Alumni Spotlight - Chris Strachwitz '51
Arhoolie Records is a record label based in El Cerrito, California. The label was founded by Cate alumnus Chris Strachwitz '51 in 1960. Arhoolie Records was created as a way for Chris to record and publish "down home blues" artists such as Lightning Hopkins, Fred McDowell, Clifton Chenier and Mance Lipscomb. As a teenager, Chris moved from Germany to the U.S. in 1947. While a student at Cate, he developed a love and appreciation for various types of music, radio and recording that would ultimately lead to a career in the record label business. Chris has worked with some of the finest Cajun, Tex-Mex, and blues artists in the world. In addition to publishing work for the artists above, Chris published songs for country star Allan Jackson and rock legends, the Rolling Stones. Chris continues to operate Arhoolie Records and the Down Home Music Store today.
What was it like to move from Germany to the United States, specifically, to Cate School?
I moved from Germany to the U.S. in 1947. This new country was overwhelming! The most interesting part of my trip to the west was the train ride from Washington, D.C. to Reno, Nevada as a teenager. I remember looking at the mountains as the train passed through the Rocky Mountains. My sister was always reading stories of the Native Americans by a German author, Karl Mai, and she had told me that Natives lived in the desert and the mountains. I sat in silence as the mountains passed me, fearfully waiting for a tribe of Natives to charge down the mountainside and attack our train! The U.S. was new to me, but I loved the new brands of music I was hearing. I listened to a wide variety of new and unique sounds, ranging from hillbilly, New Orleans jazz and the blues to ethnic and gospel music. At Cate, I always enjoyed visits with Mr. Martin, who loved jazz music. He would invite me to his room and we would listen to jazz artists like Eddie Condon and Jelly Roll Morton.
How did you get the idea for Arhoolie Records?
While at Cate, I became fascinated by the radio. I enjoyed the excitement of the disc jockeys and the incredible sounds radio brought. I listened to my favorite station, XERB, based in Baja California, Mexico. I loved the idea of live music and the ways in which the disc jockeys interacted with the audience through the radio. My classmate, Raymond Saint and I wrote a letter to XERB and asked the radio station about becoming live disc jockeys on the station. Unfortunately, the first prerequisite for becoming an employee at this station was that we had to be true Mexican nationals! This love affair with the radio led me to begin recording and broadcasting on the Mesa. In 1949, there were no tape recorders so I saved and bought a primitive disc cutter. I purchased a microphone and an amplifier and one morning held the microphone in my Latin teacher's face. I asked him for a comment, and he replied, "The rich get richer and the poor have children" What a true saying! After getting my hands on a small oscillator, I was able to tune into any frequency and broadcast! My signal, although short in range, could overpower any frequency on the Mesa. On a given afternoon, the boys would have to listen to Bunk Johnson playing the "Franklin Street Blues" or T. Texas Tyler singing "Oklahoma Hills". After Cate, I attended Pomona College and was lucky enough to get on the air with Frank Demond and his Storyville Stompers, eventually learning how records were made. From there, I simply followed my taste in music to places like Texas, where many of the best blues singers came from. I first heard Lightning Hopkins in person at a tiny beer joint in Houston. Hopkins produced the most amazing music I had ever heard in my life. I knew I had to record it! That's when Arhoolie was born.
What are your greatest accomplishments with Arhoolie?
By the late 1960's, folk festivals and then the Rolling Stones helped boost the interest in blues all over the world and sales for real blues records have continued to climb until now- the end of the record business! At the time, I couldn't get Fred McDowell's sound out of my head, so I traveled to Como, Mississippi to visit him. On the same day we met, I recorded a full album of his work. After hearing his Arhoolie LP in England, the Rolling Stones put his version of "You Gotta Move" on their "Sticky Fingers" album. After lengthy litigation, I was eventually able to hand Fred McDowell the largest check he had ever seen in his life. Beyond working with artists, being in the record business was about hard work, but also real fun and enjoyment. It was my passion and my hobby. Most businesses can't say the same.
What are your thoughts on the music industry today?
Unfortunately for me, the record business we know and love is a dying one. Our business transformed the way people record and listen to music, but our time is coming to an end. The music industry has become saturated with too much product as each new artist has the ability to produce multiple CDs and other electronic forms of music. I am intrigued by the changing world of music and the difficulty for an artist to "make it" in the industry today.
What is your favorite memory of Cate?
I enjoyed trips to the dentist in Santa Barbara, but for my own personal reasons having to do with music. The trip downtown allowed me to spend a few minutes in a specialty jazz record store on State Street. I remember finding these wonderful 78s on the American Music label, especially one by Jim Robinson, a trombone player from New Orleans. His recording with clarinetist George Lewis of "Ice Cream," has become one of my all-time favorite records.
I always liked Mr. Cate as a father figure. I was more interested in pursuing music than other subjects during my time at Cate. Mr. Cate was understanding and allowed me to pursue my passions.