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Delmark Records Brings Quality Blues to Ravenswood

By Cody Prentiss | Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Bob Koester, Jr., standing in Delmark Records headquarters. Photo by Cody Prentiss.

Tucked away on North Rockwell Street next to Horner Park is Delmark Records, a bastion for Chicago bluesmen and jazz hounds. The recording studio and label has hosted many artists in its 57-year history, including such greats as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Artifacts of that history have accumulated in Delmark’s warehouse space. CDs, DVDs, player piano music, and even old documentary films?many of the rare vintage variety?fill boxes and shelves.

Delmark is still going strong with a record store, Jazz Record Mart, located at 27 E. Illinois, and the recording studio, at 4121 N. Rockwell. According to Bob Koester, Jr., Delmark Record’s business manager and the founder’s son, the label releases about 16 albums per year. Jazz Mart stocks all of them, in addition to a wide selection of rarities and new releases. In the case of some albums, the store has only one copy. Delmark owes its long existence to a combination of crate-digging prowess and business savvy that originated with Bob Koester, Sr.

Koester, Sr., grew up in Wichita, Kansas, an avid audiophile. He spent his high school days going to as many jazz shows as he could and scouring secondhand record stores for hard-to-find albums. During college, Koester opened his first record shop, K & F Sales, in St. Louis, Missouri, with business partner Ron Fister. The two eventually parted ways, and Koester went on to form Delmark Records in St. Louis. He moved his operations to Chicago in 1956.

Today Bob Koester, Jr., works alongside his mother and Koester, Sr. He says Delmark has had a presence in the neighborhood since 1973 and has always been a part of his life. He remembers handing out fliers whenever there was a jazz fest or acting as tech support when his parents needed assistance. Now he can be found walking between the warehouse’s overstuffed shelves, which contain all the LPs Delmark has ever released, as well as rows of old 16-millimeter films. ?My dad’s a big pack rat,? explains Koester, Jr. ?He’s also a film collector, so these are all 16-millimeter films that he has here for lack of anywhere else to put them. But he’s always looking for someone else to sell them to.?

The day-to-day operations at Delmark include listing the out-of-print records available at Jazz Record Mart. Patrons can drop off their collections anytime during store hours to see what their bundles of music are worth. While there’s no blue book for assessing the value of yesterday’s new releases, Koester says the store employees know their stuff.

?There are several guys who can look at stuff? [people want to sell] and go, ‘OK, 25 dollars cash or 30 dollars credit. Take your pick,’? Koester, Jr. says. ?Some people will be like, ‘But this one has a Benny Goodman LP. I know these are really rare.’ Actually, he was the most popular musician in the world.?

The bags and truckfuls that arrive at Delmark include the oldest of old formats like wax gramophone rolls, player piano music, 8-tracks, and laser discs?all of which the store will sell. According to Koester, Jr., the label’s fans are loyal and will buy releases from unknown artists. The musicians also tend to come back, too, since the label doesn’t force them to stay at Delmark or sign an exclusive contract. This ethos makes it easier for the label to pull artists they find in Chicago’s blues and jazz joints into the recording studio.

It also means old friends can come in to play when the want to. Koester, Jr., says Junior Wells would record for Delmark once every seven years while he was renegotiating his contract. One of these sessions yielded Delmark’s bestselling record of all time, Hoodoo Man Blues.

?I think the reason people come back is because Dad has a very ‘You-know-what-you’re-doing-so-just-come-here-and-do-that’ attitude,? Koester, Jr., says. He recognizes that not all labels can take this approach. ?When you’re spending enough to where you don’t make anything until you sell 100,000 albums, you can’t afford to do that. You have to make sure the musician is playing the music that will [sell], which not all music will.?

Koester, Jr., attributes the greatness of Delmark’s records to the fact that their artists have the freedom to make music how they like it.

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