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Columns > Mike Gruenberg - In My Life

Published: 2003/09/29
by Mike Gruenberg

Enrico Caruso

When we first heard The Beatles, we knew that the scope of recorded music was changing, although none of us really understood how much the music would change our lives. Actually, the seeds of change in the way we listened to music were sown in 1956 when a young man from Memphis, entered Sun Records to make a recording for his mother. Shortly thereafter history was made when "Heartbreak Hotel" became the first record that was # 1 on the Pop, Country and R&B charts at the same time. Perhaps, more importantly than the record was the fact that Elvis Presley had a profound effect on teenagers throughout the world in relation to the way they looked, the way they acted and the way they spent their money.
Because of Elvis, teenage boys looked at themselves in the mirror and tried to figure out how they could duplicate his looks so as to please the teenage girls who were wild over this man. Unless you had greasy, black hair and the correct physical appearance to wear certain types of clothing, the self-transformation of a sixteen-year-old blonde boy from Iowa to a carbon copy of Elvis proved to be difficult, at best. Nevertheless, scores of teenagers saw their lives changing as a result of Elvis and tried to emulate him as best they could.
Prior to Elvis, many of the records bought by the public were on 78-rpm discs. These records spun very fast and as a result, the needles playing those records wore down pretty quickly. Furthermore, the sound quality from these 78’s were not very good. With the introduction of Elvis and other Rock’n‘Roll artists such as Bill Haley and Little Richard, the 78 gave way to 45. The 45 was smaller than the 78, spun at almost half the speed as the 78 and had a better quality of sound. The record buying public was hungry for new product and dictated how they wanted to buy their music causing the 78 to fade away.
In May of 1962, four young men in England would audition for George Martin at EMI’s Parlophone Studios in London and the world would be rocked in such a way that was only seen five years earlier when Elvis burst upon the scene. In that same year, The Rolling Stones made their live performance debut and Bob Dylan made his radio broadcast debut in New York on station WRVR-FM. These events caused a dramatic shift in the way people dressed, listened to music and bought music.

Reading a publication like Jambands means that you are a true fan of music. As a music person, you probably take great pride in your individual musical collections. I’m sure that you probably like to tell your friends about your favorite artists and the shows you attended. If a bad review is written about your favorite group, you take great umbrage and may even feel compelled to write a letter to the editor declaring the incorrect nature of the review. In essence, we are clearly influenced by the artists we listen to. It’s hard for us to imagine that there was an artist that not only influenced music lovers throughout the world, but also completely changed an industry.
Enrico Caruso (1873 -1921) was considered to be the greatest tenor that ever lived. We call Elvis the "King" but Caruso was known as the "King of Tenors" way before Elvis was born. In 1890, young Enrico began singing in the waterfront cafes in Naples, Italy. He was the sensation of Naples.
By his 21st birthday, Caruso made his operatic debut. A year later, he appeared in Milan at the Opera Lirico to sensational reviews. His career was well on its way to super stardom. He had the unique gift of being able to modulate his voice in such a way that it was almost as if he had many different voices.
Naturally, there were many entrepreneurs in Italy that wanted to capitalize on this young singer and record his voice. His first recordings were produced in 1902 although they were not of the highest quality, the demand for the product was overwhelming. At the time, there were two formats available for listening to music. A person could choose between cylinders and/or discs. To further complicate this dilemma, if a person would choose the discs over the cylinder, that person would have to also buy a record player to play the discs. Those machines were not very popular nor were they in abundant supply.
In comparison to the cylinder, Caruso’s voice on the disc was far superior. This fact caused the record buying public to embrace the disc instead of the cylinder. By virtue of this unanimous choice in music listening, an entire industry was born. Selling mass-produced records and record players to play them on became an industry that owed its very existence and success to Caruso. As a result of his success, other artists who were unsure about recording their voices changed their minds and embraced the concept of making records.
To say that Caruso had a profound effect on not only his fans, but also an industry is an understatement. In this age where we tend to forget our past, the story of Caruso’s beginnings in the recording industry lets us know that artists have been influencing us for a lot longer than we think.

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