Bicycles of all shapes and sizes, spray-painted pink, littered the hillside leading up to Stanley Davis’ Sonoma County home. A transition into the realm of the collector was immediately observed. Reaching the top, we were greeted by beautiful Russian River scenery as well as a collector’s paradise of Coleman lanterns, cigar boxes and a whole lot of vinyl and shellac records.

A retired psychiatrist and Renaissance man, Stanley humbly briefed us on the contents of his collection. “Curiosity has guided most of my collecting interests,” he warned us. “I don’t collect for investment and I have little knowledge of the value in what I’ve collected, other than knowing that some of the material I find most enjoyable is probably worthless to anyone less crazy than myself.”

On one side of his workshop, jam-packed shelves of 78 folders boasted titles like Jungle Drums, Dinner Music and French Folk Songs. He told us that there were thousands more hidden away in assorted milk crates. On the other side of his workshop, various phonograph parts lie on a workbench, bracing for surgery. This is where we diverted our attention. In fact, what we had really come for weren’t his stacks of early shellac disks but rather for an introduction to the phonograph machine.

The phonograph is, of course, that big horn that balances precariously on a crank-based turntable. Although largely extinct, I imagine that somewhere out there a few of them still scratch out fox trots to quilting grandmothers, scaring cats from the immediate vicinity.

Stanley became an expert in restoring and repairing phonograph machines only in the last ten years. He received his first Victrola as a gift from his wife and did with it what any mechanically brained individual would do. He tore it apart. These early operations were relatively affordable, however. With little use other than for steampunk bedroom displays or museum pieces, it’s not surprising that owners are pricing their old wind-up players to sell.

We followed his lively pace from the garage up to the front porch and walked through the screen door into his living room. In the center of the cabin-like room, a Victor V with an elegant oak horn reared like an aggressive rack of antlers. “Original Victors all had these horns,” Stanley mused. “They were a nightmare for housewives. They didn’t like the looks, they didn’t like cleaning them and they were bulky…” he said, confirming its masculine appearance.

Unhooking the horn from the player arm, he lifted the lid of the ornate wood chassis to reveal the mechanism’s clockwork. When the crankshaft is wound, he told us, a spring motor loads and delivers rotational force to a shaft through a series of cogs and wheels. The speed of the shafts rotation is controlled by three round weights with spring-loaded arms called a “governor.” Stanley was talking a mile a minute, but I gleaned that centrifugal force was an important factor.

As he wised us to the mechanical process, Stanley added “they wanted very consistent speeds, although wasn’t always 78 it might have been 76 or 80 revolutions per minute.” The recording industry was founded on the technology that allowed motors to spin evenly. As always, the profit industry wasn’t far behind.

Stanley opened the ornate cabinet below the victor which housed an organized selection of accessories – needles, needle sharpeners, extra diaphragms, brushes and a multitude of other consumer thingamajigs and doodads, eerily analogous to our modern-day digital paraphernalia – and demonstrated the difference between needles (steel, bamboo and even cactus needles) using a 1920 Victor label recording of Aileen Stanley’s “Singin’ The Blues (Till My Daddy Comes Home).”

Despite the variety of needle accessories, proper record care was not always the common practice. Much to the lament of modern day 78 collectors, there are few surviving disks that weren’t scraped to death by a blunt Victrola needle. A Tungs-tone needle was introduced in 1916 as both as a way to save on steel during WWI and as a solution to the one-use-only design of the early steel needles. Tungs-tone needles were a different design - essentially a length of wire protruding from a small metal tube – that when worn decreased in length but not diameter. The Victor Company boasted that they were good for 200 to 400 plays.

Stanley was thorough with details and he explained them with gusto. We discussed the transition from acoustical recording – where performers bellowed into a recording horn – to the electrical recordings made with microphones. For comparison, he played us an acoustic recording from 1917 by the Original Dixieland ‘Jass’ Band. Through the pops and hiss, a clarinet squealed a high note over a jaunty brass texture, distantly and like an inversed telescope image. Eagerly, Stanley pulled out another record titled “Barnyard Stomp” recorded in 1936. The same tune as the first, only recorded twenty years later with microphones, emanated from the horn with a more defined edge. The piano and brass rang out in the texture and the drums audibly resonated the walls of the recording studio.

As we listened in depth to these dusty records, I questioned the value in restoring an obsolete technology. Today, phonographs exist as fun novelty devices. Stanley’s eyes shown with excitement when he told us about camping with his phonographs and using them as distraction during power outages. 78’s, being the first true form of commercially distributed music, are important historical artifacts because they inform us on the transition from live to recorded music. As Stanley addressed, the limitations of recording technology often determined the size of ensembles, the instruments used, and the duration of a performance, factors which still carry over to today. These contributions, though impactful, still seemed lacking in vitality. 

When we first sat down on his living room couch, Stanley asked us if we had ever talked through a Dixie cup and a string. He stretched his hands in front of him as if pulling a cord taut. As a child, I remember well using this magical form of communication. What amazed me then wasn’t the muffled sound quality of the can. It was the experience of having a distant person simultaneously whisper in your ear.

This same experiment becomes much more profound when the person speaking is doing so from the year 1904. Listening to Enrico Caruso’s powerful tenor blare out of the phonograph horn was a chilling experiment. When Stanley played the 1904 recording of “Siciliana” from Cavalleria Rusticana, his voice sounded alive in the phonograph tube as if trying to escape off of the disk. “My friend will come over sometimes to listen and be moved to tears,” Stanley said, savoring our amazement. For me, there was terror mingled with the beauty. I heard a human voice tearing against the constraints of mechanization, fighting to assert a human presence.

We played records for hours with Stanley in his garage - Sousa marches, then Heifetz, then vintage exercise routines and even the novelty “Okeh Laughing Record” - and ranked each one on the Caruso scale. Afterwards, we climbed back into the car, still hearing pops and hisses, and sat in an overly informed daze. Glimpsing the painted bicycles on the drive down, I reassessed the notion that record collectors amass dead things. Though they may lie dormant on shelves, records preserve life, awaiting only the attention of a needle to display their former glory.

--- Jonathan Shifflett