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Tuesday, August 27, 2019

All Wired Up



In Memoriam 

The Wire Recorder 


A Webster Chicago wire recorder for the home, 1949 




By RANDY McNUTT


In the mid-1940s, before tape dominated, wire recorders arrived and became popular for ten years for home recording and to a much lesser extent for professional recording in studios and radio stations. Both wire and tape used the magnetic method of storing sound. But tape won the magnetic war. The most well-known seller of wire recorders was Webster-Chicago. It advertised heavily, particularly in local newspapers. Wire recorders for the public got the jump on tape recorders, starting in earnest as World War II was ending in 1945. When the Ampex 200 tape recorder arrived on the market in 1948, however, the fate of the wire slowly became known. The tape machine received most of the attention in the newspapers. It seemed like the invention of the talking machine in the late 1800s. 

Soon, home recorders arrived, and the battle between wire and tape began in earnest. People were genuinely excited. As a result, sales of wire recorders declined steadily. By the mid-1950s, wire machines were becoming passe. But the end had not yet come. The most well-known seller of wire recorders was Webster-Chicago. It advertised heavily, particularly in local newspapers. It reminds me of the duel between BETA and VHS, the two types of video recording tape in the 1980s. Once it was clear that VHS had won that war, BETA’s days were clearly numbered. So it was with wire. 

My memories of the wire recorder date from my childhood. My uncle bought one to record me. He was fascinated with his new machine, and he learned to record with it quite effectively. Over the next five years, he recorded me speaking my first words, singing, telling jokes, and saying silly and serious things. As I grew, he continued to record my words, and later my younger sister’s. We were comfortable at the microphone. About 1951 my aunt and mother started obtaining tickets to Ruth Lyons’ 50-50 Club shown on WLWT in Cincinnati. It was the most popular television program in our area. Ruth was the ultimate raconteur and a talented songwriter who composed local and regional hits, many with a Christmas theme. In 1961 she wrote “Wasn’t the Summer Short?,” a haunting ballad recorded by Johnny Mathis. Once, Ruth spotted me in the audience and asked me to join her on her couch, where she chatted about all sorts of subjects. She loved children. I was only about three years old, but even then I was a talker. You could say I was a live wire. Already I was cracking jokes and observing life and automobiles. I told Ruth that I wanted to grow up to own a junkyard. (FYI: I did not fulfill my fantasy.) 

Ruth and her sidekick, Willie Thall, a local country musician who had appeared on the station’s Midwestern Hayride, loved exploring my tiny mind. Back at home on my TV days, my uncle always got away from his job as a grocer and meat-store owner to record me with his wire machine as I held court on television. He kept those spools of wire for the next half-century, until they began to snap when played. They were as durable as tape. To rescue some of the wires he copied them to audio cassettes. When he died in 2004, I became the keeper of his Webster-Chicago and the wires of our lives.

Excerpted from Randy McNutt's new book Vintage Tape Recorders: A Pictorial History of Professional Tape Machines, Long-Forgotten Studios, and Assorted Gear (HHP Books, 2019). The large-format book, which sells for $25, features 235 pages of historic photos, advertising and publicity materials, spec sheets, and more materials representing recording machines from the 1940s into the 1970s. The book is available through Amazon.com and other book outlets.



Wednesday, August 21, 2019


Arrival of the Film Theme Singles 

By RANDY McNUTT

Billboard reporter June Bundy called 1960 the year of “the film theme single.” That’s when record executives discovered that movie themes could sell a lot of as 45s, if the performers stayed true to the original. One of the biggest—a number-one record in February of 1960—was “The Theme from ‘A Summer Place,’” by Percy Faith and His Orchestra on Columbia Records. He remade the original song about the time the movie was released in late 1959. Actually, it was the film’s love theme, not its main title theme, but who’s quibbling over something that sold over a million copies? It broke a record by remaining at number one for nine consecutive weeks. By then I was just leaving elementary school. My friends and I all enjoyed the records lush sound and pleasing melody, but we never saw the “adult movie,” as we called ones like “Summer Place.” We never stopped to think that it was strange to hear Percy Faith on the same radio station that played records by Jan and Dean. Like his effort, many film singles were remake interpretations by artists not connected to the pictures; other singles were used in the original film soundtracks. The preferred choice among record people was the film theme remake. It could be promoted as something new by an already big act, and not just a one-shot movie theme. A pioneer in mining these kinds of discs, United Artists Records gave us Ferrante and Teicher’s “Theme from the Apartment” and “Exodus.” Both hit the top ten that year on the trades’ top 100 charts. Over the coming decade Ferrante and Teicher would give UA two more top ten film singles, “Tonight” (West Side Story) and “Midnight Cowboy.” The dual pianists also provided their label with several other nationally charted records during that decade. Another smaller but nonetheless recognizable UA single was composer John Barry’s “Goldfinger” in 1965. But for UA management, “Exodus” was the most satisfying of the film music 45s. They told Bundy that it was fastest-breaking single in the label’s history.

Excerpted from Randy McNutt's Spinning the Groove (HHP Books). Available on Amazon.com.





Sunday, June 9, 2019

Record Pressing Keeps On Keeping On





Seventy years later, 45s are still spinning in circles






From Randy McNutt's Spinning the Groove: An A to Z 
Guide to the Lingo and Legacy of the Old Record Business 
($25, Amazon.com)


The golden days of the record pressing plants are over, though lately they have returned for an encore as demand for vinyl discs attempts to keep up with need. An indie label owner in New York told me in 2016 that he had to send his orders to a plant in Cleveland, and even then he had to wait six months to receive his records. The good news is that some new plants have opened since then, and pressing companies that once made records are returning to the market. Their problem is, they sold or scrapped all their presses in the 1990s, when compact discs came into favor. At that time few people believed that vinyl would ever be in demand again. The few plants that remained stayed in business by making specialty pressings. My prediction is that the number of plants will continue to increase and then taper off as the ceiling for singles and LPs is reached. After all, plastic discs are more for collectors than the everyday music fan, who wants his music fast and doesn’t care to “own” it. As for me, I want to own it, either on vinyl, CD, or even in downloads.

As late as the 1980s, pressing plants were all over America and the world. Their main business was manufacturing singles and LPs for record labels. Some plants were owned by large labels such as RCA and Columbia, which also did custom work for about anyone who would pay. Independent plants such as United in Nashville did excellent work, too. Then there were the small plants owned by individuals, recording studios, and a few little indie labels. (Their pressings were often, well, spotty.) As a way to generate additional income, these operations often offered pressings to their customers and musicians who lived in the area and needed a record made quickly. I did one once at Artists Recording Studio in Lockland, Ohio. When I went over to pick up my boxes of EPs, the owner took me on a tour, which didn’t last long. He had only about six presses. Another time I stopped at a suburban Cincinnati pressing plant and a label called Rite Records, which had about a dozen presses and did a good little business pressing for gospel and country acts. The old-man owner had a hair-trigger temper. When I inquired about the cost, and told him that I could get the job done less expensively at Artists, he started yelling and throwing up his hands. “Get out of here! Get out!” he shouted. I did—fast.

Then there was my memorable first record, pressed by King Records’ Royal Plastics division in Cincinnati. This was, as I recall, in 1970. (I was no more than a kid producer who didn’t know a biscuit from a band.) The label owner who released my record usually went to a Nashville plant or to RCA, but this time he wanted to rush-release my production. King offered to turn the custom order around in only a few days. When I first heard my record, I was disappointed. It sounded, well, I can’t describe it. Kind of flat. The next record I cut for another indie label was pressed at RCA. What a contrast. You could always tell a RCA pressing from others because its 45s were a little thinner. They played well, too. Of course a lot of the quality depended—and still does—on the mastering.

In Cincinnati, Royal Plastics was led by Howard Kessel, a grumpy guy and an original King investor. He once admitted to me that Royal’s records were not all that good compared to the products made in the more sophisticated, corporate-owned plants. This was due, he said, to Royal’s older presses. In the 1950s Royal had switched over from making 78-rpm discs to 45s and LPs. Some of the presses had been updated over the years, and others not. Fortunately, Royal’s press operators—consisting mainly of women but a few men too—knew how to make records. The middle-age women worked there for years. According to one outrageous legend, the old factory got so hot in summer that employees’ sweat ran onto the floors. One guy, who later became a top mastering engineer in Los Angeles, once told me that he saw a female press operator take off her blouse once and never miss a beat. I still don’t know if he was kidding.

Heat notwithstanding, they were an experienced lot, those King press people, good enough to crank out millions of James Brown discs and also the ones recorded by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and other R&B and country acts. By the late ’60s demand had become so great for Mr. Dynamite’s records that King farmed out some orders to RCA. I suppose the irascible Sydney Nathan, King’s president, hated to do it, but then he wanted to sell every record he could. By then Brown’s records were keeping the doors open—at both King and Royal Plastics.

Today, United in Nashville is still punching out the same good vinyl discs that it did for me back in the 1970s and ’80s. It is a survivor, and it is expanding.

The vinyl freaks out there want their discs and they want them now.











Thursday, May 9, 2019

Oldies but Goodies Aren't in Rocking Chairs




While Granny is Rockin', Grandpa's Gawkin'





By Randy McNutt


Once, there were no “oldies,” except grandma and grandpa. Then in the late 1950s came a demand for records from the beginning of rock ’n’ roll. Oddly enough, the early days had happened only five or six years earlier. No matter. The need was there. 

The original term oldies meant something specific: doo-wop singles. Soon the demand for oldie LPs increased, too. As Music Business magazine put it in 1964: “The evolution of the term oldie in recent years is comparable to what has happened to such originally specific terms as folk and hootenanny. They tended to take on a broader meaning than originally and as this pattern developed the trend itself became diluted and less clear-cut.” 

In New York, Irving “Slim” Rose opened what is considered one of the first oldies-only record shops in the nation, Times Square Records. Rose referred to oldies as those made from 1953 to 1959. His customers were mainly in their teens to early twenties. Rose sold original 45- and 78-rpm discs. Soon he started releasing original doo-wop masters on his own label. Some DJs started playing them on oldies radio programs. Noticing this trend, the original record labels started re-releasing some of their old hits. 

In the late ’60s, the oldies market picked up considerably, blossoming in the era of hipness, hippies, and psychedelia. Companies kept up with the times by re-releasing songs from the early ’60s. Meanwhile, the ’50s oldies market remained strong, sparking a modest career comeback for Bill Haley, who by 1968 sounded like a clunking old Chevy without an exhaust.

And so, the oldies market drifted into the future. Old being a relative term, the oldies expanded to include classic hits a decade ago. To meet the demand, an increasing number of the original record labels began publishing catalogs exclusively devoted to their re-issue discs. 

By 1971, Sterling, the title-strip maker for jukebox records, counted forty-one record companies with oldies catalogs. From 1970 to 1971, the number of labels offering oldies catalogs doubled, according to Billboard. One beneficiary of the oldie was the jukebox industry. When labels realized the oldie was not a fad, they started forming their own special imprints for oldies. One of them was Starday’s Country Jukebox Oldies. Others included RCA’s Gold Standard and Decca’s Original Performance. Elektra introduced its Spun Gold series in 1971. In that period, the most favorite oldies were by big-name acts in various genres, including Ray Price in country and Creedence Clearwater Revival in rock. Obviously, not all kids were dipping into the past for their fix of music. 

These days, oldies are taken for granted as a part of the record business. They are often called re-issue albums. Perhaps the 45 oldie will come back stronger now that younger people have discovered vinyl.

Excerpted from Randy McNutt's Spinning the Groove: An A to Z Adventure to the Lore, Legends, and Lingo of the Old Record Business (HHP Books.)






















Monday, March 25, 2019

Scott Walker's Death Ends a Pop Era


Scott Walker: The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore


The recent death of Scott Walker all but closes the book on '60s pop giants. His fame came at a time when a young rock 'n' roll gladly embraced a pop sound without hesitation. So long as you were young and your hair was long, you stood under the rock umbrella.

He was one of my all-time favorite singers. He put everything he had into each track. The guy was one fabulous singer. Too bad he didn't cut more songs with which people could identify. But never mind. At least he did what he wanted.

Walker--his real name was Scott Engel--began his career in America in the late 1950s. In the early 1960s, teamed with John Walker, another vocalist, and they soon found Gary Leeds, a drummer who also sang. They all adopted Walker's last name and headed to England, where in the mid-'60s the Walker Brothers found chart success. Hits there turned the group's members into major stars. "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Anymore," a flop for the Four Seasons in America, turned into a international hit, mainly because its English producers combined the group with an orchestra and decided to speed up the tempo of the song. Another well-known hit for the group was "Make It Easy on Yourself," written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David.

In England, the Walker Brothers' hits kept on coming. But in the States, subsequent releases failed. Scott Walker disliked the fame he had gained, and the material that was chosen for the group. When the band broke up in the late 1960s, he started a successful solo career and was rewarded with his own television show in England. The group temporarily reunited over the next decade, but its magic sound had faded. In time, Scott Walker turned to experimental recordings, which seemed almost like no music at all.

I'm just pleased that he left a lot of beautiful tapes in the can. Take a listen to him on YouTube. In the last year I bought everything he did--the real songs--from the '60s and '70s. If you want to hear him at the peak of his vocal career, listen to the moody album cut "I Don't Want to Hear It Anymore," a Randy Newman song done by the Walker Brothers. He tears up "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life."

The echo on that Newman song is real, and different. It makes Walker even better. Not that he needed any vocal enhancement. In his heyday, you had to be great to be called great. No Auto Tune, electronic gimmicks, or anything else that put you on key and fattened thin, whiny performances. In those days, your naked voice was out there for everyone to hear.

There were some great young pop-rock singers back then, including Gary Puckett and Billy Joe Royal on Columbia alone, but for my money, no one could do it like Scott Walker.

In the States, he was underappreciated. He left one song that is close to Ohioans, "The Lights of Cincinnati."

Goodbye, Scott. Thanks for the melodies.
Scott Walker i
 










Tuesday, March 5, 2019



Sonny Moorman
Rockin’ the Blues with Lucky 13 Naked


Singer-guitarist Sonny Moorman has done it again with his new blues-rock album, Lucky 13 Naked. Like the other albums in his growing repertoire, this one will knock your head off. He is literally in the groove, for this record is a real one—his first vinyl LP. “I’ve always wanted a vinyl one,” he said. “We spent a lot of time on this record.”

The celebrated power blues man from Hamilton, Ohio, shows everyone that his music is the essence of rock and the blues. He distills them like musical moonshine and serves it up for a growing number of fans who enjoy his distinctive sound—whether it’s plugged in or unplugged.

The guitarist can flat-out pick, and Naked shows it once again. His record features a band that’s as tight as an iron fist, and his vocals sound as gritty as any old roadhouse stage. Hearing Naked for the first time, listeners will find it difficult to believe that the immense sound is coming from three musicians: Moorman on guitar, Chris Perreault on bass, and Dave Fair on the drums. Moorman can change speeds as easily as a ’59 Corvette. One minute his guitar whines like an old freight train rolling through lonely Southern countryside, then thunders as loudly as a fast-coming storm. He grew up in southwestern Ohio, a melting pot of the blues, rock ’n’ roll, country, and about everything in between. Somehow, all of these elements became infused in his world of music. Now, he has established himself as a blues man with power. His followers call it the “Sonny Moorman sound.” The room rocks whenever he walks in.

His music comes about as close to the old-time roadhouse sound as you’ll ever hear, and he proudly plays it with the affection and enthusiasm of a true blues fan. For Sonny Moorman, the giants of his rockin’ world—Lonnie Mack, Freddy King, Duane Allman, and others—are revered for their musical trail-blazing. He manages to fit in with them while he forges his own sound, one that carries his own stamp of musical personality. In Lucky 13 Naked, he offers up power blues ballads, power rocking blues—and as much voltage as your local power plant. When he sings, "I’m and ol’ gunslinger, and I roam from town to town,” you know he means he carries his guitar across the country. When he adds, “I’m not as fast as I once was, but I’m much too fast for you,” you know he’s not so serious. For Sonny Moorman fingers still move at the speed of light.

He’s that rambling, roadhouse power man.


Sonny’s latest release is on Atlas Records, the label owned by Willie Perkins—best known for being the Allman Brothers’. road manager. In the Hamilton-Cincinnati, Ohio, area, the record is available at Shake It Records, Everybody's Records, Main Street Vinyl, 3rd Street Music, and Lester's Rock and Roll Shop, as well as at Sonny’s gigs. He has also taken mail orders through his Facebook page. Each store copy comes with a digital download card. He plans to soon make the album available digitally on CD Baby as well.