Joe Lauro is excited about his latest find. He’s standing in the loft of his barn, which is lined with the shelves that hold his 10,000-plus piece record collection, holding up a battered 78. “This is the first American recording of an African American woman,” says Lauro. “I found it on eBay for $9!” The historic record, which features the contralto Daisy Tapley singing the hymn “I Surrender All,” was released in 1911. And Lauro’s copy, while worn, is still playable. That’s important, because Lauro doesn’t just collect old 78s—he listens to them. While we’re standing there, he cues up a classic—a pristine copy of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven playing “Potato Head Blues.” It was recorded in Chicago in 1927 and released on the Okeh label, but the sound coming off this 90-year-old shellac disc is remarkably clear and forceful. The electric energy of the original performance is leaping out of the antique grooves. “This is as close to an encounter with Louis Armstrong as you’re going to get,” says Lauro.
Lauro is a man of many pursuits. Locally, many will recognize Lauro as the indefatigable leader and bass player of the HooDoo Loungers, a New Orleans-style band that plays all over Long Island and beyond. Lauro is also the founder of the Historic Films Archive, a Greenport-based film library that specializes in rare, historical footage of musicians in performance. That’s his day job. Additionally, he’s a respected documentarian, having produced definitive films about the blues performer Howlin’ Wolf, the R & B pioneer Fats Domino, and about the history of Gospel music, among others. He takes his record collecting quite seriously, often traveling to far-flung places to track down rare finds.
What’s clear is that all of these pursuits revolve around one deep and abiding interest: music performance. Lauro has always been captivated by great performers. “As a kid I would watch TV hoping that they would show old films with these classic performers. It totally struck a nerve.” Given the gift of a wind-up Victrola, Lauro started collecting old shellac records when he was 12, riding his bike along the then-rural backroads of Long Island to trade his nickels and dimes for dusty 78s found in antiques stores. Later, while in college upstate, he continued to collect, and was taken under the wing of an upstate record collector named James Hadfield, who had 250,000 78s in his barn. Then, as now, it was about discovery.
“It’s about discovery and procuring,” says Lauro. He puts on a Paramount 78 of Frank Stokes playing “Mr. Crump Don’t Like It,” a disc he remembers discovering in a collection that had been dumped in a pile in the basement of a Modell’s department store in New York City. “I always knew that there were other ways to hear this music,” Lauro explains. In fact, in the ’60s, labels like Yazoo and Arhoolie began specializing in transferring classic 78s to LPs and other more current and convenient formats. “But I loved the discovery, and I made a decision that I would only come at this music in this way. So, I’d have a lifetime of discovery to look forward to.”
Right now, Lauro is in the process of organizing his collection. “Collectors like to play with their stuff,” he laughs. He sifts through his shelf of early Gospel, and goes to his turntable to cue up “Woke Up This Morning With My Mind Set on Jesus,” performed by Blind Roosevelt Graves and Brother. Lauro’s is one of seven known copies. He has specialized playback equipment and uses very specific pickup cartridges and needles to unlock the potential of these rare discs—and it’s all to one purpose. To discover again the brilliance of a musical performance, captured on shellac a long time ago.