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Trevor Churchill

Summer in NYC

In early 1965 I was just finishing a four year Chemistry course at Oxford, having been fascinated with Inorganic Chemistry since my early teens. However, by 1956 and age 15, after a few nights under the sheets with Radio Luxembourg and more importantly Voice of America, I had also become hooked on rock'n'roll - the real thing, so I thought. This coincided with discovering Billboard magazine and realising what a multitude of small labels this stuff came out on. This inevitably led to the arcane pastime of so-called "listing". By 1965 this had well exceeded my declining interest in Chemistry, which had become dominated by Organic Chemistry, Wave Mechanics etc, which were far removed from the noble elements in the upper reaches of the Periodic Table.

Spring of 1965 and there was a long Summer holiday coming up after the last year at Oxford, the whole of which had been spent in the laboratory on a practical thesis, which was a disaster. I had about six weeks before matriculation and subsequent job seeking, getting married, finding somewhere to live and settling down. Well needless to say I was looking to do something really exotic to take my mind off all of that. The answer was a trip to New York to see for myself what these American labels were all about. I got myself kitted out with some nice summery shorts, a brand new pair of Hush Puppies, which seemed fairly groovy at the time, and letters I had written to everyone who might be able to help me get a vacation job. One person who came up trumps and suggested I look him up when I arrived was Harvey Weiss, the Belmonts' lawyer, manager and co-label owner. 

So there I was on the tenth floor of one of those skyscrapers in Mr Weiss' office. At that point he seemed rather uncomfortable, as he had to confess he hadn't come up with any job for me. He ordered me a burger, as I probably looked undernourished, and sent me on my way with his best wishes. I had prepared for this eventuality with a long list of companies taken from my "listings" as potential targets for a summer job. After about four attempts I realised my tactics were all wrong. They were not going to employ a foreign national for six weeks, train him up to do a job and then have him waltz off.

At the next stop, which was Jay-Gee Distributing on West 48th Street, I said I had left home in the UK and had emigrated to the States and needed a job. "I'll do anything", I said. As it happens their warehouse man on the first floor had been whingeing at them how overworked he was, and I just walked in at the right moment. They took me on straight away and even fixed me up with a Federal ID card. I don't know what the immigration laws were like back then but they didn't seem to deter them. Jay-Gee was actually the holding company for Jubilee and Josie Records and a multitude of distributed labels. Upstairs was the Jubilee warehouse and downstairs was Cosnat, which was some sort of joint venture to distribute the whole range of Atlantic labels. 

The Five Sharps 'Stormy Weather' and The Capris 'There's A Moon Out Tonight'

So here I was in paradise, right inside a real New York record company with the whole Atlantic catalogue under my feet, literally. Being of a very conscientious nature I set to work in a beaver-like fashion. Far from upsetting the incumbent warehouse guy, he saw this as his opportunity to take it easy. In fact he spent most of the day sitting on the toilet reading the newspaper. This toilet was along one side of the warehouse, with his feet in full view under the stable-type door. Being extremely naive at the time I assumed he had bowel problems.

Apart from the usual picking and packing duties (mostly raunchy Rusty Warren albums) I was assigned the task of marking returns so they could be sold on as cutouts. We started with a black felt tip, but this was considered not quick enough so then we tried drilling a pile of them. Unfortunately the drill bit was not strong enough to avoid it bending if the pile was too big, which meant the bottom ones ended up getting drilled in the dead wax. If you've ever bought a cutout in this condition think of the poor bloke trying to keep his drill bit straight. We went back to the felt tip, which I preferred, as it meant I had to do them one by one and I could check what they were as I went. I was obviously keeping a hawk eye out for Stormy Weather by the Five Sharps but alas it never appeared. But I did find a number of items that I was allowed to keep, which I then took to Donn Fileti at the Relic Rack in Hackensack, which became one of many record-hunting haunts.

On a personal level I had managed to find a hostel in Spanish Harlem about thirty blocks north of 48th. It was pretty basic but had a wonderful atmosphere. There was lots of great music wafting in and out of corridors and one in particular grabbed my attention. It was a great favourite of mine There's A Moon Out Tonight by the Capris and I couldn't resist poking my nose round the open door to congratulate the owner on his taste. This was the one and only time I saw this record on the Planet label, which this guy must have played to death since 1959.

Being halfway to Harlem I took regular trips there on many record-hunting forays. In retrospect I must have looked quite a sight, this scrawny Englishman in shorts and Hush Puppies strolling up and down 125th Street gawping at the sights. On one occasion Jerry Butler and the Impressions had got together for a reunion gig at the Apollo. That was a must to see and I have to say they were every bit as good as you would expect from this collection of talent. Somehow I managed to wheedle my way up the back stairs and into the Impressions' dressing room. With camera and notebook at the ready I proceeded to interview Curtis, Sam and Fred. Jerry must have been whisked away in a limo. They were extremely friendly and we proceeded to the nearest diner where Curtis offered me a coffee and a sandwich. At this point when the owner realised I was actually intending to eat on his premises, he gave us all our marching orders. No white honky was going to eat in his diner. I offered to split on my own but Curtis, Sam and Fred were so horrified with this inhospitable behaviour we all left together. I never did get my coffee courtesy of Curtis Mayfield. I finished off the interview and went on my way with a great story and some cherished photos.

The Impressions and Dion & The Belmonts

I had kept in touch with Harvey Weiss and he was pleased I'd set myself up with a job. Since I was a paid up member of the Belmonts' fan club he introduced me to them and I spent time with them on a couple of occasions. Once was on a shopping spree with all of them to buy new outfits for some gigs they had lined up. They were very friendly wisecracking, carefree young guys and I wished I had their sense of humour. On another occasion Fred Milano invited me back to his place somewhere beyond Harlem, I presume in the Bronx. Having had a wonderful pasta meal cooked by Fred's mum I hung around for a bit and then came to bid farewell, as I didn't like to impose myself on these nice people for too long. However, they absolutely insisted I stay the night, so I slept on the couch. I guess they were worried I might get mugged travelling back on the subway at night, which never bothered me in the slightest. I used to do it all the time and even got into a humourous bit of banter with a down and out on the subway on one occasion.

Back in Jubilee's stock room I was amassing a great collection of Atlantic albums at $1 a time. I thought someone downstairs was selling them to me at a special price, until I realised the guy on the toilet was knicking them and charging me $1 profit for himself. The guys from the office used to come and see what was selling now and again, in particular Steve Blaine, who was running the show, as his dad Jerry had more or less retired and his uncle Elliott was running international and publishing by then. Also guesting was Mickey Eichner, who produced most of Jubilee's own signings at the time and subsequently became a big wig at Columbia Records. My lasting memory of him was the day he came in raving about this actress he'd signed "whose tits are bigger than your head" which he addressed to the burly stock room guy, on one of the rare occasions he had emerged from the toilet. 

After awhile Steve Blaine and the comptroller trusted me enough to take their cash and cheques for banking. Since the bank was several blocks away they gave me taxi fare for the journey there and back. By this time I had settled into a diet of Clam Chowder and bread for 15 cents which just about kept me alive, and allowed me to save most of my earnings for spending on records. Needless to say the taxi fare was also pocketed and I went on foot. If you haven't experienced New York in the height of Summer it is extremely hot, and worse still humid. It's so humid the manhole covers on the streets spew steam, presumably from air-conditioning units in people's basements and in the subway. After about a week of reliably banking Jubilee's money, the heat, humidity and diet finally got to me and I was physically sick on the street. Far from everyone pushing by, trying not to notice, as you might expect from New Yorkers in a hurry, people stopped to help and when I was well enough packed me off in a cab back to Jubilee. Since I had been rather a long time away, the office was extremely concerned that I might have absconded with the takings, which included rather a lot of cash. They were very relieved to see me return and insisted I take the cab in future, not just for myself but the security of their money.

There were many other memorable trips to the great landmarks of New York's record retailing fraternity, one of which led to a weekend job actually helping Slim Rose out in the famous Times Square Record Shop, down in the subway. Through this I met some good friends who took me to Coney Island, where I first saw a copy of Underwater by the Frogmen, which had eluded me until then. My host kindly sold it to me. In fact I was treated with great accolade wherever I went. The English Invasion had taken over the charts and they just "loved the accent". It was here I met Marsha, whom I really fancied, but unfortunately by then the Hush Puppies were smelling like an old dog and I guess she thought I had a body odour problem. Where are you Marsha? I've still got your photo, which was taken on the East Side of town overlooking the river. You look great.

The Frogmen 'Underwater' and Don Covay 'Mercy!'

Sadly all things come to an end and I returned to England with a suitcase stuffed full of records with "Promotional Sample Not for Sale" on them and sailed through customs without a problem. My collection still bears the scars of those stickers, as they didn't peel off very easily and those that did left a nasty mark. I even had the gall to take those Hush Puppies back to the shop to complain. They couldn't believe the state they had been reduced to after six weeks of pounding the streets of New York, and the surrounding boroughs, in the steam heat. I didn't get a refund, but I've never worn Hush Puppies since.

Photo caption (top) Trevor Churchill with Reparata & The Delrons