Tuesday, May 16, 2017

America's lost music history

The news that the Gold Band recording studio in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has been knocked down is yet another example of how little value is given to the history of American popular music. Apparently some locals braved the demolition balls to rescue a few records, papers and pieces of equipment. Set up by Eddie Shuler in 1945, Goldband recorded a tremendous amount of Cajun, rockabilly and swamp pop music over many decades. It was where Phil Phillips recorded Sea Of Love, Dolly Parton made her first recording Puppy Love and numerous local artists began their careers, including Lonnie Brooks (as Guitar Junior), Jo-El Sonnier, Rocking Sidney and Al Ferrier. When I visited Lake Charles in 2005 the building was empty and deserted. Eddie was no longer recording and died a few months later. There was a sign on the outside saying it was a historic building, but it seems that since then no real efforts were made to save the building for posterity.
Sadly this has been the attitude in many parts of the US. The old Stax studio in Memphis was demolished to be replaced by a marker, but has since been gloriously rebuilt as a museum and education centre, showing what can be achieved if there is a will. Not far away, the site of American Studios is now occupied by a supermarket with just a plaque to commemorate it.
When I was In Chicago in April I visited the former site of Vee-Jay records, the label that produced blues by the likes of Jimmy Reed and John Lee Hooker, doowop by the Spaniels and the Dells, and soul by Jerry Butler, Gene Chandler, Dee Clark and Betty Everett. The building had scaffolding on it and was apparently on the verge of demolition to make way for upscale housing. There was no sign of its important role in black music (not to mention its involvement in releasing early Beatles tracks in the US) and was in a sorry state. Just down the road the site of Chess Records has at least fared rather better, being the headquarters today of the Willie Dixon Foundation.
In New Orleans Cosimo Matassa's J and M recording studio in Rampart Street is now a launderette, although there are photos of its former use around the place. I visited the famous Dew Drop Inn (pictured below), the night club where many of the great fifties and sixties black artists appeared, on one of my visits in the '90s and it too was semi derelict. Today, it seems, there is a campaign to restore it to its former glory. Let's hope it succeeds.
In Houston, the original site of Duke Records in Erastus Street was occupied by a church (pictured below) when I visited last year with no mention of its musical heritage, and I read recently that even the church has now been knocked down. In Los Angeles there is virtually no sign of the important role that Central Avenue played in its music history. And in Jackson, Mississippi, all that remains of the influential Trumpet Records in Farish Street is a marker.
There has been much controversy in New Orleans recently surrounding the decision to remove four Confederate statues, including that of Robert E Lee in Lee Circle. To some, this is another example of how America fails to mark its history, although there are undoubtedly two sides to this, as the presence of grandiose tributes to former slave owners and those who supported slavery is offensive to many. In the UK we've had similar debates recently with regard to Colston Hall in Bristol, named after a local slave trader and merchant, and the statue of the imperialist Cecil Rhodes in Oxford. Whatever the rights and wrongs of these historical remains, the recognition for posterity of places which were central to the development of music is surely something that everyone can agree on. 

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