Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Broadcasting the Blues

I was listening to the radio the other evening, Western Washington's hugely popular Jazz station KPLU (broadcast to the world via the Internet), which has all-Blues programs every Saturday and Sunday, 6 p.m. till midnight, hosted by a genial and very knowledgeable guy named John Kessler. One of John's program features is the "Blues Time Machine," in which he presents some great early Blues number followed by remakes made over the decades since. That time listeners heard Sleepy John Estes' "Someday Baby" from 1935 and then versions by Muddy Waters (1955), The Allman Brothers (1975 or so), and the more recent North Mississippi All Stars, but all four performances with something distinctive to offer.

A terrific idea, I think, well executed that night. (Some attempts aren't quite so perfect, when the remakes are too much of a letdown.) And it brought to mind my own brief career as a nighttime deejay. Back in the Sixties--it may be hard to imagine this now--the airwaves were dominated by AM stations, mostly rock 'n roll and Pop, hosted by loud local jocks doing way too many ads interspersed with repetitive Top 40 music selections. FM stations tended to be for Classical or Easy Listening fans only. But then a few brave FM stations in the Bay Area and elsewhere began programming their own freeform versions of (just a-borning) Rock Music, political commentary, hippie goofing, and whatever else.

Seattle's fledgling was KOL-FM, which had a handful of deejays creating their own radio personae each day and night. One regular was Pat McDonald, these days still a familiar Rock critic on the local and national newspaper scene. Another was a slightly off-center Philosophy professor from the University of Washington named John Chambless, who came across sometimes as a hippie guru a bit like Timothy Leary.

Anyway, Chambless was due his sabbatical year's leave from teaching (this was about 1968-69) and was bound out into the world somewhere, and I believe it was Pat who suggested me as a temporary replacement. Chambless' station slot was Sunday night from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m., an eight-hour on-air shift. I had no idea what that meant really...

The manager approved, and the engineers showed me the mechanical ropes--and then I was launched, much like someone tossed into the water to learn to swim! I was free to play anything that seemed relevant to the burgeoning youth culture (I was still a part-time member then), to talk at will and do whatever it took to fill the eight hours of air time. Oh, it was a heady thing at first, as I got to select fine current music, album music, cut after cut, weaving the sounds into mini-suites, sort of, jarring the listeners with something loud after a quiet number, cleverly connecting disparate cuts that echoed each other textually, and so on.

I was having a great time... except that every time, my on-air energy started to flag after about four hours, and by 1 a.m. I was hopeless. I belatedly realized that eight hours is a hellish long time to be on the air trying to be interesting, even just trying to maintain one's voice. I soon resorted to tricks to get through--playing whole album sides of the Beatles or Steve Miller or whoever, turning those mini-suites into longer and longer stretches when I'd say nothing, letting the music do all the talking whether the tunes fit together or not.

And I played my one ace in the hole. Like John Kessler I was a Blues fan big-time, and I knew a lot from reading everything I could lay my hands on. This was the period when the whole Blues reissue-album phenomenon was just getting rolling, and I could practically buy, and did, every record that appeared. Son House and Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt were in the studios again after decades of no attention, and younger figures were getting their chance to record whole albums too, Junior Wells, Magic Sam, and other Chicago guys (including Buddy, of course), and the Southern cats on Nashville's Excello and elsewhere.

I began featuring a couple of hours of Blues music, maybe 10 p.m. till midnight every week, which the audience seemed to dig; at least, most of the phone calls that came in were positive. So I got creative (or cocky maybe). A white musicologist and writer from England named Paul Oliver had published two or three books on the Blues, the themes and history, that is, and I latched onto one of them, The Story of the Blues, and began reading whole sections and chapters on the air, interspersing his prose with the musical examples he quoted or cited, and related stuff that I could find. (Somehow reading aloud was less of a strain on my voice than doing aimless chatter.) And, also like Kessler, I played modern British Blues groups like the Cream and the Stones and Led Zeppelin who were doing their own versions of older tunes, usually without giving credit to the artists they were stealing from. I made sure those connections were properly acknowledged.

And what of KOL's audience? Well, I got almost no calls at first, aside from the odd whiner saying, "Hey, man, what's all this old shit. Play some Hendrix!" (It was clear some goofs didn't have a clue where Jimi's own deeper roots lay.) But then gradually I developed a small following, with people tuning in every week to hear the latest chapter from Oliver's book, and then phone me to comment on the music I'd added--Frank Stokes, Leroy Carr, Memphis Minnie, Big Bill, Blind Lemon, Blind Willie McTell, et wonderful al, working on towards the post-War Chicago Blues.

I was on a roll. I felt great--"Educator at Work" was the badge I wore mentally--entertaining the listeners and giving them some major Black/White racial history too. But then the real educator, Professor Chambless, decided to come back early from leave and reclaim his radio slot. After only seven or eight months I was out--kept on the KOL roster as a fill-in, but almost never called.

And so ended, ingloriously, my one brief close encounter with the world of radio. There were some who complained to KOL about the loss of the Blues I'd been featuring, but all the bosses did then was start programming more of it themselves, not to mention lots of Hendrix and Mayall and Cream.

About then too I decided I'd read and listened and learned so much about the Blues past that I could attempt a screenplay about Robert Johnson... But that's another story.

(Which can be read at my blog posts for June 12 and June 15 last year.)

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