A company specialized in the pressing, production and distribution of records and associated products (radio transcriptions, dictaphone cylinders).
In 1897, Emile Berliner (1851-1929) was given the Canadian patent for lateral-cutting. The exclusive use period of twenty years was to end in 1917 and it was obvious that several American companies were planning to put lateral-cut records on the Canadian market. Since the beginning of the century the Berliner family had owned, in Montréal, the biggest record-pressing factory in Canada. Its guiding spirit, Herbert Samuel Berliner (1882-1966), eldest son of Emile Berliner, thought that the family business could adequately serve the new clientele that lateral-cutting would bring. But, until then, Berliner Gram-o-phone had only had a single client, the Victor Talking Machine of Camden (New Jersey), the largest record company in the world. In 1901, Emile Berliner and his friend Eldridge Reeves Johnson (1867-1934) had taken part in creating the company and Berliner Gram-o-phone of Montréal had become the exclusive presser and distributor of Victor products in Canada.
In the United States, Victor and Columbia shared the patent for lateral-cutting, a patent whose exclusive use period in that country was to end in 1922…theoretically. Already, many small companies (Emerson, Gennett, Brunswick, Okeh) were beginning to openly dispute the validity of this joint patent. On the strength of their quasi-monopoly, Victor and Columbia had kept the price of records high. The arrival of these new competitors risked provoking a price war (which, in fact, happened at the beginning of the 1920s). There was, therefore, no question of Victor or one of its partners helping these new rivals in any way.
But Herbert Berliner was not one to let a business opportunity pass him by. In the fall of 1918, he installed some surplus BGC presses in a workshop at 131-18th Avenue in Lachine (now an area of Montréal). He signed a five-year lease and created Compo Company Limited (the significance of this name has never been discovered). At the beginning of 1919, he advertised Compo as "the first independent Canadian factory for pressing discs". Obviously targeting American clients, he assured companies that they could substantially reduce their customs costs on imported products by having their records pressed in Canada. They could simply provide the master and Compo would take care of the rest.
Compo's first two clients were already active in Canada. Since 1914, the Pollock Manufacturing Company of Berlin (Kitchener), Ontario, distributed lateral-cut records for the European companies Odeon, Fonotipia and Jumbo. In the spring of 1918, Arthur B. Pollock signed an agreement with the Otto Heineman Phonograph Supply of New York and, in May, created the Phonola Company of Canada. At the beginning of 1919, Compo landed the pressing contract for new Phonola lateral-cut records. A few months later, Compo signed its first major contract with the Starr Company of Canada, a subsidiary of the Starr Piano Company of Richmond, Indiana, for pressing lateral-cut records brand-named Gennett, using American masters. Starr's Canadian chairman, Wilfred D. Stevenson, had delegated general manager Roméo Beaudry (1882-1932) with developing the Francophone market.
In the meantime, Herbert launched two His Master's Voice series, one Anglophone (216000) and the other Francophone (263000), which grew so much that the Berliner factory in Montréal practically stopped pressing any Victor records. The American company put pressure on the Berliner company, which caused internal conflict in the Berliner family. In March 1921, Herbert quit as vice-president, taking with him to Compo Thomas Nash 1, general manager of His Master's Voice; Reginald Chilvers, sales manager; Daniel St. Eve, director of the pressing factory; Elmer Avery, sound engineer and Henri Miro, musical director. That all of the high-level management staff would leave the largest record company in Canada simultaneously to plunge into the Compo venture, eloquently demonstrated the degree of loyalty that Berliner elicited among his associates.
Wasting no time, the eldest Berliner created the new Sun label, with its head office at 210 Adelaide Street West in Toronto. Thomas Nash, who established the formidable HMV network in Canada, became Sun's director and set up Canada Sales Limited, a company that ensured the distribution of Compo products. He signed an agreement with the American company Okeh to release its recordings in Canada under the Sun label. John McWilliams managed the Compo factory at Lachine, while Reginald Chilvers took care of marketing. During the summer, Herbert set up a recording studio in Montréal at 117 Metcalfe Street and in July, launched the Apex label. In April 1922, Compo got a new charter that allowed it to operate in "all the Dominion". The new officers of the company were: Herbert S. Berliner, President; Thomas Nash, Vice-president; J. Olmstead, Secretary; John McWilliams, Treasurer; Fred Friedberg, Elmer Avery and Daniel St. Ive, directors.
The majority of Compo's Anglophone production occurred in the 1920s. The company created four labels: Sun, Apex, Ajax and Radia-Tone. During its few months as a record label, Sun produced only foreign recordings. The Canadian presence on Apex was much larger. The 500 series (approximately 300 releases between 1921 and 1925) featured recordings by Ben Hokea, Harry Thomas, Willie Eckstein, Henri Miro, Ernest-Gill Plamondon, Al Edward, Placide Morency, Joseph Beaulieu, Ruthven McDonald, Vera Guilaroff and the Adanac Quartet. The Apex Electrophonic 26000 series (approximately 155 releases between 1925 and 1930) included recordings by Willie Eckstein and Léo Lesieur. Wishing to capitalize on the ethnic market, Compo launched, in September 1923, the Ajax label for the American "coloured" market. Renting a studio at 240-55th Street West in New York, the company recorded jazz musicians such as Mamie Smith, the Fletcher Henderson orchestra and Ontario pianist Lou Hooper. Ajax also recorded, in Montréal, the Chicago Novelty Orchestra and its pianist and leader, Millard Thomas. The business was not as successful as had been hoped however and less than a year later, Ajax changed to recordings of white artists in a final effort to save the label. The label finally disappeared in the summer of 1925, after 135 productions.
Herbert Berliner was interested in radio and beginning in December 1920, he organized broadcasts of recorded music (by HMV, of course) on the radio station CFCF in Montréal 2. Believing that there could be a market for recordings of radio broadcasts, he created the Radia-Tone 2500 series. In the fall of 1925, he released excerpts of a religious service held at the American Presbyterian Church in Montréal and a speech by Mackenzie King, then Prime Minister of Canada.
It seems almost certain that Apex Record of Boston, which distributed Compo records in New England (1922-1926), belonged to Herbert, who was born in a Boston suburb. Columbia Phonograph of New York helped this distribution with its 34000F series, from 1926 to 1932. The Sun offices in Toronto closed in 1930 and original anglophone production stopped at Compo.
Original Compo productions are often found among the numerous foreign labels pressed by Compo over the years. Unfortunately, this is only rarely indicated and artists' names were frequently replaced by pseudonyms. A more detailed study would perhaps identify the Canadian performers.
For more than 50 years, Compo was the most active company in the Francophone sector in Canada. As of 1920, Roméo Beaudry established the subsidiary Starr Phonograph Company of Quebec 3 and launched the Starr 11000 series, which, in the beginning, had only Québécois artists (Pellerin, Germain, Lapierre…). However, after a trip to France in the summer of 1920, Beaudry included French artists in the series. It is almost certain that Beaudry used the Berliner Gram-o-phone studios to record Francophone artists at Starr. When Berliner opened the new Compo studios at 117 Metcalfe Street, Beaudry brought his artists there and then created the 12000 series, which became 15000 with the first electric recordings. If one adds to these series the classical recordings of the 18000 series, the children's records of the Mignon series and the "Double Longueur" reissues, Compo produced more than 2500 Francophone discs between 1920 and 1959! Among the artists featured are the biggest names in folk ( Mary Bolduc, Ovila Légaré, Eugène Daigneault, Charles Marchand, Isidore Soucy, Alfred Montmarquette, Tommy Duchesne…), lyric art (Rodolphe Plamondon, Lionel Daunais, Placide Morency, Hercule Lavoie…), popular song ( Hector Pellerin, Hervey Germain, Albert Marier, Roméo Mousseau, Fernand Perron, Ludovic Huot, Lionel Parent, Jacques Aubert) and country (Marcel Martel, the soldier Lebrun).
When Starr Phonograph of Canada left the record industry in 1925, the Starr label was bought out by Compo, probably in partnership with Roméo Beaudry. After Beaudry died in May 1932, Compo seems to have become sole owner. In spite of great difficulties brought on by the 1929 crash, Compo never ceased to produce new material. But production, which was greater than two records a week in 1930, fell to just one record per month in 1933 and 1934! Along with RCA Victor of Canada, Compo was the only Canadian record company to survive the 1929 economic crash. To do this however, the company used its recording facilities to transcribe radio broadcasts 4 and dictaphone cylinders. After some modification, the Lachine factory even pressed floor tiles! In 1934, Columbia was going bankrupt and Herbert Berliner could have bought its catalogue for only $75,000 but, in financial difficulty himself, he could not raise the necessary funds.
In 1935, Herbert signed a major pressing contract with Decca (United States), which put his company in Lachine back on the road to profitability. It was probably at the beginning of the 1940s that Compo moved to much larger quarters at 2377 Remembrance Street (close to 24th Avenue in Lachine). Decca was just about Compo's only client until the end of the 1940s, when many small companies appeared in Canada and the United States. Compo then pressed labels such as Varsity, Tempo and Gavotte, although it is not known if the company in Lachine also took care of distribution. Compo also pressed records for other companies, although this fact was not always indicated on the records. In the 1950s, Compo pressed more and more records for American companies -- more than 25 in the 1960s, including Warner Brothers, Cadence, Roulette and United Artists.
In 1951, believing he had cancer, Herbert sold his company to Decca, which replaced the Starr label with the French Apex label, but without changing the sequence of the current series. In 1956, the Apex 13000 series was created which, in the beginning, served to produce in Canada Francophone productions of Decca subsidiaries in Europe. Producer Yvan Dufresne took charge of the "Variétés" sector in 1956 and expanded it impressively. Over the years, he signed Michel Louvain, Pierre Lalonde, Ginette Reno, Donald Lautrec, Jenny Rock, the Hou-Lops and several of the greatest Francophone stars of the time. By 1960, Compo released, under the Carnaval label, more than 120 microgroove records, including recordings from the Starr and Apex catalogues.
In 1963, Compo changed hands to the Music Corporation of America (MCA) when MCA bought Decca assets. The new owners opened another pressing factory at 3400 Montreal Road in Cornwall, Ontario. Between 1966 and 1970, under the Lero label, MCA released close to 80 albums from the French Apex catalogue of the 1960s and recordings produced in Europe. MCA put an end to the Francophone Apex production in 1970 and closed the Lachine factory. New recording reissues from the Starr catalogue appeared on the MCA/Coral label on vinyl records in the 1970s, on four-track cassettes in the 1980s and on digital audio recordings in the 1990s. MCA closed the Cornwall pressing factory in 1976. On January 1, 1991, MCA was sold to the Japanese electronic giant Matsushita Electric Industrial Company Limited. In 1995, Edgar Bronfman acquired 80 per cent of the MCA shares and integrated it into Universal Studios the following year. In 2001, Universal merged with the French entertainment giant Vivandi to create Vivandi-Universal.
Although its Canadian recording production was constant from 1919 to 1970, Compo drew its greatest revenues from pressing and distribution. The following is a list of Compo's main clients between 1919 and 1950:
Compo also pressed records for occasional clients such as Hectrola, Hydrola, Operaphone, Canadian Music Lovers Library, Famous Artists (around 1932), Tempo and Gavotte (for publisher Gordon V. Thompson), as well as private records for individuals and religious, commercial, political and other groups. From the beginning of the 1930s until 1960, Compo also produced records for radio. There were advertisements, religious, political or other messages, sound effects, station identifications and everything that needed to be broadcast frequently. Between 1924 and 1927, the Lachine company even pressed records on various labels, including Palings, Leonora and Beeda, for companies in New Zealand and Australia!
On its Apex label, Compo marketed its 8000 (1923-1929) and 41000 (1929-1932) series, which reproduced recordings from the American companies Plaza, Olympic, Emerson, Paramount and the American Record Company group, with some selections produced by Compo. These records almost never mentioned the source and it frequently happened that artists' original names were changed.
The history of Compo is, above all, that of Herbert Samuel Berliner. Recognized from an early age as a specialist in audio recording, Berliner made the first recordings with local artists in Canada at his family's company in 1903, established the incredible His Master's Voice distribution network across Canada and created the HMV 216000 and HMV 263000 series, which promoted Canadian artists. He had been interested in electric recording since the beginning of the 1920s and was first in Canada to launch records recorded with this system, even before Columbia and Victor. In 1929, he produced experimental recordings at 33 1/3 RPM. In 1944, Compo pressed discs in vinylite, a substance that Columbia would use four years later for its new microgroove records.
Throughout his life, Berliner was an innovator and a visionary. R.S. Chislett, general manager of Compo for 35 years, said of him: "He was a very, very dedicated man. And, by that, I don't mean the business of making money -- I mean the act of producing records themselves".5 Herbert Berliner was almost 70 years old when he sold his company to Decca but, when he discovered that, in fact, he did not have cancer, he bitterly regretted the sale. While he remained with Compo until his death in 1966, he became bitter and solitary -- a sad end for one who was truly the father of the Canadian record industry.
A number of Compo masters, as well as records of recording sessions (including dates), are kept at the Library and Archives Canada.
Robert Thérien, music researcher, Montréal
1. Canadian Music Trades Journal, April 1921, p. 92
2. "Montreal Men Hear Phonograph Programme by Wireless Telephone"
"On a recent Tuesday evening, several members of the Berliner Gram-o-phone Co. Limited, Montreal staff, met at the home of Mr. H.S. Berliner to hear a musical programme by wireless telephone. At the Marconi station just below the Bonaventure depot, a Victrola was placed beside a transmitting apparatus. His Master's Voice records by [Fritz] Kreisler, [Harry] Lauder, Billy Murray, Lewis James, Coleman's, Raderman's and Henri's Orchestras were played, and this music was heard clearly and easily, not only by the group at Mr. Berliner's home, but it is estimated by at least one hundred and fifty other persons or groups who had Marconi receiving equipment at points as far distant as Ottawa, Father Point, … In addition to the music, Mr. Berliner's guests heard the Cassandra talking from out in the ocean, another ship off the coast of Nova Scotia, the Navy Yards at Brooklyn (NY) and Washington, sending messages. (…) It is understood that the Marconi Company will give similar weekly demonstrations each Tuesday throughout the winter." Canadian Music Trades Journal, December 1920, p. 88
3. When the company was founded in 1920, its offices were at 1600 Saint Laurent Blvd. in Montréal and it later moved to 1200 Amherst Street in Montréal.
4. Canadian Music Trades Journal, April 1932, p. 19.
5. Todoruk, Ihor, A Hundred Years of Recorded Sound, 1877-1977, Toronto, 1977, p. 4.