United Sound Systems: Universal origins?

United Sound Systems building. Copyright 2013 Craig Maki

United Sound Systems on 2nd Avenue in Detroit. Photo by Craig Maki.

No doubt, the future of the legendary United Sound Systems recording studio on 2nd Avenue in Detroit is in question. Click here for the Detroit Wiki page on the building’s history and to review results from recent surveys by the Michigan Department of Transportation, or MDOT. MDOT is moving forward with plans to upgrade the Interstate 94 expressway, and the United Sound Systems building appears to be in the way of the expansion.

A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting of the Detroit Sound Conservancy and the current owners of the United Sound Systems building showed up. Members of the Detroit Sound Conservancy are working with MDOT and the owners of United Sound Systems to save one of the oldest recording studios in the country.

A conundrum

People who knew Jimmy Siracuse, the founder of United Sound Systems, have said Siracuse opened a studio during the 1930s (1933 is often cited as the year). My conundrum: While spending two decades researching the early history of Detroit country music, I was hard pressed to find evidence of records made by United Sound Systems during the 1930s.

Universal record label

The Great Depression killed off most independent record companies, and it wasn’t until the York Brothers’ “Hamtramck Mama” of 1939 that country records began appearing on Detroit-based labels. From what I could tell, these were made for stocking jukeboxes. “Hamtramck Mama” first appeared on the Universal label, cut at Universal Recording Studios on the east side (miles away from the 2nd Avenue building of United Sound Systems). The Universal record label issued records for only a few years, during the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Exhibit A

While digging around the Internet, I found a forum where former Detroit audio engineer Bob Olhsson stated Jimmy Siracuse and his family “operated a music store and recording studio during the 1930s.” Olhsson told of Siracuse’s army service at the Paramount studios in Queens, New York, during World War II. When he returned to Detroit, Siracuse set up United Sound Systems on 2nd Avenue, in a district of advertising agencies near the General Motors building on Grand Boulevard.

United Sound Systems custom disk label

Exhibit B

I recently found two 78rpm records with United Sound Systems labels that I had never examined before. They represent the oldest labels I’ve seen, and appear to date from the 1940s. One is a custom-recorded disk of two children singing songs for their daddy. The other is music performed by an organist who worked at Detroit’s famous Arena Gardens roller skating rink.

Note the striking similarities of the early United Sound Systems record labels to the Universal Recording Studios above. From the label border to the lettering across top and bottom, to the hand-drawn label names and the small circles above them that sport initials of the studios, they appear to be the work of the same designer.

Were both of these studios Jimmy Siracuse productions? Was Universal Recording Studios, whose activities were dated to the 1930s and early 1940s, the precursor of the 1940s United Sound Systems? In 1946 another, more famous, Universal Recording studio appeared in Chicago. Perhaps Siracuse was forced to change the name of his business.

United record label

Verdict: Confused

I have often heard people mix up the names of the two studios. Perhaps I’m the one who’s been confused, after all.

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