Full Circle Like a Record

The Victor Talking Machine Company was founded by Eldridge R. Johnson in 1901 in Camden, New Jersey. You know it from the image of “His Master’s Voice,” Nipper the dog listening to an early gramophone.
NipperVictor was a pioneer in recording technology and quickly realized the potential for a music recording industry. Enrico Caruso converted the world to opera on Victor records, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum thanks the company for its subject, dating from Victor’s seminal 1927 recordings of Jimmie Rodgers and others. Around that time, Victor Talking Machine Company joined with the Radio Corporation of America to become, on paper, RCA Victor. It would later merge and leave and grow and change intertwined with the 20th century’s other great music industrialists. They kept the dog, though.

In 1939, boogie-woogie master Jimmy Yancey recorded ‘Slow and Easy Blues’ for Victor. It offers a great example of a proto-rock & roll bass line fifteen years before Elvis.

Yancey recorded singles for several labels, but his Victor sides were the most widely distributed and imitated.

In 1943, fourteen-year-old Alexis Korner had been expelled from school and started listening to forbidden boogie-woogie in place of the classical music his Austrian father dictated. (I’m borrowing from this author.) Korner often told of lifting a copy of Yancey’s ‘Slow and Easy Blues’ from a Shepherd’s Bush Market shop. (This may or may not have actually happened; Korner liked a good story.) Whether he got it through thievery or not, though, “the music had an immediate emotional impact on Alexis…this was an instinctive reaction that went straight to the heart. Alexis spontaneously tuned in to the visceral intensity of the music, with its notes chopped, bent, halved, twisted, augmented and stretched – a far cry from the sequential nature of European harmony….Alexis grabbed everything he could find, ‘anything with boogie-woogie in the title….'”

Alexis Korner went on to co-found the British blues movement. All those rhythm & blues or classic rock bands from 1960s England learned at his knee.

As far as I know, there’s no recording of Korner performing Yancey’s number, but here he delightfully guides one of its cousins. (Behind a login, sorry – but you should really buy the whole collection.)

In 1979, Paul McCartney was ten years past the Beatles and closing in on the breakup of his stadium-filling band Wings. Kicking around ideas for a solo album, he took in a television documentary about the blues, hosted by none other than Alexis Korner. “I put down a drum track and some bass and that was that and it sat around for a month or so. The day before going back to it, I had seen Alexis Korner on a TV programme about the blues, and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ve got to do something like that because it’s the kind of music I like.’ So that’s how that one came about.” That one was the song ‘On the Way,’ which shows a definite slow-and-easy blues influence. The same programme also suggested the up-tempo boogie of McCartney II’s major number ‘Nobody Knows.’

In spring 2011, I went to Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre to see Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles. In the role of Paul McCartney was young Graham Alexander, a native of Camden, New Jersey. (This is actually from a different, similar show.)

Alexander has played McCartney and Beatles-related music in a number of tributes and in his own concerts. This one comes from the music festival Abbey Road on the River.

He can really channel Macca, but more importantly Graham Alexander is a singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist with a crazy good band and talent coming out his ears. These are just two of my favorites from his 2+ albums’ worth of songs (and he’s only 26).

See that logo? A few months ago, Graham Alexander became the President of the new/old Victor Talking Machine Co. Label Group. He and his partners will soon open the official archive dedicated to the preservation of the Victor label’s historic catalog. The place is called The Vault, and as I write it has just hung out its shingle in Camden, New Jersey – complete with Nipper the dog, now hearing His Master’s Voice on an mp3 player.

  • 1939: Victor Talking Machine Co. releases Jimmy Yancey.
  • 1943: Alexis Korner is influenced by Yancey.
  • 1979: Paul McCartney is influenced by Korner.
  • 2011: Graham Alexander is influenced by McCartney.
  • 2015: Victor Talking Machine Co. carries on with the leadership of Graham Alexander.

I can’t wait to see what happens next. Keep an eye here and here to find out.
Victor Boys

Update 9th October 2015: Victor Records has now launched its official website! More Graham Alexander and more history here.