Before he came to Boston, Larry Katz was one of the Belmonts. After the New York native graduated from the Manhattan School of Music, he took gigs as a bass player. For a few years, he was a semi-regular on tour with the oldies act that recorded “A Teenager in Love” with Dion.
By the late 1970s, Katz had moved to Boston, where he was hired to cover classical music for the Real Paper, the alternative weekly. Soon he was taking other assignments as well. When Dizzy Gillespie showed up at Tufts in 1980 to accept an honorary degree, Katz sat in the solarium of the president’s house with the jazz legend and talked about his recently released memoir, “To Be or Not to Bop.”
As a bass player, Katz figured, “the odds of me playing with Dizzy were close to zero. But here I was having a one-to-one conversation with him. After that, it was like, wow, this journalism gig — I’m all in.”
Following the shutdown of the Real Paper in 1981, Katz joined the Boston Herald as an arts writer. Over more than a quarter century there, he amassed a treasure chest of 90-minute audio cassettes filled with interviews of a 20th-century who’s who of pop and rock music, from Prince to Bob Marley, Roy Orbison to David Bowie and Lou Reed.
Katz took a buyout from the Herald in 2011. Several years ago, he began transcribing his interviews — there are nearly a thousand of them — and posting them to his website. He called it The Katz Tapes.
“People who are deeply interested in music discovered it,” he says.
And they continue to do so: “Six months ago, I got an e-mail from a guy in Hungary who’d seen my Bowie interview. He wanted permission to translate it and publish it in a Hungarian arts magazine.”
The next step after launching the website was to find a home for the tapes themselves. Katz considered a few archives, including the Library of Congress and the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University, which claims one of the country’s largest music-related collections. In the end, however, he decided his tapes should remain in Boston.
The archive at Northeastern University’s Snell Library already included copies of every Real Paper issued during its decade-long run, Katz knew, as well as the Globe’s “morgue” of clippings and photos dating all the way back to the paper’s inception in 1872.
Boston has many institutions collectively doing the work of archiving the city’s cultural history, says Giordana Mecagni, who heads the Archives and Special Collections Department at Northeastern. UMass Boston, for instance, has a hip-hop archive and a collection related to social justice initiatives. Boston College has a notable Irish and Irish-American collection, and the Stan Getz Library at Berklee College of Music has an extensive collection of mid-century music periodicals.
“Boston is the kind of place where you can’t spit without hitting an archive,” Mecagni says. In recent years, she adds, a network of local archivists has been determined to achieve the level of San Francisco and New York City in terms of documenting a region’s cultural language.
“And that’s how we ended up with Larry.”
Mecagni introduced Katz to Tom Blake, the Boston Public Library’s manager of content discovery.
“Tom is often the linchpin” for this kind of project in Boston, she says.
Within a matter of hours Blake had secured a set-aside to fund the digitization of Katz’s tapes. Members of the public are welcome to browse the collection on the Internet Archive. The tapes themselves now reside at Northeastern, where Mecagni and her team plan to complete the transcripts and make them available as a reference tool.
Katz’s collection includes interviews with many of Boston’s biggest names in music — Peter Wolf, the members of Aerosmith, the late Ric Ocasek of the Cars — as well as some of the city’s lesser-known talents. The Rev. Lee Mitchell, for instance. He was a soulful gospel singer from Roxbury who could have been another Al Green, Katz says.
There are also interviews with non-musicians, including writers (“I had a wonderful lunch in Cambridge with Elmore Leonard”) and theater people (“I had breakfast at the Four Seasons with Bob Fosse”).
“I certainly never recorded any of it thinking anyone was going to listen to it,” Katz says. “I recorded because I wanted to get a story in the paper.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.