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Jukebox Story: A magical music machine for the single-minded

Updated: Jul 10, 2022

Phil Shaw

In the days before ubiquitous mobiles, a mate who owned a jukebox was having it repaired when the engineer asked if he could use the phone to call his next client.

‘Hi, Ringo,’ he heard him say. ‘Bob here. I should be with you in half an hour.’

I don’t know whether my own jukebox, a 1959 Rock-Ola Tempo 1 made in Chicago, ever belonged to anyone famous. But like the old, scratched guitar in a great song written by the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian and popularised by the Everly Brothers – oh, the stories it could tell.

What I know of its provenance is that it probably spent some time in bars in Central America. Once, when a work colleague visited our home with his Nicaraguan wife, she entered the room to see it lit up and playing. ‘Oh my god,’ she exclaimed, ‘Rock-Ola!’

When I bought it, in 1990, the back story was that an airline pilot who frequently flew to that part of the world bought them up and imported them to west London for renovation in a workshop. Then he just needed to find someone like me who believed – nay, still believes – the 7” single to be among the greatest inventions of the 20th century.

Someone, preferably, addicted to amassing these 45rpm gems and looking for a way of extending their lifespans. My own collection started with Only The Lonely by Roy Orbison (although I thought it was by Elvis Presley and was disappointed to see a name I didn’t recognise – yet now revere – when I emerged from handing over my saved-up pocket money at the record shop in Shipley, Yorkshire, as my two older brothers eagerly waited for muggins).

In those far-off days of short trousers and short back and sides the only jukebox I’d seen appeared in the opening-title sequence of Juke Box Jury, the BBC TV show on which four celebrity panellists voted new releases as ‘hit’ or ‘miss’. To the left of host David Jacobs sat an imposing machine, all Cadillac-style gleaming chrome fins and curved glass, ostensibly pounding out the theme tune, Hit And Miss by The John Barry Seven.

If my musical palate had been better developed my primary school self would have been aware of Chuck Berry’s 1956 song Roll Over Beethoven – covered by The Beatles and myriad others – which featured the immortal lines:

You know my temperature’s risin’

The jukebox’s blowin’ a fuse

Chuck had quite a thing about jukeboxes. A year later, on School Days, he referenced the dancehall drinking dens in which they originally sprung up:

Down the halls and into the street

Up to the corner and round the bend

Right to the juke joint you go in

Drop the coin right into the slot

You gotta hear something that’s really hot

The juke joint, according to my dictionary, is ‘a place where people can dance to music, drink alcohol and gamble, especially one run by and for African Americans in the southern United States’. They were particularly popular in the 1930s, with plantation, mill and factory owners setting them up with a view to keeping an eye on their workers and ensuring the wages they had just paid came back to them.

In such establishments, the function of the jukebox was similar to the DJ’s role, blasting out music to all corners of the joint. They swiftly made their way into white-run bars and cafes, as evidenced by their cameos in countless films, from The Blue Dahlia (1946 when the records were still 78rpm) through The Wild One (1953, starring Marlon Brando and a Rock-Ola), Giant (1956, James Dean and Rock Hudson) and The Girl Can’t Help It (1957, Little Richard and Jayne Mansfield) to In the Heat of the Night (1967, Sidney Poitier and a Seeburg DS 160).

In the movies the machine was often a signifier for troubled and troublesome teenagers. When I encountered jukeboxes as a boy in our local milk bar I was more concerned about getting my wine gums than about rebelling against the squares.

In my teens I was drawn like a moth to a flame to them in pubs and students’ unions. Later I began to come across them in the houses of journalist friends and music obsessives Eric Musgrave and Kenny Macdonald, who write about fashion and football respectively and have both had bittersweet experiences with them.

Eric, aka Muz, tells me he had long felt an inexplicable ‘hankering’ for a jukebox. While living in Amsterdam, he was cycling to work when he passed an industrial workshop with the sign ‘Cor Born Jukeboxen’. Mr Born, it transpired, used to take a lorry to southern Europe, touring areas that once had US military or naval bases, looking for old jukes.

‘Luckily for me he’d just returned with a truckload from Greece. There was, poignantly, a drachma coin in the tiny Reject tray. After a chat I agreed to buy a 1958 AMI I-200 – manufactured in Grand Rapids, Michigan and holding 100 singles, or 200 sides – for the guilders equivalent of £1,200 (£2,900 in present-day values).

‘The refurbished jukebox – with the coin-operation by-passed - was duly delivered. About 15 months later I returned to the UK and the AMI came with me. With its striking lights arrangement, it looked fantastic, especially if all the room lights are off. Technically it is regarded as one of the best vinyl-era jukeboxes because of its 200 selections and its fearsome 230 watts of power in its valve amplifier-driven speakers.’

The AMI became almost a tourist attraction within the Musgrave household; a curiosity which intrigued even visitors who were not especially interested in music.

He added: ‘I ummed and aahed about whether to knock out the centre of a supposedly good 45 – the jargon is to ‘dink’ out the centre – but decided my need to hear a good tune was more important than a few quid on the resale value of a single.

‘Sometimes I’d change the selection of discs after a few months. Other times maybe only twice a year. Sometimes I put just a random selection of performers in alphabetical order. Other times I’d group the discs by themes, such as country, Tamla, gospel, blues and so on.

‘I typed out the record titles using a manual typewriter that I kept just for this purpose. I reproduced the title exactly as it appeared on the record label. The same went for artists’ names. The band Free were easier to fit in the space than Dorothy Love Coates & The Original Gospel Harmonettes!

‘For a long time I’d have to admit I loved that machine. When my daughter was little she repeatedly pressed F3 – a Wilson Pickett B-side called Mini-Skirt Minnie, which I heard rather a lot of.’ (My own daughter drew a picture of the Rock-Ola, above, when she was in primary school; it now hangs on the music-room wall. Her daughter, not yet four years old, loves to put on Toots & the Maytals’ Monkey Man and dance to it).

Eric added: ‘The AMI suffered a calamity when my then-wife threw a heavy glass tumbler through the beautifully curved ‘windscreen’ during a domestic dispute. To my surprise, a replacement piece of glass was sourced from a specialist supplier in Belgium.

‘I kept it for 25 years until I had to sell it to raise some funds around 2011. The guy who serviced it England, an excellent dealer called Terry Lovell from Essex, generously paid me £6,000 for it.’

Kenny’s jukebox, a German model he remembers as an AMS, also ended up being a pawn in a marital disagreement. But for years it delighted his sons and all who came to their home in his native Glasgow, as well as helping to inspire me.

‘The one I bought in the early 90s – £600 + VAT from Sims Automatics in Maryhill – wasn’t vintage. It was relatively modern, held 80 singles and, for its lifespan, worked fine. As you know, though, they’re heavy beasts. Mine weighed 17stones, largely because of the concrete slab that kept them in the same place and deterred thieves when they were in pubs.

‘It stood in the hall of the house we lived in and was visible when I opened the front door. It always amazed me when someone at the door spotted it and said “Is that a real jukebox?” It’s like when I met a pal when I was wearing my “Kenny Mac” bowling shirt – Motherwell FC claret and amber, obviously – and he said “Did you get that shirt specially made?”’

Kenny would use trips abroad to search for obscure singles – I know, because I accompanied him on our trawls through the backstreet record shops of Avignon, Vilnius, Miami or wherever we had been sent. We were regarded as rather strange by other journalists.

Among the discs on his machine were his ‘five favourite 45s of all time’. They are Johnnie Allan’s brilliant Cajun version of Promised Land by Chuck Berry (that man again); Romeo Void’s Never Say Never; Sharon Brown’s I Specialise In Love; Roy Milton’s I Can’t Go On; and a rotating fifth, which was usually Sparky’s Dream by Glaswegian harmony gods Teenage Fanclub or Twisted & Bent by another fine, if less vaunted, Scottish band, The Trashcan Sinatras.

‘The record by Roy Milton – whose name I used as a pseudonym while writing match reports for the Sunday Times in the late 80s – was particularly hard to find. It was on the DooTone label. Eventually I found it on a trip to the States. I also had a copy of Wild Man Fischer’s Go To Rhino Records which entertained the kids when they were wee.’

Alas, the Macdonald jukebox came to be best described as ‘Spoils of War’. He explained: ‘When me and the first Mrs MacD parted she kept the juke on the grounds that I had no way of getting it up a flight of stairs into a first-floor flat. She later tried to sell me it for £700!

‘Many years later son #2 was rummaging around her garage and found the 80 singles that had been on it, above. Sadly there hadn’t been much tlc for those records in the intervening 15 years. I think it’s still in her garage, long past the point of repair.’

I was last to the party, but the Rock-Ola lives on in suburban Shropshire. It’s a source of great interest for plumbers and painters, who ask ‘Did the records come with it?’ (an emphatic ‘no’).

And I still buy singles for it. My most recent purchases are Bob Lind’s US folk-rock classic Cheryl’s Going Home for 50p, The Beach Boys’ When I Grow Up To Be a Man (with its stunning B-side She Knows Me Too Well) for £3.50, and my first-ever steel-drum single, the Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band’s 2022 instrumental take on 1983 disco track Juicy Fruit by Mtume.

Jukeboxes remain synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll. Mine contains next to none but does house plenty of Northern Soul, Motown, blues and reggae, the Johnnie Allan song beloved of Kenny Mac, and an ever-changing cast of bands such as The Who, Small Faces, Kinks, Byrds, Love, Jimi Hendrix and the aforementioned Ringo’s beat combo.

People tell me they can do it all on Spotify. One of my local pubs has a digital jukebox with seemingly endless songs available.

But if you turn out the lights, turn on the jukebox and put on, say, The Pogues’ A Pair Of Brown Eyes – with Shane McGowan recalling how ‘On the jukebox, Johnny sang about a thing called love’ – the brightly coloured lights and the warm sound of the vinyl create a magic no soulless streaming service will ever replicate.


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