Collecting 78rpms – A Personal Journey

Written by Jonathan Holmes

Jonathan Holmes is a member of the 78rpm Collectors’ Community and has an impressive and extensive collection of English Dance Dance and Jazz 78s. He also currently works for the B.B.C. – In this article, written specifically for us, he discusses his personal journey in collecting 78s.

“Oh but you’re so young!” This is the first sentence from most record collectors when I introduce myself as one of their ilk. Sad but true, being a young record collector puts you in to a very small bracket of the hobby. In nearly four years of record collecting, it has led to encounters with Fred Elizalde and Al Bowlly’s nieces, an appearance on Japanese state television, and the
start of my career in the BBC – and it all started with the purchase of a small, dusty black box…

My journey in to this hobby was a rather unusual one. Our family never had vinyl in the house, and nobody listened to jazz. I always disliked modern music from a younger age, but my choice of listening was from the 1960s and 1970s. It was a choice of A-Level reading which exposed me to this hitherto unknown world of hot music and happiness. My tutor Mr Tebbutt assigned “The Great Gatsby” to our study. For his first lesson, he put the book in our hands and told us “don’t open it. Don’t even think what might be inside. I want you to go away and research the 1920s and the period this book was set in, because only then can you understand the novel properly.”

That night I was searching online, and I came across a Youtube video.

The song was “Since My Best Gal Turned Me Down”, by Bix Beiderbecke and His Gang. I was hooked. My brain was firing in all directions, and I repeated the video again, and again – and on in to the night. Discovering the pure golden sounds of Bix Beiderbecke had awakened something in me, a hunt for that toe tapping beat. I returned to Mr Tebbutt’s English class with such enthusiasm, particularly so when he read out each different character with a different voice. Towards the end of the term, I bought myself a Bix Beiderbecke compilation album on CD, and had it on loop on my iPod. Gradually, this album and subsequent compilation ones I bought had converted my music tastes. I now listened to nothing else.

The next year I went to university for the first time, bright eyed and eager to discover my independence I visited a vintage fashion fair at the university. My wallet was bulging with cash that my grandparents had given me for my first week’s food shopping, but I decided to call in here on my way to the supermarket. After marveling at all the clothes, I came to a vinyl store and spotted a small dusty black box at the back. “What is that?” I asked the stall-holder. “Oh that? It’s a 1920s gramophone”. He lifted the rusty catches and displayed the turntable of the Columbia 109a. Immediately I was in love. Here was a tangible link to this wonderful new period I was discovering. That thing came from the 1920s! I talked eagerly about it, and asked how much he would like for it. “£50” was the reply. I opened my wallet, and realised that £50 was the amount my grandparents had given me.

I decided to have another walk around the fair to think about this prospect and returned 15 minutes later. “Just so you know mate, I’ve had a theatre company want to buy it”. That line sold it. I promptly opened my wallet and purchased the gramophone on the spot. No theatre company was going to stop me! I was handed a few 78s with this purchase: an Edison Bell nursery rhyme disc, a Sam Lanin Parlophone record and a classical record. Thrilled with my new purchase, I took it back to my student lodgings and wound it up. Placing the needle on this record was a magical experience – I was delighted. The date was 25th September 2009, and I didn’t know it but my life had changed direction from then on.

The next day, I went back to visit my grandparents and decided to take the gramophone to show them. That day I learnt how fragile 78s are, the classical record being broken by the train barriers at Lincoln station! My grandparents were extremely surprised to say the least, and my grandmother was horrified I wasn’t changing the needle after each record. Together we cleaned the Columbia up, and I thanked them for their advice.
When I returned to university, I decided that I should purchase some more records for the machine. It had since been overhauled by a clockmaker, and I was regularly using it to play records on – much to the dislike of my flatmates! eBay seemed the best place to buy records at the time, and so I bought my very first 78rpm – Duke Ellington’s “Black Beauty” piano solo, followed by more and more Bix records.

After more research, I discovered that playing these records on my gramophone would lead to permanent damage. So back to eBay I went, and found a very cheap and flimsy deck which had a 78rpm speed. I was finally able to digitise my records for listening wherever I wanted! It was also at this time that I decided that there wasn’t enough Bix music on Youtube, so I used a track from the CD I bought and put it online with a few photos of the famed cornet player. The reaction was positive, so I continued to do more uploads in the same format.

As the months went by, my collection slowly expanded and my Youtube channel also took off. People started writing to me with thanks for sharing this music. I started using my modern deck as well, and posted the raw transfers online, but I was never quite satisfied with the results. I began to hunt for ways to make my transfers as good as the ones on the CD, and came across a few forums and people who could help me. I slowly learnt every technique I could to digitally restore these songs, and conveniently discovered that the software on my university course was a big help to me.

It was in 2011 that an odd comment appeared on a video I had uploaded of Edward VIII’s abdication speech on Youtube. “Hi, I am working for a Japanese TV company who are making an educational programme on the Duke of Windsor, and wondering if you could help”. Thinking it was some sort of scam to steal my gramophone, I replied and arranged to have them visit my house for my filming. On the 24th February, 2011 there was a knock at the door. They had arrived, complete with boom microphones, three different types of cameras, and a translator – their equipment filled my entire front room! I was grilled on this record for over an hour, then they filmed me at university much to the bemusement of many students! Being on Japanese TV made me a local celebrity in Lincoln for the week, and it was a wonderful chance to show off this new hobby. My family were desperate for me to sell the gramophone and my records until Japanese TV showed up!

It was during that year that the uploads on my Youtube channel became sonically more progressive, I was learning fast – and it was starting to attract a great deal of attention. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to reach out to the world and have them reply. People were starting to write to me from America, Germany, Australia and even South Korea! In 2011 I went to America for 4 months on a working holiday, and I planned my travels around the various friends I had made online through my Youtube channel. First, in New York it was a very well connected jazz fan who introduced me to Vince Giordano himself when I went to see his band. Hearing the music that Vince played was another epiphany for me, no longer was I restricted to hearing this music on crackly old records, but I could see it live in front of me! I went every night I could during my time there. She also took me to meet the 91 year old piano player Marty Napoleon, whose uncle Phil was a prolific trumpeter in the 1920s. Marty had played with them all, Joe Venuti, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman, Gene Krupa, and even President Nixon! I took great delight in quizzing him about Joe Venuti, and I will always remember the meal we had together. In New York I also travelled upstate to stay with a record collector in Albany. Waking up on an airbed in his front room to the sight of 5 cylinder phonographs, a Victor Victrola 10-50 with automatic record changer, and countless other gramophones was an odd experience let me tell you! After that, I flew to California to stay with another collector in Sacramento who also showed me his wonderful collection of rare nitrate films. I left America with a wonderful feeling. In two years I had discovered this unknown world of wonderful people and lasting friendships, and not to mention good music!

In 2011, I got a comment on another video upload of mine, with a lady claiming to be Al Bowlly’s niece. A brief email exchange followed, and it transpires she is still living in South Africa with the Bowlly family piano in her house. I do deeply regret not keeping in touch with her, but I gathered from her emails that the internet service there isn’t too reliable, and sadly we drifted apart.

I was also contacted by the grandson of Steve Brown, bass player in the Paul Whiteman band and the New Orleans Rhythm Kings. I sent him some music, to which he apparently walked down the aisle in 2012!

Back to my university life, and with a burgeoning Youtube channel and a few hundred thousand hits, I was deciding what to do with my career next. I had already done a placement at BBC Radio Lincolnshire, as part of my degree course. One of my university tutors, (who incidentally subscribes to my channel!) recommended that I approach the Howard Leader Show on a Sunday afternoon. Howard has been with the BBC for quite a long time, and his show is devoted to jazz, swing and dance – probably one of the few places on the BBC where you can hear Jack Hylton played as a record request! I remember my first day on the show well, it was pouring with rain! I turned up, eagerly introduced myself to Howard, his wife and their dog – the latter was most displeased at losing her sleeping space under the desk where I now sat.

The next week, I let slip to Howard that I had a 78rpm collection, and that I could bring in a CD to play on the radio. Howard grinned, and was delighted at the proposition. When the time came, I stood at the studio door with my CD in hand and said “here you go Howard”. He looked at me and gestured me in. “Do you want to present these records yourself?” I was flattered! In just two years after buying my gramophone I was presenting my own record transfers to thousands of people across Lincolnshire. The reception was wonderful, with many of the regular listeners ringing in to congratulate me on my music tastes. And so began my career in the BBC. Over the next few months I played my own 78s for 15 minutes every week, and it put me in great stead when I worked my way on to the payroll at BBC Radio York.

The most recent experience of note came only a few weeks ago. In my former second job, I sold computers at PC World, and I was approached by a rather eccentric looking lady. “Well young man, are you going to serve me?” I silently groaned, and stapled a smile to my face. The woman had come in looking for a cable to connect her tablet to the computer. I promptly showed her what she was looking for, and she exclaimed “you know, I don’t understand all this technology!” I joked: “you should see my jazz gramophone record collection at home!”

The lady turned to me, and replied “that’s odd, you know my uncle was involved with jazz at the Savoy Hotel in the 1920s?” My eyes lit up, and I immediately began to quiz her. “What’s your name, who was your uncle?” When she said that her uncle was none other than Fred Elizalde, my mouth hit the floor. I genuinely could not believe that I had randomly bumped in to Fred’s niece on a nondescript day at PC World. She produced her tablet, and showed me photos of Manuel “Lizz” Elizalde, and told me all sorts of details about the family history. To think that such jazz heritage lives just a few miles away from me in North Yorkshire! We exchanged details and I have been in touch with her since.

More recently, the grandson of Earl Crumb wrote to me. His grandfather was the drummer to the New Orleans Owls, a mid-1920s band recorded by the Columbia Company. He had never heard his grandfather play, and introduced this music to his daughter who reportedly went mad dancing around the house.

My gramophone record collection eventually led to full time employment at the BBC, as what started out as work experience on a music nostalgia program eventually lead me to apply for internal jobs inside the corporation. I now work for BBC Radio Bristol, and live in the beautiful city of Bristol, which is conveniently close to London!
Being so close to the capital has been an eye opener for me. Now I can finish work, step on a train, get changed in to something more period, and be dancing that night to the sounds of a live dance band. I suddenly find my feet moving to the beat, and it’s an insatiable urge that grips me when the music starts playing. In February of 2013, I danced in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom, later in 2013 I danced in The Savoy Hotel, London. Call it a cliché, but nothing beats doing the Charleston at The Savoy.

So here I am, three and a bit years down the line with a few hundred gramophone records, a Youtube channel about to break 1,000,000 hits, and a huge number of friends around the world. I make no dramatics about the fact that the small, black box I bought in 2009 has literally changed my life. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that it would lead to so many wonderful experiences, and now I am becoming more involved with the British dance band circles, these adventures are set to continue. As Henry Hall once said, “Here’s to the next time!”

Jonathan’s YouTube channel

1 Comment

  1. I love the records you feature on YouTube. They seem to be the less well-known sides that rarely (if ever) get featured elsewhere. I enjoy your articles in “Memory Lane” magazine as well. Keep up the good work, please!

Leave a Reply