BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a time when independent music producers of modest means could spend a few hundred bucks on a single and talk a programmer into some local radio air play. In fact, nearly half the chart-topping hits of rock & roll's golden age came from those independents, and all their hopes were pinned to those little records with the big holes --the 45 rpm single. On the Media's Rex Doane reports on: Where have all those singles gone?
REX DOANE: The 45 had been introduced as early as 1948, but it was the convergence of this emerging technology with the burgeoning youth culture that set off the explosion. Gene Sculatti has written about pop music for over 35 years and currently serves as the director of special issues for Billboard Magazine.
GENE SCULATTI: The 45 is just inextricably bound up with that whole-- late '50s through pretty much middle '60s period of popular music. I mean it's -it's the standard, and it's the-- it's the platter on which the meal arrives. I mean there's no -- there's almost no distinction between the content of what's on there and the format in which it's delivered. [JOHNNY ACE'S PLEDGING MY LOVE PLAYS]
REX DOANE: Jim Dawson is the co-author of the book What Was the First Rock & Roll Record?, and for Dawson Johnny Ace's Pledging My Love from 1955 signaled the true coming of age for the 45. [JOHNNY ACE'S PLEDGING MY LOVE UP AND UNDER]
JOHNNY ACE: FOREVER MY DARLING MY LOVE WILL BE TRUE ALWAYS AND FOREVER....
JIM DAWSON: That record which was a huge hit. Actually sold more 45 records than it sold 78's and showed that the young people had embraced the 45.
REX DOANE: Billboard's Gene Sculatti notes that long before the onslaught of music videos and the seeming endless parade of pop star pictorials and slick magazines, the 45 represented the only tangible link between artist and fan.
GENE SCULATTI: The names of these acts and the names of the songs and the labels -- there's all this iconography that's all that's available. It, it sort of adds to the mystery of the experience. You know what I mean?
REX DOANE: Consider, too, the ritual involved in playing a 45. Pop in a CD, and you can go fold laundry. But to play a 45, you must make a special commitment. Place the record on the turntable; lower the needle; and stay and listen until the music runs out. It's an archaic process that places special emphasis on that song for that moment -- a solitary throne for a favorite artist and a favorite tune. [45 RECORD BEGINS PLAYING -- WITH STATIC]
LITTLE RICHARD: OH MY SOUL-- BABE, BABE, BABE, BABY-- DON'T YOU KNOW MY LOVE IS TRUE WOOOOOO! OH HONEY, HONEY, HONEY, HONEY, HONEY-- GET UP OFF OF THAT MONEY LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE, LOVE--
REX DOANE: To be sure, 45 collectors seem alarmingly fetishistic about such matters. They speak of label variations, B side oddities and the hopelessly obscure. It is an affliction, at times, only understood by the afflicted.
DICK BLACKBURN: If you've got a child who exhibits signs of complete vinyl mania, then you might send him to a 12-Step right away or, failing that, some sort of conditioning therapy.
REX DOANE: Dick Blackburn is a long-time 45 collector, currently working on a novel about his passion.
DICK BLACKBURN: I got into 45's because every time you put a needle on a new one, no matter which one you're trying to listen to, it's always the potential that you're going to get a mule's kick between the eyes of originality, eccentricity and genius. [TAPE UP]
LITTLE RICHARD: OH! MY SOUL....!! [END TAPE]
REX DOANE: While 45 collectors like Blackburn spend years picking through the bones -- those discarded disks from decades ago -- the record industry has responded with what one might term mild indifference. In the late 1980s, when 45's were abruptly ushered out of the stores along with the vinyl LP, to make way for compact disks, major labels feebly offered cassingles and CD singles for customers who wanted a song instead of an album. The cassingle quickly flopped, and the CD single has been steadily fading. In recent years tiny low budget labels have filled the void by pressing select oldies on 45 for juke box owners and operators to spin, and die hard collectors can turn to labels like the Brooklyn-based Norton Records whose passion for the format far exceeds minor concerns like making money.
BILLY MILLER: To me that's the number one format.
REX DOANE: Label co-founder Billy Miller. [CLASSIC EARLY R&R INSTRUMENTAL UP AND UNDER]
BILLY MILLER: You know, when you bottom line the profits, there is no profit in making 45's, so you have to just keep the momentum going and keep putting it out and hope you don't wake up and come to your senses.
REX DOANE: Even the fad interest in old records spurred on by club and hip hop deejays have largely passed the 45 by. Their interest in vinyl is strictly limited to LP's and 12 inch singles. And so the 45 rpm record now spends its twilight years in collectors' magazines, flea markets and garage sales. Inevitably, CD's too will be forced into an extinction of their own by some new technology, but as long as the Baby Boom endures, the unassuming 45 will retain a resonance that transcends the music caught in the grooves. [INSTRUMENTAL SWEETLY WAILS TO A CLOSE, THEN SOUND OF TURNTABLE TURNING] For On the Media in New York, I'm Rex Doane. [TURNTABLE SOUND FADES, THEME MUSIC COMES UP]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was directed by Katya Rogers and produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, and Mike Vuolo, and edited-- by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Anne Kosseff. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Arun Rath is our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts and MP3 downloads at onthemedia.org, and email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media, from NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.