The passion of collecting budget record labels

By Bill Bronk

On a fine summer day back in 1957, a music lover walked into a Woolworth’s Department Store in western New York, strolled over to the record department, and for 99 cents bought a compilation of songs titled “8 Top Hits” (catalog MH 33-44) on the Waldorf Music Hall label. Waldorf was one of a number of ’50s budget-label record companies and had an exclusive arrangement to sell their records through Woolworth’s. The eight songs on the 10-inch LP reflected what was then current on the national hit parade charts. None of the cuts, however, were performed by the original artists. In December 2010, 53 years after it was first sold by Woolworth’s, I bought the LP in question from an eBay vendor in Syracuse, N.Y., for $11.00 … bringing to an end a long, sometimes frustrating, but fruitful search to add all 48 of Waldorf’s “8 Top Hits” series LPs to my vinyl collection. (MH 33-1 thru 33-48).

I started collecting Waldorf’s “8 Top Hit” series LPs (subtitled “Hits Hits Hooray”) in the ’70s, along with such titles as “12 Top Hits”, “America’s Top Tunes”, “Hits A Poppin’” and “Tops In Pops,” all of which were produced by other budget-label record companies. As a fledgling record collector, back then I frequented garage sales, flea markets and record shows … pime places to find budget-label records. More recently, the Internet and eBay proved to be invaluable in completing my collection.

There were other budget label record companies that used the popular “8 Top Hits” title for their LPs, including Masterseal out of New York City (which also released t LPs under the name Plymouth), and Record Company of America (not to be confused with the major-label RCA) out of Union City, N.J., which cut its records under the name Ultraphonic, Allegro Elite and Halo.

Initially, it was the cover art that attracted me to these “dime-store” records. It often showed pictures of jukeboxes, record players and dancing teenagers. But while the title “8 Top Hits” might not be unique to Waldorf Music Hall, the quality of the music it produced was; it differed greatly from the quality on other budget labels. With some exceptions, such as Fred Freda, Gloria Clark, Jimmy Perry & Les Young, and other vocalists who recorded with Don Raleigh and his Orchestra and Jack Hansen and his Orchestra on Masterseal Records “8 Top Hits“ LPs, much of the vocal output on other budget labels ranged from laughable to reasonable to surprisingly good; sometimes on the same LP.

The arrangements and musicianship on most budget-label recordings arguably captured the feel of the original hit records, but the session vocalists often went astray when trying to imitate the singing style of the performers on the original hits. This was especially true when rock & roll surfaced in the mid-’50s. Some record labels, such as Allegro-Elite, would state “many top name artists” on their record jackets, but the artists’ names were not listed — or were fictitious — with good reason!

Waldorf Music Hall, Inc., formed in Harrison, N.J., by Enoch Light in 1954, was by far one of the most successful budget labels due to the quality of its performers, both the vocalists, some of whom were well known, and the Big-Band orchestras the label employed. The glory days for those singers and musicians may have been behind them, but they turned out some great music for the “8 Top Hit” series. The cover art got me interested, but the music won me over. In addition to Enoch Light’s own Light Brigade Orchestra, the label enjoyed the services of Vincent Lopez and His Hotel Taft Orchestra, as well as orchestras helmed by Bobby Byrne, Joe Leahy, Will Bradley, Van Alexander, Paul Whiteman and Ray Bloch. All of these groups had solid reputations in the music industry. For the series, their primary purpose was to support the vocalists, but occasionally, they had the opportunity to perform popular instrumental pieces, such as “Autumn Leaves” (33-18) and “Lisbon Antigua” (33-22) performed by the Vincent Lopez Orchestra; the “Poor People of Paris” (33-25) and “Canadian Sunset” (33-30) performed by the Enoch Light Orchestra; and “Blue Skies” (33-40) performed by the Ray Bloch Orchestra. Based on the music charts at the time, Waldorf’s “8 Top Hits” series ran from January 1954 through December 1957. Over that four-year period, 384 pop and rock tunes were “covered.” With superb musicians behind them, the vocalists’ talents were very evident on the pop-oriented hits of the day … and, somewhat surprisingly, equally so on many, but not all, of the more rockin’ hits.

Kudos go to most of the label’s vocalists, who aimed at maintaining the integrity of the original hits without resorting to imitation. They didn’t copy the originals, note for note, nor did they try to sound like the singers who had the hits. By offering their own interpretations, the results were fresh and enjoyable. Who are we talking about? You might be surprised to learn that Waldorf’s roster of vocalists was quite impressive: Bob Eberly, the smooth pop singer who was the featured singer with the Jimmy Dorsey Band; the world-famous Ink Spots; Artie Malvin, who starred with the Glenn Miller AAF Band and was a member of the Ray Charles Singers; Keith and Sylvia Textor, founders of The Honeydreamers, a harmony vocal group, and members of Fred Waring & His Pennsyvanians; Loren Becker, an early winner on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts; Lois Winters, a member of the Perry Como vocal group; Jerry Duane, a singer with the Gene Krupa Band and a member of The Hitparaders; and Mike Stewart, featured in the well-known Texaco Quartet. Other names appearing frequently in the series were Jimmie Blaine, Trudy Richards, Margie Murphy, Dottie Evans and The Larsen Sisters. In addition to many of their own cuts on the “8 Top Hits” series LPs, choral support was provided by several in-house vocal groups: The Brigadier Quartet, The Zig Zags, The Rhythm Rockets and The Monarchs. It wouldn’t be possible to highlight the contributions of all of the singers in the series, but If I don’t mention how some of the singers handled their assignments, I wouldn’t be telling the whole story. Between them, Artie Malvin and Loren Becker, the principal male songsters, received the lion’s share of the work, recording 160 tunes. Each of them shared a good number of both pop-oriented and rock and roll songs. If you get the opportunity, give a listen to Malvin sing Bill Haley’s “Rock-A-Beatin’ Boogie” (33-20), Johnny Ace’s “Pledging My Love” (33-11) and Buddy Knox’s “Rock Your Little Baby To Sleep” (33-42). Good stuff! He does a very nice job, too, on The Four Ace’s “Love Is A Many Splendored Thing” (33-18), backed by The Vincent Lopez Orchestra. Loren Becker is equally versatile. His take on Perry Como’s “Ko Ko Mo” is excellent (33-10), and he did a great job on Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” (33-25), backed by Enoch Light’s Light Brigade. Elvis Presley‘s “Love Me Tender” (33-34) is nicely done, and Becker’s version of “Tuitti Frutti” (33-24) is more reminiscent of Pat Boone’s than Little Richard’s, but is good nonethe-less.

Speaking of Little Richard … Jerry Duane is a fine singer, as evidenced by his renditions of Paul Anka’s “Diana”, Jimmie Rodgers’ “Honeycomb” (both on 33-44) and The Penguins‘ “Sincerely“ (33-09). But his talent doesn’t quite match the level of Little Richard’s excitement on “Keep A Knockin” (33-46) and “Rip It Up” (33-30). Then again, how many singers could even come close?

At first blush, you wouldn’t think of having a group as renowned as The Ink Spots crank out a couple of rhythm and blues songs. But if your expectations aren’t unreasonable, they don’t disappoint on La Vern Baker’s “Jim Dandy” (33-38) and Mickey & Sylvia’s “Love Is Strange” (33-37). On the distaff side of Waldorf’s roster, the ladies proved every bit as good as their male counterparts. How could you not enjoy Sylvia Textor’s smooth stylings on Patti Page’s “Mama From The Train” (33-34), Kay Starr’s “My Heart Reminds Me” and Jane Morgan’s “Fascination” (both on 33-45) and Eileen Rodgers “Miracle Of Love (33-33). Dottie Evans, the principal female singer with 40 songs recorded, rocked with the best of them on La Vern Baker’s “Tweedlee Dee” (33-10) and Etta James’ “Dance With Me Henry” (33-12) but changed pace very nicely with Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind” (33-28), Julie London’s “Cry Me A River” (33-22) and Joan Weber’s “Let Me Go Lover” (33-08). Bob Eberly was an exceptional ballad singer. All 18 songs he recorded for the “8 Top Hits” series are wonderful examples of his talent … including types of songs that most fans would not associate with him, such as Pat Boone’s “Love Letters In The Sand” (33-42) and “April Love” (33-47). His renditions of Clyde McPhatter’s “Without Love (There is Nothing)” (33-40) and Nat “King” Cole’s uptempo tune “Send For Me” (33-44) are excellent, and Frank Sinatra would smile if he heard Eberly’s take on “All The Way” (33-47). Interestingly, Elvis Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel” (33-26) gets a smooth, bluesy touch … and it is so good. I loved it!

As a teen in the ’50s, I grew up listening to the pop, rock and roll and rhythm and blues songs that make up most of Waldorf Music Hall’s “8 Top Hits” series. As an adult, my musical tastes have expanded, but I love and still listen to the music of that era. All the while I was completing my collection of the 48 “8 Top Hits” series LPs, I learned that it’s not always necessary to have the original hits by the original artists to enjoy good music. People like me who bought budget label LPs, whether then or now, may have been looking for a bargain or were more interested in the cover art ­— but in the end, they got more than they bargained for, without knowing it at the time. I know I did. Rather than dismiss an opportunity out of hand, if you happen to see one of Waldorf Music Hall’s “8 Top Hits” LPs at a record show or on eBay, take a chance and add it to your collection. You don’t know what you might be missing.

 


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