Paper Chase: Part 1

Colm O'Brien


It was a stroke of good fortune that led me to my first couple of pieces of sheet music towards the end of 1974. After nearly three years back in Ireland and with our savings spent, Betty and I returned to Toronto where we had lived from 1966 to 1971. I was back in my old teaching job, but what was different was that we now had a young daughter, Emer, to care for. To help get back on our feet, we took a job as superintendents of a fairly large apartment building overlooking Lake Ontario in the eastern suburb of Scarborough. We had free rent, a modest monthly salary and as much work as we could handle. Betty, with Emer in tow, looked after things during the day, and I did my bit in the evenings.

A daily duty was to clear out the little rooms at the garbage chute on each of the ten floors. One particular evening I came across neatly bundled piles of magazines and printed music. The bundle of music got close attention. Most of it turned out to be nondescript – method books and collections of standards – but there were two nuggets of exceptional interest. One was ‘Summertime Blues’ by Eddie Cochran, published in Toronto by Gordon V Thompson. The other was an American original song sheet for ‘The James Bond Theme’ from Dr. No. Almost forty years later, I have not found either of these sheets again. In fact, in all that time I’ve been able to add only a further three titles to my Cochran file: a US copy of ‘Sittin’ in the Balcony’ and UK copies of ‘Three Steps to Heaven’ and ‘Twenty Flight Rock’.

I suppose I had been aware of sheet music for as long as I could remember. I just didn’t pay too much attention to it. Of course, after coming up to Dublin in 1962 to study, I had often seen it in music shops like Mays on the Green and Waltons. When I started reading the New Musical Express in the late 1950s, the top thirty best selling sheet music appeared right next to the top thirty best selling pop records chart. This practice continued until February 1965. Even the Top Twenty show heard on Radio Luxemburg on Sunday nights was based on sheet music, not record, sales until the end of December 1959. Years before that, I had seen some classical and popular sheets in Miss Brady’s music room. Despite her best efforts, I failed to master even the basics of the piano, but a slow germinating seed may have been planted.

In any case, that first find was the beginning of what would become a lifelong interest. I now had two lovely sheets in my collection, and I seem to remember feeling more than a little shaken and stirred. Believe it or not, the apartment building was rather grandly named The Influential. It remained our home for another year or so.

My tiny collection grew slowly over the next two or three years. It was a very busy period in my life and there were many demands on my time. There was a move into our own house and we had the welcome arrival of a second daughter, Maeve, into our family. Nonetheless, I was still on the lookout for sheet music and managed to find the odd piece here and there. Local charity shops yielded song sheets for ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ by the Byrds, ‘As Time Goes By’ from Casablanca and ‘Four Strong Winds’ by Ian and Sylvia. It was this item that many years later happily provided the opportunity to establish contact with Ace Records. And now, with encouragement and some gentle prodding from Carol Fawcett, here I am writing this.

 The Salvation Army Thrift Store near my work is where I found my first songbook, or folio as they were called until well into the 1960s. This one is entitled Hank Williams’ Country Hit Parade and features twenty songs as well as six pages of candid photographs at home, on the road and with his band. It was published in 1950, well before Hank’s untimely demise on the road to the small Ohio city of Canton in the first hours of January 1953. Interesting as this and many other songbooks are, I found myself more drawn to song sheets. My collection reflects this preference.


All of a sudden, and I think this was in the spring of 1978, I started finding some very interesting sheets in pristine condition locally, and my education about how to find this stuff started in earnest. At the end of our street along Queen Street East, there were two places almost side by side that dealt in antiques and curios. The first one was really a classic junk shop, the other a couple of notches up from that. The first place is where I first met John Almond, a retired gentleman with, as it turned out, a very extensive collection of sheet music. He helped out around the place on Saturdays and started to bring in sheets he had for sale. I became a regular customer. For the modest price of three dollars each, several titles by Ricky Nelson including the glorious ‘Lonesome Town’, as well as a number of classics by Hank Williams including ‘Honky Tonk Blues’ were on their way to a new home. Subsequent visits to John’s house yielded many others, including some very nice sheets from a number of Hitchcock movies. Surprisingly, the most memorable find from this period came from the second place a couple of doors up. I was on my way home one evening and there it was hanging irresistibly in the window. My heart beat faster as I studied my first Buddy Holly sheet, the UK issue for ‘Learning the Game’. In splendid like new condition it was, and a steal at a mere fifteen Canadian dollars. Growing up in the hills of Cavan, I was won over to the joys of rock’n’roll music principally by Buddy and the Crickets, and now here’s this evocative sheet. More would have to be found.

And more were found. There were several more from the same source, including some from the UK. A couple of titles by the Searchers, David Bowie’s ‘Fame’ and Otis Redding’s ‘I’ve Got Dreams To Remember’ came my way as a result of calls to the two leading oldies record shops in the city: Don’s Discs and Kop’s Kollectibles. This was all well and good, but something big was just around the corner.

Piecing together a number of clues that John Almond had dropped with a news item that Betty read, it seemed that it was time to pay a visit to a certain business, located on Yonge Street in the north end of Toronto. I went there in the company of my friend and work colleague, Jim Bullard. Like me, Jim was becoming fascinated by old sheet music, and he had also purchased quite a few pieces from John Almond. We arrived at the premises belonging to Canadian Music Sales, a large publisher, distributor and retailer of sheet music as well as the owner of Dominion Records. A very big player in the Canadian music business since the late 1920s, the company was being downsized and restructured. The entire stock of sheet music was being sold off at a very reasonable price, for as song you might say. Time to get busy!

We were ushered into a large storage area where the stock was kept, and we were left to forage away to our heart’s content for hours and hours. Although we had the place to ourselves, we were not too surprised to realize that others had been there before us. For instance, it soon became clear that, in the words of a man more accomplished than me, there was no Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, and, I might add, no Hank, no Ricky, no Buddy either. 

Nevertheless, there was much to excite the interest, and our take home piles grew higher and higher. Some of the highlights included a large number of Bob Dylan titles, a clutch of Charlie Parker sheets, ‘The Fool’ by Sanford Clark, ‘Domino’ and ‘Blue Money’ by Van Morrison, ‘Reindeer Boogie’ by Hank Snow and the very lovely ‘Do I Love You?’ by the Ronettes. Heavens, I almost forgot to mention all those beautiful sheets put out by Motown’s publishing arm, Jobete Music, lots of them. While most of the stock originated in the USA, there were instances of publications by Canadian Music Sales. For instance, we found a bundle of Cliff Richard’s ‘It’s All In The Game’, and an art cover issue of ‘Mystery Train’ with no mention of any recording. As time went on, I did find a number of Canadian sheets for Elvis’ bigger hits and some other very popular numbers of the 50s and early 60s, but these were relatively few. Mostly, it was American sheets that were distributed throughout Canada.

Before we started looking, we were told that the sheets would cost ten cents apiece. This made it easy to decide what to do when multiple copies of desirable sheets were found. Well, the only sensible thing to do in a situation like this was to put them in the pile. This became the modus operandi from then on. These extras would prove very useful in many ways. Best of all, when the final reckoning came, the clerk on duty was more than generous in his count. The final unit price was not much more than half the amount quoted at the start. Bargains like that don’t come around every day of the week.

There are two more Toronto stories to tell before this account of my hunt for vintage sheet music takes to the open road. Fresh from the success at Canadian Music Sales, I thought it a good idea to check out Algord Music, a long established business located on the upper floor of an old building at Yonge and Dundas across the street from Le Coq d’Or Tavern where Ronnie Hawkins and the Hawks held sway in the early 60s. I went in and stated my business to the manager, a certain Mr Hough. I began to explain that I would like to look through the popular piano vocal sheet music files that were stored behind the counter. Absolutely out of the question, I was informed. The proper procedure was to make a list of all the titles I wanted and give it to him. Fair enough. A few days later, I returned with a list of well over two hundred and handed it to him. He asked me to come back in two weeks time. When I called in again, Mr Hough regretted that they didn’t have and couldn’t get anything on my list.

To be fair to Algord and Mr Hough, their reputation rested on their classical department and my wish list may have been just a bit too tough. Still, as I look at that list now, I’m pleased to say that I subsequently managed to find most of what is on it. However, I’m still without ‘Green Onions’ by Booker T & the M.G.s, ‘Mr Spaceman’ by the Byrds, ‘Twist And Shout’ by the Isley Brothers, ‘Love’s Made A Fool Of You’ by the Crickets, ‘He’s A Rebel’ by the Crystals, and a good few more. So, dear reader......... 

Caringi Accordion House Inc is a name not easily forgotten. It was and still is a well-run family business in a largely Italian district in northwest Toronto. My receipt dated 10 September 1992 documents a purchase of 195 pieces of sheet music. I remember that many of these were of Italian origin, published in Milan. These Italian sheets are smaller than their British or American counterparts, but very attractively designed. When I look at my copy of the Beatles’ ‘Girl’, John Lennon & Plastic Ono’s ‘Mother’, Bobbie Gentry’s ‘La Siepe’ and ‘I Can’t Let Go’ by the Hollies, I just wish I had got to Milan back in the day.


I’m getting ahead of myself here. It’s back to January 1979. Jim and I set out for Hamilton, an industrial city about an hour west of Toronto. We are going there to keep an after business hours appointment with Bob Moody, the proprietor of the oldest music emporium in that city. It was a bitterly cold night, and we nearly froze to death during the short walk from the car park to Bob’s door. Once inside, we realized that the building was completely unheated. Still, Bob had a warm welcome for us and began to tell story after engaging story. He told us about his grandparents who had established the business in the 1880s during the early boom years for sheet music. He told us about his own early experiments building television receivers in the late 1930s and his continuing interest in short wave radio. He delighted in talking about his experiences as a promoter and the time he brought in Bill Haley and His Comets during the first flush of rock’n’roll. (I was all ears as I had recently become involved in promoting touring Irish artists in Toronto.) Then, we heard the story about how he had signed Hank Williams for some local dates. These were scheduled for early 1953.

Bob was great company, and you easily understood why his place had the reputation as a hangout for off-beat musician types. He seemed to have little interest in making a sale, and you had the impression that the business would not outlive Bob himself. Still, Jim managed to ferret out some late 78s, a form he is mightily fond of. But there was no sign of any sheet music. When pressed on this, Bob remembered that there was some on the floor above. Up we went. Clearly unused, this room was thick with dust and the odd pigeon may have been in. But there was sheet music: quite a lot of it and really old. Most of it was in pristine condition, kept safe in brown paper folders of the highest quality with titles beautifully hand written. Forms for re-ordering were often found within the folder. I ended up with a nice representative sample of sheets from the first three decades of the 20th century. Considering the quality and variety of the cover art, it’s easy to see why sheets from this era are highly prized by collectors.

It wasn’t getting any warmer in the building. I think even Bob was beginning to notice it, and he thought he had a solution. He disappeared down the back for a minute or two, and re-emerged cheerfully with a hairdryer. It was quickly plugged in and turned on. There, amidst the remains of Moody’s Record Bar, we stood together and warmed our hands. That was my very first encounter with the hairdryer treatment - Hamilton, Ontario style.

It had been a memorable and enlightening evening, and we had the pleasure of Bob’s company a little longer as we drove him home. His house was near where my old friend, Colin Gray, lived. It was Colin (aka Desmond Snodgrass, the mild-mannered literary gent; Lance Steel, the dashing man-about-town; and el Mooso, the rugged outdoorsy guy) who had arranged this meeting with Bob. We will meet him again before this story comes to an end.


As soon as spring came around, Jim planned a record hunting weekend in Pittsburgh where he had some good contacts. I knew well where Pittsburg was. The lessons in American geography contained in songs by Perry Como, Chuck Berry and Guy Mitchell had not been wasted on me. I accepted his invitation to accompany him. Before going, I went to our Central Reference Library to look for sheet music stores in the Yellow Pages for Pittsburgh. The name that leaped out at me was Volkwein Bros. at 632 Liberty Avenue. There was a nice ring about both the name and the address. With a number of record calls to be made, it was getting fairly close to closing time when we got there. One look at the building told you that this was the place. Like Bob Moody’s, it was an old building centrally located in an old part of town. The difference was that this place looked very much a going concern.

We took the elevator up to the sheet music department. The lady at the desk asked if she could help us, and then listened while I explained that we were looking for a wide range of older sheet music titles. This must have been convincing because she agreed to let us in to the area where the piano vocal sheet music was kept. She pointed to the banks of filing cabinets in which the sheets were filed in alphabetical order by title, each title in its own folder. We were cautioned to exercise care in handling the files and to be careful not to mess up the order. We were further advised to pull the file out of the drawer if we were taking the last copy. (The importance of this was explained later.) Not a haphazard operation.

Clearly, we would not have enough time to look through all these cabinets. It would take days to do that. So, we decided to try to see a sample of what was there. Jim started at the top of the row while I began around the middle. Almost the very first file I looked into contained ‘My Baby Left Me’ by Elvis Presley. Two copies. One for each of us. I pulled the file.

It was a thrilling, yet somewhat poignant, moment. This was the sheet for the B-side of Elvis’ second single for RCA in the States. The information hand written on the front of the file folder indicated that three copies had been received in May 1956. (The exact date was given, but I can’t recall it.) It was noted that one copy only had been sold at the time. That meant that the other two copies had remained undisturbed, save for re-pricing in the later 60s, for the intervening twenty three years. It was glimpse of Elvis, by this time almost two years gone, at the outset of a glittering career.

Time was running out, but there were plenty more goodies before closing, and the promise of many more to come. This was virgin territory. When it came time to settle up, I wondered if I might be allowed to keep the ‘My Baby Left Me’ file folder as a keepsake. Company policy didn’t allow this. It was explained that the title would be reordered. “Nothing is out of print until it can not be reordered”, to quote the clerk exactly. He told us that if a title could be reordered, it would be put in the old folder and restocked. If a title could not be reordered, this was noted on the folder as POP (permanently out of print). The folder was then returned to its proper place in the cabinet drawer. Right enough, I had seen numerous examples of folders being reused over and over. And I had seen that dreaded “POP” too many times for my liking already. All the other big old music stores followed this practice, at least the ones I visited over the next twenty years. Later I learned that big companies such as Volkwein Bros were able to buy sheet music from publishers at a lower price on a non-returnable basis. Smaller music stores generally bought at a higher price, but on a returnable basis. You can guess which ones were the happiest hunting grounds.

We were back in the Volkwein building in fairly short order, and this time we got through all the drawers from A to Z. This resulted in a huge haul of all genres of music, particularly from the 50s and 60s (and with the more than occasional “extra”). This wonderful old music store on the banks of the Ohio River provided me with the cornerstones of my sheet music collection. The size of the purchase, even with a nice discount for volume, resulted in a good bit of excitement among the staff and caused the Volkwein brothers themselves (probably the grandsons of the founder) to come down from their offices higher up in the building. Resplendent in their bow-ties and neatly trimmed goatees, the brothers shook our hands warmly, thanked us for our business and hoped we would come again. America at her best.

A lot of water had passed under the bridge by the time Betty and I got back to Pittsburg. It was March 1997, and we were returning with Colin from a short break in Orlando, Savannah and Charleston. Volkwein Bros had re-located to a new building on the rim of the city. The new address, 137 Industry Drive, did not cause the heart to race. Still, even though there wasn’t a lot to get excited about in the way of sheet music, it was nice to see a number of the old staff still working there. The old premises had given way to a new riverside park. 


Carl Fischer, Carl Fischer. To be precise, it was the Music Store at Carl Fischer, 42 Cooper Square in the East Village. The music store had been at this address since the 1920s, but the company had been active in the East Village since 1872. Carl Fischer occupied all twelve floors of this impressive Art Deco style building, with publishing and printing located on the upper floors. This area of the East Village was an early centre of the music business before the move up to Tin Pan Alley and later further up Broadway. Just across the street stood Cooper Union where, on 27 February 1860, Abraham Lincoln gave the speech that was instrumental in seeing him elected President. A short walk took you to the singular McSorley’s Old Ale House, one of the oldest bars in Manhattan and whose list of famous customers includes the aforementioned Mr Lincoln, John F Kennedy and John Lennon. No shortage of atmosphere here.

As soon as you walked in the front door, you realized the Carl Fischer claim to have more than 600,000 different titles of printed music in stock at this location was no idle boast. The ground floor seemed just about as big as a football pitch, a sea of filing cabinets full of all kinds of music and by all publishers. At the back, there was a large area where orders were packed and readied for shipping. Above you, the mezzanine accommodated vast quantities of choral music. Naturally, they also stocked the full range of classical and orchestral music. A veritable theatre of dreams, you might say.

Of course, everything was well organised. Once you got your bearings, it was plain sailing. Just like they were at Volkwein in Pittsburgh, the counter help were knowledgeable and helpful if a little more blasé in the New York way. As usual, I started with the popular piano vocal sheets. The cabinets holding the easy piano, organ, easy organ, guitar, accordion, ukulele and the rest could wait. So could the cabinets with the movie and TV related sheets. Likewise, the Christmas, Easter and religious files. There would hardly be time to look at all that Broadway show stuff this time around.

As was becoming my custom, I started by sampling cabinets around the middle of the alphabet. Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ quickly followed by Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’ gave you that nice feeling of having scored a goal in the first minute. I remember Ivory Joe Hunter’s ‘Since I Met You Baby’ and some other prime titles from the 50s were there, but not as many as had been found in Pittsburg. However, all styles of music from the 60s and 70s were here in abundance and anyway my net was widening. Native New Yorkers such as Bobby Darin, Neil Diamond, Carole King, Laura Nyro and Lou Reed were all represented, as were Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Frankie Valli from the other side of the Hudson River. However Dion with and without the Belmonts was nowhere to be seen. And, sad to say, anything to do with Phil Spector was also missing in action.

It was amusing to find Buck Owen’s ‘I Wouldn’t Live In New York City If They Gave Me the Whole Dang Town’ and James Brown’s ‘Down And Out In New York’. But where were all those hits James had on the King label? Where were any of them? Still, this Etta James, that Peggy Lee, these Beach Boys, those Stylistics more than compensated for any disappointment. By the end of the second day, there was a nice pile for packing and shipping back to Toronto. I was happy and so was the manager. He gave me the addresses of the Carl Fischer stores in Chicago and Boston, their Texas store having gone out of business some years earlier. He also told me Music Exchange at 141 West 46th Street was well worth a visit. There would be many happy returns to this Carl Fischer and the one in Chicago over the next twenty years.

Jim was with me when I was next in New York, and Music Exchange was high on the list. It was located just off Broadway, the Brill Building directly across the street on the other side of Broadway. Carnegie Hall, Radio City Music Hall and the headquarters for CBS and NBC were close by. According to the information on a sticker on one of the sheets I got there, Music Exchange had previously operated out of the Brill Building. It was still in the thick of things.

Taking the elevator up to the 10th floor, we couldn’t have known that we were about to meet one of the most memorable characters I ever encountered in my pursuit of sheet music. Herbert J Hurwitz (call me Herbie) presided over this room ringed with shelving units holding a stock of new old sheet music. A wooden contraption in the centre of the room displayed a wide assortment of sheets of various vintage and styles of music. His sister, seated at a solid looking desk by the one window, took care of business calmly and efficiently. This left Herbie free to work the room. Really it was Herbie’s stage and the customers his audience. Slight and short but with remarkable energy and agility for a man well along in years, he had been a song plugger (“a runner” as he put it). He said he’d pitched freshly minted songs to Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Snatches of old songs interspersed with showbiz anecdotes and salty comment kept us entertained, if somewhat distracted from our mission. The arrival of another customer, or Herbie’s need to step out for a while gave us a rare chance to do some uninterrupted browsing. And there was plenty of interest. It was there that I found a UK copy of the sheet for ‘Come Back Baby’ written by Reg Dwight and recorded by Bluesology. How on earth did that end up here?

Over a number of visits, Herbie got to know I usually stayed with my sister-in-law and her family when I was in New York, not too far from where he and his sister lived. (Herbie’s sister was very good at getting little details like this.) He invited me to visit them at their home and promised to show me some quality sheet music he had stored there. The appointed evening came. The hospitality was generous and the company delightful. After a lovely meal, Herbie showed me his store of sheet music. It turned out not to be the Gene Vincents and the Big Joe Turners I had imagined. Rather it was all good quality classical music.

Really I shouldn’t have had such unrealistic hopes. I should have remembered Herbie’s amusing but scathing critique of this big beat music which he gave during a break for lunch the first time Jim and I were in Music Exchange. We were crossing Broadway at the lights, the Brill Building straight ahead of us. All of a sudden, there’s Herbie with a couple of his buddies crossing in the opposite direction. Dapper as always and with his hat on just so, he collars us. “Say fellas, you know what rock ‘n roll is? I’ll tell you what rock’n’roll is.” A short pause for effect. “It’s all about ‘I love you, baby. I love you, baby. Get lost, baby.’ That’s all rock’n’roll is.” Much merriment all round and they darted off just as the lights turned. Clearly it was not the sort of thing you would let near the house.


Another thing I remember Herbie telling me had to do with the number of copies issued for any given title in the 50s or 60s.  He said that first print runs of a new song could be very small. As little as one or two hundred, particularly if the writers or recording artists or both were untested.

The New Musical Express for 23 October 1959 carried a revealing article detailing the enormous success Russ Conway was enjoying in the sheet music charts at the time. Sales of over 200,000 copies of the sheet music for his self-penned ‘Side Saddle’ were reported. This was far from the final total as it remained in the song charts well into the following year. Sheet music sales of this magnitude were seen as phenomenal at the time. The article went on to say that a top song might be expected to sell anything from 30,000 to 40,000 sheets, (perhaps one tenth the number of records sold). As a matter of interest, the song at the top of the chart of the Best Selling Sheet Music in Britain for that week was ‘Only Sixteen’. The British publisher of this American song (Ardmore & Beechwood Ltd, who went on to publish McCartney and Lennon’s ‘Love Me Do’) would probably not have cared a fig whether these healthy sales were propelled by the version recorded by Craig Douglas, or the one by Sam Cooke, or the effort by Al Saxon. For the publisher, the song was the thing. And, of course, the publisher received royalties from sales of the records too.

A year earlier, Cliff Richard had his first big record success with ‘Move It’. I’ve been looking for the music sheet for this almost since I started my collection, without success. The fact it was only a modest hit on the sheet music chart, getting no higher than #18 in an eight week run, is likely to be the reason. Then, what about Don Gibson’s ‘Blue, Blue Day’, which spent one week in the sheet music chart at #30 in November 1958? I wonder how many copies were ever in circulation. As for Gene Vincent and Chuck Berry, a fascinating book entitled First Hits – The Book of Sheet Music 1946-1959, by Brian Henson and Colin Morgan, shows they had no success whatsoever in the sheet music charts during this period. Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard fared not much better. It’s little wonder many desirable sheets are hard to find.

Demand for sheet music kept slipping. By 1989, the authors of First Hits state that sales of 25,000 for any song were almost unheard of, a far cry from the situation a hundred years earlier. Then a song by John K. Harris entitled ‘After The Ball’ sold two million copies of sheet music in the year 1892 and went on to rack up further three million, thus making it one of the most popular songs to come out of New York’s Tin Pan Alley. ‘The Lambeth Walk’, written in London in 1937, achieved a similar level of success. These two smash hits nicely bookend the golden age of sheet music. The reader might find it interesting to google the Frances G Spencer Collection of American Popular Sheet Music for a look at the often fascinating cover art of this period. For lovers of American music of the 50s and early 60s, Rock ‘n Roll Sheet Music by John Ritchie & John Teel is well worth seeking out. A beautifully illustrated price guide, this slim volume also serves as a useful catalogue of sheet music titles known to have been issued in this era.

© Ace records 2012