The Last Piano Roll Salesman

Big Bill BroonzyWho was the last piano roll salesman?  Surely someone who entered the trade with Gilded Age optimism as sales boomed, only to see `talking machines’ turn the 19th century marvel of player pianos into objects of quaint obsolescence.  The last piano roll salesman fell victim to technology’s restless relationship to music, and the fortunes made and lost thereby.  The story continues apace: A quarter century ago, the audio compact disc was a wondrous thing we all wanted.  It eliminated the pop and hiss of vinyl (and with it, analog purists argued, some of the sound).  Love `em or hate `em, CDs brought music into the digital age, and sales were brisk for years.  Today, the compact disc is scarcely more desired than an 8-track tape, anathema to young music consumers.  Most `record’ stores have closed,  which makes a visit to Amoeba Records in Hollywood, where customers fill shopping baskets to the brim with CDs, astonishing.

Record Store DayBut Amoeba’s exceptional for good reason: It has location, hipness, and `something for everyone’ going for it.  Imagine the plight of a mail order CD seller specializing in under-the-radar `roots’ music.  It pains me that this isn’t hypothetical: El Cerrito-based Roots & Rhythm teeters on the brink.  Its March bulletin announces a tentative June closing date.  Proprietor Frank Scott, 44 years in mail order record sales, reports his worst-ever holiday sales season as catalyst for closing.  He promises one more bulletin (the latest is 22 pages of music offerings) and keeping the Roots & Rhythm website running awhile beyond June.

For years, Roots & Rhythm has offered hard-to-find titles (many imports) in a range of `rootsy’ genres: blues, bluegrass, rockabilly, folk, gospel, etc.  Vast as Amoeba’s offerings are, I’ve found titles (and entire labels) through Roots & Rhythm I’ve never seen elsewhere.  R&R bulletins don’t just report what’s new (or newly reissued): Most titles are reviewed by Frank or someone knowledgeable on his staff.  Sure, R&R wouldn’t list a title it didn’t want to sell, but not every review’s a rave: the first listing in the latest bulletin has Frank panning a reissued 1967 James Cotton album: “At the time it probably sounded exciting but now sounds dated.”  Such candor in a catalogue is both reassuring and rare.  It respects the taste of potential buyers enough to be honest.  Along with informed opinions of the music, the R&R bulletin reviews comment on sound quality and often include track listings.

Roots & RhythmI’ve enjoyed browsing R&R bulletins for years, and will definitely miss the expert recommendations that have led me to some great music, music that I might never have otherwise heard.  Though the end nears, it’s not too late for you to share the R&R experience: visit its website,  If, like me, you enjoy an old-fashioned tangible catalogue browse, e-mail a request for the latest bulletin to [email protected].  Blues, folk, and roots rock fans will be amazed at what’s on offer there.

About Mark Humphrey

Join Mark Humphrey the 4th Saturday of most months for a mix of music on KPFK’s Roots Music & Beyond, Saturdays 6-8 a.m. 90.7 fm. The show is archived for two weeks after broadcast at KPFK’s website.

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