22 Jan Sorting Through My 78s

I’ve spent a couple of days sorting through my 78s in search of just the right tune for the book trailer I’m making (“From Animal House to Our House: A Love Story”). I’ve decided that the tune must be old and peppy — maybe something from the 1920s. The music will percolate behind the various interviews featured in the trailer. It’s supposed to be humorous.

Although I’m not a collector of old records, I have picked up quite a few of these 78s at flea markets, where people nearly give them away. Who has a 78 record player any more? Do you? I hoped to digitize them. Wouldn’t that be cool, to have a music library of rare and unusual tunes from way back when? Jill got me a turn-table that plays 78s and now I’ve got my system rigged up to record them onto CDs. I went through more than fifty of them this week. And I did find some quirky stuff. Take, for instance, a pile of Hungarian records–made in the U.S. for recent immigrants. Check this one out from the “jatsza Band Marci”:

Yeah, I know. The sound quality could not be worse. How about this little ditty, that takes you to an eastern European military parade circa 1920? It does get better. I found one of the earliest recordings of Frank Sinatra in a trio that sang with a band called Tommy Tucker Time. Can you pick him out from this clip? I found plenty of old hits, like “Ma! (He’s Making Eyes At Me).” One I really like is “I Get the Neck of the Chicken,” written in 1942 and now associated mostly with Cab Calloway, though somebody else wrote it. (Jimmy McHugh and Frank Loessner). Eddie Stone sings this version. I like his delivery a lot. Another that turns my head is “Gotta See a Dream About a Girl,” also from the ‘forties.

As you can hear, the sound quality on these clips is marginal. That’s because these records — nearly all 78s you’ll find — are in horrible condition. They are, after all, 60-80 years old and they’ve sat in dusty attics, damp basements, and dirty garages for decades. I’ve tried to clean them (with distilled water and a little grain alcohol) but they don’t clean easily, dirt ingrained in the grooves. Then I’ve tried tweak the recordings with an audio mixer but there’s only so much you can do when the original source is so mucked up. As a result, I’ve abandoned my dream of gathering 78s to create a unique music library. Almost anything from the 1940s and later has been re-mastered one way or another and you can find it on the internet. The really old stuff, well, maybe that’s best left to the collectors who know what to look for.

Speaking of collecting, Jill and I came upon a treasure trove of 45s this summer at a yard sale–many of them from the early 1950s, including an early Elvis. We bought a pile of them for $15. A steal, right? We figured we’d clean up on eBay. The ONLY two records that sold from the bunch were the early Elvis (“Love Me Tender”) with a sleeve — for $12– and the Beatles “Do You Want to Know a Secret” without a sleeve for $5.50. Nobody else wanted the other records, which included Little Richard’s “Tutti Fruiti” with the original sleeve and Carl Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes” on the SUN label. We listed several more than once. Not a bite.

Why? Four reasons: 1) A lot of records were produced. 2) Which means that collectors can find mint copies without too much bother (and I’m not selling mint copies). 3) Nowadays nobody has the old players for these records. Why bother? It’s a hassle to play them and the novelty wears thing quickly. 5) Finally, all of this music is easily found as Mp3 downloads on the internet. So there you have it: be forewarned — if you find an old record at a flea market and think, “Jackpot!”. think again.

You may have forgotten, as I had, that the length of songs was dictated by the medium — you couldn’t get more than 2-3 minutes of music on a 78 disc. They were the single of the day, which led to the practice of stacking records on a changer that could play 5-10 in one go. This practice continued even after the introduction of the 33 Long Playing record. Singles maintained the short format as 45s replaced the 78s on a much smaller record. Although the 33 LP was introduced in 1931, it wasn’t popularized until the late 1940s and early ’50s, and even then production of 78s continued. I was surprised to find so many 78s from the 1950s.

A revolution in music occurred in the 1920s with the shift from acoustic recording — musicians and singers gathered around a large horn that funneled their performance to a stylus that would engrave their noise onto a cylinder or disc — to electrical recording, which used microphones: the kind of recording we’re used to now, which tremendously increased the sound’s fidelity. The earliest (acoustic) recordings were painfully crude, even to listeners at the time, and this may explain the quality of some of my really old 78s. It appears that the last 78s were produced in 1956. If you go to a flea market today you’ll see stacks of them. Really, it’s remarkable that these brittle shellacked platters have survived and I have to admit that, despite my assertion that I won’t buy anymore, it’s always hard for me to pass them by.