Monday, January 10, 2011

Sleepsongs: Sleepy Cowboy

The Five Sharps: Sleepy Cowboy

(No recordings in print, it seems)

This is the b-side of what is reputed to be the world’s most collectible record. The Five Sharps were a New York-based a vocal group – precursors of doo wop, really – that released only one record, in 1952.

The Five Sharps’ version of the standard Stormy Weather, backed with their original composition Sleepy Cowboy, was singularly unsuccessful. Indeed, to the members, just owning a copy of their single was a loss-maker: they had been paid for the recording in hot dogs and soda pop, but had to buy their single (Jubilee #5104).

The single was soon forgotten even by the few who had bought it. Fast forward a decade, and the notion of records as collectible items had started to take hold. One such collector, Billy Pensabene, in January 1962 lent the New York radio presenter Irving ‘Slim’ Rose his precious 78rpm copy of the Five Sharps solitary single – and Rose broke it by accident (there are various accounts of the record’s provenance and ruin; let’s stick to the most commonly told story). Lesser men would have shrugged their shoulders, and perhaps pay Pensabene a suitable amount of money in reparation. Rose, however, advertised for copies of the single, offering a handsome sum in compensation.

Weeks went by, and nobody came forward even as Rose increased the bounty from generous to crazy money. A visit to Jubilee Records with a view to re-pressing the single was fruitless: the masters had been destroyed in a fire (or perhaps water damage; as so often in such stories, the details change with every re-telling).

Jubilee had issued the single in both 78 and the new-fangled 45rpm formats. A few 78s are still circulation, but no 45 has ever resurfaced. A re-recording was produced by Rose in 1965; nobody really cared about that.

The highest price fetched for the single was $19,000 in a private sale in November 2003.

The story of how we are able to hear the b-side of what is said to be the world’s rarest single is quite long (and interesting). That, the full story of the Jubilee #5104 and the fate of the Five Sharps is recounted on Marv Goldberg’s fine R&B Notebook, from which we borrow the two illustrations.

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