Saturday, December 12, 2009

Diva of the discs

By Stephen McClarence

Violet May's moods were so unpredictable, and her manner sometimes so aggressive, that a couple of her customers nicknamed her "Violent May". Good to know it wasn't just me she put the fear of God into.

Violet May Barkworth, to give her the full name that hardly anyone knew, ran record shops in Sheffield from the Fifties to the Seventies and had a loyal band of "regulars" including an intriguing man known as Operatic Horace. Her shops stocked collectably out-of-the-way, specialist stuff and became so famous that Fleetwood Mac once made a personal appearance and jazzmen Chris Barber and Jimmy Rushing called in.

But back to the fear of God. Violet May could be utterly charming, but she could also be utterly abrupt. A new book about her – yes, a book about a woman who sold records rather than made them – recalls that she would sometimes tell browsers to "get out if you're not going to buy anything".

The book features memories from Joe Cocker and Dave Berry, and an introduction by Richard Hawley. "Without her I'm sure that I wouldn't be making music today," he writes. "I never had the pleasure of meeting her, but my father did and some of the music he bought in her shop still informs many of my ideas to this day. She widened the sonic palette of thousands of people from Sheffield and other places in Britain."

Musician John Firminger and DJ Gus Chapman, the book's authors, offer a warts-and-all celebration of "Sheffield's Vinyl Goddess", as they call her. It concentrates on pop, jazz and blues, the singles, EPs and LPs that brought in most customers. But it was a different sort of music, and a more fragile sort of record, that drew me as a schoolboy to her shop near the city's long-gone open market.

I was interested in classical music and 78s, those brittle shellac HMVs and Columbias whose four-minute playing time could stretch Mozart operas to 40 sides (you got a lot of exercise changing sides). I'd already bought a few from a market-trader – the father of a man who subsequently became my MP – but Violet May's stock was on a different scale.

Her shop was tiny, but crammed with vinyl. On the ground floor, there was pop, rock, R&B, country and Russ Conway. The records filled every corner, every square inch of floor space. They marched up the steep staircase, along the narrow landing, and into an upstairs room which was a sort of upper sanctum.

Here were tens of thousands of classical LPs and second-hand 78s – second-hand, because they'd been phased out nearly 20 years before. An attic of shellac stacked high and heavy. At any moment, you feared, the floor might give way and the whole lot would plummet through the ceiling onto the counter below and Violet May herself. What an end it would have been for a woman who devoted her working life to records – crushed by half-a-ton of Beethoven symphonies and Rachmaninov concertos.

She was, as the book acknowledges, formidable, not to say intimidating: a canny businesswoman who had taught herself about every sort of music she might ever be able to sell. As a "groovy granny" (as someone called her), she could discuss anything from early Bix Beiderbecke, through middle-period Big Bill Broonzy, to late Beecham and Barbirolli.

She knew what every single one of her records was worth and how to get a few more bob for it. With her glasses perched on the end of her nose, she would study the record you wanted to buy, study you, study the record again, say "Very collectable, this" and charge you twice what you were hoping to pay. Even so, her prices were a fraction of London dealers'.

It was in one of her shops that I met Operatic Horace. He was a dapper, genial, elderly man with curly hair and, as far as I could judge, he'd had a fairly unremarkable life doing an uninteresting job. I never found out because he didn't talk about his life; like many people in the obsessive world of collecting, he talked about his collection.

He knew everything there was to know about operatic records – not just the Giglis and the Carusos, the backbones of an average collection. No, he could quote the entire output of any Italian singer you chose to name, reeling off the arias like a waiter running through a pizza menu.

He often coincided with another elderly man – small, flat cap, broad Sheffield, an unlikely connoisseur on the face of it. They'd stand there doing a sort of double act. "Does tha know," the second man would say, "when tha's listening to them records by Boninsegna, tha's listening to real coloratura?"

It was the first time I ever heard anyone talk about what sounded like
"a pink patty". I took it to be a sort of pie and it was many years before I learned it meant a pink-label pressing of a record by the great soprano Adelina Patti.

Violet May died in 1995, and her half-dozen shops are long-gone. Some have been demolished. A wistful, rather surreal, section of the book features photographs of where they would once have been ("under the fly-over just past the small electric sub-station in the middle of Park Square roundabout").

There's a lot of legwork in here, a lot of research, a lot of memories and a lot of nostalgia for anyone who ever played The Honeycombs' Have I the Right on a Dansette Conquest Auto record player
("a truly luxurious set... Life is sweeter with a Dansette").

Peter Stringfellow flits through the pages, with their chic retro design, and there's a classic throwaway line from an ex-pat customer remembering the last time he saw Violet May: "I was on my way back to Japan and dropped in to buy a load of Biblical film soundtracks for a pal in Malaysia."

The highlight, though, is the transcript of an interview from the Sheffield University Jazz Club magazine in 1967. Violet talks about the benefits of blues and soul records "searching for an expression of our inner selves through the turmoil of wars, strikes and any evil which exists, and always will, human nature being what it is".

As the profundity of all this settles in, the interviewer asks: "You see your shop as a bastion against evil?"

Richard Hawley puts it in perspective: "In this age of instant access to virtually any recordings at the touch of a button, it is hard to imagine a time when you could spend months, often years, tracking down a rare record by an obscure artist... Violet May was a light in the darkness for the avid record collector and the developing musician. My father found records by Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, The Dell Vikings and many, many more which at the time were virtually impossible to find over here, and the effect they had on a young inquiring mind was like a cerebral atom bomb."

Certainly anyone who has ever cherished a copy of My Baby Left Me by Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup should read this book.

Shades of Violet by John Firminger and Gus M Chapman is published by (0114 275 7222;, £9.99.


1 comment:

Shawn said...

I found that this book is only available in teh UK.....SUCKS! Went to B&N and they have no way of getting it....