This Week: K-Tel Classics

Although '70s nostalgia has lately been wrung dry of its charm, there are several artifacts from the era that still wield a certain fascination. For any record collector rummaging through a cardboard box of albums at the thrift store, one such relic is the K-Tel Records LP. With its unholy union of hyperbolic album-cover art and AM radio pop hits, K-Tel was an icon of schlock for an entire generation growing up in the '70s and '80s. K-Tel's compilation records of hot hits were very popular at the time, though no self-respecting Led Zep fan would have ever admitted to owning one. Today, an encounter with a K-Tel album inspires one to pause and to wonder: Did we really buy them? And why? Most record collectors then typically flip right past it and on to the assorted Anne Murray LPs. But not Lisa Wheeler. Instead, the Austin, Texas resident and radio producer experienced an uncontrollable urge to actually collect K-Tel records. While public admission of such an obsession would leave most vinyl hounds aghast, Wheeler bravely decided to reveal her addiction at her K-Tel tribute site, It features a large gallery of cover art and a newsletter devoted to K-Tel stories, all wrapped up in an appropriately K-Tel-like design.

What is K-Tel Records?

K-Tel Records was founded in the early 1960s by Winnipeg, Manitoba’s own Philip Kives, who had been successful at selling non-stick fry pans in Atlantic City and in Australia. When he came back to Canada he decided to try his hand at selling record albums. By 1966 K-Tel was releasing dozens of various-artists albums with everything from country to polka to rock. While his idea to squeeze 20 (or more) songs by 20 (or more) artists on one 12" album was not new, he took the concept a couple of steps further–he sold them cheap and he sold them on television.

K-Tel is famous for its TV ads. What made them so different?

Back then you just didn’t hear popular music used when it came to pitching a product on television, so when his commercials would come on you were instantly aware that it wasn’t your typical pitch for a cold medicine or a TV dinner. They would also instantly start off very hard sell. The announcer would catch your ear immediately with an enthusiastic "20 Original Hits, 20 Original Stars," and then you would be reeled in instantly. It was brilliant.

What was the first K-Tel record you ever owned?

This was one of those "I’ll never forget" moments in my life, which in retrospect, in and of itself, is kinda screwed up. Anyway, it was 1973 and I had $5 burning a hole in my pocket, so I rode my magenta Schwinn to Gibsons in search of something that I’m sure, at the time, a 12-year-old girl couldn’t live without. So I got to the store and there was this huge display of albums, with everything from Don McLean to the Jackson 5 tempting my Abraham Lincoln and me. I was actually a big Elton John fan, so I headed to the "J" section. But before I made it to my intended destination my eyes caught sight of something fantastic, literally. An album called Fantastic, with not one, but TWO Elton John songs, as well as 20 other hits, from other artists, for the low, low price of $4.99!

Did you immediately develop an affinity for K-Tel Records,
or did this happen later in life?

I really didn’t bond with K-Tel records for several years after I bought that first one. I went through a series of music genres, as we all do, before I realized that '70s pop was pretty cool after all.

When did you start seriously collecting K-Tel records?

Wow–serious and K-Tel records in the same sentence! You know that there are a lot of people who will debate you on whether or not what I collect is, in fact, "serious" collecting! Actually, about 10 years ago I was going through my vinyl and discovered that I had 80 K-Tel albums, which kind of shocked me. I was already a huge record collector by that time, collecting other genres, so I began to wonder just how many K-Tel albums there were out there. It just took off from there.

How many do you own?
How many titles are there in existence?
Do you know if yours is the biggest collection?

I have over 600 at last count and it just keeps going and going. My downfall is finding the same titles from different countries, or the same title with a different label color or some other neurotic thing. As for how many K-Tel albums there are, I think Carl Sagan said it best with "billions and billions." No, in all seriousness, since K-Tel issued compilations worldwide, you are literally talking thousands of albums out there, so I haven’t even come close to the having them all, which is making my bank scared. I really don’t have anyone to compare my collection to. It’s not like Beanie Babies, where you have a ton of collectors out there that are more than happy to tell you how many they own and what their latest finds are. It’s a sad, lonely life collecting K-Tel… Actually, all joking aside, I’ve run into one other collector who has a very impressive collection.

What is it about K-Tel records that made you want to collect them?

To be honest they are cheap and plentiful, and that’s a lethal combination when you collect anything. You can go into any Goodwill or garage sale and find a box full of them for $1. I mean, the fact that I keep finding so many that I don’t currently have is just amazing to me.

What will you do if you actually collect all of them?

I’m nowhere near having that happen anytime soon, so I can’t even imagine what I’ll do or how I’ll react when the last piece of the puzzle is found. I guess that’s what also keeps me going: the thrill of the hunt.

Are these records becoming more collectible?
Are any particular titles worth more than others?

You know, it’s funny–serious record collectors will tell you that K-Tel records are the bastard step-children of vinyl collecting. I mean, audiophile purists will tell you that the quality sucks or the songs are too condensed and they aren’t worth dropping a needle on them, and that’s fine. However, in spite of all of that, I’ve seen a K-Tel album sell for $100 on eBay, so I guess it's all a matter of what you want to have in your life. There’s instant nostalgia with K-Tel and I’m finding that those who collect them are mostly 40-something baby boomers, just like me. To answer your question, I think in terms of monetary worth, the most collectible K-Tel records are the ones that mean the most to you personally.

Do you like them more for their music, or for their cover art?

With me it’s always been the music. When I was younger, the beauty of a K-Tel album was that you could just put it on the turntable, walk away and viola, you could hear 10 (or more) different songs without having to turn the disc over. It was like having your own radio station on your stereo. The older I got, and the more different ones I found, it was the thrill of discovering new music I had never heard before. Four months ago I didn’t know who (Canadian country singer) Wilf Carter was. It’s opened up my ears to some really good music.

Which album has the cheesiest cover of all, in your opinion?

That’s one of the most asked questions I get and without a doubt the Mini Pops have to rank up there. This was a group of British children who did their own renditions of popular rock and pop songs. The album covers had them made up to look like the "adult" singers who made the songs famous in the first place. There is something disturbing about seeing a seven-year old dressed up like Boy George or the Stray Cats! And you just can’t read the word cheesy without mentioning William Shatner’s Captain of the Starship record. This Canadian-issued album features a live spoken word performance by Captain Kirk and the album cover shows a very serious looking William Shatner holding what appears to be a phaser rifle, but I swear it looks like a camera tripod!

How do you go about hunting for titles you don't own yet?

At first it was garage sales and Goodwill stores and that worked great, until I kind of drained the supply of all that I could find locally… and then I discovered eBay. Man, oh man let me tell you, that is a collector's wet dream in there. As far as unusual finds, last year I saw a still-sealed 1990 K-Tel album by a Minnesota garage band called The Litter. Now, this was a disc that I had never heard of and was never on my "want list," so it immediately piqued my interest. It was a re-issue of an album they recorded in '60s (Distortions) and only 1,000 of them were made, and I knew this had to belong in my collection. Bidding was pretty intense, and I ended up getting it for $30 (the most I ever paid for a K-Tel). So I get the album and discover that the seller was actually a member of the band, Tom Caplan. That was pretty cool.

Do you feel that the K-Tel legacy lives on today
with compilations such as Now That's What I Call Music!?

Oh you bet! The Now series and others like it have really made compilations cool. Back in 2000, the fourth installment of the Now series debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts, the first time that a non-soundtrack compilation had ever achieved that. That tells me that consumers still like the whole idea of music variety. And companies like Apple and even Wal-Mart are taking that concept a step further, by giving music buyers the opportunity to pick and chose their own compilations right from their computers.

What kinds of reactions have you gotten from your website?

The reaction to it has surpassed my wildest expectations. I’ve had almost 2.5 million hits in 15 months' time. For the most part, the e-mails I get are thanking me for the nostalgia. I don’t sell any of my albums, but that doesn’t stop people from asking how much I want for a particular one, or if I will dub one off for them. (I won’t.) I wanted it to also be a useful place for record collectors to come and actually see album covers and song listings. But wait–there’s more!! (Just had to put that in there somewhere.) I’ve added a search engine to make it easier to find your favorite singers and songs. You can find out, for example, just how many songs KC and the Sunshine Band had on K-Tel albums (41, so far).

What's your favorite K-Tel album?

You can never forget your first, and that was the Fantastic album from 1973 that I still own.


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