Lou, Zenith and WJBR

For some people, music has an odd effect. You hear something, maybe even a few bars, and all of a sudden, you’re in another world. Usually, that world has a few miles on it, as do you. But for a few seconds, or a few minutes, you’re there. Sights, sounds, nous, cultural milieu, things otherwise irretrievable perhaps until those legendary last moments when we make our exit (or so it is said) from this world. Hey, cheer up. Would you rather listen to “Louie, Louie” or drop dead? For me, no contest.

I had one of those moments today, one of unaccustomed clarity and an almost magical transport. And, you say, what produced this moment of penny mysticism, oh Wise One. Well, to tell the truth, it was a fragment of a tune by Antonio Carlos Jobim, something he wrote called “Wave.” You probably know it, even if you don’t know the name. It’s that kind of cultural signpost. And it flashes “1960s” like few others for me. I’ll tell you why, since I’m sure you’re dying to know. And if not, learn something.

Now, it is remotely possible that “Wave” might have been used as an identifier for a station called WDVR (Delaware Valley Radio), which was also a “beautiful music” station,” but let’s not get hung up on trivial details. Tom Jobim never set out to write “beautiful music,” but it’s no surprise that it ended up attached to one of the call signs. It was pretty, no?

Wave: Still in Print, By the Way

Can’t you just picture yourself (or some impossibly young version of me) stretched out on Early American style sofa, and sort of nice and secure with our clanging steam heat making the thin winter light of a Northeast day in late December seem the epitome of a cozy middle class home. Hell, I thought so. I didn’t know we were lower middle class because no one ever bothered to tell me until I got to graduate school. We were part of 1960s Affluent America. Don’t knock it. We never had it so good, before or since. Literally. And if the Dutch pane windows were rimmed with frost, so much the better. We might have been sitting 15 miles away from a nuclear bullseye, but the separation seemed complete. It was cold outside, but not in the living room. Besides, we had WJBR on.

Early 1970s. Close enough

My Dad, Lou Salvucci, was a former tenor sax player, and a different kind of guy. He dug music of all kinds (well, like Buddy Rich, not C&W, and he had no time for most rock either), read a lot, was curious about the world, and most of all, loved Swing Music from the 1930s, when he had been in high school–although he was hip to Bird, Tatum and a lot of other stuff you wouldn’t have expected of a white kid from West Philly. He apparently had a massive collection of 78 records (I vaguely remember seeing them in my Grandmother’s Haddington basement), but, alas, he got rid of them, in part because I think he was aware that 33 records, Hi-Fi, LP, all that 1950s stuff, was the future. I remember listening to a reissue of Tommy Dorsey around 1956 in LP form called, I believe, “Yes, Indeed.” Man, that was my introduction to jazz, and it came on an old turntable/speaker/vacuum tube contraption that played 45s too. The sound was, I guess, ok, but for Dad, it was super, and when Glen Gray starting issuing his Sounds of the Great Bands series in HiFi (and then…..STEREO), well, we were happy campers. I say we because I damn near memorized most of those arrangements, Goodman, Shaw, the Dorseys, Basie, Ellington. I loved the stuff.

When my folks moved to Penn Wynne, our sound system remained pretty modest. Dad had gotten another turntable and he had somehow rigged up a speaker system (he was self-taught in electronics; doesn’t ask, cause I have no idea), but it was ok. I mostly used the old record player to death in my room. And then, it happened. It being, our FM radio. Big deal, right. Yeah, you know it. A big freaking deal on Harro(w)gate Road.

Now don’t be asking me questions about AM, FM, line-of-sight, all that stuff. I never really wanted to know. I just wanted to listen, and technology was never a thing with me. From the layout of this blog, you probably are saying “It still isn’t.” Ha, ha. But check the date of the ad (1961). That was about a year after we moved from West Philly to further West Philly, or Penn Wynne. There were like eight FM stations in Philly then, and my Dad was definitely interested in listening to one of them, which, it happened, was WJBR during the day, and WHAT on Friday nights. By the mid 1960s there was also a WPBS (Philadelphia Bulletin Station) (98.9 ) which tended to be on on Saturday nights, because that was when the great Jack Pyle did the Big Bandwagon, a show he had taken over from Ed Meehan, who was the station manager (I think). Don’t get frustrated, this is all going somewhere, eventually.

One day, Dad came home from his favorite store, Midway Appliances, at 7690 Haverford Avenue in Overbrook Park (colloquially known as Tel Aviv in those more innocent times, in honor of its mostly Jewish population, and just a few steps from Greenberg’s Bakery, that I grew up with, along with Reale’s and Orlando’s. ) (safe in those days, and remained so into the 1980s). These guys discounted in spite of fair trade laws (price maintenance laws, you know, before economists “improved” public policy in the US) and got away with it. What Dad brought home was a spanking new Zenith table model radio, and boy, did it make a big difference in our cozy cottage. Yup. As unimpressive as it is 63 years later, this was a device that made our home a home and helped wire my memories for sound in an, well, unusual way. It is so Old School it even had vacuum tubes. And it kept on playing. When we moved to Wayne PA in 1978, my Dad “lent” it to us, and, set on AM, it became the go to for KYW, WCAU, and on FM, WRTI. We left in 1980, and it went back into my Dad’s garage. After he passed away, I went down to the garage, fooled with his weight set, and turned the damn thing on. Dad passed in 2002, so were talking a forty year old vacuum tube powered dinosaur whose only fault was a 60 cycle hum (bearable). When’s the last time you bought something made in the USA (ha) that lasted 40 years?

My Dad went over the moon at this little radio. He’d sit by it on the sofa and say “Clear as a bell!” Lou Larkins wasn’t spoiled like we are. Little things meant a lot to him. And this FM radio sure as Hell did. It was really how he spent Friday and Saturday nights, listening to Sid Mark with Sinatra on WHAT-FM and The Big Bandwagon on WPBS-FM on Saturday nights. And until I started disappearing in my later high school years, so did I.

But I also had my favorites, and they were Sid Mark and Joel Dorn on WHAT-FM. I can still feel that late summer languor at 4 PM when Sid came on with “Maynard Ferguson,” the feature piece that Kenton wrote for Maynard. It would be a still August afternoon until Maynard cut through the tranquility, and you might be able to smell the heat, but it all went away. In some ways, Joel Dorn was just as important. He had different tastes from Sid–he loved a lot of brothers like Sonny Stitt and Fathead Newman, so I learned to love them too. Dorn’s theme was “Hard Times,” and I learned to play the head on the trumpet. A neighbor used to say it sounded as if I were crying when I played it, so you could guess it was a blues. Well, here. Just in case. 1958, and as fresh now as it was in 1961.

Even better in person with Cedar Walton

Yeah. How could you beat that? And that little Zenith belted it out as I pressed my head up against the speaker to catch every nuance. Now, I don’t think my Dad was into Fathead, but he didn’t object either. Of course, Dorn came out at Noon, I believe, so if I were home, or it were Summer or something, I (or my Mom) would be doing noonish things. The living room looked different at noon than at 4PM–more morning, less day is done sort of stuff, less breeze, especially in the summer, when a storm hadn’t blown up yet. Yeats later, in 1976, I blew someone away in Mexico City by scatting every bar of the tune when it was on UNAM radio. That’s how much it got into my head. No. I couldn’t do Nat Adderly’s cornet solo.

I can’t tell you what my Dad thought about when the FM was on. But I can tell you what he talked about. It was Big Bands I and II, mostly from his high school years (1932-1937), with a lot of Goodman and Shaw. I was probably the only 14 year old within 50 miles who knew who was in Benny’s 1935 trumpet section (and, I’m sure, the only one who cared). The few times–and they were later–when we disagreed about something, like whether or not Sinatra was a thug, he’d basically tell me “Look, you don’t understand what he meant to people then.” And Louie was right, as usual. I say the same thing to my son about Bobby Kennedy now, knowing full well he will be as unconvinced as I was. But Dad was in Sinatra’s world too on Friday nights, just where he wanted to be.

But the real kick is when I think of the ritual snow days of the mid to late 1960s, when we actually had a few rough winters in Philly. Now, why would a radio conjure up a blizzard. Blame Ray Conniff. Yup. Blame Ray Conniff. Specifically, “You’re An Old Smoothie.” You’re kidding, right. Who? What? Elevator music for back-office refugees from Decker Square.

I’m guessing this was early December 1960, and the storm was a doozy. In our house, you could watch it come down from my bedroom window or the dining room bay window outlined again the brown linseed oil-stained shingles of the houses are us. And it was coming down, leaden gray sky, shrubs around the house gradually turning into big soft-edged snow stones. In the course of an afternoon, the whole neighborhood looked, felt and sounded different–muffled you know, only a few cars braving “hilly” Penn Wynne. And in the background, The Ray Conniff Singers yammering on about being an old softie. I am right there right now, over sixty years ago, down to the braided hook rugs my Mom preferred with her Early American style furniture. Hey, it was not plastic seat covers and French provincial yuck in every Italian American home. Some of us had aspirations……..

I could compile a whole list of these associations, because, certainly, they didn’t stop in the 1960s, and I could go well into the 1980s (leaving Philly, revealingly, killed a lot of it off for a while). But you’d get bored–so would I–and there would be nothing to add.

You know, for some of us, music isn’t just music. It’s part of our wiring and the way we process the world. And we’re better off with an earworm or two, even if it’s “Baby I Need Your Loving” or “Devil With a Blue Dress.” Because it’s not the song. It’s everything, including sights, sounds, moods, meaning, sentiments, and even family members long gone who come to life again, palpably. Even a cheap FM radio was capable of doing that for me as a child. So you’ll have to forgive my sentiment that it’s just as important for a kid to learn about music as it is about coding or “entrepreneurship.” One is a part of our humanity. The rest, as Alex Ross famously wrote, is noise. Or worse.

Again, forgive the typos. They have a way of sneaking by my aging eyes and brain. And short is probably better.

Published by RJS El Tejano

I sarcastically call myself El Tejano because I'm from Philadelphia and live in South Texas. Not a great fit, but sometimes, economists notwithstanding, you don't get to choose. My passions are jazz, Mexican history and economics. Go figure

2 thoughts on “Lou, Zenith and WJBR

  1. Too bad your dad and my dad didn’t get to know each other. Maybe they met at graduation. I don’t remember. Dad played the tenor sax (and the alto sax), loved swing and big band, disliked rock (until he got much older, when he “accepted” little portions), had 78s, wired the house with speakers, . . . And they both left us in 2002. By now they’ve probably met, God help heaven.


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