Randy’s Record Shop

A look back at an industry legend

 

By Jim Hornsby

Randy Wood died last year at the age of 94. He was a remarkable fellow; a pioneer in the development of the music industry in Middle Tennessee, a major influence in the rise of rhythm and blues from inner-city obscurity to America’s main stream, a dominant force in the early days of rock and roll, and, by all accounts, a “super nice guy” — a true gentleman who was devoted to his family, loyal to his friends, good to his employees and generous to his community. George Barker, in The Man with the Golden Ear, says of Wood, “No businessman ever struck it so rich, so quick and picked up so many friends along the way.”

From his youth, Wood had a strong interest in radios and recording equipment. He served as a communications officer during World War II, and shortly after being discharged in 1945, opened a small appliance shop in Gallatin, Tennessee. As an afterthought, he kept a few 78 rpm records to demonstrate his selection of phonographs. He was soon selling records – mostly classical and pop – and noticed that customers were requesting hard-to-find rhythm and blues artists they were hearing on Nashville’s WLAC radio station. Wood saw the potential for selling these hard-to-find records by mail, and discussed his ideas with WLAC disc jockey Gene Nobles, who helped get the mail-order business started.

Probably the best advice Nobles ever gave Wood was to buy some advertising time on his late night radio show. Soon after the ads aired, mail-order sales skyrocketed. “We were just flooded with orders,” recalls Wood’s daughter, Linda, “My mother helped; everybody helped. We had to work around the clock to fill all the orders.” By 1950 Wood had moved into a new, more spacious building, hired 20 employees to handle the packing and shipping, and was selling half a million records a year. The business became so well known that orders came in with no street address – just Randy’s Record Shop, Gallatin (“That’s Gallatin, folks, G-A-double L-A-T-I-N,” as Nobles used to say), Tennessee.

To a degree, both Wood and Nobles owe their careers to the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time. Prior to the mid 1940’s there were no “disc jockeys” on big city radio stations, and little if any recorded music was played; almost all programming was from the studios of national affiliates. But in the latter 1940’s, as national broadcasters began to focus on their television interests, individual stations were given more opportunity to produce local programming.

WLAC was one of the first major stations to let DJ’s play records on the air and develop their own rapport with the audience. Nobles started his late-night show around 1946 playing a wide range of pop, jazz, gospel, bebop, boogie-woogie and ever more increasingly, rhythm and blues. A former carnival barker with a gift for gab, Nobles developed what he called “slanguage,” a mixture of jive and jazz talk that, combined with the infectious beat of his music, rapidly made his show a hit with a huge listening audience.

WLAC had a modest daytime transmission that reached four or five states, but at night, when Nobles’ show aired, it blasted 50,000 clear-channel watts into thirty states and several foreign countries. Bob Marley, in Jamaica, cited WLAC as an early influence for his music, as did The Band in Canada. Millions of fans tuned in, and WLAC is credited with launching the careers of a galaxy of R&B stars– James Brown, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, to name just a few.

Wood, with the financial security of his record sales, began to experiment with recording music. He purchased part interest in a Gallatin radio station and used the station’s recording equipment to start the Dot Records label. In 1950 and 1951, he recorded a variety of impressive musicians including R&B artists Ivory Joe Hunter and Brownie McGhee, ragtime pianist Johnny Maddox, country/bluegrass great Mac Wiseman, and Gospel’s Fairfield Four. These early productions sold well, but it was his later successes with pop recordings that really put Dot on the map.

From the 1950’s through the late 1960’s, Wood produced hits by the Hilltoppers, Pat Boone, The Fontane Sisters, Billy Vaughn, Lawrence Welk, Tab Hunter, Debbie Reynolds, Gale Storm, the Mills Brothers, Jimmie Rogers, Louis Prima and Keely Smith, Danny Kaye, Bob Crosby, Eddy Fisher, the Del Vikings, and The Surfaris. In total, Dot released an astounding 1000 records and albums with a consistent string of top 40 and top 10 hits — and quite a few of the number one, top selling records in the world.

Wood had an uncanny knack for picking hit songs. “He didn’t know one note from another,” says Maddox, “but he had a brilliant mind for knowing what would sell.” Pat Boone credits Wood with picking all his early hits. “At recording sessions,” Boone recalls, “(Wood) would have three or four songs for me to sing. Three hours later, we were through and at least one of them would be a million-seller.” “I know the sound when I hear it, “said Wood. “I can feel it. It’s a sound that makes you want to listen.”

By 1956, Wood was doing so much of his business in California, that he moved with his family to Hollywood; but he never lost touch with Gallatin. He kept his Gallatin home, his record store and his interest in the local radio station. He and his wife, Lois, remembered their friends with frequent telephone calls and presents on special occasions; they continued to contribute to the church they had attended and gave generous donations to various schools and universities.

They were the guests of honor in 1961, when the Gallatin Chamber of Commerce set aside a special day of tribute for their generosity and their achievements. They clearly enjoyed being a part of the local community. “A man who forgets who he is and where he is from has lost a great deal,” Wood said.

Wood sold Dot Records to Paramount Pictures in 1957, but stayed on as president to produce hit records for Paramount well into the 1960’s. As part of the sales agreement, Wood became a vice-president at Paramount, and while he enjoyed his work there, he retained a tasteful modesty that was rare for the Hollywood environment. As George Barker described it, “The only decoration on the expensively hewed mahogany paneling of Randy’s office is a plaque he received a few years ago from the Gallatin Chamber of Commerce for ‘outstanding service to his community.’”

Randy’s Record Shop closed in 1991 after competition from the “big-box” retail stores slowed mail-order sales to a trickle. The building that housed the record store and was home to Dot Records is still there, but it is empty and dilapidated. Historically, it is as important, and some would say more so, than the Sun Records Studio in Memphis or the RCA Studio B in Nashville, but the Gallatin site is too far off the tourist routes to attract many visitors, so it edges closer to the wrecking ball with each passing year.

But Gallatin has not forgotten Randy Wood. The Sumner County Museum has a display of memorabilia highlight his achievements, and in 1993, a state historical marker was erected at the original location of the record shop. He is fondly remembered by all who knew him, and Marjorie Lloyd expressed the feelings of many when she wrote in The Gallatin Newspaper last year that Wood was “a man who became financially successful without losing the kindness of a neighbor for a neighbor and a friend for a friend.”

The author is grateful to Allen Haynes, Curator for the Sumner County Museum, and Ken Thompson, Historian, for the use of their interviews and for their permission to use photographs from the Sumner County Museum.

 

 

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