When Mark O’Shaughnessy is offered a haul of rare cosmic jazz, he finds himself temporarily blinded by the Sun…
The renewed interest in deep space and the race to learn more about Jupiter and Saturn reminded me of when Sun Ra died in 1993. I recall Gilles Peterson playing Space Is The Place on his KISS FM radio show that night and that, in turn, reminded me of an amazing Sun Ra collection that came my way in the weeks just after he died.
Nobody can ever be sure how many LPs Sun Ra and his Arkestra ‘released’ – to attempt a full discography would be a fool’s errand, because Ra often pressed LPs himself and had band members stick hand-drawn labels on them while on the road – and during their peak, in the 1960s and 1970s, they were never off the road. Sun Ra recorded for several major labels – ABC-Impulse, Horo, ESP-Disk, Philly Jazz, etc, but most of his own recordings were released on his own label, El Saturn.
I was still a fledgling digger in 1993, finding my professional feet. I’d gotten to know a Jewish guy from Manchester (we’ll call him Manny) who knew very little about music, but used to dabble in records because he knew there was money to be made. Manny was an interesting character and a gold merchant by trade. He called me one evening and began telling me what he had for sale – I never asked him where the records came from, he seemed a tough nut and didn’t give too much away…
As the conversation went on, he said: “Oh, I’ve also got a whole load of gear from outer space, about 200, mate.” Of course, I was intrigued and asked him what he meant by outer space. “Listen Marky,” he said, “I can’t tell you nuffink about these records except that they’ve all got a sticker on ’em saying ‘Saturn’, and they’ve all got a load of scribble on ’em”. Nowadays, it’d be simple to find out what he had, but in those days, it was all done by phone or snail mail. I quickly realised that what Manny had was a whole collection of original Sun Ra albums on Saturn, seemingly all hand-decorated by Ra and the Arkestra. My heart skipped a beat.
Manny was no mug, and rarely made many mistakes in his dealings with me, so this catch was going to be a difficult one to land. The first offer was critical – a bead of sweat trickled down my brow and I calmly asked: “How about two grand for the lot? £20 each”. The phone went silent while Manny did his own maths. “Marky, you’ve got a deal,” he said. “Tell you what, I’ll even throw in delivery, but I want the money in cash, mate.”
I had to go down to my bank and arrange an overdraft extension to cover the payment, which took a day. I packed the wedge of £50 notes into a 7″ mailer, which I then sent by Special Delivery to an address in affluent Wilmslow – and held my breath.
Five days later, I got a knock on my door. It was Parcel Force, with a huge box for me. I breathed a sigh of relief and lugged the box up to my first-floor home office.
I carefully opened it up and there was an almost complete run of Sun Ra Saturn LPs… The Nubians Of Plutonia, The Antique Blacks, Monorails And Satellites, We Travel The Space Ways, Of Mythic Worlds, Lanquidity, Twin Stars Of Thence… an explosion of vivid colour, screen prints, sticky labels, stapled sheets, Egyptology, lunar imagery… a lifetime’s collection, and none worth less than £100. Nowadays, you can comfortably triple that for some. Often, only 99 of each title were pressed (why 99, you ask? Because back then, Uncle Sam levied taxes on runs of 100 or over).
I reached the last LP, an especially rare beauty called Dance Of The Innocent Passion, and spotted a till receipt from an Oxfam branch in Cheshire inside the inner sleeve. It read “200 vinyl albums/50p per item/£100”. I stifled an inner giggle. Manny was savvy enough to pick up these amazingly rare LPs from his local chazzer at 50p a pop, then sell them on to me at 1,000% profit. I’d met my match, folks. Manny would very likely have accepted a couple of quid each for them.
I only very recently sold the very last Saturn from this collection – 25 years I held onto some of these records, because I knew how rare some of them were, and still are. I don’t believe a collection like that will ever surface, all together, again. It was a one-off and what it was doing in a charity shop in affluent Cheshire is anybody’s guess.