Empire Records Shop was located on the edge of “The Strip” at 52nd and Market Streets.
Empire Records was the oldest, continually-operated Philadelphia jazz record shop (1930 to 1970). In an online profile, Bill Morlitz shared his story:
I was born in Camden NJ since my mom’s cousin was head of Obstetrics at West Jersey Hospital on February 1, 1950 and have lived my whole life in Philadelphia and/or its suburbs. My dad had the first jazz record shop in Philadelphia so at an early age, I was immersed in the music business. Maybe that’s why I can’t sing a note on key nor have the 10 years of piano lessons stayed with me. Chopsticks is beyond me.
During my teens, I was fortunate to personally meet many great jazz artists including Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Buckner (who developed the locked wrist rhythm style of piano playing and was Lionel’s pianist), Lionel Hampton and many others. Grover Washington, Jr. worked in the store on the weekends and we used to go listen to jazz sets together. My photography is included on his “Live at the Bijou” album.
The Earle Theater was a stop on the “Chitlin’ Circuit.” It was the most expensive theater ever built in Philadelphia. The Earle had an ornate interior and exterior and seating for 2,700. It was demolished in July 1953.
In an interview with the Smithsonian Oral History Project, Philly native and NEA Jazz Master Benny Golson talked about how he was inspired to master the saxophone after seeing Lionel Hampton and Arnett Cobb at the Earle Theater:
I guess they usually went until 9 or 10 at night, which meant that they had about three or four shows a day. It was an ongoing thing. Week after week they’d have whatever band was popular. Benny Goodman, Woody Herman, anything. Charlie Spivak, Claude Thornhill, Tommy Dorsey. Any band that was popular, they would bring there. It was an ongoing thing. Count Basie, Duke Ellington. They all came there.
The reason I went is because I was in high school – Benjamin Franklin High School. The kids were coming back and says, “Oh man. You got to go to the Earle Theater and hear Lionel Hampton. You got to hear him play Flying Home.” Blah blah blah blah. So one day I didn’t go to school. I went there. That’s when I heard him. That’s when my life changed. That’s when I heard Arnett Cobb. Incidentally, years later – many years later – it must have been 50 years later – I happened to see him in Nice, France. I said, “You’re the reason that I play the saxophone.” He says, “I never knew that. Really?” I said, “Yes.” He had tears in his eyes, because he knew who I was. I said, “I hear you play, and that’s when my life changed.”