It's sometimes hard to understand just how humble were the beginnings of Lansing Sound Incorporated, especially in comparison to how high JBL would subsequently rise. Thanks to John Edwards, we have a first-hand witness. John worked directly with James B. Lansing for approximately a year and a half before Jim's death in 1949. From personal discussions, John was able to provide the following insight into the founding of Lansing Sound.
It seems that building speaker systems was in Jim's blood, even in his supposed retirement. While working at Altec Lansing from 1941 to 1946, Jim had the intention of eventually retiring to farming. He purchased an avocado and citrus grove in San Marcos to which he moved with his family. After leaving Altec, he attempted to begin retirement as a gentleman farmer. However, this just wasn't in Jim's character. Almost immediately, he was out in the barn building speakers for friends in the industry. This avocation quickly became a vocation as Jim started a new company - Lansing Sound Incorporated. It was originally located on the farm, with the barn becoming the "plant". Family members were soon recruited into winding coils and forming cones. It was the realization that a viable business would have to be located nearer to labor and markets that led to the move to Los Angeles within a year.
There was one aspect of Jim's gentleman farming that stayed with him. That was his love of home grown avocados. John remembers, "very seldom would he take the time out to leave the plant to eat. He would cut an avocado in two, take out the pit, scrape the meat out with a spoon and leave the shell, which we would find all over the place."
Jim was known for staying overnight at the plant and working through the evenings. Weekends were primarily reserved for time with the family, back in San Marcos. Even there, he couldn't completely separate work from his home life. John states, "On Monday morning he would bring in a new D208 voice coil fixture or jig or something he had spent all weekend making in the barn at San Marcos." Back at work, Jim was the heart and soul of Lansing Sound, "Jim designed and made our first voice-coil mill and enameling stack that we used until the late 1960s. Jim designed all of our first speakers and cabinets."
After Jim's death, business remained tight and John was called upon to do whatever it took to keep going. In John's words, "I did everything." He went on, "When we ran out of something I went in my car to Ducommun Metals and Andrew's Hardware or the lumber yard to get it. I took parts to the plater for plating on my way home at night and picked them up on my way in the next morning. Also, I would load all of the parcel post packages and mail in my car each night and take them to the Glendale Post Office - we shipped a lot of speakers by parcel post in those days. What I couldn't finish during the day, I would come back evenings to finish..."
"On many Saturday mornings I delivered speakers from the trunk of my car to local dealers such as Dow Radio in Pasadena and Valley Electronics in the Valley, Henry Radio and Kierulff and wait for their checks. We had one phone between us and whoever got there first answered it. I still did all the paper work in the office, typed my own letters. Bill Thomas would write them in longhand and I would type them. Our office had just about enough room for two desks and that was about it. We didn't even have enough room for a visitor's chair."
If dealing with production and sales issues was not work enough, John had the added headaches of cash flow problems with both suppliers and employees, "Vendors were having to wait longer and longer. Arnold Engineering and Hawley Products carried us for almost a year. A good deal of my time was spent in talking to vendors and telling them - not to worry about a thing - that everything was going to be all right... Sometimes we had to hold over paychecks a few days before we could cash them. I remember Howard Weiser's [an original employee] wife calling many times. She was very unhappy and threatening to make Howard go out and find a good job that paid real money." Howard eventually stayed with JBL for 21 years in addition to the 15 years he had spent at Lansing Manufacturing.
This hard work and perseverance would pay off. John relates, "James B. Lansing Sound grew and prospered under the leadership of Bill Thomas. Soon we were hiring more and more people and renting more and more space. I spent a lot of my time looking for more stores to rent. We made several large shipments of speakers to RCA." Quite telling are the following corporate sales figures:
During the 1950s, John would become the first vice-president of James B. Lansing Sound and Bill Thomas's right-hand-man, running the company in his absence. The rest, as they say, is history. We have John to thank for recording a vital piece of that history.
© 2000 Don McRitchie