Revision note. The King Records house music publisher's advertisement (February 21, 1948) for "I Love You Yes I Do" mentions a previously unknown rendition by Leo Diamond, on Vitacoustic 18. What may may have been the last release on the label has been reported by Dan DeMuth. It is a second Joan Edwards release, on Vitacoustic 22.
Vitacoustic was a Chicago independent, associated with the up-and-coming Universal Recording operation. It collapsed into bankruptcy in less than a year, amid nasty management disputes, after investing heavily in recorded material that would never see release. Yet it began its brief life with a monster hit. Because it spent freely on Billboardads, and its riches-to-rags story attracted a lot of coverage, the company's story is much better documented in contemporary sources than was usual for small labels.
Universal Recording, operated by Milton T. "Bill" Putnam and A. B. "Bernie" Clapper, was originally a small studio on the North Side of Chicago that specialized in radio transcriptions (mostly for the ABC Radio Network). On August 24, 1946, Putnam and Clapper significantly expanded the operation when they took over studios on the 42nd floor of 20 Wacker Drive, above the Chicago Civic Opera. (The company first advertised in Billboard on August 31.) Clearly their aim was to pick up commercial recording business that they could not have handled in their old location with their heavy load of transcription work. In October 1946, George Tasker, who had previously managed Red Nichols and Anson Weeks, joined as recording supervisor. Universal would soon become the leading studio in Chicago, widely relied on by the new independent labels that were emerging after World War II. During the first few months in the new location, however, the studio was still recording a lot of speeches and transcriptions for radio use. The Vitacoustic label was a product of Putnam's ambitions to make and sell his own records.
Vitacoustic started up in late March of 1947 (a week or two before Aristocrat, another independent label that used Universal's recording facilities). Billboard reported on April 19, 1947, that Vitacoustic had signed Freddy Nagel's Orchestra and the Mel Henke Trio. On April 26, it further noted the signing of vocal group the Honey Dreamers, which was featured on ABC Radio at the time. Vitacoustic's first ad ran on May 10, 1947. The company's address ("offices and studios") was 20 North Wacker Drive, 42nd floor—i.e., the address of Universal Recording. The company was formed by Lloyd Garrett and Jack Buckley with Bill Putnam. (Garrett and Buckley had previously tested the waters with a short-lived label called Gee-Bee.) George Tasker was in charge of A&R. Vitacoustic, reflecting Putnam and Tasker's preferences, was originally oriented toward White pop music, with a special emphasis on harmonica players. (In its Billboard ad of October 4, 1947, the company boasted of being the "house of harmonica hits.")
The launch of the new label was announced in a Billboard story datelined March 29, 1947 (it ran on April 5). The headline of the story, "Putnam Springs New Waxing Technique With 'Vitacoustic'," focused on reporting the new "third-dimensional" recording technique devised by Universal Recording Studios. The Billboard scribe said, "Putnam's gimmick, while hard to describe, is said to make a band sound as if it were in the listener's room, similar to a good wired music system in a restaurant with four or five speakers set at the right places."
This article is one of the first to mention the use of echo to bring a fuller resonant sound to records—a development that has been generally credited to Universal Recording. Putnam might have been shy about describing what the studio did to get that more resonant sound. Art Sheridan, who was there at the inception of the technique, said, "Bill Putnam and Bernie Clapper [who founded Universal Recording] developed the first echo chamber by running a microphone and a receiver into the adjacent ladies' washroom, which was that old-type tile thing—it had great resonance—and while we were doing a session we put a guard outside the door so that nobody would come in and flush the toilet."
The use of echo was part of the company's identity, hence the name Vitacoustic, which means "Living Sound." The technique probably brought a lot of presence to the harmonica on the company's harmonica recordings. Overall, the development of echo in the recording industry has proven a mixed blessing. It was valuable for bringing more presence to many recordings. It became a bane when used to excess; for instance, in some of the tracks that were laid down by Chess and United in the early 1950s, either using Universal's facilities or striving to imitate them. Overdone echo makes records sound hollow and false.
Vitacoustic made its first releases in April 1947. Vitacoustic 1, "Peg o' My Heart" by the Harmonicats, and Vitacoustic 2, "Malaguena" by the same trio, were reviewed in Billboard on April 12, 1947. They were featured at the top of the list of records deemed "most likely to achieve popularity." The reviewer commented that "Mouth organing was highlighted by a unique echo chamber effect giving depth and glucose which helps to cover up other technical flaws." On "Peg," a "string guitar finish[ed] off measures with echoed notes." "Record biz has seen everything but a harmonica platter hit—this might be the baby to do it." As was expected from a record that had already moved 100,000 copies locally ("Disk has created a mild panic in Chicago and St. Louis at this writing, and looks to spread fast"), "Peg o' My Heart" entered the national charts on April 26, 1947.
The Harmonicats were a harmonica trio, consisting of Jerry Murad, Don Les, and Al Fiore. As we will see below, all three had shortened their names for marquee purposes. (We are indebted to Danny Wilson's Harmonicats Web site, http://www.harmonicats.com, and his Al Fiore page, http://members.aol.com/harmonica/PLAYERS/fiore.html, for background on these performers.) Jerry Murad normally played lead on the chromatic harmonica; Don Les sometimes added lines on the 10-hole standard harmonica. More exotic were the Hohner bass harmonica and the Hohner 48-chord harmonica, both of which made essential contributions to this specialized ensemble. As bass harmonica player Danny Wilson explains, the instrument is 8 3/4 inches long, and much thicker than a regular harmonica; it weighs 2 3/4 pounds. The 23-inch long chord harmonica consists of two combs, one above the other; it produces block chords tuned in a circle of fifths, and is normally expected to carry out a rhythm function, like a rhythm guitar (or an an accordion's left-hand buttons).
According to a story in the Milwaukee Journal of October 17, 1947, the Cats had formed in 1944 under Jerry Murad's leadership. Jerry Muradian was born of Armenian parentage in what was still called Constantinople, on December 12, 1919. He arrived in Chicago in 1925 and decided that he want to play the harmonica instead of going into the family business of making carpets. Domnic Leshinski, born in Lorain, Ohio on November 15, 1914, met Murad while both were in the Marines during World War II. Both spent some time in Borrah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals. Albert Fiorentino was born in Chicago on December 30, 1922. During the first couple of years, the Harmonicats all had to work day jobs (which in Murad's case included building and repairing harmonicas) but in the fall of 1946 they launded a steady gig at Helsing's Vodvil Lounge in Chicago.
In February of 1947, the Harmonicats approached Bill Putnam about recording some of their material, but they couldn't afford the rates (Putnam was charging $108 for a 3-hour, 4-tune session). Putnam was interested enough in their music that he offered to pick up the session costs himself if they cut in him on half the proceeds from their first 1000 records. The group recorded "Peg o' My Heart" (supposedly in just 20 minutes) and four other numbers. (The tale told by the matrix numbers is a little different: the U numbers indicate an initial session that included "Peg o' My Heart" and a second, longer session a week or two later.) The harmonica trio was accompanied on the two sessions by guitarist Sid Fisher and a string bass player. The records were quite innovative. "Peg" had a chord harmonica lead (played by Al Fiore) and "Harmonica Boogie" featured the bass harmonica (which was entrusted to Don Les). Putting the chord harmonica in the lead was an unusual move, which helped to contribute to the very full sound on "Peg." According to Danny Wilson, Alan Pogson had arranged "Peg o' My Heart" to feature the chord harmonica in 1937, while a member of Borrah Minevitch's Harmonica Rascals; Al Fiore revised his arrangement. The bass harmonica is an ungrateful instrument, with stiff reeds and a long response time; featuring it in the lead was a testimony to Don Les' virtuosity. Besides the unusual arrangements (by harmonica trio standards), the records made prominent use of the echo chamber for the first time.
Putnam had 1000 copies of "Peg o' My Heart" b/w "Fantasy Impromptu" pressed by Mercury. (Actually, "Fantasy Impromptu," from the Harmonicats' second session, may have been intended as the A side. Murad, Les, and Fiore all told Danny Wilson that they first thought that the light-classical sound of "Fantasy Impromptu" would have the broader public appeal.) The label on these was Universal, and the issue number was probably 1 (though we would like confirmation on that, and on the designated A and B sides). The release was announced in Billboard for March 1, 1947: "Universal Recording, local firm headed by Bill Putnam, is toying with the idea of its own permanent record label and will issue 1,000 copies of a test release by the Harmonicats, harmonica trio, and Sid Fisher's Trio."
Much to Putnam's surprise, his 1000 copies sold out in two days, after DJ Eddie Hubbard played "Peg o' My Heart" on the radio. To capitalize on its popularity, Putnam raised $50,000 so the the Universal label could press and distribute the record. But he lacked adequate distribution, so after moving 100,000 copies in Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin, he struck the deal with Buckley and Garrett to form Vitacoustic.
As was undoubtedly its first charge, Vitacoustic moved quickly to expand its distribution. Besides James H. Martin in Chicago, who had previously handled Universal, the April 26 Billboard (p. 22) announced that the company had picked up distributors in St. Louis, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, Raleigh, North Carolina, and Baltimore. The Detroit distributor was Pan-American, of which we shall be hearing again shortly. And the company had hired Evelyn Ehrlich, "ex-music paper scribe," to handle promotion (p. 22). The same Billboard item that announced the distribution network mentioned that the Honey Dreamers had been "inked," which we know is true (they'd already recorded with Mel Henke). But it also said the company had signed "Patti Page, local CBS vocalist." 'Fraid not. Patti Page made nothing for Vitacoustic that we have been able to identify; her first releases were on Mercury. It would take Page three years to prove herself as a hit maker, but when she did, she was still with Mercury.Meanwhile the Harmonicats enjoyed extended runs at theaters in Chicago, New York, Baltimore, and elsewhere. By June 14 (when "Peg o' My Heart" was number 4 on the list of "Records Most-Played on the Air"), Vitacoustic had opened 3 branches of its own Vita Record Distributing Company (in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles) and was using 19 other distributors, including one in Québec City, Canada.
None of this was to last. On September 6, 1947, Billboardran a big story, "Exec Dissension Forces Cats to Exit Vitacoustic Stable." George Tasker, according to the article, had left the company on August 29 and was looking for work in New York City (nothing came of the NYC trip, as we will soon see). And Bill Putnam had decided to cut his ties; consequently Jerry Murad's Harmonicats had to leave as well, as they were signed personally to Putnam and the tracks they recorded for him had only been leased to Vitacoustic. The last Harmonicats release (Vitacoustic 7, put out in September, a week after the split) consisted of material recorded earlier. According to the report, Vitacoustic had moved 1.4 million copies of "Peg o' My Heart"—truly prodigious sales by 1947 standards.
To reassure everyone that the company was still viable after losing such an asset, "Garrett said that Vita today can show a financial statement well in the black and that he and Buckley would continue to spearhead the label." Indeed, on September 27, "Peg o' My Heart" was still at number 7 on the chart of "Most-played Juke Box Records," enjoying its 22nd week in the top 15. (Of course, one of the "cover" versions was ranked number 3. No fewer than 17 covers of "Peg o' My Heart" were released on other labels. Supposedly the Harmonicats wrote to each of the artists, reminding them that their group was called the Harmonicats, not the Copycats.)
Right after the split with Putnam and Tasker, Garrett decided to diversify (for all we know, his desire to do so had helped to precipitate the split). On September 27, Billboard noted "Vita Expanding Into Hillbilly, Race Divisions" (the story date was September 20). Maurice Murray, a producer of ABC Radio series, was named the new A&R director and Art Ward, manager of the Honey Dreamers, took over public relations.
In the same issue a story appeared on Bill Putnam re-establishing the Universal label, which he had put on hold when he licensed the Harmonicats material to Vitacoustic: "Putnam Sets New Waxery; 'Cats Inked." The officials of the new Universal label were Putnam, President; A. B. (Bernie) Clapper, Vice-President, and George Tasker, Vice-President and A&R man. Tasker's trip to New York must have been short. "The new diskery set-up is an exact copy of the Universal label, which Putnam worked out early in April [actually March]."
Universal would hold on into 1950 (though it halted most new recording and sold off most of its masters in 1949). The company hit its peak of activity over the next few months. In the Billboard for November 29, 1947, an ad ran for "I Love You" by Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, Universal U-4; the matrix numbers indicate that Bill Putnam called his own recording session with the Cats in September, as soon as he had pried them loose from Vitacoustic. The November ad also promoted singles by Ellen White, U-5; Ralph Marterie, U-8 (in those days, reviewers all misspelled his name, and record company ads usually did as well); Johnny "Scat" Davis, U-17; Gloria Van and the Vanguards, U-34; and the "hillbilly" act Flash and Whistler, U-6. On January 24, 1948, Universal ran an ad for U-82 by Bob Carter, the former Specialty and Sunbeam artist, and his trio. Otherwise Universal recorded the White pop music of the period, occasionally interlarded with sides by polka bands. The only other exceptions we have heard of are a 2-disk 78 album on U-67, consisting of experimental big band jazz conducted by Bill Russo, and a boogie-oriented release on U-38 by singer/pianist Nettie Saunders (who was also U-80).
On July 31, 1948, Universal was reported to be experimenting with microgrooved 10-inch 78s that could carry two tracks per side; supposedly EPs by Johnny "Scat" Davis, the Harmonicats, and Gene Austin were coming out in September. Some of these, like an EP by the Harmonicats, were released. But with 33-rpm LPs coming out in 1948 and 7-inch 45s hitting the stands in 1949, each with tremendous major-label promotion behind them, its invention had poor prospects of catching on. Universal would use the "double feature" 78s until the label shut down. A few small labels in Chicago that used Universal Recording's facilities, such as Folk Music Center and JEB/Irene, then kept the format in limited circulation through the end of 1952.
Meanwhile Vitacoustic was still figuring to sell a lot of Harmonicats 78s in Canada, for the company added a pressing plant in Windsor, Ontario. As it turned out, hardly any "hillbilly" releases emerged during the lifetime of Vitacoustic, even though the September 27 article said that Judy Canova would be responsible for the "first rustic release," and at least three country artists (Nancy Lee and her Hilltoppers, Riley Shepard, and Kenny Roberts) were pictured in a big display ad that the company ran on January 24, 1948. The only country releases that we have been able to locate are Vitacoustic 5000 and 5001 by Riley Shepard, which made it out in late January or early February of 1948. (Our thanks to record collector Ronald Keppner for alerting us to the previously undocumented Vitacoustic 5000.) Some R&B action did take place, though. For these "race" releases, Garrett launched a new 1000 series.
Vitacoustic planned to start the 1000 series with a 78 by Todd Rhodes and his Orchestra. This was not newly recorded by the company: "Platter was originally released seven weeks ago by the Sensation label, opped by Bernie Besman and Johnny Kaplan, of Pan-American Distributors, Vita's Detroit outlet. Deal for Rhodes brought his waxing contract and six more masters into the Vita fold." Sensation grew out of Pan American Distributors, which Bernard Besman and Johnny Kaplan opened in April 1946 (the name is incorrectly spelled "Caplan" in some sources). Besman, whose family fled Ukraine in 1921 and arrived in Detroit in 1926, had played piano and co-led a "sweet" band during the 1930s; before service in World War II, he operated a booking agency. Pan American was moving a lot of Vitacoustic product; by 1948 it had sold 175,000 copies of "Peg o' My Heart." Most of the companies it handled were "race" labels, however, including Aristocrat, Aladdin, Modern, Savoy, and Specialty. Sensation never did get its own distribution outside Pan American's home territory of Michigan and northwestern Ohio (at various later points, it would conclude alliances with King, Modern, and Regal). Despite the impression created by such coverage, Vitacoustic did not get outright ownership of the material that Sensation had recorded. Rhodes' contract, for instance, was jointly owned by the two companies.
Vitacoustic was coming late to "race" records. The ad in Billboard, pictured above, appeared on November 8, 1947 to hawk the "New Sensational Jam Session Series." This kicked off with two singles recorded earlier by Sensation, at United Sound Studios in Detroit. Todd Rhodes was responsible for Vitacoustic 1001, "Bell-Boy Boogie" b/w "Flying Disc" and Vitacoustic 1002, "Blue Sensation" b/w "Dance of the Red Skins." ("Bell-Boy Boogie" was named after the popular Detroit DJ Jack the Bellboy, also the dedicatee of a tune by Illinois Jacquet.) According to Art Zimmerman, everything but the label on Vitacoustic 1002 is identical to Sensation 1, right down to the stampers (the Sensation release had appeared around the first of August 1947). More typical of Vitacoustic's fare at the time were three items advertised in the same package: Vitacoustic 9 and 11, by "Leo Diamond, harmonicartist" (who was expected to pick up where Jerry Murad's Harmonicats left off) and Vitacoustic 6, by Henry Busse (a "sweet" trumpeter and bandleader who, in the late 1920s, had been the highest-paid player in the Paul Whiteman Orchestra).
Although a couple of other titles in the Vitacoustic 1 series hint at jazz content, the most jazz-oriented of the artists whose work saw release was pianist Mel Henke, whose trio was paired on his Vitacoustic sides with a 5-person mixed vocal group (3 men, 2 women) called the Honey Dreamers that performed on ABC Radio. In fact, Henke is the only artist in the Vitacoustic 1 Series to be listed in Lord's Jazz Discography (Henry Busse rates an entry in Lord, but his Vitacoustic output doesn't). According to Lord, Henke's trio that recorded for Vitacoustic included prominent jazz guitarist George Barnes; a display ad for Vitacoustic 5 indicates that the third member played bass.
The pianist was born Alphonse Henke Jr., in Germany, on August 4, 1915. His father was a classical musician. Mel Henke first recorded some piano solos and duos in Chicago for Collector's Item (his own label, at a time when such efforts were very rare) in 1939 and 1940. He rated a feature as part of Sharon A. Pease's famed series of jazz pianist profiles, in the February 1, 1940, issue of Down Beat; the headline ran, "Melvin Henke's White but He Pounds Piano like a Colored Ace." A couple of years later, Down Beat's "Chicago Band Briefs" column noted: "Mel Henke, local jazz pianist, now knocking himself out, relieving Chet Roble at Helsing's Vodvil Lounge. Henke's a former [Bud] Freeman sideman..." (July 15, 1942, p. 6). When the war was over Henke resumed recording with a four-tune session in Chicago for Victor in 1946.
A favorable review in Billboard on July 26, 1947, reveals that on "In a Mist," the Honey Dreamers contributed atmosphere by humming into the Universal echo chamber; on "Honky Tonk Train" (the famed Meade Lux Lewis number) the Honey Dreamers did train imitations in support of Henke's piano.
Not long after his Vitacoustic releases, while the company was still active, Henke decamped to Southern California. An item in Billboard (October 11, 1947, p. 39) announced that "Mel Henke will move his family to the West Coast from Chicago after his closing at the Copacabana, Omaha, October 12." Henke's next recording sessions (which resulted in four 78s) were done for Tempo in Los Angeles (1948 and 1949). In 1954 and 1955, his output peaked with two "chamber jazz" LPs for Contemporary (for instance, Dig Mel Henke, Contemporary C5001, which got a positive review in Cash Box on April 16, 1955, p. 19). Around the end of the 1950s, he cut one more album with a studio orchestra for Warner Brothers. According to Gary Myers, author of Do You Hear That Beat — Wisconsin Pop/Rock in the 50's & 60's, Henke made his last recordings in Sauk City, Wisconsin, for the Cuca label in 1966; Cuca also reissued his Warner Brothers LP.
Mel Henke died on April 1, 1979, in Canoga Park, California.
In the same Billboard article that announced the split between Vitacoustic and Bill Putnam, famed jazz pianist and former big band leader Earl "Fatha" Hines, who was making some appearances with strings during the first half of 1947, was said to be under contract to Vitacoustic. In Down Beat from August 27, 1947, an item, by-lined Chicago, and titled "Earl Hines to Wax," explained that, "Earl Hines, whose El Grotto nitery folded recently, and with it his steady band job, will cut four sides for Vitacoustic records using only a rhythm section." We have titles for two of the sides, which suggest an attempt to revisit the early Louis Armstrong repertoire, but Lord's Jazz Discography incorrectly has them being recorded in New York for a label called "Vita." Nothing was released from the session, and the whereabouts of the material today is unknown. (While Down Beat claimed that Hines would be accompanied by a rhythm section only, Lord adds veteran Hines associate Scoops Carry, on alto sax and clarinet, to the lineup, which otherwise consisted of René Hall on guitar, Bill Thompson on drums and vibes, and an unidentified bassist.) In December of 1947, Hines would hook up with the Sunrise label and record three sessions in Chicago, using an ad hoc lineup that included jazz violinist Eddie South and musicians borrowed from Lionel Hampton's big band (see our Miracle page for details); Hines also recorded for MGM in New York during November and December.
Finally, Vitacoustic signed alto saxophonist and bandleader Johnny Bothwell in September (the signing was announced in Billboard on September 27). Bothwell had been a principal soloist in Boyd Raeburn's "modern" big band and had a string of sessions for Signature to his credit (1945-1947); he would make one more in 1949 for National. Bothwell's picture appeared in the label's big display ad on January 24, 1948, and Egmont Sonderling declared an intention to release some tracks by him in January 1949, when Old Swing-Master was launched. But we have no evidence either of a Vitacoustic release or of a subsequent issue of the sides that he recorded.
|Matrix Number||Release Number||Artist||Title||Recording Date||Release Date|
|U 578||1A||The Harmonicats | Rhythm Acc.||Peg o' My Heart||February 1947||April 1947|
|U 611-1||1B||The Harmonicats | Rhythm Acc.||Fantasy Impromptu||February 1947||April 1947|
|U-617 V||2A||The Harmonicats | Rhythm Accompaniment||Malaguena||February 1947||April 1947|
|U-615-V||2B||The Harmonicats | Rhythm Accompaniment||Harmonica Boogie||February 1947||April 1947|
|U-660-V||3A||Mel Henke and Rhythm Accomp. with The Honeydreamers||Alexander's Ragtime Band||March 1947||May 1947|
|U-661-V||3B||Mel Henke and Rhythm Accomp. with The Honeydreamers||What Is This Thing Called Love||March 1947||May 1947|
|4A||Freddy Nagel Orchestra (vocal: Patti Page)||My Heart Is a Hobo||c. April 1947||May 1947|
|4B||Freddy Nagel Orchestra (vocal: Ted Travers)||I Won't Be Home Anymore When You Call||c. April 1947||May 1947|
|U 668-V||5A||Mel Henke (piano) with the Honeydreamers||Honky Tonk Train||early April 1947||July 1947|
|U 669-V||5B||Mel Henke (piano) with the Honeydreamers||In a Mist||early April 1947||July 1947|
|U-788-V||6A||Henry Busse and His Orch. (vocal: Lané Adams)||The Lady from 29 Palms||c. July 1947||August 1947|
|U-789-V||6B||Henry Busse and His Orch.||Jalousie||c. July 1947||August 1947|
|unissued||Henry Busse||Hot Lips||c. July 1947|
|unissued||Henry Busse||Wang Wang Blues||c. July 1947|
|V-800-3||7A||Jerry Murad's Harmonicats with Rhythm Accomp.||Peggy O'Neil||August 1947||September 1947|
|V-577-3||7B||Jerry Murad's Harmonicats with Rhythm Accomp.||September Song||February 1947||September 1947|
|unissued||Earl Hines||Mandy, Make Up Your Mind||late August 1947|
|unissued||Earl Hines||I'm a Little Blackbird||late August 1947|
|V-8002||8A||Sid Fisher Guitarist and His New Yorkers (Vocal: Gene Griffin)||I Understand||November 1947|
|V-8003||8B||Sid Fisher Guitarist and His New Yorkers (Vocal: Gene Griffin)||How Strange||November 1947|
|V-900 (2)||9A||Leo Diamond Harmonicartist | Sparkling Gems Accomp.||My Sin||September 1947||October 1947|
|V-901 (2)||9B||Leo Diamond Harmonicartist | Sparkling Gems Accomp.||And They Called It Dixieland||September 1947||October 1947|
|V-805||10A||Freddie Nagel and His Orch.||If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)||August 1947||December 1947|
|V-804||10B||Freddie Nagel and His Orch. (vocal: Jimmy Jett)||Sophisticated Swing||August 1947||December 1947|
|V-902 (2)||11A||Leo Diamond Harmonicartist | Sparkling Gems Accomp.||Donkey Serenade||September 1947||October 1947|
|V-903||11B||Leo Diamond Harmonicartist | Sparkling Gems Accomp.||Tonight You Belong to Me||September 1947||October 1947|
|12A||The Honey Dreamers with Bill MacCrae Orchestra||Get a Pinup Girl||December 1947|
|12B||The Honey Dreamers with Bill MacCrae Orchestra||My Sweetie Went Away (But She Didn't Say Where)||December 1947|
|V-904||13A||Jack Carroll | Orch. under Direction of Bill MacCrae||On Green Dolphin Street||September 1947||January 1948|
|V-905||13B||Jack Carroll | Orch. under Direction of Bill MacCrae||My Cousin Louella||September 1947||January 1948|
|V-923||14A||Yvette | Orchestra under the direction of Rex Maupin||Bidibi Bot-Bot||September 1947||January 1948|
|V-919||14B||Yvette | Orchestra under the direction of Rex Maupin||Long after To-Night||September 1947||January 1948|
|V-913||15A||Joan Edwards | Her Piano and Her Men||There Ought to Be a Society||September 1947||January 1948|
|V-932||15B||Joan Edwards | Her Piano and Her Men||It's Easy When You Know How||September 1947||January 1948|
|18||Leo Diamond | Vocal by Jeannie Williams||I Love You Yes I Do||18||Leo Diamond||unknown title|
|V-972||19A||Jack Carroll | The Honeydreamers | Orch. under Direction of Bill MacCrae||The Valentine Song (Are You Still My Valentine)||c. October 1947||February 1948|
|V-973||19B||Jack Carroll | The Honeydreamers | Orch. under Direction of Bill MacCrae||Trust in Me||c. October 1947||February 1948|
|907||(Rondo 160-B)||Jack Carroll with Bill McRae's [sic] Orchestra||Time to Dream||September 1947||(October 1948)|
|U 911-3||(Rondo 160-A)||Jack Carroll with Bill McRae's [sic] Orchestra||Sleepy Town||September 1947||(October 1948)|
|unissued||Nick Keany||Out of My Mind|
|unissued||?||When Your Hair Has Turned to Silver|
|unissued||?||I'm Dancing with Tears in My Eyes|
|unissued||?||Just a Girl that Men Forget|
|V-817||20A||Del Courtney and his Orchestra (Vocal by Gil Vester)||Dream Peddler||August 1947||c. February 1948|
|V-822||20B||Del Courtney and his Orchestra (Vocal by Gil Vester and Gloria Foster)||Do You Believe in Lovin' Honey||August 1947||c. February 1948|
|V-806||21A||Freddy Nagel and his Orchestra (vocal by Jimmy Jett)||Mary Lou||August 1947||c. February 1948|
|V-807||21B||Freddy Nagel and his Orchestra (vocal by Jimmy Jett)||Smile Medley||August 1947||c. February 1948|
|V-930||22A||Joan Edwards | Orchestra Under Direction of Rex Maupin||Big Brass Band from Brazil||September 1947||c. February 1948|
|V-916||22B||Joan Edwards | Her Piano and Her Men||Dickey Bird Song||September 1947||c. February 1948|
|Matrix Number||Release Number||Artist||Title||Recording Date||Release Date|
|V-10001||5000A||Riley Shepard and His Wild West Cowboys||Slap Her Down Agin||late 1947||prob. February 1948|
|V-10002||5000B||Riley Shepard and His Wild West Cowboys||Judy (You're My Angel)||late 1947||prob. February 1948|
|V-10003||5001A||Riley Shepard and His Wild West Playboys (vocal: Riley Shepard)||Forty Miles at Sea||late 1947||prob. February 1948|
|V-10004||5001B||Riley Shepard and His Wild West Playboys (vocal: Riley Shepard)||What Else Can I Do (But Love You)||late 1947||prob. February 1948|
In a story dated October 18, on the "Chi Cutting Spree" that was going on in anticipation of the "impending Petrillo ban on recordings," Billboard mentioned that Vitacoustic was "readying its roster increase." No artists were named yet, except "Lou Sanders, Negro crooner." Louie Saunders was the vocalist on one side of Vitacoustic 1003 by the Todd Rhodes Orchestra; in other words, his material too was obtained from Sensation. However, at this point the Sensation and Vitacoustic releases were both sporting Vitacoustic matrix numbers, implying that Vitacoustic was processing the material in Chicago, maybe even recording it there. While the company was still physically housed at Universal Recording, Vitacoustic recorded and processed its own R&B material at Egmont Sonderling's United Broadcasting Studios, which would end up determining the fate of these recordings (Universal Recording did continue as the venue for most of the pop series).
Besides the material listed here, two more tracks by the Four Shades of Rhythm, nine by Kitty Stevenson (audibly backed by Todd Rhodes, whose soloists can be heard on her sides; two of her sides have matrix numbers adjacent to the numbers for the last of the Rhodes sessions, and she would record with Rhodes again in 1950 and 1951), at least two by Christine Randol, and sixteen by Howard McGhee were all cut at United Broadcasting Studios during the frantic activity of November and December 1947 (McGhee may have also cut four sides with Johnny Bothwell's big band, but these remain completely untraced.) The Kitty Stevenson sides were probably recorded in mid-December, as Billboard noted on December 20, 1947 that Vitacoustic had just signed "Kitty Stevens, Detroit pianist-singer." Not one of these items made it into circulation on the Vitacoustic label; they passed into the hands of Egmont Sonderling, who had never been paid for his services, and some of them eventually did see the light of day on the Old Swing-Master label that he launched with DJ Al Benson in January 1949. Six sides by Jimmy McPartland were also unissued on Vitacoustic and may have been retained by Sonderling, though they did not see issue on Old Swing-Master. For further details on all of these items, see our Old Swing-Master page.
The first four items to be released in Vitacoustic's R&B series (Vitacoustic 1001 through 1004) all involved Detroit-based pianist and bandleader Todd Rhodes and were obtained from the Sensation label. Vitacoustic 1007 was another Rhodes item from the same source.
Todd Rhodes was a veteran of the music business by this time. He was born in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, on August 31, 1900. When he was 4 years old, his father died and his mother had to relocate to Springfield, Ohio. He studied at the Springfield School of Music from 1915 to 1917 and then spent four years at the Erie (Pennsylvania) Conservatory of Music. On returning to Springfield he joined McKinney's Syncos, a group led by drummer William McKinney. As photographed in the summer of 1921, the Synco Novelty Orchestra consisted of Claude Jones (trombone), Milton Senior (alto sax and clarinet), Wesley Stewart (violin), Rhodes (piano), Ralph Wilson (banjo), and McKinney. According to a 1948 "Meet the King Artists" publicity sheet, the Syncos did six summer seasons at Manitou Beach, an inland lake resort in southern Michigan; over the years the Syncos expanded into a big band. In the summer of 1926, bandleader and impresario Jean Goldkette booked the Syncos into the Arcadia Ballroom in Detroit; in September 1927 they went into the Graystone Ballroom. At this point, Don Redman was brought in as their new music director and the Syncos changed their name to McKinney's Cotton Pickers.
The Cotton Pickers played the Graystone Ballroom in Detroit from 3 1/2 years, broadcast regularly over radio station WJR for 2 years, and recorded 60 sides for Victor between 1928 to 1931. One of the recording highlights was their 1928 rendition of Rhodes' composition, "Put It There," as arranged by trumpeter John Nesbitt. The Cotton Pickers went downhill with the Great Depression and the ensuing loss of their recording contract; Rhodes finally left the band in the fall of 1934. Remaining in Detroit, Rhodes gigged with many different bands but worked most often with the Swing combo led by clarinetist and alto saxophonist Cecil Lee; "Rhapsody in Blue" was Rhodes' feature number during this time. During World War II he worked a day job as a maintenance man at the Fisher Body plant in River Rouge, Michigan; he did this out of a desire to support the war effort, taking the job after war was declared and leaving promptly after V-J day in 1945. In late 1943, after leaving Cecil Lee's band for the last time, Rhodes was asked to take the leadership of a four piece combo in the Triangle Bar on Michigan Avenue in Detroit, where he remained for seven months. In June 1945 Rhodes took a sextet into Broad's Club Zombie, where he remained through December. Business got even better after that. According to the King Records handout, "The band played the Club Three Sixes [666 East Adams] for six months [starting April 1946], and then was booked into the Club Sensation for a four-week run, but held over for eight months by popular demand." This was Lee's Sensation Lounge (1300 Owen), where Bernard Besman discovered Rhodes in the late spring of 1947 and decided to record him.
The first Todd Rhodes session took place at United Sound Studios in Detroit in July of 1947, when the Sensation label started operations. Sensation recorded pretty steadily between 1947 and 1950; in addition, Besman signed bluesman John Lee Hooker to a personal contract. (Exactly when John Lee Hooker cut his first session for Bernard Besman is disputed. Charles Shaar Murray says it was in the summer of 1948, by which time Vitacoustic's pact with Sensation was no longer in force and King Records had become Sensation's new partner. However, Murray also reports that the first Hooker session took place immediately after one of Todd Rhodes' sessions, and Rhodes is not known to have recorded for Sensation between the very end of 1947 and December 1948. Quite possibly Hooker first recorded at a session in late December 1947. In any event, Besman dealt the first Hooker sides to Modern Records of Los Angeles in September 1948; Modern was the national label that benefited from the Hooker phenomenon, racking up big hits with "Boogie Chillen" [released November 1948] and "Hobo Blues"). The matrix numbers on the first Sensation-derived batch do not come from the Vitacoustic series. Masters from the sessions conducted after the Sensation / Vitacoustic alliance was concluded carried matrix numbers in the Vitacoustic series, indicating that processing and mastering (and some of the recording) took place in Chicago, at United Broadcasting Studios.
After Vitacoustic filed for reorganization in February 1948 and quit putting out new issues in its "race" series Sensation (which never had distribution of its own beyond Pan American's territory) was in a bind. Sensation seems to have put out a few releases (Sensation 7, 8, and 9) in early 1948 without Vitacoustic, but without distribution muscle these weren't going to go anywhere. On June 26, Besman and Kaplan struck a new deal with Cincinnati-based King Records (this was announced in Billboard on July 3, 1948). Billboard explains that they had "recently [taken] back a stable of Negro masters from Vitacoustic and revived their old Sensation label." Sensation had previously bought back Vitacoustic's share of the artist contracts for Todd Rhodes and others. Under the terms of the new deal, King obtained a five-year lease on 60 Sensation masters, including 24 by Rhodes. The items covered were to be released on both Sensation and King, but the Sensation releases would be sold only in Michigan and Ohio; Besman and Kaplan were allowed to release the Sensation versions two weeks before the King versions. (Although this may not have been intended, Sensation ended up putting out some singles that were not picked up by King.) The pact ended prematurely in August 1949, after Sensation and King got into a fight over who owned Todd Rhodes' contract. Below we are supplying a triple release listing: first Sensation, then Vitacoustic, and finally King.
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||King Release||Other Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|Sensation 1||Vitacoustic 1002 B||King 4237||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Dance of the Red Skins||July 1947||(August 1947) October 1947|
|2132 A alt.||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Dance of the Red Skins||July 1947||(August 1947) October 1947|
|Sensation 1||Vitacoustic 1002 A||King 4237||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Blue Sensation||July 1947||(August 1947) October 1947|
|Sensation 2 A||Vitacoustic 1001A||King 4239||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Bell-Boy Boogie||July 1947||October 1947|
|Sensation 2 B||Vitacoustic 1001 B||King 4239||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Flying Disc||July 1947||October 1947|
The Todd Rhodes band had a stable personnel during this period: Rhodes (piano and director); Howard "Eggy" Thompson (trumpet); Hallie "Hal" Dismukes (alto sax—also the group's top soloist); Louis Barnett (tenor sax); George Favors (baritone sax, vocal); Joe Williams (bass); and Huestell Talley (drums). (This personnel is listed on the label of Vitacoustic 1001; according to Jim Gallert, the same lineup appeared on all of Rhodes' recordings for Sensation until his final session in mid-1950.) Dismukes' name has sometimes been given as "Holley," but according to Jim Gallert's article on Rhodes the correct form is "Hallie." Some of the recordings under Rhodes' name included vocals by Louie Saunders, a singing waiter at Lee's Sensation Club who had performed nightly with the band there. Kitty Stevenson did a session under her own name with Rhodes for Sensation in late 1949 or early 1950, and sang on a Rhodes session for King on May 24, 1951. Unfortunately she fell ill shortly afterwards (she was replaced by Connie Allen in July 1951, then in early 1952 by LaVern Baker). She died in early June 1952.
The second, third, and fourth sessions took place after the pact. The second session took place on October 15 and 16, 1947. The third and fourth were part of the rush to to beat B-Day, in November and December 1947. The second session was definitely recorded at United Broadcasting Studios in Chicago; the rest were at least processed at United Broadcasting Studios in Chicago; Vitacoustic's masters were assigned to a special V1800 series there.
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||King Release||Other Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|(Ace CD CHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||Jumpin' with the Mountain King||October 15, 1947|
|Sensation 25||Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers||Lonely Echoes||October 15, 1947||(January 1950)|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||I Want to Be Happy||October 15, 1947|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||I Love You Truly||October 15, 1947|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||Annie Laurie||October 15, 1947|
|Sensation 3||Vitacoustic 1003A||King 4236||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Vocal by Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Oh Baby||October 15, 1947||January 1948|
|Sensation 3||Vitacoustic 1003B||King 4236||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Bob Bop Sizzle||October 15, 1947||January 1948|
|V1889 [K5467]||Sensation 4||Vitacoustic 1004||King 4238||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Swoon Boulevard||October 15, 1947||January 1948|
|V1890 [K5469]||Sensation 4||Vitacoustic 1004||King 4238||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Toddlin' Boogie||October 15, 1947||January 1948|
|V1891 [K5479]||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||Prelude in C Sharp Minor||October 15, 1947|
|V1892 [K5486]||Sensation 25||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers||Anitra's Jump||October 16, 1947||(January 1950)|
|V-1893 [K5481]||Sensation 6||King 4240||Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers||Sportree's Jump||October 16, 1947||(November 1947)|
|V-1893 alt.||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers||Sportree's Jump||October 16, 1947||(November 1947)|
|V-1894 [K5473]||Sensation 6||King 4240||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes and His Toddlers||Blues for the Red Boy||October 16, 1947||(November 1947)|
|V1895 [K5483]||Sensation 9||King 4254||Todd Rhodes||Todd's Idea||October 16, 1947||(November 1947)|
|V1895 alt.||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Todd Rhodes||Todd's Idea||October 16, 1947||(November 1947)|
We think that the in-between numbers (V1896-1899) belonged to the first Howard McGhee session of October 15 or November 10, 1947, which was never released on Vitacoustic but picked up later by Old Swing-Master. Billboard mentioned on November 22, 1947, that Vitacoustic "has gone into the hot jazz line"; one of the efforts mentioned involved "Howard McGhee and an all-star group form the Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic troupe." V1896-V1899 were not among the items picked up by King Records when Sensation dropped its pact with Vitacoustic in 1948.
The third and fourth sessions were much briefer, and all tracks featured the work of Louie Sanders, a singing waiter at Lee's Sensation Club in Detroit; they could have taken place on the same day as recordings by other featured artists backed by the Todd Rhodes band.
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||King Release||Other Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Sweetheart, Please Come Back to Me||November 1947|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||She Don't Love Me Anymore||November 1947|
|Sensation 9||King 4254||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Oo-we Walkie Talkie||November 1947||(November 1947)|
According to Charles Shaar Murray, in Boogie Man, his biography of John Lee Hooker, "Boogie Chillen" and other titles were recorded at the end of a Todd Rhodes session at United Sound Studios. Citing a surviving piece of legal paperwork between Besman and Modern Records, Murray says that the Hooker material was in the can by September 1948 (in fact, one of the sides that Modern acknowledged receiving from Besman in that document is not known to have been recorded at Hooker's first Besman session—so two sessions must have already been done by this time). It is clear from his comments and from statements made by Bernie Besman in interviews with Murray that this was not the first Todd Rhodes session. It might have been the second, third, or fourth one listed here. (The matrix numbers that Besman assigned the Hooker sides to were in the B7000 series that Sensation used in 1948. The two Hooker sides in the batch that were sold to Modern had matrix numbers B7006 and B7009, and the next Rhodes session for Sensation, which is said to have taken place in December 1948, had matrix numbers B7094-7099. However, Peter Gibbon has pointed out that Besman allocated the B7000 numbers in blocks by artist, perhaps well after the sessions in some cases.) We do know that none of the John Lee Hooker sides were ever part of the Vitacoustic deal, so we have not listed them here. It was Modern (out of Los Angeles) that saw the potential in Hooker and put out "Boogie Chillen" on November 3, 1948 (the record never did get a Sensation release, and it was exempted from the King deal—as it would have been from any Vitacoustic deal—because Hooker was under contract to Besman personally, not to Sensation).
We know of just three items between V1903 through V1918 in the matrix series, because none of these were included in the King deal later on. V1904 and 1905 were by the Four Shades of Rhythm, as issued on Vitacoustic 1005 (see below), and V1909 was also by the Four Shades (eventually issued on Old Swing-Master 33). We think that Howard McGhee's sessions in late December originally carried matrix numbers in this range.
Following this sequence, a big block of 16 sides (V1919-1934) was cut by veteran blues and ballad singer Arnold Burke "Doc" Wiley. Born in New Madrid, Missouri, in October 1898, Wiley ran away from home and spent 5 years with a Chinese circus, then perfected his piano playing in Helena, Arkansas. Already an experienced stage performer, Wiley moved to Chicago in 1925; that same year he cut his first sides, for Paramount as a member of Jimmy O'Bryant's Washboard Band. He subsequently recorded for Brunswick (1929), Paramount (1930), and Columbia (1931). He did not get another studio opportunity until 1945 or 1946 when he appeared on the Chicago label, part of J. Mayo Williams' boutique operation. When Bernie Besman decided to record him for Sensation, Wiley was based in New York City but took regular club engagements in Detroit.
On his session, Doc Wiley played piano, and was accompanied by an alto saxophonist, a guitarist who doubled on vibes, and a string bass player. Nothing out of the Wiley session ever made it onto Vitacoustic, but Sensation did eventually release six Wiley sides, on Sensation 7, 13, and 24; the first two were also issued on King in 1948. (Sensation 13 was just recently rediscovered by Konrad Nowakowski; Sensation 14, which remains untraced, could also have been a Doc Wiley release.) Wiley's story can now be read in Paul Swinton's richly documented liner notes to Ace CDCHM 899, Doc Wiley: Wild Cat Boogie, a 2003 release that contains Wiley's entire 16-tune session with surviving alternate takes, except for the originally issued take of "Big Four Boogie."
After his single outing for Sensation, Doc Wiley recorded for Bullet in Nashville. His last recordings, done for Ace in New York City (1959), revealed declining health; Sammy Price was brought in to play piano on them. Doc Wiley died of lung cancer in New York City in 1964.
The fact that the Wiley recordings remained under the control of Sensation's owners and were never caught up in the Vitacoustic bankruptcy proceedings is the strongest evidence that they were recorded in Detroit. But clearly Vitacoustic had plans, because it did advertise Doc Wiley as one of its artists in its display ad in Cash Box on January 3, 1948. Moreover, Peter Doyle reports an unnumbered Vitacoustic acetate of V1930 "I'm in Love Again" and V1919 "Hard Hearted Lover"--a coupling that did not end up being released by either Sensation or King. (Incidentally, the matrix numbers are not shown on the acetate.)
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||King Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|Vitacoustic acetate||Doc Wiley and his Orchestra||Hard Hearted Lover||December 1947|
|Sensation 13-A||Doc Wiley Trio||I Want No One but You||December 1947||(1948)|
|Doc Wiley||I'm Longing for Your Love||December 1947|
|V1922 [K5497]||Doc Wiley||In My Heart You're Everything||December 1947|
|V1923 [K5487]||Sensation 13-B||Doc Wiley Trio||Bewildered||December 1947||(1948)|
|V1924 [K5493]||Doc Wiley||How Long (Blues)||December 1947|
|V1925 [K5500]||Doc Wiley||Prison Bound Blues||December 1947|
|V1926 [K5488] tk. 1||Doc Wiley Trio||Big Four Boogie||December 1947|
|V1926 [K5488]||Sensation 7-B||King 4241-B||Doc Wiley Trio||Big Four Boogie||December 1947||(1948)|
|V1927 [K5501] tk. 1||Doc Wiley||Vibraphone Blues||December 1947|
|V1927 [K5501] tk. 2||Doc Wiley||Vibraphone Blues||December 1947|
|V1928 [K5498]||Doc Wiley||Sugar Lips||December 1947|
|V1929 [K5489]||Sensation 7-A||King 4241-A||Doc Wiley Trio||Big House Blues||December 1947||(1948)|
|V1930 [K5496]||Vitacoustic acetate||Doc Wiley and his Orchestra||I'm in Love Again||December 1947|
|V1931 [K5490]||Doc Wiley||Chain Gang Blues||December 1947|
|V1932 [K5491]||Doc Wiley||Every Day in the Week||December 1947|
|V1933 [K5499]||Sensation 24||"Doc" Wiley Trio||Track #19||December 1947||(January 1950)|
|V1934 [K5502]||Sensation 24||"Doc" Wiley Trio||Wild Cat Boogie||December 1947||(January 1950)|
|V1934 [K5502] tk. 3||"Doc" Wiley Trio||Wild Cat Boogie||December 1947|
The last Rhodes session brings us up right before the Kitty Stevenson numbers that were picked up by Old Swing-Master. None of these were issued on Sensation; however, the masters must have been retrieved by the label, because, according to Leadbitter and Slaven's postwar blues discography, as corrected by Jim Gallert, all three were given master numbers by King Records later on. King ended up not using them, however. Apparently Vitacoustic couldn't pass over another cover version of "I Love You, Yes I Do," which had been a big hit for Bull Moose Jackson a few months earlier. 1007 was never advertised and was presumably not pressed in the customary mass quantities before the company filed for bankruptcy.
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||King Release||Other Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|Vitacoustic 1007||(Ace CDCHD 856)||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||That Ain't Right||December 1947||Jan. or Feb. 1948|
|Vitacoustic 1007||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||I Love You, Yes I Do||December 1947||Jan. or Feb. 1948|
|(Ace CDCHD 856)||Louie Saunders with Todd Rhodes Orchestra||Fool for You||December 1947|
Nearly all of the Todd Rhodes material can now be heard to advantage on Ace CDCHD 856, Todd Rhodes and His Orchestra: Blues for the Red Boy—The Early Sensation Recordings. Released in 2002, this is a valuable collection of 28 tracks that Rhodes made for Sensation, mastered from the original acetates. It includes every previously unissued track from these sessions as well as three alternate takes.
Besides these four Todd Rhodes sessions and the Doc Wiley material, there was an understanding at one time that Vitacoustic would release a Sensation session by jazz trumpeter Russell Jacquet and his group (which included Sonny Stitt on alto sax). Billboard reported on November 22, 1947 that Vitacoustic "has gone into the hot jazz line" and that it had recently cut "platters by Russell (Illinois's brother) Jacquet" and Howard McGhee. The McGhee sides were Vitacoustic's own, recorded in Chicago; these ended up in the hands of Egmont Sonderling and two were later issued on his Old Swing-Master label (the rest of the McGhee story can be read on our Old Swing-Master page). The Jacquet sides were definitely recorded in Detroit by Sensation; the original matrix numbers (with the B prefix, for Besman) came from a studio that Sensation used regularly there. (Confirmation that Sensation recorded them comes from the fact that neither Bill Putnam at Universal Recording nor Egmont Sonderling at United Broadcasting were able to hold on to them after Vitacoustic went belly-up). Lord's Jazz Discography places the session in May 1948, but a recording date in November 1947 seems much more likely. When King issued the material as part of its deal with Sensation, which started in July 1948, it attached new matrix numbers in the K5500 series (Lord cites only these). Fortunately, we were able to obtain the original Sensation matrix numbers from Bill Daniels. According to Lord, the personnel was: Russell Jacquet (trumpet, vocal); J. J. Johnson (trombone); Sonny Stitt (alto sax); Maurice Simon (tenor sax); Leo Parker (baritone sax); Sir Charles Thompson (piano); Al Lucas (bass); Shadow Wilson (drums); Leo Parker laid out on "Relaxin' with Randle."
Four additional jazz recordings earlier in the B-4000 series, and several more that lack surviving matrix numbers were cut by groups led by Milt Jackson. Two sides were released in October, 1949 on Sensation 19. The rest did not appear until much later, when they came out on a Galaxy LP. B-4001 through B-4004 are said to have been recorded in Detroit in April 1948, but their matrix numbers precede those for the Jacquet session. Meanwhile, the Milt Jackson recordings (B-4017 through B-4024) are listed without matrix numbers in Lord--and said to have been recorded in "Detroit, 1947" in discographies! The B4001-4004 session included Jackson (vibes), John Lewis (piano), Alvin Jackson (bass), Kenny Clarke (drums), and Chano Pozo (conga, bongos). "Steeplechase" supposedly included Sonny Stitt (alto sax), Jackson (vibes), Will Davis (piano), and unidentified musicians on trumpet, bass, and drums. The rest of the tracks involved Russell Jacquet (trumpet), Stitt (alto sax), Jackson (vibes), Sir Charles Thompson (piano), and unidentified bass and drums. Two of the items from the B-4017 through 4024 session featured Sonny Stitt and had his name attached to them, under the pseudonym "Lord Nelson."
The last of the B4000 series bop recordings to surface were those by Sir Charles Thompson's trio; Lord gives John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums as the other members. None of these appeared until the late 1980s on a British Boplicity CD (which also included the Milt Jackson, Russell Jacquet, and "Lord Nelson" material). Boplicity included 5 further titles without known Sensation or King matrix numbers that appear to have come from the same sessions. One of these was an alternate take of B4005; the others may have been intended to occupy the missing segment from B4013 through B4016 (though if this was the intention, it wasn't faithfully carried out: two of the other Thompsons were given B4013 and B4014, but more were allocated B-4009 and B-4010--the same master numbers as were affixed to two of the Russell Jacquets!). Our thanks go to Peter Gibbon, of Ace Records UK, who has researched the Besman/Sensation acetates, for additions and corrections here.
Although King is not known to have released any of the Sensation bebop recordings, all were included in the King deal, as the bracketed K5400 series numbers indicate, and all were returned to Bernard Besman when the deal ended.
Just to complicate matters, Besman later assigned the B4013-4016 block to a singer named Jewell Simmons, about whom we know nothing. Maybe Simmons' B4014 was an attempt to cash in on Little Miss Cornshucks' signature recording of "So Long," which had been made in the fall of 1946 for Sunbeam. Thanks to Peter Gibbon for informing us about these sides; apparently they were not included in either the Vitacoustic or King deals, but we list them here for completeness.
The last batch of 8 tunes was done by Detroit-based DJ and pianist Jack Surrell and his trio. Judging from the titles, Surrell may have had some jazz leanings but his repertoire was heavy with Chopin waltzes (not to mention that old salon favorite, Anton Rubinstein's "Melody in F"). Vitacoustic must have thought that he would appeal to the same market as Mel Henke. Ten sides by Jack Surrell were among those mentioned in the Vitacoustic bankruptcy proceedings; if these are the same items, as in all probability they are, Besman and Kaplan were able to reclaim them for the Sensation label before the masters were ordered sold.
|Matrix Number||Sensation Release||Vitacoustic Release||Other Release||Artist||Title||Recording Date||First Release Date|
|Sensation 19||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Bobbin' with Robbin
|c. October 1947||(October 1949)|
|Sensation 19||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Autumn Breeze
[In a Beautiful Mood]
|c. October 1947||(October 1949)|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Slits
|c. October 1947|
|Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Baggy Eyes||c. October 1947|
|(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Nobility Be Bop||c. November 1947|
|B4005 [alt.]||(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||In a Garden [Nobility Bebop]||c. November 1947|
|(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Yesterdays||c. November 1947|
|(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||My Turn Now||c. November 1947|
|(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Charles Boogie||c. November 1947|
|B-4009 [sic]||(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Don't Blame Me||c. November 1947|
|B-4010 [sic]||(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Robin's Nest||c. November 1947|
|B4013 [on some acetates]||(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||Someone to Watch over Me||c. November 1947|
|B4014 [on some acetates]||(Boplicity CDBOPD017)||Sir Charles Thompson||You Go to My Head||c. November 1947|
|B-4009 (duplicate master number!)
|Sensation 12||King 4259||Russell Jacquet & His All Stars||Relaxing with Randle||November 1947||(1948)|
|B-4010 (duplicate master number!)
|Sensation 8||King 4242||Russell Jacquet & His All Stars||Lion's Roar||November 1947||(1948)|
|Sensation 8||King 4242||Russell Jacquet & His All Stars||Suede Jacquet||November 1947||(1948)|
|(Original Jazz Classics OJC CD1771)||Russell Jacquet||Suede Jacquet [alt.]||November 1947|
|Sensation 12||King 4259||Russell Jacquet & His All Stars||Scamperoo||November 1947||(1948)|
|B4013 (duplicate master number!)||Jewell Simmons||I Couldn't Love You Anymore||c. December 1947|
|B4014 (duplicate master number!)||Jewell Simmons||So Long||c. December 1947|
|B4015||Jewell Simmons||Come Here||c. December 1947|
|B4016||Jewell Simmons||Happy Blues||c. December 1947|
|Sensation 5||King 4235||Lord Nelson & His Boppers
|Stardust||c. December 1947||(June 1948)|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Red Shoes
[Everything Is Cool]
|c. December 1947|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Time to Dream
[Body and Soul]
|c. December 1947|
|Sensation 5||King 4235||Lord Nelson & His Boppers
|Ratio and Proportion||c. December 1947||(June 1948)|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Royal Wedding||c. December 1947|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Be Bop Blues||c. December 1947|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Fine and Dandy||c. December 1947|
|(Galaxy LP 204)||Milt Jackson and his All Stars||Silver Slipper [Steeplechase]||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Minute Waltz||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Missouri Waltz||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Nola||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Waltz in C Sharp Minor||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Happy Landings||c. December 1947|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Blue Love||c. December 1947|
|Sensation 18||Jack Surrell Trio||Detroit Boogie
|c. December 1947||(October 1949)|
|Jack Surrell Trio||Melody in F||c. December 1947|
All that Vitacoustic recorded outside the Sensation pact and succeeded in releasing on its own was one single by the Four Shades of Rhythm. At the time, the group, which was originally formed in Cleveland in 1945, was working steadily in Chicago. The lineup was Oscar Lindsay (drums, vocals), Eddie McAfee (piano), Oscar Pennington (guitar), and Eddie Meyers (string bass). This session also took place at United Broadcasting. One more track from this session never appeared on Vitacoustic but finally made it out on Old Swing-Master 33 in September 1949, which was the last 78 in Old Swing-Master's original release series. We don't know whether V 1906, 1907, and 1908 were by the Four Shades or another artist (such as jazz trumpeter Howard McGhee).
|Matrix Number||Release Number||Artist||Title||Recording Date||Release Date|
|V 1904||1005A||Bones McAfee | Four Shades of Rhythm||One Hundred Years from Today||December 1947||January 1948|
|V 1905||1005B||Four Shades of Rhythm||Howie Sent Me||December 1947||January 1948|
|V 1909||(Old Swing-Master 33)||The Four Shades of Rhythm||Yesterday||December 1947||September 1949|
Vitacoustic 1005 was the second last in the "race" series. Interestingly, the B side was an instrumental. Although the single was not mentioned in Billboard by title, probably because Vitacoustic's ad budget was running out, the Four Shades of Rhythm were pictured in a full-page ad for the "Jam Session Series" on January 24, 1948; previously they were listed as label artists in a full-page ad in Cash Box, January 3, 1948. Two more tracks by the group ("My Blue Walk" b/w "Baby I'm Gone") were issued in March 1949 on Old Swing-Master 13. These bore the matrix numbers V 1950 and V 1953, indicating that they were done at a second session, even closer to the end of December 1947. What happened to V 1951 and V 1952 is not clear. Around a decade later, a remake of "One Hundred Years from Today" appeared on a 45-rpm single put out by a small Chicago independent, Apex 1998. This is definitely not the Vitacoustic recording.
Vitacoustic picked a pretty poor time to launch its "race" series; several Chicago-area independents, including its exact contemporary Aristocrat, and Miracle, were well in the lead when "B-Day" (the start of the Union-ordered "recording ban") was announced for January 1, 1948. Most of the Vitacoustic recordings of Howard McGhee's combo were cut during the last week of December, and the sides by Jimmy McPartland were probably done during this narrow window as well. The Vitacoustic "race" series probably got no farther than 1005, and just Vitacoustic 1005, by the Four Shades of Rhythm, was the company's own recording.
The Vitacoustic pop series posted its last releases in January 1948. On January 24, Billboard ran an ad for Vitacoustic 8 and 13. Four more titles (only one of which had an artist's name attached) were mentioned in this ad as "coming soon"; we have listed these at the bottom of the Vitacoustic 1 series. There were no fewer than four full-page ads for the label in this issue; granted, this was a special "juke box" issue and this meant lots of full-page ads, but most came from bigger companies with bigger advertising budgets. Ominously, another display ad (about 1/4 page) in the same issue claimed that "a sharp hit" by singer and "sweet band" leader Del Courtney was "to be currently released"--but gave no release number! While the single did appear, as Vitacoustic 20, it got no promotion, and the "ample supply of standards and originals to follow" never reached the stores. (Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, Del Courtney had a recording contract with Vocalion and OKeh during 1939 and 1940; he was also the former employer of his counterpart at Aristocrat, Sherman Hayes). Vitacoustic 14, 15, 19, 20, 21, and 5001 straggled out without any advertising, and further items in the Vitacoustic pop series may have been fleetingly available. On January 31, Billboard reviewed Vitacoustic 10, 12, and 13. Sales were not happening, and Lloyd Garrett must have been bugging Billboard to get some reviews in. The notices were generally lukewarm, however.
After January 24, 1948, Vitacoustic ran just a single small corporate ad (presumably paid for long in advance) in Billboard each week; the last one appeared on June 12. Because the display ads stopped running, we aren't sure just when the new releases stopped: neither Vitacoustic 1007, by Louie Sanders with Todd Rhodes, nor Vitacoustic 19, by Jack Carroll, nor Vitacoustic 5001, by Riley Shephard, were ever advertised in the trades; our surmise is that they were released in late January or early February (the Jack Carroll single had a Valentine's Day theme). There may be additional releases in the pop series from this period (there's a tantalizing gap that runs from Vitacoustic 16 through 18...). In any case, Garrett and Buckley still had big plans at this time, judging from a story (dated January 31) that ran on February 7. They had just concluded an agreement with Levy Sound, Ltd., in London, to distribute their 78s (as the Vita series of the Oriole label) in Europe and in the British Empire; they had further extended their US distribution network; and they were planning to expand to South America by starting a business relationship with a pressing plant in Rio De Janeiro. Stories about overseas record deals reliably made hearts beat faster at Billboard and Cash Box.
But the vultures were beginning to circle. The very next week, Billboard ran a story (dated February 7), "Sid Fisher Seeks an Accounting of Cats' Royalties." Fisher had played guitar on the Harmonicats' Vitacoustic sides. He had attempted to cash in with his own release on Vitacoustic 8 (an ad pointedly identified him as "The man who made 'Peg o' My Heart' a hit with his now famous GUITAR licks"). Now he claimed that he was actually a member of the group when the record was cut, and therefore entitled to a 1/4 share of the royalties from "Peg o' My Heart" and their other releases. He was demanding an immediate accounting of all royalties from sales of the Harmonicats' Vitacoustic sides and threatening to sue if he did not get a share. The Musicians Union (Local 10) had previously determined that he was owed just the $82.50 he received for the recording session (he was actually paid scale for a leader, double the sideman rate). On July 3, Judge Wilbur Crowley would agree, dismissing Fisher's claim for a cut of the royalties after the Harmonicats' attorney produced the signed Union contract showing Fisher as an employee and Jerry Murad as the employer (see Billboardfor July 10). Fisher also claimed that he was entitled to appear in theaters with the Harmonicats; that claim was not dismissed on July 3, but nothing more was heard about it in the pages of the trade papers.
On February 21, an item in Billboard pointed to much bigger trouble. Under the ominous headline "Cats; Woes Mount; Univ Sues Buckley, Garrett for $16,000," the trade paper disclosed that Universal Recording had sued Vitacoustic. Supposedly Vitacoustic owed Universal Recording a total of $24,000 and had coughed up just four monthly payments of $2,000 each. Buckley and Garrett said that they thought the payments were no longer required after Putnam and Tasker had left Vitacoustic. Even worse, "Universal complaint seeks to direct Vita to return the 12 Harmonicat masters (six of which have already been released by Vita) to Universal, halt the manufacture and sale of the Cats' platters by Vita and to enjoin Vitacoustic from using that firm name" (presumably because Universal was claiming "Vitacoustic" as a trademark for its recording process).
The frenzy to grab pieces of the Harmonicats action wasn't pretty. On February 28, Billboard reported that Vitacoustic had filed for bankruptcy reorganization under Chapter 11. The company's lawyer claimed that "the firm would be able to meet all outstanding debts 100 per cent if given the moratorium on present commitments," but that was whistling in the dark. The company claimed that "the Petrillo platter-making curfew caused Vitacoustic's expense to telescope, because the making of their present 400-master catalog made it impossible for them to pay current debts." (To get a total of 400 masters, material obtained under the Sensation deal would have to be included.) Ironically, the company would have been able to keep on recording Harmonicats in 1948—had they still been on the roster—because the Musicians Union at the time looked down on harmonica players and did not accept them as members!
On March 24 (stories ran in the March 27 and April 3 issues), Vitacoustic turned over its schedule of assets and liabilities to a Federal judge under Chapter 11 (referred to in those days as "Section 11 of the Chandler Act"). The company owed no less than $182,463. It claimed assets of $204,498, but some, shall we say, optimistic accounting was required to get to that figure, since no less than $43,000 was due from distributors, the value of the company's masters was estimated at another $42,000 (i.e., what it cost to record them), and no less than $56,000 had been paid out in advances against royalties, to artists whose recordings were not necessarily going to sell well enough to enable the company to recoup. All the same, the company was allowed to put forth a repayment plan for its creditors. On May 15, Billboard reported that Vitacoustic had delivered an amended plan to 70 creditors; supposedly they would be getting thir money back in quarterly payments spread through 1949 and 1950. Lloyd Garrett was on the hunt for additional distributors, and reportedly said that Vitacoustic would resume new releases at the rate of 5 a month--but nothing came of these plans.
According to Bob Porter in the liner notes to Savoy SJL 2219 (a 2-LP set that included Vitacoustic-derived material), Howard McGhee recalled going to France to appear at the Paris Jazz Festival (he recorded in Paris on May 15 and 18, 1948) and returning to Chicago only to find that Vitacoustic had gone out of business (without ever paying him and his musicians for the sessions). According to Art Zimmerman, Howard McGhee recalled in a 1978 interview that Vitacoustic owed Al Benson money. In fact, it was Egmont Sonderling who was owed the money, and who kept possession of the Vitacoustic material, later using some of it on his Old Swing-Master label.
Actually, when McGhee returned to Chicago, Vitacoustic hadn't expired yet. But it was on life support and its management was frantically putting off payments to creditors—including himself. On June 19 (reported in Billboard for June 26), the major creditors insisted that a board of four of their representatives be directly involved in running the firm, which was still not turning a profit. Egmont Sonderling of United Broadcasting, Bernie Clapper of Universal Recording, and representatives of a label printer and a pressing company took seats on the creditors' committee. Pressures on the company continued to mount. According to a story dated July 3, which ran in the July 10 Billboard ("Vita Must Have Reorg Plan or Face the Music"), the bankruptcy referee, Nathan McChesney, was not pleased when the financial report that he received on July 1 showed that the company had run up a further deficit of $10,000 over April, May, and June. The label's creditors were demanding a new plan from Garrett and Buckley or they would call for the company to be liquidated. On July 31, Billboardran an unconfirmed rumor that Vitacoustic was selling off a bunch of its masters.
The rumor, we may surmise, derived from the wishful thinking of the company's management and its major creditors. Sure enough, on August 7, Billboard reported that Vitacoustic was trying to placate its major creditors by offering them a new, somewhat accelerated repayment plan. "Execs said the new plan stemmed from the sale of certain blocks of masters which will be completed within the next month." On August 21 (reported in the August 28 issue), the creditors' committee learned that Vitacoustic had been running in the red in July as well. The company's most influential creditor, Bill Putnam, now took over as general manager: "Putnam said that deals are currently cooking for the sale of certain Vita masters and the leasing of others to other diskeries."
But the only masters that we know were unloaded were two sides by Jack Carroll, mentioned in the same issue of Billboard. They were bought by Fred Rose, publisher of country tunes (including "Sleepy Town," which was one of the two sides) and Maurice Murray, the former recording director for Vitacoustic. Rose and Murray placed them with another Chicago independent label, Rondo. Rondo was looking to diversify its artist roster and find releasable material during the recording ban, when new recordings by its big draw, organist Ken Griffin, were strictly off-limits. Rondo wasn't interested in Vitacoustic's main emphasis, pop singers accompanied by big bands. But it was adding some Country acts at the time. Presumably the Country angle enabled Rose and Murray to convince its owners, Julius F. Bard and Nick Lany, to pick "Sleepy Town" up. Released on Rondo 160, probably in October 1948, the record soon dropped out of Rondo's catalogue, and to our knowledge Bard and Lany would acquire no further remains from Vitacoustic.
Maybe some other Vitacoustic "hillbilly" items were sold to other companies during this period, but if this was done we have found no confirmation in the trade papers.
The company couldn't operate in the black by merely selling its back catalog without significant promotional efforts. Nor could it find anyone else to pay good money for its unreleased masters. Vitacoustic had reached the end of the road. In the October 30, 1948 issue of Billboard,a story datelined October 23 announced that Vitacoustic Records was in receivership and was being liquidated. One-time investor and more recent creditors' representative Bill Putnam was the receiver. Some items had already been sold off: on October 21, the office furniture went for $800 and Freddy Nagel, who had already been picked up by another label, paid $800 to buy back eight masters by his orchestra. Bill Putnam petitioned to have 10 Harmonicat masters returned to him, including "Peg o' My Heart." A hearing was held on November 18, whose results were not reported in Billboard. Putnam appears to have succeeded, because the Harmonicat masters were not included later on in the list of things to be auctioned off, and "Peg" was eventually reissued on Universal.
Intriguingly, the proceedings had "hit a snag this week when Egmont Sonderling of United Broadcasting, claimed that Vita masters now in his possession would not be turned over [to the receiver] until liens which he has against them would be made good. Sonderling's recording studios were utilized to make approximately 90 per cent of the Vita masters, and Sonderling is demanding that his recording costs be paid before he releases the masters." In fact, it was the "race" or R&B masters that United Broadcasting had recorded 90% of; the Vitacoustic pop series recordings were usually done at Universal Recording, and material recorded there was already in Bill Putnam's hands. In any case, the debt to Sonderling was substantial; according to the schedule released back in March, he was owed $13,800.
Efforts to get masters back from Sonderling were to no avail. From the UB matrix numbers attached to some items, it looks as though he was beginning to master some Vitacoustic material in September or October 1948, with the intention of releasing it himself. In January 1949, he and Al Benson started the Old Swing-Master label in order to make some money off the unissued Vitacoustic material he had held onto (Old Swing-Master eventually began picking up items from other labels as well). On April 30, 1949, Billboard ran a story headlined "Auction Vita Wax, Masters Oct. 28 in Chi" (the date was a misprint--the auction had actually been scheduled for April 28!). The remaining assets included 51,025 records (and another 1200 said to be broken or damaged by fire), plus the following masters:
Obviously all of this had been recorded at Universal and so remained under Bill Putnam's control. The Billboardstory makes it clear how much unissued pop material Vitacoustic had racked up in less than a year of active recording (182 masters all told). In addition, Vitacoustic had singer and conedian Judy Canova, described as a "movie-radio star," signed in late August to do country recordings (usually called "folk" in the Billboard of those times). If she was recorded as planned, the recordings must have been done at United Broadcasting and thus withheld from the final auction.
The auction was anticlimactic. The major creditors must have known by this time that no one wanted to pay much for Vitacoustic masters. On May 7, 1949, Billboard reported (in a piece datelined April 30 and headlined "Bids For Vita's Wax Weak; Will Sell Privately"):
First attempt to liquidate remaining assets of Vitacoustic Records, Chicago firm which entered into Chandler Act proceedings in January [actually February], 1948, met with little success Thursday (28) in the U. S. Court House here. John Chatz, trustee for Vita, announced that final appraisal of assets was fixed at $9,747, but the largest bulk bid received was $750 for the entire lot of 182 masters by 14 different artists, plus 85 assorted stampers and 52,000 new Vita records. Bids for smaller lots were also meager, with the only bid getting the okay of referee Nathan MacChesney being one by a lawyer, who got Henry Busse's Hop Lips [should be Hot Lips!] and Wang Wang Blues for $200.
Because of apathetic bidding, Chatz said he would hold all materials in the inventory for private sale over an indeterminate period. He received court approval to sell any masters in the lot for $100 or over, but bids on the new record inventory and stampers must get the court okay.
Tho Vita filed a petition showing liabilities of $182,462 late in March, 1948, only a small portion of this amount has been paid off. With United Broadcasting, Chicago recording studio, holding a lien on the sale of certain masters, which gives it 50 per cent of any amount accruing from these sales, it's expected that creditors of Vita will receive little on their original claims.
We have not attempted to list this great pile of material in our Vitacoustic pop table; we don't have matrix numbers for it, or any other good way to organize it. However, if we are able to fill in enough of the matrix numbers from sessions that led to issued material, we may be able to slot some of the unissued sides into the gaps. (We have put "Hot Lips" and "Wang Wang Blues"—both titles that hark back to Henry Busse's days with Paul Whiteman—in alongside the issued sides.) It would be interesting to know who ended up with the Vitacoustic pop masters, assuming they didn't finish their days in a Chicago-area landfill.
We also notethat some of the Jack Surrell sides ended up on Sensation, which may have co-produced them.
Vitacoustic pulled in an awful lot of revenue from "Peg o' My Heart" (this single sold 7 times as much as "Long Gone" did for Miracle—and the best sellers during Aristocrat's lifetime were microscopic by comparison). Most of the money was plowed right back into pop music that nobody wanted to buy. Meanwhile, the label's jazz and R&B efforts might have paid off better but were never so ambitious. Perhaps too much was going into trade paper advertisements. Regular adverts in Billboard and Cash Box are mighty convenient to researchers like ourselves, but they must have cost Vitacoustic a bundle. Vitacoustic ran full-page display ads regularly; the label's last hurrah consisted of no fewer than four full-pagers in the January 24, 1948 issue of Billboard, one of which included pictures of all of the company's "race" artists (to be added to this page).
The gory details about Vitacoustic indebtedness are contained in the April 3, 1948 Billboard story that details its Chapter 11 filing. The company's debts of $182,000 included, besides Federal taxes, substantial royalties owed to music publishers, even bigger debts to pressing plants like Long Island Plastic Products, Perfection Plastic Products (Pasadena, CA), even good old Starr Piano (Richmond, IN)—and $13,800 for recording and mastering services at United Broadcasting Company. The company had stiffed its artists for $29,000 in royalties; most unwisely, Vitacoustic had fallen $14,600 in arrears to the Harmonicats—a dereliction that was hardly going to be missed by Bill Putnam, who owned their contract. The company's supposed assets included no less than $56,000 in advance royalties to artists. The outsized payouts had been dispensed to pop artists under the Tasker regime. Advancing $9,867 to Leo Diamond meant that the company would have to sell nearly 250,000 of his harmonica records to recoup. Over $5000 was given to a singer named Yvette, only one of whose records ever saw release; over $3000 to Joan Edwards, who got two releases; over $3000 to bandleader Joe Vera, who to our knowledge never got a release at all. One of Henry Busse's 78s came out earlier in the life of the company, when it could afford to promote his work, but to make back his advance of $3192, the company would have had to move about 80,000 copies of Vitacoustic 6.
Vitacoustic, then, was the inverse of a success story. The label had a massive hit but proved completely incapable of sustaining itself, eating through its profits in less than a year. In all, Vitacoustic is known to have put out 18 pop singles (Vitacoustic 1 through 15, plus 19 through 21; there may be one or two more from the days when the label was about to file for Chapter 11), 1 country single (5001), and 6 R&B singles (1000 through 1005 and 1007). Of the R&B singles, only Vitacoustic 1005 was the company's own production; Vitacoustic 1001 through 1004 and 1007 had originated with Sensation Records in Detroit. The August 1947 split between Lloyd Garrett and the Bill Putnam deprived the label of its most popular performers, Jerry Murad's Harmonicats, and took all the steam out of its pop series. The Harmonicats put out another release in October 1947 on Bill Putnam's Universal label, and followed with a bunch more, including at least one of Putnam's experimental EPs. But after that they took their act, which remained highly popular for some years, to Mercury and Columbia; they made several LPs for major labels in the 1950s. Don Les left the Harmonicats in 1972 and Al Fiore retired in 1982. Don Les died on August 25, 1994, in Madison, Wisconsin; Jerry Murad died on May 11, 1996, in Liberty Township, Ohio; the last of the original Harmonicats, Al Fiore, died in Chicago on October 25, 1996.
Meanwhile, Vitacoustic's belated move into R&B failed to pay off. The Sensation-derived material was repossessed by the originating label, which then leased it to King Records. King got a lot more out of it than Vitacoustic ever had. In fact, King 4240 ("Blues for the Red Boy" b/w "Sportree Jump" by Todd Rhodes) was listed in the Billboard's semi-annual survey of "Top Selling Company Labels on Rhythm and Blues over Retail Counters" (July 30, 1949) as the company's number 2 seller (and King was having a good year—it placed #3 among R&B labels). King was so interested in Todd Rhodes that the label signed him to a contract in the summer of 1948; this elicited a furious reaction from Sensation, which still had him under contract from the days before the Vitacoustic deal, and was able to get the Musicians Union to provide evidence to that effect. On August 13, 1949, Sensation and King arrived at a settlement whereby King tore up its Rhodes contract and turned back most of the masters it had leased from Sensation. Sensation quit putting out new releases at the end of 1950, and in 1952 Besman (who had continued to record John Lee Hooker for lease to other labels) packed in the record business for good, sold his share of Pan American, and moved to California. Todd Rhodes returned to King in May 1951 and continued with the label until the summer of 1954. For a time he served as house band leader for the label, backing Wynonie Harris and many other high-profile R&B performers at the King Studios in Cincinnati. Meanwhile Kitty Stevenson, who had made several vocal recordings with him, died in Detroit Memorial Hospital in early June 1952. Todd Rhodes' band broke up in 1957; after that he worked sporadically. In the fall of 1964, while on a steady gig playing at a hotel piano bar in Sarnia, Ontario, Rhodes suffered a major stroke. He remained hospitalized and died in Detroit on June 4, 1965.
The original jazz and R&B material that Vitacoustic had recorded was impounded by Egmont Sonderling and formed the basis for his Old Swing-Master venture with Al Benson. Sonderling probably held on to some pop and country material as well, but if that was the case he never could figure out what to do with it.
That Vitacoustic during its death throes could not sell its masters, and after liquidation could draw no higher bid than $750 for the lot, reflected not only on the commercial potential of the product it recorded, but also on the nature of the record business in the late 1940s. A January 14, 1949 Billboard story, "Anybody Wanna Buy a Label? Indies Can't Sell," told of the difficulties failed independent companies had recently had in unloading their masters. The lead said, "Those indie diskeries who are finding the going too tough are having a hard time disposing of their labels at any price." It noted the difficulties that Leon Rene's Exclusive label and another unnamed firm were having in peddling their unreleased masters and artists' contracts: instead of trying to sell them, these operations were offering to give them away in exchange for receiving the royalties on the releases. The Billboard writer questioned record executives on this situation. The conclusion was that they had their hands full dealing with their own artists and selling their own records. Consequently they were adverse to taking on "additional artists and masters, even at bargain rates."
Some really delayed fallout: an odd item in Billboard from July 14, 1951, related that Leo Diamond had bought his 36 Vitacoustic masters. But he didn't get them from Universal. "Leo Diamond, the harmonicist, purchased 36 masters, most of which were unreleased, from the defunct Vitacoustic Records' catalog, owned currently by United Broadcasting. Diamond is hoping to peddle them to some diskery" (p. 14). Maybe Bill Putnam was tired of sitting on masters that nobody wanted to buy, and cut a deal with Egmont Sonderling. But how many of them was Sonderling ever able to sell?
The larger lesson to be learned from the Vitacoustic debacle is that knowing how to run a recording studio is not the same as knowing how to run a record company. Sure, the Harmonicats sold a lot of records in 1947. But the only recordings made at Universal Recording that year that are widely heard today were cut by a fellow named Muddy Waters. And there is no way Muddy's music would have met with approval from Bill Putnam and George Tasker. The proprietors of Aristocrat had mixed feelings about Muddy when they decided to record him, and they took their sweet time releasing his initial efforts, but they were willing to give him a chance.
We still lack matrix numbers for a couple of Vitacoustic issues, which could give us clues as to when they were recorded. We also believe that there may have been pop singles on Vitacoustic 16 through 18 during the chaotic period just before the company filed for bankruptcy. We invite additions and corrections to this listing.
The Simon Evans / Man in Japan collection contributed several Billboard clippings on Vitacoustic from 1947, including the ad from November 8 that can be seen at the beginning of this page. Bill Daniels provided a valuable index of first mentions in Billboard for Vitacoustic pop releases, a concordance of Sensation-Vitacoustic-King releases, a King Records publicity flyer on Todd Rhodes, and further detailed information on the V1800 and B-4000 matrix number series which enabled us to correct errors and gaps in the information we were able to obtain from existing discographies. Peter Gibbon of Ace Records UK, who has researched Bernie Besman's masters, corrected some errors on the V1800 series and helped us to fill several gaps in the B-4000s. We initially learned of the link between Vitacoustic and Old Swing-Master from Bernd Kratochwil's article "Die Geschichte des Entrepreneur Al Benson aus Chicago oder die labels'Old Swingmaster,' 'Parrot,' and 'Blue Lake' Teil 2: Old Swingmaster Discography," Rockin' Fifties,1997, 45-49.
Further background on Sensation Records (including a discussion of the date for the "Boogie Chillen" session) is provided by Charles Shaar Murray's book Boogie Man (St. Martins, 2000), a thoroughly researched and well-written biography of John Lee Hooker.
On Todd Rhodes, the definitive source is Jim Gallert's article "Blue Sensation: The Todd Rhodes Story," which appeared in City Arts Quarterly, 4(1/2), 26 - 29, 49 (1989). Gallert's article includes a corrected discography of Rhodes' recordings as a leader (though it does not mention the Kitty Stevenson sides that ended up in the hands of Old Swing-Master). Further material on Rhodes and Stevenson is in Lars Bjorn and Jim Gallert, Before Motown (University of Michigan Press, 2001). Ace CDCHD 856, Todd Rhodes and His Orchestra: Blues for the Red Boy—The Early Sensation Recordings, released in 2002, is a valuable collection of 28 tracks that Rhodes made for Sensation, mastered from the original acetates. The extensive liner notes are by Jim Gallert.
Danny Wilson (http://www.bassharp.com) supplied further background about the Harmonicats and corrected our descriptions of the trio's instruments. Peter Doyle provided information about four rare pop releases from Vitacoustic's last days, and a previously unknown Doc Wiley acetate. And Ferdie Gonzales supplied information about the elusive Old Swing-Master 33. Our label photos are drawn primarily from the collections of Tom Kelly and Peter Doyle. David Morrison provided the scans of Vitacoustic 2.
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