Jeff Atterton – the quiet giant

Sam Goody sign 001 Jeff Atterton - 1 001

Jeff Atterton – Brian Harvey’s great friend and jazz guide from the halcyon days of Dobell’s record shop – died some time back but we only recently discovered this tribute to him tucked away on the internet.

When I worked at Sam Goody on Third Avenue and 43rd St. in New York over a summer break in the early ’70s, I had the pleasure of being schooled by salesmen Harry Lim and Jeff Atterton. Harry had been the famed producer at Keynote Records back in the early ’40s. Atterton was an English chap who knew his stuff and was fond of vests and yellow Schwann catalogs. [Undated photo above of record producer Milt Gabler, left, and Jeff Atterton]
JazzWax reader Ross Firestone informed me last week of Jeff’s passing:
“I think older New York jazz record collectors would like to know that Jeff Atterton recently passed away. For many years, the tall, lanky Englishman was the resident jazz record guru at the Sam Goody store on West 49th Street in Manhattan, an unmistakable presence as soon as you walked through the door. As anyone who ever chatted him up will remember, he had a droll, rather ironic sense of humour about the state of the world and a great passion for jazz, which he seemed to feel made up for everything else that was lacking.
“Jeff was always enormously helpful to the many customers who sought him out, locating obscurities for advanced collectors and steering neophytes toward the good stuff and away from the crap. When Goody went under, Jeff moved over to the King Karol shop on West 42nd Street, which wasn’t his kind of place at all, then down to the more congenial J&R jazz record store, located at that time a block behind the main drag that houses the rest of the J&R empire.
“Among Jeff’s friends were many of the musicians whose playing he loved. Pee Wee Russell gave him some of his oil paintings, which with characteristic generosity Jeff bequeathed to the Institute of Jazz Studies. When I was working on my biography of Benny Goodman Jeff voluntarily set me up for an interview with his old pal Jess Stacy, which was a lovely experience for me and very helpful to my book. He will be missed.”


Jeff was a shy diffident man who rarely bought records – I began to gradually appreciate that he just liked being among jazz people – that’s why he hung around with us. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the music and was known to many musicians, especially Americans like members of the Eddie Condon “mob”. His particular passion was for the work of clarinettist Pee Wee Russell and when Jeff emigrated to the USA some years later he and Pee Wee became very close. Meanwhile when the Louis Armstrong All Stars played a season in London it was Jeff who seamlesly navigated me through Louis’ tight security to spend time with the great man. Just how he did it and how he came to be known by even such obscure jazz personalities as Louis’ valet “Doc” we’ll never know. I have discovered the Jeff was a wartime RAF fighter pilot and probably had at least partially prosthetic “steel” legs (he called them). He was a rare and I think very brave man. It was an honour to have called him friend.  Brian Harvey

Coda 2 –

Then . . .
Matthew Lasar

I very now and then I take a walk along Market Street in San Francisco. It is a peculiar mix of franchises, authentic old survivor restaurants, and bizarre expositions in corporate modernity — particularly the vulgar Metreon, product of an alliance between Microsoft and Sony.

Most of the time I window-shop; I rarely enter such premises. But there is one outlet I always visit, for reasons that have nothing to do with the merchandise.

It is the Sam Goody records franchise buried in the basement of Nordstroms. I inspect the displays dedicated to the likes of entirely manufactured personæ such as Ricky Martin and Brittany Spears. I pick up some inexpensive but useful item-cassette tapes, a CD case — and bring it to the teenager at the cash register, who invariably smiles and asks me how I am.

“Did you know,” I say with a hopeful expression, “that I used to know Sam Goody?”

“Really?” comes the response, sometimes with interest, sometimes out of politeness. “What was he like?”

“He was a dreadful human being,” I reply.

My clerk laughs. Sometimes she asks why I would say that, and I explain that Mr. Goody, who I really did know, yelled at me once. The person with whom I am speaking is not impressed. She has been yelled at by her employer, and it is something one survives. And there the discussion ends. The rest is too complicated for polite, over-the-counter conversation.

I remember the New York Sam Goody record store at which I worked 25 years ago because it remains for me a symbol of a world that is gone. I’m surprised that I am still nostalgic for that peculiar moment in my life. Full of ridiculous quarrels and long, inexplicable feuds, “world” seems a pretentious description for the milieu over which Sam Goody presided (and in which I functioned) for a while.

Sam Goody Records — bought in the 1970s by the American Can Corporation and later merged with Musicland Incorporated — was the first independently owned record chain in the eastern United States. Approximately 20 Sam Goody stores existed when I first took a job with them in 1974, reaching as far north as New England as far south as Raleigh.

I was 19. I worked at the first store, the one located at 49th Street, off Broadway, in Manhattan. It had a sacred reputation within the network, being Sam’s first operation. In it you could find many of the salesmen (and they were all men) who had started with Goody shortly after the Second World War. By the mid-1970s, some of these individuals had worked in the same locale for a quarter of a century.

And yes, they were characters.

Louis Weber, for example, had long since gained a city-wide reputation as classical music’s occupational equivalent of the insulting Jewish waiter. A short, stocky man in his early 60s, Lou didn’t suffer fools easily. Actually, I think he enjoyed fools.

Lou would camp out on the northeast corner of the store, and hum to himself cheerfully, waiting either for his first coffee break of the day (9:15 am) or for some naïf to torture. An elderly lady might walk up to him with two recordings of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” in hand, one performed by Vladimir Horowitz, the other by Arthur Rubinstein. “Which one would you recommend, Mr. Weber?” she would ask respectfully. “Frankly madam,” Lou would reply, “I don’t think you could tell the difference.” He would then politely hand her one or the other album.

During the four years I worked at Sam Goody’s, I saw scores of people patiently endure this kind of treatment, and come back for more. One afternoon a customer came into the store and asked me to show him the “male vocals” section. I took him to the classical male singers bin, divided into names like Dietrich Fisher-Dieskau and Tito Schipa. He looked unhappy. “No,” he explained to me, “I mean, you know, like Frank Sinatra.”

Lou observed this confusion and waved a chiding finger in my face. “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew!” he said, affectionately. “Can’t you tell by the level of mental perspicuity on this man’s face what kind of singers he wants?” The man laughed and thanked us as Lou led him to the popular male vocals section, from which he took three Mario Lanza records to the cash register.

Jeff Atterton ran the jazz department. A tall, wiry man, Atterton had served as a pilot in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. I didn’t know much about Jeff besides the fact that he treated me kindly and was, in my opinion, slightly barmy (as the British say). If you annoyed Jeff, as did Lou Weber, he would write obscenities on your locker in the employee room. Most of the time, however, Jeff simply walked up and down the jazz aisles offering commentary about Bix Beiderbecke or Fats Waller to various friends. “I used to know Fats, you know,” he would mumble, as often to himself as to anyone else. And, of course, Jeff detested modern Jazz, which meant Charlie Parker and beyond.

I am grateful to Atterton for one favor — an introduction to an especially interesting customer. One afternoon he nervously approached me, and asked if I might assist “a friend” of his with the purchase of some classical recordings. I looked at the friend. He sported a black, drapelike overcoat, and was, as I correctly guessed, by virtue of his sunglasses and long cane, blind. In addition to these objects, he wore a top hat with feathers sticking out, a wide variety of necklaces, rings and wristlets, and carried several musical instruments, including a clarinet and a soprano saxophone on hooks attached to his coat belt.

I looked at this customer, and glanced at Lou. He stood at the opposite side of the store, anticipating with horror the possibility that he might have to deal with the patron. I had clearly been assigned the job. “I would like to introduce you,” Atterton began gratefully, “to Mr. Rassan Roland Kirk.”

We shook hands and “Kirk,” as his friends called him, explained that he wanted to check out some contemporary classical music. We walked over to the avant-garde area, and it soon became clear to me that my task was to pick out compositions that I thought au currant and describe them to him.

Kirk became my regular customer, and I quickly became accustomed to his tastes. He always wanted a complete rundown of the orchestration. If in my reading of the instruments we came across anything electronic, the jazz master would immediately nix the prospect. “No man, no,” he would intone grimly. “I don’t want any electronic instruments. Just acoustic.” In this fashion, Kirk would accept a copy of Boulez’s “Hammer Without a Master” and veto a just released version of George Crumb’s “Ancient Voices of Children.”

We would then march over the to the opera vocals section and pick out five or six Caruso, Chaliapin, or Kirsten Flagstad solo albums. Kirk loved old opera recordings. But the same rule applied. I’d have to scrutinize each record to make sure it hadn’t been somehow remastered. “No remasters man,” he’d warn. “Just tracks of the original acoustic tubes, you know?” After about an hour of this kind of research, I’d trudge up to the cashier’s desk with 20 or 30 albums, a very satisfied Roland Kirk clanking along behind me.

For four years, I functioned as record and tape schlepper for the stars. Woody Allen would come in, and I would do what I had been sternly told to do: pretend not to notice him. Eventually, after much hesitation, he would ask me where something was, and I would respond in as few helpful words as possible. Allen — a Stokowski fan and jazz clarinettist — always appeared grateful for this minimal response. Nureyev, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Tiny Tim, Renata Tebaldi and Elliot Carter would arrive, and I would again be summoned for assistance.

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