If you grew up in the 50’s, 60’s, or the 70’s, you’ll remember jukeboxes. They were everywhere, in diners and bars, soda shops and clubs.
On August 19, 1988, Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog” and “Crazy” by Patsy Cline were named the most played songs on jukeboxes. Those songs are probably still the most popular jukebox hits; when’s the last time you saw a jukebox in a restaurant or bar?
I was first introduced to jukeboxes by my father. On Sunday mornings after I delivered newspapers, went to mass and had a big family breakfast, he took me the Italian Club in my hometown of Trafford, where he had a part-time job as the club’s manager. That was a lot of work for my father because it meant being the bartender and cook, plus cleaning up the next day after big nights. I’d help him sweep the floors and I have to admit I was excited about the dirt. I was only ten years old and I’d wonder what happened on Saturday night to cause so much dirt. The customers must have had a lot of fun.
Eventually I’d wander over to the jukebox, and that’s where my imagination really took over. All those songs, available for just a nickel per play! There were standards and big band tunes, and Perry Como always seemed to have a hit single. Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was popular, and so was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons.”
One of the most well-liked jukebox songs was “Good Night, Irene.” First recorded by bluesman Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter in 1933, the most popular version was by The Weavers, whose recording was No. 1 on the Billboard charts for 25 weeks in 1950. Frank Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Dennis Day, and the country duo of Ernest Tubbs and Red Foley also released versions of “Good Night, Irene” that reached the charts, but nobody matched The Weavers’ success.
When I got a little older I’d go with my good friend Sonny Vaccaro and hang out at the V&M Lounge, named after the owners, Sonny’s uncles Vic and Mike, and Dom & Apey’s Bar. Both were in Trafford and although we were underage, somehow we got in. We never drank alcohol, we just wanted to listen to the bands and sometimes we joined the older guys in poker games. But mostly we listened to music. When there wasn’t a live band, we’d load up songs on the jukebox.
I didn’t know it at the time, but these experiences would serve me well when I got into the music business.
I started in the music business when I was just 18, working for companies that tried to get records played on radio stations. I also visited clubs, lounges and anyplace else there was a jukebox. You wouldn’t think it would be harder to get records placed in jukeboxes, but it was because the jukebox operators didn’t make money. Because the listening public always wanted to hear the newest hits, records quickly went out of style, and jukebox operators had to keep buying the latest releases. Vending machine operators hated jukeboxes because they didn’t make much money from them. Cigarette machines were big moneymakers, as were one-arm bandits, which were illegal but brought in lots of cash. The only reason bar and club owners, and vending machine operators, put up with jukeboxes is because customers wanted them. If jukebox operators wanted to get the more profitable money makers into these locations, they had to keep buying the newest songs.
I paid a lot of attention to what the customers wanted to hear.
In those days there were two kinds of hit singles. There were turntable hits, which were songs that got played on the radio. But the real measure of a song’s popularity was if it was a jukebox hit that people spent their hard-earned money to hear. Remember, most people didn’t have home stereos back then. They either listened to the radio or went to clubs, bars and other places where music was played.
I watched and listened and learned. I became good at figuring out what kind of music people would pay for and that helped me become a successful concert promoter.
And it all started in Trafford with the sound of those nickels going into the jukeboxes at the Italian Club, the V&M Lounge and Dom & Apey’s Bar