Thursday, April 08, 2010


Recording the Duke, gravity

If I start messing with YouTube videos again, I'll never stop, but I'm making an exception for this 1937 Paramount short, "Record Making With Duke Ellington." It's a delicious document for two reasons. First, it offers a rare glimpse of a stellar ensemble in the studio, rehearsing the train-whistle mimesis at the beginning of "Daybreak Express." Ellington had made his classic recording of this piece four years earlier for RCA Victor, not long before his fraying relationship with the label unraveled completely. In his notes to the Centennial Edition, Steven Lasker recounts the coup de grace: "A recording supervisor had inadvertently left the talk button on in the control booth. Not realizing that this enabled the musicians to hear him, the executive advised the engineer to get set for 'some Saturday night nigger music.' The band packed up and left." Having temporarily parted ways with RCA Victor, Ellington spent the next few years as something of an artistic itinerant, recording for a smorgasbord of small and large labels, including two set up by his manager, Irving Mills: Master and Variety. Which brings us back to the short, a promotional vehicle for Variety. I wish there was more footage of the rehearsal, with Ellington chiding the band ("This is not a freight train!") and Johnny Hodges and Freddie Guy vying for the most bored facial expression. Still, it's a precious glimpse of history--and the pep-rally narration of the recording process is nothing to sneeze at. I like the moment at 4:04, when a blob of "special plastic material" is placed into the waffle-iron-like stamping press:

Given the date, the recording technology looks surprisingly spiffy. Thirteen years later, when a young George Martin began his career at EMI, he was surprised to discover the Dickensian apparatus under the hood:
The routine of another recording take began again. Charlie Anderson, the engineer, began winding a large crank, and a heavy weight rose slowly to the ceiling. As he did so, Oscar walked through to tell the musicians that he wanted another performance, murmuring a few words of encouragement to them. In the control room a fresh warm wax disc was taken from the cabinet and placed on the turntable, and the engineer checked his settings. Then he shut his little window, released a brake, and spun the turntable. Slowly the weight began to fall....

To my new and untutored eye, the whole set-up seemed incredibly crude. I had thought, for instance, that the use of falling weights for motive power had gone out with Galileo. The answer, it seemed, was that electric motors in those days were not reliable enough to guarantee a completely steady and "wow-free" 78 revolutions a minute. Gravity, on the other hand, knew no hiccups.
The manufacturing process was even cruder, Martin recalls. Now, the factory pictured in the video is hardly a high-tech clean room. There were probably enough chemical spills and environmental hazards to give a latter-day OSHA official the cold sweats. But Oliver Twist could have worked in the facility Martin describes:
Before I visited the works where the records were pressed, I expected immaculate, white-coated operatives standing by stainless steel, plastic-topped counters, pressing buttons and watching the automatic moulding of the discs. How wrong I was. Reality was a hot and dirty factory, with men stripped to the waist, bathed in sweat and forever grimy with the black carbon dust which hung in the air.

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Fascinating, James. I couldn't help wondering who was on drums ... Sonny Greer maybe. I think 1937 was too early for Sam Woodyard or Louie Bellson.
Glad to hear from you, Charles. Yes, that would be Sonny Greer. Woodyard didn't join the band until 1950. And although Greer's heavy drinking sometimes put him on the sidelines, he was at the top of his game in 1937--which is to say, as a champion colorist rather than the sort of pile-driving timekeeper the band found in Woodyard. (Bellson, of course, could play rings around both of them from a technical standpoint. But his tenure with Ellington was fairly brief. His real name, I just discovered, was Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni. Try fitting that on a bass drum head.)
Luigi Paulino Alfredo Francesco Antonio Balassoni -- mannaggia! I don't think the name would fit on Bellson's trademark 2 bass drums, James.
Whereas "Louis Bellson" would fit on a pair of bongos, assuming 16-point Bodoni and no decorative flourishes.
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