Blasts from the Past Baltimore's last radio station devoted to obscure oldies will switch to a religious format July 1

June 15, 1997|By Joe Nawrozki

"Oh-oh-oh baby, don't try to get away from me, (repeat)

"I'm yours pretty baby, and I guess I'll always be...

G; Oh-oh-oh baby, I have got to make love to you, (repeat)

If you leave me baby, all I got's eternity...

, "Oh Baby," The Jesters, 1958

The tiny door of the priest's confessional slid open slowly, not unlike the sound of a rising guillotine over the condemned.

His shadowy figure hunched toward the confessor, prepared to hear the teen-ager's worst transgressions against society, the Roman Catholic church and the fine citizens of Belair Road.

"Bless me father, for I have sinned; it has been three weeks since my last confession," I whispered with a gulp. "Father, I had impure thoughts and did impure acts."

"But," I added quickly, "The Five Satins made me do it."

Later, the blame would shift from the singers of "In the Still of the Night" to the Jive Five, Danleers and Chantels. They were, after all, the groups who provided the temptation to invite young ladies to slow dance at Baltimore teen centers and basement parties in the mid-1950s and early '60s.

But the velvet harmony of the groups wasn't confined to my little world -- it was sweeping the country as a major segment of rock 'n' roll.

Elvis swiveled. Brenda Lee crooned. But for us, and to the great alarm of our parents, it was doo wop. Buddy Deane brought the music alive on local television but the radio offered such a succulent buffet of sound ranging from rockabilly and soul to pop and the harmony groups.

After July 1, Baltimore will no longer regularly enjoy the musical nuggets that used four- and five-part harmony to capture the innocence and beauty of an era.

WITH-AM, the only radio station in Baltimore that plays doo-wop, a cappella, rockabilly and other distinctive sounds full time from the golden age of rock 'n' roll, has been sold to California-based Salem Communications Corp. The station, which now plays oldies full time, will convert to a religious format.

Doo-wop has a rich heritage influenced by the blues nerve centers in Mississippi, Memphis and New Orleans; churches of the Deep South, and the street corners of the nation's cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. Some music historians say it evolved from the vocal stylings of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, popular groups of the 1940s. Back in the 1950s, many white fans were unaware of the music's roots.

My first 45 rpm record was "I'm Walkin' " by Fats Domino, purchased on Monument Street. My first album was Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, eventually lost at a red-light-in-the-basement party.

But that was not the style of the times.

"Many black groups did not put their pictures on their album covers for fear it would turn off the white buyers," said Jonathan Compton, who for 35 years was Sir Johnny O on Baltimore radio.

"In those days, there were better writers, full orchestration, musical groups backing people like James Brown and Otis Redding," Compton said. "I certainly hope someone finds it in their heart, and pocketbook, to buy a local station and keep the music going."

Doo-wop and rhythm and blues. It became the basic foundation of most recorded American music. Today's head-banging sound unappealing to my ear. Contemporary black tunes still carry the hard, throbbing beats or shadows of recycled '60s and '70s hits.

But romance has been replaced by explicit lyrics in rap music. Boyz II Men in contemporary R & B and the Oak Ridge Boys in country and western are two of the rare groups that still rely on harmony and gentle lyrics.

When WITH changes its format, the last jive-talking black disc jockey, Moon Man, will leave the air -- the last in a cavalcade of musical radio pioneers, led by Baltimore's high priest, Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson who died in 1978.

In real life, Moon Man is Willie Bacote, a veteran of 30 years as a disc jockey in Washington and Baltimore, who works the night shift at WITH and at another talk radio station during the day.

"Hey, baby cakes," Moon Man cooed on the airwaves one recent night on WITH, "lemme put some soul in your bowl. Hey mommy-o and daddy-o, let me hit you with the Marcels, baby. Here they come!"

On another evening, he offered one of his regular listeners a little healing: "Hey Barbara, I hear you're out there, baby, and you ain't feelin' good. Now Moon Man don't give no pills. All you have to do is put your hand on the radio, and you'll get the Moon Man's cure. Barbara, Barbara!"

Off the air, a more reserved Bacote said, "Doo-wop is real music, singing that really didn't need much instrumentation. The songs also told stories, ones we could relate to. Today, music is watched more than listened to.

"Music from the early days of rock 'n' roll brought blacks and whites together. I have found all sorts of people enjoying my show on WITH, low- to high-income people. Perhaps another station will pick up the slack because there is a market for it in Baltimore."

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