EZRA C. A. WICKEMEYER
Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer
WWI Draft Registration Card
23rd May 1917
Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer registered for the draft in New York City on 23rd May 1917, and his draft card was subsequently sent on to the Draft Board for the 6th Precinct of Richmond, Indiana, the city of his home address. [PH] The date of birth of 25th March 1893 given for Wickemeyer on the draft card tallies with the data recorded for him in the U.S. Census entries of 1900, 1910, 1920 and 1930; his 1920 marriage record and his WWII draft card. His name, however, was incorrectly entered as “Wickmeyer” and “Wickoneyer” respectively in the 1910 and 1920 U.S. Censuses.
Ezra was born to William Henry Wickemeyer, a German immigrant born in Hanover in 1862 and his wife Ida K. (born 1865), a native of Indiana. He appeared in the news shortly before his 12th birthday, due to a “Laurel and Hardy” style incident in the family home on 24th February 1905, when a plumber and gas company employee struck a match to locate a gas leak. The family home was wrecked in the resultant explosion and both Ezra and the two workers were injured. The house, which was located at 300 South Third street in Richmond, Indiana was severely gutted by the explosion, as shown in a surviving photograph of the aftermath. [WH] (courtesy of Mel Helmich and Rick Kennedy) The event was reported in The Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel on 1st March 1905. [FWS]
By 1910, Ezra was working as a grocery salesman in Richmond, Indiana. Wickemeyer must have had a good ear for music and head for figures. His 1917 draft card states that his occupation was “Recorder, Phonograph records” with The Starr Piano Co., and his 1920 U.S. Census entry records him as a bookkeeper in a piano factory back in Richmond. He married Katherine M. Helmich (1890-1981) on 29th September 1920. (Indiana Marriage Collection, 1800-1941, Book C-17, OS page 268)
The Starr Piano Company’s name and management regime as it stood during Ezra Wickemeyer’s first years in employment there had been in place since 1905, following over fifty years of reorganisation, relocation, renaming and business manoeuvring. The original ancestor of the company was a small piano factory founded by Alsatian immigrant George M. Trayser in Indianapolis, Indiana in 1849. Trayser subsequently transferred business to Ohio, first Ripley around 1865, and then Hamilton, in 1871. He moved to the Quaker town of Richmond, Indiana and joined forces with Irishman Richard Jackson and Richmond native James Starr to form the Trayser Piano Company in 1872. Trayser’s departure in 1878, followed by Jackson’s death in 1881, and the addition of Starr’s brother Benjamin to the ranks in 1884, led to the company being reborn as James Starr & Co.
The firm had a convenient working relationship with the St. Louis based Jesse French Co., who were pioneering piano retailers with music stores across the Southern states. French’s father in law, Englishman John Lumsden, and his Italian American brother in law, Henry Gennett (1852-1922); were close business associates of French. In 1892, Lumsden and Gennett began merger negotiations with the Starr brothers, culminating in the formation of the Starr Piano Co. on 7th April 1893, with all five men sitting on the board of directors. By 1905, Henry Gennett, along with his sons Harry, Clarence and Fred were running the company, which became a national leader in the piano manufacturing and retail industry. [JRBH 2-7]
In 1915, the Gennetts expanded to manufacture other equipment, and by 1916 they had entered the recording business with a studio in New York. They had premises at the address on Wickemeyer’s draft card, 56 West 45th street, and at 9-11 East 37th street. In 1921 they opened a six storey manufacturing and pressing plant in Richmond, and subsequently used a single storey shed alongside a line of the factory’s buildings as the recording studio for the “Gennett” label. [JRBH 19-22] Here, Ezra Wickemeyer supervised the recording of music in several different genres, but the studio is best remembered for some of the most historically significant, pioneering sessions of the early and mid-1920s, during which some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time recorded their wares.
The artists involved included “The New Orleans Rhythm Kings”, Jelly Roll Morton, “King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band”, “The Wolverines” including Bix Beiderbecke, and the prolific composer Hoagy Carmichael. Wickemeyer appears in a photograph with “The Wolverine Orchestra” taken outside the Gennett studio after the recording session of 6th May 1924. In fact, history was made several times in this single storey shed, which was witness to the first sounds of King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, the Dodds brothers and Bix Beiderbecke to be captured on record. Jelly Roll Morton recorded with the “New Orleans Rhythm Kings” there in 1923, and unusually for Gennett, some alternate takes survive. He also made seventeen piano solos in 1923-1924, sixteen of which were released.
As chief sound engineer, E. C. A. Wickemeyer went to great pains to achieve the correct balance in the sessions he worked on. Several “demo” recordings were made to test the balance and achieve the optimum positioning of the musicians. When this was achieved, the sessions proceeded, with three masters, or sometimes four, being made for each tune recorded. The master deemed to be the best was selected and the remainder were usually destroyed, much to the absolute dismay and disgust of modern day collectors. Despite his painstaking adjustments, Ezra Wickemeyer was well regarded by the musicians he recorded. Bandleader Marion McKay recalled, “Wickemeyer was a good guy to work with, pretty reasonable. They [the Gennett staff] didn’t give you any problems; they had plenty of their own problems getting the right sound and balance. You had to be pretty patient sitting through all the playbacks. But nobody minded since recording was such a new thing to everybody. We didn’t know any different.” [JRBH 32] Wickemeyer was no fool and certainly not a doormat for the company’s management either. On one occasion when the assistant sales manager Clayton Jackson took $400 from two Ku Klux Klan members to enable them to make 1,000 records, Wickemeyer walked out and quit in disgust. Harry Gennett was very angry about this treatment of his chief recording engineer when he heard about the incident, and Wickemeyer subsequently returned. [JRBH 37-38]
Wickemeyer and the branch staff in Richmond had been criticised for not always achieving optimum results, both by the New York branch of the company at the time, and some commentators in recent years. However, this is very harsh, considering that the Richmond Gennett-Starr studio was a far smaller operation, with less staff, less facilities and less material at its disposal than the New York branch, or the main companies in the business such as Victor or Columbia. Also, the latter two companies secured exclusive contracts with their artists, whereas in Richmond, Gennett were reliant on musicians passing through, or making the long trip from Chicago or elsewhere. In addition, there were certain parameters that were out of Wickemeyer’s control, such as noise and vibrations from trains passing nearby, along with stifling heat in the summer, all of which hindered progress. His work must ultimately have been admired in the business circles, as Wickemeyer left in early 1927 to join one of Gennett’s larger competitors. He may also have done some work in the hat industry, as the following appeared in the Classified Ads (Wanted) section of the The Laurette Manufacturing Company in two issues of The Vidette Messenger in November 1927:
District Manager—The Laurette Manufacturing company wants a man as district manager, also several ladies to sell a snappy line of ladies’ hats to their friends; no canvassing. A profitable, permanent position, all year round. If you are interested and can qualify write E. A. Wickemeyer, 158 Grove street, Blue Island, Ill. for personal interview appointment.
On 21st November 1928, Wickemeyer and Edward A. Feltman filed an application for a patent on a “Glare Eliminator” for spectacles, and the patent was granted as U.S. Patent 1,804,922 on 12th May 1931. By 1930, according to his census entry, Wickemeyer had moved to Chicago and was still working as a recording engineer, but by this time he was in the moving pictures industry. His nephews recalled that he worked in a firm that produced early colour film, and this work involved testing the equipment outdoors. He also worked for Brunswick for several years. [RK 1] Wickemeyer was unemployed by 27th April 1942, when he registered for the World War II draft as Charles Esra (sic) Wickemeyer in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. He must have been scarred by the 1905 incident as the “Other obvious physical characteristics that will aid identification” are given as “Burns on face & hands”. The Wickemeyers moved to Cincinnati shortly afterwards, where Ezra initially worked for Wright Aeronautical until 1945. This plant was located on the same site where General Electric stands today. Wickemeyer subsequently joined The Dracket Company, which was a chemical firm. They later moved to nearby Reading, Ohio and lived over a savings and loan firm owned by relatives, where Ezra worked as a custodian. [RK 1] In 1951, Wickemeyer may also have been involved in sales, as the following advertisement appeared in the “Arrival of Buyers” section of the New York Times, 23rd January of that year:
RICHMOND, Ind. — Adam H. Bartel Co.: E. W. Coate, men’s furnishings, gloves, knit goods, underwear; E. A. Wickemeyer, piece goods; 56 Worth (Independent Wholesale D. G. Assn.).
Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer died suddenly in August 1956 aged 63; and his wife, Katherine, died aged 91 in Norwood, Norfolk, Massachusetts on 11th July 1981. (Social Security Death Index, issued Ohio before 1951, SSN 268-28-5511) The Wickemeyers were both buried in Lutherania Cemetery, Richmond. They had no children. Ezra Wickemeyer was a true “jack of all trades” who had turned his hand to many jobs during his lifetime, including being a book-keeper, recording engineer, inventor and photographer. In the words of his nephew Robert Helmich, who passed away in 2008, “Uncle Ez was known as a guy who could put things together”. [RK 2] Robert’s brother, Mel Helmich, who lives in Ohio, recalled of his uncle, “He always wore a straw hat and was a chain smoker.” [RK 1] Sure enough, one of the very few surviving photographs of him, taken in the 1930s, shows Ezra on the far right with his straw hat and a cigarette. [SHP] (courtesy of Mel Helmich and Rick Kennedy)
Eighty years after the groundbreaking “Gennett” recordings, Wickemeyer appears briefly as a minor character in “Oh, Play That Thing”, a 2004 novel by Irish writer Roddy Doyle. Doyle is best known for his 1987 novel “The Commitments”, which was made into a film in 1991 and received a BAFTA award, along with a Golden Globe and a Oscar nomination. In “Oh, Play That Thing”, the novel’s main protagonist is an Irishman who goes on the run to the USA following the Irish Civil War (1922). He then gets involved in activities in prohibition USA, and becomes Louis Armstrong’s manager. [BG 24]
© September 2009 Brian Goggin
Special thanks to Rick Kennedy for information about Ezra C. A. Wickemeyer’s later years and to Mel Helmich for the rare photographs.