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Updated on May 30, 2013

Vinyl is Not Only Black, It Can Be Gold

PART ONE: A few years ago, I was asked to speak to the Kiwanis Club--not on journalism or Bill Clinton in Arkansas, two topics about which I was usually asked to speak--but on old records, specifically, what makes a valuable old record?

I was glad to oblige, but to prepare the speech, I had to gather my thoughts, and some examples from my collection, about what record collecting really means. My first thought was to review the maxim, just because a record is old does not make it valuable. And another fact of life: Just because an artist dies suddenly does not automatically make his or her records valuable (think Amy Winehouse or even Michael Jackson.)

I was always amazed that right after Elvis died, various "items for sale" in many newspapers around the country featured Presley 45 RPM records like "Do the Clam" or "Bossa Nova Baby" for sale beginning at $50. You have got to be kidding. First of all, those records in mint condition would hardly bring a tenth of that amount, and the records for sale were certainly NOT in mint condition. First rule of thumb: Condition is Everything. (For the record, most of the later Elvis releases on RCA, especially the singles, are not particularly valuable, even if they do have the Presley name on the label. The picture sleeves issued with those later singles, however, are somewhat valuable, usually in the $20 to $30 range. If you find one of his movie soundtrack albums, "Speedway," and it says "mono" on the cover, grab it and insure it quickly. That record can bring up to $1,000 or more. Why? It was one of the last records issued in mono. And only a relatively few copies were even pressed--scarcity is always a factor in deciding the value of a record. Usually, the late 1960's Presley movie soundtracks are not very valuable at all.)

Remember our last quiz? The choices included soundtracks, all right, but also categories like (a) records pulled from the market, (b) disc jockey copies, (c) social and political pioneers, and--of course--something every professor likes to include on multiple choice-- all of the above.

Which happens to be the answer to our quiz. All those categories can produce some interesting vinyl that collectors will salivate over. Let's look at the choices one by one, with some specific records as illustrations.

Records pulled from the market. Here's the Queen Mother of collectible records: The Beatles' "butcher cover." Many people already know this story, of course. In 1966, with the Beatles riding high and being able to pretty much get what they wanted from Capitol Records, the group decided on a somewhat different album cover for its new release, "Yesterday...and Today," featuring the Paul McCartney lead solo smash, "Yesterday." The four lads from Liverpool were shown wearing butcher smocks and covered in dolls' heads and pieces of meat. As soon as the album was shipped to stores, retailers started screaming, saying the cover did not represent the fresh-scrubbed image that the Beatles had championed up to that time. It was creepy at best, they said, and disturbed at worst. So Capitol quickly pulled the available copies, but to save money--of course--tried to keep the actual cardboard covers by issuing a record by another Capitol artist with the non-Beatle cover pasted over the butcher picture. So, some Buck Owens fans, if they hold one of his albums up to the light, might see the image of the Beatles with their dolls and meat clearly discernible in the background behind Buck's smiling face. Try not to actually peel the non-valuable cover off, however. Any rip or pull will pretty much ruin the value. A pristine, store-bought issue of the "butcher cover" can bring upwards of $25,000 in today's market. Not chump change for an album that was eventually re-released with the Beatles standing or sitting beside a non-threatening clothes trunk. (That picture was also pasted over the returned butcher cover albums, but--again--don't try to peel)

One other example under this category: The 10,000 Maniacs. They recorded Cat Stevens' song, "Peace Train" for their album and even shipped some DJ copies of the 45 RPM version to radio stations. This was just before Stevens changed his name and religion and started making violent and threatening political statements. The Maniacs didn't want to support someone who advocated violence, so they pulled the single and that particular song from their album. By the way, the DJ copy 45 came with a picture sleeve, so both the record and the sleeve can make you rich.

Soundtracks. Most movie soundtracks or Broadway show cast albums are worth something, mainly because the record companies seldom mass-produced those products if they weren't considered likely to be best sellers. Movies and shows like "The Sound of Music" and "South Pacific" sold so well that neither title is scarce and the value is minimal. One soundtrack, however, is one of the most valuable records you could ever hope to find, and would bring a price comparable to the high-end of the "butcher cover." And the soundtrack is not even from the rock era.

Remember a movie called "The Caine Mutiny" with Humphrey Bogart, Fred McMurray, and Jose Ferrer? It is based on a book by the same name, written by Herman Wouk. The soundtrack features some of the actual dialog spoken by the actors during the movie, especially Bogart's "strawberries" speech, where the crew of the Caine finally realizes he's bonkers when Bogart, as Captain Queeg, launches a full-scale investigation to see who stole the after-dinner delight. After the initial copies of the soundtrack were released on the RCA Victor label (even though the movie had been made by Columbia Pictures), something happened to the master acetate. Rather than re-press some more copies, the bosses at RCA Victor decided, what the heck, soundtracks don't sell anyway. So the record was discontinued, making "The Caine Mutiny" one of the rarest pieces of vinyl ever. That means when you go through your grandparents' old album collection, don't necessarily turn your nose up when you see a soundtrack.

Next time, in PART TWO, we'll look at the other categories of record-collecting gold. So here's a quiz in anticipation.







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