Let ‘Em Play

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(Pictured: Meat Loaf, who is not the subject of this post, on stage in 1978.)

This New Year’s Eve, it will be 25 years since my first all-request show on the classic-rock station in Davenport, Iowa. It was a one-time thing that later became a regular gig on Saturday nights for much of 1996 and 1997. As I’ve written before, the program director trusted me to know what was appropriate to play and what was not, and if I skated over the line, he was willing to forgive me. I built a collection of literally hundreds of my own drops and sweepers too. It was highly produced, interactive, and fun for everybody, including (especially) me.

There were certain songs I could have played every week and more than once—“Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” “American Pie,” Queen’s “We Will Rock You”—but I didn’t. I wanted to please the people who didn’t call as much as the regular callers. And I wanted to take advantage of the fact that for every five listeners who wanted to hear fking Meat Loaf again, there would be one who would surprise me with something cool, something I couldn’t get on the air fast enough.

This post is about two of my favorite listener requests.

One of those requests was not in my station’s music library initially, but after I got a few calls for it, we went out and got a copy, because my boss dug it as much as I did. Mason Proffit formed in either Chicago or Champaign, Illinois, depending on which source you cite, and they were huge in the Midwest. They were on the bill of practically every major rock festival of the early 70s, along with gigs in bars, high-school gymnasiums, and wherever they could plug in their amps. Eventually they opened for the Grateful Dead, the Eagles, the Doobie Brothers, and other bands with which their country rock was a good fit. The group made five albums between 1969 and 1974. In the years that followed, co-founding brothers Terry Talbot and John Michael Talbot recorded a lot of Christian rock.

“Two Hangmen” was on the group’s first album, Wanted. It’s very very 1969, an allegory about conformity and the danger of independent thought, and in that way, it hasn’t dated a bit in over 50 years. It gains a lot of its power from its lengthy, “Hey Jude”-style finish, which runs nearly three minutes. It was eventually released as a single, but not until 1971, and it has only four listings at ARSA. KREM in Spokane, Washington, showed it as #2 in the summer, tucked between Carole King’s “It’s Too Late” and “Signs” by the Five Man Electrical Band. But it was Midwestern album-rock stations that made it a staple, and its appeal has endured. When listeners at KSHE, a heritage album-rocker in St. Louis, voted on their top songs of all time in 2013, it came in at #5.

Jerry Doucette was born in Montreal and worked out of Vancouver. He and his band made two albums, one in 1977 and one in 1978, but it didn’t help that he was on Mushroom, the same Canadian label whose demise threatened to short-circuit Heart’s career at about the same time. Doucette played a lot of shows in the States during the late 70s and early 80s, opening for Meat Loaf (that man again), the Doobie Brothers, the Atlanta Rhythm Section, and others, but he struggled at keeping backing musicians, which didn’t help his career any more than the failure of his label had.

(My favorite Jerry Doucette factoid is that he joined his first band, the Reefers, in 1963, when he was 11 years old. An 11-year-old boy in the Reefers, people.)

“Mama Let Him Play” was the Doucette song my listeners asked for. It made #72 on the Hot 100 in the spring of 1978, although all but one of its listings at ARSA are from Canadian stations. It’s a punch-your-fist-in-the-air banger that belongs on any respectable list of great car-radio songs. More than most other songs I can name, it’s an instant mood elevator. If it was in a bottle, I’d take it every morning.

I wish I still had the request lists I copied every week and left under the program director’s door on my way out of the building. I’m sure there were other pleasing, surprising, go-to-the-front-of-the-line requests I’ve long since forgotten, and I’d love to know what they were.

6 thoughts on “Let ‘Em Play

  1. I know all-request shows aren’t nearly as common nowadays, but since you have worked the format, I’ll ask you: Is there any kind of unwritten etiquette you can share with listeners to ensure that their song gets played?

    1. There’s really not way to “ensure” your song will get on. Different jocks/stations would handle the program differently. I tried to think like a programmer, and play the songs I was fairly sure a reasonable percentage of the audience would want to hear too. For example, if you’re hankering to hear the Grateful Dead on a station like I worked for, you’d be better off asking for “Truckin” or “Touch of Grey” than “China Cat Sunflower.” (But I’d be inclined to play “Alabama Getaway” where another jock might not.) A request show that’s a play-anything free-for-all probably won’t be good radio. It runs the risk of making the callers happy one at a time, but since they are a tiny percentage of those listening, it can alienate the rest..

      There are other rules a jock might have to follow: minimum one-hour separation between the same artist is pretty basic. Some “all-request” shows could have a few songs pre-programmed, maybe some very strong library cuts or current hits, just to make sure the show didn’t get too esoteric or stray too far from the regular daily routine. This was less critical on my show, since I’d been a program director and music director and my boss trusted me.

      Since you mentioned “etiquette,” I will say that one way to make sure I *don’t* play your song is to call me several times to ask for it.

  2. Great memories. While I was at 97X back in the day, on the rare occasions we did welcome requests, both “Two Hangmen” and “Mama Let Him Play” would turn up on the phones. I wasn’t familiar with either record until that stint.
    I pirated copies (ssh!) and took them with me to my next gig, and snuck them in the rotation every now and again. Years later I landed copies of both on vinyl.

  3. Chris Herman

    I actually remember hearing “Mama, Let Him Play” around 1978 and 79 but, for some reason, the fact it was by Jerry Doucette never registered in my mind. That’s why when I heard played on the radio years later, I embarrassingly thought it was an early single by Huey Lewis & the News. To those laughing at my mistake, let me explain that I think Doucette and Lewis sound very similar (if you doubt me on this, I invite you to go to YouTube or Spotify and listen to them back-to-back). Also, both acts broke through around the same time (the late 70s/early 80s).

  4. Scott Bennett

    Thanks for those two songs, Jim. The song tips are a big reason I keep coming back. But you’ll have a hard time beating “Resurrection Shuffle”, which, of course, you also introduced me to.

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