One radio station plays oldies that really are old

July 18, 1996|By MICHAEL OLESKER

On the radio, there are oldies stations that should sue themselves for misrepresentation. Oldies, indeed. Pat Boone doing white-boy cover versions of Little Richard. Another numbing rendition of Danny and the Juniors doing "At the Hop." The Supremes doing "Where Did Our Love Go?"

Actually, since they asked, our love went thataway. Oldies aren't oldies any more, they're hardy perennials, the same narrow, repetitive play list cranked up so many hundreds of times over the past 30 or 40 years that they've lost all power to move us, to remind us of their original emotional connections. We don't actually hear the so-called oldies any more. They're just out there, a part of the atmosphere, like carbon monoxide. Their familiarity comforts us, maybe, but also lulls us into sleep.

"What about Marv Johnson?" Jack Edwards asks.

" 'Merry Go Round,' " he's told.

"Exactly," he says. "Nobody touches that."

They do now. "Or 'Caravan of Lonely Men,' " says Ed Graham.

"The Lafayettes."

"Right," says Graham, "but who's doing it? Or Tommy Vann, doing 'Too Young.' Or Bob Brady and the Concords? Who's playing them?"

Aside from Alan Lee's couple of Sunday night hours over on WQSR-FM, nobody. So, for those of us whose musical taste arrested somewhere just before the Beatles arrived, something has begun to happen on WITH-AM radio (1230) that feels like a ghostly, glorious procession of old friends you thought you'd never hear again, but here they are.

"We want this to be a celebration of the most 'fun' music ever recorded," says Graham, WITH's new general manager. "You know, the stuff recorded in garages, in back yards, which caught on and changed the course of music," he says.

"It's radio that doesn't come from a focus group," Edwards says. "Most stations, they bring in focus groups, they play 10 seconds of a song's hook -- the most popular part of the song -- and the focus group people say, 'Yeah, I remember that song,' and that's what gets played over and over," he says.

"Right," Graham says, barely covering his disdain. " 'You Light Up My Life.' "

"Why not Clarence "Frogman" Henry?" says Edwards. "Or The Quotations, doing 'Imagination,' or Little Willie John, who had a hit with 'Fever' even before Peggy Lee? Or the Dream Lovers, doing 'When We Get Married.' Or all the doo-wop stuff that's been pushed aside?" he says.

"So many hits," says Graham, "that haven't been played for so long they've been forgotten."

Both these guys know the landscape. Graham graduated from Forest Park High in 1955, and Edwards graduated from Kenwood a year later. They were both jocks at WCAO in the late '50s, back when rock 'n' roll was gaining a foothold and that station was an earth force around here. Edwards was there for 15 years. Graham left when the Army sent him to Korea. Each has bounced around local radio wherever there was a format from the early rock years.

That's what they're playing now, stuff from 1955 to 1963, the music that's vanished over the years except inside Edwards' club basement. His library is a marvel to behold, roughly 100,000 singles, albums, dimly remembered stuff he's now putting on the radio.

(He's also got all of the Top 40 charts put out weekly in those days by WCAO, WITH, and WWIN, from which the station puts together its daily format.)

For those who want more '50s-era flavor, the station has begun running Buddy Deane and Jack Gale on Saturdays, and Gale will begin doing weekday mornings in the fall. Deane was at WITH before he started his legendary TV show; Gale still is remembered for comic bits he first performed there maybe 40 years ago.

"The response to the new format has been tremendous," Edwards says. It's two months since they started the new sound, pulling away from a pre-rock menu, "weeding out Barry Manilow doing 'Mandy,' " Edwards says.

It's an uphill fight. AM radio has become a battleground of talk show voices hollering at each other. WITH always has struggled with its low 1,000-watt power. But the power now is its music: half-forgotten Chuck Jackson and LaVerne Baker and Etta James, the Five Keys, the Five Satins, the stuff that helped carry a generation through adolescence, that changed American music but somehow got pushed aside in the general homogenization of things.

"It's the music we used to wrap our lives around," Graham says.

"Anybody can do oldies," Edwards says. "But nobody does. Not like this, they don't."

He holds up an old play list. He points to Maxine Brown, doing "All In My Mind." A few lines down, there are the Tokens doing "Tonight I Fell in Love." And Carla Thomas doing "Gee Whiz."

Gee whiz, indeed.

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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