In Their Own Words - David Wilson

In Their Own Words - David Wilson

By David Wilson
March 2014

During my recent review of Delmark 60 Years of Blues, I mentioned being a distributor way-back-when for many small blues labels, Georgetown Fats asked me if I could dredge up some memories about how that happened and what it was like.

First, I should mention that at the time I got involved, I knew nothing about recordings as a business and by the time I finished I knew too much.

I returned from a brief dance with the USAF in the summer of 1960 and after a few months of living at home in surburban Lexington and working at a Top Value Stamps warehouse, I scraped together enough to rent a basement apartment on Newbury St. in Boston near the corner of Fairfield.

I was pretty much a folkie all ready by that time and a member of the Boston Folk Music Society. Moving into this apartment and finding that its back door into the alley was directly opposite the backdoor of a new folk club, The Unicorn, on Boylston St. just seemed like the best thing that could have happened and within a few weeks, there was a steady stream of traffic back and forth from the club to our apartment. When the clubs closed on the weekends, performers and friends would just move across the alley and the party continued on through Sunday night. It was not long before performers from other clubs in the area came over to jam with their friends and “alone time” became elusive for awhile.

As I got more and more involved with the musicians, I also became more involved with the BFSS and my introduction to delta blues came when the program one month in 1961 featured a lecture by Dr. Harry Oster. Harry who had been born in Cambridge, graduated from Harvard in ’46, had ended up teaching folklore at Louisiana State University. His lecture to us was accompanied by his playing of some of his field recordings which included the likes of Robert Pete Williams, Roosevelt Charles, Hogman Maxey, Otis Webster and Robert Guitar Welch, as well as an lp of Snooks Eaglin which he had recorded in New Orleans and had sold to Folkways Records. He also had copies of two recordings, one by a Cajun country band called the Louisiana Honeydrippers and Robert Pete Williams, Angola Prison Blues.

I was so floored by the emotional impact of what I heard on the Angola Prison Blues lp that I invited Harry to come by the apartment after the meeting and get to meet some of the local performers.

What I was really hoping for was figuring out a way to get copies of his recordings which while only going for 4 or 5 dollars were none the less pricey for the budget I was living on at that time.

Also attending the lecture was Harvard student, Joe Boyd, who had been hanging out at my apartment for a few of the sessions and who came by that evening as well. Joe and I had cornered Harry while all sorts of mayhem and music were going on around us and I asked Harry where his lps could be purchased at a later time. When he said that they could only be purchased from him and if via mail would have to have postage added, I asked why he did not sell to stores. He responded that he would have to have a distributor and none in the Boston area were interested. I caught Joe’s eye and in one of those moments of silent agreement we jointly proposed to Harry that he make us his Boston distributors and we would do what we could to get stores to stock his lps.

We scraped up the money for a small inventory and set out to sell them to local record stores. The record business was a lot different in those days. There were no major music chains, most of the stores being mom and pop outfits with 45rpm singles comprising most of their stock.

Our forays into those arenas were fraught with frustration. They mostly bought from the major labels through a half dozen or so distributors who dealt mostly in pop and depending on the neighborhood an ethnic line or two. Negro music was considered by most of those stores outside the ghetto as unfit for polite society. As I mentioned in the Delmark review, the proprietors of more than one of the stores we approached threatened to call the police if we brought those records or ourselves into their premises again. It was indeed a different time.

After a few months we did have small successes with those record stores that serve some of the local colleges and there seemed to be some hope we might make a go of it. In the midst of this I had started Broadside of Boston, a small publication that carried news of the Boston/Cambridge folk scene with schedules of coffeehouse performances and concert appearances. When we started to carry record reviews I was unsure of whether owning a record distribution company would be a conflict of interest, but sure that I could not give my all to both, so I handed over my share of Riverboat to Joe Boyd. Joe in his senior year at Harvard continued to build the business and when he graduated, he sold the company to another group of Harvard students who continued to add record labels promote the catalog via the folk radio programs that were broadcast primarily on college FM radio stations, Harvard’s WHRB, MIT’s WTBS, BU’s WBUR and Emerson’s WERS.

Briggs and Briggs in Harvard Square and the Harvard and MIT coops early became Riverboat’s best outlets.

Joe Boyd thereafter went on to become prominent with the Newport Festivals and then off to the UK where he produced Pink Floyd and managed a number of Folk artists including Fairport Convention as well as The Incredible String Band and later became head of music for Warner Brother’s films.

Meanwhile, Broadside had reached a point of prominence where we could request review copies from the labels without having to wheedle them from the local distributor so I lost day to day connection with what Riverboat was doing until a couple of years later when Ralph Dopmeyer the then current Riverboat honcho dropped into our office and handed over a stack of new records from the catalog for review. Included was a new recording on the Riverboat label. It was “The Death and Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death” by the then scarcely known John Fahey. The cover was an amazing drawing by local artist, David Omar White.

Between the Harvard students and Ralph, Riverboat had grown to represent dozens of small labels, folk, blues and early jazz. The blues labels included of course FolkLyric and also Arhoolie, Adelphi, Blues Classics, Spivey, Biograph, Delmark, Piedmont, Takoma and Yazoo and probably as many others whose names I cannot dredge up at the moment.

Ralph had graduated from MIT as a naval architect, so it is little surprise that he was a sailing fanatic as well, and one day mid-‘60s he came to me with a proposition.

He wanted to take 6 months off to sail a yacht to Europe for refitting and then back to the Caribbean. He asked if I and my associate at the time, Sandi Mandeville, would be willing to manage Riverboat for that period in exchange for a percentage of sales and before I knew it I was back in charge of Riverboat and helmed the company for several years thereafter as Ralph kept finding more boats to sail and more projects to pursue.

Looking back, the highlights of those days, the ones which still bring smiles to my face are remembering the afternoon on which Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie dropped Mance Lipscomb off at the office so that we could get to know him up close and personal, hours spent with Mississippi John Hurt when I brought him to Boston for a week long booking, the several times that Rev Gary Davis, often with his wife, Sister Davis, came and stayed with me during an area gig, an impromptu playing of kazoo behind Taj Mahal during a hoot at the Café Yana, of sitting across a table from Paul Geremia and discussing various performers, of giving Blind Owl, Al Wilson, the latest release of a rediscovered venerable bluesman to review and witness the joy and enthusiasm he had for the project.

The record business and its economics turned very nasty in the early ‘70s and I was glad to get out of it.

In the end, as always, it was people who made the job a great adventure and, of course, the music they made.

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