The melodeon, or accordion as it was often interchangeably known, is a deceptively simple instrument with one or more row of button keys, operating on a push-pull bellows action. Invented during the 1820s, it was later produced en masse on the Continent - Germany in particular - and imported in vast quantities into the British Isles, where it sold cheaply from around mid-century onwards. By around 1910 one manufacturer in Scotland alone claimed to possess 300,000 testimonials to their product.1
Melodeons were used to provide entertainment, both as accompaniment to dance and song, throughout the whole of these islands. But it is in an urban context that its chief legacy has reached us, via the commercial recordings of a group of talented men who were, broadly speaking, the second generation of players. The invention of permanent sound recording was coincident with this group of musicians, and the early histories of both are inextricably intertwined. This piece, then, highlights the lives and careers of two such - a pair of brothers from the Lanarkshire area of lowland Scotland - and delineates their role in the early history of recording traditional dance music.
The earliest commercially-issued sound recording medium was the wax cylinder. With a typical running time of two to four minutes, this artefact measured about three to four inches, with the sound content etched into a continuous spiral groove along its length. The recording mechanism involved the revolution of the cylinder at a fixed speed, while a stylus, attached to a laterally moving arm, transmitted the vibrations through the horn diaphragm and into the groove as it was being cut.2
The early fortunes of the recording industry are still greatly under researched, and much of the relevant documentation has failed to survive: through carelessness, lack of interest, or destruction during the two wars. It therefore remains debatable which melodeon player first committed items from the common stock traditional dance tune repertory of these islands to cylinder. One candidate is John J Kimmel, who, via two excellent vinyl reissue albums, is certainly the best known of the pioneers.3 His first session for the American Zon-o-phone label took place in New York in either 1904 or 1905.4 Born in Brooklyn in 1866 of German immigrant parents, by the turn of the century he had evolved a style of playing which was melodically fluid, dynamic, thoroughly exciting, and apparently entirely personal. Although the melodeon was common enough among Germans in both the old world and the new (and fed influentially into other American traditions, such as the norteno or Tex-Mex style of the American south west), Kimmel largely eschewed this ethnic heritage - in his recordings at least - and played an essentially Irish repertory, augmented by numbers of Scottish items, ragtime pieces and popular marches.
John J Kimmel recorded for established commercial companies; any quest for the first melodeon player to record needs to take account of the possibility of an entrepreneur who possessed the technology required for recording cylinders in a down-home fashion. And, indeed, one such did exist.
Peter Wyper was baptised in Dalziel, Lanarkshire, on 28 March 1861, the third child of Peter and Charlotte Wyper (née MacKenzie). One of his younger brothers was Daniel MacKenzie Wyper, baptised on 23 October 1872 in Cambusnethan, although the family were actually living at the time in Wishaw. Both men became, in turn, 'Scottish Champion Melodeon Player', both had an extensive recording career, and both were hugely influential on other melodeon players across a wide area of Scotland, and beyond.
Their father was born in Craigend in 1832, and worked as a coal miner, the chief occupation in Lanarkshire throughout the nineteenth century. Although he had migrated around the area, by the date of the 1881 census the family was living in Hamilton. At that date both Peter the elder and Peter the son, then aged 20, continued to work in the pits. A decade later, and still in Hamilton, the father had retired, but both Peter and Daniel were now earning their living in the same manner. Peter had married, moved out of the parental home in Holyrood Street to live at 6 Burnsidelaw, and started a family of his own. The birthplace of his wife Jeanie (née Evans) was given in the census enumeration book as 'Ireland': perhaps a significant factor in terms of tune repertory, discussed briefly below.
Surviving members of both men's families are uncertain under what circumstances either brother came to take up the melodeon, nor if their father had been a player. Logically, Daniel may well have been influenced by his older brother. According to a family tradition, both brothers played a 'command performance for Queen Victoria'. Although specific details are lacking - it may have taken place in London or Balmoral - it certainly occurred prior to Victoria's death in 1901.
Both men used their skill at music to acquire a degree of social elevation which took them out of the hard, physically-debilitating context of the coal face. Peter left first, and at some undefined point during the 1890s became a sewing machine salesman.5 By 1902, at least, he had embarked upon a successful career as a retailer of music-related goods, and around this date opened a shop on Cadzow Street in Hamilton, selling musical instruments, accessories, and sheet music. He added to his stock over the years, and in January 1909 an advertisement in one local paper announced:
Wyper's Music WarehouseThe stock evidently represented a considerable financial investment and was an enormous step indeed from the early years spent in the coal mines.
The best place to buy your seasonable gifts
Largest and best selection of talking machines and records in Lanarkshire
Wyper's International Melodeons are the best money can buy
Violins, concertinas, mandolines, and other musical instruments in great variety
Latest songs, books and music
Pantomime songs - 'Oh Antonio,' 'Hang Out the Front Door Key,' 'Afraid to Come Home in the Dark,' 'Auld Reekie,' 'Flip Flap,' and fifty others
Pianos, organs and gramophones on hire.6
Peter's brother Daniel also worked in the mines, but was able to remove himself from physical labour at the coal face by becoming a member of the pit band, in which he played cornet. Then, as now, there was a robust pit band tradition, with considerable competition between them, and bandsmen were favoured employees. For Daniel Wyper, as perhaps for others, it meant working above ground. He also eventually left the mines, worked for his brother repairing melodeons and gramophones, made money from recordings, and opened and closed a succession of shops - including several selling secondhand goods, and a fish and chip shop. He also made ice cream, which he sold not only in the chip shop, but which several of his children hawked around the local cinemas. He adapted existing 19-keyed melodeons, adding two extra buttons to give an increased chromatic range, and these apparently sold very well indeed. And, of course, he made money from bookings at local music halls (sometimes on the same bill as one of his neighbours, Harry Lauder), dances (for which he sometimes played in company with a hammer dulcimer player named Jimmy Greenhorn), and from competing with other melodeon players.7
Peter Wyper's music dealership also gave him access to the necessary equipment for recording cylinders, and, like the Irish-American uilleann piper Patsy Touhey around the same date, he set to producing commercial items under his own label imprint.8
It was a basic home-grown product, a one-off artefact produced for commercial distribution by Peter Wyper sitting in front of the recording horn of a cylinder cutting machine. The title and catalogue number was handwritten in ink on a specially-printed sticker, which was then pasted onto the lid of each box. Following the fashion already established by the major record companies, each cylinder commenced with an announcement of tune title, and name of both performer and manufacturer. Lady Mary Ramsey, for instance, was 'Wyper's "Empress" Records' release number 12. It began with a voice - undoubtedly Wyper's - intoning "Lady Mary Ramsey. Played by Peter Wyper. Empress Records".9
None of the surviving cylinders or their boxes reveal any specific dates, but there is further evidence that Peter Wyper's recordings of the melodeon were indeed the first. In the August 1903 issue of the trade journal Talking Machine News, published in London, the editor noted that Wyper had sent him 'a record of accordeon playing, which not only proves him to be an expert record maker, but shows him to be quite a master of this instrument.'10 He quotes also from the accompanying letter:
" . . . I have sold a considerable number of these records locally, but as I have to play and make each record separately, I should take it as a favour if you could enlighten me as to how to take one record from another. It is so monotonous playing the same tune time after time."11The secret of an affordable mass duplication process was not revealed at that date, but Wyper remained unperturbed. Expanding his entrepreneurial net, the following May he advertised in the same journal a competition for the best records 'made by amateurs,' with prizes of £2, £1 and 10s. A month later he sent the editor two further cylinders, one featuring melodeon, the other a bagpipe solo.12 The identity of the bagpipe player is not known, but there is no reason why it should not have been Wyper himself. In the same June 1904 issue an advertisement appeared for:
Wyper's Renowned Empress Records for PhonographsFifteen bagpipe selections were then listed, along with details of his own brand 'Renowned International Melodeons', claiming them to be the 'best value in the world'.14
Largest and best selections of Accordion & Bagpipe Records in the market.
One shilling, threepence each.
Something of the scope and extent of the available musical repertory was revealed in a further advertisement, published two months later:
PETER WYPERThe Wypers, in common with the majority of Scottish-born melodeon players to record, were quite obviously musical sight readers, and, like Kimmel, exhibited a somewhat cosmopolitan musical outlook, often featuring specifically Irish tunes in their repertory.16 Popular and influential tune books such as Kerr's Merry Melodies were already publishing Irish tunes by the date of the first recordings, while up to a third of the population of lowland Scotland at the turn of the century were Irish immigrants who worked on the land or in the pits, and some of these may also have acted as transmitters of such material.
The Champion Accordion Player's Phono-graph Records
All masters. Loud, clear, and distinct Scotch music.
Solos, Strathspeys, Reels, Hornpipes, Jigs, Marches, &c. Retail price, 1/3 each. Special prices to the trade per doz. Sample sent post free for 1/3.
Lists sent on application: Address:-
Cadzow St., HAMILTON,
Daniel Wyper was just as prolifically recorded as his older brother. He too sat in front of the cylinder horn and played his melodeon. The format was identical, only on these could be heard, for example, "Jenny's Bawbee. Played by D Wyper. Empress Records."
The solution to duplicating each performance came for the Wypers not in pressing multiple copies from an original master - which was the technique used by the large commercial companies - but by playing into more than one recording machine at the same time.17 One of Daniel's daughters claims that the brothers made 'a lot of money' from these cylinders, and remembers being told by her father of how they were recorded on the first floor of a warehouse located opposite the music shop in Cadzow Street.18 Another daughter recalls being told about Daniel recording at least some of these cylinders at home, his wife brushing away the shavings from the newly-cut groove during production.19
Although Peter Wyper's shop in Hamilton was clearly one retail outlet, his 'trade supplied' offer was evidently successful. A number of the surviving boxes bear a sticker which reads 'Sold by H Robertson, Dunfermline,' a town a considerable distance away, and evidently home to a dealer to whom Wyper supplied merchandise.
Production of cylinders by the Wyper brothers continued, but other than certain of Kimmel's American Edison recordings, even as late as mid-1906 nothing played on melodeon was available on releases by the major companies.20 A letter from William Brown of Corstophine, to the west of Edinburgh, drew public attention to this oversight:
" ... By-the-way how is it that no Company has entered the field with Melodeon Solos? Of concertina solos we have many by the prince of players - Alexander of that name - but not one gold moulded [a cylinder production technique] melodeon record. Let some Co. have the enterprise to make some melodeon records, the very fact that so many thousands of these instruments are sold proves how popular the records would be - Scottish tunes, marches, reels, and strathspeys; English country dances and Irish jigs. They would sell like "hot cakes" and provide a welcome antidote to the rubbishy coon and other comic (?) songs inflicted on a long-suffering public."21Rectification of the situation must, in fact, already have been under way, for in October of that year the first advertisements appeared for a cylinder from the General Phonograph Company of London: issue number 119 on their 'White Records' label. Significantly, perhaps, this initial release was titled Irish Jig, an 'Accordeon Solo' by A.J. Scott, with 'Piano-forte Accompaniment.'22
Recording activity expanded rapidly, and scarcely a bi-weekly issue of Talking Machine News passed without details of further releases. For the remainder of 1906 A J Scott appears to have cornered the whole field, recording for both General Phonograph and the Russell Hunting Company, the latter issued as 'Sterling' cylinders and subsequently as a Pathé flat disc.23 All selections continued to be drawn from the Irish tune stock: jigs, reels, hornpipes. Although Scott remains a biographical mystery, examination of his extensive recorded repertory and playing style leaves no doubt that he was, in fact, Scottish.
Peter Wyper made the transition from local to national product via a pair of cylinders made for Edison Records, probably recorded also during 1906. These featured tunes which he must have played into his own cylinder horn hundreds of times: Stirling Castle and De'il Among the Tailors.24
Local fame, extensive recording experience and judicious self-publicity brought him to the attention of Columbia Records, already by that date one of the largest companies in the field, and early in 1907 Wyper travelled to London for the first of many sessions. Cylinders were declining in popularity, and from that date on the medium - for the Wypers at any rate - was the flat disc.
During the succeeding eight years Peter was in the Columbia studios on a number of occasions - often in tandem with his brother Daniel. Between them - either solo or as duets - they recorded just about 130 individual tracks.
From the first, international fame was assured for both men by the release of some of these masters on Columbia's domestic American series. By January 1909, a reviewer in Talking Machine News commented of one such issue:
A Columbia list would be incomplete without some Wyper accordion records. Here we have two: The Stranger and Starlit Dell Marches - D 240 - duets by the Brothers Wyper in which, if possible, even more than their usual good skill is displayed.25Eight years later an American Columbia catalogue proclaimed them, along with Guido and Pietro Diero and John J Kimmel, 'the five greatest accordion players in the world.'26
Beyond the United States there were issues on subsidiary Columbia labels in both Canada and Australia. Flowers of Edinburgh was released on Columbia C 734 for the Mexican market as Flores del Edinburgo; while Busby Polka on Columbia E 1378 was aimed at Scandinavian record buyers. Fame was sometimes elusive, though: Circassian Circle on Standard 26225 appeared simply as 'Accordeon Solo', while the label of E 1378 merely stated 'Harmonika Solo', the Scandinavian word for accordeon.
In Britain, titles from the first session appeared initially on the single-sided Columbia Graphophone label, pressed in America for British issue. They were later re-pressed on the standard price Rena label (and subsequently, as the label formats changed, reissued on Columbia-Rena and then Columbia). Prior to the First World War a massive importation of cheap German-produced discs forced all the major companies to initiate a budget label, generally selling at around 1s. 6d. (7p). In September 1915, a date which coincides almost exactly with Peter Wyper's final recording session, 24 of the brothers' couplings were reissued on Columbia's new cheap Regal label.27 The frequency with which some of these still turn up in second-hand shops - in England, in Scotland, and in Ireland - indicate their popularity.
In 1920 the Hamilton Advertiser carried the following obituary:
Music-lovers, and melodeon players in particular, will learn with regret of the death of Mr Peter Wyper, music dealer, Hamilton, who was known throughout the country as an accomplished accordion player. Mr Wyper's records on the gramophone are to be found in thousands of homes, and he was a much respected member of the music trade. For a period he was champion melodeon player of Scotland, and his numerous public performances with this instrument were marked by chords and variations which gave great pleasure. Quiet, kindly, and retired, he made many friends in Hamilton and elsewhere. His funeral took place to [sic] Hamilton Cemetary on Wednesday. Mr Wyper, who died at Strathaven, was in his 58th year.28The following August a circular for Regal Records was still proclaiming him 'Scotland's greatest accordion player.' 29 However, this may not accurately reflect reality. Daniel's side of the family maintain that many of the records issued under Peter's name were actually played by his brother. Peter, it is claimed, possessed both the retail outlet and the business acumen, but Daniel was the more talented player.
One of Daniel's daughters claims that the brothers invariably split the considerable royalties derived from the Columbia recordings equally. It was, she says, a source of annoyance to her mother that although Daniel had recorded the greater portion of the released material, Peter received half the money.30 Although difficult at this remove in time to get at the truth, there is sufficient evidence, albeit circumstantial, to at least cast some doubt.
Firstly, the recording companies themselves confused the issue by sometimes releasing the same track as by one, sometimes as by the other. One example is the tune-set titled Tight Little Island, from a mid-1912 session. On early pressings of Regal G 6991 Peter is credited, on later pressings it is Daniel. Another is Royal Belfast Hornpipe: by Peter on the British releases on both Columbia and Regal; by Daniel on the American Columbia and Diamond labels. Most confusing of all was the late Regal issue of Blaze Away, issued as by Peter Wyper, but actually featuring an anonymous piano-accordion player which is neither.
Secondly, Peter (11 years older than his brother, remember), on his own evidence claimed to have already retired from public performance by 1909, which suggests that he may have been less in practice than his brother.31 That said, one informant claimed that at a melodeon championship held in 1911 Peter Wyper ranked second, beaten only by another of the great recorded stylists, James Brown from Edinburgh.32
Finally, careful listening to the recordings certainly reveal two distinct playing styles, one of which (whoever it may be) is a little more technically accomplished than the other.
Following Peter's death, Daniel Wyper had further sessions for Columbia in 1921, which were released solely on the cheap Regal label (although by this date their price had risen to 2s. 6d.). At the same date, many other titles from their back catalogue were also re-pressed on that label.
Daniel made one final session, in 1926, for the Crystalate Company, issued on Imperial in both their domestic British series and in a short-lived Scottish S 100 series, and also on various five- and seven-inch labels such as Victory and Mimosa in Britain, and on Aerona and Victory Junior in Australia. These small-sized discs appeared under such pseudonyms as 'Mr. Peter Orr' and 'John Roberts.'33 His playing on these titles was as crisp, clean and rhythmic as it had been on the Empress cylinders recorded two decades earlier.
A number of other melodeon players, mainly championship winners such as James Brown, Jack Williams and George 'Pamby' Dick, followed in the Wypers' footsteps, but none were so prolifically recorded. The instrument enjoyed a hey-day of popularity which lasted on disc for a quarter of a century, before being deposed by the more complex three, four and five-row button accordions, and, later still, the piano accordion.
Further historical and contextual details on the Wypers and many other Scottish melodeon players, may be found in the sleevenote booklet which accompanies the CD reissue of Melodeon Greats on the Topic label (TSCD601), which also features 25 tracks from the original discs. The whole subject will be expanded extensively in a forthcoming book, which will also contain comprehensive discographical details and numerous further photographs.
Keith Chandler - 24.12.96
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