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A blues and jazz haven
Delmark Records celebrates its 50th anniversary

Bob Koester produced his first blues recording session, for the old-time pianist Speckled Red, in the St. Louis home of fellow record collector John Phillips. "It was really amateur equipment," he says. "In those days, we would balance the sound of the musicians by moving them around at different distances from the one microphone we had. The recorder was a mono Concert Tone, and it had the specs for hi-fi, but didn’t possibly have the endurance the Ampex or Magnacorder machines did at the time. But it was good enough.

"For my second session, I had rented a Crown tape recorder to record a concert by the Dixie Stompers, and to this day I regret that I didn’t have enough tape to record the intermission sets by Speckled Red and Big Joe Williams. I mean, I was really penny-pinching. It was another $10 or $20 I didn’t have. Back then, when I went into the studio, I was paying $10 or $15 an hour, and it was all right out of my not-too-deep pockets, so time was of the essence."

Koester’s hope was that one of his records would hit and that "I might become like the Atlantic Records that existed at the time. That wasn’t the Atlantic that exists today, of course. In the early ’50s, Atlantic was a small jazz and R&B label, although I was pretty much unaware of its R&B activity then. I was more into blues and early jazz than R&B. I was into the rawer stuff."

It’s 50 years later, and Koester still likes his music raw. And he’s made a lifetime of recording and releasing albums by some of the rawest: Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Jimmy Burns, Little Brother Montgomery, Carey and Lurrie Bell, J. B. Hutto, Luther Allison, Sun Ra, Roscoe Mitchell, Tab Smith, Robert Nighthawk, and literally hundreds of other artists who appear in the thick catalogue of his label. Delmark Records never did become another Atlantic, but it has carved an enduring place in American music history and launched the careers of many blues and jazz greats. It’s fair to call Koester a national cultural hero for his work, but until Congress steps up to the plate, he’ll have to remain content with the Chicago Heroes Award the local chapter of the Recording Academy honored him with last month. Not bad for a career that began as a glorified hobby — the fantasy of a man who’d fallen in love with music listening to the likes of Fats Waller, Barney Bigard, and Coleman Hawkins over the radio when he was a kid in Wichita, Kansas.

Koester, who turned 70 this year, started in the music biz buying and selling records. He learned how lucrative the market could be when record labels stopped distributing 10-inch discs: he bought lots of them at clearance prices and sold them at a significant profit to collectors. Although he began selling discs and recording artists in St. Louis, it wasn’t until 1958 that he found a permanent home for Delmark and his now internationally famous Jazz Record Mart store in Chicago. There he discovered the Windy City’s rich trove of blues and jazz talent and began minting albums — almost all of which are still available. Some of those discs, like the influential blues singer/guitarist Magic Sam’s West Side Soul and harmonica genius Junior Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues, are enduring classics of their genre.

Koester has looked for two qualities in the performers he’s recorded over the past five decades. "Originality is the main thing. Balls is another. Whether it’s blues or jazz, you want emotional depth and some strength. I’ve also learned it’s not really good business to record somebody who’s teaching. A jazz guy who’s teaching is not going on the road, and that’s how you get people to buy records. You also don’t want a guy who thinks a record is gonna make him rich. You’ve got to be the Beatles or Rolling Stones to make your money off records. I’ve never promised our artists much more than we paid them to record, but damn near every blues artist we’ve recorded has gone on to tour Europe and Japan."

One of Koester’s more recent signings is Frank Morey, a young Lowell-based singer-songwriter with a sound and a scratchy singing style that seem plucked from the ’50s. Morey’s The Delmark Sessions was released last year to critical praise, and he’s been playing everywhere he can since. "I regret we don’t have the money or personnel to promote a record like Frank’s outside of the blues and jazz idiom. He really deserves a wider audience."

Although Delmark releases only a handful of new albums a year, the label’s reissues business is brisk. Delmark draws not only on its own vault of recordings but on the masters from old defunct labels like United and Regal that Koester has purchased with a passion over the years. To mark its golden anniversary, the label is releasing at low prices a series of discs that revisit its past. The two-CD sets Jazz and Blues survey the company’s experience in both genres. The jazz albums include sides from Coleman Hawkins, Art Hodes, Muhal Richard Abrams, Sonny Stitt, Illinois Jacquet, Roscoe Mitchell, Sun Ra, Ken Vandermark, and the Chicago Underground Trio. The blues set has Junior Wells, Otis Rush, Magic Sam, Roosevelt Sykes, Big Time Sarah, Sunnyland Slim, Big Joe Williams, Robert Ward, Albert Ammons, Meade Lux Lewis, and many more.

Five single-disc compilations are also available. West Side Chicago Blues plays like a who’s who of the second generation of Windy City electric blues guitar. Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, and Jimmy Dawkins deliver stirring performances. The raw and ebullient Master of Boogie Piano is exactly what it seems — flashy, stomping cuts from Meade Lux Lewis, Speckled Red, Pete Johnson, and others. Blues from Up the Country steps away from Delmark’s usual urban sounds to tap stylists from Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Texas, including Robert Nighthawk, Blind Willie McTell, and Sleepy John Estes. Bop Lives! will be a surprise to those unfamiliar with the label’s jazz roots. Coleman Hawkins and Dizzy Gillespie team for a tune, and Bud Powell, Donald Byrd, and Charles Thompson all distinguish the release. Finally, there’s For Jumpers Only, perhaps the most delightful of this pack of anniversary releases. It features romping small-group swing numbers by Cab Calloway, Illinois Jacquet, Arnett Cobb, Tab Smith, and Cat Anderson.

Koester acknowledges that the music industry is radically different from when he started — even from a decade ago. "I’ve enjoyed this business. I wish we didn’t have to cut back, but the record business is failing now. Clubs have been bad since September 11 [2001], and DVD movies are hurting everybody. We used to release 18 to 24 new titles a year. Now we’re down to six to eight, and a title’s got to be doing pretty good for me to press another 500 copies, which is just about the smallest run that’s practical."

But he’s left an indelible mark on his chosen field, not only through Delmark’s releases and the Jazz Record Mart’s presence but by mentoring two of his earlier employees, Bruce Iglauer and Michael Franks. Iglauer, whom Koester describes as "my ears in the studio," went on to become the founder of Alligator Records, the world’s leading independent blues label. Franks graduated from Delmark to head Earwig Records, a tiny indie that nonetheless has released some of the finest down-home recordings of the past 25 years, including titles by the Jellyroll Kings and Honeyboy Edwards.

Koester speaks fondly of both men but even more fondly of the artists he held most dear. "Big Joe Williams and I had a very close friendship. Same with Speckled Red, Junior Wells . . . he was such a mensch. And he was a great leader. Leadership is something a lot of writers don’t talk about. They talk about how well a guy sings or plays or writes songs, but the quality of band leadership is overlooked and very important. That’s what made Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters so great. They weren’t the sharpest musicians, but they could pull together a band around a Hubert Sumlin or an Otis Spann and make amazing music.

"Junior Wells made a deal with me for a second album when he was under contract with Mercury. We set the price and everything. When the time came, he called me to say, ‘My deal with Mercury is over, but I’m about to sign with Atlantic, so if we’re doing something, we’ve got to do it now.’ And I started to ask him about money and arrangements, and he said, ‘Now, what are you talking to me about that for? We already worked that out.’

"On the other side of it, my least favorite musician is someone I recorded whose first record was successful. So for the second session, I paid a lot for sidemen, bought airplane tickets, picked him up at the airport — and the motherfucker wouldn’t sign the contract until I paid him a lot more money. It was my fault for not already having a signed contract before I did all that stuff, but that’s how I learned. I’d prefer to never mention guys like that, while I could talk about guys like Junior Wells all day."

Issue Date: December 5 - 11, 2003
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