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Sean Wilentz’s 360 Sound

The Columbia Records Story

by CHARLES R. LARSON

Sean Wilentz’s dazzling history of Columbia Records’ 125 years of music-producing is a nostalgic trip through much of our common history, for what American during all those years cannot be familiar with the artists the company released even if an actual awareness of the label is missing? Nostalgia is never a bad place to begin, so let me reminisce for a moment and mention my first actual consciousness of Columbia Records.  Fortunately, Wilentz’s book permits me to pinpoint the year.

It was 1948, when my older brother brought home the first long-playing record (a 33 and 1/3rd as we called them) our family had ever owned: the original cast of South Pacific.  Acquiring the album meant that my brother also had to purchase something he could use to play the record, which he did.  Prior to that, we had always had 78s in the house, but the new phonograph (also made by Columbia Records) could play 78s, 45s, and 33s as we usually referred to them dropping the 1/3rd.  My brother played South Pacific so often during the first few weeks that it wasn’t very long before we all knew the lyrics by heart.

Checking the facts about the long-playing recording of South Pacific in Wilentz’s book reveals the following:

“The introduction by Columbia Records of the 12-inch 33 1/3-rpm phonograph record—the album—benefited every kind of recorded music.  Classical music derived particular benefit because many works were quite long.  The biggest immediate beneficiary, though, was the Broadway original cast album….  The show, at that time the longest-running in history, was released on 78s and EPs as well as LP, but it was the album that proved to be the longest life.”

Those words were written by Dave Marsh in a brief passage in 360 Sound titled “The LP Era Begins.”  Marsh provides greater context in the paragraph that follows: “Cast album sales went on for years rather than the weeks or months pop music usually endured.  Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady cast album spend 480 weeks on the chart (it was number one for fifteen), The Sound of Music spent 267, Camelot spent 265, West Side Story spent 191, Flower Drum Song spent 151, Gypsy spent 116.  And movie soundtracks could sometimes spend the same; the My Fair Lady soundtrack charted for 111 weeks and West Side Story’s for 198.  But the cast albums and soundtracks represented more than a revolution in how music was packaged and sold—they also steered musicians, the industry, and most important, the audience toward new ways of listening.”  And that’s just a passage about original cast and soundtrack albums.

But most of Wilentz’s book is about the various eras of recorded music, beginning with the early gramophones—first cylinders and then disks—and Thomas Edison’s “age inventions,” recordings of the spoken word which interested him more than music.  In 1887, investors formed the American Gramophone Company, “the beginning of what would eventually become Columbia Records.” Thus, Columbia can be regarded as “the oldest label in the history of the recording industry.” In 1908, “double disks” appeared, that is, 78s with recording on both sides.  To its credit, the recording industry was not ethnocentric.  Some of the most popular early artists included Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, W. C. Handy, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington—artists of the Jazz Age and the Depression.

Soon, there would be other major artists, again reflecting both ethnic diversity and regional aspects of American music: Gene Autry, Guy Lombardo, Roy Acuff, Billie Holiday, Count Bassie, and Benny Goodman.  Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra would enter the scene shortly.  360 Sound is filled with fabulous photographs of all of these artists, and many more—some of the early crooners as handsome as hell.  In the 1940s, William Paley (who had taken over the Columbia Broadcasting System in 1928) created what we regard today as Columbia Records.  There was always competition with other recording companies, especially RCA, but Columbia had contracts with some of the most popular artists.  (At a later date, they won’t have Elvis or the Beatles, but they’ll still have the major artists.)

Wilentz sites the golden years of the recording industry (and Columbia) as Mid-Century.  It was Goddard Liberson’s vision that led to the success of the Broadway musicals already noted.  Then, an increasing array of popular Columbia artists: Johnny Mathis, Dave Brubeck, Mitch Miller, Liberace, Bib Dillon and Barbra Streisand—followed shortly by Simon & Garfunkle, Janis Joplin, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and James Taylor.  These are only the popular artists, but Columbia had on-going relationships with some of the major American symphony orchestras.  I will mention here only Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.

The company was purchased from CBS by Sony Records twenty-five years ago.  There are plenty of new artists (Maria Carey and Beyoncé, for example), part of what some people call the “new” Columbia.  Anyone familiar with the packaging of music, especially during the past twenty years, knows that these are hard days for long-playing albums (now on CDs).  But the artists are still there—many of them, though well on in years, have never been more popular than they are today.

360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story is an elegant book.  If you don’t read a word of the text, you will still be richly rewarded by the hundreds of photos of Columbia artists, of record labels and record sleeves.  But the text itself is an equally inspiring narrative.  Wilentz sees the company as “a force for cultural change as well as a source of entertainment….  Columbia helped open up vital cultural channels that once were blocked, breaking down the walls of cultural ignorance and prejudice.”  The technical achievements of the company are no less than the economic and cultural ones.  “It is impossible to think of America—or, for that matter, to think of modern life—without the music of Al Jolson, Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, and dozens of other giants.”

In this holiday season, I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t be thrilled receiving a copy of The Columbia Records Story.

Sean Wilentz: 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story

Chronicle Books, 336 pp., $49.00

Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.  Email: clarson@american.edu.