Arthur Collins - The King of the Ragtime Singers (1864-1933)

In the world of cylinders and early acoustical discs, the name of Arthur Francis Collins might not come as a suprise. The charismatic and robust baritone voice of this household name in the early recording industry was (and is) well-loved by many.

But who exactly was this artist, dubbed ''The King of the Ragtime Singers'' in his heyday?
Not one single answer can be given, since Collins was very versatile and sang almost everything that was handed to him.
Many will know Arthur Collins as the lower voiced part of the extremely succesful duo Collins & Harlan; The duo that was dubbed The Half-Ton Duo by fellow singer Billy Murray, who mocked the heavy gentlemen.

Collins and Harlan during an Edison Diamond Disc ''tone test demonstration'' (1916)

But Collins did much more than just recording comic songs with his tenor counterpart Byron G. Harlan.
His recorded solo-output is enormous -- more than I could possibly describe in this article.
Also his lesser known duo records with Joseph Natus are very worthwile to listen to.

However, to fully understand the importance of Collins' recording career, we should first look at his life itself.

On the 7th of February 1864, Arthur Francis Collins was born in Philadelphia. Collins' mother gave birth in the home of Collins' grandfather, Joseph Perry, who was a chaplain in the American navy.
Arthur was the oldest of 10 children, and around the time he was 14 years old, the family moved to Barnegat, New Jersey. A few laters, when Arthur was 17, he began singing at church festivals and concerts. Soon the parents of Arthur noticed the talent of their son and he was sent to Philadelphia for vocal lessons.

A period of touring with several - quite unsuccesful - touring companies followed. In the end, Collins left show business and studied bookkeeping. He maried his wife Anna Leah Conolly in New York City in 1895.
In the late 1890s Collins again continued his singing and show business career. He sang for the De Wolf Hopper Company, appearing in the show ''Wang''. Apparently agents of Edison's National Phonograph Company noticed Collins, and quite soon the singer recieved a letter from them, inviting him to make a trial recording.

Collins was eager for this opportunity and - as told by Collins' wife - on May 16, 1898, he went to Edison's recording studios in Orange, New Jersey to cut his first cylinders.
Very early titles include: ''Happy Days in Dixie'' and ''Every Night I see that Nigger standing round''.
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The next years were good for Collins, as he recorded great amounts of new songs on Edison brown wax cylinders. In early 1900 Arthur Collins recorded one his biggest and earliest hits, ''Mandy Lee'' (written by Thurland Chattaway).

It is assumed that Collins recorded also for some smaller cylinder companies in addition to his work at Edison's National Phonograph Company. In the February 1899 issue of the trade journal ''The Phonoscope'', he is mentioned as one of the artists recording for Giant Tone cylinders.

Something that is certain, though, is that Collins made his first Berliner discs on the 25th of November, 1899. Songs recorded include: ''I've just recieved a Telegram from Baby'', ''My Hannah Lady'' and ''Mandy Lee''.

During the years 1899 and 1900 Collins recorded over 50 titles for Berliner's Gramophone Company. Songs range from the blatantly racist ''The Mick who threw the Brick'' to the elegant Richard Jose classic ''The Blue and the Gray''.
Also interesting to note is the fact that Collins recorded a very early song with the word ''Hawaiian'' appearing in it. The tune ''My Girl's an Hawaiian Maiden'' may be a coon song, it is indeed an example of early Hawaiian-influenced popular culture.

On July 20, 1900 Collins worked at his first recording session for Elridge Johnson's Victor Company.
Collins recorded 7 titles, accompanied by an unknown pianist (could be C.H.H. Booth).

Victor's house pianist C.H.H. Booth

Even more interesting to note is that Collins returned for a second recording session the next day, and recorded 8 titles -- this time accompanied by an orchestra, which was extremely rare at that time.
It seems recordings made in the following year, were still sometimes accompanied by solely a pianist, though. One great example is ''My Charcoal Charmer'', recorded on the 2th of February, 1901.
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Edison recording artists group photo, C. 1900. Collins is number 7, standing nearby his future recording partner Byron G. Harlan, number 5

Of course Collins also continued recording for Edison's National Phonograph Company.
Collins' first real duet recordings were made with tenor Joseph (Joe) Natus. Together, Collins and Natus recorded 19 Edison cylinders during 1901-1902 and also a few Victor discs.
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During the year 1901 Collins worked in The Big Four Quartet. The quartet cut 5 titles, all issued in 1901; Collins sang baritone, A.D. Madeira sang bass, Byron G. Harlan sang first tenor and Joseph Natus sang second tenor. It was in this quartet that Harlan and Collins probably first sang together and it was in this quartet that their long career would begin.
The first Victor recording session for Collins and Harlan was on October 31, 1902 (also Harlan's first Victor session). Collins and Harlan's first cylinders for Edison were also released in late 1902, with cylinder 8238, ''Down Where the Wurzburger Flows'', being the earliest known issued.
On the 3th of March 1903, Collins recorded his last duets with Joseph Natus. During the same session Collins also recorded with Harlan. Natus continued recording solo, singing ballads until 1905. Natus' last recording session for Victor was on April 28, 1905.
Some recordings made by Collins and Natus were later replaced by re-recordings with Harlan instead of Natus. This practice was quite common at Edison's Phonograph Company.
Collins and Harlan not only recorded for Edison but also for Victor, Columbia and short-lived, smaller firms like Lambert (maker of the famous pink cylinders).
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Still, Collins was much in demand as a solo-artist. In 1903, one of his biggest successes was undoubtly the Thomas S. Allen composition ''Any Rags?''. He recorded it both for Edison and for Victor in October of that year -- for Victor on the 26th, to be precise.
In 1905 the biggest hit of Collins' career would arrive, an extremely popular coon song with the title ''The Preacher and the Bear'', written by Georgie Fairman. Zonophone was the first to issue the recording by Collins in April 1905 and by May 1905 Edison issued the cylinder recording.
Collins' recorded rendition stayed popular for another decade, and he was often asked to perform the tune in his live performances on stage.

A hasty count made by researchers in the past, has proven that Collins recorded more than 200 solo Edison 2-minute cylinders (both brown-wax and Gold Moulded black wax). Also mentioned is that Collins and Harlan recorded around 65 Blue Amberol cylinders in the teens.

Collins and Harlan, mid-1910s

The team of Collins and Harlan remained a steady seller and succesful duo on record during the 1910s. Their repertoire ranged from ''Dancing down in Jungle Land'' to ''Alabama Jubilee'', and everything in between.
However, even with his big success with Harlan, Collins joined yet another ensemble: The Peerless Quartet.
In 1909 Steve Porter (the baritone of the Peerless) left to join the American Quartet and Collins was soon asked to replace him. In the Peerless, Collins occassionally sang lead on songs such as ''On the old Dominion Line'' or ''Pull for the Shore''.
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Collins worked with the Peerless for about a decade, but left the quartet in (likely) early 1919.
It's often assumed that Collins couldn't get along very well with the lead tenor and group manager Henry Burr. Arthur Collins recorded with the Peerless Quartet for Victor and smaller record labels like Little Wonder: ''He's a Rag Picker'' was released on Little Wonder disc 23. Link - Hier klicken

Collins also toured with a group called ''The Record Makers'' -- later well known as ''The Eight Popular Victor Artists''. The group toured through the whole USA, and Collins sang solo, with Harlan and with the Peerless at these concerts.

The Record Makers, Collins is at the back

From about 1916 Collins performed on record several songs about jazz.
One unique example is certainly Collins' recording with Harlan of the early song ''That Funny Jazz Band from Dixieland'', recorded in 1916. It's the first song mentioning jazz as musical style on record.
''Oh honey dear,
I want you to hear
That harmony queer
When you listen to
Mad musicians playing rhythm
Everybody dancing with 'em
Hold me close in your arms
I'm in love with your charms and
The funny jas band from dixieland!''
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On the 20th of October, 1921, Collins performed one of the Edison ''tone test'' demonstrations in Medina, Ohio. These ''tone test'' demonstrations involved the singer exiting the stage in the dark to let the audience guess if the sound was coming from the live singer or the Edison Diamond Disc machine (the purpose was, obviously, to prove the superiority of Edison Diamond Disc phonographs).
Unfortunately for Collins, he fell through a trap-door accidently left open. He suffered serious injuries.
Collins had to recover, but still made a few duet recordings with Harlan afterwards for Edison.
It was obvious, though, that Collins' popularity had waned.

By the mid-1920s Collins' recording career had ended. A new generation of singers had arrived and Collins retirerd. Until 1926 he lived on Long Island, New York. He then moved to Tice, Florida.
On August 3, 1933, the baritone put this head on his wife's shoulder and quietly passed away in peace. He was aged 69.



Tim Gracyk's biography of Arthur Collins can be found here:
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Sheet music images can be found on the superb Levy Collection site:
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Some photos were taken from R.S. Baker's Antique Record Blog:
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Further listening and reading:

Hundreds of Arthur Collins' cylinder recordings can be found on the UCSB Cylinder Audio Archive:
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