It’s no joke: one of the best-selling records in the world in 1923 was the recording of a man and a woman, both Germans, laughing their heads off, as the sad notes of a cornet play in the background. We’re talking about the legendary Okeh Laughing Record. Although it was released without crediting an author or performers, and as such the information in that regard is scarce and inexact, there is some amount of agreement that the recording was made one amusing 6th day of August, 1920 in Berlina, and that it was released in Spring of 1923. The woman laughing was the opera singer Lucie Bernardo; her cackling partenaire was the musician Otto Rathke, and the honor of tunelessly rendering a popular German piece from the day – called “Jugendzeit” (Youth) – on the cornet fell to Felix Silbers. You have got to hear this:
This hilarious recording – which, all joking aside, climbed to the 8th spot on the Billboard charts in the U.S. – was published by OKeh Records. With financial backing from Carl Lindström, a German who owned a number of record labels all over Europe, it was Otto K.E. Heinemann who founded – and put his initials on – Okeh Records in 1918, the same year he opened his own recording studio in New York and a factory for impressing gramophone recordings (the first sound recording system that worked using disks, as opposed to the phonograph that recorded on cylinders). Initially, Heinemann specialized in publishing popular dance music and recordings of vaudeville shows. Then he started catering to the German, Czechoslovakian, Polish, Swedish and Ashkenazi immigrant communities. In 1920 he scored an unexpected smash hit nationwide with “Crazy Blues” by the singer Mamie Smith. By 1926 – when Okeh was sold to Columbia – it had made its mark as a leading label in the blues and jazz market. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Bix Beiderbecke recorded for them and, moving into the 1950s, we find that Okeh was behind a number of classics like “Cry” by Johnnie Ray or "I Put a Spell on You" by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
The Okeh Laughing Record isn’t just one of the strangest rarities to have made a place for itself on the charts; it also paved the way for an entire subgenre of laughing records. Here are a few illustrious examples which, played one after another, help us explore the hazy boundaries between contagious laughter and madness.
The Laughing Record was released by Puritan (a Paramount sub-label), also in 1923. In this case, the usual cornet or trumpet is replaced by a trombone.
The laughing record trend also made its way to the United Kingdom. In 1925 Parlaphone published its own Laughing Record (That Kruschen Feeling). And if the phenomenon didn’t seem quite weird enough, you should know that the B side is a recording of the military march “The Washington Post”.
In 1946 Spike Jones, the satirical musician from California, and his orchestra, the City Slickers, brought back the subgenre with The Jones Laughing Record, adding a little piano and sneezing to the old formula created by their predecessors in the 1920s.
If you want to take a deeper look into the subgenre of laughing, there’s nothing better than listening to the compilation created by Ian Nagoski, a collector from Baltimore who restores old 78s and releases them under the label Canary Records. His short history of the Okeh Laughing Record also touches on collateral phenomena like recordings of sobbing or “contagious coughing”.