Words by Eilon Paz (with Mr. Matt Weingarden) Photos by Eilon Paz
Rest in peace Billy Miller
first met Billy and Miriam of Norton Records and Kicks Books at one the Big Ten Inch parties that ran out of Brooklyn, spinning mostly old 78 RPM records. We then got to know each other even closer when hurricane Sandy hit their warehouses in Red Hook and flooded their entire stock. I was living a few blocks away and immediately ran over to help them salvage the records, recruit other volunteers, and bring my camera along to film the disaster. This event started our friendship and built the trust between us. About a year later, when we finally scheduled the interview in their house, we all felt like we’ve been through some life changing experiences.
They live with their dog Queenie in a co-op building somewhere in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn. When we got there, it was immediately like stepping back in time—KICKS Books boxes lined the floor next to the endless shelves filled with records, jukeboxes, magazines. They even had a cheap perfume collection in the bathroom.
During the photo-shoot, Miriam & Billy work together to find the records they reference, choose certain ones to spin on the turntable and dance together. During the freezes in the song, they both look and pose towards each other. Shouting “that’s the Mad Mike sound!” Miriam grooves out to it the whole way through, and Billy feeds the dog Queenie some biscuit “over here, over here.” Their dog Queenie barking—“She knows that this is an important record.”
Billy and Miriam measure their lives in their collectables and moments in each other’s lives. They are completely on the same page and have the same frame of reference, each taking a sentence when answering a question, filling in names, details, and fact-correcting one another’s stories. But not without teasing, riling up, and a lot of love. They are both aware of where their tastes and knowledge cross over and differ. It was truly exciting to be able to ride their wavelength for these few hours.
They are true music fans who encouraged fandom, which they consider the most important part of being a record nut. And they are not ashamed of letting it show.
So what was your first exposure to music? You have been collecting records since before record collecting as we now know it existed. From your different backgrounds, how did you start?
Miriam: My very first records may have been hand-me-down kiddie discs, but they were mine and I loved them dearly as a child. I grew up in Sudbury, Canada, which mines two-thirds of the world’s nickel and is the most polluted city in North America. My parents were Karelian refugees. I didn’t speak English until I started school and these records helped me learn the language and made me happy. They still initiate a flood of lost memories. They certainly weren’t rockin’, but they were absolutely the first of my first and made me love the miracle of music coming from a piece of plastic. And before plastic records, there were plastic radios. I clearly remember hearing my father’s Motorola playing in the basement workshop tuned into CKSO or CHNO, him singing along to hits of the day in broken English. My sister Helen is six years older than me, and my brother Jack is nine years my senior. They were my heroes. Helen got a portable record player for Christmas ’63 and a tiny Sony transistor radio for Christmas ’64. She played records all day and had the radio glued to her ear all night. I could hear it playing under her pillow, blasting Toronto’s powerhouse CHUM and Detroit’s CKLW all night long.
When I was eleven years old, we moved from Canada to the US, to a very small town on Lake Erie. I felt like a total square peg, landing in a new school in the middle of seventh grade. By this time my brother and sister were in full swing with rock n’ roll, radio, the constant teenage clash with our parents. One day my brother gave me a stack of his old records to sell in school and we split the proceeds. We would buy records at the Salvation Army and Goodwill stores back then– there were no used record stores in our small town, boondock world, but we knew the cut-out racks at Woolworths and Kresge’s quite well, where you could get packs of deleted 45s or discontinued albums for pennies instead of dollars. It never mattered whether a record was an old release or hot on the charts. Just so long as it was something we loved and called our own.
I met a couple of hep older kids when I first got into high school and we started to going to see bands in Cleveland with my sis. That opened up a new world—I remember going to the legendary Record Rendezvous for the first time, a store dedicated entirely to records. What a concept for a kid who only ever saw record racks at department stores! One of the greatest forward moves, record-wise, was when my sister grabbed me and we took off for England. I was 17. It was there that we discovered the really, truly, perfect world– all music, all records, all teenage urchins dwelling in their own teenage world. Records were everywhere—new, old, ratty, bratty– condition and fame inconsequential.
And what about you, Billy?
Billy: Well, I have lots and lots of cousins—they were all in big families—and I was one of the younger ones, so I would get records handed down to me. At age eight, I suddenly had this giant collection! The first records I got were “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry with “Reelin’ and Rockin’” on the flip, and “Reveille Rock” by Johnny and the Hurricanes with “Time Bomb” on the flip. So naturally I thought that all records had two great sides. And then my third record was “Surfin’ USA” when it was new. But I didn’t really even stop to think that this record and “Sweet Little Sixteen” were actually the same record. My cousin Pete then gave me an album A Million or More —it was ABC Records and it was all the hits of 1959 that were on ABC. There was crap and some cool stuff on it: “Black Slacks” by Joe Bennett and the Sparkletones, the Poni-Tails’ “Born Too Late”, Danny and the Juniors “At the Hop”, Lloyd Price, I think “Stagger Lee”, the Royal Teens’ “Short Shorts.” It was actually a pretty good album! And it was all mine. That was my first, and I loved it.
Miriam: And you still do.
Billy: I still do, yeah.
Miriam: We sang “Short Shorts” last night, in the middle of “Shamrock”—God bless the Royal Teens!
Billy: Last night while we were at Asbury Lanes!
So what was the first record you ever bought?
Billy: Well, it was 1964, and at the time, the Beatles hit with “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” I went with my lawn-mowing or birthday money to buy it right after it came out, but the store was all out. But they had the new one, and I thought, oh great, I’m on the cutting edge of the world of teenagers! So I buy “My Bonnie” (The Beatles with Tony Sheradan). But then the radio is playing nothing but The Beatles—every song they ever recorded except “My Bonnie,” and when you’re a kid you want the records that are being played on the radio! You don’t want the outcast ones like you want now! So it was a little frustrating. I traded it to my friend JR. I also really liked The Kinks. I mean I didn’t have much money, but I bought the first three Kinks records, the first group of which I bought three records in a row.
And your sister bought you the Shangri-Las.
Billy: I chipped in with my younger sister. Sort of hoodwinked her into it. We bought “Give Us Your Blessing” for 67 cents and we’d stand over the turntable in our cousin’s basement—I’d play one side and she could flip it over and play the other side. And in 1965 when I was 11, my neighborhood church was right near Ultra-Sonic Recording Studio which is one of the best studios in Long Island. They took our entire Boy Scout troop to see how records were made and we were all amazed. And I’m thinking that every time they say The Beatles and Rolling Stones are in the studio that that’s where they are Ultrasonic! But the guy goes, “you boys should have been here last night. The Shangri-Las were here.” We we’re all like, a local Queens group? We thought everyone recording was from either England or Hollywood!
Is there a record that brought you two together? How did you guys meet? How did Billy win your heart? Or maybe was it the other way around?
Billy: I’d seen Miriam play in the Cramps, and I actually sat in front of her in the movies one time with my friend Rob. It was in Manhattan and the lights were still on, and I was sitting there and turned around and I started talking to Bryan Gregory who she was with. Bryan introduces me to Miriam and she just goes “hi,” and she’s reading a book. This strange bird—brings a book to the movies! So that’s when I actually first met Miriam. But then she had put out this Flamin’ Groovies fan club magazine which I had bought, and she came to a record show where I was selling records.
Miriam: That was October 3, 1977– the Rock Ages record fair at The Diplomat Hotel.
Did you recognize her from the movies?
Billy: No, not from the movies, but I said, “You’re the girl that does the Flamin’ Groovies magazine” ..and it’s got of circulation of like 37!
Miriam: I met super collector nuts Todd Abramson and Jim “The Hound” Marshall on the same day—they were both teenagers at the time cause they were a couple of years younger than me. I was living with Lydia Lunch at the time, squatting illegally on Warren Street. One day I came home from work at the Strand Bookstore and Lydia tells me there are a couple of lads waiting for me. Anyway, the three of us are still the best of friends. The funny thing is that when I first met Billy, he invited me and Todd to come visit him in Brooklyn, and when we went over to Billy’s house he had a giant picture of the Flamin’ Groovies on the wall. So we knew he was cool.
Had there not been record shows before?
What influence did Greg Shaw and Alan Betrock have on you?
Billy: They ran, you know, the genius table. You could ahead ask these guys anything—I was just in awe, as if I’d just met Shakespeare! You can trace record collecting back to the New York guys who hung around Times Square Records in the 42nd street subway arcade. That’s where it all started and the stories that came from that scene are really modern folklore. They lit the fuse. Miriam and I came along in the era of fandom from the early 1970s when Alan and Greg were planting the seeds for fans of sixties records. Discovery was the name of the game. The first time I heard of the Sonics is when my friend found 150 copies of their first album in a record store basement. I got a lot of great records from a guy who was selling 45s for a dime each. They had been stored against a brick wall and there was a fire next door that heated up the bricks and so every record got very slight heat damage. I remember some of the ones he sold me – The Blue Dots – “Saturday Night Fish Fry” and The Bruthers’ “Bad Way To Go.” I got to like all kinds of rock and roll records. The labels, the stories behind them, it all fascinated me.
Miriam: Billy’s right. For myself, I’d always detested the word and concept of “collecting.” To me, the love of records and pulps and what-not has revolved around fandom, a/k/a the group friendship of people who are crazy about The Stuff, and everything about The Stuff. There can be no aloofness, no separation of State with a full-on love of records. Alan and Greg had the same attitude—they were East Coast-West Coast record mafia gods to us. I started reading Greg’s Who Put The Bomp as a teenager in Ohio, and began corresponding with Greg, and with many of the kids who placed space ads in the back of Bomp, kids who had started their own fanzines, kids like Phast Phreddie and Gregg Turner and Bernie Kugel and Tom Hosier and Russell Desmond. Everybody was teenager at the time, we all pretty much fed out of the same pocket—working class kids crazy about records. I clearly remember being introduced to Alan by Greg at Max’s Kansas City. Even amidst the loud music and semi-frenzy of Max’s, I knew I was in the company of true friends. They were two of the most generous individuals I’ve ever met, generous with their knowledge, serious at heart, and driven to share and encourage a passion for records, for the artists who wrote and performed on the records, for the producers, the record label people, the promoters, and the fans. Both Alan and Greg were #1 fans and encouraged fandom, which I personally have always believed to be the most important part of being a record nut. That means being batty for mad wax and letting it show!
Were there record fairs in other cities?
Billy: They were just starting, but the other first one I still remember was in Washington DC around the same time as the McAlpin one. The New York one was just huge–you just kept going and going. I ran out of money right away, but the lucky for me there was a guy named Smitty right near where I lived. He was a distributor and had a giant distribution warehouse/store-front in Hicksville where everything album was $1.50 or something ridiculously low. You’d look through albums, but there was no reference to what they were and had no place to play ‘em. But Smitty also had a place that sold singles. This place was great because he had colored vinyl singles hanging from fishing wire covered with dust. He had a chest of drawers like you’d put clothing in that was nothing but picture sleeves for a nickel apiece. And you could play the records there. I’d go there with friends, we’d each have $1, and each come out with 20 records. The great thing was that it was in the Farmer’s Market right next to the butcher. So our moms would go get sausages for dinner and we’ll be next door looking at records. I started doing that there maybe 1966, yeah I was 12. They would have records that were popular maybe six months earlier for a nickel. And right before that Hotel McAlpin thing, I found that record by the Fantastic Baggies “Anywhere the Girls Are.” It’s a P.F. Sloan. It’s on Pebbles and it’s one of the ultimate surf vocal records but nobody’d ever heard of it. I found 125 of them and they were a nickel or a dime each, so I just I took ‘em all to that show and traded them.
Billy: He gave the Dictators zero stars and then ended up liking it and apologized to them.
That book is so topsy turvy. So are there any records that give you goosbumps?
Miriam: The Luvs – “We Kiss in the Shadow.” Well, it’s another Mad Mike record, and I am grateful to the wonderful Fred Bohn for this. The tempo is so staggeringly demented, so slow and lush and passionate—it’s the most X-rated record I can name, and there isn’t any profanity in it. The delivery is so intimate. Gosh, it’s just the best!
Billy: That’s a goose bumper, a bonafide goose bumper.
Let’s talk about Mad Mike. How did you know of Mad Mike to begin with?
Miriam: My friend Char from Ashtabula had always said we gotta go meet Mad Mike. When we finally met up with him, I interviewed him at length on one of those micro cassette recorders and took snapshots where Mike is holding Norton Records and we’re holding Mike’s old albums and stuff like that. It was a total thrill meeting him, and a gas knowing he was spinning Norton wax at the time. We always figured we would see him again, but that was not to be. He passed away on Halloween, 2000. A few years later, the great Detroit record lady Marilyn Bond tipped us off to a guy selling records in Northeast Ohio. We drove out there to visit him and the first thing I noticed when we got down to listening to weird records is that he had a picture of Mad Mike over his turntable. We didn’t know he was a fan or anything like that, so I was surprised. He was even more surprised that we knew of Mike. I mentioned the interview and he said that that must’ve been one of the last ones he ever did, and that he just had to hear it. I told him my problem—that I hadn’t marked the tape and that I had a box filled with a few hundred microcassettes. He said, “Find the Mike interview and do a proper collection of “Mikers”—records Mike made famous. Well long story short, right when we got home I wanted to find that tape, and I pulled out that giant box of tapes. They were all had erratic markings and stuff like that. I went to Prospect Park to take a breather, and as I was walking, I saw a Bible on a park bench.
Billy: Long story short?!
Miriam: You don’t need to use this story—but here you go– I picked up the Bible and out drops a hand written prayer, a prayer to Mary for lost things! I’m not a Catholic, but I was desperate! I got home and laid that sheaf of paper down and said that prayer three times and then stuck my hand into the box and the first tape—this is gospel truth—was the Mad Mike one. At any rate, I transcribed that interview and played it to the guy in Ohio, and he was so electrified by the idea that Mike was telling “outsiders” the intricate secrets of what went on in the Golden Circle that they got together a meeting of original Mad Mike fiends who were by now scattered all over the country. They taped their conversations over a weekend and we held to our promise of putting together MAD MIKE’S MONSTERS. One volume became two, then three, and now, two more are in the works.
Billy: Such a crazy scene…
Miriam: We got into the inner sanctum of the older guys who were really young at the time, and don’t want to talk to anybody who’s not in the scene. They were so great—the greatest –—they remembered fights that would happen during certain songs and where they first heard this song and that, and always, it was about Mike, how he held total sway over the teenagers of Pittsburgh. Mike was hunting down old, unknown records and playing them to teenagers who should have been listening to The Beatles or The Rolling Stones’ new records at the time. He never wanted them to find out what the records were because he wanted them to come to the dances and listen to his crappy little radio show. He got that realm of working class kids, kids of people who worked in smelters, who were so crazy about crummy old records, no knowing what they were. Mike would rip the labels off! Mad Mike became the spiritual godfather of all the records we love. He completely made the Pittsburgh scene – and these were teenagers. Mad Mike was responsible for popularizing a ton of records, we were being turned on to all this old stuff. He knew more than they knew what they wanted. To me, he is the ultimate. Telling his story in our collections is both a challenge and a privilege.
Well Billy, what’s your chills record?
Billy: “The Wind” by The Diablos. It’s just magical. Unreal that that sound made it to tape. There’s not another record like it—there’s not even another Diablos record like it. I don’t even know if it’s my favorite but that’s the one that gives me the chills. Somebody asked me what my five desert island discs were and I told him, “I’ll just take five copies of this!”
What’s a record that makes both of you jump up and shout?
Miriam: Back to Mad Mike — friend and hero. I could go on for 10,000 words about Mad Mike, but I’ve already gone on for 30,000! Mike popularized “Huggie’s Bunnies” in Pittsburgh back in the day. What makes it a favorite? The build-up, the count, the participation, the anticipation, the unpredicability. I can’t stand even tempo anything – people, records, driving, anything. It has to have attitude. I like two kinds of records—crazy ass killers like this, and heart-crushing ballads. Records allow us to have split personalities, don’t you know!
Miriam: It’s so well recorded and again it’s like you know there’s that lead-in before the singing starts, you know where there’s, like, a musical invitation with Randy Fuller’s storming bass line, and soon as you hear it… POW!
Billy: You wanna know what’s around the corner…
Miriam: Yeah, it’s just the building up of it—it’s just so incredibly powerful to me. I like records that pull you in just even if they’re common records. They get you out there participating with the record. “Let Her Dance” has the same pace and tempo as “Huggie’s Bunnies.” “Dance” has the build up, but also has, on top of everything, a transcendent lushness that is truly appealing. I could dance “all night long” to a continuous loop of this song only. Please play it at my funeral. Somebody!
Miriam: Ah, this is one of those intellectual ones that Billy loves! It’s one of the most dangerous records I know—an “almost-causing-a-riot” record! A measure of greatness to me is also how it incites you to drive faster. “The Birds” is not recommended for automotive use. Try staying to the speed limit with this. Insane. And that’s a good thing. Mad Mike is a magician with the way he would turn the speed one way or another. He tells you how to dance—in case you don’t know how!
Do you two have separate collections of records?
Miriam: No. We haven’t since like since the first five minutes. When we first combined collections I do clearly remember Billy ejecting some of my records—out the window!
Billy: I threw some of her albums out the window. What floor?
Miriam: I’d like to have them back, incidentally.
So, let’s talk about Fortune Records, your favorite record label. What is it about Fortune that makes it so important to you guys?
Billy: Yeah, it was so unique—a mom and pop company in Detroit—it was all Jack and Devora Brown. They started recording people’s pop records and trying to compete with whatever was in the charts by Columbia or Decca. After a while of being naive about it, they realized that they couldn’t afford to keep it up, but then they started getting hillbillies, blues guys, a lot of people working in the auto factories coming in and recording. One day, all of a sudden, Nolan Strong walks in and wants to record a demo. He didn’t have any money, but instead of getting pissed off, Devora likes the sound of Nolan’s voice and they decide to record he group. Their second one, “The Wind” becomes a Detroit R&B monster. Then all the R&B people come flocking in wanting a record like “The Wind”! Sun Records, Excello Records, Ace Records, Specialty—these were all people who knew what they were doing and exactly what they were looking for. I mean Sam Phillips had said a million times exactly what he was looking for and he had great talent scouts like Ike Turner going finding these people. But Fortune was just learning along the way.
Fortune’s just like a happy accident.
Billy: Fortune’s just like, spin the wheel, spin the big wheel and see what happens. There would be no Motown if it weren’t for Fortune. It was before that time and ended up sounding nothing like Motown even though they get compared, and there’re lots of people on both labels: Andre Williams, Gino Parks, The Contours, Dave Hamilton, the Funk Brothers, Johnny Powers, and Melvin Davis played drums on Smokey’s stuff. A lot of the Motown people started out there, but it’s just such a different thing. Fortune could never make a record like “My Girl” no matter how hard they tried. But at the same time Motown could never make a record like “Village of Love” no matter how hard they tried.
It’s weird how some of those Fortune pressings sound good and others sound so bad. It’s like the ones that were good were accidental.
Billy: Exactly! Well, they changed plants a lot. The weird is that some of the second pressings sound better than the first pressings. It’s the same tape, maybe the same stamper, but it’s just that they were cutting corners so much. The studio was in the office in the back room—it would be like somebody coming here and wanting to record. Artists had free reign—it was unpretentious, primitive, unpolished, you could hear the phones ringing in the background, it sounded as if stuff was happening. Somehow the magic came through. It’s so fascinating to me because every time I would hear another Fortune record I’d wonder what the backstory was. There’s not a clocker in the bunch! Someone had to try to track down anyone who had anything to do with the label, and we seemed to be the only people who even knew who the people involved were.
Miriam: Tell him about the numbers, Billy.
Billy: It was my high school reunion in ’97, the year that we got the numbers. We took two numbers off the front door of the studio—it used to be at 3942 Third Ave—when the building was going to be demolished. We also have a brick from there.
So what’s the project you’re doing now with Fortune Records?
Billy: Michael Hurtt and I are trying to put together a book that details the history of the label. Once again I have to mention Motown—if you wanted to know what happened on Tuesday, July 15, 1962, you go to the files and it’s there: Marvin Gaye walked in there at 8pm, they took a break at 9:50, and at 10pm they resumed and took three takes of “Hitch Hike.” With Fortune, they never kept any records of what they did. Did they make this in 1958 or 1968? Why is this guy’s name on a record spelled differently than on this record? Why does the gospel record and soul record have the same numbers? So we were trying to uncover a lot of mysteries and talk to as many people as we can and we probably did almost 100 interviews by now, but we’re getting to the end of people who are still alive… after that we go to the Ouija board. I talked to a guy who’s in one of my favorite groups ever, The Earthquakes, and he can’t remember if he plays on “Village of Love” or not—he just doesn’t remember.
What’s your most precious dollar bin find?
Billy: We had a friend who became our dentist. He had bought out a radio station in Rochester, took all the good records, and put everything else up for a dollar, called everybody up come to his garage in New Jersey and was real sharp. Nobody had record players or anything there, we’re just picking up like records on Parrot and you know, Them records. And then I see this one “Ghost Train” by The Swanks and I get it home and it’s the greatest instrumental that I ever heard. It’s totally scorching and nobody knew it and now it goes for like thousands of dollars.
Miriam: That’s another record that has that build up its just even though it’s an instrumental.
So, how has the world of record collecting changed since you guys started collecting records? People bidding hundreds of dollars over 7-inches that used to be common back in the day. Do you consider yourselves collectors in that sense? Is there a price you won’t pay for a record?
Billy: There are too many zeros at the end!
Miriam: The idea of the collectors market is hideous. It’s painful to see them sleeved and shelved, with reverence to their value versus “yeah-this-record’s-gonna-slay-you.” Our gang of “collectors”– record nuts- didn’t go record hunting for values. We went seeking some elusive unknown holy grail that would avail itself to us as much as we would seek it. Got to love the mystery, the mystique, the heart stopping glide of discovery. Of how sound going into those mudflaps on the side of your head, or how words on a printed page can bring out the glory of life, and love, and death—can cause your heart to pound and your feet to jump, and your eyes to tear and your soul to race around the ceiling. There’s one reason to pay a lot for a fantastic record, if you have the money: to keep it from the clutches of an ingrate, someone who can’t give that record a loving home. Then, it’s one’s DUTY!
Billy: Back in the early 80s when we all used hand around together, we’d just get together and play records. It wasn’t even at DJ nights!
Right, that’s the thing, there are DJ nights every night now. There’s way too much access to information now I think.
Billy: In one way, it’s a good thing because you can go out every night and never be exposed to bad music if you wanted to.
A lot of collectors’ tastes seem to evolve over time, but the Norton sound seems pretty consistent over the years. Are there records or sounds that you once loved that now you don’t care for or vice versa?
Billy: Not so much, I don’t think so.
Miriam: Well it’s a loyalty thing—if you say you love something you better stick by it.
How would you describe the Norton sound? Or the Norton Aesthetic?
Billy: Go ahead, Miriam.
Miriam: Is it suitable for play at a gang fight? SOLD!
Billy: Not necessarily a great seller. When we did the first Hasil album we pretty much put that out only for us and Hasil.
So that was the beginning of Norton records then?
Miriam: Norton Records grew out of Kicks Magazine. It should be noted that for our generation of record nuts, the only method of communication over the miles was the written word. You needed a pen and paper, and a postage stamp that you had to lick. I wrote letters like nobody’s business in the teenage Ohio days to fanzine pals, and got their mail order fanzines, which were really extended personal letters within a small group of friends, where the editors got to spout off and rave about their favorite records. I’d been scribbling for friends’ fanzines and was editing the Flamin Groovies Monthly fanzine (Greg Shaw had started it and passed it on to me). Billy and I did the first issue of Kicks in 1979, pulling in our record nut friends to wrote about records they dug, and somehow we were off to the races. By that time, Alan had laid the groundwork with his JAMZ and TRM (The Rock Marketplace) and was publishing New York Rocker. He wrote the intro to Kicks #1, which really was a big-time deal to Billy and myself.
We put a lot of time and love into Kicks, we really did. The unspoken idea was to write about insane, unknown records, artists, labels, and to get people hopped up. It got to the point where readers would start asking about some of the cool unknown records, specifically Hasil Adkins, after Billy did a cover story on the Haze. We tracked down Hasil via the great Donn Fileti at Relic Records and made our first real album, OUT TO HUNCH by Hasil Adkins. We never intended to start a label. We meant only to make that one album. But here we are, 28 years later, and still at it. That says something about vinyl addiction, doesn’t it? And we ended up issuing Hasil records old and new for the rest of his life. He was a hero, a dear friend, and truly a genius in sound and attitude. Our second release came soon afterward, with VINTAGE VOOLA—wild demos by wild-eyed, wild-haired wildman Esquerita. We knew his legendary singles of course, but never in a million years thought that we would know the man and call him friend.
Billy: There’re legendary guys that we have dealt with on a daily basis—Hasil Adkins, Esquerita, Andre Williams, Mighty Hannibal, Charlie Feathers, Kim Fowley, Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las. It’s gratifying that that’s part of our job and we’re helping out people that have done so much for us over the years. Hasil lived in a shack, situated so far back in the West Virginia hills, that the guy that he was supposed to pay $40 a month to for the property just stopped coming around. He was so cut off from the world at large, but his big dream was to make a record. Hasil got a Presto recorder where you could cut your own acetates on lacquer or cardboard blanks and he made hundreds of these. Sometimes he sang while the machine was on but mostly he transferred the music from tapes. He had some that say “Mix Up Job” on them which were like Hasil’s version of mix tapes, where they’d have Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino and two others, taped from 45s that he borrowed. As you can see he couldn’t spell too well. He only went to one day of school, and would send the president copies of all his tracks. Somewhere we have a thank you letter from Nixon.
Miriam’s gotta tell you the Neil Young story.
Miriam: Jim Marshall — the Hound– had invited us to this movie premiere party at Lincoln Center in 2004 and said that Neil was going to be there, but we didn’t think that we’d really get to meet him. I told Billy to bring the Squires record along to get it signed and Billy said no way. I shoved an old empty 45 sleeve in my purse, along with my autograph book, when we left to go. When we get there, the photographer for the event introduced us to Neil and I just spouted up saying, “you know I’m from Sudbury!” I knew Neil would remember Sudbury because the Squires’ band hearse broke down in Blind River, right close to Sudbury. Neil’s great “Long May You Run” had come out of that incident. Well, on hearing I was from Sudbury, he looked at me with sympathy, I thought, and concern. (“Sudbury- that poor child!!!”) He was super nice and I just pulled out a crappy old brown record sleeve I’d stuck in my bag and asked him for an autograph. I told him my husband wouldn’t let me bring the Squires record but would you sign a sleeve to put it in? He goes, “This is the original sleeve.” I shake by head, “no.” He says, “Yes, it is.” Then he called his wife and his manager over and they’re looking at this an empty plain brown sleeve…
Billy: They’re holding it up to the light, opening the inside of like magic dust falling out, and insisting that it was original. We heard him perform it a couple of tours ago which was crazy.
Miriam: I loved Neil since I was a teenager and being as he was Canadian—well, meeting him and debating the authenticity of a plain brown 45 sleeve with an ex-Squire was INSANE in the best kind of way.
Billy: I was looking through some really crummy acetates like white pop and semi-doo wop stuff and all of a sudden that Velvets—holy smoke and says on the label Lou Reed and the Underground. It’s an acetate from the recording session. They didn’t used to make cassettes and stuff they’d give you acetate so I was looking through a stack of acetates and its like Part 1 and part 2 like a James Brown record- all they do is take this studio recording and chop it in half for reference.
Not only you run a record label together, collect records, but you are also part of the band The A-Bones. This kind of partnership is almost too good to be true! a real inspiration. And what about hard moments. Can we go back a little bit to Hurricane Sandy?
Miriam: Even now, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t wake up thinking about it. We knew right away that we had to move ahead and quickly. We were lucky to have an astonishing posse of people who came up to help in any, and many, ways—a huge bunch of superheroes who came in to get us back on our feet and keep us from falling. Incredible people, all of you.
The Wash-A-Thon was an amazing operation. How did you come about the idea? Who came to help? It must have been a spiritual experience. Did it change anything about your view on life?
Billy: The management of the Brooklyn Bowl offered to help the label out any way they could. It’s a great space and they’re great people. We’ve played there as have most of the Norton bands, and we’ve participated in record shows and DJ nights there. They made their entire place available to us and over 100 people came to help wash records that went through the hurricane. We did two Wash-A-Thons there. The first one was only a few weeks after the hurricane—a real low point for Miriam and me. At one point, when I was ready to flop over, I sat down for a second and looked up. There were people as far as I could see and a lot of them I didn’t know, all doing their part on our behalf. I thought, “Man, we are truly blessed.”
Miriam: Spiritual, yes, in so many ways. I really lost, quite entirely, my lifelong faith in a caring God. Last Easter, six months after Sandy, when we finally started back into making and creating records again, I had really had the worst kind of epiphany, a nightmarish comprehension that everything I believed was false, a hopelessness in the face of all the positivity around us. This past year has been an emotional struggle more with the faith issues than brass tacks. Now, it’s Easter again. I wonder what life has in store? More records, of that I can be sure!
Seems like Norton is more of a family than a standard record label.
Billy: That goes back to the KICKS magazine days. Miriam and I encountered more and more like-minded folks. We do things a little differently. We don’t have publicity people or business planners. We don’t throw record release parties. That’s the customer’s job!
Miriam: Billy’s right. We’re ordinary people who love extraordinary records, and we love working to do what we can to keep great music alive. Donn and Eddie from Relic, Lou Silvani from Time Square—these are the living legends to whom we owe allegiance. We need to stay true to the ethic of heroes who have passed: historian fan gods Alan and Greg, jacks of all trades like Bobby Fuller, Ron Haydock, Jack Starr, disc jockey music demigods like Mad Daddy and Mad Mike, rock n’ roll writer supermen like Hal Ellson, hard ass icons like Hasil, Hannibal, Rudy, Link, all of them, historians like Bhob Stewart, whose recent passing has left a gigantic void.
Your house is filled with records and books from your personal collection and the Norton releases. Does it ever get to you?
Billy: It gets to me only when I see any empty spot that could use some more records and books.
Miriam: Ha! Touche, Billy!
Is there a label you are trying to get a full run of?
Miriam: Much as I’d love to razz about the run thing, I ran a run when I was a teenager, just because I saw Greg Shaw post a list on Cameo Parkway in Bomp. At the time, I was less than penniless, but I still made an effort to find nickel copies of Cameo 45’s. It’s funny, because five years later, when I moved to New York, I wound up working for the great Marty Thau who had started at Cameo, making the records I had been “running” back in Ohio. I’ve done the same with small (and illicit) paperback publishers for years. The story of small publishers and independent record labels, the owners, the label art, everything, is exciting. My favorite label, small as it was, and for obvious reasons, is Exeter/Eastwood—Bobby Fuller’s teenage label, run out of his parents’ home in El Paso. He did it all – wrote, sang, played, recorded, built the studio, ran the label, promoted himself—incredible. And the sound of those homemade records is as pure and wild as the Southwest sands it was created on. I’m obsessed by the sounds of the Southwest and the sounds of the Northwest, and love the way the two met and mingled—KILLER!
Who would you like to see next on Dust & Grooves?
Billy: Tim Warren from Crypt Records. We got him into record collecting and he got us into releasing records, at least that’s the way Tim tells it. We were eating burgers one night around 1981 and I said I needed to call this guy whose auction list I had in my pocket. Tim asked me how that worked and I showed him the list. He got on the phone as soon as I asked about my records and BAM! Right away he hit the road and started digging and was suddenly in the deep end of the pool.
“Interact with people who’ve been at it a while whose tastes you dig and ask a lot of questions.” – Billy
Interview consultation: Mr. Finewine
Edited by Lily Wen
Transcribed by Harriet Notman
Miriam & Billy (RIP) and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
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