Before iTunes, CDs, 8-tracks, LPs, or even seven-inch EPs, 78s were the main medium for recorded music, so-called because they were played at 78 rotations per minute (rpm). Produced primarily by Victor, Columbia, Brunswick, and Capitol, 78s were first invented by Emile Berliner in the late 19th century.
At first, Berliner made the “plates,” as the records were called, out of celluloid and rubber-based materials, but in 1894 he switched to shellac, inspired by its transformative impact on the telephone industry. Early shellac 78s measured seven inches across, but by 1900 they were generally 10 or 12 inches in diameter.
For years, early radio stations in both the U.S. and Britain did everything they could to drive 78s out of the market. At the time, most radio stations provided listeners with live music—recorded music represented a threat to their business model. Thus, they discouraged their listeners from spending money on “canned” music. In England, the Musicians Union went so far as to require radio stations to pay the Union for every minute they played records instead of live music.
Thanks to these policies and the poor sound quality of 78s, records took a while to catch on. In 1912, Thomas Edison released a competitor to the 78, the Edison disc, which was much thicker (a full quarter-inch!) and featured better audio quality. But the Edison disc required its own expensive phonograph, and it was discontinued in 1929, the same year opera star Arturo Toscanini declared that he would never record anything because a record could not fully capture the beauty of his voice.
Even so, record companies released a wide variety of genres on 78s, from classical to pop to recorded animal noises. In fact, classical releases spawned the origin of the term “album”: because each side of a 78 could only hold about five minutes of music, hour-long symphonies had to be divided into six discs, which were bound together in something resembling a photo album. Seventy-eights were better suited to short pop songs, but this length limitation would prove to be the format’s biggest weakness in the decades to come.
Still, 78s gradually gained acceptance, helped along by the popularity of jukeboxes after the Depression. Then, in 1942, the American Federation of Musicians declared that it would not record anything that did not directly help the American war effort—shellac was scarce, and it was an important material during wartime. The moratorium on record manufacturing lasted until 1944. When production got back on track, though, much of the shellac used for new records was recycled, which resulted in lower-quality discs.
Even so, shellac was on its way out anyway. In 1948, Columbia released the 10-inch LP; when Victor responded with the 45 in 1949, the “War of the Speeds” was on, and the industry soon switched from shellac to vinyl, which was much more durable and allowed for thinner grooves and, thus, longer playing times per side...
In the mid-1950s, seven-inch vinyl singles began cutting into the popularity of 78s even more. Indeed, 1958 was the last year the 78 was the best-selling format in the United States; within five years, 78s were no longer produced in any Western countries, though foreign labels like EMI’s Indian division kept producing them for a bit longer.
Since then, the 78 rpm speed and format have been revived a few times as a promotional gimmick, but these records are generally pressed on vinyl rather than shellac. One example was the Sundown Playboys’ “Saturday Nite Special” in 1971.
The most collectible 78s today are those from the late ’50s, when 78s were less common and releases were often pressed on multiple formats. In the U.K., for example, Elvis Presley’s “A Mess of Blues” is highly collectible as a 78 because it is much easier to find as a seven-inch vinyl single.
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Track of the Day: 'Hot and Bothered'The Atlantic, April 29th
Hearing scratchy old transfers from 78-rpm discs, it's hard to tell what's really happening, or why fans and fellow musicians were so bowled over at the time. Some instruments don't cut through, nuance is lost, harmonies are clouded. Recently, however...Read more
Preserving Our National Pastime in SoundRadio World, April 29th
microcassettes and DATs,” said David Schwartz, co-owner with wife Donna, of DDS Enterprises-Information Alchemy in Newburgh, N.Y., the company handling the restoration. “We have 78, 45 and 33 rpm records, aluminum discs and cylinder recordings...Read more
Hathcock History: The Padre Island StoryValley morning Star, April 29th
The song was released as a 78 and a 45 on the Erin label by Circle Records of San Francisco, while the sheet music was released by Hammitt Music Company of Sacramento. Later, a novelty postcard featuring a 33 rpm recording of the song on a specially ...Read more
Knoxville Stomp: Dom Flemons keeps coming back to the sounds of Knoxville in ...Knoxville News Sentinel, April 29th
Flemons remains a collector, which will figure in to his concert and presentation. "I'm gonna bring some of my 78s and talk about some of them. I just bought a vinyl 78 of Sam Morgan's Jazz Band." Most 78-rpm discs were made of shellac. Vinyl 78s are a...Read more
Chester Martin Remembers Jay Craven, MusicianThe Chattanoogan, April 29th
Roy had arranged a small home studio where he could work on his theatrical sets and other artwork while playing 78 RPM records of his favorite music. On one of those records, the famous Tchaikovsky Opus called "Francesca da Rimini" had a part where a ...Read more
The king of the rumbaThe Economist, April 28th
It was fuelled by enthusiasm for the new Congolese rumba, a sound the first generation of stars had repurposed from the Cuban songs they discovered on a budget range of ten-inch, 78rpm records put out by a British label, “His Master's Voice”. Wemba ...Read more
Bye and Bye: Luther Dickinson Talks Blind Willie Johnson Tribute AlbumGuitar World Magazine, April 27th
Blind Willie was one of the first guitar heroes, one of the kings of the 78 [rpm record]. He spread the lyrics and melodies of gospel music and the slide guitar not only throughout his generation but to all the following generations. His repertoire...Read more
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?????1964????78RPM Mono????????Intro?????????????????????????????????HiFi??????????????????????????CD???????????????????????1:1???? ...Read more