10/08/2012 09:07 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Reel to Reel to Reality: A Life of Recording and Collecting

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A dozen years ago, I had a couple of conversations with a young person I knew, during which I mentioned my pastime of collecting, er...passion to collect the recorded ephemera of many years ago. She was baffled by my interest in this, let alone the degree to which I sought this thing out, finding it odd, if not downright weird. At the time, I wrote this essay, as a way of explaining why someone (well, me) would have developed into the collector that I am. I share it here (with a few edits and addenda made necessary by the passage of even more time), as a sort of background to the material that I've been sharing, particularly those from my reel to reel collection.

The opening section, which is partly about the rarity of personal recordings way back when, may be familiar ground for those of certain generations. But it was written specifically for this friend, and is offered here for those considerably younger than me, those who have always been able to see and hear huge portions of that which has happened during their lifetimes, I hope that it's an interesting glimpse into another world.

As the story goes forward, I mentioned several items that I've been lucky enough to share (subsequent to the writing of this story), here at WFMU, and I have provided links to those postings. In many cases, I've found out much more about those individual recordings in the twelve years since I wrote this, details which are found at those links.

Here's my story:


To my dear friend:  

There was a point recently at which you made it clear that it seemed odd or weird that I found such interest in stuff on old tapes, when I would mention what I've found on those tapes.

I think there are at least two things going on: one, that you may not share a fascination for the past, both a voyeuristic interest in what people's lives have been like and a nostalgia for things I've experienced or things I wish I've experienced, but, even more importantly, that you may not be able to conceive of a life in which everything isn't readily available on tape, pictures, video, DVD, computer, etc.

I was born in 1960. When I was growing up, as a person who was not only the youngest, by far, in my family, but the youngest of nearly 20 cousins, counting both sides of my family, there was a lot I hadn't been around for - things I only heard about as I was growing up. If available to me at all, I only heard of most of these things in stories or perhaps a few old pictures.

But my family had something that relatively few others had - a reel to reel tape recorder. By the time I was 8 or 10, it was fairly common for a family to have one of these, but my dad had bought one, a used studio model (that's really all there were, in those days), when my sister was two - in 1952, a few years after they'd been introduced to the professional market.

Again, I don't know if you can fathom how unique this made us, in that one little area. People had home movies - silent, five minute 8 mm films usually featuring several choppy shots of life, usually a few seconds at a time. Some families, quite a few, had owned disc recorders in the late 40's and early 50's, making cheapo 78's. But these made poorly recorded disks, which were often hard to hear and were quite short in nature. They didn't hold up to repeated playings, either.

On the other hand, I had large chunks of my family's history on tape, which was very unusual. There was one of my sister and our cousin sharing jokes at ages three and nine. My brother and sister bickering as she tried to practice piano, then singing hymns together sweetly, then singing fun songs with our mom. My sister, at age two, singing Xmas carols with my father playing piano (I never saw him play piano, aside from two songs - he'd stopped almost entirely by the time I came around). Me, at age four months, crying horribly, while my Grandma (who died weeks later), tried to calm me. My brother, home sick from school, entertaining himself with the radio, with his records, and with various commentaries, at about age 11 - a tape which ends with me coming home from Kindergarten and being on the tape, too. Plus a wide variety of folk and comedy recordings that my folks recorded off of a soon-to-be-legendary local Chicago radio show, throughout the 50's.

I also found, by age six, that I LOVED to record myself, or me and my brother, and hear it again. <Addendum, 2012: As the picture at right - from 1966 - shows, I even liked being by the tape recorder when I was doing something else.> I quickly learned that no one I knew played with tape recorders at home, or had a tape history of their family.

And my brother, who already had a very musical and technical mind, not only shared my love of recording (although perhaps not as intensely), but also discovered myriad ways to make such recording more interesting (often by using two tape recorders at once). I won't go into too much detail, but he variously figured out how to make a recording in which the echo preceded the sound it came from, figured out how to do a very rough version of overdubbing (in which you had to add the second, third, fourth, etc. part immediately afterward the preceding part was recorded, basically improvising your overdubs, because the tape kept moving from one machine into another - I'm not explaining that well - it was genuinely weird, and for me, at age 11, absolutely amazing), engaged in improvising comments and jokes to what we were recording off of various radio stations, and made some truly amazing multi tracked tapes. He was six years older than me, and the initiator of all of this. I still have everything we recorded together. More precisely, it is mostly stuff he recorded with me lending a hand, or just being there.

In addition to all that, as the youngest sibling, and sharing a room with my brother, I got to hear all the wonderful weirdness that WAS top 40 AM radio in the 60's (WLS and WCFL, in our case). The music was great, no doubt, but that wasn't half the story. The running gags, the weird contests and jingles, DJ grudges against each other, parodies, and a million other features made it magical. In my teen years, after my brother and sister had both moved away, I relived this era of my life often with the tapes my brother had made of the local top 40 station, as well as the tapes he made with his friends, and the ones he made with me.

During the winter/spring/summer that I was 15, I listened to every home made tape our family had recorded, and catalogued them. There were about 150 of them, most of them from the 1960s. Some were just tapes of radio programs my mom wanted, many were of her vocal lessons or performances, some had family recordings. But I wrote down where everything was. I also copied everything Bill and I had recorded together onto a couple of reels. You'd think that would have gotten it out of my system........

Around that same time, I visited my Uncle Harry in Memphis. His side job was as a music promoter with a heavy involvement in the traditional jazz field. He was a non performer, but an expert - a friend of Louis Armstrong and many others. He had a series of tapes of a recording session he'd been a part of, all of which were recorded at the professional speed of 15 IPS (inches per second), a speed no home machine runs at. I knew how to transfer this to a usable tape speed for him, and did it. He gave me the originals (actual studio tapes from a recording session!), since he didn't need them. He also had a stack of home recorded 78 rpm records from the early 50's, mostly of his children, which I also found fascinating.

Okay, years go on....... Whenever I'd find a reel to reel tape at a rummage sale or garage sale, I'd get it. What might be on it?????? Often it would be blank. More often than not, it would feature classical or pop music from a record. Every now and then, there would be something from someone's family or off the radio or TV. I would also look for home recorded audio disks (78's), which would virtually always be home recorded stuff.

Why does this fascinate me? I'm not sure. My experience with home recordings is undoubtedly part of the reason. I am taken with the chance to hear the uniqueness of both someone else's family moments and also the wonderfulness of radio from the past (and not the old 40's radio shows that are often heard on nostalgia shows, although I like that stuff, too, but top 40 era loud DJ stuff). I found that a close friend of mine also had a passion for this second side of things, and have shared with him my passion for the more voyeuristic side of my interests for close to 30 years.

In the mid 1980's, I became aware of two separate massive music sales. One was just a small part of what is considered to be the world's largest rummage sale, run by a community church near where I lived. One room featured records, tapes, etc. The other was called the Mammoth Music Mart, and ran, once a year, for about 25 years, selling all forms of recorded stuff to benefit ALS research.

I have found many wonderful oddities, nearly all of them on album, at the rummage sale (which now no longer carries records). Many of these are of the 'private pressing' variety, which is more or less the same as a reel of tape: something a few people recorded and pressed up for their own posterity.

On one memorable day, in 1985, I picked up something called "Musical Memories of Camp Bryn Afon". It was in a white record sleeve and carried no other information. I know this will sound like nothing to you, but this album is inside of me, and has been for almost 15 years now. It is nothing more than a bunch of girls, at a camp in Wisconsin, accompanied by a slightly out of tune piano, singing songs about life at camp, each song a re-written pop or show tune, with new lyrics about Camp Bryn Afon. Aside from Abbey Road, this album comes closest to me to being the auditory and musical expression of the meaning of life. It is the purest, sweetest thing I've ever heard, and I'm near tears typing these words, just from thinking about it. If you were to hear it, you'd likely say "that? That's what you love that deeply?"

After a few years of listening to it, I was inspired to find out where this camp was (it was not in any listings in the late 1980's), and what happened to it. I finally, after a lot of sleuthing, narrowed it down to an educational camp in northern Wisconsin. My wife and I camped in that area anyway, so we went there. I interviewed the owner, filmed the gorgeous campsite and came away a changed person, in ways I can't quite explain. All from one home recording, pressed up for a few dozen campers in 1965.

By now, you probably think I'm nuts. <Addendum, 2012: hopefully, some of those who read this blog, however, are nodding their heads in complete understanding>

Anyway, the Mammoth Music Mart was another thing altogether. Each year, literally hundreds, at times thousands of reel to reel home recorded tapes to wade through, as well as the more name brand albums to pour over, collectables to look through, and 78's to ponder. First me, then, after a few years, me and a friend would go to the reels and look at every one, putting aside everyone that looked like it might bear interesting fruit, and also some that simply said nothing on them. I also usually found more than a few home recorded 78's.

Some years turned out better than others. One year, I got a raft of tapes that had been donated by someone named Larry Taylor (or, perhaps, his survivors). He led a few hot jazz combos in the 50's and 60's, it appeared, and one featured some killer studio recordings for an album which, as far as I can tell, was never released. He also made some fairly weird instrumental and novelty recordings.

I have also found tape after tape of old radio broadcasts, from everywhere in the country. I found a tape of the game the Chicago White Sox won to make it into the World Series, in 1959. One year, my collector friend and I were amazed to find dozens of tapes from someone who apparently recorded everything in the media that interested him, each time meticulously catalogued. Tonight Show interviews. news broadcasts. Entire movies. Country radio shows. Funny commercials, Pop songs, you name it. About six hours of stuff per tape, and at least three dozen tapes. Paydirt.

One cute tape featured a little girl trying to get her baby brother to say a few of the few words he had learned so far. I found a tape with a half-hour interview with the Shah of Iran, from the early 1960's, talking about the joint efforts of the Iranians and the US to rebuild a section of Iran damaged by nature. It blows my mind that people would give that sort of thing away. But I love having it. I keep finding more stuff.

Several years ago, I bought an unmarked 78 acetate, one of many I got every year at this sale. This one featured two songs, one of which was a catchy song sung by a very young woman. Called "Reputation", it was a jumpy little number, sounding like it came from just before Rock and Roll took over. I listened to it a few times, and liked it enough to play it for a few people, and then put it away.

Probably five years later, at the same sale, I found a whole pile of tapes, all with the same handwriting on them, indicating that they were rehearsals of a variety of songs, one title of which, "Head Cheese" certainly fascinated me. At least a few of the tapes also indicated that there was a song called "Reputation" among those being rehearsed on the tapes.

I took nearly a dozen tapes of this set home. Sure enough, it's the same folks as heard on that unmarked acetate. It sounds like they had a little group of friends, all of whom were musical. I'm guessing none of them did this for a living - I've been unable to find any reference to any of their names in any of the places I'd expect to find such names, connected with music - but that this was a passion, much as it is for me and some of my "music on the side" friends. The tapes feature a wide variety of songs, recorded over nearly a decade, some of them over and over. There is some conversation, and a few laughs, but mostly just a variety of varied, interesting, and apparently original songs - I've never heard any of these songs elsewhere. Reputation is the killer. As with the Musical Memories album, I'm a sucker for kids singing, I guess. And the singer on this is just a kid - she sounds like she's about 12. But very professional, while at the same time quite amaturistic. Endearing as all get-out. "Head Cheese" features the same kid and is genuinely weird.

Again, if you heard this stuff you'd probably say "yeah, so?", but there ya go. It's one of those things that makes life worth living for me. I keep finding more stuff - more than I can get to while also holding a "real" job. At this time, I have well over a hundred reels in the basement, collected from all over the country, which I haven't listened to yet. <Addendum, 2012: There are now well over a thousand tapes down in the basement, waiting to be heard, as you can see here>

Who knows what I will hear next week!!!!!