Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


RCA Victor Records

An international major record label, originating in the USA, owned by BMG (Bertelsmann) in Germany, but in 2008 apparently will pass to Sony.

The Radio Corporation of America entered the record business in 1929, buying the Victor Talking Machine Company from bankers Seligman and Spayer, later called it RCA Victor, then RCA. Victor had been formed in 1901 by Emile Berliner (inventor of the gramophone) and engineer Eldridge R. Johnson (who invented a practical spring-wound motor for home record players, and later helped Berliner perfect his gramophone). To pay for an expensive patent war with Columbia and Zonophone, Berliner sold the rights to his invention outside the USA to English investors, who formed the Gramophone Co. Ltd; for 50 years there were close links between HMV and Victor, which owned part of HMV 1920-35. The patent battle was settled by agreeing to pool patents; Columbia began selling discs in the USA in 1901, but Victor soon overtook it as the most important American record company, its Red Seal label (copied from label of HMV's Russian subsidiary) bringing high-class music into many homes: German contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Italian baritone Antonio Scotti, conductor Arturo Toscanini, Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski all big hits in the first 20 years of the 20th century, Stokowski until 1925; the biggest of all was tenor Enrico Caruso: 'Vesti La Giubba' (from I Pagliacci), made in Milan by HMV in 1904, may have been the first million-selling record. Caruso later signed with Victor direct and had more than 40 hit records through 1921 (though there were then no charts). Victor also recorded U.S. presidents from Theodore Roosevelt to Harding, issued the first jazz records (by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band) and was one of the first to record country music and blues (see Ralph Peer).

Under Johnson Victor had the most high-class image of any label; single-sided 12-inch Red Seal 78s sold for $5, as much as many labourers earned in a week. Victor's machines were so popular that the word 'Victrola' became a generic term for record players, like 'Hoover' for vacuum cleaners. He sold out to bankers in 1926 and regretted it, but RCA took over in 1929 and during the Depression record sales plummeted, the Camden NJ factory mostly converted to making radios. Victor dispensed with most of its artists (though many found their way back to the label through the relationship with HMV). Then came the Swing Era from 1935: Victor and its Bluebird subsidiary dominated, with Waller's greatest fame from 1934, as well as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey (with Frank Sinatra), and Duke Ellington. To its eternal credit it recorded Dizzy Gillespie's big band in the late 1940s, but by then pop singers were taking over: Victor had Perry Como, Vaughn Monroe and Dinah Shore, adding Eddie Fisher and Mario Lanza in the 1950s. But Columbia once again became the most important label in the USA as RCA floundered in the that decade, even its technical work appalling (new classical recordings by Toscanini were dreadful compared to the work that was done in Chicago by Mercury and on the West Coast by Capitol, to say nothing of Europe). The label had the good fortune to gamble on Elvis Presley in late 1955, who carried it for many years. RCA was among the first to issue stereo records, made good recordings in the late '50s-early '60s but fluffed again with 'Dynagroove' sound, designed for its department-store record players at a time when components (stereo separates) were becoming big business. The company was lucky to have hits '70s-80s by John Denver, Rick Springfield, Hall and Oates; from the UK Sweet, David Bowie and Eurythmics. RCA still sold country music, with Jim Reeves, Hank Locklin, Dolly Parton etc but its Nashville slickness eventually lost favour in that market (yet ironically it was RCA who issued Wanted: The Outlaws '76, which went back to basics and was said to be the first country LP to sell a million).

Meanwhile Columbia Pictures (nothing to do with Columbia Records/CBS) formed Colpix in NYC, in the late 1960s took over the Bell/Amy/Mala group formed by Larry Utall in '64 and had commercial success with David Cassidy, the Box Tops, Gary Glitter and the Bay City Rollers; former USA Columbia Records boss Clive Davis was brought in to run Bell, changed its name to Arista in 1975 and continued with hits by Barry Manilow; Arista was acquired '80 by the Ariola/Eurodisc subsidiary of Bertelsmann, who had operated in Germany since after WWII. RCA had slipped to the bottom of the global majors (the others then being CBS, EMI, WEA, MCA and PolyGram) and attempted to rectify this by acquiring Ariola/Arista '85 but was then itself taken over by General Electric, who had no use for the record division; EMI tried to buy it from GE but Bertelsmann (BMG) owned some of it and got control of the rest.

RCA was one of the major labels complaining for decades that classical music and jazz don't sell, but whose parent company also owned a nation-wide radio/TV network (NBC), which broadcast very little of either, disbanding the NBC Symphony Orchestra as soon as Toscanini retired in 1955; once the most prestige-laden label in the world, Victor had been operated for far too long by a corporation that didn't care about it. BMG used the RCA trademarks; for more on Victor world-wide and the dog and gramophone trademark, see HMV. Sony and BMG merged their music divisions in 2004, so the historic American biggies Columbia and RCA Victor were under the same roof; in August 2008 the Wall Street Journal reported that Sony was gong to buy Bertelsmann's half, so both will be owned by the Japanese.