Want to host your own radio show? Nancy Barell does. She's an online disc jockey. Heard exclusively on the web, Nancy's 7-hour jazz and pop show, Spotlight on Sinatra, repeats 24 hours a day. She uses Live365.com, one of a growing number of sites that lets your inner deejay run wild. Though Nancy has been hosting her show since 2005 as a lark, her love of radio, pop and jazz began in earnest in 1976, when she met Frank Sinatra. It's a cute story that I'll share with you in a moment. [Pictured: Frank and Nancy Barell in 1976]
First, a little more about this web radio stuff. Nancy produces her radio show for about $100 a year. That’s net—after she shells out for radio web time and takes in a $6 monthly fee from web listeners who don't want to hear the site's ads. If her show sounds a tad homey (I heard a cat meowing recently during a broadcast), that's probably because she records the show at home on a Mac using software provided by Live365.com.
Nancy plays a Sinatra medley once an hour—adhering to a rule that dates back to the payola days. She also plays lots of pop and jazz. A recent set included Diana Krall, Renee Rosnes, John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon and Shelly Manne. What all tracks have in common is the American Songbook.
Nancy says her show takes about 16 hours to assemble, and she changes it every 8 to 10 days. Sets are pegged to themes—such as a 30-minute segment of songs by Tadd Dameron or Rodgers and Hart. But deep down she's a Sinatraphile.
Here's Nancy's Sinatra story:
"Back in March 1976, when I was 26 years old, I entered a contest sponsored by WNEW-AM in New York. For those who don’t live in New York and aren’t of a certain age, WNEW was a radio station that played only the records of the big bands and pop vocalists. The disc jockeys were all big-name personalities who had been in the music business since the 1950s and had become close pals with vocalists like Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Rosemary Clooney, Tony Bennett and others.
"The contest the station held was called 'Violets for Your Furs.' It was a lottery, and the winner would be chosen at random from postcard submissions. I loved and still love what’s known as the American Songbook. I was introduced to the music of Tin Pan Alley standards and pop vocalists when I was about 8 years old. My Aunt Jenny worked in the music business and brought me albums by Sinatra, Doris Day, Jo Stafford and others. Jazz I discovered on my own over the next two years while listening to the radio late a night.
"When I first heard about the contest, I went nuts. I just had to win. After the contest was announced, there were several weeks until the drawing of the winner. At the time, I traveled quite a bit on business nationwide. So I decided to send in seven postcards from each city in my travels, mailing 105 cards in all.
"Deep down I felt I was going to win. On the day in mid-March when the station planned to announce the winner on the air, I went into work more dressed up than usual. If I won, I thought, the station might ask me to come to the studio right away. I wanted to be prepared. I also brought a tape recorder to capture the phone conversation I was sure to have with the morning disc jockey and a transistor radio to listen to the show.
"At 10 am, my office phone rang. When I answered it, the caller asked for me and said he was William B. Williams [pictured], the WNEW deejay. I couldn’t believe it. At first I was so excited that I thought it was a gag. But when I finally calmed down, he put the call on over the air and said my postcard had been randomly chosen from a total of 8,000 cards. I taped the call by placing the little microphone over the phone's handset, but unfortunately the tape has since disintegrated.
"I wasn’t invited to the studio—but I did win big. I was to receive a fur coat of my choosing, with a dollar limit, of course. I chose mink. I was told I had won a bouquet of violets (for my fur). And that Frank Sinatra was going to present them to me when I saw him in concert three weeks later! What's more, a car was going to be sent to pick up me and my husband John. We’d then travel with WNEW’s Williams to the Westchester Premier Theater in Tarrytown, N.Y., where we’d have dinner and see the concert.
"I couldn't believe it. After I hung up the phone, I was distracted all day and for many days. Leading up to the night of the concert, I couldn’t eat. I was so excited that I lost 12 pounds and fit into a size 4. Of course I bought a new dress to go with the mink. I still have the dress, which is a little tight today.
"When the big day arrived, a teal blue stretch limo pulled up at my apartment in Manhattan. My husband and I joined Williams, and the three of us drove about 45 minutes to the theater. After dinner, we went to our seats in the center of the fifth row. The band was a 40-piece orchestra conducted by Bill Miller. I remember that Al Viola was on guitar, Gene Cherico on bass, Irv Cottler on drums and Charlie Turner on trumpet. Bill Miller conducted and Ray Cohen played piano.
"After the warm-up act, Sinatra came out. At one point during the 70-minute show, Sinatra sang Nancy With the Laughing Face. Of the 12 Sinatra concerts I had attended since 1971, he never once sang this song. I couldn’t help but think he was singing the song just for me.
"After the concert, my husband and I were escorted backstage by Williams and introduced to Sinatra [both pictured]. I was so nervous that I think my voice was three octaves higher than usual. When I was introduced, I said hello, lamely adding, “My name is Nancy and I Iove you.”
"As I recall, Sinatra was about the height I thought he’d be, maybe a little taller. He was extremely charming though not flirtatious. I distinctly remember his eyes. They were so blue. We made small talk, he joked around, and I kissed him on the cheek three times over the course of the 30 minutes we were with him. But I always asked first.
"Sinatra asked me how I won the contest. I told him about the 105 postcards. He laughed, adding, “You don’t take any chances. You ought to be my broker.” We talked for about eight minutes as more people filled the dressing room. I made a tape of our conversation but it, too, has disintegrated.
"I asked him if he enjoyed finding new composers' music to sing. He said yes. At the time he was singing If, a song written by David Gates and recorded by Bread. He had already recorded Joe Raposo’s You Will Be My Music, There Used to Be Ballpark Here and Noah—all on his 1973 album Ol’ Blue Eyes Is Back.
"I tried to keep my cool. As my husband snapped photos, Sinatra smiled and laughed most of the time. He autographed the sheet music for Nancy With the Laughing Face that I brought with me. He also autographed a card that said, "Violets for Your Furs, for You." I have these mementos framed along with the many photos taken by a professional photographer the radio station sent along.
"As my time with Sinatra wound down, I did something I had wrestled with for days before the concert. I presented him with the sheet music to Dream Waltz, a song I had written years earlier. Sinatra graciously took the music but didn’t look at it as he handed it off to an assistant.
"Then it was time to leave. My husband and I were driven back to our apartment. But since we had the limo at our disposal for the night, we picked up two close friends who had a key to the old Playboy Club at 5 East 59th St. When we arrived, we went to the head of a long line of people waiting to get in simply because of that impressive limo. We got home around 3 am.
"A few days later an envelope arrived. When I opened it, there was my sheet music with a note from Sinatra thanking me for giving it to him. The note apologized, saying that my song wasn’t quite appropriate for him. I wasn’t too disappointed. The song was a beautiful waltz, but the lyrics were really more ideal for a woman to sing.
"What thrilled me, though, was the thought that Sinatra may have sung my song once. Or maybe just a few bars. Even if he never even hummed it at all, I like to think that he did. And that thought alone remains a thrill.
JazzWax tracks: For fans of New York's WNEW-AM, there's a site that details the station's history. WNEW wasn't just about pop. The station played jazz, and jazz artists listened to the station regularly when they were in town. In fact, Stan Getz, Bill Evans, Ron Carter and Elvin Jones recorded Larry Green's theme for the station in May 1964. Their 2:50 jingle was likely recorded to boost WNEW's airplay of Getz's bossa nova albums. You'll find the song on the CD release of Stan Getz & Bill Evans.