Last Updated: December 31, 2019
Liberty’s acquisition of Blue Note in mid-1966 was well documented in the music industry press at the time, and also Liberty’s acquisition of two pressing plants. There the “facts” stop, to be replaced by … speculation.
In Part 1 of the Guide to the Liberty Years, the link between label-printers and pressing plants was established, if a little shaky, as quite a few anomalies cropped up, and more were sent in by readers, thank you.
I decided to “shake the tree” once more, to see what else might fall out. The tree in this case was a sample of Ebay auctions going back over the last five years, where “Liberty Blue Note” was mentioned in the main short description. That yielded over 1,100 results, a huge number to look through but certainly only a small fraction of the stuff out there on collectors shelves. Around a quarter yielded an acceptable label photo (wake up Ebay sellers!), topped up with pictures sent in by readers, and my own. It’s not perfect but it’s a good-enough sample.
“Stamped Van Gelder or not Van Gelder, That is The Question”
The 1966/7 Liberty reissue programme re-released many earlier Blue Note titles from the 1500 series and 4000 series. As expected, the east coast had custody of the coveted Van Gelder metal stampers, and east coat pressings are invariably directly from Van Gelder masters, as indicated by Keystone Printed Specialties labels. Especially of interest are very early titles in the 1500 series, sometimes repressed in mono, some claiming stereo provenance, chaotically mono old stock labels printed with stereo catalogue numbers, all the fun of the fair, some real gems among them.
Liberty reissues pressed on the west coast can be readily identified by their Bert-co Hollywood labels – if you know what to look for – below right:
This West Coast difference found many sellers silent on the essential Van Gelder “matter”.
Everything else certainly “original Liberty”, originally recorded in most cases by Van Gelder, but most importantly, not mastered by Van Gelder. Instead, remastered by Liberty house engineers, from copy tape, on whatever was their local equipment, different from Van Gelder’s choices in say, lathe and cutting head, without Van Gelder’s ears, or post production tweaks and judgement. As someone said to me: “Does it matter?” Well probably not, if you don’t care what it sounds like. But very much, if you do care what it sounds like. Of course, you have to have compared them in listening tests in order to know, something not many have done.
Some West Coast re-issues do turn up with RVG/VAN GELDER stamp, which may well be not first wave, but later 60s reissues pressed after Van Gelder metal was relocated to the west coast.
New titles issued by Liberty after 1966 are more consistently Van Gelder mastered, and examples around 8 4300 are fairly consistently Van Gelder whether east or west coast. The RVG deficit remains those first wave reissues of the Blue Note back catalogue.
Collectors are advised to be aware of warning signs of west coast labels. If Van Gelder stamp is not mentioned, be sure to ask, there is usually a reason, likely it is absent.
Loose-end 2: other pressing plants.
The biggest loose end in the Liberty Blue Note era is the identity of the plant pressing with a consistent central pressing ring, which I initially thought must be Capitol, Scranton, but Alex, collector from mother Russia, had other ideas, and I think he is right.
First the lie of the land. The central pressing ring cohort of Liberty Blue Notes is not some fly-by night odd contract pressing. It is a consistent partner over at least three of the four Liberty years, though it disappears as United Artists took increasing control. There is All Disc, there is Research Craft, then there is this result of “tree-shaking”, a working hypothesis – Southern Plastics.
Titles stretching from the very earliest 1500 series Lexington through to 1969 pre-UA 84300 series, all found with a 1.18″ pressing ring, Keystone-printed labels, and all Van Gelder, and , and not one seller advisory as to provenance, because nobody knows. New Soil! How exciting!
Here is the skinny.
Below for comparison are different editions of Blue Note’s biggest selling title, Lee Morgan The Sidewinder. Left, the 1964 NY original stereo, centre left, an east coast Keystone/All Disc, centre right, the mysterious central pressing ring, and far right, west coast Bert-Co, typesetting madness. This sums up the main varieties of Liberty pressings, though there is always the odd one out.
My previous candidate for the central pressing ring, the Capitol plant at Scranton, PA fails the test of pressing ring sizes known to be in use at the time at various Capitol plants (WB on Hoffman), which are much bigger.
Pressing plant provenance is the business of Beatles collectors. Take for example VeeJay’s famous “Introducing the Beatles” LP, pressed by Southern Plastics, with similar if not exact pressing ring as found on many Liberty Blue Notes.
The pressing ring: Peoples Exhibit 1: calling Southern Plastics, Nashville Tennesee. Veejay used Southern for their LPs, I guess including those great fledgling Wayne Shorter and Lee Morgan titles, as did Chess, and several others. These all bear the same pressing ring, seen below.
What were Liberty doing in the deep south? Having records pressed it seems, in the company of Verve, Imperial, and many others.
Nashville, home of Country Music.
“Liberty acetate arrived in the morning.. and pressing began by 5 pm.“
Liberty’s East Coast/ West Coast distribution strategy still leaves “flyover country”. Columbia followed the geography: Indiana. Perhaps Tennesee was Liberty’s solution for central manufacture? Or perhaps Nashville had capacity.
Peak Vinyl Demand late ’60s
The end of 1966 saw the US vinyl pressing industry reaching total capacity – front page Billboard tells the story:
Hoffman illuminati decry Southern Plastics as a singles presser, principally Motown and Chess, but late in 1966 Billboard note Southern Plastics added 12″ LP pressing capacity through a 4,000 sq ft extension. Before that extension, nearby plant Dixie Record Pressing took care of 12″ needs, and they too have the similar pressing ring in common.
Vinyl pressing capacity is what Liberty needed, but capacity is what everybody wanted. Whatever Liberty’s plans may have been in 1965 , the following years saw Liberty shopping for capacity like everyone else. My working hypothesis is that Southern Plastics was a simple quality volume pressing operation, no messing about engineering, simply acetate/or metal and labels shipped in, records pressed and shipped out, hence these are all Van Gelder, with Keystone labels.
Which Liberty are the most sought-after issues?
In my opinion – who elses? – these mono reissues from the Blue Note back catalogue, all RVG/Van Gelder master metal source and Keystone labels. I all but cried when I sifted through these – most would be unthinkable prices in their original form.
This were just from the sample, there are no doubt many more out there:
The last two illustrated above, with cover extract , were issued as radio stationpromos, which is likely how the 35 previously unissued Blue Note titles in preparation were promoted. (Many of those 35 would have been issued in their original NY labels and are not included in this “Division of Liberty” search).
The next most desirable to my mind are the new Liberty release title radio promos in mono, where the commercial release was entirely in stereo. Savvy collectors didn’t miss that opportunity.
AND THE LEAST DESIRABLE?
STEREO – FAKE or PRIMITIVE
The first original Blue Note issued in Stereo was 1554, Art Blakey Orgy in Rhythm Volume 1. Notwithstanding there was in some cases no two-track tape, titles below this number were reissued as “Stereo”, at least that’s what it says on the label. In these examples only one seller made any mention of Van Gelder, which leaves me no wiser as to provenance. Possibly random, chance, but they are split half half between east and west coast pressings, and I didn’t find any title on both until well into the 4000 series. Possibly Liberty shared out the initial work to minimise “something”.
Most very early in 1500 series are West Coast pressings. Perhaps Research Craft were designated to do the faking, as they were often re-mastering titles from copy tape, requiring their “engineering expertise”.
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
The first title where I came across both east and west coast pressings turned out to be a real anomaly, as neither were Van Gelder! Bummer. The seller of the east coast (Keystone label? – everything right but the Side 1 has a serif! May be not..) was adamant – explicitly “not Van Gelder” . Obviously both he and I expected it to be.
New Liberty Blue Note releases are mostly if not always Van Gelder (where he recorded and mastered it) on both east and west coast pressings, so the system of production for new issues was different. New titles in the late ’60s were not always of as much musical interest as earlier work, to me at least.
The Van Gelder Runout Groove – close and personal
Van Gelder had another “signature” in the run-out, not just his initials or last name. Alex, intrepid vinyl investigator from Russia, has observed that Van Gelder and his Scully lathe cut a distinctive groove pattern of three concentric close-packed rings next to the label edge. Below left, a Van Gelder mastered Liberty, below right, re-mastered work of Research Craft, LA.
I looked at a good number of my RVGs and all bore the three-ring final grooves abutting the label. The non-RVGs had a variety of trail-off groove patterns but none like Rudys. Great. Because we like detail and information here, I looked more closely. Here’s the great man in the widely-seen photo (mono – chrome)
Now here’s life in colour, the beast itself. Though I know nothing about engineering, I feel strangely attracted to it, if only because I’ve spend more hours than I could count listening to what that machine makes, a Van Gelder master.
There were many makes of vinyl-cutting lathe – Neuman, Presto, Fairchild, who knows what others. Was the design of the trail-off groove a lathe function or an engineer preference? Who knows.
In a depth interview of Rudy by Mark Myers (the excellent Jazz Wax in my mailbox daily) was asked how he cut his masters. I’ll reprint a small part here because links on the Internet sometimes don’t last long, and there are some important insights here.
JW: How did you master the final tape?
RVG: Once the producer decided on the tracks, I’d splice those takes together in order on a separate reel. Then I’d transfer the final tape’s audio to a lacquer master disc using a Scully lathe I had purchased in the late 40s.
JW: How did that work?
RVG: I’d put a blank lacquer disc on the Scully’s platter and make adjustments for lines per inch and levels. Then I’d start the platter turning and lower the lathe’s stylus. The electrical impulses that were recorded on the tape would be amplified, moving through coil within the cutter head. That produced the side-to-side motion of the sapphire stylus as it cut into the lacquer surface. Long story short, the cutter head made a wiggly groove on the surface of the lacquer. Once the disc was finished, I’d ship it to the electroplating facility where the nickel stampers were made. Those would be used to press the run of vinyl LPs.
The signature three final run-out grooves never got a mention, or the “9M” client code, but I guess there’s depth, and then there’s depth.
Alex has some other finds , regarding back covers, off-centre spindle holes, and the RIAA curve, which we will revisit another day, otherwise this post will never get done. In the words of the great deadpan stand-up Steven Wright: ” You can’t have everything. Where would you put it?”