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What Ever Happened to K-Tel Records?

Updated on June 22, 2012

K-Tel Records: Then and Now

When I was a kid, K-tel Records published the sorts of compilations, on glorious, shiny vinyl, that meant I could get big hits of the day (or at least the day before) with my meager allowance. Well, if my sister and I pooled our allowances we could get a record from time to time. I still have some of those records and rejoice in watching my kids dance around to the same K-tel music I loved when I was their ages.

In the spirit of nostalgia and the Internet indulgence thereof, I wanted to celebrate K-tel Records, share my favorites, and see what I missed along the way. I thought you might enjoy a place to share your memories of K-tel, buying those great round albums and spinning them on the turntable, and watching what I remember as remarkably cheesy commercials even for the cusp of the 80s as it was then.

And of course I had to share what I uncovered about what ever happened to K-Tel Records. I had no idea what an enormous company it really was and I had a great time learning about K-Tel in general and their music arm in particular. You'll find information and links here explaining the company's history and what they're up to now.

k-tel, record, label, side 2, hot nights & city lights
k-tel, record, label, side 2, hot nights & city lights

Do You Remember K-Tel Records?

Here's Why I Wrote This Lens

To me, K-Tel Records went hand in hand with dance shows on TV. We watched American Bandstand and Soul Train religiously and played the radio non-stop between episodes (at least until MTV made the scene). At the age of eight, the living room on a Saturday morning made a fine disco.

It was these shows, perhaps sponsored by K-Tel and perhaps just playing the same music we heard in the record company’s commercials, that fueled our lust to acquire the albums like Hot Nights & City Lights. We weren’t so discriminating to concern ourselves with a record’s actual content; that K-Tel label was good enough for us. And Mom kept giving us Andy Gibb records so we had to do something!

I will always remember fondly those K-Tel records and the music they brought to my life. I thought it would be fun to see what happened to the record label in the intervening years. Did it fail in the era where vinyl was replaced with cassettes or does it cling to life perhaps disguised as those “Now That’s What I Call Music” people? It seems to me that whoever started that series must have been fans of the old K-Tel records with their focus on producing compilations of hits for various genres, despite their complete lack of creativity in naming said albums.

When we'd finally convinced her of the error of her ways she started buying the "Hooked On" series. I still have several of those, as well, and enjoy the mutation of songs on the Hooked on Classics album that introduced me to classical music in a light-hearted way. And check out the picture: where else would you find Blondie, The Jacksons, and Instant Funk on the same record?

Do You Remember These Commercials? - The Finest K-Tel Records Cheese

Just watching these had me in stitches, and lost in nostalgia, too. The sound quality on these is almost uniformly awful, but they're more than 25 years old. They just really aren't around in digital format anywhere else! I threw in one of the radio commercials. Does anyone remember when they used to advertise K-Tel Records between the hits on-air? It's no wonder we poor, easily-influenced little kids lusted after these albums! There were also things like the breakdancing set that included both the "original hits by the original artists" and a video (VHS was brand new, in those days) that would teach kids how to do the moves. I'm definitely going to add that to my Old School Rap and Hip Hop page!

k-tel, record, album, cover, disco fire
k-tel, record, album, cover, disco fire

So, What Ever DID Happen to K-Tel Records?

And Can I Still Get Those Groovy Records?

It seems that my child's perspective of K-Tel was rather limited. K-Tel was not primarily a record company at all. They were the folks behind so many of those "as seen on TV" products 'way back in the 70s and, surprise!, they still are. You can read an exhaustive history of the company written by founder Philip Kives at the official K-Tel web site but in short they've been around longer and are much larger than I ever thought.

Though you can explore all sorts of products on that web site, it's the Classics section that really slays me. You can hunt through their entire catalog and see the cover art (front and back) for every album they ever released. It can take some serious digging if you don't know the actual name of the album but just flipping through page after page of records like Disco Rocket and The Velvet Touch gets me grinning.

And you'll soon discover that K-Tel didn't only do compilations of hits by various artists, though it seemed that was for what they were best known. They did a metric ton of "best of" albums for everyone from Al Green and Aretha Franklin to The Tubes and Wayne Newton. While the site promises a music store "coming soon", I don't know how much will be iTunes-style individual track purchasing or whether you will be able to download whole albums. I'll update this as soon as more information appears.

Find K-Tel Hits on Amazon! - Buy the mp3s You Love!

I've only included a smattering of what's available but if you are looking for some of the K-Tel compilations you remember this is a great place to start. Am I the only one who still has the Pac Man Fever album?

k-tel, record, album, cover, dumb ditties
k-tel, record, album, cover, dumb ditties

Where Was K-Tel in the 80s and 90s?

Learn How the Bankrupt Firm Turned Itself Around

K-Tel declared bankruptcy in 1984 not because they couldn't sell records, although the wane of disco very much took its toll on sales, but because they were spending their money on unrelated things like real estate. Should you doubt the expansiveness of their offerings, take a peek at the list of albums at discogs (two pages' worth). The oldest one I saw on the list was released in 1970 and the newest appears to date from 2005. That's a lot of badly-recorded cheese and wildly-uneven records!

If you want a fairly exhaustive look at the business side of K-Tel, check this lengthy article at Funding Universe. The gist of the matter is that the label and its parent company had a difficult time in the 80s for several reasons, in part because of those pesky NOW That's What I Call Music compilations (and those from Rhino Records and Ronco) that did just about the same thing at a time when K-Tel was having trouble making ends meet and in part because they got a little too crazy with the investing.

But while the US sales were slumping and the company fought to stay alive it was expanding in Europe and the United Kingdom with direct-sale TV spots. You can find a huge number of these records on the sites museum page. K-Tel took over products from other companies, including Ronco, and marketed those, as well. Then they grabbed the ERA label and started reissuing records in the 90s. Things were looking up!

They started licensing their name in the 90s as well and diversified more carefully this time. They moved more into the video side of media as well as better marketing for their infomercial products. Check the K-Tel Today page on their site for an idea of the sorts of services they've developed in the past fifteen years, with much of the emphasis on licensing and distribution rather than producing new content. They may have made it to 2010 but they've still got that great 70s cheese flavor that made many of us remember them so fondly.

But they hung on to those licenses and re-recordings for which they were so famous (and widely reviled). In the late 80s they started expanding their catalog and working through third parties. Gone were the high-energy TV commercials that seemed to blanket the airwaves ten years before. (Happily, the dreadful cover art and some of the over-the-top album names remained, for a time.) They branched out into the "Hooked On" series and recorded all sorts of wacky things with the London

Want to Read More? - Proof that I'm Not the Only One Who Loved K-Tel Records

Something about K-Tel makes people want to write with exclamation points, me included. I presume it's the excessive adjectives and really, really excited voice-over guys in the commercials. Whatever it is, you'll notice most of these include an exclamatory title. That's how I feel about it, too!

Get Out-of-Print K-Tel Compilations - There's Always Someone Who Still Has One

In my quest to find the albums I remembered from my childhood, I discovered that you can always find something as obscure as a K-Tel compilation from 1978 but you might have to pay an awful lot for something that cost less than ten dollars brand new. Those pack rats among us will feel justified in keeping those strange and seemingly throw-away records for so long now that vinyl is back in style!

What Do You Think? - Was K-Tel Terrific or Terrible?

Whether you still have a K-Tel record lurking in your basement or you deplore the sort of badly-edited, re-recorded tripe the company parlayed into a music empire, share your opinion here.

K-Tel Records: Great or Dreadful?

See results

If you remember the moldy-oldies days, let me know which album you remember having. The odds are pretty good that, as a kid, it never crossed your mind that the songs had been mutilated to fit 22 onto a single record (but what a deal!) or had been recorded with one person from the original band and a bunch of studio musicians standing in for the rest of the group. Back then there wasn't an Internet on which people could point out every flaw on the album to ruin the seer enjoyment of listening to The Village People and Gloria Gaynor during their glory days.

Let me know what you loved, what you hated, and whether you admit to buying K-Tel records one by one or by the dozen. Don't be shy...I've admitted my love for them. You can, too!

Share Your Favorite Album! - Which K-Tel Compliation Do You Remember Best?

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    • MelRootsNWrites profile image

      Melody Lassalle 3 years ago from California

      I remember K-Tel and Ronco in the 70s. Brings back memories of being 9 or 10 years old and salivating in front of the TV watching all those hits songs scroll by. My Mom indulged us once and bought an album set that we begged her for. All I can remember is it was yellow and started with a Seals & Croft song. My sister was older and bought a couple of the eight track tape collections (a gazillion songs on one tape! LOL).

    • Not-Pop profile image
      Author

      Not-Pop 4 years ago

      @jeff-missinne-5: I very much agree that people should follow their taste rather than the trends. K-Tel introduced me to a ton of music in addition to letting me hear what was popular on the radio at the time.

      While I often prefer unpopular bands these days as they tend to have more leeway with their creativity (no "formula" to follow) I also have a wide-ranging collection that at least touches on everything from pretty much the past 100 years. It constantly amazes me how often people don't know a song is a cover or heavily samples something from 1974. :D

    • profile image

      jeff-missinne-5 4 years ago

      70's K-Tel records reflected the variety that was 70's pop radio. I've always considered myself lucky that I started listening seriously to pop-music radio at that time. What a musical "smorgasbord!" Tune in on Top 40 then and you'd hear the Carpenters followed by Led Zeppelin followed by Charlie Rich; Barry White followed by Cher followed by Paul Simon; Anne Murray followed by the Stylistics followed by John Lennon or another ex-Beatle. It was an instant education in pop music; maybe you didn't "dig" everything but you learned who everyone was. Pop radio has since fragmented into ever-narrower formats, and MP3 players tend to turn listeners into the "boy in the bubble." I laughed when the uber-hipster music critic on the local alt-weekly recently wrote a feature on a great singing group he had never EVER heard of...the Mills Brothers! (He said it was because he never listens to "granny music." Maybe he should...he might actually learn something.

    • Not-Pop profile image
      Author

      Not-Pop 4 years ago

      @flycatcherrr: It's okay, you can admit it. I did! :P

    • flycatcherrr profile image

      flycatcherrr 4 years ago

      Oh good gracious, I haven't thought about the K-Tel abominations in years! Yes, I have to admit to buying one or two - money was a large issue, when I was a teenager craving the latest hit music, and you could get a good fix of tunes with a K-Tel compilation from the Woolworth bargain bins - but I swear I never ever ever bought a disco record. ;-)

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I'm not ashamed to say I used to work for K-tel International in its heyday. Those days were probably the most fun I ever had on the job! Back then the music industry itself was a little unpredictable, so we never knew what to expect each day, and it was a chance to rub elbows with a few celebrities now and then. My garage-band purist friends used to put the company down, but we filled a need in the marketplace.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      K-TEL'S GREATEST HIT*

      by Jukebox Dave

      www.jukeboxdave.com

      Eons before homemade mix tapes and IPOD shuffle-play existed, pretty much the only way to listen to a bunch of different pop artists in one sitting was by plopping a K-TEL album onto your record player. Yes, we're talkin' those "22 ORIGINAL HITS" by "22 ORIGINAL STARS" platters with oh-so-hip titles like OUT OF SIGHT and MUSIC EXPLOSION hawked all over late nite TV by a frantic offscreen announcer breathlessly ticking off stars' names accompanied by teasing snippets of smash hits...BROWNSVILLE STATION! (cue SMOKIN' IN THE BOYS ROOM)...TOM T. HALL! (cue I LOVE)...ALBERT HAMMOND! (cue IT NEVER RAINS IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA)...KOOL & THE GANG! (cue JUNGLE BOOGIE)...don't pretend you don't remember.

      After a successful run touting "must-have" gizmos like the FISHIN' MAGICIAN and the BLITZHACKER FOOD CHOPPER, the K-TEL company found its real niche movin' a different potpourri of plastic. K-TEL RECORDS ruled in the 70s, which roughly coincided with my teen years and a musical "coming of age", where a similar unrestricted blend of rock, pop, and soul chestnuts co-existed peacefully on my trusty AM radio (a bright orange ball and chain model courtesy of RADIO SHACK). Who cared if K-TEL product was manufactured on recycled vinyl with severely compressed grooves to fit all those hits? What did i know about sound quality? My first record player was a 30 dollar plastic suitcase-styled model with a penny scotch taped to the tone arm so the records wouldn't skip.

      Like most boob-tube product, K-TEL didn't exactly practice "truth in advertising". Sure, the albums boasted 22 ORIGINAL HITS by 22 ORIGINAL STARS!...but some of these ditties were certainly never hits and a lot of these artists were never EVER stars. 5000 VOLTS? CELI BEE & THE BUZZY BUNCH? THE INCREDIBLE BONGO BAND?...See what I mean? Granted, the super-DUPER stars of THE STONES and LED ZEP variety were missing in action; most of K-TEL's roster consisted of legit one and two hit wonders, buoyed by a few cats like ELTON JOHN and JAMES BROWN, (whose funk-infested presence graced seemingly every release) with considerably more on their resumes. You usually got bona fide TOP 40 hits like TIE A YELLOW RIBBON 'ROUND THE OLD OAK TREE and GYPSIES, TRAMPS & THIEVES, although every K-TEL LP snuck in a couple of "ringers" that I never saw or heard ANYWHERE ELSE. (Cue TWILIGHT ZONE music). Two examples that spring to mind, from the same album no less (BRIGHT SIDE OF MUSIC) is the "shoulda been huge" pop rocker BOOGIE WOOGIE MAN by PAUL ("I GO CRAZY") DAVIS and SWEET's perky bubblegum singalong IT'S LONELY OUT THERE.

      One thing K-TEL never bragged about was ORIGINAL LENGTH, 'cuz in order to fit 22 hits on a 45 minute LP, tracks were often mercilessly chopped, cropped, sliced & diced, maybe even made into JULIEN FRIES. Intros were lopped off, endings faded out a minute or two early, even whole bridges went mysteriously AWOL. Although it was hardly unusual for a band such as ARGENT to release the 3 minute single HOLD YOUR HEAD UP to AM radio and a twice as long version for FM play, K-TEL actually inserted a take that lasted 90 seconds! So much for the argument that prog artists are longwinded. At least K-TEL got "ORIGINAL ARTIST" right; there were no lame re-recordings by "past their expiration date" acts in need of beer money; that sleazy practice didn't surface until the new millineum version of the company.

      Mostly K-TEL was content to shove the normally unrelated WAR, LOBO, and BACHMAN-TURNER OVERDRIVE onto the same album, occasionally veering off with cool concept efforts like SUPER BAD, which was stuffed with "heavy" RNB charters like ISAAC HAYES and MANDRILL, or GOOFY GREATS and its rib-ticklin' roster of RAY STEVENS and 1910 FRUITGUM COMPANY goodies. By the 80s, K-TEL theme discs were commonplace, including KICKIN' COUNTRY, DISCO ROCKET, and MASTERS OF METAL...truly something for everyone.

      Naturally, I prefer to remember K-TEL RECORDS as they were in their infamous 70s hey-day...spattering like POP ROCKS all over TV and radio, turning up in every cheap department store, supermarket, and gas station rack. Much as the pubescent wail of DONNY OSMOND segued into the macho bedroom growl of BARRY WHITE, my innocent musical tastes formulated by K-TEL and AM radio eventually made way for the darker spoils of FM's underground sound. As the lure of the disembodied pitchman's voice loudly proclaimed at alarmingly regular intervals, each and every K-TEL platter truly mattered in its own kitschy way.

      * also available on 8 track tape

    • profile image

      Spikey64 5 years ago

      I loved the ads, they brought memories flooding back.

    • javr profile image

      javr 6 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I remember the K-Tel commercials. They had their pulse on the heart of music back then. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • TapIn2U profile image

      TapIn2U 7 years ago

      A nostalgic trip back to memory lane indeed. Too bad they're not around anymore to make more beautiful music. Let's see how current music trend-setters compare. Thanks for his great lens! Hey, your Tweets were one of the ones I followed from Twitter when I found Squidoo. I have just finished my first Lens and now have great ideas to add thanks to you. Sundae ;-)

    • joanhall profile image

      Joan Hall 7 years ago from Los Angeles

      BOY do I remember K-Tel commercials! (You're right, you have to write about them with exclamation points.) We never bought any of the records, but there are plenty of songs that I primarily know from the one line of them that was part of a K-Tel commercial.

      Thank you so much for taking me back, and for sharing all of this new info about K-Tel!

    • Timewarp profile image

      Paul 7 years ago from Montreal

      Original hits, original stars, as seen on TV!

    • JenOfChicago LM profile image

      JenOfChicago LM 7 years ago

      Great history!