THE FIRST RECORDS to reach a large audience and keep that audience for several generations were 10-inch records that played at approximately 78 revolutions per minute. The original format featured only one song on one side, hence it was known as a single. The name stuck to the format when it was made into a two-sided medium with one song per side. 1
In 1948, Columbia Records altered the home listening experience and the record industry with the introduction of the 12-inch, 33⅓ rpm long-playing record. And as we all love a good abbreviation, it was immediately dubbed the LP by Columbia. These records were pressed on vinyl—far more durable than the fragile shellac of the 78 records—and featured ‘microgrooves’ that allowed more music to be squeezed onto the disc. And in 1949, all records were in monophonic sound. 2
Initially, the LP had no impact on the type of music that teenagers were calling their own: black rhythm & blues-based sounds that would become known as rock & roll.
The primary value of the new medium was allowing listeners to hear extended pieces of music with fewer interruptions walking back and forth from the chair to the turntable to flip the record over.
With a 78 rpm multi-record album, listening to a 40-minute symphony could require as many as fifteen such walks. As an LP could hold upwards of twenty minutes per side, just one trip to the turntable was required per symphony or quartet.
The LP was successful, although mostly with adult record buyers who listened to classical music, jazz, and the kind of (mostly white) pop music that we refer to today as ‘easy-listening.’ The long-playing album was also popular with fans of both Broadway-based musicals and movie soundtracks.
Elvis’s first hit on the pop charts was Heartbreak Hotel, certainly, one of the least “pop” records ever to reach #1. As the little-record-with-the-big-hole, the 45 was easy to handle: grab a stack with your hand and your thumb fit right into the holes, making them easy to transport from home to party.
The little record with the big hole
Rather than fight Columbia in its own element, RCA Victor countered with a completely new creation: in 1949, they introduced the 7-inch, 45 rpm single. While this format only allowed two-and-a-half minutes per side, its compact form and affordable price (one dollar versus four for an LP) made it the ideal medium for pop music.
From 1949 through the demise of vinyl in the ’80s, the two speeds were usually synonymous with the two formats: singles played at 45 and albums at 33⅓ rpm. But a few attempts were made to broaden the possibilities of the medium, especially the single. 3
Elvis’s first long-player was RCA Victor LPM-1254, ELVIS PRESLEY, and it was almost as big a splash as his 45s: RCA reported immediate sales in excess of 360,000 copies, making it their fastest-selling pop LP up until that time.
The little record with the little hole
What is forgotten by all but historians and the occasional record collector is that Columbia also introduced 33⅓ rpm microgroove singles in 1949. But this particular format wasn’t popular with record buyers and the 45 quickly established itself as the medium for the short message of pop music. By 1952, the 7-inch, 33 rpm single was part of recording industry history.
With no competition, the little-record-with-the-big-hole received a tremendous boost in the marketplace with the advent of rock & roll in the mid-‘50s. Teenaged record buyers glommed onto this newer format, possibly as a way of differentiating themselves from their parents’ music, probably because its durability more easily withstood the abuse received at their own hands.
Introduction to 33⅓ rpm singles
In 1958, RCA Victor attempted to expand their share of the pie with stereo 45s. Columbia responded with stereo 45 rpm EPs in ’59, followed by 33⅓ (just 33 from here on) rpm stereo singles, followed by RCA’s 33 mono singles. These experiments lasted a few years and were then quietly shelved, but during 1959-62, American record buyers had an alternative to the 45 single and rejected them all.
During that time, RCA Victor introduced what is probably the best known of these try-outs: the Compact 33 Single. Collectors refer to all 33 rpm singles manufactured by all record companies as compact 33 singles. In November of 1960, RCA Victor introduced the new format with announcements in industry trade magazines, such as Billboard and Cash Box:
“Basic to the growth of any industry is new product. RCA Victor starts 1961 with the all-important introduction of the Compact 33 single and double.
Over a million homes will be introduced to this exciting new kind of record by a Special Compact 33 made for a promotional tie-in with Dr. West toothbrushes, supported by a far-reaching national advertising and promotional campaign.
This pre-selling of Compact 33 will open new marketing vistas for both Popular and Classical music for the entire industry.”
The new Compact 33 Single carried a suggested retail price of 98¢, the same as a standard 45. Compact 33 Doubles with two tracks per side were priced $1.49, the same as a standard 45 rpm EP. The first of these records were shipped in January 1961.
The first Compact 33 Singles were shipped in January 1961 with a suggested retail price of 98¢, the same as a standard 45 rpm single.
RCA Victor Vice President and General Manager George Marek was involved in the decisions regarding this new format. For Marek, getting customers started on music—“any kind of music”—was almost an obsession. “As the cigarette people believe, the habit is everything.” 4
“All singles product will be issued simultaneously on the Compact 33 and 45. The long-term outlook is the 33 rpm speed will eventually phase out the 45 rpm … with the Compact 33, a market can be created for those who like pop music but do not wish to buy or cannot afford a twelve-inch LP. The new record should also be appealing to those who want to sample a new artist thru a single and then, if pleased, acquire a long playing record of that same artist.”
To promote the new Compact 33 format, RCA Victor issued three various artists compilation “doubles” (or EPs) in association with the Nestle corporation. None of these is an in-demand item and can be found for a nominal cost. Had RCA included an Elvis track on the Headline Hits For Teens album, it would be worth hundreds of dollars today.
Disk firms doubt retail value
Within a matter of months, it was obvious that the experiment was doomed. June Bundy of radio station WBUC in West Virginia contributed an opinion piece to the June 19, 1961 issue of Billboard:
“At first we thought the Compact 33 Single was a good idea inasmuch as it would cut down on the possibility of getting a record on the wrong speed when playing mixed shows using both singles and albums.
However, we have fast changed our minds. Actually we can see no advantage whatsoever in changing from the present 45 to anything! Since the Compact 33 is the same diameter, it does not offer any advantage in filing. There doesn’t seem to be any noticeable improvement in fidelity.
“The 45 is so much easier to handle since you can stick a finger through the holes in a whole stack of records and pick them up without dropping half of them.”
The 45 is so much easier to handle, since you can stick a finger through the holes in a whole stack of records and pick them up without dropping half of them. Both in picking out records for an air show and in using them on my record hops, I find 45s handy as a pocket in a shirt, while the Compact 33 is a pain in the neck. One 33 in the stack fouls up the whole stack or rack of disks.”
In an article titled “Disk Firms Doubt Retail Value” in the September 22, 1961 issue of Billboard, associate editor and columnist Ren Grevatt noted:
“After considering the concept as a retail entity, most diskers called last week were pessimistic. There were recollections of various experiments with new concepts in disks, such as RCA Victor’s Compact 33 Singles, Columbia’s Stereo 33, introduced some time before, and others. In none of these cases, did the disks in question make a serious dent in the marketing picture.”
Decades later, Mike Callahan of the Both Sides Now website observed, “The record-buying public still disliked the 33s. As singles, you couldn’t put your thumb through a stack of them to keep from dropping them, and the fidelity wasn’t much improvement, if any, to most customers’ ears. Within a very few months, Columbia’s dream of a single-speed industry (at 33-1/3, of course) failed completely.”
Elvis compact 33 singles
The five Compact 33 Singles issued in 1961-62 are among the few commercially released Elvis singles that should be considered rather rare records. They sell for ten to a hundred times as much as their 45 rpm counterparts!
Initially, each Elvis record was shipped with a picture sleeve that was graphically identical to the standard 45 rpm sleeve, except that it stated that it was a Compact 33 Single. These picture sleeves are even rarer and more valuable than the records.
The Elvis Records US website has an interesting history of this format titled, “The Rise And Fall Of The Compact 33 Record.” It is based almost entirely on ads and articles from trade magazines of the time (1960-62). I drew some of my background data from this and it is highly recommended reading for those interested in this format.
The values that I have assigned to the records in the chapters that follow are based on the realities of the current marketplace. That is, I spent hours interpreting the data regarding the sales of these five records on eBay via Popsike.
For years I have been telling others in the collectables field that eBay is where the blind gather to lead the blind or to be led by the blind, only to fall upon deaf ears
So many Elvis websites seem to be heavily dependent on certain price guides and their “official” values that they simply copy that book’s assigned values. No original research appears to have been done by the webmasters. Hence, multiple sources reinforce the illusion that these records—notably the first three of the five—are worth considerably more than they actually sell for in today’s market.
I am not arguing for eBay as the arbiter of values for collectables. Quite the opposite: my opinion regarding their sellers is that many appear absolutely clueless when it comes to grading records and picture sleeves. I am amazed at how many ads I have looked at where the sleeve is noticeably inferior to the printed description by the seller.
Nonetheless, eBay is a force to be reckoned with; it cannot be ignored by anyone attempting to assess the value of a collectable. That said, please keep in mind that established dealers—especially Elvis dealers—will get considerably more than sellers on eBay for choice Elvis items in choice condition.
HEADER IMAGE: The photo at the top of this page is a scene from Wild In The Country with Elvis and Tuesday Weld. This was another attempt by Presley to establish himself as a ‘real’ actor to be taken seriously—and yet still he had to sing something, right? After all, it was Elvis! This movie was released in June 1961, just when RCA Victor was trying to establish the Compact 33 single was a viable format and an alternative to the 45 rpm single. Neither endeavors bore much fruit.
POSTSCRIPTUALLY, I have included this separate “33 RPM Singles” category here on Elvis – A Touch Of Gold because they are usually considered a quite different critter than the normal 45 and are often outside of the interests of many Elvis collectors. Which is a shame, as they should be on every collectors’ want-list.
I will write one article per title, meaning that this whole category is scheduled to have only six parts—the sixth being devoted to the sole Compact 33 Double released during this time. After reading this “Introduction to 33 rpm Singles and Doubles” proceed to the other articles.
The articles below will make the most sense if read in the following order:
For the articles listed above, I composed one basic article and used it as a template for the others. This is because as readers are steered to them for individual reading, each article needs to be self-contained. For those of you reading all of them, I can spare you the boredom of redundancy: read the first article on Surrender and then only the text in red print on the other articles.
1 I used “approximately” above because phonograph records (or gramophone records in the UK) were often manufactured by the same companies that manufactured the record players. In the spirit of competition, many companies pressed their records to play a fraction faster or slower than the stated speed of 78 rpm.
They also made their machines to play at the same plus or minus speed, meaning that their records sounded better on their machines! The industry eventually realized that this was self-defeating and standardized 78 rpm as the speed for records and machines in the 1920s. This format dominated the market into the 1950s.
2 The correct abbreviation for monaural should be ‘mona,’ but that wouldn’t work for obvious reasons. Instead, the sound was abbreviated as ‘mono’ from monophonic sound reproduction.
3 The record industry has occasionally attempted to market albums that play at 16⅔ rpm for popular music. Normally, that speed is reserved for spoken word records.
4 Marek was true to his word: He once issued an album called CLASSICAL MUSIC FOR PEOPLE WHO HATE CLASSICAL MUSIC!