In August of 1964 my entourage and I (OK, there were just two with me), all newly minted graduates of Framingham High School, went to the EM Lowes Centre Theater at 690 Washington St. downtown to see Bikini Beach with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello (ahhh ...sigh...Annette!!).
(Reader advisory: Unless you're over 50, most of the names in this story will seem like a foreign country...so just Google it...)
After the movie we walked out and I heard blasting across the street from storefront speakers THE SOUND... " BAY bee, BAY bee where did our our love go ooo?? " I was transfixed. THIS WAS THE MUSIC !
I left my entourage (more into folk and the early Beatles) and ran breathless into the store, Oldies But Goodies Land. I saw before me an altar. Stretched along the narrow store was a wall of 45s of rhythm and blues and soul! I asked the storeclerk who is THAT? He placed the 45 before me and I bought it for 98 cents... Where Did Our Love Go? by the Supremes. I still have it.
Flash forward to June 24, 2015. Egleston Branch Library. Before me stands the owner of that temple of R&B, Oldies But Goodies Land: Skippy White.
"I'm gonna talk to you about the blues," he says. "You don't know the blues? If things are not goin' your way, you got the blues. The blues is African American music. Gospel music is nothin' but the blues talkin' to God."
June is Black Music Month and the Egleston Branch Library celebrates it annually. Proclaimed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 and made law by Congress in 2000, it's often criticized for separating musical forms.
But at Skippy Whites Records, 1971 Columbus Ave., "smack dab in the middle of Egleston Square, right next to Lawson's Barber Shop and across the street from McDonald's" it's always black music month. Six days a week. Fifty-two weeks a year. He has recognized the obvious: the vast influence of black music on American culture. It's also for him his way of life.
Skippy White has been in the record business since 1961. Fifty-four years. For 23 of those years, since 1992, Skippy White has been serving up the R&B and soul gumbo in Jamaica Plain.
Booking BB King
Part entrepreneur and part evangelist, Skippy White is here at the Egleston Branch Library to testify.
"We lost a big blues man last month," he said. "BB King. Blues Boy King. Born Riley King in Mississippi. His first record in 1949 was named after his wife, Miss Martha King."
It's personal to Skippy White.
"I booked him at a club called Louies' Lounge in 1964/65. Washington Streeet and Northampton Street. Tickets were $2.50. BB put on his usual great set but it was not a big crowd. After the show BB came back with his manager to settle up. I said 'BB you saw the crowd. It was thin. I only got $600.' BB's rate was $900. BB looks at me and says 'Fine. I'll take it. You're all right. You'll do me good the next time.'"
Skippy has been through every musical trend in the last 60 years.
"By the mid 1960s,'' he told me later, "the blues were dying out. Blacks weren't listening to the blues. After the civil rights movement kicked in about 1965, they thought it was degrading. Blacks didn't want to be associated with the blues. That's one reason for the thin crowd that night."
He ruefully admits that it was "the white Brits" that saved American blues from oblivion. Eric Clapton- who played with BB King - and the Rolling Stones - who fronted Howlin' Wolf. The very name Rolling Stones comes from the Muddy Waters classic Mannish Boy ( "Ima rollin stone. Ima hootchie cootchie man.")
Skippy tells how a young LaDonna Gaines from Mission Hill used to come into his store and pick up singles by Mary Wells or Martha and the Vandellas. As Donna Summer, Miss Gaines would become the Queen of Disco, a musical trend Skippy loathes.
"It killed R&B. It leeched the soul out of R&B," he said.
Still, when she died in May 2012, Skippy honored Donna Summer with a two-hour tribute on his weekly Time Tunnel program on TOUCH 106.1 FM ( Mercifully he did NOT play MacArthur Park, thank you very much).
From Fred Le Blanc to Skippy White
So how did a white French Canadian kid from Waltham become Skippy White, entrepreneur and evangelist of R&B at Egleston Square?
Born in 1936 as Fred Le Blanc, he was doing what a lot of teenagers were doing in the '50s, trying to get away from all that schmaltz being played on the radio: Patti Page, Eddie Fisher and Perry Como.
"In 1953 I was tuning the dial on my radio," he said, "and suddenly found WBMS, Symphony Sid was the DJ. He was playing the Orioles Crying in the Chapel. I was floored!"
The rest, as they say, is history.
Skippy then began collecting records of that music - 45s and 78s - mostly blues but some R&B.
"Not many white kids were doing that," he said.
It was the Eisenhower recession of 1958 that made Skippy White an entrepreneur. He was in his third year at the Boston University School of Journalism when the worst economic recession since 1938 hit the nation. He lost his job at Raytheon in Waltham and couldn't pay tuition so he dropped out and looked for a job.
He was already a record collector. He sold and swapped blues and R&B from the trunk of his car to other collectors.
"My first car was a Studebaker," he said."Remember those?"
So he turned a hobby into a profession.
"I got a job at Smilin Jacks' College Music Shop, 338 Mass. Avenue. Jacob Levinson," Skippy said. He got an education in retail at Smilin Jack's.
Skippy wanted to get into radio.
"No one was playing the music I wanted to hear," he said.
So in 1961 he angled a job as a Sunday afternoon DJ at WILD, "but only if I could line up four sponsors. But Jack was old school. He wouldn't buy time on my show."
So Skippy decided to quit and open his own store. It was March or so of 1961.
"I looked around for a space and saw a 'for rent sign' on a storefront at 1820 Washington Street (now Grant Manor apartments). The owner was an old lady on Camden Street so I walked over, walked up the stairs and sat in her kitchen. 'Do you have the money?' she asked. I did and paid her the first month's rent. I called it 'Mass Records The Home of the Blues.' It was $50 a month."
In 1962, after he started working as a DJ on WILD he opened up a second store to sell the latest in R&B that he was playing on the air.
"I rented a store at 681 Washington Street from the gangster that owned the Intermission Lounge next door," he said.
Skippy called it Oldies But Goodies Land and he asked his collector friend "Big John" Belmonte to manage it. This was the temple I walked into in 1964 and it was Big John who sold me my first R&B single. It wouldn't be the last. One day he played me a single by the Drifters, When My Little Girl is Smilin' ( "I see her big brown eyes and then I realize...that girl is gonna get her way.") I played it over and over -- and over-- to the great dismay of my mother and everyone else on my Framingham street. I still play it and it will be played at my funeral! (YouTube it!)
How did Fred Le Blanc become Skippy White, evangelist of R&B?
"I talked my way into doing a Sunday afternoon 4- 8 time slot show on the black-owned WILD radio. WILD was then at the Sherry Biltmore Hotel, 150 Mass Avenue, (now the Berkeley College of Music residence hall.) You know WILD didn't move to Roxbury to 90 Warren Street until 1980 when Ken Nash bought it."
It was 1961. Skippy was the only white DJ.
Radio was perfect for a record store owner. Free advertising (Skippy has never advertised). You play the latest R&B hits on the air and people walk into to your store and buy it. They couldn't buy it anywhere else. Records in those days were largely sold in department stores and what they stocked was definitely white bread and middle brow. I worked as a stockboy at Jordan Marsh in Framingham so I know.
His show was called the R&B Caravan with Fred White (LeBlanc being French for white, but you knew that.) He drew up the playlists for the morning and noon time DJ's as well as doing his own show.
"Then one day the managers were gonna bring up some hot shot DJ from New York City named Fred Mack to do the morning show," he said. WILD was then, as it was later on, a daytime-only station). Skippy was afraid he would lose his on-air identity with a similar sounding DJ name so he talked it out with friends and came up with Skippy White.
"This new guy lasted three days," he laughs. " I've been Skippy White for 54 years!"
"I changed the name of the record store late in 1961 to Skippy White's House of the Blues because people would call the store or come in and ask for Skippy White, who they heard on the radio. "
When Roxbury Was Cookin'
Skippy White's Home of the Blues was in a perfect location in the lower South End on the hinge of Roxbury sandwiched between clubs like Louie's Lounge and Basin Street South, which headlined blues and R&B acts in the 1960s. At the Egleston Branch Library Skippy talked a bit about those days.
"You could see Otis Redding, James Brown. I brought in Joe Simon. Percy Sledge, another great soul man who just died.."
"Louie's Lounge," Skippy told the library audience, "was what you'd call the chitlin circuit. Black acts couldn't get into the big clubs and theaters so they'd play the small places outside the downtown. Called 'em roadhouses down south."
Skippy told me once that he first saw James Brown and His Famous Flames at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square in 1959.
"Louie's Lounge had a side door on Northampton Street," Skippy explained later. "People would line up on the sidewalk and pay admission to the hall. It sat about 400. The bar and grill was up front. Had its own door on Washington Street. When I brought in Eddie Floyd I got the gate money and Louie got the food and liquor sales."
Talking to Boston Magazine in February 2003, the late bluesman Weepin' Willie Robinson, a DJ at Louie's Lounge, talked about those days.
"That's when Roxbury was cookin'. You had Louie's Lounge. Basin Street South, Big Jim's Shanty Lounge. All those places up and along Washington Street. All gone now," Robinson told Boston Magazine. "Swingin' in those days. All the big stars of the blues came to Louie's Lounge. BB King. Solomon Burke. Big Maybelle. Back then it was rare to see a white face in those places."
Skippy White was one of these rare white faces and he remembers Weepin' Willie.
Skippy White's Home of the Blues on the hinge of Boston's Harlem - that magical sprawl between Northampton and Madison Park - survived the riots in the wake of Dr. King's murder in 1968. But Skippy White, evangelist and entrepreneur of R&B, could not survive Black Power.
"WILD was always a black-owned company," he said. "But it was always changing hands. I was at WILD about nine years. Then one afternoon this guy walks in. He had to be management. The door was locked. He had a key. He looks at me and says. 'Who are you?' I said I have an afternoon show and I do programming.' He turns and walks into this office...after a while I found out there was no time slot for me."
He left WILD in 1969. He has been on several Boston area stations over the past 46 years - since 2007 on TOUCH 106.1 FM - but he never returned to WILD.
The Boston Redevelopment Authority South End Urban Renewal Plan declared that the stretch of Washington Street from Mass Avenue to Lenox Street was blighted and required removal. Skippy White was relocated by the BRA at the end of 1968 to 1763 Washington St. -nearly opposite the old location. The BRA provided him with a new brick storefront built in the ground floor of the old Hotel Alexandria. The new store - remembered today by so many many people - opened in January 1969 as Skippy White's Records.
Oldies But Goodies Land at 681 Washington St. was going through its own demographic changes. With an official wink and nod the area had been declared the de facto red light district of the city for the bars and strip clubs cleaned out of Scollay Square to make way for City Hall Plaza. Second-run movie theaters like the Pilgrim and Mayflower became soft porn movie houses.
"It was getting to be a bad area," Skippy recalled "Pimps. prostitutes. Drunks rolling out of the Intermission strip club. Plus the rent was going up. So I looked around to move."
Move to Central Square
In 1972 he moved Oldies But Goodies Land to 750 Mass Ave. in Central Square Cambridge and renamed it Skippy White's Records (This is where I finally met THE Skippy White about 1974 on one of my buying sprees). It would remain in Central Square for the next 34 years before it was closed in 2006. By then it had moved to 538 Mass Avenue.
On April 2, 1976 a spark from an upstairs apartment set the building at 1763 Washington St. on fire. It caused enormous water damage to the record store and the loss of countless albums and singles. It was one of the darkest days in the life of Skippy White, but he reopened in October 1976.
When the Orange Line Northampton Street station - directly above Skippy White's records - closed in April 1987, business dried up. Customers were no longer getting off the train and walking down to get the latest sides or cassettes. He moved to 420 Washington Str., a storied building.
"It used to house the Big M," Skippy said, "a nightclub that hopped in the '40s and '50s into the '60s It was the place to be."
Traffic and parking closed that store within five years.
"The meter maids were all over the place," he said.
First JP Location
In February 1992 Skippy moved his record store to the just-opened JP Plaza on Centre Street just three blocks up from the new Jackson Square station. He was one of the first tenants. Developer Mordecai Levin had taken the old closed Stop and Shop building, added an L-shaped addition, and built the first mall in Jamaica Plain history; a strip of stores facing the parking lot, not the street.
"Jamaica Plain is the land of opportunity for me" he said at the time. "I'm back in the center of things now."
He had far more space for racks so he could add more of his gospel CDs and albums. He added movie and music videos and big picture windows that showed it all off.
JP Plaza did very well for Mordecai Levin; too well, in fact, for Skippy White.
"I knew my lease was up and I was talking with Mordy about a renewal," Skippy recalls. "I was in New Orleans for Mardis Gras in February 2004. My store manager Roy calls me and tells me he got a letter. I'd been evicted. My rent had doubled."
I was in the store when Skippy was talking about having to move out of JP Plaza. I suggested Egleston Square, where Urban Edge had just completed a building at 3050 Washington St. with a big storefront space that was available. Skippy checked it out but the build-out was too expensive. (Greater Boston Big Foot Research Institute is there now). Skippy had worked for years with Alice James on gospel shows in Boston; Alice knew Robert Lawson from her church; he had a storefront that might be available. Alice talked with Robert Lawson. Skippy talked with Robert Lawson and Skippy White's Records opened at 1971 Columbus Ave. "smack dab in the middle of Egleston Square" in September of 2004.
Skippy was back on the radio a few years after moving to Egleston Square. In 2005 he started a two-hour Sunday morning Gospel Train program on WRCA AM 1330 in Cambridge, the only gospel radio program in the region that mixes old time quartet songs with more contemporary gospel. In January 2007 he started at TOUCH 106.1 FM the famous Time Tunnel show "with your professor Skippy White."
Kicked off the air as an illegal radio frequency by the FCC in April 2014, TOUCH has been an on line radio-only program since the summer of 2014. Skippy is proud of his program.
"I've done 436 shows!"
Your Guide at the Crossroads
Radio and retail is what Skippy knows and loves but he is not a salesman, nor is he a nostalgia pitchman. His store is not an amusement park. He sells what he dearly loves and knows intimately. He wants you to know it and have it too. The past is not past. The music is still alive. Ray Charles is not dead; he is just In The Upper Room. Come down to Skippy White's and he will let you own Ray Charles' music. Or BB King's music. Or even Donna Summer's. Skippy preaches and promotes the most distinctive of American musical forms: black-infused rhythm and blues.
Egleston Square is a crossroads just like the old Washington and Northampton streets were. The crossroads of two major city thoroughfares. The hinge between two communities - two worlds? Roxbury and Jamaica Plain. The crossroads of language, ethnic and economic mix. The so-called street people; those who do it out of need and those who know nothing else. The young white condo owner living the urban life because he wants to and the third floor flat renter raising three children in the urban life she has no choice about. They're all at the crossroads.
The great bluesmen sang of the crossroads. It is an epochal image in black music. People come to the crossroads to make choices.
In the crossroads of Egleston Square is Skippy White, evangelist and entrepreneur of soul and rhythm and blues; he wants you to know what he chose to do in 1961; "to hip you to what's old, sweet, swingin' and blue and gospel too."
To hip you to the crossroads of American music.