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.

Maybe you’re old enough to have lived through the tumultuous days when disco took over the pop charts, when seemingly superficial dance music seemed to be killing rock when haters of this outgrowth of R&B and soul and, indeed, rock took up the chant of “disco sucks.” Now all of that negativity seems mind-bogglingly, short-sighted and prejudiced. Recordings such as this Holloway album clarify that musical exploration and hybridity were bubbling below disco’s glossy surface. It would soon emerge in the music made by genre-crossers such as Prince and Talking Heads.

Incidentally, Discogs reveals that James Mack, who played flute on Holloway’s album, arranged tracks on Little Milton’s album and co-produced some of them. Coincidence? Or was the owner of these albums somehow connected with Mack?

Little Milton’s album has no musicians’ credits, so you can’t trace out any other overlaps, but here’s another little tie: Jackie Moore’s Make Me Feel Like a Woman, the final album in this batch, was released in 1975 on Kayvette Records. Like Glades Records, which released Little Milton’s album, Kayvette was distributed by everybody’s favorite Florida company, yes, T. K. Productions. Whoever owned some of these albums must have been connected to T. K. For whatever reason, the person’s bundle of T. K.-related productions went to the thrift shop in 2021.

Brad Shapiro owned the short-lived Kayvette Records. Label-owner Shapiro produced Moore’s finely constructed soul album, her second of four, which sounds at times like Aretha Franklin meeting Bob Dylan meeting Portishead and includes at least one masterpiece, its sizzling closer, “Singing Funky Music Turns Me On”.

used records

It turns out that Shapiro also produced some singles for none other than Betty Wright, but these were back in the late 1960s, not the Betty Wright records of the 1970s distributed by T. K. Productions. So a connection between Jackie Moore and Betty Wright is there but indirect.

Brad Shapiro also worked with Wilson Pickett, Millie Jackson, and the J. Geils Band, but those credits don’t link him, as far as you can tell, with the other records in your thrift-shop score. So the trails you’ve explored go cold.

Now, of course, one connection among these records is that you own them. For that, thank serendipity. Contingency. Intuition. Not some easy web search. Not even a visit to a record store, where some degree of curation takes place. In the used bins is where the mundane physical world yields or reveals the unpredictability of events.

The search goes on. The goal remains elusive. The music, meanwhile, transports you.

Finding a Follow-Up

Weeks later, with all of that listening and researching and absorbing done, you return to that same thrift-shop feeding trough. From somewhere a slew of new old records has hit the bins. As you flip through, you see that most of the jackets are in fine shape, which is often not the case with this kind of music: easy listening and jazz from the Big Band era and before. Most of this music is not your thing. You reject an album because one side bears a pretty large scuff, and ultimately you whittle down some 20 or 30 records to just one.

The album you buy is Red Hot by the Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaria. You’ve been on the lookout for Santamaria’s music, but you don’t know anything about this record, which was released by the Columbia subsidiary Tappan Zee Records in 1979.

In years past, some signals on the cover might have put you off. The art—a glossy photo of glistening chili peppers, displayed to suggest sexy naked bodies—suggests a glitzy version of Latin jazz. A sticker proclaims that the album includes the disco version of “Watermelon Man.” You vaguely remember “Watermelon Man” as being Santamaria’s best-known song, but you strongly suspect that his original came out long before disco.

Could this album be Santamaria’s equivalent of such legendarily disastrous excursions into disco as, say, Elton John’s Victim of Love and The Ethel Merman Disco Album, both from 1979?

If the album is lousy, it’s lousy. It’ll cost you $1.99 + tax (which is, to your amusement, a dollar more than the original owner seems to have paid since the shrink wrap is still on the record and bears a sale sticker of $2.99).

You proudly bear your find to the register. “Do you still have . . . the player?” the cashier asks. She’s new to the store.

“I do,” you proclaim. “It’s the only way to go.”

At home, you do some research before listening to see if you’ve hit Santamaria paydirt. The All-Music Guide yields conflicting results. The site’s professional reviewer, Richard S. Ginell, gives the record one and a half out of five stars and claims that “Santamaria sold much of the heart out of his music by turning himself over to producer Bob James, his arranger Jay Chattaway, and the fading disco fad”. The result is a near disaster, an overproduced, overdubbed, rhythmically overbearing affair.” However, users have rated the album at four and a half stars!

At Amazon, too, the reviews and ratings send severely mixed signals. Some people love this record or at least appreciate the top-notch musicianship on what’s universally acknowledged as studio-crafted disco-pop-jazz, and they help give it an overall rating of 4.4 out of 5. Others absolutely loathe this record, among them the trumpeter Mike DiMartino, a member of Santamaria’s ensemble. DiMartino reports having been insulted repeatedly during the sessions, gives the album one star, and calls it “the low point of the five albums I was on during my five years with Mongo,’ 75-’80. . . . The label’s producer, Jay Chattaway . . . hadn’t done his Latin music homework, had no idea what Afro-Cuban Mongo was about, and could not have cared less.”

You’d expect to find DiMartino’s name to appear somewhere in the album’s credits from this comment. Instead, he seems to have been entirely replaced by the studio players brought in by James and Chattaway.

So if you’d read up in advance, looked to see if this was a “good” record before buying it, and been swayed by possibly biased comments, you’d have missed out on some music that turns out to be really appealing to you. In fact, at home and about to put the record on, the strongly negative opinions end up intriguing you, whereas you’d be shrugging if the notices suggested this album was simply mediocre—you know, OK but not Santamaria’s best. Lots of what other people consider disasters have far more merit than the detractors perceive or acknowledge. You’re primed to hear something provocative.

Listeners at the time may have rejected this music as too slick and past its sell-by date, but all these decades later, the result strikes you as being in a category with such fusion excursions as Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way (1969) and Donald Byrd’s Electric Byrd (1970). Those records, too, have their detractors. In each case, you put aside issues of context and authenticity and listen to the complex interplay of instruments and electronics.

On Red Hot, the disco style appears mainly on that first track, then sporadically, as an element in the spirited mix. Some of this material really cooks, and the flute solos are outstanding! Elsewhere you hear the kind of sonic exploration the digital age excels in—though it’s hard to imagine this recording sounding more dynamic than it does on the original vinyl.

It’d be interesting to compare this hot stuff with more-traditional Santamaria, though a perusal of his discography indicates the man was had not been wedded to tradition for some time. Consider that his 1969 album Stone Soul includes versions of the pop songs “Son of a Preacher Man”, “Love Child”, “Little Green Apples”, and “Cloud Nine”.

Since this may be Mongo Santamaria music in name only, you’ll continue your hunt for more Mongo. You’ll also want to hear more from Bob James and Jay Chattaway, at least if it’s $1.99 + tax.

You are, however, left with the unanswerable question of whether this ear-opening copy of Red Hot came from the same collection that yielded your earlier batch of learning opportunities. Here’s one connection: Eric Gale, who played some guitar on Santamaria’s record, appeared on 1978 and 1980 albums by Loleatta Holloway.

KURT WILDERMUTH’s previous articles for PopMatters are “My Rufus Wainwright Story” and “Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector”. Visit