By Sam Morgenstern
Hey Mr. DJ, crank up that gramophone
It’s a treasure trove of antiquities and a time machine for music lovers. Valued at just over $1 million, the 200,000 records of the Savada Record Collection recently found a new home at Syracuse University’s Belfer Audio Lab. Donated by the late Morton J. Savada, owner of the Manhattan store Records Revisited, the acquisition nearly doubles the size of SU’s previous collection. Now it’s second only to the Library of Congress.
Savada opened Records Revisited in 1977. He had a unique location in the heart of New York City across from the Empire State Building and was well known for collecting heaps of records in a short period of time, said Melinda Dermody, department head of Arts and Humanities at the SU library. “It wasn’t a place that anyone could just walk in and browse. Music lovers, record collectors, and people in the movie industry flocked there,” she said. Heavy hitters like Woody Allen and Matt Dillon frequented the store, according to an SU press release.
Morton Savada’s granddaughter, Shira Savada, fondly recalls her grandfather’s pet project. “I never really thought of it as a job for him, in the traditional sense,” she says. “It was more so a professional hobby. He found a way to use his love of records and his knowledge of the subject as a job.”
Some wonder why Savada didn’t choose a music school as the beneficiary of his collector’s items. Dermody explained that the late record mogul had ties to the university prior to bequeathing his substantial gift. “Savada’s granddaughter [Shira] graduated from SU in 2005 [as a magazine journalism and psychology dual major], and he had previously been aware of the national reputation of Belfer and the already huge collection,” she said.
Dermody coordinated with several people to acquire the records. She initially met with Elias Savada, Morton Savada’s son, to organize the records’ transportation this past June, which was no small task. To move the massive anthology from New York City to Syracuse, Dermody and three other library staffers traveled to Records Revisited with a team of eight workers and mass-packed the records into 1,300 boxes. After carefully shipping them in seven fully-loaded FedEx trucks, the Savada collection found safe storage in the Warehouse Gallery.
Unlike traditional LP records, which are essentially full albums, each record in the Savada Collection contains only one song. Also known as gramophone records, they require special turntables with variable speed to accommodate the 78 revolutions per minute, or the rotational speed. Most of the albums are 10 inches in diameter or bigger.
“[Savada’s] inventory is more about smaller, unique record labels and less about particular record titles,” Dermody said. “We are now coming to the exploratory phase in the process and discovering what’s in the boxes.”
The bulk of the collection was produced between the 1930s and ’50s, but some records date all the way back to 1892. According to Shira, Savada was a fan of big band superstars like Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw, as well as the comic singer Eddie Cantor. The collection contains a little of everything, from jazz to blues to polka to World War II V-Discs.
Now that the Savada Collection has arrived, a much broader audience can enjoy the records. Previously, they were available only to an elite group of music aficionados. The plan is to catalogue the records so that they are accessible to anyone in the world using Bird Library’s SUMMIT catalogue. People will be able to submit requests for listening copies and receive them in MP3 files. Once organized and catalogued, the records will move to their permanent home in the Belfer Audio Lab.
People who aren’t music industry students probably don’t know much about Belfer, the gray building sandwiched between Bird Library and the Faculty Dining Center. The Belfer Audio Laboratory and Archives opened in 1982. The original collection housed 175,000 records. The records are multilingual, multicultural, and range from voiceovers to jazz. The laboratory has a recording studio and two control rooms for sound restoration, one of which has equipment used to play back every major form of sound, including the 78 rpm records of the Savada Collection. With the added inventory, Belfer will play a much more active role in the research and study of music in Central New York.
“There is a wealth of unique recordings people may not have known about before that are now discoverable,” Dermody said of the newly available material.
Shira agrees that the Savada Collection will open up many doors for students and music connoisseurs alike.
“I think we’ll all grin a little wider the more academic action this collection sees,” she said. “It’s one thing to give a gift, but this gift should keep on giving.”