RECORD STORE YESTERDAYS; GETTING INTO THE CLIFTON GROOVE
Tomorrow – April 21, 2018 – is Record Store Day.
When better to remember yesterdays at a record store? (Or in this case, a record shop.) And to begin our time travel, here are some words published long ago in a newsletter from just such a place.
“So ‘Forever Came Today’ failed to make the British Top 20. So, they all tell us, why worry about such things? Better Supremes singles have suffered worse fates. It just means that when the new 45 from Diana, Mary and Cindy scales the upper reaches of the U.K. charts, as it must, the rejoicing will be more widespread than before!”
Ah, the rejoicing. The devotion. And the unshakeable conviction that justice would prevail. (It did: four more Ross-fronted Supremes singles rose to those upper reaches, including a 1974 reissue of “Baby Love.”)
A handful of you may once have received Groove, the Clifton Record Shop’s newsletter in which the distress about “Forever Came Today” appeared. (That’s Clifton in the English city of Bristol, by the way, not Clifton in the garden state of New Jersey.) One or two of you may even have bought records from this modest shop in Boyce’s Avenue, a short stroll from a masterpiece of 19th century engineering, the Clifton Suspension Bridge.
There, we sold masterpieces of 20th century engineering: Motown records – singles, EPs, long-players – released in Britain, as well as 45s and LPs imported from America. They were, of course, worth every pre-decimalisation penny. In October 1967, for instance, you could have bought a Tamla Motown copy of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell’s “Your Precious Love” for seven shillings and four-and-a-half pence – or 7/4½d, as it was then written – if you had stepped into the Clifton Record Shop. (“You may not be able to get it elsewhere; you know you can get it from us!”)
American imports were more expensive. A copy of, say, Frances Nero’s “Keep On Loving Me” on the Gordy label would have set you back 12/6d in Clifton. The same applied to U.S. pressings of 45s by Carolyn Crawford, Brenda Holloway, Marv Johnson, Debbie Dean and the Monitors, among others. (“Would you believe 12/6d post free? We repeat: 12/6d each. Don’t delay, order today!”)
Soon, prices went up. In 1968, the purchase tax on records in the U.K. increased from 27 percent to 50 percent. This meant that the cost of a Tamla Motown single became 8/3½d, and an LP was 36/6d. If you wanted an imported LP, that would require 59/0d. Groove added: “We would like to point out that our prices are still below what most London-area dealers are charging for imports.”
DIANA. MARY & CINDY, TIMES SEVENTEEN
The increases applied to tape, too. EMI issued the first two Tamla Motown pre-recorded cassettes in March of ’68: Greatest Hits compilations by Diana Ross & the Supremes and the Four Tops. Both retailed for 35/0d, during those iron-clad days of resale price maintenance. At the Clifton Record Shop, the "discount" for mail-order customers came in the form of records sold without postal charges added.
The sharp-eyed among you may have spotted the “we” above. Yes, I worked for the Clifton Record Shop, my professional (chuckle) gateway to the music industry after Motown had seduced me with its music. That’s where I bought records when its owner, the late Bill Francis, offered me a part-time job. He sold every kind of music, including his personal preference, classical. When I graduated to working full-time at the shop, I persuaded him that there were enough Motown pilgrims to merit launching a specialist mail-order service. Since EMI was an existing supplier, Bill approached company execs Roy Featherstone and Colin Burn for support. “It was unusual for a dealer to sponsor an individual label,” as he later told Record Mirror, but they agreed. We got started with a guarantee to stock every Tamla Motown release in every format, for sale in the shop and by mail-order.
At the same time, I began writing a one-page newsletter for inclusion with the records sent around the country. This featured details of new releases on both sides of the Atlantic, drawn from information provided by EMI, and from trade magazines Cash Box and Billboard, to which we subscribed.
In addition, the weekly one-sheet included biographies of artists, updates on their chart fortunes, and occasional concert reviews. Also, the catalogue numbers of everything (of course). Plus, occasional hyperbole: “Diana Ross and the Supremes at the Talk of the Town. Well! What can we say? What can anyone say? A list of adjectives and superlatives describing the performance from Diana, Mary and Cindy could fill this page seventeen times over!!! But words are never enough… [That’s enough—Ed.]
Groove was typewritten, with copies created at first with carbon paper. As the circulation approached 200, the new technology of a Gestetner duplicating machine came to my aid, and a second page was added. Our customers were regular and loyal, just like those of many an independent store today, and in addition to revenue, the business yielded plenty of networking opportunities. A friend to this day is Roger Green. “I remember the advert in the Bristol Evening Post,” he recalled. “It read, ‘Do you like the Supremes?’ I rang up immediately for details, and then made my first visit that week – on payday! – and was so thrilled to meet a fellow enthusiast.”
HOW MUCH IS AN ENVELOPE WORTH?
When I traded Bristol for London, Roger took my place at the shop and the responsibility for Groove, turning it into an eight-page magazine with even more space for Motown facts and fandom. Later in 1968, he also applied to Hitsville in Detroit to run a fan club, taking on Gladys Knight & the Pips. “I sent off my fan mag to Margaret Phelps in Detroit every month, but after the arrival of my initial welcome pack and promotional materials, I never heard another thing from them." Roger continued, “I know they received the mags, though: a couple of years ago, one of my envelopes addressed to Margaret turned up on an eBay U.S. auction. It sold for something ridiculous, even though it was just an empty envelope, obviously found in the Woodward building. I resisted the urge to bid for it myself!”
Similarly, the value of the Clifton Record Shop’s stock would beggar belief today. “I wonder what happened,” asked Roger, “to the red and white Tamla Motown demo 45s which EMI used to send us?” Also precious were commercial copies of U.K. singles which had hardly sold on first release, such as 1965’s “I’ll Always Love You” (TMG 523) by the Spinners. A rare copy was auctioned by the shop in late ’68 and acquired by a collector in Plymouth, although neither Roger nor I remember how much he paid.
I do recall selling some of my personal collection to underwrite the move to London, including several pre-EMI Motown singles first issued by Oriole Records. Each of those brought me a few pounds, and I was delighted. Among them was Mike & the Modifiers’ “I Found Myself A Brand New Baby” from 1962. Just a few days ago, a leading U.K. dealer in rare Motown, John Manship, auctioned a copy. It sold for £1,500.
Retailers who support Record Store Day worldwide can’t know the future worth of their inventory any more than we did, although some of the vinyl on sale tomorrow is certain to grow in value. What we did recognise, back in the day, was the infinite worth of helping fans to acquire (and learn more about) their favourite music, of forging friendships through that music, and of helping Motown’s artists and musicians to understand – in the words of Smokey Robinson – that they were “loved by people living so far away.”
Music notes: Record Store Day 2018 features a number of Motown vinyl exclusives, including Frank Wilson’s “Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)” 45 and, in red, Marvin Gaye’s Let's Get It On LP. RSD shoppers in the U.K. can also find Motown Funk Volume 2, a 2LP compilation of the familiar and the unusual. The latter includes James Jamerson (“Behold”), Puzzle (“Haiku”) and the Jerry Ross Symposium (“It’s The Same Old Love”).