Robert Johnson is well-known as a seminal bluesman now, but the musician, who lived from 1911 to 1938, was just another forgotten master until Columbia Records reissued a compilation of his work in 1990. The album was certified Gold, unheard of for a reissue at the time.
It also fueled the fire of Columbia exec Josh Rosenthal, who would go on to leave the major label world and start Tompkins Square Records, which for more than a decade has focused on finding unheralded masterpieces from the past and making them available to today’s audiences.
Rosenthal, 48, is based in San Francisco and recently marked the label’s tenth anniversary with a self-published book, The Record Store of the Mind, for those who yearn for stories of undiscovered excellence, crate diggers and anyone who misses the Bay Area music scene of the 1960s and ’70s.
“The incredible creativity that was going on with all the musicians who were here, feeding off one-another,” he muses, “there was a real musical community back then that isn’t (here) now. … That’s what I try to tap into in the book.”
Tompkins Square, founded in 2005, has approximately 100 reissues and original releases to its name. Among his many successes, Rosenthal brought country music legend Charlie Louvin back to the studio for the first time in decades and earned Louvin his first Grammy nomination at age 80. In 2015, Louvin and his brother, Ira, received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously.
Rosenthal has also championed Big Star’s Alex Chilton, Oakland jazz great Calvin Keys, and Dino Valente of the Bay Area’s Quicksilver Messenger Service, whose eponymous 1968 album he reissued on vinyl. Since the beginning, Rosenthal has run the label on his own, with the help of an art director and a publishing company.
“The label is very profitable because I work all the time,” he says. “If you’re smart about it, you can make it work in this environment. Luckily, I have a very nice catalog at this point. I have built up a large number of titles, which a lot of people are still banging on.”
His interests are varied across many genres. Growing up, his father introduced him to classical and traditional Indian and Arabic music, as well as Sammy Davis Jr. and The Beatles. His own tastes began coalescing at his New York high school, where he was a music director at the school’s radio station. He and his friend, future award-winning director (but then a class clown and DJ) Judd Apatow, had many formative experiences during the time and some of them are detailed in the book.
The Record Store of the Mind is also partly a memoir of Rosenthal’s experience in the music industry, with stories about interviewing R.E.M. at a roller rink for a high school radio show, luring Elvis Costello to his college radio show with a crate of cassettes delivered to his hotel room, and eating latkes with Lou Reed. Mainly, it is a collection of historical stories about talented musicians who never got a fair shake at success.
Artists expounded on in the pages include North Carolina early-country group Red Fox Chasers, minstrel banjoist Polk Miller and producer Bob Johnston. Johnston produced Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room and Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde.
One night in 1973, Johnston got a knock on the door from a talented musician named Bill Wilson. They recorded an album on the spot, and Wilson disappeared thereafter. Many years later, Rosenthal found that record in a bin for 25 cents and bought it because he recognized Johnston’s name. After talking to the producer, he reissued the record.
As often as possible, Rosenthal reaches out to the musicians whose music he plans to reissue or their families. Even though the master recording is typically owned by another label, such as in the case of Wilson, he feels it important to know the story behind the music.
“I like to go deeper and find out about the person and to make connections with the family,” he says.
In the book, Rosenthal also takes time to list some of the rare titles in his record collection, which currently numbers “only” around 1,500. Many were destroyed by flooding from a hurricane when he lived in New York.
“I’m not a collector. I like to say I’m an accumulator,” Rosenthal says. Some of his prized possessions are 1960s Yazoo Records releases. “I’m not a completist in any stretch.”
The book includes stories about finding treasured records for loose change in record stores, as well as listing nearly every record store in the Bay Area and what makes each one unique.
Rosenthal moved to San Francisco in 2011 to be close to his daughters, and the label moved with him. He has a longer history with the Bay Area, however, and the book features some of his favorite previous memories, such as giving Noel and Liam Gallagher a tour of Berkeley’s Mod Lang record shop during their first U.S. West Coast tour in 1994 prior to playing Bottom of the Hill. Rosenthal also attended Bjork’s first U.S. show (with the Sugarcubes) in San Francisco.
Other Bay Area stories include a rumination on the lack of a jazz stronghold in San Francisco, hanging out with promoter Bill Graham, spotting Bob Weir in a men’s bathroom line, stories of The Grateful Dead and other local icons, such as the Youngbloods and Raccoon Records, in their 1970s North Bay utopia at Inverness. There also are tales of less-famous musicians, such as Mendocino fiddler Smoke Dawson and local guitarist Steve Mann, who in the ’60s accompanied “aspiring blues-folk singer” Janis Joplin and played on the recording of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” before spending many years at mental facilities.
In his time here, Rosenthal has made a mission for himself to visit as many of the musically significant locations as possible, such as the two churches signified on the cover of Van Morrison’s 1972 album St. Dominic’s Preview; the church by that name a few blocks from his home, and the church pictured on the cover of the album, actually located in San Anselmo.
“This (area) has incredible musical history. I just saw that Janis Joplin biopic, Little Girl Blue. There’s some wonderful footage in that movie of San Francisco in the ’60s. They had a little talk after the film screening … and the director said there’s actually very little footage in news archives because a lot of that stuff was just scrapped.”