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Put Another Nickel In: The History & Development Of The Jukebox

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.

On the home front during World War 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.

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.

The Wurlitzer Model 1015.

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.

The Rowe RPM45.

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.

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.

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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.

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 inner workings of a vintage jukebox.

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

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