Airways to lose blast from the past

June 01, 1997|By MICHAEL OLESKER

A song like an old friend comes over the radio, and Jack Edwards cocks an ear to it and says the thing he's been telling everybody who will listen before it's too late.

"Where else you gonna hear this?"

"Nowhere," I say.

"Huh?"

"Nowhere," I say.

"Nowhere," he says.

Listen: The singer's voice husky, plaintive, heart still in his throat from back in that raw winter of '61, you hear the lyrics and remember not only the song but the things that surrounded it, the Baltimore where you hung out at Ameche's or Gino's or Champ's, where you took your date to Carlin's Drive-In or you rode the bus down to Lee's of Broadway on a Saturday morning to buy pegged pants and read the News-Post the whole way down, and over somebody's transistor radio you'd hear Chuck Jackson wailing:

"You come and go

Like the morning sun

I was so serious

But you were only having fun.

Now, baby, now

I don't want to cry

(Bum-bum-bum-bum-bum)

I don't want to cry-iy-iy-iy-iy.

And now you hear Chuck Jackson's voice coming over the radio again, and Jack Edwards, sitting in his little Light Street studio at WITH-AM, 1230 on the AM dial, is recalling wistfully the way it was and you think, well, maybe it is time for a slight cry.

The day the music died is about to be upon us. A generation puts away its 45's after a four-decade spin. It's the musical generation that commenced with Ike and Mamie and faded shortly after the shots in Dallas, and yet it still feels fresh when the right sensitivities are making the play selections.

Only now, the sensitivities are being removed. WITH has been sold to a conglomerate called Salem Broadcasting Corp. Last week, the FCC approved the sale. And Salem will remove the station's current format (and its disc jockeys) and begin playing gospel some time in the next four weeks.

There is talk of a buyer stepping forward, local money interested in keeping the music alive -- not by buying back WITH from Salem Broadcasting but by purchasing another local station and shifting the operation up or down the dial.

"It'd be a shame," Jack Edwards says now, "to just let a generation's music disappear. It's a whole era. But, who's gonna play it if we disappear? Nobody, it looks like."

It's rock 'n' roll's first generation he's talking about, the original cast, 1955 to 1963, when the life form was just beginning to crawl up onto dry land and then found itself shoved into the permanent past tense by the British invasion and all the hysteria that followed.

It's not the stuff played on stations that imagine a recording produced six months ago, or six years ago, to be an oldie, nor the post-Beatles material where the same 40 songs seem to be aired every other day. How many times can you listen to the Beach Boys sing "Little Old Lady from Pasadena" without wanting to knock them off their surfboards and hold their heads under the water?

"We're talking about that time period," Edwards says succinctly, "when Doris Day was moving out, and LaVerne Baker was moving in."

For the past year, WITH has been playing songs from the nooks and crannies of memory. Without much of a signal, with virtually no promotion, they've literally doubled their ratings over the past six months, only to have the station sold from one corporation to another.

Their impending demise signals not only the silencing of a generation's music, but the end of an entire Baltimore AM band where music was a constant background soundtrack. The names of the disc jockeys alone evoke an era: Paul (Fat Daddy) Johnson. Johnny Dark. Kelson (Chop-Chop) Fisher. Jack Gale. Maurice (Hot Rod) Hulbert. Buddy Deane. Long lean lanky Larry Deane. Johnny ("Hello, you good lookin' people") Contino. Fred (Rockin' Robin) Robinson. Joe Knight, Your Knight of the Spinning Roundtable. And, still around, Jack Edwards.

But maybe not for long.

"I get up every morning at 3 o'clock," he was saying last week, "and I catch the train downtown, and I gotta do a number on my head. I try to forget what's happening. I love the music, I'm like a little kid playing it. But if I start to say on the radio what's happening, then I won't make it through the first hour."

Years back, as you moved down the AM band in Baltimore, there was WCAO with rock, WCBM with pop, WWIN with rhythm and blues, WBAL with pre-rock pop, WITH with rock, WFBR with pop, WSID and WEBB with soul, music everywhere.

If WITH disappears, it means there's only one music station left on Baltimore AM radio: WLG-1360, which plays a mix of big band and other music from the years predating rock 'n' roll. It's a nice sound. It touches a lot of people's lives, and such voices as Ken Jackson's and Alan Field's (who, years ago, was one of the original rock jocks on WCAO) bring considerable warmth and knowledge and good cheer to their broadcasts.

But it's hard to imagine, in a metro area this big, with so many musical tastes, that it's to be the last music on an entire radio frequency. Or that, with so much two-way talk currently cluttering the AM band, voices desperate to outshout each other, that there wouldn't be room for an entire generation -- rock 'n' roll's first -- to find its music, and for advertisers to find an audience.

Pub Date: 6/01/97

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