Put Another Nickel In: How The Jukebox Kick-Started The Beginning Of Rock and Roll
For some of those who were there, Buddy Holly and Bill Haley will never sound better then when they were first blasting from a jukebox after inserting a nickel in a Wurlitzer...

May 02, 2013, by Tom Lubin

seeburg jukebox history

Somewhere in its early years, the coin operated record player acquired the name “Jukebox”. There are several theories about the origin.

The most accepted is that the word “juke” is a corruption of the word “jook”, an African American slang term for dancing. The source of the music for this dancing would have been called a “jookbox”.

A second version is that “jook” meant “sex” which may have made sense since brothels were some of the first establishments to install jukeboxes, thus replacing the piano player.

A third source of the word may have been from the term “jute”, or “jute joints” where jute pickers would relax, drink and dance. Whatever the source of its name, the jukebox of the 1920s was generally associated with “speakeasies” and the “low-life” of prohibition since they were featured entertainment in such places.

To pay to hear a record played first started through the entrepreneurial activities of carnival and penny arcade operators who made their own recordings and then charged admission to hear them on the newly invented gramophone.

It was in response to requests by this group of users that the phonograph/gramophone manufacturers began to produce prerecorded product.

This was an unexpected life-line for the Columbia company that in 1890 seemed headed for liquidation, because the intended use of the phonograph as a dictating machine had been a dismal flop.

Columbia and Edison began to realize that their market was somewhere else. They also recognized that in order to sell players, they had to produce and manufacture prerecorded product that the public wanted to hear.

A penny arcade from the early 20th century. (click to enlarge)

Initially the preferred programs for coin-operated players were comic songs, bands, monologues, and whistling. The revenues from these “pay for play” machines was amazing in light of the fact that the quality was poor and the selection meagre. In 1891, some machines earned up to 14 dollars a day - a lot of money at the time.

While accepting there was a market for coin operated carnival players, Edison feared they might create the impression that the phonograph was only a toy. His worries were unjustified, since the showman-operated players cultivated a consumer appetite for recorded music and a desire for home players.

As the turn of the century approached, mainstreet penny and nickel arcades were becoming an increasingly popular center for entertainment. There were hundreds of different coin operated amusements. The most popular of these were those that played music. Into this market came the nickelodeon and the jukebox.

The Automatic Entertainer from the John Gabel Company. (click to enlarge)

The first jukebox appeared close on the heels of the introduction of the phonograph. Louis Glas installed an Edison cylinder system at the San Francisco Royal Palace in 1889.

In 1906, the Automatic Entertainer, which used flat disks recently invented by Berliner, was introduced by the John Gabel Company. The system was entirely mechanical but required regular winding of its spring mechanism. It was popular in spite of the poor quality.

In Paris, at the Pathe Salon du Phonograph, patrons could choose a musical selection, which would be played for them from the floor below where there were a battery of players. As in San Francisco, they would hear their selection through long listening tubes connected to the player’s diaphragm.

Composer Claude Debussy, after hearing this system for a few coins, was concerned that the low cost of the disk and its availability would have the effect of cheapening the music. He did, however, acknowledge that the discs preserved a certain magic.

In 1913, Debussy wrote: “In a time like ours, when the genius of engineers has reached such undreamed proportions, one can hear famous pieces of music as easily as one can buy a glass of beer.

“Should we not fear this domestication of sound, this magic preserved in a disc that anyone can awaken at will? Will it not mean a diminishing of the secret forces of the art, which until now have been considered indestructible? “.

Debussy, like so many other classically trained musicians had fears that this new technology would impact on his beloved art, and probably his concert income. The jukebox and nickelodeon changed the way people heard the music of the day by placing it within reach of the masses.

Mechanical jukeboxes continued to be one of many amusement machines in these penny arcades, but in the late 20s with the introduction of the electric phonograph, motors and amplification, the modern jukebox became a reality.

In 1926, J.P. Seeberg, a Swedish immigrant to the U.S., invented an electric system that was coin operated and would play any of eight records.

A 1936 Wurlitzer Model 35 prototype jukebox. (click to enlarge)

A year later, Automated Musical Instruments introduced its electric jukebox. Unlike their mechanical predecessors, that could only be heard by fee-paying patrons standing near the machine, these systems were capable of filling an entire room with sound.

These innovations further popularized the jukebox, and so began the modern jukebox craze.

The other two major manufacturers of jukeboxes appeared in the early 1930s. Wurlitzer, a long-time manufacturer of pianos and player pianos, introduced its first jukebox in 1933.

And in 1935 David Rock-Ola (his real name), whose company had been building scales and coin-operated games, introduced its first jukebox.

When the great depression occurred in the 1930s, the jukebox business became the one bright spot for the record industry.

(click to enlarge)

For the public, a nickel would pay for six plays and like the movies of the day provided a few minutes escape from the depression.

There were two other historical events that helped the jukebox gain prominence.

The repeal of prohibition in the U.S. in 1933 meant that there were now tens of thousands of bars, clubs, and other drinking establishments that were installing jukeboxes for entertainment.

The second was the outbreak of World War II, and the relocation of millions of young soldiers to camps in far-away locations. For entertainment, the armed forces installed hundreds of jukeboxes in PX’s and service clubs all over America and overseas.

While these young people would have frequented their local jukebox back home, those machines would have had only a couple of types of music in the 24 available selections, and would have been chosen to suit the area and the jukebox’s clientele.

But the military jukeboxes were unique in that they were stocked with a range of music to satisfy the varied tastes of those who had come from every part of the country and ethnic background.

American blues, gospel, country and pop records were all thrown together on military jukes that introduced GIs to all sorts of music that came from outside of their home community and culture.

Almost overnight, American regional music, never really played on radio before, was heard by those from every region of the country. Many of these young people were also musicians that would now explore, absorb, learn, appropriate, and embrace pop music styles they had never heard before.

After the war this would have a significant impact on the coalescing of those musical roots that would form rock and roll.

On the home front during W.W. II, there was a growing juvenile delinquency problem with so many parents unable to pay attention to their teenagers. Dad was away at war, and Mom was working in a defense plant.

The Wurlitzer Model 1015. (click to enlarge)

During the early 1940s, throughout America, youth centers were opened for after-school and weekend activities. To bring in the teens, free jukeboxes were brought in, turned up, and rarely turned off. The program was successful.

But, by the late 40s, the jukebox had fallen out of favor with the conservative establishment and was increasingly considered a corrupting influence. One prominent critic wrote in 1948 that the jukebox was responsible for ‘the musical tastes of America’s youth starting on a steady decline.”

That year Frank Sinatra was the most popular artist in the country. For such critics, things would get far worse.

For many Americans in the early 1950s, rock and roll was the devil’s tool, and existed for no other purpose than to morally corrupt the youth. For the first time teenagers had their own beat, and it could be found blasting out of the malt shop jukebox.

By 1956 there were somewhere around 750,000 jukeboxes swallowing dimes in America. Since most radio stations were only playing the most sanitized rock and roll selections, the jukebox was the source for the majority of rock music, particularly those machines in racially mixed neighborhoods. These machines had records of black artists who were singing rhythm and blues and early rock.

The public had heard from the pulpit and conservative press about the evil, passion firing sounds thumping from those machines sitting at the end of the bar or in the middle wall of the malt shop, but when Evan Hunter’s book, The Blackboard Jungle, was made into a movie in 1955, the older public was convinced. They had not beaten Hitler to see their children’s minds lost to the devil’s music.

When you added up the title song “Rock Around The Clock” with the images in the movie, it was obvious to anyone over 30 that rock and roll equaled teenage delinquency. The jukebox had become an integral part of rock and roll imagery.

In many areas of America, the government required a sticker on the jukebox stating that “minors are forbidden by law to operate this machine,” but generally, the jukes remained uncensored.

However, the jukebox operators were frequently placed under suspicion of jukebox stacking, a form of payola where they would be paid to put a record in the machine. Those who operated jukeboxes didn’t kick this image until the 1970s.

Coin operated music delivery systems did not decline as gramophones became a common addition to homes. The opposite was the case. With the spread of domestic record players within the upper middle class, along with radio, a desire was created for recorded music throughout the entire population.

The Rowe RPM45. (click to enlarge)

Coin operated systems allowed anyone for the price of a few pennies to hear their favorite and/or the latest record. Increasingly, these customers were the young. In general the first phonographs were controlled by older people (parents) whose musical tastes were toward classical and music of their generation. 

To hear the latest. young people had to go to the juke at their local hangout. Not until the late 1950s was the cost of reproduction systems, headphones, and the records themselves so affordable that young people could have a record player of their own that they could control.

Most of them got that first record player with the detachable speakers as a Christmas present from parents who never realized that from that day forward “turn it down” would become one of their most-often used phrases.

The record player: hi-fi in its day. (click to enlarge)

Choosing what records would go in the jukebox was probably the origin of the “Hit Parade”, due to the limited number of records that could go into a machine, and the practice of installing new records weekly based on which ones were and were not played.

The jukebox brought the choice of what music would be played down to who wanted to hear a song badly enough to spend a nickel.

Often these would include recordings of local acts that were prominent in that specific community. In the mid 1930s, every jukebox held a smattering of local releases.

By 1940, those who chronicled the U.S. record industry were recognizing the importance of the jukebox. Jack Nelson wrote in Billboard that “coin operated phonographs, through a tremendously wide distribution, appeal to millions of individuals everyday, thus ensuring for this industry an important part in the next phase of American music”.

The jukebox had become a significant centerpiece anywhere small-town America gathered, and record sales to the jukebox operators were becoming significant.

The jukebox provided anyone with nickle instant grass-roots musical satisfaction.

As Chris Pearce describes it, “It was the jukebox into which the lonely trucker at the coffee shop dropped his nickel to inspire dreams of his baby back home, the jukebox that the kids made for in Chuck Berry’s song when they wanted to hear something really hot, the jukebox that linked communities whose local operator stocked it with songs and dances from the old country”.

From the 1920s to the 1960s, jukeboxes electronically and mechanically advanced by increasing the capacity of their changers, better amplifiers and speakers, selectors at each table, roll around selector, and so on.

The inner workings of a vintage jukebox. (click to enlarge)

Of paramount importance was the “look” of the machine. The jukebox had to be visually exciting. The exterior design became a key to the jukebox’s success. Seeberg and Wurlitzer hired top industrial designers just when Modernism was coming into vogue.

Translucent colored plastic was starting to be widely used and was ideally suited for the illumination of the jukebox. Most manufacturers believed that the customer wanted to see the record changer work and a cabinet that lit up.

Wurlitzer dominated the post W.W. II market with its classic machine, the 1015, which featured colored arcs and floating bubblers.

The Rock-Ola Bubbler. (click to enlarge)

But in 1948, Seeberg introduced the first jukebox to handle 100 selections, the Select-O-Matic 100.

The number of records that could be played had gone from a couple of dozen records to 50 records, with both sides available for play. Until the introduction of the Select-O-Matic 100, the industry believed that 24 titles were all that were necessary for a selection of “pop” songs.

The other jukebox manufacturers quickly redeveloped their mechanisms to accommodate more records when it became obvious that the customers wanted a wider selection, and by 1956, 200 titles were available in a jukebox.

The expansion in capacity also meant that a wider variety of records could be available. Country and western and rhythm and blues could finally live in the same jukebox with Perry Como, Bing Crosby, Bill Haley and Elvis.

Unquestionably the biggest change to hit the jukebox industry came in 1948, when RCA introduced the 45.

Not only did they sound better than the 78s. but they were lighter, smaller, and the center hole was large and more suitable for automated operation.

In short, it was the perfect record for a jukebox. The 45 in the jukebox of the 1950s would become the focal point of the teenager and the first line source of rock and roll.

Until television forced radio to reinvent itself, radio was the mass medium, and with few exceptions had generally ignored blues, country, and other regional or “fringe” music. The jukebox filled this void.

In the 1950s, it was the jukebox where teenagers would find the latest in music. They were doing what Teresa Brewer suggested -  “put another nickel in…” - but they were selecting Chuck Berry, whose advice was to go “up to the corner and round the bend, right to the juke joint you go in. Feeling the music from head to toe, round and round, and round you go. Hail, hail, rock and roll! Deliver us from the days of old!”

The tabletop jukebox - personalized music from back in the day. (click to enlarge)

Teresa didn’t know it, but Chuck was saying her days as a pop artist were numbered, as was the style of recordings she made.

These machines were more than music delivery systems, their external designs were trend setters in the art deco movement and an important aspect of their popularity. They offered the latest music at a time when most of the public could not afford to buy a record, much less their own playback system.

A Wurlitzer magazine ad. (click to enlarge)

The jukebox was key to the popular spread of country, hillbilly, rhythm and blues, and of course the development of rock and roll music. For a generation, the jukebox at the local hang-out was the only place that some of the “hippest” and latest rock and roll could be heard.

Their significance has declined over the last few decades but in the 1940s through the early 1960s they were an important focus for the young. Rock and roll might have been beaten down by the establishment if it had not been for the existence of jukeboxes in every bar, hamburger drive-in, bowling alley and malt shop where young people congregated.

For some of those who were there, Buddy Holly and Bill Haley will never sound better then when they were first blasting from a jukebox after inserting a nickel in a Wurlitzer. For those who weren’t there, its hard to capture it all, since it wasn’t just the jukebox that held the sound, it was where it was happening in time and place when teenagers and rock and roll were being invented.

As a 1950s Wurlitzer ad stated, “For millions, the jukebox was ‘America’s favorite nickel’s worth of fun’.”

Currently residing in Australia, Tom Lubin is an internationally recognized music producer and engineer, and is a Lifetime Member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (Grammy voting member). He also co-founded the San Francisco chapter of NARAS. An accomplished author, his latest book is “Getting Great Sounds: The Microphone Book,” available here.

More from Tom Lubin on PSW:
You Make Music You Say? So, You’re In The Fashion Industry

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Put Another Nickel In: How The Jukebox Kick-Started The Beginning Of Rock and Roll