Paper Chase: Part 2

Colm O'Brien


The four of us, or combinations thereof, flew across the Atlantic nearly every year to see our families. Often we had a bit of time in the UK, mostly in and around London. A couple of the second-hand record shops I frequented started to stock old sheet music. Spinning Disc in Chiswick was a good place to find sheets by the likes of Little Richard, Johnny Burnette, Big Dee Irwin and the Marcels. Sounds Original, a beautifully kept and well stocked shop, now in South Ealing, is still good for a nice batch of sheets at reasonable prices. Croydon remained a port of call for years. The sheet for ‘Come On’ by the Rolling Stones was bought in one of the shops there. And from the late 70s on, I got into the habit of doing a bit of 7”, 10” and 12” vinyl shopping for myself and friends back in Toronto at Rock On in Camden. Little did I realize that paths would cross years later.

From time to time, I came across the odd sheet at record fairs. Once, in Manchester or Liverpool, I saw reproductions of classic sheets (‘Ready Teddy’, ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, ‘Move It’ and ‘My Generation’ are some titles I recall). Clearly not being passed off as originals, they were modestly priced at two pounds each. Nice enough, but not really what you want.

In the summer of 1982, I arrived in London with a British Rail pass, purchased at a discount when I booked my airline tickets. This time I was going to look up north. I searched the Record Collector and found a fair listed for Glasgow for the Sunday. The venue for the fair was a short walk from the train station. On the way back to the station in the rain, I had just one more item than I had on my arrival.

Nonetheless, I was very glad I had decided to make the first of many subsequent visits north of the border. The item I found was the original sheet music for ‘Love Me Do’, written and composed by McCartney and Lennon. Although not mint, the sheet had been well enough looked after, and the rather splendid photo of the Beatles was clean and unmarked. I was very happy to part with the £17 the personable young man running the stall had been asking. He recognised my Irish accent as I did his distinctive Glaswegian one. After a bit of bantering, I asked him if he had any idea where I might get some more sheets. He had none, and looking around the hall, he shook his head. Then he suddenly remembered. “I hear there’s a fella in Toronto with a lot of it.”

This song sheet of the A-side of the first Parlophone single by the Beatles very nicely exemplifies the allure of sheet music. First, there’s the visual appeal of the cover, a window into the style of a bygone era. Then there’s the knowledge this is an original document of musical and historical significance, a paper equivalent, if you like, of the original pressing of the record, albeit harder to find. Further lustre is added when the circumstances of the find are taken into account. And the sheet can always be used for its intended purpose, provided you have the skill to read music and the talent to play.

As valued a possession as this sheet for ‘Love Me Do’ is, what I own is just the paper it is printed on. I understand Paul McCartney owns the publishing rights to this and its companion on that first Parlophone record, ‘P.S. I Love You’. There’s a huge difference. After that first record, the publishing arrangements changed and, over time, fell completely into different hands. In his autobiography A Life In The Shadows, Bruce Welch gives a clear-sighted account of how the publishing business operated when he was most successful and outlines the pitfalls that awaited the unwary songwriter. Peter Guralnick’s two-volume biography of Elvis Presley details the upsides and downsides of the singer’s publishing arrangements with the Aberbach brothers of Hill and Range Songs, Inc. Song publishing is a serious business and sheet music tells an important part of its story.


I didn’t have much luck in Leeds, but I found a second-hand bookshop with quite a lot of older sheet music in the lovely old town of Harrogate. Most memorably, I found the tribute song to Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, entitled ‘Three Stars’. The lightly pencilled price of 35p can still be seen just to the right of the Ritchie Valens photo. The printed price of this 1959 sheet was two shillings. Bearing in mind the rate of inflation over the intervening years, the price I was charged was more than fair. All of this conversion from old money to the new would crop up again almost as soon as I started looking through the sheet music files in Banks Music Ltd at 18 Lendal in York.

It didn’t take long to know that this was going to be a two day job, two lovely days in a lovely city. The manager of the piano vocal department noticed many of the sheets I was taking were from the late 50s and 60s, and bore the price mark of the time of issue. He assured me that there was no need to worry and that he would convert the prices to the new money. He explained that an item marked two shillings would cost 10p and so on. Very good! Then the conversation turned to rugby and the international matches he travelled to Dublin to watch.

The selection of music was deep and varied, and the sheets were held in bulging file folders and stored in metal cabinets. As a result, they were in very nice condition. As you might expect, the various styles of the 70s were also well represented. The pile of takes grew higher, and then another pile. The manager suggested packing them in boxes and having them posted to me in Canada. Really this was the only sensible solution, but something somewhere went amiss. Only two of the three boxes were delivered to me; the third box went astray. I hate to think what was lost. Fortunately, prizes such as ‘Who Do You Love’ by Ronnie Hawkins, ‘My Christmas Prayer’ by Billy Fury, ‘Telstar’ by the Tornados, ‘Soul Man’ by Sam and Dave, ’Sweet Dreams’ by Roy Buchanan, ‘Pyjamarama’ by Roxy Music, ‘Whisky In The Jar’ by Thin Lizzy, ‘Return of Django’ by Lee Perry, ‘I Fought The Law’ by the Clash, ‘I Love The Sound Of Breaking Glass’ by Nick Lowe, and ‘Funny How Time Slips Away’ by Dorothy Moore were safely delivered.

When I was back in York with Betty a good few years later, I was glad to see Banks were going strong. I even found a handful of good sheets in their clearance box, the last of their old stock. I didn’t say a word about the missing shipment. It certainly wasn’t their fault that one or other of the post office systems involved slipped up, and I have nothing but fond memories. Banks Music of York is high in my Top Ten.

My first time in Sheffield was three or four years later, and is another pleasant memory. It must have been in Record Collector that I saw a notice by Windmill Records advertising original 50s and 60s sheet music and songbooks. Today, as I look at the illustrated catalogue I got from the shop owner that day, I see a list of over 600 titles, including nearly 100 Presley titles, over 50 by Cliff and the Shadows, as well as several by Billy Fury, the Kinks, Del Shannon, Dusty Springfield, Marty Wilde and a couple of Carl Perkins songs recorded by the Beatles. As the catalogue states: “All warehouse stock in pristine condition unmarked condition”. This was absolutely true and the display in the shop was breathtaking. I was told the stock was part of a publisher’s clearance. Knowing what I know now, I think the publisher was Carlin Music.

Given the stunning condition, scarcity and desirability of these sheets and books, the asking prices were very reasonable. At £15 each, the five Elvis titles for his HMV releases, including ‘Mystery Train’, were the most expensive. You could have Jerry Lee’s ‘Breathless’ for £12, Cliff’s ‘Dynamite’ for half that, either of the Beatles for £5, and a lot of very nice items for £2 or £3. There were titles by Cilla Black, Joe Brown, Georgie Fame, Mamas & the Papas, Alan Price and Otis Redding in the £1 box. Even the 25p box was not without interest.

By the time I got around to doing a bit of sleuthing in London around the environs of Denmark Street, the publishers were mostly gone. For instance, the day I arrived at the premises of Francis Music on Gerrard Street, the building had been gutted and they were putting in a Chinese restaurant. In the words of Mac Rebennack, “I been in the right place, but it must a-been the wrong time”.

In 1987 I had an arrangement to meet Colin Gray, on a visit to his hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, at the beautiful old Central Arcade, home of the leading local music shop. JG Windows had a fairly large selection of song sheets kept in special boxes on shelves behind the counter. The boxes were handed out one at a time, and contained some interesting things. It was enough to keep me occupied until the appointed time. When I was finished with the last box and final tallying completed, I asked if there were other places worth a visit. The clerk gave me the name and address of a place in North Yorkshire.

Before venturing south, there was some sightseeing to be done. First, there was the Newcastle City Hall. This where Colin and his pals saw Buddy Holly & the Crickets perform, on 6 March 1958. They went in as skifflers and came out utterly converted to Buddy’s way of doing things. The mining town of Ashington was on our list, at my request. Colin was pleased to show me the hometown of the Milburns and the Charltons, revered in football circles in the north-east and far beyond.

It was early on a Saturday morning when we found the premises of the June Emerson Wind Music shop, a splendid old stone house standing alone on a hill not far from the North Yorkshire town of Thirsk. The view was magnificent. We heard later that the partners who ran the business had moved here to escape the hurly-burly of London. When we got to the door, we found that Saturday was not a business day. Luckily, one of the partners happened to be doing some work in the office. Hearing us, he came out. It was time for a cigarette break, he said. He listened while I explained my quest. Their business dealt strictly in classical woodwind music, but he thought he might be able to be of assistance.

Going to his computer, he set the thing in motion. Out came seventeen pages containing all the names on their customer file, a total of four hundred and forty four music shops all over the world. Then, he went through the list and picked out all the shops in Britain likely to be of benefit to me. In other words, he circled those shops that had been in business for a long time and were likely to carry old stock. Just as useful, he crossed out those places that would not be worth my while visiting. This was invaluable information. Over the next several years, it led me to many rich fishing grounds. The Bristol Music Shop, Hickies of Reading, Milsoms of Bath, Sheena McNeil of Edinburgh, Russell Acott of Oxford and most especially James Dace of Chelmsford all added immeasurably to my collection. Travelling around Britain by train was great fun, and better still when Betty was able to join me. I’m forever indebted to that kind gentleman. And this list had much more to give. That sunny Saturday afternoon, Colin and I listened to the commentary on the FA Cup final between Coventry City and Tottenham Hotspur as we headed west across the Pennines towards North Wales and Holyhead. Ireland and the rain lay ahead.


I suppose it was all right for Hank Snow to brag about the extent of his travels when he sang ‘I’ve Been Everywhere’. Had I been in possession of unlimited funds and free time, perhaps I could have done the same. That list of music shops worldwide included many tempting destinations in Australia, South Africa, West Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy, among others. Just out of reach for me at the time, but I did notice a great concentration of addresses in Belgium and Holland. I had an invitation to stay with my younger sister, Fidelma, who was living in Brussels, and so it was decided. Armed with a Eurorail pass, I took the Jetfoil service from Dover to Ostend, and then a train to Brussels. It was the summer of 1989.

Arriving in the centre of Brussels as the shops were opening, I went to the first address on my list. Even before I got to the counter, I could see good piles of UK sheets on the shelves behind. These featured mainly British artists from the early to mid 1960s. Many of these UK issued sheets bore the sticker of a Dutch distributor, but there were also a good many titles by Belgian and Dutch publishers. A bunch of UK sheets by the Shadows, including ‘Atlantis’, ‘Kon-Tiki’, ‘Man of Mystery’, and ‘Atlantis’, all in some quantity, were welcome finds. ‘Shazam’ was another of the titles by the Shadows present, but this was a Belgian publication with lyrics in both French and Dutch. The address of this publisher was given as 13, Madeleine, Brussels. Worth paying a visit, surely? Handy enough, it was close by.

The very elderly gentleman who answered the church-like door when I rang the bell spoke hardly any English, no more than the paltry French I had. I contacted my sister, and her gift for languages came to the rescue. Soon we were ushered in and shown up to the store room. Evidently, this company had publishing rights for some big American and British companies, including Acuff Rose and Southern Music. The stock was old, the most recent sheet being Cliff Richard’s ‘Congratulations’ with lyrics in English, French and Dutch. The earliest pieces were for Duke Ellington’s ‘Take the A-Train’ and ‘Perdido’ from 1941 and 1942 respectively. Among the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison titles I found there were ‘Walk Right Back’ and ‘Crawling Back’. Don & Phil and the Big O were popular in the Benelux countries. Another nice find, my first ever French sheet, was ‘Mambo Rock’ from the film Rock And Roll by Bill Haley and His Comets. Still, it would be hard to top the single copy I found for the Shadows' version of ‘Bo Diddley’, which also notes the versions by Ronnie Hawkins, Bobby Vee & the Crickets and Buddy Holly. I keep it in my Holly file right next to the UK version of this same sheet, but with Buddy’s photo. This is far from the only knotty problem that arises with regard to filing things in the proper place.

With the good fortune this list was bringing, I began to think of the Low Countries as outcrops of Yorkshire. And this good fortune would follow me up to Holland and, in particular, Amsterdam.

Getting around Holland by train was an absolute delight. The trains were spotless, comfortable and unerringly punctual. You could always plan on making the connections you needed to get to your destination in the shortest time possible. The morning coffee was great too. Over the course of a week, I got to many places, but my most productive time was spent in Amsterdam. There were five addresses on my list, all centrally located. When I arrived at one of these, I was surprised to find that it was a flower shop. There must have been a look of disappointment on my face because the florist immediately asked me (in perfect English) if I was looking for the music shop. When I said I was, she told me that it had moved around the corner. Following her directions, I found it easily.

You could tell that the move had happened very recently. The stock was still being taken out of boxes. However, they very obligingly let me look through them. They would even offer me one of the bigger boxes when they saw my pile of sheets growing rapidly. I had hit on a rich vein of mid-to-late 60s UK sheets by mainly British artists. All the usual suspects were there: the Animals, Cream, Herman’s Hermits, the Kinks, Manfred Mann, Traffic, the Troggs and the rest. But the Beatles far outnumbered all the others. The great bulk of these Beatles titles came from“The White Album” and “Abbey Road”. Each and every song, except ‘Revolution 9’. That wasn’t one of their more hummable numbers, I suppose. I can tell you it took all of my strength to haul that box back to Brussels. The reader will be relieved to know that there were no postal slip-ups on this occasion.

Before taking this sheet music search back across the Atlantic, I would like to tell you that Fidelma proved herself a formidable finder when she got around to some of the other places on that list. A music shop in a town north of Amsterdam yielded a very nice selection of sheets, most notably the Dutch printing of ‘River Deep - Mountain High’ by Ike and Tina Turner. A top- drawer item. And there’s one more thing to say about that special Yorkshire connection. Far and away the most generous-hearted sheet music trading partner I’ve ever had, hardly surprisingly, came from a place you’ve already guessed the name of.

© Ace records 2012