Chris Osborne’s “Robert Johnson and the Blue Terraplane,” inspired by his classic “Terraplane Blues”
It’s Record Store Day.
A couple months after I came to New York from Madison Wisconsin in 1982 I got a job at the long defunct record trade magazine Cash Box, as retail editor. Not that I knew shit about record retail, though I did spend much of my time in high school and after at record stores.
Had they been pool halls, of course, it would have been a sign of a misspent youth, as my old man used to say. But I’d done that back in junior high, sweeping the carpets of cigarette butts and cleaning transparent scoring sheets at the Hilldale Bowl in order to gain free time at the pool tables–not that I got any good.
My record store time, though, did me well when it came to the record business, not so much in preparing me for the Cash Box gig but in gaining a knowledge of musicians, songwriters and producers, all gleaned from the back cover of long-play albums, or LPs, as they were called—later to be referred to as “black vinyl albums” after cassettes and then compact discs replaced them as the leading physical music product configuration.
There were three Madison record stores I hung out at. During junior high it was Victor’s Music in the Hilldale Shopping Center, where they had listening booths for you to sample records before purchase—not uncommon in those days. I think they also had the weekly Top Singles list from Madison’s Top 40 AM station WISM (always spoken as a word to rhyme with “jism”) there, too, but those might have been stacked a few stores down at Woolworth’s, where they definitely had the weekly chart lists from Chicago’s powerhouse Top 40 station WLS.
I vividly remember going down to Victor’s the day of Beatles’ and Rolling Stones’ new releases, especially the latter’s two-sided 1967 single “Ruby Tuesday”/”Let’s Spend the Night Together” the day after they did it on Ed Sullivan. But whenever I went downtown to the University of Wisconsin campus I’d hang out at either Discount Records or Lake Street Station.
Discount Records, on State Street very near the university, especially stands out in my fading memory because my friend Chris Osborne worked the counter. I think she was already in New York by the time I got here, and in the ’90s she managed the Jazz & Blues department at the Tower Records Lincoln Center outlet. I don’t know if I knew in Madison that Chris was also a painter—not to mention as rabid an Ashford & Simpson fan as I was. But I took her with me to see A&S at least once at Westbury, and I know she painted a fab portrait of Nick and Val, I think alongside a classic car, as she frequently combines music legends and legendary cars in her portraits (among her awards is the Classic Car Club of America 2003 Fine Art Award of Excellence).
Lake Street Station used to be near Discount, at State and Lake, if I remember right, during the Vietnam War demonstration days, then moved a few blocks down from Discount on State Street. It was at the first location where I spent hours reading album jackets, and at the second one, after I’d begun writing for The Madcity Music Sheet, where what remains the coolest bit of merchandising by a record store that I can remember took place.
It was the release day of Elvis Costello’s second album This Year’s Model, and Elvis was a major mission for me and the Sheet. Indeed, we put out our first and only special issue in advance of his second Madcity tour stop—at the Orpheum Theater, a few more blocks down State Street near the State Capitol, with Nick Lowe and Mink DeVille, in 1978. Again, if memory serves well, Lake Street Station was mid-block, and from the corners at both ends were cut-outs of Elvis’s famous pigeon-toed portrait from the cover of first album My Aim is True, taped to the sidewalk and interspersed with red arrows pointing the way inside the store.
Funny, but as I write this, I’m looking at the Star Power On CBS Records and Tapes nail-clipping kit that the label’s college rep gave us at the press party promoting This Year’s Model‘s release along with the new albums from Eddie Money and Billy Joel. I’ll never forget telling her how excited I was that they included Elvis, though like I said, we were huge backers at the Sheet. “But a new Billy Joel album is an event,” the CBS gal said—my cue to leave.
By the way, I love Lake Street Dive, but I always have to look up their name since I’m always stuck at Lake Street Station.
Anyway, I got to New York and got the retail editor job at Cash Box and learned that Discount Records was owned by the biggest music retail chain Musicland, and was sent to cover the conventions of the next biggest chains, Record Bar and Camelot Music—each 100-plus strong at the time (Musicland had over 400). Record Bar was great because it was essentially run by hippies and based in Durham, N.C., which was beautiful and near Chapel Hill. Based in North Canton, Ohio, Camelot’s conventions were marked by major label-supplied entertainment each night: I remember seeing John Waite there, with a rhythm section of ex-Patti Smith/Iggy Pop bassist Ivan Kral and the late Frankie LaRocka, whom I had met in Madison when he was with David Johansen and who later became a dear friend, on drums; in fact, Frankie, when he was an A&R guy at Epic (where he signed Spin Doctors), let me write the liner notes to the great The David Johansen Group Live CD release of 1993 (it had been a promo-only LP when it was first released in 1978, when Frankie was in David’s band).
But Roy Clark’s show one year at Camelot was truly unforgettable. He had a terrible cold and could only croak out his songs, but it didn’t stop him from performing and having a great time—and giving his audience a show to cherish. And I still have my trophy for being on the golf team that finished second in the 1983 Maxell Camelot Tourney.
After beginning a 20-plus year stint at Billboard in the mid-’80s, I was sent one year to cover the convention for New England’s 81-store Strawberries Records & Tapes chain, which was owned by the notorious mob associate Morris Levy. But “Moishe,” who also owned Roulette Records (hit artists included Tommy James, Lou Christie and Joey Dee and the Starliters) and had owned the famed jazz club Birdland (his older brother and partner was stabbed to death there in 1959), had been charged in a highly publicized organized crime extortion case (all of this documented in the best-selling music business book expose Hit Men: Power Brokers and Fast Money Inside the Music Business) and wasn’t at the convention.
Moishe, by the way, was convicted, but died before he could go to prison. I never met him, but I did interview him on the phone once during the trial. And I knew his son Adam, who used to hang out at Cash Box. His dad named another label after him–Adamm VIII Limited, which released an unauthorized version of John Lennon’s Rock ‘n’ Roll album (theirs was titled Roots) after Levy had sued Lennon for copyright infringement over lyrics to “Come Together” that Lennon had lifted from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me,” Levy having owned the song’s publishing.
But back to the Strawberries convention. Not only did the most extraordinary Maria McKee perform there, but so did a girl group, the Bristols, that featured three gals who worked at the chain. I figured they’d be okay at best, but they were downright terrific—and understandably major players in Boston’s late ’80s rock scene.
As for New York’s record stores, Sam Goody’s was still big when I got here. I’ll never forget when Tower Records opened its first store in New York—its Greenwich Village flagship superstore at 4th and Broadway. I was hanging out with Ben Karol, who with partner Phil King owned the small but significant King Karol stores. I was drinking heavy and chowing down on vegetarian tamales when Ben, stunned, reverently observed, “Even old man Goody is here.”
Ben Karol was the biggest trip of all for me in record retail. I wouldn’t say he was ornery, but he was usually grumpy. He and Phil had owned a coffee shop at LaGuardia—again, if I remember right—and he was one of many old school record retailers who started out selling records out of the trunks of their cars.
I loved calling Ben regularly when researching retailer surveys, especially when the major labels raised their prices. Every retailer would moan and groan and angrily gripe over how price increases would cripple their business—except Ben. He’d always refuse to criticize the labels thusly: “I don’t know how much they need to break even.”
I used to pop in on Ben now and then on the second floor of his main store on 42nd Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. One time he had a few stacks of CDs on the floor of his office. The labels were just coming out with CDs then, and these were some of the first releases. I remember being highly excited to see them—and greatly entertained by the following story Ben laughed as he related: Many years earlier, a record company salesman had come into the store and asked Ben to play a new single that he guaranteed would be a huge hit. Ben started to play it, and halfway through, stopped it, picked it up off the turntable, opened the door and flung it across the street, turning to the stunned salesman and shouting, “Get the fuck outta my store!”
The record was David Seville’s “Witch Doctor”—the huge 1958 novelty hit that introduced Alvin and the Chipmunks.
There’s another great Ben Karol story, only this one came to me from Dave Nives. Dave was a dear friend who died unexpectedly some years ago. I like to call him “the last of the great record men”—even though Seymour Stein’s still alive—because he had such deep knowledge of vintage rock ‘n’ roll, R&B and country music, and the record companies that put it all out.
Dave was a regional salesman for Rounder Records when I met him. When he died he was A&R at Koch, and desperately wanted to sign the late, greatest polka artist Eddie Blazonczyk after I turned him on to him. “This is real rock ‘n’ roll!” Dave said of Eddie, which was absolutely true. But sharing the fate of so many great ideas in the music business, Dave was overruled from above.
Anyway, Dave was a great joke and story teller, and as he used to service the King Karol stores, he told this great one about Ben—though you’d be right to find it perfectly awful. Turns out that one of Ben’s employees came up to him one day and asked if he could have the day off to attend his father’s funeral. “We all had fathers!” Ben groused.
I used to tell this story often, one time to Holly DeSantis, another dear music friend who had also worked at King Karol. I think I was at one of her parties when George Usher, the great New York singer-songwriter, came over to me and said, “I’m the guy with the father!”
I admit I was embarrassed, but even George somehow found humor in it.
But I enjoyed covering record retail and frequently contributed retail stories to Billboard after moving over there. Two of them, in fact, are among my proudest Billboard contributions.
The first is what I always refer to as “the Snow Cone Story.”
I’d been going to Eunice, Louisiana—”the Cajun prairie capital”—every November to attend Marc and Ann Savoy’s annual boucherie, or Cajun hog kill—admittedly weird in that I’m vegetarian. I’d stay with my dear friends Todd and Debbie Ortego, who owned the Music Machine music/video store in downtown Eunice.
Todd’s the most knowledgeable Cajun/zydeco/swamp pop people there is, and is a party DJ and KBON radio station air personality—though he gave up the store a few years ago. But the first time I went there I was struck, not only by the active pool table in the middle of the store, but by the dormant snow cone machine in the corner. It being November, Todd explained that they only operated the machine during the summer months, when they sold a lot of “New Orleans shaved ice”-style snow cones. I was blown away by this brilliant, unique profit center and when I came back to New York asked Billboard‘s retail editor if I could do a story on it. He said yes, and I did—but he chose not to run it: It didn’t fit the usual record retailer profile, which, of course, was precisely the point.
Swear to God, to this day, it was one of the best stories I ever wrote. I found his rejection totally unacceptable.
For many days and nights thereafter I’d send him—and other Billboard editors–nasty emails and leave brutal voicemails. I think the last one was something along the lines of “Give me the snow cone story…or give me death!” The fact that I’m here to write about this now shows that he finally caved and ran it—and in fact loved it.
But I didn’t have to threaten suicide for him to run my other great record retail story, the one about Lucy’s Record Shop in Nashville. In the ’90s I used to go to Nashville at least three times a year for the big country music industry events (the CMA Awards, Fan Fair and Country Radio Seminar) and would drive past Lucy’s every morning on my way to Music Row from the Downtown YMCA, but I managed for years not to notice it: You see, it was on Church Street, directly opposite a dairy that had a big sign congratulating its employee of the month—to whom I always yelled a hearty congratulations out the window.
Then one day, an early Sunday morning, I was walking around downtown, a Sunday New York Times under my arm. This girl comes over to me and says, “Don’t I know you?” and she actually did. It was Mary Mancini.
I’d known Mary when she was a publicist at Elektra Records in the late ’80s before progressing into A&R—and then disappearing. I liked her very much, but had forgotten about her—and suddenly here she is. She’d been intrigued that anyone in Nashville would have the Sunday Times, as at this time, probably the mid-’90s now, you could only get the Times at a couple places in town.
She caught me up on her story, which began with her move to Nashville at a time when the country music-focused town was trying to expand into rock and pop. She wanted to find another label gig, until an out-of-town DJ friend complained that there was no place there to buy vinyl and suggested that she open a record store.
So she opened Lucy’s in 1992, naming it after her Weimaraner—who was almost as big an attraction as her alternative rock record stock. But Lucy’s was more than a record store, as Mary promoted a veritable community center where young people could gather and talk politics and social issues. And then she experienced a personal transformation as she herself became politicized after learning about the struggles experienced by the alienated young Nashville rockers, many of whom were dealing with gender bias and abuse.
Lucy’s did in fact become an all-ages punk rock venue/community center in addition to being a record store, but after six years Mary wanted to settle down with her husband (the acclaimed alternative-country band Lambchop frontman Kurt Wagner) and live a more normal life. So she closed it and took a full-time office manager job at Nashville’s first Internet services provider—and became ever more politicized, thanks to the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, involving herself in the latter with voter registration (which she’d promoted heavily at Lucy’s).
Mary co-hosted a progressive talk radio show for Vanderbilt University station WRVU-FM for the next six years, and became more active in local and state politics. She eventually took on the job of executive director of Tennessee Citizen Action, a public interest/consumer rights watchdog group. Then three years later, when the state senator in her district retired, she decided to run for office, and while she lost in the 2014 Democratic primary, she was elected the following year as Chair of the Tennessee Democratic Party.
On July 26, 2016, I watched as Mary Mancini, now one of my heroes, read Tennessee’s delegate tally at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. I know I wept openly.