More Selvin Goodies

Metronome 1 Cover 1934_jpg
There are more stories about Ben Selvin, Muzak’s first VP of Programming and Music Production, than I could possibly tell in a blog.  Our editor, Brittany Lyke, reminds me daily I need to keep these segments short and sweet.  So I’ll just grab a few stories that should give you a feel for this legendary figure.

Story #1:

In the 1920s Ben Selvin became one of the most popular music personalities on radio, playing live several nights a week on a number of New York stations, including WJZ.  He performed on-air with several of his bands, including Ben Selvin’s Moulin Rouge Orchestra, his Woodmansten Inn Orchestra, as well as the Ben Selvin Novelty Orchestra.   It was during these days of airing on radio that his true colors were exposed.  In 1926 he wrote, “The tonal balance perfected in the phonograph recording studios is utterly lacking in radio productions.  When one the air some instruments always stand-out, to the complete exclusion of others.  The banjo, particularly, will often muffle the dulcet and sweet tones of the saxophone and other instruments prove similarly offensive.  Then, there is a harmful tendency on the part of many musicians, particularly amateurs, to ‘hog’ the microphone in their over-anxiety.  This, combined with the very poor balance achieved by the broadcasting orchestra, radio music is a really hideous thing.  Until these evils are remedied, I, for one, am going to let the radio alone.”

Even though Ben was persuaded back into radio in 1927 to become Columbia Broadcasting System’s (CBS) first program director for their newly formed radio network, his dedication to quality and technology was legendary.

Story #2:

When visiting with Ben’s grandchildren Emily and David Selvin, during our 75th anniversary in 2009, they brought with them some voice recordings of Ben in his 70s reminiscing about his early years.  On these recordings he mentioned that he had kept several cancelled checks from the 1920s and 30s that showed the amount of money he paid his musicians.
•    November 10, 1924: to Eugene Ormandy, later conductor of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, a check for $26 for one radio session.
•    November 2, 1932 – to Bunny Berigan, legendary jazz trumpeter, and Tommy Dorsey, each a check for $25 to play on a Kresge Stores radio show.
•    March 17, 1934 – to Benny Goodman for 6 radio dates for Tasty Bread Company, a check for $108.00 ($18 per session)

These were pretty handsome fees during the depression.

Story #3:

In the late 1920s at one of Ben’s first recording sessions with Bing Crosby, it was reported that the lead saxophonist was a no show.  Having heard Bing whistle around the studio, Ben asked if Bing wouldn’t mind whistling through the previously arranged sax solo.  The bit worked and you know the rest of that story.

Story #4:

In a 1940s session at Capital Records with Frank Sinatra, Ben asked Frank to turn the words around while recording the song “Night and Day” to “Day and Night” in one of the refrains.  Frank didn’t like the idea at all, and wasn’t happy about making the change, but Ben insisted.  Frank left the session angry at Ben, but the lyrical turn-around, and the song were a big hit.

Story #5:

Finally, I’d like to quote Ben Selvin on remarks he made about Muzak.  “I worked for Columbia Records ‘til 1934.  I started a new company in 1934 called the Muzak company.  That was my baby!  We transmitted our Muzak music over telephone lines into restaurants and hotels.  Then came the rumblings of war.  I was sent out to make a survey to determine what kind of music could and should be played during wartime.  We went to the Peabody Company in Troy, the Ford Company in Detroit, Colonial Radial, the big corporations, and I talked to the employees, made certain experiments.  We came up with a program that I thought was suitable for the industry.”

Yes Ben, those WWII Muzak programs you created were credited to have driven productivity up and absenteeism down in thousands of factories across America.  You not only change the face of the music industry during your 80 years, but many say you also played a significant role in helping win World War II.

… and yes Brittany, I’m running long on this blog….. but give me a break.  It’s about my hero, Ben Selvin!

Contributed by Bruce McKagan
For more Muzak archive information go to

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