Earliest Melodica Recording ’64

A Postcard From Canton [Massachusetts] celebrates the accomplishments of one of the town’s most “esteemed citizens” — and industrious tinkerers:

[James Amireaux] Bazin came to examine a simple free-reed instrument when he was 23 years old.  A group of men brought him a broken pitch pipe and asked him to repair it.  Bazin made the repair but also created a new invention, which became a sliding brass pitch pipe that could be adjusted along a series of pitches from c” to d’”.  From this small invention he began making several variations on the theme and eventually moved to reed trumpets, which he invented in 1824.  For many years his trumpet accompanied the choir at the Unitarian Church in Canton Corner and reputedly it could be heard “a mile away.”  In 1831 Bazin invented a harmonica.  In fact, Bazin had only read about the harmonica invented in Germany, so it is likely that indeed this was the first reed harmonica in America.

Melodica Shack‘s “History of the Melodica” page notes that the lap organ developed by James H. Bazin, as well as the melodeon designed by Abraham Prescott of Prescott Organ Company, were “stepping stones” to the modern-day melodica, an instrument said to have been invented by Hohner, according to the company’s own website, in the “1950s.”  Why such vagueness about the date, I wonder.

Hohner Soprano melodica

MelodicaWorld‘s Alan Brinton informs us that the Hohner Soprano, a button-style melodica, “appears to have been first announced in early December, 1958,” while earlier that same year, André Borel, introduced the Clavietta, a keyboard-style melodica.  Is it possible that Borel is the unacknowledged pioneer of the keys-based melodica?  MelodicaWorld‘s Daren Banarsë took the time to search the British LIbrary for UK publications that contain “Clavietta adverts” and found this one published in the 11 February 1960 edition of Stage and Television:

Zero to 180’s dubious quest to identify the earliest recording of a melodica has thus far led to two popular recordings [“Tint of Blue” by The Bee Gees and “Ice Cream and Suckers” by South Africa’s Soweto Stokvel Septette], as well as a serious composition by Steve Reich [“Melodica“] — all from the year 1966.

Fortunately, “Quirky 45s That Bubbled Under” from this past March broke the logjam with the discovery of Stu Phillips and the Hollyridge Strings (celebrated in 2013) as unwitting innovators who, in 1964, might possibly have been the first to commit melodica to tape in an attempt to emulate John Lennon’s harmonica lines on The Fabs’ very first single for EMI’s subsidiary label, Parlophone:

“Love Me Do”     The Hollyridge Strings     1964

A promotional/demonstration copy of the original “Love Me Do” Beatles release on Parlophone (with Paul’s last name misspelled as “McArtney) was sold in 2017 via Discogs for $14,757 — making it “the most expensive 7-inch single ever sold,” as reported on the Gibson Guitars website in 2017.

Note the scandalous “McCartney-Lennon” songwriting credits:

But wait!   This television clip of Ray Conniff from three years earlier playing an Italian-manufactured Clavietta now means 1961 is the year to beat (although it should be noted that the studio version of “Midnight Lace” uses a harmonica for the melody line):

“Midnight Lace”     Ray Conniff Orchestra     1961

According to the person who posted this video clip
The Ray Conniff Orchestra and Chorus TV show “Concert In Stereo” in 1961.

Honorable Mention

1965’s “Bossa Melodica” by Dutch bandleader Gaby Dirne & His Orchestra

The Clavietta, it has been said, is a “keyboard version of the accordina.”

Pat Missin states that US patent no. 2461806 (above rendering) “was granted in 1949 to André Borel of Paris, France” for his “chromatic harmonicon” that was manufactured under the name, accordina.  Borel would later be granted a patent for a “mouth[-]blown free reed instrument with a piano-style keyboard and both blow and draw reeds,” notes Missin.

The legacy of James Amireaux Bazin, meanwhile, includes “lap organs, table organs, a seraphine, and several larger instruments,” according to A Postcard From Canton. “What is amazing is that his earliest instruments were patented, sold reasonably well (although at a loss), and today are in private collections as well as the Museum of Fine Art, the National Museum of American History, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Darcy Kuronen, a noted expert on early musical instruments, writes of Bazin:  ‘Each of his surviving examples of his instruments shows a restless desire to improve their operation and versatility, with no one model bearing much resemblance to another.’”

For those who wish to delve further into the history —

James A. Bazin and the Development of Free-Reed Instruments in America,” by Darcy Kuronen, published in Journal of the American Musical Instrument Society, Vol 31, 2005, pp 133-182.

Earliest Recording of a Melodica?

July 2020 Update:  Click here for the latest info

One of Zero to 180’s earliest pieces (from 2012) concerned itself with documenting the earliest recording of a melodica (i.e., keyboard version of a harmonica), and 1966 seems to be year to beat in this regard, with the composer, Steve Reich, as well as future pop giants, The Bee Gees, having both committed the melodica to tape that same year.

This summer on a long road trip, I was enjoying a CD compilation of rare 45s and obscure album tracks that had been thoughtfully assembled by musician/scholar, Joe Goldmark, (and partner at San Francisco’s legendary Amoeba Records), when I was startled to hear a 1960s recording of South African township jive that includes a melodica!

“Ice Cream and Suckers (pts. 1 & 2)”     Soweto Stokvel Septette     1966?

Incredibly, when you search the entire Discogs database for recordings by the group, Soweto Stokvel Septette, only one item turns up:  a various artists LP release issued on the Mercury label for US distribution entitled Ice Cream & Suckers:  South African Soul, and which features the title track, parts one and two (stitched together in the mix above).

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-aZero to 180 is impressed with Mercury’s receptiveness to the exciting new sounds coming out of South Africa at that particular time in the 1960s (20 years or so before Paul Simon’s Graceland album) — only question is exactly when?  Before 1966, possibly?

Here’s a clue:  this 4-star review in Billboard‘s April 19, 1969 edition.  However, this description for an online auction sale pegs the album as being a 1966 LP release!  Curiously (or not), the description for this online auction sale approximates the release date to be “c. 1966,” while Lyon, France’s Sofa Records also understands the album’s year of release as 1966.

Assuming this is true, can we necessarily assume that Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded their two-part title track in 1966?  In other words, was the recording made the previous year or even earlier?  The back cover liner notes (courtesy of ElectricJive), unfortunately, do not shed light in this regard.  Nevertheless, “Ice Cream and Suckers” is now, at the very least, part of a three-way tie for earliest melodica recording.

Double-click on image below to view liner notes at maximum resolution

Ice Cream & Suckers - Various Artists Mercury LP-cc

One other supporting clue:  Soweto Stokvel Septette recorded a 45 of “South African ska” that also happened to be released in 1966, according to this vendor.

Soweto Stokvel Septette 45Zero to 180, you might recall, put Joe Goldmark’s music research to good use when its staff compiled a special list of King-related steel guitar releases from Joe’s landmark work, The International Steel Guitar and Dobro Discography.

International Steel Guitar - Dobro DiscographyJuly 2020 Update:  Click here for the latest info

Melodica as High Art: “Talkin’ Blues” Dub Style

I confess I am not an Augustus Pablo scholar, but I would bet big money that Pablo’s dub take on Bob Marley‘s “Talkin’ Blues” is among the most inspired recordings in his canon.  I only wish I could determine the source of the original Marley vocal and backing track – it’s a stellar version.  Pablo blows great lines with deep feeling from start to finish.  This song strikes me as a dub reggae version of the “high lonesome” sound for which country music is famous:

“Talking Dub”      Pablo & The Wailers

I never tire of listening to this recording – and neither should you.   This track can be found on a French import single-CD double release:  Fe Me Dub + Dubwise Shower Roots Rockers, on the Lagoon label:

.Dubwise Shower

Pioneering Pop: The Melodica on Record

July 2020 Update:  Click here for the latest info

You may not know the melodica by name, but you might have seen one or, more likely, heard one at some point in your life.  Essentially, the melodica is a wind-powered keyboard that sounds much like a harmonica:

Melodica-x

Wikipedia tells me that the “modern version” of the melodica (also known as the “pianica” or “blow organ”) was invented by Hohner in the 1950s, although its more primitive forebears go back to 19th-century Italy, apparently.

I first encountered the instrument in the 1980s during college via Joe Jackson’s ska-inflected “Pretty Boys” and the great side-two opening track off New Order’s Power, Corruption & Lies album, “Your Smiling Face.”  Around the same time, someone lent me an album by Augustus Pablo, a dub reggae musician and producer who almost single-handedly popularized the melodica and inspired others to see it as something beyond simply being a “kiddie instrument.”

Wikipedia also tells me that composer, Steve Reich, was the first to use the melodica as a “serious” musical instrument on his 1966 composition entitled, “Melodica” (which would be released 20 years later on the 3-LP compilation of experimental works, Music from Mills, by Terry Riley, Morton Subotnick, and Ramon Sender, among many others.).  Fortunately, serious music is outside the scope of this blog — and besides, as the person behind the electronic music blog, Orpheus Music, even admits, Reich’s piece is “certainly not among [his] better works”.

Moreover, I have discovered another musical artist who committed the melodica to tape around the same time as Reich but utilized the instrument within a composition that was aimed at a broader audience.  Who, you might ask, first pushed the boundaries of pop to include the lowly melodica?

Cover art for GERMAN market

Bee Gees LP - Germany

Incredibly, it’s The Bee Gees.  Their second album – originally released in Australia in 1966 under the title, Monday’s Rain (later Spicks and Specks, but repackaged here in the States as Rare, Precious & Beautiful on Atco) – includes a catchy, Beatles-y composition, “Tint of Blue,” that features an instrumental break whose haunting melody is played on the melodica:

“Tint of Blue”     The Bee Gees     1966

The first person who can find a melodica on a pop recording prior to 1966 wins the lucky two-dollar bill that I keep in my wallet.

ARGENTINA CASH-IN LP (with pugilistic cover concept) that includes “Tinte de Azul”

Bee Gees vs Beatles LP I - Argentina

¡UPDATE!  Click on link to November 29, 2017 melodica piece

July 2020 Update:  Click here for the latest info