The concept of Historic Masters was devised by the late Richard Bebb: for so many years Britain’s most senior collector of vocal recordings. It was Richard who defined the mission to ‘save’ and make widely available ‘78rpm’ vocal discs either unpublished or extremely rare as good copies in original form. Historic Masters records would be custom pressed on top quality vinyl from original metal parts held in the EMI archive. The then British Institute of Recorded Sound (now the National Sound Archive) established an advisory committee to plan a first issue under the chairmanship of Lord Harewood, an enthusiastic collector in addition to his work with major opera companies in England. In fact it was largely through his negotiating skills that what was an abstract concept evolved into a practical proposition. The first twenty double sided ‘78s’ were issued in late 1973 with subscribers paying in advance, so that only the exact numbers were pressed. It is a matter of record that the top seller was a 10” disc of two songs by Conchita Supervia.

The BIRS had other priorities and a heavy work programme: despite the success of this first HM issue and a handsome profit, the scheme lapsed. Again it was the initiative of Richard Bebb and Lord Harewood, now joined by Stanley Henig, at the time a governor of the BIRS, which led to its revival. Lord Harewood again handled the complex negotiations with both the BIRS and EMI. Not wanting any direct involvement, the BIRS gave its blessing, and offered the name, to a new organisation, Historic Masters Ltd; EMI agreed to make metal parts available on the same basis as before. The new company was initially funded through loans from the Committee/Board consisting of Lord Harewood (Chairman); Stanley Henig (Secretary); Richard Bebb; Sid Gray, a collector who also re-issued historic recordings on LP; Keith Hardwick, then responsible for historic re-issues at EMI; Vivian Liff, of the famed Stuart-Liff collection; and Desmond Shawe-Taylor, an expert in vocal recordings and a senior reviewer with The Gramophone. They were soon joined by Eliot Levin of Symposium Records who was responsible for engineering and organising the production of Historic Masters issues from catalogue number 21 through to 99.

A second issue of Historic Masters (the first by the new company) appeared in late 1983 – a set of five records. The concept of sets without records being available separately was dictated by financial considerations. However, as the company developed, the five records were augmented through the generosity of the late John Stratton (John later joined the Committee) who paid for a ‘free’ sixth record on each occasion. Reflecting his own enthusiasm and commitment, the sixth record was devoted to the great singers of pre-revolutionary Russia. Much later, came another idea from Richard Bebb – that each issue should also include another ‘free’ record. This would be a relatively common item, but only otherwise available on the inferior shellac used during the 1930s. This addition was kick-started financially through a donation by Richard.

By mid 2008 and counting from the beginning, the total number of records in the regular Historic Masters series added up to 192 (approx). In addition Historic Masters has issued in association with Symposium Records one set of eight records of Fernando De Lucia pressed from original metal parts preserved by the Italian Phonotype company. The Patti centennial edition produced at the end of 2006 bought the total of released recordings to approx. 200 records. Of the titles in the Historic Masters catalogue, almost one third were never commercially available as normal ‘78’ shellac issues.

Death, retirement and resignation have led to many changes in the make up of the committee. Lord Harewood is now the President of Historic Masters.

As of November 2008, the Committee/Board consists of:
Stephen Clarke – (Chairman); Trustee, The John Stratton Trust
Alan Bilgora – (Vice Chairman); Singer and writer on vocal records
Sean Davies – Disc-cutting engineer
Ruth Edge – Formerly Chief Archivist at EMI Archives
Eliot Levin – Symposium Records
Tom Peel – Discographic researcher
Ward Marston – Audio restorer and owner of Marston Records
David Mason – Discographic researcher
John Milmo – Discographic researcher
Michael Letchford
(And we are all record collectors in one way or another!)

Over the last few years Historic Masters has faced many difficulties in arranging for records to be pressed – there are few manufacturers of vinyl records willing and able to handle old metal masters. During this period the company has only remained afloat as a result of substantial and continuing financial support from the John Stratton Trust through its Trustee, Stephen Clarke. Collectors throughout THE WORLD owe a great debt to both John Stratton and Stephen Clarke.

In the context of ‘78rpm’ recordings, historic reissues were inaugurated in the early 1930s by Desmond Shawe-Taylor (his membership of our Committee until his death was a link to that past). Thereafter there were further series or reissues on a variety of labels -Parlophone/Odeon, IRCC, HRS, Addison Foster, EMI Archive, Victor Heritage. They were the pioneers; Historic Masters has followed. However, in terms of longevity, extent of catalogue and number of hitherto unpublished records, we have now exceeded them all. Indeed it often seems quite extraordinary that we are still issuing ‘78s’ fifty years after their commercial demise. But, is there a future? Can the work continue?

We think it appropriate to end this history with a brief look forward. The EMI Music Archives and now the Deutsche Grammophomn archive have opened their doors in an unprecedented fashion to allow us to issue pressings from their extant ‘78’ metal parts. We know that material for many more exciting issues awaits us in these archives. But we have to ask whether collectors will support us in making it available. The onward march of technology suggests that vinyl production will not continue indefinitely. To the best of my knowledge we are the only company in the world issuing ‘78rpm’ discs of historic vocal and operatic material on a regular basis. After Historic Masters there is unlikely to be another. As mentioned above, we have been given substantial help to enable us to keep afloat in recent years. To ensure our continued operation, Historic Masters has to be commercially viable and this can only be ensured by support from our subscribers.

 

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