NAMM’s Oral History: Celebrating the Industry’s Builders
Dan Del Fiorentino, NAMM’s librarian/historian, is a collector of stories. Touching. Funny. Heartbreaking. Fascinating. Inspiring.
It’s the NAMM Oral History Project.
The trade association has been documenting the history of the music products industry in the words of the people who did their part to create that history over the last 50 years and more. It’s a prodigious undertaking. In fact, when the closing bell rings at this year’s NAMM Show in Anaheim, Del Fiorentino expects to have booked the 1,000th in-depth video interview.
It can be fascinating work. Last August, Del Fiorentino was on site at the MIAC trade show in Toronto. Among his 13 assignments that weekend was to interview Fred Kalisky, founder of Canadian distributor Efkay Music Group. Kalisky’s remarks would be among those that put the number of interviews over the 900 mark.
“Fred survived Auschwitz, but lost his entire family in the Holocaust,” Fiorentino recalls. “The interview was a reminder of what we are preserving; not just industry stories but the history of these people and the times in which they lived. After a moment of silence in which Fred was reflecting on those days I asked if he had a number (a tattoo the Nazis put on the arm of the Jews in the camp). When Fred said he did, and rolled up his shirt to show me, I lost it. For the first time, tears came to my eyes during an interview and I could not stop. To hear this story, and to then see the outlet the music industry gave him to focus on living and raising his family … it was just overwhelming. I am sure not everyone would like to see this clip, but everyone should see it.”
“To me, the best thing about the industry has always been the people,” says NAMM president and CEO Joe Lamond. “This program celebrates their creativity and innovation, their successes and failures, and reminds us that even the greatest leaders were also very human. Hearing their stories firsthand is priceless and will inspire future leaders for generations to come. It is an honor for NAMM to provide this for the industry and we take the responsibility very seriously.”
A Century of Stories|
The sole criterion for being interviewed as part of the Oral History is that the person has to have made an impact on the business. Under this broad mandate, the list includes pioneers, innovators, veterans, artists, and advocates of music making. Also NAMM looks for people who can fill in a gap, a missing puzzle piece. For example, information on M.H. Berlin, founder of the Chicago Musical Instrument Company, “the Yamaha of its day” in the 1950s and ‘60s, proved elusive. “I must have interviewed 50 people, looked through the archives, even went through some of MMR’s old magazines to see articles written about him, yet it was still inconclusive,” Del Fiorentino remembers. He finally tracked down Berlins’ son, Arnie Berlin, who was able to fill in the blanks.
Captured are stories about Al Kahn, founder of Electro-Voice. Now passed on, he told of starting his PA business in 1927. “He was hired by famed Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne to help spread his coaching wisdom, Del Fiorentino recalls. “Rockne would stand on scaffolding in the center of four football practice fields, and wanted to be able to bark out directions to all four squads practicing. As Kahn perfected his system, this got easier for the coach. Finally one day Rockne looked over and said, “I don’t know where I’d be without my ‘electric voice.’”
|…Oral Histories…by the Numbers
Asking Del Fiorentino for a favorite interview is like asking a parent which child he loves the best, but he mentions Charlie Bickel, president of Selmer in the late 1960s and 1970s. Fiorentino went to his home for the interview not knowing anything about him, then was surprised to hear him give a firsthand account of being there at the work bench when George Bundy invented the Bundy Resonite clarinet. It was during the Depression, Bickel recalled, and the need for a playable and affordable clarinet was crucial at the dawn of the Big Band Era.
As with the Bundy clarinet example, the project often sheds light on important eras. “World War II is fascinating,” Del Fiorentino notes. “There were so many companies that had to stop making musical instruments to join the war effort.” James Mixter, who worked for Baldwin before, during, and after the war, told how they went from making pianos to planes. He was in charge of building gliders and they had to cut holes in the floor of the Baldwin factory to accommodate working on the wings.
Doing his job is not always as easy as sitting in a room at a trade show and pulling people off the floor for a few minutes. Sometimes extra effort is needed. He says the person who languished longest on his “wish list” of those to be interviewed was the peripatetic Skip Maggiora of Skip’s Music. And due to lost luggage and stolen videotape, it took three tries to finally get 93-year-old retailer Arthur Griggs’ story logged.
“My 2002 interview with Ethel Merker, the French horn player who designed a series of Leblanc products, must be the winner of the strangest location for an interview,” Del Fiorentino comments. “After being run out of her home due to construction, a nearby restaurant due to noise, and a local park due to darkness, she called one of her music students who happened to be the pastor of a local church and we ended up there. During the interview, Ethel was in the middle of a juicy story, but looked up at the cross and decided against it.”
Story Behind the Stories
In some ways, the roots of this project date back to 1991 with the death of Leo Fender. With his passing, NAMM realized they had absolutely nothing on tape of this legendary innovator. Talks then began about the need to document some of the elder statesmen of the industry. A decade later, with the organization’s 100th anniversary looming, there were many inside and outside the organization who felt it was time to “see what could be done to celebrate the history of the industry,” Del Fiorentino says.
|NAMM Oral History Trivia!
Sharpen your pencils and see how you score on industry trivia…
Scroll down for answers.
As for Del Fiorentino, he had spent 15 years in radio in San Francisco where he discovered that rather than talking about a song himself, it was much more interesting to talk to the source — so he got in the habit of calling up the likes of Lena Horne and Count Basie to interview them about particular tunes. When his wife’s career landed them in Southern California, he happened upon a job at NAMM. “When it was suggested that they start an oral history program, I latched onto it!” It was a good fit, especially given that his background also included library research.
Former NAMM president and CEO Larry Linkin had provided him with a wish list of who he thought should be interviewed. Big names were on it: Henry Steinway, Les Paul … the idea was over a 10-year period to collect about a 100 interviews, and be sort of a “time capsule” snapshot. When Joe Lamond took over for Linkin in mid-2001 he was especially interested in the project, believing that the industry’s history was no mere keepsake, but something which could be learned from and used.
“The collection and preservation of the history of our industry is invaluable for the future,” Lamond says. “We now get to have the benefit of learning from industry leaders in their own words and hearing their stories that helped change and shape the music products industry as we know it today.”
“The thing that caught on quickly about the project with everyone was the passion,” says Del Fiorentino, who stresses that this is very much a team effort involving everyone at NAMM and beyond. “These are people who truly love what they do. That becomes clear over and over again.” The more people learned about the program, the more it expanded. Requests came in from organizations like the Retail Print Music Dealers Association (RPMDA) to come and share some of the oral history findings. “About three years into the process, I actually got to share stories with others in the industry and the response was great,” Del Fiorentino says. ‘Then I thought, ‘Hey, we’re on target here.’”
Already, around 75 of those interviewed have already passed on, making their contribution to the project that much more valuable (a recent example is the passing of Sandy Feldstein, whom NAMM was able to have interviewed just a few years prior to his death).
The project has already been used as a resource for three books, including the recently published Gibson Guitars: Ted McCarty’s Golden Era 1948-1966. Also practical ideas for retailers are there — sales tips, what others did in previous hard times, the role of mentors, and more.
On a personal level, Del Fiorentino has found this process rewarding. He comments, “I can’t tell you how many times, mostly at the end of the interview, when a subject has tears in his or her eyes. They thank NAMM for honoring them. Often it’s a true pioneer of this industry, and the honor is all mine. It’s really very meaningful to me.”
It’s become personal for Lamond as well: “Since we started the program, we’ve lost some very special friends, some of the greatest minds of our generation. In a way, being able to watch their oral history interviews makes it feel like they are still with us. I’ve heard from so many of their families how much it has meant to them to be able to see the oral history videos of their loved ones. That is a powerful and humbling reminder of how important this program really is. In the same way, the annual tribute we do at the NAMM Show to say goodbye to the industry friends we’ve lost in the previous year is also becoming an important part of what we do.
“Our industry is like a big extended family, we celebrate the good times together and at each NAMM Show, at 5 p.m. on Thursday, we gather to honor the friends we’ve lost.”
Visit the Oral History Archives
Quotes from the Oral History Archives
…a sampling of comments on file at the NAMM Oral History Project. Go to www.namm.org/resource-center to see and hear a selection from the archives.
Bucking the Hum
“I told the team, ‘We’ve got to come up with something to buck that hum. I don’t know exactly how we are going to do it, but we got to fix it so that it cannot take off and scream.’ I let one of the engineers [Seth Lover] see what he could do with it. About two weeks later he walked into my office and said, ‘Ted, here is your humbucker.’”
–Ted McCarty, Gibson
“The most important innovation that occurred for salesmen during my life time was interstate highways.”
– Don Mitchell, St. Louis Music, Midco
Something for Lucille
“The first amplifier I had I bought at a music store in Memphis called O.K. Houck. It was 1949 — I remember that very well. The speaker might have been 10”, it only had one speaker, and it was very well built. I wasn’t as big as I am now and I used to sit on it a lot. It was a Gibson and I remember the good feeling I had walking into that store with the money to buy that amp.”
– B.B. King
Less is More
“One of the best things you learn with age is that one note is better than ten.”
– Les Paul
“There are two symbols in the world. One is the AK-47 and one is the Fender Stratocaster. When you look at each you know exactly what you see. When you see the AK-47 you think of death, destruction, revolution, pain, and suffering. When you see the Stratocaster you think of freedom, music, America. It’s an incredible dichotomy and I am glad to see that the guitar has become the symbol of freedom throughout the world.”
– Jeff “Skunk” Baxter,
Guitarist for Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan
“January 1, 1981 I started my own business. I called it Brentwood Music because that is where I lived, in Brentwood, Tennessee. I started with $500, which is what the textbooks call under-capitalized … It was not easy, but I stayed with it and over time we made it work.”
– Jim Van Hook, Brentwood Music
An Act of Mercy
“I was the second-worst pianist in Brooklyn at one point. As a humanitarian, I had to stop.”
– Jerry Ash, Sam Ash Music
50 a Day
“I’m working on about 1,600 to 2,000 piano prospects a day. I have gotten their names, phone numbers, and addresses and so forth. I’ve gotten to know the people quite well. And so I actively contact those people daily. Not all 1,600 of course, but a portion of them each day. I try to make 50 calls a day … It’s the only way to do it. I see other salesmen who don’t even bother to get the person’s name, their phone number, their address, or anything else. And I think, ‘Are they missing the boat.’”
–Bob Gray, St. Louis piano salesman
Just a Drummer
“When I received my draft notice in the mail I remember thinking, ‘Why do they want me? I don’t know anything about war, I’m just a drummer.’”
–William F. Ludwig
No Quality, No Business
“After the Chinese market opened, things were different. Suddenly the big factory disappeared. Back then, the big companies were all government-owned and they were losing money, business. The government said, ‘We can’t take it anymore … just close down the plant.’ Then small plants popped out and they were all privatized, personally owned. Once they came to this market, they feel that they have to make something right, it is not that they are saying ‘We are only offering you low price,’ Price is very important, but if you have no quality, you have no business.”
– Frank Huang
A Better Place
“I truly believe in my heart of hearts that the world is a better place for me having lived, because I’ve given people opportunities to play music that wouldn’t have been able to play music before.”
– Hartley Peavey
Competitors and Friends
“I don’t believe there is an industry I’ve heard of other than our own industry where, although we were great competitors, we were also great friends.”
–Denzil Jacobs, Kemble Piano (UK)
“That’s where the reward comes from. I’m an engineer. I like my electronics well enough. But over the years it’s the people, both the musicians who use our stuff and the engineers. To me, today, that’s what it’s all about.”
– Bob Moog
Good Repeat Customers
“We were friends with Pete Townshend and John Entwistle [of The Who] … we went to visit [Entwistle] at his home in England, but it wasn’t a home, it was a castle. It took us two hours to walk through. He had one room just filled with bass cabinets. Then a toy room with every kind of electronic game. They were very good for us … [but] they used to break guitars like nobody’s business.”
– Henry Goldrich, Manny’s Music
“I wanted more than the [Fender] Broadcaster [guitar] … it had some things that didn’t appeal to me and then I sawed it up considerably and it became even uglier. Leo [Fender] couldn’t understand that – but the [edge] of the guitar [cut] into my ribs pretty badly, and I was doing a lot of sit-down work, a lot of studio work … Leo, not being a player, it was really difficult to get an idea across to him; but once you could get your idea across to him, he was such a clever man, very plotting, and relentless as a thinker, and once you could get your ideas across to him, he could make it. So he made me my guitar and later on it became the Stratocaster … it was very ugly and nobody liked it but me, but you could play it in tune and in those days you played a lot of lead lines, and if you could play one in tune, the producer would call you back.”
– Bill Carson, Fender
Both Sides Now
“We formed that organization [RPMDA] to deal with problems between the publishers and the retailers, and of course some like me rode two horses because we had both a print music store and a publishing company, so we were on both sides of the fence.”
–Frank Fendorf, Wingert-Jones, RPMDA co-founder
First Road Trip
“My first road trip was three weeks through the state of Florida, and at the time we were involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis. So going up and down that state all you saw were trains and trucks coming in with jeeps and tanks and artillery and stuff … it was sort of scary …”
– Bill Heese, Carl Fischer
“You need competition to give you incentive to move forward and be much more creative. I respect competition. The more competition, the more stimulating it is to the market and I think it’s good for everybody.”
– John Lee, Tom Lee Music
“I think the future is great, because they are getting guitars in the schools – school music programs are going to benefit. Something like 100,000 to 200,000 kids taking up guitars in schools and now and they are all going to buy guitars and accessories and so forth. But more important, the music departments have all these kids in there now who support the program, their parents support the program, the teachers save their jobs. Everybody wins.”
– Jerry Hershman, association executive
“[NAMM’s growth] was, I believe, a progression of many things. Progression of time, progression of change in business practices, progression of change in the organization from one that merely sponsored a trade show to one that actively participated in increasing the number of music makers so they go into the store, increase the traffic, and increase sales, which NAMM has done over the years and will continue to do.”
– Larry Linkin, NAMM president/CEO
“I graduated from college in 1941 … I went to work for [my wife Kay McDowell’s] dad in the music store and I was put up in the repair department. I don’t know anything about band instruments. I don’t know a trumpet from a sousaphone … the manager says, ‘Take this trumpet back there and dip it.’ So I went back and dipped it, and I got home that evening and my fingers were splitting open – it was just terrible. I came to work the next day and show him my hand, and he said, ‘Gee, that’s the cyanide tank, you’re suppose to put it on a hanger and just dip the instrument in.’ I didn’t know. They shifted me over to accounting shortly thereafter.”
– Bob McDowell, Ludwig Aeolian owner, NAMM president
Bill’s Big Buy
“Tom Ferguson, who was the Leblanc rep, knew what I had upstairs [in my store], and said, ‘I have a guy in Arkansas who probably wants to talk to you.’ And that was when Bill Clinton was governor, and he and Hillary proclaimed that every school system would have instrumental music in Arkansas. The schools didn’t have any horns, and there certainly wasn’t any money to buy new horns, so there was a big, big market [for used instruments]. So my third floor was full of 40 years’ worth of stuff. It was our bone yard. Then these guys came over from Arkansas, driving some kind of Cadillac with a small two-wheel trailer. They go upstairs, come down, and say, ‘We’d like to buy everything up there. What do you want for it?’ ‘Really? I don’t know that I know,’ I said … as I recall, we turned that third floor into about $30,000. And it was just clean, swept up. Hadn’t been that way for 40 years! And that was because Bill Clinton proclaimed that every school in Arkansas would have instrumental music.”
– Phil McKinney, Oklahoma retailer
“I’m not sure of the year, but I was out here and [son] George was at the other store, and I got a phone call from him that said, ‘Dad I think you better get over here – we’ve got a fire.’ So I jumped in the car and I hear on the radio ‘music store in flames.’ [Laughs.] Luckily no one was hurt, but there were four walls left. And, happily, we had the other store, so we survived. The funny part was the people who went to that store, who knew the store so well, would come in, and it was rubbish, you could hardly get in, and they would ask, ‘Do you have any reeds?’ [Laughs.] I’d say, ‘Take whatever you want! [Laughs.]’”
– George Quinlan, Chicago B&O dealer
“The biggest year for the piano business was 1903 or 1904, for the total piano business, 400,000 new pianos were sold that year. Half of them were player [pianos] and there were big companies that made them. Then it just dropped dead in 1927. The whole thing was absolutely over. When you think back to 1904 and 1905, the movies were coming in, the automobile was starting to become cheap enough for people, and our habits changed [in a way] that made the piano less essential to home entertainment. In 1927, the big change was radio – had us all sitting looking at a box. So that’s the long-range story on that.”
– Henry Steinway. Steinway & Sons
The Accidental Salesman
“I was very active in Chicago organ retail as a teenager because by that time I could play. During that period, we’re talking about the early 1950s, most sales people who were attempting to sell home organs could not demonstrate [them]. They could not play. They had never studied or tried the organ – some had piano background, but, as you know, there is a world of difference between playing the piano and playing the organ, and so I did get into organ retail accidentally, you might say.”
– Bob Zadel, keyboard executive
“It was always a wonderful experience going to NAMM. At the end of the show when [my wife] Iris would ask, ‘How did we do?’, I said it depends on how you mean that. If you mean did we sell a lot? Not quite. But I learned a lot. And that’s equally important. We still go to conventions that are half selling and half learning.”
– Morty Manus, Alfred Publishing