Hot Air: Chart Toppers

A friend of mine named Gary Yarocki from west suburban Chicagoland reminded me of the fabulous old radio hits handouts Chi-town pop stations used to issue every Thursday and Friday.

My hometown had two Top 40 stations, WLS and WCFL, back in the 1960s and early ’70s. Each station’s call letters actually stood for something. WLS originally had been bankrolled in the 1920s by Sears, Roebuck and Company. The Chicago-based retailer billed itself as the World’s Largest Store; ergo, WLS. As for WCFL, it went on the air right about the same time as WLS and was owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor (note the organization’s initials). The labor federation intended the station to be commercial-free and listener-supported; as such it would have been a pioneer in the concept of public radio in America. And — wouldn’t you know it? — regional business and manufacturing associations stood on their heads to prevent WCFL from commencing operations because, y’know, labor unions and communists and sexual perverts and all that.

Anyway, I would listen to the two stations anywhere from three to 14 hours a day when I was entering my teens. I’d switch from one to the other depending on which was running commercials or playing a song I detested. For example, “Honey,” by Bobby Goldsboro sucked to high heaven so when it came on I’d leap at the dial of my transistor radio and flip it to the other station in hopes of hearing The Rascals’ “It’s a Beautiful Morning” or even the damned news, which’d be 23 times more enjoyable than “Honey.”

At the same time, another station played a different kind of music. WVON (the Voice of the Negro) played Soul and R&B hits. Not that ‘LS and ‘CFL didn’t play songs by the likes of Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops, but the west side station featured black artists exclusively. Unfortunately, I wasn’t hip enough to be a ‘VON listener as a kid. It was only in the late ’70s and into the ’80s when old ‘VON DJs had migrated to other stations and would play “dusties” that I became aware of what I’d been missing. By that time, ‘LS and ‘CFL had been begun transforming themselves into Easy Listening outlets or talkers or whatever else was the hottest trend in the radio biz at that particular moment, so they were dead to me.

So, I really didn’t miss out on the genius of such black artists as Gene Chandler, Betty Everett, Jerry “The Iceman” Butler, and the Stax stable of musicians. WVON, too, put out a chart pamphlet. As much as the fabulous music I eventually caught up to, the names of the ‘VON DJs still sing to me. They included:

  • “The Mad Lad,” Rodney Jones
  • Bill “Butterball” Crane
  • Joe “Youngblood” Cobb
  • Pervis Spann, “The Blues Man”
  • “Nassau Daddy” Ed Cook
  • Lucky Cordell
  • Herb Kent, “The Cool Gent”

That lineup didn’t even include titans like Daddy-O Daylie, one of the first black DJs to be featured on a traditionally white, network owned-and-operated station, or Ramsey Lewis, whose own fame as a recording artist transcended that as a platter-spinner.

I was wise to black music on local television around 1969 and ’70, though. I became addicted to Ch. 26’s late Friday night “Red Hot & Blues” dance program hosted by Big Bill Hill and “Soul Train” when it was still a local UHF afternoon dance show hosted by Clinton Ghent. Whenever Ghent’d make small talk with whatever live musical guest was on that day, he’d greet then by extending his flat palm, face up, and say, “Spank the plank, Hank.” Oh, and Big Bill Hill once presented a one-legged dancer on Red Hot & Blues.

(One of these days, I’ll tell the story about the tornado that swept through northern Kentucky about 10 years ago and the one-legged man directing traffic around fallen trees in Carrollton.)

This was all around the time I began to come to the conclusion that many black guys were a hell of a lot more fun — and creative — than most white guys. A later “Soul Train” host, and the one who’d become synonymous with the show, Don Cornelius, came up with such poetry as “Here’s a groove that’ll sure enough make you want to groove,” and “Here’s a big’un everybody’s diggin’,” when introducing songs.

It was in the winter of 1971 that I got my first break in radio. I co-hosted a half-hour weekly program called “Oak Park Schools at Work” featuring not-too-fascinating news from Oak Park-River Forest High School and Fenwick High School, the all-boys Catholic school I attended. It aired on WOPA, atop the Oak Park Arms Hotel, the first radio outlet for Big Bill Hill. One show, my co-host — I think his name was Dan Staszak — and I fell into a giggling fit. Station manager Wayne Osborne, a white-haired old bird who actually wore penny loafers with pennies in them, took us aside after the show and put his face in ours. “God damn it!” he yelled. “Don’t you ever pull that kind of bullshit again! If you think something’s funny, you share it with the audience! You sounded like a couple of assholes!”

Afterward, Dan Staszak and I confessed to each other we thought he was going to deck us. It was a great lesson, that this radio stuff was serious business.

I’ve been serious about radio ever since.

To that end, tomorrow I’ll publish links to all the Big Talks I’ve done with challengers to incumbent Bloomington city council members in this year’s municipal election. I began the series in February with Kate Rosenbarger and will finish it up this afternoon with Denise Valkyrie. The two are facing off against District 1 council member Chris Sturbaum, so they make apt bookends for the series. Each week, I’ve devoted my Thursday half-hour show to each guest’s personal and professional life. Then, the following Monday on Big Talk Extra during WFHB’s Daily Local News at 5pm, we talk about that guest’s issues and platform.

So, if you want to know who’s who among the newcomers in this year’s local primaries (only one Republican is running and, yes, Andrew Guenther was a Big Talk guest) you might sneak in some listens between now and the final voting day, Tuesday, May 7th.

Big Talk airs every Thursday at 5:30pm on WFHB, 91.3 FM. All shows are available on podcast via the station’s website.



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