The Columbia Phonograph Company was founded in 1887 by stenographer, lawyer and New Jersey native Edward D. Easton (1856–1915) and a group of investors. It derived its name from the District of Columbia, where it was headquartered. At first it had a local monopoly on sales and service of Edison phonographs and phonograph cylinders in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Delaware. As was the custom of some of the regional phonograph companies, Columbia produced many commercial cylinder recordings of its own, and its catalogue of musical records in 1891 was 10 pages. Columbia’s ties to Edison and the North American Phonograph Company were severed in 1894 with the North American Phonograph Company’s breakup. Thereafter it sold only records and phonographs of its own manufacture. In 1902, Columbia introduced the “XP” record, a molded brown wax record, to use up old stock. Columbia introduced black wax records in 1903. According to one source, they continued to mold brown waxes until 1904 with the highest number being 32601, “Heinie”, which is a duet by Arthur Collins and Byron G. Harlan. The molded brown waxes may have been sold to Sears for distribution (possibly under Sears’ Oxford trademark for Columbia products). Columbia began selling disc records (invented and patented by Victor Talking Machine Company’s Emile Berliner) and phonographs in addition to the cylinder system in 1901, preceded only by their “Toy Graphophone” of 1899, which used small, vertically cut records. For a decade, Columbia competed with both the Edison Phonograph Company cylinders and the Victor Talking Machine Company disc records as one of the top three names in American recorded sound. In order to add prestige to its early catalog of artists, Columbia contracted a number of New York Metropolitan Opera stars to make recordings . These stars included Marcella Sembrich, Lillian Nordica, Antonio Scotti and Edouard de Reszke, but the technical standard of their recordings was not considered to be as high as the results achieved with classical singers during the pre–World War I period by Victor, Edison, England’s His Master’s Voice (The Gramophone Company Ltd.) or Italy’s Fonotipia Records. After an abortive attempt in 1904 to manufacture discs with the recording grooves stamped into both sides of each disc not just one in 1908 Columbia commenced successful mass production of what they called their “Double-Faced” discs, the 10-inch variety initially selling for 65 cents apiece. The firm also introduced the internal-horn “Grafonola” to compete with the extremely popular “Victrola” sold by the rival Victor Talking Machine Company. During this era, Columbia used the “Magic Notes” logo a pair of sixteenth notes (semiquavers) in a circle both in the United States. Columbia stopped recording and manufacturing wax cylinder records in 1908, after arranging to issue celluloid cylinder records made by the Indestructible Record Company of Albany, New York, as “Columbia Indestructible Records”. In July 1912, Columbia decided to concentrate exclusively on disc records and stopped manufacturing cylinder phonographs, although they continued selling Indestructible’s cylinders under the Columbia name for a year or two more. On February 25, 1925, Columbia began recording with the electric recording process licensed from Western Electric. “Viva-tonal” records set a benchmark in tone and clarity unequaled on commercial discs during the 78-rpm era. The first electrical recordings were made by Art Gillham, the “Whispering Pianist”. In a secret agreement with Victor, electrical technology was kept secret to avoid hurting sales of acoustic records. In 1926, Columbia acquired Okeh Records and its growing stable of jazz and blues artists, including Louis Armstrong and Clarence Williams. Columbia had already built a catalog of blues and jazz artists, including Bessie Smith in their 14000-D Race series. Columbia also had a successful “Hillbilly” series (15000-D). In 1928, Paul Whiteman, the nation’s most popular orchestra leader, left Victor to record for Columbia. During the same year, Columbia executive Frank Buckley Walker pioneered some of the first country music or “hillbilly” genre recordings with the Johnson City sessions in Tennessee, including artists such as Clarence Horton Greene and “Fiddlin'” Charlie Bowman. He followed that with a return to Tennessee the next year, as well as recording sessions in other cities of the South. In 1929 Ben Selvin became house bandleader and A. & R. director. Other favorites in the Viva-tonal era included Ruth Etting, Paul Whiteman, Fletcher Henderson, Ipana Troubadours (a Sam Lanin group), and Ted Lewis. Columbia used acoustic recording for “budget label” pop product well into 1929 on the labels Harmony, Velvet Tone (both general purpose labels), and Diva (sold exclusively at W.T. Grant stores). When Edison Records folded, Columbia was the oldest surviving record label. In 1931, the British Columbia Graphophone Company (itself originally a subsidiary of American Columbia Records, then to become independent, actually went on to purchase its former parent, American Columbia, in late 1929) merged with the Gramophone Company to form Electric & Musical Industries Ltd. (EMI). EMI was forced to sell its American Columbia operations (because of anti-trust concerns) and the Grigsby-Grunow Company, makers of the Majestic Radio were the purchaser. In 1938 ARC, including the Columbia label in the US, was bought by William S. Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System for US$750,000. CBS revived the Columbia label in place of Brunswick and the Okeh label in place of Vocalion. CBS renamed the company Columbia Recording Corporation and retained control of all of ARC’s past masters, but in a complicated move, the pre-1931 Brunswick and Vocalion masters, as well as trademarks of Brunswick and Vocalion, reverted to Warner Bros. and Warners sold it all to Decca Records in 1941. The Columbia trademark from this point until the late 1950s was two overlapping circles with the Magic Notes in the left circle and a CBS microphone in the right circle. The Royal Blue labels now disappeared in favor of a deep red, which caused RCA Victor to claim infringement on its Red Seal trademark (RCA lost the case). The blue Columbia label was kept for its classical music Columbia Masterworks Records line until it was later changed to a green label before switching to a gray label in the late 1950s, and then to the bronze that is familiar to owners of its classical and Broadway albums. Columbia Phonograph Company of Canada did not survive the Great Depression, so CBS made a distribution deal with Sparton Records in 1939 to release Columbia records in Canada under the Columbia name. During the 1940s Columbia had a contract with Frank Sinatra. Sinatra helped boost Columbia in revenue. Sinatra recorded over 200 songs with Columbia which include his most popular songs from his early years. Other popular artists on Columbia included Benny Goodman (signed from RCA Victor), Count Basie, Jimmie Lunceford (both signed from Decca), Eddy Duchin, Ray Noble (both moved to Columbia from Brunswick), Kate Smith, Mildred Bailey, and Will Bradley.
1948 saw the first classical LP Nathan Milstein’s recording of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. Columbia’s 33 rpm format quickly spelled the death of the classical 78 rpm record and for the first time in nearly fifty years, gave Columbia a commanding lead over RCA Victor Red Seal. Despite Wallerstein’s stormy tenure, in June 1948, Columbia introduced the Long Playing “microgroove” LP record format (sometimes written “Lp” in early advertisements), which rotated at 33⅓ revolutions per minute, to be the standard for the gramophone record for half a century. CBS research director Dr. Peter Goldmark played a managerial role in the collaborative effort, but Wallerstein credits engineer William Savory with the technical prowess that brought the long-playing disc to the public. By the early 1940s, Columbia had been experimenting with higher fidelity recordings, as well as longer masters, which paved the way for the successful release of the LPs in 1948. One such record that helped set a new standard for music listeners was the 10″ LP reissue of The Voice of Frank Sinatra, originally released on March 4, 1946 as an album of four 78 rpm records, which was the first pop album issued in the new LP format. Sinatra was arguably Columbia’s hottest commodity and his artistic vision combined with the direction Columbia were taking the medium of music, both popular and classic, were well suited. Columbia’s LPs were particularly well-suited to classical music’s longer pieces, so some of the early albums featured such artists as Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, Bruno Walter and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Sir Thomas Beecham and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The success of these recordings eventually persuaded Capitol Records to begin releasing LPs in 1949. Even before the LP record was officially demonstrated, Columbia offered to share the new speed with rival RCA Victor, who initially rejected it and soon introduced their new competitive 45 RPM record. When it became clear that the LP was the preferred format for classical recordings, RCA Victor announced that the company would begin releasing its own LPs in January, 1950. This was quickly followed by the other major American labels. In 1951, Columbia US began issuing records in the 45 rpm format RCA Victor had introduced two years earlier. The same year, Ted Wallerstein retired as Columbia Records chairman; and Columbia US also severed its decades-long distribution arrangement with EMI and signed a distribution deal with Philips Records to market Columbia recordings outside North America. Columbia became the most successful non-rock record company in the 1950s after it lured producer and bandleader Mitch Miller away from the Mercury label in 1950. Despite its many successes, Columbia remained largely uninvolved in the teenage rock’n’roll market until the mid-1960s. Miller quickly signed up Mercury’s biggest artist at the time, Frankie Laine, and discovered several of the decade’s biggest recording stars including Tony Bennett, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Boyd, Guy Mitchell (whose stage surname was taken from Miller’s first name), Johnnie Ray, The Four Lads, Rosemary Clooney, Ray Conniff, Jerry Vale and Johnny Mathis. He also oversaw many of the early singles by the label’s top female recording star of the decade, Doris Day. In 1953, Columbia formed a new subsidiary label Epic Records. Despite the appearance of favoring a country music genre, Columbia bid $15,000 for Elvis Presley’s contract from Sun Records in 1955. Miller made no secret of the fact that he was not a fan of rock music and was saved from having to deal with it when Presley’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker, turned down their offer and signed Presley with RCA Victor. However, Columbia did sign two Sun artists in 1958: Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. With 1954, Columbia US decisively broke with its past when it introduced its new, modernist-style “Walking Eye” logo, designed by Columbia’s art director S. Neil Fujita. This logo actually depicts a stylus (the legs) on a record (the eye); however, the “eye” also subtly refers to CBS’s main business in television, and that division’s iconic Eye logo. Columbia continued to use the “notes and mike” logo on record labels and even used a promo label showing both logos until the “notes and mike” was phased out (along with the 78 in the US) in 1958. Although the onset of long-playing vinyl “hi-fi” records coincided with the public’s loss of interest in big bands, Columbia maintained Duke Ellington under contract, capturing the historic moment when Ellington’s band provoked a post-midnight frenzy (followed by international headlines) at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, which proved not only a boost to the venerable bandleader and the barely established venue of the outdoor music festival but a harbinger of the musical love-fest that was Woodstock. Under new head producer George Avakian, Columbia became the most vital label to the general public’s appreciation and understanding (with help from Avakian’s prolific and perceptive play-by-play liner notes) of America’s indigenous art, releasing the most important LP’s by the music’s founding father, Louis Armstrong, but also signing to long-term contracts Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis, the two modern jazz artists who would in 1959 record albums that remain—more than a half century later—among the best-selling jazz albums by any label viz., Time Out by the Brubeck Quartet and, to an even greater extent, Kind of Blue by the Davis Sextet, which. With another producer, Teo Macero, a skilled modernist composer himself, Columbia cemented contracts with jazz giants Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus, while Macero became a key agent in recording and representing—through attention-grabbing, colorful—albums the protean faces of Miles Davis—from leading exponent of cool jazz and an explorer of the art of modal jazz through his sextet’s 1958 album Milestones to innovator and avatar of the marriage of jazz with rock and electronic sounds—commonly known as jazz fusion. 1954 was the eventful year of Columbia’s embracing small-group modern jazz—first, in the signing of the Dave Brubeck Quartet, which resulted in the release of the on-location, best-selling jazz album (up to this time), Jazz Goes to College. Contemporaneously with Columbia’s first release of modern jazz by a small group, which was also the Brubeck Quartet’s debut on the label, was a Time Magazine cover story on the phenomenon of Brubeck’s success on college campuses. The humble Dave Brubeck demurred, saying that the second Time Magazine cover story on a jazz musician (the first featured Louis Armstrong’s picture) had been earned by Duke Ellington, not himself. Within two years Ellington’s picture would appear on the cover of Time Magazine, following his “wild” success at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival. Ellington at Newport, recorded on Columbia, was also the bandleader-composer-pianist’s best-selling album. Moreover, this exclusive trinity of jazz giants featured on Time Magazine were all Columbia artists. Although Columbia began recording in stereo in 1956, stereo LPs did not begin to be manufactured until 1958. One of Columbia’s first stereo releases was an abridged and re-structured performance of Handel’s Messiah by the New York Philharmonic and the Westminster Choir conducted by Leonard Bernstein. Columbia released its first pop stereo albums in the summer of 1958. All of the first dozen or so were stereo versions of albums already available in mono. It wasn’t until September 1958, that Columbia started simultaneous mono/stereo releases. Mono records sold to the general public were subsequently discontinued in 1968. To celebrate the 10th anniversary of the introduction of the LP, in 1958 Columbia initiated the “Adventures in Sound” series that showcased music from around the world. By the latter half of 1961, Columbia started using pressing plants with newer equipment. The “deep groove” pressings were made on older pressing machines, where the groove was an artifact of the metal stamper being affixed to a round center “block” to assure the resulting record would be centered. Newer machines used parts with a slightly different geometry, that only left a small “ledge” where the deep groove used to be. This changeover did not happen all at once, as different plants replaced machines at different times, leaving the possibility that both deep groove and ledge varieties could be original pressings. The changeover took place starting in late 1961. Columbia’s engineering department developed a process for emulating stereo from a mono source. They called this process “Electronically Rechanneled for Stereo.” In the June 16, 1962, issue of Billboard magazine (page 5), Columbia announced it would issue “rechanneled” versions of greatest hits compilations that had been recorded in mono, including albums by Doris Day, Frankie Laine, Percy Faith, Mitch Miller, Marty Robbins, Dave Brubeck, Miles Davis, and Johnny Mathis. Columbia’s rechanneling process involved a slight time delay and some bass-treble separation between channels. RCA Victor and Capitol (“Duophonic”) used similar processes, but the relatively large delay between channels resulted in a sound that has been described by collectors as “messy” (Duophonic) or “garbage can echo” (RCA Victor). Columbia’s rechanneling resulted in a sound similar to reverb, though some found it annoying. When Mitch Miller retired in 1965, Columbia was at a turning point. Miller’s disdain for rock and roll and pop rock had dominated Columbia’s A&R policy. The label’s only significant “pop” acts at the time were Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Paul Revere & The Raiders and Simon & Garfunkel. In its catalogue were other genres: classical, jazz and country, along with a select group of R&B artists, among them Aretha Franklin. Most historians noted that Columbia had problems marketing Franklin as a major talent in the R&B genre, which led to her leaving the label for Atlantic Records in 1967. In 1967, Brooklyn-born lawyer Clive Davis became president of Columbia. Sales of Broadway soundtracks and Mitch Miller’s singalong series were waning. Pretax earnings had flattened to about $5 million annually. Following the appointment of Davis, the Columbia label became more of a rock music label, thanks mainly to Davis’s fortuitous decision to attend the Monterey International Pop Festival, where he spotted and signed several leading acts including Janis Joplin. Joplin led the way for several generations of female rock and rollers. However, Columbia/CBS still had a hand in traditional pop and jazz and one of its key acquisitions during this period was Barbra Streisand. In September 1970, under the guidance of Clive Davis, Columbia Records entered the West Coast rock market, opening a state-of-the art recording studio (which was located at 827 Folsom St. in San Francisco and later morphed into the Automatt) and establishing an A&R head and office in San Francisco at Fisherman’s Wharf, headed by George Daly, a producer and artist for Monument Records (who inked a distribution deal with Columbia at the time) and a former bandmate of Nils Lofgren and Roy Buchanan. The recording studio operated under CBS until 1978. During the early 1970s, Columbia began recording in a four-channel process called quadraphonic, using the “SQ” (Stereo Quadraphonic) standard that used an electronic encoding process that could be decoded by special amplifiers and then played through four speakers, with each speaker placed in the corner of a room. Remarkably, RCA countered with another quadraphonic process that required a special cartridge to play the “discrete” recordings for four-channel playback. Both Columbia and RCA’s quadraphonic records could be played on conventional stereo equipment. Although the Columbia process required less equipment and was quite effective, many were confused by the competing systems and sales of both Columbia’s matrix recordings and RCA’s discrete recordings were disappointing. A few other companies also issued some matrix recordings for a few years. Quadraphonic recording was used by both classical artists, including Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, and popular artists such as Electric Light Orchestra, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd, Johnny Cash, Barbra Streisand, Ray Conniff, Carlos Santana, Herbie Hancock, The Clash and Blue Öyster Cult. Columbia even released a soundtrack album of the movie version of Funny Girl in quadraphonic. Many of these recordings were later remastered and released in Dolby surround sound on CD.