In TMFW 24, I wrote the story of Matt Farley, who found a clever way to game Spotify by flooding it with over 15,000 different songs, with the idea that even a few pennies per song would add up across the catalog. Today's TMFW is the (only vaguely) similar story of George W. Johnson, an early recording star who is estimated to have made 50,000 recordings of one song.
Johnson worked, quite literally, in the earliest days of recording. Thomas Edison invented the phonographic cylinder in 1877, but the machine used tinfoil to capture sound, and the delicate grooves in the recordings would be erased after just a few plays. With that limited functionality, the machine was a curiosity but not much more. Edison was busy with other things during that time - the electric light bulb was first tested in 1879, and was developed (and litigated) for several years thereafter - and so he left the phonograph alone until the mid-1880s. When he returned to his device, he figured out a way to make "permanent" recordings using wax instead of tinfoil, and the phonograph became commercially successful.
By 1889 the machine was sufficiently popular that pre-recorded cylinders were introduced, and the nickname "records" was born. One year later in 1890, Mssrs. Louis Glass and William S. Arnold patented the "Coin Actuated Attachment for Phonographs," which took a nickel and played a cylinder into headphone-like "listening tubes" that patrons would stick in their ears. They were the first jukeboxes, and they proved popular in arcades and taverns.
To keep people interested in phonographs, owners needed a variety of content. So, just like today, popular performers made records and sold them to the public. But, very much unlike today, the recording means for wax cylinders was direct. In other words, to make a decent recording, the artist had to perform a song live. "Early phonograph recordings were accomplished literally by brute force – all acoustically: The performers would stand before a funnel-shaped horn attached to a phonograph and belt out their tunes. High volumes of sound were required to force the recording diaphragm (made variously of glass, mica, or copper) to vibrate sufficiently to force the cutting stylus to make a good carving on the blank wax cylinder."
That means that in the early days of commercial music, all recordings were "masters," in that they were the original cut of an artist's performance. So if a song was a hit, and people wanted to buy more copies, Edison and his competitors had to make them by re-recording the song, over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. (During recording sessions, they would cut down on the need for repetition by arraying four devices in a way that each could capture the original performance, but that was the extent of "mass production" of wax cylinders.)
Enter George W. Johnson (whose story is well told at that link). Born a slave in Virginia in 1846, Johnson was "lucky" enough to be taken as a baby to be a playmate for a white child of similar age. This was called being a "body servant," with the slave becoming a sort of butler or valet for the family as he got older. That position of very relative privilege allowed Johnson to learn how to read and to write, it gave him exposure to music from a young age, and it made him comfortable in interacting with white people (or more to the point, he became facile in making white people comfortable interacting with him.)
After the Civil War, Johnson made his way to New York City, where he became well-known as a street performer. Johnson was particularly skilled at whistling; "his notes are as perfect, it [was] said, as those of a flute." And as a practiced street musician, he could sing loudly for most of the day without losing tone or volume in his voice.
Those two skills turned out to be very valuable for Johnson. In the nascent days of wax cylinder recording, companies needed performers who could sing the same song, repeatedly, for days on end. And they needed both volume and pitch that would come through well on recordings. Johnson's baritone and his whistle were perfect. In early 1890, Johnson performed two songs for licensees of the North American Phonographic Company. The first was "The Whistling Coon," an almost unbelievably racist song (lyrics at the link) about a "limpy, happy, chuckleheaded, huckleberry nig" who is happy when he whistles in tune. The second was "The Laughing Song," a still-racist-but-less-so song that features a chorus of Johnson laughing heartily.
Both of Johnson's tunes were big hits. In fact, for the next seven years, Johnson recorded them pretty much continuously. All told, it is estimated that he made 50,000 recordings of "The Laughing Song," for virtually every phonograph recording company that existed at the time. The song is thought to be the highest selling record of the 1890s.
Though he did not earn royalties or songwriting credits, during his period of fame Johnson is said to have earned up to $100 per week, at a time when typical wages were around $500 per year. Unfortunately, Johnson's success was short-lived. By 1902, phonograph companies had developed a way to mass-produce copies of cylinders and discs from a master recording. So once they got a good take from Johnson, they no longer required his services.
From there, Johnson's story has a sad ending: he had a troubled personal life (including being charged - but ultimately acquitted - of murdering his common-law wife), and struggled with poverty and alcohol abuse. He died penniless in 1914, and was buried in an unmarked "pauper's grave" in New York City.
Thankfully, people have since taken note of his remarkable life, and are telling his story. I hope that, wherever he is, he is laughing.
BONUS FACT: When writing this entry, I first called the early pay phonographs a "nickelodeon," as that is the world that I know for them. But today's research taught me that "nickelodeon" does not refer to those machines at all. Instead, a nickelodeon was a very early form of movie theater that was popular in the 1900s and 1910s, typically a converted storefront that played short films in a loop for a 5 cent admission. The popularity of nickelodeons (and their reputation as low quality, uncomfortable places) paved the way for the growth of the motion picture industry and the birth of lavish "movie palaces" in the 1920s.
BONUS FACT 1.5: Nickelodeons got their name from taking "nickel" (duh) and "odeon," the ancient Greek word for theaters with roofs. (The Odéon is also the name of a famous theater in Paris from the early 1800s, and in the early 20th century the name had become synonymous with fancy performance spaces. So a "nickel Odéon" was a sort of apt wordplay for a cheap show.)
BONUS FACT 1.75: So why are old jukeboxes sometimes called nickelodeons? The misnomer comes from the 1949 song "Music! Music! Music!," which features the line "put another nickel in // in the nickelodeon." Per that song's Wikipedia entry, "there is no prior record of 'Nickelodeon' being used as a brand or common name for any coin-operated device, and the trademark owner was a chain of silent movie theaters that operated from 1905 to 1915. All uses of 'nickelodeon' to refer to a jukebox appear to trace directly to this song."
BONUS FACT 1.875: So what did you call the machines that played at taverns and bars in the olden days? The contemporaneous terms were simply "phonograph," "nickel-in-the-slot machine," "jukebox" (first coined 1939), or orchestrion (for devices that used instruments or pipes to create live music as opposed to recorded music). The more you know.