A day at Chicago's Out Of The Past records shows that proper knowledge takes time to cook.
I head back to Out of the Past records to spend more time with Ethan, the guy who works there, as research for a business magazine article on what it's like to run an old-school record store these days. We spend the whole afternoon sat on crates in the stock room. 'You lucked out,' says Ethan when the day finally rolls to a close. 'I was planning on kicking you out hours ago.'
The day started with a drive round the area on a mission for ice to make snowballs, what Ethan describes as a ‘hood speciality’ – basically crushed ice and syrup sold from stands on the sidewalk. They have a table set up to sell the stuff outside the shop for the day. Ethan tells me how he's originally from Minnesota, and that he's worked at the sore for three years. He’s responsible for taking the sheer chaos that the place used to be in and turning it into the organized chaos one can see now. But his relationship with the store goes back way further than that: years of weekly visits ‘on an addicted basis’. ‘I missed maybe four Saturdays in five years,’ he says. ‘Six hours a day just digging.’
I ask Ethan whether they've got any copies of "Living Legend", the 1971 soul LP by Baby Huey, kicking about the place. I'm embarassed by my ignorance. Ethan tells me flat I won't find that, even in a place like this, basically a Saddam's treasure trove of old vinyl. He sets to explaining why. Huey was a huge act at the time, at least he was billed for massive things, and was on the same label as chart-toppers like Curtis Mayfield. But when the 400lbs singer died from a heroin overdose before the record came out (the sleeve featured his obituary), the LP's distribution was scaled right back. Which made it a coveted item even back then.
This comes as no surprise, as it’s full of tracks like this (as sampled in "The Dragon", Biz Markie’s ode to bad breath, among others):
If a record is that rare at the time of release, you can imagine what happens to the copies that are in circulation when you move 40 years down the line. It becomes almost impossible to find. It'll still exist in private collections, but it’s not an album that’ll wind up being brought to a store like this by any punter wandering in off the street. ‘It’s always been remarkably hard to get, and now it’s even worse,' says Ethan. 'Online it’ll go for up to $100 if it's clean. But you still have to find it, and I’ve only ever seen a couple of copies.’
He has a similar response to my enquiry about Tom Scott's "Honeysuckle Breeze" LP, which came out on Impulse! in 1967. I figure if anywhere has it it's a store like this. Again, though, I'm out-raring myself. Ethan has a copy of this, and admits he'd like to find a better copy, but Scott turns out to be another toughie: Impulse! is a major jazz label, but the saxophonist was only 18 when he recorded it, as a collection of cover versions, so again it wasn't pressed up as a major release. And again, that's both a shame and ace, as while it makes it almost impossible to find, it only makes it even more desirable.
I sit with Ethan as he goes through his eBay orders for the day. Someone in Norway's ordering lounge-jazzer George Benson’s 1976 LP "Breezin’". Ethan says this record is a big seller really for them right now. I'm curious as to why. How do trends work in used records? It’s not like a new pop release, which will have promotion and marketing muscle influencing people to buy it now. And it’s not like George Benson "Breezin’" is rare and covetable. Ethan says they’ve got boxes of copies lying around the place, and once I’m aware of it I see George’s face peering out from pretty much every stack of records I rummage through. They're selling it for just a couple of dollars.
So why are people buying George Benson's "Breezin'"?
‘My theory is that everyone’s poor,' says Ethan. 'There are troubles in the UK, Europe, even Japan after the Tsunami, and the US. People still want to buy records, but even $20 records are a luxury now. My theory is that people are now buying good condition cheap records – it’s decent music, it's doesn't break the bank, and it helps build their collection. And that's what everyone wants to do. Some collectors, who are only after the rare early Blue Note or Prestige releases, or esoteric weird stuff, would sniff at the mention of George Benson, but most people buying records just want good music.'
While all this is going on I am fighting the urge to rummage through the boxes and boxes of good music that Ethan has set aside for sale via eBay. I'd probably get stuck in if it wasn't for the sign, which makes the consequences of doing so abundantly clear.
Still, I spot Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin’s "Beautiful Love" LP in a pile next to me. Ethan and I share a moment over Gainsbourg. The record's not in perfect condition, so he lets me have it for the princely sum of $6. ‘It pains me to sell it to you,’ he’s man enough to admit.
On ne pas fucker avec Gainsbourg quand he’s on form.
Ethan tells me that while he was still a kid when he got his first record, a 7” single from the Beat Street movie soundtrack, he didn't get into collecting until he was in his mid-20s (he's 34 now). Back in Minnesota he was always buying CDs and cassettes, and continued when he moved to Chicago. The change came when one of his mates bought decks and a mixer and records, and told him he more than anyone needed to get into vinyl. 'I went out and bought a shit ton of music, and it quickly became addictive. You start paying attention to other artists. I was listening to loads of Grant Green, and thanks to reading the liner notes – which is better and easier on LPs than on CDs – I started noticing his collaborators. So now I know two or three new musicians, so the next time I buy stuff I get more Grant Green plus Lee Morgan. And so it goes. The wormhole is way easier to go down with vinyl than it was with CD. I became obsessed with researching. I credit that to records – you read and read and read.
For someone with such an affliction Chicago is a great/terrible place to be. As it was a crossroads for records going from coast-to-coast, from LA to New York, it used to be a serious record hub. Local giant Chess Records used to handle distribution for other labels too. Now Ethan reckons Chicago has a higher number of used records kicking around than NYC, in relation to its population size.
Gospel is a huge obsession for Chicago collectors apparently, and Ethan is no exception. Which is something I find fascinating, as I'd never even thought about the genre before. I'm not the only one. 'People are like: "What the fuck are you listening to gospel for if you're not a church-goer?" says Ethan. "What they don't realize is that all the great soul and jazz players came from the church. But gospel doesn't come on labels that have other genres on them, so there’s no way to stumble into it. And there are 1,000 gospel labels. It’s intimidating. It’s like you’re starting record collecting all over again – you’re like a baby, having to learn all the new players, labels and producers over again.'
It reminds me of when I started getting into jazz, after only ever really buying hip-hop. It's daunting, as you have a whole history to tap into, but the combination of discovery, an tangibly growing familiarity with an entirely new landscape, and a flowering understanding of a whole new approach to sounds is a thrilling and addictive feeling.
We take a stroll to the post office to dispatch the goods, and Ethan goes deeper into gospel's appeal. ‘Gospel for me satisfies all the weird little collectorisms,' he says. 'It’s completely unknown to the wider world – you’re off in your own world. But the music quality is just the same as all the other blues, pop and jazz of the era – it's just that it exists in this parallel universe. I started randomly, buying garbage, but I kept at it. Then a gospel expert friend of mine blew the doors off the whole thing. There’s so much to know, it’s a huge genre, there’s tons of it. And once you get that sickness? Holy shit...'
Not long after getting back Ethan gets a text telling him to come out to the front of the store – we have our first customer of the day. It's a young white guy in shorts and a boater, who's passing through Chicago and had heard the store was the place to come for gospel. He's holding a stack of LPs, and looks like he's been through the wars trying to dig it all out in this heat. And that's before Ethan points out the racks and boxes bursting with gospel LPs in the overflow section behind him.
He hauls his stash over to the record player to blast it through the store and check their potential. '‘I have no business being in this record store,’ he tells me. 'I have a huge record collection.' He buys $60-worth of records. A brief chat reveals he's Wilder Zoby, keyboard player and co-producer for rap legend El-P, whose new album I'd been listening to on the way to the store this morning. Crazy world, and a thoroughly nice bloke.
I manage to keep a lid on my spending today, augmenting the Gainsbourg LP with the purchase of a very tatty copy of Lou Donaldson’s "Mr Shing-A-Ling". It contains the track "Ode To Billie Joe". This track has been sampled to death in hip-hop, and it may not be as esoteric as gospel, but it does have drums that are going to take my humble little collection 1,000 times closer to God.
To make my total up to a round $10, Ethan takes me into a locked room and picks off a stack of fairly ruined-looking 45s that he swiftly rummages through. He gives me seven of them. One turns out to be ace – a comedy record by Pigmeat Markham that's been credited in some quarters as the first ever rap record. Given it came out in 1968 and sounds like this, you'd have to go pretty far back to beat it...
What a great day. Before I finally get out of Ethan's face, he mentions a Chicago spot called Fletcher's One Stop, basically a bloke with a basement store selling records by appointment only. It's a brilliant lead, and definitely something for my final fortnight in Chicago. But not before returning to Out of the Past one final time, to send myself down that gospel wormhole...