Glory days of EPs
If, like me, your music buying days began in the late 50s, you probably have fond memories of the extended play record – or the EP as it was popularly known.
For those whose budget would usually only stretch to singles, albums were an exotic beast, generally only glimpsed in record store windows. But the EP was marginally attainable, at least on special occasions.
Generally retailing for around 10/9d in old money – which was a little less than the price of two singles – an EP would customarily have four tracks, although the odd one went to five or even six. And the content varied. It might be a collection of previous singles, or an extract of the choicest tracks from an album, or possibly material not available in any other format.
The luxurious presentation was also a big plus. While the EP was the same physical size as a regular 45 single, it came in a glossy laminated cover with a colour photo of the artiste on the front and some liner notes on the back. Completely apart from the musical content, the whole thing had a touch of class.
My initial EP foray – Tommy Steele’s Singing the Blues – was financed by the first pay-packet from a school holiday job. Although it wasn’t a hot new release, having already been on the market for the best part of two years, it did give me a chance to pick-up three popular A-sides plus a worthy B-side, all in one snappy package.
Around the same time, a friend was given Tommy’s The Duke Wore Jeans EP for his birthday, and another friend had Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Session, which had been sufficiently popular to make the NME singles chart in 1956.
At school, three of us discuss-ed pooling our resources to buy a Ricky Nelson EP that had Believe What You Say, My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It, Stood Up and Waitin’ In School. But the project came to naught, foundering on the issue of who would have primary possession.
The most universally regarded EP, in our 1958/59 circle, was probably Jailhouse Rock, with its five tracks including the title song and two real crackers – Baby I Don’t Care and Don’t Leave Me Now. The first of four Elvis EPs to sell in sufficient quantity to reach the singles chart, it entered the NME Top 30 on February 1, 1958, and climbed as high as No.18.
Mind you, we did have a complaint. The EP didn’t include Treat Me Nice, which we’d have gladly substituted in place of what we thought was the somewhat sappy Young and Beautiful.
For the record, the other three Elvis EPs that crossed over into the singles chart were Strictly Elvis, Follow That Dream and Kid Galahad. Assembled from previously issued material and starring the Red Foley tearjerker Old Shep as its lead track, Strictly Elvis was released in December, 1959, and quickly proved extremely popular. The other two were 1962 issues featuring movie material not released in any other format.
Cliff Richard was another
artiste who was extraordinarily prolific, sometimes putting out as many as five or six EPs in a given year. Obviously, most of these were just a repackaging of single or album fare, but more than 40 songs were unique to the format.
By far the most successful Cliff EP was Expresso Bongo, which was released in December, 1959, and crossed over into the singles chart the following month. By the end of 1960, British sales had passed 178,000. And with the help of reissues like the 1980s Dutch 12” version, the global number eventually went over the million mark.
Of Cliff’s special purpose EPs, 1961’s Dream was the most memorable. Although the phrase wasn’t in normal currency at the time, it was essentially a concept release, featuring treatments of four standards performed in a style different to anything he’d done before.
As a musical moment, the EP worked on all levels, Cliff’s vocal assurance being complemented by the Shadows’ uncluttered acoustic arrangements, two of which – I’ll See You In My Dreams and All I Do Is Dream of You – had a cool, mildly jazzy flavour. Given everyone’s age at the time of recording, the whole thing had a commendably sophisticated sensibility.
The Shadows were also formidable extended play sellers in their own right, racking up more than 460 weeks on the Record Retailer’s EP chart between 1961 and 1966. Two particularly stand out, consisting as they did of material exclusive to the format.
The Shadows: their very first EP, was released in January 1961, and quickly acquired legendary status with fans. In keeping with the then current popularity of Western films and TV shows, it consisted of four tunes in the Western theme style.
Two of these – themes from Shane and Giant – were actually from Hollywood movies, with the other two being home-grown efforts inspired by the genre. Writing under a pseudonym, the Marvin-Welch-Harris triumvirate contributed Shotgun, while Mustang came from Jerry Lordan and Thomas Mould.
The following year brought the second standout EP, courtesy of the courtroom film drama The Boys. This time, the Marvin-Welch-Bennett combination wrote three pieces, and Bill McGuffie’s Sweet Dreams rounded out the set. Bruce Welch may have described the rollicking title track as “FBI Mark 2,” but it has remained very popular over the decades.
Two other EPs come to mind as having special prominence during those early days. One of them was a surprise hit and the other was predictable.
The surprise seemed to arrive out of nowhere in the spring of 1959. Based on a novel inspired by Elvis being drafted, Idle On Parade was a low-budget British film comedy, featuring the relatively unknown Anthony Newley, an actor with absolutely no pop singing profile. Then, suddenly, an EP of the film’s songs was in the singles chart, the ballad I’ve Waited So Long was a big hit, and Newley was a hot recording star.
Helen Shapiro’s big EP was more predictable, coming as it did at the very peak of her popularity. Released in November 1961, it was made up of standards like Goody Goody and After You’re Gone. And powered by a reputed advance order in excess of 60,000, its sales were strong enough to make a dent in the lower ranges of the singles chart.
Of course, the 1963 advent of the beat group boom brought acts like The Beatles and the Searchers, and also put EPs into the singles chart. But with the album era dawning, the glory days of extended play were coming to an end.
Still, those of us who were there have fond memories.
A native of Dublin, Pat Murphy now lives in Toronto, Canada.