Mr. Record Man


Mr. Record Man

The real gospel, according to record geek, gifted vocalist, and true gentleman Jimmy Griffin.


October 13, 2011

For 34 years, Charlemagne Records in Five Points South has been a sanctuary for record fanatics, indifferent shoppers looking for birthday presents for friends, lonely souls desperate for conversation, and the occasional celebrity. Jimmy Griffin, a sweet, congenial 61-year-old fellow smitten with music, has worked at Charlemagne for three decades. (He looks 41 and has the spirit of a kid in awe of the world around him.) He’s Clint Eastwood-cool when under fire. He simply cannot be rattled, maintaining a Captain Kangaroo-calm bolstered by a teenage enthusiasm with a subtle charm capable of soothing the most savage customer. “The one thing that I remember is that no matter how hectic the store got, especially at Christmas or whatever, I never ever saw Jimmy lose it,” says local artist Marjorie Clark Boykin, who worked at Charlemagne from 1986 to 1990. “I might see him get a little flustered and inside he might be freaking out, but even if there was somebody who was being difficult, he would always deflect it with some kind of humor.”

Jimmy is indeed one of the funniest fellows in the universe. If forced to express himself to a disgruntled customer, he does so with his customary savvy and hilarious style. During a Christmas shopping season 15 or 20 years ago, a customer came in with a noose necklace and matching noose bracelets on each wrist. The store was packed and the gallows-obsessed guy was having a difficult time getting waited on. The fellow was hunting for a particular piece of classical music. As he grew more impatient, he addressed Griffin by saying: “You know, Jimmy, a scream is a terrible thing to hear.” Jimmy Griffin didn’t miss a beat and coolly responded, “I tell you, man, I bet your family will get you a portable radio for Christmas and you can listen to classical music on WBHM.”

Charlemagne Records opened for business in July 1977 at the Garages, now a popular Southside bar called the Garage Café. Launched by local singer deluxe Marian McKay Rosato, her brother Mike McKay, and Gary Bourgeois, the funky new and used-record store moved to Five Points South four months later, where it set up business sharing the first floor with a used bookstore in the structure where Charlemagne currently operates. (Bourgeois is no longer with Charlemagne. He owns Renaissance Records in Five Points South.) The record store moved upstairs in 1978 when the building’s owner decided to open an apothecary in the ground-floor space. Rosato had been in record sales before starting Charlemagne. “I worked at Sears in Vestavia; I was the record department girl,” she says with a smile. “I sold Gary (Bourgeois) a record there, James Taylor’s Walking Man, and that’s how we met.”


For 30 years, Charlemagne Records employee Jimmy Griffin has been been an iconic source of knowledge for music lovers. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)





Charlemagne has definitely seen its share of famous customers. Tom Waits stopped by and bought an armload of albums in 2008 when he was in town playing at the Alabama Theatre. Gary Busey stopped by when he was in town filming his role as Bear Bryant in The Bear a few decades back. Busey selected a Beatles box set and threw down a $100 bill. He picked up the Beatles package with one hand and grabbed Rosato with the other. “Well all of a sudden, Gary Busey hoisted me up over his shoulder,” she recalls. Under protest from then-employee Gary Bourgeois (“I told him he couldn’t have her.”), Busey began to walk out of the store. The actor/madman eventually released Rosato and set her down at the top of the stairs that lead up to the store’s entrance. She also remembers the afternoon Carlos Santana visited the store. “He asked for Baaba Maal, an African musical artist,” she remembers. “I said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, we don’t have any Baaba Maal but we know who you’re talking about.’ So, he was looking around and then the mail came. And so we opened up the mail and there was a promo package in it and it was Baaba Maal. So we said to Carlos Santana, ‘Well, I guess this belongs to you,’ and we gave it to him.”

“What’s really interesting is how Jimmy started working at Charlemagne,” recalls Gary Bourgeois. “He had been working at some big mall store. I think they had closed and he was living right up the hill from Charlemagne. So he just started coming in, and he was helping us do this and do that. People started knowing who Jimmy was. After a while, we might be short-handed and Jimmy happened to be there, because, you know, Jimmy ain’t going to be happy unless he’s working in a record store. Next thing you know, Jimmy’s ringing up customers and we put him on payroll. Soon Jimmy was coming in everyday and helping us. Then you realize, ‘Wow, this guy’s really good, he really knows his stuff.’ You don’t even have to look this stuff up, he already knows what artist, what song title someone was looking for. Before you know it, Jimmy’s like an everyday fixture.”

“It was a gradual thing. I was working at an OZ franchise,” recalls Jimmy. “I was helping Gary at Apple Books and he said, ‘Well, come over and help some at Charlemagne, too.’ So I would spend afternoons going from one to the other, just working my way into the organization. I think at first I was working for record credit. But these were the days of post–hippie, post–peace, and post–whiskey, if you know what I mean,” Griffin says, laughing.

As a child, Griffin had an uncle who would bring over 45 rpm records. “We had a Louis Prima 45. And I would buy classical and Broadway; like I had Camelot. I didn’t get serious—and this is almost embarrassing—but I bought hootenanny (records). So I also bought Peter, Paul, and Mary, and New Christy Minstrels records,” he says. “And when the Beatles came out I bought a Beatles record, like everybody else. But at the same time, I bought the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads the year it came out. And once I got the Rolling Stones record I didn’t buy any more Beatles records. And then I got Dylan records, and me and my buddy across the street, that’s all we did was find Dylan and Stones records and play ‘em. The Stones were coming from the blues base and the R&B base. So from listening to the Stones and Dylan, I dove off into blues and jazz.”


Charlemagne Records has changed little since it moved into its current locale in 1978, maintaining its jam-packed, comfortable environment. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)





“I’ve always felt that Jimmy had a big impact on me,” says Brad Quinn, former singer and bassist in the band Carnival Season, who currently lives in Japan when not playing bass with underground pop hero Tommy Keene. “Back in the late ’70s, when I was about 14 years old, I used to hang out and talk music with Jimmy at a record shop in the Riverchase Galleria. I was listening to jazz—or at least I thought I was—but Jimmy quickly expanded my horizons from Bob James and Weather Report by sending me home with Coon Bid’ness by avant-jazz alto saxophonist Julius Hemphill. As I recall, it was a pretty free-blowing album and probably a bit beyond my scope. But I also really liked that Jimmy had treated me like an adult by trying to turn me on to such heavy sounds.”

Quinn also recalls getting a lesson from Griffin about the relevance of singer Freddy Fender. “I remember making some crack about Freddy Fender, who to my mind was just some kitschy cowboy singer who sold records on TV,” he says. “I knew Jimmy as a guy who was deep into jazz and blues, so I was really surprised when he came to Freddy’s defense. It was a small thing, but it made me realize that I maybe didn’t know quite as much about things as I thought I did. It also revealed how open-minded and big-hearted Jimmy was about music. I later went on to spend 13 years or so toiling away in record shops in Birmingham and Atlanta. So I suppose you could say that Jimmy was a bit of a role model. He certainly is a role model for how people should think about and listen to music.”

Tommy Stevenson, a columnist and blogger who has worked at the Tuscaloosa News for 35 years, claims he introduced Griffin to the local community. “I discovered him,” says Stevenson, laughing. “It was at a party that we crashed . . . There was this little skinny guy sitting there strumming on a guitar. I said to myself, ‘This is going to be one of my friends for the rest of my life.’ Allen Ginsberg was in town for a speaking engagement at Birmingham-Southern in 1968 and showed up at the party. Everybody was trying to impress the famous poet, playing ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ or whatever. Jimmy picked up the guitar and started doing old Hank Williams songs and Ginsberg shot across the room and sat down beside him and made Jimmy play song after song, and Ginsberg sang along with him.”

Bart Grooms, a local writer, singer, and host of a jazz radio show on Samford University’s campus radio station WVSU-FM 91.1, gushes at the mention of Jimmy. “My initial impression—which I still have—is that he’s just one of the sweetest guys I’ve ever met. Friendly to everybody who comes in and seems to know an enormous number of people who come in,” says Grooms. “He’s incredibly musically literate. He seems to have an amazing memory for what is in the store, what he can access, what needs to be special ordered, and also stuff that he likes and can recommend. He’s never pushy about that but has often been able to say, ‘I really enjoy such and such,’ and I think is really helpful to a lot of people coming into the store. Jimmy’s been a real blessing in a lot of people’s lives and that means a lot to me and it’s meant a lot to a lot people. And I count him a friend.”

“I’ve always thought of Jimmy as a gentleman,” says Boutwell Studios co-owner Mark Harrelson. “Not only does he have an encyclopedic knowledge of his inventory, he also remembers what his customer’s individual areas of interest are.” Musician Don Tinsley worked at Charlemagne for a couple of years in the late 1980s. “When it comes to music, Jimmy Griffin seems to remember it all, I’ve never stumped him with any question as to who, what, when, or where,” says Tinsley. “I’ve heard some people refer to him as Saint Jimmy because he NEVER loses his patience or blows up at Charlemagne even when trying to help the most hard to please customers who are asking the most impossible questions. He genuinely tries to help people get the music they want, and he seems to make extremely astute observations and suggestions to aid them in finding what they are searching for and also to help broaden their musical palette.” Tinsley has played in bands with Griffin and has always been impressed with his talents as a singer and player. “He’s sings true and means it, and is a serious roots-style threat on bass drum and maracas. I played a couple of gigs with Jimmy and John McKay on harp as the Drape Vulcan Boys,” he recalls. “I couldn’t make the practice so we ran some songs by telephone and then played what I remember as a very cool and successful gig.”


When actor Gary Busey was in Birmingham filming The Bear nearly 30 years ago, he tried to heist Charlemagne Records co-owner Marian McKay Rosato in addition to the Beatles box set he purchased. (click for larger version)





Besides his day job working at Charlemagne, Jimmy Griffin played for several years with one of the greatest bands to ever come out of Birmingham, the bluesy, roots-based Trains ‘N’ Trouble. He’s modest about his fabulous, distinctive vocal talents but admits that he never lacked confidence singing for an audience. “No, I wasn’t self conscious. Like with Trains ‘N’ Trouble, playing with LaDonna Smith, Davey Williams, and John McKay, I was like sort of an amateur with three very professional people,” he says. “Plus the fact that with the improvisational aspect, we would rehearse a song but that wouldn’t necessarily be the way it would go when we played it. I was not on the level of creating new music; I was trying to be true to the nuance of the singers I admired, like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. When I was young just playing the guitar, I loved Woody Guthrie.”

Jimmy has memories of famous performers dropping by Charlemagne. “Gene Simmons came in. He was looking for British Invasion CDs, but he had everything we could find,” he recalls. “But he ended up buying Ray Charles’ Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and Greatest Hits by Bobby Darin. Chris Robinson, formerly of the Black Crowes, came in and a customer asked him if he should buy Robinson’s new record and he said, ‘No, don’t get that, man.’” Griffin doesn’t hesitate when asked who his favorite musician is. “Sun Ra is my favorite because he does so many things. He invented a whole new language of music. I call it ‘the lope,” it’s got a loping sound. It’s like swinging or it could be totally abstract.”

Sun Ra may have invented a new musical language but Jimmy Griffin coined a new phrase for the retail record business. “We call the store business ‘psycho retail,’ because you never know what people are going to ask you in person or on the phone,” he says. “I’ve developed this thing of taking everything literally until I find out otherwise. Because you never know exactly where the customers are coming from. Psycho retail means the insanity of the different ways that people communicate or don’t communicate. And we also have the circular reasoning. There’ll be three thoughts and they’re rotated. They ask you question A. As you answer question A, they don’t respond, they ask question B. As you answer question B, they don’t really respond or make a decision, but ask question C. And as you answer question C, they go back to question A. And you could be on the phone maybe 15 minutes trying to nail down which of these three points is pertinent to the call, and what exactly we can do for them. Some of our customers, we already know who they are as soon as they say hello, and we know it’s going to take a minute.”

Jimmy has devised his own method for remaining calm under fire when business is jumping at Charlemagne. “Well, I do get rattled and I think it comes with age. I used to say that my mind is on ‘erase’ and I would kind of go from one point to the next,” he explains. “Or maybe it’s kind of like a game not to get rattled because maybe you can do a better job. I used to have a motto: ‘People didn’t realize it but I live in fear.’ The other thing is, now that I’ve been in counseling for a while, I realize how much co-dependence I’ve had since I was a young child,” he admits with laughter. “So in a way, I’m in the worst possible job for someone who’s co-dependent with the world. Passivity and co-dependence are like good traits for a retailer, but you might never get well. I have a theory about retail, that it should be democratic. Because one of my jokes is, in the Bill of Rights they have to now include the right to shop. People feel very strongly about their right to shop. That’s why you have yard sales; that’s why you have people with no money actually looking at discarded things on the side of the road, because that’s a form of shopping. So, to me, somebody buying a dollar cassette is just as important as someone buying a $200 box set. Because they might be a regular customer and they may buy 200 one-dollar cassettes over a couple of years but you may never see the box set person again. We’re trying to match people with their musical needs but the customer kind of has to run the show.”


Charlemagne is a museum of concert posters, with some dating back to the store’s inception. (Photo: Owen Stayner.) (click for larger version)





Griffin has a personal philosophy for why people are drawn to certain genres of music while rejecting other styles. “It’s like a music festival. If you don’t like an event, you just change stages. I’ve developed this theory that started years ago at a chain store while I was running the cash register and playing Professor Longhair. And I’m all exuberant and I said, ‘Isn’t this great!’ And my customer said, ‘Not particularly.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, Professor Longhair’s not great.’ The thing about music is that it’s sound waves. When somebody’s receiving their pleasant sound waves, it’s a physiological and environmental and memory, all combined. So, deriving pleasure from music is something everybody can do and you can’t say that one pleasure source is any superior to another. But you can say that certain musicians are more skilled at making new statements.”

Gary Bourgeois told me that if I wanted to drive Jimmy crazy, I should lock him in a room with the first seven Moody Blues albums. Griffin responded: “Well what happened with the Moody Blues is that when I lived in Boston I had a roommate and he lost his girlfriend. He played this Moody Blues song over and over about a quiet day in the park and being sad. It’s just too lush for me. I can see they’re good musicians. It’s taken me years to get over the fact, for example, that Jim Morrison’s approach to a song is more dramatic than Mick Jagger’s. Or David Bowie’s approach is more dramatic. There’s something in Morrison’s voice tone to where I prefer Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. And also, I prefer great non-singers. When people tell me Bob Dylan can’t sing, I say, ‘I guess you’re right but he’s so musical. So it’s not necessarily if you can hit the note, it’s how you approach the note. When I brought Dylan’s Nashville Skyline home, my Dad said, ‘Oh, you mean that fellow finally decided to start singing?’”

The final word on Jimmy Griffin comes from the second greatest musical icon in Birmingham’s storied history. Spike, former singer of punk legend GNP, believes that Jimmy Griffin just might have clairvoyant powers: “I never bought much punk stuff from Charlemagne. There are just too many other cool genres of music to choose from there. It was mostly Grateful Dead-related stuff, or reggae, or ska. It seems like every time I walked up those stairs and Jimmy was there, he would say, ‘Hey, I got this new Dead thing . . .’ or he would have some obscure ska compilation to show me. It was like he knew I was about to walk in the store. I’m pretty sure he’s that way with everyone. He must be psychic. I love that guy.” &

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