by Grant Moser
Tune into WRTI-FM 90.1 Monday through Thursday evenings, and you’ll hear jazz. You’ll also hear the polished voice of Bob Perkins, 78, a Philadelphia legend. (Perkins has actually lived in Glenside for the past four years and lived in West Oak Lane for 17 years before that.)
“That’s what they say. That’s flattering. I’m just a poor little skinny kid from South Philly. It’s a blast to have been able to do the things that I’ve done. Never imagined I’d meet the people I have. It’s simply amazing,” Perkins said during a recent interview.
In November, Perkins celebrated 47 years of working in radio, 42 of them here in Philadelphia. His career started by chance in 1964 when he decided to move to Detroit after visiting his brothers there. “I went to an insurance office to get a job, and they hired me. Now, the insurance office was on the first floor, and there was a radio station on the second floor. I saw the sign for WGPR-FM and went to see if I could get some night work.
“The guy I talked with said, ‘How fortuitous. All you have to do is sit at this console and turn these knobs. We have a lot of remotes all over the city. Don’t say anything. Put the cartridge in, press the button, the cartridge will announce the personality, you turn the knob, and he’ll be there. That’s all you do. Don’t talk. I’ll pay you $1.25 an hour as long as you sit behind this console.’ I went downstairs and quit a job I never worked at.”
One day the cartridge machine broke, and Perkins called his boss to find out what to do. “He said, ‘There’s copy in the book. Same thing as on the cartridge. Read it, and don’t mess up.’ So I did. And my boss came in later and said, ‘Hey, you didn’t tell me you could talk, kid. From now on you can read.’”
Perkins went on to work at two other stations in Detroit over the next five years. One station hired him as program director for its all-jazz operation, and the other employed him as its assistant news director.
In 1969, Perkins returned to Philadelphia. A colleague from Detroit, LeBaron Taylor, had transferred to WDAS in Philadelphia to be the assistant general manager and asked Perkins if he wanted to come back, too.
“I was chosen to be the editorial and news director. I didn’t know that I could do it. They had always had a good reputation as a pillar of the community. Only a few black stations had editorials. They were the voice of the black community. When they endorsed a candidate, that candidate usually went into office. I wrote editorials endorsing politicians, several of whom are still in office today. I was there for 19 years.”
But Perkins missed playing music, so he found a side gig doing a jazz show on WHYY. He started in 1977 and did it for free for the first three years. That’s where he came up with his famous slogan, “BP with the GM,” (Bob Perkins with the Good Music). “I was there for 20 years every Saturday night. I picked most of the music by feel, what goes with this, what goes with that, what can I follow this with. I worked out of a studio that Dick Clark used to work out of, a little booth. It was nice to be in a booth where the legendary Dick Clark had worked.”
Perkins’ love for jazz started at a young age. “If my dad was home, the radio was on. He played it until the wee hours of the morning to the chagrin of Ma Perkins. He was a radio nut. I was radio-wise from that, and then my [older] brother brought all sorts of records into the house. I was set up. Me and my cronies used to go to someone’s basement and put on a record player and sit for two hours and let the records drop, not saying a word. We were trying to get a hold on this new music.”
For Perkins, jazz is all about the listening. “[Defining jazz] is sort of like defining love. It’s in the mind of the beholder. To begin with, it’s the person playing where they’ve been, what they’ve seen; it’s all encapsulated in their music. That’s hard to interpret, hard to define. If you listen enough, you may not be able to decipher all of that, but that person’s emotion and feeling you may get a little bit of.
“I get it from listening to Coltrane. I hear a man trying to get out of himself, trying so hard to explain himself. And maybe not doing a good job because the ideas are coming too fast. He doesn’t quite understand it all. It’s like taking a stopper out of a drain, it’s too much. Give it to me in pieces in ‘Trane, and he’s like ‘I can’t, I’ve got to get it out.’”
Philadelphia was a huge jazz town in the 1950s and ‘60s, and Perkins feels it never got its due. “It could have been recognized for contributing more to the national scene if it were not so close to New York, which was always the mecca. Dizzy (Gillespie) was here in Philadelphia for two years, and he got his name here.
“He played in a band, and one of his cohorts said, ‘That guy is awful dizzy,’ and it stuck. He lived around 9th and Pine with his family. Coltrane came up from Carolina and lived here. Benny Golson. Bobby Timmons. I lived on the same block with the Heath brothers (Albert, Percy and Jimmy). We were neighbors growing up. I interviewed Jimmy on stage at the Kimmel Center about a month ago.”
The Philadelphia jazz scene had a lot of support as well. “We had great clubs here. You had two radio stations that were pumping jazz. Then you had the national record companies backing up jazz music, sending the guys out behind their records. That’s how jazz became so big in Philadelphia. Then The Beatles came and changed everything. The record companies said, ‘Hey, we can make more money with this new music than jazz, so we’re going to change our modus operandi.’ Then, of course, you had R&B running alongside, and jazz began to suffer.”
Perkins regrets that there isn’t a jazz archive for Philadelphia. “We need a poor man’s record of Philadelphia jazz. Lots of people who could have told stories are passing away or already passed.”
But Perkins is one of the people who can talk about the jazz scene here, and he’s been doing it on WRTI for 14 years. “I come on after classical music [programming], and I can’t come on too strongly. I have to be a bridge there, so I try to play modern people playing standards so the person not schooled in jazz can understand the beginning and make sure the artist comes back after the solo and expresses himself to the original theme. Many of the classical listeners stay with me.
“I play music that I’ve been listening to for 40 or 50 years and still hear new things, nuances that I missed the first 100 times that I listened. I haven’t quite caught up with the more modern people. I’m still in the 1950s and ‘60s. And that seems to be going over quite well [with the radio audience]. It’s strong enough to hold the dyed-in-the-wool people, and it’s initiating the people who are somewhat new to the music. It’s a fine line. They haven’t kicked me out yet.”