King of the Comic Singers


(Pictured: an 1896 advertisement placed by singer Dan W. Quinn, looking for gigs. Posted with permission of Archeophone.)

In 1892, 31-year-old ironworker Dan W. Quinn was invited to sing for a political club in Hoboken, New Jersey. The night’s entertainment also included a “recording test.” Members of the audience were invited to speak or sing into a recording horn, and the recordings were then played back—quite a novelty at the time. Quinn’s recording sounded so good that the man who owned the machine urged him to visit a “recording laboratory” and do a real voice test.

A singer needed a certain piercing quality to reproduce well on acoustic recordings, which is why so many singers of the Pioneer Era sound like orators trying to reach the back row. Quinn did not view himself as that kind of singer, however: “I always sang quietly,” he said, but “there must have been some latent penetrating power.” Indeed there was. Over the next few years, Quinn made thousands of recordings. The technology of the 1890s permitted only a handful of copies to be made at a time, so singers had to perform over and over again. In addition, master recordings did not last very long, so if a recording company wanted to keep selling a particular song, it needed to keep remaking masters. During a five-month period in 1896, Quinn claimed to have made 15,000 records.

Quinn’s recordings were most popular between 1900 and 1904. But he mysteriously stopped recording in 1906, although he continued to perform. He spent the next several years as an artist manager and booker before recording again in 1915. He was 55 years old then, and his last few recordings weren’t up to his earlier standards. He recorded for the last time in 1919 and spent the rest of his life as a manager. Dan W. Quinn died in 1938.

Quinn’s recordings languished in attics and basements after that, and most of what was known about him came from a 1934 series of articles that appeared in a magazine called Music Lovers Guide. This month, Archeophone Records released the Dan W. Quinn Anthology: King of the Comic Singers 1894-1917, a compilation restoring 30 Quinn recordings, some unheard for a century. It’s accompanied by a magnificent booklet that illuminates Quinn’s life and career far beyond what he revealed in the 1934 articles.

Many of the songs on the Quinn anthology were intended to be humorous, although their humor might escape some listeners now. “The Handicap Race” features the sounds of a horse race and whooping, hollering fans. “Oh Wouldn’t That Jar You” describes several situations in which the listener finds love or luxury only to have it suddenly yanked away, and when it happens, “oh, wouldn’t that jar you?” Some of the songs are still funny, however. “They All Follow Me” was originally sung by a female character in a Broadway show. She became a preacher, but found that when she tried to convert men, instead of following God, they chased her instead. “I Want to Go to Morrow” repeatedly plays on words regarding a train trip to Morrow, Ohio. “Mr. Captain, Stop the Ship” is about an ocean voyage gone wrong: “Mr. Captain, stop the ship / I want to get out and walk” became a popular catchphrase in 1898.

Quinn was the first to record “A Hot Time in the Old Town” (1896) and “Bill Bailey Won’t You Please Come Home” (1902), both of which remain familiar today. He also recorded “Ma Blushin’ Rosie,” later made famous by Al Jolson. In an era when songs were more popular than individual performances of them, it made sense to record songs that had already proven their bankability, such as “Drill Ye Tarriers Drill” and “Oh Didn’t He Ramble.” Quinn even dabbled in “coon songs,” a popular turn-of-the-century style that sounds uncomfortably racist to us now, with “When a Coon Sits in the Presidential Chair.”

At the turn of the century, sheet music publishers and recording companies knew the value of topicality. Quinn’s grim “Football” was recorded in 1905, when at least 18 players died as a result of injuries and colleges considered whether to abolish the game. Over a century later, it still rings true: “Have all the surgeons ready there for they’ll have work today / Oh can’t you see the football teams are lining up to play?” One of his 1915 “comeback” recordings, “Beatrice Fairfax, Tell Me What to Do,” was inspired by the first newspaper advice column, which had been published since 1898 and was about to be turned into a fictionalized movie serial.

To listeners in 2015, Quinn’s records are quite clearly of another time. Most of them begin with a spoken introduction by Quinn himself stating the title, his name, and the record company name. These introductions would have helped discourage piracy, but they also helped listeners know who they were hearing. Once Quinn begins singing, however, his voice is as natural as a Pioneer’s can be, largely without an exaggerated, theatrical delivery. It’s singing as communication and not just performance.

Quinn’s appealing style and the quality of his songs make it easy to see why he was so popular among record buyers of the Pioneer Era. Archeophone’s restoration, reducing the noise of over a century, makes it possible for us to appreciate him again, more than 120 years since he first stepped in front of a microphone. I’m grateful to Archeophone for sending the anthology along. Read more about it and listen to sound samples here.

3 thoughts on “King of the Comic Singers

  1. Pingback: Famous Days | The Hits Just Keep On Comin'

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