have typically given hours of pleasure to otherwise idle moments.
They can be healing devices used to restore tranquility to chaotic
lifestyles. Some of these avocations can turn into obsessions, others
can grow to become personal empires.
latter progression is the case of Delmark Records, the independent
record label based in Chicago. 1993 marked the fortieth anniversary
of the company. It has been four decades of tending a musical hobby
that has brought pleasure to millions around the world; music that
some say, is the basis of all American music.
role of a record label is a varied and complicated one. Should the
goal of the company be to select commercially popular artists that
will increase profit margins and draw investors into buying stock?
Or should it have an obligation to the record buying public and
produce quality music for their listening enjoyment? Bob Koester,
owner of Delmark Records, has run his company based on his love
of music from two specific genres, traditional blues and jazz. In
the beginning, what he wanted to hear was not readily available,
so he created it and made it accessible for himself as well as for
Koester was a child growing up in Wichita, Kansas, popular music
was in the throws of the Big Band craze. He spent afternoons listening
to Fats Waller, Zutty Singleton, Barney Bigard and Coleman Hawkins
on the radio. As a teenager, Koester sought out live performances
anywhere he could catch them. At the age of fourteen he witnessed
a concert that featured Count Basie, Jimmy Rushing and Illinois
Jacquet. Searching for artists such as these became a passion.
high school I saw Lionel Hampton. 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.' "
began collecting records in high school, but due to the particular
type of music he favored he couldn't just go to the local record
store and pick up a few discs. To find them he searched secondhand
stores and the back rooms of juke box operators.
lot of the music I liked was out of print. 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
shitty pop music of the late forties. 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 twenties' 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."
of the mix between the two genres Koester began trading one disc
for another. This was the start of a razor sharp business sense.
He developed serious skills while on his hunt for out of print records.
But an inclination for music was not his only love, he also had
a passion for film. In an attempt to further his business skills
he based his educational plan accordingly. He enrolled at St. Louis
University to study cinematography and business; later he was to
go to UCLA or USC for their cinematography programs.
purpose for going to St. Louis U. was to take some business courses
because I had decided to become a movie camera man, that was my
first love. I would go to Hollywood and I would make a little money
and in the back of my mind I thought I would, eventually, do a little
syndicated series of jazz TV shows and that I would be successful
and I would have a jazz label and a jazz record store. I went to
St. Louis U. and I just sort of got seduced by the music. My experiences
in selling Glen Miller 78s expanded to selling the stuff that I
had found in second hand stores."
began selling music out of his dormitory and he joined a newly formed
jazz club that boasted as members some of the most talented musicians
in and around the St. Louis area. Alas, the lure of the music and
a chance meeting gave his life's plan a twist only fate can deliver.
jazz club was being organized at the time in St. Louis and I went
to the founding meeting. I was a founding member of the group. I
remember the first meeting where I heard a hell of a lot of good
music. I later found out that some of the best musicians in town
were there. Bob Graf was there. Clark Terry was there. Through the
St. Louis Jazz Club I was able to do a certain amount of promotion
for my business. Eventually I was chairman of the program committee;
as soon as I was able to go into bars, I wasn't old enough at first.
At the second meeting of the jazz club I met a guy named Ron Fister."
collected pop music of the thirties and forties but he also loved
Ellington, Billie Holiday and Mildred Bailey, three of Koester's
all-time favorites. This encounter sparked the beginning of K &
F Sales, Koester's first record store.
worked out pretty well because if we found anything made before
1930 we would buy it so we were able to dispose of stuff that no
one wanted. After lugging all my records out to his house he decided
this was an inconvenience to him. He found a place that wasn't very
big for 40 bucks a month and we opened up a store there."
& F Sales soon outgrew its building and found a new location,
a building that once housed a restaurant. Koester and his partner
turned it into the Blue Note Record Shop. After nearly a year he
and Fister discovered that they were moving in two different musical
directions. They agreed to split up the inventory and Koester moved
to a new location at Delmar and Oliver Streets. It was at this settlement
that Delmark Records began. In 1953 at the age of 21 Koester recorded
the Windy City Six, a vintage jazz group based in St. Louis. The
progression had begun. Soon after that first recording Koester and
a friend organized a search for musicians of the '20's and '30's
living in St. Louis. The search yielded some of the greatest blues
ever recorded. Master bluesmen such as Speckled Red, Big Joe Williams
and J.D. Short were recorded by the tiny record company. With this
block of artists, Delmark garnered recognition and quickly gained
respect in the record industry. But success is never easy. After
putting out only three LPs, tragedy hit the small company.
1956 or '57 my father accepted a job in Italy and he wanted me to
close up and go with him. I decided I didn't want to do that so
he gave me five hundred bucks. That was enough to really get us
going, so I had covers printed for five titles. Then over the weekend
they stopped making ten inch LPs. So I was out of business. "
took full advantage of the demise of the 10 inch format by going
around and buying them all from local distributors for a dollar
a piece and selling them at regular price with the profits he was
able to recoup his losses and continue recording.
learned the thing that will screw you as a label will finance you
as a dealer. By doing this I was able to get 4 twelve inch LPs out
in a period of a year and a half or two years and to pay off most
of my debts. We had no forewarning that 10 inches was going out
I went down to Columbia Records on a Friday night and bought 10
inch LPs for $2.10 and went back Monday and was able to get them
of his experience as a record buyer Koester understood the value
of music that had been recorded but not issued, or recordings that
were out of print. Through his many connections he has acquired
some very important master recordings. "We had the opportunity to
buy the George Lewis masters recordings made for a major corporation
for a school transcription program. Buying masters was from then
on, forever on my mind. We bought sometimes one master, sometimes
three or four. The most commercial acquisition was the United because
we got good source on virtually everything. I was afraid of the
United deal because I had heard that there were silent partners.
I can say the same thing for the Apollo; they were both cases where
I made fairly good deals because of this rumor. | wasn't willing
to pay a hell of a lot for it I was going to have to deal with that
kind of a gamble."
has procured shares of the Regal masters and with them came the
Parkway sessions of Little Walter and Muddy Waters. These sessions
were recorded before Walter went with the Chess label. Recent acquisitions
include Lonnie Brooks, Carey Bell, Sunnyland Slim, Jimmy Reed, Magic
Slim and Jimmy Rogers. Acquisitions are an important part of Delmark;
they lend the company a certain amount of financial freedom and
enable it to continue recording artists of its choice. It was the
prospect of buying the Paramount masters that led Koester to Chicago.
was a very thrilling prospect; all of Ma Rainey, all of Blind Lemon,
Louis, Dodds, etc. etc. That was probably the main reason I came
to Chicago. I decided I'd better be closer in touch with what was
August of 1958 he arrived in Chicago and set up shop in the Cathedral
Building on Wabash Avenue. This location was not satisfactory and
the business did not take off.
was a cash register, some shelving, some old 78s and used LPs, not
any real inventory. It needed whatever investment I could get. I
didn't have the money to rehab it but we did clean it and three
months later we painted it they said we had to leave."
began to search for another spot . A friend loaned him the money
toward the purchase of Seymour's Jazz Mart located in the Roosevelt
University Building. Seymour Schwartz, a song writer and trumpet
player was the previous owner who wanted to devote more time to
his music so he sold it to Koester. Delmark enjoyed this tenancy
until 1963 when renovations at the Roosevelt U. Building caused
the company to move.
quickly relocated to Grand Avenue setting up here until, once again
the location became unsatisfactory. By the early 1970's company
tape files were growing at an accelerated pace and space was limited.
Koester's only employee at the time was Bruce Iglauer, now owner
of Alligator Records.
came in and worked at the store and Delmark. Delmark was in the
basement of the store which was smaller than the front end of our
present store. We were at 7 West Grand. It was about 600 square
feet upstairs and maybe another 50 or 100 square feet in the basement.
I had one room in my apartment that was the Delmark tape file and
editing room My wife and Bruce Iglauer worked with me. If somebody
came calling somebody had to go to lunch to make room for them cause
it could get pretty crowded down there. We just needed more space."
flourishing record company was again uprooted but this time Koester
had a master plan. He was determined to find stable ground. Koester
thought long, and hard and finally made the decision to cash in
his life savings and make a down payment on the building at 4243
N. Lincoln Avenue. This move was quite different than the others;
Instead of shilling all his eggs to one basket he split them. Using
the newly purchased building as the Delmark offices and making a
small jump from 7 W. Grand to 11 W. Grand, he established two distinct
units. It was then that the Grand Avenue location was christened
The Jazz Record Mart. With his inventory in tow he made the transition,
taking his trusted and valued employee with him.
has a reputation for capturing budding young music fans and putting
them under his wing; lighting a fire within them to be in the music
industry. Iglauer was one of the first but not the last.
had a lot of respect for Bruce's judgment. We used Bruce when we
would do record dates. Bruce would be the guy in the studio and
I'd be the guy in the booth. He could catch the nuances of what
was going on and come back and report. You know, snitch on the musicians."
happened upon Koester's name during the sixties when blues was beginning
to enjoy a revivalist period. For fans that were into vintage blues
Bob Koester and Delmark was a major source of information. As a
young college student Iglauer took full advantage of this source.
He remembers how he gained first knowledge of Koester and his company.
first read about Bob In 1966. I was more of a folk music fan than
a blues fan. I went up to a folk music festival in Toronto called
The Mariposa Folk Festival and picked up a magazine called Hoot
and there was a review of a bunch of blues records. At the end of
the review it said If you ever go to Chicago and want to hear some
of this stuff live look up Bob Koester at the Jazz Record Mart and
he'll take you out to clubs you would otherwise never hear about.
Iglauer wanted to hire a blues band for a college function he remembered
the article in the magazine and immediately set out for Chicago.
He was so taken by the charm and hospitality of the record company
owner that he made several trips back to the city. Frequenting the
Chicago clubs with Koester Iglauer often stayed overnight and slept
on the floor. After college Iglauer moved to Chicago to "be around
the music". The Jazz Record Mart became a hangout for him and eventually
his place of employment.
was doing anything and everything I was told to do; getting coffee
helping people set up equipment. In January of 1970 at a session
for Jr. Wells' South Side Blues Jam, two of the musicians Fred Below
and Ernest Johnson came to the session in some friend's car. The
friend had jumped a stop sign or red light and had been stopped
by the cops. He didn't have a license so they threw everyone in
jail. My job was to go down and bail them out. I was learning everything
I could about recording technology, how to deal with musicians,
about mixing, and he let me do that."
was a mentor for Iglauer. He did not teach with the soft strokes
of a tutor but with the strong hand of a master. His commanding
presence was straight and to the point. Iglauer states that he was
not malleable when it came to the inner workings of the business.
berated his employees constantly. He was a real tough guy to work
with; he kept real odd hours. You couldn't do anything to please
him. I'd pack a carton and he'd throw it across the room to see
if he could make it break open because I had done a bad packing
job. I got all the shit work but that was okay, I certainly wasn't
complaining. We had screaming arguments all the time and he almost
fired me a number of times. What he did was right. My whole attitude
was Bob knows everything I know nothing. For someone who was just
a schleper employee he gave me a lot of space and I appreciate it.
He doesn't know how much I appreciate it."
Iglauer learned the business in this manner Delmark Records became
a major exponent of Alligator Records. It was partially because
of the learned appreciation of the music and its artists that Alligator
Records came about. Iglauer suggested that Koester record Hound
Dog Taylor, a local musician. Koester explains that he sidestepped
the suggestion because of cash flow problems.
had really scraped and scrimped to get my money to get the down
payment on the building. When he wanted me to record Hound Dog Taylor
I demurred cause I just didn't have the bread."
Iglauer and Alligator Records is not the only company or person
that Koester and Delmark Records is responsible for propagating
into the music industry. The list includes: Chuck Nessa of Nessa
Records and the distribution company Master Takes; Jim O'Neal of
Rooster Records and Living Blues Magazine; Michael Frank owner of
Earwig Records; and the late Bruce Kaplan of Flying Fish Records.
All of these individuals have been at one time early in their career
a part of Delmark Records or an employee of the Jazz Record Mart.
Chuck Nessa played an important part in expanding the Delmark jazz
catalog. He is one of the living examples of the generosity and
talent-seeking abilities of Koester.
used to come in from Iowa City where he was going to college and
expressed an interest in coming to work and wound up producing some
of our AACM albums."
explains that it was Bob who wanted him to work at the record store.
"In 1965 was going to school at the University of Iowa and started
coming to Chicago and going out to blues and jazz clubs. Bob, in
those days was a guide of sorts taking people out to places like
Sylvio's on the westside and Theresa's. After about four or five
visits he suggested I come to work for him running the record store.
I wasn't interested in running the store but I was interested in
how records were made. So I said 'If you let me make some records
I'll come and work in the store for you.' And he said 'Okay'. I
went away and I'm sure he though he'd never see me again. One day
I showed up and said. 'Here I am', he said 'Oh! okay' and he honored
it. He gave me a job for $50 a week and I produced some records
story gets twisted between the two parties involved but the results
are the same. Nessa produced part of the AACM Avant Garde series.
The Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians encompassed
a group of musicians who had not been recorded yet and were part
of a serious jazz movement occurring in Chicago. The AACM consisted
of noted jazz musicians such as Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman,
Muhal Richards Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre.
The Delmark recordings were the first for this group and Koester
acknowledges that these sessions played a large part in his jazz
the period that Chuck Nessa was affiliated with us we did the Avant
Garde scenes; Roscoe Mitchell and those guys. That's probably the
biggest claim we make in the jazz field."
Nessa does not confess it, the records that he produced under the
Delmark label are an essential part of recorded jazz history .
industry bigwig that passed through the influences of Koester and
his company is Amy van Singel. Amy worked at the Jazz Record Mart
and would have gone on to become an integral part of Delmark had
she not chosen to go with Living Blues magazine. Koester openly
expresses his affection for his former employee.
was a very shy girl, at least at the beginning of her career. I
kind of miss Amy's presence on the scene. I m very proud of her;
she really was a mainstay of the magazine Living Blues."
Frank, owner of Earwig Records, was directly influenced by Koester
and his record company. Earwig is a resounding tribute to what can
be absorbed from Koester and Delmark. Frank talks of the overwhelming
effect that Koester had on him.
first time I asked Bob for a job was when I was getting ready to
finish college. I was in Pennsylvania and I wrote him a letter asking
him for a job. I had just about every Delmark blues album there
was and some jazz. I guess I thought it was more than a one or two
person company. So he wrote me back this sort of hodgepodge of a
letter which part of it was personalized to me and part of it was
a form letter. From what I recall it wasn't even all the same typing.
He had a part of a form letter and he typed the first and last part
and just threw it together and sent it to me. That was my first
reality of what Delmark was."
came to Chicago for a blues weekend in 1970. While there he went
to the Jazz Record Mart to meet Koester and see the store where
a large part of his collection came from. In 1972 he moved to Chicago
and began to hang out with Koester. While going to the different
blues clubs the acquaintance grew into a close friendship. Frank's
memory fails him as to who asked the vital question but it was asked.
some point I can't remember if I asked him or he asked me first,
but I started working at the record store and we became friends."
friends Koester and Frank shared some wild times together, some
that called for the removal of clothes.
the early seventies there was a bunch of us that used to go out
to the clubs. Sometimes we'd get pretty drunk. Bob as he drank got
more and more wild and louder and more risque and more verbose.
He was fun. The craziest thing we did was in 1978. There was this
club called Else Where on Clark St. (in Chicago). It was the second
club owned by Bill Gilmore who owns Blues and Blues Etc. There was
this female vocalist Arlene Brown playing at this club. She had
a local single called I'm a Streaker. It was a smaller club so they
couldn't afford to hire her whole revue which in bigger clubs she'd
have male streakers. Bob and I decided to streak her show. We figured
we liked her record we liked her and she should be able to have
the whole effect of her show. She started into this song and Bob
and I went into the men's room and corralled this Japanese blues
fan to watch our clothes. We took off our clothes and danced from
the men's room around into the other room up to the front of the
bandstand and back through the room and then out. Amy van Singel
took a picture of it and published it in Living Blues. People in
the audience didn't know what was going on, but we talked to Arlene
afterwards and she thought it was neat. We did it out of tribute
and respect to her."
was not only the wild times that were important; Frank speaks highly
of Koester as a mentor and a role model for the independent record
label. Noting Delmark's impact on recorded music, Frank has this
to say regarding the importance of the label.
lot of us have started labels and gone into the music business directly
after working with or for Bob; learning from him. We would not have
ever gotten to that point if we were not blues fans who bought all
of his records. All of the blues label heads that I know started
out as fans. Some musicians, some fans, or both. And as fans we
bought records and Delmark was putting out records that nobody else
was putting out. If he hadn't been doing that, there would have
been a big missing part in the scene. The label's impact is that
it expands the body of work of recorded blues and jazz significantly
in terms of creating records that are very important in the history
of the genre. Some of the most important records in blues and jazz
are on Delmark. Some of his records are classics; like Magic Sam.
He was a total unknown, but 'till this day, largely because of his
records that Bob put out, he is acknowledged as one of the greatest
blues musicians of the modem era. Big Joe Williams was recorded
a lot and some of the best records he made were on Delmark. That's
what's important about him, he has created records that will stand
up in the history of recorded blues as some of the greatest records
of all blues recorded"
is able to capture the true soul of the artists because of his genuine
affection for them and their music. As has been stated previously,
one of Koester's favorite pastimes was to go out and hear the music
as it was being created. One particular club that he frequented,
Theresa's on Chicago's westside, featured harmonica whiz Junior
Wells. Wells and Koester established a friendship and out of it
came several hits including Hoodoo Man Blues, the largest selling
album recorded by Delmark. Wells vividly remembers when Koester
asked him to record on his label.
came around to the clubs where I was playing. He came in, heard
me and asked me if I would be interested in doing some recordings.
I told him 'I don't know. Right now I'm not under contract with
anybody ' So we were hanging out and decided we would try it. I
have done things with other people but I wasn't getting what I wanted
out of them. So for me, getting really attached to Bob was nice.
He always gave me what I liked; which was the freedom of the studio.
Whatever I did was alright. He didn't try to tell me this and that
there, like a lot of studios or recording companies you go into".
light of the freedom of movement that Koester gave to Wells he was
able to re-record Hoodoo Man Blues. Originally recorded on 78 for
another label it was destroyed by an irate disc jockey. It hurt
Wells badly enough that he decided to never again record that particular
song. Koester using cunning and courage made it possible to release
the smash hit. Wells recants the sneak attack.
I did this particular thing for Bob he asked me to do Hoodoo Man
and I said. 'No! I don t want to do that tune again.' He said, 'Just
try it' I said, 'No' getting angry, 'I don t want to try it!!!'
So me and Buddy Guy was recording and messing around waiting for
them to get things together. Buddy said, 'Try this Jr.' He started
playing and I went to singing it. I didn't even know that Bob had
really recorded it. So after we had finished doing the other things
Bob said, 'Jr. could I play something back for you? I want you to
listen to this.' He said 'I hope you don't get mad with me.' And
I said, 'No, I m not going to get mad with you.' So he played it
back and he said, 'What do you think?' I said, 'I like it.' It had
that thing it didn't have on the first recording when I made it.
I sounded real good. I never would have thought it would have been
the number one LP for all these years. That makes me proud of it.
I'm glad he sneaked it in on me."
is of the older generation of the blues and though Koester prefers
an older traditional sound he does not close his eyes to younger
musicians who have that feel. He is consonant in the way he feels
about the artists he chooses. He looks for a particular quality
and leans toward the more customary sound of the blues. Dave Specter,
one of Delmark's newer artists explains that even though he is of
a younger generation his style of music is what Koester looks for
in a recording artist. "We play the more traditional styles of Chicago
Blues and West Coast blues and that's one of he things that Bob
Koester mostly looks for in his artists and the people he records.
He definitely favors the more traditional styles as opposed to the
blues rock styles that are more common today."
denotes the significance of Delmark from an artist's point of view.
He also reiterates Koester's policy of letting the artists be and
do what they feel is necessary to complete a recording.
is one of the most important labels. They've recorded some of the
classic modern Chicago blues and country blues. He's very easy to
work with. He let me bring in the songs I wanted to do and the people
I wanted to play with. He keeps a very low profile in the studio.
I have a lot of respect for the label just in terms of them being
a more artistic non-commercial label."
was definitely not on Koester's mind when he recorded Jimmie Lee
Robinson, the former sideman for the legendary Freddy King and Little
Walter. Robinson was backed up by the ice Cream Men. Scott Dirks,
harmonica player for the band tells a story that Koester recently
walked into Lillys, a small club in Chicago, and heard Robinson
and the band. "He said, 'Wow this guy sounds great I've got to record
him.' Pretty soon we were in the Delmark studios recording." The
Lonely Traveller was released early in 1994.
Koester likes a sound or an artist, he sets the wheels of recording
in motion. But these are not whims. Trust his judgment; Koester
has been at this longer than most.
Records has had a hegemonic presence within the blues industry.
It is known throughout the world by true blues fans as well as browsers
of the genre. Some of the most prolific blues ever recorded have
come about as a direct result of Delmark sessions. For the last
four decades the record company has captured on vinyl, tapes, and
lately CDs the rare essence of the blues. Within the traditionally
solid styles of the genre, Delmark has amassed a vast quantity of
newly released and reissued material.
are many independent labels scattered across the United States and
throughout Europe that have a more than satisfactory catalog, but
few have gotten started purely for the love of rare music. Almost
none continue to operate for this reason. Most start off with noble
intentions. Because blues is part of the oldest and most significant
of all American music it can evoke a feeling of truth and accentuate
the many injustices of the world. Immediately a hero the label owner
steps up to right the wrongs and give the artist a shot at what
he or she deserves. But somewhere along the way the original intent
gets lost and the poison apple of commercialism taints the plan.
Delmark however seems not to have bitten from the forbidden fruit.
Delmark is consistent, lying close to the line of traditionalism.
and Frank who are both self-admitted products of Koester and his
company stand behind the previous statements. Both express the fact
that Koester does indeed keep to his purpose of recording the classic
sounds of the blues. Frank reflects on this and how Koester influenced
him the most.
lot of the artists on the label are older. Before he recorded Magic
Sam and Jimmy Dawkins he recorded people like Big Joe Williams.
He influenced me in that we both try to capture the music the way
it is. He doesn't have any preconceived notions of what the music
should sound like when recording somebody. He just tries to capture
the music how it is being played without special effects."
has been mentioned that Koester came into the record business because
of his love for music. In this way he is doing what he wants not
always attending to tasks that have to be done. Iglauer goes further
saying that it is not the business of recording that Koester is
was never very interested in running his business as a business.
Bob made tons of deals that were never put on paper. It was just
too much trouble. He wasn't good about sending out statements, making
collections or doing the financial end of the work. None of that
interested him. He likes the music. He likes the fun. He's doing
it for love."
nurturing of a hobby can be a labor of love.