Great Halls: Renowned for Sound

Please note:  It was originally my hope to have the following article published in a music magazine. With apologies to those interviewed, I present it here.

What separates good performance spaces from great ones, mediocre venues from superior places? We’re not talking about where you parked the car or how convenient and clean the bathrooms were. We’re talking about acoustics, a word Webster’s says has been in use since 1683. Acoustics is “a science that deals with the production, control, transmission, reception and effects of sound.”

The physical world’s musical and architectural heritage is still intact—and in use. There are all types of new and old places to hear music. Well loved by musicians, audiences and production staff members alike, these venues truly shine.

Nashville, Tennessee is home to one of those standouts. For many years, The Ryman Auditorium—known to audiences the world over as the longtime home of the Grand Ole Opry—began its life as a church. Designed by Hugh Cathcart Thompson and named for riverboat Captain Thomas Ryman, the hall was completed in 1892. Designed for preaching in-the-round, the interior delivered maximum sound reception to the assembled faithful, presided over by the famed evangelical orator Sam Bush.

“Pews originally sat where the stage exists today,” Museum Supervisor John Dowell explained via email. “Between that section and the current “Gold Circle” seating area rested a platform from where Reverend Sam Jones and other keynote speakers, stood to make presentations. Off of the platform sat a pump organ on one side and a grand piano on the other.”

Nashville's Ryman Auditorium

Back then, there was no stage. One was added in 1901 to accommodate the touring company from the Metropolitan Opera. Cost: $750.  Thus, the in-the-round features of the room changed. Later, the over-the-stage section of balcony was removed and a proscenium, curtain system and three floors of backstage dressing rooms were added. “With the baffling from ceiling to wall, the rounded balcony, the curve of the pews on both levels, and the curvature of the crows’ nest at both ends of the balcony, the auditorium appears to be a rounded room,” Dowell continues, “Yet the building itself is rectangular.” These various renovations have reportedly not compromised the sound—once second only to Salt Lake City’s Mormon Tabernacle.

The room is “live”—smooth wall surfaces and hardwood pews and flooring distribute soft sounds from the stage easily to every seat in the house. If anything, visiting acts and crew don’t need to crank the volume like they’re playing a basketball arena, or any other notoriously bad-for-acoustics space.

Resident Sound Engineer Les Banks sometimes explains to crew and talent: “You could actually turn down [the amplification] a bit and the room will sound just as friendly.” And he really enjoys the moments during shows when the room can truly show it’s best acoustic attributes.

“When Tony Bennett or Elvis Costello plays, there’s a moment in the show,” Les says, “when they make their sound guy turn off the P.A. completely and they step to the foot of the stage and just sing a cappella [without accompaniment], and it’s heard.”

Three of the world’s best known halls –revered by acoustics professionals and audiences for their superior acoustic qualities– are: Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, Vienna’s Musikvereinsaal and Boston’s Symphony Hall.

Amsterdam's Concertgebouw

Vienna's Musikvereinsaal

Symphony Hall, Boston








Professor Alex Case, Assistant Professor of Sound Recording Technology at the University of Massachusetts and Acoustic Society of America Fellow explained via email that beyond those three, many of the world’s halls are no match. In addition, halls that are designed for specific uses  –“purpose built” for symphonies, for instance– perform differently for other uses.

Our collective group of older halls cannot truly deliver all things acoustically to all people –and neither can new ones. Professor Case explains that both “purpose-built” and “multi-purpose” imply specific limitations. Either way, there is no such thing as perfect sound.

Many older halls  (usually built for a specific use or purpose) might be promoted as having “perfect acoustics,” Professor Case says, but what the people doing the talking mean is: “the acoustic signature of the space is noticeable and they don’t mind it”; and, “the hall is very quiet.”

And truly “multi-purpose” halls require exhaustive amounts of cash. For many communities, this type of building can prove to be extraordinarily expensive. Case explains that what is called “Variable acoustics” offer a less expensive alternative. Curtains and “elaborate systems for moving walls and ceilings and changing the acoustic size of the hall become necessary. Bass Hall, in Ft. Worth, Texas is a rare success on this front.”

That having been said, one of the notable examples of a successful “multi-purpose” room is the 7,100 seat Nokia Theatre L.A. Live, which first opened in October, 2007. Rooms like the Nokia are designed to be sonically efficient—in every way possible. The Nokia was also designed for production efficiencies too: crews can set up and tear down quickly and easily navigate throughout. Designed by the Berkeley, California firm of ELS Architecture and Urban Design, Kurt Schindler, one of the principal architects, explains that new buildings like the Nokia are really “flexible machines.”

The Nokia, part of The Staples Center, Los Angeles

Admittedly, Schindler notes, in many of the performance spaces built from the end of the 19th century through the first two-thirds of the 20th century, “there’s an architectural presence —many of the presenters have to fight that! Places like the Nokia, they can really do anything they want.” In addition to music, the Nokia is used for many televised award shows, among them, the Emmys, The American Music Awards and the ever-popular American Idol.

Ultimate acoustic perfection may be impossible, but that doesn‘t stop architects, musicians, production staffers and audiences from appreciating a wide variety of venues for what they have to offer. But, strictly speaking, –in life and in acoustics–what we all experience and usually accept is often the result of some  form of compromise. “The acoustic expectations for any space depends directly on the type of sound that occurs within,” Case observes. “The acoustics appropriate for amplified music [are] not the same as what would be appropriate for opera, chamber music [or] a jazz trio.”

Does that mean that places to hear live music are obsolete? No. But it does mean that no matter where in the world you go–with about three exceptions– no one space is close to perfect. Any place that we likely enjoy, we do so partly due to it’s imperfections. Audiences still love seeing shows in old movie houses, among them the Fox Theatre, in Atlanta and Detroit; and, The Paramount’s, one in Oakland, California and the other in Seattle, Washington.

Like Nashville’s Ryman, San Francisco’s Fillmore Auditorium was originally built as a church. Yet, under the auspices of rock impresario Bill Graham and others, The Fillmore became one the world’s finest rooms to hear music. The Fillmore possesses a truly unique sound– one that can’t be easily described, but one that can be heard on numerous recordings.

Chips Davis, acoustics consultant for the Nokia project, likes a lot of different venues –including The Fillmore and Oakland’s Paramount. For him, a successful show owes a lot to what the people in the Sound Department do. “Good [sound] mixers and sound people that are able to set up the way they should set up and mix the show the way it should be mixed can get some great sounds with just about any type of show.”

Davis cut his teeth in Las Vegas at venues like Caesar’s Palace, running sound for Frank Sinatra and many others. “It takes a lot of design and a lot of [acoustics] modeling to get this stuff right,” he says. Different venues present different challenges.

“Acoustics doesn’t just happen,” Davis emphasizes, “It’s a lot of physics behind this.”

The challenges posed at outdoor venues add another dimension to the work of sound engineers and production staff. Again, there’s no perfect outdoor venue, but there are a few that, for many, come close. The Gibson Amphitheatre, located in Universal City, California is one.

Another excellent example of an outdoor venue for great sound is Red Rocks, a spectacular and acoustically notable place to hear music. The 9,450 seat amphitheatre, designed by Burnham Hoyt, was officially dedicated in 1941. Carved out of ancient sea-bed sandstone, today Red Rocks sits in the hills near Denver at 7,000 feet above sea level. A show at Red Rocks is pretty hard to forget. The scenery is gorgeous  –and the acoustics, for anyone who’s seen a show there– can easily be called second to none.

John Dowlen has been running sound at Red Rocks since 1984. “Red Rocks is truly a unique place because it wasn’t built for anything other than natural acoustics. It’ll work just fine without an amplified system.”

“A lot of concert halls,” Dowlen continues, “especially orchestra places that are ‘purpose-built’ for symphonies—completely disintegrate as soon as you put a sound system in it. If you have the symphony on stage—that’s fine. A sound system just completely overwhelms the room and the sonics go to pieces.”

For Dowlen, Red Rocks does not suffer from the addition of a sound system –in any way. The two most challenging aspects of his job are pitching the sound system up steeply enough to get to the back row; and, making sure that production crews are aware of what it takes to navigate the approach to and from the stage’s loading dock.

Dowlen’s first gig at Red Rocks was in 1984, running sound for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  For that show, he simply placed three AKG 14’s  –microphones that are ultra sensitive across a full dynamic range–  on the stage.

Back then, “There were no grids or overhead frameworks to suspend or ‘fly’ speakers from.” Dowlen says. “Before [we had] the ability to fly we had to stack.  We’d stack…and pitch it back and aim it up the hill. I had an old stacking rig that we could put a 4×4 under the front edge of the subs [subwoofers] and then we’d stack it into the bays—that worked real good.”

For the Run-DMC and Beastie Boys shows in 1987, Dowlen’s system was awesome. “That thing crushed,” he says. “In ’84, we proved [sound] could go up the hill. In ’87, we proved [sound] could go up the hill loud,” he laughs.

The awe-inspiring Red Rocks Amphitheater, near Denver.

Dowlen did the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s sound when they were on top. During a Dirt Band show, he had the good fortune to meet balladeer John Denver, who showed up one day as a guest, and Dowlen, already with a good rep growing the business, later ran sound for Denver’s summer shows. “Those stick out ‘cuz they really had a Colorado connection.”

One other acoustical challenge at Red Rocks is adjusting for atmospheric and temperature changes. Weather can be tricky. The first show of the season at Red Rocks is usually Easter Sunrise service, a tradition first started in 1947. The venue continues to host shows into the first week of October. After that, acts are taking their chances. By Halloween, in the Rockies, it’s usually snowing.

Engineering the shows, Dowlen says, “You have to pay attention to how things are behaving. A typical summer evening, the temperature changes about 20-25 degrees. But in the fall, you can actually see it go from 80 degrees during the day to the 50s by the end of the show.” Thinning air means “You need a lot more P.A.” he explains, “And I’ve had to come up with different tunings than I would at sea level, because the time alignments [sound arrival times throughout the venue] sometimes shift at this altitude.”

In his college days, Dowlen studied electrical engineering at the University of Denver. His many years of experience mastering both the electronics and mechanics of his job have given him a unique perspective. “It all has to be one cohesive piece,” he says.

“As far as Red Rocks goes, it’s perfect. It’s a beautiful place to see a show. Everybody who’s played there has enjoyed it.” He’s appreciative of the opportunity to work in this special place, in a setting once known as one of the seven natural wonders of the world. “Everyday I get to work there is a great day.”

Another popular and well respected venue for music is back east, in Boston. Established in 1630, the Bay State city is renowned for its many fine educational institutions, among them Berklee College of Music. The Berklee Performance Center, one of five performance halls on campus, seats 1,200.

Housed in what was once known as the Fenway Theatre, the 37,500 square foot building was originally designed by architect Thomas Lamb. Purchased by Berklee in 1972, extensive renovations were completed in 1975. The interior was gutted—down to the brick walls—and converted to an auditorium, with Cavanaugh Tocci Associates handling the acoustics.

A view from the stage, Berklee Perfomance Center

Production Manager and Berklee professor Brad Berger began teaching Sound Reinforcement classes at Berklee in 1982. At that time, he recalls, “There was really no sound system. There was a little central cluster that was installed in ’75, just for voice. We installed the first real sound system in ’86, ’87.”  That system was unchanged until 2008, when Berklee installed a Meyer M’elodie line array system coupled with Galileo, “a system controller,” Berger explains. “It’s designed to go with the Meyer speakers. It’s basically a crossover, equalization and dynamics control.” For all things related to amplified sound, different venues employ different systems.

At Berklee and other venues,  another popular devise is used by sound crews to adjust or ‘tune’ the room. The “Tablet” as it is known, is a wireless, portable PC, that may be used to monitor, adjust or “tweak” the system while an engineer or an assistant walks the room.

At Berklee, “Horn” shaped walls project sound effortlessly from the stage outward. “You can whisper on stage and hear it in every seat of the theatre,” Brad says.  Parallel walls begin at about 25 feet from the stage. Surprisingly, all the auditorium’s wall surfaces are covered in hardwoods. Acoustical panels and “clouds” reflect sound from the ceiling; and angled walls in the back of the hall eliminate standing waves. Since the room is covered with sound absorbing materials, Berger terms it “pretty dead.”

Two other examples of well-loved performance spaces call New York City,  home: Carnegie Hall and Avery Fisher Hall. Among the multitude of places to hear music, Carnegie Hall is an unrivaled beacon of international cultural excellence. Unlike Carnegie  –occasionally noted for it’s ‘dry’ (also known as ‘dead’ sound, particularly once an audience has been added)– Avery Fisher Hall has been plagued with many acoustic problems from the start.

While specific designs and ‘variable acoustics’-type features help, Avery Fisher Hall remains an acoustics albatross. Ironically, this acoustically-challenged performance space bears the name of one of the world’s preeminent high-fidelity electronics manufacturers.

A graduate of N.Y.U., Avery Fisher began his career first in advertising and later publishing. From a musical family, violin was his chosen instrument. Though he never turned professional, he counted numerous musicians as his friends and devoted much of his more than generous philanthropic efforts toward furthering their careers, notably, pianist Emmanuel Ax and cellist Yo-Yo Ma, among many others.

The rise of the Fisher companies in the late-1930’s paralleled improvements in sound reproduction technologies. Beginning with his own refinements to existing radios, Fisher’s attentions soon included speakers, tuners and other components –custom crafted at the request of many of his friends. In 1969, Fisher sold his pioneering electronics company, returning to his alma mater to repay “old debts.” There, Fisher underwrote the Avery Fisher Listening Room within the Bobst Library.

At Lincoln Center, Fisher devoted much of his resources to the Avery Fisher Artist Program, something he was especially fond of. Later, the performance space then known as Philharmonic Hall, built in 1962, was named in his honor. With continued investments in musical artists, Fisher also agreed to direct funds toward improving the acoustics in the hall named for him, originally designed by architect Max Abramovitz. The firm of Bolt, Beranek and Newman handled the acoustics, with the end result including another irony: Beranek and company modeled much of their design on one of the world’s top performance spaces, Boston’s Symphony Hall.

The acoustically-challenged Avery Fisher Hall

The acoustics team was pressured to make allowances for additional seating, which was feared to have unknown acoustical consequences. Excessive cost overruns were also a factor. The modified design complicated matters  –the intervening years resulting in various plans to straighten out the acoustics.

Four different teams have attempted to revise the space for the better, to no avail. Noted acoustician Cyril Harris tried, as did venerated architect Philip Johnson –of glass house fame– with mixed results. Seating, sidewalls and ceiling panels continued to negatively impact sound.

A proposed merger of Carnegie Hall and Fisher Hall failed to gain traction in 2003. Discussions continue regarding what to do with the hall. Currently, there are plans in place to try another re-design, scheduled to begin in 2010.

By contrast, one of the acoustical highlights contributing to Carnegie’s hallowed sound include this significant fact: the building was constructed utilizing the Guastavino process, a structural masonry design featuring walls more than five feet thick. The principal architect was William Burnet Tuthill, an accomplished cellist, with consultants Dankmar Adler, Louis Sullivan and Richard Morris Hunt. Adler specialized in acoustics and had closely studied the Mormon Tabernacle design, shaped like an upturned boat –also called a “turtle back form.”

Carnegie Hall was initially envisioned as a home for both the Symphony Society and the Oratorio Society. Prior to Carnegie being constructed, these organizations vied for time and space in the Metropolitan Opera House, one of the only available venues in town –usually reserved for the Met’s resident company. Waiting in second position, The Philharmonic Society took precedence over other takers. The Oratorio Society was usually left out and resorted to giving performances within neighboring piano manufacturer showrooms, among them Chickering and Steinway, located on 14th Street.

Prior to its opening in the spring of 1891, streets adjacent to Carnegie’s site on  Seventh Avenue were as yet unpaved. The location, at the edge of Goat Hill, near Central Park, was so far uptown it was considered suburban.

Carnegie Hall in New York City

The hall’s storied past encompasses a wide range of musical performances and includes artists from the classical world as well as folk, jazz and rock. Rachmaninoff, Horowitz, Rubenstein and Van Cliburn have graced the stage, as have Pavarotti, Leontyne Price, Beverly Sills and Marion Anderson. Also, jazz icons Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, John Coltrane have been heard here, as have folk legends Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez. Rockers The Doors, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles too. Carnegie was their third tour stop in February, 1964.

In 1938 and ‘39, promoter John Hammond brought his “Spirituals to Swing” program to Carnegie. Originally, bluesman Robert Johnson was scheduled to appear along with Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Sonny Terry and Mitchell’s Christian Singers–the all-star line up illustrating the many different influences fueling swing. Robert Johnson died in August of 1938,  and promoter Hammond found a suitable replacement: Big Bill Broonzy.

Recordings of the concert were not originally issued. The liner notes to a 1970’s era re-issue (on the Vanguard label), written by Charles Edward Smith, state that: “The original disc acetates from which this recording was made were privately recorded for Mr. John Hammond as a memento of the concerts. They were played and replayed many times at his home. Then with the passage of time it became apparent that these recordings were of great historical and musical significance, making it imperative that they be preserved for posterity.”

Posterity, preserving what is important for future generations, is a noble goal. The cold facts surrounding acoustic perfection will likely never dampen our enthusiasm for music, enjoyed in some of our favorite places.

Even if a few tolerable compromises may be required, the world’s performance spaces retain their power to captivate us and transport us. Through the synergies of architecture, acoustic design and sound technology, great rooms can deliver great sounds. Paraphrasing Chips Davis: “It all comes down to who’s mixing the show.”

Published in: on June 16, 2011 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Here’s to Russ Solomon

(Note: This piece was originally posted in June, 2010.)

Well, word is in: longtime retail record pioneer Russ Solomon has officially retired from the retail music store business.

Solomon began his career in music retail at age 16, working the aisles and counter of his fathers drug store, Tower Drug, in downtown Sacramento, California. The year was 1941.

Following World War II, Solomon returned home to find that his father had expanded the music section of the store devoted to records.

In 1960, Tower Records was formally established. With added stores in Sacramento, San Francisco’s North Beach, the famed Sunset Strip in L.A. and beyond, the Tower brand and “deep catalog” concept swept the globe. If there was anything you were looking for in music, chances were good Tower had it.

Those were exciting times, Solomon explained with a laugh during one of several telephone interviews in 2007 and 2008. Of the early Tower Records–particularly the North Beach store–he said: “Those were the great years, man. That joint jumped!”

(During my various telephone interviews with him–for articles in Elmore Magazine,The Audiophile Voice, and my book Vinyl Lives–Solomon’s relaxed candor and comprehensive knowledge of the inner workings of the music business always impressed me. His ability to retain this avuncular nature, combined with a hands-on management style, endeared him to many associates, employees and a number of his fellow record store owners. Like many leaders, his stature within the record retail community includes the respect of  many of his competitors–and enemies–within the larger music industry).

To his detractors, Solomon gets flak for not staying ahead of the curve–and for not being able to prolong the relevancy (and solvency) of  Tower Records.

The formula for the store stayed the same, they said. Also, when digital came along, he missed the trend. In fact, Tower embraced the idea of (in-store) digital storefronts early on. But, by his own admission, Solomon never warmed to digitals’ purported benefits. The rise of file sharing didn’t help.

The solvency facet of the Tower story reads like an all-too-familiar-nowadays corporate yarn. The record store chain over-expanded globally, borrowed too much money and over-leveraged its assets. Eventually, banker/managers seized the reigns and–literally–drove Tower into the ground.

In my book Vinyl Lives, Solomon explains: “The new management that came in and forced us out–we were there physically, but we had no say in it–mismanaged it rather badly, and it just fell apart. They forced us to sell Japan, which was the only overseas market that was making any money. The American company all by itself, isolated and without debt, was making good money, but it couldn’t sustain the debt that was left over. The people that were managing it simply didn’t know what they were doing. And they wouldn’t listen to anybody. I mean, they’re bankers. Bankers can’t run businesses.”

To those who lost money, who feel that Tower stiffed them, Solomon responds:  “Tower didn’t do anything. When the management was running Tower, and allowed it to go into bankruptcy, people lost money. There’s no question about that. In fact, even today, it still hasn’t been settled out. And it’s going to be settled out for pennies on the dollar. Yes, Tower did stick people. But it wasn’t my fault, I can tell you that.”

Following the re-structuring, several Tower (franchise) stores remained open in Japan. The Tower website also continued.

In 2006, Solomon returned to Sacramento to open a variation on the Tower theme: R5 Records. With that event, his path in the music business had come full circle.

In May 2010, I learned that Solomon had recently remarried and planned to close R5, possibly by the end of the end of the month. Dimple Records (also based in Sacramento) would take over the R5 location, situated across the street from the current Tower Cafe. Housed in the original Tower Building, the Cafe resides in what was once the home of Tower Drug.

At age 85, Solomon closes the music retail sales chapter of his life with almost (rounding up only slightly) 70 years in the music business.

For those who experienced the presence and powers of Tower Records–their extensive and rich catalog of music, the ambience of a bustling and caring store that meant so much to so many–there’s an emptiness in knowing that Tower–and now Tower and R5’s founder–have been consigned to history.

Friday, June 11, 2010, was R5 Records last day.

Notwithstanding the negative feelings of many of those people adversely affected by the Tower failure–and the sizable drag of leftover debt on us taxpayers–Solomon’s many positive contributions to the music world remain.

Perhaps history will reflect this more positive side of Solomon’s story: Pioneer, visionary and gentle giant, Solomon’s legacy left an indelible imprint on the hearts and souls of music lovers everywhere. When the music industry surf was up, Russ Solomon was there, riding the biggest wave and making good things happen.

Published in: on June 13, 2010 at 12:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Rare Finds at Top Five Records

I’ve been looking for this one record. Not that this search consumes every fiber of my being or anything. It’s just that I saw it once, made a partial recording of five tracks and returned it to its owner.

That was in 1974. The owner was a guy named Leonce (Leon) Picot, owner of The DownUnder, a great restaurant (recently razed) located on the Intracoastal Waterway in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.

What happened was, one night while visiting the restaurant with my parents, I was smitten by the music being played over the house sound system. So, I asked who was picking out the music.

Meeting Mr. Picot–who, it turned out was an ex-jazz DJ–I asked him about the records that he was spinning.

In the early 1970s, cassette tape technology had improved, particularly with the addition of noise reduction technologies like Dolby. Around 1974, I had invested in my first tape recorder (a Yamaha) and for several months had been busy creating mix tapes of my records, which I liked to play in the car.

What I was after were records I didn’t have–rare jazz, swing, vocal groups, big band stuff–music that was slightly foreign, but worthwhile exploring. When I asked if I could take home some records to tape, Mr. Picot was open to the idea, suggesting  that we schedule a more convenient time during the next several days to come back and pick out the records.

Heading back a few days later,  I selected a bunch of 45s, 78s, several 10-inch records and numerous LPs to bring home. These were records by all sorts of great players, like saxophonist Flip Phillips–someone my Dad knew a lot about. Other artists included Nat “King” Cole, Woody Herman, Illinois Jacquet, Mildred Bailey, Jelly Roll Morton, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

Over the years, I’ve listened repeatedly to a lot of the music that I taped during that period. But there were five particular tracks that I often marveled over: “Bird’s Blues”, “Get Happy”, “Moose Mooch”, “Yardbird Suite” and “Ornithology”.(On my mix tape, I had followed those five tracks from that as-yet-unrecognised-and-unnamed record with Miles’s Steamin’ and Thelonius Monks’ Monk’s  Dream, among others).

About a year ago, I started playing that tape in the car again–wondering all the while what record the first five “lost” tracks appeared on.

In December of 2009, I heard about a new record store–Top Five Records–opening up in downtown Lake Worth, about a half an hours drive north and went to check it out. Owner John O’Keefe hadn’t officially opened yet, but I knocked on the front door and he motioned for me to come in.

It was quickly apparent that Top Five’s owner was that special combination of astute record collector and small business owner. The interior of the shop looked clean and modern, although most of the bins were only partially full. Some of the face-out display racks featured early rockabilly, soul and rock LPs. O’Keefe explained that his product mix would soon include 45s, and 78s, as well as posters and different types of memorabilia (signed guitars, antique radios, even a prized leather jacket) on display.

On a couple of my return trips to Top Five, I picked up some great early psychedelic rock (a copy of Ten Year After’s first album) and a bunch of great 45s: The Diamonds, Sam the Sham and The Pharoahs, Lowell Fulson, Joe Turner; and a Hank Williams 78–something that I’ve been trying to locate a reasonably priced copy of for a long, long time–his 1948 smash, “Move it on Over”.

A couple of months ago, I visited again and headed for the jazz bins.

Picking up an unfamiliar album, I looked past the cover and was instantly glued to the personnel listed on the back: Dizzy, Bird, Miles, Flip Phillips, Teddy Wilson, Al Hague, J.J. Johnson, Milt Jackson, Slam Stewart, Ray Brown, Max Roach…I recognised that lineup. But for some reason, I completely overlooked the track listings!

Low on funds, I asked John to hold the record for awhile. Then on Memorial Day weekend, I headed back to Top Five to retrieve the album: A Handful of Modern Jazz.

The odd thing was, I had brought along my old cassette with my handwritten listings of personnel and songs, explaining that I was still trying to find the album that contained those five tracks. Here I was with the album right in front of me! (To preserve the covers, many albums at the store are packaged with the disc and paper sleeve outside the actual cover, placed over the liner notes and inside another clear plastic sleeve).

It wasn’t until I got home and actually dropped the needle on “Bird’s Blues” that it finally hit me: I had, at long last, found the mystery record–a complete classic, featuring a who’s who of early bop stylists in their prime!

Top Five  rules!!!–it’s a heckuva store.  O’Keefe is there 5 days a week, Wednesday through Saturday, from 12noon to 8pm; Sundays from 12noon to 6pm. But don’t try to find the store on the web–Top Five doesn’t have a website, or an Ebay store either.

For owner John O’Keefe, business is “perfect”–he is completely content to have a locally based record store, with business driven by word of mouth. He enjoys marketing his well curated merchandise to young people and to serious (and also laid back) collectors and music lovers. Visit Top Five Records at 10 “J” Street, in Lake Worth, Florida; or, you can reach John O’Keefe on his cell phone: (561) 313-9387.

Published in: on May 30, 2010 at 2:02 pm  Leave a Comment  

My Somewhat Brief and Meandering Record Store Memoir

The Formative Years

The Formative Years

Pompano Beach, Florida

In 1964 or so, aged 10, I used to ride my bike to the nearby Beacon Light Shopping Center. There, Worden’s “5 cents to One Dollar” sat at one end of the shopping center, a few doors down from the Dairy Queen (demolished in 2009) and Rexall Drugs (now a real estate office), where they had a good magazine rack and a lunch counter.

Worden’s (now Worden’s Art and Framing) had a couple of bins of records, a small part of the store offerings which included toys and clothes. By today’s standards, Worden’s seemed small. But, to me at age 10 (like other impressions that only kids seem to have) it looked huge. (I recently called founder Bill Worden, who kindly verified that the circa 1964 store was actually fairly large indeed –5,000 square feet!). Worden’s was the only nearby place that stocked “Meet The Beatles.” So, after asking my Dad for a $3.00 loan, that’s where I went to buy my first LP.

When I was eight, my parents bought me my first set of drums –used Slingerlands– with pearl shells. The bass drum was massive! I located some bongos too. By age ten, I was trying to figure out ways to meet girls. My friend Bill and I had the idea to put on a concert in my backyard. We invited all the girls in the neighborhood (4 or 5) and I lip-synced to Peter and Gordon’s “World Without Love” while standing on top of the pool filtering box. My friend Bill played the bongos.

Prior to that time, I had the benefit of having two older brothers who liked music. I remember borrowing some of their records, notably a ‘45’ of Neil Sedaka’s “Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen.” That got a fair amount of play. And, someone (maybe my Dad) had an Ahmad Jamal album (Live at The Pershing). I loved the textures and atmosphere of the song “Moonlight in Vermont.”

Of course I owe a musical-as-well-as-everything-else debt to my parents, who really had some great records around the house. My Dad liked Gershwin, my Mom loved Benny Goodman. My Mom used to tell me about all those 78’s of Goodman’s she lugged around for years, until one day getting rid of them. Both my parents loved jazz and the popular songs of the great lyricists like Johnny Mercer and Cole Porter, as well as musicals like “Porgy and Bess”, “My Fair Lady” and “The Music Man”.

By the early 1960s, we had a decent stereo housed in a small living room cabinet. I don’t recall that it looked particularly complicated or fancy. The amplifier may’ve been something like an early Kenwood or Harmon/Kardon. We had a big beige Garrard turntable. There were two speakers, but I’m not sure what brand.

Around that time, we bought our first ‘window’ air-conditioning unit. This was a large box shaped unit with a big electric plug. We only had this one machine installed, just to cool off the living room, so we had to keep the doors to other rooms closed to enjoy the full effects.

My parents were OK with my using the stereo and I enjoyed turning that thing up! To me, the sound was just fine and it wouldn’t distort! My next big record buys were soundtacks from the movies “Exodus” and “Goldfinger”. I played the “Exodus” movie theme a lot and really liked the way it sounded. Shirley Bassey’s vocal on “Goldfinger” knocked me out and the orchestras on both records really sounded great.

Vincent’s Music
Boca Raton, Florida

In 1966, my family relocated two towns north. I left behind my first group of good friends. We built a new house on a golf course. My parents were only two years away from getting divorced. I was slow to make new friends and the new and improved lifestyle was a difficult adjustment.

In our new family room, we had built-in bookcases and cabinets. I think our old stereo made the move with us, but it sounded even better because now the speakers were up around ‘ear level.’ We had a big table and chairs where we would eat meals or entertain and usually the stereo was buzzing with different music.

My parents, along with (it seems now) every other parent in America, made the move to Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, while my brothers picked up on Simon and Garfunkel and The Mamas and the Papas. I carried on with my Beatles, meanwhile catching earfuls of different music (Wilson Pickett, The Who, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Cream and Jimi Hendrix) from my new friends, Steve and Jimmy.

Their parents had stereos too. Jimmy’s  father was a doctor. Their house had a whole room devoted to the ‘hi-fi’. With two built-in speakers –each about twice the size of our first air conditioner– the thing was truly a monster! I’ll always remember hearing Hendrix‘s “Third Stone from the Sun” and The Yardbirds’ “Over, Under, Sideways, Down” on that system.

The End  --my first band.

The End –my first band.

We enjoyed visiting Vincent’s Music, a short bike ride up Federal Highway. Sam Vincent, the owner, had lots of records, some of which he featured with small countertop displays. One of those covers made an immediate and lasting impression: “Absolutely Free”, by The Mothers of Invention (1967). Several years later, while living in San Francisco, I traded my copy of Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung” for a copy of Zappa’s record. My friend Chris said I was crazy. I told him emphatically that Zappa would forever outrank Tull.

Vincent’s was great. We could go there, spend some time, see what was going on and buy some of our favorite music. Mr. Vincent was very nice. He seemed to like us and had a warm and easygoing manner. He too made a vivid impression on me, mostly because he was selling records, but also because he was a good person.

In early 2005 or so, I found out that Mr. Vincent had long since retired from retail but was still around. So one day, I called him and thanked him for being such a positive influence on us kids and for his great store.

Recently, I was researching some early town history and looking for newspaper clippings with photos of Vincent’s Music. There weren’t any pictures, but there was an artist’s rendering of his second location. In the description of the new store, there was a brief mention about Mr. Vincent. Prior to moving to Florida, he lived in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where he’d been a big bandleader.

Discount Records
Menlo Park, California

A year after my parents divorce, and partly at the suggestion of my cousin Steve, I moved to California to attend boarding school. That year –academically– was a total disaster. But the California music scene was a totally different world from what I had grown up with. It was (and still is) incredible.

My school was located near a retail district within an easy walk of campus. At the time, Stewart Brand, of “Whole Earth Catalog” fame, had opened a Whole Earth Truck Store in Menlo Park (no, they didn’t sell any trucks, mostly books); and there was a great–and highly respected bookstore (which re-opened a couple of years ago), Kepler’s Books, also nearby.

In my time off from school, I had the good fortune of having those two stores nearby–and Discount Records.

Discount, though a ‘chain’, was small, with staffers and clerks who knew the music. They had a good sound system and would usually have something interesting on when I went in. It was at Discount that I first heard “Swiss Movement”, the Les McCann and Eddie Harris collaboration that seemed beyond cool to me. In particular, I was astounded to see Harris’s picture with all the electronics he used. That alone, at that time, was a sizable indicator of the sonic revolution ahead.

Tower Records,
San Francisco, California

The mother lode!

I can never really convey the impact of Tower. That location, at the corner of Columbus and Bay –on the edge of North Beach and across the street from Fisherman’s Wharf– was a short walk for where I lived downtown. Proximity meant visiting often. No problem! On my rounds, Tower became a regular stop, which might include other great shops like the legendary City Lights Books (on Columbus) and Caffé Trieste (on Upper Grant Street).

Tower was a favorite of many Bay Area musicians of every stripe. The aisles were clogged with stacked boxes, the ones on top cut open to reveal the hot albums of the moment. I bought a lot of records at Tower just because of the covers staring back at me, the minute I’d walk through the front door. One, Pink Floyd’s “Ummagumma” had a picture of one of the bands trucks on an open field, strewn with every piece of equipment that the band used in performances. Others, groups –like Blodwyn Pig– also made a vivid impression, even though I somehow resisted their great covers.

Russ Solomon, the man who started Tower in nearby Sacramento in 1960, was also a bit of a legend himself by then. There’s no doubt that without him, the Age of the LP would not have been quite as spectacular and memorable. Tower became famed for really understanding the music; and for pioneering various product display methods (‘Browser’ Bins, ‘Face Out’ Displays, pictures of artists on the walls and their huge renderings of album covers–used to great effect outside their stores–the equivalent of album cover billboards. Though Tower didn’t invent every new way to display and amplify the meaning of 12’x12′ records (some of their techniques were borrowed from traditional retail) they sure did make every possible effort to promote it as art.

San Francisco basement montage, by C. and B., 1972

San Francisco basement collage, by C. and B., 1972

The collage below was one that I put together in the 1980s. It’s still in use, but shows signs of water damage, thanks to Hurricane Wilma.

One of my early attempts at a music collage for my friend RPM.

Published in: on August 1, 2009 at 1:13 pm  Comments (1)  

About Me

In 2008,  after becoming concerned about the plight of record stores, I put together a book called Vinyl Lives: The Rise and Fall and Resurgence of the American Independent Record Store, now available in paperback.  Click here to find out more. Two more books followed, Vinyl Lives II in 2013, and Vinyl Lives On, in 2014.

For my third book, I wanted to include interviews with notable musicians who were also big time record collectors.

Vinyl Lives On spotlights several well known musician/collectors and includes in-depth interviews with sixteen U.S. music retailers. Featured musicians: • Theo Dasbach – singer/songwriter/pianist; Founder, Rock and Blues Museum, Clarksdale, Mississippi • Ray Benson – singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer; Co-Founder, Asleep at the Wheel • Henry Rollins – singer/songwriter/actor/radio show host; Black Flag, Rollins Band • Bill Frisell – guitarist/composer/arranger • Ursula 1000 (Alex Gimeno) – multi-instrumentalist/DJ • Joe Travers – drummer, Zappa Plays Zappa; Vaultmeister for the Frank Zappa Family Trust • Billy Vera – singer/songwriter/music historian/producer; Founder, Billy Vera and The Beaters.

As of 2017, the vinyl format has been mainstreamed. New vinyl is everywhere! Best Buy, Barnes and Noble, Whole Foods ?!…the format has become quite the darling of a young hipsters and wannabe hipster/oldsters. Record Store Day is now in its second decade. The cornucopia of records that are brought out for that event is mind boggling.


Published in: on June 14, 2009 at 10:47 am  Leave a Comment