When my Uncle Sheldon died in November, 2011, I inherited his records. I didn’t expect to inherit anything. The very idea of absorbing the deceased’s belongings feels akin to the feeding habits of vultures, especially when your loved one’s body has only been still for two days. But when I flew home to Phoenix, Arizona to help my mother and aunt organize their brother’s affairs, they insisted I keep the records.
Sheldon had 45s. 45s are my favorite vinyl format. I own a number of them, though I’m hardly a collector. I don’t own expensive rarities such as Roger & The Gypsies’ “Pass the Hatchet” ($60-100). I don’t care about the paper label’s condition. I only want the music. When scouring record store bins, my main concern is style and fidelity: is it Blues, soul, surf or rock and roll? Are the grooves intact or scratched? Sheldon’s weren’t scratched.
The records surprised me. During Sheldon’s life, he and I mostly discussed books and the news. We didn’t talk music. Like me, my uncle was a voracious reader. He consumed everything from 19th century horror stories to studies of Jewish synagogue architecture, and he was a dedicated New York Times reader. Unlike me, he didn’t own a turntable or CD player, and his iPhone’s iTunes was empty. Yet the music of his childhood meant enough to him that he kept those records for over fifty years. My family and I found two bags of them stashed amid the photo albums and yellowed newspaper clippings that cluttered his bedroom.
Dust bunnies flitted inside the bags. Thick fuzz coated the records’ surfaces, their hard glossy edges dulled by ancient allergens. I blew deep breaths to dislodge the top layers, turning my head to avoid the plumes. One by one, I extracted the contents: Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” Garnet Mimms’ “Cry Baby” – exciting stuff. The Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself,” Jan and Dean’s “Surf City.” Exciting but not surprising. Sheldon was sixty-four when he died, a child of the 1950s and ’60s. Naturally, his records reflected the culture of his era. But his wasn’t just any era. He happened to have grown up during one of the most fertile periods of modern music’s evolution.
The 1950s and early-60s were an unbelievable time for music. Jazz musicians such as Horace Silver and Art Blakey were creating a new bluesy, gospel-infused style called Hard Bop out of Charlie Parker’s Bebop. John Coltrane was exploring the limitless sonic possibilities of the saxophone. Doo wop was branching into R&B and Soul, and Country and Blues evolving into rock and roll, with artists like Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Bill Haley and the Comets bringing the new sound to the masses. In the late-50s, inventive players such as Les Paul, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and Chet Atkins explored the then-new electric guitar’s sonic potential, tinkering with new devices and techniques such as tremolos and echolettes, to gauge their effect. Fender released its Fender Reverb unit in 1961 and paved the way for instrumental surf music from its progenitors such as Dick Dale and The Ventures. In 1958 in DC, Link Wray’s instrumental “Rumble” reached #16 on the Billboard chart and created a distortion-heavy brand of rock and roll that not only led to punk rock and heavy metal, but influenced countless musicians, from Jimi Hendrix to Jimmy Page to The Who. And in 1958, on the West Coast, Ritchie Valens recorded two of the most famous early rock and roll songs of all time: “Donna” and “La Bamba.”
I lifted Valens’ “Donna/La Bamba” 45 from the dirty bag. Del-Fi Records, the blue label said. This double A-side single was the only record Valens released during his lifetime. He died in a plane crash at age seventeen.
Maybe the reason Sheldon and I never discussed music was because his interest in it peaked in childhood. He seemed to have stopped buying records at twenty-two. He and my mother were born in Canarsi, Brooklyn. The family moved to Flushing, Queens in 1950, and then moved to Arizona in 1969. Sheldon bought all his 45s during those initial New York years, and he never visited the Queens house again. “There was a hardware store on Main Street where we lived,” my mom remembers. “I don’t remember why they sold records, they just did, and I remember buying records there.” Sheldon bought tons of 45s. Back then most kids did. 45rpm singles were the primary commercial vehicle for hit songs. Kids heard them on the radio, and they bought the singles. “I remember him writing songs down,” Mom said. “He did it all the time. We’d pick your grandpa up from the train station when he worked in the City, and Sheldon would be writing down the songs playing on the radio.” While cleaning out Sheldon’s house, Mom and I found a few of those handwritten lists.
We pulled record after record from the bags: The Four Seasons’ “Rag Doll,” The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun.” On many of them, my uncle had scribbled his name on the labels: Sheldon Shapiro, rendered in a child’s soft, looping script. Mom insisted that I take all of the records back to Oregon with me. “You know music,” she said. “You should keep these.”
I’m a huge fan of rock and roll, particularly surf music, Blues and loud, feral, stripped down guitar music. But I also love jazz, doo wop, R&B and Soul. Late at night after my parents had gone to sleep, all of us exhausted from spending the days cleaning Sheldon’s house, I flipped through the records and studied them more closely. Initially I saw Sheldon’s collection as just a cross section of the times, culture preserved in amber. Len Berry’s “1-2-3,” The Byrd’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” Peter, Paul and Mary’s “If I Had a Hammer (The Hammer Song),” Gene Pitney’s “Mecca” – a sample of what people were listening to back then. I was so distraught over his sudden, accidental death that it took a few months to recognize that, unlike me, Sheldon didn’t go for the harder stuff: no Kinks, no Yardbirds, no Troggs. He didn’t go for Blues or jazz, either: no Blue Note albums, no Prestige singles. He only had a handful of Chess or Decca records, and his most rock and rolling possession was The Rolling Stones’ “Tell Me/I Just Want to Make Love To You” 45, from the band’s early bluesy period. Sheldon’s rock and roll was mostly the pop-oriented kind such as Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five and Gerry and the Pacemakers. He had girl groups, doo wop, Motown and folk, but his tastes slanted toward vocalists: Johnny Mathis, Al Martino, Dean Martin, Bobby Vinton, Barbara Streisand, Carol King. Maybe it’s because I’m so music obsessed, but it took me even longer to recognize that, for him, his collection had long ceased to be about sound. It was about sentiment. He kept these records to preserve the past and his connection to it. He didn’t own a record player because he didn’t need to hear anything. He wanted only to maintain what the vinyl represented: ties to his childhood, ties to New York. And now, his records would continue their function as connective tissue, by keeping me connected to him and our past, our shared history, love of music and New York.
Months after Sheldon’s funeral, my mom and I had a long talk on the phone. Naturally, she was still struggling with his death, trying to get over his sudden disappearance, but also, to come to grips with the nature of his life. He was single, never married, had no children, few friends, only us, his family. When he died at home, he died alone. “What I’m having so much trouble with is he’s gone,” Mom said, “and who’s missing him? He died and I don’t feel like anyone remembers he was even here—erased from this Earth. If I died, Dad would miss me. And you’d miss me. But who misses Sheldon? He’s gone, and who’s pining away?” My Aunt Debbie told her, “Well, we are,” but as Mom said to me, that wasn’t enough. “It’s eating me away. It know it sounds weird, but—” She trailed off, unable to finish her sentence, or maybe she was satisfied with it. With no end, it captured the unresolved nature of our grief.
I said, “It doesn’t seem weird, your feelings.”
“The world doesn’t feel different now that he’s gone,” she said. “You know? Like he didn’t leave his mark.”
I suggested that part of his legacy was his compassionate worldview, the way his sympathy for the underdog and marginalized people like himself always reminded us to be more compassionate. “And part of his legacy is this music,” I said. “Downtown,” “Cry Baby,” “Runaway” – these are timeless tunes, but if anything can add to an object’s longevity, it’s an emotional attachment as deep as your love for a family member. I have two boxes of records that will always remind me of Sheldon.
Recently, alone in my room, I played his legacy on my turntable, a device he hadn’t owned for over forty years. His name spun around at 45 revolutions per minute – Sheldon Shapiro, Sheldon Shapiro, Sheldon Shapiro – a child’s script handwritten in ink, a permanent reminder of my mother’s love, and a blur of Sheldon’s years rapidly spooling and unspooling, as confused and beautiful as our own.