Blue Train! Batten down the hatches, buckle up, we are going on a Deep Dive! Mangled metaphor, LJC? It’s not a submarine or a plane, it’s a train OK. Woo-woo! Full steam ahead, Mr Sulu! Scotty: Captain, Captain, our stocks of coal are running low!!
One of most sought after “original Blue Notes” is the iconic Coltrane album Blue Train. Top copies now sell at over $6,000, hitherto the territory of rarest Mobley 1568. It is hardly a rare record, with over 3,500 auctions captured on Popsike, but in the face of supply and demand, even lesser editions command substantial sums, but top condition copies are at a serious premium.
Battle-hardened collectors and sellers know the insider signs of early provenance (“original 1st press, insanely rare, yada yada”), but as always, there is a lack of generally available information, though no shortage of Discogs entries – 224 entries when I last looked, not all reliable, like the New York 23 label entry illustrated with a back cover address BLUE NOTE RECORDS INC. Come on slackers, pay attention!
The significance of the NEW YORK 23 address on one label side only, either 1 or 2, is documented precisely by our trusty Guide Fred Cohen. But what of all the lesser offerings, how to navigate through “everything else”? I decide to launch an LJC Demystifying Blue Train Tour.
Initially, only mono editions, which was largely how the world looked at records at the end of 1957. Also, limited to the original Blue Note editions, before the transition to Liberty. The rest we can do later.
Challenge: tackle the connection between labels and covers, and the pressing history of that recording, during years in which Coltrane had signed to a series of other labels and become an even more major artist, which spurred more sales of Blue Train, the source of all those auction copies.
Method: comparative visual graphic evidence from sweating auction results, how else? I looked at around five hundred higher value auction of Blue Train to reach my conclusions, though I could still be wrong, call me out.
Most important, I have nothing to say about the music here, we all know the music is great. We can talk about the music another time.This is adult-strength hard-core vinyl collector business.
Blue Train Labels and Covers
The NEW YORK 23 suffix address appears on the labels of 18 albums released between March and November 1957, which just includes Blue Train at the tail end.
It also appears on a small number of new albums released in 1958 and 1959, which is a useful reminder of the loose relationship between the time of label printing, vinyl pressing and release. We don’t know how many 1577 NY23 labels were printed, or how long they remained in use at a later date, though the presence of mixed label (NY23 on only one side) sets suggest they were in surplus and actively running down stocks. All is not what it seems.
The first edition cover of Blue Train should have a blank spine Printed spines first appeared on albums released in April 1958, six months after the 1st Blue Train pressing. Blank spines did not feature in auction photos, just the sharpness of corners. They know how trophy hunters think, but the blank spine is the mark of original provenance. (UPDATE May 6, 2020 – ignore the “blank spine” issue, it seems all later copies of 1577 prior to Liberty are alse blank spine, and it seems, some other titles have no print on the spine, where Cohen suggests they should. It is a distraction for this purpose)
With Blue Note’s incorporation in late 1959, the company name changed to BLUE NOTE RECORDS INC. on the label and the address on the back cover, with the symbol ® below NOTE. Fine text gave way to more heavily inked text.
Shortly after, around May 1961, the non-deep groove pressing die began to appear at Plastylite, and the plain white paper sleeve was replaced by the promotional picture inner sleeve. Towards the end of 1961, Blue Note introduced the New York label address, which remained in use for the next five years.
Navigating the label changes is comparatively easy. What is more challenging is the covers associated with these labels. There are certain common features of covers associated with certain Blue Note label addresses, but some exceptions which defy simple association.
Not enough is known about cover manufacture: how cover stocks were held, and how new batches of printed cover fronts were married up to stocks of the rear jacket slick. If knowledge of vinyl pressing is opaque, knowledge of cover manufacture is completely absent. Just as old printed centre labels were used years later, it is possible the mono liner notes (address without INC) was used with later printed front cover art, could explain cover anomalies. And stocks of covers used to house later pressings.
Blue is a fickle colour, add a little yellow light or ink and you have green. An examination of vintage Blue Train covers associates a strong greenish tint in the very earliest and oldest jackets, then saturated blue, and then desaturated blue associated with the New York label period.
As significant is the colour of text for the album title, the John Coltrane artist name, and the catalogue number. The catalogue number varies between light grey, and a variety of tints, ranging from pale orange to butter. The artist name is at the yellow end of the spectrum on some of the very earliest pressings, or mid bright yellow green associated with NY labels, though there are anomalies – a bright green artist-name with an NY23 label.
Do not discount the possibility of old label stock, even NEW YORK 23 labels, being used in the later pressing of records, when the cover art print had moved on to later print runs. Manufacture is a moveable feast. Problem with auction photos, colour fidelity is impossible to vouch for.
Here is the best I could make sense of the relationship between the labels and their associated covers including, anomalies which may have unknown explanation. Restricted to reasonable quality pictures with legible text and reasonably neutral white balance, and proper information.
All BlueTrain covers manufactured up to 1964 are laminated, so the presence of a laminated cover only distinguishes them from much later re-pressings.And all records manufactured before 1966 have the same etchings and stamps, all are RVG, and “Ear”. None are helpful in dating manufacture, irrelevant.
Manufacture of record jackets, and lamination
The internet (and coffee table publishing industry) is host to dozens if not hundreds of sites and books dedicated to the art of record covers. Birka Jazz, LP Cover Lover, lots more, it is a cultural zeitgeist, a fascination with retro graphic design. I love covers too, but I wanted to know more about the actual manufacture of record covers, in particular, ’50s vintage processes, not modern computer electronica. We hold these marvelous artefacts in our collections, but know little of how they came to be made. There must be aspects of cover manufacture that offer valuable clues to the sharp-eyed vinyl detective.
After hitting search engines, seems I’m on my own, again. Aside from Printing Museums and Heidelberg Original machine enthusiasts, manufacturing LP covers was not thought sexy enough to document, only the cover art. If you find one, let me know. (I have viewed the Houghton site that manufactures Tone Poet covers, but it is not of use for this purpose)
Let’s take a quick detour on cover manufacture, before heading back to the search for The Blue Train. Keep your eye on the Departure Board! I don’t want to miss the train.
Construction of a 1950s LP cover began with a single, flat piece of cardboard, cut, scored, folded and glued to create a “jacket”. Very early Blue Notes used the “frame construction” method, up to April 1957, so not Blue Train.
The front cover art and liner notes were printed onto paper, which was then glued on to the cardboard cover, a process known in the industry as a “tip-on” jacket, as opposed to printing directly onto cardboard, “direct-to-board”, a cheaper method which was widely adopted in the 80s, before the Evil Plastic Jewel Case™ killed it off. Serve them right.
Paper has a different texture to card. It shows a seam where the paper is folded over and glued to the cardboard underneath, and where overlaps occur. Which is why handling a ’50s or ’60s tip-on jacket feels very different to handling more modern covers. The artefact is more tactile, gives your hands and eyes more information. And we like information, don’t we.
The manufacture of jackets involves automation, repetitive-task machinery, long conveyor belts, cutting and folding machines, in factories, not unlike record pressing plants, but working paper and ink. I worked as a student holiday job in a factory printing and fabricating packaging for the food industry. It was noisy, full of cheery banter, and sometimes lewd talk, between the sort of ordinary people that worked in factories.Sometimes you learned more important things from your holiday jobs than in the college term.
The more interesting part of vintage record cover manufacture is lamination. To laminate a cover, the printed paper artwork is covered with a thin sheet of cellulose acetate, a “natural plastic” derived from purified natural cellulose produced from cotton linters – fine, silky fibers from seeds of the cotton plant. The cellulose-layered cover art is heated in a laminating press, which melts the cellulose layer, and forces the cellulose acetate sheet into the imperfect surface of the printed paper – creating the dimpled reflective finish.
There, I enjoyed that digression. Now back to the Search for The Blue Train. Which platform are we looking for? Does it have a dining car? I’m famished.
How many pressings were there of Blue Train? The story told by Blue Note picture sleeves.
I have read sellers describing a copy as a “second pressing” or a “third pressing” because it had the next iteration in centre label corporate address, or addition of INC. This encourages thinking of pressing runs as a periodic large-scale manufacturing events, Omaha Beach. ” OK Plastylite guys, that includes you, Larry, shape up. Mr Lion wants 10,000 copies of Blue Train by the morning. Jump to it! And make sure you are using the latest address label. This Mr Lion’s second pressing! Don’t mess it up.”
I guess I thought that way initially myself, fitting the record manufacturing process around historical signposts like label changes. Then came an understanding of the use of stock and inventory over time, the printing of centre labels and jackets in batches, holding stock for further pressing, canibalising old stock before new, judiciously mixing old labels with new on one side, new records in old covers. I see it now as a more continuous process, lags and overlaps, consumable items used outside of their apparent historical place. Always read the label, of course, but some signposts are false friends.
Between 1961 and 1966, Blue note packed newly pressed records in picture inner sleeves, nine design changes over five years, effectively date-stamping manufacture as the records left the factory. Very few sellers include a picture of the front inner sleeve, either because it is missing, or because they don’t understand it’s potential significance (and a bit inconvenient, if it contradicts some claim) or they dismiss sleeves as result of swapping. Some are, some aren’t.
I found only a dozen out of hundreds of auctions looked at but they tell a story. I present you the world’s first inner sleeve column bar chart.
There is the evidence, imperfect, that copies of Blue Train were re-pressed continuously through the first half of the ’60s, as Coltrane rose to fame with Prestige, Atlantic and then Impulse . Eight of the nine unique inner sleeves are found with auctions of Blue Train, covering some 47W63rd and all NY labels. And a surge associated with 1963, the year of Ballads, Impressions, Johnny Hartman and Duke Ellington. We would know with more certainty, if the majority of ebay sellers included a picture of the inner sleeve if present, but this is as much as I can find.
Poor Curtis Fuller
The final forensic on the provenance of covers is the degradation of the photographic plate, or negative to print the rear jacket slick, on the face of trombonist Curtis Fuller.
The original issues give Curtis perfect clear skin. At the juncture of the Blue Note incorporation, adding the INC., poor Curtis suffers a facial growth, which by the Liberty era, resembled necrotising fasciitis – no don’t look it up, it is horrible.
Printing technology in the late ’50s was mostly either letterpress or offset lithography, which involved the creation of image of artwork and type on a flexible aluminium plate, which was wrapped around a roller and inked to transfer the image via an intermediate roller onto sheets of paper. Hence “offset”
It is my guess that the plate used for the mono liner notes of 1577 was damaged while being updated with the incorporated Blue Note address + INC. , affecting reproduction of Curtis Fuller’s forehead. The “Fuller Face” is a good quick way of identifying earlier and later covers.
Mystery train – the Blue Train”promo”
The 1500 series has no other example of records stamped like this “For Promotion” copy below. If Blue Note had acquired such a stamp, and used it to stamp promo copies, where are other titles “For Promotion”? The promo stamp helped earn the seller $3,420
Another mystery promo of Blue Train has popped up on Popsike, a Blue Train auction of a “SAMPLE COPY . No other photos in Popsike, who provide only the main auction picture . It sold for an extraordinary $6,343, a record for this record!
Perhaps it to has the “For Promotion” stamp, who knows. Release and recording year is stated as June 1960, which is the stereo release date, a simple mistake. The seller is from South Korea, which is possibly why he refers to the record as a “Sample Copy”, as was customary on Japanese white label issues, stamped “Factory Sample” .UPDATE May 2,2020
First time for everything, I stumbled on another title, 1540, which has “SAMPLE COPY” stamps on the back of the jacket. Impossible to verify.
The 1577 cover does not look like it belongs with other earliest copies. It actually looks more like the early ’60s covers. Assuming the vinyl is genuine New York 23, and I guess it must be, then it could stll be a later jacket, not from 1957 but later, before the back address INC was added. I did find a couple of early pressings where the jacket looks definitely a couple of years later.
Who can say there wasn’t a stock of pre-INC liner notes applied to later manufactured jackets? Mere speculation. A vinyl detective never rules out any possibility, though they may occasionally cut themselves shaving with Occam’s Razor, and spend the rest of the morning with a little piece of toilet tissue attached to their chin to staunch the bleeding.
Top twenty Blue Train auction prices
Now it’s your turn –
I would like to compile a reference set of jacket weight and bare vinyl weight for vintage copies of Blue Train covered in this Guide. I want your measurements. I phrased that badly, I want you to weigh your jacket and record bare. No, put your clothes back on, the record and cover bare, not you.
For context I need to know the label characteristics – address side 1/ 2, INC +® or not, Deep Groove x0, x1 or x2 – weight in grams of the vinyl, and weight of the jacket. And anything else worthy of note, you might even want to email some photos if you have a real trophy copy. I’ve designed a data collection form, at the end, below
Collector Rudolf has kindly started of with his treasured first edition:
Vinyl: 47W63/NY23, no INC no ®, DGx2: weight 180 gm
Jacket: no INC. – strong greenish tint weight 140 gm
My own copies;
Vinyl: 47W63 x2, +INC + ®, DGx2: weight 179 gm
Jacket: + INC. saturated blue,’62 inner: weight 121 gm
Vinyl: NY x2, +INC + ®, DGx2: weight 168 gm
Jacket: + INC. desaturated blue,’65 inner: weight 116 gm
I’ll pool the answers as best I can and publish. Over to you. You should be able to copy and paste the form into the comment field below this post, and edit the choices for your copy. Alternatively email to me.. Not tried this in a long time, hopefully it will work. If it doesn’t we will try again.
MONO pre-1966 BLUE TRAIN
|BARE VINYL WEIGHT (grams)|
|JACKET WEIGHT EMPTY (grams)|
|LABEL ADDRESS S1||NEW YORK 23||47W63rd||NY|
|LABEL ADDRESS S2||NEW YORK 23||47W63rd||NY|
|SIDE 1 INC. + ®||YES||NO|
|SIDE 2 INC. + ®||YES||NO|
|GROOVE S1||DG||no DG|
|GROOVE S2||DG||no DG|
|JACKET BACK ADDRESS||INC.||no INC|
|INNER SLEEVE SEE TYPE numbers||WHITE||PICTURES TYPE 1- 9|
And you thought surfing was all take and no give. Your Blue Train information and any thoughts, welcome.