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Radio recordings: jazz and popular music

Music programming, live and recorded, has been a mainstay of British radio since its inception and constitutes a substantial proportion of the Library's audio collections.

Jazz and dance band

The earliest popular music radio recordings are short excerpts from pre-war programmes in which dance bands relayed live from London hotels and restaurants. It was not until the late 1930s, as war loomed, that a British desire to foster Anglo-American relations gave urgency to experiments with transatlantic broadcasts, such as Alistair Cooke's American Jam Session (1938-39), and the series America Dances, among the first to be recorded for posterity. Soon after, the need to provide entertainment for American troops abroad led to the pre-recording of programmes on disc for shipping to Armed Forces Network stations in the field, resulting in a valuable heritage of transcription discs (1942-) and military-issue V-Discs (1942-49) from a period when American record company activity had been largely suspended. The Alan Dell Collection (catalogue no: C923) also includes wartime transcriptions featuring stars such as Glenn Miller and Frank Sinatra, as well as the great British dance bands and vocalists of the post-war era. Several Voice of America collections (catalogue nos: C50, C1185, C1248) feature recordings from the Newport Jazz Festivals of 1956-59 and Willis Conover's famous Jazz Hour.

Highlight of the Krahmer-Newbrook Collection (catalogue no: C1126) is a legacy of almost every British jazz and blues programme aired nationally from 1947 to 1976, including all the key session based series:

  • Jazz Club (1947-)
  • Ted Heath Show (late 1940s-)
  • Let's Settle for Music (Kenny Baker's weekly series, 1952-1958)
  • Break for Jazz (1957-)
  • Jazz Session (1957-)
  • Music in the Modern Manner (1959-)
  • Jazz 625 (TV audio, 1964-)
  • It's Jazz (1964-)
  • The Jazz Scene (1966-)
  • Jazz Beat (1966-)
  • Jazz Workshop (1969-)

Although the quality of Carlo Krahmer's recordings deteriorated with his failing eyesight in the mid-60s, other recordists and collectors carried his mission through to the 1980s, including Alan Newby (catalogue no: C782) (1950s-1966), Horace Harris (catalogue no: C651) (1963-81), Steve Piltz (catalogue no: C1022) (1970s), Norman Jenkinson (catalogue no: C889) (1970s-early 80s) and Michael Gerzon (catalogue no: C236) (1970s-80s). Collections donated or originated by musicians naturally focus on their own work and sometimes their associates – Mike Westbrook (catalogue no: C602), Bob Cornford (catalogue no: C656), and Howard Riley (catalogue no: C461) for example – allowing a more detailed and balanced examination of their performance and compositional history than is possible from published recordings alone.

Researchers can also explore an extensive BBC transcription disc collection, including a memorable series of works commissioned from visiting American composer William Russo in the 1960s, recordings from the Wavendon Jazz Festivals (1970s-), and a wide range of themed documentaries. The contributions of key regional and independent broadcasters can be discovered in extensive Capital Radio (catalogue no: C628) and BBC Radio London (catalogue no: C385) collections, both focusing on the major London jazz festivals of the 1970s-80s.

Rounding out this unusually comprehensive music radio collection is the British Library's own digital off-air recording programme, which selected most session or interview-based programming from 1985-1997, more recent transmissions being available on request from the BBC Sound Archive.

Post-war popular music

As the post-war 'baby boom' generation approached adolescence in the late 1950s, the increasing popularity of the singles chart and the rise of rock and roll created a surge of interest in pop record-based programming. Its development can be tracked through a mixture of published recordings, unpublished transcription discs and off-air recordings spanning the heyday of American country music at the Grand Ole Opry (Mike Head Collection (catalogue no: C178)) (1940s-50s) to the contemporary urban, soul and pop scenes.

Although much of Britain's music radio of the 50s and 60s has been lost, the Krahmer-Newbrook Collection (catalogue no: C1126) does trace some key early developments: the 1950s skiffle boom, the belated arrival of black American blues and gospel in the early 60s, and its crucial role in the rise of the British rhythm and blues bands. While published CD anthologies have rounded up the radio sessions of many of the era's key bands, an extensive collection of BPI Anti-Piracy Unit bootleg vinyl is peppered with otherwise unobtainable material from both British and overseas radio sources of the 1960s-80s.

Students may also wish to investigate the BBC transcription disc collections, where retrospectives such as The Sixties at the Beeb typically examine the historical contributions of particular artists, labels or producers, or the evolution of particular styles, often with the aid of specially-recorded interviews and commentary. By the early 1970s, concert programming, notably Radio 1's In Concert, was also being retained on transcription discs, many of which have never been released commercially.

Independent and local radio programming is also available, including a small but interesting selection of General Post Office tapes (catalogue no: G6) which shed light on the once-influential offshore pirate radio stations. A vast Capital Radio Collection (catalogue no: C628) preserves hundreds of concerts and interviews in programme masters ranging from the station's 1973 inauguration through to the mid-80s. Other independent/regional productions will be found in the AIRC Programme Sharing Scheme (catalogue no: C1000) and Unique Broadcasting (catalogue no: C974) collections.

Broadcasters and private collectors have made more personal contributions, including Charlie Gillett (catalogue no: C510), whose donation includes programmes and interview inserts for his acclaimed 1970s Radio London series Honky Tonk, while two Kenny Everett collections, one deposited by the pioneering DJ himself (catalogue no: C723), reveal the methodical preparation that went into his creatively original BBC and Capital Radio shows. Michael Gerzon (catalogue no: C236) added new wave/avant-rock sessions of the mid-70s to 1980s.

The British Library's own off-air recording programme selected most national programming with session or concert content from the mid-80s until the late 90s. Popular music and media students often need to assess the music or programming in its wider historical and cultural context, and this is where the chief value of the British Library's unedited programme collection may lie. Here, uniquely, almost 2,000 John Peel programmes preserve the sessions exactly as they were originally transmitted, with all of the presenter's commentary and the interspersed gramophone records ('needletime') intact. The breadth of the audio collections, accompanied by a vast array of book, periodical, discographic and thesis literature, together constitute Europe's most comprehensive resource for the study of popular music radio.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441