Thursday, August 13, 2015

Forrest's Folly

Okay, it wasn’t exactly a bucket list item.  But I did something today that I’ve been meaning to do for quite some time.  It all has to do with my nostalgia for the early 60’s, and my love of my music as taught to me by my mother and her mother.

Here’s how it started.  During a rough patch in my mother’s marriage, she took my sister and me to live with her mother in Tupelo.   Grandmother had a console Motorola Stereo Hi-Fi.  This thing was humongous—measuring end to end at least as much your typical wide screen TV today.  The words “Stereophonic High Fidelity” were emblazed across the front.  Inside the dark wood interior lay the mysterious workings which, if arranged just right and operated just so, would allow one to play records.   I fell in love with Marty Robbins’ Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs (did I mention I was about four years old?)  You may have heard the signature hit from this album, the smash single El Paso.  The cover featured Marty wearing all black and sporting a pistol against a lurid red background. 

"Ballads" in its intended native environment
The thing is, I played the record to death.  As a four year old, no one really warned me about the dangers of scratching the record.  After many weeks of unsupervised play, the record was useless and had to be thrown away.

Now, here is where nostalgia sets in.  Many years later I bought myself a replacement for that record.  To my dire disappointment, however, the record label had changed.  The album jacket was still the same, sporting a huge stereophonic logo featuring black arrows pointing to the left and right, which was the logo Columbia used when it was introducing stereo to the planet (most of the recording companies did it up equally big with their logos).  But the inside label was very bland, a simple red label with orange and black lettering and no stereo logo at all.  So much for my nostalgia trip.  But sometime later I came across a used copy sporting the original label at a flea market, and bought it.  This led me to gather up a minor collection of early stereo records on their original pressings.

Another childhood favorite, original pressing
The trouble was, now that I had the original labels, I didn’t have the original equipment to play them back on.   My family’s record player when I was growing up was the portable version of my grandmother’s console; the platter was identical but the unit could be folded up for transport (just barely; it was very heavy).  This had long since been traded in for a more modern Panasonic stereo with a much better sound.  The old record labels just didn’t look at home in that setting.

My beloved Ventures,original pressing
Fast forward to 2004.  I got curious to know whether one of those old Motorola record players might be available for sale somewhere.  And sure enough, I found one offered on Ebay, a console very similar to my grandmother’s.  The seller promised that the player did work although the record exchanger had to be operated manually.  Naturally, when I got it I found that not to be the case.  The amplifier worked (it’s tube-fired) but records could not be played even manually due to some kind of mechanical issue that kept the tone arm from fully descending.  After futzing around with it for a while, I wound up in the middle of a job change and had to put the project aside, promising myself that I would get it straightened out at least for manual play sooner or later.   All of this was to my wife’s chagrin, by the way.  The console was big and ugly and there wasn’t really a place for it in the house; it got relegated to the garage and that where it’s sat since, following me from move to move like an albatross around my neck.

Well, as I’ve observed in previous posts, due to my medical issues I do have some time on my hands.  So, I’ve been working with the interior mechanism.  And guess what—I got it working, at least somewhat, restoring the ability to play 33 rpm records in manual mode (as opposed to automatic mode, where the records could be stacked for playback, allowing you to play six singles or six sides of an album without having to get up and fool around with the machine).

The classic Capitol label
I had this nostalgic memory of those old hi-fis presenting a deeply toned, rich playback.  But guess what?  That wasn’t the case.  The amp doesn’t put out much power; my guess is about 10 watts.   I suppose it was way ahead of its time in its day but modern sound systems have it beat all hollow.  I will say I’m amazed this tube-fired system still works; there are so many components that can burn out (as I recall from having to repair my Motorola when I was growing up).  There is a lot of static in the volume knob, and there’s a severe short circuit in the needle pickup, but it does play properly in LP mode if coaxed.

That said, this thing is junk with a capital J.  The thing could be fully refurbished with not without professional assistance.  And then when you’re done you’re left with a big ole console for which the finish has been allowed to deteriorate.  By the way, did I mention that the previous owners used it to provide background music in a funeral home?  We’ll let that thought lie.

Meanwhile, I took a bunch of photos showing some of those old record labels I’ve collected lying on the platter.  That really allowed me to get my nostalgia ticket punched for the day; they’re right where they belong, in many cases with big stereo marketing logos set against the similar logo on the machine, just as intended. 

My first single, presented as originally played
The shot presented above showing Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs sitting on the turntable is what inspired me to do the whole project.  The other really meaningful shot is the picture here showing the 1964 single “Walk Don’t Run ‘64” by my beloved Ventures.  That record was the first I ever bought with my own money (allowance money, of course).  I remember it like it was yesterday.   I was six.

Things certainly have changed since then.  Whether they’ve changed for the better we’ll leave as an exercise for the class.  I don’t plan to give up my iPod.  Yet, interestingly I haven’t given up my singles either.  I never play them, mind you, but every now and then will get them out and rifle through them.  I still have a lot of vinyl LP’s as well; but only those not duplicated via CD tend to get played—and they do, from time to time.  In any case, there is something about being able to hold a record in your hand that
Another childhood favorite - "Rag Doll" 
makes it special. 

So, this was a unique day for me.  Until today, I had not heard “Gunfighter Ballads” played back on a Motorola since 1962.  That’s a trip.


If you have any interest in the console, let me know.  Free to a good home.  Now that I have my curiosity satisfied and have taken my pictures, it’s going to get hauled as junk sooner or later, sad to say.  Maybe I’ll see it on Flea Market Flip!

Records could be stacked for playback

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