RAISED ON AM RADIO – Growin’ Up With Rock & Roll

My love affair with music began when I was six years old. The radio was the prime source; although I also remember running home every day after school to catch American Bandstand. Other than occasional artists appearing on variety shows such as the Ed Sullivan Show, American Bandstand was the only way to see the artists that I heard on the radio.

This scenario, I’m sure, is shared with a lot of people of my generation. That is, based not only on popular music – generally classified as Rock & Roll – itself being novel and fashionable, but also, based on the subject matter that held some importance, (primarily young love and the confusion thereof). The artists were expressing what we were feeling and comforting us in the knowledge that we weren’t alone in experiencing the emotions that they described in song. And they did it with attitude!

Music was all around in some shape or form ever since I can remember. It was a time when – with the exception of TV as previously noted – there were really only two options: the radio and records. Not having the money to buy everything I heard or liked, I relied on the radio to entertain and keep me up to date with what was happening musically. The radio also helped form a camaraderie with other music fans and record buyers alike who talked about the latest songs heard on the various radio stations, (or caught on Bandstand).

Music was very welcoming. There were no barriers to stop a person from enjoying it and it was all-purpose. That is, it consoled you when you were down and celebrated with you when times were good. And, you could enjoy it on your own terms on many different levels. You didn’t have to know anything about the artist or the origin of the song – unless, of course, if that was important to you. The only restrictions, boundaries, or categorizations were those personally imposed.

Because the format was generally “hits of the day”, the playlists, as such, were all over the map genre wise. You could hear Johnny Mathis one minute, Fats Domino the next, and Patsy Cline after that. A hit was a hit regardless of style or idiom. I may have had an inkling as to the genre but that wasn’t something that I focused on so I didn’t differentiate and decide, for example, that one selection was Country & Western, (as termed in the day), or another was Rhythm & Blues. Added to that is that it could get tricky trying to draw the line where one genre stops and another begins.

I grew up in small town Ontario about 25 miles from Buffalo. A lot of my music appreciation came from listening to Buffalo AM radio in addition to stations in Ontario in the 50’s & 60’s. I scratched my musical itch by listening to broadcasts from Buffalo, (WKBW 1520), Toronto (CHUM 1050, CKEY 590), and Hamilton (CKOC 1150) among others.

All played the hits and featured “Top Ten” lists that were updated weekly, gauging a song’s popularity, (not necessarily based on sales). And contests – the zanier the better – to attract and retain listeners, were also in heavy rotation.

In addition, all the stations had DJ’s that added to the experience with their own distinctive personalities. For example, while they didn’t have the profile and benefit of a bigger market like New York’s Cousin Brucie at WABC or Murray The K at WINS, WKBW’s Dan Neavereth, Tommy Shannon, and Joey Reynolds became household names.

So where did it start in earnest for me? Emerging from the varied faceless hit makers was Elvis Presley – the proclaimed “King Of Rock & Roll”. (Certainly, Little Richard was just as impressive and ground breaking – and Jerry Lee Lewis had his moments – but neither benefited from the Elvis marketing machine directed primarily to young white fans like me, and prospective fans in general).

In addition to his music and the defiant attitude, marketing efforts made Elvis larger than life. I can recall walking to school and stopping at a corner store along the way to get my Elvis Presley pencil with a stamped autograph “Yours sincerely, Elvis Presley”. (There were pink ones for girls, and blue and black ones for boys). And, I would occasionally buy Elvis Presley trading cards that were available as well.

Those raucous early hits got my heart pounding with excitement. The first 5 Sun Records singles (re-released a year later by RCA upon buying his recording contract from Sun): “That’s All Right” b/w “Blue Moon of Kentucky”, “Good Rockin’ Tonight”, “Milkcow Blues Boogie”, “Baby Let’s Play House”, and “Mystery Train” were all covers – Presley wasn’t a songwriter but rather an interpreter – that served as a showcase for Presley’s primal energy and soaring, frenetic vocals. Those releases
arguably serve as the high water mark artistically of his career as he successfully blended Rhythm & Blues and Country & Western. And, in doing so, Presley went a long way in establishing the subgenre of Rockabilly and putting the fledgling Rock & Roll on the map.

The subsequent Sun Records releases, as well as a number of those when he moved to RCA, were mostly attempts to continue what had already been created by those first five records. And some came close; namely: “Heartbreak Hotel”, “My Baby Left Me”, “All Shook Up”, “Jailhouse Rock”, and “Hard Headed Woman”.

And his personal appearances certainly require a mention. There was no one else on the scene at the time – no white performer that is – that displayed such an explosive, overtly sexual stage presence as Elvis did. (So much so that Ed Sullivan, who didn’t think his physical gyrations were for all family consumption, stipulated that he only be shot from the waist up).

But the shine started to come off for me as the promise of those early singles faded when Elvis moved more and more to recording insipid ballads that had nothing to do with Rock & Roll, and starring in mostly banal movies. Thus began a search for new musical heroes as I continued to listen intently to the radio.

As an aside, it was around this time that my parents bought our first record player – an RCA Victrola. Included with the purchase were ten 45’s (that were supposed to represent the Top 10 of the day). In reality they were random selections that the store had in inventory. They were mostly forgettable; but there were 3 gems – having no money to buy records – that I played till they turned from black to grey: “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” by Lloyd Price, “Walk Slow” b/w “Sleep” by Little Willie John, and “I Loves You Porgy” by Nina Simone. (I did manage to scrape my nickels and dimes together sometime later to buy my first single – “Chain Gang” by Sam Cooke).

All of this sustained me but there was another brand of music that came to my attention that wasn’t to be denied. It was ensemble singing that featured tight harmonies on words and non-words till a lead voice broke free and soared above the others. It was Doo-Wop, and while it borrowed heavily from R&B, it differed from anything I’d been listening to.

Doo-Wop, I came to find out later, started as an African American expression in the 40’s in large urban centres such as New York, Philadelphia, Newark, Chicago, and Washington DC. I didn’t know it by name but certainly had heard some the biggest hits of the genre like: “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” (Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers), “Come Go With Me” (The Del-Vikings), and “Oh What A Night” (The Dells).

For the first time I came to appreciate the beauty of the male African American voice, and I recognized an urban feel to the music. The power and the allure of the vocals was such that instrumentation wasn’t required or missed. The vision of young guys honing their chops singing on the street corner came easily to me.

Singing in that style was an artist that kept tugging at my sleeve and I couldn’t shake. His name was Dion and he led a vocal back-up collective known as The Belmonts, (named after a street in their native Bronx). Dion and The Belmonts were certainly not originators of the form but perpetuated the genre with a whole lot of style. They were similar to a number of white singing groups – particularly Italian–American ensembles – that shared the same urban environment with African Americans. And Dion, both with The Belmonts and later on his own, brought the attitude as well as a certain vulnerability that you wouldn’t expect from the street gang member that Dion actually was. And man could he sing!

While there was a lot of good music and great artists out there, it was Dion that I gravitated to. No doubt the Italian thing played a role, but, along with fellow fans, I could easily see myself laying it out there singing “The Wanderer” or “Runaround Sue” or “Ruby Baby”. And in the process of doing that, cautioning all who would listen that “I’m untouchable, (but don’t go breaking my heart).”

I bought all the Dion singles, and the only albums I owned for the longest time were “Presenting Dion & The Belmonts” and a Dion solo effort “Lovers Who Wander”. I got to know all of the songs by heart, and those singles and albums carried me through to Beatlemania and The British Invasion, and still new heroes on the horizon.

But that’s another story for another time.

  • Rico Ferrara, August 2020

14 thoughts on “RAISED ON AM RADIO – Growin’ Up With Rock & Roll

  1. Many thanks Rico!!!
    Really enjoyed reading this. My love for music started with listening to WBLK in Buffalo as well as CHUM TORONTO.
    Looking forward to being part of and memories from this group.
    Alice Parsons (of Philips Lighting)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great to see this hit the streets Rico! Congratulations! It brings back a lot of memories, especially the “top 40” hits of the day that were all over the map genre wise. One minute Chuck Berry, the next Johnny Mathis, etc. Lots of C&W too in my listening area. Keep ’em coming!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great piece Rico! You’ve reacquainted lots of great memories from a carefree point in time, love your attention to detail in such an entertaining way!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A really fun and vivid post, Rico! Reminds me of days on the beach listening to KIST, growing up in Santa Barbara. Looking forward to your next post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Awesome post! So good to see your well-informed thoughts on music that had so much influence on us.

    Looking forward to anything you feel is important enough to write about. Keep going!

    Liked by 1 person

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