Tuesday, July 10, 2012

(Radio is) A Sound Salvation


The post war irradiated youth of the fifties were a fortunate bunch. These teenagers were the first  subjected to mass marketing based on demographics.  The first generation of kids that grew up with television, top forty music charts and those cool little 7" vinyl platters known as singles. Their record purchases were duly noted and tracked using a primitive system pioneered by radio legend Todd Storz. American teens in the 1950's were highly mobile, independent and had money to burn (well the white kids anyhow)

Nobody captured the zeitgeist of  1950's music and fashion like Elvis Presley. His carefully coiffed hair  and "aw shucks" mannerisms came to exemplify the era. He copied the look from Tony Curtis, after watching the 1949 motion picture "City Across the River" A movie about life in the Brooklyn slums with predictable hoodlums and results.  Based on Irving Shulman's novel "The Amboy Dukes" (which was the source of the name for Ted Nugent's psychedelic rock band from the 1960s)   

Hair was the thing, and as the decade went on, rockabilly receded like a balding man's hairline. Americans became more conservative and flat tops or buzz cuts became the norm. Tonsorial splendor was fine, to a point. Conway Twitty for instance, he started out as Harold Jenkins, but changed his name in 1957 to "something that had a ring to it" Twitty's splendid pompadour became as well known as his singing vocie. (he could be considered the Mike Score or Sonny John Moore of his generation)

Let's take today's emos with their Skrillex hair and dubstep beats as an example, or our own generational albatross (if you're at least 50) Flock of Seagulls, a group best remembered for Mike Score's freakish hair styles, as much as their tepid synthesizer new wave music. Both trends were driven by the inherent need for teenagers to differentiate one's self from the pack of nilly willy conformists. Because, if one thing has held true through the ages, it's the fact that nobody wants to like their parents or listen to the same music.

 Hang Loose Mother Goose, Here Comes the Show!
The Dorsey Brothers were too cool for school when Pops was a teen, but they were dull as dishwater compared to Elvis, Jerry Lee or Little Richard. America's rebels without a cause were being suffocated by life in little boxes and cookie cutter conformity. Television was mom & pop's domain, which meant the teeny boppers had to make do with radio. Fortunately for them, it was a period of transition for radio, big changes were taking place.

Recorded music had replaced live performances as a way to enjoy music and radio was the medium by which to promote and sell records. At the end of  World War II, there were 200 disc jockeys (give or take a few)  in the entire U.S., by 1957 there were more than 5,000. America was in the midst of a musical explosion, major and indie labels were producing recordings at a rate previously unheard of. It didn't take long for the labels to recognize that dee jays were a vital cog in the hit making machine.

Time magazine called these early spin jockeys, "the poobahs of musical fashion and pillars of U.S. low and middle brow culture" Little did Time realize just how low these guys could go.(prostitution, bribes, extortion, drugs etc.)  It all had to start somewhere and Alan Freed is generally considered to have been the first to play something that resembled rock & roll. In the late 1940s while working at WAKR in Akron, Freed starting spinning rhythm & blues records, Leo Mintz a Cleveland record store owner noticed that sales of whatever records Freed played would increase almost immediately.

Cleveland was considered a "breakout" city, where regional tendencies could translate into national trends. Mintz knew that Alan was on to something and he encouraged him to play more R & B. Freed had a preference for black music, he played honkers & shouters (manic sax driven music) R&B ballads, and uptempo jump tunes that could be considered the precursor to rock & roll. In fact that's what he came to call this infectious blend of black musical styles, "rock & roll" Freed left Akron in 1949, but he would soon meet up with Leo Mintz again

In 1951 Alan landed his first radio gig in Cleveland, playing classical music at WJW. It was a strange start for the man who would coin the very term "rock & roll" Leo Mintz, however came to the rescue. Mintz proposed buying a block of airtime on WJW devoted to R&B recordings. In the summer of 1951 Alan Freed took to the airwaves with this revolutionary format. The show was christianed "The Moondog House" a name he lifted from Louis "Moondog" Hardin's "Moondog Symphony" an instrumental that became the show's theme music. The show took off and WJW wasted little time expanding Freed's time spot.

On a Side Note: Louis Hardin was a blind avant garde street musician (he lost his sight in a farm accident at the age of 16) He was a fixture on the streets of New York City, often dressed as a Viking (thought to be homeless, he actually had an apartment in upper Manhattan) Hardin was a serious composer and "Moondog Symphony" was his very first recording. Moondog, also invented several musical instruments and released various recordings during his lifetime. (he recorded for major labels, Epic & Columbia)

In 1956 urged on by fellow musicians who felt that Freed was exploiting him, Hardin took court action charging Freed with infringement. Alan was using the name "Moondog" to market and promote himself (The King of the Moondoggers) his radio show (The Moondog Rock & Roll Matinee) the first rock & roll concert ever held (the Moondog Coronation Ball, which ended in a riot) Louis Hardin was  awarded $6,000 in damages, Freed was forced to issue an apology and ordered to stop using the name "Moondog" to promote his various enterprises.

The Moondog affair was just a hiccup for Alan Freed, as his popularity continued to grow. Tapes of his show had found their way to New York City and Radio Luxembourg. For many young English musicians such as The Beatles, (who once called themselves, Johnny & the Moondogs) this was their first exposure to the music of Elvis, Bill Haley, Little Richard etc. Alan Freed's appeal came from his delivery, it was energetic but not frantic. He spoke to his audience like they were part of a hip cult that worshiped black music, Alan of course being the high priest.

Freed soon found himself  working the airwaves in the Big Apple, courting both the kings of the music industry and impending disaster. Alan Freed and a score of free wheeling disc jockeys were the collateral casualties of an ongoing war between the ASCAP and BMI, the two entities entrusted to collect licensing fees from users of music and distributing them back to their members as royalties. BMI was the upstart, racially diverse and associated with many of the young R&B, Rock & Roll acts. The ASCAP was the old guard, still stuck in the swing era and rapidly losing ground.

The ASCAP charged that this was unfair, that the BMI had built its advantage through the use of "Payola" a word unique to the world of radio, better defined as "pay to play"  It was the first salvo in a battle that almost destroyed rock & roll and that led to a loud media outcry & public backlash. A congressional hearing was held to to root out "the cancer of payola" Which Billboard stressed "cannot be pinned on rock 'n' roll" In truth it was a practice that was as old as radio itself. Alan Freed and Dick Clark the two most prominent radio announcers were called out on the Senate floor.

At the 1960 Senate hearings, Freed was described as "a walking example of an insomniac" Alan, a chain smoker and alcoholic did not present a dashing figure.  Dick Clark on the other hand was described as  "clean cut, slim & a fine young man" Both men were cast into a big 'ol pile of shit, Clark came out smelling like roses, while Alan Freed, simply came out smelling like shit. It was his own damn fault, he was uncooperative, feisty and bitter, for all intents and purposes his career was dead. Freed was fired by WABC, during a dispute where he refused to sign a statement certifying that he had never accepted payola.

For Alan Freed it was all over except for the binge drinking and premature death (he died a broken man in 1965) His reputation in radio was shot. Alan wasn't the only one that accepted payola, but he was the scapegoat for an entire generation of dee jays. In 1960 Congress amended the FCA to outlaw "under the table payments and require broadcaster to disclose if airplay for a song has been purchased" Payola, however, was hearty as a cockroach and continued unchecked well into the 1960s and beyond. Although, tighter playlists did make it harder to get away with such shenanigans.

Zoom-Boomin' on up the Tower of Power

Pete Myers under most normal circumstances was a quiet, reserved man. He was in fact a study in contradictions, Pete rose to fame as the "Mad Daddy" a fast talking jabberwocky, who could rhyme faster and longer than anyone before or after. Yet, he spent a large part of his career, spinning Frank Sinatra platters to an audience of housewives. A student of Japanese culture, Pete Myers was radio's first and last Samurai. A man who took it upon himself to expand and explore the limits of what a disc jockey could do on-air. Others benefited more from his daring efforts, than he did.

The story is told that while Myers was stationed in Japan broadcasting propaganda to North Korea, he improvised his own version of Orson Welles' War of  the Worlds, actually convincing some Koreans that dragons were rising up out of the sea to attack North Korea. Gen. Douglas MacArthur caught wind of the prank and Myers was soon called before the man. That brought Myer's armed forces broadcasting career to an abrupt end. Once back in the states, post war... his brother a disc jockey in California convinced him to give it another go. Pete landed a job with a San Diego station, which bored him to no end.

Myers felt constrained by the style and music of that station, he packed up and went east, determined to make it to Cleveland. Instead he wound up in Akron, at WHKK radio. Pete was fully aware that his career path was following that of Alan Freed, and like the Moondog, Pete wanted to use Akron as a stepping stone to Cleveland and then eventually New York City. Another thing he had in common with Freed was his love of black music, he played the honkers of course, but he also dug up obscure off beat R&B tracks, which he would call "wavy gravy" or "mello jello" depending on his mood.

At heart Pete Myers was a beatnik, he was hipper than Alan Freed could ever hope to be. Myers was younger and had the lingo down pat. His amazing ability to spontaneously create rhymes through an entire four and a half hour show. (including commercials) set him apart from the average joe. Remember this was in the days before pre-recorded jingles, commercials or sound effect carts (cartridges similar to 8-track tapes) were in common use. It was inspiration born of desperation, with the "Big Break" within reach Myers went for broke, his credo became "A fella'd have to be mad, mad, mad... to do what I do!"

He was the Wizard of Oobladi (Ohio) and his fans were Oobladoodians. ( a term he lifted from "In the Land of Oo-bla-dee," a bebop fairy tale spun by Dizzy Gillespie) "once upon a time in the land of Oobladi"    He would open the show with a countdown: fiver, four, three, two, one...  followed by his theme song "Night Train" and immediately his listeners were emerged in a world of kooky jargon, annoying echo, madcap laughter and off the cuff rhymes. "Welcome little stinkers to the land of winky blinkers, we've boiled up wavy gravy and it's ready to flow, so hang loose Mother Goose, here comes the show." 

His mad minions were representative of Cleveland's youth population "throttle jammers (gear heads) Mello Muffins (girls) Ghoul Rockers (horror movie fans) Rockabilly Cats, Stan Freberg types (nerds) and of course beatniks" Mad Daddy would do a language drill he called "Zoomerating" where he would start at the top of the alphabet and go all the way through Z, while coming up with different words to describe his show. Myers was at his zaniest while at WJW, but he reached his peak of popularity when he switched to WHK (the infamous Dracula Hall)

The move to WHK wasn't without drama or flair, banned from Cleveland's airwaves for ninety days due to a non-competition clause in his WJW contract, Mad Daddy unleashed a headshrinker's delight of stunts designed to keep him in the public eye. His antics culminated with a tricky and rather risky plunge from an airplane into Lake Erie, he survived although the initial reports said that he had been killed. The stunt had the desired effect and once he returned to the airwaves, his popularity went through the roof.

Mad Daddy played the part, zoom boomin' around Cleveland in a pink Pontiac while wearing a black cape. He endorsed footwear called "Batty Bucks" (black buckskin loafers, with Bat wing flaps) that sold so fast that the factory couldn't keep them in stock. He hosted a late night "television fright show" during which his image would be upside down on the television screen, (many people found this disturbing) He cashed in on his fame by recording a two sided single, What is a Fisteris/ I Love a Good Practical Joke! (as The Joker, both tracks later became staples on Doctor Demento's radio program)

"What is a Fisteris" (set to the instrumental track of Chuck Berry's "Wee Wee Hours") combines a beatnik aesthetic  with Dr. Suess wordplay "Fisterises like pretty girls named Ingaborg with silver snoopers in their hair, sometimes moping about the snurds and limrocks they've loved and lost, sobbing big teedle-dools. Like everyone, they dislike artichokes for breakfast when the bumble bugger's gone."  "I love a Good Practical Joke" is a manic bongo driven romp, that has two jokers escalating their war of practical jokes with fatal results.

Having conquered Cleveland, The Mad Daddy was now ready for the Big Apple. WHK's sister station WNEW signed him on. Myers bid Cleveland farewell and then rode a wave of fanfare into New York City. His dream of being the biggest guy in the biggest city was about to come true. Events unfolded differently than he expected, however. On July 4th 1959,  The Mad Daddy took to the airwaves of New York City, he pulled out all the stops, he was zany, over top and just a few minutes into his show the phones started ringing off the hook.

As Myers wrapped up his show, someone told him the switchboard was jammed, but his elation soon turned to despair as he realized that without exception all the calls were negative. "He had come a long way to a dead end, the big break was a big mistake, Mad Daddy was a no-go in New York City" The Mad Daddy's run in NYC had lasted one show.   The next day Myers met with the WNEW brass and was told in  no uncertain terms that The Mad Daddy would never make another appearance at the station.

Staid, middle class Manhattan didn't get it, and Pete obviously didn't know his audience. Myers was under contract for four years, if anything it meant he would continue to collect a nice paycheck. As a consolation he was given a day slot as "the loveable & laughable Pete Myers".... cue the Nat King Cole. Upper crust Manhattan could relax, the barbarians had been stopped at the gate. A true pro, Pete, accepted his fate and did the best he could with his new bland persona.

Pete Myers finally escaped from the stifling clutches of WNEW in 1963. He was hired at WINS, an actual rock & roll station and home of Murray the K. Then much to his surprise Pete discovered that his Cleveland sidekick, Neil McIntyre (his former gofer and biggest fan) would be his boss. Myers convinced McIntyre to resurrect the Mad Daddy character. Myers was back on the airwaves as his old self,  " rockin' and reelin'.... hanging from the ceiling"

He worked it hard, and won over a section of NYC's radio listeners. The show also went into syndication, with taped versions going out to cities where he was popular (including Cleveland) However, the feel of the show wasn't quite the same, music had changed... the madcap sax drenched raunch of old was passé. The kids were different too, Myers found them "strange and preoccupied. Who could blame them, JFK had just been gunned down and the entire nation was in a perpetual funk.

The Mad Daddy's last hurrah in rock & roll radio came with the arrival of The Beatles. Murray the K quickly latched on to them, becoming known as "the fifth Beatle" Pete Myers found himself playing second banana. In 1965, WINS went to an all-news format, The Mad Daddy would be no more. The quiet Pete Myers returned to WNEW once more and settled back in to his customary day slot... cue the Sinatra. Radio had changed dramatically since Myers' days at WJW. With more money at stake, stations could no longer trust disc jockeys to pick their own music.

George Carlin's skit "Son of Wino" said it best: "Hi gang!, Scott Lame here. The Boss jock with the Boss sound from the Boss list of the Boss 30 that my Boss told me to play" "Boss Radio" or The Drake format, was a modified version of the Top 40 formula used by stations around the U.S.  It was developed by Bill Drake & Gene Chenault, and while today it seems like nothing, when it was first introduced it was revolutionary. The Drake system incorporated market research & ratings demographics to maximize the number of listeners. Drake introduced concepts such as music sweeps, radio contests and counter programming to the loosey goosey world of Top 40 radio.

Each show was tightly scripted, dee jays, while high energy and "fun" were kept on a tight tether. There was little or no deviation from the playlist and the program director called all the shots. "Less talk, more music, more commercials and more money" Drake fine tuned his system at KYNO in Fresno, Ca. before taking it to a larger audience in 1965, by hyping the arrival of "Boss Radio" at KHJ (Los Angeles) Within a few years, Drake's format or variations of it, had swept the radio landscape across America and Canada.

It was all too much for Pete Myers, a student of Bushido, who likened himself to a Samurai. As he lost more control of his professional life, he turned further into himself. Almost 40 yrs. old, his future in radio was shakey. In an attempt to revamp the station's image, WNEW made line-up changes in 1968. Myers was stripped of his hard earned 1-4 pm slot and moved to the 8pm to midnight spot. He was now back where he had first started in Akron. "Station officials later said they thought that Myers was enthusiastic about the change"

On Oct. 4th. 1968 Pete Myers, arose at his usual time and put on one of his finest suits. His wife awoke and half asleep thought to herself that he looked very elegant indeed. Under the bushido ideal, if a samurai failed to uphold his honor he could only regain it by performing seppuku. A gun collector, Myers took his prized shotgun, quietly went into the bathroom, closed the door and blew his brains out. His obituary would state that a note found near his body "indicated that Mr. Myers had been despondent over a plan to shift the time of his radio show"