22 December 2022

When did that record come out?

Billboard singles reviews: useful for locating a record in time

1. Why

Knowing the absolute original version of a song is probably not important to many music fans. Blue Suede Shoes is an Elvis Presley song, and the fact that it was first recorded by Carl Perkins is of limited interest.

Similarly, unless they are pub trivia enthusiasts it is also enough for most listeners to know roughly which year a record was released. Give or take a year or two is probably good enough for historic or nostalgic context. Even, say, late 60s or mid-70s will do.

Some of us, though, cannot rest until we know who first performed or recorded a song. The sport of tracking down original versions often demands more than the year a record came out. We might need the month, or the week, or (surely not!) the day a record was released. 

Part of the urge is worthy, to give credit where it's due, credit to the original composers, arrangers and artists. I can't deny there is also the satisfaction of being the smart alec who has knowledge that everyone else has missed. 

At the back of the mind, too, is the hope that the undiscovered original version will turn out to be the best, an authentic gem that reveals the raw vision of the creator, unspoilt by the tinkering of the cover versions. That happens, but it often turns out to be the opposite, when the cover version has added something to the original work, even revealed something about it. 

As with fanatics of any sport, though, it is hard to explain to an outsider why we are so caught up in it. We keep looking, digging around the archives until we find even a tiny clue. Because the data is limited, though, you might still be left with an approximation or just circumstantial evidence.

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2. When did my canary get circles under his eyes?

Sheet music (clip)
My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes became known in Australia through the 1973 version by Captain Matchbox Whoopee Band which charted moderately around the country. 

It first appeared in 1931. Most sources will tell you that British bandleader Debroy Somers released the original version, but I believe the British release by American singer Marion Harris has a good claim to being the original. 

I can't prove it, and the evidence is limited and partly circumstantial, but the case for Marion Harris is enough to avoid calling either as the original release.

Both records came out in the period April-May 1931, so my aim was to narrow it down:

• In the limited number of British newspaper mentions of the records, only Marion Harris appears in April, and there are no mentions of Debroy Somers until May. (The flaw: I don't have access to the archives of every newspaper in the universe.) 

Jack Golden
• Composer Jack Golden had previously been accompanist to Harris, which may explain her early access to the song. It might even have been exclusive to her for a while before any records came out. (The flaw: circumstantial, not proof.)

• Harris appears on the cover of the sheet music. (The flaw: it's common but not necessary that the sheet music carries the song's originator.)

In the meantime, I did find evidence of Marion Harris performing Canary on stage and radio in the US in January 1931. After that there are no other mentions of the song in the news archives until April 1931 when Harris's record is mentioned. For the rest of 1931 the song title often pops up in various contexts. This was enough for me to call Harris as having the Original version: live performance, at least until contradictory evidence comes up. 

As I always say about the website, Eventually, someone emails. The page will stand until then. Or until someone comments here, I guess. It does happen.

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3. Where do I find out? 

Steven C. Barr dates the 78s
• 45s and EPs: 45cat.com.  and for other formats e.g. albums and 78s: 45worlds.com

• All formats but best for albums: Discogs.com

• Huge music magazine archive at World Radio History.

• Newspaper and magazine archives: Trove (Australia), Gale (mainly British), and Newspapers.com and NewspaperArchives.com (mainly USA, paid subs).

• Archived books and magazines at Internet Archive. Just search.

• Discographies by e.g Steven C. Barr (The Almost Complete 78 rpm Record Dating Guide), Martin C. Strong
The Originals book in English (link)
(The Essential Rock Discography), or Brian Rust (many, including The complete entertainment discography, from the mid-1890s to 1942). 

• Biggest and best original version sites: The Originals, Cover.info, and Secondhand Songs.

• 78s: Online Discographical Project (78discography.com) for recording dates (not release dates)

Sometimes naming a release date is down to speculation, or even an informed hunch. You might have to declare it a draw and let it rest. Disappointing, but we are working with imperfect data.

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Some of this appears in a different form at the About page of my site Where did they get that song? and at my page about My Canary Has Circles Under His Eyes.