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A Recording Career That Almost Was

Did you ever wonder why there weren't more Canadian artists featured on phonograph and gramophone records back in the early days of this century? One would almost think that Canada was devoid of talent or that perhaps there was too little encouragement given to the performing arts in those days - or that perhaps our conservatories were second-rate institutions - or maybe that the big record companies didn't want to take financial risks promoting little-known Canadian artists when they already had a good representation of successful American and British entertainers in their catalogues.

These Young Musical Olympians Started Something Worth While
(Mr. James Dodington, Tenor, Toronto, is the gentleman on the far right in the photograph)
Musical Canada, September 1920

An article which appeared in the Magazine "Musical Canada" in September, 1920 should prove most of those statements to be a bit off the mark. It would appear that there was quite a bit of talent around and that performing artists were being encouraged, too. So, why the lack of Canadians on records? Perhaps we Canadians were just a little less sophisticated than our neighbours, that's all. Perhaps we suffered, understandably, from a musical inferiority complex.

When I was a boy, my father often told me about the time that he had won this first prize in the tenor solo category at the Canadian National Exhibition. What the article fails to mention is what the prizes actually were. They were, in fact, scholarships, donated by the various phonograph companies to be used by the recipients for advanced musical study. Father's prize money bought him vocal lessons for several years afterwards with David Dick Slater at the then Toronto Conservatory of Music (now the Royal Conservatory.)

In 1926, after he had achieved many successes on the Canadian concert stage, often in association with such well-known artists as Frank Oldfield, Ruthven McDonald, Arthur Blight, Ernest Seitz and Harold Jarvis, he set out for New York City for further study and to make his first test recordings for one of the major record companies. A few minutes before his departure from Union Station in Toronto, he discovered to his dismay that he had inadvertently left his train ticket back home in North Toronto. Returning for the ticket, he found his aged mother lying in agony on the kitchen floor, with a sudden attack of gallstones.

Father interpreted this situation as an omen that he should give up his lifelong dream of being a professional concert and recording artist, so the very next day he applied for and got an "office job" where he remained at a desk for the rest of his working years. And although the luxury of a regular pay cheque made it possible for him to eventually marry, settle down and have a family of three sons, some of whom would end up with musical careers of their own, I think he often wondered how things might have turned out had he not forgotten his train ticket that fateful day.

Who knows, maybe today we might be collecting old 78's of Jim Dodington, the Canadian Richard Crooks! The article in Musical Canada reads:

These eight young laurel- crowned contestants shown in the above photograph - (the gentleman on the left and the lady in the centre were not contestants but rather the chairman and the secretary of the competition committee ) - were responsible during nine days of the World's Greatest Annual Fair in attracting 20,000 people to hear nine programmes, each lasting two hours. They sang and played next to the prize dahlias, rhododendrons and geraniums, in the Horticultural Building. A number of judges criticized their solos and awarded the prizes.

Behind these young contestants were six second prize contestants and 131 others who won nothing except satisfaction at competing so well before so interested a crowd under such novel surroundings. The contests were in three groups: vocal - in any of the four voices, open to competitors between 18 and 25; piano, ages 12 to 16; violin, 12 to 16. The singing tournament was open to the Dominion of Canada. Naturally more than half of the entrants were from Toronto, where most of the tuition is carried on.

Owing to the rather haphazard character of the auditorium, with so many hundreds of people standing in the aisles and over against the floral exhibits, candidates were allowed to choose their own solos. This gave a variety to the programme which held the interest of the audiences. Indeed the performances were so interesting that a well-known Toronto millionaire sent his agent over to the Horticultural Building to say:

"Look here, you know this sort of thing has got to stop."

"Why so?" asked the concert manager.

"Why - why, because man, can't you see the people are hiding Sir Algernon's rhododendrons and he's not getting the worth of his entry money in the advertisement?"

"Oh! Is that all? Well, you tell Sir Algernon Gardenia that this musical tournament is attracting more people right next to his floral exhibit in an hour than he used to get in a week. And it's going to stay right here."

The episode ended there. Music held the stage. Even the flowers had to go to the wings. These young performers never had so many flowers round a stage before, and never such appreciative audiences.

Now this rather phenomenal section of interest at the Big Fair had an odd beginning. It began in an entirely selfish motive on the part of the combined phonograph exhibitors who, for convenience last year, aggregated their exhibits in one and because there was no other accommodation available, were given a large corner of the Horticultural Building. A bright idea struck these phonograph exhibitors to combine with the exhibit a vocal contest. A committee was formed with J.D. Ford, representing the New Edison, as chairman. With him was associated Miss Mae Skilling, acting as secretary, representing Columbia. These two, aided by the rest of the committee, secured the co-operation of the Toronto Conservatories and manufacturers in guaranteeing the prizes. The press very kindly gave their columns freely to secure the contestants and in giving the scheme publicity. The services of twelve adjudicators were secured. In three weeks' time 125 entries were received. The performances were so good and the interest so great that this year the contest was extended to include instrumental. Now, with 20,000 aggregate attendance it is a problem - what about next year and after? It is proved beyond a doubt that a well-managed thing of this kind is sure to attract a crowd at an Exhibition where music is only now coming into its own. People get tired tramping through industrial civilization. They need a place to sit down and enjoy something. The music tournament fills the bill.