Once in a genuine blue moon a record surfaces that truly redefines the concept of the term 'rare', along with a story to capture the imagination of record collectors everywhere.
The most important discovery for many decades began when Bruce Smith, an Ohio school-teacher, wandered into a Nashville flea market and chanced upon a handful of old 78s that he casually thought "looked interesting". It wasn't until a later search on the internet turned up a reference to the lost recording by the mysterious late bluesman, Blind Joe Reynolds, that the significance - and value - of one of the records in the pile began to emerge.
Reynolds's ultra-elusive 1930 Paramount recording 'Ninety Nine Blues' / 'Cold Woman Blues', is indeed a historic disc that has been frantically sought by collectors for over half a century - and long been considered priceless by music historians. It had been that assumed that precisely none of the estimated few hundred copies pressed had survived the ensuing 70 years. But here, finally, was the only known copy in existence.
Reynolds was among the first generation of Delta recording artists, discovered by the great H.C.Speir, the Sam Phillips of pre-war Delta scene, whose influence also helped the careers of legendary artists Charley Patton, Son House, Skip James and Robert Johnson.
A copy of Reynolds' only other Paramount 78, 'Outside Woman Blues' / 'Nehi Blues' (Paramount 12927), was found in rural Georgia back in 1963, a discovery which helped enhance the mystique of 'Ninety Nine Blues', recorded at the same February 1930 session, and the release of which was tantalizingly confirmed by a surviving Paramount dealer flyer. Over the years, the cult status of Blind Joe and the missing 78 reached mythical proportions among serious blues enthusiasts, with even Eric Clapton pronouncing himself a fan to extent of recording his own version of 'Outside Woman Blues' on Cream's seminal 1967 album Disraeli Gears.
Not surprisingly, the newly-discovered 'Ninety Nine Blues' has found its way into the hands of a premier collector, in this case John Tefteller, owner of The World's Rarest Records dealership, who bought it for an undisclosed sum after he was approached by the lucky finder for an appraisal.
"The record is simply the crown jewel in my collection", says the Oregon-based expert who has uploaded audio files of the historic tracks for visitors of his web site. "I have most of the key records from the pre-war Delta era, including all the Robert Johnsons'', some Charley Patton's and a Skip James. But there are other copies of all these in existence. But this record is different. No one had ever heard the songs, and until someone finds another copy, it's unique."
The elusive nature of the record fits in with the whole legend of Blind Joe himself, whose life remains shrouded in mystery. Research by blues historians proves that not merely his date and place of birth but even his real name are the subject of debate.
It seems that Joe Sheppard, as he was known to his friends, may have been born in 1904 in Tallulah, Louisiana, and assumed various different identities after at least two spells in jail and many years on the run. He was found to have recorded under the pseudonym Blind Willie Reynolds when a 78, 'Married Woman Blues'/'Third Street Blues' (released as Victor 23258) turned up in West Virginia, in 1965. (Details of two unissued Victor sides: 'Short Dress Blues' [master 64722-2] and 'Goose Hill Woman Blues' [664723-2] have also come to light, although no recordings of these songs have ever been found.) A virtual recluse, Reynolds died of pneumonia in 1968, with blues historians - rather than hell-hounds - still on his trail.
The latest discovery confirms the promise of 'Outside Woman Blues', with Blind Joe - who really was blind, having lost his sight after being shot in the face during a drunken brawl - delivering another dose of his distinctive rasping vocals, along with the stinging bottleneck on the B-side 'Cold Woman Blues'.
On the lyrical front, students of the early blues will get a further insight into Reynolds' pre-disposition to certain themes - in some cases recycling entire lines verbatim. Just as 'Married Man Blues' emerged as a remake of 'Outside Woman Blues', so some of Reynolds' trademark Delta-speak from those songs resurfaces on 'Ninety Nine Blues' - most distinctively his politically-incorrect references to 'stringarees' and 'meat shakin' on the bone' of his female subjects. Remastered versions of both 'Ninety Nine Blues' and 'Cold Woman Blues' are set to appear on a compilation from Yazoo Records which specializes in reissue of classic blues and country music from the 1920's. The label's chief, Richard Nevins, puts the find into perspective: "The significance of this record is mind-boggling. It may not be as important to blues history as finding the long lost Son House recording 'Clarksdale Moan' (Paramount 13096), but it's real close!"
Meanwhile, Tefteller himself doesn't think his coup will be the last important Delta blues discovery - despite the passage of time which, with every passing year, suggests that any surviving pre-war 'lost' gems have surely been 'flushed out' by now.
"The missing Son House could still be lurking in an attic in Mississippi, but in the collection of someone who doesn't know what they've got," he suggests. "The internet has also fundamentally transformed the collecting landscape. It will encourage more people to go online to establish the status of those mysterious old 78s in their grandfather's collection."
Tefteller won't be drawn over what he paid for his 'V-condition' Blind Joe bounty, but guide prices for 'Outside Woman Blues' at online auction house Good Rockin' Tonite, which specializes in rare blues and rock'n'roll currently range from $2500 to $5000, according to grade. Multiply this several times for the 'unique' premium of 'Ninety Nine Blues' / 'Cold Woman Blues' and you have what is surely one of the most valuable records of all time - in any genre.
"I have no doubt that the record would bring five figures at auction," says David Hall of GRT. "It's pretty nebulous to estimate 'market' price for a unique item, but it could make $10,000 - but it wouldn't surprise me if it made twice that."
As if the story isn't romantic enough, there's the little matter of the original cost of this Holy Grail to the lucky punter in the Nashville flea market.
You guessed it - $1.00.