Kerry Kudlacek certainly has the right to sing the blues.
On May 2, a space heater in Kudlacek’s Tulsa home overturned, landing on a stack of papers. It wasn’t long before the fire was raging all around, as Kudlacek endeavored to save as many of his valuables as possible.
“It was really fortuitous that a neighbor saw what was going on and managed to get me out,” Kudlacek said. “Because ... well, because I was on fire. And I was holding on to a bundle of sheet music, trying to keep it from going up in smoke.”
Firefighters managed to extinguish the blaze, but Kudlacek’s house suffered extensive damage, as did Kudlacek himself, with burns over much of his body. His pet cat was rescued from the house but later died.
“It could have been so much worse,” Kudlacek said. “A real tragedy.”
He refers not to his own physical condition, which is greatly improving, nor to his living conditions. Kudlacek is currently living in a house that his insurance company had provided and which he shares with an antic and curious young cat named Joe as his own home undergoes repairs.
What would have been a tragedy in Kudlacek’s eyes is if he had not moved the bulk of his music collection — close to 20,000 individual compact discs and records, from modern albums to antique 78 rpm discs, wax cylinders dating back to the days of Thomas Edison, hundreds of books and magazines and thousands of examples of sheet music dating back to the 1830s — out of his house just a few weeks before the fire.
Kudlacek’s collection, which he has amassed over the course of more than 60 years, is a unique and comprehensive overview of a particular strain of American music: the blues.
The collection, the bulk of which is kept in a climate-controlled storage locker, also includes examples of such musical styles that served as the foundation for the blues, such as minstrelsy and folk, as well as music that grew out of the blues, such as rock.
But the blues is the principal focus of Kudlacek’s collecting — or as he puts it, his “systematic hoarding.”
“The first blues record I remember hearing was by Blind Boy Fuller,” Kudlacek said. “The A-side was a song called ‘Rag Mama,’ and the B-side was ‘I’m a Rattlesnakin’ Daddy.’ I was a 12-year-old kid in Oklahoma City, and I was instantly hooked.”
So hooked that Kudlacek would spend his Saturday mornings as a youngster knocking on doors and offering to buy any old blues records they might have.
“I’d pay 20 cents,” he said. “This was about the time that the 45-rpm single was relatively new, and people thought their 78-rpm records were out of fashion. But they weren’t out of fashion to me.
“And I would often find some really interesting things,” Kudlacek said. “One of the most interesting things was what I didn’t find. Bessie Smith was the most popular blues singers of all time, but when I would go to black people’s homes and ask about records, I never found a single Bessie Smith record. I’d find them in Goodwill stores, though. Maybe those were the records they wanted to hold on to.”
Kudlacek understands that sentiment. His current residence contains a representation of items from the collection that he keeps around him almost as talismans — surprisingly thick discs from the early days of recording when only one side of the disc would be used, old acoustic guitars, posters from concerts past and examples of sheet music from the 19th century.
Kudlacek’s fascination with the blues and the culture from whence it came led to scholarship and broadcasting. He has been a contributor to a number of blues-related publications, including writing a monthly column for Blues Unlimited, the first blues-themed magazine published in the United Kingdom.
He has produced and hosted blues music shows for television and radio, including the live “Jump Blues” telecasts on OETA in the 1990s.
And Kudlacek continues to spread the blues message as the cohost of a program on RadioIDL, an interest radio station in Tulsa specializing in blues.
It was to RadioIDL that Kudlacek entrusted his collection before the fire.
“I think what Kerry has done is nothing less than a national treasure,” said Elizabeth Hollis, one of the partners behind RadioIDL. “We had some students from Booker T. Washington helping us when we were moving these things into the storage facility, and they were just fascinated by it all.
“It’s kind of like a time capsule of American history told through this music,” Hollis said. “We’re trying to find a way to preserve this collection, so it can be a true educational, historical, musical resource.”
As for Kudlacek, his wishes are fairly simple.
“To be honest, I’d like to sell it and be paid for it,” he said. “But I want it also to stay in Tulsa, where I could curate it. These things have been with me all my life, and it would be hard to let them all go.”
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