A Brief History of the Record Album, and How It Got Its Name

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I fell down a Mike Douglas Show rabbit hole the other day. It started innocently enough; I was looking for Bobby Darin singing “Artificial Flowers” and wound up watching three hours’ worth of YouTube clips from my favorite '60s talk show: Mike interviewing Totie Fields about having had her leg amputated; Soupy Sales doing a handstand; the DeFranco Family lipsyncing in four-inch Cuban heels.

I stopped watching after Mike’s guest Chad Everett mispronounced the word “album.” I can put up with a lot; I’d made it all the way through Kate Jackson and Andrew Stevens singing a duet in old-age drag; didn’t flinch when Lynn Redgrave stuck cigarettes up Mike’s nose. But then Chad said “alblum” and I was out.

It got me to thinking about the word “album,” though, and a discussion I’d had a few years ago with Don Ponce, who sold music at Los Angeles’s legendary Aron’s Records in the '70s. “We were the first store to sell used records,” Don told me when I called him at home the other day, hoping to talk some more about the history of the record album. “That was back when the shop was on Melrose."

Aron’s is long-gone, but Don is still selling records — more recently on eBay because, as he put it, “A guy my age with no kids has to unload those Percy Faith records someplace.” He would, I knew, be able to explain why the term “album” is still used to describe a collection of songs on a single disc, or on an MP3 file.

“Well, what else would you call it?” Don asked, rather impatiently.

I told him I knew that the term “album” was coined decades before the introduction of the long-playing record as we know it, that it was borrowed from the books — or albums — used in collecting photographs in the late 19th century.

Don agreed. “The first record albums were exactly that,” he said. “Except instead of pictures of your baby or your vacation, every page held a single disc. Those you played at 78 RPM."

These were made of a brittle, noisy, shellac-based compound and contained one song per side. By the time Columbia Records introduced the 33⅓ rpm, long-playing, double-sided microgroove record in June 1948, the word “album” was set in stone, a way of describing a collection of songs presented in a single package.

“Don’t forget that those first albums came in two sizes,” Don said. “Ten-inch long-players held about 15 minutes of music per side, and 12-inchers you could get about 20 minutes. Those littler ones were for jazz and swing music, but you needed more room for a classical piece, and that’s what the 12-inch record was for."

Both sizes were made from polyvinyl chloride, a synthetic plastic polymer that was less brittle and longer-lasting than shellac. Eventually 10-inch records were phased out by most of the bigger record companies; Don thought that was because, as the larger format caught on, artists wanted to cram more music onto their newest release.

“But here’s the part I bet you don’t know,” Don said, and it turned out he was right. “Sometime in the early '30s, RCA Victor brought out the very first long-player. But it sounded like crap, and it refused to catch on."

The Great Depression stymied RCA’s attempts to perfect the LP, and while they were still tinkering with the format, World War II broke out and many of the polymers the record company was working with were hogged by civil defense plants.

“And so Columbia Records gets all the credit for inventing the thing,” Don said of that label’s 1948 rollout of a microgroove 33 1/3 RPM long-player. Both sizes of these came packaged in paper jackets that doubled as what we’d come to know as inner sleeves. Rather quickly, Columbia began housing their LPs in cardboard jackets with full-color covers.

For a while there, major record labels backslid a little. Capitol, Decca, and RCA routinely issued albums on both single 12-inch platters and in sets of 7-inch 45s with one song per side — just like in the old days of shellac 78s. These were usually packaged in boxes, rather than in bound albums. By the early '50s, this format had morphed into the extended-play 45, which became known as the EP. These were mostly specialty releases, though RCA issued a handful of Elvis Presley EPs in the '50s and '60s, and Capitol did well with a Beatles EP at the height of their early fame in 1965. EPs really caught on in Europe and the UK, where an artist’s new single was accompanied by not one but three other tracks on a 7-inch record.

The next big thing in LPs was the stereo disc, introduced in 1957. Monaural recordings, made with a single audio channel, sounded flatter and condensed, while stereo was recorded using two audio channels, giving music a wider sound and greater separation between instruments and voices.

“Movie studios recorded music in stereo in the '40s,” Don told me. “And recording studios started leasing out multi-tracking equipment. Pretty soon, everyone was using it."

Still called albums, stereo recordings were initially only available as reel-to-reel tapes. “Which if you ask me is really kind of fucked up,” Don swore. “If you wanted to hear all of the King Family, you had to go out and buy all new listening equipment.”

The indie label Audio Fidelity brought out the first stereo albums, and by the end of the '50s labels large and small were issuing LPs in both stereo and mono.

“Your mono album would be a dollar cheaper,” Don explained. “And if you didn’t have a stereo setup, if you were playing your records on a hi-fi, say, you wouldn’t need to spend the extra dollar. Buying in both formats lasted about 10 years.”

By 1967, no label was pressing mono LPs. Some of the majors rechanneled old monaural recordings into fake-stereo formats, but these sounded like exactly what they were: processed and double-tracked and usually pretty murky.

Dumping mono recordings was the last good thing to happen to the record business, Don thought. “You started to see picture discs and colored vinyl and you knew the end was near. After that, it was eight-tracks and cassettes and the dreaded CD. People would come into the store and say, you know, ‘Do you have the new Stones album?’ And I’d say, ‘No, but I’ve got the cassette and the compact disc.’”

Don isn’t impressed by the new version of the long player that’s replacing CDs. They cost too much, he believes. “And what the hell is 180-gram vinyl, anyhow?” he demanded.

I wasn’t sure. I knew my friend was a purist; an album, he insists, is only an album if it’s flat and round and black and shiny.

“Shit,” he said before hanging up. “I wouldn’t even care if they started putting LPs out with one song per side again. Just, you know. None of this MP3 business. An album is an album is an album.”
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela