Requiem for a Record Guru

Bob Switzer: 194?-2005

I was deeply saddened to learn on Friday about the death of a true mentor, Bob Switzer, the proprietor of Halifax's vinyl paradise, Taz Records. I'd known Bob since the late '70s, when he was a clerk at Sam the Record Man stores in Halifax and Dartmouth, and later owner of his own stores Rubber Soul and later Taz Records, which would become a mecca for record hounds, from joes like me to Van Morrison and Billy Corgan, in search of a rare slab of jazz, blues, country or pure adrenaline rock and roll.

Bob was a curmudgeon in the truest sense of the word. If you didn't know him well, you might think he was one of the biggest assholes you ever met: he always spoke his mind, even berating customers for their poor taste in music when they brought some cheesy flavour-of-the-month pop record or lame relic of prog rock up to the counter. Think Jack Black in High Fidelity, only twice as old, twice as crotchety, with jet black hair modelled on the blond waves of his idol, Jerry Lee Lewis.

I can't even begin to think of all the artists that Bob introduced me to over the years, but when he pulled a record off the shelf, or some obscure European CD reissue, and said, "You need to own this," you didn't think twice about slapping down the cash. I was probably 12 when I first encountered Bob, and since then I've steeped myself in Howlin' Wolf, Screaming Jay Hawkins, Eartha Kitt, Slim Gaillard, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Travis Wammick, Johnny Burnette and the Rock and Roll Trio, any number of obscure '60s guitar instrumental 45s (which I didn't think for a second about forking over $15 for), Link Wray, P.J. Proby, Babs Gonzalez, Charlie Feathers, Billy Lee Riley, Mickey Baker and on and on. The guy knew more about authentic music than most people know about their own families, and sure he may have turned off a few customers with his brusque manner, but fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. That was Bob for better or worse, rarely without a smoke in one hand and a coffee in the other, with an opinion on just about anything you'd care to mention and a withering sideways glance that would reduce lesser men to powder.

He had his quirky tastes too...a wall of the store was plastered with Tammy Faye Bakker album covers (cracked me up every time I saw it) and it seemed the rarest record in the store, given its place of prominence behind the counter with a large "NOT FOR SALE" sign attached, was an autographed LP recorded by Xaviera "The Happy Hooker" Hollander. He loved the wit of Tom Leher and the majestic organ of E. Power Biggs. He wasn't someone you could easily figure out, and he was always full of surprises. Bob Switzer was a local legend in every sense of the word, and a key influence in my coming of age as a devoted disc junkie.

If you could do me a favour, after you read this, go to your record collection and pull out anything by any of the artists mentioned above (you've got to at least have some Howlin' Wolf), especially Jerry Lee Lewis, and blast it as loud as your landlord and the time of day will permit. I highly recommend Lewis's classic Breathless, which Bob once told me "is the greatest rock and roll song ever recorded. End of story." Now it's the end of Bob's story, and dammit, he was right about Breathless, and nobody can prove him wrong.


Tom Sutpen said...

Obviously, I'd never heard of Bob Switzer before today, but from your really nice tribute he sounds like the kind or presence I often wish I'd had in my own cultural upbringing. Unfortunately, virtually everyone who worked in the 10,000 or so record stores I used to frequent (my favorite was always Cheapo Records in Cambridge; you could find any Rock & Roll single, LP, you name it, there if you looked long enough) were all somewhat aloof, Tragically Hip, and they never talked about music among themselves or with eager youngsters like myself, which I found odd. I'm sorry to hear about this loss to both you and the Halifax area. From what you wrote, he seems like he was a great guy, quirks and all.

What does it say about the phenomenon of Serendipity . . . which has visited this blog frequently since you joined, Stephen, as you know . . . that yesterday I actually cranked up Jerry Lee's "Live at the Star Club" recording from 1963 (the hardest-rocking set in Christendom; I defy anyone to top it). Of course, I played it because I was trying to (unsuccessfully) pull myself out of a depression, but it's still somewhat odd, coincidence though it may be.

Hutch said...

Switzer was a good friend of mine since 1969, when he introduced a Beatles-struck bopper (me) to the wonders of the blues (he had 35,000 blues albums!), jazz, classical, country....the man was a walking encyclopedia of music. CBC Radio hired him to talk about the blues, which he could "ad-lib" for hours on end. Besides his love of Jerry Lee Lewis (known to most) and Gene Vincent (lesser known), he loved his friends (and he loved his hair)! A true original...I'll miss him a LOT, and I sure hope there's a good turntable and a stack of 1950's 45's where he's headed. Peace, Switz..I love you, man.

Brenda said...

My brother called today to tell me that Bob had died. He spent time in the 1970's teaching me about music of all
types-he was a born teacher and had a greater knowledge of music than anyone I have ever met. He was a very kind guy- who hid his generous spirit under a bluff of attitude. He will be missed.

sleepybomb said...

there is a guy in new orleans, (he may have passed too by now), that owns a record store, jim russell's record stop', on magazine st., in the bad part of the street.
when i first started collecting vinyl, he was the guy that had all the promo lps for 2 bucks a pop.
he was a nasty old man, locked his doors to patrons, unless he knew ya,
(he was robbed quite often, but i think he was always paranoid).
in the early 70s this friend, my cousin and i would storm in his store, looking for the weekly gem and dodging jim's constant ravings. he would go on about bringing the beatles to new orleans, starting little richard's career, and other odd insights about his vision of the music biz, (it all sucked according to jim, coz it passed him by).
he was so bizarre that he got a mention in creem the summer of 75 when springsteen had to beat his door down to find a boot of some roots band from the easy. all in all an amzing character. . . i only bring this up becos the similarities are, well, too similar.
i now have over 10,000 lps, mostly due to this wacky guy.
thanks for the memories . . .
godspeed vinyl man!

John Poirier said...

Switzer got me listening to the Wolf, Slim Harpo, Robert Johnson, and McKinley Morganfield when I was a teen. He was always cordial and generous to me and asked for nothing in return. He was suspicious of the latest trends and viewed the marketing of disposable music as "vacuous music for vacuous people". In his honour play a Jerry Lee Lewis, Presley or Howlin' Wolf record for a young person today.

Susan Crowe said...

I just heard this sad news. My brother Tom and I went to school with Bob. Bob was the ultimate in hip, a legend even then. I dropped into his store for the first time last year, looking for some Bill Monroe on vinyl. Contary to his reputation, he was friendly, genuinely pleased to catching up on news of our respective families. We had a long talk and I left feeling better than when I had entered.

My brother recalls waiting to see what rare LPs Bob would be carrying to school. I quote my brother here: He helped us all transcend out of that adolescent hell with visions of another world.

It's true. Bob did that. His death is a great loss.