I asked my brother to think about writing a music blog for me. I felt he would be a perfect choice for the job, I know of no one who loves music more and as you will see he made a career out of it for many years. I told him to think it over and get back to me. Two days later this gem arrived in my inbox. I guess the answer is yes. I hope you love this as much as I love him.
Hey, you remember the Five Heartbeats — a fictional account of black boys singing R&B music. But have you heard of the Five Turntables? It’s a nonfiction story of all blues, rock, and rhythm and blues. I had five turntables in my whole life, each one defined me then and still does. When I was 12 my older sister had a turntable built into an ugly little suitcase with a speaker and two knobs on the front. It was called a phonograph, and it only played singles, I think just because the design had prohibited playing the larger, handsome cousin of the 45, the 33 rpm. The 33 offered 10 songs instead of just an A & B side with two songs that were no longer than 3 minutes, If you laid on the floor with your head bent a certain way, you could put your one ear up against the beige webbed fabric that covered the speaker to protect it from people like me. At full volume you could hear a wall of music in mono. Every detail there just for you to notice. Like the drummer asking anybody for what key, what key in (Fingers Tips pt 2 by Stevie Wonder).
In fact my first table gave me the early Motown years. I learned about Motown Corp from my turntable — the purple-labeled Gordy records and the yellow and brown labeled Tamla. At 14, I was an expert on Motown, I swore I would work there one day. And in fact, I did, 15 years later. They couldn’t believe how much a white guy could know about their family. Let’s hire him. Me and my turntable at the time celebrated together the day I got the job. Champagne for me and a spray of WD 40 for my friend.
My sister had a limited collection of singles. You know, the little record with the big hole. Waxes, man, waxes. Fats Domino. Bobby Darin, Jan and Dean. Mostly white people faking race records of the time. Pat Boone, whiter than the White Stripes, covered Little Richard’s hit Be Bop Aloola. She had a select few doo wop records in her meager collection of singles, that was my version of western civilization at the time. — the starting point for a male groupie. Still it all sounded great to me. Even the print through, the sounds after the song ended, a ghost-like sound of the track being delayed. The best part a few seconds long, like the gizzard of a chicken. A jewel. I lived like this for years. When I went to college I was destined to meet someone with a better turntable , the second one I would become intimate with.
As soon as I got to college the Beatles and Stones came around. Up until that time record stores only has a small section of young adult music. Maybe a bin or less, the rest of the entire store was full of crap with the exception of a few mainstream jazz artists. There should have been an Italian greaseball section, Jerry Vale, Al Martino, and Mr. Jimmy Rosselli, all singing the same shitty songs, like Come Back to Sorrento. Still that small bin of rock records eventually became the entire back wall of new releases. I had found my home at last. I had a few dollars to buy the occasional new rock album. In Boston where I went to school, Dudley Street in Roxbury (my Harlem) was where you could find tons of race records that were not available at any other record stores, When those records met my roommate’s turntable I was lost forever. I should have sued the Rolling Stones for fucking up my life. I was never able to fit in with the rest of the world, They soiled me for the rest of my life. However, on the record player a 33 rpm LP cost 4 to 5 dollars but if you invested in a turntable you got so much value every time you played it. It gave many good times bringing the cost down every time you listened. Over 20 years, the 5 dollars was worth so much more in entertainment value. My girlfriend at BU gave me a portable stereo for graduation. I loved her for that, it’s all she ever gave me. At that time there were two speakers both bad. You could lie down on the floor between the right and left monaural speakers. A turntable made all this possible. Entire albums, both sides an impressive 40 minutes of ecstasy. It was a serious upgrade from my sister’s phonograph. By the time I graduated and started making records it seemed like the only thing in the world worth devoting a lifetime to, the process of producing records. I guess it was my version of the Peace Corp, a chance to make a real difference to the world, if only for those people who owned a turntable. How noble.
I ended up at the William Morris Agency and got a job in the mailroom. My first boss was David Geffen – and it was the turntable that made this possible.
For the first time I was able to buy my own turntable. Much like tires on a car determine ride and handling, the turntable was the most important part of the stereo system. It was the single most important element, even though most people were insane about speakers and amps. No one thought about the musical tire. Few people knew it, but I knew. Even if I only had ear phones, as long as I owned that round tool I would always be happy. This was 1967 and an average date was going to your apartment and listening to music, sometimes more. Drums of Passion by Olatunge may have been the best get laid investment you could make. I never had it in my collection but guys swore by it.
A few years later I became a staff record producer at Columbia and Epic Records. At that level you could get a stereo set up for home. The company was happy to give you whatever components you liked. I chose a different road — a system that sounded like the average person’s stereo. I didn’t want that perfect expensive sound like the recording studio. I wanted to hear it as it was really like on the radio or in a blue-collar house. I got just that, exceptionally honest, but flattering. It had a turntable with a cue arm you dropped down where desired. It was pretty posh and that setup lasted as long as the music business career did. But that was the one you never forget, like your first wife or first dog. We played so much music together.
By the 80’s I was working advertising and music still was an important component of my career. I knew this wasn’t a lie down on the floor between the speakers situation. I was too old to get that close to the music. But the turntable was still the heart of my first love…listening to music. I too was hoodwinked into digital music downloads, and even when they were free they were lacking. The sound of digital music is cold without warmth. There was no control over bass and treble, it was just all midrange. No personality, just crystal clear mediocrity. I used to listen to records for hours at a time, but listening to CDs or downloads I would get a headache after 90 minutes. It was over, with no good radio stations or record stores, that wonderful world that carried me from puberty to retirement was built by a world, for a world that didn’t exist anymore. Goodbye licorice pizza.
Recently a very old man went to a Bed Bath and Beyonce…you know the store. While snaking through the aisles looking for pillow, not to be used for listening to music, just to sleep, I spied with my cataract eye a handsomely designed, eye-catching turntable. In Bed Bath and Beyond? Yes, a blonde wood, very thin unit with speakers built-in. It was only 85 dollars. You didn’t need anything but electricity. It was called an archival turntable, something to identify records by sound. It had an earphone jack and output line to connect to amps and speakers, to be used only if you wanted to kick it up a notch. I thought it was the most beautiful object since the Jaguar XKE in the early sixties.
Of course bought it. It was God’s way of saying, “Here you go, old man, you could use a break.” I slowly began to buy records again. I hadn’t done so since the 90’s. I revisited my original well-maintained records, records from fifty years ago, dusted them and prepared them for an audio reunion. The new turntable played 33 and 45 rpm. 78 rpm was now not needed. I felt reborn, the object that guided my life came back to say goodbye.
If you ever find yourself in a musical mood in Bed and Bath remember me and look for the most important invention of the 20th Century. And I thought I had closed the dust cover for the last time.