If you read my recent article, Why Kentucky Waltz Is About Time Travel, you may know I have a soft spot for Bill Monroe fan-fiction. This unfortunately is not fan-fiction. Many of the original tape masters of Bill Monroe records were lost in a fire that ravaged the backlot of Universal Studios Hollywood in 2008. We’re just learning the extent of the damage now in 2019.
In fact, 11 years ago when asked about the fire Universal Music Group had this to say, “Thankfully, there was little lost from UMG’s vault. A majority of what was formerly stored there was moved earlier this year to our other facilities. Of the small amount that was still there and waiting to be moved, it had already been digitized so the music will still be around for many years to come.” Thanks to a recent series of articles from The New York Times, that unfortunately did not include TV host Maury, we have determined that that was a lie.
Randy Aronson, then senior director of vault operations at Universal Music Group, has now gone on record estimating that 175,000 masters were lost from Building 6197 on June 1, 2008. Prior to the fire, Aronson was no stranger to disaster as an archivist. In 2004 Aronson was called to New Jersey to find that 350,000 masters (including the entire Motown catalogue) was submerged in water and salad dressing. Yes, salad dressing. An estimated $12 million dollars was spent in hiring refrigerated trailers to freeze-dry wet tapes and in subsequent restoration work. After navigating this incident and numerous other backlot fires, 7 or 8 major fires have taken place at the Universal backlot, Aronson pleaded that UMG move their vault from an amusement park with daily pyrotechnics. Acknowledging Aronson’s concerns, approximately 250,000 session reels and multitracks were sent to an archive in Pennsylvania. The remaining 125,000 – 175,000, lack of accurate record keeping keeps us from the exact number, was lost in the 2008 fire. For those interested, a list of known artists with lost masters has been circulated.
In that list two highly influential artists stood out to me as a country and bluegrass fan, Bill Monroe and The Carter Family. I’ve done my best internet sleuthing to determine what may or may not be lost until a complete list is available and a complete list will likely never be available. Remember, this is speculation based on what labels produced what albums and when. More concrete information is not available at this time!
Note: Likely most of you know that recording to tape wasn’t commercially popular until the 50’s. Earlier recordings were cut direct-to-disc either from the acoustic energy of a mastering lathe digging into a wax cylinder or after the mid-1920’s an electrically driven master lathe digging into a master disc. Based on the artists that lost their masters in the fire we can assume that not only tape masters were lost but possibly some of these master discs as well.
The Monroe Brothers early recordings were unfortunately cut with Decca. Decca distributes many works held by UMG (though Blue Note and Verve) as well as works held by Concord Music Group and Rounder Records. It’s been reported that Decca masters from Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Al Jolson, Bing Crosby, Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline were lost in the fire. With Bill Monroe listed as an artist impacted by the fire, I think we can assume we may have lost the early Monroe Brother’s disc masters if they weren’t already lost to time.
The 1945-1949 Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys line-up that includes Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Early Scruggs, Chubby Wise and Cedric Rainwater (among others) was signed to Columbia Records now owned by Sony Music Entertainment. The pre-1945 recordings on Bluebird Records are also now owned by Sony Music Entertainment. These disc masters are assumed to be safe. Unfortunately, Monroe’s recordings from 1950-1973, when he would have been cutting to tape, were also with Decca and these tape masters are likely lost. Around this time MCA merged with Decca and Monroe’s recordings post 1973 are listed as MCA which later became UMG. So these tape masters may be lost as well.
In Bill Monroe’s decades of recording we can only guess that his nine years with Columbia/Bluebird have been safely preserved for future remasters and reissues. Meaning all of the original Monroe tape, from the majority of his career, may have gone up in flames.
The Carter Family history is much more complicated but I’ll try to give a condensed look. The early Carter Family releases are all 78’s, many one sided. The 78’s that the Carter Family released through Bluebird Records, Montgomery Ward Records (They had a record label?), Victor Records and Vocalion Records are presumed safe. In fact, many of those companies later merged or are subsidiaries of each other. The 78’s released by Decca Records and Vocalion Records likely may have had disc masters lost. The recordings would be “Broken Hearted Love” and “Can the Circle Be Unbroken” on Vocalion; and “Coal Miner Blues”, “Hello Stranger”, “My Dixie Darling” and “You Are My Flower” on Decca.
The Carter Family did have an LP released through Decca in 1964, More Favorites by The Carter Family. The tape masters for this record may be lost as well.