There’s just something about used vinyl records.
The new ones are fine, but there’s something about the story contained in a used record that I can’t help but appreciate more with age. Assuming the price is right and the record hasn’t been “loved” too much during its history, a used record can serve not only as a window to the past, but also as a message.
One of the last remaining 50 cent bins for used records in the Lancaster area isn’t a bin at all – there are shelves and racks of records that have seen better days in the 50 cent area at Mr. Suit Records on Lancaster City’s Chestnut Street West. Certainly enough to last an entire afternoon, which is why I usually hover over the top of each row to see the most recent arrivals. These can range from Tijuana Brass albums to well-known classics whose glory days are long ago.
On a recent trip, I had the pleasure of finding what appeared to be an old compilation of live tracks from iconic jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker. I’ve always considered myself a beginner in jazz, so if I see a compilation by a name I know – and it’s only 50 cents – it’s an easy buy, no need to look at it too carefully.
I took the record home and tossed it on side one, now ready to peruse the track list and try the inside sleeve. My eye briefly caught a name written on the back cover, after the player chart on the album. I like to see names scrawled on old records. Usually my mind wanders, trying to make up a face of that random stranger unboxing that new record, years ago, unable to comprehend that a stranger will buy it and share a version of that exact same joy in the future .
However, it was different. Neatly printed under the names on the back cover, including captions such as “Miles Davis” and “Max Roach”, was a name I recognized, and you might too – “Tim Mekeel”.
From 1977 to October 2021, 66-year-old Mekeel was known as one of Lancaster County’s leading business writers, first for the Lancaster New Era and later for LNP | Lancasters online. However, during the short time I spent at the paper before his retirement, I got to know Tim for his immense wealth of musical knowledge, which I, as a music enthusiast, was always happy to search. Tim is particularly passionate about jazz, which has helped make his musician son, Colin, a powerful player himself.
As my brain began to connect the dots on record ownership, the first few songs on side one helped me understand exactly how a compilation from one of the genre’s architects ended up in the “Used” section. .
The record (which is simply called “Charlie Parker”) itself is two live albums in one – “Live on 52nd Street”, which was recorded in 1948 and first released in 1957, and “Bird at St. . Nick’s”, recorded in 1950 and released in 1958. Aside from being live performances, the main thing these two albums have in common is, well, how awful they sound.
Both were recorded on cheap, non-professional home recorders, probably from a small high-top in front of a smoky jazz club. Not only that, but some “songs” are cut off at the start of a Bird solo, then abruptly end a few seconds after the solo ends. There is of course group accompaniment, but it is almost impossible to stand out on certain cuts. For example, the great drummer Max Roach is barely audible on the cuts he played, and when he is, his cymbals sound like pouring rain falling all around a gleaming saxophone.
In the front left corner of the disc, in Surgeon’s General disclaimer format, was the disclaimer I had missed when I purchased the disc: “This is not a high fidelity album. The historical significance of the recordings transcends the fidelity of sound.
“It’s a classic buyer’s warning message, a stop sign that I just passed,” Tim says over the phone, laughing as I recount the warning note. “I would say 50 cents is a very fair price.”
Talking to Tim about my find helped fill in a lot of the blanks on the record’s nearly half-century-old history. Turns out Tim bought this compilation when it was first released in 1973, when he was a freshman at Penn State University.
“I was just trying to figure out what jazz is and who are these guys?” says Tim. “I wanted to know more about them; why is Charlie Parker a big deal, why is Miles (Davis) a big deal? There’s a way to find out, and of course, I picked the absolute worst recording to start my little exploration.
Tim assumes the record was part of the large percentage of his 450 vinyl collection that he gave to a neighbor when he moved out of his Mary Street home in 1999. It sat on a shelf for 26 years, then it was exchange. any number of hands for the next 23 years, and now I have it.
Time travel is real, folks.
I went back and asked Mike Madrigale, owner of Mr. Suit Records, how long it had been in the used bin, and apparently it wasn’t very long. It’s amazing how many people have tried playing it before finding out that it’s not very pleasant to listen to. How many people have seen the name “Tim Mekeel” scrawled on the back cover and wondered who this guy could be?
Tim assumes he spent $5 buying it new in 1973, which would be around $32 now, according to an online inflation calculator.
Now that I know this little piece of history, I will probably never part with it. When I started collecting records 13 years ago, I was annoyed by the number of names scribbled on a record’s cover, tarnishing any hypothetical value I had assigned to it. But if Tim hadn’t written his name in 1973, I wouldn’t have had the jolt of warmth and familiarity I felt, both when I saw his name and when I called him to catch up with him. Fifty cents? No, priceless.
Check used bins next time – you won’t find a record with “Kevin Stiriker” written on it yet, but maybe someday soon.
Kevin Stiriker is an LNP | LancasterOnline staff editor. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.