Philly Fifties: Rock 'n Radio

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Dick Clark is surrounded by fans on his nationally televised dance show

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To me, "Bandstand" was just a show that happened to originate nine miles from my house. I didn't connect particularly with the dancers or with the icky-pop Philadelphia style (Avalon, Fabian, Bobby Rydell) that got so much play from Clark. In those days my rock 'n roll delivery system was radio. And by luck, I was listening at a crucial time for two important media. For television, the mid-'50s marked the movement from reliance on regional production centers (like Philadelphia) to consolidation of the entertainment apparatus in Los Angeles and the news divisions in New York; that separation continues to this day. In radio, the reverse occurred: network programming, the preeminent form of popular entertainment for a quarter century, virtually collapsed with the rise of TV, and local stations took over with talk and music; that still applies.

By another coincidence, all this took place just as two forms of ethnic music, rhythm 'n blues and country, were mating and giving birth to rock 'n roll. Local stations could now lure listeners on the cheap. And at 11 or 12 years old, I was one of them. I bonded with this wonderful new music coming out of their boxes, and with the local disc jockeys. I never met these guys, but they were my older brothers, my pop mentors, the men whose high energy and rhyming jive provided a verbal equivalent to early rock 'n roll.

I wave away the cobwebs in my memory and find sound-images of these Philadelphia radio jocks:

Jocko Henderson. Douglas Wendell Henderson, from Baltimore, brought a soothing hipster air to his shows on the two "Negro" (but white-owned) radio stations in town, WHAT and WDAS. Imagine a voice with Billy Eckstine's swing and intimacy, to the beat of light brush strokes, as Jocko croons his standard intro: "Hey, daddy-o!/ Hey, mommy-o!/ This is your Ace from Outer Space,/ Jock-o!/ Spinnin' the records on the record machine,/ Correct time now: /five fifteen."

Kids have no sense of history; they think something was invented the first time they learned of it. So I can't say if another Jocko salutation — "Oo papa doo, and how da ya do?" — and his occasional ejaculation "Great googa-mooga!" were his inventions. Or maybe that was Jocko's WDAS colleague, Georgie Woods, the Man With the Goods (who lived about three blocks from me). But it sounded fresh and seductive to this kid. An evening with Jocko was like an all-night jam session: the records were the familiar choruses, and his patter was the inspired improv.

Hy Lit, I first heard him on WHAT (a white man on a black station; it happened then) in the winter of 1956-57. So Hy is the insinuating commentary running under my memories of certain prime cuts: Shirley and Lee's "Let the Good Times Roll," Mickey & Sylvia's "Love Is Strange," Fats Domino's "I'm in Love Again," Lee Andrews and the Hearts' "Long Lonely Nights" (co-written, according to the label, by Douglas Henderson). If Jocko was baritone, Hy Lit was a nervous tenor. A would-be-pro baseball player from the University of Miami, he called his listeners "babycakes" and himself "Hyski O'Rooney McVoughtie O'Zoot." (Why oh why is Lit's peripatetic paradiddle patter embedded in my pre-teen muscle memory, especially considering that the rest of my musculature has amnesia?) Hy moved down the dial from WHAT 1340 to WIBG 990, when that station acquired a 50,000-watt transmitter and a new pop-rock sound in 1957.

WIBG, which had started with religious programming (its call letters stood for Why I Believe in God), may have been the first full-time Top 40 outlet in a major market. Top 40 referred to the tight list of current records (guess how many) a DJ could play, though at this early stage the format wasn't padlocked: "Wibbage," as the station nicknamed itself, issued a Top 99 list to record stores each week. Like the shift from network radio to the rise of independent stations, Top 40 happened quickly, between 1955 and '57. It soon became so codified that by 1959 a comedy duo, Arbogast and Ross, could produce a canny satire of the format, complete with frothing DJs, helicopter traffic reports, gag commercials aimed at teens who feel excluded because they don't have zits ("Pimple-On! Adds blotches and blemishes to the clearest of skin!") and, amid all the aural clutter, an occasional song. It would last about four seconds before the DJ ramped up his rant.

Every big city had a favorite Top 40 station, but Wibbage was huge. Before switching formats, it had been the sixth-rated Philadelphia station; after, it was first, by a huge margin. In the only ratings survey I can find, for the summer of 1961, WIBG corraled a monstrous 33.3 percent of the listening audience, three times the share of its closest competitor. (In the glory days of AM radio, all FM stations together cadged only about 6 percent.) And if your mind isn't boggled yet, consider this stat, from the Philadelphia Music Alliance: Hy Lit's 6-10 p.m. shift on WIBG once earned an astounding 71 percent of the radio audience. Those are, I dunno, dictatorship numbers — about 10 times what the highest-rated show in any market (drive-time news, Howard Stern, Opie & Anthony) can pull in today.

Joe Niagara. WIBG boasted a stalwart lineup of personalities. In the morning, the gentle touch of Bill Wright, a link to the nice-guy John R. Gambling soothers. At 10 a.m., the round mound of sound Tom Donahue ("I'm here to clear up your face and mess up your mind"); who later moved to San Francisco and became the founding father of freeform FM. And from 2-6 p.m., before Hyski revved up the nightly Wibbage wattage., Niagara owned afternoon drive-time.

I can still hear the Wibbage jingle, with some Johnny Mann Singers-type ensemble perkily warbling, "W-IBG,/ Where your dial belongs the ev-en-ing through,/ W-IBG,/ Joe Niagara spins the hits for you." Known as the Rockin' Bird, Niagara had been with the station eight years before the music revolution, but the young pro fit smartly in any format. His shtick was to run the end of one sentence into the beginning of the next, then take a breath in the middle. It brought suspense to the simple craft of reading commercials you never knew. When he'd pause for a breath did it mean a thought. Had been concluded we never figured. It out but it worked for Joe. Niagara.

Jerry Blavat. WIBG remained No. 1 through the '60s, but Niagara wasn't there for all of it; he left town for a few years in the glare of the payola scandal. He returned in '62, but by then the station had both congealed and softened; the format was strangling the jock's freedom to go nuts. As Wibbage turned to cabbage, other DJs at smaller stations caught kids' attentive ears. At WCAM in Camden, across the Delaware River from Philly, Kal Rudman spun the widest playlist in the tri-state area and gave records away. (I still have a 45 that came in the mail from Kal: "Guybo" by Eddie Cochran's band, the Kelly Four.)

The newest, kookiest kid on the block was WCAM's Jerry Blavat, self-dubbed the Geator With the Heater, the Boss With the Hot Sauce. Blavat had crashed Bob Horn's early "Bandstand" show when he was 13, and somehow avoided having sex with the host. Instead, he won lots of dance contests and soon was running The Committee, a panel of teens that chose records and monitored the troops. At 20 he got on radio and quickly established himself as a pioneer rock archivist, running perhaps the first-ever oldies show. And not something simple, like pre-Army Elvis. Wildly obscure stuff, rhythm 'n blues and doo-wop, mostly, all to the ersatz-black syncopation only a Jewish kid could bring it.

Here's a burst of Blavat from a Saturday Evening Post profile that Bruce Jay Friedman wrote in 1966. Read it quickly, the way he speaks it: "Kings and queens, yon royal teens, this is your Geator with the Heater coming to you on Big-Tahm Thursday where we rock the big tick-tock, where we got the class to beat all of the blast from the past."

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Forward we go, we lovers of early rock, into the past. And most of the young Philadelphians are still around: perhaps thinner of hair, thicker of girth, but pushing the same goods. Last I checked, Hy Lit, Bill Wright and Jerry Blavat were on the radio in my home town, moving the mandible, playing the oldies, reminding us and themselves of a time when rock 'n roll was even younger than we were, and held even more promise and threat.

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