Selvin, Ben(jamin B.)

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Selvin, Ben(jamin B.)

Selvin, Ben(jamin B.), American bandleader, violinist, and record executive; b. N.Y., March 14, 1898; d. Manhasset, N.Y., July 15, 1980. Selvin claimed the title of the most prolific recording artist in history, having cut 9, 000 sides in 17 years, 1917–34. The discs were recorded under a variety of different names and for various record labels. Selvin’s biggest hit was “Dardanella,” an instrumental ragtime tune that became the first dance-band record to sell approximately one million copies. But he enjoyed more than a hundred hits, enough to make him second only to Paul Whiteman as the most successful bandleader of the 1920s.

Selvin began as a violinist working for bandleader Charles Strickland, also finding a niche in handling the band’s finances. In 1917 he launched his own society dance band, starting a seven-year residency at the Moulin Rouge club in N.Y. Signed to Victor Records, he cut his first hit, “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles,” at his first recording session on July 18, 1919. Credited to “Selvin’s Novelty Orch.,” the record became a bestseller in October 1919. On Nov. 20, 1919, the orchestra recorded “Dardanella” (music by Felix Bernard and Johnny S. Black, lyrics by Fred Fisher). It became the most popular record of 1920. Selvin’s other major hits include “Yes! We Have No Bananas” (October 1923), “Oh, How I Miss You Tonight” (October 1925, as The Cavaliers), Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s “Manhattan” (November 1935, as The Knickerbockers), Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies” (April 1927), “Happy Days Are Here Again” (March 1930), and “When It’s Springtime in the Rockies” (May 1930). In all, Selvin recorded under more than a hundred names, though it must be noted that he frequently functioned as a music contractor, assembling groups for recording sessions, rather than as a musician.

Selvin gave up his career as a performer in 1934 and went to work for the newly formed Muzak company as a vice president of recording and programming. He helped the company become the leader in providing instrumental background music in public places. He moved to Columbia Records in 1947 as director of A&R, in which capacity he supervised recording sessions for Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, and others. He worked at RCA Victor from 1952 to 1963. When he retired from the company at age 65 he was presented with a gold record for “Dardanella.” He then became a consultant to the 3M audiotape manufacturing company. He was also one of the founders of Majestic Records. He died of a heart attack at age 82, survived by a wife and three children.

—William Ruhlmann