King of Oldies

Jerry Greene is the man to see for classic CDs, vinyl & more

Posted: March 27, 2007

GASPING FOR breath, the music industry has become a ruthless, cold-hearted creature. Artists of renown are summarily dropped by record labels if their latest release fails to score. There's little respect for the past glories that built the companies, as slow-selling discs are ruthlessly eliminated from the catalogs.

But Jerry Greene, a seasoned music mogul based in Conshohocken, still is keeping the faith - and keeping alive the careers and work of thousands of artists, with his CD and vinyl Collectables Records label, DVD video imprint Alpha, wholesale Gotham Distributing, online sales operation OLDIES.com and mail-order wing, Nina's Discount Oldies.

Check 'em out at the Web site, or call and ask for a catalog (800-336-4627). If you're a true music fan, you'll think you've landed in heaven. This is the place where the R&B originals and great blues masters, the big bands and giants of jazz, the vintage rockers, country music originators and pop crooners of bygone eras are all still vitally alive and well, and treated with great respect.

"We license our product from the majors and often get them to press the discs themselves to assure top quality," said Greene recently, as we toured his 60,000-square-foot facility. Even well into the evening, the building was a beehive of activity, staffed by some 125 employees.

On an average day, the staff fulfills more than 1,000 orders filtering in from around the world. Luring in the customers is a highly eclectic inventory of 100,000 titles - old and new - on CD, vinyl (45 rpm singles, 12-inch dance tracks and albums) and DVDs, the latter category dominated by classic and cult films and TV shows.

More than 10,000 of these titles are Collectables label exclusives, castoffs from the majors that Greene still believes in and nurtures. Every month, the operation adds 30 CD titles and 25 DVDs to the Collectables imprint.

To freshen the vintage products and make for a better value, the King of Oldies often takes two vinyl-era albums and combines them on one CD or bundles them in a double-disc package, in either case priced as if one album. Often, he'll also package six, eight or 10 of those discs in a specially priced and elegantly encased (wooden box) set.

Shopping around

Like a kid let loose in a candy store, this visitor went nuts in the Collectables warehouse.

My day (and month) was made finding an exclusive box set of primo years (Colpix label) studio and concert albums by Nina Simone, gems I fondly remembered from my childhood but feared had been lost forever.

I also grabbed a special Collectables grouping of early Elvis Presley albums pressed on heavyweight vinyl, who-knew-these-even-existed concert recordings by Little Feat and Lou Reed, decade-specific rock and soul oldies compilations (boy, have they got a lot of those!), and a CD pairing of two Broadway show-stoppers from Lena Horne ("Porgy and Bess," co-billed with Harry Belafonte, and the underrated, Harold Arlen/E.Y.Harburg-scored "Jamaica").

And for icing on the cake, Greene laid on a couple of cool titles by Dion, represented on the Collectables imprint with both oldies collections and the terrific recent albums "Deja Nu" and "New Masters."

"The rare thing about Jerry Greene is that he really knows and loves all this music," said Dion DiMucci, in a subsequent phone chat from his Florida home. "He and I are from an era when radio stations would bring people together in a sense, when the music was all-inclusive. Today it's very segmented and selective. People don't make the historic connections between, say, rock and roll and the blues anymore.

"But Jerry's got it all - from Jimmy Reed to Tony Bennett to Thelonius Monk. And he's keeping guys like me in the loop. You know, if people can't hear the music, they don't know it exists."

Digging his roots

Originally a New Yorker and a lover of street corner doo-wop harmony, Greene broke into the business in 1958, as a kid of 15, when he volunteered suggestions to a jewelry store merchant in Times Square about the used vinyl treasures the guy was poorly merchandizing and "practically giving away" in the back of his store.

Hired to help out on weekends, the kid courted plugs from an influential DJ, Alan Fredericks, by laying rare discs on the guy to play on his "Night Train" radio show.

"All I asked was that he mention where they came from. The next day, 300 people showed up at the store," Greene celebrates, like it was yesterday. The owner moved the discs from the back to the front and renamed the store the Times Square Record Shop - a name that became legendary in music circles. (Several "Memories of Times Square" collections on Collectables also evoke the era.)

Another early Greene claim to fame was partnering to buy the master to an obscure 3-year-old harmony vocal that he loved by the Capris, called "There's a Moon Out Tonight."

After getting Murray The K to play it on his radio show, Greene made enough money on the hit that he was able to relocate to Philadelphia in 1961 (originally with the intent of studying art) and then open his own record store, the Record Museum, at the corner of 10th and Chestnut streets. 

The Philly connections

Here, Greene connected with Jerry Blavat, himself a "yon teen" DJ starting out on WCAM in Camden. "I'd send people over to his store, 'cause I knew he stocked the hot tunes I was playing," recalled The Geator.

Blavat subsequently became partners with Greene in the Lost Nite label, which put out collections of recent hits packaged and promoted by DJs like Blavat, Joe Niagara and Jerry Stevens.

Greene and Blavat then hit with a little release (on the subsidiary Crimson label) by the Soul Survivors called "Expressway to Your Heart." It was produced by a South Street record-store proprietor, Kenny Gamble, "who bought singles from me," recalled Greene. Of course, Gamble then went on to co-found the hugely successful Philadelphia International Records operation.

Another auspicious connection possible in the free-wheeling '60s was Greene's tie to WFIL radio, then the town's Top 40 giant. "I put out the WFIL oldies collections, too, so they gave me breaks on advertising, charging $10 for a spot, instead of the usual $50," said Greene. "Every half-hour we had a spot on George Michaels' show, where we were plugging a 49-cent special of the week. That's how we broke songs like the Nazz's 'Hello, It's Me.' "

And eventually grew the Record Museum to a chain of 25 stores before selling out in the early 1980s to a competitor.

Picking up the pieces

Still itching to stay in the game, Greene and his wife, Nina (whom he first knew as a store customer and "Bandstand" TV show dancer), then started Collectables. The original plan was to just re-issue 45-rpm singles that major labels couldn't be bothered to warehouse and distribute.

"We got stuff from everybody - Motown, A&M, Columbia, Stax . . . . At our peak years, into the 1990s, we were selling 10 million 45s a year, racking [servicing] the singles departments in 10,000 stores," Greene recalled. "The worst thing the record business ever did was to stop issuing and promoting singles. By forcing kids to buy expensive albums, they pushed them into going online and downloading songs."

Today, the Greenes' grown daughters, Melissa and Kym, son Michael, and son-in-law Peter also are active in the operation and pushing the online component.

"We're receiving more than 5 million hits a month," said Melissa. "Until now the music industry has relied on retailers who have limited shelf space and can only carry a small percentage of the products available in the market. The Internet more than levels the playing field for companies like us. It allows us to shine, especially with our exclusive product. Google 'oldies' and our site always comes up first."

But the King of Oldies also acknowledged some dark clouds gathering over his head.

"When I first came to town, there were 28 record distributors in Philadelphia," said Greene, who last week was mourning the death of a former rival and major mentor, Universal One-Stop founder Harold Lipsius. "Now there's only one distributor left: us. And the average age of our customer is 50-plus. These are the people who haven't figured out how, or don't care to download." * 

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