The first time I met the blues
In 2013 I was asked to write a piece for the book publisher Faber. The inspiration for the request was a collaboration between Document Records and Jack White’s Third Man Records which had just taken place. What was required of me by Faber was an insight into how I became a record collector and how, many years later, I received a phone call from Jack White asking me if I would work with him in producing some pre-war blues albums on vinyl. This also happened to be during the early days of the current vinyl revival.
Of course, the bulk of this story goes hand in hand with my addiction to music and in particular, the blues, which began as a passion for me when I was a child and with that I have adapted the piece so that it focuses more on my early days of discovering this wonderful music and how it effected me. With these scribbles, I hope that you too will be inspired and join in by telling how you first encountered the music which means a great deal to you; perhaps blues, jazz, gospel, old-time country or anything else. What was the first record that you bought? How did you first hear this music? Do you have any stories about a particular record buying experience? What effect has the music had on you and your life?…
Confessions of a Vinyl Addict
By Gary Atkinson
Part 1: Warmth and catching the record collecting bug
Talk to any collector of vinyl records, or those who fondly reminisce about the days of singles, EPs and albums, and it is a safe bet that sooner or later, in their attempt to describe just what it is that puts vinyl up and above any other format that carries the recorded sound of music, they will use the adjective ‘warm’. ‘I don’t know what it is. It’s got that warmth; do you know what I mean?’ Yes, I do, but unless you have heard it and experienced it radiating from the speakers, like the comforting warmth of a 1960s three-bar electric fire on a cold winter’s day, then it is difficult to articulate what is meant by it. Being caught in its glow is quite a difficult thing to describe. I dare say that someone with a PhD in physics might be able to tell you exactly what it is, in scientific terms: the average decibel range, the frequency, how it hits the ear drums and sets off our sensory system within that part of our brain that takes care of, well, that sort of thing. You can hear it when the stylus makes contact with the outer perimeter of a vinyl disc, the ‘lead-in groove’. Straight away and for a few seconds before the anticipated music begins, there it is – the sound of warmth. If one needs a visual metaphor, it is like watching the cream being poured onto the back of a polished, silver teaspoon, before it caresses and delicately glides over the dark, whiskey-laden coffee that lies beyond.
Standard recording contracts, or any contract which involves the production and distribution or licensing of a sound recording, carry a ‘Territory’ clause outlining where in the world the recordings will be sold or used, for example, either as records or in films or TV advertisements. In the distant past, it was not unusual for the territory to be defined as ‘the world’. However, within the last couple of decades this clause has been broadened out and in some cases states ‘the world together with the universe which may from time to time be visited or occupied by man’. This additional wording is an attempt to cover any type of electronic or digital transfer of music downloaded via satellites some 150 to 450 miles up in space, whizzing around the planet at a decent 17,000 mph. You don’t find any of that warmth in outer space.
As the digital revolution erupted and poured into the average household with CD players, and computers with CD-burning abilities and access to the Internet, for a time it looked like the digital carving knife of the recording process and the silver CD that it would be served on would cut out the warmth for ever. The clearest thing that could be heard with the advent of the digital CD was the death knell for vinyl. Ironically, after the record industry had more or less thrown vinyl out with the metal master’s electroplating bath water, some of the early rock and pop CDs featured the scratch and crackle sounds of vinyl, including albums by Beck and Gomez. Yet, though such noises (becoming something of a soundtrack for the retro era) came through loud and clear, the subtle sound of warmth, like a record’s organic, steady breath, was no longer there.
I have tried to imagine young teenagers inviting their friends, girlfriends or boyfriends up to their bedrooms, sweeping a hand in front of their computer screen or iPod and proudly saying ‘So, what do you think to my record collection?’ Surely, one of the best ways to get to know someone, break the ice, discover what someone is about, acquire an insight into what makes them tick, was to flick casually through their record collection, with such comments as, ‘I’ve got this, it’s great,’ or, ‘Brilliant, I didn’t know you had this,’ or, ‘Bloody awful!’ followed by smiles and a mixture of dissent and amusement as you pretended to Frisbee the offending article across the room. Real gems would be met with ecstatic groans and gasps of admiration. Records carry within their grooves every emotion known to the human race, from hot passion to cold dejection, from elation to despair. Curiously, the records themselves can create passionate feelings and intense debate themselves, with stories being told about where they were bought, the description of the record shop, the occasion, who they were with and even the weather at the time. For the first few years of collecting I wrote the date, where I bought the LP and, occasionally, how much I bought it for on the inside of every LP sleeve, along with my signature. A practice which I now regret stopping, because pulling an inner-sleeve out of those earlier purchases brings back some marvelous memories. Now one can go into someone’s home and not have any clue as to whether they are huge music fan or not. Gone are the experiences, memories, the full gamut of emotions of a person’s life presented there in a tangible, tactile, three-dimensional form. With a record collection, there on the shelves is the music, but there also is the companion that you share the music with – the record. So often I have not only heard the phrase ‘I love my music’ but also ‘I love my records’, as if these were two separate entities, inexorably brought together. Will anyone in the future be talking about the joy of downloading? Is it really as exciting as going to the record shop for a browse, a pre-planned or unexpected purchase? Will they talk about how they gazed at the WAV file, absorbing the design of the icon, which is just the same as millions of others, before playing it? And will we ever hear the phrase that has people nodding knowingly in agreement, ‘I love my MP3s’?
I was born at the time when 78 rpm shellac records, the CD of the day, were coming towards the end of their fifty-year reign. Although vinyl had been around for a few years, it was not until the late 1950s that the new vinyl ‘single’ or ’45’, as it was also known, began to sell in great quantities. By the end of the fifties it was all over for the heavy, easily breakable, ten-inch 78, and there was no looking back for the new, easily portable and practically indestructible 45.
When I left the Cottingham Road maternity hospital in Hull, East Yorkshire, having recently been born there, in January 1956, records were already waiting for me at home: rock and roll 78s by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, skiffle by Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan, Chris Barber and others were all there in quantity. But then there were records from where my father’s heart truly lay – jazz and blues. Jazz by people like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory; blues by such artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Bessie Smith, Roosevelt Sykes, Fats Domino, Jimmy Yancey and more. There were also new vinyl 45 EPs by the likes of the Everly Brothers and many of the names that were already on the 78s.
By the time that I was about four years old, my father and I were already having record-playing sessions. Before I could read I would choose records according to how attracted I was to the colours and design of the labels. I clearly remember choosing Brunswicks because of their dark, chocolaty colour and ornate design. ‘Georgia Bo Bo’ by Louis Armstrong became an early favourite, as did the riotous ‘Steamboat Stomp’ by Jelly Roll Morton, initially chosen by me not because of Jelly Roll’s fantastic skills and artistry as a jazzman but because of the curious little dog sitting by the horn of a gramophone on the red HMV label.
My father loved this music. He was not an expert on it. He wasn’t bothered about who recorded what when. Matrix numbers, issue numbers, labels or recording dates were not important to him. All that mattered was the music. It was his fix. Even though he lived over 3,000 miles away from where this music came from and a world away from the society and lifestyle that went towards creating it, he seemed to instinctively empathise with it and those that performed it, and as I later learned more and more about this music, the more I realised that his instinctive, self-educated understanding of it was so correct.
By the time that I was seven or eight years old, he would explain in his own layman’s way, as the records played, how a piece of music would work. ‘OK, so the band has established the melody. They’re all going with it, but, now listen, each one of the band is going to play their own interpretation of the tune. Here comes the piano player –‘ He would pause and let me take it in. ‘Now, here comes the clarinet player. He’s playing the same thing but he plays it differently to the piano player –‘ Another pause as we both listened, and so on. Finally, he would say ‘And now they’re all going to come back together and all of those interpretations will become one sound, but if you listen you can still hear each musician putting in their own version.’ It is only now, looking back, that I realise that I was already, at such a young age, getting my own private lectures on jazz, blues, syncopation, improvisation, and so much more. But I wasn’t self-consciously a blues fan. It was all quite normal to me – for this music to be played in the house, with all of the family loving it. In fact, as I began to visit my friend’s houses, I found it increasingly odd that this music was not being played in them.
When I was eight my brother, Mike, six years older than me, began to buy ‘singles’ at a fairly regular rate. Again, his leaning was towards the blues. Over the next few years the Atkinson record library swelled with additions by the likes of the Spencer Davis Group, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, the Rolling Stones and the Animals.
The first record that I purchased was ‘Love Is Strange’ / ‘Man With Money’ by the Everly Brothers, which I bought (with my own money) at the age of nine. The record shop was owned by a blind chap. He wore a brown dust coat and would courteously ask, in a soft, well spoken voice, ‘Would you like to listen to it?’ There was no listening booth. Instead, there was a record player, with its lid up, sat on the counter. Carefully, but without one wrong move, the old chap would put the record of your choice onto the turntable, steadily lower the stylus, and then listen to the record with you. ‘Would you like that?’ he would ask, as the record came to an end and the automated mechanism clattered its way to putting the tone arm back onto its rest. This was 1965. Happier and safer days one might say, but it wasn’t. Later, perhaps only by a few months, the blind old man was mugged, beaten up in his own shop and left for dead with the till cleared out.
With the arrival of Mike’s EPs and LPs came the added bonus of some sketchy but nevertheless significant and welcome information to be found in the sleeve notes. They gave clues about those who were influencing the blues boom of the early 1960s. Odd names like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf were cropping up, along with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. At the same time, Mike was visiting a folk and blues club in town. Whilst the electric British ‘R ‘n’ B’ bands were mimicking their heroes and bringing their music to a new and delighted audience, so too were musicians performing material by the older pre-war blues artists. By the late 1960s and early 70s, Mike was bringing home LPs by people such as Jo-Ann Kelly and Stefan Grossman. Notes found on the back of LPs by these artists brought attention to stranger names – Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House, to name a few. But the LP Mike bought that had the greatest effect on me was Oh, Really! by Mike Cooper. For some reason, despite all that I had heard before, this album, with its hard-hitting country blues, bottleneck playing at full throttle on an old 1927 National resonator guitar practically blew me off my feet and into another dimension. I had heard nothing like it before. It had the effect of a starting pistol. Something went off in my head and that was it. Perhaps it was the timing; where I was in life, hormones, fertile imagination, an explosion of creativity going on in my head. I don’t know. The effect of that album was an event waiting to happen. My brain had been filling up with highly inflammable music over the years and all that it was waiting for was someone to unwittingly stroll in and light a match. That someone was Mike Cooper and the match was Oh Really! With that I started to buy vinyl with a vengeance. It was 1969, I was thirteen and I was yet to hear Son House…