The 45 RPM Record: The Plastic Disc That Changed Recorded Music


The 45 RPM Record: The Plastic Disc That Changed Recorded Music

The 45 RPM single vinyl record celebrated its 70th Anniversary this year on March 31st, 2019. This recorded physical format is sometimes misunderstood and often underrated even though it was one of the biggest selling recorded formats for many decades. What led to the birth of the 45 RPM single? Why does the 45 have a large center hole as has always been the case in the United States releases as well as in several other countries? Even in countries where the 45 had a regular spindle hole, they always were made to where this insert could be removed. Who were the biggest consumers of this format and why? Do people still collect these 7-inch discs and if so, how strongly do they feel about them? How are these small discs stored and organized? Has the vinyl resurgence resulted in 45s being produced again? We will investigate these topics as well as many more in this series celebrating the Anniversary of what some see as the little brother of the 33 1/3 long playing album.

The 45 RPM single had an interesting birth with which the majority of people are not familiar. RCA and Columbia were big rivals as well as enemies. The 45 basically resulted from the battle between them according to most sources. RCA created the 45 RPM format mainly to compete with the 33 1/3 RPM established by Columbia shortly before in 1948. RCA had earlier developed a similar technology that led to the LP but had problems making it work. Their patents expired, and instead of licensing from Columbia they created their own format as well as their own phonograph.

Typically, the 45 has been viewed as a continuation of the 78 RPM on a more durable, less fragile format. 78RPMs were very fragile being made of shellac so they were easy to break and they typically wore out rather quickly due to the material as well as the thick needles that were used to play them. However, 45s were not entirely made to be their replacement although they did lead to the demise of the 78. The idea was that the 45s could be stacked so that after one record finished playing, another one could drop and play.

This would mean that the listener could enjoy to a longer length of music than on a 33 1/3 LP. Much of the battle was all about the amount of time that had been so prevalent during this period of music history. 78s would not have been able to be stacked and played one after another. Due to their fragile nature, if they were played in this manner many, if not most, would shatter when they were dropped to the phonograph. 45s like 33 1/3s were pressed on polyvinyl chloride plastic which would not crumble into pieces if dropped.

The large center hole measuring 1.5 inches of the 45 RPM record was created by RCA as well since their new invention needed to be played on a phonograph created especially by them. The company wanted to be both the manufacturer of the 45 RPM record and the turntable that would play them. The hole was all about people stacking them on a spindle so that they could listen to one song after another thus increasing the playing time.

RCA officially debuted the new 7-inch 45 RPM single and its new phonograph to play them on March 31, 1949. There was much hype about how their system allowed users to listen to the songs they wanted in the order they wanted because of the stacking method. They claimed that people were used to listening to records with one song is true since the 78 RPM was what people were used to. Color coding was another method RCA used to hype its new recorded format. Colored vinyl designated the format, such as green was used for country music. There were a total of seven colors used for different genres of music. So, colored vinyl is not a new invention for attracting buyers such as what we see during the vinyl record resurgence.

There is some disagreement among sources as to what the first 45 to be released and put into production was. Some give this credit to the children’s song, “Pee-Wee the Piccolo” while many more give this honor to “Texarkana Baby” by Eddy Arnold which was pressed on December 7, 1948.

Notice that the country genre was pressed on green vinyl and the children’s record was on yellow. The confusion about what the 45 was has to do with the fact that RCA released a batch of 45s altogether. Interestingly enough, these were dated March 29, 1949. There were 45s at the release, but they were old songs that had been transferred to the new format. The following videos show the Eddy Arnold first release being played on one of the suitcase type phonographs which would come a few years later. The second video shows the then-new RCA Victor turntable in action along with examples of the color coding system.


The music buying public along with record stores were at first confused by all the new advances in recorded technology. The customers had been used to 78s and the equipment to play them on. Most were still trying to figure out exactly know what to do with the 33 1/3 LPs which required a different player than the one they had for 78s. Then, here comes the 45 RPM singles with yet another phonograph to play them on. None of these new players were cheap either. The 45 RPM single was not expected to make it. It was expected to be a huge flop.

However, critics of the format turned out to be wrong since one million 45s were sold within a month of their debut. Because of the price difference, LPs became known as the format for more serious music intended for adults. On the other hand, the 45 was cheaper, easy to carry around because of their small size, simple to distribute to radio stations, and popular among young people. This created the perfect vehicle for the delivery of popular music. Oddly enough, the birth of rock and roll began two years after the debut of the 45.

The 45 RPM single sold in the millions quickly and soon surpassed the sales of 78s in 1954 which led to their eventual demise. 45s became the most favored format for radio, record stores, the buying public, and jukeboxes. Each side of the 45 RPM could hold one song or in the case of an extended EP 45 two songs. The 45 became a huge and efficient marketing device that could promote an upcoming or existing album. They were also effective for groups or artists who were looking for a break on the radio but did not have enough recorded material to fill an entire album. In fact, there were an abundance of artists who never created enough material for an album and can only be found on a 45 RPM single. Without the single format, many of these artists would not have ever been known.

AM Radio was a big contributor to the popularity of the 45 RPM record. Music listeners would hear a song they liked on the radio and want to own it so that they could play it at their convenience. They didn’t want to have to wait until the radio station played it again. Many people did not want to buy a whole album of a group they weren’t even familiar with. They wanted that song and that song only. They did not want to pay for an album or search for that one particular song they wanted to hear right then.

45 RPM records became synonymous with singles. They were one and the same. This led to entire music charts of just 45 RPM records created by sales recorded in publications such as Billboard and Cashbox.

These charts were completely separate from the album charts as can be noted by the Billboard Hot 100 singles compared to the Billboard Top 200 albums. Radio stations also had their own singles charts created by both listener requests as well as checks with record stores about what was selling.

I was quite familiar myself with getting calls from local radio stations at the record and department stores I worked for wanting to know what our sales of various singles were. These calls often prompted greater or lesser airplay of certain singles on rotation due to sales of the 45.

Sales and radio airplay of the 45 RPM record also carried over to top music shows such as American Bandstand, where a weekly feature was always the Top Ten.

In turn, these music shows frequently promoted new singles with a format where the host, such as Dick Clark, would play two new singles to a couple of people on the show to see which one they liked best. Famous phrases such as, “It’s easy to dance to,” “I like the beat,” and the like came from these marketing techniques. Often one or both of the songs played would become hit singles.

Singles and music charts were also the focus of several radio shows such as the American Top 40 hosted by Casey Kasem. Radio shows that focused on the 45 RPM also were common on many radio stations where DJs would countdown the station’s own local music charts. These local charts were often on display at record stores in the area. My obsession with music and 45 RPM records led me even to have my own charts which would list my favorite songs for each week. I would, in fact, even write articles for the week about groups and artists new on my own chart. Again, this was at a very young age which I would estimate beginning around age 7.

Many music collectors did start collecting 45s during their young days; however, the obsession with them has never gone away. There is an abundance of 45 RPM collectors. There are more social media groups dedicated to the collection of 45 RPM records than I can even give an estimate of. I belong to many. The people in these groups are representative of the vinyl resurgence as they are of all ages, backgrounds with the common theme of loving the 45 RPM single vinyl record. However, I don’t think the full vinyl resurgence has been realized with the format. It does seem that I see more and more 7-inch records releasing lately. 

The 45 RPM truly was the success that nobody expected. They sold more units than LP albums until the mid-1970s. The sales did drop some in the late 1970s due to the emergence of concept albums, but sales remained strong. However, just as with the LP, the cassette and other recorded formats, the 45 suffered greatly with the arrival of the compact disc in the 1980s. We will cover this decline along with artists and collectors who keep the 45 alive until this very day. We will discuss current trends, collectors, and the like to find further information on why this format is often known as the one that changed music forever.

- Jack

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