This Hilton Head man’s legacy survives in a Savannah record store and an $800K gift

A Hilton Head music legend had thousands of rare vinyls — and now they're in Savannah

John Sippel was a different kind of music legend. He was a music writer who ended up with thousands of vinyls — including some very unique records. The records are now for sale at Graveface Records & Curiosities in Savannah.
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John Sippel was a different kind of music legend. He was a music writer who ended up with thousands of vinyls — including some very unique records. The records are now for sale at Graveface Records & Curiosities in Savannah.

It might still be there.

That old blues album, the one with a Hilton Head Island connection is waiting on some lucky customer to pluck it from its hiding place inside Savannah’s Graveface Records & Curiosities.

It’s a deal — a steal! — at $16.

Put it on the turntable and hear the rich, Mississippi-by-way-of-Chicago voice of McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters, backed up by the likes of Otis Spann, Paul Butterfield and Buddy Miles, to name a few.

“Fathers and Sons” — that’s the name of the record. It was a concept album dreamed up by the fellas at Chicago’s Chess Records in the late 1960s, according to Billboard Magazine. It’s a family tree of sorts, a live oak of the blues growing from the Deep South, its limbs weaving and intermingling and branching beyond their base, yet sharing the same roots.

It’s curation at its finest, a collection of, at the time, the blues’ old guard and new disciples, a bridge to the era’s popular music and a reminder of its genesis.

And in Savannah, on the album cover protecting this particular pressing — stamped in gold letters in the bottom-right corner — is the name “John Sippel.”

This personalized copy of ‘Fathers and Sons’ was one of more than 2,000 vinyls left behind by Hilton Head music industry legend John Sippel. It’s now available for purchase at Graveface Records & Curiosities in Savannah. Wade Livingston Staff photo

Sippel, who retired to Hilton Head in 1994, died Jan. 6. He was 97. All told, he wrote for Billboard for 25 years, according to that publication, and he spent close to two decades traveling across the country selling records for labels such as Mercury.

Ryan Graveface, whose Savannah store and almost 20-year-old independent (“indie”) record label carry his name, calls Sippel a “curator” — someone who, through his work with labels, signed talent, promoted artists, sold records and, as a result, acted as a sort of quality-control filter and trusted guide for consumers.

“That time in the industry, and the specific labels that he was working for, just seem to operate so much more like an indie than indies operate in 2018,” Graveface said. “Like, actually hitting the ground and talking to people instead of just doing mailing list blasts and targeted Facebook posts.”

In many ways, and in various forms, Sippel’s life work was introducing people to music.

Graveface, a curator himself who visits record stores throughout the U.S. to pitch his own stable of artists, feels a kinship with Sippel.

“I was obviously supposed to have (Sippel’s) record collection,” Graveface said. “It was very ... kismet, I guess. ... That’s like a warm blanket, you know, when something like that connects.”

Shortly after Sippel’s death, Graveface was invited to an Indigo Run Plantation home to pick through the man’s collection. He bought more than 2,000 pieces of vinyl, much of it jazz. But there are also old pressings, sealed blues records and personalized promotional albums — such as the Sippel-embossed “Fathers and Sons” — currently filtering through the Savannah store.

In some ways, that Muddy Waters record hints at Sippel’s story.

As a “promo” album, it shows how distributors were always trying to get new releases in front of influential industry types.

It was distributed by Chess Records, the founders of which Sippel befriended in the late 1950s; he eventually wrote liner notes for the label, including those for Chuck Berry’s third album, “Berry is on Top.”

And “Fathers and Sons’” cover art was inspired by Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” the famous painting that adorns a section of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican — while it might be a stretch to imply too much symbolism, it’s accurate to note that Sippel was a devout Catholic.

John Sippel worked for Billboard as a writer and editor for 25 years. This photo was displayed at his memorial service at St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head last week. Delayna Earley Staff photo

Last Wednesday, a Mass was held in his honor at St. Francis by the Sea Catholic Church on Hilton Head. Children from the church’s school were in attendance, plaid ties peeking from boys’ collars as they sat with the choir. Some rang hand bells, others played violin. All left with candy, which Sippel was known to give out to his church family.

He willed his estate to St. Francis Catholic School. His assets and home, according to trustee Leigh Bullen, could equate to an approximately $800,000 gift when the details are finalized.

Sippel donated his body to science.

And his ashes will soon head back home, to Fond Du Lac, Wis., to be interred next to his parents and, eventually, his brother.

“He was pretty good at playing the violin by ear,” Fr. Ed Sippel said of his late brother, remembering their childhood during the Great Depression, when a 10 cent music lesson on a Saturday at their parish church was an invaluable gift. “He would play along with records — I think that’s where he got his love for jazz.”

Fr. Sippel, 95, retired from the priesthood in 1991. He still volunteers to lead mass near Fond du Lac from time to time. He remembers his brother, toward the end of his life, would call and talk about the two blocks they’d walk to school as children — “the happiest years of our lives, even if we didn’t know it at the time.”

The record companies continued to send John Sippel promo albums long after he retired, his brother said.

He’d give some away on occasion, maybe to a plumber or electrician, or someone who’d done him a favor.

But he held on to most of them.

“I think he kept those records because they represented what music meant to him all his life,” his brother said.

Now, his memory survives on the strings of children’s violins and through thousands of albums Graveface is proud to curate.

John Sippel has entrusted us with some treasures.

And he’s still introducing us to music.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston