A Centennial Tribute To A Founding Father of the Canadian Music Business
Here’s what the press release says:
“To mark the 100th anniversary of Emile Berliner’s registration of His Master’s Voice as a commercial trademark and the first production of seven-inch records in Canada, the Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (CARAS) is posthumously inducting the recorded sound innovator into the Industry Builders’ section of the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, as the recipient of the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award.”
As dry as that sounds, it hints at what is, in fact, a remarkable story, and one that resonates at the Awards this year as the honour is accepted by the inventor’s grandson, Oliver Berliner – the only member of the family who still works in the music industry.
His grandfather’s great achievement was the concept of the “gramophone”, which, for the first time, used a flat disc to record and reproduce sound – which allowed for inexpensive mass duplication and was the first step on the road that has led to today’s high-tech CD manufacturing plants. Emile Berliner was born in Germany in 1852 and died in Washington, D.C. 78 years later, but in the intervening years he spent considerable time in Canada, then a country with a population of some 4 million people.
Berliner was a remarkable man; he had arrived in North America as a near-penniless immigrant, but within a few short years he had developed a new microphone for the telephone; Bell Laboratories awarded him $50,000 for the rights and an ongoing job as a consultant. He developed his concept of the gramophone in Washington, took it to Germany, sold his patents in the U.S., and then moved to Canada.
Moving to Montreal from Washington in the mid-189s, he took out a Canadian patent on his invention in 1897, establishing a manufacturing facility in a Bell Telephone factory, and a retail store on rue Ste. Catherine. And in early January 1900, he began factory production of seven-inch, single-sided records, made from masters recorded by his European and American companies.
Only months later, he had registered His Master’s Voice as a trademark, and within a few years the Berliner Gramophone Co. of Canada became the dominant force in the Canadian recording business.
As Canada emerged from the wreckage of the First World War, change was in the air, and in 1924, the controlling interest in the Berliner company was sold – by Emile’s son Edgar – to the Victor Talking Machine Co. in New Jersey (which changed its name to the RCA Victor Company in 1929, and was in turn purchased in 1987 by the German conglomerate Bertelsmann to become part of BMG Music, which still uses the famous “dog and gramophone” logo).
At the JUNO’s this year, his grandson Oliver Berliner – now 70 years old and active with publishing and record companies that specialize in Cuban music – will accept the Walt Grealis Special Achievement Award in the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. “I’m just delighted to be able to do this,” he says. “I’m the only member of this large family that’s still in the music industry, so this is an honour I’m glad to accept for my Grand-dad.”
Today, Oliver retains a large collection of memorabilia, including many early gramophones – all still in working order – as well as many records (some over 100 years old), papers, letters, lab notes, photographs and press materials. Some of the collection is in his Los Angeles house, some is in the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and some is in storage. It is his hope that, one day, the collection will find a permanent home in Canada.
Written By Richard Flohil