Victor Talking Machine Company: South Jersey’s Motown

Our friends in Cleveland, the home of “the heart of rock and roll”, owe the South Jersey area a great debt of gratitude. It turns out that without Camden, New Jersey’s contribution to the music industry that pulse would’ve flat lined a long time ago. According to Victor Talking Machine Company CEO, Graham Alexander, former Moorestown, New Jersey resident Eldridge Johnson and his business partner Emile Berliner gave birth to the modern record industry when they founded the company he now runs. Mr. Alexander referred to these two pioneers as the “Lennon and McCartney of the music industry” in a speech he delivered to the Historical Society of Moorestown on April 7th.

Camden native Mr. Alexander is well suited to his role as a music industry executive. With his black sport jacket, gray company logo shirt and boots, he looks the part. His bushy black hair and vocal inflections bring to mind Sir Paul McCartney. That’s not surprising. He played Sir Paul in a Broadway production of Rain prior to becoming an entrepreneur. Physical appearances aside, his intense passion for what he does truly makes Mr. Alexander fit the multiple roles he plays as a business owner, historian and performer.

Mr. Alexander acquired the Victor name during a brand auction he attended while living in New York City. Since he hailed from the South Jersey area he wanted to return. When the opportunity to purchase a piece of its rich musical legacy and bring it back with him presented itself, he did so. In addition to the Victor Talking Machine Company, he also acquired the rights to the Victrola, His Master’s Voice and Camden Records (Little Richard’s original label) brands.

The promotional film for Mr. Alexander’s song “Games” opens with an aerial view from an antique clip of one of the old Camden Victor buildings. The voice over describes “a treasure house of music” where one “gets to see a record made.” Then a sound engineer cues an orchestra. A black and white clip of the ensemble morphs into Mr. Alexander’s 2015 band playing a soulful ballad. This is an excellent metaphor of how he is developing both the old and the new at the Victor Talking Machine Company.

It’s not entirely fair to call Camden “South Jersey’s Motown”. The Victor Talking Machine Company’s talent roster would’ve made Berry Gordy envious. Imagine having the likes of Enrico Caruso, Billie Holliday and Big Bill Broonzy among the label’s artists. Now add to that list Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Include Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, two of the most influential Jazz guitarists who ever lived. Woody Guthrie along with blues legend Lead Belly both recorded their first albums for Victor. (This is only a partial list of the company’s artists, by the way.) Most people don’t realize that these monumental talents recorded in Camden because as Mr. Alexander wittily observed, Victor “got rid of their good musicians before they really got good.”

Music aficionados like me salivate at the thought of listening to the master recordings of these sessions; especially for the great blues men who influenced the British Invasion. (It’s just a shame it took English musicians to introduce Americans to our music.) Unfortunately, many of Victor’s master recordings were lost in the 1960s. Due to an expansion of Camden’s docks an estimated 300,000 ended up at the bottom of the Delaware River. Thanks to the aid of RCA’s European affiliates* and donations from relatives of former Victor employees, the company is recovering some of these “lost” recordings. (* RCA purchased Victor in 1929.)

During his speech Mr. Alexander passed around a visual aid of a metal master recording. Record companies used these silver colored discs the size of a modern record until 1948. The manufacturer would press them into vinyl to make a record. During its prime Victor produced approximately 800,000 vinyl records a day. Mr. Alexander archly explained that it took “Mr. Edison’s company” a month to a month-and-a-half to produce that many.

The highlight of the evening came when Mr. Alexander played an unreleased recording from the Victor archives. It featured my favorite classical composer, Sergei Rachmaninoff, playing “The Flight of the Bumblebee” unaccompanied on the piano. When it concluded, he told the Historical Society of Moorestown that we were the first people outside the company to hear it. Ironically, Rachmaninoff didn’t like the recording. That’s why Victor never released it. “Still, you don’t hear music like that anymore,” Mr. Alexander observed. (For those who are unfamiliar with the artist: imagine a Russian born Keith Emerson; only a much better piano player.)

The Victor Talking Machine Company is currently headquartered at The Vault ™ in Berlin, NJ. Its brochure describes it as “a unique entertainment and educational experience venue.” In addition to housing early recordings of diverse artists ranging from Jimmy Rogers to Duke Ellington, it also contains historic recordings of Presidential speeches, military battles as well as antique comedy performances.

Thanks to the innovations of its visionary founder, Eldridge Johnson, the company has quite a legacy. Under his leadership Victor revolutionized the music industry. It shared the original record patent with Columbia. Johnson understood that records would become the home entertainment industry. He possessed the acumen to recognize Victor wasn’t selling records: they were selling “works of art”, in Mr. Alexander’s words. Hence the addition of liner notes, album art and artist stories to the package.

So what’s next for Victor? Mr. Alexander said that they’re “not putting the company’s legacy behind glass.” His goal is to, “Make a viable company for today without trampling over its history.” Because of that history, it’s wrong to call Victor South Jersey’s Motown. It would be more appropriate to call Motown Michigan’s Victor. Eat your heart of rock and roll out, Cleveland!

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