'I'll never forget' symbolizes songs now forgotten

July 03, 1994|By MICHAEL OLESKER

The past has gone thataway. I hear its distant echoes each time I turn on the car radio, which is why I turn today to Jack Edwards, who's been playing music on the airwaves around here for 35 years, and thus understands my pain.

"Oldies stations," I sneer.

"A joke," he says, matching me sneer for sneer.

Don't believe that stuff they tell you on the radio, when they say they're playing rock 'n' roll oldies. These are people with no reverence for the past. You wait for the young Elvis doing "That's All Right, Mama," and they give you The Carpenters doing "Close to You." You long for The Royalettes doing "It's Gonna Take A Miracle," and they give you Neil Sedaka doing "Calendar Girl."

You hold your breath for The Lafayettes doing "Caravan of Lonely Men," or Tommy Vann and The Echoes doing "Too Young," or Sonny Til and The Orioles doing "Crying in the Chapel," and they give you The Beach Boys, or Pat Boone pathetically attempting a Little Richard cover, and then the Beach Boys again until you want to hold their heads under the surf.

And they never give you the lost delights of "I'll Never Forget Last Night," which is why I'm calling Jack Edwards in the first place. He is my man on the mountaintop, my guru, my musical archivist, and also, apparently, one of my last hopes.

" 'I'll Never Forget Last Night?' " Edwards says. "I don't think I remember it."

So I sing a few bars for him, dramatically and practically on-key:

"I'll never forget last night/

I'll never forget the ecstasy./

I say, I'll never forget last night/

You gave your love/

You gave your love to me."

" 'I'll Never Forget Last Night,' " I explain, "was WWIN's Pick Hit of the Week back in the summer of '62. It was classic doo-wop. The guys in my neighborhood thought it was great, but it disappeared in about a week, and none of us has ever heard it on the radio in the last 32 years."

"I'll find it," says Edwards, though, in truth, he can't remember it. I am bothered by this, for several reasons. A while back, I went to another great guru on a mountain, Alan Lee, who does a wonderful Sunday night program, "Forgotten Oldies," on WQSR-FM. He never heard of it either.

If neither of these two walking rock 'n' roll encyclopedias can recall it, it symbolizes for me what has happened to all of our musical memories: They've gone thataway, even though we tell ourselves otherwise.

The Baltimore-Washington airwaves are filled with so-called oldies stations that purport to play rock 'n' roll from the mid-'50s through the '70s but do not. It's not oldies they play, so much as RTC hardy perennials, songs that they never stopped playing, which they've played so long that we no longer exactly hear them. They're too familiar, they're part of the unchanging landscape.

Out of 40 years of rock 'n' roll music, they've narrowed their play lists to a few hundred songs that are comfortable for those who grew up when the songs first appeared and -- and here's the key -- have been played so constantly that even those in their 20s and 30s find them familiar, and won't automatically turn the dial. "Most of the stuff on the oldies stations," says Edwards, "is really stuff from the '70s, with some '60s stuff, but very little from the '50s."

He knows, he knows. For 15 years, from 1959 to 1974, Edwards played records at WCAO. Those were some of that station's goldenest years, when it virtually monopolized the listening habits of Baltimore's young people, and Edwards still has all the station's Top 40 play lists dating back to the beginning of rock. He went to WCBM for a while, back when that station was playing oldies, and now he's over at WITH-AM, whose format is prerock music from the '40s and '50s.

For someone who's constantly pushing the buttons on the car radio, WITH (and WWLG, slightly down the dial) are a nice change of pace, a visit to a time when lyrics still counted, and electronics didn't yet rule music.

More and more, I'm listening to oldies less and less. Though I'm culturally incapable of listening to today's music (sorry, I know, I'm a snob), I find, increasingly, that I tune out about 85 percent of the so-called oldies selections, as well.

Why can't they dig up some stuff they haven't played ad infinitum, ad nauseam? Why can't they play Buzz Clifford, doing "Moving Day?" Or The Van Dykes, doing "King of Fools?" Or The Turbans doing "When You Dance?"

Or, for that matter, "I'll Never Forget Last Night," done by a group whose name has apparently been lost down the echo chambers of time. For me, this group, and this song, symbolize all that's been cast aside, an entire rock 'n' roll subculture kissed off to narrow the play list, homogenize the product, and widen the audience.

Maybe they widen it. Maybe they bring in younger people, who think Frankie Avalon represents an era. Maybe that makes these stations attractive to advertisers. But, for those of us who still remember long ago, and who should never forget last night, they've got a lot of nerve calling themselves oldies stations.

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