R You Ready For This?
You may not know the name Rachelle Friedman, but I bet you know her initial. And to a generation of music fans in New York City it was one (of two) of the most important letters in the entire music world. We can all name a long list of iconic music artists throughout history. Songwriters, producers, even record executives, too. But in terms of music retailers – where we actually got our music – there is likely no figure more iconic over the last 50 years than Rachelle, the “R” in J&R Music World.
In 1971, a time long before ubiquitous streaming changed the way we acquired and consumed music, 20-year-old newlyweds Joe and Rachelle Friedman (the “J” and the “R”) took the money they’d received as wedding gifts and opened a small consumer electronics store operating out of 500 square feet on Park Row in lower Manhattan. It was intended to be only a part-time venture, but in the years to follow J&R would continually expand to a series of adjacent storefronts, eventually stretching a full city block and occupying a colossal 300,000 square feet (plus another 170,000 of warehouse space in Maspeth, Queens), as it grew to become the standard-bearer for music aficionados in New York City, throughout the country, and around the world.
But more than the mountains of equipment and recordings moved during the store’s decades-long reign – it finally closed in 2014 – what Rachelle recounted most effusively when we spoke by phone this week was the almost unimaginable roster of music superstars who’d passed through her store’s environs – for record releases, in-store appearances, free concerts, or, in the case of Michael Jackson, just to shop. “Michael used to come to the store, we used to get a call – can you keep the store open late? – and we’d say of course,” Rachelle related with a laugh. “But then he came so often, he’d just come during the day, customers were standing all around, nobody bothered him, and he used to sit on the floor going through videos for his kids. He was just a sweetheart of a guy.”
The list of J&R-appearing names Rachelle rattled off is not only wildly extensive but almost comically eclectic. In what other space could you ever cohabitate classical violinist extraordinaire Itzhak Perlman with nu metal pioneers Korn; twisting Chubby Checker with crooning Tony Bennett; concert events for (among many others) One Direction and Earth, Wind & Fire; Selena Gomez and Eric Burden. And another by Green Day, a personal highlight for Rachelle, whose debut full-album performance of “American Idiot” in 2004 required coordination with the Mayor’s office and closing of surrounding city streets. “They (Green Day) were just wonderful. The whole block was loud and beautiful, everybody happy. And it was a free concert, of course,” – as was the case, it should be noted, with all of the voluminous J&R events. “The whole band was so nice, they signed autographs for hours and hours because it was such a long line, and it was such a memorable experience.”
Beyonce was at the store, her visit becoming the cover image for a J&R catalog (she asked for no payment). Gladys Knight and B.B. King, too. Michael Buble even came in and sang a special anniversary song for Joe & Rachelle. And the artists seemingly loved their J&R time as much as the customers. “We had Joe Walsh play in the store,” recalled Rachelle of the renowned life-in-the-fast-lane Eagle. “Then I ran into him a few months later outside a hotel and he said ‘Rachelle! I’ve got to tell you that was one of the best in-store’s (appearances) ever, I had so much fun. And…I actually remember it!’”
There are endless store-related stories. “For Justin Bieber we had 15,000 young girls screaming, and they went around the block and around the park.” Not far behind, I learned, was the outpouring for a far more seasoned rocker. “I was surprised because it was usually the younger kids who came out, and this was a whole different demographic, but wow, people really showed up for Brian Wilson,” she gushed. “It was gigantic. And he was wonderful, patient, and courteous; he spoke to every single customer.” Not exactly what you’d expect from the famously reclusive Beach Boy. Chalk it up, perhaps, to J&R’s legendary good vibrations.
In addition to the expansive, rock star-studded memories – and a forthcoming book to tell more of the “backstage” tales – what is it that overflows around Rachelle’s current post-J&R life? Memorabilia. A unique, extensive, wide-ranging, decades-long collection of music memorabilia. “I have so much, from over 40 years,” she said. So, she’s decided to divest of much of it, through an auction proceeding, to bring the pieces from the various storage spaces in which they’re offhandedly stacked up, and into more worthy places. “This auction is one-of-a-kind,” said Rachelle, “and I look forward to getting these items into the hands of true music fans.” Collectibles and keepsakes of many levels are included, from quite moderately priced autographed CD’s all the way up to a Lady Gaga autographed white piano (with which Rachelle is posed above). And foamboards, many foamboards. “Every time there was an in-store the record companies used to create these life-size foamboards, and after the appearance the artist always signed it.” The historic auction is currently running, with this vast array of items available for review by visiting bidcx.com. But only for a few more days: the J&R Collection auction will conclude on December 5th. So, fellow music lovers, act quickly if you’re thinking of “taking home a piece of music history,” as Rachelle says…even if you can’t presently fit the Gaga piano in your living room.
As we wound up our conversation, Rachelle said to me: “You know, if you love music, in any genre, and you get someone else acquainted with that music, they’re so happy, so thankful.” Amen to that, Rachelle, you’ve basically nailed the mission statement and more than occasional source of gratification for running So Much Great Music. I get almost no joy greater than the ability to turn someone on to some music that they hadn’t heard before; it’s really the most fun to open a person’s, well, ears to new music – even if it’s not “new” but new to them. And a true music icon like Rachelle Friedman understands that rewarding feeling since long before Lady Gaga or the guys in Green Day were even around.
Click here for the J&R Music Collection Auction
(through December 5th)
…imagine this being your block party band