Impresario has found the future -- in Camden's legendary musical past

Graham Alexander, the impresario of  Victor Talking Machine Co., places a silvery metal master platter on a special turntable.

The machine’s backward spin may seem an apt metaphor for an enterprise aiming to emulate that legendary, and long lost, Camden company.

But the 27-year-old entrepreneur, and the firm he revived in 2011, are all about the future.

“Our goal,” Alexander says, “is to create a music industry that operates almost entirely outside the current music industry.”

He envisions building “a vertically integrated company” to discover, nurture, and record talented newcomers, distribute their music in a variety of formats, and manufacture the turntables on which to play the vinyl versions of their work.

Alexander hopes to someday do all this in Camden -- perhaps in the former Victor Talking Machine Co. headquarters, now home to the main office of the city school district, at Front and Cooper streets.

“I’m very passionate about this,” the Haddonfield resident explains, showing me around the Vault at Victor Records on the White Horse Pike in Berlin Borough.

The building includes a live performance venue, a retail showroom, a music archive and turntable-assembly facility, and is handsomely decorated with museum-quality memorabilia  from the Victor (later, RCA-Victor) heydey.

The record covers and publicity photos on the walls attest to what truly was an epic array of talent associated with the Camden company, which recorded an enormous amount of the opera, classical, blues, jazz, and popular music heard around the world during the first half of the 20th century.

Fats Waller, Enrico Caruso, and Camden’s own pioneering crooner Russ Columbo all made records at Victor studios in the city.

“Jimmie Rodgers [a pioneering country singer] recorded the first-ever music video in Camden in 1929,”  Alexander says. “All the early Disney soundtracks had overdubs and orchestras done in Camden. Frank Sinatra signed his first recording contract in Camden.”

The scope of what the company, which operates as Victor Music Group, wants to do “is just so big,” observes Alberto Munoz, 29, a South Philly musician whom Alexander recently hired to be vice president of sales.

“It’s completely insane,” says Alexander.

The enterprise is very much a work in progress, with a youthful, artisanal, collaborative vibe; Alexander’s childhood chum, the multi-instrumentalist Zach Harski, 25, of Haddonfield, is vice president of development. The company books performers at its Berlin venue, records and releases music, builds turntables, and has four full-time and five part-time employees.

Much of the operation has been financed from Alexander’s own pocket. “I have a really tiny little apartment,” he says. “I don’t own a car.”

A singer-songwriter and Broadway veteran (he played bass in Rain, a Broadway musical), Alexander began buying Victor brands at auction six years ago, starting with a successful $1,000 initial bid for “Victrola,” a name that once was synonymous with record-players of all sorts. His portfolio also includes “His Master’s Voice” as well as the image of Nipper (who now sports earbuds in the undated logo).

Alexander grew up in Haddonfield. His dad is Fran Smith Jr., the longtime bassist with the beloved Philly rock band The Hooters.

Alexander last year released his dad’s solo record, Mystic County, on the Vault’s Odeon label -- which the original Victor company made famous.

The company is evolving and “experimental,” notes Bergen County resident Christina Sees, 32, who’s vice president of promotion and has been involved since the venture's inception.

“It’s all in Graham’s head,” she notes. “And then we tweak it.”

Indeed, Alexander -- who’s got deep musical as well as historical knowledge -- is pretty much always working on some element of the project, such as prospecting for talent.

“I really connected with him immediately,”says Greg Farnese, a jazz vocalist from Woolwich Township whose CD of standards, Set in Motion, recently was released on Victor Records.

Alexander also networks with RCA-Victor retirees, as well as with private memorabilia collectors and the Camden County Historical Society. His fans include Cherry Hill resident Fred Barnum, whose landmark history of Victor, RCA-Victor and GE, titled His Master’s Voice in America,” was published in 1991.

In an email, Barnum says he is impressed by Alexander’s “effort to preserve the important legacy … not only for the City of Camden, where it all began, but for a new generation of music lovers everywhere.”

Alexander’s enthusiasm is certainly contagious, as well as eclectic: He puts a never-released  Rachmaninoff master [“Flight of the Bumblebee”] on the reverse turntable, followed by Benny Goodman doing “Limehouse Blues,” for my enjoyment/edification.

The music is unadorned by today’s technology, and these master recordings have degraded a bit.

But the music lives and breathes, like it did when it was being made in Camden nearly 90 years ago. And like the music Victor Music Group makes will live and breathe, too.