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Remembering John Hillyard

Updated: Jan 3

The name John Hillyard might be unfamiliar to many of our readers, even though you’ve likely seen him before. He is the man on the cover of US pressings of DJ Shadow’s single Midnight in a Perfect World (FFRR, 1997), and the source of many samples from Shadow’s seminal LP Endtroducing..... (Mo Wax, 1996). So who was he, and why did his photo appear on the Midnight record?


DJ Shadow - Midnight in a Perfect World (FFRR, 1997). Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996
DJ Shadow - Midnight in a Perfect World (FFRR, 1997). Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996

🎵 This article can be read while listening to a selection of songs John Hillyard worked on, songs made by his friends, music that he distributed or sold, or with him in mind.

 

Origins and Early life

Originally from Canada, John Lake Hillyard grew up in Montreal, Quebec. His father Ralph Ewart Hillyard (1898-1953) was born in Carbonear, Newfoundland in a Methodist family. In 1919, Ralph went to study at Mount Allison University (Sackville, New Brunswick), but missed several years due to a pneumonia that almost killed him. Thankfully he returned in 1923, where he earned the affectionate nickname “Slim” due to his round features. Ralph studied and lectured in Engineering, Physics, and Mathematics up to graduation in 1926, when he completed his thesis Atmospheric Electricity and received his Bachelor of Science with Honors in Physics and Mathematics. He left MAU in 1931 to establish himself in Montreal and subsequently took a job as a clerk with the Sun Life Assurance Company, where he remained for the rest of his life.


John’s mother Florence Martha Lake (1901-1965) was born in the district of Lambeth, London, England. She left for Canada on her own aboard S.S. Empress of Australia on June 21, 1932 and arrived in Quebec a week later, June 28, 1932, where she immediately started to work as a bookkeeper. 


Mount Allison University engineers at the Truro camp between 3-21 September 1924. R.E Hillyard is at the center in black. MAU archives, 1924
Mount Allison University engineers at the Truro camp between 3-21 September 1924. R.E Hillyard is at the center in black. MAU archives, 1924

Ralph and Florence married on October 29, 1940, and moved to 115 Dunrae Avenue, Mount Royal, Montreal. Almost three years later, their son John Lake Hillyard was born on April 7, 1943. Ralph and Florence were both in their 40s at this point and John was to be their only child. The family lived together in Dunrae Avenue until Ralph died suddenly at age 55, when John was only ten. Florence remained in their family home until her death in 1965 after a long illness, but it’s unknown how long John lived there as well. This period of the life of John Hillyard unfortunately remains completely unknown, and even those who would later get to know him admitted they rarely spoke with him about his personal life.


But while his early years in Canada remain a mystery, we know for sure that John moved to Los Angeles during the late 1960s, and spent the rest of his life in the USA.



Motorcycle John in 60s Los Angeles

After moving to Los Angeles, John found work at Imperial Records in 1967 (which became a part of United Artists Records in 1968), where he eventually met with Marty Cerf (1949-1994). One of his jobs at Imperial was to dispose of unwanted vinyl promos, but John would take them home instead, allowing him to amass a large personal collection of vinyl records.


It was during his time at Imperial that Marty introduced John to producer Kim Fowley (1939-2015). Kim began releasing music on Imperial in 1968 (Outrageous, LP-12423) and became friends with John, even dedicating his Born To Be Wild (Imperial, 1968) album to “Motorcycle John Hillyard, Montreal, Quebec, Canada”. 


Kim Fowley (middle top), Rodney Bingenheimer (bottom left), John Hillyard (bottom right) plus Sky Saxon & The Seeds during a rehearsal session in LA. Photography by Ed Caraeff, January 1969
Kim Fowley (middle top), Rodney Bingenheimer (bottom left), John Hillyard (bottom right) plus Sky Saxon & The Seeds during a rehearsal session in LA. Photography by Ed Caraeff, January 1969

In January of 1969, a photo session was held during one of the rehearsals of Sky Saxon’s (1937-2009) psychedelic rock band The Seeds, prior to the release of their Wild Blood b/w Fallin' Off the Edge of My Mind (GNP Crescendo, 1969) single. Along with the band, the session was attended by John Hillyard, Kim Fowley, and Rodney Bingenheimer, as seen in a photograph by Ed Caraeff who had previously photographed the Born To Be Wild sleeve.


By 1970, John was credited in trade magazines as a producer working for Kim Fowley, and he even appeared on his album Good Clean Fun (Imperial, 1970) on two songs, "Lights The Blind And Lame Can See" and "Motorcycle". On the latter credited to Jerry Landis (an alias of Simon & Garfunkel’s Paul Simon), you can hear John making motorcycle noises and singing. The "Motorcycle" track was originally recorded by Tico And The Triumphs (Amy, 1961), but was a fitting song for someone known to many as Motorcycle John.

 

During the mid-1970s, John also worked at Phonograph Record Magazine (PRM), a monthly music magazine set up by Marty Cerf in September 1970 as a rival to Rolling Stone and Creem. The magazine ran until 1978 and was available nationally in newsstands and radio stations. John was listed as an Admin Assistant for the magazine between 1975-1976, and PRM’s Associate Editor Ken Barnes recalled seeing him around the magazine's office.


Kim Fowley's LP Born to be Wild & Good Clean Fun (Imperial, 1968 and 1969)
Kim Fowley's LP Born to be Wild & Good Clean Fun (Imperial, 1968 and 1969)

“For the first several years of PRM's publication, from 1970, United Artists Records provided the budget for operating the magazine -- printing costs, distribution to the radio stations across the country that used it as a free promotional device, paying writers, and so forth. Eventually, PRM moved out of the UA offices into another building, on Hollywood Boulevard. This new office was where I would have met John Hillyard,” Ken Barnes said.


“He was a fixture at the new PRM offices, as Marty's assistant/jack of all trades/factotum, whatever you want to call it. He was variously referred to as Montreal John and Motorcycle John. I never learned anything about his background or origins, although from an early time he adopted the Native American heritage and I don't know whether that was his authentic ancestry or just a consuming interest.”


Bruce Osborn, photographer at PRM, also had fond memories of John. They worked together at the magazine and stayed in touch until Bruce left the country in 1980.


“John was very focused on Indian issues and a great source about rockabilly music which I was into at the time. He didn’t drive a car, which is unusual for anyone living in LA, and traveled by bicycle or bus. I enjoyed working with him, particularly because he was into other things than the current music scene. John was also always reporting to me about Dennis Banks (1937-2017) who was the leader of the American Indian Movement. I’m not sure if John was a member, but the majority of his conversations were about Banks and his group which I was interested to hear about,” Bruce Osborn said.


“His only friend I met outside of PRM was a buddy named Johnny "JP" Perez (1941-2012). Coming from Texas, he was the original drummer of Doug Sahm's band Sir Douglas Quintet and had moved down to LA to record the band's 3rd LP (Mendocino / Smash Records - Mercury, 1969).”


Phonograph Record Magazine, March 1972 issue with YES on cover.
Phonograph Record Magazine, March 1972 issue with YES on cover.

Suzy Shaw, Office Manager at PRM, recalled seeing John every day and wrote about him in her book Bomp!: Saving the World One Record at a Time (AMMO Books, 2007) where she described John as “the go-to guy for record filing among the Hollywood collectors”. His main role at PRM was record filing, but he also became known for his rambling conversations about Native Americans, being generally incoherent, and a dislike of cars in Los Angeles.


Cars and bikes have always been at odds in LA, but John really took it very seriously. He had spikes on his shoes and would kick motorized vehicles! He wasn't the kind of guy you'd sit down and have a chat with, and was usually talking to himself. If you did try to talk to him he'd mostly be talking about stuff that had nothing to do with the conversation. I know he spent a lot of time going to sweat lodges and taking peyote with the Indians. Every couple of weeks he would announce that Chief Running Bear had revealed that Los Angeles was going to be destroyed that weekend, and head off to the mountains where it was safe. We'd nod and say, "See you Monday!",” Suzy Shaw said.


Over the years, a quantity of people would come by PRM’s office including Rodney Bingenheimer who hosted his long running radio show Rodney on the ROQ on KROQ and was also involved with the magazine, and of course Kim Fowley.


“In the mid 1970s, Kim Fowley was managing the girl band The Runaways and came to PRM to get Marty’s advice on an old song to re-record. It was a very fun / interesting exchange to watch Marty pulling out singles from his collection and hearing Fowley’s response. There were always many interesting people visiting the office at that time.” Bruce Osborn said.


Contact sheets of John Hillyard as photographed by Bruce Osborn for Mellencamp's book (Riva Records, 1979)
Contact sheets of John Hillyard as photographed by Bruce Osborn for Mellencamp's book (Riva Records, 1979)

PRM closed in 1978, but several of the magazine’s staff joined Riva Records, including John Hillyard. The label was mainly set up to promote the work of John Mellencamp, but also released Rod Stewart’s music in the USA. The Riva staff were among those photographed for a 1979 book John Cougar's Illustrated Salute : Music Biz Trendsetters (Gaff Music/Riva Records). This was Marty Cerf’s next project after PRM and was released by musician John Cougar Mellencamp so he could “[kiss] the asses of the very people who were in a position to further his career,” according to Martin Torgoff’s biography on Cougar (American Fool: The Roots and Improbable Rise of John Cougar Mellencamp / St Martins Pr, 1986). John Hillyard is pictured inside the book, photographed by Bruce Osborn, where he’s cited as Office Coordinator at Riva Records, Los Angeles. A position he occupied until the folding of Riva in 1985. 


This wouldn’t be the first time John worked for a record label, as he had already been associated with Imperial Records, and in 1977 worked as Publicity Director for S&M, a label run by John Condon and best known for releasing his Smokey project between 1976-1980. Then, during the 1980s, John Hillyard also did some promotional work with independent labels and “informally represented a few artists”, as Ken Barnes recalled.


“The one I recall is the great soul singer Ted Taylor (1934-1987), near the end of Ted's career when he released a couple of singles on the tiny Watts City [I'm Leaving You b/w I'm Going To Change My Way Of Living / Watts City, 1983] and Solpugits [You're Tippin', She's Rippin' b/w Little Red Rooster / Solpugits, 1987] labels -- John brought me copies of these,” Ken Barnes said.


Ted Taylor - I'm Leaving You b/w I'm Going to Change my Way of Living (Watts City, 1983)
Ted Taylor - I'm Leaving You b/w I'm Going to Change my Way of Living (Watts City, 1983)

“I don't think John was managing Ted in the usual sense -- I think he was representing the label and trying to promote the records. [There] was a [band] named Bileo who had a couple of singles in the early '80s on the Watts City label [2 different pressings of You Can Win b/w Let's Go / Watts City, 1979]. John was probably involved in a similar promotional capacity with those -- I remember he gave me copies of both records. They are worth a few hundred dollars now among soul collectors.”



Mail order and vinyl hunting in LA

John spent the 1980s living in a two bedroom flat on Rosewood Avenue, Los Angeles, where he had amassed a large collection of records and began advertising these for sale in magazines such as Goldmine. This attracted collectors from England, such as Keb Darge who recalled wrapping cash in newspapers and sending it from England to LA.


“John was very well known on the UK northern scene in the seventies and became even better known in the eighties when I first got to know him. I never visited, but did get plenty of great tunes out of him,” Keb Darge said. 


A view of John's flat on Rosewood Avenue, LA. Photography by Barrie Waddington, 1980s
A view of John's flat on Rosewood Avenue, LA. Photography by Barrie Waddington, 1980s

English collector Tim Ashley also bought records from John through the mail in the 80s, and they often wrote to each other, with John’s letters mentioning current world events in the Middle East, The Falklands War, and Native American issues, alongside talk of 45s. 


“We regularly and consistently corresponded with each other, and it developed into a friendship, not just because of a shared interest in vinyl, but also because it turned out John was an active member of A.I.M, the American Indian Movement. I had a passionate interest in Native Americans since I was a kid, and John's letters over the years would therefore be a mixture of record talk, A.I.M stuff, and also Kim Fowley info (who I knew nothing about and had no interest in, but John would still always throw in some stuff about him anyway). He would also talk about other artists he knew who did have an interest to me, such as Ray Agee who had a record on a local LA label called Soultown, and which I was always asking him to find for me,” Tim Ashley said.


While some collectors only dealt with John through mail, others visited his home, such as Rich Strauss who later recalled, “His living room was packed with stacks of 45s four feet high. You had to be careful not to knock over a stack as you walked around.”


Ken Barnes, who had worked with John at PRM, later visited his home during the 80s, and recalled, “As always, John was generous, friendly and warm-hearted, and I recall him being easier to talk to and more coherent than he was in the PRM days, and had become a knowledgeable and shrewd dealer in northern soul rarities.”


Example of a letter sent by John in the 90s. From Mark "Butch" Dobson's private collection
Example of a letter sent by John in the 90s. From Mark "Butch" Dobson's private collection

After years of correspondence, Tim Ashley also eventually met John in person when he arrived in LA for a record hunting trip. That was in the early 80s.


“I’d never met him before obviously and didn’t even know what he looked like. So I called John from the airport and for the first time heard him speak. Anyone who knew John will recall that he had quite a high pitched squeaky kind of voice. I didn’t know that when I called him, and thought for the first few minutes that he was putting on some kind of a comical funny voice for effect. Luckily I didn’t laugh because that really was John's regular voice! John looked like a cross between a biker, a Woodstock hippy and a homeless man... But he was very friendly and welcoming. He offered for me to stay with him for the duration of my record hunting in LA, which I did.”


John was notorious for his knowledge of rare records and fair prices, but for those who met him he was easily recognizable for his distinctive look that often shocked people upon their first impression.


While reporting on a record collector convention in 1981, The Los Angeles Times newspaper interviewed several record vendors, including John Hillyard. They described him as having “dreadlocks splayed out over the riveted denim of his sleeveless vest,” and noted his style was in direct contrast to the other older, more conservative vendors. John told them his interest was “political rock” and highlighted a red 45 called Turn Up the Heat by Prairie Fire (Direct Hit Records, 1979). John was selling a copy of Smiley Lewis’ The Bells Are Ringing (Loma, 1965) for $100 and shared the most expensive record he knew of at the time, "[it’s] something by the Five Sharps on Jubilee Records…It was a 45 and there were only three ever made." 


The Smiley Lewis Band - The Bells are Ringing b/w Walkin' the Girl (Loma, 1965)
The Smiley Lewis Band - The Bells are Ringing b/w Walkin' the Girl (Loma, 1965)

During his stay in LA, Tim Ashley was taken on a tour of the unusual places John would source records from, and gave him an insight into the respect John had gained from those who knew him.


“Not once did he take me to any mainstream record or oldies shop. He took me to a launderette which had records in boxes on top of the machines, he took me to second hand furniture shops which had records, a flower shop with records, etc, etc. They were places which only a record hound like John could know. In each place I invariably found records which were meaningful and collectible for me. What I found really interesting too when we went out on these daily trips around LA, was that despite John’s ‘homeless man’ looks, everywhere we went the people we met clearly knew him, liked him, trusted him, and were very obviously happy to transact with him,” Tim Ashley said.


“When I stayed with him at his home, John showed me the small piles of records he had set aside for other people. He would write to each of about 5 or 6 of us here in the U.K. with a fair and pretty equal share of whatever he had found that week, that month etc. Because he was smart too and he knew that the records we wanted had a market in the U.K. which did not really exist in the US. Nevertheless, he never tried to align the price he charged to the kind of level of value it had here in the U.K.”


John continued advertising in Goldmine and sold records via mail order from his home on Rosewood Avenue as late as 1984. Among record collectors, there are many who remember meeting John Hillyard, and on the Soul Source forums, a user known as neckender recalled taking John to visit Records on K Street, Sacramento, a store we previously wrote about since it is where DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing..... (Mo Wax, 1996) album cover was shot in 1996. It was the mid-80s when John visited, and the pair were meant to visit a different store run by Richard Bass in Oakland, but when that didn’t pan out they went to K Street instead.


Logo of the Records store on K Street, Sacramento, CA. Designed by Robert Crumb
Logo of the Records store on K Street, Sacramento, CA. Designed by Robert Crumb

“We walked into the shop, “Records!” as it was called and started to look in the 45 racks. In no time I had found all the Lorraine Chandlers-RCA and a few of the other northern RCAs, some Dore releases, Jesse James-Shirley, Strange Change-Argo, Celest Hardie-Reynolds, James Wesley Smith-Angel Town etc. There was even a Renfro section in those racks (Carl Hendersons, Sam Cox, Helen Moore & John Westleys). It became evident that no other British northern buyers had been in there. As I was moving through the racks, the owner of the shop said those magical words: “Are you guys looking for promos?” After replying in the positive, he directed us to a load of boxes behind a curtain. After an afternoon’s work looking through the boxes I had pulled about 400 soul records. John also had a large box of 45s that he bought. This was one of those satisfying days,” neckender said.



Steve’s Coins and the move to Merced, CA

After years living in Los Angeles and selling records by mail order, John began selling from a store in Merced, California in the late 1980s. John didn’t drive, so he instead had some friends help him make the move, including the late Gerry Hurtado (1959-2015) aka Skatemaster Tate, Orb aka Robert Kamm, and John’s friend Patrick Staten. John and Patrick first met in 1985, and he still remembers the move which took two trips due to the number of records John had.


“John lived in a rented house in Rosewood and had a pile of records in a separate garage on another piece of property. I moved him out of Los Angeles to Merced, California, which is 300 miles north of Los Angeles. I'm not sure why he picked Merced. But he had a friend who lived in Livingston, only 20 miles north of Merced. So I think maybe he wanted to be closer to him,” Patrick Staten said.


“Most of the records were at John's house,” Orb said. “So we went through his whole house, emptied it all out, filled up a truck, and I and Patrick drove up north to drop them off. But on the way, he had us go to a garage in the back of an apartment building on Cherokee Avenue which was also full, filled with records. We left that until the second trip. It was full of boxes of one record each, basically a lot of 45s, so they must have been the ones he took home instead of getting rid of.”


John Hillyard's ad in Goldmine, circa 1983
John Hillyard's ad in Goldmine, circa 1983

Everyone who helped with the move was compensated for their time with records, and after hours of looking through boxes of 45s, each went away with hundreds for their own collection.


“I got some amazing records from him. John was an amazing guy and touched so many people. A lot of the DJs in LA where I was living at the time picked his brains. He was a real character. He called rare records ‘jokers’ and was a very sarcastic guy. He also used the term MOR meaning ‘middle of the road’ for a lot of cheesy records, and then every time I asked how much something was he would say “Free. Free Dollars”, meaning three dollars. He was a funny guy,” Orb said.


With John and his records in Merced, he began selling them inside a store owned by Steve Criscione called Steve’s Coins and located at 221 West Main Street. Steve had opened the store on his own in 1984, but was then joined by Joe Mendez and John Hillyard who each had sections with their own stock. 


Brian Naranjo was a frequent visitor of Steve’s Coins, where he first encountered John Hillyard. He recalled his first impressions of John.


“I'll never forget the first time I set eyes on him. I was scared. I didn't know what to make of him because I was 12 years of age at that point. John always wore those broken glasses and his clothing was always dirty. But, once I got past the appearance I really got to know him and if it wasn't for John I would not be the person I am today as a collector,” Brian Naranjo said.


“When entering in through the front door, Steve would have been manning the front of the store towards the back left corner, where his checkout stand would have been located. There was a doorway in the very back, which appeared to be a warehouse. It was in the back where both John and Joe could be seen with their checkout stand to the left, and there were lots of records!”


Steve, Joe, and John moved to a bigger store at 335 West 16th Street, known as the Eightball as it had previously been a billiards hall. Here, John stocked rare rock and psych albums, Joe focused on punk, hardcore, and metal, and Steve’s records were more eclectic. 


John in his office of Merced. Photography by Tim Ashley, 1991
John in his office of Merced. Photography by Tim Ashley, 1991

Sometime around 1991, Tim Ashley visited LA again and stopped by Steve’s Coins where he took photos with John amongst his records. On this trip John and Tim visited several local record fairs and swap meets together, as well as the Pasadena Record Fair.


“Once again it was clear that John knew many collectors and dealers there and all of them seemed to have maximum respect for him. While we were there, to cover more ground, see as many dealers as possible, and look through as many records as possible, we split up with John going off in one direction and me in another. About two hours later we hooked back up again and compared our vinyl finds. John had found much more than me, and much of it was stuff he knew I would want. Being the man he was though, he didn’t keep any back and gave me all of the records I wanted, just for cost price without any personal mark-up or profit for him. That was the kind of guy John was and one of the reasons I will always hold him in high regard,” Tim Ashley said. 


“It was like being in the presence of record royalty, coz everywhere we went John knew people and he knew them. One time he shouts me over to join him as he was talking to a guy at a record stall. I go over and John says “this is..........he was one of the Younghearts” (a well known local LA black soul group). I know he knew other Soul artists like Clay Hammond, etc.”


The store at 335 West 16th is no longer there, and has become a vacant lot. But Brian Naranjo recalled visiting this store in the 90s as he continued to buy records from John.


“Upon entering, John would be to the very right in the corner, Steve to the left, and Joe to the far back blasting punk rock and metal during this period. The front of the store would catch on fire, due to an accident from John,” Brian Naranjo said.


On July 3, 1992 Steve’s Coins made the front page of The Merced Sun-Star with the headline 'Incense burning sets downtown storefront on fire’ alongside a photo of firefighters and another of John Hillyard.


Article from the Merced Sun-Star, dated July 3, 1992
Article from the Merced Sun-Star, dated July 3, 1992

John told the newspaper he burnt incense each morning as part of a daily prayer, and had accidentally started the fire, causing an estimated $35,000 damage.


"I was in the back sorting 78s and I smelled smoke," John said. “I’ve never seen it do anything…In fact, it's hard to keep it alight." 


He suffered first-degree burns on his arms and second-degree burns on his forehead while he had tried to extinguish the fire, and stock from the front of the store was damaged too, though fire crews attending the scene stopped it spreading to the back. It was around this time that DJ Shadow first visited Merced and met John Hillyard.



Midnight in a Perfect World: Introducing DJ Shadow

DJ Shadow, aka Josh Davis, was 20 years old in 1992 and was already an enthusiastic record collector. Apart from Stan "The 8th Wonder" Green who was his high school friend, he met Xavier “Chief Xcel” Mosley, Tom “Lyrics Born” Shimura and the late Tim “Gift of Gab” Parker (1970-2021) while at Davis University, California. This group would soon start their own label Solesides and go on to great things, but at the time they were students eager to learn.


Shadow had met a DJ from New York who had moved to California called Mr. Nice Guy (aka Darryl Coyle Peek) who told him about 45s, the 7” singles that sometimes contained exclusive non-album songs, and he also shared where to find them.


“Mr. Nice Guy turned me on to the world of 45s and opened my eyes to the possibilities of the music contained within the format. I kept in touch with him over the months, and in the summer of 1992 we had a phone conversation where he mentioned "a huge place with tons of 45s" in Merced, California. I was a bit suspicious of this information, as he had a penchant for exaggeration, suffice to say, it took a few months for me to act on this intel. Stan and I were getting more and more into 45s, and we weren't finding anything exciting in the Sacramento area, so we were ready to broaden our search. When our curiosity about Darryl's story finally outweighed our doubts and spurred us into action, I also invited Tom, X and Gab,” Shadow said.


DJ Shadow, John Hillyard and Lyrics Born in Merced, CA. Photography by Stan Green, 1993
DJ Shadow, John Hillyard and Lyrics Born in Merced, CA. Photography by Stan Green, 1993

“The day of our first trip to Merced, we didn't know what time the store closed, or even what the name of it was, but we knew that we couldn't expect it to be open late, so time was tight. We pulled into Merced after 4:30pm, and after a few wrong turns, we figured out where the shop was. It was a large, deep brick building which shared one wall with an auto repair shop. We walked in, and couldn't believe our eyes...there were TONS of records, and most were dirt cheap. Initially all we saw was LPs, but then Stan noticed the back of the building and we saw the mountains of 45s. We exchanged glances: "Holy shit, Darryl was telling the truth." ”


As they walked around the store, they soon met Steve’s Coins owner, Steve Criscione who told them the store was closed and they had to leave. Shadow and his friends asked if they could stay a bit longer, but Steve refused, and John intervened to let them know Shadow and his friends would be better coming back another day instead.


“John walked quickly toward us, saying in his odd wicked witch-type voice, "Come back in two weeks!" He then proceeded to explain that there had been a fire next door at the auto repair shop, and they were cleaning up. He showed us how most of the records against the shared wall were partially burned or had smoke damage. Clearly, we weren't going to have any joy on this day, so we swallowed our excitement and walked out. I called out to them, "We'll be back in two weeks!"


After returning, they were blown away by the amount of records for sale, and soon realized most of the 45s belonged to John, while Steve sold LPs. They continued to return, sometimes together, or sometimes solo, and at the same time got to know John better and he taught them about the music they were interested in.


“As we began to learn more about particular labels and artists who seemed to only exist in the 45 domain, we began to appreciate just how valuable John’s shop could be to us. John taught Stan and I about “northern soul” (this was the first time I had ever heard the term before), rockabilly, garage, and other genres,” Shadow said.


Stan "The 8th Wonder" Green at Hillyard's store in Merced, CA. Photography by Shadow circa 1993
Stan "The 8th Wonder" Green at Hillyard's store in Merced, CA. Photography by Shadow circa 1993

“After some trust had been established, John became fond of me and we developed a rapport. Occasionally, especially if I was there on my own, he would open up about his life. He told me that he had come down from Montreal in the ‘60s. He talked about working for the Dore label and the producer/engineer John Greek. He talked about Kim Fowley, and working for John Cougar Mellencamp. Frankly, half the time I didn’t know whether to believe him, because he was such a mess personally. His favorite topic was the American Indian Movement. He would get quite animated talking about the US government’s treatment of Native Americans through the years; clearly, it was a topic he was passionate about. Frequently, he would be drinking. Nothing heavy, just beer or malt liquor, but he would almost immediately become drunk. One time, Tom and I asked if we could stay later than his allotted closing time. He implied that if we purchased him beer, we could stay as late as we liked. So, we did. This became our standard operation.”



Hillyard-Ornelas Records

After the fire at Steve’s Coins, Steve Criscione was less than pleased about having John in his store, and eventually kicked him out as he felt John was a liability. Steve, Joe, and John all went their separate ways and each opened new stores by themselves, with Joe Mendez opening Below Zero Records on M Street, specializing in funk and disco records. 


John’s new store opened in late 1993 and was located at 655 West Main Street, Merced next to the The Mainzer Theater, and was a partnership between John and one of his previous customers, Andrew J. Ornelas.


"I have been working with John for four years," Andrew told the Merced Sun-Star at the time. "Actually, I met him as a customer because I have been collecting records since I was a small child."


The Merced Sun-Star reported on the store opening in November 1993, and said it featured “Collectible records, such as 16 rpm, 33 rpm, 45 rpm, 78 pm, compact discs, cassettes, sheet music, acetates and books on music and musical artists,” with music available from 1903-1993 across all different formats.


Hillyard-Ornelas record store article from the Merced Sun-Star dated November 4, 1993
Hillyard-Ornelas record store article from the Merced Sun-Star dated November 4, 1993

Photographed for the newspaper, Andrew wore a Mighty Ducks t-shirt and looks like a teenager, while John wore his signature sleeveless denim vest. Our attempts to contact Andrew J. Ornelas have so far been unsuccessful. It’s said he mostly let John manage the shop alone and eventually left their partnership.


Brian Naranjo continued to shop at John's new location and recalled the store was in two parts, with the front area featuring LPs in alphabetical order, while in the back there was a warehouse with records, mostly 45s and some 12” singles, organized by the label they were released on. 


“When I was going in there, he was always playing country western like Rose Maddox and the Maddox Brothers, or Mexican Spanish music. He didn't talk a whole lot about soul and funk records when I was there, but he knew about them. He was a walking encyclopedia with that stuff, which is why I'm sure DJ Shadow was quite enamored by him,” Brian Naranjo said.


Shadow returned to the store again and again, and it was one of the places he sourced records for his debut album Endtroducing....., released in September 1996 on Mo Wax. It featured a song “Napalm Brain” named in honor of John Hillyard, with Shadow explaining “it was intended to pay tribute to the unintentional logic of an erratic mind.”

 

Following Endtroducing....., Shadow released the single Midnight in a Perfect World. In the UK, Mo Wax released the single with a cover Shadow and Brian "B+" Cross developed featuring children toys (Mo Wax, 1996). But for the US release (FFRR, 1997), Shadow wanted something different and they visited John Hillyard’s store, as B+ previously told us.

 

“Josh wanted to go visit John Hillyard and take photos there, because it was such an important place. We did it over a day and a half [...] and that's when I began to know about Hillyard,” B+ said.


John Hillyard in the back of his store in Merced, CA. Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996
John Hillyard in the back of his store in Merced, CA. Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996

“He really, really knew the labels, knew the music, and he just squirreled away and hustled away millions of 45s! I mean so many 45s, like insane amounts of 45s in a moment when people weren't really looking for 45s. It was the FM era, people bought albums.”

 

A photo taken at the back of John’s store in his warehouse full of 45s was used on the cover of the single, and it became something John was quite proud of, as Brian Naranjo explained.


“The first time I heard about DJ Shadow was in John’s shop. He said, ‘Hey, look, I'm famous.’ And he pulls out this sleeve and shows a picture of himself, but he's really joking about it. He was humble.”


Thanks to this, more people outside of Merced and outside of the record collecting community discovered John Hillyard, as Shadow explained who he was in interviews over the years, as he discussed the importance and impact John had on this period of his career. 


Prior to their photoshoot, DJ Shadow visited John’s store one day by himself with a tape recorder to interview him, though unfortunately this interview has since been misplaced and was not transcribed or published anywhere.


“I had decided that I wanted to interview John and we spoke at great length about his life. I’m sad to say that I don’t remember much, and I don’t know where the tape went. But during the course of the conversation, John became sad and wept several times. He talked about his addictions and seemed to know that his health was poor. Before our time was up, he asked if I would buy his business…all of the records for $10,000. In one of the worst decisions of my digging life, I told him that I couldn’t because I didn’t have any place to put them (I was still bouncing around small apartments in Davis every 12 months and didn’t have the resourcefulness that I eventually acquired.) In any case, it was that day that I realized that John considered me a friend, maybe one of the very few in his life,” Shadow said.


Shadow at John's store in Merced, as photographed by Brian "B+" Cross in 1996
Shadow at John's store in Merced, as photographed by Brian "B+" Cross in 1996

John continued selling records from his store for some time, and although it was well stocked with records, John wasn't known for his cleanliness. 


Brian Naranjo told us the store John shared with Steve and Joe had been pretty well kept, but left on his own, John’s store fell into disarray and the warehouse of 45s he kept out the back of his store had fallen out of order by the mid-90s, with the whole store smelling like cats.

 

“He didn't own a vacuum, or anything. So he did not vacuum his carpets and he had litter boxes near records so the place smelt like litter, cat piss, and poop. He didn't shower very often and you had to keep, like a little bit of a distance from him. But once you get past the appearance, once you peel the exterior back, you find what that person is really about on the inside. That's exactly the case with John,” Brian Naranjo said.

 

Through the 90s, Brian would mind the shop as John went out to buy alcohol or run errands, and he remembered spending quality time in there getting to know John and all of his records.


DJ Shadow - Midnight in a Perfect World (Mo Wax, 1996). Promo only sleeve depicting DJ Shadow at Hillyard's store in Merced. that served as a promo. Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996
DJ Shadow - Midnight in a Perfect World (Mo Wax, 1996). Promo only sleeve depicting DJ Shadow at Hillyard's store in Merced. Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996

“I asked if he ever recorded music, and he pulled out this record by Kim Fowley entitled Good Clean Fun and played this track called “Motorcycle”. And here's John's cackling voice from 1968, reciting some weird beatnik psychedelic crazy ramblings about a motorcycle,” Brian Naranjo said.


John continued to attract record collectors and buyers from across North America and overseas, but sometime around 1998 he left his store when the rent was increased. Patrick Staten recalled helping John move his collection once again.


“John was paying $900 a month in rent and they were going to raise it to $1,400. I still lived in San Diego, 402 miles from Merced, but I agreed to help John move the records out of that shop and into storage at Derrel’s Storage in Merced. I paid for everything. We didn't take all the records, we took only 50% of it. I said, ‘John, let's just take the more valuable ones out of here and put it in storage’, and he agreed. All the rest were junk. We moved the records out of the shop, and I got a key and John got a key,” Patrick Staten said.


The store was abandoned with the remaining stock left behind. Mike Vague, who had known John since the 80s when they sold records next to each other at record fairs around Los Angeles, recalled what happened to the records left behind.


“He left the front door unlocked with probably half a million records sitting there. He attempted to store what he felt were the better records...But the discs still in the shop eventually wound up back in Los Angeles at the former location of Rene's All Ears record store while it was between renters... All for 50 cents a record. 100+ count boxes of then, worthless records including Lori Hamton, VIP demos of Bobby Taylor, Kim Tamango, etc. I bought 5000 45s there,” Mike Vague said. 


Patrick Staten, who was living in San Diego, occasionally heard from John through the mail, but said John never visited their shared storage as all visitors were logged and there’s no record of anyone ever accessing their storage apart from Patrick.


Contact sheet of John in Merced, from the photo session that yielded Shadow's Midnight in a Perfect World 12" (FFRR, 1997). Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996
Contact sheet of John in Merced, from the photo session that yielded Shadow's Midnight in a Perfect World 12" (FFRR, 1997). Photography by Brian "B+" Cross, 1996

While John had an apartment near the shared storage, Brian Naranjo recalled seeing John pushing a shopping cart around with his possessions in it, which he said became a familiar site for locals who knew him, and it was assumed he slept on the streets. By then Patrick had lost contact with John and was unsure why.


“I would either call him or we would write. I'd send him some money. But after a while we weren't talking. I'm not sure why. He didn't have his apartment anymore but I figured he’d go to the storage, but he’s never been there. So, I was paying for the storage and he wasn't doing anything and I decided in 2001 that I'm going to move all those records down to my house in San Diego, and I thought he would contact me about the records. Only later that year did I find out John had passed away,” Patrick Staten said.


John had been living on West 18th Street when he was found dead in 2001, with the Merced Sun-Star reporting on Thursday, September 27 2001 that the Merced County Coroner's Office were looking for family members of John Lake Hillyard.


He had been found in a shed he was renting, and was presumed to have been living in it. As the newspaper reported he was known to be homeless. John was described as "a white male, 5 feet 10 inches tall, weighing 150-pounds, with hazel eyes and long grayish brown hair. He was known to wear numerous beads around his neck," according to the Coroner's Office. The story was also picked up by California's The Modesto Bee, but it's unclear if anyone ever came forward with any information.


Article on John's passing, The Modesto Bee (September 29, 2001)
Article on John's passing, The Modesto Bee (September 29, 2001)

Following his death, rumors that John had died sleeping in a storage unit with his records spread, and didn't sound too surprising to many, but his death was still a shock to those who had been friends with him over the years. John was known for his kindness as much as his knowledge of music, and he has continued to be remembered fondly among the record collecting community in North America and England, where he made many friends, including DJ Shadow. 


“Despite his mysteries and choices, there were things about John that I deeply admired. He was a hard worker, and in terms of 45s, somewhat of a visionary. His politics were complicated but he invested himself totally in his beliefs. His appearance and personality was outlandish and grotesque, yet I genuinely enjoyed his company. I can honestly say that I’ve never met anyone quite like him,” Shadow said.


Although John Hillyard is gone, his impact throughout the record collecting community is far reaching, with forums such as Soul Source filled with people citing John for some of their most prized records. John Manship, author and expert of northern soul, wrote of John “To this day he is the most interesting of all record guys, and is a legend. The Brits owe a lot to the records that guy found, always cheap and he always had amazing stuff.”


These days, John’s store in Merced is part of the redeveloped Mainzer Theater, with a wall removed connecting the previously separated shops, so you can enjoy a drink before a movie right where his records were sold. Those looking for vinyl will find Tigers and Daggers Records just down the road at 438 West Main Street, a store frequented by locals such as Brian Naranjo who said, “If John Hillyard were alive today, I think he would be happy knowing that the record store is still thriving today, many years after it was long to be thought of as dead.” 


John Lake Hillyard (Montreal, Canada, 7 April 1943 - Merced, CA, USA, 23 September 2001). Photography by Tim Ashley, 1991
John Lake Hillyard (Montreal, Canada, 7 April 1943 - Merced, CA, USA, 23 September 2001). Photography by Tim Ashley, 1991


 

Acknowledgements 

This article was put together by James Gaunt and Jonathan Boulicot, who contributed extensive research beginning in 2021 after wondering for some time who John Hillyard was. The search put us in touch with people from around the world who shared information, photos, and many of the quotes you’ve read above.


We couldn’t have put this together without the many contributions big and small, so thank you to DJ Shadow, Brian Naranjo, Patrick Staten, Robert “Orb” Kamm, Nancy Yahiro, David Mawhinney at Mount Allison University, Keb Darge, Barrie Waddington, Brian "B+" Cross, Stan "The 8th Wonder" Green, Bruce Osborn, Eddie Caraeff, Cut Chemist, Ken Barnes, Suzy Shaw, Jon Manship, Mark London, Rodney Bingenheimer, Sue Hillyard, Paul Hillyard, Tim Ashley, and from the Soul Source forums: Robbk, DMC, The Yank, Cover-up, Blake H, neckender, Ion T, and Steve Russell.


As mentioned, much of John’s life still remains a mystery, so if you have anything to share please leave a comment below or contact us at djshadowreconstructed@gmail.com

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