George's Song Shop: America's Oldest Record Store
George's Song Shop will celebrate its 80th birthday next year. Founded in 1932 in the home of the "Flood City Music Festival," Johnstown, PA, George's is located on the city's old Market Street. Five stories tall, George's started out selling sheet music and 78s, but now houses thousands of records and CDs. Johnstown is an interesting small American city that boasts a few fascinating museums, a hillside funicular designed to carry cars as well as people, and a Michael Graves designed office building dating back to the 1980s. And another good reason to visit Johnstown, dear reader, is George's Song Shop.
Johnstown is about an hour and half east of Pittsburgh. I am working on a project there and discovered George's Song Shop on a recent visit. It was snowing lightly the day I arrived in Johnstown and I had an hour free before my meeting, so I parked my car on Market Street across from City Hall and walked up the block to see if George's had opened up yet for the day. Sure enough the door was unlocked and the proprietor himself, John George, was in the back of store shelving some 45s.
I opened the door and walked in. Mr. George greeted me warmly and in moment also remembered me from my previous visit. "Aren't you from Pittsburgh?" he queried. "Yep, that's me!" I replied.
John George is the son of one of the original owners - his uncle was the other owner - and has run the shop himself since 1962. A bespeckled older man with grey hair and a short beard, Mr. George specializes in Doo Wop 45s, but also has thousands of LPs, and a good selection of CDs as well. After asking me what kind of music I like, he reached behind the counter and pulled out a 45 of a local Johnstown band, Kindred Spirit. "I think you'll like this," he said as he cued up the single.
The Kindred Spirit record he played for me, a speeded up cover of the Rolling Stones' 'Under My Thumb,' was terrific, well played and well recorded. Turns out it is one of about six records that John himself produced in the early 1970s. Kindred Spirit had a regional hit with this one, but after another John George produced single of an original song failed to chart nationally, their recording career seems to have ended with George's producing career apparently not long after.
But the record store remains and it is wonderful. I had a really great time talking to John and flipping through his selection of LPs. What a priceless hour! Since the shop wasn't too busy, John played several of the records I was looking at on his vintage turntable that sits behind the counter.
Of the five or six records he played me, Cold Blood's 1970 recording called 'Sisyphus' on San Francisco Records made the strongest immediate impression. Led by the Joplinesque blues singer Lydia Pense, Cold Blood's sound was characterized by fuzz toned guitar wailing, soulful horns, and a funky organ. They still tour and would probably be fun to see.
The other records that captured my imagination on this visit were Calliope's 'Steamed' on Buddah Records, Burton & Cunico's 'Strive, Seek, and Find,' on Family Productions, and B. Lance's 1972 Atlantic Records release, 'Rollin' Man.'
There is a blog about this record - http://listofthelost.blogspot.com/2009/07/rollin-another-number.html - no one seems to know anything about B. Lance except that he made two great records and then disappeared.
So, if you are out there, Bob.....
Finally, there was a 1973 obscurity on Silver Crest Records, a single LP by two Potsdam, NY college/garage psych bands, Badmouth and Double Axel, one on each side. I can't find out anything about Badmouth online, but Double Axel is still touring - http://www.doubleaxel.com/ - and has a website that tells their tale, including a sentence or two about this record. What I heard in the store sounded great, so I can't wait to get it cleaned up and on my turntable for a few spins!
Maybe this weekend....