I remember hearing Frankie Crocker say in an interview that he hadn’t enjoyed programming AM radio because, “…they wouldn’t let me play Jimi Hendrix records.” He wouldn’t have to worry about such small thinking in the FM world of the early seventies because there was no one to say, “We don’t do it that way around here.”
Fortunately for Crocker, the spirit of experimentation was in the air in post King black America. At almost precisely the moment that “The Chief Rocker” took control of 107.5 FM’s playlist, several developments ensured that black FM would have resonance…
In the film world, historically subversive Melvin Van Peebles wrote, directed, and starred in the first “blaxploitation” film: Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song – an anti-authoritarian black male fantasy where the protagonist gets his revenge on “the man.” In creating a template for a new business model Van Peebles struck gold, as well as a blow for independent filmmaking. To give the right musical feel to his project he hired the Jim Brown-managed Earth Wind & Fire to score the film.
The success of this film and its soundtrack was replicated time and time again. It forced the Hollywood establishment to open its previously selective doors to black musical talent other than Quincy Jones. Willie Hutch, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Roy Ayers, Herbie Hancock, and others all contributed to a flood of celebrated ’70s soundtrack genius. These projects provided Crocker with an abundance of classic singles and album cuts with heavy promotional tie-ins, timely subject matter, and excellent stereo sound quality—all performed by some of the most important stars of the day.
THE REV. JESSE JACKSON AND THE LATE ISAAC HAYES IN A
SCENE FROM THE FILM WATTSTAX HAYES IS PRESUMABLY
CELEBRATING THE NEW FOUND ACCESS TO HOLLYWOOD PAYCHECKS
A POSTER FROM THE OSSIE DAVIS DIRECTED COTTON COMES
TO HARLEM A BENEFICIARY OF THE SWEETBACK PHENOMENON
The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—coupled with heavy anti-war sentiment—caused an increase in protest music recorded by ’70s-era black artists. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On set off a wave that Sly Stone, James Brown, Roberta Flack and Stevie Wonder, to name just a few, caught and rode to both critical and commercially favorable results. They provided classic recordings of social consciousness that easily found their way onto what was initially a black underground free flowing format.
In this environment a couple of veteran Philadelphia hit makers started what would eventually become the dominant label of the period. The duo was Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and the label was the legendary Philadelphia International. Home to The O’Jay’s, Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes, Billy Paul, Lou Rawls, Dee Dee Sharp, Archie Bell and The Drells, and the smooth, lush orchestrated, stereo friendly, Sound Of Philadelphia. Here was yet another engine cranking out sophisticated programming for Crocker’s World’s Best Looking Sound.
HIT MEN LEON HUFF AND KENNY GAMBLE
Later, the culture of New York dance clubs, club jocks, remixers, labels and artists provided the palette from which Crocker was able to create his aural drive-time portraits. Tom Moulton’s extended versions of the double sided smash 10 % b/w, My Love Is Free by Double Exposure, ushered in an era of dance-driven programming that reflected the torrid, fever pitched and crazed New York club scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s. Out of this came independent labels: Sal Soul; Prelude; Sutra; 4th and Broadway, and artists: Chic; Sister Sledge; Change; The Nick Straker Band; Gwen Guthrie, The Peech Boys; Gino Soccio; Donna Summer.
I grew up with this in both the foreground and background of my youth. It was the soundtrack of an era. It would be a rare person of color who felt no connection to Inner City Broadcasting’s flagship property, and the driving personality behind it’s success. What ultimately happened was this: WBLS became number one across all demographics in NY, with Frankie redefining the mainstream appeal of the black experience, reshaping and ultimately recasting it as “Urban.”
The hipster man about town – with the foreign cars, fur coats, taste for fried chicken, models, Dom P, and general “high living” – became one with the music, the times, the station, and the zeitgeist. He was the Man and it was his flash, wit and musicality that cast him as the direct predecessor of Diddy.
All of this free-wheeling eventually led to trouble, and Crocker was fired and re-hired at least 4 times. His relationship to Inner City was similar to Billy Martin’s with the Yankees – a true big time winner, uncontrollable by the higher-ups.
to be continued….