Remembrance, for many, is prompted not by a madeleine dipped in tea but by a melody threading its way through the needle's eye of memory and snagging a moment from the past.
With a record, that memory can be replayed again and again until the mere click and soft slap of the 45 falling on the turntable will recall a first dance, complete with rustling crinolines and the smell of aftershave on a cheek still smooth as a peach.
Today's nostalgia for yesterday's music, as well as a serious interest in the history of recorded sound, have increased the demand for vintage jazz, folk, classical, country, R&B, rock, Big Bands, Broadway shows and movie soundtrack recordings. Scarcity of once widely available records plus a strong demand have sent prices soaring.
"The hype from publications like Gold Mine magazine has contributed to the high prices being paid for rock and other popular records from the recent past and has affected the prices in classical, jazz and R&B as well," says Les Waffen, audio-visual archivist at the National Archives, and executive secretary of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.
A cult interest in certain performers such as Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, The Yardbirds and the Beatles has created a demand for their records.
"Elvis' early recordings--especially those done on Sun labels--have driven prices up," says Philip Lazzaroni, owner of Record Collections, a Bethesda, Md., store specializing in vintage and hard-to-find records.
"Purists like the monaural sound of these recordings," says Lazzaroni, "and consider them musically superior to later issues made in rechanneled (electronically simulated) stereo." For example, an Elvis Presley "Blue Suede Shoes" (EP monaural) now sells, scratches and all, for $95.
Scarcity plus notoriety have pushed the price of a Beatles' "Yesterday and Today" album's first issue with the "Butcher Boy" cover (a portrait of the four with dismembered dolls and meat carcasses slung over their shoulders) to $150 to $500.
To the true audiophile, however, a record's scarcity and the cult value of its cover are secondary to its condition. Theoretically, a record depreciates each time it is played and a single scratch can lower the price drastically.
The Original Record Collectors Price Guide, published for most categories of popular music, lists five condition categories ranging from mint ("perfect") to poor ("stepped on by an elephant and selling for peanuts"). Recent price differences between "mint" and "good" have increased from double to quadruple and, like coins, are expected to reach 10-fold.
Oddities like printing errors on labels--accidents that may add value to collectibles like stamps--seem to have minimal effect on record prices. Other factors, such as whether a record is a first or second "pressing," also affect price.
Although record expert Lazzaroni concedes that "condition is everything," he cautions that prices quoted in the guides are "optimistically high."
"They also become outdated quickly," he says. "After Elvis died, the price guides were worthless--demand was intense and the prices went sky high."
On the other hand, when a record becomes available on reissue, the price of the original will plummet. "The original 'Meet the Supremes' album (Motown, 1963) has been selling for over $200," says Lazzaroni, "but the recent reissue for $5.98 will undoubtedly bring that price way down. Not necessarily so, says Walt Bradley of Memory Lane, Lanham, Md., who feels the price of the "Meet the Supremes" will remain firm. "People like to have the original object."
Memory Lane, which has one of the largest vintage-record stocks in the area, grew out of owner Ed Capizzi's personal collection, says Bradley, picked up at flea markets and conventions. "With a basement overflowing with 5,000 records and a wife demanding that he get them out of there or leave, he decided to start a business."
His stock now runs to over a quarter of a million and includes the entire range of records, from rare 45s by "Tom and Jerry" (Simon and Garfunckel) to early Edison labels.
"An 'old' record, even in good condition, is not necessarily a valuable record."
The earliest recordings made on cylinders in the late 19th and early 20th century sell modestly for $5 to $10 because of the limited demand for marches, southern plantation songs sung by white performers and political speeches like "The Prince of Peace" lecture by William Jennings Bryant. The "talking machine's" future was thought at first to be in advertising and even medical diagnoses. (Such things as whooping coughs were documented.)
Since the cylinder played for only two (later four) minutes, classical music consisted of operatic arias and abridged symphonies. More typical were titles like "Daybreak at Calamity Farm," a rural "tragicomedy" featuring animal-sound imitations.
"Many people trying to sell old 78s are disappointed with the prices," says Lazzaroni. "But 78s scratch, break easily, sell slowly and take up lots of floor space."
Old blues and jazz records from the 1930s and '40s with defunct labels like Ebony and Harlem are exceptions and sell for $5 and up. These "race labels"--recordings of black music made primarily for black people--were produced by companies that could afford to make only one or two records at a time. Collectors value their musical content even more than their rarity.
"Many are performances done once and never again--a moment of musical history preserved forever," says Lazzaroni. "Interest in performers such as jazz pianist Tolbert Johnson is greater today than when he was alive."
The same could be said for Bessie Smith, although "we are fortunate," notes Lazzaroni, "her recordings for Columbia are available on reissues."
And if in your old stack of 78s, you should find "Stormy Weather" by the Five Sharps, don't drop it. The only other known copy sold for $3,866 at auction in 1977.
"Jazz scholars can trace the development of a performer's style through the various 'takes' of a particular record," says Waffen. "By collating disc numbers with recorded studio logs, they can see how a performer works with the melody--how he improvises on it until he makes it his own."
Few 78s were made during World War II when shellac shipments from India were halted and factories began producing war materials instead of records, says Roland Gellatt in his book, The Fabulous Phonograph. But the breakthrough in high fidelity--the faithfulness of recorded to actual sound--came when Decca was asked to develop a recording sensitive enough to demonstrate differences between the sound of British and German submarines.
After the war, pent-up demand and prosperity caused the record business to boom. The availability of inexpensive and compact magnetic-tape equipment propelled entrepreneurs to Europe to record much of the 17th- and 18th-century music that had, until that time, lay silently on library shelves.
"A whole literature of one of the arts has sprung into being," wrote New York critic Jacques Barzun. "It is like the Renaissance discovering the ancient classics and holding them fast by means of the printing press."
The number of record companies jumped from 11 in 1949 to more than 200 in 1954--even before rock 'n' roll became popular. Americans soon developed an enduring taste for the music of Vivaldi and Telemann.
Since no adequate price guides are available for classical records, the seller is "somewhat at the mercy of the appraiser," admits Lazzaroni. Prices are determined by current interest, availability, reissues, as well as esthetic considerations not usually important to popular music: the conductor, concert hall and the performer's interpretation of the music, as well as mastery of his instrument.
After the record companies settled the "Battle of the Speeds" in 1950, the old shellac 78s were replaced by long-playing vinylite records: 33 1/3 for classical music and, for popular, 45s that "fit on your bookcase shelves" and were played on Victor's inexpensive phonograph--"the world's fastest changer."
Lazzaroni's stock of frequently requested singles includes the Andrew Sisters and the Animals; the Ink Spots and James Brown; Will "Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar" Bradley and Jimi Hendrix. And, of course, the Beatles, Elvis, the Yardbirds and Connie Francis (whose fans, it is said, would buy records of her breathing).
The most requested single? For Lazzaroni, it's Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife."
What sells poorly? "Used disco and Christmas records."
As an authentic example of American folklore, he stocks Andy Griffith's "What It Was Was football."
"We always sell a few," he says, "to disgruntled wives in the fall."
And for cases of terminal nostalgia, he has a 45 of "As Time Goes By" with dialogue on the flip side that "proves once and for all that Bogie never said 'Play it again, Sam.' "
And for all of you gnashing your teeth over the now-valuable 45s you sacrificed to impromptu Frisbee games, a word of hope: Single 45s and their covers are often sold separately, so if you still have the picture sleeves, you may be in luck.