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Scratches, Static, and Preservation: Welcome to the World of 78s!

Welcome to the World of 78s

May 24, 2019 | by Andrew K. Lau

“I’m not sure how many there are.”

The above statement isn’t an unusual one for a collector of anything, and I just mumbled it while scanning my collection of 78RPM records, looking for sides to write about for this installment of LWIF.

Amassing 78s is a special strain of impracticality: they’re fragile (made of either shellac or bakelite), easily scratched, they take up a lot of space, there’s only two songs per record (three minutes per side), it requires a record player with the correct speed setting and a special stylus to handle the wider grooves.

That said, 78s can sound like no other recorded medium: astoundingly warm, deep, and that much closer to the original source.

When originally recorded, the music went directly into a microphone converting the songs into signals which were then cut onto a wax or lacquer disc; this was called “the master,” the one which the 78s were made. No mixing, no effects, or overdubbing. This installment is more about the format instead of a particular record or theme. As you know, LWIF is about discovery, finding something appealing in a pile of trash — and if there’s a shabby, garbage-bound format out there today, 78s leads the pack. At least 8-tracks had a plastic case.

A majority of my 78s were scored from the same place as the rest of the records highlighted in this column: in slapdash piles on the floor of a notorious record store in Berkeley, California where I worked for 16 years. Given their fragility and the oafish, uncaring hands of the store’s owner who tossed them there while pricing out records the previous night, it’s a slight miracle I was able to save any at all. Though you can’t blame said oaf because they take up a lot of space and rarely sell.

These things are mostly in the way of modern life, but to vintage enthusiasts, they’re a door to another world.

In a way, the music is as fragile as the records. Since the recording were mastered onto wax discs and not onto tape, some 78s are the only remaining versions available of a particular song. Of course, you don’t have to collect these damn things to hear the music. The good folks over at the Internet Archive have the “Great 78 Project” where they’re digitizing every disc they can get their hands on.

Likewise, reissues labels such as Scotland’s Document Records have been doing award-winning preservation since 1985 and they, too, have to use the cleanest 78s available for their compilations. The one version of The Hokum Boys “Caught Him Doing It,” from Document’s Complete Recordings June-December, 1929, is barely audible due to the almost impenetrable curtain of scratches and white noise. But it’s the only copy remaining. Shucks, it doesn’t sound too far off from some of the records I peeled off the floor at work where the music is pushed back into the distance.

It’s a sound other people may find unlistenable, but those scratches act as an audible time-stamp, furthering their uniqueness and washing the music with waves of antiquity. Say what you want about digitizing and its problematic fidelity, this technology has become the final resting place for some of these songs, a way to freeze the music before it slips away forever.

If you really want to dive into this world, track down a few of the documentaries about obsessive collectors of 78s, Desperate Man Blues about Joe Bussard being the finest example. Crumb, the 1990 film about cartoonist R. Crumb would be another. Both these men are connoisseurs of early 20th century music, both are skeptical if not downright repelled (terrified?) of modern-day music, and both keep their records in pristine condition, expertly cataloged in fine oak shelves. That’s not what you’ll see when you come over to my place for a visit. No, mine are kept closer to the spirit in which I found them: controlled chaos.

Back when 78s were the preferred format, there were a few ways people could store and carry the them. One was a storage book which had cardboard covers and heavy stock inner sleeves bound to the spine, each page held a record. The other option was a case (also made of strong cardboard) with a lid, handle, and varying types of latches. Inside were dividers where the records could be filed, an index sheet was affixed to the underside of the cover to keep track of what was inside.

The record store where I worked bought used formats from people looking to offload their stuff and we hardly paid any money for 78s (which isn’t uncommon), so the customer would often just give them to us instead of having to take them back to home. The 78s would arrive dumped in boxes, bags, and the above-mentioned cases that would often be in as miserable shape as the records they were supposed to protect. The book’s pages would be ripped or falling out and the boxes would often be weak from mold or water damaged, their latches and handles faulty.

I’d find the least damaged of these and repair them to accommodate my growing collection under the large table which acted as my desk; all it took was some strong packaging tape, a razor blade, and company time.

So taken as a whole, my entire 78 collection is a strange mélange of beat-up records inside modified, beat-up holders. It’s not really Do-It-Yourself as much as it is Use-What-You-Have. Unlike everything else in my collection (LPs, CDs, DVDs, cassettes) these are not alphabetically or chronologically sorted. Heck, they’re not even separated by genre, they’re just together, stacked wherever space will allow, a situation which would surly drive Mr. Bussard and Mr. Crumb insane. Where those guys have thousands of records, I have maybe one hundred.

To be honest, I didn’t comb through mine to find you the best and greatest. Nah, again, in keeping with the spirit in which they were originally found, I just pulled a few cases off the shelves and randomly picked out some interesting titles.

As mentioned above, one needs a special player and I would avoid using your fancy-pants state of the art hi-fi. My garbage records are played on a secondary turntable, a 1964 GE Transistor Adventurer, which has a heavier tone arm and a strong motor to handle the weight. With their uneven surfaces and sometimes incorrectly centered holes, playing a 78 is similar to taking your car off-road and it’d be wise to invest in a stylus that can handle the rugged terrain, one with a broader point to take in the bigger grooves and heavier bass signals.

Yap, yap, yap! Okay, enough technical mumbo-jumbo, let’s get on with it. For the sake of space and time, I’ll highlight one side instead of the whole record.

Willie Mabon – “I Don’t Know” (Chess, 1952)

A call and response mid-tempo kicker about a man with — wait for it! — relationship troubles (“I said: ‘What’d I say to make you mad THIS time, baaaaay-bay?’”). Mabon’s voice is deep luster and his backing band — drums, bass, sax, and piano — is loose, sloppy, and perfect. It’s a sound Chess Records personified and they had about a 98% accuracy rate on releasing great records, one glimpse of the distinctive white-and-blue logo made my heart jump. This track was made famous 26 years later when The Blues Brothers covered it on their Briefcase Full of Blues LP where vocalist “Joliet” Jake Blues augments the lyrics a bit for the modern listener.

Grady Martin & His Winging Strings – “Pork Chop Stomp” (Decca, 1954)

Martin was a Nashville session guitarist who played on what appears to be every record or single by everyone who ever recorded in the city, and that’s including jazz trombonist Kai Winding. This Western swing instrumental is a ragged two-minute excuse for the Winging Strings to show off with repeating fiddle, piano, guitar, and pedal steel solos as the song’s title is shouted over the top. The flip-side is a more focused country swing number meant for radio and the charts making “Pork Chop Stomp” a glorious throwaway. Decca didn’t specialize in a particular genre like, say Chess or Sun, but they were a major label and would have great sounding releases, even it were a bunch of yahoo’s goofin’ off in the studio.

The Flairs – “She Loves to Rock” (ABC-Paramount, 1956)

A perfect example of that small moment in time when Rhythm & Blues was turning into rock ‘n’ roll. From the first second until the last, The Flairs give us an up-tempo rocker with just bass, piano, and sax, all greatly contrasting the slick, watered-down ballad on the other side. Lead vocalist Cornel Gunter would later go on to sing for The Coasters; that group’s taste for the absurd was certainly helped by him because the nutty vocal break during the bridge sounds just like something they would pull off (“Boy! Get it! Boy! Hey, don’t stop!”). Each member takes a phrase with perfect timing making it sound as if it’s sung by one person, a trick that I’m sure took some practice. It’s those little pieces of the unusual that makes these songs all the more fascinating.

Gene Krupa Orchestra w/ Anita O’Day – “‘Murder,’ He Says” (OKeh, 1942)

As with everything she did, Anita O’Day steals the show and, in this case, upstages the well-oiled orchestra put together by heavyweight drummer Gene Krupa. A bit underrated, O’Day had a vocal confidence and ease unlike many of her peers — what she may’ve lacked in range was made up for in punch. Even when singing “Murder!” one can hear her smile. Speaking of which, this would be a good time for me to suggest you read her autobiography, High Times, Hard Times, O’Day was a wild one. As with Chess, OKeh had a ridiculous roster of talent; between the 20s and 50s they were putting out discs by Roy Acuff, Hada Brooks, Bix Beiderbecke, Ada Brown, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Lizzy Miles… on and on.

Helen Humes – “I Ain’t In the Mood” (Modern, 1951)

A mid-paced guitar/piano blues female response to John Lee Hooker’s “I’m In the Mood,” a sizeable hit for the label that same year. This particular mix has every instrument fighting to be heard, but her vocals, which themselves gets lost for a few seconds in the bluesy swamp, shoots over the top in what could be an early feminist anthem. (“You come by and see me / Come by some other time / But don’t come back ‘til Tuesday / Maybe I’ll change my mind…”) Humes was a strong one and suffered no fools when it came to managing her career, she even turned down Count Basie’s first offer to have her replace Billie Holiday in his orchestra (she would reconsider a year later). A master of jazz swing vocals, Humes could just as easily shift gears into blues, as exemplified here. Versatility at its best.

Jimmy McCracklin – “Railroad Blues” (Aladdin, 1951)

The Arkansas-born vocalist/singer was mainly known for jump blues but, like Humes, could reroute his style at the drop of a hat. This here is gut-bucket blues with only piano, electrified guitar, and recorded with maybe two microphones. (“Since I’ve been a railroad porter / Things don’t seem right no ‘mo / So I’m gonna leave you / Don’t cry when I go…”) More relationship troubles! McCracklin’s slow, woozy vocals sounds like a lot of whiskey, and my copy is so scratched the music sounds as though it’s coming from another room. There are cleaner versions available, of course, but the washing sound of my 78 puts this record into an irreversible, delicious time warp.

Hoagy Carmichael – “Hong Kong Blues” (ARA, 1947)

Written with Stanley Adams for the film To Have and Have Not, in which Carmichael plays a small roll, this piano-driven song takes a buoyant melody and wraps it with a story involving racism, heroin, homelessness, and the plea for death all sung in Carmichael’s amiable tenor. This is different from the film’s version as it contains a fantastically dissonant Shamisen solo, furthering “Hong Kong Blues” irresistibility. This guy couldn’t write a bad song if he tried, which I’m sure angered friends and foes alike. Not too many people can walk the thin line separating tragedy and whimsy.

Peetie Wheatstraw – “Sick Bed Blues” (Decca, 1937)

Given the year in which this was released, “Sick Bed Blues” is technically the only one on this list that can be called “a race record.” The music industry segregated African American artists and marketed them solely to their own, but The Great Depression killed off that idea as fewer people could afford the luxury of buying records and scores of musicians lost their jobs. A few major labels continued to push the term in their advertisements, but it didn’t last long. From then on, it was easier to market them by their genres: Rhythm & Blues, Jazz, Gospel, Vocals, etc.

Wheatstraw, as the label points out, is also known as “The Devil’s Son-In-Law” (or “The High Sheriff From Hell,” which doesn’t rhyme as well with Wheatstraw) casts a long, important shadow over the pre-WWII blues landscape. A pianist more than a guitarist, his lyrical delivery and macho confidence was adapted by many peers, including a young Robert Johnson. Not as spooky as, say, Blind Willie Johnson or as subtle as Mississippi John Hurt, Weatstraw’s bright, juke joint piano style betrays the hard life words. His cadence here is defiant and slurred, almost violent sounding; he rounds off words enunciating emotion instead of syllables:

When I left my ‘lil girl, she was sick an in ‘th bed

I said when I left home, my ‘lil girl was sick and in ‘th bed

Now I know she wish ‘tha I was there

Whoooo to hold her achin’ head

This might not be the oldest record I gleaned from the trash, but it probably holds the most significance and — judging by the way the center hole has been worn away — this copy looks as though it was someone else’s favorite as well. At least for a time. Who knows where this thing has been and how many people had it? Eventually, it was given away and somehow wound up on the floor of my workplace where I came upon it along with all the others. Old electric signals of distance voices, some bold and clear, other fading into an oblivion of white noise.

Of course, there’s so much music from this era to discover and a good chunk of it If available to you in a variety of formats (CD, streaming, LP, cassette), thanks largely in part to re-issue labels. But hearing these songs come off a beat-up 78? That’s an unparalleled sound.

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