If your dream is to own a classic jukebox and relive your misspent youth, Roadshow expert Jon Baddeley suggests what to look for and where to buy
I recently organised a birthday knees-up for family and friends but, with guests aged from 18 to 80, choosing the music posed a problem. Obviously it couldn’t be decade specific and the DJs I contacted were less than flexible about playing music from the 1950s to the present day. I considered popping some songs on to my iPod, although I had serious doubts whether any of the guests would be impressed by my musical tastes!
It was then that I hit on the fun idea of hiring a jukebox – a colourful, eye-catching attraction with an extensive array of songs for guests to choose from. Needless to say, it was an instant hit and I found myself wondering about the jukebox’s origins and history.
Once a feature of thousands of bars and diners, the rich sounds from these luxurious machines stimulated many romances – and the occasional fight – throughout post war America and Europe. But as fashions changed and technology advanced, new models were purchased and the old ones were relegated to back rooms.
Thankfully, the jukebox has now been rediscovered by a buying public wanting to reminisce and recreate the unique sound that blasted out from cafés and diners from San Francisco to Surbiton. This collectable commodity based on the nostalgia of the baby-boomers’ teenage years is being lovingly restored and bought once more – though this time it’s private homes and games rooms that are benefitting, rather than bars and restaurants.
Where does the word jukebox come from?
The specific origins are unknown but the generally accepted theory is that it was corrupted from the word ‘jook’, a Southern black term for a sexually-charged dance. Cheap bars playing lively jazz and blues music were called ‘jook joints’ and therefore an instrument out of which music emitted was, de facto, a ‘jook-box’. The commercial name Jukebox dates from 1937, before which manufacturers referred to their machines as automatic phonographs or coin-operated phonographs.
When and how did they develop?
Although American inventor Thomas Edison developed a coin-operated phonograph for public use in the late 19th century, it was not until 1906 that an automatic record player was developed. Further progress towards the jukebox was not possible until the 1920s, when electrically recorded and played records (which were stronger than the previous wax and shellac discs) became available. The newly-developed changer system enabled records to be stored, picked out to be played on the turntable and safely returned.
Early jukeboxes were features of speakeasies during the Prohibition and they looked much the same as radio consoles of the time – heavy, veneered cabinets with fabric-covered speakers. In the late 1930s, they moved centre-stage with light-up, dome-topped cabinets in bright colours, warm woods and an innovative use of plastics.
Perfectly capturing the zeitgeist, the models of this period, lasting until 1948, are considered part of the golden age of the jukebox.
How did they spread around the world?
Part of their success was due, strangely perhaps, to World War II. Wherever US armed forces went, they took their American music with them, leaving a glowing trail of jukeboxes around the globe. When rock ’n’ roll exploded in the Fifties, an increasingly dance-hungry public clamoured for more jukeboxes, and companies such as Wurlitzer and Seeberg exported their music machines worldwide.
Post-1948, advanced technology allowed selections of up to 100 discs and the cabinets’ designs became increasingly cutting-edge, influenced by the 1950s American motor car and its bodywork. A sleeker, more streamlined look was ushered in, with flashy chrome fins, dashboard-style consoles, gleaming bumpers and glass ‘windscreens’ enclosing the selector mechanisms. The silver age of jukeboxes had arrived.
Who were the key manufacturers?
There were five main manufacturers of jukeboxes throughout the 20th century:
began production in 1909 as the National Automatic Music Co. Having designed a mechanism to allow music rolls to be selected, its first products were automatic player pianos. The system was soon adapted for record selection in jukeboxes, the first of which was produced in 1927. The mechanism used was the first that could play both sides of 10 records, allowing 20 selections, more if modifications were made. It was used for the next 30 years. The company was renamed the Automatic Musical Instrument Company (AMI) after World War II. During the 1950s licensed manufacturing agreements created BAL-AMI, which was the largest British manufacturer of jukeboxes in the 1950s-60s. Its 1957 Model H jukebox was heavily influenced by popular automobile styles of the time, complete with chrome bumpers and tail fins.
2 Seeburg was one of the first manufacturers of a multi-select jukebox with the introduction of the Audiophone in 1928. In 1949 it developed a mechanism that could play both sides of 50 records, a 100-select jukebox so reliable few other manufacturers could compete. In 1950 Seeburg introduced the M100B, the first jukebox to play 45rpm records (earlier models had played 78s), followed in 1955 by the V200, the first 200-select jukebox. The company went through several changes of ownership but continued manufacturing jukeboxes throughout the 1970s-80s, until it was bought by Seeburg Satellite Broadcasting and diversified.
3 The name Wurlitzer is synonymous with jukeboxes. However, the company was initially known for its large theatre organs, which were used to accompany silent films in the early 20th century. It went on to produce highly decorative, illuminated jukeboxes that played 78rpm records and dominated this market during the 1940s.Using wood, veneer, chrome, plastic, coloured lighting and animation, they made the entire jukebox the entertainment – not just the music it played. This golden age continued until the introduction of the 45rpm record in the early 1950s, when Wurlitzer lost considerable market share. As demand faded, so too did the Wurlitzer name, which eventually went out of business in the 1970s. The brand was purchased by a German company, which continues today to make CD changers with iPod docking in cases that are based on classic 2100 and 1015 jukebox models.
4 In 1927, David C. Rockola founded a company that manufactured coin-operated scales and, later, pinball games and other devices. As the demand for coin-operated phonographs increased, so did the lure of the jukebox. In 1939, Rock-Ola introduced the successful Luxury Lightup series of jukeboxes, followed by the Magic Glow range in the late 1940s.In the early 1990s, the company was sold to businessman Glenn Streeter, who revived the brand and again made Rock-Ola one of the US’s leading jukebox manufacturers.
5 Founded in Germany in 1952, NSM was quick to conquer the European jukebox industry, with is smoothly designed cabinets and unique parallel selector system. It continued to make waves in the Nineties with its CD mechansim and miniature, wall-mounted jukeboxes.
Why did they go out of fashion?
The decline in jukeboxes began in the 1960s when fast-food chains replaced diners, televisions appeared in bars and teenagers began listening at home to long-playing records and mobile transistor radios. However, with the current revival of interest in interior design of the 1950s-60s, combined with the timeless appeal of the rock ’n’ roll, pop and soul music of that period, jukeboxes are becoming eminently collectable today.
Can I play my own music on a period jukebox?
Yes, you certainly can. Some 45s will need to have the centre hole enlarged to fit on to the turntable correctly (a process known as ‘dinking’). All major jukebox dealers can arrange this. Most aficionados prefer to play period tunes but there’s no reason why you couldn’t play current records too. Simply lift off the glass and load in your selection. If you’ve moved on from vinyl, CD and iPod players are available in traditional cases to provide a period look but with the latest technology.
Should I attempt to restore a jukebox?
Unless you are a qualified electrical engineer, this can be hazardous and spare parts almost impossible to source. There are a number of highly regarded dealers and restorers in the UK including Ted White at Jukeboxes Unlimited (jukeboxes-uk.com), who has two showrooms and a wide selection of stock available to buy and hire.
TOP OF THE POPS
The Wurlitzer Model 1015 jukebox, known as the ‘Bubbler’, was manufactured in the US from 1946-48. With its 78rpm records, warm colours and continuous chain of air bubbles, this is an iconic golden age jukebox. This model sold over 56,000 units in less than two years, allowing Wurlitzer to rebound from the brink of financial ruin brought on by the Depression of the 1930s. Jukeboxes Unlimited sells fully restored models for between £8,000-£10,000.
AN INVESTMENT Don’t be surprised if this jukebox looks strangely familiar. It’s a Rock-Ola ‘Tempo 2’ model from c1959, famous for its appearance on the BBC’s iconic Sixties pop music show Juke Box Jury, hosted by David Jacobs. A panel of four guests (which, for one 1963 episode, was made up of The Beatles) voted on whether that week’s single releases would be a ‘hit’ or a ‘miss’. The jukebox itself still shows the chrome fins of earlier 1950s designs but adds a distinctive grille with a stylised ‘boomerang’ badge, which was used until 1963. Fully restored, this would cost in the region of £5,000 but it’s a great piece of music memorabilia that has links to a significant period of music history.
FIND OUT MORE
* Jukeboxes Unlimited sells everything from new CD jukeboxes to restored 1950s classics and has showrooms in Cambridgeshire and Leicestershire.
* The Jukebox Shop, 14 High Street, Lye, nr Stourbridge, 01384 424325. Specialists in importing and restoring vintage jukeboxes from the US
* The Jukebox Madness show takes place on 10th-11th October at Kempton Park Racecourse, Sunbury-on-Thames, Surrey, 01844 214743; jukeboxmadness.com
* Jukeboxes: An American Social History by Kerry Segrave (McFarland & Co, 2002)