Introduction: the 1950-1960 era

From its commercial inception in the late 1890s, phonograph technology remained virtually unchanged for sixty years. There had been improvements in studio recording technology (what might be termed the 'software'), but records from the beginning of that era could still be played on practically identical 'hardware' at its end.

Experiments had been made in making smaller-sized records with a finer groove; vinyl had come to be used as a substitute for shellac; but for the record-buyer the only real advancement was the bonus of having a track on both sides of what had started out as a single-sided record.

The old-fashioned 78 rpm record would become obsolete at precisely the same time as rock'n'roll surged around the world via the transistor radio, virtually obliterating all other forms of popular music.

The 33 1/3 speed 12-inch LP (introduced by Columbia in 1948) offered multiple tracks by virtue of a 'micro-groove' four times smaller than that found on the 10-inch 78, the saving of surface space allowing for about 25 minutes of music time per side, compared to the four minutes of a 78.

The LP sleeve (which for the 78 rpm record had been little more than a brown paper bag with a die-cut hole in the middle) took over point-of-purchase sales appeal from the pasted-on label.

The 7-inch 45 rpm double-sided 'single,' introduced by RCA in 1949 after a 10-year development process, was lighter, smaller and less fragile than its 78 rpm counterpart. Usually, the 45 received the same packaging treatment as the 78, a single-color paper bag bearing little more than the record company's name.

Just as jazz music did not spring from barren ground, but morphed out of minstrelsy and ragtime, rock'n'roll was preceded by 'doo-wop,' a distinct style featuring the close vocal harmony of a male quartet, whose members were often from the same ethnic background.

The roots of rock'n'roll drew nourishment from a rich compost of gospel, soul, rhythm'n'blues, swing, ragtime, country and all kinds of folk music, but its most fertile ground was always (Afro-American) blues. Rare 78 rpm records of a small number of black artists like Robert Johnson would strongly influence all music that followed, in the same way that Louis Armstrong had impacted that of his generation.

Early 1950s rock on 78 rpm records, such as Elvis Presley's original Sun releases, can command astronomical figures at auction.

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