Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1950s

James Jolly
Thursday, January 11, 2024

One of the most revolutionary decades in the history of recorded music

As Anthony Pollard has written in his history of the magazine’s first 75 years, ‘From the earliest days of the record industry, playing-time had always been a consideration’. The earliest seven-inch discs, created by Emil Berliner in 1895, played for about two minutes; with the arrival of the 12-inch 78rpm disc in 1903, this was doubled to about four and half minutes, a state of affairs that remained in place for the next 60 years.

A number of companies had experimented with long-playing discs (Neophone, as far back as 1905, Edison in 1926 and, in 1931, by RCA based on a 33⅓rpm disc). Another factor which speeded up the process was the difficulty, post-war, of obtaining shellac, traditionally used for 78s. A new product, called Vinylite, was employed and research and development was led by the Columbia Recording Corp (later CBS Records and now Sony). Having Harold C Schonberg ‘on the ground’ in New York and writing a regular Letter from America, kept readers in the loop and introduced them to the term LP.

Edward Wallerstein, President of the Columbia Recording Corp, unveiled the company’s first LP in New York in June 1948 and for a while Columbia flew the flag for the new format alone. Then in February 1950, RCA issued its first LPs. In the UK, EMI – traditionally a ‘late adopter’ when it came to new formats – initially declared that it was watching the US market before embracing the LP. So, it was Decca in June 1950 that was the first UK-based company to issue on the new format. ‘If future records are as well chosen and as well made as the first few I have heard, and of course they will be, then without doubt a new era for the gramophone has opened,’ declared Mackenzie in the issue that saw reviews of the first nine of Decca’s LPs. Decca, incidentally, wasted no time in launching an openly provocative advertising campaign poking fun at EMI’s reluctance to embrace the LP, a campaign that reached a pinnacle with a booted foot ‘striding ahead’, the illustrator’s name under the foot is none other than ‘Hayes’, where EMI was headquartered. (EMI entered the LP market in October 1952, the month before this advert appeared.)

The arrival of the LP not only gave a lift to the classical record industry (which benefitted most by the extended playing time – a Brahms symphony would now fit comfortably on a single disc with each accommodating about 22 minutes of music per side), but it also lifted The Gramophone’s circulation. Between January 1950 and the end of 1953, monthly circulation jumped from 24,100 to 42,750. In June 1954, after 30 years of selling for one shilling, the cover price was raised to two shillings (10p).

The early 1950s saw the arrival in the UK of a large number of foreign labels, all given a boost by LP: these included Vox, Supraphon, Westminster, L’Oiseau-Lyre, Mercury, Philips (which was also the licensee of the America Columbia catalogue) and Deutsche Grammophon which arrived under the umbrella of the Heliodor Record Company, ruffling the feathers of both EMI and Decca as it brought with it a wealth of mainstream repertoire performed by major European artists and orchestras. (Cleverly, Heliodor had recruited an experienced industry man, Alex Herbage, ex-Decca and the co-founder, with Harley Usill, of Argo. His first advertising campaign in The Gramophone was to plant the suggestion in readers minds that the Yellow Label was the home of the finest LP versions of the core repertoire.)

The magazine had moved in September 1951 to Stanmore, occupying a room in Cecil Pollard’s home there. And for the remainder of the decade The Gramophone was run from three small offices – subscriptions in Kenton, trade sales and advertising in London and editorial and financial from Stanmore. The company also became an even-more family affair with Cecil joined by his brother Reg (selling advertising), his sister Hylda (accounts) and her husband Vic Dunbar (circulation), while Anthony had become Company Secretary and later (1958) London Editor. In all, The Gramophone’s staff of ten included six members of the extended Pollard family.

The 1950s also saw a major change in the ownership of the company. Mackenzie’s wife Faith had ceased an active role before the war. Christopher Stone had maintained a key role (reading proofs and so on) and Mackenzie still remained the magazine’s figurehead, writing his editorials (with input of topical themes provided by Cecil Pollard). But none of them had family who would be interested in the business. So, given how instrumental Cecil had been in the early survival, and then considerable growth, of The Gramophone, Mackenzie took the decision that he should inherit the company on the understanding that Faith, Mackenzie and Stone would each be guaranteed a fixed salary for the remainder of their lives in exchange for their shareholding in the company. As Mackenzie’s biographer Andro Linklater later wrote, The Gramophone’s ‘rising circulation provided for all three of them an old age free from financial anxieties’.

Before the decade ended, the second major development in recorded sound arrived: stereo. As with the LP, experiments had been undertaken for a number of years. Alan Blumlein, one of the really major figures in the field of sound reproduction and who was killed in a plane crash in 1942 aged only 38, had experimented with stereo recording in 1931 (when he lodged a patent). EMI demonstrated to the press its ‘Stereoscopic’ tape recordings, but many companies were reluctant to dive into this new market because of the lack of gramophones capable of playing stereo discs. Then, in May 1958, Pye demonstrated its (rather poor) stereo discs (alongside stereo players) in London: the gates were now open and EMI, Decca and DG released their first stereo LPs in October 1958. (It’s worth recalling, too, the superb retail environment that record collectors could enjoy at this time, record shops staffed by knowledgeable and enthusiastic music-lovers who created hubs for collectors all over the country.)

In 1953, Anthony Pollard was approached by a reader, Stanley Day, who suggested that each issue might include a cumulative catalogue of available LP recordings. This would clearly take up more space than was available, so instead a quarterly catalogue was established – of which Day took charge – that grew to become another important publication in the Gramophone stable. The first Gramophone LP Record Catalogue (two shillings and six pence) contained details of 1500 LPs from 16 labels and of music by 150 composers. Various other titles joined the LP catalogue to cover popular music and spoken word. And by January 1998, the database – that now also embraced the CD – contained details of some 65,000 recordings of 67,000 works by 9000 composers performed by 45,000 artists, and issued by more than 1300 record companies.

The 1950s also saw the birth of the French label Harmonia Mundi, the brainchild of Bernard Coutaz (1922-2010). Still a very big presence on the international record scene, Harmonia Mundi started life focusing on early and Baroque music – Alfred Deller was one of its first artists – but has grown to embrace the entire range of classical music. An array of Gramophone Awards bears witness to the A&R skills of Eva Coutaz (1943-2021) and Robina Young – the two guided the label’s artistic journey for many years – and now the label’s A&R is overseen by Christian Girardin who continues Harmonia Mundi’s philosophy of finding and nurturing talent.

Gramophone in the 1950s: Timeline

1950 Teldec is formed, jointly owned by Telefunken and Decca

January 1950 RCA Victor releases LP records in the USA

January 1950 First home tape recorders appear on the market in Germany (the UK follows 18 months later)

June 1950 Decca releases its first 53 LP records in the UK

June 1950 Decca makes its first opera in Vienna, Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail, a studio recording with Josef Krips conducting the VPO

September 1950 Decca releases the first recordings in the UK on the Capitol label

October 1950 The Nixa Record Company (later Pye) is established by Hilton Nixon

1951 Patrick Saul founds the British Institute of Recorded Sound (fully established in 1955). In 1983 it becomes The British Library National Sound Archive

February 1951 First releases in the UK on the Telefunken label via Decca.

July 1951 Nixa releases LPs under licence from a variety of American labels, including Concert Hall, Lyricord, Renaissance and Period

July/August 1951 First Bayreuth Festival since the war. Decca/Telefunken records Parsifal (conducted by Knappertsbusch) and EMI records Die Walküre Act 3 (under Karajan) as well as the inaugural Festival Beethoven Ninth under Furtwängler

September 1951 Cecil Pollard moves from Kenton to Green Lane, Stanmore. The Gramophone’s offices go with him

September 1951 The death, at 78, of one of the classical recording world’s greatest pioneers, Fred Gaisberg, who had worked with Berliner in 1893 and made the first European recordings for the gramophone

December 1951 Argo Record Company founded by Harley Usill and Alex Herbage. First 78rpm releases from the label

February 1952 First UK releases of the Haydn Society recordings on Parlophone 78s

July 1952 Compton Mackenzie is knighted in Queen Elizabeth II’s first Birthday Honours List

October 1952 EMI releases its first LP records as well as the first 45rpm records in the UK

October 1952 Argo issues its first LP releases

November 1952 Vox releases LPs in the UK and American Vanguard LPs released on Nixa in the UK

1953 French Erato label launched by Philippe Loury

January 1953 American Columbia recordings become available in the UK as license moves from EMI to Philips

March 1953 First commercial/binaural recordings on tape made in Symphony Hall, Boston by Emory Cook

June 1953 First Edition of The Gramophone Long Playing Record Catalogue, edited by Stanley Day, published, containing listings of 1400 LPs

August 1953 Supraphon releases LPs in the UK.

October 1953 Westminster releases LPs in the UK

November 1953 Decca undertakes its first experimental stereo recordings with Mantovani and his Orchestra in its West Hampstead studios

May 1954 Decca makes its first experimental stereo recording in Geneva: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Antar with the Suisse Romande Orchestra and Ernest Ansermet

January 1954 Mercury release LPs in the UK

July 1954 First Philips LPs

July/August 1954 Decca makes first opera recordings in stereo in Rome: Verdi’s Otello and La traviata and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, all with Renata Tebaldi

November 1954 First Decca 45rpm releases, and first Archiv/Heliodor LP release in the UK

November/December 1954 Decca makes the first commerclal stereo recording in the UK: Grieg’s Piano Concerto with Winifred Atwell, the LPO and Stanford Robinson

February 1955 DG’s yellow label released in the UK by Heliodor-Deutsche Grammophon Ltd

February 1953 EMI’s first commercial stereo recordings on tape: Malko conducts the Philharmonia in Prokofiev’s Symphonies Nos 1 and 7

June 1955 Alec Robertson appointed Music Editor of The Gramophone

December 1955 First annual Critics’ Choice feature

January 1956 First cover price increase since June 1924 – from 1s (5p) to 1/6 (7½p)

January 1956 World Record Club launched in the UK with Richard Attenborough (later Lord Attenborough) Chairman of the selection committee

June 1956 First recordings made in the UK by American engineers when Mercury recorded the Hallé Orchestra and Sir John Barbirolli in works by Vaughan Williams and Elgar

July 1957 Formation of EMI Records Ltd with CH Thomas as Managing Director

September 1957 Quad introduces its Electrostatic Loudspeakers

November 1957 Argo is acquired by Decca and starts recording project to embrace the complete works of Shakespeare on 137 LPs (completed in 1964)

June 1958 Anthony Pollard becomes London Editor of The Gramophone

June 1958 Pye release first commercial stereo LPs in the UK

June 1958 Decca introduces first budget-price LP label in the UK, Ace of Clubs

September 1958 Decca begins its first studio recording of Wagner’s Ring with Das Rheingold. Georg Solti conducts the VPO

September 1958 Saga Records launched by Wilfred Banks and WH Barrington-Coupe (later to gain notoriety with the Joyce Hatto affair)

October 1958 EMI, Decca and DG release their first stereo LPs

March 1959 Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic make their first stereo recording for DG: Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben

March 1959 Decca discontinues 78s

September 1959 SME launches its pick-up arm

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