Playing Around with Chuck Miller
Bremner “Musical Multiplication Records” and other Classroom Educational Tools

An original boxed copy of “Musical Multiplication Tables,” complete with recorded fife, trumpet and clarinet melodies – and the warblings of “Famous Recording Artist, Radio and Television Star” Billy Leach.
An original boxed copy of “Musical Multiplication Tables,” complete with recorded fife, trumpet and clarinet melodies – and the warblings of “Famous Recording Artist, Radio and Television Star” Billy Leach.

I have a theory about record collecting. It was a theory I once postulated when I wrote for the music collector’s magazine Goldmine many years ago. It starts when our parents buy us our very first 45s. They might have a label on them like Disneyland or Peter Pan or Cricket, but these records were our treasure troves as we grew up. These were the records we could play on the big phonograph when our parents were done listening to their Limelighters or Chad Mitchell Trio or “Sing Along With Mitch” albums. And we could sing along with the songs too – all the Disney songs like “Heigh-Ho,” or “Cruella De Vil,” or “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah,” or the very same “knock-off” recordings from the Cricket or Simon Says labels.

In my first “Playing Around” column a year ago, I wrote of a children’s music collectible called the Show ‘n Tell Phonoviewer, a combination phonograph and slideshow projector, complete with the “Picturesound” recordings playable and inherent thereto. This time, however, I want to take you to the classroom, because there too you will find records, cassettes and other listening materials - all designed to benefit your cognitive abilities.

Over the years, there has been a rise in collecting “school-related educational materials.” Much of the learning tools available for children in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were items that one would find in the “open classroom,” where instead of your teacher lecturing on reading, writing and arithmetic for four hours before recess, and for three hours after that, the teacher might have specialized reading or listening materials available for children to improve their mental stabilities.

In 1957, a company called Science Research Associates (SRA) created a special Reading Laboratory Kit for classrooms, allowing teachers to provide students with individual reading materials geared toward their skill levels, along with comprehension cards so that the students could be quizzed on what they read. Each of the reading materials were color-coded for student ability – a student with some reading difficulty or comprehension might start off with a “red” or “orange” title, while students who were better able to understand what they read might get a “blue” or “aqua” title to look over. After the book was read, the teacher might ask questions about the title – and if the pupil got enough of the answers right to prove to the teacher that they had indeed been studying the text, the student received a good grade, a gold star on a “progress board” set up inside the classroom and the eternal taunts of “bookworm” and “teacher’s pet” from classmates for the rest of the week.

An “answer key” to an SRA Reading test. With this key, the teachers could put together a simple quiz for students who read whatever SRA books were available for their color-coded level.  This also had the side benefit of enlightening kids to the benefit of Cliff's Notes in the future.
An “answer key” to an SRA Reading test. With this key, the teachers could put together a simple quiz for students who read whatever SRA books were available for their color-coded level. This also had the side benefit of enlightening kids to the benefit of Cliff's Notes in the future.

Another item for the classroom was a series of adaptations of Newberry-Award winning children's novels. Teachers could pop a cassette into a player, and suddenly the classroom would resonate with a full radio performance of such classics as The Cricket in Times Square, The Trumpeter of Krakow and Amos Fortune, Free Man. Many of these cassettes today are worn and brittle, and often have stamps or markings from school classrooms and libraries.

One of the unique children’s classroom tools that I recall – and was glad to find many years ago at a yard sale – brought me back to my days as an elementary school student in upstate New York. Since my third-grade teacher often needed a break from screaming 8-year-olds, she pulled out this box of records and hooked up an industrial-strength phonograph with a built-in monaural speaker that had two settings – loud and louder. Being the record collector that I was at the time, I thought we were going to hear some Disney music or stuff from Romper Room.

No, instead the records the teacher played were part of a teaching guide called “Musical Multiplication Tables.” The concept was that if you sang along with the narrator on the records, you would learn your times tables by memory. In fact, during math tests later in the day, I swore I heard kids humming the song as they tried to remember the multiplication lyrics. Okay, this wasn’t the same as “Three is a Magic Number” from the Schoolhouse Rock TV series, but at least we didn’t need a melody to memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, like those kids in the other classroom.

The discs were created by a company near Chicago called "Bremner Multiplication Records, Inc.” Originally custom-manufactured by RCA and sold to schools in 1956, the boxed set consisted of six seven-inch small-holed 78’s (although some copies exist in 45 and 33 RPM formats), with each disc side featuring actor-singer Billy Leach as he ran through the drill of multiplication. Also included were some flash cards, advertising for a box of phonics records, and some testimonials from parents, teachers and principals about the discs.

First Leach would sing some goofy song about memorizing a specific times table. Check out these lyrics:
If parakeets can learn to talk
And cats can have nine lives
I'm sure that you are smart enough
To learn the Table of 5s
Then Billy would sing the table of 5s, while you tried to sing along. Trust me – this guy was no Johnny Mathis. Then he would do the times tables again – but this time, he'd leave the answers blank. We poor children had to sing the responses before Billy went to the next math problem, or you’d have to start the record all over again.

The price for these discs was pretty steep at the time – $9.95 for six records and 11 quiz cards – but as the box said, by 1956 it was used in over 1000 schools and in thousands of homes. And just listen to the testimonials in each package! “Our children like the records and are taking new interest in learning their Multiplication Tables,” said A. Blair-Owens, then the principal of Lewistown (Pa.) Elementary School. “Your records have a unique teaching approach ... an excellent investment for schools and parents.”

Somebody out there must have liked the discs, as they stayed in print throughout the 1960s and 1970s (Capitol Records took over the pressing of the discs in the 1960s, and the format was changed to five small-holed seven-inch 45s, although the tracks remained the same). Within ten years, Bremner boasted that the discs were now in over 60,000 schools and over 150,000 homes. Bremner's advertising also proclaimed that the multiplication discs were great for the “New Math” programs that were part of the 1960s school curricula.

Bremner ended production of the discs in the early 1970s, for reasons unknown to this day. Perhaps television shows like “Schoolhouse Rock” found a new way to teach kids their times tables – which would you rather have, Blossom Dearie explaining that figure eight is a double four, or Billy Leach singing “In days of old, the pirates bold / Buried Pieces of Eight with pleasure / But when you learn the Table of Eight / You’ll have a richer treasure!”

A few years after I re-acquired these corny classics, I tried to test them out. Not being a licensed teacher myself, I decided to “home-school” my seven-year-old daughter Cassaundra with these records, hopefully to help her grades get above water – or at least above C (sea) level. We barely got through the first record, the table of 2s, before Cassaundra’s older sister Sonya started teasing about how much trouble Cassie was having with the times tables. And of course, when big sister starts teasing little sister, little sister can cause damage to something of big sister’s – and then it’s on. Somehow I don't think Billy Leach ever anticipated that.

Surprisingly, these discs have found a home with music collectors, as well as kitsch lovers and remixers, who can use Billy Leach’s lock-step singing as part of a rap track or breakbeat. The 1950s RCA versions of “Musical Multiplication Tables” are harder to find, and can run as high as $40-$50 with all the flash cards, advertisements and testimonials intact. The more recent Capitol series is worth about $10-$15 with all the paper information included. Be aware that these prices are for near-mint condition copies of “Musical Multiplication Tables,” as most copies out there have gone through several years of classroom torture - er - um - educational use.

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