When the vinyl sings again

I don’t know where they’re going to bury Howard H. Scott the man, but Howard H. Scott the legacy has been buried in my closet for 20 years. That same portion of him occupied a similar tomb in our previous house for, I’d guess, about another 20. Or at least since our turntable finally gave out, not since replaced.

You see, Scott, who died last month in Pennsylvania, at the fine old age of 92, was a central player (pardon the pun) in the development of the LP. And here we’d best pause to clue in a generation, maybe two, who have no idea what an LP is. Long playing record, that’s what it is; a thin vinyl disc, a bit larger than a dinner plate, grooved, with a little hole in the center to accommodate a spindle. And a spindle is the slender metal spike onto which the LP was centered on the turntable. And the turntable was a thing that rotated at speed of 33 1/3 rpm, the music recorded on the LP translated through the needle of the arm. And the needle was a tiny diamond tip that relayed the music from the grooves of the recording to an amplifier and then to the speakers. This apparatus, in the aggregate, was called a phonograph.

If you’re still with us, you might want to hit Pause, a feature the device detailed above did not have, and talk to your parents about it. They’ll tell you there once was something called a 45, too, and they won’t be talking about firearms. Come to think of it, your grandparents, provided they were born well before 1948, would be the better supplementary resource. And I’ve a hunch they’d delight in telling you about the days before CDs and iPods and the like, which they may not understand and could well resent, what with your walking around like a zombie, those plugs in your ears and that little thing on your belt, snapping your fingers and humming to music they can’t hear and would abhor if they could hear it.

Here’s where Howard Scott comes in. Just back from World War II, he got a job with Columbia Records, one of the biggest music companies in the world. As did its competitors, Columbia’s long-playing records didn’t play that long — about four minutes per side. Which meant essentially hearing only bars of a symphony or a single of a Satchmo (your grandparents) set before turning the disc to side two. Thus to capture a classical composition in its entirety would require six to eight heavy discs.

Scott and associates were charged with creating a new format: a platter, yes, but rather than the same stiff and quite breakable shellac, a lighter, far more flexible substance, capable of extended play. That done, there was the matter of re-recording music from the old 78s onto the new LPs, their capacity ten times longer. The integration of multiple sides to a single seamless score became Scott’s specialty. It took music appreciation to new lengths, if not necessarily levels. (See: grandparents). It enabled popular composers to elevate their work to an art form, the previous 240-second restriction gone forever. “Theme” albums, such as those Sinatra made famous and which helped make him even more famous, became the norm.

Progress, if you wish to call it that, will not be denied. Along came reel-to-reel tape, then eight-track, then cassettes, then laser playback, then compact discs and now, I gather, computer chips. A gazillion recordings on an assembly not much larger than a pack of cigarettes. With those ear “buds,” of course. Or patched into your car’s sound system, more sophisticated than the home stereo ensembles of any 70s audiophile. You can still buy a turntable, by the way, but only a connoisseur of components would make room for one.

Which brings us back to those pieces of Mr. Scott in my closet. A couple hundred LPs, I suppose, some dating to the 1950s, most from the ’60s and ’70s, they slumber in climate-controlled darkness, awaiting only the turntable I do not possess to awaken. I am told I drop them off at any of several companies which, for a fee, will transfer my favorite cuts to whatever format — tape, CD, digital — I choose. I really must do that. But I want to be there when the vinyl sings again, so I can tip my hat to Howard H. Scott.

He helped make the now classic popular canon possible, so other inventors could make it live forever.

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Steve Barnes is host of Arkansas Week on AETN.