Recordings of William Cody, Knute Rockne and Miss Hattie Nevada (who?) are just a few examples from the world of vintage Personality records
By Kurt Nauck
Last month we looked at the world of Classical and Operatic 78rpm recordings; this time we’ll consider what are commonly referred to as Personality records. In the vintage (pre-1950s) record market, a personality record is loosely defined as a recording made by a singer, actor, vaudeville performer, athlete, comedian or any other entertainer who had some degree of fame beyond their recording career. The primary discography dealing with such recordings is The Complete Entertainment Discography, 1897-1942 by Brian Rust and Allen Debus. The revised 2nd edition of this work was published in 1989 and is now out of print; however, copies do turn up from time to time on eBay and other collector sites. Though the second edition lists many more records than the first, only the earlier edition contains recordings by composers and lyricists. (George Gershwin, Victor Herbert and Cole Porter, for example.)
Another terrific reference worth picking up is The American Stage Performers Discography, 1891-1932 by Allan Sutton. This work covers both disc and cylinder recordings made by American actors, vaudevillians and musical comedy stars through 1932. (It is available at www.78rpm.com)
The market for personality recordings is strong, and has always maintained a loyal following. The reason for this is because — perhaps more than any other genre — personality discs cover such a wide spectrum of recorded music. You can find personality records in styles ranging from jazz to opera, from comedy to academic lectures, from vanity records to items of historical interest, and from the dawn of recorded sound to the end of the 78rpm era. In the space remaining, let’s look at some examples that have sold in recent Nauck’s Vintage Record Auction (VRA) catalogs. Items will be preceded by the auction and lot numbers.
[VRA 59, Lot 695] Our Spring 2016 catalog had many interesting personality records, a good number of which appeared in a section of the catalog entitled Special Pressings. The category included educational records, vanity pressings, promos, advertising discs and a number of recordings whose purpose can only be guessed at. Within this listing were the first records made by famed negro concert singer Roland Hayes. Recorded by the Columbia Graphophone Co. in 1917-18, these sides were privately contracted by Hayes who sold them through agents, friends, newspaper advertisements and at his personal concert appearances. The discs are important pieces of American recorded history and they seldom turn up. His very first record (Swing Low, Sweet Chariot in E – condition) brought $165.
[VRA 59, Lot 9] Of much greater importance was a spectacular rarity of which only three copies are known to exist: an 1898 recording by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody entitled Sentiments on the Cuban Question. This 7” disc was issued by the Berliner Gramophone Co. as part of a celebrity series, which featured recordings by famed evangelist Dwight L. Moody, actors, Joseph Jefferson and Ada Rehan, and politicians Robert Ingersoll and Chauncey Depew. This was the only recording Cody ever made, and of the three known copies, one resides in the Library of Congress. We listed our example with a minimum bid of $25,000. It did not sell and therefore remains safely ensconced within the sound archive at Fort Nauck’s.
[VRA 60, Lot 9708] Our Fall 2016 catalog contains some equally rare recordings, one of which is undoubtedly unique. Recorded in 1897 for the Kansas City Talking Machine Company, this cylinder features Miss Hattie Nevada singing her own composition, The Letter Edged in Black. It is rather uncommon for composers to record their own songs, but all the more so on a 19th century brown wax cylinder! Miss Nevada’s song would grow to become quite popular and was ultimately recorded by numerous 1920s country and hillbilly artists including Vernon Dalhart, Fiddlin’ John Carson, Cotton Butterfield, Bradley Kincaid, George Reneau, Marc Williams, Carson Robison and Frank Luther. The minimum bid on this cylinder is $2,500; at the time of this writing, the auction has not yet closed.
[VRA 57, Lot 1540] The Spring 2015 auction contained a large selection of 12” shellac radio transcriptions dating from the 1930s. These early discs are rare regardless of content as they were pressed in very small quantities and were to have been destroyed once they had been broadcast. One was particularly interesting, however, as it contained an otherwise unknown recording by the legendary Notre Dame football coach, Knute Rockne. According to the Brunswick Company ledgers, this recording (a sales talk on behalf of the Studebaker Automobile Co.) was made in Chicago on March 31, 1931. However, Rockne died in an airplane crash that very same day en route from Kansas City to Los Angeles. Further investigation will need to be done to figure out this mystery, but it is obvious that the disc is historically significant. (I am unaware of another copy.) Because the record had a large crack into the label, a heavy needle dig and a stressed groove, which caused the needle to skip, it only brought $250.
[VRA 56, Lot 4770] Another significant sports recording was featured in Nauction 56 which closed in November, 2014. This was a complete set of the Dempsey-Tunney fight held at Soldier Field in Chicago on September 22, 1927. The match pitted World Heavyweight Champion Gene Tunney against former champion Jack Dempsey and is well known to this day due to the infamous “Long Count” in round seven. The bout was commercially issued by the Paramount Company as a set of five double-faced 78rpm discs. (Paramount is much better known today for its legendary blues recordings.) Though the issued Paramount set is both rare and desirable, the set listed in VRA 56 was comprised of ten single-faced white label test pressings! Though three of the discs were cracked, the records were in crisp original Puritan sleeves and appeared to have been unplayed. The set eventually fetched $1,000.
[VRA 55, Lot 4056] To round out this column, we’ll go back to a musical selection. Our Spring 2014 list featured an obscure vaudeville singer named Bert Lewis on an equally obscure label, Everybody’s. Accompanying him on piano was an uncredited though very accomplished artist who we suggested might be Fats Waller, a prolific singer and pianist who recorded numerous sides for RCA Victor. (Waller had accompanied Lewis early in his career, being billed as “Ali Baba, the Egyptian Wonder.”) Apparently we were wrong. This disc actually contained two hitherto unknown Duke Ellington performances! The recordings were officially introduced to the jazz world at the Ellington Conference in Amsterdam in May, 2015. And the sales price? Even though it was only in V condition, the record managed $1,403.
Do you collect 78s? If so, we would be happy to send you a complimentary copy of our 2017 Spring Nauction. Email your name, address, phone number and a description of the types of records you collect to email@example.com or visit our website where you’ll also find multi-speed turntables, custom styli, premium record sleeves, books and discographies.
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