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Put Another Nickel In…

The history and development of the jukebox, and how it kick-started the beginning of rock 'n' roll

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. 

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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