Hot Line to Jesus

Edison's Speaking Phonograph

Connie Behrhorst at the Poodle Dog Lounge
photograph by John Carrico

"Its presence was essential to any hep establishment's success."

- Vincent Lynch, Jukebox: The Golden Years

There was a time, not so many years back, when I spent an awful lot of nights in the neon arms of the Deep Eddy Cabaret. I wasn't lonely and I wasn't mystical, as so many of your more spectacular barflies are, but I was enamored, taken with the late-night charms of that stalwart neighborhood watering hole: the cheap pitchers of Pabst, the hoarse laughter, the crack of the pool balls, and the wailing of Muddy Waters on the corner jukebox.

Of all these things, it was perhaps the Muddy Waters that kept me coming back. For I was sure of it then, as I am sure of it now: Deep Eddy has a fine, fine jukebox. In my time, I fed more than a few George Washingtons into that box's greedy wheels; in return it gave me B.B. King and Bob Wills, Bobby Darin and Bobby Bland, Ella, Sarah, and Peggy Lee, and I savored those tunes, as much, if not more, than the Pabst and the pool balls.

Such were my tastes, and if you heard Muddy's "She Moves Me" during those years, it's a good bet I put it on. A friend of mine, on the other hand, drank to the beat of a different drummer, and every time he sunk a dollar into that box he programmed in five straight Tom Waits tunes. There was no better fit, to his mind, than Tom Waits and the Deep Eddy Cabaret.

"Small Change got rained on by his own .38"

From Thomas Edison to Ernest Tubb: A Brief History of the Jukebox

photograph by John Carrico

The history of the jukebox goes back almost as far as the history of recorded sound. It was 1877 when Thomas Edison invented the tinfoil phonograph; a mistake, apparently - he was trying to invent the telegraph machine. Twelve years later, in 1889, Louis Glass installed the first coin-operated phonograph in his Palais Royale Saloon in San Francisco. There were no amplified speakers on his Edison Speaking Phonograph - customers listened through four acoustic listening tubes - but its success was both immediate and lucrative.

Other entrepreneurs followed suit, and in a short time, "automatic phonographs" could be found in fashionable entertainment parlors around the country, playing the tunes of John Philip Sousa or John Y. At Lee, a pre-eminent whistler of popular tunes. Edison, reportedly, was not amused: He insisted that his invention should be sold "for business purposes only."

"It is not," he was heard to sniff, "a toy."

After several flush years, the automatic phonograph's popularity waned, in danger of being pushed off the entertainment map by a newer novelty, the player piano. The innovations of the 1906 Gabel Automatic Entertainer revived the industry for a bit, but it wasn't until 1927 that the jukebox truly hit. In that year, the Automatic Music Instrument (AMI) Company introduced the first electrically amplified automatic phonograph - a critical technical leap and the first foray, according to those in the know, into genuine jukeboxdom. The electrified sound provided a considerable boost in volume, followed in turn by a considerable boost in sales.

"Suddenly," writes Vincent Lynch and Bill Henkin in 1981's Jukebox: The Golden Age, "the jukebox was capable of competing with loud orchestras. It could entertain large groups of people in large halls, all at once, for a nickel."

It was that cheap price - a nickel - that helped the jukebox survive, even thrive, during the coming Depression. In 1933, according to one source, there were approximately 25,000 jukeboxes in operation around the country; by 1938, there were around 300,000.

World War II provided another boost for the industry, as American jukeboxes figured prominently in the dance halls of homesick soldiers; AMI even developed a special packing crate to float jukeboxes to GIs on remote islands where the water was not deep enough for cargo ships to dock. The jukebox industry was flush with success, and a number of competing manufacturers regularly rolled out boxes of such beauty and style that they have become genuine collectors items: A restored Wurlitzer 1015, a 1946 model and the most popular box ever built, can fetch over $40,000 today.

It was a "golden age," according to collectors, and it came to an abrupt end in 1948 when the J.P. Seeburg Company rolled out the chunky, low-rent M100A, a squat and somewhat homely number, but the country's first 100-selection jukebox. A jukebox designer's nightmare, the Seeburg and its vast selection were a nickel-holder's dream, and by the mid-Fifties the jukebox industry was grossing $1 billion annually and becoming richly corrupt enough to warrant Senate hearings into Mafia racketeering in 1959.

Exactly when the jukebox came to Texas is a little more difficult to discern, but when it hit, it made a difference. The proliferation of jukeboxes in the American South is generally traced to 1935, although it's likely a few stray boxes made it into Texas at an earlier date. Charlie Fitch, one of the area's first jukebox operators and a 50-year veteran of the industry, recalls seeing his first jukebox in San Antonio in 1939; that same year he opened for business in Yoakum with a small collection of jukeboxes that held perhaps a dozen 78s each. By the early Forties, jukeboxes were a fixture in Texas roadhouses, and they proceeded to play a critical role in shaping Texas music, spreading the emerging "honky-tonk" sound to a widespread working class audience eager for a little lowbrow music.

Texicalli Grill's Danny Young

photograph by John Carrico

In fact, the jukebox was one of the most democratic forums of the era - "one nickel, one vote," in Eric Boehlert's terms - and it helped folk music of all sorts reach a large audience despite the indifference of radio and the major recording companies of the day. Blues, "zodico," and hillbilly music all received a boost, but it wasn't all wholesome stuff on those roadhouse boxes: In the late Thirties, the popularity of dirty ditties moved Rock-Ola's president to declare smut records "public enemy number one." (The Rock-Ola name, incidentally, is not an ad man's inspiration: the jukeboxes are named after company founder David C. Rockola, a native Canadian who was manufacturing jukeboxes 20 years before the term "rock & roll" was coined.)

In Country Music, U.S.A., historian Bill Malone suggests that the jukebox played a significant role in the evolution of country music as well. Tavern owners, many of whom depended on the jukebox for the evening's entertainment, reportedly complained to Decca Records that they couldn't hear their Ernest Tubb records after business picked up at night - the din of the honky-tonk overpowering the twang of Tubb's acoustic guitar. At his next recording session, Tubb asked Fay "Smitty" Smith to join him on electric guitar; he also instructed sideman Jimmie Short to attach an electric pickup to his Martin acoustic.

"Ernest Tubb thus became one of the first country performers to feature an electric guitar," Malone writes, and other players soon followed suit. The emergence of the resonant and rhythmic string bass is traced to the same tavern owners' complaint, and honky-tonk ain't looked back since.

A Disorderly Life


photograph by John Carrico

Does George Jones know all this? Does he care? It's his music I'm listening to at the Horseshoe Lounge, after all - his electric guitar and amplified bass. Patrons of the South Austin watering hole do not. Their thoughts are in other places - furtive, sloppy, beer-soaked places. I've been to those places. George Jones warbles his encouragement to them, as Muddy did to me.

Perhaps we're onto something: The word jukebox is derived from the black Southern slang "juke," which variously means to dance, to get it on, to lead a "disorderly life." This is not, I submit, a coincidence. It's easy to think, when it comes to jukeboxes, that there are no coincidences: It's all fate.

At the Horseshoe, a man to my left, drunk, lonely, has grasped the arm of a passing woman. "There's somethin' about a lady's hand that affects me," he says.

The Eagles are playing. Coincidence? Later, an argument erupts between the bartender and a patron. The Righteous Brothers are playing - "Unchained Melody," of course. The two men glare at each other. Even the Brothers' soaring lead can't cut the tension. Coincidence? You start to wonder.

It's the end of the lunch hour, and I'm sitting at the Texicalli Grill, waiting to talk to owner Danny Young, to find out about his love for his jukebox. He's got a good box - from Johnny Otis to Link Wray, Judy Garland to Laika and the Cosmonauts - but it's not on right now. Instead, there's the rattle and hum of the dishwasher, small talk coming from the corners. It ain't right. I'm digging for quarters when the jukebox comes on, a random tune designed to draw customers. It's Bobby Bland, "Turn on Your Love Light." I start tapping my fingers.

"Just a little bit higher," sings Bland.

My feet are tapping now.

"Just a little bit higher, just a little bit higher. I said, come on please. I'm down on my knees. Come on please."


It's nighttime, getting late, but I want to stop in on Ginny's Little Longhorn, a small but affecting old Austin bar that bills itself as "the honkiest-tonkiest beer joint" in town. I have learned in my research that, like "jukebox," "honky-tonk" is a word that derives from black Southern slang. A "tonk," in those days, was a beer joint. You can imagine, then, what sort of clientele a honky-tonk served. As I walk in Ginny's front door, Dwight Yoakam is playing on the jukebox - "I Sang Dixie."

"Oh, way down yonder in the land of cotton ..."


So You Want Your Own Jukebox?

photograph by John Carrico

If you want a jukebox in your joint, you're gonna have to go through one of Austin's vendors. Standard Vending, Call Vending, Capitol Amusement are listed in the Yellow Pages, and there are others. Any one of 'em will put a box in your bar on commission. The cost of owning your own is prohibitive. (Ever try to fix a jukebox?) Even on commission, they're a pretty good moneymaker, though. The standard operating agreement is 50/50: Half of the take goes to the vendor, half to the bar owner. The money's not outrageous - at four minutes a song and four songs to $1, there's only so many dollars that can go into a jukebox each night. Still, it's relatively hassle-free.

Before the first quarter drops, though, the box must be licensed by the Jukebox Licensing Office, a three-person outfit out of Nashville, Tennessee. The current cost to license a box is $318 a year; after the first, however, the fee drops to $60. In turn, the JLO uses that fee to pay royalties to its parent organizations ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC - although how much of that money actually makes it into musicians' hands is unclear. (If you're not a member of one of those licensing organizations and your music's on the box, well, the technical term is "givin' the shit away.")

As with any regulatory body, the JLO has been known to chap a few asses, and ASCAP is not above prosecuting clubowners for running unlicensed jukeboxes. Ask a club owner or vendor about the JLO or ASCAP, and you'd be surprised how many times the word "Mafia" comes up. Ask a songwriter and you'll likely get a different answer. In addition to the loan and the license, most vending companies are willing to stick their own music on your box as well.

"When I first got the thing," says Danny Young of his Texicalli box, "I told 'em they could put anything on there except that Beach Boys crap. Told 'em they could put that on there when I moved to California. Come around, two days before opening, they roll it in and it's got three Beach Boys songs on it. I told 'em to roll it right back out."

He's not had any trouble since, but even so, about two-thirds of the records are his own.

According to Rick Wallin of Call Vending, the most successful jukeboxes are the most eccentric jukeboxes. He says his boxes do well at places like Deep Eddy, Casino El Camino, the Poodle Dog Lounge, and Emo's - places where the management and employees pick their own music to suit the bar. Casino proprietor Casino Eighmey puts all his own stuff on the jukebox, as do the folks at Lovejoy's and Emo's. All of them credit a rotating, diverse selection as key to keeping patron interest high:

"It's one thing to have a good jukebox," Lovejoy's manager Kerry Mosser says. "It's another to keep it a good jukebox."

Wallin, for his part, is happy to put on whatever his customers want - no questions asked. But it's not always that way. Eric "Emo" Hartman was able to get the Butthole Surfers' Locust Abortion Technician album onto the box at his Houston club, but at a price: When he installed the offensive disc, his vendor's secretary refused to type a selection card for it.

"From then on," says Hartman, "we had to write out all of our cards."

The Jukebox as Filter: A Case Study

Frances Lala of Lala's

photograph by John Carrico

I'll say it now, and I'll say it flat out: the jukebox at Lala's (formerly Lala's Little Nugget) is the best damn bargain in the city. Normally 10 plays to $1, when the special bonus light is lit, you get 14. Fourteen songs for a $1. And the selection, oh the selection: Glenn Miller, Conway Twitty, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, the Ink Spots, Connie Francis, Tommy Dorsey. Ray Price, Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline. Gin-drinking music. An exception, according to the "microcomputed" display on the box, is the bar's Number One favorite tune: Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind." That's a beer-drinking song if I ever heard one.

It's "Always on My Mind" that's playing when I walk into Lala's, pull up a stool, and order a cold one. Not bad. Then comes Englebert Humperdinck, "After the Lovin'." Then Ray Charles, "Always on My Mind." And still 11 cuts to go on that $1.

"We try to keep it low-key so people can talk," explains Frances Lala, proprietor of the joint and something of a low-key person herself. Most of the albums on Lala's box are her own, and her tastes haven't changed much in the 26 years she's been open. In that time, she figures, she's worn out quite a bit of vinyl, including seven or eight copies of Ray Price's "For the Good Times." When the last one broke, she didn't bother to replace it; figured it had run its course.

Of course, it's not only about her tastes; Lala sees her low-key jukebox as a filter. Glenn Miller and Conway Twitty attract a laid-back crowd, folks out for a quiet cocktail and a place to talk. The rowdies, she says, stay away.

"They can't take the quiet," says bartender Sarah Santos, "and they leave."

Lala agrees: "The louder any music is, the more hyper people are. This music here helps keep the peace."

Lala points out that in 26 years she's never had the police come to her place. But the Poodle Dog, she says, with its rowdy music on the jukebox, the Poodle Dog probably has the police up there once a week. Ambulance too.

"Police? Oh sure there's police. They come in here all the time."

I'm at the Poodle Dog now, talking to a couple of regulars who have declined to give their names on account of possible parole violations.

"The jukebox? I've seen fights over the jukebox, sure."

The guy on the right - we'll call him "Dave" - remembers a time when some young buck got liquored up and more than a little sore about the song selection on the jukebox. He went over to the box, pulled it from the wall, and proceeded to use his pool cue to hit the "reject" button on the back of the box. Skipped that song and skipped a few more, too.

The man who played the songs, naturally, took offense. He took offense, I'm told, in a loud and unkind way. Words were exchanged. Somehow or another, the pool cue got involved again, brought down this time on the top of someone's head. Dave can't remember exactly why. We discuss bar fights we've seen where pool cues have been used. Ugly stuff, we agree.

There are no fights going on - pool cue or no - when I come into the Poodle Dog. Came right through the front door, a dead giveaway that I wasn't a regular. It was early yet, 8:45pm on a Tuesday night. Three folks at the bar: Two are somewhat lively, a third looks plain miserable down at the end of the bar. The jukebox isn't on yet, the television silent. The place is a crypt. I walk in, pull up a stool, and order a cold one.

"What you doin'?" the man to my left asks, eyeing my notebook. "Writing a thesis on alcoholics in the American South?" He smiles.

I like him. We'll call him "Rick." I take a drink from my beer and settle in my seat. God, it's quiet. Depressing even. We sit and stare at our beer cans, watch a little baseball on the muted screen. Sigh. Would a little Bob Wills help? I'm about to make a move for the box when a large and exuberant man enters through the back door, claps backs all around, buys a cold one for himself and for the only woman in the bar.

"Now we're gonna hear some rock & roll!," he hollers, heading straight to the jukebox. "Can anyone guess what it's gonna be?"

There's general discussion, some curses against old country, Van Halen. I'm worried about Supertramp; I know it's on the box. His quarters drop and the jukebox kicks to life. A guitar screams through the nearly empty room, an instantly recognizable lick. Another scream, and then John Lennon.

"You say you want a revolution ... "

The patrons sit back, grin, take a sip of beer. The silence is broken. The large exuberant man returns to the bar and starts chattin' up the bartender. Folks fall to talkin' all around him. Soon enough, even I'm in the act.

"... And you know it's gonna be, alright ..."

Deep Eddy Cabaret

photograph by John Carrico

The Revolution is long since over when another regular, not as large, not as exuberant, walks in the back door (of course). He heads straight to the bar and specifies a "cold Miller." Santana is playing.

"Hey, man," the alcoholic in the American South known as Rick hollers at the cold Miller man. "Let's say you was gonna put something on the jukebox right now. What would it be?"

I've told Rick about my research.

"Something on the jukebox," says the cold Miller man turning toward us. "Okay. First I'd put on number 1110, Tom Petty, `You Got Lucky.' Then 1112, `I Won't Back Down,' then 1114, `Free Falling.'"

He's not anywhere near the jukebox. This is all from memory.

"Then I'd play 1203, George Strait, `One Night at a Time.' How many selections I got?"

"As many as you want."

"Then I'd have to play 2210, `She Talks to Angels,' the Black Crowes. Then 2310, Def Leppard, `Hysteria.' Then I'd play 0706, `Old Man,' Neil Young. Then 7104, Hootie and the Blowfish, `Only Wanna Be With You.' And last - I always play it last - 9903: `The Lemon Song.' Led Zep. Of course, I could play more."

Nine selections he's given me, in under half a minute. I am scribbling furiously. Later that night, I go to check his accuracy. He's gotten seven of the nine numbers right. The other two are off by only one digit. We get to talking. He's a good guy, and he knows his jukebox. He also knows the exact amount of the Austin city fine for public intoxication: $76.50. It crosses my mind that Frances Lala is probably right: He can't stand Conway Twitty. And he doesn't go to Lala's.

Patsy Cline and the Kill Button

Archer Nielson of the Carousel Lounge

"There are some people, when you see them at the jukebox, you can tell exactly what's coming on."

That's Archer Nielson of the Carousel Lounge, and she's just revealed something of a trade secret. For all their independence of spirit, the jukebox crowd is a pretty predictable lot. They all have patterns: Willie Nelson, Muddy Waters, "The Lemon Song." And likely as not, if they've got a pattern, it includes Patsy Cline.

I talked to a Deep Eddy bartender once, years ago, who told me that she loved Patsy Cline, loved her to pieces, but she could no longer stand to hear "Crazy" or "Walkin' After Midnight." Heard 'em too many times at the bar. When she played Patsy Cline at home, she told me, she programmed her player to skip those songs.

She's not alone.

In 1996, the Amusement and Music Operators Association (AMOA) released a list of the Top 40 Jukebox Singles of All Time. Number One on the list was "Crazy." It's Number Two at Lala's, according to the microcomputer. All over town, if there's Patsy Cline on the jukebox, she gets played. Every night. Bank on it. Bet on "Crazy" if they have it, and they will.

"It's the most versatile song," explains Danny Young, admitting that the Cline single gets a lot of play on the Texicalli jukebox. "From the three-piece suits from the City Council to the Nazi skate punks to the lesbian softball team - everybody plays `Crazy.'"

The AMOA list contains a number of other jukebox chestnuts as well: Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock & Roll" places second, Elvis Presley's "Hound Dog" third. "Mack the Knife" and "Born to Be Wild" round out the Top Five. They obviously didn't talk to many Texans, however, as Willie Nelson isn't even on the list. David Allan Coe's "You Never Even Called Me by My Name," on the other hand, comes in at 23rd, one slot shy of Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light."

Cline, Seger, and Elvis - the bane of any bartender? Maybe, maybe not, but there is a way to stop those Unchained Melodies (15th on the list, by the way): the kill button. Bartenders rarely speak of it, and when they do they use hushed tones, but almost every bar has a kill button wired within easy reach of the barkeep. Ostensibly used to bounce skipping discs or shut down the box at the end of the night, it can also be used to kill a song that a bartender doesn't like. I've been killed before - for playing Sam Cooke, of all things - and believe me, it hurts.

Few bartenders admit to using the kill button, on the grounds that their customers deserve to listen to what they pay for, regardless of how the barkeep feels about it. A noble sentiment, but it must be awfully tempting when the opening riffs for "Born to Be Wild" come on for the fifth time in a night - for the fifth day in a row, for the fifth week in a row. Inger Olson of Deep Eddy is quick to insist that she only uses the kill button when a disc is skipping, but when pressed, she reveals that she's killed the Allman Brothers' "Mountain Jam" a few times.

"It's a 20-minute song," she says, but she needn't convince me. I'm glad she does it. Kerry Mosser has used the Lovejoy's kill button exactly once.

"I killed some Sting song," he says.

He thinks it was the jazz version of "Roxanne," and claims one of the managers told him to do it. The folks at the bar immediately started booing, and owner Chip Tait came and bitched Mosser out for killing a customer's song.

"The guy was sitting right in front of me, too," says Mosser. "I've never felt so bad. I never used the kill button again."

Of course, not all bartenders are so sensitive to their customer's feelings; Emo Hartman had to disconnect the kill button in the Houston Emo's after too many patrons complained that their songs were getting axed by his staff. When it came time to outfit the Austin Emo's, he dispensed with the button altogether. A better solution, most box owners agree, is to never let things go that far.

"I remove 'em before it gets to that point," says Casino El Camino proprietor Casino Eighmey. He gives the example of ABBA's "Dancing Queen," a song that was getting played five times a night when Casino first opened.

"It drove us crazy. I had to take it off."

Lovejoy's once endured a night when someone came in and played an entire ELO album, track for track; a fine stunt once, but a dangerous precedent.

"Without question," Mosser says, "we took it off."

Danny Young has another solution to the overkill problem: He never puts on a song he might get tired of.

"Regardless whether I hear it five times in one night or once in five years, it's still a good song." Even "Crazy," he says.

The Fine Art of Atmosphere

Some JukeboxI'm still at the Poodle Dog. I've been trying to leave, but the regulars are buying me beers, and I've got no heart to turn 'em down. Besides, I'm having a good time. We've gotten through the Beatles and Santana, and I've gotten a hold of the jukebox and plugged in some old blues. Things have gotten a little serious at my end of the bar; Dave is telling a friend that he never sees his ex-wife anymore, because she's under house arrest.

"You got the kids?" another fellow asks.

"She's got the kids," he answers. "I just pay for them."

As he says this there's a slow blues on, John Lee Hooker's "I Cover the Waterfront." You'd think it would work, but it doesn't - not at the Poodle Dog. I've been trying to stretch the boundaries a little bit, but I think I've just overstepped them. If Dave wanted to drink his beers to John Lee Hooker, he wouldn't be here. Not regularly, anyway.

It reminds me of the time I played a long Miles Davis cut at the Poodle Dog. It was a crowded house, and when Miles came on, everyone looked up, or at least it felt like they did. I was pegged as the culprit: Just from the looks of me you could tell I had done it. I got some steely stares that night. Next time I came in, I noticed the tune was no longer on the box.

Tonight, when Muddy Waters comes on, I wince. I've never winced to Muddy before. Finally my set ends. An Aerosmith anthem comes on in its place, big guitars and big vocals, a cryin' song, but full of swagger. Much better. Think I'll stick around a while. I got a beer "in the hole," after all (courtesy of John), and at least there ain't no more of that damn blues on the jukebox. This here is a rock & roll bar.

That's what its about, really, the way a bar's vibe and its jukebox intertwine. It's a dynamic relationship, bound by no set rules. Deep Eddy, with its diverse box, can feel like a seedy dive one minute, a honky-tonk the next, and a blues bar the next - and in each case it works. That's the beauty of it. Nevertheless, there are certain lines you shouldn't cross. You shouldn't play Journey at a punk bar, you shouldn't play Hammer at a honky-tonk, and you shouldn't play Miles Davis at the Poodle Dog, even if he is on the box.

Jukebox music is the "energy of the room," in Emo Hartman's words. It creates the mood, refines the feel. It's instant atmosphere, whether that's Tom Waits, Beck, or Ella Fitzgerald. This hits me most clearly on my visit to Casino El Camino. The Casino jukebox is something of a local legend, winner of the "Best Jukebox" category in the Chronicle's Best of Austin poll for two years running. It's "the heart of the bar," in Casino Eighmey's terms, a wonderfully diverse jukebox that pulls its music from many traditions without pulling crap from any of them (well, there is that Doors' disc ... ).

"It's the crème de la crème of several different genres," boasts Eighmey. "You hear Tammy Wynette next to Nirvana and it works in a weird way."

When I come by to talk to Eighmey, it is 4:03pm on a Friday afternoon. The Casino has been open for precisely three minutes. Eighmey's still checking the books. The opening credits for the closed-captioned Spartacus haven't even run yet. With its dark walls, pulp movie posters, and gothic gargoyles staring from stray corners, the Casino is all about atmosphere, a hip joint in hip digs. Without music, however, it feels cold and empty. What to do?

I pull up a barstool and order a cold one. Eighmey comes over and soon we're talking jukeboxes. The conversation runs from Gerry Mulligan to Dean Martin to Frances Lala's concept of the jukebox as filter (Eighmey agrees with her, although his box is designed to attract a different crowd). A good conversation, but just talkin' about jukeboxes isn't quite satisfying, and I think we both know it. Moments later we are standing over the jukebox.

"You gotta hear this," Eighmey tells me, and a few button punches later, the room is filled with the sweet gospel harmonies of the Rance Allen Group - and I do mean filled; the Casino's got some serious speakers wired to their box. "Hot Line to Jesus" is the cut, and it's steeped in soul. Just like that, the place is sanctified, possessed of a whole new feel, bathed in the bliss of Rance Allen's voice. Now we can get on about our business.

CD or Not CD? That Is the Question

In his sometimes precious but still readable book Jukebox America, wandering box hunter Bill Bunch writes, "The industry has hailed the CD jukebox as its salvation, because it can increase the number of song selections as much as tenfold, but the image of `choice' that they present is actually a sham."

To which I would respond, "Sham, my ass." How the "image of choice" might be a sham is beyond me. The typical 45 jukebox can hold 200 songs; a typical CD jukebox holds well over 1,000. The difference, to my mind, is not just about quantity: It's about the chance to play off-tracks, the chance to play the songs that weren't hits but deserve a good listen anyway. The difference is playing B.B. King's "3 O'Clock Blues" instead of "The Thrill is Gone." It's playing Woody Herman's "Lemon Drop" instead of "Woodchopper's Ball." And yes, it's playing Patsy Cline's "Leavin' on Your Mind" instead of "Crazy" - if anyone would ever do that.

Back in the Forties, Homer Capehart, general sales manager for Wurlitzer Jukeboxes, predicted that 24 selections was "all the music we'll ever need on a jukebox." It took the Seeburg M100A to prove him wrong. I suspect Bill Bunch and his conservative instinct will also be proven wrong. There's something to be said for nostalgia, I'll admit, but there's more to be said for Rance Allen and his "Hot Line to Jesus." I don't reckon that song ever made it to a 45. Even if it did, it likely wouldn't have made it to Austin, and certainly not to a Sixth Street jukebox. I rest my case.

Then again, the times are still a-changin', so there's no point in declaring a winner yet. Even as you read this, visitors to Cleveland's Rock & Roll Hall of Fame may be punching in numbers on the Hall's 27,000-song jukebox. It's all done with computers and data compression - "shrinking audio," they call it - and each digitized song is rendered at 1/11th its original megabyte allotment. It's "indistinguishable from the original CD," they tell us, but I'll have to hear it first.

Still to come is a predicted explosion of "off-site" jukeboxes, now being tested in 20 cities nationwide. Instead of holding actual discs, off-site jukeboxes download digitized songs over high-speed phone lines and from satellite transmissions. A central computer in Dallas holds in its hard drive a selection of over 5,000 songs (still no word on the availability of the Butthole Surfers). Someday, all of recorded creation may be on those computers, and you just might be able to download a track of frogs mating, but I wouldn't suggest it at the Poodle Dog.

There are those, of course, who will never go over to the digitized side, never sell out the vinyl that's seen them through all these years. Danny Young, for one, seems little impressed by the advances in jukebox technology: In fact, he's looking for an older jukebox, a "post-Sputnik, early space age jukebox," as he puts it, with its rocket-fueled idealism and futuristic design. Until he finds it, he'll stick with his own, a Rowe 200-selection 45 jukebox that once served time at the Broken Spoke.

"CD jukeboxes give me the creeps," he says. "I can't stand to listen to Chuck Berry clean. I need buzz."


I still make it down to Deep Eddy on occasion, and half the time I do, I pull Katie Webster's "Pussycat Moan" off the Alligator compilation on the jukebox. It's the kind of song, I like to think, that pins people's ears back to their head - something they've never heard that changes them somehow, makes them hop up from the table to find out what it is. It's the jukebox-plugger's greatest victory, a moment of supreme justification, to see some newly saved soul flipping the cards to see just what it was you played, to turn 'em on to something new.

Above all else, the jukebox is a shared experience, and there's something almost sacred in that sharing. A long time ago, in Goleta, California, I introduced a sad bartender in a shabby hole-in-the-wall country bar to Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," a helluva song that had probably sat on that jukebox for two years without ever being played. A risk, sure, but it worked. I will never forget the look in that bartender's eyes; for her part, she said she'd never forget me. Gave me a free beer, too.

I'm living on old glory, I know, but still it makes me feel good. And I've returned the favor, many times. Been sittin' at a bar and some song comes on and pins my ears to the back of my head, throws me out of my chair and up to the box to see what it is. Somewhere in the room someone's watching me, drawing no small measure of satisfaction from the sight. That makes me feel good, too - I admit it. 'Tis blessed both to give and to receive, and if you're not willing to learn something from a jukebox, well... the hell with you, then.

Strong words, I know, but enough time on barstools will make anyone ornery. Perhaps it's time I get on. What's that I hear? Johnny Cash? Queen Ida? Bill Monroe? Ah hell, I got time. Barkeep, another roll of quarters and another beer.

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