Fred Van Eps was probably the greatest banjoist on early records, notwithstanding stiff competition in the acoustic era from artists such as Vess L. Ossman and Olly Oakley. In acoustic recording, the banjo was a popular, mainstream instrument, and often utilized on early records due to its clear, penetrating tone. A New Jersey native, Van Eps was not quite 20 years of age when he purchased his first phonograph in 1896, primarily so that he could hear records made by his idol, Vess L. Ossman. Within a year, he was using this phonograph to make his own home recordings on wax cylinder blanks, and in 1897, Van Eps approached the Edison company to make records with them. Although his early Edison cylinders sold well, Van Eps was comparatively slow in breaking into the business of recording on disc -- his first Columbia appeared in 1904, and his first Victor record, "The Burglar Buck," did not appear until 1910. The latter title moved many copies for Victor, and in the ensuing decade, Van Eps was so popular that he was able to work for just about any record label in America, with the Victors outselling the records he made for other companies.
In 1912, Van Eps formed the Van Eps Trio with pianist Felix Arndt and his brother Bill Van Eps. This group would comprise the core of the furious recording activity that would keep Fred Van Eps very busy in the decade to follow. Although the size of his groups never exceeded five persons, his records came out under a variety of identities: Van Eps Banjo Orchestra, Van Eps Quartet, Van Eps Specialty Four, and others. Through his groups came musicians such as percussionists George Hamilton Green and Eddie King, saxophonists Nathan Glantz and Rudy Wiedoeft, and particularly pianist Frank Banta, whom on some records was co-billed with Van Eps as the Van Eps-Banta Trio. In 1921 the Van Eps Trio was the subject of the earliest known filmed popular music performance with synchronized sound, the short subject A Bit of Jazz made by talking picture pioneer O.T. Kellum.
From around 1922 Van Eps began to slacken his recording activity. He had entered into a partnership with a touring group of Victor artists, and a number of them chipped in seed money to manufacture a special type of banjo Van Eps had invented. Nevertheless, the venture was a failure, and the advent of electrical recording in 1925 and the concurrent decline of ragtime music dealt a mortal blow to Van Eps' popularity. He made his last 78s for Grey Gull in 1927, but in the 30 years Van Eps had already been recording he had managed to produce hundreds of individual titles that may well number over a thousand issues.
Van Eps returned to recording for his own 5 String Banjo label starting in 1950, producing his last album in 1956, making his 59-year span of recording activity one of the longest in history. Although in sheer technical terms Van Eps surpassed Ossman -- Van Eps could play 14 notes in a second -- many ragtime fanciers prefer the crude muscularity of Ossman's performances. Van Eps also never approached the harmonic complexity of his younger contemporary Harry Reser, and unlike Reser had no interest in sinking into the texture of a jazz band, preferring to work primarily as a soloist. His son, George Van Eps, learned on banjo, but later traded it in and became one of the great pioneers of jazz guitar. George was still recording when the hundredth anniversary of his father's first recordings came around in 1997. ~ Uncle Dave Lewis