Saturday, June 09, 2007

Household Sounds

Fred Waring was born on this day in 1900 in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. He died on July 29, 1983 in State College, Pennsylvania.

Waring was a violinist and banjo player, best known as the leader of a 70-man white-bread swing band, "Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians," from 1923 up until his death. An expert marketeer and wheeler-dealer, Waring managed to build his rickety college jazz quartet into a diversified corporate venture, operated from his headquarters on Broadway in Manhattan, spawning radio and TV shows, recordings, world tours, summer choral workshops, music publishing, real estate ventures ... and a blender.

Waring's name is indeed associated with the first popular non-commercial electric blender, known as the "Waring blender." In the 1930s, an inventor named Frederick Osius asked Waring (a one-time Penn State engineering student and an incorrigible gear-head) for financing to develop his patent for an electric blender. Waring invested $25,000, but Osius developed technical difficulties with his design, so Waring fired Osius and had the machine redesigned. The new "Miracle Mixer" was introduced at the 1937 National Restaurant Show in Chicago. The following year, Waring changed the name of the product to the "Waring blender" and marketed the machine while touring the country with the Pennsylvanians. The Waring blender became a must-have item, whirring away in every American kitchen (over a million of them were sold by 1954), and commercial versions of the blender became standard laboratory equipment -- apparently even Jonas Salk used a Waring blender while developing the polio vaccine.

Waring's other distinct claim to fame was his direct effect on the nature of music played on the radio. While during the 1920s, it was fairly common for radio stations to hire bands to perform live on the air, the effects of the Depression had forced radio stations to cut back on such gigs, resorting instead to spinning records, despite the fact that records were generally sold with a stamp that prohibited them from being played on the air. Waring and his band were popular recording artists in the 1920s on the Victor label, but by 1932, Waring decided to stop recording, fearing that his records were cutting in to his more lucrative live gigs. He was also well aware of the fact that as a performer, he did not receive a penny when one of his records was played on the radio -- despite the fact that ASCAP, the American Society of Composers and Publishers, had already begun to establish rights on behalf of songwriters to be paid each time their work was broadcast. (The rival rights organization, BMI, was actually established by the National Association of Broadcasters in 1940 to break the grip of ASCAP, but expanded protection for songwriters by signing African-American songwriters who had been barred from participating in ASCAP.)

While Waring was still under contract with Victor, a bootlegging sound engineer made a transcription of one of Waring's live radio performances and sold a copy of it to a radio station. Waring successfully sued both the bootlegger and the radio station, WDAS in Philadelphia, and then he his sights on something bigger -- securing a piece of the action for performers whenever an authorized recording was played on the radio. Waring founded a new organization, the National Association of Performing Artists, and took aim at radio stations. In a case in Pennsylvania court in 1937, Waring successfully enforced a restrictive legend placed on one of his records that stated that the record was "Not Licensed for Broadcast" -- thus, in theory, giving Waring the ability to negotiate a fee for permitting a station to play the record.

In 1940, however, in the federal Second Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Learned Hand virtually ignored the Waring case and articulated what became settled law in the matter in a case between bandleader Paul Whiteman and RCA (on the one hand) and WBO Broadcasting (owner of radio station WNEW), stating that RCA, Whiteman's label, had no power "to impose ... pretended servitude on the records; and WBO Broadcasting Corporation is free to buy and use them in entire disregard of any attempt to do so." In reading the opinion, one senses the usually redoubtable Hand's reticence to elevate the work of performers to the same status enjoyed by writers, viewing performers' work as somehow inherently ephemeral. (Maybe yes, maybe no; but what, pray tell, would Judge Hand, if he were alive today, be listening to on his iPod?)

The upshot was that, as a result of Whiteman's defeat, radio stations were emboldened to play records without worrying about claims for compensation from the performers. The record companies were quick to see the angles following the Waring and Whiteman cases; they switched their strategy from attempting to collect licensing fees from radio stations to buddying up with radio stations, enticing them to play their records in order to promote their sale. While record companies were trying to increase the free airplay of records, musicians like Fred Waring began receiving fewer invitations to perform live on the radio. Singer-songwriters, slowly and steadily, began to assert themselves as the prime movers in the pop music medium, since at least they'd get paid through ASCAP or BMI for radio airplay.

After heaving a professional sigh, Waring went back to recording after World War II.

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Anonymous Fathead said...

Let's not forget the only known pop music (or any genre, for that matter) mention of the "Waring blender:" Warren Zevon's "Poor Poor Pitiful Me." Puree, anyone?

5:38 PM  

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