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December 25, 2019
Final Vinyl: Goodbye, Skippy White’s
It is regrettable whenever a local business closes, but it can be especially impactful when the business has been an important part of the community for more than 58 years. Such is the case with Skippy White’s Record Store in Roxbury, MA, which will soon shut its door for good. Fred LeBlanc, better known to his friends, customers, and radio audience as “Skippy White”, started selling records in 1961, a few years before this writer was born. Now, at the age of 83, due to declining sales, Skippy has decided to close up shop and focus on his R&B and gospel radio programs and finish an autobiography he began writing two years ago.
Last week I swung by Skippy White’s unannounced to interview the local legend. Approaching the entrance, I was greeted by an old outdoor loudspeaker blaring classic R&B music. As one might imagine with a very small record store, it was a bit overwhelming upon first entering; records were everywhere, both used and new, along with CDs, tapes, and DVDs. A few remaining T-shirts hung from the ceiling like championship banners and various paraphernalia from year’s past hung on the walls.
Bright sunlight penetrated the small store through two large front windows, one of which had a rusted steel security “shutter” deployed half way down. I felt a chill in the air so I kept my bulky winter jacket on as I gingerly navigated my way around the obstacle course of record bins. I approached a tall counter that extended nearly the entire depth of the store and whose surface was as congested as I93 during a weekday morning. Stacks of concert flyers, CDs, and 45 RPM singles were everywhere, exposing nary a whisper of bare countertop. Behind the counter were walls of sound…a myriad of CDs and cassette tapes on tall shelves that stopped just a few feet short of the ceiling. Skippy was perched in front of his lap top speaking to a customer on the phone. While I waited, without knowing I was there to interview him, almost every person who walked in spontaneously praised Skippy. “He’s the man!”, one customer exclaimed. “Anything I need, Skippy has”, another said, as he picked up a CD he had special ordered two weeks prior. It was immediately clear to me how the closing of this store was going to affect Skippy’s loyal customers, most of whom he knew by name.
Having visited many a record store with downright miserable shop owners (I assumed this was a qualification), I was bracing myself for what lied ahead. To my great relief, Skippy had a very friendly demeanor and he seemed genuinely interested in my questions. Perhaps it was that genial personality that contributed to Skippy White’s Store being named “Best of Boston” in 2017 for “Best Neighborhood Shopping”, and “Boston’s Best Record Store” by the Improper Bostonian two years before that. Or, maybe it was his ability to identify songs on the spot. Printed on the large sign above the entrance were the words “Just hum it”. Customers wanting to buy a record without knowing the name of the song would sometimes sing a few bars in hopes Skippy could ascertain the name of the song for them. Much of the time, he could. Skippy was the human Shazam way before the app existed.
As for that nickname, he acquired it while working at 1,000watt Boston R&B radio station WILD 1090 AM in 1961. To illustrate how times have changed, in its present form, WILD AM is an all-Chinese language station. Skippy’s friends told him he needed a catchier radio name than Fred LeBlanc. Somebody (Skippy does not remember whom) came up with the name “Skippy”, and since his French last name meant “white” in English, the “Skippy White” name was complete. The new name stuck like, well, Skippy peanut butter, although he admits he was never too keen on the “Skippy” part of the name.
Skippy’s accomplishments go far beyond that of a successful record store owner and popular local DJ. He also produced a roster of local R&B artists and released their music on his own small record labels. Some of the singles he produced have since gone on to become quite collectible, often fetching over one or two hundred times what they originally retailed for.
“Having visited many a record store with downright miserable shop owners (I assumed this was a qualification), I was bracing myself for what lied ahead.“
Skippy cautioned me to expect frequent interruptions during our interview as he rang up customer purchases and answered the phone, and he was right. Word had definitely spread about the closing. No matter. The interruptions afforded me the opportunity to watch the master in action. What follows is an edited transcript of my recorded interview.
PS: First of all, why are you closing?
SW: Well, you know, business has gone down over the last, actually several years. It’s kind of eroded somewhat. I mean, at one time, we used to sell a lot of new music, particularly R&B and soul, along with gospel and some blues. Over the last several years, a lot of that has just dissipated. People don’t but the new music like they used to. We used to do tonnage. Even when a new rap release came out, I remember we used to order 120 pieces of a CD. That completely eroded. A lot of the new music went down. Also, the blues we used to sell…we used to sell a lot of blues…probably the only record store in town, maybe the only record store in New England, that sold blues the way we did…Even the gospel has slowed up a lot from what it used to be. In other words, with the downloading, people don’t buy CDs like they used to. Now, it’s true that the vinyl has come back, and that we’re selling more vinyl then we did a few years ago. The younger people are coming in for the vinyl.
PS: Did you ever think you’d still be selling records 58 years after you started?
SW: I’ll tell you a little story, a little funny story. When I got ready to leave my prior employer, who was Smiling Jack’s College Music Shop- they had a record store on Mass Avenue- 338 Mass Avenue by the way; Circle 79026 in case you want to call him. But he’s been gone for sixty years. When I got ready to open the store, I really didn’t have much money at all. I had been going around to some record stores, one of which was Smiling Jack’s College Music, and selling records wholesale. I used to go to warehouses and pick up records cheap, like for fifteen cents or so…these are 45’s…and then sell them for forty or fifty cents, and they would turn around and sell them for a dollar. At any rate, I had some records at the house, leftover from going around to all these record stores, about a dozen or so, and once I got the job at Smiling Jack’s, I really didn’t have the time to run around to all these other stores, which I guess Jack was happy about. But I didn’t have money to go into opening my own store. But once I made the decision I wanted to do that, I went to a couple of people that had previously worked at Smiling Jack’s. One was named Bob, the other was named Big John. We used to call him Big John because he was kind of a hefty guy. They both had pretty good jobs and were making a lot more money than I was. I asked them if they wanted to be partners; throw in some money and the three of us will go in and we can do pretty well. Well, they both turned me down. Not only did they turn me down, but they both said “you won’t make it, you’ll be out of business in six months”. Here it is, fifty-nine years later (laughs). So that’s the story of a partnership that might have been, that wasn’t, but somehow, I survived with the little bit of money that I had, which wasn’t much, but we did pretty well.
PS: How much did records cost when you first got started?
SW: See, back in the days when I opened, and for many years, the 45’s were ninety-eight cents. That was it. In those days you bought from record distributors at somewhere around the sixty to sixty-five cent level. So, if you bought from one stop you probably paid 65 cents for a record and sold it for ninety-eight cents. If you bought it from a distributor you might have got it as cheap as sixty cents. But over the years we were able to do even better than that because I started selling records in pretty good-sized quantity. What happened was, I was also on the air at WILD. Not only was I on the air with my own show, but I was picking out the music for the rest of the DJ’s at the station, so essentially, I was the Music, slash, Program Director. That meant when customers came in the store and asked about a record they heard on WILD…I knew what they were going to ask for, probably before they opened their mouth, because I was programming the station. I knew what was the hot records at that time. We started buying out of state, from places like Essex Record Distributors in New Jersey and some other out of state distributors. They were selling me records really cheap, way below the sixty-cent level. As a matter of fact, I was buying records at one time for about thirty-eight cents each. So, we started selling them not only in the store, but we started selling wholesale to other record stores. Now, all the record stores were coming to me (laughs). They were buying wholesale. I’d sell them for sixty-cents and buy for thirty-eight! Hey, I was making money both ways, and of course, selling in the store. That’s really how the store started to gain popularity and started doing very well in the early years.
“Not only did they turn me down, but they both said you won’t make it; you’ll be out of business in six months. Here it is, fifty-nine years later.“
PS: Did you rub shoulders with a lot of big names back in the day?
SW: Oh, absolutely. Many, many of them. The first location that we had was at 1820 Washington Street, and that was near Northampton Street. We were located half-way between two very active clubs; Louie’s Lounge and Basin Street South. Louie’s Lounge would have people like Bobby Bland, B.B. King, Otis Redding, James Brown, folks like that. Basin Street South would have a little bit different…sometimes a little bit more the direction of jazz, although they would have a lot of the bigger Motown acts like The Supremes, and Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, etc. So, I was half-way between these two clubs. It was a very active scene in those days. As a matter of fact, right across the street there was another club, a smaller one, called The Shanty Lounge. And the Shanty Lounge, because it was a smaller club, would have smaller acts, but they had people like Don Gardner and Dee Dee Ford, when they had their big hit “I Need Your Lovin”. They had the Jimmy Smith Trio, some jazz acts like that. That area was a bee hive of activity.
PS: Give me a memory, or a story, or something that stands out…something interesting or funny that stands out that you remember that happened over the years…something unusual…whatever pops into your brain.
SW: Yeah, I’ll give you one. I don’t know if you’d call it funny, but I guess it would be considered funny especially after all these years. This would have been probably in the first store, the 1820 Washington Street store. To put a year on it, I’d have to guess and say about 1964 or 5, somewhere around there. I’m not sure of the exact year. I had two young ladies working for me behind the counter in that store at the time…we were always busy. In walks this young gentleman, he was a teenager, and he came in with his girlfriend, who was also a teenager. They came in and he wanted me to find records for him, and you know, play records, and basically that’s what I did for a lot of people. I did that for Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band. They would be looking for material to do on their next album and they would come in, especially Peter Wolf, and I would play records for him until he found material that he wanted to re-record. Well, this young fella came in and he was looking for stuff, you know, stuff out of my head, that I could play for him that he would like, and he was busy with me. His young lady kind of stood off to the side, and she said she didn’t feel too good. So, she said to one of the young ladies that was working for me, “I don’t feel too good, where’s the bathroom?” They pointed out where it was and she went to the bathroom. The bathroom was only a little commode in back of a curtain. It was down through the back of the store; it was only a little shoe box store. It was down back to the left, and like I said, it was just a little hole in the wall bathroom in back of a curtain. So anyway, she went back there (phone rings). Oh, boy, the interruptions are gonna be fast and furious today. So, she went back there and after a while, she started, I don’t know if she was screaming or crying. So, I sent one of the girls back there to see what was wrong with her. The other girl goes back, that was working for me, goes back and she hears- the two of them are in the little bathroom- and the next thing I hear, a baby crying. She had a baby right there in the bathroom! Right there in the store. Upon hearing that (chuckles), I got on the phone, called an ambulance, they came, took her to the hospital, which was not very far away, and that was it.
PS: Did they name the baby “Skippy”? (laughs)
SW: No, I don’t think they named the baby “Skippy”, but the baby came out alright and the mother was doing fine, and they both were fine afterwards.
PS: Are you still on the radio?
SW: I’m still on the radio, been on the radio since 1961 when I started at WILD, and now…I do two programs on-line…one is called “The Time Tunnel”, on Saturday mornings from 8 to 11. That’s an oldies program, and it has little sections in it, like we’ll do a spotlight on an artist or maybe even a record label, or even a city, or some special aspect of the music business. You know, like I’ve done Motown, I’ve done Stax, I’ve done labels like that, as well as artists and groups. I also do a little segment that’s called “The Chitlin Circuit”, mostly blues, blues from the south. And I do another segment called “The Doo-wop Corner”, obviously it’s Doo-wop. That’s the Saturday program. Sunday, I do a program from 7-10, also three hours, and that’s called “The Gospel Train”. Obviously, I’m playing gospel music. Then, I’ve just added a second radio station. I’m on 102.9FM. You can get it in the local area here. You know, you’re not going to get it too much in the suburbs, but you can get it in Boston. I’m on Sunday evening from 6-7, and that’s also “The Gospel Train”, that’s another edition of “The Gospel Train”. The reason I decided to do a separate program on that station is because we were previously on 1410AM and 98.1FM on the other station that I did both “The Time Tunnel” and “The Gospel Train”. The people that owned both licenses, the AM and the FM, decided to pull the plug because they felt like they weren’t being paid enough money, or maybe it’s because the ownership of the station wasn’t paying them, or paying them on time. Whatever. So, they pulled the plug, so that’s why we’re only on-line on that station. Because of that, a lot of, particularly the senior citizens, the older audience listening to “The Gospel Train”, they can’t get it at all. They don’t have a computer, they don’t have a smart phone, so they can’t get it. So, I decided to do this one hour “Gospel Train” on 102.9FM so they could get at least an hour of gospel. That’s why I do it.
PS: Do you have a final closing date yet?
SW: Well, a lot of people ask me that. Basically, we’re going to be here ‘til the first of the year, ‘til, you know, after the holidays are over, get into January, and then we’re going to decide, first of all, how much inventory do we have left? What do we have and how do we dispose of it? I do have some people coming from other states; a record store down in Baltimore is interested, a record store up in Maine is interested. They’re going to come and take a look at what we have left after the sale is over and make me an offer. So, whoever comes up with the right offer I guess will hopefully buy the rest of the inventory and then we’ll know when we’re going to close for good. Right now, I don’t know.
“…the next thing I hear…a baby crying. She had a baby right there in the bathroom! Right there in the store.“
PS: What are your plans after you close?
SW: Write the book (laughs). I started on the book about three years ago, and what happened was, you know, there’s just never enough time to sit and write the book. I’m working every day in the store. I’m doing, well, now, three radio shows. By the time you do all that, you just don’t have time to sit down and write more in the book. I mean, I’ve written some, but it’s been a while and I just don’t get a chance to do enough of it. So, I think when I’m not tied down to the store every day, then I’ll get a chance to sit down at the computer and finish the book.
One question I did not have time to ask Skippy was what he was going to miss the most about his job. Although I was only in his shop for an hour, I knew how he would have answered: his customers. Damn skippy.
You can listen to Skippy’s R&B oldie’s radio show, “The Time Tunnel”, as I did while I was writing this article, Saturdays from 8-11am ET on “98.1 The Urban Heat” (128 kbps, MP3), an Internet-only radio station. His gospel show, “The Gospel Train”, airs Sundays from 7-10am ET, also on “The Urban Heat”, and Sundays 6-7pm on 102.9FM if you are listening in the Boston area and prefer FM. To listen on your Como Audio music system, in Internet radio mode press and hold the remote’s Play/Pause key, go to Station list> Stations > Search stations> enter “WZBR” and select “OK” to the right.
I did not buy anything during my brief visit, though I did ring him up a few days later and offered to buy a piece of memorabilia from him. He hesitated. “I’ll have to think about that”, Skippy said. “Call me again after the New Year.”
Skippy White’s Record Store is located at 1971 Columbus Avenue in Roxbury, MA. It will remain open at least through the end of January 2020. After that, check with Skippy.
General Manger Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio in 2016 as Vice President of Product Development. In addition to Tech Rap, Peter also writes for his own blog, www.RecommendedStations.com. He can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org