From the age of ten I have loved juke boxes. Much of my earliest musical education – Elvis, Chuck, Buddy and the like – came from a red and yellow one in a coffee bar near Mill Bridge in Skipton where I was raised. Some years ago, whenever I was tasked with compiling a weekly shopping list that Mrs Charlesworth might need for a trip into town, I would slip ‘juke box’ somewhere in between the food and drink items, only stopping when the joke wore thin.
Over and above the music, there was something tantalisingly attractive about gaudy American Rock-Ola juke boxes, the lights that twinkled, the plastic that shone, the chrome that glinted, the curves that somehow reminded me of American cars to be found in ads in National Geographic magazine, low and flat with sweeping tailfins and sleek, flowing bodywork.
Not often does your man from Just Backdated find himself spending a weekend in a private house equipped with a Rock-Ola juke box but that’s what happened last weekend when we stayed with our friends Adrian and Lynne at their home in a village a few minutes’ drive away from Bridport in Dorset.
Adrian has owned the blue Rock-Ola 449 pictured above since the late seventies. Made in the US in 1972, it was shipped to Germany for use on an American army base before it found its way to the UK where Adrian paid about £250 for it from its previous owner. It’s set up to take 25 cent coins (American quarters) but like all juke boxes can be fixed to circumvent payment.
It contains 100 7-inch singles, two 12-inch speakers and is very loud. Indeed, the volume is difficult to control and even on the quietest setting booms out like sound systems at Notting Hill Carnival. Speaking of which, it comes as no surprise that almost all the singles on Adrian’s juke box are early reggae, not just Bob Marley, but less celebrated names too, as can be seen from the picture below.
Perhaps more impressively, when it broke down about six months ago Adrian was told by the only juke-box repair man for miles around that it would be at least six months before a home visit to diagnose the problem could be arranged. So Adrian downloaded the manufacturer’s manual from the internet, took it apart and fixed it himself. Respect. Here are some pictures of the insides and scans of pages from the repair manual.
While working on his machine, Adrian noted that missing from the manual was information about the device within that logs the number of plays for each record. This enabled its owner to report back to those who compiled record charts based on juke box popularity, which might be subject to fraud if tampered with. “They didn’t want anyone to know how it worked,” Adrian says. “You could fix the charts if you altered the readings.”
A bit of research on the internet tells me that the Rock-Ola Scale Company was founded in 1927 by David Cullen Rockola to manufacture all kinds of coin-operated entertainment machines. During the 1920s, Rockola was linked with Chicago organized crime – no doubt Mafia dudes offering ‘protection’ in return for the profits of coin-machines they supplied – but Mr Rockola escaped a jail sentence by turning State’s Evidence, which probably meant he watched his back for the rest of his life.
He added the hyphen because people often mispronounced his name – the long ‘o’ is important – and the name of his company was changed to Rock-Ola Manufacturing Corporation in 1932. From 1935, Rock-Ola sold more than 400,000 jukeboxes under the Rock-Ola brand name, some of which were shipped to the UK. One of them ended up at that coffee bar in Skipton, for which I gave thanks every day of my life.