Published on September 8th, 2014 | by Robert Barry Francos0
Reflections on Record Collecting
Robert Barry Francos talks about record collecting, tells stories, and gives us a rundown of the two types of collectors that that populate that world.
“Hello, my name is Robert, and I am a record collector.”
My very first record was one of those yellow plastic kid ones, with a song about Noah, though I can’t seem to remember what was on the flip side (Moses?). It was played on a portable electric all-in-one player that was a 1-foot square cube (when the lid was down), and played 4 speeds (78, 45, 33-1/3, 16!). My mom used it to listen to her 78 RPMs, including Vaughn Monroe, Nelson Eddy (but not Jeanette McDonald, oddly enough), a truly cool version of ‘The Volga Boatmen’s Song,’ and Al Jolsen.” And yes, I still have most of them.
My father only knew Big Band Swing, like The Shaw brothers, but my mom was a bit more contemporary, especially loving Johnny Mathis. Both parents were pretty clueless, however, about rock and roll.
I’m not sure how my dad made his choices in what to give me and my older brother, but he seemed to rely on soundtracks and greatest hits. He brought us Mary Poppins and West Side Story, as well as collections of hits by The Beach Boys, Sam the Sham and The Pharaohs, Gary Lewis and the Playboys, and The Four Seasons. He also got us Beatles ’65. And, yes, I still have them all.
Sometime in the mid-1960s, one of my mom’s cousins decided she didn’t want her record collection any more (all 15 records or so), and she gave them to my mom, who gave them to me. It was a weird grouping, from Jackie Mason, Gretchen Wyler, the Broadway soundtracks to Funny Girl and Carol Channing’s Show Girl, and even one of a military brass band! And yes, I still have almost all of them.
When my brother was old enough, he started bringing home some Simon & Garfunkel, The Who and CSNY. Somehow, they got incorporated into my collection. While I don’t remember the first LP I purchased by myself, I do recall the first singles, a 3-for-$1 sealed-in-plastic set of The Blues Image, Ray Stevens, and Manfred Mann. And yes, I still have them.
Around 1970, my cousin moved out of his parent’s house, and unknown to him then, my aunt gave me his 45 collection, which consisted of two 45s boxes. A large chunk of it was doo-wop era, like The Crests, Randy & the Rainbow, Bobby Lewis, and Frankie Avalon. It was a music history lesson, and I loved it. And yes, I still have them all.
By the early ‘70s, I probably had about 75 albums and about 100 singles. Then I met an influential record collector in high school. The first time I hung out at his house, I saw his shelves of vinyl. He played all this music I had never heard before, like Slade, Move, Roxy Music, and rare Dylan. I liked some of the stuff he played, others I didn’t. Yet, I still didn’t get the collecting bug.
We were often rifling through the bins at various stores. Once, he walked over to me excitedly, holding an LP. He said, quite bluntly, “Buy this!” It was $1.97, and I had never heard of it. Bernie briefly gave me a history of International Artist Records from Texas (who also put out The 13th Floor Elevators). He convinced me to buy The Red Crayolas with the Familiar Ugly’s ‘The Parable of Arable Land.’ There were two copies in the bins; he took the Mono one, so I took the Stereo. It was pretty wild, and yes I still have it. I believe I got off pretty easy, actually, because I remember being in shock around that time my pal paid $15 for a Flamin’ Groovies EP.
It was after I started going to CBGB and Max’s Kansas City that I really started to get interested in music. I liked the bands, and I wanted to learn more about where they stylistically came from. There were so many albums that became collector items just a couple of years later that one could find in the dollar bin then, like the Velvet Underground. But what really got me started is when the bands I was watching starting coming out with music. At the time, it was pretty easy to just buy them as they came out, if one knew the stores to hit, and we did. From Television, Talking Heads, The Heartbreakers, Richard Hell, to bands we hadn’t seen, like the very first EMI single of ‘Anarchy in the U.K.’ by The Sex Pistols, we just bought them as they were released. And I kept them all.
What pushed me over the edge into serious collecting started in July of 1977 when I published the first issue of my fanzine, FFanzeen, which ran until 1988. The records started pouring in to be reviewed, including most releases from many important independent labels. Even when I didn’t like a particular record, I respected the work and financial payout of the indies, so I refused to get rid of them; I kept them all. I was getting around 50 or more records a month.
Meanwhile, I was still hitting up record stores, garage sales, and Sally Ann-type places to see what was available. Once I was entertaining (i.e., playing records for) a younger friend (who would later go on to be a well-known collector). He said, “Have you ever heard of this band called Love? I hear their records are hard to find.” I casually reached behind me and pulled out four of them. “You mean these?” I thought his head was going to explode.
Through other collectors, I learned not only about the craft, but also about collectors. In a grossly general way, collectors usually fold into two categories: there are the completionists (hunters) and the serendipitous (gatherers).
The completionists are those who have a gap in their collection, and will go to extraordinary lengths to fill that hole, sometimes paying exorbitant amounts for a record. These tend to be people who are into things that are hopelessly obscure, which takes a large knowledge of music to know when something is rare-first-printing level or just a reissue. Sometimes completionists can be a bit elitist, only wanting to deal with others who know nearly as much as they do, or more. But being with them was like being in a really cool school.
Then there are the serendipitous, like myself, who feel like they score a coup when they find something exciting and hopefully rare, but look in general, not going out of the way searching for that particular item. Such a case was finding a doo-wop single on its original, local label in southern Florida in some obscure store for 5 cents, rather than the national one released later. The serendipitous are happy to hunt and find in a casual manner.
I will leave this topic for now with a true story: During the late 1980s, I was hanging out at a used record shop owned a friend, Dave. He and the kids who hung out in his store smoked tobacco like fiends, so I had to get out of there after a while and get some air.
Walking around the block, I saw a sign for a garage sale. There I found a nearly mint first edition of The Stones’ ‘Their Satanic Majesty’s Request,’ with the 3D cover. I bought it for $1, and brought it back to Dave. I saw that he had been selling a beat-up copy for nearly $30. “Hey Dave, look what I bought around the corner for a buck!” I thought he was going to laugh, but instead he turned bright red, and threw me out of the store. Later that evening, he called me and apologized, saying he wasn’t really mad at me. He said, “I have a used record store right around the corner. Why didn’t she just sell it to ME?” Well, I would say now, it was just serendipitous. And yes, I still have it.