‘So, what are you in the mood for?"
It’s a Thursday evening in mid-October, a few weeks before the Manitoba government will roll out a slate of code-red restrictions to help stem the spread of COVID-19, one of which will strongly recommend limiting social contacts to a single household only.
We’re chatting with Bill Perlmutter, a retiree who dutifully collects 78 r.p.m. records. Forty-five minutes into the conversation, our host steers our attention to a beautifully restored, 1954 Wurlitzer jukebox that rests in one corner of his rec room and asks what our listening preference is.
After eyeing the available selections, which include Love and Marriage by Frank Sinatra, Lipstick on Your Collar by Connie Francis and Be Bop a Lula by Gene Vincent and His Blue Caps, we go with Waterloo, a Stonewall Jackson ditty that should never be confused with a mid-’70s smash that carries the same title; that one sung by a certain, Swedish pop outfit.
"Sounds pretty good, huh?" Perlmutter says second later, shouting to be heard above the country-and-western toe-tapper.
He can bellow that again; not so much due to the overall audio quality — let’s face it, one of the main reasons 78s were supplanted by 33- and 45-r.p.m. records in the early 1960s was because of their inferior fidelity — but rather because his copy of Waterloo has no discernible cracks or pops, imperfections that wouldn’t be altogether unexpected from a brittle track of music 60-plus years old.
Later, when the tune is through, Perlmutter mentions his two grandchildren, age five and seven, get a big kick out of his hobby. (While vinyl collectors are relatively easy to unearth, people who amass 78s are — just like the grooves etched into the shellac platters — fewer and farther between.)
"They enjoy almost any old, upbeat rock or country number, but mostly I think they like to look at the mechanical system in motion."
Like most teenagers in the 1960s, Perlmutter, who grew up in the West End, spent a good chunk of time perusing downtown record-store bins, hunting for new releases by the likes of the Ventures and the Rolling Stones. He had an older sister who kept a small pile of 78s in her bedroom, but because he wasn’t interested in "that style of music," mostly tunes first popular in the ‘40s and ‘50s, he never paid much attention to the 10-inch discs. That all changed about 30 years ago when his father-in-law handed over a stack of 78s, about 100 in total, stating he no longer had any use for them.
Some 10,000 specimens later, it’s a safe bet Perlmutter, a former federal government employee, possesses one of the largest private collections of 78s in the land. (A 46-year-old Spaniard, Carlos Martin Ballester, reportedly has the world’s biggest horde, 75,000 78s and counting.)
"I’d always been a bit of collector — baseball cards, Mad magazines, beer glasses — but for whatever reason, the 78s is the collection that kept on going," he says, pulling out a pristine, 116-year-old copy of In the Shade of the Old Apple Tree done by Billy Murray, an American vaudeville star at the turn of the last century.
Around this time last year, a 78 r.p.m. record by blues singer Charley Patton commanded $19,600 when it came up for auction. A good chunk of change, that's true, but not as much as the $37,000 a number called Alcohol and Jake Blues by Tommy Johnson brought in a few years back.
"Every so often I'll spot a record I was looking for to round out a collection that might set me back a couple of dollars, but for the most part, the records haven’t cost me that much," says Bill Perlmutter, a Winnipegger who used to spin 78s plucked from his own shelves when he did some on-air volunteering at nostalgia station CJNU.
Last month, an online group called The 78rpm Club: Preserving the Grooves invited members to answer a series of questions about their personal cache. Here's how Perlmutter responded to a few of their queries, when we invited him to take the survey, too.
Question: How long have you been collecting 78 r.p.m. records?
Answer: Twenty-plus years.
Q: What genres of music are represented in your collection?
A: Dance orchestras, jazz, swing, bebop, popular vocalists, gospel, blues, rock 'n' roll, folk (you get the picture).
Q: What is your favourite period of music to collect?
Q: In general, how do you organize/shelve your collection?
A: By genre, then by artist
Q: Which statement best describes you as a 78 r.p.m. record collector?
A: A music lover who collects records by artists I enjoy, containing songs I love to listen to.
— David Sanderson
The 78 r.p.m. record, so-called for the number of times it spins round on a turntable in the space of 60 seconds, was invented in the late 1800s. Built to be played on a gramophone, each could hold as much as eight minutes of sound spread over two sides (besides songs and classical pieces of music, 78s also documented bird calls, train whistles... there’s even one on the Victor label titled Machinery Noises/Fire Crackling). Also, if you’ve ever wondered why a record album is called just that, an album, it’s thanks to 78s, Perlmutter says.
"Unlike LPs that came in a cardboard cover, 78s were issued in generic, paper sleeves, usually brown in colour," he explains. "At some point record companies started selling leatherbound books with five or six envelopes inside, which one could use to store their records more safely.
Because those books, some of which had a particular artist’s name printed on the jacket, resembled photo albums, consumers began referring to them as record albums."
Largely confined to his home the last 10 months owing to COVID-19, Perlmutter, who, when able, scoops up 78s at second-hand shops, flea markets and auctions, often for a dime or two apiece, has been using his time wisely. The married father of three has a multi-speed Audio-Technica turntable hooked up to a home computer that he employs to digitize his records one at a time.
He has also put together a comprehensive spreadsheet listing his treasures from A (Pledging My Love by Johnny Ace) to Z (Break the Chain by Johnny Zang, "not a great song nor a hit, but it is on the Canadian-American Records label, which was based in Winnipeg and New York," he points out).
"It truly is the thrill of the hunt, you never know what you’re going to find," he continues, noting he makes a point of listening to every last record he brings home at least once, after first cleaning it and adding it in his online chronology.
"Every once in a while I’ll think, ‘OK, that wasn’t so good,’ when I give something a spin but, more times than not, it’s a case of, ‘Jeez, I should get more of this person.’" (With that, he cues up Rockin’ Rollin’ Stone, a rockabilly tune by Andy Starr that never came close to denting the charts when it was released, yet remains a personal fave.)
Jeff Kowerchuk, president of Creative Audio at 353 Provencher Blvd., guesses it’s been two years since he last sold a turntable capable of playing 78s. It might be a while before he sells another, he adds.
"I get asked once every couple of years (but) that one (from two years ago) was the only one I have sold in my 20 years in the business," he says. "There is not only the speed issue but also that 78s require a special type of cartridge/needle for playback. One of the turntable brands we carry does make a model specifically for 78s, however my supplier normally doesn’t stock it."
Kowerchuk doesn’t pull any punches when asked why demand for the records is low, given how popular their 33 r.p.m. counterparts have become again, after nearly dying off in the 1990s.
"The dirty secret of 78s is that they sound absolutely awful. It is usually sentiment that would lead someone to want to listen to them and in many cases, they are the only source for certain recordings," he says. "I know of many vinyl collectors but I’ve never encountered a 78 collector."
Meanwhile, back in his rec room, Perlmutter reminds us his Wurlitzer, which he bought 25 years ago from someone in Saskatoon, offers three plays for a quarter, meaning we have two picks left. In that case, let’s go with Lollipop by the Chordettes, we tell him. "Good choice," he remarks before standing back and letting the talented Wisconsin quartet have the last word. (Hit it, ladies!)
"Lollipop, lollipop, oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop, lollipop, oh lolli lolli lolli, lollipop… pa bum bum bum."
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.