Bob Koester

Delmark Record Story #108 [English]

Bob Koester

There aren’t enough days in the week for Bob Koester. Monday to Friday you can find him either at Delmark Record’s new offices and studio in the Northside of Chicago, or at his nearby Collectors Record Mart, a used-LP shop and the former home of the Delmark operations, with its backroom piled high with LP jackets and Koester’s large collection of old films. And on the weekends, he’s manning the back room at his downtown Jazz Record Mart (JRM), the largest jazz and blues shop in the world, which he has been running for the last 37 years. It’s been a long time since Delmark and the JRM were one-man operations, but the dean of Chicago blues recording still sticks to what he calls his six and a half day work week, though now less out of necessity than because of his lifelong passion for blues and jazz.

”I´m doing what I like,” Koester offered simply, as I followed him through the organized mess of the Collector’s Record Mart earlier this year. ”1 even kind of enjoy the shit work,” he added, referring to his day’s tasks of pulling small LP orders and shrink-wrapping new CDs. As someone who has hand-built and kept afloat an independent label for over 40 years, Koester knows well that the record business isn’t all romance, and that success and survival require close attention to the small details. Or as he puts it, Tm not an employee, so no job is a menial task.”

Koester doesn’t get out to see live music as much as he used to, but as someone whose been actively checking out and recording the jazz and blues scene for over four decades he’s probably got enough memories to supply an army of music fans. The blues artists he has recorded over the years make up a real who’s who of the blues world- Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Junior Wells, Buddy Guy, Sunnyland Slim, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Jimmy Dawkins,

J.B. Hutto, Big Joe Williams, Arthur ”Big Boy” Crudup, •<; Carey Bell, Luther Allison, Lonnie Brooks, Yank Rachell, Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, Speckled Red, just to name a few. And on the jazz side of things, Delmark runs the spectrum, its catalog — equally as large as the blues catalog, with about 80 records! -containing everything from vintage New Orleans jazz to the experimental sounds of the Chicago avante-garde scene of the 1960’s, with it’s releases consistently highly-rated.

Although many of the greats Koester has recorded have passed on to blues heaven, he’s not stuck on thinking about the ”good old days” – there’s too much recording of new, and older, talent to be done. Like other blues-oriented record companies Delmark has benefitted from the ”blues boom” of recent years, and has expanded both physically — the Delmark House with its 24-track studio was purchased three years ago – and in terms of its catalog, which is growing in both number and diversity. On my recent visit to the studio and all the Delmark facilities it was clear that the staff were overworked hut enthusiastic, and were, as they noted in the recent 40th anniversary jau and blues samplers, ready for another 40 years.

The history of Delmark Records stretches back to 1956, when Koester began selling jazz 78s by mail IVom his college dormitory room in St. Louis, Missouri. His initial entry into the record business was with a ten inch UP of a local dixieland revival group which he released in 1954, a time when he recalls the trad jazz scene as being quite vibrant, marked by the rediscovery of artists from jau’ first generations. The label’s initial logo Delmar was christened after the swinging street in St. Louis bearing that name, and the ”k* was only added after encountering trademark problems in the early 1960’s, by which time the operation had moved to Chicago, where Koester opened a record store in 1957.

Delmar’s first venture into the blues came in 1956, when Koester recorded a session with former Bluebird artist Speckled Red (Rufus Perryman). Koester found Red after he was contacted by a member of the St. Louis police department, Charlie O’Brien, who wanted his help in tracking down jazz and blues musicians who had recorded in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Their efforts paid off, with other artists they found including J.D. Short and Red’s former labelmnte Big Joe Williams. Reversing the cliche of white enthusiasts ’’discovering* or “rediscovering” artists, Koester noted in a recent Delmark compilation that ”Big Joe Williams discovered Boh Koester”, suggesting that the guitarist “could smell a record deal 50 miles away”. Indeed, after making his first “blues revival” record with Koester, Williams made his way into the catalogs of many of the small blues labels which popped up during the late 1950’s and 1960´s

Delmark artists

The 1950’s recordings of Speckled Red and Williams were not released until the early 1960’a, when Delmark began its ”Roots of Jazz” (600) blues series, whose first eleven releases were of older bluesmen such as pianists Curtis Jones and Roosevelt Sykes, Sleepy John Estes, who Koester ”rediscovered”, and Estes’ long time partner Yank Rachell. Amazingly, Estes’ brother worked in a store next to Koester’s first Chicago location something which Koestor only learned after he first brought the bluesman to Chicago, when Estes asked to be taken to the address next to the store. Although he had noted the brother’s last name before. Koester never seriously considered the idea that they might be related, and suggests that if he had only once jokingly called the man ”Sleepy* he might have found the Brownsville blues crew years earlier,

The name of the blues series – ”Roots of Jazz* – reflects both Koester’s continual emphasis of the close relation between jazz and blues and. more generally, the time of Delmark’s founding. A white audience for the music barely existed when Koester began recording blues — ”we’ve never we’re selling [blues] to a black audience,* he readily admits – and the initial intended audience was jazz fans interested in the music’s history (the series was initially planned to include gospel and ragtime], or the *folkies* who bought the few folk blues records available on labels such as Folkways. Here Delmark can be seen as similar to labels such as Prestige and Riverside, jazz labels which started releasing blues in the very first years of the blues revival (late 1950’s), Koester was pleasantly surprised by the relative success of the first acoustic blues records, although the sales of Delmark records haw never been anything to impress major labels. Koester notes that a Big Joe Williams record would sell about 700 in the first year after release, and he remembers that Estes blew my mind when he did 1300*. Though modest with his
expectations, Koester was disappointed with ”folkies” lack of attention to blues during the 1960s ”blues revival*, noting that they often looked over the ”real” folk music of rediscovered blues artists in favor of music played by other ”folkies”: ”I tried like hell to get folkies interested in blues. The real heartbreaker was Yank Rachells Mandolin Blues album. The jug band craze was on and here by God was an honest to goodness jug band and they ignored it.*

Koester’s approach to blues from a jazz background is reflected both in the breadth of Delmark’s catalog, and in his championing of blues piano. Commenting on the fact that his piano blues LPs have always had lower sales figures than those by guitar-led groups, he says: *One thing that really bugs me about whitey s approach to the blues, and it’s not totally a racial thing, is the failure to accept and listen to blues piano.* He explains his own attachment to blues piano and the blues more generally in generational terms: ”[For] most of the jazz fans of the 1940’s who got interested in blues it was one of two things: they bought a Bessie Smith record because Louis Armstrong or Joe Smith was on it, or you bought a Pinetop Smith record because you liked boogie woogie. And we were really more interested in piano than we were guitar. I mean, hillbillies played guitar, so we didn’t like it. But the younger guys, they came up with rock and roll and for some reason have very little use for the piano… you know, it’s a nice bed for the guitars to play over. That’s too bad, they’re missing a lot of shit. I mean there ain’t a hell of a lot happening with piano [today], but you still got Sunnyland and Pinetop.” [Interview conducted in January 1995 before death of Sunnyland Slim.]

Koester is just as outspoken on the primacy of vocals in blues, and likes to point out that the original success of contemporary guitar hero T-Bone Walker with the black audience was based on his vocal rather than instrumental abilities. ”Although it is nice to have whites out there buying our records, they often miss the point of the whole exercise. Blues is a verbal and vocal music and they act like they were at the opera and were expected to listen to the orchestra more than the singing.”

Needless to say, Koester is not one to chase the latest trend in the market, as he accuses other labels who cater to contemporary fans’ preference for ”stinging” electric guitar blues. Or as he expresses his business philosophy in his typical blunt manner: ”1 record what I fucking want to, and then I try to find a market for it”. His belief in the importance of documenting ”noncommercial” forms of music is also reflected in the Delmark policy of trying to keep every release available to the public in at least one format or another, regardless of sales levels. Although Delmark stopped releasing new albums on vinyl several years ago, Koester says they will keep ordering new vinyl pressings for older recordings as long as Delmark has extra jackets to be filled, and it is likely some of the better selling LPs will be kept available on vinyl.

Although Koester holds no punches with his strong opinions, he’s no ”purist”, with Delmark’s catalog ranging from Sleepy John Estes to the avantegarde jazz of Sun Ra to Harlem jive of the 1940’s. And despite his hard words about certain white blues fans’ obsession with the guitar, he is the one who was perhaps most responsible and the Delmark catalog is loaded with electric blues guitar heroes like Otis Rush and Jimmy Dawkins.

And on a historical note, Delmark’s 1965 release HooDoo Man Blues by Junior Wells, with Buddy Guy on guitar, was the first full-length album of a working electric blues band recorded in the studio. (The handful of electric blues LPs releases until then had either been collections of previously released singles or live recordings.) As when he first released a country blues record, Koester was initially uncertain as to whether there was an audience for such a record, noting that at, the time ”I was just beginning to sell the occasional, very occasional, B.B. King Crown record for a dollar to some of the more daring [white fans]”.

The success of the Wells’ album – which remains the all-time best seller in the Delmark catalog — revealed a potential new market to other companies, who rushed in to start recording more electric blues by both black and white artists. Although pleased with the initial sales of the record, Koester thinks that if it had been released a couple years later, when a relatively large white audience for electric blues had developed, it would have sold in greater numbers. Such is the dilemma of a pioneer. ‘ •,;*

The Junior Wells’ LP signalled a new direction for Delmark, as more and more releases were oriented towards capturing the electric scene in Chicago bars, particularly as the older blues artists died or retired from the scene. Another way in which Delmark expanded musically was through reissues. Through his experience as collector, label owner and record store operator,
Koester has developed an encyclopedic knowledge about the history and operations of the record industry, and has used this knowledge and his many contacts to acquire masters from now defunct labels such as Apollo, United/States, Parkway, Atomic H, Regal, and most recently from legendary producer Ralph Bass.

In recent years Delmark has been particularly active in releasing Apollo masters from the 1940’s and ^ early 1950’s, including Chicago blues by Sunnyland Slim,’ jump blues by shouters such as Wynonie Harris and Duke Henderson, and R&B from honking tenor men such as Arnett Cobb and Jimmy Forrest, along with a wide range of historic, and long unavailable jazz recordings, including early, bluesy sessions by Dinah Washington.

Less well-known than the blues and jazz series is the small Pearl label, which Koester started for reissues and other records for which it would not bo profitable to employ the usual promotional techniques for a new Delmark record because of the huge number of radio stations and newspapers in the United States, Delmark and other small companies generally have to send out thousands of promotional copies, significantly increasing the cost of releasing a record). Although the catalog contains only a handful of LPs, they include an excellent collection of New Orleans R&B from the Regal label, compilations of lesser known Chicago artists from the 50’s, and the classic United/States recordings ofRobert Nighthawk. Collectors should note that Delmark has only a handful of some of these LPs still in print, and have not yet released this material on CD.

Ono of the main reasons for Delmark’s ability to survive as an independent label in a field which sees so many go under or otherwise get bought out is – aside from consistently high quality records and artists – the downtown Jazz Record Mart (JRM), which Koester says is still his ”bread and butter**, providing the money to subsidize the label when needed. A dramatic example is that Delmark was able to rebound from serious economic problems in the early 1980‘s (which Koester attributes to a dishonest employee), and at the same time avoid the problems faced by other companies with the arrival of the CD, by buying up tens of thousands of other record companies’ overstocks of LP’s at bargain prices, with the (correct) suspicion that they could be sold off to collectors at the JRM. These funds also allowed for the purchase of the new studios.

Indeed, Delmark is almost inseparable from the record store, which earlier housed the Delmark operations and with which the record company continues to share personnel. If there is a center to the blues scene in Chicago it is the record store, which will have moved across the street into a space twice as large as of May 1995. When I dropped on Koester this past April he had just signed the new lease, and was sitting at his desk eyeing the blueprints of the new building, excitedly making plans for new features such as a museum, a performance space and a research archive.

The importance of Koester’s operations to the Chicago scene can also be measured by his role as a mentor and former employer for a younger generation of independent blues label operators, including Bruce Iglauer, who started his Alligator label while working at the Mart, Don Kent of Mamlish records, and Michael Frank, whose Earwig label continues Koester’s aim of promoting older, less-commercially viable artists.

Living Blues magazine was started in the basement of the store, and former employees also include Charlie Musslewhite and Mike Bloomfield, who did session work for Delmark. Currently, Delmark is busy recording new artists for its blues and jazz catalogs, and is also active in rereleasing old records on CD, which occupies as much production time as new recordings. Since the purchase of their new 24-track studios three years ago, which was facilitated by a deal with veteran Chicago producer Paul Serrano, Delmark’s yearly rate of release has more than doubled, and last year was at four times the average rate of the 1970’s and 1980’s (including many CD rereleases).

One of the reasons for this increase in activity is simply that they can’t afford not to use the new modem studios, which is certainly not seen as a problem by Koester. Along with the increased recording activity the size of Delmark’s staff has expanded to five full-time workers, including Delmark’s manager since 1987, Steve Wagner, and Koester’s wife of over 25 years Susan, who has worked part-time for the label for years, but recently quit her social work job to come on full-time.

A central factor behind Delmark’s purchase of the new building and studios, Koester explains, was the arrival of the CD, but not for any of the reasons one would imagine. In order to prevent shoplifting, the CD was initially packaged in the United States in ”long boxes”, an environmentally offensive paper and plastic box over double the size of the CD itself. The practical implication of this packaging was that it took up over twice as much room as an equivalent number of LPs, making work impossible in the already over-crowded condition of the old offices. It once even got so crowded that he couldn’t put on his Friday night showing of old cartoons and films (which continues today — I saw a Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn film before running off to catch Roosevelt ”Booba” Barnes at a club!).

With the new studios Delmark has the opportunity to record more artists than ever, and a major direction in the blues catalog seems to be toward artists who perform in blues/R&B styles other than the ”classic” 1950’s and early 1960’s Chicago blues sound, including ”jump” styles and classic ”soul”.

To some degree this reflects the reality of the black club scene in Chicago today, but Delmark has also been oriented recently toward ”rediscovering” or otherwise bringing attention to artists who perform in other styles of R&B. One of these is 79 year-old Floyd McDaniel, a veteran vocalist and guitarist in the tradition of T-Bone Walker whose debut(!) album was released last year with accompaniment by a hot jump blues band. McDaniel will be opening the 1995 Chicago Blues Fest, and has already started making European appearances. [Note: McDaniel died this past July, days after his 80th birthday.]

Delmark has also ventured into a relatively new area with the recent ”comeback” record by ”deep soul” legend – and brother to bluesmen Mac Thompson and Delmark recording artist Jimmy Johnson — Syl Johnson. On Back in the Game Johnson is backed by the original Hi Records studio band of the Hodges brothers and Howard Grimes, and captures the classic sound of Willie Mitchell’s soul productions for Hi Records. Following the initial success of this record — its first shipment of 4000 was the highest ever for Delmark, and it is apparently selling to the black soul-blues public served by labels like Malaco — Koester says that a number of well-known soul artists have approached Delmark in the hope of creating a similar record.

Koester says that he has thought about recording the soul scene for a number of years, but was hindered by his distaste for the predominant system for promoting records (hint — $) on black-oriented commercial radio (most US blues programming, on the other hand, tends to be on non-commercial stations such as at universities, with volunteer dj’s). He does, however, downplay a clear distinction between blues and soul, saying of soul music: ”That’s the latest thing in the blues bars. 16 bar blues.” And thinking back 20 years he recalls that ”When the Magic Sam record [West Side Soul] came out they said I’d sold out, making a soul record”, implying that fan’s notions of purity often don’t jive with understandings in the black community.

As has been a trend on other US labels in recent years, horns are particularly prominent on recent releases, and here Koester sees the area of the future for the blues, feeling that Delmark’s unique situation as a jazz and blues label can help it to rise above the rest. Complaining about the lack of originality of many contemporary horn arrangements, Koester says ”I’m incapable of producing albums with extensive overdubs. I’m glad we’re using horns, and we’re going out of our way to use jazz musicians to write arrangements so we can get away from some of the overdub crap”. Recent releases have featured horn arrangements by, for example, Delmark jazz artist Malachi Thompson.

In discussing his wish to bring jazz and blues musicians closer together, Koester mentions that one of his idols in the recording business is Lester Melrose, the most important figure in the Chicago recording scene of the late 1930’s and 1940’s. Like Koester, Melrose came into blues out of jazz, and often used jazz musicians to back up blues artists, including New Orleans bassist Ransom Knovvling, who Koester used on a number of his own recordings. Unsurprisingly, Koester is critical of those blues fans and writers who are dismissive of Melrose’s 1930’s productions of artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson I or Big Bill Broonzy on labels such as RCA’s Bluebird, and points out that this sound was inspirational to many of the ”rawer” artists such as Muddy Waters preferred by these fans.

The current blues boom and the CD revolution have provided blues fans with a wider variety of music than ever before, and with its new releases, back catalog, and its reissue series Delmark covers the map. But although business is booming, Koester is skeptical when we talk about the increased prominence and popularity of blues in recent years. ”It’s irritating how [the press] feel that blues is important because whites are listening to it, as if it wouldn’t have been important if whites weren’t listening”. And although he laments the increasing homogenization of blues over the past twenty years, he’s equally skeptical about the various proclamations from time to time about the blues dying. ”If the music has so much vitality, like 20’s jazz, 30’s jazz, 40’s jazz, bebop, avant garde, there are gonna be people wanting to play it forever. Now they may not be earth shaking, highly emotionally-drenched performances like the originals, but it might be awful nice to have that music playing live, while you’re sipping at a drink or slugging a beer.”

Needless to say, Koester is a man of many strong opinions, but could hardly be accused of inflexibility or narrow-mindedness when it comes time to releasing new records. Regarding modern jazz forms, for instance, he . recognizes the importance of recording the music, but readily admits he can’t produce the music, leaving this job to other trusted Delmark producers. And when I asked him what he thought his relation would be to recording blues in, say, twenty years from now, he provided a similar answer: ”1 may not even like it. But I’ll probably keep recording it figuring it’s legit’. It’s just that I’m not hip, that’s all… [The blues will] change, and I’ll just keep trying to find guys who are really doing something original”.

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