Grey Gull Records was a record company and label founded in Boston, Massachusetts in 1919. The company was started by Theodore Lyman Shaw, a member of a wealthy and prominent family from Wellesley, Massachusetts whose ancestors included Civil War hero Robert Gould Shaw.
Theodore Lyman Shaw was involved in a number of business projects, including the Marcus Lucius Quinn School of Music in Dorchester. He also operated an advertising business (Harvard University Class of 1905, 25th Anniversary Report, 575). According to the Massachusetts Department of Corporation and Taxation, Grey Gull was officially incorporated on 31 December 1919 and dissolved on 31 March 1934. (Acts 1934, c.187)
The original location of Grey Gull Records was 295 Huntington Avenue in Boston (advertisement in Talking Machine World, 15 October 1920, p. 192) but city directories show that by 1923 the company's offices were in South Boston, at 135 Dorchester Avenue. In the early 1920s, Grey Gull records were recorded and manufactured from a plant at 81 Wareham Street in Boston ("Local Studio," C7; Boston Globe classified ad, 21 August 1920, p. 9)
The first issues of Grey Gull were high-quality, vertical-cut discs sold at premium prices. Their small grooves were to be played with a needle or stylus, giving about twice the playing time of the standard 10-inch 78 rpm records of the time. Most offered more than one selection per side. These records bore catalog numbers prefixed with an "H," probably because vertical-cut discs were called "Hill and Dale" (Marco, 302-303)
These unusual records sold poorly, at a rather high price for the time of one dollar each. They were quickly phased out by 1920, to be replaced by the more common lateral-cut records (the essential patent on such discs had expired in 1919). The lateral discs bore catalog numbers prefixed with "L" (for lateral) and initially sold for the same high price. These records were recorded in Boston, where the company and Mr. Shaw were located ("Local Studio," C7), a practice that continued in 1926, when Grey Gull's recording operations were moved to New York City. A New York Times mention on 24 April 1926, p. 31 said Grey Gull had leased offices on the fifth floor of 20 East 42nd Street in Manhattan. An announcement of the move also appeared in the trade publication Talking Machine World on 15 July 1926.
By 1922, Grey Gull records were priced at 55 cents each. Shaw placed a series of newspaper ads, publicizing this price and asserting that his Grey Gull Records were "Better than 75-cent records...much better" (ad in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 10 September 1922, p. 6). Shaw introduced a method of selling records that would become standard in the music industry. Grey Gull would place display racks offering their latest product in newsstands, cigar stores, drug stores, and other well-frequented businesses, returning on a regular basis to restock the racks and settle accounts with the merchant, a system known today as rack jobbing. The racks are mentioned in some of the ads Shaw placed, and Grey Gull Records became associated with them (see for example "This Famous Rack is Everywhere," Springfield Republican, 12 November 1923, p. 7). A good example of Shaw's strategy of placing the racks in a wide variety of locations can be seen in an ad for Ruth's Drug Store in Elyria, Ohio. The druggist, Dr. Robert J. Ruth, offered to demonstrate the records to those who came into his store (Elyria Chronicle Telegram, 3 June 1922, p. 9).
With the drop in price came a drop in quality. Grey Gull had also introduced its Radiex Records label, and it too offered low-priced records. Boston department store Raymond's advertised Radiex records for 40 cents each, or two for 75 cents, in a Boston Globe ad (30 July 1922, p. 10) and in 1924, a Los Angeles department store was advertising Radiex records at 47 cents each, or three for $1.35 (Los Angeles Times, 21 September 1924, p. B26). Grey Gull also pressed client labels, such as Oriole for the McCrory chain, and later pressed by the Plaza Music Company, and Amco, Nadsco, and Globe, the latter possibly a continuation of an earlier label of that name.
Grey Gull used primarily their own recordings during 1922 and 1923, although some were leased from other companies such as Plaza, Emerson Records, and the New York Recording Laboratories (Paramount Records et al.). Some sides emanate from unknown sources, including one ("Draggin' the Dragon") which is probably from Black Swan Records. From late 1923 until early 1926, Grey Gull seems to have used material recorded by Emerson, carrying control numbers in a 3xxx series instead of Emerson's own 4xxxx numbers. At the same time, Grey Gull began the practice of using "B" sides credited to "house composers" (who may or may not have actually existed). Further, Grey Gull was still using some "out-sourced" sides, which bore control numbers with a letter prefix indicating the source company (i.e. "Y" for NYRL).
Around 1924, Grey Gull augmented its existing catalog-number series (1xxx for dance music, 2xxx for vocal) with a 4xxx series used for "standard" material. This series is difficult to document. The initial issues drew from existing recordings made by several companies, and the records remained in the catalog for long periods, meaning they were often remade in Grey Gull facilities. They used a 7xxx "race" series (nominally "blues" and "jazz") and 80xx, later 81xx, series whose specific purpose is not clear. A single issue bears a number in an 8xxx series; this appears to be a 12" private pressing disc.
In 1925, Grey Gull began pressing for Madison Records, presumably for Woolworth stores. The initial issues used a 16xx series for popular recordings (both instrumental and vocal) and a 19xx series for "standard" issues. Both series were replaced by a 500xx series c. 1928, which was itself replaced by a 50xx (one zero was dropped from existing numbers) shortly thereafter. There was also a 50xx matrix-number series used. These may have been renumberings of existing GG sides.
In 1926 the company opened a recording studio in New York City equipped with the new electric microphones. Grey Gull's New York studio band often included trumpeter Mike Mosiello and clarinetist Andy Sannella, who sometimes added jazz licks to Grey Gull's undistinguished fare. Tommy Dorsey also graces a few issues as an uncredited sideman. A few interesting sides on the label were recorded by musicians such as Clarence Williams and Wilbur Sweatman, as well as two sessions by Cliff Jackson's Krazy Kats, a Harlem band neglected by the recording industry. The company also pressed records from masters leased from Emerson and Paramount. In addition to their Grey Gull label, the company also produced Madison Records, Radiex Records, Supreme Records, and Van Dyke Records as well as a host of short-lived record labels.
During this period, Grey Gull typically put one "hit" song on the top side and original composition by one of the company's "staff composers" on the flip side. Mike Mosiello contributed instrumentals (many often released on several issues with varying titles) which, apart from solo work by himself and Andy Sannella, often featured the accordionist Charles Magnante and xylophone virtuoso George Hamilton Green. This unusual line-up, combined with Grey Gull's over-modulated sound, give these records a particular sound of their own. Vocalists included Irving Kaufman and Arthur Fields. Elmer Feldkamp was often heard as vocalist on The California Ramblers sides of 1929-1930.
The Grey Gull firm went out of business at the end of September 1930, possibly because Shaw was no longer being financed by his family. Numbers in the 1000-series reached at least 1896, and those in the 2000-series into the low 2500's. However, it would appear that the remains of the firm, including its contract to press Madison records, was acquired by an unknown party. Records exist on Madison, Radiex and Van Dyke bearing catalog numbers in the Madison series (which jumped after 5099 to 6001) and there is also an 800/900 series which pairs older Grey Gull "B" sides, often with altered titles. All these are identifiably from a different source from their Grey Gull (et al.) predecessors, and may be from the same operation as the Crown Records label of 1930-33. Production of all Grey Gull related labels appeared to have ended sometime in 1931. According to noted discographer and writer Brian Rust in his The American Label Book (1978, Arlington House), vast quantities of Grey Gull, Van Dyke, and sometimes Radiex records were sold in Britain at cut-rate chain stores for the equivalent of a nickel. This apparently accounted for these labels being some of the most commonly found 1920s and early 1930s American records in British junk shops.
Grey Gull's audio fidelity is slightly below average for the era. Furthermore, pressings are often in cheap shellac which gives them more surface noise. They stood up poorly to repeated playing, further degrading the sound quality.