Mojo. It’s an early 20th century word meaning “a magic charm, talisman, or spell.” Muddy Waters sang “Got my mojo working.”
And mojo is exactly why I collect records that were owned by my favorite musicians.
The music of Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, the Velvet Underground, the Grateful Dead and countless others has brought me immeasurable joy for many decades. I often say music saved my life, gave me purpose, and it’s definitely been at the center of my career as a record executive, collector, dealer, archivist and author.
In the nearly 50 years since I traded a shopping bag full of baseball cards for my friend’s copy of Smash Hits by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, I’ve spent tens of thousands of hours (and a lot of money) tracking down rare records and music memorabilia, trying to capture just a little bit of the mojo of my favorite artists.
But let’s face it–records, concert posters, ticket stubs and the like don’t really connect you to the artists who made this incredible music. An autograph…well, that’s a bit better, as Hendrix or Dylan actually held the thing they signed, if only for a moment.
But something really clicked when I went to the opening of Seattle’s Experience Music Project (now Museum of Pop Culture) in June 2000. I was on a preview tour with some music executives and the Red Hot Chili Peppers (I’d worked with them at Warner Bros. Records, and they’d headlined the opening concert,) when we came to the museum’s incredible Jimi Hendrix exhibit.
Hendrix was my first record collecting obsession, and it was moving to see some of his instruments, clothing, and his handwritten diary. But what really impressed me was a display of a dozen or so albums from Hendrix’s record collection. The actual vinyl records he’d listened to and obsessed over. The albums that inspired one of the greatest musicians of all time. Call me crazy, but as a lifelong record collector (and non-musician,) it felt like these held a lot more of Hendrix’s mojo than any of outfit or guitar ever could. But how could I ever hope to own some of Jimi Hendrix’s records…
Incredibly, the answer came almost exactly a year later.
On June 20, 2001 I stayed up until the wee hours to do some overseas telephone bidding in Bonhams and Brooks’ The Jimi Hendrix Auction. One lot was 21 albums from Hendrix’s record collection, with provenance from his longtime girlfriend and flat-mate Kathy Etchingham. I waited patiently, bid on some other things, but the records were what I HAD to win. When the time came, the bidding was surprisingly tepid, and I won Hendrix’s albums for a fraction of what I was prepared to pay.
When they arrived, they were what collectors euphemistically call “well loved” records; scuffed up and covered in fingerprints. Ordinarily I would have cleaned them immediately. But these were Jimi Hendrix’s records, with Jimi Hendrix’s fingerprints! Cleaning them felt like sacrilege. The fingerprints and wear were critical to the mojo. The collection included Hendrix’s own copy of Electric Ladyland, my favorite album of all time (there’s a famous photo of him appearing to bite this very copy, in the flat he shared with Etchingham.) His copy of Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits had a doodle on the back by Hendrix, which the auction housed somehow neglected to mention. And the copy of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, from which he famously covered “Like a Rolling Stone,” had a few drops of Hendrix’s blood on the front cover, which Etchingham explained was the result of his breaking a wine glass. Now that’s mojo! (There’s a pictorial essay on Hendrix’s collection in my book 101 Essential Rock Records.)
And so, it began. Record collectors often have strange parameters to their collecting. My quirk was wanting to own the actual records that inspired my favorite artists—or their own personal copies of records they’d made. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to the mojo of these hallowed individuals.
As you might imagine, finding these is not easy. At all. And being a stickler for authenticity, I only add something to my collection if I’m positive about the provenance.
My next big score came in 2006 when the late Suze Rotolo, Bob Dylan’s early 60s girlfriend (she’s with Bob on the cover of Freewheelin’,) sold her Dylan memorabilia at Christies. I won the two albums I coveted, Blues anthologies to which Bob added his own handwritten inscriptions next to the liner notes. On a Blind Boy Fuller compilation, he wrote “Drinked up and let out by Bob Dylan” and “Read thoroughly and with full throttle by Bob Dylan.” On a Southern Blues anthology he added “Made for and about Bob Dylan” and “Hand read by Bob Dylan.” Via the auction house, Rotolo told me he’d added those annotations as one might make notes in the margins of a book. It later struck me that when he’d scribbled on these album covers, he’d only recently changed his name from Bob Zimmerman, and might have been just trying out his new name.
In 2014 I was able to purchase a collection of 149 Bob Dylan acetates, which had been owned by Dylan and used in the production of his albums Nashville Skyline, Self Portrait and New Morning, a discovery that went viral and was covered by The New York Times and many other media outlets.
I also acquired a small collection of Beatles and Apple 45s owned by Ringo Starr and his first wife, Maureen (via her second husband, Hard Rock Café co-founder Isaac Tigrett,) and a few of John Lennon’s Beatles albums, given to two of his employees.
The wonderful Martha Morrison, widow of the great Velvet Underground guitarist Sterling Morrison, sold me some of Sterling’s Velvets acetates, along with his own copies of their albums. I bought an album from the collection of the great English folk singer Shirley Collins, from a friend who got it from her. And when Jerry Garcia’s widow sold some of his possessions at auction, including his Grateful Dead acetates and test pressings, I was all in.
And in 2018, and again this year, I was able to really score, buying some records from the collection—really, massive archive—of longtime Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman.
Bill is a world-class collector. As a small child in London, he began collecting cigarette cards, World War II bullets, and anything else he could find. His archive of Rolling Stones memorabilia is undoubtedly the most extensive collection of any musician or group in existence (I highly recommend the 2019 Wyman documentary, The Quiet One, which delves deeply into his collecting.) He’s written a number of books on topics as varied as the Stones, his friendship with the artist Marc Chagall, and his pursuits as a metal detecting enthusiast.
While doing some consulting for Bill, I was able to see his extensive record collection, and convince him to part with a few of his albums, including his UK first pressing of Hendrix’s Are You Experienced and The Beatles White Album. So I now have Beatles records from the collections of two Beatles and one Stone!
In 2020 Wyman sold over 1000 items from his still extensive archive at Juliens Auctions, and I was able to buy 24 lots of his records, including Stones test pressings and groupings of the blues and soul albums that influenced him. Ever the collector, Bill often annotated his records on the sleeves with dates, and markings to indicate his favorite songs, etc.
With artist-owned records, conventional collecting criteria flies out the window. Usually, beat up records are worth a tiny fraction of what a mint copy might bring. Any writing on an album cover is a major negative. And an album without its proper cover? Forget it! However, with artist owned records, these ‘negatives’ become major positives. Hendrix’s doodles and blood? Wyman’s notations? Sterling Morrison’s copies of the first Velvet Underground album and Loaded with home-made covers?
That’s major mojo!
So, if anyone out there has a line on any artist-owned records, please let me know.
And if anyone is interested in beginning their own artist-owned record collection, I’m offering for sale a few albums owned by some of the above artists. Because, after all, even I don’t need more than 100 of Bill Wyman’s records.
December 30, 2020
Bonus trivia: After moving, Ringo leased his house at 34 Montague Square, London to Jimi Hendrix and Kathy Etchingham. So it’s entirely possible that some of the Hendrix albums I own once lived at Ringo’s house.