(Above: The sort of thing you find in my house.)
Now that my dissertation on 1960s radio and race is completed, I finally get to read things that I want to read rather than sticking to research that I need to do. Sometimes, I get lucky, and find a book that serves both masters, in a sense. This weekend I tore through Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell At Any Price: The Wild Hunt for the World’s Rarest 78rpm Records, which delves into the world of the 78 RPM collector. (If you think regular record collectors are particular – and we can be – wait until you read about these guys.) It was an enjoyable read for a few reasons, not the least of which was suggesting some new things for me to listen to. Amanda went from a passing familiarity with the format to donning a wetsuit and diving into the Milwaukee River looking for Paramount Records product allegedly thrown there by record company staff in the 1930s. That’s dedication to your subject.
Perhaps the part of the book that struck me most was the section on collector Don Wahle. Wahle passed away, and his heirs ordered his house to be cleared of possessions. Read as: everything goes into the Dumpster. Another collector, Nathan Salsburg, got the tip to save thousands of 78 recordings from the Dumpster and found enough valuable material to curate a box set from it. This got me thinking: what happens to my records after I am gone? I am not the original owner of most of them. I would hope that there would be another owner some day. I am merely the caretaker for as long as I can keep them and play them.
I was reminded of when my Grandma Szymanski passed away when I was ten. A product of the Depression, she squirreled away a great many possessions in a meager two-flat on the south side of Chicago. I can only guess that when you grow up without, you make sure to keep things “just in case.” Among the things saved “just in case” was a box full of 78 rpm recordings. My parents knew how fascinated I was with records (see “Fourth birthday, present“), and showed them to me. Most of them were in Polish, labels and all. But there were a few titles that even a ten-year-old could recognize: “Mr. Sandman” by the Chordettes, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” by Gene Autry, and so on. The box was moved to the pile to go to the trash, and I protested. “But Lenny,” it was explained, “no one has anything to play those on anymore.” It was then that I indicated that the stereo I had access to had a three-speed BSR changer on it. That 78 setting that was used to make singers sing like the Chipmunks may have had an actual purpose. I won the argument, and the records came home and moved into my room.
Fortunately there was a book or magazine or something in the school library about phonographs that explained the difference between seven-inch styrene and ten-inch shellac. I learned about the importance of flipping the stylus over to the 78 size so that the wider needle could ride the wider groove. (I also learned the greater importance of flipping it back so as not to ruin my microgroove LPs.) Once I figured out how they worked, I played a few. I was surprised at how good they sounded, and yet another world of music unknown to me was opened up. I stopped on the copy of George Hamilton IV’s “A Rose And a Baby Ruth” since it was on the ABC-Paramount label, and I noticed how much bigger the logo was – the figure 8 in rainbow colors – when it didn’t have to accommodate a large 45 hole. I put the record on, and was immediately taken by the reverb on it. I had discovered the country crossover sound of the 1950s.
Of course, I still have the original collection of 78s that came from Grandma’s house, and added to it over the years. By the late 90s I discovered this site called eBay, and, well, it became expensive. It drew me towards some 78 copies of rock and roll records that I enjoyed in other formats. I managed to snare some Elvis on RCA, some Everly Brothers, early Frankie Valli as a member of the Four Lovers, and some other great songs. I even found a copy of the University of Michigan fight song recorded in 1914. But the one I was happiest to find was a copy of “Rock Around the Clock” by Bill Haley and His Comets. The 78 copy is so clean and sounds SO good. Until I can find the actual first rock and roll record ever made at a price I can afford, it will have to do.
No, I am not among the collectors that Petrusich wrote about in her book. I never will be. I can’t justify spending five figures on a single disc, and I’d be afraid to play it if I did. I like playing my records, and I like the stories that go along with how I got them and what I remember about them. In the case of some of the discs, I’m proud to say that 37 years ago I rescued them from a Dumpster. Maybe I am like at least one character in the book after all.
If you’re unfamiliar with “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” you can hear it here.