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The Canadian Connection
History of Recorded Sound in Canada


by Steven C. Barr

     Although the first phonographs and records manufactured in Canada, and thus the beginning of an actual Canadian industry, occurred at the beginning of 1900, Canada's connection with the industry goes back some years further. Thomas Edison, who invented the phonograph, was born to Canadian parents, and his machine was both demonstrated and patented in this country in 1878. The "tin-foil" machine, so called because of its recording medium, was not a commercial success, since the recordings were too fragile to be permanent, and fidelity questionable. Edison, heavily involved in developing electric lighting, which had proved to be extremely successful, shelved further work on the phonograph after the initial flurry of interest.

     The next developments in the industry again had a Canadian connection. Alexander Graham Bell, the telephone inventor, who was a resident of Brantford, Ontario while developing this invention, used prizes and revenue from the telephone to establish laboratories for research in various fields, most notably sound, in which Bell was extremely interested. This allowed Bell's cousin, Chichester Bell and Charles Sumner Tainter to work further on Edison's neglected invention. By 1884 they had introduced a new and much more practical version of Edison's phonograph, and in 1885 they were granted a Canadian patent on their improvements.

     Edison, with the electric lighting business well established, was inspired by this to return to his invention, and by 1888 offered a still further improved version of the phonograph. The two camps, meanwhile, kept courts and lawyers busy with numerous suits and legal maneuvers to gain control of the phonograph, but finally agreed to pool patents in 1896, leading to the development of the two companies, Edison and Columbia, who between them formed the phonograph industry. During this time, the first pre-recorded records were sold in 1889 and 1890, intended primarily for arcade booths and other entertainment places who had installed coin-operated phonographs only to discover that their patrons preferred the efforts of professionals to their own attempts at singing!

     During this same time, developments were occurring which would eventually be more influential on the recording industry. Emile Berliner, German-born, had arrived in America in 1870. As a spare-time activity, he tinkered in a small laboratory of his own, and became interested in sound devices. He was successful in developing an improved telephone transmitter, which he sold to Bell interests for a substantial sum of money. This allowed him to continue full-time as an inventor. At this point he began experimenting with sound recording, and in particular with developing a recording which could be reproduced, rather than the cylinders which at the time had to be recorded individually.

     Additionally, and perhaps to avoid infringing existing patents he developed a method of recording laterally, so that the grooves varied from side to side rather than in depth. In 1887, he obtained a patent for recording in this way on a flat disc. He made a master recording by coating a zinc disc with beeswax and using acid etched the exposed metal where the cutting needle traced a groove in the coating. The resulting master was then used to stamp records in a hard rubber compound. This, plus the hand-wound power of his players, produced results far from perfect, and after trying to interest American companies, he finally arranged the marketing of his invention in Germany, where it was sold as a toy. He persevered in opening the American market, however, and first sold machines and discs (or "plates") in 1892 or 1893, setting up full scale operations in 1895. In 1894, he approached Eldridge Johnson, a Philadelphia machinist, to develop a workable constant-speed spring motor, which made his machines more practical. In 1897 he patented the machines and records in Canada.

     The entire recorded sound industry was, as noted, a legal nightmare. Columbia and Edison interests finally made peace in 1896, at which point both went after Berliner. This was made more complicated by the fact that Columbia had encouraged an employee to patent the process of recording on a wax disc master, a process which Berliner was using to replace the zinc etching first used. Additionally, Berliner's sales agent, Frank Seaman, left the firm after a dispute over payment and also entered the courtroom fray. These matters were settled by 1903, with Victor and Columbia agreeing to pool patents and Seaman bought out by Victor. But, in the meantime, Berliner sold his U.S. patent interests to Eldridge Johnson who set up the Victor firm. Berliner moved to Montreal.

     Our story of the actual Canadian recording industry per se begins here. Berliner moved his family to Montreal in 1899 and set up a small factory, including recording facilities, in that city. He had made arrangements as well with Victor in the U.S. and the Gramophone Company who held British rights to his patents, to press records from their masters as well. His first working space was in production by the beginning of 1900 when records bearing his name and the etched labels previously used in the U.S. first were sold. By 1901 he had followed Johnson's lead and was pressing 7-inch "Improved Gram-O-Phone" and 10-inch "Concert" records with paper labels. By 1904, arrangements with Victor had become more formalized, and the Victor name soon appeared on discs pressed from U.S. masters - albeit with the legend "His Master's Voice" in equally-sized print, an arrangement which would continue until 1947. Berliner's machines and records sold well and the firm expanded rapidly. As operations became larger, his two sons, Herbert and Edgar, were moved into executive positions in the company.

     Until 1904, the Berliner operations had enjoyed a monopoly on the disc business in Canada, with their only competition coming from Edison cylinder machines and records. These were never manufactured in Canada, but imported by the Canadian distributor, R.S. Williams and Sons Company, a venerable Toronto music firm. In 1904, however, competition became a fact, as Columbia opened a Canadian branch. Columbia recorded little, if at all, in Canada, and it is not clear if even the pressing of records was done here at first, as most Columbia records pressed in Canada used imported labels. They did, however, aggressively promote both records and Graphophones in Canada, and were certainly pressing records here within a few years, taking advantage of the patent agreements between Victor and Columbia in the U.S.

     Even with both firms in the business, however, profits were ample. The phonograph industry was booming as the first decade drew to an end; no home was complete without a phonograph. Further, Berliner acted aggressively in the courts to maintain control, as their patents effectively prevented the manufacture or even importation of lateral-cut records, and the few "outlaw" firms active in the U.S. did not see fit to enter the Canadian market. Up until about 1912, Berliner and Columbia controlled sales of both records and machines. At this point, while Berliner still continued to maintain the monopoly on record manufacture, new lines of machines began to appear. It may be that gramophone-related patents had expired, or the firm may have had the business sense to realize that more machines would serve to expand the market for records. From 1912 onward it seemed that everyone was getting into the gramophone business, either manufacturing machines from assorted parts obtained from jobbers or importing machines. Of these firms, only Vitaphone offered a line of records, these being pressed by Columbia.

     In 1914, World War I broke out and Canada was immediately involved on the side of the British. One of the developments of this was an upsurge of patriotism, and both Berliner and Columbia took advantage of this by offering lines of records from British sources or of Canadian material. Both firms may, in fact, have offered such material earlier, but in a limited way and with minimal promotion. Both firms quickly offered lines of records with flag-bedecked labels and patriotic material. Columbia even designated their line as the "Patriotic" series, with numbers prefixed with "P" to so indicate. Columbia, as noted, did not record in Canada; sides on the "P" series, and its R-4000 successor, were recorded in New York or London for Canadian issue. Berliner, however, elected to start recording in Montreal (the firm had done so in early days, but later relied on Victor for material) and launched a line of Canadian recordings bearing catalogue numbers in a 216000 series in 1916. This effectively launched the actual recording industry in Canada.

     In spite of the war, the business continued booming, and other U.S. firms began to look northward. By 1918, virtually all of the major U.S. phonograph companies had established Canadian branches; the only company to sell records, however, was Pathé, whose sapphire-ball recordings fell outside the Berliner patents. Pathé even offered a line of records for the Canadian market, although it is not yet established if they were recorded here or if the firm used Columbia's system. Many of these firms were, however, selling records in the U.S., using one of the methods of vertical-cut or "hill-and-dale" recording. About 1918, these records began to appear in Canada, some as imports, like Aeolian-Vocalion and the early vertical-cut Starr records, and others, such as Phonola, sold U.S. recordings under a Canadian label (the Phonola firm had been involved with Okeh and related foreign firms earlier, importing Odeon and Fonotipia records). The Canadian branch of Brunswick actually pressed and sold records which were not available in the U.S. Their machines were equipped to play Pathé records, and the firm obtained a license to use the Pathé system on their own line of discs. Apparently, either they chose to use Canada as a test market, or Pathé elected not to have competition in the U.S. The records seem to be New York recordings, however possibly made by Pathé themselves.

     When the war ended, the record and phonograph industry boomed. Radio, as entertainment, was unknown, so playing records was the only practical means of bringing music to the home (unless one had a large and talented family). By 1919, in the U.S., some of the firms pressing vertical-cut records, eyeing the Victor/Columbia market enviously, decided to take on these firms and market lateral-cut records playable on their machines. Victor immediately launched legal action, but discovered that the essential patent had expired, leaving other companies free to sell lateral recordings. Needless to say, virtually all of the companies did so. As the U.S. firms launched lines of lateral or "needle-cut" records, they became available in Canada as well.

     Herbert Berliner, in all probability, saw the "handwriting on the wall" in 1918 when Pathé, Brunswick, Phonola, Vocalion and others entered the record field. As the war ended he set out to establish a new firm, and early in 1919 established the Compo Company on the outskirts of Montreal, offering to press records for other firms. Both Starr (Gennett) and Phonola became Compo customers, which offered Berliner connections with Okeh and Gennett. As well, Berliner was apparently recording for these firms in the Victor studios, as Gennett offered a 500 series of Canadian recordings in late 1919, some two years before Compo would have their own studios. Berliner, as well, was recording extensively for his own His Master's Voice 216000 series; at first this was to supplement a much reduced output from Victor after the U.S. entered the war, but Montreal recordings all but replaced Victor sides in the black-label popular series.

     In 1920, the Canadian recording industry consisted of the following: Berliner, pressing HMV and Victor discs; Columbia; Brunswick; Starr, offering Compo-pressed Gennett records; Phonola, doing likewise for Okeh; Pathé, whose activities at this point are not well documented; and a number of independent firms importing various U.S. independent labels, as well as R.S. Williams still importing Edison cylinders and discs, though with decreasing success. Major developments were in order in the coming year.

     At the beginning of the 1920s, the future looked optimistic for the phonograph industry. Records and machines had just enjoyed their greatest year yet in sales, and the boom looked to continue. Radio was in its infancy and not seen as a threat. With the expiry of patents, lateral-cut records could be manufactured by anyone who wished to do so, and numerous firms entered the business in the U.S. In Canada, Berliner and Columbia were quickly joined by Brunswick, Phonola and Starr in the lateral field, with the latter two labels being pressed by Herbert Berliner's new Compo Company; other lines of records were imported from the U.S. or Britain.

     Berliner, at this time, was trying to gain some independence from the Victor firm in the U.S. During 1920 and into 1921 he had been recording extensively and promoted his Montreal recordings over and above those from Victor, and it also seems that he was using the Berliner studios to record for Compo as well. Compo introduced the 500 series of Canadian recordings in late 1919, but did not have a studio until July 1921. Victor must have looked askance at developments, as the chief executive of what was effectively (though not technically) their Canadian subsidiary was not only failing to promote Victor products but also pressing most competing lines of records.

     Matters finally came to a head in early 1921, and Herbert Berliner, along with several other executives, resigned from the Berliner Gramophone Company. Herbert was succeeded by his younger brother, Edgar, and by 1924 the Berliner firm had been acquired by Victor, becoming a subsidiary in fact as well as function. Canadian recordings became a lower priority. In the meantime, Herbert Berliner and the executive and technical staff he brought with him set out to expand the operations of Compo. Compo started their own label, Sun, which was pressed using material from Okeh and Gennett, with whom Compo was connected through labels the firm pressed for Phonola and Starr. The Sun label was soon joined and eventually supplanted by the Apex label. Compo quickly set up their own recording facilities, and these sides were issued on Compo and Compo-pressed labels as well.

     One event that occurred is well known to record collectors. Herbert Berliner took to Compo some John McCormack Victor masters. He removed the Victor numbers and these discs were issued on Compo credited to "Famous Tenor". Legal action by Victor followed, but Compo recordings of the same songs by Billy Jones doing a fair imitation of McCormack were substituted and still sold well.

     By the end of 1921, it was evident that the rosy forecasts for the phonograph industry were not apt to materialize. A downturn in the economy and the increased popularity of radio, reduced sales, and they did not reach the peaks of the immediate post-war years until the late 1930s. Although the larger firms still did well, many smaller companies did not. Phonola dropped their line of records to concentrate on machines (and radios) in 1921. Shortly thereafter, whether because their connection with Okeh was through Phonola or because the Okeh material was not selling well, Compo negotiated an agreement with the Plaza Music Company of New York to issue their masters in Canada (they would deal with the firm and its successors until 1936) and ceased to issue sides from Okeh, instead using sides from the group of "dime-store" labels such as Banner and Regal.

     During the early 1920s, Compo made two efforts to enter the U.S. record market. The first was to set up a subsidiary in Boston to import and sell the line of French language records pressed for sale in Quebec. Due to the large French-Canadian population in New England, this proved fairly successful, but was eventually sold off to Columbia, who used Compo matrices to press their French-Canadian records from about 1925 onward. The second was extremely unusual - the company elected to enter the field of race records, recording black artists in New York and Chicago and issuing them on the Ajax label, which was pressed in Canada. This is all the more unusual in light of the fact that Compo rarely, if ever, pressed blues or jazz material from its U.S. sources, as Berliner felt they would not sell here. Given Berliner's lack of expertise in this field, and the competition from established U.S. forms, the venture proved to be unsuccessful, lasting only a few months in late 1924 and early 1925, leaving behind a hundred-odd rare issues.

     In the fall of 1923, the U.S. Columbia firm went into receivership. The U.S. operations were acquired by the British subsidiary of the company, who wished to maintain access to the experimental Western Electric system of electrical recording then being developed. The newly financed U.S. company then sold its Canadian operations to a group of Canadian investors who continued to operate the firm much as before, pressing records from U.S. and British masters, generally issued with imported labels and thus not recognizable as Canadian pressings. They did not, however, set up any recording facilities, and when they did introduce a line of Canadian records (16000-D series) they were issues of British material or New York recordings, as the R4000 series had been earlier.

     By the end of 1924, the record industry in Canada consisted of the following: The Victor Talking Machine Company of Canada Limited (Victor having bought out Victor), pressing Victor records; The Columbia Phonograph Company, pressing Columbia records; Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company of Canada, pressing Brunswick and probably Vocalion records, as the Brunswick firm had acquired Vocalion; and the Compo Company, pressing Apex records. Compo also pressed other client labels, but most issued only a handful of records, sometimes only one. Other records sold in Canada were imported, primarily from the U.S. It is likely, however, that some of the proliferation of cheap records being pressed in the U.S. were sold here for nearly as low a price. While Brunswick and Victor did not bring out a less expensive line of records until the 1930s, Columbia introduced the Harmony label in 1925 (quite possibly to continue the use of its acoustic recording equipment, since most Harmonys were so recorded until 1930). Compo introduced the Domino record at the beginning of 1925. It was pressed for the Metropolitan store chain who also sold Domino records in the U.S., but does not seem to have been sold exclusively by the chain in Canada unless for a short time. Within a few months these were followed by the Microphone and Lucky Strike labels, which may have been for chain stores or simply to allow dealers to offer less expensive records. Oddly enough, all of these used exactly the same sides available on Apex, and the Apex number was even visible in the wax, although the lesser labels virtually all bore pseudonyms, sometimes quite imaginative. This process continued until Apex was dropped in 1931.

     Compo also broke off connections with the U.S. Gennett label at this point. It may be that the Starr Piano Company of Canada, a branch of Gennett's parent firm, elected to leave the record business (or ceased operations) and sold Canadian rights to the Starr and Gennett names to Compo; on the other hand it may have been caused by the increased orientation of Gennett toward jazz, blues and Midwestern U.S. territorial bands and artists, since this material was not particularly appealing to the Canadian market. In any case, no more Gennett masters appeared on Compo labels after early 1925, with a new 10000 series drawing sides from Plaza supplanting the Gennett based 9000 series. Plaza sides and Apex numbers had been used on Starr-Gennett issues early in 1923 for a handful of issues, but only for a very short time. The Starr name also replaced Apex on Compo's French records and the name, in fact, was used on this until the 1950s, long after the parent company in the U.S. was defunct.