Shellac That Takes You Back

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A Kind of Immortality

There’s something exquisitely ironic about publishing and editing a paper dedicated to joyous and lively syncopated music and not finding the time to listen to that music for my own enjoyment. I must sadly admit here that until last month I hadn’t played records for the sake of playing records in years.

The act of “playing records” entails intent and attention. I’m not talking about dropping a needle on a “vinyl” and using it for background music. The records of which I speak are made of various shellac compounds, rotate at high speed (76.59, 78.26, or 80 RPM), and average three minutes per side. To listen to a record you place the phonograph stylus on the outermost extent of the groove of the spinning disc and you listen.

I’ve collected these things since grade school and everyone thought I was nuts for loving them. And except for the young analog fetishists (who call all records “vinyls”) and experienced shellac-hounds who know what they’re looking for, most people consider them trailer ballast. I’ve managed to amass over ten thousand of the old shellac discs.

Last October I bid on a mere handful of items from Nauck’s Vintage Record Auction. In previous auctions I’d place nominal bids on dozens of records (as well as buying “unsolds” at the end of the auction) and shortly thereafter receive four or five boxes from Kurt Nauck. But this trove was always earmarked for use on my radio program, RADIOLA! I’d transfer and restore the discs, taking extreme pains to make them sound as good as possible. I delighted in what I heard as I committed it to digital format. I found some incredible and unjustly forgotten performances. I also found some hilariously bad or weird records that I love quite as much as the neglected gems.

But getting the sound just right was work.

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I won ten records in the last auction, and the current batch cost me as much as the multiple boxes that would come in on previous occasions. The difference this time was that I specifically wanted to buy excellent copies of jazz performances I truly love. I chose original master pressings of my life-long favorites. My own time, being now at a premium, precluded me from going through scores of “lucky dip” selections. And even having won a mere ten discs it took me weeks to get to hear to them.

On December 5, I set up my long-dormant Rheem Califone dance-transcription player, equipped with continuous variable speed and twelve-inch external speaker. I even had an unused “old stock” Astatic stylus-cartridge for it.

Though a bit clunky, it is a machine ideally suited to listening to shellac records.

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The first record I spun was a super-clean original issue of “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” by Libby Holman. Holman is not beloved by all collectors; I rather like her but some can’t acquire the taste for her particular stylings. However, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang were on the October 1927 session to provides a thrilling accompaniment. I was immediately in Shellac Heaven.

What followed was “March of the Hoodlums” by Ed Lang and his Orchestra, a Hoagy Carmichael tune recorded by contingent from Paul Whiteman’s band on October 5, 1929. (The Whiteman musicians were in New York still waiting for a script for King of Jazz.) The recording quality is stunning; Eddie Lang’s guitar work rings out loud and clear. (This is exactly the sort of hot jazz that I wish had been in that picture.)

And thereafter I heard more outstanding selections: Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra (buff Bluebird pressings) and Venuti and Lang’s complete 1933 Blue Five session (the last sides Eddie made before he died)—plus Thomas “Fats” Waller’s 1929 “Valentine Stomp.” Waller’s musical invention floors me. I cannot listen to this 25-year-old master musician without amazement.

I’ve stated this before: it can be almost too overwhelming an emotional experience for me to listen to old records. I do get rather misty-eyed and mystical about it: listening to an original master pressing is your three minutes of communion with the artists who made that recording, in the most direct and intense way now possible. In his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined “phonograph” as “an irritating toy that restores life to dead noises.” It also restores life to beloved dead musicians.

The groove in a phonograph record is a direct audio footprint, and the acoustic method is most immediate of all: the sounds made in the studio impress themselves mechanically on the wax master disc through a recording horn. The electrical master, though created at one remove physically, feels even more intimate owing to the vastly-improved sound. It, too, is an instantaneous impression capturing one moment in time. Whether electrically or acoustically recorded, we hear musicians of the past come to life again for those few minutes.

Next month marks the 100th anniversary of recorded jazz. And in observance of the occasion, the greatest tribute we can pay is our attention. If you have “Dixie Jass Band One-Step” by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (Victor 18255) and a Victor Victrola (and a new steel needle, please), you can close the gulf of a hundred years through hearing an acoustic recording played on an acoustic instrument. On the other side of the horn, they live. On our side, we listen.


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