Record collectors are a special breed, willing to sift through rubbish on the hunt for a rare sonic gem. They are the keepers of arcane knowledge and obscure taxonomies about genres and labels and recording dates. But even among those driven characters, 78 obsessives are unusual.
A new book looks at the people who collect 78 rpm records, commonly referred to as 78s. There are a handful of collectors from Connecticut, but few of them are expecting to find something like the Tommy Johnson 78 from 1929 that sold on eBay for $37,100 last year. Vinyl records — 33 rpm LPs that is — are back. Maybe 78s will be next? In Connecticut there are 78 collectors, some seek out the recordings for their rough viceral pleasure, others for research purposes. None of them are anticipating a 21st century Victrola craze, but this doesn't dampen their devotion to the hunt.
The old LP-playing technology has been revived. Music fans, nostalgists, audiophiles, and bands love vinyl. Sales of vinyl albums are one of the few growing sectors in the music industry. Earlier this month Jack White made news when vinyl records made up for nearly a third of the first-week sales of his Billboard-topping album "Lazaretto." Before streaming audio, before MP3 players, before CDs, and even before 8-track tapes and cassettes, vinyl was the way people listened to music. There was radio, of course, but the DJs were spinning vinyl, too.
People basically stopped making records and buying them in the late '80s, when the CD era began.
Back in the 1920s and '30s, and up through the '50s, the shellac 78 rpm record was the dominant audio medium. With two sides, each three or four minutes long, those brittle discs had jazz, pop, schmaltz, blues, mambos, gospel, country, old-time, bluegrass, western swing, sermons, doo-wop, boogie woogie, the rumblings of rock. It was all there. And then it all went away. The rise of the 33 rpm LP, which was longer playing (hence the name) and less fragile, meant the end of the 78. During World War II, a shortage in the supply of the shellac hastened the demise of 78s, which were still produced in lesser and lesser quantities through the late '50s.
There are devoted collectors of those old 78s. c
Petrusich makes quick sketches of a number of 78 collectors. She set out "to tell the story of a strange, misunderstood community." Along the way she explores the idea that collecting is a kind of behavior that in some cases is almost pathological. Petrusich is intrigued by the notion that collecting is largely a "male" hobby, one that sometimes replaces other routine social interactions. For some of the 78 fanatics, "collecting had clearly become … a functional way of rebelling against mainstream culture." Some of them, like Harry Smith, are relatively well known among music fans. Smith compiled The Anthology of American Folk Music, which is credited with kick-starting the folk revival and inspiring iconic American musicians like Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia. Others, like Joe Bussard, are famous for their collections of ultra-rare records. Bussard has been the subject of a documentary, and he's been written about numerous times.
Petrusich also hangs out with a new generation of younger collectors, people like Christopher King and Ian Nagoski who have helped compile newer anthologies of old recordings, reshaping the discussion about early recorded music. King was the sound director responsible for many of the transfers from rare 78s to digital on the multiple-Grammy-winning six-disc set "Screamin' and Hollerin the Blues: the Worlds of Charley Patton," a 2001 box set that presented all known recordings, most made in the late 1920s, by the legendary pioneer of Delta blues. King also worked on "The Rise and Fall of Paramount Records," a deluxe set that came out last year and included, among other things, 800 MP3s of Paramount tracks loaded onto a bronze flash drive. Paramount 78s are particularly sought after among collectors, since the label released music by legendary artists like Ma Rainey, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Patton, Son House and Skip James. Nagoski has helped compile collections of 78s of music of the Ottoman-American diaspora from the same period.
Petrusich definitely catches the fever. "I missed pining for things," she writes of her digital-age surplus, and how it spurred other desires for acquiring physical artifacts. She wants to find an old obscure blues or old-time record for her own. But the golden age of record-hunting has mostly gone. Rare blues 78s sell for thousands of dollars now, and it's not like you can just pop down to the flea market and expect to find stacks of them, the way older collectors could in the '50s and '60s. Working to amass a collection of rare 78s from scratch today is a quixotic and anachronistic quest.
At one point Petrusich even takes lessons and gets certified in scuba diving in order to search around in the mud and muck of the Milwaukee River where it runs through Grafton, Wisc., because that was the former site of Paramount Records' pressing plant.
Connecticut's 78 collectors aren't quite as gonzo, perhaps. At least none of the ones I spoke with sounded ready to jump into a river for a record. Thrift stores, estate sales, flea markets and eBay are the preferred hunting grounds for them. I spoke to a few 78 collectors from the CT Record Club, which meets once a month in North Haven. Each of them pointed out that even among record collectors, most of whom look for vinyl LPs or 45s, 78s are an acquired taste.
Richard Hall, from New Haven County, is one of those 78 collectors. Hall, 56, has four working jukeboxes that play his 78s collection. He estimates he has about 1,500 of the records, most of which were recorded after 1926, when labels began using electric microphones, allowing for quieter performances to be captured on shellac. Hall says he finds most of his 78s for a dollar a piece. He says he seeks out what are often called "sweet bands," which were essentially the top 40 from the late-'20s through the early '40s.
It's not unusual to hear record chauvinists expound on the superior acoustical qualities of vinyl LPs as compared to the hyper-compressed MP3 format, or the often poorly mastered CD. You have to search a little harder to find a similar argument in favor of the sonic virtues of 78s, since those records were often deeply worn and scratched, with lots of surface noise, and the players weren't necessarily state-of-the-art. But the sound experience, and a closer connection to the setting and time when the music was made is what drives some 78 collectors.
"If I'm going to listen to a record that came out in 1932 — on a 78, that's how I want to listen to it. I don't want to listen to a 1970s re-issue," says Hall. "That's all part of the music."
Cliff Morehouse, another collector from the Connecticut Record Club, finds plenty of reason to seek out the sound. "The 78s are gonna have more background noise, but the sound of the music just comes forward with more force and body," he says.
Morehouse, 57, from North Haven, is on the hunt for recordings by some of Connecticut's raw-yet-smooth pop vocal groups.
"There was a lot of great doo-wop that came out of New Haven — the Five Satins, the Academics, the Starlarks, the Nutmegs," says Morehouse. Morehouse also collects blues and early rock and roll, artists like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Chuck Berry.
In addition to its doo-wop history, Connecticut is also known among 78 collectors because Columbia Records' primary pressing plant was in Bridgeport, from which it shipped records to all over the world. (The company stopped pressing records there in 1964.)
"One of the neat things about the 78s is the timing of them," says Morehouse. "45s were invented in 1948, but nobody had the equipment to play them. When the 45s took over, they started phasing out the 78s, so the 78s from 1955 to 1960 are pretty rare."
Coupled with the rarity, the extreme fragility of 78s — they're famous for being shattered to bits when shipped by novices in the mail — makes for an artifact more likely to be discarded than preserved. "It's not a medium that invites dabbling," writes Petrusich.