Old Curiosity Shop
By Bob Davis dnry122@yahoo.com

In Memoriam—Russ Solomon and Tower Records

Visitors to the Old Curiosity Shop know that there’s one corner that’s devoted to recorded music and other sounds. We can go back to 78 RPM discs, moving ahead to 45s, LPs, cassette tapes and CDs. Just about every kind of recording is represented (but no 8-track tape cartridges or Edison cylinders). The recent passing of Tower Records founder Russ Solomon brought back many memories of scrounging through bins of new and used records all over California.

Tower Records. 

 Tower Records was what they call a “deep catalog” store. If they didn’t have it, you’d be in for a long hunt to find a rare record that wasn’t at Tower. Most of their locations even had special sections for jazz and classical recordings, usually staffed with people who knew their Bach from their Bizet, and Elmore James from Etta James. They also had books, T-shirts and other cool merchandise for the dedicated fan.

Pasadena: The Pasadena store was on the second floor of the building on the southeast corner of Del Mar and Lake. The ground floor was a Good Guys store where you could buy equipment to play your recorded media, or record your own. If you got hungry, Trader Joe’s was right across the street. This Tower included a ticket agency, which was handy when my daughter and son-in-law asked for tickets to a year-end Barry Manilow concert at the now-vanished Universal Amphitheatre. I bought the tickets, hoping that no member of the Joan Jett Fan Club saw me making the transaction. Mr. Manilow is not on my wavelength, but anyone who can fill the Universal three nights in a row must be doing something right. Both Tower and Good Guys are in the “Things that aren’t there anymore” department— the Tower space is now occupied by a Sit ‘n’ Sleep mattress store, source of the infamous “You’re killing me, Larry!!” radio commercials, and the lower level is a drugstore.

West Covina: This store not only closed, but the building has been demolished, wiped off the face of the earth. I would stop here on Sunday evenings, on my way home from the railway museum. On one memorable night in 1987, I asked whether the long awaited collaboration of Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, Trio, had been released. Here’s the note I posted in the 45cat discography website:

I bought one of the pix sleeve 45s almost by accident. I was at the long-vanished Tower Records in West Covina CA and asked if the "Trio" LP/CD was out yet. The clerk said, "Not until next week, but we have the single" and pointed me to the 45. I was rather surprised to see a late-'50s pop number, “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” because I understood that the track list for the album was "old timey", but I checked the fine print and yep, it was the Phil Spector song. I remember reading in a 1979 book about Linda that mentioned the three singers wanting to collaborate, but between busy schedules and being on different labels, it took several years to bring the idea to reality.

 

West Hollywood: This was out of my normal territory, but from time to time I would wander over into Terra Occidentalis Incognita. Never did visit this store when someone famous was there, but I did find some choice records in the 45 RPM section.

San Francisco: I’ve told you about almost seeing Janis Joplin perform in San Francisco, but being too busy chasing streetcars to follow up on the word I got from one of her Big Brother and the Holding Company bandmates. Many years later I was in the Tower near North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf and found a video tape of her shows— that would be as close as I’d get until we saw the tribute shows with Mary Bridget Davies at the Pasadena Playhouse in recent years.

Sacramento: This was the Mother Church of Tower Records. The original store was in the Tower Theater building, but the one I visited was across the street in a building that’s still there, but appears to be vacant. At least the iconic theater at Land Park and Broadway appears to be an active entertainment spot.

Buena Park: Back around 1980, I had a Edison assignment at a substation in Orange County. It was just far enough from Alhambra to qualify for out of town status, so the company put me up in a motel on Beach Boulevard, south of what one of my railfan buddies called the “Nutty Berry Farm" (Knott's Berry Farm). This meant that I’d get a meal allowance, and would be away from my first wife (this would be a good thing). There was a Tower Records within walking distance, so I wandered in and heard You Don’t Believe Me by the Stray Cats. The twangy slide guitar caught my attention, and I bought a picture sleeve 45 on the spot. Years later I bought the CD and gave the 45 to a young lady who was into retro things. Another memory from this location was a poster next to their 8-track tape display, warning that this format was going the way of the dinosaur, and driving the point home with a drawing of a brontosaurus. The last place I saw 8-track cartridges for sale was a truck stop near Bakersfield— apparently when the Good Buddies weren’t jaw-jackin’ on the CB radio, they’d shove in an 8-track with some Merle Haggard or Buck Owens tunes. These cartridges may have been easier to use than a cassette, but they had poor sound quality and weren’t very durable.

Glendale: I only went to this one once, when I was waiting for a joint on Brand Bouldevard called Lush to open because Evie Sands was performing there. I walked over to Tower and found a CD of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road by Lucinda Williams, whom I had discovered when she sat in with Evie on Cool Blues Story. This CD includes Can’t Let Go which features THREE slide guitars and has nothing to do with I Can’t Let Go which Evie recorded back in 1965.

Johnson Music/Family Affair: I’ve already covered my home-town music store, where I had my only paying job in the music business as a teenage part time sales clerk. Last week I went by the old store and saw that it had been cleaned out all the way to the back wall. It was another “You can’t go home again” moment.

Barrons’ Pharmacy: Barron’s was a drugstore on Baldwin Avenue in Arcadia, where I shopped the bargain bins as a teenager. Not sure, but it may have been where I bought three 78 RPM records just before I bought a 3-speed turntable. They were No Money Down by Chuck Berry (the followup to Maybellene), Long Tall Sally Little Richard’s followup to Tutti Frutti and the original Blue Suede Shoes by Carl Perkins.

Pedrini’s in Alhambra was another full-service music store where I found a number of 45 RPM oldies in the late 1950s. In more recent years, I bought sheet music there— not because I can sight-read music, but because it was for songs made famous by Linda Ronstadt.

Conley’s Famous Record Shop in Long Beach: (we’ll borrow a section from the June 2010 Old Curiosity Shop)

Earlier in the evening was the Johnny Otis Show, which ran from 7 to 9 PM on KFOX. Since we lived in Monrovia, and KFOX was on Anaheim Street in Long Beach, we had to set our Bendix table-model radio in just the right spot to pick up “J.O.”. In addition to his radio show, Mr. Otis was a bandleader, musician, singer, talent scout, record label owner, graphic artist (did his own album covers) and in later years, preacher of the Gospel. A true Renaissance man is he. At last report he’s still with us, but is in his 80s and not in the best of health.

 When I first met him, he was broadcasting out of the aforementioned Conley’s record shop. Although Conley’s is long gone, and this story is from over 50 years ago, I still remember that the store interior was illuminated by circular fluorescent lights. I had driven down from Monrovia in my parents’ 1952 Chevy, going south on Rosemead/Lakewood Boulevard to the traffic circle and then west on Pacific Coast Highway (no Long Beach Freeway in those days) to the shop in the 1200 East block. I sometimes wonder what would have happened if I had overshot and gone as far west as Long Beach Boulevard (then known as American Avenue). Would I have seen one of the PE Red Cars on the Long Beach Line, and wondered just how much was left of the system? 

 Anyway, when I had a chance to chat with the Master, I asked him about some songs I’d heard on his show but were not available from the distributor. I had a list of them in a notebook, and went down the line, finding that they had been played on the radio and received little or no response from the listeners. He looked at my notebook and said it looked like something that a statistician would have, and said “I dub thee ‘statistician.’” For a shy record collector to be dubbed by an internationally known artist was a big deal! 

One technical item that I noticed was that the turntables in the studio front window were not “broadcast grade,” but were adequate for the 45-RPM disks that had become standard for pop music by then. At times throughout the show, he’d play a demo or dub disc with a song that hadn’t been released. These were still in the old 78-RPM format, so he’d have to change speeds and set the pickup for the old-school grooves. This was one way to determine whether there was enough interest in a song to warrant pressing 500 or a thousand copies. 

 In addition to the radio show with records, he had a TV show on one of the local channels (5 and/or 11) in Los Angeles. This was a regular part of our viewing habits in the mid to late '50s, unlike some parents, my folks enjoyed the variety of mostly R&B tunes on the Johnny Otis Show. I remember the jackets worn by the band members— they looked “loud” even on black and white TV. 

 Fast forward to the 1990s. I saw an item in the local media advising that Johnny Otis and his orchestra would be at the Vine St. Bar & Grill in Hollywood. My future wife and I drove over to the area (I parked my Dodge Aries between a BMW and a Mercedes— can’t get much safer than that!). The band filled most of the back end of the club, but didn’t let the tight quarters slow them down. The most memorable number was Duke Ellington’s “Creole Love Call”; hearing this tune done live by musicians who clearly love it brought tears to my eyes— just a splendid performance. As would have been typical forty years earlier, he had male and female vocalists, and I think they did “Willie and the Hand Jive” which made the Top Ten in 1958. Afterward we had a chance to visit with the Master and thank him for bringing his sounds to life. I asked him if there were any videotapes of his TV show, and he sadly answered, “I think they’re gone.” I’ve forgotten the details, but I think one of his managers had the tapes that survived (remembering that in the '50s, all they had were bulky reel-to-reel tapes and recorders the size of a washing machine. Many priceless tapes were erased and reused, even into the early '70s), but they may have been inadvertently sold off or discarded. On the plus side, some of the audio tracks that were never released in the '50s were made available on CD’s by Ace Records of England. And I was gratified to see a display honoring JO at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

“Bright College Days”— finding records in San Luis Obispo. In Sept. 1958 I enrolled at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, majoring in electronic engineering. I’ve already told how my freshman dorm had a good proportion of Agriculture majors, and that’s where I learned about Johnny Cash. I brought my home-brew record player and hooked it to a short range AM transmitter that would broadcast my music to the other residents. For a while, I had a roommate of Italian ancestry who thought Volare by Domenico Modugno was good stuff. He was a nice guy, but was not on my musical wavelength. What I thought was cool was that he attended Sunday Mass at the old Mission downtown.

Brown’s Music: I found some great R&B oldies at this store in downtown SLO, including I Believe by Elmore James. But one of the store staff members seems very friendly, indeed rather creepy. So I did most of my record hunting when this chap was not on duty. I mentioned this situation to a classmate who said, “Oh yeah— that’s [name redacted]. He’s queer as a nine-dollar bill.”

Melody Shop: This was a little store, I suppose it would be called a boutique nowadays. On October 14, 1958, I bought a copy of Oh Boy Buddy Holly’s follow-up to That’ll Be the Day. Little did I know that within four months, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper would perish in an airplane crash, and exactly one year later, I would be marrying my high school sweetheart. In the immortal words of Hunter, Garcia, Lesh and Weir, “What a long strange trip it’s been….”

Bargain bins: The Sears store in downtown San Luis had some oldies going for pocket change, and the Purity grocery store had some more recent numbers (probably jukebox pull-offs). A store in Paso Robles had some old R&B numbers.

Getting back to Southern California, we once had a plethora of record shops just in the Pasadena area:

Wherehouse: Their store in East Pasadena/Hastings Ranch has been a golf-supplies shop for many years now; the record store closed about 15 years ago. My most memorable acquisition was the eponymous Katrina & the Waves LP, featuring the kick-ass recording of Game of Love. I heard this song over the PA system there and I was hooked. There was a smaller Wherehouse in Monrovia near the Trader Joe’s; I mostly went there to buy storage units for CDs I had bought elsewhere. I think this location is now occupied by a pet-supply store. (cue up “Hound Dog” and “How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (when you come ‘round)”.)

Licorice Pizza: Their East Pasadena store was on the other side of Rosemead Boulevard. One night I was driving along Foothill Boulevard on my way to a 10 p.m. shift in Alhambra, just after I had bought the 1975 Chevy (DNRy 120) which, unlike its predecessor, the Ford pickup, had a radio. I’ve forgotten which station I was listening to, but when they played We Belong by Pat Benatar, I pulled into the Sears shopping center and bought a copy at the Licorice Pizza store. I also met a fellow Linda Ronstadt fan who loaned me his copy of a rare live concert LP.

Federated Group: South of these two locations was the Federated store at Rosemead Boulevard and Longden Avenue on the edge of Temple City. When I lived in Duarte and worked in Alhambra, this was a handy location on my way home from work. This was where I bought my first CD player in August 1986, along with two CDs to play on it: Linda Ronstadt Greatest Hits and a modern recording of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and other numbers. On another visit, there was a local radio personality doing a personal appearance. Part of his show was a contest: If someone in the store had a nickel with the proper minting year, that person would win an LP. I checked my pocket, found a coin of the correct vintage, and took home a Joe Walsh album. But Federated joined the group of audio-video stores that disappeared years ago, and the building is now a discount supermarket.

Borders Bookstores first came to my attention in the late 1990s, when they opened a store in the former I Magnin building on South Lake Avenue in Pasadena. But I was rather busy during this period, and didn’t visit this store until that fateful evening in November 2000 when I met Evie Sands, who was doing promotional appearances for her new CD Women in Prison. I’ve told the story about how this show led me down a path of musical adventure that changed my life; I could even say that The Old Curiosity Shop might never have happened if I hadn’t joined what writer and music impresario Jonny Whiteside dubbed “The International Cult of Sands Worshipers.” That night I bought a copy of Women in Prison and had Evie autograph it, and it now occupies a place of honor in my media room. Evie is still going strong, but the Pasadena Borders closed in 2011, and last time I looked the store was still vacant.

Pat and I went to the Montclair Plaza Borders a few months later for another show, after I had sent Evie an e-mail requesting some of her older songs; not only did she perform them, she dedicated them to me! One evening a few years later on my way home from the Railway Museum, I stopped here and found a compilation CD of blues songs by Skip James, whom I learned about from Evie’s song Cool Blues Story. When I went up to the checkout counter to pay for it, the clerk had not only heard of Skip James, but knew what he sounded like! But this store was caught up in the liquidation of Borders in 2011, and the space is now occupied by a fitness center, where one can exercise the body rather than the mind.

Moby Disc: In East Pasadena, just east of Rosemead Boulevard we had Moby Disc, where I would go browsing for used records back in the late '70s and into the '80s. It was here that I learned that CDs were here to stay when I found a used copy of a compilation of Elmore James recordings, including I Believe, my all-time favorite Blues number. The LP bins usually had a number of 10cc and Wet Willy albums, but I found some real gems in there.

Muskadine Music was on North Lake Avenue in Pasadena, and specialized in folk music and what we now call Americana. I think it was at this long-vanished store that I found Lowell Fulson’s cover of the Beatles’ Why Don’t We Do It in the Road. The Brits borrowed a lot from American R&B and Blues artists in the '60s— it was only fair that Mr. Fulson returned the favor.

The SoCal Survivors

Canterbury: The big music and video chains have become “Things that aren’t there anymore” but Canterbury Records in Pasadena is still in business on Colorado just west of Lake Avenue. They sell new and used CDs and LPs, and were one of the last places to deal in 45 RPM records. Just about any genre can be found here, although (since it’s not something I look for) they’re probably rather light on the hip-hop material. I read somewhere that one of the keys to their longevity is that they own the property and are thus not in danger of having a landlord jack up the rent.

Poo-Bah: Further east on Colorado, almost to San Gabriel Boulevard. is Poo-Bah records. They’re a smaller facility than Canterbury and used to operate out of an old house that’s now a yarn shop. Their stock includes a lot of really esoteric recordings, and it’s always a good place to find the unexpected.

Amoeba: I haven’t been here very often, because it’s in Hollywood, and I’m running out of room for more CDs, but it’s a large building and appears to have literally tons of recorded music.

On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia (at least for a visit)

Val Shively: Mr. Shively’s mail order record supply used to have a walk-in location in Upper Darby Pennsylvannia, and I have bought rare 45s by mail and in person. The store was a short walk from the SEPTA (Philly area transit system) 69th St. Terminal, where three different electric railway lines converge. Back in 1981, when I did my “No Scene Twice Seen” tour, I bought a record that had been made in California and took it home on Amtrak.

Direct from the artist:

Surf-Liners: This instrumental surf-music trio has been inactive for a while, but during the 1990s and into this century they entertained the people in Yolo County and recorded home-brew tapes and finally issued a CD with a bar code on it. They were a special group because my daughter Vicky was the bass player, using an assortment of Fender and Mosrite axes. Her friend John played guitars from the same manufacturers, and a series of drummers sat in on the tubs. Unlike Spinal Tap, at last report all of the percussionists are very much alive.

Evie Sands: I caught up with Evie’s back catalog when she was selling re-issue CDs at shows. Of special interest is her Northern Soul CD, a limited edition issue with some rare numbers from her earlier days.

Adam Marsland: I have most of Adams CDs released under his own name and by his old band Cockeyed Ghost. I was at their Carl and Dennis Wilson tribute show about ten years ago, and was one of the first to receive the Long Promised Road CD from that evening.

Blues Before Sunrise: I saw the number one Blues band in Melbourne Australia back in 2001 when I was there for a week of intensive railway action. On Friday night, I took the #96 tram to the end of the line, where they were playing at a hotel pub. I bought a copy of their first CD, and a year or two later got word of their second release. I did a mail order purchase, and now have one of the few copies in the Northern Hemisphere.

Coming next month— Will we resume our look back at railway adventures, or will an unexpected event have us poking around in another corner of The Old Curiosity Shop? Tune in and find out.

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