“In the corner of the bar there stands a jukebox,
With the best of country music, old and new.
You can hear your five selections for a quarter,
And somebody else’s songs when yours are through.”
“Please, Mr. Please” written by Bruce Welch and John Rostill.
Recorded in 1974 by Olivia Newton John.
“Have you seen these,” daughter Robin’s text asked last week? The subject of her inquiry was a photo of a plain black box the size of a small refrigerator. It was adorned with silver and blue accents sitting in what appeared to be a restaurant. My first thoughts were along the lines of a Star Wars reincarnated 1940s jukebox.
“No,” I responded. “What is it? Sort of reminds me of an old jukebox.”
Recorded music players offering entertainment in public locations debuted in 1890, soon after the arrival of Thomas Edison’s phonograph. Edison is said to have thought his invention was best suited for office dictation, but America’s love for music quickly capitalized on the recording phenomenon. By the early 1930s, personal record machines at home were common, and large wooden boxes with glowing lights, mesmerizing mechanisms and hungry coin slots called jukeboxes were common forms of entertainment in public venues. As World War II was escalating toward Pearl Harbor, jukeboxes made by Wurlitzer, AMI, Rock-Ola and others were everywhere from malt shop hangouts to renowned restaurants, as well seedy joints and brawling barrooms.
“Juke” was derived from their popularity in “jook joints,” a term applied to establishments featuring music, dancing, gambling, and drinking which were typically, shall we say, low-class establishments—also known as “dives.” An association with the growing popularity of swing and rock and roll music with teenagers, not well regarded in society by some parents, didn’t help. Neither did the government’s exposure of Mafia control over the coin operated machine industry at the time.
Every negative factor aside, jukeboxes not only survived, they flourished. Artistic use of plastics, glass, chrome and wood combined with eye-popping designs made them instant classics then and sought after collectibles today. Since the advent of digital music, they have ebbed and flowed in popularity with some new iteration popping up every few years. My daughter’s discovery last week was the newest.
“It’s a ‘new’ jukebox,” She replied, continuing our text conversation. “At my favorite real Mexican food place in Tyler! Takes credit and debit card payment!”
“Naturally,” I said with a smile. “Cash—it’s just so yesterday.” But, not so with America’s love for music. As one who has loved and appreciated music since childhood, my attraction to jukeboxes many years ago led me to acquire three working examples of 40s and 50s models. While I grew up with them in the 50s and 60s at places like the Dairy Queen, the bus stop cafe, and up the street at the Hillbilly Cafe in Mount Pleasant, Texas, my children grew up in the 80s with them in our home in Center, Texas.
Robin’s favorite, and the pinnacle of my small collection, was a Wurlitzer 1015. Arguably one of the most beautiful jukeboxes to ever cast a soft, amber glow across a well-worn dance floor, the 1015’s arched top with cascades of bubbles down both sides, changing hues of softly illuminated plastic pillars emanating from a furniture-quality wooden box, and 78 r.p.m. records spinning behind a brightly illuminated glass window provided hypnotizing visual entertainment. Tunes like Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood,” Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” or Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” were almost secondary entertainment.
No stranger to a jukebox, one of Robin’s favorite childhood delights was dropping a nickel in the coin slot to watch the elaborate mechanism swing into action selecting the 1958 hit record, “Rockin’ Robin,” by singer Bobby Day,
Thirty years later, the sole survivor of that collection is a 1955 Seeburg offering a selection of 100 songs on 45 r.p.m. records resting in a horizontal tray. Although real wood boxes and bubbling tubes were gone by the mid 50s, the shiny chrome Seeburg box with faux-wood side panels and subdued lighting still spotlights a mechanized record changer to entertain in a fashion that no jukebox since has ever matched.
“That’s interesting,” I told my daughter. “I’ll have to look for one.”
“My favorite Mexican food restaurant, or a digital jukebox,” she teased?
“Both, I guess,” was my reply.
“If you find yourself in Tyler, you better look for me,” she ordered. “I’ll take you to lunch and play the jukebox.”
“Wonderful,” I told her. “Guess there’s not much chance, though, that new one plays ‘Rockin’ Robin,’” I laughed. “Or that it will tap your plastic card just a quarter for five selections.”