For those of you too young to remember K-Tel record commercials, they were ubiquitous and played so often that I can still recite some of the over-the-top sales pitches from memory. Above is a very nice video compilation of some of the best K-Tel commercials. Below is an excerpt of a mini-history of K-Tel, written by a man named Ray Chelstowski and reprinted with no permission whatsoever from him. (Mr. Chelstowski, please let me know if you want me to pull this post down and I will–though I certainly hope not, given the high quality of your summary of the fondly remembered K-Tel records.)

“K-Tel was founded by Canadian Philip Kives, a salesman who started his career selling cookware, iceboxes and other items and pitching wares in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In 1962, he hit upon the idea of selling a Teflon-coated frying pan on TV in what would eventually become known as the “infomercial.” Kives later expanded into selling other items, including the famous Dial-O-Matic and Veg-O-Matic food choppers.In 1966, K-tel released its first compilation album, 25 Country Hits. It quickly sold out and prompted the K-tel follow-up, 25 Polka Greats. This one sold 1.5 million copies in the United States alone. The hits kept coming and included The Super Hits series, The Dynamic Hits series and The Number One Hits series. K-tel assembled greatest hits from the latest, greatest artists in one single package. There were even thematic compilations like Goofy GreatsSuper BadSuper Bad Is BackSouled OutSummer Cruisin’ and a 1950s look-back, Rock ’n’ Roll Show.The K-tel music compilations were a quick, very cheap way to boost your music collection or hear your favorite pop hits on demand. A record could go for $3.99. The commercials were kitschy and brilliant. During the 1970s and 1980s, these catchy broadcast advertising spots were impossible to miss, and they helped define that era’s television experience. For the voice-overs, Kives hired Bob Washington, the morning man of CKRC-AM, one of Winnipeg’s three Top 40 stations. Back in the day Washington’s voice was as distinct as the K-tel ad copy he would read. I can still hear him voice, “Twenty-two original hits! Twenty-two original stars!” and the tagline, which was always some variation of, “LP, $4.99! Tape or cassette, $5.99!” These ads remain one of the many great pop culture memories I have from my youth.

But it wasn’t all great. In order to squeeze as many hits as they did into a single record (often 11 per side), K-tel often cut songs down, making them shorter than their original run time. And no song would run any longer than 2:30. In order to secure the rights to the bona fide hit records, many labels forced K-tel to also accept lesser-known songs as part of the licensing deal. That would always lead to some head scratching as you browsed through a particular record’s track list. Even on some of the ads where the actual bands spoke about how “explosive” a collection was, you could see them grimace as they called out some of these wild-card additions.

The records weren’t of high quality, either. They were terribly thin so the grooves couldn’t be cut deep. This impacted the sound quality. The bass was weak, the midrange was gritty, and the high end often entirely absent. The grooves were also cut very close to each other, making even the smallest scratch a guaranteed spot for the record to skip with each spin. In a way we all accepted the poor production quality because when you got right down to it, the record was really a sampler. Anything that caught your ear was probably going to prompt you to go out and buy that band’s actual record. Considering how important sound fidelity is to a good portion of record collectors, it’s a wonder that even back then they would have been all that forgiving of the products’ shortcomings.”


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