2012 marks the 125th anniversary of the Columbia Records label. No, it's not the 125th tear for the Columbia Record COMPANY, the label changed hands a few times and it is now owned by Sony. But, as a label it had the longest life of any other. To celebrate the anniversary, Columbia engaged Chronicle Books, known for it's large-format "coffee table" books with great graphics to publish a history of the label and hired Princeton American history professor Sean Wilentz to write the text. The title refers to the Columbia Records logo that was developed (and trademarked) when Stereo was first introduced. The book is being issued in two formats. This is a review of the "Standard" edition; I'll mention the "Deluxe" edition further down.
First off, this is not the only recent book on Columbia's history. In 2007, Gary Marmostein authored "The Columbia Story" which was mostly text with some photos. The Wilentz book is about 50% photos and 50% text. And it is big and HEAVY. The 336-pages, on heavy paper, weighs in at 5lbs, 3 ounces! Within those pages Wilentz attempts to cover the full 125 years from the first paraffin Graphophone cylinder records (Columbia's answer to Edison's wax cylinders) to the top charting success of Adele's "21" album. Obviously he had to make his stops at each period short and the range of Columbia's music styles (pop, jazz, classical, folk, R&B, Broadway and film recordings and, yes, spoken word.). But there is, literally, something for everyone here.
My interest focuses a lot on the pre-Lp era (a format that Wilentz states was created by Victor in the 1920s, but abandoned only to be made successful in 1949 for Columbia) so I was glad to see that that era is not overlooked. We get to page 174 before we hit the pop and rock era of the 1960s. In his introduction and acknowledgements Wilentz says that he didn't consider himself an expert and relied on knowledgeable researchers on sound recording history including independent researcher Tim Brooks, who has written significant articles about the label. Credits from images include both Blues record collector John Tefteller and Country music historian Colin Escott so these knowledgeable folks were included as well. Yes, when it came to "inside stories" Wilentz consulted the A&R execs at the label, but they are not historians. So I felt comfortable, reading the text, that Wilentz did his work. I should point out, however, that the book contains "side bar essays" written by either Wilentz or rock critic Dave Marsh. I'll comment on Marsh's work later in this review.
Most folks coming to this book will not be there for the text, but rather for the photos and graphics. They are certainly colorful and book is - well, gorgeous! I'm not sure if it was Wilentz who chose the layout but I have a few "issues" with it. For one, the captions (which are really just titles) are in a very light typeface and not easy to read. There are no dates given for when the photo was taken. Next is the use of space. While some of these images are great when they fill one page, too often space is wasted. There's a photo of the Dixie Chicks which fills two photos and the one of Adele has her face and arms filling one page with her shoulder just barely going to the otherwise-black page to it's right. The double page spreads work best when they are filled with colorful (and I do mean COLORFUL!) record ephemera such as early 1900-1920 catalog covers.
The label scans on the cover are clean and of the original records. I thought the print for the Index pages was tiny, until I turned the page. On ONE page - the last one - they list the source of the "Trademarks" of the artists (Led Zeppelin, Philadelphia Orchestra and Bruce Springsteen are trademarked names). The font size requires a magnifying glass - not included with the book - to read it.
So, based on the above, I can easily recommend this book to anyone with a broad interest in recorded music history (and I count myself among that group). For those more interested in "business" side of things, the Marmostein volume will provide more documentation. (Note that Wilentz does not provide any footnotes or source of detailed info other than saying "according to...". ) And, again, the book LOOKS great!
I mentioned the "other edition" being published in two editions. The other is the "Deluxe Edition". This comes in a slipcase combining this Wilentz book with another volume - a cloth covered 142-page book titled "Legends and Legacy" written by rock critic Dave Marsh, listing the 263 recordings that, in Marsh's words, "best represent a condensed history Columbia Records at its best". Also included is a USB thumb-drive containing all 263 "original" recordings. While I was not able to get the USB, I was able to see, and read, the Marsh Book. For each recording there is a short essay by marsh as well as a color illustration of the record label, as well as the date of record and matrix. In some cases a illustration of 78rpm single is the cover of the CD reissue. Even the earliest recording - "Washington Post March" by Sousa's Band - listed as a wax cylinder from 1890 is shown as an Indestructible celluloid cylinder which weren't made until 1907. And there is a note that the "source" of the recording on the USC is the 1999 CD collection " Sounds of the Century". I noted some other factual errors in Marsh's writing. I then looked at the "Acknowledgements" for this volume and saw no record archivists or historians listed. A lot of A&R and Sony company execs though. I know the execs know their "business side" of the company but none of them are recorded sound historians. So, though this review of the Wilentz book, I felt it necessary to mention Marsh's section.
It'll be a long time before another such anniversary occurs for the company. I'm glad they gave Wilentz free hand to cover their main competitor (RCA, Victor and Edison) and glad that Wilentz acknowledged his initiations and acknowledged the experts.
I hope you found this review both informative and helpful.