How John Denver Saved My Life

A gathering of old men? Not quite. It’s more like a gathering of middle-aged guys who still meet up at Wax ‘n’ Facts, the legendary record shop in Atlanta’s Little Five Points neighborhood. Since June ’76, there have been similar gatherings, as those of us easing our way into the world of adult responsibilities would show up to buy, sell and trade records, and most importantly, talk about the music which already maintained such dominance in our lives.  Many of us had good jobs in the music industry, a business that was fast becoming corporate. To most people it made little sense to work 8 hours daily at the big chain record store where you could find any album in print and then traverse the half dozen miles south of Buckhead to a small operation that made no pretense of  having all the Led Zeppelin albums. But that wasn’t the reason for going to Wax ‘n’ Facts; it was the chance to participate in the bull sessions, sell some unwanted discs and maybe find that out-of-print Hollies album.

That shop at Little Five Points attracted (and still does) the creative people in the music world. In some cases, the creative process started there. Wax ‘n’ Facts co-founder Danny Beard took an interest in the music scene of Athens, Georgia, less than 75 miles east of Atlanta. Particularly intriguing to Danny was a group known as the B-52’s. He talked them up at every chance. One rainy day in the late seventies, upon entering his shop, he asked some friends to walk right back in the rain to his car where he played a tape of the B-52’s “Rock Lobster.” So huddled in an old VW, we listened to some strikingly different sounds that Danny and the B-52’s hoped would prove popular. They did. 2000 copies of the single “Rock Lobster,” with “52 Girls” on the flip were pressed and distributed on Beard’s label, DB Recs. The 2000 copies went quickly, impressing the corporate types. In 1979, the B-52’s released their first album on Warner Brothers. The rest, as they say, is history.

For those of us too young to have enjoyed Atlanta’s hippie scene and the free concerts by the Allman Brothers Band at Piedmont Park, the emergence of  Georgia bands like the B-52’s and R.E.M. were exciting to witness, especially on our stomping grounds. It was fun to be so near the creative energy. Yes, the music business, corporate encroachments or not, was still alive with new possibilities. For those of us working to promote and sell the records, life was full of promise. That is, unless someone pulled a gun on you while trying to “buy” some records.

In the summer of 1975, I finally got what appeared to be a really great job in the record business. It was a simple work-a-day clerk routine but it was at Peaches Records and Tapes at 2282 Peachtree Road, just south of the smaller Buckhead community of the time. Peaches was the hottest and coolest destination in Atlanta at the time. It wasn’t simply a matter of being able to purchase any LP or tape that was available then. It was the place to see and be seen.

Relationships and marriages were born, as well as divorces, at Peaches. The late night crowd gathered on the weekends, before or after an evening at Harrison’s. Our customers included Lester Maddox, Cicely Tyson, Lou Reed and Maynard Jackson. To paraphrase The Beatles, a splendid time was had by all.

Then there was the collection of handprints and footprints, ala Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. The prints were placed alongside our building. People lingered over the collection that included Paul McCartney, Willie Nelson, James Brown, The Beach Boys, The Allman Brothers Band, Robert Shaw, Dolly Parton, The Isley Brothers and some two dozen more.  It was a great place to be and a fun place to work, but not always.

It became clear that the joy of getting a job in the record business was negated somewhat by the music that was dominant at the time. As the great Atlanta musician and humorist, Darryl Rhoades declared, it was a time of Olivia Elton John Denver. Elton had given us a lot of great music but he would soon be releasing a single with Kiki Dee (“Don’t Go Breaking My Heart”). That was pretty bad. Then there was the disco insurgency.


But John Denver. Supposedly he had been a true folkie who scored a few hits yet still made decent albums. But then he got big. Real big.  He received acclamation and love from millions of record buying Americans who adored his melodious messages that celebrated being one with nature. His anthems to the natural environment were accompanied by mammoth string arrangements. It was too much. But he was selling a lot of records. Lots, as in millions.  We were retailers and we played a part in the movement of Denver’s work.

It was decided to build a mountain in the store in which to display Denver’s latest album. The store’s talented artist, John Campbell, constructed a mountain of plaster and chicken wire or similar materials. It dominated prime display space. Denver’s record label, RCA, was pleased with the mountain. So were the employees since it provided another place to lean against when we should have been waiting on customers.

On a pleasant autumn evening, things were proceeding smoothly enough.  Business was good.  For the most part, the store was running itself. No worries until a cashier called me and a manager to the front.  A gentleman making some purchases was trying to take his his LPs home via a stolen credit card. The man bolted and ran up Peachtree. For some reason a few of us chased him although he had nothing in his possession. Situations like these now give pause to those of us who have sons in their early twenties.

We chased the guy down and brought him back to the store. Our security guard, no more imposing than Deputy Dawg, accompanied us and the perp back to the office area where he would be locked in until the police arrived. The drama would soon be over.

But then as the guard struggled to find the right key, the perp grabbed Deputy Dawg’s gun and pulled it on me and the manager. He’s going to shoot us over the credit card? Let’s give it back to him. Don’t leave here without it. But all of a sudden he became distracted with something near the warehouse door. At that moment, the manager and I ran back into the store.  Where would we hide? Oh, take us home country roads. Take us to the John Denver Mountain where we belong. Immediately afterward, the guy looked around for us but did not think about us hiding behind a silly mountain of plaster and chicken wire. So with his pistol, holding it as calmly as he would a cassette tape by John Denver, he walked out of the store.

The perp was caught less than two hours later. Even then, the APD was serving and protecting, but offering no protection as secure as that mountain.

So we made it through that night, shaken, but alive to sell a lot more John Denver albums. One co-worker at Peaches, Ort Carlton, usually in the middle of any excitement, must have been at the Mad Italian, munching on a Philly Cheese Steak. During our most recent meeting at Wax ‘n’ Facts, we discussed that and other crazy nights. He also spoke of helping to inspire a song that R.E.M. recorded. We’ll get to the bottom of that at our next gathering.