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Tim Van Schmidt
Vinyl records have been in the news again recently along with the shocking statistics that vinyl has once again become the top-selling physical format for music. This refers mainly to vinyl albums.
Following is an ode to that long lost other vinyl format, the “45”:
There once was a machine called a jukebox.
You may see facsimiles around, especially in “retro” businesses riffing off the past, but these are often packed with digital files. Before that, they were packed with CDs.
But jukeboxes enjoyed their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s and they were originally loaded with 45 rpm records. That would be those small-sized vinyl records that mostly had a single song on each side — hence the original use of the word “singles”. A push-button system allowed you to punch in a selection, a mechanical arm would find it, pick the record out, and load it onto a turntable to play.
The burger joint in my small Illinois hometown had a jukebox and it would provide some of my earliest memories of popular music. Guys in their letterman jackets would be hanging around the jukebox and pinball machines while Ray Peterson’s “Tell Laura I Love Her” was playing over and over again — and it looked like fun.
Jukeboxes were important because they provided a way for people to enjoy music on demand – and provided a little extra income for the venues. They were also important tools for the music industry to test new records since jukeboxes kept track of the number of plays each one got.
The 45s were important not only for jukeboxes but were also the main record purchase young people made. They were pretty cheap and portable.
In Illinois, we would buy our records at a local shop that also sold record players and TV sets. My first purchase was a tune called “What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This”, sung by Scatman Crothers. It was a popular song from a hip TV production of “Alice in Wonderland”.
Because kids often bought the records, kid-oriented record players were also available. They were low-fidelity for sure, with tiny speakers, but all you had to do was plug it into a socket and slap on your favorite tune — no apps, no Internet, no expensive electronic devices, just direct fun.
At our house, my brothers and I all collected 45s. We each had our own taste, but played each other’s picks too. My oldest brother had five years on me and his choices were so much more “sophisticated”.
That’s how I got to know records by Tommy James and the Shondells, The Turtles, Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Beach Boys, Mitch Ryder, The Mamas and the Papas, Creedence Clearwater, and so many more.
When we moved to Phoenix, I remember spending an evening with some new neighbor girls, having an impromptu record party, spinning 45s from our collections on a tiny player. They had different records than we did and it was a moment of realization that music was so much bigger than I thought. That’s where I first heard The Shangrilas’ epic “Leader of the Pack” and The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”.
By then, I had a nice little stack of 45s I had bought for myself and that little portable record player lived in my room.
I played Beatles singles and others, but my favorites — “Itchycoo Park” by the Small Faces, “Classical Gas” by Mason Williams, and especially “I Can See for Miles” by The Who — were on constant rotation. And that was the beauty of the whole thing — you could play that one song that lit your fire over and over again.
45s were also handy at school dances. You put your name on your records and brought them along. Often the dances were just bigger record parties and the DJ — often an amenable teacher — just kept playing whatever people brought.
I didn’t start seriously collecting music history on 45s until the late 1970s.
I had just read a book called “The Story of Rock” by Carl Belz and the author included a list of “essential” singles from the early 1950s on. So for several summers, I haunted garage sales and flea markets looking for these records.
Often, all I had to do was ask if the sellers had any old records and they would take down a dusty box of 45s off the shelf and let me look. Since 45s were pretty much out of fashion by then — LP albums being much more desirable — I picked up a lot of 50s music for nickels and dimes.
I found stashes of great Little Richard records, as well as James Brown hits and other 60s soul on Stax Records. Most of them were in pretty bad shape — some of them may have even been old beat-up jukebox records — but I got to hear the music.
Just about this time — the late 1970s — punk music was just getting going and I discovered that the new bands were releasing 45s — I guess mostly because they were cheaper to produce than full albums.
When I was in London, I collected singles by The Sex Pistols, The Adverts and The Jam. In LA, I found 45s by The Germs and The Dils.
That may have been the last great surge of life for 45s. Cassette tapes had already taken a bite out of the 45s market — due to that format’s portability — then CDs and digital downloads pretty much killed them completely.
But I remember how 45s were immediate and direct, stand-alone hits chiseled into the black wax-like a fine piece of art. I’ve still got some of them – let’s have a party!
Tim Van Schmidt is a writer and photographer based in Fort Collins. See his YouTube channel at “Time Capsules by Tim Van Schmidt.”