Sunday, April 22, 2018

ROOKY RICARDO'S INFORMED PASSION—The Evening Class Conversation with Dick Vivian

Dick Vivian.  Photo: Michael Guillén.  All rights reserved.
As recalled at Rooky Ricardo's website [Facebook], 30 years ago Dick Vivian bought 35,000 45's from a distributor who had gone out of business years before. He discovered beautiful mint stock of titles very seldom seen anymore and was fortunate to find a cheap store front in the Lower-Haight where he intended to open a store just to get the records out of his garage! At that time, he sold everything for $2.00—what did he know about running a record shop? One thing led to another, a sign was made, racks were acquired and a business was born. A few years later Dick added LP's to the collection to fill things out and—although business was slow in the beginning with overseas collectors knowing more about the shop than people down the street—it was obviously not enough to deter the shop's progress. Thirty years later Rooky Ricardo's has become not just a store but a San Francisco institution, as recognized by the The City of San Francisco who granted Rooky Ricardo's Legacy Business Status on June 21, 2017.

My first visit to Rooky Ricardo's was after wolfing down cornmeal cheddar bacon pancakes at Kate's Kitchen on Haight Street. I was on one of my iPhone photo forays, looking for unusual shop window items to document. When I stopped in front of Rooky Ricardo's the windows were full of so much nostalgic memorabilia that I put my iPhone in my pocket and walked in. Now a visit to San Francisco is not complete without visiting the store and taking time to chew the fat with proprieter Dick Vivian who I recognize as one of the most unique and authentic individuals I've ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

When he agreed to be interviewed, it was for the purpose of honoring Black History Month in February; but, as that ol' white rabbit has muttered, "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get." Here it is already late April; but, I've completely enjoyed savoring my conversation with Dick Vivian and hope you will as well.

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The Del Vikings.  Photo: Unknown.
Michael Guillén: In Byard Duncan's comprehensive interview with you for GQ, you talked about The Del Vikings' "Whispering Bells", the first record that triggered your informed passion for vinyl. Can you recall exactly what it was that excited you? That held you in aesthetic arrest?

Dick Vivian: I remember I grew up in Walnut Creek. I was born in '47 and that record came out in '57. My mother would let me listen to the radio before I went to sleep and I was, y'know, kind of dozing off. I liked stuff like Fats Domino and Gale Storm, but then "Whispering Bells" came on and I had never heard anything like that. The beginning and the way it just kept going, vibrant, and it was—to that point—the most alive song I had ever heard.

I was never a big "Rock Around the Clock" fan and the basic old rock n' roll that was so revered, I never really appreciated it. I didn't realize this until later, but being that we were in California on the West Coast, before we heard so many of the songs when these artists had a hit, they may have already had two or three other hits on the East Coast. The Del Vikings was one of those groups that had recorded a lot of stuff that never made it out here. I liked everything about "Whispering Bells"; it was high energy and positive.

So I really was into music by then and learned how to dance in eighth grade. Actually, by sixth grade I had learned how to do all the couple dancing, which we called "the bop" at the time. The music that I really preferred was danceable music. It could be slow, but had to be danceable. I liked Freddy Cannon and just liked stuff that was very lively.

The year that I really realized how much I loved music was 1960. Then in '61 and '62—in my opinion, '62 was the best year ever in music—it's like all of the worlds came together. We didn't know the difference. There wasn't anything called "soul" then; but, there were Black artists. Everything just came together and the charts were full of variety. Then in '63, things changed a little bit and then, of course, '64 was when rock came in.

I started buying records really young and bought a lot offered by the rackjobbers. That was my favorite thing. Occasionally, I associate records with the smell of a grocery store. Certain stores didn't have the right refrigeration but there was a certain smell that stores like the Lucky Foods in Walnut Creek had. They always had great four-for-a-dollar records.

Guillén: So for Marcel Proust it was madeleine cookies; but, for you, it was the smell of a Lucky Foods grocery store in Walnut Creek, California? So when you say you were listening to records in 1962, which you consider a benchmark year, were you listening to these songs on the radio?

Dick: Yes. I couldn't afford to buy all those records. I had an allowance but I had to wait for when these records were past their prime and they were on sale. Records were 89 cents, then went up to 98 cents, and in some places they could sell them cheaper. Sometimes record stores just wanted to get rid of stock and they would sell them for 11 cents apiece, so then I could stock up.

Guillén: Which radio stations were you listening to at the time?

Dick: We had KYA, and they had a top 60. I collected surveys so every week I was so excited to go down to the record stores and get either the survey that they did or those by KWB, that had a top 40, and KYA that had a top 60, and you could almost say that with my collection of CDs that I liked the bottom half of the top 100, that just didn't really make it. KDIA was the Black station where I first heard most of the things that I fell in love with. I didn't really care about them talking, but they would get excited about a record. We couldn't get some of the stations in Walnut Creek very well so I had to adjust where the radio was in the dining room to actually get them.

Guillén: I grew up in a migrant laborer family and we would move back and forth following the crops from southern California to southern Idaho. I would come up from Brawley, California—which was a hotbed of Black and Chicano music and dance—and arrive in snow white Twin Falls, Idaho with all these songs that they had not heard and would probably not hear for another two years. I can remember me, my sister Barbara and my brother Larry taking the record "Wooly Bully" by Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs to the KLIX radio station, which was the only station in Twin Falls, and we said, "We have this record that we think is going to be a real hit with your kids." And it really was a hit that summer in Twin. Did you ever introduce a record to a deejay?

Dick: No, but I did introduce so much music to my high school friends. I did a little deejaying later, bits and pieces, but it was more that I was a "double barrel" because of my dancing capabilities. I was the only boy who knew all the dances, which was a winning situation. Then, I had the 45s so that when friends came over it was just really cool to play 45s. I would take one of those traveling boxes—which are very collectible at this point—full of records to a party. How excited people would get! Because they didn't really listen to a lot of that stuff.

I remember one party where I was at. My high school was small, 300 people, so I knew almost everybody. This one guy Tom Ringy—who went on to be a pretty famous musician—we were talking about "Cry to Me" by Solomon Burke. What I realized later in life was that I liked the stuff that was really good and became the legacy songs for a lot of those artists. That was interesting to me. Nobody played girl groups. The Supremes hadn't come along to be popular yet. The first time I ever heard "Bye-bye, Baby" by Mary Wells, I thought it was a group called the Merry Wells and I thought it was a male lead. I always remember when I first heard a particular song; when I first learned to dance.

Guillén: What you definitely have—one of the things that has drawn me in and why I'm so glad I have befriended you—is what truly is a curatorial perspective. You could call it a deejay's perspective, I guess, but I feel it's more informed and passionate than that. You understand the context of the songs.

Dick: And I am older so I remember a lot more of what actually was and that's what I want to keep intact with people. If I had to say I had one gift in life, it's rhythm. When I make my CD compilations, you can hear that rhythm. Most CDs that you buy, even with great music, are just slapped together and so it's either stuff that is so obscure that either nobody ever heard it or it didn't come out, or it was such a big hit that you see it everywhere. My CDs are what actually was. I do themes, but they could be radio playlists. And I had my specialties. I was always a soul female fan.

I remember that downtown Woolworths, which is now The Gap, had a huge record department. It had a turnstile to get in and a turnstile to get out. My mom worked in the City and I came over, I would have been 14-15, and Woolworths had the Top 100 and the Top 100 R&B/soul records all on dowels coming out of the wall. That was the first time I realized that Motown, Gordy and Tamla were the same company. You never got that information. Most of the artists that I liked didn't have albums at the time and I couldn't have afforded albums anyways.

Guillén: Reputedly, you don't have a preference for albums? You prefer 45s?

Dick: Well, no, though a lot of times I do prefer 45s, that's what I'm known for, but albums had a lot of extras. For me there were maybe five albums that were lifechanging albums. The first Shirelles album had amazing stuff that was never on 45s. I bought Ernie K Doe's "Mother In Law"—which I bought with Blue Chips stamps coupon books—I had The Shirelles' first album, The Orlons had two amazing albums, and "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" by Marvin Gaye. That was given to me as a gift and I wanted that album so bad and it's still the best album he ever did. I don't play those anymore. They're so collectible. I have them all on CD, though I do like hearing them as they were. A lot of the CDs that are put out sound just fine. It's just that a lot of the larger companies in trying to make recordings sound more modern equalize everything so that it doesn't even sound like the same song.

Guillén: There's a sensorial quality to an imperfection.

Dick: Right! And I love it! That's why I love The Marvelettes and why I love Maureen Gray. I wouldn't necessarily say they sang flat, but they were brash. I love that.

Guillén: There's something about that imperfection, that rawness, that approximates the street. In Brawley, California where I grew up half of the year there was a strong ethnic community. I remember when "Dancin' In the Street" by Martha & the Vandellas first came out and the community loved that song.

Dick: It was one of the first songs that stood for something.

Guillén: I remember a public event where all the young people were dancing to that song down the main street of Brawley in a serpentine. I'll never forget that. It was one of the first times I realized how much joy there was in music and dance. Then I'd go up to Idaho, which was lily-livered white, y'know? We used to have a music appreciation class at O'Leary Junior High where each student was allowed to bring two 45s to play for the rest of the class. I took "Bernadette" by The Four Tops and "Jimmy Mack" by Martha & The Vandellas and remember being nearly laughed out of the class. Literally laughed at.

Dick: "Bernadette"?!! I could see maybe "Jimmy Mack", but not "Bernadette"!

Photo: Courtesy of Rooky Ricardo's
Guillén: Backtracking just a bit, I do want to make sure to give a shout-out to your CD compilations, which I believe are such a valuable and affordable gift that you give to the community. Who designs the rather clever covers for you?

Dick: His name is Matt Osborne.

Guillén: Do you give him cues or does he come up with these visuals by himself?

Dick: I give him the theme of each compilation and occasionally I will have an idea; but, he is very talented. We met when he worked at Amoeba and was making buttons. He does these great buttons and magnets. Then he actually opened a camera shop in the back of my store, but now he's got his own store, Glass Key Photo. He's in the other end of town now because he's doing so well. He sells and repairs vintage cameras, which like records have made a huge comeback. They make real money doing what they do. He's so creative. He grew up in Sacramento. He'll get an idea and then run three or four choices by me. Every CD cover has a sense of humor. He and I are so close in our taste and values. Sometimes he'll listen to a CD while he's thinking, but—like I told you earlier—I'm down 10 CDs right now because he's just too busy and it takes a lot of time to type in all the titles. We have this other friend who always notices the typos we've made after we put the CD out; every time.

Guillén: A self-appointed copy-editor, eh?

Dick: A copy-editor. One we all missed and it was wrong for years was "Leftover Lovers", which was the companion piece to "Move On, Drifter", which was all Drifters sound-alikes. "Leftover Lovers" was kind of the same thing and the first song on it was "Little Lonely One" and we spelled "lonely" without an "e". It made it for years without anybody noticing. We have a bunch of stuff lined up. I have a whole new Girl Groups set ready to come out. I like doing soundalike sets. I did "Curtisey-Call" with all the stuff that sounds like, is or was Curtis Mayfield-ish. I'm doing "Sam Crook", which is all going to sound like it should have been Sam Cooke, or was. I have one called "Losers Always Lose", which is a plot-oriented R&B compilation. It's just fun. And it's great for the store. Offhand, I've probably sold about 5,000 of those CD compilations.

Guillén: They do the industry a vital service because I'll find a song or an artist on one of your compilations that I'll then go looking to find what else they've done.

Dick: Yeah, it creates sales. For me, knowing that these great artists to this day don't get the recognition, it's my little way of helping.

Guillén: So let's shift to your lists of Black artists who you feel have not received due recognition.

Dick: Great! I was thinking about my absolute favorite voices. Voices are the most important thing to me, then the productions of course. The artists that I've picked for my list, grouped under male singers, female singers and groups, some people have definitely heard of, some of them have had a few hits, but the reason they're on my list is there's so much other great stuff that nobody really knows about. Some of the artists have had pretty complete CDs done, but people still don't know them.

Take Ben E. King, for instance. Besides a hit as big as "Stand By Me" and a few others, people just don't pay attention and that's what I put on my CDs. What I love are the singles, or the songs, that went under the wire. A lot of times they were local "kind of" hits, they got a lot of air play, they just didn't take off. There are so many singers and songs that never ever became an "oldie". If it didn't get sampled, nobody ever knows about it.

Guillén: Or, at the time, they just weren't released. I think Hattie Littles is a tremendous voice but Motown didn't release many of her recordings until recently.

Dick: Yup. They didn't release them. This is why I picked these particular people. On my list of male Black singers, there are three that people definitely know: Garnet Mimms, Freddie Scott (because one of his songs got sampled so people know him), and Ben E. King, of course.

Guillén: By sampled, do you mean covered?

Dick: No, sampled. Where the song has been used by a hip hop artist or whatever. Like Wendy Rene; she got sampled on a ton of hip hop stuff so they finally released a double album of all of her stuff. She was kind of a back-up singer at Stax. She backed up Otis Redding and William Bell. Now her double album is a big seller. I can't afford to have repressings in my store because they cost too much money and I can't really mark them up.

So Freddie Scott had a big one. I don't think the others did. But they have really strong voices, which was brought out in a lot of the productions. Bert Berns is my favorite of any of the producers, and Jerry Ragovoy. They did amazing productions. I'm a big fan of back-up girls so any song that has back-up women that are strong—various incarnations of The Sweet Inspirations in New York, or The Cookies, or The Blossoms in L.A. —I will love the song much more. Anyways, the other two male singers are Hoagy Lands and Obrey Wilson. Both are not well-known at all and there's not been a CD out of their music.

Hoagy Lands in some way or another is remotely related to Sam Cooke and he sounds just like him. He just passed away a few years ago. He has the most powerful, amazing voice. Obrey Wilson is also under-rated and he had a dramatic voice. With men, I like dramatic voices. I don't like screamers but I like people that go over. I like people who know just how far to take it. They don't get to the screaming stage. Jackie Wilson had great songs but his overall body of work, at least three quarters of it, was not very good. With the five male vocals on my list, their songs are all done tastefully.

My list of female singers includes two of my favorite female singers of all time: Betty Harris and Gwen McCrae. A lot of people still don't know Betty Harris, but she's the New Orleans equivalent of Lee Dorsey. She's the only female who had hits, produced by Allen Toussaint. Gwen McCrae was on Columbia and there's a CD of the Columbia stuff. Be sure you listen to her pre-disco songs. Her voice was so strong. She had one big hit, "Rocking Chair" and she was married to George McCrae who did "Rock Your Baby".

Also on my list is Candi Staton, who again has gotten a lot of accolades, but her first album ["I'm Just A Prisoner"] I have to say is probably one of the best soul albums ever made. Every drop of blood she has goes into every note. Staton's voice has complete control.

Inez Foxx had a big hit with "Mockingbird", but she also did some mid-'60s stuff with her brother Charles. She had such a good voice and she made it into the early '70s and then the album that she had on Volt—which is really good—bombed.

But the best voice, I think, is Sylvia Shemwell (who was one of the Sweet Inspirations). On all these songs that I love, it turns out that Dee Dee Warwick was the main back-up voice, along with Doris Troy, Jo Armstead and Sylvia Shemwell. She was called Stormy Winters for the song "Foolish Dreamer" and "He'll Come Back" is under her name. Sylvia's voice was beyond complete. Someday, if my dreams ever come true before I die, someone will do a list of all the singers under their various names and what songs they backed up.

Group-wise, the most under-rated group, even though they had tons of hits, is The Orlons. Their true talent has never been talked about. I didn't put them on my list, but The Orlons were perfection. Their harmonies were great. They all had great voices. Who I put on my list were groups for you to discover.

I did get a Japanese CD—it's the only way it came out—of The Glories. The Glories were on Date Records and every single thing they did was great. My other favorite girl group voice is Dolly and the Fashions. The lead singer's voice is like silk. One of my CDs has Lindy Adams on it and that must have been her sister because they were on the same label and had the exact same voice. I'd love someday to have more information on her.

I put down Bob & Earl because there are no CDS of their music. Their big hit was "Harlem Shuffle", but they had an extremely long career and they were unbelievable. One of them [Earl Nelson] became Jackie Lee ("The Duck").

A doowop group, just to put one on, is The Dubs. They had one really big hit called "Chapel of Dreams", but the song I want you to listen to—and there's a live version on YouTube—is "Don't Ask Me to Be Lonely." It's the most beautiful doowop record.

Finally, there's The Dreamlovers, actually also doo-wop, who had a couple of hits of their own but they were mainly back-up singers, like the male Blossoms. They backed up almost everything on Cameo-Parkway and they were all over the map. They didn't have enough records of their own, but they're amazing. So there you go.

Guillén: Thank you, Dick. That's an incredible list. Have you ever considered writing a music history?

Dick: No. I'm too lazy. And it's just my opinion. Dancing and music go together, obviously; but, I just wish that when I was younger and in my prime of dancing—I was on a local TV show for three years; my partner and I were one of the two main couples—that someone (now that it's so easy to do all this) would have done a little documentary of me showing how to do the dances. You never see the real Mashed Potatoes anymore, or the real Pony. When I saw John Waters' Hairspray (1988), there's a 13-year-old kid in the opening credits who you see for just about 15 seconds who's doing the Mashed Potatoes correctly. Hairspray is the only dance-oriented movie where they do the dances correctly.

Guillén: Have you ever praised John Waters directly for that?

Dick: I did! I met him accidentally—talk about fate!—before Zuni expanded there used to be a cactus shop. I was a waiter and on the day of my huge 50th birthday party, which I planned for myself, the theme was "Shake A Tail Feather", which was also from Hairspray. I went and got pillow stuffing so that—when you opened up the invitation—tail feathers would come out of the invitation. I'm not kidding you, I had just picked up the invitations from Kinkos—it wasn't easy in those days to be creative—and I put them in the trunk of my car. My first customer that night was the guy who owned the cactus shop, he was a regular, and his companion was John Waters. So I invited him to come to the birthday party. He didn't come, obviously, but I told him, "Look, these are because of you" and I showed him an invitation.

TV 20 Dance Party

Dick dancing with Nick Waterhouse

 He's still got the moves, doing the Rock Steady


Dick's recipe for fried chicken salad


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