Adios, Skippy White: Record Stores, 7-Inch Vinyl and the Thrill of the Hunt
It was probably summer and probably 1964 when I bought my copy of “Oh Why” by the Five Blind Boys from Skippy White’s Mass Records on Washington Street in downtown Boston.
Some of the details, it seems, have receded into the mists of time. But I clearly remember the transaction itself, and I found myself replaying it this week after the Boston Globe reported that Skippy White is closing his last record store.
That won’t mean much to anyone millennial or younger, because for most folks that age, a record store is as abstract an icehouse or a blacksmith shop.
Personally, I think they’re worth remembering, because record stores were — and the ones that remain still are — very cool places. For some of us geeks, close to magic.
Back, then, to maybe the summer of maybe 1964.
I remember standing in the center of Mass Records, a fairly small place. Skippy White was behind the counter. Also behind the counter, and behind Skippy White, was a massive wall of shelves that were probably eight inches apart, just enough to accommodate seven-inch 45 rpm records.
These shelves ran the length of the counter, maybe the length of the store, enough to hold thousands of 45s.
At Mass Records that mostly meant rhythm and blues and gospel, exotic music exiled to distant corners in other, larger record stores. This was stuff that went back a decade, long out of print and yet alive here, meticulously filed by label and number.
Most tantalizingly, they were available. Skippy White would sell you the most elusive record for 79 or 89 cents, same as you would pay for the Beatles’s “She Loves You” at every other record shop in town.
I asked for “Oh Why,” Vee-Jay 225. I had heard it some time before and had had no success in finding a copy. These were the olden days, remember, when you didn’t just punch up a song on YouTube, Google it or tell Spotify and Pandora to play it. If you didn’t own it on vinyl — or maybe a reel-to-reel tape — you couldn’t hear it.
I really wanted to hear “Oh Why.” It was a gospel song where gospel met rhythm and blues, a record that blasted out of the gate and never took a breath.
It had one of Archie Brownlee’s most transcendent vocals, which is saying something considering how many stunning records he fronted before pneumonia killed him in 1960, age 34.
The Five Blind Boys had also sung and recorded as the Cotton Blossom Singers, the Jackson Harmoneers and the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi, to distinguish them from Clarence Fountain’s Five Blind Boys of Alabama. They had and still have their own extraordinary story, though today we’ll stick with Skippy White.
After I asked for “Oh Why,” he pivoted to the shelves and ran his finger down the rows of paper sleeves to Vee-Jay. When he got to the 200s, I knew he would have “Oh What a Nite” by the Dells (204), because that had been a hit and was still in demand. He got there, moved a couple of numbers further and stopped.
He pulled the sleeve out. He may have pinched the tiniest edge of the vinyl and slipped the record out for a quick examination. Or maybe not. In either case, he handed it to me. I’m sure I lingered a while longer in the store, maybe bought other records. But “Oh Why” was the find, the buried treasure in that long row of paper sleeves, because that’s what record stores used to be: a treasure hunt.
That was true in part, I’m sure, because the smaller record stores in particular were almost always run by guys, and a few women, who knew the hunt themselves. They loved music and records and this was a way they could parlay that into a living.
This truism was not new in the 1960s. Billy Crystal does a whole riff on his father and his uncle running Commodore Records in New York decades earlier. King Karol, Sam Goody’s or even Tower, record stores we remember as chains, were started as small stores by guys who loved music.
If those places got big, a lot of the best record stores never did. They were at most a couple of shops, run by the same music fan.
When I was growing up in my little suburb of West Hartford, that was Gene and Martha at LaSalle Music. In the slightly bigger town of Hartford, there was Belmont Records and Collector’s Corner, which had a back room full of 45s and a basement full of 78s.
Down the line in New Haven there was Cutler’s. Over in Providence, Al Pavlow’s. Up to Boston, you could walk from Skippy White’s back down Washington Street — through a corner of the Combat Zone — to Big John’s Oldies but Goodies Land, run by John Belmonte, who originally worked for Skippy White.
John’s shop was smaller than Skippy’s, but had a taller and longer wall. Over the years, folks like Little Richard, Ron Wood and Rod Stewart dropped in to find the good stuff. Me, I used to hang around for hours, listening to music, pulling out records and sometimes just looking at them. The names, the labels, the colors.
Full disclosure, there was also this. One day in 1964, soon after the Supremes’s “Come See About Me” had been released, I was hanging around Big John’s and watching a steady stream of girls — all girls, as I remember — coming in to buy it.
If they asked for the Supremes, that’s what they got. If they just said they wanted “Come See About Me,” the guy behind the counter, Little Walter, would give them the slightly earlier recording, the original actually, by Nella Dodds. It was a way to sell their copies of a record that wasn’t otherwise moving, he explained, and if any of the buyers got home and were disappointed, they could come back in and swap it. Some would, he said, some wouldn’t.
So record stores were also a business. But they still had those treasures, and on summer or Christmas break, my friends Robert, Galen and I would often pile into my maroon Mustang and take road trips around America to find more of them.
Leroy’s in Denver. Chris Strachwitz’s in Berkeley. Fortune in Detroit. Bob Koester’s in Chicago. Territo’s in New Orleans. Don Brown’s in L.A. Randy Wood’s and Ernest Tubb’s in Nashville. Birmingham, Louisville, Cleveland, Mill Valley, Salt Lake City, Cincinnati, Memphis, Atlanta. Almost every city had something, and no, we were not the first music fans to get this bright idea.
In Jackson, Miss., Johnny Vincent of Ace Records said a guy from Sweden had been there a few months earlier and spent a couple of days in his warehouse, buying a couple of thousand records. In more than one place we were told that famous rock stars — that would be Bob Hite, Richard Hite, Henry Vestine and the other guys from Canned Heat — had been through on their last tour.
We might be the third treasure hunters. Or the 25th. Record collectors had been scouring record shops, furniture shops, second-hand shops and all other possible repositories for many years before we came along.
Still, there was enough left in the chests that I shake my head over what we left behind. In the end, though, what we scored was pretty cool and so was the thrill of finding it.
In a funny way, music used to be a multi-sensory experience. You could hear it and you could also hold it, and there was something about holding it that added to the pleasure. Today, it’s pretty much all hands-free.
Twenty-five years ago Nick Hornby wrote a great book about record stores, High Fidelity. He paints both the characters and the institutions with affection that’s almost tangible.
High Fidelty became a so-so movie in 2000 and a Broadway show in 2006. On Valentine’s Day this year it will resurface as a TV series on Hulu, starring Zoe Kravitz.
Presumably Hornby’s wonderful musical references will be updated, which is fine. And perhaps along the way it can also explain to those young folks about believing in the magic.
Skippy White had a long, fine run in the music game, from radio and promotion to a whole bunch of record stores.
The torch he lays down isn’t going to burn like it was burning when he plucked “Oh Why” from that shelf more than a half century ago. For some of us old folks, it still casts a warm glow.