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

4 thoughts on “La Grange

  1. Legacy!

    Very touching!

    I’ve been going to “Gelb” since the 60’s 🙂

    One of my favorite places! 🙂

    Thanks to Norm, Kevin and everybody else ,,,

  2. Thank God for Gelb. I remember my very first experience in 1975. My mom had offered me any guitar I wanted for a graduation present. I knew I wanted a Les Paul. Gelb was the first place I went, then on to the other stores in the bay area for comparison. After playing some 25+ LPs, I remembered the 3rd one I tried at Gelb, a beautiful custom, Burgundy Wine red 25th Anniversary. I still have it, never played another one like it. I didn’t know Kevin in those days, but Norm helped me make the big decision, I enjoyed see him occasionally at Barney Steel’s. I met so many people there over the years, and although my more recent visits are infrequent, I still get a warm welcome like a long lost friend. Thank you for the friendships, the vibe, the knowledge and all that goes with it.

  3. As a former Gelb boy I can attest to the joy of hearing “La Grange” before opening. I will always remember the store, the wonderful folks and the incredible friendships I forged working there. I as the “Gentleman of the warehouse” in high school and Kevin was kind enough to offer me a job when I was a stay-at-home Father in my 30’s. There are too many memories to write here, but safe to say Kevin and crew left a lifelong impression on me. Much love to all the former and current Gelb boys.

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