With apologies to Huey Lewis, the heart of rock ’n’ roll is not the beat.
Not around here, anyway.
In Spokane, the heart of rock ’n’ roll thumps inside the chest of a trim, gray-bearded widower who exudes a youthfulness that is at odds with his 72 years of living.
Gerry Giles is his name. A few years ago, Giles retired from KREM-TV after 39 years as an engineer.
Let’s just say Giles lives a quiet life somewhere in south Spokane, and if I got any more geographically specific I’d have to kill you.
That’s because of Giles’ hobby or obsession or whatever you want to call it.
In short, Giles has amassed every 45 to hit the Top 40 charts from 1954 to the year 2000.
Some of you more youthful readers might be thinking something like, “Whoa, like that’s a lot of firearms.”
But, no, we’re not talking about Colt .45s.
This is all about 45 vinyl records, the 7-inch discs that spin at 45 rpm and were first released by RCA in about 1949.
Five years later, the 45 became the symbol of the youth generation.
They were the perfect medium for releasing rock ’n’ roll songs for airing on radio stations, jukeboxes and record players that every American kid either owned or was going to own.
A 45, with some exceptions, contained two tunes: What the record company hoped would be a hit on the A-side, plus a B-side song of lesser expectations.
( True trivia: B-sides weren’t always a bust. The Beatles’ haunting and timeless “Eleanor Rigby,” for example, played second fiddle to the comical A-sider, “Yellow Submarine.”)
But getting back to our tale …
I’ve interviewed a lot of collectors over the years.
Cars. Art. Guitars …
You name it. I once wrote about a strange dude who had a fetish for potato mashers.
Nearly all of the time, the collectors I met were individuals who got into their hoarding later in life, when they had the means and the opportunity to indulge their inclinations.
Gerry Giles is the rarest of birds.
We have here a guy who actually began his quest as a Palouse farm kid. Like all teens of the 1950s, Giles flipped his lid over that new weird cool sound that came howling over the radio waves with a force that changed pretty much everything.
Rock ’n’ roll.
Even so, Giles wasn’t like his peers.
See, most kids who listen to music quickly fall into fickle fandom.
Ricky Nelson, for example, had it all over Elvis as far as I was concerned.
I was a Beach Boys guy before being won over by John, Paul, George and Ringo. Simon and Garfunkel changed my life. Jimi Hendrix rocked me into the stratosphere.
Giles was not so easy.
“I just like all kinds of music,” he said. “About the only kind I don’t care for is classical.”
So shortly after his baptism into the Church of Rock, Giles the teenager made a decision. He would not just love it all. He would own it all, too.
This happened in the fall of 1957, he said, a few months after KNEW radio took on the role of the Spokane area’s AM rock station.
It’s important to note that the rock of ages wasn’t like it is now.
Popular music today is frustratingly compartmentalized into a zillion and one different genres. Metal. Death metal. Christian metal …
A satellite radio subscription will let you listen to stations for just about every music niche you can think of.
In Giles’ day, radio stations picked their identities (playlists) from three basic formats: Rock, middle of the road and country.
Like Giles, I was a compulsive KNEW listener. That meant I was exposed to everything from The Stones to The Archies to Aretha Franklin to even white bread Pat Boone.
But back to that Sputnik-soaring fall of 1957, Giles began making weekend pilgrimages from the family farm near Endicott and St. John to Spokane.
Once here, he would invade the record stores. He would spend what money he earned from running a movie house projector on Thursday nights, buying up copies of all the Top 40 hits, plus the 10 “up and comers,” that he didn’t already own.
When he wasn’t buying records, Giles haunted KNEW, befriending the “jocks” who let him tour the station and gave him tips on what it took to break into the radio biz.
“Are you ready to get blown out?” Giles asked me, emerging from his Vinyl Vault with a 45 in hand.
Giles placed it carefully on his turntable and carefully put the needle in a groove. A few seconds later, I was listening to this jazzy organ riff that sounded eerily familiar.
Then it became clear. This was one of the original background tunes that KNEW disc jockeys would use to talk over and promote the station’s 790 spot on the radio dial.
Giles said he found it by complete accident one day while searching for 45s in a record shop.
I spent some of my time with Giles playing a losing game called Stump the Collector.
During my first round, I thought of an obscure radio song that I loved when I was about 6.
“You have ‘Green Door?’ I asked.
“Oh, yeah,” he said confidently. “Sung by Jim Lowe.”
A minute or two later, I was listening to the 1956 hit.
“Midnight, one more night without sleeping …”
I switched to Northwest bands.
“Rhythm of the Rain,” by The Cascades?
“The Witch,” by those godfathers of punk, The Sonics?
Yep. He had ’em.
My pal and S-R photographer Dan Pelle entered the game. He asked if Giles had “The Rapper,” by those obscure one-hit wonders of 1970, The Jaggerz.
Soon we were tapping our feet to the song.
“You’ve got every Beatles 45, don’t you?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
He nodded his head and grinned.
I finally gave up the game, which is just as well. Giles emerged from his record room, where his 45s are itemized and stored carefully on rolling shelves.
In his hand was the holy grail; the touchstones that put everything in motion.
All five of Elvis’s Sun Records 45 releases – from July 1954 to September 1955.
Original pressings. Correct jackets.
Holy mother of …
At my request, Giles played “That’s All Right” and “Mystery Train.”
When I got up Wednesday morning, I never dreamed I’d be sitting in a stranger’s living room hearing the raw-voiced future King precisely the way Sam Phillips put it out to the masses.
I wanted to weep.
Giles fulfilled his DJ dreams. Before signing on with KREM, he spun the wax at stations in California, Montana, Idaho and Washington.
All through the years he kept acquiring those amazing 45s. Giles’ wife, Arlene, who died in 2010, supported him all the way.
“I grew up with it. When I was in radio I played a lot of it,” he said of his records. “I’ve had collectors contact me, but I’m just not ready to give it up.
“I’m not into this for the money,” he finally added. “I just love the music.”