It's Only Rock 'n' Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  March 26, 2003 at 9:17 AM
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Delmark Records, one of the most important companies in blues and jazz history, celebrates its 50th anniversary in this year.

The company is one of the oldest independent labels still owned and operated by its founder. Bob Koester started the label when he recorded a local traditional jazz band, the Windy City Six, on Sept. 19, 1953, while a student at St. Louis University in Missouri.

"They deserved to be recorded," Koester said. Fifty years later, Koester still operates under the same philosophy of giving deserving artists a chance to record their music.

Delmark Records' catalog reads like a "who's who" in the history of blues and jazz music: Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Sleepy John Estes, Big Joe Williams, Bud Powell, Coleman Hawkins, Dinah Washington, Von Freeman, Archie Shepp, Pharoah Sanders, Roscoe Mitchell, Anthony Braxton, Fred Anderson and Joseph Jarman.

Delmark releases material major labels would consider too poorly recorded for issue if the content makes the sound quality beside the point.

The legendary Magic Sam's "Rockin' Wild in Chicago" is a case in point. When Magic Sam died at the age of 32 the world lost one of the greatest bluesmen of all time and Sam was denied his rightful place in blues history. Sam was among the small handful of musicians who created the West Side style of Chicago blues, the style copied most by blues and rock bands. "Rockin' Wild In Chicago" is comprised of hair-raising audience tapes of previously unissued performances at the Copacabana (1966), the Alex Club (1963 and '64) and Mother Blues (1968).

Sam's crackling, galvanic style actually sounds more powerful on these low fidelity recordings, which capture the ambiance of a club gig brilliantly.

Delmark has several essential Magic Sam albums in its catalog, including two studio recordings, "West Side Soul" and "Black Magic," and the classic "Magic Sam Live." "Rockin' Wild In Chicago" offers another essential glimpse into one the most important blues stylists.

Koester grew up listening to Big Band swing, his first love. At 14 Koester's life was changed by a concert that featured Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing and Illinois Jacquet.

"In high school I saw Lionel Hampton," he recalled. "Hamp used to come and play at the Forum. It was for black people, but they let whites sit in the balcony. By the last set everybody kinda' forgot about racial barriers. Everybody was out on the floor dancing. I went back there two or three times to see Hamp.

"Once I went to a place called the Rock Castle Supper Club for a session that involved Clifford Brown. In my last year of high school I heard Lonnie Johnson was in town. I remember Lonnie played violin, which seemed to be electronically amplified. I tried to visit him the next day but he left town before I got there. I called him and he said, 'Man I was up all night, call me back in three hours.' Three hours later, Mr. Johnson was checked out. Later on when I met him I kidded him about it. I said, 'You had this starry-eyed fan in Kansas and you screwed him by leaving town, checking out before he could talk with you,'" Koester said.

Koester began collecting records in high school, but had to scour junk shops and old juke boxes for the records he wanted.

"A lot of the music I liked was out of print," he recalled. "In those terribly barren years right after World War II the major labels had satisfied the demand for phonograph records by reissues. During the war there was a ban, and after the war the ban was over and there was a big boom and they all jumped on Frank Sinatra, Perry Como, all that sh---y pop music of the late '40s.

"It was a vocalist thing so instrumental music was very much out of favor with the American public, the young people particularly. By this time I really zeroed in on '20s' jazz and you just couldn't find it, there was little or nothing in print. I loved jazz, but the blues was part of it. Jazz fans start buying blues records because Louie Armstrong is on this Bessie Smith record, Coleman Hawkins is on this Ida Cox record and eventually the blues gets next to you. To me it was all the same, it was all important," he added.

The rest, as they say, is history.

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