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Rock 'n' roll 78s are a hot, but sometimes overlooked, commodity

Before there were 45 RPM records, there were 78s. These records are incredible fragile, but if you can find a rock and roll 78 in one piece, you've found a great treasure.
78 RPM Record Player

A 78 RPM record player. Courtesy

By Dave Thompson

Question: I inherited about 500 45s. I found a 78 RPM. It is Larry Clinton and His Orchestra, vocal Anne Lloyd, 1004A “Vaya Con Dios” and the other side 1004B, “P.S. I Love You.” Is it worth anything?
— Patty

“Vaya Con Dios” was Larry Clinton and Co.’s second single for the Bell label, which itself had only just got started – it followed “Deep Purple”/”My Reverie” (with vocalist Helen Forrest), and was released in that same year, 1953.
We only found a few recent sales of Larry Clinton records in any format (all of which were less than $10), and none for the 78 you mentioned.

Beatles Parlophone 78

The Beatles did issue recordings in the 78 RPM format.

Far more than vinyl, 78s go up and down in the general collectors’ estimation, with the only fields that remain consistently vibrant being rare early blues and the early days of rock ’n’ roll, which some people might erroneously believe your single represents – after all, didn’t The Beatles record “P.S. I Love You?”
Yes, they did. Sadly, it wasn’t the same one. The Beatles’ song was a Lennon-McCartney original, while yours was written by Gordon Jenkins and Johnny Mercer around 30 years earlier. However, Beatles fans – and lots of other rock aficionados – should keep an eye on the 78s shelf, because there are a lot of treats awaiting discovery.
Between whichever date you choose to mark the dawn of rock ’n’ roll and the very end of the 1950s, the 78 was the dominant force in the music industry. In the U.S., 45s didn’t overtake the 78 in terms of units sold until 1957. In Britain, the old format held its own in the marketplace until 1959.

(Learn more about the history of the 45 RPM record.)

Beatles 78

78 RPM records are more fragile than their vinyl counterparts.

Today, rock ’n’ roll 78s are among the hottest commodities in the record-collecting world, with any survey of America (or the U.K.’s) most-valued records of the era literally bursting with high-ticket 78s. The actual market for them might be smaller than for 45s; the values in price guides sometimes seem a little lower. But ask any dealer what he would rather offer – a set of mint Elvis Sun singles on 45? Or a set on 78? There is no competition.
The reason is that 78s were not built to last. They were manufactured from shellac, a compound derived from a natural resin secreted by the Lac beetle of southeast Asia. This material is extremely durable and was ideal for the 78s’ primary purpose – being rotated at high speeds while a thick steel needle passed over them. Unfortunately, it is also frighteningly brittle. Even with the most stringent precautions, mailing a 78 means taking its life in your hands, while simply transporting one from one room to another can feel like juggling fine crystal. The 78s that today sell for high prices on the collector’s market are not rare because few were made, as is the case with many of the most valuable 45s of the same period. They are rare because few have survived unbroken.
The 78 was developed by Emile Berliner, a German citizen who emigrated to the U.S. in 1870. A pioneer of sound technology, he developed the flat disc technique (to replace the bulky cylinders then in use) during the mid-1880s, unveiling his prototype at the Franklin Institute in 1888. His first discs were etched in zinc using chromic acid; from there he moved to celluloid and rubber before hitting upon shellac in 1891. It is a testament to his foresight that shellac remained the industry standard for the next 50-plus years. (Vinyl began creeping into fashion during the mid-1950s.)

Okeh blues 78

The Okeh label put out a variety of blues 78 RPM records.

78s, of course, were the first records to be collected. Prior to World War II, most serious collectors targeted classical and opera music, allowing pop and other genres to pass by. Later eras moved toward jazz and blues – their legacy is still with us today, via the often sky-high prices for a number of little-known artists and labels. Country music came into vogue during the early 1950s and is still popular today.

Rock ’n’ roll, on the other hand, did not begin to register on the collecting scale until some 20 years after 78s fell into extinction. Initially, much of the demand came from Europe, primarily Germany, where 1940s-style “bubble tube” Wurlitzer 78 jukeboxes were enjoying a boom in popularity. A familiar sight in American and British army-run youth clubs of the immediate post-war period, these slices of nostalgia were off-loaded from storage during the late 1970s, and their new owners wanted to stock them with the music from their youth. As the deutschmarks flew in one direction and the records sailed off in another, domestic collectors began to reflect upon the format. The boom began, hampered only by the fact that few dealers were even vaguely capable of specializing in the field. To them, 78s were the fat, black breakable things that sat in boxes in the corner of the store, gathering the dust that would rise up in vast, choking clouds on the rare occasions that somebody – usually older people, with very specific requirements - chose to leaf through them. Even today many traditional used record stores have no idea how to display or categorize 78s. Rather, they flick through the pile looking for the odd name they may recognize, then leave the rest in the least-visited corner, with no thought for even rudimentary preservation. When a store rearranges its stock, one can always tell where the 78s used to be kept by the flakes of broken shellac on the floor.

Elvis 78 on Sun Records

Sun Records produced 78s of Elvis Presley's songs.

By 1952 — just three years after RCA introduced the 45 — even tiny independent record labels were producing 45s side by side with 78s, but in increasing quantities every year. Had 45s not demanded a new type of record player, they might have taken off even faster. Many consumers waited until the players that could handle 78, 45 and 33 RPM records hit the market.
Teens were the driving force of the 45s’ revolution, as 45s blended perfectly with a lifestyle that prided itself on excitement, speed and devil-may-care bravado. They could be stacked on a turntable for nonstop dance parties, passed around without fear of breakage, dropped on the floor and propped against the wall and might never seem worse for wear. On the other hand, you only had to look at a 78 the wrong way (or lay it in a box with less than infinite care) and it shattered. So, the statistics are probably deceptive; 78s did outsell 45s for much of the 1950s. But 78s also sold to fans of jazz, swing, dance band, classical, blues and opera. 45s were a rock and pop phenomenon. Nevertheless, vast quantities of every hit issue were produced, with the biggest names in the infant rock world – Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and so on – as familiar spinning on a 10-inch shellac platter as on 7 inches of vinyl. If one does not care so much for condition (or playability) as for simply owning a handsome artifact, it is not at all difficult, or especially expensive, to build a remarkable collection of early rock ’n’ roll on 78. It’s only when you attempt to upgrade that you’ll run into difficulties.

In general, the rarest rock 78s are the most obscure issues on the best-loved labels – early Sun, Chess and Vee Jay releases. The most expensive tend to be those by the best-known artists. It does not take a rocket scientist to realize that a clean 78 pressing of Gene Vincent’s “Be Bop A Lula” (Capitol 3450) or Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” (Chess 1626) is going to attract more attention than “Tennessee” Ernie Ford’s “You Don’t Have To Be A Baby To Cry” (Capitol 3262) or the Lane Brothers’ “Marianne” (RCA Victor 6810). Most buyers and sellers’ knowledge simply is not that in-depth.

Because Britain continued producing 78s some years after the U.S., many of the rarest issues hail from the U.K. A number of labels issued 78s into summer/fall 1960, with some new issues still reaching stores in time for Christmas – Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” (HMV POP 792) was issued in Britain on 78 as late as November 1960.

Warner Brothers, whose British operation didn’t even open until April 1960, released extremely rare 78s by The Everly Brothers, featuring titles that never saw shellac in the U.S. (“Cathy’s Clown” – WB 1, “Lucille” – WB 19); while Eddie Cochran’s “Three Steps To Heaven” (London HLUG 9115), Brian Hyland’s “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka-Dot Bikini” (London HLR 9161) and Elvis Presley’s “Stuck On You” (RCA 1187), “A Mess Of Blues” (RCA 1194) and “It’s Now Or Never” (RCA 1207), all appear impossibly overdue to the American collector.

A full catalog of releases to this market would probably boggle the most even-keeled mind. But let us reel off just four of the 78 RPM discs that haunt the imagination of every completist Beatles enthusiast: “If I Fell” (Parlophone DPE 167), “Tell Me Why” (DPE 172), “I’ll Follow The Sun” (DPE 180) and “Michelle” (DPE 187), dating from summer 1965.