The first time I heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” was at 5:30 in the morning. My parents had one of those clock radios that woke you up with a music station, usually turned up loud. They didn’t object to my obsession of rock and pop music at age eleven. It was always set for WVOK-AM out of Birmingham, Alabama. Just as it was minutes ago, I can remember the feeling I had when hearing those mellotron notes and John’s slowed down vocals and felt that the world had changed. I had never heard anything like it and have not since.
My dad was a frustrated musician, still is, so I was introduced to music at birth, actually before. There are strong hints that I was conceived the night Elvis performed on TV the first time. I was obsessed by radio and television from my first memory. I honestly can’t remember when I got my first transistor radio but it was before I started grammar school. I was only three but I swear I distinctly remember the day Buddy Holly died – it was also the day my brother was born.
It had to have been fate but being born and raised in a rural North Alabama town was the best thing for learning about all kinds of music. By the time I was 12 I thought that everyone enjoyed rock, pop, country, blues and jazz at the same time. I even inherited Andrews Sisters and Bobby Darrin 78s from an uncle and played them every day until they were used for skeet shooting by two cousins while I was away. They also shot up my Hit Parader Magazine with Bob Dylan on the cover. Even though I was a big boy of 13, I cried. I still have the magazine – bullet holes and all.
The access to incredible radio stations was beyond belief. In the daytime it was WVOK-AM out of Birmingham or WGAD-AM out of nearby Gadsden. Despite being in the center of the civil rights movement, the station’s white DJs regularly played Motown, Philly and Memphis soul artists. I remember spinning on a rotating chair on my grandmother’s front porch when I heard Otis Redding had died. Weeks later the most played song was “Sittin’ On the Dock of the Bay” and WVOK must have played it 3 times an hour and it sounded better each time. “Brown-Eyed Girl” was in heavy rotation and, besides the Beatles and Stones, the station had my favorites, The Who, Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five and the Byrds, the only non-Anglo group I truly loved until The Band and Credence Clearwater Revival. I can remember the sunny day sitting in my parent’s car with the radio on and they played a new single by an unknown British kid named David Bowie and “Space Oddity” blew me away almost as “Strawberry Fields” had done three years before. “Baby Blue” by Badfinger and “Levon” by Elton John shook me to my core thanks to WVOK. From 1964 to 1970, they hosted a quarterly WVOK “Shower of Stars” bringing acts together for afternoon and evening performances. I was too young to attend but I had cousins and friends who got to see the first US tour by the Who – opening for Herman’s Hermits. I even knew the person who got the body of Pete Townshend’s Gibson SG following the destruction during “I Can See For Miles.” The station brought the Stones, the Beach Boys, everyone who as anyone in rock and pop to Birmingham for kids starved for music. And black acts always shared the bill.
The best radio was after 5:00 PM when the distant stations kicked in. WLS-AM out of Chicago was my favorite. They played more Beatles and Stones than anyone. They played the title track from Magical Mystery Tour despite not being a single. DJ’s John Landecker and Larry Lujack were the stars. It was Landecker who made the first announcements on anything close to a national radio station the MLK and RFK had been assassinated. I remember crying with my grandmother each time. It seemed like the world was going to hell.
Closer to home we had WLAC in Nashville which played blues and country swing but could only be heard at night in distant territories. I remember reading an interview with Robbie Robertson who said he learned his southern history for his songs from WLAC at night with his radio under his pillow so as not to disturb his mother. The tale is now a cliché but it is true. As I had pretty liberal parents and grandmother that I stayed with each night, I didn’t have to hide it under a pillow but I had to keep it low after 9:00 PM lights out when the best music began. There were a few nights in the mid-60s that I stayed up all night listen to the three or four radio stations and did not sleep a wink. I would claim illness to not go to school but it was not long before everyone caught on.
John “R” Richbourg and “Hoss” Allen at WLAC played more black artists than anyone in the south and championed everyone from Little Richard to James Brown. I first heard Aretha’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T” on WLAC. Everyone thought the DJs were black, they spoke in the southern black overtones and pretty much played hardcore black acts, shunning the Motown and Philly pop. They were two middle-aged white guys who just had the affinity, and freedom, to play what they wanted.
As things moved into the seventies and switched to the FM “underground” radio, WVOK-FM out of Birmingham transitioned into an amazing source of music not found in the south for the next decade. I remember listening to it late at night in 1971 or 1972 when a DJ, obviously stoned, played the entire “Echoes” by Pink Floyd and when it was over he said, “That sounded so good, I’m going to play it again!”
And he did… in its entirety.
Throughout the seventies WVOK were trailblazers in opening up a world of music practically unheard for hundreds of miles in the south. As the seventies progressed into punk and new wave, they were the first to play, and present concerts by, Elvis Costello, Patti Smith, Warren Zevon, Dire Straits and the Police – all in a 600 capacity club made out of a dilapidated abandoned church that later burned. I have an amazing tape a friend recorded of Patti Smith. The show was over and the lights came up but it was too much of an aural orgasm to go home. She sat on the edge of the stage while the roadies packed the gear and she read her poetry for an hour to 200 fans and converts. Warren Zevon was totally drunk and mad out of his mind but it was possibly the closest thing to punk perfect musical nihilism I have ever seen. Graham Parker and the Rumour played a show that was akin to Jesus walking on the water – to 200 people in an abandoned church – all thanks to WVOK. They lobbied fast and hard to get the Sex Pistols to play on their night off between Atlanta and Memphis to no avail. I have read several times that Johnny has said they should have played Birmingham. Later when acts like REM and the Psychedelic Furs were first touring and drawing bigger crowds, they moved the concerts to an open silo called “Sloss Furnace.”
Sadly, in the early eighties things started to change. Lee Abrams had come up with his automated format in 1978 and sold it to stations all across the country – same 20 songs over and over. When “The Big Chill” was released it launched the “Golden Oldies” era that survives today. “Saturday Night Fever” and “Urban Cowboy” changed the face of radio to the point of no return. There was a breathe of fresh air with college radio from around 1981-1989 but that became stagnant in the 90s. WLAC and WLS are now conservative talk radio stations. Landecker and Lujack retired, Hoss Allen and John R have passed away and music has not been the same for a couple of decades.
While managing Scotty Moore and D. J. Fontana, Elvis Presley’s original guitarist and drummer, they told me how they would travel town to town, show to show, and when they would see a radio tower they would just drop in, give the DJ a record and do an impromptu interview on the air. I had the honor of also working with the great Sam Phillips and, during an evening of mutual drinking, I had the nerve to talk to him about those days. I asked him if he really sold records out of the trunk of his car and drove around the country personally pitching them. He said, “Danny,” he always called me Danny, my given name, “If I didn’t do it no one else would.”
Where are the Sam Phillips, Ahmet Erteguns, Phil Waldens and Chess Brothers of today? Where is this century’s “Hoss” Allen playing country swing beside Wilson Pickett?
I have not owned an actual radio in about twenty years and I don’t subscribe to any internet radio feeds. Like most aging baby boomers, I listen to what I have liked for most of my life. When friends chastise me for not expanding my horizons, my usual comeback line is something like,
“Why do I need The Strokes when I have Tom Waits?”