Gary Herzenstiel talks about 78 rpm records, the major 78rpm manufacturers, their technology, and the history of the record industry in general. Based in Detroit, Michigan, Gary can be contacted through his site, 78rpmrecord.com.
I have about 20,000 records in my collection at my house and another 7,000 at another house. I keep them in a room in the basement that has to be humidity controlled with very little humidity at all because mold will grow on the records. I liked vocals when I was young, and I used to play my mother’s records at 78 rpm because they were mostly 45. That way, I couldn’t understand the vocals anymore, and it made the tune very upbeat and really fast. I just thought to myself, “I wonder what is really recorded at 78, and what kind of records actually play at 78.”
I went to garage sales and got all the 78s that I could. I finally settled on big band swing and jazz, which I like because it’s very listenable. It was pop music, and it was popular for a good reason. It’s toe-tapping and it’s fun. I love it.
I really didn’t know that this music was out on LP. When I first started collecting in the ‘70s and ‘80s, a lot of what was out on LP and marketed to the general public was later stuff. When you did find old material, it was just butchered. Also, I found that with 78 rpm records, I was guaranteed to get the bands I wanted to get. I could get all kinds of different bands from different eras that I had never heard before. I was like a kid in a candy store, trying new flavors.
I generally avoided LPs for a long time because of their inferior quality. Half the time it was like a tribute to Tommy Dorsey. You didn’t actually get music from the Tommy Dorsey big band; you got music that Tommy Dorsey made famous done by a bunch of studio musicians who were getting what sounds like minimum wage. It just didn’t have the energy the original big bands had, and that’s really what I was looking for.
“All of the early record companies made more money on the cabinets than records.”
I direct a big band. We play music of the 1930s and ‘40s and some Sinatra stuff, so the records dovetail right in. I’ve been collecting for about 26 years now. It’s a sickness. I’m still accumulating. I wish there were more people that I could give my extras to, but there aren’t too many. Most of the collectors now are going to CD.
I don’t think CDs are collectible. But at least nowadays when you get a CD that says “Tommy Dorsey,” you’re going to get Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. You’re not going to get another band doing Tommy Dorsey hits or Tommy Dorsey’s band in reprocessed stereo. That’s the kind of garbage that we had in the ‘70s. It was horrible. I wouldn’t say CDs are lazy man’s music, but just like MP3s, they’re very convenient. But you don’t have the quality of sound you have on a 78.
The fidelity on a 78 blows everything else out of the water. That has to do with the way they were made. The amount of media that passes underneath the tone on the pickup is just a much higher sampling rate. You’re not trying to use ones and zeroes to recreate a natural wavelength like CDs do; the wavelength is right there on the 78, so it doesn’t need to be recreated.
You can put a 78 on a turntable and then take an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper and put a corner of it on the 78. All of a sudden it starts to play and you hear music because it’s using the paper as a diaphragm to vibrate the air. You can’t do that with anything else. You can’t do that with a CD. You can send these out into space and they’ll be able to play them.
The best quality are those 78s that were pressed in vinyl. Unfortunately, by the time vinyl was introduced to the public, 78s were on the way out. People were going for LPs because it got 20 minutes of music on a side. There were some vinyl 78s pressed and those just sound spectacular, no comparison to a CD, an LP or a 45.
Collectors Weekly: What were some of the major labels that produced 78s?
Herzenstiel: There was Victor, of course, and Columbia. Brunswick put out a lot of records, and Capitol. Those were the big four. Victor and Columbia had been around almost since day one making 78s.
“78” really refers to records that were made before the LP era, but not all of them were recorded as 78s. Most of them were recorded around 78. It turns out that 78.26 revolutions per minute is the function of the electric motor. They were recorded at all kinds of different speeds. For example, say Columbia and Brunswick told everybody that their records were recorded at 80 revolutions a minute. If the spring in the studio that they used to record was weak that day, they were recording with something slower.
On the early turntables, you had a pitch control lever, and if the voice sounded like Mickey Mouse, you slowed the record down until you found what it should sound like. By the ‘50s and ‘60s, you didn’t have that pitch control anymore; it was just set at 78.
The big four all started here in the U.S. They opened up offices and recording studios in other countries, but the bulk of their recording and their sales were in the U.S. It was like that for probably the first 30 or 40 years of the record industry.
Collectors Weekly: Who was the first to put out a 78 rpm record?
Herzenstiel: It was arguably the inventor of the microphone, Emile Berliner. He went to the World’s Fair in 1876 and saw the invention of the telephone and the cylinder. He took those ideas home and tried to improve on them. He developed the disc record in 1877, but he really didn’t do much with it until about 1894 when he started to produce more records.
It was a completely different business than it is today. The money was not in the making and selling of records and royalties; but in cabinet-making. The more cabinets you sold, the more money you were going to make, so you took cheap record player parts and threw them into a fancy cabinet. All of the early record companies made more money on the cabinets. Emile Berliner’s partner was Eldridge R. Johnson, a cabinetmaker. Columbia was on that bandwagon too, and so was Brunswick, which makes pool tables today.
Brunswick was founded in 1845. They wanted to sell more cabinets, so they started a recording company in Canada. They came over here in 1919 and started selling records in their cabinets in 1920. The more popular the records were, the more people would go out and listen to them. Companies would claim that their records sounded best on their equipment.
They did make money off record sales, but there was no royalty system like we have today. They paid the band a flat fee for the day or, mostly, per tune recorded. The only person that made any money on that was the publisher because they were the copyright holder and you had to pay them for each record you pressed. The artist who did the recording was happy with the $200 they got for every song.
Collectors Weekly: Who was Bluebird?
Herzenstiel: Bluebird was a subsidiary of RCA Victor. Many of the players – RCA Victor, Columbia, Pathé – wanted to sell more records and machines and realized that some people just couldn’t afford it. Records were very expensive, especially classical records. A two-sided record with two songs could sell for a dollar in the early 1900s. Eventually the prices came down, but it was still around 60 cents a record for a long time.
The record companies found they could sell more records at a lower price, so that’s what RCA Victor did with their Bluebird label. Their parent label sold for 75 cents and then 50 cents when they lowered the price a little bit, but Bluebird sold for 35 cents. Usually they kept their artists separate. So Bluebird came about as a cheap alternative to the parent label.
A lot of the companies had labels that only sold in certain department stores, or at a discount. Some were extremely inexpensive and some were done under pseudonyms. If the parent company recorded the Original Memphis Five, lets say, and they wanted to sell more records at a lower price, they would make up labels and change the name of the band on those labels. It would be the exact same recording, but it was a name that nobody had ever heard of. You didn’t know who you were going to get; just that you were going to get a nice recording at a very cheap price.
That wasn’t okay with the bands, but they had no say. If they recorded at the parent studios, their records could come out not only on the parent label but on all of the different labels the parent company had relationships with or owned. That was common practice in the 1920s.
Let’s say a bunch of Columbia records didn’t sell. Columbia would take the records back, put another label on them, and resell them to Montgomery Ward or Sears. Sears had their own label called Silvertone and Montgomery Ward had one called Montgomery Ward. You could look in the run-out area or underneath the label and see that a number was used. Those were master numbers, and that’s the only way you could tell what you were getting. You really had to be familiar with the music.
There was a case where Duke Ellington, who was very famous, signed a record contract with RCA. The contracts in those days weren’t as exclusive as they are today. If Duke Ellington wanted to make more money, he’d march down the street and record – sometimes the same numbers – at Brunswick studios. But since he was under contract at RCA, Brunswick couldn’t use his name, so his music on Brunswick would come out under the name The Washingtonians.
Another strange thing the labels did is make several recordings of the same song. Then they would issue their favorite take. When that stamper broke, they’d issue the next take. In classical music, that’s fine because one performance sounds just like another, but in jazz, the solos are going to be completely different, so the records that you bought by this band on RCA six months ago may not be the same recording on sale now. It may have completely different solos.
There was no way of editing them. If you were in a studio and made a little mistake, they just let you play all those through or they stopped you and you’d try it again. Starting about 1949, a lot of the record companies moved to using tape and they would splice different takes together.
Collectors Weekly: Do you collect the different takes?
Herzenstiel: We’re always discovering new takes, either audibly or visually. Many of the record companies would put the take number either in a run-out area or underneath the label. Brunswick typically made three takes of a band and then issued them as the stampers broke.
All kinds of music was recorded back then, and there were all different sizes of records issued, especially in the early days. Records were made out of different materials, although shellac was a standard. Some used dyes to make them different colors, but they really couldn’t use plastic. In order to get a reasonable quality pickup for the consumer, the whole mechanism had to be pretty heavy, and a heavy tone arm will destroy plastic.
They figured out how to make a high-quality tone arm, but it was very expensive. All the radio stations had them. A lot of the recordings sent to radio stations were an early form of vinyl and had great quality, but it took very expensive equipment to play them. It wasn’t until the mid-1940s when they figured out how to make a cheap pickup that they came out with vinyl 78s for consumers. Around that time, they also came out with the LP, and that pretty much killed 78s. LPs could hold more music and they were a lighter weight.
Collectors Weekly: Did the quality vary among different types of records?
Herzenstiel: Definitely. During World War II, shellac was a strategic material, so you couldn’t get as good a shellac as you could before the war. Immediately after the war, a lot of the shellac was recycled. If you were an up-and-coming record company, you didn’t have much money, so you’d use that recycled shellac and it sounded horrible. If you had a lot of money, you used brand new shellac, and with the new microphones and less of a need to grind the needles, you didn’t have to put some of the grit in your records.
The size of a record groove was not standardized for a long time. A lot of the record companies had their own shape or size of grooves, so they needed to put a little bit of grit into their 78s so that their records could be played on any machine or any needle. It wasn’t until the 1920s or ‘30s that the grooves became a lot more uniform. I’m not quite sure why this was. After a lot of the recording patents expired in 1960 and 1970, most of the record companies started producing laterally recorded records and they used the same size of grooves that Victor and Columbia used.
Thomas Edison also came out with a recording system that was completely different than anybody else. He used the hill and dale method of recording, where your needle vibrates up and down as opposed to side to side like with lateral recording. His records were actually superior to his competition, at least in the acoustic era. His records were thick because he used a superior quality material that was very brittle and he had to bond it to a thick base so it wouldn’t shatter easily.
There were also companies that produced records and players with non standard sized spindle holes, in an attempt to get people to buy their furniture, their reproducers, their record players. If your record had a larger spindle hole, it would be a pain to try and center it every time on a standard spindle. Some record labels, like Busy Bee, were notorious for doing that. Not only did you have an odd-sized spindle hole in the middle, but you had another bar that came up right next to it, so you couldn’t play anybody else’s records on that record player.
But the public wanted a cheap way to reproduce sound in their homes. Not everybody could afford those big cabinets, especially if you wanted to play your records at the beach or take them with you on a trip. A lot of companies had portable players that were wound up and sounded okay, but you wanted one player that could play all your records.
Collectors Weekly: Is it true that Edison put red stars on the records they thought wouldn’t sell?
Herzenstiel: Yes. He invented the cutout bin where the records were not returnable. With most manufacturers, if the records didn’t sell in your store, you returned them for credit, but Edison said that if you bought the series of records with a red star on them, he wouldn’t take them back.
Edison was no A&R man, but he definitely tried to play one in his company, which was one of the reasons that his records didn’t sell like his competition’s. He had a very old idea of what should be recorded and he didn’t like jazz at all. In fact, it wasn’t until he pretty much went deaf that his company started recording jazz, because they had an engineer in the studio that Edison trusted. Edison couldn’t hear the performance, so he’d ask his engineer, “Did that sound good to you?” and he’d say “It sounds great!”
In their last year, they went to electric recording, which Edison had fought for a long time. Those electric records were only out for six months before the company closed. Most companies had the electric model for at least five years before Edison, and there were certain things you couldn’t record on an acoustic recorder that you could on electric.
With electric, you get dials and you can cap things off to prevent them from distorting. In an acoustic, you don’t have that luxury, so whatever level it’s recorded, that’s the level it’s going to come back at. If somebody hit a bass drum real hard by the recording horn, it would pop the needle right off the recording, so there were a number of things that just couldn’t be recorded. Stand up bass is another one. In jazz, almost every band has a stand up bass, but that had a low frequency that just couldn’t be recorded well in the acoustic era. A lot of drums couldn’t be recorded in the acoustic era because the wavelength that they produced was just too much for the system. It was one of those record destroyers if you put them too close to the recording horn. By the electric era, you could record just about whatever you wanted.
Collectors Weekly: Do you focus on specific labels or do you collect 78 rpm records across the board?
Herzenstiel: If there’s a label that’s particularly scarce, I’ll get it just for the label, but by and large I don’t prefer one label over another. Some labels that specialized in the music I like, so I have more of those. I don’t have too many Red Seal Victors because they have classical and operatic performances, which I don’t favor. I have a whole stack of them I want to give away.
The best place to find records is from other collectors. Either they deal the extras that they find, or they decided not to collect anymore or passed on. You still find records from time to time at garage sales and flea markets, but that’s a lot more miss than hit, especially nowadays. They’re just not as common as they were in the 1970s.
They weigh a half a pound each on average and take up a lot of space. My 20,000 records weigh about 10,000 pounds. In fact, it actually did damage to a house I was living in. I put a lot of my records in one area of the house, and one night I woke up to a sound but I didn’t think anything of it and I just went back to sleep. The next day, my father pointed out to me that we had a big crack in the dry wall. Our house had moved because of all the weight in one central area, which makes sense. If you parked two cars in your house, it’s probably not very good for the foundation and structures.
Collectors Weekly: What are some key things that you look for in 78 rpm records?
Herzenstiel: The music, really. I like to hear those old performances. I look for condition secondarily. I like performances on odd labels, but they still have to sound good. If it’s something I don’t want to listen to, chances are I’m going to pass on it, even if it’s rare or out of the ordinary.
I have a collection right now that was pretty much given to me. It had about 8,000 records in it, but the majority were records I knew I didn’t want. They were country and old blues records, and I thought, “I’ll have a listen to them and maybe I’ll hear a couple of performances that I like.” Country and blues records really didn’t sell very well back then, so they didn’t make very many and they are very rare, but a lot of the performances I just can’t stomach. Luckily, I know some collectors that do look for those records and do enjoy them, so I do have an outlet for them.
Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of record collectors?
Herzenstiel: I think there are fewer and fewer collectors. For 78s, about the closest we can come to a club are the different auction houses that specialize in the records. A lot of it has gone online. There are 78 discussion groups that are very active, and it’s fun to find other people that share your sickness, to get rid of those extra records and sometimes trade or sell them. There’s not too much of an organization. There are a lot of collectors in MAPS, Michigan Antique Phonograph Society. I would say a lot of the people who collect phonographs or gramophones also collect records, but I don’t think the opposite is true.
Collectors Weekly: Do you still listen to your records?
Herzenstiel: I do, mostly when other people come over because we pick a random record out of the collection and put it on and see what we think about it. I use the records to introduce different styles or bands or soloists to my band. If I have listened to something I think is good, I want other people to hear it. A lot of these records have come out on CD, but you’re at the mercy of whatever fly-by-night operation has reissued them. A lot of these companies issue good recordings but they have no liner notes; there was nothing there to tell you about the bands. There are very few companies that do a really good job at reissuing them. Mosaic Records does a fantastic job at reissuing this stuff. Most companies just want the buck.
They reissued them in other speeds, like LP or CD, and there were some record companies in the ‘40s and ‘50s that reissued 78s. They were bootlegs. The record companies would issue them to sell more records. In fact, that’s where albums came from. You’re collecting a record album, just like a photo album. There’s a group of pictures, and you turn the pages in the book to see them. They grouped a whole bunch of related tunes and reissued them, and that was an album.
Collectors Weekly: Is there any advice you would give to somebody starting to collect records?
Herzenstiel: Don’t do it! Find others that share your likes. Definitely ask for the opinions of other collectors. When I was starting out, I didn’t. Sometimes I did get advice from the occasional collector I ran into, but I was just stubborn and didn’t listen. For example, I played records with a needle that wasn’t designed to play 78s; it was an LP needle. I did that for years, but I never should have because it ruins your records. It makes them gritty.
Listen to other collectors. They’ll help you. They’ll point you in the right direction to preserve your collection properly. Don’t take shortcuts. Do things right the first time so that your records last a long time. Of course, the more you know, the more you know that you don’t know about anything. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I’m always looking for them.
I do a lot of record research online. I have a number of discographies that help me quite a bit, especially Tom Lord’s The Jazz Discography and American Record Labels and Companies by Allan Sutton and Kurt Nauck. That information has not found its way online yet. People put little blurbs here and there, but they have not done the kind of research that Alan and Kurt did with that record label book.
Collectors Weekly: Do you scan all your record labels?
Herzenstiel: Yes, I started doing that years ago, but I stopped. I really enjoyed that and I want to get at it again. There was a site that was supposed to collect all the scans and put them at one central location, but that project never really got off the ground.
It’s not very easy to scan records because they’re just a bit bigger than your average scanner, so you can’t place them flat against the glass. A lot of them come out grainy or blurry. If you’re looking at the some labels, the artwork is all over the record and you just can’t fit it on the scanner. The different fonts they used, how they positioned everything, the different styles – I just enjoy it.
In the early days of recording, Columbia and Victor were two main players, and they wanted to warn people not to infringe on their patents of how to record, so they would put all kinds of warnings on their labels. It got to the point where the warnings took up more space than almost everything else on the label, so they made a sticker and stuck it to the back of the record.
But you wonder about those warnings because over time they evolved from something like, “Here are all the patents that protect me against you making records just like this,” to something like, “These records are only for use in homes and not for radio use.”
Recording patents were owned by Victor and Columbia, and they sued anybody who came along and tried to make records using any of their patents. Edison was the only person who could really record. His method of recording was public domain, because by the time he started making records, his patents had already expired. Unfortunately, it was more expensive to make records the way he made them. Everybody tried to come into the market, making lateral records, but to do that, they had to infringe on Victor and Columbia’s patents and they would sue. In fact, Victor and Columbia tried to put each other out of business for years.
There was money to be made, that’s for sure. That’s how they named the company Victor: He was the victor of one of the lawsuits. One time, the man who ran Columbia went overseas for a trip, and when he came back, he found that he didn’t own the stamping plant to make his records because Victor had bought it. Of course, back to court they went, so there are actually Columbia records that are produced that have the initials VTM for Victor Talking Machine embossed on the records. It wasn’t until 1904 that they decided to pool their patents. After that, they went after any other company that tried to make records.
An interesting side story – a lot of the discs that were issued to radio stations wouldn’t fit on a standard turntable. A standard turntable will only hold a 12-inch record, and some of the records were larger than that because the musicians’ union wanted to make sure that those records wouldn’t find their way into homes because there was a reduced royalty rate for radio stations.
Collectors Weekly: Do you have any other interesting stories?
Herzenstiel: There was a record ban from 1942 to 1944. The Musicians Union said to the record companies, “We want more money, so we want royalties. We’re going to go on strike.” And they did. The record companies went into their archives, and they had plenty of material in their vaults that they reissued or that they released for the first time. The smaller companies didn’t have that backlog that they could issue, so they gave in to the union pretty quickly. I think it was under a year.
The strike against Victor and Columbia, the two biggest companies, lasted almost to 1945. It was terrible for the general public because they couldn’t get new music. Companies were reissuing stuff from the late ‘20s. Some of it was stuff that was recorded five or 10 years ago. It did terrible damage to the big bands because they didn’t get their stuff recorded. Big bands made money by personal appearances because they didn’t get any royalties. The more radio play that they got, the more demands for gigs they had and the more people showed up for their performances, but they couldn’t record new stuff, so it was terrible for them.
Other groups that went into the studio could record if they weren’t Musicians Union members. A lot of those groups consisted of vocalists. They didn’t use people who played saxophone or stuff like that. The general public found that “Hey, this music isn’t so bad,” which contributed greatly to the demise of the big bands. The music taste changed during that time because that’s all you could get on records. You could either get really old stuff that was reissued or you could get a vocal group.
(All images in this article courtesy Gary Herzenstiel of 78rpmrecord.com)