Val Shively's R&B Records in Upper Darby is a three-story bop-shoo-bop shrine, stacked floor to ceiling with four million records, mostly 45s by '50s and early '60s one-hit and no-hit doo-wop groups beloved by the 72-year-old guy with the four-part-harmony heart seated in a threadbare chair.
Stormy and Feisty, the cats who rendered the chair threadbare, prowl the narrow aisles between tall walls of big-hole singles, a section of vintage CDs, and one of LPs.
Shively is celebrating his 50th year in the record business, but don't expect hoopla at "the Oldies Capitol of the World." And don't expect to hang out. Browser-phobic, he has a red-and-white highway sign on the front door warning "DO NOT ENTER," with a tiny, handwritten exception: "unless you know what you want."
If that's not crystal clear, there's also a "5 Minutes and you're gone!" sign. Similar warnings in the maze of aisles dispel any notion that he'll play tour guide for baby boomers on nostalgic journeys through the sound tracks of their youth.
Shively's store is a massive mail-order business catering to a shrinking band of collectors as obsessed as he is with obscure group-harmony 45s. But he also serves New Yorkers seeking beat-heavy funk, Europeans into '70s rock, locals looking for bygone pop hits.
His prices, from a few bucks to a few hundred, are scarcity-driven. " 'At the Hop,' a 1957 Philadelphia record by Danny & the Juniors, is $500 on the original Singular label," he said. "I've got one."
After the group sang it on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, "At the Hop" became a hit on the ABC Paramount label. "That's $30," he said. "I've got 10 or 15. And it's $5 on the MCA Records reissue."
Another Philly-based 1957 hit, "Get a Job" by the Silhouettes, is $500 on the rare original Junior label, $30 on its national Ember label, and $5 for a reissue.
Shively is blessed with a Sherlock Holmes brain that instantly recalls long-forgotten 45s, but he relies on his Dr. Watson, Chuck Dabagian – store manager for 40 years – to pluck a requested disc from the millions. Shively schmoozes with collectors and does the bookkeeping.
Before he discovered '50s and '60s group doo-wop, Shively was a Drexel Hill kid collecting stamps, coins, trolley schedules, and monster-movie pictures. Suddenly, in 1956, Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" rocked his world.
"That record put me in a trance," he said. "We had this little RCA record player that played through the TV speakers. The TV was open in the back, so I'd climb in there and play 'Don't Be Cruel' over and over again, loud."
When Shively got a turquoise Emerson transistor radio for Christmas 1959, his rock-and-roll obsession became portable. "It's under my pillow at night," he said. "In school, I hollowed out a big, thick book, The Life and Times of Samuel Johnson, whoever he was. Punched holes for the transistor speaker. 'Blueberry Hill' by Fats Domino. 'Keep a-Knockin' ' by Little Richard."
Then, Shively's transistor picked up Jerry "the Geator" Blavat broadcasting doo-wop from WCAM in Camden on a 1,000-watt signal that barely made it to Delaware County.
"I went crazy," he said.
Shively lost himself in four-part, high-tenor-to-deep-bass harmony, white groups, black groups, a world he had never known – and still inhabits 50 years later.
His life became an adrenaline rush of buying, selling, swapping, collecting 45s by the thousands.
He treasures a photo of himself holding his first valuable record. "It's 'Miss You' by the Crows on Rama red wax," he said. "I paid $30 for it in 1964, a ton of money back then."
His price today: $800.
Shively was so into obscure doo-wop groups that "when the Beatles came out," he said, "I asked a friend, 'Are they like Vito & the Salutations? Is there a bass singer in the group?' There had to be a bass for me to care."
His insular world was breached in 1975 by the National Enquirer, which ran a photo of him holding two 45s: the Hide-a-Ways' "Can't Help Loving That Girl of Mine," marked $1,000, and the Encores' "When I Look at You," for $700. The story suggested that he'd made millions finding rare, old records, and that readers could, too, if they scoured their attics.
He was deluged with thousands of letters from Enquirer readers, wanting his list of valuable oldies.
That ticked Shively off. He related to fervent 45s geeks like himself, not the masses, who wouldn't know Billy and the Essentials ("Maybe You'll Be There") from Tiko and the Triumphs ("Motorcycle," with a young, uncredited Paul Simon singing lead).
"I have no patience," Shively said with a thousand-yard stare into the barren world of those who will never get doo-wop.
And the vinyl revival? "They're looking for LPs of '70s and '80s crap," he said. "We've got them, but Chuck handles all that."
In the 1990s, as doo-wop faded into ancient history, Shively grew depressed. "Many of my customers who collected that music were either dead or on life support," he said.
The gloom shocked him. "I had a beautiful wife, Patty, one of two people in my life who kept me from going nuts. The other person's Chuck," he said. "But I was miserable. I thought I was going to die."
One day in 1999, he looked across Garrett Road from his shop and saw two guys struggling in the wind to hang a banner at a storefront church, "Expect a Miracle."
"I walk into a bare room with folding chairs," he said. "I'm thinking, 'Where's Jesus nailed on a cross?' I realize he ain't in here 'cause he ain't dead."
Shively said he bowed his head, closed his eyes, recited the Sinner's Prayer, accepted Jesus Christ, and found peace of mind.
"That," he said, "was my miracle."
Potter's House Christian Church has since moved next door to Shively's store. He's a regular.
Shively believes he has the world's biggest collection of obscure doo-wop group 45s. But he's not sure. "An old collector died a couple of weeks ago," he said. "His whole life was thousands of records. You go into his bathroom, there's records. You open his refrigerator, there's records.
"Maybe there's a record in there that I didn't know about," he said. "My wife told me, 'If you buy one more record, I'm buying a Shore house.' She wants me to turn this off. I can't turn this off." email@example.com
Published: May 15, 2016 — 3:01 AM EDT The Philadelphia Inquirer
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