Elvis Presley, Sun Records, and Push Marks

February 7th, 2011

In the course of writing about Elvis Presley memorabilia the other day, I found myself spending a lot of time looking at Elvis Presley records, particularly the 45s and 78s he cut at Sun Records for Sam Phillips.

One of the terms that kept popping up in the descriptions written about the King’s 45 rpm singles was “push marks.” I could see them beneath the label (look for the circular indentations to the left of the word “That’s” in the photo above-left, and to the right of the word “Kentucky” in the photo above-right), but it took a while to find an authoritative source to explain how they got there.

Music appraiser Stephen M.H. Braitman, who gave us a fascinating interview about the British Invasion last summer, pointed me to a site called WorldLingo and this description of record manufacturing: “Each stamper [the negative used in a hydraulic press to make the actual vinyl disc] was next centre punched; methods used included aligning the final locked groove over three pins or tapping the edge while rotating under the punch until the grooves could be seen (through a microscope) to move constantly towards the centre.”

“Sun Records,” says Braitman, “obviously used the method of aligning the stamper over three pins, which, on the final vinyl result, looks like ‘push mark’ impressions.” In other words, the impression was made while the disc was still warm, transferred from the stamper to the vinyl.

Confirming this view of events is John Boija, whose website chronicling the details of the 45s, 78s, and LPs recorded at Sun was recently added to our Hall of Fame.

“To the best of my understanding,” says Boija, “the push marks stem from the so-called stampers, the metal plates used when manufacturing the records. You can see them quite clearly on one of the preserved stampers for Elvis’s debut, Sun 209, which Joseph Pirzada in the U.K. owns.” See photo at left.

“Now, when one checks the early Sun 45 rpm releases one by one,” Boija continues, “it is easy to note that many—but not all—have push marks. Why is that? Well, the scarcity of the majority of the pre-Elvis Sun 45s makes it difficult to verify, but my theory, based on some of Sam Phillips’s correspondence with the companies that made the stampers, is that the releases that were anticipated to only have limited commercial success were done in small quantities—often in increments of 500—locally in Memphis. Those pressings always have the so-called push marks.

“But when a record became a hit, neither the Memphis pressing plant (Plastic Products on Chelsea Ave.) nor the local distributor (Music Sales, also on Chelsea) had the capacity to merchandise and distribute satisfactorily outside of the South. The first national hits like ‘Bear Cat’ by Rufus Thomas, Jr. (Sun 181, released March 1953) or ‘Just Walkin’ In The Rain’ by the Prisonaires (Sun 186, July 1953) were mainly pressed and distributed in Los Angeles. The former I have never seen with push marks, the latter both with and without, depending on which pressing plant was used.

“This is the explanation for why genuine Sun releases from the 1950s can be originals both with and without push marks, but in the case of Elvis, push marks have become synonymous with being the real deal—it takes both skill and experience to identify the genuine non-push marked originals.

“The very last number I’ve seen with push marks,” says Boija, “is Sun 236 by Jimmy Haggett, a single that sold so poorly most collectors have never seen it. Released in December 1955, it probably wasn’t run in more than 500 copies. I’ve seen two copies and both had push marks. Apart from that, Sun 231 by Charlie Feathers, another ultra-rare release from December 1955, also has push marks, as so do most earlier releases, unless they were large hits pressed out of town from the start, mainly for Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.”

As an aside, Boija has some advice for those who might ignore Sun’s 78s, which are easily identified by their small center hole, the rooster logo above it, and the horizontal bar that reads “RECORD COMPANY.” Sun 45s, he says, were made from “the poorest quality vinyl and were pressed with a groove width designed to handle the thicker 78 rpm stylus, as compared to the thinner ‘Microgroove’ needle that was introduced with the LP format.” So, when you play your Elvis 45s on modern equipment, Boija says, the result is what’s known as “the Sun hiss. Most collectors have never realized that if they play the records with the correct needle, they sound much better. In terms of dynamics, sound quality, and clarity, not even a mint 45 comes close to the 78s. A pristine 78 even beats the CD reissues.”

Thanks John!

7 comments so far

  1. Dave Ayers Says:

    I have a Sun, its Bill Strength Senorita, flip side, Guess I’d Better Go. Number 364. Can’t find any info on this. Thanks, Dave

  2. Ed. Lasko Says:

    Needles
    0.7 thou for modern LPs and 45s
    1.1 thou for standard mono records – 1949 to 1980s
    1.5 thou for certain early indie labels: Sun, Duke, Starday etc.
    2.8 thou for standard 78s, 1939 to early 60s
    3.5 thou for standard 78s, circa 1925 to circa 1938

    source: Glenn Henning, Edgware, England; courtesy of Times Square Records, NY

    Using a 78 needle on Sun 45s will damage them!

  3. Mike Singleton Says:

    I just picked copy of Elvis’ “I Got A Woman” on RCA #6637 and on one side, Nipper has no color, just black and silver, the other side has him in color. What’s up with that?

    Thanks

  4. ron hoyer Says:

    i owned a record store 30 years ago,i had bought the sun repros in the 80′s,i also bought a few dj collections,i have a sun 220, it appears to have the correct numbers in the trail off,and compared to 80′s repros vinyl is thicker,no push marks though.this nm how do i verify.

  5. rose Says:

    have 45rpmrecordings of elvis promo not to be sold uncut onside blank still uncut tobe rounded.. do i need to supply rca number on label to acquire date time of publication

  6. michael jacobsen Says:

    bought a record on ebay- that’s all right sun 209 78 Presley. found out that there are fakes . I believe mine is a fake by the fact it feels lighter than my johnny cash sun 78 and it is more pliable than the cash record. What can you tell me about fakes and does this fill the format. Thanks Mike Jacobsen ps paid over 600 for it

  7. Carolyn Claussen Says:

    I enjoyed the article. I had every 45, EP and LP and lost all in a fire in Octber 1992! What a treasure I lost.


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