Band to Black Swan, and Beyond
John Fletcher isn't a name normally
bandied about in discussions of recording industry pioneers.
Compared to Edison or Berliner, his contributions were negligible,
and his involvement with Black Swan almost certainly contributed
to that label's demise. Yet, he was typical of many entrepreneurs
who challenged the major players during the record industry's
early boom years and, in doing so, produced some interesting
Fletcher began his career as
a professional musician and first recorded as a member of the
Edison studio orchestra in the late 1890s. In a July 1918 interview
with the Talking Machine World, Fletcher recalled, "My
first phonographic experience was as a player in the old Edison
cylinder laboratory in Orange, N.J., when you had to get up at
5 o'clock in the morning, be on the job, in your chair, and ready
to play at 8 o'clock."
Fletcher moved on to Sousa's Band as a cornetist around 1900
and is almost certainly the "__Fletcher" cited in the
collective band personnel in early editions of Brian Rust's Jazz
Records. (Rust inexplicably dropped Fletcher's name from editions 4 and 5, but it has now been restored to its rightful place in Mainspring's newly revised edition, Jazz and Ragtime Records).
Fletcher recorded with the Sousa group for Victor and later recalled,
"the band was engaged for three weeks to make records for
the Victor Company. At the time, the company's laboratory consisted
of a small room on the third floor in a building in the neighborhood
of Tenth and Lombard streets, Philadelphia, and it was in this
small room that I got my first insight into the mysteries of
Fletcher toured Europe with Sousa's Band, then joined the New
York Symphony Orchestra upon his return to the States, but his growing interest
in sound recording soon eclipsed his musical aspirations. "During
this time," he told TMW, "I realized how imperfect
were the methods then in vogue to record symphonic music with
a few instruments, and I finally resolved to devote my future
career to recording the various instruments comprising the grand
orchestra, in sufficient numbers to produce the musical sensation
caused by the combined tonality of such a large number of instruments."
Fletcher eventually left the symphony and began to experiment
with recording processes, finally devising a fine-groove vertical
cut playable with an ordinary steel needle. Fletcher's patent
application claimed his invention produced a record that "has
been found to be extremely durable in use," a claim not
supported by many of the surviving specimens. By the time patent
#1,269,696 was finally was granted on the process in mid-1918,
Fletcher had abandoned it.
The Birth of Operaphone
In 1914, Fletcher, in
partnership with George Thomas, founded the Operaphone
Manufacturing Corporation of New York. A trademark application,
filed belatedly by Fletcher on September 13, 1919, claimed use
of the Operaphone name on records beginning March 1, 1915. The
new corporation opened an office at 200 Fifth Avenue, New York,
a studio at an unknown New York location, and a pressing plant
at Creek and Meadow Streets in Long Island City, New York. Despite
its name and Fletcher's lofty ambitions, the Operaphone label
featured primarily popular and light classical fare by the usual
New York-area studio free-lance performers.
Operaphone initially produced seven-inch fine-groove vertically
discs bearing paint-filled pressed labels and retailing for 25¢
each. By Fletcher's own account, this was a short-lived series,
and the company quickly abandoned it in favor of eight-inch pressings
selling for 35¢, again with pressed labels. Fletcher used
the same groove pitch as Edison, but if he was hoping to promote
his discs for use on the Edison Diamond Disc machines, he was
quickly disappointed. The heavy Edison reproducer ground Fletcher's
soft shellac pressings into gray oblivion in short order.
Fletcher erred further by coupling dissimilar material on his
earliest releases - backing a current vaudeville hit with a concert
band selection, for example - the same mistake Columbia had come
to regret several years earlier. By September 1916 Fletcher acknowledged
his error and announced that Operaphone would seek more compatible
couplings on future releases.
In August 1916, the company announced with some fanfare that
it was replacing its homely pressed labels with paper labels
and noted that production at the Operaphone pressing plant had
tripled in eight months. Fletcher also entered the client-label
market, pressing 8" Operaphone discs under an array of custom
labels that included All Star, Elginola, and the earliest Crescent
and Domestic series. He soon arranged Canadian distribution for
Operaphone through the Canadian Phonograph Company of Toronto.
In the end, however, the eight-inch Operaphone disc failed to
win favor with the public. Despite Fletcher's claims of technical
superiority, the discs were weakly recorded, and the fine groove
was prone to mistracking and premature wear. In his 1918 TMW
interview, Fletcher stated that he produced 200 eight-inch releases
before abandoning the effort, which "incurred tremendous
expenses with returns that were hardly commensurate."
In April 1918, Fletcher
reorganized his company as the Operaphone Company, Inc., closed
the studio, and moved his offices to the Depew Building (489
Fifth Avenue, New York). The first Operaphone discs issued under
the new company's auspices were a obvious departure from the
earlier series: standard ten-inch steel-needle vertical-cut discs
using a normal-width groove. Less obvious was the fact that Fletcher
had gotten out of the recording business, at least temporarily.
advertisement for the steel-needle series
With his studio closed, Fletcher
turned for his material to Pathé, which at that time recorded
its masters on oversized cylinders. The cylinders could then
be dubbed in various disc formats by means of the pantograph,
a mechanical transcribing device that introduced the characteristic
rumbling and clanking heard on acoustic Pathé products.
All known releases in these series duplicated material on Pathé's
sapphire discs, although artists were usually disguised by pseudonyms
and the discs bore no physical resemblance to their Pathé
counterparts. The series seems to have sold poorly and is fairly
In conjunction with his new series,
Fletcher announced that he was "planning to devote more
time to...the recording of the entire symphonic repertoire."
In fact, Fletcher had issued only overly familiar symphonic snippets
to that point and was no longer selecting repertoire, since he
was simply leasing existing Pathé material. His plan was
never put into action.
steel-needle series of 1918 (left). It was replaced in 1919 by
the more common universal-cut series (right), which survived
until the end of 1920. Both series were pressed from transcribed
A final Operaphone series appeared
in 1919. Fletcher again turned to Pathé for his material,
but this time the masters were transcribed in the universal-cut
format under the Smallwood patent (#639,452), which had been
bought and slightly refined by Victor Emerson. The universal
cut was an attempt to combine a lateral and vertical groove into
a format that would play on any type of phonograph.
As with the previous Operaphone series, all known issues duplicated
material on Pathé sapphire discs, although many employed
artist pseudonyms. The records were also pressed under various
minor labels, including Empire and World. Assuming that Fletcher
was paying royalties to Pathé for masters and to Emerson
for use of the universal cut, his profit margin on this last
series must have been slim indeed.
coincides neatly with Pathé's entry into the lateral-cut
market with its own Actuelle brand. The last known Operaphone
discs were advertised in December 1920, and in early 1921 John
Fletcher arranged to sell the idle Operaphone plant to a new
venture, the Olympic Disc Record Corporation. Fletcher was retained
by the new company in an unspecified "executive capacity,"
according to the Talking Machine World, which announced
Olympic's formation in March 1921. The same publication advertised
Olympic's first releases on the following April 15.
Olympic got off to an unsteady start as a subsidiary of the Remington
Phonograph Corporation. Philo E. Remington, president of the
company and grandson of the founder of the Remington firearms
and typewriter companies, apparently had plans to produce records
prior to Olympic's creation. On July 20, 1920, he filed a trademark
application for the Reminola brand. Although Remington's trademark
application claimed use on records since May 5, 1920, no evidence
has been found that the label was produced commercially.
For the new label, Fletcher was once again in charge of a studio,
and from the start he repeated past mistakes. Although Olympic
was marketed as a premium-priced label, it offered primarily
bland pop and light classical fare by the usual studio freelancers.
A short-lived opera series, with plot synopses printed on the
labels, featured such lesser lights as Regina Viccarino and Henrietta
Wakefield, and at one point Broadway star Greek Evans was pressed
into service as an operatic baritone. Technical quality was mediocre
at best, and with few stars on its roster, Olympic could not
compete with Columbia, Victor, and other comparably priced labels.
The last records released under
the Olympic Disc Record Corporation name appeared shortly before
the parent Remington Phonograph Corporation failed in December
1921. Philo Remington attempted to reorganize as the Remington
Radio Corporation in 1922 but suspended operations after being
indicted for stock fraud.
Black Swan and the
Fletcher Record Company
Fletcher soon attempted
to regain control of the Olympic operation. In April 1922, he
purchased Olympic's trademark, masters, and facilities in partnership
with Harry Pace, a pioneer black record producer. Pace had introduced his Black Swan label
in 1921 and had sought out independent pressing plants, including
Olympic, where his business had been flatly rejected by Remington.
With Remington now out of the picture, Pace approached Fletcher,
and the two acquired the idled Olympic facilities in Long Island
City to form the Fletcher Record Company, Inc. In a teaming of
black and white businessmen unprecedented for its day, Fletcher
served as president, Pace as vice president and treasurer. Initially,
the new company served only as a studio and pressing plant for
Black Swan. Under the Fletcher-Pace partnership, Fletcher oversaw
physical production of Black Swan, while Pace continued to determine
artists and repertoire.
On July 15, 1922, the Talking Machine World announced,
"There is some likelihood that in the early fall, Mr. Fletcher
will revive the Olympic label." A new series of Olympic
discs did indeed appear in the autumn of 1922, under the Fletcher
Record Company imprint. Numbered in 1400 (dance) and 1500 (vocal)
series, these Olympics featured newly recorded material as well
as reissues of older Olympic masters, many of which Fletcher
also licensed to Banner, Majestic, Melody, La Belle, Oriole,
Phantasie Concert Record, and other minor brands. Fletcher also
produced the short-lived Arthur Fields Melody Record, a custom
label that recording star Fields attempted, without much success,
to market through his Arthur Fields Song Shop.
By mid-1922, Fletcher's hand was beginning to show in the Black
Swan operation. Pace, who in 1921 had pledged to employ only
black talent, began to reissue material from the all-white Olympic
catalog on Black Swan. Olympic's telltale catalog numbers remained
clearly visible in the wax. Performances by white band leaders
Sam Lanin, Rudy Weidoeft, and Irving Weiss were credited to Fletcher
Henderson (Pace's musical director) or were issued under other
pseudonyms. White freelance vocalists
(including Al Bernard, Charles Hart, Aileen Stanley, and Arthur
Hall, as well as whistler Margaret McKee) were also represented
under assumed names. Perhaps the most blatantly misleading issues
were those credited to Ethel Waters' Jazz Masters, which were
actually the work of several different white novelty trios. It
was a cynical approach, unworthy of Pace (although not uncharacteristic
of Fletcher), and a bad miscalculation at a time when Okeh, Paramount,
and Columbia were developing strong race-record catalogs with
authentic black talent.
By early 1923 Pace was nearly bankrupt. Black Swan suspended
operations in July of that year, depriving Fletcher of a major
portion of his pressing business. The Olympic label stumbled
along through the end of 1923, failing to make any inroads into
an already glutted market. The last Olympic discs issued under
the Fletcher Record Company imprint appeared in December 1923,
the month in which John Fletcher declared bankruptcy.
A Final Failure in
Fletcher made a final attempt to revive his ill-fated label in
Chicago in 1924. The Capitol Roll & Record Company, successor
to the Columbia Music Roll Company of Chicago, was organized
in or around July 1924 and found a ready-made source of masters
and expertise in John Fletcher. Under the new corporate structure,
announced in the Talking Machine World for August 15,
1924, piano roll production was to be managed by L. M. Severson
of the Operators' Piano Company, while record production was
to be supervised by Fletcher.
Fletcher-produced Supertone. This issue used masters newly recorded
in Chicago for Capitol Roll & Record, but many others simply
recycled Fletcher's old New York Olympic material.
With Fletcher came rights to
the Olympic trademark and masters. According to TMW, "Olympic
records are now [August 1924] being produced in the fine modern
plant at Kedzie and Chicago avenues, and the first bulletin will
be issued in September." But the new Olympic bulletin did
not appear until November, and even with the delay, TMW
noted, "This is in effect a small catalog and covers about
That disappointing start aside, TMW reported, the new
studio was "quite busy of late." Fletcher had already
made some tentative master swaps with Paramount and obtained
contracts to press the Supertone label for Sears, along with
several other short-lived custom labels. Nevertheless, the November
1924 catalog was Olympic's last, and by early 1925 Chicago had
seen the last of Olympic's final incarnation.
Olympic Records." Talking Machine World (11/15/1924)
"Arthur Fields Song Shop Opened." Talking Machine
"Fields Song Shop Bankrupt." Talking Machine World
Fletcher, John: "Sound Record." U.S. Patent Office:
Patent #1,269,696 (assigned to Operaphone Manufacturing Corp.,
"John Fletcher, General Manager of the Operaphone Co., Has
Had Interesting Experiences in the Musical and Recording Worlds."
Talking Machine World (7/15/1918)
Kendziora, Carl, and Armanac, Perry: "The Labels Behind
Black Swan." Record Research 221/222 (4/1986)
"Now the Fletcher Record Company - Plant of Olympic Disc
Record Corp. Purchased by Harry Pace and John Fletcher and Will
Be Operated by a New Corporation." Talking Machine World
Operaphone Co.: "Operaphone." U.S. Patent Office: Trademark
application #122,654 (filed 9/13/1919)
"Purchase Black Swan Business." Talking Machine
"Receiver for the Fletcher Record Co." Talking Machine
Thygesen, Helge, Mark Berresford, and Russ Shor. Black Swan:
The Record Label of the Harlem Renaissance. Nottinghman,
UK: VJM Publications, 1996.
"To Make Records and Rolls." Talking Machine World
"To Revise Operaphone Catalog - All Operaphone Records to
Bear Two Selections of the Same Type." Talking Machine
Site © 2004 by Mainspring Press. Article © 2001 by Allan
R. Sutton. Label photos © 2000 by Kurt R. Nauck III. All
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