'Burn, Baby! Burn' -- The disc jockey who shouted cool

December 14, 2003|By Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin,Special to the Sun

Burn, Baby! Burn!: The Autobiography of Magnificient Montague, by Magnificent Montague with Bob Baker. University of Illinois Press. 232 pages. $24.95.

Shouted out by the Watts rioters of 1965, the phrase "Burn, baby! Burn!" had actually gotten its start as a catchphrase used by the popular radio disc jockey known as Magnificent Montague. Then working at Los Angeles radio station KGFJ, Montague had been using the phrase to introduce records he felt were really hot. Setting fire to buildings was not what he had meant at all.

Montague was talking about soul music and the joy and anguish of centuries of black American experience out of which, phoenix-like, the music arose: "All the triumph, all the hurt -- rising above all that, celebrating a moment of pure musical perfection that you can't describe but must simply bow to -- that's what I mean when I yell 'Burn, baby! Burn!' "

Likening an intense moment of aesthetic experience to a flame is not really such a bizarre comparison: The goal of the 19th-century Aesthetic movement, as famously set forth by art critic Walter Pater, was to burn with a hard, gemlike flame. But Montague's kind of flame also has a social dimension, which includes the fiery preaching of black ministers and the burning desire of oppressed people to be free.

By the time he was in his mid-20s, the man who'd been born Nathaniel Montague in Elizabeth, N.J., in 1928 had twice run off to try his luck in Hollywood. During World War II, he'd joined the Merchant Marines and traveled all over the world, including South Africa. But moving to Texas in 1954 to work as a DJ, he experienced a genuine case of culture shock:

"What could be more foreign than to step off a ship in Galveston Bay? There'd been no warning signs -- no gradual entry via train or motor coach, no incremental tightening of the invisible noose that slid around the neck of a colored man as he headed into these parts. I'd seen Africa, seen Europe, seen all shades, all mind-sets -- but I'd never been south."

Yet it was in this hostile territory that Montague first came to understand the meaning of "soul," to see the connection between the raw, poignant power of this music and the way blacks were treated, the hardships they endured, the history that was theirs.

In this engaging account of his life and times, written with his friend Bob Baker, a staff writer and former deputy metropolitan editor at the Los Angeles Times, Montague repeatedly emphasizes that he has been much more than just a disc jockey. He's been a talent spotter, a salesman, a record mixer and producer, a radio-station owner, a poet and an impassioned collector of black memorabilia: books, magazines, pamphlets, tracts, letters, pictures and paintings bearing witness to the history of black people in America.

Montague's eclectic career offers a fascinating picture of a creative and dynamic spirit. He didn't just play records; he showcased and promoted the artists he believed in. On the air, he read poetry, offered observations and developed a brief feature called "They Paved the Way," focusing on the achievements and sacrifices of forgotten heroes and heroines of the struggle for freedom. Montague didn't just broadcast -- he connected with his listeners.

Through his broadcasts in Texas, Montague met the woman who would become his wife. She was Rose Catalon, a 17-year-old white Louisiana high school student who used to call in and request songs. Traveling through the South in 1955 as an interracial couple was no joke -- Rose would rent a motel room, while her husband hid in the car -- but the couple managed to make their way to Chicago.

The couple and their son led a peripatetic life, as Montague hopscotched from place to place, always trying to improve his position.

Montague makes no bones about the ways in which radio stations, DJs, promoters, sponsors and record distributors often operate; he even offers a strong defense of payola. He's refreshingly outspoken about his likes and dislikes, whether it's his warm feelings for the Jews, his boundless admiration for Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, his ambivalence about Elvis Presley or his scathing disdain for rival DJ Wolfman Jack.

In 1985, Montague, who'd built his own radio station in Palm Springs, Calif., and found a new audience by broadcasting the big-band sounds of the 1940s to retirees, got a call from a longtime fan: Baker, who used to tune in to his show as a highschool student in the San Fernando Valley.

Soul music offered this white teen-ager a window on the world, and he was captivated by what he heard. Baker wrote a story for the Los Angeles Times about him, and the men became friends. Montague started reflecting on his personal history, and the result is this book: a freewheeling, impressionistic mix of stories and opinions, poetry and prose, all delivered in an easy yet compelling style that's close to the spoken word.

Marshall McLuhan said that television was a "cool" medium, demanding less in the way of its audience's imagination than books or radio, which he called "hot." We get a good sense of this heat from Burn, Baby! Burn!

Merle Rubin has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia and studied English as an undergraduate at Smith College and Yale University. She writes for the Christian Science Monitor, The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among other publications. This review appeared in the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune publishing company.

Books Editor Michael Pakenham's column will return next week.

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