Images courtesy of SU Special Collections Research Center
When you download digital music these days, the idea of music on a disc—let alone accompanying album covers and artwork—seems to be growing ever more remote. That’s quite a contrast from the World War II-era vision of a Detroit businessman named Tom Saffady, who launched Vogue records with the goal of blending high-quality sound, physical durability, and intriguing artwork on a series of 78 rpm records. From May 1946 to April 1947, Saffady’s Sav-Way Industries manufactured a series of 74 picture records, which featured original illustrations for each song, before going belly-up that August.
While picture records were not a new concept then, Saffady’s process for creating them was. His innovative method sandwiched an aluminum core between two paper pictures and coated it with vinyl. The records were sold for $1.05 in clear packaging, allowing customers to view the art. At the time, album cover art was just creeping into existence, and vinyl—an alternative to shellac—was still a few years away from its surge in popularity with the 33 rpm LP. “Hear your favorite artists at their finest with some of the most sensational improvements ever made in the history of phonograph records!” proclaimed a Sears Roebuck catalog ad that also touted the albums as “Unbreakable…Warp-Proof…Less Surface Noise…Longer Life…Illustrated.”
According to Jenny Doctor, director of the SU Library’s Belfer Audio Archive, Saffady was fascinated by automation. “He invented this way of pressing them that was supposed to stamp out records a lot faster, but in the end it never worked,” she says. “He tried to do too many new things at once.”
Last year, Belfer received a gift of 52 Vogue picture records from the late Lila Savada, the widow of Manhattan record shop proprietor Morton J. Savada, whose estate had previously donated more than 200,000 78 rpm recordings to the Belfer archive. Doctor finds herself captivated by the Vogue art and its role in marketing the product. “I’m interested in the idea that somebody felt you needed to have a visual to engage people in the audio,” she says. “We’re used to that now, but in the 1940s, the golden age of film before television, the visual was already starting to be predominant. I think that’s signaled by the Vogue picture disc conception.” Saffady had a stable of illustrators whose signed color pictures ran the gamut from edgy pulp and schlocky romance to cartoony. As for the music, there was big band (Art Mooney), jazz (Charlie Shavers), country (Patsy Montana), children’s, and even instructional rhumba lessons. “He didn’t get the big artists of the day,” Doctor says. “His artists didn’t have big hits until later. If he’d had a hit, it might have carried them financially through the hard times.”
One mystery that swirled among record collectors was whether future rock ’n’ roll star Bill Haley brandished his guitar for the Down Homers on a couple of their Vogue recordings. The country group’s leader, Kenny Roberts, who was known as “The King of the Yodelers,” acknowledged Haley played with the band, but not on the Vogue discs. Roberts also reported that his first recorded yodeling was on the group’s Vogue single “Out Where the West Wind Blows.” Today, like Roberts, Vogue is gone, but not forgotten. As Belfer archivist Patrick Midtlyng, who accessioned SU’s collection, notes, “The Vogue picture record is a unique slice in the history of the record business.” —Jay Cox