February 1987

Remembering Ted Fagan

by Tim Brooks

The field of record research has lost one of its less known but most valuable members. Ted Fagan, 66, died suddenly in his Manhattan apartment on Jan. 31, 1987, of an acute asthma attack. Ted published relatively few articles, and was known mostly to collectors of classical vocal recordings (of which he had a superb collection). However he was also one-half of the driving force behind a massive discographical project that will benefit practically all collectors and researchers of recorded sound. Twenty-four years ago Ted, as a collector, innocently wrote to RCA Victor requesting information about some Red Seal discs in his collection. Discovering how spotty published information on classical recordings was, yet how much was available in the company’s own files, he resolved to compile and publish it himself. Then, as he once told me, “I saw how many gaps there were for the popular numbers and decided, well, I might as well do the whole bloody thing.”

The “whole bloody thing” was nothing less than the entire history of recording at Victor from 1900 to 1950. The size of such a project was daunting, but Ted developed a fascination with it, becoming quite determined to do it with precision. Fortunately he had a partner in the project, the respected West Coast collector and researcher William Moran.

By profession Ted was an interpreter, one of the elite corps of specialists at the United Nations who make it possible for delegates speaking many languages to debate global issues (he eventually became the U.N.’s Chief Interpreter). A cultured man, Argentinian by birth, he knew many world leaders personally. Despite the rarified political circles in which he moved he never lost his sense of perspective about life, however. I will always treasure one particular image of him; he was often required to spend long hours standing by in the small, glass-enclosed Interpreter’s Booth high above the General Assembly, in case his skills were needed. (Ted was an expert in Spanish-English.) As world leaders argued great issues of war and peace on the floor below, Ted would quietly sit up there, insulated from the melee, meticulously posting early Victor matrix numbers on little 3×5 cards. It makes you think about what really is important in life!

There was a lot of posting to do. The information was available—Victor headquarters is only a few blocks from the U.N.—but fifty years of recording by the world’s largest label adds up to an immense amount of untangling of data. Ted devoted the rest of his non-professional life to the project. I, and I’m sure others, spent many a dinner with him arguing over formats, what to include or exclude and how, finally, to get it all into print. But it was very much Fagan and Moran’s project.

Ted retired from the U.N. in the late 1970s and continued to work on the Victor project nearly full-time in the 1980s, acquiring one of the first personal computers to assist him. In later years he became very concerned about the future of the project, which he sensed would outlive him, and provided that his estate would be used to set up a trust to ensure its completion. For a time it seemed as if it might never see the light of day, however, since no one (including Victor) was interested in providing any funding. At last, in 1983, the first volume was published by Greenwood Press, covering 1900-1903. A second volume (1903-1908) has just come out and a third, consisting of an index of all catalog numbers referenced back to their original matrix numbers, is partially complete. There may eventually be 20 to 30 volumes in all, if the project can be completed.

Data has been compiled for virtually the entire 1900-1950 period, but a great deal of work remains to get it into print. Bill Moran has said that he will carry on, and looks for help from fellow collectors. A massive and definitive work, the Victor project will surely stand as a monument to two collectors who contributed far more than they took from their “hobby.” Would that we could all say as much.

 

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