OKeh Historical Survey: OKeh Corporate History
Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company, Inc. (1915-1919) | General Phonograph Corporation (1919-1926) | OKeh Phonograph Corporation (1926-1933) | OKeh: Subsidiary of Columbia Phonograph Company, Inc. (1933-1934)
Otto Heineman, who founded of the company which initially bore his name, later became the General Phonograph Corporation, and finally the OKeh Phonograph Corporation, was born in January, 1877 in Lüneberg, Germany. His earliest involvement in the phonograph industry was apparently in 1902 and was described in his own words as follows:
In a small retail store in Berlin, Germany, two friends of mine and I had a few Zonophone phonographs on consignment, I think altogether six phonographs, and I remember the day when I was the proudest man in the world because I had sold my first machine. My joy did not last long because the machine came back three days later, for it did not work right. However, we did not lose our courage even if we lost our money.
Three months later, we were in the wholesale business, buying small phonograph machines from a German manufacturer and trying to export them—and we did. Russia in those days was a great field and one of our export shipments went to St. Petersburg, now known as Petrograd. I think we sold about fifty machines which we bought from this German manufacturer and my two friends and I packed same and so the first export shipment left. Money was rather scarce with us in those days and we were waiting every day for a check from our St. Petersburg friends to cover this shipment—so one day a letter arrived but no check and the explanation was that every machine in the shipment arrived in a broken condition—so we three partners decided that we might be good salesmen but we were certainly not good shipping clerks.
A year later, still the same three young men bought the factory for whom we originally jobbed the phonographs and from this little beginning (I think at that time the factory employed 25 men) arose a world wide phonograph company…
The factory referred to above was Carl Lindström A-G of Berlin of which Otto Heineman became a director. His first known connection with the United States was when he arrived New York on July 27, 1909 with his wife Recha (born 1880 in Frankfurt am Main), apparently as tourists. But it seems that the opportunities presented by the then rapidly expanding American economy did not go unnoticed, as he returned to the U.S. in June, 1914 with a view to establishing a business venture.
After that visit he returned to New York for the second time that year on November 27, 1914 with his brother Adolph. It seems that wartime conditions prevented their return to Germany and the Heineman brothers established an import business at 45 Broadway, New York.
In December, 1915 the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company was incorporated with a business address at 25 W. 45th Street, New York and a factory in Elyria, Ohio which supplied motors to the growing number of phonograph manufacturers. It is interesting to note that early advertisements feature the same logo featuring the slogan, “The motor of quality,” which was later used for OKeh records with the wording changed to, “The record of quality.”
By 1918, the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company, Inc. was a major supplier of motors, reproducers and other parts used in the manufacture of phonographs. The next step was to expand into the production of phonograph records, and steps were taken to acquire the recording facilities of the defunct Rex Talking Machine Corporation including the services of its Musical Director, Fred Hager.
The first release of discs using the vertical-cut process (also known at the time as “hill and dale” recordings) on the OKeh label was announced in May, 1918 as the following account published in The Talking Machine World on that date describes:
Otto Heineman, president of the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Co., New York, announced this week that the company is now ready to place on the market the Heineman record, which will be known as the “OKeH” record. This name is derived from the original Indian spelling of the term colloquially known as O.K., standing for “all right.” This record has been in the course of development the past year, and Mr. Heineman has been devoting a considerable part of his time to the perfection of this record, in order that it might be fully commensurate with the prestige and quality of the other Heineman products.
According to present plans the Heineman record will make its formal trade appearance at the National Music Show to be held at the Grand Central Palace from June 1 to June 8, in conjunction with the annual convention of the National Association of Piano Merchants. The Otto Heineman Co. has made arrangements for an extensive exhibit at this show, and the Heineman record will be one of the features of this exhibit...
The Heineman record is a hill and dale cut record, to be played with either a sapphire point or a steel needle. The company is planning to manufacture only ten-inch records at this time, retailing at the uniform price of 75 cents. All of the records will be double-faced, and the library will include popular and standard selections. The first list, ready for distribution to the trade on June 1, will contain about fifty records, and the artists listed in this first supplement include many of the best-known recording artists now before the public.
It is planned to merchandise the Heineman record to the dealers through duly authorized jobbers, and the prominence of the Otto Heineman Co. in the talking machine industry is reflected in the fact that the company has already received numerous requests from all parts of the country for this valuable jobbing franchise. In fact, several appointments have already been made, and will be announced in the very near future.
The recording laboratories for the Heineman record are located in New York, and are under the supervision of Charles L. Hibbard, technical director, and Fred W. Hager, musical director. Both of these men are generally recognized as two of the best-posted members of the technical and musical divisions of talking machine recording, and Mr. Heineman is very pleased to announce their addition to his staff.
This record is manufactured in a large and up-to-date factory at Springfield, Mass., which is now a member of the Heineman group of factories. The manufacturing is under the supervision of Thos. E. Griffen and Charles Kramer, both well known in their fields. Mr. Kramer has personally supervised the construction of the several record manufacturing plants and is thoroughly familiar with every phase of this important work.
During the past few weeks, visitors to the company’s executive offices have had an opportunity of listening to the Heineman record, now christened the “OKeH,” and they have all expressed their hearty approval of this record, stating that it possesses musical qualities which will undoubtedly win instant recognition from talking machine dealers and the music loving public.
This announcement of the Heineman record marks another stride in the remarkable progress achieved by the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Co. during the past two years. From a modest beginning in a small office in New York this company has marched steadily forward, until today it is the recognized leader in talking machine motor production and, in addition to its executive offices in the leading cities, owns and controls factories in Elyria, O., Newark, N. J., Putnam, Conn., and Springfield, Mass.
The original product, the Heineman motor, is now the head of a family of products which includes Heineman motors, tone arms, sound boxes, etc.; Meisselbach motors, tone arms, sound boxes, etc.; Dean steel needles, etc., and finally the Heineman record.
Each one of these products is a leader in its field, and full credit for this wonderful progress must be given to Otto Heineman, President of the company. Thoroughly familiar with every phase of the talking machine industry, and internationally prominent as an expert on the technical end of the business, Mr. Heineman has worked indefatigably to place his company in the front ranks of the talking machine field. That he has succeeded even beyond his expectations is indicated in the prestige and position that the company now occupies.
As the above article makes clear the “Indian Head” trademark on these early OKeh records was a reference to the supposed Indian origin of the words used as the name of the newly established label. By early 1919 the company had branch offices in Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta, Seattle and Toronto.
Once the new OKeh label was established, and with the end of the war in late 1918, Heineman soon turned his attention to making use of his existing business connections with Carl Lindström A-G in Germany. With financial backing from that source the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply Company, Inc. was reorganized as the General Phonograph Corporation on October 1, 1919.
In March 1921, a subsidiary organization called the American Odeon Corporation began its short life as an outlet for a range of classical and operatic material as well as popular material similar to that already being released on OKeh. Since the popular material released on Odeon was recorded in the OKeh studios (although numbered into a separate 0—8000 matrix series) it was quickly realized that recording similar material for two different labels (using much the same roster of artists) was an unnecessary duplication and the Odeon 20000 popular series was discontinued in January, 1922. Thereafter the Odeon label was used only for ethnic and classical releases until 1929.
Otto Heineman had finally been able to return to Germany in 1920, and what he found there seems to have persuaded him that the United States presented better business opportunities than his recently defeated homeland. He made a further visit to Germany in 1921 during which he negotiated access for General Phonograph Corp. to recordings released by Lindström in Europe on the Odeon, Beka, Favorite, Dacapo, Lyrophon, Fonotipia and Parlophon labels. On his return to New York on September 2, 1921 the new agreement was drawn up and signed by both companies.
The “Agreement” which formalized these arrangements was dated November 21, 1921, and it divided up the world into two territories for the business purposes of the two corporate entities. Namely, General Phonograph Corp. was restricted to carrying out its principal operations in the United States of America, Canada, Cuba, Mexico, Porto Rico and Hawaii [defined as “North America”] and Lindström was restricted to carrying out its principal operations in Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, South America, and Central America [defined as “the rest of the world”]. Each appointed the other as its exclusive licensee “in the manufacture and sale... of records” and “phonograph products” made by the other in each respective territory, agreed to certain terms for the exchange of matrices, obtained the rights to the respective trademarks in each territory, and established rates for royalties. This agreement was due to expire on January 1, 1936.
By such arrangements General Phonograph Corp. was, by the early 1920s, positioned itself to draw on not only its own recordings but a diverse range of material not previously available in North America. Paradoxically, it was the unexpected success of one of General Phonograph Corporation’s own recordings which finally established Heineman’s recording operations on a level with other larger and much-longer established record companies. This was in large part due to the success of Mamie Smith’s 1920 recording of “Crazy Blues.”
With the runaway success of this record OKeh not only had access to the same markets in popular music, classical repertoire (mostly via recordings made in Europe) and ethnic material as the major record labels in the U.S., but had opened up a whole new market for recordings by black performers who had previously been under-represented in record catalogs.
The first response of General Phonograph Corp. was to place full page advertisements in the trade press such as that for Mamie Smith’s new record of “Sax-o-phony Blues” in The Talking Machine World of October 15, 1921. And as the interest in “race” recordings continued to develop, OKeh sought to capitalize on this development by a publicity campaign, as reported in the following The Talking Machine World article headed “Unusual OKeh Publicity Drive”:
The General Phonograph Corp., New York, manufacturer of OKeh records, has just instituted an unusual publicity campaign featuring the many exclusive OKeh colored artists. As a pioneer in this important field, the General Phonograph Corp. has achieved phenomenal success and the present campaign is meeting with the hearty co-operation of OKeh jobbers and dealers.
The accompanying illustration [listing OKeh “race” records and featuring a portrait of Mamie Smith and a long list of her records] is a facsimile of a full page advertisement that appeared May 5 in The Chicago Defender, one of the leading newspapers in the country read by the colored population. This is probably the first full-page advertisement featuring records by colored artists exclusively that has ever been used in a newspaper of this type.
At the present time the following colored artists, who are well known from one end of the country to the other, are making OKeh records exclusively: Sara Martin, Mamie Smith, Eva Taylor, Shelton Brooks, Esther Bigeou and Handy’s Orchestra. In addition to these artists many others have been engaged for the OKeh library, and in recognition of the wide scope of its repertoire the General Phonograph Corp. decided to embark on this exclusive advertising campaign.
In addition to The Chicago Defender other well-known newspapers that are popular with the colored population are carrying this advertising, including the Atlanta Independent, New York Colored News and others. A proof of this full-page advertisement has been mailed to every dealer on the OKeh list, accompanied by a personal letter from J.A. Sieber, OKeh advertising manager, calling attention to the campaign...
As interest in recordings by previously unrecorded colored, ethnic and rural performers continued to develop, OKeh was among the first record companies in the United States to conduct regular field trips to remote parts of the country where recording facilities had never previously been available. Beginning in mid-1923 General Phonograph Corp. conducted regular field trips to many locations in all parts of the United States. See page 8 for a more detailed study of the OKeh field trips.
An article in The Talking Machine World of December, 1925 announced the promotion of Ralph S. Peer to General Sales Manager, while the same issue also announced the appointment of William A. Timm as Manager of the Foreign Record Department. But despite the business development implied by these appointments General Phonograph Corp. was in difficult circumstances as record sales industry wide had been in decline over recent years. Less than a year later The Talking Machine World of October, 1926 announced the sale of the company Otto Heineman had spent so much time establishing to the Columbia Phonograph Company. This statement reads:
Louis S. Sterling, chairman of the Board of Directors of the Columbia Phonograph Co., Inc., and Otto Heineman, president and founder of the General Phonograph Corp., announced this week the details of one of the most important deals closed in the phonograph industry in recent years. By the terms of this deal the OKeh-Odeon record division of the General Phonograph Corp. is sold as a going concern to the Columbia Phonograph Co., Inc. The latter company takes over factories, stock, good will, etc., and the formation of a new corporation known as the OKeh Phonograph Corp., is part of the transaction.
Otto Heineman will be president and general manager, and Allan Fritzsche, vice president and sales manager of the new corporation, which will be amply financed and which will concentrate on the extensive development of the OKeh and Odeon libraries. There will be announced in the near future full details of the plans, whereby it is expected that the sale of OKeh and Odeon records will be increased tremendously as the result of the formation of the new company.
The OKeh Phonograph Corp. will also be the sole sales agent for the phonograph products manufactured by the General Industries Corp. at Elyria, O., which include the famous Heineman motors, tone arms and sound boxes and various popular makes of steel needles, such as OKeh, Truetone, etc. The OKeh Phonograph Corp. will also function as the sole representative for Odeon records in America, bearing the same relationship to the Lindström Co. as the General Phonograph Corp. did in the past.
The General Industries Corp. will continue as heretofore with factories at Elyria, O., and Putnam, Conn., and under the same management as at the present time.
When all the details are arranged the General Phonograph Corp. will be the holding company for the General Industries Corp., holding all common and preferred stock of this company, and the factories at Elyria, O., and Putnam, Conn., will be the only manufacturing units in the organization.
The importance and magnitude of this deal is reflected in the many congratulatory telegrams received at the Columbia and General Phonograph Corp. offices the past few days from jobbers and dealers throughout the country. The deal is regarded as of tremendous advantage to all concerned for it means the expansion and development of two well-known and standard record libraries as well as the amalgamation of phonograph interests which are recognized throughout the world as among the leaders in the constructive growth of the industry.
The above mentioned amalgamation and the creation of the OKeh Phonograph Corporation took place on November 11, 1926. As part of the amalgamation OKeh’s True Tone system of electric recording which had been introduced in the spring of 1926 was abandoned and from November, 1926 OKeh records began to use the same studios, electrical recording process, laminated pressings, and label type-faces as Columbia. Gradually all aspects of OKeh’s operations were subsumed into those of Columbia.
As part of Columbia’s control of its new subsidiary some staff from the parent company were transferred to positions with OKeh. The January, 1927 issue of The Talking Machine World carried a report headed “T. G. Rockwell Now with the OKeh Recording Labs”:
T.G. Rockwell, formerly Supervisor of Record Sales in the Chicago office of the Columbia Phonograph Co., Inc., is now associated with the recording laboratories of the OKeh Record Corp., New York City, affiliated with the Columbia Co.
At the end of 1927 The Phonograph Monthly Review published an article titled “Echoes from the OKeh Recording Studio” in which Peter Decker, OKeh’s Assistant Recording Engineer gave a brief description of the process of producing an OKeh record, as follows:
Few people in purchasing a record for 75 cents realize what has been done in order to get the best possible results and efforts put on that record. So that you may receive a thoroughly enjoyable record as to our talent, tone, quality and perfection we may go through many channels before the product reaches the consumer.
First, our department, under Mr. T. G. Rockwell, searches to find such numbers as we may define as hits. Of course, it is almost impossible for anyone to determine what a hit is, but by receiving all numbers first off they can at any rate pick such numbers that look best to them then take a chance.
Next, we choose the proper singer or orchestra (whichever the case may be) to fit the chosen selection, then comes our Musical Supervisor, Mr. Justin Ring, who it is up to [to] see that we have a special arrangement made that is properly fitted for recording purposes. This all being done we now book the number for a set recording date.
The Orchestra comes straggling in, anywhere from 9:30 to 10:00 A.M. as the date has been set for that hour.
Mr. Charles Hibbard, our Chief Engineer, or myself (whichever one is to do the recording), places the men in their proper places before the microphone and then we are ready to go.
The Orchestra must rehearse the number several times so that there will be no slip up.
Now we ring a bell for silence in the band room and as soon as this has been attained we put on our starting light for the orchestra to play. This record is being recorded on a wax disc and the selection has been timed to the proper three minute length.
After we have cut this selection on our wax disc we can play it back on our special reproducing machine which tells us about our balance. Now we start to criticize our work. Hibbard says that’s terrible. Give me some more bass, or I want less of those soprano saxes in that 2nd chorus, and after we have picked out all the faulty spots we start on another test. This time after re-arranging the position of a few instruments we strike a perfect balance and can proceed for our master wax record.
We make from 5 to 6 of these masters so as to pick one out with the least imperfection. These waxes are handled with the greatest care being placed in wooden containers and shipped to our Bridgeport factory by special messenger.
Then comes the process of electro plating the wax masters and putting them through many other channels which would take more time than I am allowed for my article to explain. But nevertheless in a few days we have our samples returned of the finished product. These samples are then played and the best is chosen by the judgment of our Musical & Recording Dept. from a mechanical as well as a musical standpoint. The order is given to press this record for manufacture and the public may then go to their nearest dealer and buy said record which we have taken so much pains to make OKEH.
By the late 1920s the OKeh label was operating more closely as an extension of Columbia and all operations of the two labels were coordinated. In 1929 a new “ONY-” catalog series was initiated for the Odeon label for the export market in the Far East, while an American Parlophone label was introduced with a “PNY-” catalog series duplicating most of the material in the Odeon “ONY-” series, apparently for export to the Philippines. These labels sometimes used non-vocal versions of material issued in the U.S. on OKeh. The Odeon label was discontinued entirely in 1931.
In 1930 Columbia recordings began to be renumbered into the OKeh matrix series for release on that label. This practice became even more prevalent from 1931 onwards.
The deepening Depression meant that all economic activity in the U.S. was slowing down dramatically by 1930 and the record business was especially hard hit. With the parent company, Columbia, in trouble, the ability and determination for it to continue to operate OKeh as the semi-autonomous subsidiary it had been since the label’s acquisition in 1926 was quickly eroded. In December, 1931 the U.S. Columbia Phonograph Company, Inc., was sold to Grigsby-Grunow, the manufacturers of Majestic radios and refrigerators.
At this time OKeh effectively ceased to exist as a separate entity except in a purely nominal sense. It is still credited as the OKeh Phonograph Corporation on record labels and OKeh records still have a unique catalog series and matrix series, but otherwise OKeh had effectively become just a desk within the Columbia organization.
The separate OKeh matrix series was discontinued in April, 1933 and by that date only the 40000 10” popular catalog series, the 45000 10” hillbilly series, the 16400 10” Mexican series, and the 8000 10” race series remained out of over 90 different catalog series catering for all kinds of classical, operatic, ethnic, and other types of releases that had existed during the label’s peak in the 1920s. By mid-1933 the OKeh label used only Columbia (and later American Record Corporation) masters.
In this last period of the label’s existence any reference to the OKeh Phonograph Corporation was dropped. When Grigsby-Grunow was declared bankrupt in November, 1933 Columbia was placed in receivership and in early 1934 the company was sold to the American Record Corporation for $70,000. The OKeh label was discontinued a short time later.
Discography of OKeh Records, 1918-1934 . Compiled by Ross Laird and Brian Rust. Reprinted by permission.