Country Music Broke My Brain
By Gerry House, Erin Kelley
BenBella Books, Inc. Copyright © 2014 Gerry House
All rights reserved.
Alligator Clip Radio
I'M NOT SURE what makes some people drawn to radio. The "golden age" of it all was before my time. I studied and was influenced by all that later in my career, but what really hit me was live/personality/Top 40/transistor radio. I have friends who even today ride around in their cars, listening to jingles and commercials from that era. I don't do that. That would be nutty. I just write about it.
I have two distinct memories of my early radios: the transistor and the Rocket. The transistor was from Japan. It had a distinct smell I remember, and still I have no idea what that is today. But I was always aware that when I took the back of my transistor radio off to insert a battery, it had a "Japanese/transistor-y" odor all its own. I carried my Japanese transistor with me everywhere. I actually expected Japan to smell like that when I visited Tokyo decades later. It kinda did, I think.
The Rocket radio was even more basic. Again, as usual, I have no idea how it worked. Even to this day, I don't understand how people speak into a "can" (O Brother Where Art Thou reference) and how it comes out the other end to a listener.
I am stunningly ignorant of what an actual transistor even is. I know when your cheap transistor radio died and went to radio heaven, you pulled out all the parts. It always had a flat piece of plastic with little things soldered to it. The Rocket radio had, I think, a diode. Don't even think of asking because I have no idea about that, either. I guess it's what the old-timers called a "crystal set." The antenna came out the top of the Rocket, and you attached the radio with an alligator clip to your bedsprings. It picked up powerful, 50,000-watt radio stations you heard through your earpiece. It was pure magic.
I was hooked. I listened to my transistor radio all day and at night plugged my earpiece into the Rocket, hooked the clip to the bed, and fiddled with the antenna 'til I got something. More often than not, I picked up WCKY in Cincinnati, which played country music at night. Shuddering, I started moving the antenna again. Please, not country music. Usually it was all I could get. I don't know why this was so fabulous: a skinny kid in Kentucky listening to music he didn't like at all, over an earpiece that made it all sound like it was coming from Mars. But it was fabulous, and I listened deep into the night.
It was exciting, adventurous, and, most of all, it was showbiz!
When I look back now, I realize I've spent most of my life attached to a radio. I've also done television, live stage performances, and movies, yet radio has always had a hold on me. It's really got a hold on me. Baby! I love you and all I want you to do is just hold me, hold me, hold meeee.
That's from a song by the Miracles, featuring Smokey Robinson. It was during an era when songs were played side by side, one after the other. Country songs, R&B, standards, big band, jazz, polka. You name it, and if it sounded like a hit, it got played. Patsy and Elvis and Chubby and Bert and Andy and Perry and Little Richard. There weren't specific "formats." It was all a big, wide-open sound. The BBC still does this today, but other than a vague Top 40 moniker or "Beautiful Music" tag, the stations had a lot of leeway.
Radio footnote: I've heard all my career about the good ol' country music songs that no longer exist today. The Patsy Cline and Conway Twitty classics. How "pop" music has ruined country. In fact, the Patsy Clines, et al., were actually pop hits. People I met in Nashville, such as Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers, recorded in Nashville and were accepted the world over. They were pop radio stars who happened to be in Nashville. They just did it. The songs and the vocals and the music were POPular all over America.
Nobody thought of them as "country"; they just made great records. Only later did the kvetching start about the downfall of country. In the beginning, Don and Phil were played right alongside Chubby Checker, Bert Kaempfert, and Dion and the Belmonts. Nobody ever complained except the folks who liked big band music, and they were certain this new noise was gonna ruin America.
It's been the same ever since. I often wonder if, when the first teenager stretched an animal skin over a hollowed-out log and began beating on it, his father said, "Turn that down and go kill something for dinner!"
It was also at this age when I noticed something else about radio, in addition to the music, the jingles, and the commercials. People. Guys with voices like gold who were joking, laughing, and talking to me. Talking directly to me.
It was all guys back then. Oh, there was the occasional TV weather girl who appeared as a guest, but it was a man's world.
In the '70s, I had a radio friend who announced one day, "I think the key to success in radio is to get us one of them animal names." I thought about it but stuck with my own. The airwaves were populated with animal guys: Wolfman. Coyote. Spider. Hoss. I had no idea people used fake names on the air. Later I heard stories about poor souls who had to assume a particular name because the station had already spent money having jingle singers record IDs with these names. If the old guy got fired or left, the new guy took that "paid for" name. I guess management thought the audience would think, Wow, Clark Sullivan sounds like a different person today, but I like Clark, so I'll listen.
Technology has changed radio a lot. Nobody hops in their car and hooks up alligator clips to the driveshaft to hear their favorite station. Today, you can get any station anywhere, anytime. But for all the techy stuff, quite often, it still comes down to a guy, or a guy, a girl, and a geek, talking to each other and to listeners and playing music.
I knew I loved it, but I didn't enter a radio station for ten more years. I was just a listener for awhile. Still am, actually.
IF YOU DECIDE one day to revisit the house you grew up in, be prepared for the incredible smallness of it all. I don't know if it's a size/ratio thing or what, but everybody always says, "I couldn't get over how tiny the place we grew up in was." Do we expand the size as we get older, or did we just not pay any attention to things like square footage when there was a softball game to be played?
In a tiny house, you have tiny bedrooms. Even then, I felt there was a treehouse feel to the bedrooms in our original home—those bedrooms built in an attic space that wasn't meant for anything but storage. I loved it. On the front wall of both upstairs bedrooms were dormers. Dormers are little construction excuses to have a window sticking out of a roof. I spent many an hour crouched in my dormer. I think it's the reason for my posture today.
My parents had a dormer and two impossibly small twin beds with the world's chintziest chest between them. On top of the chest, I usually saw a glass of water for Mom's "partial plate," an ashtray, and a copy of the church bulletin. The bulletin always had the latest info about when a visiting missionary would return from the Congo and who was on their bed of affliction.
As a kid, I never went into Mom and Dad's bedroom much except for Friday nights. That was when Dad and I each grabbed a spot on one of the beds, and he fired up the little transistor. The Gillette Cavalcade of Sports started, and we were ready to listen to the fight that night.
I know what you're thinking. Listening to a fight is kind of like watching stamp collecting. It's not. When your pa is all fired up about the fight, it's exciting. Plus, you gotta be ten.
Come Friday nights, the Gillette boys sponsored another great match between somebody named Tiger and somebody named Sugar. Boxing on the radio is almost an oxymoron. You can't see anything in the ring. You can't watch someone get knocked out. You can't witness a champ raising his arms standing on the corner of the ring. But you can hear and feel and experience it all because of the announcer. The bell, the crowd, the music, and one guy or two recounting the action, blow by blow.
I didn't grow up in the golden age of radio, as it's now called. I heard stories about families gathered in front of the Atwater-Kent listening to Fibber McGee and Molly. I read years later about the fireside chats and the horrors of war being broadcast to America. I only know about two guys in silk shorts trying to knock each other's brains out in three-minute bursts.
Dad and I spent years listening to the Cincinnati Reds as Waite Hoyt "called" the games. It was, however, the Friday Night Fights with my dad that l loved and that drew me to the sweet science—the mystery that is radio. I knew something was special when it made my dad get so excited he'd leap up on the bed, like when his favorite boxer knocked somebody out of the ring. Usually Dad banged his head on the low ceiling and experienced a near-knockout blow himself.
I always say I grew up in the country. I look at maps now and realize I was about ten miles from downtown Cincinnati. "Over the river," we called it. Kentucky is the country, and I grew up in it.
We had a regular neighborhood gang. My friends all had nicknames like Frog and Moe and Birdie and Mudhole. Frog tried to get out of being drafted into the army by trying to get flat feet. He leaped off the roof of his house repeatedly in an effort to flatten his pods. Moe, his brother, kept me up to date on Frog's plan. I saw Frog hobbling around every now and then, so it seemed to be working.
Donnie was the neighborhood weirdo. Everybody has one of those guys. He was always laughing at a joke nobody else heard. Ours was the kind of neighborhood where you just walked in the front door without knocking. The kids were a kind of giant village blob, drifting in and out of houses and garages at will.
My good friend Mike and I once walked in on Donnie when he was about fourteen, hooked with ropes around his ankles. The Donster had this brilliant idea he could pull his legs over his head 'til he could reach his own manhood. We walked in just as Donnie was almost bent in half with his pulley system of ropes and the headboard of his bed. Since I knew zippo about sex at that time, and Mike didn't either, we just accepted this as normal. We stared at Donnie as he was about to achieve some sort of relief 'til he realized we were in the room. Most folks would be either embarrassed or angry to be caught in such a position. Donnie just slowly lowered his legs and asked if either of us had any bubble gum.
I still consider this as the ultimate in cool in handling what could have become a reputation-crushing moment. Not to Donnie. He acted like it was nothing, and so we acted like it was nothing. A lesson learned: pick yourself up, or in Donnie's case, lower your legs and pull up your pants, and move on with your life.
Life was nothing but one long float on an old car top made into a raft on the creek. A pickup basketball game or softball challenge. It was tramping through the woods and sleeping in lean-tos in the front yard. We had floods and power outages and a few shootings mixed in for excitement, and it all seemed completely normal. It was.
Cincinnati, Ohio, during my childhood was filled with media stars. If you were on the radio or television in the '50s and '60s, it was a golden time. I still see the influence of those early pioneers on David Letterman even today. Paul Dixon did a local early morning show and was very funny. Ruth Lyons was a legend. However, it was the radio jocks that got to me. WSAI, WCKY, WLW, and WKRC had talent for days. I was raw material absorbing how to do radio without even knowing I was being taught.
My high school was typical of that area—a country school that was no match in sports for the city schools. I hear people talk about the difficulties of adjusting to high school. Oh, the angst and pain of the teenage years. I'm sorry, but I reveled in every second of it. Band, basketball, clubs—it was all a total blast. Obnoxious, I'm sure, but nevertheless true.
Dusty Rhode was a DJ on WSAI, the station all the "kids" listened to every waking moment. For the embryos reading this now, I will explain how Dusty came to walk among mere morals. He had the coolest name in the world, he was young and good-looking, and he was on the radio. He was a star!
Dusty came to my high school for a sock hop. Sock hops were the hormone-infused dance parties from the early days of rock 'n' roll. There is nothing more valuable in the world than the gym floor of a high school. The wood is apparently some kind of rare African rosewood that must be protected at all costs. Walking on it in shoes would ruin this protected and highly polished collection of planks, and thus, "sock hops" were invented. Kids could hop around on the floor, flailing to music, but only if they were wearing their finest white cotton footwear. Shoes were verboten.
To celebrate a sports victory, be sure to have one of the biggest celebrities known to man in honor of the occasion. At the time, I never realized what Dusty Rhodes was required to do. Dusty drove the winding country roads to a hick-filled high school on a Friday night. He was by himself, so he had to haul in some old speakers and an amp to produce some noise. He had boxes of 45s and some radio station junk to give away. Dusty was probably in his twenties and getting twenty-five dollars for the opportunity to watch acne-ravaged, dance-challenged hillbillies leap to and fro. "Louie, Louie" blared from the speakers, and we twisted and shuffled in our stocking feet in what seemed like heaven. Dusty was amazing. He'd ask, "Are you all having a good time?"
Are you kidding, Dusty? What could possibly be better than this? Every fifteen minutes, he gave away another highly coveted station bumper sticker and asked if anybody had any requests. The guy was a born entertainer. Three hours later, we were exhausted, Dusty was out of stickers, and we were out of time. I had witnessed show business at its highest level.
I imagine the school principal slipped Dusty a five and a couple of tens outside. Mr. Rhodes likely hauled all the equipment to his car and drove home at midnight. Surely, he was as honored to have this chance as we were to have him there. Talk about a win-win for everybody Years later, I learned firsthand how much of a thrill radio "personalities" get from going to a remote location.
But it was on that evening in a small high school in Kentucky when I knew what I wanted to do with my life. I never walked into a radio studio until I was in college, but it was always my plan ... my dream ... my future.
The other side of all my tomorrows was also there at the hop. She was blonde and beautiful and a dancing machine. Little did I know that I would still be married to the girl who agreed to a dance that golden evening. Love is a wonderful thing, especially if you can find it while saving a gym floor at the same time. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Country Music Broke My Brain by Gerry House, Erin Kelley. Copyright © 2014 Gerry House. Excerpted by permission of BenBella Books, Inc..
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