Elbow to Elbow
Crate Diggin’ at the Roosevelt Hotel
by John Carraro
It is no small privilege to have been invited to share with you the story of New York’s legendary record conventions that were held at Manhattan’s Roosevelt Hotel located at E. 45th Street. It may be by sheer coincidence or destiny itself, but this seems to be the appropriate time for ruminations and memories to be resurrected.
This is the tale of a convention where for a few sacred seasons, a certain magic was in the air as dreams were realized and friendships made. The Roosevelt was much more than just a big room filled with people looking for what they wanted. It was a show that for a few seasons actually helped to influence people’s lives and the music that some would create. So let us wind up our metronomes and begin with how it all came to fruition.
Dexter Campbell was a bright young entrepreneur with an idea and a dream. Although there were already many such conventions in and around the tri-state area, Dexter had a game plan that would make all the others pale by comparison. Even though Dexter was on fire with determination, he was able to govern his enthusiasm before jumping headfirst into action. He carefully and quietly went around to the existing shows and took notes on what he needed to do to insure success. Once that mission was completed, he approached and recruited some of the best dealers he had met, including myself. He invited us all to meet with him in the room he had in mind at the Roosevelt. With that handful of dealers, he created the core and gave us the date for the first groundbreaking show. It was an exciting day and, without question, an initial success. The buzz was out and the subsequent shows saw attendance rise, and Dexter accordingly invited more dealers to fill the new tables he had set up. Before the end of the first year, there wasn’t an empty table in the room.
As for myself, I was already a popular dealer selling mostly sweet soul and funk LPs and 45s (or sevens as they were called in Great Britain). And, as fate would have it, I was fortunate enough to secure a corner spot in the room. I was also the only one that had an operational window, which allowed me to let in fresh air to cool off the heat that was produced from the amount of bodies and the fever that would climb higher with each new show. I began to notice that many customers were bringing portable turntables and always looking for a certain spot on 45 after 45. I wasn’t sure what they were looking for, but I was determined to find out. It was at this time that I met a young producer named Todd Ray (aka T-Ray).
Todd was an unassuming and up-and-coming producer who originally hailed from North Carolina and always came to my table at each show. Todd was not fond of having to push his way through the ever-increasing crowds at my table. One day while taking a break, I struck up a conversation with him, and I made it a point to ask him what all the hoopla and secrecy was about concerning the interest in certain spots on a 45. This is how I learned about the infamous breakbeat conspiracy! I thanked Todd for the revelation and asked him if there was a particular piece he was looking for. Todd thought for a moment, and with a smile that seemed to say “good luck,” he bent over and whispered to me, “Have you ever heard of a group named the Power of Zeus?” I had never heard of it, but I told him I would do my best to find one. And I did.
The following weekend, I went to the local flea market located behind the Sunrise Highway multiplex theater (which used to be the old Sunrise Drive-In), and within an hour I had found my prize. I paid the hefty price of one dollar for it. Perhaps it was by the grace of God or Zeus himself! At the next show, I sought T out and told him the price was $35, which was fine with him.
It was after that show that I got in touch with a friend who told me where I could score a number of sealed copies. I put in an order for all the copies that this person had in stock, and I was able to secure ten sealed copies. I was also able to score multiple copies of all the Sons of Champlin LPs plus multiples of other albums such as First Gear, The Jimi Hendrix Songbook by the Rubberband, Dalton and Dubari’s Success and Failure, all the Love LPs, Upp, Hub, Gas Mask, Giant, the Power and Light LP on Cadet, Wolfmoon, Swamp Dogg, Mighty Joe Hicks, and quite a bit more in subsequent purchases. When the next show rolled around, I brought all my new stock with me; that included about six or seven Power of Zeuses all sealed! I announced to the crowd that they were a hundred dollars each and sold them all as the buzz rolled across the room in an audible wave.
I was now a certified “Beat-Nut” and continued to search high and low for more elusive beats that people were now asking me for, as well as discovering some on my own that were basically unheard of before. One day, my wife and business partner Jacqui came screaming into the house laughing and shouting. When she was able to speak coherently, she told me that she was listening to some of our Christian tapes in the car, and she had found a beat on the Second Chapter of Acts With Footnotes, which became a must for all collectors of beats after playing it at the Roosevelt.
I was also fortunate enough to have been raised in a household full of records, with jazz being played constantly by my father, who also played upright bass. Pop had been collecting records since he was fifteen years old, and by this time, he was doing mail order auctions as well as set sale lists. His favorite artist was by far Zoot Sims, who played tenor, alto, and soprano sax. Every room in the house had records in it, including a full basement and a two-car garage filled with vinyl. At this point, he had at least forty thousand LPs! His personal collection held about eight thousand, and the rest were stock. He had the entire Verve inventory and hundreds of Blue Notes and Prestige titles as well. Luckily for me, he really didn’t take to the late ’60s and early ’70s jazz-funk items, and so I inherited all the Lonnie Smiths, Lou Donaldsons, Rueben Wilsons, Wally Richardsons, Jimmy Smiths, Grant Greens, and so on, which were mostly sealed with numerous copies of each!
I knew that they were all in high demand at this juncture, but I was not an expert when it came to a lot of titles. And even though Q-Tip and the Large Professor were visiting me on a regular basis, I had never let anyone browse through the garage, mainly because there just was not room to move. But there was one individual who I had met at the Roosevelt that I finally invited over to check out the garage. His name was Sang Woo, and we became good friends. So, one sunny afternoon, we went out to tackle the impossible. Sang was a walking, talking discography when it came to records. We started to go through shelf after shelf and row after row, with him pointing and pulling records that he knew about and relaying the info to me. After some four to five hours of digging, I was ready to call it a day, but Sang spotted some stock that was tucked away in boxes at the furthermost corner. I really didn’t think that he would be able to reach them, but after much twisting and contorting, he finally got to them and proceeded to go through each box. Just as we were going to call it a day, Sang came walking out with a record resting on both palms. He looked like a waiter delivering a birthday cake with candles lit to a table. He looked at me and asked if I would sell the piece to him. As it turns out, it was the Harlem Underground LP on Winley in mint condition. No cut corners or drill holes, it was absolutely pristine. He asked me what I wanted for it, and I just shrugged and said, “Take it, it’s yours.” It was a small price to pay for all the information he had passed onto me. He also assured me that there were a few others as well!
Meanwhile back at the Roosevelt, each show was better than the last. The crowd would begin to line up outside the doors as early as 6:00 AM. Even though Dexter did his best to keep the doors closed until opening time, there was always a few that found their way in and became known as the early bird crowd. Since I wanted to be fair to all those who had waited on line for hours, I tried my best to not sell anything until the doors opened. As hard as some would try, I kept my stock and my wall display covered with sheets borrowed from the tables. When the time came and the doors finally opened, the crowd rushed in, and before long, I had people standing three deep at each row of my crates that spanned three eight-foot tables. The tension and the excitement grew to a feverish pitch as I pulled the covers off of the crates and then unveiled my wall display. There on the wall hung thirty new gems such as Bob Azzam, Pucho, Damn Sam the Miracle Man, Lialeh, Stu Gardner, Skull Snaps, Wayne McGhie, Mulatu of Ethiopa, Harlem Underground, Sir Joe Quarterman, and many others.
It wasn’t long before I became known as King of Beats and dubbed Merchant of Grooves by Phill “Soulman” Stroman in his Rap Pages column known as “World of Beats.” By this time, the show had attracted some of the brightest talents of the time. This was the kind of magic that was a big part of the Roosevelt’s mystique. Of course, there were always some familiars who would never leak a title or share some knowledge, but for the most part, the Roosevelt was not just a record show. It was a room filled with a cacophony of sounds that included hushed conversations, shrieks of delight, and sighs and cries of missed gems. As the show grew, so did the dealers and the customers. More and more dealers were bringing turntables and speakers to show off and preview their wares. The constant buzz of conversation colored the endless beats and grooves that fluctuated like an old tube radio that would pick up one station one moment and another the next. You would hear James Brown in one corner; and then some free jazz wailing like a siren from another. The Delphonics would have everyone singing along and bringing old memories to the surface of consciousness, before a killer beat would have heads boppin’ and minds racing.
The Roosevelt was a place where Q-Tip could come and continue his quest, a study hall for a Large Professor, where precious gems lay for Diamond D. Where Prince B could be found making his rounds, where a Lord with Finesse could kick back and rest, and where Busta could continue his Rhyme. Where Pete Rock could find grounds for his newest sounds, and where Egon could come up with ideas to continue his career.
These shows could never have become so successful without the hard work of some of the best dealers in the tri-state area and beyond. Namely, my catty corner friend, the late Lenny from Streetlight Records, Joe and Dean from Infinity, Richie the picture disc dealer, 125th Street George, Joey Barbosa, Chris the Doo Wop King, Bob from Boston, Ozee, Charlie from Mr. Music, and who could forget the tie-dyed Count. Plus we must mention all the workers that helped, especially ours, Charles and Allen.
It was a time of laughter, a time of prosperity, a time of dreams, and a season of solidarity. Unfortunately it had to come to a close with the renovations of the hotel. Although Dexter tried his best and continued the show at the Marc Ballroom, things would never be the same. It was the end of an era.
Originally published in Wax Poetics Issue 9, summer 2004. In memory of John Carraro.