Happy Birthday and welcome back to an old friend, the 45 rpm record officially turned 60 years old on March 31, 2009. British trade journals are reporting that single song 45rpm records are now outselling their CD counterparts and many American bands are now releasing music via this historic audio medium.
The 45rpm record was initially introduced in 1949 by RCA Records as a smaller, more durable replacement for the heavy 78 shellac-based records of the time. The 45 was created by RCA as a competitive move against one their rival record companies, Columbia, which had just introduced the new microgroove 33 1/3 rpm LP. The number 45 came from taking 78 and subtracting Columbia's new 33 to equal the 45. Record companies and consumers alike faced an uncertain future as to which format would survive the 78rpm or the 45rpm; in what was known as the “War of the Speeds.” In 1949 Capitol and Decca started issuing the new LP format and RCA relented and issued its first LP in January 1950. But the 45 rpm was gaining in popularity and Columbia issued its first 45s in February 1951. Soon other record companies saw the mass consumer appeal the new format allowed and by 1954 more than 200 million 45s had been sold.
On March 31, 1949, RCA Victor released "Texarkana Baby" b/w "Bouquet of Roses" by Eddy Arnold. The first 45 to hit the Billboard charts was "A -- You're Adorable" by Perry Como, listed on the charts on May 7, 1949. The next week, the year's biggest hit appeared on the Billboard charts -- "Riders In The Sky (A Cowboy Legend)” by Vaughn Monroe. The first 45rpm records were monaural and as stereo sound became more prevalent and popular in the 1960s, almost all 45rpm records were manufactured in stereo.
The historical and commercial significance of the 45rpm record has varied over time, the technological developments in recorded music and according to the audience of the particular artists and musical genres. In general, 45 records were more important to the music acts who sold music to the younger audiences (mostly teenagers) who tend to have limited financial resources and shorter attention spans. That said, the golden age for the 45 was in the 1950s and 1960s in early development of rock music. They were affordable and allowed artists the freedom of releasing a single song as opposed to a whole LP. Conversely, some singles helped to launch the sales of the albums that the musicians were promoting. However, the 45 rpm record can never duplicate the sales figures from when the format was in its heyday because when the 45 was at its peak, it was the way to get music for the consumer. Today there are too many other formats competing for the music dollar.
The length of the songs also evolved. In the 1950s, it was common for songs to be anywhere from two to two and a half minutes long and in the 1960s; the three minute single became the norm. This length was very convenient and fit the AM radio format very well. Millions of demo records were sent out to radio stations with specific instructions as to which song was supposed to be the ‘hit single,’ although there were some DJs that played the ‘B’ sides and those songs became hits. Elvis Presley was one of the first artists to release the ‘double-sided single’, meaning that both songs would ultimately end up on the charts. The Beatles followed suit and were also one of the first recording artists to push the envelope, so to speak and commonly had songs over the three-minute norm. In fact, there are some singles that had to be edited by radio stations and shortened to fit their particular formats. Don McLean’s 1972 hit “American Pie” is an example, the single was split up into two parts on the 45. The Beatles broke new ground in 1968 with their over seven minute epic “Hey Jude.” Another concept is the 'split single' where two bands release a cut on one side of the record. This is especially popular within the indie music community, it makes the cost affordable for the bands and also creates an instant collectible for music lovers.
The sales of the 45s were recorded on the record charts in most countries in a Top 40 format and these charts were often published in magazines (Billboard), television shows (American Bandstand) and radio programs often had the Top 40 countdown shows (Casey Casem).
Nowadays, they still manufacture 45 rpm records, but on a much smaller scale than decades ago. Indie bands, r&b artists and punk bands love the format; it makes the music affordable for their target audience and, after all these years, 45 rpm records are still highly sought after by record collectors. Happy Birthday to an old friend, here’s for many more!