The True and Correct History of DJ Vinyl Scratching

New York is well known for hotdogs, the Empire State Building, the Ponzi Scheme, and the Brooklyn Bridge among its many claims to fame.  However, contrary to popular belief, DJ vinyl scratching is not one of them.   Caveat; Most New Yorkers in fact believe the phenomena originated there.

In the annals of music history and in the club scene in particular, the bragging rights to creativity are often filled with myth and falsehoods that are not easily provable, but go a long way towards legend and legacy building should the perception created not be challenged by competing voices and historical narratives.

I would like to share with the reader such a narrative.

Years ago, I ran across an old man in a dilapidated motel diner on the outskirts of Peoria, Illinois.  I was passing through on my way to Chicago and had stopped in to get a cup of coffee.  The gentleman was sitting in a booth and invited me over for a chat.  He said his name was Bill Bailey III, and that he had moved to Peoria back in the late 1940s to go to work for the Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer company.  He emphasized the III as if he were the King of England.  He was highly entertaining and relayed to me the most amazing story.

He claimed that in the year of 1959, there was a young man nicknamed Smiley who hailed from Tennessee that would accompany him after the day shift to the pool hall situated nearby the Pabst bottling factory.  He said back in the 1950s young men from all across the nation would drift in an out of town to work for Pabst as they were always in need of workers after World War II to help quench the nation’s renewed thirst for beer.

Anyways, he claimed Smiley was a likeable fellow who loved to cash his paycheck at the pool hall because the owner would partially pay him in silver dollars which he liked to collect.  He said Smiley loved to dance and would keep the old Jukebox spinning Elvis tunes such as Blue Moon of Kentucky and You Ain’t Nothing but a Hound Dog, old Johnny Horton’s North to Alaska, and a local favorite that had just hit the charts, Stacker Lee.

One day Smiley arrived to find the owner cleaning up glass in front of the jukebox which had been shattered by an ill-mannered customer that was disgruntled about the apparent loss of a nickel.  Smiley asked the owner if the player would still spin a record. “Go ahead, give it a spin,” came the reply.

Keep in mind these were heavy old slate 78s. Smiley put a record on the platter and in attempt to kick it off spun it backwards under the needle which made a wild groaning sound which in turn solicited laughter and jeers from some of the regulars.  One of them yelled out, “Sounds like the hound-dogs in heat!”

It took about a month for the jukebox to get a new curved glass for the case and in the meantime, every night Smiley arrived, the boys would laugh, hoot, and howl, and ask him to “scratch” the old hound-dog’s back, and Smiley would oblige, therefore becoming the very first known record scratcher in US history. Before long, crowds were gathering every night to see Smiley get after it. He would put on quite a show and even purchased a pair of blue suede shoes to perform in.  The local radio station had him come by to show them how it was done. The phenomenon is said to have been taken to Chicago and to Motown by a traveling record salesman. Perhaps this is how it got to New York City.

Now the significance of this story did not dawn on me at the time because this happened in 1978 and DJ scratching was in its infancy and not many, to include myself, knew much about it.  I thought I would pass this on as it may very well be an important piece of music history. Bill Bailey could not recall Smiley’s real name, but was sure he hailed from a small down somewhere in West Tennessee.

Now I suppose since Smiley was spinning slate instead of vinyl, New Yorkers may remain entitled to their “vinyl” scratching bragging rights, but this story does throw a bit of monkey wrench into the historical equation.  Only time will tell.


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The True and Correct History of DJ Vinyl Scratching

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