steven ivory (2014)

Steven Ivory

*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].