By Gary Atkinson
“…Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”
The first albums that I bought were cheap, ‘budget range’ ones. The Marble Arch label was owned by Pye Nixa, which had licensed material from Chess records in the early 1960s. As a schoolboy in the late 1960s, I could just about afford these, at 14s 11d, that’s just short of 75p or $1.14. My first purchase was a compilation simply titled The Blues, which had several of the Chess heavyweights on it, including Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Little Walter and my first introduction to the mighty Elmore James with his powerful, electric slide-guitar opening to ‘Sunnyland’. From there on, each Saturday, I went into town on a record-buying trip. Quickly, I devised an expedition route taking me round all of the city’s record shops, the grand finale being Hammond’s department store where, on most Saturdays, it would be mayhem in the record department on the top floor. Everyone would be crammed around a pentangle shaped island of record racks filled with LPs and in the centre of the pentangle were staff, often struggling to serve one customer after another. Around the perimeter of the department were several listening booths, which would invariably have queues of teenagers waiting outside clutching their next prospective purchase. With very little money in my pocket, early forays consisted of little more than gazing longingly at LP sleeves. Eagerly, my eyes took mental snapshots of covers, fonts, titles, sleeve notes and their writers, musicians, producers, recording studios, record company names, everything and anything that would help unpick the mysteries of this huge realm of record collecting that lay in front of me.
No sooner had I exhausted the offerings of the budget labels, then I made a wonderful discovery – a ‘book and record exchange’. Newly opened on Carr Lane just south of the city centre, it was run by a chap called John Sheridan, a brooding, quiet-spoken man. With lengthy, grey, hair, sometimes tied in a ponytail. I could never quite tell whether he was friend or foe. A little daunting, both visually and characteristically, he was not unlike the Professor Dumbledore character played by Richard Harris in the Harry Potter movies, and this walk-in magic box of vinyl could have been comfortably placed in Diagon Alley. Late, on a cold December afternoon, in 1969, as a fresh-faced thirteen-year-old, I walked into the shop and found the blues section. Immediately, I practically passed out, having come across Blind Willie McTell’s 1940 Library of Congress sessions on the Storyville label. Completely beside myself, I walked up to the counter and handed the empty sleeve over to Sheridan. He looked down at the sleeve over his wire-rimmed glasses, studied it for a moment and then looked back up at me. ‘You want this?’ he asked in his soft Irish voice. The word ‘this’ was accentuated by him glancing down at the sleeve and then quickly back at me. It was as if to say, ‘Do you know what this is?’ My ears detected a tone of menace, perhaps concern, as though he’d said, ‘You young fool. Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?’ The LP was put into a plain brown paper bag and with it I stepped back out into the darkening wintry air. As I walked quickly away I felt, for the first time, an odd sense of having just done something that wasn’t quite right, something that was quite at odds with my contemporaries. Why were my hands soaked with nervous sweat? Why was my heart thumping? Why did I have a sense of excitement and guilt mixed together? It was practically as if Sheridan had metamorphosed into a shady drug dealer and the drug was vinyl.
I took my LP home and seconds after the stylus kissed the vinyl of my new friend, in my bedroom, I was hit by the driving sound of McTell’s first few intense bars of music, played with great zeal on his Stella 12-string guitar. It had an immediate and life-changing effect on me; the nearby River Humber turned into the Mississippi, the flat, fertile farmland around me became the Delta, and Hull, as anyone could surely see, had turned into Memphis, or was it Atlanta or Jackson? I could never quite tell. Life was now an ongoing explosion of discovery as more and more music came into my bedroom, served on a platter of vinyl.
By the time that I was fifteen I had become a nigh-on unbearable purist. It was vintage, pre-war blues recordings from the 1920s and ’30s or nothing. I had stopped watching Top of the Pops and had no interest in what was happening in the charts. The whole thing was a tedious, puerile abomination. Anyone not able to understand the sublime integrity of the records I was prepared to trade my soul for was, in my eyes, little more than an imbecile.
It was clear to all concerned, including friends and family, that my collecting habits had become serious and possessed a worrying air of longevity. My mother had become concerned about how I was spending my money. My father put up a case for my defence, but he had an ulterior motive. Some years later, he confessed that when I used to go to him, appealing that I had found a bunch of ‘must buy’ records and was short by a pound or two, he would subsidise me, convinced that I would eventually tire of all of this and the collection would become his. Sadly, his plan backfired on him and he never saw his vision come true. Yet, even though my mother’s concerns had been, to some extent, alleviated, I was very mindful of them and would return home from a Saturday record-buying binge with an odd looking, twelve-inch square, flat chest, having stuffed my latest haul up my jumper to dodge parental customs and excise. It was then a quick-paced walk to the stairs, which I would ascend, two or three at a time, trying to remain calm and without raising any suspicion.
Things got even better. Shortly after, Sheridan opened up a second, bigger shop a mile or so from the north-west of the city centre on Princess Avenue. It was a shrewd move. This Victorian, double-fronted shop, with its large windows, was situated within the university student’s accommodation area. By this time, I had left school and had settled into my first ‘proper job’, as an office junior in the huge Dickensian accounts section of the City Engineers Department of the Hull Corporation. The wonderful thing about this was that we had an hour and a half for lunch. Instead of having an electronic clocking on/off machine there was a register, a large book with a pencil tied to it. The lunch period stretched over three hours, from twelve to three o’clock. There were around fifty people in that office, many young teenagers like me. Shortly after starting, I was told by my young colleagues that if I wanted a long lunch all I had to do was ask someone who was staying in the office over lunch to sign me back in at 1:30. Consequently, I would often sign out at 12:00 and go on a three-hour record-browsing rampage, usually making a bee line for Sheridan’s Princess Avenue shop.
It was the uncertainty, the not knowing what would be trawled up in the nets, as I bobbed around the book and record exchanges on those lunchtime and Saturday expeditions that created the excitement leading up to a “find”. The majority of records were from established collections and were usually a few years old, at least. This gave me a chance to do some catching up on many wonderful releases that appeared before I became a collector. One such LP I bought at that time was a Sonny Terry album on the Topic label, released in 1964, having been released in the USA on the Folkways label by Moses Asch in 1958. Some records had been brought in from bigger cities and were far more interesting than what I could buy, new, in town – such as a 1957 copy of Jesse Fuller’s rare Frisco Bound album on Cavalier. And get this, it was SIGNED ‘Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller’ on the front.
Visiting the Princess Avenue shop, nestled deep within student-bedsit land, it didn’t take long for me to work out the weak points in the student fiscal calendar. I soon learned that those students who liked blues and had brought with them some excellent LPs from afar, also had a tendency to hit a financial crisis at around Christmas, Easter and the end of the semester. Although I admired their musical taste and sympathised with their impecuniousness, the advantage proved time and again to be mine. Going through the racks was like panning for gold. Striking it lucky depended on a sequence of events. For example; Blues LP owning student from one of the country’s bigger cities, after considering various options, is now attending Hull University. Student decides, at last minute, not to return to family home for the break and unexpectedly meets girl or boy of his or her dreams at Christmas or New Year’s Eve party. Student develops relationship. With relationships comes happiness, good times, festivals, pubs, cinemas, clubs, endless phone calls etc. By Easter student is lost in heady romantic whirl which has cost quite a bit more than student expected or budgeted for, but for the moment he or she doesn’t care. Eventually, after a reluctant look at student’s bank statement, student starts to wake up from ‘to hell with the money, I’m in love’ dream. Student is brought out of his or her trance by their rapidly depleting bank balance. They are back in the bedsit room and find, under discarded fish-and-chip paper and empty cans, the deadly, final demand for rent. Student franticly calculates how many weeks to go before the summer break and considers options. Parents? Luck has run out. New partner? Too early into relationship. Try and get job back working behind bar of nearby pub? They won’t have student back because of that disgraceful behaviour towards one of the customers and then not turning up the next day for work. Despite reducing weekly food budget and living on a diet of cheese on toast and the odd tin of beans, student has suddenly arrived at a fiscal crisis. Last option is the nuclear one. Go to Sheridan’s on Princess Avenue and get money for blues LPs. Meanwhile, record-buying fiend, Atkinson, walks into the shop and BINGO! With a slight tremble in my hand and an intent stare at the covers that, only hours before, lived in student’s nearby bedsit, I hear the stylus settle down onto the vinyl and I swear that Robert Johnson and all his Delta blues chums begin the opening bars of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. The whole predictable process has been like the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet. Indeed, the student would probably agree that my having struck gold in the vinyl mine was the result of his chaos. Like a vulture perched on a telegraph wire biding its time, all Atkinson had to do was wait for financial disaster to hit before he would swoop on his prey and gorge himself on another orgy of sound.
Two labels were of particular interest to me in the early days. One was the Yazoo label, based in New York, which had been established by Nick Perls, a young, independently wealthy East Coast collector of old blues records. Yazoo albums were very well put together with excellent sound restoration, re-mastering and informative sleeve notes. The Roots label was equally interesting, but compared to Yazoo its LPs had an anarchic quality about them. There were no concessions towards sound restoration and no sleeve notes whatsoever. Only occasionally would original recording dates be shown. Nevertheless, of the two labels, Roots albums seemed to dig deeper into the recorded legacy of obscure blues recordings. The only other information given on the backs of Roots record sleeves was a mysterious Viennese address and the name Johnny Parth. Little did I know, as I bought these records, second-hand as a young teenager, that this name would mean a great deal to me some twenty-five years later.