Trix Records… what a concept: a true, unintentional exercise in masochism, if ever there was one. In fact, it is all the fault of Chris Strachwitz, coupled with my own small degree of stubbornness and a large degree of naiveté. The story goes something like this… two, three, four.
In 1970, as mentioned before in these pages (O&S 35), I purchased a tape recorder so that I could do something besides chauffeur Bastin around the South East! So began my entrée into the roster of blues field-recordists, an extremely anonymous group of select individuals widely ignored by the “real” world. Truly a form of manic behavior, if not borderline masochism! Beginning with an “open mic” session at a party at Baby Tate’s house one Saturday afternoon in 1970, I began my on-the-job training in the art or craft of doing it right the first time (if at all possible). I gathered relatively controlled “field” recordings of Tate, his friend McKinley Ellis, Willie Trice, Richard Trice, Floyd Council & Rufus Jackson, Pink Anderson, Peg Leg Sam, Baby Brooks, Monroe Jackson, Providence Thomas, Tarheel Slim, and Eddie Kirkland. Not a bad haul for some six months’ work.
I then assembled some LP ideas on demo tapes and sent them off to the aforementioned Mr. Strachwitz out on the Left Coast for Arhoolie consideration – there being no better port-of-call for such acoustic stuff back then. Included were separate albums by Baby Tate, Eddie Kirkland, and Tarheel Slim, plus an anthology of SC material (“Baby Tate & Friends”). Chris got back to me, but he was interested in only one LP 2:1 split between Kirkland and Slim. Since I could determine no other common thread holding that concept together besides the fact that they “did” blues and I ran the tape recorder, I decided to do it myself. Ah, youth… and stupidity!! First off, I decided to produce some 45s, a more concrete way to spread the word to the world at large – or so I thought from the vantage point of my mid-Hudson vacuum. That’s how there came to be two singles, one by Kirkland, and one by Tate. I made dubs of the necessary four songs onto my mono Uher and sent the tapes off to Capitol Records Special Products in PA (Scranton, I think). They cut two reference acetates for me, which I duly approved: back came 1000 copies each of Trix 4501 and Trix 4502! That was easy!! Thanks, Chris… I guess.
With those two discs in hand I then went off to Memphis to attend the second meeting of independent record labels and distributors that was to become the trade organization known as NAIRD (now known as AFIM) to see what I could see (O&S 18). That gathering was very educational for a naïf like myself, and it also introduced me to many of the rogues and characters in and around the world of indie records in the seventies. I learned first that nobody was terribly interested in taking on any of the material that I had recorded, as each had their own pot to beat in the arena. There was a great deal of mild encouragement for me to join the illustrious fraternity with my own label, Misery loves company, or some such old saw.(1)
Having been advised that issuing a single LP was near suicide, as it would be lost in the sauce, would never get “out” there or be taken seriously by distributors. So by some unknown means (necromancy, maybe), I decided that four would be a nice, round figure to begin the release of Trix LPs… large enough to convince distributors that I was serious about it all, but not so many as to overwhelm them, either. A nice four-pronged attack, then, consisting of albums by Eddie Kirkland [solo] (O&S 49), Peg Leg Sam (O&S 16), Frank Edwards (O&S 3, 14), and Henry Johnson (O&S 17). That seemed to work OK, so I followed them within a year with another four releases: Willie Trice (O&S 9), Guitar Shorty [John Henry Fortescue] (O&S 41), Robert Lockwood (O&S 39), and Eddie Kirkland [w. a band] (O&S 50). After that, I went with pairs of releases, then individual albums up to a total of seventeen releases reaching up to issue #3319 [3313: Baby Tate (O&S 11), 3318; Maurice Reedus-el (O&S 40), 3320; John Cephas were never released].
Critically, they were all well received by what blues and jazz press I had access to in the mid-to-late seventies. Occasionally there would be a review in a newspaper on non-specialist magazine, and a few were actually covered in the major US music press (Billboard and Cash Box) of the day. Hog heaven to me. Of course, none of this mainly positive press translated into meaningful sales for the label, for I was pretty useless with regard to promotional ability. I recollect that I took out ads in BU and LB, as well as a couple of small jazz mags of the day. Promotional copies were sent out to writers that I knew or knew of, plus appropriate disk jockeys… sometimes I shipped promo copies “blind” to a station that I knew or figured played that sort of thing – usually college (university: UK) radio stations. And that was that. My biggest promotion was to do up T-shirts for the release of Lockwood’s “…does 12” album – these went to distributors to give to appropriate retailers or DJs in their region (local knowledge), but that was as high-powered and sophisticated as my marketing ability got!
Promotional copies of an album were (and probably still are) the cheapest form of advertising for a small operation. Each performer was also given 10% of what I pressed to do with they wished – it certainly did their standing in their community no harm. With Lockwood and Kirkland as working artists, they got more than 10% (and had their records pressed in greater quantities) to sell at performances… Eddie even flogged his 45! Most of my catalogue were people who didn’t play “out” very often, if at all, no matter how hard I tried. I had hoped that the records would generate jobs overseas or at festivals, but little of that nature transpired. Europe was still stuck in the Delta-to-Chicago rut… any straying from that axis headed to the Left Coast. The East Coast was pretty much ignored until too late.(2) The performers were there, but there seemed to be no interest in booking them back in the seventies. Robert and Eddie did begin to tour some later, but well after my own efforts had slowly come to a halt.
And I was small, folks. My business cards had my name proudly displayed; under my name was “President”… under that “Chief Engineer”… under that “Staff Photographer”… finally, under that came “Shipping Clerk”. As quick and subtle a way to indicate to the world at large the size of the operation as I could come up with/up with which I could come. Whether or not that was such a good idea or not, I do not know, but it was an appropriate humorous expression of WASP understatement to me! Could it have contained a harbinger of my lack of success? Maybe, but wotthehell, wotthehell, as Mehitabel was wont to say. There was quality in them thar albums.
- (1) I followed those two singles with four more: Tarheel Slim, Roy Dunn, Harmonica Sammy Davis, and Willie Trice. I’m not sure why I did them, but I did. No great sales, but Smitty (O&S 53) put both the Kirkland and Davis 45s on his jukebox!! (They had played there.) I was on my way!
- (2) Norbert Hess did set up a tour for Big Chief Ellis, but unfortunately he died before that could take place.
Peter B. Lowry
Published in edited form: BLUES & RHYTHM #256; Feb 2011 – p. 20