WFLN Program Director Mike O’Donnell then asked me if I knew that Billie Holiday was performing in town. I didn’t. Nor did I know much about her. “She’s a singer, right?” I asked Mike.
So I started studying about her career. Nothing that I read said much about her personal devils.
I called Jack Fields, the owner of the Blue Note, and we set up an interview. I took the WFLN portable reel-to-reel tape deck.
The Blue Note was on Ridge Avenue, right in the center of a black ghetto. Why was such a club in such a run-down neighborhood instead of someplace more elegant, befitting the marvels and joys of jazz? The place smelled of dead cigarettes, spilled beer, and sour wine.
Jack took me to a small dressing room back of a tiny stage where Ray Bryant was playing the piano. And Jack introduced me to a haggard older lady with all of her 40 years looking like a heavy load. She smiled sweetly.
Gracious and charming, gentle and kind, sounding as vulnerable and sweet as the way she sang, she told me how much she admired the music of Debussy and Ravel, how she’d always loved classical music. Yeah. Right. Trying my damnedest to convince those anti-jazz listeners that they were wrong to look down their noses at such great music.
After what seemed like a long and wonderful time talking, I felt we had had good talk and stopped the tape.
“That was really interesting,” Billie said. “Can we listen to some of it?”
“Sure,” I said, thrilled that she was impressed.
I rewound the tape and started it.
Silence. There was nothing on it. I don’t know what happened. Probably in my nervous eagerness, I’d forgotten to push the right buttons.
“Oh, honey, that’s too bad,” she sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to do it over.”
More graciousness warmed that tiny room. I didn’t realize yet that re-takes were a part of her everyday life.
Ray Bryant was playing again: “Cubano Chant,” one of his more famous tunes. Jack left the room to ask him to hold off until after the interview. I’d already started, not smart enough to wait.
Nor was I relaxed enough or experienced enough to go over the same questions again. Maybe I thought she’d be bored. Maybe, I thought, what the hell, we already talked about Debussy and Ravel and we should explore other subjects.
So, having read enough about her to know her background, we talked about her career.
It did record. And I left Lady, joyous that I had met her. A life-long fan, long after she found eternal peace. It was love. It still is.
Since then I’ve broadcast my edited version of that tape over and over again on jazz programs in New York, Albuquerque, Milwaukee. And, sometimes on TV documentaries about her, I hear the exact same words and inflections I know so well and recognize that someone copied my interview and is re-using it. That’s fine. I don’t own Billie. She belongs to all of us.
One day, a 30-something, very civilized-looking friend of a friend, Joseph Seaman, who lived near Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square in an elegant house, asked me if I thought he should audition for WFLN; he knew a lot about classical music. Or as he put it, “What…what about my…(yelling) MOTHERFUCK…SON OF A BITCH…trying out to be a…SHIT SHIT…announcer?” I thought he was putting me on. He wasn’t. His subsequent conversation was equally peppered with similar outbursts. I didn’t know about Tourette’s Syndrome, coming across the term only in later years. And I didn’t know how to tell him that the station would never hire him.
Mike O’Donnell asked me about Joseph before his audition; my name had been given as a reference. I told Mike about the spontaneous outbursts. The audition took place anyway. Afterwards, Mike said that, as long as the mike was open, everything sounded fine, there was never a pause, never an obscene word. But of course, WFLN couldn’t take the chance.
Back when I took over the morning show, a classmate of mine from Temple, Steve Yedenock, had joined the staff to take over my previous shift. He, too, had been alerted that a returning veteran could take back his job.
Then it happened. Mitchell Krauss was coming back from the war. It meant either Steve or I would have to go. I was given notice. Why me? I don’t know, but it might have been due to my tendency to be outspoken or to be open about disagreements of opinion, given that, at my young age, I knew so much about everything. Maybe it was the listeners’ antipathy to the jazz show and my connection with it.
Naturally, on my final jazz show, I told the listeners, over a lugubrious guitar solo by Johnny Smith, that the management had decided to cancel the series and, with it, my presence on the station.
Calls of anger and disapproval of those decisions swamped the station. Letters, too. Great, I thought, the management will see how popular I was. I didn’t think any further than that. In my first job ever as a professional radio personality, I didn’t know the rules. You go public with that sort of thing and you get long-term consequences. You don’t become known as a star in the business. You become known as a trouble-maker. That year I certainly gained a reputation in broadcasting, and it wasn’t a good one.
I was emotionally devastated. I’d never been fired before. And I was making good money for someone my age. Plus there was all that prestige on campus and in public, making me feel like someone significant. It was as if someone robbed me of my identity.
Little did I know that being fired in broadcasting goes with the territory. Historically, being a radio or TV station personality means always walking on thin ice. Ratings ebb and flow. Formats crack and sink. Managements get nervous. New ownerships decide to go in different directions. They change whatever they think is not working, which, most often, means what’s called “the talent”—us.
Face it, over a couple of years, Crowley was gone from WFLN, so was Nichols, and so was I. But FLN was in a tiny niche with little relationship to the big stations in town. My swansong may have meant something important to some listeners, as well as a pain in the ass to the management, but it got very little notice elsewhere. After all, I was not an established personality on a big Philadelphia station, like say, Steve Allison, Bud Brees, or Art Raymond on WPEN.