They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Only in this case, much much more. Bill in San Francisco sent me a photo for interest, of Lee Morgan, which I’d not seen before. Google Reverse Image Search yields no matches, so I conclude you may not have seen it before either, seems to have no online presence, may be just in the Francis Wolff collection or some other archive.
What’s interesting here, apart from the young Lee Morgan smiling to camera, is the location: the Blue Note “Stockroom”.
I’ve written about and pretty sure dreamed about a stockroom full of the Blue inventory – records, labels and covers, inner sleeves, maybe even tape boxes, Urgent delivery from Plastylite, for Mr Lion! Thing is, I’ve only imagined it. I think this is what we are looking at here. A story here begins to unravel itself.
Behind Lee, along the wall of the stockroom, is a consignment of boxes addressed for delivery to “BLUE NOTE”, numbered with Blue Note catalogue numbers, and what on the face of it seems a count of the number of LPs in each box – mostly 215, and some 220 or 225.
The visible catalogue numbers are all adjacent: 1569, 1559, 1555 and 1558. None is higher than 1569 or lower than 1555, no boxes of repressing of older or newer titles other titles. These must be boxes of newly-pressed LPs from Plastylite, all or part of their coveted first pressing.
According to Schwann Catalogues, the four titles indicated on the boxes were released in August and September of 1957, which gives us an approximate date for the photograph, late Summer 1957, perhaps late August.
It gets better. Some of the snappy dressers in Bill’s circle, retro vintage dudes, were able to pitch a label for Lee’s wristwatch, likely a Bulova, and shoes, likely Florsheim.
The Bulova watch, with its rectangular face, could be a Senator model, which appeared in the later half of the ’50s.Everything depends on how long he had the watch. Was it a gift, perhaps from Helen if she was around at this time ? Could be why he’s showing it off in the portrait, a “coded message”, sort of thing people do.
The shoes. I’m reminded of the line of Danny Devito in the film The Tin Men: “There are only four things that tell the world who you are: your wife, your house, your car, and your shoes”. The shoes are at least low maintenance! Much like Blue Note, apparently Florsheim shoes are considered collectible, and much like Blue Note, there is an art in dating a pair of Florsheim, from the “matrix-like” codes on the leather: size number, order number, factory code, model number, month and year code.
RVG, ear, check! 9M, DG, check! Given their smart appearance and moderate wear, the shoes are less than a year old. If you could see their Florsheim code, Lees shoes could be used to date a Blue Note first pressing. That would be a first.
Let’s summarise what we now know from the photo:
Forget the shoes, back to the Blue Note boxes, we’re not done yet, we’ve got further to go.
If we are right that the number next to the catalogue number written on each box is a count of the LPs in the box – 215 to 225 – then the LPs can not be in their jackets.
The boxes look to be around 14″x14″x14″, (or 12″ with some wriggle-room) a standard industrial carton size similar to an IKEA partitioned shelf holding records. There is space in a box of that size for only around 75 LPs in their jackets. To reach a count over 200 they must be only the bare vinyl, no doubt in a plain white thin paper inner sleeve to protect those precious factory-fresh unplayed mint surfaces. The matching of the record to the jacket was not carried out at Plastylite but elsewhere, probably at Blue Note offices itself.
Elsewhere, on the shelves, you see small boxes consistent with stock of labels, of little weight which can be stored on shelves at greater height. On the floor are what could be boxes of covers, packed flat not upright. A Blue Note LP cover weighs around 120 grams. My guess is the covers are flat packed in those “half-height” boxes, at 100 jackets per box, which worked better for print packaging.
Take a Deep Breath: Forensic Deep Dive
In 1957, the average bare vinyl Blue Note LP weighed around 180 grams, and 215 to 225 of them in one box would make the box approximately 40 kilograms, or six and a bit stones, over half the weight of an average adult. These are some heavy mofo’s! When stacked four high, the Plastylite boxes reach shoulder height, about five feet or so, a comfortable maximum working height, centre of gravity such the stack was not likely to tip over, and still able to be safely unstacked by a storeman. 40kg at shoulder height is around twice the current moving and handling guidelines for Health and Safety. Switchboard: Mr Lion! Mr Lion! Incoming call, industrial injury compensation lawyers want to talk to you!
The first stack of LPs, BN 1569 – Paul Chambers Bass On Top, looks to me three deep as are others, though one other stack two deep. Each stack appear to be dedicated to a particular title. This would make sense if the next step was to marry up the sleeved vinyl for that title with boxes of their respective jackets, working the pile methodically top to bottom, one stack at a time, no juggling those heavy boxes around with different titles, no mixing vinyl with wrong jacket.
With a little over 800 LPs in a four box stack, three stacks would add up to about 2,500 copies of BN 1569 in its first pressing. A vinyl press turns out one LP a minute, around 500 in a normal working day, five days for one press to make 2500 records in a pressing run, with no change of stampers. Of course we don’t know if that’s all or just part of the consignment, but it would make sense if it were all, otherwise there would be mixed of different titles all coming from the Plastylite factory at different times, chaos in the stockroom, here we see a sort of manufacturing/ assembly discipline in the photo.
Why two only stacks deep for BN 1559?
Three of those titles look to be in stacks three deep, but 1559 only two deep. Maybe the front stack of 1559 had already been matched with covers leaving two stacks remaining to be finished. It was scheduled for release in August while two of the other titles were down for September. Possibly, Griffin was a smaller pressing run, but every record was optimistically viewed to become a success, so my money is still on 2,500 copies to a Blue Note 1957 first press, evidence before your eyes.
There is at least one more title in the photo only partly visible on a box, obscured from view by Morgan. In August 1957 Blue Note released just four titles, only two of which are pictured here. The missing August-57 two releases are 1563 Jimmy Smith Plays Pretty For You, and 1567 Curtis Fuller The Opener. The stack hidden from view is certainly one of those two.
Where was the photo taken and therefore where was the stockroom?
In August 1957, Blue Note offices had occupied 47 West 63rd Street for nearly six months. That address remained on the Blue Note label until late 1961, and as the back cover address (send for catalogue) until the first few months of 1960, when it changed to 43 West 61st Street, and began operating from two sites. The photographer could have been Francis Wolff, who would have been on site at Blue Note headquarters (when not at Hackensack taking portraits), or someone else, unknown.
There can be little doubt the stockroom pictured, in August 1957, was at 47 West 63rd Street. (Update: photo source for the building (right) from NYC municipal archives here.
Why was Lee there, and why was he smiling?
1957 was Lee Morgan’s most prolific year with five releases for Blue Note: 1541 Sextet, 1557 Vol. 3, 1575 City Lights, and 1578 The Cooker. Around the time of this photo, the only sessions in his discography puts him recording with Dizzy Gillespie orchestra July 14 in “NYC”, then at Hackensack on August 25th to record BLP 1575, same day with Jimmy Smith at Manhattan Towers, and nothing again until September 15 at Reeves Sound for RLP 12-266 Ernie Henry All-Stars, which by a bizarre coincidence (which often happens to LJC) I acquired yesterday.
So Lee had business matters with Blue Note regarding his release 1575 City Lights, or indeed other business matters with Lion. With his star rising perhaps a good time to ask for a raise, maybe that’s why he’s smiling.
What are those records worth today?
The best auction price achieved for each title is:
1569 Chambers $2024
1559 Griffin $2,800
1555 Blakey $686
1558 Rollins $885
1567 Fuller $2,090
Blakey’s Orgy in Rhythm not really setting pulses racing, but ah, the Johnny Griffin.
Since the records pictured are mint and un-played, hypothetically they could command the top historical auction price (mint un-played, what more could you ask, collectors?) Lee is pictured in front of five and a half thousand LPs , and you are looking at a current total market value today of over twenty million dollars of vinyl.
Dandies Corner – Fashion Tips For Record Collectors
For retro-dandies out there, one matter in the Lee Morgan photo remains unaddressed – the all important matter of Lee Morgan’s suit.
The late Fifties were years in men’s fashion for dressing according to your station in life, especially in workwear: the higher the position the smarter the suit. “Hand Cut For Success” was the 1958 Hepworths slogan, and you don’t find a snappier dresser than Miles. Workers with dirty manual labouring jobs got dressed up in their best to go out. According to style-watcher Peter York, in 50’s street culture, the poor would have perfectly pressed creases in their trousers. No-one wanted to look poor on the street corner, it was smart to be smart, and musician’s work-wear would be tailored.
Today, when people have never been so well off, fashion perversely signals the reverse: faux-poverty – distressed jeans with ever bigger ripped holes. Shoes? Running shoes, in which to walk, not run. Soon, The Emperor’s New Clothes will be no clothes.
Fashion is often the false face of its opposite, which chimes with the quote I recall attributed to country singer Dolly Parton: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.”
Back in 1957 I was still in short trousers, and it wasn’t until some years later the wardrobe was bulging with suits, dressing for success. However I had the feeling I had seen Lee’s suit style somewhere before, and more recently:
Perfect and good for another decade. The difference for Lee then it was “modern”, for Madmen, today, it is artfully “retro”. Nevertheless, the past has much to commend it, certainly musically, and I raise a glass to the style-mavens who could spot a Bulova watch and Florsheim shoes in a dimly lit photograph, I’ve learned a lot. Matrix codes for shoes, who would have thought it.
My thanks to Bill for starting me off down this fascinating rabbit-hole, hopefully you have enjoyed the ride, it’s at least longer than a tweet that passes for communication today. If you have any other thoughts on the Morgan photo, my extraordinary extrapolation to numbers, or know better, please chip in. If you have more fashion tips, I respectfully suggest you go start your own blog, internet’s full of them.
More music, soon, honest.