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 December 21, 2012

When Size Mattered on Original Cast Albums

So while I was stuck in Cincinnati during Hurricane Sandy, my buddy John Ellis took me to Half Price Books, where I happened to spot a book called 45 RPM: The History, Heroes & Villains of a Pop Music Revolution. It’s Jim Dawson and Steve Propes’ trade paperback about those little seven-inch records that each had a doughnut-sized hole in the middle.

The book had been reduced to two bucks, so how could I go wrong? It would be a stroll down a memory lane that I hadn’t visited in decades. Yes, long before I discovered show music -- and before I shifted my buying power solely to 33 1/3 rpms that sported the words “original Broadway cast album” -- I was a rock ‘n’ roll kid. I’d bought plenty of 45 singles ranging from Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” to David Seville’s “Witch Doctor.”

All right, today when I listen to songs of that era, I find myself seeing flaws that didn’t occur to me when I was a kid. Take Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up,” in which he sings, “She touch-a my hand, and what a chill I got. Her lips are like a volcano that’s hot. I’m proud to say that she’s my buttercup.”

Really? You’d call a girl who gives you chills just from her touch and one who’s got lips as hot as a volcano a “buttercup”? When I was growing up, that’s not what we called such a girl in my neighborhood.

But most of those songs on 45s that I loved as a kid still get by on some sort of musical grandfather-clause, so reading about them might be fun. Besides, some original Broadway cast albums were issued on 45s; By the Beautiful Sea and Mrs. Patterson in those formats still reside in my apartment. Maybe some 45 cast albums would make the book.

Seconds after I’d considered that possibility, I’d noticed that the front cover of the book sported a small picture of the 45 rpm release of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. It was of a cover I hadn’t seen in decades: the title in large yellow lettering on a black field, with a black-and-white photo of you-know-who as Lorelei Lee. (There was also a picture of a Yma Sumac album. Alas, it was not Flahooley; that’s where Dawson and Propes drew the line.)

Well! I had no idea that 45RPM would turn out to be the most fascinating book of the dozens I’ve read this year. Perhaps you already knew a good deal about the evolution of record. I can’t say that I did.

Oh, to be sure, I knew that until the late ‘40s, records came only in 78 rpm (revolutions per minutes). Now if we see them in an antique store, we call them 78s. Throughout the ‘50s, they were known as 78s. But what had never occurred to me is that before the ‘50s, they weren’t known as 78s -- until 33 1/3 and 45 rpm records came into being.

I slapped my head and exclaimed “Of course!” Why would anyone define a record by how fast it spun on a turntable? Until there were three different speeds, those 78s were simply known as records.

They might have even been better known as breakable records. That was another advantage of the new models; not only did they hold considerably more music, but they also could fall to the floor and still survive. A 78 that dropped even a few inches would necessitate a whisk broom and a wastebasket.

Also news to me: Columbia was intent on developing the 33 1/3 record, which they called long-playing and abbreviated to “LP.” They trademarked it, too. Suddenly in my head, I envisioned the letters “LP” in a circle on the old Columbia records I had. But I’d never realized before that no other company was using that abbreviation. Now that I think of it, no one was.

RCA Victor, on the other hand, put its money on the 45 technology. And while I have run across 45s that were pressed in translucent red, green and other colors through the years, I had no idea that RCA initiated a specific coding system for singles; I’d just assumed that the colors were chosen arbitrarily.

Hardly: pop was released on black vinyl, but folk records were on green, R&B on orange, classical on red vinyl and more popular classics (and original cast albums) in blue (after, believe it or not, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue). The feeling was that when a consumer walked into a record store, he’d immediately look for the color of the music that most appealed to him while avoiding the others. Doesn’t that seem to be a very sophisticated marketing campaign for the early ‘50s?

The color-coding came to an end during the Korean War. Suddenly vinyl was needed for the war effort, so the only available vinyl left to RCA was what had been punched out as holes. They had no choice but to mix all these different color vinyls together, and the best they could do was to make everything in black.

Both Columbia and RCA were intent on putting their respective new-speed record players in handsome furniture cabinets ranging from French Provincial to Danish Modern. Each handsome hi-fi would look dazzling living life in a living room. But RCA had another idea for a record player: a tiny one just for kids. And considering that there were so many new kids thanks to the burgeoning Baby Boomer generation, parents bought these personal record players for their children.

And that, my friends, is how the seeds of a music revolution were sown. Up till then, mommy and daddy chose the records, because only they could touch the imposing console record players, and kids simply weren’t allowed to go anywhere near them. Once the little ones had their own record players, they requested records to go with them. Soon they were asking for songs that were most unlike their parents’ music.

Meanwhile, RCA realized the value of the LP for classical music and original Broadway cast albums and Columbia found worth in the 45 for single songs. A détente was called, and each company started making records in both formats.

Although many early records are collectables, the really valuable ones are those that still have their picture sleeves. And what was the first picture sleeve that RCA Victor issued? Eddie Fisher’s recording of the title tune from that 1952 musical Wish You Were Here.

For years, I’d heard – and I’ll bet you had too -- that Fisher’s hit record was a vital component in saving the show that had been poorly reviewed on June 26, 1952; without his smash hit recording, Wish You Were Here would have never been propelled to 23rd place on the list of the longest-running Broadway musicals.

But now that I know about the picture sleeve, I have to wonder: how many of those teenage girls that represented an enormous share of Fisher’s fan base were buying “Wish You Were Here” for the picture sleeve as much as the music? If it had just had that dull grey, foolscap-weight paper sleeve that “ordinary” RCA Victor releases had had, the Imperial Theatre might have become available long before Nov. 29, 1953.

All these facts were compelling, but the real shock came when I read about the 45s that were made specifically by Columbia for automobiles. They were 45s only in that they could hold 45 minutes worth of music; actually, these seven-inchers had small LP-like holes in their centers and they moved at 16 2/3 rpm.

And this was in 1955! Yes, long before we welcomed 8-track, cassette and CD players into our cars, “Highway Hi-Fi” wended its way under the dashboard of Plymouths, Dodges, DeSotos and Chryslers.

I know what you’re thinking: every time the car went over a bump, didn’t the needle on the record skip? Somehow the engineers were able to beat this problem. What they couldn’t overcome was that these records were playable only in the car, and people didn’t feel like duplicating their collection. What’s more, no other company joined Columbia in making discs for the car company, so the repertoire was limited.

But here’s what’s truly astonishing: of the first six Highway Hi-Fi recordings ever made, two were original Broadway cast albums! They may not have been 33/13 rpm, but original Broadway cast albums made up 33 1/3% of Highway Hi-Fi’s inventory.

The Pajama Game was one of the two Columbia original Broadway cast albums. Care to guess the other.

Obviously My Fair Lady, you’re saying.

(No: this was late 1955, and Fair Lady opened in 1956.)

Oh, Kiss Me, Kate!

(Good guess, but no.)

Oh, of course! South Pacific!

(Better guess, but no.)

Before you go ransacking your brain and coming up with such lesser-known Columbia original Broadway cast albums as Street Scene, Miss Liberty or A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, let me say that it was a far more obscure original Broadway cast album than those.

And no, it wasn’t Out of This World, the Leonard Bernstein Peter Pan or The Girl in Pink Tights, either – but something far more obscure than those, too.

Give up? Please do. You’re never going to get it otherwise.


George Bernard Shaw’s Don Juan in Hell.

Hey, I never said it was a musical – just that it was an original Broadway cast album. And it was the original Broadway cast for this excerpt (Act Three, actually) from GBS’ Man and Superman. Yes, that play had had Broadway productions in 1905, 1912 and 1947, but the first time that an offering specifically called Don Juan in Hell played Broadway was on Nov. 29, 1951 with Charles Boyer, Cedric Hardwicke, Charles Laughton and Agnes Moorehead – and they’re the ones who recorded it for Columbia.

All right, it wasn’t the entire play: just “selections from.” Nevertheless, the idea that Columbia thought of issuing part of a play in “Highway Hi-Fi” tells you that America was a much more rarefied place in those days.

Even so, all four of these Chrysler models were family cars. Can you hear Sis or Brother in the back seat imploring their parents up front, “Mom! Dad! Put on Don Juan in Hell!”?

Doesn’t the idea of it start your head spinning – and, at the very least, at 45 rpm?

         — Peter Filichia


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