Music of Christmas Past

There is something about Christmas that brings me back to Christmases long past and memories of loved ones long gone.

For years my mother would use tempera paint and do a Christmas-themed picture in a large front window of wherever we lived at the time. Her inspiration would come from either a Christmas card that she liked or even from the cover she liked from an album of Christmas music. I have long thought of doing the same thing but I don’t have enough confidence in my artwork to even try.

A sample of my mother’s Christmas artwork from 1961, Staten Island, New York.

Every year my mother would bring out her Christmas albums. One of the albums she played was by the Robert Shaw Chorale. I was always moved by the gospel sounding Mary Had a Baby. I looked forward to hearing it every year.

Our copy had a different cover, but this is one of two Robert Shaw Chorale Christmas records that we had.

This is the other Robert Shaw Chorale album but with the same type of label as the above record. I found the labels to be works of art.

Robert Shaw Choral Christmas label.

Another album my family had was the somewhat bizarre ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas by Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians and Glee Club. The title cut was the one I remember most.

Fred Waring blending styles in 1955.

As years went by my mother would start listening to Christmas music on the radio. In the early 1970’s, San Francisco had two commercial classical music radio stations on the FM dial, KDFC and KKHI, with the latter being my mother’s preferred station. Every year on Christmas Day KKHI would play an eclectic selection of Christmas music. The only thing about the music was that it had to reflect the meaning of the day and be heartfelt. I don’t recall any “We’re expected to record some Christmas music so here it is” stuff. They may have played some secular music, but I doubt they would have played Frosty the Snowman or Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The music had to reflect the feeling of the day as I recall. While it might be an exaggeration, it seemed that if Led Zeppelin had recorded a Christmas song, KKHI would have played it on December 25.

One of my all-time favorite Christmas songs was Nat King Cole’s version of the 1945 Robert Wells/ Mel Torme’s composition, The Christmas Song.

Nat King Cole’s original 1946 recording.

For years I only knew Cole’s 1961 stereo rerecording of the song. In the mid 1980’s, my friend Mad Man Moskowitz played his old 78 of the song. To me it is the definitive recording. I don’t think anyone else should even try.

Whether your memories of Christmases past be happy or bittersweet, may this Christmas be a good one and bring a smile to your face in future years.

Merry Christmas.

There is still music being made

Back in the 1980’s, the company I worked for had a warehouse for the products we sold. The people working in the warehouse listened to the music of the time. One day the warehouse manager, who was about a year younger than I, said, “I swore I’d never say this, but that’s not music.”

You can go back at almost any point last century and find that the music of young people was considered garbage by older generations.

In 1980 I had an Oldies Hour on my daily late-night shift. Sometimes the chief engineer would stop by. Ken was forty years older than I and we were pretty good friends. I would love it when he would tell me stories about working in radio in the ‘30’s and ‘40’s. Among other things during his career, Ken had emceed big band radio broadcasts over the Mutual Radio Network.

One time he stopped by and I was playing Topsy, Part II, a 1958 hit by Cab Calloway’s former drummer, Cozy Cole. Ken liked that. He would have been in his early 40’s when it was a hit.

Big Band holdout from 1958.

Another time he came in and I was playing Lies, a 1966 hit by the Knickerbockers. To say that Ken was not a fan was an understatement. He would have been about 50 when that came out.

I still don’t know why he has a sax. (Yes, there is a video there.)

The reason I mention Ken’s age when those records come out is because the late 1990’s, when I was in my early 40’s, was the last time I enjoyed most of the new music on the radio. By 2006, when I was 50, there was little new music that interested me – just like Ken when he was 50.

It seems hard to find young people playing instruments and making “music” anymore, but there are some.

A while back I was surfing YouTube and saw a suggestion of a new version of the Hollies’ song Bus Stop by the MonaLisa Twins.

My introduction to the Twins.

Mona and Lisa Wagner are twin sister who were born in Austria, which explains their accents. They currently live in the Liverpool area. They have gotten attention from famous people such as John Sebastian.

The Twins getting well deserved attention.

They are clearly talented, but many of their videos seem to over-emphasize that many of their recordings are studio productions with multi-tracking and over dubbing. I know “everyone does it,” but I would like to hear music that is being made, not music that is being manufactured.

But did they sweep the floor afterwards?

That being said, they do write original material and can rock out with other musicians in live shows. They have appeared at numerous venues including the famous Cavern Club in Liverpool where they performed this original song, One More Time.

Where is Brian Epstein when you need him?

Another great group of young people making music comes from the Philippines. The REO brothers consists of the Otic brothers Reno, Ronjoseph, Raymart, Ralph, and Roy Mark. They started playing music with improvised instruments to help out the family finances. They were heard jamming with some friends and things went up from there. The name REO brothers come from their first initial (“R” for all of them), “E” from their mother’s maiden name (Evasco), and “O” from their last name (Otic).

Their videos look like they are recording in their basement. However, the acoustics are good and they are playing the music live as it is being recorded. They might make minimal use of multi-tracking to add another instrument, but most of what they do is performed as the video is being recorded. One of the reasons they have become successful is because they play their live shows with a polish usually found in more experienced musicians.

The first time they came to my attention was when YouTube suggested this video to me, again with the song Bus Stop.

Young people seem to like Bus Stop.

They like to play the Beatles, from early songs such as I Saw Her Standing There and Boys

Rocking out to the early Beatles.

…to later songs such as While My Guitar Gently Weeps.

The more mature sound of the later Beatles.

The brothers have played a relief concert at Madison Square Gardens with several other performers such as Jennifer Hudson and Plain White T’s. They also were the first performers from the Philippines to play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool.

I am thrilled to hear young musicians playing music that is not dependent on sampling and computers.

Memories Made With Music

Music has a way of etching itself into your memory even if you don’t consciously remember it. My father always had the radio on when he drove. Before he went to Korea in 1960 he would listen to KSFO in San Francisco. They played what was then called “Middle of the Road” music. Frank Sinatra would have been the type of artist they played. In the late 1950’s I’m sure they played Big Band music to a certain extent – not really the swing stuff, but the more melodic tunes from the late war, early post-war era.

In 1984 I bought an album of Harry James’ Greatest Hits. I knew some of the songs on that album but not all. One tune stood out to me. I did not know it, but I knew it. It was Man With a Horn.

Seeing what time it is.

As that song played it was almost as if I was three years old again. It brought back a memory of riding in the car high on a hill overlooking a bit of a valley in or near San Francisco/Daly City. There was a billboard, I think for Dial Soap, with a working clock at the upper left-hand corner.

In 1985 I attended the National Association of Broadcasters convention In Las Vegas. A company that provided music services was giving out sample CD’s and I picked up one. On it was a recording from 1955 – Band of Gold by Don Cherry. Again, it blew off dust from the recesses of my memory.

I know that song from somewhere.

Another song that takes me back is Old Cape Cod by Patti Page even though I have known this record for years. I seem to remember hearing this in an old military building on the Presidio of San Francisco.

Images of formal dining with ladies in chiffon dresses.

KSFO also had what has to be the most beautiful jingle I have ever heard. It still brings me back to the San Francisco of my childhood.

San Francisco on my mind.

That is the long version — there was also a shorter version. That jingle made such an impression on me that I remember where I was when I last heard it on the air in March, 1972.

There are also songs that bring me back to a specific incident.

My Grandfather lived in Washington DC until I was 15. When we lived in New York we would visit him from time to time. It was not unusual for my Grandfather to give us a dollar to buy something in the stores on H Street North East. One time, I bought a friction-motor toy of a 1960 Chevy station wagon. My oldest brother bought a record: Rinky Dink by Dave “Baby” Cortez. As my brother played the record, I pretended that it was playing on the radio in my toy car.

Cranking up the radio in a toy car.

My oldest brother liked ships and other things nautical. The July 7, 1965 issue of Life Magazine had an article about yachting on the Riviera. Being interested in such things, he bought a copy. The lady in a bikini on the cover probably did not hurt, either.

Music to swim by. Photo: Life Magazine

While he was looking at that we listened to the first record by the Four Tops that I remember: I Can’t Help Myself.

Motown Soul while yachting around.

That is the power of music. It brings you back to an earlier time. It is the closest thing we will ever have to a time machine.

A Song of the World

I think I have always been aware of the radio. My father always listened in the car. I remember hearing a baseball game with the Detroit Tigers while I was on a canal boat on the C&O Canal in Washington DC in 1963. About that time I remember being on a bus in Washington and hearing a radio from the back that was playing one of my all-time favorite songs.

That song was the only Japanese song to reach number 1 in the United States. I did my best to hear the tune over the noise of the crowded bus.

Some background:
It is well known that teenagers in the United Kingdom in the early sixties liked American music. Besides the R&B records of the 1950’s, there was another American music craze among English youth in the early 1960’s: Dixieland Jazz. This put the lines from Dire Straights’ Sultans of Swing into perspective (“They don’t give a damn about any trumpet playing band. It ain’t what they call rock and roll”). The Sultans were not playing some obscure music from half a century before; they were an oldies band playing a style that was popular almost two decades before and the crowd of young boys in the corner really didn’t care.

Richard Lester, the American movie director who directed the Beatles’ films Hard Days Night and Help, took his first step into the English youth/music genre in 1962 with a film called It’s Trad, Dad about a teenage boy and girl trying to get support for a concert featuring Dixieland music.

One of the bands featured in the film was Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. Ball is known as a one-hit wonder in the United States for the 1962 hit Midnight in Moscow. In January, 1963, he had an instrumental top 10 hit in the UK with a Japanese song, Ue o Muite Arukō. Inasmuch as Ball recorded the song as an instrumental and the UK audience would not understand or be able to pronounce ue o muite arukō, the record company thought they would give it a Japanese name they thought people could pronounce: Suki Yaki.

About that time, Rich Osborn, a disc jockey at radio station KORD in Pasco, Washington, was given a copy of a 1961 Toshiba album by a young singer named Kyu Sakamoto. Osborn played the original version of Ue o Muite Arukō. It was very popular with his listeners. Word of the song’s popularity grew. Pat O’Day started playing it on KJR, Seattle. O’Day told his friend, Canadian disk jockey Red Robinson, about the record and it became popular in Canada.

An early music video

Capital Records licensed the recording and released it as a single, keeping the name given by the UK label to the Ball record.

About thirty years ago, a DJ on a Seattle oldies station told the history of the record and mentioned how Osborn was credited with making the Japanese record a hit in the west. In the mid 1980’s I worked with a Rich Osborn at a station in Seattle. I called the oldies DJ and asked if the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn at KORD in Pasco in 1963 could have been the same person. The DJ did not know.

I tried for many years to find an answer to that question but could not find any new information. A few years ago I tried again and found someone on Facebook who mentioned his friend Rich Osborn who was now retired. I messaged the person and asked. Yes, the Rich Osborn I knew and the Rich Osborn who was at KORD were the same person. While I had nothing to do with making the record a hit, I did feel a sentimental connection.

Kyu Sakamoto Photo:

On August 12, 1985, Sakamoto was flying from Tokyo to Osaka on Japan Airlines Flight 123. Shortly after takeoff, the 747 suffered severe decompression because of poorly repaired damage that failed. Despite the best efforts of the crew, the plane crashed into the terrain around Mount Takamagahara. Everyone, including Kyu-san, knew what was sure to happen. He used his last moments to write a love note to his wife.

A lovely final act from one, whom all accounts, was a lovely person.

Ah, Such Beautiful Music

I am old enough to remember when TV stations had hosts who showed cartoons. I used to watch such hosts as Sandy Becker in New York in the early 1960’s and Brakeman Bill in the Seattle/Tacoma area in the latter part of the decade. A mainstay of both of their programs was old Warner Brother’s cartoons.

Brakeman Bill, 1955 Photo: Tacoma Public Library

The Warner’s cartoons were my favorites, especially the ones from the 1940’s. Those were made before the artwork was “stylized” – meaning simplified artwork so the cartoons could be made quickly and less expensively. I would not quite say “cheaply” yet: those cartoons would come in the ‘60’s after the advent of the Hanna Barbera cookie-cutter cartoons that were made for TV.

There is another thing about those cartoons that make them first rate: the music. Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies originally had two purposes. The first was to plug Warner Brother’s movies. Many cartoons from the 1930’s had names that were the same as or were a play on the names of Warner feature films. The other reason was to plug the Warner music catalogue. Getting people to hear the music was important. If people enjoyed the cartoons, great but it was a secondary concern. It was purely a business decision.

To handle the music Warner’s brought in someone who had worked for Walt Disney: Carl W. Stalling. As Chuck Jones, Warner’s animator, explains in this video, Stalling had been the organ player and orchestra conductor in Kansas City.

Chuck Jones, Warner’s director

Disney was a young animator also from Kansas City who heard Stalling at work and was greatly impressed. The two began to work together. They kept in touch once Disney moved to California, . Stalling would later go out to California as well. Stalling worked for Disney for two years, then freelanced for several years. He was hired by Leon Schlesinger, Warner’s animation producer, in 1936.

Skeleton Dance from 1929, animated by Disney with Music by Stalling

Stalling had a terrific memory for music and had the entire Warner’s music catalog to work with. He also had the full Warner’s orchestra as well. I saw Leonard Maltin speak in 1980 after the release of his book Of Mice and Magic. As Maltin explained, Max Steiner would finish a session recording the music for the latest big production, then Stalling would come in and record the music for the next Looney Tunes.

Leonard Matlin’s great book from 1980 about the history of cartoons Photo:

There was no editing of the music. The timing of the film had all been worked out. Stalling would work out the musical arrangement and it would be recorded straight through.

The orchestration was magnificent. Sometimes I will watch a cartoon just to hear the music. One of my favorites is the opening of the 1941 cartoon Wabbit Twouble (released two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor). Stalling’s opening rendition of Says Who, Says You, Says Me swings. I just wish it was longer. He returns to that theme later in the cartoon, but it is more sedate the second time.

Opening of Wabbit Twouble, 1941

Stalling often would uses just a few short bars of a song. Often, the song would have some tie-in to the action on the screen. If there is food, you can bet that the music is from A Cup of Coffee, a Sandwich, and You. Another song that Stalling used often was Powerhouse, a bizarre 1937 tune that you almost would have thought was an original to be used in hectic scenes. (It was also licensed for use in Ren and Stimpy cartoons in the 1990’s)

This is from 1937?

The old Warner’s cartoons are under copyright and those copyrights are closely protected so I can’t give you much in the way of samples, but if you have a chance, go watch some of the old cartoons. Maybe you are old enough or know enough about history to know what such lines as “Turn out that light” and “Is this trip really necessary?” mean.

Promise Made, Promise Kept

My father was in the U.S. Army so we moved quite a bit. From 1964 through 1966 we lived in Germany. At that time the Armed Forces Network did not have a television service, at least in our area. They had radio, but their programming had to be divided among many different types of programming to satisfy different tastes. Of course there was a base movie theater, and I probably went to the movies more in that two-year period than any other time in my life.

One form of entertainment we availed ourselves of was the large collection of records at the base library. My mother would check out many original Broadway cast albums. I can’t remember all of the things I heard from those records, but one family favorite was from a 1961 Broadway show named Carnival. However, we only checked the record out; we could not buy it. The star of Carnival was Anna Maria Alberghetti who, by the mid 1970’s, was more well known for Good Seasons Salad Dressing commercials.

Who has the croutons?

The male lead was played by Jerry Orbach, later known for playing Lennie Briscoe on TV’s Law and Order.

The Jerry Orbach story.

The original story, The Man Who Hated People, was written by Paul Gallico. It was adapted and made into the movie Lili in 1953 starring Leslie Caron. It tells of a young woman, orphaned in World War II (or was it World War I?), who finds her way to a travelling carnival. After unsuccessfully trying a couple of different jobs in the carnival, Lili ends up working with the puppet show. While she loves the puppets, she grows to hate the puppet master – a bitter former dancer who was injured during the war and could no longer dance. I won’t spoil the ending but you can probably guess how things turn out. The film also featured Mel Ferrer, Jean-Pierre Aumont, a pre-Miss Kitty Amanda Blake, and Zsa Zsa Gabor doing something other than a game show.

In 1972 my mother was thinking about that Original Cast album of Carnival. She went to a local record shop and ordered it. It took a while but it finally came in. I was a junior in high school at the time. Late one night during the Christmas break I was listening to that album.

Everyone makes promises to themselves, often fuelled by the knowledge that the opportunity to fulfill that promise will never come up. As I listened to Carnival, I promised that I would do what I could to be in the musical if I ever had the chance.

A couple of weeks later I was sitting in class. The morning announcements came on.

“Auditions for the Spring musical, Carnival, will be held on January 17.”

Oh fiddlesticks, or words to that effect. I knew I had to audition. I had promised myself. That was less than three weeks before so I could not make excuses to get out of it. I knew what I would be doing after school on the afternoon of the 17th.

I had been in a play before. In summer school between the 7th an 8th grades I took a drama class. I enjoyed that so it was not as if I were going outside of my comfort zone. However, that was just acting. There was no singing or, shudder, dancing involved. But a promise is a promise. I would have to do it.

At the audition we read lines from the play. The chorus teacher checked out our singing ability. She asked me if I would volunteer to be in the school chorus the next year. When I did not respond, she asked me if I would be willing to be drafted to be in the school chorus the next year. (While I would not have volunteered, I would have loved to have been drafted – but that never happened.) I don’t remember the dance audition but, since I did not break any bones, I must have done as well as most of the other people.

Since I was a newcomer, I did not get the lead role (the Jerry Orbach part) although I would have really liked it. That part had some of the most powerful songs in the show and I could just imagine myself belting them out on stage. Another good thing about that role is than he did not dance.

Paul (Jerry Orbach) singing to his puppets.

I ended up getting a named part, Angelo, and a line (“Hey Marco, there’s someone here to see you”). A week or two after rehearsals began, someone got an after-school job and had to drop out. Since there was no conflict with his part in the chorus and my part, I was also given his part. A couple of weeks later it was felt that one of the Roustabouts (the male dance group) was an even worse dancer than I was so I was given most of his scenes as well.

The show opens like a quiet morning then bursts out like a sunny day.

The show goes on.

It was fun being in the chorus and singing. To this day I still think in terms of the harmony I sang rather than the main melody of the song.

Lili singing with the puppets then joined by the chorus.

Carnival was the first of three plays I was in during my high school years. They were fun and I would do them all over again.

Music from Heaven

Before my parents bought their first component stereo system in 1964, I don’t recall my family having many classical LP’s. I do remember many 78 albums, though. While there may have been a handful of others, one LP set I remember – and still have – is a six-record collection The World’s Most Beautiful Music.

Once we had the stereo we started getting many stereo classical albums such as Respighi’s Fountains of Rome, Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, and the soundtrack of Fantasia. My mother also bought many operas. She would threaten to play Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov if we misbehaved.

Of all the records my mother bought, probably the family favorite was Gustav Holst’s The Planets.

From the anger of Mars, Bringer of War,

to gentleness of Venus, Bringer of Peace,

 to Jupiter, Jollity,

…and everything in between, The Planets touched the human soul in many ways.

Cecil Spring-Rice was a member of the British diplomatic service. While sailing to take a post in Washington, D.C. he met a member of the U.S. civil service commission named Theodore Roosevelt. They became good friends and Spring-Rice was best man at Roosevelt’s 1886 wedding. Spring-Rice was also a poet and in 1908 wrote Urbs Dein while stationed in Stockholm. He reworked that poem in January, 1918 to reflect the British experience of World War I. The poem was now called I Vow To Thee, My Country. Rice died the next month in Canada at the age of 59.

Cecil Spring-Rice Photo:

Gustav Holst was born in 1874 to a musical family. While most of his family played piano, a nerve problem in his arm made it difficult to play the piano so Gustav took up the trombone instead. He became the music director at a girls’ school. In 1914 he began writing his most famous work, The Planets, completed in 1916 and premiering at Queen’s Hall, London in 1918.

Gustav Holst Photo: The History Press

In 1921, Holst adapted one of the themes from Jupiter and called it Thaxted. Some changes were made to accommodate the lines of the Spring-Rice poem. The musical creation, I Vow To Thee, My Country, is now a greatly loved English patriotic hymn. Instrumental versions were played at Winston Churchill’s funeral and the wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton. Vocal versions by the choir and the congregation sang it at the funeral of Margaret Thatcher. It was the favorite hymn of Princess Diana and it was sung at her funeral. The hymn is one of the traditional closing pieces of the the Proms, a yearly music festival begun in 1895 and now broadcast by the BBC.

With a name like Gustav Holst, I assumed that the composer must have been from a country such as Germany. In 2009 I visited Chichester Cathedral in England. In the cathedral was a memorial for Holst.

Holst Memorial Photo: Chichester Post

Surprisingly, Gustav Holst was born in Cheltenham and lived his entire life in England, passing away in 1934. Like Cecil Spring-Rice, Holst was 59. He was cremated and his ashes are interred at Chichester Cathedral.

Several years ago I had the pleasure of seeing the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra play The Planets in concert. The Holst composition is very popular — with good reason.

Oh! What a Night

I never was much of a dancer. Sure, I had been in the last two spring musicals at school but there is a difference between having two months of rehearsals with a choreographer telling you what to do as opposed to getting out on the dance floor without making a fool of yourself. Up to that point I had gone to two school dances; a sock hop in the seventh grade – where I didn’t dance – and a dance in the eighth grade where a friend goaded me into asking the girl I had a terrible crush on – the Principal’s daughter – to dance. Those were the only two dances I had been to.

It was late May 1974. In less than two weeks I would officially be a high school graduate. I wasn’t planning on dancing at this dance. That wasn’t why I was going. One reason I was going was because it was an oldies dance and I liked oldies. The main reason I was going, though, was that the DJ for the dance was the program director of KFRC, the big Top 40 station in San Francisco. I was hoping maybe I would have a chance to talk to him. Actual dancing was the farthest thing from my mind — I knew the best I could do was move like I had stuck my finger in an electrical outlet.

From three months after our story Photo:

I hadn’t been at the dance too long when Rita came up and asked me to dance. That was great. I knew who she was and I thought she was cute. She didn’t say but I got the impression she had seen my award-winning performance as the Mayor of Sweet Apple, Ohio in the school’s recent production of Bye Bye Birdie. We danced to a couple of songs. An elephant probably would have done a better job on the dance floor than I did. Rita asked me if I knew a particular dance. I told her no. At that point she decided that I was not as great a dancer as she had ever seen and left me to fend for myself.

Shortly after that I bumped into Sandy. We had become friends in our co-ed PE class. I don’t know who asked who, but we danced to a couple of songs. Maybe because I was with a friend I felt relaxed and was beginning to warm up. We then took a break from each other.

A song or two passed and I bumped into Karen. Karen worked in the school library the period after I did. I don’t know who asked who, but we danced to a couple of songs. We then took a break from each other.

Shortly after that, Patty came up and asked me to dance. I knew Patty to see her but she was never in any of my classes and we had never spoken. We danced to a couple of songs as I had with Sandy and Karen.

In the meantime I had introduced myself to the DJ. He had an actual broadcast console, two turntables, a reel-to-reel tape deck in case he had turntable problems, a powerful amplifier, huge speakers, and several hundred 45’s. These records were not just any records that happened to find their way into his boxes – they were specifically chosen because they were good records to dance to.

Everything he played was great. He had a version of Honky Tonk by Bill Doggett which put parts 1 and 2 together. That had a groove that would have gotten Dracula out of his coffin at noon to dance.

You gotta love this one

Not wanting to make a nuisance of myself I did not stay on stage too long. I went back out into the crowd and found Sandy again. Like before, we danced to a couple of songs then went our separate ways. By now I was having a great time. I danced with Karen again and then Patty.

That was the pattern for most of the night. Two dances with Sandy, two with Karen, two with Patty, onto the stage to talk to the DJ, rinse and repeat.

At one point I was getting a little worn out. Karen and I were going to dance to one song then take a break. I forgot what song it was but it had a medium-fast tempo. That song ended and the next one began. It had a medium, slightly faster tempo. Karen and I looked at each other and said, “We have to dance to this one. Then we’ll take a break.”

The DJ kept doing that. Each new song that came on was just a little faster than the one before. If there was too big of a jump we would have said, “No, we need to take a break.” But with just a slight increase in tempo each new record was like a siren song that we could not resist. One of the songs in that set – but not the fastest by far – was California Sun by the Rivieras.

We just couldn’t stop

Faster and faster. We kept dancing as if there was no tomorrow. I remember at one point I shook my head and sweat came flying off of my hair like I was a dog shaking off after a swim. We must have been ready to drop. This set of music must have gone on for more than twenty minutes. We were to the point where we just could not have danced to another fast song. Then the DJ slowed it way down.

Relief at last

As soon as Lenny Welch began singing Since I Fell For You, Karen and I fell into each other’s arms like we were in day three of a 1930’s dance marathon.  That was the last song before the DJ took a twenty-minute break. Karen and I went outside to cool off.

After the break the evening progressed much the same as it had before. I was having the time of my life. When the dance was over I stayed behind and helped the DJ pack up his gear and his records and carry them out to his VW van. He gave me a personal invitation to go down to KFRC for a tour. It has often been said that shy people become radio DJ’s. That was the case with me: I never took him up on the invitation and I regret it to this day.

As I drove home, my hands felt a little odd on the steering wheel. I stopped and looked: I had blisters on my palms from clapping and on my thumbs and middle fingers from snapping.

That was over forty-six years ago but just the thought of that night still puts a smile on my face.

Part 4: Stereo Comes Home

Previously: Music in the Night

By the early 1950’s televisions were finding their way into many American homes. Hollywood had to find ways draw people back to theaters that people just could not get at home. Films such as The Robe, Shane, and Julius Caesar, as well as many others used new processes, both visual and aural. Among those lures was stereo soundtracks.

Fred Astaire and Janis Paige in Silk Stockings (1957)

At the same time, improvements were being made to existing technologies found in homes. Advancements in radio and phonograph records were being developed, expanding on experiments that had been conducted in the 1930’s.

Records: Early stereo disk experiments used two systems: the single groove system used by Blumlein and Bell Labs, and a two pickup system used by others. In the early 1950’s, a sound engineer named Emory Cook (1913–2002) marketed records that used a two pickup system. For each piece there were two monophonic bands on the record, each to be tracked by its own pickup. One example is of Willis Page conducting New Orchestral Society of Boston performing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony from 1954. The timing between the two channels seems to be a bit off. The two channels are fairly close so the distance between the styli is probably correct, but perhaps one stylus is just a little bit ahead of the other in terms of what it is playing. I heard that problem on every sample of the system I found on YouTube. Obviously, proper alignment of the two styli is critical to this system.

Cook Binaural recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (1954)

Cook had previously experimented with recordings out in the field that were known for their fidelity such as this record from 1952 which he recorded along the New York Central Railway. He was lucky: if I tried such a recording I would have had people coming up and asking, “So what are you doing?”, ruining the recording.

Cook’s Rail Dynamics (1952)

Cook wanted accurate sounding recordings — “HiFi” before the term came into use. He knew of single groove stereo recordings but the technology of the early to mid 1950’s limited the audio quality that could be obtained with single cutting and pickup devices.

Cooks two-pickup system did not have much of an impact, nor did stereo tapes which were first released commercially in 1955. Experiments in England by two companies, London and Decca were being conducted in the mid 1950’s but they used much of the same technology that had been used experimentally before. In the US, RCA and Westrex worked on a different system that used the two sides of the groove for the two channels rather than modulating the bottom of the groove as had Blumlein. This gave the Westrex system compatibility with monaural records. While the older system could play monaural records it would only play the audio on one side as the bottom of the groove, where the other channels audio would be, contained no information. The Westrex system would play audio on both sides — it was just the same signal with a monaural record. Several companies were fighting it out on the minor details with the final winner being a system developed by Columbia records. This system used lateral modulation of the groove — each side of the groove had the audio for one channel.

Limited edition stereo discs were released in late 1957 with major developments in equipment and disk availability in 1958.

More detailed information is available here.

Radio: In the early 1950’s many owners of AM stations were starting FM stations, more as a hedge against the future than for any short term goal. With the growing interest in stereo, and having not much else to do with their FM stations, the concept of using two radio stations to broadcast stereo programming was revisited. That was before the FCC implemented the NRSC curve in 1990 and there was not as much electrical noise on AM as there is today so it was not a bad match to have the left channel on an AM station and the right channel on the FM station. Many people would use two different radios to accomplish this, but there were some receivers built to accomplish this in one unit.

May I introduce the Bell 2445. My father bought one of these units in 1964. I had it through 1983. By that time it was having many problems so I got rid of it.

Before you play the video, let’s look at the front panel.

Notice that it has a separate tuner for AM and FM. If you look at the selector knob (second from the left) you will see that it has a position for AM-FM. That is why the two separate receiver sections. It allowed you to play AM for the left channel and FM for the right.

Just to the left of top center you will see a position marked AUX-MX (we called it Aux-Mix). We assumed that AUX meant “auxiliary” but we had no idea of what MX stood for, but now I know it means “multiplex.” In other words, FM stereo. The reason for such an unusual arrangement was because this unit was designed before an FM standard was adopted in the U.S. Our unit did have FM stereo — not that we knew what it was. The FM stereo circuit was an add on that was inserted in the left (as viewed from the front) rear portion of the chassis with two little cables that came out and plugged into the auxiliary jacks.

I would love to have mine back.

There were fourteen differing systems considered by the FCC. Of those, systems by Zenith and GE were close enough that they were virtually identical. The FCC decided on that system in April 1961, effective July 1, 1961 (at midnight local time of stations). The first station to use the new system was WGFM in Schenectady, New York.

For more information look here.

The system adopted by the FCC was important in one respect: it was compatible with mono radios.

In later years an AM system was adopted. By that point music had all but abandoned the AM dial. With increased noise from modern technology and the implementation of the NRSC curve in 1990 that limited the highest frequency to 9.5 kilohertz, there was not much reason for AM stations to get the stereo equipment or consumers to buy the radios.

An AM/FM combo station I worked at in the mid 1980’s went stereo on the AM. On January 1, 1985, I was simulcasting. I knew the chief engineer had an AM stereo receiver in his office. I got it out and used that as the monitor. However, as was the case with most consumer gear, the frequency response was much lower than what the station’s AM air monitor provided, although the monitor in the studio was monaural.

Today it seems that, despite advancements in technology, interest in high quality audio is waning. That is too bad.

Part 3: Music in the Night

Previously: Hollywood Experiments With Stereo

The earliest known experiments with “tape” recording were done by Alexander Graham Bell with a system he patented in 1886. While it used a tape, it used a stylus as did Edison’s invention and others. Rather than use a cylinder or a disk, the groove was etched into a long piece of tape covered with wax that went from one reel to another.

Valdemar Poulsen (1869-1942) was a Danish engineer and a very intelligent man. In fact, he is responsible for two inventions that play a part in our story. In 1903 he invented a means by which a steady, continuous radio signal could be generated which made possible the transmission of audio and later television. Prior to this discovery, wireless transmissions depended on the generation of a gigantic spark, using a “spark gap” transmitter, that could be picked up at a distance but were limited to signals such as Morse code. Poulsen’s other invention was the magnetic recorder in 1898. As with spark gap transmitters, it could only record signals such as Morse code. It used piano wire at a speed of 84 inches per second — modern audio tape recorders use speeds starting at 1-7/8 inches per second for logging purposes doubling to 30 inches per second for studio use (1-7/8, 3-3/4, 7-1/2, 15 and 30).

Valdemar Poulsen Photo: Museumsstiftung Post und Telekommunikation

In 1924, German engineer Kurt Stille (1873-1957) developed an audio recorder for office dictation. As with Poulsen’s device, this used steel wire as the medium. While it recorded sound it was not of broadcast quality.

It took another German, Louis Blattner (1881-1935), to further develop Stille’s invention. Blattner, who lived in England, was a movie producer interested in a way of synchronizing sound with motion pictures. His developments garnered interest at the BBC. They obtained several Blattnerphones. These were deemed acceptable for voice but not for music. One of the main reasons for this was poor speed regulation. The Blattnerphone used a 6mm steel tape running at 5 feet per minute. This steel tape did allow for early experiments with tape editing. Among other recordings, a Blattnerphone was used to record Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war against Germany in 1939.

With war, development of something as frivolous as a means of recording good quality audio was not considered a high priority. Allies were unaware of work done by the German company BASF in the mid 1930’s. During the latter part of the war, however, the United States military did use wire recordings to play back sounds to cover the real movement of men and materiel — but those devices were not known for their fidelity.

WWII US Navy wire recorder Photo:

Jack Mullin (1913-1999) was an officer in the US Army Signal Corp. He also enjoyed classical music. German radio stations would play music throughout the day and night. He was perplexed, though. Mulling knew what live music sounded like on the radio. He also knew what music played from discs sounded like on the radio. As far as he knew at the time, those were the only two options. This music sounded as though it was being played live on the air — even in the middle of the night.

Mullin knew of wire recorders – he was in the Signal Corp — but he didn’t know of tape recorders and the audio quality that was possible. The only thing he could think of was that the Germans were able to have musicians play live even in the middle of the night. Mullins knew that Hitler could get much of what he wanted but there were practical limits. Surly there were more important things for the German government to be concerned with than to have world class musicians play on the radio at all hours of the day and night.

After the war Mullin was part of a team tasked with finding a reported high-frequency device that would disable allied aircraft. He never found any trace of such a weapon but a British officer told Mullin of a device called a Magnetophon. Before returning to the United States, Mullin took a side trip to a German radio station in Bad Nauheim. It was here than he first saw the device that made possible the music in the night.

Along with the devices, Mullin found reels of the tape that contained the recordings. Not only did the recordings sound  like the musicians were live, they were also in stereo although they could not be broadcast that way.

Here is one such recording made in Berlin in 1944. In the quiet passages you can hear German anti-aircraft firing in the distance. If possible, listen to this recording though good speakers or even headphones. It is remarkable that this recording is from 1944.

Mullin arranged to bring back some Magnetophons to the United States. He worked to improve the devices. When he was satisfied with their quality he put on demonstrations of the new medium. This lead to tape being first used on network radio on the Bing Crosby show on October 1, 1947

Next: Stereo Comes Home