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Keeping the jukes jumping

They are to the music industry what unicorns are to reality:  
magical, mythical beasts.  But spinning those tunes on vinyl, 
they’re the life of the party.
By Dean Kuipers, Special to The Times
August 10, 2006

At your service
Vinyl fetish
Petty cache

Don MULLER stands in his living room, grinning like a caffeinated teenager, clearly dazzled by the magic he has wrought.  The playroom in his Van Nuys ranch home features four classic jukeboxes crowded around a small dance floor, and lightbulbs are flashing like an arcade around the room and across the ceiling.

"See how this model has a speaker on top?" he shouts, patting a 1946 AMI "mother-of-plastic" Model A jukebox, as Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" comes blasting out at about ear-level.  "That was so it would play over the top of the tables.  See, this would be the music for a whole restaurant or dance hall, and it only took one machine in the corner to do it.  It really kicks it out!"

Muller is clearly enjoying himself, and his enthusiasm is infectious.  To thousands of Southern Californians who own jukeboxes that play vinyl records, and the smattering of restaurants and bars that still keep them around, he is something of a guru, a figure familiar to the rich and famous, to music junkies and nostalgia freaks.  Now in his 35th year as sole proprietor of Jukeboxes Unlimited, Muller has seen the industry turn toward CD jukes and, recently, to Internet-connected players that download songs from massive databases.  He is one of only two guys in L.A. who still make house calls to service record-playing jukeboxes.  He's a gadget freak and is the first one to admit it.

But it would be a mistake to think that the jukebox fetish is all about these lights and bubbles and fake mother-of-pearl.

"Oh, no," he says, his face getting serious. He stops what he's doing, which is punching up song after song.  "I need to show you something."

We move swiftly through the back door.  Behind his house is another building, a garage the size of a small barn.  He swings the door open and says, "This is a lifetime's worth of music."

It's more than that. It's several dozen lifetimes' worth. It's the most staggering collection of vinyl imaginable. In that garage, loosely arranged on floor-to-ceiling shelves, in banana boxes, in crates, in retail record bins, are more than 400,000 vinyl singles in 45-rpm and 78-rpm sizes. Plus 5,000 to 7,000 albums and EPs, and then some reel-to-reel tapes and even 8- and 4-track cartridges.  This is the real driving force behind his passion for the jukebox; what matters to Muller, 63, is the music.

Jukeboxes, to Muller, are about entertaining.  The machines are at their best when they're surrounded by partygoers, selecting songs they can't wait to hear.

"I have always been the party guy," a grinning Muller says, adding that his first business, in the 1960s, was called Parties Unlimited.  He'd bring the music, the sound gear, the sorority girls, even provide the rented house.

"But then one day I rented a jukebox for a party.  People loved it. It was the best party we ever had!" he nearly shouts. "I got an idea.  I started buying up every jukebox I could get my hands on.  "The outrageous success of the iPod and, before that, illegal file-sharing sites such as Napster are only the latest way to scratch what is now a 129-year-old itch: to program your own music, on your own machine, and make your own party.  That desire began with the invention of Thomas Edison's "Phonograph or Speaking Machine" in 1877, but it didn't become a staple of public life until Edison's machine became the jukebox.  And that happened, fittingly, in a bar.

According to recorded-music lore, the official birth date of the jukebox is Nov. 23, 1889, when Louis Glass and William Arnold demonstrated an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph, which played prerecorded cylinders, fitted with a coin mechanism known as a "nickel-in-the-slot," in the saloon of the Palais Royale restaurant in San Francisco.  It was a smash success, and they patented the coin apparatus.  By May 1890, the two men said, the 15 machines they had built had raked in $4,000, a huge sum for the times.  A booming business was born.

The flat-record disc as we know it already existed at that time, having been patented by Emile Berliner in 1888, but disc and cylinder players were both too expensive for the average home, so the coin-operated players exploded in popularity.  For the next 25 years or so, this was the record industry.  Near the turn of the century, the spring-driven machines began replacing live bands in the "juke joints" that proliferated near the cotton fields of the South, and thus the name was born: the jukebox. By the 1930's, the big-name manufacturers we know today began developing their effusive, bulbous wonder gizmos that dazzle the eye as well as the ear — the Rudolph Wurlitzer Co., the Rockola Manufacturing Co., AMI Inc. and the J.P. Seeburg Co.

In 1947, Seeburg came out with a durable mechanism that could manage 50 vinyl records, playing both sides of what were then big 78-rpm discs, thus offering 100 selections.  The modern jukebox era was born, and competition among operators was stiff.

"Years ago, you really had to be on your toes about it, because you would lose a location, easy," says Tom Blackwell, a jukebox operator in South Carolina who began one of his businesses when he was a teenager, around 1945.  "You had to keep the machines running real good, because there was too many people in the business. On jukeboxes, the main thing was changing records — keeping the new top records in there."

Blackwell kept up by reading Billboard. Most people think the record companies supplied the records, he says, "but that never happened."  Instead, he raced kids to the record shops when new hits would land, trying to keep about 1,000 machines stocked with the latest releases.

And every once in a while, he'd sell a jukebox to someone who wanted to put it in his home.  "They'd get 'em at Christmastime," he says, laughing, "but then they'd never play 'em unless they had company come over."

Which, for Don Muller, is the point:  The jukebox comes to life when you have company.

In the late '60s, Muller discovered a cache of 40 vintage jukes in a theater in Prescott, Ariz., and bought the whole lot for about $3 apiece.  He fixed them and began selling them to private individuals, to strip clubs (the girls could program their own songs) and to developers who'd put them in their model homes.

He began doing TV ads.  Quickly, he had a big shop in Phoenix and was buying and selling jukeboxes all over the country.

In the early '70's, he moved the operation to L.A. It's not out of line to say that the reason so many American homes have jukes in them today is because of Muller; his was the first business set up to put them into homes.

"My kids didn't go somewhere else to party," says Muller, who has sold more than 15,000 jukeboxes.

"They were here, and all their friends were here, and their parents knew they were here.  Now I go to their weddings, and they sit there and say, "The best time of my life was growing up at your house."  "I've had everyone up here from Martin Scorsese to Barbra Streisand, and everybody just loves the jukebox," says legendary music producer Richard Perry, seated in the rec room of his home above the Sunset Strip.  The Art Deco room has a bar and walls full of instruments and gold and platinum records. Like Muller, who sold him his 1978-79 Seeburg Disco jukebox, his primary interest is in the music.

"I was particularly fortunate to find this gem," he says, beaming.  "It sort of has an Art Deco look, like it belongs here.  This was the only sound source they used in the disco; they'd just crank it up.  This is probably the most powerful jukebox I've ever heard.  The room gets pumping when that thing is cranked."

As a demonstration, he turns up "Love TKO"; at 50 watts per channel, it's flapping the potted plants.  Plus, he affirms, the jukebox experience is hands-on fun. And everybody, himself included, loves to choose music.

"I dare you to name one person who doesn't find it fun to stand around the jukebox and be part of programming whatever music they want to hear," he says.

For Perry, who has produced albums for artists from Streisand to Ringo Starr to Carly Simon to the Pointer Sisters, and continues today to have huge hits with albums of standards by Rod Stewart, stocking the jukebox is an art unto itself.  His has 80 selections, and his standards are high.  He picks a song like Van Morrison's "Moondance," for instance.  "Come on; that's a song that's great to hear anytime, anywhere.  I strive to have every song as meaningful as that," he says.

So his machine is packed with '40s big-band classics such as Glenn Miller's "Moonlight Serenade," a smattering of doo-wop and lots of R&B, Sinatra and classic blues.  There are about 60 selections, he says, that he'll never change.  The other 20 slots, however, are for contemporary stuff, experiments. And don't try to tell him that a CD jukebox would give him more selections.

"The CD jukeboxes have hundreds and thousands of selections, and it leaves too much to someone else's potential bad taste," he says with a smile.

For others, taste may have other connotations.  Children of the alternative '80s and '90s find a jukebox can be an ideal display site for that offbeat record, keeping what might be a little-played record at your fingertips.

"When I was a kid and started to collect 45's, you had the little spindle where you could stack about five of them on your record player," L.A. music journalist Dan Epstein recalls, "and I just like remember going to restaurants where they had a jukebox and going, 'Oh, that would be so badass. I could put all my 45s in this thing and not have to take 'em in and out of their sleeves, just play 'em.'"

By the time he got his 1964 Wurlitzer about eight years ago, he had 3,000 to 4,000 singles.  Then his obsession exploded.

"Oh, God, yes! I probably bought like another 1,000 or 2,000 in the next five years.  From digging through 25-cent bins at used-record stores to going on eBay and tracking down MC5 and New York Dolls singles."

And the more obscure, the better. Epstein would change out the records every few months, adding rarities like "Naturally Stoned" by the Avant-Garde — game-show host Chuck Woolery's '60s psychedelic band — and "Break It All" by Los Shakers, Uruguay's version of the Beatles.

Though several people interviewed for this story admit, somewhat sheepishly, that their jukes have suffered because of their new devotion to the iPod, filmmaker and former Rhino Records artistic director Sam Epstein (no relation to Dan) claims nothing can usurp his 1958 Seeburg with 200 selections.  He's a die-hard collector of 45s, now owning more than 10,000, and contends the ideal sonic and aesthetic environment for discovering music is the jukebox.

"The 45 is the way it was originally intended, you know? For a lot of early rock 'n' roll, a lot of vintage vocalists, even the punk movement," Sam Epstein says.  "It's more organic than any of the digital media, especially if you get an old Motown 45, or an old Chess 45, and you hear Howlin' Wolf or Bo Diddley.  It's kind of like the whole box rumbles and the room rumbles, and it's different each time you play it."

Having been at Rhino more than 25 years, Sam Epstein also loves how what he calls "feeding the jukebox" leads him to new music.  His interests have led him to make a film about the blues, still in production, called "When Blue Men Sang the Whites." He'll ask friends going home to Nigeria to bring him fresh juju singles, or will set up his whole jukebox with Bakersfield country.

"For those who really like to play the records, this was the machine," Epstein says of the Seeburg.

Tom Blackwell points out this is an urge the downloadable or Internet jukebox may not scratch sufficiently.  He notes that all commercial jukeboxes have about 20 songs on them that are the hot sellers, the hits, and it's always been that way.  The Internet jukes offer so many songs, and such little editing, that they're actually not as fun.  So far, he understands, they're also not making much money.

Sam Epstein points out that this is exactly why the home jukebox is now so important. It's about selecting music, programming it.  The box keeps the 45 alive, and 45's keep whole genres of music alive.

"Pop music is always going to be about what sells," he says.  "And the whole fun of my jukebox is discovering things that were an obscurity — one of mine was Sugar Pie DeSanto.  She was a singer, a pal of Etta James, still lives up in San Francisco, putting out records.  You'll never find that stuff downloadable, or whatever.  It just doesn't make marketable sense.  It's kind of like the haphazard route of history."

LA Weekly October 2004
"Best of LA" issue


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