Blue Note font tells a story

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)

A rare opportunity to put on the deerstalker, light up the pipe, and ponder…

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.

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17 thoughts on “Blue Note font tells a story

  1. My stereo copy of 4220 is exactly like the one you posted except for the one large exception in that it does have the ear on both sides. I also have had Blue Notes titles with the exact same matrix etchings, labels and covers yet had the ear stamped in different locations in the deadwax.

    • Hi Aron, and thanks, youve given us another another piece of the jigsaw. That seems to further confirm the design refresh, serif to sans serif, started prior to the sale to Liberty, and is coincidental.
      So 4220 in stereo exists both with ear and without ear. The mono may also exist without the ear but we don’t know that with any certainty. Could be Liberty went on to repress only stereo versions of recent titles.

      Ear Stamp Position is a whole new subject, and caused my headache to return. I don’t own duplicates of the exact same edition, so I don’t have a lot to go on, but it raises the interesting question “at what stage was the ear added in the pressing process and how?”

      Logically it must have been added in the Plastylite plant, since many pressings by Liberty derive from original Van Gelder masters (or mother or stamper thereof) , with all the hallmarks but without ear. The ear etching tool belonged to Plastylite.

      The ear appears in all different positions in the deadwax but never overwrites other hallmarkings like catalogue number and Van Gelder, which themselves appear all over the place and must be etched on the original master.

      So, the application and position of the ear required human judgement in the Plastylite plant. Understanding the exact process could explain the different locations and angles found for the ear from one title to another, and even batches within the same title.

      At this point I definitely need to lie down. I am running on geek time. Thanks Aron.

  2. The font used for most of the liner notes, almost all track listing on labels as well as most catalogs is the classic “Futura” font, which is a Sans Serif font. Blue Note used the “Futura” font for almost everything they did. I believe the font you list as Sans Serif is indeed “Futura”. Just some more useless Blue Note info!

    • Amazingly useless useful information David. Futura. When I am larking around in Photoshop in any little Bue Note project I am forever trying to find a font match, and now I know what to use! Great! To win this weeks star comment status (Geek Section), do you know, is the serifed font a version of Futura or another design?

      • Actually, the sans-serif font used on the top left and right sections of back covers was a Ludlow typeface, Tempo Bold. It was also used, on BLP 4220 / BST 84220, for the artist name, LP title, and personnel. The serif font on the back cover on some releases was in fact Bodoni Bold. Bodoni was also used often for liner notes.

        On the center labels, of pressings by Plastylite, the typeface used by Keystone Printed Specialties of Scranton for artist name, catalogue number and side designation was apparently 14 point Intertype Vogue Bold. Other typefaces in use were: 8 point Futura Demi Bold (as used by Keystone, in combo with Oblique; for album title, matrix number, tracks and personnel) and 5 point Gothic No. 4 (for music publishing). This typesetting layout was used right up to about 1966 when Liberty acquired Blue Note. Contrast this was a 1969 LP, pressed by All Disc, with the same printer – Keystone – handling the label typesetting. However, what fonts were used on Grant Green’s Goin’ West LP (BST 84310, seen here were a bit different, to wit:
        – For artist name, catalogue number and side designation: 12 point Futura Medium (a typeface used for album titles and artist names on many a 1960’s “rainbow band” Capitol LP, notably on Beach Boys and Beatles albums)
        – For album title and matrix number: 8 point Vogue Bold
        – For track selections and personnel: 6 point Vogue Bold
        Hard to believe, if one sees this label, it’s the same company that typeset the “classic” pre-Liberty Blue Note LP labels.

  3. Count me firmly in the camp of those who believe in the significance of LJC findings with regard to determining earlier production runs.

    Blue Note and Plastylite, and RVG were all exceptional entities within the record industry _because_ of their focus on consistency and quality. In my mind, this is one of the biggest reasons that their creations are still sought after today. It’s been demonstrated time and time again that there production was methodical enough that a great deal can be discerned about the chronology of various pressings based on the evolution (and devolution) of minor details such as addresses, deep groove, etc.

    That being said, I think I personally ascribe far less significance to this chronology than do most. While sellers charge and collectors are willing to pay a premium for LPs which bear the telltale signs of the earliest production runs for their respective titles, I question the degree to which this correlates with the best audio quality. While primacy in the production run is most definitely a predictor in terms of audio quality, it certainly is by no means a guarantee.

    Obviously, condition is the number on exception. This is especially true with regards to the presence of groove wear in mono LPs that have survived from the original mono record player-era (let’s say circa 1948-1963). Whatever premium pressing quality that an LP from this era may have imparted by it’s early place in the production run will almost inevitably have been more than negated by hundreds of plays on turntables from the 50s using conical styluses with heavy tracking force and old mono cartridges which are incapable of horizontal movement to relieve the stress generated by the inevitable continuous tracing distortion (especially on the inner grooves) resulting from a conical stylus.

    The happy (or unhappy) truth is that in many cases with mono titles, you’re far more likely to find the best sounding pressings from the stereo player era (post-1964) than you are trying your luck with 50s pressings that have been to hell and back (not to say that 60s era pressings can’t have their own issues with poor quality vinyl, etc.). This problem is very much compounded by the lack of obligation on the part of online sellers to factor in groove wear as part of the grading process for LPs.

    Then there is the apparently unsolvable mystery of stamping order. As far as I can tell there is no possible way to determine where in the lifespan of the stamper an LP was pressed. We all know that stampers were discarded after a certain number of uses due to wear in order to avoid sub-par quality pressings. Who’s to say that your $1000+ newly acquired “first pressing” wasn’t the last one to come off a stamper just before it was chucked? Again, early pressings offer no guarantee against this problem.

    In the end, as most of us have discovered, the only true way to determine sound quality of a given pressing is to play it. All the ears, flat edges, and deep grooves in the world can’t make a bad pressing sound good.

    In the end as LJC noted collecting LPs is different than collecting stamps or rare books. It’s about function as well as form. In my opinion, the question of “first pressing” often speaks more to the latter than the former.

    One final note about the mysterious “A-1” matrix: I believe that this was RVG’s way of denoting a second (or third) master, (that is: A, A-1, A-2). I believe I have some RVG-cut pressings with this feature and have seen others reach the same conclusions elsewhere. Anyone else have an opinion?

    • Audio quality and vinyl condition is an interesting issue. The mythical “Lexington which seems almost unplayed” aside, the earliest 1956–59 records took the most punishment from equipment of the day, though protected to a degree by the sheer vinyl weight (around 220gm) and depth of cut. In the early sixties when a lot of second pressings of the earlier titles were issued, they still had the original quality source masters, pressed on good vinyl (160-180 gm) and they took less punishment from improved record players, so you end up with very satisfying audio quality in good condition, and not priced like the first pressings.For these reasons I am generally delighted with my “original” second pressings and happy to leave the purist collectors to chase the trophies.

      One of my current projects is to document the weight of vinyl of different labels over the two decades 1955-75,which I hope will provide another means to confirm likely date of manufacture of any particular record.. It is taking a little while because basically it is very boring to do, but the initial results look very promising. Another LJC exclusive in the coming weeks.

  4. Phew…

    More details that got me walking over to the record cabinet to look at the labels and run-outs one more time. I get Bob’s point, but still collectors have gone over all the known details and inconsistencies trillions of times in the past 50 years, so one would reckon that by now we’ve pretty much catalogued every possible pressing, detail, inconsistency and what not to at least confirm patterns and exceptions?

    Anyway, this overview focusing on fonts in itself is super interesting. 😉

  5. Sorry Gents but I am interested in anomalies, I love ’em. I study them and record them so I won’t be fucked by sellers who don’t know (or pretend) what they are selling.
    I do know what I want and I have a great time in learning.

  6. Ah, Mr Djukic, your exposition of patterns and inconsistencies is beautifully written. A true philosophical statement.

    Recording and cataloging, however, is a scientific activity from which much may follow.

    Mr Lion must have had a reason for doing what he did. Random acts do not make for a succesful business.

    If the reason can be discerned, then perhaps a pattern can be found.

    By cataloging and describing, as LJC is doing, we may be getting closer to understanding what the pattern is.

    The pattern may be nothing to do with the colours, fonts or run out information.

    What if there is no pattern? Inconceivable, to me at least. A series of actions instigated by one person, but with no pattern (and perhaps we could have a useful discussion of what “pattern” means) would indicate aberration from the human norm.

    The real question is–does the pattern matter? Yes and no. Yes, because understanding is of value. No, because the music is wonderful in it’s own right.

    Have a good weekend.

    Guy

  7. Hi Andrew:

    You say: “As always with these things there are anomalies which, for their own reasons, do not follow the general pattern of titles around them.”.

    We have a MAJOR philosophical disagreement here.

    Allow me to explain.

    When an anomaly becomes a pattern, when an exception becomes a norm, and when there are patters shrouded in lesser patterns wrapped in sub-patterns, we are witnessing the death of production consistency.

    Blue Note had spent the first 27 years of its history as a de facto indie label. As you noted previously, the Firm did not even incorporate until, oh, probably around 1958 or so — almost 20 years after the inception of the label. This essentially means that. for most of its history, the label operated as a, for all practical purposes, Alfred Lion’s sole proprietorship. While I am sure that Lion felt deeply and passionately about the artists he recorded, and music they created, he was a businessman first and foremost, and the survival of his business (and his personal hind end) surely must have been his prime consideration. When you are swimming with the sharks, you’d better become one yourself.

    The Blue Note’s corporate size and structure most certainly had a very major impact on the company’s funding, budget, operating expenses, credit rating, distributing agents, retail network, corporate and artistic decision-making and what not. Blue Note’s manufacturing (in)consistency was a major, major resultant of the Lion’s decision to run Blue Note as a very basic, if not downright rudimentary, organization. By no means was Blue Note alone in acting erratically because of its small size: look at the other indie labels operating at the same time: One look at the ESP discography will make your stomach turn, and one reading of Sun Ra’s El Saturn’s discography is enough to make you lose sleep for decades. Searching for a red thread of consistency and coherency in the proverbial ocean of ad-hoc production orders and seat-of-the-pants corporate decisions would require a collector to sacrifice a major part of his or her life to a research — and to what end? The research of this kind is by no means guaranteed to produce a viable and satisfactory result and is wrought with disagreements and conflicting information coming from other sources. I find even the most pedantic research lacking in multiple dimensions and aspects. Typically, a compulsive researcher will obtain a mountain of data — and then misinterpret them.

    Blue Note operated in the environment of extreme, enforced and sustained laissez-faire capitalism which was even more carnivorous and cannibalistic in the 1950s than it is today. The name of the game back then was hitting a big seller and producing as many copies of it as possible, then delivering as many of them as quickly to the hungry market. All other considerations, manufacturing consistency included, be damned.

    This managerial chaos was compounded by the disinterested, uneducated and poorly-paid labor force, labor union restrictions, problems in production’s supply (and demand) and God knows what else. In short, nobody really cared back then – except, possibly, the artists themselves – how the final product would look like. This idea that Blue Note was producing works of art and therefore somehow obligated to abide to certain productional and aesthetic standards is a sheer lunacy. Blue Note produced a retail PRODUCT. That this PRODUCT was recognized many decades later as containing a profoundly artistic merit and deeply spiritual dimension had nothing to do whatsoever with how this PRODUCT was manufactured. I assure you that precious few people in the 1950s and 1960s perceived Jazz as Art. It was initially a theater music, then it was vaudeviille music, then entertainment music, then dance music, then, after Charlie Parker arose, it became the music of the intelligentsia and, finally, it morphed into a civil rights- and political movement in the early-to-mid 1960s. In short, nobody in Blue Note or its pressing and printing vendors was obsessing about being consistent (this being a massive understatement).

    I find this exceedingly difficult to explain to my international buyers who are not familiar with the inner workings of the Ayn Rand-ian capitalism, American-style. To put it very, um…no, to put it brutally bluntly, American music industry in the 1950’s did not give a flying fu*k about the production consistency. It was completely and utterly preoccupied with profit, more profit and nothing but profit. To put it differently, making records in America most certainly wasn’t the same as making Mercedes-Benzes or BMWs. Whereas Europeans and Japanese collectors expect American music business to operate like polished, streamlined and organized state-capitalist companies and like well-behaved social democracies with a modicum of professionalism and integrity, American record labels generally operate like Wild West outlaws and road robbers.

    Please repeat after me y’all: PROFIT FIRST, CONSISTENCY LAST! This and this ALONE was a reigning motto of the American music business until very recently.

    This obsession with quick profit at the expense of artistic and productional integrity was truly a trademark of American music business circa 1955-1970. Not that the situation is much better today, but at least the consumer today is much better educated than he was back in, say, 1956.

    What I am trying to say is that the patterns you are talking about here are relatively limited in scope, elusive and extremely deceptive. If I tried really, really hard (heavens forbid– I have better things to do and more meaningful goals to pursue in life) , I could probably find at least one aberration for each pattern you described.

    Yes, the patterns you describe obviously DO exist. It would be foolish to deny their existence, just as it would be foolish for any corporation – either in the 1950s or today – to operate in total chaos and randomness. The problem with establishing these patterns is twofold: firstly, historical documentation either does not exist, or never existed, or is ridiculously incomplete and/or scattered. Secondly, to establish these patterns, one has to be able to interpret them. and ability to interpret the variations available depends on a number of lateral factors: information on hand, personal intuitiveness, feedback from other collectors, etcetera.

    Anyone trying to establish some order and consistency in the chaos and entropy of American music business should be sternly forewarned: you do so at your own peril and risk. You WILL sacrifice a MAJOR part of your precious life in exchange for something that may or may not exist. And when you are finished, you may not be any smarter than you were at the onset of this long journey.

    My suggestion: establish basic, well-documented and easily clustered patterns. Conceptualize and contextualize A FEW (emphasis!) major exceptions, and completely ignore tiny and ephemeral variations.

    And then forget everything else and simply enjoy the great music.

    • I think I see your overall message here, though you’ve certainly given a lot to chew on. Perhaps you are saying that rather than highlighting too many variations as “anomalies” that we should really just chalk it up to the label’s aim (and any record labels goal, really) in just getting the records out. That’s the font you picked? Fine. Doesn’t matter. For what it’s worth, LJC I think sometimes highlights these patterns/anomalies/inconsistencies as potential roadblocks and warnings for collectors, which I have to say I have very much appreciated it, as I feel it has helped me be a little more careful with my money.

      There’s still a feeling of artistry to this “stuff” – these records, their covers, the pressing of the vinyl – but sure, some of it could be a happy accident or a lucky survivor of that aim to put records out fast and sell a ton of them. Perhaps we should be happy that the product didn’t suffer any worse from the sloppiness of the industry!

      Perhaps it’s also proof just how brilliant the important people in this process truly are: the musicians, Van Gelder, the photographers…they’ve overcome a time when music faced some pretty haphazard conditions in getting to the ears of the people, and yet our hearts still beat a little faster when we HEAR it on these vinyl records. That’s got to be proof enough that something special happened here – whether it be by masterful craft, or by happy accident.

      Let me know if I’m way off the mark here. As someone who is a musicians and studied pretty extensively in college as a performer, I have no issue with the occasional “bringing oneself back down to Earth.” 🙂

      One other thing – I wish someone would similarly point out to some of the folks (not all) selling these things online just how little consistency mattered in most counts – especially in the area of DEEP GROOVE. LJC highlighted this in a somewhat recent post and I just had all these flashbacks to when seller have tried to convince me the a DG on a certain LP meant a lot more than it did…especially when they claimed that an LP had a “deep groove, just a very shallow one” when it reality…nothing. This is like digging for fossils – you can be pretty sure when you’ve stumbled upon a dinosaur bone, and yet who’s to say that someone isn’t just burying chicken bones in the woods by your house? (alright, that really doesn’t make much sense as an analogy, but do you get where I’m going?)

    • Thanks for taking the time to input, Bob, passionate as always.
      I take the sense of what you are saying, and I dont think we disagree on the disorganised and inconsistent nature of making phyical product, like records, or anything else. I think there are broad patterns, as well as anomalies some of which I am content to let remain unexplained. Though production is disorganised it is rarely random or chaotic, as you say, or stuff would never have got made in the first place. I expect some inconsistency, but often I find a degree of consistency.

      Vinyl records generally and Blue Note in particular are a fascinating puzzle, and I am afraid I am cursed with both curiosity and persistence, which means a desire to understand what other people make be content to not understand or prefer to misunderstand. My experience professionally as an analyst (lets not go there!) includes that stuff about What we know and What we know we dont know; my description: advancing understanding through a process of discovery.

      Where might we disagree, if you insist, is that you argue “the whole music business” may not be able to be fully understood. Perhaps, but I have not yet reached that conclusion. As long as it remains fun, I plan to keep digging, and to share what I find here. Hopefully you are on board with that.

      (POST UPDATE: The post as originally written yesterday still needed quite a bit more work on it, I learn a lot from comments, so its been revised a lot today.There is a whole lot of fresh stuff to disagree with, if you insist – LJC)

  8. Not trying to split hairs here, but doesn’t the copy of Cape Verdean Blues you just posted have that sans serif font? Mine does too, and the LP also has the ear. You seem to suggest that the font change was Liberty’s doing…considering the catalog number…could the record have been pressed by Plastylite and then distributed by Liberty??? o.O My brain hurts.

    • You are quite right. 4220 is the only new title release in my collection which breaks the rule, by having both the sans serif catalogue number AND the ear – there may be others which I dont know about. 4220 was released some time in 1966, at time of sale to Liberty, so it is either an anomaly, or more likely, there is a tipping point around this number at which both company ownership and printers changed.

      To add to the intrigue I have a stereo copy of 4220 which also has the large sans serif font but has no ear, suggesting the lines divided at this point, as to who pressed and who printed. Any other explanation or theory welcome, we are all in this together.

      Now my head hurts.

      I have updated the post end with a head to head between the mono and stereo copies of 4220. You have lifted the lid on something here! Very interesting. Split all the hairs you like.

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