Record collecting takes many forms, from creating a sound-track for one’s life (!) through historical interest and preservation to the obsessively compulsive behavior of the truly addicted (this last include many discographers, I’m afraid.(2) I tend to fall into the middle ground somewhere, not caring how I get to hear the music, just as long as I do hear the music. For example, I wouldn’t trade away my first-born (and only) son for anything, not even the other Willie Brown on Paramount if it were ever to surface! I’d just like to hear it… what else is Johnny Parth for? 78, 45, LP, CD – I don’t care the format, just as long as I get to hear the music that I’d like to hear in decent sound. I do understand much of the collecting mind-set, though, and have even been temporarily caught up in the thrill of the chase myself.
During the sixties I did spend some time (and money) buying records, in part from hearing the singles played on the radio.(3) I had a college peer steer me towards a place on 14th Street in lower Manhattan where the gleaning turned out to be (especially in retrospect) absolutely marvelous. On that dirty boulevard (4) were two stores that were part of a small chain of NYC/NJ of a “five & dime” nature called H&L Green. One was on East 14th, the other on West 16th, and they had inexpensive dry-goods of all sorts, but that did nothing to distinguish them from all the other bargain stores in the area. EXCEPT, these two carried stocks of 45s that must have come from juke box suppliers/operators. I could tell this because many of the records loose in the bins had one side severely played while the other was in M- condition. Depending on unknown factors (the phase of the moon?), they sold for 19c each at some times, 9c at others. This was the same stock! And the price was not necessarily the same in both stores!! It was worth the walk between them, though.
That was how I accumulated the bulk of my collection of relatively contemporary blues 45s in the early sixties at really cut-rate prices. I’d paw through them all in the bins and make large piles, cull out the badly worn ones (unless there was no other copy) and keep one copy for myself in the best possible shape… often both sides were near-mint. Such wondrous curios came into my possession – Excello, Chess, Cobra, Checker, Artistic, Bobbin, Ivory !!! My god, if I’d known then what I know now, I’d have bought ten times as many and sold the rest (but my parents would have objected even more!). It was at H&L Green that I saw copies of Albert King’s “Don’t Throw Your Love on me So Strong” on the Bobbin label; I already had found one on King at an earlier date and didn’t bother to duplicate it. What did I know then?! In retrospect, it makes sense that it would be so (no matter how many say that I am mistaken)… King must have picked it up from the initial Bobbin success. But that is where much of my quality and most of my quantity regarding 45s came back then, and in a very short span of time
For additional quality, another stop in NYC was at Arcade Music, underground in the tunnels connecting the ground level with the various subway (underground/UK) lines around 42nd Street and 7th and 8th Avenues. This was a proper, albeit small and cramped, record store with their stock organized in browser bins (both 45s and LPs). There I could talk with the guys working there (Black or Hispanic), they would often play stuff for me if they were not too busy, and life was still civilized in the naked city. Of course, one paid full price there, usually something less than a dollar for singles, around two to four for LPs.
After a time, I became more adventurous and took the “A” Train up to 125th Street into the heart of Harlem… this was about 1962/63. Besides The Apollo Theater, there were a number of stores on that street that sold to the local public that I could visit. Danny’s Record Shop, Rainbow Records, and Bobby’s (Robinson) Happy House of Hits were the main ones for me and I became a known, regular customer… that odd White gut who bought blues records! Danny’s was owned and operated by Danny Robinson, Bobby’s brother and owner of his own labels that included Vest and Fling. His store was located well east of The Apollo, in the vicinity of The Celebrity Club that I have mentioned in a previous one of these (O&S #27), and the source of my first published writing in BU ca.1964 – both being on the North side of 125th Street, the proverbial sunny side of the street! His brother Bobby’s place was then a block and a half west of The Apollo and also on the same side of the street. Both were relatively small spaces (Bobby had a basement under a lift-up floor section for storage) and Bobby always had a large speaker cabinet (3’x1 1/2’) outside his shop on the sidewalk (pavement/UK). This was often how he tested the marketability of his possible new releases for his various labels… taking them to the street and the people, literally, and seeing how they responded to them in real life. Grass roots market research! And Bobby was always good for a story or two… he has always loved the music that he recorded over the years, unlike most record business moguls – certainly missing in the upper reaches of the business today.
Rainbow Records was on the South side of 125th, just a bit east of The Apollo and was a large store with rows of browser bins for LPs on the left side of the shop, with counters to the right, going back to for an “L” near the back of the store – the discs (45s and LPs) were behind the counter). They were more formal than either Robinson one-man operation, but still were pretty relaxed. An employee I found out later was one Teddy McRae (a/k/a Mr. Bear), now known to me as a tenor sax player and singer of mild note. I would ask him for advice from time to time and he would play from albums to help me to choose my purchases – the only one I remember turning down was Cecil Gant on King; I thought the voice was too strange! I realize now that I should have interviewed McRae, but my first attempted interview came about in late 1964 with B.B. King at The Apollo (O&S # 33, 56). By then I was a graduate student in New Brunswick, NJ going for a Masters in zoology in continuation of my biological bent (and still trying to get into medical school). That interview was the result of wanting “something completely different” to balance out the intense academic/scientific life I was otherwise leading.
In New Brunswick there was/is a Black neighborhood and I wandered there from time to time, finding a combination shoe shine/repair parlor and record store – 45s only. It was in a basement frontage of a semi-main street in town: there were steps up to the front porch – one got into the shop by going under them. There that I stumbled upon some nice folks who were a bit puzzled by my presence, but took it in stride. That’s where my copies of singles by Guitar Nubbitt (5), Little Red Walter, and Larry Johnson (yes, THAT one… for Bobby Robinson) came from!! In the immortal words of Thomas A. Waller, “One never know, do one!”
- (1.) LOST IN MUSIC: by Giles Smith – Picador (1995) London.
- (2.) Oddly enough, there are few women in this last grouping… I don’t know why. Secret Men’s business?
- (3.) O&S # 29.
- (4.) Lou Reed
- (5.) That was my original source for Mike Leadbitter and the BU crew getting both Guitar Nubbitt, and Alabama Watson 45s on Bluestown back in those days. I never could figure out how and why this shop obtained them – maybe the owner just liked that sort of stuff and had friends or family in Boston to supply him.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM