I collect records. Ever since I was a kid. My first record was not a collector's item. It was Shaun Cassidy. An album called Born Late. I still have it. I haven't listened to it in twenty years. But I can't bear to get rid of it. It was my first album. I'm a collector. Even that may be worth something someday.

I've collected stamps, glass insulators, road reflectors, old lanterns, furniture, license plates, books, turn of the century cooking utensils, Schwinn Stingrays, marbles, comic books, Hot Wheels, and Star Wars action figures. I've flirted with a thousand different collections. Sewing machines, 50's cars, lawn ornaments. I've collected millions of individual items. The fads have come and gone, but through it all, I've collected records.

I have over ten thousand records in my collection now, in three storage lockers. I estimate I've spent nearly a 100 thousand dollars over a lifetime of record collecting.

Here are the top 5 most valuable records in history:

  1. John Lennon & Yoko Ono – Double Fantasy (1980) – $525,000 – Autographed by Lennon five hours before Mark David Chapman assassinated him.

  2. The Quarrymen – “That’ll Be the Day”/”In Spite Of All The Danger” (1958) – $180,000 – Only one copy made.

  3. The Beatles – Yesterday and Today (1966) -- $85,000 – with rare cover of Beatles in butcher smocks, covered in baby parts and raw meat

  4. Bob Dylan – The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963) – $35,000 – Featuring 4 tracks deleted from subsequent releases.

  5. Long Cleve Reed & Little Harvey Hull – “Original Stack O’Lee Blues” (1927) –$30,000 – 78 RPM in plain sleeve.

My collection isn't worth near that, but any day one of the gems of my collection may reach maturity and make me a million. That is, if I could bear to sell it. I was once offered four thousand dollars for the pride of my collection: A very rare 1930 recording of Duke Ellington.

My crowning achievement as a collector was so easy it was almost criminal. My Great Aunt Ethel lived in Portland, Oregon. I joined my grandparents on what we thought might be our last visit before her death. Whenever I go over to an old person's house, I thumb through their music collection. Just in case. You never know what you might find. And this visit to Aunt Ethel paid off. I found a collection of 78s in a box beside an old Victrola in an upstairs room. It was her sewing room. She hadn't sewed in twenty years since the arthritis. The room was thick with dust. The box of records was underneath piles and piles of scrap cloth and half finished quilts.

I found the box by the Victrola, and my heart raced. I always begin to sweat with anticipation when I know I've found undiscovered treasure. An entire box of old 78s. I thumbed through the records one by one. Most of the records were commonplace in the collector's market and were nearly worthless. Furthermore, most had been played out or scratched beyond repair.

But, near the back, there was a box set. It was a Duke Ellington collection. This was a very old set of records. Each of the records except one were marked with deep scratches. Daggers pierced my heart as I slid each one out of its sleeve and saw its condition. My life's find seemed to be slipping away. But the last record was in a sealed envelope of translucent cellophane. I could read the label. It was a Victor recording of Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. Ring Dem Bells was on the A-side. Mood Indigo was the B-side. It looked like it had never been played! It was the find of the century!

I cradled the entire set in my arms as I descended the stairs. I panicked when I began to wonder if the old bat would give me the record. Would I have to buy it from her? Mightn't she guess its great value if I was willing to buy such an old record? I decided to try to keep it casual. I had to stop and calm down. I sat at the bottom of the stairs with the Duke and breathed deep breaths.

"Hi, Aunty," I said to the old woman in her wheelchair.

"What you been up to, boy? Mischief?" she asked.

"I was admiring all your great old stuff upstairs," I positioned.

"What great old stuff?" she asked suspiciously.

"The old furniture, the grandfather clock in the hall," I said casually.

"Are you waiting for me to die, Son?" she squinted at me.

"All those memories," I said trying to work my way around to my casual question. "You use all that stuff? The sewing machine? The old Victrola?"

"No, I don't use it anymore, boy. The arthritis keeps me from sewing, you know. And why would I want to use the old Victrola? I have me a cassette deck radio right here that I don't have to keep winding," she smiled and patted the cassette radio my dad had bought her.

"I love that old Victrola. It puts me in touch with another era," I dropped.

"Hmmm," she muttered, lost in another era herself.

"Is there any way I could borrow it?" I asked.

"The Victrola? Sure. Take it away. And any other trash you find up in that sewing room."

"Can I have the records that go with it?" I asked, almost beside myself with excitement.

Suddenly she got very grave. "No," she said sternly. "Those were Bob's records. You can borrow them if you like, but you can't have them."

"Aunty, can I ask you a question? I was curious about this record," I said, holding up my treasure. She extended her hands and I got fearful to turn it over to the old woman. I reluctantly gave it to her and sent up a little prayer that she wouldn't open it.

She looked at it a moment and made a frowny face. "Do you know the record, Aunty?" I said.

"Yes," she said. "Bobby listened to those Negro composers, the Jazz men, back then."

I gently snatched the record back as her focus shifted inward. "But it's never been opened," I said. "How come?"

"Well, that came in that box of records, right?" she was sharp as tacks. "That song on that record was playing everywhere you went. You went to a party or a dance and it was playing. You went to a store and someone had it on the record player. You couldn't get away from it. And so I told Bobby that if I ever heard it played on our Victrola, I would pick it up and break it. So it was never even taken out of the paper."

I took the record home, almost forgetting to take the Victrola as well. And I lived in fear for the next several years that Aunt Ethel would ask for it back. When she called I felt awash with guilt.  When my parents or grandparents went to visit, I found an excuse not to go. I didn't know if she remembered my loan, but I took no chances. She finally died and I heaved a sigh of relief. The record was mine.

I kept it in the envelope, unopened, in mint condition. It's the pride of my collection.

That record, that wax testimony to the genius of Duke Ellington, has been heard only one time. It was broken out of its cellophane envelope, and the mystery that was a sixty year-old never-played 78rpm recording of a rare studio session dissolved in seven minutes. The record itself dropped several hundred dollars in value that day, I thought.

I dated a woman named Jacqueline well after college. We were to be married. She was a collector too. We would spend summer weekends driving around to garage sales looking for the Big Find. Once a month we would go all day Saturday to the City to several of the big auctions. We were going to open an antique and collectibles shop together.

The shop was going to sell "antique" furniture and knickknacks to the old women who come here as tourists. The stuff would be old, but none of it antique. It would be a place where we could get rid of all of the stuff that we no longer wanted to collect. Or stuff that had fallen so far in value that it was no longer worth storing. The general public has no good sense when it comes to old things. People would rather buy a beat up old dresser than a perfectly preserved one decades older. The reason, you see, is because it looks older. And what good is it, they figure, to spend the money on antiques if they don't look their age?  Don't even talk to me about "distressed" furniture.  Makes me a little sick.

Jacqueline and I were fiends. She was a master bargainer. She could talk the tusks off an elephant. Also, she was a great salesman. She could sell water to a fish. With her as my partner, I couldn't loose in the business. We'd secured loans from our parents and several friends and were hoping to set ourselves up in business the following year.

We were great in business and great in bed. We made love in an 19th century King Louis bed in a dark recess of a museum in Amsterdam. We collected King Louis furniture for the next six months and refurnished our bedroom. We would both meet in period costume in the garden. We would greet cordially and talk pleasantly. Then when we were both flushed and breathing hard with anticipation, I would grab her, take her back to our bedroom and ravish her.

But Jacqueline was a jealous lover. She was competitive as well. Though we bought many items for our collection with our combined money, we both collected and kept things that we understood were part of our private stashes. Whenever I found a new treasure, Jacqueline had to best me with a find for one of her collections. If I found a rare old record, Jacqueline had to find a rare porcelain doll. If I found a like-new Schwinn Stingray, Jacqueline would look for a Fiestaware place setting in radioactive red.

She was crazy about my record collection. I'd started the collection fifteen years before I met her, and I didn't see any reason why I should share it. It was mine. I wanted to keep something for myself, something that was just mine and no one else's. Is that so wrong?

When we first met, she bought me several records for the collection. Her first attempts were lame because she didn't know the field. But after a while she got better at sizing up a valuable recording, and before we were living together, would often bring me fantastic finds from hours of combing used record stores. She started collecting records of interest to her, old 70s albums that could be found by the dozen in thrift stores, but would be rare in another twenty years. We were courting and collecting together.

First she asked me to share my collection. Sometime after we moved in together, she referred to the records as "our collection." I gently, but firmly told her it was mine. I don't regret keeping it to myself, but probably the seeds were planted in that moment for the beginning of the end.

Later, she asked me to sell the collection to fund our business. Then when I refused, she got angry and accused me of loving my records more than her. It was the worst argument of our romance.

"How could you even ask me to sell the collection?" I screamed. "Its always brought me so much joy," I said.

"If you are so happy with it, why don't you marry it?" she yelled.

We patched up the fight and made things right again. But there was always a glimmer of accusation and distrust around the subject of my records. We tacitly agreed never to talk about it. I no longer told her when I'd made a great find. I no longer joyously played old records for her. I had a very brief affair with a new record collector upstate.  But Jacqueline and I had other fish to fry and we moved on, planning the business and acquiring salable items.

One day I home and surprised Jacqueline in the bedroom.  She looked up guiltily and little bit defiant.  She was holding my Duke Ellington record. I stood there a little stunned, wondering what she was planning to do. It was kept in a special case inside a fireproof filing cabinet in our bedroom. The record had still never been played. It was sealed in its cellophane envelope like the day it had left the Victor factory.

"You've never listened to this thing," Jacqueline said, looking up at me.

"No. It's never been played," I said. "It's very rare. Over seventy years-old now."

"Never? Why not?" she asked.

I told her the story Aunt Ethel had told me, though I knew I must have told her before.

"And you've never gotten curious?" she asked.

"Oh sure," I said, "But I know its worth so much more--"

"Yeah, yeah," she said cutting me off. "I know about your offer. Three thousand dollars, but you wouldn't sell."

"Four," I said.

"Four thousand," she said. "Wanna put it on now? Wanna hear it? We could make love while Duke Ellington plays for us, straight out of the past."  I'd found that Aunt Ethel's old Victrola was actually worth something
after all, and it sat on an antique table in the bedroom. Jacqueline started to walk over to it.

"No!" I shouted.

She stopped and looked alarmed. "I was kidding. Kidding." She shook her head. "Geez, Louise," she said and carelessly tossed Duke Ellington to me and strutted out of the room. I hated her for that one moment. And then it passed.

Three months later. We were weeks away from opening the business. The location was secured. We had a deposit down on the lease. We had crews lined up to renovate the place and move the fixtures and antiques into the shop on the first of the month. The pressure was enormous. We were getting no sleep. We hadn't made love in weeks, months maybe. We didn't argue, but we didn't talk either. We grunted orders at each other.

"Uh, get the door."

"Hmmm, grab some burgers while you're out."

"Hey, don't forget the tax forms."

"Pick up that chair you bought last weekend."

Jacqueline had gone home early to throw together some dinner before we had to go back down to the shop and work the rest of the evening. I was going to stay assembling fixtures until she called me for dinner.

I gouged my thumb with a screwdriver and found that we didn't have any Band-Aids down at the shop. I was getting hungry and decided it was time to pack up for now.

When I opened the door, my heart sank into the pit of my stomach. I heard the first few piano bars of Mood Indigo. I knew.  Immediately.  I ran, though it was already too late.  When I reached the bedroom door, the clarinet began its sad solo. I stood with my mouth open and looked at Jacqueline. She was standing over my Aunt Ethel's old Victrola staring down at Duke Ellington spinning on the turntable. She was smiling. I was in shock. I wondered what she was smiling at.

Then I began to hear the music.

It was so finely textured I couldn't tell where one sound started and another began. It was a synthetic whole. It was one piece of finely woven cloth with clever variations of texture and mood. It was lonely and exultant. Somehow happy and sad. I saw in it reflected the entire Black experience in America, the hope and the heartbreak.

The quality was like a punch in the ears. A never before played 78rpm recording of a musical genius with almost no hiss. It was like a voice across the years. The trombone tripped up and down the scales, rising to meet the clarinet which took the lead. With the bass clarinet providing undertones, the clarinet made impossibly complex rich music. Then the whole orchestration fell into a more somber groove, with now-and-then flashes of improvisation from the clarinet. I'd heard the words to the song in later recordings and couldn't help hearing them now in my head.

You ain't been blue... no, no, no...
You ain't been blue, till you had that mood indigo...

Then as the clarinet and trombone took it home slow and sad, Duke finished with a flare, those staccato blasts from those great horns! Chills ran up and down my spine. Jacqueline was still staring at the record, smiling.

The record ended with the distinctive hiss-hiss-hiss-hiss-hiss of the 78. I was still anchored to my spot. My mouth was still open. My record was still going around and around and around.

Jacqueline looked up, and we looked at each other's soul for the last time.



She left the next day. I wanted her to leave and so did she.

I found out later in correspondence with one of the most esteemed vintage record collector in the country, that being in the factory packaging seldom affects the price of a high-end vintage record sale. They look exclusively at its rarity and its condition, he said. The experts would have had to take it out of its wrapper to grade it anyway.

I'm hopping to open up a shop here sometime soon. I don't have the business sense that Jacqueline did, but I'll try. We'll be competitors in fact, for she opened up her own shop across town. I hear she's doing very well, selling eBay and mail-order all over the country.

The words of the song still come back to me sometimes. I wish I could reach back seventy years and thank the Duke for expressing it so well.

That feelin goes stealin down to my shoes, and
I sit and cry "Go 'long Blues."
Always get that Mood Indigo,
Since my baby said good bye...
I'm just a soul bluer than blue can be
When I get that Mood Indigo


2 Response to 'Duke Ellington And The Obsession Of Collection'

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