Greater Syrian Diaspora at 78RPM: Albert Joseph
By: Richard Breaux/Arab America Contributing Writer
What do you do when you find several dozen 78 rpm records all in Arabic and you can neither read, nor speak the language? You research the musicians and record labels and write about them.…at least that’s what Arab America contributing writer, Richard Breaux did. The result is bound to teach you something about Arab American history and heritage in the first half of the 20th Century. Arab America highlights some of the well-known and lesser-known Arab American musicians profiled in this series. This week’s article features Arab American music legend, Albert Joseph.
Back in November 2020, we received a generous donation of about ninety 78-rpm Arabic records from retired dentist Joe Corey, who grew up in West Virginia. Mr. Corey contacted us because his friend, fellow church member, and labor lawyer, David Khorey, came across some of our Arab American musician profiles featured on the Arab America news website. Over dinner, and pleasant discussion about Arab American history, David asked me, “Do you know how people got their records?” I replied, “Some people ordered records from a catalogue and had them shipped from New York. Also, dealers likely sold records as vendors at regional SOYO meetings, mahrajan, hafla, and regional Syrian-Lebanese club conventions.” He then recalled a well-known vendor from his youth in western Pennsylvania who dressed in thobe and bisht.
“I think the record vendor went by the name ‘Prince Albert,’” David Khorey reminisced. “I am not sure what his real name was.”
“I wonder if it was Albert Rashid?” I quipped. As Rashid Sales, first in Detroit, then Manhattan, and later on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, New York, emerged as one of the biggest and best-known records sellers on the East Coast and throughout the United States. “Surely, though, if this was a part of Albert Rashid’s marketing strategies, Stanley Rashid would have mentioned it during our conversation months previously,” I reflected. Maybe it was someone else?
Within a few days, I looked over all the records Joe Corey had given me and noted the acquisitions that filled-in some spaces in my collection of Amer & Sana Kadaj 78s. It was then I spotted a dealer’s stamp on an Amer & Sana Kadaj record previously owned by eastern Pennsylvania record collector, Frank Dalton, on social media. Dealer stamps are both more and less permanent than traditional dealer stickers, yet they, too, can reveal information about a record’s previous life or about how 78 rpm records circulated among and between Arab American communities in the 1950s.
There a stamp, slightly askew, on this copy of Alamphon #2074 Boudak Anni read, “Albert Joseph, Arabic Records, 1306 Hamilton Street, New Castle, PA.” Was this the guy David remembered?
Seemed possible considering the story was about a record seller in western Pennsylvania, and, hey, this was a person named Albert who ran a record store. The only part that didn’t quite align is that Frank Dalton lives in eastern, not western Pennsylvania.
In the end, David replied to the information I forwarded him, “I just checked with my dad and yes, he [Prince Albert] was from New Castle.”
After some sleuthing and digging, here is what we found out about record seller Prince Albert. Albert Joseph was born in Homs, Syria, 15 November 1899. He immigrated to the United States in 1910 or 1914 (depending on what documents one references) and his World War I draft card places him in Greensburg, Pennsylvania in December 1918 living with his mother and working at Kelly & Jones Company. Because New Castle had a larger Arab American community, and at least 15 families from Homs, Albert relocated there in around 1924/1925 and opened alterations and laundry service. Within a year, Albert, along with Espher Basher, Jacob Elias, Joseph Deep, and Mike Orr founded the Syrian Ray Society to “promote friendship and education” about and among Arab Americans in and around New Castle in April 1926. Two years later, Albert married fellow Syrian-American Victoria Orr and the couple and their two children lived with Albert’s mother, Corget Shukud Joseph, and younger sister, Bertha, in 1930.
Syrian and Lebanese American communities dotted western Pennsylvania and these communities established civic and cultural groups, businesses, and churches to meet the diverse needs of these communities. Pittsburgh became home to Saint George and Saint Elias orthodox churches and Saint Ann’s Maronite Church, another Saint George Orthodox Church served Homestead, and a different Saint Elias opened in Brownsville. Also, Arab immigrants to Johnstown established Saint Mary’s and Saint Demetrius. There was also Our Lady of Immaculate Conception in DuBois and Our Lady of Mercy in Shenandoah catholic churches. New Castle became home to Saint Elias Orthodox and Saint John the Baptist Syrian Maronite churches by the late 1930s although the federal government restricted overall Arab immigration with the passage of the 1924 Johnson-Reed legislation.
The Joseph family grew more in the 1930s and when World War II broke out, Albert had worked for himself and a number of local business to make ends meet. In addition to Edward and Irene in the 1920s, Victoria gave birth to Constantine and Albert Junior in the 1930s and Corgette in the 1940s. Albert was self-employed, labored for Carnegie Illinois Steel Corporation for a time, and sold records out of his Hamilton-Street home and at hafli, mahrajan, pinics, and other Arab American cultural events held in western Pennsylvania. Albert eventually served as secretary of the Syrian Ray Club and vice-president of the Syrian Lebanonian League of Pennsylvania.
Albert Joseph first gained the honorific-nickname “Prince Albert” in 1949 as a result of his charity work and activism related to Palestine. According to newspaper sources, in addition to operating his dry-cleaning business and working as a correspondent for As-Sameer and As-Sayeh Arab American newspapers, Albert sent “boxes of food, clothing, food and financial aid to his countrymen and to those in the Palestine-Arabia areas.” Albert also championed better relationships between Arabs and Jews in Palestine and chaired the western Pennsylvania Middle East Relief Fund. Hearing about Albert’s efforts, Saudi King Ibn Saud sent Albert a four-piece thobe and bisht set. Described as modest, humble, a strict father, but a fun-loving guy who was quick to lead a joyous dabke line, Albert became known both in and out of Arab American circles as “Prince Albert.” Albert set-up tables, played 78 RPM records, and sold a host of records including 78s on Alamphon, Arabphon, Baipdaphon, and other labels. Customers regularly stopped by the Joseph home from Arab American communities all over eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to order and pick-up the latest releases. Six years after receiving Ibn Saud’s gift, King Saud (Ibn Saud’s son) sent a similar set of clothing in recognition of Albert Joseph’s continued work sending much-needed supplies to Palestinian-Arab refugees forced to relocate to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Trans-Jordan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia.
As Albert Joseph neared sixty years old, he continued to lead several community organizations, run his business, and make time to travel to New York to see his sister off to Argentina and Brazil to visit relatives in South America. In his sixties, Albert occasionally served as cantor and master of ceremonies for events and services at Saint Elias Orthodox Church, where he received Father of the Year honors in 1968. Albert Joseph died in November, 1968.
The story of Albert Joseph doesn’t end there however. Around 2010, Albert’s daughter Corgette donated Albert’s suits from Kings Inb Saud and Saud to the Antiochian Heritage Museum with a traveling case and a number of 78 rpm Arabic records. The Antiochian Museum and Library, built in 2004, are a part of the Antiochian Village Conference & Retreat Center in Bolivar, Pennsylvania. Of note to Midwest Mahjar readers is that the remains of Rev. Fr. Agapios Golam were relocated here in 1950.
Had we not met Joe Corey or David Khorey, we would not have been able to relay this fascinating piece of Arab American history to our readers at Midwest Mahjar.
Special thanks to Joe Corey, David Khorey, Julia Hilgard Ritter, and Frank Dalton.
Richard M. Breaux is an Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse from Oakland, California. His courses and research explore the social and cultural histories of African Americans and Arab Americans in the 20th Century.
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