Delmark Records Shines Through The Years

At this time when Delmark Records, the venerable blues & jazz label, begins a new era, it is appropriate to remember that founder Bob Koester would sometimes refer to Delmark as the house that Junior Wells built. Wells’ Hoodoo Man Blues (1965) is still the biggest selling album on the label, and is considered one of the greatest blues albums ever recorded.


Bob started Delmark in St. Louis in 1953, at the age of 20, recording the Windy City Six, a traditional jazz band. (Bob hates the phrase Dixieland jazz.) A transplant from Wichita, Kans., Bob learned the whereabouts of forgotten blues musicians from the 1920s and 30s living in St. Louis, including Speckled Red and Big Joe Williams. In the case of Big Joe, it may have been Joe who tracked Bob down. Bob would tell about Big Joe coming into his record store and pulling an old plugger (flyer) out of his guitar case to prove that he was indeed the original Big Joe Williams. Bob joked Big Joe was pretty good at sniffing out a record deal. Sure enough, after Speckled Reds The Dirty Dozens, issued as Delmar 601, Big Joe was the second blues artist to have a Delmark LP.


Bob moved to Chicago for a record label purchase in 1958 that never happened, but it led to the beginning of his retail operation, Jazz Record Mart, and put Delmark in the city with the most blues activity. After recording Sleepy John Estes, Curtis Jones and one more Big Joe session, Hoodoo Man Blues was the first electric blues album to be recorded on Delmark. Buddy Guy was thought to be under contract to Chess, so he was billed as Friendly Chap for the first 7,000 copies. Bob saw many blues artists on Chicago’s west and south side in neighborhoods white people generally did not go to. Bob became known for taking young white blues fans into these clubs. Magic Sam, J.B. Hutto, Otis Rush, Carey Bell, Jimmy Dawkins, Luther Allison, Mighty Joe Young, Robert Jr. Lockwood, Roosevelt Sykes and Jimmy Johnson all recorded for Delmark from the late 60s through the 70s, an impressive legacy.


Delmark was relatively dormant through the 1980s, as Bob focused more on his retail operation. Delmark returned to the studio in the 90s, but ramped it up big time in 1992 with the purchase of it’s own recording equipment. Since then, the number of blues albums in the catalog went from 50 to 250. Since 1993 there have been anniversary albums issued every 5 years, and for the 55th anniversary Delmark issued a live concert DVD that was videotaped at Buddy Guy’s Legends
in 2008. Bob and Buddy both received awards from the Grammy organization that night commemorating the induction of Hoodoo Man Blues into the Grammy Hall of Fame.


The 65th anniversary album, Tribute, is all newly recorded performances of Delmark artists who have recorded for Delmark in this century paying tribute to artists that recorded for Delmark in the 1960s and 70s (with the exception of Lil’ Ed on loan to Delmark and Big Time Sarah and Bonnie Lee being latter era Delmark artists).


This year Bob, now 85 years young, decided it was time for him to retire from the record label business. Delmark Records was sold to two Chicago composers and musicians, Julia A. Miller and Elbio Barilari. “I’ve wanted to run a record label and recording studio for 25 years — it’s been a dream since I was in college,” says Miller, who is now president and CEO of Delmark. Julia teaches Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Miller also works as an instrumentalist, composer, visual artist and curator. Indeed, “We could have started an indie label from scratch — it probably would have been cheaper,” says Barilari, a professor of Latin American music and Jazz History at the University of Illinois at Chicago, host of the globally syndicated radio show “Fiesta” on WFMT-FM 98.7 and co-founder of the Chicago Latino Music Festival. He is now Delmark’s vice president and artistic director.


Steve Wagner, who recently celebrated his 30th anniversary at Delmark, will continue on under the new ownership in the same capacity as record producer, recording engineer, label and studio manager. Together, Miller, Barilari and Wagner will continue in the footsteps of Bob Koester and position Delmark to answer the technological and marketing challenges imposed by the ongoing changes in today’s music industry.

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