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Remembering Record Store Owner Bob Koester


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to remember the influential record store owner and producer Bob Koester, who founded Delmark Records. He died last week at the age of 88. Terry interviewed him in 2003 when the label celebrated its 50th anniversary with the release of a double CD. It included this track by the first band recorded by Delmark, the Windy City Six.


BIANCULLI: Back in 1952, driven by his passion for jazz and blues and in need of a place to park his collection of 2,000 albums, 17-year-old Bob Koester opened the Jazz Record Mart in St. Louis. A year later, he started Delmark Records, which went on to release records by such blues and jazz artists as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sleepy John Estes, Otis Rush and Sun Ra. Koester said his record store was, for him, like an overgrown hobby. In 1958, he moved the Jazz Record Mart to Chicago, where it became a well-known gathering place for musicians, music lovers and tourists.

Over the years, Koester was a mentor and father figure for many Chicago musicians, and he was considered one of the major forces behind the blues revival in the mid-'60s. He also captured early examples of avant garde jazz. When they spoke in 2003, Terry asked about one of his earliest releases.


TERRY GROSS: Why was Big Joe Williams willing to record for you, Bob Koester, who at the time was a very young, inexperienced producer with very little track record?

BOB KOESTER: Well, whether he was on Delmark or BJ or Trumpet, he was getting union scale. And the sad fact was his records weren't selling very well. I think he was intrigued with the idea of being on an LP.

GROSS: Was this his first LP?

KOESTER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: He'd made 78s some 45s years before that?

KOESTER: It came close to being the first LP of Mississippi country blues.

GROSS: This is a great track. Why don't we hear this 1958 recording featuring Big Joe Williams doing "Midnight Creep"? Now, this is actually a previously unreleased. I think it was recorded for that first LP that you were referring to, but it wasn't released as part of it. Why not?

KOESTER: We just never had the money. Joe was just a fountain. It's just like turning on a water tap. The music would come pouring out. And he would record an enormous amount of material at every session. And you just had to go through and pull out what you felt worked together as an album. You try to program an album, you know, for - and I was trying to program an album toward ears that weren't yet geared to blues. You never needed second takes with Big Joe Williams.

GROSS: OK. Well, here it is from 1958, Big Joe Williams, "Midnight Creep."


BIG JOE WILLIAMS: Lord, (unintelligible). Said she left this morning. (Unintelligible) did nothing wrong. Well, her feet like walking, baby talking all night. Well, her feet like walking, baby talking all night. Well, the woman that love me, she sure don't treat me right. Well, I wonder where my baby darling is home. Well, I wonder where my baby darling is home. She been gone, left me, now I sure don't feel (unintelligible). I got 19 women. Lord, I want one more.

GROSS: That's Big Joe Williams recorded in 1958. That track is featured on the new Delmark Records 50th anniversary anthology. You know, if that - if the guitar playing sounded a little unusual on that, it's because - it's - one reason is because Joe - Big Joe Williams played a nine-string guitar. Tell us a little bit about that guitar.

KOESTER: Well, Joe got tired of people borrowing his guitar or just picking it up between sets and playing it. So he rigged up the nine string. It was, I think, to some extent, a gimmick. And he apparently had some kind of strange tuning that other people couldn't cope with. That had a lot to do - that's what he says was the reason. But, of course, he developed a unique sound eventually.

GROSS: It sounds like a pretty weird reason to start playing a nine-string guitar.

KOESTER: Well, those guitars were usually his most valuable possession, and he didn't want people messing with it.

GROSS: Some - you know, some of the people who've worked in your record store have gone on to be, you know, record producers or recording artists. One of the people who worked in your record store, Bruce Iglauer, who founded Alligator Records, which is a blues label in Chicago - and in an article about you, he was quoted as saying - saying about you - "he's terribly argumentative. He hardly says anything nice about anybody. But he's just as generous as hell. He almost fired me a couple of times, mostly for good reasons. And at the same time, he was extraordinarily nice to me. It's hard to explain. Bob will snarl at people. He used to break 78s over his employees' heads." So I want to hear about you breaking 78s over your employees' heads.

KOESTER: Oh, well, we always have 78s sort of worthless. And 78s break pretty good, pretty well. I always made sure they weren't Columbia's 'cause Columbia's had paper lamination. It would have made them a deadly weapon - or Edisons, which are terrible. Well, Edisons are too valuable. I don't think I did that very often. And it was pretty much a jovial thing. And they were probably records that were cracked anyway. Happily, nobody got hurt.

GROSS: Did you ever break a 78 over somebody's head and realize years later that it was actually a decent 78 and was worth a lot of money?

KOESTER: No, I always made sure it was something by Perry Como.

GROSS: (Laughter).

KOESTER: Perry Como was on Victor. They're the most brittle, breakable records ever made in that period.

GROSS: What did you grow up listening to, and how were you exposed to it?

KOESTER: Well, I - my grandfather had a collection of classical 78s. He died when I was very young. But when we moved into his house, the records were still there. And that was one by the original Dixieland jazz band and one by another group, the California Ramblers or something. That was probably the first jazz records I played. But I had polio in sixth grade. And I heard the Eddie Condon show Saturday afternoon jam session, and that had a lot to do with it. But that was - when I was growing up, it was the tail end of this big band swing era.

That's the only time when jazz was the popular music in this country, roughly 1935 to the middle '40s. So I got to hear a lot of Basie - not a lot of Basie and Ellington. They didn't get that much airplay in the Jim Crow days. But I got to hear a lot of Woody Herman and Charlie Barnett and some Basie. I was able to go see Basie at the Miller Theatre. I guess that's the first live jazz I ever heard, Jimmy Rushing still singing with him. That must have been '47 or '48, something like that.

GROSS: Did music keep you company when you were stuck at home with polio?

KOESTER: Well, I wasn't - by the time it - I kept looking for good jazz when I was in the hospital. When I got home, I didn't want to be around the house. I wanted to get the heck out and around. And I was encouraged to ride bicycles and - you know, to put my legs back into shape.

GROSS: Well, we should end with a jazz recording. I should ask you if you have a favorite from the 50th anniversary collection that you'd like to play.

KOESTER: The stuff I'm most proud of is that Roscoe Mitchell and the other AACM records, a part of the catalog that I think is our most important contribution to jazz. We did the first AACM record, the first Roscoe, the first Braxton, the first Muhal.

GROSS: And AACM is the - what's the acronym?

KOESTER: Oh, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. This was a group of self-determinist avant-garde musicians in Chicago in the - started in the early '60s and gave birth to all these guys that I mentioned and many, many more.

GROSS: And it was the genesis of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

KOESTER: Right, yeah. I think that was the most important music happening anywhere in the world at that time. I mean, it had its counterparts in Kansas City, St. Louis and New York, Boston, Philly and so forth and it - later in Europe. But I think it's our most important contribution. But I have to say, I really enjoy the older stuff more.


GROSS: So you think...

KOESTER: I'm very, very proud of our six sessions with - six albums with Art Hodes. He's the only really great musician from the '20s that we took in the studio. We got a lot of good Earl Hines down (ph).

GROSS: So you're proudest of giving some of the Chicago avant-gardists their start, but your heart is really with Art Hodes, the stride piano player (laughter).

KOESTER: Well, when I when I go to a - an avant-garde concert now, I can get into the music a lot better. But I like a drink now and then when I'm listening to music, and it's not really drinking man's music (laughter). It's thinking man's music.

BIANCULLI: Record store owner and producer Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records, speaking to Terry Gross in 2003. He died last week at age 88.


BIANCULLI: After a break, I review two new sci-fi TV shows, "Solos" and "The Bite." This is FRESH AIR.


Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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