The Soundies of Yesteryear
From the outside, Bill Cook's house, perched atop a heavily forested hill on the periphery of Woodland Park, near Colorado Springs, looks like a posh but typical mountain hideaway, and most of its interior follows suit. The basement, however, is a completely different story.
Placed against its unfinished walls are several arcade games in assorted stages of repair, a couple of wooden cabinets as big as bank safes and rack after rack of long-players, 45s and reel-to-reel tapes sporting titles such as Hall of Fantasy and The Haunting Hour. In the far corner, meanwhile, sits a full-service studio that, save for a DAT player and a few other modern conveniences, is stocked with gear from days gone by. Some of the equipment has celebrity connections: A pair of Ampexes provided playback for Lawrence Welk during episodes of his long-running show, while a monolithic amplifier stack once towered over the engineers who dubbed the Star Trek TV series at Hollywood's Glen Glenn Sound. But the gadget that's closest to Cook's heart is a turntable with an enormous platter: sixteen inches in diameter, as opposed to the twelve-inch kind that have been commonplace for decades. Most people would have little use for such a contraption, but Bill Cook isn't most people--and with the help of Chicago-based Soundies Records, he's using it to rescue a wealth of wonderful music that might otherwise have been lost to the ages.
How? The turntable plays radio transcriptions--vintage programs from the Thirties to the Fifties that were pressed on sixteen-inch discs. During the format's heyday, virtually every great American musician of the period made such recordings. But when transcriptions became obsolete and the companies that manufactured them went bust, the discs seemed like more trouble than they were worth--to most people, anyway. "A lot of stations just threw the transcriptions away," Cook says, "and you can understand why: They take up a lot of space, they're heavy, and after they got rid of their old sixteen-inch turntables, there was nothing to play them on. They were happy if someone would just haul them away. So I did."
Indeed, this onetime radio-station owner grabbed every transcription he could--and sometimes grateful studio managers didn't even charge him for them. In the years since then, he has amassed an absolutely astonishing transcription collection. He currently owns more than 25,000 discs, which makes him, by his reckoning, one of the biggest private holders of transcriptions on the planet. Predictably, the Library of Congress has more, in part because Cook, in search of a tax deduction several years back, donated part of his supply to the institution. But he's not about to make that mistake again. "I got into a real thicket with the IRS over it," he recalls. "They were unmerciful. So I just said, 'I don't think I'll be giving them anything else.'"
Still, Cook didn't feel right about allowing the musical stockpile he stores in a sprawling Colorado Springs warehouse to lie unheard. So he began looking for a company to serve as a conduit between his cache and the public--and in Soundies, run by Chicagoan Kevin Parks, he found one. Suddenly, Cook's crazy hobby doesn't seem so crazy anymore.
"I used to wonder why I kept picking up all these transcriptions," he admits. "But I don't wonder anymore."
Hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cook has spent most of his career in the radio business, but unlike many of the cash-mad executives who dominate the trade these days, he was attracted to the field by love, not money. He's an aficionado of classic personalities such as Bob and Ray and often speaks in a charming variation on Golden Age of Radio comic patter. At one point he pronounces "coincidence" as "co-winky-dink," and when he's quizzed about his age, he asks, "Are you cleared for obsolete?" before declaring, "I was born in 1930--a very good year, around the time of our financial holocaust. I was around for what happened after that, although I missed out on the invention of the electric light."
By age nine, Cook was regularly being kicked out of a nearby Kalamazoo radio station, which is just as well: He would have spent every waking hour there, had the employees let him. "I enjoyed everything radio had to offer," he declares. "The drama programs were really superb, and so was the music." Three years later he began collecting transcription discs, which he says were "the only source of high fidelity at the time," because "I had a high-fidelity set that I'd built myself. I built a turntable and an amplifier--put it all together when I was about twelve. But I didn't have anything to play on it; I was all dressed up with no place to go. So I had the local station start saving old ones for me. And that was only the beginning."
After completing a year of college at Western Michigan University, Cook headed to Hollywood, and his enthusiasm for the broadcast medium convinced several radio pros to give him a job doing disc and tape recording at an area studio. He also was hired to perform similar tasks by a film company, and between these two positions, he got the opportunity to rub shoulders with plenty of show-biz royalty, including Vincent Price, Doris Day and radio icon Jack Smith. At the mention of Dinah Shore, another of his acquaintances, Cook nearly wafts away on a cloud of affection: "She was beautiful, and so kind. I thought she was just wonderful."
In the early Fifties, Cook returned to Kalamazoo and completed his degree at Western Michigan University. Upon his graduation, he got a job as a research and development engineer specializing in electronics--and the skills he acquired proved invaluable when he helped establish WFDS-FM, a Baltimore radio station that became the first FCC-approved experimental stereo station in the nation. The outlet, which specialized in classical music, went on the air in 1957, and while the stereophonic system it used did not become the industry standard, it remains a significant footnote in broadcasting history. "No one did it before we did," Cook says. The money Cook made for selling WFDS in 1960 was subsequently plowed into KRYT-AM in Colorado Springs, which had what he calls "a middle-of-the-road format." He downplays its popularity--"Well, I used to listen to it a lot"--but he did well enough with it to add an FM signal in 1967. He sold both stations in 1979, and today the FM side, KKCS-FM/101.9, is Colorado Springs' most popular purveyor of country music.
Since then, Cook, the divorced father of two, has done "a hodgepodge of various and sundry things," including founding Research Associates, a company that sells professional audio equipment, and serving as a consultant at numerous radio stations. Along the way, he's steadily, obsessively added more transcriptions to his enormous pile ("I guess I didn't have sense enough not to," he says), and by the mid-Nineties, the cost of storing his stash was beginning to build up. In an effort to offset these expenses and to share the music with a public that hadn't heard much of it in fifty or sixty years, he contacted Gordon Anderson of Collectors' Choice Music, a reissue catalogue affiliated with Playboy. In turn, Anderson directed Cook to Kevin Parks, a young attorney of Anderson's acquaintance whose fledgling label, Soundies, had recently debuted with Pete Kelly's Blues, the soundtrack to a 1955 Jack Webb film about jazz that featured Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Parks was looking for new material to release, and Cook, as it turned out, had plenty of it.
"I knew about transcriptions," Parks says during a recent Colorado visit, "but I didn't know about the scope of Bill's archives until I came out here last August and saw it for myself. And I was amazed. There were incredible things in there--and after sitting down and talking to Bill, we decided to make some of them available again."
The roots of radio transcription stretch back to the early days of sound movies, or talkies, as they were known at the time. The Jazz Singer, a creaky 1927 melodrama starring Al Jolson, is generally credited with being the first talkie, but as author Richard Barrios points out in A Song in the Dark, his impressive history of the birth of the musical, Charles E. Fritts and Eugene Lauste were conducting tests with the concept in the early 1900s. Additionally, Lee De Forest began peddling a sound-on-film talking-picture process he called Phonofilm in 1923. This technique was used the following year on the first-ever sound newsreel; ironically, it featured President Calvin Coolidge, a man of few words whose nickname was "Silent Cal."
Around the same time, brainiacs at Bell Telephone Laboratories came up with a disc-recording method that provided far more sonic clarity than had been possible before. Bell technicians also constructed a device, consisting in part of a belt linking disc players with projectors, that gave them the ability to synchronize sound and film. Unfortunately, one major problem remained: Film reels held ten minutes' worth of celluloid, but state-of-the-art 78s--ten-inch discs that played at 78 revolutions per minute--maxed out at around three minutes. The solution was the development of sixteen-inch discs that spun at 33 and 1/3 rpm, tracking from the inside grooves to the outside edge on needles larger than any used until then. Shortly thereafter, Sam and Harry Warner (whose Warner Bros. film company was best known for a popular series of silent entertainments starring super-canine Rin Tin Tin) licensed the system, which they christened Vitaphone in honor of Vitagraph, a studio they'd just purchased. It debuted in August 1926 at the Warner Bros. Theatre on Broadway with a program that included a greeting from Will Hays (remembered today for the censorious production code he oversaw during the Thirties) and performances by the New York Philharmonic, operatic soprano Marion Talley, and Roy Smeck, who strummed "His Pastimes" on Hawaiian guitar, banjo and ukulele.
Afterward, the New Yorker carped that the sound quality of the extravaganza lacked "the snap, or edge, of real acoustics," but the majority of other commentators were extraordinarily effusive, with the New York Evening Journal calling Vitaphone "the greatest sensation of the decade next to radio" and the New York Times editorializing that the Warners' doohickey had ensured that "the eloquent dead will hereafter still speak." Several other short subjects, including The Better Ole, starring Syd Chaplin (Charlie's brother), kept the ball rolling, and The Jazz Singer knocked it out of the park, prompting such a nationwide sensation that even the most reluctant movie-theater owners began ponying up the dough necessary to convert their facilities to sound.
In the meantime, William Fox, the man behind Twentieth Century-Fox, was racing ahead with Movietone, a sound-on-film approach akin to De Forest's Phonofilm that was much simpler than Vitaphone because it didn't use discs. As sound film became the norm rather than the exception, this advantage became obvious to all. "Projectionists didn't think they should be responsible for sound in the first place, and Vitaphone made their jobs even harder," says Bill Cook. "If one frame of the film broke, it would be out of sync with the disc from then on. And the discs were fragile. If you dropped them, they broke."
That wasn't the half of it. Author Barrios notes that the discs had to be replaced frequently because of scratches and surface noise--and the bulky equipment needed to record on them in the first place required camera operators and actors to move as little as possible. As a result, Vitaphone-style productions, hilariously satirized in 1952's Singin' in the Rain, were so stagey and static that in 1930, Warner Bros. officially ditched the method for a sound-on-film application devised by Western Electric. The Vitaphone logo remained on Warner Bros. flicks for years thereafter, but that was just for show. By the mid-Thirties, disc players had been stripped from virtually every movie theater from coast to coast, and disc manufacturers would have gone bust, too, had it not been for the realization of executives at labels such as Columbia that Vitaphone could be adapted for radio. After all, the discs sounded great compared to notoriously low-fi 78s, and they could hold up to fifteen minutes of programming per side, thereby saving stations moolah that would otherwise have been spent hiring announcers (the precursors to disc jockeys). In other words, transcriptions were the equivalent of today's syndicated programming, and broadcasters adored them.
Soon, most major music firms had transcription branches, and plenty of independent transcription outfits popped up, including Standard, M.M. Cole, Langworth, World and Thesaurus. These companies didn't just repackage other recordings, however. Instead, acts came into transcription studios and cut new versions of their songs, including current hits. Because the recordings were never marketed to the public, listeners who wanted copies of transcription tunes they'd heard on the radio were out of luck; different renditions were available, but not the precise performances that had caught their attention in the first place. Transcriptions, then, represent pristine, studio-quality alternate takes of tracks by memorable and forgettable artists alike.
In the end, the same characteristics that killed Vitaphone--chiefly the discs' size and brittleness--doomed transcriptions. The twelve-inch LP, which was introduced in 1948, held just as much music as its sixteen-inch cousin but was far more user-friendly, and the emergence of more sensitive cartridges and styluses made it work for both radio pros and consumers. Suddenly, wrestling with transcriptions was unnecessary, and as stations phased them out, the companies that made them disappeared. Armed Forces Radio was using them as late as 1962, but the commercial manufacturers were gone by the late Fifties--and no one bothered to purchase the rights to most of their libraries before they folded. Hence, countless hours of great American music are technically owned by absolutely no one.
If Soundies' Kevin Parks wanted to, he could probably put out any transcription produced by an unaffiliated service without giving a piece of the action to another soul and get away with it. But in addition to being a lawyer, he's also a music lover, and in his mind, the latter takes precedence over the former. "Mechanical royalties are supposed to go to publishers and songwriters, and while a lot of this material has lapsed into the public domain, some of it hasn't," he says. "But that doesn't mean that everyone who should get paid does get paid. A lot of labels that operate on the fringes cut costs by not doing it. But that's not what we're about. We go through all of these recordings on a track-by-track basis and try to be fair to everyone."
An Iowa native who moved to Chicago in 1987, Parks, who goes by the cheeky pseudonym Jellystone, practiced copyright and intellectual-property law for nearly fifteen years. Along the way, he also became a rabid roots-music fan, and in the early Nineties, he created a cable-access show to spotlight some of his faves, including Bloodshot Records' Robbie Fulks and Moonshine Willy. He had so much fun with the production that he began trying to figure out a way to combine his legal expertise and his love of music. Soundies was his answer. "You have to think about due diligence on projects like these--who you need to talk to and who you don't need to talk to," he says. "Strangely enough, I enjoy doing those kinds of things. And because I can do them myself instead of hiring a legal department to do them for me, it makes it very economical. But the most important thing is that I get to be around all of this great music."
Soundies isn't exclusively devoted to assembling items from Bill Cook's archives: On top of Pete Kelly's Blues, Parks, with the assistance of a distribution arm of BMG, has issued the soundtrack to Kimberly Jim, an obscure 1965 film co-starring the late country vocalist Jim Reeves, and Mario Lanza in Hollywood, a CD with ditties from two movies, 1949's That Midnight Kiss and 1950's The Toast of New Orleans. But he's gotten far more attention for the two discs he's put out in association with Bloodshot, which bring out the best in a pair of outstanding C&W performers, Spade Cooley and Rex Allen.
Cooley, a gifted fiddler and bandleader who was prone to violent mood swings, is a cult figure thanks to his wild life, which is itself worthy of a country song. In 1961, he beat his wife to death in front of their teenage daughter, who later testified against him in court. Although he was eventually sentenced to life in prison for the crime, he became such a model inmate that the parole board agreed to consider his release and gave him permission to perform at a 1970 sheriff's benefit in Oakland, California. By all accounts, Cooley wowed the crowd--but when he went backstage after the concert, he suffered a heart attack and died. Shame on You, a Soundies offering credited to "Spade Cooley & the Western Swing Dance Gang, featuring Vocals by Tex Williams!" dates from an earlier period--1944 and 1945, when Cooley was at the height of his powers. The disc is 25 previously unreleased tracks strong, with spritely instrumentals ("Steel Guitar Rag"), fabulous cross-cultural blends ("Yodeling Polka") and romantic corn ("Forgive Me One More Time") supplementing the cool-as-ice title track and some charming vocal inserts. In one, a perky Cooley invites fans to come see him play at a ballroom on the Santa Monica pier--"and if you don't, shame, shame on you."
Equally enjoyable is The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys, by Rex Allen, a performer who is known for work in several different mediums. Between 1950 and 1954, Allen made nineteen musical Westerns for Republic, a B-movie specialist; his sidekicks included Slim Pickens and Buddy Ebsen. He also earned hit singles well into the Sixties, starred in the TV series Frontier Doctor, and served as the narrator for many of Walt Disney's popular nature films; he's known to generations as the warm-voiced fellow describing the antics of Charlie, the lonesome cougar. The Soundies disc catches him in the late Forties, when he was the focus of Barn Dance, a program on Chicago's WLS radio that served as a career launching pad for Gene Autrey and Red Foley. The relaxed tenor exhibited on these previously unreleased M.M. Cole transcriptions fuels nostalgia fests like "Out Where the West Winds Blow," "Headin' for the Open Range" and the finger-popping "Tyin' Knots in the Devil's Tail," and his songwriting is illuminated on "Gonna Marry Me a Cowboy," crooned by his wife, the former Bonnie Linder.
Unlike Cooley, Allen is still in the land of the living; he resides in his hometown of Willcox, Arizona, just down the street from the Rex Allen Arizona Cowboy Museum and Cowboy Hall of Fame. Parks consulted Allen, who's 78, on the project, and the liner notes include a testimonial from the man himself. It reads, in part, "I am so pleased that some of that early material is getting released on Soundies' Last of the Great Singing Cowboys project. These western tunes never do go out of style, and if I do say so myself, the singing holds up too!" During a recent interview, Allen is considerably less effusive. After revealing that "we probably did twenty of 'em in a day--one take, and then you'd move on to the next one," he describes them as "passable--although some people like 'em real good."
They certainly do. The Last of the Great Singing Cowboys and Shame on You have won positive reviews from scribes here and overseas and have been selling briskly. Nan Warshaw, co-owner of Bloodshot, expected that the discs would appeal mostly to buyers at unconventional retail environments--libraries, museums, national parks. But, she says, "we've been pleasantly surprised at how well they've been received by the regular Bloodshot core fan base. I didn't know that many people would understand and be excited by them. They're even being played on college radio, which is the last thing we would have expected."
"Reissuing stuff seemed like a curveball at first," adds Rob Miller, Warshaw's Bloodshot partner. "We exist by the skin of our teeth most of the time, so it seemed presumptuous to even think about doing something like this. But I'm really happy with how our distributors, who mainly specialize in indie rock, have picked up on it and are getting it to people who are willing to go exploring with us. I think that a lot of our customers are disenchanted with contemporary country but are knowledgeable of or actively into Hank Williams or Ernest Tubb or artists like that--and if we endorse it, they're willing to give it a shot."
Given their success with Soundies thus far, Warshaw and Miller are eagerly anticipating the July 20 release of a disc filled with transcriptions by Hank Thompson, a living country legend who has agreed to help promote the CD during a summer tour in Texas and parts of the East and Midwest (no Colorado appearances are planned at this time). On the drawing board as well are transcription discs from the Bill Cook archives by the Sons of the Pioneers, Hank Penny, Pee Wee King and Texas Jim Lewis, and even though their sonics are leagues apart from the work of the Waco Brothers and other contemporary Bloodshot signees, Miller sees common ground.
"The spirit of this older music fits really well with the spirit of the music we're putting out now," he says. "These people were innovators, and their music has a vibrancy that time just doesn't affect."
Cook finds it a bit odd that Soundies is taking off under the power of country music. "I never really liked that type of music that much," he admits. "But I wound up with a lot of country transcriptions anyway. And they sure have come in handy."
So, too, have transcriptions by Frank Yankovic, the polka king of the Forties and Fifties who died last October. Later this month, Soundies, in cooperation with Yankovic's widow, Ida, is presenting Frank Yankovic and His Yanks, a double-CD set with 41 previously unreleased tracks made for Standard Transcriptions. That will be followed by, among other items, transcription-based discs by Duke Ellington and Jimmy Dorsey. Cook, who does all of the disc-to-tape transferring on the efforts culled from his collection, says the just-completed process of pulling together the Dorsey album has been "just terrific."
If Cook isn't sure what transcriptions will be escaping from obscurity next, he's got a good excuse: He has only the vaguest idea what transcriptions he owns. He and his fiancee, Sally Kuehn, are in the process of computerizing his vast inventory--hence the presence of a Gateway computer amid the venerable equipment in his basement. Parks tells him that by performing this task, he'll increase the value of his assets tremendously, but he's mainly interested in "finding out what I've got."
Thus far, Cook hasn't found a practical use for many of the other items he's obtained over the years, including the complete control room from the CBS studio in Hollywood. But as his experience with Soundies has shown him, practicality can be overrated.
"There's an old expression: It takes a big tree to hold a hundred turkeys," King says, sounding like a chipper commentator from the radio days of his youth. "And I'm just glad I've got a big tree.