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Vocalion was founded in 1916 by the Aeolian Piano Company of New York City, which introduced a retail line of phonographs at the same time. The name was derived from one of their corporate divisions, the Vocalion Organ Co. The fledgling label first issued single-sided. vertical cut disc records, soon switching to double sided, then switching to the more common lateral cut system in 1920.
Aeolian pressed their Vocalion discs in a good quality reddish-brown shellac, which set the product apart from the usual black shellac used by other record companies. Advertisements stated that "Vocalion Red Records are best" or "Red Records last longer". However, Vocalion's shellac was really no more durable than good quality black shellac. Vocalion red surfaces are less hardy than contemporary Victor Records, however, audio fidelity and pressing quality of Vocalion records are well above average for the era and were among the best of acoustic era.
In 1925 the label was acquired by Brunswick Records. During the 1920s Vocalion also began the celebrated 1000 race series (that is, records recorded by, and marketed to, African Americans). The 15000 series continued, but after the Brunswick takeover, it seems that Vocalion took a back seat to the Brunswick label. In 1925-27, quite a few Brunswick titles were also issued on Vocalion, and since the Vocalion issues are much harder to find, one can speculate that they were not available for sale in as many stores as their Brunswick counterparts. (It is not known if Brunswick dealer automatically sold Vocalion titles, or if Brunswick maintained a separate dealer network for exclusive Vocalion sales.) By 1928-9, many of the records issued on the Vocalion 15000 series were hot jazz exclusive to Vocalion and are extremely rare and highly sought after.
In retrospect, it seems that Brunswick never really had a plan for the Vocalion 15000 series. During the 1925-1930 period, Brunswick appeared to use this series as something of a specialty label for purposes other than general sale. This is assumed due to the relative rarity of the Vocalion popular series, the period of near-inactivity on this series in 1928, and the fact that some of the regular Brunswick releases were also put out for sale as Vocalions. This seems to also be a possible explanation as to why the early 1930s Vocalions are relatively rarer than Brunswick records.
In April 1930, Warner Bros. bought Brunswick Records and, for a time, managed the company themselves. In December 1931 Warner Bros. licensed the entire Brunswick and Vocalion operation to the American Record Corporation. ARC used Brunswick as their flagship 75 cent label and Vocalion became one of their 35 cent labels. The Vocalion race/blues series continued and continued to be popular. Starting in 1933, a number of Brunswick artists were assigned to Vocalion's then-new 2500 series (Ozzie Nelson, Adrian Rollini, Henry King, for example).
Starting in about 1935, with the change in label design to the black and gold scroll label, Vocalion became even more popular with the signing of swing artists like Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, Putney Dandridge, and Henry 'Red' Allen. Also, starting in 1935, Vocalion started reissuing titles that were still selling from the recently discontinued OKeh label (see the Armstrong label on right). In 1936 and 1937 Vocalion produced the only recordings of the influential blues artist Robert Johnson (as part of their on-going field recording of blues, gospel and 'out of town' jazz groups). From 1935 through 1940, Vocalion was one of the most popular labels for small group swing, blues and country. After the short-lived Variety label was discontinued (in late 1937), many titles were reissued on Vocalion, and the label continued to release new recordings made by Master/Variety artists through 1940.
ARC was purchased by CBS and Vocalion became a subsidiary of Columbia Records in 1938. The popular Vocalion label was discontinued in 1940, and the current Vocalions were reissued on the recently revived OKeh label with the same catalog numbers. The discontinuance of Vocalion (along with Brunswick in favor of the revived Columbia) voided the lease arrangement Warner Bros had made with ARC back in late 1931, and in a complicated move, Warner Bros got the two labels back which they promptly sold outright to Decca, yet CBS kept control of the post-1931 Brunswick and Vocalion masters.
The name Vocalion was resurrected in the late 1950s by Decca (US) as a budget label for back-catalog reissues. This incarnation of Vocalion ceased operations in 1973; however, its replacement as MCA's budget imprint, Coral Records, kept many Vocalion titles in print and held its costs down by not bothering to change the Vocalion trademarks and catalog numbers on album covers, even when the records inside bore Coral labels.
In the UK, Decca used the Vocalion label mainly to issue US artists.
In 1997 the Vocalion brand was brought back for a new series of compact discs produced by Michael Dutton of Dutton Laboratories of Watford, England. This particular label specialises in sonic refurbishments of recordings originally made between the 1920s and 1970s, often leasing original master recordings originally made by Decca and EMI.