Music History

If you’re bored with collecting normal records, I have some suggestions for you

[This was my weekly column for – AC]

Most fans of vinyl are happy collecting 33 1/3 RPM albums, 7-inch 45 RPM singles, and the odd 12-inch. A subset dig for rare 78 RPM discs, especially the blues recordings of the 1920s and ’30s. But what if want to get really esoteric with your library? An option is to dive into the world of the obsolete and the forgotten.

The history of recorded music is littered with audio storage formats that either died out or went nowhere. The fact that they existed at all will amaze you. At one point, someone thought these were good ideas.

The Last-ever 78s

The 10-inch 78 RPM disc ruled the recorded music industry for close to 60 years. Emile Berliner, the German-American inventor, patented the idea of putting audio on a flat rotating disc in 1887. Within a couple of decades, the 78 had muscled out all other formats and had become the worldwide standard. The technology hung on until stereo LPs pressed on polyvinyl chloride began to take off in the 1950s. U.S. sales dropped from 4.5 million units in 1957 to just 500,000 a year later.

North America was done with them by 1960. Possibly the very last pop record to be released in the format was Bobby Bland’s Cry Cry Cry on the Duke label in late September 1960 which ended up rising to no. 9 on Billboard’s R&B charts over the ensuing months. Elvis Presley’s A Mess of Blues is generally regarded as the last 78 to be released in the U.K. There were, however, some small labels that continue to release 78s for a few more years. Polkaland, a company that specialized in, well, polkas, is known to have released 78s as late as 1962.

But the 78 refused to die, largely because kids got hand-me-down record players that ran at 78 RPM. This resulted in a flood of children’s records played at that speed. When the old record player gave out, you could head to Sears to buy a new portable unit that ran at 33 1/3, 45, and 78. The tonearm came with two styluses, a tiny one for the microgooves of LPs and 45s and one for the bigger grooves for the 78. There was usually a little knob that allowed you to flip the stylus over inside the headshell.

Meanwhile, the 78 continued to be used in other parts of the world. It was possible to find brand new pop releases throughout South America on 78 as late as the 1970s. If you’re a hardcore Julio Iglesias fan living in Argentina in 1972, you had the option of buying his singles this way.

There’s a lot more. Keep reading.

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 38398 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

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