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Friday, August 24, 2012

The History of The 45 RPM Record

In the late 1940s, record sales were great. The Depression and the war had passed and America was entering a new period of comfort and affluence. Just sit back and relax, Truman was going to take care of everything.

But there WAS one little problem......the records themselves.

Recording technology had changed tremendously since Emile Berliner's first gramophone records in the 1890s. We had gone from unresponsive acoustic recording horns and direct to disc master recording to full electrical recording and tape masters.

But very little had changed with the records themselves. They still rotated at 78 RPM, still made of noisy shellac and extremely fragile.

Berliner Gramophone Record, 1897
RCA Victor 78 RPM Record, 1948

In 1948, Columbia Records unveiled the 33 1/3 RPM long playing record. It played for about 20 minutes per side and made of thick and much quieter vinyl.

The first LP Record, 1948
RCA Victor, Columbia's long time rival was also working on a newer and better record at the same time as Columbia. When Columbia came out with the LP record, RCA scrambled on it's own project and in 1949, unveiled the 45 RPM record.

""Texarkana Baby" Eddy Arnold (1949), the world's first commercially released 45 RPM record.

The RCA 7" inch 45 RPM record was cute, VERY small, and RCA's very colourful vinyl (each genre of music had it's own colour of vinyl!) made it an instant hit with younger people. Popular releases were on standard black vinyl. Country releases were on green vinyl, Children's records were on yellow vinyl, Classical releases were on red vinyl, "Race" (or R&B and Gospel) records were on orange vinyl, Blue vinyl/blue label was used for semi-classical instrumental music and blue vinyl/black label for international recordings

Eventually, RCA soon ended it's coloured vinyl lines due to the price of the coloured vinyl compared to the standard black.
It also employed "The World's Fastest Record Changer"

Here's the demonstration record that came with one of these players......

But the 45 RPM record and RCA 45 players DID have a few problems. First, the players could only play 45 RPM records. Nothing else. Second, classical music fans still had to put up with the same mid-movement breaks that plagued symphonic fans since the dawn of classical recording. Something the 33 1/3 RPM record rarely had.

This era in the turn of the '50s was called "The Battle of The Speeds" Some people preferred the 33 1/3 RPM LP, others the new 45 RPM players and old timers who insisted on the 78 RPM speed. The other major labels mostly aligned with the 33 1/3 RPM LP for albums (Capitol however released albums in all three speeds) and 45 and 78 RPM for singles. The 78 RPM single began disappearing in the early '50s and the 78 RPM speed regulated to children's records through hand-me-down phonographs from their parents. The last American commercially released 78 RPM singles appeared in 1959, however they were still made for children's records and older jukeboxes until 1964.

And thus began the era of the 45s. An era that lasted 40 wonderful years. Before the cassette tape, CD and MP3 player, 45s were the perfect portable personal music medium.

Remember these?
And the 45s themselves were super cheap too, less than a dollar each. Fun to collect, share and trade with friends. While some kids had baseball cards and comic books, others had 45s. Portable battery operated phonographs were also made for taking your music anywhere.

Check this little baby out!

 And another one.....

And who could forget THESE?

Also known as "spiders"
The very first Stereo 45 RPM record was introduced by Bel Canto Records in June of 1958.

 In the UK, Japan and some European countries 45s were pressed with detachable centres. In other European countries, 45s were pressed with a standard 45 spindle hole. The reason there were detachable centres was for compatibility with some foreign record changers (like the early RCA changer, which was extremely popular) and jukeboxes.

US 45
UK 45
Japanese 45
Greek 45

Italian 45
Turkish 45
In Australia, most 45s had standard LP spindle holes.
German 45
Thai 45
Lebonese 45
45s also had the B-side. Most were a second, non-single track from the parent album. But sometimes, it would be a live track, an instrumental version of the A-Side song, an outtake from the parent album session. Or sometimes, a completely original song. Most of the B-sides of Elton John's 45s had songs recorded just for them, as Elton John felt it gave his fans better value for their money. And they did. Most of them are collector's items and many were never released to CD.

There's also been the question of how long can one side of a 45 play. Most 45s run from 2-5 minutes. John Lennon once asked this to George Martin in 1968 and George Martin, after some experimenting, found the answer - 7 minutes, 11 seconds. And thus the playing time of "Hey Jude".

But bear in mind he was also taking into account standard groove width and the automatic record changer, which was very popular in those days. If he went any longer, he risked tripping the automatic changing mechanism of many of these record changers (this record did on many of them regardless.)

(UPDATE: Thanks to John Cerra for reminding me that "Hey Jude" was actually the SECOND longest pop 45 of the '60s and that "MacArthur Park" Richard Harris was actually LONGER than "Hey Jude" by 9 seconds (7:20) and was released earlier than "Hey Jude". My brain isn't what it used to be. - Larry)

However, this wasn't the longest 45 side ever. That distinction belongs to Bruce Springsteen on the B-side of his 1987 single "Fire", a live version of "Incident of 57th Street". It clocked in at just over 10 minutes (10:03)

I'm sure there could have been longer. But I haven't seen any.

(UPDATE 4/30/15 - Wayne Whitehorne says "Longest one I've ever seen is "Lunar Sea" by Camel, Janus J-262 (B side) 10:27. Shortest one I've seen is "Beside" by The Fastest Group Alive, Valiant V-754 (B side) :35". Both have been verified.)

"Little Boxes" The Womenfolk (1964) at 1:03 actually charted in the Billboard Hot 100!
But that's the fun of record collecting. Just when you think you've seen and heard it all.....Surprise!

By the beginning of the '80s, sales of 45s were beginning to gradually slip as sales of cassettes and blank tape began ushering the "mixtape" era. CBS noticed this and test marketed the one sided single. In 1987, A&M released the first cassette single and other record companies quickly followed suit. By 1990 however, record companies began discontinuing the 45, except for jukebox releases and collector's items. However with the vinyl resurrection of the last few years, many companies are back to pressing vinyl.

But there's something about the 45 that an MP3 simply can't mimic. It's REAL. Just the right size. Something you can hold.

And no matter what next big thing comes along, they'll NEVER go out of style.


  1. Loved the post. I have been looking for a pic of the 45 case. My grandmother bought me one full of 45's when I was a kid. It was packed full and got me started on records. I still remember the first 45 I ever bought. Sonny and Cher "Gypsys Tramps and Thieves". It had an awful Sonny solo song on the back "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done". I have recently gotten back into vinyl. You never really get it out of your system. :)



    1. I actually like that Sonny song! lol But probably because it was fun to mime to as Sonny.


    2. Hi!

      I enjoy the blog. Just wanted to add that "A Cowboy's Work Is Never Done" was, indeed, written by Sonny. But Cher did the singing. Cher was the one with the LOW voice. :)

  2. Thanks Michael. Sorry for getting to you so late. I just found out the bizarre reason I haven't been able to reply on my own blog - I had my comments set to "embedded".

    I also love your blog - The Phonolog brought back a lot of memories.....



  3. There is another long running single. The Dells - Stay in My Corner. It runs over 6 minutes. I would have to look it up in my collection for the exact time.

  4. Well done. Can you answer why RCA made the 45 hole size in the first place? Why not thhe same size hole as a 33?

    1. I believe it was for jukeboxes, as a wider spindle hole made it easier for most jukebox selection mechanisms to handle the records.


    1. The first commercially released stereo record was "Marching Along With The Phenomenal Dukes Of Dixieland Vol. 3" by The Dukes of Dixieland (Audio Fidelity AFSD 5851) in 1957. It was agreed among the four major labels at that time (Columbia, RCA Victor, Decca and Capitol) that they would gradually phase in stereo in 1958 along with the major electronics manufacturers, but the release of this record forced them to hasten their plans by several months....

  6. The B-side of Paul McCartney's "Coming Up" 45 comes in at about 8 minutes, because there are two songs.

    1. I remember that. Was that "Lunch Box/Odd Sox"?

    2. Yes, it was, but only for the single you bought separately. If you bought the McCartney II album early enough, you got the single which was a one-sided 45 along with your album.

      Now those songs from the b-side are part of the Venus and Mars releases since that is when they were recorded.

      The Beatles loved their b-sides, turning many into A-side hits. But they also loved them when forming as a band. They always turned them over to discover tracks that other bands in their area were not covering live in their sets. Once that caught on, they started writing and performing their own compositions which is what made them start writing in the first place, to avoid duplicate sets with other bands who opened for them. But 45 B-sides were their first way to combat this disaster of duplicate stage sets when playing live.

      The Beatles have one B-side that was never on an album until they released Rarities in 1980. They wanted fans to have something special you could only get via the 45. Larry, you surely know what it is, but for others it's called, You Know My Name, (Look Up The Number).

      As solo artists, they have released many tracks, mostly Paul, which were only released on 45 B-sides. They are now coming out as part of the Deluxe Box and Book sets Paul is releasing for his Archive Series. The 45s are still cheaper! lol


  7. I used to work at a radio station as vinyl was dying out. The last new 45 I can remember seeing was Love Will Lead You Back by Taylor Dayne. It was stamped January 1989.

    1. We were getting 45 RPM singles into 1990. But they disappeared en masse that year and the labels were giving us CDs or 12" singles

  8. ...don't forget Shel Silverstein's `30 second commercial' at 0:30 ...

  9. Kenny Price had an RCA 45 "The Shortest Song in the World" which was 19 seconds long. Also Shel Silverstein had a Columbia 45 "26 Second Song" which was 26 seconds long. These would have to be in the running for shortest 45's. I have both of them in my collection.

  10. 45s got a new lease on life as 12" "EP" Extended Play singles on the heels of the disco era, to capture the phenom of DJ remixes of dance floor hits. Through the 80s EP 45s were quite common, and I still have a number in my vinyl collection.

    On another note, going into the 70s 12" vinyl became thinner. I remember when I was 13 (1973) The Carpenters' "Superstar" album on A&M label for how remarkably flexible the disc was. 45s never got that floppy, don't know if this was a cost saver for album makers (1973 oil crisis?), but vinyl LPs pressed today are often labelled touting the heavy weight of the pressing, expressed in grams.

    BTW I still have my 45 RPM "Disc-Go" carrying case pictured in blue on your blog, mine is in avocado green and dates to the early 70s. Also remember but don't see it here the "Close 'n Play" record player from the 60s, never had one but was intrigued by the commercial showing how the needle embedded in the lid could play while you carried it around.

    You can see commercials for the Close 'n Play on YouTube; both the Close 'n Play and the Disc-Go case were awful ideas in terms of abusing the vinyl, and the records in my case are still there but will never see a decent stylus again.

    1. I've mentioned the Dynaflex vinyl LP and the Close N' Play elsewhere on this blog. When I wrote this post originally, I thought of including a few paragraphs regarding the 12" single. But not all ran at 45 RPM and in many cases were hard to find outside of major urban areas.

  11. The thing I miss most about 45s and even LPs is the artwork. Holding that made you feel like you got something for your money. Now I print my own albums and even labels. I have recreated most major labels and made about 40 retro labels to use for making my CD compilations for my car. lol I see a couple here that are well-known labels but apparently changed their names in other countries. The Roulette labels here is also what appears in a slightly modified form in Thailand as RegalSound and the Rifi label is definitely a Capitol label (just because VeeJay didn't have the money to reach Italy). But that's what I miss about 45s since a CD certainly has the music. (when you can find it)

  12. Longest one I've ever seen is "Lunar Sea" by Camel, Janus J-262 (B side) 10:27. Shortest one I've seen is "Beside" by The Fastest Group Alive, Valiant V-754 (B side) :35.

  13. Excellent article--thanks. Here is a question I want to put out there: What was the last song to hit #1 on the Billboard charts available on 45?

    1. Excellent question. As far as I know, some new vinyl 45s are still manufactured for the jukebox industry and for collectors. I'll have to research that...

  14. Maybe someone can answer this for me. Who came up with the idea of using soft vinyl for 45s? Many of them were brittle plastic that were non-compliant with the needle and were worn quickly creating a great deal of noise. The soft vinyl was pliant and didn't exhibit as much crackle noise in soft passages or cue burns at the start. Examples of of hard vinyl include Bruce Springsteen singles and a lot of Columbia product, including Fontana, London, etc. A good soft vinyl that exhibits its superiority is "Hey Jude" by the Beatles. Capitol had a number of soft vinyl releases. My question is: Who originally came up with the idea of using the softer plastic? Was it used first or was the hard plastic first? What's the story?


    1. I think you're referring to PVC (vinyl), the "soft vinyl" and polystyrene, the "hard vinyl". Polystyrene is a cheap plastic and wears much quicker and more prone to surface noise whereas PVC is the same material used on LPs. Radio promo singles are often pressed on PVC (except for Bell Records, Bell was also the pioneers of polystyrene pressing, but vinyl came first.) It's really just a manufacturing cost cutter (i.e. bigger profits.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iphutqsYrEw Hope this answers everything. Cheers!


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