Thursday, January 06, 2011

"...and all the ships at sea"

Nothing pushes my memory buttons like Christmas music.

As soon as the days turn cool and I first hear the strains of White Christmas, Silent Night, or any of those old familiar tunes, I melt like butter in a hot frying pan and get lost in thoughts of those wonderful days growing up in Charlotte.

I suppose there have been a number of Christmas songs written since 1954, but I don't know of many, and frankly, none of them have the same effect on me as those we listened to in the 40's and 50's.

With one exception.

 In 1961 I was fortunate enough to get hired by one of the leading radio and TV stations in the country, WTOP radio and TV in Washington, DC.

Wash Post Ad

One of my first assignments was as a DJ on their late night radio show. Back then we "jocks" picked our own music and the only restriction was that we NOT play anything considered to be "Rock and Roll."  People have forgotten how controversial that music was back then.

Now, the hours (nor the audience) weren't great (11pm til 2am) but I was thrilled to have that show! For one thing, WTOP radio was as powerful as AM stations were allowed to be: 50,000 watts!
WTOP Radio Transmitter Building

WBT Towers

 WBT is also a 50 thousand watt "blowtorch" and it comes in like a local station from Florida to night.

So, I thought, my Mom and my Charlotte friends should have no trouble hearing me!

Unfortunately, that was not the case. All 50 thousand watt stations are not the same. The frequency (number on the dial) of the station also determines the direction of the signal. It didn't take too long for me to realize that WTOP's signal was very strong north of Washington (all the way to Maine) but almost non-existent south of DC.

Letters from my listeners came from places like Delaware, Connecticut, new Jersey,
Massachusetts AND a surprising number came from ships at sea! (Which gives new meaning to Walter Winchell's signature introduction, "Good Evening Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea, let's go to press.")

I also had a fairly large number of requests from listeners who asked to visit the studio in person while the show was in progress.

Johnny Surratt WGIV
Alan Newcomb WBT

That was kind of a pain in the rear, but most of the time I said yes. After all, as a young "radio wanna be" myself,  I had made similar requests of announcers and DJ's and had always been treated kindly. (Gil Stamper, Alan Newcomb, JB Clark, Johnny Surratt, and John Trimble...may they rest in peace.)
Gil Stamper WBT

I did that show for a number of years and I can still remember a few of those guests. One was a young boy from Mystic Seaport Connecticut who regularly drove down on weekends just to see the show. I later learned that he had indeed landed a job as news director at a radio station in Connecticut.

Then there was a Puerto Rican kid from New Jersey one time who brought a friend with him, who didn't give a darn about watching me play records, but was there just to help his buddy, who was blind.

My New Jersey "fan" told me how important radio was to him. He said he spent most of his time in his room listening to music on the radio and practicing the guitar.

In fact, he said he had just made a record.

Which he just happened to have with him....and would be honored if I would play it on the air.

Oh boy.

I knew it wasn't going to be the kind of music that I featured on my show, but I listened to it anyway.

I was right.

The name of the song was of all things, "High Heel Sneakers." And it was definitely rock and roll.

I suppose the right thing to do would be to explain the station's policy against playing rock and roll records and refuse to play it.

On the other hand, here was this nice, handicapped high school dropout who already had so many strikes against him and had made such an effort to visit me, that I just didn't have the heart to say no.

So, I played his record on the air. (Hoping all the time that my boss had already gone to sleep and only the ships at sea were still listening.)

Anyway, that made him very happy and he said he was grateful.

I believe him, because a few years after that, Jose started sending  me  (and everyone else)  a musical card .....wishing us a Merry Christmas.

Or as they say in Puerto Rico, FELIZ NAVIDAD


Jose Feliciano