Recently I dusted off my old record collection, something I'd been meaning to do for years ever since I had reluctantly consigned my treasured vinyl LPs carefully to boxes in the depths of the loft, my record player having finally succumbed a few years earlier to a worn drive belt and a dodgy needle - and me having succumbed to the dubious lure of CDs and streaming mp3's.
But not long ago I purchased a budget record player of the new generational type, the sort with USB sockets and built-in 'conversion software' which I'll probably never use, and I began to sort through my very heavy boxes of LPs.
I was quite pleased to find that my musical taste has remained remarkably consistent down the years.
I still enjoy listening to Abba and all my cheesy 70s disco compilations, on vinyl they sound crisp and fresh and bring back a whole raft of memories from my younger days. There were some surprises too, I don't remember buying those Nana Mouskouri records and when on earth did I sit down and listen to Mantovani? Ehem.
Then there were some poignant reminders from the past.
One such happy find was a record by the American country singer Sammi Smith.
There is a story about how I came across this much loved singer. Sometimes one goes out looking for new music and on other rare occasions music comes to you, just when you need it and just when it will make a difference. This was one of those occasions. I was in Birkenhead, a small and, some might say, insignificant town that sits on the opposite side of the River Mersey to Liverpool, it's more famous cousin. This is a town with not a whole lot of money and, as is the case with such places, the shops often reflect this. And so Birkenhead had more than its share of charity shops (known in the US as thrift shops), where one can purchase donated goods, clothes, books, this and that, for the lowest prices with the proceeds benefiting a local charity or community venture. These shops are always worth a browse and, back in the day, they usually had a selection of second-hand records.
In the particular charity shop I had ventured into that day, the records had been consigned to the basement, only CDs, which had totally ousted vinyl by now, were given space in the main shop. The place was dimly lit, damp and full of stuff that hadn't made the grade to be displayed in the slightly more refined space upstairs. The records were in boxes on a table at the back of the room. They had mostly seen better days but had obviously once been someone's pride and joy, a lifetime's collection of music that had defined a person's life, someone now long gone but who was echoed in these old boxes of time.
As I rummaged about, one record stood out. Covered in a thick layer of dust and grime, I could nevertheless make out some words and a picture. 'Something Old, Something New, Something Blue' was the title, and the artist, whose photograph graced the front of this 1972 album cover was Sammi Smith. I'll confess that at the time I had only a slight recollection of the name Sammi Smith though it did ring a distant bell for me. More captivating was the photograph of the lady herself, understated and unassuming , it spoke to me. I bought the record of course. And on returning home I very carefully and patiently cleaned first the cover and then the record itself which was coated in mildew from the damp conditions in which this treasure had lain for Lord knows how many years. The vinyl was in good condition however, and after the careful cleaning process was complete, I placed the LP on my turntable and with great trepidation I lowered the stylus on to the first track.
Revelation! Through the miracle of recorded sound, echoing through the years, here was a magical, soulful and tender voice. I realised now why something was drawing me to this record, through some mystical magic I had discovered this wonderful singer, whose interpretation of a song was both heartfelt and heartbreaking at one and the same time. So my journey with Sammi Smith began. Over the next months I tracked down and collected more of Sammi's albums. Here in England they were fairly scarce. Sammi had a huge breakthrough hit on both sides of the Atlantic with the Kris Kristofferson penned 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' (and this, I realised, is why I recognised her name when I first spotted the LP) but she had never quite managed to repeat this initial early success and achieve the mighty heights and accolades which she so richly deserved. Not that she needed to. While Tammy Wynette and others were pursuing the popular route, Sammi took the road less travelled, becoming a country 'outlaw' rather than following the trends, singing her song in her own way and thereby carving her own place in music history with a string of quality albums. Quietly and with honesty. Those in the know revere Sammi as a true artist who did not give in to the whims and follies of the music industry but remained true to her own country roots. And this is what still shines through her music. Listen to Sammi Smith today and you hear an artist of integrity who interprets a song with truth and her own convincing honesty.
Sammi passed away in 2005 but has left a catalogue of music that I and many others return to often.
Her son Waylon Payne carries his Mum's legacy in his heart, super talented in the fields of song-writing and acting, he is also a brilliant and moving singer, telling his tales in song with great feeling and sincerity. Just like his Mum.
Funny how a 'chance' find can lead one on a journey of discovery. For me, the day I found the old Sammi Smith record proved to be very fortuitous and continues to take me on a delightful musical voyage.
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