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The Edison Files: Charles Hart

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. No one knows for sure who the very first recording artist was. Here is a look at the early recording artists I have in my collection.

Charles Hart was born on South Halsted Street in Chicago to parents who had emigrated from Germany. His father, Henry, a civil engineer, was an alcoholic and he deserted his family when Charles was four. The tenor took his father's name when he began singing professionally, calling himself Charles Henry Hart, which is why some labels give his name as Charles H. Hart. His mother provided for the family by working as a cook in upper class homes. The young Charles sang in choirs and later attended the Chicago Musical College, where he performed in amateur productions in 1902. Not especially successful in his early years, he sometimes earned small amounts by singing illustrated songs in nickelodeons. By 1912 or 1913 he enjoyed moderate success on the stage, playing a supporting role in the popular The Spring Maiden. Hart had his first recording session with a major company on April 23, 1917, when he cut two songs for Victor: "Thou Shalt Not Steal (a Heart Away)" and "It's Time for Every Boy to be a Soldier." He sometimes recorded under the pseudonym, Henry Jordan. Hart was an original member of Victor's popular Shannon Four, which began recording in mid 1917 and consisted of Hart, Harvey Hindermyer, Elliott Shaw, and Wilfred Glenn. He was also a member of the Crescent Trio, which usually consisted of Hart, Shaw, and Lewis James, who was a Hart's duet partner at many sessions, and until late 1923 Elliott Shaw was another.
Hart began recording for Edison in 1917 as a member of the Shannon Four, later called the Lyric Male Quartet. The first Edison record to list the name Hart was a duet with Arthur Middleton, who is given the pseudonym Edward Allen. "Life's Railway to Heaven," sung by Hart and Allen, was issued in April 1918. The first Edison recording featuring Hart as a solo artist was Mollie Darling, issued in March 1919. As an Edison artist, he recorded several duets with Elizabeth Spencer. Hart was married to soprano Esther Nelson. They were members of Edison's Metropolitan Quartet, which also included (at different times) Amy Ellerman, Vernon Archibald, Marie De Kyzer, and Donald Chalmers. The Harts had three children--all girls. In late 1923 Hart left the Shannon Quartet because he had begun training his voice for opera. Hart had several Columbia sessions in 1925. He then studied operatic singing in Germany and made records for Electrola, the German branch of His Master's Voice. When he returned to the United States, he made his first electrical recordings. His first Columbia session after he returned from Europe was on September 22, 1926, when he added a vocal refrain to a Radiolites session. His final Edison record was issued in August 1928. It featured hymns by organist-composer Sir John Stainer: "King Ever Glorious" and "My Hope Is In The Everlasting." In 1929 he returned to Germany to sing in small opera houses, which ended his American recording career. He returned to the U.S. in October 1934 and sang often on stage in opera and musical comedy. Later, his singing career essentially over, Hart worked as a dramatic actor. In his later years, Hart lived in an actors' home in New Jersey. 

L to R: Charles Hart, Elliot Shaw, Lewis James.

To listen to recordings by Charles Hart and other early recording artists check out the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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