LAS VEGAS – Elton John is working on his record collection.
For new vinyl, the 72-year-old English pop star goes to London’s Rough Trade Records. But for rare and collectible stuff, he visits a converted surf-green stucco house on the west side of Las Vegas.
A place called Wax Trax Records.
“It’s like walking into Aladdin’s Cave,” John told British radio DJ Paul Gambaccini in a 2017 interview about his love of vinyl and the shop at 2909 S. Decatur Blvd.
In 1991, he sold his extensive vinyl stash that included every single released in England since around 1959 to fund his AIDS charity.
He’s been since replacing the more than 50,000 records, and this Las Vegas shop has been helping him find the pieces — more than 11,000 so far.
“I’ve been spending a fortune,” John said.
Elton’s first visit
A relationship with the voice on hits like “Tiny Dancer,” “Your Song” and “Candle In The Wind” came as a surprise to Wax Trax owner Rich Rosen.
A 77-year-old Brooklynite, Rosen talks with a heavy New York accent. He speaks in story – and the one about how he met Elton John is a good one.
“A guy comes into the store and says, ‘Look – I’m looking for something for a guy who used to have a gigantic collection. He doesn’t have anything anymore, because he sold it to open up an AIDS foundation,'” Rosen said. “I’m thinking to myself, ‘Who could this be?’ I didn’t put two and two together.”
It turned out the guy who used to have a gigantic collection was Elton John.
Rich Rosen and Elton John at Wax Trax Records in Las Vegas. (Photo: Dave Rosen)
“He says, ‘How would you like to go see him sitting in the first row tonight?’” Rosen said. “I called my wife. She flipped over backwards, because she loves him, you know?’”
At the time, John was four years into his Caesars Palace residency, “The Million Dollar Piano.”
Soon after the first encounter with John’s people, Rosen’s phone rang.
“And all of a sudden,” he said, “I get a call from Elton himself saying, ‘I’d like to come in tomorrow.’ One day’s notice. So we get piles and piles ready for him.”
It was 2015 when John showed up to Wax Trax Records and spent hours exploring the shelves for old rock ‘n’ roll.
Unable to stand for long stretches of time, John sat on a chair near the front door – one Rosen’s dog, a shih tzu named Charley, usually occupies – and continued picking through stacks of records Wax Trax employee Jerry Friend brought up and down the stairs.
John bought more 200 items that day and he’s been friends with Rosen ever since.
There’s just about everything inside Wax Trax Records – from Abba to Frank Zappa. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
‘This pile is for Elton’
John has visited Wax Trax Records several times over the years. But Rosen mostly keeps in contact with the singer through email.
When Rosen acquires boxes of records, he thumbs through them for releases that might interest his famous customer across the pond in England. Rosen sends John long lists of records to whittle.
On a recent afternoon, Rosen sorted through a special stack of records and labeled them so they wouldn’t get mixed with the store’s inventory: “This pile is for Elton”.
In November, John wrote Rosen an email to let him know which records to put in the mail: Albums from John Lee Hooker, Etta James, Memphis Slim and others.
Rich Rosen picks through records and sends Elton John lists of LPs he might want. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
“Thanks,” Elton wrote, signing the email this way: “E xxx.”
“The Xs, you know what they are?” Rosen asked. “Love and kisses.”
The USA TODAY Network reached out to Elton John to talk about his love of Wax Trax Records and vinyl. Due to a busy tour schedule and other commitments, his agency declined.
Elton John has bought his own records at Wax Trax. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
Inside ‘Aladdin’s Cave’
Rosen spends seven days a week sitting behind a counter cluttered with CDs, records and oddball music memorabilia – including a caricature showing the Brooklynite alongside the Rocket Man himself.
For this past 21 years, Rich Rosen has run Wax Trax Records in Las Vegas. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
Wax Trax Records is like a fun house museum.
Covering the walls are signed photographs of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Groucho Marx. On shelves are figurines of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Frank N. Furter from Rocky Horror Picture Show. So much musical ephemera fills this record store that a peek in the corner of a picture frame can be a history lesson.
Before Simon and Garfunkel, there was Tom and Jerry. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette-Journal)
And of course, there are the records – more than 1 million assembled over Rosen’s half a century in the vinyl business.
Stacks and stacks from every era – from ABBA to Frank Zappa – cover every one of the shop’s three floors.
LPs from the The Beatles discography are a common grab at Wax Trax Records. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
Most of the collection is alphabetized and organized according to genre, but there are thousands of records still piled on the floor without spots on a shelf.
Walking here requires careful footwork.
One false step could mean a domino effect and a sideways glance from the guy behind the counter.
Wax Trax has an extensive catalog of 45s. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
“People like to dig,” Rosen said. “I tell everybody, ‘As long as you’re neat, go through whatever piles you want.’”
These days, people come to Rosen with records they’re looking to ditch.
Las Vegas is a land where everyone is either arriving or departing, so in a lot of ways it’s an ideal location for Wax Trax Records.
Rosen learned at an early age that there’s a lot of wonder and joy in the business of chasing down rare records.
Rich Rosen, of Wax Trax Records, in his happy place. He spends seven days a week sitting at the counter of Wax Trax Records. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
His hunt started when he was a 13-year-old boy in Brooklyn.
He gave his father a list of 30 records while he was stuck in a bed with a cold – 45s with songs he heard on the radio.
But the old man came home with just six of them.
In a place as big as New York City, he could find but a fraction of the list.
The tunes on the radio weren’t so easy to find on vinyl – unless you knew where to dig. So he started digging.
Wax Trax Records even has a hip-hop section. (Photo: Ed Komenda / Reno Gazette Journal)
A young Rosen traveled across town to a subway station on 42nd Street to a place called Time Square Records – a joint run by a guy named Slim Rose.
Time Square Records was one of the few collectors spots in New York City at the time.
“That’s where we all congregated – all of the people who heard of these things on the air and couldn’t find what they wanted,” said Rosen, who soon made his first big discovery.
He was digging through records downtown and found a 25-count box of a single by The Four Deuces: A song called “WPLJ,” short for “White Port Lemon Juice.”
“So I immediately brought them up to Slim,” Rosen said. “I paid 39 cents each on those or something like that. Slim right away gave me 15 dollars credit on each. To me, it was big. I started selling records on Wall Street.”
Rosen would go on to become a well-known doo-wop expert, putting out his very own compilation called “The Rarest of the Rare” – a title that describes precisely what he seeks when someone walks into Wax Trax with an armful of records or calls the shop with a lead on a couple of boxes stuffed with vinyl.
“It’s like I got on the right horse when I was younger, and I held firm,” Rosen said. “I didn’t get rid of my stuff, hoping it would came back. It came back 100 percent.”