The Art of Listening to 45s

Inheriting my mom’s childhood record collection has given me a whole new way to appreciate sound

Photo: Claro Fausto Cortes/EyeEm/Getty Images

WWhen I was a kid, my parents had a huge record collection. Some of them, they bought together as adults, but most were from my mother’s childhood collection. She had drawn hearts around Jackie Wilson’s picture on the cover of his LP, kept her James Brown records in perfect condition, and loved her Marvin Gaye. One year, she bought a trunk to hold them all, with some space leftover for 45s. One look at the collection told their story — the 45s were decidedly more well-loved.

My mom told me she used to play her 45s most of all. The ones that were dinged around the edges made a shush-scrape sound as the needle searched for the grooves, worn thin from being played again and again. The LPs she got mostly when she was older, but the 45s were her childhood — as well as her timer. Long-distance phone calls were expensive back then, and my grandma wasn’t interested in spending her hard-earned money on teenage romances. You want to call that boyfriend of yours? You got three minutes. Three minutes to tell your story. Three minutes to swoon, laugh, love, and be young. Three minutes is about the length of one side of a 45, so she’d play her record, dropping the needle just as he said hello, and as the last notes faded out, she’d say her goodbyes.

These days, long-distance calls like the kind my mom had to make aren’t a thing for me. I don’t need to use records to mark the passage of time, or search for a way to be myself within their confines, but I have hundreds of them anyway. I find their presence comforting; tiny pieces of history, aural stories, bits of the past. I like the way I have to participate in the listening process, in ways that don’t happen much these days.

Sound is ever-present. I truly don’t remember the last time I was in silence. At best, there’s always some sort of humming, a soft whir of life. And at worst, well, there’s honking and yelling and movies and music and sound and sound and sound. Even the sounds I choose are sometimes strictly passive. I’ll turn the TV on to keep the room from approaching silence, and keep my mind from approaching chaos. Or I’ll play music I have no intention of giving my full attention to. But a 45 won’t let you do that; you have to be alert, have to be ready. That record’s going to end soon, and you’ll want to flip it over to hear the other side.

I find their presence comforting; tiny pieces of history, aural stories, bits of the past.

Sometimes that alertness is a matter of keeping the record in shape. I remember an old record player I had as a kid that didn’t stop automatically when the record ended. Long after those last notes faded out, it would spin on; a hiss-scratch loop that continued until I put the tone arm back into its holder. But other times, it’s because the flip side is part two of the first side. You will not, for example, be able to hear the end of Junior Walker and the All Stars’ song, “Hip City” unless you flip it over. Part one fades out on the A-side, and picks up with a fade-in on the B-side. Paying attention to the record in this case means completeness, hearing the whole. The sound is active. Fade out. Fade in. Listen. Pay attention.

When RCA unveiled the 45 in 1949, the chairman of rival record company Columbia said, “We are unable to fathom the purpose of the records revolving at 45 rpm.” And sure, maybe it did seem silly. A toy-like version of the real thing, something for kids to play with and disregard. And, of course, it being a direct competitor for Columbia’s own new release — the 33 ⅓ rpm record — probably had a little to do with it too. We’re generations past that first introduction now, and I’m sure to non-collectors, their purpose has only grown more perplexing. 45s have become little pieces of random ephemera that, in some corners of the collecting world, only serve as rare artifacts, rather than a way to hear good music.

They’re certainly treated like artifacts in some cases. In 2009, a vinyl collector paid £25,742 (almost $33,000 today) to own a copy of Frank Wilson’s rare Tamla/Motown 45 “Do I Love You,” an amount that made the record, at the time, the most expensive single ever sold. And just last year, that price may have been surpassed when another copy of the record was sold in Michigan to musician Jack White for an undisclosed amount. Obviously, these are exceptions. As a frequent used-record buyer, it’s pretty clear that, over the years, LPs usually get all the love and protection, while 45s are often filled with more dings and scratches than clear, clean sound. But for me, there’s a real beauty in those three minutes of music, even the in the imperfections of the (much) less expensive ones.

These records remind me of a past I wasn’t part of, but can still listen to. Those dings and scratches are there because someone loved this record, this song, this artist so much that they made it spin over and over again, the grooves telling their love story. Some of these songs never saw any other kind of release, and only lived in this one format, these three minutes. Some have names that can barely be read on their labels, voices that sound distant, ghostly, scratchy. Sometimes there is a pleasure in unearthing the mystery of a little-known performer. And sometimes, letting that mystery linger, remaining in the shadows, is equally satisfying.

I keep my collection of 45s spread across four crates, stashed in various corners of the room we like to call the library, even though any decent librarian would be horrified by the state of it. Most of them came from my parents, in two random shipments, without much fanfare. I bought another big stack from a guy who put an ad in the newspaper, back when that was something people did. His house smelled of cat pee and dust, but I suffered through and came away with some real gems. Sometimes I like to just reach into a random crate, pull out a handful, and play them one after the other; a near constant stream of genres and styles and tempos and voices. It’s calming. My body moves with the music, because of the music, and to keep the music going.

I’ve just read back over what I’ve written, and realized that I’ve lied to you. Maybe not just to you, but also to myself. I may not use the 45s to mark the passage of time like my mom did, but I absolutely do use them to find a way to be myself. I use them to make a choice to participate in making my space exactly the way I want it to be. That’s hard for me most days; finding a space that’s mine, that’s quiet when I want it to be, and filled with sound when I want it to be. I find it so infrequently in my mind, a mind that’s too busy, too sad, and too filled with doubt. But with 45s, I’ve got three minutes that I need to be present for; three minutes that need me to be there. And I can follow that three minutes with another three, and another three, and another three, until all those songs and all those sounds fill every corner.

This story is part of The Art Of, an ongoing series that supplies you with instructions for living.

Writer and record collector. Sometimes not in that order. More at www.heyjackson.net

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