Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Maurice J. Gunsky - a San Francisco music idol of the 1920s

Maurice Gunsky, from the San Francisco Historical Photograph Collection

Maurice Gunsky was the number one vocal star in the early days of Bay Area radio broadcasting.  Yet the small modern remembrance that we have of him is as a butt of a Herb Caen joke.  Caen wrote in a 1979 column:
Maurice Gunsky, idol of thousands of women who had never laid eyes on him, made the mistake of emerging from the radio studio for a personal appearance in a Market St. Theater. The crowds were enormous -- but not for long. For Maurice Gunsky, of the romantic pipes, turned out to be rather short, dumpy and balding. His career went into fatal decline. 
(Caen repeated a similar story in 1988).

Maurice Jacob Gunsky (who frequently went by Maurice J. Gunsky) was born August 10, 1888 in Petaluma, California to Joseph and Fannie Gunsky, immigrants from Russian Poland.  His father who worked as a tailor in San Francisco, Ukiah and Petaluma, died when Maurice was twelve.

The most detailed account of the singer's life appeared in the 1930 biographical encyclopedia California and Californians.  This resource explains that because of his parents' early deaths he had go to work to support his family. He became a printer's apprentice, then a pressman who was a member of the San Francisco Printing Pressman's Union No. 24 -- not seemingly a likely background for a successful singer and songwriter. This source further noted that he "has struggled to recognition and fame in the musical world under the spur of poverty and limited opportunities."

He was apparently a practicing Jew since his first notice in the Chronicle tells of his performance as a tenor at a performance for B'rith Abraham in San Francisco in 1909.  While Gunsky showed ability as a vocalist, he could not overcome stage fright, which kept him off the stage for many years.  He then tried his hand at songwriting, primarily as a lyricist.


One of his earliest appearances in print was with the 1914 song "My 'Kewpie' Doll" written in collaboration with San Francisco songwriter and theater impresario Nat Goldstein.  The lyrics are not outstanding ("I've got the cutest little pet that any one get, / And he's my fav-'rite chum, because he's never glum") but they did respond to the craze for these dolls in 1914.

Goldstein and Gunsky had a fruitful, twenty year collaboration writing more than twenty songs including "That Haunting Waltz" recorded by Joseph M. Knecht and Waldorf-Astoria Dance Orchestra (1921),  "Honolulu Blues" recorded by the Oriole Terrace Orchestra (1922), the New Orleans Black Birds (1928) and Red Nichols and the Five Pennies (1931).  "Alone in Lonesome Valley" was recorded as "Lonesome Valley" by Glen Rice and his Beverly Hill Billies. "Linger Longer" was recorded by the Graham Prince Palais D'Or Orchestra in 1932.

After a time it occurred to him that he could overcome his fear of performance for an audience by singing over the new medium of radio to promote his songs before the public.  Gunsky got his start in radio at the San Jose station KJBS in September 1925 and shortly afterward worked at KFRC.  KPO's new program director, pianist Jean Campbell Crowe, then hired Gunsky and by late November he was a regular singer with the station.

source: San Francisco Chronicle November 13, 1925

He made an immediate sensation - an article in Radio Digest reported that "his first appearance brought thousands of letters."  These were the earliest days of early broadcasting when the radio spectrum was still clear and programming was fairly scarce.  Newspaper notices as far afield as Billings, Montana and Albuquerque, New Mexico announced the times when Gunsky would be singing live on air. The Berkeley Daily Gazette reported in 1927 that "Each time Gunsky goes 'on the air' ... he receives requests for songs from Los Angeles to British Columbia, and since he first began singing they have run into the hundreds of thousands."  He signed on with the West Coast Theaters circuit and became their highest paid performer and biggest box office attraction.

Soon after becoming a radio idol, the Victor label brought him into the recording studio.  His first disc, "Lay My Head Beneath a Rose" backed with "Why Do I Always Remember?" was recorded in Oakland on May 1, 1926.  He later traveled to New York where he made more records and performed on air.  In 1928 he returned to the Bay Area with the San Francisco Chronicle proclaiming: "Since going East, KPO has been besieged with telephone calls and letters asking for Gunsky. His return home is an auspicious event in radio circles."  He returned to the east again to make some recordings for the Columbia label.  At the height of his popularity, Gunsky was earning 3,000 dollars a week.

from the Catalog of Victor Records 1930


from the Catalog of Victor Records [1938]


The Popular Jazz Archive provides a discography for Maurice Gunsky as a soloist with 30 sides recorded for Victor and 12 sides recorded for Columbia between 1925 and 1929.  The creator of that blog has digitized several of these songs and uploaded them to Archive.org.  Eighteen of his Victor sides were still listed in print in the 1930 Victor catalog. By 1938 only his debut recording "Lay My Head Beneath a Rose" backed with "Why Do I Always Remember" remained available.  This recording was simultaneously issued in Great Britain on the Zonophone label and had sold more 230,000 copies by 1932.

 "Lay My Head Beneath A Rose" as featured by Maurice Gunsky, K.P.O. artist
"Lay My Head Beneath a Rose" as featured by Maurice J. Gunsky, Victor Record and radio artist

He continued to have success as a radio singer through the early 1930s.  Even a news item in the Lubbock Morning Avalanche March 1, 1930 announced: "Maurice Gunsky, radio tenor, has returned to KPO after a tour of eastern stations" implying that he had appeared live on many stations.  During the 1930s, his singing was relayed to other stations like KNX in Los Angeles.  His programs were also transcribed to records.  He also became the musical director for MacGregor and Sollie, one of these transcription services.

Though his stardom waned through the 1930s he continued to sing.  Radio listings from 1931 show him performing Sunday mornings on KFRC.  In 1933 he had his own half-hour "Maurice Gunsky Review," broadcast locally on KYA, but transcribed and broadcast all over the country.  He also made a foray into songwriting for Hollywood.  Gunsky made a bit of a comeback on KSFO in 1938

It's not accurate to call Gunsky's music jazz.  It is a kind of slow, melancholy music with semi-classical overtones.  His recording career might have been shortened by the Great Depression that started with the Stock Market crash in October 1929.  It's also possible that his style of music was no longer as commercially viable as more rhythmic styles of music grew in popularity.

Although his star definitely waned by the 1940s, Maurice Gunsky had achieved a measure of fame throughout the English language world.  While he was rooted in San Francisco, his voice was broadcast all across the American West and his recordings were enjoyed through the United States and Great Britain.  He was a member of ASCAP and their registry of works continues to list 11 of his songs.  The ASCAP Biographical Dictionary supplies this brief biography - "Active in radio, WCoast, 25. Appeared in vaudeville, 26-29."

It's apparent that he had enough ability as singer and as a lyricist to allow him to live well and become well-known.  Given his late and inauspicious entry into the performing arts, his success is remarkable.  He arrived on the scene at the same time that a new medium was taking shape that had need of his talents. While Maurice J. Gunsky is all but forgotten, we still have a record of his work.

Maurice Gunsky's works in the San Francisco Public Library catalog.

Maurice Gunsky's works in the Dorothy Starr Collection catalog.


Bibliography:

"At the Sound of the Chimes," San Francisco Examiner (October 31, 1936).

"B'rith Abraham Has a Reunion," San Francisco Chronicle (January 14, 1909), p. 12

Caen, Herb, "From Monday On," San Francisco Chronicle (March 26, 1979), 26.

Caen, Herb, "Out of My Mind," San Francisco Chronicle (December 4, 1988), Sunday Punch p. 1.

California and Californians, edited by Rockwell D. Hunt (The Lewis Publishing Company, 1930).

Catalog of Victor Records 1930 (Victor Talking Machine Division, Radio-Victor Corporation of America, 1930).

Catalog of Victor records (RCA Victor Division of RCA Manufacturing Co., 1938).

Daggett, John S., "Radio to Bring London Voices," Los Angeles Times (May 26, 1931), A17.

Falkenstein, G. & W. Madison, "Lay My Head Beneath a Rose" (Villa Moret Inc., 1926).

Flamm, Jerry, Good Life in Hard Times: San Francisco in the '20s & '30s (Chronicle Books, 1999).

"Goal of KPO is diversity," Radio Digest Illustrated, vol. 23, no. 5 (March 1929), 69.

Goldstein, Nat & M.J. Gunsky, "My 'Kewpie' doll" (Nat Goldstein Music Pub. Co., 1914).

Goldstein, Nat & Maurice J. Gunsky, "That haunting waltz" (Nat Goldstein Music Publishing Company, 1921).

"Gunsky Again on Monday" San Francisco Chronicle (February 19, 1928), 12.

"Gunsky to be Heard Again," Oakland Tribune (February 20, 1938), 4-B.

"Gunsky to Make Phonograph Records," Oakland Tribune (October 7, 1928), 2-B

"Gunsky to Perform at U.C. All Week," Berkeley Daily Gazette (August 30, 1927).

"Gunsky's Rise to Fame Like Fiction Tale," Berkeley Daily Gazette (September 6, 1927), 3.

"More Features on KPO List," San Francisco Chronicle November 13, 1925, p. 6.

"Maurice Gunsky Singing for Victrola Company," Ukiah Dispatch-Democrat (September 24, 1926), 8.

Nicolson, William J., "Victor In The West: The Oakland Pressing Plant," Tim's Phonographs and Old Records [online, n.d.]

"Pioneer Singer Passes," San Francisco Examiner (March 5, 1945).

"Programs of Stations Local Radio Fans Can Receive," Billings Gazette (November 29, 1925), 7.

"Radio Programs," Albuquerque Morning Journal (December 4, 1925), 4.

Schneider, John F., "History of KPO, San Francisco" Bay Area Radio Museum (1997).

Weeks, Anson & Maurice J. Gunsky, "Linger longer" (Villa Moret Inc., 1931).

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