There’s the pop of a tape recorder button and the hum of a cassette, then an unmistakable voice. It is, without a doubt, Gladys Knight, the “Empress of Soul,” talking about … football? She’ll get to Motown gossip and her upcoming tour dates, but first the singer who first made “Midnight Train to Georgia” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” famous has some thoughts on the 1982 NFL season. “I like Tampa Bay. I like the Eagles … I like the Falcons …” Larry Katz, the young Boston Herald reporter interviewing Knight, bemoans the state of the New England Patriots before launching into his questions about music. The conversation is now enshrined alongside more than a thousand others—musicians talking about all sorts of things—in the Larry Katz Collection at Northeastern University in Boston.
“Having this trove of interviews was kind of a no-brainer,” says Giordana Mecagni, head of special collections at Northeastern, who was involved in acquiring the collection. Together there are thousands of years of musical experience on the tapes Katz recorded over a three-decade career as a music reporter and critic in Boston media. But it’s the unexpected moments, like Knight on football (she was likely disappointed by the strike-shortened 1982 season), that attracted Mecagni to the collection, now digitized and available online with notes from Katz on the circumstances surrounding the conversations. “The most important part of these tapes is that they’re just really raw,” Mecagni says. “They are unpolished and unvarnished.”
In the type of moments that rarely made it into print, the celebrity musicians Katz spoke with come across as, well, people. Jimmy Buffett, in a 1998 interview, had a doctor’s appointment on his mind: “It’s that time of the year for the over-40 rock singer to go have his physical.” Tammy Wynette introduced Katz to her dog, Killer—a four-pound Pomeranian, obviously. The members of Aerosmith joked with him about the New Kids on the Block, while Eartha Kitt just seemed to want to have a little fun with her interviewer.
The tape, recorded at the Ritz-Carlton in Boston in 1980, starts mid-conversation, amid the clinking of glassware. “That is a most extricable question you ask: ‘How was it last night?’” Kitt purrs. “Do you ask that of your lover?” There’s nervous laughter. “And if I was able to say to you how it was last night, in words, maybe I didn’t enjoy it at all. If there were no words for it, then maybe I enjoyed it to such an extent that there are no words for that. Would you like to ask me that question again?”
Katz asks again. He was a daily newspaper reporter, after all; he needed the words, and he knew how to get them. To break the ice on his telephone interviews, Katz often started by asking the performers where they were as they talked. He caught Joan Baez “in the middle of a blizzard in South Dakota” and Trisha Yearwood in “hot as blazes” “scenic Green Bay.” Mick Jagger was “still in Toronto,” while Whitney Houston was on a tour bus, somewhere. “I really don’t know,” she says. “Detroit?”
For Katz, the recordings were utilitarian—part of his job. The audio isn’t high quality. The collection dates back to before the dawn of micro-recorders, and the technology for taping phone conversations was primitive, too: a suction cup microphone stuck to a telephone handset. “It worked pretty good, except when it didn’t,” says Katz, who is now retired. He never considered himself an archivist. He saved the tapes just because he was a music lover. “I remember one of the first interviews I did was with Dizzy Gillespie,” he says. “I wasn’t going to throw that away.” He still has it 43 years later. In the home of the Tufts University president, the trumpeter asks to bum a cigarette. Katz offers him a Camel.
For decades, after Katz wrote each story, he’d throw the interview recording in a filing cabinet in the Herald newsroom. “And then when the file cabinet got filled, I’d kind just throw them in a cardboard box and take them home and put them in my basement,” he says. Some cassettes were labeled, some were not; many had clearly been reused, with snippets of radio music or answering machine messages peeking through between the recordings. “I certainly never did any interview with the idea that anyone was going to listen to it other than me,” Katz says.
It wasn’t until after he retired from the Herald in 2011 that Katz, now 74, began to think about the future of the tapes—more than a thousand interviews on 500 cassettes that had, by then, made their way from the basement to plastic storage containers in a closet. Katz estimates another 300 interviews went missing through the years.
Choose a recording at random and you might hear Mariah Carey on the eve of her first tour or Billy Joel, in five interviews over 15 years, from “We Didn’t Start the Fire” to the musical Movin’ Out. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are two of the most listened-to recordings in the Northeastern collection so far. The recently deceased Sinead O’Connor, Tony Bennett, and Harry Belafonte all make an appearance or two.
If you find something cool in the collection, Katz says, he would love to hear about it. In the course of organizing the archive, he listened to the unlabeled tapes in hopes of identifying the subjects, and a few remain mysteries. But most of the recordings Katz hasn’t heard since he transcribed them years ago. “It’s just, I hate listening to myself,” he says. “And so I don’t know what’s in there.”