The Internet is a musical sea, and we are all sailing upon it, collecting music as if it were fish or treasure. There are those who indulge in the perverse delight of fitting thousands of songs on a small solid pearlescent square which can be fit into the pocket. There are the “pirates” of the musical Internet, who spend hours downloading bootlegs, and enjoy sailing off into the uncharted territory of unreleased demos, unauthorized interviews, and obscure forgotten artists who were dropped from the catalogs years ago. There are ebay bidders, who might hop up from the dinner table, and bolt down to the basement to catch the last auction minutes of that rare single. Then there are the ordinary sailors, like me, who just buy an occasional disc from amazon…not really caring if it’s rare or import – just more music for the journey.
But long ago, in the 1950’s and 60’s, before this high-tech music world was mapped, when the recordings were all on vinyl, and when vinyl was relatively new, there emerged a whole generation of young kids who wanted to rock-and-roll, to cruise, make out, but most importantly to buy, every record they could find, that is. These were the first collectors, hard at work amassing and trading vast empires of vinyl. I recently spoke to Steve Propes, a collector in Long Beach, Califronia who started in the 50’s and told me how music collecting began…
Steve Propes lives happily today in a sunny ranch-style house with his wife, daughter, dog, many old books, furniture, cholo and weird thrift-store art, old roadside signs, and most importantly – a collection of at least 39,000 records.
Propes’s records, shelved neatly on high bookcases throughout the house and in his rock-memorabilia filled office, chronicle the entire history of American teenage music. They include blues, RNB, jazz, rockabilly, rock-and-roll, punk, heavy metal, new wave, and countless other genres not least of which is Steve’s own personal favorite – doo-wop. It was the harmonious sounds of doo-wop and 1950’s Rythm and Blues combined with the smell of oil and rubber that first infected Steve with the collecting bug:
“It was 1960. My high-school friend Bill Soon had a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air and we’d go to various drive-in diners in Long Beach – Hody’s, Oscar’s, Grissinger’s and The Clock. Everyone had their own sounds going in their cars, just like in American Graffiti. You tried to sound different and make your own sound, which could be slow or fast. Certain artists became popular through the cruising culture – Dick Dale, and Link Wray for example. We listened to Johnny Otis’s show a lot.”
But the turning-point moment – which transformed Steve from a car-radio-listening music fan, to an obsessive, or at least enthusiastic, collector of vinyl records, was not far away…..
“I started collecting between high school and college. We found out about Bill Braden, a Long Beach cop who would sell records out of his house every Saturday to college and high school kids. The records he sold were cut-outs (recordings which have been drilled or cut by dealers to indicate that they have been sold at a discount price and prevent full refunds). I think Bill would go into thrift stores in his uniforms and ask for records for charity.”
And like many collector discontented with contemporary sounds, Steve started turning back to R-n-B and not until several years after the recordings were made:
“I was collecting U.S. 45’s, mainly black music, so I overlooked a lot of rockabilly, country, garage, and surf. Black music was just the coolest thing on the radio. There was also a new interest in “teen collecting” – stuff like Frankie Avalon and Fabian. I hated that.”
Today thrift stores and record stores are decreasing in number. But back then they were plentiful and contributed heavily to Steve’s collection.
“I’d go to Wallich’s Music City in the Lakewood Center. Hody’s was right across the street. I’d also go to Wenzel’s in Downey. There were stores specializing in black music, such as “Flash”. I knew John Raino, the counterman at Flash and we stayed in touch until he died two years ago. Flash had 5 turntables set up to play new releases throughout the store. But more often this would cause the song to end up playing out of sync. Other records stores in downtown Long Beach included Humphries on Pine, Morey’s, and Badarat. There were record stores in Compton where you could buy stuff real cheap out of the back room.”
Those who remember record stores remember their distinct culture of coolness, where music experts gravitated as they now gravitate to Yahoo music discussion lists. Steve describes the early record store scene:
“Record stores were a cool place to hang out and show knowledge about music. Jim Lamarand worked in the jazz department at record/instrument store Wallich’s. One night he was on his way out to dinner when a black cadillac pulled up. A black chauffeur opens the door and out steps Ray Charles. Charles comes in, starts looking at organs, sits down, and plays for 45 minutes while all of the customers are watching. A few months later Charles came out with an album of all instrumental organ songs: “Soul+Genius=Jazz” on the Impulse ABC jazz line. In the 1960’s a lot of labels had their own jazz lines.”
Records could also be found in thrift stores and less likely places, as Steve recalls:
“My parents went to the Salvation Army on Alamitos near Anaheim St. in Long Beach. I hated it when they went, until one day I started looking at 45’s. There was a record on Red Robin which was always there. I shunned it but one day I brought it home and it was great. Every New Year’s Day and every 4th of July Thrifty drug store (now Rite-Aid) would put out big tables of 45’s at 10 cents each. We’d go to every Thrifty and buy lots of records. One guy named Claude found a phone number on one of the Thrifty’s tables, contacted the distributor and went to their warehouse the next day. This was rock-and-roll and R-n-B, stuff that Thrifty’s didn’t usually sell.
When did Steve decide that he was a collector and not just another kid buying records?
“When Wallich’s was about to sell out on a record, they would put up a cardboard sign saying “no longer in stock.” That’s when i realized that every record would not be around forever.”
He then goes onto describe an unexpected fringe benefit of collecting:
“When I met my future wife Sylvia in college, I had a few thousand records all in one side of my room. She liked my collection. A lot of guys wives didn’t like it, but she did so I considered myself lucky.”
Of course it wasn’t all smooth sailing. I asked Steve what was the worst moment in his record collecting experience. There were a couple of bad ones –
“I once came home a bunch of good thrift store records. I left them on the dash and they melted in the California sun.”
Another story Steve tells is quite amazing:
“We’d go to parties and bring records with our names written on them. I brought a copy of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie” that had been misprinted as “Louie Lovey”. Misprints were very rare and valuable but I left it at the party and never got it back. Then, one day my friend Jim called from the mountains where he was at the house of a woman who was getting rid of a lot of records. There Jim had found the copy of “Louie Lovey” with my name on it so of course he brought it to me.”
I asked Steve what he thought of record collecting today:
“Record collecting remains today. It’s stronger than ever but there are fewer record collectors. Good 78’s like jazz or rock-and-roll can be worth as much as 45’s or 33’s. I don’t really know how you can collect a computer file like an mp3.”
Steve Propes’s record collection will live long beyond him and I expect that it will be well-preserved and cared for. This is because Steve has a couple of daughters who love him and his music – even if they had to share a room until they were 10 so that he could have a record room. How do I know this? I, Princess Cornflakes, am one of these daughters.