“Segue the next couple of records with a jingle then go into a stop set. I’m gonna get some air.” Hy Lit flashed his agreeable smile, adjusted his trade mark tinted glasses and winked. “You’re a natural, kid.” Then he disappeared out the studio door.
The lights from the control console cast a soft yellow glow across the room. I sat at the U shaped counter surrounded by a confection of the latest and best broadcast equipment. At my left elbow a stack of 45 RPM records teetered like the Tower of Pisa. LP albums, open reel tapes, spent Pepsi bottles and the remains of an extra large double cheese and pepperoni pizza lay strewn around the studio floor. Overhead the Cleftones’ classic Heart and Soul spilled from the burley Altec air monitors. It was summer, 1964 and I was living the dream of every young rock n roller.
Two or three nights a week I sat in the air studio of WIBG radio pulling records, handling the phones and running errands for one of the country’s top DJs. When the engineer wasn’t around to see I even got to man the control board, mixing records, running commercials and honing a trade that would carry me though adulthood. Mom and dad weren’t happy but tolerated the situation. Then again, what parent wanted their kid to grow up to be a slick talking rock n roll disc jockey? Their take was the usual over simplified parental thinking: let him be, he’ll grow out of it.
Little did they know.
It all started a few years earlier innocently enough. You might even say it was my father’s fault. One chilly winter morning found a neat little six transistor portable AM radio under the Christmas tree with my name on the tag. It was made of plastic, had built in antenna and speaker; was about the size of a pack of cigarettes, and became my constant companion. Within a short time I was ditching school and hanging out on the front steps of the WIBG studios. That’s where I first met Hy Lit and Joe Niagara. They figured as long as I was going to be there anyway they might as well put me to work. I was invited to become the youngest intern at the popular radio station. Everything was fine until my school took an interest in my lack of attendance. After some fast and fancy talking, I reached a compromise with my concerned parents. I could work weekends and then evenings during the summer as long as my grades didn’t suffer and I didn’t miss any more school.
At the time, Philadelphia was ground zero for the burgeoning rock n roll boom. In the late ‘50’s the owners of a religious based radio station took a huge gamble. After experimenting with an evening program of pop hits, the foresighted executives at Storer Broadcasting Company switched WIBG, whose call letters ironically stood for I Believe In God, to a twenty four hour all rock n roll format. It became one of the earliest stations in the country to program non-stop rock n roll. Teens from Philly, the Delaware Valley, and from South Jersey down to the sea shore were delighted. Adults took a different view. Most parents and civic leaders thought rock n roll was just so much noise, with earthy rhythms and a jungle beat that drove young people to perdition. But rock n roll was here to stay, and the gamble paid off. By the early ‘60’s hundreds of stations across the country were rockin’ to the new beat, and WIBG was the number one rocker, with Joe Niagara and Hy Lit the top jocks in the nation. Today, both iconic DJs are rightfully enshrined in Cleveland’s Rock Hall of Fame.
Schlepping records and equipment for Hy Lit to hops at places like Little Flower and St. Anne’s high schools was fun and prepared me well for the Disco years yet to come. And the attention from the opposite sex was intoxicating. But there was something about being on the air that captivated me. From the moment I first set foot in a studio I knew where my future lay. Joe and Hy were understanding, patient mentors. I took to radio like a needle in a record groove.
It’s hard to explain if you’ve never been inside a radio station. There is something mystical, almost spiritual about an air studio at night. When it’s just you, the music, the listeners, and the sympathetic glow of the meters, dials and indicators, you can feel the energy, taste the alchemy. It is the perfect setting for weird and magical things to happen.
Hy Lit returned just as the last commercial was ending. All great DJs have an impeccable inner sense of time and timing. It’s part of what makes them great. I punched up a short personal DJ jingle, potted up microphone ‘A’ and gave Hy a nod.
“WIBBAGE… the big 99… and you’re rockin’ with Hy Lit… 8:22 in the night time… in the City of Brotherly Love… with one of Philly’s favorite sons… he’ll be joining us Friday night… out at Holy Cross High School… Mr. Lee Andrews along with his Hearts… for Sam and Sherry in Germantown…”
I hit the remote start of the husky QRK turntable. The opening chords of Teardrops filled my headphones just as Hy concluded his patter. “… on the Big 99… WIBG!” He smiled, gave me thumbs up and I cut the mike. “Nice job, any calls?” Hy asked, firing up a Kool.
“Just the usual… oh, and a Donna from Chester called. She sounded kinda upset.” I read the note in my hand. “She said, ‘You just have to play the Marvelettes’ Forever.’ I told her you played it already but she insisted that it was desperately important that you get it on.”
Hy accepted the paper with the request and grinned. “It always is, Billy, it always is. Pull the record.”
“You’re going to play it again?”
He snubbed out his half smoked cigarette, downed a slug of cold coffee and took my place at the controls. Ten minutes later Hy read the heartfelt dedication over the air, added some poetic words of advice and encouragement to the distressed young couple, and punched up the touching ballad Forever. “That’s what we do, kid… that’s what it’s all about.”
By 10:20 we were walking out the station’s front door. It was a warm night, the air heavy, when a convertible appeared out of the grey mist that kissed the ground, and rolled to a stop. Aside from music and radio, I was a certified car nut and this cherry red ’54 Merc was one cool sled. It was customized with all the goodies: shaved, nosed and decked; carried Frenched in head and taillights; a custom grill, and sported spotlights, lake pipes and spinner hub caps. The name Donna was delicately scrolled just below the passenger window. Hy and I looked at the custom with admiration.
“Mr. Lit…” The car’s driver strode over to us with an outstretched hand. Although dressed in peg legged black chinos, desert boots and a white T shirt with a pack of Marlboros rolled in the sleeve, he wasn’t a teen. Despite his greased back jet black hair, I figured him to be in his early thirties. It wasn’t unusual for listeners to come by the station hoping to get a song played or catch a glimpse of their favorite DJ. But in 1964 the average listener to rock n roll was a high school kid. Few past their twenties found the new music anything but annoying.
Hy took the man’s hand. “Nice set of wheel you have there.”
I can recall his exact words as if were yesterday. “Thanks. I hope I’m not troubling you. I don’t have much time; I’ve got to get back. I just wanted to thank you.”
“You’re welcome, but what is it exactly I did?”
The stranger looked at me and then back to Hy. “Oh, sorry, a song you played…a dedication… Forever… it’s mine and Donnas’ song. The night you played it, the words you said, it made us realize… well, we stayed together, despite her parents, we didn’t break up. In fact, later we eloped to Maryland. Because of you we’re still together. I always wanted you to know; to say, ‘Thanks’.”
His expression, though genuine, was that of someone with other things on his mind. He looked at me. “Hang in there, BJ, keep on rockin’” Then he was gone. I figured he’d mistaken me for someone else.
Hy and I stood there watching the Merc’s blue dot taillights fade into the July night. Neither of us equated the visitor with the urgent phone request earlier that evening. A look of contented satisfaction gradually crossed Hy’s tired face. “That’s what we do, kid… that’s what it’s all about.”
July, 1977. I had stuck to my commitment to music and radio, despite impassioned chiding from my parents and well meaning school counselors. After returning from the Army in 1972, I attended the American Academy of Broadcasting, a radio school which was run by another Philly DJ legend, Long John Wade. Then I was off to a good start in my chosen career. My first radio gig was doing afternoon drive at WDVL, an FM rocker in Vineland, New Jersey. Another station later, and I took the position as music director at WEEZ in Chester, PA. It was the ‘70’s and disco; rock n roll and oldies were slugging it out on the air waves across the country. WEEZ was a new pop-rock station that played a heavy mix of ‘50’s and ‘60’s rock n roll. I was being heard daily all over the Philly-Delaware Valley area. I also hosted a weekly Oldies but Goodies program in the tradition of Hy Lit’s classic Hall of Fame show back when he held court at the now de-funked WIBG. In fact, thanks to the oldies revolution, Hy, Joe Niagara and other old time rock n roll jocks were enjoying renewed fame.
Using the air name of Billy James and sometimes referred to as BJ the DJ, my oldies show aired Sunday nights from 9PM till 2AM. I took requests and dedications, playing the best music ever recorded from the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s, just like in the old days.
It was just about air time when the previous DJ came into the studio. “Hey, Billy, someone outside wants to see you.”
“Thanks, Tom. Will you punch up the intro and first song? I’ll be back in a minute,” I replied, and headed out the door.
In the parking lot sat a gorgeous custom ’54 Merc convert. In cherry red, it was the perfect throwback to classic ‘50’s customs, with spot lights, lake pipes, spinner hub caps and the works. A pretty blonde with a bouffant hair-do waited in the passenger seat. On the door was scrolled the name Donna.
“Excuse me…” With greased back jet black hair, he was dressed to match his car: peg legged black chinos, desert boots, and a white T shirt, a pack of Marlboros rolled in the sleeve. He and his lady friend appeared to be in their early thirties. “Can you do me a favor?”
He handed me a slip of paper. “Could you play a song for us tonight and mention it on your show?”
An eerie feeling of déjà vu struck me as I accepted the paper. “Sure… that’s what we do… that’s what it’s all about,” I heard myself reply.
He smiled a familiar smile, “Thanks, BJ, keep rockin’,” and he was gone.
As I watched the Merc’s blue dot taillights fade, memories of another warm July night a long time ago came rushing back. I glanced down at the paper in my hand. It read: For Danny and Donna of Chester on our thirteenth wedding anniversary. Please play the Marvelettes’ Forever.
For Gladys Horton
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