It is the early summer of 1965. School’s out in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
You’re cruising Main Street, your car radio blasting away. You’re plopped down on the bed, listening to the tinny sound from your tiny transistor radio.
Then you hear a certain song.
But which stores have that 45? Stiller’s? Shopko? Prange’s? Woolworth’s? Snyder Drug? It’s a hassle to run downtown on the spur of the moment.
Still, you really dig it that song. You gotta have it. Like right now, man.
So you pick up the phone and dial 432-2333. You call Records on Wheels.
A Chevy panel truck pulls up outside the house. Someone gets out, comes up to your door, collects your money and hands you the 45 you just gotta have.
You paid a premium for that service, of course. That record you so urgently needed cost $1 — 97 cents plus 3 cents sales tax.
Depending on which store you shopped, and which sale you shopped, 45s sold for three for $1 … or two for 49 cents … or a bag of five for 39 cents … or 88 cents each … or 77 cents each … or 50 cents each … or 29 cents each … or 10 cents each.
Records on Wheels was ahead of its time. Decades ahead of a time with next-day delivery from Amazon.
The only evidence of its existence are 11 days of newspaper want ads touting the service in February 1965 and the ad above, which was curiously dropped into the paper four months later, on Thursday, June 17, 1965 — 55 years ago today.
And, of course, the records that were wheeled to homes all over Green Bay.
What was Green Bay listening to this week in 1965? The Beatles are between singles — it’ll be another month before “Help!” is released in the States.
That week’s Top 10 at WDUZ radio isn’t all that adventurous. It’s topped by Dino, Desi and Billy, who are followed by the Byrds, Herman’s Hermits, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, the Dupries (a local group), the Sir Douglas Quintet, the Vibratones (another local group), the Beach Boys, Gene Pitney and the Yardbirds.
It won’t be long, though, before the Green Bay kids are digging this:
“I Can’t Help Myself,” the Four Tops, 1965.
It just takes two months to make it to Green Bay after its release.
Our story so far: In February 1970, the Stiller’s Top Ten singles chart suddenly disappeared from the Green Bay Press-Gazette after running in the paper every Friday for almost five years.
The Stiller Co. had sold records in downtown Green Bay for years. It was the place to go digging for 45s and LPs, a place where performers made in-store appearances, a place from which local radio stations did shows and remotes.
But the Stiller family, which had run the store since the turn of the century, was retiring. New owners were taking over. New owners with new ideas.
May 21, 1970 — a week shy of five years since the first appearance of the Stiller’s Top Ten chart — saw this offer from “Green Bay’s moving and grooving house of music!”
July 14, 1970 — The Stiller Co. was blowing out “really bad” 45s — a grab bag of 10 for a dime — at the summer sidewalk bazaar in downtown Green Bay.
Sept. 8, 1970 — “Every record must be sold.” The closeout begins.
Oct. 11, 1970 — The final closeout, slashing prices on LPs to $2.
A month later, as the store marked its 72nd anniversary, the records were gone.
“A new sound department has opened, replacing the former record department,” the Press-Gazette reported on Nov. 8, 1970. “The department will feature sound equipment and components for stereos, radios and tape recorders.”
Two years later to the day — Nov. 8, 1972 — the new owners of The Stiller Co. filed for bankruptcy.
They blamed their predicament on having lost business to suburban shopping centers, on having too many people on the payroll, on high overhead and on “creditors that were too easy on the firm.”
Before the year was out, in the days just before and after Christmas 1972, everything in the store was sold at a bankruptcy auction.
If you want it, here it is, come and get it But you’d better hurry ’cause it’s goin’ fast
Which, fittingly, was the last song on the last Stiller’s Top Ten chart.
“Come And Get It,” Badfinger, from “Magic Christian Music,” 1970.
The unrest in Minneapolis has hit home. We’ve visited the epicenter — Lake Street — a bunch of times in the last decade.
The photo above is from Hymie’s Vintage Records, one of my favorite digging stops. It’s at Lake and 39th Avenue, about three-quarters of a mile east of the Target store you saw being looted and the Minneapolis Police 3rd Precinct building you saw burning.
“We are well,” the folks from Hymie’s said early Sunday evening on Facebook. But, yes, they did board up the front windows and closed the store.
No word yet on some of our other favorite stops along Lake Street — Time Bomb Vintage and Nostalgia Zone Comic Books, both 3 blocks west at Lake and 36th. Nor the McDonald’s 8 blocks west at Lake and 31st, where Janet goes to grab a Coke while waiting for me to dig through Hymie’s.
Likewise, the unrest in Madison has hit home. We’ve visited its epicenter — State Street — many times in the last 40 years.
The photo above is from B-Side Records, where I bought many LPs when I lived in Madison from 1982 to 1990. It’s smack in the middle of State Street, more or less halfway between the state Capitol and the University of Wisconsin campus. State Street is where Madison has historically turned out to protest peacefully, protest loudly and sometimes protest violently.
B-Side “somehow escaped last night’s mayhem,” it said Sunday morning on Facebook, sharing a photo that showed a smashed and boarded-up window next door at Freedom Skate Shop. But later Sunday, B-Side boarded up its front windows “at least for tonight, as precaution.” On Monday morning, after another night of unrest, B-Side Records said it was “closed for now.”
I fully realize that writing about record stores in the wake of the nationwide unrest that has followed George Floyd’s death under the knee of Minneapolis police seems trivial (or selective, or granular, take your pick) at best and tone deaf at worst.
The unrest, the lawlessness, the police brutality, the systemic racism against blacks and other people of color, the protesters, the agitators, the looters, there’s so much to sort through. I have to start understanding somewhere. I have to start in places I know.
Yet I’ve seen all this before. I watched the news in 1967 and 1968, when America burned. It took years to make sense of it all.
As you watch the news of 2020, remember that media reports have always been the first draft of history. It will again take years to make sense of it all.
Record digging — the actual physical act of flipping through bins of records — is just one of things you can’t do during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Our local record stores closed, then found ways to reinvent their business. The Exclusive Company in Green Bay, one of seven stores statewide, has turned to phone orders and curbside pickup. Rock N Roll Land, an indie, has turned to a Discogs online store, gift certificate sales and something creative and fun.
On Saturday, April 18, which would have been Record Store Day, my friend Todd from RNR Land posted this on Facebook:
“Would anyone be interested in a Record Grab Bag Special today? X amount of Records. Curbside Pickup first come first serve. $20 Cash mystery bag.”
The results were “awesome,” Todd said. Lots of people came out on one of the first really nice spring days in our corner of Wisconsin.
I missed out on that party — found out about it too late — but the results have been so awesome that Todd has continued to offer record grab bags. I stopped by last week to get a couple of them. Grabbed a couple from these crates just inside the front door.
Do I need a couple of bags of records I’d probably never otherwise buy? No. Could my friend’s store use a little help? Yep. That’s what it’s all about.
So let’s dig through the grab bags!
Bag No. 1
How I grabbed it: I saw the last record through the white plastic bag — “24 Groovy Greats.” That can’t be all bad, I figured. It’s not.
How many records in the bag: 13.
Best 3 records: Dean Hightower — “Guitar … Twangy with a Beat” (1959); Frank Sinatra and Friends — “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” (1961); “24 Groovy Greats” (1965).
Oldest record: “The Vikings” soundtrack by Mario Nascimbene from 1959.
Newest record: “Plumbline” by Justo Almario from 1987.
Best-looking cover: Jack Davis drew the cover for “Wine, Women & Song” by Ben Colder from 1967. Ben Colder is actually Sheb Wooley, moonlighting.
Found first: The first record in the bag is from 1965, an Everest Records comp of instrumental folk played by Wrecking Crew session guitarists — Glen Campbell, Billy Strange and Tommy Tedesco — plus Roger McGuinn (billed as James McGuinn) and Mason Williams.
“Ramblin’ On” by Roger McGuinn, recorded as James McGuinn in 1963.
“Thirteen Dollar Stella” by Mason Williams. He later re-recorded it for “The Mason Williams Ear Show” LP in 1968 and released it as the flip side to his “Greensleeves” single in 1969.
Fun find: Dean Hightower is actually electric guitarist George Barnes, the jazz swing session legend, moonlighting in the Duane Eddy style popular in 1959. This was a one-off, not even mentioned on Barnes’ Wikipedia page. (I’ll go fix that.) Dig a couple of George Barnes originals!
“Train To Teentown”
Fun facts: One of the records has a price sticker from Plan 9 Records in Richmond or Charlottesville, Virginia. … The next record in the bag has a price sticker from Academy Records in Brooklyn. … The next record in the bag has a price sticker from Steady Sounds, a record store in Richmond, Virginia. … “24 Groovy Greats” features great singles by Little Eva, Tommy James and the Shondells, James Brown, the Dixie Cups, Ramsey Lewis, the Dave Clark Five, Wilbert Harrison, Lee Dorsey, Ike and Tina Turner, Ray Barretto, Percy Sledge, Fontella Bass and more! Single edits, of course, but yeah!
Bag No. 2
How I grabbed it: Pretty much at random.
How many records in the bag: 13*.
Best records: “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper” (1968); Iron Butterfly — “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (1968); Roberta Flack — “First Take” (1969).
Oldest record: “Moondreams” by the Norman Petty Trio from 1958.
Newest record: “Body Wishes” by Rod Stewart from 1983.
Best-looking cover: Norman Rockwell painted the cover for “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.”
Covers worth noting: “Dear Mr. Fantasy” by Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
“Compared To What” by Roberta Flack.
Fun facts: The Norman Petty Trio song “Moondreams,” is listed as “Moonbeams” on the jacket. It’s not the version on which Buddy Holly sings and plays guitar. All the songs on Side 1 have “moon” in the title. All the songs on Side 2 have “dream” in the title. … There were two Righteous Brothers records in this bag — “Greatest Hits” from 1967 and “Give It To The People” from 1974. … There were two two-record sets in this bag. However, one is missing a record*. We have only half of “The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.” … The “Urban Cowboy” soundtrack is the other two-record set. Though “Hearts Against The Wind” is credited to J.D. Souther and Linda Ronstadt, it’s said to be mostly Souther and Ricky Skaggs duetting. Skaggs also plays mandolin. But, yes, Ronstadt is there, singing some of the harmonies. … The second-to-last record in the bag is a one-sided James Galway classical flute sampler/promo. On the back, it says: “Do not play this side. This is a silent groove to improve the molding of your pressing.”
[Photos courtesy of Todd Magnuson of Rock N Roll Land.]
But we saw John Prine himself only once, in 2002. He played the big 2,000-seat theater on the UW-Green Bay campus. Our seats were on the main floor, but we were quite a ways back.
It was a good show, and it was great to see him, but I kinda felt like I had to share him with too many people. For a good 25 years before that night, it had always been just me and Prine hanging out in my living room with his records.
When it’s my time and I’ve gone, I hope they play a John Prine song so folks can smile. This song. The advance directive John Prine wrote way back in 1973.
“Please Don’t Bury Me,” John Prine, from “Sweet Revenge,” 1973. Still my favorite John Prine record.
When my dad died almost three years ago, the funeral director asked me whether I wanted my dad’s watch. First, I thought, no. Dad never went anywhere without his watch. Then, I decided, yes. The funeral director handed me a small drawstring pouch with the watch inside.
The other night, John Prine put me at ease about that decision.
Embedded in one of the stories I read that night was the last song on his last record, “When I Get To Heaven,” from “The Tree Of Forgiveness,” which came out in 2018. I hadn’t heard it before, but it was as if it was me and Prine were hanging out in my living room again. Psst. Hey, buddy …
Yeah when I get to heaven / I’m gonna take that wristwatch off my arm
What are you gonna do with time / After you’ve bought the farm?
Couldn’t help but smile. John Prine had given me his blessing.
See, you don’t need that watch, Dad. One of the grandkids, or one of their kids, might like to have it someday. You know you’d like that.