I remember it like it was yesterday. When I was twelve, on Christmas Day, under the tree, Santa had left a record player and three 45 RPM records for my brother and me. The first was Elvis’ "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear" backed with "Loving You." The second was Buddy Knox’s “Party Doll.” And finally Pat Boone’s “Love Letters In The Sand”.
Personally, I think Santa had some input from Mom and Dad because the previous year, I had begun to pester them to let me play their records on their Victrola. They were caught up in the CBS 45 RPM frenzy and we did not have any albums or 78 RPM records in the house. Also the record player they gave us played 33 1/3 RPM albums as well. But to my brother and me, it was a 45 RPM world.
It was the same for my friends at school; 45 RPM was where it was at. All the cool cats and hot kitties of the day had those 7 inch vinyl disks with the big hole in the middle. At least we had the big hole in the US. In other countries they had a small hole sometimes with knocks outs for a bigger hole. For me, that big hole became very important.
As it turned out handling records came with some consequences. If you touched the flat sides of a record with bare hands, you left minute traces of oil and grime from your fingers. It didn’t matter if you had just washed your hands or not, there would be a smudge that would gather dust and create noise when the needle passed through it while playing. Careful use of soap and water would take care of that but you stood the risk of ruining the record label if you got it wet. That was a problem. After all, one just did not take a record to a dance party with a ruined label, not cool at all.
Many of the radio stations that played records passed out white cotton gloves to the engineers who actually handled the records so they could play them without putting their hands on them. This was an issue in particular for the larger 78 and 33 1/3 RPM records. You must use both hands in order to touch only the edges of the records and not the grooves.
This is where the 45 RPM’s smaller disk size and larger hole came in. As a twelve year old, I soon discovered that one could handle a 45 with the middle finger and the thumb of one hand. So we didn’t need gloves to protect the grooves. Little did I know how much that discovery would have 6 years later when I started my radio career. I just thought it was cool to be able to do that.
The other cool thing about 45’s was that, at least initially, they had only one track per side. So you didn’t have to read the track listing on the album cover or the record itself, and count tracks to place the needle in the silent space between tracks to hear the song you wanted. This little advance was very important to the radio industry. Before the advent of the 45’s, one of the reason that you had engineers who “ran the board” and played the records was all that extra work it took to play a certain song off the side of an album. 45’s gave rise to the “combo DJ’s” who did all the technical work and announced as well. Since the DJ did not have to coordinate with the engineer in a “presenter/engineer” radio show with hand signals, he or she could “tighten up” the show and interact more with the records, commercials, jingles and all the other program elements that made up a music show back in those days.
This gave rise to some pretty arcane practices like “walking up the record and hitting the post” or inter-reacting with the singer on certain songs. The announcer no longer announced the song you were about to hear, but became part of the performance itself, tying the songs together to tell a story. Sadly, these skills are losing prominence and the cadre of DJs who can still do this are diminishing in number.
I have done both “combo” and “presenter/engineer” radio shows in my day and I can tell you that I greatly prefer the “combo” role.
The down side of the old 45 RPM records in the broadcast environment was a thing called “cue-burn.” This was caused by the practice of finding the first note of the song on the record by placing the needle down and rotating the record until you hear the start of the song. Then the DJ would back the record up manually until the needle was in the groove just a moment before that first note. And that my friends, is how we controlled the moment when you heard that first note.
The problem was that when your play list consisted of only 50 or 60 songs that were less than 3 ½ minutes long and you were on the air 24 hours a day a given record would be played an average of 8 times a day, more for those songs that were higher on the top 40 and less for those that were lower. Still, queuing up a song 56 times per week took its toll on those first few seconds of the song. We had to replace a heavy rotation record every couple of weeks or so. If the record company representative did not leave a spare with us, those records had very noisy starts.
Every now and then, we would get a “pressing” of a song where the hole was off center just a smidge. This would create a “wobble” effect similar to a Leslie Rotating Speaker in some organs or guitar amplifiers. If the song was “hot”, the rep would have to scramble for a replacement disk and that could take some time. I remember one song in particular that took off so quickly that we never got a replacement; “96 Tears” by “? and the Mysterians.” Watching the tone arm of the turntable move back and forth every ¾ of a second was mesmerizing. It wasn’t until 30 years or so after I last played the song on the radio that I heard it without the wobble. I had to learn to like the song all over again, it was that different.
Every old school radio DJ that I know talks about having the same nightmare; the song that is on the air is running out, there is no song queued up on the other turntable, no commercial or jingle is loaded, can’t find the log to find out what to do next, and the program director is behind you yelling at you to “keep it tight!” I used to have the same dream too until ten years ago when I started doing live shows again. But this past week I had a modern variant of the dream; the song that is on the air is running out, the program director is watching me like a hawk and the batteries in my wireless mouse have gone dead and I can’t find the spares. Times have changed and yet they really haven’t changed that much. Oh MY!