ARTHUR FRANCIS COLLINS (born February 7, 1864; died August 3, 1933) was a product of the minstrel tradition and was a leading dialect comedy singer of the era. He was known for singing "coon" and "ragtime" songs in black dilect. Perhaps more than any other acoustic era artist, Collins recorded many numbers by black songwriters such as Bert Williams. Collins was the first to record the song that would become Bert Williams' signature song, "Nobody."
His collaboration with Byron G. Harlan was one of the most successful in recording history. A versatile baritone, he was also a member of the Peerless Quartet (1906-1917).
His 1905 Edison recording of "The Preacher and the Bear" is alleged to be the first recording to sell two million copies and the bigest hit of all time until 1920.
Biographical sources: "Billy Murray, The Phonograph Industry's First Great Recording Artist" by Hoffmann, Carty, & Riggs; "The Encyclopedia of Popular American Recording Pioneers: 1895-1925" by Tim Gracyk
Jeffrey Lichtman assembled the following Arthur Collins insight. (Enjoy Jeff's "Swazoo Koolak's Web Jukebox" at http://www.dnai.com/~swazoo/) Turtle shares this with Jeff's approval.
Arthur Collins was born in Philadelphia on February 7, 1864 (which means he was born while the American Civil War was still being fought). He was the oldest of ten children. When he was seventeen, his parents sent him from New Jersey (where they were then living) back to Philadelphia for voice lessons. He joined a couple of touring companies (which failed), and also sang opera. His first real success was with Francis Wilson, with whom he toured for ten years.
Collins married in 1895, and retired from music for a while. It's likely that he wanted to remain close to his wife, and he may also have wanted more respectability for his family (in those days, musicians were thought by most people to be low-lifes). He eventually returned to music, and went to work for the De Wolf Hopper Company. In 1898, Collins got an invitation from the Edison company to make a trial recording. It is important to know that, in those days, recorded sound was still fairly new. Today, just about every performer records, and most people have the ability to play music in some form in their homes and cars, but before the turn of the twentieth century, most people did not have record players in their homes. So, an invitation to record with the biggest company in the business was not as big a deal in 1898 as it would be today.
Most of Collins' recordings were of "coon songs", which were black dialect songs. That is, they were sung by white performers putting on black stage accents. Most of these songs are embarrassing by today's standards - no record company would release these types of numbers today, and anyone trying to perform them live would be hooted off the stage before the end of the first number.At the time, though, few people saw anything wrong with these types of songs. I'm sure that, a hundred years from now, people will look back with dismay at some of our current popular entertainment.
Collins' biggest solo hit was The Preacher and the Bear, which he first recorded in 1905. He recorded it several times for different labels. He also teamed with Byron G. Harlan on many recordings, and recorded as part of the Peerless Quartet (one of the most prolific of the male quartets that were so popular up through the teens). Collins retired in 1926, and moved to Florida, where he died in 1933.
This page was updated on March 22, 2001