Answer Man

The Record Bar was a Belleville music mecca

Q: Back when I was a kid, there was a record store where the Governor French Academy is today. It was called The Record Bar. Wikilinks has an article on a chain of stores called The Record Bar. Was the downtown Belleville Record Bar part of that chain?

John M., of Belleville

A: Don’t be confused, John. There was Record Bar (the chain) and then there was THE Record Bar, which was a downtown Belleville music mecca for more than 30 years. I’m sure with all the love he poured into his store, the spirit of Norman Hammel wouldn’t want anyone confusing the two.

Hammel was a lifelong Belleville resident who began tootling on the sax and clarinet when he was just 7 years old. By the time he was 15, he was already a member of Musicians Local 29, and he graduated from Belleville Township High School in 1935 after earning numerous musical honors.

That same year, music led him to discover the love of his life. He was attending a church concert one day and found that the band was short a member, so he agreed to sit in. It was there he spied Dolores Corpstein, of Mascoutah, whom he wed seven years later — and remained married to for the next 60.

His profession was simply listed as “musician” in an early 1940s city directory, but he probably needed something more substantial to support himself and his new bride, so he opened what he called the Easy Pay Tire Store at 215 W. Main St. Before he could get settled in, he was drafted into the U.S. Army and spent the next three years boosting the morale of troops in the South Pacific as a member of the U.S. Army Band.

When he returned, he went back to his tire store, but his heart apparently just wasn’t in rubber and air pressures. By 1949, the city directory listed it as “Norman Hammel, phonograph records,” and the small store soon became a major downtown fixture when LPs were still the only form of recorded music available.

I know it was certainly a weekly must-stop for me on my long walks home from Central Junior High School (where the downtown YMCA now stands, for you Belleville newbies) in the mid-’60s. No, I usually didn’t have the $3 and $4 it cost to buy a record in those days, but I could always pick up KXOK’s (AM-630) weekly Top 30 or Top 40 (I forget which) playlist, which had the lyrics to a popular tune on the back along with pictures of my favorite DJs — Ray Otis, Mort Crowley and, of course, Johnny Rabbitt (Don Pietromonaco at that time) and his faithful companion, Bruno J. Grunion.

I still remember the time my best friend Darrell unloaded $30 during one visit, mostly on Bill Cosby albums. That’s $225 in today’s money. Having grown up during the Depression, my mom would have had a cow had I done that.

After moving off to high school, the frequency of my trips to The Record Bar waned, but it remained a hot spot for music lovers until Hammel suffered a stroke and his health declined. By 1983, the city directory listed the address as the Jordan Fixture Co. and, two years later, Busch’s Deli. Today, like the old Oliver C. Joseph car showroom, it’s part of the Governor French complex.

Hammel died on April 3, 2002 at age 85, two weeks shy of his 60th wedding anniversary. The couple had no children, and he directed memorials be made to the Belleville Humane Society.

“My husband was a very pleasant person and always friendly,” his widow told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He enjoyed playing and listening to his music. That’s all he lived for.”

By contrast, Record Bar (the chain) was founded on Sept. 24, 1960, when Harry and Bertha Bergman bought an 800-square-foot storefront in Durham, N.C. Three years later, their son Barrie Bergman opened a second location in Chapel Hill, and over the next 30 years the chain grew to 180 locations, including St. Clair Square in Fairview Heights.

By the 1980s, it was working hard to keep up with other giants in the recorded music business, including Sound Warehouse, Peaches and Tower. To do so, it began remodeling Record Club stores and opening large, new stores under the Tracks name.

By that time, attempts to keep breathing life into the brick-and-mortar music stores largely were being written in the key of F for failure. In 1989, Record Bar was sold to Super Club, of Belgium, which, in turn, sold it to Blockbuster, which rebranded them as Blockbuster Music, ending the Record Bar chain.

Q: I have heard that Donald Trump once asked, “If we have nuclear weapons, why can’t we use them?” That seems pretty farfetched — even for him! Did he really, really say that?

T.D., of Belleville

A: The answer depends on how much trust you put in Joe Scarborough, host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”

On Aug. 3, Scarborough was interviewing retired four-star general and former CIA Director Michael Hayden, who suggested that he may sit out the November election because he cannot support Trump and hasn’t decided whether he could in good conscience jump the political fence and vote for Hillary Clinton. However, on the subject of national security, Hayden said Clinton was the clear choice because of “how erratic (Trump) is.”

That’s when Scarborough dropped the bombshell he said he had heard recently.

“Several months ago, a foreign policy expert on the international level went to advise Donald Trump,” Scarborough said. “And three times (Trump) asked about the use of nuclear weapons. Three times, he asked, at one point, ‘If we have them, why can’t we use them?’ ... Three times, in an hour briefing, ‘Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?’”

For the record, Scarborough reportedly was a friend of Trump for a decade and was even mentioned as a possible running mate before the two had a falling out earlier this year with Scarborough, who won four terms as a U.S. representative from Florida, saying Trump was no longer “the man I once knew.” A Trump aide denied the conversation ever took place. Your call.

Today’s trivia

How did they ever arrive at Phillips 66 as a brand name of a gasoline?

Answer to Wednesday’s trivia: When Harry Truman was elected president in 1948, 71-year-old Alben Barkley became the oldest vice president ever. But his 10-year-old grandson, Stephen Truitt, wasn’t crazy about all the “vice president” stuff, so he suggested that his grandpa simply be called “veep.” Barkley liked the idea and was known from then on as “the Veep.” Four years after he left office, he was giving a speech at the William and Mary Mock Convention, which he ended by saying, “I’m glad to sit on the back row, for I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.” As he walked off stage, he collapsed and died of a heart attack at age 78.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer