“The World’s Greatest Artists Are on Victor Records,” saith the advertisements. Well, a great many certainly were, but there were some originally signed to the label that the company execs let walk, and several of these went on to become the biggest record sellers of all time. And then there were the ones who Victor did sign to long-term contracts who turned out to be duds. Let’s take a look at both types, shall we?
The Big Ones That Got Away
Although he is rather obscure nowadays, black comedian Bert Williams—he wasn’t African-American because he was born in the Bahamas and his family never saw Africa in their entire history—was one of the biggest box-office draws of all time, the only solo black star of Ziegfeld’s Follies and the first black member of Actors’ Equity (thanks to the pressure of his friend, W.C. Fields). Victor had him in 1900-01 when he was teamed up with George Walker, who had to leave the act due to illness a few years later, but by 1904 he was signed to rival Columbia where he sold records like hotcakes. Why Victor let him walk is a mystery, as they always seemed to be looking for “Negro entertainment” to sell to audiences.
It may be hard to believe, but Al Jolson started his recording career with Victor in 1913 but didn’t even last six months. The company thought he would never be as big a name as Irving S. Kaufman, so they kept Irving and ditched Al. By 1927 Kaufman was reduced to singing one-chorus vocals on “hot” dance records for Victor while Jolson was packing them in at the Palladium and the Winter Garden. As all Jolson historians know, he too switched to rival Columbia which did very well by him, then in the late 1920s switched over to Brunswick and ended his career as a major “Personality Series” star for Decca. Likewise, Victor lost Jolson’s close friend Eddie Cantor, who also jumped to Brunswick and then to Decca.
Another major error was in letting crooner Bing Crosby go, but this had more to do with negative critical reaction than short-sightedness. During his years with bandleader Paul Whiteman, as both a solo singer and a member of the Rhythm Boys, Crosby had a light, dry, husky-sounding voice that didn’t go over well with record buyers or critics, who kept telling Victor and Whiteman to leave him off the records. Ironically, one of his last Victor recordings was a 1930 date as part of the Rhythm Boys singing with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra, Three Little Words. He too went to Brunswick and then Decca, where he stayed into the 1950s. But in this one instance, perhaps we should cut Victor a little slack, because they did sign Crosby’s biggest rival, Russ Columbo, and it wasn’t their fault that he died of an accidental gunshot wound to the temple in 1934 at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Columbo was beginning to overtake Crosby as a major star.
Enrico Caruso may have been “The World’s Greatest Tenor,” but Moravian Leo Slezak wasn’t far behind. In fact, Caruso was a little jealous of Slezak’s ability to alternate full-throated high notes with soft, high singing of the most delicate kind. He made a few records for Victor while he was at the Metropolitan Opera, and some of his G&T records also came out on Victor, but they just wouldn’t offer him a five-year contract. As a result, Leo was all over the place, recording for Columbia, Pathé and Edison during his Metropolitan Opera years, then for a series of European labels (including Electrola, the German wing of HMV) during the electrical era.
In 1925 The Boswell Sisters made their first records for Victor, and they sold very well, prompting A&R man Eddie King to offer them a contract, but at that time the girls were still teenagers (Vet was only 14) so their parents wouldn’t let them travel to Camden, NJ from New Orleans to cut records. OK, I understand that; but five years later, when they were already in California and creating a sensation, they made two sides for Victor in which they sang one chorus on otherwise instrumental records (We’re on the Highway to Heaven and That’s What I Like About You)! Failing to capitalize on their burgeoning fame, Victor let them get away to—you guessed it—Brunswick, and later to Decca.
Louis Armstrong, having already made some sensational recordings for Gennett, OKeh and Brunswick, was signed by RCA during 1931-33, but once again they let a goldmine walk. Louis jumped to Decca where he stayed until 1946 when RCA suddenly took an interest in him again and signed him to make a few recordings—but only a few. He quickly went back to Decca where he stayed until the label’s director, Jack Kapp, started his own Kapp Records in the early 1960s.
The Budapest String Quartet made their earlier records (1927-1936) for EMI, which of course came out on Victor in the U.S., and once they came here to escape Nazi persecution they recorded for the American label as well. But once again Victor failed to capitalize on their name and success; they recorded performances by them that they refused to release, then just stopped recording them altogether in 1939. So in 1940, the quartet was one of a number of Victor properties, among them soprano Bidù Sayão, tenor Lauritz Melchior, and the New York Philharmonic, who jumped ship to the new CBS-owned Columbia Records. Melchior returned to RCA in 1944 but the New York Philharmonic stayed, thus depriving RCA of all those great recordings made by the orchestra under Artur Rodzinski, Dmitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. A goldmine, indeed! Columbia made so much money off of just those two properties, the Budapest Quartet and the New York Philharmonic, to fill their coffers for generations. Footnote: because of their bitterness in the way they were treated by RCA, the Budapest Quartet members refused to allow RCA Victor to reissue their early recordings for EMI, which were really among their very best, but instead gave permission to Columbia to work out a short-term deal with EMI to put them out on Odyssey LPs in the 1970s.
Another one of those 1940 defectors to Columbia was soprano Lily Pons. In her case it was probably predestined because she was married in 1938 to conductor André Kostelanetz, who was signed to Columbia the year before.
And as for “lost crooners,” RCA Victor didn’t just lose Bing Crosby but also his younger rival and successor, Frank Sinatra. Sinatra, who made his very first records for Columbia in 1939 when he was singing with the big band of Harry James, was on RCA during his stint with bandleader Tommy Dorsey, 1940-42, but never thereafter. But there’s a back story to this. In 1942 Sinatra made two recordings for RCA’s inexpensive Bluebird label without the Dorsey band, obviously already thinking of a solo career (The Night We Called it a Day b/w Night and Day and The Lamplighter’s Serenade b/w The Song is You), but Victor declined to offer him any further solo sessions, so once he left Dorsey he also left Victor and went back to Columbia (and later, Capitol). Yet it’s difficult to think of two more lucrative talents to let get away than Crosby and Sinatra.
Likewise, RCA signed bebop trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie to a three-year contract in 1946, and they did promote his records fairly well, but once his contract expired Dizzy started his own label, Dee Gee, and after that signed with Norman Granz’s Verve label. Those Gillespie RCA discs are among the most exciting and important of his entire career, yet the trumpeter never returned to the label, not even as a guest artist!
Soprano Eileen Farrell, who had the most unusual and independent career of any classical singer in history, was an RCA artist in the late 1940s and early ‘50s when she made two of her greatest recordings: the complete final duet from Wagner’s Siegfried with tenor Set Svanholm, and the Beethoven 9th Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. Yet Victor thought so little of her that they let her go shortly after that, whence she, to, jumped ship to Columbia.
And speaking of Columbia, they raided RCA once again in 1943, taking with them the Philadelphia Orchestra and soprano Helen Traubel, considered to be the second-greatest Wagnerian soprano in the world after Kirsten Flagstad. Traubel did come back to RCA in 1950, by which time she had stopped singing opera, to record a couple of hysterically funny duets with comedian Jimmy Durante, but the Philadelphia Orchestra was lost to them. This had one bad effect almost immediately, in that Toscanini could not re-record the orchestral works he had made with the orchestra while they were with RCA due to a technical failure in the electroplating process that marred the records with loud ticks, pops and other surface noise. RCA probably figured that the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy wasn’t going to sell as well as they had done under Leopold Stokowski, but by golly, they were wrong. Next to the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra was one of Columbia’s geese that laid golden eggs all through the 1940s, ‘50s and ’60s. But RCA’s bungle with Philadelphia wasn’t over yet. When their Columbia contract finally expired, around 1969 or 1970, RCA re-signed them to the label, but except for a pretty good-selling recording of Holst’s The Planets, these later Philadelphia recordings bombed in sales. So they let them go again, upon which they signed with EMI and voila! started selling well again. Don’t ask.
Another jazz great who RCA let get away was Charles Mingus, who made exactly one album for them, the classic Tijuana Moods. that was in 1957, but they let the record sit in the can for FIVE YEARS before finally issuing it in 1962, by which time Mingus had switched to Atlantic Records.
The Mediocre Ones They Kept
In addition to Irving S. Kaufman, Victor also invested a great deal of money in tenor Richard Crooks and soprano Rose Bampton, two decent singers but not ones who inspired listeners or record sales. At the time they also let the New York and Philadelphia Orchestras walk, they retained hold of the Cincinnati and Indianapolis Symphony Orchestras in order to make relatively inexpensive classical records for their Red Seal catalog. Neither one sold very much for them, and by the early 1950s both were gone.
One big band Victor seemed infatuated with was that of Sammy Kaye, a schmaltzy outfit that played with swooping saxes and staccato trumpets. They did cash in on at least two really big hit records with Kaye, Daddy and It Isn’t Fair, but most of his other records were forgettable at best.
And while they were letting Charles Mingus and Shorty Rogers walk, they chose to sign Al Hirt to a long-term contract. Hirt was a fair Dixieland trumpeter who had two big hits for the label, Java and Sugar Lips, but that was about all. They also signed the mediocre crossover tenor Sergio Franchi to the label, probably as a substitute for the deceased Mario Lanza, but Franchi had neither the pipes nor the charisma of the Philadelphia-born tenor.
The Great Ones They Never Bothered to Sign
Long before Elvis Presley came around, there was a white male singer whose style could have been taken for an African-American artist, and that was the “red hot papa” of the 1920s, Cliff Edwards, who Victor never bothered to pursue. In the long run this may not have been such a bad choice, however, since Edwards’ career crashed and burned due to a drug habit and he had to be rescued from oblivion by Walt Disney who used him for the voice of Jiminy Cricket in his animated film, Pinocchio.
RCA also never seemed to care much about the Cleveland Orchestra, which (again) had Artur Rodzinski as its principal conductor for several years. Instead, RCA had the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which for many years was led by the competent but uninspiring Frederick Stock, then by the distinguished but poor-selling Désiré Defauw before Rodzinski had one season there, followed by Rafael Kubelik. In this case, however, RCA lucked out because Fritz Reiner followed Kubelik just in time for the early stereo era and his records sold very well indeed. Yet RCA missed out on the George Szell era, another goldmine for rival Columbia.
And while they were recording and promoting Dizzy Gillespie, I wonder why they never even thought of signing his counterpart, Charlie Parker, who after making a name for himself on the small Savoy and Dial labels jumped over to Norman Granz.
Thus you can see that Victor and its successor, RCA, made some pretty bad decisions regarding certain artists. You can probably say the same for almost any label, but by and large, once Goddard Lieberson took over, Columbia Records seemed to have the magic touch and almost every name artist they had, particularly in the classical field, sold well. Yet neither RCA nor Columbia bothered to do very much in the rock music field until the mid-1960s; RCA had Elvis and Columbia had…nobody, because Mitch Miller detested rock music.
And that’s all I have!
—© 2016 Lynn René Bayley