The old building that housed Chess Records’ studios at 2120 S. Michigan Ave. is still standing, proudly marked, and still connected to the blues — it’s now Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation. But you’re less likely to recognize another nearby landmark tied to Chicago’s music history: The Columbia College Chicago building at 623 S. Wabash Ave., built by Solon S. Berman in 1895, once the home of Brunswick Records.
Walk by it today, and you’ll see an old building that wears its fading history on its walls. A moribund advertisement on its north side: “STUDEBAKER,” in large capital letters, a trace of the building’s first owner, the Studebaker automobile company (then known for carriages and wheels). On its south side, just above the current Columbia College Chicago sign, is a faded “B.” The letter once indicated the home of the Brunswick Corporation, a manufacturer of sundry goods that also happened to create the first Chicago-based record label of any significance. Previously, record companies in the city had been small and short-lived, and they sold few actual records — or simply distributed those of other companies. But Brunswick was different.
Formerly called the Brunswick-Balke-Collender Company, the corporation was — and still is — known largely for producing recreational equipment, like pool tables and bowling paraphernalia. It bought 623 S. Wabash from Studebaker in 1913 and moved in its main offices. Around that time, Brunswick-Balke-Collender decided to enter the music business and began selling phonographs and wooden cabinets. By 1920, it had branched into making and distributing its own records, and the company carved out space in its headquarters for a new division, Brunswick Records.
This was a period of important changes in the music industry. Victor Talking Machine Company, founded in 1901, had tried to threaten would-be challengers, including Brunswick, with lawsuits claiming infringed patents; by the early 1920s, however, these lawsuits failed. (The courts dismissed them, or else found that patents weren’t infringed upon, or even that Victor’s patents were invalid.) A huge number of independent record companies, large and small, sprouted, leading to a significant increase in the amount and variety of music that was recorded and released. They provided the soundtrack for the Roaring Twenties, and Brunswick emerged as the most successful of these newcomers. By the middle of the decade, it rivaled Victor for most records sold in the industry, especially after Brunswick’s purchase of the Vocalion label in 1924.
Over the course of the decade, Brunswick assembled an impressive roster of artists working in a variety of genres, from classical (including the first recordings by the composer and conductor Richard Strauss) to old-time music (what later became known as country) to jazz (including influential artists like Duke Ellington and King Oliver). A number of Brunswick’s jazz and blues releases — like King Oliver’s sessions with his Dixie Syncopators, or Clarence “Pine Top” Smith’s popular “Pine Top’s Boogie Woogie” — had a major effect on the course of subsequent music. (Everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Ray Charles quoted the otherwise obscure Smith’s song.)
While many who recorded for Brunswick also worked with other labels, the company’s biggest sellers were the pop stars it signed to exclusive contracts. Among them: Marion Harris, one of the leading vocalists of the era; Al Jolson, already a star for a decade when he started recording for Brunswick in 1924; and Chicago-based Isham Jones, one of the most popular bandleaders throughout the 1920s. Jones composed several of his own hits, most notably the standard “It Had To Be You.” Jolson, meanwhile, made a series of well-known recordings for Brunswick: “California, Here I Come,” the fast-selling “Sonny Boy,” and “My Mammy” — which he infamously performed in blackface in the groundbreaking talking picture The Jazz Singer.
Initially, recordings for the company were all produced in New York City. But in the summer of 1921, Brunswick opened its own recording studio (then often called a “laboratory”) on the sixth floor of the 623 S. Wabash building. Its mission, as the trade magazine Talking Machine World put it, was “to record the work of Isham Jones and other Western talent, as well as for experimental and research work.” The music trade papers (or at least the Brunswick press release they copied) hailed the new studio as the first permanent one in the city of Chicago.
But the studio, for some reason, wasn’t used for making commercial records. It was restricted to experimental work — that is, developing new recording technologies. (That November, its engineers created the first recording of a live performance of an opera, La Bohème, through a wireless transmission from a theater four blocks away.) Rather than stay at home, Chicago-based artists traveled to New York City to record for Brunswick and other major labels, none of which maintained permanent recording facilities in the city for much of the ’20s. When Jelly Roll Morton recorded the first of his landmark Red Hot Pepper sessions in Chicago in 1926 for Victor Records, then the leading company in the field, he did so in the ballroom of a hotel — the Webster Hotel at 2150 N. Lincoln Park West, now the address of Webster House Apartments.
In 1924, Brunswick went into the radio business, partnering with the Radio Corporation of America to include radios in their phonograph cabinets; that December, Brunswick began broadcasting the “Brunswick Hour of Music” from its New York studios. While Brunswick wasn’t the first record company to enter radio, its partnership with RCA had an immediate impact: Within a month of the first “Brunswick Hour of Music,” its main competitor Victor started producing its own broadcasts. Three years later, Brunswick became the home of WCFL, Chicago’s “Voice of Labor” — a groundbreaking partnership with the Chicago Federation of Labor that claimed to be the nation’s sole “labor radio broadcast station.” In addition to labor programming, the station also played music performed by many of Brunswick’s artists (and some religious services).
By the following year, Brunswick finally established permanent studios in 623 S. Wabash for making records. But these didn’t operate for long. In 1929, the studios moved to a new facility: A massive commercial building at 666 Lake Shore Drive known as the American Furniture Mart. The association was natural for Brunswick, as phonograph cabinets were a popular furniture item, and being on the top floor of a 21-story building reduced vibrations and other street noise that affected the recording process.
There is irony to Brunswick’s increased efforts to establish permanent recording facilities in Chicago in the late 1920s. This was the time when most of Chicago’s leading jazz musicians (including Oliver, Morton, and Louis Armstrong) were all leaving for New York, which was quickly becoming the center of jazz. But jazz artists represented only a small part of Brunswick’s sales. What had a more significant impact on business was the Depression. The entire recording industry was hit hard as record sales plummeted, and for a company like Brunswick-Balke-Collender, records were just a subsidiary. In 1930, it sold the record company to Warner Bros. As Brunswick’s treasurer told one of the trade papers, the company “was glad to be out of radio, records and phonographs.”
The Brunswick Corporation sold the building in 1964, and it served as office and warehouse space until Columbia College Chicago purchased it in 1983. Today, there’s little trace of Brunswick’s present. The interior has been renovated many times; the recording studios are long gone. Although a historical marker put up by the Illinois State Historical Society on the building’s facade indicates its past role as the headquarters of the Brunswick Corporation, it makes no mention of the record company.
But on the north side of the building, above the large “STUDEBAKER” sign, is a hard-to-make-out, partially preserved image of what looks like a shellac disc and the end of the word “Records.” Given the corporation’s own desire to forget its involvement in the recording industry, it’s fitting that the only apparent trace left here of the historic record company is a ghost sign.