Record hunt for gems

Record hunt for gems

Paramount Blues

Record hunt for gems

John Tefteller with his gems.

John Heneghan tugged a large shellac disc from its brown paper sleeve, placed it on a turntable and gently nudged a needle into place. Behind him, in the corner of his East Village apartment, sat 16 wooden crates, each filled with meticulously catalogued 78-rpm records. The coarse, crackling voice of the blues singer Charley Patton, performing ‘High Water Everywhere Part 1,’ his startling account of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, rose from the speakers, raw and unruly. The record is worth about $8,000.

John Tefteller is one of the world’s most prolific collectors of records on the old Paramount label, whose roster once included rural blues singers like Charley Patton.

Heneghan, 41, is part of a small but fervent community of record collectors who for decades have hunted, compulsively and competitively, for 78s: The extraordinarily fragile 10-inch discs, introduced near the turn of the 20th century and made predominantly of shellac, that contain one two- to three-minute performance per side. At a time when music fans expect songs to be delivered instantaneously (and often at zero cost) online, scouring the globe for a rare record — and paying thousands of dollars for it — might seem ludicrous. (A rarer Patton record could command $15,000 to $20,000.)

But according to some, the rare-record business is booming, despite the recession and the devaluation of music as a physical product. “Prices have been rising at a phenomenal rate, as people take money out of the stock market and out of different real estate investments and look for a place to put it,” said John Tefteller, a collector who makes his living dealing in rare records. He noted a particular spike last fall, when the economy first faltered.

Others, like Mark Berresford, who edits VJM’s Jazz & Blues Mart, the oldest blues and jazz magazine still in print, are more cautious about looking to rare records for financial stability. “If one is considering collecting rare 78s solely as an investment, one should seek professional advice as to what should be purchased and from whom,” Berresford wrote in an e-mail message.

By any standard 78s are unwieldy, impractical and unstable. By the mid-1950s they had been mostly replaced by 33 1/3 rpm long-playing albums and 45 rpm singles. Collectors of 78s are enticed in part by the thrill of the quest, which they consider unmatched by a mouse click.

“I’m not proud of the fact that I have to chase these records down like a maniac,” said Heneghan, who supports himself by working as a video technician. (He also performs in an old-time duo, Eden and John’s East River String Band.) Before he became friendly with other collectors, he said, he felt “sleazy and weird.”

“I knew I was doing it because I liked it, but it’s strange when you can’t relate to one single other person,” he said. “You obviously start to question — like, is there something wrong with me?”

Although most collectors subspecialise by genre, whether jazz or classical or country, it’s early American rural blues — loose acoustic laments, recorded before 1935 and performed by artists who were born in or near the Mississippi Delta — that inspires the highest prices and the most fevered pursuits. “The early blues material from the 20s and 30s is the hottest material of all,” Tefteller said in a phone interview. He said that on average a rare jazz 78 might sell for $1,500 to $5,000, whereas sales for a comparable blues record would start at $5,000.

Blues music is in part mythological; its legend involves sweltering juke joints, homemade whiskey and Faustian bargains at rural crossroads.

A furniture company in a largely white Midwestern suburb is rarely evoked in these reveries, but in the late 1920s and early 1930s Paramount Records — an arm of the Wisconsin Chair Company, a manufacturer of wooden phonograph cabinets in Port Washington, Wis. — became an unlikely home for blues legends like Patton, Blind Blake, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Skip James. Paramount’s blues releases — especially its “race” records with label numbers in the 12000s and 13000s — are among the most coveted records in the world.

“There are some people who would kill their own mother for the only copy of a Son House record,” Heneghan said. “And they sure as hell would kill your mother, and you.”
Tefteller, 50, is one of the world’s most prolific collectors of Paramount blues. Because these 78s are so scarce — of the thousands presumably pressed, many were lost, broken or melted down, and of the 1,356 titles said to have been issued in the 12000-13000 series, roughly one-third or more are of other genres — his collection (500 to 600, he said) is staggering in its comprehension. As Heneghan said in an e-mail message, Tefteller pursues complete runs of every Paramount blues artist he considers important. “This makes him completely insane, which alone would make me like him even if he weren’t such a nice guy,” Heneghan said.

Tefteller lives in rural Oregon but spends much of the year traversing the country for fresh stock, placing “Records Wanted” advertisements in antiques catalogs and ‘The Farmer’s Almanac’. (His Paramount 78s are not for resale.) He said he receives about a hundred calls a day, most yielding inconsequential results. “Records have a way of hiding,” he said.

These particular records, he explained, are a finite commodity. “I would doubt that there are a hundred total Charley Patton records left in the world,” he said. Other artists’ discographies are even more limited: Only eight copies of various 78s by Son House (who recorded eight sides, or four records, for Paramount) and 15 copies of discs by Skip James (who recorded 18 sides) appear to remain.

Last month a batch of hand-labelled Paramount test pressings unexpectedly appeared on eBay. The seller, Patrick Cather, discovered the records (alternate takes by Blind Blake, Ma Rainey, Papa Charlie Jackson and others) at an antiques store in Birmingham, Ala. Tefteller, who uses software to place bids in the last few seconds of an auction, successfully purchased everything he was interested in.

In 2002, Tefteller mailed fliers to every resident within 100 miles of Paramount’s former studio site in Grafton, Wis. “I flooded the area, and then I sat at the Best Western in Port Washington and fielded phone calls at the hotel for days,” he said.

Contemporary Grafton is not a hotbed of blues appreciation. “A lot of the elderly people here don’t understand what the big deal is,” said Angela Mack, chairwoman of the Paramount Plaza Walk of Fame there.

But his persistence paid off. One call produced the only known copy of King Solomon Hill’s blistering 1932 blues sides “My Buddy Blind Papa Lemon”/“Times Has Done Got Hard.” “I said, ‘OK, put it back in the sleeve and put it somewhere where you’re not going to drop anything on it, and please don’t even touch it until I get there,’ ” he recalled. “She got a nice pile of hundred-dollar bills from me for that one.”

In 2006, Tefteller also purchased Son House’s ‘Clarksdale Moan’/’Mississippi County Farm Blues,’ another long-missing Paramount release. “I know the name of the person I bought it from, but he’s very paranoid and doesn’t want anybody to talk to him,” he said. “It was found somewhere in the South is all he would tell me, and I think he got it from the person who actually found it, but I don’t know. The more I pressed him, the more it was clear if I didn’t shut up, I wasn’t getting the record. I shut up and paid him.”

The acquisition spurred a fuss. Richard Nevins, a prominent collector and the president of Shanachie Entertainment, which released the recovered Son House sides on its Yazoo label in 2006 (on ‘The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,’ a two-CD set of prewar rarities), said in an e-mail interview that the discovery was “a big, big, big, big deal.”

The stakes are also high from a preservationist standpoint. If collectors weren’t tracking these records, the songs might be lost entirely, and speculation surrounding Paramount’s missing metal masters (the original transcriptions of a performance) has only amplified the significance of the remaining 78s. According to Alex van der Tuuk’s book Paramount’s Rise and Fall (Mainspring Press, 2003), in 1942 the bulk of the masters — by then corroded — were carted off by rail for reuse in World War II.

“The building where the metal masters had been stored didn’t have any insulation, and pigeons came into that building, and you can imagine what a bird does to a metal master,” van der Tuuk said by phone from his home in the Netherlands. Still, rumours — that they were hurled into the Milwaukee River by disgruntled former employees, or used to patch rat holes in chicken coops — persist. In 2006, the PBS programme ‘The History Detectives’ arranged for a team of divers to scour the bottom of the Milwaukee River. They came up empty-handed.

While most 78 collectors are devoted, educated fans of the music they gather, they’re also desperate for the experience of the thing itself — for the coloured label and inky, gleaming surface, the sizzle and spit of a needle slipping into groove.

In the liner notes to “The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of,” Nevins recounts approaching a rural cabin in North Carolina said to be the location of a handful of old country 78s. After being temporarily incapacitated by an electric fence, he stumbled to his feet, shook off a layer of mud and manure, and trudged on. Later that day he trotted off with a copy of “Daniel in the Lion’s Den” by the North Carolina Cooper Boys. “I guess you could say that was a record to die for,” Nevins writes. “In this case almost literally.”

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