Columbia Introduced LP Sixty Years Ago

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LP_logoOn June 21, 1948 Columbia held a press conference to announce the introduction of their long-playing (LP) 33-1/3 RPM record. There had been earlier attempts to take this step, but finally the time was right (not being in the middle of The Depression helped). A week later, on June 28, Columbia released its first LP. Within a few years, the combination of the LP and the 7" 45 RPM record (introduced by RCA to compete with Columbia's new format) made the 78 RPM record obsolete and changed the way artists thought about presenting their work to the public.

It wasn't until 1988 that the LP was eclipsed in popularity by the CD, a great forty-year run (and it's worth noting that in some circles, vinyl remains the preferred format). Having appeared in 1982, the CD, by comparison, will probably be surpassed in popularity by digital downloads before it hits thirty.

To celebrate this anniversary, I'm looking back in two parts at some of the great recordings Columbia issued on LP in the forty years from 1948 through 1987. First up, 1948 through 1966.

I could have included releases on Epic and other subsidiaries, but there's already plenty of great stuff here, no need to make my job harder. Similarly, recordings licensed from European labels for American release are omitted (despite my desire to pay homage to my childhood adoration of Jean-Pierre Rampal's Bach and Handel sonata cycles, which Columbia's budget Odyssey line issued as two-fers). I'll proceed year by year; other than that, there's no particular structure or target number. While I'm not claiming there's anything definitive about this, my system of looking at my LP and CD shelves and picking the stuff I like has volume on its side (I own twice as many albums as there are at the record store I work at).

I've done my best as far as assigning albums to the proper year; mostly this is easy, but the classical material tends to be better at identifying when it was recorded than when it was released. For help in this, I thank Erik Ryding and Rebecca Pechefsky (whose book Bruno Walter: A World Elsewhere (Yale University Press, 2001) remains the ultimate examination of its subject).

1948 Columbia's president, Edward Wallerstein, had pushed for the LP specifically to accommodate the long movements of classical pieces, which on 78s were interrupted every three or four minutes to flip to the other side or to change discs. At first, 12" LPs were reserved for classical and spoken-word releases, with pop, jazz, and other genres on 10" LPs. Soon the 12" format was adopted for all styles.

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Nathan Milstein, violin; Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York; Bruno Walter
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto in E minor
 
The very first 12" LP issued by Columbia, one week after the press conference announcing the format, was this May 16, 1945 recording previously issued on 78s. Walter was one of the stars on the Columbia roster, an Old World maestro who had found a new home in the New World after fleeing the Nazis. Milstein was one of the greatest violinists of the Russian school, and arguably nobody has surpassed him in this work. This performance is more fiery than his later recordings, but without sacrificing an iota of his beautiful tone -- a truly magnificent interpretation. I will give this LP to the first person who posts its catalog number in the comments section and can also name the composer of the only other violin concerto on which Milstein and Walter collaborated in a released recorded performance.

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Frank Sinatra: The Voice of Frank Sinatra
 
First issued in 1946 as a multi-disc 78-rpm set, in 1948 this became the first pop LP (10"), catalog number CL 6001. Arranger/conductor Alex Stordahl used a string quartet along with a rhythm section, sometimes adding flute, sometimes oboe (played by the infamous Mitch Miller -- more on him later). Some have dubbed this the first 'concept album'; whether or not that's true (and both its priority claim and the dubiousness of the concept are highly debatable), it certainly sets a mood nicely through a judicious program of eight standards.
 
Oscar Levant, piano; Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy
Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1
 
As far as the mass audience was concerned, Levant's fame as a panelist on Information Please overshadowed his musical talents; later, his hypochondria and associated addiction problems interfered with his performance. But he could play, and this piece was one of his specialties. He understates the famous opening and manages to build the whole piece in such a way that this is one of the few readings where the first movement doesn't utterly dwarf the two following movements.

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Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza
Rodgers and Hammerstein: South Pacific
 
Musicals were big sellers in this period, and didn't get much bigger than this one. Even priced at the premium level of $4.85, it sold more than a million copies (Columbia released the album in both the new LP format and on 78 RPM discs). But then, this musical was a huge success on every level; it won all ten Tony Awards it was nominated for, and earned Rodgers and Hammerstein the Pulitzer Prize. Sporting "Some Enchanted Evening," "There is Nothin' Like a Dame," "Bali Ha'i," "I'm Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair," and "Happy Talk," it's an undeniable classic.
 
John Corigliano, violin; Leonard Rose, cello; Walter Hendl, piano; New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra; Bruno Walter
Beethoven: Triple Concerto for Violin, Cello, Piano
 
Not all classical releases were on 12" LPs. Sometimes the works fit on a 10" LP, as with this recording. What makes this performance great is that it's not a star-studded joust for the spotlight, but rather three fine players working as a team. If anyone stands out, it's Rose, because his tone is so captivating, and because Beethoven gave the cello so many great tunes (pity the pianist in this regard). Kudos also to Walter, because he shapes a piece that's not top-shelf Beethoven in such a way that its weaknesses are streamlined and its strengths are accented, so a work that can seem bloated instead sounds charming.

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New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra; Bruno Walter Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 "Eroica"
 
Yes, more Walter. He was Columbia's most prestigious artist in this era. Beyond the superb performance enshrined herein, there's another aspect of this release worth commenting on. Newsweek reported that sales of this recording of Beethoven's "increased 895%" when it received a new cover designed by Alex Steinweiss, the company's first art director. Before that, all Columbia classical LPs had a bare-bones graphic template over which the title and artist information were printed.
 
Busch Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartet No. 7, Op. 59 "Rasumovsky" No. 1
 
The greatness of this recording resides in its combination of Old World warmth of tone with Germanic insistence on strong structure. The result sports both perfect proportions and surface beauty, intellectually satisfying and sensually alluring.

1950

goodmanBenny Goodman et al.: The Famous 1938 Carnegie Hall Jazz Concert

You think live double albums were invented by the Allman Brothers or some other rockers? Think again. This was the first, a previously unissued twelve-year-old set of concert recordings that had seemingly been waiting for the LP to come along. It proved to be Goodman's first million-selling LP. It includes a 16 minute and 42 second jam on "Honeysuckle Rose," with solos by Lester Young, Count Basie, Buck Clayton, Johnny Hodges, Harry Carney, Goodman, Freddie Green, and Harry James; the LP was perfectly designed for such stretched-out performances, and finally jazz on record was not confined to short versions of songs and the public could here, in the comfort of their homes, what a cooking jam session sounded like.

Don Cossack Chorus/Serge Jaroff: Religious Music
 
It might seem odd that a program of Russian choral music would appear during the early chill of the Cold War, but Jaroff lived in the United States. He and the original members of his choir had been "White Russian" army officers driven from their homeland by the Communist revolution. The music here mixes extracted movements from longer works, one each by Gretchaninoff, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, and Tchesnokoff (to use the old-style transliterations on the album cover), with arrangements of traditional pieces. The performing style is dramatic to the point of garishness at times, a bit of a period piece, yet still moving.

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Doris Day and Harry James: Young Man with a Horn
 
Another LP that brought jazz to the masses, this was the soundtrack (well, sort of -- re-recordings of songs mostly in the movie) to a hugely popular film starring Kirk Douglas as a young trumpeter trying to become a star. James was already a star, having catapulted to fame from the ranks of the Goodman band, and it is his trumpet playing that's heard in the film. Day -- a better singer than her current reputation might suggest -- is heard on half of the LP's eight tracks.
 
Pablo Casals, cello; Paul Baumgartner, piano
J.S. Bach: Sonatas for Viola da gamba & Harpsichord, BWV 1027-29
 
This may have seemed just as exotic to 1950 listeners as the Russian choral music above, for the early music revival had barely started and Johann Sebastian Bach's chamber music in particular was little played. Casals, the international superstar of the cello, would contribute mightily to changing that. But it almost didn't happen: he had retired from public performance in 1945. He was brought out of retirement by the violinist Alexander Schneider's proposal of a 1950 festival commemorating the 300th anniversary of the birth of Bach, to be held in Casals's adopted hometown of Prades. This recording comes from a June 3 recital during that festival. While it certainly doesn't feature 'authentic' Baroque performance practice, sounding rather lushly Romantic at times, it is always imbued with a nearly spiritual musicality that overwhelms all objections. Honestly, I'm not sure when or how it was first issued, but it was a 1950 concert, even if it came out later.

1951 Rock 'n' Roll was arguably born in 1951 when Jackie Brenston and Bill Haley both released "Rocket 88." But the new style wouldn't show up on LPs for a while, and in any case, Columbia wasn't interested. Its head of the pop A&R (artists and repertoire) department, starting in 1950, was Mitch Miller, who could have signed Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly but didn't.

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Bessie Smith: The Bessie Smith Story, Volumes I-IV
 
I'm guessing this series of four LPs reissuing the best of "The Queen of the Blues" was John Hammond's idea. His heart was always in the right place and he had exquisite taste.

1952

Budapest String Quartet
Beethoven: String Quartets, Op. 18 Nos. 1-6
 
One of the greatest recording projects in the early days of the LP, in terms of scope and ambition, was the complete Beethoven quartet cycle by this storied group, formed in 1917 (although by 1951, when the first recordings in this, their second Beethoven cycle, were made, no original members remained; the lineup at this time was: Joseph Roisman, Jac Gorodetzki, violins; Boris Kroyt, viola; Mischa Schneider, cello). The first salvo, the Op. 18 quartets, was issued on three LPs.
 
Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy
Sibelius: Lemminkäinen Suite, Op. 22
 
Ormandy claimed (in his notes to a later LP of Sibelius's First Symphony) that the very self-critical composer learned to like this composition through Ormandy's performances, first a radio broadcast and then this studio recording. 

1953

Frances Yeend, soprano; Martha Lipton, mezzo; David Lloyd, tenor; Mack Harrell, baritone; Westminster Choir; New York Philharmonic; Bruno Walter
Beethoven: Symphony No. 9
 
There's an interesting story behind this issue. Walter had recorded the whole symphony in 1949 and released it then, but he wasn't happy with the finale (he had not been able to use the soprano soloist he wanted, and felt the chorus was poorly recorded). So, four years later, he re-recorded the finale with different soloists (retaining the baritone). Columbia then issued the first three movements from 1949 with the 1953 finale and -- here's something not many record companies have done -- anyone who returned their copy of the previous version got the 1953 version for free!

1954

Louis Armstrong: Plays W.C. Handy
 
Offering a fine balance of singing and trumpet playing on a program of classic blues tunes, this was the first of several LPs during a resurgence of Armstrong's lengthy and brilliant career. Armstrong is accompanied by a fine edition of his All Stars, with trombonist Trummy Young, clarinetist Barney Bigard, pianist Billy Kyle, bassist Arvell Shaw, drummer Barrett Deems, and vocalist Velma Middleton. Unconstrained by 78 limitations, they could stretch out; five tunes are around five minutes in length, and the iconic "St. Louis Blues" is nearly nine minutes.

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Dave Brubeck Quartet: Brubeck Time
 
After a series of live recordings had made him a star, in October '54 Brubeck made his first studio-recorded album for Columbia. The promotional push for this LP got him on the cover of Time (just the second jazz musician so honored) before the end of the year. Six of the eight tracks here are standards, plus one original each by Brubeck and light-toned alto saxophonist Paul Desmond. Although in retrospect the album title seems to promise some of the odd-metered compositions that became the quartet's trademark, it's actually focused on swing, with some of the arranged counterpoint that had been the group's first claim to fame, notably on the closing "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"

1955

New York Philharmonic; Bruno Walter
Brahms: Symphonies Nos. 1-4
 
Walter's well-known mastery in the German Romantics of course led Columbia to document his interpretations of the major symphonies, including this set of Brahms's. Then stereo superceded mono -- much to Walter's displeasure, since he had hopes of covering more of his repertoire instead of starting over again in stereo and recording pieces for the second or third time. Brahms's symphonies were considered a must for re-recording due to their central position in the canon, and Walter's 1959-60 stereo Brahms cycle is warm and comfortable. But age had slowed him down, quite literally when it came to his tempos, and many connoisseurs prefer the faster speeds of his earlier cycle and feel the NY Phil delivered fuller textures and more incisive playing than the pickup Columbia Symphony Orchestra did at the end of the decade.

Lotte Lenya/Roger Bean: Berlin Theatre Songs by Kurt Weill

When Kurt Weill died in 1950, he was a respected figure, of course, having composed well-received Broadway musicals, but the masterpieces of his German period (from the beginning of his career until he fled the Nazis in 1933) were fading from memory. His widow, Lotte Lenya, who had served as his leading lady in many of those productions, set out to revive this music, the first salvo being an English version of The Threepenny Opera that opened in 1954 and became a huge hit. Next came this LP of a dozen songs (mostly in German) selected from The Threepenny Opera, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagony, Happy End, The Silverlake, A Winter's Tale, and -- not exactly a theater work -- The Berlin Requiem. "Mack the Knife" and "Alabama-Song" re-entered public consciousness here. It's amazing that such bitter anti-capitalist wit could find public acceptance right after the height of McCarthyism.

Leonard Rose/Leonid Hambro
Schubert: "Arpeggione" Sonata; Boccherini: Cello Sonata No. 6; Sammartini: Sonata in G major
 
In the CD booklet of the reissue of this LP, Yo-Yo Ma writes of his former teacher, "Mr. Rose sets the standard for integrity in artistry, and he had a gorgeous cello tone -- I think if there is an ideal sound for the cello, he had it -- a far more beautiful, gold