American Quartet
ARTIST: American Quartet
American Quartet

American Quartet

The name “American Quartet” was employed by a few ensembles, including one that made, around 1901, discs for the Victor Talking Machine Company and cylinders for the Lambert Company of Chicago. But the group with this name that enjoyed the most popularity was formed in 1909 and originally consisted of first tenor John Bieling; second tenor Billy Murray; baritone Steve Porter; and bass William F. Hooley.

This version of the American Quartet, with Billy Murray’s distinctive lead, was among the three most popular quartets to make records in the acoustic era, the other two being the Haydn and the Peerless.

This American Quartet came into being soon after Billy Murray signed contracts that restricted his services to Victor for discs and Edison for cylinders. Jim Walsh writes in the February 1970 issue of Hobbies, “For several years [Murray] had been singing frequently on Victor records with the assistance of the Haydn Quartet, but now it was decided there was a need for a foursome in which he would star. So John Bieling and Hooley were borrowed from the Haydn Quartet (in which, however, they continued to sing) and Porter was brought in from the Peerless, where he had been singing baritone.” Arthur Collins joined the Peerless as Porter’s replacement–possibly Collins was in the Peerless all along, and Walsh was mistaken about Porter being it.

Victor christened this group the American Quartet whereas Edison called it the Premier Quartet (in 1919, when the group worked for other companies, it was sometimes called the Premier American Quartet).

Earlier groups used the name. The March 1899 issue of The Phonoscope establishes that John Bieling, Jere Mahoney, S. H. Dudley, and William F. Hooley recorded for Edison as the Edison Male Quartet, for Berliner as the Haydn Quartet, and for other companies as the American Quartet. The July 1899 issue of that publication indicated that a group making cylinders for Reed, Dawson and Company (located at 74 Cortland Street, New York, and 516 Broad Street, Newark) was “The Original American Quartet.” Whether this group was the one cited in March is unknown.

Walsh notes that in 1900 after Harry Macdonough succeeded Mahoney as second tenor, the group was represented by its own manufacturing firm, the short-lived American Record Company, which specialized in producing cylinders as requested by customer order. The 1902 Edison Bell catalog listed a series of recordings credited to the American Quartet.

The name was on a number of early Victor discs. Fagan and Moran’s Encyclopedic Discography of Victor Recordings: Pre-Matrix Series shows a quartet recording as the American Quartet beginning in 1901. Members were tenor Albert C. Campbell, tenor W. T. Leahy, baritone S. H. Dudley, and bass William F. Hooley. By August 31, 1904, this quartet’s records were no longer listed, and any of its titles remaining in the catalog were remakes by the Haydn Quartet.

When the American Quartet with Murray was formed in 1909, the tenor must have seemed very young to other members–he was 31. Bieling was almost 40; Porter was 44; and Hooley was 47. The American Quartet’s debut release, “Denver Town,” was recorded in February 1909 and was announced in Victor’s May 1909 supplement. Composed by George L. Botsford and Harry Breen, this song was part of a cowboy trend that spread because of the popularity of Harry Williams and Egbert Van Alstyne’s “Cheyenne” (Murray’s recordings of it enjoyed brisk sales). Botsford arranged most of the material cut by the American Quartet over the next several years. Page 142 of the September 1923 issue of Metronome states that Botsford is “in charge of the harmony and quartet department of the Remick [publishing] company.”

A Victor catalog supplement called the American Quartet “a new organization of male voices which makes its bid for popular favor with a ‘cowboy’ number, now quite in vogue. No praise for this new quartet is needed here, as the record speaks for itself–the voices being well-balanced, the words distinct and the music sung with spirit and precision.”

First issued on single-faced Victor 5683, priced at 60 cents, “Denver Town” was reissued months later on double-sided 16521, coupled with “A Night Trip to Buffalo.” The latter sketch had first been cut by one of the earlier variants of the American Quartet at the turn of the century and was redone by the Haydn shortly thereafter. Victor literature called the updated American version “much improved and funnier” than its antecedents.

The Edison company also selected “Denver Town” as the first release of the Premier Quartet or Quartette. Announcing its release in June on Standard 10155, the April 1909 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly as well as the June 1909 installment of New Phonogram called it “another cowboy song, telling how a cowboy wooed and won his bride. It is sung by a new combination of artists, including Will Oakland, John H. Biehling [sic], Billy Murray and W.F. Hooley. Unaccompanied.” Walsh doubted that Oakland participated, noting that Oakland wasn’t involved with the Victor record and that quartets never consisted of a countertenor, two tenors, and a bass. Baritones were so important to male quartets that when Porter could not show up for a session dedicated to new takes of “Casey Jones” by the American approximately one year later, orchestra leader Walter B. Rogers served as a last-minute replacement, taking the baritone role. Walsh states in the February 1970 issue of Hobbies that in its first few years “the Quartet cut into wax many of the greatest song hits in American musical history, and a large number of its discs and cylinders had sales that were remarkable for that period.”

In December 1912 Edison’s company began marketing disc phonographs and Diamond Discs. Company executives made overtures to Victor, which still had Murray under exclusive contract for discs, about renegotiating the old arrangement. An agreement was reached and Murray’s earliest credited Diamond Discs–“California and You,” “I’m Goin’ Back to Louisiana,” and “My Croony Melody”–were released in the latter part of 1914 (he is on a few earlier Diamond Discs but is not credited). The Quartet’s earliest Edison discs were issued several months later under the Premier name: “Tennessee, I Hear You Calling Me” (50233), “I’m On My Way to Dublin Bay” (50245), and “Moonlight Bay” (50258). They were recorded with tenor Robert D. Armour taking Bieling’s place.

Bieling’s throat problems brought change to the American Quartet. He had been a part of the first commercial recording group, the Manhansett Quartet, making cylinders with that unit by 1894. In early years he was in high demand as both a duet singer and as a quartet first tenor. This was at a time when many studio takes were necessary to produce sufficient copies of a recording to satisfy public demand. Macdonough described him as having “a voice in a million, to stand up under the work it did.”

But Bieling’s voice suffered from constant use. According to Quentin Riggs, trouble began with the recording of Amberol 552, “A Cowboy Romance,” featuring Len Spencer and Company. The September 1910 issue of Edison Phonograph Monthly indicates that the production was elaborate, being rendered “wonderfully realistic by the clatter of hoofs, the whinnying of horses, and the `yipping’ of the cowboys.” Many takes were required, and making yipping sounds for hours caused Bieling’s voice to suffer a strain from which it never recovered. The singer later in life assigned blame for his weakened voice to Edison studio manager W. H. A. Cronkhite, who was infamous among artists because he worked them hard to obtain perfect performances during sessions.

Bieling quit in mid-1913. His last Quartet record, “Floating Down the River” (Victor 17438), was recorded in June or July and released in November 1913. He was replaced in late 1913 by Robert D. Armour, a young tenor who had come to New York from his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, in 1909 to pursue a singing career. Armour stayed with the quartet until mid-1915 and was replaced by John Young. Armour probably sang on all American Quartet releases for Victor between the number sequence 17534 and 17783. His involvement with the Haydn Quartet was evidently limited to the group’s last two records, “The Woman Thou Gavest Me” (Victor 17544) and “‘Cross the Great Divide” (Victor 17545), both released in April 1914.

In mid-1915 John Young was recruited to replace Armour. Young had enjoyed success as “Harry Anthony” of the gospel duo Harry Anthony and James F. Harrison (nicknamed “The Come-to-Jesus Twins” by Murray). He sang in, and managed, the Criterion Quartet. The new edition of the American Quartet enjoyed great success, beginning with its first Victor release, “War Song Medley” (17823). Walsh stated that virtually all of its records could be classified as “big sellers.”

The Quartet changed again when Hooley died October 12, 1918 in a New York City hospital. Hooley’s decline in health had been relatively sudden. He attended a Victor session on August 1, 1918. Bass singer Donald Chalmers, a member of the Criterion Quartet like Young, was selected as Hooley’s replacement.

After Murray became a free-lance artist in 1918 the American Quartet recorded for several companies–not only Victor and Edison but Columbia, Okeh, Emerson, Pathe, and Vocalion. Walsh noted a wide range of names given the group. While most companies designated the group as the “Premier American Quartet” (Pathe used the term “Premier American Male Quartet”), Columbia switched between “American” and “Premier American.” Okeh stayed with “American Quartet.” The Aeolian-Vocalion record of “Anything Is Nice If It Comes From Dixieland” was credited to the “Murray Quartet.”

After two years, the Murray-Porter-Young-Chalmers ensemble was retired as a recording entity. In the summer of 1920 Henry Burr, not only a singer of sentimental songs but an ambitious businessman, approached Murray with a proposition. Burr wanted to negotiate an exclusive contract with Victor, a package deal involving Murray and the Peerless Quartet members (Burr, second tenor; Albert Campbell, first tenor; John H. Meyer, baritone; and Frank Croxton, bass). The management agreed to a contract, and in the autumn of 1920 Murray and his associates became exclusive Victor artists. Murray and Burr were to receive $35,000 each per year (an impressive salary in the 1920s), and Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton were to receive $10,000 each per year. According to the contract, the American Quartet would thereafter consist of Murray, Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton. The Peerless Quartet personnel would be unchanged.

With Murray exclusive to Victor beginning on July 1, 1920, Edison executives in mid-1920 assembled a new group of singers for its Premier Quartet, picking first tenor Charles Hart, second tenor Billy Jones, baritone Steve Porter (the only member from the old quartet), and bass Harry J. Donaghy. Edison continued to use the Premier name. Donaghy told Walsh that the new quartet’s first Edison recording was “Oh By Jingo! Oh By Gee!” It was released as Blue Amberol 4041 in August 1920, then on Diamond Disc 50666 in September. At least some record buyers must have recognized a change in the Premier’s sound. The new ensemble was known on other labels as either the Harmonizers or Harmonizers Quartet. Never very popular, the Harmonizers disbanded by mid-1922. Diamond Disc 50944, featuring “Huckleberry Finn,” was the last Premier Quartet record to be issued. It was released in September 1922 but had been recorded in 1917, so “Huckleberry Finn” features the voices of the original Premier Quartet.

The American became defunct just as Victor switched to the electric recording process. No electrically recorded performances featured the name American Quartet. The Quartet’s final release, “Alabamy Bound” (19680), was issued in August 1925. Two months earlier, Victor had begun issuing electric discs (without identifying them to the buying public as being electric), but “Alabamy Bound” was an acoustic recording, cut on May 20, 1925, in the New York City studio, which did not have electrical recording equipment as early as the Camden studio. The disc was in the catalog for only fourteen months.

Walsh questioned whether all records of the final edition of the American included Campbell, Meyer, and Croxton, saying that “some of the ‘last ditch’ American Quartet records sound to my ears more as if they had been made by Young, Murray, Porter, and Chalmers than by the later group. It sounds to me, for instance, as if Young, rather than Campbell, sings first tenor in ‘The High Brown Blues’ and ‘The Little Red School House’; and the bass seems more like Chalmers than Croxton.”

Victor recording logs confirm that Walsh’s suspicions were correct. Murray was indeed reunited with his old associates on the following dates: March 31, May 3, May 5, August 31, and September 13, 1922. Presumably the other American Quartet members were unavailable.

Riggs notes that in addition to the above coupling (Victor 18904), at least two other titles were recorded in 1922 by the 1918-1920 formation of the group: “Some Sunny Day” (Victor 18903) and “Childhood Days” (Victor 18959).


John H. Bieling was a tenor and member of some of the most frequently recorded vocal groups in the earliest days of commercial recording. Born and raised in New York’s Fourteenth Ward, as a young man Bieling worked in a stained-glass factory through the week and spent his weekends singing in a barbershop quartet in the Bowery. Consisting of Bieling, George J. Gaskin, Joe Riley and Walter Snow, the group called itself the Manhansett (or “Manhasset”) Quartet. In 1892 the Manhansett Quartet made its first recordings for the United States Phonograph Company in Newark, and until its breakup in 1901 the Manhansett Quartet recorded for practically every record company on the Eastern Seaboard, including Columbia, Edison, Berliner and others. Bieling was nicknamed “The Canary”, as his sweet and pure-toned tenor voice never resulted in “blasting”, a type of over-modulation germane to acoustical records.

George Gaskin signed an exclusive contract with Columbia beginning in 1901, and this broke up the Manhansett Quartet. With singers S. H. Dudley, Harry McDonough and William F. Hooley, Bieling formed a new group, the Haydn (or “Hayden”) Quartet and began recording hymns, ballads, Christmas songs and minstrel material for Victor (the group also recorded as The Edison Quartet for Edison.) In 1909 the Victor Company decided they wanted to make some quartet records featuring their star tenor Billy Murray in popular material, and recruited Bieling and Hooley from the Haydn Quartet to form (along with Steve Porter) the American Quartet. In 1912, when countertenor Will Oakland began making a series of records with the group, they became the re-christened Heidelberg Quintet.

Bieling had injured his vocal chords during a 1910 session for Edison requiring him to produce cowboy “whoops.” Doing triple-duty with the American, Haydn and Heidelberg groups was taxing his voice past the breaking point, and finally something had to give. In the summer of 1913 John Bieling decided henceforward to refrain from all singing, making his last records with the American Quartet on September 3, 1913. Bieling then went to work in the sales department of Victor. By 1915 he had left the company, and ultimately became a dealer, running his own Victrola shops. In 1926 he opted for retirement and settled in Hempstead, Long Island.

An April, 1914 edition of the trade publication Talking Machine World described Bieling as “one of the best-known artists in the Victor Library.” But due to his charter membership in the pseudo-anonymous Manhansett, Haydn, Edison and American Quartets and the Heidelberg Quintet, Bieling probably seldom enjoyed the privilege of seeing his own name on a record label. Perhaps he did not desire to – after all a series of duets he made in the Gay ‘nineties with George Gaskin were billed as by “Gaskin and Livingston.” Nonetheless, the sheer matter of having performed as a member of these vocal groups during this time period means that John Bieling is one of the most recorded tenors in history. The total number of records he made may never be known, but it certainly would be in excess of a thousand titles and perhaps thousands more.

~ Uncle Dave Lewis, All Music Guide

Billy Murray was the most successful recording artist of the acoustic era of recording that stretched from before the turn of the 20th century to the mid-’20s. He possessed a penetrating tenor voice, a strong sense of phrasing and enunciation, and a comic style that overcame the sonic limitations of early recording. The first singer ever to make a living solely from recording, he is ranked by chart researcher Joel Whitburn as the top recording artist of the first decade of the 20th century, and journalist Jim Walsh estimated that he was also the biggest record-seller of the period 1910-1920. He was the primary interpreter of the songs of George M. Cohan, recording the hit versions of “Yankee Doodle Boy,” “Give My Regards to Broadway,” “The Grand Old Rag” (aka “You’re a Grand Old Flag”), and “Harrigan.” Despite his success as a recording artist, Murray was not as famous as some other singers of the day because he stuck mainly to the recording studio and did not appear extensively on-stage.

The son of Irish immigrants, Murray grew up in Denver, CO, where his family moved in 1883, and became interested in show business early; in 1893, while still in his teens, he became a member of Harry Leavitt’s High Rollers show, a touring theatrical act. It was the beginning of a decade of work in vaudeville and minstrel shows. Al G. Field of the Al G. Field Minstrels, of which Murray was a member starting around the turn of the century, began calling him Billy, rather than William, Murray, since the name Billy Murray sounded more like a comedian. Although he had made his first recordings in 1897 with his then-partner Matt Keefe, Murray cut his first solo sides in 1903, probably for Edison. Typically for the day, he did not sign exclusively to one label, but freelanced for all the major record companies — Columbia, Victor, and Edison — often recording the same songs for each. (In 1909, he signed exclusive ten-year contracts with Victor for discs and Edison for cylinders. In 1920, with cylinders in decline, he signed exclusively with Victor, remaining with the label until 1927.) Whitburn’s book of chart reconstructions, Pop Memories, 1890-1954: The History of American Popular Music (Menomonee Falls, WI: Record Research, Inc., 1986), lists his Columbia recording of “Tessie (You Are the Only, Only)” in 1903 as the first of 169 chart hits. In addition, the book lists 44 hits Murray recorded in a duo with Ada Jones, with whom he began singing in 1906. He also appeared on hit recordings by the Haydn Quartet, the American Quartet (a unit specifically formed in 1909 to back him, which was billed as the Premier Quartet when it recorded for Edison and became known as the Heidelberg Quintet when a fifth member joined), the Columbia Comedy Trio, Jean Goldkette & His Orchestra, the Great White Way Orchestra, the International Novelty Orchestra, Jack Shilkret and His Orchestra, and Joseph C. Smith’s Orchestra.

Murray’s career was in decline by the mid-’20s, both because of the rise of jazz (or what, in the hands of the likes of Paul Whiteman, passed for jazz in the ’20s) and the introduction of electrical recording, which was kinder to emerging soft-voiced crooners like Rudy VallĂ©e and Bing Crosby. Always as much a comedian as a singer, Murray moved into radio acting in the 1930s, though he took another fling at recording on the RCA Victor subsidiary Bluebird Records in the early ’40s. He retired in the mid-’40s due to a heart condition from which he later died. By that time, his acoustically challenged recordings had become out-of-print artifacts and, despite his early fame, he had been nearly forgotten.

~ William Ruhlmann, All Music Guide

Steve Porter is one of the pioneer makers of talking machine records, having been engaged in this work since 1897. He is a most versatile singer, comedian, and a experienced male quartet member. His work in the American Quartet is of the greatest value to that organization. Mr. Porter’s comic style involves a rapid patter effect that is a riot. He also uses several different dialects and voices (both male & female) in his records to create great comic effect. His famous Irish and other dialect specialties have been much enjoyed by lovers of clean comedy.
William F. Hooley. The bass singer was important as a solo artist and for anchoring the sound of both the Haydn Quartet (1898-1914) and American Quartet (1909-1918). Although the singer’s son, William F. Hooley, Jr., told Quentin Riggs that his father was born in Cork, Ireland, evidence is strong that Hooley was born in London. John Bieling reported to Jim Walsh and Riggs that Hooley had told him that he had been born in London’s Whitechapel district. Riggs reports that the 1900 census records show England as Hooley’s place of birth, as does his death certificate. Hooley immigrated to the United States when he was around six and settled in Lynn, Massachusetts, later moving to Nyack, New York. Beginning in the late 1880s he sang in church choirs, glee clubs, and operettas.

He began recording around 1896 as a member of the Edison Quartet, which at that time also featured John Bieling, S. H. Dudley, and Jere Mahoney (the quartet would soon work for other companies as the Haydn Quartet). The August 1898 issue of The Phonoscope indicates that Hooley was one of the three principal artists for the Excelsior Phonograph Company, the other two being S. H. Dudley and Roger Harding. This New York City firm was established in November 1897, and Hooley succeeded Harding in August 1898 as the company’s manager.

Soon afterwards he was president of the American Phonograph Company, maker of brown wax Perfection cylinders. The business was shared by fellow recording artists S. H. Dudley and Steve Porter, but it was not successful.

He made solo recordings as bass for Berliner as early as 1898. Faure’s “The Palms” and Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord” were recorded on September 30, 1898. His speaking voice was considered suitable for recitations and he recorded in December of 1899 monologues including “Sermon on the Mount,” “Mother Goose Rhymes,” and “Death and Burial of Cock Robin.”

An 1899 catalog of cylinders made by the Babson Brothers of Chicago lists items by “the Original Lyric Trio,” which consisted of John C. Havens, Estella Louise Mann, and Hooley (the January 1899 issue of The Phonoscope not only cites these three as comprising the Original Lyric Trio but includes a photograph of Estella Mann singing into recording horns). When Berliner and Victor issued numbers by the Lyric Trio in 1900, it consisted of Mann (or possibly by this time soprano Grace Spencer), Hooley, and Harry Macdonough. Victor recordings of the Lyric Trio made in 1901 through 1903 were by Hooley, Macdonough, and Grace Spencer.

He recorded for Eldridge R. Johnson’s Consolidated Talking Machine Company–soon renamed the Victor Talking Machine Company–and often did announcements for the Haydn Quartet, Georgia Minstrels, and others. Recitations cut in June 1900 include “Lincoln’s Speech at Gettysburg” and “Gladstone’s Speech on Self-Help.” Another recitation of sorts was “Ravings of a Maniac,” cut on June 7, 1900.

He recorded numbers aimed for children during sessions for Eldridge R. Johnson’s Consolidated Talking Machine Company. The first double-sided disc distributed in America was a children’s record made by Johnson’s fledgling company and featuring Hooley performances cut on November 6, 1900. “A Record for the Children” was on seven-inch A-490 and A491 (two record numbers were used), and copies of the disc were evidently given with Johnson’s “$3” Gramophone, advertised as a toy. The Zon-o-phone catalog of May 10, 1901, lists eight recitations by Hooley, including “Little Red Riding Hood” (9445) and “Cinderella and the Glass Slipper” (9448).

He was bass of the Orpheus Quartet, which also featured tenors Harry Macdonough and Lambert Murphy along with baritone Reinald Werrenrath, and of the Heidelberg Quintet, which was the American Quartet personnel along with countertenor Will Oakland. He sang in various other Victor ensembles, such as the Victor Light Opera Company.

His final Victor session was on August 1, 1918. He died a few months later. Donald Chalmers then sang bass for two years in the American Quartet.

Some solo recordings remained in the Victor catalog for years after his death. “Wearing of the Green” (17348) remained available until 1925. The other side featured “Off to Philadelphia,” sung by Wilfred Glenn, who may be regarded as Hooley’s successor since he next became Victor’s most prolific bass singer.

The record with a Hooley contribution to remain available for the longest period was a Victor Light Opera Company production on Victor 35386, “Gems From H.M.S. Pinafore,” a medley from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was recorded in 1911 and remained in the Victor catalog until the mid-1940s.

Some of Hooley’s other ensemble work remained in the Victor catalog until 1925, such as many Hayden Quartet performances (in fact, Hooley’s photograph is grouped with those of other Hayden Quartet members in many Victor catalogs of the acoustic era). Some American Quartet records featuring Hooley’s bass remained in the catalog until 1925–even a number originally issued in 1910 (“Casey Jones,” 16483) and one recorded in 1911 (“Grizzly Bear,” 16681). An especially fine performance from 1915 by the American Quartet with Hooley is “On the 5:15” (17704), which remained in the catalog until 1925. His bass voice is heard distinctly on this comic number written by Henry Marshall about commuter trains, including, ironically, on the line “Hubby’s all excited singing baritone.”