The Men at the Mike

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(Pictured: Bob Uecker interviews Reggie Jackson in the locker room after the Yankees win the 1977 World Series. This post isn’t really about Uecker, though.) 

The Milwaukee Brewers’ playoff run brought renewed attention to Bob Uecker, who’s done Brewers radio for 50 years and is still in top form at age 87, and a damn legend whose like will never be seen again. (This recent profile is absolute gold.) Over the years I have written about some of my favorite sportscasters. Here’s a reboot of some of that. 

My voice of the Badgers was Earl Gillespie, a Wisconsin sports legend who broadcast the Milwaukee Braves on radio from 1953 through 1963 before going into TV. By the 70s, he did Wisconsin Badgers football games on a statewide radio network, and his voice was as much a part of my youth as those of Larry Lujack, Fred Winston, and the rest of my Top 40 heroes. His color man was Ted Moore, who had a significant claim to fame of his own as the man at the radio mike during the Green Bay Packers’ glory years of the 1960s. Together, Gillespie and Moore provided the soundtrack for several years of autumn Saturdays. Gillespie would say “First down for Bucky Badger!,” and introduce commercial breaks by saying, “Now before the next kickoff, listen to this.”

Those early 70s Saturdays had their own rhythm. Games almost always kicked off at 1:00. Around halftime, East Coast final scores would come trickling in, from places like Harvard and Holy Cross. At halftime of home games, the broadcasters would always pause so the fans at home could hear the fans at the game sing Wisconsin’s traditional song, “Varsity.” And late in the season, the games would end as night began to fall.

And then, on Sunday games: 

It’s fashionable to criticize Joe Buck, currently the top baseball and football voice of Fox Sports, for his minimalist style, but Ray Scott, who called Packer games and four Super Bowls for CBS in the late 60s and early 1970s, was sports broadcasting’s original minimalist, always letting the game unfold and the broadcast breathe, never using two sentences when one would do, or six words when five were enough. [Uecker is a minimalist as well.—Ed.] But Scott’s great gift (and where Joe Buck often fails) was in effectively capturing the drama of the game with those well-chosen words. For a young boy just beginning to follow the NFL, he was the voice of God. He seemed larger than life and made the games seem that way, too. I can hear him now: “Starr brings the Packers to the line on third down and 14.” Even in memory, I sit up a little straighter and lean in closer to see what happens next. There are not many play-by-play guys working today who can do that.

As I travel around the country, I hear many high-level play-by-play broadcasters who don’t seem very good, but then I realize how spoiled we are up here in Wisconsin between Uecker and Brian Anderson, who does Brewers TV and national games for TNT and TBS, Wayne Larrivee on Packers football, and Matt Lepay on Badger football and basketball (and occasionally Brewers TV). Each of them deeply understands what seems so obvious, but which many sports broadcasters miss: their entire job is to either tell people what’s happening (on radio) or to elaborate on what they’re seeing (on television) as clearly and effectively as possible. They are not there to entertain. The star of the broadcast is the game and the team or teams they are covering. Oddly, that dedication to not being the star of the broadcast makes them a major attraction—entertaining, even—to those of us who enjoy their work.

My original piece on listening to Badger football began as follows, and it’s a good way to end this one. 

October 11, 1969: The Wisconsin Badgers, riding a 23-game winless streak, get a late touchdown pass from Neil Graff to Randy Marks and beat Iowa 23-16. It’s the first win for the Badgers since the 1966 season finale, a streak eased only by a tie with Iowa in 1967.

November 23, 1974: The Badgers meet Minnesota in their traditional season finale. Wisconsin tailback Bill Marek rushes for 304 yards and five touchdowns as the Badgers destroy the Gophers, 49-14. The Badgers end the ’74 season with seven wins and four losses, their first winning season since 1963.

I saw both of those games. They weren’t on TV, and I didn’t have a ticket—but they were on the radio, and that was enough.

Jazz and Conversation

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(Pictured: Steely Dan at Coachella in 2015.)

I am occasionally tempted to buy super-deluxe reissues or archive sets (most recently Elton John’s Jewel Box), but the feeling always goes away. And I don’t go crate-digging anymore, so my collection has been pretty static for a long tine. But I bought an MP3 album this week: Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly: Live.

Fagen has been doing lots of press lately thanks to the release of The Nightfly: Live and Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. In one interview, he mentioned that he wanted to go on tour in 2019 as Donald Fagen and the Steely Dan Band, only to be told by the promoter Live Nation that they wouldn’t book the band under that name; it had to be Steely Dan. Although one album is credited to Fagen and the other to Steely Dan, the lineup is the same on both, and the tracks on both come from the same run of shows, toward the end of 2019. (Tracks on The Nightfly: Live come mostly from a single show.) Fagen says the decision to make the albums was spontaneous: the band was sounding especially good after being on the road for a couple of months, and he asked the sound crew to start recording them.

The Nightfly seems to have grown in estimation since its release in 1982, not just in mine but in everyone else’s. It’s hard to find anybody with a bad word to say about it. It’s another example of the sound and the impeccable studio craft that Steely Dan fanatics love, but it’s definitely not a Steely Dan album. Fagen says that the solo albums he and Becker made were “more intimate,” and that Steely Dan albums were “more journalistic, and I was playing a part, in a way.” He denies that The Nightfly lacks an edge, however; he says that the edge is more subtle, and he’s right about that. It’s a concept album, set at the dawn of the Kennedy Era, and it evokes the vibe of the time, its optimism and its fears. We can see how the people in the songs were like us, and how they were not, and try and understand them with our knowledge of how things turned out.

Fagen notes that his current band has been together about four times as long as the original Steely Dan, and that the live albums are intended to showcase his players. He admits that the performances are pretty much like the records: “a lot of times I have difficulty coming up with anything better than Walter and I originally imagined.” But there are little moments that break the mold, a solo here (piano on “Ruby Baby,” guitar on “New Frontier”) and an embellishment there. The only track that’s drastically different is “Maxine,” on which Fagen leaves the vocals to the Steely Dan Choir of backup singers, as he’s done on “Dirty Work” and “Razor Boy” in recent years. (I was disappointed at first, but the new performance captures both the naive youthful optimism and deep autumnal vibe of the original.) Fagen always sang at the top of his range, and that’s more of a challenge now that he’s past 70. But he hits more notes than he misses, and he absolutely sings the hell out of “The Nightfly,” which is more soulful than the 1982 original.

I like The Nighfly: Live, but I wish there were more to it, not long, improvisatory freakouts necessarily, but a bonus cut or two, maybe? The Steely Dan Band has a repertoire of instrumentals that have been used to play Fagen and Becker on and off the stage, from straight jazz numbers to the theme from The Price Is Right, and while they’ve been bootlegged, an official release of one or two would be a fine thing. (One such instrumental, the R&B tune “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” is on Northeast Corridor.)

I wrote earlier in the week that I’m not especially interested in Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live. I have many live Dan bootlegs, so adding another live set isn’t a high priority. And unless you are a Nightfly fanatic, you may find The Nightfly: Live to be superfluous as well. My suspicion is that most people who buy it will be either Fagen completists like me, or vinyl collectors. But it’s a pleasant 39 minutes, and if somebody offers you a guarantee that the next 39 minutes of your life will be pleasant, you should take it.

Lead in the Water Pipes

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(Pictured: Donald Fagen onstage in 2017.)

Kurt Vonnegut famously said that future generations would look back on TV as the lead in the water pipes that slowly drove the Romans mad. That’s proven to be hyperbole, but social media has actually done it. Twitter and Facebook are quite literally killing people now and rendering others functionally insane to a degree television never could. Yet like rats who repeatedly press a button after receiving irregularly spaced rewards, we hit “refresh” again and again because amidst the toxic wave, we sometimes find something worthwhile. For example:

—There has been much Steely Dan news of late. The band postponed the first few dates of its current tour because of COVID, but also because of COVID, Donald Fagen has completed nearly enough songs for a new album. Since he was fairly clear in 2012 that Sunken Condos was going to be his last, we can count this as one of the few good things the pandemic has wrought. Two new Steely Dan/Fagen records were released last month, Northeast Corridor: Steely Dan Live and The Nightfly Live. I am more interested in the latter than the former, as I have no need to hear “Bodhissatva” or “Hey Nineteen” again. Northeast Corridor does, however, include the previously unreleased R&B cover “A Man Ain’t Supposed to Cry,” which has been closing Steely Dan shows for the last few years.

—Fagen also gave an interview in which he went deep into the process of music-making, his relationship with Walter Becker, and literature. He’s an interesting and unusual cat, but his interviews always leave me thinking that if I had the chance to meet him in the real world, I’d probably pass.

—Hooks and Harmony posted a good list of 20 important songs that peaked at #2. Plausibly related: If you are reading the Stereogum series in which Tom Breihan is writing about all of the singles to reach #1 on the Hot 100, you probably saw the little news nugget he dropped: he’s working on a book about the 20 most important #1 singles of all time.

—John Mellencamp is one of the first people I would kick out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He influenced nobody, and he’s there because he sold a lot of records over a long period of time. That said, however, I own some of those records, and I’m still playing some of his 80s hits on the radio regularly. Last week, he and Bruce Springsteen released a song called “Wasted Days,” in which their wizened voices combine to sing about the inevitable dwindling of time. I liked it a lot more than I expected.

—Old Grey Cat wrote about meeting Springsteen back in 2016. It’s likely that you’ll recognize yourself in his story.

—The forthcoming documentary Get Back, about the Beatles’ end-of-days, is going to significantly rewrite the band’s history. It will air on Disney Plus over Thanksgiving.

—In its 1950s and 60s heyday, WLAC in Nashville blasted R&B into 40 states and influenced an entire generation of kids, and musicians. Related: I am not the person to write a biography of WLAC DJ Hoss Allen, but I’d read one.

—On the subject of Nashville: one of the city’s most prolific musicians died last month. You’ve heard him play, even if you didn’t realize it.

—Lots of people have sung “My Way,” but it is ultimately one only Frank Sinatra could have done justice to, delivered with a bravado that was uniquely him. Ted Gioia wrote about what Sinatra’s performance means, and what it means to like that performance.

—We recently passed the 45th anniversary of the release of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life. This oral history provides a great deal of insight into Stevie’s creative process.

—We also passed the 30th anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The album’s producer, Butch Vig, is a Madison guy who ran a studio here for many years. Madison Magazine told the story of Nirvana’s early appearances in Madison, before anybody knew who they were.

—The Crystal Corner Bar is one of Madison’s famous nightspots, located in the heart of the city’s east side, an area where for a lot of people the 1960s never ended, in all the good and bad ways. In one way, however, the Crystal is still stuck in a different year—2004.

If you use Twitter but don’t follow me, head over to the feed in the right-hand column of this page and do so. Or maybe just delete your Twitter account entirely. Lead in the water pipes is good for nobody.

October 1, 1976: That’ll Be the Day

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(Pictured: Linda Ronstadt with Jackson Browne and the Eagles, 1976.)

You had to know this was coming.

October 1, 1976, was a Friday. In the Midwest, it’s sunny today with warmer-than-normal temperatures. The East is chilly with rain. Some places on the Great Plains reach near-record highs. Headlines in the morning papers include California governor Pat Jerry Brown’s signing of a right-to-die bill. The Census Bureau is trying to explain, as the Associated Press describes it, “an alleged multi-billion-dollar error in a vital statistical indicator of economic strength” that might have hastened the 1973-1974 recession by causing factories to cut orders and lay off workers unnecessarily. The error also may mean that the current economy is weaker than believed. Today, President Ford has a long day of meetings. One of them is with Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, who is reprimanded for racist comments recently reported in Rolling Stone. Ford also has a late-afternoon session with a Soviet delegation headed by Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko and U.S. Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin. After a 90-minute break for a swim and dinner, Ford is back in the Oval Office from 9:00 until 11:30PM. Tonight, it’s announced that he will be cleared in an investigation of improper use of campaign funds during a run for Congress in 1972. Also tonight, Republicans in the U.S. Senate use the filibuster to kill a clean-air bill at the behest of the auto industry, which is opposed to tougher emissions standards. Congress will adjourn tomorrow, as members go home to campaign. Ford will spend the weekend preparing for his upcoming second debate with challenger Jimmy Carter, which is next Wednesday. Carter celebrates his 52nd birthday today.

In the majors tonight, the Kansas City Royals lose at home to Minnesota 4-3. Many Royals fans stay after the game to watch the California Angels beat Oakland 2-0 in 12 innings to eliminate the A’s and give the American League Western Division championship to the Royals. It’s the last race to be decided. The Yankees, Phillies, and Reds have already qualified for the postseason, which won’t begin for a week. Among the high-school football games around Wisconsin tonight, the Monroe Cheesemakers lose their homecoming game, 28-6. It’s the team’s third straight blowout loss. (A Monroe fan recording the score for posterity neglects to mention the opponent.)

On TV tonight, ABC presents Donny and Marie followed by Wanted: The Sundance Woman, a made-for TV sequel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Katharine Ross. On NBC, Sanford and Son and Chico and the Man are followed by The Rockford Files and the second episode of Serpico, starring David Birney. CBS airs the adventure series Spencer’s Pilots and the 1965 theatrical movie The Cincinnati Kid starring Steve McQueen.

The Grateful Dead plays Indianapolis and Rush plays Sydney, Nova Scotia. Harry Chapin plays at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. Talking Heads play at an art gallery in Providence, Rhode Island. At WSAI in Cincinnati, there’s not much action on the station’s new survey. “Play That Funky Music” by Wild Cherry, “If You Leave Me Now” by Chicago, and “Disco Duck” by Rick Dees hold at 1-2-3. The only new entry in the Top 10 is “That’ll Be the Day” by Linda Ronstadt at #9; it replaces “Baby I Love Your Way” by Peter Frampton, which is down to #11. “Magic Man” by Heart is the hottest record on the chart by a lot, up to #15 from #26; “Lowdown” by Boz Scaggs is up to #21 from #27.

Perspective From the Present: The Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies ended the baseball season with 102 and 101 wins respectively, but the Reds swept both the Phillies and Yankees to win their second straight World Series. The Cheesemakers’ losing streak would reach six before they avoided last place in the league by winning a 12-6 tussle over equally wobegone Edgerton, a game played in a driving rainstorm. It was the first year that postseason high school football playoffs were held in Wisconsin, not that it had anything do to with us.

Sixteen-year-old me knows most of the news headlines, but all of the sports scores and all of the songs on the radio. If you had asked him then, he’d have told you that he also knew exactly who he was and precisely where he was going. But if he really knew these things, it was only relative to other kids who maybe didn’t. In fact, there was a lot that he didn’t know. Some of it he would be learning very soon; much more of it would take many years to learn. Some of it he’d be better off not knowing. Some of it he will never forget.

But that’s everyone’s life, isn’t it?

Anything You Want

Last weekend Radio Rewinder posted the Record World Top 100 for the week of September 25, 1976. (Click to embiggen.) Right on the edge between summer and fall, it’s got most of the essential Top 40 radio music from both of my favorite seasons. The oldest record, “More More More” by the Andrea True Connection, is in its 29th week, which meant it debuted in March; “Silly Love Songs” by Wings is in its 25th week, and several other songs have been around 20 weeks or more. On the other hand, certain recent debuts will remain popular at least until Christmas; “You Don’t Have to Be a Star” by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. won’t hit #1 until January.

That I playlisted the chart immediately should not surprise you at all. I have 82 of the 100 songs in my digital library. But what about the other 18?

Continue reading “Anything You Want”

The Prize Movie and Other Tales of Local TV

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(Pictured: an elephant watching TV. Mouse over or click the image to read the original Getty Images caption, which is a journey.)

I wrote a few weeks ago how back in the day, before cable and streamers and YouTube, we watched whatever was on broadcast TV. I thought of it again the other morning after going down a rabbit hole involving The Prize Movie With Ione, which ran on WLS-TV in Chicago on weekday mornings from 1967 til 1975. A 1993 Chicago magazine article described it as “a live, low-budget comedy/variety/game show and fitness program with a call-in talk feature” that also featured heavily edited old movies. Its host, Ione Citrin, was up for anything—wearing odd costumes, ad-libbing with phone callers participating in contests, and/or doing calisthenics. In Chicago at that time, you had maybe six channels to choose from, and if you weren’t interested in watching Concentration on one of them or a sitcom rerun on another, Ione was a pleasant companion while you did chores, wrangled your pre-school kids, or sat on your couch smoking cigarettes.

The Prize Movie With Ione throws back to a bygone era in television: when local stations employed personalities who were not necessarily associated with the news department. They frequently hosted a movie in the morning or afternoon, and clowned around during breaks, as Ione did. Actor Tim Conway and future voice-over titan Ernie Anderson gained fame in the same role on a local station in Cleveland. (The Whose Line Is It Anyway pitchman routine, so hilariously done by Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie, is a direct parody.)

Many stations aired local afternoon shows for kids. On WISC-TV here in Madison, ventriloquist Howie Olson hosted Circus 3 with sidekick Cowboy Eddie. At WKOW, Marsh Shapiro was Marshall the Marshal. (Shapiro was a sort of Renaissance man; in addition to the TV kids’ show, his main job was news director at WKOW Radio. He also anchored sports on TV and founded the Nitty Gritty, a popular local restaurant, besides.)

WKOW employed two other personalities who are remembered by a few elderly viewers today. Big John Schermerhorn (always “Big John,” never just “John”) started as a sports anchor, but was better known as the host of a locally produced polka show called Dairyland Jubilee that aired statewide, and for hosting the station’s annual March of Dimes telethon, before his death in 1974. Luella Mortenson went back even further, hosting local homemaker shows practically from the station’s first days on the air in 1953.

Local personalities would often be tasked with hosting Dialing for Dollars. Dialing for Dollars was actually a franchised feature licensed to local TV markets, although I suspect that many stations ran similar features without coughing up a franchise fee. A name and number would be drawn from submitted entries, and sometimes directly from the local phone book. The host would place a call to the number, and the person answering had to come up with a secret word announced at the beginning of the show, or the amount in a cash jackpot. If they got it right, they won. If not, the jackpot increased and rolled over to the next day. It made for compelling TV in an era when we could be compelled for less than it takes today. At my house, during summer noontimes, we would wait for the phone to ring, even though we didn’t expect it to.

Dialing for Dollars and programs like it began disappearing in the 1970s, a victim of changing times. (The Prize Movie With Ione went off the air in 1975 partly because WLS-TV needed to air a new ABC network show called Good Morning America.) Locally produced programming cost money where taking a network feed did not; it became more important to spend personnel budget on newscasts, which were flagship programs and frequently made money in crates. After that, if a station needed a “personality” for something, the job often fell to the weatherman (who was not necessarily a trained meteorologist, as most TV weather people are today). Frequently, he (and occcasionally, she) became the one who hosted the telethons, made public appearances, and participated in station stunts.

Every TV market in the country had its local personalities in the era when such a thing was popular. Let’s hear about the ones you remember.