Tuesday, October 4, 2011


I would like to personally thank Waldo Semon.  Born September 10, 1898, in Demopolis, Alabama, Mr. Semon is credited with being the inventor of vinyl, the key component of the "phonograph record".  Those of us who grew up in the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's probably owe Waldo a debt of gratitude, for without his invention, many a day or night would have been rendered lifeless owing to the absence of recorded music.  Maybe I'm exaggerating, but think about it: how many hours of your life did you spend listening to music prior to the advent of compact discs and downloadable music files?  If you're like me, the hours probably number in the thousands.

"Vinyl" is nowadays considered the domain of the audiophile.  Many claim that the analog nature of vinyl recordings gives them a leg up on digital recordings, in that the entire unbroken frequency spectrum can be reproduced.  There is something innately satisfying about playing a record -- you open this oversized cover, graced with original artwork, and pull out the paper sleeve containing the record, handling it by its edges (the thumb) and center (third and fourth fingers) in order to avoid scratching the surface.  You gently place the record on the turntable, then lift the tone arm and lower it carefully onto the blank leading edge, where a wily groove takes hold of the stylus and leads it steadfastly into the opening track.

Back in the day, I acquired LP's at a healthy rate, but I stopped buying them sometime around 1983, moving on to the world of cassette tape until CD's appeared a few years later.  When I was in college, I was continually moving "the records", which by that time filled two large boxes, each of which must have weighed around forty to fifty pounds.  Since my home was in Memphis but I was attending college in Chicago, the records were often shipped on the plane (funny thing is, I don't remember incurring any extra charges).  In a sense, they were a nuisance, but I couldn't live without them: whenever I would move to school, back home, or later, to any of several apartments, the first thing I would do upon arrival was to unpack at least one of the boxes and make a selection that fit the occasion.  I remember one night we had moved from one apartment to another in Chicago, and the temperature had been two degrees -- it was brutal, and when we arrived at the new place, we opened a bottle of wine and played Dan Fogelberg.  We painted a friend's Rogers Park apartment listening to Jimmy Buffett and Bob Marley.  School started with some Joni Mitchell.  And when I was homesick for Memphis, it was Isaac Hayes.  There always seemed to be a record to fit any occasion.

These days, given my eclectic CD collection and bushel baskets of downloaded music, my wife often encourages me to get rid of "those old records", but I just can't do it.  Whenever I look through them, the memories come flooding back.  There's the LP from a musician named Joe Probst that I acquired one evening as a gift while staying at the artist's apartment in Brampton, Ontario, during a choir tour that was itself memorable in so many ways.  There are two albums that were given me by Perry Allen, who was Isaac Hayes' business manager and a friend of my dad.  There's one from a band named Three Man Army that we saw as an opening act one night in Chicago and that I had to get, simply because it contained a truly hideous but strangely addictive rock song called "Polecat Woman".  The Beatles, Yes and Steely Dan phases are very well represented.  Bernstein to Bowie, it's all there in the collection.

But undoubtedly the most important record to me is one that I acquired when I lived in Charlotte.  My father was a huge music fan, and he listened to everything from Hank Williams to Nat King Cole.  One of his favorites, and in fact, the first song that I ever listened to in earnest, was Jackie Wilson's "That's Why", recorded in 1959.  When I was a little kid, I used to play this 45 RPM record over and over on a little RCA Victor turntable that plugged into a portable radio.  I never seemed to tire of hearing this song, and my dad always used to get a kick out of my peculiar fascination with it.  He would tell me stories of visiting the Grand Ole Opry in his youth, hearing people who would later become world renowned, but at that time were still "home folks".  From what he told me about this or that artist, I began to branch out and listen to all kinds of music.  

Fast forward to 1994, when I was working in Charlotte and talking one morning to my friend Lee, who owned an enormous collection of LP's and 45's.  Lee and I started talking about memorable records from our past, and I told him my story of becoming addicted to "That's Why" at the ripe old age of six.  He thought for a moment and then said, "Yeah...that would have been on the Brunswick label."  I was impressed that Lee knew this much detail about a particular record but didn't think much else of it until the next day, when he showed up at work with a vintage press of "That's Why", packaged in its original paper sleeve.  Lee handed me the record, and I said, "I'll pay you whatever you want for this...", to which he replied, "No, you don't owe me anything...I know what this record means to you."  

And so, that record, pictured above, became the star of my collection.  I've only played it one time, but that has been enough, because in that record, I have memories -- the memory of the first time I was ever hooked on a song, the memory of the music that always filled my home, and the memory of my dad, who gave me that special gift of music appreciation.

I guess you could say that I've still got a thing for vinyl.