Author Archive: jb

Lost in Love

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It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

She will steal your time and batter your emotions. You know she’s going to do it, because it’s how she is with you. But you want her anyway—against every bit of common sense and good judgment, despite of all she’s done to you and all she’s going to do—you want her.

Sometimes you see yourself clearly, and the fix you’re in. You realize that you have the option—and the need—to get away from her, as fast and as far as you can. And maybe you even manage to make the break a time or two. But then she looks at you just so, or she does that thing that makes you crazy, or she’s just there to scratch the itch you have at the moment it really needs scratching. And you’re lost, in love all over again.

Forty years ago today, I did my first real radio show, at the end of my first semester in college at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, a three-hour morning-show fill-in on the campus station during final exam week.

I say “real” because I’d done some less-than-real stuff before that. I’d imagined myself as a DJ from the time I was 11 years old, and I frequently pretended to be one. As a result, long before I sat down in an actual working broadcast studio, I could talk up a song introduction and ad lib the weather. In 1976, I had purchased 15 minutes of airtime on our hometown station in a fundraising auction for some club at our high school. I used my time to play some songs I liked and to crack wise. But it wasn’t until December 14, 1978, that I got to do real radio in real time in a real studio over a real transmitter. The next day, I did a six-hour show that was the single most exhilarating experience of my life. Nothing else, in radio or in life itself, has ever come close. My long-awaited radio career had begun.

I got my first paying radio job less than three months after that, and I worked part-time all through school. My full-time radio career began in 1982 and ended on the first working day of 1994. I got a couple of other full-time jobs after that, one at the end of 1994 and one in 2013, but neither one of them was meant to be, so I gave them back. But for 25 years now, I have been mainly a part-time radio guy. I have been a part-timer more than twice as long as I was a full-timer. And for a eight-year stretch of those 40 years, from 1998 to 2006, I didn’t do a DJ show at all—just a few sports broadcasts and a tiny bit of voiceover work.

So it may be 40 years since my first show, but I don’t think I can call it 40 years in radio. Forty years around radio, maybe.

I never really had a career plan. I wanted to climb the market ladder, but I had no idea how best to do it. Although I learned a lot from lots of people, I never really had a mentor in the traditional sense. I had the attention span of a goldfish and the work ethic of a hobo. (Still do.) So I blundered along.

And after many years of blundering, I come to this anniversary.

I am under no illusions that my career has been anything like a success. I look at certain friends and colleagues in the industry and see the sort of careers I wish I had today, and I regret that I do not.

I am under no illusions that this is anybody’s fault but mine, however. It’s what you get when you fall in love with a girl who turns out to be bad for you.

Forty years on, I still love radio. She’s the only thing in my life that gets me jacked up. Radio work seems meaningful in a way that all the other work in my life does not.

But even now, when I keep her at arm’s length, she is still capable of breaking my heart. And if I keep hanging around her, she’s almost certainly going to do it again.

Christmas Boxes

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Billboard did not publish a Christmas chart in its edition dated December 9, 1972. It did, however, include a feature we have visited before, “What’s Playing,” in which amusement operators list the records they are adding to their jukeboxes, or which are getting big play. From this we can get a modest idea of the demand for particular Christmas hits in that bygone year.

Jukebox operators were well-advised to stock up on Christmas warhorses: at C. S. Pierce Music in Brodhead, Wisconsin, Marie Pierce (someone known to some of my relatives since my mother is from Brodhead) reports big play for Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” and “Jingle Bell Rock” by Bobby Helms. Betty Schott of Western Automatic Music in Chicago says Brenda Lee and Bobby Helms are doing well on jukeboxes catering to the high-school crowd, as are Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song” and “Silver Bells” by Margaret Whiting and Jimmy Wakely, first heard at Christmas 1950. In Jefferson City, Missouri, Lloyd Grice of United Distributors reports patrons are playing four versions of “Blue Christmas” on his soul-music jukeboxes, by Elvis, Russ Morgan, Ace Cannon, and Ernest Tubb. He’s also seeing action on “Jingle Bell Rock” and Bing’s “White Christmas,” which has always done big business among soul and R&B audiences. In Madison, Wisconsin, Pat Schwartz of Modern Specialty Company is stocking country jukeboxes with Nat and Bing, but also with Dean Martin’s version of “Blue Christmas,” the Carpenters’ “Merry Christnas Darling,” and the Harry Simeone Chorale’s “The Little Drummer Boy.” Harry and Bing are pulling big coins on jukeboxes serviced by Lloyd Smalley of Chattanooga Coin Machine Company in Chattanooga, Tennessee, along with Elvis doing “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” and “Blue Christmas,” of course. In Fertile, Minnesota, in the northwestern part of the state, Duane Knutson of Automatic Sales Company has stocked his easy-listening jukeboxes with “White Christmas” and Johnny Cash’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy,” and is looking ahead by getting Guy Lombardo’s “Auld Lang Syne,” too.

A handful of ethnic novelties are turning up on a few Midwestern jukeboxes in December 1972. In Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, Ruth Sawejka of Coin-Operated Amusement Company has purchased “Yo Ho Hilda’s Christmas” by Jimmy Jenson, a Swedish dialect record that nicks the tune from “Up on the House Top.” Jim and Belle Stansfield of Stansfield Novelty Company of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, are adding Jenson’s version of the Yogi Yorgesson hit “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” Jenson, known as the Swingin’ Swede, was a popular bandleader and restauranteur in Minnesota from the 1940s into the new millennium. He started doing Swedish dialect records after hearing Yorgesson in the 50s.

The Stansfields in LaCrosse and Robert Hesch of A&H Entertainers in Rolling Meadows, Illinois, are adding another Scandinavian dialect record, “Christmas Goose” by Stan and Doug. Stan Boreson was from Washington state and became a popular kids’ TV host in Seattle. In 1970, he and partner Doug Setterberg released Stan and Doug Yust Go Nuts at Christmas, which featured several versions of Christmas novelties first recorded by Yorgesson; “Christmas Goose,” which revolves around a mild double entendre, is a parody of Anne Murray’s “Snowbird,” and it scores extra points for rhyming “goose” with “obtuse.”

(The popularity of Scandinavian dialect records in the Upper Midwest should not surprise you. Everybody who did them performed in the shadow of Yorgesson, the Elvis of the form. I wrote about him in 2008.)

Christmas music is not the only thing jukebox patrons want in December, of course. And so the operators are stocking big Top 40 hits, or hits-to-be: Marie Pierce reports “I Wanna Be With You” by the Raspberries, “Keeper of the Castle” by the Four Tops, “Been to Canaan” by Carole King, the Partridge Family’s “Looking Through the Eyes of Love,” “Long Dark Road” by the Hollies, and “Sitting” by Cat Stevens. Also on her list: “I Got a Bag of My Own” by James Brown and “Angel” by Rod Stewart. Betty Schott is spanning genres with Bread’s “Sweet Surrender,” “Rock and Roll Soul” by Grand Funk Railroad, “Superfly” by Curtis Mayfield, and Three Dog Night’s “Pieces of April.” Going similarly wide, Helen Franklin of Schaffner Music Company of Alton, Illinois, reports “Ventura Highway” by America, Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes,” and Cher’s version of “Our Day Will Come.”

Operators knew the desires of the audiences in the places where their boxes were located; restauranteurs and bartenders could help them tailor their selections. Programming an analog jukebox was both science and art, but certainly both hit and miss as well.

The Tale of a Crowded Decade

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(Pictured: the Madison skyline from Lake Monona. The low building on the lake at the right is Monona Terrace, a project proposed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1938 that wasn’t actually built until 1997.)

There are two ways to read a book you find absolutely riveting. You can devour it in one or two sittings, or you can ration it out a chapter at a time in hopes of making it last. I have been doing the latter with the brand-new Madison in the Sixties by Stuart Levitan, a local journalist, historian, and broadcaster.

Madison, Wisconsin, is sometimes known as Berkeley by the Lake or 77 square miles surrounded by reality. It has a unique pull. Many of us who live here romanticize Madison (right or wrong) as better-run, better-educated, more diverse, and just generally cooler and more together than other places. (And if you think the image we have of the city doesn’t extend to ourselves for being smart enough to live here, think again.) Many Madisonians look back on the 1960s as the decade when the city—and by extension, ourselves—got that way.

Levitan’s book is not a cultural history. Its goal is not to narrate a barefoot, tie-dyed idyll of sex, drugs, and campus unrest soundtracked by the Beatles. Instead, Levitan follows several major themes that extended through the entire decade: the city’s struggles with civil rights and urban renewal; repeated attempts to build a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed civic center on the shore of Lake Monona; growth and change in the Madison public schools and at the University of Wisconsin; and the protest era. In the course of his research, Levitan read every 1960s edition of the city’s two major daily newspapers, the Wisconsin State Journal and the Capital Times, and the UW paper, the Daily Cardinal. Year by year, he follows his major themes, but he also includes other notes that provide added flavor. Some of my favorites follow.

—In 1963, a contest was held to design the city’s flag. Two teenage boys submitted the winning design, which has remained largely unchanged for 55 years. Right after the Common Council adopted the flag, they proudly hung it in chambers. Where nobody noticed it was upside down. For three years.

—In February and October 1967, there were two major anti-war protests against on-campus recruitment by Dow Chemical. But another protest that year, utterly forgotten today, was just as purely Madison. In 1966, University Avenue through the campus was converted to a one-way going west. But planners also built a single wrong-way bus lane to facilitate mass transit, separated from the rest of the street by a low cement divider. In May 1967, after a UW student was hit by a bus and lost a leg, students rallied to protest the wrong-way bus lane, but the protest turned into a riot with 5,000 students and 25 arrests. In response, city officials increased the number of stoplights on University Avenue crossings as a safety measure. The one wrong-way lane is still in use today as a bike lane; I had crossed it approximately a million times before I learned its history. (Fixed. Ed.)

—In January 1968, plans were announced for the Camp Randall Music Festival, to be held in the university’s football stadium in May. A Chicago promoter planned to bring Bob Dylan, the Doors, the Association, and Bill Cosby to town as headliners. It didn’t happen, although the Doors did come to town that fall.

—In April 1968, the UW needed a new basketball coach, and offered the job to the 28-year-old coach of Army, Bobby Knight. After the deal was done, university officials gave the story to a local reporter. But when it hit the paper, Knight balked, claiming he hadn’t yet told officials at West Point, or even his wife, and he backed out. One wonders how hoops history might have changed if Knight, who would take over at Indiana University in 1971 and win three NCAA championships, had come to Madison.

If you live here, or if you know this town, you’ll be as riveted by Madison in the Sixties as I have been. It may mean less to you otherwise, but it wouldn’t be entirely without interest. Many issues playing out here during that crowded decade were being worked out elsewhere too. Madison is not the only city in America that became what it is today during the turbulent, fascinating 1960s.

Levitan maintains a Facebook page with stories and pictures from the book. He’s also done a series of Madison in the Sixties features for local radio station WORT. 

As the Years Go By

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(Pictured: Badfinger. AM radio was not the only thing smokin’.)

This post is based on the American Top 40 show from November 21, 1970, but it’s also a companion piece to my earlier post about the way music sounded on AM radio. Links go to WABC-processed versions except for one.

40. “Black Magic Woman”/Santana. The first few notes of this creep out of any radio. They are especially effective when creeping out of an AM soundscape, and especially especially effective at night.

36. “No Matter What”/Badfinger. If I were to do a list of the five best-sounding AM Top 40 records, this would be on it, and it might be #1. The opening riff (whomp-whomp-whomp-whompity-whomp-whomp) is awesome at any level of fidelity. On a processed AM Top 40 signal, it’s glorious.

35. “Deeper and Deeper”/Freda Payne. Thanks to the sound quality of the AT40 repeat, this sounded a little mushy at first; really busy, with a lot of sounds all at once. Then came Freda rising from the deep, and it’s fabulous.

32. “After Midnight”/Eric Clapton. “After Midnight” comes vividly back to me from my first radio, the green Westinghouse tube-type, at night, all of the arrangement folded down into a single laser beam of sound and sensation. See also #15, “Engine Number 9” by Wilson Pickett, where the guitar is razor-sharp at full fidelity but would slice you to ribbons on AM. Equally bracing: the first five notes of Brian Hyland’s “Gypsy Woman” at #9, which might be the song on this list that’s most strongly evocative of listening to that particular radio at night. See also #28, “One Less Bell to Answer.”

31.  “As the Years Go By”/Mashmakhan. Mashmakhan was a band from Montreal whose roots went back to 1960 and which had become appropriately psychedelic by 1970, after being renamed for a strain of marijuana popular in late 60s Toronto. We’ve all got gaps in our musical knowledge, and “As the Years Go By” is one of mine. Although the title and artist are familiar to me from bumping into them in print over the years, I am pretty sure I never heard it until I listened to this show on its recent repeat.

29. “Stand by Your Man”/Candi Staton. A magnificent soul update of Tammy Wynette’s country standard. I wonder how many times in a row I could listen to this before I would want to hear something else.

26. “Candida”/Dawn. As I’ve mentioned many times before, “Candida” was the first record I ever loved. See also #17, “Cracklin’ Rosie,” the second record I ever loved; #6, “Indiana Wants Me” by R. Dean Taylor, which may have been my favorite song of the moment in late November of 1970; and inevitably, #1.

22. “Stoned Love”/Supremes. “Stoned Love” was a lost record, one I didn’t hear between its falling-out of regular rotations in 1971 and its repackaging on CD in the early 90s. See also #18, “(5-10-15-20) 25-30 Years of Love” by the Presidents.

19. “Share the Land”/Guess Who. Is this the best song on this entire AT40 show? Possibly. The WABC-processed version sounds so great I can hardly stand it.

10.  “Montego Bay”/Bobby Bloom. I think I bought this 45 with Christmas money in 1970. Although it’s frequently heard today in a longer version that ends with a bit of “Oh What a Beautiful Morning,” that bit wasn’t on the hit version. (Hot damn the WABC remix is fantastic.)

3.  “I’ll Be There”/Jackson Five. Eternally magical in its 45 mix (of which no good upload exists at YouTube), this hasn’t been processed by the WABC guy yet, which may be a good thing, because if it was, I’d be slain eternally dead.

1.  “I Think I Love You”/Partridge Family. Kurt Blumenau, who was not weaned on this stuff the way I was, listened to some of the WABC remixes and said, “It sounds like they’re playing in a train station, and yet I cannot deny the appeal.” The train-station metaphor fits the WABC remix of “I Think I Love You,” but notice how intimate the record suddenly becomes when the harpsichord kicks in.

In an ideal world, radio sound would be precisely faithful to the way artists and producers imagine their art. In this deeply flawed world of ours, radio sound is intended to serve the needs of stations—in many cases, simply to make them louder than other stations on the dial. In the world we used to know, radio sound enhanced the listening experience without intruding on it.

I have never forgotten what it was like to listen to that world, and sweet mama do I miss it.

(Note to patrons: There’s another new post at One Day in Your Life today. There will be more than usual the rest of this month, so bookmark it or subscribe.)

Jock Around the Clock

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During our college days at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, early December meant the annual telethon for Wisconsin Badger Camp, a place that provided outdoor recreational opportunities for the developmentally disabled. It was broadcast on the campus cable station, and it was all hands on deck for 24 hours—even those of us who didn’t work much TV found ourselves involved. (I tried to remain pure by handling the audio board.)

In December 1980, The Mrs., then a sophomore, was a co-host of the telethon, and was on camera for the whole 24 hours. “The week before the telethon,” she remembered, “I got to visit a local bridal shop in town that loaned me three or four different formal gowns to wear during the telethon. I had actual costume changes!” She also said, “The next year, I wanted to participate again. The telethon always had new co-hosts each year, so I convinced the supervising faculty member to let me be the 24-hour telephone answerer. Different student organizations would provide people to help answer phones in four-hour shifts every year. I sat at the end of the line, so all the other phones had to be busy for me to get a call. Several times an hour, the cameras would turn on me (and I mean that in both meanings of the phrase) and I’d do my best to get people to call in, even if it was just to talk to me so the darn phone would ring while we were on camera. That telethon seemed to last a lot longer than the year before.”

For the 1980 telethon, we decided to get the campus radio station involved with a promotion we called Jock Around the Clock. The plan was for me to do a 24-hour shift on the station during the telethon, soliciting donations and doing who-knows-what to keep the audience (and myself) entertained. We promoted the hell out of it for a couple of weeks, only to have the station’s transmitter kick the bucket three days beforehand. We were off the air entirely during telethon week (which was also the week John Lennon was murdered), so Jock Around the Clock didn’t happen. There was talk of trying to do it again the next year, but I had lost interest by then.

There is absolutely no guarantee that I would have been able to complete the 24-hour radio show, of course. Thinking back on it now, it seems absurd to have believed I would. I hadn’t planned anything special apart from staying on all that time—I hadn’t booked any guests, from Badger Camp, from the TV crew, or from anywhere else—and I suppose I assumed that the novelty of all-me, all-the-time was going to be sufficient. In those days, it would not have been out of character for me to bail on it partway through, even after the station had spent weeks promoting it. Such was the extent of my ego back in the day.

The Badger Camp Telethon got shorter over the years, and it aired for its last time in 2013, I believe. But during its 40-year lifespan, it raised untold amounts of money, and it remains a fond memory among those of us who participated in it. It was a rare opportunity to do live, long-form television—and it was usually capped off with an epic party involving the TV station staff, volunteers, and the Greek organizations that co-sponsored the telethon. One year, when the party was raging at 2:30 in the morning, we looked around and noticed that only the broadcasters were left standing—we’d outpartied the frat boys in their own house.

(Rebooted from a post first appearing in 2009.)

On the Subject of “Baby It’s Cold Outside”

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This blog has long held the opinion that “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” first heard in 1944, is a terrible song, and here’s the receipt from 2012 to prove it. We have officially abominated all versions except for the one by Ray Charles and Betty Carter because it’s Ray Charles, but even that one isn’t good. While we are in favor of sweet winter lovin’ in front of the fireplace, “Baby It’s Cold Outside” comes off as insufferably coy and stupid, and we hated it first for purely aesthetic reasons. Only later did it start coming off as predatory, given the man’s unwillingness to let the woman go home when she says she wants to, and her line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”

Last year at the start of the Christmas season, I e-mailed the program director of my radio station with the suggestion that, in the #MeToo Era, perhaps we should consider dropping the song, although I never followed up to see if he did it. This year, after WDOK in Cleveland got a call complaining about it, they did a listener poll, and based on the result, dropped the song.

This they might have done quietly, but they posted about it on their website early last week. It stayed under the radar until word got out, and over the weekend a good old-fashioned social media shitstorm developed. On one side of said storm are people who are saying basically what I said above: today we believe that when a woman says “no” she means “no,” and the proper response from a man upon hearing “no” is not to slip her a roofie and keep trying to get her shirt off. Further, we should probably move past a time in which that scenario is one of the Christmas decorations. On another side are arguments including “You have to consider the times in which the song was written” and “man up, libtard snowflake.” A detailed defense of the song by comic book artist and writer Howard Chaykin is making the rounds on social media, but it’s an astoundingly weak one, buttressing “you have to consider the times in which the song was written” with the far more specious “Frank Loesser was one of the great songwriting geniuses of the 20th century and those of you criticizing his song are not,” and the incredible nonsequitur “it’s not even a Christmas song.”

Change is hard. We’re wired to dislike it. But it happens as we move through time. During the Pioneer Era of Recording (1880-1920), coon songs were extremely popular. They portrayed black people as cowardly, libidinous, violent, thieving, and stupid, among other stereotypes. (Sample title: “Nigger Love a Watermelon.”) They were frequently performed in dialect by white singers in blackface, to parody the behavior of black people. But the popularity of coon songs began to fade eventually, and today, their content is utterly beyond the boundaries of acceptability. You can still talk that way if you want to, but you shouldn’t expect people to accept it, or to sit idly by while you do it.

There’s a more contemporary example of how time changes boundaries. Dire Straits hit #1 in 1985 with “Money for Nothing,” the full-length version of which contains the following verse:

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup 
Yeah buddy that’s his own hair 
That little faggot got his own jet airplane
That little faggot he’s a millionaire

For years, few of us thought much about that verse. In 2011, a Canadian group called for a blanket broadcast ban on “Money for Nothing” based on a single listener complaint that it was “propagating hate.” At the time, I was critical of the ban. Four years later, I heard a radio station blank the word “faggot,” and it occurred to me that my opinion had changed. At that time I wrote, “[P]erhaps, just as greater acceptance of African Americans took ‘nigger’ out of polite discourse, ‘faggot’ has become another word that can no longer be casually thrown around, and for similar reasons.”

We are at precisely the same cultural place today with “Baby It’s Cold Outside.” We can no longer casually throw around the idea that it’s cute for a man to break down a woman’s romantic resistance with drink or drugs, or even that he’s merely being charmingly persistent in the face of a turn-down. By dropping the song, WDOK in Cleveland is on the right side of history, and other radio stations should follow their example.

Or they could just drop it because it sucks. That’d be good too.

(Programming note: there’s a new post at One Day in Your Life today. It was an interesting day.)

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