The jukebox was for much of the 20th century as much a part of the everyday fabric of life as the automobile or light bulb. During its heyday from the 1930s through the 1950s pretty much every diner, speakeasy, and dance hall in America featured a magnificent Wurlitzer. The greatest of these jukeboxes were decorated in art déco style and glowed, pulsed and just generally became as much an object for the eye as it was for the ears. Those classic Wurlitzer jukeboxes from the 1930s today sell for over $10,000 in good condition. Most of the jukeboxes you may vaguely remember from your youth were not of that quality; by the 1970s the average jukebox was made of just simple chrome and glass and didn’t even have lights. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel a bit of nostalgia at walking into the local Waffle House and seeing the ever-present simple jukebox. Around here, the Waffle House is one of the few places that even has a jukebox. The Waffle House jukebox is also famous for the humorous titles of some of the songs available for playing; next time you go in, be sure to look for them.
How many middle-aged people can remembering going on summer vacation every year and stopping at a local diner and flipping through the tabletop jukebox selector? Yeah, it was a great innovation for the jukebox industry, allowing people at every table to pop in their quarter and choose a song from the jukebox over in the corner without even leaving their seat. Heck, it was fun just flipping through the selector, whether your parents would give you the quarter or not. The diner jukebox was a staple of life back then. Of course, today, even those diners don’t exist; why should they when there’s a McDonald’s and Ruby Tuesday off practically every exit on America’s highway system?
The phonograph was one of the few things that the evidence points to Thomas Edison actually have a real hand in inventing, though it is more probably that, like everything else attributed to Edison, someone else actually did the brain work. The phonograph was the first jukebox in a sense. Enter Louis Glass who was an even greater capitalist exploiter than Edison, perhaps. It was Glass who first came up with the idea of creating a machine in which you had to pay a nickel in order to listen to the music. That was truly the progenitor of the modern day jukebox. By the way, the term jukebox derived from the word juke, which was slang for a brothel, but later came to mean merely a dance hall down Dixie way. Later, juking would mean dancing. It would not be until the Roaring 20s came along to make everything that had been forbidden de rigeur that the music machine invented by Glass would come to be called a jukebox.
That was around the time that the jukebox first became amplified. With amplification, a single jukebox could for the first time achieve the same kind sound as a live band. With the coming of the Great Depression when there wasn’t enough money to hire live bands, the jukebox came into its own. Any dance hall in America could now provide continuous music that could be heard from one side of the room to the other. The five cent per play was also much easier to sell than a cover charge. But don’t you go thinking that that Great Depression merely served to increase profits for Wurlitzer and other jukebox manufacturers. The popularity of the jukebox in the 1930s also had a phenomenal impact on the history of music in America. The only place that many black musicians could get their records heard by white audiences was the jukebox. This had a domino effect: white audiences began hearing this wonderful music and began calling up their favorite radio DJs and asking if they could play it. Most could not, of course, since radio was as segregated then as it is now, but many did. In fact, many a DJ heard black music on a jukebox and began making efforts to get the music onto the radio. As exposure increased, young men like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Bill Haley became influenced as they pursued their own musical careers. If it were not for the Depression making the jukebox so much more affordable than a live band, the entire history of rock and roll might be quite different today. In fact, rock and roll might not even exist.
Think about that the next time you pop into the Waffle House.