by John Colgan-Davis
I was home last Saturday evening doing what I normally do on those rare occasions when I have a Saturday at home; I was listening to Nick Spitzer’s wonderful show, “American Routes,” at 6 on WHYY and then listening to “Johnny Meister’s Blues Show” at 8 on WXPN.
Suddenly I was remembering a conversation I had with Denny Dyroff, who did the article on our band, the Dukes of Destiny, before our gig last month at the Kennett Flash. In that conversation we reminisced a bit about the radio we listened to growing up and the way it introduced us to a lot of the music that formed and shaped us. And it hit me like a sledgehammer: along with my parents and books and the times, radio has been an important part of making me into who I am for over half a century.
I grew up in a working class black neighborhood in West Philadelphia, and we had one radio in the house. It was in the kitchen, and WDAS and WHAT-AM were the staples in those days. These were black radio stations that played a wonderful mixture of doo-wop, some southern blues, rhythm and blues, gospel on Sundays and what would later become soul and funk.
DJ’s were king then, and the playlists were more determined by what a given DJ liked than by directors of programing and marketing research the way so many stations are run now. So Butterball and Jimmy Bishop and Georgie Woods and Jocko Henderson all had their own favorite artists and songs and their own identifiable rhymes and patter to their shows.
I spent a lot of time doing dishes and soaking up the sounds. In one evening I could hear the southern blues of Slim Harpo, smooth harmonies of the Drifters and Platters, beautiful melodic stylings of Johnny Mathis or Nancy Wilson, wild sounds of Little Richard and the emerging soul of James Brown and more.
And if it was late enough on the AM dial, you could pick up stations from New York City or Buffalo. I remember Cousin Brucie on WABC in New York. Whoever washed the dishes in our house controlled the radio, so I washed a lot of dishes. Even now I like washing dishes, and that started because I needed to be near that radio.
As rock music emerged in the late ’60s, listening became even more interesting. Acts such as Sly and the Family Stone and The Youngbloods and the Yardbirds and Jimi Hendrix were mixing things from a variety of different times and genres, and this new-fangled thing called FM radio emerged.
FM was playing five and six-minute cuts and even whole album sides, and I was being exposed to more links between styles and genres. Yes, the Stones and the Animals were getting AM play, but they and many others were also on FM now, and the DJ’s had even more freedom than the AM DJ’s had.
WIBG-FM just played music with no DJ’s at all, and I could hear Canned Heat and the Stones and even an occasional Muddy Waters, B.B. King or Junior Wells original cut after hearing a cover version by a British band. There were DJ’s such as Gene Shay and Michael Tearson, and college stations had people such as Harrison Ridley and Tom Cullen playing a wide variety of sounds.
WMMR was experimenting with different styles of music as well, and in my wide-open ears folk and rock and blues and Indian music all got blended together. Yes, some off it stunk, but my ears were expanding, and I was hearing and learning about more and more music. And that radio exposure of all this music led to more places to go out and hear it in person.
Philly was alive with clubs and coffeehouses — the Main Point, the Second Fret, the Trauma, the Magic Theater, Hecate’s Circle, the Second of Autumn, World Control Studios and more. It was a heady time, and I listened and learned to play and kept listening and kept playing, and always the radio was there.
And radio still does some of that for me. American Routes and the Blues Show in particular both play songs and artists I haven’t listened to in a while and introduce me to new ones. It’s funny; I know a lot of folks these days discover new music on the web first, and I can occasionally as well.
But I tend to go to the web and/or YouTube to look up artists after I first heard them on the radio; the radio is still my first place to encounter new sounds. The radio just keeps doing what it has always done for me — engaging the brain, opening up the ears and keeping the mind alert and alive. And it does this whether I do the dishes or not.
John Colgan-Davis is a long-time Mt. Airy resident, a teacher and harmonica player for the local rockin’ blues band, the Dukes of Destiny.