Whippersnappers who’ve come of age in the era of streaming and downloading digital music may be shocked to learn that in the ‘50s and ‘60s hep-cats and hippies often bought individual songs on 7-inch vinyl records known as singles or 45s — the speed (in revolutions per minutes, or rpm) at which they rotated. While this may sound clunky or cumbersome, vinyl 45s commercially introduced in 1949 by Camden’s RCA Victor revolutionized the music industry. They sounded better than shellac 78s, lasted longer and tended not to shatter if dropped. The new format took off, but it’s hard to tease out sales figures since 45s and vinyl 78s (which replaced their shellac predecessors) are lumped together in the “vinyl” category.
Given that every major (and most minor) artists and acts of the ‘50s and ‘60s released most of their catalog on 45s, the industry’s debut single is a bit underwhelming: “PeeWee the Piccolo” RCA Victor 47-0147, pressed Dec. 7, 1948. There are those who dispute that claim, arguing Eddy Arnold’s “Texarkana Baby” RCA Victor 48-0001 is numero uno.
RCA Victor definitely had big plans for the 45, and these included using different-colored vinyl for different genres: grass green (country, as in the aforementioned Eddy Arnold release), yellow (children), red (classical), orange (R&B and gospel), blue vinyl/blue label (semi-classical instrumental) and blue vinyl/black (international).
It’s too bad the company abandoned color coding long before the ‘60s. Imagine the swirling, day-glo masterpieces it might have created for the Beatles and Hendrix, not to mention the chrome discs it might have pressed for speed metal.