Collector’s Guide to the Blue Note catalogue number font (warning: Geek Rating 9/10)
The appearance of the catalogue number on the back of a Blue Note record sleeve can tell you a great deal about the origin of the vinyl pressing, especially during the transition of ownership from Blue Note to Liberty Records in 1965/6. Given the premium price which original pressings attract, and it pays to be alert to the telltale signs, which are often merely the style and size of font used in printing. Sometimes it is of no importance, at others it can be definitive.
Here is an example of font difference. On every Blue Note label, the one in “thirty three and one-third” speed is sans-serif if it is Microgroove (Mono), and with a serif if it is Stereo. Not a lot of people know that, or need to, as it is completely irrelevant. The point is to illustrate how our brains interpolate – fill in the gaps, or just assume what we expect. The Collector needs to pay close attention to detail.
I will try to pick out the important identifiers in reading the back cover of Blue Note records. As always with these things there are anomalies which, for their own reasons, do not follow the general pattern of titles around them. My knowledge is based on ownership of around two hundred titles of the 800 Blue Note titles published. It is not 100%.
The font-style is a rough and ready indication of records issued by Blue Note with Plastylite pressings and those issued by Liberty pressed elsewhere. Be warned, there are a small number of exceptions, and further information may be required to confirm provenance.
From 1956, the classic serif font is found on most Blue Note 1500 series and most of the 4000 series Blue Note originals in the Blue Note Years. Then suddenly, sometime between 1965 and 1966 the house style of Blue Note covers changed from serif to sans-serif, coinciding with the change of management to Liberty Records and coinciding with the change of pressing plant from Plastylite to the Liberty’s chosen plants. Reid Miles remained responsible for Blue Note cover design before and for some years after the sale to Liberty. The font change may have been merely a design-refresh, unrelated to the sale, however the timing remains significant as almost without exception, the large font sans-serif design covers are non-Plastylite pressings – without the Plastylite cursive “p” in the deadwax.
Within a year or so the Catalogue number had shrunk to insignificance and then all-but disappeared from the jacket design. Miles Reid’s influence was replaced by whatever designers were in favour with the new owners.
The decline had begun.
It is not uncommon to find Blue Note records for sale which claim to be “originals” which contain vinyl pressed later for Liberty (without the “ear”). The confounding factor experienced collectors will be well aware of is the stock inventory of covers and labels which Liberty acquired with the purchase of the company.
When Liberty started reissuing earlier Blue Note titles, they first used up any existing stock of original Blue Note labels and covers for that title before printing more. No deception intended, merely economic use of materials. Eventually, Liberty reissues enjoyed their own corporate “Division of Liberty Records Inc” label and cover (for which the market price is around a third of an ordinary ”original” Blue Note)
In the early Liberty years, Blue Note reissues and new titles were pressed (we think) by one of the RCA national plants, which are generally very good. Later on, economies were made, not just by Liberty but by the record industry as a whole, which were ultimately detrimental to vinyl audio quality. The presence of the “ear” in the deadwax is to my mind definitive proof the vinyl is a pre-1966 “original Blue Note” pressing, not what the cover or the labels say, or the presence of Van Gelder/ RVG in the deadwax.
Liberty new releases: when the missing ear is the right answer
The big sans-serif catalogue number is a good indicator where the “ear” is not expected, as the first pressing was by Liberty. Several times I have been expecting the ear, found no ear, only to discover it is not meant to have one. These include 4118 and 4171 ( font anomaly), 4193 Art Blakey’s Indestructible, 4203 Andrew Hill’s Andrew!!, 4219 Wayne Shorter’s All seeing Eye, and many other titles numbered below the Blue Note 4250 formal “cut-off” at which point new releases come under the management of Liberty Records, and its Blue Note Division..
Why bother with all this?
To the collector of the artefact, provenance translates into price – double or treble it.
And to the audiophile, you can’t hear an ear, LJC. Well, I rather think I can. The audio quality not a small difference, it can be huge. The difference between a first or early pressing, and by a Plastylite pressing over others, can be the difference between enjoying a performance and not; between following the emotion in every note and walking over to change the record because it isn’t engaging you. Plastylite NJ were not the only “great” record pressing plant in the 50′s and 60′s but in my opinion produced consistently great pressings on clean heavy 165-180 gm vinyl cut with a deep groove, giving a loud and bright sound with a satisfying wide dynamic range, no small thanks to quality engineering and mastering by Rudy van Gelder.
Collecting records is different from many other types of collecting. It is like having a Ming vase and putting daffodils in it , a rare penny black stamp and using it to post a letter, form AND Function. Vinyl records are for playing music, which, uniquely, they do better than anything that has come along since.