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Keeping the jukes jumping

Cover Story

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.

August 10, 2006|Dean Kuipers | Special to The Times

"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 '70s, 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 45s, 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."

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