Thrift-Shop Paydirt: When Used Records Become Learning Opportunities

Being a thrift-shopper and connoisseur of used records offers the chance to learn about music history and unearth forgotten, should-have-been classics.

If you’re a thrifter, you know how it goes—or rather, how you go. You go, and you go, and you go. Pickings remain slim to nil. You keep leaving empty-handed, your hands feeling grimy after you paw through the old junk at Goodwill or the Salvation Army.

“If it was in decent shape,” you once tell the thrifter next to you, “there’d be great stuff here”. He, too, flips through, then gives up. You shake your head in disbelief about how even that beat-up refuse, unplayably scratched LPs, nonetheless sells, often to young people who don’t even take the records out of the sleeves to check the quality. These consumers will have “vinyl collections”, all right, but their collections may be more suitable for framing or craft projects than for playing.

You, by contrast, are old school, demanding higher quality for your records and willing to wait. Then one day, persistence pays off. You hit paydirt because the used-LP section of a thrift shop on your circuit holds a bunch of promising LPs.

You and they intersect at this point in space and time. Your separate trajectories are arrested briefly.

Hitting the Dirt

Nothing, in particular, connects these records, necessarily, other than they happen to be together in a store, $1.99 a piece, and in excellent condition. Make that “excellent” condition. It’s a quick evaluation based on your own sense. It’s not a judgment in terms of the widely acknowledged Goldmine standards, Goldmine being a record-collector magazine of long-standing.

But your rating of these potential gems is also not in terms that most people, normal people, would apply. When you hunt in the open-air markets of Record Collector Mania World, you’ll see claims from sellers such as “plays through.” A record may be beaten up, but it plays through. That means the scratches aren’t so deep that they’ll keep the stylus (needle) from tracking (playing through). No, but they may be deep enough to add all sorts of snaps, crackles, pops, and other percussive distractions to your listening experience.

How much additional noise you’re willing to tolerate depends on exactly who you are, dear reader. But who you are might be related to what kinds of records you collect and how rare they are. If they’re extremely rare, you may have to live with more noise than you would tolerate for something easy to come by.

Another complication is that appearances can be deceiving. A perfect-looking disc can yield all sorts of sonic problems, such as having been poorly manufactured on inferior vinyl. A messy-looking disc can play perfectly well. If the music itself is noisy—hard rock, let’s say—it can cover up the vinyl’s imperfections.

But the particular records you’ve just found aren’t scratched. They look beautiful—played at least once but cared for. The vinyl still has a decent gloss. The covers aren’t trashed. Some of them are still in the shrink wrap.

Best of all, the music looks interesting.

Of all the subjectivities noted here, the interestingness of music reigns supreme. Someone else might not have found this music interesting at all.

Wait—what’s that? Standing in the store, you’re about to use your phone to gather information about these records? They all predate bar codes, so you’d be using artist names and titles to find out what the All-Music Guide reviewers or music critic Robert Christgau or, God help us, God help you, users at Amazon or Rate Your Music think. Don’t do it. Put that phone away. Where’s the fun in that? And who says they’re right? Just pay the $1.99 plus tax apiece and take your chances.

And if you’re a flipper, heading to Discogs or eBay to estimate what you might get for these records, stop right there and leave the store. Records are for listening to and cherishing, OK? Unless you happen on that Beatles’ butcher cover or Velvet Underground acetate, you’re not going to retire on the money you make flipping, so give it up and let real collectors make discoveries that warm their warped little hearts.

Today’s finds could be anything, and that’s the fun of and profit in it. They could turn out to be nothing—nothing worth keeping, anyway. The point is that you can learn from what you gather. What you learn may be meaningless to anyone but you. You’ll still end up in a grave or an urn, no matter what. But along the way, you’ll have accumulated some knowledge and some possessions and perhaps enjoyed a richer life as a result.

So you take this batch home, listen, do some online research, and determine what you’re now the proud owner of. Were these particular items owned by the same person? Does any thread connect all of them? Consider this process analog forensics, a sorting through for qualities and clues.

Analyzing the Batch

First up, for no particular reason but curiosity, is Norman Greenbaum’s Spirit in the Sky. Like most people who’ve heard of Norman Greenbaum, all you’ve heard of his music is his one hit. That’s the title track to this album, which was released by Reprise Records in 1969 (and, incidentally, was rereleased by Varèse Sarabande for Record Store Day in 2014).

Greenbaum is considered a paradigmatic one-hit-wonder. Over the decades, the undeniable power of the fuzz-guitar riff that propels the loping “Spirit in the Sky” has kept the track on mainstream radio and in soundtracks evoking the late 1960s.

But the revelation of the Spirit in the Sky album is how much more wonder there is to it than that one hit. Each track has interesting touches. It’s odd that Greenbaum celebrates a milk cow with the same gusto with which he serenades a “good-looking’ woman”, but consider the haunting, synthesizer-laced “Alice Bodine”, where the reminiscing singer sounds like the late Vic Chesnutt crossing Abbey Road. Together with its companions on this record, the track’s worth hearing.

Seeming to bear no relation to the Norman Greenbaum album apart from its vintage is your second thrift-store find: the Chambers Brothers’ A New Time—A New Day, released by Columbia Records in 1968.

Like most people who’ve heard of the Chambers Brothers, all you’ve heard of them is their one hit, “Time Has Come Today.” Like Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” it’s a masterpiece of psychedelic rock that both stands for and transcends its time. But that song’s the title track of the group’s first album, from 1967. Now and then, you find Time Has Come Today in thrift shops, but it’s always in poor condition. So it’s intriguing to find the group’s second album, A New Time, in fine shape. Since people seemed to play the hell out of the first album, does the cleanness of this copy mean the second album stinks?

No, this blistering combination of soul and hard rock should be a classic. Among the album’s oddities is the title track, which blatantly rewrites “Time Has Come Today”, but among the pleasant surprises is a hard-hitting version of ultra-folkie Pete Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” As a fan of the period’s lower-key rock bands—such as the MC5, the Stooges, Blue Cheer, and Grand Funk Railroad—you appreciate the Chambers Brothers’ grittiness throughout.

As a fan of Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder, you’re happy to check out the next album in the batch: Raw Soul Express, the self-titled debut by this Miami, Florida, outfit. And to check out their outfits on the cover—reason enough to buy the vinyl. But the music has its own merits. While the style breaks no new ground, the songwriting’s strong, and the group delivers confidently, especially when the horns kick in. The only release from Raw Soul Express in its original incarnation, this album came out on RCA Victor in 1976. As the back cover tells you, it was distributed by a Florida company, T. K. Productions.

Ordinarily, a record’s distributor is not a detail you pay attention to. But now, as you dig around on Discogs, you find that the singer Betty Wright did some business with T. K. Productions. You just bought Wright’s album Explosion!, which was released in 1976 by Alston Records. Alston turns out to have been a division of T. K., so there, in this music-business business, you have one possible connection among this one possible combination of records out of a universe of combinations.

Wright’s album, her fifth, presents a really fun mélange of styles, imaginatively arranged, including soul, R&B, disco, merengue and calypso, and pure pop with a hint of Motown. As a John Lennon fan, you note the similarity between the album’s most downbeat track, “Bluesville”, and Lennon’s “I’m Losing You”, which he wrote under a different title in the late 1970s. You don’t know if Lennon ever heard Wright’s album, but the resemblance is interesting.

All you know from the cover of Little Milton’s Friend of Mine is that Little Milton is not Little Anthony, Little Walter, Little Steven, or Little Feat. In 1976 Little Milton was a dude with a nice ‘fro. He loved his guitar, his liquor, and his woman. But matters might be complicated because the last song on this record is “I’m in Love with My Best Friend’s Wife”.

On the album—his eighth, released by Glades Records (distributed by, you guessed it, T. K. Productions)—the man formerly known as James Milton Campbell Jr. has the blues. Some of his tracks have a dance beat, some get funky, some have punchy horns, and some have female backup singers. They have less guitar than the cover indicates. Little Milton is not above completely lifting the melody of “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, best-known as Jackie Wilson’s 1967 soul-pop hit, for his own “Don’t Turn Away.” Throughout, though, Little Milton and his coproducers, Leo Graham and James Mack keep the proceedings spare and soulful as he sings or speaks directly from his big heart to you. 

Also from 1976 is Loleatta Holloway’s Loleatta, not to be confused with her 1973 album also titled Loleatta. The 1976 album was released by Philadelphia’s Gold Mind Records, which was distributed by New York’s famed Salsoul. The cover indicates R&B, but Holloway turns out to have previously recorded gritty soul and subsequently recorded hypercharged disco. This album is a crossroads where soul meets disco meets the kind of art-rock purveyed by former glam rockers such as David Bowie and Roxy Music. Holloway’s arrangements can get busy, full of percussion and strings, but they can also be sweetly quiet. Holloway displays her vocal chops throughout, but the sweetest treat here is the last song, a version of Curtis Mayfield’s “What Now” that sounds like the slow comedown after a big dance party.