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This past Sunday evening, the front room of HiFi Bar on Avenue A was a typical East Village scene. The flat-screen TV showed the final round of the PGA Championship, and young guys from the neighborhood, drying out from the day’s downpour, caught up over drinks.
But in the back: a time warp. While Duke Ellington’s “Jam-a-Ditty” crackled over the speakers, a small group of old-time music obsessives chatted about their favorite hillbilly and gospel records, drinking cocktails and seltzers while toe-tapping to Ellington’s swing. Alex de Laszlo, a librarian at Bronx Community College, was at the DJ booth. “All the best drummers from that period came out of the strip club,” he said to Jon Hammer, a mustachioed guitarist in the rockabilly-revival band Susquehanna Industrial Tool & Die Co., and the host for the event.
It was the Big Ten-Inch 78 Listening Party, a bi-monthly opportunity for New York’s most devoted record collectors to play show-and-tell with their favorite obscure discs. The only requirement was that, as the name says, those discs must be 78s: stiff, fragile cuts of shellac made from South Asian bug resin and most popular during the first half of the 20th century.
Serious 78 collectors make LP snobs look like Spotify playlist jockeys, but their hobby creates a paradox: Preserving rare, old pop music often dooms some of history’s hottest jazz and most mournful country to life on a dark, dry shelf. The listening party reverses the sequester and has become a smash hit in this small community.
On Sunday, a mixed, middle-aged crowd, occasionally joined by curious bystanders, nodded to the sounds of barrelhouse bluesman Piano Red and danced in pairs to Lester Young’s “Let’s Fall in Love.” Attendees had either put a lot of effort into their wardrobe — newsboy hats and high-waisted trousers — or none at all. A few looked like extras in a John Waters movie; Michael McMahon, trim and sporting a pencil mustache, could be mistaken for Waters himself. He estimates his collection at 4,000 records, amassed over 30 years, but until the party began in 2010, he had never taken his trove outside.
His set was the most idiosyncratic, a versatile blend of time and logic. Patience and Prudence’s unintentionally creepy “Tonight You Belong to Me” was followed by “You’re My Sugar,” an antagonist duet between Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford, then by Lillian Briggs’s “Can’t Stop,” an explosive love song belted by rockabilly’s preeminent female trombonist-turned-powerhouse singer. His strangest pick was Little Rita Faye’s “I’m a Problem Child,” an unsettling Americana oddity unavailable on either YouTube or Spotify. “That one
always gets people’s attention,” McMahon said after leaving the DJ booth. “She was a 10-year-old, kind of precocious hillbilly singer. It’s the grating nature of her voice.”
Record collectors may be known for their prickliness, but this group was affable. When curious bar patrons asked what the hell was happening, they got an enthusiastic rundown. McMahon insisted that the turntable was always open, even if one were to put on, say, late-Thirties pop icon Glenn Miller, whose gleeful cheesiness has made him the scourge of aesthete collectors for the last 60 years. “People will judge you,” McMahon warned of such a choice, “but anyone is welcome to play.”
This is the spirit that the party’s founder, an old-school punk who goes by Phast Phreddie Patterson, always intended. “I had to figure out something to do with my 78s,” he told the Voice over the phone the day before the party. “They were just sitting there! They’re never gonna be on iTunes, they’re never gonna be reissued on CD or even LP. This is the only way you’re gonna hear them.”