Bix Beiderbecke on British Parlophone 78s.

 

 

An article I wrote quite quickly in 2000. It is illustrated by label scans of Parlophone issues. These labels appear as thumbnails in the text. To see the label larger (and in much better definition), just click on the thumbnail. All but one have been re-scanned for this revised edition of the article and so should appear in better quality than they did before.

 

Because I am not a systematic discographer and historian, there are bound to be inaccuracies, errors etc., in what follows. I apologise for this, but it will at least give you a rough outline of what might be termed ‘Bix's involvement with Parlophone’, though he himself probably never heard of the label!

 

     The point is, the Parlophone label, possibly more than any other, was crucial to the development of Jazz Appreciation in this country. Oh, I know that HMV issued stuff from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band (1919) right through to rare takes of the Dixieland Jug Blowers in the late 1950s. Columbia too stretched from the ODJB, Wilbur Sweatman and W.C. Handy (they issued ALL TEN of his 1917 sides in Britain, God bless them!) to 1950s master pressings of Johnny Dodds and Clarence Williams. Brunswick was crucial too: they issued King Oliver's Dixie Syncopators, The Cotton Pickers, Fess Williams, and in particular, dubs of many of the the classic Gennetts of Oliver, Bix and the NORK in the 1930s. Other, smaller labels like Pathé, Guardsman and the Levy's labels issued mouth-watering rarities too.

    

But Parlophone! They were the label that knew what they were doing in the 1920s, that Golden Age, that crucial, heady period when Jazz progressed so fast! At least, I think they thought they knew what they were doing! They seemed to carefully sift the OKeh listings for good material, and followed it up fairly systematically. Naturally, the function of a record company is to sell records; that goes without saying, but it seems to me that Parlophone kept on issuing things that got good reviews from the newly-arrived magazines like the MELODY MAKER and GRAMOPHONE. This shows a dedication to the promotion of what was then called ‘Modern Dance Music’ that was as commendable as it was unique for the time.

 

     This was in some ways parallel to the activites of the Gramophone Company (i.e. HMV), who, from earliest times (1897) had always seen themselves as the ‘Sacred Guardians’ of High Art and Culture, and who maintained an awesome back catalogue of Classical music. Parlophone were extremely active in Classical music too (mostly with Continental masters), but perhaps they saw that they might achieve something similar to the kudos of HMV, but in the field of Popular Music?

 

     So Parlophone kept on issuing items that were well-received critically even though the actual sales figures seem to have been quite small. There is possibly an analogy here with the Bix material on OKeh, the earlier issues of which were (naturally) received with rapture by musicians of the time. The sales figures (where available) of the discs, however, if correct, indicate relatively modest success by the side, say, of Victor. But then, OKeh was a relatively modest label compared with Victor, wasn't it? But the record market in America might have been buoyant enough for ‘background’ or ‘random’ sales of Bix OKehs to engender sales figures of several thousand, while in this country, probably several hundreds might be nearer the mark.

 

    Alas, practically no work has been done on pressing/sales quantities here. The exceptions known to this writer (e.g. Arthur Badrock's work on the Parlophone 'Race' issues of the 1930s, plus the generally-accepted pressing figure of 250 copies for many of the Vocalion Swing Series) tend to confirm that record companies were often happy - perhaps content would be a better word - with extremely modest sales by American standards.

 

     Although Bix is not represented this early in the Parlophone catalogue, this illustration shows the first Parlophone label that appeared in this country, around 1923.  This one is Parlophone E-5394. They had characteristic ‘smudgy’ printing; the legend round the bottom of the label is frequently nearly illegible! By the way, the ‘£’ sign is nothing to do with the pound Sterling money. It is merely the capital letter ‘L’ in old-style script, which was a trade mark of the parent Carl Lindstrom company in Germany whose main label was of course Odeon.

 

     At first there was just the red label E-5000 and E-3000 series (we are not touching on any 12" Classical issues in these notes). The E-5000 series appears to have been confined to Dance Bands, popular instrumental and vocal issues. The E-3000 series specialised in ‘British Ethnic’ recordings: Welsh, Scottish and Irish material. It also had Hawaiian guitar solos and other specialist things. (The series ran for many years, until the early E-4100s).

    

    However, The E-3000 series is crucial, because it engendered the purple Parlophone series on which Bix first appeared here. At some stage, probably in 1926, Parlophone decided that two 10" 78 series at the same price was not enough. Mainly, they needed a de luxe series for more exalted issues. A change of label colour was an obvious step. They chose the distinctive ‘purple’ colour (that is so difficult to scan in!), but referred to it always as ‘Royal Blue’ in their catalogues. As to the choice of prefix for this new series, the ‘R’ may reasonably be assumed to follow from Royal blue. But the mystery lies in the choice of the numerical series. Instead of picking a brand-new series, 1000, or 9000 or whatever, they chose the 3000 series that was already in use for the E-3000 issues! Thus, the number on the Clarence Jones record illustrated here, Parlophone R-3261, does not mean that it was the 260th issue in the R series. It was in fact the 260th issue in the 3000 series, hitherto prefixed 'E' and with a red label! Worse still, the E series did not switch from red to purple at one fixed point! The two series interlocked, and many E3000s are higher than the lowest R-3000s! An interlocked series is truly a discographer's nightmare, and only a complete listing of all 3000s will solve the problem. William Dean-Myatt, Arthur Badrock & others have been working on such a listing for many years.

 

     Incidentally, the pressing quality of Parlophones of the early period is generally good. They tend to be quite thin discs, with an even surface, not laminated, but pretty quiet as regards surface noise. Alas, early on in the purple era, the pressings became thicker and are much noisier for some time. Happily this aberration has ceased by the time of the first Bix issues. These early red and purple labels are all ‘large’, i.e. 3.625 inch diameter (9.2 cm).

    

     Bix first appeared on Parlophone R3323, with ‘Singing The Blues’ and ‘Clainet Marmalade’. This is the only issue of Bix to first appear on the large label. For whatever reason, the size was soon reduced. One reason might be that the OKeh run-off groove finished at practically the same diameter as the British label, so that very accurate centring of the label was necessary were it not to overlap into the run-off groove, and lift the sound-box out of the groove, so that the needle ran over the label and risked damage to the diaphragm if it hit the centre spindle. More irritating to the collectors of today, it would also produce unsightly score-marks on the label of our treasures! The scan shows the characteristic smudgy printing and the general gloriously slapdash production: the slug containing the title information is mis-aligned, so the titling and the label design don’t register properly. Too many of these labels would make us seasick! To be fair, this particular copy is the only one I’ve seen this badly misaligned; my very first ‘proper’ vintage Jazz 78 was a copy of R-3323 acquired in the late 1950s, and though it was terribly ‘beat-up’ it possessed a ‘magic’ quality that all collectors will recall from their early days! The label of this copy of R-3323 has not been re-scanned, as I no longer have the disc.

 

     Now many of these classic Parlophones were retained in the catalogue for some considerable time. Thus they appeared with different labels, depending on the time they were re-pressed. Here is another copy of Parlophone R3323, my present one in fact, and while showing the other side, also illustrates that it was pressed after Columbia had taken over Parlophone in 1927. The annular depression around the centre-hole is characteristic of Columbia pressings. What purpose it served I’m not sure… but I rather believe it might have been a device to ensure that the pressings were properly centred. Certainly ‘off-centre’ Columbia pressings of this period are virtually unknown to me.

 

     Unfortunately, a lot of these later pressings (including that illustrated) are much inferior in quality to the original British pressings, being rather 'fuzzy' in sound, in spite of the laminated and quite silent material from which they were made. The reason for this is unknown. The implication is that some fault in storage or treatment is responsible. Generally speaking, we Brits are always seeking the earlier ‘flat’ pressings of these discs, rather than the later Columbia laminated ones! Odd, isn’t it?

 

     Another peculiarity of R-3323 is that rather than bearing the master numbers as usual, you can see that the label carries the OKeh catalogue number instead (40772B)! The label, of course, is simply repeating what appears in the wax. The OKeh issue, 40772, is the same.

 

     In any event, the small label was used for all subsequent Bix purple issues. It measured 3" (7.6 cm) across. Parlophone R-3361. In late 1927 the R-3000 series had reached the mid-3500s. For reasons not exactly clear to this writer, Parlophone then began a new purple series. Whether or not chronic confusion about whether a 3000 was an 'E' or an 'R' was responsible we don't know. Probably not; because although the new purple series began at R-100, as we have remarked, very many of the earlier R-3000s remained in catalogue for several more years. Indeed, the winds of change continued to blow, because after about R-270, the purple label itself was abandoned, and replaced by a very dark blue, often virtually black label. Surprisingly, at this time it also grew back to 3.625" diameter again!

    

     Parlophone R-298. Columbia had a prestige series featuring 'celebrity' singers like the contralto Dame Clara Butt having purple, or violet, labels, so they may have reserved the right to use this special colour for themselves alone. This question can only be answered by someone with far more purple Parlophones than I have; but the early R-100’s can be found with the ‘flat’ Parlophone pressings up to about R-130… thereafter, only the Columbia ‘ringed’ pressings are seen, while the label still remains purple.

 

     Another consequence of the holding in catalogue is that R-3000s (that one might expect to be purple) occur in black; and even later in plum). Normally, the label appears as it would have done on a purple, both in layout and size. Disconcertingly, however, occasionally an original small purple gets reincarnated as a large black; Beatin’ The Dog’ / ‘Kickin’ The Cat’ by Venuti’s Blue Four does so, and as for Bix, so does ‘For No Reason At All In C’, coupled with ‘Trumbology’, illustrated here on Parlophone R-3419. Though one is tempted to advocate compiling a listing of these ‘radiate’ label issues, it would hardly justify the work involved. I recently saw - but alas, for some reason did not purchase -   a large plum-label copy of ‘Singing The Blues’ / ‘Clarinet Marmalade’. It may be that every possible combination was used. By which I mean, that any record that was designated as having a large label always did so, mainly, as far as Bix is concerned,  ‘Singing/Clarinet’, and so we may legitimately expect to find it in purple, black or plum. But every small label purple might appear with a large black label, as long as this did not contravene the run-off groove diameter, as (presumably) entered on some Sacred File Card in the Parlophone/Columbia/EMI archive….

 

     So ‘purple’ numbers also appeared on a plum coloured label. Columbia (=Parlophone)  and HMV amalgamated in about 1931 to form EMI. Rationalisation of labels, who was to issue what, etc., must have gone on around this time, but the details aren't known to me. The labels comprising EMI certainly retained some degree of autonomy, though. For example, British Columbia was able to commission John Hammond to record Henderson, Venuti, The Washboard Rhythm Kings and others for issue primarily over here, a 265000 master series being used for these. A plum label R-3383 is illustrated here.

 

     Parlophone made fairly frequent use of pseudonyms, and indeed often got things hopelessly wrong: their main ‘howler’ being the issue of Ellington's ‘Black And Tan Fantasy’ credited to Louis Armstrong’s Original Washboard Beaters! Not to mention Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven of ‘That’s When I’ll Come Back To You’ being issued as Butterbeans and Susie. To be fair, Louis and Lil Armstrong were singing exactly in the genre of Butterbeans and Susie on that side, so I doubt if the British Hot Record buying public noticed anything wrong. (Indeed, as I have never ever seen - or even heard of - a copy of this record in anybody’s collection, let alone my own modest one, the number of potentially puzzled purchasers must have been exceedingly small!) In the case illustrated above, the ‘Rhythm Breakers’ is Sol Wagner's Orchestra, recorded in Chicago, May 1927. Mention has not so far been made of other helpful annotations made on the labels of Parlophone records. Parlophone went out of their way to supply helpful details of what instrumental stars were present on their exalted product. E.g.: ‘The Goofus Washboards, with Adrian Rollini and Jimmy Dorsey’. Well, it’s 50 per cent right.  Bix Beiderbecke with Frank Trumbauer, Ed. Lang and Arthur Schutt in their four-piece Orchestra…’ (actually, it’s Bix on piano and cornet right at the end, so there are only three of them), but we can very easily forgive these trivial errors. After all, Parlophone in one sense, started off the whole of modern Jazz discography by drawing attention to individual performers on their records!

 

     Much discussion has gone on here in England as to which is the rarest Bix Parlophone. Many a long and tedious car journey back from a record collectors’ fair or a gig has been sped by this discussion. There are always several contenders. I think this in itself means that the question will never be satisfactorily be resolved. This is partly because there really aren’t enough serious Bix 78 collectors around any more to convene an authoritative discussion, and partly because there are two or three close-matched contenders anyhow. However, in my humble opinion, the disc illustrated here the rarest one. Parlophone R-203. It’s the only copy I’ve ever seen. ‘Borneo’ was issued as by The Goofus Five and their Orchestra. The other side, ‘Mama’s Gone Young, Papa’s Gone Old’ actually is by them. Why Parlophone chose to change the credit from Trumbauer, we will never know. Most likely it was a simple clerical error. (The other contenders for ‘rare Bix’ are of course mentioned below…) This might be a good point to add that there were two Trumbauer discs that OKeh issued under other names. OKeh 40912, with ‘Just An Hour Of Love’ and ‘I’m Wondering Who’, was issued as Benny Meroff & his Orchestra. Okeh 40938, the controversial ‘Sugar’ (W-81575-B) was issued as Russell Grey & his Orchestra. Nevertheless, all these three sides came out on Parlophone under the Trumbauer name. Which is presumably correct? Certainly the first two had some claim to be labelled: ‘Adrian Rollini & his New Yorkers’; but as Tram had the important OKeh contract in his own right, probably Rollini demurred from insisting on credit to himself? As to ‘Sugar’ - on which Bix may or may not be present -, it is believed that as the performance was so indifferent musically, Trumbauer declined to have his name on it; and so OKeh chose to label it as Russell Grey. It is pleasant to record that Russell Grey took this as a nice compliment!    

 

     Also, while the purples had mutated into black, the good old red label E-5000 series had been plugging along (without any colour change) with its usual mix of dance bands and popular vocals. It had reached the early E-6200s when, under their all-purpose name of ‘Will Perry's Orchestra’, Trumbauer's ‘Louise’ was introduced to the unsuspecting fledgling Bixophiles of these shores on Parlophone E-6208. The reverse of this is ‘Sleepy Valley’, a waltz by Justin Ring's OKeh Orchestra, also credited to ‘Will Perry’.

 

     Parlophone had already shown a tendency to issue cross-couplings, which it shared with (or maybe copied from) HMV. But in late 1929, they began a series called 'The New Rhythm Style Series'. This used the regular R numbers, and the first issue was R-448, which coupled Ed. Lang's ‘Freeze And Melt’ (No.1), with Louis' ‘West End Blues’ (No.2). Not a bad start to a series, though we won't argue about the billing here! (Incidentally, this record remained continuously in catalogue as R-448 until the end of 78s in Britain, 1958.) However, cross-couplings became the rule rather than the exception with this series, and has lumbered us British collectors ever since with the unholy trinity of (a) whom do we file a record under, (b) how do we remember who we filed it under, and mainly (c) what happens if we forget what is on the other side! They tended to issue two or maybe three items a month, and the series ran for several years. It might be thought odd that there is only ONE Bix side in the series, but don't forget there was plenty of Bix already available, as the R-3000s and R-100s were virtually all still available. Here is Parlophone R-714. (In fact, many interesting 'Hot' issues were still available quite late; the Clarence Jones R-3261 illustrated above was still in catalogue here in 1932!)

 

     In any case, R-714 represents the last Bix ‘original issue’ on Parlophone, a term that I have always used (rather elastically) to mean ‘a side issued pretty soon after it was recorded’. In the case of R-714, which appeared here in September 1930, having been recorded in April 1929, that definition is being stretched just a little. Actually, thinking about it, it is odd that there were no more Bix issues in the New Rhythm Style Series! Mind you, we’re not complaining: not at all! There were more Bix OKeh sides issued on British Parlophone (55 in all) than on any other label in the world… even including their source, OKeh! (This assumes that Bix actually is on ‘Sugar’; otherwise it’s only 54; but still a pretty impressive achievement for Parlophone!)

 

     But to return to the brief history: the New Rhythm Style Series continued (without Bix!) until the late R-1100s (Louis’ ‘Kicking The Gong Around’ on R-1170 is one of the last). Why they finished it is obscure to me, especially in view of the fact that almost immediately, they began a new one in mid-1932, which was called... The Second New Rhythm Style Series! One difference, however, was that it had a ‘dedicated label’. I'm not sure, but this might be the first ‘label-within-a label’ for Jazz in the world. Different series, different label colours for Jazz, yes: but a different label design was probably a ‘first’ for Parlophone. And a very handsome label it was too! Many issues have gone by as you can see by the number. It is a characteristic, I think, of Depression times that record companies, faced with derisory sales figures, tend to combat this by putting out more issues. Like, each record they issue only sells a few hundred copies. Answer, make many dozens, even hundreds of issues, and that acts as a kind of multiplier. As long as the company has the resources to keep doing this, it can survive long enough for the Depression to go away. EMI seem to have done this. The Columbia CB series, for instance, suddenly seems to 'jump' from say CB-150 to CB-600, to judge by what you (used to be able to) find in junk shops. It did no such thing: all numbers were used; they just didn't sell! CB-300s, 400s and 500s are hardly ever seen. Likewise, the HMB BD series. In the case of Parlophone, this issuing policy is not quite so obvious. This is because once they had weathered the lean period, the increasing interest in Jazz kept many of those Parlophone issues in catalogue, whereas most (though by no means all) the Columbia CB and HMV BD issues were fairly ephemeral, and accordingly  vanished as quickly as they had been brought out. Some of the Second New Rhythm Style issues are quite rare, though this does not particularly apply to the Bix items. It certainly took me a long time to find a copy of ‘Little Buttercup’ by Joe Venuti! But the commoner issues remained in catalogue often for many years, often well into the 1950s. Because of this, they also can turn up with a variety of label forms. This label of ‘Rhythm King’ on Parlophone R-2269 is printed on white paper, the eggshell blue having been abandoned. Moreover, the horn gramophone (phonograph) behind the £ trade mark has been omitted, presumably because it was old-fashioned by the mid-thirties, when this issue was made.

 

     Whatever the reason for the paucity of Bix issues from 1930 onwards, they stepped them up later in the 1930s. One reason for this was the 'mass deletion' of the original R-3000s. Exactly when (and why) this was done I don't know, but evidently at some time, somebody in authority decided that only issues in the current series would be 'supported' as today's jargon has it. That meant issues in the R-100 series, not the R-3000s that had preceded them. Lots of super classic records (even including ‘Singing The Blues’) got blown out of the catalogue for varying periods.

 

     But by this time Parlophone knew well that they were one of the most important Jazz labels, so they took care to bring back what they believed were the critical records. However, this was a long and slow process, as you can see if you look at the list of Bix & Tram Parlophone issues and reissues list on a nearby page. ‘Singing The Blues’ reappeared on R-1838. But the then-young Bixophile who needed it had to wait until R-2304 for its coupling ‘Clarinet Marmalade’ to surface again. Not all hitherto 'sacred couplings' were split up: happily ‘Ostrich Walk’ and ‘Riverboat Shuffle’, plus ‘I’m Coming Virginia’ and ‘Way Down Yonder In New Orleans’ remained united on R-2492 and R-2687 respectively.

 

     The quest for new Bix titles was on. However, they didn't reissue the ‘pop’ sides like ‘Blue River’ and ‘My Pet’, for example. Instead they may have sent to OKeh (or whatever part of the increasingly moribund Columbia company OKeh ‘resided’ in) for more sides featuring Bix. Or, just possibly, Parlophone already had them on hand, they having been sent over in the late 20s and very early 30s. At any rate, ‘Japanese Sandman’ appeared on R2176. This record is elusive, but not impossible to find. It was never issued as a master pressing in America, only Britain and Australia. The U.S. had to be content, in the absence of an imported Parlophone, with a Biltmore dubbing.

 

     In 1938 something strange and fairly terrible happened. Parlophone, having dredged deeply and assiduously into whatever resources were at their disposal, came up trumps. They got hold of three more Trumbauer sides featuring Bix: ‘The Love Nest’, ‘Raisin’ The Roof’ and ‘High Up On A Hill Top’. But then it all went disastrously wrong. Perhaps simply as the result of a clerical error, they were issued on the normal Parlophone label, NOT a Rhythm-Style Series (of which there was an increasing number of different ones by this time). Therefore, Jazz fans who naturally only scanned the Rhythm Style section of the catalogue supplements, plus the people who reviewed Jazz or Swing records, didn't know about them. And if you don't know about a record, you can't buy it. Which means that R-2645 shown here (with ‘On The Alamo’ by Milt Shaw on the back) and R-2644 (‘Raisin’ The Roof’ and ‘High Up On A Hill Top’) , though issued at a time when Jazz records were beginning to sell seriously well, are both exceedingly hard to find. As ‘Love Nest’ wasn't issued in the U.S. either as a master, the whole thing is quite a drag. And inevitably, because they didn't sell, they were deleted pretty quick. You can't see this on this scan, but it has 2/6 written on the label in ball-point pen. That means that at some time after ball-points came into common use here (the late 1940s) and before our currency was decimalised (1970), some lucky person bought my copy of ‘Love Nest’ for the equivalent of 12.5p (20 cents). It's a fine copy. I paid 240 times that amount in fact, and was still glad to get it!

 

     Although we're only just entering the 1940s, we have about finished our ramblings on Bix and Parlophone. One way and another, Parlophone had issued ALL the sides from OKeh with Bix on, save only ‘Love Affairs’. That came out on Odeon, so there's a chance of getting that from France. There was just one last bonus: somehow they got hold of the hitherto unissued ‘Margie’ by the Gang, which duly appeared, I think in 1940, on Parlophone R-2833. You can see that wartime ecomony has removed the extra gold lining from the top section of the label, but it's still a good-looking label for all that. As you can also see, it's number 27 in the ‘Jazz Classics Series’. OK, it's odd that a record that has never been issued before should be a Classic of Jazz already, but heck, I'm not prepared to argue about that, are you? This time nobody in the States was leaving anything to chance, so it appeared as a master on Special Editions, SE-5013-S.

 

     A long period of comparative stasis followed. No further Bix issues appeared on Parlophone as far as I can tell. The output in the 1940s was mainly of more modern material, and then, in the 1950s, of Revivalist Jazz, notably by Humphrey Lyttelton, Graeme Bell and many others. The blue and white label remained virtually the same, the only noteworthy change being a more ‘rational’ type face for the catalogue numbers. Microgroove records appeared. The back catalogue of 78s was deleted, slowly at first, then with devastating rapidity by the later 1950s. Some of the last issues on the Parlophone Rhythm Style label were made in 1957 by the Vipers Skiffle Group, and as far as I can remember, EMI ceased the manufacture of 78s for home consumption in 1958.

 

     The appreciation of Jazz in this country burgeoned, although white Jazz in general was increasingly marginalised (as had been happening since the mid-1930s actually). Fortunately, Bix's great talent had been long acknowledged by most writers and critics. Even some of ‘new wave’ of Jazz citics, rabid in their revolutionary fervour for black New Orleans-based Folk-jazz, grudgingly conceded that Bix had some talent, ‘...though of course wasted in the wrong musical enviroment...’ Phoooey! But of course we can't expect people who specialise in Folk Music to appreciate Art Music, can we? They're totally different, oil and water really. And Bix played music that was mostly pure Art. It speaks for itself today as eloquently as it did seventy years ago.

 

     And as for the Bix fans in Britain, without the Parlophones, our Bix legacy would have been greatly impoverished.

 

 

Revised 9th May 2002.

Revised 25th September 2006.