I attended Vanderbilt, University in Nashville, Tennessee because I knew that I’d be able to spend my spare time searching for rare records in a city where competition was nil. Well, that’s not exactly true, but let’s just say that with the knowledge I’d received from a great many teachers in the Northeast, I felt uniquely equipped to search out regionally released 45s by the likes of Joe Lee in 1997 – while the rest of the city’s young record buying populace seemed stuck on the Power of Zeus drums or Bob James One.
There were so many places to get the goods: the rarer of the two issues of The Cult’s The Mail Must Go Through literally fell into my hands in Phonoluxe. Private pressed (we didn’t call ’em that back then, but whatever) rural rock records with decidedly awesome covers of Average White Band tunes stacked up against the first Bo-Sound 45s I’d ever seen at the Great Escape on Broadway.
But the spot of spots was Lawrence Brothers Record Store, in downtown Nashville. Next to venerable country repository Ernest Tubbs, near the juke joints and the barbecue stands, stood this library of 45s and LPs by soul, funk, bluegrass, rock, country and jazz artists. The story went, as I recall, that Daddy Lawrence bought the building in the early 1960s and filled it up with whatever goods he could find. As record stores and distributors went out of business, he filled up the basement and upper two floors with boxes upon boxes of dead-stock vinyl. The store front contained bin after bin chock full of 45s, each with a location number penciled on a dividing card. If you found something you liked, there was a good chance that there were hundreds more copies upstairs.
Thus, by the time Paul Lawrence took over the store’s day to day operations with his brother Ted and wife Paulette, and he lowered the price of each 45 to three dollars a piece, we didn’t hesitate to buy hundreds of copies of James K-Nine’s “Live It Up” on Federal – right around the time that Dante Carfagna got his first copy and called the drummer “Mr. SP 1200,” if I remember correctly. Dozens of Kay Robinson’s “The Lord Will Make A Way Some How” came down from upstairs, alongside a copy or two of then-rarity like the Overnight Low on Deluxe.
Too bad we didn’t have the taste to search out a record like The Mixed Feelings on United – I’m sure it was there.
I tried everything to convince the Lawrence brothers to let me upstairs. I just knew I’d find the goods: Billy Ball on King, David Matthews’ LP on People… But try as I did (I ever offered to intern for free one summer, just for access upstairs, to search for records I’d pay cash for), the answer always came back as a polite “no.”
So I left, moved out to California, visited the shop every time I was back in town to check in on the family and buy a random stock James Brown 45 or two, and never failed to remind Paul that I’d love to make it upstairs some day.
Well, turns out on one of my two year hiatuses from the city that a few people cracked the code and got on up. The stories came back about the half dozen Grodeck Whipperjenny LPs that had come down. I felt vindicated! It was time to go back to the city, to finally see what the upper floors held.
This past week, as I walked in to the store alongside Georges Sulmner, the ex-NYC collector who opened up my eyes to indie-released funk 45s when I was 19, and my college buddy Ben Nichols, I felt Ted’s notable absence. Normally, he’d greet me with a hug and barrage of questions, in his inimitable drawl, about the record business, David Axelrod, and all things new under the California sun. Paul filled me in: Ted developed a rare form of blood cancer, but he was on the mend. And he’d stopped smoking, cold turkey.
“And how many copies of that Coasters On Broadway record you still holding on to, young man?”
Thinking of the grey hairs in my bears – and teasing Paul on his shock of white hair – we made our way upstairs. “Forget the basement, mostly country down there,” Paul called out as we made our way into the “Employees Only” section of the store.
Georges had been through the upper two levels before, and he’d reported some decent finds. We started out strong with a couple promising 45s laid at the front of the third floor: some random disco rap 45 from the early 80s on a southern label, and a boogie ballad by a previously unknown Nashville group from 1979. Down the rows we went, talking about “the way things used to be,” reminiscing over the days when boxes of David Robinson’s “I’m A Carpenter” were a kitchen sink away in the humid attic of Eddie 3 Way in New Orleans. When Ye Olde Clocke Shoppe still stood in Concorde, North Carolina and heavy pieces sat at the top of each box, next to Mason Jars still smelling of recently consumed moonshine.
But it was hot, humid and dirty up there. The tar from the roof leaked in neat strands and pooled on the top shelves of records. Every box was labeled with a bin card, it seemed, which corresponded to a section in the racks downstairs. Had we seen these before? I kept my eye on the IRDA sleeves, hoping that this would be the day that I’d pull that Mixed Feelings. It’s the hope that drives a record collector minute by minute, hour by hour, under duress, through the dark, dirty must in search of the one that might yet get away.
About an hour in, Georges left to DJ an event. Ben and I soldiered on. Down to the second floor I went, past the decrepit bathroom that obviously hadn’t been used in forty years, into the dark – and slightly cooler – rows that housed simply too many cut outs on Janus and custom country 45s that masqueraded as possible funk finds.
After another hour, I decided it was time to pack it in. Back upstairs, I passed a stack of boxes of Little Royal LPs (the alternate second press, at least) and threw a couple in my stack. I went past the stack of Gaston 45s and grabbed a handful. That would do it, I suppose. Then Ben passed me a record on Country Disco – a wild, country version of “Do You Think I’m Sexy,” complete with a swirling moog. The novelty of finding a record that mixed the country music that pervaded the boxes we were sifting through and hinted at the funk we so desperately serarched for seemed as high a point as we’d get on this trip. We made our way downstairs.
Paul was as accommodating as ever, throwing in the 60s era Hermitage postcards and empty Coke bottles I found for free, and charging much less for our small stacks than he should have. He sent his regards to my parents; I gave my love to his wife and wishes for a speedy recovery to Ted. It was as bittersweet an experience as I’ve ever had in a record store and as I walked out, glancing at the tin tiles on the ceiling and feeling the same fondness I’d felt for them the first time I walked in, nearly twelve years ago, and I wondered if I’d ever be back.