Last week EMI Records was sold to Universal Music. Many nostalgic pieces appeared about "the last truly British record company". In fact, EMI owed its existence to four Americans.
In 1877, in his laboratory in New Jersey, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, which recorded on a cylinder. In 1887, Emile Berliner, working in Washington, invented a recording machine that used a flat wax disc, the gramophone record as we know it. Because competition with Edison's machine was going to be tough, Berliner decided to get a head start in Europe and sent one of his sales staff to London.
New Yorker William Owen moved into the Cecil Hotel in the Strand. His brief was to sell Berliner gramophones throughout Europe. To do so he set up a new company, The Gramophone Company, which was the company sold last week to Universal Music.
To sell gramophones he needed local recordings so Berliner sent him another American, Fred Gainsberg, a recording engineer. On the boat on the way over Gainsberg met some music-hall artists and on his second day in London they turned up at the company's offices - in full stage-costume and make-up. An hour later The Gramophone Company had recorded its first huge-selling record, The Laughing Song, by Burt Shepheard.
In the next few years William Owen expanded The Gramophone Company throughout Europe, and even to India, where The Laughing Song sold half a million. Meanwhile Fred Gainsberg looked for new artists. In 1902 he heard of a young opera singer causing a stir in Milan - Enrico Caruso. When Gainsberg arrived to record him, Caruso demanded £100. Owen's reply to Gainsberg's telegram asking permission was, "Fee exhorbitant, absolutely forbid you to record."
Gainsberg ignored him. With an eye to publicity, he recorded Caruso in the hotel where Giuseppe Verdi had died a year earlier. The arias he sang put EMI on the map as the world's number one classical music company.
William Owen then shelled out another £100, this time for a painting of a terrier listening to its deceased owner speaking on a gramophone. The picture was called "His Master's Voice", which became The Gramophone Company's trading name, HMV.
HMV's only real rival was the London branch of America's Columbia Records. Running it was another New Yorker, Louis Sterling. When the 1st World War started retailers were afraid to stock records, thinking it unsuitably frivolous. Sterling told his staff to dig up any recordings they could that were patriotic or stirring, then rushed them out as "war records."
Within days dealers started buying again. At HMV, William Owen took advantage of the upturn to issue the sort of records a country at war really wanted to hear - sentimental heart-breakers - "Keep the Home Fires Burning" and "Roses of Picardy".
The game bounced back to Columbia. Louis Sterling signed contracts with every musical show on the London stage, recorded them, and shipped records to the troops in Europe. The British record business was now totally in the hands of these two highly competitive New Yorkers.
At this time recording was still done acoustically, with a large horn. Singers stood in front of it and bellowed. Jazz bands jostled and shoved to get in front of the horn for their solos. The most famous jazz soloists were not the best, but the pushiest.
In 1924, Western Electric's laboratories in New Jersey came up with an electrical method of recording. At the plant where they evaluated test pressings, a friend of Louis Sterling sneaked one away one and sent it to him in London. Sterling was so astonished by what he heard that he got on the next boat to New York where he pressured Western Electric into a deal - then hit a snag.
Only an American company could buy the system. Columbia America was almost broke and couldn't afford it. Sterling borrowed two million dollars and bought them out, then signed the deal in their name. Columbia Records became a wholly British-owned company and with the new technology in its hands Talking-Machine News announced, "England is now in fact 'top dog' throughout the world..."
But when the stock market crashed, British record sales collapsed. In 1931 the companies of London's two emigré Americans were forced to merge. Columbia was folded into The Gramophone Company, which became known as EMI - Electrical Musical Industries - the biggest record company in the world. Louis Sterling was put in charge and celebrated by opening Britain's best recording studio, Abbey Road. He then oversaw EMI throughout the musically booming thirties.
The huge success EMI had in the fifties and sixties was built on the company these four Americans created. Emile Berliner's gramophone was its raison d'être; William Owen conceived and started it; Fred Gainsberg provided it with its original catalogue of recordings; and Louis Sterling turned it into a respected multi-national corporation.
Not quite as British as people think.