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Inside the World's Largest Album Collection, The 3 Million-Strong RecordRama Archive

November 17, 2008 3:17 PM ET

In 1951, at the age of 12, Paul Mawhinney bought his first record, Frankie Lane's Jezebel. His collection has grown quite a bit since: Mawhinney has dedicated his life to acquiring every recording issued in the U.S. His now 3 million-strong archive is organized alphabetically and cataloged in his Pittsburgh warehouse. It is the world's largest record collection, and growing every day.

Mawhinney, who ran the RecordRama store for 40 years until it closed in February, has recently put the $50 million dollar collection up for grabs at a mere $3 million because the economy scares him — he's got bills to pay, and three kids to help out. "My goal is to find a home for the history of music," the 69-year old Pittsburgh native says.

He opened his 16,400 square foot warehouse, the RecordRama Archive, in 1968, when he had 160,000 records. In the mid-'70s, he started cataloguing the music on his computer, making him not only a vinyl connoisseur, but a pioneer. "I created the Music Master database, which is the largest database in the field of popular music," he explains. Custom built shelves, temperature and humidity control keep his 6 million-plus song titles secure and organized — search for a track (or any keyword) in the electronic database, and it will direct you to the record on the shelves.

A study conducted by the Library of Congress determined that 87 percent of the music in Mawhinney's vault is not available on the Internet. The collection's most valuable record is a rare Rolling Stones album that was never commercially released — only 300 promotional copies were produced by London Records, and it's valued at approximately $8,000. Mawhinney is also the owner of the first flat record ever made (an 1881 recording of Teddy Roosevelt), a copy of the most released non-hit record in history ("Let Me Love You," by George Goodman), 15 promotional copies of an unreleased Elvis record called Joshua and hundreds of rare singles from Bob Dylan and the Beatles.

Over the years, Mawhinney and his massive collection have actually changed rock history. He helped out David Bowie's career by pressuring RCA to send a reissue of the self-titled record featuring "Space Oddity" out to radio stations after it had been locked up in their vault for three years. "The manufacturers still don't even understand what I did," he says. "They don't even have their own records. RCA, Columbia, Rhino — when they want to reissue a CD, they've come to me to get a master. Nobody was organized like I was." And he's not a fan of big-box stores dominating the record-sales biz today. In his opinion, music distributors have killed the business by cutting breaks to places like Best Buy and Wal-Mart, making it impossible for independent stores to be competitive.

Mawhinney dropped out on current rock scene post-2002, after which he says that music became nasty. He opposes CDs and MP3s, which is why he is adamant about preserving recorded history on vinyl. "When you take a record and put it on CD or tape, you're compressing the whole thing from top to bottom, taking the highs and the lows," he explains. "You're only hearing half the song," he says. "Believe me, you will never hear a song the way your hear it on a vinyl record with a good needle."

Prospective buyers and the curious look at the collection almost every day, and Mawhinney gets inquiries from museums worldwide regularly. He's had a few serious bidders, including the Library of Congress. "Every curator has wanted my collection there for the last 25 years," he says. "But they don't want to pay."

Aside from the archive, Mawhinney owns seven record labels and a publishing company, "the best record washing company in the world." But the vault is truly his life's work. "I think that saving my collection is going to have a real wonderfulness in 20 or 30 years," he says. "If this collection gets broken up and sold as crap, everybody loses big time."

Related Stories:
The Doors, Santana Reach Agreement With Wolfgang's Vault
Music Sales Slump Could Spell the End of Box
"Thriller" Added to Library of Congress Registry

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