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For the Love of Audio PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González; Photos by Silvia Ros   
September 2018

A search for a vintage stereo part turns up the Last of the Hi-Fi Fixers

Vintage stereo consoles are making a comeback with collectors and hipsters, but they’ve been Roy Wright’s business all along

I Covershothear the music coming from inside Beta Electronics almost before I’m out of my car. Even competing with the sound of passing traffic on nearby I-95, the tune is instantly recognizable -- it’s “Aquarius,” that anthem from the Age of Peace and Love -- but I’ve never heard this particular version, with its quirky orchestration. Sticking my head in the front door, I see Royland Wright -- Roy to his friends and customers -- spinning the record on a gold-toned turntable. “It’s an Empire,” he says, referring to the make of the record player. “I hear they’re valuable now. I’ve had this one for years.”

Roy, 67 years old and still fit, motions me in. I get closer and see that the record on the turntable is James Last’s The Love Album. Last is a German composer and bandleader whose jazz-inflected, horn-heavy sound acquired a following in 1960s England, as well as former British territories like Jamaica, where Roy grew up. “This was always my thing, man,” he says, meaning music in general and horns in particular.

At midmorning on a steamy July day, it’s too hot for a cup of the Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee Roy usually brews while he works fixing old radios, turntables, and stereo consoles -- seeming relics of a bygone era. But not here. “See that one there,” he says, gesturing to a long, low, wood-grained Silvertone console. “This young fellow decided to overhaul it for his father.” Silvertone was the in-house electronics brand of Sears, Roebuck and Company; Sears hasn’t sold Silvertone consoles since the early 1970s, when individual stereo components began to overtake consoles in popularity.

Roy says the turntable needs a new on/off switch, adding that it’s getting more difficult to find parts like that. So far, he’s had no luck. The guy who brought it in told Roy he’s willing to wait as long as it takes. Roy shrugs. It’s not like the guy has much of a choice.

That’s because Roy Wright may just be the only person in Miami-Dade County -- and perhaps Monroe, Broward, and Palm Beach counties -- still repairing vintage stereo consoles. The Last of the Hi-Fi Fixers.


I CoverStory_2found that out the hard way last year, when my one-year-old son became curious as to how the shiny black disk that spun ’round and ’round inside his grandparents’ stereo console could produce such magical sounds. He’d eyed the turntable before, but he’d never been quite tall enough to reach over the side of the console to where it sat. And then, all of a sudden, he was.

The sound of the needle scraping across the record -- if I’m not mistaken, Dionne Warwick singing Burt Bacharach -- brought me from the kitchen table. Entering the living room, I saw my son smiling with a mixture of accomplishment and guilt. My own feelings were less complicated. I knew immediately he had wrecked the arm on the turntable, and that getting it repaired was going to take some doing.

Things only got worse when, in the process of removing the turntable for further inspection, the switch on the bottom of the turntable -- the plastic port where the power connects, the same piece the Silvertone currently in Roy’s shop needs -- cracked open. (Plastic components do not age well; the less they’re handled, the better.)

The console was a 1969 Motorola. It wasn’t a family heirloom; my parents had acquired it from a friend only a few years earlier. But we had all become comfortable with the warm, familiar crackle of old records during family dinners and gatherings. Now that my son, the budding engineer, had managed to break the record player -- essentially turning the Motorola into a very large, highly impractical radio -- I felt responsible for fixing it.

My options, I knew, were limited. A couple of years before, when the turntable had needed some basic maintenance, I was told to take it to a place in Boca Raton, Everything Audio. For years the shop had been located in North Miami Beach, but its owner, Les Goldberg, had recently moved north.

Les turned out to be a nice old guy who not only attended to the turntable, but gave me some good advice for keeping the unit humming as long as possible: “Don’t turn off the turntable in between records; keep it spinning. Most of the wear on the belt comes from starting up the record player from the off position.”

CoverStory_3I had kept Les’s business card. Digging it out, I dialed his number. Instead of Les, though, I got the electronic voice of doom: The number you have called is not in service. Uh-oh. Had Les finally decided to call it quits? I searched the Internet to see if Everything Audio had relocated yet again, perhaps closer to Miami. No dice. I searched for Les by name. Nothing.

I thought the hard part was going to be finding the time to get up to Boca. Now it looked like I was going to have to track down someone else who worked on vintage console components. I’d been told Everything Audio was “one of the last places” that did work like that, but nobody had mentioned the other ones. Were there other ones?

I went back to the Internet and did a strategic search for local audio repair shops that had been in business at least 20 years, figuring that, if they’d been around since before the ascendance of the CD and the iPod, there might still be somebody there who knew how to fix a console turntable. I must have called a dozen places, and got pretty much the same answer from each one: Console turntable? We haven’t seen one in years. We don’t have anyone who does that anymore. We used to get those all the time, but, you know, these days. … And then there was: Why don’t you just buy a new record player? No one even knew the name of anyone who could help me.

Nevertheless, I kept making calls off and on for the next several weeks, until I got around to Beta Electronics. The name seemed quaintly old school, and it was on NW 118th Street next to I-95, not far from my house. Still, I wasn’t expecting much. “You fix stereo turntables?” I asked the man who answered.

“Sure.”

It was too quick an answer, and I was skeptical. “I’m talking about a turntable from a vintage console,” I explained. “A 40-year-old Motorola; you know, one of those big pieces people used to have in their living rooms.”

“Yeah, man, I do stereos, turntables -- everything.”

That’s how I met Roy.

CoverStory_4The next day I drove over to Beta to drop off my turntable. The shop is located in a block-long industrial stretch just east of NW 7th Avenue, sandwiched between an auto-body shop and the highway. A converted warehouse, it has no windows -- which explains why the door is often left open, to let in natural light. The front room contains Roy’s desk and an assortment of vintage consoles, including, on my first visit there, an absolute beauty of a Motorola, circa 1960. (“Young guy brought that in,” Roy told me. “He couldn’t be more than 28 or so. He had the cabinet restored and now wants me to work on it.”) The back room is stacked high with old turntables, receivers, and speakers.

Roy assessed the damage to my turntable and said there were two ways to go: He could try to dig up a replacement switch, which was now the principal problem, or he could see about dropping another turntable into the unit. I wanted to keep the console as close to original as possible and told him to look for a compatible switch.

I’d help him by going on eBay and Craigslist, and trying to find an old Motorola turntable we could cannibalize. That search eventually led me to a guy named Dave, who lived in Plantation. Dave wasn’t selling a Motorola for parts, but a 1968 Fisher console that mostly worked, at a price that compelled me to make the drive up to Broward.

The trip also convinced me that my newfound stereo repairman really might be the last of his kind. The Fisher had a beautiful dark-wood cabinet with only a couple of water marks on its lid, I imagined from somebody at a long-ago cocktail party setting down a glass on it. (Never do that, people.) But it also had some mechanical issues, primarily a left speaker that faded in and out.

Dave said if I bought the stereo from him, he’d give me the name of a guy who could fix the speaker. I told him I had somebody, a Jamaican dude down in Miami. Dave smiled and said, “Oh, so you already know Roy.”


RCoverStory_5oy Wright’s entrance into the world in 1944 roughly coincided with the dawn of the golden age of audio. Certainly there were record players before that -- the phonograph had been around since the late 19th century -- but what people spun on them bore only a passing resemblance to the records most of us remember from our childhoods.

Made from a shellac compound, the standard ten-inch 78 rpm record popular for most of the 1940s was thick and heavy, and featured only one song per side. Four or five records by the same artist, containing eight or ten songs total, were often packaged in something resembling a book, with the records inserted into paper sleeves that looked like pages. This format came to be called an “album.” The name would stick, but a technology boom in the late ’40s would change almost everything else about the way people listened to music.

In 1948 Columbia Records introduced the first 33-1/3 rpm LP, or “long-playing,” record. It was made of lightweight vinyl and could fit approximately 20 minutes of music per side. The company’s inaugural popular-music LP release was The Voice of Frank Sinatra. (Sinatra would make especially good use of the new technology; his “concept albums” of the 1950s strung together songs of a similar mood to memorable effect, as evidenced by album titles like Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, In the Wee Small Hours, Come Dance With Me, and others.) The first 45 rpm record -- soon to fuel the rock-and-roll explosion -- followed a year later, courtesy of RCA Victor.

Growing up in Kingston during that era, young Roy, the child of a house painter and a dressmaker, was steeped in a diverse musical culture. “I grew up listening to everything,” he remembers. “We’d listen to Beethoven and Bach and those boys because that’s what the radio stations would play, but we’d also tune in to the Voice of America and listen to the jazz programs.” And music wasn’t only on the radio. In the botanical garden, “you’d have bands in different corners of the park -- the police band, the military band, the Salvation Army brass band. That’s what I liked, that raw music coming through.”

In 1956, when Roy was 12, another son of Jamaica (by way of New York), Harry Belafonte, became the first recording artist to have a million-selling LP, Calypso. Recorded music -- pouring out of radios, record players, and juke boxes -- was a worldwide industry. And fixing and maintaining the machines that carried those sounds around the globe was an attractive career option for a kid who was mechanically inclined. “We had a family friend who tinkered with electronics, and I just got interested in it,” says Roy, who also had an affinity for cars.

CoverStory_6

At age 15, he became an apprentice in an audio store in Kingston: “We sold Murphy radios -- British radios, with these big, tabletop receivers. If you had one of those and a record player, you were set.” He also began a correspondence course in electronic fundamentals from RCA Institutes, now the Technical Career Institute in New York. His diploma, from 1962, hangs in his shop today.

In time he went to work for a company that sold Grundig radios and remained there until 1972, when he left Kingston for Manhattan. After two years in New York, he landed in Miami and joined Hi-Fi Associates, a South Florida chain of audio stores with locations in Broward, South Miami-Dade, and one just north of downtown Miami, at Biscayne Boulevard and 32nd Street. “They were big,” says Roy, speaking of the chain. “They were the only store that had a giant loudspeaker on the roof -- that was their trademark.”

Hi-Fi Associates wasn’t your average electronics retailer; it was more like a technology lab. In addition to selling stereo components and consoles, the company designed personalized home sound systems, developed colored light displays for dance clubs, and even provided timing equipment for hot-rod races.

Adding to the scientific vibe, Hi-Fi Associates engineers and techs wore white lab coats while they worked. The look earned Roy a nickname. “A co-worker’s son started calling me ‘Doctor,’” he says, smiling. The tag stuck. On a recent visit to Master Distributors, an electronic components store he frequents for parts, no fewer than three employees referred to him that way.

Roy stayed at Hi-Fi until 1984, when he opened Beta Electronics on NW 27th Avenue, across the street from Miami-Dade College’s North Campus. He moved into his current space in 1992, “the same week as Hurricane Andrew.”

In the 20 years he’s been there, the space next door has hosted, by Roy’s count, a plumbing company, a scale-repair shop, a scooter repair shop, and the current auto-body establishment. By contrast, Roy’s business has remained remarkably consistent, with one notable exception. “I don’t repair TVs anymore,” he says. For one thing, it’s cheaper for people to replace them than to fix them. For another, “I used to carry them up into my loft space and fix them there, but they’re heavy and I’m not a young man anymore.” He laughs. “Now I’m just focusing on stereos, consoles, vacuum-tube sets -- not many people do that anymore.”

CoverStory_8

Evidence of Roy’s expertise is visible in his back-room workshop. Conrad-Johnson and McIntosh amplifiers, Harman Kardon components, and a Marantz receiver from the early 1970s all await repair.

Not every job is brought to him by a hardcore audiophile. Pointing to a Fisher tabletop stereo from the early 1990s -- the kind that once featured AM/FM receiver, double cassette decks, and a CD player -- Roy explains, “If the customer had told me what it was, I would have told him not to bother, because if you look at the unit, it’s not any great thing. But he came all the way from Florida City, so I thought it must be something sentimental for him.”He walks around the room, careful not to step on the gray-striped stray cat he’s recently adopted, and fiddles with a knob, turning up the volume on a vacuum-tube radio he keeps tuned to classical-music station WKCP-FM. The sound of strings fills the space. “People think tube sets have a better sound than solid-state,” he says, making it clear he’s one of those people.

He figures some of that same sentiment must be driving the renewed interest in console stereos. Roy notes that he’s seen more and more of them the past three years. “People inherit them from their parents or grandparents, or find them at garage sales or on the Internet,” he says. “And they just want to get them working again. Maybe it reminds them of something.” Then he shrugs as if to say, “But what do I know?” Roy is a fixer, not a philosopher.


ACoverStory_7nthony Jackowitch can’t wait to tell me about his latest console acquisition. “It’s a 1962 Magnavox ‘Contemporary,’” says the one-time club DJ-turned-commercial property agent. “I got it from a woman in Miami Beach who was moving in with her son and had to downsize. She tried to sell it on Craigslist, but nobody made her an offer, so she just said, ‘Come and get it.’” The console, a four-and-a-half-foot-long unit, has special meaning for Jackowitch. “It’s the same model my aunt had,” he recalls. “When I used to visit from Boston, I’d sit in front of it for hours. I wore the tubes out.”

His infatuation with his aunt’s stereo -- and a childhood spent living upstairs from an uncle who ran a TV and radio repair shop out of his home -- eventually made a console collector out of Jackowitch, whom I first met last year during my search for the Motorola turntable switch. He currently owns 16 vintage units, 14 of them Magnavox models. (The other two are a Zenith and a General Electric.)

“Magnavox made high-end systems,” he says, explaining his particular passion. “The craftsmanship of the cabinets, the audio components -- Magnavox was way ahead of its time.”

A tour through Jackowitch’s Hialeah home, an exemplary mid-20th century Florida ranch, corroborates his claim. Blending seamlessly with the modernist décor, the placement of the units brings to mind the full-color magazine advertisements Magnavox once ran extolling the aesthetics of their “Spanish, French, Italian, and Contemporary” consoles, back when consoles were de rigueur in middle- and upper-class American homes.

“Magnavox had these styles where you would never know you were looking at a stereo,” says the 55-year-old. Case in point: In the living room, there’s a 1960s drum table, which looks like just that -- a decorative storage table. Until you open the doors and out slides a record player. Along the same lines is a circa 1972 Magnavox Imperial Armoire. One of Jackowitch’s more recent buys, the Imperial houses a built-in television set, record player, AM/FM receiver, and full speakers -- all hidden in an armoire-shaped cabinet.

Then there’s the jewel of the collection: a three-paneled 1957 Magnavox Concert Grand, the absolute state-of-the-art when it premiered. “It’s remote controlled,” says Jackowitch. “You can change the radio stations, you can change the volume, you can even change the records. It sold for about $1200 in 1957, which was a lot of money then.”

CoverStory_9_Magnavox_ad_1

He bought it last year from a woman on Craigslist. “It hadn’t been turned on since 1975,” marvels Jackowitch. “I turned it on -- which I shouldn’t have -- and I heard this ‘snap, crackle, pop.’ The woman says, ‘Oh, it doesn’t work. Just give me whatever you want for it,’ and I was, like, ‘No, wait, you have to give these things a chance to warm up.’” Jackowitch bought the unit, cleaned the metal ends on the tubes, and discovered they all worked. “There are 20 tubes in this thing -- all original,” he proudly notes. “You could heat up a house.”

He’s not sure how many consoles he’ll accumulate -- the size of his home serves as a restraint -- but it won’t be nearly as many as a friend and fellow collector in Tennessee: “At one time, he had over 100 consoles. He turned his two-car garage into a showroom.”

There apparently are many collectors out there. Jackowitch belongs to a Yahoo group called Magnavox Friends. A meeting place for those who share a devotion to that brand, the site has almost 1500 members. YouTube videos dedicated to the care and maintenance of old consoles, or featuring owners lovingly showing off their prized possessions, number in the thousands.

As I’ve discovered, it’s not that difficult to become a collector. I ended up buying that 1968 Fisher console from Dave in Plantation. (Turned out the problem with the speaker was the result of bad capacitors, which happens with old solid-state units. Roy replaced the caps and the unit now resides with my parents, a substitute for their dearly departed Motorola.) I also bought another console I saw advertised, a 1965 Magnavox Astro-Sonic in an “Italian Provincial” cabinet. My wife let me convince her it would go beautifully in our library.

I don’t know that I’ll be buying any more consoles -- or where I would put them if I did -- but I do find myself occasionally straying onto eBay and the South Florida edition of Craigslist, where at any given time there are dozens for sale, ranging in price from $50, for units that don’t work, to as much as $1500 for a striking 1964 Zenith model (alas, available only for local pick-up in Council Bluffs, Iowa).

It’s pretty obvious I’ve succumbed. But to what? The same combination of nostalgia and mechanical geekery that I assume drives a lot of other console junkies. I’m in my early 40s and, like anyone that age, I grew up with vinyl. It began with old 45s and LPs passed down from my siblings -- Motown, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke -- and extended to my own youthful record buying. I still own the Holy Trinity of early ’80s rock and pop albums on vinyl. (That would be the Police’s Synchronicity, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, and Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. I know I’m leaving out Prince’s Purple Rain, but I actually never got around to buying it. Every song got so much radio play, it felt unnecessary.)


DCoverStory_10_Magnavox_ad_2igitally downloading music is convenient, but albums were a complete experience. There was the cover art and liner notes, the anticipation one felt leaving the record store, going home, pulling the record out of its sleeve, and dropping the needle on it. It was a ritual. And the sound was richer. Warmer. Fuller.

(I realize there’s a strenuous debate between vinyl lovers and digital downloaders over this very point. And while I’m not looking to enter the fray, I’ll just say this to the downloaders: If you can’t tell the difference, I can’t help you.)

Perhaps that’s the reason vinyl, unlike, say, rotary phones and typewriters -- those other icons of the analog age -- never really went away. Even after the triumph of CDs in the early 1990s, records lived on in the club scene, where DJs preferred the format because the grooves in the record told them exactly where they were in a song, making it easier to mix tracks. Vinyl also appealed to hipsters who came of age in the ’90s -- and are now in their late 20s and early 30s -- as a way to differentiate their buying and listening habits from the digital masses.

Now all that underground energy around vinyl seems to be bubbling to the surface. According to a recent article in the New York Times, record sales have been climbing for the past five years, and sales of new turntables -- for people who like that sort of thing -- were up 50 percent in January of 2012 over January 2011.

All of which begins to explain why artists as diverse as David Bowie, the rapper Nas, Fiona Apple, and the Beach Boys have recently released vinyl albums. Even the creators of TV’s Mad Men got in on the revival this past season by having the actress Jessica Pare sing a kittenish version of the 1960s hit “Zou Bisou Bisou” to TV husband Don Draper during a surprise birthday party for him, then dropping the song on vinyl the next day.

Given all this, it’s little surprise that vintage consoles have also made a comeback. I mean, if you’re going to play a record, play a record, no?

Roy Wright is sitting across the table from me at Ventura Restaurant in North Miami, a Jamaican and Caribbean joint not far from his shop. He’s having a large bowl of the soup of the day, washing it down with a Red Stripe, and telling me a funny story about the time a few months ago he snuck some high-end speakers into the entertainment room of his home. Camouflaging the speakers, Roy hoped his wife, Veda, wouldn’t notice them. “Man, she never said a word,” he recounts. “I thought I’d gotten away with it -- until I overheard her telling my daughter, ‘You know what your father did. …’” He lets out a big laugh.

Roy likes talking about his family. He and Veda have two grown daughters -- one is a nurse, the other a dietician -- and three granddaughters. It’s one of the reasons he thinks more and more about retiring. He’d like to have more time for them.

The other is that, despite the renewed interest in vinyl, business has been off the past few years. Partly that’s because a lot of people just assume there’s no one left who fixes old stereos. Only a few months ago, Roy recalls, he came across a Website for vintage audio collectors and saw that “some guy in mid-America was saying nobody in Miami does this kind of work.”

He says he’s going to hang in there a little longer, though. He’s been repairing radios and record players his whole life and, now that people are buying and refurbishing more of the old machines, it seems like a funny time to stop. “Who knows?”’ Roy speculates. “Maybe customers will start discovering me again.”

With that, the Last of the Hi-Fi Fixers takes a final sip from his Red Stripe and says we should get back to the shop. He wouldn’t want someone to come by and find him gone.

 

This story first appeared in August 2012.

 

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