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Shortly before the start of World War II, a man from Massachusetts and his small family, on their way to Florida for the winter, detoured over to Houston for a visit with his wife’s sister. When they rolled into town, the axle on their car broke, and — as fate would have it for blues history — decided just to stay where they were.
The man turned out to be Bill Quinn, born 1903, with a background in electronics and experience working as a sound man for a carnival show. In Houston, he started repairing radios, and as another twist of fate would have it, everything changed one day when a customer brought in a disc-recording machine that needed repair. Quinn became fascinated with the concept, and purchased one for himself. Short afterwards, The Quinn Recording Company was born, late in 1941. At first, he did custom recordings and commercial jingles for radio stations, but soon ventured into the record business, with the short-lived Gulf label. Once again, everything changed a couple years later, in 1946, when he released a 78 entitled “Jole Blon” by a gifted Cajun fiddler, Harry Choates. It struck a nerve with the record-buying public and became a huge hit on the Billboard charts.
At the time Quinn entered the record business, however, the manufacture of phonograph records was a closely guarded secret by the major companies. It was something he had to largely figure out for himself, which took a lot of trial and error. Cutting directly to fragile acetate discs, the master would be placed into a tank for processing, where it was subjected to electrolysis and undergo metal plating. Once accomplished, the acetate could be peeled away and discarded, with the metal “master” leaving an exact reverse copy of the original. Using the master, a “mother” disc could now be made, and from the mother disc, finally, we get the stampers — which are used to press the actual record. It’s an elaborate, intensive process with a lot of steps that can go wrong. Quinn admits that many of the fragile acetate masters never materialized out of his homemade processing tank — and with no backup of any kind (audio tape was not in widespread use at the time) — the recording was simply lost forever.
The year after Gold Star hit big with Harry Choates, in 1947, Quinn started in recording blues, with Lightnin’ Hopkins quickly becoming his other biggest seller. During the years between 1946 and 1950, Lightnin’ was laying down the framework for what would become one of the most celebrated careers in the blues, recording for both Aladdin and Gold Star. At first, he was spotted by a talent scout and shipped off to Los Angeles for his 1946 studio debut, but was soon back in Houston, apparently cutting a 78 for Bill Quinn anytime he needed an extra $75.
Overall, Lightnin’ made up almost a third of the total blues-related output on Gold Star — which numbered to some 60 or 61 different 78s depending upon who’s counting. But by 1952, Bill Quinn had simply had enough. With Lightnin’ recording for anyone who had the cash, the government breathing down his neck seeking to collect excise taxes on his record pressings, plus the untimely deaths of his big star, Harry Choates, and his first wife, Lona, to cancer — he folded up Gold Star and called it a day. “Jackstropper Blues” by Lightnin’ Hopkins would become the last 78 to be issued using the distinctive yellow and red label design of Gold Star records, complete with its now legendary description emblazoned across the middle: “King of the Hillbillies.”
Fortunately, Bill Quinn kept his studio open for business, and went on to record artists like George Jones, The Big Bopper, Freddy Fender, and Doug Sahm, among others. Today — after a number of different permutations and name changes over the years — it remains the oldest continually operating recording studio in the Southeastern United States.
The legacy of Bill Quinn, however, won’t be forgotten anytime soon. The down home material he recorded for Gold Star will forever remain a high-water mark of postwar Texas Country Blues.
To hear this episode in its original full-fidelity high quality audio, it may be downloaded from Bandcamp at: http://tinyurl.com/zw2tz3y
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