Thursday, March 31, 2022

Foiled! The Conspiracy to Kill the 45

We live in a world of conspiracy theories, propaganda, and vinyl dreams. 

So what's new? 

Perhaps some sinister Q conspiracy threatens the venerable 45-rpm disc--the Big Hole of Rock 'n' Roll--but I'm not aware of it. Or maybe it's a Q&A. Excuse me, but as a 45-lover, I'm paranoid. The Streaming Illuminati has to pick on someone, and the 45 is still the smallest kid on the block. But that kid has spunk. He fights back. (In case you were born after 1995, the 45 is the smaller vinyl record with a big hole.)

For we older vinylites, the seven-inch single means 45 revolutions per minute and a big hole in the center of the disc. Oddly, the Big Hole is important. It is vacant, yes, but it is also a symbol of some sort to us. So anyone who suggests or has suggested killing 45 and the Hole is dangerous.

In years past, conspirators have threatened to kill the baby-boom music icon. The Big Guys ordered a "hit" on the little one as early as the mid-1950s. By 1958, Columbia Records was telling the trades that 45 revolutions per minute were not necessary. Though Columbia didn't admit it, a demise of the teen-revered 45 could have stifled the rock 'n' roll revolution. The single's offense? It ran at 45 rpms. Columbia seemed obsessed with 33-1/3 because its engineers created it and the long-playing album. The company introduced it in 1948.

The year after, RCA Victor dropped the "F" bomb, called the 45. It was seven inches of pure delight. It came in multiple colors. Also using microgrooves, the so-called "45" was more portable and collectible. It was perfect for parties. Teenagers bought the singles as well as smaller RCA 45-rpm record players that fit neatly in teens' rooms. (RCA sold both 45s and 45 record players.) While working on the 45 since 1939, RCA's engineers had kept the project a secret. Company executives referred to it as Madam X. She survived World War II, only to be unleashed at the start of the Cold War. This began what is known as the War of the Speeds--45 vs. 33-1/3 vs. 78. One of the speeds had to win. They could coexist for only so long. At least this is what many industry leaders and entertainment writers believed. Yet the 45 and the 33 survived. The 78 all but died.

A few years later, the 45 single was not the exclusive domain of teenage rock-'n'-roll. However, it was the main delivery system. Record labels knew that kids couldn't afford albums, so the companies pressed few of them. 45s were cheaper to make, mail, and store. Many rock artists were one-shot wonders anyway. By the late 1950s, kids began to think of the big-hole records as their own. Labels catered to the kids.

But opponents of 45-rpm lurked in the shadows. It was no surprise that the leading conspirators worked at Columbia, the nation’s largest label. Though Columbia had its share of obligatory R&B and rockabilly acts, in the mid- to late-1950s the label's heart wasn't into expanding into the latest fringe genres such as rock. 

By 1960, however, the war drums beat loudly at Columbia when Goddard Lieberson, president, and Bill Gallagher, vice president of marketing, again began to challenge the practicality of the 45. (Columbia's Mitch Miller, a duke of adult music, had been disparaging rock-'n'-roll at every opportunity. He was a 33 man.) 

As Columbia's major domo, Lieberson knew that his company had invested a fortune in what I call "the 33 game," and to his credit Columbia dominated the LP business. He maintained that changing the speed of the 45 to 33 (as he called it) would be the best way to deliver more sophisticated audio to music-lovers of all ages. Why not give Aunt Buelah, a 33-lovin' lady with piece of stereo furniture, the opportunity to scoop up Ronnie Self's Columbia single "Ain't I'm A Dog"? 

The label had a lot to gain--especially in the "I-told-you-so" department--if the industry adopted the company's 33 single idea. To its credit, Columbia's microgroove technology had turned out to be far superior to the big grooves of the old 78-rpm discs. Through the '50s Columbia had introduced small-hole records such as the 12-inch LP and seven-inch extended-play album, both running at 33-1/3-rpm. Though the EP was never a big hit among consumers, it did appeal to some jukebox operators.

In the mid-'60s, the one-speed idea came up again. On February 10, 1965, Billboard went all in on the anti-45 plot by publishing an editorial titled "One-Speed: Gain for All." It accompanied a page-one news story by Lee Zhito called "1-Speed Revolution Supported by New York Leaders."

Lieberson told the magazine that by adopting the one-speed movement's plans, the record industry could offer one product instead of multiple ones, and thereby streamline the market. He said the new single that he envisioned would come with a small spindle or hole, like an LP, and run at 33-1/3 speed. In other words, the 45 single would change to a two-sided, seven-inch single that looked like and played like an extended-play disc. The Big Hole would disappear into the cloak of history and young people would miss the things that made singles unique.

Perhaps Lieberson was too engrossed in his ledgers to realize that his 33 might rob teens of The Big Hole. Such a move would be a coup of major proportions. But the man was convincing. He repeated his idea that consumers would save time, money, and bother by adapting the one-speed movement's plan. No more changing adapters and speeds. No more punch-out adapters. And adults might start buying singles, too. Though many adults enjoyed songs that showed up on the Top 40 radio charts in the early '60s, Gallagher said, they wouldn’t bother with buying the lowly 45 because it was associated with teenagers. To him, 45 meant mono. Mono meant kids. Kids meant less disposable income. 

Gallagher became even more emphatic about changing the record world's landscape to one speed. He told the trades that it was impossible for Columbia to do the job on its own. The entire record industry had to comply. 

He told Zhito, "The effort now being expended by Billboard and other leaders in the industry make this a marvelous time to consolidate our energies and broaden our base of the record business. Standardization on an industry-wide scale would act as a stimulant and broaden the singles market into the adult field." In other words, people over 30 would hijack the 45 and turn it into a mini-mini album. “As it stands now," Gallagher said, "the industry’s product line is too complex.” 

It shouldn't have come as a surprise that Columbia wanted to eliminate the 45. After all, Columbia was slow to join the rock-'n'-roll revolution. Singer Billy Joe Royal once told me that the main reason Columbia signed him to a contract in the mid-1960s, aside from his talent, was to help the label catch up to other companies that had a head start in rock music. Billy rewarded Columbia's faith in him by hitting with the 45s "Down in the Boondocks" and "I Knew You When." Then came Paul Revere and the Raiders. Columbia was rolling. Ironically, this happened while Columbia's chieftains were still trying to encourage other labels to join them in changing over to the 33 system.

The whole movement was drenched in irony. Even RCA Victor, the company that created and launched the 45-rpm single, was complicit in the conspiracy. Label chief Norman Racusin told Billboard he believed in Columbia's idea. In a page-one story in the magazine, Zhito acknowledged that the one-speed movement "had been gaining momentum in the last several weeks." He noted that "industry leaders here [in New York] had joined a chorus of support for the one-speed movement."

By that time, however, the Beatles had arrived. Rock 'n' roll had grown up. The 45 had become entrenched in kids' minds and bedrooms. It could not be dislodged from its rightful place in the hearts of teenagers.

Clearly, Columbia needed a new strategy as it entered the era of "hippie music" and Janis Joplin. It came in 1968, when the firm issued the so-called Dual 45 that could be played on the more expensive stereo phonographs or the mono ones, which kids mostly used. The Dual 45 was intended to entice adults into buying singles, boost sales to jukebox outlets, and bolster the sagging singles market. Unfortunately for Columbia, the Dual 45 soon lost itself in the industry's stereo single. It was quickly embraced by Monument Records and soon by other companies. The stereo single failed to attract the expected adult buyers. By 1969, the 45-rpm single represented only 14 percent of record sales. 

Somehow, the indefatigable 45 survived. It overcame the changes in speed, the great vinyl purge of the 1990s, and the tide of history. It never did die, not even when it had been buried. I can't imagine what kids would have done without a hole in their music.

Now, the 45 still lives. It might not be as popular as its counterpart, the LP, but it exists in its own little niche. Hurrah for The Big Hole!

The Big Hole

Saturday, February 19, 2022

In Search of James Brown's Other Organ

A Saga of the B-3, Mr. Dynamite, and Funky Times 


When James Brown’s other organ changed hands, no one—except me and probably some other weirdos—realized it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

So I'll start at the beginning.

The one Brown played in the studio was the first model of the Hammond B-3 electric organ, manufactured from 1935 to 1975. His record company, King in Cincinnati, kept it in the company's studio. Along with a rigged-up echo chamber and the studio's quirky design, the organ helped make the King Recording Studio known for rhythm and blues. Before the transistor days of the 1960s (and even later) the original B-3s came with a rotating tone wheel that created an electric current. The wheel was located near a magnetic pickup. Leslie speakers came with the instrument. Most likely King purchased its first B-3 in the early 1950s, just in time to intrigue Brown when he and the Famous Flames first arrived.  Brown would go on to record there until the studio closed in 1971.

Honestly, King's studio organ had no nickname. I gave it one. I referred to it as James Brown's other organ because he was the most famous entertainer to use it. Call it what you want: a touchstone of that era's music, a soul icon, a tube-talkin' hunk 'o' funk. Names don't matter. Performance does. The organ was, and probably still is, as gritty as Mr. Dynamite's screams. Wherever it is now, King's old B-3 has Brown's fingerprints all over it, invisible to the eye but forever lingering in a half-life. (His personal organ resides in the Smithsonian.)

The first time I saw it, on a cold night in Cincinnati about 1970, I nearly fainted. So did my music partner, Wayne Perry, who knew of the organ's reputation by observing recording sessions with the Dapps, Brown's white-soul discovery. Bob Patton, Brown's promotion man and his “stone go-getter,” as the hipsters used to say, had invited us to tour the creaky King factory. As we meandered through the plant, we stepped into the studio. That’s where I first spotted the B-3 in a dimly lit and oversized cubby hole.

“Wayne,” I shouted, “check this out! It’s James Brown’s organ!”

“Oh, no,” he said in disbelief. Moving closer, he stared at it as if we had discovered an Egyptian artifact. He turned to Bob and said, “Does it still work?”

Bob looked at him incredulously. “What do you mean does it work? It's worked for years. The thing’s been around the block. Impressive, isn't it?"

Wayne and I sat down and touched the keyboard, expecting some electronic lightning to strike. Suddenly we heard organ riffs blaring in our minds. Could it have been the dearly departed Dapps laying down a carpet of soul? Even then, I understood that an instrument doesn't make music history. It's made by the talented musicians who play it. 

This is why I refer to King's B-3 as James Brown's organ. Billed by Hammond as a "portable" instrument, the B-3s were anything but manageable in weight and size. (Don't believe anyone who claims size doesn't matter.) But I knew King's B-3 had plenty of soul power left in it. Many R&B and some rock hits of that time, including Brown's, featured the organ's familiar sound. Even Wayne's own blue-eyed soul band had one. The difference was obvious. The organ we saw at King that night was special because The Man had caressed its keyboard and turned vibes into vinyl. This one wasn't just a Hammond B-3; it was James Brown's organ.

"James sang, of course, but he loved playing organ," Bob told us. "Think of all the great musicians who came through this studio over twenty years. Bill Doggett practically lived in here. He was a great organist. But this organ was James', even though he didn't own it."

Soon after our visit, King fully merged with Starday Records in Nashville. I temporarily forgot about James Brown's organ to embrace the Italian Farfisa, the organ of the 1910 Fruitgum company. The name sounded like a sports car to me. I temporarily lost my mind as well as my soulful groove. When l soon tired of the Farfisa, I remembered James Brown, his organ, and the Dapps.  

I couldn’t forget the sound, so over the years I inquired about the organ whenever I met someone who had recorded with James or for King. My friend Wayne Bullock, an organist who once played for guitarist Lonnie Mack, also tried to keep track of Brown’s instrument, but lost its trail. In the mid-1960s, Bullock played it right there in the King studio. "King had two B-3s," he told me. "I guess the second one was used as a backup." The smooth, mesmerizing sound still resonates with him. 

He played his own B-3 for fifty years before he surrendered to a smaller digital keyboard model that could sound like a B-3. He hated to keep his old organ under a tarp, but he knew he could no longer load the instrument onto a truck bed. "I can’t understand how anyone could tour extensively with a B-3," he said. "That thing about killed me. It weighed 360 pounds. Oh, man, I dragged it along for years. One time, up in Minnesota or somewhere, Lonnie and the band arrived at a gig and found that the dance hall was on the second or third floor. My organ wouldn’t fit inside the elevator doors. It was an inch or so too wide. Two of the guys in the band helped me lug it up a metal fire escape. It’s a wonder we didn't all get hernias. At the top, we tilted the thing, and just as we were ready to shove it through the outside door, the fire escape broke free of the building and sort of hung there. But we managed to get the organ inside. Getting that thing back downstairs was a nightmare too. I prefer not to think of it." 

Bullock used his B-3 when he played in soul and rock bands for decades. He played it on the first record that Wayne Perry ever produced. By 2021, however, he grew tired of being tired. How could he take it to an occasional gig? Nobody his age was strong enough to help. So he bought a small digital keyboard that could make all kinds of organ sounds, including the sound of the B-3. Still, he couldn't stand the thought of parting with his behemoth. In time, he knew he had to sell it. And he did. Whoever owns it now owns a piece of history, made by a veteran of every beer joint and night club from Dayton to Cincinnati. Somewhere inside the organ lives the 1960s and the smoky atmosphere of the Inner Circle, the Halfway Inn, the Surf Club, and Kip's A-Go-Go. 


Years later, while down in Hendersonville, Tennessee, near Nashville, I went looking for an older record producer named Tommy Hill, a 1940s country singer who started working as a staff producer at Starday Records and never left. He produced so many old country-music hits that he couldn't remember them all. Even in the late 1960s, the Starday building looked tacky. Since the early 1970s, I saw it every time I went to Nashville. I noticed that it continued to look worse by the year. By the late 1990s, I couldn't believe anyone had the courage to work in it. In fact, I thought the place was closed. But experience has taught me something: looks don't matter. Only the sound does. A studio might not look attractive, but if it creates hits, stick with it. The nastier the exterior and interior of a studio, the funkier the sound. Some people like to list the country's best studios; I prefer to absorb the best of the worst. This is another reason why I wanted to poke around Starday one day in late 1999. Finding every door locked, I was ready to give up. Then on my way back to my car I found a door that would open.

As I boldly wandered into the studio's control room, the session band stopped playing. Five musicians stared at me with apprehension. Then Tommy asked me timidly, “You from the union?” I laughed. The band resumed playing.

After everyone else had left, Tommy and I talked for a long time. He was a genteel and soft-spoken man. I began inquiring about equipment. When I stopped asking my questions, I remembered one of personal interest. What came from the King studio in Cincinnati? He remembered the recorders and everything else, from the Neumann mics to the file cabinets.

I asked, "Whatever happened to the B-3, the hot one that James Brown used?"

Tommy stared at me, then broke into a grin. "You want to see it?"

He led me to one end of the battered old studio that made King's look almost like the Taj Mahal. He stood in front of what appeared to be a big table covered by a sheet or a tarp. On top sat a stack of large reel-to-reel tape boxes and some junk. As if on cue, he pulled off the sheet as fast as a magician yanking off the cover of trick bird cage.

I stood there aghast. “Why does it look smaller than it did forty years ago?”

Tommy chuckled. "Everything looks smaller than it did forty years ago."

"Do you use it a lot?"

"Not often. We don't have much need for the organ because our clients are mostly making country records, and we have country boys playing on our sessions. We don't get too much call for a B-3. And if they do need one, the musicians usually bring in their modern keyboards. They sound just like the real thing anyway."

I shook my head, imagining Brown's fingers riding the keys of the dinosaur that sat before me.

"Tommy," I said with a sigh, "thanks for keeping the organ covered. I know James would appreciate your discretion."

Fast forward to February 2022. I received a message from a friend who said the old Starday complex, including the studio, had been razed. He lamented its passing, but admitted that sewage had been leaking inside, and the brown paint was peeling off the exterior walls, and some parts of the building were off limits. The place appeared to be a sonic Chernobyl. Nonetheless, some people wanted to save it for history's sake. Sadly, the days of Cowboy Copas and Red Sovine joining Tommy to record had ended. Tommy was working in a country-music tomb.

Reflecting on the Starday building and organ later that day, I wondered who had bought the King B-3 and how many hits it had helped create. I wondered if the proud new owner knows whose hands had touched it and made it moan with familiar R&B licks. I asked myself whether James Brown's organ is now in the hands of an evangelical preacher. An odd juxtaposition for an organ's life, I suppose, but then a church seemed like a fitting place for it.

As for me, I don't plan to search for James Brown's organ any longer. The 360-pound goliath lives on, I'm sure, and if we're lucky it has it has found someone who can play it with sincerity. Yet the memory of it lives in people like Wayne Bullock, me, you, and whomever is left of the Dapps.

Wayne Bullock: Veteran organist at his B-3.

Starday Records complex, 1999.

Producer Tommy Hill, keeper of the past.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues

Featuring everyone from Little Richard to the Dapps

I don't review music books on the blog often, and when I do I prefer to write about those that provide a human connection. One of them just came out from the History Press. It's called Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues of the '50s and '60s by Steven Rosen. I must say that Steve is a good friend and former colleague at The Cincinnati Enquirer. He was the founder of One Shot magazine, which published some of my stories in the 1980s. It morphed into Steve's One Hit Wonder Day. His experience in writing feature stories--he has written them for The New York Times, the Denver Post, and many other publications--helps him combine his role as storyteller, writer, music critic, and historian.

Though his new book is about music clubs in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, it is much more than a local book. The city was the home of the King and Fraternity record companies, which recorded country, soul, rock, and other types of music. At times, many of their performers played in local clubs. Some recorded hits for other labels. The performers ranged from Columbia Records artist Billy Joe Royal, the country-rock singer of "Down in the Boondocks" and "I Knew You When," to Lonnie Mack, the well-known blues-rock guitarist who hit with "Memphis" and "Wham!" for Fraternity. Billy often sang at the Castle Farm and Guys 'n' Dolls clubs. Both men went on to have long careers. Another local sensation was an R&B band called the Dapps. Though they had a short career, the white group backed Hank Ballard and cut their own records at King. They often performed at the Inner Circle, a Cincinnati magnet for talented rock and soul musicians.

But the concept of Steve's book is universal. Local clubs were and still are in every town and city all over the world. Their contribution to recording is often overlooked. When Mack's band performed in area clubs in the 1960s, they began playing an instrumental version of Chuck Berry's "Memphis." For months they tinkered with it, incorporating licks that the crowds enjoyed. They did it for fun. Finally, while backing another group on a session at the King Records Studio, the band knocked out their own "Memphis." It would take some determined promotion by Fraternity owner Harry Carlson, but "Memphis" hit big nationally. If not for the Blacksmith Shop and other Cincinnati-area clubs, Mack's band would not have practiced the song so often that they could record it in less than thirty minutes. That was all the time left on the three-hour session. Their version was the same sound that club dancers and patrons enjoyed. It sounded so different from Berry's melody that Carlson could have released the record with Mack's name on it as writer. But Harry was honest to the core.

In Cincinnati, Steve focuses on venues that ranged from the still-known to the long-forgotten. They included the Reds' old Crosley Field, where the Beatles played twice, to the Club Ramon, which helped launch Danny Adler, who is described by Steve as "a teenage guitar prodigy who went on to front a popular roots-oriented British band call the Roogalators in the 1970s." In addition, the book tells the stories of the Black Dome, the Ludlow Garage (I once saw the Kinks there), the Surf Club, Flamingo Dance Club, and dozens more. The Flamingo story is interesting because the club booked popular local bands and some who were nationally known. They included African-American singers such as Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed, Hank Ballard, Tommy Tucker, and Clyde McPhatter. Cincinnati's white soul bands were influenced by the blues and R&B singers and musicians. The Flamingo also brought in Bill Haley and the Comets, Mickey and Sylvia, Dee Dee Sharp and Gary U.S. Bonds, not to mention the wild man himself, Jerry Lee Lewis.

Steve has included many rare photographs and advertisements, and, fortunately, interviews with club owners, patrons, and musicians. Though the Flamingo was only one of many clubs, it is a fascinating example of how local and national acts merged on the stages and bandstands in Cincinnati and the world.

As Steve writes of the Flamingo: "Looking back, one act really stands out, even among this superlative bunch [of performers]. That wild singer Little Richard and his revue played three engagements at the Flamingo Dance Club--on May 21 and 22, 1965; July 9 and 10, 1965; and May 27 and 28, 1966. There is reason to believe that a young Jimi Hendrix, using the name Maurice James, was one of the guitarists in Richard's band for those first two engagements."

A special treat is a foreword by Jim Tarbell, who himself became a Cincinnati legend by founding the Ludlow Garage and supporting area musicians for decades. Jim was Cincinnati's vice mayor and owner of downtown's historic Arnold's Bar and Grill. Jim puts Steve's important work into perspective.

I recommend Steven Rosen's Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues of the '50s and '60s. It does more than recount the history of local clubs. It tells the story of music everywhere. The writing is strong, bringing to life the clubs, songs, and performers whose work will live on as long as people care about music.

Lost Cincinnati Concert Venues of the '50s and '60s, From the Surf Club to Ludlow Garage, may be purchased from bookstores,, and the publisher, The price is $21.99.

Some venues were temporary, like the Montgomery
Businessmen's Hall. Steve "Kirky" Kirk MC'd this 
dance in the late 1960s.

The Black Stallion was a popular nightclub on
Cincinnati's eastern edge in the late '60s and 
1970s. It featured national and local bands, 
including the Casinos and Billy Joe Royal.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

The Language of Vinyl


Do You Speak Vinylese?

A new book is invading libraries. The Language of Vinyl is packed with terms and language used during the golden years of vinyl, the 1950s through the late 1980s. I began to gather these nuggets years ago when my friend and fellow label owner Shad O'Shea used the term "paper add." I asked him what it meant. He explained that the trade magazines would occasionally add a new record to their top 100 singles charts as a favor to friendly distributors, label owners, and recording artists. The motive, aside from helping a friend, was to test any interest in a newly released 45-rpm record. Most of the discs didn't catch on, but in some cases the records received enough exposure to interest radio program directors. The paper add wouldn't make it today. Too many charts and computers have seen to that. 

I began typing the oddball terms into a Word document. The thing began growing organically until I had to start another document. I became a collector of vinyl anachronisms, which beats adding more vinyl to my crowded office. A few years later I had gathered so many of these forgotten words that I decided to keep going to see how many more I could collect. I began to solicit them. Then I began to expand the record-label lingo into words commonly used by disc jockeys, jukebox operators, veteran recording engineers, and distributors. Many words from the strange language came from the pioneers of the modern record business, guys like--if there are any characters like--Shad (Counterpart Records), Johnny Vincent (Ace Records), Harry Carlson (Fraternity Records), Rusty York (Jewel Records), and dozens more who were fiercely independent and colorful. Some equally weird terms came from the trade publications of the day, and from iron-willed jukers and musicians who came my way. Soon I had more than terms. I had phrases and references to long-gone incidents that affected the pioneers of the 45. By then I realized that I should add terms that are still used today, but their meanings have changed (cover record, for example). I also found some old photos and illustrations to go along with some of the terms. Finally, I told myself I just had to stop collecting because my search was becoming addictive. That's when I self-published the project as a book called Spinning the Groove. Five people bought it, including a friend who called it a "mercy buy." As with any addict, I couldn't stop collecting, so I added many more terms and lingo, dropped some narrative stories from the book, and revamped the thing as a dictionary. Thus, we have The Language of Vinyl, and the shameless bit of self-promotion you are now reading.

At $40, the book is beyond most vinyl fans' budgets. It is aimed at libraries and academic institutions. (The book does come in an e-book version.) If you're interested, check out the website for McFarland Publishing. The company is based in North Carolina.

My favorite term from the old record business? Butt splice! No, it is not a hemorrhoid surgical procedure. It means connecting two ends of an audio tape.