The New York radio market in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s was rich, varied and deep. Toward the end of the decade of love, AM radio was king. Powerhouse WABC-AM New York, featured a potent lineup of jocks with names like Cousin Brucie, Ron Lundy, George Michael, Chuck Leonard, and Dan Ingram. They were the first choice on the dial for a kid riding in his mother’s Chevy on his way to basketball practice.
They were a pure top 40 play. You could hear The Beatles, The Stones, The Everly Brothers, Petula Clark, Dusty Springfield, Bobbie Gentry, Tom Jones, The Temps, The Supremes, big James Brown singles, novelty records of every stripe, Sonny and Cher, and others. It was early integrationist programming driven by the singles buying habits of the young. They held sway over New York ratings for years.
Further to the left of the dial at 6600, WNBC-AM provided a similar brand of programming minus the star wattage of ABC’s jock lineup. Ted Brown, Big Wilson, and a little known, Don Imus played almost the exact same records, but fewer of them. I grew up with a commuting New York City school teacher for a parent, and NBC was game tight with the traffic reports for the Cross Bronx Expressway. The occasional Billy Preston smash would grace their airwaves, but other than that, they held little appeal for a young black kid growing up in Soul City. There was all news and all talk at both WINS-AM and WCBS-AM, talk and AC at WOR, and soft rock at WDJY-AM.
At the dawn of the seventies, I began to spend more time with an older cousin who lived in Do Or Die, and a local neighbor, who was also older, from up the street. Both of them had very progressive taste and exposed me to hot funk and soul hits from that era. The Barkays’ Soul Finger, Scorpio by Dennis Coffey and The Detroit Guitar Band, The Isley Brothers It’s Your Thing, Power by Earth Wind & Fire, and The Stylistics’ Break Up To Make Up, were just a handful of the titles that my mentors had in their 45 collections.
DENNIS COFFEY AND….
SOUL CITY’S ISLEY BROTHERS
This whet my appetite for more of that funky stuff and set me on a journey that has not yet been completed. The next stop? WWRL-AM New York, a prime example of the network of black radio stations that dotted the country and were the primary outlets for black artists in the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. To my ear it was very different. First off, all the jocks sounded like my older cousins in North Carolina and men at the barber shop. They had southern inflection in their speaking voices and were very down home in their delivery.
The morning man was a cat named Enoch Hawthorne Gregory, “The Dixie Drfiter.” Other spots were held down by Jerry “B” Bledsoe, Hank Spahn, and Gary Byrd. Collectively, they provided the soundtrack for southerners who had migrated north in search of greater opportunity. Their playlist reflected the tastes, humor, struggle, heartbreak, and triumph of a people on the rise. Bobby Womack’s Harry Hippy, Don Covay’s I was Checking Out As She Was Checking In, Luther Ingram’s If Loving You Is Wrong were all first heard by me on WWRL. All classics.
I left the public school system and went into a stint of private schooling in 1970. I was educated with more affluent children. The differences were represented in many ways, but as I recall, one of the most striking was the fact that I was riding more often in foreign cars to basketball practice. Not particularly interesting in and of itself, but I heard FM programming more frequently. The old family Malibu had a standard option AM radio. To know how revolutionary it was to hear FM stereo after years of listening to AM, you’d have to remember the early difference between network television programming and cable.
FM was the home of underground freeform rock stations. You could hear musicians with social consciousness singing songs of protest, and the acid laced rock of the time all blended into one. You could go weeks and never hear the same record twice. Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. Santana, Curtis Mayfield, Grace Slick, Clapton, and Joni Mitchell were all core artists. WNEW-FM’s Scott Muni and WPLJ’s Pat St. John pioneered the format. This was pretty much the deal until a game changer came on the scene, “The Chief Rocker” Frankie Crocker.
THE FORMER WKTU PD CARLOS DeJESUS & FRANKIE
Frankie had been a product of the New York radio wars, and had jocked at both WWRL and WMCA. He’d been the PD at RL and felt constrained by what he considered to be the narrow perspective of the station. New York political and media don, Percy Sutton, had control of two stations on the dial, WLIB-AM, a soul directed daytime broadcaster, and WLIB-FM. The latter eventually became WBLS-FM 107.5 on the dial, the call letters where Frankie changed the way people listened to the music played by black artists forever.
to be continued….