One could think that 65-year-old Jerry Weber, the owner of Jerry's Records, sold his soul to the devil given the kind of luck he's been having scrounging up impossible-to-find records lately.
In November, Mr. Weber and his 34-year-old son, "Whistlin' Willie," got their hands on a 78 rpm copy of the mysterious Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson's "I Believe I'll Dust My Broom" (Vocalion), one of the most important blues songs of the 20th century.
A stranger strolled into Mr. Weber's Murray Avenue store in Squirrel Hill with a box of dusty 78s that reeked more of basement mildew than anything remotely valuable. After some halfhearted haggling, the man settled for $50, which was $49 more than they were worth as far as Jerry was concerned.
"Most of the records were stuck together," he said scrunching up his nose. Still, his four decades in the business had taught him that separating the wheat from the chaff is never simple.
For days, the moldy 78s sat among boxes of dispossessed but possibly interesting vinyl in the hallway situated at the crossroads of the store's 13,000 square feet of records. When Jerry and Willie finally got around to conducting an inventory of the box, they found a clean and undamaged copy of the Robert Johnson classic that neither had spotted until that moment.
After picking themselves up from the floor, they realized they were in possession of one of the few relatively unscathed copies of the record in existence.
Fast-forward to a few weeks ago.
This time Willie spotted a strange record by Bogus Ben Covington, a performer he'd never heard of, among some Blind Lemon Jefferson sides they'd recently bought. Because of their good fortune with the Robert Johnson find months earlier, Willie had been paying a lot of attention to every record that crossed his desk.
"I've developed some expertise in 78s," Willie said. "When I get records, I listen to them all."
The A-side of Covington's 1928 record was "Adam and Eve and the Garden." The B-side had the even more evocative title "I Heard the Voice of the Pork Chop."
Like the Robert Johnson 78, it was in impossibly good condition. In fact, it had never been played as far as Willie could tell. It also was on the rare Paramount label, making it one of the most collectable records in the world, sight unseen.
After consulting Dixon and Godrich's "Blues and Gospel Records 1902-1942," Jerry and Willie contacted Jerry Zolten, a Penn State University music historian and rare record collector who frequented the store. Mr. Zolten, a McKeesport native, was stunned by their discovery.
"Paramount didn't use the best shellac mix," Mr. Zolten said, explaining the recording's fragility and rarity. "Jerry and Willie managed to find a copy that looked like it just came out of the store."
Mr. Zolten suggested to the Webers what they already had been thinking: The reclusive underground cartoonist Robert Crumb, who last visited Jerry's Records during the 2004 Carnegie International, probably would jump at the opportunity to own a rare Bogus Ben Covington record.
Mr. Crumb, 69, is a fanatical collector of country blues 78s recorded before 1935. According to Mr. Zolten, who has been friends with the cartoonist since 1980, Mr. Crumb has a particular interest in rare Paramount sides. Mr. Zolten put Willie in touch with the notoriously shy artist who now resides in the south of France.
After an exchange of emails, the Webers and Mr. Crumb agreed to a trade: Upon receiving the Bogus Ben Covington 78, Mr. Crumb, who is acutely aware of the value of his art, would send a pen-and-ink drawing of "Juice Jar Jerry" and "Whistlin' Willie" to the states suitable for reproduction on T-shirts and posters. The Webers, who now own the rights to the drawing, are free to do anything they want with it.
"A lot of people assume that it is no big deal for Robert to knock off a drawing," Mr. Zolten said. "He will put hours into a drawing. It is impossible for him to do a quick drawing."
Several decades ago, Mr. Crumb traded two old sketchbooks for the French chateau that he, his wife and daughter live in. For years, his cartoons have been as good as currency for art collectors and fans around the world. To uphold his end of the bargain, Mr. Crumb used a photo of Jerry and Willie clutching the Robert Johnson 78 that ran in the Post-Gazette in November for reference.
The result is an intricate and iconic line drawing of the store owners grinning, almost sneering with the rare record in hand. While the caricature of Jerry accurately captures his mountain man brio, Willie looks older and heavier than he actually is.
Still, both men are flattered to have been immortalized by one of the greatest illustrators of the past century. The Webers plan to sell T-shirts featuring the drawing in the early spring. It is expected to become a hot item with fans of both the artist and the record store.
"Robert doesn't do a lot of trade for artwork like he used to," Mr. Zolten said. "He's well aware that his work is fetching large amounts of money. He tries to parse these things out. Robert said it was the best known copy of the record [so it was worth it]. He likes the idea of owning it."
As for Bogus Ben Covington, who was also known as Blind Ben Covington, but whose real name was believed to be Ben Curry, not much is known. He was believed to have been born in Alabama, but was most associated with the blues tradition of eastern Mississippi and Chicago.
He worked the minstrel circuit and came by the nickname "Bogus Ben" by pretending to be blind while busking throughout the South. He recorded a few songs for Paramount and a few unissued cuts for Vocalion, Robert Johnson's label before disappearing like smoke into the obscurity of rural Pennsylvania where he is believed to have died in 1935.
Meanwhile, "Juice Jar Jerry" and "Whistlin' Willie" will be on the lookout for the next piece of history to walk into their store under the arms of a mysterious stranger.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631; Twitter: @TonyNormanPG First Published February 27, 2013 5:00 AM