Extended Play records, known as EPs, were introduced as 7-inch, vinyl 45s in the early 1950s by RCA. At the time, RCA was in a format war with Columbia, whose 12-inch LPs could hold a full album’s worth of music (hence their name) and were played at 33 1/3 rpm. RCA already had 7-inch singles, which spun at 45 rpm and were designed to replace 78s, so EPs were a natural progression in the RCA product line.

Like RCAs 7-inch singles, its EPs were also played at 45 rpm, which meant consumers with 45-rpm phonographs could play EPs on their existing equipment. EPs were less expensive than Columbia’s LPs, and whereas RCA’s 7-inch singles only supported around 4 minutes of music per side, its EPs could hold about 7 1/2 minutes per side, thanks in large part to their thinner grooves, which is one reason why old EPs are more likely to be worn out from play than old 45s from the same era.

In the 1950s and ’60s, the first heydays of the EP in the United States and United Kingdom, EPs were generally not treated as vehicles for new singles or even as mini-albums of new material. Instead, EPs were packaged to give fans a taste of an artist’s repertoire, with two songs on each side, usually taken from a current album—kind of a greatest-hits compilation at the height of an artist’s career instead of at the end. It was only later, in the 1970s and ’80s, when punk labels rediscovered the EP, that the format was treated as a primary delivery medium for new music.

As with most record formats of the 1950s, Elvis Presley was king. From 1956 through 1959, RCA released some two dozen Presley EPs, cherry-picking hits from the singer’s albums, singles, and soundtracks, with the occasional new number tossed in to keep diehard fans happy. But for serious collectors of Elvis EPs, “two dozen” barely scratches the surface. Take “Elvis Presley” first released in March of 1956 and known as EPA-747 (the “A” designates stereo). There are 20 versions of that EP’s disc and cover alone, including the re-releases in 1965 and ’68. Side one on all versions features “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Tutti Frutti,” side two has “I Got a Woman” and “Just Because.” As with most records, the desirability of the discs is about the same from variation to variation (the exception in this case being the disc with a label that incorrectly lists a third song on side one), making the covers the real prizes. In the case of “Elvis Presley,” demand for the EP was so great that the first covers were just text printed in blue (more rare) or black (less rare) on white paper (gray paper is a bootleg), with the words “BLUE SUEDE SHOES BY ELVIS PRESLEY” at the top, and the rest of the songs listed below. Some of these temporary-cover EPs on the market today come with a short note to distributors that was inserted into the sleeve. The note basically apologizes for the rushed artwork (vendor delays and bad weather are two of the reasons given), but since these notes are easy to duplicate, there is little premium put on them today.

In the U.K., the rise of the EP roughly paralleled the career of Cliff Richard, who released 46 EPs from 1959 through 1968 both as a soloist and with the Shadows, which had its own EP successes performing instrumentals. From 1960 through 1967, the years EPs were given their own category in U.K. record-sales charts, the Shadows had eight Number One EPs that spent a total of 69 weeks at the top. In comparison, The Beatles also had eight Number One EPs, but only managed to stay in the top spot for 63 weeks. As a solo artist, Cliff Richard tied with Elvis Presley for four Number One EPs, although the King’s hits lingered for 45 weeks compared to 10 for Richard.

By the early 1960s, EPs were a major force in the U.K., just in time to become a favorite format of Beatles fans. Parlophone’s “Twist and Shout” from 1963 was the first Beatles EP in England, and features George Harrison singing his first lead vocal as a Beatle on the Lennon/McCartney song “Do You Want To Know a Secret.” In the U.S., Capitol released “Four by the Beatles” in 1964 (“Roll Over Beethoven,” “This Boy,” “All My Loving,” “Please Mr. Postman”) and “4-By the Beatles” in 1965 (“Honey Don’t,” “I’m a Loser,” “Mr. Moonlight,” “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby”), which was actually a naming convention borrowed from the 1964 “4-By the Beach Boys” EP.

Of all the Beatles’s EPs, none is more prized than “Souvenir of Their Visit to America,” which was released in the U.S. by Vee-Jay during the band’s first tour of the New World. ...

Long-playing albums ruled popular music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but then in the late 1970s, punk rock came into vogue. With it returned the EP, and soon bands like Black Flag, the Buzzcocks, the Minutemen, the Misfits, and the Dead Kennedys were releasing their best stuff on a format once seen as a cheap way to spread the word about a band’s back catalog. Today, some of the scruffy titles by these bands and many others command as much, if not more, than EPs by established acts of the ’50s and ’60s.

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