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Angela Davis and Huey Newton posters stand guard on the walls in an off-campus apartment dimmed by black light. Incense burn and the silky crooning of the Stylistics set the mood. “R&B songs definitely helped a brother’s rap,” reflects Robert A. Brown, 57, from Oakland, California. The music also communicated the social and political spirit of African Americans.
Brown has amassed a collection of 3,000 R&B albums and CDs. He also developed “Musical Soul of the ’60s and ’70s,” the course he’s taught at the University of California, Berkeley’s Extension Program. A historical look at R&B, he says, “shows the musicians’ constant search for change and meaning.”
Brown’s standout recordings include “We’re a Winner” by the Impressions and “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye. These two songs are among the most politically and socially inspiring, he says. “When a Man Loves a Woman” by Percy Sledge and “At Last” by Etta James are his favorite love songs.
“Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder are at the top of my R&B class because they wrote songs of substance and love,” says Brown. They endured when the music landscape changed.
Brown owns rare items such as “Nasty Gals,” by Betty Davis. One of his rarest discs is Luther, the 1976 album Luther Vandross recorded with his short-lived group of the same name.
Brown prefers albums to CDs because of their liner notes and back-cover lyrics. His collection is worth about $25,000 but, for him, they have greater cultural value.
Here’s Brown’s advice for beginning your own album collection:
Select artists and music of a specific period. Use milestones in your life, such as high school or college years or a first job, to set the parameters. It’s easier to build a collection when you focus on a specific time frame.
Skip garage sales and flea markets. Collectors who keep their albums in mint condition rarely sell at such venues. You’ll find the best-preserved albums at large record stores or warehouse distributors that specialize in buying in bulk from collectors.
Handle albums with care. Touch a vinyl recording only on its edges and label, and always store it in a sleeve before slipping it into its cover. Do not stack unsleeved or uncovered albums on top of one another.
Keep albums away from moisture. Store albums upright in cardboard boxes away from heat and humidity, which can cause vinyl to warp and crack. To help absorb humidity, place a slice of bread on top of the albums before covering the box.
For more information, Brown can be reached at rnbsociety @aol.com.