BROOKE GLADSTONE: There is a former music industry heavyweight that still hangs out in your neighborhood bar -- a real big shot. It's the juke box over there in the darkened corner. For a handful of coins, he'll tell you his story. OTM's Rex Doane drops the first quarter. [COIN DROP]
REX DOANE: [PUNCHING NUMBERS] 1 - 0 - 4-- Pork Chop Stomp. [SONG PORK CHOP STOMP PLAYS]
REX DOANE: For those who believe that the worth of a restaurant or bar can be accurately measured by the quality of its juke box, then the Great Jones Cafe, located in Manhattan's Lower East Side, may just represent the Promised Land. The authentic Jambalaya and Cajun Martinis on the Great Jones menu are equaled only by the wild and rare records you find on the Jones Juke Box. [COIN DROP]
MAN: [SINGING] JUKE BOX... JUKE BOX...
REX DOANE: In fact, the well-worn juke box at the Great Jones has been written up in everything from an issue of Rolling Stone a few years ago to a popular Swedish travel guide. Despite all the praise, it is still the source of confusion to many who walk through the door.
BILL JUDKINS: Most people come in and look at that thing and they just scratch their head -- they go I don't know any [LAUGHS] of this stuff. What is this stuff?!
REX DOANE: Bill Judkins is the manager of the Great Jones Cafe.
BILL JUDKINS: And then every, like you know one out of every ten people come in here and look at it and they go oh, my God -- look at this thing! And they, and they-- it blows their mind. The other 9 people, it's just a curio; they just--are [LAUGHS] confused.
REX DOANE: Make no mistake about it -- the juke box is much more than a curio; it's been on the job for nearly 80 years, and at one time had deep ties to the music industry. Glen Streeter is the CEO of Rock-Ola -- one of the earliest juke box manufacturers and a major player during what Streeter considers the Golden Age of the Juke Box. [30'S STYLE MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
GLEN STREETER: They started primarily in the '30s -- getting very big -- and exploded after the war. There were literally juke boxes in every restaurant - every bar - every bus station -train station - they were literally everywhere. They were just part of our culture.
REX DOANE: Streeter estimates that there were over a million juke boxes active in the field during that period. As a consequence, juke box play was once an important factor in the career of big time recording artists.
GLEN STREETER: But every major celebrity that was a singer was paid to pose with juke boxes of one brand or another and promoted them! I mean we're talking Bing Crosby, Perry Como -- everybody! Black artists -- all of 'em!
REX DOANE: Significantly, juke box play also brought widespread exposure to material deemed unfit for radio air play. Again, Glen Streeter.
GLEN STREETER: Well radio just wouldn't play a lot of stuff. Radio was very homogenized. Nothing but the clean cut stuff.
WYNONIE HARRIS: [SINGING] HOOOOLD BACK THE DAWN-- -- STOP AAAAALL THE CLOCKS-- --
REX DOANE: While radio stations were slow to program artists like Wynonie Harris, juke boxes were far less discriminating. Up until the mid-1950s, entire genres, including blues, R&B, country, ethnic music and even early rock & roll reached its biggest audience not through radio but by way of the juke box. [COIN DROP] [MUSIC CHANGES]
REX DOANE: But the romance between the music industry and the juke box did not last. The growing demand for live rock music in the 1960s slowed the juke trade, and the invasion of Pong in the 1970s nearly killed it. Vic Lavay, owner and publisher of Vending Times, recalls these dark days.
VIC LAVAY: In the middle '70s the video game craze came in and, and the juke box started disappearing.
REX DOANE: Ironically, after a 10 year reign, video games evolved into a major home market and quickly disappeared from the bars and restaurants they had once wrestled away from the juke box. In conjunction with the emergence of the compact disk format of the mid-1980s, juke boxes made a modest comeback, and with 250,000 units currently operating in the U.S., they're once again considered a staple of the coin-op business. For Lavay, the staying power of the juke box is self-evident, even in today's crowded entertainment market.
VIC LAVAY: You'd think that, okay, they have all, they have all these new technologies -- CD - DVDs and CDD disks and, and all this stuff at home - but when they went to hi-fi they still went out to the juke box. You know. Like when television came in, the movie industry still remained. They just -- people want to be out! [COIN DROP]
MAN: [SINGING] JUKE BOX, JUKE BOX, JUKE BOX...
REX DOANE: Juke boxes have also begun to adapt new digital technologies including the ability to download countless songs from off-site data bases -- further assurance, says Lavay, that the juke box is here to stay.
VIC LAVAY: Well, it'll stick around, but what form it'll take the juke box operators are trying to figure out now, because-- the, the new, the new technology is being downloaded.
REX DOANE: While the juke box back at the Great Jones is about as high-tech as the gumbo they serve, Bill Judkins still swears by its curative powers.
BILL JUDKINS: [LAUGHS] Well, there was one guy-- who-- came in here - had -- after a bad break-up -- he and his girlfriend used to socialize in here together -- and they broke up, and it was pretty bad; he was pretty despondent, and--came in here night after night and played The End of the World by Skeeter Davis -- over and over and over again -- until he would clear the bar night after night. Come back the next night -- pump it in again -over and over again. [MIMICKING] This is such a great song! WO
MAN: [SINGING] WHY DOES THE SUN GO ON SHINING? WHY DOES THE SEA RUSH TO SHORE? DON'T THEY KNOW IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD CAUSE YOU DON'T LOVE ME ANY MORE.
BILL JUDKINS: Matter of fact, I tell my bartenders to --just to, to not dispense with the advice and just turn the juke box up a little bit louder, so -- let the juke box handle that. [LAUGHTER] Juke boxes are Dr. Phil here. WO
MAN: DON'T THEY KNOW IT'S THE END OF THE WORLD? IT ENDED WHEN I LOST YOUR LOVE.
REX DOANE: Though commercial radio is as homogenized as ever these days, it is unlikely that juke boxes will fill the void as they once did some 50 years ago, but if you're lovelorn or liquored up or both -- there is still no better destination for loose change. [COIN DROP]
MAN: [SINGING] THAT'S THE MEANEST JUKE BOX IN TOWN
REX DOANE: In New York, for On the Media, I'm Rex Doane.
MAN: EACH DREAM I'VE TRIED TO BUILD, IT CRUMBLES TO THE GROUND, AND SINCE SHE'S GONE-- 58:00
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Megan Ryan; engineered by Dylan Keefe, Rob Weisberg [sp?], Rob Christianson [sp?] and George Edwards, and edited by-- me. We had help from Natasha Korgaonkar. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl. Mike Pesca is our producer at large, Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Capello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at email@example.com. This is On the Media from NPR. Garfield will be back next week. I'm Brooke Gladstone. WO
MAN: [SINGING] YES, THAT'S THE MEANEST JUKE BOX IN TOWN EACH DREAM I TRY TO BUILD, IT CRUMBLES DOWN.