77 Charing Cross Road
If I’d known they were going to end up in a frame on an art gallery wall, I would have hung on to a few of the bags holding the albums I carried away from Dobell’s Jazz, Folk & Blues record shop in the 60s and 70s. In design terms, they were classics of their era: cool, clean-lined, high-contrast graphics for a cool, clean-lined, high-contrast time. And there they were on Tuesday evening at CHELSEA Space, a small gallery inside the Chelsea College of Art and Design, at the private view of an exhibition devoted to the history of Doug Dobell’s shops, in particular the one he ran at 77 Charing Cross Road.
A good crowd of hipsters turned up for the launch, including the photographer Val Wilmer, whose work lined one of the walls, the poet Hugo Williams, and lots of faces familiar from jazz clubs down the decades. Put together by Donald Smith, the gallery’s director of exhibitions, and Leon Parker of the British Record Shop Archive, the show features dozens of fascinating images, some of the old shop signs and fittings, posters and memorabilia, and even one of the original record players from the listening booths.
The premises at 77 Charing Cross Road had been opened by Dobell’s grandfather as an antiquarian bookshop in 1887. When Doug came out of the army at the end of the Second World War he asked his father if he could sell jazz 78s from a corner of the premises, and before long the discs had taken over from the second-hand books. He started a small record label, 77 Records, and everyone knows the story of how Bob Dylan recorded in the basement there with Richard Farina and Eric von Schmidt in January 1963 under the nom de disque of Blind Boy Grunt. In 1965 Doug took over the next-door premises, No 75, and turned it into a folk and blues department.
The shop survived until 1980, when the developers moved in: the entire west side of Charing Cross Road was demolished, to be replaced by a hideous piece of architecture housing fast-food joints and tourist souvenir shops. I cannot walk down it today without glancing across at the opposite side, where the original buildings survive along with some of the bookshops that gave the street its unique character, and cursing such wanton destruction. Eventually Dobell’s found a new home a couple of minutes away, in Tower Street, which lasted from 1981 until 1992, three years after Doug’s death.
My own experience of Dobell’s began in 1963, on a day trip to London, and it was not an entirely happy one. I was in search of two recent releases from members of the early-60s avant-garde: My Name is Albert Ayler (including an incomparable version of “Summertime”, which you can hear here) and Ken McIntyre’s Year of the Iron Sheep. The rather intimidating bearded man behind the counter was able to put his hands on both albums, but while taking the money from his schoolboy customer he couldn’t resist adding a word of appraisal: “McIntyre’s all right,” he said, “but that bloke Ayler can’t play at all.”
I’m afraid it coloured my view of the place a little, and in the years that followed I was more likely to be found a few minutes away buying records from Ray Smith at Collett’s, first in New Oxford Street and later at the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Monmouth Street. But the exhibition is highly enjoyable, conveying a real sense of time and place. I’ve still got that treasured copy of My Name is Albert Ayler, the object of such lofty scorn 50 years ago. I think I’ll play it now.
* The exhibition runs until May 18 at CHELSEA space, 16 John Islip Street, London SW1, just down the road from Tate Britain. There are talks on April 17 and May 15 and a special event on April 20, which is Record Store Day UK. Details: http://www.chelseaspace.org