The Music Man

Oak Creek's Bill Norris tirelessly works to preserve his albums

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— At the top of a winding wooden staircase wide enough for one person in a tiny attic studio, Bill Norris slowly pecks away one song at a time at recording hundreds of vinyl albums onto his computer. So far, Norris has saved 40 gigabytes of music as MP3s.

The archive will ensure the future of his vinyl collection.

"Every time you play a record, you lose a little bit more of the sound's integrity," Norris said. "If I have the music on my computer, I can box up these albums so that someone in the future can listen to them, or I can just display them." A mint condition green and transparent copy of Poison's "Look What the Cat Dragged In" hangs on the wall above his computer.

Norris got most of his vinyl during 11 years as a DJ on KFMU during the '80s and early '90s. The station was located on Main Street in Oak Creek and Norris worked the night shift as Mr. Bill.

It wasn't until the very end of his career there that the station switched from records to CDs.

The station moved its office to Steamboat in Norris' last year and all the records went into the basement.

Norris went through the collection and took home "the good stuff."

Stacks of records lean against the wall of his studio. Flipping through the albums is like searching a card catalogue of classic '60s, '70s and '80s rock everything from the Grateful Dead to The Mamas and The Papas to Blondie to The Animals.

"I have everything by Jimmy Buffett, some Santana, Cat Stevens. I have everything the Beatles ever made stored on the computer," he said.

Norris slides a record out of its jacket and it shines black and perfect under the light of his desk lamp. Not a scratch.

"At KFMU, we had rules about the way you handled records," he said. "We played them constantly, but there was training. If I found a scratch, I'd hunt down the person who did it. You scratch one of my records, I'd kill you, because then it can't be played."

Norris had a notebook where he kept a list of 18-minute songs 18 minutes being just enough time for a quick nap. Or enough time to have a beer with someone who stopped by the studio.

KFMU was a social center in those days, he said.

There was a long couch, chairs and a refrigerator in the studio.

He remembered two people riding their Harleys into the lobby of the station. He laughed. "Those were the good old days.

"People would drop by after the bar," he said. "Sometimes I'd just tell someone to grab an album, anything they wanted, and I'd put it on."

When he wasn't playing nap-length songs or entire sides of albums, Norris made the job fun with themes.

Like the day Shadow Run caught fire.

"I could see the fire through the big picture window of the studio, and I announced that we would be playing fire songs and songs with the word 'burn' in them," he said. "I'd play the songs and then describe to people what was happening with the fire."

In those days, records were hand queued.

"I could queue up a song in seconds, while I was talking," he said. "You don't see that anymore."

These days, DJs play CDs loaded onto a jukebox-style carousel. To get a song on the air, a DJ simply types in the song name on a computer.

"The whole thing has changed," he said.

On Oct. 19, KFMU pulled the rest of its albums out of the basement and sold them 20 albums for a dollar in the parking lot of the station.

People were on their knees flipping through the albums.

Unless you count Internet shopping spots, the only place in Steamboat these days to buy records is at such secondhand Klondikes as the KFMU garage sale.

The thing that people probably found annoying years ago the crackling and hissing and the size are the things that draw people to them today.

For a dollar, wax fans walked away with such obscure jewels as "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" soundtrack and cultural whoopee cushions like Foreigner.

The albums that didn't sell are sitting in boxes at Rummagers thrift store on U.S. Highway 40 the last souvenirs of an era.

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