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Hundreds pay tribute to Skippy White

Anthony W. Neal
Anthony W. Neal is a graduate of Brown University and University of Texas School of Law and has written for the Bay State Banner since 2012.
Hundreds pay tribute to Skippy White
Skippy White at his musical tribute August 5. PHOTO: YSE PRODUCTIONS

In 1960, when most teens listened to music on seven-inch vinyl discs called records — 45s that sold for 25-to-30 cents each — the legendary Skippy White opened his first record store, Mass Records, at 1820 Washington St. in Boston’s South End.

He later moved the store to 1763 Washington St., across from the now-gone Northampton MBTA station.   

White added Oldies But Goodies Land — also on Washington Street in downtown Boston — in 1962, and Birdland Records, on Blue Hill Avenue, in 1963. All the stores later became known as Skippy White’s Records, a chain that eventually expanded to Cambridge, Providence, Pawtucket and New Orleans.

For more than six decades, White sold gospel, R&B and soul music to Boston’s African American community and other lovers of Black music.

Last Saturday evening, more than 400 supporters packed Florian Hall to attend a musical tribute to White featuring live performances by local artists.

Marrk Harris remembered one “cool thing” as an up-and-coming DJ: “There was no Strawberry Records and no Tower Records,’’ he said. “There were no other record stores but Skippy White’s, and Skippy had every song you could imagine from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s … He had everything, and he made a lot of artists famous.”

Born Fred LeBlanc on March 31, 1936, White grew up in Waltham, a town then “almost 100 percent white,” he said. “There was one Black family that I knew of.”

White’s love of Black music started in his teens.

Skippy White in 2015. PHOTO: RICHARD HEATH

“What happened was I wasn’t too happy with what was on the radio — period. Country western I could take or leave. So there wasn’t any Black music being played,” he said.  “On the pop stations, you’d be lucky if you could get Dinah Washington or Nat King Cole. That was it.”

Turning his radio dial one day, White discovered Symphony Sid — a DJ who started out in New York but came to Boston to spin in the 1950s. He heard Sid in 1953 play The Orioles’ doo-wop classic “Crying in the Chapel” and recognized it because he had heard a country version and a pop version of the song.

“Now, here was a version that had so much soul that it just bowled me over,” White said. “That was really my first rhythm and blues song.”     

Prior to opening his first record store, White worked at Smilin’ Jack’s College Music at 338 Massachusetts Ave. in Boston. White said he had about two dozen stores that he would sell records to wholesale. He would go to warehouses and pick the records cheap and sell to the stores, he said.

“One of them was Smilin’ Jack’s College Music,” White recalled, “and he ended up hiring me, maybe for two reasons: One, he knew I knew my music; and two, by hiring me and having me work in his store, I wouldn’t have had time to go around to the other stores, which were in competition.”

Asked who the biggest-selling artist at his record store was, White replied, “James Brown, no doubt about it.”

At the peak of his success, White could place an order for 1,000 copies of Brown’s latest record before hearing it, knowing he’d sell them all and order more.

“I didn’t care what the title was and didn’t need to know,” he said.  “That was my standing order on a new James Brown record: Send me a thousand.”

As a DJ, White first went on air in the summer of 1960 at WILD-AM (1090).

“When I got there and had my first interview with the owner of the station, WILD was playing Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. That was their format — the type of music they were playing,” he said. “I did a two-hour show on Saturday, and he extended it and gave me a four-hour show on Sunday, so I was on Saturday and Sunday.”

Because of the success of White’s shows, the owner asked him to pick out more R&B records for other DJs, and he did. They didn’t particularly like him or what he was picking out because they preferred other types of music. One by one, they left, and the owner started hiring other DJs, White said.

“One day, I walked in the production studio. He called me in and said, ‘I want you to listen to this tape of Wildman Steve [Gallon Jr.],’” he continued. “And when I heard him, I had only two words for the station: Get him. He went over big-time, and right after that, Jimmy ‘Earlybird’ came aboard.”

Since then, White has been on the air for decades at stations such as WTBS-FM (now WMBR-FM), WNTN-AM, WCAS-AM and WUMB-FM, spinning everything from rhythm & blues to oldies to gospel.

He also owned and operated a series of record labels that recorded soul, blues and gospel artists, and he presented concerts in the Boston area by such notable artists as B.B. King, Eddie Floyd, Joe Simon, and nearly every major gospel quartet group.   

White closed his last record store, in Egleston Square, in January 2020.

What he misses most about his stores are his relationships with the customers, he said. All kinds of people came through, and they didn’t just walk over to the counter fingering through albums. He greeted them, started up a conversation, got to know them and made friends with just about everybody who walked in.

“People would want to know what was going on musically,” White said, and he enjoyed “getting to know what they liked in music.”

So he greeted and made friends with them as soon as they walked in the store. “I think that’s one of the things that set me apart from other record stores,” he added.

Now 87 and in good health, White keeps busy working on a memoir, which he started writing quite a few years ago, and hosting two weekly radio shows: “The Time Tunnel” on Saturday mornings from 8 to 11 and “The Gospel Train” on Sunday mornings from 7 to 10, both on 98.1 FM Online Radio – The Urban Heat.

He said he would like to thank the community for supporting him, coming to his store, and listening to him on the radio.

At the musical tribute, a certificate of recognition was read on behalf of Mayor Michelle Wu and the city of Boston and presented to White in honor of his more than six decades of extraordinary service in preserving and promoting gospel, rhythm & blues, blues, doo-wop and soul music in the city of Boston.

“After more than 63 years of service to the community, I thought it was about time the city celebrated Skippy White for his many years of service and all his effort,” said Isaque Rezende, founder and CEO of Star Time Entertainment.

The musical tribute to White was presented by Isaque Rezende, Ron Fitts of Fitts Flowers, and Wanda Sutton of Soft Amber Fragrance.

Black music, music, Skippy White