Talking Shop: Soul Brother Records, Putney
A London landmark for record collectors, right opposite East Putney tube station, Soul Brother Records grew from a mail-order business in the 90s to a thriving retailer with its own label. Long Live Vinyl heads there in search of a funk, soul and jazz find or two…
Every record store – whether independent or part of a large chain – has endured tough times over the past two decades, but specialists have taken a particularly brutal hammering. This has resulted in many such stores across the UK closing or choosing to go online-only. Soul Brother Records, however, is one of the remaining survivors; an emporium of funk, jazz and (of course) soul that’s been trading opposite East Putney tube station for nearly a quarter of a century.
“Being a specialist has cut both ways,” says co-owner Laurence Prangell. “It’s hindered us in some ways, in that we haven’t always had as much local business as we could have had. On the other hand, we’ve always been a destination store. People have come from the south coast, the Midlands, the west country, from outside the UK, often – just because they know they’re going to get what they’re after here. I’d say, overall, the speciality has actually helped us to survive the tough times.”
Soul Brother began as a mail-order business that Laurence, his wife Doreen and brother Malcolm ran in the 1980s. The brothers – both long-time soul nuts – were collectors who had begun to make regular shopping trips to the US at a time when that country was still a treasure trove for obscure funk and soul (see boxout). Back in the UK, the rare-groove scene was approaching its peak and the mail order business, in Laurence’s words, “just mushroomed”.
Lots in store
“At the time in our house you just couldn’t move for records,” says Laurence. “So I was under a bit of pressure to get them out of the way! Initially, we were just going to get a warehouse and do mail order from there, but then I thought, ‘If we have a shop, then these people can come here, and then maybe others will as well’. This place had just come on the market and, as it was right near the tube station, was ideal. And at that time, this area was not the area it is now – it was quite run-down, so it was relatively cheap.”
So Soul Brother opened in 1994, initially selling just second-hand vinyl, though it soon expanded into the then-burgeoning CD market. Though the dance scene was expanding rapidly at the time, Laurence decided to keep it strictly as a soul, funk and jazz specialist: “The rave scene was never really our thing, though we have dabbled in the more soulful end of house music.” More recently, the store has diversified into blues and reggae, and now even classic rock. “That’s through necessity,” Laurence points out. “Just because we’ve had so many people – mainly locals – come in and ask for it. Putney itself has always been a bit of a rock place, what with The Half Moon just around the corner.”
The shop soon became a touchstone for both collectors and DJs – Norman Jay was a regular for many years. Laurence, though, is keen to make clear that the shop has never given preferential treatment to anybody. “I know some stores are like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll keep that for so and so’. We don’t. Collectors, DJs, people who have popped into the shop for the first time… we treat them all with equal respect.”
After a few years, the store set up its own label, in conjunction with the larger label Passion Music. “They were a big customer of ours and we kept on being asked for stuff that just wasn’t available, so I thought, ‘Well, why don’t we try and have a go at putting some of this stuff out?’.” The label released a Marlena Shaw compilation which, riding on the revival of interest in her music sparked by Blue Boy’s 1997 Woman Of The Ghetto-sampling hit Remember Me, sold 30,000 copies. This led on to similar compilations for Eddie Henderson, Leon Thomas and Ann Sexton. “I like to think we played a role in re-establishing those artists,” says Laurence. The store has also put on a number of signing events – Shaw being one of a number of big names to make their way down to Putney, including Lonnie Liston Smith and Will Downing.
Not surprisingly, classics such as What’s Going On, Innervisions and Kind Of Blue loiter at the top of any Soul Brother all-time bestsellers list. But among those, Laurence reveals, are some slightly more obscure titles. “You get some, like Donny Hathaway’s Extension Of A Man, which always sell, and others like 100% Pure Poison that we re-issued on our own label.” The latter were a group of American servicemen, based in Germany, that somehow managed to wangle themselves a deal with EMI in the mid 70s. “Their one album bombed but it’s a really great record. We’ve sold loads and loads of that one. It’s one of those records that whenever you play it to people I would say 90% of those people will buy it. When it went out of press a while back, we had so much demand that even our reissue was going for £80. Understandably, we thought, ‘Oh, let’s do some more of these’, and the first batch flew out within a month.”
In 2016, Soul Brother celebrated its 25th year in business, though the team never got around to throwing a party. “We had this grandiose idea that we would have this mini-festival. We’d bring over some of the artists we’d put out records by and were talking to various promoters about doing it, but it just never actually happened! Maybe we could do it for the 30th anniversary.”
A few years back, the very idea of Soul Brother making it into the 2020s would have seemed laughable. Laurence admits the store was on its uppers in the late 2000s, a time when CD sales were sliding and vinyl had reached its
lowest ebb. Record Store Day may be a thorny subject at many independent stores, but Laurence credits it as having saved Soul Brother: “I believe it’s been the catalyst for the revival in vinyl that has happened. Every year, it’s got bigger and bigger. In 2017, the queue was just ridiculous here – it took us about five hours just to clear it.”
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened in terms of music retail while I’ve been doing it,” says Laurence. “Okay, we’re not seeing the massive percentage increases year on year that we used to when it started a decade ago, but the monetary increase we see each year is still substantial. It’s the prime reason this store is still here, and I suspect if people were being honest, that’s the same for many other record stores in the UK.”
The post-RSD revival of interest in vinyl has led to the shop being opened up at the back to accommodate more stock. The customer demographic has slowly changed, too, with increasing numbers of younger punters frequenting the store. “They’re used to hearing things on their phone, so when they hear a record on vinyl, they think, ‘Oh my God, this is so much better! It’s almost like a different record’. Which, of course, it is – on digital you only get about half of the actual music.”
The other new market consists of devoted parents buying their offspring a first record player. “In 2016, we had the busiest Christmas Eve we’ve ever had – we had people queuing outside. A lot of people had bought players for their children or partners and at the last minute, thought ‘oh, we haven’t got any records’. I must’ve had 12 or 15 people come in that day in that exact situation.”
The long haul
So, after a few hairy years, the immediate future of Soul Brother is secure. Laurence has just extended the shop’s lease for another two years, and while he admits, at 62, he can’t see himself behind the counter in a decade’s time, he sees no reason why the store itself won’t still be here. “We have some younger people working here now and we’ll see how they work out. Who knows what’ll happen? It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance to keep something like this going,” he concludes. “You have to be very committed. You have good days, but you also have bad. There are a lot of sacrifices, like personal time… I’m working six-and-a-half days a week and it’s starting to take a lot out of me.
“But it’s our passion and we love it. Soul and funk are genres that constantly get rediscovered by every new generation – it’s music that will sell as long as people are buying music. Hopefully, we’ll be here to sell it to them for a few years yet.”