He Knows It's Old Rock'n'roll, But Alan Lee Will Always Like It

Neighbors/Brooklyn Park

December 24, 1990|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

Leave behind Ritchie Highway and the hot white neon that glares at you from the Channel Home Center across the street and step into a rock'n'roll anachronism.

Listen to the doo-wops doo-wopping, Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas," Chuck Berry reinventing the top two strings of an electric guitar and ancient bluesmen singing about hard living back when they knew it first-hand.

At Roadhouse Oldies, three cramped rooms behind a brick storefront in Brooklyn Park that have served as a treasure trove of hard-to-find gems for 15 years, rock'n'roll still reigns.

Real rock'n'roll, that is, store owner and longtime oldies disc jockey Alan Lee will tell you.

That's before some people started dropping the "roll" part, giving birth to just plain "rock," album covers resembling acid trips and people paying money to hear new machines making noises unlike anything anyone had ever heard before.

Lee figures rock'n'roll, the brand he knows as well as just about anybody around these parts, died then.

He places the year at about 1968.

He has little use for anything recorded by virtually anyone since then.

He doesn't play it on the dusty Sharp stereo in the back of his store, or on his Sunday night WQSR-FM oldies show, something of a phenomenon among the 40-something set. And he doesn't keep the more modern hybrids on the shelves, floors, back rooms, walls, ceilings or table tops at his Brooklyn Park store.

Lee vividly remembers when his interest in mainstream popular music began fading.

"I didn't know what was going on," says Lee. "I went to dances and started saying, 'You can't dance to any of this. What is this? This isn't rock'n'roll.' " So if you want modern-day rock or pop or songs built from the rhythm machine up, if you want Bruce Springsteen or Madonna or some Megadeath metal, go somewhere else.

You won't find it here.

Nor will you find compact discs, sleek shelves, computerized cash registers or much of anything that sounds or looks like most record stores nowadays.

What you will find, at a time when you can't buy a record at many bigger "record stores," are some 50,000 oldies singles, most costing $2.50 each, and more than 1,000 albums, all priced very reasonably, generally starting about $7.50.

You'll find tables and shelves full of best-sellers by the likes of Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, the Dells, the Isley Brothers, Roy Orbison, Little Richard, the Temptations, Buddy Holly and many lesser-known recording artists.

Though the store specializes in oldies rock'n'roll, Lee also stocks -- or usually can quickly get -- any of rock'n'roll's forebears, including but certainly not limited to soul and classic blues albums like the ones from Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker.

All of it comes amid controlled chaos.

Lee, a wiry, balding 40-year-old, constantly juggles phone calls, races through records and catalogs, answers special requests from customers (many of whom he knows by first name), offers mini-reviews and a chance to hear any record in the store.

He's been doing it like that for a decade and a half.

"We try to keep it this way, different from the record stores in malls, with all their chrome and all their glitter," he says. "We try to be a little different."

By that measure, the store certainly succeeds.

A top-40 list greets you at the door, from Jan. 14, 1957, when the Penguins topped the charts with "Earth Angel." Pictures of The Swallows, Elvis, Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Dick Clark share the walls with dozens of 45s affixed to the low, yellowing ceiling. Display panels from pinball machines dating to the '40s provide the only thing resembling glitz the store has ever known.

John Waters looked at the place and thought right away that he had finally found what he was looking for to shoot a record store scene for his film "Hairspray."

Unfortunately, though, the cramped store couldn't accommodate all the equipment. So the movie's producers had the old record-player stand in the back, along with other pieces of the past from the store, moved to another location in Baltimore to be shot there.

But don't write the place off as some sort of museum, and don't think for a minute that records face extinction.

In fact, the onslaught of compact discs has only helped business, Lee says, because it's getting harder and harder to find records in a record store.

The Brooklyn Park store is open Tuesdays and Thursdays 5 to 8 p.m. and Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Lee also opened a second, larger Roadhouse Oldies in Silver Spring about two years ago.

So stop by the Brooklyn Park store, and leave behind the neon and the record stores that don't sell records and check out a real record store.

Don't be surprised if Alan Lee stops whatever he's doing, smiles, greets you and asks you where you've been all these years.

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