At age 8, Jon Lamb heard a hit and he had to have it.
One night in 1974, while riding in the backseat of his parents’ Rambler in his St. Louis-area hometown of Granite City, he heard “The Night Chicago Died” by Paper Lace. Lamb had suddenly discovered pop music.
“I was hooked,” says Lamb, 53, of Peoria. “I had to hear it again.”
His older sister had the 45. But she told him to keep his paws off it.
“That’s what older siblings do,” he says. “So, I would sit by the radio and wait for it to come on, call up the station and request it, or try to sneak into my sister's room to listen to it. Finally, at the five-and-dime store, I bought it for a buck and brought it home. I listened to it over and over, all night.
“I even wrote ‘Property of Jon Lamb’ on it so my sister wouldn’t steal it.”
To this day, Lamb can boast the memory, but not the once-cherished record.
“About a week after I bought it, I ended up trading it to the sister of a buddy for two packs of candy cigarettes.”
Such was the beauty of the golden age of the 45-rpm single, which stretched over four glorious decades. They were cheap, accessible, even tradeable, in the process turning singers into stars overnight.
This month marks the 70th anniversary of the release of the first commercial 45s, a development that changed the way the world sold, bought and heard music. Though digital downloads rule the music industry these days, 45s still pack a powerful nostalgic punch.
Craig Moore, 72, owns Younger Than Yesterday record shop at 2615 N. University St. in Peoria, which has more than 200,000 45s in stock. He remembers first discovering the small vinyl discs as pre-teen in the mid 1950s.
“My Uncle Bill would take us to the local record shop to get the latest Elvis Presley stuff, and I discovered the whole concept, appearance and smell of a record shop,” Moore says. “All the songs I had heard on the radio and TV were on a 7-inch record!”
Similarly, their debut fascinated the rest of America, which for decades had been lumbering along with noisy and fragile 78-rpm discs made of shellac. As Rolling Stone magazine recently chronicled, RCA Victor pioneered a new format on March 15, 1949. Seven original records ranged from classical to kiddie to country, the most memorable probably Arthur “Big Boy” boogie-woogie "That's All Right," later a hit for Elvis. RCA soon released more singles, often categorized by color, such as green vinyl for country and orange for rhythm and blues. But pop songs would be issued in what would become the standard: black.
The smaller size and flexible vinyl made the 45 far more portable than their predecessors, and soon portable record players flooded stores. Plus, the cost — a buck or less — made 45s affordable to the mass market, allowing teens to collect, trade and share their latest record-store discoveries.
"It was strange at first seeing that big hole in the middle," renown deejay Casey Kasem told the Associated Press in 1989. " ... (But) the nice thing about 45s was that you could carry a stack of them without dealing with the excessive weight of a 78."
Quickly, 45s were everywhere. One of rock’s earliest smashes and one of rock’s most cataclysmic early hits, Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” sold 3 million singles in 1955.
As 33-rpm albums (which arrived a year earlier than 45s) grew in popularity, singles held their own. Sometimes, artists would release a song only as a single, such as The Rolling Stones with “Honky Tonk Women.”
Meantime, B sides held surprises. For instance, Elton John would record songs only as B sides, to give buyers more value for their purchase. Other times, B sides featured album leftovers that later would become gems: the flip side to Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” was “Silver Springs,” Stevie Nicks’ stunningly painful reflection of her failed romance with Lindsey Buckingham.
For artists, a surprise single could hit the jackpot. For instance, according to the Daily Express of London, Englishman Ray Dorset took a 10-minute break from his watch-factory job and scrawled out a song. In 1970s, “In the Summertime” would be released by the band he fronted, Mungo Jerry. The outfit’s only hit, the song sold an astonishing 30 million copies, one of the best-selling singles in the history of recorded music.
The peak year for the 45 was 1974, when 200 million were sold. But by the late 1980s, the format was sliding fast. Jukeboxes dwindled as rockers moved toward albums, while the cassette single made a big (though brief) splash. As CDs arrived, singles all but vanished.
But the 45 survives. Some bands (Nirvana, Pearl Jam) clung to the concept, and in 2001 Jack White launched the Third Man label, which has pressed 300 singles. Granted, a typical single sells just 2,000 copies — a far cry from Bill Haley, to say nothing of Mungo Jerry — but the format refuses to die.
Peoria record-seller Moore says he continues to see a steady stream of customers interested in 45s. Some are collectors, while others — even younger music fans — simply enjoy the sound, feel and look of 45s.
“The 45 isn’t going away,” Moore says. “Younger generations are downloading to their phone but buying vinyl.
“The king is vinyl. Long live the king!”
That sentiment is echoed by many local fans of 45s, which still reign supreme amid their music-loving recollections. They warmly remember their first 45:
“Wipe Out,” The Surfaris: I wasn't allowed to listen to much rock and roll in those young days. The Beatles were definitely not allowed in my house. — Karen Logan DeMarini
“Cecelia,” Simon & Garfunkel: When my preacher father heard the lyrics he broke it. — Bonna Poore
“Bang a Gong,” T. Rex: My mom worked at a restaurant with a jukebox. When they changed records out, she was able to buy them for a nickel. She brought “Bang a Gong” home for me. Life was never the same. — Scott Robbins
“Puppy Love,” Donny Osmond: I wrote him a love letter, along with a photo of my homely eight-grade self and a lock of my hair, hoping for an autographed pic. This story has been a joke in my family for many many years. My daughter surprised me last year for my birthday with a personalized autographed glossy of Donny himself, who is my age. She hounded and hounded his manager like a stalker to procure it. We laughed so hard when I opened it. Of course, I treasure it! — Gina Wright
“Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix Experience: My first 45 came with the little record player that my mom and dad bought me for my birthday. Dad thought it was an old country song, but this version of “Hey Joe” was sung by Jimi Hendrix! So along with “The Unicorn Song” and a “Wizard of Oz” 45, the 7-year-old me was listening to the tale of a man who shot down his old lady for messin’ round with another man. — Lee Hall.
"Candy Man," Sammy Davis Jr: I bought it at Sears. The record department was across from the optical department (we were always there because my brother was always breaking his glasses). I think my sister convinced me to buy this 45. I believe she liked that song more than I. — Colleen Kirby Dorner
"Leaving on a Jet Plane," Peter, Paul and Mary: My parents got divorced, and my bio-dad got me "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Peter, Paul and Mary. A few weeks later, he did. — Deb Chamberlain
“A Boy Named Sue,” Johnny Cash: An inspiring story to me, a small kid, who learned that a handicap can actually be a strength. Being named Sue taught the boy to fight for himself. — Ron Liechti
“Windy,” The Association: When I was younger, I had the coolest Winnie the Pooh record player. Every morning, I would play that song on my record player. I drove my parents crazy with it. Eventually I moved up to a 45 of Joan Jett's “I Love Rock and Roll.” Now my kids like to listen to 45.. I still wonder what became of my really cool Winnie the Pooh record player. — Jodie Whitehurst Mallinson
“American Pie,” Don McLean: I played it so much that my mom and dad hid it. I found it though. I did not appreciate the lyrics at that time; I just loved the song, which was so long that it played on both sides of the record. It wasn't until much later I learned all the references and what they actually meant. — Kristy Hughes Schofield
“Sugar, Sugar,” The Archies: Does it count if you got a 45 off the back of a box of cereal? — Brett A. Halbleib
"Hot Child in the City," Nick Gilder: I used a hairbrush as my microphone and bedroom mirror (as any teenage girl would) to perfect my performance of that song. The flip side song (on a blue, Chrysalis label), was catchy, too: "Backstreet Noise"! — Jamie Patton
“Swingtown,” The Steve Miller Band. My mom, who never was one for gift giving, bought a portable, orange-case record player and three 45s for my sister and me. Our love of music started then as we played the heck out of those three records, both sides. — Crystal Cole Moore
“Afternoon Delight,” Starland Vocal Band: To this day I can’t hear that song without hearing all of the pops and scratches in my head. — Joe Calgaro
"Queen of Hearts," Juice Newton: I should ask for anonymity, but I won't. "Queen of Hearts" was a crossover hit if there ever was one. I have no idea why I bought that 45. I suspect it was just the earworm topping the charts at the time I got my first record player. — Christopher Glenn
“Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy: You never forget your first time. It was 1958, summer, and I was 11. Flush with fresh cash from my new Peoria Journal Star afternoon paper route, I pedaled my bike up Prospect Road, past the Springdale Cemetery woods and entrance, to the original Bogard’s Drugs site one block north of Forrest Hill. Hot in my pocket was the requisite dollar bill and odd pennies that would cover the cost of my first 45-rpm record, a thunderous guitar twanger “Rebel Rouser,” Duane Eddy’s first single on yellow-label Jamie Records. I brought it home and put it on the mini-suitcase record player that had hitherto played Little Golden kiddie records. Duane’s solo reverberated through the living room of the empty house. I did my little-guy victory dance. And thus a lifetime hobby was born: looking for and buying records. — Mike Foster
(Some information for this story also came from historysdumpster.blogspot.com and Wikipedia.)
PHIL LUCIANO is a Journal Star columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com, facebook.com/philluciano and (309) 686-3155. Follow him on Twitter.com/LucianoPhil.