by Paradise Freejahlovesupreme
Reid’s Records is not closed – but it needs your business and support NOW! Otherwise, the iconic and beloved Reid’s Records, one of the few Black business remaining in Berkeley, will be closing it doors Oct. 19, after 75 years of serving South Berkeley’s and the Bay Area’s Black communities since 1945!
Despite outlasting mega music stores such as Leopold’s and Tower Records, Reid’s is closing because it has lost almost all of its customer base to newer technology – few people are buying CDs and records these days – and gentrification.
Nevertheless, the history of Reid’s Records is a rich one: It survived redlining, the heroin and crack epidemics and the collapse of the vinyl record industry at the end of the 20th century. This history deserves a book or film rendering.
Betty Reid Soskin, at 97 the oldest full-time park ranger in the nation and honored by President Obama, has a book out called “Sign My Name to Freedom: A Memoir of a Pioneering Life,” which may be found at Marcus Books.
Over the course of Betty Charbonnet’s eventful life, she has been a staff member of the California legislature; a mother, artist, singer, songwriter for the Civil Rights Movement; an activist; and the proprietor of Reid’s Records. She is an icon for our time. However, being a South Berkeley resident most of my life and a patron of Reid’s – if I were a film director I would tell the story something like this:
Betty Charbonnet began her incredible sojourn on Earth, fittingly, during the Roaring Twenties, on Sept. 22, 1921, in Detroit, Michigan. Her parents had Creole and Cajun backgrounds and she would be raised by them in New Orleans until a hurricane and flood in 1927 forced them to move to Oakland, California, on the east side of Lake Merritt.
She loved her community and her 15 or so Black neighbors, who began to trickle in from the South during World War II to work in the shipyards. Later when her family moved to Berkeley she would watch Mel Reid play baseball at San Pablo Park. They later married.
When asked by a reporter if her parents were middle class, Betty responded: “That’s a white question. The reason it’s a white question is that, at least at the time that Mel and I were growing up, that was not the way the Black community was divided. Lower, middle, upper class meant almost nothing. There were too few of us at the time to have made those kind of social divisions.”
Reid’s Records was established so that Berkeley’s growing postwar African American community would have somewhere to buy “race records,” as African American music was then called. None of the white-owned record shops in the area would sell these records. So the dashing Reids knocked out a hole in their duplex apartment on 3101 Sacramento Street and, with a cigar box for a register and orange crates to put the records in, started their business.
The music-loving couple owned one of three stores in the area that sold popular records by Black artists, and they found real success by being the first to advertise their wares. When blues shouter Wynonie “Mr. Blues” Harris released his first 78, “Around The Clock Blues,” the Reids bought time on KRE radio to play the song and inform listeners that they could buy it from them. That same day, people were lining up in front of the place and around the corner to buy that record.
Young boys would drop by Reid’s Records after school just to get a gander of Betty Reid, who was a real looker (Halle Berry would be my first choice to play her in a movie). There have always been many traps set up in Black communities, but Reid’s Records was what you might call a “Safe House”: A place where young people could go and enjoy their culture, drama free.
Reid’s was like a Soul Food Record Joint. The Soul Food was not the kind you ate, but the kind you got through hearing great Afro-classical, Black music! Soul music! The music of Motown, the Supremes, the Temptations, Donny Hathaway, Curtis Mayfield, Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, Dionne Warwick, Miles Davis, B.B. King, Bobbie Blue Bland, Earth Wind & Fire, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, Nina Simone and a pantheon of other Afro-classical musicians. Music that many of the youth today might call “old school.”
One could go upstairs to the second floor and lounge for hours, looking at the 45 records and album covers, marveling over the sounds of successfully enterprising Black youth and music that the whole world adored! There was no telling who might drop by – a young Aretha Franklin, the Pointer Sisters, Whoopi Goldberg, Huey Newton and Bobbie Seale to get Marvin Gaye’s “What Going On?” album, Congressman Ron Dellums with his young protege Barbara Lee, Maya Angelou, the Staple Singers, Jimmy Mack and the Otown Passions.
Reid’s Records was a music haven and cultural hub! But it wasn’t all song, dance and romance. After years of calling Black music Race Music, Jungle Music, Coon Music, Nigger Music, etc., white-owned stores began filling out their stock with the blues records Reid’s had monopolized for so long, jumping on the bandwagon of this new now popular music.
As they were losing business, the dapper Mel Reid tried to compete by embracing the hippie culture of the late ‘60s. But the water pipes and risqué Blacklight posters didn’t sell – they were stolen. By the early ‘70s, Reid’s Records was struggling to keep its doors open.
As the burgeoning Crack Holocaust began to pick up steam along with drug and gang violence, Reid’s Records would be robbed on an almost semi-regular basis. Mel Reid would spend several nights a week away from home and inside the shop, sleeping with a loaded shotgun by his side. All of this took its toll on him and his marriage. The Reids divorced. Betty Reid would find Mel one day, lying on the floor in the back of the store in a coma. He died in 1988 after succumbing to diabetes.
Betty Reid took over the business. When she went to the police to inquire about the crime and drugs in the area, she was told basically that they like to keep it centralized (in South Berkeley).
So Betty, realizing that drugs and gangs were merely symptoms of a greater problem – hopelessness – started working with the dealers, Ujima style. Collective work and responsibility. The store robberies plummeted. And Betty even got some of these same youth involved in voter registration drives!
The evolution of American music went from 33, 45 and 78 discs – called singles, with one or two three-minute songs – to albums, tape cassettes and CDs. Today, albums are making a bit of a comeback, but free music on the internet and technology has put almost all of the country’s 25,000 (at their peak) record stores out of business.
Today only about a thousand or so record stores still exist in the entire country. The first thing Betty did when she took over the shop was ditch the drug paraphernalia and, instead of catering to the unsavory elements of the thug, gangsta and cRAP music of the times, she focused on what her best customers wanted most: Gospel. Mel had had the inside line on what would break big in the gospel scene and stocked his store accordingly. Before long, Reid’s Records moved into a storefront next door to Reids’ duplex and it became the biggest dealer of gospel records in the state!
The Gospel Center of the West! The gospel clientele would be the store’s saving grace. So, um, you might say, the Lord intervened and saved Reid’s Records.
Over the next few decades, Betty would remarry and, with the help of her children Diara, Rick and David Reid as well as extended family, evolve Reid’s Records into the one-stop-shop for all things gospel – be it the newest releases, choir robes or tambourines. The renewed focus didn’t make the family rich, but it kept the store in business.
Reid’s Records changing to Gospel music from Race Music, which later came to be known as Blues, Jazz, Soul and R&B, was a brilliant business move. But for Betty Reid it wasn’t all about the bucks:
“That’s part of my excitement with gospel music. The good jazz singers are in the churches doing Black gospel. And the good musicians are in the churches. That’s where the edge is. It’s less and less in the public. It’s coming from the choir lofts.
“There was a time when the movement was from the choir loft to the clubs. That was the route taken by Sam Cooke, Johnnie Taylor, Aretha Franklin et al. But for some reason that path has been interrupted. “Now, you’ve got kids who are either bridging both or staying within the churches and doing their thing within the context of religion. It’s some of the most exciting music I’ve ever heard. I’m not here just because it’s a business. I’m here because I love Black gospel music. I think it’s just brilliant!”
But let’s get back to Mel Reid.
Reid’s Records went through any number of musical distribution incarnations over the years as it struggled for its own survival among the commercial chain record stores. When Tower Records, Warehouse and Leopold’s sought to sell commercialized “race records,” they saw an unstoppable profit margin in a virtually untapped national market of considerable size and means. Black gold!
As a side note: The Community Memory Board was located at Leopold Records in Berkeley, and it was the first electronically accessible bulletin board system in the United States. It’s been said the Community Memory Bulletin Board System is responsible for shaping the way we use personal computers, and also the way the computer industry functions today. More than a few people will tell you that Berkeley is where the origins of “social networking” all began. Berkeley’s record industry roots and music recording industry run deep.
Reid’s Records was founded in 1945, the first African American record store west of the Mississippi. Mel Reid was very much a renaissance man, who’s career path included pro ball and boosting the success of some in the music industry, clearing a path for him to become a leading businessman in the Berkeley community. Mel’s professional sports career is often overshadowed by his ventures in music recording as promoter, whose many exploits connected him throughout life with some of the most interesting musical superstars to ever grace the stage.
Although much better known for his musical acumen, Melvin Reid played both professional baseball and football at a time when such a combination was unprecedented, coming before two rare sports stars, Bo Jackson and Deon Sanders. While Mel played football and baseball, he was also trying to create a name for himself in the music industry.
In the ‘40s, Mel played for many teams around the Bay Area, including the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Baseball Association, the Oakland Giants, the San Francisco Clippers and the Hawaiian Warriors in the Pacific Coast Professional Football League.
Melvin Reid was born Dec. 17, 1918, in Berkeley, California, to Thomas Jr. and Reba Reid. Melvin was the oldest grandchild of Thomas Sr. and Virginia Reid. He was an all-star athlete at Berkeley High School, as well as a star halfback at the University of San Francisco. He also spent a couple of years with the California Eagles semi-pro baseball team in California’s Negro League.
In 1945 Mel decided to go into the music business, and never once looked back. He enlisted the help of his uncle, Paul Reid, a DJ on the radio program “Reid’s Record’s Religious Gems,” a weekly religious music hour developed and produced for KRE. From this show, Mel and Paul built a financially productive business – built on a dream and a prayer.
As the popularity of “Religious Gems” grew, Paul made his way over to KDIA, where a series of programs became a daily event that, for 11 years, would help build the business of Reid’s Records through constant promotion. Paul, along with his nephew Mel, went on to influence very famous Gospel groups like The Edwin Hawkins Singers, even helping put the gospel anthem “Oh Happy Day“ on the charts!
According to Ronald Auther, Mel gained his military deferment by being employed in the Kaiser (a.k.a. Richmond) Shipyard during World War II. He was part of that group of men and women that built Liberty Ships, troops transport ships and LSTs. “No ships, no D-Day. No D-Day, no end to World War II.” After the destruction of Pearl Harbor and the Seventh Fleet, ships needed to be built in record time to win the war, and they would be built using African American labor in Richmond, California, at a pace never seen in shipbuilding history: Ships built in two-thirds the time, at one quarter the cost.
In 1945, Mel Reid was a victim of the National Football League’s “Color Line,” beginning in 1934 and lasting until 1946. The bittersweet 1945 was the year the NFL drafted Frankie Albert from the Pacific Coast Professional Football League, but not the MVP of the league because the MVP – Mel Reid – was Black.
His only other known ambition was to eventually become a driver for Wonder Bread Bakeries, the same bakery that his father, Thomas Jr., had worked for his whole life – lifting 100 pound sacks of flour, but never seeing or ever being offered a promotion within the company ranks. The powers that be, during that period of time, would have never hired Mel as a driver, because Mel was Black. This is why Mel decided to go into business for himself.
Mel was made privy to the inside track on the Gospel music scene by buying significant radio airtime on KRE and listening to his uncle Paul. Mel was also smart enough to target his market, out-advertising all of his competitors. He had a gift as a promoter of musical acts. In doing so, his creation of a niche market, which other competitors never bothered with, built Reid’s Records to new heights.
Gospel battles between quartets and groups staged and promoted by Mel, Betty and Paul normally would fill the Oakland Auditorium, where as many as 7,000 people showed up for these Gospel Extravaganzas. They often featured the likes of such gospel stars as James Cleveland, the Rev. C.L. Franklin and his then-teenage daughter Aretha, and the Staples Singers.
Mel was a progressive individual, whose ideas were mostly ahead of their time. One of these ideas was Mel’s decision in 1954 to record a young, fledgling Aretha Franklin, using her pipes for gospel music long before she became a famous R&B singer.
The challenge for Mel was in stepping outside of his marketplace, only to return and find out that what he was in search of was beyond his reach. Even with the promotion of musicians and famous musical acts whose recordings Mel sold, the larger chain stores maintained bigger selections than Reid’s Records could ever keep in supply.
Large chain record stores were also able to work with much less overhead based on their ability to buy in bulk from multiple distributors. These chain stores, along with the consistent decline in the local neighborhood environment near Sacramento Street in the mid-1970s, were the reasons Reid’s Records soon found itself on the edge of demise.
Mel, who was suffering from severe diabetes, would eventually have both of his legs amputated. Wrought with debt and despair, Mel turned the business over to Betty, who had divorced Mel in 1978. She returned the venue to its former glory days by selling Gospel music and choir supplies.
Reid’s Records is still in operation, run by the Reids’ youngest son, David. With taste in music constantly shifting, things still hang precariously in the balance for Reid’s Records. The musical landscape is in flux, and gospel music no longer possesses the same engagement it once did in the African American community.
Sacramento Street in Berkeley, all the way to Seventh Street in Oakland, used to be one long, strong, golden artery for Black business and culture. That artery has been severed by manifest destiny, eminent domain, gentrification and other forms of racism. So, unfortunately – have you noticed? – even the once popular gospel scene has fizzled out here in the secular world.
“There’s no Black culture left here and this used to be a Black Enterprise Zone. It used to be where Black people thrived,” Diara Reid bemoaned. “Now I can count how many Black neighbors I have on one hand. All we have left is the Byron Rumford statue in the middle of the street.”
We can’t let Reid’s Records go out like that! The Reid family has been here for six generations! When Marcus Books was in trouble, the community banded together to save the legendary bookstore from going under. We must do something similar for Reid’s Records.
Mr. Reid said he is willing to lease the building out – let us band together and build some kind of Black think tank, cultural center, used book and CD and record store or vintage clothing shop! Or, do whatever is viable in keeping Reid’s a safe house and nurturing space for the Nubians (Black folk) in the area and beyond!
Paradise is president of the International Black Writers & Artists. Oct. 6 was renamed “Paradise Day” by the city of Oakland. Read more of Paradise’s writing on the website trueviberecords.com. For more on Mel Reid and the Negro Leagues in the Bay Area, check out the Ronald Auther and The Shadow Ball Express sites.