Monday, September 1, 2008

Memphis dealer-collector finds joy in grooves of old vinyl

By Jonathan Devin

Ron Hall's face still lights up when he comes across an album with his favorite song, "Gloria," on it.

"It's the best song ever written," said Hall, 58, a longtime collector and seller of vinyl records. "The band Them did it with Van Morrison singing in '66; that was really good. Then Jimi Hendrix did a version of it. Now everyone's done it."

Ron Hall has 2,000 albums in his personal collection, 8,000 to 10,000 stored for sale, and as many as 2,000 popular titles that sell well at the Memphis Flea Market, where he has sold for 27 years.

Ron Hall is not only a big collector of vinyl albums and related music memorabilia, he is also the author of two books about the Memphis garage band scene in the 1960s and '70s.

In addition to vinyl albums, Hall has big collection of cardboard music advertising cutouts.

Shelves groan under the weight of the thousands of albums in Ron Hall's collection. He likes "oddball" treasures with great cover artwork, virtually unknown music and personal connections.

Even though an entire generation born in the late 1970s and '80s grew up with nothing but CDs, Hall cautions those who claim vinyl is a dinosaur. For the past 27 years, he has been a fixture at the Memphis Flea Market ("The BIG One"), selling crates full of records to eager young buyers who Hall said are learning to appreciate the art of vinyl, if not the technology.

"Sometimes I'll see something at a yard sale and just go nuts over it," Hall said.

Hall worked for record distributors Record Sales in Whitehaven, and later Stan's Distributing, based in Shreveport, La., through the 1970s, when recorded music rivaled television in the entertainment industry.

Records, he said, were conversation starters and reasons for people to get together and have fun.

"Friends of mine can come over here and pull stuff off the rack, and it seems like so many of these records have a story with it," he said. "There's a reason I have it."

A shift in vinyl sales came about, Hall said, when major distributors started buying up smaller ones. Columbia, Capitol Records, RCA, and more recently, Warner Brothers, swallowed smaller labels to cash in on their signature styles. With control of the industry in just a few hands, the need for traveling salesmen dried up as well.

"It was rough. The whole thing changed. It got down to like five major labels who controlled everything."

Hall took a job with the U.S. Postal Service in 1985, after 13 years in record distributing, but continued selling records on his own. In addition to the flea market, he sells on eBay under the handle "waxwatcher."

He describes his love of vinyl records as a never-ending search for "oddball" treasures with great cover artwork, virtually unknown music and personal connections. While many collectors delight in legends like Elvis or The Beatles, Hall's prizes are the kind that are available only on vinyl records.

"I've got an album by the group Title Unit that they cut in a roller rink in Millington," said Hall. "They couldn't have pressed many, probably 300 to 400, and sold them mostly when they played, so most of their albums left the area. I've only talked to one or two other guys that have that record."

Hall is also fond of his autographed album covers, because he can remember the stories that led to the signatures.

He recalled chauffeuring the New York Dolls before and after their Memphis concert in the late '70s. Hall's co-worker refused to drive the makeup-wearing, big-haired glam rock group, but Hall jumped at the chance.

"I'd bought their album and got them all to sign it," he said, displaying the cover proudly. "When you get something signed, that has something that you can remember, a whole story behind it. I wouldn't get rid of that for anything."

Hall's collection consists of about 2,000 albums that he keeps for himself, between 8,000 and 10,000 in storage for sale, and as many as 2,000 popular titles that sell well at the flea market. He charges about $3 per album on average, though some rare ones go for as much as $50-$60.

Music celebrities have been customers at the flea market, including Scott Bomar of the Bo-Keys, who scored Craig Brewer's "Hustle & Flow" and "Black Snake Moan." The late Paul Burlison, guitarist of Johnny Burnette's Rock and Roll Trio, showed up from time to time in the early '80s.

In 2001, Hall put his knowledge and experience to paper, writing "Playing For a Piece of the Door: A History of Garage and Frat Bands in Memphis 1960-75," an encyclopedia of facts about his favorite genre, garage rock. The book was featured on WKNO's "Memphis Memoirs" series.

He followed "History" in 2003 with a second volume, "The Memphis Garage Rock Yearbook." Both were published by Shangri-la Projects.

Some collectors shop Hall's flea market booth looking for album art. Customers ask for albums with motorcycles, Corvettes or certain names on them. (Hall admits he buys albums with the name "Sue" in the title for his wife, Sue).

Something about local music, though, just sings to Hall, a Frayser High graduate, who moved to Memphis in the fourth grade.

"You put on an old Muddy Waters album, it doesn't bother me at all if it crackles and everything, because I can just see him -- see some old sharecropper sitting around a crank-up Victrola in a shotgun shack listening to the old blues records, hearing them crackle."


Audiophiles' Delight: Vinyl LPs Still Sell

Those old-fashioned analog platters (with the warm sound) aren't back from the dead; they were never quite buried in the first place

by Carl Winfield

Rising LP sales are proving that every fashion comes back if you stick around long enough. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) reports that shipments of vinyl records, measured by dollar value, increased 36.6% from 2006 to 2007. But, while demand for albums has increased, record sales remain significantly lower than those of compact discs and digital media. More than half a billion CDs were purchased in 2007, compared with about 1.3 million vinyl LPs.

"Demand for records has grown, but it's kind of like the dandelion in the weed patch," says Geoff Mayfield, chart director at Billboard magazine. "Growth is high because the base is so small." The RIAA declined to comment.

Despite the minuscule retail figures, the format's popularity has never wavered over the decades among audiophiles, LP enthusiasts, and serious music collectors. Vinyl is often praised as the medium of warmth and richness, delivering playback that most closely represents a live musical experience. Purists sniff that digital routinely registers as cold and antiseptic. CDs can also suffer from a reduced spatial sense in a listener's soundstage. "Digital audio systems are mere easy-to-use devices for people who have yet to discover the joy of live music. It can be said that such systems are deflating music," according to the Web site of Samurai International, a Tokyo company that distributes high-end turntable tonearms and cartridges.

Ear Addiction

But for audiophiles, the sonic warmth of analog vinyl often comes with a hefty price tag. Some state-of-the-art turntables, such as Goldmund's Reference II model from Switzerland, sell for as much as $300,000. No matter—for some people, good audio is worth any price. "When you hear a song you know that sounds better than you've ever heard before, it's addictive," says Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, a monthly magazine covering high-performance audio. "You have to have it."

When it comes to the cutting edge of vinyl playback, the sky is truly the limit. A turntable can soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A needle cartridge designed by Japan's Koetsu can set an audiophile back $15,000. Even the records themselves are subject to higher prices. Retail rates for heavier, and therefore more durable, albums weighing 180 to 200 grams start at $18.99. But, with the addition of art and specialty packaging, the cost of a 200-gram, limited-edition Japanese import of The Police classic Ghost in the Machine or Bob Marley's Burnin' can go for as much as $60, plus shipping costs.

While the higher tiers of advanced sound playback can induce wallet-clutching shock and awe, music lovers of modest means don't have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy a fine vinyl experience. "High-end buyers represent the extreme tip of the market," says Jonathan Atkinson, editor-in-chief of SourceMedia's That's not to say that great sound cannot be had with a pair of $600 speakers, a $500 turntable, and an amplifier costing less than $1,000, he adds.

Different audio media, such as eight-track and cassette tapes, have come and gone. And, as compact discs are increasingly supplanted by digital downloads, some speculate that even the mighty CD could one day fade into obscurity. However, if unit sales are any indication, vinyl, it seems, may indeed be forever.

Winfield is a reporter for BusinessWeek.


Blue Note Reissue Series

"You don’t have to be a musician to understand jazz. All you have to do is be able to feel. If you pass through life without hearing this music, you’ve missed a great deal." - Art Blakey

The Definitive 45 rpm Blue Note Reissue Series

You listen, you look, you’re there...

For nearly 70 years, the name Blue Note has been synonymous with the finest in recorded jazz music. The combination of producer Alfred Lion, photographer Francis Wolff, (his partner in Blue Note), and recording engineer Rudy Van Gelder resulted in a near perfect team for documenting the greatest jazz musicians of the time. If Alfred and Rudy were responsible for the Blue Note sound, Francis Wolff could be said to be the man behind the Blue Note look. These men, along with graphic designer Reid Miles, made Blue Note into a label with artistic level, sound fidelity and graphic presentation that set the gold standard for all jazz labels to come.

An often repeated story has Prestige Records producer Bob Porter claiming that “the difference between Prestige and Blue Note is two days of rehearsal.” He was partially right, but the truth is more fundamental than that. Alfred Lion was a perfectionist in his attitude towards the music. Getting it right before it hit the grooves was a major part of the Blue Note success story.

Getting it right is also a single minded passion for Music Matters Ltd. Blue Note has played a significant role in the lives of Ron Rambach and Joe Harley, the core of Music Matters today. We have treasured these records for so long that bringing them back to life again in this new form is like meeting an old friend in new clothes. The work is being carried out with respect, dedication to quality and the realization that being a part of the long Blue Note heritage is both a great honor and a daunting responsibility.

Discussions to do a no holds barred reissue of Blue Note began in May of 2005, though final negotiations with EMI, (parent company to Blue Note), didn’t conclude until July of 2007. Now the dream honor the work of Alfred, Francis, Rudy, and the musicians themselves by presenting definitive new editions of the Blue Note label on vinyl.

It was decided early on to use the mastering skills of Kevin Gray and Steve Hoffman at Acoustech Mastering to do the all important transfer work for these sessions. After being impressed with the recent series of 45RPM audiophile releases from the Prestige/Riverside vault by Acoustic Sounds, it was also determined that the records should be presented as 45RPM 180-gram limited edition LP sets.

To honor the work of Francis Wolff and others who created the Blue Note “look”, we feel that these magnificent Blue Note sessions warrant the finest graphic presentation possible. Great care has been taken in choosing the cardboard stock and thick lamination for the jackets. The inclusion of the brilliant photography of Francis Wolff was a given for this series. The original issued Blue Note albums sometimes included thumbnail sized session photos on the LP jacket backs but we decided to give these photos the high resolution treatment they deserve via a proper gatefold. We can never thank Blue Note man extraordinaire, Michael Cuscuna, enough for his help in obtaining these wonderful session photos, and for his overall guidance and support with this project.

It is our sincere hope that you get as much joy listening to these masterworks, (and looking at the session photos) as we do in presenting them.

With the music in mind… Enjoy!