“Rangoon Chimp”

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

RANGOON CHIMP

Although Syracuse was only fifty miles to the west, WNDR’s signal didn’t reach. Consequently, WTLB reigned supreme in the Utica-Rome market, also enjoying extended listenership through much of the historic Mohawk Valley toward Albany.

I had worked a bit at WTLB even while under the employment of WNDR a few years prior. The format was much looser in Utica and a young, imaginative disc-jockey could experiment with various interesting techniques and approaches with almost unlimited license. There was substantial “artistic freedom” permitted since the station at the time had no viable competitors playing Rock ‘n Roll or “Top Forty” music.  They could have had a chimp spinning the discs and still enjoyed market dominance.

One Saturday night, I had segued two copies of Gary U.S. Bonds’ “New Orleans” back to back non-stop for three consecutive hours. It just seemed the right thing to do. Other times, it would be unscheduled hour-long blocks of Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry or Elvis.

On a Sunday afternoon in late ’63, just before leaving for Flint, I received a call from Annette Funicello, who was spending a few days in Utica visiting her family. I invited her out to the station and interviewed her on the air, interspersed with a few tunes,  for two and a half hours. I mean, Jesus, it was Annette of “The Mickey Mouse Club!” Annette still exuded that untouchable, unknowable virginal innocence I’ve always associated with female Mouse-ka-teers and all Catholic High School girls.

“M-I-C”—–See ya later!”

“K-E-Y”—–Why?  Because my body is the Temple of The Holy Ghost

and/or Walt Disney and they won’t share me.”

“M-O-U-S-E” — So go play with the one hiding in your pants.”

While WTLB had been something of a playground in the past, things had tightened up considerably under Program Director Quinn. I was still afforded ample liberty within reasonable parameters and “doing mornings” became quite entertaining to me and, judging from response levels, WTLB’s audience.

Without “Program Director” duties, I could devote considerable time to show preparation and pre-production. I collected jokes and “one-liners” by the hundreds. I developed character-voices. I lined up limited interviews with rock performers and TV stars. I wrote little stories and set them to music, playing all parts myself. I collected sound-effects, sprinkling my show with whistles and bells and gongs.

I even appeared at a major area race-track and participated in a “Figure-Eight-Demolition Derby”. I was helmeted, padded and strapped inside an old tank-like ’51 Hudson equipped with roll-bars. It was driven to victory. Mine was the last vehicle still running the field after savaging eleven opponents, bringing an automatic first-place finish. I still have the trophy.

For purposes of important live music, however, I might as well have been in Rangoon.

Utica was chronically by-passed by most major tours since its largest hall would seat only several thousand.  Most interested Uticans were more than willing to drive to either Syracuse or Albany to attend concerts of consequence.

The loonies from the boonies had the wheels for those deals.

“Put on your shoes, boys; we’re in the big city now!”

By summer ’66, the music seemed to be gaining strange power. So much fresh, new material seemed to be emerging from nowhere and everywhere. Major music. Master music. Mind music.

The Beatles had started getting “farther out” with each new release.  “Tomorrow Never Knows”, the final cut on their “Revolver” album, brought the clearest clue yet as to what waited ahead.

“Close your mind, relax and float downstream. This is not dying.”

“Aftermath” by the Rolling Stones became the #1 Album and “Paint It Black” the album’s #1 single.

My two year old daughter Laurie stopped going “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah” like the Beatles and started imitating Mick Jagger’s “Come-On!” which sounded more like “Ka-Mow!”. Her Irish grandmother asked me if she had been “exposed to Negroes”.

Actually she had been, although they never said “Ka-Mow!”.

Our apartment house was directly across the street from a new Federal Housing Project. Its residents were primarily black. The younger crowd had found out I worked at WTLB, the only station on the dial that could bring a black smile. As Joe from Oriskany could testify, we played “coon tunes.”

After getting acquainted, I’d invite the kids over for Kool-Aid and Cookies on my front porch once a week and pass out dozens of 45 RPM “promo” singles by R&B (Rhythm & Blues) artists. These were among hundreds of releases received each week at the station with only the smallest percentage ever being selected for broadcast from any musical category.

Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman” was a big hit in July. Then the Troggs went to #1 in August with “Wild Thing”, a song I featured every ten minutes one morning. This generated an irate phone call from Program Director Quinn who had risen before his normal waking time much to my surprise. The programming “rules” called for a minimal one-hour separation between plays of even the most popular hits. He was quite correct in his chastisement from a “rules” perspective and I told him I just had foolishly gotten carried away and would do it no more. When he might be listening. That still left at least from 6 ’til 7:15  or so for rule relaxation.

In September, The ever-wackier Beatles had a double-sided smash with “Yellow Submarine”, backed by “Eleanor Rigby”.

In October, baby daughter Colleen Elizabeth was born at Saint Luke’s Hospital in New Hartford, just outside Utica. Eileen almost gave birth in the car. Colleen was a gorgeous little girl and, as is now true of all four daughters, remains lovelier than the other three.

In November, Gene Milner sold WTAC to Fuqua Industries, a Georgia-based conglomerate which would eventually become a multi-billion dollar corporation with most investment in non-broadcast related businesses.

In December, Charlie called.

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