Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Top Cat

A little piece of my childhood is gone.

Last Sunday, Arnold Stang, the voice of Top Cat, died at the age of 91.

Arnold Stang was a character actor with a face like an owl and a nasal voice that reminded you of a smart-alec kid on the streets of New York City. He once told people, "I look like a frightened chipmunk who's been out in the rain too long." Although he stood only 5 foot 3 inches and never tipped the scales at much above 100 pounds, Arnold Stang was a very big man.

Arnold Stang was born in Manhattan on September 28, 1918. His father lost his job as a lawyer after the 1929 stock market crash and later became a salesman. When Arnold was still a student at New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn, he wrote a letter to a New York children's radio program called "Let's Pretend" asking for an audition. He got the job! Later he also worked on another radio show called "The Horn and Hardart Children's Hour."

In addition to doing voice work for one of my all-time favorite cartoons, Arnold had a stunning career. I remember hearing him on the Chunky candy commercials in the 1950's saying, "Chunky! What a chunk-a chocolate!" Later on he became the voice of the Honey Nut Cherrios Bee and a spokesman for Vicks Vapo-Rub.

Arnold played a gas station attendant named Ray whose station was destroyed by Jonathan Winters in the 1963 film "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." In that same film, by the way, a second gas station attendant named Irwin was played by Marvin Kaplan, who did the voice of Choo-Choo on the Top Cat cartoons (he's still with us at age 82).

In 1955, Arnold Stang was Sparrow, Frank Sinatra's friend, in the Otto Preminger film "The Man With The Golden Arm." He also appeared in another Otto Preminger film called "Skidoo" with Jackie Gleason. He worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Hercules in New York" in 1970, and with Walter Matthau in "Dennis the Menace" in 1993 as a photographer. He also appeared in "Hello Down There" in 1969.

As a teenager, he performed in dozens of radio programs, including 1930's and 1940's soap operas, mysteries, and comedies, often playing multiple roles. He played Seymour Fingerhood, the teenage neighbor in "The Goldbergs," a family series set in the Bronx. Later he became a familiar sidekick to stars like Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny, and Milton Berle. He was a regular on "The Henry Morgan Show" doing skits, like a goofy New Yorker named Gerald.

He got involved with television when that medium first began as a regular on a program called The School House on the DuMont network in 1949. He was a regular on a comedy show called Doc Corkle in 1952. From 1953 to 1955 he played Francis, a stagehand who was always pestering Milton Berle on Texaco Star Theater. His was a regular on a 1960's comedy show called "Broadside," and appeared numerous times as a guest star on "Bonanza," "Batman" and "The Cosby Show," where he appeared with Sammy Davis Jr.. He also appeared as a guest several times on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

He acted on Broadway three times, the last being a revival of "The Front Page" in 1969. He was also the voice of many cartoon characters, other than Top Cat. He was Nurtle The Turtle in "Pinocchio in Outer Space" in 1965. He was the voice of Shorty, Popeye's friend. He was Tubby Tompkins in Little Lulu. He was Catsfish on Misterjaw. He also did voices for the Cartoon Network's Courage The Cowardly Dog. He also did the voice of Herman the Mouse in several Famous Studios cartoons.

He married JoAnne Taggart in 1959 and they stayed together for 60 years. Their wedding rings were made by fellow character actor, Wally Cox, who was also a skilled goldsmith. He and his family lived in New Rochelle, New York until very late in life when he relocated to Needham, Massachusetts. He was also blessed with a son David, daughter Deborah, and two grand-daughters.

According to his wife, Arnold Stang loved the cartoons. He liked doing commercials, too. But most of all, he loved radio. It offered him a great span of roles.

His cartoon character, the mischievous Top Cat, was a parody of Phil Silvers, who was the star of the television show "Sergeant Bilko." Here's the opening theme song from that cartoon, which you will sometimes hear on MusicMaster Oldies, performed by the Golden Orchestra and Chorus:




And here's Arnold Stang doing the voice of Herman The Mouse in a very funny cartoon short. Be patient because it may take several seconds for this clip to download before it begins playing on your browser. It's worth the wait!



We're gonna miss you, T.C.!



Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Squeaky vs The Black Knight ???

Record collecting has taken me through many interesting twists and turns throughout the years. It's cool how you can start out focused on one aspect of a hobby, which leads you to another thing, then another, and on and on.

I started out searching for every record that ever hit Billboard Magazine's Hot 100 charts between 1955 and 1970. As I closed in on that goal, I expanded my search to include every record that made the Billboard Bubbling Under charts as well. I ended up finding a copy of every last one, but it took a long time! In the process, I managed to buy well over two million records.

While cataloging all these records and recording them on the computer, I started to run into songs that didn't show up on these charts, even though I knew I'd heard them very often as a kid. These turned out to be Regional Hits. Now I started searching for the radio station playlists from 1955 to 1970 from the Cleveland area where I grew up and studied those looking for songs that were hit records in Cleveland but not listed on the Billboard charts. I found plenty of them! That led me to collecting and studying the radio station playlists of other cities. I never managed to find them all, and I doubt anyone could in a lifetime.

The fact is, there were probably millions of songs recorded in that short span of 16 years! I know people who are insanely trying to collect them all; but I also know how utterly impossible that would be. There are, after all, records that were made in very limited quantities. Few, if any, of these still exist today. There were vanity pressings made by the parents of young wanna-be rock stars that were probably only distributed to family members and close friends (I have a bunch of these and sometimes they're very good). There are also some other really odd things out there just waiting for record collectors to discover.

This is the story of one such odd record.

The Royal Guardsmen are best known for the 1967 novelty hit, Snoopy vs The Red Baron. This is a song about a dog named Snoopy, who was a comic-strip character created by Charles Shulz. In the comics, Snoopy liked to put on a scarf and hat, sit up on his dog house, and pretend he was a World War I pilot chasing his arch-enemy, The Red Baron of Germany. It's a very cute song that managed to reach number two on the Billboard charts nationwide. It spawned a couple of follow-up records in that same year, The Return Of The Red Baron and Snoopy's Christmas. I love all three of these records, and you'll hear them all on MusicMaster Oldies of course! Later, one more great Snoopy record showed up during the 1968 election season called Snoopy For President.

The Royal Guardsmen were six kids from Ocala, Florida, some of whom were still in high school when they formed the group in 1966. They started out trying to do near-perfect copies of current hits in live appearances. But things took a turn for them when they created this silly song about that "funny looking dog with a big black nose!"

The Royal Guardsmen consisted of Billy Taylor (keyboard), Bill Balogh (bass), Tom Richards (lead guitar), Barry Winslow (vocals and guitar), Chris Nunley (vocals), and John Burdett (drums). The Royal Guardsmen evolved from an earlier group fronted by Bill Balogh called The Posmen, loosely named after Bill's father's job as a postman (without the "t"). John Burdett wanted to meet a girl who lived next door to Bill, so the two of them became friends. John told Bill he could play the drums, and Bill invited him to join his group, even though John had never played drums in his life! As it turns out, every other member of the group, except drummer John, had extensive experience with the drums as members of the high school drum corps! The Posmen did some live gigs during the spring and summer of 1965 and changed members along the way. If you like, you can find the complete story of how the group got started by clicking HERE. The boys were all fans of the British Invasion sound. When they bought some new Vox equipment and noticed the amplifier carried the Royal Guardsman name. That sounded a lot better than The Posmen, so it became the band's new name. John pulled the emblem off the amplifier and stuck it on the face of his bass drum!

By September of 1966, the band was finalized and they headed for the recording studio to cut a demo record. They recorded four tracks at Fuller Studios in Tampa. They met record producer Phil Gernhard at a local gig when he approached them with a song idea. He showed them a yellow legal pad with the lyrics to Snoopy vs The Red Baron on it. It was originally written by Dick Holler as a straight historical ballad about The Red Baron of Germany, similar to Sink The Bismarck by Johnny Horton. The Red Baron was actually the hero of this story, since it was sung from the German's perspective. The Red Baron was a real fighter pilot and flying ace named Manfred von Richtofen, winner of Prussia's highest military order, the Blue Max. You can read all about him by clicking HERE.


Around this same time, Charles Shulz was already doing the Snoopy vs the Red Baron bit in his comic strip, with Snoopy yelling things like "Curse you, Red Baron!" Phil asked Dick Holler about changing his lyrics to a novelty about the comic strip character. The group wasn't sure what they were going to do with those lyrics, musically, but they went to work on it. They tried to follow Phil Gernhard's suggestion to give it just a few chords backed by a military drum riff. The boys didn't really think it was that good, but Phil liked it enough to get them into the recording studio to cut a demo that he could shop around to some record labels.

Chris was taking German while attending the University of Florida, so he ended up doing the opening of the song, which translates into English as: "Attention! We will now sing together to story of the beloved Red Baron and that pig-headed dog Snoopy!"

This is where the story gets a little more interesting. The group figured they would need permission from Charles Shulz to use his Snoopy character in their song. They sent a copy of the record to Charles but never got a response from him. Instead, his lawyers suggested they change the name. By this time, Phil had hooked up with Laurie Records to distribute the song nationally. While trying to sort out the legal issues, they released the song in Canada with the title changed to Squeaky vs The Black Knight.


Shulz and his lawyers eventually cleared their use of Snoopy, probably in exchange for some money, and Laurie released Snoopy vs The Red Baron in September 1966. It was on top of the charts in December, and even reached #8 in the UK by January 1967.

Now most people think that only the name was changed on these pressings, but not the song itself. That's not the case! It took me a very long time to track this record down, but here is what I found on my copy Squeaky vs The Black Knight by The Royal Guardsmen on Laurie 3366X out of Canada. Get ready for a song you probably know very well, but with lyrics you've never heard before!


Of course, you will hear this version, along with many other surprises, when you listen to MusicMaster Oldies!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Tomorrow's Oldies


OK, here's the deal. I was sitting in Fuddrucker's last week munching on a burger, surrounded by music memorabilia and listening to oldies. Yeah, I know it's not diet food, but my 15 year old son makes a nasty face when I suggest we have a salad and I can't stand seeing him suffer like that. Afterward, during a couple hours at the gym, I started thinking about all the different shops and restaurants that still play 1950's and 1960's music in the background. One of the radio stations in my area changed format last week from simulcasting polka music to Good Time Great Oldies from the 50's, 60's, and 70's. Just then something hit me like a ton of bricks. It was one of those OMG moments. To help you get the same feeling I had, we need to start with some simple mathematics. (Don't worry, there will not be a quiz later.)

Most of the radio stations and shops that play 60's oldies these days play at least one Beatles song. The Beatles took off in America in January 1964. In almost no time at all, they had ALL FIVE of the top five songs on the national charts!

As I write this, we're a month away from January 2010. 2010 minus 1964 is 46 years, right? Now, take 1964 and subtract 46 years. That takes us back to 1918. You baby-boomers can correct me if I'm wrong, but to the best of my recollection, we did NOT sit around at hamburger joints in 1964 listening to a bunch of songs from 1918! We did NOT have radio stations playing The Best Of The 1900's, 1910's, and 1920's. What the heck is going on here?

I'm starting to wonder if the rock and roll era somehow caused music to begin expanding sideways instead of growing forward. Has popular music fragmented into so many different pieces that there are no more new styles left to create?

I can picture a young Jimi Hendrix sitting in a coffee shop in Greenwich Village watching his idol Bob Dylan shout out his classic folk version of All Along The Watchtower while accompanying himself on acoustic guitar and harmonica. Later that night, Jimi will go to work playing killer electric guitar as part of a backing band for an R&B group. Jimi loves Dylan's music, and he loves wild electric guitar, so he "marries" the two and gives birth to the Jimi Hendrix Experience, along with all the imitators who come afterward. Meanwhile, a young Jimmy Page leaves a pop-rock-oriented British Invasion band, does some studio guitar work, and then "marries" early American blues and R&B with hard rock to create Led Zeppelin.

These are examples of how the evolution of popular music created entirely new styles. In much the same way that DNA splits and recombines to create new and unique human beings, popular music styles split apart and then combine with other styles to create a totally new sound. But what kind of combinations are being made today? What new forms of popular music are being created these days?

Last week, someone wanted to know if there were any recent hits that were not done in standard 4/4 time. I can't name one. Can you? For that matter, can you think of any current hit that really does something truly different? Are there any new songs that really push the envelope, plow new ground, or do something truly radical and exciting? (And I don't consider singing through Auto-Tune to be an "advancement" in the music industry!)

At a time when the record industry is pushing for new fees from radio stations who play their music, one has to wonder exactly what they're doing to EARN those fees. What new products are they cultivating?

We continue to discover great music from fifty years ago that was somehow overlooked the first time around. Certain musical styles that were first born fifty years ago still command the power to fuel huge cult followings. Rhythm and Blues tunes from fifty years ago still sound mighty sweet today. But what music is being CREATED today that will have the same kind of impact in 2056 -- some 46 years from today?

You may have noticed that I've started to play some Christmas songs on MusicMaster Oldies. This has become an annual tradition, but unlike some of the radio stations today, I don't suddenly switch to a wall-to-wall Christmas music format somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving! Instead, you'll hear Christmas music they way I heard it on the radio when I was growing up. I think this music is much more special when it's blended into the normal mix. Back in the 1950's and 1960's, the Christmas season really got into full swing just a week or so before Santa came sliding down the chimney. None of the stations switched to 100% Christmas music, either, except maybe for a few hours on Christmas morning. It is possible to get too much of a good thing, you know!

By the way, yet another Pirate Radio Station has appeared in the news, this time it's in Canada. Click HERE to read more about it.

A quick note to all the musicians and artists out there: MusicMaster Oldies is under contract to play music with ASCAP, SESAC, and BMI. We pay our royalties for each performance. However, if we should happen to post anything on this blog that you own rights to and want us to remove, please contact me directly. You can e-mail me at joe@mmwin.com. Please don't contact Blogger or Google because they might shut down my blog instead of just asking me to remove an offending item. There's no reason to throw the baby out with the bath water!

It irritates me when artists are cheated out of compensation for their work. However, it's not always kids downloading songs that cost them the most. There are horror stories in abundance throughout the 1950's and 1960's, and right into the present, talking about how record companies and unscrupulous record promotors and managers took advantage of a naive client who's only concern was playing rock and roll music. Click HERE to read an interesting story about underpaid royalties.

Finally, I want to thank every one who commented on my last blog post. You make this a LOT more fun with your interaction and feedback. Without your input, writing this blog would be like a tree falling in the woods with nobody around to hear it...

Some corrections were made to my Original Versions post after getting new data from a few well-informed followers. In addition to the corrections I've already made, I've got some more new information to pass along now.

Roy Hall was actually the first person to release There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On on Decca 29697 in 1955 (despite the fact that Wikipedia claims it came out in 1954). Roy Hall, who's real name was James Faye Hall, was born in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, on May 7, 1922. He died on March 2, 1984. His version was covered so quickly by blues singer Big Maybelle that it created confusion for years as to which was the original recording. It was more common back then for a Country & Western singer to cover an R&B record than the other way around, which helped create some of the controversy.

Roy Hall claimed to have written the song, even though his name is never actually credited on the label. You will find different variations of composer credits on this song, but the song was written by Dave "Curlee" Williams, a singer-songwriter who was born in Kentucky as the son of Native American (Crow tribe) and African-American parents, with help from Hall, who was a white piano player, songwriter, and band leader. Roy used the alias Sunny David, which is why you'll often see the composers of this song listed as "D Williams & S David." Roy also claimed that he once employed a young piano player by the name of Jerry Lee Lewis back in the early 1950's, so now you know the "rest of the story."

Here's Roy Hall's Original Version of There's A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On:


Memphis Slim wasn't even close to being the first to record Stagger Lee. The song was recorded many years earlier, in 1928, by Mississippi John Hurt as Stack O'Lee Blues on Okeh 8654. Here's that version of this classic rock and roll song:


But that was NOT the Original Version of this song. It may have been the first one recorded with lyrics, but an instrumental version was released a full five years earlier by Fred Waring And The Pennsylvanians on Victor 19189. This was a traditional song that pre-dated recorded music by many years. Here's that 1923 recording of Stack-O' Lee Blues by Fred Waring:


Now you can see why collecting these Original Versions can be a lot of fun. Music historians are still trying to piece together all the available data, and new discoveries of even older versions are being made all the time. To make this process even more complex, a lot of incorrect information is out there on the Internet. Moral of the story is, don't believe everything you read in Wikipedia!

I also learned that Hound Dog was also recorded by several other people in 1953, although none of these came out earlier than Willie Mae Thornton's Original Version. You can also find the song done by Billy Star on Imperial 8186, Tommy Duncan on Intro 6071, Betsy Gay on Intro 6070, Eddie Hazelwood on Intro 6059, Jack Turner on RCA 20-5267, and Cleve Jackson on Herald 6000. Of course, you'll hear ALL of these and more on MusicMaster Oldies!

Let me close this topic, for now, with one more Original Version for your enjoyment. You've all heard Led Zeppelin, of course. After Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans, I thought their version of When The Levee Breaks would make a fitting and prophetic memorial song. But I discovered an even better choice: the Original Version of that song! The first recording dates back to 1929 when it was released on Columbia 14439 by Kansas Joe And Memphis Minnie. The song was "re-worked" by Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, which might explain why they left the original composers off the album credits. Here now, as my tribute to the many folks who lost their lives in the rain, wind and flooding in New Orleans, please enjoy the Original Version of When The Levee Breaks:




Monday, November 23, 2009

Where Did That Song Come From?

Most of the songs you'll hear on MusicMaster Oldies were recorded between 1954 and 1974. But, we also play quite a few songs that are considerably older, some going back to the very early 1900's.

We like to occasionally mix in a number one hit from the late 1930's and 1940's because those songs were frequently heard on the radio in the 1950's and even the 1960's, often mixed in with the current hits. I was born in 1953, and as a kid, I heard those songs all the time, mainly coming out of my mom's radio or record player!

You'll also hear a lot of songs that are early incarnations of rock and roll, including some really classic old rhythm and blues, hillbilly, and even some big band swing tunes. It's really amazing to hear some of these songs, especially those performed by artists who were truly ahead of their time.

Another category of really old songs we play have recently become a hot item among certain record collectors. These are the "original" versions of songs that were later redone to become big hits. Most of the time, these original songs were not big sellers at all. Somehow they were discovered many years later by a recording artist or producer and recycled. In fact, a lot of 1960's rock bands, like the Rolling Stones, the Animals, and the Beatles, loved to listen to really old American rhythm and blues tunes even before they got together and started making records of their own.

Let's sample some of the more interesting Original Versions you'll hear on MusicMaster Oldies.

We'll start with the big British Invasion hit by Herman's Hermits called I'm Henry The VIII, I Am. You might have wondered how they came up with such a strange thing to sing about when you first heard that song. Well, that song was actually an old English pub song which was written in 1910 by Fred Murray and R. P. Weston. It was first recorded in 1911 by a guy named William Crump who was born in Shoreditch England in 1865. He started singing at the age of 15 under the stage name Will Conray. At age age 23, he became known as Harry Champion. Harry had a lot of songs in his repertoire and he liked to sing many of them at breakneck speed. He died in 1942 while living in Tottenham, where he spent most of his adult life and, reportedly, drove a taxi when he wasn't singing! Herman's Hermits probably never heard Harry's recording, and may have instead copied a 1961 recording of the song done by Joe Brown. But here's Harry Champion doing the Original Version of Henery The 8th on England's Columbia 1621 from 1911, which he also recorded on the Beka and Homophone labels in that same year:



When you first heard Jimmy Soul (James McCleese) singing If You Wanna Be Happy in 1963, you probably didn't know was a recycled song. It started out as a calypso song written by an interesting guy who was born Hubert Charles in Trinidad in 1908. He later changed his name to Rafael De Leon and started calling himself The Roaring Lion. He moved to New York City in the 1930's to record calypso records. The Duke Of Iron on this recording is actually a guy named Cecil Anderson who is backed up by Gerald Clark's Orchestra. Here's Marry An Ugly Woman on Banner/Perfect 735 from 1934!



You always though the Beach Boys first recorded Sloop John B, right? Actually, that's another recycled song. This is a very old traditional song that was published in Harper's Magazine in 1916 in an article called Coral Islands And Mangrove Trees by Richard Le Gallienne. Carl Sandburg included it in The American Songbag, his 1927 collection of folk songs, claiming it was almost a national anthem around Nassau. It's been recorded many times over the years under various names such as Wreck Of The John B by the Weavers in 1950, Sloop John B by the Kingston Trio in 1958 (which is likely the version the Beach Boys heard and copied), I Want To Go Home by Johnny Cash in 1959, and many others. The first recorded version, however, was made by Alan Lomax in his 1935 collection called Deep River Of Song. Here is that Original Version by the Cleveland Simmons Group from Bahamas which they called Histe Up The John B's Sails:



The guys who kicked blues-rock into high gear in the 1960's were heavily influenced by a guy named Robert Johnson. You've heard Crossroads by Cream with Eric Clapton on vocals and electric guitar. Later, Eric Clapton actually named his rehab center in Antigua after this song after fighting depression and drug addiction in the 1970's. Now listen to the Original Version, Cross Road Blues by Robert Johnson on Vocalion 03519 from 1936. Oh, by the way, if you should happen to find a copy of this in good condition, you could expect to sell it for well over $5000.



Speaking of Robert Johnson, you'll find that some of his original blues lyrics were "borrowed" by both Cream (two lines in Crossroads) and Led Zeppelin (The Lemon Song). Robert Johnson himself may have borrowed the lyrics used by Robert Plant from another 1937 song called She Squeezed My Lemon by Roosevelt Sykes. Here's Traveling Riverside Blues by Robert Johnson recorded for Vocalion records in 1937 but not released until 1961:



The melody behind Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley actually comes from an American Civil War song about a maiden called Aura Lee written by W W Fosdick and George R. Poulton. Elvis actually recycled this melody again when he sang Violet (Flower Of NYU) in the movie The Trouble With Girls. The melody is also used for a song called Army Blue which is associated with the U.S. Military Academy. That version was used as a running theme during the 1954 movie The Long Gray Line. Aura Lee was sung by Frances Farmer in the 1936 movie Come And Get It. This first recorded version of this song appeared on Decca records in 1937 by the Shelton Brothers.



The Tokens big hit The Lion Sleeps Tonight is another recycled tune. This song was introduced in the USA by Pete Seeger's group, the Weavers, after Alan Lomax provided him with a recording. An article about this song appeared in Rolling Stone magazine in May 2000 which sparked a lawsuit against the American copyright holder, Abilene Music, which ended six years later with heirs of the original artist being awarded a royalty settlement. To hear the Original Version of this one we actually have to go back to South Africa in 1939 to find Solomon Linda's Original Singing Birds singing Mbube on Singer 829.



Eric Burdon And The Animals were certainly not the first to record See See Rider. Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Malissa Pridgett. She died on December 22, 1939 at age 53. Here's the Original Version of See See Rider Blues by Ma Rainey on Paramount 12252 from 1924 with a young Louis Armstrong on cornet and Fletcher Henderson on piano.



But Eric Burdon most likely copied a later version from 1957 by Chuck Willis on Atlantic 1130.



Chuck, in turn, probably copied this 1942 version by 'Wee' Bea Booze on Decca 8633:



See how much fun this can be? Let's have a bit more!

Beyond The Sea by Bobby Darin started out as La Mer by French singer Charles Trenet. Born in France in 1913, Charles moved to New York City after World War II where he lived in an apartment near the Empire State Building. He became friends with Charlie Chaplin and Louis Armstrong. In 1946, he recorded this Original Version, La Mer on Columbia 8108:



Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford was a remake of a song by legendary Country singer Merle Travis. Here's Merle singing 16 Tons on Capitol records from 1946:



Did you think George Thorogood And The Destroyers were the first to sing Move It On Over? No way. That was written and first recorded by the legendary Hank Williams on MGM 10033 in 1947:



Speaking of Hank Williams, many people believe he was the first to record Lost Highway. Actually, a slightly earlier version of that song was recorded by Leon Payne on Bullet 670 in 1948



Stagger Lee has been recorded by a whole bunch of people, over 200 in fact, including Lloyd Price, Beck, Pat Boone, James Brown, Cab Calloway, Nick Cave, The Clash, Neil Diamond, Dr. John, Bob Dylan, Duke Ellington, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Bill Haley, Tim Hardin, Wilbert Harrison, Hot Tuna, The Isley Brothers, Tom Jones, Sleepy LaBeef, Jerry Lee Lewis, Huey Lewis, Trini Lopez, Pacific Gas And Electric, Terry Melcher, Johnny Otis, Charlie Pride, The Righteous Brothers, Bobby Rydell, Neil Sedaka, Southside Johnny And The Asbury Jukes, Taj Mahal, Ike And Tina Turner, The Ventures, and so on! Here's the Original Recording made by Alan Lomax in New York City in 1947, this is Memphis Slim singing Stagolee and playing piano, along with John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson on harmonica and Big Bill Broonzy on upright bass:



Elvis Presley became famous for copying an early rhythm and blues record with a country flavor, with the resulting blend being a brand new sound that some consider one of the first examples of true rock and roll music. Well, here's that Original Version that The King heard, Arthur 'Big Boy' Crudup singing That's All Right on Victor 2205 from 1949. (CORRECTION: It's come to my attention that Arthur Crudup's original 78 RPM recording on Victor 2205 was actually issued in 1947. This song was reissued by RCA when they introduced the 45 RPM format. In fact, That's All Right was the very first R&B record ever issued on a 45 RPM single. It was on RCA 50-0000 with a very hard-to-read light gray label and reddish-orange vinyl (RCA called it 'cerise'). They started out with the intention to color-code 45's based on the type of music. For example, Country & Western music was on green vinyl. RCA dropped this idea very soon afterward and started pressing everything on black vinyl.)



Some songs were changed so radically when they were recycled that it's hard to tell if the later version was intentionally copied by the later artist. It's pretty easy to argue that you just happened to come up with a song that was quite similar to someone else's work. Sometimes this kind of thing ends up getting settled in court. Keep that in mind as you listen to Sunflower by Frank Sinatra on Columbia 38391 from 1949. See if you think the similarity of Hello Dolly by Louis Armstrong was an intentional copy, subconscious influence, or just a total coincidence!



If you like to play Guitar Hero you've probably slapped the buttons in step with Train Kept A-Rollin'. Here's the Original Version of that song by Tiny Bradshaw from 1951 on King 4497;



Elvis Presley's huge 1956 hit was first sung by The King to a basset hound on Steve Allen's television show. The next day, he went into the studio with the Jordanaires, Scotty Moore, D J Fontana, and Bill Black to record the record. It was not the first time that song had been recorded. Written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, it was first recorded by Willie May 'Big Mama' Thornton and was dubbed the best R&B record of 1953. Here's the Original Version of Hound Dog by Big Mama Thronton on Peacock 1612 from 1952:



Elvis, however, was more likely influenced by a somewhat different version of this song done by Freddie Bell And The Bell Boys. The original recording was a bit raunchy for white radio, so Bernie Lowe suggested Bell make some changes. Out went "snooping around my door", "wag your tail", and "weep and moan", and the human references were downgraded by Freddie to that of a canine and a rabbit. The song wasn't about a gigolo anymore. It became more of a novelty in the Bill Haley style with riffing sax and group call-back response. Freddie Bell's version got a ton of radio airplay on the East Coast and became a nice regional hit and lasting crowd pleaser. While it failed to produce a big payday for Bell, it did feature prominently and successfully in his act at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. It was in Las Vegas that Bell's re-write of Hound Dog would take its place as Bell's greatest contribution to rock and roll history. Colonel Tom Parker booked Elvis into the New Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas in 1956, which proved to be one of the few mistakes the Colonel made that year. But, that booking gave Elvis and his band the opportunity to catch Freddie Bell's act. The 'Atomic Powered Singer', as Elvis was billed in Las Vegas at that time, was impressed with Freddie's version of Hound Dog and got to know the band. (They remained friends and later Freddie would give Elvis karate exhibitions backstage.) Elvis asked about Hound Dog and Freddie Bell told him to go ahead and record it. Elvis thought it was a natural and showcased the song in his stage act as his closing number and featured his famous bump and grind version on his second Milton Berle TV appearance on June 5, 1956 to much adverse publicity. So while Freddie Bell had sought to sanitize the song, Elvis' performance of it caused quite a bit of controversy. Here's Freddie Bell And The Bell Boys doing Hound Dog from 1955 on Teen 101:



Who would have thought that Johnny Cash was recycling a song when he recorded his big hit, Folsom Prison Blues? The Original Version was actually a song called Crescent City Blues sung by Beverly Mahr backed up by Gordon Jenkins Orchestra on Decca records from 1952:



Sometimes you can just add some lyrics to an existing instrumental song and turn it into a big hit. Such was the case with Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley And His Comets! Yes, the familiar theme song from Happy Days and one of the first rock and roll records ever made started life as an instrumental by Jimmy DeKnight on Peak 105 in 1953. (CORRECTION: I have since learned that this is NOT an original version. This song was actually issued in 1959, which means it's simply an instrumental cover of the hit. I should have triple-checked the facts on this one! The full artist credit on this record was Jimmy DeKnight And His Kings Of Rhythm. It was reissued on Apt 25034 in 1959 for national distribution.)



But Bill Haley wasn't even the first to add lyrics to this song! That honor goes to Sonny Dae And His Knights on Arcade 123 in 1954!



Here's another song that may or may not qualify as an Original Version. You be the judge. You've heard Chuck Berry do Sweet Little Sixteen and the very similar Surfin' USA by the Beach Boys. In fact, there was a big lawsuit over that song where Chuck Berry claimed the Beach Boys had stolen his melody. Chuck Berry won that lawsuit, but Chuck himself may have "borrowed" that melody from a song called Route 90 by Clarence Garlow on Flair 1021 from 1954!



A lot of the early rock and roll songs started out as rhythm and blues records. Everyone knows Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On. Here's the Original Version by Big Maybelle on Okeh 7060 from 1955.



I could go on and on and on with these Original Versions but I've really got to start doing shorter blog posts! You can learn a lot more about Original Versions of hit songs at http://www.originalsproject.us. You can also hear well over a thousand more of these Original Versions on MusicMaster Oldies!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Avast Ye! Pirate Radio, Dead Ahead!

An Actual Pirate Coin from 1794

I'm really looking forward to the new Pirate Radio movie! Let me tell you why...



I fell in love with radio before I even started school. My mother used to put her little green General Electric transistor radio in my bed when I had trouble sleeping. She'd usually tune it to the beautiful music station but that never seemed to sooth me. So, she tried different stations all the time. My earliest memories include falling asleep to songs like I Love Paris and Oh My Papa. I got to know Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra very well, but I also got to hear some really cool Rhythm and Blues spun by the legendary Alan Freed. I even remember trying to talk like the radio announcers! As I started to grow older, I spent even more time listening to the radio -- night and day. I'd tune around the dial trying to find as many different stations as I could, and I especially liked to find ones that came in from far away on the "skip" at night. I came to LOVE radio; and I knew that someday I would be working at a radio station.

Rock and Roll music got into my bloodstream at a very early age, too. My Grandmother owned a little diner where the local teens hung out every afternoon, playing their favorite songs on the juke box. I spent a lot of time there, either helping Grandma by stacking pop bottles or sweeping the floor, or just hanging out enjoying some of her delicious homemade Chili.

Grandma's Diner (left to right, Me, Grandma, and my sister 'Babe')

I first discovered the FM band through my Grandmother's DuMont "Dog House" television set. It had a continuous tuner to let you hear aircraft bands and FM between channels six and seven. Very few people even knew that FM existed back then, but I found it fascinating. I remember tuning in some early experimental "stereo" broadcasts where the left channel was broadcast on AM and the right channel was heard on an FM station. Hearing stereo sound for the first time really blew my mind!

A DuMont R-103 Chatham Television Set

My dad thought my love for radio was a very interesting hobby, so one day he took me to a furniture store in downtown Cleveland and bought me a much bigger radio for my birthday. It was a black and silver RCA transistor table model that could tune in the AM and FM bands. That radio was really sensitive, but it had some problems at first. It had an odd crackling noise that would slowly build into a steady and loud buzzing sound. If I tapped on the volume control a few times, I could make it stop. My dad took it back to the store several times asking them to fix it, but they never did. My dad was a radar technician during World War II, so he decided to take a shot at fixing it himself. He let me watch as he took that radio apart. He showed me that the volume control connections had "cold" solder joints. I watched as he heated up his soldering iron to melt a little more solder on each connection. I remember how cool it was to watch the smoke curl up and smell the burning resin. I knew right then and there that fixing electronic stuff would somehow have a place in my future. Oh, and the radio worked perfectly after that!

A WIXY 1260 Survey from 1966

I was a huge fan of the Top 40 stations in Cleveland, especially WIXY 1260, but I spent my nights checking out similar stations from Detroit/Windsor, New York City, Chicago, and many other places. I also wanted to learn more about electronics, so my dad took me to the public library where we checked out the Amateur Radio Relay League Handbook. I read that thing from cover to cover, struggling to understand as much of it as I could. I learned that there were Amateur Radio Operators who ran their own transmitters and talked with each other using both Morse Code and voice. This seemed very interesting to me. I even found a book at the library that listed every radio station in the USA. I was the only person who ever checked that book out, and it was almost constantly checked out to me! I even talked my dad into buying me a copy of my own for my birthday. My mom thought it was a pretty weird present for a little kid!


The Amateur Radio crowd exchanged something they called QSL Cards with each other after making contact with someone new. Commercial radio stations, back then, would also send these QSL cards out to distant listeners. Tuning in far away radio stations was actually a hobby that was older than commercial broadcasting. Distant radio listening was called DX-ing, and those who listened were called DX-er's. These folks tried to collect as many of these QSL cards as they could, mainly from International short wave radio stations. Some, however, focused on commercial stations on the AM broadcast band. To get one, all you had to do was hear a far away station, wait for them to identify themselves (which was required at the top of each hour), note the date and time, write down enough details about the broadcast to prove you'd actually heard it, then mail your reception report to the station. These reports usually got routed to the Chief Engineer, who would then take the time to confirm your report and send you back an official QSL card. My very first one came from WRVA in Richmond, Virginia, and I was really excited to find that in the mail! I became obsessed with these things, eventually filling a whole wall in my bedroom with QSL cards and letters from AM radio stations all over the USA and Canada.


My Uncle George was a fairly odd guy. He never married, never had a steady job, and lived his entire life in an upstairs bedroom at my Grandmother's house. He liked to collect things like old radios and talking machines, coins, car parts, and more. He gave me some of those little blue coin books and helped me fill them with duplicates from his collection. Every night, he'd carefully search through all the coins in the cash register at my Grandma's diner and he taught me how to spot the better ones. Back then it was still easy to find really old coins in your change because coin collecting was still an uncommon hobby. Uncle George was also a part time disc jockey on a Country and Western station in nearby Akron. He'd bring home the rock and roll records and stuff them into a closet; and he'd give extra copies to me. He's really the guy who started my obsession with vinyl records, and he was the first person I ever knew who actually worked in a radio station!

One night in late 1963, while tuning around on the radio, I happened upon something very strange. There was a radio station that sounded very far away, but it didn't identify itself in the usual manner at the top of each hour. They were playing rock and roll music, didn't play any commercials, and called themselves KDJ at 540 on the dial. The disc jockeys sounded young and unprofessional. I had tuned in my very first "pirate" radio station! Eventually, I found more illegal stations, usually just past the top of the AM radio dial (back then) at around 1610 KHz. Back then, there were radio navigation beacons called LORAN broadcasting up there, and these stations would interfere with each other. If the pirate station was really weak, you'd hear this interference as a regular "beep" over the top of the audio. The kids who ran these stations were older than me, but hearing them play records and talk on the radio gave me a burning desire to get on the air myself. Somehow I knew I'd find a way build my own radio station!

There was a neighborhood candy store and soda shop where where kids liked to hang out after school. I'd stop in there on my way home from school to grab a Hershey's bar and a bottle of Pepsi, and maybe play a couple games of pinball. One day, when I was eleven years old, I spotted a magazine cover in the rack that read "Build Your Own AM Radio Station!" You can't imagine how excited I was to see this! Instead of buying my usual junk food, I spent every penny I had to buy that issue of Popular Electronics magazine. I rushed home and tore through it looking for the magic plans that would get me on the air. I had visions of being on the air that very night, broadcasting to all my friends!

Popular Electronics Magazine (but not the one I found that day)

My parents didn't have a lot of money, but I did get a small allowance from them to buy lunch at school and I earned a little more from my early morning newspaper route, and from doing odd jobs for the neighbors. But some of the parts I needed would cost more than I could afford. I asked my dad if he'd lend me some money and showed him what I wanted to build. He told me that I could probably get most of the parts on that list by taking apart broken radios and televisions that people would leave out on the curb for the junk man. He also suggested that I ask my Uncle George, because he liked to tinker around with old radios and had several burned out ones laying around that he'd given up trying to fix. Over the next few trash days, I dragged my little red wagon all around the neighborhood collecting all the old radio and television sets I could find. I took them home, stripped out the parts, and started building a collection of resistors, capacitors, transformers, tubes and sockets, potentiometers (volume controls), and other assorted parts. I didn't know what they all did at the time, but I did take the time to read about them in the Amateur Radio handbook!

I managed to scrounge up everything I needed, except for one special tuning coil and an odd little capacitor. When I showed my dad what I needed, he drove me over to Radio Shack and bought the two remaining parts for me. I couldn't wait to get home and start putting this thing together!

I got everything hooked up according to the schematic in the magazine. I followed every instruction to the letter. I carefully soldered every connection, using my dad's trusty Weller soldering gun! When I was finished, I plugged it into the wall, grabbed my radio, and started frantically searching the dial for my station -- but it was nowhere to be found.

Can you imagine my disappointment? I double-checked every connection. My dad took a look at it and suggested that maybe one of the parts I had used was bad. It only had one vacuum tube, a 12AX7 triode. First, we removed this tube and tested it at the drugstore. Back then every drugstore had a tube tester and replacement tubes to help people fix their own television sets when they broke down. Most television problems in the early years were caused by weak or burned out vacuum tubes. Unfortunately, my tube tested fine, and my heart sank even further.


We went back home and my dad explained that we might be able to take one of the old junk radios I'd scrounged up and rewire it to make it transmit a signal using the beat frequency oscillator. I was so depressed though, I wasn't really paying much attention to his idea. He tried for an entire evening to rewire an old radio chassis, but he never got it working as a transmitter. I went back over to my little contraption, built mostly from spare parts, and started looking at every connection again. That's when I noticed that a couple of connections on the tube socket had somehow been bridged together by an excess strand of solder, shorting them out. I cut that solder connection and tried it again. This time, to my amazement and delight, I heard a signal on my AM radio -- loud and clear!

Now I needed to figure out how to get music to play through my little transmitter. The magazine article showed how you could connect it to the speaker output of your record player, so that's what I did. Soon I was listening to my own records playing on the radio. You just can't imagine how excited I was to hear that. I was eleven years old, and I had just built my own radio station. Now all I needed was a microphone!

The record player had an auxiliary input on the back, but I had no microphone. I decided to take apart an old telephone and use the mouthpiece from that. But it didn't work. No sound came out when I switched to the auxiliary input. My dad explained that the carbon microphone in a telephone needs a constant direct current flowing through it in order to work. The phone company provides that through the telephone line. It's 100 volts DC and it's switched on through the microphone when you pick up the handset. It's amazing that I didn't kill myself, but I managed to hook up 90 volts worth of batteries and run them through the microphone to get it working. I ran that through a transformer so it was isolated from the record player input. Otherwise, according to my dad, I'd probably blow up the record player! When I switched over to auxiliary now and spoke into the microphone, I heard myself talking on the radio! My first instinct was to do a station identification. Since I had no actual call letters, I just tossed a "W" on the front of the first three letters of my record player's band label, "Decca." The first words I ever spoke on the radio were: "This is radio station WDEC in Cleveland Ohio!"


Once I had the radio station set up, I'd rush home from school every night, fire up the transmitter, put on an album, and then ride my bike all over the neighborhood testing to see how far I could hear it. I spent a lot of time experimenting with the antenna wire to see if I could extend my coverage area. But no matter what I did, I couldn't hear it more than a couple blocks away. But I was finally on the air and I couldn't be happier.

My obsession with radio grew even bigger. Soon I found myself shoplifting 45 RPM records from the local department store to feed my habit. That ended abruptly, however, when my brother and I got caught and sent to the police station where we waited for our parents to pick us up!

Young Joe Knapp - Federal Criminal

One evening, while I was listening to one of the other pirate stations, I heard them give out a phone number asking listeners to call and make requests! I called that number and reached a kid who's voice I'd heard on the station. The phone line was really strange. Every few seconds you'd hear a loud "click-click" that would interrupt the connection. I learned from the pirate broadcaster that these were "test lines" used by Ohio Bell workers to communicate with each other while working in the field. Basically, you could call any three-digit exchange followed by 9883 and get a 440 cycle tone, which was interrupted on a regular basis by those clicks. While you were listening to that tone, if anyone called the same exchange followed by 9884, the tone would go away, and you would be connected to each other. The kids who discovered these special phone circuits called them "Clique Lines" and used them to meet new friends from all over the city. You could say it was a 1960's version of Facebook! One great feature of these Clique Lines, at least for a pirate radio broadcaster, was that you could use them for a request line and nobody would know your real phone number. Very cool.

This is a very rare recording indeed! Listen now to an ACTUAL bootleg radio station that was broadcasting in Cleveland circa 1968. You can hear a lot of interesting stuff on this recording. First of all, you'll hear a station ID for the legitimate WAKR-AM in Akron which was operating on 1590 AM. Even though they claim to be broadcasting on 1610 AM, this bootleg station was actually jamming WAKR at the time! Then, you'll hear the announcer identify the station as WXEL Radio, and he asks listeners to call in using one of the Clique Lines. Then, you'll hear a listener interacting with the guy on the air. But, best of all, you will actually hear this station get SHUT DOWN by the FCC! You'll hear the announcer set the phone down and run off to answer the door! At the very end, you'll hear a little bit of an old WAKR jingle playing in the background. I left in all the static and noise so you could enjoy this as if you were listening to it back then. The beat tones and beeps you hear are actually interference from the LORAN navigational beacons.


I became a regular listener to a particular pirate station which called itself WMCC, or "Wim-Cee" which was a take-off on the popular WIXY "Wix-ee" radio in town. One night WMCC ran a contest called Name That Tune. They played a few seconds from a record, then held a microphone up to an electric fan while letting the spinning blades hit against a pencil to make a clicking sound like a Big 6 wheel. They'd put a caller on the air and ask them to identify the song before the clicking sound stopped. I managed to get through, identified the mystery song in time, and won the contest! I was told that someone would come to my house to deliver the record. Back in those days, we weren't all that concerned about security, so I freely gave them my home address. Then I waited to get my prize. After a few weeks, I still hadn't heard from anyone. I wasn't upset, but I did call the station to ask about the prize. They were very nice about it and apologized. They told me that someone would drive right over to my house to deliver it. When a car arrived about a half hour later, I went outside and met up with a teenager named Bob who handed me a really badly warped Beatles 45! He told me the record I'd won had been sitting in his car all this time and had been warped by the sun. He had no other prize to give me. I asked him where the station was located, but he wouldn't tell me. All he would say was that it was located somewhere in Parma Heights and run by a kid named Jim. I thanked Bob, gave him my phone number, and asked him to tell Jim to call me.

Jim did call a few days later. I told him how amazed I was that I could hear his station all the way from Parma Heights. I lived at 91st and Harvard Avenue on the east side of Cleveland, which was about seven miles away from his house. He told me he used a 90-watt World War II US Navy surplus transmitter called an ARC-5. He used a 40 foot vertical mast as an antenna with a glass insulator keeping it off the ground. I was completely fascinated by everything he told me. I described my station to him and he said that I was probably running less than one watt of power. He offered to come over to my house to help me get a station set up just like his. Of course I agreed! That weekend, his dad drove him over to my house. We were both around 13 years old and neither of us could drive yet!


We took a bus ride to the Army Surplus store where he helped me find a suitable ARC-5 transmitter of my own. We also picked up a power supply and modulation transformer for it. The whole mess cost me about $5. We got back to my place and started putting it all together. We ran out of time, but he sketched out some notes so I could continue without him. I managed to get everything set up the way he described. When I plugged it in, naturally it didn't work!

Jim came back to my house the next weekend and took a look at it. He told me my work was pretty sloppy and showed me how to take my time and do a better job. He rewound a coil, re-soldered some connections, and got it working. It wasn't much stronger than my little one-watt station at first. Jim told me that my antenna was at fault. I had used a big length of really thin wire that I had unwound from an old television flyback transformer. That went through a hole in my basement wall, up the side of the house, across the drive to a tree, and then from tree to tree across my back yard. The signal never made it past the hole in the basement wall. I didn't insulate the wire, so it was simply grounded out. Jim suggested I get some TV antenna mast and make an antenna like his. We went and got some tubing from somewhere and I moved the transmitter up to my bedroom and ran the antenna wire through an open window to a 40 foot mast just outside. That made all the difference in the world! Jim then showed me how to "tune" the antenna using a tapped coil and a florescent light bulb. Basically, you just held the bulb up near the antenna mast and changed the tap to different positions on the coil until the bulb lit up as bright as it would go. Yes, the bulb lit up IN MY HAND without being connected to any power source. How cool is that?

This is what my parent's house looks like today near East 91st and Harvard Avenue in Cleveland. My bedroom window was just above the front door, and my 40 foot antenna mast sat on that porch roof.

Jim also showed me how I could touch the antenna mast with my moistened finger and get a little arc of electricity to jump over and burn little marks in my skin. Hey, for a couple of 13 year old boys, this was serious FUN! Before Jim left, he told me I needed to drive the plate modulation transformer with a lot more power than my record player could produce. I needed a 60 watt audio amplifier to get the job done and, until I got one, all I'd have was a very strong dead carrier. I got on my bike and drove all over the neighborhood listening to a nice clear signal everywhere I went. I went a mile in every possible direction and it was still strong and clear. Now I needed to find that amplifier!

I had my dad drive me to the local audiophile shop where they sold used hi-fi equipment pretty cheap. I found a Dynaco amplifier that would do the job and bought it for around $10. When I got home and hooked it up, it worked perfectly. I was now on-the-air again, but this time sportin' 90+ watts of power!

My station became WAMF-AM at 1610 on the dial. I had my friends come over and take turns doing radio shows every night. Jim could hear my station from his house, just as I could hear his from mine! We got to be much better friends, and we both continued to upgrade our pirate radio stations in a constant but friendly battle to out-do each other. At some point we began working together on a much more powerful pirate station, this time running 1500 watts on AM, and even simulcasting with 3000 watts on FM -- in stereo! Now you could hear our little "bootleg" radio station all over Cleveland, just like one of the commercial stations. Of course, the FCC could hear it too, which kept us both on edge -- for good reason: By this time, each of us had already been caught and shut down by the Federal Communications Commission!

On the evening of December 6, 1969, while I was still running my 90-watt station, FCC engineers from Detroit came into Cleveland looking to shut down the nearly 100 pirate stations that were operating at the time. They tracked down our stations and shut us all down. In my case, the engineer came walking right into my house without a warrant, right past my dad who was sitting on the couch watching television, and started searching for the transmitter. I can still hear my brother Steve yelling up the stairs, "Hey Joe, there's a man here to see you about your radio station!" Before I knew what was going on the Feds were upstairs and standing in my bedroom! The FCC engineer took over the microphone and made an announcement that went something like this: "This radio station has been operating without the necessary authorization from the Federal Communications Commission and is herby being closed down." At that point he ordered me to kill the power, which I did. Then he proceeded to ask me a whole bunch of questions.

This is the actual warning notice the FCC sent to my dad!

It was pretty clear he didn't believe that I'd built the station on my own. He was obviously trying to find out who sold it to me. I kept telling him that I built it myself. When he started asking really technical questions, I answered every one of them with answers like, "It's a Class C output stage with 600 volts on the plates of two 813 pentodes." I was 16 at the time, and this FCC engineer was clearly impressed. One of the last things he said to me before he left was, "You know kid, if you'd brush up on the laws, you could do this kind of thing for real." That's exactly what I wanted to do! But, it took a bit longer to get the pirate radio blood out of my system.

Here's the letter that the FCC sent to my dad after sending the first notice of violation.

Jim and I remained friends for many years. Eventually, we both found jobs in the radio industry and, at one point, we were each the Chief Engineer of competing Cleveland radio stations. Our friendly competition now extended to audio processing, with each of us trying to make our stations sound louder and cleaner than the other! Jim was satisfied to stay on the engineering side of radio, but I learned electronics so I could get on the air. I wanted to be a disc jockey at a "real" radio station!

This is the letter I got from the FCC after passing my license test. They refused to grant my license until I wrote a letter to admit and detail my 'crime' and explain what I'd done to take apart my transmitter. They also requested three character reference letters. Since I was a minor at the time, this is addressed to my dad.

As the FCC engineer predicted, I managed to pass the test to get a First Class Radiotelephone Operators License while still in high school. You had to be 18 years old to qualify, and I took the test on my 18th birthday. I passed it on the first try. The questions seemed really easy! I found out later that people went to school for two years to learn enough to pass that test, and many of those who tried failed on the first attempt. The FCC hadn't ignored the fact that I'd been caught running a pirate radio station. In order to get my license, I had to send them a letter to acknowledge that my station had been shut down and dismantled. I also had to provide three letters of reference from non-family members who would vouch for my character. I followed all their instructions to the letter, and they granted me a probationary license. It was good for just one year and, if I could get through that first year without breaking the law, I'd get a regular license and the usual five-year renewal.

My First Class Radiotelephone Operator License

When my license certificate showed up in the mail, I immediately quit my dreadful after-school job as a hamburger-flipper at the neighborhood Red Barn fast food joint and started searching for a job in radio! Of course, I couldn't find one. Nobody was going to hire an 18-year old radio engineer, license or not.

After graduation, I applied for a job at Ohio Bell Telephone. I was one of at least 100 other applicants so as I rode home on the bus I didn't think I had much chance of working there. To my surprise, they called me back and offered me a job. Since I had a First Class "ticket" I was automatically qualified to be hired as a "foreman" in the mobile telephone and network television division. I was excited at first, but I quickly learned to hate that job. Everyone working there seemed to be passing time waiting for the weekend, or for their retirement. Jobs that actually took a half hour were always dragged out to an entire work day. When I started doing car phone installations "too quickly" the other guys got really upset. They took me aside and tried to explain how "things work around here!" I wanted out.

I heard about a new radio station that had been granted a construction permit from the FCC. It would be at 1000 on the dial and licensed to suburban Parma, Ohio. I drove out to the address listed on their application only to find an empty muddy field. Standing next to a surplus Army Jeep in the middle of that field was an older guy who told me his name was Bill Hull. At that time, Bill was the only person working for the station. He was the Chief Engineer, and it was his job to turn this muddy field into a radio station. My heart beat like a hammer as I began begging him to let me help! I offered to work for him for free. I just wanted to have the experience. He talked with me for a while, learned about my background, and agreed to hire me. He couldn't pay me anything close to what I had been making at the phone company, but I didn't care about that. I immediately quit my job, took the huge cut in pay, and started spending every daylight hour at the radio station. We put up a four-tower directional antenna array, then built a cement block building to house the studios, transmitter, and office. It was a daytime-only station running 1000 watts of power (later I ran a bootleg station with more power than that!).

Once we got the station on the air, the owners hired a General Manager. He hired some really interesting local talent, including a guy named Jim Doney who had been doing a TV program called Adventure Road in Cleveland. He also hired Lynn Sheldon who had also been on television doing a children's show that I liked when I was a kid! He also hired a guy named Ted Alexander who had a massive vinyl record collection in his basement. The station's programming was pretty interesting. Jim Doney played older music in the mornings, mixed with a lot of talk about Cleveland. Ted Alexander then came on with more current hit music. But the station needed someone to follow Ted and take the controls until sunset forced us off the air. I made an audition tape for the General Manager and applied for that slot -- and he gave me the job almost immediately! When WSUM-AM 1000 first hit the airwaves, the last voice heard on that first day was mine! I was using the name Joey James, which is my first and middle names, and I was playing an eclectic mix of modern music, mostly album cuts. My first song on my first show was Changes by David Bowie!

Here's a newspaper clipping talking about my show on the new station. They didn't get my air name wrong. I was going to be Joey Adams, but I changed it to Joey James at the last minute.

I left WSUM Radio to become Chief Engineer of WBKC AM 1560 in Chardon, Ohio. At this daytime station, I also managed to get myself on the air -- doing the 2:00pm to sign-off air shift playing soft hits.


Despite being on the air for real, I couldn't get the bootleg radio bug out of my system. Jim and I knew that running a pirate station would endanger our FCC licenses, and our radio careers. It could, in fact, cost us a $10,000 fine and maybe even land us both in jail! Still, we had an itch that just had to be scratched.

To avoid being detected by the FCC, we decided to do special one-day-only broadcasts on just a few random dates throughout the year. We were very careful, of course. We even had people outside with walkie-talkies watching for the FCC trucks so they could alert us before they had a chance to track us down. By this time, we were both real radio engineers, so we knew how to build a professional radio station! When we went on the air for these clandestine broadcasts, we'd be running a 3000 watt FM rig in stereo! We had a mixing console and cart machines, just like a real radio station. We had multi-band audio processing, microphone processing, reverb, and all the other cool toys! We even had a local radio talent "drop in" for a guest show -- using fake names of course!

Concerns about getting caught eventually caused us to do fewer illegal broadcasts. We also managed to get the "broadcastin' bug" out of our systems by doing shows on the local college stations -- where we also worked as contract engineers. We even did some secret late night shows on the radio stations where we worked -- turning the AM transmitter back on after midnight during a time period where the FCC allowed daytime-only stations to operate for brief "test" broadcasts. Our test broadcasts featured wild rock and roll and crazy screaming disc jockeys! We had to cut this out at one station when we started getting letters from listeners in Europe!

How ironic is this? As Chief Engineer at WBKC, I started getting QSL reports from people who tuned in the "test broadcasts" where my friend Jim and I did clandestine shows late at night!

Here's something very interesting I found while going through some very old tape recordings in my basement. This is a recording that Jim made of ME doing a station identification on my very first pirate station back in 1966. I was 13 years old at the time! He recorded this from his house, seven miles away from my illegal transmitter. The quality isn't great, but you should be able to make out a very young teenage version of Joe Knapp saying, "This is WAMF radio, 1610, in Cleveland, Ohio." I follow that announcement with Hungry by Paul Revere And The Raiders, which was a current hit at the time!




I guess it's just not possible for me to do a short blog post!

Here's a list of some of the pirate radio stations that were operating in Cleveland in the mid-1960's:

1963 - KDJ 540 AM in Parma (shut down by the FCC in January 1964.)
1964 - WDJ 540 AM in Parma (probably the same kids!)
1964 - WCBN 1610 AM (a kid who called himself Alfie.)
1965 - KOS 1560 AM (with The Mad Pad and Captain Sly!)
1967 - WTOO 1500 AM (shut down by the FCC in Summer 1967.)
1966 - W??? 1040 AM (a kid named Lenny who was shut down fairly quickly by the FCC.)
1966 - WMCC 910 AM (one of my friend Jim's many stations!)
1967-1968 - WMCC 1580-1610 AM (more of Jim's stations! He used the name Jim Walters.)
1967 - WALF 1580 AM (this was Alfie again!)
1968 - WMCC 1610 AM (my friend Jim, when I finally got in touch with him by phone.)
1968 - WAMF (aka WSEX) 1610 AM (this was my station!)
1968 - WAKY 1580 AM (Wacky radio, my friend Jim. Shut down by the FCC November 1968.)
1968 - ???? 1580 AM (a 1500 watt AM bootleg station operated by my friend Mike!)
1968 - WNTR 1610 AM (a kid named Tony from Shaker Heights doing 'Winter-Radio'.)
1968 - WAB 1610 AM (from somewhere around Scranton and Holmden in Cleveland.)
1968 - WAKY 1580 AM (back on the air in Parma Heights at 'Fred's' house.)
1968 - WBRD 1580 AM (it's Fred Fodd back on the air with 1000 watts for one night only!)
1968 - WXEL / WAVY / WXYI / WNBK 1610 AM (that Don kid after getting caught!)
1968 - WCDJ / WEID 1610 (black kids in Maple Heights playing soul music. Great station!
1969 - WEST 1610 AM (a kid named Rich from Maple Heights running 90 watts.)
1969 - WKDV / WKOV 1600 AM (a kid named Lyle from Garfield Heights.)
1969 - WILD 1610 AM (hey, it's ME again!)
1969 - WBST 1610 AM (somewhere on the west side of Cleveland.)
1969 - WZAP 980 AM (1000 watt X-mas broadcast from Cleveland with Mike, Jim, and me!)
1969 - WCFS / WNTR 1610 (a friend of Tony, this was Al from 177th in Garfield Heights.)
1970 - WANG 1615 AM (an under-modulated 75 watt station run by Bob from Berea.)
1970 - WKDJ 1610 AM (a kid named Bruce running a 90 watt station.)
1970 - WINO 1580 AM (a kid named Al from Cleveland using WKDJ's transmitter.)
1970 - WILD 1580 & 1610 AM (a kid named Dave who was caught in just one month.)
1970 - WTDR 1610 (a kid from Bedford running an under-modulated 75 watts.)
1971 - WMHR 970 / 980 AM (a guy named Don from Maple Heights with 75 watts.)
1971 - WEMC 1580 AM (weird, records at the wrong speed. 143rd & Crawford in Cleveland.)
1971 - WROO 104.9 FM (Mike, Jim and me again, 250 watts on FM and 1500 watts on 910 AM.)
1972-1973 - WINR (Christmas day broadcasts by a kid named Bruce. The FCC guys are home!)

Others I remember include:

WPCC/WPCK 1500 AM on Cleveland's west side.
WARG 1610 AM run by a guy I ended up working with on my first 'real' station!
WAM 910 AM nice strong signal, but I don't have a clue who it was.
WAXC 610 AM from Euclid playing religious music!
WQSN 1610 AM also unknown.
KLW-TV Channel 6 - that's right, bootleg television from Parma Heights!
And some unidentified bootleg broadcasts on 6000 KHz as Radio Free Cleveland.



And finally, here's an article from Communications Handbook 1967 that talks about Radio Caroline, DX-ing and QSL cards! Check out the picture of an actual QSL card that came from Radio Caroline! Click on the image to blow it up a bit.

Many years ago I started writing a book about pirate radio stations in the USA. Here's a little excerpt from my notes. I was talking here about the 'future' of pirate radio:

"Who knows? In this day and age of technology and education at an early age, there may be more youngsters who will take the easy short cut to the glamorous field of broadcasting. They may even now be dreaming of, or building, their first illicit transmitter, impatient to hear their own voice on the radio. And, if you're lucky, you might be tuning around on the radio one day and just happen to land upon a tinny-sounding station with no commercial interruptions, but a whole bunch of 'Testing one, two, three...' announcements!"

There ARE pirate radio stations on the air all over the USA. Another one in San Francisco calling themselves Pirate Cat Radio was just closed down recently, although they continue operations on the Internet. Internet radio provides a great outlet for those who want to 'broadcast' without breaking the law. You don't need a license or a frequency! It's certainly the way I've gone and I highly recommend it if, like me, you're 'addicted' to radio. (Of course, I do have a 10-watt FM stereo transmitter sitting in my office that I never turn on. It's just there in case I need an 'emergency broadcasting fix' someday!)

Here's an Associated Press article from Summer 1974 talking about pirate radio stations in Detroit. The FCC office director, Edward Atems, mentions the activity in the Cleveland area. Ed Atems is the same guy who signed my FCC license!

I only use first names in this post to protect the innocent. If any of my old pirate radio friends are reading this -- and you know who you are -- please post a comment or shoot me an email to say hello. If you were a pirate broadcaster back in the day, I'd love to hear from you too. Tell me about the station you ran. I'm putting together notes and audio tapes with the hope that one day I can turn it all into a book. Who knows? I just might have tape recordings of your station that you didn't know existed, and vice-versa!

I dedicate this post to my dad, who passed away recently at the age of 83. This photo shows my Grandfather, my mom, my dad, and my Grandma. Rest easy folks -- you done good.