Music history is being made in Carlsbad
Lives, memories and voices of 5,000-plus music icons are preserved in the National Association of Music Merchants’ oral history museum
Rocker Lita Ford made her own guitar amplifier out of her father’s reel-to-reel tape machine when she was a teenager.
Elvis Presley played the electric bass on “Baby You’re So Square” in a 1957 recording session because his stand-up bassist Billy Black could not get the fingering down.
Stax Records executive Al Bell wrote the song “Send Peace and Harmony Home” for his close friend, the Rev. Martin Luther King. It was being recorded in Memphis at the moment King was assassinated just three blocks away.
Trevor Rabin, of the British rock group Yes, reveals he wrote the band’s classic 1980s hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart” while on the toilet.
Trumpeter and band leader Ray Anthony (who will turn 101 in January) was fired multiple times by Big Band leader Glenn Miller who objected to his off-hour activities but loved his playing.
These are some of the revelations in a treasure trove of music memorabilia and memories on file in Carlsbad.
The National Association of Music Merchants (NAMM) has acquired a rich and varied collection of stories, recordings and voices of musicians and influential people in the music world via its oral history program.
For nearly 23 years, NAMM historian Dan Del Fiorentino has been mining gems of musical history from instrument makers, musicians, sound engineers, producers, retailers, promoters, composers, writers and others who played a key role in the ever-transforming world of music.
He has interviewed legends, including Quincy Jones, Lena Horne, Emmylou Harris, Les Paul, Pete Seeger, “Weird Al” Yankovic and Herbie Hancock. He has uncovered enough below-the-radar musical material and minutiae to fuel a game of musical Trivial Pursuit.
On Sept. 16, Del Fiorentino conducted the oral history library’s 5,000th interview in Nashville, with Kevin McGinty, chief audio engineer of the Grand Ole Opry.
Del Fiorentino and his wife, Suzanne, who videotapes the talks, climbed to the third floor where McGinty performs his music magic for an on-site interview. Surrounded by his audio gear, he told his stories and shared his wisdom — all captured on video for future generations.
Del Fiorentino has conducted all but about 100 of the initial 5,000 NAMM oral histories over the years. He completes a mind-boggling 230 or so in-depth interviews a year.
His task is to capture the essence of the people, their craft and why they have made a difference in the music universe. Nearly 200 of the interviews were generated by Del Fiorentino as a teen working for a San Francisco-area radio station, including those of Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton and Lena Horne.
He conducted his first interview at a jazz concert in Palo Alto in 1984 with Louis Armstrong’s trombone player, James “Trummy” Young. Del Fiorentino was the last person to interview Young, who died about two months later.
When Del Fiorentino moved to San Diego to attend SDSU, he continued interviewing. “I really enjoyed taking down some of these stories, and I knew they would be lost if I didn’t do it.” He calls many of his subjects “unsung heroes and under the limelight.”
His first NAMM interview took place on the museum’s opening day in March 2000. Harmonica designer and player Bill Walden was an attendee, so Del Fiorentino pulled him aside to talk.
Not all his profiles are “living” legends — some are such pillars of the industry who have passed away, and Del Fiorentino has captured their lives through talking with their wives, children, employers, associates and friends. Leo Fender was one.
“What kind of person was he, and what drove him?” wondered Del Fiorentino. The early maker of electric guitars, basses and amplifiers so transformed music that his story had to be told while those who knew him were still around to share their memories.
Probably a fifth of the first 5,000 interviewees have passed away, Del Fiorentino estimates, underscoring the importance of not delaying his recording sessions.
He has a list of 1,700 folks he wants to reach — enough to keep him busy for at least five more years at his current pace — and new ones constantly pop up.
When he knocks, doors open. “A lot of people realize this is quite a big deal for them,” he explains. “The music industry is their life. They feel valued that their story will be enclosed permanently in our archives.”
Del Fiorentino does extensive research. He might ask a sound engineer how a certain fuzzy sound was created on a recording. “We have a lot of gear heads. ... We get into a lot of nerdy details that are very interesting to people in the music industry. So we try to cover those things, too, while getting the general story.”
As a kid, Del Fiorentino was dazzled by a 45-rpm record of Elvis singing “That’s All Right.” But he was puzzled when he saw a picture of Elvis with an acoustic guitar, not the electric guitar he heard on the recording. His research led him to Scotty Moore, the player of that electric guitar, whom he subsequently interviewed for NAMM.
Another surprising revelation emerged during his sit-down with Canada-based Fred Kalisky, a successful distributor of musical instruments — including maracas from Mexico and electric guitars from Japan. At one point, Kalisky, from Poland, rolled up his sleeve showing a number tattoos on his arm — a permanent reminder of his escape from Nazi occupation.
“Hanging out with these guys has just been extraordinary for me. ... Even if I ask a dumb question, they take the time to figure out what I mean and try to answer it.”
His wife Suzanne, a former psychiatric care nurse, studied videography to be able to join him on his journeys. She volunteers her time.
“He can always make them cry,” she says of her husband’s ability to probe beneath the surface.
One of his favorite interviews was with Anna Sipavich, who worked at the Wurlitzer factory in DeKalb, Ill. in the early 1940s. As her company joined the war effort, one day she was handed a riveter and re-directed to riveting airplane wings. “I got to interview a real live Rosie the Riveter,” says Del Fiorentino.
Suzanne’s favorite was Songwriters Hall of Famer Allee Willis, a colorful character, artist and set designer known for throwing spectacular parties at her Hollywood-area home.
The oral histories have played a vital role with families who stumble upon them when searching for bio material after the death of a loved one, as well as with movie makers and biographers. In writing “Janis! Her Life and Music,” a recent biography of Janis Joplin, author Holly George-Warren found NAMM’s quotes from Joplin’s recording engineer a valuable resource.
One influential figure Del Fiorentino must interview before he retires is himself.
After more than two decades of dedication to shining a light on the lives and lore of music makers and merchants around the country, he deserves his own place in NAMM’s oral history collection ... the stories he could tell.
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