Since I was still expected to arrive at the studio at midnight, a new task was assigned, selecting in advance recordings to be broadcast Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that they could be submitted two weeks ahead for listing in entertainment weekly Cue Magazine. That meant going into what had become a substantial LP library and deciding what to feature, identifying composer, work, and record label, not choosing too much music so as to leave time for commercials. I also pre-programmed some of my own selections.
For the other program hosts I selected what I thought were obscure, boring baroque works so as to contrast with what I deemed my own special, colorful overnight offerings, not realizing that baroque music, Mike Nichols-like, was so entertaining and non-threatening that it would remain a mainstay for classical music stations forever. Anyway, no one at the station seemed to care what I had chosen.
But one week when Cue arrived, nothing I’d chosen that week for myself was listed. I was so pissed off that I hurled the copy against a wall, not noticing that Station Manager Cal Miller saw me do it. Repercussions were to come.
In October 1961, Vene and I decided to visit her family in Philadelphia and leave on a Friday morning, which meant that I wanted to tape that Friday night/Saturday morning show, already listed in Cue Magazine. I took such listings seriously and had arranged with Cal to have someone air the tapes, a part-timer, Bill Watson, who hosted two shifts Saturday night/Sunday morning and Sunday night/Monday morning.
I had told Cal that I’d need access to the recording studio after the jazz people left, and that I would record my program before I left Friday morning.
But I found the studio locked and had no key. I tried forcing the lock. It didn’t budge. Finally, I leaned against a hallway wall and furiously tried kicking open the door with my feet. I was pissed off.
The lock did not yield. The door stayed shut. The particle-board wall shattered.
I left Cal a note that morning explaining what had happened, saying I’d pay for the repairs.
The following Monday, after I returned from Philadelphia, Cal called, saying he had to fire me, that management felt my behavior was too unpredictable. Who knew what I might do next, possibly in anger, possibly on the air?
Thus, after two-and-a-half years, my overnight glory, my joy, my pride vanished into thin air. The time had seemed longer; it was so intense.
That’s New York for you. The New York space-time continuum. On the jammed island of Manhattan, where space is at a premium, crowds throng tightly on the streets and people learn how to make the most efficient use of the confines and the time it takes to move efficiently through it all, with no wasted motion, no wasted minutes.
Watson took my place. He seemed a lot older. He was. Eleven years older. Who knew what he might do next? In his 15 years with WNCN, until the station’s first demise, Bill became far more unpredictable than I had ever been, telling off listeners on the air, making fun of commercials which he had to read, offering opinions on politics, verbally excoriating modern music.
He adored the works of Bach, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn. And would never program anything he didn’t like. In that regard, we were actually alike.
Certainly his selections would have had wider appeal than mine; that music has long been the backbone and the body of what most classical music listeners want, not what I felt were my esoteric challenges, my threats to peaceful sleep. Watson was also a more interesting on-air personality than I had been.
We did get around, though, to liking each other six years later, both working for a different WNCN management.
So, in time for Thanksgiving and Christmas, 1961, age 28, I was unemployed again.
This felt less painful and less shocking than my departure from WFLN. Since then I’d been let go by WNRC, albeit not unexpectedly, and had quit WHAT and WOND to move on. A sense was creeping in that radio careers ebbed and flowed. Besides, having a program from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. felt like being in some dark, obscure corner where hardly anyone could notice me.
Yes, Watson, I’m sure, was in the Jean Shepherd, Steve Allison league, the rare ones who stood out and captured audiences’ imaginations, the league to which Jonathan Schwartz had aspired.
My style had probably been more reserved, obviously, from what I’ve already told you, taking myself and my conceptions seriously. Back then I rarely used “I” or referred directly to myself or offered opinions. The content was the message, the content which I thought was great and didn’t need to say so. Sure, I was comfortable at an open mike, able to talk freely without notes or scripts, as I had always been. My public persona was not in some made-up style; it was one part of who I was, whoever that may have been. But I still felt like a kid even if sounding mature.
It was time to try an acting career again. I knew there were no permanent jobs there. I knew that I had talent. I also knew that I needed a lot of luck.
Lacking the confidence to take a shot at New York City radio, given a none-too-prestigious removal from WNCN, and the eyelid blink of two weeks at WNRC, I started reading trade papers looking for openings near enough to not have to commute upstate or across the Hudson…although soon enough I was under that river.
WHLI, Hempstead, NY, needed someone to fill in during summer vacation time. It was a pop music station close in content to WOND, and that experience plus my style and voice got me the job.
Daytimes meant announcing, in a friendly way, the music that music director Roger Ferguson selected. He followed a standard format, a male vocalist, followed by a woman singer, followed by an instrumental, with some room allowed for vocal groups. Boring. Our comments were supposed to be just slightly more inventive than “This is….,” “That was…,” “We just heard…,” but nothing too personal. Friendly but bland. It was not one of my favorite roles.
WHLI’s major value to the community was its full-time news staff. There were newscasts every hour where the news guys wrote and read their stuff, taking material from AP and United Press for national and international stories while also adding some local stories. Re-writes from local newspapers or their own actual reporting. Stan Bernard, who went on to a more significant job at WINS (“You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world.”), was on the news staff. Bearded like me, some people asked if we were brothers. Beards were still a subject of interest.
Much of the time the news guys and the d.j.s would hang out together telling jokes or making fun of the management. It seemed as if no one thought he was doing anything special but was just a cog in a machine.
I started looking for something better.
Within a few weeks I had started relief-announcing at WJRZ, Newark, and WQXR, New York, plus, astonishingly, WNCN again.
By the time I started on this aural merry-go-round my résumé mirrored the new activity, crammed with other credits: seven stations in 12 years: WNAR, WFLN, WHAT, WOND, WNRC, WNCN, WHLI. It certainly looks rootless, doesn’t it? You’d think it would look as if I couldn’t keep a job—an accurate perception for people outside broadcasting. Not without some truth, either. I’d been fired at three stations and quit four others. But people inside the business tend to believe that announcers who keep moving have something to offer. Otherwise, how would they keep getting work? And, when starting the 1965 search for something more interesting and better-paying than WHLI, not having left was a position of strength. I had a job already. You might think that managements would have inquired how and why I was no longer at those previous stations but they didn’t. Maybe because, except for WHLI, at least five years had passed and, as always, staff longevity being so rare, my moving on may have seemed normal.
The New WNCN
WNCN had new owners. In mid 1964 the station had been acquired by the National Science Network owned by L.W. Frohlich Advertising Agency, which dealt mostly in pharmaceuticals.
According to Bernie Alan, whom I knew from our college days at Temple and who was on the announcing staff at NCN before I re-joined, the Network also bought and operated WDHF in Chicago, KPPC in Pasadena, and KMPX in San Francisco.
The “Science,” no doubt, was so named due to Frohlich’s agency accounts. There was also something else. In addition to WNCN, the transmitter signal was used on a sub-channel* to broadcast pop background music to subscribers, who were, evidently, all doctors who used the service in their offices. I never heard how the service sounded. In addition, according to Bernie, there were weekly five-minute broadcasts of news scripts about medicine and developments in the medical world; he wrote and broadcast some himself. Once, he said, WNCN even covered a medical convention in Chicago, the broadcast sponsored by drug companies whose commercials were included.
*A sub-channel uses the same signal as the regular station does, but the programs are transmitted separately by a complex process I don’t fully understand. TV and radio stations still use the concept today, sending out more than one signal available with special equipment and/or by subscription.
WNCN’s new studios were on West 45th Street just off Fifth Avenue above a wonderful-smelling Chinese restaurant. Compared to the Concert Network’s East 47th Street station, this company knew something about how a good radio station should look. There were beautiful modern studios and state-of-the-art equipment. No weak particle board walls there. You could see through the gleaming glass windows that the new owners were taking classical music seriously; concert harpsichordist Albert Fuller was the music director. Maurice Essam was his assistant.
Jolly WNCN Program Director Ed Shaughnessy took a liking to my sound and my knowledge and immediately put me on call after we’d met. When he asked about why I’d left the old NCN, I’d explained that I’d wanted to try an acting career. And re: FLN, I could tell the truth: Mitchell Krauss took his job back.
No further questions were asked.
Bill Watson must have known the actual reason why I left the previous NCN. But I guess he and Ed didn’t discuss it. Or maybe Bill didn’t care about the why and how of my departure. He may have even admired my forcefulness in breaking down a studio wall; he was a rebel in his own way. Or maybe he was grateful that he’d gone on to fame, due to me.
Yes. Fame. He had become the star of the night, propelling the station forward into public consciousness. Compared to him, everyone else on WNCN was a daytime shadow. Oh sure, the daily NCN programming was a major contrast to the more conservative content of WQXR, but QXR was the big classical blast in town. NCN was still underrated and not taken seriously.
Watson had always been allowed free rein in his programming. And his personal choices were astonishing, appealing to a hell of a lot of people, at a time when there was no competition either; QXR was off the air overnight. As far as I ever learned, Bill cherished a rather narrow period of classical music; but it was a great period, starting around 1700 and going not much further than 1830. But look at which composers flourished then: J.S. Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, to name the most famous.
Once in a while, as an on-call announcer, I filled in for Bill. Odd, isn’t it? He’d filled in for me back in 1960. But sitting in in his stead, I did not have the chance to program music of my choice; not that I would have reverted to what I’d been featuring during my 20 months at NCN overnight. I didn’t see that as an opportunity to do my own thing (to use a then-current hippie phrase). Instead, Albert or his assistant Maurice Essam gave me stacks of LPs from which to chose music evidently similar to what Bill featured.
That was when I first came to admire the music of the composers I named above; I’d always gravitated to something more modern or romantic and paid scant attention to what others had long taken as masterworks. String quartets, especially. I hadn’t realized how beautiful they were. This time I was actually listening rather than having them for soothing background, such as when I was a babysat little kid while my father joined friends to play such music at, say, Wilfred Skeets’s elegant house on a quiet street in Lansdowne, PA.
I never actually heard more than a few minutes of Bill’s program, Listening with Watson; most of the time I was in bed in one of three different apartments I sequentially inhabited during those years, mid-1965 to early 1971, during which my contact with him and the station ebbed and flowed. And, whenever I arrived at the station to host a morning show, I barely listened because I was preparing newscasts. I heard, but didn’t listen.
In a rich, sonorous voice, a voice Bill knew he had and in which he reveled, he always began his program by quoting a phrase from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice: “Here will we sit and let the sounds of music/Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night/Become the touches of sweet harmony.”
His on-air persona flourished, captivating many people. He loved the music and was never shy about expressing his opinions, referring to the beauty, the magnificence, and the glory of the works he presented—a rarity at the time when most announcers offered no opinions.
He further cemented his reputation by airing long works, really long works, in their entirety, never interrupting them with talk. Moreover, he’d sometimes repeat the same music immediately after it ended, saying something like, “Wasn’t that great? Let’s listen to it again.” And present it once more, complete.
He could do that because he was not required to read newscasts in his seven-hour broadcasts, and, despite his ever-growing celebrity, the sales department had not been able to cash in and load his schedule with commercials.
In fact, Bill was known for making fun of the commercials he did have, commenting on their poor grammar, or bad punctuation. However, so far as I know, he never insulted the clients nor denigrated their products. He also did something Jean Shepherd had been doing, bunching several commercials together back to back, just to have the onerous task finished. This was nothing like some of today’s broadcasting with deliberate clusters.
Bill wasn’t likely to have more than five commercials a night, consistent with how little advertising was on WNCN at any time in those years. The station was always in the red, as if it were a Frohlich vanity operation. 1981 was the first profitable year, under a different owner.
Once Bill actually created a major traffic jam during the day around the corner on West 44th Street. A new sponsor bought time on WNCN. (An odd phrase, come to think of it. How can you buy time?) Livingston’s Leaf and Bean was a small shop selling a vast variety of freshly roasted coffee beans, stored in barrels, along with smaller barrels of fresh pipe tobacco of many blends. Livingston’s also sold pipes, pipe paraphernalia, and various kinds of coffee pots. To introduce the store they got Bill to tell his listeners that anyone who heard him was invited to stop by the shop the next morning to get a free ½ pound of coffee just by mentioning his name. When the shop unlocked its doors at 9 a.m. a mob stretched in every direction all the way from Sixth Avenue to Fifth. This event confirmed Bill’s power.
Bill also had powerful opinions which were not limited to what he thought about the music. In his broadcasts he freely shared his ideas about politics and social issues. Listeners who agreed with him called and wrote to him praising his perception.
But there was the other kind of response—people who developed serious hatred for what he said and stood for. They hated him, as if whoever he was on the radio was him, rather than some part of him, the performing part. There’s that Steve Allison kind of thing I mentioned above when writing about my Philadelphia broadcasting days.
Bill had a ready temper, lashing out at those of the public who couldn’t deal with his seeming self-admiration and his comments. They seethed with anger, telephoning him, as if he were some kind of dictator ruling the night with an iron baton instead of just a guy who hosted a radio program.
You could ask why he would even pick up the phone, since, during long stretches of music, you’d think Watson would be Listening With Watson, but being all alone in the studio overnight must have generated a feeling of isolation and a need for contact with living humans instead of only admiring the creations of people long dead and gone. Not that I had that feeling myself in my 20 months preceding him. But by the time I started to work for the new NCN, he’d been hosting programs for five years at those hours. The long-term effects could be different.
While he spoke to listeners, Bill could never look into anyone’s eyes during those 35 hours a week. His own had to be focused on the constant bounce of VU meters. And there were the glaring lights overhead, so glaring, in fact, that he’d turn off as many as he could sitting there with only enough illumination to read by, glowing in semi-darkness, as if a halo sat above his head.
He must have reveled in the stimulation of getting back at those angry people out there in the vast darkness, reaching out even into all those little, less important suburbs and towns clinging to New York. He’d excoriate his unseen enemies, those who failed to admire his impressive musical knowledge and the magnificent music he chose for people with the right degree of discernment. On the air he’d speak to the gadflies by name, defeating their arguments by making statements that brooked no discussion; he controlled the microphone and no one else’s voice could be heard.
During the time Bill and I both worked at NCN, he’d sometimes talk to me while his music was playing, or after I had started the next program, when he’d rave about lapsang souchong tea and how well it went with honey. He’d also tell me about some of the “beautiful” women who admired him and whom he had met, women no doubt overwhelmed by being close to such magnificence, not that married Bill ever claimed he was a great lover, nor did he discuss what went down (so to speak) with any of the women. Evidently such admirers sometimes visited him at the studios. I met one one morning. I didn’t find her beautiful. But then, there’s that eye of the beholder thing. And maybe the lady found in-person-Bill attractive. He certainly was decent looking, with a sturdy Roman nose and distinguished grey temples, despite being nearly bald. He also looked solidly muscular, as if his past life in the U.S. Navy had taught him how to stay fit.
In time he would call me “a friend” because we got along well together whenever we saw each other. But we never socialized outside the station.
I liked him.
In those early days of my return to NCN, looking for whatever work I could find, Bernie told me about a side job he had in our mutual home town of Philadelphia. As “Bob Weston” he was providing pre-recorded voice tracks for WDVR, whose format was “beautiful music.” That’s a concept a bit like WOND’s “Wonderful Music,” being a total avoidance of rock, Country & Western, jazz, etc. In the New York market WPAT, Paterson, NJ, was doing very well with that idea then. Fundamentally the content was attractive but unobtrusive instrumental versions of pop music standards with few vocals, ideal for background music. Often the selections were not announced. So Bernie’s tracks mostly consisted of station breaks and a few commercials.
He put me in touch with the management at WDVR, telling me that this would be no major source of income; in fact, he was getting $1 per spot (equal to $7.25 in 2012), which meant mostly for commercials; the other tracks had long-lasting lives of their own.
WDVR liked my demo tape, recorded, of course, at WNCN late at night when no one else was there but Bill. I got a slot. As “Gordon Todd” (i.e., sounding a bit like “Gordon Kahn”) my voice tracks hosted Saturday and Sunday morning shows, which didn’t require the usual stuff of weekday mornings, like weather forecasts and time checks. Vene’s Philadelphia family was thrilled (“We listen to you all the time!”).
I stayed on the air there for about 10 months until I no longer was able to record the tracks or use the WNCN studios. I was working for ABC. That big opportunity followed some good times at WQXR and a bad time at WJRZ, Newark, NJ.
Crossing In The Dark Under the Hudson.
My WHLI and WOND experiences got me some work at WJRZ. By then Les Davis was one of their stars, the third time we’d cross paths, although we barely saw each other and rarely said more than “Hello.”
Eventually Les would show up on WRVR, too, hosting jazz. And he always had name recognition and fame while I was a fringe-faced guy on the fringe.
I had only few stints on WJRZ, a place where the receptionist always answered calls by saying “WJRZ, good radio!” I always replied “And good radio to you, too.”
I wasn’t there long. In July 1965, after what turned out to be my last overnight shift, I went out to the street to get my car to drive back home. The car was gone. I couldn’t believe someone had stolen it. An old Chevy with a multi-colored body. Who would bother?
Walking around the corner to the police headquarters right off Green Street, I reported the crime. Right. My car had been stolen a few doors away from police headquarters.
The police were used to having to deal with car theft. A couple of officers said that somebody had probably taken for it for “a joy ride” and that they’d look into it and get back to me. Then they gave me a lift to a PATH train from which I could get a subway connection home.
A couple of days later they called. They’d found the car. They told me I could pick it up at the Newark storage lot.
Subway to train to taxi to the storage lot. It was in a rundown neighborhood of cracked streets and scruffy buildings. A few intact cars in the front didn’t belie what lay beyond—a grimy, disordered jumble of dented, broken vehicles, strewn around as if dropped wherever there was space.
While I waited for the boss—call him Mike—I noticed the front office had a hand-written sign on which was scrawled, “Anyone showing up late doesn’t work here anymore.”
Grubby-looking, stomach-spilling, shave-needing, sloppily dressed Mike led me to my car. It looked intact. I was relieved. I half-expected to see a dented ruin. There was no key in it, but I had a spare. I put it into the ignition, saying to my beloved car, “Come on. I’ll take you home.”
No motor turned over. Silence. Except for cawing crows flying around the lot. I opened the hood. The battery was gone. So was the radiator. So were other parts. I turned to Mike. “What happened to all the parts?”
“How the fuck would I know?” he snarled.
I felt miserable. His unsympathetic response made it worse. “Can you help me get this towed back to Brooklyn?” I asked. Then he gave me a price which took my breath away, especially when added to what he said I owed for two days of storage.
“But it was stolen,” I said in painful disbelief. “Why do I have to pay for storage? I didn’t authorize you to store it. The police brought it here. I didn’t.”
“That’s not my problem, pal. You want it back? Pay me what you owe for storage, and I’ll see what I can do about giving you a break on a tow. I mean it’s a hell of a long way to Brooklyn.”
I stood there in continuing shock. Did it even make sense to tow home what was left of that beloved car with half the motor gone, its value plummeting into near-junk? I stammered, “But that’s…that’s not fair. Somebody stole it and…”
“You said that already, buddy.”
“Yes. And said that I didn’t ask you to store it. And why is it missing so many parts?”
Mike was getting angry. “Look, pal. I didn’t steal it. It’s not my fault.”
“But why is it missing so many parts?”
“Hold on. Are you saying I took the parts?”
“No. No. I’m just having trouble understanding this whole thing.”
“Yeah. Well, I’m getting tired of this bullshit. What do you want to do with this piece of junk? I haven’t got all day.”
“I need to call my insurance company and have them come over here and take a look at it.”
“And what am I supposed to do in the meantime? Wait until that fucking agent arrives? Look, pay me for a week’s worth of storage now.”
“But it hasn’t been here a week.”
“God damn it! Now I’m getting pissed off. You don’t want to pay me? Then get the hell off my lot before I beat the shit out of you.”
I walked away, leaving behind the ruins of my beloved car, feeling almost as broken as it was.
The next time WJRZ called, I had to turn down the work. No car. But also I wasn’t sure I’d even want to be in that part of Newark again.
By 1967, though, I was able to afford a new Volkswagen Beetle, which is how eventually I got to WPAT. More about that later.
Bill Watson (already mentioned in Chapter Radio Daze) was on QXR in 1976 when I was added to the substitute announcer list once more, not that we ever encountered each other at the station. He had a weekly pre-recorded program sponsored by American Airlines. C.E.O. C.R. Smith had much admired Bill’s NCN broadcasts and personality and not only paid to have him host three hours once a week on WQXR but also hired him to select and announce all the classical music recordings heard on American’s in-flight music services.
I’m sure QXR required Bill to tape his show to be certain that Bill would not do something radical on the air for which he’d become so well-known during 15 years at NCN. I heard one such program while I had an evening shift. Bill said something about having received a letter from a listener whose name he mentioned. That was all he said about that person—no thanks, no comment—moving on to announce his next music selection. Had this been the old days, he would have most likely excoriated the listener on the air for something in the letter. I asked the engineer on duty if Bill’s comments had been edited. “Yeah. All the time,” he answered.
At QXR I became friendly with Earl Bradsher, Jr. (a.k.a. Earl Bradley) who regularly broadcast weather features sponsored by Con Ed. Earl was one of the few out gay men I knew and was critical of closeted others, such as those at WNCN. He was planning to start a classical music radio station in St. Petersburg and kept urging me to consider becoming his program director. Since I had no intention of leaving New York, when he moved to start up WXCR (Tampa Bay Concert Radio), he asked me to record station IDs for him. Which I did gratis. In December 2015 I searched for his name online and found it in a 1983 piece in the St. Petersburg Times. Clearly at that time he’d started the station. What happened thereafter is yet to be found.
QXR dropped me from the substitute list when I went full-time at NCN.
Reunited with Jazz
At BAI I got to renew my weekly American Music series, again featuring contemporary concert/“classical” music, jazz, film scores, and cast recordings of musicals. Since at least half of my 1960s LPs were still in storage in Genova, I was in touch with record companies and began to re-build my library. Also there were a lot of new “modern” music LPs at NCN, never to be aired. I incorporated them into my broadcasts with David’s tacit acceptance, because they never left the station and were played only on NCN equipment. Bob Richer OKd my taping there.
There were a few pop records coming into NCN. Among them was one by Gino Vanelli, Canadian pop/rock singer/writer who’d created a symphonic piece Pauper in Paradise, which had a lot of appeal and seemed just right for the BAI program where any kind of musical cross-over fit right in. With that and other Vanelli discs, I became a fan.
This was a time when jazz musicians were into the trends of what sold best—latino sessions, fusion, funky hard-bop. Sure, I liked some of that and programmed it, but the mainstream was still my stream.
Of course, substantial audiences remained for much of what jazz greats were still doing in person but on fewer records than in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Plus there were younger musicians who were carrying on such traditions, especially those debuting on newly emerging Concord Records, such as Scott Hamilton and Warren Vaché, both of whom I interviewed (Hamilton in 1981 and Vaché in 1985).
During that time Lionel Hampton had started his own label, Who’s Who In Jazz—great sessions where Hamp performed separately, with Dexter Gordon, Woody Herman, J.J. Johnson, Charles Mingus, Gerry Mulligan, Woody Herman, and more. Impressive line-ups and lots of good playing. The production of the LPs left an indelible impression. They were the sloppiest such product ever seen, with misspellings of artists’ names, strange and varying typefaces, wrong composer credits for some of the songs, including Hampton’s taking credit for something called “Short Ribs,” which was really Louis Armstrong’s “Struttin’ With Some Barbecue.” In one instance, a jacket cover made it look as if Coleman Hawkins was on the recording. He wasn’t. Margaret Mercer was listed as a co-producer for some LPs; she had been an assistant to David Dubal around that time and later became program director at WQXR.
I hosted a jazz radio show in Italy, taped at NCN.
In 1978, I went on a holiday, revisiting Genoese friends from the time when I’d lived among them. They included painter Gianni Ghiazza. When I told him about my jazz shows in New York he introduced me to Marco Remondini who had recently started his own radio station, Radio Genova Sound. English words. Very hip.
Marco had started the station in 1975 at a time when RAI owned and controlled all Italian broadcasting. His was one of a number of private stations that started cropping up around then. They weren’t legal. But, since no government agency made any moves to close them down, such owner/operators continued broadcasting based on the widely held Italian modus operandi that anything not officially prohibited was tacitly acceptable. Soon the private stations were being fined as unauthorized businesses but still not prohibited from broadcasting. They opted to pay fines and several decided to appeal their rights legally. In 1976, the Italian Constitutional Court, in a case involving a Florence station, held that the RAI monopoly was unconstitutional regarding local broadcasting. Radio Genova Sound was officially on the air. http://www.citi.columbia.edu/elinoam/articles/Broadcasting_in_Italy-Overview.pdf. These stations called themselves “public” radio to contrast with state radio. They also sold advertising, as did RAI.
Marco and I discussed producing a monthly two-hour bi-lingual show on tape and mailing it. He could only afford to pay me 40,000 lire per show (ca. $50 then and about $190 in 2015) plus mailing costs. He thought it was equally hip to have someone on his station speaking some English. This was a characteristic intro: Allora, qui abbiamo un disco da Duke Ellington. This is the 1959 orchestra with Johnny Hodges, sax alto as soloist, e dopo Jimmy Rushing canta and Dizzy Gillespie plays la tromba. The titles “Fillie Trillie” e “Hello Little Girl.”
The show was called Jazz Da New York con Gordon. It was a hell of a lot of fun.
On a second trip in 1980, I decided to take two boxes of tapes, 12-inch reels recorded at 7.5 ips, which equals one hour of the show per tape. I was carrying six months’ of shows and traveling by train from Germany, as opposed to my previous visit in a rented car. Arriving at the Italian border, two members of the Guardia di Finanza (Customs Police) asked me what was in the boxes. In Italian. Stupidly I replied in Italian, forgetting my old practice of speaking English when confronted by Italian authorities. Usually in such instances I was left to go on my way, being considered thereby to be a tourist, i.e., guest, or because the authorities usually spoke very little English. This time I was taken off the train and questioned about the legality of transporting unauthorized recorded material, as if it were a product for sale. (At least I was smart enough not to mention that Marco paid me for the shows.) The Guardia guys felt that I should pay customs fees. But after some friendly discussion, given that I was an American and could prove it, and that I didn’t actually live in Italy, they decided to let me go and put me on the next train.
Then, in 1981, I met Carla Verdacci of RAI at a party at a friend’s apartment. I mentioned my on-going show. She suggested that I send her a copy of one of the tapes; she might be interested enough to propose it to RAI back in Rome. She liked it. She pitched it. Jazz da New York con Gordon became a monthly RAI feature all across Italy for two years until I was no longer in New York. At double the payment rate.
Reversing directions, two close Italian friends came to visit New York in 1976 and were eager to hear Woody Allen play his jazz clarinet. They knew the dates and the place. Allen appeared at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. We went. His group of musicians, some of whom were familiar to me from records, got into traditional New Orleans style. Allen sounded quite capable but not distinctive. But my friends didn’t care about that; they just loved being there. After one set, Allen took a chair on the stage and, sitting by himself, shook hands and held brief conversations sequentially with any people in the audience who wanted that personal contact. Sort of a Santa Claus line. My friends were thrilled to have the chance to speak with him, me translating. He was courteous and polite.
I did a few interviews for my BAI program. Two stood out. One with Ruby Braff. The other with Gerry Mulligan.
Braff was my all-time favorite trumpet/cornet player and I’d cherished his recordings for more than 25 years. He was appearing in the Newport Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall in 1980. Having never seen or heard him in person I was looking forward to that. And decided to try to get an interview. With his phone number from the Festival publicity office, we made an appointment to meet at his apartment in the Bronx.
It was clear from the start that he was delighted for the attention. He was jolly and outgoing. We both had a great time. When the taping finished he gave me a couple of new LPs he’d recorded in England. One was on the Pizza Express label, Braff Plays Bing. He told me a story Crosby told about himself. In the early ’70s when Crosby was in his, a New York taxi driver asked him, “Didn’t you used to be Bing Crosby?” To which he replied, “Nah. Must be some other fella.”
Braff also told me a Benny Goodman story. Braff had played in some of Benny’s 1950s groups, in person and on records. Eleanor Steber (opera soprano) had gone to Goodman’s house to go over some music they were planning to perform together. Steber told B.G. that the room felt very cold. Benny agreed. Excused himself and left the room. And returned wearing a sweater. Without further comment. Steber told this to people she knew.
Ruby and I became something like friends. He suggested that we keep in touch and that we should hang out together. He’d call me. Which he did. He invited me to join him at Jimmy Ryan’s where one of his favorite trombonists Vic Dickenson was playing. They’d had some great sessions together for Vanguard Records in the ’50s. Being a big fan of Dickenson, I looked forward to going.
I’d never been in Ryan’s, despite its reputation. It usually featured traditional jazz, a.k.a. Dixieland. Even though I loved such music along with all other styles, going to any club was not something I did. Ruby and I stood at the bar talking during the music. Conversation under such circumstances seemed normal. This was not a venue for a serious concert. At a break, Vic Dickenson came over to the bar near us. Despite his vigorous outgoing manner on the stage, he looked serious. “I’d like to go over and tell him how much I admire his playing,” I told Ruby.
“Don’t embarrass him. Don’t embarrass him. He hates having to play here,” Ruby replied. Then Ruby went over to Dickenson, wordlessly shook hands and returned to me.
Soon we were conversing about musicians playing in clubs, competing with all the noise of talking people. “They’re listening,” he said. “They hear what we’re doing. And I know when to play softly to get their attention, if I want it. That’s what it’s like in clubs.”
A month before, I’d gone on a Thursday evening to hear pianist Roland Hanna play in a small club near Washington Square. There were only a few people there to eat, drink, and listen. Always a Hanna admirer, I was once again impressed with his gentle, lyrical pieces. Clearly a party of six, really partying, wasn’t listening. Gabbing. Laughing loudly. All of a sudden in the middle of one piece, Hanna got up from the keyboard and went to a table by himself. Going over to him, I told him how much I liked his playing on records and just a few minutes ago before he’d stopped. “Yeah,” he said, sadly, “but how could you hear it?” I replied that I could hear it and asked why he walked away from the keyboard. “What’s the point?” he asked. “I can’t compete with that.”
Telling Braff about that, Braff commented, “Jesus Christ! What did he expect? It’s a club.”
And we talked, too, about Charles Mingus who’d eventually given up such live gigs, laughing together at a Mingus’ recording, Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus, where Mingus wanted to give the feeling of a club date and begins by telling the audience how to behave.
Another time Ruby invited me to one of his small club gigs in Fort Lee. He performed with a guitarist and a bassist and kept loudly calling out key changes after a few lines of notes in the same tune. It was very distracting.
In April 1982, he invited me and my girlfriend/eventual wife Hannelore to hear him at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on 5th Avenue at 90th Street. Pianist Dick Hyman performed with him, a pairing with great results already on records. That afternoon Hyman played the church’s pipe organ. The idea for both of them was not entirely new; in 1977 Hyman had recorded on a studio organ with Braff in a set of Fats Waller-connected tunes (Fats Waller’s Heavenly Jive). This time Braff was facing downstage, his back to Hyman, whose back was to his. They played magnificently. How did they coordinate without seeing each other? I asked Hyman afterwards. He showed me two mirrors he’d set up on the organ wings.
Braff had told me by then he hated playing in such out-of-the-way places as that one in Fort Lee, but that he always tried to avoid big clubs where there was a lot of smoking; he was developing emphysema, making it increasingly difficult to get the most out of his horn. FYI: he died of it in 2003, more than 20 years after we’d connected.
Having left New York for New Mexico later in 1982, I didn’t try to stay in touch. Frankly I made no effort to do so, just as I’d neglected to sustain a similar friendship with Tony Scott.
Waiting for a set to begin, I was standing in a hallway, when drummer Bobby Rosengarden walked by. I recognized him from when he’d played with Woody Allen at Michael’s Pub. “Hello Bobby,” I said. “You’ve played with Ruby Braff, right?” He said that he had. “Is Ruby anywhere around? I’m a friend of his.”
“Yeah?” Rosengarden replied. “Probably the only friend he’s got.” And walked off.
I soon found Ruby in the hall, talking to bassist Michael Moore. I went over to them.
“Hello, Ruby!” I said. “I’m Gordon Spencer. Remember? We met in New York.”
“Yeah. How you doing Gordon? Good to see ya.” And he turned back to Michael Moore. Dismissed.
Certainly my feelings were hurt. But I let it pass. I’m sure Ruby had met a lot of people in New York and elsewhere. Given that this was at least three years since we’d last been in touch, it might have been natural that he didn’t remember me.
But what did Rosengarden mean? In time, I learned that Ruby was becoming more and more contentious with everyone he knew. He accumulated quite a negative reputation, being called by some colleagues “Mr. Hyde and Mr. Hyde,” no doubt inspired by one his favorite Robert Louis Stephenson books. You can likewise see him being nasty in an interview with Brit Jim Godbolt. https://shirazsocialist.wordpress.com/2014/12/05/jim-godbolt-interviews-ruby-braff. However, there Braff is also full of praise for many jazz greats and turns out to be eventually quite congenial. It’s a great interview.
Interviews with musicians can often turn out to be challenging. Even those of us who come fully prepared have to expect many variables. Some musicians are so outgoing and friendly, such as Louis or Duke, about whose interviews I wrote above, that the interviewer is almost superfluous. Yet there are other artists who are not that articulate, or are distracted, or bored, or even annoyed, especially when dealing with the same questions that they consistently get asked.
My interview with Gerry Mulligan had a much different feeling than the one with Ruby. In January 1981 I’d seen an article in New York Magazine about Mulligan, mentioning that one of his quartets was to play at Eric’s in February. I called the club to see if I could get Mulligan’s phone number so as to set up an interview. That made it possible to call Mulligan. I told him that I’d admired him for years and that I often played his records on WBAI, WNCN, WOND, WFLN. Politely he said he wasn’t much available because he was working on writing new orchestral arrangements for a concert with the CBC Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra in June. But that, if he had some free time later in the month, he’d get back to me.
As the date for the gig at Eric’s became imminent, not having heard from him, I decided to call again. Responding, he said, “Well, as I think I told you I’m really busy. But, all right, if you want to come up to my home in Darien, I guess I can spare about an hour. But no more. Would that be acceptable?”
Yeah, if I’d thought about it better, I might have realized that this was something of an imposition. But I was so eager to talk with him that I didn’t want to miss the chance. It was clear from what I’d recently read that Mulligan was, off the stand, an intellectually alive person with many interests in all kinds of things, including (like me) classical Indian music and yoga, theatre, literature, movies. I felt as if we might bond. Well, anyway, I hoped we would. That was certainly naïve.
Arriving at his house, I was warmly welcomed by his wife Franca. We exchanged a few words in Italian and she led me into their living room. Mulligan told me (again) that he hoped we could keep the talk to no more than an hour.
Every so often in the conversation I felt that he was a little put off by the questions, not that they were in any way personal, but rather as if the answers were so obvious that they needn’t be asked.
It wasn’t a bad interview by any means, but listening to it later, he sounded impatient at times. I concluded that he hadn’t really wanted to be bothered but had felt it was an obligation, being, after all, somebody famous who needed to not be dismissive of the press.
We ran into each other again in February 1995 at a gig. He fronted a quartet playing in Milwaukee where I was living, hosting jazz shows and serving on an advisory board for a series of jazz performances at the Pabst Theater. I was the m.c. I didn’t expect him to recognize me after 14 years but went up to him to say hello and to remind him of that encounter. Remembering that Franca spoke Italian I thought it would be cool to talk to him in Italian because he must have known some. When I started speaking, he looked totally unsettled, as if facing an obstacle that threw him off-balance. I guess he didn’t understand. Apologizing in English, I told him my name. Then, when introducing him on stage, we shook hands as if old friends. It had never occurred to me that backstage he could have been nervous before a performance. So many people are. Why shouldn’t he be?
Clearly we never bonded.
In 1978, I’d gone to a jazz concert at Carnegie Hall. Stan Getz was on stage. (“That’s some kind of genius,” Ruby said to me once.) Before Getz started playing, he went over to the microphone stand then walked away from it. Calling out backstage, he said, “Would someone take this thing away from here? We don’t need it. This is Carnegie Hall for Chrissakes!” A stagehand came and moved the microphone to the side of the stage. Many of us cheered. I vowed then I’d find a way to tell him of my admiration.
In late June 1982, I had that chance. He was to appear at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in a reunion concert with Jimmy Giuffre, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims. The “Four Brothers” shared the bill with younger, further-out guys, the World Saxophone Quartet: Hamiet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray.
Through the concert promoters, I’d been able to phone Getz and he said to meet him backstage after he, Giuffre, Cohn, and Sims had practiced out front.
They ran through a few arrangements, deciding who would solo where, Getz then came to where I was sitting, leaving the other men still on stage talking, occasionally playing a few notes, as if trying out things.
He seemed gentle, almost serene. Quite a contrast to ebullient Ruby Braff and opaque Gerry Mulligan. I told Getz of my admiration for his Carnegie Hall comment. He smiled. “Yeah. You’d think they would have known better. Horowitz wouldn’t have had a mic.”
I took my tape recorder out of a bag and plugged in a microphone. Immediately a tall, grey-bearded man in sloppy street clothes walked over to us.
“What are you guys doing?” he challenged.
“I’m going to interview Mr. Getz,” I replied, showing him the microphone and the tape machine.
“What do you mean?”
“You have permission from IATSE?” (The backstage tech union.)
“Gee, no. Do I need that?”
“Goddamn right you do!”
“Well, I’m an AFTRA member.”
“And I’m with the AFM,” Stan added.
“Look,” the IATSE guy said, getting pissed off. “I don’t care what unions you belong to. This is an IATSE space. You can’t record here. We do all the recording. You know, I could confiscate that equipment you’ve got. So you better get the hell out of here right away if you know what’s good for you.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“Well, you should have.”
I was flustered and distressed, not able to think what to suggest next to Stan as we walked out of the building. Upon exiting, we ran into bassist Marc Johnson who just happened to be passing by. Johnson had played with Bill Evans at the same 1978 Carnegie Hall concert as Getz. Stan hugged him tenderly, said something I couldn’t hear, and we continued heading toward Columbus Avenue.
I knew that Getz had used an echoplex a few times and I’d had felt that saxophonist John Klemmer, well-known for that device, sometimes had a Getz-like tenderness in his playing. “I was wondering,” I said to Stan as we walked, “Do you think that John Klemmer was influenced by you?”
“God, I hope not,” he replied, grinning. Before I had a chance to ask what that meant, he’d hailed a taxi. Getting in, he asked, “Can I drop you off somewhere?”
Oh, I thought, he’s through with me. “If I go wherever you’re going, maybe we could talk there?” I suggested.
He directed the driver to an address in Greenwich Village. “Look, I’m staying at Irwin Corey’s house. I shouldn’t bring in any uninvited guest. Maybe we could do this some other time.” Perhaps he’d been put off by that IATSE encounter. Certainly I was.
He left me off near Times Square and I walked cross-town to my apartment, dejected.
Incidentally, long an Irwin Corey admirer, I always loved his Professor act (“The World’s Foremost Authority”), having seen it numerous times on TV, especially on TheTonight Show with Steve Allen where the routine ended with Corey being chased through the audience, i.e., “Stop that madman!” I’d even used some of his style in my Beyond the Fringe audition back in the ’60s (see above). Plus something in Corey’s face reminded me of my father in a jovial mood.
Actually I met Corey in 1978. Gary Gumpert, an old friend from my days at Temple University, had heard me on NCN and called to re-connect after so many years. He invited us to a party at his home in Great Neck. On a balmy April evening we sat in a small garden outside his house where Gary introduced me to some neighbors. Corey was one of them.
Corey looked just as I thought he would, except that his hair was combed and he was wearing clothes more casual than the falling-apart, semi-formal attire of his standard act. Naturally I told him how much I’d enjoyed his performances. “They are terrific, aren’t they?” he asked with a serious expression on his face.
Used to talking to famed people, mostly musicians, I wasn’t star-struck. Rather than pepper him with questions, I told him about how Gary and I knew each other and about Temple U and my own performing background. Corey seemed interested. Soon we dispersed into the party. But I kept subtly watching him to see how he behaved off-stage. He seemed very much like the Professor. At one point all of us started earnestly discussing politics. There Corey rambled on in the same tone as the Professor, throwing in non-sequiturs, making little sense. No one laughed. Maybe he was serious. But it was as if he and the Professor were interchangeable. Maybe doing that act so often, they’d merged somehow.
Speaking of old friends, in 1980, Jean Desjardins (a.k.a. John Gardner), a buddy from the 1960s, called and invited me to his wedding celebration at his home in suburban Philadelphia, an isolated house surrounded by woods and trees. It was one of the most original parties I’d ever attended. He’d not only hired caterers but wandering entertainers, including a double-talking comic who threaded and chattered among us. Plus, all of a sudden, a bagpiper, completely kilted, dramatically came marching through the woods. Rufus Harley, a black man who’d billed himself as the World’s First Jazz Bagpiper. I knew who he was; he played on a Herbie Mann concert LP from about 10 years before. Evidently he was one of John’s neighbors.
During those days Fleetwood, Marzano, and I collectively became friends with Gladys Buchman, a regular NCN listener. She sometimes called us and sent us holiday greeting cards and a few times invited us to dinner at her apartment. Together we eventually decided to take her up on the offer out of curiosity. It turned out that she was in her early ’60s and lived in Alphabet City…Avenue C, I think…in a public housing project with her husband Morris.
They were both very jolly people and seemed to be unendingly fascinated hearing our stories about ourselves. So we three minor celebrities had a great time hanging out together, which we’d never done elsewhere or before. Plus Gladys and Morris would tell us about their kinds of lives about which we had no inkling, except to learn that they loved going to live concerts despite living on pensions.
Naturally, I invited Gladys and Morris to dinner in midtown and once asked them if they’d like to see my cat, Sulu, given that they had three cats of their own.
Gladys couldn’t get over Sulu’s beauty. He was indeed magnificent. A nine-year old chinchilla, with deep blue eyes, beautiful white fur under light grey tips. Many friends had remarked on his exceptional looks. Some had even said that he should get modeling jobs. A potential show business cat. Gladys thought so, too. A friend of a friend of hers knew an animal talent agent.
Gladys gave me the name and phone number. Sulu and I got an appointment.
The agency was in a large office building on West 54th Street. A tiny office, seeming to have one room, one agent. Nothing unusual about the place except for an open cardboard box full of wriggling, chirping chicks on the top of a small bookcase.
“Before you let the cat out of the case,” the agent asked, “do you think the chicks are in any danger?”
“I don’t know,” I answered. “He’s never seen any before. It’s hard to say. But I can probably get him back into the case if there is a problem.” Nonetheless, I scanned the office to see where Sulu might run and hide if he panicked. Not that chicks would scare him, but the agent’s reaction to threat could turn out to be too energetic.
“OK,” the agent said. “Why don’t you let him out?”
Sulu was not eager to emerge. He had certainly not enjoyed the cab ride or the ascension in the elevator. He was a house pet, not a traveling companion.
As in the past, I had to turn his carrying case on its side to, in effect, dump him out. The trick was to pick him up thereafter before he scampered away. Of course, he was nervous. Not because he was auditioning. That would have been my effect on him, wondering if Sulu was on the brink of a performing career.
I was able to lift him to my shoulders where he stared at me, as if to say, “What the hell is this?” Then he scanned the room. His ears pricked up, hearing the chicks. He was very close to them. He looked. No other reaction. He turned to me, still puzzled. That was his audition. He passed.
The agent called me the following week telling me that Sulu had a job. A photo shoot. All I had to do was take him to a photo studio in the Garment District at the scheduled time.
There were several rooms in sequence at the studio. The receptionist sent us to one, saying Sulu would be up soon. The waiting room was full of cats, some sitting on human laps, others hiding under chairs. None of them seemed to be congenially mingling with the others. Stuck up felines. Nothing unusual there.
A man with an occupied cat-carrying case joined us, looking discouraged and picked up his coat.
“How’d it go?” a rather glamorous lady cat-companion asked.
“He didn’t make it,” the man replied.
I took Sulu out of his case and held him, stroking him, getting him to resist the urge to hide under another chair.
Talking with the other cat people, I learned that we were all there for the same job. This was Sulu’s gig? I didn’t get it.
A gruff male voice called out. “OK. Gordon. Bring Sulu in.” Certainly someone there knew what the star animal’s name was.
That room glared with spotlights. They were illuminating a draped wooden box on top of which was a different shaped box containing the delights of Tender Vittles Gourmet Dinner.
“OK, Gordon, here’s what we want,” said the man identifying himself as the director. “We just want Sulu to sit next to the box, with one paw on it and look straight-ahead at you. Which is toward the camera, under which you’ll sit. Do you think the lights in his face will scare him?”
As before at the agent’s, I knew Sulu was unpredictable. He was a cat. “Gosh. I don’t know,” I replied in a confident show business voice.
“Right,” the director said. “Could you take him over to the box, set him down next to it, put his right paw on it and slowly walk back?”
Sulu’s paw was placed. I backed away. Subtly.
“Camera ready?” the director whispered.
From somewhere behind me and the lights a voice answered “Ready.”
Sulu left the box and walked over to me and sat in my lap.
“Do you think he can do this?” the director asked gently, not at all aggressive.
As before, I pleaded innocent ignorance.
Same routine. Set the camera. Ready for the shot. Sulu back to my lap. Well, at least he didn’t hide under a chair.
After the third try the director said. “Sorry, Gordon. That’s a great looking cat, but this won’t work.”
I asked if I could stay and watch the next candidate and was told that that was all right, provided that Sulu didn’t fight with his competition. Sulu and I took a seat together off to the side where he remained secure in the place he most wanted to be: my lap.
The next cat was striped black and white and didn’t look all that special. The lady who brought him placed his paw on the box and walked away. This animal could have been stuffed for all the movement it didn’t make. Multiple photos were taken. The cat never moved that whole time. Show business. There’s no business like it. I know.
I made no other attempt to further Sulu’s career.
As for mine, I had a couple of minor roles in advertising.
I had an agent, Bea (Bernice) Beck, who would every so often get me auditions. She was the wife of one of the most famed voice-over performers of all time, Jackson Beck. Not that his name would be remembered by most audiences. Rather, actors and announcers much admired and envied him; he got a lot of work. Those of us who experienced the great days of radio drama knew him as narrator for The Adventures of Superman for many years. And he provided loads of voices for everything else, including cartoons, e.g., “Bluto” in “Popeye” movies.
Bea did get me one memorable job. It was for voicing an Arby’s TV commercial. Young & Rubicam producing.
In the luxurious, classily decorated offices, I joined five other men in a waiting room going over the script. We said “hello” to each other. Plenty of resonant voices there, pretending that we didn’t mind that one of us could come away with the big cash which we deserved, given our massive talent, even if none of us was in Jackson Beck’s league.
The script: one page, one sentence: “Get your free Norman Rockwell glasses now at Arby’s.” What a challenge. Incidentally, almost 40 years later, they’ve become collectors’ items.
My profound reading took the day. Subsequently the session took one day. All day going over and over that one sentence. The director had me say more variations than anyone could imagine.
Bea got me a buy-out, i.e., rather than receiving residuals over the time that this commercial aired, I got a flat fee. AFTRA rates, of course. I don’t remember how much money that was; it might have been something like $700, given the fee of $2,000 in early 2016.
For a couple of years I also produced and voiced radio commercials for New Jersey Symphony Orchestra concerts. This was a pattern I thereafter repeated for the New Mexico, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh symphony orchestras. Aside from my expertise with such content, I blew away the competition; Hannelore was a top staff member in the marketing departments for all three.