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!


Profiting from ‘The Profit’

This past Monday (10/20) Marcus Lemonis paid a visit to Camden, NJ. He addressed the graduates from the Latin American Economic Development Association’s Entrepreneurial Development Program. The event took place at the Salvation Army Ray and Joan Croc Community Center.

In the interest of full disclosure: both my father and I both serve as LAEDA instructors. The EDP program is for actual entrepreneurs who are either starting or operating real small businesses in the South Jersey area. Many readers no doubt know Mr. Lemonis as the guy with the big check book on the CNBC program The Profit; he’s invested close to $7M of his own money over the course of two seasons. Interestingly, little of the advice he gave to the entrepreneurs had to do with economics.

Mr. Lemonis delivered inspirational comments without notes, but with a host of sage advice. He explained that he lost 55 lbs during one summer while in high school. A need to “re-invent himself” inspired him to do so. At the time he figured other people wanted him to slim down. “How many times do we re-invent ourselves to please others”? he asked. He used this vignette to segue into how important it is for people to re-invent themselves for the right reasons.

The most moving part of Mr. Lemonis’ speech centered on vulnerability. It’s critical for leaders to be cognizant of his/her weaknesses. He admitted to a room of strangers his issues with his weight, how he’s struggled in his personal relationships and that he’s had one failed marriage. In spite of his myriad successes as a businessman and television personality he acknowledged even he suffers from a lack of confidence on occasion. That’s an extraordinary admission. As a CEO he leads many people. In addition he invests large sums of money in failing businesses in front of a world-wide audience. One wonders how prosperous he’d be without any confidence issues.

Based on the topics already cited, it’s not surprising that the core of his speech dealt with the topic of character. A relentless commitment to self-improvement plays a key role here. “Your employees put tremendous faith in your decision making.” The most surprising bit of advice he delivered to the group involved human resources. “If you haven’t worked for someone else, you’re not an entrepreneur. You need to know what it’s like to be fired.” He challenged those with difficult employees. “When people come to work for you and they fail, it’s no one’s fault but yours.” Leaders must do everything possible to ensure the success of his/her employees. “Before firing someone you need to look yourself in the eye and say you’ve done everything to make them successful.”

During the question and answer period one of the business owners asked Mr. Lemonis about fear. “Welcome to the club,” he replied. While everyone knows it takes money to run a business, it also takes a lot of character. The fact Mr. Lemonis’ comments focused on the later over the former shows its criticality. As he eloquently pointed out, “When you’re down and out you need to pick yourself up.” While money certainly helps, it’s impossible to do so without character.