La Grange

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Rumor spreadin’ a-’round in that Texas town
’bout that shack outside La Grange
(and you know what I’m talkin’ about.)

Just let me know if you wanna go
to that home out on the range.
They gotta lotta nice girls.
Have mercy.
A haw, haw, haw, haw, a haw.
A haw, haw, haw.

What in the world does a song by ZZ Top about a bawdy house in a little town in Texas have to do with one of the best known music stores in the country?

Well it goes like this…

Gelb Music was started by one Sidney Gelb back in 1939. He actually called it Gelb Music Studios because in his day the Hawaiian guitar had the country in thrall and his store made its foundational income on students harvested by door to door salesmen sent forth by the “United Institute of Music” in San Mateo. Sid had a working deal with those folks and did a nice, steady business teaching youngsters first Hawaiian, then later, Spanish guitar in a classroom setting as well as individual lessons at his store/studio. Along the way he would sell or rent the required instruments as the kids needed them.

His business prospered then went into a slight decline. Sidney was feeling his age and wanted to retire. He had no heirs and might have just closed the place or sold it to strangers had it not been for two of his ace guitar teachers, Kevin Jarvis and Henry White.

It was Kevin’s idea to buy the place and bring it up to date. Henry caught on to the idea and set aside his career plan to teach history and, starting in 1972, the two men made history in their own way.

Gone were the group lessons. They still had guitar lessons there but single lessons only. The two young men overhauled the inventory broadening its scope. Soon their new attitude about music and guitaring started to gain notice. There was a Fender franchise that came with the store and along with a ne’er do well of a certain charm, Norm Van Maastricht. Kevin and Henry had their own high levels of musical skill on guitar and Norm was a country/finger style specialist which meant the store was conversant in rock, jazz, country, even banjo and Dobro.

So what did that have to do with ZZ Top and La Grange? Be patient… it’s coming.

Kevin adopted a puppy, a marvelously intelligent Shepherd /Lab named Jessica (named after an Allman Brothers song). The three men shared training of her to be a perfect Store Dog. She became a legend in her own time and there are some who have a hard time talking about her without choking up, so loved was she.

Three young men, knowledgeable about guitaring and a Wonder Dog in the making. We have close to perfection here.

In the foggy mists of memory not much is remembered about what they may have used for background music in the place but that changed one auspicious day.

A guy came into the store looking for a new Martin D-28. One of the more expensive models Martin makes. A state of the art dreadnought size acoustic guitar that was and is world famous.

The store had the guitar but the guy had no money. What he did have was a Very Good Stereo System with a superb turntable. The turntable was a bit of a prima donna, very sensitive to being jarred. The least little bump would send the needle hopping rudely so staff and customers had to be sure to avoid offending it in any way.

But its sound and power was awesome. The swap was made, everybody was delighted with the barter.

Over the years that turntable played just about every recorded guitarist available on 33rpm vinyl. From Django Rheinhardt to Segovia and Bream. Herb Ellis, Lenny Breau, Chet, all the rockers of The Day and everyone in between. They all took a turn on that machine.

One fateful morning soon after acquiring the new stereo setup Kevin put on La Grange.
And cranked it.
The raw power and humor of ZZ Top playing that tune just hit a chord (pun intended) with the store crew.

It became the opening song, the ritual paean that was further nuanced by careful manipulation of the volume knob because in the studio the engineers faded Billy Gibbons exiting solo. Kevin and Henry liked to keep it as loud as the main body of the song as long as they could.

The block was never the same as we three opened the doors and La Grange let the world know Gelb Music was ready for business.

The turntable was so touchy it was enthroned on a cabinet with a carpeted top. People kept bumping into it anyway!. Norm came up with the idea of getting hold of a decal that said Danger, High Voltage and putting it on the top face of the cabinet tucking a wire under that carpet top with about two inches of it stripped and bare. It didn’t stop the bumping altogether but the natural human fear of electrical shock went a long way to reducing the clumsy collisions…

Gelb Music thrived for many years. Over time, Henry and Norm went their separate ways, Henry eventually succumbing to cancer in 2014.

Kevin kept the store and made it into the well known entity it is today. The turntable got moved to safer quarters and the La Grange ritual ceased being a daily thing.

All things, even good things, must come to an end and Kevin decided to retire after the long tour at the end of 2014. He sold the store to a kindred soul, the man who owns Haight Ashbury Music. He decided to keep the name on the business so the name Gelb Music is will continue to assist musicians of the area as it has for so very long.

Today Kevin sent this writer an email which said, in part:

La Grange, became, in the last decades, the annual Saturday before Christmas opening anthem, 42 years and running. The legacy of you, Henry, Trini, Dick, continued on. Every year without fail La Grange played on, and the song still sounds awesome which is totally amazing in and of itself.

Yesterday, (12/20/14) the staff totally aware, all gathered for the final playing at 10:20. Adam even came down for its final performance. Thinking of Henry now gone, those Saturdays in the beginnings all the way to this moment…….our friendship, and all the years gone by in my tour of duty as “Mr. Gelb”, very reflective moment…….what a song, what memories.
It ain’t over until Billy Gibbon’s growls, they got lotta nice girls out there!

_____________

This blog has other Gelb Music stories. Do a search for Tiger Tiger or The Lunch Break or Once Upon A Time or Jessica Dog

THE SAGA OF WALNUT CREEK. ~ The Trek

mewrite

First, a little background…

I’m not a confident driver. As a lad I didn’t clamor for The Car. I didn’t get my driver license until I was nearing fifty and really hated freeway driving. There are certain skills one learns by getting a license at a young age, one of the primary ones being the understanding of how freeways work.
…but I’m getting ahead of myself here.

After Barney Steel’s closed I was extremely fortunate to get picked up by a civil engineering company as a computer tech trainee. The pay wasn’t much for starters but it was a job. A job often taken by younger folk but a job that blessedly had fallen my way. It eventually blossomed into the best job I ever had but that’s another story.

I was pretty plain about my aversion to driving during my job interview but the guy who ended up being my boss had taken a liking to me and turned a blind eye to that.

But of course, as must happen, it eventually fell for me to go to one of the other offices to make a delivery/pickup. The actual errand was a simple two way delivery from one office to the other. We headquartered in Redwood City; the office in question was in Walnut Creek. A distance of about thirty miles “as the crow flies” or fifty miles by ground transport.

I had never been to Walnut Creek in my life.

Derrick, my boss, knew that day would come when I would have to make this run so he had me ride along while he made the trip one day. I sat in the passenger seat with pen and clipboard, making notes as to which exit signs to look for next, with special notations if they were Left Access exits (two were) and there were a couple spots that merged left rather suddenly so I made note of that too. There was even one near hairpin turn to switch from one freeway to another. I had to contend with the San Mateo Bridge while I was at it which required its own little clues and cues.
Great Fun!

All these things I put in my computer and printed them out as a personal set of directions, making the type really legible. What I ended up with was a very nice double sided piece of paper which had Boldface lists of the crucial entry/exit signs in sequence to guide this intrepid traveler on his future missions, guaranteeing a safe return.

Both Derrick and I had some misgivings knowing my trepidation about the eventual moment of truth yet, on the other hand, how hard can it be? People go from Redwood City to Walnut Creek every day and never end up in the mental trauma wards.

And we all know I haven’t driven the freeway in maybe three years…but, hey, it’s like riding a bike, right?

Welllll… Lo, it had come to pass that a Walnut Creek delivery and pickup of equipment was needed. It was my turn. There was no one else free to do it.

Show Time!

The company provided the vehicle and a gas card. I was assigned a nice little Buick. I took my time to set my mirrors and seats familiarizing myself with the dash, wipers, etc.like a pilot doing pre-flight preps. After a short Bunny Hop comedy getting used to the brakes, I went off to the gas station to get gas. Not being familiar as to which side of the car the gas tank cap was on I provided some impromptu entertainment to the station attendant as I circled the pumps looking for the best way to gas the buggy. To add to that bit of comedy, the company credit card refused to work. But I got it together without breaking down in tears and, Guide Sheet in hand, off I went!

As I approached the San Mateo Bridge I realized that the HEATER is on! Whoever had borrowed the car before me had apparently felt a chill so they had cranked up the heater. I dasn’t fumble with it at highway speeds so I put up with it. Radio booming! Heater on! Every window open, I’m off to Walnut Creek.

Things are actually going along pretty well if warmly so. There was a little excitement when I almost get squeezed into a sidewall by a semi. Still, outside of having some hostile fellow drivers not being fans of my Granny way of driving, it went pretty smoothly.

Until I get to the next to the last exit to Walnut Creek.

Called the Sacramento-San Jose Exit.

I flinched. I had a fleeting doubt in my carefully crafted Guide Sheet, (This lack of faith was an error) Long story short, I missed my exit.

Thar I wuz.
Not only did I miss my exit, I now had absolutely no clue where I was or how to get back on course!

It seemed like I went about three miles up the road before I got to where I could find an exit ramp to get off the freeway. I found myself in a large, apparently uninhabited urban development-in-progress. It had an eerie Twilight Zone feel about it. Like a movie set or a film where all the inhabitants were Taken by some evil. I had to drive awhile to find some place that had actually had people in it so I might seek guidance but find them I did. The people were quite normal, no Rod Serling narrating in the background. They were eager to help and gave me directions to Walnut Creek that of course put me on a slightly different angle and a different freeway altogether which means my prized Guide Sheet is now worthless!

At least I got to turn off that damn heater once I actually stopped and parked the car.

Getting back on the freeway I was confronted with a “Walnut Creek North/Walnut Creek South” option that the helpful guides “forgot” to mention in their directions. I gambled on the northbound option and went what seemed like forever, wondering if I’m going too far in the wrong direction.

No! There’s Walnut Creek!

The heavens opened! The angels sang! Walnut Creek is a real place after all, Toto!

Now to find the Office. I had no address. I didn’t need it because if my little Guide Sheet had been adhered to I would have been deposited right at the door.

But I’m resourceful; I find a pay phone and call them. Get directions. Follow said directions. Ended up in a residential cul-de-sac.

Back to civilization to find another pay phone

Call ‘em. Get directions again. Throughout all this of course, is the factor that if I leave the car to seek directions or use the phone, the car instantly camouflages itself, hiding in plain sight, so it’ll take me another ten minutes trying to figure out where I parked it …

I finally get back on Main Street in Walnut Creek. I knew the office is on a short road abutting Main Street. I stop off to ask directions again. I asked the Walnut Creek guy if there was a landmark that indicated where I had to make my final turn. There was! I asked a local resident where this landmark to my final turn is. “Get back on 680…”

Argh!

I need Main Street, not 680 for to get reoriented. “Isn’t this Main Street?’” (It was. You could see the green white street sign)
“No” he said.
I thanked him and edged away from that dude and tried another local guide.

All quests must end; this one did, too. I finally got to my destination, picked up and completed my errand which, in itself, only took about twenty minutes and trekked home, this time slavishly obeying my Guide Sheet. The home route fell into place perfectly. The best thing about it was that on that day traffic flowed smoothly. Absolutely no lags or slowdowns.

But I think the guide sheet was forevermore cursed. Karmic punishment for having doubted it meant I never had a totally easy run to Walnut Creek ever after. There would always be some irritant in following the directions. Once I even ended up in Oakland! How that happened I’ll never know but I am eternally grateful to one of the residents there taking pity on me telling me to follow him and he would get me back on the freeway. A true Samaritan, he gave me accurate directions of how to get back on the San Mateo Bridge route and home.

The subsequent runs were never quite as long as that first one.

What took one of the regular guys to make the run and do a short errand while there and come back usually took a little over two hours.

Moi?

Four, nearly five hours. No halfway measures for me!