A record-setting record collection

Steve Wolthuis shows off some organ music on vinyl.

By Jef Rietsma

Collector? Steve Wolthuis.

Collection? Record albums.

What genre are most of your albums? “A pretty good number of the albums feature organ music. The others are southern gospel.”

How many albums do you have? “I’d say about 5,000 in all.”

When did your collection begin? “In the mid ‘80s, I won an auction at an estate sale out by Kimble Lake and there were a couple of boxes full of albums … albums that were mostly organ music. The lady whose estate it was played the organ, so it was a really nice collection of 100 to 150 albums. I paid what amounted to a couple bucks per record.”

Were you familiar with most of the artists in that collection? “Oh, I listened to every one of them. A lot were by performers I knew but others were recorded from some obscure restaurant somewhere that had an organ, for example.”

Where do you find albums of such niche genres? “I spend a lot of time at thrift shops and estate sales. There are a few record shops in Grand Rapids – one in particular on West 28th Street called Corner Record Shop – and of course there are options online. Usually, the music I’m looking for is bypassed by most people. I recently purchased about 100 albums from one of the vendors in Vicksburg who was cleaning out her husband’s dad’s house. He was an evangelist so there was a real nice selection of southern gospel.”

Have you always enjoyed theater organ music? “There was a cafeteria on the Kalamazoo Mall called Schensul’s and you could eat to some guy playing the organ. It was a place grandma took us when we were little kids and I really enjoyed watching the guy play. I started taking piano lessons in sixth grade. Later on, there was a place in Grand Rapids called Roaring ‘20s and it was a pipes-and-pizza place. Oh, man. I loved going there.”

Did you grow up in a house where music was always playing? “My mom had music on the stereo quite often and my dad was a very good singer. He’s still around and in his 90s and he still has a terrific voice.”

Are you transferring your album collection in any manner so you have back-up copies? “I have a room downstairs where I spend a lot of time putting albums onto CDs. I’m more than 80 percent through the process but, as you might imagine, it’s a time-consuming procedure.”

Have you ever picked up an album that the seller had no idea of its value? “There have been a few cases. The first person big into playing the pipe organ was a guy named Jesse Crawford. Another guy came a little later, his name is George Wright. Some of his work is hard to find but nobody is really looking for their stuff, so it’s always a big find when I can get my hands on any of their work.”

Is there an album you don’t have that you wish you did? “George Wright played the Hammond organ on a few of his really early albums. I’ve been watching for those and they just don’t show up.”

What’s the most you’ve paid for an item? “I once paid about $50 for a southern gospel album.”

Do you have a favorite song? “There is a song that’s a southern gospel tune … I’ve heard Jerry Lee Lewis do it, I’ve heard Mickey Gilley do it, several different artists have done it. It’s called “I’ll Fly Away.” It’s a very upbeat song. I happen to play the organ and I played at a funeral for a guy I knew very well. His wife asked that I play it, she told me Fred would have wanted this played at his funeral. So I did.”

Do you have special equipment on which you play your records? “Nope, just an old turntable I bought years ago. The receiver is from Highland Appliance and I’ve had the speakers a number of years, too. Meanwhile, my brother is a woodworker and he’s put together some custom-made shelving for me so I have a place to store and display my albums. I have them organized alphabetically by artist.”

Where will your collection eventually end up? “That’s a good question. None of our kids have any interest, so I really don’t know.”

Footnotes: Wolthuis, who turns 70 later this month, lives in Brady Township and is a graduate of Vicksburg High School. He retired following a 40-year career at Upjohn.

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