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Irwin Stambler, who chronicled the history of rock in scholarly encyclopedias, dies at 92

Irwin Stambler, an aeronautical engineer whose love of music inspired him to write some of the earliest and most flavorful encyclopedias on pop music, has died at the age of 92.

Stambler died Feb. 10 of complications from sepsis in West Los Angeles, his family said. 

A prolific author who wrote dozens of books on a variety of topics, including space exploration and biographies on treasured sports figures, Stambler took a particular interest in the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, the blues, and country and Western music.

In assembling “The Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul” and other compendiums on music, Stambler would often do his own research, interviewing musicians and attending concerts, his son Lyndon Stambler said. The process gave the entries in his encyclopedias a folksy you-were-there quality.

“He really wanted to give people a flavor of these artists,” his son said.

An engineer by training, Stambler arrived in Los Angeles as a correspondent for Space Aeronautics Magazine in 1954, just as the aeronautical industry began putting its first footprints on the Southern California landscape. He wrote newsletters, a book on aviation, another on engineering, and later a set of books on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space missions.

But his fondness for music and curiosity about the artists who created it opened other avenues for his writing.

His first effort to chronicle a musical genre was “The Encyclopedia of Popular Music,” an expansive catalog on Broadway musicals that was published in 1965. He later wrote “The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western” with the late Grelun Landon, a record industry publicist and confidant of Elvis Presley.

The “Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul” arrived in 1974, becoming perhaps the first encyclopedia to dig into the personalities of rock musicians and explore their cultural impact. In the pre-Internet days, it became a valued resource for academics and music fans alike.

“Pop music had never been treated so scholarly,” said Michael Ochs, the noted rock archivist and brother of the late folk singer Phil Ochs.

Stambler was born Nov. 20, 1924, and grew up in Brooklyn. His mother was a piano teacher; his father owned a jewelry business. In a house filled with music, his immigrant parents favored the classics while he leaned toward the harmonica and the emerging sound of rhythm and blues. 

Stambler attended New York University to study engineering but was drafted in 1944, serving in the Army during the final days of World War II. He later returned to NYU and earned a bachelor and master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

Post-war New York was a bustling, diverse city filled with infinite possibilities, fresh ideas and adventuresome music. Stambler’s son said his father embraced it all.

“He was very much a product of his times,” his son said. “He was there at the beginning in rock ‘n’ roll.”

Later in life, Stambler and his son teamed up to write “Folk & Blues: The Encyclopedia.” Lyndon Stambler, a journalism professor at Santa Monica College, said his father was a tough act to keep up with.

The elder Stambler had a progressive ear for music, shifting seamlessly from Cole Porter to David Bowie to the Beatles and back to Elvis. When his father took him to a punk concert one night, Lyndon Stambler said, he stuffed tissue in his ears to dampen the decibel level of the music. His father looked at him and shook his head. “Where’s your toughness?”  Irwin Stambler asked.

Stambler is survived by his wife, Constance; daughters Amy Sprague Champeau and Alice Seidman; sons Barrett and Lyndon; nine grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

steve.marble@latimes.com

Twitter: @stephenmarble

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