Doug Allyn’s latest crime novel, THE JUKEBOX KINGS, presents a little-known side of the music business in the mid 1960s, when recordings were made in houses renovated into studios and records were promoted more by popularity on jukeboxes in locals bars and clubs than airplay over the radio. Along the way Allyn also unsparingly presents the greed, ambition, and violence that are also parts of the professional music world.
“Irish” Mick Shannon is a professional boxer who suddenly finds himself in debt to the mob when his manager bet heavy and Shannon looses his latest match. Unable to come up with the cash, Shannon ends up working as the collector for Moishe Abrams, an aging mobster who runs the jukes and collections in Detroit’s 8 Mile area.
When those who owe money to Moishe can’t pay, their debt is often settled with property. That’s how Shannon discovers Black Kat Studios – a house made into a recording studio with minimal equipment and an even more minimal staff. But rather that give the studio property up, Shannon buys into a partnership and continues operating the studio and records local acts. Eventually the studio produces records that become favorites on the local jukeboxes.
But just as Shannon sees the studio earning some real money, the mob learns about it and starts looking for their cut. Shannon’s problems multiply when he and his studio partner buy a nearby nightclub for the studio acts to perform in. Now the mob is seriously on his and won’t take no for an answer.
Allyn uses a third-person narrative, but keeps the focus on Irish Mick Shannon. Throughout the entire novel events unfold with Shannon in the midst of them, and his is the sole perspective we experience. Even the secondary characters – who become major players in Shannon’s new life – are seen exclusively through Shannon’s eyes.
Yet this never limits our knowledge of the characters or events, thanks mostly to Allyn’s accurate ear for dialogue and his expert recreation of the styles and ambiance of the early to mid 1960s. The verbal exchanges are frequent and flow effortlessly; and Allyn’s brief but to-the-point descriptions of the fashions and locations are never less than convincing.
Especially evident is Allyn’s knowledge and appreciation of the music that accompanies the story. Blues and early sixties Soul records and artists are both heard and referred to throughout the story. And Allyn wisely conveys the familiarity and effect the music has on his characters.
The novel’s one small deterrent occurs when Allyn follows the political and racial events that dominated the news during the early 1970s. While the writing remains strong, the focus temporarily departs from Shannon and the other story characters when Allyn shows how Detroit was swept up in the political and racial turmoil that gripped the country.
But this is a small – and fortunately brief – price to pay for the otherwise consistent involvement with Shannon and the other players in the story.
Readers old enough to recall the period will find the nostalgia equally mixed with the forward-moving events. Others will enjoy this recreation of the period when popular music began to dominate our lives and this peek behind the scenes of the many criminal and often-violent events that take place before and after the songs are captured on tape. —Alan Cranis