If you love jazz and you grew up in the 1970s (or earlier, of course), you listened to a lot of radio. Before downloads and rips and burns, deejays had complete control over what you heard. And you probably liked it that way. Most of the tracks they played were amazing and many were from out-of-print LPs. Which compelled you to spend Saturdays hunting down the scarce albums in stores. The disc jockeys with the most listeners had the best taste in music—and the best theme songs. They also were wizards at creating on-air personalities that were so compelling that listeners were convinced they were best friends.
In New York in the 1970s, there were three jazz-oriented stations: WRVR-FM, WNEW-AM and WEVD-AM. The first played only new and old jazz. The second was devoted to the American Songbook. And the third, WEVD, was a big band station—at least in the morning, when a disc jockey with an encyclopedic memory named Danny Stiles was on the air. Stiles billed himself as the Vicar of Vintage and had been on the radio since 1947. What I remember most is that Stiles stubbornly refused to play anything but original 78-rpms. I always assumed he drove to the station in a Greyhound bus filled with shellac discs.
Best of all, the deejays hosting different shows on these stations had great theme songs. It was a mark of pride to have a theme that overwhelmed the listener right out of the box. If a song was infectious and out of print, listeners would have to tune in. Which I suppose was the point. A theme song was like the host's fingerprint. Once the jockey claimed it, no one else would dare use it as an opener or play it on their show. The cooler the theme, the hipper the show and host were likely to be.
To have a jazz show—or any show—up until the early 1980s, you needed an operator's license issued by the FCC. Back then, the DJ had to operate equipment known as a "yard board," a panel with a series of colorful dials that controlled what came over the air. This meant having to pass an FCC exam (I still remember taking the test and receiving mine).
To win a job at a major jazz station, a DJ also needed a wood-warm voice and have superb taste in music. Most deejays in the 1970s still programmed their own shows, meaning they picked the music and came up with the sequence. It's all done by computer now based on sales and data. But as late as the 1970s, radio was still about the cult of on-air personalities. The jockey did all the electronic heavy lifting on the air and created an imaginary feel so powerful that audiences were compelled to return regularly. The theme song was the DJ's signature.
A good theme had a clarion opener, something catchy and dramatic from the first notes. If you loved the theme, you waited each night just to hear it. When the opening notes sounded after the ads between shows were over, it was like the strike of a match. The excitement was huge and signaled the start of an experience sure to be filled with history, stories, mystique and great music. The theme revved your imagination.
The coolest DJ's had a habit of breaking into their own theme about three-quarters of the way through. They'd talk haltingly, respectful of the music chosen to play behind them. There was a dramatic quality to this technique as the DJ allowed the theme's infectious notes to bleed through. It was all very exciting. [Photo of on-air legend Danny Stiles in 2004]
My memory is a little foggy on which New York deejays used which themes. But I distinctly recall four from my youth in the 1970s. I'm sure readers from New York and beyond will offer up their own favorite themes:
So Do It—Wes Montgomery (1960). This Montgomery original from Movin' Along on Riverside Records was the theme of WRVR's Just Jazz, hosted by the legendary Ed Beach. Montgomery's opening guitar notes were pressed up against James Clay's sandpapery tenor saxophone. Just hearing the song sent a tingle up my spine, since it always was followed by a sensational show hosted by Beach. What's more, during his show, Beach played Montgomery's D-Natural Blues softly behind his on-air voice. Occasionally he'd pause to let Montgomery's chords or Tommy Flanagan's piano peep though, as though he had been listening to the album all along and was overcome by its brilliance. Ed Beach knew how to use space. Today, Beach's 1970s shows are swapped and traded by collectors on the web.
The Milkman's Matinee—Les Brown (1954). This one was used to announce WNEW's show of the same name. It opens with a fabulous trumpet fanfare, after which the Modernaires sing the song's goofy lyrics. The trumpet lineup was so fetching that I set out to find the LP on which the song appeared, eventually finding it on Brown's Open House. I paid $20 for the album at a used record store on 23d St. and Sixth Ave., which in today's dollars is about $66.
The Milkman's Matinee radio show started at midnight and was hosted in the 1970s by Al "Jazzbeaux" Collins [pictured in 1997], a jazz-radio legend. No one could create a hipper, more compelling studio image than Collins, who claimed to be broadcasting from a Purple Grotto surrounded by a menagerie of strange characters. The crowd included Harrison, the Tasmanian Owl. When Les Brown's track wrapped, Collins had his long-time theme, Count Basie's Blues in Hoss' Flat, come in on its heels, as if both songs were one. Collins did that just to make sure listeners knew he was running a hep jazz program, not a square songbook show.
Mercy, Mercy Me—Leon Spencer (1971). This groovy version of Marvin Gaye's hit by organist Leon Spencer was used either by Van Jay or Batt Johnson on WRVR-FM's midnight show. I can't remember which deejay used it. The track is from Spencer's Louisiana Slim LP, a tremendous organ-soul album that included a very hip version of Burt Bacharach's Close to You. Dig the band: Virgil Jones (trumpet), Grover Washington, Jr. (tenor sax), Leon Spencer, Jr. (organ), Melvin Sparks (guitar) and Idris Muhammad (drums).
You Better Go Now—Red Garland (1958). This dramatic gem opens with Garland employing pedal tones and block chords and continues as a locked hands tour de force. The song was Van Jay's theme at WRVR. To this day, the track with Jamil Nasser (bass), Charlie Persip (drums) and Ray Barretto (conga) still knocks me out and remains one of the finest tracks Garland ever recorded in a small group setting.