The Kings of the Gramophone
he importance of Los Gobbi (the Gobbi couple) in the history of criollo recording not only was because of the amount of discs they recorded, but also because of the subject matter contained.
For the collectors of old recordings and frequenters of the houses of antiques in San Telmo, Los Gobbi are a well-known name. Their recordings, on discs cut with the old acoustical system are today, after already nearly a century of their recording, glorious memories of the zarzuela criolla and early tango.
They are not difficult to get and really less «violent» than a disc by Eduardo Arolas or a previously unreleased recording of «El Mudo». Furthermore, for many labels the Gobbis recorded on the two media of the beginnings of the recording industry in the River Plate: cylinders and shellac discs. Precisely for that reason they were called the Gramophone Kings.
We are in the beginning of the twentieth century: the phonograph was a quite expensive novelty. Then in Buenos Aires, that city we today call «of days gone by», just a few could afford buying a «talking machine».
The local artists discovered the medium: itinerant singers, musicians and sopranos cut the first cylinders and discs, then on only one side. Everything was recorded: from marches and mazurkas, including brass solos to speeches in Russian and French. But as it happened 15 years later with «Los locos de la azotea» that founded what would be the beginning of the Argentine radio, the gramophone was no other thing but a novelty. Porteños preferred the barrel organ or the piano roll, or the occasional group that played native melodies, mazurkas and polkas, if they were lucky, at some chic café, otherwise, at some underground cheap local.
In 1902 an Italian tenor singer, Enrico Caruso, who was already a boom because of his con fuoco singing, recorded at the Gran Hotel of Milano a series of pieces accompanied on piano. In order to record the singing of the Neapolitan tenor, the recording company brought to his room a primitive machine to cut the now historical takes: a large horn caught the sounds which were cut by means of a tapered end and a cutting stylus, using the mechanical system, on a wax coated master, from which the discs were later processed and duplicated.
The Neapolitan tenor singer’s voice like Alfredo Eusebio Gobbi’s was strongly distinctive and was suitable to the new medium. Caruso, like Gobbi, «got along very well» with records. He sold millions of discs and was a great help for the beginning industry. Today you still can get those old Victor and Zonofone records at very low prices because they were released in a large number.
It was 1907 and Gobbi with his wife Flora Gobbi were already recording cylinders and discs. The former were more difficult to commercialize: its manufacture was harder. It required to play the same piece many times in front of as many horns as machines were needed to cut the sound on the cylinders.
With the record it was quite a different thing: a master was made and from it there was possible to get an unlimited number of copies.
The success of the Gobbis, Alfredo and Flora, was remarkable on stages, at circuses and at the zarzuelas criollas, but even more on record. Their records as Los Gobbi, Los Campos or Alfredo E. Gobbi, also under the pseudonyms Gobbino el 77 or El Gaucho Alegría, have, even today, spark and humor beyond comparison. His «comic scenes» and his «critics» are advanced for that time.
On those old recordings the vision almost Discepolian of the author is shown. Furthermore: they are still in force in the world of the XXI century. Perhaps human nature has advanced very little in these latter hundred years. Gobbi criticizes old lascivious men and «cover girls« (“La Basura”, Columbia Record Nº T44). The text is daring, with a picaresque mood, but it is not insulting: it makes laugh and to think it over.
Of a similar theme is "Los High Life" (Victor disc recorded on one side only, Nº 3162, 1907), recorded in the United States): it talks about the boys that look for a passing affair, maybe paying for it.
The medium used for "Los Scrushantes" is interesting. The number, with piano accompaniment, is about scoundrels and underground people, almost in a Brecht's style. This record Pathe, Nº 31169 was played back from the center to the outside edge at a speed between 90 and 100 revolutions per minute, according to what the recording company recommended on the cardboard sleeve of the disc.
At that time phonographs had a speed control, because it was not standard and varied between 60 and 100 rpm. You had to modify the speed of the turntable at will until the recorded piece was rightly heard.
Juan Francisco López —Lopecito—, published tango sketches for different graphic media. He narrated the history of tango and its protagonists in a story-like way, talked in a porteño manner. In one of them he remembers the Gobbis: «Year 1907. Europa is yawning while is awakening into war and we, that do not want war, sent this small embassy, bearer of grace and tango, to France. We send it so that those places will know our city song and our suburban dance which after conquering our downtown where at the beginning the big salons closed their doors to keep it out, later it would conquer a market of worldwide importance: Paris».
«La Villa Lumiére was not strange to Gobbi, because in 1905 he had been growing what he was to harvest later: fame and money. Paris was his goal and his base, from there his records would go everywhere and on them his unforgettable compositions were recorded so that time would not erase them: tangos, duets, romanzas, contrapuntos, gatos, pericones, milongas, habaneras».
«Doña Flora, Don Alfredo and Don Ángel (Villoldo), with this central line the tango team could not lose the game at all... and it won it from beginning to end like the «cracks» do it. "D'you know, boy, what does fight for tango mean? for seven years, neither one more, nor one less..." Seven years, gigging on all the music hall stages at hand. Because of them, only because of them «monsieures and musmussels» knew the tango sound of “El Porteñito” and “Soy tremendo”. His tangos and Villoldo's —we cannot mention the former without alluding the latter— conquered France. The popular acclaim of their compositions made them join the French Society of Authors and Composers as members. That meant collecting a good sum for their rights, for performances of their repertoire which comprised from “El Choclo” to “Rubia Mimí”, from “El Porteñito” to “París-Londres”».
«The Gobbis are, probably, the artists who recorded most in the world, at nearly all the recording companies. For those who have doubts about it, we simply mention the name of the trademarks for which they recorded their voices: Homokord, Columbia, Pathe, Odeon, Gath & Chaves, Poliphon, Da Capo, Gloria, Kaliope, Phyriny, Cabezas, Edison and many more. What can you tell me, boy? Did you have an idea that there were so many trademarks? Not even automobiles had so many».
The recorded oeuvre of Los Gobbi is large and needs to be compiled. Only in 1905, according to Lopecito, they recorded 250 cylinders in the United States. Later they switched entirely to disc. Some of the pieces are truly historical documents. For example, the rendition of the Uruguayan National Anthem that the couple recorded for Gath & Chaves records (Nº 4901), one of the first committed to record. You have to take into account that recording was a difficult task. Between recording and commercialization of a musical piece could be a lapse of more than a year. Even though the Gobbis recorded very much in Paris and in the United States, we have to remember that transportation was by sea and there may be periods of months between the time when the discs were sent (wax coated matrixes) and when they returned (shellac discs).
The record manufacturers in Europe, especially in Germany, had a lot of work. Thanks to the pioneer Carl Lyndström, criollo gramophones bore «fruit». In a short time the acoustical system for recording discs was polished. Thanks to them today we have the memory of the voice, the genius and artistry of this outstanding Uruguayan and his Chilean wife.
In 1914 World War I burst out. Lyndström kept on, despite all the trouble, sending records to Buenos Aires but the war conflict soon forced to interrupt it. Gobbi continued recording for Disco Nacional run by Max Glücksman and would also appear in talking movies. But today we dedicate our recognition to the facet of acoustical record and early tango.
Los Gobbi are present and are waiting for the compilation of their discographic work. At these times of crisis and poverty, more than one of those songs by don Alfredo shows us that in this last century little or nothing has changed.