Richard Williams on the king with an Ace up his sleeve
I wish, now, that I’d spent more time at Ted Carroll’s Rock On stall, hidden away in the Golborne Road market at the top of Portobello Road in London. This was at the dawn of the 1970s, long before fashionable affluence began to emigrate to the north end of Notting Hill. There was nothing fashionable about Ted’s record stall, founded on his purchase of a couple of thousand 45s on the London American label from a dealer in his native Dublin at a flat price of threepence-ha’penny each and sold to the likes of me for pound or two, depending on rarity, along with a dollop of conversation.
Ted was a large, bearded, bespectacled man who loved rhythm’n’blues and rockabilly, and had acquired a sufficient comprehension of their value to enable him to increase his retail empire first by adding a stall in Soho market and then, in 1975, by opening a full-scale Rock On shop around the corner from Camden Town tube station. Before long, his outlets had become the equivalents of New York’s House of Oldies and Village Oldies, places where young musicians hung out, drinking from the fountain of the eternal rock’n’roll verities.
One way or another, it was inevitable that Ted would start his own record company, in the great tradition of retailers whose direct experience of their customers’ purchasing habits provides a quality of market research denied to the suits in their corporate HQs. Ted’s first label was called Chiswick and is remembered for such releases as the Count Bishops’ Train Train and the Keys to Your Heart by the 101ers, featuring Joe Strummer, redolent of the time when the pub-rock of north and west London was starting to mutate into the full-blown punk movement.
In 1978, Carroll and his associate Roger Armstrong started a second label, called Ace, to handle reissues of recordings, many of them cherishably obscure, licensed from the original companies and repackaged with the expertise of true aficionados. It was with this project that they found lasting success. In the 30 years since Ace started out by assuaging a thirst for the sinister guitar instrumentals of Link Wray, the label has mushrooomed to encompass virtually every style of American vernacular music, from Kentucky bluegrass to northern soul and beyond, entertaining and instructing generations of listeners in the process.
The rich story of Carroll, Armstrong and their labels is well told in the new book Ace Records by David Stubbs (Black Dog, £19.95). Copiously illustrated, it shares a fondness for good visual material with the company’s own art directors, who understand the appeal of an original label design or an evocative period poster. It is an appeal that speaks across frontiers: in Zagreb last year, I wandered into a record shop where at least half the stock bore the Ace imprint.
Among Ace’s most recent releases are an anthology of the early-70s recordings of the New Orleans songwriter Allen Toussaint, a compilation of the early-60s work of the great producer Bert Berns (including the Isley Brothers and Solomon Burke), and a 1983 set of railroad-inspired guitar sketches by the late John Fahey, one of the rarer items from Fahey’s own Takoma label. The item most likely to attract attention, however, is a two-CD set titled Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan, a selection of 50 tracks from the series that has given Dylan a new career as a disc jockey. Put together with Dylan’s blessing, it juxtaposes the likes of Slim Gaillard, Bo Diddley, Merle Haggard, the White Stripes, Memphis Minnie, the Stanley Brothers, Otis Rush, Mary Gauthier, Dinah Washington, the Donays, Geraint Watkins, Aretha Franklin, Jack Teagarden, Joe South, Billie Holiday and George Jones in such a display of love and scholarship that it could also stand as a symbol of the adventure that began at that obscure little market stall all those years ago.
· Ace Records by David Stubbs is published by Black Dog. Theme Time Radio Hour With Your Host Bob Dylan is out now
Ted’s Top Ten
Baby I Love You So – Joey Weaver & The Don Juans (Fortune 825)
Kokomo Me Baby – Danny Boy (Tifco 824)
Gypsy Girl – The Staccatos (Syncro 661)
Alabama Shake – Barry Darvell (London HL 9191)
Sufferin City – Johnny Copeland (Atlantic 2542)
You Got Me Whistlin – Johnny Fuller (Checker 899)
Tongue Tied Jill – Charlie Feathers (Meteor 5032)
I Could Never Be Ashamed of You – Jerry Lee Lewis (Sun 330)
Mystery Train – Junior Parker (Sun 192)
Prisoner of Love – James Brown (King 5739)
Michael Hurley – Armchair Boogie (Racoon)
Dykes – Greatest Hits ~ Funky Broadway (Original Sound 8876)
Rolling Stones – First Album (Decca LK 4605)
Various Artists – We Sing The Blues (London HA-P 8061)
Ike & Tina Turner – Greatest Live Show on Earth (Warners WM 8170)
Soundtrack – EasyRider (Dunhill DSX 50063)