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The Compo Company
History of Recorded Sound in Canada


by Steven C. Barr

     The Canadian phonograph record industry was, like many Canadian industries, primarily a subsidiary operation to U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, British) firms. From 1924, when the gradual takeover of the Berliner operation by the Victor Talking Machine Company became final, until the post-war appearance of firms both independent and Canadian, there was only one Canadian firm in the record business: this was Herbert Berliner's Compo Company. (The significance, if any, of the name has yet to be discovered.) The firm was founded by Herbert Berliner, son of the inventor of the disc gramophone and previously vice-president of the Berliner operations in Montreal.

     In late 1918 and early 1919, several of the U.S. independent firms began pressing lateral-cut records, an action later vindicated by the courts, who established that the essential patents on the lateral records had expired. At this time, Herbert Berliner, noting that the Phonola firm was in a position to issue U.S. Okeh records under their own label, and no doubt foreseeing that other independent firms in the U.S. would be seeking similar arrangements and surely noting, as well, that the expanding Victor firm would be unwilling to allow too much independence to its "Canadian" connection, began making preparations to enter the record manufacturing field.

     In early 1919 the Compo Company began operations, at first pressing Okeh masters for the Phonola label, and shortly thereafter pressing Gennett records for the Starr Piano Company's Canadian subsidiary; both phonograph firms had previously imported records. Herbert Berliner left his father's firm to serve as president of the Compo firm. Originally, all Phonola records were identical to their Okeh equivalent, under the same numbers, while the Canadian Gennetts were identical to their American counterparts. Berliner had further plans, however. In May, 1921, the new Sun label was announced, accompanied in September by the more familiar Apex label. The two labels drew from both Okeh and Gennett, as well as Compo's own studios, inaugurated in July, 1921. Okeh material bore its U.S. number in a 4000 series; the Gennett sides appeared on a 9000 series which had originally paralleled its U.S. equivalent but later served as a Canadian series for material issued in the U.S. on the Gennett series starting at about 4500. (This has been extensively documented by Alex Robertson whose listings were printed in "Record Research" magazine.) Compo's own material appeared on a series starting at about 500, while a number of odd Gennett and Okeh series appeared under their U.S. numbers.

     In 1922, another source of material was arranged; this was the Plaza Music Company of New York who issued Banner and Regal records, first using material from the New York Recording Laboratories and later their own masters. These were issued on an 8000 series. The original plan appears to have been to issue all series on the various labels, but this occurred for only a short time. The Sun label was dropped entirely (to be revived in 1931), and the Starr-Gennett label, replacing the Canadian Gennett label, issued only Gennett and Compo masters, on the 9000 and 500 series respectively. On Apex, the Gennett sides were used, but issued on an Apex- only series which started at 499 and ran downwards!

     A number of short-lived client labels were pressed, usually for phonograph firms, such as Hectrola, Hydrola, Operaphone and the like, using various numbers from all series. Shortly after the introduction of Apex records, the Phonola firm left the record business entirely.

     In 1923, apparently as a reply to the successful National Music Lovers firm, selling records by mail order, the short-lived Canadian Music Lovers Library label appeared. About two dozen records were issued; however, judging from their relative scarcity, the venture was nowhere near as successful as its American counterpart. It is not yet known if Compo pressed the records for some imaginative entrepreneur or if the venture was a Compo project.

     From 1920 onward, there had been a number of experiments with electrical recording. Compo was involved in this, as well, and their electrically-made sides actually appeared before the better-known issues from Columbia and Victor. The actual honour of being first was gained by the small Chicago-based Autograph firm, who sold records made electrically (albeit abysmally) in 1924. These early Compo electric sides may well explain why Victor's Canadian subsidiary promoted the Orthophonic process (as "V.E.") from its inception, unlike their American mentors. At the end of 1924, the use of Gennett masters was virtually dropped, apparently due, at least in part, to poor sales. The Starr name was maintained, with its "Gennett" sub-credit deleted, and a new 10000 series using Plaza material and 23000 series using Compo material replaced the 9000 Starr-Gennett series, which dwindled to a halt in early 1925. The Starr name would continue into the late 1940s, long after the parent firm itself left the record business; it was apparently restricted primarily to Quebec, with French-language material appearing on an 11000 series and a 12000, later becoming 15000 series. The latter appeared also under the Apex name, apparently for U.S. sale to the French-Canadian population in New England.

     One practice of Compo produced some extremely rare items. This was the manufacture of several labels during the 1924-1927 period for export to Australia and New Zealand. Labels include Palings, Leonora and Beeda, the latter two using usual Compo issue numbers. Canadian Starr records were apparently exported as well.

     Finally, in late 1924, the first of a bewildering array of "cut-price" labels under the name of Domino appeared. This was related minimally, if at all, to the similarly-named U.S. label, although both drew primarily from Plaza. The Plaza material appeared, invariably pseudonymously, on a 21000 series, while Compo and miscellaneous material was issued on a 21500 series. The 21000 numbers quickly reached 21499 and were replaced by a 31000 series in late 1928. In 1925 the Microphone label, using 22000/22500 numbers, and the Lucky Strike label, using 24000/24500 numbers appeared. It is possible than one or both of these were intended for a store chain. Meanwhile, Compo had made an eventually unsuccessful effort to enter the "race" record market in the U.S., for unknown and hardly explainable reasons, with the Ajax label. This produced a number of records highly valued by collectors, but no particular success, and the records were being remaindered by mid 1925.

     From 1925 until 1929, Compo issued Apex, Starr, Domino, Microphone and Lucky Strike records, as detailed previously; each side bore all of the issue numbers for whatever labels it appeared on, indicating either a great trust or an assumed lack of imagination on the part of the record buyers. The Apex and, generally, Starr issues bore the U.S. credit on leased sides and the Compo-chosen identity, true or otherwise, on Montreal-recorded sides, while the lower-priced labels used an amazing variety of assigned identities. The pseudonyms for vocalists were often, although not always, consistent while the pseudonyms for orchestras appeared to be chosen at random. The majority of the material originated with the U.S. Plaza firm, and these records appear today to have sold the best; other material was obtained from Autograph, Okeh, Gennett and possibly other sources. Compo also enjoyed a tie-in with Pathé from about 1925 to 1928, when Pathé joined the Cameo firm. Pathé did not use electrical recording until 1927, and many of the 1926 sides were in fact recorded in Compo's New York studios and issued simultaneously on Pathé and the Compo labels, since Compo had been using electrical recording since 1925. The result of all of this variety of sources and labels was a maze of numbers, mentioned previously as encountered but detailed below.

Series Labels Sources
1-? CMML Compo, Plaza
384?-499 APEX Gennett
500-799 APEX, SUN, STARR-GENNETT, MISC. Compo, miscellaneous
800 APEX?, SPECIAL No details known (1)
1000 PHONOLA Okeh Vertical
1500 GENNETT (CAN) Gennett (2)
2500 GENNETT (CAN) Gennett (2)
3000 GENNETT (CAN) Gennett (2)
3500 GENNETT (CAN), STARR-GENNETT? Gennett (2)
4000-c.4025 APEX, possibly others Okeh (11)
4000-c.4600 PHONOLA (to 4300), APEX, GENNETT, STARR-GENNETT, MISC. Okeh (3)
4500-c.4700 GENNETT, STARR-GENNETT Gennett (4)
6000 PHONOLA Okeh (2)
8000-8999 APEX, GENNETT (CAN), SUN, STARR, STARR-GENNETT, MISC. Plaza
10000 STARR Plaza
11000 STARR-GENNETT (French) Compo
12000-12129 (5) STARR-GENNETT, APEX (French) Compo
13000 GENNETT?, STARR-GENNETT?, MISC. Gennett (6)
14000 GENNETT (CAN), STARR-GENNETT? Gennett (10)
15130-c.17100 (7) STARR, APEX (French) Compo
16000-16040 (8) STARR-GENNETT Okeh
18000 (9) STARR-GENNETT? Compo
19000 PALINGS (for Australia) Plaza, possibly Compo
20000 apparently not used -
21000 DOMINO Plaza
21500 DOMINO Compo, Plaza, misc.
22000 MICROPHONE Plaza
22500 MICROPHONE as 21500
23000 STARR as 21500
24000 LUCKY STRIKE Plaza
24500 LUCKY STRIKE as 21500
25000 APEX (Radia-Tone) Compo (from broadcasts)
26000 APEX (later Brunswick, Decca) as 21500
31000 DOMINO Plaza
31500 DOMINO as 21500
35000 GENNETT, STARR-GENNETT? Gennett (10)
84000 GENNETT, STARR-GENNETT Gennett (10)

Notes

(1) The only record I have seen in this series is a demonstration record for a radio manufacturer; there is a reference to the series in Alex Robertson's Apex list, but only one item is noted.
(2) U.S. numbers
(3) U.S. numbers through 4500 and some later; others are recoupled Okeh sides.
(4) U.S. numbers through 4556, items thereafter are U.S. issue numbers where U.K. sides were used!
(5) Went from 12129 to 15130 - reason unknown.
(6) Not known if U.S. numbers or not.
(7) The extent of Apex issues is as yet not known to me.
(8) These numbers may have been duplicated by the above series.
(9) The only evidence I have for this series is its listing in "Roll Back the Years" by Ed Moogk.
(10) Presumably U.S. numbers but not verified.
(11) These were the final recoupled issues of Okeh sides.
(12) The following later series fit into this chart: 900 (Famous Artists), M-900 (Minerva), M-14000 (Minerva, Melotone), 18000 (Melotone-French). Compo-Decca also issued a 10000 series unrelated to, but duplicating, Starr 1000 numbers, as well as some other issues which may have duplicated much earlier numbers in various series.

     In 1929, the Compo Company, for unknown reasons, completely reorganized their stable of labels. The Lucky Strike and Microphone labels disappeared, to be superceded by Crown, Royal and, somewhat later, Sterling, introduced in 1931 as 35 cent competition for Bluebird. All of the new labels and the continued Domino label were numbered in a new 81000 series; at first, a prefix was added for each label (1-Domino, 2-Sterling, 3- Royal). The previous Domino 31000 numbers, used after the 21000 series reached as far as possible (21499), were dropped, although the two numberings seem to have co-existed for a short while. Apex, meanwhile, having reached 8999 and thus exhausted available numbers, started a 41000 series. Canadian and miscellaneous recordings appeared on a 83000 series for the budget labels, while Apex continued the 26000 series. Finally, the Starr label dropped English-language material entirely, releasing only Montreal-recorded French-Canadian material.

     The Compo labels for this period are of great interest to collectors as the American Record Corporation, from whom most of the material came, stepped up an apparent policy of supplying Compo with alternate takes of records when they were available, so that some sides by jazz-oriented bands, such as Ben Pollack, appeared in versions long thought to be unissued, on the Canadian pressings. Most of the budget pressings coupled one current hit with an earlier studio band side, with the latter side often not used for an Apex issue.

     Judging from the number of surviving records, the budget labels sold fairly consistently at their 50 and 35 cent prices. The Apex records, however, apparently all but ceased to sell, as the records in the 41000 series are fairly scarce - more so as time went on. Of course, records in general were selling somewhat less than enthusiastically during the period, particularly expensive records. It could be also that customers were gradually discovering that the bargain labels offered exactly the same material and performances that the more expensive Apex label used. This would be particularly true, as through 1930, the pseudonyms began to be replaced by the identities used on U.S. (And Apex) issues of the same sides.

     In early 1931, the 81000 series was unaccountably dropped and a similar 91000 series phased in, with a 93000 series paralleling the 83000 series, used as a catch-all for Compo's own recordings and sides from miscellaneous U.S. sources; primarily the new Crown label (which was unrelated to the Canadian label of the same name). It is not known why the numbers were changed, as there were numbers remaining in the old series and labels, or even prefixes, stayed as before. The arrangement continued until 1932.

     In January 1932 the American Record Corporation in the U.S. acquired the Brunswick Record Corporation from Warner Brothers, who decided to end a less-than-successful fling at the record business and concentrate on films. Almost immediately thereafter, Compo made arrangements to manufacture Brunswick and Melotone records in Canada. The Brunswick records, duplicating American issues in all respects except label details, appeared in February 1932, replacing the Apex label, which was not to appear again until 1943 (although the Apex trademark was prominent on letterheads during the time!). The Melotone label was simply added to the group of budget labels, possibly superceding Domino, which disappeared at about this point. The prefixes were dropped at the end of 1931 (91227) and all labels bore identical credits and catalog numbers.

     Compo's manufacture of Brunswick continued, probably until late 1933. Obviously, expensive records were not selling well, even when of the calibre of the 1930s Brunswick material. It is quite possible that Compo decided it was simpler to import the small quantity of Brunswicks rather than go to the expense of making dies and printing labels in Lachine. The cheaper labels continued to sell steadily, although possibly not in great quantity.

     In the meantime, the record business across North America was declining. All of the independents had vanished. Columbia, after bankruptcy, was acquired by A.R.C. (American Record Corporation) and used for classical issues. Crown was defunct, and the Paramount group had been acquired by Gennett, who in turn was all but non-functional, issuing only a handful of records on the Champion label. However, there were developments in store. Jack Kapp, who had been an executive with the Brunswick operations, was working with the owners of the British Decca firm to obtain financing for a new record company. His idea was to sell records by first-line artists at a budget price. Cheap records had been available; however, most used either untried artists or artists whose popularity was dropping. When a well-known artist appeared it was often in disguise! Kapp, as a member of the Brunswick management, was acquainted with most of the Brunswick artists. In the fall of 1934, the new 35 cent Decca records appeared, with an all-star line-up of primarily ex-Brunswick performers, including Bing Crosby, Guy Lombardo and the Mills Brothers among others. The idea, after a shaky start, proved eminently successful (so much so that A.R.C. tried reviving older sides by the defecting artists on their own bargain labels) and significant changes started occurring in the industry.

     In Canada, Herbert Berliner, seeing the figurative handwriting on the wall, began negotiations with the new firm. Finally, at the beginning of 1936, Compo began pressing Decca records, dropping all of the previous labels except, oddly enough, Melotone. The Canadian Melotone label, which was to continue well past its U.S. counterpart, began at this point to duplicate Decca's continuance of the Champion label - (Decca had acquired the commercial portion of Gennett's record operations) - but continued after Decca quickly dropped the Champion label. Popular material was issued until 1937 on a 40000 series, which lasted only a few numbers beyond Champion, while country material from Decca was issued on a 45000 series until at least 1942. Melotone records were, in fact, sold by Eaton's until 1947, appearing regularly in the catalogues; they were apparently not sold solely by Eaton's. Eaton's sold the Compo-pressed Minerva label from 1935 until about 1940, but apparently, judging by the extreme scarcity of examples today, without any success.

     When the pressing of Decca began, Compo quit pressing any records from other U.S. material (until 1952). The A.R.C. labels, including Perfect, Vocalion and Brunswick, were distributed by the Canada Record Company of Dundas, Ontario. It is worth noting that the listings of records of this firm are quite similar to Compo/Decca catalogues of the period, and it is quite possible that Compo was connected with the operation, which would explain how the use of the Melotone label was retained.

     There was still a small but steady amount of recording being done in Montreal, primarily of traditional country- oriented material. The 26000 series, which had gone from Apex to Brunswick, now became a series on Canadian Decca. It was, by this time, confined entirely to Compo's own recordings. As the decade of the 1940s was entered, the record business was vastly improved and the future appeared to be positive.

     Shortly into the 1940s, however, events changed abruptly. First, the progress of the war in the Pacific cut off virtually all sources of shellac, the major ingredient in records of the time. Since the shellac was required for other needs, much was salvaged from records turned in (no doubt, much to the detriment of today's collectors!) But supplies were still minimal. As if this were not enough of a problem, in mid-1942, the musicians, feeling justly that the proliferation of records and juke-boxes was reducing opportunities for jobs involving live music and that the lump-sum payment for most recording work failed to make up for lost income, elected to go on strike in the U.S. While the strike did not extend into Canada, virtually all of the records issued here were American pressings, a supply cut off by the strike.

     At first, since the material for record manufacture was all but unavailable anyway, there was little pressure on the recording industry. However as shellac became more available and new songs were heard in films and musicals and on the radio, the pressure began to increase. Since Compo depended on Decca for its U.S. material, the problem was further exacerbated by the fact that Decca, as a fairly new company, did not have as large a source of previous material to be re-released. In any case, in 1943, Compo decided to remedy the situation by recording popular material in Canada. In order to avoid any confusion, the Canadian Apex label was revived, and the 26000 Canadian series transferred back to Apex from Decca. The first releases were recorded by Max Boag, who had previously cut a number of waltz records for use in skating rinks; they appeared under the "nom de disque" of Harry Glenn. Judging from their availability today, they sold fairly well. However, Decca, in the U.S., was also feeling the pressure, and became the first major U.S. firm to sign contracts with the union in October 1943, and thus there was no reason to continue recording replacements.

     From 1944 on, the renewed availability of shellac and the new technology of vinyl and other plastic records, along with the return to prosperity of the recording industry, created a tremendous expansion of the record industry. From 1934 until the launch of the Canadian-pressed Columbia line in 1940, there had been only two firms in the record business in Canada, and only three in the U.S. excepting minor specialty firms. Suddenly there were literally hundreds of record companies in the U.S.. The expansion in Canada was not quite so drastic, but several new labels appeared in 1946 and 1947, drawing material primarily from the new American labels. Like the major U.S. firms, Compo entered the custom pressing field (all companies had, in fact, done custom pressing, but on a very limited basis) and actually pressed some of the independent labels. As well, Compo pressed Canadian versions of several of the U.S. independents. Varsity (the post-war version) appeared credited to the Compo Company, while most others were uncredited, leaving it as yet undetermined if they were sold, merely distributed or only pressed by Compo. Some, such as the Tempo and Gavotte labels, both sold by Gordon V. Thompson, a Toronto music publisher, are known to have been custom-pressed by Compo for other firms. The flood of independent records increased as time went on, however, and in 1952 Compo elected to join the competition and widen its range of U.S. sources.