Chris Strachwitz Interview: Collecting 78rpm Records
Chris Strachwitz started in the music business as a passionate 78 record collector. Hear him tell the story on how he started Arhoolie Records with the funds earned by wheeling and dealing in old 78rpm records.
- Strachwitz Recalls Meeting Rev. Overstreet 00:00
Read a transcript of the interview following the photo gallery below.
Interview by: Tom Diamant
Date: August 4, 2020
Location: On the telephone in San Rafael, California (Strachwitz) and El Cerrito, California (Diamant)
After the interview was over Mr. Strachwitz wrote these further comments:
And now for an afterthought: Collecting is obviously a real addiction! And collecting old records is a very special type of addiction which not only gives you great pleasure per se – but the hunt is rewarding and enjoyable like when my father hunted animals which we enjoyed eating. But with records you don’t have to kill a living being but you can further enjoy the fact that others may also enjoy the incredible music in those old grooves if you help make them available again on modern sound carriers! I feel this is especially desirable for cultural and historic reasons but even better if the artists can be rewarded if they can still be found. My friend Ed Denson back in the 1960s came up with the term “Liberating the People’s Music” instead of using the negative term of Bootlegging! But that is another story.
78s also were THE only real records from around 1900 to the early 1950s to let us listen to the world’s ever changing vernacular music as it steadily evolved and changed. We will never know exactly how our music sounded in earlier times. Also a 78 represents one unique and amazing audio snapshot which can never be repeated later exactly the same way. It was also a “direct to disc” version of a specific performance pure and well recorded by the best sound technicians with a great ear and with good presence and balance without over dubbing or editing or any other weird manipulations only generally widely possible since the introduction of recording tape in the early 1950s. — Chris Strachwitz, August 31, 2020
Read the interview transcript below the photos.
All rights to the interview are reserved by the Arhoolie Foundation. Please do not use anything from this website without permission. firstname.lastname@example.org
Tom Diamant: Let’s talk about your fascination with 78 RPM records.
Chris Strachwitz: I guess like the late Paul Oliver I think once said to me, or said to somebody else about me, that I’m almost a fanatical devotee to collecting 78 rpm records. And I think that is probably true, and especially that you asked me about it, and thinking back to when I was about maybe 10 years old. Since of course 78s have been the only sound carrier except for cylinders, beginning in 1900 roughly all the way until the 1950s, when of course 45s, LPs, CDs and everything after that came in.
But the 78 was really the sound carrier, or record as they call them here in the US, I think Europeans usually call them sound carriers, which is a much better term. But anyway, because as a child I remember already being absolutely fascinated with records, and we had an old windup machine I think in one of our rooms upstairs in our big house, and I always remember playing records on that, but then later on, and my sister confirmed this, we also had an electric one downstairs in the big living room. And I’m not sure whether it was there, but probably by that time, I think I must have been at least 10 or more.
One of my favorite records was a very cheerful disc called “Die Berliner Luft”. It was about how wonderful the air is in Berlin, and it goes something like this, (singing) and it was a really joyful march like easygoing thing. It was from an operetta (composed by Paul Linke). Until one day my father walked into the room and he said “Christian, you can’t listen to that record anymore.” And I was totally put out by that, and asked him, “Why is that?” And he said “Well, because it’s composed by a Jew.” I don’t even, at that time, knew exactly what a Jew was yet, but he said that if the Nazi leader here in the village would hear about us letting the children play these Jewish records, as he called them, he could give him all kinds of crap, and I’ll never forget that.
Anyway, in 1938, also my mother and my father came back from the last time they visited their relatives here in the United States. My mother brought back some 78s and one of them was Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” and another one was a silly foxtrot that I think we remembered as, “Oh I Hate to be Alone with Mary Brown”, something like that. Well the amazing thing is that you can actually hear all this material now on the YouTube and I’ve played it for my sister and it brought back wonderful memories.
Anyway, so I’ve been absolutely fascinated by records ever since I can recall. I was also already a collector in those days, of not only records necessarily. I mean we did keep those records because they were wonderful things, they were like people consider their cell phones now, almost. You couldn’t live without them. Of course, they were the only thing that brought you music that you have never heard before. It was just an extraordinary invention. Except for live music, that was the only kind there was. There wasn’t all this myriad of things that we have now. Anyway, after the war finally came to an end, we were lucky enough to flee to an uncle’s house, which was near Brunswick, which was in the British zone. There I started to listen to the Armed Forces radio network, and I heard swing and was totally taken by Lionel Hampton’s “Hey! Ba-Ba-Re-Bop”, and Tommy Dorsey’s “Boogie Woogie” and things of that kind, and I totally fell in love with American music. It started with Al Jolson and all that stuff.
And then when we finally came here in 1947, we were lucky enough to live with a wonderful great aunt in Reno, Nevada, and she had a huge living room with a record player and also a big radio, and the radio really became my connection to the world of music that was out there. Not only that but live music too. I was first really taken by New Orleans jazz because I was sent to the Cate School, which was a high school preparatory school near Santa Barbara, and there I not only listened to hillbilly music in the mornings on XERB, which was a big radio station from Rosarito Beach in Baja, California, Mexico you see, but they were broadcasting hillbilly music into the Southern California basin, which had a huge audience from Oklahomans and all the Dust Bowl refugees. Mexican music wasn’t a thing to sell. Hillbilly music however was becoming a huge business. And you didn’t hear that on most local stations which didn’t go very far, but XERB reached all the way up into Washington and Nevada and everything else. Because at that time Mexican music really was not much of a salable thing, it was not really heard on local radio.
But the other music of course I fell in love with was New Orleans jazz after a friend of mine, Bill Melon, said one day, “Let’s go see this movie in Carpinteria called “New Orleans”. It had in it Louis Armstrong leading the full Kid Ory Creole Jazz Band, which absolutely was gorgeously recorded, like a real New Orleans jazz band of that time, with solid 4/4 rhythm. I was just absolutely captivated by it. Anyway, this kept going. And I heard all this hillbilly music, I think one of the first records I ever bought was probably T. Texas Tyler, “Remember Me” was on one side, (singing). He was known as “the man with a million friends”, and he had this wonderful growl in his voice. And the flip side was “Oklahoma Hills”, that composition by Woody Guthrie. Or was it by… No, I think it was a Woody Guthrie composition, or Arthur. One of the Guthries anyway.
So that kept going in me and I became totally addicted to records and actually put together a record player in my room, I think you could buy a turntable and then I hooked it up to a little amplifier and a little speaker and eventually, even got an oscillator which is a little radio station that would broadcast for half a mile or so. And to the dislike of my fellow schoolmates, I would blast out their pop music which was dreadful stuff at the time, was nothing but sappy Doris Day, and I forgot. Four Freshmen, I really don’t remember all that junk. But anyways, I became known as “Chris the Lost Mountaineer”, the hillbilly fan.
Tom Diamant: Did you broadcast as a radio station, is that what you’re saying?
Chris Strachwitz: Yeah. Exactly. I called it KSBS I think, the Voice of the High House, that was the dormitory I was living in. Actually the school eventually did build a radio station and I think they actually remember me as being the guy who started that craziness. Then I even bought a little disc cutter, and I’ll never forget … When I had it going I had a little microphone with it and the Latin teacher happened to walk in my room, I guess he had to check up on us, and I stuck the microphone in his face and said to him: “Mr. Crawford, do you have a comment to make?” And I’ll never forget what he said, he said “The rich get richer and the poor have children.” I mean, if that wasn’t the perceptive statement to make by a teacher who was teaching at a very, fairly wealthy group of young boys at this private school.
Anyway, it was also during my time at the Cate School, which I was there from ’47 to ’51, my four years in high school, that I heard my first Mexican music. But I think that was in my last years there, when I caught, in the afternoon I would skip out of sports and go back into my room and listen to the radio, which was really my outlet to the world of music. I heard this Mexican music and it was both Mariachi with singers as well as, I do remember accordion music. I thought it was so similar to what we called hillbilly music at that time or country music, the duet singing and just a feeling for them. It was always in polka and waltz time. I just totally fell in love with it even then. Of course, I never had much of a chance to do much about it because I was still basically very poor, records were very expensive and I was getting only a little bit of money every week as a, what do you call it when you give kids their little…
Tom Diamant: Oh, allowance.
Chris Strachwitz: Allowance, yeah. I would spend it on, some days when we were taken to Santa Barbara for a dentist appointment, for example, there was a wonderful record shop in Santa Barbara where the guy really knew his traditional jazz. And I remember I bought my first Bunk Johnson records with George Lewis and so on. It was just… But those were some of the first records that I bought and I was really a jazz fan and one of the teachers, Mr Martin, an English teacher, he was also very sympathetic and loved jazz. I would sometimes go to his room and we’d listen to jazz of all kinds from Jelly Roll Morton to Eddie Condon’s band and so forth.
In a way, I started collecting blues records seriously I think, by the time I went up to Berkeley because I almost flunked out of Pomona which is the college I went to first. Because me and Frank Demond, who later became a trombone player in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, he also was playing music already and we went to hear the George Lewis band almost every night at the Beverly Cavern in Los Angeles. And that was before there was a freeway, it took us forever to drive in and back again. I mean, it was just ridiculous. But anyway, we were such fanatics.
I became a collector and I had always been a collector, even as a child I was collecting these things that the Nazis would put out, for example, like the Red Cross, they would collect every year from people to give to help the poor and so on, and in return for your giving a lot, (which my father did) they would put out a series of little tokens. They varied from little clay-made birds with a pin on them so you can stick them on your shirt… But they were wonderful birds, all the different birds, there were usually 10 or 12 different ones, I think. And then one time they issued a whole series of little tiny booklets about Hitler’s warmongering, of course he didn’t call it that. His excursions into Poland and France and all that kind of thing.
Anyway, I was fascinated by… And I was also a coin collector already early on, so maybe collecting was just one of my insanities, I was almost born with. So I was already a maniac collector, and of course this continued through my long insanity of collecting phonograph records and I’ll try to get back to… In Berkeley I really took up seriously buying blues records because I actually started Arhoolie Records in 1960 by auctioning off blues records that were, at that time in the late ’50s, especially from the mid to late ’50s, they were going out of style. The 45s were coming in. People told me about there being a truckload, I think, of brand new still in boxes records at this flea market in San Jose. I remember going to that when I was in Berkeley where I studied at UC after I got out of the army, especially from ’54 to ’56. That’s right, that’s when it probably was.
I’ll never forget, they were probably about 10 cents each if you bought them by the boxful, there were probably 25 in the box. And then I took those records and sent a list to this VJM magazine in Britain, which listed hard to find American jazz and blues records, and that’s how I really auctioned off records and made some money that way in those days. It really financed Arhoolie Records.
Tom Diamant: You said you listened to hillbilly music and country music and you listened to jazz, but how did you first hear blues? How did you get into that?
Chris Strachwitz: That is difficult for me to say in this day and age. Of course blues and jazz were not that far apart. They were part of a long Black tradition. Oh yeah, that’s how it happened. When I went to Pomona in ’51, I started listening to Hunter Hancock, Old HH on KFVD, it’s the same station that Woody Guthrie broadcast on in the ’30s. He had a program called Harlem Matinee and by ’51 he was playing a lot of this down home blues, of course not purely but he played Fats Domino, Muddy Waters and Lightning Hopkins and stuff. Of course most of it was vocal groups and what we called honking bands. I think that’s when I really fell in love with the Blues.
I think my first blues however, I actually heard in Reno, so it must have been … I would go home on vacations to Reno. Anyway, my great aunt had a Black one-armed gardener, and when I told him that I liked blues, he told me there was a little joint right next to the railroad station in Reno where there was this piano player and I remember that was the first live blues I think I ever heard. I have a feeling it probably was Mercy Dee, but I also heard it on the juke boxes but I have no recollection. I didn’t ask the man. I was much too shy and nervous to even try to find out.
But anyway, it all developed in Berkeley mostly by the time I went there. First from ’53 to ’54, because in ’54 I was drafted into the army and of course I encountered it there because some of the guys in the barracks had blues records, I remember that too. And then when I got out of the army, that’s when I really started seriously grabbing them.
Tom Diamant: Back then, where would you be buying these 78s at? I mean, you mentioned the flea market.
Chris Strachwitz: That was actually a rare event. Well I heard from, of course there was a record store, there was a funny little store on Eddy street in San Francisco. It was an old Englishman, and he had jazz records but he also had blues records. It was just amazing. I was mainly involved in the traditional jazz but I think I did buy some really good blues records on Melotone, even already, from the ’30s stuff. But that’s all very vague in my memory, all that blends together. And then there was the Yerba Buena music store in Oakland, and she carried blues records also but it was mostly traditional jazz. And of course I went to West Oakland and places like that and I remember it was a record store in West Oakland just off of Seventh Street that was selling 78s really cheap, because this was again, at a time when 45s were taking over. And I remember getting, oh what was that? Le Roy Dallas’ “Going Away Blues” on Sittin’ In With Records.
They were usually in mint condition because a lot of stuff, these jukebox guys, a lot of the stores would also operate jukeboxes and I found out that… Oh also I went to the Tip Top music company in San Francisco, which was a jukebox supplier, and they would sell me their 78s quite cheaply, I think 10 or 20 cents, I forgot what it was. And especially discs for which they did not get much demand, those were still brand new – but they would order several copies of any new record!
And then I started finding out, almost any record which had “blues singer with guitar or harmonica” on the label, I would grab the thing. Mostly on Mercury or Chess Records I think, I don’t really remember, they had all different labels. So I started learning where to find this stuff cheaply. They were just everywhere, it was just totally surprising of how big this business was by then. Because there was this huge audience of African Americans who had come to California, again during the wartime to work in the ship yards and other industries where they could make much better living as you probably all remember.
That was a huge… That’s how that wonderful lady who is a Ranger now at the museum, at that Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond (California). She had this record store with her husband in Berkeley, Reid’s Records, her name is Betty Reid Suskin, this wonderful 90-some year old lady was just extraordinary. And I recently talked to her about it and she said “Oh yeah, my husband, he started a record store and he had an Italian-American friend and he said to him, ‘I need this kind of music (Blues) on my jukeboxes and I can’t find them any place.'” So he got Mr. Reid, that is Betty Reid’s husband, to carry that kind of material and it became a huge success and they became really well known, not only for selling blues records but also gospel music became really big.
I remember listening to, when I was going to school in Berkeley, to the program every Sunday morning on KRE, which was a wonderful little station right down by the freeway in the mudflats, and they would broadcast live quartets from there. But they also had a program for Reid’s Records and he would announce all these programs apparently that are happening at the Oakland Auditorium. I remember taking this young girl from UC Berkeley, I think she must have been totally spooked. That’s the first time I ever witnessed a real gospel concert, a Black gospel show, when we went to see the Staple Singers in the late ’50s. It must have been when their Vee-Jay Records were really big.
I’ll never forget sitting next to her, and the couple next to us they would say, “Listen to that, that ain’t no man singing, that’s a girl up there singing,” talking about young Mavis, and I mean, she just tore the place up. People were falling out, it was just unbelievable. I said, “Oh, that low voice of hers,” and that magic, it had that wonderful Mississippi sound, it was just… I just can’t describe it, it was just this emotion-packed church service. Anyway, I just became totally involved in Black music, I felt that was the only thing.
Although I did also keep listening to hillbilly music, there was, this station Cactus Jack was on, I forgot the name of the station in Oakland (KWBR?), and he had that theme song of Bob Wills’,”Let’s Ride with Bob”. I’ll never forget that. When you hear a song over and over again, just like Reid’s Records on Sunday mornings. Their theme song was by the Angelic Gospel Singers, “Touch Me Lord Jesus”. You should really listen to the original Gotham Record of that. It is just haunting, just these four women, wonderful piano player, very easy touch, oh God. You’re bringing back all kinds of memories now talking about it. Well, I guess I was lucky to hear this music at its height, in a way. All of it, not just the hillbilly music but the blues and the gospel music and the late-coming New Orleans jazz, too. I mean, I thought it was so soulful what they were doing.
Tom Diamant: You were involved in buying records and selling them to Europeans and gaining some money to start Arhoolie Records, but as well you obviously started collecting them and not selling them all.
Chris Strachwitz: Correct, correct. Oh yeah, I would always keep a copy. These were duplicates, and I wouldn’t hesitate if they… Like I mentioned to you, at that flea market, I remember buying a whole box of this Excelsior record by Smokey Hogg. I think I probably paid 10 or 15 cents for each of them, and then sold them for roughly $2 to the Europeans. Of course I had to pack them up, but I was used to doing that kind of packing, because when back after the end of the war you see, actually, our dear relatives sent us Care packages. And so once I got here to the States, I was the one who would make up packages to send to people in Germany who were still there. We were lucky to get out of there in ’47 but we had a lot of hungry friends and people, so I was always the one who was making the packages, so I got a good practice in packaging boxes and how to send things overseas. And I quickly learned how to pack 78s really well.
I don’t think I ever had any one break of the ones I packed, and in those days, the Post Office was just magic. And so I would buy duplicates. There I had 25 copies of that one, and the same thing would happen, once I remember Jack Lauderdale in the early ’60s, I bought some masters from him on the Swingtime and Downbeat label and he had 78s and I took of course boxes full of each, and I started auctioning those off, by Lowell Fulson and whatever. I mean, the record business wasn’t only trying to hear music but I was also collecting it and selling it and wheeling and dealing. And Jack’s Records Cellar, of course I already knew and there all the collectors would hang out and you’d get to know others.
I think one of my big hauls during the time was when my great aunt helped me buy a step-in van. It was a little laundry truck that I drove all the way down to Brunswick, Georgia where I had visited my sister who was married and lived with her husband down there. And I’ll never forget, I found a jukebox operator in Brunswick who had a big stash of old blues records from the ’30s, you see. And so my great aunt was always very good about judging people by where their passion lay, and so she figured, well, I would become a good dealer in antiques eventually, and she also told me where the antique stores were in San Francisco. I mean, it was really interesting. Anyway, and so I hauled those up to Reno. Again, that was a big stash that I eventually auctioned off to start Arhoolie with. Yeah, that probably was in, oh God. That must have been in the late ’50s though, still.
Tom Diamant: You mentioned Jack Records Cellar, talk a little about that? About Jack.
Chris Strachwitz: Okay, that’s Norman Pierce. He was on Haight Street I think at that time, and he was in a basement there. It became the hangout where collectors, mostly of jazz records but also of blues and country, would gather and swap stories. And I think I got to know Bob Pinson there and also some people from San Francisco. Once you get into that world of record collectors back then, that was really, to us, the music. It was jazz and blues and to some degree a little bit of gospel music but mainly jazz and blues. Oh, and hillbilly music, I mean. Bob Pinson was the one who was a country collector right from the get go and he’s the one who took me to hear the New Lost City Ramblers. He said, “Chris, you ought to hear this little band that’s going to be playing at Stanford.” I think by that time I was teaching already, that must have been in ’59 or something.
We heard them at Stanford, and they did this funny song about the All-Go-Hungry Hash House where I board, where the butter had red hair and the baby had his feets all in the soup! I thought it was the damnedest song I ever heard. I think John Cohen sang it. And when I got back with Bob to his house, I said, “Where the hell do they get these things?” And he played me the original 78 of it. He had that, and I was just amazed. So you just learned about these things. I think there was also a guy at Berkeley somehow, yeah I believe he was a record collector, and he had that wonderful record “Brown Skin Gal” by Cripple Clarence Lofton. That’s right, that’s where I first heard that record. He was a wonderful piano player, and this Brown Skin Gal, you should listen to it. It just absolutely grabbed me when I first heard that. That was from the ’30s.
And of course I had also heard other stuff, because when I got that big haul out of Georgia there was a lot of Peetie Wheatstraw, and stuff like that in it. Washboard Sam. Bluebirds and Deccas and so on. But anyway, I now realize I think I wasted most of my life really collecting records, and dealing and wheeling and enjoying them, rather than studying very much. But by the time I started teaching, I also got into making recordings. When in 1959 I first heard from Sam Charters, whom I’d met in Berkeley too, during my last years up there, because he was writing the book, The Country Blues, you see. And he had a trunk full of old 78s. I didn’t really like them. I know he had some Blind Lemon Jefferson, but to me they were just too tinny. I much preferred Lightning Hopkins and Sonny Boy Williamson. They were so electric and they were so rhythmic. I was just…
Anyway, all these things blended together. But by the time I went to teach, and of course I took a big trip in 1960, and joined up with Paul Oliver and Mack McCormick, but it was already in ’59 that I went to Houston for the first time, because Sam Charters had sent me this postcard, “I found Lightning Hopkins.” Because when he was still at UC Berkeley I remember I introduced him really to Lightning Hopkins. Sam didn’t really care for him that much, because he compared him to Blind Lemon, or whatever. It wasn’t quite the same thing. But then he realized that they all came from the same source. And so he really had taken an interest in Lightning, and when he wrote to me saying, “I found him,” because none of us knew where these guys were from, because we didn’t have the sense to talk to the, call the record companies, and they probably would have never told us anyway, because why open it up to competition. If they had somebody they probably figured, “Oh, these guys want to steal that.” Anyway, and so it just kept going like that.
Tom Diamant: When you started taking these trips to record people for Arhoolie, you were making them almost yearly. Were you also hunting 78s during those trips, as well as maybe hunting musicians?
Chris Strachwitz: Oh yeah, yes. Absolutely. Especially because it was always easy to hunt for records, because there were junk stores, there were old record stores and juke box operators almost everywhere. And I guess this will get me into the whole Mexican thing, because that really started I think someplace along those lines, and of course driving to Texas, I would hear Mexican music on the radio and stop in Austin. So I remember meeting other collectors, and people all around, and every time, I wasn’t really looking that much for artists, because I guess to some degree I was, but those were not easy to find. I mean, the reason why I actually found most of them was because the people with me helped me get in touch. Like Mance Lipscomb, that was because I was with Mack McCormick, who was trying to be Lightning Hopkins’ agent.
But in that year, in 1960, I also had a list from Paul Oliver as to who to look for in Dallas so I became a detective! That summer I had a tape machine with me, but Lightning was just about booked to go to California, and so that didn’t materialize. Anyway, and so Mack had a fantastic knowledge about Texas, especially ethnic groups, and where they were, and what they were doing. He literally took me around Houston in 1961 and introduced me not only to the blues world there, but also via Lightning of course, but then also in regard to the creole music, Zydeco stuff. And that’s where I made that first Zydeco LP, at a Sunday afternoon Zydeco contest. I remember there was even the Sam Brothers’ father. That was how I first recorded him with a piece, and these other guys I recorded on that trip.
Because they were also friendly people, and they just were so full of this music, which I just totally adored. I mean, they were so unique. I’d never heard anything like it in my life. And it was so rhythmic, and people were dancing and having a wonderful time. I don’t know, like Sam Charters told me later, “Chris, you were lucky to be there at the beginning of a genre, as it was evolving.” Of course I never was aware of the fact, how this music was always changing so much. Because I always thought, “Oh my God, this is just great the way it is.” I don’t think I ever thought it would change. I thought this is what it was and would always be that. Anyway, that gets me a little off the track about the records, but-
Tom Diamant: You were talking about how you first started collecting the Mexican records.
Chris Strachwitz: Oh yeah, okay. Well there again, when I drove through Texas, and I think actually a guy in Austin, he was a musician too, and his father was a salesman for some record company or something, and he told me, “There’s this fellow Rangel, Mr. Rangel, who has a Corona record label,” and I think I found some records on Corona by Santiago Jiménez already. And so he told me about this guy Rangel. And so in San Antonio I went and visited several times, Mr. Rangel, because he legendarily had a basement full of old records from the ’30s. But he would never let me in. But eventually, I’m not sure how many years I pestered him, he finally… Oh no. I never got to his stash. It was by getting to know Salome Gutiérrez, who was starting his little record company and label down there in San Antonio, and one year I visited him, and in his backyard he had all these stacks of blues records, on Decca and stuff!
And I said, “Salome, where did you get those?” “Oh, Rangel had to clear out his basement”. and Salome kept all the Mexican stuff, but didn’t know what to do with the rest and dumped them in his backyard! I rescued quite a few of them. But anyway, so I realized that there were also jukebox operators and stores that had places full of stuff, and so it just became the same kind of mania. And I remember here in San Francisco, I kept pestering the Sanchez Music Company, because I heard that she had a back room full of… That was on Mission Street, of old Spanish records, and so on. And I finally went there after years of trying, but sometimes it took years to get these people to move. She finally said, “Okay, I’ll let you have some of them.” And so me and Zack Salem I think went and got a bunch of them out of there. And that was a pretty good haul, actually. Some 78s even from the ’20s in there.
And the same thing happened in South Texas. I would go to jukebox operators, and one of the best stashes actually was when I recorded Bongo Joe. I had been in touch with a friend, Larry Skoogs, he lived in San Antonio at the time, and we actually used his house to record Bongo Joe. And about a year later, I heard from people in San Antonio that KCOR sometimes played old Mexican records. And they said, “Yeah, they got them some place.” And so I remember asking Larry Skoogs, (who at that time was working for a rating firm deciding their popularity in the market!) “Do you know who owns KCOR?” And he said, “Yeah, it’s a good friend of mine, Nathan Safir.” And I said, “I’d really like to talk to him.” And so he got me in touch with him and I called Mr. Safir, and he said, “Yeah okay, I will let you come down here as long as you buy a bunch, okay. I’ll sell them to you, 50 cents each.”
And so I packed my car the next day full of boxes and headed for San Antonio, and got this amazing stash. By that time, the station had put most of them into one of those damn warehouses, storage places. They were out in the country there some place, but he turned me loose there. So I spent the whole day long, I was just like a fanatic. I’ll never forget, I drank one Coke after another, and all of a sudden I was grabbing the next batch and a huge tarantula came with a batch. Scared the shit out of me. But I didn’t drop any records.
There again, there was some wonderful stuff. I think most of my Rio Records I got was at that time. Because Rio records, they were real chintzy. They wouldn’t send free copies to stations or stuff, you hardly could find them any other way, except at a radio station. But then I even went back later to the same station and found out they also still had more at the transmitter, actually, and he let me go through those, and that’s where I found a lot of the scroll Victors for example, by the Mariachi Marmolejo. Which of course we finally located them thanks to Jonny Clark, and we then went to Mexico to get their story!
Maybe I should get back to some of the other really major collections, because first of all, when I bought the Ideal label of course I found also a lot of 78s that were sitting out there. And of course I said, “Well, can I have those also?” “Oh yeah, it’s part of the deal. Just take them all.” So I have tons of duplicates of all the Ideal stuff.
But before then, one of the most amazing stashes I ever got was through Terry Zwigoff, who made that wonderful documentary on R. Crumb, the cartoonist. And he’s also a maniac record collector. And him and Crumb were in New York one day, Terry told me, talking to some dealer of records. I don’t know if I’ve told you this story before, but all of a sudden a guy knocks on the door. They had already locked the door because the owner of the store in New York didn’t want to be bothered. But a guy really knocked on the door, and so Terry went outside and asked him, “Well, what do you have? What do you want?” And said, “Well, I’ve got a suitcase of old records, and wondering if you might be interested?”
And Terry said he took a look at the stuff and he was absolutely floored. It was all blues and hillbilly stuff, but it was all from the late ’20s and early ’30s, absolutely the rarest stuff ever and brand new! And so he worked with this guy. He didn’t go down there and buy it all instantly. This guy lived in a little town South of San Antonio. Terry dealt with this guy by mail, and he got the stuff shipped to him and he paid him pretty good prices for all those rare blues and country records from way back. And all of a sudden one day, Terry calls me and says, “Chris, are you interested in Spanish discs,” I forgot what the actually said… but he sent me a sample box of the Mexican records. And he said, “These come from this guy that I’ve been buying these blues and hillbilly records.
And so Terry… That’s right. He had this guy send a boxful, and I was absolutely amazed what was in there. There were some of these Universal Records that I had only seen one ever. The music is not that great, but it was a very rare local El Paso acquired label in the late ’20s that issued that stuff after the success of Victor, with Ralph Peer having recorded Hernandez Y Sifuentes, and so on. And there was unbelievably rare stuff from the late ’20s and early ’30s, almost all in mint condition! So I got in touch with this guy. He was a tough one to bargain with but he said, “Well, there’s roughly 3000 records in this batch”. It was apparently his grandfather who had this record store from the ’20s into the ’30s, and they were all in this little town Persol, south of San Antonio. But I figured I’d better rescue this, and so we finally made a deal and I flew down there, and rented a U-Haul truck. I think I shipped him boxes first, so we could box them up. It was just amazing stuff. All these green Columbias, lots more Universal, Mexican stuff from the ’20s, and scroll Victors, and lots of Bluebirds, early Bluebirds. I think that’s where I got most of my Lydia Mendozas from, because the guy really liked her, and they were all there. I mean, it was just an unbelievable stash. And that was a really, really amazing stash. But a real torture to get them out of the second floor room down to my truck!
And also another great stash of course was through Gene Earle, who was a record collector of country music and Hawaiian records. He met some fellow, and he supplied him with a bunch of rare Vocalions and Brunswicks, and so on. Eugene sent me a postcard. “Chris, are you interested in the Vocalion 8000 series.” I said, “Oh my God, yes.” That early 1930s 8000 stuff is some of the rarest. That’s where the first recording of “Gregorio Cortez” appears on. All kinds of two-part corridos. So I made a deal with the guy who had acquired this amazing stash. I won’t tell you what it was, but I drove down there to LA and loaded down my car. We met in a parking lot like a bunch of drug dealers. I emptied his trunk and I gave him his money, and he was very, very reasonable I must say. And that’s where I got this huge stash of early Vocalions and Deccas and Brunswicks and only one copy of each! A lot of the wonderful Cuban sextetos for example, on Brunswick, and so forth. Really, really scarce stuff.
And so it was by knowing other collectors who didn’t really care about Spanish language material that I really built up this pretty amazing batch. And I guess the last one was the big stash that you drove up from LA. It was, I forgot how I came across that one, but it was a distributor of records in Los Angeles, they were also a distributor of 78s on the Azteca label, as well as LPs and 45s of all other labels, and a humongous pile. I think, do you remember roughly how many we hauled out of there? I think it was totally overloaded, that truck you drove.
Tom Diamant: I’m surprised we didn’t break a spring driving up from LA in that truck (it was so weighted down with records). I just remember meeting you at the truck, and I guess maybe you picked me up from the airport, I can’t remember, and we went to where the truck was. And I just saw how it was loaded down. I thought, “I’m going to drive this?” And it was a truck bigger than any truck I had ever driven in my life.
Chris Strachwitz: I remember yeah, you were so kind enough to drive that thing, because I think I was already feeling totally worn out or some reason, I didn’t want to drive that thing. Also I had my car down there, that’s right. And the real tragedy was that they had so many of those wonderful Azteca 78 records. Of course I kept five of each. I tried to at least keep track of what I was throwing into this dumpster that was there, because they had to clean out that house. It was in an old garage or something. And I was putting this stuff, I think I had loaded up the truck. Or were you there already when I –
Tom Diamant: No, you had loaded up the truck.
Chris Strachwitz: I had loaded it up already, okay.
Tom Diamant: I was just the driver.
Chris Strachwitz: That’s right. So I packed up all the best 45s I could pack. I mean, it was just humongous. Of course those didn’t weigh quite so much, and the LPs, I really grabbed huge amounts of Mexican LPs, great stuff. But the stuff I really felt bad about, throwing away all those Azteca 78s. But yeah, that was pretty amazing. That was I think the last big monster haul we did, and I think I’ve learned my lesson, and it’s probably put me into my rather decrepit state I’m in now.
Tom Diamant: The thing is, that that experience points out, is shellac 78s were heavy, and so you were driving all over the country. You must have really loaded down your vehicles.
Chris Strachwitz: Correct. Correct. I’ll never forget, even the first one I think, when I came back on that trip in 1960 with Paul Oliver and his wife, in my, it was basically a two-door car. That’s right, his poor wife had to sit in the back seat. But we were pulling a trailer (full of 78s!) back from Texas, and that was before there was a Highway 10 freeway. And I remember we barely made it up the last mountain grade, whatever that is, in Arizona. And it started boiling over. I think I had to hire actually a tow truck that pulled me over the top!
I was always loaded down, like when I drove back those records from Brunswick, Georgia. I’ll never forget that. I think I blew out three tires on the way, because those are two records per pound. Two 78s weighed just about a pound, and you can imagine what I was carrying, a ton in there or more in that laundry truck. And they just aren’t made for that kind of weight, because humans or laundry don’t weigh that much. And it all blends together in another way. It was, you asked me quite in the beginning, was I always not only looking for musician but records. It was really primarily records that I was really attracted to.
Oh yeah, there was one more stash in El Paso, that I remember driving back, I’d heard somebody say, “Well this Krupp distributing company,” K-R-U-P-P, I think was the name of the man who had that distributing company in El Paso. And so I thought I’d stop in there, and sure enough he had a lot of Mexican ones, but I was so stupid. I was just so focused on Mexican 78s that I didn’t bother to think about, “Maybe he has other stuff that…” Because when I came back, I mentioned this haul to some collectors here and they said, “Oh, you went to the Krupp’s place?” I said yeah. And so they drove down there the next day and they made a haul of unbelievably rare Chicago blues stuff and things like that. It was huge. So I kicked myself in the rear, with that stupid Strachwitz language, “You look for the 45s.” Because at that time, early 45s really were scarce as hell, especially all those funny little labels that were coming out. Ah well, you can’t have it all. I had my share and fun, I think.
Tom Diamant: You mentioned Terry Zwigoff and R. Crumb as being pretty fanatical. R. Crumb did some artwork for you, and I thought you told me that he didn’t do it for payment, he did it for 78s.
Chris Strachwitz: No, he didn’t want to get paid. That’s right, he didn’t want to get money for it. He said, “Chris, there’s a couple of records I want from you.” And I said, “Okay.” Well one of them was a weird Bluebird of some people playing on bottles or something like that. I wish I remember what it was, but I didn’t really care much, it was a novelty record. And I forgot what the others were. And that’s the one he wanted for doing that wonderful painting of the Klezmorim, on volume two of the Klezmorim (Arhoolie Records LP 3011, CD 309) , that we put out. That was a wonderful, wonderful cover.
Tom Diamant: There’s that picture, I guess on the Arhoolie 40th anniversary box set of you sitting on the ground in front of your car, surrounded by 78s. What’s the story of that?
Chris Strachwitz: That is a good one, because that’s typical. Okay, I was told by somebody… This is already after I got to know Marc and Ann (Savoy), and I was going to Louisiana to record French music for some time. Well people told me that there’s this furniture store in Mamou, that apparently also used to be a juke box distributor, and they thought he probably still has a lot of 78s in the back. I mean, I had already gone to places like Koury’s record store. He had a lot of French 78s and I got a lot of things from him, and so on.
But it took me several years before I was able to talk him (the Mamou owner) into selling stuff to me. “Ah no, I don’t want to sell those. It’s French records, I like those.” But then I finally tried one more time – I think the time that that picture was taken was during the Christmas time, and I finally said to him, “I’m willing to spend $500 for 500 of these records if you let me in there.” I think that’s what I paid for. And, “All right, go ahead and get you some, but leave me one of each.” Of course I must confess, I don’t think I quite lived up to my promises. But that was a wonderful stash. It had a lot of the discs I had never been able to find other places. They were mostly post-war ones. There were very few pre-war ones.
There was one box I’ll never forget, and it was marked with the N-word on it. And I asked the owner, “Do you have any more of those N records?” “No, no. I thought I sold all those to this carnival that came through here, and I sold them all my pop records,” as he called them, or whatever. And they used them I guess as a skeet shoot. Well I think they must have had people throwing them in the air and somebody else shooting them up, and God knows how many wonderful records were blasted into eternity in that fashion. And that was the only box that was left of that stuff. There was some nice… I remember Washboard Sam and Sonny Boy Williamson and stuff like that in there. I forgot what else there was, any rarities, I don’t know. I forgot, but there were some nice records in there, and also of course mainly wonderful Cajun records. And so I was really in hog heaven, as that picture, yeah that shows me as the eternal kid falling in love with records! Or getting a real “high”!