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Jukebox Hero and Gordon Dorsey

Wednesday, Dec 1 1999
Jukebox Hero Louis T. Glass was what these days you'd call an early adopter. In 1879, he had apparently gotten sick of working with old technologies, so he left his job as a telegraph operator for Western Union. The winds of change were blowing, after all: There was this newfangled contraption called the telephone around, and damned if Glass wasn't going to get in on the ground floor. So he invested in telephone companies in Oakland and San Diego, and by the turn of the century he was the general manager of the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co.

Glass didn't stop with the telephone. In 1889, about a decade after Thomas Edison had introduced the phonograph, Glass became the general manager of the San Francisco-based Pacific Phonograph Co. He also ran phonograph companies in Washington and Oregon, but it was in this city that Glass conceived his wildest idea. The 44-year-old Glass and a partner of his, William S. Arnold, presented a device that would play a song from a wax cylinder phonograph, but only if you inserted a nickel in a slot attached to the machine.

In other words, Louis Glass invented the jukebox.

He introduced his machine -- cunningly named the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph -- 110 years ago last week, on Nov. 23, 1889. The scene of the crime (there is crime involved -- read on) was the Palais Royal Saloon at 303 Sutter St. Many details about the Palais Royal are lost to history, but Allen Koenigsberg is fastidiously trying to piece the story together. As one of the country's leading scholars on phonograph history, the Brooklyn-based Koenigsberg has a special interest in figuring out exactly what might have happened back then. "It's a tough one, I'll tell you," he says.

But we know this much: The Palais Royal Saloon was owned by one Frederick Mergenthaler, who'd quit his job as a restaurant cook the year before to go into business for himself, though apparently he moved on quickly -- according to Koenigsberg's research, the saloon was gone by 1890. The jukebox that Glass installed at the Palais Royal bore little resemblance to the jukebox as we know it today. For one thing, you weren't offered much in the way of musical options, since the machine could only play one wax cylinder at the time -- the song would be changed every day or so. And what was on the hit parade of November 1889? Koenigsberg consults a copy of Edison Cylinder Records 1889-1912, which he wrote. "Some of the titles you would not want to repeat today," he says -- many of the popular saloon songs were heavy into religious and racial stereotypes. However, you might have had the opportunity to listen to "New York at Night," "The Men of Wall Street," "Down Went McGinty," "Pretty as the Butterfly," or something called "The Rip Van Winkle Polka." There may also have been plugs for the bar itself on the cylinder.

Not that you could actually dance to any of the selections available on Glass' invention. Amplification was years away, so patrons -- no more than four at a time -- had to listen to the song on stethoscope-styled earphones. "Your toe might be tapping, but the rest of your body would have to be pretty still," says Koenigsberg. Regardless, San Francisco went bonkers for the thing: These were the days before radio and movies, and by May the following year there were 15 jukeboxes installed either in local bars or on Oakland-San Francisco ferries. Glass got a patent, and at Chicago's first annual Convention of Local Phonograph Companies of the United States, he announced that he had made just over $4,000. In nickels. Do the math: In 1913 -- as far back as the Federal Reserve Bank's online calculator goes -- $4,000 would be worth about $67,000 today.

"[Glass] was the first person to exploit the beginning of the music industry," says Koenigsberg. "Gentlemen, there is money in the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph," Glass told the Chicago crowd. "If you will look over the income that we have had there you will see that where you furnish interesting material, the receipts do not materially drop off."

303 Sutter, like much of downtown San Francisco, was destroyed by the 1906 earthquake. Glass, in his capacity as general manager of the Pacific States Telephone and Telegraph Co., was eager to make sure that his company made phone service available to the city as soon as possible. Perhaps too eager: The following year, Glass was indicted for bribing members of the Board of Supervisors to maintain PST&T's monopoly on local phone service. Still, Glass remained with the company, and later diversified into handling phone service in the Philippines.

Glass died in San Francisco on Nov. 12, 1924, at 79. 303 Sutter is now a hair salon and spa. And jukeboxes now offer patrons more than one song from which to choose -- but rarely enough good ones.

Gone On Nov. 20, bluesman Gordon Dorsey, better known locally as Big Daddy From Cincinnati, died of pneumonia. He was 50 years old. As his nickname suggests, Dorsey was an Ohio transplant with a love of jazz, folk, country, blues, and even a bit of punk. Since 1985, he'd fronted the South Park Blues Band, which made its San Francisco Blues Festival debut this year; Big Daddy was nominated for an SF Weekly Wammie award this year as well.

"One of the things that he brought to the San Francisco blues scene that nobody else did, and I don't know if anybody will do now," says South Park Blues Band guitarist Bob Clic, "is that he taught real blues. The music scene here is really dominated by people who want to be Texas white-boy guitar gods. There are a lot of Stevie Ray Vaughan-influenced blues bands. Big Daddy brought in Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Jimmy Reed -- which all these bands look at as old-fashioned.

"I've been playing since 1965, and I thought I could play blues," he adds. "Playing with Big Daddy, I found out I sucked. There's about 20 or 30 people locally that he made real blues players out of. I don't know where we can apply it now."

The South Park Blues Band and other members of the local blues community will convene to honor Dorsey at the Boom Boom Room Dec. 6. Call 673-8000 for more info.

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.RiffRaff

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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