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Retro Redux: Cuttin’ Wax In Post-War Motown

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When I was a very small boy on a visit to post-war Detroit, I had an experience that might surprise you — or at least it will until you hear the details. It happened one day when I found myself "cuttin' wax" – making a record – and this was years before Motown Records was even a glimmer on Barry Gordy's horizon.

My paternal grandparents had moved to Detroit some years before, and although my parents were on a tight budget and drove an old car, they had managed to make the 400 mile drive from our rural home. After we arrived, I have no doubt that we were typical hicks from the sticks, and found the huge city had a lot of things we'd not seen before.

At that time, we knew about records – heck, we even had a record player – but I'm reasonably sure none of us knew we could make our own platters. (On the other hand, my Dad traveled a lot for his job so he probably knew — but I'm guessing.)

It might seem odd to us now with all the methods and devices available, but at that time amateur recording wasn't common in any form. There were a few gizmos around, including wire recorders and the like, and even some record-making units sold for home use, but they were expensive and seldom showed up in the average home.

That led to the advent of coin-operated recording booths, including the famous Voice-O-Graph. Smart operators had been installing the things in arcades and amusement parks for years, but when my parents led me up to the machine that day in the Detroit arcade it was certainly amazing to me.

A lot of the details have been lost from my memory (which is typical of the damn, treacherous thing) but I remember being coached and prepared to sing a song that I'd learned a while back. It was a popular tune my parents had encouraged me to learn and occasionally perform for company — who would then smile, clap and secretly roll their eyes.

The machine started up and so did I, belting it out into the microphone like a budding little Caruso. The recording time allowed was only about a minute, and after the indicator lights changed and I had stopped singing, the machine chugged, vibrated and hummed for a few minutes while we anxiously waited.booth21.jpg

Finally the thing spit out a flimsy little record that my mother clutched to her bosom as if it were her first grandchild. OK, I made that up — I don't really remember, but I'm sure she grabbed it and put it away like a treasure, because I know that she kept it for many years.

The little record eventually disappeared, so you're not going to hear my piping juvenile voice, but I can at least do one thing — actually, two things. First, I can identify the song. For some reason, I clearly remember the title (and even a couple of lines). It's a tune that would be recorded a decade later by Pat Boone, Sonny James and others, but at this point in time had mostly shown up on the radio, performed by various singers on Your Hit Parade.

The second thing I can do is provide you with a chance to listen to someone who was undoubtedly a much better singer than me, and was a fixture in New Orleans for many years. (And what better time to feature him than now, in Mardi Gras season?) Here's the late Sing Miller, playing and singing "Beg Your Pardon."


(Voice-O-Graph photos courtesy of museum website.)

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  • Marcia Neil

    They never should have switched to tape.

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