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The music plays on

Posted: February 2, 2012 2:45 p.m.
Updated: February 3, 2012 5:00 a.m.

A digital jukebox?

Please, spare me.

The first such devices were manufactured a few years ago, and I happened to run upon one at a burger joint not too long ago.            

That whirring you might be hearing is coming from members of the Wurlitzer family -- the founders of the famous jukebox company -- spinning in their graves.

If you’re middle-aged or on the northern side of it, odds are good that some of your fondest memories of youth are tied to a jukebox. And there’s a pretty good chance those memories also involve kissing someone and trying to figure out just how much that person liked you … and where that kiss was leading.

The first “automatic coin-operated phonograph” -- they weren’t much on coming up with spiffy marketing names back then -- was manufactured in 1889 and placed in a San Francisco saloon. As technology advanced and the music machines became more prevalent, they began to be called jukeboxes, a name that arose in the South.     

There are several explanations for it, none of which can be verified, but most probably the term was slang for the way U.S. field workers entertained themselves in the South.

Jukeboxes hit their prime in the 1930s, when they offered 24 selections of 78 rpm records. But the real golden age of jukeboxes was the 1950s and 1960s, when rock ’n’ roll was first coming into its own.

Jukeboxes were everywhere. They were found in drug stores (which all had soda fountains), grills, bars, ice cream parlors, restaurants and especially in those dimly lit Grand Strand beach hangouts where the beer was both cold and cheap. Many of those places couldn’t afford to have bands, but they had Wurlitzers.

Oh, not to forget, there were two other major companies that manufactured jukeboxes: Seeburg and Rock-Ola. But Wurlitzer was king.

Every college fraternity house had a jukebox, too. Some had screwdrivers that hung from little strings tied to the back so the brothers could use them as “microphones” when the tendency to sing along overcame them, as it often did when they had been talking to Jim Beam or Evan Williams.

In those days, a really spiffy jukebox had a choice of 100 tunes -- 50 records, with the ability to play both sides. Most records had a “hit” side and a “flip” side, which was usually a song that wasn’t too good.

A few records featured two great songs on the same record, called a double-sided hit. That meant that of the 100 songs on a first-rate jukebox, only about 55 or 60 got played regularly.

Any box worth its salt had colored, curving lights; I guess they were neon. A good jukebox was like a beckoning light in a dim bar or saloon, where the owners kept the lights down just enough to encourage a little hanky panky but not to let it get out of hand.

And it was the jukebox that probably had more to do than anything else with the rise of “beach music,” the genre that grew out of the 1950s and 1960s in the South. Back in those days, you knew that if someone thought “beach music” meant something by The Beach Boys, they were either hopeless nerds or unenlightened Yankees.

Jukeboxes played -- omigosh, teenagers today don’t even know what they are -- records -- complete with scratches and buzzes. No CDs, no tapes, no downloads. Records.

The Fabulous Five, a little-known but terrific beach music band, had a great song called, simply, “Jukebox.” Over and over and over we played it, shagging to its throbbing rhythms and classic lyrics. I can still sing "Jukebox," every single word of it, but you wouldn't want to hear me do it.

Oh, well. I am getting sentimental here. And you can bet your life there’s no sentiment when it comes to digital jukeboxes. They’re too … too technocratic to deal in sentiment.

Bah, humbug. And while you’re at it, punch up B-17 on that Wurlitzer.

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