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Journalist Philip Hilts

He's a longtime correspondent on health and science policy for The New York Times. In his new book, Protecting America's Health: the FDA, Business, and One Hundred Years of Regulation, he chronicles the history of the Food and Drug Administration from its start during the administration of Teddy Roosevelt. Hilts also broke the now-famous story of the Brown and Williamson tobacco industry papers, and is the author of Smoke Screen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up.

28:59

Other segments from the episode on April 30, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 30, 2003: Interview with Philip Hilts; Interview with Bob Koester.

Transcript

DATE April 30, 2003 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Philip Hilts discusses the history of the FDA
BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev, in for Terry Gross.

A hundred years ago it was anyone's guess what the ingredients were for the
patent medicines Wheeler's Nerve Vitalizer(ph) or Swane's Panacea(ph), and
many foods were sold by weight, which encouraged manufacturers to cut them
with all sorts of cheap filler. Brown sugar which had been adulterated with
the carcasses of lice gave rise to an ailment known as grocer's itch. The
Food and Drug Administration was created to counter scams like this, and
nowadays, thanks to the FDA, we can have more confidence in the safety of most
medicines and foods on the market.

In the new book "Protecting America's Health," about the history of the FDA,
Philip Hilts writes that it was the first citizen protection agency of the
federal government, and it became a model for subsequent regulatory bodies
such as the EPA, the FTC and the SEC. Hilts is a science and health policy
writer for The New York Times. He's also the author of several books,
including "Smoke Screen: The Truth Behind the Tobacco Industry Cover-Up."

I asked him to remind us what the food and drug industries were like at the
turn of the 20th century.

Mr. PHILIP HILTS (Correspondent, The New York Times; Author): There were no
very good medicines. There were very few things that worked. At the same
time, you were just beginning to get the advertising--for the first time
national advertising--so there's this huge voice, this huge mechanism to
deliver these messages about all these quack drugs, and the sales started
taking off. The advertising in all the newspapers around the country--more
than half of it was these quack drugs. So it was this tidal wave of remedies
out there.

At the same time, you had the food products, which used to be local, used to
be within a couple of miles of your house--you got your cabbages and
whatnot--but now things were being shipped a long way, so you had to start
messing with them. And the chemistry was available to do that, things that
would preserve them. So you'd put them on a train car and then they'd go to
the major city and then you would produce foods in jars and cans and whatnot.
So the whole nature of delivering foods and medicines was changing.

And you had a tremendous amount of corruption. For example, if you had opium
that doctors needed to use for painkilling, it turned out that half of the
time it was cut very deeply so that it had very little effect or it was
corrupted or there was flour in it or all kinds of things. And there was no
regulation to deal with this.

BOGAEV: The FDA had a slow start. It began just with a $5,000 appropriation
from President Roosevelt to a certain Dr. Wiley to conduct experiments called
poison squad experiments on food. He experimented on the common preservatives
used then. At that time was there a clear sense of what scientific method
was, how to go about testing and data collecting and setting standards of
safety for food and drugs?

Mr. HILTS: They didn't know how to test things. They didn't know exactly
what the effect of these chemicals being put into food in large numbers would
be. There were no rules about it. So Harvey Wiley, who is this Indiana
farmer become chemist in Washington, was saying, `Well, let us start testing
these things.' Well, how do you test them? Well, there was no real clinical
testing at the time--no testing of drugs, no testing of chemicals in
humans--so he kind of had to invent it.

What he did simply is he put an ad in the paper saying, `I'd like young men to
come forward and we'll feed you every day, three meals a day. On the other
hand, we're also going to add a little poison to your food. We're going to
add these chemicals one after the other and see if it affects you, see if you
get sick.' And so he got these young men together. They sat at the table
every day. Sometimes he made the meals, and very plain food, meat and
potatoes kind of thing. There was nothing on it at first. Then the second
week you'd start adding boric acid or formaldehyde. Each week they would go
along and increase the dose until people started getting sick. And they would
record all this. They'd take the urine samples. They'd take the feces
samples. And they couldn't eat anything anywhere else. So you had this
really peculiar little experiment.

And his idea was to see if this was really disastrous on the innards. They
had no idea. Nobody had ever tried it before. And it turned out that several
of them--they did get sick on those chemicals, especially in the higher doses,
quite ill, in fact; laid out some of them flat. But all of this was being
covered by the newspapers, and they really loved it, the whole idea of the
poison scribe; these young men going in to volunteer for mankind, to take
poisons and see if these things were bad for the human diet.

BOGAEV: Who did Dr. Wiley recruit for the poison squads? Was it down-and-out
Skid Row types?

Mr. HILTS: He put an ad in the paper, and the people who responded actually
were junior clerks in the Agriculture Department, people who had seen the ad
and who were working the same building with Wiley. Actually, there was quite
a few people who signed up, but he took those because they knew something
about the subject, they were young, healthy men, and they were ready to go.

BOGAEV: How did a food and drug bill ever get passed?

Mr. HILTS: Eventually the pitch got to the level where there were stories
pretty regularly in women's magazines about such things as the soothing syrups
that were given to children. Well, what they had in them was opium. And if
you give children, very young children, doses of opium, frequently you can
kill them, and they did that. There were quite a few deaths from these
things. Of course, it was not labeled. It didn't say it was opium. It just
said it was a soothing syrup. Same thing with other things that had alcohol
in them, 40 proof, 50 proof, 60 proof, and these were being given to children
or taken by adults who didn't know that it was alcohol and whatnot.

So one abuse after another got written about, and the pitch went higher and
higher until finally there was this book called "The Jungle," Upton Sinclair,
in which he went into a slaughterhouse and he was writing about the conditions
in a slaughterhouse under which food was made, the meat was made, the sausages
were made. He was trying to write about the condition of the workers, but
what happened was his descriptions of the grotesqueness of the food was so
great that people were picking up his book and vomiting and were getting
really outraged about the condition of meat. And that created a crisis for
Roosevelt and a crisis in the country about the regulation of food and drugs.
And since there had been bills out there, not passed, but they were sitting
there ready to go just in case, and this crisis came along, that's when it was
passed.

BOGAEV: You write that the first real opportunity for change in the
regulation of food and pharmaceuticals after the establishment of the FDA
didn't come until after the Depression in the 1930s, decades later. Why did
food and drug regulation take on an urgency then when there were so many
pressing economic and social crises to deal with?

Mr. HILTS: Well, first of all, the whole idea of regulation was revolting to
people in the US because it was against ideology at the turn of the century.
That was changing and it changed quite dramatically with the Depression,
because businesses that had been these great institutions--they were the
engines of America at one point--now all of a sudden were the opposite. They
were the demons. The whole thing had come apart, the idea of speculation, the
idea of businesses dealing for themselves and paying no attention to the
people and what the economy and the needs of the nation were. The entire
picture changed with the Depression.

And so on the list of things to do in the FDR years--they had to reform
banking, they had to reform the economy, they had to do something about the
stock market and speculates--they did all these things, and then down at the
bottom of the list there was a question about food and drugs, because they had
the sense that things were going wrong and they needed to be fixed, but it
wasn't the top of the list. So what happened was they drafted a bill and they
debated it--it was in Congress--but it went nowhere--other things were going
on--until a crisis came along.

And this is usually the way this works with FDA. You have to have several
things present at the same time. You have to have a physical crisis in which
drugs or something is killing people. You have to have a bill already ready.
You have to have the debate already well along. And then if those three
things come together, then you can get a change.

In this case what happened was a thing called sulfanilamide, elixir of
sulfanilamide. It was an antibiotic substance that was given mainly to
children, for example, when they had strep throat. It was originally in a
powder or in a pill and it was very bitter and terrible-tasting. And so the
idea was--there was a chemist at a company called Massengill that wanted to
put it in a liquid form, easier to swallow, especially for children, so he did
that. He took something off the shelf, this Swedish liquid, and he put the
powder in and then he put 240 gallons of it together and sent it out to the
pharmacies. No testing; no sense that you had to test. It was not necessary
to test at the time.

It turned out that what he used to dissolve the powder was diethylene glycol,
which is essentially antifreeze, which is highly toxic. And within a few
weeks he killed about 107 children. And the reaction was this terrible fright
about the possibility of all these other drugs--and there were many others out
there--and cosmetics as well that were creating troubles, that now it was time
to do something about these products, mainly to test them before you put them
out. Instead of letting them put them out, watch the damage happen and then
call them back, the idea was, `Let's not do that anymore. Let's test them
before they get out there.'

BOGAEV: What was the effect of this 1938 drug bill? And you say this is a
landmark in civil governance, not only for the US, but for democratic
governments around the world, that this one bill had that much significance.

Mr. HILTS: This was another principle that was invented with FDA, the
principle of regulation, and that is that the businesses are out there and
they're huge factors, these huge corporations. The Founding Fathers never
conceived that these would exist at all. They were brand-new on the landscape
and they were very powerful, and there was no countervailing force. So the
idea is that the businesses are focused on making a profit. That's OK.
They're major engines of democracy, major engines of society. That's fine.
But you need some countervailing force for when they get out of hand.

BOGAEV: Now this 1938 law was also key in establishing the idea of
prescription medicines, which didn't exist before then. How are they related?

Mr. HILTS: Drugs at that time, of course--people went into the pharmacy and
got them themselves. They mostly didn't have to have doctors intervene. It
was very rare that they needed that, because most of those drugs were ordinary
remedies. But they put in a little line saying that with some particularly
hazardous drugs they needed to go to the doctor and get a scrip from him
before they could go to the pharmacy and get it made.

They thought that there would be only a few of those kind of drugs, but it
turned out that the companies began to see it quite differently, that instead
of advertising to the entire population and putting all these labels on, you
know, a label with all these things about hazards and safety and testing on
each drug, they thought, `Well, maybe we just limit it to the doctors and we
make most of the drugs prescription. We make most of them ones where the
patient has to go to the doctor, get a scrip. That we we can limit our
audience. We only have to advertise to doctors. We can control what it is.
We don't have to put all those labels out.' So it was an idea of industry
taking advantage of this little line in the regulation, and so the whole
system of prescription drugs was borne out of that, essentially looking for a
commercial advantage out of that one line.

BOGAEV: I'm talking with Philip Hilts. He writes about science for The New
York Times and The Washington Post. His new book is a history of the Food and
Drug Administration. It's called "Protecting America's Health."

Philip, we're going to take a break now, and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: If you're just joining us, my guest is science writer Philip Hilts.
His new book is "Protecting America's Health: The FDA, Business and One
Hundred Years of Regulation."

Now the drug that, you write, caused a turning point for the FDA was
thalidomide. Could you, first, just remind us how the thalidomide disaster
unfolded? And thalidomide was a drug developed by the Vicks Company, as in
Vicks Vapor Rub. It was marketed, among other things, as a treatment for
nausea during pregnancy in this country with tragic results.

Mr. HILTS: The drug was a sedative. At the time, barbiturates were used to
calm people down, but those are quite hazardous. And people even used them
for suicide, so it was really a serious issue. And the drug companies were
looking for a way of calming people without having these very heavy drugs. So
they thought, `Well, this is a pretty good one.' It was started in Germany,
and in Germany they had done some tests. It looked pretty good in the lab,
and they had tried it with some patients. There were no regulations. You
didn't have to ask a patient, `Do you want to take this or not?' They just
did experiments. They just put them in people. And it looked like it calmed
people down and didn't have many side effects.

So this company in the US picked it up. Several companies had a chance at it.
Other companies looked at it and tried it; it didn't look that good; it looked
like it might be hazardous, so they dropped it. But this other one,
Richardson-Merrill, which was part of the Vicks Company at the time, decided
to pick it up and use it, and they were selling it as the tranquilizer, the
sedative that has no side effects. This is a miracle drug coming along. We
can all be calm now without worrying about barbiturates or poisoning or
suicide. But as it turned out it wasn't quite that way.

They didn't do the testing in humans; they did no testing before they
delivered it directly to the physicians' offices. And the physicians gave it
to their patients, saying, `Here. Here. Try this thing out. This is a
sedative.' And, of course, in the population of people trying it out were
women, women who were pregnant, and they had not done any of that testing. At
the time they could have, the drug before this that they put out there, they
had tested for effects on fetuses, but this one--they were quite anxious to
get it out there. So they did this experiment, which at the time was the
largest clinical trial experiment ever done in the world--1,200 doctors and
20,000 patients. They weren't actually taking data. They weren't writing
down what happened to the women or to the other people. They just wanted to
get it out there and get doctors used to it. So they had done this very large
experiment. They wanted to get the drug to the market quickly because they
thought it was going to be a blockbuster.

BOGAEV: Now up until this time drug companies did not have to get FDA
approval to test a drug on the market. Doctors could experiment with these
new drugs on their patients with impunity. How did then the thalidomide
debacle change that?

Mr. HILTS: What happened was that in other parts of the world where this was
already out ahead of the United States they began to notice two different
problems. One is people's nerves went dead in their hands and feet, and this
was a direct result of the drug, and they weren't able to reverse it. And so
the company outside the United States had to start quietly paying off
settlements against themselves because of the problem. And then the other
thing they discovered eventually was that because this affects nerves and the
growth of nerves, that if a woman was pregnant and just the beginning of her
pregnancy and the nerves and the tissues were growing in the fetus, the drug
interrupted that, so you had this very strange birth defect called phocomelia,
which is seal limbs. And what that is is you have hands coming directly out
of the shoulder with no limb in between and the same thing in the legs. You
had many other deformities inside the body. Many times the babies didn't make
it at all. They died before birth. But the ones that were born were quite
deformed. And at the time the pictures of them were really horrible.

So when this happened, the wave of revulsion to the pictures of the birth
defects was one that changed what was going into the law. They put into the
law for the first time a line saying, `If you're going to give experimental
drugs to people, you must ask their consent. You must tell them what it's
about.'

BOGAEV: I'm speaking with Philip Hilts. He writes about science for The New
York Times and The Washington Post. He has a new book. It's a history of the
Food and Drug Administration. It's called "Protecting America's Health."

Now one perception that you address in the book is the image of the FDA as a
lethally slow agency. How did it earn that reputation in the first place?

Mr. HILTS: It was a serious problem. Because when they put the standard in,
the companies at the time were not doing serious studies. They were not doing
these carefully controlled studies. So the first thing that happens is the
FDA says to the company, `Well, OK, you've got to have a study now.' And the
company says, `Well, we never had to do that before.' `Well, you have to do
it now.' So this argument went on and this thing started slowing down, and so
it got to be a terrible fight between the companies and the FDA, which was
trying to enforce the law.

And then at the same time the FDA was sitting there--it had very few doctors,
so they had to start hiring doctors. They had to start getting scientists in
there to look at this evidence. Well, they didn't have the funds for it.
Congress was not providing the funds for it. So that even when the evidence
did come in, what did you have? You had somebody sitting there. He had four
other drugs on the desk. It was going to take him a long time to go through
that. So that's how it started out, slow and difficult and fighting and
trying to make their way through what the implications of the law were: What
were things going to be like in the future when you had to have science
actually applied to drugs?

BOGAEV: And you argue that this image of the FDA as bureaucratic and deadly
slow and causing a drug lag was solidified by hard-line conservatives in the
1980s who deliberately cultivated this image of the FDA. How were these
attacks--and you label them attacks--orchestrated? Who was the ringleader?
What was the venue?

Mr. HILTS: It started out with the slowness of the FDA, and there was actual
slowness there, but gradually, of course, the companies and the FDA worked out
the problems and got quicker and quicker. But as they were getting faster,
say by 1980, 1985, when the pace was picking up and they were learning how to
do these things, both the FDA and companies together working it out, there was
this injection of conservative feeling into politics in America, there was
this rightward turn. And one of the things that came in with the
conservatives was this conservative economics, and one of the tenants of
conservative economics is that regulation by nature is bad, that you should
cut down regulation; never mind looking at the details, whether this is bad or
that is bad, in general it's bad. And so there was a beginning of a fierce
attack from the conservatives, from the conservative economists on the FDA
because it was a regulatory agency.

And there had been a couple of scientific papers on this issue of whether the
FDA was too slow. So they grabbed hold of those and made an issue of it and
talked about, `This is slow. That means that these drugs are not getting to
the people. They're causing health damage. The economy is bad for it because
the costs of regulation are on the heads of the companies, and then the
companies have to pass them along, so the drugs are too expensive.' And they
made this argument against regulation without actually looking into the
details of what was going on between the FDA and the companies, the progress
that had been made. So it was essentially from the ideology that the attack
came.

BOGAEV: Philip Hilts writes about science and health for The New York Times
and The Washington Post. His new book is "Protecting America's Health."

We'll continue our conversation in the second half of the show. I'm Barbara
Bogaev, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

(Announcements)

BOGAEV: Coming up, 50 years of the Delmark jazz and blues record label; we
talk with founder and owner Bob Koester. We're listening to one of their
recordings right now. Also, more of our conversation with Philip Hilts about
the history of the FDA.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Barbara Bogaev.

Let's return to our interview with Philip Hilts. His new book about the
history of the FDA is "Protecting America's Health." When we left off we were
talking about the deregulatory campaign that the new right waged against the
FDA.

Now this was all happening in the '80s just as the AIDS epidemic was
surfacing. And at first, of course, there was no proven drug treatment for
AIDS, but there were plenty of supposed or experimental or fraudulent
treatments. And the FDA came under repeated attack not only from the new
right, but also from gay activist groups who accused it of being a roadblock
to potentially effective drugs to treat AIDS. ACT UP singled out the FDA in
marches on Washington. So how well-founded were those accusations? Did the
FDA deserve the blame for a drug lag, at least in finding good treatments for
AIDS?

Mr. HILTS: The difference between the attacks from the right and left were
really interesting at the time because the AIDS groups--and I was covering
AIDS at the time and spent a lot of time with them--they wanted the FDA to put
out treatments, even untested treatments in the very beginning. They wanted
anything they could get--the bathtub treatments--anything they could get.
They wanted to relax the rules so you could get other things outside the
country just out of desperation. There was no sense that any of these things
might really work or that they could be tested. They just wanted things. And
the FDA was a roadblock because they had been testing things, holding things
back that were untested.

So they negotiated the sides, and the AIDS activists worked with the FDA and
got to a point where they began to see the rationale for testing the drugs.
And as soon as they had something that actually started working, then the
thinking began to change, that now you have a drug that actually works with
AIDS. Now let's not have all this other junk out there because that's going
to distract people and keep them from getting what they need. And so their
thinking, the AIDS activists, evolved with the FDA, and they eventually became
quite conservative about it and wanted to be very careful about what was put
on the market and encouraged extra testing, encouraged strict rules because
what they were after was good treatments, well-tested, that actually had an
effect on AIDS.

On the other hand, the right motivation was not that. The right motivation
was business freedom and profits. And so as the FDA evolved and changed its
attitude and found good drugs and tried to get them out, the attitude of the
right did not change. They did not learn with the FDA how to do these things.
They had the position essentially that they wanted to eliminate the function
of the FDA, wanted to go directly from business to the public with drugs and
let the businesses themselves take care of testing.

BOGAEV: I'm thinking that there's been a series of controversies in the past
decade over certain pharmaceuticals--obesity drugs, diabetes drug Rezulin, the
flu drug Relenza, also ephedra, a dietary supplement--and I wonder if there's
a chain of effects that came of this deregulation furor in the '80s. In the
end did the FDA, the agency, cave to pressures and rush the drug-approval
process too much or seesaw between releasing some drugs with too little
testing and some drugs with too much?

Mr. HILTS: Yeah. A number of people have said that. There have been news
stories about that saying that the FDA was conservative at one point, and
after being hammered by the right then they went the other way and put things
out too fast. It's pretty hard to tell because at FDA what's happening is
drug by drug things are getting approved. You can certainly say that there
was one year, in 1997, in which there were drugs put out that had to be pulled
back later because of the deaths and injuries they were causing. Seven drugs
pulled back out of one year's approval is an enormous number, I mean, for the
FDA. That had never happened before. And so there was a sense that things
had gotten too lax. It's not clear to me exactly whether that's true or not,
but certainly that was the feeling.

And so what you have now is, again, that tension. And we have a new
commissioner now who is a conservative economist. And the question is: Is he
going to push forward and try to get drugs approved much faster--maybe too
fast--the way it happened in 1997, or are we at a point where we know now how
to regulate drugs at the right speed, not too fast, not too slow?

BOGAEV: Philip Hilts, thanks very much for talking with me today.

Mr. HILTS: Thank you.

BOGAEV: Philip Hilts' new book is "Protecting America's Health."

Coming up, we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Delmark label. This is
FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bob Koester discusses the 50th anniversary of his label
Delmark Records
(Soundbite of "Royal Garden Blues" by The Windy City Six)

BARBARA BOGAEV, host:

Back in 1952, 17-year-old Bob Koester, driven by his passion for jazz and
blues, and in need of a place to put his collection of 2,000 albums, opened
the Jazz Record Mart in St. Louis. A year later he started his own label,
Delmark Records, which his now celebrating its 50th anniversary with the
release of a two-CD set. It includes a previously unreleased track from the
first recorded band on the Delmark label, The Windy City Six, playing "Royal
Garden Blues," which we're listening to now.

Koester says the record label is like an overgrown hobby for him. It's the
record store, now located in Chicago, that has enabled him to record such
blues and jazz artists as Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sleepy John Estes, Otis
Rush, Sun Ra and Archie Shepp. Over the years Koester has been a mentor and
father figure for many Chicago musicians. He's considered one of the major
forces behind the blues revival in the mid-'60s. This year the Chicago Blues
Festival and the Chicago Jazz Festival are both planning special lineups to
celebrate Delmark Records.

Terry spoke with Bob Koester earlier this month.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Bob Koester, welcome to FRESH AIR, and happy anniversary.

Mr. BOB KOESTER (Founder/Owner, Delmark Records): Oh, thank you. It's great
to be here.

GROSS: I thought we could start by playing what I believe is a track from
your first blues LP, featuring the singer and pianist Speckled Red. Was this,
in fact, your first?

Mr. KOESTER: Yes. The first blues artist I recorded back in, I think, '55.

GROSS: Well, tell us who he is and how you ended up recording him.

Mr. KOESTER: Well, Speckled Red was one of the pioneers of boogie-woogie
piano, pre-Pete Johnson, Albert Hammond, born in the late '90s, 1890s. We had
no idea--I was living in St. Louis at the time, operating, just beginning to
get started in the business, and how no idea he was in the city, in St.
Louis. And he was discovered by a guy named Charlie O'Brien(ph), a policeman
who I met at the St. Louis Jazz Club, who wanted to look up some old people.
He had this veneration for old people because his parents had been killed in
robberies. And we gave him a list of blues artists who are around St. Louis,
and he found all of them. And one of them, Mary Johnson, Lennie Johnson's ex,
happened to mention, `Oh, I saw Speckled Red the other day.' And when you
hear the record I think people will understand if their concept of
boogie-woogie is Otis Spann or Roosevelt Sykes or Albert Hammond, they can see
how different this is. This is regional boogie-woogie from Georgia.

GROSS: Well, let's hear Speckled Red's version of "Cow Cow Blues," as
recorded by you in 1956.

(Soundbite of "Cow Cow Blues")

Mr. SPECKLED RED: (Singing) When I got up this morning,the girl was gone.
(Unintelligible) I went wrong. Coming down the streets, I can't be satisfied.
Got them little old blues, just too mean to fly. Now something wasn't
(unintelligible) Don't get what train it was that carried her away. Starched
my jumper; ironed my overalls. I want to catch that train they call
Cannonball.

GROSS: That's "Cow Cow Blues," featuring Speckled Red, recorded in 1956 on
the Delmark label. And my guest, Bob Koester, is the founder of the label.
And Delmark is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Well, let's hear another recording that you've made that's on your new 50th
anniversary anthology. You know, why was Big Joe Williams willing to record
for you, Bob Koester, who at the time was a very young, inexperienced producer
with very little track record?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, whether he was on Delmark or BJ or Trumpet, he was getting
union scale. And the sad fact was his records weren't selling very well. I
think he was intrigued with the idea of being on an LP.

GROSS: Was this his first LP?

Mr. KOESTER: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: He'd made 78s and 45s before that?

Mr. KOESTER: It came close to being the first LP of Mississippi country
blues.

GROSS: Hmm. This is a great track. Why don't we hear this 1958 recording
featuring Big Joe Williams doing "Midnight Creep." Now this was actually
previously unreleased. I think it was recorded for that first LP that you
were referring to, but it wasn't released as part of it. Why not?

Mr. KOESTER: Oh, we just never had the money. Joe was just a fountain. It's
just like turning on a water tap. The music would come pouring out. And he
would record an enormous amount of material at every session, and you just had
to go through and pull out what you felt worked together as an album. You'd
try to program an album, you know, for--and I was trying to program an album
toward ears that weren't yet geared to blues. You never needed second takes
with Big Joe Williams.

GROSS: OK. Well, here it is, from 1958: Big Joe Williams' "Midnight Creep."

(Soundbite of "Midnight Creep")

BIG JOE WILLIAMS: Lord, I wonder where my baby gone, yeah. Well, I wonder
where my baby gone, yeah. Since she left this morning I hadn't did nothing
wrong. Well, I feel like walkin', maybe talkin' all night. Well, I feel like
walkin', maybe talkin' all night. Well, the woman that love me, she sure
don't treat me right. Well, I wonder where my baby gone, yeah. Well, I
wonder where my baby gone, yeah. She been gone and left me, and I sure don't
feel too wrong.

I got 19 women, and Lord, I want one more. I got 19 women, and Lord...

GROSS: That's Big Joe Williams, recorded in 1958. That track is featured on
the new "Delmark Records 50th-Anniversary Anthology of Jazz and Blues." My
guest, Bob Koester, is the founder of Delmark Records and he also owns the
Jazz Record Mart in Chicago.

You know, if that guitar playing sounded a little unusual on that, one reason
is because Big Joe Williams played a nine-string guitar. Tell us a little bit
about that guitar.

Mr. KOESTER: Well, Joe got tired of people borrowing his guitar or picking it
up between sets and playing it, so he rigged up the nine-string. It was, I
think, to some extent a gimmick. And he apparently had some kind of strange
tuning that other people couldn't cope with. That had a lot to do--that's
what he says was the reason. But, of course, he developed a rather unique
sound eventually.

GROSS: It sounds like a pretty weird reason to start playing a nine-string
guitar.

Mr. KOESTER: Well, those guitars were usually his most valuable possession.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. KOESTER: And he didn't want people messing with it.

GROSS: You know, some of the people who've worked in your record store have
gone on to be, you know, record producers or recording artists. One of the
people who worked in your record store, Bruce Iglauer, founded Alligator
Records, which is a blues label in Chicago. And in an article about you, he
was quoted as saying about you, "He's terribly argumentive. He hardly says
anything nice about anybody, but he's just as generous as hell. He almost
fired me a couple of times, mostly for good reasons, and at the same time he
was extraordinarily nice to me. It's hard to explain. Bob will snarl at
people. He used to break 78s over his employees' heads." So I want to hear
about you breaking 78s over your employees' heads.

Mr. KOESTER: Oh, well, we always have 78s that are worthless, and 78s break
pretty good, pretty well. I always made sure they weren't Columbias, because
Columbias had paper lamination in them. That would make them a deadly weapon.
Or Edisons, which are terrible. Well, Edisons are too valuable. I don't
think I did that very often, and it was pretty much a jovial thing, and they
were probably records that were cracked anyway. Happily, nobody got hurt.

Yeah, I've been called a curmudgeon, and when I got married back in '67,
people would approach me and say, `Hey, you know, you're mellowing out.
What's happened?' I said, `Well, at least one of life's problems has been
solved.' As the money got better, I probably got a little easier to get along
with. We still have our arguments, though. I doubt the two of us would ever
agree on a mix, you know.

GROSS: Did you ever break a 78 over somebody's head and realize years later
that it was...

Mr. KOESTER: It was worth a lot?

GROSS: ...actually a decent 78 and was worth a lot of money?

Mr. KOESTER: No, I'd always make sure it was something by Perry Como, you
know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KOESTER: Perry Como was on Victor. They're the most brittle, breakable
records ever made in that period.

GROSS: Now I believe that the best-selling record in the Delmark catalog is
an album that you recorded in 1965 with guitarist Buddy Guy and harmonica
player Junior Wells.

Mr. KOESTER: Yes, "Hoodoo Man Blues." It's our, I guess, hit; closest thing
to a hit.

GROSS: How many copies does that mean?

Mr. KOESTER: About a quarter-million that I know of. There were licenses
made to unethical foreign labels who pressed records and shipped them over
here in boatloads that might have upped that somewhat.

GROSS: This album with Junior Wells and Buddy Guy sold better than anything
else in the Delmark catalog. What do you think it was about the music and the
time and place that made it do so comparatively well?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, I think to some extent, we got in on the ground floor. It
was the first time a working Chicago blues band went into a studio to make an
album rather than single. And--well, Junior Wells was a heck of a bandleader
and organizer. It was an aspect of his talent that very few people have ever
paid tribute to. And we just sort of--I think people maybe were looking for
something in Chicago blues beyond the reissues of the Chess--Muddy Waters,
Howlin' Wolf, etc. And there was a certain freedom of time; there was no
two-and-a-half-, three-minute limitation. Oddly enough, it got a two-star
review in Downbeat, though, but it did pretty well in the folk press.

GROSS: Well, you know, on the new Delmark Records 50th anniversary
collection, you release--you include a 1953 Junior Wells recording that's a
session that you actually leased from another record company. So I thought we
could play that 1953 session, which is Junior Wells' first recording session,
back to back with something from "Hoodoo Man Blues," the record that we've
been talking about that you released in 1965.

Mr. KOESTER: You could hear Junior's voice grow up between the two gigs.

GROSS: Right. So here it is.

(Soundbite of song; harmonica)

Mr. JUNIOR WELLS: (Singing) You know I love my baby. Whoa, Lord, don't love
me. You know I love my baby. Whoa, Lord, don't love me. Now she left me
early this morning; said she wouldn't be back no more.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. WELLS: (Singing) ...(Unintelligible) baby, one more time. I ain't doin'
too bad, babe. I got you on my mind. Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, yeah, you're
havin' a darn good time.

Somebody help me, I can't help myself. Somebody's got to help me 'cause I
can't help myself. I'm not doin' too bad, baby. You know I ain't got no
brand-new bag. Hey!

(Soundbite of music; harmonica solo)

BOGAEV: That's two recordings by Junior Wells; the first from 1953, the
second with guitarist Buddy Guy recorded in 1965. Terry's guest is Bob
Koester, the founder of Delmark Records, which celebrates its 50th anniversary
this year with a new two-CD set. We'll hear more of their conversation after
this break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

BOGAEV: Back now to Terry's interview with Bob Koester, founder of the
Delmark Record label.

GROSS: What did you grow up listening to, and how were you exposed to it?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, my grandfather had a collection of classical 78s. He died
when I was very young, but when we moved into his house, the records were
still there. And there was one by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band and one by
another group, The California Ramblers or something. That was probably the
first jazz records I played. But I had polio in the sixth grade and I heard
the Eddie Condon show "The Saturday Afternoon Jam Session," and that had a lot
to do with it.

But that was--when I was growing up, it was the tail end of this big
band/swing era. That's the only time when jazz was the popular music in this
country, roughly 1935 to the middle '40s. So I got to hear a lot of
Basie and--not a lot of Basie and Ellington; they didn't get that much airplay
in those Jim Crow days. But I got to hear a lot of Woody Herman and Charlie
Barnet and some of Basie. I was able to go see Basie at the Miller Theater.
I guess that's the first live jazz I ever heard, and Jimmy Rushing still
singing with him. That must have been '47 or '48, something like that.

GROSS: Did music keep you company when you were stuck at home with polio?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, I wasn't--by the time I got out--I kept looking for good
jazz when I was in the hospital. When I got home, I didn't want to be around
the house; I wanted to get the heck out and around, and I was encouraged to
ride bicycles and, you know, to put my legs back into shape.

GROSS: What's the blues and jazz scene in Chicago like now, and do you feel
like you're keeping up with the musicians who are playing today?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, we--I've done quite a few 50th anniversary interviews, and
I do get a little frustrated that--I'm glad you mentioned that because we are
still recording. We're not just living on records we made in the '60s.
There's a lot of good blues in Chicago. There's a lot of clubs. And there
are still--and seem to be growing--ghetto blues bars that almost disappeared
with the crack epidemic and with the exodus of the musicians to the North Side
where, of course, the money was a lot better. It's still a scene, and it's
still part of the--part of the folkiness of blues is still there. There's
still a connection with the Old South.

The jazz scene--a lot of the AACM people have left, but we've still got Fred
Anderson in the straight ahead field; we've still got Von Freeman. You don't
need too many. And visiting New York musicians are sometimes a little bit
astounded at what a high percentage of the Chicago jazzmen are working
regularly, whereas in New York, they're sitting around waiting for a gig on
the road or something.

GROSS: Well, we should end with a jazz recording. I should ask you if you
have a favorite from the 50th anniversary collection that you'd like to play?

Mr. KOESTER: The stuff I'm most proud of is the Roscoe Mitchell and the other
AACM records, part of the catalog that I think is our most important
contribution to jazz. We did the first AACM record, the first Roscoe, the
first Baxter and the first Muhal.

GROSS: And AACM is the--What's the acronym, the...

Mr. KOESTER: Oh, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
This was a group of self-determinist avant-garde musicians in Chicago that
started in the early '60s, and gave birth to all these guys that I've
mentioned and many, many more ...(unintelligible)...

GROSS: And it was the genesis of the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

Mr. KOESTER: Right. Yeah. I think that was the most important music
happening anywhere in the world at that time. I mean, it had its counterparts
in Kansas City, St. Louis and New York, Boston, Philly and so forth, and later
in Europe. But I think it's our most important contribution. But I have to
say I really enjoy the older stuff more.

GROSS: So you think...

Mr. KOESTER: I'm very proud of our six sessions with--six albums with Art
Hodes. He's the only really great musician from the '20s that we took in the
studio. And we got a lot of good Earl Hines stuff, too.

GROSS: So you're proudest of giving some of the Chicago avant-gardists their
start, but your heart is really with Art Hodes, the stride piano player?

Mr. KOESTER: Well, when I go to an avant-garde concert now, I can get into to
the music a lot better. But I like a drink now and then when I'm listening to
music, and it's not really a drinking man's music; it's thinking man's music.

BOGAEV: Bob Koester, founder of Delmark Records, which celebrates its 50th
anniversary this year. Here's a 1976 recording of Art Hodes playing
"Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)."

(Soundbite of "Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)")

(Credits)

BOGAEV: For Terry Gross, I'm Barbara Bogaev.

(Soundbite of "Cake Walkin' Babies (From Home)")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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