The Most Recorded Artist Of All Time (Isn't Who We Thought)
Who is the most recorded musician of all time?
We're not asking the best-selling artist of all time (probably The Beatles). We're asking which artist was responsible for the most individual recordings—multiple copies of the same recording don’t count. We're also not asking about which musician's work has been recorded the most by others. We don't care if 100,000 people have done Beethoven or their own covers of that one Chainsmokers song, we're only looking for professional recordings for sale directly made of the artist's own voice.
For a while, the Guinness Book of World Records listed Indian singer Lata Mangeshkar, who started singing in the '40s and is still alive today. She recorded thousands of different songs, but the exact number is disputed, and Guinness eventually removed her listing. They now list as the record holder another Indian woman, P. Susheela, but we think we have someone who has them both beat.
George W. Johnson, a 19th-century singer, was one of the first recording stars. Before the 1890s, music companies sold sheet music, since no one had yet invented audio recording. Once the phonograph came along, it took a while for any singer to become famous. Mostly, the early companies would just grab random people for renditions of known songs. Johnson, however, was huge. The two best-selling songs of 1895 were both by him. With just those two songs, Johnson sold at least 25,000 records and maybe as many as 50,000.
Now, we said before we were looking for the most individual recordings by an artist, not copies of the same recorded song. But that's what was so surprising about Johnson's career. At the very start of the recording industry, they hadn't yet figured out how to copy songs. Singers sang, they recorded the music directly to a wax cylinder, and they sold the cylinder. So to sell 50,000-odd records, Johnson had to record 50,000 individual cylinders, singing the same song over and over, sometimes hundreds of times a day.
Often, multiple phonographs would record Johnson at once. But this too was a challenge. No one had yet figured out how to amplify sound, so a musician normally had to sing directly into the photograph funnel. To record five cylinders at once, you need a powerful, booming voice. Johnson was a triple threat: He sang, he whistled, and he had the physical strength necessary to fill a recording studio.
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