Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Record Shops to 1960

As you'll know if you are a regular reader of this blog, I have a fondness for all sorts of music. It's mainly for pre-21st century music if I'm honest, but there's always been and probably will always be good stuff turning out. Anyway it's time for a closer look at the 78rpm era. That era takes in the first flat disc records from the turn of the 20th century through to the very early 1960s. They carried on for a few years after in other countries such as India and all points east.

Here we moved on to 7" vinyl records that spun at 45rpm - revolutions per minute. Some of the later 78s were made with vinyl. Most were made of shellac, a natural substance secreted by bugs that can be made liquid and shaped using chemicals. I have a large collection of "78s" ranging from the late 1920s right up to around 1960.

We'll have a look at some of the records and artists another time. Now I'm going to look at the shops where we bought our records through the medium of the sleeves they sold to contain them.

There were no record shops in the early days. As with the early days of computers, other related industries took on the new product. They were mostly musical instrument dealers. Record shops, dealing exclusively with recorded music rather than its more human creation, were still only barely making ground when I was a boy. We did have an electric record player though - which we still called a gramophone, though really that name means a purely mechanical device. The turntable was driven by clockwork with a coiled spring (coiled tightly enough to kill if you tried to take the machine apart) which you tightened by winding it up with a handle.

Steel needles were used - you had to use a new needle for every side (a single track) that you played. There were three grades - soft (meaning quiet volume), medium and loud. Gramophones amplified the sound through a large horn and were LOUD!!!! To quieten them down so the neighbours wouldn't bang on the walls you stuffed material down the horn. That's where the saying "Put a sock in it!" comes from... Steel needles were large. You can't play 78s with a diamond stylus used for 45s and long-play albums as it would rattle around in the groove. Instead a larger stylus must be used. Indeed there are different sizes for different periods, though I've found most 78s play ok with the single sapphire stylus I use on my record player.

Most record companies had their own paper sleeves that the records came in, but most shops sold harder wearing cardboard sleeves which advertised their business. This one advertises Songster needles and has a series of handy hints for gramaphone users with this example (Hint No.4) warning users not to move gramophones from warm to cool rooms which could break the main spring.

We'll have a look at some of the record company sleeves later too, as there's a few more shop sleeves to look at here. Cramer and Lea Ltd. of Liverpool stapled the sides of their sleeves before taping a ribbon of paper to keep the sides of the sleeve together. The tell-tale brown marks seen through the ribbon show that there are four staples - going a touch rusty... The firm also had stickers made with their business details that they stuck onto the record label. Besides records they sold pianos, televisions, radios, gramophones, (sheet) music and band instruments. This probably means brass and woodwind and stringed instruments like violins rather than guitars...

The sleeve from the Forsyth Brothers shop on Deansgate in Manchester (specialising as a piano seller) had headings and space for the new record owner to write the details of their record, a reference, artists, A and B side titles, date and the type of needle to be used to play it. This has been filled out in this case with the details of the record currently occupying the sleeve, written in ink with a nib pen with a neat hand with lots of curls and flourishes. The record is Dinah Shore and Buddy Clark singing "My One and Only Highland Fling" from 1949, which I'm sure very few of you will remember. But you may recognise the B side, which is "Baby, It's Cold Outside" that was revived a few years ago by Rod Stewart and Dolly Parton.

Not all shop-bought sleeves were more sturdy than the record companies' own sleeves. This example from Kerr and Company of Workington is little more than a paper bag, quite a lot larger than the record - though I should point out that in the early days some records were made at ten and a half inches instead of the later standard ten inches. Kerr and Company seemed to cover all bases. Aside from records they sold hobby goods and "specialist" goods, which sounds intruiging... Oh, and cycles and accessories - not such a related area to record players as it might have been in the Walkman era... (Walkmans! Now I am showing my age!!!)

But they weren't alone. By far the most common 78 rpm record sleeve is plain brown paper. Shops used to stamp them with a rubber stamp and inkpad to advertise their business. And H Marsden of Bamber Bridge near Preston was another cycle shop. Ahem! Sorry! Cycle and Radio Agent! Given that radios of the day were the size of a large piece of furniture and definitely did not work off batteries, that seems another strange thing to carry on a bike... But H Marsden were specialists at lightweight wheel building so maybe that made up for the bulky weight of a wireless (as we used to call radios).

The record is another 1949 hit - Ronnie Ronalde's "In a Monastery Garden". Although the label says "Sung by", he actually whistles his way through it, sometimes blasting out (no other way to describe it) a tune and sometimes doing birdsong impressions. I remember it used to drive my Mum nuts... On some of his records he yodels too. Not at the same time as whistling obviously...

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