• 1934: The First Year

    Noah'sTo-DoList 1So off into the world of Muzak archives we go, to our earliest recording sessions. We know the names of nearly all of the musicians and the songs they recorded on specific dates thanks we call our ‘Blue Books’. These books are filled with session charts or stage reports that document the date, band leader, number of musicians, studio, engineer, master number, composer, publisher, and titles recorded at each Muzak session.

    Our earliest stage reports from 1934 lack some of the information registered in later sessions, but they still give us an unprecedented look into the past.  A picture of one of the very first stage reports is captured at left.

    Our records show that one of the first Muzak recording sessions featured a touring Italian brass band called the ‘National Fascist Militia Band’. Yes folks, this was just prior to WWII and the band was Mussolini’s own Italian marching band, with their American tour scheduled in mid 1934. The tour’s slogan was “Uniting the Hearts of Italy and America”.  Turns out that Mussolini also booked his band in Nazi Germany. During the National Fascist Militia Band’s one and only American tour in the summer of ’34, Carnegie Hall was one of their first stops, followed by a visit to Muzak’s sound studio in Manhattan.

    At this session Muzak’s producer Ben Selvin, recorded over 25 songs and marches, including:  To Arms (Fascist Anthem), Royal Italian March, the Meistersinger Overture, the William Tell Overture and the Star Spangled Banner (ironic).  I’m not sure how often these recordings were played after the war began, but they sure made a power musical statement as part of Muzak’s initial library. After hearing these recordings, current producer and Muzak digitizing expert Joe Carter concludes that they are true masterpieces performed by exquisite musicians.

    In 1934 we also recorded the likes of the Metropolitan Opera, Joe Venuti’s Orchestra (renowned jazz violinists, featuring vocalist Louie Prima in “Confessing”, found on our 75th website), Harold Kemp and his Orchestra (first “sweet” dance band), Frank Luther Quintet (legendary Hilly Billy band leader), Edwin Franco Goldman Band (renowned military band that played for over 90 years), the St. Bartholomew Choir, and  the Harry Salter Orchestra (played with Gene Krupa, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey, Artie Shaw and Jack Teagarden).  All in all during 1934, over 250 tracks in 7 different music genres were recorded by Muzak’s producer extraordinaire, Ben Selvin. Not bad for a company in their first year of operation.

    We are currently digitizing many of these tracks from Muzak’s 1934 archive and are excited to give you a taste over the next few weeks.  Stay tuned!

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

  • Blogging the Archives

    Selvin in Studio with Orchestra

    I’m about to go on a pretty unique trip: through seventy-six years of our historical archives, which include original recording sessions at Muzak studios in Manhattan. Before we start, let me introduce myself: my name is Bruce McKagan. Coming from a very musical family, my entire personal and professional life has been a chorus line of musical experiences.  Rock bands through high school in Seattle and the U of W provided a steady income and some pretty dang good times. Coming out of college it was time to get serious, so I put together a touring band with some excellent Seattle musicians that played and recorded through the 70s.  Next came almost 3 decades in the field of entertainment management. First the creation of a mid-west booking agency in 1980, then director of several west coast restaurant and nightclubs chains, followed by heading the country’s largest provider of music videos for businesses. In 1995 I joined Muzak, where I’ve held several executive positions throughout the years. Suffice it to say that my life is largely defined by these musical experiences, and my passion for this industry is absolute.

    One of my current assignments at Muzak is the enviable task of working with a team of employees to research, organize, preserve and expose our music archives. Untouched for nearly 50 years, we’ve uncovered over 40 pallets of original recordings, from 16” master discs to 2” tape. Most of these masters are in pristine shape, thanks to the fact that they’ve been under lock and key in climate controlled storage for all these years. As you can imagine, having this opportunity to touch, listen to and share recordings that haven’t been heard for over half a century is pretty exciting for a passionate music buff like me.

    I know what you’re thinking: the history of elevator music doesn’t sound that inviting. But what I hope to help you discover is that the 1930’s, 40’s and 50’s at Muzak were nothing like the instrumental covers produced by Muzak in the 60’s and 70’s, known by baby boomers as ‘elevator music’. The earlier years actually couldn’t have been more different, and were filled with recording sessions by the hottest bands, best musicians and vocalists of the day, with greats like the Dorsey Brothers, Fats Waller, the Carter family, Louie Prima, the Deep River Boys, Earl Wild, Larry Clinton, Ozzie Nelson, the Polka Dots, Rosemary Clooney, and the list goes on and on. Nearly 2,000 recordings sessions covering every genre in the book: big band, jazz, hillbilly, classical, musicals, gospel and popular vocals. As best as we can tell, our archives hold somewhere close to 20,000 original recordings by the original artists that have never been released to the public.

    Our journey will include dusting off these masters and discovering together the sounds of these incredible musical decades at Muzak, with a look at the evolution of policies and laws that have shaped our business and the recording industry as a whole. It is not well understood that in when Muzak first opened in 1934, music recordings for broadcast were almost non-existent. Broadcasters (radio stations and music providers like Muzak) weren’t permitted to play records on the radio, because the industry assumed that the radio play would actually damage record sales. This law forced early radio stations who wanted music as part of their programming  to book artist to perform live on air. Muzak, whose business model was to broadcast music to businesses continuously during work hours, had a real problem, because airing live performances was not realistic. So Muzak unearthed a little used option at the time referred to as ‘transcription service’, which allowed recording music for broadcast only onto records that could not be sold commercially to the public.

    Muzak jumped all over this option and immediately set up shop to start recording as many artists as humanly possible. Renowned music producer Ben Selvin was hired to kick start the process. He built a state of the art studio in the heart of Manhattan and started scheduling all of his musician and band buddies to record songs they’d perform nightly at clubs and concerts.  The Dorsey Brothers were one of his early calls and their initial recording session was held on January 17th, 1935.  Bob Crosby (the first recording artist in Bing’s family) joined the band on vocals and the 3 hour session produced some great tracks, including “Eccentric”, “Sugar Foot Stomp”, “By Heck” and “Dese, Dem & Dose”. Amazing recordings by incredible musicians, with 12 songs recorded in one short afternoon gig. That type of output is unheard of by today’s standards. These recording sessions became commonplace at the Muzak studios throughout the 30s 40s and 50s.

    I plan to post about twice a week, so please check in as we discover the music, technology and people behind Muzak’s fascinating 76 years in business.

    Contributed by Bruce McKagan

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