*The first record I ever bought was the 1967 45-inch single, “The Rain, The Park and Other Things” (often referred to as “The Flower Girl Song”), by the family group, the Cowsills. I was 12.
I loved harmony groups—I have the Beatles to thank for that—and the Cowsills, inspiration for the fictional TV pop group the Partridge Family, specialized in tight, bright harmonies. Daddy was particularly grumpy that Saturday morning, but I pleaded with him to drive me to Records, Inc., a retail record store at Oklahoma City’s NW 23rd Street. I ran in and got it while he sat outside with the engine running.
When you bought a wax single, you bought it for the hit, or A side, which you played over and over. Unless the B side was also great (usually it wasn’t), initially you turned the record over out of curiosity and later, after you’d played the hell out of the A side, desperation. Sometimes, a B side could grow on you. And occasionally, as with the Spinners’ 1972 hit, “I’ll Be Around”–originally it was the B side of the group’s “How Could I Let You Get Away”–the B side could be as strong as the A side.
I can tell you the first album I bought, too: Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind. Walked what seemed like miles to Herbie’s Record Mart, a tiny, popular black-owned mom and pop storefront dutifully serving OKC’s predominantly black east side’s R&B needs.
I bought Stevie’s LP (the dusty, all but abandoned initials for Long Playing) and immediately walked back home. Anxiously tearing the cellophane off the album cover as soon as I hit the steps of our front porch, I placed the record on the turntable of the Philco floor stereo in our living room, sat on the edge of the couch and, listening intently, proceeded to lose my mind.
Music was my salvation, my best and most intimate friend. When I heard something on the radio that expressed my sentiments, I didn’t simply have to have it; I obsessed over that song until I had the record in my hands.
As a child, anytime Mama took us to a department store—J.C. Penny, Sears, Montgomery Ward–I’d wander off to peruse its record department. I could be there for as long as Mama was in the store, thumbing through bin after bin of all genres of music.
When I was old enough to get there on my own, the record store was more than just a place to buy new music. If pop music was my god, then the record store was my temple of worship. Never an oh-by-the-way move, for me the record store was a destination distinct and hallowed, an emotional refuge. A place of comfort and assurance–there, I knew what I was talking about–a record store is where I felt I belonged. I could spend half a day there just going through the bins. To buy more than one album during a single visit—say, three—for me, seemed a remarkable extravagance.
Growing up and moving to Los Angeles in the early ’70s didn’t alter my love for record stores. In later years, patronizing legendary Tower Records’ Hollywood location on Sunset Blvd. was a social event. I’d go there alone or with friends late at night and come out with a bag of CDs. In the aisles of Tower, with a stranger one could find camaraderie in The Groove. Even romance.
And you’d run into familiar faces–Wayne Brady, session keyboardist Greg Phillinganes–shopping for music, like everyone else. One of the last times I saw musician/producer George Duke and his wife Corine, both no longer with us, was late one night in the jazz section at Tower. “George wanted to get out of the house,” giggled Corine, “So we came down here.”
The sad irony is that long gone chains like Tower and Wherehouse Music ultimately drove the corner mom and pop shops out of business. Then along came the Internet to drastically alter the entire music business landscape, from record labels to retail stores.
Nevertheless, I reminisce here about the Stone Age events of my musical past in honor of the eighth annual Record Store Day, Saturday, April 19. Despite what many believe, the independent record store still stands. Admittedly, I don’t visit the few that exist like I used to; there is very little new music that excites me like when I was a kid. These days, much of what I seek is either so rare or old that it lives only online. It’s crazy, but I feel a bit of guilt when I buy music online as opposed to the record store.
Regardless, today I still can walk into a record store and get that feeling–the divine hunch that I’ll stumble upon a great piece of music to love forever. The excitement is in the anticipation as I excavate those bins; in believing—knowing–that somewhere in my midst is a song that speaks only to me. That’s a high I can’t get online. I miss that.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected].