Classical Notes

78s - Bigger, Faster and Better

Just 5 years ago I fell deeply in love.treble clef graphic At first my wife barely noticed, but then her demanding rival moved into our basement and my new passion became hard to ignore.

It all began at a record show in Arbutus, Maryland. Although I already "had" the Orioles’ "It’s Too Soon to Know" on CD The Orioles: It's Too Soon to Knowin Rhino’s wonderful Doo Wop Box, here was the real thing, the original issue of one of the most influential records ever made. A few weeks later, I brought home a gorgeous copy of Toscanini’s second record from a book sale. As I listened to these and other slices of history on shellac, what had started as mere historical curiosity began to stir a far deeper enthusiasm.

In our age of constant progress and marvels we tend to scorn the technology of the past – digital is better than analog, stereo than mono, FM than AM – and therefore it follows that any sound carrier must be better than 78s, where it all began. Toscanini conducts the La Scala Orchestra in 1920But despite such conventional wisdom, these supposedly outmoded relics truly sound better than their LP, 45 and even CD counterparts. The reason has nothing to do with the science of sound; rather, it’s a matter of artistic communication.

We often mistake accurate audio reproduction for desirable sound. But there’s a huge difference between accuracy and powerful human feelings. The history of recording has reached the point where modern CDs seem as real as technology can ever get us. But so what? Like the term implies, "flat" sound is boring. We are drawn to books, photos, souvenirs and black-and-white movies precisely because we must infer reality from their hints. The strongest emotions are the ones we don’t experience directly but that our minds must create. The sound of 78s may not be realistic, but it’s hugely involving.

Take rock. What in the world does rock and roll have to do with the crystalline purity of distortion-free sound?Chess labelAtlantic 78 label Rock is rebellion, energy, unbridled feeling, visceral excitement. And that’s exactly what you hear in the original 78s – the percussive slash of Chuck Berry’s guitar in "Johnny B. Goode," the pounding, rollicking bass in the Chords’ "Sh-Boom," the commanding, hypnotic immediacy of Elvis’s "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You," the startling call to attention of the tribal percussion that opens the Cadets’ "Stranded in the Jungle," the speaker-rattling bass of Harold Winley’s final three notes on the Clovers’ "Blue Velvet," the head-busting impact of the drum throbs that punctuate Roscoe Gordon’s "Booted," the rasping brass comment that teases the sly insinuation of each phrase of Smiley Lewis’s "One Night," and the burning screams and rude, nasty sax break in any Little Richard record. All come barging out of the 78 grooves to grip you in hot, throbbing sound. Distorted? Of course! That’s the whole point – it’s a sound so bold and insistent that a groove can barely contain it and a needle can barely track it. This is fervent stuff, light-years removed from the refined gentility of vinyl, tape or CDs, which not only blanch the essential energy of the original sound but in the process falsify the authentic conception.

We’re not just talking about rock.Okeh labelCapitol label Just listen to the riveting punch of one of the original Louis Armstrong Hot Fives on Okeh, Billie Holiday’s hushed dignity welling up from the dark menacing mist of "Strange Fruit" on Commodore, or the dazzling precision of Les Paul’s solo guitar work on Capitol. So much of the impact of these records stems from their sound, which communicates something that transcends the music itself.

The very same considerations apply to classical records as well; who ever said rock has a monopoly on sonic excitement?First Columbia electrical labelRCA Red Seal label There’s a unique and tangible thrill to the electrifying energy of Toscanini’s 1939 Beethoven Fifth, the fabulously sumptuous sound of the Concertgebouw Orchestra under Mengelberg, the breathtaking subtlety of Gieseking’s fluid pianism, the authority of a Sousa march by the composer’s own band, the stunning technique of the teen-aged Heifetz, the complex texture of coloratura Luisa Tetrazzini’s voice, and the sheer power and depth of the incomparable Caruso. The last four, incidentally, are acoustical but shouldn’t be dismissed as hopelessly primitive. Not only do they represent the most direct recording process of all, with nothing separating the artist and the cutting lathe, but they boast a rich, mellow tone that CD transfers just don’t capture.

It's no coincidence that all these records sound the way they do. Each reflects the outlook of the artist.Later Columbia labelBluebird label Thus the richness of the vocal blend on the Channels’ "The Closer You Are" on Whirling Disc conveys a clear aural image of the group’s street-corner camaraderie, and the outrageous prominence of Jerome Green’s maracas that drive Bo Diddley’s "I’m a Man" is an urgent call to heed and respect the unadulterated rhythm of African music. Each side also speaks directly to a specific intended audience. Thus the warm, mellow embrace of Glenn Miller’s "Moonlight Serenade" on Bluebird targeted Americans seeking big-band comfort on the verge of war, and the mesmerizing seduction of Frank Sinatra’s resonant voice on Columbia was an aural arrow aimed straight for the eager hearts of pining bobby-soxers. These are experiences you simply can’t feel on bland LP or CD reissues.

We tend to pity older artists, presumed victimized by inadequate technology.Sun labelChecker label But instead, let’s give these guys and gals – and their engineers – some well-deserved credit; perhaps they weren’t forced to compromise their art after all, but took advantage of the strengths of their medium to create the aural image they wanted to convey. Listen to one of Little Walter’s Checker 78s, where the fat harp and vocal solos are so overloaded they obliterate the accompaniment. His sound is not a mistake or a cause for regret; rather, it brilliantly conjures a gripping aural image of overdriven amps and gut-popping intensity far better than a thin, well-balanced 45 or LP ever could. By the end of the 78 era, technicians had the benefit of decades of experience to perfect the sound they sought and worked with artists to achieve greatness through, not in spite of, the available technology. There were great, skilled professionals on both sides of the microphones.

Another pleasure of 78s that CDs don’t capture – quite literally –Decca labelImperial Label is the huge number of undeservedly obscure but fine artists who, for whatever reason, haven’t made the silver leap yet. High on my own list of favorites who can be heard only on 78 are Lil Green (on Bluebird), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (Decca), Walter Thompson and his Jump Cats (Celebrity) and Pvt. Cecil Gant, the "G.I. Sing-Sation" (Gilt-Edge). The sheer variety and quantity of 78s issued in the half-century before the LP or 45 is simply staggering. By avoiding 78s, you’re cutting yourself off from the entire first half of the recorded era and its vast heritage – the very heritage that, beyond its intrinsic value, displays the genuine roots of all the music of today.

But aren’t they fragile?Vee-Jay labelSpecialty label Sure, they can break, but unlike vinyl, tape or digital media, 78s are made of such durable stuff and are cut so deeply that they can take a huge amount of abuse and look awful but still sound amazingly fine. Unless they’ve been "juked" (played repeatedly with very heavy and worn needles) or have gouges that fight the rhythm of the music, their noise is just light random scratches and constant surface hiss that’s easily ignored. It’s a shame that so many digital conversion processes nowadays willingly sacrifice musical fidelity in order to suppress background noise at all costs. Reissue producers tend to forget that each listener already has the most sophisticated scratch removal, noise-reduction and equalization circuitry of all – the human ear and mind – which readily compensate for sonic flaws to deliver the music unimpaired. (You enjoy music in your car, don’t you?)

One final thought –Cadence labelFederal label whether or not you prefer the deep, vibrant sound of 78s, please remember that they are the original sound of the music that turned on previous generations. A digital conversion is nothing more than an alternate mix, no better than breaking down the driven, pounding mono sound of the early Beatles or Rascals into an exaggerated stereo spread completely at odds with the tight, focussed image that brought them their fame. Caruso, Benny Goodman and Hank Williams entertained tens of thousands live, but their reputation was sealed by the millions who thrilled to their records. It was the 78s that were played in clubs and juke joints, on home phonographs and over the air – when disc jockeys spoke about hot new "platters," they sure weren’t talking about 45s! A reissue that "cleans up" and modernizes the source material may claim to take you closer to the original sound than ever before, but that’s simply not true. Listen in digital purity if you must, but don’t mistake the result for the authentic experience. So let's give 78's a break (but not literally, please!). Until the late ‘fifties, 78s were the real thing. And in many ways, they still are.

So if you see me at record shows, I may seem downcast, but I’m really not – I’m just scouting the floor for a heavy crate of 78s that never made it onto a table. And if my wife reads this, perhaps she’ll understand more about her ageless shellac rivals.

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Copyright 1999 by Peter Gutmann

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copyright © 1999-2003 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.