"His Master's Voice," Francis Barraud, 1898

In a post on May 14, I mentioned a song written in 1920 by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar: “So Long, Oolong, (How Long Ya Gonna Be Gone?”) I didn’t mention that I happen to have a recording of that song, sung by Frank Crumit on the Columbia label. Crumit was a popular singer and radio personality who also wrote about 50 songs, including “Buckeye Battle Cry” which is played at Ohio State University football games.

Victrola, the Victor Talking Machine Co.

My recording of the Ruby-Kalmar song is a 78 rpm shellac disk. I could play it on the electric turntable that we use to listen to our 33 rpm LPs, but I don’t. I play it on our 1927 model wind-up Victrola. I have an odd assortment of records stored in the cabinet of that phonograph. Most of them are 10-inch disks, but there are a few of the 12-inch disks. Some of these are recorded on only one side – including a 12-inch Victor record of Giovanni Martinelli singing “Celeste Aida” from the Verdi opera. By the mid 1920s, Crumit was recording for Victor, so the recording I have has to date from before that. The Martinelli recording was made at the Victor studios in Camden on Nov. 25, 1914. I was able to determine that at THIS LINK, which is a complete catalog of Victor recordings. An interesting detail is that the Martinelli recording – one side only – sold for $1.50 and the Crumit record sold for a buck.

45 rpm record

I got on this subject because of a story I read today HERE, on the Boston Globe web site.  The nut of this story by Sarah Rodman is as follows:

As consumers buy fewer and fewer CDs, an interesting phenomenon is occurring — artists who appeal to older listeners are showing up surprisingly high on the charts.

The reason: Adults are largely the ones buying CDs these days. Younger people tend to download in general and focus on singles.

The story makes it clear that while this isn’t universally true, it’s a clear trend. It’s also interesting to note that “surprisingly high on the charts” is a relative concept. Rodman points out that a reissue of a Rolling Stones album recently hit the charts in second place on the strength of about 76,000 sales. In the “early 2000s,” the writer explains, a recording had to achieve six figures just to be in the Top 10. The early 2000s are already “the old days.”


The acts the story cites as appealing to “older listeners” are an eclectic group that includes Sarah McLachlan, Sade, Barbra Streisand, Michael Buble, and Susan Boyle.

There is a lot of discussion about the changes that have taken place in the recording industry. Like some other fields affected by rapidly evolving digital technology, this one presents a variety of challenges to everyone involved. And the challenged include people like me, who have lived through all of the developments in recording except wax cylinders — and who have accumulated evidence of every stage.

Besides the heavy shellac records and the acoustic talking machine, we have boxes of 45 rpm records in the garage — including a duet by Connie Francis and Marvin Rainwater — hundreds of LPs in the living room — dozens of cassette tapes (and several cassette players, including the one in my Beetle), CDs all over the house, and a couple of MP3 players. The only stage we skipped was 8-track.


There’s an episode of “Seinfeld” in which George Costanza, having seen “Les Miserables” on Broadway, can’t get the song “Master of the House” out of his head. We’ve all had a similar experience, and it can be annoying. I read a book by the neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks in which he discusses the possible causes of this phenomenon. Pay attention. I think the next step in sound technology will be a chip implanted in the listener’s head and songs transmitted directly into the brain.

Meanwhile, is  there a market for all these jewel cases?





I saw Paul Potts singing on TV last week and heard an announcement that his new CD would be in stores on May 4. I went to Border’s and bought a Potts CD which turned out to be from 2007. I can’t complain about that; I took it off the shelf without examining it very closely. He has a pleasant enough voice that reaches into the upper end of the tenor range seemingly without strain. I think he lacks the firepower demanded by much of the tenor repertoire, but tenors – like cigars and coffee – are a matter of taste.

I, for one, never bought into all the excitement about Pavarotti. Clearly, I’m outnumbered. My taste is affected by the fact that I’m kind of a tenor maven, so I listen to many singers that most people have no reason to know about – obscure figures like Edmond Clement, Francesco Tamagno, Leon Escalais, and Father Sidney McEwan. I think the perennial discussion about “the greatest tenor” is a pointless exercise, because there are no objective criteria on which to base such a judgement. It’s more a question of “favorite” than of “greatest.”


Giovanni Martinelli

Giovanni Martinelli

For example, I prefer some tenors over some singers whom I know to be technically superior, precisely because I prefer them. Giovanni Martinelli is an example. He was nicknamed the “lion of the opera” because of the way he sometimes roared out his notes. He had his detractors on that account, but he has me as a fan for the same reason. When he was in his 70s he made a recording of “Wintersturme” from “Die Walkure” – but sung in Italian as “Cede il Verno” – and I think it’s the equal of a recording that Lauritz Melchior made at a much younger age.

My favorite tenor altogether is Count John McCormack, a legendary Irish singer whose career included roles with the world’s major opera companies as well concert tours, many recordings, and radio appearances. When McCormack first appeared on the operatic scene, he called himself Giovanni Foli (after his wife, Lily Foley) on the theory that he would fare better if audiences thought he was Italian.




It’s part of opera lore that McCormack once greeted Enrico Caruso as “the world’s greatest tenor” to which Caruso replied: “And when did you become a baritone?” I love to listen to McCormack singing Italian and French with that lilting brogue. But I especially like to hear his Irish songs, many of which are so melancholy. I also have a few recordings on which he speaks (one is a funny radio conversation with Bing Crosby), and I find it hard to listen to McCormack without smiling.