Steve Porter: Pioneering Recording Artist

Steve Porter (1864-1946) was a popular American singer and recording artist and successful entrepreneur, active from the 1890s to the 1930s. As his date of birth is not known we have chosen Indian Independence Day to post this tribute, for in the years 1902-05, Porter started one of the first recording studios in India, located in Calcutta and owned by the Nicole Frères. But this was just one accomplishment in the context of an eventful career.

Born and raised in New York City, Porter started out singing in vaudeville and working as a song plugger in the 1890s. His first group, the Diamond Comedy Four, included Albert Campbell, Jim Reynard, and Billy Jones, and began recording for various labels in 1897, often under alternate names like the Diamond Four and the Diamond Quartette. He also sang with the Greater New York Quartette (with Harding, Spencer and Depew), and performed as a solo artist, recording popular versions of Tin Pan Alley standards like “A Bird in a Gilded Cage” and “On the Banks of the Wabash”.

The early years of the 20th century were spent in entrepreneurial pursuits. With Russell Hunting, he tried to start a movie company in 1901. With members of the Haydn Quartet, he started a phonograph business. Both went bust. So he spent the next few years working in London, and setting up that Nicole business in South Asia.

In 1905 he returned to the U.S. and sang in quartets again. Through 1909 he was a member of the Peerless Quartet with Campbell, Henry Burr, and Tom Daniels. 1909-19 he belonged to the American Quartet with Billy Murray, William F. Hooley, and John Bieling, recording such hits as “Oh, You Beautiful Doll” (1911), “Moonlight Bay” (1912), “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” (1914) and “Over There” (1917). From 1906 into the 1920s he also had a flourishing solo career, often recording comical Irish bits.

In 1916, his interest in sound technology led him to create a new type of hearing aid, which he manufactured and sold through his company the Port-O-Phone Corporation, through which he made a substantial fortune.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,