1942 Recording King DeLuxe Hawaiian Electric and Amp

It’s fairly common today to see certain brands referred to as “department store” instruments. It was common practice through most of the 20th century for large retailers to sell anything from guitars and amps to trumpets and organs, often specially ordered with the store’s own appointments on the headstock. The most famous examples are Silvertone, which was owned by Sears, and Airline, which was owned by Montgomery Ward. Neither really manufactured their own instruments (though Sears did own the Harmony company for a few decades) but sourced everything from builders like Kay, Valco and Danelectro. So many instruments were sold under these labels that other brands (Supro, for example) are often wrongly said to have been sold in department stores. This confusion is forgivable, especially since a Supro and a Silvertone instrument might be nearly identical if they both came from the Valco factory.

While “department store” brands are generally associated with the 1950s and 1960s, the tradition goes back well into the 19th century. Chain stores might not have existed as we now know them, but music stores applied their own names to instruments long before electric instruments came along. As early as 1841, Firth, Hall and Pond of New York City applied their own name to the guitars coming out of James Ashborn’s factory. A hundred years later (but before settling on the “Airline” name), Montgomery Ward stores sold various instruments re-branded as Recording King. Not to be confused with the current line of imports, the original Recording Kings were built mainly by Regal and Gibson. Very few, such as the steel above, were built by National-Dobro/Valco.

Valco was not new to the “jobber” market; Dobro-style resonators had been built for a wide variety of outside brands since the early 1930s, and some cast-aluminum lap steels were built for Bronson in 1935 or 1936. While most of their electric instruments would be sold under their own brands until after World War II, they did build a few lap steels for Montgomery Ward. They first appeared in the 1940-1 catalog and were last seen in the 1942 catalog, depicted alongside Regal-built Spanish electrics. While this one lacks a serial number (there is no indication that it ever had one), the features are consistent with those shown in the 1942 Ward catalog as well as National steels from that year.

These steels are a unique design that blended features of various existing models. At first glance, it resembles a modified National New Yorker; the black and white top, formed of multi-layered plastic, was unique to that model. However, it has been modified: the black stripes have been shortened so that there is a white band around the tail, including a separate piece specially cut to form the center strip. The black area containing the tone control and panel is actually a separate piece that has been attached by two tacks; underneath it is more white plastic veneer. The pickup, its cover and baseplate, along with the volume control, are also identical to those found on the New Yorker, and the tuners are the same as those used on more expensive National models.

However, the rosewood fretboard with celluloid fret markers is an adaptation from lower-end steels such as the first-generation Waikiki. I say “adapted” because it has been bound in celluloid and lengthened to reach the pickup baseplate. The attached cord is generally a sign of a student-level model, as is the shape of the headstock. Then there is the body shape: one set of “stair steps” has been eliminated, giving it a more angular and blocky appearance than a New Yorker. The shape of the tail is also different than any other model, with simple rounded corners and a flat bottom. Even the case is slightly odd: it has the same shape and construction as New Yorker cases of the time, but with a black covering instead of the normal tweed fabric.

While few pre-War electric instrument models could be considered common, this steel seems to be exceptionally rare. Unable to find any documentation relating to it, I believed it was a prototype until someone sent me pages from Montgomery Ward catalogs. Valco fared better with that retailer and others in the next few decades, selling guitars, steels and amps of every kind under every name imaginable.

The matching amplifier, model 1016, was another Valco product. In fact, aside from a few cosmetic changes, this amp was identical to the National DeLuxe model 100 – the top of the National amp line between 1939 and 1941.

The Recording King 1016 was a little plainer than its cousin, lacking the National’s shield-shaped grill cover. Otherwise, the only difference was in the name on the control panel. The cabinet was left uncovered but finished in a translucent brown color. The amp ran on a pair of 6L6s, sending a whopping 16W through a 12” field-coil speaker. It had two channels, one for instruments and a higher-gain input for microphones, each with its own volume control. There was also a “special tone regulating control” – still a luxury in the early 1940s – “that will adjust the tone quality to meet the various acoustical problems that are encountered in different locations”, according to the National catalog. Perhaps coolest of all, though hardly necessary, was the back-lit control panel.

All this added up to an impressive and expensive amp in the early 1940s. While the top-of-the-line Gibson EH-185 amp was listed at $87.50, the Recording King 1016 listed for $98.00 – which should give pause to folks who associate department store brands only with cheap instruments. Like most amps of its era, the sound is warm and woolly and never quite completely clean.