Rody sings Sankey: An appreciation of one of the finest Rainbow records

The original issue of "The Ninety and Nine"
The original issue of “The Ninety and Nine”

Recently I discovered entries for Homer Rodeheaver releases in the 3800 Silvertone series that I wasn’t aware of, which led me to take a new look at several of the Silvertone 3800s that I have. Silvertone was a 25 cent label operated by the Sears Roebuck Co. of Chicago and sold through their mail order catalog. The label started around 1916, using Columbia back catalog, with some titles re-released going back as far as 1901. By 1926, Silvertone was still using some material from Columbia’s budget labels, especially Harmony, which was still making cheaper acoustic recordings even as electrical recording was swiftly becoming the norm.

But Sears Roebuck had long been looking for cheaper alternatives to Columbia; the margin on a quarter, then as now, couldn’t have been much. Around 1922 they began a product line based on releases from the Bridgeport Die & Machine firm, which closed around 1924, so they resumed with New York Recording Laboratories, which sent them a mixture of titles recorded for the Plaza Music Co. and other budget labels. The 3800 series, which only runs to about 3861, was an exploratory venture with Gennett, and both Homer Rodeheaver and Vernon Dalhart are heavily represented among these numbers. This helps to confirm the theory that the liason between Sears and Gennett may have been Homer Rodeheaver himself; as Rev. Kevin R. Mungons put it, Rodeheaver appearing personally at the Sears Roebuck home office would have been a mere matter of “Homer walking down the street a short distance from his own office.” Moreover, the customer base for Silvertone was overwhelmingly rural, and records of religious songs (Rodeheaver) and country music oriented material (Dalhart) would have been a much better fit than the peppy, citified dance novelties coming from NYRL and Columbia. In any event, by 1928 the offerings on Silvertone were exclusively drawn from Gennett, and it would remain so until Sears and Roebuck discontinued this enterprise in 1930.

Silvertone 3825 contains Rodeheaver’s performance of Ira D. Sankey’s “The Ninety and Nine.” It was recorded in his own studio in Chicago sometime in the Summer of 1922 and originally released on Rainbow 1060. It’s so obscure that I note that in my first, 2004, catalog of Rodheaver’s complete recordings — a separate project from my Rainbow catalog — that I missed it; I have recently added it. This was the sole occasion on which Rody recorded Ira D. Sankey’s signature hymn, which, according to Sankey, he improvised at one of the first meetings held on the English Moody-Sankey campaign in England in 1872. He had found Elizabeth Clephane’s text — she had just lately died — in an Scottish newspaper, and he simply propped the newspaper up on his organ and sang the poem out to the multitude assembled. Sankey commented that though the original performance was an improvisation that it was ever after exactly the same as he first performed it, and my feeling is part of the enduring freshness of this particular hymn comes from the spontaneous way in which it was created.

By 1922, Rainbow Records was two years old, and in some measure of trouble. Rodeheaver fully understood that he was his own best-selling artist on the label, despite his experiments with releasing records of preachers and other singers; the duo of Kim and Nyland was the only other success story for Rainbow. He was no longer recording for other labels, though that was more profitable for him. Nevertheless, he would remain committed to Rainbow Records and its mission until 1926, when the acoustic technology that he had invested in became obsolete, and the demand for him to return to Victor and remake his acoustic best-sellers before a microphone proved too lucrative. At this point, Homer had run through most of his popular repertoire already for Rainbow, and while he would find the need to remake some of the earlier records for technical reasons, he was striking out on a more extensive path in regard to selections. “The Ninety and Nine” was in the public domain by 1922 and, while he would not profit from it on the publishing end, it was still a popular hymn and his fans would no doubt enjoy hearing him sing it, and its use would not cost him additionally. Its presence in the Rainbow catalog, and later transfer to Silvertone, probably benefited Sears more than it did Rodeheaver himself.

Unlike most other Silvertone issues of Rodeheaver, this was never released by Gennett, although they did press a later version on Rainbow.
Unlike most other Silvertone issues of Rodeheaver, this was never released by Gennett, although they did press a later version on Rainbow.

Silvertone records live up to their 25 cent reputation; they are made of cheap material and are noisy, particularly on the outer edges, though they generally get better as they play. I realized I had never listened to my Silvertone 3800s, only some of the ones in later series, so I spun them all a couple of nights ago. I often encounter the complaint among other collectors that dub Homer Rodeheaver as “Homer Boring;” that his many releases are no more than hoary, overblown renderings of drab old hymns in a style too far removed from our own time for us to appreciate. He was inspired by the advocacy on record of Henry Burr in sacred material, and Burr is another early record singer often painted with the same damning brush. My experience with all kinds of Rodeheaver records has shown me that he was a fabulous singer, both in his time, and for ours. He made so many recordings, however, that invariably there are clunkers, and his acoustical Victors — the most common Rodeheaver records out in the field today — are among the worst offenders with their faceless arrangements and granitic paces. Also the variability of speeds in the recording industry of the day is often not on Homer’s side when his early records are played at the standard speed of 78 rpm. As I went through the little stack of 3800 Silvertones, early on I encountered a definite clunker, mx. 7845a from the Gennett studio in New York of “All the Way to Calvary.” It the seventh disc he had recorded that day — it was not unusual for Rody to deliver 6-8 discs in a session — and his voice is tired; he keeps falling short of the pitch, the key is not agreeing with him, and his phrasing suffers.

“The Ninety and Nine,” though, comes from its own session, made in Rodeheaver’s own studio. One leg up that the Rainbows have over his recordings for other companies is that Homer is able to specify his own arrangements, rather than depending upon day-to-day studio personnel to contrive one. Sankey’s tune has a very plain harmonization, so the Smith-Spring-Holmes Orchestral Quintet, with their typically odd mix of instruments — in this case, apparently cornet, flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone and piano — stick to the basics and do their best to provide support to the singer. But at the last line of the hymn, “Rejoice! for the Lord brings back His own,” we encounter a surprise in the form of a chorus which joins in, and also takes the last line, barely audibly, as an echo which appears to be dying out.

Homer’s utter sincerity in his delivery of the main element is so deeply focused as to be nearly bluesy; here was one of his truly great records. The Silvertone, however, was delivering its usual 25-cent output, a scarred and noisy rendering of this little recorded masterpiece. My notes revealed to me that I also had this recording on Rainbow, and checking, I discovered I had five copies of that release. Moreover, at least three looked pristine. I picked one at random to get at the transfer below; at some point I plan to check the other two to find a better alternative for the last few seconds of the disc, where the chorus sings alone. I doubt that I will find one, however — this is in the last grooves of the record, and as I stipulated earlier, is barely audible. This is a known defect of acoustic discs when the inner grooves are especially quiet; see Dennis Rooney’s notes for the track “Rêve d’enfant” in the Sony Masterworks Heritage collection “Eugene Ysayë: Violinist and Conductor” for more information in regard to this phenomenon. — Uncle Dave Lewis, Lebanon, Ohio 6-1-2014

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2 thoughts on “Rody sings Sankey: An appreciation of one of the finest Rainbow records

  1. Clephane’s text as published; Homer’s delivery of it varies from the original in minor ways:

    There were ninety and nine that safely lay
    In the shelter of the fold;
    But one was out on the hills away,
    Far off from the gates of gold.
    Away on the mountains wild and bare;
    Away from the tender Shepherd’s care.

    “Lord, Thou hast here Thy ninety and nine;
    Are they not enough for Thee?”
    But the Shepherd made answer: “This of Mine
    Has wandered away from Me.
    And although the road be rough and steep,
    I go to the desert to find My sheep.”

    But none of the ransomed ever knew
    How deep were the waters crossed;
    Nor how dark was the night the Lord passed through
    Ere He found His sheep that was lost.
    Out in the desert He heard its cry;
    ’Twas sick and helpless and ready to die.

    “Lord, whence are those blood-drops all the way,
    That mark out the mountain’s track?”
    “They were shed for one who had gone astray
    Ere the Shepherd could bring him back.”
    “Lord, whence are Thy hands so rent and torn?”
    “They’re pierced tonight by many a thorn.”

    And all through the mountains, thunder-riv’n,
    And up from the rocky steep,
    There arose a glad cry to the gate of heav’n,
    “Rejoice! I have found My sheep!”
    And the angels echoed around the throne,
    “Rejoice, for the Lord brings back His own!”

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