Touch screens and Tupac

Sacramento’s jukebox scene is alive and kicking, thanks to technology, 45s and adventurous deejays

Pre-Flite Lounge owner Jason Yee kicks it old school with the bar’s analog jukebox.

Pre-Flite Lounge owner Jason Yee kicks it old school with the bar’s analog jukebox.

photo by Anne Stokes

It’s a recent, drizzly weekday afternoon, and Sacramento’s bars are mostly quiet. That’s not the scene, however, at Stoney’s Rockin Rodeo in north Sacramento. Here, a wrinkled, skinny middle-aged man stands alone, poking at a digital screen to play songs on the jukebox. Pale eyelids squint as he sorts through myriad song titles by Jason Aldean, Dustin Lynch and AC/DC. A few empty shot glasses and a full bottle of Miller Lite await him at the bar. Before returning to his seat to drink his beer, however, he selects two artists who most people probably wouldn’t associate with this country bar—or this man: Tupac Shakur and En Vogue.

His picks are a signal that the days of old 7-inch-record- (a.k.a. 45s for their revolutions per minute) and CD-playing jukeboxes are long gone. Digital Internet-based jukeboxes with touch screens are the norm and allow users to play nearly anything imaginable—even Tupac in a country bar.

And, his unusual selection makes me wonder: Is classic hip-hop popular at a lot of other country bars in Sacramento or just this one? What’s the current state of the jukebox scene? And is it still possible to find a bona fide old-school analog jukebox around town?

Ghosts in the machine

In search of answers, I head to Old Ironsides and find yet another digital jukebox. It’s still early afternoon, and several groups of senior citizens lunch quietly at several tables. A jukebox maintenance man has recently stopped by, leaving 10 credits on the machine. I select two songs by Stephen Marley, at two credits apiece. Manager Sam Kanelos Jr. says he enjoys my choice of “mellow” tunes—one of which features a guest verse by Mos Def—even though he deleted the rap genre from this jukebox “because of all the swearing.” No one will be playing Tupac here.

Kanelos recalls Old I’s jukebox history: There was one that played 45s about 20 years ago and one that played CDs about seven years ago before the bar went digital a few years back. A local company called Southside Vending Inc. has provided and updated these jukeboxes for more than 20 years. Currently, the bar and Southside split jukebox profits 50-50 (though a small portion goes to record companies, too). Like many bars during the CD days, Old I’s juke featured local bands’ discs. Nowadays, he says, “Kids don’t care about that.”

Indeed: Lately, the most-played songs at Old Ironsides include Toby Keith’s “I Love This Bar” and Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain.” In this bar, and in other venues around town, people can now check in on smartphones to play songs over the bar’s house speakers—no need to insert cash, swipe a credit card or even touch a jukebox.

My quest continues throughout the day as I head over to Streets of London Pub, Mel’s diner, and Old Tavern Bar & Grill. They all use digital systems, with touch-screen software that’s written by two companies: AMI Entertainment Network and TouchTunes. Mel’s has a custom system that allows diners to play the jukebox from a coin-operated machine at each table. Rick’s Dessert Diner boasts an old Seeburg Stereophonic jukebox that plays 45s—with titles by the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Temptations—but it’s out of order.

Many stops later, I finally find a working old analog jukebox, in the corner of the dark, downtown bar Pre-Flite Lounge: a neon-rainbow Seeburg that plays 45s. It’s about 3 p.m., and this dive bar is packed, the Seeburg belting out tunes from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Patsy Cline, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. A pair of old regulars remembers that this juke has been here for approximately 35 years. Bar owner Jason Yee says he inherited the machine three years ago when he bought the business and doesn’t want to go digital anytime soon.

“If we switch to a modern jukebox, it would take away from what the classic jukebox represents. People love the vintage sound of vinyl,” he says.

The Seeburg plays two songs per quarter or 10 songs for a dollar, Yee explains, and he’s even traveled as far as Los Angeles to dig for 45s at record stores.

Here at the Pre-Flight, No. 169 is the most-played song: It’s “The Pussy Cat Song” by Connie Vannett. On the side of the box, there’s an old sticker that reads “Dink Slavich, Southside Vending,” even though Yee says he’s slowly learning to perform regular maintenance on the machine himself.

Southside Vending Inc.’s technician Eric Johnson checks out a lean, mean touch-screen machine.

Photo By anne stokes

Jukebox heroes

My jukebox journey isn’t complete, however: It dawns on me that Southside Vending must know about old—and new—jukeboxes. And so I drive to its small office in East Sacramento. Here, 72-year-old Don Slavich opens the door.

He leads me to a room full of CDs. They rest on shelves lining every wall and in stacks and boxes on the ground. Slavich used to organize the room, but he and his brother Ed, 75, are semiretired now—only dealing with a roster of select longtime clients. Don and Ed’s dad, Dominic “Dink” Slavich, started the company in 1947 as a cigarette-vending business. Nowadays, it doesn’t sell cigarettes. Rather, it rents out arcade machines, coin-operated pool tables and about 65 jukeboxes. Current manager Rod Bettencourt has worked there for 38 years and leads a team of five employees, not including the brothers Slavich.

Southside’s garage is full of old videogames, such as Tekken 3 and Golden Tee, pool tables, and a dozen or so jukeboxes spanning multiple generations of technology—some play CDs, others 45s. Many of them still work and were returned years ago when the majority of their clients switched over to digital jukeboxes.

So, did the digital changeover kill the jukebox scene?

Not by a long shot, says Bettencourt.

“Overall, the jukebox business is good. When we first started on the downloader jukeboxes, 80 percent was all [still] CD players, and we held off until the very end from using downloaders,” he says. “Downloading jukeboxes changed the industry [and] boosted our income up. They just offer so much [music choice] to the consumer.”

Technology, says Bettencourt, is still reinventing jukeboxes and allowing them to do more exciting things.

“They’re just making things that are bigger and with more features on them. There are jukeboxes that can have photo machines on them, karaoke—stuff like that [is] in the program for the jukebox industry.”

In the end, I found that some people still prefer analog, and some prefer digital. Somehow, it’s this combination of old and new—and a wide cross section of unique individual tastes (like listening to hip-hop in a country bar)—that give the jukebox scene its livelihood.