Thursday, January 03, 2008

This post is loaded with SPIN... in, thirty-three, forty-five and seventy-eight...

I posted fairly recently that I became aware of a lady singer who was born in 1897 and grew up in the little town of Kooskia, Idaho. Her name is Lee Morse, but her time was long ago, and she passed away at the fairly early age of 54. She had a three-octave voice, and could sing blues, ballads and swing numbers, all with equal ease. Should you wish to sample any of Miss Morse's musical delights, go to and you'll find a lot her songs posted there. This post, however, deals more with the mechanics of old records, and pretty-much why the '78 rpm' record became a dinosaur...

Here's an old Lee Morse record that came out in the mid-1920's..."June Brought The Roses" is the side you see here; on the back side is "Just For You", recorded for the Pathe' label in New York City long ago. It's quite amazing, watching an old '78' whirl 'round and 'round at breakneck speed on the turntable...sadly, these old discs really don't have much going for them in the high-fidelity department. Especially when you consider that long ago, STEEL needles were used in the tone-arm...I can just imagine a steel stylus, digging into the brittle shellac, and rounding off the twists and turns in the grooves until all you hear after a few plays is something like "SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" That's especially true on these old 78's that were recorded acoustically...which meant that the singer had to almost scream to be heard, and the boys in the band had to really belt it out...on my copy of this, the singer and musicians can be heard off in the distance, but I don't plan on playing it a's more a period piece than anything. I like the old-looking label and the sleeve it came in...although, the little blurb on the right side of the sleeve could be taken in different ways..."classical and operatic records by world famous artists--all double-faced." What this means, of course, is that there is One Song on Each Side, which was an important point in those days, since a lot of early '78s featured nothing but a blank side, devoid of any grooves whatsoever. Two songs on one disc! Novel concept there.

Later on, Miss Lee Morse switched over to Columbia Records, a big company even in those days, which used something called the "Viva-Tonal Electrical Process" (not to be confused with those annoying "Viva-Viagra" TV Commercials), but I still don't hear a lot of presence in those recordings either. I have an almost-new copy of a song she recorded for that label in 1928 titled "Don't Keep Me In The Dark, Bright Eyes"...and it's the closest thing to a new 78 I've ever's virtually scratchless, the disc shines reflected light brightly, and it appears to have not been played very much. Still, when I set the tone arm down, even though I could hear the musicians and singer just fine, there was still a very subdued "hissssssssssss" throughout the recording. Face it, shellac just wasn't really all that great a substance for high fidelity, and obviously, in the late '20s, recording techniques were still in their infancy. Also, factor in the added friction of the needle in the grooves at high speed ...I'll bet one of those steel styli wore out after 3 plays. Later on, 78's began to sound a whole lot better, even though record labels still used shellac, which is actually an old rubber compound that's brittle and wears out FAST. You'd still get "groove hiss", but the sound was clearer, brighter and more up-front, so overall, things were much improved. Plus, you no longer had to "wind up" the phonograph...and then vinyl came along, replaced shellac, and fidelity got even better. Then diamond and sapphire needles came along, and the record biz was ready to Rock and Roll!

Anyway, fast-forward to the present...78's are history, so are 45's and 33's, and we're now in the age of the Compact Disc...although the CD format is seeing competition from 'Mp3's' and 'IPods' (whatever those are; I still ain't sure). Still, CD's are convenient; they never wear out, and you don't have to get up and flip the CD over halfway through. (Maybe that's why CD's were such a hit; lots of lazy listeners out there!)

Pictured at left is a two-CD set of Lee Morse's recordings; disc one contains 25 songs from her stint on the Pathe' label, and disc two features 25 more of her songs which were issued on Columbia. And it's amazing what expensive (and highly-priced) technology can do. Disc one (the older recordings) has about 85% of the groove wear and surface noise eliminated, and disc two (the newer recordings) sounds really great; crystal-clear. More than anything, though...the 2-CD set weighs, what, a few Lee Morse 78's (15 in all) probably weigh 5 or 10 POUNDS.

So, am I ever going to amass a collection of ALL of Miss Morse's recordings on '78'? I don't think so...she recorded over 200 songs in her lifetime; that many 78's (double-faced!) would weigh close to a TON. I'd need a Mack Truck to move them! (I almost need one now, considering all the old rock albums that dominate my living area.)

More than anything, though, the old '78s only hint at how good of a singer she, or anyone else at that time, was. The vocal presence just doesn't really come through very well on those old shellac-lined grooves. Miss Morse's personality, enthusiasm and charm do come across, albeit in a slightly muffled way due to sub-par record material and lack of recording sophistication. Later on, much later on, she made a brief comeback in 1950, and the clarity of those recordings is shocking; they sound absolutely GREAT! On the website I listed above, is posted one of her last recordings, "Don't Even Change A Picture On The Wall". She was 53 by then, but her voice was stronger than ever. And, it's a swingin' song, really it is. I'm still trying to find out if her 1950 recordings were issued on 45''s possible; 45's came along in the late 1940s...although some labels didn't utilize the '45' format right away. So far, I can't find any, and I've done a number of internet searches for 'em.

When I first came across the term "double-faced", I couldn't help but think of POLITICIANS. This is an election year, after all. Oh well, at least George W. Bush will be going the way of the old '78s'...gathering dust in the collective attic of our history for the rest of his existence. Yaay.


Blogger Word Tosser said...

Also the cassette is starting to be a thing of the pass. We bought a stereo with for the house. Gave Ken my older one. Then last week I went to play the cassette... no cassette player. The part that I thought had it, was a slot thing to store what I don't know. I was upset.. Now I have to find a small cassette player, as my outside one died last summer.

11:06 PM  
Blogger Idaho Escapee said...

Hiya, Cis...I have heard the cassette format is dying out. Whenever I go to second-hand stores, they always have brand-new, still-wrapped cassette tapes for 50 cents...I've probably got half a case of still-new tapes I've bought that way.

4:59 AM  

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