Sunday, November 22, 2015

Turn the Radio On

The Music
A music fan; I like music of almost all types. For several years, I've booked musicians, singers, and music groups that perform at the Bookstore Stage in Torrey, UT for The Entrada Institute. Myself, I don't have much talent in singing or playing an instrument. I keep an acoustic guitar around home, and take it out of its case now and then. I know a few chords, but my attempts at playing are strictly solo, without an audience. Not much of a singer either, but I enjoy singing . . . in the car, in the shower - - alone.

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From an early age, I was drawn to music - - that is, listening to music. And the first music I heard was likely on the radio. Sometime around 1957, in my childhood family an old clock radio was replaced (mainly used to wake my Dad for early morning farm work). My brothers and I took the old one upstairs to our bedrooms. We tried using a metal coathanger and aluminum foil to improve its reception. The best time seemed to be late at night when some of the AM stations boosted their signals - - occasionally I could pickup a station from Memphis, TN, probably WDIA. Three hundred and sixty miles away.

A quick rundown of some of the pop music of the Fifties leading into the Sixties (Perhaps not always in order). Popular styles included big band and orchestras, jazz, ballad crooners and song stylists (Nat King Cole), and traditional country tunes (Hank Williams) and then Rockabilly. I remember kids my age and older still citing Stardust (1927 by Hoagy Carmichael), covered by groups such as Glenn Miller and His Orchestra as their favorite song. 

Your Hit Parade was a weekly network TV show that aired from 1950 to 1959 (Its radio predecessor began in 1935 and ran for fifteen years). I did not watch the show until the late Fifties when my family first got a television. Each week the seven top popular songs were featured and performed in reverse order by the Hit Parade cast of singers and dancers. The top songs were determined somehow by a ‘national survey of record sales.’ American Tobacco Company’s Lucky Strike cigarette brand sponsored the show. Each week on Saturday night, the audience would anticipate which songs would be in the top three positions and how many weeks they might stay there.

A vivid childhood memory is of me and my two older brothers being invited over to a neighboring farmhouse by an elderly couple to watch television on a Sunday night. We washed and scrubbed, put on our best clothes, and were dropped off in the early evening. There was popcorn and Kool-aid, but my main recollection is seeing and listening to the Nat King Cole Show. At that time, I did not realize his was the first network music variety series hosted by a black performer.

By the late-Fifties, youngsters like myself were beginning to listen to rhythm and blues music with its stronger rhythms, often faster-paced beats, and sometimes suggestive lyrics. Music by black performers such as Fats Domino and Little Richard.

Yeah, I remember listening to 'rockabilly music' too.
"Well, I never felt more like singing the Blues
cause I never thought, that I'd ever lose
your love Dear. Why'd you do me this way?"

That is the first song that I remember learning all of the words and singing along to - - whistle if you wish.

Marty Robbins and many others covered Guy Mitchell's pop-hit of 1956; YouTube has numerous other versions - guess I was in good company.

The Sixties . . .
Growing up in the rural Midwest nearby hometown Findlay, IL, guys around my age spent hundreds of hours driving around in automobiles (Gas was cheap, around 30 cents per gallon) and listening to radio, station WLS at AM 890 kilocycles on the dial.

Five thousand watts of power that on a clear, cold night could reach way out into Iowa, east to Ohio and beyond, north to Deer River MN, or down to the Ozark hilltops and beyond to Louisiana. WLS - - 'The Bright Sounds of Chicago Radio'. Music fans could pick up the station’s evening, atmospheric ‘skip’ hundreds and sometimes a thousand of miles away. WLS made the world seem a little smaller to the average guy growing up in a place that they thought was the middle of nowhere. We ignored the signal drift and static that only lasted for a little while before the signal came back gangbusters strong. The call letters, WLS originally stood for ‘World’s Largest Store” - the station was owned by Sears, Roebucks way back when it started as a country station. But by the Sixties and into the Seventies, it was basically Top-40 music all the time and had some well-known deejays that ushered in the golden age of top forty radio.

Walt Mizener (Apr 2015) posted an article on Facebook about 'Superjock' Larry Lujack’s death (Dec 2013). Lujack was one of a string of radio deejays from the Sixties and Seventies who kept WLS radio as a top rated Top40 station.

In early May of 1960 a pack of new deejays were hired by WLS and revolutionized the music heard in the Chicago area. “WLS’s Swinging Seven” (Art Roberts, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar, Dick Biondi, Gene Taylor, Bob Hale, and Clark Weber) became known all over the country. Bob Hale was the MC of the Winter Dance Party the night Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper played in Clear Lake, Iowa (February 1959) . . . “the day the music died.”

A Sixties feature at WLS Radio was the Silver Dollar Survey Countdown. The survey was compiled each week from record sales reports gathered in the Chicagoland area. 

Lujack, Biondi and some of the others . . .
Dick Biondi was at WLS in 1960 to 1963. He was named the number one disc jockey in the country by Billboard magazine in 1961 and 1962. He called himself 'The wild I-talion' and (Suspended for some FFC violations) was noted for his occasional off-color jokes. Around 1962, I remember his on-air-comment “Meanwhile back at the oasis, the Arabs are eating their dates.” Is my memory correct? Did the station go silent a few moments and then another deejay take Biondi's place? The dreaded FCC censor at work . . .

Biondi drew an unbelievable sixty percent of all radio listeners as 'The Screamer' at WLS. One fan noted that “No matter how crazy things get, as long as you can still hear ‘The Wild I-talian’ on the radio, you just know that all is right with the world.” (Robert Feder, 2009). Listen to Dick Biondi WLS Radio Second Anniversary Show 1962.

WLS fired Biondi three years to the day of his hiring because of a dispute over the amount of advertising that was broadcast during his air time. He was the first to play a Beatles tune on radio; 'Please Please Me' in 1963. He was influential in advancing the careers of performers like Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. Dick Biondi was inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame (1998). Sometimes sidelined for health reasons, today he's still on-air at WLS-FM 94.7 Radio; Biondi claims that he wants to die with his headphones on . . . 

There were others:
Dex Card
Clark Weber (East of Midnight show)
Bob Hale - MC 'Feb. 2, 1959' in Clear Lake, IA
Ron Riley (Sixties) 
Art Roberts (Sixties) 'Bedtime Stories'

Tribute to WLS Sounds of the 60s

Bill Bailey (Seventies) Includes an audio clip.
Fred Winston (Seventies)
Joel Sebastion Show (Seventies)
Jon ‘Records’ Landecker (Seventies) - "Records was truly his middle name." He created 'Boogie Check', 'Americana Panorama', and satirical songs and bits based on current events such as 'Make a Date with the Watergate' and 'Press My Conference'.

Larry Lujack was a standout WLS deejay, the Superjock of the Seventies. Uncle Lar, the ‘wild man’, and ‘king of radio’ was on-the-air with his sidekick, Lil’ snot-nosed Tommy (Tommy Edwards).

"When buying a used car, punch the buttons on the radio. If all the stations are rock and roll, there's a good chance the transmission is shot." - Larry Lujack

Among Lujack's most popular radio bits were Animal Stories (Made three albums of them in all) and the Cheap Trashy Showbiz Report. Animal Stories included the tale of an anteater who had a twelve inch tongue and could move it in and out of its mouth forty times a minute. Lujack's response was, "I'd bet mom would love that for Mother's day"!

Larry Lujack "Off the Record" Part 1 of 3.

Who remembers the 'Tooth Fairy' stories with Dick Orkin, nurse Durkin, and the Toothmobile? Or the ads for drag strips in Union Grove, WI and Oswego Speedway in IL. SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY!

Other great links:
WLS 890 AM Chicago - The Lost Sixties

WLS Radio 25th Anniversary TV Show Ch-7 Chicago (1985)
The radio station celebrated its 25th anniversary of playing rock and roll with this retrospective TV show. Most of the disc jockeys of the past (and some of the present at the time) appear on this program. The program was hosted by the late super jock Larry Lujack

There were a few other AM Radio competitors in nearby regions. During summer vacations back to the Arkansas Ozarks, I listened to KAAY out of Little Rock (K Double A Y!), another 50,000 watt clear channel station - Clyde Clifford and Beaker Street.

WDIA-AM Memphis in the Sixties was the among the nation's first stations to devote its entire format to black popular music. They were the first to have African American broadcasters on staff; Nat D. Williams, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, and many others demonstrated an original flair, wit, and personality that helped attract young black and white listeners alike. Whether they were making up poems on the spot or urging their listeners to stay in school, these deejays made WDIA the true pulse of Memphis. Late night clear channel AM broadcasts, "50 thousand watts of goodwill" out of WDIA opened the doors to blues music by James Brown (Caldonia), B.B. King, and more.

Back in the day, we listened to WLS almost exclusively. It was the golden age of AM Radio. These days, WLS is talk radio with a few seemingly sane hosts augmented by mostly jabbering nutcases; syndicated programming such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

Have a related memory to share. Click on the 'comments' below and add your ideas and information. (Do that on any posting). lj