Happily Seduced by the Blues

Happily Seduced by the Blues
June 23, 2009
The New York Times

BOB KOESTER came here in 1958 because he was a jazz and blues fan who wanted to see his favorite music played live in the small, smoky clubs that dotted the city. But he has ended up doing much more than that: as the founder and sole proprietor of Delmark Records he also became and remains the most dedicated chronicler of that scene, now gradually receding into history.

“I was seduced by the music,” Mr. Koester said in an interview last month. “You can’t record everything you like, and I missed a lot of good sessions because I didn’t have the money. But there was so much going on. I liked the music, I liked the label, and I did as much as I could afford to do.”

From traditional Dixieland to the farthest reaches of the avant-garde, artists representing nearly every category of jazz have found their way to Delmark, the oldest continually operating independent jazz and blues label in the United States. On the blues side Delmark’s releases have ranged from Mississippi Delta-style acoustic guitarists like Sleepy John Estes and Big Joe Williams to all-electric Chicago ensembles led by Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Luther Allison.

Because of those efforts Mr. Koester is one of a handful of nonperformers to have been inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame, in 1996. His influence can be felt in other ways: labels like Alligator, Flying Fish, Rooster, Nessa and Earwig were all founded by former employees, as were Living Blues magazine and numerous blues and folk festivals.

“I think you could make a good argument that without Bob Koester there might never have been the white blues movement, certainly not in the United States,” said Bruce Iglauer, president of Alligator Records, who began his career in 1970 as a Delmark shipping clerk. “The fact is that he opened the door for a lot of people, and I don’t think he has ever got the recognition he deserves for being such a seminal figure.”

Somewhat belatedly that situation is now being remedied. Delmark has just released a 55th anniversary DVD featuring performances by some of its leading artists, and a recording Mr. Koester produced more than 40 years ago, “Hoodoo Man Blues,” was inducted last year into the Grammy Hall of Fame, alongside pop hits like Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Pink Floyd’s “Wall.”

Born in Wichita, Kan., in 1932, Mr. Koester came to his vocation early, as a teenage collector of 78 r.p.m. discs. He remembers scouring used-furniture stores, Salvation Army warehouses and jukebox suppliers right after World War II, paying 6 cents apiece for recordings of Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil” and “Stop Breakin’ Down” that nowadays fetch thousands of dollars each.

Delmark was founded while Mr. Koester was in college in St. Louis, and initially specialized in traditional New Orleans-style jazz. But once he arrived in Chicago, his horizons expanded to include avant-garde experimentalists like Sun Ra, whose first two recordings, “Sun Song” and “Sound of Joy,” Delmark now distributes.

Since there never was a lot of money in what Delmark was doing, Mr. Koester also operated a record store called the Jazz Record Mart, which continues to do business, on the outskirts of the Chicago Loop. At a time when the mainstream press and record companies were paying little or no attention to the music being played in the city’s taverns, the store soon became a place where Delmark’s artists and other blues and jazz luminaries could gather.

“It was a crossroads and clearing house for information, a place where a lot of musicians would come to catch up on the latest news,” recalled the harmonica player, singer and band leader Charlie Musselwhite, who worked as a clerk at the store in the mid-1960s. “Shakey Walter Horton and Ransom Knowling would hang out there, and Sunnyland Slim and Homesick James were always dropping by. You never knew what fascinating characters would wander in, so I always felt like I was in the eye of the storm there.”

Eventually prominent rock stars, on the prowl for obscure blues songs to add to their collections or record themselves, also became part of the clientele. Former clerks and customers recall seeing Steve Winwood, Jeff Beck and members of the Rolling Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac, Canned Heat and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band shopping in the store.

As a purist, though, Mr. Koester disliked pop music and still does — and thus was largely oblivious to their presence. “Afterwards another client would say: That was So-and-So,” Mr. Koester said. “And I would say: ‘Really? How much did he spend?’ ‘Five hundred dollars.’ ‘Oh, well, then tell him to come back.’ ”
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