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 Lines of old jukeboxes fill the giant warehouse at TD Rowe, sitting alongside outdated video games and busted Coke and cigarette machines.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.

"The music is just something added. Nobody goes to a club to play a CD. If I want to hear a CD, I'll stay home to hear it. With vinyl, it marks a certain era, but now it's gone."

In William Bunch's 1994 book Jukebox America, which documents a romantic's three-year cross-country search for the last great jukebox, the author lists the three phases of the machine's existence: the novelty years (from the first time a box was placed in a bar, in San Francisco in 1889), the glory years (from 1927, when the electric amplifier was first invented and speakeasies began searching for cheap entertainment, through 1937, when more than half a million boxes were scattered throughout the country), and the peak-and-descent years (now, there are only 230,000 boxes in use in America, almost half being CD jukeboxes with the number growing every week).

There are several reasons for the disappearance of the vinyl jukebox--all of which point to CDs as the logical answer, at least from the industry perspective. Probably the most obvious answer is quantity: on average, a vinyl jukebox holds 100 singles, which comes out to 200 songs. Some CD jukeboxes can hold as many as 100 discs and with most discs holding between 11 and 14 tracks, that's more than five times the song selection.

But, as Bunch points out, the perception that you've got a larger choice of songs is actually "a sham."

"The jukeboxes of the 1930s and 1940s, with their 78s of Louis Jordan or Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, were subversive affairs," Bunch writes, "playing regional songs that the Toscanini-crazed record executives in New York wanted to ignore. Today, CD jukeboxes are geared toward record-label megastars such as Tom Petty, Michael Bolton, and Guns N' Roses, while indie-label CDs are squeezed out of the mix. If there had been CD jukeboxes in 1954, who would have heard Elvis Presley singing 'That's All Right, Mama'?"

Indeed, the CD jukebox has led to the death of the jukebox. Walk into the Elm Street Bar some night and you'll hear the damage done, especially when someone has clogged up an hour by playing a Rage Against the Machine disc from front to back.

With CD jukeboxes, there's always the chance someone can tie the damned thing up playing an entire album's worth of the Smiths, Tom Petty, Whitney Houston, or the Beastie Boys. There's simply less diversity, less spontaneity, less passion emanating from a CD jukebox. You may find more songs on a CD jukebox, but it's doubtful you'd ever hear a song emanating from the sterile beast that you couldn't walk into your local record chain and buy for 15 bucks.

And then there's the matter of sound quality. Walking into a bar with a CD jukebox is like walking into a room with stagnant air, the pop and crack of vinyl replaced with...nothing at all. The cold sterility of the CD, which has long been an argument used by opponents of the digital technology, never seems more obvious than when it comes from a jukebox. It is the difference between the roaring fire of vinyl and the electric log of the CD, technology making music more accessible but sapping it of its warmth.

But, as Horton points out by bending a reissued Hank Williams single till it nearly snaps in two, the more recent vinyl 45s are thin and brittle, their grooves easily worn out by repeated playing. Sometimes, the jukebox needle will skip incessantly, which irritates patrons; often, the stylus will fall off the record completely.

For bars and restaurants not catering to a nostalgic crowd, opting instead to play the Top 40, vinyl jukeboxes are simply impractical. Though scores of small independent labels (such as Sub Pop in Seattle or Dallas' own Direct Hit) release seven-inch singles every month--which begs the question, Why no indie-rock jukebox in Deep Ellum?--major labels have long ceased manufacturing anything but newer country singles on vinyl.

Both Warner Bros. and Sony Music have begun releasing some hit singles from the likes of R.E.M., Pearl Jam, and Madonna, but it's too little way too late. There's little point in replacing one hit with another by the same artist when all can be found on a single CD.

"The places that had vinyl jukeboxes now want CD because all the new music is on CD, unless you have some place that is tailored to some kind of an era, like the '50s," Costa says. "With jukeboxes you think of 'Happy Days' and the arm picking up the record and placing it down, and that's neat and nostalgic.

"But the later-model vinyl boxes are completely encased where you're looking at nothing but the title strips. If I know there's 45s in there, it's like, 'Oh, this is neat, it's playing 45s.' But you kinda lose that little bit of nostalgia because you can't see it happen, so you might as well be playing CDs."

There are genuinely few great jukeboxes left in town, and most are probably hidden off in the dark recesses of tiny, decrepit clubs that are more like homes to regulars--new customers and unknown faces being as unwelcome as the plague.

Naomi's Lounge on Canton keeps an old Rowe/AMI box that preserves the original intention of the jukebox, mixing in local music (four from Homer Henderson, including his infamous "Lee Harvey was a Friend of Mine," and Tex Edwards with "Jeckyl and Hyde/Man from Mars") among the likes of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys ("Deep in the Heart of Texas"), Slim Harpo, Patsy Cline, Jimmy Reed, Hank Williams, Booker T. and the MGs, and Faron Young. Naomi's defines the juke joint experience with its beer for a buck-seventy-five, pool for four bits, and seven cuts on the jukebox for a dollar.

And the music coming from the box is no mere aural wallpaper, but an integral part of the ancient country and blues atmosphere. If most places keep CD jukeboxes to provide background music over which patrons must scream--such as at the Elm Street Bar, which is loaded with such dreck as the Kiss tribute CD or Stone Temple Pilots or Pearl Jam blasted at top volume--Naomi's is the sort of place that revolves around its jukebox, with patrons propping beers on the glass as they plug the thing full of quarters.

"The workers across the street come in and play the new country stuff, but the regulars play the country oldies," says Tex Edwards, who tends bar during the day. "'Green Onions' [by Booker T. and the MGs] is kinda the most popular song," he says. "It crosses all strata, everybody likes that. We have to have the new country stuff because that's what some people want to hear, but that's for people just stopping by."

Probably the most eclectic vinyl box in town sits at the back of the Stoneleigh P., where a modern-day Rowe/AMI still spins the likes of Edith Piaf and Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and Beethoven (his 5th symphony), Miles Davis (including "All Blues") and Clifton Chenier, Nina Simone (the hard-to-find "Strange Fruit") and Carl Perkins and early Buddy Holly. (A single of Marilyn Monroe breathlessly singing "My Heart Belongs to Daddy" was recently swiped.) The machine also holds six CDs, but the Stoneleigh management has wisely decided to keep it free of modern hits, with Alberta Hunter, the Allman Brothers, Joe Ely, Oletta Adams, and an early Austin blues collection filling the few slots.

The Stoneleigh doesn't own the jukebox, but owner Tom Garrison has a deal with the local distributor, Excel, to fill the jukebox with his own singles--as opposed to the way it usually works, with distributors providing new singles and replacing old ones. Garrison owns thousands of 45s, often buying dozens on his various trips to places like Montreal, Paris, and London. He is intensely passionate about his music and his jukebox, which was once featured in an Esquire magazine spread about the 10 best boxes in America, and boasts he's "slightly jealous" of only one other box in America.

"When they told us we could no longer buy 45s, then I really made a concerted effort to keep this going," Garrison says. "I'm old enough to have lived some of this stuff. It's like a needle in the haystack. You go through hundreds of dirty bins to come up with one great record. I've gone to the end of the world to look for this stuff to put on the box and keep in my collection."

Throughout the years, Garrison has assembled other great jukeboxes throughout the country in various bars and restaurants, only to watch as Charlie Parker was replaced by Jackson Browne, Edith Piaf superseded by Fleetwood Mac and other hits of the day. He refuses to switch over entirely to CD--in fact, he's trying to repair a jukebox that plays 78s--but doesn't mind the combination machine that allows for a handful of discs to play alongside old vinyl.

"I do like the fact they combined them, because I can put Robert Johnson or Beau Jocque on there and some other things you can't get on vinyl," he explains. "But I like to hear the scratches on a Caruso song. Caruso needs that clickety-clickety-click. It just adds to it."

When the Art Bar and Blind Lemon expands northward from Deep Ellum with the opening of Your Mother's Hip and Lavaca Cantina, there will be a vinyl jukebox in there that compares well with the boxes of old. Johnny Cash, Slim Harpo, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, B.B. King, Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Freddie King, and more of their ilk will be heard coming from the box, joined by the king (or King, more appropriately) and queen of the jukebox, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline. (A 1989 survey by the Amusement and Operators Association found "Hound Dog/Don't be Cruel" to be the top jukebox selection of all time, closely followed by "Crazy.")

But one of the finest jukeboxes in town can be found in a place that, without it, would be nothing but a decent enough place to get a plate of sausage and eggs, a cup of coffee, and a pack of smokes at three in the morning. Stuck in between scores of otherwise mediocre singles by the likes of Madonna and Hank Williams, Jr. and Bob Seger are a handful of gems that make the Metro Diner on Gaston Avenue home to a great jukebox--Bobby Bland's rendition of T-Bone Walker's "Stormy Monday Blues," Junior Walker and the All-Stars ripping through "Shotgun," Chuck Berry's immortal "Maybelline/Roll Over Beethoven," the Coasters' novelty classic "Charlie Brown," even Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Crossfire/Chitlins Con Carne."

But there is one cut that towers above them all--"Muddy Waters Twist," a track by the mighty bluesman that is not available anywhere except on the B-side of "You Shook Me." It's a genuinely rare piece of music, the use of organ and driving dance beat so unlike Muddy's more familiar fare, and you can't get it on any Muddy Waters CD or boxed set or rarities collection. You can't hear it anywhere else in town (that I know of) except at the Metro Diner.

And therein lies the appeal of the vinyl jukebox, being able to find that rare and unknown B-side not compiled on any mass-market CD. It's the thrill of discovery or the rush of rediscovery, those first few notes that peek through the cracks and pops of worn grooves, that makes a vinyl jukebox so special and a CD jukebox nothing but a ghost of a machine--the body with no soul, as William Bunch writes in his book.

"The best jukebox," he said, "somehow knows when to belt out Frank Sinatra when you're on top of the heap or B.B. King when you've been dumped. [It's] in perfect sync with its time and place."

And at the Metro Diner, with Muddy Waters singing his blues at 3 a.m. on a Sunday morning, there is no better time or place in all the world.

Street Beat welcomes E-mail tips and comments at [email protected].

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky

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