Grey Gull Records

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Grey Gull – early label type from 1921. The recording is by the orchestra of Joseph Samuels.
Grey Gull – red Label design from the later half of the 1920s.

Grey Gull Records was a record label based in Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America from 1919 through 1930. According to the Massachusetts Department of Corporation and Taxation, Grey Gull was officially incorporated on 31 December 1919. It was dissolved on 31 March 1934 (Acts 1934, c. 187) The company was founded by Theodore Lyman Shaw, a member of a wealthy and prominent family from Wellesley, Massachusetts, whose ancestors included Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw ("Robert Gould Shaw," 1) Theodore Lyman Shaw was involved in a number of business projects, including the Marcus Lucius Quinn School of Music in Dorchester; he also operated an advertising business (Harvard University Class of 1905, 25th Anniversary Report, 575).


The original location of Grey Gull Records was 295 Huntington Avenue in Boston (advertisement in Talking Machine World, 15 October 1920, p. 192) but city directories show that by 1923, the company's offices were in South Boston, at 135 Dorchester Avenue. In the early 1920s, Grey Gull records were recorded and manufactured from a plant at 81 Wareham Street in Boston ("Local Studio," C7; Boston Globe classified ad, 21 August 1920, p. 9)


The first issues of Grey Gull were high quality vertical-cut disc records at premium prices, using an unusual system of small grooves to be played with a small needle or stylus, giving about twice the playing time of the standard 10 inch 78 rpm record of the time, perhaps somewhat anticipating later EP records. Most, in fact, offered more than one selection per side. These records bore catalog numbers prefixed with an "H," probably because vertical-cut discs were also called "Hill and Dale" (Marco, 302-303)

These unusual records sold poorly (at a rather high price for the time of one dollar each). They were quickly phased out by 1920, to be replaced by the more common lateral-cut records (the essential patent on such discs had expired in 1919). The lateral discs bore catalog numbers prefixed with "L" (for "lateral") and initially sold for the same high price. These records were recorded in Boston, where the company (and Mr. Shaw) was located ("Local Studio," C7), a practice that continued in 1926, when Grey Gull's recording operations were moved to New York City. A New York Times mention on 24 April 1926, p. 31 said Grey Gull had leased offices on the fifth floor of 20 East 42nd Street in Manhattan. an announcement of the move also appeared in the trade publication Talking Machine World on 15 July 1926.

By 1922, Grey Gull records were priced at fifty-five cents each. Shaw places a series of newspaper advertisements, publicizing this price and asserting that his Grey Gull Records were "Better Than 75 cent Records... MUCH better" (ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 September 1922, p. 6) As well, Shaw introduced a new method of selling phonograph which would much later become standard practice in the record industry. Grey Gull would place display racks offering their latest product in newsstands, cigar stores, drug stores, and other well-frequented businesses, returning on a regular basis to restock the racks and settle accounts with the merchant (a system known today as "rack jobbing.") The racks are mentioned in some of the ads Shaw placed, and Grey Gull Records became associated with them (see for example "This Famous Rack is Everywhere," Springfield Republican, 12 November 1923, p. 7) A good example of Shaw's strategy of placing the racks in a wide variety of locations can be seen in an ad for Ruth's Drug Store in Elyria, Ohio. The druggist, Dr. Robert J. Ruth, offered to demonstrate the records to those who came into his store (Elyria Chronicle Telegram, 3 June 1922, p. 9).

But with the drop in price came a corresponding drop in quality. Grey Gull had also introduced its Radiex label, and it too offered low-priced records (Boston department store Raymond's advertised Radiex records for 40 cents each or two for 75 cents in a Boston Globe ad, 30 July 1922, p. 10; in 1924, a Los Angeles department store was advertising Radiex records at 47 cents or three for $1.35, according to the Los Angeles Times, 21 September 1924, p. B26). Grey Gull also pressed a number of "client labels," such as Oriole (for the McCrory chain, and later pressed by the Plaza Music Company) as well as others (Amco, Nadsco and Globe...the latter possibly a continuation of an earlier label of that name).

Grey Gull used primarily their own recordings during 1922 and 1923, although some were leased from other companies such as Plaza, Emerson and the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount et al.). There are, as well, some sides which emanate from unknown sources, including one ("Draggin' the Dragon") which is probably from Black Swan records. From late 1923 until early 1926, Grey Gull seems to have used material recorded by Emerson, carrying control numbers in a 3xxx series instead of Emerson's own 4xxxx numbers. At the same time, Grey Gull began the practice of using "B" sides credited to "house composers" (who may or may not have actually existed?). Further, Grey Gull was still using some "out-sourced" sides, which bore control numbers with a letter prefix indicating the source company (i.e. "Y" for NYRL).

Around 1924, Grey Gull augmented its existing catalog-number series (1xxx for dance music, 2xxx for vocal) with a 4xxx series used for "standard" material. This series is very difficult to document, since the initial issues drew from existing such recordings made by several companies...and the records remained in the catalog for long periods, meaning they were often remade in Grey Gull facilities! As well, they used a 7xxx "race" series (nominally "blues" and "jazz") and 80xx, later 81xx, series whose specific purpose is not clear. A single issue bears a number in an 8xxx series; this appears to be a 12" private pressing disc.

In 1925, Grey Gull began pressing the Madison label (presumably for F. W. Woolworth stores) The initial issues used a 16xx series for popular recordings (both instrumental and vocal) and a 19xx series for "standard" issues. Both series were replaced by a 500xx series c. 1928, which was itself replaced by a 50xx (one zero was dropped from existing numbers) shortly thereafter. There was also a 50xx matrix-number series used...these may (or may not?) have been renumberings of existing GG sides.

In 1926 the company opened a recording studio in New York City equipped with the new electric microphones. Grey Gull's New York studio band often included trumpeter Mike Mosiello and clarinetist Andy Sannella, who were sometimes able to add some good jazz licks to Grey Gull's otherwise generally undistinguished fare. Tommy Dorsey also graces a few issues as an uncredited sideman. A few interesting sides on the label were recorded by such musicians as Clarence Williams and Wilber Sweatman, as well as two sessions by Cliff Jackson's Krazy Kats, a good Harlem band of the era otherwise neglected by the recording industry. The company also pressed records from masters leased from Emerson Records and Paramount Records. In addition to their Grey Gull label, the company also produced Madison Records, Radiex Records, Supreme Records, and Van Dyke Records as well as a host of short-lived (possibly client?) record labels.

During this period, Grey Gull typically put one "hit" song on the top side and original composition by one of the company's "staff composers" on the flip side. The above-mentioned Mike Mosiello contributed a number instrumental numbers (many often released on several issues with varying titles) which apart from solo work by himself and Andy Sannella often featured the accordionist Charles Magnante and xylophone virtuoso George Hamilton Green. This rather unusual instrumental line-up combined with Grey Gull's rather over-modulated sound of their recordings, give these records a particular sound of their own. Among vocalists often found on vocal numbers were Irving Kaufman or Arthur Fields. Elmer Feldkamp was often heard as vocalist on the California Ramblers sides of 1929-1930.

Later years[edit]

The Grey Gull firm went out of business as such at the end of September, 1930, quite possibly because Shaw was no longer being financed by his family. Numbers in the 1000-series reached at least 1896, and those in the 2000-series into the low 2500's. However, it would appear that the "remains" of the firm, including its contract to press Madison records, was acquired by a so-far-unknown party or group. Records exist on Madison, Radiex and Van Dyke bearing catalog numbers in the Madison series (which jumped after 5099 to 6001) and there is also an 800/900 series which pairs older Grey Gull "B" sides, often with altered titles. All these are identifiably from a different source from their Grey Gull (et al.) predecessors, and may (this is so far unverified) be from the same operation as the US Crown label of 1930-33. Production of all Grey Gull related labels appeared to have ended sometime in 1931. According to noted discographer and writer Brian Rust in his "The American Label Book" (1978, Arlington House), vast quantities of Grey Gull, Van Dyke and sometimes Radiex records were sold in Britain at a number of cut-rate chain stores selling at an equivalent price is a nickel. This apparently accounted for these labels being some of the most commonly found 1920s and early 1930s American records found in British junkshops!

Grey Gull's audio fidelity is generally slightly below average for the era. Furthermore, pressings are often in cheap shellac which gives them more surface noise and stood up to repeated playing poorly, further degrading the sound quality.

See also[edit]

Sources and Works Cited[edit]

  • Brian Rust: The American Record Label Book (New York, 1984)
  • Guy A. Marco, editor. "Encyclopedia of Recorded Sound in the United States." New York: Garland, 1993.
  • "Local Studio Solves Problem." Boston Herald, 8 May 1921, p. C 7.
  • "Robert Gould Shaw Dies in Brookline." Boston Evening Transcript, 10 April 1931, p. 1.
  • Allan Sutton: Directory of American Disc Record Brands and Manufacturers, 1891-1943 (Westport & London, 1994)