Photos courtesy of Brian Coleman
Hub vinyl icon Skippy White and the tunes Boston has hummed since the ’60s
BY BRIAN COLEMAN, NOAH SCHAFFER, MIKE GARTH
When the news came out last month that longtime Boston vinyl seller Skippy White was closing his last in a long line of Hub record shops, many well-meaning music heads posted about how they shopped in his stores for years but haven’t been back in a while for some reason. To each their own, but we wanted to hear from those who kept in touch. Fortunately, Boston music historians Brian Coleman, Noah Schaffer, and Mike Garth recorded a lengthy radio feature on White last year. What follows is an excerpt trimmed for print. -BINJ editors
It’s early afternoon on a sunny fall Saturday in Egleston Square. Traffic crawls and the occasional car horn blows as locals make their way up and down one of the Hub’s outlying thoroughfares.
Across the street, a local high-rise apartment complex is having a farmer’s market. Neighborhood friends greet each other as they pass, even across the street from one another.
At 1971 Columbus Ave, nestled in between the neighborhood liquor store and the Lawson Brothers Hair Salon, classic soul and gospel music spills out of one of Boston’s oldest and most revered record stores: Skippy White’s.
White has been here in Egleston for 15 years, but he opened his first Boston store all the way back in 1961, five and a half decades ago.
The Egleston store has never been likely to “wow” new customers. It might be most respectfully described as “lived in.” Decades-old promotional album posters cover the walls, alongside framed and laminated feature articles about White over the years.
Across from the main counter, a vinyl banner showing the exterior of one of his 1960s store locations is supported by grommets and frayed rope.
The long, narrow check-out counter is filled with random scraps of paper; 45 RPM records, stacked 15 or 20 copies high; flyers for upcoming gospel and R & B concerts; and an ancient desktop computer.
And, of course, there are thousands of vinyl records, cassettes, and CDs displayed, countless stacked in teetering piles.
Regular customers don’t mind the mess. They’re here to maybe buy some music but mostly come for White. The legend can usually be found behind the counter, ready to log special order requests in his notebook and to talk music with the customers he serves and loves.
“I don’t know what other stores do, I don’t know what the other people that have record stores do,” White says. “But here, I mean, the customer is … kind of king. And when they come in and they ask for something, first of all, if we have it in stock, great. That’s wonderful. If we don’t have it in stock, we always offer to order it for them and get it. And we look it up. And we’ll go the extra mile for our customers, to find whatever it is that they’re looking for. And sometimes that takes time. It takes a lot of time and a lot of patience to do that. Other stores, that we hear, kind of, we hear scuttlebutt from other people that go to other stores and come back and tell us about how they’re treated … most other stores just will not be bothered.”
In a world dominated by instant gratification, this is the opposite.
“You can’t ask any questions [online] if you just go online,” White adds. “If you find what you’re looking for online, you just order it and pay for it, and that’s it. But here you can ask questions. Obviously, we’ll play it for you and so forth. So, there’s a lot to ordering or coming in and picking up a record here, or having me order a record for you in the store. You know, we give you a lot of service behind it.”
Customers appreciate that personal touch.
“I can always rely on Skippy to have, as they would say, oldies but goodies,” says Al-J of the rap group Black Madeen. “Mom-and-pop record stores … are scarce in these days and times. I’ve been knowing Skippy for a little over 20 years, and a lot has changed. The demographic of the city has changed.
“Things … change.”
Just hum it
Since the early ’60s, in addition to owning multiple record stores in Boston and one in Rhode Island, White has been an R&B and gospel radio DJ, a record producer and label owner, a concert promoter, a mentor, and a low-key community builder. In a city known for racial divisions, he’s a French-Canadian from Waltham whose decades of devotion to the music and musicians he loves has earned him significant respect and love from Boston’s black community.
The first Skippy White’s Records location, which opened in 1961, was at 1820 Washington St in the South End, near Northampton Street and not far from today’s Boston Medical Center. The neighborhood is still a mix of residential and commercial buildings, but it’s nowhere near as rough-and-tumble as it was during the ’60s. He moved across the street to 1763 Washington St later in the decade; from there, his store was an anchor of sorts for the music community until he gave up the location in 1987. After that, he moved to the border of Jamaica Plain and Roxbury.
“When I got here, to Egleston … I had people come in and they’d say to me, Skippy, how do you put up with all of this? How do you make it in this environment, with these crazy people? And I said, Hey, this is nothing compared to [the South End]. If I could make it in [the South End], with all that was going on there, this is a piece of cake. You had the pimps and prostitutes all the time. You had the drug dealers right in front of the store, making the drug deals. You had the winos.”
Today, the man who once ran a regional network of vinyl outposts has one modest store left, and that’s just fine with him. He isn’t a young man anymore, but he still works six days a week and produces two radio shows, on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
On a recent day on Columbus Avenue, William dropped in to buy tickets for an upcoming local performance by Johnny Gill of the group New Edition. “I come here every time I’m looking for some old music,” he says, “because this is basically the place you’re gonna find it.” William notes White’s longtime motto: If you don’t know the name of the song you’re looking for, “Just hum it.”
Skippy White, the human prototype for the Shazam app.
“You can’t go to Walmart and places like that and find it [older music], you know,” William says. “This is the neighborhood, I have to frequent the businesses in the community, you know? If people don’t come to the businesses, the businesses will close, and they’d be gone. This is our neighborhood; you should spend your money in your own neighborhood.”
White has owned record stores over the decades in the South End, Mattapan, and Cambridge’s Central Square. Many of his customers, like Willy the Handyman, have followed him to each new location. “I have been here 57 years,” Willy says while shopping for gospel records on a Saturday. “So, basically, I’ve been … wherever he went, that’s where I went.
“When I came here [to White’s store, decades ago], he was down between Mass Ave and somewhere down there. So, that was the party town, all right? If you had any problem, or any dealings with the women, or dealing with society, you go to see Skippy, you buy your music, you get a little conversation going, and when you leave here you go take care of your problems.”
It’s not easy for any brick-and-mortar store to survive these days, and White isn’t unrealistic about buying habits—especially those of younger consumers. He made a lot of money selling rap CDs and vinyl in the ’80s and ’90s but doesn’t cater to the digital demo these days. White’s disconnect with younger music fans becomes apparent when you ask him to walk a couple of steps in their headphones.
“Why would I download an album?” he asks. “For what reason would I download it? Because I want to listen to it? Is that it? Yeah, I guess I don’t think in those terms. I think in terms of having a 45 or an LP in my hand, or a CD.”
Before you write White off as an old-timer who isn’t up with the online world—think again. Sales are sales, and White is aware that he is sitting on some valuable inventory. His online store on Discogs.com is full of around 1,500 items, some of them selling for upwards of $200 for a seven-inch single.
Aside from selling music since the early ’60s, White has also produced and released dozens of R&B, gospel, and even hip-hop records through a series of his own labels including Wild Records, Bluestown, Stop, and Silver Cross. While none of his records were national smashes, many are now highly regarded and coveted, including 45s by pioneering transgender soul singer Jackie Shane. Many Bostonians also thought Skippy had a star in vocalist Frank Lynch, until Lynch was tragically killed while in police custody in 1968, just as his song “Young Girl” was climbing the charts.
Meanwhile, gospel releases produced by White decades ago are sought after by collectors all around the world. He explains how the song “Master on High” by the locally based Crayton Singers, on his Silver Cross imprint, has come back around 50 years later.
“I put out two records by the Crayton Singers,” White says, holding up a copy of one of their singles. “[‘Master On High’] was not the best of the two … and barely sold at all. Back in the day, when we first put it out, I sold it for $0.98. [Now, another online seller has] a used copy … and he wants $100. This has never been played, never been touched by human hands … just mine. And I put it on for $49.99. Again, after I found out he had it on Ebay for $100, I went on Discogs and found out two people have it on for $100 each on Discogs. So I put it on both [Ebay and Discogs] for $49.99.”
White brings up another old pressing that he played a part in producing.
“I remember back in the day, having a record, a box of a record, 25 count, of “I Walk Alone” by the Vocaleers on Red Robin. I probably paid $0.15 apiece, so I sold them for $0.75 apiece.”
Jim Botticelli, a longtime area radio DJ and the blogger behind the website and Facebook page Dirty Old Boston, is in the store shopping and asks, “What is it worth today?”
“Probably a couple hundred dollars each,” White says.
The customers aren’t alone in their loyalty. Marc Siegel, a record industry vet and music collector himself, has been with White for 40 years. He started with the White-owned Mass Records Distribution company and has managed various retail locations for White in the time since, from Mattapan to Rhode Island.
“Feb 6, 1978—yes, that’s the day of the blizzard—I started working for Skippy,” Siegel says. “I started my job with a snow shovel and a push broom. We worked hard on getting that thing established, selling music to the local shops in the area, which many people thought were Skippy’s competition. But he viewed everyone as brothers in arms. We’re all selling the same kind of music, we all love the same kind of music. We all have the same customers, we’re all in the same neighborhood.”
Siegel rattles off a long list of record stores who used to compete with Skippy’s—Tower, HMV, Strawberries, Coconuts, plus the independents. All of them are long gone. Why did White out-last them? “He’s a fanatic,” Siegel explains. “A straight up fanatic. We don’t know anything else. So, what else would we do? Heaven only knows. Who else would put up with us? That’s another problem.”
“I don’t sell volume,” White says. “I mean, obviously this here was a very big gospel seller for me, I probably sold 200 of this [holds up CD] Tamela Mann. The one with the big hit on it called ‘Take Me to the King.’ Right now, the latest Luther Barnes is selling very well. But … you know, they don’t sell a lot all at one time. But they sell across the board. And we sell a lot of stuff like that.”
“You know what I get a lot?” White says. “[People asking], ‘Skippy, who is going to take over when you’re gone?’ I get that a lot, because they’re worried that if I’m not here, the store will not be here, and they will lose that source that they have now, of someone that will go that extra mile to find something for them.”
Loyal customers lament the idea of this place shutting down.
“It would be a devastation, I’m sure, to the community that he serves,” Hassan says. “I mean, Skippy’s been around since, what, 1961? Skippy is Boston history.”
“His music, his sense of humor,” Willy The Handyman says. “The ability to deal with people. He’s been around long enough [to be] a cornerstone.”
“I think it’s going to leave a big hole,” William adds. “Because some of the younger generation, if those that are left that know about a lot of these old recording artists are gone and passed on, the next generation is never going to hear about them, you know?
“As long as Skippy is around, you can come by and [he] can say, Look here, listen to this, son.”