Harlem Street Searching

by Jon Savage

I had always been a half-level vinyl junkie.  I searched for 2 years to find the perfect set of vintage speakers, the perfect vintage British tube amp, the complimentary preamp and the right record player to complete the perfect chain of events to make my records purr in the way that the grooves intended.

But 3 years ago, my habit turned full blown.

It happened quite by accident. I fell in love with the voice and wild guitar finger picking of a wailing blues preacher from the 1950’s named Reverend Gary Davis – a seemingly incompatible match for a nice Jewish boy, but a love affair that has since intensified.

Every word he sang was so drenched with authenticity and emotion, it resonated so deeply that I can still cry unexpectedly during any song. His guitar playing was so complex and effortless, playing lead lines, solos, impossible rhythms (and even drumming the side of his Gibson with his hands) that I couldn’t begin to comprehend how it was possible for one person to do all those things at the same time.

I felt that I was hearing the real ‘blues’ for the first time in my life and so I’m not exaggerating when I say this album had a profound effect on me.

And then I heard “Death Don’t Have No Mercy,” not only one of the greatest songs ever written, in my opinion, but one of the greatest recordings of a songs that you will ever hear. The lyrics are terrifying, the vocal delivery is steeped in gut sorrow and the guitar voicing is like Death itself, plodding along and echoing every melody with sickening menace. This album changed everything.

“Harlem Street Singer,” was released in 1961 on the Bluesville Label under the name “Blind Gary Davis” – and no, this was not a cute nickname, he was indeed blind. Blind Reverend Gary Davis.

After obsessing over this album for some time, I decided that i needed to buy the vinyl LP for my collection, but of course I didn’t want just any copy of the album  – I decided that i  wanted … no, i NEEDED ….  the original 1961 Prestige MONO first print so that I could listen to it in the way it was intended to be heard! It was only after a bit of hunting that I learned, to my horror, that this album was a massively sought after rarity in the vinyl collecting world and this is where my mission began.

Coincidentally, around this time, Fontana released a remastered modern rerelease of the album on vinyl, but of course I had no interest in that! I wanted the real thing, the first pressing, the holy grail – I wanted to touch history with my fingers and be close to the magic of the blind Reverend from the era that he still breathed! Within those grooves, maybe some of his fingerprints lay.

I spent the next 3 years searching Ebay, auction sites, Discogs and every record store to try and find one of these gems – i felt like a heroine junkie – but to no avail.

Until about 2 weeks ago! One morning, my Google alert pinged me and I almost shat my pants when I read the alert! An original deep groove 1961 Prestige Bluesville near mint copy of Harlem Street Singer by Blind Gary Davis was now up for auction on Ebay.

I phoned my vinyl-diving-buddy Greg (who I share this blog with) to double check that it was actually an authentic copy of the record. His treasure hunter’s nose confirmed it. Finally, this was my big chance!

Time stopped for the next 8 days during that auction. I had the auction page open on my computer 24/7 and refreshed it every 2 minutes for 8 days, often waking at 2am and 3am to keep an eye on it. I sold about two dozen of my other records to save up enough capital to make sure that I win this auction at all costs. I was sending updates to Greg every evening and we schemed and schemed.

And then the big day came. The day I was to own the most important record in my life! The current bid was sitting at R649 but I had some aces up my sleeve. Greg had given me some solid bidding advice and I was armed and amped to go for it and do whatever it took to get the album of my dreams. My plan was foolproof: when there were to be only 15 seconds left on the clock, I was going to increase my bid to a whopping R2500! – way above where the bid was currently sitting – and blow all the other bidders off the map. And then it would be mine. The search would be over!

Greg and I sat and watched the clock countdown for a good few hours before the deadline, pondering how life would be different in the very near future. This was to be a victory steeped in 3 years of anticipation, obsession and passion.

At 1 minute, I readied.

45 seconds. Time felt that it had stopped.

30 seconds. I opened up the bid window and got ready to type! There could be no mistakes.

20 seconds. I began imagining what it would feel like when I slid the record into my collection, it’s golden light illuminating my smile.

15 seconds. I whacked in my bid like an Olympic typer, as per the plan ; R2500! and waited for my bid to get accepted.

It took a few seconds longer than I anticipated and I thought maybe I had left it too late and might not make it!

But then, with 5 seconds to go, those magic words appeared at the top of the screen. “You are the highest bidder.”

4 seconds. Time stopped

3 seconds. My heart stopped.

2 seconds.

Then, as the counter stood at 1 second, the bar at the top of the screen flashed red and the text changed to “You have been outbid.”

And then, before I even had time to digest, another window popped up to say “You have lost this auction. Better luck next time.”

I felt like I had been knocked out in the final seconds of the final round of the heavyweight championship of the world.

I don’t even have words to describe the dark wave that crept over me for the next few seconds or describe the bewildered shock about what had just happened, except to say that the days that followed felt like I was in mourning.

That record slipped away and I’m inconsolable about it.

If there’s one positive thing that has come out of that terrible tragedy, it is this blog. Greg and I have dozens of stories about record collecting, record collectors and the worldwide hunt for vinyl and we’ve decided to share them with you in this here lil blog.

In fact, this blog will be less about the records we failed at getting, but more about the records themselves! How we got them, what they sound like and why they are special.

We hope you enjoy and maybe even discover some new music for yourselves.  And we’d love to hear some of your stories too so feel free to use the comments below if you have.

We’ve also started an INSTAGRAM account : needlesfromthehaystack – follow if you are interested in some vinyl porn!

Here goes: Needles From The Haystack starts today.




6 thoughts on “Harlem Street Searching

  1. Awesome blog! Hope you get that recording soon my friend and keep sharing the stories.

    PS: I am crying myself to sleep every night after loosing another auction on the bay of broken dream!

    Liked by 1 person

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