In my recent post featuring Paul Flagg I asked whether anyone would be interested in features on this blog for some of the great soul disc jockeys. I got some very enthusiastic feedback, so today will begin a semi-regular feature called "Soul on the Air," in which I'll provide streams of some of the airchecks in my collection. Let me give a few words of introduction to the series and then I'll roll out the first featured disc jockey.
What Is An Aircheck?
For those who are not familiar with the concept, an "aircheck" is a recording of a radio broadcast, more particularly of a DJ performing on a radio station (as opposed to a transcription of a "radio show" a la The Green Hornet or Lum 'n' Abner). Some airchecks were recorded by the jocks themselves, for personal and/or professional reasons (in the latter case, the airchecks were used for critique and improvement or as demos for DJs when seeking other jobs in markets where they were not heard), but a great many were recorded by radio fans of the time. I'm sure some were recorded by fans of the various disc jockeys or radio stations (some of more well-known airchecks involve erratic behavior by certain jocks or radio station format changes), but for those of us of my generation and older, taping off the radio was the only way to get certain songs (for example, in my rural town there weren't any record stores), so I'm sure some recording was done for that purpose. Airchecks are either scoped (commercials and music are excised, leaving only the DJ patter) or unscoped (unedited).
Online Aircheck Resources
Whatever the reason airchecks were generated, there are thousands of hours of material in the hand of collectors, disc jockeys and other entities, and a thriving internet community exists for these recordings. The leading online resource for hearing vintage airchecks is Reel Radio's Reel Top 40 Radio Repository, which features airchecks from a very broad range of disc jockeys, including the famous "Boss Jocks" of KHJ, the Los Angeles Top 40 giant of the '60s, notables such as David Letterman (broadcasting as a college student in Muncie, Indiana), Wink Martindale (who was a star jock at LA's KFWB), and Rod Roddy (on the air as a controversial talk show host in Dallas in the late '60s), to name a few, and scores of other talents, from both well-known (Chicago's WCFL, New York's WABC, etc.) and obscure stations and even early episodes of America's Top 40. The site now requires membership for full access to the materials, but there's lots that can be heard there if you are a fan of classic '60s and '70s radio, it's a must-see and must-hear site. WFMU's now-defunct "Aircheck" program covered lots of interesting and unusual material, and the archived shows are still available at WFMU's website. A search on the internet will reveal scads of other sites dedicated to the preservation, trading and selling of airchecks (two well-known commercially-available aircheck CDs are a comp of material from madcap Memphis rock-n-roll impresario Dewey Phillips and Philly soul jock Sonny Hopson).
A Note About This Series
As I mentioned in the Paul Flagg post, it is unfortunate that out of all of the airchecks that are in the hands of collectors, R&B stuff is pretty scarce. I've been able to acquire some material from various collectors, and it is from my collection that I'll be doing the series. All of the airchecks are unscoped, so in addition to hearing lots of great soul music in its original context, you'll hear commercials, DJ patter, the news, and other features. You'll hear national hits that you'll easily recognize, but also lots of regional stuff. Since this stuff came exclusively from AM radio and then dubs of dubs, the audio quality won't be sterling, but I think the soul will ring right on through. As much as I can, I'll provide info about the DJ, the radio station, and some of the tunes featured. At this point I don't know how long I'll keep the streams available, so don't sleep on these! Finally, I would really appreciate your feedback on these; I want this project to be one where ideas are exchanged and good fun is had by all. OK, after all that introductory verbiage, I guess I should get started with the feature!
Soul on the Air: Herb Kent,
WVON, Cicero, IL, April 1970
Of all the legendary R&B radio stations of the '60s, Chicago's WVON (1450 AM) was easily one of the most prominent. Chess Records principals Leonard and Phil Chess bought WHFC, a suburban brokered-time ethnic station (brokered-time stations sold timeslots to various performers, who then solicited their own advertising; some ethnic stations and religious stations still follow this format today), in 1963. Christening it the "Voice of the Negro," the Chess brothers found their 1,000-watt station quickly becoming one of the top stations in the market ('VON literally dominated its R&B competitors and ranked alongside Top 40 stations WLS and WCFL at the top of the ratings). Crucial to the station's success were the "Good Guys," the team of jocks and other personalities who kept music, news and community service programming going around the clock. Changing times in radio spelled the end of 'VON as a major force (as was the case with many of the AM giants of the prior decades) by the mid-'70s, but the station is around today as the black talk-oriented "Voice of the Nation." Do take a look at the history at WVON's website and read Nadine Cohodas' Spinning The Blues Into Gold, Robert Pruter's Chicago Soul and Pervis Spann's The 40-Year Spann of WVON for more info about the station's history and its transition into its current format.
Of WVON's Good Guys (which at one time included future "Soul Train" host and producer Don Cornelius), Herb Kent, "The Kool Gent," was the most popular. Kent handled the night slot, and his smooth style (he was known, among other things, for not talking over the records like most R&B jocks of the day did) and wicked wit made him a smash success. Kent, a Radio Hall of Fame inductee, is still on the air on Chicago's WVAZ-FM, doing two weekend shows and making appearances at various "steppers" dances. I'll defer to WVAZ's Herb Kent page for more biographical details about Kent and for info about Kent's forthcoming memoirs.
This aircheck came from April 1970. After a quick jingle plays, Kent launches into Bobby Womack's "More Than I Can Stand," after which he sets forth his (fabricated) vital statistics and asserts his greatness as a jock. There's a lot of good stuff in this aircheck, including Brook Benton's version of "My Way," an O.C. Smith Coca-Cola commercial, Tyrone Davis' "Turn Back The Hands of Time" (then one of the top R&B hits in the country), George Perkins' "Crying in the Streets," Azie Mortimer's "You Can't Take It Away," Stanley Winston's "No More Ghettos In America" (the "WVON Traffic Stopper"), the Viceroy cigarette ad I've used on a podcast before, and, strangely, John Lennon's "Instant Karma" (Kent didn't mind bending genres if he liked certain songs!) There's also a great commercial from Pervis Spann for one of the many package shows he put on ("the hottest thing ... since the Chicago Fire," Spann exhorts) featuring Johnnie Taylor, Tyrone Davis, Bobby Bland, Junior Parker, O.V. Wright and Jesse Anderson! (What a show!) There's so much I could say about this aircheck, but I'll cut it short to prevent this post from being insanely long. Enjoy the show, and don't forget to leave feedback!