Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Cadillac of vintage microphones

A 1939 Cadillac
When I wrote an older post about the Turner 33 series, I compared vintage microphones to the streamlined designs of 30’s-60’s cars. Well, after doing some research to write about the Shure 55, I found out that the microphone that would become so popular in live performances, radio stations, and famous speeches, was actually inspired by the front grille of the 1939 Cadillac. Like the vintage microphones, those pieces of art on wheels are in a category of their own, providing us with a design that we would never see again. Sure, there are really well designed cars today, but very few make us breathless. At that time, both the streamlined mics and cars flourished during what would probably be their golden age.

In the late 30’s, Shure engineer Benjamin Baumzweiger (who later changed his last name to Bauer), was working on a microphone that would solve feedback problems. Before he created the 55, the unidirectional microphones available were much heavier and had two elements. Bauer’s breakthrough was to become the first single element unidirectional microphone. Shure would call this model the 55 Unidyne (UNI = unidirectional, DYNE = dynamic).
Scene from The Temptations
A young Elvis with the Shure 55
In the beginning, the 55 would have model variations (55A/55B/55C) for different impedances. The one pictured on this post is a model 55, which substituted the need for different models, with a high/medium/low switch on the back. It would also vary in silk color (black, red, or blue). In the 40’s, there would be more two more models, the 555 and 556 shock-mounted microphones. On a curious note, the precursor of the 55S mic is known today as the fat Elvis mic. And no, the 55S, the thinner and smaller version which would make its debut in 1951, is not called the skinny Elvis mic. Nor Elvis on a diet.
Scene from La Bamba
Up to this day, the 55 is the most recognizable microphone in the world. Throughout all these years, it captured the voices of so many different people in such different areas, like: Elvis Presley, Indira Gandhi, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, General Eisenhower, Eva Peron, Sarah Vaughan, Frank Sinatra, Groucho Marx, Harry Truman, and was even present at the signing of Japan’s surrender at the end of World War II. The DS rarity scale: 8.5/10.

A promotional photo of Walk the Line

Friday, August 27, 2010

The father of Rock and Roll

Until the late 40’s, probably the type of music most heard on radios came from big bands such as Glenn Miller’s, Benny Goodman’s, Harry James’, Sammy Kaye’s, and famous crooners. When Rock and Roll exploded, so did the amount of vocal groups trying to make it to the top. Groups would be formed in schools, churches, or even street corners. Since that time, radio DJs represented a strong influence on who would hit it big, and who wouldn’t. Although it’s known that some DJs were paid off to play certain records, which would probably help the groups to get more airtime and turn into a household name, I’m pretty sure a song wouldn’t last long if it wasn’t any good. 

Alan Freed, a.k.a. Moondog, was the most famous DJ of that time. He got his artistic name from the New York street musician Louis Hardin, who had an instrumental song called Moondog Symphony, and was known by the same name. (Freed would later lose the right to use the name in a lawsuit Hardin accused him of using his nickname and song without permission). Nevertheless, Alan Freed is known to be the “father” of Rock and Roll, because he was the first to coin the name “Rock and Roll” on the radio, and helped categorize it as a genre of music.

In the late 40’s, while working at a radio station, Freed met Leo Mintz, who was a record store owner in Cleveland. At that time, Mintz told Freed how there was an increase in interest for R&B records. Some years later, Mintz proposed to WJW station to buy airtime for Freed to play R&B records. That would be the beginning of Freed’s success, and probably the start of a more hip and energetic way for DJs to direct themselves at the younger crowd. He was also responsible for promoting the first Rock and Roll concert. The Moondog Coronation Ball was to be held in March 21, 1952, including a five-act show. Due to overcrowding, it had to be shut down. After this happened, Alan Freed’s popularity went over the roof.

Eventually, he moved to New York and expanded his fame all the way to Europe, for originating the Rock and Roll craze, as Life magazine would put it. He appeared in 5 movies in a three year period: Rock Around the Clock, Rock, Rock, Rock, Mr. Rock and Roll, Don’t Knock the Rock, and Go Johnny Go! He also recorded segments for Radio Luxembourg, and also had his own TV show, The Big Beat. What seems almost impossible to believe these days, The Big Beat was canceled after Frankie Lymon of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers was seen dancing with a white girl.

What was to be a career that was meant to last way beyond the coming of new genres, ended in the late 50’s, when Alan Freed was rightfully accused of receiving money from record companies to play certain records (known at the time as payola). He lost his job at WINS, and in 1962 received a fine and a suspended sentence for two charges of commercial bribery. The law might not have been harsh, but the notoriety of the scandal was. His reputation was stained forever, and east coast radio stations wouldn’t touch him. He ended up working for KDAY-AM on the west coast, which didn’t let him promote any more Rock and Roll stage shows. From there, Freed did a two month stint on a Miami radio station. He died at 43, in 1965, from complications derived from alcoholism.

If you want to hear the type of shows Alan Freed hosted in his prime, I recommend the Rock ‘n’ Roll Radio CD. It’s a compilation of live radio broadcasts on CBS in 1956, with song introductions by Freed. Besides the Count Basie Orchestra, you will also hear Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, The Drifters, Otis Williams and the Charms, The Cleftones, The Cadillacs, The Chordettes, Ivory Joe Hunter, Gene Vincent, La Verne Baker, Etta James, The Platters, Clyde McPhatter, Chuck Berry, The Penguins, and Bill Haley and the Comets. It’s a pretty rare CD, but I found this link on the web.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A special guest for the Astatic 77

One of the things that immediately came to mind when I decided to create a blog which featured my vintage microphones, was to have some friends over to sing and record them using my mics. I thought it would be nice for people to listen to the sound the microphones provided, along with some entertainment offered by the guests. While I’m still trying to get some friends who have groups and CDs of their own, I had my niece, Aline, over for a test run on how I would do this. What I thought would be an easy task, turned out to be a bit more complicated. Since I was recording video with my digital camera, and audio that came from the mic on my notebook, I would have to sync them both together later on. That was the real challenge. I did it with one song, and it worked out fine. But I realized it’s too much work. Since she’s coming over again next week, next time I’ll connect the audio from the mic directly to a video camera.

Aline has been singing for two years now, and has been on a rock/alternative/indie band for just about the same time. She just got over a cold, so to her benefit, it wasn’t her best performance. We tried 4 or 5 microphones, but for now, I’m just posting a small taste of That Thing You Do!.

As for the mic, the Astatic 77 is definitely a really nice looking microphone. In the 40’s, Shure hit the jackpot in terms of microphone design, when they came up with the 55 line. It only got better when, in 1951, the slim version (55S) was created. The fact that to this day it’s still manufactured, says something. In my opinion, a lot of the other companies wanted to resemble the look, in order to compete in sales. Although it’s similar in shape, the Astatic 77 went beyond that. Astatic came out with a beautiful design of its own, and the proof to that are other later models (from Claricon, Lafayette, Calrad, Calectro, etc.) that tried to approximate the 77 design. Like the old Shure 55 models, the Astatic 77 also has a high/medium/low switch, but located on the bottom front.


A curious fact is that a lot people make the mistake of calling it Astatic 77A, because of the “A” (Astatic) logo next to the “77”. The DS rarity scale: 8.3/10.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Pause for music: The Penguins

Clockwise from top: Curtis Williams, Bruce Tate, Dexter Tisby, and Cleve Duncan.

When Back to the Future came out in 1985, I was already well into 50’s music. I obviously knew that Johnny B. Goode was originally sung by Chuck Berry, but that was the first time I heard Earth Angel. I fell in love with it right away, and in my opinion it was right up there with songs like the Flamingos’ I Only Have Eyes for You, and the Five Satins’ In the Still of the Night. Later, I went on to learn that the original version was sung by the Penguins.

The Penguins’ place in 50’s music fell into a category well-known as One Hit Wonders. At the time, rock n’ roll and doo wop were among the types of music most heard by young people. But that didn’t make it easy for vocal groups to strike hits. Earth Angel was a great hit, but they never managed to reproduce another song with the same success.

The Penguins were formed in 1953, when Cleve Duncan and Curtis Williams (ex-Hollywood Flames) got together with Dexter Tisby and Bruce Tate to form a vocal group. The group name came from Willie the Penguin, featured on Kool cigarettes' ads, which one of the members smoked. In those days, a lot of groups named themselves after birds, but as Cleve Duncan would say later on, what could be more cool than Penguins?

In 1954, they recorded for Dootone records, but it wasn’t until the next year that they started getting some attention. In September of ‘55, a single was released with Hey Señorita on one side and Earth Angel, which Curtis Williams had been working on even before the group was formed, on the other. Strangely enough, Hey Señorita was obtaining an initial success when, one month later, Earth Angel started being noticed. It was a slow climb, but eventually it reached #1 on the R&B charts. On a curious note, at the time, it was common for white groups would record cover versions of songs done by African American groups and end up having more success on the charts. The Crew Cuts did a cover of Earth Angel, and while they were #3 on the Pop Charts, the Penguins were #8 with the same song.

Cleve Duncan with G. Madison and W. Saulsberry
After changing labels to Mercury and then back to Dootone, the group never made the charts again. After break ups and having different formations throughout the years, since the 70's, Cleve Duncan tours with Glenn Madison and Walter Saulsberry as the Penguins.

For those looking for a good Penguins’ CD, I recommend “The Best of the Penguins – The Mercury Years”. It contains 21 songs and features a second version of Earth Angel recorded with Mercury, with some bells in the background, that came out really sweet.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A vintage microphone with an Italian flavor

When you look around the internet, or more specifically, Ebay, for vintage microphones, I’d say that about 80%-90% of the results you get are American made. The rest are Japanese, British, or some eastern European or Russian manufacturers that you get to know after a while (Tesla, Oktava, Sennheiser, Neumann, etc.).

Every once in a while you come across manufacturers that you never or rarely heard about. Geloso is one of those I discovered while looking through some online auctions. I had never seen the Piezo Elettrico Nº 1100 microphone before, and I thought it had an interesting design. Since the bids weren’t high, I gave it a try and ended up buying the Geloso mic. When I got it, I was surprised to learn that it was so small (12cm in height). It looked like a toy microphone. It was pretty battered, and the paint, which resembled something like a greenish metallic gold (if that’s possible), was falling apart. So I decided to do something I always thought about when I purchased mics with heavy pitting on the chrome, or ones with an ugly color. I sent it to get it chromed. But I must say, I don’t like to mess around too much with the microphones, in order to avoid the loss of their personality. In this case, the chrome was a good idea. It gave a new life to the Geloso, and now it gets noticed every time somebody looks at my collection.

John Geloso

Geloso was founded in 1931 by John Geloso, an Argentinian born to Italian parents. It was based in Milan, Italy, and produced a wide range of electronic equipment (radios, TVs, amplifiers, amateur receivers, tape recorders, professional lab instruments, etc.). After WWII, Geloso also started making microphones, although they weren’t the focal point of the business. John Geloso died in 1969, but remains today as a reference of innovations in electronics. At the time when electronics training centers and schools were rare, he printed free technical bulletins which contained information on how to repair Geloso equipment, along with tips, instructions, schemes and all the information needed for technicians and enthusiasts. He will also be remembered for creating tv and radio mounting kits, for people to assemble at home. Unfortunately, the company closed its doors three years after his death.
The DS rarity scale: 9.7/10

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Tips on starting a collection and the DS rarity scale

For those interested in starting a vintage microphone collection, I have a few tips for you. Most of my microphones were bought on Ebay, but a few others were found on some other sites. I have to say that if you’re on a limited budget, Ebay is the way to go. You might find exactly what you want on some other sites, but you’ll pay a price for it. If you’re not in a rush, keep on the lookout on Ebay. Not only that, but you’re much safer there. But still, don’t go for the first auction you find of the model you want. Do a wide search of the model or of “vintage microphone”. For the first timers, it would be good for you to spend a week or two just searching for mics and evaluating the prices. I’ve seen a Turner 33x being sold for around $1,000 as if it were the last one on Earth, when usually you can get one for $100 or less. It may take some time, but always try to buy one that is in good shape cosmetically. Don’t risk buying from sellers that have blurred photos on their auction. If the seller only has a photo from a certain angle, don’t be shy on asking for photos of other angles and the interior of the microphone. And never buy from sellers with few or bad feedback. Another thing is to look for mics that work. A lot of sellers will sell microphones AS IS or UNTESTED. Take a look at the other things they are selling. If it looks like they came across one vintage mic to sell, but it’s really not within their field of expertise, it’s probably true. But if the seller sells a lot of vintage microphones and music gear, and he states in other auctions that a certain mic is working, then AS IS or UNTESTED probably means that it’s not working. 

A trick that some scam artists will try are to sell something outside of Ebay. Don’t go for that. Only buy microphones from other sites, not from other people. One site I recommend is Blues Mics. They are honest and fast shippers. But I must admit that there has been a considerable increase in prices, ever since I bought from them. I’ve also bought from Otoban Music. They’re located in Canada, and sell mostly musical instruments. Otoban Music is run by Philippe Chaput, who was extremely helpful during the many e-mails we exchanged until I bought a Rauland mic from him. I had done some research previous to contacting OM to see if there were any feedback from this online business. Some people had good things to say, others complained about the packaging. But that was easily resolved when I paid about $15 more for shipping and asked him to double box my mic. Considering it’s an old microphone made mainly of Bakelite and it arrived in perfect condition, I think he did a great job. Other sites that I know of, but have never bought from, are Cool Microphones and Ekkehart Willms Antiques. This last one has a fantastic collection of vintage microphones for sale, but they come at a very steep price.

In years of searching for vintage microphones and constant lookouts on Ebay, I accumulated a good sense of what microphones are hard to find. The DS rarity scale I introduced in the blog, is a personal evaluation of what I have seen throughout the years researching online sales. They may even be more scarce if you consider the cosmetic condition of the mic, and if they work or not. I hope it helps.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Better than a car

Have you ever encountered a new car on the street with a really good design on the front end, but when you looked at the rear, it wasn’t that cool? Well, some vintage microphones are the same way. Either the rear of the mic is the exact same thing as the front, or it’s nothing special. This is not the case of the Turner 33 series. (The 33D was a dynamic version, and the 33X was a crystal version, but on the outside they looked the same). The back is actually almost better looking than the front. It has some beautiful lines that remind me of some of the cars back in those days.
Today, it’s referred by many as the Roman Helmet mic. If you look at it sideways, the upper fin reminds us of the upper part of the helmets worn by the Imperial Roman guard.  It was made from the 1940’s until the 70’s, and has a satin chrome finish. The satin chrome was used on many microphones during that time, but now it’s used on just about everything. From doorknobs to water faucets, from lighting equipment to ball point pens. It is a type of dull chrome finish that doesn’t reflect as much as the most common chrome finish known to us today, like the one used on motorcycle parts.
The DS rarity scale: 6.8/10

My friend Joanatan, jammin' with a Turner 33.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Billie Holiday microphone

There were many beautiful black and white photographs taken of Billie Holiday during her career, but the one photo that immortalized both the singer and her microphone was taken by Herman Leonard, the greatest photographer of jazz artists there ever was. He is famous for taking memorable pictures of singers and musicians such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan Count Basie, Miles Davis, and many others. This particular photo of Billie Holiday and the Shure 730 became so notorious that it's on the front cover of one of the books on Herman Leonard's work. It was taken in New York, in 1949, with two elements that became a mark in some of Mr. Leonard's photographs, backlighting and cigarette smoke. Ten years earlier, she did have a picture taken with the same mic, at the Off Beat Club, in Chicago. Although not as famous, the photo ended up on the cover of the compilation CD Musical Romance, along with Lester Young.

The Shure 730 Uniplex Crystal microphone started being manufactured in the late 30's, and was advertised at the time as a low cost uni-directional mic. It was cheaper than the Shure 55 Unidyne, but it still had a higher price than a lot of mics produced by other companies. Although it had openings on the back, it was heralded as an efficient mic for enviroments with a lot of background noise and reverberation. You can download the spec sheet here.
The DS rarity scale: 8.5/10.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Pause for music: Ryan Shaw

Ryan Shaw with a RCA 77DX
These days it's common to see singers do cover albums of Soul and R&B classics. You have Seal’s Soul album, Rod Stewart’s Soulbook, Michael McDonald’s three Motown-inspired albums, and so on. They usually do a pretty good job, like Australia's ex-boy band Human Nature on their 3 Motown tribute albums. But every now and then, comes along somebody who was born to sing Soul and R&B music. Ryan Shaw really impressed me with his vocals and his adequacy to this kind of music. It’s like he could be warped through time travel directly onto the stage of a 60’s show and he would be an instant hit. This is not entirely a cover album, but better yet, an album that offers new songs with that classic soul flavor. (On the Japanese CD, you get two extra a cappella tracks: I Found a Love and I’ll Be Satisfied). This is Ryan Shaw (2007), is definitely a must have for the true Soul fan!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Electro-Voice and the Cardax

Over time, many of the vintage microphones have become famous and recognizable because they were photographed with well known artists. Some of them have even been informally renamed for the sake of being easily identified, like the Elvis mic, the Billie Holiday mic, etc. Others may not have had a famous patron, but they still got names to associate them with: Hammer, Birdcage, Pill mic, Roman Helmet, Spring mic, etc.

On that note, I want to introduce to you practically the only manufacturer who actually gave names to certain models they produced: Electro-Voice. EV was born in 1930, when Lou Burroughs and Al Kahn decided to abandon the servicing of radio receivers and decided to transfer their focus to audio products. At the time, microphones were an expensive commodity, and the quality of the ones available wasn’t that good. They started out making one per week, and before the decade was over, the company had grown from a two man business to a company with over 20 employees. To this day, Electro-Voice supplies audio equipment to groups and big events, like the Soccer World Cup in South Africa, and has endorsers such as Al Green, Devo, George Clinton, and Snoop Dogg.

The microphone you see at the top is the Electro-Voice 950, better known as the Cardax model. The very first time I looked at it, it reminded me of the Shure 55S, but with a more oval shape. I guess that when Nady decided to manufacture a mic with a retro look (as mentioned in an earlier post), it went for a shape that was probably a cross between the Shure 55S and the EV Cardax. At the time, the Cardax was made in Buchanan, Michigan.

It’s not a mic you see often in the movies or music videos. The only movie I saw that featured a Cardax was La Vie en Rose. In technical terms, it’s labeled as a crystal cardioid. And although some microphones from the 40’s-50’s had high/medium/low switches, this one offers a bass variation, which is quite unusual.

Scene from La Vie en Rose
The DS rarity scale: 7.5/10

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Back to the candy shop

So, for a long time since that productive visit to a musical instruments store, I thought that I had in my possession the ultimate 50’s microphone. Hey, if Elvis used one of these, it had to be, right? Well, there’s no doubt that the Shure 55S is the most famous vintage microphone. But as time went by, I started finding out about other mics, while watching some movies and music videos. That’s when I came across Ebay. Or should I say, my personal doom. One search with the words “vintage microphone” and I was hooked. Not that I spent all the money I had, sold my car, or got myself in debt to buy things on Ebay, but I have to admit that some portions of my paychecks did go to acquiring vintage mics. How else would I have assembled such a precious and beautiful microphone collection that will be passed on through generations as historic pieces of art? Not really convincing, is it? Ok, so they aren’t a real Matisse, a Kandinsky, or Marcel Breuer’s Wassily Chair. But they are my personal collection of the type of design I like as an Industrial Designer and as an individual. Simple and fascinating.

Little by little, I started creating a decent microphone collection. Right now I have to thank my sister-in-law, without whom I wouldn’t be able to obtain about half of my mics. Christina, thanks for all the patience through all these years and for not throwing out all those cardboard boxes before I got to them. Let me explain. About a year after I married my wife, her sister moved to the US. So our annual visits actually started 6 months before we even got there. I would buy some mics on Ebay and have them shipped to her address. She was not only gracious enough to let me have them sent to her, but would also store them in the guest room we always stayed in. (I wonder if that’s the reason she’s moving to another country). While I’m at it, I would also like to thank Maria Luisa, my other sister-in-law, and Monique. I had some mics sent to them as well. You see, if I had them all delivered here in Brazil, I would probably have to spend twice the amount I did, with international shipping, customs fees, etc. It’s safe to say I would have to end up getting another job to nurture my collection.

Monday, August 9, 2010

My first mic

Elvis Presley
In 1990, while I was in college, I went to visit a friend in the US. I had a good, all around knowledge of 50’s music, but not so much of microphones. Like a spur of the moment thing, I decided I was going to find a Shure 55S microphone to buy. For those who are unfamiliar with this model, it’s practically the only vintage microphone still produced to this day. It went on the market in 1951, as a smaller version of the Shure 55 series (I’ll get to this one later on), and it’s still a hit for those who seek a retro look.

James Brown
So, I picked up the yellow pages and found some musical instruments stores nearby. I got to one small shop that seemed like the type local musicians go to, with people here and there, and salesmen that looked like they belonged in the music industry. So I walked up to the center of the shop, and right there, in a glass display cabinet, there were two used Shure 55S. To me, it was like finding the Holy Grail. I didn’t know whether to keep staring at it or buy it. My friend convinced me to take both of them. At a $75.00 price tag, it wasn’t that steep in my pockets. Little did I know, that although I walked out of that store like a kid walks out of a candy shop, the Shure 55S was still being produced. In other words, had I found out a little bit more about it, I could have bought a new one.
Nady PCM-200

During the 50’s/60’s, just about everyone used the Shure 55S at some point in their careers. From Elvis to JFK, from James Brown to the Rat Pack, it became a famous mic for live performances and speeches. Today, it still remains a sought after microphone by contemporary artists, no matter what style of music they sing. It is also a must in 50’s themed movies, like Great Balls of Fire, Ray, What’s Love Got To Do With It?, Walk The Line, etc. There are some mics that try to duplicate the look, like the Nady PCM-200, but it’s just not the same thing. If you want to be cool, get the real thing. Seal, for example, has a Shure on the cover of his 2008 Soul CD. (Unfortunately, the people responsible for the A Change is Gonna Come video weren't cautious enough to prevent him from singing into the wrong side of the mic in some shots). Although there are mics with beautiful designs out there, I think it’s safe to say that the Shure 55S (now called 55SH Series II), is the eternal vintage microphone.

Jamie Foxx in Ray

Sunday, August 8, 2010

How it all started

Henry Winkler as Arthur Fonzarelli
Growing up in Cambridge, Mass. (USA), the trendy things for kids my age were Converse All Star sneakers (the swoosh brand was just starting to get attention), Bubble Yum (or Hubba Bubba), Saturday Night Fever, competing to see who saw Star Wars the most, and weekly TV shows like Happy Days. Henry Winkler was the Fonz, and if you don’t know what giving two thumbs up and saying “Aaayyyy” was all about, don’t worry about it. Let me try to make it clear what my intentions are. Happy Days was an outdated 50’s theme show, that was still a hit among kids, even though we were heading towards the end of the disco era.
This is where my interest in everything related to the 50’s/60’s aesthetics and music began. Even though at the time John Travolta was considered some type of dancing god, I still remember taking my little tape recorder to school and playing songs like Charlie Brown, Splish Splash, and In The Still of The Night.
In the late 80's, I was still interested in 50’s/60’s music, but the fact that I went back to living in Brazil, didn’t quite favor me in terms of researching beyond that. Yes, I did end up buying a leather jacket during college, but no bike. The fact that I started studying for my B.A. in Industrial Design made my interest become a little more serious, rather than just a 50’s flirt. The streamlined shapes of the chromed microphones and its Art Deco designs fascinated me, and the fact that my mother gave me a book called Jukebox, The Golden Age, only made my interest grow.
Now, some 20 years later, and owner of a respectable vintage microphone collection, I decided to share my passion with anyone curious enough to read about it. While the purpose of this blog started out as a means to show my mic collection, I now want to expand it to anything related musically to that era. Whether it’s jukeboxes and their different styles of design, the movies that portrait those days, or simply the songs and artists of then and now that make us think that the 50’s still have a cool feel that surrounds it, I’ll try to make this blog diverse and interesting to anyone that stops by. So you’re welcome to join me, have some fun and give your honest opinion.