Tribeca's Extraordinary Record Archive

Bob George among the shelves of reords he has collected over nearly 30 years. Photo: Carl Glassman/Tribeca Trib

Feb. 28, 2013

Bob George, who reigns over one of the world’s largest libraries of popular recorded music, is quick to note that he is not a collector. Collectors drink too much, he observes. They spend too much money on their collections. They are obsessed.

Then how to explain all the recordings—more than two million—crammed into row after row of floor-to-ceiling shelves that fill the offices of ARC (The Archive of Contemporary Music) at 54 White Street? From 12,000 blues recordings to every Beatles and Beach Boys record to thousands of punk bands and New Wave artists to singers whose careers can be summed up in a single LP? (Scroll down to see a slide show sampling of album covers.)

“I just take care of them,” George, 63, says laughing. “I am like the Buddha. I must not want anything, because if you want something, then you’ll do anything to get it.”

Luckily, a lot of records come to him, maybe because tossing vinyl records just doesn’t feel right.

ARC, which George started in 1985 with friend and library science graduate David Wheeler, got its first major collection in 1986 from a Boston collector, whose house George says had been condemned from the weight of 100,000 discs. It took a summer for George and volunteers to pack the records and drive them to New York.

Then came his second break.

“One of the computer people in Boston read about what we were doing and asked me to lunch. He had never met us before and he wrote us a check for $50,000.”

The archive has grown exponentially since then, thanks to hundreds more donations of record collections, large and small. “Jellybean [Benitez], one of the first three producers of Madonna records, just emptied out his basement,” George notes, “and gave us 6,000 records, mostly Latin music.”

Serious collectors, he says, “are willing to entrust us with their whole life’s work and what they love the most.”

To name a few: early blues devotee Keith Richards donated his 12,000 blues recordings, “Fiddler on the Roof” composer Jerry Bock gave his collection of 9,000 Broadway and original cast albums; and former Def Jam executive Bill Adler donated 1,000 Christmas LPs and CDs. This year the ARC received 27,000 LPs from the Voice of America but, for now, George says, can’t afford the shipping cost from Washington to New York.

At least once a week a vinyl buff notices ARC’s storefront with its display of faded album covers and wanders inside. Last month, George gave one of them a tour of the place. The visitor, a vinyl collector himself, peered down the aisles of shelves. “Holy shit,” he kept saying. “This is like falling into a gold mine. This is overwhelming."

Overwhelming, but with little monetary value. “This collection is great because it has so many things,” George  says, “not because it has some valuable things.”
Just the kind of collection that would appeal to a devout anticapitalist like Bob George.

“I am against engaging in commerce of any sort. We don’t try to market anything. We don’t put ads on our website. We don’t have a cafe. We don’t sell tote bags.” He paused. “A gift shop would probably make it easier to survive.”

The archives survives with the help of two foundations, its board of directors and landlord, the building’s co-op.

“We pay one-third of the market rate,’ George says. “They’re incredibly generous.”

Even so, it’s a struggle. He says the archives have lost a lot of donors in the last few years, mostly people who used to give $50 to $100.

“It’s hard to get enough money to pay the rent every month.”

On his weekend hunts for music—usually at local flea markets and yard sales—George rarely spends more than 25 or 50 cents. His limit is $2.50.

(Exception: a rack of Michael Jackson air fresheners that cost him $20.)  
George displays the air fresheners and many other favorites in his doorless office that overlooks an air shaft.

“This is my favorite new section,” he says, pointing to a display on one wall, “ridiculous religious records.” On the other wall are autographed records.

George is proudest the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. album (1964), signed by all the Stones.
From a pile on the floor he picks up a record called “Carnival on the Rhine.”

“We just got these from Fred Schneider [the B-52s’ lead singer]. Fred’s are fabulous! He finds the worst junk ever made, but they have great covers!”

 A few years ago, George decided to give direction to his acquiring.

“I wanted to keep it more interesting for me. Otherwise I’m just a two-bit bureaucrat running an organization.” His idea was to organize a world-wide week of activities around one country’s music, with concerts, radio shows, lectures and performances. The music weeks have also brought records into the archives.

Last year was the Brazil project, and ARC received donations of 20,000 recordings. This year is the Indian project.

In the fall, George went to India to deliver a paper at a conference of the International Association of Sound and Audiovisual Archives, to meet other collectors and go on his own personal quests.

One trek took him through the back roads of Delhi in search of a rumored record shop that had a Beatles 78 of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” After much wandering, George navigated his way down a seemingly endless alley with old car engines piled on either side. At the end was the elusive record store.

“It was the holy grail kind of search,” George recalls. “It was such an anomaly, making a 78 of a 45 song from 1963. They did it because so many people had wind-up phonographs in India.” But it was not to be his. At $1,000, the record was beyond his budget.

George came to New York City to study art at the Whitney Museum, which then had an outpost on Reade Street. Afterward, he did a stint as an art teacher, but soon segued into music.

In 1981, he produced Laurie An­derson’s first single, “O Superman,” and went on to host a BBC radio show, spinning American rock and pop and experimental music. He published a discographical reference on punk and New Wave music. He was soon inundated with records of musicians who wanted to be in the next volume.

By the time he moved to Tribeca, in the early 80s, George had acquired 47,000 records, the beginnings of ARC’s collection.

George has long stopped collecting records for himself, though his he has remained true to vinyl.

“I am not an audiophile,” he says, “but if you’re listening to a recording that was made on analogue, and you listen to a digital version, there is no comparison. A Motown record sounds terrible on a CD. But on vinyl it sounds great, 70 years later.”

Bob George's Favorites

I can point to a few recordings that I played over and over again, for days on end.  Some of these are pretty pedestrian (Noel Coward) and some very obscure. They have always been linked to people, events, time and sometimes about quality.  (Songs are in quotes, otherwise it's an album.)  —Bob George

Deli Abioden – Admiral Dele Abiodun And His Top Hitters 1978

Adu – “Human to Human”

Laurie Anderson – “O Superman” (the only song I’ve heard at least 500 times! – as I put it out on my label)

Avengers – “The American in Me”

Beatles – Revolver – (played it 3-6 times a day one summer)

Bongos – “Mambo Sun”

Anouar Brahem – Barzakh

Tim Buckley, “Goodby and Hello”

Buzzcocks –  “I Don’t Know What to Do with Myself”

Hamilton Camp –  “Paths of Victory”

Chico César – “Mama Africa”

Lizzy Mercier Descloux – “Jim On the Move” 

Devo –  “Satisfaction” (original mix 12” 45 on Boogie Boy Records)

Anna Domino – East and West, especially  “In the Land of My Dreams”

Bob Dylan - Blond on Blond & The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan

Jackie Edwards – “What's Your Name/Version Girl”

Brian Eno – Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, Discreet Music LPs

Explainer – “Lorraine”

Fela and the Africa 70 – Lady/Shakara LP  

Franco – “You, You” 

Gang of Four – “Love Like Anthrax”

Pat and Victoria Garvey  - “Ten More Nights in This Old Ballroom”

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Gilberto Gil – “2222”

Incredible String Band – “The First Girl”  & “Ducks On A Pond”

Golden Earring – “Radar Love”

Bert Janch – “Needle of Death”

Souzy Kasseya – “Le Téléphone Sonne”

Alhaji Chief Kollington Ayinla – “Oro Idibo Nigeria 1983”

Melody Beecher – “Only One You”  

Vaughn Mason – Bounce Rock, Skate, Roll, pt 1  

Las Musas del Vallenato – “Me Dejaste Sin Nada”

Fred Neil – “Dolphins”

New Age Steppers – “Fade Away”  

Orchestre Septentrional – “Pot Pouri de Boleros”

Pearls Before Swine – “Drop Out With Me”

Pig Bag – "Papa's Got A Brand New Pigbag" & "The Big Bean"

Pop Group – “We Are All Prostitutes”

Prince Nico – Aki Special

Raincoats – “No Side To Fall In” 

Kareem Salama – “A Land Called Paradise”

Scritti Politti – “The Sweetest Girl”

Ravi Shankar

Sugarhill Gang – “Rapper’s Delight”   

Donna Summers – “State of Independence”   (12” 45)”

Sweet Talks – “Moses”  

Twilight Zonerz – “Twister”  

Wire – Pink Flag

X-Ray Spex – “The Day The World Turned Day-Glo” & “Identity”  

Narciso Yepes – “L'Atalante (Main Title)”

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