When I was a kid, I attended a party with several adults – 18 or 19 years old, at least. I was pretty bored until someone put on this jazz record. I’d heard jazz before. One of my dad’s favorites was a two-record set of Count Basie’s best that I still own.
But this was different and I immediately put my eyes on the label as it swirled round and round. It was a record by a guy named Sidney Bechet. The music was slow, sensual and – had I been old enough – I would have realized it was what was then called “stripper” music. I knew they didn’t have stuff like this at G.C. Murphy at Seminary South, so I asked where I could find more like that. They said, “Record Town, by TCU.”
A few days later, I mounted my Stingray bicycle and peddled my way to the record store next to the TCU Theatre. Sumter Bruton Jr. was there and when this 13-year-old kid asked him for a Sidney “Beck-it” album, he roared with laughter. “Be-chet,” he corrected. He pointed me to the jazz record bin and I found a record with “Summertime” on it, one of my favorite tunes. “This one’s better,” Bruton said, pointing to another Bechet record. But I wanted “Summertime,” so I handed over my paper-route-earned five bucks and rode back home. Little did I know my first encounter with Record Town and the Brutons would hardly be my last.
Sumter was correct, by the way. The other Bechet album was better.
I lived too far away from Record Town and was too disposable-income challenged to be one of those who hung around the place constantly. But I was there enough that when I’d walk in Sumter would say, “Hey, listen to this,” and play some album I’d probably buy. I picked up on jazz pianist Hampton Hawes that way. Sumter wove tales of Hawes hanging out in Fort Worth while undergoing rehab for heroin addiction, wowing cocktail lounge lovers with his mesmerizing hard bop pianistics when he took the occasional gig.
I never realized I was getting an education while I was buying these records, but I was. That extra dollar Record Town charged over Murphy’s record shop was well worth it. There was a semester’s worth of learning in every visit.
The education continued as I began my journalism career rather inauspiciously as a writer for something called “The Raven,” a short-lived alternative paper to TCU’s Daily Skiff. We were doing a Student Guide for new students so I did a story called “Sound Where-house,” that let out-of-town students know where to pick up hip tunes in the town of the Cow. Record Town was there, cited as being the spot for grabbing jazz, blues and finding things you didn’t know you had to have. The story never ran. The story I heard was that the editors got too drunk and took the wrong copy to the printers, so the edition was either the last or next to the last before “The Raven” was nevermore. Can’t believe I got to finally use that joke.
Needless to say, when I heard that the original location of Record Town was up for lease, I took a deep breath as I prepared myself for the trauma of another part of my Fort Worth childhood being wrecked by “progress.” Massey’s, Jetton’s, Wyatt’s Cafeteria and Seminary South are just memories, but Record Town? That became part of me, body and soul.
Record Town opened in 1957 in that strip center across from TCU that looked like every other college town business center in the 1950s. It was founded by Sumter Bruton Jr. and his wife, Kathleen, now 93. Bruton, who died in 1988, was a left-handed jazz drummer from New Jersey and he opened the record shop while he continued gigging at night.
They had two children. One, Sumter Bruton III, a guitar player with more chops than a meat market and a T-Bone Walker-style as smooth as melted Irish butter. He was in the longtime Fort Worth band the Juke Jumpers and my friends and I were convinced they could have conquered the world, but decided instead to keep Funkytown funkier. Bruton III ran Record Town after his father died and the musical education I got from his father continued uninterrupted.
The other son, Stephen Bruton began playing guitar with Kris Kristofferson shortly after graduating from TCU, and eventually gigged with a who’s who of music, from Billy Joe Shaver to Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan. Stephen wrote a song I play every once in a while called “Trip Around the Sun,” the best birthday song ever written, even if a bit wistful.
Once when I visited Record Town, Stephen came in to visit and he and Sumter sat down and traded licks on guitars while I shopped. If I was a better musician I would have memorized what they did. They did things on the guitar I didn’t know you could do. And I doubt anyone else could.
Stephen died of cancer in 2009 and Austin, his home base, is still mourning his loss.
I’m glad to report that I was hardly the only one who found Record Town a part of body and soul. Others with similar experiences, including musician and real estate developer Tom Reynolds and businessman Bill Mecke, have bought the store and will be moving from Record Town’s South University Drive location to the new burgeoning Southside area on St. Louis Street. The Brutons will own a piece of the new place. They plan to open in April or May and Reynolds said they are intent on keeping that same feel to the new Record Town.
“We want to continue the tradition,” said Reynolds, a guitar player who often plays with the Bucket List Jazz Band and has had a standing gig at the Kimbell Museum for many years. “We’re going to have a wall of fame for the Bruton family and new and used vinyl and CDs and books as they make sense.”
They want to continue the Record Town legacy and to support Fort Worth music and musicians.
“We’re going to have bins for some of the great local music we’ve got here, past and present,” said Reynolds. “I mean Ornette Coleman and King Curtis themselves could fill a bin with their records.”
Also coming to the new space will be the iconic neon Record Town sign with Nipper the RCA dog. The sign hasn’t lit up for several years.
“We wouldn’t consider moving without it,” Reynolds said.
Robertr Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press.