March 29, 2009

"I heard a couple new-sounding tunes on the tubes and they blasted me sky-high..."

I was thinking about that lyric from the Lovin' Spoonful song "Nashville Cats" this morning as we were talking about the old days when you might stay up late at night to pick up the signal of a distant radio station that played music that you couldn't hear during the day.

In that song, John Sebastian sings of a radio station that captivated him when he was 13:
And the record man said every one is a yellow Sun
Record from Nashville
And up north there ain't nobody buys them
And I said, but I will
And so the boy from the north fell in love with country music. Me, back in the mid-1960s, I liked some college radio station that came in from Fort Wayne, Indiana. I heard songs they didn't play on WABC in New York City. Indiana seemed like a cooler place than NYC. (Oddly, I still think that sometimes.)

I used to write down the names of the artists they played that I'd never heard before. I remember, listening that way, late at night, hearing "I Got You Babe" for the first time and wrote down "Sonny and Cher."

That was my little experience. Did you have anything like that?

Consider this:
Dewey Phillips was on the air in Memphis around 1950. He was an anomaly at the time: a white DJ spinning regional rhythm and blues hits for black audiences. Rick Wright says Phillips and his African American contemporaries up the dial on Memphis' WDIA helped elevate disc jockeying to an art form.

People like Nat Turner, a young B.B. King, and, one of Wright's favorites, Rufus Thomas. "Now, Rufus comes in, 'Hey baby, this is Rufus Thomas, WDIA Memphis, Tennessee, where you can cop a smile about a quarter mile provided you've got time and don't mind this drive time line we're gonna try.'

Wright says that one Nashville station, WLAC Nashville was owned by the Life and Casualty Insurance Company - L-A-C. He says that that station would take this music and this DJ style to places it had never been. He says the course of American cultural history was changed one Saturday.

"And they were playing, basically, records by Guy Lombardo or whatever and it was that era of a 50,000-watter trying to find itself with no audience," says Wright. "And there were some African American students from Fiske University who had gotten past the security and got up to the station and brought a bunch of 78s with them."

And they walked into the studio and started talking to the DJ. "Mr. Nobles, can you play some of our folks' records on your radio show?"

And Nobles said sure, hand them over. Records of Fats Domino and Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Etta James, Laverne Baker.

And he played them.

"All of sudden," says Wright, "the phone started to ring, and the letters and cards were coming from all over the place. And they established that night, one of the real, first, mainstream R&B formats on a major powerhouse radio station. WLAC 1510 Blues Radio Nashville, Tennessee. The only full time R&Ber at night with 50,000 watts."

At night, 50,000 watts get you very far. Bob Dylan has said he owes much of his musical inspiration to listening to WLAC as young teenager all the way up in Minnesota.

It was the "Moonstruck" clip that I blogged last night that set me off thinking about Cher and the first time I ever heard her sing. It was observed that I love Cher, and I confessed to my longstanding affection for the durable diva. I loved Cher since the first time I heard 'I Got You Babe' on a radio station from Fort Wayne, Indiana, I said.

I remembered answering some questionnaire at the time about what famous person I would like to be. It was 1965, so I was 14. I said Cher. And it wasn't just that I wanted to be a female pop star. I was entranced by the strong affection that Sonny and Cher showed each other when I saw them on TV.

I searched YouTube for an early appearance — perhaps their first national TV appearance — when the two were singing IGYB while sitting at a little table. They were petting and kissing — a real public display of affection. There are, of course, a lot of clips of them doing that song, but I couldn't find that one or any other where they were transgressively pawing at each other, the PDA I'd seen when I was just 14.

So let me go in a completely different direction and show you this instead...

UPDATE: The video at the end of this post has gone dead, and I don't even remember what it was.


Meade said...

heh heh heh... WOAH!

Jeff Gee said...

I think it was Ike Turner who worked as a DJ on WDIA, not Nat Turner. Nat Turner would have been pretty wild, too, though.

AllenS said...

Sometime in 1965 I was driving home one Sunday night from Mankato, MN to St. Paul, MN, in my 1958 Chev Impala convertible, and the only station I could get was WLS out of Chicago. AM radio, it seems to me, was all car radios had. I remember when TV stations went off the air at about midnight. Times sure have changed.

save_the_rustbelt said...

My favorite possession was a small transistor radio, and at night I could hide it under my pillow, use the earphone and listen to Detroit area radio stations (CKLW Windsor was the best).

1964 - 1974, best music ever, and very eclectic.

(Meade, faithful betrothed, hanging on his lady's every comment - good man!)

Deb said...

I drove a 1958 Chevy Impala, too, tho not a convertible. I listened to WQXI in Atlanta on my transister radio someone gave me one year. On the car radio, too; back then the top Atlanta DJ was Gary somebody with his sidekick Yetta Levitt. One of my fondest memories is being 13 and hearing the Beatles sing "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" in the car with my best friend, Kate who died the following year. She was a diabetic. But I remember her sister driving us somewhere, listening to that song.

John Burgess said...

I guess I'm in the John Sebastian camp... I came across 'hillbilly music' and R&B via late-night AM radio while living in the wilds of western MA. Due to my parents love of music, I already had jazz, from New Orleans, through Memphis and St. Louis, all the way up to Chicago down pat. Classical and big band, too.

But the folkier sides of music were unavailable outside of that late-night AM.

AllenS said...

I wonder how many commenters on this blog, are of the age, that they can remember when radio and television were so limited?

Michael Hasenstab said...

I'd pull the bed covers over my head, turn on a flashlight and listen to WLS-AM from Chicago. WLS played rock and roll that couldn't be heard on any local radio stations in Milwaukee. The shows were hosted by Dick Biondi, Barney Pipp and others.

When the hippie and drug era began in the early 60s, WLS broadcast a show called The Subterranean Circus that played new music, often from groups based in the UK. The DJ spoke like he was on drugs-slowly, often nonsensically-while "outer spacey" sound effects played in the background.

If the weather was just right, and it rarely was, my cheap Phillips radio could pull in Wolfman Jack, broadcasting from a radio station somewhere in northern Mexico. His broadcasts sounded like a party, with a lot of background party noise and womens voices.

I thought I could do a pretty good imitation of Wolfman Jack's gravelly voice and hep attitude. A slap to my head administered by my father broke me of the habit after he asked "Where are you going tonight" while handing me the keys to his '61 Impala convertible (fawn beige, white top, 283 V8, three-on-the-tree transmission, I loved that car).

I answered using my best Wolfman Jack voice "It's all accordin' to how your boogaloo situation stands, y' unnerstan'"


"Uh, just to the library, Dad. I'll be home at 9."

Ann Althouse said...

"'61 Impala convertible"

I drove a '61 Impala convertible. Seafoam green!

Michael Hasenstab said...

I still wish I had that car. I get misty when I see one at a car show.

Deb said...

I wonder how many commenters on this blog, are of the age, that they can remember when radio and television were so limited?

I remember when there were about three or four TV stations, which signed off at 11 or 11:30 pm. Incredible to think how different it all is now.

Meade said...

In 1965, a 1961 seafoam green Impala convertible would have been the perfect car to drive to the overlook in West Lafayette known as "The Wall," tune in WLS and get Lou Christie and the Tammys singing "Lightnin' Strikes."

Michael Hasenstab said...

Althouse, remember the steering wheel?

My thumbs once got caught in the outer holes of the steering wheel (while on a date, natch) and had to be eased out by my date's using a dollop of Liquid Joy.

Ann Althouse said...

"My thumbs once got caught in the outer holes of the steering wheel (while on a date, natch) and had to be eased out by my date's using a dollop of Liquid Joy."

Not exactly the holes-and-lube scenario you'd pictured.

Roy Lofquist said...

I wonder how many commenters on this blog, are of the age, that they can remember when radio and television were so limited?

I remember when there was NO TV. When we got one in 1949 it was the only one in the neighborhood. Our house was always chock-a-block full with people who wanted to see the new fangled thing.

Ann Althouse said...

@Meade We'll just have to try with a 2005 Audi TT Coupe.

Michael Hasenstab said...

Meade, do you remember tuning in to WLS to hear The Adventures of Chicken Man, the most fantastic crime fighter the world has ever known?

Michael Hasenstab said...

Not exactly the holes-and-lube scenario you'd pictured.

No kiddin'.

Michael Hasenstab said...

I wonder how many commenters on this blog, are of the age, that they can remember when radio and television were so limited?

We got our first TV in 1954. My father stayed up all night the first night watching the test pattern.

class-factotum said...

As a former Memphis resident now living in Milwaukee, I'm going to put in a plug for Memphis and the Stax and the Rock and Soul museums and Sun Studio. Even without going to Graceland, you could spend a few days living music history in Memphis. Then you could spend another few days eating BBQ, fried chicken and meat and threes (oh, how I miss The Cupboard). You could die fat and happy in Memphis and never have to shovel snow.

She sighed as she looked out the window at the six inches of snow on her Milwaukee driveway.

Meade said...

You bet I remember Chicken Man, Michael H! Thanks for the memory.

"...a 2005 Audi TT Coupe"

heh heh heh... WOAH!

Beta Conservative said...

In 1974 I was parked at the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia, arriving for my 11pm-7am shift when I heard "Killer Queen" supposedly played by some pirate radio station on a ship in international waters. The song was not yet available in the US (the story goes).

I liked the song and though that it would be a big hit, but I still don't know if there is any truth to the supposed circumstances under which I heard it.

AllenS said...

"I drove a '61 Impala convertible. Seafoam green!"


class-factotum said...

Remember when they would play the National Anthem before they signed off at night on TV?

Ann Althouse said...

"The Adventures of Chicken Man" frequently plays on the 60s on 6 channel of XM/Sirius radio.

Eddie said...

Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons wrote a song, "Drug Store Truck Drivin Man," about an old DJ who spun country records late at night and who hated hippies. Here is the last verse:

He's been like a father to me
He's the only DJ you can hear after three
I'm an all-night musician in a rock and roll band
And why he don't like me I can't understand

Michael Hasenstab said...

"I drove a '61 Impala convertible. Seafoam green!"


Hot pants, go-go-boots?

Nah. I'd bet hip-hugger hippie jeans, wide belt,sandals, tie-dyed top, maybe a scarf. Long hair.

AllenS said...

Since cars were brought up, remember wide white wall tires? If you lived in a northern climate you had to have snow tires put on the car before winter. They were usually recaps.

Michael Hasenstab said...

Roger McGuinn and Gram Parsons wrote a song, "Drug Store Truck Drivin Man,"

Last night I watched a DVD called "Earl Scruggs: The Bluegrass Legend: Family and Friends". It included some old films of Scruggs playing with Roger McGuinn, and others. Seeing and hearing McGuinn again reminded me of how gifted a musician he was. No one could make a twelve-string sound the way he did.

The DVD is exceptional, by the way, and worth watching. The old clips of Scruggs with Baez, Dylan, Doc Watson and others are wonderful.

rhhardin said...

I pick up new songs on Radio Australia all the time.

Here are three I see on the hard disk recorded live off the shortwave air
(real audio, on modern real players will probably ask to download the old sipr-9 codec that old real players came with).

Tiffany Eckhardt retrieved from the Radio Australia website in 2000, my favorite song writer.

Meade said...

Good stuff, rh. Thanks.

Ern said...

That was my little experience. Did you have anything like that?

I lived in Lincoln Park in Chicago in the mid-1970s. I didn't have a car, but I did have to go to a class north of Chicago, so my employer rented one for me. I'm primarily a classical music listener, but the car radio was AM only, so I couldn't get WFMT. I was cruising the AM dial and got what turned out to be a New York station, playing "Come Monday" by Jimmy Buffett. I've been a Jimmy Buffett fan ever since, and "Come Monday" is still my favorite Jimmy Buffett song.

BJM said...

Oh lordy here it comes again Babies, another geezer comment; we listened to Wolfman Jack on tinny transistor radios late into the night. Good times.

Laura(southernxyl) said...

I do remember the National Anthem when the stations signed off. And "It's 10:00. Do you know where your children are?" Or maybe that was just our local stations, ha ha.

CF, there are things about Memphis that I miss from time to time. We have some decent meat-and-veggie restaurants around here, not as good as the Cupboard. I miss Molly's on Overton Square, and Neely's BBQ. And the Botanic Garden, and Patriot Lake, blah blah. All I have to do is think about Mayor H and Ophelia Ford and so forth, and I get over it real fast.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

I didn't have a '61 Impala, but I did have a '60 Catalina (I've actually had two of them in my time; a 2 door sedan and a 4 door hardtop; The two door was my first car); 389 automatic. I bought it from the original owner in '77 and the first thing I did was install a radio.

It was out of a '65 Cadillac; AM-FM with a Wonderbar (remeber those?), but not stero.

Having always been of the redneck persuasion, I was able to lay my hands on a 14" woofer out of a blown up Guitar amp and rigged it up under the rear deck. I could never understand a word of any of the songs, but man the bass would rattle the windows.

I also remember when TV signed off- not that I was ever up that late- but locally on Saturday nights we had Bob Shreve playing old 'B' movies all night, between the news and the preachers.

One Saturday night we were trated to "Billy the Kid Meets Frankestien"; "Wyatt Earp Meets the Wolfman" and "Doc Holiday Meets Dracula".

Ah, the good old days...

BJM said...

Alan @9:46, yeah, white walls with Borrani wire wheels. Caddies had some sweet wires in the 50's & 60's too.

We've a mint original condition '67 El Dorado convertible (scroll down the page linked above for a '66), handles like a frigging boat but it makes everyone smile when we swan up in it.

...Cadillac, good car to drive after a war...

rhhardin said...

You can't do the nighttime thing any longer on the AM band because too many stations are using IBOC, the AM version of digital radio. It receives as a hiss, and occupies three adjacent am channels. So you hear mostly hiss from other distant stations at night when you're trying to hear a specific distant station.

This has been going on for maybe the last year at night.

class-factotum said...

Laura -- Oh yeah. Willie and Ophelia. Now I remember why Milwaukee won.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

I forgot to mention, tying a couple of things together, that Flatt and Scruggs did a cover (?) of Nashville Cats- released in '67.

The liner notes say teh song was written by J. Sebastian (I assume John), but I am not into music enough to know who actually covered who.

PJ said...

I grew up in a small town and listened to the big city stations on my transistor late at night. I was a Pipp & Biondi listener back then (though I could have sworn the call letters were WCFL). And I remember that CKLW had by far the best/funniest news reports, where they tracked the Motor City Murder Meter and called out guys who dropped bowling balls off overpasses as "sadistic punks." But my favorite was the all night truckers' station, WWL out of New Orleans, with the Charlie Douglas Road Gang doing remote broadcasts from truck stops all over the country.

Beth said...

When I was in grade school I had Cher hair, long and straight with the bangs cut across the forehead. She was quite hip in my opinion.

William said...

I remember reading somewhere that Sebastian said that he preferred the parody version, "Nashville Katz" to his own lyrics.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Wolfman Jack from Rosarito Beach Mexico.

Even all the way up in Northern Calif. We could get this station. A huge relief from the Country Western stations and the pop top songs on the regular stations. Soul, R&B, Rock and Roll and the new cool stuff from the flowerpower generation.

BJM said...

Edjamikated @11:35 but locally on Saturday nights we had Bob Shreve playing old 'B' movies all night, between the news and the preachers.

Yep, here too, Oakland TV station, KTVU had a boffo movie catalog, unfortunately sold off when they became a Fox affiliate.

As long as our chores were done and we weren't too snarly or whiny next day. We kids were allowed to stay up as long as we wished on Friday & Saturday night during the summer.

Friday night was "Creature Features", perfect sleep-over fare, and Roller Derby preceded the Saturday night movies.

We'd munch popcorn, swig Pepsi, play 10 deck War and watch B movies until 3:00 AM sign-off.

Michael Hasenstab said...

@Edjamikated - Scruggs would have covered Sebastian. Scruggs decided in the mid 60's that he wanted to play genres of music beyond traditional mountain folk. He played with the Byrds, Baez, Dylan, and quite a few rock bands. The traditionalists hated him for it for a time, but Scrugg's incredible playing (backed by two sons) brought them back.

I think my current car would fit into the trunk of a '60 Catalina coupe!

@PJ - You are correct, it was WCFL, and not WLS. WLS and WCFL were competitors at the time. WCFL is now WLUP. Funny thing is, when I'm in the Chicago broadcast area I now listen to WXRT.

JohnGalt said...

I grew up in a small southern town where the local station (5000 watts!) played country music from 5AM signon to midnight signoff. When I got to hign school and could stay up past 10PM, I discovered WOWO out of Ft. Wayne. They played cool rock 'n roll.

Several years later, after an extended stay outside the country courtesy of my uncle, I lived in Ft. Wayne. By then WOWO was old-fashioned.


Earth Girl said...

As a Fort Wayne native, I grew up with WOWO, but worked hard at picking up WLS from Chicago. WOWO, 50,000 watts, turned its power east during the night. If you could still pick it up at 5 a.m., the programming changed to a farm show with the theme song "The Little Red Barn Down on the Farm in Indiana."

Years later, I was surprised at how many from the East Coast knew about my town from listening to WOWO at night. WOWOW is now talk radio, where you can listen to Rush Limbaugh every afternoon.

dick said...

Didn't even have a television until I was 16. Saw my first one at a neighbor's home in 1952. Didn't even have an FM radio either. It was AM or shortwave.

I remember listening to the Meisterbrau radio program from somewhere in Wisconsin or Minnesota, I think. All jazz and very late at night. Maybe it was broadcast from Chicago and the brewery was in Wisconsin or Minnesota. The DJ had this very very deep melodious voice.

JAL said...

Wheeling, WV
1950s and 60s

Nuff said.

srfwotb said...

Synch - I just posted my current favorite station as background last night (indie 103.1 btw). I don't know if it reaches the magic level - too many images and sounds out there. It's more a relief.

"I'm on the Mexican Radio" (old song KROQ used to play.)

Mexican stations have no FCC limitations on strength of signal, so they can blast stuff over the border that is often more interesting than what the commercial stations are playing.

PJ said...

@Michael: I listened to WLS sometimes, too, so I wasn't sure, but I thought I remembered Pipp (and Ron Brittain in the winter when it got dark earlier) talking up "Chicago Fun Land" in their promos.

BTW, my Chevy was a '68 Biscayne. Rolling art, all those cars.

Turn into peanut butter!

blake said...

I had a '64 Ford Fairlane.

'course, this was in the '80s.

former law student said...

Yes it was WCFL, The Voice of Labor, that aired Chickenman ("He's everywhere He's everywhere), Ron Britain and his Subterranean Circus, Barney Pip, and Dick Biondi.

But people who grew up all over the east remember listening to WLS, aka "the world listening station," which apparently could be heard as far east as Greenland.

Fort Wayne's WOWO was no college station, but the flagship of Westinghouse Broadcasting. The owners of WLIB in NYC, previously forced to reduce power at dusk, bought WOWO and in effect transferred its clear nighttime channel to WLIB.

Drivers (and parkers) should also remember the necker's knob, which allowed the driver to one-handle the wheel. And who does not miss the bench seat, and its snuggling possibilities?

TV signoff was after the Tonight Show, or The Late Show, long after my bedtime. But signon was right before Crusader Rabbit.

former law student said...

Radio Station WGN 720 broadcast Franklyn MacCormack's Meister Brau Showcase nightly till dawn. Meister Brau was brewed by the Peter Hand Brewery on West North Avenue in Chicago, along the strip currently occupied by big box stores.

Meister Brau's chief legacy is a dietetic beer they called Meister Brau Lite, which Miller bought, chopping off the Meister, and the Brau. (A special fermentation process ate up the residual carbs.) So contemplate "Lite Beer from Peter Hand" next time you hear a commercial.

rhhardin said...

If you have an phased array antenna on AM, you can null completely away any local station, and (with four elements) the station under it, to hear a truly distant station normally covered completely during the daytime.

Hardin's law is that that station is always playing polka music.

former law student said...

Speaking of '61 Impalas, does anyone remember the driving maneuver known as the S.O.B. Turn? The Slide Over, Baby, encouraged the more timid or perhaps ladylike date to move away from the door end of the seat.

Michael Hasenstab said...

I don't remember the slide over baby turn, but I do remember the fast right arm to the boobs emergency braking maneuver called 'stopping short'.

dick said...


Thanks. Yes, that is exactly the one I was thinking of. Fantastic voice and a great program. The kind you just don't want to turn off.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

lking about picking up the skip stations- technology has taken some of the fun out of that too.

I remember Saturday nights trying to tune in the Grand Ol' Opry on WSM (650 on your AM dial), and it was hit or miss- especially being less than 20 miles from 700 WLW (50,000 watts of radio blowtorch)The nights you would hit would be golden; and few and far between.

WLW was at one point for several years was even permitted to operate at 500,000 watts before half the world compained and they dialed it back to 50,000 again. I think it wa sactually a test for Radio Free Europe, and it was Powell Crosley (owner of WLW, Crosley Radio, appliances and cars and the Cincinnati Reds) who did teh original work for the Voice of America transmitters; whicjh is why they were in Mason Ohio and not Washington DC.

But, I digress.

The internet and live streaming has taken all the fun out seaching for skip stations. Why hang catching a fading AM signal at 3 in the morning when you can live stream or download a podcast teh next morning?

Hell, my I-phone even has an app that allows me to listen to a radio station (AM or FM) from almost any city in the country.

Technology is taking all of teh fun out of everything.

An Edjamikated Redneck said...

Damn; the fat thumbs disease has really gotten bad this eveniing!

Sorry 'bout all of the typos

Christy said...

Don Williams has the wonderful
Good Ole Boys Like Me with the evocative lyrics by Bob McDill

Nothing makes a sound in the night like the wind does/ But you ain't afraid if you're washed in the blood like I was/ The smell of Cape Jasmine through the window screen/ John R and the Wolfman kept me company/ By the light of the radio by my bed....

John R being one of the early WLAC DJs.

I always tried to turn the TV off before the Anthem came on with shots of jets in the air. For some reason I think I was always a bit unnerved by the end of the broadcast day. Perhaps I suspected the world stopped for a while. Obviously too much Twilight Zone as a kid.

Lucius said...

There's actually a pretty good song about exactly this bit of nostalgia:

I know I sure stayed up late to listen to far-off stations. Once I even picked up a station out of Hawaii. (And bragged about it for weeks.) I had a special weakness for the old radio serials, and was always disappointed that I would rarely be able to pick up the same station two nights in a row to see what would happen next.

Dex Quire said...

Ann this post brought back great memories - I remember listening to John Sebastian singing Nashville Cats under the covers after lights out with my trasistor radio and earpiece...long ago...

cokaygne said...

Hey, JAL,

I grew up just south of Boston, MA and sometimes could pick up WWVA from Wheeling, West Virginia. There was always country music played in Boston bars because of immigrants from the Maritimes, home to Hank Snow and Anne Murray, and northern New England, plus sailors from the midwest and south. That stuff was watered down Nasvhille ballads played for country boys crying into their beer far from home in a big cold city, and local radio stations played none of it. WWVA, to me, was the real deal. Hour after hour of high lonesome sounds late at night. For an Irish-Catholic raised on Gregorian chant, songs like "What if Jesus came to your house today" were mind-blowing.

Roger Sweeny said...

"Jenny said when she was just five years old
you know there's nothing happening at all
Every time she puts on the radio
There was nothing goin' down at all
Then one fine mornin' she puts on a New York station
She couldn't believe what she heard at all
She started dancin' to that fine fine music
You know her life was saved by Rock 'n' Roll."

("Rock and Roll," Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, 1970)

essaybee said...

When I was in 1st and 2nd grade in Wichita Kansas, in 65, 66, 67, I had a little transister radio with an earphone, and I used to listen to soul music as I fell asleep. In the daytime I had to ride my bike clear to a distant store to buy 9 volt bateries for my radio. Then my family moved to the mountains of upstate NY in 1968, and as you may know, mountains prevent those big great plains radio stations from reaching the radios of little girls in their bunk beds.

yo pete said...

Late to the party but this is the version I would have been listening to as a kid.