Bob Witek, who turns 74 in July, probably has as many big-band era recordings as any radio station around, not surprising since he's been collecting from the age of 10.
Witek doesn't go looking for recordings much anymore, though. They come to him, largely as a result of a column he's been writing off and on now for the past 18 years
The column, called The Music Box, was first picked up by the Atlanticville, a small weekly newspaper in Long Branch, N.J., where Witek is from, and then, when he and his wife, Frances moved to Saddlebrooke eight years ago, by the Catalina Sunrise (now out of print).
The column now runs periodically on the Arizona Senior World Web site ww.seniors. com. His first column on the Web, on the death of singer Bing Crosby, ran June 1.
Witek writes mostly about the music of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Cabinets and shelves in nearly every room of his home as well as his garage are stuffed with records and tapes of music from those times.
Where there aren't records, there are books on the big band era, which Witek keeps on hand to confirm the accuracy of his memories.
It has been Witek's fans that have saved him the task of searching for the old records.
When his columns began running in the Atlanticville, people used to call him up and offer to donate large portions of their musical collections. Then relatives of those fans and their executors began calling up when the fans died, notifying Witek that they had left their collections to him.
When that began happening again with the appearance of his Music Box columns in the Catalina Sunrise, Frances put her foot down, Witek said. "Frances is a very tolerant wife, but we were running out of room."
How Witek manages to have room for his musical memorabilia as well as his train collection, his model car collection, his recently purchased 1976 Datsun 280Z, the plaques of appreciation awarded over a long career and his military papers, including documents related to the first time he was ever given leave, is a mystery only a packrat could unwind.
It all began for Witek when as a kid his dad brought home a combination radio- phonograph. He'd tune in to the music of Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, Horace Heidt and lesser bands being played on a New York radio station and another program called "Make Believe Ballroom" and if he liked the piece, head straight for Pop Schneider's music store down the block.
"It was a little hole in the wall," Witek said. "You'd go in and ask for the record you wanted and then you'd go into a small room to listen to the record before you bought it."
The records were all 78 rpm, Witek recalled. "Glen Miller's records on the Bluebird label ran 35 cents apiece and Dorsey's on the RCA Victor label ran 50 cents. Man, you had to save your money to buy those."
Witek joined the Navy out of high school in 1946 and got out in 1950, the same year he and Frances married, though Witek didn't have a job at the time. It wasn't long, though, before he landed a job as a ticket agent on the Jersey Central Lines, formerly the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and the New York and Long Branch Railroad, eventually rising to train dispatcher.
It was as a dispatcher in 1959 that Witek helped stop a runaway freight engine by arranging for it to couple with another engine on a separate line. Disenchanted with the railroad, however, because of its constant job cutbacks, he left his job in 1960, worked for awhile as a beer warehouse supervisor and then went to work for the Army as a civilian employee.
In 1964 he received his degree in economics from Monmouth College, now Monmouth University, and eventually became comptroller for the Army's Communications Systems Agency, the agency which purchases communications systems to meet the Army's needs worldwide. He retired in 1989.
Witek plays a little harmonica now and used to play the drums in a small group back in New Jersey, but he doesn't consider himself to be much of a musician. He's hesitant to criticize the music of today, preferring to revel in the big band era "when even the bands that weren't too good were good."
He got into writing, he said, "just for something to do. I've got a lot of stuff in my head and I wanted to get it down. Money was never an objective.
"When you write about the big bands, people of that generation get very enthused about that," he said.