By Richard G. Carter
“It takes both the black and white keys on the piana, to play the Star Spangled Banna…” Mannie Mauldin Jr.
Original Black rhythm and blues evolved into rock ‘n’ roll and changed the world. In its heyday (1953-63), R&B was played non-stop by many noted radio disc jockeys — Black and White. These visionaries were just as important as nationally renowned pioneer Alan Freed, and Dick Clark who went on to gain fame on TV’s “American Bandstand.”
Over the years, popular, well-known Black DJs gracing the airways in my hometown of Milwaukee included Mannie Mauldin Jr., Eddie O’Jay (in his pre-New York days) and WAWA’s Hoyt “Dr. Bop” Locke, O.C. White and Jim Frazier.
When I first heard the Spaniels’ “Baby, It’s You” (1953) — still the best R&B record of all time — I was hooked on radio DJs. And a few years later, I was lucky enough to trade R&B and doo-wop insights in person, and by phone, with WRIT’s Chuck Dunaway.
In the mid-‘50s, the youthful Dunaway — calling himself the “boy disc jockey” on his popular “Rockaway With Dunaway” show — claimed he wrote the teenage Five Notes two-sided hit “Show Me the Way” and “Park Your Love.” On one occasion, he played both continuously throughout his entire afternoon show, pausing only for commercials.
How well I recall summer nights in 1956, when the Five Notes attracted big crowds on busy Walnut St. between N. 6th and 7th by wailing away a cappella outside Larry’s Frozen Custard. Billed on colorful posters as “Singing like the Clovers,” they made several local gigs — heavily promoted on the air by Dunaway.
Radio disc jockeys were so influential in those days, me and my running buddy, Sam Johnson, played DJ at many of our house parties. We spun hits by the Spaniels, Drifters, El Dorados, Clovers, Counts, Flamingos, Dells, Marvin and Johnny, Drifters, Cadillacs, Johnny Ace, Ruth Brown, Five Keys, Harptones, Danderliers, Diablos and Platters.
In the ‘90s, I talked on-air, in-studio, with Ron Cuzner on WFMR’s “The Dark Side”; WMSE with Paul Cebar, and WYMS with Greg Drust; Jack “Jr.” Black; my high school pal Alvin Russell, and Susan Orr, my future wife. Susan often played Spaniels’ classics such as “Baby, It You,” “Stormy Weather” and “Danny Boy” on her “Jazz in the Afternoon.”
Back when doo-wop and real R&B swept urban America, we heard this great Black sound DJ’d by Hal Jackson, Douglass (Jocko) Henderson, Tommy (Dr. Jive) Smalls, Bobby Jay, Evelyn Robinson and Mary Louise in New York; Vivian Carter in Gary, Ind.; Al Benson and Daddy-O-Daley in Chicago; Chester “Daddy Yo Hot Rod” McDowell in Shreveport; Nathaniel (Magnificent) Montague in Los Angeles; “Chattie Hattie” Leeper in Charlotte, and Ed Castleberry — who began in Birmingham and gravitated north.
Through their efforts — which included emceeing R&B concerts — the unique music hit its peak in listen-ability and dance-ability while being done most effectively by Black artists. Milwaukee teens poured into Radio Doctors at N. 3rd St. and W. Garfield Ave., and 3rd and W. Meinecke, and Music Mart on 3rd near W. Center St., to buy the jams.
Aside from our local DJs, perhaps the most widely listened-to radio program by R&B-happy young Black Milwaukeeans in the 1950s was “Randy’s Record Shop” on clear-channel WLAC in Nashville. Hosted by Hoss Allen and others, the show was heard on car radios on summer nights — introducing many of us to the likes of Ivory Joe Hunter, Lloyd Price, Dinah Washington, Little Richard, Varetta Dillard, the Chantels, James Brown and his Famous Flames, Ray Charles, Fats Domino, Faye Adams and others.
Among the most celebrated R&B personality-disc jockeys to come down the pike was the flamboyant, bearded Wolfman Jack, of “The Midnight Special” fame, who soared to national prominence as a radio DJ in the 1973 hit film “American Graffiti.” In this funny, melancholy movie about car-cruising teenagers, Wolfman played many original Black R&B hits — turning the soundtrack into a trove of doo-wop and early rock ‘n‘ roll.
Near the end, he intoned: “A little kiss on your ear. Goodnight sweetheart, I’ll see you later. Ohhh, the Spaniels.” Throughout his tour de force, the Spaniels were the only group Wolfman named. It was music to my ears, as the later writer of their authorized biography “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight: The Story of the Spaniels” (August Press-1995).
But all was not peaches and cream in DJ land. Alan Freed, credited by some with coining the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll” on his “Moondog Show” in Cleveland, used an early form of payola. For example, while with WINS in New York — in exchange for airing Moonglows’ hits such as “Most of All,” “Starlite” and ”In Love” — he demanded that his name appear on the record label as co-writer with Harvey Fuqua, to share the royalties.
While researching my book on the Spaniels in Gary, Ind. in 1991, James “Pookie” Hudson — their legendary lead singer-song writer — told me Freed asked for the same thing with the group’s 1954 smash hit, “Goodnight Sweetheart, Goodnight.” But Pookie righteously refused and, as a result, Freed never booked the Spaniels for his big shows at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater, and never played their records on the air.
Yet, Freed’s efforts to stage a major New York concert were depicted in R&B’s best ever movie — 1978’s “American Hot Wax.” If you appreciate great DJs, and love original Black R&B, see this film. Those were the days, my friends. We thought they’d never end.
Milwaukee native Richard G. Carter is a freelance columnist