You may have noticed Colony Records as you strolled down Broadway – a relic from another era on the corner of 49th. Come to think of it Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant used to be just up the block; in days gone by the old mauler would shake your hand and inquire how things were in Glocca Morra should you mention you were Irish.
Though Colony Records didn’t quite have Dempsey’s pedigree I meant to make one last visit before its recent demise.
Colony did sell records, CDs too, but sheet music was their bag! The store was a Mecca for musicologists - from the highbrow on the hunt for archaic symphonies or barely remembered Broadway flops, to the more humble of us who couldn’t figure out some chord or other.
There was a dusty feel to the place, in keeping with the mounds of sheet music that straddled the store; in fact, part of the charm of a visit was watching the very knowledgeable clerks locate some manuscript from amidst the seeming chaos.
This hunt was often preceded by the customer humming or hollering some bars to the clerk who would cock his ears in empathetic concentration before leaping into action.
On the rare occasion he was flummoxed a colleague would be summoned and the customer instructed to have another belt at the melody; by this time a crowd would have gathered, for customers were often as well versed as the clerks.
It was in Colony one day that I realized I was standing within kissing distance of Paul Simon. I may have had a minor heart attack before embracing the compulsory New York cool. For a kid from Wexford to be sharing the same rarified oxygen with the writer of Bridge Over Troubled Waters was indeed an occasion.
I was later to meet Mr. Simon in the Irish Repertory Theatre when he attended a children’s musical, Rafferty Rescues The Moon, for which I had written the songs. While lounging in the foyer after a particularly spirited performance he approached me.
“Can I tell you something, man?” He inquired.
As I awaited his inevitable benediction of approval, I remembered our first “encounter” at Colony and marveled at how far I’d traveled.
“The piano was out of tune,” he murmured as I fought back the urge to introduce him to the wonders of a Ringsend Uppercut.
But now Colony is gone and with it the warren of studios, rehearsal rooms and agents’ offices that cluttered the upstairs floors of the Brill Building.
Talk about Broadway Danny Rose! Singers, comedians, bands and just the plain crazy flocked to that building, and if you had the required chutzpah you could stroll in on the highest of the mighty, particularly around lunch hour when the receptionists abandoned ship.
Many of these managers, agents and owners of small record companies tended to be squat, no-nonsense Jewish men who liked to chew on large cigars. They were always sympathetic, however, when you informed them you were “just off the boat from Ireland.”
One of them later explained that this arose “because Paul O’Dwyer smuggled guns into Israel for the Haganah.” Probably another Tin Pan Alley rumor, but as ever politics and music make for the oddest of bedfellows.
I liked those old Jewish gentlemen. Some of them may have ripped off the occasional musician but at least they could be appealed to. The new dot.com magnates now just appropriate us without even showing their faces.
A case in point: Who the hell is Spotify and what law or deity allows them to hijack my music without even a by-your-leave? In the old days I could have strolled up to the Brill Building, admired a gorgeous receptionist while she attended to her nails, and eventually gained an audience with my tormentor.
Ah, the good old days when one could rub shoulders with the Sound of Silence himself in Colony Records. And by the way, I think you were full of it, Paul - that Irish Rep piano still sounds in tune to me.