Thinking Inside the Box



Thomas Edison invented his phonograph in the late 19th century thinking it would mostly be used to take dictation, although it didn't take long for entrepreneurs to figure out that there was much more money to be made in using the fantastic device to play back recorded music.

The earliest jukeboxes were, in fact, simply phonographs with a mechanism attached to take coins from revelers who wanted to hear the latest rag or waltz reproduced on cylinder. Apparently, in the early years, jukeboxes rivaled piano players as the prime source of sounds in saloons and dancehalls. When the record industry fought the advent of radio, thinking giving the music away for free would kill the business, so did the people behind the Wurlitzers and Rock-Olas. (The Rock-Ola name refers to David Rockola, who started the company.)

Of course, the music business managed to persevere, and so did jukeboxes. Prohibition helped popularize the machines, when speakeasies needed music and couldn't fit a whole band into a hole-in-the-wall room, and the relative economy of the box continued to cement its popularity during the Depression, when club owners couldn't afford to pay a full band. The postwar years saw their heyday, when the machines became mechanical works of art with multicolored flashing lights and decorative bubbles running up and down luminescent tubes; teenagers could play the latest hits, ad nauseam, for pennies.

The selections on a jukebox reflect a bar's personality and can influence what kind of drinkers it attracts as much as the staff and the dŽcor. The Saturn Bar on St. Claude Avenue boasted a vintage 45 jukebox as its star attraction for many years, stocked with Patsy Cline and Sam the Sham since before either artist was a nostalgia act. The box at the Saint, the dimly lit lodge in the Lower Garden District, reflects the glam and metallic tastes of its owners, which include members of Supagroup and former White Zombie bassist Sean Yseult. A dollar there could buy you a spandex-worthy set of the New York Dolls, Guns n' Roses and the pseudo-patrician hard-rock act the Upper Crust. Molly's at the Market has its share of neo-Irish drinking music and New Orleans soul, but it also has one of the best and most up-to-date collections of releases from local downtown bands like the New Orleans Bingo! Show, the Morning 40 Federation, the Happy Talk Band and Schatzy -- most of whom are label-less, and most of whom can be seen drinking at Molly's regularly.

Mr. Quintron, whose electronic dance-rock is almost absent from local jukeboxes (except at the Mother-in-Law Lounge in Treme) apparently goes all the way to Chalmette to put a dollar in his favorite box.

"My favorite jukebox is at Brad's Bar on Paris Road," he says. "It's a swamp pop bar that has music, mostly on Sundays. [The jukebox has] all this old time swamp pop. It has GG Shinn and Jerry LaCroix ... it's got Juvenile on it. Jackie Wilson, Louis Prima. And this weird super-local stuff's in it," he says, flipping the CDs. "There's this thing 'Katrina, Katrina' some Chalmette guy made, a comedy record."

Traditional jazz composer and pianist Tom McDermott digs the jukebox at the Maple Leaf for its heavy James Brown selection. Washboard Chaz split his vote between Vaughan's, for its soul, blues and New Orleans music and the Circle Bar for "'60s R&B, British Invasion and the weird stuff."

"Actually, the jukebox I'm feeling right now is at d.b.a.," says DJ Soul Sister, who's made a solid vocation out of picking music. "They have good rare groove and funk stuff, not the same stuff that everyone else has. I usually will play Shuggie Otis, the JBs, rare James Brown when I hit their jukebox. They have good deep funk compilations, with some atypical stuff that people always get into. And Prince. And the Clash.Ê I love to play 'Lover's Rock' by the Clash.Ê Everyone seems to hate that song, but I love it."

Lately the old-fashioned barroom jukebox seems to be on its way out. Plenty of bars downtown are switching instead between DJ nights and bartender's choice on the stereo. Or they bring in the imposing Internet jukebox, whose blue screens glow with technological sterility and often only carry one or two tracks -- the hits -- off albums they advertise. If the Internet jukebox advertises the Rolling Stones' Out of Our Heads on the screen, you can bet your only option will be "Satisfaction," and too bad for fans of the B-sides.

Billy Delle, who's hosted the Wednesday night "Records from the Crypt" '50s R&B show on WWOZ-FM for nearly three decades, remembers the days when jukebox music promised grown-up fun.

"One of my first memories of a great juke box was about one that I had never seen," Billy says. "Back in the early '50s we used to stay at one of the many camps that lined Hayne Boulevard on Lake Pontchartrain. Being only about 12 or 13, our listening music was limited -- parental guidance -- to the radio. We had rollaway beds and cots that were lined up on the screened-in porch that surrounded the camp. All the kids would sleep on the porch and let the lake breeze blow in from the north. Late at night, as we lay in our lumpy beds, sounds from the south would fill the air and mix with the breeze. The later it got, the louder the sounds. Directly across our pier and across the street on Hayne Boulevard was a grocery and bar room -- Bright Lights. At night, the bar room would blast music out toward the lake. It would play music that had rhythm and a beat. We listened to that jukebox playing into the early morning hours. We always slept in late. The songs that I was introduced to were: "Maybellene" by Chuck Berry, "There Goes That Train" by Rollee McGill, "Work With Me Annie" by the Midnighters, "The Fat Man" by Fats. ÊI always wondered what went on in that juke joint. We would go to the grocery in daylight. The bar was closed. Every once in awhile, we'd peek through the window and wonder."


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