The NBC Chimes Museum A Celebration Of Old–Time Radio’s Most Famous Signature
Sounds (and Sights) of the NBC Chimes
Part One: Announcements and Hand–Sounded Dinner Chimes
National Defense Test Day Program, Broadcast on September 12, 1924, illustrating the cumbersome method of announcing each participating station. It was the length of this practice that led to the use of a chime signal instead. This is from a linecheck recorded by Western Electric, whose parent company owned WEAF and the Broadcasting Company of America, over whose network this was broadcast. It is most likely an early electrical recording.
WSB three note chimes, rung by Lambdin Kay. This is an acoustic talking machine record recorded by Columbia on January 29, 1925. The chime used is a Deagan No. 200 dinner chime. The notes are E G C.
1929–1930 Seven Note Sequence
Edison Lights Golden Jubilee, broadcast October 21, 1929. The earliest known recording of NBC chimes in any form. Aircheck recorded from WJZ New York, flagship station of NBC’s Blue Network, although the program itself was broadcast from 7:30 PM to 8:30 PM Eastern Time on both the Red and Blue Networks of NBC. The program was a remote broadcast from Dearborn, Michigan, but the chimes were likely rung in New York. The announcer giving the NBC network cue is Graham McNamee. The WJZ station identification is most likely given by Milton Cross.
Coca–Cola Top Notchers, synchronization break for mid–program station ID. Aircheck from WEEI Boston, March 26, 1930. This program was carried over NBC’s Red Network, and originated from WEAF in New York.
Both instances of the seven–note sequence are played on a Deagan No. 200 dinner chime. Notes are Low G, C, High G, and E, followed by a repeat of Low G, C, and E. The final E is impossible to hear in the 1930 instance, and in the 1929 instance it sounds as though several chime plates are struck together at the end to form a chord.
1931 Five and Three Note Sequences
WTMJ Local Chime ID, broadcast February 4, 1931. This is a four–note local identification played on a Deagan No. 400 dinner chime. Notes are A♭ C E♭ C.
Wendell Hall, The Pineapple Picador, broadcast over WTMJ Milwaukee on February 4, 1931 and actually taken from the same recording that contains the WTMJ local chime sequence. A Deagan No. 200 dinner chime is used. Notes are High G, Low G, E, C, C. According to historian Rich Samuels, this program was carried over NBC’s Red Network, and originated from WMAQ in Chicago. Contemporary advertising, however, seems to indicate that all Libby’s radio programming was done over the NBC Blue Network.
Mary Hale Martin’s Household Period, a cooking program broadcast on an unknown date (but most likely January or February) in 1931. Aircheck recorded from WBZ–WBZA, NBC Blue Affiliates in Boston/East Springfield. A Deagan No. 200 dinner chime is used. Notes are High G, Low G, E, C, C. This program originated from Chicago, most likely from WENR. According to a 1931 advertisement for Libby’s pineapple, Mary Hale Martin’s Household Period aired on Wednesdays at 10 AM Eastern Time, 9 AM Central Time, “over WJZ and associated N. B. C. stations”, which would make it an NBC Blue Network program.
The Lucky Strike Hour, broadcast November 3, 1931. Walter Winchell introduces “that fella with the chimmies” announcing the synchronization break. This is the earliest known recording of the three–note NBC chime. Aircheck recorded from WEAF New York. A Deagan No. 20 dinner chime is used. Notes are C A F. Network announcer who rang the chimes and gave the local WEAF ID is believed to be Alwyn Bach.
The Black and Gold Room Orchestra, broadcast date unknown but most likely sometime in mid to late 1931. The program was broadcast on Tuesday nights at 6:00 PM Eastern over the NBC Red Network, and originated from the Black and Gold Room of the Central Park Casino, a high–society nightclub that catered to the millionaire crowd from its establishment under Mayor Walker in 1929 until its closure and demolition to make way for the Mary Harriman Rumsey Playground under Mayor LaGuardia in 1935. (SummerStage occupies the site today.) Aircheck recorded from WEAF New York. A Deagan No. 20 dinner chime is used. Notes are C A F.
1932–1933 Three Note Sequence
Amos and Andy, broadcast on March 24, 1932. Originating at WMAQ, Chicago, this aircheck was recorded from WJZ New York on a Victor home recording blank. A Deagan No. 20 dinner chime is used. Notes are C A F.
The Canada Dry Program, starring Jack Benny. Broadcast over NBC Blue on May 2, 1932. Aircheck recorded from WJZ New York. A Deagan No. 20 dinner chime is used. Notes are C A F. This was for years the oldest known recording of the three–note NBC chimes, thus its inclusion here. The program originated in New York.
Hollywood On The Air. An example of the hand–struck NBC Chimes as they sounded on national broadcasts emanating from the West Coast. This example dates from September 30, 1933, and were probably sounded from NBC’s studios on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. A Deagan No. 20 dinner chime is used. Notes are C A F.
Until 1942, NBC’s West Coast switching operation was located in San Francisco. NBC had a token presence in Hollywood from 1932, but its programs were fed on a special link to the Chicago switching complex. Hollywood did not become a full–fledged point of origin with switching capability until 1937 when NBC expanded network operations along the West Coast.
NBC Announcer Kelvin Keech strikes the three tone NBC Chimes on the Deagan No 20 Dinner Chime. Clip from the 1933 Paramount short Captain Henry’s Radio Show, which gave movie audiences “a picturization” of the popular radio program Maxwell House Show Boat, but without any references to Maxwell House Coffee—and, curiously, with no appearance by Captain Henry in his own film! (Actual release date is unknown, but the film was copyrighted on August 9, 1933.)
1944 The Fourth Chime
The Fourth Chime on D–Day, first occurrance. From NBC live coverage of D–Day, June 6, 1944. This four chime signal was flashed at 3:19 AM to prepare news personnel for the developing story of the D–Day invasion. A Deagan No. 400 dinner chime is used, and an inverted signal of C E♭ A♭ A♭ is sounded. The final note continues in a loop due to circuit feedback, which created an unintended reverberation pattern.
The Fourth Chime on D–Day, second occurrance. From NBC live coverage of D–Day, June 6, 1944. This signal was sent at 3:29 AM, immediately before the Morse Code “V For Victory” signal was sent—a confidential code confirming that the D–Day invasion had actually begun. A Deagan No. 400 dinner chime is used; the A♭ chime plate is struck four times.
The Fourth Chime on November 24, 1944, opening The Fourth Chime, a special NBC News program highlighting the use of The Fourth Chime as a signal during five years of coverage of the Second World War. The custom three–note handheld chime is used. Notes are G E C C.
The Fourth Chime on November 24, 1944, closing The Fourth Chime, a special NBC News program highlighting the use of The Fourth Chime as a signal during five years of coverage of the Second World War. The custom three–note handheld chime is used. Notes are G E C C.
Part Two: The Rangertone Chimes Machine
and the Electronic Chimes
The Texaco Fire Chief, starring Ed Wynn. This is believed to be the earliest recording of the Rangertone Chimes machine. The aircheck dates from October 18, 1932. The program originated in New York.
The Rangertone Chimes. Invented and built by Captain Richard Ranger and his Rangertone Corporation, with technical modifications by NBC Engineers. This very clear example is taken from a linecheck recording of the NBC Chimes in New York from 1937.
The Rangertone Chimes, taken from a linecheck recorded April 25, 1948. This has less surface noise, but the chimes themselves seem less distinct.
The all–electronic chimes, which were developed by NBC engineer J. L. Hathaway for outdoor NBC Chimes installations, and used vacuum tubes rather than a mechanical mechanism to produce their sound. They went into occasional use in 1941, alternating with the Rangertone chimes. By the late 1950s these had completely replaced the Rangertone chimes on network broadcasts, as they were cheaper to procure and simpler to maintain. This example is from a linecheck recorded January 25, 1953.
“Buy War Bonds”. The Sonovox system, in which the output of a sound recording is routed to a throat–contact microphone worn by an announcer, was used to set the phrase “Buy War Bonds” to the famous NBC Chimes. In this case, the electronic version of the chimes, whose speed could be controlled, was used. This example was broadcast on January 24, 1944.
Part Three: Modern Recordings of Classic Chimes
Hand–Struck Deagan Dinner Chimes
The WSB chime, as sounded by Lambdin Kay in 1922
The Seven Note NBC Chime as heard in 1929
The Seven Note NBC Chime as heard in 1930
The Five Note NBC Chime as heard in 1931
All of the above were played by me on a Deagan No. 200 dinner chime.
The Three Note NBC Chime as heard from 1931 to 1933, played by me on a Deagan No. 20 dinner chime
The (inverted and single–note) Fourth Chime as heard on D–Day, June 6, 1944, played by me on a Deagan No. 400 dinner chime
The Fourth Chime (preceded by the normal three–chime notes) as heard during their eponymous program on November 24, 1944, played by me on the custom three–note Deagan dinner chime
The Rangertone Chimes Machine
Perhaps the only known video of the Rangertone Chimeless Chimes in operation at NBC. Aired May 12, 1986 to commemorate NBC’s 60th anniversary year.
The Rangertone Chimes Machine as normally heard, with the signal damped after the last note sounds. Digital audio recording made in 2010 by Mark Aceto
The Rangertone Chimes Machine with harmonic damping disabled, leaving the notes to decay naturally. This was done by actually disconnecting the motor after the last note was struck, so you’ll hear a slight blip when that happened. Digital audio recording made in 2010 by Mark Aceto
The NBC Chimes In Popular Culture
Films and Commercial Recordings
“Radio Riot”, a Max Fleischer Talkartoon originally released by Paramount on February 13, 1930. About 30 seconds into this cartoon, right as the title cards end, the camera irises in on a radio speaker horn that gives off the seven–note NBC chimes—absolute proof that, at least in New York where Fleischer cartoons were made, the public was presumed to be familiar with the NBC chime sequence of that period. (The title sequence song is a play on the “How Do You Do, Everybody, How Do You Do?” theme song used by Billy Jones and Ernest Hare; its lyrics were regularly adjusted to reflect their current sponsor, but always ended with “how do you doodle–doodle–doodle–doodle–do?”.)
“Crosby, Columbo and Vallee”, a song bemoaning the popularity of radio crooners Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, and Rudy Vallee. This version was recorded by Dick Robertson and His Orchestra (vocalist Dick Robertson singing with American Record Company’s in–house studio musicians) on December 11, 1931, and released as Perfect 12772B (MX 11063–3). The song ends cold, and then the three C A F notes are played—demonstrating that the public was expected to understand the aural reference to NBC’s three–note chime even though it had been in use for less than a year by that point.
“Announcer’s Blues”, written by Frankie Trumbauer and Harold Stokes. This version is by Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra and features Tram soloing on his C–melody saxophone and a trombone solo by Jack Teagarden. The song has the G E C notes running as a theme throughout. Victor 25404 (MX BS–94197–1), recorded September 7, 1935
“N.B.C. Polka”, written by Kurt Maier and recorded by Joe Biviano with the RCA Victor Accordion Orchestra. It was issued as RCA Victor 20–3388–A with a violet label indicating a specialty series; beyond that, I have next to no information about the composition or the record.
Self–Referential Appearances On NBC Radio
“I Love You (Three Little Tones)”—I don’t think anybody knows what this is actually called; nothing even resembling a possible title turns up in ASCAP’s ACE database. It’s very clearly a paean to the three–note NBC Chimes, but other than a general presumption that it dates from the early 1930s (early enough to be using C A F for the “three little tones”), nothing else is known. Not the singer, not the orchestra, not the circumstances. This could be from a broadcast, but I’m more inclined to believe it was some sort of demo or test recording done in New York, either at NBC or at Victor.
That this song was known about in the 1970s is evident by the fact that it opened the first episode of Season Four of "Saturday Night Live" on October 7, 1978. Garrett Morris sang the vocal, with backing by Laraine Newman, Jane Curtin, and Gilda Radner. Musical director Howard Shore (yes, that Howard Shore) conducted the orchestra and most likely arranged the piece for SNL.
The NBC Chimes were sometimes referred to as “bells”, as heard on this excerpt from The Circle, a roundtable program sponsored by Kellogg’s that ran on NBC from January 15, 1939 until July 9, 1939. The program presented itself as a club, with various members (all luminaries of stage and screen) taking turns as officers; in this excerpt from January 22, 1939, after the chimes sound at the half–hour synchronization break, President Ronald Colman calls on Beadle Cary Grant to explain the reason the “bells” exist. Cary Grant explains that it’s to provide the station identification required by law, and then sings the pertinent FCC regulation to the accompaniment of the orchestra, which is conducted by Robert Emmett Dolan. Carole Lombard chimes in, so to speak, at the end.
Special thanks to: (in alphabetical order)
- Mark Aceto for providing direct–output digital recordings of his Rangertone NBC Chimes Machine.
- Jerry Beck for preserving and uploading the video of “Radio Riot”.
- Dr. Michael Biel for sound clips of National Defense Test Day, WSB Atlanta, Edison Lights Golden Jubilee, and Mary Hale Martin; for 78 RPM transfers of “Announcer’s Blues” and “N.B.C. Polka”, and for uploading the video of the NBC Chimes Machine in operation circa 1986.
- Bud Black for the 78 RPM transfer of “Crosby, Columbo, and Vallee”.
- Tracy Carman and the Media Preservation Foundation for sound clips of NBC’s Fourth Chime from November 1944.
- Richard Irwin of the ReelRadio Repository, for breaking the song “I Love You (Three Little Tones)” to the world. Since his site is the only one that gives any provenance, I’m presuming that any instance of it occurring on any other website—including this one—can be traced back to ReelRadio.
- David Lennick for the sound clip of the Black and Gold Room Orchestra.
- Elizabeth McLeod for sound clips of Coca–Cola Top Notchers, WTMJ, Wendell Hall, The Lucky Strike Hour, Amos & Andy, The Canada Dry Program, The Fire Chief Program, Hollywood On The Air, and the Rangertone Chimes from 1937.
- Kim Scarborough, whose Dinosaur Gardens blogpost yielded Cary Grant’s singing of a set of FCC regulations following the sounding of the Chimes in 1939.