Gillian & Gary Atkinson – photo Robert Perry (c) The Scotsman, 2013.
I was born in Hull 6th January 1956. My first home was in a prefab on Preston Road. I moved away from the city in 1979 but I am still a Hull boy, through and through and revisit my beloved city several times a year. Hull was where all of the foundations for my love of music were laid. I performed there as a young musician and this was also where I began to amass my record collection.
I performed there as a young musician and this was also where I began to amass my record collection.
Since leaving Hull I worked as a music agent, mainly bringing musicians over from the States to tour in the UK. After that, I bought the heritage re-issue record label Document Records (then based in Vienna) which has, reputedly, the largest record catalog of vintage blues, jazz, gospel and early country recordings in the world, with nearly thirty thousand recordings; many of which are extremely rare. Since then, I have worked with ex Stones bass player, Bill Wyman plus Jack White, Paul Simon, John Mayall and others. Document also licenses music to film and TV around the world but mainly in the USA. Currently, we have just licensed music for a major film which tells the story of Motown and one of our tracks was picked by Clint Eastwood for a film which he has been producing. There is much more.
My links to Hull remain very strong and they always will be.
(Gary Atkinson, 2019)
A few years back, Gary was asked by the publisher Faber to write a short series about his life long affair with vinyl records. Titled “Confessions Of A Vinyl Addict”, It was used for their on-line blog. We are delighted to have been given permission to reproduce it in full here on the Hull Music Archive website. This is a great read charting Gary’s love of music and eventual acquisition of specialist label Document Records, taking in crate digging in Sheridan’s to phone calls from Jack White. Read all four parts of Gary’s story below…
Standard recording contracts, or any contract which involves the production and distribution or licensing of a sound recording, carry a ‘Territory’ clause outlining where in the world the recordings will be sold or used, for example, either as records or in films or TV advertisements. In the distant past it was not unusual for the territory to be defined as ‘the world’. However, within the last couple of decades this clause has been broadened out and in some cases states ‘the world together with the universe which may from time to time be visited or occupied by man’. This additional wording is an attempt to cover any type of electronic or digital transfer of music downloaded via satellites some 150 to 450 miles up in space, whizzing around the planet at a decent 17,000 mph. You don’t find any of that warmth in outer space.
As the digital revolution erupted and poured into the average household with CD players, and computers with CD-burning abilities and access to the Internet, for a time it looked like the digital carving knife of the recording process and the silver CD that it would be served on would cut out the warmth for ever. The clearest thing that could be heard with the advent of the digital CD was the death knell for vinyl. Ironically, after the record industry had more or less thrown vinyl out with the metal master’s electroplating bath water, some of the early rock and pop CDs featured the scratch and crackle sounds of vinyl, including albums by Beck and Gomez. Yet, though such noises (becoming something of a soundtrack for the retro era) came through loud and clear, the subtle sound of warmth, like a record’s organic, steady breath, was no longer there.
I have tried to imagine young teenagers inviting their friends, girlfriends or boyfriends up to their bedrooms, sweeping a hand in front of their computer screen and proudly saying ‘So, what do you think to my record collection?’ Surely, one of the best ways to get to know someone, break the ice, discover what someone is about, acquire an insight into what makes them tick, was to flick casually through their record collection, with such comments as, ‘I’ve got this, it’s great,’ or, ‘Brilliant, I didn’t know you had this,’ or, ‘Bloody awful!’ followed by smiles and a mixture of dissent and amusement as you pretended to Frisbee the offending article across the room. Real gems would be met with ecstatic groans and gasps of admiration. Records carry within their grooves every emotion known to the human race, from hot passion to cold dejection, from elation to despair. Curiously, the records themselves can create passionate feelings and intense debate themselves, with stories being told about where they were bought, the description of the record shop, the occasion, who they were with and even the weather at the time. For the first few years of collecting I wrote the date, where I bought the LP and, occasionally, how much I bought it for on the inside of every LP sleeve, along with my signature. A practice which I now regret stopping, because pulling an inner-sleeve out of those earlier purchases brings back some marvellous memories. Now one can go into someone’s home and not have any clue as to whether they are huge music fan or not. Gone are the experiences, memories, the full gamut of emotions of a person’s life presented there in a tangible, tactile, three-dimensional form. With a record collection, there on the shelves is the music, but there also is the companion that you share the music with – the record. So often I have not only heard the phrase ‘I love my music’ but also ‘I love my records’, as if these were two separate entities, inexorably brought together. Will anyone in the future be talking about the joy of downloading? Is it really as exciting as going to the record shop for a browse, a pre-planned or unexpected purchase? Will they talk about how they gazed at the WAV file, absorbing the design of the icon, which is just the same as millions of others, before playing it? And will we ever hear the phrase that has people nodding knowingly in agreement, ‘I love my MP3s’?
I was born at the time when 78 rpm shellac records, the CD of the day, were coming towards the end of their fifty-year reign. Although vinyl had been around for a few years, it was not until the late 1950s that the new vinyl ‘single’ or ’45’, as it was also known, began to sell in great quantities. By the end of the fifties it was all over for the heavy, easily breakable, ten-inch 78, and there was no looking back for the new, easily portable and practically indestructible 45.
When I left the Cottingham Road maternity hospital in Hull, East Yorkshire, having recently been born there, in January 1956, records were already waiting for me at home: rock and roll 78s by Elvis Presley and Bill Haley, skiffle by Lonnie Donegan, Johnny Duncan, Chris Barber and others were all there in quantity. But then there were records from where my father’s heart truly lay – jazz and blues. Jazz by people like King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Louis Armstrong, Kid Ory; blues by such artists as Big Bill Broonzy, Sonny Terry, Roosevelt Sykes, Fats Domino, Jimmy Yancey and more. There were also new vinyl 45 EPs by the likes of the Everly Brothers and many of the names that were already on the 78s.
By the time that I was about four years old, my father and I were already having record-playing sessions. Before I could read I would choose records according to how attracted I was to the colours and design of the labels. I clearly remember choosing Brunswicks because of their dark, chocolaty colour and ornate design. ‘Georgia Bo Bo’ by Louis Armstrong became an early favourite, as did the riotous ‘Steamboat Stomp’ by Jelly Roll Morton, initially chosen by me not because of Jelly Roll’s fantastic skills and artistry as a jazzman but because of the curious little dog sitting by the horn of a gramophone on the red HMV label.
My father loved this music. He was not an expert on it. He wasn’t bothered about who recorded what when. Matrix numbers, issue numbers, labels or recording dates were not important to him. All that mattered was the music. It was his fix. Even though he lived over 3,000 miles away from where this music came from and a world away from the society and lifestyle that went towards creating it, he seemed to instinctively empathise with it and those that performed it, and as I later learned more and more about this music, the more I realised that his instinctive, self-educated understanding of it was so correct.
By the time that I was seven or eight years old, he would explain in his own layman’s way as the records played how a piece would work. ‘OK, so the band has established the melody. They’re all going with it, but, now listen, each one of the band is going to play their own interpretation of the tune. Here comes the piano player –‘ He would pause and let me take it in. ‘Now, here comes the clarinet player. He’s playing the same thing but he plays it differently to the piano player –‘ Another pause as we both listened, and so on. Finally, he would say ‘And now they’re all going to come back together and all of those interpretations will become one sound, but if you listen you can still hear each musician putting in their own version.’ It is only now, looking back, that I realise that I was already, at such a young age, getting my own private lectures on jazz, blues, syncopation, improvisation, and so much more. But I wasn’t self-consciously a blues fan. It was all quite normal to me – for this music to be played in the house, with all of the family loving it. In fact, as I began to visit my friend’s houses, I found it increasingly odd that this music was not being played in them.
The first record that I purchased was ‘Love Is Strange’ by the Everly Brothers, which I bought at the age of nine. The record shop was owned by a blind chap. He wore a brown dust coat and would courteously ask, ‘Would you like to listen to it?’ There was no listening booth. Instead, there was a record player, with its lid up, sat on the counter. Carefully, but without one wrong move, the old chap would put the record of your choice onto the turntable, steadily lower the stylus, and then listen to the record with you. ‘Would you like that?’ he would ask, as the record came to an end and the automated mechanism clattered its way to putting the tone arm back onto its rest. This was 1965. Happier and safer days one might say, but it wasn’t. Later, perhaps only by a few months, the blind old man was mugged, beaten up in his own shop and left for dead with the till cleared out.
When I was eight my brother, Mike, six years older than me, began to buy ‘singles’ at a fairly regular rate. Again, his leaning was towards the blues. Over the next few years the Atkinson record library swelled with additions by the likes of the Spencer Davis Group, the Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Blues Breakers and the Animals.
With the arrival of his EPs and LPs came the added bonus of some sketchy but nevertheless significant and welcome information to be found in the sleeve notes. They gave clues about those who were influencing the blues boom of the early 1960s. Odd names like Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Slim Harpo and Howlin’ Wolf were cropping up, along with Jimmy Reed, John Lee Hooker and Sonny Boy Williamson. At the same time, Mike was visiting a folk and blues club in town. Whilst the electric British ‘R ‘n’ B’ bands were mimicking their heroes and bringing their music to a new and delighted audience, so too were musicians performing material by the older pre-war blues artists. It wasn’t long before Mike was bringing home LPs by people such as Jo Ann Kelly and Stefan Grossman. Notes found on the back of LPs by these artists brought attention to stranger names – Memphis Minnie, Mississippi Fred McDowell and Son House, to name a few. But the LP Mike bought that had the greatest effect on me was Oh, Really! by Mike Cooper. For some reason, despite all that I had heard before, this album, with its hard-hitting country blues, bottleneck being played at full throttle on an old 1927 National resonator guitar practically blew me off my feet and into another dimension. I had heard nothing like it before. It had the effect of a starting pistol. Something went off in my head and that was it. Perhaps it was the timing, where I was in life, hormones, fertile imagination, an explosion of creativity going on in my head. I don’t know. The effect of that album was an event waiting to happen. The building had been filling up with highly inflammable fumes over the years and all that it was waiting for was someone to unwittingly stroll in and light a match. That someone was Mike Cooper and the match was Oh Really! With that I started to buy vinyl with a vengeance. It was 1969 and I was thirteen.
No sooner had I exhausted the offerings of the budget labels, than I made a wonderful discovery – a ‘book and record exchange’. Newly opened on Carr Lane just south of the city centre, it was run by a chap called John Sheridan, a brooding, quiet-spoken man. With lengthy grey hair, sometimes tied in a pony tail, I could never quite tell whether he was friend or foe. A little daunting, both visually and characteristically, he was not unlike the Professor Dumbledore character played by Richard Harris in the Harry Potter movies, and this walk-in magic box of vinyl could have been comfortably placed in Diagon Alley. As a fresh-faced thirteen year old, late on a cold December afternoon, I walked into the shop and found the blues section. Immediately, I practically passed out, having come across Blind Willie McTell’s 1940 Library of Congress sessions. Completely beside myself, I walked up to the counter and handed the empty sleeve over to Sheridan. He looked down at the sleeve over his wire-rimmed glasses, studied it for a moment and then looked back up at me. ‘You want this?’ he asked in a soft Irish voice. The word ‘this’ was accentuated by him glancing down at the sleeve and then quickly back at me. It was as if to say, ‘Do you know what this is?’ My ears detected a tone of menace, perhaps concern, as though he’d said, ‘You young fool, do you know what you’re getting yourself into?’ The LP was put into a plain brown paper bag and with it I stepped back out into the darkening wintry air. As I walked quickly away I felt, for the first time, an odd sense of having just done something that wasn’t quite right, something that wasn’t socially acceptable. Why were my hands soaked with nervous sweat? Why was my heart thumping? Why did I have a sense of excitement and guilt mixed together? It was practically as if Sheridan had metamorphosed into a shady drug dealer and the drug was vinyl.
I took my LP home and seconds after the stylus kissed the vinyl of my new friend, in my bedroom, I was hit by the driving sound of McTell’s first few intense bars of music, played with great zeal on his 12-string guitar. It had an immediate and life-changing effect on me; the nearby River Humber turned into the Mississippi, the flat, fertile farmland around me became the Delta, and Hull, as anyone could surely see, had turned into Memphis, or was it Atlanta or Jackson? I could never quite tell. Life was now an ongoing explosion of discovery, and as more and more music came into my bedroom, served on a platter of vinyl.
By the time I was fifteen I had become a nigh-on unbearable purist. It was vintage, pre-war blues recordings from the 1920s and ’30s or nothing. I had stopped watching Top of the Pops and had no interest in what was happening in the charts. The whole thing was a tedious, puerile abomination. Anyone not able to understand the sublime integrity of the records I was prepared to trade my soul for was, in my eyes, little more than an imbecile.
It was clear to all concerned, including friends and family, that my collecting habits had become serious and possessed a worrying air of longevity. My mother had become concerned about how I was spending my money. My father put up a case for my defence, but he had an ulterior motive. Some years later, he confessed that when I used to go to him, appealing that I had found a bunch of ‘must buy’ records and was short by a pound or two, he would subsidise me, convinced that I would eventually tire of all of this and the collection would become his. Sadly, his plan backfired on him and he never saw his vision come true. Yet, even though my mother’s concerns had been, to some extent, alleviated, I was very mindful of them and would return home from a Saturday record-buying binge with a twelve-inch square chest, having stuffed my latest haul up my jumper to dodge parental customs and excise. It was then a quick-paced walk to the stairs, which I would ascend, two or three at a time, trying to remain calm and without raising any suspicion.
Things got even better. Shortly after, Sheridan opened up a second, bigger shop a mile or so from the north-west of the city centre on Princess Avenue. It was a shrewd move. This Victorian, double-fronted shop, with its large windows, was situated within the university student’s accommodation area. By this time I had left school and had settled into my first ‘proper job’, as an office junior in the huge Dickensian accounts section of the City Engineers Department of the Hull Corporation. The wonderful thing about this was that we had an hour and a half for lunch. Instead of having an electronic clocking on/off machine there was a register, a large book with a pencil tied to it. The lunch period stretched over three hours, from twelve to three o’clock. There were around fifty people in that office, many young teenagers like me. Shortly after starting, I was told by my young colleagues that if I wanted a long lunch all I had to do was ask someone who was staying in the office over lunch to sign me back in at 1:30. Consequently, I would often sign out at 12:00 and go on a three-hour record-browsing rampage, usually making a bee line for Sheridan’s Princes Avenue shop.
It was the uncertainty, the not knowing what would be trawled up in the nets as I bobbed around the book and record exchanges on those lunchtime and Saturday expeditions that created the excitement leading up to a find. The majority of records were from established collections and were usually a few years old, at least. This gave me a chance to do some catching up on many wonderful releases before I became a collector. I think that the earliest LP I bought at that time was a Sonny Terry album on the Topic label, which had been released in the late fifties. Some records had been brought in from bigger cities and were far more interesting than what I could buy, new, in town – such as Jesse Fuller’s rare Frisco Bound album on Cavalier. And get this, it was SIGNED Jesse “Lone Cat” Fuller on the front.
Visiting the Princes Avenue shop, nestled deep within bedsit land, it didn’t take long for me to work out the weak points in the student fiscal calendar. I soon learned that those students who liked blues and had brought with them some excellent LPs from afar also had a tendency to hit a financial crisis at around Easter. Although I admired their musical taste and sympathised with their impecuniousness, the advantage proved time and again to be mine. Going through the racks was like panning for gold. Striking it lucky depended on a sequence of events.
For example; blues-LP-owning student from one of the country’s bigger cities, after considering various options, is now attending Hull University. Student decides, at last minute, not to return to family home for the break and unexpectedly meets girl or boy of his or her dreams at Christmas or New Year’s Eve party. Student develops relationship. With relationships comes happiness, good times, festivals, pubs, cinemas, clubs, endless phone calls etc. By Easter student is lost in heady romantic whirl which has cost quite a bit more than student expected or budgeted for, but for the moment he or she doesn’t care. Eventually, after a reluctant look at student’s bank statement, student starts to wake up from ‘to hell with the money, I’m in love’ dream. Student is brought out of his or her trance by their rapidly depleting bank balance. They are back in the bedsit room and find, under discarded fish-and-chip paper and empty cans, the deadly final demand for rent. Student franticly calculates how many weeks to go before the summer break and considers options. Parents? Luck has run out. New partner? Too early into relationship. Try and get job back working behind bar of nearby pub? They won’t have student back because of that disgraceful behaviour towards one of the customers and then not turning up the next day for work. Despite reducing weekly food budget and living on a diet of cheese on toast and the odd tin of beans, student has suddenly arrived at a financial crisis. Last option is the nuclear one. Go to Sheridan’s on Princess Avenue and get money for blues LPs. Meanwhile, record-buying fiend walks into the shop and BINGO! With a slight tremble in my hand and an intent stare at the covers that, only hours before, lived in student’s nearby bedsit, I hear the stylus settle down onto the vinyl and I swear that Robert Johnson and all of his Delta blues chums begin the opening bars of the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’. The whole unpredictable process has been like the effect of a butterfly flapping its wings on the other side of the planet. Indeed, the student would probably agree that my having struck gold in the vinyl mine was the result of his chaos. Like a vulture perched on a telegraph wire biding its time, all Atkinson had to do was wait for financial disaster to hit before he would swoop on his prey and gorge himself on an orgy of sound.
Two labels were of particular interest to me in the early days. The Yazoo label, based in New York, which was established by Nick Perls, a young , independently wealthy East Coast collector of old blues records. Yazoo albums were very well put together with excellent sound restoration, re-mastering and informative sleeve notes. The Roots label was equally interesting, but compared to Yazoo its LPs had an anarchic quality about them. There were no concessions towards sound restoration and no sleeve notes whatsoever. Only occasionally would original recording dates be shown. Nevertheless, of the two labels, Roots albums seemed to dig deeper into the stock of obscure blues recordings. The only other information given on the backs of Roots record sleeves was a mysterious Viennese address and the name Johnny Parth. Little did I know, as I bought these records second-hand as a young teenager, that this name would mean a great deal to me some twenty-five years later.
On the Saturday afternoon following the conversation with Dave, the countryside’s tranquillity was shattered by the roaring noise of motor scooter engines. I opened the front door and to my astonishment watched a small armada of Vespas, liberally adorned with mirrors and headlights, pull into the drive of the house where I then lived with my parents, in the village of South Cave, twenty miles west of Hull. Sat as a passenger on the leading scooter was Dave, holding tightly onto a bunch of LPs. Each scooter had a driver with a passenger holding their own bundle of albums. Dave apologised for the intrusion but said that it was important. Apparently, he had been bothered by our discussion regarding Rory Gallagher or, more to the point, the lack of it. It had played on his mind for the rest of the week as to how intransigent I was about music and had decided to take matters into his own hands and demonstrate the error of my record-buying ways with a damn good record-playing session.
I had little option other than make several cups of coffee, provide a dish of Rich Tea biscuits and invite them to the usually prohibited area of my room. I was then subjected to a crash course in what one would miss out on if one bloody-mindedly stuck to one thing only in one’s life. The first thing they played me was Free Live by Free. As the record turned, Dave pointed out the intricate, relationship between the guitar playing of Paul Kossoff and the bass playing of Andy Fraser. I was a little taken aback that such things could be discussed about a rock record. Surely, this was the preserve of the blues, jazz or classical connoisseur . . . wasn’t it? Next came the Rolling Stones, Rory Gallagher, Santana and Pink Floyd. The whole afternoon was like a week in rehab. I struggled and sweated my way through, trying to resist the demons. The gathering of people in my room, with their knowing looks and appearing as if they were in some kind of trance, all focused on the sounds of Hell emanating from the sacrificial turntable, made me want to resist. A voice in my head murmured, ‘Get thee behind me Satan and be gone with your vile, rock albums.’ The whole scene was like the final chapters of a Dennis Wheatley novel. But I began to get drawn in and I found myself going with the sounds filling the room. Oh god, I was becoming enchanted. It was like two-timing. After my friends left, with their faces saying, ‘Our work is done, we must go now’, I could hardly look my blues albums in the face. What would my heroes think? What if I ended up liking this music more than I liked the blues? Could I really end up dumping my records; the best friends that I had?
It would not be too long before the answer came. I bought records by everyone, from Son House Mississippi John Hurt and Kokomo Arnold to Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie, Bob Marley and The Stranglers. My head had been turned. Everything was up for grabs. The music was played loud, particularly when everyone was out and it was just up to me and my records to entertain ourselves. When summer arrived, the windows were thrown open wide and with the help of my collection, South Cave became the Newport Blues Festival, the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival. Concerts by Free, Taj Mahal, Muddy Waters, Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and others blasted out.
My record collecting carried on, unhindered and unabated, for the next couple of years or so. Sheridan started up another shop on Anlaby Road, Hull. Although one of the early Virgin Record stores had opened in Hull around the same time, for me, Sheridan had become the Richard Branson of second-hand vinyl-record shop owners. I was already eternally grateful to him. Would he go on to create an empire of Sheridan Second-Hand Railway, Second-Hand Airline Exchanges, and Sheridan Second Hand Banking Exchanges? Only time would tell.
This was still in the era where the working-class calendar of life was already marked off for you when you were born; ‘Go to school, leave school, get job (factory or office may be optional), get married, have kids, retire, die’. All of it being the earlier the better. By the age of nineteen I was on my way. Got job, found the girl. A year later, got married, got a mortgage, had our own bungalow and dog. We were married for fourteen years, much of it very happy but for reasons that I still cannot fathom, the records slowly began to remain in their sleeves. By the age of twenty-five we had moved over to Lancashire, set up a business, and brought our second child into the world. Within another five years the business had gone bankrupt and we had lost everything. We were left with nothing more than a few sticks of furniture and some clothes. I had a Dobro guitar and the record collection, both of which I held onto dearly to retain my sanity.
Eventually, we were both back in work. Good jobs, well paid, all expenses, the lot. I hardly noticed the transformation as, in Thatcher’s Britain, we both, in our late twenties, began to metamorphose into a pair of grotesque, money-chasing yuppies. All artistic taste, creativity and cultural contemplation, along with the wisdom, consideration and empathy towards people that it comes with – things that we both had when we first began to go out with each other – left through the back door, helped on its way by an unceremonious kick up the arse by a £120 pair of Italian brogues. My record collecting, guitar playing and painting had stopped, replaced by an increasingly bland, mindless, status-symbol driven lifestyle. Finally, at around the age of thirty-two, I became the victim of our joint success. Like a mountain goat, grazing on grass growing by the quiet and tranquil railway line of life, I was suddenly hit by the huge, speeding locomotive of destiny, and on the front of it was written its unexpected destination: ‘Divorce Junction’.
At the same time, through my work, I had become friends with Gillian. I first met her when, late on a winter’s afternoon, I visited a small graphic-design business that she helped run from her home, a Victorian terraced house just to the north of Manchester. I looked around her office, as we spoke and noticed one or two things that made me suspect that she might be into music. I broached the subject and she replied by asking me what sort of music I was into. This question had always been an awkward one for me in the past. During the sixties and early seventies mentioning the word ‘blues’ in Hull usually drew a blank expression. At the most someone might have a stab at it. ‘Oh right, yeh. Me dad’s got some Acker Bilk records.’ Or ‘What, ya mean like Sarah Vaughan?’ And then there was the standard, ‘I ‘ate blues. It’s all the same and it’s so bloody miserable.’
Surprised to hear such a question, having not been asked it for some years, I thought I would play it safe. I had learned to reply ‘jazz’, rather than ‘blues’. It was less complicated, and I usually didn’t have to explain myself any further. ‘I’m into Jazz,’ I remarked. Preparing myself for the inevitable, I was completely wrong-footed when she replied, ‘What kind?’ and then reeled off a small but very credible list of jazz musicians that she liked. A little stunned, I decided to let my guard down and venture a little more information. ‘Well, I do like jazz. In fact, I like all sorts of stuff, but my main love is the blues.’ There was an uncomfortable silence, and I thought to myself, ‘That’s torn it, this conversation will stop right here.’ As I began preparing my ’Lovely to meet you, I’ll be back in touch’ speech, Gillian stood up and said, ‘Follow me.’ We walked from her front room into the hallway and then into the dining room. ‘What the hell’s going on?’ I wondered. She went to the back of the room where there were two original built-in cupboards on either side of the chimney breast. First, she opened wide the two doors to the left cupboard followed by those to the one on the right. Whilst gazing ahead of me, I slowly stooped slightly and gently and quietly placed my briefcase on the floor. There in front of me was a huge LP collection. In it was nearly every Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, John Lee Hooker and Jimmy Reed album produced. Eventually we became a couple and the record collecting kicked back in with a vengeance.
By the mid-nineties we were living in Scotland. I had begun to write for various magazines, mainly as a reviewer. Having enthusiastically told one magazine’s review editor that I was interested in early blues and gospel music – ‘The earlier and more obscure, the better – I received a small package of Document CDs. The first I gave my attention to was a full album of very obscure 1920s by two Afro-American Preachers (sermons with Singing). Their complete recordings were laid out in chronological order. Outraged, I paced over to the computer and began to write my review. I strafed the page with such words as ‘ridiculous’, ‘appalling’ and ‘unlistenable’. Why would anyone in their right mind, I asked in disbelief, want to reissue the complete works of such a group, using recordings that were at best uncomfortable listening, partly because of the performances and original quality of the sound recordings, and at worse impossible listening because of the terrible condition of the original records used for transfers to produce the masters?
The remainder of the CDs in the package were part of a seemingly endless A to Z of obscure female blues singers who had made only two to perhaps half a dozen recordings, mainly during the 1920 and ‘30s. My review gave them little better treatment than the preachers and their congregations, now laying, verbally bullet riddled, in their Perspex CD case.
When the magazine arrived, I went straight to the review section, satisfied with my literary outburst and ready to bask in the glory of seeing my thoughts and comments in print. And there it was. But then I realised that a huge amount of other Document CD reviews was there, throughout several review pages. My eyes began to narrow as I tried to take it in and make sense of it all. As I read the other reviews, it became clear that this Document label was unlike anything else I had come across in all of my years of collecting. I spoke to the reviews editor, who told me that the owner of the label, Johnny Parth, was a mad Austrian who appeared to be on a mission from God to reissue every blues and gospel recording made, from the first, dating from the late nineteenth century, to at least 1943, following all that were in the appropriate discographies covering that period. After that it was difficult to listen to and understand what the editor was saying. The phone was held limply in my hand as I gazed into the far distance, my jaw having dropped slightly.
It became clear to me that at nearly seventy years old Johnny was a serious collector of the scariest kind. Indeed, one of his albums, produced on vinyl, prior to the CD era, had a plain white, card sleeve, and as part of the title on the LP label it simply said, ‘For Serious Collectors Only’. Worryingly, he meant it.
In the past, I noticed that record collectors (perhaps this is unique to blues collectors but I suspect not) had a natural urge to start amassing the tracks of particular artists, scattered throughout their collections, on records, spool tapes, cassettes etc., in a certain way. And this was it: the full recorded works in chronological order. This was what the Document label was doing, because Johnny was just doing what came naturally as a serious collector. As a result, the Document label was not trying to pander to anyone; it was not following the commercial norm. It was making available, in a natural and recognisable way, the complete history of early blues, gospel and spirituals recordings, from the very beginning through to World War 2 and beyond. With each and every CD booklet came informed notes by experts and a detailed discography. It didn’t cherry-pick. It wasn’t interested in “best-ofs”. This was an attempt to preserve, for as long as possible, an Afro-American musical heritage. The best, the good, the worst, everything. Realising this, I became hooked. Here was everything that I had been looking for from my first days of record collecting. Though my preference was still for vinyl and shellac, from then on my reviews of Document CDs became far more positive, little knowing what lay ahead. Next - the fourth and final posting of ‘Confessions of a Vinyl Addict’, in which my life in music and records is changed completely by two international phone calls.
Four x ten booklet notes = forty CDs in wages. I couldn’t be happier. I would be CD rich!!! If only I could get the local supermarket and a petrol garage to accept CDs in payment…
I accepted the task and began earnestly tapping out my first notes.
Things were going well with the work for Document, and I loved it; the research, trying to create interest with the text, informing the reader to the best of my ability. I was becoming well and truly invested in the project, and in Document’s mission.
After a while, having written a reasonable number of notes, I made a phone call to Johnny. By and large I’m not a technologically minded person, but it had occurred to me, in 1999, that as more people were bringing computers into their homes and gaining access to the world-wide-web, this influx would include the PCs of potential Document customers. I voiced this idea to Johnny, and suggested that he invest in creating a Document website from which he could sell CDs. At the time, he told me that he had no interest in the web, or computers for that matter, but if I still wanted to pursue the website idea then he would have no objection to my setting one up. I could buy CDs from Document and then start selling them online. The idea had its possibilities, and considering the rural part of the country which we were living in, I thought an internet business might not be such a bad idea. Having said that, I still came off the phone unsure as to how I felt about running such a business myself.
A few days later, before I had a chance to come to a decision, Johnny rang to propose a very different idea, ‘I was wondering,’ he said, ‘how would you like to have all of Document?’ Thinking that he was referring to the Document catalogue and my incomplete, but still vast collection of Document CDs, I refused on the grounds that I was perfectly happy to keep writing his booklet notes in return for the CD payments. ‘No, no’ he said. ‘What I am saying is, would you like all of Document; everything? The discussion carried on like this for a few minutes until the penny dropped. Johnny was actually offering to sell me the company. Life for the East Hull pre-fab home boy were becoming that little more bizarre. We talked a little more and Johnny suggested a price. Though I had worked in the music business, I had never been in the record business, and so didn’t know whether the number he proposed was a little or a lot, unreasonable or a bargain. ‘Yes, alright.’ I said, thinking to myself ‘I’ll worry about this tomorrow’ and with that our conversation later came to a close and I gently put down the phone. I then went into the living room. ‘I’ve just had the weirdest conversation with Johnny.’ I said to Gillian. ‘He’s just asked me if I want to buy Document. I mean, Document Records, the whole thing, the business, the company.’ Without flinching, Gillian replied ‘I hope that you said yes.’
Within a few months one of the main streets in Vienna was sealed off as the world’s biggest truck was loaded up with 175,000 CDs. As we cleared the warehouse of all its stock I discovered, behind a rack of shelving, some plain, grey card sleeves, about twelve or so. They were the same size as LP covers but slightly more bulky, and when I asked Johnny what they were, he said, ‘Oh, I forgot them. They are just some of the old metal masters from when we had Document LPs.’ Delighted at this news I asked where the rest of them were. ‘I put them all for scrap years ago.’ He replied. Seeing the shock and disappointment on my face, he added ‘Why would I want to keep them? vinyl is finished and we’re never going to produce it again.’
I considered the scene, as part of Document’s history was dumped, and told him of how surprised I was that someone with such a strong collector sense had got rid of them. ‘CDs are the best,’ he replied. ‘I would never go back to vinyl.’ I taped the heavy bundle of masters together and put them into my bag, resolute that this piece of history wasn’t going into the furnace. I then walked out into the street to see the last of the CDs being loaded up. There wasn’t an inch of space left in the truck. Waving goodbye to the driver, I told him I’d see him in Scotland and I made my way to Vienna airport.
We couldn’t have gone into the record industry at a worse time. After a hundred years of an increasingly successful existence, it took its biggest and near fatal nose dive just as the ink was drying on the Document purchase agreement. Watching the rapid decline of vinyl singles and LPs was depressing, and entering into the industry via the eye of a revolutionary storm was, to say the least, exasperating and unnerving. The next ten years were made up of a heady blend of nightmares, nail biting and breath holding, mixed in with moments of great excitement, fascination and satisfaction. Despite all of this however, my biggest regret was still that I would never be responsible for any vinyl being released… Or so I thought.
The levels of music piracy were suffocating, as the switch to digital made available the easiest way to copy music at home since the industry began. And yet, after a decade of decline, it was vinyl that began to produce whispers of optimism. The first clues came five or six years ago when distributors around the world, and in particular in the U.K. and the U.S.A. informed us that the previously declining vinyl sales had suddenly started going into reverse. What’s more, record shop owners, mail order record retailers, collectors and our own Document customers started to make positive comments about vinyl making a gradual return. Sales reports are one thing but hearing statements from those involved first hand is another, and it was all the more encouraging that this interest was being particularly driven by younger music buyers, and vinyl releases by bands themselves. Despite my personal excitement, I resisted climbing onto the roof of the Document offices, bursting into song with ‘When Johnny Comes Marching Home’ whilst holding a huge international flag bearing an LP and a 45. Much as I would have dearly loved for Document to have begun producing vinyl, I held back any decision to do so. I knew that my desire to produce LPs was, at that point being too heavily weighted by my own romantic feelings and not by any water-tight business strategy. Even so, the Siren’s song, calling ‘Gary, Gary, produce vinyl LPs and we shall be yours’ was becoming increasingly difficult to resist.
Around this time I found myself wandering into a second-hand record shop in Lancashire, England. I had visited it about a year before, but my catch had been good, and memorable enough to make it worthy of a return visit.
On this particular day the owner was wearing a black shirt, top button undone, and black ‘stay-press, casual pants.’ An old rocker who had been in the business for years, his grey hair sweeps neatly from one side of his head to the other, and underneath, his face has a certain kind of redness that suggests that he is not one hundred per cent in the best of health. He acknowledged me with a smile and a nod. Shortly after arriving, whilst quietly flipping through the LP covers, I heard his voice call from the back of the shop. “Want a mug of tea whilst your browsing, lad?” he asked in a broad Lancashire accent. Saying that I would ‘love one,’ he reappears several minutes later, bearing a chipped mug of strong tea from a tiny kitchen area, sectioned off from the rest of the shop by an ancient, heavy, curtain. “I’m trying to get the place organised,” he told me, evidently not remembering that I had already paid a visit once before, when the place was just as chaotic and disorganised then. Tall stacks of records, looking as if they might topple over at any minute, created a small maze of pathways around the shop, each having to be explored because of the vagaries of the shelving system (where there were shelves). “What ya into?” he asked. I tell him and he replied “Blues. Right, then. You’ll find blues there in those two racks, and then there’s some over there”. Then, pointing a finger into an entirely different part of the shop, “and then some over there too. Oh, and you might find some under there but I’ll have to shift them boxes so’s ya can get at ‘em. Ow’s yer tea?” I realized that he had a natural hospitality that no customer relations course could ever teach. I don’t ever want him to “get organized”, I thought to myself. For me, the place was perfect, just as it is. The chaos only added to the element of surprise when, unexpectedly, one suddenly stumbles upon a gem.
I asked him how business was doing, and he told me that it was ‘Not bad… Not brilliant.’ He went on to say that his CD sales had practically collapsed because ‘Well, they’ve been taken over by vinyl.’ This came as a surprise, ‘Aye, lots of young uns comin’ in that I’ve never seen before, comin’ in an’ asking for vinyl,’ he assured me. Even so, I could tell that business is patchier than he might have wanted to admit, in particular with many of these kind of shops, awkwardly hanging on, away from the city centers. I worried a little, and hoped that he would survive. ‘I don’t make a lot but I pay me bills and to be honest,’ he added, his face lighting up, ‘one of the reasons I keep going is because I like to chat with folk and because I get some interesting people comin’ in here, talkin’ about music and records.’
At the end of a good two hours, which feels more like mountaineering and exploration than browsing in the grown up, magical, ‘Mr Ben’ shop, I took a pile of records over to the till thinking that this was probably one of the biggest sales that he’d had for that week, at least. He added it all up in his head, no computer, no calculator, no electronic till. Did it again, to make sure, rounds it off to the nearest tenner and concluded, “You’ve done alright there, lad. There’s some good stuff there.” I thanked him for the records and the tea, and made my way home, hoping very much that the second-hand record shop will still be there on my return. It felt like those early teenage years once again, with my records in a plain polythene bag clasped securely under my arm, satisfied, curious and excited about what I will hear on them. This time though, as for a long time, I would not be stuffing them up my jumper, prior to walking in through the front door of my home.
Over the following months, encouraged by industry and media reports of the rise in vinyl record sales, we spoke more in the office about the possibility of releasing Document LPs. It was close to the Christmas of 2011, and as we monitored the situation, I received an email which puzzled me. It was from a company that I had not heard of before, Third Man Records, asking for a time when I might be available to receive a telephone call from Jack White. I only knew of one Jack White, the Jack White of the White Stripes fame, and I was sure that we couldn’t be talking about the same person… Could we? I replied to the message, giving them phone numbers of when and where I could be reached. Nothing happened. Christmas came and went and after a while I put this odd communication aside. Someone, I thought, has had an idea and then dropped it. These things happen, so I forgot all about it. A few months later, I was working from our house in the North of England when the telephone rang. Gillian took the call from downstairs. I could hear her chatting away and after a few minutes assumed that it was either some business she was dealing with or a personal call. I carried on with my work until I was interrupted by Gillian calling from the bottom of the stairs, ‘Gary, Jack White’s on the phone.’
Within the first few minutes of the call we were talking about Document, our blues heroes and enthusiastically swapping record collector stories. Jack said that some of the first records he ever bought were Document LPs, and told me a story about him buying perhaps twenty or so of them from a second-hand record shop in Detroit when he was just seventeen. I shared my own memories of Hull’s record exchanges, and of buying Roots LPs produced in Vienna by Johnny Parth. As the conversation rolled on, Jack proposed an idea, one which he had carried with him ever since picking up those LPs twenty years ago. The conversation lead to the collaboration of producing three sets of blues, vinyl, LPs. Our chat highlighted the fact that both of us had strong, shared ideas about how these LPs should be presented and who they should be aimed at. For both of us, the idea of a young Gary Atkinson or Jack White walking into a record shop, picking up one of these LPs, and being enthralled by what they heard, would be the most satisfying gain. If seasoned collectors liked them too then, that would be an unexpected bonus. We said our goodbye’s, and shortly after putting the phone down, I reflected on how I had previously resigned myself to accepting that I would never be fortunate enough to be involved in producing vinyl records, now, I was about to be an integral part of doing that very thing.
Discussions progressed over the following weeks and I decided early on that I didn’t want to just hand over the recordings, like a straight licensing deal. From the beginning, I knew that this project was going to be something special. Jack had made it clear that he wanted to make it so that every record released would remain in the catalogue ‘for as long as Third Man exists.’ Knowing what it takes to keep such a commitment, I began thinking about what I could do to help make these albums credible and interesting enough for people buying them, perhaps for generations ahead. I decided to revisit the original recordings. In addition to the Document masters already available, I had my own collection, which had been recently supplemented by two large collections of spool tapes containing twenty to thirty thousand recordings in each. These collections had been put together, back in the 1950s and 60s by two independent collectors committing their shellac 78 records, vinyl LPs, EPs and private recordings to tape. Adding even more to this were recordings made available to me by other collectors. With all these resources to draw upon, I was able to examine and compare the condition of records, and upgrade them finished using sound restoration programs and techniques which were simply not available when the vast majority of Document productions were originally released. Thirteen albums, covering the full recorded works of Delta bluesman Charley Patton, Georgia bluesman, Blind Willie McTell and Mississippi string band The Mississippi Sheiks, were mastered up. We planned to launch the series by releasing the first volumes by each artist. I commissioned Mick Middles, music journalist and author of many excellent books covering the life and times of rock/pop artists and bands, to produce the sleeve notes. At the same time, Jack commissioned graphic artist Rob Jones to produce astonishing artwork for the record sleeves.
After a few delays, which took the launch beyond Christmas, I sat down at my computer one morning in late January 2013, and opened up a curious email sent to me by Third Man. The message was rather cryptic, merely saying something like ‘heads up’ or words to that effect, and a link which took me to a fantastic promo film on the Third Man website, narrated by Jack and announcing the arrival of the first album. I was stunned. Suddenly it was really happening. A couple of weeks later I had the finished product in my hands. I could hardly believe it. I opened the package, and without any exaggeration, it felt as if I was being catapulted back in time to forty-four years ago, when I took my fist blues LP home. I sat down, looking at the fabulous covers, and as the stylus dropped onto the vinyl, I felt the warmth sweep over me. Except this time, in a way that surpassed all of my dreams and expectations, I was partly responsible for that warmth.