Part 1: The Early Years
by Larry Benicewicz

Any biographers out there? Have a lot of spare time on your hands? Well, try tackling this story - that of Chris Strachwitz, proud proprietor of the Arhoolie label, undoubtedly the greatest logo in folk music history. And please don't spare the details. You see, they are the best part. And when and if you finish this project a decade or so down the pike, you'll have crafted a hefty tome to perhaps rival the breadth and scope of Richard Ellmann's treatment of James Joyce. Chris, himself, can't find the opportunity to undertake this daunting task, made all the more difficult sitting him down long enough for an adequate retrospective of his accomplishments, as busy as he is. "I've been meaning to start a book about my adventures over the years but there never seems enough time and there always is more wonderful music to be recorded or old 78's to be rescued and reissued," said Chris in his foreword to Arhoolie records' Catalog 2000, subtitled 40 Years of Downhome Music. But in the meantime this book which encapsulates Arhoolie's vast inventory will have to serve in its stead, for every album therein is indeed worth a thousand words.

Available upon demand, this slick and glossy publication is an achievement in itself, and a far cry from its pulpy predecessors. It is conveniently indexed with memorable album photos, introductory sketches, listings of tunes, and reviews accompanying each of over two hundred and fifty entries contained therein. A quick perusal of the covers discloses just a sample - folk blues exemplars like Mance Lipscomb, Elizabeth Cotton, and John Jackson; cajun patriarchs like Octa Clark and Hector Duhon; turn of the century Mariachi performers; tejano accordionists like Conjunto Bernal and Flaco Jimenez; R&B belter, Big Mama Thornton; old timey C&W singers like the Carter Family and the Maddox Brothers and Rose; modern zydeco's founding father, Clifton Chenier; and even gospel players such as theCampbell Brothers (playing steel guitar).

How can I describe it? The titles herein are all manner of roots and ethnic music that is both exotic and esoteric. If none of the former selections appeal to you, perhaps you might enjoy the strains of a Hungarian gypsy violin in Csokolom (translated: May I Kiss Your Hand) or the sheer outrageousness of Brian Marshall & HisTex-Slavik Playboys.

Yes, you might snicker at this latter inclusion, but I bet you didn't realize that the recently late (March 7) 40s and 50s C&W star Pee Wee King, who along with partner Redd Stewart authored such classics as "Tennessee Waltz," "Slow Poke," "Just Out Of Reach," and "You Belong To Me," was actually an erstwhile Polish polka accordionist, Julius Frank Kuczynski, operating in and about the Chicago area. Let's give Chris the benefit of the doubt here. But the point still remains that none of these items - not Aziz Herawi,"Master of Afghani Lutes," nor Ivan Cuesta and his Baltimore Vallenatos - will become the next Michael Jackson's Thriller and might optimistically sell instead 500 units a year worldwide rather than five million. But, then again, how many readers out there can truthfully say that like Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie, you are living your dream. "But putting out those records is what I love to do," he exclaimed in his foreword.

Nonetheless, there is more to it than just "putting out those records." It's true that he's a record executive but not in the standard definition of one who rubber stamps material that is proferred from the outside. On the contrary, he is intimately involved with all aspects of production be they the making of original field recordings, the acquisitions of defunct record labels, or the purchase of rare record sides, which he still solicits in his catalog. Then there's the mixing, the layout, the cover art - the whole package. He nurtures each endeavor as if it were his child and there's more than likely an amazing story behind each such venture. That's why his biography would make for such a fascinating excursion into the long lost corridors of recorded music.

It's said that good things come to those that wait. And in Arhoolie's case, it couldn't come soon enough. When I visited his headquarters recently at the rear of the retail outlet of Down Home Music at 10341 San Pablo Ave in El Cerrito, CA (not far from Berkeley) Chris was extremely occupied in the paperwork of recouping royalties from late bluesman K.C. Douglas's "Mercury Blues," originally "Mercury Boogie," issued on Bob Geddins's Down Town label in 1949. When Chris rerecorded this guitarist for Arhoolie in the 70s (now CD 475), he had the presence of mind to assign his copyright, Tradition Music, to the project and now is reaping the rewards for his circumspection. Not only did C&W superstar Alan Jackson cover this formerly unrenowned item, creating a megahit in 1993 (Arista 12607-7), but also Ford Motor Company had recently used it in a national network advertisement campaign. "It was actually Eddie Shuler (longtime head of Goldband records in Lake Charles) who stressed to me, above all else, the importance of having my own publishing," said Chris. And Eddie should know, living quite comfortably off the annual residuals from his hand in the making of the now-standard "Sea of Love," first recorded by Phil Phillips (Phillip Baptiste) in 1959. This was by no means the first unexpected windfall for Arhoolie, as Chris also enjoyed a few godsends involving bluesman Mississippi Fred McDowell and, believe it or not, Country Joe McDonald and the Fish, which coincidentally seemed to arrive when times seemed the bleakest, keeping the fledgling Arhoolie afloat.

Indeed, as the Arhoolie story unfolded, at every turn in the road, there seemed to be some guardian angel directing this modest and almost painfully shy producer's personal crusade to rescue from obscurity anything musical he deemed worthy of preserving for posterity. Or was there a method to his madness?

As naive as I was, I didn't realize that Chris was born abroad, but given that information, I began to make more and more sense out of his doggedly obsessive quest to conserve traditional music. Having traveled extensively in Europe, I am always beseiged enthusiastically by natives inquiring about whom I'd recently seen in concert. The revelations of my encounters with even minor figures of the blues are invariably followed, as if on cue, by collective oohs and ahs. For about a decade, I had the honor of working for Blues Life magazine based in Vienna whose late editor, Franziska Svacina, always remarked, "You Americans are so lucky to have some blues great rolling into town each weekend. Here we wait for months waiting to see the real thing."
Not surprisingly, she and her husband, Fritz, always spent their long vacations stateside, interviewing artists and, of course, making the rounds of blues clubs at each destination.

I'd venture to say that, at least as far as blues isconcerned, the Europeans are probably responsible as much as anyone of maintaining this uniquely American musical idiom, be it reissuing old recordings, writing about its history, or booking tours overseas in the effort of keeping the blues alive. Take the British, for example. Where would we be without the late researcher, Mike Leadbitter, who traveled (keeping a dossier which became Nothing But The Blues) throughout the U.S. in the 60s painstakingly documenting all the significant discographies, especially of independent labels, in his famous Blues Records;or musicologists like Paul Oliver (day job, illustrator and teacher of architecture science) who also traced the origins of the blues, penning several major treatises like The Story of the Blues, chock full of his "live" photos; or ex-banker, John Broven, now of Ace records, who published two definitive Louisiana music histories - South To Louisiana and Rhythm & Blues in New Orleans; or Robin Gosdin of the Flyright label which specializes in Swamp Blues. And then there are small-time entrepreneurs on a shoestring budget like Peter Thompson of Zane records, who operates a small studio out his house in Reading. Visiting the U.S. frequently, he has recorded such zydeco figures as Joe Walker and Roy Carrier and the late legendary Muscle Shoals staff musician, guitarist Eddie Hinton, a tragic and unheralded musician upon whom no Yankee producer would ever have had the courage to have taken a chance.

But as far as blues aficionados and fanatics go, perhaps no one takes the cake, so to speak, as the Germans, probably because the language doesn't lend itself easily to convey the feeling of this genre of music. Certainly, no less a blues scholar than the aforementioned who peregrinated throughout the South writing articles and taking pictures is Norbert Hess. And some of the greatest blues promoters in the world hail from this country, including zydeco agent Rolf Schubert of Köln (Cologne), Ewe Gleish of Bavaria, and the late Horst Lipmann of Stuttgart, who has recorded Howlin' Wolf's stellar guitarist, Hubert Sumlin, and Piedmont guitarists John Jackson and the late Archie Edwards in conjunction with his (and partner Fritz Rau's) annual American Folk Blues Festival. In fact, Lipmann made the only existing recording (on his L+R label) of longtime Washington, D.C.'s famous street singer, Flora Molton, who passed in 1990. But there are other notable outlets for American music in Germany, such as the eclectic Bear Family enterprise.

And then there was the recently deceased self-styled "Pope of Jazz," Joachim-Ernst Berendt of Hamburg, who programmed 10,000 broadcasts and perhaps wrote the definitive chronicle of the subject in 1952, "The Jazz Book," which has gone through six editions. Longtime a haven for American expatriates such as the late Champion Jack Dupree, who adopted Hanover as a hometown, even now Germany offers a most hospitable climate to many U.S. blues musicians unable to find steady gigs stateside, such as Guitar Crusher (Sidney Selby), Sherman Robertson, Sonny Rhodes, and Big Jay McNeely. So warm has been their reception that they regularly camp out here. Therefore, it really shouldn't have been that astonishing after all that Chris Strachwitz shared some of this same Teutonic zeal for American roots music.

The son of a fairly prosperous farmer, Chris Strachwitz was born on July 1, 1931 in the Prussian province of Silesia, the fertile flatlands southeast of Berlin just across the Oder river. "After the war, the Russians were to occupy the region and we would be considered capitalists and banished to the west, that is, if we survived," he said. Chris and his family joined a vast exodus of displaced Germans, forced from their ancestral homeland and the land was resettled with Poles (who themselves were refugees from eastern Poland) according to Potsdam Conference of August 2, 1945 which supplemented, clarified, and implemented accords reached at the preceding Yalta Conference. In it the Allies furtheragreed to transfer former German territory east of the Neisse and Oder rivers to Polish and Russian administration, pending a formal peace treaty, and indigenous German citizens "were to be expelled in an orderly and humane manner." Nevertheless, this massive evacuation was one of great social upheavals of recorded history. Even after the relocation of the Poles, Oppeln (now Opole), the capital of Upper Silesia, had lost nearly half of its population, from 53,000 to 27,000, and Breslau (now Wroclaw), the seat of Lower Silesia, fell from 615,000 to 340,000. "I've heard tell of a few officials like a banker and a post office bureaucrat who thought maybe they were immune and decided to stay behind anyway, despite the ominous warnings. They were all summarily shot by the Russians. I guess you can't blame them, considering what the Germans did to them during the War," said Chris.

However, Chris's first encounter with American music came well before this traumatic experience. His grandmother on his mother's side lived in the states. And even after her death, Chris's mother would visit her relatives there in America, often returning with a handful of Al Jolson 78's, which whetted the young Chris's appetite for more Yankee pop music.
After temporarily settling in with an uncle in Brunswick (Braunschweig) in central West Germany in the British Zone after his family's flight from Silesia, he heard his first Armed Forces Radio broadcast and was immediately hooked. "It was swing music with Tommy Dorsey and Lionel Hampton's classic 'Hey Ba-Ba-Re-Bop.' From then on I was really smitten," he confessed.

His love affair with radio programming continued after his family emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1947 and moved in with a great aunt in the Reno area, which had a small station which catered to hillbilly music, especially Hank Williams. This was the same aunt who had a gardener who would later pave the way for the young and curious Chris to spy on a black pianist, possibly Mercy Dee Walton, plying his trade at the local Harlem club.
But, before discovering the joys of black music, it was when he first attended high school in Santa Barbara that his interest in C&W music was really piqued. Although well up the California coast, this town was well within the listening range of clear channel XERB out of Rosa Rito Beach in Baja California, south of Tijuana. Being in Mexico, the renegade station was not subject to F.C.C. regulations and thus had no cap on its power, although it was purported to have 50,000 watts. Some disk jockeys from that era even claim that birds within a certain radius of the such towers would succumb to their powerful beams. Nonetheless, it was through this means that Chris really became educated to the vast array of music of this idiom. "One would think that it would broadcast exclusively Hispanic music, but then Mexican music wasn't a commercial entity. Instead, it presented artists like T- Texas Tyler, Roy Acuff, and Bob Wills, geared to the Okies (as in Grapes of Wrath) up North," he said.

But Chris's fascination with black music genres came about through an entirely different medium altogether, the cinema, since R&B radio had not really taken hold in the late 40s. " In particular, it was the film, 'New Orleans' which really turned me on to traditional jazz. It starred Billie Holiday but it was the New Orleans music played by trombonist Kid Ory, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, and clarinetist Barney Bigard which just blew me away. Everybody nowadays thinks of blues in terms of harmonicas and guitars. But, believe me, they could get just as much a pure blues sound out of their horns," said Chris. And it wasn't too long before he began collecting in earnest - album books of trumpeter Bunk Johnson and Kid Ory. "I'd play those 78's 'til they were gray. And one of my early favorites was [cornetist] [Louis] Kid Shots Madison whose 'My Bucket's Got A Hole In It' on the American Music label was one of the most lowdown blues you could ever hear," added Chris. At a $1.25, it was a princely sum back then, costing him two weeks worth of allowance. One of the highlights of that episode of his life was hearing another idol, clarinetist George Lewis, who along with Ory and His Creole Band performed at the Los Angeles' Dixieland Jubilee of 1948.

After graduating from high school in 1951, Chris attended Pomona College in Claremont, east of Los Angeles. And Chris would be the first to admit that studies there always took a back seat to nocturnal ramblings in pursuit of jazz and blues. By 1952, George Lewis and his equally impressive sidemen (trumpeter Kid Howard, trombonist Jim Robinson, pianist Alton Purnell, banjo player Lawrence Marrero, bassist "Slow Drag" Pavageau, and drummer Joe Watkins) had become permanent fixtures in Hollywood at clubs like the Beverly Caverns, live sessions of which have been recently reissued on Good Time Jazz. "Yeah, he was probably my biggest downfall, as far as washing out of college. You've got to remember that this was before freeways and it was a five hour roundtrip," said Chris.

But the big city also offered other diversions to him and school mate, Frank Demond, who then led a jazz band and now is a member of Preservation Hall's finest. "On Sunday nights I took him to St. Paul's Baptist Church in downtown L.A. which had a wonderful choir under the direction of J. Earl Hines. I had heard about it because of regular live broadcasts over KFVD. Their theme song was 'I'm So Glad Jesus Lifted Me,'" said Chris. By then R&B was on the airwaves as well with DJ Hunter Hancock (later the founder of Swingin' records) hosting Harlem Matinee in the afternoons over the same waveband, introducing Chris to blues giants like Lighting Hopkins, Howlin' Wolf, and Sonny Boy Williamson. Hancock also was a hustler of sorts and would package R&B shows that he would also emcee at the Olympic Auditorium. "We were in the minority of this audience, as most were Mexican-Americans. I got my first waft of marijuana here, too," Chris confessed. One stellar saxophonist, Chuck Higgins, later paid tribute to this uniquely L.A. phenomenon in his hit instrumental, "Pachuco Hop (Combo 12)" in 1953. The usual formula for such spectacles of that vintage included a honker, like Big Jay McNeely or Joe Houston, a vocal group, like the Robins, and a straight-ahead blues act, like Lowell Fulson.

About this same time frame, Chris began experimenting with recording, albeit rather rudimentarily on poor equipment. He'd tape radio broadcasts and live presentations of Frank's group. Eventually, he received a few pointers in this regard from producer Bob Geddins of Oakland who then ran the Big Town label with artists such as the Thrillers, Jimmy "Tin Pan Alley" Wilson, and Joe Hill Louis. But this was well after he enrolled in U.C. Berkeley in 1952, where he, again, failed to distinguish himself as a student, although at the time this bastion of higher learning was actually regarded as posing considerably less of an academic challenge than Pomona. Obviously, he didn't spend much time studying in his free time, instead attending to his own agenda. "I'd never been a big football fan but I found out that if I became a member of Berkeley's Big Game Committee, I could help pick and choose which artists would entertain for homecoming and the such. Naturally, I would recommend George Lewis and even earned a reputation for picking crowd pleasing performers," said Chris.

In 1954, already an American citizen, Chris Strachwitz was drafted into the U.S Army and ironically was stationed back in Austria (Salzburg) and Germany, where being bilingual served him in good stead. Chris remembered that Dixieland was growing ever so popular there and that he'd seek out any jazz venues within any reasonable traveling distance of his barracks, including Vienna, where he recalled at least one notable concert - that of the famed jazz impresario Norman Granz who was presenting his transplanted program, Jazz At the Philharmonic (once an L.A. institution). "Honkers were hot at the time and Illinois Jacquet[the headliner], although mild compared to Big Jay McNeely, Hal Singer, and Joe Houston, probably could be credited with inventing this method of playing," said Chris. He was referring to the influential 1941 Lionel Hampton recording of "Flying Home (Decca 18394) wherein the Louisiana-born Jacquet blew a rousing, revolutionary 64-bar solo which, according to celebrated music critic Leonard Feather in his Encyclopedia of Jazz, "attracted wide attention, and, in effect, started a whole new school of big-toned, extroverted, erotic sax stylists."

On another occasion, he met some some Italian fellows on vacation, who befriended him merely because he revealed to them that he had seen the great George Lewis perform live. "It was unforgettable. They took me into Italy, wined and dined me, and even suggested a good bordello. And then it was an all night affair of listening to fellow countrymen play traditional jazz. All because of my contact with the New Orleans legend," said Chris.

Chris explained that just before the advent of rock and roll that jazz, even of the traditional variety, was the music of choice for young rebels not only of Europe but back in the states as well. "Even before I went overseas, Bay Area musicians like [trumpeter] Lu Watters[and his Yerba Buena Jazz Band], [trumpeter] Bob Scobey [and his Frisco Jazz Band], and [trombonist] Turk Murphy were packing the kids in at local clubs and they weren't even playing wild or far-out stuff at all," said Chris. To corroborate Chris's testimony on this issue, you need look no farther than the roster of the enterprise located at 8481 Melrose Place in Los Angeles, Good Time Jazz, the recording home of all the above artists and also its real bread and butter act, the Firehouse Five Plus Two. Does anyone remember Bob Scobey's homage to Maryland in "Sailing Down Chesapeake Bay (GTJ 45071)" or, better yet, Baltimore's own Dixieland/stride piano great, Don Ewell, who also released a fine album in 1956 for Good Time Jazz?

After fulfilling his obligations for the military in 1956, Chris took advantage of the G.I. Bill and returned to Berkeley finally earning his undergraduate degree in 1958 and an advanced degree in secondary education in 1960. "I was first an engineering, then a math, and then a physics major. I finally received a Bachelor's degree in political science. Strangely enough, my first principal asked me to teach German, not a regular curriculum subject at the time," said Chris. And for three

years, beginning in 1959, he was an instructor at a high school in Los Gatos, CA, just southwest of San Jose; in fact, it was there that he established Arhoolie's first address, P.O. Box 671.

I asked Chris if he were doing anything musically upon his readmittance to Berkeley. And aside from establishing closer ties to the aforementioned Bob Geddins, who now had connections to a pressing plant, he still was, as usual, availing himself of the local club and concert circuit, especially in West Oakland and engagements like the Palomar Gardens, both now catering to R&B. Among them was one memorable venue, that of a V.F.W. post in Vallejo, CA (birthplace of R&B icon Johnny Otis), northeast of Richmond towards Sacramento. "We had a D.J. in the Bay Area, Jumpin' George, who was sort of our equivalent of L.A.'s Hunter Hancock. Well, he sponsored this big show featuring [shouter] Big Joe Turner and [New Orleans guitarist, real name Overton Lemons]Smiley Lewis. And I can prove I was there 'cause I stole the poster," claimed Chris.

Although Chris had done some crude recording in the past, especially with San Francisco-based artists like Jesse Fuller, he never really envisioned a career for himself as engineer or producer. But the summer of 1959 was to change all that.
Larry Benicewicz
Down Home Musik Store and Larry
Larry B. & Chris, El Cerrito, CA, Dec.1999
Lowell FULSON, Twist & Shout Club, 1989 Photo: Larry Benicewicz
.JESSE "LONE CAT" FULLER at left is famous "FOTDELLA"
Larry B. & Chris Strachwitz

Country Joe McDonald --60`s, Photo: unknown
Mississippi Fred McDowell & Chris Strachwitz, Como, MS 1964
Collection Larry B.
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