Resurrecting the role of record store legend Skippy White in an unsung era of Boston soul

Long before streaming service algorithms fueled our appetite for new sound, music lovers relied on radio DJs and record sellers like Skippy White.

“There was a saying that if you walked into the store and wanted a record but you didn’t know its name, all you had to do was hum it,” the 86-year-old said. years with a laugh.

White’s encyclopedic knowledge of rhythm and blues is legendary. Like a teacher, he shared it with customers for years at four beloved Boston-area record stores.

White opened his first on Washington Street in 1961 and Mass Records: The Home of the Blues became a Mecca. It was the place where people could find the latest R&B, gospel, doo-wop and soul.

Skippy White pulls James Brown’s “Don’t Be A Dropout” from a pile of 45 records in his collection. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

But White lifted the needle on his six-decade brick-and-mortar career in 2020 and moved his massive inventory to a warehouse. “Even that wasn’t big enough to hold it all,” he recalls. “So when I finally closed the last store and finished this chapter of my story, I had to take a lot of records home.”

Boxes of moldy LPs and 45s fill White’s house in Natick. But there’s a part of his storied vinyl career that few people know about. Musician Eli “Paperboy” Reed discovered it in the mid-2000s while cleaning out the basement of White’s gated Central Square location.

“It was full of water-damaged records,” Reed said, “And that was kind of my clue that there was more to the history of soul music in Boston than I thought. “

The 39-year-old knew White had brought music rarely heard by black musicians to the airwaves as a DJ on WILD 1090-AM, and had convinced major soul artists like Otis Redding to play shows in Boston in the 1960s. What the young vinyl collector didn’t know was that White was also recording local musicians.

“A lot of these bands would come to me — especially when I was dating Sammy and the Del-Lards,” White said of the harmonic doo-wop act. “They thought Skippy White was the person to go to.”

Some artists even auditioned for White at his Mass shop. Ave. He remembers when Alvin Hankerson heard twangy blues coming from an outside speaker and walked inside. The musician told White that he also sings like that and has written original material. Then Hankerson ran home to grab his guitar and came back to perform a few songs. Impressed, White even came up with a new artist name for Hankerson. One of the musician’s thumbs was missing and he was strumming his guitar with the bony heel that remained. So White suggested he use Guitar Nubbit, and it stuck.

Skippy White's first record store is featured on the compilation cover
Skippy White’s first record store is featured on the cover of ‘The Skippy White Story: Boston Soul 1961-1967’ compilation. (Courtesy of Yep Roc Records)

Now, songs from Guitar Nubbit and Sammy and the Del-Lards join more than a dozen rediscovered tracks on a new compilation that celebrates that little-known era called “The Skippy White Story: Boston Soul 1961-1967.”

“I never thought that would happen, I never dreamed of it, because I thought if we were ever going to have a compilation of some of the releases that I had on 45s, I would have to put it out myself- same,” White said.

With the help of other Skippy White fans, Reed set out to collect and learn more about this lost history. The Brookline native searched for forgotten 45s and even found unique acetate tapes that were cut during sessions but never became records. “Treason” by The Precisions is one of them. Reed couldn’t believe it existed.

“You don’t expect to find really highquality material that has sat in the box — or, in this case, a box in a basement — for so many years,” Reed said. “You have this group, The Precisions, of which we only know the name of one of the members. These discs are great. They deserve a second life.

A revival of re-releases from other vintage soul scenes in cities like Seattle, Washington and Madison, Wisconsin really lit Reed’s fire. “I was like, ‘Man, if they can release records in these kind of remote places, there should be a compilation of Boston soul and gospel records.'”

Reed’s label, Yep Roc Records, joined him in sharing Boston’s soul, R&B and gospel history with a wider audience. The musician said not being able to tour during the pandemic gave him and co-producer Noah Schaffer (a WBUR contributor) time to secure the rights to the songs, do their research and carefully package the compilation. His detailed liner notes, archival footage and rare recordings document how White put Boston’s soul on the map.

Skippy White in 1980. (Courtesy of Ellen Nations)
Skippy White in 1980. (Courtesy of Ellen Nations)

“You have this guy who grew up with French Canadian parents listening to country music in Waltham and then fell in love with black American music and made it his life’s passion,” he said.

Reed was particularly enthusiastic about including an unconventional gospel track from the Crayton Family Singers. “Master on High” features an explosive female voice praying for the Lord’s sake, and it springs from some surprisingly young pipes.

“I mean, Joyce was 11 when she sang that song,” Reed said.

Joyce Crayton Weston also wrote the lyrics. Now 68, the Stoughton resident remembers stepping into the studio as a child to record ‘Master on High’ with White and her father, Reverend Huston Crayton. The two men were close friends and both had radio shows. They co-promoted major gospel shows in Boston, but always made sure to feature local bands on the bill, including the Crayton Family Singers.

Crayton Weston is grateful that White captured the music of her parents, sister and brother through her gospel label, Silver Cross. “It has been many years. You know, both of my parents are gone. I miss them,” she said. “But their legacy is still there. The Crayton Singers, that’s what they formed.

Still, Crayton Weston was surprised to learn of the resurrection of “Master on High.” Although it was one of her favorites, she said, “I had no idea it would get so much attention.”

Joyce Crayton Weston rehearsing
Joyce Crayton Weston rehearsing ‘Master on High’ with Eli ‘Paperboy’ Reed on guitar (left) at the Sinclair in Cambridge ahead of the compilation release party on October 29. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Some of the songs White released on his four record labels received radio airplay beyond Boston, but none of them were successful. “There are no hits on the whole compilation, but it’s good music,” he said.

The famous two-part “Skippy White Theme”, sung by Junior Washington and arranged by another great player in the Boston R&B scene, renowned Berklee grad, drummer and producer Herschel Dwellingham, stands out.

In all, White thinks he pressed maybe 3,000 records at the time, but he knows for sure he never made a lot of money from musicians’ 45s. “That’s not why I was there,” White said. “I was there to help them showcase their talent – and that was it.”

Skippy White’s real name is Fred LeBlanc, but that’s another story. He continues to sell vinyl from his historic treasure trove online, and you can still hear “the professor” sharing his favorite genres on two weekend radio shows. The Gospel Train and The Time Tunnel air from Dedham on independent station Urban Heat 98.1-FM.

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