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A Personal History of Recorded Sound [Episode One]
A Colston Willmott Story

After primary school, age eleven, I was streamed into the trades [metalwork and woodwork a speciality] at the Bedminster Technical School located at the t-junction of Boot and Stillhouse Lanes [Bristol, England]. Trapped behind the walls of this gloomy Victorian edifice there was little hope of a young mind being stimulated. Fortunately our music teacher, one Mister Greene, taught us by example. He was my favourite teacher and a major influence on my life. It’s not as though he taught us about the twelve-bar blues or jazz or anything like that, but he did make us aware of the idea that there was culture out in the world other than the mindlessness of blotting out our daily situation with base pleasures.

Quality for him was the music of the legendary Italian opera singer Enrico Caruso, one of the most famous tenors in the history of opera. He was also the most popular singer in any genre in the first twenty years of the 20th century and one of the pioneers of recorded music. During his career his nearly 260 recordings made millions of dollars. He sang at many of the world’s great opera houses including La Scala in Milan and Covent Garden in London, but was best known as the leading male singer, for seventeen years, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.

Mister Greene collected his original recordings on 78 rpm shellac discs. They were quite thick, possibly even a 1/4” in thickness, with the music cut on one side. He believed that this was the only way to hear this music, that the sound produced on the recently invented long playing records did not capture the real sound, when the recorded music was transferred into modern technology the organic quality disappeared. His classes were a highlight of our week-by-week grind. He introduced us to the art of opera utilising a wind-up gramophone, a machine that he was extremely proud of owning. The needles, that were clamped to the sound pick-up box with a tiny knurled finger screw, were made of wood, and could, when they became dull, be sharpened with a special tool. There were metal needles that came in tiny tin boxes with an illustration of Nipper, his master’s voice dog, on the cover, but Mr. Greene would never play his precious, wonderful, organic opera recordings of Enrico Caruso with steel needles.

He sounds quite antiquated, but I believe in retrospect that he was a radical thinker in his day. Although his love was opera, he understood that his young students had music of their own that they listened to, so he encouraged us to bring our favourite records to his music class.

Each week a different student, or at least those who were wealthy enough to own such a luxury, were given the opportunity to present a record of their choice. There were approximately the same number of students as there were weeks in a term, and because there was not so much focus, as in modern times, as to what popular music was, the variety over the term would be amazing. The music styles would range from vaudeville songs, radio show bands like Billy Cotton and Cyril Stapleton, to the popular music of the day.

He taught music theory by having us sing traditional rounds, madrigals, a 16th or 17th century Italian vocal music arranged in elaborate counterpoint, and sung without musical accompaniment. So I never learned how to read music or play the piano.

End Notes:
Enrico Caruso:


Bill Smith [aka Colston Willmott] can be contacted at classicimprov@yahoo.ca

My weekly radio show, presented between noon and 2:00 every Wednesday on Hornby Island Radio [CHFR – 96.5 FM] can be found at: https://hornbyradio.com/dj/jazz-gems-with-bill-smith/

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