This year, the jukebox will celebrate its 130th birthday. On its centennial, U.S. President Ronald Reagan said that”…the jukebox is to many a symbol of good, clean fun.” That statement is as true today as it was 130 years ago.
Over its life, the jukebox has been at the centre of popular culture. The jukebox hasn’t just shaped how we listen to music. It has given a voice to the voiceless, been a driver for social equality and helped spread American culture to the four corners of the Earth.
Origins of the Jukebox
Coin-operated music boxes and player pianos were the first forms of automated coin-operated music players. These instruments used paper rolls, metal disks, or metal cylinders to play a musical selection on the instrument, or instruments, enclosed within the device. Picture the player pianos from Western movie saloons.
In 1890, Louis Glass and William S. Arnold invented the nickel-in-the-slot phonograph. It was an Edison Class M Electric Phonograph retrofitted with a device to accept coins. The music was heard via listening tubes.
Early designs, upon receiving a coin, unlocked the mechanism, allowing the listener to turn a crank that simultaneously wound the spring motor and played the music. Frequently, these machines would be equipped with several listening tubes, allowing a patron to select between multiple records, each played on its own machine.
In 1918 Hobart C. Niblack patented an apparatus that automatically changed records, leading to one of the first selective jukeboxes being introduced in 1927 by the Automated Musical Instrument Company, later known as AMI.
In 1928 Justus P. Seeburg, combined an electrostatic loudspeaker with a coin-op record player and gave the listener a choice of eight records. This Audiophone machine was wide and bulky, and had eight separate turntables mounted on a rotating Ferris wheel-like device, allowing patrons to select from eight different records.
Later versions of the jukebox included Seeburg’s Selectophone, with 10 turntables mounted vertically on a spindle. By manoeuvring the arm up and down, the customer could select from 10 different records.
Greater levels of automation were gradually introduced. As electrical recording and amplification improved there was increased demand for coin-operated phonographs.
What’s in a name?
The term jukebox came into use in the United States beginning in 1940, apparently derived from the familiar usage “juke joint”, derived from the Gullah word “juke” or “joog” meaning disorderly, rowdy, or wicked.
Southern jukebox operators seemed most uncomfortable with the term, and the coin-operated music machine industry as a whole attempted to fight its popular usage well into the 1950s.
In 1946 AMI vice president De Witt Eaton sent a memo asking employees to refrain from use of the term and to use “music vendor” instead. But the “music machine” industry just couldn’t win. The term was being used by the mainstream press by 1940. Once the term jukebox was adopted by the public, its usage became impossible to change.
The industry eventually accepted the wording, but disowned its origins; various jukebox company documents from the 1940s claim to trace “juke” to European origins with Vienna and Elizabethan English serving as hypothesized birthplaces.
The Golden Age of Jukeboxes
The automatic music machine industry of the 1930s and 40s spurned the term “jukebox” because they didn’t want their machine associated with African-Americans. Radio was not only popular, it was free. But in its attempt to align itself with “civilised society” radio stations refused to play rhythm and blues or country music.
Ironically, their bigotry was directed at many of their best, early adopting customers and the musicians who accounted for their machine’s success. When amplified jukeboxes began to appear in the late 1920s they were an ideal vehicle for records by black artists.
Rhythm and blues records were the only genre to survive the Depression without a serious slump in sales. In fact, common rumour held that by selling over a million records in the 1930s, Bessie Smith kept Columbia Records afloat through the Depression.
By offering the American public a chance to listen to both Rhythm and Blues and Country or Hillbilly music, the jukebox helped to popularise Rock n’ Roll’s roots. Loud guitar and drum heavy tunes produced by black musicians were the most popular for the jukebox market and it was only a matter of time before the record companies caught on.
Brunswick records founded the Vocalian record label in order to make music box hits by African-American artists. Blues musicians like Muddy Waters and Tampa Red garnered little mainstream radio play, but made massive jukebox hits.
Song-popularity counters told the owner of the machine the number of times each record was played, with the result that popular records remained, while lesser-played songs could be replaced. This ultimately led to jukeboxes receiving their own section in Billboard magazine in the 1930s and tying the fates of the jukebox industry and the music industry together.
The record industry saw profits swell throughout the thirties, making thirteen million dollars in 1937. The jukebox was the undoubted catalyst for this industry growth. Jukeboxes sold so many records that recording artists like Artie Shaw and Bing Cosby aligned themselves with the industry, appearing in ads in order to aid record sales.
An editorial in the Evening Star Telegram of Superior, Wisconsin recounted the report of Nellie Taylor Ross, secretary of the U.S. Mint, that coin mintage was behind schedule. The paper, as well as Mrs. Ross attributed the coin-shortage to the mass popularity of the automatic phonograph. Coin-operated phonographs not only provided a huge market for LPs, but allowed individuals a means of sampling records that they might purchase for home-use.
Top 5 Jukebox Hits of All Time
According to Jukebox manufacturer, Wurlitzer, the top 5 jukebox hits ever are:
5: Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley (1956)
4: I Heard It Through The Grapevine, Marvin Gaye (1968)
3: Old Time Rock & Roll, Bob Seger (1979)
2: Crazy, Patsy Cline (1961)
1: Hound Dog, Elvis Presley (1956)
The War Years
By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes. Branded as “real American entertainment”, jukeboxes were packed full of optimistic, patriotic songs to help drive the war effort. Some jukebox operators used their jukeboxes to promote the sale of war bonds, demonstrating the advertising pull of a jukebox that still occurs today.
As U.S. soldiers deployed to Europe, they brought their LPs with them, spreading the popularity of Jazz and early Rock ‘n’ Roll to the UK. A demand for the music led to a demand for jukeboxes overseas once their production resumed after the war.
The 1950s saw a huge amount of wealth flowing into American homes. With it came the rise of the teenager. These affluent young people were looking for entertainment and found it in clubs, soda fountains and bowling alleys. Jukeboxes remained the centre of their entertainment, inspiring innovation in design.
The Seeburg Corporation introduced an all 45 rpm vinyl record jukebox in 1950; since the 45s were smaller and lighter, they soon became the dominant jukebox media. Wallboxes were another important, and profitable, part of 50s jukebox innovation. Serving as a remote control, they enabled patrons to select tunes from their diner booth or bowling lane.
Stereo sound became popular in the early 1960s, and wallboxes of the era were designed with built-in speakers to provide patrons a sample of this latest technology.
In 1974, Seeburg’s M100C jukebox was seen by millions of Americans on a regular basis in the credits of the hit show, Happy Days. The opening credits featured a 1967 Rock-Ola 434 Concerto. It ran much like the end credit Seeburg, but had an updated playback system.
The Jukebox Dip
In the 1960s and 70s jukebox designs were sleeker and favoured storage over style. While arcades, bowling alleys and bars were still buying jukeboxes on occasion, the market was sadly dying. Lowered costs for home phonographs and LPs meant that more people preferred to listen to music at home.
As styles and tastes changed, the folk and rock music, increasingly popular yet more divisive, just wasn’t suitable to the public jukebox. By the early 1980s restaurants mainly wished to control their own music and the cassette tape began to take over.
CDs came into popular use by the late 80s, improving sound quality and replacing vinyl records in many places. CDs allowed jukeboxes to enjoy a modest revival, as would other technological advances.
By the end of the nineties, the first digital jukeboxes emerged, enabling internet connectivity and early streaming that would become the norm for today’s jukeboxes. But the revival would never last.
As technology became more personalised, the demand for public music waned all the faster. People wanted to listen to the music they wanted, when they wanted. This led to the rise of personal music players, the iPod and today’s music streaming services.
Despite their decline, jukeboxes have found a niche for themselves. Today, you’ll still find them in bowling alleys and arcades, just like in the fifties. Classic designs emphasise a vintage vibe that reminds us of the importance of a shared love of music.
The latest, internet-connected jukeboxes have access hundreds of thousands of songs instantly, just like YouTube. Along with the ability to play videos and pub ads, modern jukeboxes continue to be a vital revenue stream for venues today.
Produced in collaboration with TVC Leisure, leading supplier of gaming and amusement machines in the South East of England.