Confessions of a Phonographer
by Jeff Barr
I was grasping for a way to make a living back in the early ‘70s. My last organized effort to get a career in Hollywood had been given its finis, as I had just been rejected by the MMPA for inclusion in its initial 2nd assistant directors training program, and I didn’t want to continue installing car stereos for friends, or get $4 an hour jobs doing something vaguely clerical…It was time for the old character assessment, and make it damn good , if I wanted to continue buying record from cut out bins…man, I had to have bread for some new sides!
Fast forward another year. I’m accepted to Cal State Long Beach for a B. A. in their creative writing program, and then I’ll be qualified and ready to get into the corporate world as an in house editor, or a trade magazine, or…you get it, whatever I can get, I’ll be making a living.
Bingo, the week before I move to Long Beach, I advertised a garage sale/record sale, and there are 500 original swinging 50s and 60s jazz records on display, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, all the inside stuff, Horace Silver, Fats Navarro…A buyer shows up, and he starts laying bread on me for my lp’s like I’d never seen!
The gentleman makes an offer on a select group of my original pressing jazz lp’s from the ‘50s and ‘60s that put some relief into my pocket that was extremely timely in its value. I learn from him that he is the first mail order record dealer in the U.S., and he puts out an “auction” mailing list, and takes “bids” on individual records for “collectors in Germany and Japan” who “prefer the sound of the original records.” It is easy for me to surmise from the price he pays me, that this is certainly a direction I should follow up on, seeing as I still have 450 records and I know where to get more.
Fast forward a few months: I’m working for Long Beach State as a student assistant in the University press relations office; I’m using the office mimeo machine to crank out a few dozen of my own “auction” mailing lists for “bids”, and I’ve got the addresses of a few collectors in Japan and Germany that came through advertising in Downbeat and Metronome. So I was off! Buying and selling jazz records put me through a year of college!
Turns out after my B. A. program was complete in 1974, and I was ready to try to turn up that $25,000 a year editor’s job I wanted, I looked at the $5,000 I’d made selling records by mail during the school year, and said this is the way to go, become a record dealer, not an editor. After my 1st full year of mail order I’d made $25 grand, and the next year over $40 thou.
As now, it was then so competitive to get the high dollar return record collections – every record collection from San Diego to San Francisco was getting top money. I was well off… for the first time in my life I had a few thousand in the bank, but record collections worth buying were at least a $5 grand investment.
I understood the situation I was in, I needed a breakthrough, and one day in the summer of 1975, I had a chance meeting that created the opportunity I needed to jump up to that $5 grand spending level.
New inventory was always needed for my mailing lists that went out every 45 days, and I had a systematic route of used record stores, swap meets, and cut out warehouses that I ran several times a month. I was in the East Valley at a place called Apex/Rendezvous, a nationwide wholesaler of cut out vinyl. They had lots of floor product you could go through… it was about $1.65 an LP out the door, and if I spent $60 or $80, I could make $400 return on the investment. Sometimes I could spend more.
I’m there, going through bins and boxes of returned merchandise, this is where the older mono 1st pressings were still getting returned from department stores and other record retail shops, and you could find a Blue Note and a Verve and a Riverside every 500 to 1,000 records, so it’s literally like panning gold.
The scene is a big warehouse space and the jazz is not a big area compared to the rock … I’m digging through piles and a guy comes over from another aisle and we greet, it turns out he is a record store owner in Phoenix, and he has just bought 5,000 jazz lp’s from the famous jazz disc jockey Mort Fega, (Fega was once the best NYC broadcaster of jazz in the 50s and 60s, and had been brought to Phoenix by a 24 hour jazz station because of his name value).
It turned out that Mort was too hip and independent for the station management and they let him go after six months intown. He had moved his wife and children from Connecticut, and now he was on the outs in Phoenix, and to move thefamily back East he decided to sell the records. But Mort didn’t have a clue about L. A. buyers, so he takes all of the records to a local open air flea market, and my contact, the owner of a big independent Rock oriented collector shop, cruises by, sees the collection, and buys it on the spot for $2.00 apiece. Some of the rarest jazz records ever, Mort had them all.
The collection had been in the store for several weeks and local collectors had already pulled out the rare Blue Notes, Prestiges, and Transitions, all priced to go at $4 or $5. A hilarious exchange ensued when 2 collectors both grabbed corners of a rare hand painted Sun Ra Saturn Lp, and supposedly tore it in half in the scrum.
When I arrived the next day with Bob Setlik, another record dealer who started in Long Beach, we combed through the entire collection and weren’t getting many American 1st Pressings, just some sleepers, and a few items of legend, and worthy of expenditure. Then we found a full section of European originals that had been largely ignored by the Phoenicians.
Suddenly we were in high dollar return record collector heaven. Because Fega was so well known in the international jazz community, every record producer wanted Mort to have the new French Lucky Thompson Lp, or the new Italian Chet Baker…There were ten inch European bebop records and a lot of collector quality Italian, French, Swedish and British 12 inch originals with the shiny laminate covers and beautiful vinyl surfaces. All 1955 to early ‘60s vintage.
So we drove back to L. A. with about 400 rare original European records for about $900, and the owner was glad to get rid of them. I split the Lp’s with Bob and we each made about $10 grand on the next mailing list. Those records were so rareour German and Japanese collectors were express mailing cash for expedited air mail shipment.
That’s the upshot! I finally got a chunk of cash together for future inventory purchases, and my business really grew after that, as I was able to travel beyond Southern California for the first time, and get up to regional and cross country travel for more LP acquisitions.
To be continued………..