Victor’s 24th Street New York Recording Studio
What do Benny Goodman’s “King Porter Stomp,” Artie Shaw’s “Begin the Beguine,” Bunny Berigan’s “I Can’t Get Started,” Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade,” Tommy Dorsey’s “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You,” Coleman Hawkins’s “Body and Soul,” and Duke Ellington’s “Harlem Air Shaft” have in common? They were all recorded at RCA Victor’s swing era New York recording studio which was located at 155 East 24th Street in Manhattan, between Lexington and Third Avenues.
As anyone who visits this blog knows, I have a number of passions besides music. Two of them are Manhattan, and many of the buildings that are or were in Manhattan. In fact, one could say with accuracy that I have an edifice complex.
Recently, I was in Manhattan, and stayed in an apartment that was literally within steps of the swing era Victor recording studio. Today, the site where the building that housed the studio once stood is occupied by the “vertical campus” of Baruch College, which is a part of the City University of New York. (Photo above was taken by me of the entrance to that vast structure on August 24, 2018.) It struck me as I watched the young people who were going into and coming out of that building, that they had no idea there was anything special about the ground on which their college campus now stands. To me, that is hallowed ground because of the great music made and recorded there for several decades during the twentieth century.
My hope is that this post will start a discussion about that Victor recording studio, and eventually fill in the details of its history.
It appears that the Victor Recording Company acquired the property on which its New York recording studio would be housed at auction in early 1928 (*) from Fiss, Doerr & Carroll’s, a firm that operated a horse auction market in the building in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth centuries. (See advertisement from New York Times dated February 26, 1928, above left.) The building that Fiss, Doerr & Carroll’s had occupied was seven stories tall, and was built in 1907. Their business was to supply horses for the New York transit system, and later for use by the U.S. military in World War I.
After Victor acquired the part of the property fronting on 24th Street, the various addresses referred to in the advertisement were consolidated into one address, 155 East 24th Street. (The building located at that address is pictured at right in 1989.) Victor then constructed two recording studios in the ground floor space of the building, referred to as studios A and B (also as studios 1 and 2.) Studio B was the smaller of the two, and was used for piano and chamber music recordings. Studio A was larger and could accommodate groups of up to 35 musicians. There was a control room that serviced both studios, as well as a small area for guests. These areas were separated by walls of double-glass panels. Access between the recording studios and the control room was through adjoining doors. There was no access from the guest area into either of the studios or the control room. Both studios had large entrance doors that would allow movement of grand pianos in and out of them.
I have not been able to ascertain exactly when Victor Records (which was acquired by Radio Corporation of America/RCA in 1929), began using these recording studios. However, I do know that on March 1, 1932, Paul Whiteman recorded in studio A (or 1). (2) It is my informed speculation that those studios were by then in full use. It appears that RCA Victor made recordings in this space until 1968, when it moved its recording studios to a much larger facility at 110 West 44th Street, just west of Sixth Avenue.
The building in which the 24th Street studio was housed was sold in 1968 to what was then City College (now University) of New York. CUNY used the building until 1998, when it was razed. Then the vertical campus of Baruch College/CUNY (shown above left) was erected on that property.
(*) Some of the information presented here comes from wwwscottymoore.net/studio. See comments of Joe Knox below for more detailed and accurate information.
(1) Prior to activation of its 24th Street recording studio in New York in approximately 1930, Victor Records made most of its recordings at an old church near its record manufacturing plant location in Camden, New Jersey, and also at three other studios in the Camden Victor facility. It also made a few recordings in New York in the studio of radio station WEAF.
(2) Paul Whiteman …Pioneer in American Music, Volume 2 – 1930-1967, (2009) by Don Rayno, 603.
Composed by Ray Noble; arranged by Billy May.
Recorded on July 17, 1939 by Charlie Barnet and His Orchestra for RCA Bluebird in New York.
Charlie Barnet, tenor saxophone, directing: Johnny Owens, first trumpet; Bobby Burnet and Billy May, trumpets; Don Ruppersberg, Bill Robertson and Ben Hall, trombones; Don McCook, first alto saxophone; Gene Kinsey, alto saxophone; Kurt Bloom, tenor saxophone; and Jimmy Lamare, tenor and baritone saxophones; Bill Miller, piano; Bus Etri, guitar; Phil Stephens, bass; Ray Michaels, drums.
The story: One of the most popular recordings made at Victor’s 24th Street studio was Charlie Barnet’s “Cherokee.” It was composed by the English bandleader/composer Ray Noble in 1938. “The last thing the Brighton-born bandleader Ray Noble had in mind when he wrote ‘Cherokee’ in 1938 was to provide a catalyst for the creation of modern jazz. The tune was subtitled ‘Indian Love Song,’ opened a five-part ‘Indian Suite’ and came with sentimental lyrics. Noble had moved to the US in 1934 and by the time he recorded ‘Cherokee’ (in 1938) he was firmly established on the American dance band scene. His instrumental recording of the song bounces along nicely enough but the sweet harmonies and understated rhythms are firmly in the symphonic jazz tradition. Only a year later, both the Count Basie and Charlie Barnet and bands stripped the composition down to its essentials and beefed up the riffs and breaks. Barnet’s hit cover, featuring the leader’s tenor sax, established the song in the ‘hot’ swing-band repertory. ‘Cherokee’ soon percolated down to the world of New York’s after-hours jam sessions. The melody was simple enough but the song’s long chord sequence, fast tempo and key changes in the middle were tricky, making it a statement piece for musicians looking to get noticed. One of them was saxophonist Charlie Parker.” (1) “Cherokee” was one of the first tunes on which Charlie Parker began his experiments which led by the early 1940s to the development of the jazz idiom called bebop or more simply, bop.
Charlie Barnet (1913-1991) was an extremely colorful character, even by the somewhat outsized standards of the swing era. An only child, he came from a wealthy family, and was rebellious from an early age. His doting mother spoiled him, and lavished money on him as he tried and failed at a number of careers, including becoming a movie actor. (At left, Charles Daly Barnet at age eleven -1924- smoking a cigar.)
The one thing Barnet was serious about was music. Jazz in particular fascinated him. Although he was a good instrumentalist (he played tenor and alto saxophones, and later took up the soprano), he was not a virtuoso, nor was he a particularly excellent jazz player. But he was an exceptionally fine bandleader who understood jazz very well, and facilitated often great performances from his various bands.
Barnet tried bandleading early in life, starting in 1933 when he was only twenty. Aside from music, the facet of bandleading that Barnet especially liked was that large numbers of girls threw themselves at him. So while his early bands were less than successful either musically or commercially, Barnet and all of the musicians who worked with him, had a good time, while his mother made sure that his bills were paid. Barnet later proudly proclaimed that few other swing era bands could equal his for “wildness and ribaldry.” One of the tunes he recorded was entitled: “Ogoun Badagris” subtitled “Phallus of the Haitian voodoo war god”; another, “Mother Fuzzy,” which had no subtitle.
It is unclear how “Cherokee” came to be recorded by Barnet, but my informed speculation is that no Victor or Bluebird band had by mid-1939 recorded it for those labels, and in the ordinary course, it was assigned to Barnet to record for Bluebird. (Noble’s recording for Brunswick/Columbia, and Count Basie’s for Decca were hardly big sellers.) Barnet himself later provided some details: In the summer of 1939, “…we had an engagement at the Playland Casino in Rye, up in Westchester County (New York). While we were there, a record date was scheduled in New York, which is about 25 miles from Rye. Billy May was doing all the charts, and as usual was a late finisher. He completed the last number to be recorded, which was “Cherokee,” on the way to the city while riding in a station wagon. It was written on scraps of manuscript paper that were handed out to the band with instructions (from Billy) about which to play first and the subsequent order of the others. We got the parts sorted out, rehearsed it in the studio, and then recorded it.”
“ After each take, there would be a meeting of the minds to decide whether it was good enough. I said to Leonard Joy (Victor/Bluebird a and r man shown at left), ‘I think it’s O.K.’ He then said ‘When is your birthday?’ I innocently answered ‘October 26.’ Then he said, ‘Well you can have that one for a birthday present.’ Although I liked Leonard, he had been wrong many times before, I thought. In this case, he din’t care for the tune or the arrangement, but “Cherokee” became a smash hit through airplay and jukeboxes.”
“I think Billy May’s arrangement was really responsible for its popularity, not the tune. The figure Billy devised was simple enough, but it was catchy. We proved that when we later came out with ‘Redskin Rhumba,’ (which utilized the same ‘figure’ Barnet mentioned that was in Billy May’s arrangement on ‘Cherokee’), which has no melody at all, but was also a big hit.” (2)
Billy May had a slightly different recollection: “I had the idea for the beginning of it, and I wrote that out. …But I didn’t have an out-chorus (the ensemble chorus) so I wrote that out in the car coming down. It wasn’t really a strip of paper. Each guy had like 3 staffs which I wrote out (there was no copyist), about 24 bars. It was a continuation of the stuff I’d given them the day before, and we made it. I think it was like sight-reading the thing.” (3)
The “figure” Charlie Barnet referred to is the recurring fragment that occurs in the rhythmic reeds with the “wah-wah” brass answering. This serves as the introduction and then the background against which Barnet plays the melody of “Cherokee” on tenor saxophone in first half of the first chorus. This “figure” is memorable, almost hypnotic.The saxophones then play the melody on the tune’s bridge, with the brass providing rhythmic kicks. The trombones playing the melody, with the straight-muted trumpets playing a syncopated countermelody come next. (Above right: Barnet and Billy May – 1939.)
After a descending modulation, the unison saxophones play the melody simply with the syncopated brass adding rhythmic kicks, then Barnet improvises against this as a background. The ensemble out-chorus May referred to follows. Note Ray Michaels’s crisp two-bar drum roll, which leads into the finale, which has the band and Barnet returning to the opening format, and then a fade-out ending.
This arrangement, written in so seemingly haphazard a fashion by 23 year-old Billy May, is remarkable for its sequential development, instrumental contrasts, and balance. The performance of this music by the Barnet band is crisp and unified, despite the rather limited opportunity to rehearse it.
(1) Financial Times of London, February 19, 2016. Article written by Mike Hobart.
(2) Those Swingin’ Years, The autobiography of Charlie Barnet, with Stanley Dance, (1984) 83-84.
(3) Charlie Barnet …An Illustrated Biography and Discography, by Dan Mather (2002) 39.
This recording was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.