Monday, February 21, 2011

The Bebop Radio Ban

Long before the harsh attacks on rock n' roll in the 1950s, there was an attack on bebop for  the same reasons. Bebop burst on the the American jazz scene from the fingertips of rebellious musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker. Even other more traditional jazz musicians criticized their experiments. But in the early 1940s it was catching on with a certain audience: rebellious white teenagers; a group we now refer to historically as beatniks. (though the term 'beat' wasn't popularized until the late 1940s.)

As it did in later in the 1950s, racial mixed audiences really set off conservatives. It may seem incongruous, but the most remembered even event in this "ban" was in California. In the March 25th 1946 issue of Newsweek, Ted Steele Program Director of 710 KMPC-AM was quoted as saying "Bebop... tends to make degenerates, out of our young listeners. . . ." Time Magazine backed them up with an article that described bebop in unflattering terms "What be-bop amounts to: hot jazz overheated with overdone lyrics, full of bawdiness, references to narcotics and double talk." Ted listed a some of the "banned" songs:

1. Woody Herman - Your Father's Moustache
2. Harry "The Hipster" Gibson - (All Releases)
3. Slim Gaillard - (All Releases)
4. All versions of the song "Come For A Ride"
5. All versions of the song "Drink Hearty"
6. All versions of the song "Cement Mixer"
7. All versions of the song "Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine."

You might immediately notice that not all of the above is strictly bebop. What had set Ted off was the drug references the song "Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine." He was singling out for the most part Harry Gibson and Slim Gaillard. Predictably, the ban packed houses for Slim and Slam and won Gaillard an invitation to to appear on Bing Crosby's radio show.The move was wholly ineffective. Gaillard had already sold 20,000 records in Los Angeles alone. In 1938 Benny Goodman played "Flat Foot Floogie,"on the Camel Caravan program; the tune was written by Slam Stewart. the ban coalesced the jazz community in favor of bebop with Downbeat and Metronome magazines both supporting the artists.  Downbeat accused Steele of slander. Metronome was more interested in defending jazz as a whole, explaining that strictly speaking, Slim Gaillard and Charlie Parker were very different birds. Unexpectedly it was all thsi press that elevated the word "bebop" into the formal jazz lexicon. More here.

According to some sources, other stations, as many as 19 unnamed broadcasters followed suit. Different articles refer to east Coast stations that followed suit. There's also a direct reference to KFWB dropping it's land line to Billy Berg’s Rendezvous, a hot jazz night club where Harry the Hipster performed. Harry's program was mostly targeted at a black audience, but unknown to many.. he was white. In 1947 Harry released a 78 rpm platter on Musicraft "I Stay Brown All Year ‘Round / Who Put The Benzedrine In Mrs. Murphy's Ovaltine."  Harry got black balled by the record industry after that. In 1951 he opened a club in Miami, and started his own label: Hip Records.

Ted wasnt' just a hater of jazz, he was also a stuffy musician who was vested in the old meme. On the West coast Steele had been a bandleader for a number of big names: Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Louis Prima and Jo Stafford. Ted left town shortly thereafter and played some CBS shows with his own Orchestra. He even did one of those awful Novachord records for Decca. He and his orchestra ended up hosting the Stork Club in New York City, for the Chesterfield Supper Club on NBC

Things didn't work out at KMPC-AM and he left for KNX-AM in 1949. He stayed for a year then left for New York. From there he went to TV in about 1953. He also worked at WPIX-TV channel 11 doing a teen-focused dance program sponsored by Pepsi called The Ted Steele Show and another as Uncle Ted  hosting a program of silent cartoons. He must have liked TV as he also worked on WATV-TV channel 13 and WOR-TV channel 9. In that era he also was announcing at WMCA and also appearing on Cavalcade of America. In 1950 Billboard magazine said he was on air 32 hours a week, making him one of the busiest broadcasters in the city. But he fell out of favor, or burned out or something. the reasons are lost to time but a few years later he was doing a lone program on 970 WAAT-AM in Newark NJ.