On the Record:
Columbia New Process, Viva-tonal and Royal Blue
by Steven C. Barr
In the fall of 1923, the Columbia Graphophone Company went into receivership, having previously sold its
English subsidiary. The English operation, in turn, helped to provide the financing to reorganize the successor
Columbia Phonograph Company. In 1924, the Canadian operation was sold to Canadian owners, although there
was no change in the basic operation of the relationship to American and English firms. The English operation
had, in fact, salvaged their American counterpart primarily to retain rights which were being negotiated with the
Western Electric Company to a new electrical recording process.
The changeover in North America was marked by two things: the introduction of a unique label, primarily in
various metallic colours (bronze for popular records) and decorated by tricolour banners (and hence known as
the "flag" label); and the change of record numbers from an A- prefix to a D- suffix. The R-4000 series was
replaced by a 16000-D series, still primarily (if not entirely) from English sources and still using a minimum of
popular material. Released only in Canada, the 16000-D series, appears to have included some Canadian material, at least toward the
end of its life in 1932. They appear to be primarily, if not entirely, recordings made at a yet undetermined site for issue originally
on the 34000-F French series, comprising various country dance records; artists include Ben Hokea, and several French-Canadian performers
of traditional Québécois material. The highest number seen so far in this series is 16129-D released early in 1933.
In May 1925, the first electrical recordings were introduced, and shortly thereafter the "flag" label was replaced
by a gold-on-black label based closely on the English Columbia label introduced earlier. The label did not
mention electrical recording, however, until about a year later, in spite of the fact that Victor's Canadian
operation (now no longer Berliner) had "jumped the gun" by announcing the "V.E." (Electrical) process as soon
as the first records appeared. During the use of the black label, Columbia apparently reverted to the use of U.S.
manufactured labels (or exact duplicates) with no mention of Canada at all.
This was not true, at least for a short time, of Columbia's "bargain" Harmony label. It has been assumed that the
lower-priced Harmony label was created due to Columbia's having completely redesigned their acoustic
recording equipment just before the introduction of electrical recording rendered it obsolete. Certainly the
Harmony records have a high quality of sound for acoustic recording, and Harmony was the last label to convert
to electrical recording, using acoustically-cut masters into early 1930; both of these would tend to verify the
possibility. In any case, the first records on the label in the U.S. were priced on the label at "Fifty cents, fifty-five
cents west of the Rockies", while the first hundred-odd Canadian issues bore the equivalent legend, "Fifty cents,
fifty-five cents west of Great Lakes" and a manufacturer's credit with a Toronto address. The issues thereafter,
like their Columbia counterparts, bore identical labels to their American counterparts, as did all Velvet-Tone
records, with only the record sleeves admitting to their Canadian origin.
Another event involving Canada, although this time less directly, occurred also in 1925. The Compo Company
had set up a U.S. subsidiary around 1922 to sell records to the large French-Canadian population in New
England, using Montreal-recorded masters issued under the "Apex" name rather than the Starr label on which
they appeared in Canada. In 1925, Columbia in the U.S. bought out Compo's New England operations and used
Compo masters on their 34000-F French-Canadian series, this being one of the few times that a non-Columbia
master was used on Columbia records and lending credence to the assumption that Columbia's Canadian
operations did not have recording capability. Sometime later, probably in 1928, the masters changed to an
110000 series; it is not clear if these are Columbia-recorded masters (and if so where the recording was done) or
control numbers to disguise the use of Compo material.
The 1929 crash, the ensuing depression, and the ever-increasing popularity and availability of radio seriously
affected the record market, and Columbia was in an even worse position than Victor, with no radio connection.
In 1932, Columbia was acquired by the Grigsby-Grunow Company, who manufactured Majestic radios in the
U.S. Shortly thereafter, Columbia introduced "Royal Blue" records as a sales gimmick. Since Columbia's
records, unlike most, consisted of two plastic sides laminated to a coarse shellac core, this could be done easily.
The public, however, could no more afford expensive blue records than expensive black records, and the parent
radio firm was itself in trouble, attempting to survive in a crowded radio industry. Finally, in 1934, the Grigsby-
Grunow Company failed, and the Columbia record division was put up for sale. One of the prospective
purchasers was Herbert Berliner, but the money was not available, with his Compo Company itself struggling.
The Columbia operations were finally purchased by the American Record Corporation, one of the two firms at
the time still in the record business to any extent in the U.S., for the amazing sum of $70,000. Since ARC was
already issuing the Brunswick label, the Columbia issues virtually disappeared, except for the classical
"Masterworks" series and a few artists under long term contract. Columbia's Canadian operations were dropped
entirely, as Compo issued ARC material in Canada until 1935-36, and what few Columbia records were sold in
Canada were imported U.S. pressings. Finally, in 1938, the American Record Corporation was itself sold.