As a hired hand for Trax Records, Bud Pressner mastered a staggering number of classic Chicago House records in the 1980s.
This is the story of that eccentric old man in the waning days of Gary, Indiana.
THIS IS WHERE IT BEGAN – or a small part of it, at least. This city is where records were mixed to be fit for a Richard Long soundsystem, where an eccentric old man etched his initials in the dead wax runout of some of the greatest Chicago House records ever made.
This is Gary, Indiana, once a thriving town, home of US Steel and for several decades perhaps the most prolific music producer, recording engineer and record cutter in the American Midwest, Cas “Bud” Pressner.
US Steel is still in Gary but barely. Gary itself is still here but barely. Bud Pressner’s astonishing audio empire is long gone.
I first learned of Bud Pressner from seeing his name listed as the mastering engineer of so many classic House Music records from the ’80s – Fingers, Phuture, Frankie, you name it. He was the answer to a trivia question – he probably worked on more early Chicago House records than any other person in the world.
Only later did I learn of his homegrown but ingenious music factory. For more than 30 years, steelworkers in Gary brought their children to Bud Pressner to cut a demo. Men scheming and dreaming of backing the next Jackson 5 brought him their guitars to be repaired. Garage bands haggled with him over the price of cutting a few hundred copies of a 45 RPM disc. Aspiring managers arrived with shy teenage singers in tow to release a record on one of Bud’s many in-house labels.
It all existed because of the steel mills, because the people inside those industrial cauldrons could scrape up just enough cash to buy a record, tip a band in a lounge, drop a few bucks on their kid’s damn foolhardy dreams.
The mills – and thus Gary, and thus Bud’s enterprises – were in a death spiral by the time Trax Records hired the old sage of the city to master just about every one of the label’s releases from the mid- to late-1980s.
There’s nothing on the ground to remind a visitor that history was once made here. The only landmarks are the artefacts themselves. Look in the runout of any original pressing of Fingers’ “Washing Machine”/”Can You Feel It”, Frankie & Jamie’s “Baby Wants To Ride”/”Your Love” or Phuture’s “Acid Tracks”. You’ll often see a series of numbers and letters, among them “BP”. That’s the signature of Bud Pressner. And he did it all here, in Gary.
The Waste Land
With the mills gone, there are few reasons for someone from Chicago to travel to Gary these days except to explore the ruins. It takes less than an hour for a daytrip to stir the ashes of Gary’s past and (as some would say) Detroit and Chicago’s future.
This is what TS Eliot must have meant when he wrote “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” Gary evokes a lot of that kind of shit from people who visit, even readings from The Waste Land.
More recent writers have compared Gary to the great volcanic ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii. Retro signs advertise stores and services from another generation – things like vacuum cleaner showrooms and radio repairmen. Downtown, a tree grows in the center of an abandoned post office. People photograph it and get 100 likes on Facebook. It’s striking, I’ll grant you, if not very pretty.
Not photographed, as in the “ruin porn” photographs of Detroit, are the people who still live here, the 80,000 rather uncared for souls that still call Gary, Indiana home. If you’ve ever wondered how Europeans feel living amidst the wreckage of a dead empire, I strongly recommend a day wandering in the wreckage of our own.
At 577 Washington Street in Gary you’ll find the City Methodist Church. It’s a famous spot and, perversely, one of the most visited churches in Indiana, even though it’s been abandoned for nearly 40 years. They don’t come to pray (though some couples do get married here). They come to gawk. City Methodist is stunning, as majestic and decrepit as any Greek temple or Crusader castle.
Across from City Methodist is a charter school, designed in the same pale red brick as the neighboring housing. And down the block is the address I was looking for.
This is – or was – 718 Washington, an address printed on thousands of record stickers. What’s here now is a hulking, derelict structure that looks like it’s been bombed. Doors hang on their hinges; someone has spraypainted warnings on them: DANGER HOLE UNDERNEATH THE STAIRS. It will have to suffice because there’s no money to even tear buildings like this one down.
This was Bud Pressner’s Music Shop.
When he first opened this location, Bud Pressner’s Gary was a way-station worth visiting between Motown and Chicago. The nicknames hold on, in a sad & nostalgic manner. It wasn’t so long ago that they made steel in Steeltown, cars in the Motor City and Chicago could still be called the The City That Works, not The City That Hustles.
Our cities made things then. And the general prosperity from living in a society that made things meant we could also make records.
The House of Bud
Bud Pressner’s first records were his own. After serving in World War II, Pressner played tenor sax and clarinet for big band jazz groups, and lead his own “Buddy Pressner Orkestra” at ballrooms, festivals and outdoor events throughout the Chicagoland area.
Eventually he settled down in Gary, opening a music shop that first sold, then sold and repaired, musical instruments. Bud Pressner’s shop was located just off Gary’s main commercial drag, bordering the Horace Mann and Emerson neighborhoods.
According to indiana45s.com, a site for collectors of dusty regional records, Bud’s music shop was a locus of activity which “put him in contact with almost every local artists [sic] in the region.” His shop soon grew into something of an empire – a curious, grassroots example of what business schools call “vertical integration“.
From 718 Washington Street, Pressner could reasonably supply an aspiring artist dreaming of a life outside the steel mills with everything he could possibly need other than an adoring fanbase. Pressner built an in-house studio, learned the recording process and had the equipment to master and reproduce (in numbers up to several hundred copies) vinyl records for the masses. Pressner could sell the artists their instruments, record their songs, master the recordings and press them up on a made-to-order basis, all from one address.
Gary’s been the butt of jokes for so long as I’ve been alive, but it was a town worth visiting then. Donald Kinsey – a blues musician that eventually joined Bob Marley and The Wailers and recorded with Peter Tosh – recorded a demo here. It was, he recalled, “really the first recording studio that I had actually been in.”
Kinsey was joined by Ben Brown, an early benefactor of what are certainly Gary, Indiana’s most famous sons, the Jackson 5. For years, collectors have torn through crates of 45s and unlabeled dubplates, searching for the fabled pre-Motown recordings of the Jacksons. If any existed before the group’s acknowledged first recording in Chicago, they were thought likely to have shown up with Bud Pressner’s “BP” initials etched in the runout. That’s how well-known Bud was locally: if music was happening in Gary, he probably had something to do with it. (Thus far, however, no Pressner-recorded tapes from the Jackson 5 have surfaced.)
And what’s more impressive than any of the names was how prolific Bud Pressner’s musical empire was. Indiana45s.com estimates that Pressner produced and pressed up hundreds of records for local acts, from Soul to Gospel to Funk to Jazz to Rock. You can still find samples in just about any used record store in the Midwest; collectors are still turning up “lost” records recorded by Bud today.
A partial discography of Classic Chicago House Music tracks Bud Pressner mastered:
Marshall Jefferson: Ride The Rhythm (Trax)
Fingers, Inc: Bring Down the Walls (Select)
Adonis: We’re Rocking Down The House (Trax)
Jungle Wonz: The Jungle (Trax)
Mr Fingers: Washing Machine/Can You Feel It (Trax)
Frankie Knuckles & Jamie Principle: Baby Wants To Ride/Your Love (Trax)
Mr Lee: Come To House (Trax)
Mr Lee: I Can’t Forget (Trax)
Phuture: Acid Tracks (Trax)
Paris Grey: Don’t Make Me Jack (Trax)
Kevin Irving: Children of the Night (Trax)
Doctor Derelict (aka Wayne Williams): Dance Doctor (Trax)
Lidell Townsell: Party People Jack Your Body (Trax)
Maurice Joshua with Hot Hands Hula: I Gotta Big Dick (Trax)
Kool Rock Steady: Power Move (Rap Trax)
Lidell Townsell: Jack The House (Trax)
Virgo Four: Do You Know Who You are? (Trax)
James Jack Rabbit Martin ft. Pam White: Let Us Have Love (Housetime)
To Kool Chris: Can You Feel The Beat (Housetime)
DJ Rush: Knee Deep (Saber)
The Grandpa of House
People still talk of “fixing” Detroit. Nobody on the outside talks of “fixing” Gary.
Pressner was probably hired by Trax Records because he was cheap and because he was fast. He was far from well-known in the scene. He was actually almost totally anonymous. I’ve contacted several artists and A&R people from the era, and the only one with any distinct memories of Pressner at all was Larry Heard. In a 2010 email, Heard remembers meeting Pressner “a few times when he mastered some recordings and did some acetates for me.” Pressner was 65 years old at this point; Heard remembers him being already “up in years when I first met him in the mid-’80s”.
It’s hard not to reach toward poetics. Here you have an older man – a master of the dance music of another generation, big band jazz – who touched with his own hand practically the entire canon of early Chicago House Music. Whether he liked it or not is beside the point (and it’s hard to imagine a senior citizen getting down to tracks like Maurice Joshua’s “I Gotta Big Dick” – one of the dozens of House records from the era that Bud mastered).
Bud never got rich off of his strange audio empire, though that was beside the point. His business was part of a larger ecosystem. Cars powered Motown; it was steel that pumped blood into Gary’s provincial music industry. Mothers and fathers in the mills paid for their own or their children’s instruments and recording sessions. Bands played at bars frequented by steelworkers. It was a gray city even then, but it had its charm. And there were cities just like it all across the industrial Midwest.
Few people in the arts understand what it does to a town when its main industries, the very reasons the town exists in a commercial sense, decamp for greener pastures and cheaper labor. But you can see it, graphically, in the bombed out doorways of 718 Washington. Bud Pressner’s is gone. The bars are gone. The mills are gone and the steelworkers are gone.
More than half of the population of Gary has also disappeared since Bud first opened his shop. Bud himself also moved to Merrillville, one of the new towns that sprung up as “white flight” finished the exodus. His mastering for Trax, Heard and others were among the last of the hundreds of records he worked on. Bud died on November 30, 1995 at the age of 75.
When A City Dies
If Detroit is a city in cardiac arrest, Gary flatlined long ago. Before idiots made jokes about the devastation of Detroit, they made jokes about the collapse of the city to the south.
But people still talk of “fixing” Detroit. Nobody on the outside talks of “fixing” Gary. It really is as if it were buried in volcanic ash.
And yet even if history were reversed and the mills hadn’t shut down, today’s music industry probably wouldn’t have much use for another Bud Pressner. He’d be an anachronism, with his record pressing machines largely unnecessary, his mastering skills regarded with a kind of adorable bewilderment by a new generation that scarcely understands what “mastering” means. I understand why he’d be an anachronism. I understand why we don’t make steel or cars in this part of the country, too.
Bud was not a “founding father” or pivotal figure in the history of House Music. Had someone else been able to do the job cheaper, the brain trust at Trax (hardly known for their profligacy, much less their obsession with a quality product) probably would have had them master their records.
Bud Pressner was a cog in a larger machine, a symbol of another time – a time when machines and cities made things.