Monday, April 30, 2018

"Soul on the Air" BREAKING NEWS - 1971 WAOK Airchecks Discovered!

Many thanks to GET ON DOWN reader David Hamel, who informed me yesterday that 8 HOURS of airchecks from Atlanta radio station WAOK have been posted on The Campaign for Independent Broadcasting website in the UK! It turns out that the CIB - active from 1968 to 1974 - advocated for commercial radio in the UK (at that time, British radio was controlled by the BBC, which actively went after "pirate" offshore broadcasters). In 1971, the CIB solicited samples from US radio stations to demonstrate how it would work, and WAOK sent a reel-to-reel tape to help with their cause. Last year, the tape was digitized! The story of the WAOK tape, and the links to the airchecks, are on the CIB's commemorative website.

The rediscovery and digitizing of the WAOK tape is a big deal, as (1) to my knowledge, these are the only WAOK airchecks that exist from the station's tenure as Atlanta's top R&B radio station (the station still exists, but its format is urban talk radio); and (2) outside of the discovery of over 24 hours of WVON airchecks a few years ago, it's the closest to a "day in the life" presentation of R&B airchecks that I know of. This is a treasure, to put it mildly!

The CIB's page does a great job of telling the history of WAOK and its colorful owner, Zenas "Daddy" Sears (pictured here), so I won't repeat it here. Instead, I'll talk about the airchecks themselves, or at least to the extent I've heard them so far (I only received news of this last night, and have only listened to two full hours and samples of the rest). These airchecks are spread across the WAOK broadcast days of July 28-29, 1971, from the "Wake Up Atlanta" show to the late-night broadcasts by "The Dream Girl," Zilla Mayes (only the station's early-morning gospel show is omitted). Because of the limitations of the tape, described in some detail on the CIB page, the fidelity is not ideal, and there are some moments where bad tape makes for some rough-sounding music, but the limitations do not overcome the awesomeness of the airchecks.

Despite the limitations of the tape, it's clear from these airchecks that 1971 was certainly a banner year for good soul music: Al Green's "Tired of Being Alone" has returned Green to the hit parade for the first time since 1967 and has launched his super-stardom; "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Spanish Harlem" by Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin, respectively, are the newest smashes by those artists; James Brown's "Hot Pants" is the Godfather's new one (and his last #1 for King Records before he moved on to Polydor and further hits in the '70s); The Honey Cone's "Stick Up" is following "Want Ads" to the top of the charts; Rufus Thomas and Wilson Pickett are keeping the dancers grooving with "The Breakdown" and "Get Me Back on Time, Engine Number Nine," respectively; The Undisputed Truth's "Smiling Faces Sometimes" tells the unadulterated truth over a sinister groove; and Bill Withers' "Ain't No Sunshine" is bringing a new, folky flavor to the R&B landscape. The minor hits and non-hits are great as well: Clarence Carter's "Slipped, Tripped, Fell in Love," Laura Lee's "Women's Love Rights" (which draws some snide comment from one of the DJs), Jerry Butler's "How Did We Lose It Baby," Simtec and Wylie's "Gotta Get Over the Hump," and many other cuts (including local 45s by Eula Cooper and Randolph Walker) fit in well with the better-known sides. The airchecks are unscoped, so in addition to the good music, there's the fabulous DJ patter that makes these classic R&B airchecks so much fun, along with local news and vintage commercials, including a James Brown ad for a health tonic, Coca-Cola spots featuring Aretha Franklin and her sister, Erma, ads for the movie "Shaft," and heavy promotion of the first-ever "Miss Black Teenage America" pageant, which was hosted in Atlanta on July 29. (Spoiler alert: June Kelly, of Irving, Texas, won the pageant.)

At this time, I don't have really any info on the DJs featured here, except that Zilla Mayes was a singer-turned-DJ who was the first black female announcer in Georgia when she stated on WAOK as the sensuous-voiced "Mystery Lady" in 1954. (Her identity was revealed a few years later, after which she was referred to as "The Dream Girl.") She remained on WAOK for nearly 40 years, playing gospel in the later years. I have also learned that Larry Tinsley is still with WAOK and its FM sister WVEE, doing gospel music shows. I will be working on getting more information on the others as time goes on. In the meantime, though, make sure to go check these airchecks out!

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