When I was just starting on my musical journey, I began in the Northeast, Boston to be exact, where I got a job in a record store. It was a fantastic experience and sent me on one incredible journey that has lasted decades and one that I am forever grateful for.
I had landed in Boston after 2 years on the road in Europe where I was based in Aarhus, Denmark, so coming to Boston was a real change. I didn’t know anyone, my Mom and Dad were still in Bangkok in SE Asia, and I needed a job for support until my show schedule got a little more solid, so I answered an ad in the Boston Phoenix for record store staff for a new record store.
I got the job, and started working for a store in Copley Square called “Strawberries”; it was launched by a New York group associated with Pyramid and Roulette Records, starting this record store was in direct response to the incredible success of “Peaches” in Atlanta – Peaches? Strawberries? – and Tower Records in LA.
At this stage in my short but intense life, I was exactly as Jack Kerouac might have described me:
“The only people for me are the mad ones: the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who… burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles.”
I had a vision since Denmark of what I was about and I knew what I wanted to do but I had no idea how to get there, literally no direction and I knew not a soul in the Boston area at this time… and then I found records!
I loved every minute of it, even though it was hours and hours on my feet, constantly walking the floor, checking the racks, putting in new releases when they came to the store, but more important than all of that, I felt I was part of a unique culture: people who bought, sold, traded and collected vinyl.
My manager in those days was a guy named Jeep Holland – literally 5’ tall and 5’ wide, who knew the Schwann Catalog by heart, drank a 5th of whiskey a day and was a walking encyclopedia of information on releases, and knew everything about the more obscure novelty records you could imagine: who else but Jeep knew about “The Hen House 5 plus One”, or had the original release of Lonnie Johnson playing ”To Do It, You Gots To Know How” and yes, that’s the actual spelling.
Jeep knew all about Mitch Diamond, my roommate in Brookline, who worked for Rounder Records in Somerville, and was a remarkable collector and trader himself, and then there was Joe Pope in NYC who had the largest and most complete collection of everything “Beatles” you could imagine. From lunchboxes to bubble-head dolls, Joe and Mitch had a remarkable collection( check out “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” here in this blog) And that included all the 45’s, all the 12” Disco, Dance and Novelty releases including a recording of Rudy Ray Moore doing “Dolemite” and “The Signified Monkey” – if you want to know where rap and hip-hop originated, you gotta start with Rudy Rae Moore. It is an eye-opener and one of the foulest rants you could imagine, a hint of where rap was going to go 10 years later.
I was assigned in-store promotions which meant dealing with the tons of posters, promotions, product stands, and counter displays flooding into the Copley Square store with every new release. All the big labels, Warner Bros / Elektra Atlantic for example, wanted their artists at the front of the store and doing the new release wall was always a special thrill – putting out the new releases, looking at the wonderful cover art and the posters and promotional materials and creating huge and eye-popping displays.
That’s just not something that happens too much these days since there’s almost no real estate in a record store where you can do those beautiful displays. The main thing about records which I loved…
was that you could hold a 12″ record jacket in your hands and turn it over, look at it, read it, check out all the players, look at the photographs and merge with that record, have an attachment to it, become one with it, let it become a soundtrack for that moment and remember it for the rest of your life.
I can’t say that about an MP3 or a streaming release.
For digital music, something is lost forever now that you can trade convenience – speed, instant downloads for the here-and-now ability to touch, feel, and deeply experience the actual record itself.
I discovered Reid Miles from Blue Note around this time, and his creative output is remarkable – he designed all of the Blue Note record covers, at least the ones that mattered, from the 50’s thru the ’60s, and by himself, through his remarkable graphic skills, visually created Blue Note Records. My favorite is Herbie Hancock’s release Maiden Voyage which I bought at Harvard Square Records which later became Strawberries.
Did I mention the amazing in-store appearances? While at Strawberries we had Queen come thru, Eric Carmen, Stevie Wonder, and Howlin’ Wolf and it was as exciting as it gets, for me at least! I was able to have a cigarette with Roger Taylor, share a pizza in the back with Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and hang out at the show with Howlin’ Wolf…
I worked at Strawberries for three years, then moved to Atlanta and worked for Record Shack of Atlanta where I sold records over the phone to record stores across the south. On the phone all day long selling new releases to the chains and little Mom & Pop record stores in Little Rock.
Then I left to go to New York City where I worked at Roulette/Pyramid Records at 17 W 60th St. right off Columbus Circle as East Coast Regional PR Director and was on the road 6 days a week to record stores, radio stations, drag races and chain store parking lots from Buffalo to St. Augustine, FL; I did this until my first tours started and I was able to be back in Boston working for Don Law and Fred Johannsen at The Paradise Rock Club with The Atomics.
While on the road as a solo act I made many trips through Chicago and on the way, I always stopped in at Whites Bar in Saginaw, Michigan, which was the home of Michigan Rock, and especially in Ann Arbor, playing anywhere I could to make gas money. It was on these trips that I came across Encore Records, and on numerous trips after that, through Ann Arbor and Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, I spent hours inside the Encore Records store lost in the stacks, lost in the endless sea of vinyl I had learned to love, treasure and appreciate.
The Encore Record Store was huge – it seemed to go on forever, and the people who came through the store were knowledgeable and so appreciative of what a record store was and the incredible gems you could find there. To write this piece I have tried to reach out to Encore to get a few quotes and they were very pleasant, and Barnaby and I had a few marvelous conversations. The point is they are still in business, still slingin’ vinyl and carrying on a wonderful tradition.
Fast forward 5 years or so to a series of shows in Milwaukee and Madison, Janesville and Appleton, Wisconsin. During a break between setting up and sound check in Appleton, Tim took me around the corner to a music store that was a cross between a musical graveyard and a vinyl depot – boxes and bins of records and guitars strewn about the place, a few rows of record bins with a wildly diverse collection of titles, amp heads, speaker cones, bass bins, and a few snare drum shells lay about in a helter-skelter arrangement of musical chairs. It was exciting and exhilarating at the same time, surrounded by so many of the things I loved and the things that made sense to me.
Tim guided me downstairs and underneath this obscure storefront, in a basement, as cluttered as the floor above,
were rows and rows of guitars, some in cases, some just sitting there collecting dust and the remarkable one that Tim was showing me was a gas tank with a guitar neck attached, two Gibson Humbucking pick-ups and three knobs plus a pick-up selector switch fitted on the body.
But no strings, which was terrible because it was just begging to be played! It was black, raw, and round at the corners like a gas tank should be, and it was industrial and very much right out of the garage.
Hopefully, I’ll locate that photo and include it here.
So some years later I was in southern New Jersey, playing at The Bus Stop Music Café, a little room I’d discovered 20 minutes east of The Ben Franklin Bridge. It was run by Vic Martinson and in the back of the store, directly at the other end of the first floor was a counter and a small room lined floor to ceiling with records.
And the people who orbited the Bus Stop were wonderful: Doug & Sue Brown, Gary Curry, Wendy Betz, and Jimmy Oakley to name but a few
But the real trove was in the basement. You can see Vic with the amazing white beard, standing amid a vast collection of vinyl, a collection of shellac 78’s so brittle they needed to be handled with both hands and a vast collection of 45’s some so rare I can’t even describe what holding them felt like.
I have pulled a few together here that I found to be particularly exciting, but if you reach out to Vic and the wonderful folks at The Bus Stop Music Cafe, you’ll be glad you did. Long Live Records and the amazing, wonderful culture that swirled around them and all things Vinyl.
And fortunately, O! Thoughtful Reader, I can say with clarity that there are cool little vinyl outposts springing up all around us, and one such location is in downtown Raleigh, NC! It is located on the second floor of The Pour House and it’s called “The Record Shop”… a small, highly curated offering of all things vinyl and all things musical.
This location has a few things going for it: it isn’t a mass vinyl deluge, there aren’t stacks and racks of new releases as was the situation at Tower Records or Peaches… no, this is a gathering of thoughtfully curated items for sale, trade, or whatever deal can be made, and the owner Adam Lindstadt and his lovely wife are on-site and ready to help. One of the real rockin’ things about The Record Shop is this: there is a full bar not 5 ft from the racks, which means you can sip away while thumbing through the bins, plus there is Live Music upstairs on Saturday afternoons… Bonus Track!
Peace Out, Dear Reader!
“If there’s a place for musical perfection, it’s wherever you’ll find Eric Sommer – A blistering acoustic style plus a variety of slide and open tuning formats will knock you for a loop…” wrote Studdie Burns, Melody Maker/UK in 2013. “How one guy can do this so well is remarkable, but if you look a little deeper there’s a batch of road miles around this lad… and it all makes sense.”
Eric started his musical career in the Boston area under the eye of legendary promoter Don Law and was onstage at The Paradise Theatre in Boston for a record 40 appearances. He has been a regular player on many national and international tours and showcases, and worked in Europe for two years with Nick Lowe and acts Bram Tchaikovsky and Wreckless Eric; during this period Eric worked on Danish, German and British rock stages, returned to Boston and formed The Atomics.
As a founding member of Boston’s legendary pop/new wave cult trio “The Atomics”, who toured non-stop with Mission of Burma, Gang of Four and The Dead Kennedy’s and were on the leading edge of several musical transformations, Eric never lost sight of his acoustic roots, returning to his heroes and mentors often: David Bromberg, Steve Howe(YES), Duane Allman (Allman Bros.), Bert Jansch, Davy Graham, Robert Johnson. Mr. Sommer’s current project with power trio “The Solar Flares” shake up Chet Atkins and David Bromberg’s influences with those of Randy Travis and British Rocker Elvis Costello – a remarkable mix.
And to keep track of it all, Eric started keeping notes, which evolved from napkin scribbles to paper and pen efforts, writing stories, making poetry and capturing the roads and bridges as they went by, plus people, places and… more people which become his notes, then become characters for songs, stories, and prose.
Eric currently has four volumes of verse, 5 studio albums, a LIVE in AUSTIN DVD as well as an electronica project titled “The Smallest Particle” and more on the way… this blog is an attempt to keep track of it all…
You can reach Eric directly at ericATericsommer.com and see more of his projects here on this website. Red Chairs, Black Pancake and Blue Turtle are all available here, as well as all current releases. Please share and comment below.
Singer/songwriter Eric Sommer is an unbelievable intersection of improbable influences and experiences channeled into an amazingly diverse catalog and a résumé that reads more like a musical adventure novel than a series of career bullet points.