Interview with Gary Atkinson of Document Records
Gary Atkinson is the current owner of Document Records, a label that specializes in hard-to-find Blues recordings.
Documenting our past: Interview with Document Records’ Gary Atkinson Part I
Document Records is providing an important service to all of humanity.
Document is doing what most American record labels have failed to do: Helping to preserve the rich cultural history of the United States, and carry on the rich legacy that this country has contributed to musical innovation. Document is committed to keeping the music of black culture from the early 20th century alive and available.
All of the label’s nearly 900 titles are in print, and available to the public. Document has a treasure trove of music that is endless in depth. The releases of their artists are meticulously catalogued and released in chronological order. They do not skip any selections, and their goal is to make the most possible music available to the public.
The current owner of Document is Gary Atkinson, who runs the label with his wife Gillian. Atkinson has been a lifelong fan of the music and was indoctrinated to blues culture from an early age.
“My father was a jazz and blues fan, so I was very aware of everyone from King Oliver to Big Bill Broonzy,” he said. “When I was only about 13, I had an older brother who also became interested in the music, and he was going out and watching various musicians playing both acoustic and electric blues. The combination of my father’s records and brother’s records ended up inspiring me to get involved. I then began to play the guitar, and collect records, I amassed a pretty decent-sized collection of records over the years.”
Atkinson’s musical tastes led him to be a bit of misfit when it came to popular culture.
“The strange thing is when I was 13 and heavily into the likes of Blind Willie McTell and Barbecue Bob, guys in school were liking Queen and Led Zeppelin. I was into names like Black Ace, Kokomo Arnold, and Memphis Minnie among others. Consequently, school lunch time could be a very lonely experience.”
Atkinson said he was first introduced to Document in his teens, while looking for records.
“I was buying LP’s at the time, things from (record labels like) Origin, Biograph, and Yazoo,” he said. “There was a peculiar record label called Roots, which had nothing but track listings and a strange address in Austria. The whole thing was being produced and compiled by a name, Johnny Parth. I was around 13 at the time, and if someone said to me in years to come, ‘you will own this company,’ I would’ve been amazed. I mean I’m still amazed now.”
Atkinson eventually began doing work in marketing and sales at various magazines around his hometown. Around 1987 he left his hometown, and became an agent for some blues artists from the states. He also began to do review work for different magazines and record companies, one of which was Document.
“So I struck a relationship there,” he said. “In the year 2000, 1999, the former owner of Document offered the company to me.”
Atkinson was a little shocked at the offer, but immediately jumped at the opportunity.
“In his broken English, Johnny (Parth) asked me, ‘Do you want everything?’” Atkinson said. “By that time I had amassed quite a collection of Document CD’s, so I just assumed he meant develop the whole collection. So I said, ‘Well it’s OK Johnny, I got quite a lot of it.’ And he said, ‘No, no, I mean everything, all of it.’ I said, ‘Well you know I’ll just take it as it comes along, that’s fine.’ Well the penny dropped, and I realized that he was actually offering me the whole company, and he gave a price. I instantly said, ‘yes.’”
The irony that a British label holds almost all of this American music is not lost on Atkinson.
“Yes, I suppose it is a very big catalogue,” he said. “Sometimes labels are sized by their catalogue depth. If an independent has something like 300 or 400 titles in their catalogue they’re deep in the well. Document has now close to 900 titles, and something like 22,000 to 23,000 tracks.”
Atkinson credits Parth for blazing the trail, stating that “what Johnny did was basically a step ahead of what a lot of the guys were doing back in those days, in the ’60s.”
“The music was not so readily available as it is now, and so collectors would put stuff onto tape and they would swap tapes and records. It was a very active community, not only nationally but worldwide. It’s in the collectors mentality and to, particularly in those days, to try and get the pieces of the jigsaw together and then put the thing together. It was in that way that they could get a profile of these musicians behind the extraordinary names that appeared on the labels. Very little was known about those musicians then, and this was the way of putting the pieces together.”
The expanse of the Document titles is almost overwhelming. Atkinson said that all the CD’s are not “have to have” things, but they are aimed at what he calls, “serious collectors of the most frightening kind.” He described them as “the kind of guys that if you put out three volumes, and they’ve got volume one, and they’ve got volume three, even though they don’t know what’s on volume two they can’t sleep at night because they haven’t got it.”
Atkinson also noted that it was important to have these titles available because “as far as African-Americans are concerned, there is documentation of very different sides of their social life,” and that the records “do a lot of coloring in of the picture.”
According to Atkinson, the music has universal appeal; it has the ability to be relevant to anyone with an open mind.
“If you just go back to the beginning of all of this, my father was well into the music, but he was a white guy living on the northeast of England, he just had a natural affinity with the music,” Atkinson said. “He was able to relate to what came out of the speakers. ... The music cuts through cultures, through geographical boundaries. It cuts through politics, through religion, through everything.”
Thanks to TOMASZ LESICZA and The Athens Messenger