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Sunday, July 08, 2012

K-Tel & Ronco Records

Anyone who grew up in the '70s and '80s and spent any time watching TV remembers these commercials.

They were irresistible records (or 8-Track tapes, cassettes were offered by 1978), filled with all the latest chart topping hits. And yours for SUPER cheap at your nearest discount or drug store. Even some supermarkets had these.

Like it's conceptual offspring, the NOW! CD series of the '90s to today. In '70s and '80s, K-Tel and Ronco records were an awesome deal. (But only somewhat, I'll explain in a little bit.)

For less than the price of a full length album from one artist (packed with more filler than you can shake a meatloaf recipe at.) K-Tel and Ronco records offered nothing but hits. Lots of them (and even a few that made you wonder how they got on there....You didn't hear these on the radio.)

And all on one record. Sometimes two records. My vinyl buying trips landed me some real albums, some 45s, but nearly always a K-Tel or Ronco in the bag as well to round it out. Grab me some sodas and my night was complete.

Now for the disappointing truth. In order to pack so many songs on one vinyl record, some sacrifices had to be made.

You see, a regular 12" inch vinyl LP can hold up to about 23 minutes of music per side. This simply means the grooves were cut at normal depth and width.

For a K-Tel or Ronco record, the grooves were much finer. But the reduced depth/width of the grooves also meant reduced dynamic range.. So it really didn't sound as good as a conventional record and you had to turn up the volume a bit louder than you would on a regular album. Plus, they were also more susceptible to surface noise - sometimes brand new out of the sleeve. Stuck and skipping records were common without extreme care.  But you had a record that could play for nearly a full half hour per side (usually 27-28 minutes), if you weren't too picky.

Worst of all, on the earlier K-Tel/Ronco albums, the songs were often edited to a total running time of 2:30 EACH.

Ronco was especially infamous at chopping songs to fit their compilation albums, probably with their Ginsu knives. But K-Tel wasn't really any better until later in the '70s and early '80s
Some songs (such as "One Bad Apple" The Osmonds) were easier to edit seamlessly for a K-Tel/Ronco album (most of The Osmonds early hits were around 2 1/2 minutes anyway.) Other songs, no matter how sacred ("Layla" Derek & The Dominoes?) were hacked to their fundamentals. Entire verses and sometimes endings were also chopped out of other songs on these early 22 song K-Tel/Ronco albums.

To make "Seasons In The Sun" Terry Jacks fit on this record, K-Tel actually cut out the entire third verse of this song!
The original record companies of the songs included on any K-Tel record actually insisted on this as well, as fans would eventually be more likely to buy the original albums with the full length songs on them.

But practice soon began irritating music fans and the number of songs on the albums dropped. First to 20.

Then to 18. There was also another factor - the songs themselves were also getting longer by the mid '70s, with an average running time of 3:30 to 4:00 for your typical pop song. So the length of a typical song on a K-Tel/Ronco album was increased to 3:00 with some variables (the pitch was often increased dramatically on some tracks to squeeze them in.)     

By 1979, Ronco had gotten out of the compilation record business and focused on their household products, leaving K-Tel as the sole major independent manufacturer of compilation albums through the 1980s.

With the exception of a handful of '80s upstarts such as JCI....

...and the Capitol/EMI distributed Priority, which would remodel in the late '80s as one of the biggest hip-hop labels on the '90s. Initially, Priority was a cassette-only compilation label.....

....K-Tel pretty much had the field to itself.

By 1981, K-Tel had also cut the number of songs on their albums to down 14 (7 per side) and by this time, the audio quality of their albums were nearly on par with any conventional LP. The songs were also no longer edited or pitched and full length. This was cut even further in 1986 to 10 songs per album and they sounded their best.

But this was the end. K-Tel released it's last vinyl album in 1987 before declaring bankruptcy. The major labels themselves soon began releasing their own hits compilations.

(UPDATE: K-Tel is still very much in business today and are still making compilations. On CD too. And they also have an array of household items as well.)


  1. Didn't K-tel also use recycled vinyl(from melting down old records)?

    1. Yes. But so did all major labels. Pure virgin vinyl in the 1970s was very rare outside of audiophile classical and jazz LPs The usual composition was 70% virgin to 30% recycled (but some labels use more recycled stock than others.) I don't have the numbers on K-tel. But one of the reasons they were noisier than others was their finer grooves and lower dynamic range and an ALL recycled vinyl record on top of it would be intolerably noisy. So I would have to say they were about average in vinyl quality

      In the 1980s, A&M Records began pressing it's rock and pop albums on 100% pure virgin vinyl and chrome cassette tapes and other labels followed. But the trend was short lived.

      By 1987, overall LP record quality went into a tailspin as vinyl became an afterthought to the far more profitable CD.

  2. I have a K-Tel CD of Beatles music recorded at one of their last live gigs before making it really really big! It was my first Bealtes CD which I got for my birthday in 1986 shortly before the Beatles CDs all started to come out on EMI in early 1987. I may have something else from K-Tel like a crazy songs CD or two with things like The Streak by Ray Stevens or other silly Dr Demento style songs.

    There was a time in the 70s you avoided K-Tel but then by the 1980s they actually did issue decent quality records with higher quality artists. You've done a great job at telling the story.

  3. I am trying desperately to recreate an album I had as a kid and can't seem to find it anywhere. I think it was called Instrumental Classics--it was a three or four record set, with a very plain, dark brown album cover. The album itself was a mix of disco remixes--The Hustle, Theme from Star Wars, Close Encounters, S.W.A.T, 2001, and Easy Listening classics like the Entertainer, Love is Blue, Moon River etc. Any help you could give me on tracking down a list of the songs in album order would be greatly appreciated! I don't know if it was Ronco or Ryko--but I remember us kids were totally excited when we ordered it by mail sometime in 78 or 79--maybe 80--at the least...

    1. Yes that it the title. Sessions/RCA Special Products DVL3-0355 released in 1978.
      Record 1 Side 1
      The Masterpiece - Charles Randolph Grean Sounde
      Love Theme From "Romeo & Juliet" - Henry Mancini
      A Walk In The Black Forest - Horst Jankowski
      Blue Tango - Leroy Anderson
      The Entertainer - Marvin Hamlisch
      Record 1 Side 2
      Stranger On The Shore - Mr. Acker Bilk
      Calcutta - Lawrence Welk
      Theme From "Love Story" - Henry Mancini
      Hi-Lilli Hi-Lo - Dick Hyman Trio
      Near You - Roger Williams
      Record 2 Side 1
      Love Is Blue - Paul Mauriat
      Washington Square - Village Stompers
      Charade - Henry Mancini
      More (Theme From "Mondo Cane") - Kai Winding
      The High And The Mighty - Leroy Holmes
      Record 2 Side 2
      Like Young - Andre Previn & David Rose
      Moonglow And Theme From "Picnic" - Morris Stoloff
      Moritat (A Theme From "Three Penny Opera") - Dick Hyman Trio
      Theme From "Breakfast At Tiffany's" - Henry Mancini
      Mission Impossible - Lalo Schifrin
      Record 3 Side 1
      The Pink Panther Theme - Henry Mancini
      The James Bond Theme - Billy Strange
      A Swingin' Safari - Billy Vaughn
      Midnight Cowboy - Ferrante & Teicher
      A Fifth Of Beethoven - Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band
      Record 3 Side 2
      Theme From "Star Wars" - Meco
      Also Sprach Zarathustra (2001) - Deodato
      Theme From S.W.A.T. - Rhythm Heritage
      The Hustle - Van McCoy & The Soul City Symphony
      Theme From "Close Encounters Of The Third Kind" - John Williams

  4. In 84 I bought K-Tel's Masters of Metal on cass. and loved it ! Just for the memory of those fun times I wish I could find it on cd ! Yes I know I could find all the songs on it easly but just the thought of buying it on cd is much better for me !

  5. Actually,Ronco was still making records up to 1982. Sound Express and Street Level were in '80.

  6. Jim. Did anyone reissue all the K-tel and affiliated vinyls on disc? As you know, there are many who would pay a lot for that full collection of all releases. Let me know. Thank you very much. Patrick.

    1. I only know of a few that were reissued to CD, Starflight and Super Bad namely. https://www.discogs.com/label/784532-K-Tel-Classic-Reissue

      And that was when they could. Today, the three big record label conglomerates (Sony, Universal and Warner) have their own mutual arrangements regarding reissues and compilations and share the profits among themselves. It's an old boys club. And in practice, it's a monopoly. But they don't allow outside labels to reissue their music anymore.

  7. I have been looking for a K-Tel 3 record set that I believe was called Super Bubble, but cannot find any reference. Am I dreaming or did the album actually exist.


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