On May 23, 2012, these 25 recordings were added to the National Recording Registry.
Note: This is a national list and many of the items listed are housed in collections across the country. The Library of Congress does not currently hold copies of all the recordings listed.
Recordings are listed in chronological order:
Edison Talking Doll cylinder. (Nov. 1888)
Few, if any, sound recordings can lay claim to as many "firsts" as the small, mangled artifact of a failed business venture discovered in 1967 in the desk of an assistant to Thomas Edison. This cylinder recording, only 5/8-inches wide, represents the foundations of many aspects of recording history. It was created in 1888 by a short-lived Edison company established to make talking dolls for children, and it is the only surviving example from the experimental stage of the Edison dolls production when the cylinders were made of tin. As such, this recording of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star," as sung by an anonymous Edison employee, is the earliest known commercial sound recording in existence. It is also the first children's recording and, quite possibly, the first recording to be made by someone who was paid to perform for a sound recording. Due to its poor condition, the recording was considered unplayable until 2011 when its surface was scanned in three dimensions using digital mapping tools created at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and developed in collaboration with the Library of Congress.
"Come Down Ma Evenin' Star." Lillian Russell. (1912)
"Come Down Ma Evenin' Star" is the only surviving recording of Lillian Russell, one of the greatest stars the American musical stage has ever known, a versatile performer at home in operetta, burlesque and vaudeville whose personal life often generated as much publicity as her performances. Born in 1861, she was a star before movies and recordings, which in their early days could not do justice to her famous beauty, voice, style and stage presence. "Come Down" was her signature song. She introduced it in the 1902 burlesque review "Twirly-Wirly," parodying the nouveau-riche society figure she had become, but investing it with a poignancy that reflected its troubled history. The song was written by her former music director John Stromberg, who committed suicide over the pain of chronic, untreatable rheumatism hours after finishing it. Russell recorded it in 1912, but it was not released. In 1943, rare record dealer Jack L. Caidin found a lone test pressing of it, inscribed by Russell herself, and released it on his own specialty label, providing us with a brief echo of the Lillian Russell phenomenon, and a fleeting glimpse into nineteenth century American theater.
Image Caption: Lillian Russell; Image Credit: LOC.
"Ten Cents a Dance." Ruth Etting. (1930)
Singer Ruth Etting was one of the first great singers of the electrical era of recording, the period after the mid-1920's when the microphone replaced the acoustic recording horn. As with the best of the male crooners of the period, Etting's vocal delivery was artfully understated and personal. In the words of popular music writers Phil Hardy and Dave Laing, Etting, "[b]y turns peppy, fragile, and gallant...evinced the contradictory spirits of America in the Depression: sometimes beaten down, sometimes bearing up, whenever possible blithe." All these characteristics are evident in her recording of Rodgers and Hart's "Ten Cents a Dance," recorded only two weeks after Etting introduced the song in the musical "Simple Simon."
Image Caption: Ruth Etting; Image Credit: LOC.
"Voices from the Days of Slavery." (1932-1975)
In 2002, the American Folklife Center created the online presentation"Voices from the Days of Slavery,"gathering together 24 interviews with former African-American slaves conducted mostly between 1932 and 1941 and across nine Southern states as part of various field recording projects. During this period, thousands of slave narratives were also collected on paper from by WPA workers, but these are the only known audio recordings of former slaves. As historian C. Vann Woodward said of the WPA narratives, these recordings "represent the voices of the normally voiceless," but with all the nuances of expression that written transcriptions cannot reproduce. They recall aspects of slave life and culture, including family relations, work routines, songs, dances, and tales, as well as their relationship with masters, punishments, auctions, and escapes. They recount experiences of the Civil War, Emancipation, and Reconstruction. One interviewee worked for Confederate President Jefferson Davis, as did his father and grandfather. These are fragments of history, and reflect the technical and social limitations of the recording sessions, but the voices of these ex-slaves provide invaluable insight into their lives, communities, and the world of slavery they left behind.
Image Caption: Uncle Bob Ledbetter; Image Credit: American Folklife Center.
"I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart." Patsy Montana. (1935)
Singer Patsy Montana's signature song, "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," was written at a time in 1934 when she was feeling lonely and missing her boyfriend. Montana recorded the song a year later when Art Satherly, of ARC Records, needed one more song for a recording session with the Prairie Ramblers. Her song's lively, quick polka tempo and yodeling refrain, and Montana's exuberant delivery, resulted in it being requested at every performance; it became one of the first hits by a female country and western singer. A popular performer on the WLS radio program "National Barn Dance," Montana was the soloist with the Prairie Ramblers, a group that successfully melded jazz and string band music. Montana's film appearance in a Gene Autry film, "Colorado Sunset" in 1939, introduced her to a wider audience, and her independent air, high-spirited personality, and singing style quickly secured her popularity as a singing cowgirl. Patsy Montana was named to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1996.
Image Caption: Patsy Montana; Image Credit: LOC.
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"Fascinating Rhythm." Sol Hoopii. (1938)
In the 1890's, Hawaiian musicians began playing open-tuned guitars flat in their laps, fretting the strings with steel to produce distinctive sliding tones. The style soon reached the mainland United States, and when young Sol Hoopii arrived in California in 1924, the Hawaiian steel guitar was a mature and demanding instrument with national popularity. Hoopii emerged as its greatest exponent, applying it to traditional hulas, ragtime, jazz, and pop. He and his peers influenced blues and country slide guitarists, and Dobros and pedal steel guitars are descended from the Hawaiian model. Hoopii switched to electric guitar in the 1930's and, on "Fascinating Rhythm," he displays formidable technique, deftly mixing a chord solo and bass runs into a swinging improvisation on the Gershwin standard, departing far from the main melody, with beautiful tonal variations throughout.
Image Caption: "Master of the Hawaiian Guitar" lp jacket; Image Credit: Rounder Records.
"Artistry in Rhythm." Stan Kenton. (1943)
That Stan Kenton led a jazz orchestra, not a dance band, is obvious from the first notes of "Artistry in Rhythm." Though he composed "Artistry" in 1941, Kenton was unable to record it until 1943 because of the ban on recording imposed by the American Federation of Musicians over royalty payments. The music stood out then and its freshness remains obvious to listeners today. This was no smooth, melodic song intended to be played to swaying couples in the big band ballrooms, but a complex, jazz concert piece. Arranged as well as composed by Kenton, "Artistry in Rhythm" exhibits traits that are typical of his work: an aggressive sound, innovative for the layering of one section of the orchestra playing over another, then another layer over both. As one reviewer observed, Kenton's music "was always controversial, but never sleepy."
Image Caption: Stan Kenton; Image Credit: Capitol Photo Archives.
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New York Philharmonic debut of Leonard Bernstein. (Nov. 14, 1943)
On November 14, 1943, 25-year-old Leonard Bernstein, then the little known assistant conductor of the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, made his conducting debut with the ensemble as a last minute substitute in unenviable circumstances. Guest conductor Bruno Walter was sick, regular conductor Artur Rodziński was hundreds of miles away, and the concert was to be broadcast live across the country by CBS Radio. Bernstein met briefly with Walter, but had no time to rehearse. Concertgoers and radio listeners were moved deeply as Bernstein led the orchestra through the program. After the second piece, he was brought back to the podium four times and excitement continued to grow. In Boston, Bernstein's mentor Serge Koussevitzky dictated a telegram: "Listening now. Wonderful." Bernstein's triumph made the front page of the next day's "New York Times" and was reported across the country.
Image Caption: Leonard Bernstein; Image Credit: LOC.
"Hottest Women's Band of the 1940s" (album). International Sweethearts of Rhythm. (1944-1946; released 1984)
The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was an interracial all‑women jazz band formed in the late 1930's at the Piney Woods Country Life School, a boarding school for African-American children in Mississippi. The band made very few commercial recordings but toured extensively in the 1940's, performing in Europe as well as at predominantly African-American theaters and can also be seen in several motion pictures. Professional musicians who joined the band include vocalist Anna Mae Winburn, Viola Burnside on tenor saxophone, and Ernestine "Tiny" Davis on trumpet. Rosetta Records, founded by Rosetta Reitz, was a record label dedicated exclusively to reissuing performances by female jazz and blues artists. Rosetta Records' International Sweethearts of Rhythm album, released in 1984, includes commercially recorded tracks by the band and excerpts from an appearance on the Armed Forces Radio Service program "Jubilee."
Image Caption: "Hottest Women's Band of the 1940s" lp jacket; Image Credit: Rosetta Records.
"Hula Medley." Gabby Pahinui. (1947)
Gabby Pahinui was a master of slack key guitar, a style originating in Hawaii. In slack key, one or more of a guitar's strings are loosened or "slacked" from the standard EADGBE format to create a different tuning, usually a chord that allows it to be played without using the fretboard. Often the thumb plays rhythm on the lower strings, while the fingers play the melody on the higher strings. Pahinui made some of the first modern recordings in this genre, including the lovely instrumental "Hula Medley" in 1947.
Image Caption: Gabby Pahinui; Image Credit: LOC.
"Indians for Indians." (March 25, 1947)
Originated by Don Whistler (a.k.a. Chief Kesh-ke-kosh), "The Indians for Indians Hour" was a radio show aired on WNAD at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma from 1941 until 1985. It was a weekly venue for Native American music and cultural exchange featuring guests and music from 18 tribes reached by the station's signal, including: Apache, Arapaho, Caddo, Cheyenne, Choctaw, Comanche, Kaw, Kiowa, Osage, Oto, Pawnee, Ponca, Seminole, Shawnee, and Wichita. Whistler allowed only-Indian music and no non-Indian guests unless they worked for Indian Services. This program, one of 320 known to survive, includes news of a recent pow wow and songs praising Indian war veterans sung by a group of Kiowa war mothers. Though the program was sometimes criticized for highlighting music and entertainment instead of issues, it nevertheless served as an important tool for generational sharing and the popularization and preservation of Native American culture. In 1946, "Indians for Indians" reached an estimated weekly audience of over 75,000, almost all of Native American origin. Whistler hosted the show until his death in 1951. Later hosts included Allen Quetone, Mose Poolaw, Clyde Warrior, Clyde Warrior, and Boyce Timmons.
Image Caption: Don Whistler; Image Credit: Western History Collections, University of Oklahoma Library.
"I Can Hear It Now: 1933-1945" (album). Edward R. Murrow and Fred W. Friendly. (1948)
"I Can Hear It Now" was an unlikely hit: a collection of speech excerpts and news reports from 1933 to 1945 featuring a wide array of speakers, from Will Rogers to Adolph Hitler. Columbia Records gambled on radio producer Fred Friendly's idea when a musicians' strike limited the recording of new music. Friendly, later president of CBS News, spent months locating and copying 100 hours of broadcast disc recordings, using newly introduced magnetic recording tape to create compelling montages. CBS Radio's Edward R. Murrow added star power as narrator and co-writer. "I Can Hear It Now" found Americans eager to relive their own history, and sold briskly on 78-rpm discs and in Columbia's new LP format. The ease of editing and recording on magnetic tape facilitated creating portions of the album that are now controversial, such as the fabrication of a break-in announcement of the Pearl Harbor attack, and the rerecording of a newscast to replace a damaged original. However, the recording was widely imitated and Friendly and Murrow produced two sequels, along with radio and television spinoffs.
Image Caption: "I Can Hear It now: 1933-1945" lp jacket; Image Credit: CBS Records.
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"Let's Go Out to the Programs." The Dixie Hummingbirds. (1953)
At the time of its release, "Let's Go Out to the Programs" was considered to be a novelty, but it now stands as a celebration of a golden age of African-American gospel music. In the fifties, high-energy quartets and quintets like the Dixie Hummingbirds played multi-artist shows known as "programs," where several top gospel acts pushed each other to the limit. Led by the legendary Ira Tucker, the Hummingbirds recreate such a program in less than three minutes with striking but good-natured imitations of four gospel groups: the Soul Stirrers (with their young lead singer, Sam Cooke), the Blind Boys of Mississippi, the Pilgrim Travelers, and the Bells of Joy. The Dixie Hummingbirds continue to perform today, led by Ira Tucker, Jr.; younger singers carry on the legacy of the Soul Stirrers, while original members of the Bells of Joy still sing in their home of Austin, Texas.
Image Caption: The Dixie Hummingbirds; Image Credit: MCA Records.
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"Also Sprach Zarathustra." Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. (1954, 1958)
Richard Strauss's "Also Sprach Zarathustra" was recorded several times during the 78-rpm era but had to wait for magnetic tape, superior microphones, and advances in disc mastering for its extremely wide dynamics to be fully captured as recorded sound. The dawn of high fidelity recording happily coincided with the beginning of the Fritz Reiner era at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, when the ensemble was hailed by Igor Stravinsky as "the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world." One of Reiner's first recordings with the CSO, "Zarathustra," was taped simultaneously in mono and stereo by two RCA Victor teams, though only the mono version was initially issued. The album's 1958 release in RCA's Living Stereo line a few years later showed just how great the recording and performance were, with the perspective and balance Reiner drew from the orchestra fully revealed.
Image Caption: "Also Strauss Zarathustra"" lp jacket; Image Credit: RCA Victor.
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"Bo Diddley." Bo Diddley. (1955)
Born Elias Otha Bates in Mississippi in 1928, Bo Diddley acquired his stage name after moving to Chicago as a child. He played guitar locally with a small group, drawing inspiration from the polyrhythmic song and music emanating from storefront churches, a pulsing blend that he distilled into the song "Bo Diddley," the A-side of his first single. Drummer Clifton James played the defining beat, and Bo's guitar and Jerome Greene's maracas added further rhythmic layers beneath the chanted couplets. Having introduced himself, he threw down the gauntlet on the B-side, "I'm a Man," a throbbing slow blues that, as simple as it seems, took nearly thirty takes to get down just right. It was also a major hit, and inspired Muddy Waters' answer song, "Manish Boy."
Image Caption: "Bo Diddley" lp jacket; Image Credit: Chess Records.
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"Green Onions." Booker T. and the MG's. (1962)
Booker T. & the M.G.'s were a rarity when they were formed in the early 1960's: a racially integrated rhythm and blues group. Formed as a house band for Stax Records, Booker T. & the M.G.'s were playing around in the studio in early 1962 when they came up with two catchy instrumentals. "Green Onions" was originally intended as the B-side to "Behave Yourself," but was quickly reissued as the A-side, then later, as the title cut to their first LP. Anchored by the rhythm section of drummer Al Jackson, Jr., and bassist Lewie Steinberg, "Green Onions" is propelled by Booker T. Jones' driving organ and Steve Cropper's stinging guitar.
Image Caption: "Green Onion" lp jacket; Image Credit: Stax Records.
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"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (album). Vince Guaraldi Trio. (1965)
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" introduced jazz to millions of listeners. The television soundtrack album includes expanded themes from the animated "Peanuts" special of the same name as well as jazz versions of both traditional and popular Christmas music, performed primarily by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. The original music is credited to pianist Guaraldi and television producer Lee Mendelson. Best remembered is the "Linus and Lucy" theme, originally composed by Guaraldi for an earlier "Peanuts" project, which remains beloved by fans of the popular television specials, those devoted to the daily newspaper comic strip, and music lovers alike.
Image Caption: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" lp jacket; Image Credit: Fantasy.
"Forever Changes" (album). Love. (1969)
Love was an integrated psychedelic band from Los Angeles that played an aggressively original mix of rock, folk, and blues, but the band was falling apart as they prepared for their third album, "Forever Changes." Leader Arthur Lee was alarmed and pessimistic about the state of the world, and was convinced his own demise was imminent, though he lived until 2006. His new songs were filled with unexpected shifts and rife with foreboding, though his message was ultimately about resolution and self-reliance in the face of uncertainty and impermanence. Two compositions by second guitarist Bryan MacLean, somewhat augmented Lee's musings, were no less striking and unusual. Rock was growing more electric by the day in 1967, but "Forever Changes" is essentially acoustic, with a restrained and supple rhythm section supporting the ambitious horn and string charts of pop arranger David Angel, making Johnny Echols' searing guitar solos are all the more memorable. The fusion of psychedelic, mainstream, and classical styles, now seen as a landmark, found few takers at the time, and Love soon disintegrated, though "Forever Changes" continues to loom large.
Image Caption: "Forever Changes" lp jacket; Image Credit: Elektra.
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Interview with Bruce Botnick, producer of "Forever Changes" (PDF, 110KB)
Studio 360 Feature External
"The Continental Harmony: The Gregg Smith Singers Perform Music of William Billings" (album). The Gregg Smith Singers. (1969)
Composer William Billings published six collections of his choral music between 1770 and 1794. His "New England Psalm Singer" (1770) was the first tune book devoted entirely to the compositions of a single American composer. Billings was largely self-taught, yet his a cappella choral writing, featuring the melody in the tenor, created an indigenous sacred music that expanded the musical language of America. While Billings was well known in his lifetime—his song "Chester" was nearly as popular as "Yankee Doodle" during the American Revolution—his work was largely forgotten for more than a century. Despite his having composed over 340 works, little of Billings' music was included in mainstream American sacred choral music collections after 1820. His musical style and some of his pieces, however, were kept alive within the Southern U.S. shape-note singing tradition. Following World War II, a generation of scholars and performers rediscovered his fresh and vigorous music. This recording by the Gregg Smith Singers, a sixteen-member choral ensemble dedicated to the performance of American music, helped re-introduce Billings' music to the world.
Image Caption: "Continental Harmony" lp jacket; Image Credit: Columbia.
"Coat of Many Colors." Dolly Parton. (1971)
Dolly Parton's autobiographical song, "Coat of Many Colors," affectionately recounts an impoverished childhood in the hills of Tennessee that was made rich by the love of her family. The song was instrumental in establishing Parton's credibility as a songwriter. Her voice uplifts the song with emotion and tender remembrances of her close-knit musical family. Parton has called "Coat of Many Colors" the favorite of her compositions because of the attitude and philosophy it reflects. Parton's prolific songwriting career has embraced many different musical styles, including pop, jazz, and bluegrass, as well as country. Dolly Parton was voted the Country Music Association's Female Vocalist of the Year for 1975 and 1976 and inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1999.
Image Caption: Dolly Parton; Image Credit: RCA Records.
"Mothership Connection" (album). Parliament. (1976)
"Ain't nothin' but a party, y'all" intones George Clinton on the title track of this lively and unbelievably rhythmic funk album. While this undeniably is a party record, it is also rooted in the deepest currents of African-American musical culture and history. For example, the words "Swing down, sweet chariot/Stop, and let me ride" are an unmistakable reference to the influential spiritual recorded by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The album was released in late 1975 shortly after the arrival to Parliament of saxophonist Maceo Parker and trombonist and arranger extraordinaire Fred Wesley. Like Parker and Wesley, bass player Bootsy Collins, dubbed by one critic a "bass deity," had played with pioneer of funk James Brown. Add to such assembled talent the classically trained Bernie Worrell whose synthesizer conjures galaxies of cosmic sound, but whose piano, as heard on the track "P-Funk," evokes the ethereal chords of jazz pianist McCoy Tyner. DJ, conductor, arranger and wild lyricist George Clinton oversees the whole, providing an amazing range of space characters (Lollipop Man, Star Child) outlandish vocabulary ("supergroovalistic," "prosifunkstication") and all-around funkiness. The album has had an enormous influence on jazz, rock and dance music.
Image Caption: "Mothership Connection" lp jacket; Image Credit: Polygram.
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Barton Hall Concert at Cornell University. The Grateful Dead. (May 8, 1977)
The rock band Grateful Dead was known for its eclectic style that drew on many genres of popular and vernacular music, an improvisational foundation, and a commitment to touring and "live" performances. The Dead was one of the few musical groups to not only allow, but encourage fans to record its concerts, offering tickets to a special "tapers" section at their shows. The organized trading of Grateful Dead tapes goes back at least to 1971 with the formation of the First Free Underground Grateful Dead Tape Exchange. Fans of the Grateful Dead will never completely agree about which of their over 2,300 concerts was the best, but there is some consensus about the tape of their May 8, 1977, performance at Barton Hall, Cornell University. The soundboard recording of this show has achieved almost mythic status among "Dead Head" tape traders because of its excellent sound quality and early accessibility, as well as its musical performances.
Image Caption: Flyer for Barton Hall concert.
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"I Feel Love." Donna Summer. (1977)
Brian Eno famously declared after hearing Donna Summer's single "I Feel Love" that the track would "change the sound of club music for the next 15 years." Summer wrote the song in collaboration with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Belotte, who felt that the song was supposed to represent the music of the future and should be entirely electronic. Consequently, they hired Robbie Wedel who brought four cases of Moog synthesizer to the session and which produced nearly all the sounds on the record, including synthesized bass drums and cymbals. Particularly notable was the bass line which Belotte has described as "a giant's hammer on a wall." When the thunderous sound was combined with Summer's breathy and ethereal vocal, the cut, as Eno predicted, took the clubs by storm. Partly through the involvement of Patrick Cowley, who made remixes of 15 and 8 minutes lengths, the song won particular popularity in gay dance clubs and soon achieved the status of an anthem in the LGBT community.
Image Caption: "I Feel Love" single sleeve; Image Credit: Universal Music.
"Rapper's Delight." Sugarhill Gang. (1979)
The Sugarhill Gang's infectious dance number from late 1979 might be said to have launched an entire genre. Although spoken word had been a component of recorded American popular music for decades, this trio's rhythmic rhyming inspired many MC's-to-be and other future rap artists. The album version of "Rapper's Delight" is an epic 14‑1/2 minute salvo of irreverent stories and creative word play. The song dates from hip-hop's infancy. As such, it does not address subject matter that has given rap music both positive and negative notoriety, but the song's inventive rhymes, complex counter-rhythms, and brash boastfulness presage the tenets of hip hop. "Rapper's Delight" also reflects an early instance of music sampling and a legal settlement; it draws its bass line and other features from Chic's 1979 hit "Good Times." As a result, songwriting credits for "Rapper's Delight" include that song's composers, Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, as well as Sylvia Robinson and the Sugarhill Gang (Michael Wright, Guy O'Brien, and Henry Jackson).
Image Caption: "Rapper's Delight" lp jacket; Image Credit: Sugarhill Records.
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"Purple Rain" (album). Prince. (1984)
Prince was already a hit-maker and a critically acclaimed artist when his sixth album, the soundtrack for his 1984 movie debut, launched him into superstardom. Earlier, he had played all the instruments on his records to get the sounds he wanted, but now he led an integrated band of men and women who could realize the dense, ambitious fusion that he sought, blending funk, synth-pop, and soul with guitar-based rock and a lyrical sensibility that mixed the psychedelic and the sensual. Prince experimented throughout the album, dropping the bass line from "When Doves Cry" to fashion a one-of-a-kind sound, and mixing analog and electronic percussion frequently. Portions of "Purple Rain" were recorded live at the First Avenue Club in Prince's hometown of Minneapolis, and the success of the album served notice that the Twin Cities were a major center for pop music as numerous rock and R&B artists from the region emerged in its wake. Like much of Prince's other work, "Purple Rain" was provocative and controversial, and some of its most explicit lyrics led directly to the founding of the Parents Music Resource Center.
Image Caption: "Purple Rain" lp jacket; Image Credit: Warner Bros.
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