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RCA Victor Records
History of Recorded Sound in Canada


by Steven C. Barr

     In 1929 the Victor Talking Machine Company merged with Radio Corporation of America to become RCA Victor, and the Canadian subsidiary became RCA Victor of Canada. The boom year of 1929 gave way, however, to the depression economy of the 1930s and this, combined with the increased interest in radio, seriously affected the record industry. One source gives the total record sales for 1931 as 6 million discs - a 95% reduction from the peak years of the 1920s. Some U.S. record firms like Brunswick and Columbia were acquired by the American Record Corporation, an amalgamation of the Cameo, Pathé, Plaza and Emerson firms which gradually became Victor's only competitor until the late-1934 start of Decca. Others, like Grey Gull, Paramount, and Gennett, as well as the short-lived Hit-of-the-Week and U.S. Crown firms, simply disappeared. In fact, the remains of Paramount were acquired by Gennett, which sold its commercial record interests to Decca.

     In Canada, with the disappearance of Columbia as a separate firm, only the Compo Company remained to compete with RCA Victor in the record business, with the Compo firm issuing mostly U.S. material. With record sales all but vanishing, while radio sales held comparatively steady, the merged firm had given serious thought to abandoning the record business entirely. They apparently elected instead to meet the competition. Both ARC and Compo offered several labels, some selling for as low as 25 cents, while Victor offered only the expensive first-line records. In the spring of 1933, Victor introduced the Bluebird label (accompanied in the U.S., at first, by Electradisk, Sunrise and Timely Tunes, some of which may have been store labels). Numbering started at B5000 for the U.S.-originated records, while RCA in Canada had their own B4900 series. Like the earlier Victors, many items in the first few hundred Canadian issues of the 5000 series used different pairings than their U.S. counterparts. The first items in the Canadian 4900 series were Victor sides, apparently deleted from the Victor catalogue; however, Montreal-cut sides began appearing, both Québécois and English, but almost entirely by folk and country artists, with at least one exception - a then unknown Crosby imitator by the name of Dick Todd. Two other well known artists who made their debut on this series are Hank Snow (in Canada, as "Hank, the Singing Ranger") and Wilf Carter (in the U.S. as "Montana Slim").

     The initial assignment of numbers in the Canadian Bluebird series, with close to 250 records being issued in all series, started French language records at B-4900 and English language records at B-4950. These numbers were used in the U.S. for Irish records in the U.S. Bluebird ethnic series. It is unknown why the conflict was allowed to exist for so long! In 1934, a B-4700 "Irish", later "Fiddling", series was introduced, but quickly dropped after a few records were issued. When the B-4900 French series reached B-4949, it was followed by B-4800, while the English language B-4999 was followed by B-4600, which in turn extended into B-4700 after apparently "leapfrogging" the handful of 4700 numbers already used. The French-language records, apparently, upon reaching B-4899, started into a B-1000 series (although it is not yet verified exactly what the starting point was). The last records issued in these series were B-4742 and B-1298, both issued in December 1942. At this point the hyphenated numbers were started, with English records in a 55-3200 series and French records in a 55-5200 series. There may have been a 55- 0000 series intended but none ever appeared.

     Although the Bluebird label was dropped in the U.S. in 1945 (with a short-lived revival in 1949) it was continued in Canada, being used for Country and some French material. After 1946, the records appeared on the RCA Victor label, but carried blue labels and "Bluebird Series" designations. The series were as above, with a third 58-0000 series used for issues of U.S. country music which appeared on RCA Victor in the U.S. This series was in use until 1955 at least. For unknown reasons, a very few RCA Victor C&W records were issued in Canada as black-label Victors, with at least one label numbered in the 21-0000 series used for C&W in the U.S. from 1949 to 1951.

     Canadian issues on the Victor label virtually ceased, however, with only 40 records issued from 1929 to 1938. Of these, almost one third are square dance sides by George Wade and his Cornhuskers; only seven dance records appeared, four of them by Fred Culley and his Royal York Hotel Orchestra, one by Billy Bissett who later went to England, and two by Harold Leonard, an American playing in Montreal, while three further records featured Canadian pianist Willie Eckstein. Issues in the 120000 series from English masters continued, also, and while many of these are of no particular collector interest, they do include a number of Gracie Fields and Noel Coward items not otherwise issued in North America. A couple of other oddities: Victor records in the black-label series in Canada appeared as 024000 through about 024020 rather than 24000 as the 24000 numbers were used for a short-lived Canadian 10" Red Seal series (29000 for 12"); and Canadian Bluebirds of the 1938-1940 period are popular with U.S. collectors inasmuch as the Canadian subsidiary used the buff-and-blue label, which is one of the most attractive record labels, for about 18 months beyond its last appearance in the U.S., through numbers in the B10400 range. The so-called "staff" label appeared for a very short time in Canada, and only after it was dropped in the U.S. The Canadian His Master's Voice-Victor label remained the same from its 1924 introduction until 1947, and the ornamental "scroll" label, used to introduce the "Orthophonic" records in the U.S., never appeared in Canada.

     On Victor, the 263000 series was apparently dropped in 1942 as none appears in a group of supplements from July 1942 onward. 216610 was issued in August 1942 and 216611 was apparently the last number used. The 120000 series was replaced in 1943, although two more couplings of European (not British) sides appeared before the last number of 120984 appeared in 1944. The hyphenated series were 56-3200 for U.K. material and 56-5200 for French material recorded in Montreal. In 1943, the 150000 series, originally used for issues of French (or nominally French) material from non-Canadian sources was revived and used for French (i.e. From France itself) material; it was the only all-number series retained, and had reached 150230 in mid-1949. In April 1945, a popular Montreal-recorded series was started at 56-0000 oddly enough, appearing in the supplements as 56-001! with four Mart Kenney sides. This was apparently dropped in the early 1950s as Canadian material later appears on the 56-3200 series, whose last British-recorded issue was 56-3233 in September 1948.

     By the late 1930s, as the economy improved, and the jukebox became a common sight in public places, record sales once again improved. In 1938, band leader Mart Kenney started his recording career on Victor and made several Victor sides before being transferred to the Bluebird label. In 1939, Canada entered the war and a number of patriotic records appeared, ranging from martial music to four sides cut by an "unretired" "Red" Newman of the WWI Dumbells. However, a number of related und unrelated events were to affect the record industry, starting in 1942.

     In 1942 Victor faced an interesting problem: they were running out of record numbers! Since the introduction of double-sided discs in 1908 and, in fact, since the introduction of 12" records in a 31000 series in 1903, all U.S. and Canadian Victor records carried a 5-digit number in various series, the only exception being the ethnic V- prefixed series originated in 1928. By this time, the black-label popular series, now in the high 27000s, was fast approaching numbers already used, and the Red Seal series had in fact duplicated much of the early acoustic popular numbering and was approaching numbers on records still catalogued. Therefore, a new numbering system was introduced in late 1942.

     In this system, each record bore a 2-digit prefix and a 4-digit serial number. In prefixes, 10 to 19 indicated Red Seal records, 20 to 29 black-label popular, country, race or ethnic records, 30 to 39 Bluebird records, 40 to 49 various special issues and later, 45s, and 50 (or at least 55) to 59 Canadian records. Higher prefixes are known, but the details of the material on the records is not currently identified. The Canadian numbers were divided into series and sub-series (designated by the first one or two numbers of the serial group) as follows:

55: Bluebird or Bluebird-series Victor (replaces B-4000)

3200: all known are country
5000: possibly 5400, one known and it is a Leo Le Sieur item, one side French. May be French series.
NOTE: an 0000 sub-series may have been intended for popular material, but never used

56: Black label

0000: Canadian-recorded popular material (replaces 216000)
3200: British-recorded material (replaces 120000) but at least one Canadian Country & Western
(C&W) record was issued late in this series
NOTE: A French series may have been intended or issued to replace the 263000 series, but none has been seen, and the only post-1942 French-Canadian record I have seen had a 25- U.S. ethnic number.

57: 5000:

Used for Canadian/British-recorded material on 45s. It is not known if there was a lower sub-series using this prefix on 78.

58: 0000:

Used for U.S. material on a Canadian "Bluebird Series". All are C&W and this apparently replaced the U.S. 21- C&W series, of which only one issue has been seen on Canadian Victor.

59:

Apparently not used. Possibly intended for Canadian Red Seal records?

     Very few of these series were prolific at all, and most contained only 60 to 70 records, with the one exception of the 58-series Bluebird series Country records which amounted to about 400 records, all U.S. material. Of the Canadian material, most is not of significant collector interest. U.S. collectors are interested in the early Hank (Snow), "the Singing Ranger" and Wilf Carter sides not issued there, and jazz collectors in the several records made by Oscar Peterson before he recorded in the U.S. In addition, collectors of Canadiana are particularly interested in the Bert Niosi records, and the Mart Kenney records with the latter being fairly common and the former rather rare, as well as the records by the Happy Gang. Most of the remainder are either standard material or square dance records - (square dance and fiddling records apparently remained popular in Canada much longer than the U.S.) - and thus of interest either to specialists or collectors of esoteric Canadiana (like the author!).

     Oddly enough, the difference between the U.S. and Canadian record market produced one other category of records of very significant collector interest. Canadians remained loyal to the 78 somewhat longer than did record buyers in the U.S.; thus, when U.S. companies such as Victor began phasing out the 78 record in 1957, some items were available here on 78 that were only on 45 in the U.S. and when the major companies dropped 78s entirely in 1958, their Canadian branches continued pressing 78s for another year until at least August 1959, although apparently somewhat selectively, concentrating on country material toward the end of that period. This means that there are Canadian 78s, even of artists like Elvis Presley, that are not available in that form in the U.S., and such items are very much in demand.

     Finally we will discuss the labels used on Victor in Canada from 1942 onward. The familiar His Master's Voice-Victor label, although altered slightly in ink colour and minor detail, was used until 1947. By this time, U.S. Victors had acquired the designation of RCA Victor (in 1946) and the label introduced in 1947 was essentially a duplicate of the current U.S. RCA label, with a legend at the top reading "Victor Black Label" (God knows why!) on the first few issues. In 1949 the 45 rpm issue number was also added below the catalogue number; this was replaced in the U.S. in 1951 and later in Canada by the master number, hitherto almost unknown on Victor records. In 1953, U.S. Victors received an altered label, with no outside ring and Nipper's portrait in full colour. Canadian Victors had only a change to silver lettering on a dull black, later charcoal-grey background, and they remained such until late 1958 or early 1959, when the more attractive U.S. label was finally introduced.

     The Bluebird label essentially duplicated its U.S. counterpart until Bluebird was dropped in 1945. Thereafter, the 55- and 58- series, as well as a few B- series items which remained available in Canada, used the RCA Victor label, with "Bluebird Series" added across the top and on a blue (first dark, then dull dark, and finally dull bright blue) background. This was used until probably about 1954, when the last traces of the famous Bluebird label disappeared.

     78s were finally sent off to join wind-up gramophones, Model T's and Atwater Kent's in 1959, and it is at this point that I depart the history of Victor and leave developments to the rock 'n' roll collectors.