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Alley Backstory

"Every website has a story, don't it?"

Chronological playlists (The Timeline)

I've been compiling chronological playlists for four decades. I've always thought of collecting music in terms of what songs I might need to compile some future playlist. Until 1998 these little histories were designed to fit cassette tapes. With recordable CDs the length of time expanded. Then the iPod blew time constraints away. Early in 2007 I began to experiment with documenting my favorite years in much more depth than before, and also played around with the concept of school year (rather than calendar year) chronologies.

CD collection database

When I began collecting CDs in late 1984 I was working in the software business and had become accustomed to using tables, spreadsheets and databases to keep things organized. The CD database took on more practical uses and greatly expanded in size when I became a music critic in 1986. I began to design custom reports for my own amusement and to help me see the collection from a variety of perspectives.

Pantheon of artists

In the early 1980s, former Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn wrote several articles employing the concept of an artists' Pantheon. Around 1987 Time-Life music consultant Joe Sasfy and I corresponded about (our respective views of) the criteria for assigning performers to tiers of the Pantheon. Since then I've maintained one version or another of the Pantheon as a kind of personal Hall of Fame. I look at the layout as a way to tell a story, though the story keeps evolving from one time to the next.

From Me To You

I spent much of 2007 trying to figure out what it meant to transform an intensely personal hobby into an interactive website that other people would truly enjoy. This gestation period involved a whole lot of research and soul searching, critically guided by "informational interviews" with a few experts I was fortunate to count among my friends. The soul searching kept boiling down to the same core ideas: (1) conveying my passion for the great rock and soul music I love so much; and (2) providing an online place for music enthusiasts to have conversations with me and each other about their own musical passions. If I could design a website to make these things happen, I would achieve my goals. So I wrote up a detailed proposal for the webite design, and used this proposal to look for compatible souls to implement the concepts, sketches, and back end databases and programming needed to bring it all to life.

Arriving at The Alley

I needed a great name for the "sense of place" of the website, and "Alley" seemed a perfect fit. My immediate inspiration was the following text from Ken Emerson's book, Always Magic in the Air, quoted here by permission of the publisher:*

...Leiber and Stoller shared a passion for what they later called, in a song they improvised for the b-side of a single, "alley music." Even before blackface minstrels sang about Shinbone Alley in the 1830s, the alley was where African Americans could get down, get high, and get laid. On the eve of World War I, homesick South Carolinians at New York's Jungles Casino would cry, "Now, put us in the alley!" when they wanted James P. Johnson to get funky. "They'd dance, hollering and screaming until they were cooked," Stoller's teacher recalled. The alley was where the Clovers, one of the most popular R&B vocal groups of the 1950s, went "ballin' 'til half past three" and Little Richard's Uncle John ducked with Long Tall Sally when he saw his missus coming. When Leiber and Stoller were transplanted to Califiornia, Central Avenue, the main street of Los Angeles's black ghetto, Watts, became their alley.

Acknowledgments

I was very fortunate to connect with the website design folks (and music lovers) at Gryphon Communications. I'm grateful for the pleasure of working with them; and the quality of the product speaks for itself. Behind the scenes I benefited from their extraordinary commitment, abundant inspiration, and tireless effort. I learned about Gryphon as a result of sitting, by chance, next to Scott Harada on a plane trip. Thanks so much, Scott!

Many people contributed to the evolution and development of this website. To begin, I want to thank my special music buddies over the years: Barbara Harris, Jeremy Williams, Larry Ransom, Spence Swinton, Robert Ross, Glenn Lea, Roy Bennett (owner of Palo Alto's legendary World's Indoor Records), John David, Mike Greene, William Ashe and Donald McGreal (of the sorely missed CD Warehouse in Sunnyvale), and the late, great Jonathan Kamin. A handful of music writers also greatly influenced my journey. Thanks, especially, to the late Charlie Gillett, Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Nelson George, Robert Hilburn, and, above all, Dave Marsh for The Heart of Rock & Soul, which not only demonstrates how much of music listening is a conversation, but also inspired my pairing rock and soul together in naming the Alley site.

original World's Indoor Records sign

Original 1970s front door sign, now a fixture in Gator's music library.

More recently, Mike Kahn gave me excellent advice and support on thinking through what I wanted this website to do. Elliot Margolies helped me think about how to integrate the blog and other interactive elements with the content pieces. Douglas Graves and Ellen Silva spent time discussing design issues with me at the proposal development stage. And Sally Goldin provided extremely useful, formative and constructive feedback on the entire design proposal.

In addition to Robert Hilburn and Joe Sasfy, acknowledged above, Mike Campbell and Kreg Holgerson helped push me toward Pantheon tweaks that substantially improved it. Melissa Greene helped me think about the role of Profiles on the site. Paul David made helpful user-friendliness suggestions. And Asaf Reich offered useful advice as we fine-tuned the Home Page. When I needed answers to factual questions that only experts could help with, Norman Stolzoff, Jeff Place, and the late Charlie Gillett came to my rescue. And Sally Goldin, Barbara Harris, Elliot Margolies, John David, Wayne Haythorn, Roy Bennett, Jane David, Mike Greene, Kathi Cushman, and Jeremy Williams provided valuable help with pre-launch testing.

More broadly, I want to thank Julian Gorodsky for encouraging me, early on, to "go public" with my personal musical passions. Special thanks are also due to Mike Greene for contributing over the years to my thinking on a wide range of Alley issues. Jeremy Williams, my best music buddy for over 45 years, has been closely involved with just about every decision that affected site development. I can't thank him enough for his expert advice and continued support. And last but not least, Jane David, my wife and partner in life, provides wise counsel and spot-on feedback whenever I ask for it. By helping me stay grounded, focused, and rarin' to go, she gets top props as co-pilot in bringing the whole project to fruition.

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* "The Original Cool Cats", from ALWAYS MAGIC IN THE AIR by Ken Emerson, copyright (c) 2005 by Ken Emerson. Used by permission of Viking Penguin, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com/.