Friday, July 24, 2015

The Voices on the Radio, Part Two: Bass, Billera, and Me

[We have written about the importance of local radio before, but there were a couple of other personalities that came to mind recently, whose influence I recall.]

It was on every Friday afternoon and we all would tune in.  In retrospect, the music that was offered was highly commercialized and a pale reflection of what was being played on FM radio at the time.  However, we were in junior high school and most of us had only AM radios in our homes and parents' cars at the time, so our aural journeys to the dark side of music were thwarted.

But, it hardly mattered.  From Windsor, Ontario across the lake from Detroit was a massive transmitter that broadcast CKLW to almost the entire Great Lakes region; the staff were responsible about mixing up the tracks so that listeners could hear junk like "Yummy, Yummy, Yummy" [Dear God...] but also catch some Wilson Pickett or Archie Bell and the Drells [Yes, I can still dance the "Tighten Up", but only after my fourth Manhattan].

When CKLW was playing its block of Canadian "rock", as mandated by their government, it was then time to switch over to Cleveland's one, great AM radio offering, WIXY 1260, and its countdown of the top-selling singles of the week, the WIXY 60.

Such was the state of AM radio in those days that The Troggs and The Rolling Stones could share a list with Frank Sinatra and the Ray Coniff Singers.  Actually, this explains a lot about my musical tastes even in my near-dotage.

The WIXY 60 was often hosted by the affable Billy Bass [pronounced like the fish, not the instrument], a former jazz DJ familiar in the Midwestern market.  He didn't try to tell jokes, did not project a hammy persona, did not run at the mouth at every opportunity; the show was about the music, not him.  While he didn't seem to favor one type of music over another, I do remember that his voice would be a bit more excited whenever Wilson "Wicked" Pickett made the charts.  Really, who can blame him?

He was the perfect choice for the 60 and his style, I would find, would be the one that I would copy the next decade when I was sitting behind a couple of turntables.  However, on Sunday evenings, when the management of the station was neither in the office nor listening at home, Bass would indulge himself and us by playing the music we were really listening to on our home phonographs.  It was Billy Bass from whom I first heard Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Santana.  For that, I'm perpetually grateful.

He would leave to become, among other things, an artists and repertoire man for Chrysalis Records, aiding a number of groups to become recording artists, including Blondie, of whom we've written before.

Radio in those days wasn't limited to music, of course.  While in Cleveland there was always sports [and more sports], one could still find small stations so slight as to almost be between the decimals on the dial, where there were other delights for the active mind.

One such show was that of Jau Billera, one of the Cleveland's own beat poets and the host of a radio show that brought Cleveland poetry to a worldwide national city-wide "highly specialized" audience.

From a shopping center in one of the eastern suburbs, as unlikely a location for any kind of poetry as Billera and his microphone were jammed in a small, unused store front between a Sears and a J.C. Penneys, he would interview poets, let them read from their work, promote their slim volumes, and discuss the joys and vicissitudes of the lyrical life.  It made for a diverting Saturday afternoon listening, even if my Dad did think my choice of listening was "flaky".

Through Billera, I was introduced to d.a. levy, of whom we have written, Kent Taylor, Adelaide Simon, and Russell Atkins.  I appreciate that these are not household names, or even names generally familiar to students of literature, but they were important to those of us in Cleveland who enjoyed the possibilities of words and, as they were not limited by the constraints of the East and West Coast literary establishment, could be gloriously fun and experimental.  When you're a poet in Cleveland, there are no rules.

Billera would float about the area, even after the inevitable demise of his radio show.  In 1980, when I was teaching at a city high school, I was surprised to receive a phone call from him.  He was going from school to school offering poetry workshops and, as I was a 24-year-old department chairman looking for something innovative to do, scrounged 50 bucks from my $100 annual budget and enjoyed two hours of a sixties-era poet conversing with aficionados of the early form of Radical American Poetry, or Rap.  It was great.  As one of my best students noted, "Dang, that white man was dogged."  That was a compliment, just so you know.

Like too many artists, Billera had his demons and would take his own life just four years later.

I was no Billy Bass nor even a Jau Billera, although I did get published from time to time in the mimeographed poetry "journals" that flooded the streets in the counter-culture areas of Cleveland, but in 1974 I became, with some initial reluctance, a disk jockey.  I'd actually come to the station for a job collating sports reports for the on-air talent, but happened along the same day that one of the DJs quit/was fired, and they were desperate for someone to sit in for two hours.

The first time one hears one's voice through the headphones and knows that it's being heard by tens of thousands hundreds maybe a few dozen people is a daunting moment.  However, I persevered and, as I made to leave the studio, was caught by the station manager who said, "Kid, you're a natural."

Flattered, I responded with, "Well, I learned it all from Billy Bass."

He paused a moment, looked puzzled, and said, "Well, you can go fishing later; right now I want you to apply for an FCC license.  You've got a job, if you want it."

I did and, a month later, successfully took the test for my Third Class Federal Communications Commission Radiotelephone License and spent the next four years hosting the Midnight to 6 AM jazz show on Friday and Saturday nights, the Wednesday afternoon "acid rock" block, and producing recorded interviews with whatever luminaries, from musicians to authors to the fellow who prosecuted Charles Manson, passed through the area.  I've had a few jobs that were just plain fun, and this was certainly the best of them.

For fun, one may listen to a couple of recordings via The Cleveland Memory Project of Jau Billera's radio show at this link.

Fans of WIXY 1260AM maintain a website that streams the music, commercials, public service announcements, and bumpers from their ten years on the air.  If you desire some nostalgia, please listen to this link.  Right now, they're playing "Happy Organ" by Dave "Baby" Cortez.  It just doesn't get any better, does it?