Greetings, music nerds, and welcome to Deep Tracks in Rock History, the show where you are lovingly fed the entirety of rock’s story through podcast-sized chunks designed to go down easy and come out smooth.

I am your auspicious host, Doug “That’s No Moon” McCulloch.

I want to kick things off with a new segment I’m adding to my show entitled, “Ludicrous Lyrics.” A little while back I posted on the Deep Tracks Instagram some examples of times I totally got the lyrics wrong, and asked for others to post examples of their own. A lot of fun stories came in about botched lyrics and I’m gonna start sharing those as part of my show. So! Today’s Ludicrous Lyrics comes from Jessa in San Diego who said, “For years I thought that the Offspring were concerned with my calcium intake since they were clearing yelling, ‘Drink your milk,’ in ‘Come Out and Play’” [play clip] …in reality, they don’t care if I drink my milk or not…” I gotta say, now that I’ve read Jessa’s post, I almost don’t hear “take him out” anymore, and now all I can hear is, “drink your milk” [play clip again]

Also, one more thing before we dive into the episode, I want to mention something: a few weeks ago, after I had posted episode 4, a good friend of mine—who is much more familiar with the world of country music than I—texted me, informing me that it is pronounced “opry,” as in “operate,” and not “opry,” as in Oprah. So, of course, I did what any rational person in that situation would do and texted him a gif of Shawn Spencer saying, “I’ve heard it both ways.” Nevertheless, Clint, in honor of our friendship, from now on, I will…purposely mispronounce Ōpry every time I say it! Muahahaha! That’s right! I reign supreme on this podcast!

Okay, story time.

I have a number of friends around my age who I’ve told more than once that I felt that, while I teach and talk about rock ‘n’ roll, they’ve really lived rock ‘n’ roll. I tell them that because these are people who, in their younger years, were not only playing shows—like, real gigs and not just their friends’ house parties or whatever—but they’d also had airtime on the radio—as opposed to me: none of the bands I’d ever been in during my heyday as a young, wannabe rockstar had ever had any airplay on the radio.

However! That being said, I have had music that I’ve composed played on the radio one time.

It was in college, and a bunch of us had formed a student composer’s organization called the Pacific Composers Project—which had the unfortunate—or…fortunate?—acronym of “PCP.” This was at the University of Hawaii (in case any of you were wondering about the Pacific part of that name) and we used to do concerts in the little performance space at the Atherton Studio in Honolulu, which is where many of the radio broadcasts for Hawaii Public Radio take place. There was a show at that time hosted by Gene Schiller called “Masterworks Hour” that played classical/orchestral/art music, and Hawaii Public Radio had allowed the Pacific Composers Project to record one of our concerts that we held in their studio’s little performance space and then Gene Schiller kindly offered to play some of our music during his morning show. It was a thrill to hear something I composed played on the air—especially in a show that commonly featured the music of geniuses like Beethoven and Stravinsky (which, it certainly didn’t hurt the ol’ ego to hear my music being played alongside them, hehe)—and then go to school that day and have my professors and fellow students comment on having heard my music that morning and congratulating me—it was a euphoria I’ll never forget.

That being said, it was Hawaii Public Radio—there’s a reason why it’s a cliché to say “no one listens to public radio” (except Squidward, of course). So, a lot of those people congratulating me were people who I or my fellow PCP members had informed ahead of time about our music being played. So, I’ll be the first to admit it was only the tiniest, most infinitesimal, microscopic taste of the radio experiences we’ll be talking about today and throughout this podcast. But I feel like it gives me that much more relatability when I read passages like this one in Mark Ribowsky’s book entitled “The Big Life of Little Richard”:

“[‘Tutti Frutti,’ was released] in mid-October 1955…under the name ‘Little Richard And His Band.’ …The first Richard heard it, he was back in Macon, [Georgia], up at night and listening to Nashville’s WLAC. The 50,000-watt radio station had a standard mainstream format, but after dark, when other stations on its frequency went off the air, it sent [rhythm & blues] programs so far across the map that the station billed itself as ‘the nighttime station for half the nation.’

“…[The disc jockey, Gene] Nobles pronounced, ‘… This guy Little Richard is taking the record market by storm,’ and rolled out ‘Tutti Frutti.’

“‘I couldn’t believe it,’ Little Richard remembered. ‘My old song a hit!’” [play “whoo!”]

Before you get excited, no, we haven’t quite reached Little Richard yet. But I remember reading that excerpt in the book and just feeling energized as I read about Little Richard sitting up late at night listening to the radio, waiting to see if his song would come on, and then to not only hear his song on a big-time radio station (as opposed to a smaller, regional one), but to also hear that intro from Gene Nobles—“This guy Little Richard is taking the record market by storm”—what an amazing thrill that must have been for a misfit black kid from the poor side of a nowhere town in the yet-segregated South.

It's a story we’ll encounter over and over again in this podcast—this story of artists getting their big break and excitedly hearing their music on the radio for the first time—and while the artists will change with each encounter, one element will remain the same: the disc jockey.

[play clip of “Dear Mr. DJ…”]

That clip comes from Tina Robin’s 1961 release, “Dear Mr. DJ (Play It Again).” I have to say, every time I hear that sax riff in that song, doubled with the drums like that, I feel like I’m being shot at by a machine gun (play machine gun + sax riff again).

Anyway, you might remember our last episode was something of an “informational gumbo”—we covered all kinds of topics. In particular though we talked a lot about the beginnings of both radio and the recording industry. This episode will likewise be something of a “data casserole” (I’m gonna see how many of these food-related descriptors I can think of), and we’re going to talk about a bunch of different topics, including Billboard charts and jukeboxes; but first we’re going to pick up where we left off in last episode and talk about the rise of the American disc jockey.

Now, radio disc jockeys may no longer have the clout today that they once had, but there was a time when they reigned supreme in the realm of popular culture. They were a HUGE factor in rock music’s beginnings and ascendency. You can’t truly understand the world in which rock was born without understanding the role of radio DJs in that world.

But let’s lay some groundwork first before we go too much further.

As radio stations multiplied and developed, you saw the creation of networks. NBC ran its first coast-to-coast broadcast in 1928 using AT&T telephone lines. There were pros and cons to these radio networks. As I mentioned last episode, radio would help dissolve regionalism, allowing artists to be exposed to music from far off locations that they would not have otherwise heard. However, the rule in broadcasting has always been, the broader the audience, the broader the material needs to be, so that you can appeal to as much of that audience as possible. Not only that, but sponsors are going to want to appeal to an audience with spending power. In the 1930s and 40s, the audience that was seen as both mainstream and as having spending power was “middle class white.” This meant that music that would appeal to either a black audience or a lower class white audience, would be relegated to smaller, more regional stations—as opposed to larger stations (and especially stations part of a network).

Now, before we move on, I want to put things into perspective here real quick.

In episode 2, I talked about the rise of the blues and its first forays into the recording industry and onto radio—I mentioned how W.C. Handy popularized the blues through music publishing and how talent scouts like H.C. Speir and folklorists like Alan Lomax found and recorded many rural blues artists, like Robert Johnson and Blind Lemon Jefferson for example. In episode 3, I talked about how the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers brought country music out of its Appalachian womb and into the broader world through the recordings and promotion of Ralph Peer. And in episode 4, I even talked about Hank Williams’s six encores on the Grand Ole Ōpry, hehe, and how singing cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers made it big in Hollywood.

But all of these artists still never had the same level of massive radio exposure enjoyed by mainstream pop. Mainstream popular music was the music of the swing bands, Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, the Andrews Sisters, etc. And a huge portion of the material for mainstream popular music came from the songwriters in Tin Pan Alley.

Now, I know last episode I probably gave you way more information about Tin Pan Alley than you ever wanted, really, but their story is tangled up with rock’s early years and they were such a massive presence within music and popular media during the first half of the 20th century, we will be revisiting Tin Pan Alley for a while.

So, something you need to know about Tin Pan Alley for this episode is, prior to mass media, one of the promotional tools in music publishers’ toolbelts were people called “song-pluggers”: basically, people who would promote their songs. Song-pluggers came in many shapes and forms and used many different approaches. Sometimes song-plugging came in the form of a songwriter or music publisher getting their song into the hands of a performer and convincing that performer to work it into their set. Other times, publishers would find as-of-yet undiscovered performers and pay those performers to sit in the audience of a show—like a plant—and then at some point during the show they would suddenly break out into singing the song that they’re being paid to plug. Like, imagine if they were still doing that in the 90s and the moment Bryan Adams began singing “Everything I do, I do it for you…,” Metallica’s James Hetfield just stood up in the audience and began singing “Exit light, enter night…”

There are a lot of holes in that illustration but I’m honestly kind of enjoying that mental image…

Anyway, that first form of song-plugging I mentioned earlier—in which performance artists were recruited to work a new song into their sets as a way of plugging it—is captured fairly well in a 1940 film called “Tin Pan Alley.”

Now, I’m not gonna lie: it’s a pretty lousy film (apologies to anyone out there who, like, owns the director’s cut with commentary or anything like that), but it does do a great job of demonstrating several things. One of those is within the plot itself: it features a struggling songwriter who finds a girl still at the beginning of her career and hires her to be one of these song-pluggers for a new song he’s, you know, plugging. Their flowering relationship is at times put into jeopardy when the girl realizes he’s more interested in promoting his song than believing in her singing career. The character arc for him of course is that he learns to love her genuinely and see her as more than a tool of self-promotion. And in case you’re wondering: they do end up falling in true love and the movie ends with him heroically going off to war (just in case the audience forgot what was going on in Europe at that time—a very telling plot decision when you realize this film came out a year before the U.S. even entered WWII).

But on a meta level, this movie demonstrates how it and many other musicals at that time were, themselves, massive song-pluggers. The movie “Tin Pan Alley” is basically a string of Tin Pan Alley songs with brief interludes of dialogue. The whole purpose of the movie wasn’t to tell a story, but rather to promote Tin Pan Alley songs. In fact, long before tackling heavier topics like racial injustice in “West Side Story” or AIDS in “Rent,” Broadway musicals also often served the purpose of song-plugging for Tin Pan Alley.

To be fair, though, not all musicals from that time period were like that. Sometimes you saw productions intended to be genuine pieces of storytelling that utilized and promoted Tin Pan Alley songs—like the Wizard of Oz, for instance (yes, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was a Tin Pan Alley creation). But by and large, the alliance that Tin Pan Alley had with Broadway and Hollywood was essentially to make promos of Tin Pan Alley music.

I should also reiterate that Tin Pan Alley is a nebulous term that refers to a nebulous body. It wasn’t, like, some sort of music illuminati. It was comprised of numerous songwriters and music publishers of varying sizes and budgets and levels of success. So, there were plenty of scrappy, flat-broke songwriters within Tin Pan Alley—the Roger Radcliffe character from the original 101 Dalmatians animated movie is a great example of a Tin Pan Alley songwriter still trying to make it in the biz when he writes the song “Cruella Deville.” But, remember, this was the point of Tin Pan Alley to begin with: it created a sort of alliance/central hub for songwriters and publishers to combine forces. So, while Tin Pan Alley as a body represented a powerful influence within the music industry, it still had the same sort of ladder-climbers and wash-outs as any other part of the music industry.

But let’s shift our focus and look at how radio fit into all of this.

I’m going to read an excerpt from “What’s That Sound?”, by John Covach and Andrew Flory, that illustrates how radio found itself a key component in Tin Pan Alley’s promotion tactics.

I’m also going to point out that I want to try something new with reading quotes on this show. It feels clunky sometimes to be saying “quote” and “end quote” whenever I’m quoting someone—especially when I’m doing a quote-within-a quote—so I am going to instead add a filter to my voice whenever I’m reading a quote. That way, I don’t need to say anything to mark the beginning and end of quotes, and I can say “quote” within a quote without it getting confusing as to whether I’m still reading the broader quote or not. So, hopefully it works without getting too confusing…?

Anyway, here comes the Covach quote:

“Because most radio performances until the late 1940s were live, promoting a song meant much more for music publishers than just getting a record out: bandleaders and singers had to be convinced to perform a song and in the process be persuaded that using the song in their live shows would also serve their own career interests—and for most musicians…[that] meant ‘future bookings….’ Publishers thus had to bargain with bandleaders and singers, as well as radio producers, to get their songs included in those live radio broadcasts that the bands and singers were using to prompt future bookings.” Covach then makes this crucial point: “The radio networks, performers, and song publishers thus needed one another to succeed.”

Now, we do not, as of yet, see the disc jockey anywhere in that process—we’re looking at the time before recorded performances became the norm. But you do see how radio had become the central hub in that process. Record labels will become tangled up in all of this as well, as we’ll soon see, but for now, let’s take a brief look at mainstream popular music.

Referring again to the Covach/Flory text:

“The era from about 1935 to 1945 is considered the big band era. During this time, dance bands employed a rhythm section of bass, drums, piano, and guitar combined with a horn section of trumpets, trombones, and saxophones to create arrangements of Tin Pan Alley songs designed to provide music appropriate for dancing, while also featuring the instrumental prowess of the musicians and the virtuosity of the arranger. Big bands were led by instrumentalists such as Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey, and Glenn Miller, and singers were merely featured soloists. Thus, the celebrity in the band was its leader….”

But then, enter the crooners. They were called such because their vocal quality was very intimate and smooth. This was partially made possible because of the introduction of microphones. Before microphones, vocalists had to compete with the army of instrumentalists behind them. So you had to sing loud and proud. But once the microphone became a ubiquitous presence in music performance, singers no longer had the need to project. They could use a warmer, almost “sitting-by-the-fireplace” sort of quality.

These crooners also represented a shift in focus for musical performance. Artists like Bing Crosby would lay the groundwork for the singer to become a more important factor in the music, but Frank Sinatra would then finish the job. Once “Ol’ Blue Eyes” blew up, it was a different ball game. As Covach put it:

“In the wake of his first successes, Sinatra drew many imitators, as singers now replaced the big bands as the focus of the music business and many of the now-former big band vocalists took center stage….”

This opens the door for me to drop a teaser for my next bonus episode. The next bonus episode is going to be an interview I conduct with my parents, who were alive to see much of this stuff happening that I’m talking about. My dad was born in 1936, and my mom…probably doesn’t want me giving out her birth year. Anyway, they are my very own primary source. And an observation you’ll hear my dad make in the interview is that Frank Sinatra was kind of the first of a string of what would come to be called “teen idols,” which would eventually include rock artists like Elvis Presley and the Beatles. And he’s not wrong. The Covach textbook points out how Sinatra’s rendition of “I’ve Got a Crush on You” was “a good example of…a song that reinforced his teen idol image.” [play clip of “I’ve Got a Crush on You”]

I still remember the old Porky Pig cartoon that had that rooster-version of Frank Sinatra singing with all the googly-eyed chickens gathered around, dreamily watching his performance.

Frank Sinatra’s career would shape pop music of the 1950s. Once again drawing from the Covach/Flory textbook:

“Singers such as Eddie Fisher and Tony Bennett scored hit records in the new, more youth-oriented mold cast by Sinatra; Fisher’s sentimental ‘Oh, My Pa-pa’ (1954) and Bennett’s swinging ‘Rags to Riches’ (1953) each placed the musical focus squarely on the singer, with the orchestra in a supporting role.”

That’s an extremely important pivot within the music industry right there—creating music aimed at a youth market—and we’ll be talking more about the creation of the youth market in a couple episodes. But this is important to notice in the evolution of mainstream popular music: singers were now overshadowing swing bands and evolving into icons; at the same time, sheet music was becoming less important. Another important thing to notice is that sheet music only really mattered for mainstream pop. Sheet music had never been all that important within “oral” musical traditions like country and blues—for them, performance had always been it—so once recordings and radio play started overshadowing sheet music, it had actually given those other two music genres something of a leg up in being able to compete with the colossus that was mainstream popular music.

And this is where I’ll draw your attention back to radio’s place in this ongoing power shift within the music industry. You may recall last episode how I mentioned that the rise of television meant that radio had lost a lot of its audience for its dramatic broadcasts (remember how I’d asked if you would rather listen to or watch the Lone Ranger, right?), and thus radio would shift its focus to filling more of its airtime with music instead. And as I also mentioned last episode, this contributed to the shift from mostly-live music being played on the air to almost exclusively recorded music being played on the air. This music-centric programming would also be one of the catalysts in radio becoming even more of an intrinsic part as a promotional arm for music publishers and the recording industry. Once radio stations had to shift their programming to not only favor music, but to favor recorded music, that crucial relationship we’ve been examining between radio, music publishers and performers, would now include record labels. In fact, record labels would come to replace performers within this trifecta. And as I alluded to at the end of last episode that it became a full-time job picking and playing records on the air (also called “spinning platters”) this led to the rise of a new role within radio. And, remember, radio had now found itself the central hub of music promotion. Thus, the nation’s most powerful “song-pluggers” were now the people in those sound booths choosing which records to play on the air at which times. But these individuals wouldn’t be called song-pluggers. No, they would be called…

[2:36 in DMC World DJ documentary, “Walter Winchell coined term disc jockey…”]

So, now that radio and records were inextricably linked, there’s something important to understand about that relationship. Specifically, the larger radio stations that focused on mainstream popular music would be tied to the larger record labels, like RCA-Victor, Decca, Columbia, Capitol, MGM, who were all purveyors of mainstream music artists. So, for example, Frank Sinatra had been signed by Columbia and then Capitol for a while (before eventually starting his own label, Reprise Records, in 1960); Bing Crosby had been signed by Decca for a while; and many of Glenn Miller’s recordings were released through RCA Victor. Conversely, the smaller, regional radio stations would be tied to independent record labels, like Atlanta, Chess, and Sun—all three of which we’ll be discussing much more in future episodes. In fact, we’ll be talking about both Atlanta and Chess Records next regular episode (after my bonus episode with my parents). Because disc jockeys were the ultimate “song-plugger,” record labels would a lot of resources into solidifying their relationships with radio DJs.

Now, the intensity of that focus and the nature of that relationship would depend on how big or how small the record label was. You see, before the 1960s, DJs had waaaaay more autonomy in what they played on the air—especially DJs for these smaller, regional stations we’ve been talking about. So, if you had any kind of inside connection with a DJ—not the station, but the individual disc jockey—you could theoretically get your stuff played on the air without going through the traditional—and more laborious—channels. This was one of the ways in which the smaller, independent labels leveled the playing field. The larger labels had a whole apparatus in place to get their artists heard. If larger labels were playing “zone,” the smaller labels were playing “man-to-man” (not sure that analogy works but you get what I mean). In some cases there was already a sort of working relationship there at the local level—like we’ll see in the story of Elvis’s first experience getting radio airplay. Once he’d finally had a successful recording session with Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, Sam then called his good friend Dewey Phillips (no relation) who was one of the most popular DJs in Memphis at that time and told him to listen to this new artist he’d discovered. The very next night Elvis was being heard by almost all of Memphis over the radio.

But that sort of arrangement may have been more the exception more than the rule. More often than not, getting a song played on the radio for independent labels menat bribing DJs with money, favors, swag, sometimes even weekend hotel stays with women who came with hourly rates. The term for this practice was called “payola.” We will actually spend more time talking about payola in a future episode, but right now I want to bring up the subject of record charts.

[segue music]

As we talk about these early years of rock music we’ll be talking about three music charts: country & western, rhythm & blues, and mainstream pop. Music charts of some sort had been around for quite a while before rock’s birth. The most famous of these charts is Billboard. Billboard published its first chart in 1913. It was a list of best-selling sheet music called “Last Week’s Ten Best Sellers Among the Popular Songs.” (I love how they weren’t afraid of long titles in the olden days). As the music industry shifted its focus from sheet music to recordings, charts likewise shifted their focus from tracking sheet music sales to record sales.

I should point out, record charts like Billboard—or, Cash Box is another big one—are published for people within the music business. They aren’t intended for, you know, fans or anything like that. Charts are a way for record labels to spot certain trends within music, which can help inform their choices for which artists to sign. For radio stations, charts are a way to likewise track which songs may deserve the most air time.

And they’re still used today. As John Covach put it: “Charts help us draw general conclusions about the popularity of a song or album at the time it was released. It can also be useful to compare how certain songs did on pop charts with the way they fared on rhythm and blues or country carts, or even on the British charts. … Among scholars, charts are viewed with understandable suspicion because little is known about how they have been put together in the past, making them susceptible to manipulation. … But in a broad sense, charts are still the best instruments we have available to judge listeners’ changing tastes.”

You can actually search record charts on Billboard’s website—in case you’re curious about which songs were the top hits in the year you were born, or whatever—and you can also track the award history of hit records by going to the website for the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA).

But before we wrap up this episode, I want to talk about one more person to whom record charts were marketed, especially during the 1940s and ‘50s: the jukebox owner.

[play clip of “Jukebox Hero”]

The term “jukebox” comes from juke joints. You might remember I mentioned Juke joints—sometimes also called “barrelhouses”—in Episode 2. They were kind of like speakeasies before there were speakeasies. They appear to have first popped up shortly after Emancipation. Essentially, plantation workers and sharecroppers needed a place to relax—especially since Jim Crow laws still restricted them from many white-only establishments. So, they would take these old, abandoned buildings, or sometimes private homes—usually on the outskirts of town at rural crossroads—and create what was essentially a hang-out spot for music, dancing, gambling, drinking, crocheting…okay, maybe there wasn’t much crocheting going on. But there was plenty of the other stuff. Eventually, the live musicians in these juke joints would be supplemented or even completely replaced with coin-operated phonographs, which would eventually be called “jukeboxes.”

The word “juke,” itself, actually comes from the creole Gullah word joog, which means “rowdy” or “disorderly,” or “bawdy,” and if we keep following the etymology, we find that joog comes from the Wolof word dzug (d-z-u-g); Wolof is a language spoken in central and western Africa. So, it’s kind of fitting that jukeboxes would have roots similar to rock music.

Anyway, there had been some form of coin-operated record players around since the 1890s, but it wasn’t until 1928 you had a device that had multiple records (in fact, that early proto-jukebox had eight records on eight different turntables, and they were mounted on, like, a Ferris Wheel sort of device that would rotate according to which record the patron selected). The term “jukebox,” though, wouldn’t enter the vernacular until the 1940s as these devices became more ubiquitous.

This brings us back to charts. Jukebox owners would consult Billboard charts to know which records to stock their jukeboxes with. After all, if your profits depend on how many plays you get, then you’ll want to stock your jukebox with the records that will elicit the most plays.

An interesting side note about jukeboxes that I’ll probably pursue more thoroughly down the road is that they were also used by the mafia to launder money. I have to give props to my son for bringing to my attention a YouTube video by Barely Sociable entitled “The Music Industry’s Darkest Secret”—which I’ll link in the show notes—that talks about this and many other stories of crime and the music industry. I’ll also link in the show notes a 2020 article on Click Track by James Mishra entitled, “The dark history of the jukebox: how the Mafia used murder to build music machine empires.” The tag line, though, is my favorite part of this article. It reads: “Organized crime never sounded so good.” Anyway, stories of criminal connections to the music industry will be coming up throughout this podcast, and I may at some point do an episode dedicated solely to that topic, but for now, if you want to dive into that rabbit hole immediately, that video and that article are a couple of good places to start.

Another interesting side note about jukeboxes: a famous brand of jukebox is Rock-Ola, which I had always assumed was named from rock music. While doing research for this episode I noticed that Rock-Ola had been started in 1927, which had me scratching my head. Rock music was

But here’s your takeaway for this episode: rock music was born as a result of the increasing exposure of black rhythm & blues to white audiences, and this exposure happened as a result of record labels, record charts, jukeboxes, but especially from radio and disc jockeys. And in particular, it was largely due to the connections established between independent record labels and regional radio stations that we have to thank for this exposure. This brings us to our final segment of this episode. Quoting from the Covach/Flory textbook again:

“Many white teenagers were first exposed to rhythm and blues by hearing it on the radio. During the early 1950s, small and inexpensive tube-driven tabletop radios were common among the white middle class, and the majority of black urban households had at least one radio. Radios were also common in automobiles. …

“As radios became more available to teenagers, disc jockeys emerged as the most important tastemakers of early rock and roll.”

And then this next portion of the quote mentions the names of two DJs who are going to be super important to remember: Alan Freed and Dewey Phillips (who you may remember I mentioned earlier in the story of Elvis’s first airtime on the radio). Continuing with Covach/Flory:

“In 1951, Alan Freed was an announcer at a radio station in Cleveland, hosting an evening classical-music show sponsored by one of the city’s largest record stores—the Record Rendezvous, owned by Leo Mintz. Mintz noticed that teenagers were buying significant numbers of rhythm and blues records, and he offered to sponsor a late-night radio show devoted to this music, with Freed as the host. Freed was reluctant at first, but on July 11, 1951, The Moondog Show premiered on WJW, a clear-channel station with a signal that reached far beyond the Ohio state line.” And now the most important part of this quote: “Radio programming that had been targeted at a black audience was now being enjoyed by white teens. Freed was among the first of a new wave of disc jockeys to develop rhythm and blues programming…”

And then here is where Covach mentions Dewey Phillips: “As it turns out, Freed was not the first disc jockey to play rhythm and blues on the radio. In 1949, Dewey Phillips began his Red, Hot, and Blue show on WHBQ in Memphis, while Gene Nobles [remember that name from the Little Richard story I shared at the beginning of this episode?], John R. Richbourg, and Hoss Allen were playing rhythm and blues at WLAC in Nashville, as were Zenas ‘Daddy’ Sears in Atlanta and Hunter Hancock in Los Angeles. Freed was reportedly a WLAC listener and modeled his early shows on those from Nashville, even calling occasionally to find out what records were hot there.”

Covach then points out that all of these DJs were white and that, “[a]ccording to one survey, of the 3,000 or so disc jockeys on the air in the United States in 1947, only sixteen were black.” The Covach text then lists some of the black DJs who were making their mark during the late 1940s and throughout the ‘50s:

“Vernon Winslow…in New Orleans, Lavada Durst…in Austin, William Perryman…in Atlanta, Al Benson in Chicago, Jocko Henderson in Philadelphia, and Tommy Smalls in New York.” And in fact, “WDIA in Memphis featured an all-black on-air staff, including Rufus Thomas, B. B. King, and Martha Jean (“The Queen”) Steinberg.” These DJs had nicknames like “Doctor Daddy-O,” “Doctor Hepcat,” “Doctor Feelgood”… there were a lot of doctors in radio back then. [play clip of Spies Like Us, “Doctor. Doctor. Doctor.”)

We will be revisiting Alan Freed in a couple episodes when rock is officially born and given its name (as well as when we eventually revisit payola); we will also be revisiting Dewey Phillips when we talk about Elvis Presley. The important thing to notice here is, black music was increasingly being heard by a growing white audience. As more radio stations and DJs took notice of this, the increased air time led to increased demand for records—not only from private patrons discovering the music, but also from jukebox owners who were noticing which records drew more paying customers into their establishments.

But that’s enough informational gumbo and data casserole and…uh…factoid borscht (see, I told you I’d think of more food descriptors). We’ve done all the world-building we need to do for now. Next episode we’re returning to the timeline and will look at rhythm & blues. You might think, “Haven’t we already talked about the blues?” yes, we have. But now we’ll look at that genre of music that directly preceded and more heavily contributed to the birth of rock than any others: rhythm & blues. It’s gonna be epic. We’ll be talking about Elmore James, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters—some of my favorite artists and some of my favorite music. So be prepared to deal with some major geeking out on my part!

All right, until next time, keep it deep!

Show Notes