Ted's First Trip To New Orleans
November 1973, it was Thursday afternoon and I was on a plane bound for New York nursing a mega-hangover. I vaguely remember joining Phil and Frank and a couple of others at Dingwalls for a drink the night before, after working late on some band accounts in the office with my partner Chris Morrison.
'A drink' turned into a Southern Comfort drinking contest, which was abruptly terminated when we were forcefully ejected from Dingwalls by baseball bat-wielding bouncers. The following morning I was feeling a little better, it was mid-week and the plane was half empty: I had a whole row to myself and we were halfway across the Atlantic.
This was my first trip to New York and Walt Maguire's secretary at London Records had booked me into the mid-town Holiday Inn so I didn't have to worry about finding accommodation. In the cab from JFK I jolted into reality by a sudden thought; "Did I remember to bring my driving licence?" Packing that morning was a vague memory and a thorough search of my bags at the hotel revealed no licence. Luckily a friend was staying at my place back in Belsize Park and a phone call confirmed that my driving licence was still on the mantelpiece. My friend promised to send the licence to London Records by airmail the next day and I went to sleep wondering where I would be sleeping tomorrow night.
I had only a limited amount of money and had carefully budgeted for spending as much of it as possible on records. A prolonged stay at the Holiday Inn at $55 a night would make a major hole in my cash supply and so the following morning I found a room at a more realistic $45 a week in a seedy rooming house in Greenwich Village. Heading for the South on a limited budget, I needed wheels and so I had no option but to wait for the licence that would grant me mobility courtesy of my Avis card.
Next day I explored the neighbourhood and on nearby 8th Street, I came across a store which had everything on sale at 69c. Way in the back were a couple of dusty racks of deleted albums. I soon located several interesting items including a couple of sealed copies of the Everly Brothers' Christmas album and several copies of the Priscilla Paris solo album. I ended up with about 28 LPs and the bags that they gave me to carry them home in also carried addresses for several other branches of the 69c store in various locations around New York.
With time to kill, over the next few days I visited all of the other 69c outlets amassing about 300 albums in the process. These included more copies of the Everly's Christmas album, three copies of a long time favourite, Jake & The Family Jewels' first album, some Jerry Butler albums on Mercury and multiple copies of most of the Sam The Sham MGMs, to name but a few. At last on the following Wednesday, my daily call to Walt Maguire's secretary was rewarded, You have mail! As soon as I had collected the errant licence, I rented a car from Avis to haul my records to a storage facility at JFK and was on the next plane south to New Orleans.
Arriving in New Orleans at about 6.30 in the evening, I wasted no time and clutching my Avis map, I was soon motoring westwards in a '73 Mercury. Turning right at Lafayette, I reached Ville Platte in time for breakfast at a local diner on Main Street. I was entranced to find that the locals were bilingual and as I ate breakfast to the strains of a Frogman Henry 45 on the jukebox, I
listened in to exotic snatches of conversation in both French and English, although to tell the truth they didn't sound that different from each other due to a strong overlay of the local South Louisiana accent.
In Cajunland food is important, so by lunch time, I was ensconced at a table with Floyd Soileau at The Pigstand, a funky little restaurant located just a few short steps away from Floyd's world famous Record store in downtown Ville Platte. I had previously corresponded with Floyd about the origins of Cajun music and now here we were, face to face over bowls of steaming gumbo. I shared my desire to find vast caches of rare old blues and Cajun 45s with him and he suggested that the best place to try might be some of the local jukebox operators, although he offered the opinion that they would probably only have stocks going back two or three years.
Floyd was right and the local jukebox operators yielded only a few dozen Clifton Chenier Arhoolie 45s at 20c a throw, as well as Jin and Swallow 45s that I could get anyway from Floyd for about 40c new. I consoled myself by going to see Johnnie Allan and his band playing that night at a social at Breaux Bridge and I was very taken by the friendliness of the local people of all ages who were in attendance. The gig was a stormer, Johnny obviously enjoying himself on a night off from his day job as a school teacher. He had a great band with three saxes and a solid rhythm section. Afterwards I had a chat with some members of the band and in the course of conversation, Johnny Vincent's Ace label was mentioned. "Johnny's got so many of them suckers; he'd like to dump 'em in the Mississippi" said one of the musicians, referring to Ace label 45s.
The following morning, after checking out of my $8.00 a night motel in Ville Platte, I asked Floyd whether it was true about Johnny Vincent's alleged mega-stash of 45s. Floyd confirmed that indeed, now that I mentioned it, he had heard something about that and said that it wouldn't surprise him and so I was off. Pausing only long enough to purchase one or two copies of every 45 on Jin and Swallow at wholesale prices ( including a copy of the ultra-rare Texas Guitar Slim 45 on Jin, featuring Johnny Winter and his band, which Floyd laid on me after rescuing it from the back of a filing cabinet), I hit the road Jack.
Throwing caution to the wind, I hurtled down the highways and by-ways of South Louisiana, past bayous and swamps and Spanish moss and herons and little white egrets in my rented Mercury until 'round about 5.30 pm I pulled into New Orleans airport. By this time, I was almost flat broke, my cash was nearly all gone. In those days only rich folks carried credit cards and anyway, I'm not sure that Steph, the cashier at The Pigstand would have known what an AMEX card was even if I did have one.
However, in addition to the Avis card, I did have some kind of charge vouchers that I'd got from the travel agent back in London. These could be exchanged for air tickets and paid for when I got home. So with little delay I was airbound for Jackson, Mississippi via Atlanta. I finally flew into Jackson at about 11.00 pm and luckily the Avis desk was still open. Due to the lateness of the hour and my looming cash crisis, I decided to sleep in the car.
Next day was Sunday and I had to content myself with cruising around Jackson locating Ace Records with the help of Yellow Pages. On my travels, I met a local who told me that they had a load of old records at McMurray's furniture store. As the store was closed, I had to wait until the next day to confirm that this was true. In search of a cheap meal, I pulled into a huge truck-stop on the outskirts of town and after a nourishing $3 lunch, I managed to book a room for $6.00 a night. By this time, I only had about $28.00 left!
Next day, I met with the legendary Johnny Vincent, owner of Ace Records, the man who discovered Guitar Slim, made 'Sea Cruise' a hit, and introduced the world to Huey Piano Smith and The Clowns. Johnny was friendly and said that he had lots of 45s, which he would be glad to sell, but right now he was busy and if I wanted to look around upstairs for a while, he would take me out to the warehouse later. "Upstairs" was an entire empty floor of the building above his shop. It had not been finished, it was just an empty shell and it was being used to store records and tapes. It obviously had been well picked over already, in fact it was a real mess. However, there were piles of albums lying around, some in boxes, there were thousands of empty album sleeves and quite a few 78s on labels such as Ace, Excello, Vee-Jay and Abner.
I busied myself and had soon put together a pile of over a hundred 78s and perhaps a couple of hundred albums including several copies of Claudine Clark's Party Lights album on Chancellor. There were reel to reel tapes littered all over the place and as I searched around, I gathered these up and put them into an empty tea chest. After a couple of hours Johnny appeared and asked me if I wanted to come out to the warehouse. I told him that I was mainly interested in 45s and that there didn't seem to be too many left. Johnny assured me that he had plenty of 45s left and, as I soon found out, he wasn't kidding.
We drove about 10 miles out of town in Johnny's battered Lincoln and after a quick pit stop at a hot dog stand, Johnny pulled the car gently into what looked like an old plant hire site. Ancient rusting machinery of all kinds vied for space with the luxuriant weeds and trees that covered the site, but around the back was an old tin shed about a hundred feet long and fifty feet wide. The double doors at the front were padlocked and Johnny produced a huge bunch of keys and unerringly selecting the right key, he threw the doors open wide. We were confronted with more 45s than I have ever seen anywhere else, before or since. "Come on up here" said Johnny nonchalantly starting to climb up this mountain of 45s, copies of 'Sea Cruise' and 'Just A Dream' cracking and splintering underfoot! When we got to the top of the pile which was about eight feet high, I could see that the shed was full of 45s, eight feet deep, all the way back. "Will this be enough for you" asked Johnny with a grin as I stood there slack jawed. It looked as if the records had been decanted into the shed and like water, had found their own level. Even the office at the rear of the shed was full of 45s to the same level as elsewhere. "You can take as many as you want", Johnny told me, "five to the dollar".
The next four or five days was spent slaving from 9.30 each morning 'til about 4.30 in the afternoon in this hot tin shed, under the watchful eye of one of Johnny's 'good ole boys'. Temperatures soared to about 100 degrees by lunch time each day, but I didn't care, I had come to America to find records and I had found records. There were hundreds of copies of the doo wop classic 'Dearest Darling' by the Clowns here. I had paid ten precious dollars for a copy just two weeks earlier at the House of Oldies in New York. In addition to almost everything on the Ace label there were also lots of 45s on other labels including Vee-Jay, Abner, Excello and Chancellor (including multiple pic sleeves of Fabian and Frankie Avalon).
Everything was in mint condition, if it was not broken. I cleared a space in one corner, by digging down to floor level, and started working my way systematically through everything. After five days, I had worked my way through less than 10% of what was in the shed. Although the records consisted of about 95% all Ace label 45s, there were oddities on other labels and at the close of each day I loaded two or three thousand 45s into the trunk of the car to bring back to Johnny's shop. I managed to locate multiple copies of almost everything on Ace apart from the Elmore James and one or two of the earliest numbers. I even got several boxes of the Sonny Boy Williamson and the Lightnin' Hopkins. I had called Chris Morrison in London collect from a public phone, and persuaded him to rifle our joint business account and wire money. On Friday the funds arrived, $2000.
By this time I had 18,000 45s plus a few hundred albums and over 100 78s piled in the back of Vincent's shop. I packed up the records into three batches of 6000 each for shipping and paid Johnny for the first batch and arranged to send money at six-week intervals for the other two. The first shipment also contained most of the albums, with 100 LPs in the second batch. The albums were $1 each and included several copies of all three Huey Piano Smith albums on Ace, multiple copies of Frankie Ford's Sea Cruise album, countless Jimmy Clantons (except for his first), and also Frankie Avalon and Claudine Clark albums on Chancellor, Jimmy Reed albums on Vee-Jay and other assorted goodies.
I checked out of the truck stop, said my goodbyes to Johnny Vincent and his merry men, and clutching a box of 100 78s, I was soon on my way home via New York.