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A secret cave of wonders

My musical journey began on the Portage Strip

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When we reach a certain age, whether facing the reality of our own mortality or looking for familiar names and faces, we start reading the obituaries in the newspapers.

But I confess I missed this one at the time. Posted on March 17, 2012 was a short obituary notice in the Winnipeg Free Press for Richard Zurba, age 88, who passed away following a brief battle with cancer. Unbeknownst to the late Mr. Zurba, our lives were inextricably bound together.

He is a part of my youth and my lifelong obsession with music — me a pimply, Beatlehaired teenage rock ’n’ roller and he a distinguished looking middle-aged gentleman with a passion for jazz.

It was in Mr. Zurba’s tiny north Portage Avenue shop, The Record Room, tucked inconspicuously next to the Rialto (later the somewhat notorious Downtown) Theatre between Edmonton and Carlton streets, that I made many musical discoveries. And Mr. Zurba was often my guide, his musical tastes in the albums he stocked unintentionally shaping my own to this day.

Before that, my record purchases (Beatles, Stones et al) were largely from Eaton’s record bar. But from the mid ’60s to the end of the decade, I made The Record Room a regular stop each and every Saturday on my downtown rounds.

Obscured by the triangular multi-lit theatre sign, The Record Room became my secret cave of wonders. Opened in 1964 by Mr. Zurba after several years as a rep for Columbia Records, the shop stocked many of the hit albums of the day in small quantities but catered more to jazz aficionados than pop music fans (years later Mr. Zurba penned a resourceful handbook on jazz standards).

But it wasn’t the pop hits or jazz that kept me coming back. It was the obscure rock records. What The Record Room lacked in quantity it more than made up for in selection. Mr. Zurba had a knack for bringing in exotic or hard to find treasures. I would spend hours poring over the stacks with the reverence and delicacy of an archaeological dig site, examining the front covers, photos and reading the back cover notes.

Here is where I was first introduced to the music of Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Yardbirds, John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, Buffalo Springfield, Paul Butterfield, Love, Jefferson Airplane and Moby Grape among others. Here, too, was where I acquired the rare blues albums I developed a yen for on obscure labels like Vanguard, Chess, Prestige and Arhoolie. Mr. Zurba never flinched when peppered with names like Billy Boy Arnold or Memphis Slim and always had time and patience for my queries.

If he didn’t have an album in stock he would special order it and it would be there for me on my next visit.

Mark Thiessen and I had what we thought was a clever plan. Once we had narrowed down our choices to a couple of albums, after a lengthy period of carefully hunting through the selections and deliberating on the merits of each album, we would each buy one and share them.

However my possessive nature would usually get the better of me and I would purchase Mark’s selection on a later visit. Once I started playing in bands in the latter ’60s, all my meagre earnings were spent at The Record Room. Albums back then were roughly $2.98.

My life-long love of vinyl albums was nurtured in that little shop. CDs today pale in comparison to the 12-inch album with its elaborate cover art and liner notes while individual song downloading misses altogether the cohesiveness and focus that a whole album offered.

There is just something exhilarating about the tactile sensation of holding a 12-inch vinyl album in your hands that young music lovers today miss.

Despite my personal preference for The Record Room, it was by no means the only record shop I frequented along the Portage strip, the four blocks of stores and restaurants located between The Bay and Eaton’s. Lillian Lewis Records, located between Kennedy and Edmonton streets on the north side of Portage, boasted if not necessarily the hippest selection, the largest volume of albums and singles anywhere in the city by 1965.

Its print ads proclaimed "Western Canada’s largest record dealer." While The Record Room leaned heavily towards jazz and the obscure, Lillian Lewis Records favoured Broadway and other theatrical recordings amongst its pop music fare. Their selection of 45 singles, at 49 cents each, was impressive and I recall the day I discovered Cream’s debut single among hundreds of recent releases.

The matronly woman at the front counter (I always assumed her to be the store’s namesake though I never knew for certain at the time) often found my requests bizarre. However, while hardly as genial as Mr. Zurba, she nonetheless endeavoured to seek out my inquiries by consulting a voluminous yellow-paged catalogue, resembling what I imagined a New York phone book to be, behind the counter.

Years later, I learned that Lillian Lewis was in fact a wellknown local dancer, actress and arts patron and not the clerk I encountered each week.

Before relocating to south Portage Avenue along the strip, Music City could be found one block west of Memorial (or was it Colony?) just down from the Mall Hotel. It catered almost exclusively to the pop/rock market and even featured the occasional local rock combo performing live in the front window.

Teen Dance Party regular Jack Skelly worked behind the counter at one time. But Music City’s initial exclusion from the Portage strip kept it off my record radar.

I always ended up at The Record Room. It was my oasis, my college of musical knowledge with Richard Zurba my teacher and guru. From the mid to latter ’60s I was a frequent habitué until the original Opus 69, upstairs on Kennedy one block south of Portage, opened in 1969.

Other record stores later appeared both on or near the strip and The Record Room could no longer compete, closing its doors in 1971.

I never got to thank Mr. Zurba for fostering my devotion to vinyl albums and my abiding eclectic musical tastes. His obituary suggests friends raise a glass to his memory. This I shall do.

Join music historian John Einarson for "Off The Record", a unique lecture series at McNally Robinson Booksellers Community Classroom. His column appears in Sunday Xtra every other week.

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