Jeb Loy Nichols on record shops, reggae and country music

Jeb Loy Nichols in the backroom at Record City, NYC, 1979

There was no better job, anywhere in the world, than working in Record City. It was New York, 1979, and I was 17.  I’d come from Texas, a place I disliked, and suddenly there I was, standing around galleries and bookshops feeling unprepared. The world was big, unimaginably big, a tormenting sprawl, and I was skinny.  

I had, in my youth, spent a lot of time in record stores; this qualified me, I reckoned, to work in one.  I was basically unemployable, I had no special skills. But I knew a lot about country music and soul music and who played on what records and what labels those records were on. I knew a lot about stuff that was of no interest to most people.

Record City was a huge mess of a shop.  Acres and acres of second hand vinyl and cut outs. In the basement were rows of singles, in the mezzanine was jazz and soundtracks. On the main floor was everything else.  The owner asked me a few questions, none of which had anything to do with either music or records, and that was it. I was hired.  

Exterior of Record City from the 1981 film ‘The Fan’

Record City, like all good record stores, was only peripherally about selling records. It’s primary function was as a safe haven for outsiders and loners, a place where taste was discussed and formed.  A place to listen to Ornette Coleman and Morton Feldman and Anthony Braxton. To Betty Carter and Conway Twitty and The Art Ensemble Of Chicago. A place where people tried to be different. As a teenager I spent as much time in record stores as I did in school. Record stores let me be who I wanted to be.  I remember the first time I ever heard Jesse Winchester. I was driving through Texas hill country; the song was ‘Nothing But A Breeze’ and it was perfect.  There wasn’t anything about it that I didn’t love. I immediately pulled over, did a U-turn and headed back to town, to my favourite record store.

That the way things went back then. You heard a song on the radio that you had to have, that you couldn’t live without.  You went out and, if you had the money, you bought it. If you didn’t have the money, you waited by the radio in the hope you’d hear it again. At the record shop Johnny pulled out a copy from behind the counter.  “So what’s the deal with this? Who is he?”, I asked. Johnny had long hair and a tattoo of Bob Marley on his arm.  His best friend was Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. He’d seen and heard it all. “Southern guy”, he said, “living in Canada.  His fifth record. He’s the real deal.”  I looked at the record and liked what I saw.  “How much?”, I asked, and Johnny said, “take it. Give it a listen, and if you like it, tell people about it.”

That’s the way things went back then. You spent a lot of time in record shops and you made strange friendships.  Johnny had a secret box of promo copies that he gave to his favourite customers. I still have the copy he gave me. During the two years I worked in Record City I sold records to David Byrne and Brian Eno (they bought the entire African section), to Prince Paul, to Shel Silverstein (he lived upstairs), to James ‘Blood’ Ulmer, to David Mancuso. I also sold records to a numberless parade of good spirited people. I sold records all day. That’s all we did. We sold everything to everyone.        

Colette human window display in Record City, 1980

Six years later I had a record stall on Portobello Road. A friend and I sold mostly reggae singles. During the week and on alternate weekends we trawled charity shops, boot fairs, jumble sales and street markets. You could still do that back then. Buy rocksteady singles and Black Ark twelves; there were boxes of records everywhere. All it took was time. Every week we’d meet and go through what we’d found. We always had stacks of stuff; Jamaican releases, white label pre’s, rare groove, soul and funk. The difficulty then, as it was in New York, was not keeping all the good stuff for myself.

At Record City each employee had a section below the counter where we hid our own stash. Records came in and were immediately claimed. My section, in the beginning, contained mostly country, reggae and jazz. I remember a sealed copy of Twins by Ornette Coleman. Also the last Lefty Frizzell album. There Stands The Glass by Conway Twitty. Also Leon Thomas and The Abbysinians and Dan Penn. I had a helluva collection.  A little bit of everything. It was there I fell in love, unexpectedly, with disco. There and in certain downtown clubs; Tier Three and The Loft and The Paradise Garage. I fell hard and completely; gut punched; dazed on the dance floor. A pale, sloppy kid gone ga-ga, the place wet with bodies, the night euphoric. I floated, those first few nights, above the floor. From a back corner I ventured out to be amongst the heaving. Summoned by those minor keyed strings. Losing myself. Eyes closed, arms high, feet swivelling. The way you can in the dark, amongst strangers, in a new city. In the mornings, walking back across the city, I considered myself changed. I went over and catalogued what I’d heard; Is It All Over My Face by Loose Joints, You’re The One For Me by D-Train, Heartbeat by Tanya Gardner; and the next day I’d dig through the remainders and the 12 inches until my section behind the counter started to fill up with downtown disco.  

Working in records shops told me who I was. Told me who I wanted to be. I never made any money but I amassed a lot of records. Which I sold. Then amassed again. Then bought again. And on it goes. I can’t walk past a record shop. No matter where, no matter the time of day. I have to go in and have a peek. They’re my

natural habitat, my college, my neighbourhood. They’re familiar, threatened, peripheral, nearly extinct, full of arcane and necessary stuff. Just like me.

This piece appeared in print in a recent issue of Deluxe, the magazine about independent record shops, published by Drift Records

REGGAE GOT COUNTRY MIX

To celebrate the expanded and remixed international release of Long Time Traveller on On-U Sound, Jeb put together this great DJ mix for us. Below he explains the unexpected crossroads between country music and reggae:

How far south does the south go?

There was, in the 60s and 70s, no stopping the influence of American Southern music.  Blues, jazz, country and soul, most all of which began life in the south, ruled the world.  One crucial intersection was the West Indies.  Louisiana and Texas radio stations broadcast southern music to an enthusiastic Caribbean audience.  Sailors too, from the southern ports, took records with them.  Soon Jamaican producers like Coxone Dodd and Duke Reid were visiting the States and coming home with rare records for their sound systems.  Country music in particular was a favourite with Jamaicans.  Johnny Cash had a house in Jamaica his whole life, as did Charley Pride.  One of the first big ska tunes, Music Is My Occupation, by the Skatalites, borrows Cash’s horn riff from Ring Of Fire.  I remember, in Texas in the mid-seventies, hearing four different versions of the song Reunited (by Peaches And Herb) on the radio: the soul version, a country version, a Conjunto Spanish language version, and a reggae version. Southern music has never been a respecter of boundaries.

These songs began life as country hits by Freddy Fender, Ray Price, Charley Pride, Hank Locklin, and Tammy Wynette.  Songs like This Train and Will The Circle Be Unbroken were sung in churches all across the south.  We also have Freddy Fender, a Spanish speaking Texan swamp pop star, recording for Louisiana soul man Huey Meaux, on a track that Meaux bought in Jamaica, and to which he added Mexican horns. The song is a country classic sung in Spanish.  At the same time, in Jamaica, John Holt was recording Freddy Fender country songs (Before The Next Teardrop Falls and Wasted Days And Wasted Nights) to huge success.  It all makes some kind of messy sense.

Tracklist:

This Train – Culture

Before The Next Teardrop Falls – John Holt

Stand By Your Man – Merlene Webber

Country Boy – Cornel Campbell

Send Me The Pillow That You Dream On – The Bleechers

The End Of The World – Gregory Isaacs

My Two Empty Arms – Freddy Fender

Wasted Days And Wasted Nights – John Holt

Someone Loves You Honey – June Lodge / Prince Mohammed

By The Time I Get To Phoenix – Noel Brown

Will The Circle Be Unbroken – Ken Parker

Buy Long Time Traveller

Beautiful Long Time Traveller screenprints by Jeb Loy Nichols