Tag Archives: Beyonce’

Nipping the Grammys



“… February made me shiver,

With every paper I’d deliver.

Bad news on the doorstep.

I couldn’t take one more step. ”[1]



In 1870, a very young Jewish man leaves his native German culture and emigrates to America. He leaves seeking opportunities and broader horizons. Yet it’s a decision that would presage the next century. He also leaves because his country is clearly headed into a major war soon [2]. He will accomplish many things over the coming few decades, including creating an industry and helping to make a dog immortal.




This February, 2014, marked 55 years since “The Day the Music Died” in Albert Juhl’s Iowa cornfield. Fifty-five years since Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” (JP Richardson) — “the three men I admired most” — died in that tragic plane crash on a crisp snowy February night.

Music may not have died, as Don McLean so eloquently overstated it, but it has certainly changed since then.  A few weeks ago I watched much of the Grammy Awards, and it certainly provided convincing evidence that American music is on life support. That is, if you are looking for quality and not panache.

If you missed it, I’ll give you a few lowlights.

Opening: The stunningly beautiful Beyonce’ put on a mostly one-person sex show with lots of weird (mostly dark) lighting, fake smoke and flashy lights …it had some singing mixed in.  She wriggled her gorgeous mostly naked body over and around a chair in ways that would make a pole-dancer proud.  Toward the end of her act, her husband, Jay-Z came out dressed in a tux, while rapping.  At one point he spent a moment to caress her wonderfully round and bare buttocks.  Then he rapped a bit more.  I know some swear words were used, because the audio went out a few times (at least that’s what the reviews said later) for each. [3]

Speaking of Jay-Z, he won the best rap award for a song called “Holy Grail.”  The song is not holy.  Instead of anything resembling music, he uses the “N” word nine times and the “F” word four times.  So that’s what passes for award winning creativity and performance these days. [4]

As an aside, Beyonce and Jay-Z are married, so I don’t mind him fondling her buttocks. Why does it have to be on television?  If rumors are true, they are expecting a second child this year.  Last year they made over $100million (for what?). They are huge Obama supporters, socializers and donors.  More unneeded evidence that it’s true that the upper 1% have done very well under this administration.

Back to the Grammys. There actually were some good songs and people.  I used to think that included Katy Perry.  At some point during the night she came out dressed like, and acting like, some sort of witch.  With lots of Satans dancing around her.  Or maybe she was Satan and there were lots of witches dancing around.  It was so dark and smoky.  It wasn’t at all clear what she was singing, or even if she was singing.  Apparently someone was supposed to burn at the stake toward the end.

At that point I shut ‘er down.  The show was so bereft of any value, taste or enlightenment, that I felt sad and ashamed for our country … yet again.  Thus, I also missed the mass on-stage wedding ceremony, with mixed- and same-sex marriage celebrated together … as if that has any place whatsoever on television, let alone at a celebration of excellence in music.

What an opposite impression we are getting from the 50-year flashback of the original Beatle-mania in America, from February, 1964.  Those boys had no flashy costumes, no flashy lights, no smoke, no “act”, no “schtick.” They just stood there in suits and, yes, even ties, played guitar and drums and sang songs.  They harmonized, played off each other, making the human voice and simple instruments “the show”, not their attire, or anything else (although some of that did come later).

The Grammy Awards make a pretty good metaphor for America; they have become a parody of themselves: a big show of the music and entertainment industry’s self-adulation, self-congratulation, self-gratification. It is a shame they’ve ruined the very idea of “Grammy.” And still they make piles of cash.


German emigration to America in the 19th century was not unusual.  Millions did so for many reasons.  And much to America’s benefit, they brought with them:

  • Appreciation and skill for crafting fine traditional German beers;
  • Discipline for and appreciation of hard work and commitment;
  • Industrial trade skills;
  • Discipline in scholarship, in maths and sciences;
  • Drive, ambition and creativity.



Irving Berliner was born in 1851, one of thirteen children of Sarah Berliner, a musician, and Samuel Berliner, a merchant and Talmudic scholar. In 1870, Otto von Bismarck was forging Germany into a country.  Berliner’s native Hannover had recently been joined to Prussia.  Part of Bismarck’s plan included a war (the Franco-Prussian War), which would eventually force other Germanic regions, like Bavaria, to join a unified Germany.


Fearing an impressment into the Army, and desiring freedom outside of an iron-fisted rule led by militaristic Prussians Bismarck and the Kaiser, Berliner left to America.


He began teaching himself in many areas of literature and technology; his formal education had ceased at the end of elementary school … effectively the 8th grade.


Fascinated by Bell’s telephone, Berliner turned his attention to studying and experimenting with sound.  A great weakness of the telephone, Berliner observed, was the faintness of the transmitted voice. Working alone in his room, with the thinnest knowledge of physics and electronics, Berliner invented — and patented himself without an attorney — a device to effectively “pick up” and relay human voice.  In 1877 he had invented the first effective microphone.  Eventually Bell’s company (precursor to AT&T) learned of the device and purchased the patent rights for a smart sum – effectively setting up Berliner with enough money to continue experimenting.


More importantly, Bell Telephone hired Berliner.  He worked on improving a number of telephony related technologies.  And he developed hands-on experience and training, becoming a first-rate electrical engineer and electrician.


1881 was a big year for Berliner.  After 7 years with Bell, he felt it was time to strike out on his own as an inventor. He quit his Bell job, married his sweetheart Cora Adler (1st Generation German immigrant) and moved to a small house in Washington, D.C. where he set up a small laboratory.

He sold several more inventions to Bell’s telephone company when he was struck by a new fascination: Thomas Edison’s talking machine.

Here was a mass-marketing opportunity: bringing music and enjoyment to the masses.  The main problem with Edison’s machines were that they recorded and played back on cylinders.  These had one main advantage, and two major disadvantages.  Advantage: The cylinder, spinning at a constant speed, had the recordings and playback at a constant speed.  As the cylinder turns, the speed of the linear inches of groove going under the needle stayed constant.  The disadvantages were that they were difficult and expensive to mass produce and difficult to store in large quantities.

In 1886 Berliner invented and patented a method of recording sounds onto a flat disc, and playing them back; a method which allowed hundreds, then thousands, of clear copies to be made of an original relatively inexpensively.

Of course the invention needed a name. He took the word “phonogram” – which is defined as a picture or symbol that conveys a sound or a word – and turned it around to create a new word: “gramophone.”

By 1895 he had the method improved enough to go into production of gramophone playing machines and records. For this, he founded The Berliner Gramophone Company.  Eventually the business evolved into three major parts, each run by Berliner or one of his cohorts. Berliner ran the head office.

Eldridge Johnson was a mechanical engineer with an inventive twist whom Berliner befriended. He helped Berliner solve the problem of getting the gramophone to spin the disks at a constant speed, while recording at different speeds.  He developed a clever mechanical spring to match the disk spin rate to the speed needed to play the sounds back.  Johnson was to run the manufacturing arm of the business.

Businessman Frank Seaman was a marketeer and a businessman: he was given exclusive marketing rights in the United States.

That’s where the problem started.  By 1899, Seaman began to feel that the machines were too expensive, thus cutting into his potential profits.  He came up with a method to build the machines more cheaply. This method was derided even as he developed it by Johnson; so Seaman stopped selling the Gramophones, and, once developed for marketing, started selling his own product, the Zon-o-phone Phonograph – using the exclusive marketing rights he had been given by Berliner.

The case went into the legal system, to languish for years in suits and counter-suits.  Unintimidated, Berliner went off to setup licensed Gramophone businesses in Canada, England, Germany, and eventually Australia.  Meanwhile he sold his Gramophone legal rights in the U.S. to his friend, Eldridge Johnson.

Johnson used the rights to set up the Victor Talking Machine Company in 1901. We might recognize here the roots of the “Victrola”; Victor’s trademarked name for a phonograph machine that looked more like a piece of furniture than a mechanical device.

By 1903 the legal actions had finally come to a close: all assets of Seaman’s Zon-o-phone, including patent rights deemed illegally stolen, were turned over to Johnson’s Victor Company. Oddly, Victor began marketing some of its lower end product with the Zon-o-phone label, which they also acquired in the court award.


“Nipper” was a bull and fox terrier mix dog, born about 1884.  He was a stray, rescued and cared for by Mark Barraud, a painter and technophile, in Bristol, England. Mark Barraud passed away in 1887.  He willed his possessions – which included Nipper, an Edison style phonograph and a collection of recordings – to his brothers Phillip and Francis, also painters.  Francis took Nipper, the phonograph and recordings to his home in Liverpool. He cared for Nipper, growing very fond of him, until the terrier died, in 1895.

Nipper was an inquisitive dog, and Francis had many memories of him listening to the cylinder phonograph. He had especially vivid memories of Nipper listening to recordings his deceased brother had made of his own voice.  In 1898, in honor of his deceased brother and beloved dog, Francis painted a picture of Nipper in just such a pose: head cocked, and staring into the horn of cylinder-style phonograph.

Barraud was unable to get the picture published.  So, in a further stroke of inspired desperation, He took the picture to the Edison-Bell Phonograph Company, who actually made the type of phonograph in the picture, hoping to sell it to them. Response: “Dogs don’t listen to phonographs”.

Friends advised Barraud that the horn, as black, was too dull. They suggested that he re-paint the picture with a bright brass horn, like the one used by the Gramophone company. Barraud went to the Gramophone offices in London – the offices that Berliner had opened during the legal dispute with Zon-o-phone – to inquire about borrowing a horn as a painting prop.  Upon hearing the plan the local manager, an American named William Barry Owen, convinced Barraud to repaint the phonograph as well – replacing the Edison cylinder phonograph with the Berliner Disc Gramophone. Now that could be sold! He would buy it.

Soon, in 1900, the re-painted picture and copyrights were purchased, and then shared with the American partner company: the aforementioned Victor Talking Machine Company.  Complete cost 100 pounds: 50 for the picture and 50 for the copyright. [3] The painter’s name of the picture stuck: “His Masters Voice.”  HMV would go on to be one of the most prolific music publishing labels ever.

Nipper had become immortal. In 1929, Victor was bought by the Radio Corporation of America, and RCA gained the US copyright and trademark.  Across the world, from UK to Canada to Australia, Nipper’s picture adorned the His Master’s Voice Label.  Every American kid from 1930 to the CD era knows of RCA-Victor and their label with the cute dog at the gramophone.


Berliner moved on to varied other studies and inventions, including a loom, acoustic tiles and an early helicopter based on a rotary engine. He founded the Motor Gyro Company, to build and market early helicopters and rotary motors, which was located, coincidentally, next door to the Victor Company, in New York.  Berliner also became a philanthropist and social agitator for improved public health and sanitation. He passed away in 1929.


Music as a recording industry has come a long way, and most if it – if the Grammys are any indication – is steeply downhill.  But the industry cannot change its interesting, glorious and intriguing past.  Mostly because they probably have no knowledge of it.

The music recording industry, regardless of how low it slips, will certainly continue to show disrespect for their own history – despite how much they rave about the Beatles – but they cannot ruin it. Not with their blatantly sexual displays. Not with out-of-place social commentary. Not with profanity laced rapping.  And not with its dark smoky sets and flashy lights passing for music. Even the Grammy Awards – the ceremony that’s devolved into a parade of multi-millionaires who suppress any talent they might have, standing around congratulating and stroking each other – can’t destroy that history.

Dance to your own music!


Joe Girard © 2014




[1] From the song “American Pie”, written/recorded by Don McLean, 1971, released under label United Artists (not HMV).  Rated the #5 song of the 20th century, by RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America).

The UA label was originally developed as the music label for the sound tracks to UA movies.  After moving into general music, the label – through a series of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcy – ended up owned by EMI.  Originally the Electrical and Musical Industries Company, it was formed when UK Columbia records merged with the UK Gramophone company in 1929.  Not coincidental that it’s the same year that RCA bought Victor in the US. At that point EMI owned most of the non-US rights to the picture painted by Barraud. UA Record no longer exists in any practicality, and EMI has been devolved to many components which have been spun off.


[2] As part of von Bismarck’s German unification plan, he helped maneuver for a major war, the Franco-Prussian War. As a result of this, Bavaria, Baden, Württemburg, and Hesse (perhaps others) were fused to the German union.
Baden and Württemburg merged post-war with Stuttgart as its capital (Hauptstadt).

Hesse is best identified by its largest city, Frankfurt am Main; its capital is Wiesbaden.

Bavaria’s (Bayern) capital is of course Munich (München).


[3] Video and Hollywood review of Grammy Opening Act: http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/beyonce-jay-z-open-grammys-674153


[4] Lyrics to “Holy Grail”: http://www.lyricsmode.com/lyrics/j/jay_z/holy_grail.html


[3] Francis Barraud was a struggling (starving) painter at the time.  So the 100 pounds seemed like a lot.  He was kept on retainer by the Gramophone Company, painting many more “originals” over the next two decades.


[4] The copyright and trademark for the US have expired, except for specific marketing efforts.  Therefore, I may legally reproduce them below.  The first picture actually co-exists with the 2nd picture; the old cylinder phonograph and the black horn were painted-over.

Barraud's first painting

Barraud’s first painting


Barraud's re-painted original: His Master's Voice

Barraud’s re-painted original: His Master’s Voice


Phononographs: the Gramophone and the Graphophone. History, and the difference. http://www.recording-history.org/HTML/phono_technology4.php