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Behind the scenes on NAMM’s oral history program

An ambitious project to chronicle the people in the business has seen the 3,000th interview recorded and some heartwarming moments saved for posterity

With interviews from the likes of BB King, Elvis Presley’s guitar player Scotty Moore, piano company founder Henry Steinway and songwriter Marilyn Bergman, the NAMM Oral History Program clocked up a recent milestone with its 3000th interview.

Since its inception in 2000, the program has sought to preserve the rich history of the music products industry through first-person accounts from retailers, suppliers, sales representatives, publishers, instrument and product creators, innovators, founders and artists.

NAMM’s music historian Dan Del Fiorentino has conducted each interview, including the very first that featured industry pioneer, Ted McCarty. He served as the president of Gibson Guitars (1950-66) and while there, signed Les Paul, which eventually led to the creation of the Gibson SG electric guitar.

Del Fiorentino says interviewees are chosen based on a wishlist that is generated by the industry, with people over 80 an obvious priority and the average interview takes about an hour.,

“But the people I’ve called who say ‘I’ve been retired for five or 10 years and don’t have much to say’ – I know I have to bring extra tape,” he says.

“I created a formula for interviewing loosely based on the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC, so a percentage of the questions are about a person’s background, their parents and music in the house while growing up, what inspired them as young child, their first instrument, music education, what stores did they visit as a kid … while the rest is about their first job, what companies they worked for, who have been their mentors, big changes in the industry and the innovations and products they have seen.”

And there is always a surprise answer, says Del Fiorentino, such as when he asked Henry Steinway (pictured top with Del Fiorentino), who was 90 at the time, what the biggest innovation was in the music industry in his lifetime. Expecting he would say a patent from the Steinway company, instead the answer was the Hammond B3 organ and the piano company founder ended up talking more about competitors in his interview, Del Fiorentiono says.

The oral history participants have come from 46 different countries and were born in the years between 1903 and 1988, with the 500th interview featuring the late Danny Rocks, past vice president of Alfred Publishing, the 1,000 interview was with Dennis Houlihan, president/CEO of Roland, while the 3,000 captured 22-Grammy winner and legendary jazz musician Chick Corea. The oldest living interviewee is Viola Smith, a drummer and product endorser at 103.

Del Fiorentiono can’t believe how lucky he is to do his job and says he often walks out of interviews with a big smile on his face. While it might be difficult with 3,000 interviews under his belt, he does have his favourites.

As an Elvis Presley fan, he says one of his all time favourites was Scotty Moore, who was a hero of his when he was a kid and who he developed a friendship with after the interview in 2002.

“When I was a kid, I would always say ‘Who is that guy playing that guitar?’ and it wasn’t easy to find that out when the Internet wasn’t around – back then they talked about Elvis’ clothes and hair and rarely talked about people playing behind him,” he says.

“Scotty was Elvis Presley’s first guitar player when they started out as teenagers and he went on to be a pioneer, his playing was a major influence on people like the Beatles and Jimmy Page has specifically singled out Scotty as an influence and he also got into the recording industry after that.”

Moore continued in the industry as a recording engineer and also helped to design and improve Gibson guitars, but sadly passed away a few months ago, Del Fiorentiono says.

That is another humbling part of the job, Del Fiorentiono says, when he hears from children, whose parent has passed away, and they have been online and stumbled across the NAMM video interview that they did not know existed.

“The person may not tell their kids or their kids may have forgotten, but when they are reminded and see this, it’s a precious, priceless gift now to have these images and this memory of their loved one. When I get cards like that it brings me to tears, in addition to documenting history, we are also touching human lives,” he adds.

Del Fiorentino admits that after 16 years and 3,000 interviews, it is becoming tougher to find people to interview and welcomes suggestions from anyone in the industry.

Yet after thousands of interviews, a person born on every day of the year has been filmed with exception of one: October 15. Know anyone?