The Other Columbus: The Singing Dog God of High Street
Stories abound about the strip of High Street across from the Ohio State University. Not anymore, but upon a time. Now it is Easton Lite. You could make a night of visiting the graves of all of the cooler places that used to be there. But for my money — and some days that was a literal transaction — nothing beat shopping at Singing Dog Records.
Singing Dog was a record store like you see in movies: posters as large as your body on the walls, wooden bins painted black for browsing, walls covered in racks of cassettes, deep used-album pockets. There wasn’t a hipster reprint market then, so the prices were largely honest. Compact discs were still cutting edge technology, meaning more expensive, so not yet an overwhelming part of the college student budget experience. I once brought Professor Griff of Public Enemy fame there to flip through crates. I bought my first Prince bootleg there.
Music was an actual line item in my budget back then. Buying a record at that point in my life had real-world consequences. If I spent 10 bucks on a record, I wasn’t filling a gas tank that week, or eating a couple of meals. Buying the right record was extremely important because that record was going to have to put in work. It might even have to generate food and gas, if I played it right. There was no internet to scout out what I wanted to own, and Singing Dog didn’t have a listening station. The listening station was asking one of the staff members to put on something you were thinking about purchasing and hoping they already had an opened copy. If they didn’t, you were flying blind into an ether of unknown tunes.
Unless Tyler was working that day.
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Tyler was a large black man — over 6 feet and wide, like a football player cut down in his prime — and was, as we said back then, “a bit of a drinker.” Working in a sea of dead-eyed rockers and college kids, Tyler held court through volume and smiles. Nothing seemed to please him more than turning someone on to a new record that they might like, and he always knew which new record you should get.
That last part distinguished him from almost every other music salesman I have ever met. Tyler sought to give you a record you would like, not just what was new or what the store needed to move. He had a librarian’s eye for a person’s palate. If you told him the last three records you liked, he could nail down the fourth record you should buy without fail. So sure was he of his gift that he would regularly state that if I didn’t like an album, I could bring it back. In all the years I learned at Tyler’s feet, I never returned a single album.
Tyler died sometime in the '90s. I vaguely remember an editorial about his passing, perhaps in OSU’s The Lantern. The only time I ever knew his last name was while reading his obituary, which I have lost to time. He is all over my music collection: Seal’s debut album, John Lee Hooker’s The Healer, Lenny Kravitz’s Mama Said. Tyler suggested them and more when I had to make pimpin’ decisions about what to buy with my weekly grass-cutting money.
Around 2001, Campus Partners development forced Singing Dog out of the address it had called home for 21 years. The shop would reopen at the nearby corner of High and Chittenden, but nowhere near as long. It was never the same after the move. You could only dig so far back in a CD crate then, used or otherwise. But a vinyl crate? You never knew what you might find in there. You might get something from the first half of the century in a vinyl crate. A vinyl crate held eternal promise. A vinyl crate was forever. You needed someone who kept score in smiles, not sales. Someone who ate and drank all of the music of the world and managed not to lord such knowledge over you like a bullying insider. You needed the anti-Questlove. You needed a Tyler to cut through that kind of space and time and come out the other side not just alive, but fulfilled.
Even with a larger footprint in its third and final location, Singing Dog seemed smaller. It always had staff that gave good service, but it was missing its Tyler. Tyler should have a brick in High Street with his name on it. Instead, many years after his passing, he has this column. It is a kind of forever, at least until 2050, when the internet dies. After that, there will only be a dingy sticker clinging to the plastic on a Fishbone album that says “Singing Dog 8.00”, buried in the rubble that used to be my basement. His was a service I not only never forgot, but that I continue to incorporate into my own work ethic. I tell people that I am in the “moment business,” that I am creating or producing things they can attach themselves to in real time and remember forever. That is a lesson I learned from Tyler, the bellowing maestro of Singing Dog Records. May his glowing exhortations ring through the alleys of campus forever.