Recording history in Australia – Part 1

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, little did he realise it was the beginning of a worldwide industry. Edison recorded the words ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ into a metal trumpet (forefather of the microphone), which scratched a sound track on a revolving cylinder. The first recordings were cylinders, so each song had to be individually recorded. To make a copy, the singer repeated the song on a new cylinder. Artists recorded many cylinders of each song. There was a consolation – they were paid a royalty for each copy. Australian singer Peter Dawson made a tidy sum this way.

The rapid development of radio introduced new microphones, electric turntables, electric pick-ups and amplifiers. A European invented the ten inch disc recording. This could be pressed out like biscuits, using a handful of shellac in an electronically heated record press. The master recording was recorded on a wax disc, and this was then treated in a chemical bath by electrolysis, thus making a metal stamper for the press.

The Columbia Recording Company began at Homebush, a Sydney suburb, having the rights to reproduce His Master’s Voice, Parlophone, Decca and an Australian label, Regal Zonophone. Most early Australian stars recorded on this label, eg Tex Morton, Buddy Williams, Smoky Dawson and Slim Dusty. Artists could also make custom recordings, several copies to give to local radio stations.

In the late 1940s, wire recorders came to light and city radio stations began to do outside recordings. The big problems were they required a power point, and the wire would snap. If the
wire core fell off its reel, you virtually had a bundle of steel wool.

Germany invented recording tape. Firstly, it was a paper tape coated with iron oxide, but when plastics developed, they soon improved and the tape could be spliced if it broke. Tapes could now be edited, a big step forward.

One of Melbourne’s earliest commercial labels was Planet, owned by King Crawford. He had a Bourke St recording studio in the old Eastern Market, later the site of the Southern Cross Hotel.
Judy Banks, who was just 19 years of age, and playing the female lead in the Australian production of ‘Salad Days’ at the Princess Theatre, recorded songs from the show, two of which were ‘Looking For a Piano’, and ‘We Sit in the Sun’.

A jazz craze swept Melbourne early in the 1950s. Bill Armstrong, who had just graduated as a sound engineer at Caulfield Tech, came to Darnum one weekend to record another keen jazz lover, Smacka Fitzgibbon. Smacka’s family was the licencee of the Commercial Hotel in Warragul. To gain experience, Smacka took a job as barman at the Darnum Pub. He also played the banjo and sang at local concerts. They recorded several tracks on a Sunday afternoon, including ‘Painting the Clouds With Sunshine’, and ‘Barefoot Days’. The backing band was actually Graeme Bell’s, on 78rpm discs, on his Paramount label. Several other jazz recordings were issued in Melbourne. Clements Music Store in Russell St sold their Jazz Art label and Graeme Bell released Swaggie Label records.

A Northcote photographer, Cyril Stevens, formed Spotlight Variety’s Record Company and issued three LPs of square dancing, featuring the Leggett’s Ballroom square dance caller Eddie Carroll. These sold well Australia wide. Square Dancing became a huge craze in the early fifties, with many top Melbourne venues running weekly dances. Spotlight later recorded and sold albums of organ music, recorded at the State Theatre in Flinders St (now The Forum, and the Rivoli Theatre, Camberwell Junction.

With the advent of 33 LPs came vinyl plastic, with discs more flexible and creating a smoother sound. Wilson and Gillespie manufactured plastic goods at their factory in Melbourne. They also
pressed vinyl LPs for other independent recording studios. Seeing there was a big market for albums they began to record and distribute their own, building a studio in A’Beckett St, East
Melbourne. Gaynor Bunning, a young TV singer, who also sang at the Heidelberg Town Hall dances, was their first artist. The Hawking Brothers came down from Mooroopna to record bush
ballads, and Melbourne Jazz Band Frank Traynor and his Jazz Preachers had a big hit with ‘Washington Square’. A young motor mechanic from Preston, who sang rock and roll songs, also
made his debut. His name? Johnny Chester. The City Slickers, led by Jack Varney, produced quite a few albums of ballroom dance music. Another Melbourne group, The Seekers, made their original recordings for W&G, later going to England and becoming a world-wide hit.

The Radio Australia series is being repeated in memory of Max Gibson.