The Patron Saint of Broadcast Manor

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January came in with a quickness this year, not January-the-month but January-the-vibe. The holidays disappeared like they never really happened, and there’s nothing to look forward to now but two or three months of crappy weather surrounding the daily routine. In the interest of getting something up here this week, here’s a post from April 2013.

In 1979, while I was still immured in the dorm, several of my friends rented a house in the country. Since all of them were radio and television majors, the place was quickly named Broadcast Manor. And since a couple of them would be graduating in the spring of 1980, I was already making plans to move in that fall. Alas, I never did—we lost the house, for reasons I can’t recall. Maybe the owner sold it, maybe he didn’t want to rent it anymore, I forget. But the spring semester could not end until one last epic party, famed among those who were there as the House Destruction Party. We didn’t actually destroy anything, except many, many brain cells. There’s a picture taken the morning after, with all the survivors gathered around a boom mike in the dining room, that’s one of my most cherished artifacts of college.

(Note from 2023: the boom mike in the dining room is emblematic of just how crazy we were for our chosen careers in radio and TV. A few in the picture are still in the biz, but many more are no longer. A couple never found media jobs after college.)

Broadcast Manor lived on that fall, albeit on a much smaller scale. Two of the guys, Jim and Bill, took a two-bedroom apartment in town. I moved in, sharing a room with Jim, while Bill’s friend Tom took the other available space. (Two Jims was not confusing to anybody, since practically nobody called me Jim back then, but that’s a story for another time.) The four of us were not especially compatible. Jim and I liked to party, while Bill and Tom’s idea of a big Friday night was going to dinner with their girlfriends at 5:00 and coming home to watch TV. At least once, Bill and Tom got home to 30 people in the living room after Jim and I forgot to tell them about the party we were planning.

While nothing would ever rival the House Destruction Party, we had a couple of ragers. One was a M*A*S*H party—come as your favorite character—for which Jim and I dressed in matching bathrobes as the Hawkeye Brothers. Another was a beach party, although I think the entire theme might have been a sign saying “beach” that pointed to the upstairs bathroom, where we had filled the tub with water and dyed it blue. One party brought out the cops, and we were shanghaied by Bill and Tom into Friday-night carpet-shampoo duty in the aftermath of another.

Jim, Bill, and Tom all graduated in the spring of 1981, and I took in new roommates for the summer and fall, two of whom were named Dave. Two Daves was not confusing to anybody, since one of the Daves was never called Dave. The Dave who was called Dave was a childhood friend of mine, and a big hit at our first party of the fall, although I didn’t do a good job of introducing him, apparently. I was asked repeatedly on Monday, “Who was that guy who kept refilling my beer on Saturday night?”

He was popular.

College party stories are dime-a-dozen. Everybody’s got them, and everybody thinks theirs are interesting. And there’s also this: everybody thinks their party music was better than anyone else’s. Our party tapes were created from radio station record libraries, and were pretty solid as a result. (For the record, it was “Green Grass and High Tides” that prompted the neighbors to call the police.) But when I think of the typical Broadcast Manor blowout, the memory is always accompanied by the same song: Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita.”

I see that apartment, keg in the kitchen, the stereo cranked, living room full of people, every one of  ’em chanting along, if they can manage to get the words out through the beer fog: “Your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money / Your papa says he knows I don’t have any money.” And right at the end: “Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” Everybody’s smiling, laughing, shouting, eyes bright, souls without care, having as much fun as is possible with both feet on the floor.

In all the years since, I’ve never had that much fun again.

Liberal Interpretation

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(Pictured: Illinois Senator Everett Dirksen, 1968.)

They don’t make politicians like they used to.

Everett McKinley Dirksen represented Illinois in the House from 1933 to 1949 and in the Senate from 1951 to 1969, and was famed for what he said (“a billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”) and how he said it, in a resonant voice that was once the embodiment of how a distinguished senator should sound. And that voice gave Dirksen an unusual distinction—the oldest person ever to put a record into the Billboard Top 30.

Late in 1966, the United States was embroiled in Vietnam and the antiwar movement was beginning to stir, but the country was not yet as divided as it would become. With troops in the field and debacle not yet apparent, millions of Americans of all ages still fell back on the reflexive patriotism we’re all born with, and in that atmosphere, Dirksen’s recording “Gallant Men” caught on. It hit the Hot 100 on December 24, 1966.

(The words to “Gallant Men” were written in the 1950s by a young man who had majored in economics at Fordham. At the time of writing, he was serving in the army, and was the announcer for the U.S. Army Band. Charles Osgood would spend the rest of his life behind one microphone or another, including 50 years at CBS radio and television.)

In 1964, Robert F. Kennedy was elected to the Senate from New York. As his brother’s political heir, he was one of the Senate’s most visible members, and undoubtedly a future presidential candidate. Imitating the Kennedy voice had already proven lucrative, as the success of Vaughn Meader and The First Family had shown a few years before. Now another group of comedians took that voice as raw material.

Chip Taylor had written the Troggs’ “Wild Thing.” Now he teamed with an actor named Bill Minkin to create a version of “Wild Thing” billed to Senator Bobby. A producer in the booth is heard to tell Bobby “this is an answer to Senator McKinley’s hit record.” He exhorts Bobby to “give it a little more liberal interpretation” but later says “not so ruthless, Senator”—a purported willingness to do anything to win was frequently cited by RFK’s critics—and Bobby himself tells Ethel to get all the kids out of the studio, a reference to his well-known large family. As novelty records go, it’s genuinely funny.

“Wild Thing” charted a couple of weeks after “Gallant Men.” On January 21, 1967, the two records sat side-by-side on the Hot 100, “Gallant Men” at #29, its peak position, and “Wild Thing” at #30. The latter would peak at #20 during the week of February 11.

What happened next was probably inevitable. Taylor and Minkin created a record billed to Senator Bobby and Senator McKinley, a version of “Mellow Yellow.” It spent a single week at #99 in March 1967. (The B-side of “Mellow Yellow” is called “White Christmas/3 O’Clock Weather Report,” a takeoff on Simon and Garfunkel’s “Seven O’Clock News/Silent Night,” done in the style of Bob Dylan and credited to “Bobby the Poet.” You have to hear it to believe it.)

In early 1968, Dirksen would win a Grammy for the album containing “Gallant Men,” and within the year he would record two other spoken-word albums. Minkin formed a comedy group called the Hardly-Worthit Players (the name a takeoff on NBC’s evening newscast, The Huntley-Brinkley Report). There would be one more Senator Bobby record, “Sock It to Me Baby,” but its timing was disastrous. It bubbled under the Hot 100 on June 15, 1968, by which time it has undoubtedly been yanked from every radio station that played it. Nine days earlier, RFK had been assassinated.

This post has been reboted from one originally appearing here on June 5, 2013, and I might now quibble with my statement about the relative lack of debacle in and division over Vietnam in December 1966. Also, I have been unable to determine whether anybody older than Dirksen has made the Top 30 since 2013. He was 71 when “Gallant Men” reached its peak. In 2013, a 96-year-old retired truck driver from Peoria, Illinois, named Fred Stobaugh won a songwriting contest sponsored by a local recording studio, and a recording of his song went viral, reaching #42 on the Hot 100. He’s the oldest person ever to make the big chart, a mark previously set by 85-year-old Tony Bennett in 2011. For what it’s worth, Louis Armstrong remains the oldest person to hit #1; he was 62 when “Hello Dolly” went all the way in 1964. It’s a little hard to believe nobody older hasn’t ridden some momentary wave of YouTube or social media virality to the top in the last couple of decades. 

Plugged In

When your cat goes out but doesn’t come back in, or a stray dog comes begging at your back door, do you call your local radio station and ask them to announce it? Almost certainly not. But there was a time when people commonly did so, and radio stations were happy to read lost-pet announcements—and not just in small towns, either. Take a look at the survey from KFRC in San Francisco dated August 21, 1972. (The front and back covers are pictured here. Click to embiggen, because they’re beautiful. ) Stations frequently sold advertising on the back page of the weekly music survey, but without an ad, a station promo would do. And on this particular week, KFRC promoted its Petline: “Call day or night. If you have lost your pet or found someone else’s animal friend, we will try to help.”

We did this kind of announcement at KDTH years ago. You’d get a call—sometimes from a child—reporting that their dog was lost. It could be heartbreaking to take the description and the dog’s name, and to promise to read the announcement, all the while knowing that the odds of someone hearing the announcement and finding the animal as a result were slim. We also took pet-found announcements. The likelihood of reuniting pet with owner probably wasn’t any higher than with lost-pet announcements, but they were easier to take.

This sort of public service announcement was once just the tip of an iceberg. At KDTH, we kept a Rolodex full of other announcements for the jocks to read whenever there was time (like when you needed to fill a little time before the network news). Church chicken barbecues, ladies’ club bazaars, boy-scout fundraisers, community craft shows—if you sent us the details, we’d put the announcement into the rotation.

By the middle of the 1980s, the community-calendar/lost-animal PSA fell by the wayside. Maybe the demand for announcements started to exceed the supply of time, or the value of the time became just too great to give away. Maybe it’s that many of the events were of limited interest, and promoting them sounded cheesy and small-time. But it occurs to me now that for making a station sound plugged-in to its community, you could scarcely do better. Any individual announcement didn’t get on much, but in the aggregate, it sounded like the station knew everything that was happening everywhere. And when members of the sponsoring organization—or the owner of the missing cat—heard their announcement, even if they heard it only once, they felt as though the station really cared about them, and by extension, the community.

The first part of this post was rebooted from something that appeared here on August 21, 2009. What’s on the flip is new. 

Continue reading “Plugged In”

Satan Is a Blue Meanie

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(Pictured: Ringo poses with a yellow submarine in 2013.)

Years ago I did today-in-history posts at this website. They’re an easy way to feed the content monster, and they’re still popular with radio stations and websites devoted to classic rock or oldies. Trouble is, the sourcing for a lot of the stuff you see is sketchy to nonexistent. Websites cut and paste items indiscriminately without citations. (Even the low-rent Internet shebeen you are patronizing right now has been guilty of that.) Wikipedia entries have footnotes pointing to Songfacts, which in terms of credibility is one click north of “I made this up.” (Sometimes they even cite low-rent Internet shebeens.) Even assuming good faith on the part of the site or the writer, it’s like a giant game of Telephone. You can’t be sure stuff hasn’t gotten distorted. 

Certain items get repeated endlessly even after they’ve been shown to be wrong. Every year we’re told that a radio station in Washington DC was the first American station to play the Beatles, in December 1963, even though it’s abundantly clear—with contemporary record chart citations to prove it—that they were on in many American cities in the spring and summer of 1963. But smaller things get fubar’d too. Release dates for albums are especially untrustworthy. Often, people don’t differentiate between UK and US releases, or they confuse the date a record charted with the date it was released. 

Back when I was writing for WNEW.com, I made it my business to look deeper into some of the most famous cut-n-paste factoids. I’ve edited the original a bit here. 

Here’s another of those awesome factoids that proliferates from rock history website to rock history website without elaboration or context: “April 20, 1970: The New York Times reported that Catholic and Protestant youth groups had adopted the Beatles’ ‘Yellow Submarine’ as a religious symbol.”

In a continuing quest to flesh out such factoids, I found the article from the Times. Headlined “Yellow Submarine is Symbol of Youth Churches,” it appeared in the Times on April 20, 1970, and in other papers around the country during the next week or so. It reported on the aftermath of a three-day convention of so-called “submarine churches” held in St. Louis. The goal of the churches was said to be either the creation of counterculture-compatible churches or reform of existing denominations. They “combine heavy political involvement with new forms of liturgical celebration ranging from street parades to beer-and-pretzel eucharistic fests.”

(Finally, a religion I can get behind.)

The article reported that “submarine churches” grew out of the “free” or “liberated” churches that had developed across the country in recent years, most famously the Free Church of Berkeley, California, which seems to have been the nerve center for the movement. The Berkeley group claimed that there were about 40 such churches around the country. They weren’t all about theatrics or revolution. In Berkeley, the Free Church operated a telephone hotline designed to help young people with problems of all sorts.

Reporter Edward B. Fiske wrote that some of the churches adopted the yellow submarine as a symbol after certain members of the peace movement had adopted it as a symbol of social harmony and nonviolence. The Free Church of Berkeley added a cross to it. A former Free Church pastor quoted in the story says, “In the Beatles’ movie the submarine was a place where they loved each other in a groovy way and got strength to do battle with the Blue Meanies. It also shows that a church has to have flexibility and maneuverability.”

(Like a really cool 1970 model car, apparently.)

Although young people had a distinct thirst for new forms of religious expression in the early 1970s, everything from the Jesus Movement to the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, the yellow submarine churches did not take the country by storm. It was just another enthusiasm of the moment that failed to catch fire over the long term, even though it was interesting enough to make the New York Times.

I never determined how CBS Interactive, the parent of WNEW.com, found me out here on this quiet corner of the Internet, but they did, and they paid me to write from 2008 to 2012. After CBS moved the WNEW call letters from New York City to Washington DC, they nuked the old WNEW.com site, so most of what I wrote is gone, although some of it is at Internet Archive, and I have reposted a bit of it here over the years. The whole experience still seems kind of surreal to me.

Crazy Colors

(Watch this vintage TV ad for Panasonic’s Crazy Colors line of radios, which for some counterintuitive reason, was shot in sepia tones.) 

Fifty years ago this weekend, if you lived in or near Madison, Wisconsin, as I did (and I do), it was a very good time to be shopping for music or something to play it on. The Wisconsin State Journal dated July 20, 1972, contains a full-page ad for the Prange-Way discount stores at East Towne and West Towne Malls. Prange-Way was having a “sale of savings” (as opposed to a sale of what other kind, I wonder) at which you could snag stuff you might still have today—or wish you did.

The major record labels were offering some top current titles for $2.99, including Elton John’s Honky Chateau, the debut album by America, Teaser and the Firecat by Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, and School’s Out by Alice Cooper. Back-catalog stuff was also on sale: “All top artists and labels, Bobby Sherman, Neil Diamond and more, hundreds to choose from, all stereo” for $1.67 each. Still too pricey? “Assorted mono and stereo LPs with hundreds of selections to choose from,” only 77 cents. One line of albums was priced two for a dollar, and singles were three for a dollar. If vinyl was not your tech of choice, eight-tracks and cassettes were also on sale for just $1.99 each.

Need something to play your music on? A complete Lloyd’s system, “AM/FM/FM-PX 8-track stereo component system with changer and headphones, big speakers, wood cabinet with mar resistant vinyl, perfect for anyone who wants everything!”, was on sale for $129.92. Give yourself some extra credit if you know what FM-PX meant without having to look it up. It referred to multiplexed FM signals, or, in other words, stereo.

Does $129.92 seem like a lot of money for 1972? It was—it’s over $900 in 2022 dollars. So unless you had been saving up for a big purchase, you probably would have settled for something cheaper, like the Panasonic Toot-a-Loop Bracelet (“A radio you can wear like a bracelet! Big sound and comes in crazy colors!”) for $12.88, or the fabled Panasonic Ball and Chain for only $10.99.

On the list of the most 70s things ever, either of those would rank pretty high.

Some of the cats and kittens who may have been tempted by these music buys at Prange-Way (three syllables: PRANG-ee-way) were probably disappointed to find that they had already earmarked their disposable income for something else that week: the Dane County Junior Fair, which was going on then, just as it’s going on this week. Although it doesn’t anymore, the fair booked some pretty serious rock acts back in the day; in 1972, the rock show scheduled for Saturday night, July 22, starred the James Gang with special guest REO Speedwagon for $3.50 in advance, $4.50 day of the show. Seems cheap to us now, but not so much when put into modern dollars—think of ’em as $24 in advance and $31 day of show.

The front page of the paper bannered headlines about peace talks in Paris between envoys from the United States and North Vietnam, and about a tornado that struck Lake Mills, Wisconsin, the day before. The Green Bay Packers had opened training camp, Muhammad Ali defeated somebody named Blue Lewis, and my beloved Chicago Cubs were in fourth place.

I suspect that on the afternoon or evening of July 20, 1972, the 12-year-old me read the very newspaper I looked back at today. This I know: I’d have had the radio on that day—neither a Toot-a-Loop nor a Ball and Chain, alas—listening to “Lean on Me” and “Too Late to Turn Back Now” and “Outa-Space” and “Brandy” and “Rocket Man” and “Take It Easy” and everything else on WLS, over and over and over again.

(This post is pretty much a straight-up repeat of one that appeared here on July 20, 2012., although I recalculated the currency conversions as you see them here. They’re all about one-third larger than they were in 2012.)

A Son and His Father

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(Pictured: Alf Lennon, down the pub with an unidentified woman, 1966.) 

Halfway-knowledgeable music fans know that John Lennon was raised mostly by his aunt Mimi, sister to his mother Julia. Julia was an enigmatic character who moved in and out of her son’s life until she was run over by a car in 1958, when John was 17. Julia’s legend endures largely because she inspired one of Lennon’s most beautiful songs, “Julia,” one of his bleakest, “Mother,” and one of his oddest, “My Mummy’s Dead.” On the other hand, you’re probably some kind of expert if you know anything about Lennon’s father.

Alfred Lennon, known to the family as Alf, had married Julia in 1938. He was a merchant seaman who spent all but three months of World War II away from his family. After the war, disapproving of the way young John was being raised by Julia, Alf secretly planned to emigrate to New Zealand with the boy. In the inter-familial row that followed discovery of his plan, five-year-old John was offered a choice between living with his father and living with his mother. He chose his father, only to change his mind immediately thereafter. He would not see Alf again for nearly 20 years.

At the height of Beatlemania in 1964, Alf turned up at Brian Epstein’s office in the company of a reporter. John saw him briefly, but then ordered him to leave. A year later, John and his wife Cynthia bought a house in Weybridge, near London. As it turned out, Alf was working as a dishwasher in a nearby hotel, and one afternoon, he knocked at the Lennons’ door. Cynthia invited him in, but he left before John returned home. Initially, John was not pleased by the visit, although he did make an effort to contact his father later in the year. The relationship quickly foundered when Alf attempted to capitalize on John’s fame by making a record himself. John’s embarrassment over the ensuing press coverage caused him to nickname his ne’er-do-well father “the ignoble Alf.”

In 1967, Lennon’s father appeared in John’s life again, this time with a new 18-year-old wife, Pauline. (At the time, Alf was 54.) John eventually gave Pauline a job as nanny to his son Julian, but that arrangement lasted only a few months. The birth of Alf and Pauline’s first child caused another rift between Alf and John. In 1976, Alf got cancer; shortly before his death, John spoke to him on the phone and the two men reconciled. Alf Lennon died in April 1976 at age 63. John offered to pay for the funeral, but Pauline refused.

About that record Alf made: “That’s My Life (My Love and My Home)” was recorded late in 1965 and released under the name Freddie Lennon. As a boy, Lennon’s father had briefly been a vaudevillian, he could impersonate Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong, and he played the banjo, so it’s likely that his co-writer credit with a showbiz agent named Tony Cartwright is legit. Because the only thing most people knew about Lennon’s father was that he had been a sailor, the choice of subject matter—the joys of a life at sea—was obvious. “That’s My Life” spent two weeks on the Radio London chart during the first two weeks of 1966, although the pirate station dropped it afterward, supposedly at John’s request.

The similarity in title to the recent Beatles song “In My Life” was widely noted at the time. Noted in later years is the similarity to “Imagine,” which was nearly six years in the future when “That’s My Life” was written. Nevertheless, without the family connection to John, it’s unlikely that “That’s My Life” would have made the radio in 1966, or that anybody would bother remembering it now.

(Rebooted from a post that originally appeared on June 18, 2010. Listening to “That’s My Life” again, it’s remarkable how much John sounded like his father despite not living with him while he was growing up.)