Although Columbia, the second pioneer company in the field of disc records, started production of them in late
1901, the firm did not set up a Canadian operation until 1904, by which time they were already established in
New York, London and other major European cities. Roll Back the Years gives Columbia's initial address as
107 Yonge Street in Toronto. Further, as near as can be established, the Canadian operation served only as
a distributor of American (and, later, English) records, although it was not too long until the records were
pressed in Toronto from imported stampers, in all probability due to tariff considerations. To my knowledge,
there is no evidence that any records were cut in Canada, as will be discussed throughout this series of articles,
although I suspect the possibility that some of the French-Canadian material issued on the green-label (E-)
"International" series may possibly have been recorded in Montreal.
In any case, Columbia's "Canadian connection" was kept relatively unknown. Many of the records apparently
used U.S. labels (or were themselves imported) as the records are marked with both U.S. and Canadian prices,
while those pressed in Canada are only identified by a slight alteration in the license statement, which reads "...
this record may not be sold in Canada ...". The similarity of the label and the typography suggest the labels may
well have been imported also! English Columbia records, known at this point as "Columbia-Rena" were pressed
in Toronto also, using imported labels; one unusual pressing, in fact, couples a U.S. military band number with a
U.K. version of "It's A Long Way To Tipperary", with each side bearing the label and number of its original
Other than this oddity, the first items appearing in the Canadian Columbia catalogue not in either of the parent
catalogues were a direct result of Canada entering World War I long before the U.S. This was the "Patriotic"
series, bearing an ornamental red/white/blue label and numbers in a "P" series. The material, of course, was all
war songs, varying from marches to more plebeian fare, and all that I have seen were recorded either in London
or New York. The English sides may well have appeared also on U.K. Columbia, while the American sides
seldom if ever appeared in their home country. Some thirty odd records appeared in this series, which inspired
Berliner to deck some of his patriotic material in a similar label.
In mid 1916, probably shortly after Berliner introduced his Canadian-content (nominally!) 216000 series,
Columbia introduced an R-4000 series. Unlike Berliner records, the Columbias used American and English
masters, although many if not all were made especially for Canadian issue. The scope of material was not as
wide as Berliner's, either; it consisted of much English material, mostly standard, the usual national songs, and a
very few popular numbers. Furthermore, while Berliner issued close to 500 records between 1916 and 1924,
Columbia issued less than 60 in virtually the same period, and judging from their relative availability today, the
Berliner HMV's far outsold the Columbia counterparts. In the meantime, the Patriotic series was apparently
dropped in 1917 or 1918, with the last issues bearing a simpler blue-on-white version of the label.
It was apparently around this same time that Columbia in Canada quit pressing the English Rena records as such
and substituted an R-series using the North American label. The records were issued under their U.K. number
with an R- prefix (indicating Rena?). It is not clear at this point if these were issued similarly in the U.S. As
with R-4000 series, the majority of the issued material is of minimal interest to all but the most dedicated
musical masochist, with the exception of sides by Joe Hayman (of "Cohen" fame) and Billy Williams.
Shortly thereafter, in late 1916, Canadian Columbias became slightly more recognizable. The labels still bore no
mention that a Canadian operation existed, other than the slight rewording of price and license information, but
the typography of the credits began differing noticeably from the U.S. issues, apparently indicating that
Canadian-manufactured labels were in use. This produced at least one interesting situation: the Canadian issue
of the Dance version of "Whispering" was issued with titles (not labels) reversed, which must have confused the
north-of-the-border buyer somewhat!
One interesting sidelight of Columbia's Canadian operation, at least to some collectors, is the existence of two
specifically Canadian demonstration records (one and one half, in reality). When the second of the two records
extolling Columbia Double-Discs appeared, it appeared in both an American and Canadian version, with the
Canadian records selling for 30 cents rather than 25 cents. Further, when the Patriotic series was introduced
about 18 months later, Columbia took advantage of the interest in it to recouple the promotional announcement
with one of these sides. One further visible, bit not audible, variation exists: apparently at some point the
Canadian operation either ran out of their demonstration records or were delayed in issuing them, and copies of
the U.S. issue have been noted with the price overstamped with "30 cents".
The entire Columbia operation in North America was, however, falling on hard times by the early 1920s, as
economic slowdown and the coming of radio combined to seriously affect the record market. Columbia issues
grew less in number and major artists moved to other labels. Finally, in late 1923, a rescue operation was called for.
New Process, Viva-tonal and Royal Blue
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.
The Reds Take Over!
As previously mentioned, the operations of Columbia in Canada came to a complete halt in 1934, after the
record division of the bankrupt Grigsby-Grunow firm in the U.S. was acquired by the American Record
Corporation, whose material was being issued in Canada by the Compo Company. Compo, in fact, is said to
have been interested in themselves acquiring the defunct Columbia operation - an event which would certainly
have changed the Canadian recording industry - but did not have the money, even though the entire operation
finally sold for $70,000, including not only the catalogue, masters and trade names of Columbia but one of the
best available recording and pressing facilities.
From the July 1934 takeover onward, U.S. Columbia issues in the popular series dwindled. From this point until
mid 1935, about 100 records were issued on Columbia. Sometime in mid 1935, the unique blue laminated
pressings were replaced by standard black, and during the following twelve months about 75 items were pressed
on Columbia. The last period brought another 25 records, and new issues ceased appearing in the fall of 1937
with 6 sides by Fred Astaire which also appeared (as did other Astaire Columbias) on Brunswicks. The last 9
items were special issues: four sides by Benny Goodman on a special "All-Star" label, one Ted Lewis pairing of
reissued material and a commemorative album of twelve Bessie Smith songs which ended the D-suffix series in
late 1937. ARC was using Columbia primarily as a classical label, with much English and European material
issued on the Masterworks series to compete with Victor's Red Seal records; this meant that classical issues on
the Brunswick label were virtually discontinued - a listing for 1935 shows a total of five records, four of which
were standard songs by James Melton.
None of these Columbias were pressed in Canada, as Columbia or ARC had no Canadian operations. It is
reasonable to assume, however, from the fact that the Masterworks records and albums of this era are regularly
found in Canada, that the records were imported, although through what arrangement is not currently known.
Whether this arrangement included the popular series is also unknown, as the post-1934 Columbia records are
scarce even in the U.S.
In 1938, the Columbia Broadcasting System acquired the American Record Corporation. For obvious reasons
they chose to revive Columbia as the "flagship" label of the operation, and in September 1939 an all-new
Columbia record was introduced, including not only the Brunswick artists but several name bands, the most
important of which was Benny Goodman. Vocalion was at first carried over as the 35 cent companion label, but
it was replaced in 1940 by Okeh, which had been a Columbia subsidiary for a number of years after 1925. The
Columbia numbers started at 35200, for some unknown reason, while the Okeh, on a violet label, continued the
Vocalion numbers. The Brunswick label was carried on until mid-1940 as a specialty label, then dropped and
finally sold, with rights to pre-1932 masters, to Decca in 1943.
In early 1940, Columbia made arrangements with the firm Sparton of Canada, in London, Ontario, to press a
series of Canadian Columbia records, using the familiar red labels. At first, this consisted primarily of sides
released on Vocalion/Okeh in the U.S. - Columbia records were presumably imported - but within a short time
the more popular Columbia records also appeared in this series. The records were numbered differently than
their U.S. counterparts, with numbers starting at C-1 for the red-label series, and the Sparton firm credited
below the trade mark. These sold for 50 cents, as did their American counterparts. A very few records, such as
some by Canadian George Formby, had no U.S. equivalent.
There were several other series. Records in albums carried a green label, a number in a C-6000 series and a 75
cent price (!); this series also included a handful of issues, ranging from jazz reissues with no U.S. equivalent to
British material. There was a second green label series, with C-8000 numbers, which appears to include material
by certain artists, most prominent among which was Dinah Shore. This may also have carried a premium price.
12" red label issues, of which there were very few, were numbered in the C-25000 series. Masterworks records
had blue labels, appearing at first in C-10000 (10") and C-15000 (12") series, to which a C-12000 and C-2000
series, both in 12", were added. The reason for the various series is not clear, unless they related to U.S.
Masterworks series, as all the 10" Masterworks sold for $1.00 and the 12" for $1.25. Albums also carried
different numbers, with popular albums in an A- series and Masterworks as D- and J-. Not all U.S. albums or
records had a Canadian counterpart, however.
At or near the end of 1954**, Columbia set up a Canadian subsidiary and ended the pressing arrangement with
Sparton. By this time, the popular series had reached the 2500's, the album series the 6600's and the main
Masterworks series through 15000 and well into 16000. At this time the C- numbers were dropped and
Canadian Columbias began appearing under the U.S. numbers. This label, although essentially similar to the
familiar red Columbia labels, is slightly different, both in colour and typography, from the Sparton and U.S.
labels. One significant difference is the display of the date of issue on the label. Sparton, meanwhile, launched
its own label, drawing mainly from independent U.S. labels for masters.
In 1958, Columbia introduced a new "modern" label in both U.S. and Canada. The Canadian version is silver on
wine-red. The label was in use for a very short time in the U.S., as 78s were dropped there in July 1958;
however, Columbia continued issuing 78s until at least August 1959, although it is likely that not all items
appeared on 78, with Country records apparently being the last thus issued. This concludes the segment on
** On May 15, 1954 a Billboard article reported that Columbia Records had set up Columbia Records of Canada, Ltd effective
June 30, 1954 (Billboard). (Courtesy of Frank Gould, Music Librarian, Radio Station CFOX,
Pointe Claire, Quebec (1965-1969) and Label Manager, Polydor Records Canada Limited, Montreal, Quebec (1970-1976))