One of my favorite stores ever was a nearby place called Kingston Liquidators. The store was run by a man who had earlier run an extensive closeout operation on Long Island called Sands Salvage. When he opened up in a large facility on Route 28 near the city of Kingston, he created a must-stop location for me. Not long afterwards he opened an even larger store just outside of Saugerties called Weekend Liquidators. When the owner of the Kingston Liquidators insisted on a large rent increase, the store shut down and all operations were transferred to Weekend Liquidators, which expanded its hours from two to five days but kept the name.
The Liquidators stores were true salvage operations, offering merchandise picked up in bankruptcies, closeout sales and other such business disasters. The types of merchandise were fairly consistent, but you really never knew what you might find on a specific visit. However, there were almost always lots of packaged food items at extremely low prices.
My favorite, which was frequently available, was a Bear Creek brand potato soup mix, really delicious stuff. I can still get a small package which makes about eight servings for $5 to $6, but the Liquidators sold large cans which made 48 servings for $8! At the time they were available, I was hosting a weekly pot luck gathering at my home—an event I really miss today. (We recently revived these meetings monthly.) Since I never knew in advance what people would be bringing, I sometimes needed to make something quickly and the Bear Creek mix became known as Emergency Soup.
Over the years I bought clothing, appliances, and various household goods at the Liquidators stores, always at huge savings. Once I even found the DVD set of one of my favorite TV shows of all time, Mr. Bean. Eventually the owner of the store became ill and it closed. It was briefly revived in the town of Boiceville (under the original business name, Sands Salvage), out of my usual orbit but a place I visited occasionally. One of the store’s main attractions, low priced food, was no longer carried because it was near a grocery store and the lease prohibited it from carrying food. Now that store is also closed.
I’ve noticed that “job lot” chains tend to follow a regular pattern of flourishing and disintegrating. This occurred with the original Job Lot chain, which I remember from visits to New York in the 1970s. The stores start up with the same business model followed by the Liquidators stores, buying up surplus, damaged, or discarded merchandise. Eventually, though, their success leads them to expand to the point where they can no longer fill the stores with enough bargain merchandise, so they start creating their own, having things especially made for them to sell at low prices. This is the beginning of the end. As the quality of the merchandise deteriorates, business falls off and eventually they close.
This might happen some day to the “Adventure Shopping” chain, Ocean State Job Lot (originating, as its name indicates, in Rhode Island). I first encountered these stores on Cape Cod, where I would go often to visit my parents at their summer home and now visit because the home has become mine. There are Ocean State Job Lot stores scattered around the Cape, including one in Hyannis which I used to visit frequently until I realized that it was messier than the others. These stores, originally selling closeouts strictly, have become hybrids, selling discount merchandise alongside of things that are just made to be sold cheaply, often for the chain. And it has continued to expand, to various locations around New England and now to a village (Valatie, New York) less than an hour from my home in Woodstock. But OSJL still has plenty of closeouts, from remaindered books to last season’s clothes to brand name pet supplies, and I still go there whenever I pass by. OSJL has lots of food, sometimes including the organic products I favor at surprisingly low prices.
None of these stores will ever match in my affections such specialty shops from my past as the Discophile record shop on West 8th Street in Greenwich Village or the superb Wheat Fields food store in Woodstock. I wish I could have them back.
I’m always in search of interesting material to listen to in my car on long drives with my wife. We like lots of different kinds of music, but her interest in audiobooks diminished after she suffered a brain injury. Her favorite listening has been Spike Jones and His City Slickers, but there’s only so much of that hilarity available.
Recently my car’s CD player started to fail, and I decided to replace rather than repair. Unfortunately the difficulty in obtaining a new unit which included a cassette player closed off a lot of possibilities in our old collections. But more possibilities opened up when I learned that my new player was capable of playing MP3 discs. I had a few of these but was able to play them only on my DVD player at home.
Searches on eBay opened up to me the world of OTR (“old time radio”) MP3s. Various dealers have an astonishing variety of old radio broadcasts, which they claim are public domain material and therefore free of copyright. (This doesn’t accord with my understanding of current U.S. copyright laws but wotthehell.) From the bewildering number of choices, I decided to try a few discs, one of which included 60 (!) programs of the old Groucho Marx “comedy quiz show” “You Bet Your Life.” They were big hits with both of us. Within a couple of months we had listened through the entire disc. As we neared its end, I did another search and found another seller (in the U.K.!) who was offering a disc with 209 “You Bet Your Life” programs. It arrived just before we exhausted the first disc. These listings come and go so rather than providing a link I’ll just suggest you try eBay if you’re interested.
There are also plenty of “You Bet Your Life” TV shows available on DVD. Some of them are very low priced “public domain” issues of variable quality. But the excellent Shout! Factory label has issued two boxes of programs. (The second one, “You Bet Your Life – The Lost Episodes” includes the appearance of Lord Buckley as a guest.) Some of the PD issues are of surprisingly good quality, but they include the now-boring De Soto-Plymouth commercials, edited out in the Shout! Factory issues. For most of the decade-plus run of the show, there were separate radio and TV programs every week. The Shout! Factory collections are the best ones, but if you’re willing to sit or fast-forward through the commercials the 13 episode collection “Comedy Legends Series – Volume 1” is good and cheap.
While we watched our way through a disc of TV shows during a recent vacation, I’ve been dealing mostly with the radio programs. When you listen to so many programs in such a short period of time (we’ve now heard over a hundred, some of them twice) patterns emerge. Groucho’s humor becomes pretty predictable. He will never pass up an opportunity to make politely suggestive remarks about women contestants, some of which would be considered offensive today. (He almost invariably refers to them as “girls.”) Another favorite type of joke consists of pretending he hasn’t heard a contestant correctly, or pretending he doesn’t understand an idiomatic expression and taking the words literally.
But damn, the guy is funny! He obviously got, and kept, the job because of the quickness of his wit, and it’s often pretty impressive. When his foil, George Fenneman (who also did announcements for “Dragnet”), got the chance, he could be rather funny himself. But he knew his role as straight man and performed it admirably.
One reason for the success of “You Bet Your Life” was the producers’ ingenious decision to record the programs in open-ended sessions and then edit them down to the desired length. On the MP3 discs, there are a few programs taken from unedited tapes, and it’s fascinating to hear the way the programs take shape. Groucho, freed by the knowledge that if a gag fizzled it would disappear, takes all kinds of chances. Plenty of them do fizzle. The editing is made plain when you are listening to a program with a readout of the elapsed time visible, and you can see how unequally the time is allotted to different pairs of contestants. Some of them get five minutes of air time, some fifteen.
The betting strategy is a constant source of amusement to me. In the classic radio shows, each pair of contestants was given $20 to start. They were then free to bet as much of their money as they wished on each of four questions. The couple which wins the most money then gets a chance to answer a big money question, for $1000 plus $500 for each week that the big prize hasn’t been won. Almost inevitably the contestants start by betting $10, obviously wanting to stay in the contest if they miss the question.
This makes me wonder if any of them had ever heard the program before. The questions in the first round are sometimes tricky but mostly quite easy. I answer most of them correctly except for ones dealing with current events. The contestants answer most of the questions correctly too. Sometimes they bomb out, and I remember one program where contestants wound up winning only $20 but still got the chance at the big money because the other two couples lost all their money. (When that happens, they get a chance to win $10 by answering a question like the famous “Who’s buried in Grant’s Tomb?”)
Do the math. If you start out winning $10 on your first question (total $30), and bet all you have on the three subsequent questions, your maximum winnings add up to $240 (and few bet all). If you start out winning $20 on your first question and bet all, your maximum winnings are $360. Since few contestants who miss any question wind up with the highest score anyway, it would have made sense to bet everything on each question. Sometimes I feel like shouting at these poor people, almost all of whom are dead by now anyway. The “big money” questions tend to be rather difficult; while I haven’t been keeping score I’d say they are answered correctly less than half the time.
The compilations we’ve been listening to aren’t ideally prepared. They aren’t strictly chronological (easiest to track by the amount of money offered in the final question), and the sound quality is variable. But they are almost always intelligible, which is all that really counts. It’ll be a while before we get through episode 209 on the current disc, but we’ll be sad when we do.
Recently my appetite for jazz and blues recordings, going back to my mid-teens, seems to have increased exponentially. As a result I have been taking advantage of some wonderful opportunities to acquire jazz and blues CDs in large quantities at very small prices. Over the next few weeks I will be writing about some of these acquisitions. Right now, though, I’m working on a couple of mysteries presented by one segment of a big box.
The History label, one of several such projects from German CD companies taking advantage of European laws on sound copyright, has issued quite a number of genuinely historical compilations of both classical and non-classical material. Some years ago I acquired History’s “From Swing to Bebop” when I bought a large CD collection. It consisted of 40 CDs, in two-disc slim-paks collected into a (rather flimsy) box. I listened all the way through the set, enjoyed most of it, and kept it. (It now lives in my vacation home, on Cape Cod, where it often serves as dinner music.)
Not long ago, while browsing through jazz and blues CD boxed sets on Amazon, I ran across another History 40-disc set, “Nothing But the Blues.” Someone was offering it at a quite reasonable price. Assuming that it was out of print–which does seem to be the case–I bought it promptly and have been gradually listening my way through it.
One of the two-disc boxes particularly attracted my attention: “Night Time Blues,” including one disc each of Ma Rainey and Memphis Minnie. They are both favorites of mine. History’s two-disc boxes (which may have been available separately, and do show up that way as used items) include little booklets with listings, brief program notes, and dates and personnel for each recording, very necessary information for my inquiring mind.
On two of the Memphis Minnie selections, one from 1935 and the other from 1936, she is accompanied by a pianist identified in the credits as “Black Bop.” This mystified me. And I was curious, too, because whoever he is “Black Bop” is a pretty hot pianist.
As he was indeed. It turns out that “Black Bop” is actually just a silly typo for “Black Bob” Hudson. “Black Bob” is described by allmusic as a “ragtime-influenced blues pianist,” which he certainly was. There seems to be little biographical information about Hudson, except that he had a banjo-playing brother named Ed who also recorded widely, often in the same sessions as his brother. Both were members of the Memphis Nighthawks; Bob was one of the Chicago Rhythm Kings. These are both groups I’ll have to investigate. Bob also recorded with a number of other well-known blues performers, including Lil Johnson and Charley West.
It’s a bit of a surprise to hear someone who plays that well whose work I was completely unfamiliar with. But my listening through jazz and blues sets and looking at the personnel listings have led me to many such experiences in recent years. It was in a compilation of Commodore label jazz recordings that I first noticed the saxophonist Don Byas, who has become one of my all-time favorite jazz performers even though until I was in my early sixties I’d never heard of him. Now I’ll be looking for more of the ragtime-influenced hot piano of Black Bob.
Another odd credit appeared on one of the Ma Rainey items. Most of this great singer’s recordings are decidedly in the “urban blues” style, and the ones on this disc feature such well known jazz musicians as Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, and Thomas A. (“Georgia Tom”) Dorsey (later to become a famous composer of gospel songs). However, the first two, and earliest tracks, “Shave ‘Em Dry Blues” and “Farewell, Daddy Blues,” are credited to “Guitar Duet, Possibly Milas Pruitt And Another.” This piqued my interest especially when I listened to the recordings, which I don’t recall hearing before. The guitar accompaniments sounded so much like the famous “Lead Belly” (Huddie Ledbetter) playing his twelve-string guitar that I was startled. (Incidentally, the sound on the CD is much better than on the link I’m providing.)
The first result of my research was, surprisingly, to rule out Lead Belly. If you know his work, and you hear these tracks, you’ll be astonished to learn that they are not his playing. They so strongly resemble his style and sound that it’s hard to believe he’s not playing. But in 1924, Lead Belly was still in a Louisiana prison, and it’s not likely that he was released to make recordings with Ma Rainey.
However, Milas Pruitt did often perform as a member of a guitar duet. His partner was his identical twin brother, Miles Pruitt. While some sources claim Rainey’s accompanist on this record was Papa Charlie Jackson, most credit the Pruitt twins, and it’s quite believable that two guitarists playing in unison would produce a sound that resembles a twelve-string guitar. How they got Lead Belly’s style down so well is something I doubt I’ll ever learn. Actually, its very unlikely that they got the style from Lead Belly at all. They were from Kansas City, not Louisiana. (They also made recordings with another major early blues star, Ida Cox, and with other singers of the time.)
Well, here I am in my mid-sixties, still learning more and more about the music I love. As I continue to explore the wealth of new material coming into my collection, I’m sure I’ll be finding more new favorites. Watch this space.