I published a column in this past Friday’s Oakland Tribune where I have a monthly pop music column. It was written just a few days after leaving the Bay Area after 16 years and one of the things I’ll miss the most (besides friends and family) is my weekly visits to the Groove Merchant, aka the greatest record store in the world.

I decided to write my August column in tribute to the Merchant and in doing so, I realized how deeply my visits there have influenced my relationship to music and as I note in the column, I don’t think it’s a coincidence, at all, that I started blogging about soul, jazz, funk, etc. records soon after I started shopping at the GM (this was before people called it blogging but if you’re curious to see this nascent, pre-MP3 version of Soul Sides, go here.

The thing is this: there are good record stores – places where, if you get lucky, you might find some fantastic albums on the cheap. These are the lifeblood for most collectors – places that you walk into with a quiet prayer that you’ll turn up some unexpectedly sick sh– for next to nothing. I, of course, have a great appreciation for these stores – places like Village Music in Mill Valley or 2nd Hand Tunes in Chicago or that rinky dink, hole in the wall store in Dayton (if ya’ll know, ya’ll know).

But what marks a great record store isn’t just good records (this does help however) but rather the knowledge you attain from merely visiting. People who visit this site are incredibly gracious about what they learn about music through it. I’m very happy it’s able to achieve that. But for me, my musical education from the GM is how others may see Soul Sides. I’ve learned more about different kinds of music and artists and genres, etc. through Cool Chris – the GM’s proprietor – in the last seven years or so than I did in the 28 that proceeded it. I can say, almost definitively, that this site would not exist if not for my afternoons spent at that store every week. It’s not that everything I post here came out of the GM but the aesthetic that I try to establish in the music I post is undeniably shaped through what I’ve learned there.

The credit is due not just to the store itself but to Chris Veltri. People who don’t spend a lot of time in record stores don’t really understand this simple social fact: 90% of record store owners are complete a–holes. Imagine the Comic Book Guy from The Simpsons in real life and that’s certainly one segment: know-it-alls who sniff their nose at having to share their knowledge with such obvious peons as ourselves. Then there’s the know-nothings who run stores, log into eBay to check prices, and either grossly overcharge some albums and neglectfully undercharge others but shopping from them is an ordeal. Chris, on the other hand, is incredibly cordial and helpful and social in a way that makes you wonder what charm school other record store folk should be attending to get their consumer relations game up. He’s just “That Dude” if you know what I mean. (I’m not the only person who feels this way – his fans are legion and international).

I feel so indebted and so enriched by my time rapping with Chris, checking out records he gets in, trading/buying from him that when Zealous Records asked me what my second Soul Sides CD would be, my first pitch was an Afternoons at the Groove Merchant theme which would include records I learned about through the store. For a variety of reasons, Zealous and I deaded that (you’ll like the actual concept we ran with, believe that), not the least of which is because my favorites songs I’ve learned through the store haven’t necessarily been jaw-dropping musical gems but rather, records that just have fascinating back stories.

I also note this in the column but people forget that even in the name itself – record – these pieces of vinyl exist to record things, both literally – like music – and figuratively, like people’s life stories, whether intentionally or not. Every record tells a story, not just in the songs, but in who made it, when they made it, why they made it, etc. My personal interest in records is definitely fueled by what those backstories are and it’s not hard to see how Soul Sides was an outgrowth of that interest.

In any case, this is all a long-winded intro in what should be a fun, recurring set of posts on Soul Sides – Afternoons at the GM – that discusses some of my favorite records that I learned about while at the store. Hope you guys enjoy. Let’s start it off…

Aposento Alto: Rejoice
From Goodbye Old Friends (Windeco, 1978)

The Moon People: Happy Soul
From Land of Love (Speed, 1969)

The Moon People: Hippy Skippy Moon Strut
From 7″ (Roulette, 1969)

The Aposento Alto LP was one of the last albums I ever picked up from the Groove Merchant before leaving the Bay. It’s a crazy obscure, private press, Latin gospel soul funk album out of Modesto, CA. Yeah, Latin gospel soul funk…there’s no better way to describe it and if you listen to “Rejoice” you’ll see what I mean. I’ve never heard Latin gospel but now that I have…if it all sounds like this, I’m down like the ground. Besides “Rejoice,” it has some slower soul tunes and this epic, eight minute cut “Te Amo” that features a ridiculous 2-3 minute drum solo complete with a steady, back-breaking, breakbeat (complete with all kinds of fills and rolls) that’s over a minute long. Mind-boggling.

I copped the Moon People LP sometime last year – another great, funky set of Latin tunes (though no gospel). However, I hadn’t really listened to it that closely until Christina Aguilera and DJ Premier dropped “Ain’t No Other Man” and realized: oh yeah, this is a Moon People song even though it was erroneously reported online that it was a Luis Alvarez song that Primo flipped. Nope – it’s pretty obvious it’s the Moon People. The trick though: which version of this song?

My speculation is that “Hippy Skippy Moon Strut” came out first on 45 and then the Moon People used the same backing track, dumped the vocals, and laid down keys instead, then called it “Happy Soul.” The instrumentals are identical – it’s just the diff b/t the vocals or not. Personally, I like both versions equally though I suppose “Moon Strut” plays out better because of the vocals.

What I like about both “Happy Soul” and “Rejoice” is how each briefly interpolates other songs – on “Rejoice” the horn lines at the beginning sound like “I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia” by Joe Cuba while “Happy Soul” pretty obviously takes up riffs from “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell and the Drells.