A Conversation with
John Bolig

By Barry Ashpole
Editor, ARSC Journal

Reprinted with permission from the Spring 2003 ARSC Journal

Arguably, Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) is the most celebrated singer in history. Artistically, the Italian tenor's career represented a watershed in the evolution of vocal art and his voice remains a beacon against which singers of past and present are most often compared. On a personal level, Caruso was a man of the people. He exhibited few if any of the airs and graces associated with many of his contemporaries and which, by comparison, are faintly mimicked by the divos and divas of more recent times.

Caruso's dynamic career and his truly remarkable influence on opera and song are well documented in the printed word. And, something of his colorful personality has been captured in countless photographs, newsreels and two silent films. More importantly, his great legacy survives in his many studio recordings, the earliest of which have remained available in one form or another for a staggering one hundred years! In this age of "manufactured" obsolescence and passing fancies his is an accomplishment that cannot and will not be matched nor repeated.

Caruso's recordings have been exhaustively researched and studied, more so than any other singer in the history of recorded sound: Caiden [1946]; Drummond [1946]; Brunn [1949]; Secrist [1951]; Freestone & Drummond [I960]; Favia-Artsay [1965]; Bolig [1973, 2002]; Sokol [1977]; Moran [1990].

John Bolig's
Caruso Records: A History and Discography [Denver, CO: Mainspring Press, 2002] is the latest "chapter" in what might be reasonably described as "a work in progress". Given the academic interest in the years since the singer's death in 1921, coupled with this particular author's own tenacity - this will be his second published discography on Caruso in 30 years - it would seem prudent to opinion that this most recent endeavor may not necessarily be the last word on the subject. Unquestionably, it is by far the most comprehensive work to date, building as it does on the author's 50 years-plus of inquiry and research and the Herculean efforts of those that have published before him.

Not coincidentally, the history of researching and documenting the recorded legacy of Enrico Caruso parallels the evolution of discography. Following is an interview with John Bolig conducted by editor of the
ARSC Journal Barry R. Ashpole. The author's new work and discography in general are discussed.

• Where and when did your search for Enrico Caruso's recordings begin?

The reissues in RCA Victor's red vinyl Heritage Series were my first exposure to the voice of Caruso and I realized immediately that I was listening to something very important and very good. This would have been in the late 1940s and I soon discovered that copies of the tenor's recordings on the original shellac 78-rpm discs were still readily available.

At the time, I was living in New Haven, CT, and came to realize that the current RCA Victor catalogs did not necessarily list all of the recordings by the tenor. I began writing letters to the company in search of information on titles and quickly discovered that even RCA Victor did not have a comprehensive list of Caruso's recorded output.

The first discography I came across was compiled by Jack Caiden and published in 1946 as an appendix to Dorothy Caruso's book Enrico Caruso, His Life and Death. It listed 234 recordings. [Editor's note: H.J. Drummond compiled the discography included in the U.K. edition.]

In the early 1950s, RCA began releasing many of Caruso's recordings on 45 and 33 1/3-rpm long playing records. I bought them all, but they did not sound right. They had been altered or enhanced in some way and what I heard bothered me. I vastly preferred the original 78s and was determined to acquire every record listed by Caiden. I was able to add pressings by HMV and Opera Disc to my collection, none of which were listed in Caiden's discography.

In 1957, John Secrist compiled what was (at the time) the definitive Caruso discography and it was published as part of Francis Robinson's Caruso, His Life in Pictures. Secrist listed 266 titles; each identified unreleased takes. It was evident that Caruso had made about 490 recordings in all and I was intrigued about the records that had not been published. I again wrote to RCA Victor and, after several years of correspondence, I was invited to meet with John Pfieffer, who at the time was responsible for the reissue of Caruso's recordings. He gave me access to the company's logbooks, and from that day on I was granted carte blanche to access the documents and RCA didn't have to answer my letters anymore.

• From a collector's perspective, what are you looking for in a discography?

A discography should meet minimum standards. It should be complete, each recording treated as a separate entity. The title listed should be cross-referenced to show alternate catalog numbers. Anything else listed in the primary logbooks should be included. I probably wrote twenty different drafts of my first Caruso discography, each one intended to make my life as a collector easier.

I received a great deal of encouragement from Larry Witten, the benefactor who helped create the Historical Sound Recordings section of the Yale University Music Library. He reviewed some of the early drafts of my first Caruso discography and when he donated his collection to Yale he invited me to assist the library staff in shelving the collection.

I was amazed to find that Yale had no inventory of its phonograph records. At the time there were no such things. We simply opened boxes and crates and put records on shelves, and we taught ourselves how to establish a major collection. I learned more in two years as a volunteer than one can possibly imagine. Mr. Witten rewarded my efforts by giving me copies of Caruso records I needed for my own collection.

• What prompted publication of your first Caruso discography?

In 1970, I moved to Dover, DE, and discovered a museum only blocks away from where I lived that was dedicated to the career of Eldridge Reeves Johnson (industry pioneer and founding president of The Victor Talking Machine Company). I became acquainted with the curator, Mary Molek, and she implored me to publish a book about Caruso's records. The Recordings of Enrico Caruso was published in 1973 (the centennial of the tenor's birth).

This first discography was a chronological listing of 496 records, cross-referenced, listing playing speeds, recording dates and considerably more information than had been published before. It was the first discography of its type and, despite some minor flaws, it remains a useful reference tool.

• The Recordings of Enrico Caruso included many features adopted by later researchers and, as such, is something of a benchmark in this field of research. But how did this discography differ from earlier efforts to document the tenor's recorded legacy?

Freestone and Drummond's Enrico Caruso: His Recorded Legacy (1960) and Favia-Artsay's Caruso on Records (1965) list and discuss Caruso's published recordings. Each has been long out of print and neither of them is complete. More Caruso recordings have been discovered and released since these books were first published.

I do not have the musical knowledge that those people had and it is interesting to read their accounts of what they hear on each record. They frequently disagree and each had strong opinions about various recordings. Importantly, the authors had heard Caruso in performance, so they had some idea of what was missing from the acoustical recordings.

Favia-Artsay, in particular, made an amazing contribution, listing the correct playing speed for each recording. Using sheet music and opera scores, she pitched each record and determined the rpm required to play back the record accurately. She single-handedly forced collectors to buy variable speed record players. [Editor's note: Caruso on Records included a pair of disc stroboscopes to help set phonograph turntables at the proper speeds: 60 cps and 50cps for use, respectively, in the USA and abroad.]

When new Caruso recordings were discovered I begged her to revise her book, but she refused because she felt that the tenor had never approved of the unpublished copies. Aida could pitch LP records, but she refused to do so.

• What of Caruso's place in the history of vocal art and of his attraction as a person and as an artist?

This must be decided by others. Anybody who has heard a Caruso record seems to have an instant realization that there was something very special about his singing. He doesn't sound like a tenor, but he surely is. The range of material that he recorded is rarely attempted by lesser tenors. He used several different voices when he recorded, and this can best be heard when listening to his duets and ensemble numbers.

Caruso could roar like a lion or purr like a kitten. The recording technique used during his lifetime was of decidedly low fidelity. And, regrettably, we have no idea how he really sounded in a live performance.

There was a magic moment in the history of recorded sound and it is sometimes exaggerated or its significance may be lost on today's listeners. In 1902 there were two competing record formats - cylinders and discs - and the public had not decided which it preferred. The record catalogs in 1902 contained very few records, and even fewer by celebrities. There was very little public demand for record players, but the industry was on the verge of being able to reliably reproduce sound and of mass-producing records.

When Caruso's first ten records were offered for sale in the summer of 1902, they created a sensation and a demand for record players. The public decided against cylinder records in favor of the disc format. The Caruso records were so good that they actually sounded like music when played.

Caruso became a celebrity and he was very much in demand for public performance. Other artists, many of whom had refused to record, changed their minds and signed contracts with recording companies. And, as a consequence, became more famous, but none as famous or as popular as Caruso.

The tenor's voice recorded well. He had a gift and the recording horn was very kind to him.

• There are several biographies and, as noted, almost an equal number of discographies on Caruso. So, why write another book about the tenor and his recordings?

The answer is quite simple. Allan Sutton, the publisher at Mainspring Press, had a rudimentary Caruso discography on his web site and it received more "hits" than anything else he had listed at the time. He contacted me and since I had continued my research there was more information to add to the 1973 discography, hence the new book.

(In Caruso Records: A History and Discography, the author includes more topics related to the tenor's recordings and, as a consequence, it consists of considerably more text than the earlier published edition. The basic discography is similar to the 1973 version, but includes listings of additional 78s not known at that time. The author also takes the opportunity to correct errors in spelling and to add dates previously overlooked.

Bolig also comments on records that were not recorded at score pitch, something that Favia-Artsay may not have suspected, points out the author. His personal bias against 45 and 33-1/3-rpm long-playing records is reflected by their absence, for which Bolig makes no apology. He comments: "In my view, there isn't one record in those formats worth owning. I am, however, very comfortable with the restorations that were released on CD by Ward Marston. He's done this work twice: the Pearl set released in the early 1990s is outstanding, and the set he is currently working on for Naxos is even better."

The new discography is extensively cross-referenced in several indexes: titles, catalog numbers, double-sided couplings, listing of artists who appeared on the recording, etc. There are several other tables that contain breakdowns by year and by type of material recorded, and there is an extensive listing of release dates and catalogs listings for the Victor records. Bolig also notes examples of records that had errors on the original labels,
e.g., the Madama Butterfly duet with Geraldine Farrar is always listed as "O quanti occhi fisi," but she never sang the phrase on the recording.

The listing of catalog numbers in Victor catalogs is noteworthy because it indicates that some of Caruso records were deleted after a comparatively short life, accounting in part for the scarcity today of some titles.

Bolig discusses the re-recordings or "re-creations" of some of Caruso's recordings with a full orchestra. Selected listings of sheet music are included in the book, together with comments on Caruso's film appearances and a short discussion about the recordings of the tenor's children, daughter, Gloria, and son, Enrico Jr.)

• You made one significant and unexpected discovery while working on The Gramophone & Typewriter Company (G&T) records.

A collector called to tell me that he had a copy of 52378 that appeared different from mine and he wondered if there were two takes released of the record in question, "Germania: Studenti, udite." We met and compared our respective copies. My copy had "Repro" impressed into the record surface; his did not.
The recordings were one in the same except for that difference. His was a first edition, mine a stamper II second edition pressing. I contacted a number of collectors and dealers inquiring about markings on G&Ts. Some had quite a few copies in their collections or inventories and a pattern emerged as I wrote down what they told me. Quite a few of the G&Ts had the letters "CO." impressed to the right of the label, but none of them had the symbol on first stamper pressings. I contacted Peter Martland in England, an expert on the business of the G&T company, and he mentioned that he recalled a note - "somewhere" - that G&T had placed the symbol on records that were made from copied stampers. But, it was not possible to copy stampers in 1902! The original wax disc was processed into a stamper and the wax was destroyed when that was done. When the one and only stamper was damaged or worn out the artist was usually asked to return to the studio to make a new version.

The first ten Caruso records (recorded in Milan in April 1902) were selling so well that G&T figured out a solution to their problem: it appears they pressed the now-worn stampers into wax and made a fresh impression of each of them. From the new impressions, the company made a new stamper. And, as a consequence, the recordings marked as stamper II (or higher) do not sound nearly as good as first edition pressings.

There is no other explanation that explains how G&T continued to press Caruso records. Those marked "CO." confirm that something of that nature had been done because, in all other respects, the latter are identical to the first edition pressings. In other words, the records were not transcribed, they were not pantographed, nor was a new stamper made by electroplating a shellac record.

The five-step process developed by Victor was introduced in Europe in December 1902 and with that process it was possible to make virtually an infinite number of duplicate stampers. However, it arrived too late to preserve the first Caruso G&T records in pristine condition.

• Do any questions remain unanswered?

There are a few. I have not speculated about what private recordings Caruso may have made or commented on the hoards of Victor test pressings that have been rumored from time to time. There are, however, two unusual references found in the EMI archives that indicate that Caruso may have made records in London in 1908.

And, several years ago, I discovered a letter in John Secrist's papers at the Library of Congress in which Frances Alda mentions that she had two copies of the Carmen duet with Caruso. One of the two records was in Secrist's collection when he died, but what of the other copy? I mentioned my suspicion to a collector who knew Alda's heirs and he followed the lead for several years until they sold him the soprano's record collection. The second duet was there and it will be released by Naxos as part of the new Marston edition.

There have been many rumors that the Farrar/Caruso duets from Tosca exist. Not true, to the best of my knowledge. I own half of her record collection and another collector bought the other half. There were dozens of test pressings in her collection, but none of them were duets with Caruso.

• Any further gaps in information?

A number of Caruso's G&Ts and Victor recordings were pressed in Russia during the communist era. I have never seen a complete list and I have only a handful of the Russian pressings. I have no idea how many they may have published, or where they got the stampers.

• Is it reasonable to expect that collectors will ever see a complete Caruso discography?

Since publication of Caruso Records, I have learned that B.G. Royal, not Will Gaisberg, recorded four of the November 1902 recordings. The recordings with "-R" embossed next to the matrix number were his. This is just one example of new information coming to light "after the fact".

I have also heard from a number of collectors who have Zonofono records that were pressed by G&T with copied stampers! The whole issue of copied stampers fascinates me. We know that G&T had the Zonofono stampers and that they used them for several years, but it never crossed my mind that the company would make copies of the stampers. The Zonofonos are marked with the symbol "CO" at the 9 o'clock position next to the label. Furthermore, several other G&T records, by Caruso and other artists, have been reported with this mark.

And, a record I bought recently is a 1903 pressing by the Victor Talking Machine Company that is labeled as Gioconda: Cielo e mar. The catalogue number on the label is 81008, and that number is also embossed above the label. Also embossed above the label is catalogue number 5008, and the matrix number 2873-R is inscribed below the label.

The number 5008 was originally assigned to Aida: Celeste Aida when Victor imported G&T stampers early in 1903. When the company renumbered the 5000 series later that year it continued to show the earlier number above the label. Celeste Ai'da was assigned 91007, and Cielo e mar was assigned 91008. This record, which has an incorrect label and the incorrect catalog number embossed above the label, is Celeste Aida! On later pressings of Celeste Aida the embossed catalog number 91007 has been repaired, and the first catalog number - 5008 - has been deleted from the record surface.

One can only wonder how many copies of this record with two major errors were ever sold. If Victor files are accurate, only 996 copies of 91008, Cielo e mar, were stamped, but at least one copy was actually another recording.

• In considering discography in general, what are some of the obstacles or barriers still facing researchers today?

Not many, if one is willing to travel and to work in musty old libraries. Victor's archives are not as well preserved as those of EMI, but both companies are taking discography seriously today. That was not true thirty years ago. And, there are some collectors who are so generous that one cannot begin to thank them. There are a few who disappoint me, but they remain the exception.

One of the finer hours for Caruso collectors was the research of Martin Sokol that established the recording sequences for the AICC and Zonofono records. [Editor's note: See "The 'Pre-Victor' Recordings of Enrico Caruso," Antique Phonograph Monthly 1977;5(4):3-12.] Martin's work rendered my 1973 discography somewhat obsolete because I had relied on earlier authorities that were wrong.
Another excellent contribution was that of Peter Martland. He totally revised, and debunked, the importance of Fred Gaisberg in Caruso's career. [Editor's note: See "Caruso's First Recordings: Myth and Reality" ARSC Journal 1994;26(2):193-201.] Martland wrote about, and provided proof, of every aspect of the Caruso G&T sessions in April and November of 1902, and he also forwarded copies of the tenor's Victor contracts to me.

The Internet has sped up the exchange of information and the resolution of differences between collectors and discographers. Work that would take months now takes hours. For example, I'm currently working on another project to compile listings of Victor records between 1900 and 1929, and I received documentation from several collectors in South America that would have been impossible 25 years ago.

• Any general comments about the quality of discographical work today?

I'm not always pleased with the effort expended by some discographers. In fact, I am embarrassed by some of the hyperbole expressed by some of them. I greatly admire Caruso, but I refuse to believe that he was perfect or that I have the right to call him by his first name.

There are some excellent Victor artists who have never been studied properly. Emilio De Gogorza, Marcel Journet, Geraldine Farrar, Louise Homer and Alma Gluck come to mind. They sold a great many records and they had thousands of devoted fans. In my view, the work that has been done on their behalf has been scarce and disappointing. I recently saw a Gluck discography that was a nice but long overdue contribution to the literature.

Finding good restorations of the above artists' recordings is often nearly impossible. If they had been obscure artists of secondary importance I would understand why so little work has been done with those singers, but they were top-of-the-line Victor artists.

There are some discographers whose work intrigues me. I have never met Brian Rust, Alan Kelly or Bill Moran, but I find their work invaluable. Rust's attention to detail is outstanding, but I wish he had indexed things more. Kelly's research is remarkable because he has to piece together information from so many different sources. My greatest regret is that the work of Fagan and Moran has not been completed. Another fine example of discography is Dick Spottswood's opus on ethnic records.

Of the single artist discographies, the McCormack book by Worth and Cartwright is outstanding. There are so many good discographies that I hate to single out one or two. Once in a while I'm totally disappointed. For example, the recent Billy Murray discography was a worthwhile undertaking that simply does not meet the test of good discography. And, there is a listing on 78s by several record companies on the Internet that is very one-dimensional; merely a "good start" in my estimation.

Caruso was probably one of the first artists whose recorded work demanded a discographical effort. And, there are some replications that aren't very good. I participated in one of them when I wrote a severely truncated discography that was included in Michael Scott's The Great Caruso. Bill Moran published one in which the European records were listed chronologically, but the Victor records are listed alphabetically. Sometimes these things are done because of limitations placed on us by publishers, for example, to fit the last few pages of a biography, but they aren't particularly useful and they deserve bad reviews.

I admire The Record Collector and my only criticism of this publication is that some of their featured artists were not at all important, and that the authors sometimes get carried away in their estimations of their hero's true value. There has to be a measure of objectivity for these things to be done properly.

• Last words?

I surmise that my optimism concerning the evolution of discography can be detected from the above comments, but it seems that for every two steps forward we take one backward. There are excellent models of good discographies and researchers should attempt to emulate the best rather than rush into print.

There will be criticism of some aspects of my current book and I'm not going to be thrilled by that, but I worked hard to produce a discography that would be useful to collectors of Caruso's records in their original format. I also tried to provide information of interest to people who are curious about his development as an artist and to those interested in some aspects of the record industry. People who collected LPs will be disappointed. They can throw them all away and buy the Naxos CDs produced by Ward Marston. I did.


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