Flo Bert with Paramount phonograph, c. 1920
Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Clinching the Case for Flo Bert

New Conclusive Evidence in a Case of Discographic
Mistaken Identity

By Allan Sutton

(The article that follows this recently located news report was first posted in 2008, after the discovery of photos of Flo Bert that refuted Brian Rust's and Allen Debus' claim in The Complete Entertainment Discography that Bert was a pseudonym for black operatic diva Florence Cole-Talbert. This final bit of evidence, from The Music Trade Review, should banish any lingering doubts that Flo Bert was very much a real performer, and not a pseudonym for Cole-Talbert.)

"One of the features of big-time vaudeville at the present time is Flo Bert, well-known vaudeville star and Gennett record artist, who, as a member of the new vaudeville act of Brendel and Bert, wins great applause by singing with one of her own Gennett records played on the Starr phonograph. In order to be sure of having a Starr phonograph on the stage in every city where she appeared, so that she might use it in her act, Miss Bert purchased a Style X phonograph through the Starr Piano Co. branch in Pittsburgh, Pa., and in writing to the district manager, H. C. Niles, regarding the purchase she said:

"'In giving you my order for a Style X Starr phonograph for use in my present vaudeville act, may I at the same time express to you my appreciation of the truly wonderful tone quality this phonograph gives forth? That I believe this tone quality is necessary for the exact requirements of my use is well shown by the fact that I have gone to the expense of purchasing this machine and will be compelled to ship this rather than run the risk of not finding a Starr available in every city where we will appear. 'Harmonizing' with myself is quite easy when I have my Gennett record and the Starr phonograph to play it.'"

(From "Gennett Artist in Vaudeville — Flo Bert's Singing With One of Her Own Gennett Records on a Starr Phonograph Proves a Big Feature of Popular Act." Music Trade Review, February 25, 1922; p. 54. The above text is in the public domain and may be freely reproduced and distributed.)

Flo Bert: A Case of Discographic
Mistaken Identity

By Allan Sutton

Originally posted September 4, 2008
© 2008 by Allan Sutton

Among the performers added to the second edition of Brian Rust's and Allan Debus's Complete [sic] Entertainment Discography (Da Capo, 1989) was comedienne Flo Bert. Her one-line biography included the curious notation, "r.n. [real name] Florence Talbert." Appended to the end of Rust & Debus' highly incomplete list of Bert recordings were several operatic arias by Florence Cole-Talbert on the Black Swan label, with the note, "The following ... may be by the same artist using her real name to disguise her association with vaudeville."

Thus, two eminent and utterly unrelated artists — Flo Bert, a white vaudeville headliner and contralto; and Florence Cole Talbert, a black operatic soprano — were erroneously labeled as one.

The error persists to this day in hobbyist's websites and online postings, despite having been at first questioned, and then debunked, in every edition of Pseudonyms on American Records since 1993. In addition, the identification of Bert as Cole-Talbert has been questioned, if not decisively rejected, in such carefully researched and highly respected works as Dixon, Godrich & Rye's Blues and Gospel Records (Oxford, 1997) and Tim Brook's Lost Sounds (University of Illinois, 2005).

Florence Cole-Talbert was a pioneer black concert and operatic soprano. Born in Detroit, she graduated from the Chicago Music College in 1916, made her professional debut at Aeolian Hall (New York) in 1918, and was married to Wendell P. Talbert, a pianist and conductor. Cole-Talbert went to Europe in 1924, where she was acclaimed for her performance in the role of Aïda, then returned to the United States in 1927. Her first recordings were made for Broome in or around 1919. Several of her 1921 Black Swan recordings were later reissued on Paramount, and one was even reissued on the cut-rate National Music Lovers label under the pseudonym of "Maria Pecelli" — the only verifiable instance of a Cole-Talbert recording having been issued under a false name. All of Cole-Talbert's recording were of concert fare or operatic arias.

Flo Bert (1898–1981) was a popular white vaudeville headliner, touring both as a solo act and in partnership with her husband, the Swedish-dialect comedian El Brendel. The team began playing the lesser New York–area vaudeville houses around 1918. By the mid-1920s, they were a featured act at the Hippodrome (New York) and other major houses. They also appeared in the New York productions of Cinderella on Broadway (Winter Garden, 1920) and The Mimic World of 1921 (Century Promenade). Together, they made one Vitaphone short in 1929. She resurfaced in the 1950s with small character roles in such films as "Laffing Time" and "The She-Creature."

Flo Bert with Puritan phonograph, c. 1920
Bain Collection, Library of Congress

Bert's first known recording was issued by Gennett in January 1920. This was followed by a short recording hiatus, but by September of that year Bert was back in the advance record lists with new titles for Gennett and Paramount. For the next two years she recorded for both companies, and her records were widely reissued on those company's many subsidiary and client labels, including Broadway, Claxtonola, Famous, Puritan, and Regal.

Perhaps the most convincing evidence that it is Bert herself on those records, and not Cole-Talbert, is a series of promotional photographs of Bert posing with various Paramount and Puritan phonographs. Taken by the Bain News Service, the negatives are undated, but the phonograph models that are depicted all date to the 1919–20 period.

At this point, there is no convincing evidence to suggest that Flo Bert's recordings were made by anyone other than Bert herself. The fact that such an error found its way into print in the first place offers a cautionary tale on the dangers of relying solely upon speculation and one's ears — particularly in the case of acoustic recordings by such low-fidelity operations as Paramount and Black Swan — in identifying performers on early recordings.

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