Owner Bob Koester
Story and photos by Andy ArgyrakisThe name Delmark Records isn't just synonymous with Chicago jazz and blues, but has steadily become an American institution as the second oldest independent record label in music history. Since 1953, the company has boasted a wide ranging roster of royalty from each genre, such Junior Wells, Magic Sam, Otis Rush and Sun Ra, along with an extensive Apollo Records re-issue campaign (featuring Dinah Washington, amongst many others). And from the very first day the office set up shop through present tense, label founder Bob Koester remains at the helm, spearheading everything from day to day operations to recording sessions to taking inventory on his extensive annals that boast nearly 400 audio projects and about a dozen DVDs.
Setting the scene
In fact, that figurehead's office is the very first spectacle that comes into focus upon entrance at this lived in location, piled high with paper work, files and CD stacks. Despite those items overflowing from the room, attention is immediately drawn to a series of vintage album covers that adorn the lobby walls, along with rows of browser bins packed to the brim with hundreds of CD titles. A quick turn to the right leads to a long hallway with a kitchen and bathroom as primary pit stops, though the campus' true prize of Riverside Studio rests comfortably at the end (loaded with both contemporary and vintage equipment, including fully functional artifacts originally owned by Chess Records).
Several other offices are sprawled adjacent to the studio's walls, though it's impossible not to be taken in by countless floor to ceiling rows packed with CDs and vinyl dating from Delmark's inception through today. A massive garage door seals off that extensive warehouse, dually making a practical delivery entryway and a private exit for artists.
The head honcho
Following the expansive tour, it's back to Koester's office for yours truly to start being a fly on the wall and catch the staff's daily responsibilities in action. At first the owner appears inundated with a slew of paperwork, filing and the constant click of a computer mouse, while the phone rings several times in the background. After sorting through seemingly endless stacks of documents, he takes a break for a more coherent glimpse at an average itinerary.
"I just sort of check up on people," the feisty 74-year old says with a hearty laugh that indicates he's truly a jack of all trades. "I take some of the inventory, I reconcile all the checking accounts and I do shit work like shrink wrap records. If someone writes Delmark Records a letter, I'm usually the guy to respond."
As the main man behind the label, Koester pretty much sets his own schedule, starting the day around noon (since he's a frequent club-goer into the wee hours of the morning) and wrapping up in the early evening (never later than 8 p.m.). However, his time isn't exclusively dedicated to Delmark, but is also split with owning and operating the Windy City's equally historic Jazz Record Mart.
"I try not to do store business here or vice versa," he asserts. "Sometimes if I'm buying bunch of records- like a collection when a store goes out of business- we'll bring the ones that need to be re-wrapped over here. But other than that and maybe some storage space, the two are separate. I'm at the store on Saturdays and Mondays and am here the rest of the week. Sunday I get as far away from the music business as I can."
In the spirit of wanting to keep the two entities freestanding, the conversation swiftly swings back towards Delmark, including Koester's goals to continue a series of successful re-issues and the purchasing of other labels' catalogues. "Re-issues can sometimes be wam, bam, thank you mam where you use old deleted copies and ship out the records again," he continues. "It may sound like kind of a phony thing, but we have to stay alive. We do with studio rentals and now DVDs, but another way to cycle the product, which is something I'm constantly working on. There was a time when Junior Wells' Hoodoo Man Blues and Magic Sam's West Side Soul went out of print, but when we re-issued them, it was as if they'd never been issued before! Hoodoo Man Blues has since become our best selling title and it's probably up to between 150,000-200,000 copies just because of continued exposure and attention."
Men of many hats
Though it's clear Koester holds the older artists near and dear to his heart, often spending a significant chuck of his day reviving heritage albums, a short walk down the hall indicates Delmark is more than merely a nostalgic stomping ground. Just a few doors away from that landing pad, producer/recording engineer/general manager Steve Wagner is feverishly working away behind his computer on DVD editing.
"I'm creating a trailer to promote an Ernest Dawkins DVD," explains the glasses wearing cool cat, taking a split second to look up from the editing console before returning to the tedious process. "We have 11 DVDs out now with many more coming, so I'm getting this footage down for a two to three minute capsule for future promotion."
After several painstaking tweaks across the course of the hour, he completes the task to impressive results, but immediately switches on his producer hat and moves towards Riverside Studios. "I've been managing Delmark since 1987 and we installed Riverside in 1992," he says during the short walk between both locations before sitting behind a Pro Tools bay. "I started slowly with overdub sessions, but eventually after four or five years, got really comfortable with running sessions all by myself with a full blown band."
Though he gets right down to business cutting and pasting a variety of sound files from a mish mash of projects, Wagner cites the differences between recording for Delmark and a major label pop situation. Basically in the jazz and blues world, almost all sessions are recorded live to capture the concert feel, though often times mainstream releases require individual takes to perfect each instrument for a much slicker, more commercial sound.
"When I do a session as a producer, I sometimes produce and engineer simultaneously," he offers. "A Delmark producer is much less involved than a major because we're not as production oriented, but there's still feedback to be given and rough mixes to create once the band's left. With Pro Tools, now you can do the copying and pasting that you couldn't do in the old days when they literally had to take out a razor blade and cut tape. And because blues is generally in the 12 bar format, a mistake in the first verse is easy to replace because the band generally plays the same thing in the second verse."
After leaving Wagner to the task at hand, it's time to visit his fellow technically minded co-worker Raymond Salvatore Harmon. Though he's not an official staff member, the freelance filmmaker/visual artist works out of the Delmark office on a semi-regular basis and teams up with the label in a variety of mediums. "I've produced projects like the Josh Abrams quartet record and Jim Baker most recently," shares the spike-haired, goatee bearing creative type. "Right now I'm focusing on a live CD and DVD of the Chicago Underground Trio coming out, which I'm producing and directing."
Pressing on with endless promotion
The conversation is cut short by a barrage of phone calls, though the neighboring office of Kevin Johnson (director of promotions and publicity) seems to be simmering down. Though he's not feverishly chit-chatting on the phone, the staffer is extensively communicating through a series of emails pitching press to review recent Delmark titles, while concurrently touching base with radio programmers in hopes of securing airplay for his roster. Every once in awhile, Johnson pops up from his desk to quickly stuff a CD and press kit in an envelope and toss it on a ballooning snail mail stack. But then it's back to media messaging and occasionally grabbing a magazine from a five level bookshelf for a more specialized pitch.
"I'm basically the liaison between the label and the publications, but I also work closely with artists to help promote their releases," says the personable and enthusiastic publicist. "Delmark doesn't have an in house booking agent, so I also help out if I have time to get bookings for artists, which in turn promotes sales."
Due to all the responsibilities and a steady flow of releases that only ceases during the winter holidays, his days are somewhat long, though they always seem to fly by in an instant (especially because he's an avid fan of what's being promoted). "It can be really hectic if you let it, between answering phones, going non-stop on emails, trying to send out releases and communicating with artists," he adds. "Plus I field a lot of calls from artists who want to be on our label, which at this time we're not actively looking, but we're always paying attention to what's out there because something could hit our ears or eyes."
Shaping up and shipping out
With the stack of outgoing envelopes rising with every second that passes, Johnson soon steps out of the office to the shipping department nestled deep within the warehouse. He leaves the load on the post-office styled desk of Frank Corpus, Delmark's shipping and receiving manager by day/cameraman on club shoots by night, who's in the process of sorting invoices.
"We get a large amount of orders from distributors and I'm in a constant process of seeing what needs to get filled, putting them in the computer, making out lists, actually filling the orders and making sure all the paper work is completed," he divulges. "Foreign orders are always a little harder because of customs, but I'm pretty much used to it at this point. I really enjoy the music and the people, so I look forward to coming here and being part of the film crew."
All in a day's work
Throughout the course of a day at Delmark, it's obvious the tunes and camaraderie drives the staff much more than the money or recognition. Everyone in the office will be the first to admit cash doesn't flow nearly as fast as the major leagues, though artistic integrity and solid business principles continue to keep the crew running into its sixth decade. "The ideal employee- and I would say this for any business- is the guy or girl who knows when to go ahead and do something and when to ask," considers Koester. "Just about everyone on staff at both places is just like that and it keeps us going."
Though the record business continues to operate (and constantly change) at lightening fast speed, Delmark is clearly nestled into its niche and plans to expand its DVD line, in addition to purchasing additional catalogues. "My feeling is we have stuff in the can that's never been issued and acquired stuff that's never appeared on CD, which will keep us going," he sums up. "We're very encouraged by the sales of our [first time CD releases of classic] Junior Wells and Otis Rush live albums and we're acquiring some similar material in jazz and blues. We've lasted essentially because it's become an overgrown hobby and this is what I do. I'm stubborn and will keeping doing this for a few more years until I feel the need to retire."
And based on his track record and tenacity thus far, that could very well be another 74 years down the road.
Eddie Clranhead Vinson
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