Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Trail-Blazers in Discography

Magazine article IAJRC Journal

Trail-Blazers in Discography

Article excerpt



To edit and publish a magazine for forty years, especially one devoted mainly to discographical matters, requires dedication and perseverance. That magazine was Record Research and its editor was Len Kunstadt.


Len Kunstadt was born in 1925 of an Austrian father and a Russian mother and raised in Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York. He enlisted in the U.S. Air Force on July 30, 1943 and I believe that he flew submarine patrols over the Atlantic, serving as a bombardier, during those war years. In his 60s he liked to say that three of his four engines were feathered but that he was still climbing! On leaving the service he studied and graduated from New York University.

By 1955 he was established in the secondhand record market and publication of Record Research began.

In 1958 he was a member of The Orange Blossom Jug Five who recorded an album entitled "Skiffle In Stereo" for Lyrichord. In addition to Kunstadt on kazoo, the other members were Dave Van Ronk, guitar, vocal; Sam Charters, guitar, cornet, vocal; Ann (Danburg) Charters, washboard; and Russell Glynn, jug.

It has been reported that sometime in April 1996 Kunstadt went into hospital for a hernia operation. Once home he experienced severe pain, but when he returned to the hospital he was given pain killers and sent home. He died alone in his New York apartment and his body was found on April 23, 1996, some days after his death.


The first issue of Record Research was dated February 1955. Its sub-heading called it "The magazine of record statistics and information", it was to be "issued every other month", and the short introductory editorial included the statement that the magazine "dedicates itself to the establishment of a magazine built on discographical craftsmanship. It is no successor to any magazine although it shares the many attempts to publish intelligent and informative articles on record research." Reproduced on poor quality paper, its twenty pages included discographies of Eubie Blake and Sunnyland Slim, an introduction to Edison records, and a four page auction list, 358 records, minimum bid 25 cents.

By the following year the standard of both printing and paper had improved. This quality was generally maintained, except for a period in the mid-1970s when newsprint was used for six issues. Bob Colton was Len's partner in the secondhand record business and he later became co-editor of Record Research. Continuing illness reduced Colton's participation in later years.

Grove refers to the magazine as an irregular publication, which is only part of the story. In the early years it maintained its regular schedule and until the late 1980s it still averaged four issues a year. From 1987 publication slowed to two issues a year, then just two appeared between 1992 and 1994, with the final version being dated January 1995.

Quirky is one way of describing Kunstadt's style as an editor. Idiosyncratic is another, as may be judged from two or three of the comments in later paragraphs. Contributors to the magazine included such experts as Walter C. Allen, Frank Driggs, Mike Montgomery, Harrison Smith, John Steiner, Sam Charters and Victoria Spivey. Many were members of Record Research Associates, an informal organization which met regularly for record listening and discussion, and to hear presentations by researchers like Dan Morgenstern, George Avakian, John Hammond and Brian Rust or musicians such as trumpeters Jack Butler and Doc Cheatham, baritone saxist Danny Banks, leader Ben Selvin and Arthur "Street Singer" Tracy. Kunstadt was a founder member of Record Research Associates when meetings began about 1952, originally in members' homes and then in various NYC locations such as the Prince George Hotel and St. Peter's Church.

There is a photograph in RR (243/244) which shows Wild Bill Davison at a Stuyvesant Casino table, being accompanied by a quartet of collectors, including Dan Morgenstern on paper-and-comb and Len Kunstadt on kazoo.

Among the features which appeared were articles about Fess Williams, John Lee Hooker, Mamie Smith, Leo Reisman, Lucille Hegamin, Joe Tarto, Rudy Powell, and the Dixie Jazz Band. There was a Red Nichols Memorial double issue, as well as photo issues devoted to Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman.

Serialisations, many of them long-running, covered a wide range of jazz and jazz related subjects, but also dance bands, folk, minstrelese and classical. Examples of these include singers such as Black Parti, Maurice Chevalier, Tex Ritter, Lucille Hegamin and Buddy Clark, and musicians Les Paul, Wayne King, Clyde Bernhardt and Bobby Hackett.

Catalogue and master number listings were a regular part of the Record Research output. A Plaza matrix listing began in issue 36 (July 1961) and was still running thirty years later, though by that time perhaps only thirty or even just nine masters were shown in an issue. A true double-issue was published of the Perfect Dance and Race Catalog, and there were compilations of Little Wonder, Champion, Superior, Liberty Music Shop, Federal, Hit-of-the-Week, and World Transcriptions. Other matrix listings were of Signature and Majestic.

Although there had been a number of double-issues previously, as from October 1977, numbered 149/150, each issue of the magazine was automatically a double, with perhaps eight extra pages! The last issue of RR was numbered 253/254, though it should have been, perhaps, 200 or thereabouts.

The magazine's auction lists grew in size at the same time as the font size became smaller. Soon the lists occupied eight or nine pages, offering 3000 records or more per issue. In the later years only those with perfect vision or a powerful magnifying glass could decipher which records were on offer.

There were two offshoots from Record Research. One was called the Record Research Supplement, a single page data sheet sent out on an occasional basis, but full of discographical oddments. The last issue seen by this writer was number 42, from 1992.

The second offshoot was the rather more substantial Blues Research. Edited by Paul Sheatsley and Tony Rotante, sixteen of these invaluable booklets were produced. (There was an issue 17, but this was included in Record Research 129/130, October 1974.) Each issue of Blues Research attempted the formidable task of listing the catalogues of the labels which were specializing in blues and gospel records. More than 80 labels were covered, including Flair, Flash, Trumpet, Jax, Jade, Delta, Miracle, Meteor, Peacock, Aristocrat, Chess, Excello, Sultan, Manor, Harlem and Sultan.

1962 saw two major events in Kunstadt's career. JAZZ: A History of the New York Scene, for which he provided most of the research, written in partnership with Sam Charters, was published by Doubleday (and later by Da Capo); and his friendship with the singer Victoria Spivey gave rise to the founding of Spivey Records. On this project Kunstadt was usually the producer and sleeve note writer and sometime photographer.

There was an initial 45 rpm EP (Victoria Spivey, vocal and piano, accompanied by Eddie Barefield, alto, and Pat Wilson, drums) on the Queen Vee label, followed by 28 Spivey albums in a 1001 series, almost all by blues artists (Miss Spivey, Smokey Hogg, the Muddy Waters Blues Band, Washboard Sam, Lonnie Johnson, Willie Dixon, Memphis Slim, Big Joe Turner, etc), but with some appearances by Buddy Tate, Dick Vance, Sadik Hakim, Eddie Barefield and Sonny Greer, plus an album by trumpeter Louis Metcalf. There was also an LP, number 2001, "Legacy of the Blues," of Victoria Spivey's earlier recordings, 1927-1937, with King Oliver, Louis Armstrong and Red Allen. LP1004 has Bob Dylan playing on two tracks with Big Joe Williams, vocal on one and harmonica on both.

On the flyers for Spivey Records, which Kunstadt circulated after Victoria's death, he included the following:

"Victoria Regina Spivey, who we lost on October 3, 1976, was my Queen and Lady and I was her Prince knight-errant and her biographical Boswell.

Together we did journey through the musical world of Blues, Folk and Jazz with its great variety of diversified fascinating personalities. Our adventures which were absolutely story-book in vividness governed 1/3 of my life.

Together we formed a record company, SPIVEY RECORDS, which began as a hobby. It had purpose and vision to create opportunities not only for many talented veteran performers - but also to discover and promote those of the younger generation in their musical pursuit of the Blues. Before her death, Spivey Records issued many very versatile LPs with Victoria's ebullient personality and directorship permeating every production."

He worked with and for Victoria Spivey for the last twenty years of her life. Some Internet sites even state that he and Victoria were, in fact, married. Her "Kazoo Papa Blues" was named for Len. Unfortunately his planned biography of The Queen was never completed. The final Spivey Records album on which Len was working at the time of his death was by Big Frank and his Healers. Recorded in November 1995 this was issued on CD 1040 by Vintage records. More recently there was a possibility that his niece, Lisa Weiner, might revive the Spivey label, though no release details are known.

Kunstadt was in Europe with Victoria Spivey when she appeared in the American Folk Blues Festival for the 1963 European and UK (October) tour. They spent a week in Paris in November 1973 recording a one-hour TV special for producer Jean Christophe Averty. Ms Spivey was backed by the Claude Luter band, with Claude Boiling on piano and organ as a guest.

In 2001 Kunstadt was given a posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award by the Association for Recorded Sound Collections. The award referred to Record Research 1955-1995, with two of his discographies specifically mentioned, the Black Swan label and that of Wilbur Sweatman. For more than ten years he contributed a blues column ("New York Really Has The Blues Stars") to Blues Life Journal (Austria) and then to Blues Gazette (Belgium). His discographical writings also appeared in The Discophile.

His obituary in Living Blues said: "He was the consummate researcher. He had all the notations and details." He did indeed.


My thanks to Howard Rye and to Bert Whyatt.

There are numerous references under Len Kunstadt's name on the Internet which can be searched for further information.

This is the final installment of my mini-series about people I have known who deserve a special mention for their contributions to the science, and sometimes art, of discography. There are, of course, many others who merit similar recognition and I am sure that the editor will welcome articles about them. Derek

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.