Sharon Terrell just bought a new stereo system. It’s a few days before Christmas, and she has a hankering to hear “Silent Night.” She asked a friend to give her a ride from her Dorchester home here to Skippy White’s, in the heart of Roxbury’s Egleston Square.
The owner disappears behind the long, cluttered counter that serves as his pulpit. Which version is she looking for, he calls out from a crouch. The Temptations?
“There are probably 14 billion versions of that song,” he hollers.
And he knows most of them. For nearly 60 years, Skippy White has been serving Boston with the music of black America — R&B, gospel, blues, jazz — and his own vast knowledge of the subject. His motto, printed on his business card, is “Just Hum It.” His succession of storefronts, from the South End to Cambridge’s Central Square and beyond, have also served as unofficial community centers, dispensing concert tickets, events calendars, and neighborhood scuttlebutt.
“I always tell people there are two types of businesses where people like to come in and hang out,” says White. “Barber shops and record stores.”
But in the digital age, when all the world’s music is available on that Pop Tart-size device in your pocket and owning physical recordings is as outdated as making codfish cakes for breakfast, Skippy White is preparing to shut off the sidewalk speaker and lock the door for the final time on his last store. It’ll likely be sometime in January, he says, though he can’t bring himself to announce an exact date just yet.
In an effort to reduce inventory, he’s been discounting all purchases by 20 percent. Terrell also wants a copy of “Please Come Home for Christmas” by Charles Brown. And, come to think of it, how about some Earth, Wind & Fire?
“Let’s do this!” she says with a big smile.
In quick succession, Terrell’s visit is followed by a middle-aged guy looking for a copy of Prince’s “Dirty Mind” — he rolls down his sock to see if he has enough cash — and a church pastor checking on the stack of fliers he left on the counter. White asks the minister about a woman from the congregation who’s been having health issues. A thyroid condition, the pastor explains.
“Did you hear the dedication?” White asks. He played a song for her on his Sunday morning gospel show on WZBR-AM (“The Urban Heat”). White still hosts an R&B oldies show, too, every Saturday.
He was Skippy White on the radio before the name appeared on its first storefront. In 1961, having just dropped out of Boston University, Waltham’s Fred LeBlanc convinced the owners of WILD-AM to give him a two-hour R&B show on weekends. His deep devotion to all forms of African-American music originated as a teenager, when he discovered Symphony Sid, the hipster DJ who worked in Boston for several years in the 1950s. When Sid spun the Orioles’ classic doo-wop ballad “Crying in the Chapel” one day in 1953, one young listener knew he’d found his calling.
Anglicizing his French surname for the radio, LeBlanc called himself Fred White on the air at WILD until the station hired a carpetbagger from New York. His name was also Fred. In a story he’s told thousands of times over the years, Fred White became Skippy when he couldn’t think of anything else.
The day he first identified himself as Fred “Skippy” White, “the phones lit up,” he recalls. “And everyone who called during that show called me ‘Skippy.’ The next day, I just dropped the ‘Fred.’ ”
The other guy named Fred, meanwhile, had a habit of ending everything he said with a pet phrase: “Cha cha cha.” On Monday, he went on the air. By Wednesday, he was fired.
“Too much ‘cha cha cha,’ ” says White.
The success of White’s WILD program soon led to an overhaul of the station’s format. Crooners such as Frank Sinatra and Perry Como were phased out in favor of Motown and James Brown. Skippy called his first store Mass Records — “The Home of the Blues,” on Washington Street in the South End — but that was short-lived. Learning quickly that his new nickname was a draw, he put it on the sign out front. In 1969, he moved the store a few hundred yards closer to Massachusetts Avenue.
Especially during the 1960s, Skippy White’s was a magnet for black talent. The members of the G-Clefs — the Roxbury vocal group who scored a couple of national Top 40 hits in the mid-1950s — were regulars. Otis Redding and Joe Tex stopped in to thumb through the records. Big Maybelle bummed subway fare from the owner. Tammy Montgomery came in before she became better known as Motown’s Tammi Terrell.
“Oh, she was pretty,” says White, who is 83.
Another customer enters. Josh Witt is a young man from northern California, now in his third year at Berklee College of Music. Wearing an American flag-themed Under Armour hoodie, he’s the leader of an a cappella group called Josh & the Wittness.
“I hate to hear when a record store is closing,” he says, surveying the track list on a doo-wop compilation.
Customers learned to adapt with the times. When he first opened, they were buying 45s almost exclusively. Later, they added LPs, eight-track tapes, and cassettes to their collections. At the height of success, White could order 10,000 copies of the latest James Brown song before hearing it, knowing he’d sell them all.
Over the years, he says, his second-biggest-selling title has been the Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” a No. 1 hit in 1972. The first? Luther Ingram’s “(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don’t Want to Be Right,” also from 1972. White estimates he sold nearly 15,000 copies of that one.
The business first began to show signs of flagging in the 1980s, when the music industry switched to compact discs. At $14.98 apiece, CDs were more than twice the cost of the same recordings on vinyl.
Still, he forged on. For a time he ran a store in Pawtucket, R.I. He also opened an ill-fated Skippy White’s in New Orleans, signing the lease on Sept. 11, 2001. He closed that shop just before Hurricane Katrina hit, in 2005.
In recent years some independent record stores have benefited from a surprise uptick in sales of vinyl records. White’s final outpost, where his name has hung since 2004, is still stuffed with old albums, but many have seen better days. A tattered copy of Aretha Franklin’s double-album set “Amazing Grace,” the 1972 live recording that was featured in a recent documentary, is missing one of its two discs.
“Yes, it’s true that vinyl sells more now, but CDs sell less and less all the time,” White says. “I know the business isn’t going to get better.”
White, who has lived in Natick for about 15 years, has a daughter in Framingham and a son in Woburn. They both love music, he says, but neither is interested in the business.
He’s been selling online for about a decade, and he’ll continue to do so. He’s also writing a memoir, he says. And he’ll keep hosting his radio shows on WZBR.
If you’re not near a radio, he notes, you can download the station’s free app.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.