The Great Oscar Brand Concert Tape Recording Caper

Legendary folk musician, Oscar Brand, died last night (9/30/2016). He was 96 years old and had been performing since his teens. Beginning in the 1940’s, he recorded nearly a 100 albums. And, unknowingly, he lured me into a “prank” that surely was a criminal act.

When I was an engineer at WFMT, Chicago’s Fine Arts Station, back in the early ’60s, I recorded a concert Brand performed at Chicago’s Orchestra Hall. As I was coiling microphone cables after the concert, Brand strolled into the backstage area and, with a smile on his face, asked, “Did you get anything that you could use?” At the time I thought he was inquiring about the quality of the recording, which I assured him was just fine, but when I got back to the studio, I realized that he had included a generous sampling of his “bawdy songs” that would not be suitable for broadcast. I don’t think any of that concert was put on the air.

But that isn’t the concert that this post is about.

A few years earlier, in 1958 or ’59, Oscar Brand, along with his colleague Dave Sear, put on a concert at Northwestern University, where I was a student in electrical engineering. I didn’t go to that concert, even though it was nearby in the Tech Auditorium, less than a block from my dorm, mostly because I couldn’t afford a ticket on my budget. It was a great concert! Everyone who went raved about it. I felt terrible that I missed it.

But wait!

The university radio station, WNUR, a low power FM station meant to serve the campus, had recorded the concert. I could listen to it when it aired. I asked my friend Charlie, who was in the theater school, which also housed WNUR, to find out the schedule. Alas, there were no plans to broadcast the concert.

Fortunately, Charlie knew the chief engineer at WNUR and asked him if, perhaps, we could borrow the tape and listen to it, or even listen to it in the studio. Nope! Neither! Not an option. Begging did nothing to change his answer.

By this time, my engineering school friends had also gotten interested, and finding a way to listen to the concert became a challenge. My roommate, John, the twins, Pat and Paul, Charlie, and I created a plot to “borrow” the tape and make a copy.

Charlie’s reconnaissance revealed that the concert had been recorded on ¼” tape on a 10” reel at 7½ inches per second. In “half-track” mode, it would hold two full hours. It was kept in its box in a tape library in an unlocked part of the WNUR studio, located in the lower level of the Speech Building. The old Speech Building was built on a hillside, so the main entrance was on the first level, but the studio had its own entrance through a back door to the building on the lower level. After hours, the back door was locked and a student monitored the upper level entrance.

Since Charlie had several classes in the Speech Building, he would be the “inside guy.” Around 8 pm on the appointed day, Charlie talked his way into the Speech Building to retrieve a textbook that he had “accidentally” left in one of the downstairs classroom. He quickly grabbed the book and slipped into the studio and took the tape from the library. As planned, he opened the back door and propped the tape between the screen and the door, closed the door, went back upstairs and out the door, waving his book and thanking the monitor for his cooperation.

Meanwhile, the gang and I milled around at some distance from the building, so as not to appear suspicious. When Charlie returned and reported success, we drifted toward the back of the building, where I would retrieve the tape from its hiding place.

Even the best of plans go astray. Just as we approached the building, a man and a woman walked up to the back door, inserted a key, and started to enter the building. As you might expect, they almost tripped over the tape box. The couple stopped and discussed their options briefly. Then the man picked up the tape and they proceeded into the building, locking the door behind them. Through the door’s window, we watched with frustration as they leaned the tape against the very studio door from which Charlie had liberated it a few minutes before.

We agreed that Charlie couldn’t use the “forgotten book” ploy again and were about to go back to our rooms to come up with a new plan. Just as we turned away, we spotted an elderly gentleman with an impressive collection of keys on a large key ring approach the back door of the Speech Building. Charlie recognized him as George, the “night watchman,” whose job was to wander around campus and look into buildings to make sure that nothing was in flames. George appeared to me to be our last chance to grab the tape.

I left the group and strode purposefully to the back door, searching the shadows and looking confused. George was standing by the door, and asked me what I was doing. I replied, “One of the WNUR staff was supposed to leave a tape for me leaning against the door, but I don’t see it anywhere.” Then I “just happened” to look through the window on the back door and saw the target of our foray just inside. “Oh,” I exclaimed, “There it is. He must have misunderstood which door he was supposed to leave it by. Could you let me in to get it?” Slowly, George searched through his keys, found the right one, and opened the door, allowing me to retrieve the tape of the Oscar Brand Concert.

Thanking George profusely, I clutched the tape to my chest and rejoined the group and we retired to the dorm to celebrate.

Long story short (and it was a long story), we managed to make a copy of the concert and started to scheme how to return the tape to the studio library. Charlie had an inspiration: why not just drop it into the chief engineer’s car and let him return it. He must have known that the tape was missing and he might even have suspected who was responsible. Two days later, Charlie spotted the engineer’s car parked near the Speech Building with the windows open. He dropped the tape onto the front seat and walked away, undetected. Ironically, the tape never made it back to the library. We assumed that the chief engineer used the tape for his own personal recording and most likely destroyed the master copy of the concert in the process.

What a concert it was. It was the first time I had heard a 12-string guitar (which became my instrument of choice). I added quite a few of those songs to my own repertoire. Here is one of my all-time favorites: Old King Cole, with Oscar Brand on 12-string guitar and vocal and Dave Sear on 5-string banjo. (It’s 6 mb, so it could take a while to load.)

My tape deck stopped functioning a few years ago when, mirabile dictu, Charlie emailed me out of the blue saying he had digitized the concert and had attached the resulting mp3 files. I still listen to Oscar Brand’s Northwestern University concert. I never added any of his recordings to my collection, nor was I ever able to listen to his New York radio shows. But I will miss him, his reedy tenor voice, and his enthusiastic pursuit of American music. RIP, Oscar Brand, folk singer extraordinaire.

And now that I have confessed my crime, I fully expect to hear the police pounding on my door.

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About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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