The Emperor of Grooves

The ballad of Louis Buckley, forgotten record king of Nashville

The recent opening of the relocated Grimey’s New & Pre-loved Music on Trinity Lane brought excitement and buzz to the East Side’s record collecting community, while the closing of Fond Object is a reminder of the precarious nature of the record trade even in the midst of the 21st century vinyl revival. With Record Store Day 2019 approaching on April 13, it seems an appropriate time to reflect on the history of Nashville’s once and mostly forgotten record king, Louis Buckley.

Buckley’s ascension to the throne began in 1929, at the age of 19. Having arrived in Nashville from his native Allensville, Kentucky a year earlier, Buckley was working at the downtown men’s wear store, Burk & Co., when he stumbled upon a business opportunity: 10 Seeburg jukeboxes, located in a handful of black diners and the brothels that lined the street behind the Tennessee State Capitol building. Borrowing $800 from his employer, Buckley entered the jukebox business — servicing the machines on his off hours and storing surplus records beneath his bed at the hostel where he resided.

At the time jukeboxes were in their infancy. Early models were subject to frequent mechanical failures, but as the technology improved during the 1930s, the business rapidly expanded, and Buckley’s early investment paid big dividends in just a few years.

In 1936, Buckley opened a small shop on Second Avenue for storing and repairing jukeboxes, renting phonographs, and selling used records. Three years later, he moved to a larger space on Eighth Avenue North near Demonbreun Street where he began selling new records. Although jukeboxes were Buckley’s primary focus, there’s a strong argument that his Eighth Avenue shop was Nashville’s first dedicated record store.

By 1946, new record sales were booming, and Buckley began advertising on DJ Gene Noble’s late-night broadcasts of rhythm and blues records on radio station WLAC’s powerful 50,000-watt clear channel signal. Initially, Buckley simply advertised his retail store, but based on a suggestion from Nobles, Buckley began offering mail-order grab bags of surplus records. Orders poured in for the discount specials, many with additional orders for the records played on Nobles’ show.

This new world of mail order record retailing soon transformed Buckley’s shop and his two Middle Tennessee competitors — Ernie’s Record Mart in Nashville and Randy’s Record Shop in Gallatin — into the largest record retailers in the world, shipping millions of discs to homes throughout the US and around the globe. Inspired by their success, country star Ernest Tubb launched a record shop in 1947, following a similar marketing model by advertising on Nashville’s other 50,000-watt powerhouse station, WSM.

Ernie’s and Randy’s parlayed their mail order success into influential record labels (Excello and Dot, respectively). Buckley chose to expand his retail locations in Nashville. In 1947, he moved to a larger location at 1707 Church St. For the next 15 years, the re-branded “Buckley’s Discount Record Shop” dominated the local market, selling thousands of R&B, pop, jazz, country, and rock ’n’ roll records to Nashville music fans.

In February 1962, Buckley’s largest expansion came with the opening of a new location in Harveys department store in downtown Nashville. Founded in 1942 by Fred Harvey, Harveys quickly became a giant Nashville retailer, occupying an entire block of Church Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. More than just a store, shopping at Harveys was an experience. The downtown location featured Nashville’s first escalators, a working carousel, elaborate holiday displays, and “The Monkey Bar,” a large, in-store restaurant featuring live monkeys in cages over the lunch counter.

The Buckley-operated Harveys Record Shop was located on the ground floor at the Fifth Avenue corner and featured more than 2,000 square feet of retail space, stocking over 10,000 singles and nearly 7,000 LPs, making it the largest record shop in Nashville. The 10-day grand opening featured in-store appearances by a parade of country and pop stars along with live broadcasts on WLAC.

The success of the new Harveys Record Shop led to a second location in the Harveys store in the Madison Square Shopping Center, northeast of downtown Nashville. Opening in September 1962, the shop became the premier record supplier for East Side neighborhoods. With three locations, Buckley solidified his position as the Record King of Nashville by offering deeply discounted prices on hit singles and albums, a practice that sparked a short but fierce price war in Nashville, making front page headlines in Billboard during the spring of 1962.

Flush from his success and aware of recent R&B chart successes on the Excello label, Louis Buckley launched Buckley Records in 1962, with “She Wears My Ring” by Nashville R&B crooner and songwriter Jimmy Sweeney. The single fizzled on the charts and Buckley quickly returned to selling records rather than manufacturing them.

The next few years constituted a golden age for record retailing. With the arrival of the Beatles on American shores in 1964, the record business boomed at an unprecedented rate. In October 1966, Buckley opened a second standalone Buckley’s Record Shop at 410 Broadway, directly across the street from Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop. Buckley also became a major sponsor of the Grand Ole Opry on WSM, providing direct competition with Ernest Tubb’s mail order operation.

But Louis Buckley’s reign as the Record King of Nashville was drawing to a close. Fred Harvey had severely underestimated the success of the expanded Harveys Record Shop and chafed as thousands of records flew out the door while Harveys received only a small percentage of sales revenue. In November 1967, Buckley’s contract with Harveys ended and the department store signed a new deal with Atlanta-based record distributor Sound Marketing to manage all of the chain’s record departments, along with a much larger portion of the profits for Harveys.

Buckley retained his two standalone shops: The Church Street store that primarily focused on soul and rock, and the Broadway store that catered to country music fans. As the 1970s dawned, competition arrived via new, local chains Port O’Call and Cat’s Records, as well as the national chain invasion of shopping malls, shifting the focus of record retailing to the suburbs.

On September 22, 1973, tragedy struck Buckley’s Church Street location. Long-time shop employee Iva Lee Burchfield was murdered during a robbery and attempted rape. In the aftermath, Buckley closed the store, bringing an end to over two decades of record retailing at the location.

The Broadway location of Buckley’s Record Shop soldiered on until Louis Buckley’s retirement in January 1976. In addition to closing the store and selling the property, Louis Buckley attracted national attention from record aficionados by placing his personal collection of over 100,000 78’s and 150,000 45’s up for sale. Collectors flocked to Nashville from around the country to grab up the early and rare country, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll discs, providing Louis Buckley and his wife a healthy retirement. By the time of Louis Buckley’s death on April 25, 1985, at the age of 74, the former Record King of Nashville and the kingdom that he ruled were a fading memory, but for one important footnote.

In the summer of 1992, Mary Mancini opened Lucy’s Record Shop at 1707 Church St., the former home of Buckley’s Discount Record Shop. For the next six years, the small store and all-ages music venue served as a crossroads for Nashville’s punk and indie rock scene, attracting national attention and sowing the seeds of future stores and DIY venues. Proving that like a record, there’s always a B-Side, and it only requires a re-set of the needle to start the music again.