Monday, April 29, 2024

Booger Brothers Broadcasting System

Almost everyone knows what a Les Paul guitar is, but history seem to be forgetting Les Paul the person. Firstly, his real name was Lester William Polsfuss, He never legally changed his name. Les Paul was a stage name he started using in the mid-1930s. It wasn't even his first stage name. Paul didn't start buildings guitars until the 1940s. Before his guitar era he was a radio performer, a recording engineer, a music director and for a time ...a pirate radio operator. Whole books have been written about the mans many storied accomplishments but I'd like to focus on radio and one pirate station in particular. More here. Paul was a genius engineer his ability to build a transmitter, or even an entire radio station is not in doubt —only the details around this particular tale.

The story is fabulous, who doesn't like a tale mixing wild house parties with pirate radio and hot jazz.  But it's main problem is that his biographies skip over it. The biographical reference is admittedly brief. It appears in his 1993 biography Les Paul: An American Original, by Mary Alice Shaughnessy. Les Paul was still alive when it was published, he died in 2009. That overlap also gives it more credence, but contemporary references were hard to find.

So let's start with his early radio experiences. He received some engineering training as early as 8 years old by an unnamed engineer from WTMJ. He became a musician as a teenager. He played with Rube Tronson's Texas Cowboys, and played with Sunny Joe Wolverton's Radio Band in St. Louis, MO, on KMOX. The book The Mighty 'MOX by Sally and Rob Rains identifies corroborates that early KMOX program. It is otherwise very obscure.

A young guitar player known as "Rhubarb Red" was part of The International Oil Burner Show between 4:30 and 7 AM from 1927 to 1930."
Les relocated with Joe Wolverton's band to Chicago and started playing on WBBM with them, and then solo as Rhubarb Red. He was performing as both a country artist and a jazz solist. As Red he started recording with Art Tatum which is when his career really took off. The book Famous Wisconsin Musicians by Susan Masino also has him performing at WISN in Milwaukee, WRJN in Racine, and both KBGA and KWTO in Springfield, IL and of course WJJD and WIND in Chicago. This is further referenced in the book Encyclopedia of American Radio 1920 - 1960 by Luther Sies
"Rhubarb Red. A CW tenor, guitarist and harmonica player, Rhubarb Red appeared daily at 6:30 A.M. and again at 9:00 AM. in an all request program WJJD, Chicago, IL; and WIND, Gary, IN, 1935-1937."

That same book has Les relocating to New York in 1937. The official Les Paul website puts it in 1938, but close enough. But 1938 is definitely when he began performing with Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians on NBC radio.  In 1941 He returns to Chicago and becomes the music director for radio stations WJJD and WIND. So from his career history we can say definitively that his pirate station existed for a period of time between 1938 and 1941.

Here we have the pirate station boxed in my context. As the legend goes... in Jackson Heights, NY, Les created his own local radio station and broadcast jam sessions. His makeshift studio full of professional musicians. The station operated at low wattage and was only receivable locally, but due to the proximity of LaGuardia airport that included aircraft. Yes, the claim is that the airplanes flying into LGA would get scrambled signals of jazz music mixing with coordinates from the tower. Purportedly he solved that engineering problem with a "wave trap."

How much of that is true? Well, Jackson Heights is a neighborhood in the northwestern part of the Queens in New York City. Les Paul and his wife Mary Ford had an apartment in 40-15 81 St. That address is only about 2 miles from LGA. Most sources describe that as a studio apartment. But Les Paul in an interview said "Getting union cards jumped our pay to $150 a week and allowed us to take furnished apartments at Electra Court." Advertisements for the units described it as "The House of to-morrow, ready to-day!" The developers ran ads for furnished apartments in Down Beat magazine, specifically advertising to musicians —just as Les described. So here was have a plausible reason he had such access to professional musicians; his building was full of them!

Different versions of the tale claim that he set up his studio in the building’s basement, near the furnace room. His friends came over and they played together. But his friends at the time are now enormously famous musicians: band members from the biggest big bands of the era. Not the band leaders but the working union card musicians from Benny Goodman's band, Glenn Miller’s band, Artie Shaw's band, Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey's bands, Fred Waring’s band, Bob Crosby’s band and Lionel Hampton's band. It's almost too fantastical to be real. How many of them lived at Electra Court?

I did eventually find a contemporary reference in the July 1940 issue of Popular Mechanics. I think that's Ernie Newton on bass which might make that band some iteration of the Les Paul trio. Did the FCC pay him a visit? Did he really take the  mic and announce the station name as "Booger Brothers Broadcasting?"

The Popular Mechanics article is missing the "Booger Brothers" connection but everything else is there. The general location, the famous musicians, and the broadcasting equipment stretching from the apartment to the basement. A 1953 issue of the Atkinson's Evening Post claims that Les gave the station ID as "The Booger Brothers, The Pink and Yellow network, top of your dial."  But Les went on to say "It was a good station... but the law would have caught up with us if an accident hadn't beat it to the punch." What accident? The Booger Brothers came to an abrupt end in 1941. While jamming in his apartment basement in 1941, Paul was nearly electrocuted to death. [SOURCE]

Paul describes it himself in the book The Early Years of the Les Paul Legacy, 1915-1963 by
Robb Lawrence. "I stuck my hand in the transmitter when I shouldn't have..." Bassist Ernie Newton knocked him free but he was seriously injured. After an ice bath they took Paul to the hospital. It took him two years to recuperate according to some sources. This is not entirely true but Booger Brothers was still off the air.

In 1941 or 1942 he moved to Chicago where he became the music director for radio stations WJJD and WIND. A promotional photo dated October of 1941 puts him in the Chicago CBS studio. Newspaper radio schedules still show his trio playing on local stations: they were as on air at
KLZ and KVOR in May of 1942. A November schedule has him on WEOA, WCKY, WGAR, WHIO, and KMOX at different times. Some biographies have him moving to "Hollywood" in 1943. That's partly true. The only radio he did after that was for the Armed Forces Radio Service (AFRS) because he got drafted. Though he did do some films. The Bing Crosby radio show that gets connected to this move was Kraft Music Hall and he didn't appear on that program until 1945. He got his own eponymous radio show in 1950. It was a 15-minute slot on NBC with his trio now composed of himself, Mary Ford, and rhythm player Eddie Stapleton. His career never stopped but I think that's the last major radio milestone on that long and storied career I mentioned.

1 comment:

  1. ThresherK9:46 PM

    After the Hawthorne Court Apartments commercial on WEAF this is the most famous radio story to come out of Jackson Heights.