August 12th, 2023, was “National Vinyl Day”. No, not as in vinyl clothing or couches. It’s a reference for vinyl albums—78s, 33s and 45’s. Long before streaming music became the norm, vinyl records, the radio, or live concerts were the only way to listen to your favorite tunes.
Victrola informs us the first vinyl album was first created in 1930. It was a large, flat disc primarily used by DJs and not the general public. Shellac was the primary resource used for producing albums but became scarce during the war. In 1948, a material called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) was utilized by Columbia Records to produce a record that was better at emitting higher-quality sound. By the 1950’s, vinyl records were standard to the music industry.
Vinyl records come in three speeds: 33, 45 and 78. These figures refer to the rotations per minute (RPM). Generally, a higher RPM results in better quality sound. Eventually, the 78s gave way to 33s due to the lower cost of producing the 33s. The 45s, smaller and collectible, featured a single song on each side, enabling listeners to purchase only the tracks they desired rather than an entire album.
Yet, it’s not the composition or inventor of records that dominates our thoughts when pondering vinyl. For many, it’s the music itself that triggers an array of emotions—joy, sorrow, happiness and other sentiments that music can conjure. Perhaps your first heartbreak found solace in a sad album played on repeat. Or maybe you still roll down the car window and cheerfully sing along to your favorite radio tune.
Do you recall the first album you ever purchased? How about your favorite song? Did you play it over and over again? When you heard a song you liked, did you rush to the record shop to buy it before it sold out? When you wanted to hear that song on a continual loop, you had to get up and replace the needle on the album each time you wanted to replay the song. (No “hey Alexa, play that again!”) But wasn’t that a great aspect of the memory? When friends were over, was someone assigned the task of “song-changer?” The lucky ones had a console player that held up to 10 albums at a time, no changer needed!
Did you learn to dance while the “platter” was spinning? It was popular back then to hold dance parties in basements where everyone brought their favorite album to share and “boogie” the night away. Music brought friends together.
The Community at Rockhill (Canopy) resident Bob Piccone shared some of his vinyl memories with me. Bob was born in 1937 and said his first memories of music playing in his home were on an RCA Victrola when he was about 8 years old. “The first song I can recall being played was ‘If’ by Perry Como.” Bob and his mother were both lovers of Opera and Classical music. One such opera is Rigoletto by Guiseppe Verdi (1851). Bob recalls his older sister collecting 45s of the Your Hit Parade songs. These were chart toppers of the time played on the radio and then, later, on a television show of the same name. Shows like this significantly boosted the sales of the records they featured.
In early years, Bob’s taste spanned Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra, Doris Day and Elvis. In his later years, Celine Dion, Neil Diamond and Josh Groban were all added to the list of favorites. Bob and his wife are big fans of folk music and together purchased albums by The Kingston Trio and The Brothers Four. When asked what the last album he bought was, he said he couldn’t quite recall, but probably Les Misérables by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boubil and Jean-Marc Natel.
Bob no longer has his vinyl albums as he and his wife consolidated when they moved into Rockhill. However, he continues to listen to and enjoy music through Sirius Radio and streaming devices.
Jeff Sklarow, resident of Autumn Lea at Lutheran Community at Telford, had some very interesting stories to share about his history with albums and cover artwork. “My friend Cal was an artist who worked on album covers. He got me my first graphics arts job in Willow Grove.” Jeff said, at the time, designing album covers kept a lot of visual artists employed. He once went to California with Cal and met some of the musicians Cal worked for, including Frank Zappa. Jeff said he picked up Frank after a show from a music venue where he was performing and got to know Zappa and Zappa’s wife. Since Jeff was a Zappa fan, this was quite a thrill.
Jeff recalls that the first album he would listen to repeatedly was Benny Goodman’s Sing, Sing, Sing. The first record he remembers buying was by Dave Brubeck: “Countdown-Time in Outer Space.” Jeff still enjoys listening to Led Zepplin, Bob Dylan and a favorite band, The Rolling Stones. However, his all-time favorite band was Cream. Jeff says, “They didn’t last too long, but they were the best,” and still owns some of his old albums. He is particularly fond of the RCA Red Label Albums and sets. According to Jeff, “Red Label are the best recordings on vinyl ever made.”
Although online streaming remains the number one medium for listening to music today, vinyl records have made a resurgence in the past few years. According to Fox 13 News, in 2022, new vinyl records outsold CDs for the first time since 1987. Contemporary artists like Taylor Swift, Lady Gaga and many others regularly put their new releases on vinyl. Why the renewed interest? Joplin News reports that Gen Z and Millennials have discovered the warmer and more authentic sound of vinyl as compared to digital music. They have also discovered an appreciation for the amazing artwork featured on album covers. The tangible aspect is appealing to them and makes them feel closer to their favorite artists. There is certainly a certain sense of charm and nostalgia that can be tied to owning vinyl records!
As the popularity of vinyl records continues to grow, manufacturing them has been problematic. As mentioned in The New York Times, many of the pressing machines used to produce vinyl records are now rather antiquated and difficult to use. This is causing delays in new pressings and even album release dates set by artists. To further complicate matters, there was a fire in 2020 that destroyed one of only two manufacturing plants in the world that, in part, make lacquer discs which is part of the record-making process. Between this fire and the increasing demand for vinyl as a material in general, there is concern the demand will continue to outweigh the supply.
Nevertheless, two Tennessee industry leaders have announced and completed expansions, with the hopes that collectors will continue to have the opportunity to purchase the newer material and artists will continue to meet the demand their fans have for vinyl.
It’s never too late to embrace a new hobby or continue to nurture the one you have. If vinyl records interest you, here are some links to help you in your pursuit: