Many people have a boxful of old 78 rpm records lying around the house, and in most cases, the box is worth more than the records. But there is one category of 78s that's an exception — vintage blues.|
"What happened in the mid-90s is that a small number of older collectors either died or got rid of (blues 78s)," said veteran record dealer John Tefteller of Grant's Pass, Ore.
"In a short time, rare blues 78s all of a sudden entered the mainstream," said Tefteller. "Younger collectors (under 60) wanted them. All hell broke loose in the prewar blues market, and prices started to go bananas. These collectors were willing to spend a lot of money."
From 1995 to 2000, prices for rare prewar blues records skyrocketed five to 10 times in value, with the biggest swings occurring from '98 to '99.
Tefteller, whose forays into 78s goes back decades, recalled a time when he auctioned blues discs and received $2 bids for what are now $1,500 records.
The recordings of Robert Johnson, the man held by some to be the father of the blues, are particularly appealing to collectors. They command top dollar, selling for as much $4,000.
Ralph Shurley, a 78 collector since 1967, said younger people are attracted to the format's "realness" and originality.
"Although condition is important and near-mint 78s fetch high prices, good used blues 78s that play well still sell pretty well," said Shurley. "No matter how you view 78s, they are the original of originals.
"Format, labels, and appearance — 78s rule! Price-wise, though, it seems that prewar 78s are commanding very serious prices. Tommy Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Charley Patton are all comparable names [to Robert Johnson]."
When assessing old 78s found in an attic or basement, Tefteller said to assume anything that was popular to white America, such as Bing Crosby, is not going to be worth much as a collector's item. That kind of 78 is relatively common.
In addition to blues recordings, Tefteller said early jazz, ethnic, and hillbilly recordings are all collectible — any music that was considered the counterculture of the time.
If there is any doubt as to the rising interest in 78s, Bags Unlimited, a retail supplier for record collectors, reports that sales of 78 sleeves have surpassed sales of album sleeves.
Many collectors have discovered the sound quality of 78s, if they have not been destroyed through excessive play or poor handling, is far superior to that of 45 rpms.
With proper cleaning and storage, and use of a good turntable and stylus, 78s that have made it to the year 2000 can last another lifetime.
Most novice collectors assume that the same liquid they use to clean 45s or LPs is just fine for 78s. Wrong. Most 78s were made of shellac, a compound that should never be cleaned with alcohol or ammonia.
"Mild dishwashing detergent is all that you'll need," said Kurt Nauck of Nauck's Vintage Records in Houston, Texas. "Just be sure that once you clean the record with a terry-cloth towel with the dishwashing detergent in water, that you rinse the record well, dry the record well, and put it in a rack to dry completely. Any moisture in the grooves will cause the record to look grainy and can give that bacon-frying sound when you play the record."
Rather than dowsing a 78 in water as if you were washing a plate, Nauck suggests using a damp towel on a dry record. Wipe along the groove of the record, and don't be afraid to rub in a little to get out that nasty dirt in the groove. Your record will be clean; your cloth will be covered in gunk, dirt, grime, and even steel filings from old needles.
Take care to keep water and other liquids away from the label. Some 78 labels were made with water-soluble ink that will smear and bleed.
"Don't get water on picture-disc 78s," said Nauck. "It will seep in through lamination cracks. On those, you would only want to clean them with a damp towel, being very careful because if the lamination is sticking up in places and you snag it on the towel, you'll chip the top of the record."
Though it may look impressive, do not play your most expensive 78s on a windup gramophone. Inexpensive records may be played on such a machine if a clean steel needle is used and it is replaced every time a record is played.
"For best results," said Nauck, "you should use a modern turntable with a lightweight magnetic cartridge that would allow you to change the stylus from one size to another."
Be aware that because 78s were not recorded using today's equalization standard, a pre-amp or a re-equalizer may be needed to achieve optimum sound quality.