Paper Chase: Part 3

Colm O'Brien


It was a solid ten hour drive in Jim’s trusty and roomy old Plymouth Valiant from Toronto to Chicago, a journey shortened by the driver’s good company and the cassette tapes he compiled from his extraordinary record collection. For Jim, although he grew up in rural Indiana, this was a return to the city of his birth. Carl Fischer at 312 South Wabash Avenue in Chicago was almost as big as its sister store in New York, and it operated along the same traditional lines. Their enormous and varied stock of piano vocal sheet music was also filed alphabetically by title in row upon row of metal cabinets, thus preserving the condition of the merchandise. We would be doing well to get through it all in two days.

Naturally, there were repeats of titles we had seen in New York, but good extras always came in handy. Still, it was surprising and gratifying to find so much fresh material. For my collection, there were new titles by the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Merle Haggard, Gladys Knight, Wilson Pickett, Queen, the Stylistics, Them, Joe Tex, Jimmy Webb to list just some. ‘Nadine’ by Chuck Berry and ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke were very nice souvenirs of my first-ever visit to the Windy City. A couple of truly unexpected finds stand out in the memory. ‘Please Please Me’ as recorded by the Beatles on Vee-Jay and the Liverpools on Wyncote is not something I would have thought to ask for at the desk. Neither would I have expected to find the sheet for ‘Pretty Vacant’ by the Sex Pistols. There were two copies of each in the files and neither one was ever found again. Not in my travels anyway.

It would be wrong to give the impression that every trip to a new destination resulted in a bumper harvest. Far from it. One of our most disappointing flops occurred on our next trip to Chicago. Carl Fischer was just as good the second time around. It was Milwaukee that disappointed. The hot tip we had been given about a great deposit of sheet music there proved to be baseless and our journey there completely fruitless. That’s what’s made Milwaukee famous in my mind. A foray into New England with Jim took us as far south as Providence, Rhode Island. That was another wasted effort. We found the place we were looking for in the centre of town quite easily, but the rather fearsome lady running the place quickly lost patience when our first few sheet requests were not found. The filing cabinets were lined against the wall behind the counter, separated from the public by a stout metal grill. A request to be allowed to look through the files was met with an incredulous look that we, correctly I’m sure, took as a “no”. It would have been easier to get into Fort Knox.

A drive down through the Appalachians with Colin took us through unforgettable scenery, but my sheet music stops in Richmond, Virginia and Memphis, Tennessee were totally dry. Nashville was better, but only just. In fact, the only city in the South to benefit my collection was Columbia, North Carolina. Regrettably, I can only imagine what treasures might have been found in Texas and California, but the time Betty and I travelled through those states predates my interest in sheet music.

The big urban centers in the Great Lakes region continued to occupy our attention. There were so many prosperous or formerly prosperous cities that might be expected to have old established music stores, and they were within a manageable driving distance of Toronto. A medium sized city like Syracuse in upstate New York was fairly typical of what we found. Rather like Bob Moody’s in Hamilton, Onondaga Music occupied a fine building in the old centre of town. The owner was friendly and helpful. He let us poke around his whole premises, including the storage areas upstairs. As well as finding quite a lot of popular sheets from the 40s and 50s, there were interesting catalogues of musical instruments and record players to be had. The owner was an accomplished pianist, who once accompanied Patti Page when she played locally in her glory days.

Cleveland didn’t live up to expectations. We found a smallish store which had recently replaced a much bigger one that had gone out of business. As time went on, we would find this kind of thing more and more. All told, the best sheets to be seen in Cleveland were not for sale; they were part of the permanent display in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. Detroit, and indeed the rest of Michigan, proved to be surprisingly infertile territory. All that changed when Jim discovered Malechi Music tucked away on the outskirts of Grand Rapids.

The area where Malechi Music is located is now built up, but in 1984 it was still quite rural, almost remote. The small city of Grand Rapids was some distance away, and Lake Michigan further still. I thought of it as the middle of nowhere, but here was this terrific music store with a hugely extensive selection of sheet music from vintage to present day. The building was modern, but the stock and the way the business was run harkened back to an older era. Clearly this was not the first address of this business, but it was the one that I would become very familiar with over the next decade. The size of the stock and the scores of employees could be compared to either of the Carl Fischers or Volkwein Bros. Without doubt, it was one of the biggies. There was lots of space in their parking lot. Often, we were the only customers in the store. Most of their business seemed to be done over the telephone.

You needed at least two or three days to go through the files. In fact, there never seemed to be quite enough time. Apart from the regular popular piano sheets, the selection of movie and TV related sheets was probably the most extensive I’ve seen anywhere. Further to that, the selection of songbooks exceeded what we had seen at Carl Fischer. There were folios of Bobby Darin, Fabian, the Everly Brothers, Duane Eddy, Cowboy Copas, Jim Reeves, Ernest Tubb, Faron Young and a real beauty of the Animals. The song sheets ranged from the Byrds to Roger Miller to the Shirelles to Barry White. It was another bonanza for all concerned, and at the end the manager, Mr Cunningham, excused himself while he went upstairs to get the senior management. The Malechi brothers introduced themselves with affable good humour and chatted for a while, clearly very pleased with the business and at the same time getting rid of dead stock. “It’s a pity you weren’t here two months ago”, said the taller of the brothers. “We took over a distributor on the West Coast and had to send fifty tons of music to the town dump.” He added, “It would have cost too much to pay someone to sort through it.” 


The last of my great sheet music sources in the USA happened to be the one closest to Toronto, and it ended up winning an extra special and enduring place in my heart. Edwin’s Music was located at 1515 Broadway in a section of Buffalo that had seen better days. It was a very well stocked and immaculately kept family run business. Edwin Grzankowski had started his company in the early 40s and moved to this address in 1960. The single-storey building was a wide and long structure with a huge music sign prominently over the front entrance. It could be seen from a mile off.

When you walked into the store, you saw a couple of dozen filing cabinets lined along the wall to your left, displays of current sheets and songbooks on the wall to your right, a dozen or more bins containing a vast selection of song and method books, and at the back a large showroom with musical instruments and rooms for giving music lessons. Mr. Edwin and Mrs Edwin, as all the regular customers called the always elegantly dressed owners, were assisted by a daughter and a son. As time went on, their son and drum teacher, Greg, assumed a greater role in running the business. Edwin’s Music was a wonderful example of this kind of music store.

The range and selection of songbooks exceeded anything I’ve seen anywhere, and the sheet files compared favourably to even the biggest stores. In addition to this deep stock, Mr Edwin and Greg bought up stock from music stores going out of business, and they also started to carry second-hand sheets. I’m sure that’s where I found my copy of the sheet for ‘Route 66!’ by King Cole Trio and hundreds of others from that era. Of course, not all of these were in pristine condition, but that was reflected in the price. And, what’s so terrible about showing a little wear?

As a result of the owner’s enterprise, there was invariably a good bit of fresh stock to look through on our (at least) annual visits. Mr Edwin also had a great fondness for shifting what he thought of as old dead stock. He had a couple of bins up at the front window filled with songbooks temptingly reduced to bargain prices. The predictable 99 cent ending was studiously eschewed in favour of the more idiosyncratic 83c, 47c, or 2c.

Although single song sheets held more appeal for me, my collection does include a good number of songbooks. “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan”, “Aretha’s Gold”, “Veedon Fleece”, “Aftermath” and several bumper collections of mid-60s compilations published variously by Keys and Hansen are among the treasures purchased at different times from Edwin’s. (A glorious deluxe edition of Bob Dylan’s “Blonde On Blonde” came from a tiny store in Curtis Bay, Baltimore. That’s another story.) “The Modern Electric Guitar Tutor” by the Shadows, complete with terrific photos, was yet another welcome but quite unexpected find there.

Very few pre-1960 sheets survived some kind of accident that happened before the move. Very occasionally, as you went through the filing cabinets you came across a slightly water damaged sheet from an earlier period. In the main, the sheet stock was from the 1960s to current days. Once, chatting after closing time, Greg explained to me and Betty how it was that they were able to afford to carry such a large and comprehensive stock. He told us that it was due to an arrangement the store had with the library system of a neighbouring state. The library bought one of everything Edwin’s ordered, and this paid for the two copies of everything in the files. I think I was a great beneficiary of this arrangement. In addition to many names already mentioned, the files in Edwin’s furnished me with sheets by Johnny Cash, Tyrone Davis, Al Green, Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Millie Jackson, Jefferson Airplane, Brenda Lee, Bob Marley, Willie Nelson, Ann Peebles, the Pointer Sisters, Prince, Charlie Rich, the Staple Singers, Joe Simon, Joe South, Betty Wright, Dwight Yoakam and the list goes on. Not only were these generally available at the original printed price (there was some re-pricing carried out to reflect current values), there was always a very generous discount when the final total was made up. We met nothing but kindness and generosity from both generations at Edwin’s Music, and the food in the local Polish restaurants always hit the spot.


The last couple of times I saw Greg, he talked about the success he was having selling stuff on the Internet. I remember him saying John Denver sheet music was as hot as a pistol; he just couldn’t get enough to meet the demand. Greg’s finely honed entrepreneurial instincts were obvious from our first meeting a decade and a half earlier, so it was not surprising that he would embrace this new medium. Eventually, with the virtual disappearance of the old style music shops and stores, I would come to accept the new reality and shopping on eBay is now one of the main ways of adding to my collection. Over the past few months, I’ve been lucky enough to acquire these three highly desired US sheets in beautiful shape: the Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What It’s Worth’, Bobby Fuller’s ‘I Fought The Law’ and Percy Sledge’s ‘When A Man Loves A Woman’. And who would have ever thought that Billy Fury’s ‘Don’t Walk Away’ managed to find an American publisher? On any given day, you will find over 100,000 pieces of sheet music listed on eBay. Just google vintage sheet music. Mind you, I still much prefer poking about in antique markets, paper shows, and second-hand book and record shops. Three of my favourite UK additions from these sources this year are ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ by Carl Perkins, but showing a photo of Charlie Feathers by mistake, ‘It’s Only Make Believe’ by Cliff Richard and ‘Trambone’ by the Krew Kats.

By the late 90s, it was not getting any easier to find fresh unpicked sources of sheet music. One big swing through the Mid-West with Colin saw us call at music stores in Minneapolis, Aberdeen and Sioux Falls (both of South Dakota), Omaha, Kansas City, St Louis and Columbus, Ohio. It’s true I found some nice sheets – Kansas was especially memorable – and we had a lovely stay with a dear friend, but the journey was long. Even longer was a trip Betty and I, together with her cousin, Laurence Flood, and my brother, Malachy, had in the spring of 1998 when we drove out to Seattle and back. While it’s true that the purpose of the trip was not a hunt for sheet music, I did have the chance to do a little foraging in the states of Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The scenery was unforgettable and the craic was lively, but the pickings were relatively slim. There was, however, one sheet music stop that remains fondly in the mind. On the journey back to Toronto, we crossed the Mississippi River at St Cloud, a fairly big town 65 miles northwest of Minneapolis-St Paul. We stopped to have a good look at the mighty river and decided to see a little of the town too. The old music store was on the main street in the centre. There were two large rooms, one with displays of instruments and the other with cabinets and bins of sheet music. The stop was well worthwhile, and I had a nice little boxful of sheets to take home. It was getting close to closing time, and I was so concentrated on my task that I didn’t notice the large number of people gathering in the adjoining room. Suddenly, the music struck up, and the local brass band was in full flight. It was a truly lovely moment. In my mind’s eye, Jimmy Stewart walked in.

Not long after, I had what looks like being my last big find in the field. I had been through the small city of Erie, Pennsylvania several times but always on the way to somewhere else. In fact, the very first sheet music expedition to Volkwein Bros in Pittsburg with Jim took us through Erie. This time was different. Betty and I were driving along the southern shore of Lake Erie, enjoying the beautiful Wine Country scenery and we decided to have a proper look around town. Slightly off the beaten track at its northern edge, we spotted a sign for a music store. It wasn’t a very large place, but they had four or five filing cabinets with an interesting selection of mainly rock sheet music from the late 60s to the late 70s. I left with a good many titles by John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, J.J. Cale, Fleetwood Mac, Waylon Jennings, Steely Dan, the Who and others. Finds like this were becoming few and far between.


When Betty and I were back in New York City in 1999 after a three year absence, we made a bee line for Carl Fischer. The building was still there, but it was closed and the music store was gone. Later, in a music store up near the Lincoln Center, a store that specialized in classical music but which had a good popular piano vocal department, we learned that the Carl Fischer Building had been sold for re-development. Not only that, the same fate had befallen their premises in Chicago. The publishing business remains but the retail part of the business was history. There was one final lash. The store we were standing in had ceased to stock popular sheet music as Carl Fischer had been their sole supplier. And have a nice day!

A couple of years later, we were very sorry to hear that Edwin Grzankowski had passed away at the age of eighty-five. A few months after that, we received the sad news that his son, Greg, had also died. There was no one in the family interested in carrying on the music store business.

When we had the chance to return to Malechi Music in Grand Rapids, I suppose I was somewhat prepared for changes there too. Just as well. The business had been taken over by J.W. Pepper, an old established firm which had risen to become the largest sheet music retail chain in America. Everything else about the building was unchanged on the outside. Inside, it was a different story. All the rows of filing cabinets packed with sheets were not to be seen anywhere. Instead, there was a small display of about a couple of hundred current sheets. It took no more than five dull minutes to see the whole lot. I was unable to obtain any information with regards what had become of the old stock. I suppose the story I’d heard there many years before may contain some clues.

Looking back, I consider myself very fortunate to have had the chance to experience these wonderful old depositories of sheet music on both sides of the Atlantic, businesses that had resisted the general trend of modernization for so long into a very different era. In addition to allowing me to accumulate a very extensive collection of sheet music in my various areas of interest, I had the chance to see a good bit of North America, Britain and some of Western Europe in good company. In places like Chicago and New York City, live music was another great attraction. Buddy Guy’s in Chicago is where we experienced the ferocious intensity of the Lonnie Mack band. We have New York to thank for two memorable nights in an intimate club setting listening to Solomon Burke at the top of his form, numerous chances to enjoy Pierce Turner working his magic in the bars of Second Avenue, and to be there in Carnegie Hall for Christy Moore’s sold out triumph. 


The first time I noticed sheet music being used to illustrate CD booklets was in The Capitol Collector’s Series of the late 80s and early 90s. Nat “King” Cole, the Four Preps, Dean Martin and Gene Vincent were some of the artists to have sheet music from the Capitol archives used to good effect. Over the years, my CD collection became greatly enriched by a steady stream of wonderful Ace releases (thank you Maeve and co at Fopp of Cockburn Street in Edinburgh). More and more, I began to see sheet music appearing in the booklets, a very impressive selection. But I knew I had lots more to offer in my collection. I just didn’t know how to go about establishing contact. One particular release in the Producer Series, “The Bert Berns Story Vol 1”, really got me thinking very seriously. I knew that there would be a Vol 2, and that Van Morrison’s ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ would likely be one of the songs included. I knew that the song sheet for this was rarely seen, but I had a copy. In the end, I didn’t do anything and, when the second volume came out, I saw that my hunch was correct. The illustrations used were, as always, interesting and appropriate, but there was no sign of the sheet.

In December 2011, an opportunity to contact Ace Records presented itself. Betty told me about the call on the Ace website for material relating to the Vanguard label for a forthcoming major compilation. I had a few pieces of sheet music, including Ian Tyson’s great song, ‘Four Strong Winds’, and some Sing Out! magazines from the 60s that I thought might fit the purpose. My approach to Ace was met with immediate and enthusiastic responses from Roger Armstrong, Neil Scaplehorn and Carol Fawcett. High quality scans were required and, as luck would have it, Emer was home from London for Christmas. She set us up with the equipment we needed and gave her mom the necessary training. It’s been plain sailing ever since, and we look forward to each list that Mick Patrick sends asking for material for his, or Tony Rounce’s latest project.

I’m far from the only music lover who holds Ace Records in the highest esteem. The industry, imagination and creativity of the compilers and the integrity of the company are plain to be seen. A couple of recent visits to Ace headquarters on the banks of the Grand Union Canal in far off Harlesden only increased my admiration. That sheets from my collection can be seen in dozens of Ace and Kent CD booklets fills me with pride. I would like to think that this part of my collecting story is only just beginning.



© Ace records 2012