Happy birthday to the 45 (1949)


(Above: The RCA Sample 45 to introduce the format.  I covet this item.)

68 years ago today, RCA Victor debuted the new 45 RPM record, without which, this blog would have no title.

One of the things that I have enjoyed working into history lectures is the history of recorded music.  Time was, if you wanted music in your home, you had to know how to play it yourself on a piano, guitar, etc. From the wax cylinder to the flat disc, the miracle of home sound reproduction created a whole new industry.  We used to measure the popularity of songs based on sales of sheet music.  Even in the early days of the record business, the song mattered more than the performer.  (Look at 1955 and note four charting versions of “Unchained Melody.”)  The music industry took off when singles became less fragile and more accessible.

There’s another perfect storm that led to the growth of this medium: the move of people from cities to suburbs led to the assignment of chores to young people.  For doing their chores they earned an allowance, and with their allowance they could buy their OWN music to play on their OWN record player.  The 45 format allowed for that.  The parents kept the ginormous hi-fi in the living room to themselves, while the kids could have their own player to listen to that infernal rock and roll stuff – which also, not coincidentally, grew in popularity shortly after the introduction of the 45 RPM record.

RCA had a grand plan at first to color-code the discs by type of music.  Country would be green, kids records would be yellow, classical would be red, and popular would be… black.  That is, unless the performers were  themselves black.  Then, you’d be looking at the “rhythm and blues” designation, officially listed as “cerise.” Popular music meant “white pop,” and there was a sort of segregation on the record shelf.  This madness ceased shortly after it started due to the higher cost of the colored vinylite (and, I’m sure, the griping of staff having to change the colors in the presses).

But why 45?  The original 78 RPM players (78.26 RPM, to be precise) picked their speed for a simple reason.  A common 3600 RPM motor paired to a commonly found 46:1 gear yielded a turntable speed of … 78.26.  Once turntables moved from being spring-wound to electrically driven, the speed was standardized.  (Part of the fun of collecting really old 78s is figuring out what speed they are supposed to be.  Depending on label, the speed can vary from 60 to over 100.)  45 was sold in a sales pitch from RCA as “the perfect speed for sound reproduction,” easier to store, and “Suzy can have her own player in her own room.”  In actual fact, RCA engineers were told “pick anything that is incompatible with the 78 or the 33 1/3 that Columbia is making.  And while you’re at it, poke a big ol’ hole in the middle of it.”

RCA made the players for their own records.  These things go for big dollar now in restored condition.  I kind of want one for my office, but the tube-driven heavy-tracking players aren’t necessarily good for more modern discs.  That said, they look really groovy.

The 45 went out of production, essentially, in 1990, as the ill-fated “cassette single” and even more ridiculous 3″ CD single replaced it.  The resurgence of interest in vinyl over the last few years has shown reissues of LP records, but not much in the way of the 45.  Me?  I’d much rather raid an old record store and sift through the singles to see what gems I can find.  Then, I bring ’em home, stack ’em on a changer, and relax.  There’s a simplicity to the rhythm of the changer that takes me back to how I first listened to music over 40 years ago.  It hasn’t changed.  Not everything needs to.

See for yourself if the 45 is right for you.  Hear the RCA demonstration record by clicking here.


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