In the 1960s, musicians and music fans across the world began to be intrigued by the blues. Searching for it, they would inevitably be led to Chicago and, once there, to two Chicago institutions: a store called the Jazz Record Mart and a record label called Delmark. At the store, visitors found not only records, but informed guidance to who was playing where on the city’s vibrant club scene. On the label they discovered multiple voices of the blues, from veterans of the 1920s and 30s to the new generation of Windy City artists such as Magic Sam, Junior Wells and Luther Allison.
The man they had to thank for both store and label was Bob Koester. Opinionated, often acerbic, totally absorbed by music, Koester, who has died aged 88, went on earning their gratitude for another half-century, as Delmark’s catalogue grew into the hundreds, keeping pace with the stylistic and personnel changes in Chicago blues by presenting younger performers including Lurrie Bell, Johnny B Moore, Big Time Sarah and Zora Young.
Meanwhile the store, at a succession of addresses, acted as a sort of blues academy, many of its staff going on to be music writers, such as Amy van Singel, co-founder of Living Blues magazine, which Bob helped to set up, or to found record labels, including Pete Welding (Testament), Bruce Kaplan (Flying Fish), Jerry Del Giudice (Blind Pig) and Michael Frank (Earwig). Bruce Iglauer, who launched Alligator Records in 1971 while still working for Koester, said: “Bob taught me by example that you have to let your gut lead your head and record the music that touches your soul, or none of this is worth it.”
Born in Wichita, Kansas, the son of Edward Koester, a geologist, and Mary (nee Frank), Koester became a record collector in his teens and, while studying cinematography at St Louis University, reputedly ran a mail-order operation from his dormitory.
Dropping out in the early 50s he became first a record store owner, then in 1953 a record producer, issuing a local jazz band on his own label, which he initially named Delmar after the street where his store was located. Over the next few years he recorded old-time bluesmen living in St Louis including the pianists Speckled Red and Barrelhouse Buck, and the singer-guitarists Big Joe Williams and JD Short. In 1958 he moved to Chicago and opened the first Jazz Record Mart.
Throughout the 60s the label, its name now changed to Delmark, drew the attention of the growing international blues audience with albums by Williams, Roosevelt Sykes and the recently “rediscovered” Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachell and Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup. But while he was fascinated by these figures from the blues past, Koester was equally receptive to what was going on around him, documenting it on albums now regarded as classics of Chicago blues, such as Wells’s Hoodoo Man Blues (1965) and Southside Blues Jam (1970) – both with Buddy Guy, who for the former had to disguise himself for contractual reasons as “Friendly Chap” – and Magic Sam’s West Side Soul (1967), as well as important early work by Allison, Jimmy Dawkins and others. As Koester once remarked, “I recognised good talent when I heard it.” He produced many of the albums himself, though he disowned the term “production”, saying he simply tried to get on record the sound that a musician made on stage.
He had been a jazz enthusiast before anything else, and alongside the blues developed a considerable jazz catalogue, enlivened in the late 60s by reissues of early albums by Sun Ra, and by the “free jazz” of players from the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, such as the saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell, pianist and composer Muhal Richard Abrams, and Anthony Braxton, whose Delmark double album of unaccompanied saxophone solos, For Alto (1969), was described in The Penguin Guide to Jazz as “one of the genuinely important American recordings”.
Though unquestionably Chicago’s premier label for blues and jazz collectors in the 60s and for much of the 70s, Delmark gradually ceded ground to Alligator, which was able to spend more money on recording and promoting its acts, leaving the older label to support stalwarts of the city’s club scene, such as Willie Kent, Michael Coleman, Tail Dragger, Jimmy Burns, Dave Specter, Steve Freund and Rockin’ Johnny Burgin. It held steadfastly to this course throughout the 80s and 90s and into the new century. In 1996, Koester was elected to the Blues Hall of Fame, a rare honour for a non-musician.
He sold the Jazz Record Mart in 2016, but found he missed doing business and dealing with customers, and within months had opened another, smaller store, Bob’s Blues & Jazz Mart. In 2018 he sold Delmark to Julia Miller and Elbio Barilari, Chicago musicians who maintain the label’s traditions and continue to work with its artists, notably the singer-guitarist Jimmy Johnson, who first recorded for Delmark in 1979 and is still on the roster at the age of 92.
Bob met his wife, Susan, when she was working across the street from his record store and would go in on her lunch hour. They married in 1967. She survives him, as do their son, Robert Jr, and daughter, Kate.
• Robert Gregg Koester, record store and label owner, born 30 October 1932; died 12 May 2021