An early love of music leaves him holding the (78) record

September 28, 1997|By Jacques Kelly

THIS FALL'S HOME project is finding a new cabinet to hold all the phonograph records I've been hoarding for the past 40 years. I refuse to surrender the battered 78s my mother bought for me.

Early on, it was established that I had no voice, not even a squeak. I got a zero in manual dexterity, too, so forget about playing the piano. But don't allow me near a record store.

The wicker baby carriage my mother pushed as her combined station wagon and back-alley tank occasionally found its way home with a 10-inch disc selected from the inventory of a Waverly music house.

The record industry, which has a reputation for being aggressive, profit-driven and coldhearted, was anything but in the Waverly of the 1950s. We had two favored shops -- each one different from today's retailers.

Minor's was on 31st Street. It was dark and specialized in blocky mahogany cabinets that held the phonograph machinery. The Radio Centre was around the corner on Greenmount Avenue. It was a repository of merry melody.

Inside, the Radio Center reeked of a faint amalgam of petrochemicals and coal, a classic 1950s record smell. Outside, it had a a pip of a neon sign -- an oversized record that extended over the sidewalk. Around its outer grove was a set of 10 or 12 blinking little Nippers. They flashed on and off in succession.

Both shops had a bank of listening booths, cubicles where you could audition what you might buy. A clerk delivered stacks of grooves until the customer smiled, danced, tapped or hummed.

In those dim, dark ages of music buying, we requested songs -- not necessarily performed by a specific artist. Music fell under the sway of Tin Pan Alley. When a new song came out, it might be recorded by different people on a Victor, Bluebird, Capital, Mercury, Columbia or Decca pressing. The customer had choice, even if the process enveloped the afternoon.

The search for that right song could be difficult. And it had its quirks. My mother's tastes in music were fairly straightforward. She liked pieces such as "Third Man Theme" or virtually anything from an opera. Our longtime neighbor, Dorothy Croswell, was a different story. She often caught an infectious melody over the radio she played 24 hours a day -- and failed to secure the composition's proper name.

Dorothy then tried to reconstruct the notes -- via a lilting hum -- to a patient and long-suffering clerk, who pulled record after record from the shelves until her musical memory intersected with the proper platter. It was a Saturday-afternoon game of "Find That Tune."

Dorothy's musical airs leaned toward "The Poor People of Paris" and "The Summer Samba," tunes that did not easily surrender their subtleties to her enthusiastic vocalizing. To add to the experience, she often swung a shopping bag in rhythm during her performance for the shop's record serfs.

While the 78 revolutions-per-minute record was fast falling into obsolescence (the old shellac discs were bulky and breakable), families such as ours couldn't be bothered. We bought 78s long after other consumers were branching into vinyl long-playing albums. Those Waverly merchants understood their market and stocked the discs that fit the customers' whims, wants and weaknesses.

The music bug stung me early. I threw some spectacular temper tantrums on the Greenmount Avenue pavement until I had copies of "The Naughty Lady of Shady Lane," "This Old House" (Patti Page's version preferred), "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" and (always a train fan) "The Wreck of the Old '97." I think I learned to read red Columbia labels before I ever picked up a schoolbook.

When I really liked a song, I badgered my mother until she also bought the sheet-music version. Then I tortured my kindergarten teacher until she played it on the piano so the whole class could be subjected to my musical tastes.

At home there were two 78 rpm players -- an old windup model, a classic hand-cranked 1917 Victrola. Our better model was a newer, snazzy, art deco machine with a Stromberg-Carlson combination radio-phonograph.

It had beautiful cream-colored knobs, a metal arm that held a diamond-stylus needle atop a spinning turntable. The tube radio pulled in the last of the network radio shows that television hadn't torpedoed.

Come Sunday evening, I'd tune in a program like "Suspense." Then WCBM's Eddie Fenton would report crime-blotter items fresh from Judge Mary Arabian's police court.

In a fit of 1970s grooviness, I stupidly let that radio-phonograph get away from me. It seemed like a technological Edsel and got tossed out.

Not so my nonbreakable copy of the "Teddy Bear's Picnic." It's on a shelf alongside "The Third Man Theme."

Pub Date: 9/28/97

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