photo: Charles Young
Six years ago Marcus Pettigrew and Michael Cole Jr. had a problem, a big problem. They had been avid record collectors for most of their lives and their collections had grown beyond a manageable size. You know things are getting out of hand when your house transitions from "place to sleep" to "place to store records." Their solution? Sell off some of the stock to all the international collectors they'd become friends with over the years. And thus, Mr. Peabody Records was born.
Walk into Pettigrew and Cole's Southwest Side shop and you'll feel as if you've entered a different galaxy, one occupied by an entire community of soul-music fiends. Many of the customers have left their mark on the place - the walls bear signatures from visiting musicians and DJs like Peanut Butter Wolf, Dam-Funk, Kool Herc and Mr. Scruff.
It was a chance meeting through a friend of a friend that allowed Marcus and Centerstage to cross paths. With record fairs about to hit full swing, we thought it would be a perfect time to sit down with him and ask about everything from how Mr. Peabody Records came about to what the duo's relationship is with the legendary UK label BBE.
How long have you been collecting records and what started the obsession?
I started around the age of 7-8 years old. My older brother was a teenager and had gotten off into the mix thing. He would take me with him downtown to a store called Imports Etc. It was a premier place in Chicago to find the hottest dance music, 1970s thru 1980s, US and International disco records. When he went away to college, I would take the trains and buses around town to record shop. I was younger and the music I collected for the most part was a generation older than me. Then, I found myself selling music as a hustle to DJs — mostly older — that had been looking for titles for quite some time. They would say things like, "You'll never find this. I bet you can't get this." Being I was always underestimated, I made it my business to fulfill people's wants as well as turn them on to music they haven't heard, mostly along the genre of disco music. Those questions soon turned into, "What the hell is this? I never heard that before, can you find me a copy of that?"
At that time the Internet wasn't an option for music. So to find even more undiscovered music I went to the library and checked phone books from every major city in the US. I called shops in New York, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, etc and bought music. I had found my brother's friend's Phreek LP in 3 days. I met an older guy who worked at a store in Pittsburgh. He was a DJ for a pirate disco radio show in Pittsburgh during the 1970s. I worked a deal with him, as he was selling his personal collection, to ship me boxes of stuff based on a system of classification for the type of sound I wanted. He would call me and say "Hey Mark I've got some good class stuff for you." I would send money and he would ship.
I ended up having this type of relationship with many people over the years. I often would buy entire collections and flip them to local DJs and record stores. I kept the things I wanted and always enjoyed having obscure music others around me didn't know about. I gained a lot of respect as a young collector amongst my musical peers. I met Mike in a record shop not long after around the age of 20. Turns out he had the same serious obsession. Out of respect and trust we shared each other's resources for music and teamed up. We figured two would do more work than one.
Opening a record store is not an easy thing to do, especially in the digital age. How did you guys come to the decision to open Mr. Peabody?
After Mike and myself met, we started hustling records around town to various venues, clubs, collectors, stores, etc. We would travel out of town, and Mike even traveled overseas and made connections with music merchants. We had a huge trade system of vinyl going as his basement turned from a DJ's basement to looking more like a music distributor. We ended up putting shelves and racks throughout the entire floor space so collectors could deal. We would accommodate DJ's and stores, locally and internationally, that came by. He was only a block away from the Metra train so it was easy access for out-of-towners. We had been contemplating opening as the Internet started being a dominant source of music — more record dealers emerging — so we had to step our game up. We wanted a definite, endless source of music for ourselves and also to be a resource to collectors worldwide. We ended up scoring a multi-truckload collection out of Detroit, an entire record shop to be exact, that had an inventory that had been off the sales floor for years. After that came a decision point. With a ton of inventory that was mounting quicker than we could get rid of it, we decided to take a leap of faith and seize the opportunity to open a shop. We decided on a professional, unpretentious, yet quirky name and Mr. Peabody Records was born.
When I look at the success of an independent record store, a lot of it has to do with how they've utilized technology as opposed to fighting it. How have you adjusted over the years?
As far as the new age, we knew we would not exist with the overhead unless we operated on-line, which to this day has been 90 percent of our business. The out-of-towners and international people are the reason we still exist to this day with our retail store during these economic times. We have a worldwide presence and we're respected globally amongst music lovers, more so than in Chicago itself.
I imagine you get a lot of business from overseas...
As I said, 90% of our business is international and overseas, even through the door, most of our bigger receipts are from traveling customers who come here from out the area. We have a worldwide presence and respect globally amongst music lovers, more so than in Chicago itself.
With your deep ties overseas, how do you think American funk/soul/disco/hip-hop has affected the international music scene?
Well, I will say that there is still and has been a strong market/respect for good vintage music from the United States overseas; mostly of the soul, funk, jazz and dance genre. How has it affected it the international scene? It runs it. Current music has a strong place as well, yet I will say that industry markets overseas are more tasteful and desirable to the ears than the United States. Just listen to the satellite radio stations. Japan which is a market in itself still has a strong identity with old school hip-hop, vintage dance music, as well as being home to some of the top rare-jazz collectors in the world. People say, "they're taking our music away," but honestly, I'd rather have good music on vinyl in the hands of people that appreciate, collect, and archive good music rather than it ending up in Comiskey Park at a "Disco Sucks" jamboree.
In regards to your relationship with vinyl enthusiasts overseas, how did you link up with BBE for the Real Sound of Chicago project?
A couple years ago we met Frankie Valentine from London as a customer. After talking with him we were able to compare stories, concerns, and problems with today's music industry, including people playing follow the leader in Chicago and surprisingly in Britain as well. We quickly became friends with Frankie and started the process of change. He told us he had a friend who ran a label that was suitable for what we all wanted to get accomplished. Frankie presented our idea to Peter Ardarkwah and Lee Bright (BBE Label Owners) to consider doing a release as we felt we would be an asset to each other. We figured that label would be a good avenue for us to present good undiscovered music to a larger audience of listeners, and also set the stage for us to re-start our DJ careers to promote our sound. For the first compilation, we all agreed to highlight the type of vintage dance material we collected and played, in this case from a Chicago point of view: The Real Sound Of Chicago.
Putting together a comp. is a really tough thing to do, especially when you're representing a specific time and place. What approach did you take?
Well, first off you have to have enough music to do so. The scope of the Real Sound Of Chicago was to highlight underground/undiscovered dance music from Chicago before house music, which Chicago is known for. Pre-house or local Chicago disco was our choice, also highlighting the style of stuff we like and always collected and played as far as DJs. With having the records, and the knowledge of what has been surfaced in the music market, what music is still mostly unknown, we were able to compile a series of comps desirable for music lovers as well as rare music collectors. One of the tracks, The Moore Brothers' "Bass Come Back," only existed in the one acetate we discovered as it never made it to press. Its debut release is on the compilation itself. It came through the door of the store along with some gospel records.
Real Sound of Chicago is one in a series of comps, right?
You've had a pretty eclectic clientele come through, who are some of your most memorable guests?
We've had plenty, if we named one, we'd have to name all. It's probably better to visit our photo gallery at http://mrpeabodyrecords.com.
Some people flip records solely for the money, but it seems like you guys are really looking to add something significant to the music scene.
Well, someone asked us in an interview at an event, "what are you guys doing for the music scene in Chicago?" Mike looked at him kind of funny and replied, "we opened a record store!" We opened with two purposes, to collect records for ourselves as DJs and also supply others. In between it all, our heart is keeping music that would be let alone forgot or lost, available to lovers of good music and sound.