If you ever find yourself in Pittsburgh, Whistlin’ Willie Webber invites you to visit Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s at 2136 Murray Ave in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood. It’s right next to the famous Jerry’s Records. In fact, Willie is Jerry’s son.
Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s is probably the only store near the east coast dedicated to 78 RPM records. Does anyone know of any others?
Scott Mervis of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote about Willie’s place back in 2010:
One bright spot in the rather devastated record industry the past few years has been the surprising resurgence of vinyl.
Only in Pittsburgh would we now have a comeback of shellac.
On Friday, Willie Weber will open Whistlin’ Willie’s 78s — a new, separate wing of the famed Jerry’s Records in Squirrel Hill devoted to 78 rpm records, which, if you’re keeping track, would be at least five technologies back from the modern-day MP3.
Willie is not Jerry’s father. Rather, he’s his 31-year-old son, who has been working for his vinyl-loving dad since he was 13. Being the old-soul type, Willie had no interest in filling the second-floor room next to Jerry’s, recently vacated by 720 Records, with a used CD shop. No, he loves the thick, crackly feel and antique sound of grandpa’s records.
“I was getting them all the time in record deals,” Willie Weber says, “and I just fell in love with them. I got interested in them and started collecting them.”
Now he has between 20,000 and 30,000 78 rpm records in genres ranging from classical to big band to country to rock ‘n’ roll. The format dates back to the 1890s and stayed in production until about 1960, when finally it was made obsolete by the slicker and slower-playing 45, which had first come along in 1948.
What you won’t find in the milk crates at Whistlin’ Willies are flashy album covers. The 78s largely were sold in brown-paper wrappers and consisted of one or two three-minute sides of music. Walking over to the classical section, Mr. Weber, in black T-shirt, jeans and fedora, pulls out a bound case of Handel’s “Messiah” that consists of 19 discs and sells for $25. It would take a lot of turntable stacking to get through that, but he doesn’t recommend it — “when they drop, they crack pretty easily.”
Whistlin’ Willie’s is not a store stocked with pricey collectors’ items. Like his father, the owner follows the philosophy that music is meant to be listened to and enjoyed, not archived or put behind glass. The most expensive piece in the store is Bessie Smith’s first record, the 1923 “Down Hearted Blues/Gulf Coast Blues,” which is priced at $50.
Flip through the stacks and you’ll find Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” for $6, Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’ ” for $5, Percy Mayfield’s “Hopeless” for $5 and Pat Boone’s “Tutti Frutti” for $2. On the pricier side, at $10, are singles by Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley and other early rock ‘n’ rollers.
“I can’t keep this stuff in stock,” he says. “When I get them in, they sell right way. The old 45 guys, they have the records on 45, but they want them on 78, too.”
The hardest stuff to find, he says, is rock ‘n’ roll, vintage blues and jazz. People cleaning out their attic and coming in trying to sell him boxes filled with popular artists from the ’40s might only get five bucks for the whole case. “Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peggy Lee. … Even though they’re great, I just have multiple copies.”
At the front counter, there are a variety of record players (some for sale), ranging from an old Edison console from the late 1800s to a windup Victrola to a modern turntable hooked up to a CD burner, so he can make copies of rare records before he sells them. Drawn by the title “That Awful Day Will Surely Come,” I ask him to play a song by Gertrude Ward and the Daughters. It turns out to be an eerie gospel tune that bleeds through the pops and hiss.
“After a while you don’t even hear it,” Mr. Weber says of the crackles. “It’s part of the sound. Even on CDs now, you have artists sometimes putting the crackling on.” If the pop and hiss resides in the middle of the track, what you get on either side of it with old vinyl and shellac are dynamic highs and lows not heard on your MP3 download.
For the connoisseur of vintage music, one of the fascinating things about the shop is discovering artists whose work has never even been committed to LP or CD. As an example, he points to a record by Joe Howard.
“I’ve found artists that I couldn’t find anything about in all the books we have here, and on the Internet.”
Mike Plaskett, who hosts “Rhythm Sweet & Hot” on WDUQ (90.5 FM), has been a longtime 78 collector and customer of the Webers’. He regularly cruises used record and thrift stores looking for music he can’t find on LP or CD.
“I’m looking for the ones that have slipped through the cracks and have not been reissued,” he says. “Those things will turn up at Jerry’s and will rarely be found at the secondhand stores, because grandma has cleaned out her closet and grandpa has cleaned out his garage. They’re either in the hands of serious collectors, moving through the auctions or in places like Willie’s store.”
The ‘DUQ deejay shops for rare 78s, transfers them into his computer, cleans up the scratches and burns them onto a CD to play on his radio show. His best example of an artist who requires this special treatment is Guy Lombardo.
“Guy Lombardo was absolutely huge through the ’30s, but very few Guy Lombardo records were reissued — just the dozen biggest hits. He recorded the cream of the American songbook, but no one’s put them out. And yet, I get a great reaction when I play them on the show.”
Among the rarest gems in Whistlin’ Willie’s are the quarter-inch Edison records, of which he has about 100. He pulls out a copy of “Sidewalk Blues” by the Golden Gate Orchestra ($10) and manually spins the turntable on the Edison console. He still marvels at the way he acquired it.
He got a call from an elderly woman in Claysville who said she had some old records to sell. The Webers have gotten used to calls from people who don’t even know the difference between 78s and 45s. “She had plastic bags on her feet, she was so poor,” Willie says. “She had a bunch of 78s, stuff I’d never seen before.” She took him out to the barn, and he was shocked to find the Edison phonograph. When she saw his reaction, she told him, “I wish I had known. I had four more I burned for firewood.” He gave her $500 for everything, including the metal pieces of the Edisons that didn’t burn, and he estimates that the Edison is worth at least that.
It’s one of the few things in the store that’s not for sale. Generally, he isn’t concerned about his own collection.
“I’m so young I can probably sell everything because I’ll eventually end up getting it back — probably from the same people!” he says, laughing.
Most of the trade for 78s takes place these days on the Internet. Jerry Weber, who knows the record business, feels confident that Whistlin’ Willie’s will be the only store dedicated to them on the East Coast. He never made much room for them in his own shop, even as they were piling up in his warehouse.
Like his son, though, he loves the magic of the shellac.
“In some cases, you’re listening to a 90-year-old record that someone played on a windup record player — and it still plays! It’s like touching history.”