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Bill's Music House

The following is edited for narrative readability and in some cases slightly rearranged from the audio recording, for the same purpose.


Bill’s Music House is the most prominent music business in Catonsville. It’s also the second- oldest, having started in 1965. Bill Higgins, now 78, grew up in Arbutus until 1952, when the family (Bill is the oldest of 8 children) moved into a house his father built on Park Road in Catonsville. Bill was the first one in his family to show any interest in music. The story is best told by Bill himself.

I was first [to play an instrument]. I got myself a little guitar that I bought from a girl I went to school with. She paid fifteen dollars for it at Montgomery Ward’s and I bought it for $7.50. In fact, I still have it. It’s a clunker to say the least. I’ve kept it all these years. But no music at home until I got involved with it a little bit.


I took lessons for less than a year, taking the streetcar to Irvington and back, and walking a mile down Montrose Avenue back home. It took me a long time—I'm not all that musically talented. Not basically. And I never got great. But I got to be okay and I played with some kids and we tried to play those songs that were out and did the best we could. We had a little band by about my junior year in high school, maybe senior year. But I kept plugging away and, in the sixties, the first tunes that were catching my ear that I could play would be things by Peter, Paul, and Mary, maybe Bob Dylan, The Kingston Trio, and then after that to where I could play a little three chord thing, like say Elvis or something. You know some of his were easy enough. But I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t look like him, so I wasn’t going to go too far! [laughs] But then the Beatles came out, and that’s what really clicked my excitement.

[image: WCAO Ad, 1965]

"From ‘Fifty-two on, I lived there [on Park Ave.] and was raised there. Then later my father moved to the Eastern Shore and I bought the house from him and raised my kids there. But when we moved in there and I was maybe ten, and then gradually it got to the mid-fifties when Elvis and that type of stuff was coming out. We didn’t even have a radio. My father built the first TV we had. There was this much screen and this much TV. He was a Westinghouse man, electronics and all. Then we had a radio that did not work, and it was this big [holds arms out], and it looked like an icebox, just little speakers in it. But he got it working.


The only station to listen to in those day was WCAO, an AM station. There were a few others, but that's what the kids my age were listening to, and then we ended up getting a little 40 Westinghouse or RCA—a little record player. With just a little turntable type thing. You could hook it through the radio and then you could go out and buy a couple 45’s or whatever you wanted and play them. But no one played any instruments.

In Bill Higgins' Words: Beginings

[image:Yeager’s Music, postcard, c. 1950s]

So on Sundays I'd sell strings for two bucks. And drum sticks for two bucks, or one buck—whatever I could get it down to and did not lose money so much. And I’d run it in the paper on Sunday and people started to learn who I was, because they’d come out on Sunday. They didn't have anything to do and they could buy stuff pretty cheap. I wouldn't sell my guitars cheap necessarily. But lots of little things that you might want and need.


Then, as we started to grow, I wrote a letter to the people where the pharmacy is now [733 Frederick Road]. That was a furniture store. As a matter of fact, I have a picture up front of me and my friends standing in my little store looking down at that store. And the little girl from Catonsville painted various pictures of my folks’ house, and my house, and that picture of us drooling over the street and down the street. So at any rate, I wrote a letter and two years later the guy came back to me and said, “Well, if you want it, I'll talk to you now.” And so I bought that one down there too and kept the old one. My son owns it now. And then I stayed there for quite a good time.


I didn't want to move so much, but the parking was disappearing hand over fist in Catonsville. A group had bought over there and we were afraid that the post office was going to come down and take this building, chain off the parking that I have. Because I didn't have any parking. I was landlocked at that building, so I mustered up enough effort and money to get into this one [743 Frederick Road]. Been here ever since. That was the nineties. I took real estate courses—not to sell, just to understand it all.


In the beginning, I was the sole employee, and my wife was my helper. We’re not employee heavy now, but before COVID, I’d say we had twenty-two, twenty-three employees, plus teachers. We have twelve studios, so we might have maybe twelve, fifteen teachers. They will come and teach forty or fifty students a week. Some will teach much less than that. Maybe a dozen. Right now we're down at two hundred students a week. But that's all online. We were about 400 and some when COVID hit.


Customer service starts at the top. When we get when we get a bad apple, we don't fire him, but we sure let him know he's a little bit of a bad apple. And I just don't want that. I don't want somebody talking, I don't want somebody talking about us that they weren't treated right over there. It happens sometimes. We got a write up on Yelp one time--we answer our Yelps and we get 'em on Yelp. But one girl turned us in to Yelp. She didn’t like us. We didn't have the right kind of selection for violins. You know why? She was a violent teacher who had her own little business with violins so she panned us. And then when Yelp figured out what she was doing, they wouldn't print them in the Yelp.

The seventies were the years of Japan in in a way. What I mean is they were making everything and selling everything to America, including pretty good guitars like Yamaha, like Alvarez. Lots of nice guitars--ESP. They used to have a lot of guitar shows back in those days; I went to one or two, but it wasn't my forte. I didn't want to be what they were doing. I was doing what I was doing, but at any rate the good Strats [Fender Stratocasters]--that stuff was heading over to Japan. You take six or eight, whatever you might have, up to one of those guitar shows, and the Japanese were who were buying them. So all the American fenders are heading to Japan while the Ibanez and all that stuff comes in this way, but they were being sold at a price. The Japanese had money, big money in the 1970s.

The Vintage Guitar Market

We supported the Lurman and we started Frederick Rd. Fridays. When it started it was over there behind Jennings [Café]. Back then, before the performance, a fellow--he ended up working for Emory [Knode] after he worked for me for a long time, Nick. Nick was a repairman down there, but for me he was a salesperson and from there he went I think to Guitar Center.


After Guitar Center he ended up back with Emory. He was a picker, the country type, he didn't want to play rock and roll. But he'd go over there and we send him over an hour or two before the performance of whoever was coming, and he’d get a little commotion going so that when the band was gonna play, they would be the second band. He only got what I was able to give him and he didn't mind. He liked going over there and playing so well.


A lot of performers would come through Baltimore or at Washington, or wherever they would be, not that they flocked to Bill’s Music House, but they would find their way in here. Not a lot of them. Dion from Dion and the Belmonts—he strolled in one day. He wanted to see the guitars and he wanted to play the guitars. He said, I don't want to be signing any autographs and don't send people over. He just wanted to shop. That was okay with me. Rod Stewart’s drummer, who at the time was Carmine Appice. We had a master class and he ended up staying with us for a day or two. He came, gave the class the next day, and we took him out to dinner and we had a lot of laughs. That was Carmine Appice. He was also in Vanilla Fudge. He was in the Faces band for Rod Stewart. He fell off the face of the earth after that, musically anyway. Yeah, after all that, you know, they only have a short run, right? Most of them. There was lots of them in here, not a million, but lots. Being 78, I remember half of what I knew!

Established in Catonsville, Business Challenges

One thing that has blossomed for us is online selling. We have a website. We have eBay. And we have Reverb. Reverb is an eBay for musicians. There's business there, but you gotta have what they want. It's a lot of work, it's not just simple to put stuff online, just wait for the sales to come rolling in. But that's what Leni [Kern] does full time. That took off during COVID where people wouldn't get in their car to go to office or anything else. They would buy online and not only that, if you didn't have a Stratocaster in red, but you had one in blue--Oh, what the hell, I'll take blue.


And the flip side of that was that the manufacturers all over the country were closed down too and China and Japan, nobody making anything 'cause everybody’s staying home to beat the virus. Now this particular store, we had an incredible amount of stock—more than we needed, more maybe than we wanted, but I'll tell you, when we closed down, the customers just kept coming and coming and coming and coming. And between [son] Brian out front, Leni online and the two girls [daughters Tracy and Jamie Higgins] doing whatever they needed to do and closing out the accounting each day, and answering the phone for him, and making things palatable, they ran the store for six months just with a couple of them. And the teachers--some of them wanted to teach, so we set them up. We went out and bought a software where you can talk online.


So we had pretty good year. In COVID there was a lot of self-optimization. “I’m going to better myself and I’m going to play that guitar,“ or “I’m going to get a better one and play it better.” Once COVID hit, I stayed home and I have not come back. I don't come up here every day. I come in some and do different things. I'm allowed to decorate, but I'm not allowed to buy or sell--I’m persona non grata! [Laughs] You know, I can do whatever I want to do, but I see, OK you guys got it, and they got their deal and you know I'm not gonna last forever anyway. I’m 78 and so give me a chance to do it while I'm here, in case they do get a problem I can help them out.

Battling Amazon and COVID

Ronnie [Ronald Cook, known as “Cookie]” was my first employee. Fifty years ago when I used to date my wife, before I was married, I used to go to the Rhapsody Club, down on Old Annapolis Road. Ronnie was the house band down there and they brought in bands like The Van Dykes to play too, but he was the house band.


He and his little, not little group [The Princetons]. They were nice, they were good, and I went there all the time and I see this little guy playing and picking, and you know he was good, and different too--not all fuzz tone and all that stuff back in the day. A clean player, but he was great, knew all the licks.


That's when I was down on Mellor Avenue. I had a little boy helping me out giving some lessons. (Everybody’s a little boy—but he was bigger than I was!). But he had a girlfriend in Texas and he wanted to go visit her and he got down there and just really didn't come back. I went in the Rhapsody watching Ronnie play. I said, Ronnie, I've got quite a few students. Would you like to teach some guitar students in the daytime when you're not playing? He said, Yeah, I’ll give it a try. So he came up. And before you know it, he had over 100 students a week teaching.


But he says to me along the way, I work on guitars too, and I have this little thing I can do that will make it play better. So we coined the term Supertune. He says I coined it. I think he coined it. He's always trying to give me credit that it was my term. But anyway, it was Supertune, and what he would do in these days before Ernie Ball [packaged string sets] and all that, he put a banjo string on the first string, take the rest of the set and move it over one so your E string became your B string, your B became the G and on over. But the banjo string was one with the flexibility. That's how he got it so you could bend those strings before there was any Ernie Ball. These are the lights, the extra light, super light, or whatever you like. Fender, or everybody has them—Elixirs. But in those days, in 1966, -seven and -eight, there wasn't any such thing. So we’d buy some Black Diamond banjo strings, and he moved the rest over. And nobody ever missed the big thick E! So we call this Supertune and people loved him for it.


Now Emery is good too. I mean I know he's good. But I've had Ronnie and I wouldn't take a million. dollars for him. We've never had a misstep in 50 years. Soft spoken, he won't argue with you. He don't want to. He'll do whatever you want if he can. Now some people are just more demanding than you can do. And of course, then he has to say what he has to say. Gib [Gilbert Owen] is his sidekick. But Ronnie is the guru and Ronnie can do an amp. So between the two of them, they can handle your amplification or your guitar, banjos and mandolins or whatever you have.

Ron Cook: Legendary Local Serviceman

We had a booking agency for a while, really for quite a while. That was another way I got to meet bands. So we called it Sounds Unlimited and then we called it Super Sounds Talent Agency Inc. And I still love to do that stuff, but I don't have it in me now and there for a while I ran out of steam. My wife did it for a while and I had a good friend that did it for a while, but that's was for my part. Supersounds was great. The bands would come in and get paid on Mondays. But next thing you know--I'd be upstairs, I used to book upstairs, had office up there-- They go downstairs with the money I just gave them. They're buying a new PA or a couple new Shure mics and so it was kind of a built-in, you know, and I liked it. And I got 15% of the bookings.


What's not to like except the hours? And then I had kids. There's no question: in the nightclubs, there's trouble out there. If it ain't on one end it's up on the other, and I'm not immune from being naughty so I didn't want to be naughty and I got out of it eventually. The clubs were the worst you know. Booking a one-nighter was good money and no trouble there. You go in, you played, might get seven hundred five hundred, eight hundred whatever you got, but the clubs didn't pay any money. They're always trying to trick you on New Year's to play the extra hour for free, all kinda stuff. But anyway, we did that for good 10 years.


We had recording studio which went nowhere, no sense talking much about it, but I've tried to help. We got a nice Teac [recording deck]--one of the old Teacs, where they had the four tracks built in, and a console. But we were ahead of our time there we didn't know what we were doing. We had a machine, but that's all I had, not the knowledge.


So I tried everything I could to be meaningful to a player. I'll bend over backwards to keep somebody from being mad at me, even if he's wrong. I won't go crazy doing that, but I don't want an enemy.

Other Music Business Forays

Then I went in the army and came back out, but I had seen all that stuff. When I got out, I got a job at Social Security, paying about a dollar an hour—that was minimum wage. I made about forty to forty-five dollars a week and wanted to marry Nancy. Been married now for fifty- some years. But playing that guitar was an answer, so I put an ad in the papers and started getting calls and I'm going here and there and everywhere.


And then I had so many students that I couldn't take them. I could only do one student per hour. By the time I got there, gave the lesson and got to the next place, an hour was up. So I went right up here on Mellor Ave. That was a coin shop. And I went in there and asked him, could I give lessons in the back of his coin shop? And he said, Yeah, okay, but I gotta charge you ten dollars a week. So I said, okay, I'll do that. Well, it wasn’t long after that he folded. He went out of business and I'm still there. And the owner of the little shop came in and asked me if I'd like to go ahead and rent that little corner. It was only half as big as this [pointing to the interview room].


I said, Yeah I would, and he said, Well I'll charge you sixty a month. Well, that was fifteen a week and I got the whole thing. So my dad helped me make a little sign to put up on the top, just little, and I was open. And then I stayed there for almost a year. Then I got into an opening that came up on Frederick Rd., which was 809 Frederick. It’s now a for-rent, burned-out building. It was a flower shop lately, but back then whatever it was I don't recall.


But that's when I moved out off Mellor onto Frederick. And then things kind of lit up a little better even, because now people could see me as they go down the street. Well, I can remember when I first moved into my first little shop and it was mine now. I had an ES-335 [Gibson] for a guitar. And I had something for a bass, but it wasn't much. Uh, I mean, I, it was like a Premier or something like that. And in my glory days, I had a Fender Bassman [amp]. I was really a bass player in bands. I get excited talking about it!


And in my travels, I would go out to a place on Liberty Road where he would sell me things like books, Mel Bay [instruction texts] or whatever. It would be at ten or fifteen percent off. But while I was there one day, one of his local distributors came walking in and dropped off a bundle of stuff at this music store on Liberty Rd. I said to my wife, Nancy—she was with me— I said go out and ask him to wait a minute till I can leave here and say goodbye to my friend. So I went out and I asked him. Could I buy from you too? He said Yeah, get yourself a resale number. I'll sell you anything you want! So I went down and got myself a resale number and so he would literally sell me whatever I wanted. So now I had drums and guitars. It was all Japanese. I didn't have any name brand stuff. But eventually I got Guild for a good guitar line—which was not popular, and it was too expensive. But then things like Yamaha started coming out on board as I was still trying to make a music store and Yamaha became a big line, 'cause they had a nice fifty- five-dollar acoustic classic. They had nice hundred, hundred-and-ten-dollar acoustic steel string. Matter of fact, I still have a Yamaha bought for myself in those days, an FT-180 and I still have it fifty years. And I have a little Guild too.


So I went from down in the valley on Mellor, and then I went from 809 to 801, which is where Taneytown [Deli] is now. It was not Taneytown right today, but it was recently, so I had a place there. Across the street is 822 Frederick Road, and that's where the T-shirt place is. I bought that one. So that was my first chance to get my hands on a store that I could redecorate or work on, and it had crooks and crannies everywhere. It had a basement. It had a main floor. It has four entrances, so there was all kinds of crooks and crannies. And there was an upstairs and another upstairs so. I was really able to grow.

And that's when amps were coming out. You know, real amps, and I'm trying to get a line here and a line there. And I guess by the time I got up there, it would've been close to 1970 by now. Or thereabouts. And we grew quite a bit there and we had our frontage.

From Guitar Lessons to Music Store

 I used to have a Sunday sale, every Sunday. There was something called the “Young World“ section of the News American. A “Teen to Teen” section, that’s what it was, where we’d advertise. There was a day when I used to do an article in the News American. The editor, Al Kniff, he lives right down the street on Maple Avenue near the Five Oaks Pool, he did this article called “The Beaten Path” for record reviews, so I sort of got to know him along the way. So he says to me, Would you like to do an article in our paper? We called it “Bill’s Music Notes.” That was only one word away from Bill’s Music House, so I loved it! There were no computers back then, so he’d sit and interview me. His friend down there took a photo of me and turned it into the logo you see here. And I adopted the logo. And here I am talking to the whole city about what you want to know and what you don’t want to know about music, especially instruments, or bookings, or bands, or managers. That gave me a lot of exposure.

[image: Bill Higgins at 822 Frederick Road, nd]

They would have come here in sixty-four, and by sixty-five I was giving lessons on to peoples’ homes. Because I wanted to get married. Now I'm about 22 or 23 and I couldn't do much really. I really couldn't. But I could play a little and so I'd go around the folks’ homes and teach their children. They would be mostly teenagers, young teenagers. I’d teach and give him a little lesson from the music book. Then, what they really wanted to know was how do you play this song or how do you play that song? And I’d show them and then they practiced it, and that's where their heart was. Mom and Dad wanted to see that book come out though, and I didn't read too much music my own self, so that’s how it worked.


Now Jake Scheffer, he’s quite a fella, quite a player. He was right here on Newburgh Avenue. Now he’s in Washington. He’s not quite my age--he might be eight years under me or something like that. He’s a phenomenal player. His father was a piano instructor and piano instructor and a piano player, and he played for years in a play in Baltimore called “The Drunkard.” And Jake was an offspring and they had another son, Hank, who played trumpet. Not to get out on that tangent.

[image: One of Higgins’ early bands]

But between the time I graduated and say ‘64, I had 13 W2’s from places I worked up and down in Catonsville here. I mean work, all kind of things—bakery, car shops, fixing things—nothing that I was good at—but painting, cleaning cars. Along the way, I got a job at what was called Joseph M. Zemoiski. And they were a record distributor. And that job, I was the back-order boy with the records. And I started seeing literal artists that would come in. And we were responsible for distributing their songs and taking them to the radio to get them played, and things like that. Now I just had a little menial job, but I loved it. And people like Paul and Paula might come in—they had a song called “Hey Paul.” Barry McGuire— “Eve of Destruction” —so I'm seeing this stuff. And of course, I like my guitar. I wasn't playing it that much at first. I was trying. At any rate, then I got another job from that one selling on the street. In other words, I represented another record distributor. And that would take me to what was called Fred Walker’s—which was the Gibson dealer who also had records. Yeager’s was the Fender dealer in Maryland or at least Baltimore. They had records in pianos and stuff like that, and a lot of little record stores that I would call on had some guitars hanging on the wall. Like there might be records off on this side, but a few guitars hanging over here. Because that was starting to catch on in the early sixties. And I was enamored with the whole thing. Here's the artist and the music that I loved anyway. And the guitars that I would see, and it was just nice.

[image: Fred Walker’s ad, 1950’s]

[image: The shop at 822 Frederick Road]

The following is edited for narrative readability and in some cases slightly rearranged from the audio recording, for the same purpose.


Bill’s Music House is the most prominent music business in Catonsville. It’s also the second- oldest, having started in 1965. Bill Higgins, now 78, grew up in Arbutus until 1952, when the family (Bill is the oldest of 8 children) moved into a house his father built on Park Road in Catonsville. Bill was the first one in his family to show any interest in music. The story is best told by Bill himself.

[image: WCAO Ad, 1965]

[image: One of Higgins’ early bands]

[image: Fred Walker’s ad, 1950’s]

[image: Bill Higgins at 822 Frederick Road, nd]

[image:Yeager’s Music, postcard, c. 1950s]

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