"55 Years of Great Music"
Seventy-five-year-old Bob Koester founded Delmark Records fifty-five years ago, so he was just twenty when he got started in the record business. Koester has been responsible for recording some very special Blues and Jazz records and has a strong reputation for allowing his artists artistic freedom in the studio. Koester also had the street smarts to start the worldwide famous Jazz Record Mart store in Chicago, which hedged his bet with financing Delmark Records during lean times.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, he got into Jazz and Blues as a teenager and went to as many local live shows as he could, he also started collecting classic 78 rpm. records while still in high school. Many of these records became out of vogue and went out of print, but that did not stop Koester from poking around at many local secondhand shops and jukebox suppliers rather than the usual record stores. Before it was en vogue, Koester started to trade records and during his time at St. Louis University in 1951, to study business and cinematography, he started selling them out of his dorm room via mail order, at a substantial profit. Then Koester joined a Jazz club where he made more contacts for clients and in 1952 he opened his first record store, which became successful, so much so he then moved to a larger location and named the new store the Blue Note Record Shop. Another new location followed on Delmar Street in 1953, which was also the same year he released the first LP Jazz release on Delmar Records. Several years later Koester recorded BluesmenSpeckled Red, Big Joe Williams, and J.D. Short, and started to acquire the rights to master tapes from Apollo, Regal, and United. Koester traveled to Chicago in 1958 and shortly after moved his store to the Windy City.
Koester changed the name of his label to Delmark Records and as the 1960s arrived he started recording landmark sessions with Roosevelt Sykes, Yank Rachell, and Sleepy John Estes. By the mid 1960s, Junior Wells was signed on and his "Hoodoo Man Blues" became a classic snapshot of that era's Chicago Blues scene. Shortly after Junior Wells came, other strong recordings by Magic Sam, Luther Allison, Otis Rush, Robert Lockwood Jr., Carey Bell, and other great Blues veterans from Chi-town.
Delmark also has its share of Jazz recordings, as Delmark recorded avant-garde artists like Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, andMuhal Richard Abrams.
By the 1970s the Jazz Record Mart had become a Mecca for Jazz and Blues lovers, some of whom wound up working for Koester. To this day, even as record stores around the world are closing en masse, the Jazz Record Mart thrives and remains an integral component for Koester's three businesses, that being the Delmark Record label, the Jazz Record Mart, and Delmark's recording studio, which is housed at Delmark's offices.
On a recent visit to Chicago I spent a delightful afternoon at Delmark's offices, chatting about the record business, the future of the industry, and artists that Koester has recorded.
The first thing that strikes you about Bob Koester is that he is a very open person who is willing to answer all questions; he hides nothing, and openly talked about fiscal issues, specific unit CD sales, his Jazz Record Mart's statistics, and his recording studio.
Kevin Johnson (radio and press promotion for Delmark) graciously picked me up at my hotel room and drove me out to Delmark's offices. Kevin is an enthusiastic music person who can easily comment about various music styles and seemingly enjoys his time working at Delmark. Upon my arrival to their headquarters, I was taken on a tour of the facility, which has several offices, a spacious stock room, and their recording studio. As we made our way around the facilities, Koester would often show me CDs, LPs, DVDs, and even a few VHS tapes, and would comment about the recordings, as well as to whether it was a good or bad seller. When you think about how much this man has seen and heard over Delmark's fifty-five year business, you know you are talking to one of the music industry's most respected individuals.
Koester's brilliant concept about keeping his label afloat is based on the fact that he has three distinct income streams of business to balance out good or bad years of cyclical business changes at each of his divisions. At this point in time, Koester freely told me that had it not been for the strength of the Jazz Record Mart, Delmark Records would probably be in jeopardy. Add to the mix that having a recoding studio in his facility allows Koester to make relatively inexpensive studio recordings, plus he rents time to musicians and bands who want to record there. Talk about hedging one's bets!
Koester also told me that the Jazz Record Mart's monthly revenue has been climbing in recent years, especially since the demise of Tower Records, and other well known and lesser-known, local record stores. His record store serves as another outlet for Delmark recordings, plus other well known Jazz and Blues labels, and Koester actively looks for deals where he can make discount purchases from labels and other record stores going out of business or those just looking to sell off their inventories. Make no doubt about it, Mr. Koester is a very knowledgeable businessman, who has successfully managed to keep all three businesses running for almost six decades now, but most of all, he loves the music, all kinds of music.
You can see the twinkle in his eyes when he talks about recording Jazz greats like Grant Green and Jimmy Forrest, plus Blues giants like Otis Rush, Luther Allison, Junior Wells, Magic Sam...well, you get the picture! Every time I would ask Koester to talk about an artist he would tell me how many units were sold. One of his recent best sellers was the great live recording he released by Otis Rush, All Your Love I Miss Loving, Live at the Wise Fools Pub.
We made our way to the recording studio, I am not a studio tech, but it seemed very high-tech with several Pro-Tools Mac computers, a huge mixing board, and, glory be, he even had a real B3 organ in there, so it was kind of old, yet modern with all of today's gadgetry.
My last stop at Delmark was in Koester's office, where we talked about the future of Delmark and the future of the recording industry. His previous comments about the health of his Delmark's Record business concerns him, yet he is thrilled about how well the Jazz Record Mart is doing, he also mentioned that bookings at the recording studio are increasing, so Koester is keenly managing to keep his entire business running, and doing what he loves best, making new recordings. He also talked about his college days and of majoring in making movies and how he is enjoying revisited his youthful days by releasing simultaneous CD and DVD releases. Koester is hopeful that the DVD portion of his new recordings will bring deeper appreciation for his artists, his entire catalog, and of course to raise the bottom line of Delmark Records.
My final question to Bob was (and I was sure I knew the answer before I asked), "Will you ever retire, Mr. Koester?"
He jumped up from his desk chair and, with a great big smile, said, "Hell No!"
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