Thursday, October 20, 2011

Super Bon Bon

(Please excuse the Soul Coughing reference)
In November of 1949  George "Bon Bon" Tunnell was awarded 3rd prize by the Freedom Foundation in a contest gauging "speaking up for freedom."  His radio show was only 3 months old. He'd just started on the previous August 15th. It seems like an odd pick for an openly paternalistic group that selected a religious drama "The Greatest Story ever Told" and a DuPont marketing vehicle "Cavalcade of America" for the 1st and 2nd prizes. I don't know the exact circumstances, but my suspicion is that it has something to do with Jan Savitt. But it might have well been just that they found Tunnell to be non-threatening. I'll quote Billboard:
"...the musical selections picked for each day's programming carried no racial tag, with a Perry Como platter getting as much attention as a Billy Eckstine side. There was no segregation of negro names for the theatrical interviews, with a Juanita Hall getting as much attention as a Patti Page. More-over Tunnell gave as much attention to civic personalities as to the theatrical names, with interview guests including such local figures white and negro."
It's always dangerous talking about race in radio. Demographics are sometimes racial without being racist.  You can dress it up in statistics; couch it in high-brow intellectual terminology and write whatever thesis papers you want for anthropology class... But after WWII there was a "white flight" to the suburbs and Philadelphia changed demographically. Demographics matter. Philadelphia hasn't had a Republican mayor since 1952. [Source here.]  No matter how liberal the north was in comparison to the South, it was still largely demographics that led to the rise of black radio. By 1950 Philadelphia had an African-American population of around 300,000 out of a total population of 2 million. That's 15%, a very real target market and the 1950s is when its ascendance began. My point is only that the change was a product of both a cultural and a demographic shift.

The Bon Bon Show  was hosted by George "Bon Bon" Tunnell on WDAS-AM in Philadelphia. Tunnell  was born on June 29th some sources put the year as early as 1903 others as late as 1912. Excluding his short career in radio, he was known as a singer. He was a Pennsylvania native and returned to Philly after his career as a vocalist has tapered off. He was one of the first black singers to perform with a white band, specifically the Jan Savitt Orchestra (aka the Top Hatters).  His career started in the 1920s with a group called "Bon Bon & His Buddies. At the time he sang and played piano. He was with a trio called the Thee Keys from 1932-1933. They were successful enough to make some live radio appearances. He hooked up with Jan Savitt in 1937. In that era it was so difficult to have a racially mixed group that Tunnell had to pose as Savitt's valet to stay at the same hotel as the band.  They recorded and toured together until 1942. He went solo after that but his solo recording career was pretty much a bust. He did record a few sides for Davis and Beacon records if you care to seek them out.

Tunnels' career as a solo vocalist overlapped his career as a broadcaster. At the same time he was doing one-nighters in Philly and Atlantic City, one article claimed his program was broadcast live from the bandstand at the Showboat in Philadelphia. This seems somewhat unlikely as his one-hour program aired at11:00 AM. In April of 1950 he added a half hour slot at 5:30 PM. The schedule couldn't have changed much, Billboard Magazine reported that he left the station in November of 1950.

He died May 20, 1975 truly under-appreciated.