From LPs to digital, a timeless play-along concept keeps rolling
When it comes to technologies that changed music making, the LP (or long play record) is one you might have forgotten—but Music Minus One hasn’t. With its founding in 1948, Music Minus One carved a singular niche in the industry, enlisting world-class artists to record accompaniment tracks so musicians could play along with the finest arrangements minus just one part: the one they’d play themselves. The concept would prove timeless, translating smoothly over the decades from vinyl records to cassette tapes to CDs and finally digital tracks. Sixty-seven years ago, however, MMO’s success hung on the brand new technology of the LP. Founder Irv Kratka—now recognized as the industry’s longest-serving CEO—was a lifelong music lover who spent his lunch money on drum lessons as a boy and founded his first record label at age 20. He began looking into accompaniment tracks after a conversation with the manager of Sam Goody’s New York record store—and found the concept had already been tried by a German company called Add-A-Part. The company had failed, however, because the old 78 rpm records they used ran only 4-1/2 minutes per side. With popular chamber music compositions running at 20-25 minutes per piece, musicians had to pause repeatedly to turn over the records, making the product a non-starter. Into the void left by that failed venture came the LP—and Music Minus One. The company’s first record was Schubert’s famed “Trout” Quintet, which MMO released in five versions: minus piano, bass, violin, viola, and cello.
“I distinctly remember leaving a movie house in the Bronx, on a Saturday night with my wife, and picking up the Sunday New York Times around 11 p.m.,” says Kratka. “Turning to the record review section, imagine my surprise and delight to read that [leading music critic] Howard Taubman had devoted an entire page to this new addition to recorded music. Within a month, my first recordings were being written about in Life, Look, Time, and every other major magazine. It was a very successful launch for a new concept in music.”
In the years that followed, Music Minus One turned out chamber music and orchestral accompaniments at an ever-increasing rate, expanding into a broad range of instruments and musical styles. A one-time student of Billy Gladstone, primary percussionist for the Radio City Music Hall Orchestra, Kratka drew on relationships with members of the orchestra and other eminent artists to bring top talent to Music Minus One. Harriet Wingreen, rehearsal pianist for the New York Philharmonic, performed on MMO’s first-ever record as well as dozens of others. She also referred him to John Wustman, one of the foremost vocal accompanists in the country. “I didn’t have to be told twice, and engaged John, asking him to record anything in the vocal repertoire that he felt valid,” says Kratka. This launched Music Minus One on the extraordinary task of recording 33 long-playing recordings covering the entire vocal repertoire—a landmark in the MMO catalog and the company’s most successful recordings at the time. Wustman would become known to millions of television viewers as the accompanist to Luciano Pavarotti and many other major singers of the 20th Century.
MMO turned its attention next to a range of recordings known as the Laureate Series, comprising works by the leading U.S. soloists on clarinet, trumpet, alto sax, flute, trombone, French horn, and oboe. Through this effort, the company’s catalog grew to include such contributors as Stanley Drucker, Harold Wright, Vincent Abato, Murray Panitz, Donald Peck, Doriot Anthony Dwyer, Julius Baker, Per Brevig, Jay Friedman, Keith Brown, Mason Jones, Myron Bloom, Dale Clevenger, and Elaine Douvas. All were first chair players in the nation’s six most eminent orchestras. More recently, the company has racked up an extensive range of popular songs under its “Great American Sing-Along” collection, featuring music by the Gershwins, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Jerome Kern, Jimmy McHugh, Johnny Mercer, Rodgers & Hart, Duke Ellington, and Fats Waller.
Today, Music Minus One titles are available as downloadable scores and mp3 files, giving the company a new edge in overseas markets with instant delivery and no shipping fees. Some of its newest releases include recordings produced by music technologist Stephen Ware that, “for sheer technical quality, exceed the best that live orchestras have ever produced,” says Kratka. The company has also embarked on a series of recordings by Robert and Glenn Zottola, brothers with credits including Benny Goodman, the East Coast Frank Sinatra Band, and the original production of Les Miserables. All told, MMO has now amassed a catalog of more than 1,000 recordings. As Kratka says: “I’ve forever remembered a comment that Moses Asch of Asch Recordings made to me—that once we achieved that magical number of releases, the business would be self-sustaining. The name Music Minus One is now known worldwide wherever musicians choose to congregate. I’m proud of the legacy that a lifetime of effort has provided to the musical community.”
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