Tales from the Columbia Vaults:
The Unauthorized “Test Pressings”

By Allan Sutton


 

Modern blank-labeled vinyl pressings from very old masters often turn up on auction lists, where they are usually misrepresented as “test pressings.”*  The pressing quality is generally superb, and the material is often of great interest, including exceedingly rare or commercially unissued recordings. Collectors have long been curious about the source and legality of these pressings. Now, thanks to Mainspring's recent acquisition of correspondence between the late William Moran (co-author of The Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Records) and a Columbia factory insider, we know the story behind the unauthorized re-pressing activity that went on in Bridgeport during the 1960s.

The “inside job” detailed below was not unique to Columbia. Someone within the Decca organization, for example, made large numbers of unauthorized vinyl pressings from Gennett and Brunswick-Vocalion jazz rarities at around this time. The same occurred at RCA, which unlike Columbia still provided custom re-pressings legitimately, through its Custom Products department, for a rather stiff fee. But this is the first time that such detailed information on unauthorized, inside-job pressings has come to light.
 

RCA vinyl re-pressing from 1920s Victor master

A modern vinyl re-pressing from an unissued acoustic Victor master by Fritz Kreisler.
A surplus Yorkville label from the 1930s was flipped and applied.


 

In October 1960, a disgruntled Columbia employee (who we’ll call “X”) contacted Bill Moran to alert him that Columbia was house-cleaning its plant in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and was planning to scrap many of its masters. Among the items slated for destruction were Columbia's holdings of Fonotipia and other imported recordings, what X termed “E- series rubbish,” and the early sixteen-inch radio transcriptions.

X’s letters to Moran provide an insider’s look at exactly what remained in Bridgeport in 1960. He reported that the “ancient stuff” — including cylinders, cylinder-phonograph parts, and display-model machines — still existed but had recently been “removed to some other part of the plant.” The earliest recording files had not survived, and there had been no effort to photocopy or microfilm what remained. The files had recently been placed off-limits to outsiders and employees other than Helene Chmura, the company librarian. X disclosed that the master-scrapping was already under way: The metal parts were being hauled out in bucket loaders, ground up, and sold to a recycler by the ton.

X’s formal recommendation that some of this material be preserved was ignored by management, so in late October 1960 he sent a list of endangered masters to Moran, with the suggestion that Moran ask Stanford University to intervene. In the meantime, X let it be known that he could supply Moran with custom, unauthorized pressings of virtually anything in the vaults, adding that he was already doing so for some Columbia employees. The process is documented in an exchange of letters between X and Moran that began on October 31, 1960. On November 11 he wrote to Moran,

I have been securing test pressings without authority for the past two months. I had to “thread my way” until I could enlist help. Luckily he [the test pressman] is cooperative… I have been limiting my operation to twice a week and taking out parcels only every other week. One week I took out 16 [parcels], last week 19… I have managed to get a few humans in the plant (there are a few) to break regulations for me… I will attempt, over a period of time, to secure for you the materials you desire. These, if I get them, will be gratis.

The process was a tedious one involving the cooperation of employees in several departments. The stampers first had to be located and removed from the vault. They would not fit Columbia's modern press, so the backings had be be removed and replaced by a machinist, and new holes bored to fit the press. From there, the reworked stampers moved to a different location to be polished before finally being taken to the pressing department, from which the finished pressings were finally smuggled out.

The Columbia pressings that X initially supplied Moran were of unpublished or extremely rare early operatic recordings. However, Moran's want-list soon expanded to include political speeches from the Nation’s Forum series, rare personal recordings by the likes of Irving Berlin and Booker T. Washington, and even one of the 1908 vertical-cut tests (an idea that Columbia ended up not pursuing).

At the same time, X upped the frequency and pressing quantities of his clandestine runs. Many of the extra copies were handed out to Columbia employees who were in on the activity, including Helen Chmura, the archive’s highly esteemed librarian. X wrote Moran that Chmura know of his activities and had warned him to be careful, but reportedly was happy to accept a group of custom Lotte Lehmann pressings. In November, X told Moran he was looking into ways of supplying him copies of the restricted files that were in Chmura’s charge.

On November 16, X wrote to Moran, “Last Friday I took out 18 tests, including duplicates, in an open parcel… On Monday Bill [the chief of security] suggested that I not take out so many so often.” He went on to boast,

I have the run of the plant and have taken full advantage of it — women in duplicating will make photostats, Helene will make photocopies; the polisher will prepare masters for pressings… the Chief of Security Police allows me to make off with the records; the librarian’s files are at my disposal.

X promised Moran even larger shipments of the unauthorized pressings in a letter dated November 23:

I’ll send you a ton of pressings if I can discover how this can be arranged… One of the chaps in the Methods & Procedures Office this afternoon told me that he can smuggle pressings out for me if I cannot continue my present methods. These boys have briefcases which never are examined by the bulldogs. I have been furnishing two of these M&P men with records made to order.

A day later, X wrote to Moran to update him on his secret copying of the restricted recording files, reporting that he was “lifing it right out from under [Helene Chmura’s] nose.” And that’s the final letter of any consequence in our X-file.

Moran repeatedly assured X that he was not involved in a commercial venture and would not sell or reissue the records; they were solely for his own use and would eventually be donated to Stanford. That was not the case with others who received the pressings (from Columbia as well as the Decca and RCA insiders). Over the years a surprisingly large number of these unauthorized pressings have surfaced on dealers’ lists, where they are almost invariably misrepresented as "test pressings." But true tests or not, many of these vinyl re-pressings — particularly those of commercially unissued masters — are highly desirable to serious collectors.

Whether anyone was a villain in this case depends on your point of view. Our personal take is that those involved performed a valuable (albeit illegal) service in preserving some important historic material that had been written off as trash by its corporate owners.

_________

* True test pressings are just that — Pressings made in very small quantities (often just a copy or two), usually within a few days or weeks of recording, that were intended for the companies’ and artists’ use in evaluating a recording’s suitability for release. The modern re-pressings discussed here were never intended or used as tests. They were produced illicitly and in some quantity, decades after the recordings were made, specifically for collectors.
  

  
© 2012 by Allan R. Sutton. All rights are reserved.



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