My New Hero: Ben Selvin

Young Ben Selvin Portrait_jpgI’ve been a huge Beatles fan all my life. As a left handed 14 year older, I took up bass in 1964 just like my idol Paul. The music of the Fab Four has had a profound impact on my music, my career and my life. But after digging into the history of Ben Selvin over the past two years, I have a new music hero. How about some highlights so you can see why I think so highly of this music genius?

A few posts back, I took a look at Muzak’s first recordings in 1934, which were produced by VP of programming Ben Selvin. Ben orchestrated hundreds of recording sessions for Muzak over the next ten years, producing well over 7,000 songs. The more I look into his life, the more I’m amazed by the impact Ben Selvin had on this music industry of ours. Not only was he an exquisite musician, producer, arranger and band leader—he was also a wise and crafty businessman.

Born March 5, 1898, he quickly became recognized as a child prodigy for his creative and unique fiddle playing techniques. His first appearance was in a New York nightclub, at the age of 5! Ben was playing on Broadway at 7 and had steady gigs by 15. He finally formed his own band at 19. In 1919, he signed to Columbia Records, and Ben Selvin’s Novelty Orchestra recorded “Dardanella”, which became the top selling record (5 million) over the first quarter century. But this was just the beginning. Through the next decade he recorded for over 9 record companies, including Vocalion Records, Paramount, Plaza Music Company, Banner, Brunswick and Columbia, playing several roles in over 2,500 releases.  Every label had him directing, producing, arranging, leading his own orchestras, as well as their other musical acts.  He was the darling of the industry, commonly titled “the Dean of Recorded Music” as he released several more hits through the 20’s including, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”, “Blue Skies”, “Yes! We Have No Bananas”, “Oh, I Miss You Tonight”, “Manhattan”, “Happy Days Are Here Again”, and “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies”. I liken him to our current day Quincy Jones. Not bad company!

In 1934, newly formed Muzak was looking for the right guy to oversee its “transcription” recording operation in NYC, and Ben Selvin was the obvious choice.  Once hired, he simply opened his rolodex brimming with the best musicians and bands in the industry, and started booking recording sessions.

Ben Selvin is said to have recorded nearly 20,000 titles over his 7 decades in the business. The Guinness Book of Records says that Ben Selvin has produced more records that anyone to this day. Ben passed away in 1980 at the age of 82.  I never got the chance to meet him, but last year I had the occasion to get together with two of his grandchildren, David and Emily Selvin. We shared stories, listened to lots of grandpa’s music and scratched our heads as to why he has yet to be recognized by the Recording Academy. It’s high time we changed that.

I can’t imagine what the music industry would be like today without the vision, exquisite ear, business savvy and musical know-how that Ben Selvin shared over 3 quarters of last century.  Muzak would have never found its music man… and I would only have the Beatles.

Contributed by Bruce McKagan

For more Muzak archive information go to http://75.muzak.com

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1 Comment

  1. Yahoo and gadzooks! 20,000 freakin titles? Were there drugs involved (ha ha)? Great info Bruce!

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