Music News

The Soundies of Yesteryear

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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.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts