Vinyl records hit all the right notes

This 45 of John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band’s Happy Xmas (War Is Over) is pressed on green vinyl. It’s a common record, but if you’re looking for colored vinyl collections, this is a good one to start searching for. Photo courtesy of Chuck Miller

NEW YORK — Digital downloading has forever changed the music industry, but the interest in vinyl is on the uptick. Some music labels, especially small indies, even continue to release new music on vinyl. For collectors, there is a thrill to removing a record from its artfully-adorned jacket and placing it on a turntable to enjoy. It’s an experience that cannot be matched by downloads from iTunes or other digital-music services.

Collectors of vinyl records seek recordings by their favorite bands and artists, as well as rarities and misprints. A whole subgroup of collectors chases colored-vinyl pressings instead of the basic black vinyl most records were pressed onto.

Chuck Miller authored Warman’s American Records, a guide to record collecting. Photo courtesy of Chuck Miller

Chuck Miller of Albany N.Y., is a longtime collector and authority on vinyl recordings. He wrote Warman’s American Records 1950-2000, a beginner’s guide to music and vinyl record collecting that includes various collectible genres and rare records. A sequel came out in 2004.

“My vinyl record collection began when my grandmother brought home a small carrying crate of 45s from a yard sale,” he said. “From there, I built a massive collection of over 10,000 45s, LPs [long play], 78s and other rare records and music.” Later, he expanded on his passion by writing for the record collector magazine Goldmine, interviewing various artists and musicians.

Surprisingly, the rarity of a record can have little to do with the actual music pressed onto it. “For example, one of the most collectible rock and roll recordings is a 78 of the old classic ‘Stormy Weather,’ as recorded by a doo-wop group called the Five Sharps,” Miller said. “Only three 78s are known to exist — one with a crack in the vinyl — and although the record company presumably would have produced a 45 at the same time as the 78 release, no 45 has ever been found.”

Among the rarest and most collectible records are an early version of Bob Dylan’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, containing four songs that were quickly removed after release; early 78 RPM pressings by guitar legend Robert Johnson on the old Vocalion label; a very early 45 by Nirvana called Love Buzz, on the Sub Pop label (only 1,000 pressings, hand numbered by the band, are known to exist); and Elvis Presley’s first five singles (both in 45 and 78 RPM formats) on the Sun label, Miller said.

Prince’s 45 of “When Doves Cry” was initially pressed on purple vinyl. This record is collectible as is its bread-bag picture sleeve, which is often tossed and barely survives over time. Photo courtesy of Chuck Miller

“Regarding collectible artists, it’s nearly impossible to compile a complete Prince collection — many of his LPs were short-printed, and one — ‘The Black Album’ — was yanked off the market moments after its scheduled release,” he said. “Jazz legend Sun Ra produced dozens of LPs in very short print runs, his music is extremely desirable among jazz fans. “

No article about rare vinyl records would be complete without discussing the infamous “Butcher Baby” album cover. In 1966, photographer Robert Whitaker photographed the Beatles for the Yesterday and Today album posing with cut-up baby dolls and hunks of raw meat (reportedly as the band’s statement against the Vietnam War).

John Lennon’s personal stereo “Butcher Cover” prototype album with his original artwork on the blank back and signed by three Beatles made $100,000 at Heritage Auctions in November 2017. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions HA.com and LiveAuctioneers

The album immediately provoked such outrage, the record company, Capitol, pulled the album to reissue it with a bland cover. Other than the track Nowhere Man, the music on the album is generally regarded as OK, but nothing exceptional. In November 2017, Heritage Auctions sold Lennon’s prototype album, on which he doodled artwork, for $100,000.

“For Beatles collectors, owning a ‘first state’ Butcher cover of ‘Yesterday and Today’ is a precious prize,” Miller said.

Other rarities, he said, are the Beatles’ first US album, Introducing the Beatles, released on the Chicago-based Vee-Jay label. “This record, however, has been heavily duplicated and counterfeited. As many as 50 different counterfeits and reproductions exist for every one original,” he said. “Super-dedicated Beatles collectors will scope out variations in labels, variations in album fronts and backs, and even which US-factory manufactured the album.”

A Paul McCartney-signed copy of Beatles ’65 earned $4,000 at Julien’s Auctions in November 2017. Photo courtesy of Julien’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

It is typical for neophyte collectors to run up the attic and dust off their long untouched stash of records with dreams of fortune, but not every record holds its resale value. Precious few will sell for big bucks.

“Every record collector in the 1960s had LPs by Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, etc. Their music is truly excellent — but there are millions of pressings of every single LP from these artists, making these records worth maybe one dollar at most, Miller said. “That being said, it’s possible to find a rare gem in a collection. That’s why you need to check record collecting guides, look at the condition of the record — is the album cover nice and crisp, or does it have wear marks and split seams? — and stay aware that only a few records out there are worth thousands of dollars.”

Collectors, of course, will want a good sound system and to store their vinyl in Mylar sleeves while they’re keeping an eye out for an artist’s first release, usually on a very small indie label.

“There are so many sub-genres in record collecting — collecting specific artists like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin, or musical genres like doo-wop or classical music — that you will eventually find a rarity or a treasure in that specific sub-genre if you look long and hard enough.”

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Our thanks to Chuck Miller for sharing his expertise on collectible vinyl records. Click to visit Chuck’s blog, which follows his life as an award-winning photographer, writer, trivia champion, sports fan and music/pop culture expert.