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Tuesday, February 4, 2014

A Love Letter in 78 RPM

One night, when I was about fifteen, while looking at my father's stereo in his apartment, I had remarked that his record player had "just two speeds". Mr. Subtlety Himself responded, "Well, who wants to listen to pissin' 78's?"

I, ever the complacent one, said nothing, preferring to keep my then-pastime of collecting and listening to 78 RPM records part of my secret world that was sequestered from the rest of humankind. Collecting these ten-inch pieces of shellac was an extension of my ongoing appreciation of, forgive me, "old music".  

Somewhere in my pre-teen years I became hooked on big band sounds through hearing them on the radio (leading to my lifelong love of jazz). When I was old enough to be home alone without a babysitter on Saturday nights while my mother went out boozing, I would often tune into the big band show on CFCA 105FM which began in the early evening and went well into the wee hours. Although Glenn Miller was a personal favourite, these young ears otherwise couldn't decipher between a Tommy Dorsey or a Harry James: it was the overall sound, ambiance and mood that appealed to me. My tastes would soon extend beyond swing, into what would be classified as popular music of the 1930s to the 1950s.

Other than a couple of Beatles 45s and Jerry Lee Lewis' "Breathless" on 78, I never had a rock and roll album until I was eighteen. As an example of how much of a Luddite I was, here are some LPs I got for Christmas during my teen years, procured from the cheap bins at Woolworth's:  The Glenn Miller Story; Enoch Light and the Light Brigade; Al Hirt. When we were required to do an "all about me" project for my Grade 9 French class, my mother suggested that I should tell about my love of Glenn Miller and big band music. I instantly vetoed that idea, stating that my classmates would think I was nuts if they read that. (In hindsight, I wished I had put it in, just to scare the shit out of them.) Yes, while my peers were listening to "Tom Sawyer" and "Highway To Hell",  I was learning the lyrics to "Have You Got Any Gum Chum" by The Crew Chiefs, or "Just To Be With You" by Eddie Fisher.

While there were plenty of these vintage sounds to be heard on the radio or on 33 RPM, I also became interested in 78s upon seeing a stash of them in my friend Todd's father's record collection, thinking they looked cool, and added these to my "search" list in those Saturday morning yard sale journeys. In the summer before I was to begin Grade 10, I spent an entire week's worth of allowance money on a small standalone record player, bought from a yard sale by my mother's friend Rae (the resale queen, who was always making a buck with buying and selling). It had four speeds: 33, 45, 16... and 78! All right!

My two "big hauls" of 78s were also performed during these eight weeks away from school. The first was when I spent another entire week's worth of allowance money on an album containing ten 78s in its paper sleeves, found at an antique shop in the sticks. (I even got to choose which platters out of dozens to fill it with!) Later in the season, my former Grade Five Teacher, and fellow yard sale freak, had a sale of his own. (Noticing a pattern here?) In his garage was a huge wine box full of 78s, marked with the sign, "Free for the taking!" I grabbed them all, and boy was it fun trying to balance a heavy box of records on my ten speed back home... downhill!

Although I collected 78s and comic books foremost because I enjoyed them, my secondary reason for doing so was for their future increasing value. One afternoon, while browsing through an antiques price guide in the "reference only" section of the public library, I was tickled pink to discover a listing for a Sir Harry Lauder side, which I owned. Its estimated value? Ten bucks! Woohoo! In a haphazard attempt to preserve these records for posterity, I had also made paper sleeves to hold them in, from a huge roll of newsprint I had acquired some time before.

What about these sounds possibly appealed to this young man who was conceived decades after they were in vogue? A lot of this stuff was already out of style before my parents would have even graduated high school! As mentioned elsewhere on this blog, I've always been enamoured of "old things": architectural art deco design, the look of antique cars, and of course, old movies, TV shows, and books. Perhaps the adoration simply resulted from seeing much of this still around in my hometown during those influential years, and consequently, they still felt "in the present". The older generation, who came of age when all of this was new, was still the dominant workforce, and continued to keep it alive. For instance, a favourite downtown newsstand-novelty store, with its trademark creaky wooden floors, still managed by the same owner after forty years, constantly had this type of music playing from the store's PA system.

A greater truth, perhaps, is that the chief appeal of these sounds was the nostalgia they instilled in me. However, nostalgia is a selective process, where one solely recalls the good things of a past era. The time our parents referred to as "the good old days", from which this music originated, was also rife with economic hardship and war. These sounds took me back to what I nonetheless believed to be simpler times, full of the same virtue, hope and old-fashioned values evoked in their melodies.

One's teenaged years encounter numerous psychological and physical changes as they advance, and likewise, one's tastes change with the same rapidity. Although I still enjoy that music to this day, it wasn't long before my concentration shifted to paperbacks (previously discussed here) and eventually, film.

In time, that yard sale record player drew its last breath, and when I finally started listening to comparatively modern music, I had purchased a stereo including a record player with only (gasp!) two speeds. The 78s, once a significant part of my youth, were unplayed for years, until I decided to include them in my own yard sale during my early 20s. They sat on the driveway in a box which had I marked with tongue in cheek, "Free to a good home".  The fellow who picked them up told me that in his country house he had a windup Victrola to play them on, so yes- to a good home they went!

Oh. And what, you may ask, was the first rock and roll LP (if you could call it that) I bought at eighteen? The soundtrack for Saturday Night Fever.


  1. Finely recounted fond memories. Excellent.

    I too got into jazz, but in my case closer to my late teens. In my early it was 1950's Rock & Roll.

    Did it occur to you to make audio cassette dubs from those 78s?

  2. Sadly, no, and perhaps just as well. During these formative years, my audio gear was rather primitive. Other than the record player mentioned above, I also had one of those Radio Shack tape recorders, which I would have to hold up in front of the speaker, and of course, the ambient noises around you would be recorded at the same time.

    Thanks for writing!