Creative Writing

Published on September 21st, 2015 | by Rafael Alvarez


Bob Koester: The Man Behind Delmark Records’ Seven Decades of Jazz & Blues

Though I rarely play tapes, this summer I bought four, still-in-the-cellophane cassettes at Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart—27 East Illinois Street, Sweet Home Chicago—for 99 cents each.

jb hutto hawk squatElectric Sleep, by Sleepy John Estes, born Ripley, Tennessee, 1899.

Cold Day in Hell, by Otis Rush, born Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1935.

Back in the Game, by Syl Johnson, born Holly Springs, Mississippi, 1936.

Magic Sam Live, by “Magic Sam” Maghett, born Grenada, Mississippi, 1937.

All on the distinguished Delmark label for less than five bucks with tax.

What a haul!

bOBkOESTERwEBJust an hour before, over lunch around the corner, blues producer Dick Shurman had been telling me about Delmark founder Bob Koester’s decision some 25 or so years ago to transfer titles from his historic catalog to cassette, an unfortunate bit of timing with the advent of the Compact Disc, itself now passé.

And while I already own about a thousand homemade and store bought cassettes gathering dust—from basement tapes cut by blues guitarist Pete Kanaras to Sinatra on Capitol—how can you resist Otis Rush for 99 cents?

Koester founded Delmark (originally Delmar) in St. Louis in 1953, making it the oldest independent American jazz and blues label still active. After Shurman introduced us, Koester—wearing a Junior Wells “Hoodoo Man Blues” t-shirt—led me to a backroom office crowded with old 78s stacked to the ceiling.

[Raised in Wichita during the Big Band era, Koester got his start selling 78s before deciding to record the artists he liked best.]

After some chit-chat about movies (he owns prints of 800 features; his pun of the day about Mexican version of the Gregory Peck classic “Tequila Mockingbird”) I brought up my favorite Delmark artist: J.B. Hutto, a slide guitar disciple of Elmore James.

BobKoesterQuoteHutto [1926-to-1983] cut several albums for Koester, including Hawk Squat, in 1969 and Slidewinder, released in 1973.

During a late career surge in the early 1980s, when Hutto played hundreds of dates a year, I hosted a party for him at my house with his music on the stereo and a slide show of his gigs projected on a wall.

A gracious man, J.B. allowed us to give him the seat of honor (a wicker chair) and seemed to enjoy looking at pictures of himself using an Epiphone to replicate the sound of cats being skinned alive. Upon reflection, he was probably just humoring a bunch of blues-crazy white kids. I still have a ceramic mug he drank hot tea from.

J.B. was very rough musically,” said Koester, who just released Hawk Squat on CD. “Not every line he played included all 12 bars. The guy who recorded the instrumentals on Hawk Squat said he wouldn’t charge me for the job. He said the vocals were all distorted. Turned out they weren’t distorted at all. That was J.B.”

Which is precisely why I loved J.B. – loved, loved, loved the man—both on record and live.

Raw, propulsive, dark, immediate and churning, Hutto had more passion than ten thousand players who abhor distortion, his bellowing voice like TNT going off in the Grand Canyon. As Frank Zappa observed, “the disgusting stink of a too loud electric guitar, now that’s my idea of a good time.”

On one of his Delmark sides, J.B. says to the engineer after a particularly raucous take: “If they want to hear that back again, watch me pack it up.”

J.B. didn’t like playbacks” that nit-picked what he had just laid down and most likely couldn’t do the same way twice, said Koester, who said he started catching Hutto gigs when the guitarist was making $9 a night.

I’d give anything to hear the Slidewinder play it back just one more time.

Rafael Alvarez can be reached via email:  The Local Voice Ligature

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About the Author

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter, short story writer & screenwriter based in Baltimore. He has been visiting & writing about Mississippi since 1984. A former staff writer for HBO's "The Wire," his new book is a collection of short fiction called "Tales From the Holy Land."

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