Music News

The Soundies of Yesteryear

From the outside, Bill Cook's house, perched atop a heavily forested hill on the periphery of Woodland Park, near Colorado Springs, looks like a posh but typical mountain hideaway, and most of its interior follows suit. The basement, however, is a completely different story.

Placed against its unfinished walls are several arcade games in assorted stages of repair, a couple of wooden cabinets as big as bank safes and rack after rack of long-players, 45s and reel-to-reel tapes sporting titles such as Hall of Fantasy and The Haunting Hour. In the far corner, meanwhile, sits a full-service studio that, save for a DAT player and a few other modern conveniences, is stocked with gear from days gone by. Some of the equipment has celebrity connections: A pair of Ampexes provided playback for Lawrence Welk during episodes of his long-running show, while a monolithic amplifier stack once towered over the engineers who dubbed the Star Trek TV series at Hollywood's Glen Glenn Sound. But the gadget that's closest to Cook's heart is a turntable with an enormous platter: sixteen inches in diameter, as opposed to the twelve-inch kind that have been commonplace for decades. Most people would have little use for such a contraption, but Bill Cook isn't most people--and with the help of Chicago-based Soundies Records, he's using it to rescue a wealth of wonderful music that might otherwise have been lost to the ages.

How? The turntable plays radio transcriptions--vintage programs from the Thirties to the Fifties that were pressed on sixteen-inch discs. During the format's heyday, virtually every great American musician of the period made such recordings. But when transcriptions became obsolete and the companies that manufactured them went bust, the discs seemed like more trouble than they were worth--to most people, anyway. "A lot of stations just threw the transcriptions away," Cook says, "and you can understand why: They take up a lot of space, they're heavy, and after they got rid of their old sixteen-inch turntables, there was nothing to play them on. They were happy if someone would just haul them away. So I did."

Indeed, this onetime radio-station owner grabbed every transcription he could--and sometimes grateful studio managers didn't even charge him for them. In the years since then, he has amassed an absolutely astonishing transcription collection. He currently owns more than 25,000 discs, which makes him, by his reckoning, one of the biggest private holders of transcriptions on the planet. Predictably, the Library of Congress has more, in part because Cook, in search of a tax deduction several years back, donated part of his supply to the institution. But he's not about to make that mistake again. "I got into a real thicket with the IRS over it," he recalls. "They were unmerciful. So I just said, 'I don't think I'll be giving them anything else.'"

Still, Cook didn't feel right about allowing the musical stockpile he stores in a sprawling Colorado Springs warehouse to lie unheard. So he began looking for a company to serve as a conduit between his cache and the public--and in Soundies, run by Chicagoan Kevin Parks, he found one. Suddenly, Cook's crazy hobby doesn't seem so crazy anymore.

"I used to wonder why I kept picking up all these transcriptions," he admits. "But I don't wonder anymore."

Hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan, Cook has spent most of his career in the radio business, but unlike many of the cash-mad executives who dominate the trade these days, he was attracted to the field by love, not money. He's an aficionado of classic personalities such as Bob and Ray and often speaks in a charming variation on Golden Age of Radio comic patter. At one point he pronounces "coincidence" as "co-winky-dink," and when he's quizzed about his age, he asks, "Are you cleared for obsolete?" before declaring, "I was born in 1930--a very good year, around the time of our financial holocaust. I was around for what happened after that, although I missed out on the invention of the electric light."

By age nine, Cook was regularly being kicked out of a nearby Kalamazoo radio station, which is just as well: He would have spent every waking hour there, had the employees let him. "I enjoyed everything radio had to offer," he declares. "The drama programs were really superb, and so was the music." Three years later he began collecting transcription discs, which he says were "the only source of high fidelity at the time," because "I had a high-fidelity set that I'd built myself. I built a turntable and an amplifier--put it all together when I was about twelve. But I didn't have anything to play on it; I was all dressed up with no place to go. So I had the local station start saving old ones for me. And that was only the beginning."