Did you know they’re still making records? I don’t mean Olympic records or new home run records, I mean phonograph records. There is a small group of hi-fi fanatics that will buy up new records, so the groups that are out there now are putting discs out for the collectors. They buy up old records as well, but there’s enough of a market out there that they make new ones.
There’s something about being able to hold a record in your hand and look at the artwork on the big, square album cover. It’s a lot different from a digital copy of music on some type of electronic player where there’s nothing to look at except a playlist on a tiny video screen. Records have been around for well over 100 years and it looks like they are going to keep being around, even if it is in reduced numbers. Everything old is new again.
Back in the day
Years ago, like in the big band years, there were 78s. This meant that the record spun at 78 revolutions per minute on the turntable. The size of the records limited the length of the songs that could be on there. Many of the songwriters back then would make sure they didn’t write songs that were too long to fit on one side of a record. They usually had one and sometimes two songs. If you wanted a recording of a symphony, of say Beethoven or Mozart, you had to buy a multi-record set to get the whole piece, flipping records and changing them as the movements played. Then came “singles” that were 45s (45 rpms) and then hi-fidelity recordings that could be played at 33 1/3 rpms. The slower speed and the slightly larger disc of the 33s created a new world of music, the Long Playing album, or LP.
Now you could buy a record and it might contain 10 or 12 songs on it. Artists could now do more than just write songs, they could create “concept” albums where each of the songs worked together to convey an idea or story. Or the rock artists could write songs with plenty of jam sections and solos so that one song might run for the length of one entire side of an album.
And for the really ambitious, there was the double album. Two — two! — LPs worth of music, frequently from live recordings of shows where the artist might play for an hour and half or two hours and the double album would have it all. Speaking of live albums, one I remember fondly was Johnny Cash’s album recorded live in Folsom Prison during a show for the inmates. There was something engaging in hearing the excitement of a live performance, a little rough around the edges compared to a studio recording, but more than made up for by the energy of the performer and the cheers of the (captive) audience.
As a kid, my first encounter with records was the LPs my parents would play. They had 45s and a small 45 player they brought out at house parties, which I’ve seen in the old home movies they took then, but by the time I came around they had moved on to LPs and had a record player that was bigger than the sofa and every bit as important a piece of furniture. It was a while before I was taught how to operate the record player.
Of course, with a stereo phonograph that big it was a while before I was tall enough to even look over the edge and down where the turntable was. It had a radio also, both AM and FM, although I don’t remember any FM stations around until probably the '70s. And as far as radio stations went, the tuner stayed on WBLJ 1230 out of Dalton. It was the station we listened to to find out if snow was coming and school would be cancelled or dad could listen to the Atlanta Braves or Georgia football broadcasts.
State of the art
The phonograph, however, was state of the art. RCA, you know. And state of the art back then meant you turned the switch on ... and you waited. A little red light let you know it was actually getting electricity but this big stereo had tubes in it instead of transistors and so it had to warm up. If the radio was on, after a moment or two it would gradually fade in on whatever station it was on. You know, WBLJ. If you were going to play records you had time from the moment you clicked the switch on until it was ready to go to sort through a few LPs, make your choice, put the record on the turntable, go fix a sandwich, read the front page of the newspaper and fix a Coke. Then it was time for music!
My earliest memories of LPs were me playing with a toy truck or some toy in front of the big stereo and listening to the music my parents had put on. They had several albums by a band called The Ventures. This was a surf style instrumental band that did surf style covers of popular hits. Some of the first Beatles songs I ever heard were The Ventures' versions of the tunes. Later, when I would hear the originals I was always surprised they had words. The Ventures had a really big hit with the theme from the TV show "Hawaii Five-0," the original show version, not the one that’s on TV now. The Ventures also did surf versions of songs from movie soundtracks, top 40 songs of the day and even oddball things like a surf version of "The Twilight Zone" theme song.
The other performer my parents had many records of was Ray Charles. “Hit the Road Jack," “That’s What I Say” and “Georgia On My Mind” worked for me even as a kid. And they had an album he did of country music, which is kind of mind-blowing for the day if you think about it. A black, jazzy, R&B pop master sings songs from deep in the country. Ray Charles took the songs and put out his breakthrough “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music."
The thing about records is that you can play them over and over and get really familiar with your favorites. If you hear a song on the radio you like, you may not hear it again for days if it’s not in the top 10. And if there’s a song you can’t stand but it is in the top 10, you’re going to hear until you want to throw the radio out the window. My parents didn’t have a huge record collection so we listened to some of these albums over and over. And at Christmas time they’d pull out the holiday collection records and play them each year, adding a musical continuity to the season.
My parents did buy a couple of those greatest hits by sound-alike artists that they used to sell on TV. I think it was Ronco records or something like that. I would put the records on and they sounded very much like the hits — but they weren’t. They were by some studio group made to sound as close to the original record as possible. It was cheaper to sell a song if the actual original recording wasn’t used. These copycat records were all I had so I played them.
On the flip side of the recording coin, imagine the excitement when people I actually knew recorded an LP. There was a trio of ladies at our church that sang hymns in three-part harmony. Now, there are plenty of ways to make a decent recording of music: Computers, digital recorders with built-in microphones. Your smartphone probably has more music recording possibilities than Elvis Presley ever had at Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee.
But back several decades ago you actually had to make the effort to go into a recording studio and lay down tracks. This trio from our church did just that. They went in, booked the recording time, accompanied themselves on piano and paid the engineer to mix the music. Then the records were pressed and an album jacket with their picture on it was printed up and the next thing you know they had an album like any of the big stars. The album cover layout was the same as the big time performers, and although the picture on the cover was black and white, it was the faces of people I knew.
We still have that album in the box of records we’ve kept. Although the recording is a little echoey, you’ve got to figure there are two types of people in the world: Those who have made a record and those who have not. These local ladies, “The Antioch Trio," belong to the “have made” crowd. Me? I belong to the “I know someone who has made an LP” crowd.
There are plenty of people in Dalton and the area who have made records. You can probably still find their albums in thrift stores around town. Keep an eye out — and an ear out— for those great LPs that are still out there.
Mark Hannah, a Dalton native, works in video and film production.