United Sound Systems

United Sound Systems: Universal origins?

Did Detroit’s Universal Recording Studios evolve into the legendary United Sound Systems?

No doubt, the future of the legendary United Sound Systems recording studio on 2nd Avenue in Detroit is in question. Click here for the building’s history. The Michigan Department of Transportation, or 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 labelThe 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 the jukebox business. “Hamtramck Mama” first appeared on the Universal label, cut at Universal Recording Studios on the east side (miles away from the Second 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.

United record labelWas Jimmy Siracuse involved in Universal Recording Studios, whose activities began during the late 1930s? Universal updated its label design around 1941 (by the same designer, it appeared). Also in 1941, the Detroit Free Press published “Award made by F.P. poet,” (Dec. 30, p. 3) which mentioned a recording studio at the United Sound Systems address (5840 Second).

Verdict: Confused

I have often heard people mix up the names of the two studios. Perhaps I’m the one who’s confused, after all. I suspect that if Siracuse had anything to do with Universal, it was during that studio’s earliest days, before Siracuse established his own enterprise. On the other hand, with no documentation to be found, one could easily assume that Siracuse had nothing to do with Detroit’s Universal studio, and the record label designs were the only things they had “in common.” Perhaps a Detroit-based printer with an in-house artist had a monopoly on record label work; or the company that pressed the records themselves provided custom-designed labels to anyone who wished to manufacture records.

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