Old Records Are Back in the Spin of Things

Leonard Reed is a Times staff writer

He stands in front of the massed group, dominating it. The hair is gray, but the figure remains lithe and ageless in his vibrant enthusiasm. His arms raise, and from the throats of the famed Glee Club comes a controlled, richly varied burst of magnificent melody; the impressive, large orchestra blends into the arrangement, and we're swept away on a flood tide of delightful sound. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians have been more than a merely gifted group: They have revolutionized musical tastes and brought new dimensions to the art of combining words and music.

--Album cover to "The Magic of Music of Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians"

Don't let the Grammy hubba-hubba distract from a peculiar street reality: old bad records. Here, at The Bargain Box store on Main Street, old bad records are moving off the shelf as never before.

"I don't know what's going on," says Jaimee Damato, who manages the second-hand shop for the Assistance League of Ventura County. "It's kind of weird. Last year, we hardly sold any. This year, everyone's buying these 33s and 45s. In some cases, they ask where they can find a record player."

First a disclaimer. Old bad doesn't necessarily mean without merit.

The crisp Fred Waring, after all, did have his many followers, even if his chief musical contribution was appropriating the popular music around him and putting his own little phrasing tricks upon it. Call it original music--classics by Duke Ellington or Cole Porter or Oscar Hammerstein or Richard Rodgers--bleached of grit and soul, sent out for one-hour musical Martinizing.

Ditto Mitch Miller. Ditto Liberace.

Ditto Lawrence "One- ah- two- ah" Welk.

Old bad simply means big-time guys whose music faded with their own retirements. It also refers to non-big-time guys whose record companies breathlessly promoted them as beacons of their time, social lighting rods of taste and cultivation.

Don't remember Frank Mills? He did that smash hit ditty "Music Box Dancer" and followed it with a 1979 album in the bin here: "Sunday Morning Suite." Far better than the music, however, are album notes that build to a pronouncement:

It is said that all good things come to those who wait. Frank Mills has waited a long time for his achievements to be recognized. This achievement was hard-won and well deserved because his success is the result of drive and determination in pursuing something that he firmly believes in -- Middle of the Road Music."

Stifle that laugh. Finding the middle was a big thing in America as far back as the fat, complacent Fifties.

The 1958 jacket notes on Mitch Miller's Marches, also in the bin for 50 cents a copy (on sale last week for a quarter), laud his performance on such selections as "March from the River Kwai" and "Who Will Kiss Your Ruby Lips" as a "a bracing tonic for worrisome times." I can hear the uniformed whistling now: If only Mitch and his copywriter knew what "worrisome" would come to mean a decade later, in the Vietnam era.

The narcosis of middle-of-the-road music is a potent drug running through the old bad discography. Readers Digest certainly wanted in on that particular use of popular music, and so alongside the Miller and Mills and Waring selections are boxed multidisc sets of themed music for the mail-order market.

"Let's Take a Sentimental Journey: Warm and Wonderful Musical Memories for Listening and Relaxation" features "Cocktails for Two" and "Deep Purple" by Lawrence Welk, "Limehouse Blues" by The Mellow Trombones of Tommy Tate, and "The End of the World" by Skeeter Davis. Davis' treatment, it should be said, is anything but apocalyptic.

Only Readers Digest could outdo itself, also in a boxed set titled "Background Moods," featuring glossy renditions of "Moonlight in Vermont" by a generic studio group called Romantic Strings with Two Harps and "Just One More Chance" by Ed Ames with Ken Thorne and his Orchestra.

Old bad records. Fifty cents a copy, sometimes half that. People clean their attics and donate them to this charitable organization that operates as a reseller in service to the needy.

But other people--some vague, over-40 army moved by nostalgia and a taste for the big gray middle--have been buying up a storm of late.

It's a fascination, really, this spinning of scratchy discs that not only triggers time-anchored memories but cite, in squeaky clean snippets, a piece of the real character of American people and a recording marketplace that has always played to fantasy and pure comfort.

As the Grammy-laden but somewhat over-her-head Sheryl Crow sings it, we all "just wanna have fun." If she's lucky and talented, she just might develop a career that spares her the bin in 30 years.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World