A History of the VRCS

Up until about the mid 1950s, Record collecting was a relatively solitary pursuit. In 1955 your average opera-loving record collector was pretty much alone in his avocation. If the collector was lucky he might have had a good friend who had developed a similar taste while growing up so that there was at least someone with whom to share his enthusiasm. Most collectors who developed friendships, or even just acquaintanceships based on shared collecting interests, did so with people they consistently ran into in record stores, and it was more than possible that there were any number of fraternal groups which were totally unaware of the existence of even a single counterpart group.

Under such circumstances there came into being two groups of forward-looking collectors in New York City who said, in effect, "This is ridiculous." Record collectors should know each other, they should be able to compare notes about recordings, and to share the hearing of their favorites without others, to contribute to the sum total of knowledge available on the subject to pool record resources to certain desirable ends, etc. Two groups were formed almost simultaneously. The first was called the New York Gramophone Society (NYGS) and was headed by Albert Wolf and Ely C. Winer. Shortly thereafter, in the summer of 1956, The Vocal record Collector's Society was formed. Interestingly, if one was a member of one it seemed that they would NOT be a member of the other group. Indeed, the original by-laws of the VRCS actually stated that no member could hold an elective office in the Society if he or she was an elected officer of any other such club. Since the NYGS was the only other like-minded entity around at the time, there is no doubt as to whom this was directed at.

A third group came into being around 1960: NYSFRM (New York Society for recorded Music. And another group formed in the mid sixties: Club "99" under the guidance of the well known collector and dealer, Ben Lebow. This was around the time that Ben had started the Club "99" reissue label, one of the preeminent LP labels for historical reissues at the time. Although a small production in comparison to EMI or Decca, Club "99" LPs flourished up to and into the CD era. (A number of their most popular issues were released on CD.) Ironically, all of these groups met at the same building: Freedom House on West 40th Street and for a period of time operated simultaneously. NYGS met monthly on Wednesdays, VRCS monthly on Fridays (but with summer meetings on Wednesdays) and the other two groups monthly on separate Fridays. For the few who managed memberships in all four clubs it was a wonderful time of discovery and just plain entertainment. Unfortunately, the NYSFRM dissolved when there were no longer enough paying members to cover  the monthly rental fees on the meeting room. Then Ben Lebow's sudden and premature death spelled the end to Club "99", although his widow, Ellen, kept the LP label going for a couple of decades. NYGS suffered from a relatively small membership, most probably never more than 25 dues-paying members. When it could no longer sustain the meting room fees, it was moved directly down a few blocks to Albert Wolf's reasonably spacious apartment, where monthly meetings continued until Albert's death in the late 1960s.

The Vocal Record Collectors' Society sustained the fewest problems mainly because the original officers and directors, as well as their sucessors, understood the need for a reasonably large membership base whose dues would at least cover the meeting hall rentals (these have increased fivefold in the last fifteen years alone). So successful were they that, started in 1959, the VRCS was able to issue its first "Christmas Record," a ten-inch LP that paid for itself in that it gave added reason for members to remain with the Society and added  impetus for new members to join. In all but one of the ensuing forty-five years there has been a Christmas Record (in two cases, double-LP sets) and some of the earlier ones are now prized collectors' items (starting in 1993, the issue assumed CD format). Today there are over 200 dues-paying members, which makes the VRCS the largest such group of voice enthusiasts in the United States, possibly in the world.

The VRCS is devoted to disseminating the finest singing of both past and present to its members. Programs are given mostly by members, with occasional outside guests invited for a specialty topic. Such guests include singers: Elsa Alsen, Rose Bampton, Alexander Kipnis, Bidu Sayao, and Lucine Amara, and other speakers have included such industry specialists as George Jellinek, William Ashbrook, Will Crutchfield, John Freestone, David Hamilton, Henry Peasants and Ward Marston. All of the aforementioned were with members or honorary members of the VRCS.

Today, meetings are held on the first Friday of each month, always in the basement auditorium of Christ Church, located at the corner of Park Avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan. By 7:00 pm, members who are collector/dealers set up shop and sell records, CDs, books and photos. The monthly auction for members begins promptly at 7:30. Generally some 25 to 30 LPs are offered up for the highest bid. (Originally, of course, the auction featured bidding on 78 rpm recordings, but as time passed and that format became more and more extinct, the auction switched its emphasis to LP recordings. These are recordings that are put up by members and on which the Society gets a small percentage of the ralized bids to help defray operating costs. The auction usually ends by 8:00 pm at which time announcements are made and the program proper begins. These usually last between an hour and a half to two hours without intermission.

The Society has four officers and five directors, with terms running for two years. These are elected every second December by the members. Their duties include the planning of upcoming programs and guest speakers and the contents of that year's Christmas CD. Membership dues are $50 per year for single memberships and $65 a year for joint memberships. Members who are paid up in their dues receive the Christmas CD for free.

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