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    By Sarah Kelley
    Photo by Chris Witzke

    When Jack White appeared on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show in 2014, he brought along a prized possession: a vintage vinyl recording booth he had long sought and finally found after nearly a decade. Clad in black from fedora to oxfords, the rock star boasted about his 1947 Voice-O-Graph like a proud papa, gushing about its wood-and-steel design and its rarity. The booth lives at White’s Third Man Records in Nashville, where any customer can cut a two-minute recording. “It’s the only one available to the public in the world,” White told Fallon.

    But that’s not the case anymore, as Louisville has its very own Voice-O-Graph. The 71-year-old token-operated recording booth is tucked in the back of Guitar Emporium, where it’s been available to the public for the past year, albeit largely under the radar. By all accounts, it’s one of only about a half-dozen such vinyl recording booths in working order. “It creates an old-school, vintage sound,” says Sherman Buschemeyer, owner of Guitar Emporium, a Highlands instrument store that’s been around since 1975. It’s the kind of shop where customers strum guitars on worn leather sofas and employees are more inclined to passionately lament today’s dearth of garage bands than they are to try to sell you something. Buschemeyer, a local musician (formerly the bassist in the funk and soul band the Big Diggity), bought Guitar Emporium in 2013 when it was on the brink of closing. He calls the business “a piece of history” and says the Voice-O-Graph is a perfect fit. “Where (else) can you, for $15, walk in, record one of your songs, then walk out with a record?” he says.

    The Voice-O-Graph is about the size of a phone booth, and its sleek wood frame is trimmed in cherry red and emblazoned with phrases like “Record Your Own Voice” and “Hear Yourself as Others Hear You!” The original cost of 35 cents is advertised on the side, but these days you pay 15 bucks at the counter and get a token to pop in the booth. You have three minutes and 15 seconds to do your thing as a collection of gears and vacuums works to grind the record.

    Some notable musicians have stopped in to use the machine. Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer recorded a few tracks, then delivered the records to patients at Norton Children’s Hospital. Indie band Dawes recorded two songs, giving one of the records to WFPK and placing the other inside Guestroom Records in Clifton for a lucky customer to find. Monkees guitarist Wayne Avers recorded in the booth. Two guys from Roger Waters’ band — Jonathan Wilson (guitar) and Drew Erickson (keyboard) — did too.

    Despite word of the rare recording booth spreading organically among musicians, Buschemeyer says the store hasn’t publicized it much because the booth has required a lot of fine-tuning by its owner, a longtime Guitar Emporium customer named Todd Johnson. “I lived in that box for about six months,” jokes Johnson, a musician who played guitar and sang in local band Domani in the ’90s.

    Johnson first learned about the recording relic after seeing that Tonight Show episode four years ago. Shortly thereafter, he was vacationing with his wife and kids in Nashville and used the Voice-O-Graph at Third Man Records. “We all piled in and recorded a song. It was like stepping into a time capsule,” Johnson says.

    And so began his quest to find his own Voice-O-Graph.

     

    The Voice-O-Graph was invented in the 1940s, and for the better part of two decades it was a popular feature at fairgrounds, arcades, bus stations and tourist attractions, including the Empire State Building. The booths originally were used more for audio telegrams than making music. Messages ranged from marriage proposals to correspondence between soldiers and their families during WWII. The original booths produced flimsy vinyl (think cereal-box quality) that came with an envelope, which could be shipped on the spot via a mailbox attached to the machine. When cassettes came about in the 1960s, vinyl recording booths faded in popularity and were relegated to garages, basements and, oftentimes, junkyards.

    Online research pointed Johnson to the dealer who specializes in the machines: Bill Bollman, a patent attorney in the D.C. area with a passion for restoring coin-operated antiques. The timing was perfect when Johnson contacted Bollman, who had a line on a defunct booth in Houston, where many decades earlier it had been a state fair staple. Over the course of several months, Bollman refurbished the machine with Johnson’s input. “We preserved the look and feel with minimal updates,” Johnson says. New motors allow users to record for three minutes instead of 50 seconds. An individual can step inside with a guitar, or a full band can crowd around the open door. “Or you can just go in there and whistle,” Johnson says. “It’s something that’s uniquely that day, that moment, and it’s preserved on a medium that has a lot of legs right now.”

    According to Johnson, there are very few working Voice-O-Graphs in operation: at Guitar Emporium, Elvis’ Graceland mansion in Memphis, New York’s Electric Lady Studios. The Songbyrd music venue in D.C. and a major liquor company each have one, and Jack White has two, both supplied by Bollman. Given their scarcity, the machines are pricey, although Johnson is reluctant to put a dollar amount on the investment. When asked if it was more or less than your average car, he says, “They’re a lot.”

    It’s a passion project for Johnson, who regularly tinkers with the booth, oils the gears, stocks it with blank 45s — a much higher quality vinyl than what was found in original booths. Upon purchasing the Voice-O-Graph, Johnson thought the shop would make an ideal home. “It’s nice to have a partnership that allows it to be public and accessible to people,” he says. “It’s such a warm and relaxed environment. Guitar Emporium was a natural fit.”

    This originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Louisville Magazine on pg. 107 under the headline Studio Squeeze. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo: Local guitarist George Paul Smith records in the Voice-O-Graph.

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