Ghosts in the machine

Charles Horton has been working on jukeboxes for almost 25 years, has seen them come in all shapes and colors and sizes.

He has stuck his hands inside the old Wurlitzer 3300, worked on the classic Seeburgs and Rock-Olas, and repaired the very last jukebox that held vinyl singles--an inbred creation that also houses a Pioneer six-CD player.

The best jukebox he's ever worked on was the Wurlitzer 1050, the "old balloon type," as he calls it, with brightly colored liquid that flowed around the top of the machine, framing the record player in a moving rainbow. "If you've got one of them, you've got a vintage model," he says with pride. "That's a good box."

When the interviewer's tape recorder is off, Horton recalls a few stories connected to some old jukeboxes he's known and loved; one is a real dandy about a stripper who, before she found God, used to twirl her tassels to the music pumped out of an old box at the Green Glass Bar on Lamar.

But lately, Horton, who works for local jukebox distributor TD Rowe near Bachman Lake, doesn't have much of an opportunity to work on the ancient beasts. Time and fads have rendered his cherished machines almost obsolete now, the old vinyl jukeboxes replaced by the faster, bigger, cleaner-sounding compact disc jukeboxes that have, in the past five years, become commonplace in tiny juke joints, pool halls, topless clubs, and fern bars.

The vinyl jukebox, once so much a part of the American musical landscape, has almost completely disappeared. Lines of old jukeboxes fill the giant warehouse at TD Rowe, sitting alongside outdated video games and busted Coke and cigarette machines. They sit in a row, collecting dust like old tombstones marking the end of an era.

Off to the side, an employee keeps two classic, beautiful boxes he's getting ready to take home. One looks almost like a 1957 Chevy, pale blue with fins on each side.

Some of the old boxes back here work, some don't; some are filled with old 45s left from the previous owner, some are empty shells. Either way, they are not much concern for the folks here. Tony Costa at TD Rowe estimates his business is now 75 percent compact disc jukeboxes, where just five years ago the CD boxes accounted for only a nominal share of business.

"Very rarely will we set a vinyl jukebox anywhere," he says. "It's just maybe a very small club where their traffic flow is negligible and they want some kind of music. The majority of what we do with vinyl jukeboxes today is for the home market, a nice little piece for your gameroom. We've got umpteen records in here, and they're just sitting here."

At TD Rowe, several shelves filled with 45s run against the length of a wall, spilling over onto another. Dozens more are stacked at random on a nearby table, and hundreds more fill a shopping cart in the back.

To peruse the collection is to browse through the history of pop music in the past 50 years--from The Band to Mary J. Blige, Frank Sinatra to Randy Newman, Slim Harpo to K.C. and the Sunshine Band, Hank Williams to Dean Martin, Getz/Gilberto to Al Green. And scattered throughout the shelves are various singles from local legends such as Ronnie Dawson ("She Cried/Steel Rail Blues," a rare Columbia 45 dating back to his country-rock days when he was known as Ron Dawson) and soul singer Bobby Patterson (including his immortal Jetstar A-side "T.C.B. or T.Y.A.").

Most of these singles have sat untouched for years, none being added to their ranks and only a very few going out. Where Doris Splaine once ordered hundreds of 45s a month for B&B Distributing (which became TD Rowe), she now orders one or two, and always for special requests. She buys only compact discs from the local distributor, and almost always for the most popular artists. Doris, who has done this for 21 years, figures that sometime in the not-so-distant future, she'll begin selling off the collection.

"It's been like this for the past year or year and a half," she says, pointing to the time her distributor, the locally based Big State, stopped carrying vinyl singles.

There are only a dozen vendors listed under the "jukebox" heading in the Yellow Pages (which, appropriately enough, comes right before the "junk dealers" section), and most of them have long converted to doing mostly CD jukebox business. In fact, a good hunk of their money is made from renting pool tables, cigarette machines, pinball machines, and video games.

"The majority of our business is club business," Costa says, "and with a vinyl jukebox you think of hanging around over the jukebox and playing my favorite song and enjoying the music. Well, in most instances now with a CD box, it's not so much to sit and enjoy the music and maybe have a cocktail, but it's for somebody who's playing pool or in a sports bar where it's back in the corner.