What's a Muleskinner, anyway?

My name is Deke Dickerson. I'm a full-time musician, with lots of interests. One of those interests is writing. I write for guitar magazines such as Guitar Player, Fretboard Journal, and Vintage Guitar. I also write music articles, liner notes, and books that accompany box sets.

Once, a long time ago, I thought it was weird to have your own web site. Then, I thought that myspace and Facebook were immature (turns out I was right about that one, but I'm on them anyway). When I heard the word "blog," I decried I would never have one. And yet, here I am. Enjoy...

Sunday, April 3, 2011

THE RECORD WHISPERER

JIM COOPRIDER--
THE RECORD WHISPERER


If you ever find yourself at the Pasadena Swap Meet looking through records, he’s not hard to spot. Jim Cooprider is always there, carrying his trusty wooden record box, lacquered with rare record labels on the side.

The first few times I saw Jim Cooprider, I have to confess, I thought he must be completely insane. He wasn’t much for socializing with other collectors, at least while he was scouting for records. In fact he is usually found not auditioning records on a player, but instead doing something odd with them, like holding it up to an inch in front of his face, or holding it up to his ear while thumping it with his fingers. More often than not, he would talk to himself, saying things in a mysterious code that only a precious few could decipher:

“This is a Camden, New Jersey pressing.”

“This is the 1933 reissue, not the 1927 original.”

“Hairline crack…. looks fixable.”

Such uninvited utterances will scare off the timid. More than once I saw a visiting Japanese collector scouring Northern Soul 45’s back away from Jim as he muttered to himself, fearing that he must be one of those crazy Americans they’ve read about.

It wasn’t until I met Jim’s daughter Yvonne that I got to know him a little better. Once I got to know him, and understand where he’s coming from, I realized that Jim Cooprider understands records the way that lifelong farmers understand weather and soil conditions, or the way that an experienced surgeon realizes the interplay between all the body’s delicate internal systems. In short, I’ve never met a man who was in tune with the physical, emotional, and spiritual properties of records like Jim Cooprider.

When I say records, I mean records. A visit to Jim Cooprider’s house will find records of all kinds—33, 45, 78, and undoubtedly
16 and 80 rpm oddities, piled in every corner of every nook and cranny in the residence. That was how I eventually became friends with Jim Cooprider—for if you let him know that you love records too, you’ve made a friend for life.

Most of us record collectors, even the nerdiest ones among us, focus on the music contained in the grooves, and the condition of the record—for instance, if the scratches on the record impair the pleasure of listening to the musical performance contained within. Jim Cooprider loves music, don’t doubt that for a second (he is happy to espouse the virtues of 20’s jazz, or 50’s doo-wop, or obscure rockabilly gems), but Jim is the only person I’ve ever met who goes far beyond those simple boundaries.

Jim has handled so many records in his life that he can immediately tell what kind of pressing it is, and usually what pressing plant produced it, and whether or not the disc can be repaired if broken, warped or scratched. Amateurs such as myself know records to be made of different materials (vinyl for LP’s and 45’s, styrene for budget 45’s, shellac for 78’s), but Jim can reveal things about a record that few would realize or understand.

In this sense, Jim is the “Record Whisperer,” one of my favorite titles for him. Innately, he understands the physical properties of a record as if it were an external manifestation of one of his own vital organs.

Early on, I learned that Jim was famous for his offer to un-warp any record for a dollar. Dealers would bring in stacks of valuable records that had edge warps, dish warps, storage warps, and Jim would tell them just by looking at the disc what sort of result he would be able to achieve.

Later, when I was able to go to his home, I got to view this process firsthand, which was as astonishing as any demonstration I’ve ever witnessed. Jim has a method, perfected over decades, of fixing warped records that involves heating in his home oven to a particular temperature, removing the disc from the oven, placing it on a flat piece of heavy glass, and doing a form of rain dance around the disc, bouncing the floor just enough to make the pliable heated record slowly settle to flattened, un-warped perfection.

I’ve taken records to Jim that friends of mine deemed unrepairable. It doesn’t matter to Jim if the disc is a golden oldie from the thrift store, or a thousand dollar rockabilly record, if he can fix it, he’ll fix it for a buck.

One of the other tricks in Jim’s trick bag is his method of fixing broken or cracked records. Generally, if a record is broken in two it can’t be repaired to be unnoticeable, but rare discs can be repaired with a number of different chemical compounds on the edges, to get the record fused back together enough to be playable once again. I remember Jim rattling off a list of the chemicals that he uses to fuse records back together again (Methyl-Ethyl-Ketone, or
MEK, was one of them—in fact “MEK” is one of the things Jim will often talk about in front of unsuspecting passers-by), all of which exhibited a certain chemical property relating to the particular chemical compound of the record itself.

In addition to his wizardly ways of working with records, Jim also likes to disc jockey wherever he is welcome. One of my favorite memories of Jim was seeing him DJ using 78-rpm records exclusively at a local venue featuring swing music. Of course, the selections Jim brought were all completely appropriate for the evening, and seeing them played on a 78 player with the CD jukebox in the background was a delightful juxtaposition of images.

The man has been collecting records for so long, that he’s able to expound on virtually any subject, so long as it relates to records. Unlike most of the “record snobs” I know, Jim is happy to talk about anything from banjo records to classical collections to rock and roll, all with his particular slant on why a certain release was better, be it the performance, mastering, pressing, or packaging.

One of the other things I dearly love about Jim is that while he does pay differing amounts for records, and has sold records that are valuable, one thing you’ll never hear Jim Cooprider go on about is a record’s collectible value. For myself, it’s a breath of fresh air, having been bored to tears listening to collectors talk about how much their collection is worth. For Jim, it truly is about the love of records.

With a house full of records, and decades of collecting behind him, it’s easy to wonder why Jim Cooprider still shows up early at the record swap meet. Does he need any more records? The answer is unequivocally no. It’s obviously an addiction, and an obsession that most of us reading this magazine share. However, none of us compare in sheer exhaustive record collecting extremism the way that Jim Cooprider does as a way of life. I love that about the guy. Sometimes, when I’m feeling too lazy to get up for the PCC Swap Meet, I think to myself—Jim’s out there, I need to get up out of bed. If I ever feel a twitch of reality and start thinking I have enough records, I think about Jim and I realize—you can never, ever have too many records.

Jim Cooprider is really one of the great American characters that make this country so damn interesting. The next time you see him at the swap meet awkwardly holding records right up to his eye, remember—there’s an Albert Einstein level of genius at work there. There are secrets he knows that you and I will never know.

As generations go by, there seems to be less and less importance on collecting. I remember growing up in the 1970’s that every block had a group of obsessed collectors—the guy who collected vintage model trains,
the guy who collected glass telephone pole insulators, and the guy who collected old records. I loved those guys, and their passion, and the level of interest in things that most would find mundane. I wanted to be like them (and I guess I am).

Things like the mp3 player and the recordable CD have changed all that. Kids today seem unimpressed by a wall of vinyl, showing that their Ipod contains more songs on it than thousands of heavy record albums. Kids today also seem to have an attention span that is so short, they can’t be bothered to play individual records such as 45 or 78 singles—it’s too much trouble.

As such, we may see these intrinsic American characters like Jim Cooprider eventually disappear from the landscape of America. I, for one, will rue that day. Our world is richer for having them. Jim Cooprider is our “record whisperer,” and we should all thank him for it.

Deke Dickerson



Below: Jim Cooprider, the Record Whisperer.

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