Blasts From the Past: Birth of the 45 RPM Record

By Steve Propes

As we enter the year 2024, it was a mere 75 years ago in late March 1949, a technological revolution changed the record industry. For much of the 1940s, the two major record labels, RCA/Victor and Columbia had engaged in research and development in their heated and well-documented “battle of speeds.”

From the 1920s on, the standard for pop music recording was a 78 rpm disc, the kind of the small center hole and a propensity for breakage. Often made of shellac, a material needed for national defense production during World War II, thus a large number of these hits were often in short supply, which in turn, inhibited record sales. Couple this with a musician’s union strike in 1947, the record industry had entered a period of doldrums.

The record-buying public wasn’t exactly clamoring for a change in record technology, but a change they got. Columbia entered the fray by introducing the 33 1/3 long play (LP) ten-inch album. The real battle was between the gentile chairman of CBS/Columbia, William Paley and the streetfighter chairman of RCA/Victor, David Sarnoff.

As noted in the PBS presentation, “American Experience, “If King Sarnoff was capable of beneficent, compassionate leadership, he was equally capable of despotic brutality.” On the other hand, Paley was included in a list of the ten most eligible bachelors compiled by Cosmopolitan magazine after Paley divorced twice. This list was an inspiration for Late Night with David Letterman’s nightly Top Ten lists.

RCA/Victor had actually created LP technology in the 1930s and issued a few prototypes. However, RCA allowed the patents to expire because they couldn’t make it work from a business perspective. Of course these developments were extremely upsetting to them. RCA committed to establish a new format that would compete with Columbia’s, rather than accept a license from the latter.

Columbia picked up on that innovation in 1948 by issuing a series of ten-inch LPs, the same diameter as the typical 78, by some of its roster of stars, including Frank Sinatra, Harry James and Doris Day.

RCA/Victor issued the first seven-inch 45s with a big center hole on March 31, 1949, and reportedly sold a million of these new-fangled discs in the first month.

In fact, it was the big center hole that helped RCA/Victor develop sales as quickly as it did. The label approached influential radio stations and made them an offer they could hardly refuse. RCA/Victor would install the newest technology at no cost. When the job was done, the stations discovered that their turntables would play only RCA/Victor 45s, you know, the 7-inch records with the big center.

The first release on the label’s new 45 rpm R&B/blues series was “That’s All Right” by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup on cerise vinyl, an offshoot of orange. Simultaneously, RCA/Victor pressed up a separate country and western series on green vinyl, “Texarkana Baby” by Eddy Arnold being the first issue. Children’s records were pressed on yellow vinyl, classical on red vinyl, international on blue vinyl and pop offerings by Perry Como, Long Beach’s own Spike Jones and the like on black vinyl.

Almost five years to the day later, in 1954, Crudup’s original, “That’s All Right” was revived and redone by an unknown rocker, the debut of Elvis Presley and the birth of rockabilly sound of the Memphis-based Sun label. Presley reportedly later financed a Crudup LP in that latter’s later years as a thank you.

The introduction of the 45 was hardly a death sentence to the venerable 78 rpm speed. Throughout the early to mid-1950s, many hit records were issued in both 45 and 78 speeds.

By 1959, 78s were only pressed when jukebox operators could guarantee labels minimum sales of about 1,000 units. Some of the final 78s were by hit-makers like Elvis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Coasters, the Platters, Gene Vincent, Little Richard and Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae,”a major blues hit in 1959, out on both 78 and 45.

Presley first brought his live show to the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium in a two-week west coast swing on June 7, 1956. The Long Beach Independent took pot-shots at Elvis “the Pelvis” and at the oncoming rock and roll craze in general by dubbing Elvis “America’s Only Atomic Powered Singer.”

Presley’s record career was not a mystery to Wilson High School graduate “Human Jukebox” Stu Rosen, who’d tote around 45s in a wheelbarrow to the Wilson High Bruin Den.

In 1957, Rosen opened up a record store. “I came up with a brilliant idea of marketing, I only had one disc of each song, I bought 40 discs, I came up with this idea, kids were stealing stuff. To sell something, your customer has to handle it, if they’re touching an item, you have 50 percent chance of selling it, so I ran a bar through the records locked at the back. Morey’s Music found out I started it and used the technique.” Thus, the uniquely large center hole in the 45 afforded a practical anti-theft solution.

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