Monday, July 06, 2020

The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street

The Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street has one of the longest radio program names in radio history. So for the purposes of this article let's use the acronym CMSLBS. It aired for over a decade and spawned at least half a dozen commercial recordings. [LINK]  As the quote in the book Once More... from the Beginning by Oscar G. Zimmerman said "The CMSLBS had dedicated their lives to the preservation of the music of  The Three Bs,' not Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie and the Blues."

Harrisburg Evening News Aug 11, 1937
Interestingly that quote has been 'borrowed' from CMSLBS repeatedly since 1940. It was paraphrased in the promotions for two 1943 films: Best Foot Forward and Thousands Cheer. It was used on printed ads for the radio show Jam With Sam on WGN in 1951, and used as an album title [LINK] by Sam Price And His Kaycee Stompers in 1955. Multiple entertainment writers have borrowed it as well, including myself, James Wertheim at Sound & Fury magazine in 1965, by Playbill writer Steven Suskin in 2003 and more recently by Brent Phillips in his biography of Charles Walters in 2014. It's amazing how a phrase like that can travel through 75 years of media without accreditation. It's almost like the blues idiom itself.

CMSLBS began in 1936 as a 15-minute program called Bughouse Rhythm broadcast out of San Francisco by NBC. It originally aired on Friday's at 5:00 PM on  NBC Red then in October, moved to Monday nights at 7:15 PM on NBC Blue. The show was created by Ward Byron. The show satirized classical music with it's studio orchestra performing swing versions of well-known classical compositions. The live music was sometimes followed by short lectures or music history discussions led by announcer "Professor" Archie Presby and his assistant Martha Murgatroyd, played by comedian Natalie Park. Her role was to yawn and pretend to be young and bored. Jack Meakin handled the music arrangements. Bughouse Rhythm debuted September 4th, 1936 and the last show was April 26th 1937. Only a few recordings exist. Ward Byron followed up that creation with the Fitch Bandwagon show which ran from 1937 - 1948.

Just a few years later Ward Byron managed to reboot the program. This time the show was 30 minutes long and had more of a musical variety radio format. It debuted where Bughouse Rhythm had ended —NBC Blue. He brought back Jack Meakin and built a bigger better orchestra. The "society" was a rotating group of about 14 musicians. When Jack Meakin left Paul Lavalle took over. At different times band members included: Zero Mostel, Charles Marlowe, Gene Hamilton, and Albert Ammons, Fletch Philburn, Harry Patent, Nat Levine, and Frank Signorelli to name a few. Guests included Louis Armstrong, Art Tatem, Leadbelly, Lionel Hampton, Sidney Bechet, Bobby Hackett, Jelly Roll Morton, Jack Teagarden, Earl Hines, W.C. Handy, Harry James, and many more. But it was probably Paul Lavalle who brought in Dinah Shore. She was with them from the start in 1940. He had worked with her in 1939 on The Dinah Shore Show. Lena Horne later replaced Shore as a vocalist, but Horne only lasted 6 months. Then Linda Keene took that mic in 1941. (Some sourced incorrectly list Betty Keene)

But by 1940 announcer Archie Presby had moved to Los Angeles to work at Radio City studios in Hollywood. (He also announced at KFI. Archie was the chief West Coast announcer for NBC until he retired in 1972.) So CMSLBS got Milton Cross. Cross played the straight man through all this shtick. Cross was also announcing for the Metropolitan Opera so listeners would be very familiar with his solemn and dignified delivery. The Metropolitan Opera was the very type of program that CMSLBS had intended to mock. As a result, the new format had a somewhat drier flavor of satire. The humor reminds me of early Prairie Home Companion episodes. More here.

CMSLBS debuted on on February 11, 1940 in a crappy late Sunday slot: 4:30 PM EST. It was Milton Cross who opened the program by saying "Welcome to the no doubt world-famous Chamber Music Society of Lower Basin Street, and another concert dedicated to The Three Bs— Barrelhouse, Boogie-Woogie and the Blues." Then he'd introduce the host Dr. Gino Hamilton. By September it had built up it's listenership and moved to Monday nights at 9:00 PM EST. More here.

Then it got moved back to Sundays at 9:15 PM. It's not as bad as the original slot but not a weeknight either. But it was better to have Woodbury Soap as a sponsor than to be a sustaining program. The band stopped calling itself the NBC Dixieland Octet, and started calling itself the Woodbury Soap Symphony Orchestra. Comically this name is recorded as the bands proper name in the book The Complete Discography of Louis Armstrong by Jos Willems with no irony. Archie Presby would have loved it. CMSLBS did one more season in 1943-1944 and then the  show was off air for 6 years. Ward Byron produced the Philip Morris Follies in 1946, and the Chesterfield Supper Club but it's unclear why the show didn't return next season, or what force of nature led to a 2nd reboot in 1950.

When the show came back in 1950 on Saturday nights at 10:30 PM Paul Lavalle didn't return. Henry Levine took over his music duties, renaming the band again as the Henry Levine Octet. They added British character actor, Arthur Treacher, appearing as guest commentator. The only original cast members to return was Gene Hamilton. Even Milton Cross abandoned them. The season fished out with NBC staff announcers Fred Collins, (formerly WOWO) and Wayne Howell finished out the season. Orson Bean was final host of the series in 1952, for it's last 13 week season. Bean was later placed on the Hollywood blacklist for attending Communist Party meetings. Unlike some others, he ratted out his girlfriend and his career made a full recovery.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Ralph Gleason opens for Art Hodes

I wish I could remember which Art Hodes LP I found that quote on.  But it was how I first found that Art Hodes was a DJ in addition to being a jazz writer, and frequently recorded jazz pianist. He played with Sidney Bechet, Pee Wee Russell, Joe Marsala, Louis Armstrong, Wingy Manone, Gene Krupa, Muggsy Spanier and Mezz Mezzrow. More here.

Hodes was born in Ukraine and moved to the U.S. with his family as an infant. He got his start as a musician in Chicago, his big break came when he moved to New York in 1938. But it wasn't until April 6th, 1942 that he stepped into radio.

From 1940 to 1942 Ralph Berton hosted WNYC's daily foray into jazz called Metropolitan Revue, dedicated to "the finest in recorded hot jazz." It was the first jazz program on 830 WNYC-AM and possibly the first serious jazz music show in New York. [LINK] Berton played hot jazz, black and white, both A sides and B sides, big hits and out of print obscurities. His show was free-wheeling in a way that somewhat presaged Free Form FM, he was funny, and really knew his jazz and he sprinkled in a little folk music too.  He analyzed jazz records in depth, and even gave lectures on jazz that his listeners and the general public attended. But he had blind spots, he didn't understand the gravitas of Nina Simone, and despised electric instruments. (He also hated modern art and avant garde jazz.)

It was Gene Williams and Ralph Gleason who published the magazine Jazz Information. It was a 4-page newsletter that was printed irregularly out of the back room of the Commodore Music Shop but it was big with jazz heads.  (The magazine ran from 1939 - 1941) When Ralph was leaving the show, they suggested Art Hodes as a replacement.
"...they wrote some scripts for me. When I strayed from what they had written, they left me on my own. I didn't have many records, so I had to borrow things to play, which led me to get interested in collecting. I got really involved, and haunted the record shops, and junk shops, and rummage sales. the program was on six days a week in the early afternoon, and generally it lasted half an hour on weekdays and an hour on Saturday, when I'd ask guests in to play. I was playing the records I grew up with. It was beautiful jazz music going out into the air, and all I had to do, except for saying a few words, was sit there and listen."

He played Louis Armstrong's intro to West End Blues as his theme and once or twice every show Hodes played piano himself, often playing his own exit theme. It aired from 1:30 to 2:00 Monday, Wednesday and Friday, then 1:45 to 2:00 Tuesday and Thursday. But it all came to an abrupt end one week when the Mayor made an appearance on the show following Metropolitan Revue.
"Everything was fine until the day Mayor LaGuardia broadcast right after me. While he was waiting to go on the air, he heard me announce what label each tune was on, and the label number. I guess it was the first time he'd ever heard the show, and he told the station manager to get rid of me—that I was giving commercials on a noncommercial station. Of course what I was doing was giving my listeners the information they needed to get the records I had played. Otherwise they would write me by the dozen..."
He had the option to be fired or quit, so he resigned. But the show had made Art Hodes a made-man in the New York jazz community so the Art Hodes Band didn't exactly struggle for gigs after that. Before he got the boot Hodes had started a magazine, The Jazz record. He moved on from radio and didn't go back. Hodes went on to edit The Jazz Record for five years, and he continued to play with his own band for another 40 years.

But there were details missing from Hodes' version of the story. Hodes already knew Ralph Gleason. Mr. Gleason had recorded jazz sessions at WNYC which included some live sets at the Village Vanguard. One of these was released as "Matinee Jam Session" recorded December 29th, 1940. Alongside Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins was a young Art Hodes. The Art Hodes discography Hot Man, specifically notes that Ralph Gleason transcribed it, and "possibly" broadcast it on WNYC.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Polka Saves Lives

The time-line of WWII is very complicated and there were some conflicts within the war that began beforehand, and others which only continued unabated into further conflict afterward. In the U.S. the war is often taught inaccurately as ending abruptly in the European theater in April of 1945, and in the Pacific theater with the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima in August of 1945. Perhaps it's Hollywood which gives America such a love of tidy endings which wrap up all the plot lines. Real  history is a continuum without end. Every event begets another ad infinitum.

After the Winter war, the Soviet invasion of Finland (Nov. 1939 - mar. 1940) Finland and Nazi Germany invaded the USSR. This is called Continuation War. The Finland was trying (mostly) to regain lost territory, while Germany... I'm sure you've heard. It was a very active conflict causing about 85,000 deaths. The Continuation War ended in September of 1944, with the Moscow Armistice. There is a lot to unpack there. So let's skip ahead to the interesting bit of radio trivia.
We start in the city of Finnish Viipuri which today is on the other side of the border in the Lenningrad Oblast as Vyborg, Russia. The Finish army defeated the Russians and on August 31st, 1941 they had a victory parade. Shortly thereafter they discovered the landmines.  The retreating Soviets planted radio-controlled land mines throughout the city of Viipuri. These events are covered with a bit of detail in the book Finland at War by Vesa Nenye and Peter Munter.

Accounts indicate that these mines were designed to be triggered by an a triad— a three-note chord. I think this is somewhat inaccurate. The trigger was probably an AM radio wave carrying a triad tones. All account indicate the remote control originated in Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg). This is 85 miles away. More likely the concern was that they would be triggered during the retreat to Leningrad. Nonetheless the signal was in all likelihood a single AM frequency, bearing the triad detonate signal.  Were it not, jamming would be infinitely more complicated. You can also find more information on this in the book Finland at War by Vesa Nenye and Peter Munter.

The book Wireless Communications Security by Jyrki T. J. Penttinen also described the mechanism. I paraphrase for clarity:  A three-note chord was played on the frequency the radio was tuned to, causing three tuning forks to vibrate. Once the Army and Yleisradio experts discovered how the mines worked, a Yleisradio mobile transmitter was brought to Viipuri, and Vesterinen's recording of the polka was played on the same frequencies the mines used. The song was played continuously for about 1,500 repetitions in the beginning of September 1941, after which alternative equipment was used to continue the radio jamming operation until February 2nd, 1942.  The word Yleisradio just means "General Radio" or "General Broadcast". In this context I read it to mean "radio engineers", or "radio operators". Today it's also the name for Finland's Public Radio entity, like the BBC, CBC or NPR.

But there are slightly different versions of these events. The victory parade may be a later revision to the tale. But the victory it self was real. It was the 3rd time in 4 years the Finns had taken Viipuri back from the Russians, there probably were multiple parades over those years. A U.S. Department of Defense document described it thusly:
"Although the Russians retreated in a disorderly fashion to the south... they were able to explode, during and after their retreat, ground mines in the streets, by means of radio waves from Leningrad. About 60% of the houses were damaged. Afterward a control machine (transmitter) stimulated by radio waves from Leningrad was discovered and precautions appeared to have been taken."
So let's talk Polka. Not knowing what frequency or frequencies might carry the triad of death, the Finns flooded the radio band. By broadcasting strong local signals across all probable frequencies they effectively blocked the now distant Russian signal. Instead of broadcasting an empty carrier wave they went with an all-polka format. The song they played on infinite-repeat was Säkkijärven polka, also called the Karelian-Finnish Polka. It is a well-known folk tune from Finland. Of all the versions they could have selected, they went with one by the celebrity Finnish accordionist Viljo "Vili" Vesterinen.
"That polka brings past times to mind / and creates a strange longing in the chest. / Hey, musician, let the accordion play the Säkkijärvi Polka! / It takes the young and the old to dancing, nothing compares to that polka"
Odeon released Vesterinen's version of Säkkijärven Polkka ‎ in Scandinavia in 1939, (the B-side was Laivaston Tanssiaiset) and then re-released it in Finland in 1941. Viljo Vesterinen was born on March 26, 1907. He was a child prodigy, performing semi-professionally at the age of 15. Reputedly he couldn't read sheet music and played entirely by ear. He performed with the Suomi-Jazz Orchestra and the Dallapé Orchestra. He was a prolific performer and composer making about 680 recordings in his life, the earliest was with Nils Ekman in 1929 for Homokord. His later recorded for the Fenno, Electro, Decca and Odeon record labels.

But Vesterinen was also an alcoholic and in the late 1940s he began to have seizures and became paralyzed on his left side. He lost the ability to play. At the end of his life, Vesterinen worked as a tuner at the Kouvola accordion factory. In the Fall of 1955, the film Säkkijärvi Polkka premiered. It was a dramatized telling of Viljo Vesterinen's life story. Viljo even appeared in the film. He died in 1961 at the age of 54.

Monday, June 15, 2020

WNAX schedule in 1929

The book House of Gurney was published in 1929 commemorating the 63rd anniversary of the Gurney Seed and Nursery company but also the 8th anniversary of 570 WNAX-AM which had signed on in 1921. It's worth pointing out that WNAX did a lot of publishing. In addition to the above, they had their seed catalogs, there were vocational learning newspapers, The Common Sense newspaper, innumerable cook books, and then what at first appear to be at least two teen interest books.

The books were both also printed in 1929. Messages to Boys was written by Edmund Reed Gurnsey, clearly a member of the family. But these are not adventure stories, these are stories, parables intended in instill moral guidance. Edmund had nicknamed himself the "Radio Philosopher" and every Sunday evening for an hour he lectured and gave advice intended to make young men into upstanding citizens. It sounds a tad patronizing.

Radio Heart Throbs was written by Pastor Denton E. Cleveland. So Heart Throbs turns out to be a collection of sermons. He writes in the introduction "at the request of hundreds of friends for a printed copy of sermons that your Radio Pastor has given. I am putting seventeen years of my life of ministry into this book...we hope that it will serve as a personal handclasp in friendship and heart –to- heart talk..." So he does not mean Heart Throb in that sense. Despite the fact that the etym0ology of that phrase goes back to the 1820s. Both books were printed by the Verstegen Printing Co., Sioux City, Iowa on cornstalk paper. [More here]

The schedule included is meant to be generic, it doesn't mention a specific day of the week, but I'm assuming it's somewhat representative. So I wanted to post a chunk of their schedule. More here.

6:00 AM Variety Entertainment

Welk's Novelty band Lawrence Welk's first band

Bill's Harness Makers

Master Co. Music Makers I hope this is connected to Master Liquid Hog Tonic

Battery Boy's Program Jada Wyman & Bill Goodrich

Sunshine Paint Orchestra Performed at Daum's Opera House with Lawrence Welk's band

Old Time Variety
7:30 Children's Variety Hosted by "Aunt" Esther Smith and Roy Eastmanaka "Harmonica Dutch"
8:00 Price Quoting Hour

Old Time Melodies This could be the syndicated NBC program

Gurney's Hawaiians Bob, Lon & Frances Kia

John Jensen, songs A harmonica & guitar player

Happy Jack's Trio Happy Jack O'Malley

Esther Smith, Contralto "Aunt" Esther Smith again
9:00 Radio Orchestra

Sunshine Coffee Boys Happy Sunshine Coffee Boys, Violinists, Eddie Dean and Johnnie

Grain and Livestock Markets
10:00 Sacred Services Pastor Denton E. Cleveland did a 20 minute weekday service and more on Sunday with studio choir

Meridian Trio Nancy Wyborny Gurney (aka Aunt Sammy) , Harvey Nelson & Corenne Horst

Art Haring, Cornetist Often played with Corenne Horst

J.V. Barborka, Harpist Joseph V. "Dad" Barborka
11:00 Old Time Variety

Concert Orchestra Orchestra directed by Art Haring

Grain and Livestock Markets
12:05 Announcements

Weather, News, Markets

D.B. Gurney, President Deloss Butler Gurney
1:00 Concert Orchestra Orchestra directed by Art Haring

Gurney's Hawaiians Bob, Lon & Frances Kia

Grain Market Close
2:00 Welk's Novelty Orchestra Lawrence Welk's first band

Sunshine Coffee Boys Happy Sunshine Coffee Boys, Violinists, Eddie Dean and Johnnie

Saxophone Quintet Frank Hobbs, Harvey, Paul Donnelly, Zeke Stout, Rolly Chesney, John Matuska (also a member of the Royal Serenaders)
3:00 Harmony String Trio

Earl and Esther, Duets "Aunt" Esther Smith probably with C. Earl Williams

John Jensen, Songs

Edith Gurney, Soprano Sang Irish songs with Alice Williams on Piano
4:00 Radio Orchestra

Gurney's Hawaiians Bob, Lon & Frances Kia

Bohemian Program polka and/or polish language program

Old Time Variety
5:00 E. R. Gurney Ed Gurney and wholesome moral talks

Little German band There were multiple bands in the region, by this name in that era.

George B. German, Cowboy A country guitarist and singer, later host of RFD

Musical Clock Program This is a long-running thing in radioland there were numerous musical clock programs. . More here.
6:00 Weather, News and markets

Delila Jorgenson

Hawaiian Melodies

Sunshine Cord Orchestra Sunshine Cord Tire Orchestra: Harvey Nelson, John Matuska, Zeke Stout, Charley Steinbach & Jada Wyman
7:00 H. Lemke, German singer Herbert Lemke, mostly sacred songs in German

Gurney Little Symphony

Hubbard Milling Trio sponsored by the Hubbard Milling Co.

Radio Orchestra

E.R. Gurney Ed Gurney again
8:30 Sign Off

Monday, June 08, 2020

A Decrease in Broadcasting?

I was wondering the other day if the number of broadcasters has ever decreased. In modern times, it seemed possible as listeners move away from the AM band. But it hasn't happened yet. Even in Canada where the AM band is almost shuttered, those same broadcasters largely moved to new frequencies on the FM band. To find even a rumor of such a reduction, you have to go back to the very inception of commercial radio broadcasting. In my research I found a single Radio World article from November 18th, 1922 which indicates an actual reduction in the number of broadcasters. Spoiler: the title was just click-bait.

Now in 1922 that claim was more plausible, even while it came packaged with an exaggerated concern that radio might die out altogether. Today we see equally dramatic predictions of death for all kinds of media: AM, FM, satellite radio, TV, cable, and newspapers. Much like the perennial dire predictions on the death of rock n' roll, it was all premature. The end of  radio was not a real threat in 1922 any more than it would be in 2020. Here was the situation:

In October 1922 a total of 56 radio (land) stations were licensed to broadcast and 22 were deleted. That's a net increase of only 24 radio stations. But by the first week of November there were a total of 533 broadcasting stations operating. 19 of them were operating on 400 meters and 519 of them on 360 meters. It sounds a bit crowded. But somehow by the end of that week another 11 more station were licensed. These are listed below. The Frequency is in meters, and the power in watts.

City/State Frequency Power Callsign Owner
Pendleton, OR 360 100 KFFE Eastern Oregon Radio Co.
Macon, GA 360 750 WMAZ Mercer University
Council Bluffs, IA 360 10 WPAF Peterson's Radio Co.
Lincoln, NE 360 250 WSAS State of Nebraska
Austin, TX 360 100 WNAS Texas Radio Corporation
David City, NE 360 20 WRAR Jacob C. Thomas
Walla Walla, WA 360 50 KFCF Frank A. Moore
Honolulu, HI 360 40 KYQ Electric Shop
State College, PA 360 1 WPAB Pennsylvania State Coll.
Waco, TX 360 50 WWAC Sanger Bros
Springfield, MA 360 600 WBZ Westinghouse Electric

That said, there are some incongruities in the list Radio World published (above). Most of the entries seem to belong to the "Additions" list from the November Bulletin. But KYQ wasn't granted in the November Bulletin, it was listed in December. Also WBZ signed on in September of 1921. It has no business being on the list at all. But that does not address the 27 stations excluded from their list. More here. Below are the actual additions from issues 65 - 68 of the Department of Commerce Radio Bulletins of 1922. The month of November had more new radio stations, not fewer.

September 1st, 1922 - No. 65 (46 new stations)

October 1st, 1922 - No. 66 (49 new stations)

November 1st, 1922 - No. 67 (38 new stations)

December 1st, 1922 - No. 68 (38 new stations)

So where did this panic-mongering originate? The below 21 stations Radio World listed as deleted in that fateful month in October of 1922. In the Commerce Department Bulletin they used the phrase "Strike Out All Particulars."

Savannah, GA 360 WGAV B.H. Radio Co
Bluefield, WV 360 WHAJ Daily Telegraph
Corinth, MS 360 WHAU Corinth Radio Supply
Worcester, MA 360 WDAT Delta Electric Co.
Toledo, OH 360 WHU The William Duck Co.
Erie, PA 360 WJT Electric Equipment Co.
Yakima, WA 360 KQT Electric Power & appliance
Zanesville, OH 360 WPL Fergus Electric Co.
Carrollton, MO 360 WLAB George F. Grossman
Lindsborg, KS 360 WDAD Central Kansas Radio Supply
Portland, OR 360 KYG Wiliam P. Hawley Jr.
Holyoke, MA 360 WHAX Holyoke Street Railway
Buffalo, NY 360 WWT Mccarthy Bros & Ford
Springfield, MA 360 WIAP Radio Development Corp
New Orleans, LA 360 WBAM I.B. Rennysen
Rochester, NY 360 WHQ Times Union Inc
Butte, MT 360 KFBF F. H. Smith
Jacksonville, FL 360 WCAN Southeastern Radio Telephone
Spokan, WA 360 KOE Spokane Chronicle
Norwood, OH 360 WIAL Standard Radio Service Co.
Portsmouth, OH 360 WDAB H.C. Summer & Son
Richmond, VA 360 WBAZ Times Dispatch Publishing

But this list too is somewhat dubious. The Department of Commerce Radio Bulletin combines deletions in the same section as corrections. Again the Radio World list and the Bulletin are similar, but not identical. From the published list Radio World excludes WMT. Possibly just human error.  But maybe here is where the panic began.

In October (Bulletin No. 66)  the Commerce Department deleted KUXP, KDMK, KDIZ,WSK, KDGT, and WBAT; a mere six stations. In September (Bulletin No. 65) they deleted only two: KNR, and KZI. The previous August (Bulletin No. 64) they deleted just 3 stations: WQX, KDRO, and WQC. So perhaps in November, when the Alterations list suddenly grew by an exponential order a little panic set in.