Big Cats and the Birth of Third-Dimensional Sound

September 13, 2010 § 2 Comments


"The Cats Meow", The Harmonicats (Mercury, 1956)

The appeal of this whimsical slice of 1950s art direction only increased for me when I realized that the big cat is the one in charge of the record player (as well as the one with the pillows). Perhaps he’s readying the song she just requested…. In any case, this is from a 1956 album by the Harmonicats, who had had a million-selling hit with their 1947 debut, “Peg O’ My Heart,” and were in the midst of a career that would span some 50 years.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when harmonica acts (and this is distinct from any use of the harp in a blues context) populated the land. With names like The Harmonica Bobcats, Johnny Puleo’s Harmonica Gang, Jammercats, The Harmonicuties, The Harlemonicats, The Harmonica Rascals, and the most famous, The Harmonicats, some of these pop or jazz groups had quite a presence during this heyday, which lasted more or less from the 1920s through the ’40s. The Harmonicats once performed at baseball’s All-Star Game at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, as well as many times on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the aforementioned Puleo entertained Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Nixon at the White House. But to me what is intriguing is the fact that The Harmonicats played a role in the development of one of the most groundbreaking advances in recording technology, the echo chamber.

I had never really thought about it, but of course it had to start somewhere. It so happens that a studio called  Universal Recording in Chicago was its birthplace. The person who ran Universal, Bill Putnam, was a genius engineer/innovator who was to develop some of the still-most-coveted audio gear ever made – things like compressors and mic preamps and mixing consoles. I don’t want to bore the reader who is not interested in recording technology (i.e., virtually everyone) by going into too much detail, but suffice to say that Putnam is a legend in that world. Bruce Swedien, an engineer and producer who worked at Universal and with everyone from Duke Ellington to Michael Jackson, said of Putnam in Mix magazine:

“Bill Putnam was the father of modern recording as we know it today … The processes and designs that we take for granted — the design of modern recording desks, the way components are laid out and the way they function, cue sends, echo returns, multitrack switching — they all originated in Bill’s imagination. That’s pretty serious stuff.”

Wikipedia credits Putnam with the following list of achievements: “Universal Recording was seminal in the development of experimental studio techniques. It was the location of the first use of tape repeat in a recording, the first isolated vocal booth, the first recording with multiple overdubs of a single voice, the first 8-track recording trials and the first experiments with half speed disc mastering.”

The Harmonicats

This all started, though, with the Harmonicats. In 1946, when Putnam and his partner decided to expand their studio operation into a label as well, they founded Vitacoustic (or “Living Sound”), which almost immediately garnered attention as an innovator in the field of recording. In a Billboard story in early 1947, titled “Putnam Springs New Waxing Technique With ‘Vitacoustic’,” the engineer’s new “third-dimensional” technique was described: “Putnam’s gimmick, while hard to describe, is said to make a band sound as if it were in the listener’s room, similar to a good wired music system in a restaurant with four or five speakers set at the right places.”

The label started with a bang, as their very first release was “Peg O’ My Heart,” in April of 1947. Billboard noted that on the track, “Mouth organing was highlighted by a unique echo chamber effect giving depth and glucose which helps to cover up other technical flaws.” Whatever its components, the record quickly sold over 100,000 copies locally, and looked like it had legs: “Disk has created a mild panic in Chicago and St. Louis at this writing, and looks to spread fast,” the magazine said, as well as, “Record biz has seen everything but a harmonica platter hit–this might be the baby to do it.” Soon “Peg” had sold about 1.4 million copies for Vitacoustic, and would go on to sell over 20 million copies, making it the second-most popular 78-rpm record of all time to Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas.”

In those days, echo or reverberation was achieved not inside some small effects unit or box, but by running the sound into a room and then re-recording it, and the first space used for this was Universal’s women’s room. Art Sheridan, who was a Chicago producer and label owner of the era, said,  “Bill Putnam and Bernie Clapper developed the first echo chamber by running a microphone and a receiver into the adjacent ladies’ washroom, which was that old-type tile thing–it had great resonance–and while we were doing a session we put a guard outside the door so that nobody would come in and flush the toilet.”

I had never known too much about the history of pre-1950s recording, but the development is interesting. Apparently, when electric recording started in the ’20s, many were done in ambient environments such as churches or big halls. When jukeboxes appeared, however, their metallic sound made records sound too thin, so from the mid-’30s to the late ’40s/early ’50s, records were recorded “dead,” the idea being that that would counteract the jukebox effect. After Putnam devised the echo chamber, though, the ambient sound again became the fashion. Audio specialist Steve Hoffman (www.stevehoffman.tv) says that, “One by one, the ‘echo craze’ spread across the country and around the world. Capitol built their chamber in 1953, and when they moved to the Capitol Tower in early 1956, their chambers were well thought out and amazing sounding (still are).”

That made me pause, because I thought I recalled a controversy a few years back in which Capitol Records was worried that a nearby construction project might endanger their Les Paul-designed echo chambers. I found that had indeed been an issue, as a 2008 piece at allaboutjazz.com relates:

“Capitol says recording quality at its Hollywood building is at risk. The music firm says a proposed high-rise next door would damage its unique underground echo chambers … Capitol executives are trying to stop the multimillion-dollar project because of fears that pile-driving and excavation for the three-level underground garage will damage one-of-a-kind, below-ground echo chambers that are used for high-end recordings.”

The article quotes Maureen Schultz of Capitol as writing that, “The sound in the studios is one that cannot be replicated anywhere else in the world. The echo chambers are as much a part of the Hollywood history as the Capitol Tower and the Hollywood sign.”

I am not positive, but believe the project fell through…thankfully, as it also would have overshadowed the quirky, iconic tower – personally one of my favorite buildings anywhere – by three stories.

As for the Vitacoustic label, somehow despite its initial success it soon floundered and went into bankruptcy, and the Harmonicats moved on. Bill Putnam, though, kept moving forward with audio products and studios, including the legendary United Western Recorders complex in Hollywood, said to have produced more hits than any other studio in the United States. (The list of artists that recorded there is absurd, but if you’ve ever heard Pet Sounds, “California Dreamin’ “or “My Way,” you’ve heard Western Recorders.)

Western Recorders, Hollywood, 1960s

Frank Sinatra, in fact, took to Putnam so well that the engineer became an unofficial member of the Brat Pack. Again, From Mix magazine:

“Legendary arranger Nelson Riddle made an introduction that would completely transform Putnam’s world. In 1960, Frank Sinatra was arguably the most powerful man in show business. At first meeting, Sinatra instinctively sussed that Putnam wasn’t merely a techie, but a fellow leader, a fellow swinger, becoming the only ‘technician’ Sinatra ever became true pals with. Coincidentally, Sinatra’s contract was up with Capitol. He started his own label, Reprise, which would record all of its seminal tracks at United’s A and Western’s 1 rooms, including monster hits like “It Was a Very Good Year” and “Strangers in the Night.” ”

The article also says that Western had “the sweetest echo chambers on the planet … and rooms so acoustically marvelous, that they have gone virtually untouched by the present owners some 40 years later.”

As Bruce Swedien says in another interview, “If you have ever listened to pop music or tried your hand at recording music, Milton T. “Bill” Putnam has touched your life! … Also, at the center of Bill’s personality was a graciousness that few people exhibit. Another fantastic facet of his character was a not-so-normal sense of humor! I loved him dearly for that!”

Bill Putnam also built his studios. (Photo Universal Audio)

Universal still makes highly regarded audio products, and is now run by Bill Putnam’s two sons.

The harmonica itself – an ideal instrument to play or to use to teach music during the Depression as they were relatively inexpensive – declined in popularity after WWII. As The St. James Encyclopedia of Pop Culture points out, “A ban on German goods prohibited the importation of harmonicas from Germany, where the highest-quality instruments were made; youth orchestras disbanded and schools halted their instruction programs; and large harmonica bands pared down to smaller units, usually trios.” The Harmonicats, though, as mentioned, had a long career, eventually producing 36 albums. By the late ’60s they were even doing versions of Bob Dylan and Rolling Stones songs. All three of the original Cats passed away within a couple of years of each other, in the mid-1990s.

One of their legacies was changing the mindset of the Musician’s Union, bringing them to accept the harmonica as a legitimate instrument and thus admit its players. (Ironically, the fact that the harp – like the ukulele or the kazoo, for example – hadn’t been considered a musical instrument had given “Peg O’ My Heart” a leg up, as there was a musicians’ strike at the time and the track, being one of the few that could be played, received extra airplay.) Another aspect of the Harmonicats’ story that strikes me – to sort of carry on the “American” theme present in a couple of the earlier posts – is the fact that they were composed of members of Armenian, Italian and Polish descent (and really looked it, too). Eventually convening in the midwestern melting pot of Chicago (where the Polish side of my family lived for a generation after coming to the United States as well), they do their first show in a St. Louis burlesque house, struggle for a time but persevere to eventually find massive success with their first record, go to Hollywood to appear on television in its early days, and even have a part in the creation of one of the recording industry’s fundamental techniques. (It seems that Cats leader Jerry Murad may have played a role in conceiving the idea to record using some sort of echo: there are different versions of the story, and it isn’t completely clear to me; I suppose it’s most likely that the idea and its execution were a collaboration between the group and Putnam, at least to some degree.) I don’t know too much about any of them, though one member, Don Les, was apparently born blind and had his sight restored by an operation at the age of 12; I don’t even know how to begin to imagine what that must have been like. But one of the anecdotes I came across about leader Jerry Murad was from a member of a competing group at the time, and he could not have been more adamant about what a “standup” guy Murad was.

Personally I would say that if he had any role at all in the cover for “Cats Meow,” I like his taste.

(Note: Thanks to http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/vitacoustic.html for an excellent and extensive article on the Vitacoustic label.)

 

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§ 2 Responses to Big Cats and the Birth of Third-Dimensional Sound

  • HB says:

    I’m looking for 70’s rock music engineered by Bill and his team. Web searches have not come up with anything. Any ideas? This is a result of my disappointment with the production quality of my very limited 70’s and 80’s rock CD samplings.

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