Famous Days

(Pictured: in place of a more thematically appropriate piece of art, please enjoy this photograph of an accordion being tossed out of a high window.)

Tomorrow is the 11th anniversary of this blog’s creation. In keeping with anniversary custom, here’s a rundown of my favorite posts since July 11 of last year. Yearly best-of posts are aggregated at the top of the page under jb’s Greatest Hits. Taken together, they represent the best I can do.

This year featured the usual string of tributes to those now departed. Some losses were personal: a general manager who was more like a general and a radio man who gave me some good advice I didn’t take. Some were from the broader world of radio. When Gary Owens died this past spring, American Top 40 paid tribute by repeating a show he guest-hosted in 1982, and I live-blogged it (here and here). Other tributes were to artists I like: Stan Freberg and Hot Chocolate’s Errol Brown.

In addition to that post about my former general manager, there were several other posts touching on my early radio days: about the mad scientists in the engineering department in Macomb, and about the day I nearly killed an engineer in Dubuque. My Dubuque radio past came back in an unusual way this past spring when my 1982 face popped up on network TV. There was a post about the once-ubiquitous homemaker shows and one about the day I became the PD of a real Top 40 station.

In addition to writing about radio, we listened to some of it, including small-town radio advertising and all-night broadcasts. And I took you behind a microphone of a different kind.

We listened to some music, too: Elton John’s forgotten first album, a band from small-town Wisconsin, the new styles of country music, and hits from 100 years ago. On the latter subject, Archeophone Records invited me to review a compilation by Pioneer Era recording star Dan W. Quinn.

I also reviewed a forthcoming novel by a longtime friend of the blog.

We watched some TV this year, too, and spotted one of the most famous figures of the 70s in an unusual place.

My favorite thing to write has always been One Day in Your Life posts, or posts similar to them. This year, I wrote about a famous day in American history, and two significant dates in my personal history, three weeks apart, 50 years ago (here and here). I also went back to a significant season and found that it wasn’t as idyllic as seemed while I was living through it.

This blog occasionally went off topic, as in this post about why I don’t go to the zoo anymore, and this one, about a subject of grave interest to young boys (and the old men they become, if you want to know the damn truth about it).

I wrote about one summer day in no specific year, and about a transformation that happened sometime later.

And as usual, I have overused the editorial “we,” but only a bit.

My plan for the coming year is to keep on, not just here, but on Twitter and on Tumblr, and less often on Facebook, if you swing that way. I hope you’ll connect in one place or another, and continue reading here. My thanks to all.

This Will Be My Testimony

(Pictured: Peter Gabriel performs in the 80s.)

I heard Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” the other day, and it reminded me of something. Two things, actually.

Every town has a summer festival of some kind. In Macomb, Illinois, it was (and is) Heritage Days, held toward the end of June and centered around the city’s courthouse square. I don’t recall that my stations made much of it the first two summers I was there, 1984 and 1985, but the 1986 festival was different. We got a motorhome and set up a temporary studio on the square, and I spent most of four days in it.

At a community festival, you work long hours, you live on unhealthy festival food, and you have to be “on” all the time, friendly and personable as you visit with listeners, despite being tired and sunburned and ready to go home long before you’re able to go home. The experience is much easier if you’re one jock among several, but I was the entire airstaff of our FM station, the face and voice of the place, so the vast majority of the responsibility for the station’s presence that weekend fell on me.

“Sledgehammer” was one of the big hits of the moment in June of 1986, and it has forever after reminded me of that long, wearying Heritage Days weekend—and of a particular incident from that same weekend, which led me into another experience.

I am not a joiner. I support my community by contributing to charities that are important to me, but I have never gone out of my way to join a service organization, not since I quit 4-H when I was 15. At Heritage Days 1986, a man came up to our temporary studio and introduced himself to me. I’ve forgotten his name today, but I recognized it then—he was a prominent local businessman. And he started pitching me on joining the local Lions Club.

I listened politely as he told me that the Lions were looking for bright young men with much to offer the community, men such as myself, and that he’d consider it an honor if I’d attend the next meeting as his guest. I smiled as graciously as I could manage, but I was also noncommittal because, as I said, I am not a joiner. I thanked him for the invitation; he went on his way and I went on mine, and I figured that was it. Not long after, however, he called me to say that the Lions were meeting later in the week, and would I like to come and get acquainted with the group? I had no ready-made reason to say no, and I couldn’t improvise one on the spur of the moment, so I said the only thing I could: “Sure, I’d be happy to.” And after a single meeting, I consented to join the Lions Club because I had no good reason to say no, other than I am not a joiner.

I attended meetings the rest of the year, but in December, I got a new job and we moved out of town before I was ever officially inducted into the organization. I may have briefly considered joining the Lions in our new town, but I never did, because I am not a joiner.

The story itself is not particularly interesting. Of more interest (to me, at least) is how the memories associated with “Sledgehammer” have grown ever more hazy with each passing year. Far from seeming like a time I once lived through, the summer of 1986 seems like a country I used to live in, different in every way from where I live now, immeasurably far away in space as well as in time, a place where I was once considered to be a bright young man with something to offer.

The Concert

We’re watching WKRP in Cincinnati from start to finish, and recently we got to “In Concert,” one of the show’s most memorable episodes, about the December 1979 stampede at Riverfront Coliseum before a concert by the Who, in which 11 fans were killed.

Although we can’t watch “In Concert” now without knowing from the start what happened (and it’s doubtful that anybody could have, even in February 1980 when it originally aired), it doesn’t let on too soon. At first, Steven Kampmann’s script makes reference only to “the concert.” There’s a subtle reference to the tragedy, thanks to a prominently placed December 1979 calendar that shows up in one scene. It’s not until the last line before the act break that the characters say they’re going to see the Who.

After the act break, we’re back in the WKRP office on the morning after, as the staff discusses the tragedy. They repeatedly refer to 11 people who “lost their lives,” and the phrasing seems so awkward that I found myself wondering if the producers (or CBS) were squeamish about saying “died” or “were killed.” Staffers deal with their emotions in different ways—Venus, Johnny, and Andy go to a bar; Les consoles Bailey and throws himself into covering the tragedy as a news event; Mr. Carlson is consumed by guilt, partly for enjoying the show with his son the night before, unaware of the disaster, but also because of WKRP’s role in promoting the show. The episode ends with Carlson and Venus in the studio talking about the vigil to be held for the victims, and ends with a graphic explaining exactly what happened at Riverfront Coliseum on December 3, 1979.

Sources conflict on what creator Hugh Wilson thought of the idea at first. Some say he resisted when Kampmann pitched the script, while others say it was Wilson who came up with idea in the first place. Once the script was greenlighted, CBS said no, but Wilson, with the support of the cast, refused to back down. The CBS affiliate in Cincinnati threatened to preempt the episode, fearing it would be exploitative and in poor taste, but relented after seeing a preview. The episode’s criticism of festival seating gives it a purpose that goes beyond merely telling a story about the tragedy. The producers originally wanted the closing graphic, which notes that Cincinnati banned festival seating within weeks, to criticize other cities that had yet to do the same, but CBS wouldn’t permit it.

The staffers’ shock at the deaths and their anger over festival seating is realistic, as is Les’ desire to do a good job covering it as a news event. However: were I in their shoes, I’m not sure that I’d feel personal guilt. It’s made clear in the script that WKRP merely gave tickets away. It’s not as if WKRP booked the show or hired the security force that made the decision to keep the doors of the arena closed for too long. They’re not in any way responsible for what happened. Shock and sadness are natural in such a situation, and more than enough.

Today, nearly every sitcom, no matter how silly, does at least one Very Special Episode about a serious subject, but very few argue for a specific solution to a specific problem taking place more-or-less in real time. “In Concert” was a rare episode that did. Watch it here with all the original music intact, before it gets taken down.

Don’t Lose That Number

(Pictured: the Hues Corporation.)

In the summer of 1974, Casey Kasem landed a guest role on Hawaii Five-O, playing a crooked furniture store owner. American Top 40 was preparing its annual summer special (“The Top 40 Singles Artists of the 1970s”) for the weekend of July 6th, which could be recorded far in advance, and Casey had already arranged for Humble Harve Miller to fill in for him on the weekend of the 13th. But Casey’s shooting schedule required him to be in Hawaii in late June—which would interfere with the recording schedule for the show airing on June 29th. The new Billboard Hot 100 wouldn’t be available in time. So the AT40 staff made a fateful decision. Instead of rounding up yet another substitute host, they would estimate the chart positions for the week of June 29th and count down that chart instead. They didn’t make a big deal about it. They presented the songs just as if Billboard had placed them, with only a disclaimer at the end saying that the chart was based on staff estimates.

What follows is the chart Casey counted down that weekend, with the actual Hot 100 position in parentheses and various random observations.

Continue reading →

Memorable Characters

(Pictured: the most terrifying thing in the world, to some people.)

Since I wrote the other day about WKRP characters and the extent to which they exist in real radio stations, this next seems appropriate. Partially rebooted from some ancient posts, it contains a few vignettes about radio people I have known.

—A vocal Christian with shoulder-length hair nicknamed “Junior Jesus.” He hosted the Sunday morning religious-music show, and the bluehairs in his audience used to send him money even though he didn’t ask for it, thus fulfilling the dream of low-paid radio guys everywhere. He once lent a CD to another colleague of ours, but insisted that the colleague not tape it because that would be illegal.

—The only person I have ever met whom I would have forgiven for abandoning his family, an incredibly high-maintenance wife and anywhere from two to five incorrigible children. (We were never sure quite how many.) His considerable talents on the air were simply overwhelmed by the chaos in his personal life.

—A sales rep who once asked me if I’d ever written any spots advertising artificial limbs. When I said that I had not, she proceeded to call the Radio Advertising Bureau (an industry group that offers sales and marketing resources to its members) seeking sample copy for artificial limbs, only to be surprised when they laughed out loud at the idea too. I came to admire this woman’s willingness to think outside the box, and also her fearlessness. Once, she was trying to sell our station to a store owner who haughtily told her, “I don’t need to advertise. I already have more business than I can handle.” “Good for you,” she shot back. “Let’s go out front and take your sign down.”

—The very young and very new sales rep who was trying to get a local clothing store on the air. The couple who owned the store could not agree on the image they wanted to project. He wanted a western theme, while she wanted to seem young, hip, and edgy. The rep’s solution was to ask me to produce an ad with a John Wayne voice and Michael Jackson music.

—The college student I hired to tend the automation on Saturday and Sunday nights. I came into the office one night to dead silence—and Elliott, sitting calmly at a desk. “What the hell’s going on?” I asked. Elliott looked blankly at me for a second. “Oh, you mean the monitors? I turned them down. I’m trying to study and the music distracts me.”

—The newscasters afraid of live microphones. The morning crew got to work at 2:30 to completely prerecord the morning news block, then sat in the newsroom drinking coffee while the tapes played starting at 5:30. The hourly newscasts that ran during the day were always recorded a few minutes in advance. After I got there, we scrapped that practice, but it didn’t go down well. One of the news staffers quit rather than speak live on the air. The news director tried to embrace the new way, but she didn’t like it. She was already a nervous person, constantly fumbling for a cigarette, and would nearly jump out of her skin every time somebody walked into the newsroom. One day she came into the studio with a bulletin about a major fire in town. I put her on the air, she read her script, and then I made a mistake: I reflexively asked her whether traffic was being disrupted in the area, the innocuous sort of inquiry any jock would have made in that situation. A look of horror came upon her, and although her mouth fell open, no sound issued therefrom. Then she flipped me off.

King of the Comic Singers

Phonoscope-1896-12-4

(Pictured: an 1896 advertisement placed by singer Dan W. Quinn, looking for gigs. Posted with permission of Archeophone.)

In 1892, 31-year-old ironworker Dan W. Quinn was invited to sing for a political club in Hoboken, New Jersey. The night’s entertainment also included a “recording test.” Members of the audience were invited to speak or sing into a recording horn, and the recordings were then played back—quite a novelty at the time. Quinn’s recording sounded so good that the man who owned the machine urged him to visit a “recording laboratory” and do a real voice test.

A singer needed a certain piercing quality to reproduce well on acoustic recordings, which is why so many singers of the Pioneer Era sound like orators trying to reach the back row. Quinn did not view himself as that kind of singer, however: “I always sang quietly,” he said, but “there must have been some latent penetrating power.” Indeed there was. Over the next few years, Quinn made thousands of recordings. The technology of the 1890s permitted only a handful of copies to be made at a time, so singers had to perform over and over again. In addition, master recordings did not last very long, so if a recording company wanted to keep selling a particular song, it needed to keep remaking masters. During a five-month period in 1896, Quinn claimed to have made 15,000 records.

Quinn’s recordings were most popular between 1900 and 1904. But he mysteriously stopped recording in 1906, although he continued to perform. He spent the next several years as an artist manager and booker before recording again in 1915. He was 55 years old then, and his last few recordings weren’t up to his earlier standards. He recorded for the last time in 1919 and spent the rest of his life as a manager. Dan W. Quinn died in 1938.

Quinn’s recordings languished in attics and basements after that, and most of what was known about him came from a 1934 series of articles that appeared in a magazine called Music Lovers Guide. This month, Archeophone Records released the Dan W. Quinn Anthology: King of the Comic Singers 1894-1917, a compilation restoring 30 Quinn recordings, some unheard for a century. It’s accompanied by a magnificent booklet that illuminates Quinn’s life and career far beyond what he revealed in the 1934 articles.

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