Jukebox Hero

With more than 40 years in the business, Morningside resident Bob Welke is the man to call for vintage music machine repairs, restorations, and more // Photographs by Garrett MacLean

Bob WelkeIf you’re going to visit 73-year-old Bob Welke at his house in east Detroit, the longtime bespectacled Morningside resident has a suggestion: “Bring a chair.”

That’s because almost every inch of living space in Welke’s home, which doubles as Bob’s Jukebox Emporium — his 40-plus-year-old, part-time jukebox repair and restoration business — is jam-packed with music machines. The stairs are lined with chrome tabletop models that adorned the counters at Big Boy and other diners in the 1950s and ’60s. His has three garages scattered with one-of-a-kind amplifiers, speakers, capacitors, nuts, and bolts, set aside for repairs for the four big jukebox manufacturers: Wurlitzer, Seeburg, Rock-Ola, and Grand Rapids-based AMI. His living room is crammed with fully functioning, kaleidoscopic jukeboxes cranking out quintessential tunes by the likes of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, The Supremes, and the King — the kind of music that (more or less) makes staying put in a chair impossible.

All told, Welke’s place houses nearly 100 vintage jukeboxes. And although hobbyists view his machines as rare collectibles spanning six decades of musical history, for Welke, they represent something even more precious: “They’re like my family,” he says. “I spend more time with them than I do with my grandkids.”

As a lifelong tinkerer, Welke began collecting jukeboxes in 1973. Before then, in his early 20s, he’d been collecting cars and motorcycles. “I’ve always liked things that move,” he says. But after a friend encouraged him to pick up his first jukebox — a 1940 model made by New York-based manufacturer Wurlitzer — he fell in love with the intricate inner workings of jukeboxes. “I like seeing how they pick up a record and play it.”

“There was never much money in jukeboxes, and there still isn’t. but I’ve always enjoyed making things that are dead alive again.”
— Bob Welke

All the while, Welke kept his day job working as a process engineer in the automotive industry for companies like General Motors, but throughout the years, he continued to hone his expertise as a jukebox collector and built a side-hustle as a buyer, seller, and mechanic, performing service calls on long-forgotten machines in metro Detroit basements.

Nowadays, of course, the jukebox business is far from thriving. “There was never much money in jukeboxes, and there still isn’t, but I’ve always enjoyed making things that are dead alive again.” Welke says he sells around one jukebox a year (for around $4,000 to $6,000, depending on the model), partially because of the low demand and partially because the 350-to-600-pound machines are physically so difficult to move.

There’s also the fact that, as a lifelong collector, Welke grows attached to each jukebox that comes through his door. And as a mechanic, it’s always difficult to let go of a piece after nursing it back to health. “It’s like a dog pound. You bring in these sick puppies and you fix ’em all up and you want to find good homes for them.”

Bob Welke's jukeboxesAfter retiring from the auto industry 10 years ago, Welke’s greatest pleasure has been in restoring and collecting the jukeboxes, often, even keeping them. He says there’s something to appreciate about jukeboxes from every decade, from the early wood cabinets of the ’30s to the boxy designs and eclectic catalogues of the ’80s. The ’40s, however, is Welke’s favorite era for jukebox manufacturing. “They had the bubble tubes, the big cabinets, the Art Deco design … It was the whole show.” That 1940 Wurlitzer, Welke’s first, is a personal favorite that still lives in his kitchen.

Still, as time passes, selling them off bit by bit through sites like eBay has become the norm — especially to overseas buyers in countries like Germany, Switzerland, and South Korea. “I sell about [10-20] parts a month,” he says. “It’s a pain in the butt to box everything up, to go through all that crap, but one by one, I’ll probably take them each apart and just sell them for parts.”

Ideally, of course, Welke would like to avoid seeing his collection go the way of disco or doo-wop. In a perfect world, he’d like to see his machines get preserved and exhibited for collectors, history buffs, and music lovers of all kinds to appreciate. “In the back of my head, I’ve always wanted to have a museum for them.”

Until then, they’ll be safe — and sound — with Welke at home, where the admission price is simply a chair.

For more information on Bob’s Jukebox Emporium, call 313-527-7144.