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The First A&R Man – Fred Gaisberg

gaisberg 1Wait a minute! Fred Gaisberg? He’s not a singer, what’s he doing on this site?

Well, he made the first recordings of Enrico Caruso, the only recordings of Adelina Patti and Allesandro Moreschi, the last active Castrato, he recorded Nellie Melba and Feodor Chaliapin and discovered John McCormack, surely he has a place here. Oh, yes. Attention Beatles fans: Fred Gaisberg constructed the first building in England designed specifically for recording, in London, St. John’s Wood at #3 Abbey Road. Abbey Road Studios.

Gaisberg was the first record producer, although he never used the term. In fact for most of his career he had no title at all – he simply did whatever was needed until he became nearly indispensable.

A director of his company wrote: “He was very, very, intelligent .. His instincts in regard to artists were very nearly infallible … he summed up, and very rapidly, whether in addition to their musical talents they possessed the good health and determination to sustain a great career, and furthermore whether they would create by some means a widespread interest in their activities … Once he had made up his mind he acted with great speed.”

It became common for a young singer, conductor, or pianist to be approached after a concert and hear the words: “My name’s Gaisberg. Don’t sign any contracts. I’ll call you in the morning.”

Unlike later record producers (Walter Legge or Mitch Miller) he didn’t consider it his job to influence the way artists performed. He signed the best people he could find and faithfully captured their performance on disc in the best possible sound. He told a colleague that he saw his task simply as one of “making as many sound photographs or gramophone disc sides as possible during each recording session.”

Frederick William Gaisberg (1873 – 1951) was born on New Years Day in Washington, DC.
His parents immigrated to the U.S. from Germany in 1854. His mother taught young Fred to sing and to play the piano. As a child, he not only sang in the church choir but in the chorus of the United States Marine Band led by John Philip Sousa. “I attended rehearsals in (Sousa’s) modest home in the Navy Yard in South Washington. He patted me on the head and made quite a pet of me… I was one of those music-mad youngsters who hovered by his podium and never missed a concert.”

Fred was music-mad and could play the piano in many styles. In 1891 he worked for Charles Tainter, who was recording Edison cylinders in preparation to be sold in arcades at the Chicago World’s Fair. Gaisberg found new singers, set up the studio, ran the recording machines, accompanied vocalists on the piano, and delivered the cylinders to the arcades. In those days, the records were single-sided with a playing time of two minutes or less and a fee of two or three dollars per song was paid to the singers. Royalties were undreamed of.

While he was still in high school, Fred went to work playing piano for the Columbia Phonograph Company who manufactured Edison’s cylinders. They needed someone who could play the piano loud and clear to accompany whoever they chose to record. So “Professor Gaisberg” accompanied whistlers, singers, and even Sousa’s Band.

Those recordings were made on the Edison system using small hollow cylinders of wax, where a needle moved gradually in a lateral way etching the grooves that represented the sound waves into the wax. In the beginning, records could not be mass produced. Multiple machines had to be set up and the recordings were repeated until enough cylinders had been made. In 1894 Fred met Emile Berliner who had developed a system for recording on flat disks using a horizontal tracking system which enabled the stylus to record a superior sound. Gaisberg left Columbia and moved to Philadelphia to open and manage the very first Gramaphone retail store.

Berliner sent him to London as The Berliner Company’s first recording engineer. gaisberg 2“My baggage consisted of a complete recording outfit plus a twenty-five dollar bicycle with pneumatic tyres, and a notebook stuffed with receipts addresses and advice…”

The studio was based in the basement of a dingy old hotel. “Yes, grimy was the word for it. The smoking room of the Old Coburn Hotel was our improvised studio. There stood the recording machine on a high stand; from this projected a long, thin trumpet into which the artist sang. Close by on a high movable platform, was an upright piano.”

Before any recordings could be made he needed to purchase all the necessary materials and chemicals. “A gallon of coal oil, Jars and pitchers of earthenware and glass, A soldering iron,

Fred was enthusiastic about all kinds of music and quickly became a friend to major singers and musicians all over Europe. In 1900 he was in Milan. “Arriving at the Hotel Milan about 9 o’clock we entered and were lucky enough to see the great composer Verdi. Fine-looking maestro now bent with age, yet with a distinguished look. He must be about 86 years old … one could sit at the Café Biffi (and see) Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano .. as they sauntered through the throng.”

He traveled through Russia that year and, while he was unable to sign the great Feodor Chaliapin, he did record an absolutely marvelous Ukranian soprano Salomea Krusceniski.

In 1902 he supervised the only records ever made by a castrato singer (Alessandro Moreschi, director of the Sistine Chapel choir in the Vatican) and he recorded 10 songs and arias by a young tenor named Enrico Caruso. Caruso demanded 100 English pounds for singing 10 songs and arias. Gaisberg said that his company was initially unwilling to agree to Caruso’s terms, but he went ahead, intending to pay the sum out of his own pocket if they would not.

The recordings became a sensation. Berliner merged with the Victor Talking Machine Company and the recordings were issued Victor’s new premium Red Seal line. Caruso recorded exclusively for Victor for the rest of his life and once said, “My Victor records will be my biography.” Caruso’s success changed everything.

With Caruso’s success, other great artists decided that the gramaphone was not simply a toy. The French bass, Pol Plancon, baritones Antonio Scotti and David Bispham, and the French opera star Emma Calve all agreed to record and soon other great artists followed.

Fred met a mechanic, Eldridge Johnson, who showed him how clockwork machinery intended for sewing machines could work to rotate gramophone discs at a steady rate which led to the standardization of disc speeds at 78 rpm and made Johnson a wealthy man.

Probably the supreme triumph of Gaisberg’s career (other than recording Caruso) occurred the next year when he was able to persuade the legendary soprano Adelina Patti to grace the humble gramaphone with her recorded voice for a series of 10 disks. It wasn’t easy and the negotiations were complex. All recording equipment had to be brought to her castle in Wales and the operator must wait there from day to day until Patti was willing to sing.

Patti was 63 years old and had recently retired. She entertained the group sumptuously but seemed in no hurry to begin, venturing carefully into the room that would serve as a studio and peeping at the recording machine. She served champagne to Gaisberg and his crew at dinner and sang excerpts from Tristan for them, but she took two entire days to gain the courage to begin recording.

She stood on a platform and when she hit a loud high note, Gaisberg had to pull the platform back from the recording horn. She was quite irritated but soon became accustomed to the inconvenience. Her first recorded song was Mozart’s “Voi che sapete.” She had never heard her own voice and begged to be allowed to hear it played back. This meant that the soft wax on master disk would be rendered unusable afterwards but she agreed to record the aria again and her wish was granted. She even allowed Gaisberg to return again in 1905 and record another series of disks.

The Gramaphone company wanted new markets and Fred soon found himself traveling to Calcutta where he recorded an Indian Fakir, and Tokyo where he recorded the Imperial Household Band and then to Shanghai. Altogether he made nearly 400 records on that trip, none of which were saleable in the Western world, but which did serve to open up a market in the East.

In 1904 Gaisberg received a telephone call from the manager of Edison’s London office concerning a young man who sang Irish songs. The lad had been singing along the London waterfront for pennies and he wanted to make records. His name was John McCormack. He asked to be paid 10 English pounds. Gaisberg agreed to pay half that amount.

“He struck me as over-grown, under-fed, … pale faced, very bad teeth .. And he was drinking too much … his eyes were piercingly dark .. He had little to say , but that little showed him decidedly confident of himself – almost aggressive.”

By 1907 the Gramaphone company had merged with EMI records and McCormack had gone to Italy for study, had his teeth fixed, and was newly married. He had also signed with the Odeon Company to make records and it cost Gaisberg 4,000 pounds to buy his contract from Odeon in 1909. It turned out to be well worth the price.

Gaisberg had been pursuing the world’s leading prima donna, Dame Nellie Melba, to record for a long time but while the imperious Melba did agree to make a test recording in early 1904, it was several more months before she finally signed a contract. Which specified that she would be paid 1,000 pounds immediately, a royalty of 5 shillings per disc, all her records must have a specially colored label, and they would be sold for no less than one guinea each – higher than the price of discs by any other artist on the label. The entire first pressing was sold out within a week.

In 1907 Luisa Tetrazzini made her London debut in “La Traviata” and was a sensation. Her first discs for the Gramaphone Company were supervised by Fred’s brother Will Gaisberg (Fred was in Italy.) When Fred returned to England he quickly became a close and trusted confidant of Tetrazzini. His honesty, integrity, and lack of conceit led her to trust his judgement so implicitly that in 1920 she even asked him to help write her memoirs and promised him a share of the book’s proceeds.

Gaisberg’s secretary wrote: “No matter how temperamental an artist may prove, Fred Gaisherg has the invaluable gift of recognizing the real cause of any trouble … on countless occasions a highly charged atmosphere has been miraculously cleared by one of his quick shafts of wit.”

As early as 1900 on his first trip to St. Petersburg in Russia, Gaisberg had tried to record Feodor Chaliapin but it would be three years before the basso finally agreed to make a recording and then only on a short-term agreement. Chaliapin came to trust Gaisberg and value his opinion sufficiently that they worked together making tests of voice placement and tone color. Finally in 1910, a ten year contract was negotiated giving Chaliapin a 3,000 pound advance for 15 records. Gaisberg asked if a particular conductor would be satisfactory and Chaliapin replied, “Yes, yes, anyone will do for it is I who will direct.”

When Chaliapin left Russia for the West in 1921 he was penniless at the age of 50 and literally dressed in rags. He turned to Gaisberg to act as his interpreter, help him with his business affairs, and also help prepare the concerts that would rebuild his fortune. Chaliapin refused to sail for America for a series of concerts unless Gaisberg accompanied him.

After the introduction of electrical recording, Gaisberg studied electrical engineering and became one of the few experienced recording engineers able to cope with the new system. It was Gaisberg who produced the first electrical recordings of a live opera, from the stage of Covent Garden, starring Chaliapin in Boito’s “Mefistofele.”

In 1918, a 28 year old tenor named Beniamino Gigli made his first records for Gaisberg while he was still serving (in uniform) in the Italian infantry. Gigli would remain signed with Gaisberg and EMI for all of his life.

Gaisberg’s seemingly endless list of discoveries continued. He made the first recordings of violinists Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifitz, Fritz Kreisler, and Jan Paderewski. In Prague he recorded the Dvorak cello concerto with Pablo Casals. And in 1928 he persuaded the pianist Arthur Rubinstein to make a few test recordings. Rubinstein had heard piano recordings using the acoustic process which he said made the piano sound like a banjo and he hated the results of the few recordings he had already made. When he heard the results of Gaisberg’s new electrical recordings, Rubinstein said he had tears in his eyes.

Fred had a few romances but never married. He lived in West Hampstead, London for most of his life in a small house he had bought there. His sister Carrie managed his home, fed and entertained his guests, and helped manage his life. After a supper for 12 or 14 people there would be music. Tetrazzini or Chaliapin might sing, the conductor John Barbirolli might play the cello, or Fred might play the piano.

The great pianist Arthur Schnabel felt that it would be impossible for a machine to reproduce the dynamics of his playing faithfully. In 1930 Gaisberg was able to convince him otherwise and (assisted by a large guarantee) signed Schnabel to record the complete Beethoven piano sonatas. Schnabel was extremely nervous in the studio but Fred eventually supervised 200 recordings sessions, joking, occasionally teasing him, even doing a comic dance to break the tension..

In 1931 he began his last great project, recording the works of the English composer, Sir Edward Elgar, who was then 74 years old. The Duke & Duchess of York were in the studio for the first session (Elgar’s “Nursery Suite”) as was Bernard Shaw. At the next session Elgar conducted his “Falstaff’ and the event was filmed. When the Elgar violin concerto was to be recorded, Gaisberg selected a “promising”
young soloist named Yehudi Menuhin who he quickly signed to a contract.

At the age of sixty-six, having refused a directorship in EMI, Gaisberg retired. He stayed on with the company as a consultant where he urged a reluctant board of directors to adopt both the new long-play records (LP’s) and stereophonic recordings.

Fred Gaisberg retired in 1939. He died in his sleep in 1951 at age 78.

Fred Gaisberg was probably the most important person (other than Edison and Berliner) in the creation of the recording industry. His initial recordings of Enrico Caruso were the catalyst that led to acceptance of the recording medium by all major operatic and orchestral artists. He created the role of record producer, defining and expanding the functions and characteristics of the job. His absolute integrity and willingness to stand by his decisions gained him the trust of everyone he came in contact with. And his judgement in those decisions proved correct nearly one hundred percent of the time.

Your comments or questions are welcome.