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Turning Base Vinyl Into Gold

(1740 total words in this text)
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  Turning Base Vinyl Into Gold
  By Wilhelm Murg, 3/1999

Today every mallrat record store is pushing the same product to an ungrateful nation while robots commandeer our radio stations and play the exact same music regardless of where the broadcast is originating. But there was a time when madmen ruled the local record trade. Once upon a time in the 70's, the streets of Tulsa were littered with strange, oddball little independent record shops that catered exclusively to particular genres of music. Each store had its own ambience, its own personality, its own look, and its own distinctive smell. It was a time when buying a record was an adventure.

One of the more mind-bending places you could shop was White's Records. "White's" was something of a misleading name as Mr. White was an African-American entrepreneur who specialized in soul, the blues, and jazz music. You must remember that this was all taking place in the early 1970's when the epic struggle for civil rights was still fresh in everyone's mind and the world was finally embracing the roots of American music. Radio had yet to be segregated. It was possible for a record store to be based in black music and not only survive, but prosper.

White's mothership was located at Lewis and the 36th Street North, in a building which is now Joe Johnson's Auto Body Shop. The building was (and still is) an ugly mustard-colored affair, but in the frenzied leftover psychedelic aesthetic of 1971, someone bought a gallon of black paint, and presumably a controlled substance, and composed a wildly asymmetrical design Edenthat seemed to have been influenced by everything from African motifs to comic art and graffiti. The result was a beautiful mess, an eye-catching eyesore on a kamikaze mission that refused to blend into the landscape.

But all the energy that went into the outward appearance of White's first store was turned inward for its sister shop, located between Frankfort and Hartford on 46th Street North in what is now a virtually abandoned shopping center (however, even abandoned, the area still seems to draw a lot of foot traffic on a Saturday night.) The sister store had an amazing collection of jazz, blues and obscure black comedy albums (like LaWanda Page's blue stand-up discs with Slick and Skillet.) To my barely pubescent ears, the collection was like a thunderbolt from outer space. The first time I ever heard John Coltrane was in that store. But the real acid test was happening in the back, in the blacklight room. Every icon of the 1970's was taped up in there, glowing before your eyes; Wyle E. Coyote strangling The Roadrunner over the legend "Beep Beep My Ass," beautiful, topless, Nubian goddesses sporting afros that made up a third of their height, Satan burning through a floor where a pentagram had been painted, the melting Statue of Liberty with The Beatles heads on Mount Rushmore, and the usual suspects; magic dragons, tacky sexual cartoons, band logos, andOp Arthypnotic designs. There were so many images that you could read a newspaper just from the glow the posters were giving off. White's Records disappeared some time in the late 1970's.

Catering to a more upscale audience was The Gramophone Shop, located between Peoria and Lewis on 15th Street. The Gramophone Shop was run by an Englishman, David Hedges, out of the basement of his elegant home. The only major draw back was that he also did all the cooking in the family, so the store was always filled with odors from the kitchen, usually stews and beans. Hedges was anal retentive about classical music. You could hum three notes from one part of some obscure motet and he could usually pull a copy of the piece you were asking about from his personal collection of ten thousand LPs. While Hedges' obsession was a great plus for local record collectors, the quality control could get very tiresome. I remember looking for a piece by Satie that was only available from a record label Hedges didn't want to soil his store with. I had to debate with him as to why I needed the piece before he would order it. Hedges closed his shop in the late 1980's when he moved back to England. His wonderful store and home is now a mortuary, which I still see as an ominous sign for Tulsa Music.

Probably the most illegal music store to ever get a business license in Tulsa was Tape City, a true Mom & Pop store located a few blocks North of 21st street on Harvard. It was run by a nice older couple who looked like the last thing they should have been doing was bootlegging music next to an elementary school. While they sold new and used 8-tracks, cassettes, and reel-to-reel tapes, their bread and butter were these jukeboxes that had 8-track recording heads built in (these were not hot-wired garage collages; though I never saw these machines anywhere else, they were beautifully manufactured.) The trick was simple; you go in, find a bunch of hit songs you wanted, then put in your coins and buy a tape that was just the right length and you had your own customized 8-track tape version of a K-Tel album. I had a girlfriend who was hooked on these stupid tapes. The major letdown was, like all jukeboxes, there is a random factor in how the songs were programmed, thus "Kung Fu Fighting" would be followed by "You Light Up My Life," followed by "Ramblin' Man," followed by "Slow Ride" (the single edit, of course.) I'm not proud; I admit to doing the seventies. In the early seventies, a series of hippie-owned record stores opened up, such as Honest John's (which is now Starship,) Big Bad John's (next to The Fontana Theater,)Relayer, cover by Roger Dean But one always had the feeling that there were just not enough local hippies to keep so many stores open (though there were enough stoners in the area to keep the two main headshops, Starship and Oz, open to this day.) Each of these stores were marked by the same look; a lot of hairy guys with blank stares grooving to the music under posters that attempted to look like Roger Dean paintings from Yes album covers. It was hard to get out of there without being called Dude, or Man. I'm sure a lot of the profits from these stores simply went up in smoke.
There was also considerable trade going on in the used record stores around Tulsa. Most of the used record stores were run by a small group of people who seemed somewhat incestuous in their business dealings. I believe they all learned from working with one another, but I could never tell who the godfather of the organization actually was. There were Wolfman Records, Wizzard's, Discovery Records, Golden Sounds, and The Record Alley. Myths and legends abound about the group; from one stealing the other's name, to one stealing the other's product (rumored to have had a court settlement for lifting $20,000 in scratchy records,) to one raising money for a D.U.I. by having a dollar sale one afternoon, thus losing every decent title in stock in one dumb move. The Record Alley (photo by Curtis Winchester) Most of them are still in the record business, but I don't believe any of them currently have a store.
However, the all-time coolest store in Tulsa was Lee's Records, run by an aging rockabilly who, even in his mid-life crisis, was still pumpin' his Grecian-Formula black pompadour. Lee's was one of those places where rock'n'roll wasn't just a business, it was a way of life. In order to make a purchase you had to approach a shrine filled with Elvis memorabilia which also worked as a right handy counter top. While other stores were obsessive about having clean copies of the latest hit records, Lee's catered to a crowd that didn't care as much about quality or hits as they did about simply having a slab of rock'n'roll history. A standing ashtray regally stood at the end of every record aisle. The wall had a display of just about every country, western, and rock'n'roll star to play The Cain's standing with Lee (though a bloodstained Sid Vicious was noticeably absent.) Bob Wills at the Cain's One life-changing moment I had at Lee's was when the former teeny-bopper-turned-grandmother was going through a stack of 1950's rock'n'roll magazines and came upon a cover featuring Ricky Nelson in his prime. She said, "Just look at this picture of Ricky," then swooned. It was the first time I fully realized the transcendental state of sexual awakening that teen idols caused, even producing palpitations a quarter century after the fact, with Ricky s libido jumpin' across time, space and the netherworld. Lee's moved and I lost track of them, but it was one of the greatest experiences I ever had buying records.

The death of the independent record store came about with Peaches, which later turned into Buttons, and is now Blockbuster Entertainment (and now a furniture store...webmaster). Peaches was a record warehouse with over a million dollars in inventory. Virtually every domestic record in print was sitting there in the middle of Tulsa.. Around the same time Woodland Hills Mall also came in and suddenly there was no need to go anywhere else for records. Radio stations started narrow-casting and putting certain songs in heavy rotation. AM radio was turning into an all-talk format. MTV homogenized popular music taste from coast to coast. The days when the local disc-jockey could play anything he wanted were long gone. Music became contained to such an extent that even the local Sears could stock the records that were likely to sell.

Though we have independent music dealers in the area, I miss the days when you could go into a record store and have no earthly idea of what you were going to come out with.

(The author would like to thank to Doug Miller for driving him around to find these abandoned record stores one Saturday Night.)


(Printed by permission, © 1999, Wilhelm Murg. All rights reserved.)

  About the Author

Wilhelm Murg currently writes for Outline Magazine. He has also been involved with Tulsa TV Memories.
 


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