Ah, memories of AM radio

Published 11:32 pm Saturday, September 18, 2010

Most of the time when these columns are written I wear headphones attached to the computer and, by some magic, digital music slips through them. For example, right now I’m listening to Glenn Gould grunt his way through Bach’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 5 in F. The music is not always that high brow. I just love to hear Gould hum and moan and grunt, as he plays piano.

Digital music is relatively new to us baby boomers. A good many of us went down to the local record store when we were kids and bought a 45-rpm for 99 cents or an album for $3, if we really liked the artist. Then, we’d come home and spin those tunes until our parents would yelp about what has happened to the younger generation … yada yada yada.

Radio made the music popular. We’d hear our favorite DJ play music from Billboard’s Hot 100 on AM stations, or later in the 1960s and 1970s we’d tune in to “underground” FM and get the album cuts from Emerson Lake and Palmer or Yes.

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Radio drove our music tastes for the most part, from country to R&B to rock.

The other night after the newspaper was to bed and we could pass some time, Curtis Thomas and I talked about the old radio days.

Curtis used to have a show at a local radio station here in Selma back in the day. He knows what it’s like to read meters, cue a record for playing and grab the telephone to take requests all at once.

He remembers the old guys who shut down AM stations when the sun went down and got up with the sun to start the day, usually with the National Anthem.

Curtis remembers playing the music: soul, R&B and gospel.

Some of the smaller radio stations actually had gospel groups come in and perform live in their studios. In Greenwood, Miss., just above the Blue Parrot Café on Howard Street, is what’s left of the old WGRM radio station. Steve LaVere has turned it into a blues museum. That old radio station up stairs from the café is where BB King played his first ever broadcast music with his church’s choir.

Nearly every small town had one — Curtis told me Selma had several radio stations — back during its heyday. Everybody listened for the announcer to tell them the weather (sometimes jocks had to look outside at the sky and guess) or rip yellow sheets off old clacking machines infrequently serviced by a technician from The United Press International or The Associated Press, depending on which news service had the subscription.

Besides playing the latest in music, these guys behind the mics were your friends and neighbors. They were local celebrities and we listened to them because we knew them (and many of us knew we could call them and request the latest from The Drifters or Aretha Franklin).

After sundown when most of our local stations went off the air, we turned to distance radio. They usually had the hits before our station did, and we knew we could get folks like Curtis to see if they could get the records we wanted to hear.

Back in the 1960s WLS 890 out of Chicago would blast us out of the bedroom as we sneaked our transistor radios under our pillows to hear the music of Elvis, The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Percy Sledge.

If we couldn’t get WLS, we twist the dial and adjust the transistor to get KAAY in Little Rock. Back in the day, on Saturday nights, we’d hear Clyde Clifford’s Beaker Street, the first underground music program on an AM station this far south. It’s said that KAAY’s signal was so strong in those days, it could be heard in Cuba.

Glenn Gould’s almost finished. I love Bach, but goodness, all this talk about old AM stations — excuse me while I ramp it up a little…. Johnny and Edgar Winter, if you will.

Leesha Faulkner is director of digital media for the Selma Times-Journal. You may reach her at 410-1742 or e-mail her at leesha.faulkner@selmatimesjournal.com

Here’s a look at Larry Lujack…the late night voice of WLS when it was in its prime