THE BIRTH OF THE 45

 

Fifty four years ago this year - March 31, 1949, to be exact - the 45 rpm record was introduced to an unsuspecting world that didn't yet know it needed its second new record format in as many years

Basically, there's no really good reason why 45-rpm records exist in the first place. They were created out of a combination of rivalry and spite in the heady post-World War II era.

In June 1948, Columbia Records announced its new microgroove 33 1/3-rpm album, which it called by the trademark "LP." (It would later lose the trademark because the term had become generic.) As a courtesy, William Paley, chairman of CBS (owner of Columbia Records) demonstrated the new format to General Robert Sarnoff, president of NBC (which owned RCA Victor Records), several weeks before the public announcement. The hope was for RCA to join in with Columbia - they were the two major players in recorded music at that time - to ensure the success of the new format.

Instead, according to Howard "Scotty" Scott, one of the Columbia staff who was part of the invention of the LP, "When Sarnoff heard the demonstration, he was furious and chewed out his entire staff in front of Paley and (Bill) Wallerstein (the true inventor of the LP). Sarnoff left in a huff."

Columbia was so eager to have its new system accepted as the standard that it didn't even patent the technology. It was willing to let other record companies use it without paying a royalty. But refusing to admit that they'd been beaten by a competitor, the RCA Victor engineers immediately went to work on their own "new and improved" system. RCA, in fact, would be the last of the major labels to finally release its own 33 1/3 rpm albums, possibly not doing so until 1951.

"RCA decided that they were going to come out with a new system, because they thought that they were powerful enough to get away with it," said George Avakian, another of the team involved in the 33 1/3 rpm LP, in an interview with Michael Hobson of Classic Records in 1998. "In 1962, when I was at RCA, someone finally told me where 45 rpm came from. They apparently took 78 and subtracted 33 which left them with 45, which they went with out of spite."

And the "Battle of the Speeds" was on.

Some claim that the 45 was introduced earlier in the year than March 31, but Norm Katuna's study of actual RCA Distributor's Record Bulletins from the era pinpointed the exact date.

Katuna, a long-time record collector from southern California, annually posts his research into RCA Victor's introduction of the 45 in several Usenet newsgroups. He noted, "In the March 21, 1949, issue of the Bulletin, all record listings are with the 20 and 21 prefix. These were 78 issue prefixes. Also, nowhere in the Bulletin is there any mention of 45s, past or future. The back page shows some of the prior three issues' releases, and they all have 20, 21 and 22 prefixes - all 78s. So there were no 45-rpm record issues from RCA as of this issue. Also, in the March 28, 1949, Bulletin, even though it is in part a special issue dealing with the upcoming (that week) unveiling and beginning of the 45, none of the new issues for that week were on 45 either. They all had the 20, 21 and 22 prefixes. So as of this date, no 45s had ever been commercially issued."

RCA ran a four-page ad in the April 2, 1949, Billboard magazine, directed at RCA Victor dealers, trumpeting their "50-year marketing achievement."

"To them must go much of the praise for these two newest and finest examples of research and engineering - the best automatic changer ever built - the finest record ever made," read the ad. "The new RCA Victor record and changer constitute the sensible, modern, inexpensive way to enjoy recorded music. The product is ready... the public is ready. A demonstration, more than ever before, means a 'close.' Its advantages will eventually make it the only way to play music in the home."

The introduction to the new records spent as much time talking about the new record changer as it did the records itself. RCA must have realised one of the big improvements of the Columbia system - the consumer didn't have to get up and change sides every four minutes anymore. Thus the need for a fast, reliable automatic changer so that their records could play continuously as long as an LP did.

Thus, also, the need for the large centre hole in the 45. As RCA intended for its system to be an alternative to Columbia's, it had to have a way for consumers to put many records on its changer at once and not have to worry about handling. RCA probably measured some workers' hands and came up with a size at which most people could grab the record's edge and the inside of the large hole without touching the record groove.

The ad finally did get around to praising the new records, but oddly never once mentioned the speed of the records. Among other things, it hailed the "CONVENIENT 7-INCH SIZE! More than 150 single records or 18 symphonies fit in one foot of bookshelf space. No storage problems for your customers. You can display a wider, more complete selection without sacrifice of space." (Anyone who collects 45s today realises the truth of this. It's amazing how little space 1,000 45s consumes.)

And the other item of note to collectors today: "Sparkling identifying Colors! - Record classification is simplified because a different colour is used on the entire record... not just on the label to denote each classification. This helps you to determine the type of record at a mere glance."

Yes, one of RCA's marketing gimmicks was to make each type of music correspond with a different colour of vinyl - black for pop, red for classical, midnight blue for "light classics," green for country-western, yellow for children's, sky blue for international, and "cerise" (not orange) for R&B That lasted for a couple years; by 1952, all of RCA's 45s were on black vinyl.

On debut day, March 31, RCA Victor released 76 albums and 104 singles on 7-inch, large-hole, 45-rpm records. "Albums" were three- or four-record (sometimes more) boxed sets of 45s meant to be stacked on a changer for continuous play. (That's why, in a four-record box, Side 1 was backed with Side 8, Side 2 with Side 7, Side 3 with Side 6, and Side 4 with Side 5.) Most of these were reissues of material first made available on 78s.

Among the promotional items RCA used to sell its new system was a custom display for record stores. It consisted of a rotating, elevated carousel, which had seven different colour threads hanging from it, one each for the colours of RCA Victor records. The base of the display was a 45-rpm turntable that played something called the "Whirl-Away Demonstration Record" over and over as the carousel rotated above it. It was named for Whirlaway, the famous horse that won the Triple Crown of thoroughbred racing in 1941. Only two copies of the record, probably the first 45 ever made expressly for promotional purposes, are known to exist today, though others likely survive.

After the initial burst of 45-rpm releases, RCA Victor began releasing the hits of the day on the new format. The first song to hit the top of the Billboard charts that was available on 45 at the time was "A - You're Adorable" by Perry Como (RCA Victor 47-2899) in the May 7, 1949, issue. That was followed the next week by the year's biggest hit, "Riders In The Sky (A Cowboy Legend)" by Vaughn Monroe (RCA Victor 47-2902).

Columbia, meanwhile, didn't sit idly by as RCA made its splash with the new format. It introduced its own single format in April 1949, the microgroove 7-inch single. These had a small hole and played at 33 1/3 rpm, so they were incompatible with RCA's one-speed, wide-spindled changers. But Columbia never marketed them with much zeal; microgroove 7-inch singles were a failure and were discontinued in early 1951. Attempts were made in the early 1960s to re-introduce them to the public without success, though certain segments of the jukebox trade used stereo 7-inch 33 1/3-rpm small-holed singles into the 1970s.

As RCA was on the way to winning that battle, it was going to lose the war. Its 45-rpm albums were no match for Columbia's long-players. Who was going to listen to a movement of a symphony on four 45s, complete with interruptions every four to six minutes when one could listen to the entire thing without a break on an LP? Because of this, there were strong rumours early in the 45's lifetime that RCA was going to pull the plug.

But something quite unexpected happened. Kids caught on to the 45 and began to make it the format of choice for singles. RCA quickly used that as a selling point. Quoting the RCA Distributor's Record Bulletin from Nov. 14, 1949: "...From coast to coast - teen-agers are lining up for bargain player attachments. The whole thing's on key with their allowances - neat little records they can slip in their pockets, with a first-class band playing their favourite hit - for 49 cents. Times are like the '30s, the early-40s again, when the youngsters made up the big biz in the pop market. ...They go for the lowest priced at the new speed, they go for the little disc that fits on the shelf beside their paper-backed novels, is unbreakable, and has quality of tone that can't be matched."

By this time, a second label - Capitol Records of Hollywood - had begun manufacturing 45s. Its earliest 45s, peculiarly, had a "54" prefix before the catalogue number. Perhaps this was because at the time RCA's own 45s had prefixes from "47" through "53." Capitol also added a "57" prefix to its 78s of the last few months of 1949. But it quickly abandoned that system; by early 1950, its 45s had an "F" prefix and its 78s had no prefix. MGM also began manufacturing 45s in 1949 using numbers in the 8000s; among its first was the year's biggest country hit, Hank Williams' "Lovesick Blues" (MGM 45-8010), and the big R&B hit, Ivory Joe Hunter's "I Almost Lost My Mind" (MGM 45-8011), the latter the first #1 RÄ hit to be on both 78 and 45. MGM quickly abandoned the separate numbering system, instead putting the letter "K" before the five-digit 78-rpm number.

In early 1950, other labels began joining the 45 parade one by one. The first non-RCA chart-topper to be available on 45 at the time it hit the top was "The Cry Of The Wild Goose" by Frankie Laine (Mercury 5363-X45). Two on semi-independent labels followed, Eileen Barton's "If I Knew You Were Comin' I'd've Baked A Cake" (National 9103-X45) and Teresa Brewer's "Music! Music! Music!" (London 45-30023).

The Decca/Coral/Brunswick labels were among the last majors to make 45s. The Ames Brothers' "Rag Mop" (Coral 60140) was the last #1 hit on the Billboard Best Sellers chart to be available only on 78, and it was never issued on 45 with that number. Two earlier 1950 Decca #1 hits were later released on 45 with their original numbers - the Andrews Sisters' "I Can Dream, Can't I?" (Decca 24705) and Red Foley's crossover hit "Chattanoogie Shoe Shine Boy" (Decca 46205).

Finally, in late 1950, Columbia bit the bullet and started making its own 45s. They originally had a "6" prefix followed by a three-digit number, but that was quickly abandoned for a "4" prefix before the same five-digit number that adorned the 78.

The independent labels were much slower to embrace the 45. Aladdin and Savoy were among the first, as each had a handful of 7-inch singles available in late 1950. King/DeLuxe/Federal began in 1951, as did Swing Time, Specialty, United and RPM/Modern. Atlantic, one of the key R&B labels, began in mid-1951 by reissuing two of their biggest hits onto 45s, Ruth Brown's "Teardrops From My Eyes" (Atlantic 919-45) and Joe Morris' "Anytime, Any Place, Anywhere" (Atlantic 914-45). Surprisingly, the last Billboard #1 record on the R&B chart that was available only on 78 when it was on top was the classic "Rocket 88" by Jackie Brenston (Chess 1458) in June 1951. Only three years later were a small number of 45s pressed in Los Angeles with the same label and number; these are among the world's most valuable 45s.

Chess/Checker didn't begin full-scale production of 45s until 1952, and neither did Imperial. Most new labels of the era, such as Vee-Jay, made both 45s and 78s from their first release. An exception was Sun, which started in 1953, yet had four 78-only releases before doing records both ways. Many of the early 45s on independent labels are among the rarest and most sought-after of all 45s.

By 1955, the 45 was firmly ensconced as the dominant single format in the United States. That was the year that 45 sales surpassed 78 sales for the first time. Perhaps not coincidentally, that's also the year that a rock 'n' roll song hit #1 on Billboard for the first time. Within another two years, several major labels already were on the verge of discontinuing 78s, including Capitol and Columbia. By 1959, only a few 78s were being made in the U.S., though they continued to be made elsewhere well into the 1960s. (Beatles singles from 1964 are known to exist on 78s made in India!)

And despite periodic challenges, the 7-inch 45 with the large hole remained the dominant American singles format for the next 30 years.

 

 

 

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