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Passing the Vinyl Exams

July 26, 1998|Mara Schwartz

Looking for the "Shakespeare, Tchaikovsky and Me" album by that bombshell, Jayne Mansfield? How about "Reverend Jim Jones Speaks"? Or Maya Angelou's little-known '56 lounge-singing digression, "Miss Calypso"?

"I had a woman call from Idaho," recalls Kevin Donan, manager and buyer for A-1 Record Finders. "Her husband had just passed away. They had been married for over 50 years, and she was searching for the song they had gotten married to." Donan tracked down the tune, "The Stars Are the Windows of Heaven," by the Ames Brothers, available only on 78. He overnighted it to her--just in time for the funeral procession.

The gently spoken Donan tells this story in the dusty, jampacked offices of A-1 on an untrendy eastern stretch of Melrose Avenue, where much of its 2 million-title record collection is housed. (A-1 also has two warehouses and a sister store, As the Record Turns, on Hollywood Boulevard.) For 29 years, A-1 has located 12- and 7-inch platters for untold customers: soundtrack coordinators, producers, musicians and fans of their record-finding service, dubbed "The Program."

There was the senior class that needed an unexpectedly hard-to-find Christopher Cross tune for its prom theme. Or Tina Sinatra, who called looking for some of her dad's albums for props in his TV-movie biography. Or George Lucas' office, which recently sought an automotive sound effect for a project that Donan's particularly tight-lipped about. "We don't question," he says protectively. "If we bleed information out to the industry, it can be a tip-off to another company."

The Beastie Boys, Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dogg dig for samples here, and Donan notes that A-1 has contributed to more than 30 platinum records that he's aware of. (He doesn't always recognize his famous clientele, he admits, because "people change from when you see them on an album cover.")

Finding an obscure order can range from a few minutes (20 for 27 rock albums spun in Howard Stern's film "Private Parts") to as long as a year (to root out a factory-sealed Beatles "Yesterday and Today" with its original, rare cover art). The Holy Grail of vinyl is, oddly enough, "The Caine Mutiny" soundtrack; fewer than 10 copies exist, and those in the best condition command as much as $10,000. A-1 has brokered a few sales of it.

Donan maintains his disinterest in the compact disc. With vinyl, he says: "People can look to the past and remember their youth, whether they listened to classical, pop or country. It's a part of our culture."

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