DEAR JERRY: Because of the popularity of the 45 rpm singles in the 1950s,
which label was the first to cut back on the production of 78s?
Will Brennan, Lynn, Mass.
DEAR WILL: You may recall my column referencing how Columbia, creator of the vinyl LP, resisted making 45 rpm singles (with inch-and-a-half holes). Chalk it up to two reasons: it was invented by RCA Victor, their primary rival, and Columbia was pushing for compact 33 singles (with quarter-inch holes, same as 78s).
Columbia eventually succumbed to consumer demand, though they were among the last companies to jump on the 45 rpm bandwagon.
Ironically, Columbia became the first label to openly proclaim, based on the dominance of 45s, that the time to bury the 78 rpm format had arrived.
They wisely realized this could not be done overnight, especially with thousands of 78 rpm juke box operators being dependent on new releases in that format. But they did manage to get the ball rolling.
In April of 1956, in a "breaking news" press release, Columbia president James B. Conkling outlined their plan to phase out 78 production, while causing the least amount of grief and lost revenue to their most important customers for 78s. Here are some highlights from Conkling's blueprint, as carried in The Cash Box:
"Analysis of our 1955 sales shows that the dealer, the distributor and we ourselves would have turned over our investments more frequently, made more profit and ended up with much less obsolete inventory if we had never released on 78 rpms about three-quarters of our year's single releases. Consumer polls, similarly, show an overwhelming preference for 45 rpm singles over the old-fashioned 78s.
"We, therefore, expect that no more than 25 per cent of our new single releases will be issued automatically on 78 rpm disks; we hope to diminish this proportion further during 1956. Columbia does not intend to eliminate 78 rpm service where it can be desirable and profitable. But by gradually diverting consumer demand and dealer supply exclusively to 45s, we believe we will ultimately increase retail turnover and offend virtually no customers in the process.
"We believe that the consumer should be able to purchase popular recorded material in any form he prefers and that our dealers should be able to supply all consumer needs. However, our program for withdrawing 78s from inventory is based on careful study at both dealer-distributor and consumer levels."
An unnamed Cash Box editor then added the following:
"Columbia Records is the first manufacturer to eliminate the 78 rpm disk for most single record releases. Withdrawal of 78 rpm singles from the consumer market represents the final stage in a long-range transition that has already taken place in the classical and popular album fields, where the 33 1/3 rpm long play, and the 45 rpm extended play disks predominate. Radio stations and juke boxes throughout the country have already completed conversion of their operations from 78 to 45 rpm records."
IZ ZAT SO? Though just 16 words, I believe James B. Conkling was revealing a key detail about the 78 phase-out with this sentence:
"Columbia does not intend to eliminate 78 rpm service where it can be desirable and profitable."
Beginning in 1956, Columbia, soon to be joined by most other labels, became much more selective about which singles would be issued with 78 counterparts.
The logical criteria was to restrict 78 production to their top artists and hit records, a plan that provided 78 juke box operators to load the music most likely to be played for pay -- at this time, ten cents each or three songs for a quarter.
In June 1958, roughly 14 months after Columbia went public with their plan, they produced what seems to be their final 78 single: "A Certain Smile" (Columbia 41193), a Top 15 hit by Johnny Mathis, their top-selling star of the 1950s. A perfect candidate for the "desirable and profitable" template.
Meanwhile, RCA Victor was following a similar same phase-out strategy, but just a little slower.
In November 1958, their swan song 78 job was to press a small quantity of Elvis Presley's "One Night"/"I Got Stung" (RCA Victor 20-7410), again to placate the coin machine industry.
This was RCA's 24th consecutive Presley 78 rpm single -- there were five on the Sun label in 1954 and '55 -- and is by far the most valuable on Victor.
Expect to pay about $800, if you can even find one.
About a year later, two more charted singles were inexplicably issued as 78s:
From December 1959 came Buster Brown's "Fannie Mae" (Fire 1008), now valued
at $300, and Chuck Berry's "Too Pooped to Pop - Casey"/"Let It Rock"
(Chess 1747), issued in January 1960. This rarity can fetch $500.