Microgroove LPs in the 1950s
Festival Records appeared in late 1952 at just the right time. Microgroove Long Play records were seen a big part of the bright future for the record industry in Australia but there were a few issues that needed to be sorted out. To combat inflation, the Menzies government had introduced tough import restrictions which had made it difficult to source new records which were usually shipped from the U.K. On top of that, if you did find them, there was a significant sales tax. That said, at that time some 8 million records were being sold annually in Australia. If local production could be done then it seemed the best way to make records easier to find at a good price.
In May 1952 the Sunday Herald reported that E.M.I Australia had announced it would be producing and distributing the new technology “from November 1st, or as soon afterwards as is practicable.” It went on to say that Sydney dealers had said this development was the most important in the trade for many years.
A week later, the Sydney Morning Herald predicted that record buyers would soon be facing a Microgroove “war” with multiple companies looking at entering the burgeoning market. The same story highlighted the potential difficulties for collectors, with three speeds on offer 78rpm, 45rpm and 33rpm, but limited record players available offering the two slower speeds.
When treasurer Arthur Fadden handed down the 1952 budget in August there was good news – one of the big announcements was a drop in sales tax from 33 1/3% to 20%. Things were improving.
In his end of year wrap in December 1952, music critic Selwyn Speight observed that for record collectors, the year had been the most difficult and frustrating since the war, particularly for fans of classical music. However, looking forward to 1953 he said “the year’s outlook seems almost too good to be true”. His optimism was born of the fact that five companies would now be pressing LPs in Australia. Joining E.M.I would be Philips, the Australian Record Company, Radio Corporation, and Festival Records.
Festival’s First Release: Meet Mr Callaghan
The first recordings released by Festival were a single 78rpm disc on the Manhattan label featuring the song Meet Mr Callaghan played by Les Welch and his Orchestra. They hit the stores on 6th November 1952. Testament to the crowded market that Festival was entering is the fact that four versions of the same song were released on the same day. The B side featured Pamela Jopson, a vocalist Welch had met at a party, singing When I Fall In Love.
As a marketing ploy, even though it was the first release, the catalogue number printed on the label was FM-1019 to suggest there were other Festival releases out there. And indeed it wasn’t long before there were.
Several other single 78rpm sides from Welch were released in the coming weeks. By Christmas 1952 Meet Mr Callaghan had reportedly sold 10,000 copies and Festival was on its way.
While Meet Mr Callaghan played to the pop market, Festival’s other debut offering was for the burgeoning classical market. On 9th November 1952 Festival announced that its had secured the rights to press titles from the highly regarded Westminster label. A 3-LP set of Puccini’s Tosca – Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera (WAL-302) began appearing in stores from December 1st 1952. Keen to promote this aspect of their operations, in the lead up to Christmas it was possible to go into David Jones in Sydney to listen to public performances of the record being played.
The First Manhattan/Festival Long Play Microgroove Records
Following these initial debut releases Festival quickly began marketing its first 10” Microgroove LPs. The earliest of these are Ken Neville’s Tales of the Dreamtime Vol 1 (FM-3) and Vol 2 (FM-4) which are first mentioned as upcoming release on 6th November 1952 and then as a new release on 8th January 1953. These dramatized stories of Australian animals with orchestral accompaniment were recorded in a church in Sydney in 1952. The project was instigated by an American named Walter Hayum who intended to release the sides in his home country. However, Festival became involved and they arranged for an Australian release as well.
The next release is the fantastic Tempos de Barrelhouse – Les Welch (FM-6) which is the first Festival/Manhattan LP devoted purely to music.
The liner notes claim “progressing with the ever-changing and improving field of recording technique, Les again makes Australian musical history with this release on MANHATTAN Long Playing Microgroove – being the first Australian artist to be presented on Microgroove throughout Australasia.”
Certainly this is the first Microgroove LP release for Les Welch. While it was possibly the first, if not one of the first few LPs released by Festival, the bigger claim seems to be either a very careful choice of words or creative copywriting. Cyril Stephens and his Spotlight label in Victoria had already produced microgroove LPs featuring Australian artists with the earliest example being Bruce Clarke and his Samballeros – Evergreen Rhythm (S.V.1) which had been available since at least August 1952. Spotlight only had distribution in selected cities (Melbourne and Sydney so far as I know) so Festival’s claim that it’s the first available in Australasia would be true if there were evidence that Festival had distribution agreements in New Zealand or other Pacific countries at this time. I haven’t found any to date.
Another possible explanation, though a little wild, is that by using a capital M when saying this is the first “presented on Microgroove throughout Australasia” they are not referring to the technology, but to Microgroove Australia Pty Ltd, the small record pressing company that had been merged with Caspar Precision Engineering to form Festival only three or four months earlier.
Whatever the truth might be there is no doubt that at this time in Festival’s life it needed to create a buzz with potential customers and radio broadcasters, and this kind of story makes for a great talking/selling point.
More microgroove LP titles appeared on Manhattan throughout 1953. The label varies with some showing the city skyline design while others used a simpler green and gold combination.
The label continued into 1954 however most of their releases in that year were 78rpm Extended Play (EP) discs, an innovation of Festival engineer Robert Iredale announced in August 1953. Interestingly at the same time as Festival/Manhattan began marketing their Extended Play technology, German company Radio-Telefunken went public with a similar concept that they called Augmented Play.
1953: Classical LPs and the First Appearance of the Festival Label
The Festival label is best known for its success in the pop market, however its earliest releases were classical LPs. Given the nature of the market in 1953 this should be no surprise. Microgroove LP technology made it possible to hear entire pieces on a single disc for the first time. The companies’ initial strategy seems to have been to release popular recordings on the Manhattan label and classical LPs on Festival. The Westminster agreement meant Festival pressed the LPs but continued using the Westminster label. Festival was active in the early months adding other catalogues to its books and announced agreements with Remington (Dec 1952), Vox (May 1953), and Regent (June 1953).
The first records to display Festival labels were licensed from Remington and they were Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite – Viennese Symphonic Society Symphony Orchestra (CFR-25) and Rossini’s William Tell & Barber of Seville – Austrian Symphony (CFR-26).
In its first year of operation Festival/Manhattan released roughly 170 records and 80 of those were microgroove LPs. Of those 80, two thirds were classical records with an increasing number of jazz and light popular sides becoming more common later on as Festival added other labels like Radio/Record Corporation of America to its roster.
1953 – 1954: Introducing the Black and Gold Lyre Label
The first significant change to the Festival label design seems to have happened in mid to late 1953. The new label is black and gold. Festival is written in black on top of a gold band that surrounds a black centre. At what would be 6 o’clock on the gold band is a lyre. Gold text on top of the black centre gives the recording information.
One of the earliest examples (by catalogue number) I have seen is Errol Garner – Playing Piano Solos Vol 4 (CFR10-111). I mention by catalogue number because this ad for Errol Garner on Festival from December 1953 doesn’t mention Volume 4 which one might expect if it were also available.
Another early example is Rose Murphy – The Chi Chi Girl (CFR10-136) which was one of the first releases Festival made after announcing its partnership with the Record Corporation of America in September 1953. This was reviewed as a release on October 3rd 1953 which confirms that this label was in use as of that date.
1954 – 1956: Black and Yellow Lyre Label
By June 1954 Festival had changed the colouring of the label. Instead of black and gold the labels were now black and yellow. One of the earliest examples is Hazel Scott – Piano Solos (CFR10-349). This release is significant because it was part of the original batch of records offered by Festival in June following an agreement to release recordings from the Decca, Coral and Brunswick labels in the U.S. This same arrangement allowed Festival to release the revolutionary 7” of Bill Haley’s Rock Around The Clock a year later which established the label as a leader in the emerging rock n roll market.
The design was used until the end of 1955. One of the last LPs to use it was Gina Lollobrigida presents Music By Minucci (C10-801) which appears to have been released very early in 1956.
1956 – 1959: Black and Yellow Festival Banner
Early in 1956 Festival again changed its label design. This time it retained the black and yellow colour scheme but consolidated Festival into a banner that covered the top half of the label so it could be read more easily.
Probably the first LP release to show the new label was Guys & Dolls Broadway Original Cast Album – Vivian Blaine & Sam Levene (FGL-12-806). Festival used this design for all their LPs for the next 3 years. In 1959 they moved to the blue conductor label for releases by international artists but kept using this design for local acts until the end of 1962.
It is worth noting here the changing catalogue number system used by Festival. Between 1952 and early 1958 releases on Festival and Manhattan followed the same numbering sequence whether the release was an LP, EP or 7” single, it simply put a 12 or 10, EP or 45 before the number to indicate the format. One of the final releases using this system is Bobby Helms – My Special Angel (SP45-1668) which hit the charts on 25th January 1958. At this point Festival began separate numbering conventions for the different formats. 10” albums carried the FM prefix and begin at 6001, while 12” albums display the FL prefix and start at 7001. The first Festival 12” to use the new system is Andres Segovia – Guitar (FL-7001) which was out by June 1958. This continued until early 1961 when it changed to the FL 30,000 system which was used until the 70s.
1959 – 1963: Stereo LPs & The Blue Conductor Label
Stereophonic sound wasn’t new in 1959 but it had not been a focus for the record industry. News of “a cinema of the future combining television with three-dimensional films and ‘three dimensional sound’” was reported from the UK in May 1951, with the 3D sound being provided by 24 loudspeakers positioned behind the screen, in the roof and at the rear of the cinema. Australian audiences got a taste in 1953 when 20th Century Fox showed off stereophonic sound as part of its innovative cinemascope medium for motion picture presentation in Perth. But it remained something promoted by the movie industry until 1958 when stereo listening in the home became an option. Some touted it as a way for radio to compete with television. Canberra’s first public demonstration of stereophonic sound was organised in December 1958 to showcase the possibilities. By March 1959 the Australian Woman’s Weekly was featuring “Sound Advice About Stereo” for those wondering what the fuss was all about. Always looking for innovation, Festival was quick to get its own stereo LPs onto the market with Adventures In Stereo (FST-1001) being advertised alongside Kriesler’s “3 in One” Stereo-Gram as early as June 1959.
The stereo LPs carried their own unique numbering system with the prefix FST which continued until 1961. One of the first musical releases in the FST series was Victor Young – Michael Todd’s Around The World In 80 Days (FST-1003).
The label shows the new blue/conductor design. The label is a deep blue and the word Festival is now presented in cursive writing. A conductor appears just behind the F.
The conductor had been part of the Festival branding on their covers from as early as 1953, but this is the first time they used it as part of the label design.
The blue conductor label was also introduced for the FL series at this time with one of the earliest examples I’ve seen being Sammy Davis Jr – At New York Town Hall (FL-7087) which was released in the first half of 1959. It was used by Festival until early 1963 with Patsy Cline – Sentimentally Yours (FL-30,932) being one of the last examples. During this period I’m aware of examples of the label being other colours (like green) but it is usually dark blue.
Also of note from this period is the short series of four LPs that were issued at the “fourth speed” of 16 2/3 rpm. Each were spoken word dramatical performances. Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman was the last of the run and came out mid 1960.
As mentioned above, the Festival catalogue number system changed again in 1961. From here all LPs whether stereo or mono are released using the same 30,000 numbering with the prefix indicating whether stereo (SFL) or mono (FL). Stereo LPs also have a 9 at the beginning of the number. Festival use this same numbering system for all their LP from this date too so it is not just Festival albums that carry this numbering but also all the labels that Festival had the Australian rights to release. At this time they included Coral, Command, Brunswick and Ampar.
1963 – 1970: Blue/Silver Festival
In the first half of 1963 Festival began issuing its LPs with a new label design. This time it retained the cursive presentation of the word Festival but moved it down so it sat in the middle of the label. The colour scheme became blue and silver.
The SDS All Stars – Electone Fortissimo In Movie Themes (SFL-930,942), issued in the first half of 1963, provides perhaps the earliest look at the change. This label stayed in place, with occasional variations, until 1970. One of the last examples I know of is Barry Crocker – Both Sides Now (SLF-934,076). By the late 1960s Festival were releasing most of their material on the many labels they had either started (like Infinity) or acquired the rights to manufacture (like Atlantic, A&M or Stax). Only a handful of local acts were still releasing regularly on the Festival label itself.
1966/67: Blue/White Festival
One notable short period of variation is when the label used the blue and white version during late 1966 and early 1967. This design replicated the one being used for Festival 7” during the mid 60s.
The earliest seems to be Robie Porter – Robie Porter Sings (FL-32,041) and one of the last is Billy Larkin & the Delegates – Hold On (FL-32,098). They all appear to have been mono pressings. The Folkswingers – Raga Rock (FL 32,054) was reviewed as a new release in January 1967.
There are examples of LPs that had been issued earlier that were reissued during this short period on the blue/white label. One is this album, Ancient Voices of Papua New Guinea (FL-30,976), which seems to have been first released in 1963.
1971: Green/Silver Festival Variation
A second variation is the green/silver label which appears to have ben used by Festival in 1971 before their final label change.
For a period in 1971 Festival used a green and silver label variation. There don’t seem to have been many new releases using this design, but an example is Lionel Rose – Jackson’s Track (SFL-934,166).
It was around long enough for reissues of older material though, and an example of that is Sven Libaek and his Orchestra – Australian Suite (SFL-933,151) which it seems likely was issued in 1971 as well.
1971 – 1980s: The Final Festival Label
Festival introduced what would be their final LP label design sometime in 1971. the colour scheme remained blue and silver though the blue is a lighter colour than the 1960s version. The word festival was also given a new font and raised above the spindle hole.
One of the first LPs released on this label was Barry Crocker – In London (SFL-934,335). This design was used with little change throughout the 70s and at least the first half of the 1980s.
The focus of this work has been a chronological history of Festival/Manhattan since its inception in 1952. Much more detailed histories of the label are available and I would encourage anyone with an interest in Festival to check out the following: Michael de Looper’s extensive discography for Festival, Australian music website Milesago has a great history available, Discogs has a useful and expanding listing of Festival LPs, another really useful discography is available on the globaldog website. Big Boppa in the U.K have a great listing that charts the evolution of Festival 7″ labels. The Powerhouse Museum did a great exhibition of Festival to mark their 50th Anniversary in 2002 and curator Peter Cox produced a wonderful history of the label which is called Spinning Around: The Festival Records Story. It is well worth reading. I also need to acknowledge the amazing Trove Database of the National Library of Australia which is an incredible resource and was instrumental in researching this topic.
As I mentioned at the beginning this piece is an attempt to frame the evolution of the different variations of the Festival label so that it might be possible to date them more accurately. I’ve used records from my collection or those listed on online databases to inform my research. If you have discs that you think will help fill in gaps or make this more accurate please drop me a line. I’d love to hear from you.