music friday: wolfman jack

Wolfman Jack died on this date in 1995 at the age of 57.

One thing American Graffiti got right was the presence of the Wolfman in the lives of the teenagers of the day. We would cruise up and down the streets of the town, and everyone was listening to the same thing (no personal tapes or CDs or satellite programs then): the Wolfman, broadcasting from what were called "border blaster" stations with transmitters located just across the border in Mexico, where they operated with enormous watts that covered much of the United States. If you were a teen in the U.S. in the mid/late-60s, you could do an imitation of the Wolfman.

Here is an aircheck from 1967:

Here is a scene of him being immortalized in American Graffiti (I think this was filmed at KRE in Berkeley):

And here, the Wolfman signs off:

ah, radio

I'm sure I've written about radio many times. I could search for relevant posts. But what I'm thinking about today is the category I assigned to Radio. Categories on this blog are there to help you find things. There's a category for Baseball and Bruce Springsteen, for Film and Film Fatales and Geezer Cinema, for Music and Pink and Sleater-Kinney. Recently, I added a category for African-American Directors ... haven't yet turned it into something "official" like my Film Fatales posts, but I tagged a lot of appropriate movies from past entries.

Well, the first time I tagged a post with "Radio" (and thus, the time I invented it as a category for the blog) wasn't as long ago as I might have thought. The post was called "Serial Radio", and it drifted from the Serial podcast to some thoughts about Old Time Radio, with examples. The date was November 13, 2014. Like I say, I know I've talked about radio before, especially FM "Underground" Radio in the 60s. I may have to go back and tag a few posts, make the Radio category relevant. Because after that first post, I wrote one Radio post a year for three years, with the last one being in 2017, when I talked about William Conrad and Gunsmoke.

The other two posts were tied to my life with radio. One came when longtime Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons died. Baseball fans develop close, interesting relationships with the people on the radio who describe the action for six months out of the year.

The other Radio post was the most personal of them all: "Al Collins, Grasshopper Pie, and Me". I think it's a good one, so I won't quote it here ... check out the link. Al Collins was a legend, but a good half of that post is about the grasshopper cocktail and grasshopper pies.

What would I write about radio today? The main place I listen to the radio is in the car, and guess what? There's a quarantine, and we never drive anywhere. Spotify playlists are what pass for music radio in 2020, and I will still listen to Giants games when I'm not watching them on TV.

But perhaps what I'm saying is there's a reason why I have so few radio posts. Radio just isn't as important to me any more.

hello, kitty

I’ve got no answer for this question. I did a brief search for studies on the subject, but they seemed inconclusive (i.e., they were over my head).

The subject is the expression of emotion via voice, more specifically the expression of a general state of, if not happiness, then at least contentment. It comes to mind when listening to old-time radio dramas. We, the listener, must rely on our imagination to picture what is happening, but that’s a bit simplistic. We’re relying on the music, the dialogue, the sound effects, everything that enters our imagination.

Gunsmoke was arguably the greatest of all radio dramas. Certainly it was the best Western. I’m speaking only of the radio version, because I’m concerned with the use of the voice to suggest emotion, and the television version adds visual information that taints what I’m trying to figure out.

One reason Gunsmoke was a great show was that William Conrad played the lead, Marshal Matt Dillon. I’m tossing out a lot of superlatives, here, but Conrad was one of the greatest of all radio actors. He wasn’t asked to play Dillon on TV ... as became clear when he later starred in shows like Cannon and Jake and the Fatman, Conrad didn’t exactly look like an imposing lawman. (James Arness, 6’7” tall, did look imposing, and he made a fine Marshal.) But as a voice actor, Conrad was at the top of many people’s lists. (He served as the narrator for countless TV series over the years.)

Conrad could sound like a serious badass. When Marshal Dillon got pissed, Conrad’s acting anger grabbed the listener through the radio speaker. He was also excellent at conveying the wary life of a lawman, as he would say at the beginning of each episode, “I'm that man, Matt Dillon, United States Marshal -- the first man they look for and the last they want to meet. It's a chancy job, and it makes a man watchful . . . and a little lonely.”

But even Matt Dillon would occasionally find a brief moment or two to relax, even to enjoy life for a bit. Usually, this came when he greeted Miss Kitty, the “saloon hostess” in Dodge City. Conrad’s voice would convey that happiness.

And that’s my question. How the hell did Conrad do it?

I could ask this about any voice actor, of course. I don’t have any problem understanding the way an actor could convey anger, or fear, or similar emotions. But somehow, when Matt said something as simple as “Hello, Kitty”, you know he’s smiling. And I don’t know how we can tell.

Here’s an episode from 1955. If you just want to hear an example of the above, listen to the first couple of minutes, through the conversation between Matt and Kitty. The way Conrad slides a chuckle into his line reading is easy enough to grasp. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the way he already sounds happy when he says “Hello, Kitty”.

al collins, grasshopper pie, and me

I want to call Al “Jazzbo” Collins a local legend, except “local” is hard to define. His long radio career included extended stays in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, and many smaller areas, most in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. Besides radio, he was briefly a host for The Tonight Show when they were looking for a new person (they eventually decided on Jack Paar). He had a morning TV show in San Francisco in the early-60s. He even cut a few records, hip fairy tales they were called:

His radio shows, no matter the station, were always broadcast from “The Purple Grotto”, several floors underground. His theme song was “Blues in Hoss Flat” by Count Basie:

Starting in 1959, he was on KSFO in San Francisco. They (and he) played my parents’ kind of music, and hey, I was only six. It wasn’t exactly a “normal” show:

His shtick with the Mexican banditos from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, well, I don’t know how it started. But if you were a guest on his show, you had to get “majuberized”, which meant you had to recite the quote from the movie. (Later in his career, he had a call-in talk show, and people would call solely to get majuberized.)

Then he added that morning TV show, and it was a joy, even for a tyke. Memories are tricky things, but among the stuff he did, I can remember this little toy where you put a coin in it and a little hand came out and grabbed the coin and pulled it inside. Jazzbo loved crepes, and he was always having a chef making crepes on live TV.

Eventually in, I think it was the late-70s, he ended up with a call-in talk show. The channel, KGO, had nothing but talk shows, and reached all along the West Coast at night. Once in awhile, someone would call in berating Jazzbo for not talking about politics, but he would kindly explain that his show was a little different.

It is here where we finally get to the grasshopper pie. As always, Jazzbo loved to talk about his favorite foods, and he frequently spoke of how much he loved grasshopper pie. He’d talk about the recipe ... you started with grasshoppers ... I can’t really remember it very well, and I had never heard of grasshopper pie, but he got my attention as I drove home from the factory after midnight.

Eventually, I figured out that the pie was based on a cocktail my mom used to make called “grasshoppers”. I thought for a long time that grasshoppers were fairly traditional ... I mean, my mom made pitchers at home ... but apparently it’s one of those remnants of post-war American culture, and they went out of fashion. I haven’t had a grasshopper since I was old enough to drink legally (admittedly, I don’t go to bars just looking for the cocktail). But once, 30+ years ago, I was on a jury, and the city paid for our lunch. We went to some fancy restaurant in Oakland, and on the dessert menu was Grasshopper Pie. I had to order it, see what it tasted like, and yum!

Here is a video showing how to make “real” grasshopper pie:

And here’s a bartender making a cocktail:

My mom made hers in a blender.

So now you know my personal history with grasshopper pie. It turns out there’s a restaurant in Oakland that has grasshopper pie on the dessert menu, so my wife and I went there for dinner. The restaurant is called Homeroom, and they pretty much only serve macaroni and cheese. We both got the “classic mac”, and it was delicious (also v.good microwaved the next day ... the servings are huge, you can’t finish one). Then I ordered grasshopper pie for dessert:

grasshopper pie

It was yummy yummy. It wasn’t “real” grasshopper pie, and I knew in advance ... in place of crème de menthe and crème de cacao, they used chocolate mint ice cream, and apparently, this is standard nowadays. It tasted like a really good Baskin-Robbins cake. The taste was like a real grasshopper if it didn’t have alcohol.

Of course, I had to tell our waitress all of this. I wasn’t surprised she knew nothing of the cocktail, but I admit I felt very old when she said she had never heard of crème de menthe. Even my wife, whose parents didn’t drink like mine, had crème de menthe on the shelf when she was a kid, to pour on ice cream.

Anyway, I’m satisfied now. I hope Jazzbo heard about it in the Purple Grotto.

Here’s a link to an article about the cocktail:

It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Weird History of The Grasshopper

lon simmons

Every baseball fan understands how Giants and A's fans are feeling today. Because every team has announcers that not only become part of the team, but become our companions over the long six months of a season. 162 games a year, we hear the announcers, and they are as familiar to us as our next-door neighbor ... probably more so. So if you are a baseball fan, you have a special relationship with an announcer or two or three, and if you live long enough, some of those special people will pass away.

Lon Simmons died today at 91. He was a long-time announcer for the Giants ... he was a long-time announcer for the A's. Hell, he was a long-time announcer for the 49ers, and some of his most famous calls came with them, but you don't have the same relationship with football announcers, who are only with us once a week for fewer months than baseball.

Lon didn't just disappear when he retired. He came back and did some games for the Giants in his 80s, and if he wasn't quite as good at following the action, he always had his jokes. The Giants make a big deal of honoring their past, and Lon was always welcome at the park. He won the Hall of Fame's Ford Frick Award for broadcasters, and there is a marker commemorating this at China Basin, alongside ones for Russ Hodges and Jon Miller. Lon looked older as the years progressed, although he never looked as old as he really was. And his mind never quit working, so it was a pleasure when he'd stop into the booth for an inning or two.

The Bay Area has long been blessed with great announcers. Bill King was tops in three different sports. Hank Greenwald was a favorite of Giants' fans. The current baseball announcers are all wonderful, with the unnoticed Ken Korach, and the Giants' well-known team of Kruk and Kuip, along with Jon Miller, possibly the best of his era. Kruk and Kuip are truly loved. Yet I don't think even Bill King's biggest fans would argue with my claim that Lon Simmons was the most-beloved sports announcer in the history of Bay Area sports.


serial radio

The NPR podcast Serial is getting a lot of attention these days. An offshoot of This American Life, it’s an ongoing reinvestigation of an old murder case by an intrepid reporter, Sarah Koenig. The trick is that Koenig is, to some extent, making it up as she goes. She digs up evidence, she thinks about it, she interviews people, she tells us what tentative conclusions she has, and she moves on. She regularly changes her mind as new evidence comes to her, and it’s interesting to listen as she talks her way through inconsistencies in the story. The result is that, while there are some intriguing characters, including Adnan Syed, who is serving time for the murder, the central character is Sarah Koenig. She is the person we identify with … she is the person doing our work for us, digging through old evidence, interviewing Syed, and rehashing everything in her mind.

Serial is increasingly popular (popular being relative … I’d guess it’s far more popular with NPR listeners than with the general populace, who likely have never heard of it). Reddit hosts discussions, there are parody versions, and critics jabber back and forth about what it all means. From a technical standpoint, it seems to be generally agreed upon that Serial marks an important point in the history of podcasts. Also, Serial invites the same kind of communal attention of many television series today. As far as I know, in that, Serial is unique. We don’t use radio that way any longer.

Well, this being Throwback Thursday, I thought perhaps I’d take this time to confess once again to one of my more obscure pastimes: I listen to Old-Time Radio. I “use” OTR the way we currently use Serial. Obviously, I don’t get together for coffee or tea to hash over the most recent edition of The Adventures of Sam Spade. But the act of listening to the radio as a form of narrative entertainment, which for a couple of decades prior to the growth of television was how most people used radio … well, let’s just say I don’t find it hard to take in the format of Serial.

And so I thought for Throwback Thursday, I’d stick an old radio show on the blog. It’s not easy to make a selection. Gunsmoke was probably the best radio drama, Jack Benny probably had the best radio comedy series, and there are other surprisingly good shows (surprising to us, because of what those shows became). I’m thinking in particular of Dragnet, which in its 60s version was something us hippies and hippie wannabes watched for the laughs it provided. Jack Webb as Joe Friday offered a stone-like image that imprinted itself on our brains, such that when they remade Dragnet as a movie in the 80s, Dan Ackroyd didn’t play Friday as much as he inhabited the ghost of Jack Webb.

But when you listen to a lot of old radio shows, you begin to appreciate Jack Webb. He had a vision for Dragnet, and if it played goofy on TV in the 60s, well, it worked just fine on the radio in the 50s. And it wasn’t a dumb show … on the contrary, Webb placed a vice on Dragnet so that it always did what he wanted. And what he wanted was reality. This was most famously shown (er, heard) when Friday had to make a person-to-person long distance phone call from Los Angeles to a small town in Utah. Webb wanted to be sure he got it right, so they made an actual long-distance call and recorded it for use in the show:

Spellbinding stuff!

A few years before he made his name with Dragnet, Webb appeared in Pat Novak, for Hire, a private-detective show that is less famous than the ones devoted to characters like Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade, or Philip Marlowe. Pat Novak needs to be heard to be believed. It’s not quite a parody on the level of a Naked Gun, which actually makes it more fascinating. Pat Novak, for Hire is the most hard-boiled of hard-boiled series, such that it spills over into comedy. And the dialogue is often so hilarious that you must believe the people behind the show knew what they were doing: making a comedy. It’s unlike the Jack Webb of legend. Here’s an episode, chosen at random (i.e. I found it on YouTube):


OK, I've got a few minutes, time to rhapsodize about Rhapsody.

Let me get the bad parts out of the way first, so I can concentrate on the good parts. Rhapsody is a Windows-only service, so the fourteen of you out there who are still fighting the anti-Microsoft battle can quit reading now. Rhapsody is also a pay service ... I'm not certain about the pricing, but I think it's $10/month, $25/3 months. Rhapsody is also a computer/online service ... the only way to listen to it on your stereo is if your computer is connected to that stereo, you can't listen to it in the car or anywhere else non-computerish.

I've just given plenty of reason for many, even most, people to lose interest in Rhapsody.

What are the good parts?

Well, Rhapsody has an enormous catalog of music. Let's take, oh, Van Morrison for an example. They've got 13 of his albums. They have six compilations on whch he appears. They have five other albums that he does guest shots on. You want to hear Astral Weeks? You can. Want to hear just that one song from Astral Weeks? You can.

Let me take someone a bit more contemporary. Like E-40? They have five E-40 albums and one EP. They have five compilations he appears on; they have close to 20 albums on which he makes appearance.

OK, they have a lot of tunes. I think they claim 400,000. Not everyone is available for this "on demand" service, most notably the Beatles. But 400,000 songs is a lot. (There is also a Rhapsody radio thingie that is part of the package, and it's nice, if not quite as good as Musicmatch MX ... and on those stations, you'll hear some of the artists who are missing from the on-demand catalog.) Basically, though, if you say to yourself "I want to hear that song," you can hear it ... I don't have a %, seems to me that I get positive results on about 90% of what I'm looking for.

Then there's the playlists. Anyone who loves making mix CDs will love this. Everyone of those 400,000 songs in the on-demand catalog can be placed in a playlist. You can put them in particular orders, you can put the same song in three different times, you can do a shuffle play, you can save as many playlists as you like. And the playlists are stored online, so if you've got a computer at home, a computer at work, and a laptop, you can install Rhapsody on all your machines and whenever you log on, from whichever computer, all of your info is there, all of your playlists are there, and this is all part of the basic package.

Here's some examples of what you can do with playlists, besides the obvious Mix function. I have a playlist called "Robin." It has about 300 songs so far, and it'll continue to grow. Basically, I'm sticking every song I can think of that Robin likes into that playlist. Then, when she's at home and in the mood for tunes, I put "Robin" on shuffle play and everyone's happy. With standard radio, she's stuck listening to the oldies channel ... that's closest to her taste, but it means she never hears anything from the last few decades, and there's lots of music from that time which she enjoys. With Musicmatch, Robin can create a station based on her taste in music (you can do this to a lesser extent in Rhapsody), but she is then at the mercy of the software, which can be good (it will play a song you don't know but will like) or not so good (it will decide that since you like Bruce Springsteen, you'll also like some piece of obscure garage junk, and you won't like it). With Rhapsody playlists, the surprise factor is missing ... you won't hear something new, you have to look elsewhere for that (listening to a Rhapsody station that appeals to you being an obvious possibility) ... but since the catalog is so huge, you WILL be surprised.

IPod people know what the thrill is ... most of us these days either have an iPod or know someone who does, and they love to explain how they put their entire CD collection on the iPod. And that's a great thing, and it's also portable, which is not the case with Rhapsody. But, given the limitation that you are listening from your computer, Rhapsody has iPod beat in one important area: with an iPod, you can put your entire CD collection in one place, but with Rhapsody, you can put every CD the world in one place.

OK, I've exaggerated as usual ... 400,000 songs is not the same as "every CD in the world." But it's a move in the proper direction. I'd be happy to link to the article in question, but I can't remember where I read it ... but just a couple of weeks ago, I read a piece that said one possible future for music would be one where the consumer paid a flat fee for access to every piece of music that exists. It's basically what radio stations do. Now, the point of the article was that for our flat fee, we should get unlimited rights to that music ... we should be able to listen to it anywhere we want, in any format we desire. Rhapsody is nowhere near that point, being that it is tied to an internet-connected computer. But it's got the right idea. Give 'em their $10/month (about the price of one used CD), and listen to any of 400,000 songs you want.

The playlist possibilities are endless. I have a crushing nostalgia for the "underground" radio of the late-60s ... I've created a playlist with 700 or so songs that got played on underground radio in those days. I've got a playlist of songs my sister Chris likes, which I can listen to when I'm chatting with her online. Neal came over and made me several mix playlists of some of his favorites, so I have Neal-chosen Greatest Hits for E-40, Geto Boys, and Timbaland. I'm building a playlist that contains every song Rhapsody makes available from Dave Marsh's book of the 1001 best singles of all time. I've got a playlist called "Morning" which features music appropriate for reading the Sunday paper.

Also, you can send playlists to others ... obviously, you need the Rhapsody service to listen, which cuts out most people, but I can place a link here on my blog and if you click on it, you can listen to a short set I built for listening to in the car when Robin's driving. (Here's the list, before anyone asks: "Werewolves of London" - Warren Zevon, "You Can Leave Your Hat On" - Randy Newman, "All I Wanna Do" - Sheryl Crow, "St. Teresa" - Joan Osborne, "Who Will Save Your Soul" - Jewel, "One Headlight" - The Wallflowers, "I Need To Know" - Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.)

I've ignored the burning capabilities of Rhapsody ... I'm interested in it for the playlists and huge catalog, I don't need to burn the stuff, but they make a large part of the catalog available for burning at I think 79 cents a song ... again, I don't use that function, so I have no idea if it's any good or not.

So, if anyone is actually reading this and actually using Rhapsody, let's see your playlists!