceptance had created industrial interest in his work, but he was ready to advance the gramophone commercially. In spring 1893, Berliner chartered a new company in West Virginia, The United States Gramophone Company (Wile, R: 1993, p. 179). This became the holding company for Berliner’s patents. Berliner then reached out to Frederick W. Gaisberg, who had worked for both the Columbia Phonograph Company, and the American Graphophone Company, as a talent scout. They set up a Laboratory and recording room at 1205 G street NW in Washington, D.C. They quickly standardized disc diameter at seven inches. They offered a hand driven machine, a battery Motor Gramophone (Type B) and an Incandescent Current Motor Gramophone (Type C). They offered personal recording services and tried to interest advertisers in underwriting musical selections with the inclusion of a promotional message (Wile, R: 1993, p.180). Only examples of the hand propelled machine have survived.
Berliner made another presentation at the Franklin Institute that year, which may have played a role in his finding a group of willing backers. The Berliner Gramophone Company was incorporated in Virginia on October 8, 1895 by a group of Philadelphia based investors. They were led by Thomas Parvin and supported by Max H. Bierman, Joseph Goldsmith, William J. Armstrong, and Thomas L. Latta. “Almost immediately plans were made to transfer most of the gramophone business to Philadelphia. Quarters were found at 1026-1028 Filbert Street in an old building, and a recording room was set up at 29 South 11th Street, above a shoe store (Wile, R: 1993, p. 183). They soon established a retail shop in Philadelphia for machines and discs, managed by Alfred C. Clark, who would later serve as the Managing Director of The Gramophone Company Ltd. And Electric and Musical Industries (EMI) in Great Britain, for decades. Berliner Gramophone also entered into a national sales contract with Mr. Frank Seaman who had established the New York Gramophone Company. He hired as Manager, a young law school graduate from Boston, William Barry Owen, who would also become instrumental in exporting Berliner’s technology to Britain.
For the moment, however, improvements were still needed to make the gramophone commercially viable. Most important was the need for consistent speed in playback, matching recording speeds– the hand driven gramophone was not yet fully competitive with the cylinder machines. Early in 1896 the Berliner interests became aware of a clockwork motor for sewing machines, advertised in the Philadelphia Ledger newspaper. Investigating, they found the mechanism too large and unsuitable for the gramophone, but the “venerable pattern maker” (likely named George Whittaker), assured them his design could be successfully adapted (Wile, R: 1993, p. 184). The model had been built at the modest machine shop of Eldridge Reeves Johnson across the Delaware River at 108 N. Front Street in Camden, New Jersey. He wanted to completely redesign Whittaker’s motor, but the Berliner representatives didn’t want to pay, so Johnson did it on his own (Aldridge, B: 1964, p.v.). Johnson’s initial design did not meet the Berliner company’s standards, but his second attempt did. In his unpublished autobiography, Johnson wrote of the early Berliner machine:
The little instrument was badly designed. It sounded like a partially educated parrot with a sore throat and a cold in the head, but the wheezy little instrument caught my attention and held it tight and hard. I became interested in it as I had never been interested in anything before. (E.R. Johnson ; n.d.)
Johnson had just a high school education, had apprenticed in machine shops, had experience making jeweler’s tools, building and designing machines, and supervising manufacturing operations. He had just recently bought out his partner in the shop, whose main trade was building book stitching machines based on patents held by Johnson and his former partner’s son. They also took on fabrication work for outside inventors, like the sewing machine motor. The business was small and barely surviving, but Eldridge Johnson shrewdly recognized the gramophone for the major opportunity it provided. Johnson went on to patent a spring wound motor that that gave a consistent playback speed that was based on his knowledge of steam engines. Over time he improved existing elements of Berliner’s machine and pioneered new recording and fabrication techniques that moved the gramophone from the realm of toys to that of a musical instrument. Eldridge Johnson’s engagement with Berliner’s gramophone hastened its evolution from mechanical curiosity to everyday commonplace.
Eldridge Johnson received his first order for 100 machines in August of 1896 after being visited by the principals of the Berliner Company. He understood how far this technology had come, but was developing a clearer vision of where it could go. In his own words:
Mr. Berliner had given the world the greatest basic improvements in the talking machine since Mr. Edison’s original discovery, and I happened to be there at the right time to give this discovery the needed improvements and refinements, and to manufacture it in such forms as to become most popular with the buying public. My years of hard experience in model making and repair work had well qualified me to cope with intricate designs and processes. I immediately undertook a course of experimenting with talking machines and made discovery after discovery until a talking machine of the disc gramophone type, capable of not only reproducing sound in its own mechanical fashion and in a tone of its own but of reproducing the tone true to the original sound, stood in my laboratory. It cost me $50,000 and two and-one-half years desperately hard work. (E.R. Johnson: n.d.)
Johnson’s relationship to the Berliner Company was that of manufacturing machinist. He made motors, sound boxes, and other metal parts. He purchased horns and cabinets from other vendors, delivering assembled machines to the Berliner Company. Johnson’s status as an independent contractor gave him access to Berliner’s technology, and his motivations as a tinkerer, inventor, and fabricator drove him to improve what he was working on. His contractual independence allowed him to patent the numerous technological improvements he made, in his own name. This point is critical to his later ascendance in the talking machine industry.
As early as 1896, Johnson conceived of a new recording process and began experiments. Rather than etch the groove chemically (which later was shown to undermine sonic accuracy at the microscopic level), Johnson sought to cut it directly. Working with A.C. Middleton, his earliest experiments used candle wax, but it was not fine enough. Initial success came from melting the wax off Edison cylinders into pie and cake plates to obtain a smooth bottom surface for recording. The next step was finding a way to electrotype (electroplate) a harder shell on the wax. Toward this end, Johnson supplied his former associate C.K. Haddon with a wedge shaped piece of a wax disc. This kept secret exactly what Johnson’s wax object was, while allowing Haddon to bring the item to his employer, the Wirtz Manufacturing Company, for plating. Haddon persuaded Wirtz’s electroplating department to work on it, and they succeeded. This convinced Johnson that his ideas would work, without exposing what he was doing to any outside interests. His patent attorneys, key among them Horace Pettit, advised him to refine the process in secret, rather than add to the turmoil and turf wars in this field.
Johnson rented space from the Collins Carriage Company in front of his shop and employed William H. Nafey (Jan. 1898) to continue working on the recording process under lock and key. In September of that year, Mr. Bentley Rinehart, a former associate of Johnson’s became available again. He was put to work designing and installing an electroplating plant in the rented space. When he moved on to other work, Mr. Nafey took full charge of the recording and matrix making, using the still-secret Johnson processes. The patents for these processes were not issued until 1908, though the filings began in August 1898 (Aldridge, B: 1964, p. 33). Although he was not given the title, Nafey was Johnson’s first Director of Recording. Johnson’s patent on the spring wound motor was granted on March 22, 1898, and his recording process, which yielded results far superior to Berliner’s, was ready to go. There were concerns, however, about possible infringement of two outside patents. The graphophone interests (cylinder) of Bell and Tainter, held a patent on cutting wax for cylinders
(# 341214) and the Jones patent (# 688739) for a stylus, which laterally engraved a groove of “approximately even depth” (Aldridge,B: 1964, p. 34). This patent was purchased by the American Graphophone Company and later became the property of the Columbia Phonograph Company. Later, when Frank Seaman allied with Columbia in legal battles against Berliner and Johnson, this added weight to his actions.
Johnson, of course, also needed access to the basic Berliner gramophone patents to underpin the value of his advancements and inventions. The superiority of his recording process was acknowledged, and the Berliner Company had him remake the active records in their catalog in the fall of 1898. Johnson also licensed the rights to his process to the Gramophone Company in Britain, sending one of his most trusted men, Belford G. Royal to England, to oversee its use without revealing its secrets (Aldridge,B: 1964 p. 38). Johnson’s supply contracts with the Gramophone Company were key to keeping his operations healthy during the Berliner Company’s coming lean years. Lawsuits began to fly, between American Graphophone, Seaman, Berliner, and even Johnson. On May 5, 1900 Seaman accepted a consent decree admitting the validity of Bell and Tainter’s patent without the Berlliner Company’s knowledge. The next month, the Berliner Company notified Seaman that because of his repeated violations of their contract, it was to be considered forfeit (Aldridge “Candid” 39). Seaman immediately got an injunction, which prevented the Berliner Company from selling to anyone but him. As Seaman wasn’t buying, Berliner’s business in the United States was frozen.
It was at this stage that Eldridge Johnson reluctantly felt compelled to adopt a brand name and distribute talking machines and records himself. Seaman stepped up his legal harassment of Johnson, arguing that he was more than an independent contractor for Berliner, but part of their organization. If he proved that in court, all previous judgments against the Berliner Company would apply to Johnson and his Consolidated Talking Machine Company as well. On March 1, 1901 Judge Gray refused to restrain Johnson’s company from making and trading gramophone products, but did restrain Johnson from using the word “gramophone” (Aldridge, B: 1964, p.41). This explains why gramophone never became the generic term for record players in the United States. On July 6, 1901 Seaman’s injunction against the Berliner Company was lifted, but not before it had done irreparable damage to the company (Aldridge, B: 1964, p.43). Johnson offered to sell his firm and patent rights to the Berliner Company, but they were either unwilling or unable to meet the cash terms he required. The same offer was made to the Gramophone Company (variously $250,000 or $350,000) but they were also unable to close the deal. Johnson then resigned himself to a plan to consolidate his interests with Berliner’s, under his ownership.
For the first decade of Victor’s existence, most of its income was reinvested in the company, building its physical plant, experimenting with the technologies it employed, and improving its products. The first year the company sold more than a million dollars worth of records was 1905 (Aldridge, 61). In September 1906, Victor paid the Berliner interests $800,000 for 8000 shares of Victor stock (Aldridge, B: 1964 p.72). Fifteen years later that stock would be worth ten million dollars. Johnson’s next innovation was to design machines with the acoustical horn enclosed by the cabinet. He called these “Victrolas,” combining Victor and viola, which increased their acceptance in upper class homes. Johnson had surrounded himself with competent, loyal men (paying them well), who stayed with Victor long term. Key men like the plant foremen and Directors owned stock in the company that made them millionaires. Even so, in the early twenties, many of these men retired. Belford Royal served as Chairman of the Board until his health failed. At that stage Alfred Clark was given the reins and Johnson’s son Fenimore was put on the Board of Directors. Eldridge Johnson was still the controlling stockholder, and advised from a distance. Tired of fighting patent battles, he kept the company out of the emerging field of radio.
In November 1926 representatives of the New York investment firms J.W. Seligman and Speyer & Co. delivered an offer for $105 per share. Mr. Johnson stood firm at $115 per share for common stock and $100 for preferred. He also made certain that all other stockholders could sell at the same prices. The deal, which closed in January 1927, for Victor Talking Machine Company, its Camden plant, its subsidiaries in Canada, South America, and Japan, and the stake in the Gramophone Co. Ltd., brought the Johnson family $22,229,960 for its holdings (Johnson, E.R.F.: 1974, p.118-119). Others netted about $7 million more, and the Victor Talking Machine Company is credited with creating as many as thirty millionaires.
The Sooy Dynasty
On his twenty-third birthday in March 1898, Harry O. Sooy had been out of work for nearly a month. He’d been laid off from doing “machine work” at the Atlantic Tool Works in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He’d been out on his own for a decade, following the death of his father Ezekiel, helping to support his mother and three brothers. On that day, he presented himself to the foreman of a small machine shop near the waterfront in Camden, New Jersey. That man was Albert W. Atkinson, and it was the shop of Eldridge Reeves Johnson, Manufacturing Machinist. Sooy received a telegram after returning to his boarding house for the day, Atkinson having checked his bona fides, asking him to report for work the next day as a “lathe hand.” In his unpublished memoir, Sooy states he was about the eighteenth employee of the shop, and started at twelve dollars a week. After being tried out at various duties, he settled in that fall doing piecework, making metal tubes. In his words, “the center bearing holding the driving gear and turntable in the Gramophone machine ( Sooy, H: n.d., p.4).” He would remain in this company’s employ until his death on May 24, 1927.
Late in 1898 he recalls Belford Royal being sent to England by Eldridge Johnson. Also, he married his wife Joanna over the Christmas holiday. Harry Sooy was then chosen to work on experimental machines, under the direct supervision of Mr. Johnson. This “made me very happy (Sooy, H: n.d., p.7)” and he reported with pride:
I, personally, had been doing considerable work of an experimental nature for the old Recording Laboratory, which was originally located in the Collings (sic) Carriage Factory Building. It seems I had been selected to do Mr. Johnson’s experimental machine work in the new Laboratory. (Sooy, H: n.d., p.7)
The moving and erecting of machinery in the new space was completed by early February 1900. After three months at his new duties H.O. Sooy’s salary rose to sixteen dollars a week, and eighteen dollars a week three months later. A central project at the time was development of the “C” machine “which would continue running while being wound” (Sooy, H: n.d., p.8) that they demonstrated for William Barry Owen that March. Sooy recounts that Owen became so engrossed in the performance that he sat down in a pan of black grease, permanently soiling a white flannel suit.
Later that month, Eldridge Johnson asked him if he would like to learn recording. He jumped at the chance, and was promptly assigned to the Recording Department under the aforementioned Messrs. Bentley Rinehart and William H. Nafey. For the most part, there is little technical detail in the memoir, which appears to have been written beginning in 1921. Sooy apparently confined many technical specifics to records held within the Department, rightly the intellectual property of the company. I have seen two mentions of the Recording Laboratory’s “Day Book” where formulas for shellac based discs, preferences for cutting heads, and other processes were logged. That book appears not to have survived. Harry Sooy was, clearly, a participant in recording for Eldridge Johnson prior to the patenting of his recording processes and prior to the incorporation of the Victor Talking Machine Company. He revealed:
The recording machine we used for our records was an Edison machine, converted to make disc records. The arm to which the horns were connected traveled across the record, away from the artist, and we found the records weak at the center. This machine which was electrically driven, regulated very badly. We then got to work and built a machine of Mr. Johnson’s type, called the “Barn Door Roller Machine” with stationary horn connections. It was built large enough to use for making ten inch records. This machine was electrically driven, and regulated very unsatisfactorily. (Sooy, H: n.d., p.12)
Still, it was the best they had at the time and was put into operation in late 1900. It was in this way that an experimental machine hand with no high school diploma came to be at the center of innovation in recording technology. It is well known that Eldridge Johnson directly supported experimental work by many men throughout the lifetime of his company. While I have found no direct mention of Harry Sooy by him, he clearly found him competent and trustworthy for this important work. He became “what we thought in those days a full fledged recorder” rather than an apprentice (Sooy, H: n.d., p.14), in October 1900.
It was at about this time that the Berliner Company went into receivership and Mr. Johnson hired some of their best hands. Calvin G. Child joined the Johnson Company at this point, handling what came to be called Artists and Repertoire. His sense of what “good music” was, and Mr. Johnson’s desire for a prestigious reputation and roster of artists, shaped the company’s catalogs for many years to come. He also served as Manager of the Recording laboratory. His assistant, Fred Gaisberg, who came to be known as the “granddaddy of record producers,” came into Johnson’s employ as well. Raymond Gletzner and James W. Owen were both hired for “matrix work.” The Recording Department remained at 424 South Tenth Street, Philadelphia from September 1901 to November 1907, a building in Philadelphia’s “colored belt” that had been Berliner’s. Recording was done on the second floor, and the matrix plant, with a capacity of thirty a day, was in the basement. “The Recording Department at that time would make the original records, prepare them for, and put them in, the plating baths (Sooy, H: n.d., p.22)” due to the small size of the Matrix Department. In 1901, they began making seven inch “Victor” discs, and ten inch “Monarch” discs, and were beginning to market them more aggressively. Messrs. Child, E.K. McEwan, James Owen, Harry Sooy, and Bill Nafey were paid (sequentially) to set up and staff Johnson Exhibits at the Buffalo fair and Pan American Exposition in 1901. Their task was to play discs to generate a crowd, then try to take orders. Harry Sooy reports they learned the ten-inch discs were most popular with fairgoers, and that “The Dog Fight” by Spencer and Girard and “The Village Choir” by S.H. Dudley proved quite popular ( Sooy , H: n.d., p.20).
The process of recording in the acoustic era was at least unfamiliar, and occasionally daunting to the performers of the day. There was no theater, no stage, and no audience. They were brought into a utilitarian room to face the large megaphone-like horn(s) that would gather the sound of their performances. All parts had to be captured simultaneously, cut direct to the master disc, with the vocalist(s) and accompanist(s) arranged so that the recording horns would capture all the sounds, while foregrounding the appropriate focal point. This often created uncomfortable physical positionings of the various players, with singers unable to see and make eye contact with the musicians. Harry Sooy’s younger brother Raymond (who joined the company in 1903) recalls, “No two artists ever face the recording instrument quite alike; some are nervous; some confident; some cannot make records with a spectator in the studio, while others must have someone standing by constantly (Sooy, R.: n.d.).” They were also called upon to perform when the equipment and recorders were ready, which was not always the optimum moment for them. Further, just before they were asked to perform, the technician(s) who were shepherding them through the process would withdraw from the recording space to monitor their equipment. It was a contrived circumstance in terms of musical performance, but these were some of the requirements of making successful recordings in the early days. In his unpublished memoir, Raymond Sooy provided this description of the recording process at that time:
We have used as many as twelve recording horns at one time with good results. This made it very difficult because the more horns used, the less volume you would get in the records, consequently a very sensitive diaphragm had to be used for this purpose, then again, we were forced to use Stroh violins.
These violins were made with a horn attached to them so that they could throw the music in one direction, but the tone quality was not so good. It was also necessary to place the musicians playing the ‘cello, oboe, clarinet, cornet, trombones and some of the other instruments on high chairs or stools, so that they could concentrate their tones directly toward the recording horns. They had to be placed so close together that it was almost impossible for them to play– the violinists, while playing, would oftentimes run their bows up the bell of the clarinets which were being played directly above them, or in one of the other musician’s eyes, which would cause a heated argument. (Sooy, R., n.d.)
He goes on to describe a scene of particular chaos when a xylophone propped three feet off the floor on “flimsy stands” fell, taking out the horns and vocal artist as it collapsed. These men were pioneers of disc recording who developed Victor’s recording processes to capture performances for commercial quality playback.
In October 1901, the Victor Talking Machine Company was formed, setting up Sales and Administrative offices in the Stephen Girard building at Eleventh and Sansom Streets in Philadelphia. During 1902, Calvin Child went to Europe to secure Gramophone Company matrices (plural of matrix) for Victor’s upscale Red Seal line. Toward the end of the year they were actively preparing to do recordings away from their home base.
We were just completing a Portable Recording Machine, which might be used for Export Recording in foreign countries. This machine was a duplicate of the one used in our Laboratory, the operating power being furnished by springs, and was a duplicate of the machine designed by J.C. English. (Sooy, H: n.d. p.25)
The first international recording trip, to Mexico City, was made by William Nafey in 1903. In March of that year, the Victor Company established a Recording laboratory in Room 826 of Carnegie Hall in New York City. This space was used to make operatic recordings for the Red Seal line, but sound from nearby vocal studios was a problem. They kept that space only until October 1904, when they moved to 234 Fifth Avenue, which was more centrally located and provided a better space for the work. Initially, they hand carried recording blanks themselves, with the recording machine in a white pine box, as the best insurance against damage or loss. As the amount and frequency of recording done in New York increased, it became more than one man could transport.
We secured good, substantial trunks which were furnished with heavy pads to prevent damage in transportation.These trunks containing original recording blanks were checked out from our home Laboratory for the New York Laboratory by the Union Transfer Company and upon arrival in New York we would pick the trunk up at the baggage room and take it to the New York Laboratory, in a taxicab. After the recording engagement the trunk was re-packed and its contents of master records was taken by taxicab to the New York Station and checked back to the home Laboratory for manufacture. (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 29)
These complex logistics also applied to international recordings, until production facilities were established abroad. Recorders would return from months in the field with several hundred new masters to be produced for that territory. But, the quality of those recordings was not immediately known. Short of pressing a test copy, recorders had to rely on physical inspection alone, with a magnifier or naked eye, to decide whether or not a master disc was “clean.” If not, another master of the same material had to be made, until one without physical deformities had been achieved. Even this was no guarantee, however, that the performance or recording would be of sufficient quality to get that selection into the Victor catalog.
In the early days of Mr. Johnson’s Recording and Matrix work, the first pressing from the master matrix was made in the Laboratory, and from this pressing it was determined whether the selection, or record, was worthy to be listed in the catalog. If such selection was listed in the catalog, matrices were made and forwarded to the Durnoid (sic) (also Durinoid and Duranoid in the literature) Manufacturing Company, Newark, New Jersey, who made all the pressings for the market. ( Sooy, H: n.d., p. 23)
This aesthetic assessment was done by a committee, which would include a representative of the Laboratory, the Company’s Musical Director, Director of the Artists Department, and others. There were times when even the biggest stars had to return and re-record selections. In later years, the pressing function was brought directly into the Camden plant.
As the pace of business quickened, the Recording Laboratory was permitted to increase its staff. At the behest of Mr. Child, after his brother’s recommendation, Raymond Sooy was hired on August 17, 1903. Raymond, by his own account, did odd jobs around the Department for ten days, then was taken in as Assistant Recorder. Two months later, Harry Sooy signed his first employment contract with Victor Talking Machine Company, a testament to his growing value as a machinist and recorder. Raymond was first allowed to operate the recording machine at a live session that November. He made his first recording trip to New York in January, returning there in February to help with tenor Enrico Caruso’s first selections made at Carnegie Hall. While Harry did not disclose the terms of his contract, Raymond did. He signed his first contract in April 1904 for $936 a year, plus a dividend. His dividend payment for the first six months was $26.64 (Sooy, R.: n.d.) He signed his second contract in January of 1907. By then, brother Charles Sooy had also been added to the Department (9/25/05). In Raymond’s words, “it looked like a Sooy combine.” The members of what is referred to herein as the dynasty, were now in place.
The pace of location and international recording was picking up. In 1905, Mr. Nafey made his second trip to Mexico City, and in 1907 an excursion to Buenos Aries, Argentina—the company’s first to South America. In the early 1920’s, the company would make this a full production site with Recording, Matrix, and Pressing facilities, known as the Pan American Recording Company (H.Sooy 50). Charles Althouse, who was fluent in Spanish was selected to spearhead this effort. In the course of his career, Harry Sooy made recording trips to Havana, Cuba, and Mexico City internationally. He also was dispatched for key sessions domestically, recording William Jennings Bryan and James Whitcomb Riley at their homes, Theodore Roosevelt in hotels, and Warren G. Harding in the White House in 1922. He also traveled to Montreal, Canada, assisting with the transfer of ownership of Berliner Canada to Victor, conferring with Mr. Holmes, the recorder there (H. Sooy: n.d., p.112). In addition to his work in Camden and New York, Raymond Sooy traveled to record Dr. Cook about his Antarctic expedition, and then governor of New Jersey Woodrow Wilson. Between 1908 and 1910 he made recording trips to Mexico, Cuba, and Argentina. He also spent fifteen months at the Gramophone Company in England, in 1921-22. Charles’ travels were less extensive, and all domestic, but he did record William Howard Taft at his home in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1912.
Much of the remote recording was done in suites in hotels. While the noise they made, and the hours at which they made it were not always well received, the Victor Company’s prestige kept the doors of the country’s best hotels open to them. The Sooy brothers and their assistants gained experience with travel by railroad and ocean liners, as well as the food and accommodations offered by those fine hotels. It is unlikely that other machinists, with similar levels of education had similar experiences. By dint of their profession, Victor’s recorders spent time in places rarely frequented by the working class. They were well compensated monetarily for the work they did and clearly had the support and loyalty of Eldridge Johnson, which they reciprocated. In the company’s peak years, the Sooy brothers were integral to maintaining its place of prominence, but rarely acknowledged publicly. In 1905, Victor Talking Machine Company established its Experimental Machine Shop as part of the Recording Department, under Harry’s direction (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 32). It was November 1907 when the Recording laboratory moved from Philadelphia to Camden, into the top (4th) floor of Building #15, on the northwest corner of Front and Cooper streets. The new Laboratory was equipped with what Harry called the “first large type “D” recording machine (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 37). Raymond Sooy’s diary refers to it as a “Dennison machine” (Sooy, R.: n.d.). The Victor Company employed a W.N. Dennison as a “key man” in the Engineering Department, so he may have been the designer. They also installed one in the New York Laboratory in 1908, the first permanent machine set up there.
On January 1, 1909 Harry O. Sooy received a salary increase, and promotion to Chief of the Recording Staff, responsible for all mechanical work, reporting to Mr. Calvin Child. The New York laboratory was moved again that June, to 37-39 E. 28th Street ( Sooy, H: n.d., p.43). 1911 saw the completion of three more floors of Building #15 in Camden, and the Recording Laboratory moved to the seventh floor (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 50). In 1913 Harry Sooy’s management role increased, when he was made a member of the Recording and Matrix Committee. “This committee meets weekly for the purpose of reporting the work during the week, and also to discuss the mechanical problems which may arise pertaining to the two departments” (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 57). His next promotion came on February 1, 1916 when he was made Manager of Victor’s Recording Departments, now reporting directly to Belford G. Royal (Sooy, H.:n.d., p. 61). On the same date, Raymond Sooy was “moved up” to the position of Chief Recorder (R. Sooy). The New York laboratory moved again in 1917, to 46 W. 38th Street, 12th Floor (Sooy, H.: n.d., p. 64). The two senior Sooy brothers were now in full managerial and operational charge of the Victor Talking Machine Company’s recording function.
Despite their key role on the technical side of things, the Sooys had no input on who and what got recorded. This put them in contact with a wide range of famous and aspiring talents, and they presided over many landmark sessions. Harry Sooy reported that on February 26, 1917:
the Original Dixieland Jazz band made their first records for the Victor Company. Incidentally, this was the first time the Victor Company made records of the real “Jazz” and “Blues” type of music for dancing, and, believe me, they were fully all that “Jazz” and “Blues” imply. The first records made by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band were “Livery Stable Blues” and “Dixieland Jazz Band One Step.” These were followed by “Tiger Rag,” “Skeleton Jangle,” and others of similar character, making a very big hit with the public, particularly those who liked “Blues” dance music. (Sooy, H: n.d., p.64)
Indeed, “Livery Stable Blues” is well documented as the first recorded jazz hit, but it should also be noted that the ODJB were white. Through its advertising the Victor Company kept its opera stars foregrounded in the public mind, but the lion’s share of its profits came from popular music. So, it fell to the Artists and Repertoire Department to find all kinds of talent, while guarding the company’s image of refinement.
In July of 1917, Victor made its first attempts at large symphonic recordings, using the auditorium of the Executive Office Building in Camden. After an experimental session with fifty-one musicians in July, Musical Director Josef A. Pasternack assembled an orchestra of eighty. The successful results from these experiments opened their doors to top orchestras for recording of their repertoires. In October of that year the Boston Symphony Orchestra recorded for four days, yielding the first symphonic records to be listed in Victor’s catalog (Sooy, H: p. 67). Three weeks later the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra came to Camden for their first recording date. Things slowed considerably in 1918 when much of the Victor plant was converted to War Work, and members of the Recording and Experimental Laboratories were assigned to it. Recording activity resumed almost immediately after the armistice. Building from their orchestral experience, in 1920 they began recording the “symphonic jazz” of Paul Whiteman’s orchestra, the forerunner of the Big band sound. Raymond Sooy was dispatched to Europe early in 1921, primarily to The Gramophone Company, at Hayes, Great Britain, for an extended period.
It was during his stay in Britain that Raymond Sooy learned of the death of Enrico Caruso, the international million selling opera star they had recorded in New York and Camden. Both Harry and Raymond note Caruso’s well known saying, “My Victor records shall be my biography” (Sooy, H: p.83). Raymond offered this description:
We found Mr. Caruso very congenial at all times, and while making records, he would create a lot of amusement, drawing cartoons of the different people around the Laboratory, in other words, there was a time for work and a time for play with Mr. Caruso. (Sooy, R.: n.d.)
May 1922 found Harry Sooy setting up his recording gear in the White House to record President Warren G. Harding. He recorded two speeches which had already been delivered publicly. In August of that year, word came down from Mr. Royal that they should develop an “eccentric” rather than concentric groove for the end of master records, for the purpose of operating an automatic brake. Acceptable designs were submitted by year end, and demonstrations made in January 1923 that the concentric grooves on existing masters could be removed and replaced, and future masters could be produced with eccentric grooves. Orders were given, and machinery for this function was put into fabrication. Also that month, Harry Sooy’s title was changed to Superintendent of Recording (Sooy,H: n.d., p. 98). The eccentric groove machine was delivered in July of 1923 ( Sooy, H: n.d., p.102).
In October 1923, Calvin G. Child resigned from his position as Manager of Artists and Repertoire at Victor, after long service. An Artists and Repertoire Committee was then formed, with Harry Sooy as a member, but he was “excused” after just a few months (Sooy, H: n.d., p.103). He did not seem at all bothered by that. Just a month later, Sooy was informed by his supervisor B.G. Royal, that he too was ending his active service to the company, and would be replaced by Mr. Fenimore Johnson (Sooy, H.: n.d., p.104), the son of Eldridge Johnson. In 1924 Victor was engaged in experimental work trying to synchronize sound recording and motion picture machines for the Kellem Talking Picture Company. By February, Harry Sooy was happy to have had that project moved out of his realm to the Research Department, and never mentioned it again (Sooy, H: n.d., p.106). His next major project was to gather machines and materials to set up a new Recording Laboratory on America’s West Coast, at Oakland, California. He made the trip that May, setting up the facility, starting recording, and making a recording trip to Los Angeles. There, they recorded dance, Hawaiian and Mexican selections. Harry saw two Recording Department staffers, Wm. J. Linderman and Fred Elsasser off on a two-month trip to China, did some pleasure traveling with Mrs. Sooy, then returned to Oakland to prepare for the trip home (Sooy, H: n.d., p.107). He and Mrs. Sooy enjoyed an extended rail trip up the Pacific Coast and across Canada as a vacation.
1924 was the year that competition from radio had a calamitous impact on Victor’s sales. In the search for solutions, Harry Sooy was compelled to cancel a January 1925 return trip to Oakland. He was asked to do some work for Mr. E.R. Johnson related to electrical recording. It began with “three or four records submitted by the Western Electric Company, which showed great possibilities in the art” ( Sooy, H: n.d., p.114). He was also supplied with six twelve-inch wax masters made by Western Electric from a radio concert of Victor artists. Within a week he was visiting Western Electric’s Laboratory in New York, conferring with Messrs. Kraft, Arnold, and Maxfield.
On this trip I took four twelve inch white plates, #72 Material. Had Western Electric Company try cuts on two of them. Material not suitable for Western Electric method of recording. (This work is known in the Victor Laboratory as W.E.R. #27). (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 115)
The following week Mr. J. P. Maxfield visited Camden to make advance arrangements for demonstration of Western Electric’s technology and processes for Victor executives. By early February the wiring and equipment were fully in place. At Mr. Maxfield’s request, Monk’s Cloth draperies (curtains) were hung in #2 studio to deaden the sound (Sooy, H: n.d., p.116). This February 12, 1925 entry is Sooy’s first use of the word “studio” in reference to what had previously been called a “recording room.” It is this author’s inference that the term “studio” had been learned from the Western Electric personnel who were more experienced with electric recording and particularly, radio.
Adapting to the new electric recording process, Harry tried using a “Neutral Reproducing Box. . . with a 2 1/8” diaphragm” that he had created and abandoned in 1914. It proved to be a “wonderful improvement (Sooy, H: p.116). They started making electrically recorded discs at Camden on March 11th, Sooy’s birthday and 27th anniversary with the company. Victor’s contract with Western Electric was signed on March 18th. The process of changing equipment, enlarging the studios, and constructing Amplifying Rooms began in earnest. Harry Sooy, perhaps best of all, grasped the revolutionary nature of these changes:
This meant discarding all of our old equipment used for direct Recording. . . It also meant microphones for the talent to sing or play into, instead of a horn, as heretofore used, which necessitated different placing of the talent for the microphone which we found beneficial because they could be placed whereby they would have more room and comfort while working. (Sooy, H: n.d., p.118)
The new physical arrangements in the studio also allowed the musicians to be placed more “naturally” in the sense that they could make their positions correspond to how they would arrange themselves to play in performance, with better sightlines and ability to interact. Raymond Sooy concurred about the changes, saying: “the new electrical recording process is a marked advancement in the recording of sound. The musicians can be placed in a natural position so they can perform with ease, likewise the vocal artists.” (Sooy, R.). Confronted with such drastic change to a system that had worked for twenty-five years, one might expect a bit more resistance. For the Sooy brothers, however, the undeniable improvements in results brought about by electrical recording, earned their dedication to seeing it adopted throughout the company, both at home and abroad.
The next step in electrifying the Camden studios involved consultations with representatives of the Johns Manville and Storage Battery Companies, recommended by Western Electric. Johns Manville handled the padding and draping of the studios. The latter delivered, charged, and serviced the storage batteries that provided a dedicated, dependable source of power. In March, they began labeling all electric recordings with a “VE” in an oval circle (H. Sooy, 119). To support the transition to electric recording Victor pushed for and got the services of Mr. Elmer Raguse from Western Electric, for one year. He began in late April 1925. In May 1925, they made a decision to change the size of the record groove from .002 inch deep and .006 inch wide, to .002 deep and .007 wide ( Sooy, H: p.121). May saw delivery of the first portable electric recording equipment from Western Electric, and the New York Laboratory was wired for electric recording that July. August found Harry Sooy on the road again, setting up new gear in Oakland, recording at Los Angeles, and at The Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah. In October they began using a new material, known as 580, which provided a better surface for electric recordings (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 129). Harry Sooy’s memoir stops with 1925, but not before describing an unusual recording session that took place just before that Christmas:
Mr. Kellogg (Bird Whistler) had an idea of making a record, himself with six Orthophonic Victrolas. This was done by using six records (pressings of a record he had previously made) on the Orthophonics in conjunction with himself, thus making seven bird voices on one record. (Sooy, H: n.d., p.131)
This was a primitive means of multi-tracking, perhaps the first attempt. Despite electrification, recordings were still cut direct to disc, as there was not yet an intermediate medium (which tape would become) to store multiple sounds recorded at separate times.
1926 saw renewed experimentation with sound for motion pictures, this time more successfully. The Warner Brothers movie studio partnered with Western Electric to develop a disc based system of sound for film they called Vitaphone. The work of processing and pressing these records was given to the Victor Company. Raymond Sooy and C.S. Althouse went to work at the Vitaphone Corporation to directly provide the benefit of their long recording experience. The first large musical motion picture with a synchronized score was “Don Juan” starring John Barrymore (Sooy, R). This sound system was also used on the first hit film with sound, 1927’s “The Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson. Again, the Victor recorders could be found at the cutting edge of the advancement of recorded sound. Late in the year, Harry Sooy was taken seriously ill, and not for the first time. During 1909 he had been “laid up for three months with Typhoid Fever” (Sooy, H: n.d., p. 43), and missed a month in 1922 due to Tonsilitis and Rheumatism. Not a bad record for a nearly thirty-year career, but this time he never fully recovered. While working in Oakland the following spring he became ill again, and died there, on May 22, 1927 (Sooy, R.: n.d.).
Less than a week later, Raymond Sooy was summoned by Fenimore Johnson, and made Superintendent of Recording, succeeding his brother. He reported to Mr. Walter W. Clark, the Manager of Artist and Repertoire, who had also been given responsibility for recording. Early in 1928 the Victor Company equipped a church it had purchased, the former Trinity Church at 114 North Fifth Street, Camden, with a Western Electric Recording System. They used this space for synchronized film work, and the recording of larger ensembles like college bands. As film and other recording work grew internationally, the Recording Department was called upon to expand by another sixty employees. Both Raymond and Charles Sooy remained with the company through both of its sales (1927 and 1929), retiring only after it became part of RCA. Raymond died of a heart attack in 1938, at the age of 59. Charles lived until 1945. These three working class brothers sustained multi-decade careers with a single employer, and were instrumental in making recorded sound a commonplace in twentieth century America. For the entire existence of the Victor Talking Machine Company as an independent corporate entity (1901 – 1929), there was a Sooy at or near the helm of the recordings that it made. Their work turned them into international travelers, befriended by some of the world’s great artists and political figures, but to many whose work they captured, the were merely the mysterious “faces in the window” (Sooy, R.: n.d.).
Harry, Raymond, and Charles Sooy worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company throughout their adult lives. They helped design, fabricate, use, and repair what was then state-of-the-art recording equipment. They learned and mastered their craft on the job and taught others who, alongside them, took it around the globe. As their careers were fully mature, they embraced the new electric technologies for the improvements they brought, even though the new processes made a generation of their knowledge and experience obsolete. Through their work they had the opportunity to travel and enjoy the comfort and services of fine hotels. They worked with some of the best-known artists and politicians of their day, often helping to advance their careers. They lived rich and interesting lives compared to others with similar educational backgrounds and skills. It is clear they were well compensated by the company, and always expressed respect for and loyalty to their bosses, especially Eldridge Johnson and Belford Royal. The recordings made by the Sooy brothers and members of their Department helped earn and maintain Victor’s reputation for excellence. Some still stand today as exemplars of acoustic recording, and milestones in the evolution of twentieth century musical culture. They were pioneers in sound recording in both dedicated spaces and the field.
The talking machine business was both a hardware and software industry. The company profited from the initial sale of the machine, then depended on continued sales of discs to sustain it. If the records were or the performances on them were of poor quality, it could have undermined the whole enterprise. Decisions about who and what to record fell to the Artist and Repertoire Department, with input from the Musical Director, appropriate committees, and in the early years, Eldridge Johnson himself. Men like Frederick Gaisberg and Calvin G. Child who performed that function were lauded as key figures in the company, gaining international reputations, and considerable wealth. Child’s name appears on the list of millionaires created by Victor (Bob 7-8).3 This was not so for the Sooys. Simply put, their contributions were not valued as highly as those of the Directors, Foremen who ran the factory, Executives who drove the Sales function, or those who made the aesthetic decisions. Their role was to perform a function, viewed from above as an industrial process. They were provided with space, equipment, and supplies adequate to their task, and were expected to deliver, efficiently.
Acoustic recording, however, was anything but an exact science. Every room and configuration of musicians and singers introduced new variables that had to be taken into consideration. Physical placement of the performers in relation to the recording horns was only the beginning of that process. Dealing with the personalities of the performers and getting them comfortable in the recording environment was a second major component. With these in place, the recording gear itself had to be ready with a blank disc, cutting head, and motive power. All three then had to be brought together effectively at the moment of performance. This is the challenge the Victor recorders rose to year after year. Without immediate playback capability, visual inspection of the master disc under magnification was the only source of information about whether the master created was adequate. Making additional masters of the same content was preferable to calling artists back, but supplies were often limited, especially in the field. The number of catalog selections delivered vs. attempts made became the measure of a good recorder.
By that measure, and the success of the men they trained, the Sooys were fine recorders. They pioneered the field of popular record production in the United States, but the creative dimension of their contribution went unacknowledged and uncompensated. The inescapable conclusion is that record production has been an underpaid and underappreciated skill from the very start.
1 Copies of Raymond and Harry Sooy’s memoirs are in the holdings of the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware. I originally obtained access to Harry’s memoir from a descendant, Wilma Fitzpatrick of New Jersey. The fact that she had the memoir was mentioned in the Pensiero papers from RCA, at Hagley. I am thankful to the Hagley for the two week fellowship that underpins this research. Also, the assistance of Ann Horsey and the Delaware State Museum is gratefully acknowledged for access to their set of Eldridge Johnson’s papers.
2 In 2004, a no-touch laser method was used to finally play back a Leon Scott recording, which held a vocal performance of “Au Claire de Lune.
3 This information is contained in an unpublished correspondence to Fenimore Johnson, dated 6 September 1949 from a (very self deprecating) man who served as Eldridge Johnson’s personal secretary from 1920 – 1926. It was unsigned, and the only reference I found to him, identified him only as “Bob.” It was found in the Johnson Papers at the Delaware State Museum.
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