Lew Prince and Tom "Papa" Ray on What Makes Records (Still) Vital

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Lew Price and Tom "Papa" Ray - JON SCORFINA
  • Jon Scorfina
  • Lew Price and Tom "Papa" Ray

Having interviewed over 50 of St. Louis' record aficionados, Last Collector Standing is ending the column on an interview with the proverbial "kings of the scene," Vintage Vinyl owners Tom "Papa" Ray and Lew Prince. For over 30 years, Vintage Vinyl (6610 Delmar Boulevard, 314-721-4096) has been hub for local music lovers, introducing thousands of people to new and exciting musical acts and exposing each new generation to the experience of vinyl. The store is now a must-see St. Louis landmark, still drawing people away from their computers and into the record store. We met with Ray and Lew in the office of Vintage Vinyl, where we discussed how the duo got their start in the record business and the future of music in the digital age.

Last Collector Standing: What's been your favorite experience as owners of a record store?

Tom "Papa" Ray: Not being forced to work for someone else in the music business.

Lew Prince: I always come back to the same one, which was when we had the very first store. It was 6354 Delmar. The jazz department here is 460 square feet. That store was 400. I'm playing an Elmore James record and this dapper, little black man -- I mean like this skinny brim hat, plaid jacket, and creases you could slice bread with -- he walks in.

"That Elmo James?"

"Yep"

"I used to play with Elmo."

"Go on."

"Yeah, I used to play the saxophone."

I happened to have had my horn, actually it was Tom's alto, sitting under the counter. So I pull it out from under the counter.

"Oh, doctor says I'm not suppose to do that anymore."

So he walks to the back of the store, puts his head under the speaker, and finally walks back and picks up the horn and just starts blowing with the record. It was spectacular. I mean he blew his ass off. He played for fifteen minutes maybe. I turned the record over. He played through the other side. When the side was over he walked up to the counter and put the horn down on the counter and said, "Man, I needed that!"

And then he walked out. I never got the guy's name or anything. [Laughs] That is my single favorite moment [owning] the store.

Ray: Having an ongoing musical ministry for 30 years in St. Louis has many of its own rewards.

How did you both initially meet and open up Vintage Vinyl?

Prince: We went to college together. Tom and I have real similar musical interest. His was the only dorm room besides mine that you could walk by and hear Howlin' Wolf one day and Archie Shepp the next. We both have really broad palates. We always got along musically.

We had had plenty of record store experiences. I worked for a distributor. Tom worked for a distributor. And we both thought pretty much that record stores were stupid and badly run. When we realized we were hitting 30 and probably needed a real job for a while we put this together.

We had no money. I was a teacher's aid in the city. Tom had just left working at a distributor in New York and moved out here because we went to school here. We started out with 300 records and a twenty dollar booth at Soulard market. The booth was twenty bucks because back then they would only rent to farmers, but the farmer paid ten and we paid another ten on top of it. We did that for all of the summer and fall of 1979. When it got cold we rented a store.

Was it known as Vintage Vinyl at that point?

Prince: We were just the two weird record guys at Soulard until we rented the storefront and came up with the name. There's the first sign [points to wall]. It's up behind those boxes.

You named the store Vintage Vinyl. Was vinyl already considered vintage in 1980?

Prince: Here's the deal. There was nothing else. There were cassettes and 8-tracks, which nobody who was interested in music took seriously. We wanted to do used records and when you only have 400 square feet that's probably a good choice. We only got into new records when our customers demanded it. We put it right near Streetside so we wouldn't have to have new records.

Ray: We also opened the first store at 6354 Delmar dead in the middle of having a used store a block west of us, and Streetside to the east of us on the same side [of the street]. We pretty soon ran the other used store out of business. It was called Wuxtry.

Prince: We ended up buying their two stores, one of which became Euclid Records.

Ray: We called it Vintage Vinyl. Joe Schwab was our manager there. He bought the store and named it Euclid Records.

How did you both start collecting music?

Prince: I remember the very first record I ever got. I got it in the mail from the back of the Sugar Pops box. It was actually three 45s and a really cool folder of Roy Rogers. That was it. My uncle had bought me this little flip top record player that was basically made to play little 45s. I had to be eight or nine. I started buying records right after that.

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Ray: I think I bought my first blues album, which was Howlin' Wolf, in a hardware store in north Florida. The first 45 I bought was Good Lovin' by the Young Rascals. The first soul album I bought was Soul Brother Number 1 by James Brown on the king label, which was an LP. The first rock LP I bought was the third LP by The Rolling Stones called Rolling Stones Now.

Prince: The 45 I remember going out and buying was "You Never Can Tell" by Chuck Berry. The first rock record was either High Tides and Green Grass, which is the first Stone's greatest hits collection, or The Times They Are A- Changin' which is a Dylan record. I think that was given to me. My sister gave me that one.

Both of you seem to have very vivid memories of your musical upbringing. Nowadays the way people listen to music is very different. The digital age offers a plethora of different musical genres almost instantaneously. As owners of a record store, how do you feel the digital age has changed the musical landscape?

Prince: I love the berth of literacy that people can acquire [with the digital age]. When we grew up if [a song] wasn't on the radio you had to go find it, you had to read about it. I was really into blues and folk music early on. There was no blues station anywhere near where I grew up. There was nobody playing folk music except one listener sponsored station.

Now, my kids are in their twenties, [if] they find something that interests them they can basically sample the musical history of it in a couple of hours.

Ray: The Internet allows you to uncover music in a matter of minutes what might have taken me years to uncover. I think that's the positive side. I think the negative side is that obviously the internet has commercially devalued the worth of music. There is no question of that.

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Prince: Right. It's bad for artist, bad for songwriters, bad for arrangers, because it's very hard to make a living. The difference too is, when I say Tom and I got to be friends through music, there was sort of a tribe of us at Webster college back then... who really had this broad but shallow base of musical knowledge. We were trying to dig deeper into each of the areas. All of us like everything from crazy old hillbillies to guys screeching their guts out on the saxophone. There was a sort of wonderful tribal value system there based on the music, which I think is pretty much fractured now.

Ray: Well, music is no longer the tribal definition of youth the way it was. There are many more males your age that define themselves through a joystick.

Prince: The way I got into the blues was I was twelve or thirteen and I went to a Peter, Paul and Mary show. They played two songs where they talked about the songwriter. The first was, they played "Blowin' in the Wind." They said [it was by] this young songwriter Bob Dylan, which was when I went out and bought a Bob Dylan record. [Second], they said, "this is a song by a friend of ours who lives out in San Francisco named Jesse Fuller." And they played "San Francisco Bay Blues." Jesse Fuller was actually a pretty nutso street singer in Oakland, who played twelve string guitar, played blues and had invented a thing called the fotdella, which was this rack that you played with foot pedals so you could basically be a one-man band on the streets of Oakland. I went out [to] every record store I knew on my bike. I remember going to record store to record store asking for Jesse Fuller records for like three weeks. Finally, I went back to one of these places and the guy had gotten it in. That was the first blues record I ever heard. It blew my mind. It was real different finding out about music back then.

Ray: It was a much more drawn-out process and painstaking.

Prince: Also, I think the primary skill that Tom and I had in opening the place was we had both spent countless hours in record stores reading the backs of albums. One of the greatest things about albums that make them different from CDs is all the information that used to be on the back of a record.

If a guy had four Jesse Fuller records, you'd lay them out and read them and you would pretty much know about the guy's life.

Why do you think the vinyl format is still a cherished format for new generations of music listeners?

Ray: Logically, perhaps it shouldn't have happened. Logically we should have just continued down the digital paradigm. Something happened and a part of the collective music lover mind said, "wait a minute." And part of that collective musical mind of your generation said, "I want to have an alternative to an MP3."

Prince: I agree with Tom. I think there are two reasons. The first is after you've listened to MP3s and downloaded music for most of your life the first time you put on an album it sounds spectacular. Analog recording is a much more natural way of recording music. Music takes place in a context. Analog recordings are much more recordings of the room. That has to do with era. With digitalization also came mic placement inside of instruments. They record pianos now, if you go into a studio, by putting a mic in it. Well, that's great if you listen to a piano by sticking your head in it, but back in the late '50s you recorded music with mics placed in the room. What you got was the room. A great recording was actually putting you in that room.

Ray: Ambiance is the relationship of sound in a room. Great engineers, great producers knew how to capture ambiance. That was kind of a lost art 30 years ago. Now you've got a million motherfuckers, with their fucking dead room recording studio and it all sounds the same because it's all predicated on the use of a particular software. They're not able to get the ambiance of what it sounds like to have two guitars, drum and bass, a keyboard player, a saxophone, whatever combination of that, and then a voice or voices...

Prince: ...in a context.

Ray: Listen to the ambiance captured when Cosimo Matassa in New Orleans recorded Little Richard and the Upsetters in a fucking converted ice factory. You listen to a well-recorded 78, that might have been recorded with two microphones, that can really sound very powerful.

Prince: You'll find that the finest CDs, in terms of sound quality, start with analog recordings then are digitized.

I think there is a second element, on the digital music vs. LP. I hadn't thought about this until Jim Utz, who is the big Rolling Stones fan here [at Vintage Vinyl]... I was complaining about how the last two Rolling Stones albums have just been meh. He went, "No they're not. They're just really good albums." What he did was he took the new Rolling Stones albums and chopped them down to 45 minutes. There is 45 minutes of killer music on them.

If you think about it, and this is what I know from what little music I play, is that almost any really good professional musician can come up with a new set of music in about a year. You can put together about 40 to 50 good minutes. It's almost impossible to put together 75 or 80 minutes. So the amount of music on an LP is really the right amount for a working musician on an almost annual basis.

When someone comes in here and buys a Led Zeppelin record or buys a Dead record, or whatever they're buying, it's the right [amount of] time.

Ray: Here's the cliché. One of the great clichés of '70s rock reviews would be to take the two record set released by whoever and say, "This would have made a great single record." It was said about the White Album. It was said about Exile on Main Street. To me a medium that allow for about 35 to 37 minutes was perfect to allow artist to make a particular kind of concise statement.

Everyone wants to talk about concept records. "Dark Side of the Moon" is a great concept record, but I doubt that they could have sustained that over a CD format.

[Prince pauses the interview here to play "Rip it Up" by Little Richard as recorded by Cosimo Matassa.]

So in both of your opinions what is the last great recording?

Ray: Oh, about five minutes ago.

Prince: I'm sure someone is doing it now.

Ray: To me, one of the greatest summations of what an artist should do in any genre, in any field of expression, but especially in music is to make it new. That's what the poet [Ezra Pound] once said, "make it new." I hear good new music on stage and on record. Music is the ultimate conceptual art, especially when it's performed live. It's in the air and then it's gone.

Can vinyl still "break" new music?

Prince: Why not? Vinyl is a medium. The limitations of vinyl have to do with dynamics....

To me recording is about capturing that moment. If you do it, it doesn't matter how. The first digital LP I ever heard was Ry Cooders' "Bop Till You Drop" [The first major-label digitally recorded album of pop music released in 1979.] and it blew my mind. It was a spectacularly well-recorded record. It came out just before the CD era.

I can remember that Tom and I talked about it. That was before Internet, before digital. Tom said to me, "What do you think it means?" We sat around and thought about it and thought about it and came to the conclusion that it meant that they were going to be able to send music over phone wires. Somehow this was probably going to be revolutionary, but we weren't really sure how... but it's one of the reasons why Vintage Vinyl survived. From that day on we divorced our shelves from the object and adapted the position that we would be knowledgeable middlemen. That we would be knowledgeable about music and not worry about the configuration it came in.

The column has been called Last Collector Standing, but I think the phrase last record store standing is just as relevant. What does it take for a record store to survive the digital age?

Prince: Know your shit. Be able to listen to people and figure out what sound is in their head and figure out what they're looking for. Identify it so they actually hear it when you play it for them. That's the first and most important thing.

Ray: And a spoonful of prognostication helps.

Prince: We found out that being six inches ahead of the curve was fine, but being a foot ahead makes you go out of business, and being behind kills you.

************************* Author's Note: This is the last column I'll be writing for Last Collector Standing. I'm sure there a many more record collectors in St. Louis with a story to tell, but any good thing needs an ending, and I don't want the series to simply become "Next Collector Standing." A big thank you to all the record collectors who let me into to their homes, allowed me to look through their collections, and took the time to tell me part of their life story. The series has been extremely gratifying and fun because of your help and love of music. I hope the series inspired some veteran vinyl junkies to dust off their old turntables, and hopefully also inspired a few kids to experience the difference of listening to an album on vinyl.

Keep Spinning the black circle!