Taken from the book ‘The Vinyl Revival and the Shops That Made it Happen’
Laurence and Malcolm Prangell were brought up in the 1960s in a large house in Watford. Laurence’s first memory of music was courtesy of the next-door neighbours, a West Indian family, who played their reggae music very loud and into the early hours of the morning. This tended to annoy most of the neighbours, but not Laurence who lay awake enjoying the beats.
After leaving school Laurence went to Cambridge Technical College to train in accountancy. To earn a bit of extra cash, he started his own business, Record Enterprises. As well as studying, he bought and sold records wherever he could; at gigs, parties, college and eventually from a converted chicken shack.
Without references or paying money upfront he somehow managed to open accounts with all the major record companies. Studying during the day while working as a DJ and selling most evenings, Laurence realised he was working too hard when, at a gig at an American air base, he fell asleep in front of the enormous speakers.
After leaving college he found work with an office supply company but kept up his music related projects. He started a mail order service called Soul Brother, and in 1980 he sold Record Enterprises as he had got engaged to Doreen and the couple used the money towards their first flat. From then on, he concentrated on building up Soul Brother.
Laurence took the first of many trips over to the USA to purchase vinyl in 1992. The visit coincided with the first day of the Los Angeles riots. When he stepped off the plane, it looked like a scene from Blade Runner as plumes of smoke rose above the city, where an 8pm curfew was in force. He headed for the East Coast instead and, despite his initial problems, the trip was a success, perhaps too much so.
When the shipment arrived at his house in London, Laurence realised he had underestimated how much room the records would take up. His wife Doreen came home from work to find every bit of space in the house, including the bathroom, had been filled with records. Laurence needed to get selling. With the help of his brother Malcolm, he printed the first Soul Brother catalogue and posted it out to customers all over the world.
A couple of days later Doreen called Laurence and told him to get home as soon as possible. The phone had been ringing all day and they had taken more than 50 orders. When posting the catalogue to soul fans all over the world, Laurence had not taken into consideration the different time zones in which their potential customers were located. In those pre-Internet days, they soon found themselves receiving phone calls from customers in Australia at 3am.
After a family meeting, it was decided that the brothers would give up their day jobs, acquire suitable premises and, along with Doreen, devote themselves to selling records. In March 1994 Soul Brother opened for business and quickly established itself as the UK’s best-known soul music shop. Malcolm was already writing for Echoes magazine, reviewing lots of the titles they were stocking and to obtain more publicity they started advertising on Jazz FM.
This brought in lots of new business and Laurence and Malcolm were asked if they would be the sponsors of Robbie Vincent’s radio show and then, later, Johnny Hayward’s show. Both DJ’s were pioneers of the jazz, funk and soul scene. Jazz FM was available to more than 15 million people in the London Area. When Johnny Hayward was taken off the air the shop received nearly 100 complaints, many of them abusive, from listeners who assumed that Soul Brother were behind the decision. Many listeners assumed that, because the shop sponsored the show, they had some involvement in who was presenting it, which was never the case.
Soon people were queuing to get into the shop on Saturday afternoons. Laurence was going to the USA on regular buying trips. Customers would ask when the stock was being delivered, and before the shop opened there would be up to 30 soul fans waiting to look through the new stock.
Laurence had many adventures on his American tours. His trips would combine visits to wholesalers, record shops, dealers, record fairs and even meeting up with a bunch of taxi drivers in Washington who would fill up the boots of their taxis with records and meet him in the city. One record dealer known as Fat Tony was based in one of the less salubrious parts of Philadelphia where he ran an indoor market. Laurence was chuffed when Fat Tony said that he had something for him, assuming it was a piece of rare vinyl. Instead, Fat Tony handed him a gun, informing him that he would need it for protection in the neighbourhood. Laurence declined the offer, so Fat Tony kindly lent him his own personal minder for the visit
At a record fair, one of the dealers suggested Laurence should pay a visit to someone known as The Count who had an amazing record collection. The directions Laurence was given were not clear, and Laurence found himself in a menacing, unlit area of town asking people on the street where he could find The Count. Eventually a group of youths pointed him in the direction of a three-story house. As he approached the door he noticed the house was lit by a deep red glow. He rang the bell and the door opened. Standing in the doorway, swathed in a big purple cape and looking like a version of Bela Lugosi, was The Count. “Come in,” he beckoned. Laurence stood there for a few seconds wondering whether The Count was about to sink his teeth into his neck, before tentatively stepping inside.
The large room he entered had no furniture, no paint on the walls and was filled with records. Laurence presumed this must be the storage room. The Count summoned him to come upstairs. Again, the second floor was just records. Laurence guessed that the bottom two floors were used for storage and the top floor was where The Count lived. Imagine his shock when he reached the third floor and found it was the same. The Count had no TV, chairs or tables just three floors of records. Over the years The Count became a regular supplier for Soul Brother, but Laurence will never forget the first encounter.
Soul Brother has successfully brought international soul artists to England to promote their latest releases. They arrange gigs and signings in the shop. Laurence pointed out that while it was a lot of fun working with soul artists who are all extremely talented, organisation and timekeeping were often not their greatest strengths.
This was brought home to him after he arranged a signing session with singer and producer Leon Ware, who had worked with many top artists including Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye and Minnie Riperton. In the hours leading up to the signing Laurence had heard nothing from Leon and was beginning to get a bit worried. A queue was forming outside the shop, so Laurence drove to the hotel Leon was staying at. Sure enough, Leon had forgotten all about it. The two men rushed back to the shop and the story had a happy ending as Leon had a great time meeting up with his fans.
Not so successful was the occasion when soul legend Bobby Womack agreed to do a signing at a record fair held at the Hilton Hotel in Birmingham. Well over 100 fans turned up. But Bobby was feeling unwell and sent one of his backing singers to do the signing in his place. It was not a happy occasion for Laurence who had to explain to the people in the queue that the reason the person signing the albums did not look too much like Bobby Womack was due to her being a different sex. Bobby Womack had sent Alltrinna Grayson one of his female backing singers who seemed to be having a ball signing her name on the albums the fans had brought along for Bobby to sign.
According to Laurence, Jazz FM’s rebranding to Smooth FM in 2005 was a major factor in the decline of the shop’s sales at that time. The station’s playlist changed from playing the music that Soul Brother sold to a more commercial sort of music that could be heard on other stations. This compounded the key problem for Soul Brother, which is a lack of media coverage for the music they sell. They receive support from Echoes, the black music magazine and numerous internet stations, but on national radio Gilles Peterson is the only DJ championing their sort of music. The station that has been the saviour of the shop is Solar Radio where Laurence has an extremely popular show that has been running for 18 years.
Soul Brother is a family business and a friendly shop with a great vibe. In Laurence, Johnny and Alex, who runs the mail order operation, you will not find anyone more knowledgeable or happier to share that knowledge. Sadly, due to health reasons Malcolm only works Sundays these days. Through the shop, gigs, mail order, the record label and Laurence’s writings in Echoes the family work tirelessly to share their passion for soul music with the nation. If soul is your music, then make the pilgrimage to Putney.
I asked Laurence for two releases he is looking forward to from Proper:
Poogie Bell Band – Exhibition Continues (Jazzline CD/LP)
This is a really strong album with great instrumentation and production, this likely to be one of our top sellers over the next few months. It will appeal to both jazz and Soul fans and oozes class.
Johnnie Taylor – Ain’t That Loving You / Blues In the Night (Soul Brother 45)
These two great songs from one of my favourite artists epitomise the quality and raw energy of 60’s Soul. ‘Ain’t that loving you’ is a fantastic beat ballad the original of the track covered by Alton Ellis and Dennis Brown. ‘Blues in the Night’ is wonderful R&B/Soul dancer sure to get you moving , popular on the Northern and Mod scenes.
If you would like to be Proper’s Featured Store, contact Graham Jones.
Tel: 0208 875 1018
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