Diggin’ Vinyl

Fond memories reverberate through stacks of wax.

I miss records. I’m not talking about CD’s or downloading songs from iTunes. I mean phonograph records. You know, the round vinyl things with the hole in the middle.

Okay, I know that there are 44 billion songs available on the internet just waiting for me to push a button and they are mine, but I really miss records. I miss them because they require an effort to protect and to play, not to mention the fact that they sound superior to digital recordings. I get a warm, comforting feeling from hearing vinyl records, just like I do from eating country fried steak and gravy.

I also miss record stores. Where did they go? I crave the inconvenience of driving to the record store and parking my car and walking into a shop full of 33-1/3 rpm albums and with rows and rows of 45 rpm records. Those are the ones with the big hole in the middle. I used to get a rush just walking into the store and smelling incense and vinyl blended together forming an intoxicating mixture. I now have carpal tunnel syndrome from flipping through those gorgeous records in my youth. They would be arranged by artist, and I could riffle through a table of 45’s from Paul Anka to ZZ Top in three minutes and know immediately which ones I must buy. I was addicted from age 6 to age 60. Then it all went away. Did I say I miss records?

I’ve always been fascinated by things that go round and round and make music. As a child, I perhaps was hit in the head by a toy music box. As far back as I can recall, there were records in my home. First, there were 78 rpm records, but they broke too easily. I even had one that was recorded by my mother singing “White Christmas.” Our big floor model radio had a Victrola (now, there’s a new word for those of you under 70) in the top, but the sound was a bit distorted. That prompted me to become close to our next-door neighbors who had a better sounding system and more records. They were a nice couple whose son was in the Air Force stationed in Korea during the Korean War. They even had a Korean record that their son sent them in the mail. I played it repeatedly even though I didn’t understand any of the lyrics. I’m reminded of that record every time I hear the background music in an authentic Asian restaurant.

Our neighbors also had a memorable record by Stuart Hamblen called, “I Won’t Go Huntin’ With You, Jake, But I’ll Go Chasin’ Women.”

Oh, I won’t go huntin’ with you, Jake,
but I’ll go chasin’ women

So, put them hounds back in the pen
and quit that silly grinnin’.

Well, the moon is bright and I’m half tight
and my life is just beginnin’.

I won’t go huntin’ with you, Jake,
but I’ll go chasin’ women.

—Stuart Hamblen, 1949

My mother made a big deal about it when she heard I had sung that song in Sunday School. They asked if anyone knew a song to sing, and I was not bashful because I knew every word.

My life truly changed on my sixth birthday when my parents bought me an RCA Victor 45 rpm record player. You might remember those little ten-inch square players with the fat spindle in the middle. You could stack 10 or so 45 rpm records on the spindle, and they would play automatically. After one finished, the next one would fall into place. Mr. Allen Bell ran an appliance store on Broadway near Fairmont Boulevard, and he sold the player that would transform me into a lifetime vinyl junkie. Mr. Bell was a friend of my family and gave my father a box of 45 rpm records to play because we had none in the house. The box was a special release in celebration of the first anniversary of the introduction of the 45 rpm record and contained all RCA Victor records, and none were calculated to interest a six-year-old boy. However, the excitement of owning and playing my own records made the music genre and the artist insignificant to me. After all, I was graduating from my mother’s recording of “White Christmas” and a Korean love song. I still own that box of records, and it includes recordings by Vaughn Monroe, Glenn Miller, and the Sons of the Pioneers featuring their lead singer, Leonard Slye, who later would become a star in cowboy movies and take the stage name, Roy Rogers. I began to sing Vaughn Monroe’s “Racing With the Moon” around the house trying to imitate his deep baritone voice.

By age 10, I was reading Billboard magazine to keep up with new rock and roll releases.

I did not know it at the time, but I was part of a new era in popular music. This revolution was greatly influenced by the introduction of the 45 rpm record as stores like Mr. Bell’s appliance shop were soon to be transformed into record stores all over the country. The sale of record players brought customers back to purchase records. When there were records for sale, the refrigerators and stoves were moved out and racks of records were moved in. Soon, it became much easier to find recorded music and record players and more difficult to find a good, dependable oven.

For me, it was a short jump from Vaughn Monroe to “Bull Moose” Jackson to Bill Haley & The Comets to Little Richard and, of course, on to Elvis. In my youth, I had an insatiable appetite for early rock and roll, rhythm and blues, jazz, and even pop music. In those early days, pop music dominated the Hit Parade, including recordings by Eddie Fisher, the Ames Brothers, Jo Stafford, and Nat King Cole. Soon pop gave way to rock and doo-wop. In the 60s, my interest turned to country music, especially Johnny Cash.

When I say I miss record stores, I mean stores like Clark & Jones Music on Gay Street, Miller’s Department Store, and Woolworth. Clark & Jones sold sheet music originally, but suddenly opened a record store in the basement with private booths to test drive your purchase. It was the same at Miller’s, with 45 players in each booth. Woolworth had no listening booths, but plenty of tables with organized top new releases. It is embarrassing for me to now realize how indifferent I was about racial issues as a young boy. The very recording artists who made the records I loved and collected would have been unable to buy food at the Woolworth’s lunch counter at that time. My social consciousness was severely impaired. By age 10, I was reading Billboard magazine to keep up with new rock and roll releases by people like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, the Drifters, the Clovers, and Fats Domino. A good day for me as a kid would be to put on a starched pair of blue jeans and a white t-shirt and jump on a KTL bus from north Knoxville to Gay Street downtown. I would eat a couple of Krystals and drink an Orange Crush in a brown bottle. The first Krystal I remember was across the street from the Tennessee Theatre. Usually, I walked next door to Nan Denton’s and had a corn dog and an Orange Julius. After my brain freeze wore off, I was on my way to all of my favorite record stores to spend what little money I had saved or borrowed.

The best record store in Knoxville in those days was Mr. Sam Morrison’s Bell Record Sales on Market Square. Mr. Morrison was my friend in music and he always saved me the best new rock and roll. It was a shotgun store lined with 45 rpm records from the front to the back. He had a great Garrard turntable, and when he played a record it not only sounded great in the store, but also played over a speaker outside. The vendors selling fresh fruits and vegetables out of their trucks around the old Market House could dance and jump around to “I Got a Woman” by Ray Charles. Charlie Louvin of the Grand Ole Opry told of how he and his brother, Ira, would ride with their father from Sand Mountain in north Alabama to Knoxville’s Market Square to sell homegrown produce out of the family farm truck. The Louvin brothers would sing and play their guitars around Market Square probably to Mr. Morrison’s outdoor speaker.

Dougout Doug Dunlap had a store on Cumberland Avenue that was always an interesting place to visit and buy records. Doug was always on and cool. Each record came with a free show. I remember first hearing Doug Clark and The Hot Nuts and “Twist and Shout” at Dougout Doug’s. Sometimes, I bought records through the mail from Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville and Randy’s Record Mart in Gallatin as advertised on WLAC radio in Nashville. That’s where the good stuff was played from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Disc jockeys, John R., Gene Nobles, and “Hoss Man” Allen, promoted and sold packaged sets of records on commission, and it became headquarters for white kids buying black “race” records. Between record commercials, they sold bibles, zodiac necklaces, and baby chicks.

In my youth, I had occasion to be in several Knoxville radio stations. At WNOX, I was friends with Lowell Blanchard and Jerry Collins, and they would routinely give me promotional 45 rpm records that the station did not need or want. At WKGN, the top disc jockey was Eddie Parker, and he also would save me records for my collection. At some point, I bought a tape recorder and recorded Top 40 radio shows for songs I could not afford to buy. In fact, the first time Elvis was on the Ed Sullivan Show I hooked up my tape recorder and recorded him before I owned any of his records.

Through the years, I have kept all my vinyl records because, in many ways, they tell the story of my life. I recently visited Raven Records on North Central, which specializes in used records, and was immediately taken back to the good old days. Records were stacked everywhere, outdated advertising posters were on the wall, and lots of people like me were prowling around still diggin’ vinyl.   

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