This is no country for old record men. Doctors warned LeRoi Johnson a decade ago that he'd be dead by now. Today the ex-PennyLane buyer, Streetside Records district manager and Pitch record reviewer is 56 years old and eight years out of those businesses. But during the 1980s and into the next decade, Johnson was a brand apart from the store. His short record reviews — published under just his first name, often alongside his photo — combined the brevity of alt-weekly critical godhead Robert Christgau with a Midwestern earnestness so artless that it was its own kind of gonzo. Eventually these capsule summations were slugged "Ridin' With the King," a reference to his own name (French for the king) and to singer-songwriter John Hiatt's album of the same title.
Congestive heart failure, kidney disease and diabetes now confine the king to what he jokes is "the poor side of Brookside," and he doesn't use the Web, but he says friends supply him with steady infusions of music, movies and shared memories. On the phone, recalling The Pitch's start as a record-store newsletter, he's soft-spoken and still gee-whiz enthusiastic about records, his old peers and the fading art of the album review as epigram.
The Pitch: When did you get involved in The Pitch?
LeRoi: I was there from the brainstorming meeting for the store and the warehouse. We met every Friday to brainstorm stuff — how to increase sales and visibility.
You needed help selling records in 1980?
When we moved to that location in Westport, at that time we were on the far edge of Westport, and our visibility wasn't very good. I know that sounds crazy now, but at the time we were trying to come up with ideas about becoming more visible to the public. That's how the paper started evolving. It was basically an advertisement.
Donald Mayberger had the original idea. He'd talked to [owner] Hal [Brody] about trying to do something like that, and there were people who liked the idea and volunteered to write and cut and paste. One of the good things about Hal was, if you had an idea that wasn't completely crackpot, he'd say try it. It started out with everybody volunteering — someone would say, 'I'll try this.' It was up to Donald to piece it all together.
So your "I'll try this" was writing reviews?
I'd considered myself a wannabe writer. I started out studying English at Southwest Missouri State [now Missouri State University]. I'd had an English professor who was my adviser, and he knew I wanted to be a writer, so he advised me to get out of the English department and get experiences to write about. He told me to move into social science and get people experience. That's what I loved about working music retail. Every experience could be wholly new and different, and the people truly wanted to know about music.
There also were many more record stores in town then.
At that time it was all so territorial that it wasn't very competitive. On a people level, everybody supported each other and were friends. Warner Bros. had an office on the Plaza, and we'd drop in and get promos and posters. Their sales rep would come at least once a week and present the new releases to you, and you'd set up your buy.
Most people would be amazed at how thirsty and unknowledgeable the general public was. I think there's so much more source material for people to learn about music than back when we were doing this, especially starting the Pitch. There was no collective place for people. That was the fun of the turntable. You'd get a stack of records and take a customer over and start playing them records. Once you could figure out one thing they liked, you could find them 100 things.