The slow-moving, thrilling world of the 78 rpm record

It was called the '78 Quarterly'—and it is one of the most unusual serials ever published.

Mike Selby

It was called the ’78 Quarterly’—and it is one of the most unusual serials ever published.

For one thing, the quarterly in the title is completely misleading. While the first and second issues came out on time, there is a staggering 25-year gap between issue two and three (from the fourth to the twelfth and final issue, it appeared only once per year.)

A second thing which makes ’78 Quarterly’ atypical is the undeniable fact that certain articles published are—to quote one reviewer—”objectively insane.”

In spite of, or perhaps because of, these apparent pitfalls, the ’78 Quarterly’ was from the minute of its appearance in the 1960s to this day (even though its final issue was printed in 2005) the finest, most important, and certainly the most authoritative publication about jazz and blues music which appeared on records which played at 78 revolutions per minute.

The 78 rpm record initially appeared in 1890, a product of fierce competition between Thomas Edison’s phonograph and Emile Berliner’s gramophone. It would not be until 1910 that the Wisconsin Chair Company began to manufacture turntables for home use, which were placed inside the big and heavy wooden cabinets everyone’s grandparents seem to have. The purpose of these large cabinets were to offset a living room, a type of showpiece furnishing which typically displayed photos or vases on. The turntable inside was viewed as secondary.

The irony of all this continues as, at the time, no one used the turntable to play records; any records one had were used to demonstrate the turntable.

78 records and their players were simply a gimmick used to help sell furniture, along the lines of “buy one of our cabinets and we will throw in 5 or 10 records for free.” To make this offer more appealing, in 1917 the Wisconsin Chair Company began their own record label, which they called Paramount Records. Unfortunately this group of chair salesman did not make effective music producers, and they were about to file for bankruptcy in 1921, when a sudden boom in African American blues appeared.

They hired a producer familiar with this music, and Paramount began to issue recordings of the the most important blues artists of the 20th century (Son House, Charlie Patton, Skip James, and, of course, Robert Johnson.)

And finally, people began to buy record players to hear the albums themselves, instead of the other way around.

(It is tempting to use the word “vinyl” but 78 records are mostly made from brittle shellac, ground up with clay. Paramount Records even used sawdust from their chair factory, and whatever else was laying around, including cow bones.)

Radio killed most of the 78 industry in the 1940s, with its final death blow being the long-playing vinyl LPs of the 1960s. Which coincidently is when the ’78 Quarterly’ first appeared.

’78 Quarterly’ was the brainchild of Peter Whelan, who began collecting 78 blues records as kid. Whelan would hear this music on the radio, but when he went to ask for it stores no one knew what he was talking about. Finally one record store owner in New Jersey said “you mean race records,” and pulled out a bunch from behind the counter. Whelan was hooked, but even then he recognized 78s were on their way out.

The ‘Quarterly’ was — in pre-digital era — a way for Whelan to connect with other collectors, and to educate and inform. Although many classical music recordings and radio shows appeared on 78s, it is the African American Deep Blues that collectors are interested in. The brittleness of 78s, combined with most people throwing them away during the 1940s, make some extremely rare (one Paramount record sold for $40,000 in 2013). Since all of Paramount’s master tracks were destroyed by the Second World War, a 78 is typically the only copy of a song in existence.

Realizing this was the case, Whelan began to reissue his 78s onto regular vinyl in the late 60s, selling them for $3 each. He made so much money doing this he was able to retire down to Key West, and this is why there is 25 years between issues 2 and 3 of ’78 Quarterly.’

Nothing moves very fast in the world of 78 records, so no one appeared to mind the quarter-century wait for the next issue. Although he insisted issue 12 was the final one, Whelan is still around so who knows.

[All 12 issues can be viewed online here: quarterly]

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library