Collector’s Guide to the Blue Note catalogue number (post updated 10/11/12)
Occasional post which may be of interest to Blue Note vinyl record collectors (warning: Geek Rating 9/10. Contains statements some might consider controversial)
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 compared to reissues and later pressings, 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.
This is an example of font variation: the “1” in “thirty-three and one-third” speed on every Blue Note label. It is sans-serif when it is Microgroove (Mono), and with a serif if it is Stereo. Not a lot of people notice this, or need to, as it is of absolutely no importance. The point is, our brains interpolate – fill in the gaps – or just assume what we expect. It is essential for collectors to pay close attention to important detail, and assume nothing.
I have tried 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 “only” around two hundred titles of the 800 Blue Note titles published, some of which are shown here. It is a lot but it is not the lot.
The font-style is a rough and ready distinction between records issued by Blue Note with pressings by Plastylite and those issued by Liberty. Be warned, there are exceptions, and further information may be required to corroborate provenance.
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 a significant marker as almost without exception, the large 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.
On with the show.
Collector’s Health Warning: Reissues of earlier Blue Note titles
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 Blue Note titles, they first used up any existing stock of original Blue Note labels and covers for that title before printing more. Eventually, Liberty reissues enjoyed their own corporate “Division of Liberty Records Inc” label (for which the market price is around a third of an “original” Blue Note)
Blue Note themselves followed the exact same practice with second and subsequent re-pressings: use up old stock labels and covers before printing new ones, (though after their incorporation, around 1960-1, careful to include at least one label with the “R” registered trademark, I assume for legal reasons). No deception intended, merely economic use of materials and trademark protection.
Where the ear is expected, but not found: new wine in old bottles?
The cover or label of any Blue Note record may have all the hallmarks of a pre-1966 authentic issue: large serif font number, even original NY or 47W63rd labels, but the vinyl inside may be a more recent pressing by Liberty. In the early Liberty years this was probably one of the RCA national plants, who did a pretty good job, though in my view not quite to the high standard of Plastylite. In the later years, 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 run out is my definitive proof the vinyl is a pre-1966 Blue Note “original” pressing.
When “no ear” is the right answer
The big sans-serif catalogue number is a good indication 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 (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”.
Why bother with all this?
To the collector of the artefact, provenance translates into price – double or treble it for authentic first pressings over later pressings, tenfold over re-issues.
And to the audiophile, you can’t hear an ear, LJC. Well, I rather think I can. The audio quality of the pressing is 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, and thanks to quality engineering and mastering by Rudy van Gelder, they always sound great!
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, function AND form. Vinyl records are for playing music, which, uniquely, they do better than anything that has come along since.
UPDATE: 4220 Horace Silver Cape Verdean Blues (see Phil’s comment below)
What’s going on here? 4220 in mono and stereo, and all sorts of issues are coming up. First the covers. True, both mono and stereo have adopted the “Liberty” sans-serif typeface for the catalogue number.
But what’s happened here on the vinyl. Fetch me the smelling salts, Watson! The Mono has the Plastylite ear, whilst the Stereo does not. Moreover, there are differences in the matrix I don’t think I have seen often before…
I think I am going to need something a lot stronger than the meerschaum. Watson, fetch me the laudanam. And the violin.