The Grim Reaper of Shellac

Originally written May 15, 2008

“Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” crooned Bing Crosby.

“Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” sang Harry McClintock, the country singer, hobo, and labor organizer.

“Cheer Up,” went the positively obnoxious popular tune.

I had gone down to the Main Library to listen to an old timer record afficionado and sound engineer by the name of Dick Wahlberg play shellac records from the Depression Era (the kind of records that break to pieces if you drop them) on a 1906 Victrola phonograph with a big horn sound piece and hand crank.

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Dick’s love of records, he told us, began when he was eight years old, growing up in San Francisco and listening to KRE radio station in Berkeley play mostly jazz, blues, and swing. It was a decade of listening later when the radio station shut down. Dick was heartbroken… until the young record collector got a call from a particular, newly made widow.

“I loved getting the call,” Dick told us. “‘I have a husband who died…’”

The widow invited Dick over to see her dead husband’s records. As he informed us, the woman let him take a real good look at the collection because he talked to her first. He was gentlemanly, “played by the rules,” he said. After all, there was more to consider than the dead man’s chest.

When he eventually went through the collection, he was astonished to find that most of the records said “KRE” on the cover. It turns out that the widow’s husband had been a huge fan of the Berkeley station, just like Dick, and had purchased the entire catalogue when the station closed.

How Dick came to own the lot was fairly simple. He offered to sell a small amount on consignment to see how they’d do and to earn the widow’s trust, then he’d share the profit with her. The woman thought about this for a day or so and called Dick to tell him he could have the whole collection to work with, but that she could only keep $10,000 of the profit because it would mess up her taxes. So Dick did pretty much that–he sold $12,000 worth of records and brought the cash to the woman. Well, she could only keep the 10 grand, so she gave him the remaining two and said, “keep the rest of the collection”—to Dick’s immeasurable delight.

There were maybe 25 people in the basement of the library that evening, 90 percent of whom were old, Depression-era old, and grew up with some of these tunes. As Dick played the records, he encouraged the audience to call out the names of the players, and they would… they’d shout out the name of the singer, or the saxophonist; they’d know the backing band or what other bands the players were in. They’d look so happy when they got it right, beaming with a kiddish glow steeped in memory.

“That would be Earl ‘Father’ Hines,” chimed one man with school-boy satisfaction, nodding and smiling to the room.

I was comforted being there amongst the old and the records they cherished, where there was no pretension but the last small joys of life.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Richard (Dick) L Wahlberg, Recording Engineer – http://www.yelp.com/biz/wahlberg-richard-l-recording-engineer-san-francisco

KRE Radio Museum / California Historical Radio Society – http://www.californiahistoricalradio.com/

San Francisco Main Library Events – http://sfpl.lib.ca.us/news/events.htm

Victrola – http://www.victor-victrola.com/

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