Listening at 78 revolutions per minute

Among my treasures is a 78 rpm record of “Wake Up Little Susie,” the Everly Brothers hit from 1957, on Cadence Records. I’ve seen 78s from as late as 1960 or 1963 offered on eBay (most notably early Beatles songs), but the prices go so high and my interest is mostly just curiosity, so I’ve never actually seen or owned one.

The latest I’m aware of is a limited-edition novelty pressing of “Mr. Bojangles,” the 1970 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band hit.

Legend has it that 78 revolutions per minute became the standard because that was the rotation of the inexpensive motor used in the original record-playing prototypes. I don’t know why later turntables went 45 rpm and 33.3 rpm, but I wonder if it has to do with the fun fact that 45 + 33 equals 78 – can turntables manage all three speeds for some simple, mechanical reason?

My generation was introduced to 78 rpm records because little children’s records were produced at that speed for a very long time, usually on yellow vinyl with names like Peter Pan Records. One day I found my dad’s stash of big band records from the 1930s and ’40s, and it was Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing” that taught me 78s could be 12 inches wide as well as 10.

One of my greatest childhood shames was accidentally breaking Dad’s copy of “Powerhouse” by Raymond Scott. I was mortified; Dad took it in stride. It was a lesson in forgiveness that I later applied when my cat shredded my copy of Daredevil #1. 

The shellac 78s got scratchy a lot faster than the vinyl of latter years, and the sound reproduction can be vastly cleaned up digitally, but I’ve always been charmed by the swiftly spinning sounds from studios as long ago as a century or more.

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