The bespoke recording apparatus that Milman Parry took to Yugoslavia in the summer of 1935 – manufactured by Sound Specialties Inc of Waterbury, Connecticut, it had two turntables and a toggle for switching instantaneously between them – got me wondering about the history of such devices. Parry used his equipment for recording rather than playback, but it’s the same principle that later allowed generations of DJs to keep a dancefloor grooving indefinitely.
Walter Winchell coined the term ‘disc jockey’ to describe the work of Martin Block, who started playing records on New York radio in early 1935 – around the time that Parry would have been preparing for his second trip to Yugoslavia – to keep listeners entertained as they waited for updates on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Block’s Make Believe Ballroom played only one record at a time.
Bob Casey started playing with two decks in New York in 1958: DJs with one turntable would be ‘talking while the record’s dropping on the repeater’, he told an interviewer in 1999, ‘and that went on until me, when I had two turntables with me.’ He’d never heard of anyone else doing it before him, he said, though he ‘was born and raised in New York’ and didn’t ‘know if some guy did it in California’.
Casey had predecessors on the other side of the Atlantic even though he didn’t know it. Régine Zylberberg began working as a hat-girl at Whisky à Gogo in Paris in 1953: ‘I took off the jukebox and I put two machines together and I was the first disc jockey,’ she told Elle in 2011. But in fact she’d been pre-empted – though there’s no reason she should have been aware of it – by less glamorous operators across the English Channel.
Jimmy Savile boasted in a 1970s autobiography that he’d been the first DJ to use two turntables for continuous play, but that seems to have been just another, if the least, of his many lies. Ron Diggins of Boston, Lincolnshire, has a better documented claim, as the creator in the late 1940s of a mobile DJ booth known as the Diggola, which included a double turntable among its attractions.
DJs like Diggins would use their twin decks simply to play one tune after another without having to pause to change the record. DJ Kool Herc is generally recognised as the first, in the Bronx in the early 1970s, to have used a double turntable to mix instrumental breaks from different records to create new tunes.
Using record players as instruments goes back at least as far as John Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939), which calls for two turntables (as well as a muted piano and a cymbal) but they aren’t connected and each is played by a different musician.
One place you could have found a double turntable before Parry asked Sound Specialties Inc to make one for him was at a movie theatre. The Film Daily Year Book for 1929 lists all kinds of contraption – one with as many as six connected turntables (the Duplex-O-Phone) – to play the soundtracks to talkies, though the technology soon became obsolete as sound-on-disc was replaced by sound-on-film.
Perhaps trying to discover who invented the double turntable is asking the same kind of question as who wrote the Iliad.