One of the benefits of coming of age (more or less) during the late 50s/early 60s (and there were not that many) was the availability of interesting Black radio in the New York area. There were stations (AM only) such as WWRL, WOV, WNJR, and later WLIB to tune into. One could hear at various times Georgie Woods (“The Man With the Goods”), Hal Jackson, (Enoch) Gregory in the Morning, Del Shields, Ramon “I Am The” Bruce, The Magnificent Montague, and even Jocko and his fabled rocket ship on the NY area air-waves. Not to mention the various religious shows, both DJ’d or some sort of service. My favorite was Rev. Ike – “I don’t want to wait for my pie in the sky in the by and by, I want my pie here and now… with ice cream on top” was his quasi-religious self-help message of empowerment. And he would ask his audience for donations to help propel him in that direction – the donor would receive a prayer cloth the Rev. Ike had blessed to help him or her on their journey to the good life. Ain’t America great?!
Since I was in school in southern New Jersey and not yet oriented towards Philadelphia’s stations, the strongest NY area radio station came out of Newark, NJ… WNJR, one of the Rollins Group of White owned/Black audience radio stations.(1) This was an AM station located at 1430 on the dial and was easily picked up in my dorm room at Princeton. There were the usual programs… I think that Thurman Ruth may have done some gospel programming, but I’m not sure sat this distance in time. I do remember Danny Stiles (a White guy) in the morning before going to classes (or instead of!), but my main man was Charlie Green and his R’n’B Express in the afternoons. There is where I heard Excellos, VeeJays, Chess and Checkers, Fires and Furys, all three of the Kings – even local artists like Harmonica Joe or Little Red Walter. All sorts of good music to my young ears. This kept up until 5 p.m. when Pat “The Cat” Patrick came on with his up-tempo sports report, then a long news program. After that point in time I had to go to dinner and maybe even study (!). These DJs were one of the precursors of today’s rappers, mixing rhyme and mother wit in equal proportions to sell products, including music.
There were a multitude of sponsors for Green’s program aimed at NJR’s Black listenership. (Whether or not Green was Black, I never knew, although I think he may have been.) Such great products as Swiss Up or Thunderbird wines, Porcelana Skin Cream (to lighten skin color), as well as various hair-straightening concoctions. Really politically correct, eh?! Also among the sponsors were some local businesses, including some record stores: one in Newark (Colony?), and one in Plainfield, NJ (Brooks Records… who could forget the steel-eyed Mrs. Brooks!). Once I had a car, I was able to venture to such locations and pick up the latest B.B. or Sonny Boy release, often on sale. I only went into Newark a couple of times… that store was not all that interesting and I felt uncomfortable there as the only White guy, unlike in Harlem. But radio led me to buying current 45s.
Radio has always been a great seller of singles – there’s nothing like hearing something on the radio that resonates in some way, often in the car, catching your ear, then going off and buying it… not quite impulse buying, but close. (The last record that I bought “off the radio” was by Rev. Rhyme, a holy rapper in about 1985… “In the Beginning”!! It still “worked”!!) In a roundabout was, I found myself patronizing both Ernie’s and Randy’s mail-order businesses. Roundabout, because I never heard their ads on the radio from Nashville or Memphis, but heard about them from the late Mike Leadbitter before BU was born!!! The Lord works in mysterious ways, doesn’t she. Even in the early/middle sixties I was able to pick up J.B. Lenoir on both Checker and VeeJay from their sales listings… back then they did not return aging stock, but packed it up into various bargain lots for their customers at a greatly reduced price per disc. As for 78s, most of them came to me from digging in the back rooms of juke box suppliers in Georgia, Tennessee, and North Carolina with Bastin and had nothing to do with radio at all (that was also later in time, ca. 1970). But those were (still) the days! Basically, I left the Newark/New York region about 1965 – the riots in Newark took place in 1967 and being a White guy in those parts was no longer an adventure, but a danger. But I still have the records, but they’re not really a collection in that possessive way. Honest!
- (1) VOICE OVER: the Making of Black Radio – William Barlow (1998) Temple University Press; Philadelphia.
Peter B. Lowry
Published: BLUES & RHYTHM
Rev Ike died in 2009, still with a Harlem following.