You own a 78 RPM record or two, and you’re wondering if what you have is worth anything. I’ll tell you in this article!
Are 78 RPM records worth anything? 78 RPM records can be worth $25 to $50 and up to $37,000 depending on the condition, genre, and rarity of the record.
In today’s article, I’ll further unpack the value of 78 RPM records aka 78s. I’ll talk about the most valuable 78s and the ones that people really want. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know whether that 78 in your collection is worth a lot or a little!
What Is a 78 RPM Record and What Is Its Worth?
A Brief Look at the 78
Records come in three sizes, 7, 10, or 12 inches. They can play at different speeds or revolutions per minute (RPMs) as well, either 33 1/3, 45, or 78 RPMs.
A 78 RPM record contains about five minutes of music versus 20 minutes for a 33. The shellac covering of 78s makes them durable, but over time, they can become brittle. Thus, dropping a 78 is ill-advised.
You can’t play a 78 record in just any ol’ record player or turntable, but one capable of making the necessary rotations. A 78 record has very wide grooves that require the use of a specialized wide stylus.
What Is a 78 RPM Record Worth?
Since 78s have long since fallen out of production, that might make you wonder if they’re worth anything.
While the majority of these out of print records that spin at 78 RPM only hold a sentimental value, there are some 78 RPM records that that tick all the boxes of what can make a record exceptionally expensive.
Music resource Value Your Music shows that many 78s sell for as little as $5. The most valuable listed 78 on the site sold for over $35,000 (more on that to come!).
An article from 2009 in The New York Times about a jazz fanatic who collects 78s mentions that some 78 RPM records could be valued at up to $20,000, so it’s not like that ultra-expensive record from Value Your Music was a one-off.
The Factors That Influence the Value of a 78 RPM
How can one 78 sell for chump change and another for five figures? It all comes down to a handful of factors that I’ll discuss now.
Arguably the biggest factor by far is the condition of the vinyl.
A record that’s sealed or has been opened but kept in an aftermarket case is all but pristine. That’s also the case if the record has never been played or has only been lightly played.
When I say lightly played, I mean the owner(s) spun the record a few times, was careful to avoid even hairline scratches, and always ensured the overall condition of the record and any packaging was kept in “Mint” or “Near Mint” condition.
Well, as much as you can reasonably do, that is. You’ll recall that each time you play a record, the vinyl itself degrades more and more, so a rare 78 with very limited if any play history is ideal.
A 78 that will fetch a high value should also have no scratches, dings, dents, warping, overt signs of wear, or any other damage.
Even if a 78 that would normally be quite sought after, becomes damaged, record collectors and music enthusiasts are not going to pay the full price for it.
Was this record produced only in the United States or Japan or was it manufactured globally? Was it sold everywhere, or did only a few stores carry it?
The more widely available a 78 is (or was since they’re not made anymore), then the likelier it is that you’re not the only person selling it.
If another seller’s 78 record is in better condition or is a different version, release or pressing than yours, then they can sell their vinyl for twice or thrice the cost of yours, sometimes more than that.
Even still, because the 78 is more widely available, even a person selling a pristine copy of the record would not earn a lot of money for it.
Now, if there are only five copies of a record left and that’s verifiable, then a seller who happens to own one of those five copies can indeed sell the 78 for a premium.
As I alluded to before, not all records (or all music nowadays either) get one release. If a 78 from a popular musician or popular band happens to only exist as a limited-edition realease, it’s going to be worth a lot more.
It’s common for a foreign release, or an exceptionally small run of the record that people have a hard time locating and purchasing to be valued much higher than the more widely available and mass produced versions.
It’s also worth mentioning that first pressings of records are often the more sought after releases. It’s not always the case but more often than not, the first pressing of a record ends up being the most elusive.
You may recall that I mentioned on the blog that most vinyl records are black.
These days, you’re likelier to see the use of colored vinyl to spruce up a record design.
Back in the days of 78s, the different colored records were usually issued to radio programmers to convince them to give the vinyl a spin. Back then, the colors would’ve likely only included yellow, green, or red vinyl records.
Plus, these versions of the record were often marked or had the corners of their sleeves clipped to denote them as promotional copies.
Technically, you’re not supposed to sell promotional copies, but that hasn’t stopped anyone, and thank goodness for all the vinyl collectors reading this that that’s the case.
When you combine the rarity of a promotional copy plus the colored vinyl, you have one very expensive 78!
Finally, the popularity of the artist is at play.
The days of the 78 were between 1898 and the end of the 1950s according to music historians.
In the 1950s, Elvis Presley was king, but acts such as Bobby Freeman, Ricky Nelson, the Everly Brothers, and Johnny Mathis were big names as well.
If you have a 78 by one of the more popular acts of the day, more people are going to be willing to buy it.
There’s also an opposite phenomenon that could be going on here. Vinyl records by lesser-known artists are rarer, and thus might be more appealing to some subset of collectors.
Just make sure you don’t go too obscure, as then only the staunchest music fans of that era would even know who you’re talking about.
What’s the Most Valuable 78 RPM Record in Existence?
So, keeping everything in mind from the last section, what exactly is the most valuable 78 that’s out there right now?
While it could change someday, as of this writing, the most valuable 78 RPM record in existence is Tommy Johnson’s “Alcohol and Jake Blues” produced by Paramount Records.
The record is the aforementioned 78 that sold for over $35k. According to Value Your Music, a copy was sold in September 2013 for $37,100.
Who is Tommy Johnson? Born in January 1896, Johnson made Delta blues music between the 1910s and the 1950s. He was a guitar virtuoso who also had a falsetto that some called eerie.
If you’ve heard of the story of selling your soul to the devil to become a better musician, that was the idea of Tommy Johnson.
He wanted to cultivate a persona that was supposed to be as fiendish as possible, so this completely fictional story slotted in well.
However, history has twisted the details, attributing the selling your soul to the devil tale with blues star Robert Johnson, who is not related to Tommy Johnson.
The “Alcohol and Jake Blues” 78 is exceedingly rare. It’s believed that only two copies exist, and John Tefteller–who forked over the $37k–now owns one.
According to a 2013 article in Fact Magazine, a music and arts publication, Tefteller planned to remaster and release the extremely rare vinyl.
However, in the many years since the purchase, it doesn’t appear as if that ever happened.
That doesn’t mean you can’t hear the song. It’s all over YouTube, so check it out below.
78 RPM Vinyl Records That Collectors Want
It’s not only Tommy Johnson’s “Alcohol and Jake Blues” that’s considered the pinnacle of ownership for 78 RPM record collectors. There are plenty of other very rare recordings that those with deep pockets seek out.
Here are some of them.
Robert Johnson – “Cross Road Blues” on Vocalion
I mentioned the very popular musician Robert Johnson before. His song “Cross Road Blues” was released on 78 by record label Vocalion in 1937.
This is the first pressing of the song, with the other side containing the tune “Ramblin’ on My Mind.”
Although “Cross Road Blues” was reprinted in 1990 as part of a boxset called The Complete Recordings, that has not diluted the value of the original pressing one iota.
In 2018, an OG 78 of “Cross Road Blues” sold for $26,000, notes Value Your Music.
Charley Patton – Various Releases on Vocalion
In The New York Times article I cited earlier, the writer mentioned that Charley Patton records could easily fetch $20,000.
Charley (or Charlie, depending on the source, and the musician himself preferred Charlie) Patton was believed to have been born in April 1891. He too was a Delta blues musician from Mississippi who is known as the Father of the Delta Blues.
Patton recorded many songs over his lifetime, first for Paramount and later for Vocalion. It’s the latter releases that seem exceptionally rare.
Long ‘Cleve’ Reed & Little Harvey Hull – “Don’t You Leave Me Here” on Black Patti
Unfortunately, not a lot is known about Long ‘Cleve’ Reed or Little Harvey Hull except that collectively, they were known as the Down Home Boys.
The group’s song “Don’t You Leave Me Here” was released on Black Patti Records, a Chicago-based record label created in 1927 by Mayo Williams.
Williams took the record label name’s inspiration from Matilda Sissieretta Joyner Jones, an opera singer who was often likened to Adelina Patti from Italy.
Black Patti was an incredibly short-lived record label, not even making it a whole year. In seven months, the label made 55 records, which is an amazing accomplishment!
Since this record and the label itself are so rare, with only one copy known to be floating around, a 78 like this easily sold for $16,799.