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Keeping the Blues Alive for Over 60 Years

Keeping the Blues Alive for Over 60 Years

Delmark Records owner Bob Koester says it’s what he does for a living

“Where did my Grammy go? Who took my Grammy?”

Bob Koester breathes heavily as he haphazardly claws through a small wooden-cardboard storage crate sitting on top of a weathered black leather chair in his Delmark Records office on Chicago’s North Side. The box is filled to the brim with seemingly discarded accolades and trophies from blues societies around the country.  He flips through his Certification of Appreciation from the city of Chicago dating as far back as former mayor Richard Daley. Each time he discovers a new award, he arbitrarily pulls it up for me to briefly examine before forcibly shoving it back down into its unglamorously relegated storage space.

“Blues Hall of Fame. Mississippi Valley Blues Society.”

He lifts a small pyramid-shaped wooden award. The circular golden top falls off in his hands. As he attempts to repair it, he notices something is missing.

“Well this is somebody’s trophy, but I guess we lost the name plate,” he chuckles to himself.

He is on a mission to find the Grammy Hall of Fame award for one of Delmark’s most celebrated releases—Junior Wells’s “Hoodoo Man Blues” featuring guitarist Buddy Guy recorded for Delmark in 1965.

“Someone must have moved it,” he says resigning to the defeat of the clutter consuming his small office space.

As Koester, 83, has been searching for the relatively insignificant marker of his 60-plus years of musical achievements, my eyes scan the contents of his Delmark office space. A framed painting of his formerly owned Jazz Record Mart, one of the largest specialty blues and jazz record stores in the country, hangs directly over his desk, which is completely obscured by a myriad of papers and scattered manila folders. Yellowed newspaper clippings, holiday cards and old show posters are tacked to the surrounding walls. Something catches my eye. Koester notices me staring.

“Oh this is cute,” he says as he shuffles over towards the framed Jazz Record Mart t-shirt. Scrawled on the t-shirt in black Sharpie is Hey Bob-thanx for your generosity—Iggy Pop.

“Iggy Pop gave this t-shirt to one of the guys who worked for me. Iggy is one rock guy I knew pretty well.

The “godfather of punk” and frontman for Iggy and The Stooges came to Chicago from Ann Arbor. He would take drum lessons from James Cotton’s drummer Sam Lay and crash at Koester’s apartment. Until the night Pop, Scott and Ron Asheton, the later drummer and guitarist for The Stooges, took their escapades a little too far.

“Iggy came once on his own with two of his friends and I was running a 101-degree temperature,” Koester said. “I asked Iggy to bring me a glass of water. He pissed in a glass and offered it to me. I threw the glass at him and hollered ‘Iggy, you and your stooges get the f— out of here.’ And that’s how the band got their name.”

Koester laughs, staring at the framed memento.

“Years later, someone asked Iggy, ‘Oh, have you seen Bob?’ and he said ‘Oh, no,’ like he’s afraid of me,” he continued. “But I would love to see him again and apologize.”

Stories like these fill most of my two-hour meeting with Koester, who was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1932. Music dominated much of his early life, as he hunted for 78rpm, early 20th-century blues recordings at local stores. Since founding Delmark Records in his St. Louis University dorm room in 1953 and purchasing Seymour’s Record Mart in 1959, the store that later became Jazz Record Mart, Koester has become one of the most influential figures in Chicago blues and jazz history.

He’s an absolutely crucial source in documenting and in creating an audience for acoustic and electric blues, jazz of all eras,” said Alligator Records founder Bruce Iglauer in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times in 2013.

But the last few years have been hard. In February, after a little over 50 years in business, the rising rents of Jazz Record Mart’s downtown property forced Koester to sell much of the store’s stock and close its doors. Over the years, the store had become the hangout for passionate blues and jazz fans and local musicians, who swapped stories and recommendations with staff members. Robert Plant used to stop by the store when in town.

A roster of the store’s former employees reads like a who’s-who of blues music, from blues harmonica player “Memphis” Charlie Musselwhite, Iglauer, Jazz Showcase nightclub founder Joe Segal and Paul Butterfield guitarist Michael Bloomfield.

“Mike Bloomfield used to come in and collate records. We would get LP’s from one plant and jackets from another. This was before shrinkwrap so he would package them together. He would do this for about 100 LP’s and we would pay him by giving him some records.”

When the store moved to its West Grand street location before its final East Illinois storefront, Koester gave guitarist and Delmark recording artist Big Joe Williams a key to the store. Williams used to sleep in the basement when in town, offering lessons to young white blues fans like Musselwhite and Bloomfield.

“Most of the white artists became more popular than the black originators,” Koester says. “Never much cared for their music. Except for Memphis Charlie. He was pretty good. At least he had a real Southern accent.”

With Jazz Record Mart closed, Koester spends most of days in the Delmark office alongside his son, Robert, his wife, Sue, and the label’s manager, recording engineer and producer, Steve Wagner. Though Wagner handles many of the label’s operations including A&R and record production, he affectionately calls Bob the “pa” and Sue the “ma” of Delmark.

“We do what we can with a small staff,” Wagner says. “It’s almost run a little bit like a hobby. Bob always said, ‘I want to record good artists, and hopefully people will see that vision.’”

Wagner began working for Koester as a clerk at Jazz Record Mart around 1983 before joining Delmark in 1987. While the label continues to record new artists and reissue some of its now classic catalogue, it, like many independent labels, struggles to stay afloat financially. With the sale of records no longer as profitable as it once was prior to the influx of illegal downloading, Delmark only signs artists who sell their records off the bandstand.

“You can think of Bob as having three separate companies—the store, the label and the recording studio,” he says. “You had three different ways to make money. Maybe we would get a good client to drop with some money. We’ll see how it goes with no store now.”

 

“I never throw anything away,” Koester states to me as we tour Delmark’s back-room storage space.

Boxes of outdated promotional materials, unsold Jazz Record Mart stock and master tapes piled from floor to ceiling create a virtual maze. We step into the Pepto Bismol-colored listening room complete with almost every format of listening device—reel to reel, CD players, and turntables. A collection of metal acetates from the Jump label, a Dixieland label from 1940s, rests upright on a leather chair by the room’s entrance.

“I’m not sure what we’re going to do with these,” Koester says half-heartedly. “We acquired several labels including Jump Records, Sackville Records, a Canadian label, but have not operated them.”

Koester’s initial move to Chicago from St. Louis in 1956 was due in part to the prospect of acquiring Paramount Records, which recorded some of the best African-American blues and jazz artists of the 1920s and 1930s. The label was a subsidiary of the Wisconsin Chair furniture company and cut records by artists from Ma Rainey and Charley Patton to the Mississippi Sheiks and Blind Lemon Jefferson.

“John Steiner, who owned the rights to it and a few masters that had survived, encouraged me to come to Chicago,” he said. “He had cut a deal with Riverside Records to release some of the Paramount master recordings and the deal had no ending date. So I lost interest.”

Now, those Paramount recordings are owned by former White Stripes guitarist Jack White and were released as a box set for White’s Third Man Records three years ago.

“In blues, it isn’t the playing, although most whites seem to think it’s a guitar music with incidental vocal accompaniment,” Koester acknowledges. “Some of the greatest blues singers in the world were never great musicians. It’s the lyrics, it’s the poetry that’s what turns me on about blues, and I think that’s what turns a lot of people on about blues.”

It’s this early blues and jazz that caught Koester’s ear some 60 years ago and today it’s still the music he seems most proud of documenting on record.

About fifteen years ago, Koester suffered a stroke. He continually apologizes over his “goofing up” of names of those artists currently recording for the label. But when I ask him about those artists whose careers Delmark helped continue like early jazz and boogie-woogie pianist Speckled Red and guitarist Sleepy John Estes, he lights up. In 1962, he rediscovered Estes in Brownsville, Tennessee, and encouraged him to come to Chicago and record. These Chicago sessions became “The Legend of Sleepy John Estes” album.

“John was somebody that I already had some of his records,” Koester said. “In Big Bill Broonzy’s book, he said, ‘Estes was an old man when I was just a kid working on a track laying gang.’ Broonzy lied his ass off in that book. He never worked on a track laying gang and Estes was quite young at the time if he actually knew him. Because Broonzy said that I figured Estes wouldn’t be alive anymore so why look for him.”

In recent years, as my love of blues expanded beyond the Chess Records catalogue, scouring the Delmark catalogue was the next step in my Chicago blues education. Having a roster that includes not only Junior Wells and Magic Sam but also the avant-garde Art Ensemble of Chicago, I wanted to know one of the most basic questions behind Koester’s label. What does he look for in an artist?

“Originality,” he says without hesitation. “If they sound like someone else, I’m not interested. If they deliberately try to sound like someone else, I’m even less interested.”

To the untrained eye, Koester’s preservationist collecting spirit comes across as obsessive but careless in its safe-keeping, with some of the most important blues and jazz acetates and masters lying on frayed chairs, including the metal “mother” master for Junior Wells’s “Hoodoo Man Blues” album. His vast array of musical history is cohabitated with his extensive 16mm and 35mm film collection, his “stupid hobby” as he calls it. He claims to own almost every existing Laurel and Hardy short, he says, as he runs his hand over the metal film canisters shelved on a rollaway cart in the label’s back room. Like many of the items scattered around the office, Koester does not know what he is going to do with these canisters.

“These we got to get rid of pretty quick,” he says. “I’ll donate them if necessary.”

But Koester will never stop collecting. From Jazz Record Mart to Delmark Records, his passion and drive to preserve the music he loves otherwise left behind over time has become a fundamental part of his identity. Even at 83 years old he assures me the future looks bright. He hopes to reopen Jazz Record Mart as Bob’s Record Mart inside Delmark’s office.

As we say our goodbyes, Koester notices something atop the bookcase by the label’s front door.

“Oh there’s my Grammy,” he exclaims. “Recording Academy Heroes Award.”

He stares at it for a few seconds, sighs, and shuffles back towards his office to continue his work.


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