From Hull to Nashville
By Gary Atkinson
Given the critical slamming I gave those first Document CDs when writing for the blues magazine, I was more than a little surprised when the reviews editor rang to say that Johnny Parth had recommended me for a job. They wanted me to write some booklet notes, and the deal was that, as payment for my services, for every set of booklet notes that I wrote I could choose ten CDs from the now huge Document catalogue. The first task was for me to write notes for four volumes of Ma Rainey CDs.
Four x ten booklet notes= forty CDs in wages.
I couldn’t be happier. I would be CD rich!!! If only I could get the local supermarket and a petrol garage to accept CDs in payment…
I accepted the task and began earnestly tapping out my first notes.
Things were going well with the work for Document, and I loved it; the research, trying to create interest with the text, informing the reader to the best of my ability. I was becoming well and truly invested in the project, and in Document’s mission.
After a while, having written a reasonable number of notes, I made a phone call to Johnny. By and large I’m not a technologically minded person, but it had occurred to me, in 1999, that as more people were bringing computers into their homes and gaining access to the world-wide-web, this influx would include the PCs of potential Document customers. I voiced this idea to Johnny, and suggested that he invest in creating a Document website from which he could sell CDs. At the time, he told me that he had no interest in the web, or computers for that matter, but if I still wanted to pursue the website idea then he would have no objection to my setting one up. I could buy CDs from Document and then start selling them online. The idea had its possibilities, and considering the rural part of the country which we were living in, I thought an internet business might not be such a bad idea. Having said that, I still came off the phone unsure as to how I felt about running such a business myself.
A few days later, before I had a chance to come to a decision, Johnny rang to propose a very different idea, ‘I was wondering,’ he said, ‘how would you like to have all of Document?’ Thinking that he was referring to the Document catalogue and my incomplete, but still vast collection of Document CDs, I refused on the grounds that I was perfectly happy to keep writing his booklet notes in return for the CD payments. ‘No, no’ he said. ‘What I am saying is, would you like all of Document; everything? The discussion carried on like this for a few minutes until the penny dropped. Johnny was actually offering to sell me the company. Life for the East Hull pre-fab home boy were becoming that little more bizarre. We talked a little more and Johnny suggested a price. Though I had worked in the music business, I had never been in the record business, and so didn’t know whether the number he proposed was a little or a lot, unreasonable or a bargain. ‘Yes, alright.’ I said, thinking to myself ‘I’ll worry about this tomorrow’ and with that our conversation later came to a close and I gently put down the phone. I then went into the living room. ‘I’ve just had the weirdest conversation with Johnny.’ I said to Gillian. ‘He’s just asked me if I want to buy Document. I mean, Document Records, the whole thing, the business, the company.’ Without flinching, my wife Gillian replied ‘I hope that you said yes.’
Within a few months one of the main streets in Vienna was sealed off as the world’s biggest truck was loaded up with 175,000 CDs. As we cleared the warehouse of all its stock I discovered, behind a rack of shelving, some plain, grey card sleeves, about twelve or so. They were the same size as LP covers but slightly more bulky, and when I asked Johnny what they were, he said, ‘Oh, I forgot them. They are just some of the old metal masters from when we had Document LPs.’ Delighted at this news I asked where the rest of them were. ‘I put them all for scrap years ago.’ He replied. Seeing the shock and disappointment on my face, he added ‘Why would I want to keep them? vinyl is finished and we’re never going to produce it again.’
I considered the scene, as part of Document’s history was dumped, and told him of how surprised I was that someone with such a strong collector sense had got rid of them. ‘CDs are the best,’ he replied. ‘I would never go back to vinyl.’ I taped the heavy bundle of masters together and put them into my bag, resolute that this piece of history wasn’t going into the furnace. I then walked out into the street to see the last of the CDs being loaded up. There wasn’t an inch of space left in the truck. Waving goodbye to the driver, I told him I’d see him in Scotland and I made my way to Vienna airport.
We couldn’t have gone into the record industry at a worse time. After a hundred years of an increasingly successful existence, it took its biggest and near fatal nose dive just as the ink was drying on the Document purchase agreement. Watching the rapid decline of vinyl singles and LPs was depressing, and entering into the industry via the eye of a revolutionary storm was, to say the least, exasperating and unnerving. The next ten years were made up of a heady blend of nightmares, nail biting and breath holding, mixed in with moments of great excitement, fascination and satisfaction. Despite all of this however, my biggest regret was still that I would never be responsible for any vinyl being released… Or so I thought.
The levels of music piracy were suffocating, as the switch to digital made available the easiest way to copy music at home since the industry began. And yet, after a decade of decline, it was vinyl that began to produce whispers of optimism. The first clues came five or six years ago when distributors around the world, and in particular in the U.K. and the U.S.A. informed us that the previously declining vinyl sales had suddenly started going into reverse. What’s more, record shop owners, mail order record retailers, collectors and our own Document customers started to make positive comments about vinyl making a gradual return. Sales reports are one thing but hearing statements from those involved first hand is another, and it was all the more encouraging that this interest was being particularly driven by younger music buyers, and vinyl releases by bands themselves. Despite my personal excitement, I resisted climbing onto the roof of the Document offices, bursting into song with ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ whilst holding a huge international flag bearing an LP and a 45. Much as I would have dearly loved for Document to have begun producing vinyl, I held back any decision to do so. I knew that my desire to produce LPs was, at that point being too heavily weighted by my own romantic feelings and not by any water-tight business strategy. Even so, the Siren’s song, calling ‘Gary, Gary, produce vinyl LPs and we shall be yours’ was becoming increasingly difficult to resist.
Around this time I found myself wandering into a second-hand record shop in Lancashire, England. I had visited it about a year before, but my catch had been good, and memorable enough to make it worthy of a return visit.
On this particular day the owner was wearing a black shirt, top button undone, and black ‘stay-press, casual pants.’ An old rocker who had been in the business for years, his grey hair sweeps neatly from one side of his head to the other, and underneath, his face has a certain kind of redness that suggests that he is not one hundred per cent in the best of health. He acknowledged me with a smile and a nod. Shortly after arriving, whilst quietly flipping through the LP covers, I heard his voice call from the back of the shop. “Want a mug of tea whilst your browsing, lad?” he asked in a broad Lancashire accent. Saying that I would ‘love one,’ he reappears several minutes later, bearing a chipped mug of strong tea from a tiny kitchen area, sectioned off from the rest of the shop by an ancient, heavy, curtain. “I’m trying to get the place organised,” he told me, evidently not remembering that I had already paid a visit once before, when the place was just as chaotic and disorganised then. Tall stacks of records, looking as if they might topple over at any minute, created a small maze of pathways around the shop, each having to be explored because of the vagaries of the shelving system (where there were shelves). “What ya into?” he asked. I tell him and he replied “Blues. Right, then. You’ll find blues there in those two racks, and then there’s some over there”. Then, pointing a finger into an entirely different part of the shop, “and then some over there too. Oh, and you might find some under there but I’ll have to shift them boxes so’s ya can get at ‘em. Ow’s yer tea?” I realized that he had a natural hospitality that no customer relations course could ever teach. I don’t ever want him to “get organized”, I thought to myself. For me, the place was perfect, just as it is. The chaos only added to the element of surprise when, unexpectedly, one suddenly stumbles upon a gem.
I asked him how business was doing, and he told me that it was ‘Not bad… Not brilliant.’ He went on to say that his CD sales had practically collapsed because ‘Well, they’ve been taken over by vinyl.’ This came as a surprise, ‘Aye, lots of young uns comin’ in that I’ve never seen before, comin’ in an’ asking for vinyl,’ he assured me. Even so, I could tell that business is patchier than he might have wanted to admit, in particular with many of these kind of shops, awkwardly hanging on, away from the city centers. I worried a little, and hoped that he would survive. ‘I don’t make a lot but I pay me bills and to be honest,’ he added, his face lighting up, ‘one of the reasons I keep going is because I like to chat with folk and because I get some interesting people comin’ in here, talkin’ about music and records.’
At the end of a good two hours, which feels more like mountaineering and exploration than browsing in the grown up, magical, ‘Mr Ben’ shop, I took a pile of records over to the till thinking that this was probably one of the biggest sales that he’d had for that week, at least. He added it all up in his head, no computer, no calculator, no electronic till. Did it again, to make sure, rounds it off to the nearest tenner and concluded, “You’ve done alright there, lad. There’s some good stuff there.” I thanked him for the records and the tea, and made my way home, hoping very much that the second-hand record shop will still be there on my return. It felt like those early teenage years once again, with my records in a plain polythene bag clasped securely under my arm, satisfied, curious and excited about what I will hear on them. This time though, as for a long time, I would not be stuffing them up my jumper, prior to walking in through the front door of my home.
Over the following months, encouraged by industry and media reports of the rise in vinyl record sales, we spoke more in the office about the possibility of releasing Document LPs. It was close to the Christmas of 2011, and as we monitored the situation, I received an email which puzzled me. It was from a company that I had not heard of before, Third Man Records, asking for a time when I might be available to receive a telephone call from Jack White. I only knew of one Jack White, the Jack White of the White Stripes fame, and I was sure that we couldn’t be talking about the same person… Could we? I replied to the message, giving them phone numbers of when and where I could be reached. Nothing happened. Christmas came and went and after a while I put this odd communication aside. Someone, I thought, has had an idea and then dropped it. These things happen, so I forgot all about it. A few months later, I was working from our house in the North of England when the telephone rang. Gillian took the call from downstairs. I could hear her chatting away and after a few minutes assumed that it was either some business she was dealing with or a personal call. I carried on with my work until I was interrupted by Gillian calling from the bottom of the stairs, ‘Gary, Jack White’s on the phone.’
Within the first few minutes of the call we were talking about Document, our blues heroes and enthusiastically swapping record collector stories. Jack said that some of the first records he ever bought were Document LPs, and told me a story about him buying perhaps twenty or so of them from a second-hand record shop in Detroit when he was just seventeen. I shared my own memories of Hull’s record exchanges, and of buying Roots LPs produced in Vienna by Johnny Parth. As the conversation rolled on, Jack proposed an idea, one which he had carried with him ever since picking up those LPs twenty years ago. The conversation lead to the collaboration of producing three sets of blues, vinyl, LPs. Our chat highlighted the fact that both of us had strong, shared ideas about how these LPs should be presented and who they should be aimed at. For both of us, the idea of a young Gary Atkinson or Jack White walking into a record shop, picking up one of these LPs, and being enthralled by what they heard, would be the most satisfying gain. If seasoned collectors liked them too then, that would be an unexpected bonus. We said our goodbye’s, and shortly after putting the phone down, I reflected on how I had previously resigned myself to accepting that I would never be fortunate enough to be involved in producing vinyl records, now, I was about to be an integral part of doing that very thing.
Discussions progressed over the following weeks and I decided early on that I didn’t want to just hand over the recordings, like a straight licensing deal. From the beginning, I knew that this project was going to be something special. Jack had made it clear that he wanted to make it so that every record released would remain in the catalogue ‘for as long as Third Man exists.’ Knowing what it takes to keep such a commitment, I began thinking about what I could do to help make these albums credible and interesting enough for people buying them, perhaps for generations ahead. I decided to revisit the original recordings. In addition to the Document masters already available, I had my own collection, which had been recently supplemented by two large collections of spool tapes containing twenty to thirty thousand recordings in each. These collections had been put together, back in the 1950s and 60s by two independent collectors committing their shellac 78 records, vinyl LPs, Eps and private recordings to tape.
Adding even more to this were recordings made available to me by other collectors. With all these resources to draw upon, I was able to examine and compare the condition of records, and upgrade them finished using sound restoration programs and techniques which were simply not available when the vast majority of Document productions were originally released. Thirteen albums, covering the full recorded works of Delta blues-man Charley Patton, Georgia blues-man, Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi string band The Mississippi Sheiks, were mastered up. We planned to launch the series by releasing the first volumes by each artist. I commissioned Mick Middles, music journalist and author of many excellent books covering the life and times of rock/pop artists and bands, to produce the sleeve notes. At the same time, Jack commissioned graphic artist Rob Jones to produce astonishing artwork for the record sleeves.
After a few delays, which took the launch beyond Christmas, I sat down at my computer one morning in late January 2013, and opened up a curious email sent to me by Third Man. The message was rather cryptic, merely saying something like ‘heads up’ or words to that effect, and a link which took me to a fantastic promo film on the Third Man website, narrated by Jack and announcing the arrival of the first album. I was stunned. Suddenly it was really happening. A couple of weeks later I had the finished product in my hands. I could hardly believe it. I opened the package, and without any exaggeration, it felt as if I was being catapulted back in time to forty-four years ago, when I took my fist blues LP home. I sat down, looking at the fabulous covers, and as the stylus dropped onto the vinyl, I felt the warmth sweep over me. Except this time, in a way that surpassed all of my dreams and expectations, I was partly responsible for that warmth.
Postscript: This is the last part of Confessions of a Vinyl Addict, though I am delighted to able to say that, as of writing, I have not been cured.