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The airwaves, the Fat Man and me

April 23, 2010

I've been in love with radios my whole life. And when I say my whole life, I mean it literally: One of my earliest memories is our RCA Victor console occupying its place of honor in our living room - a place it still occupies in the family mansion.

My parents bought it in 1941, when newly married and living in Gotham, and hauled it up here on their Great Adirondack Exodus of '46.

Of course, it's as hard to forget as it was to ignore, since it's about as big as a refrigerator. Plus, to a pre-television-era kid, it was as mysterious and powerful as the Oracle of Delphi was to an ancient Greek. I was fascinated by it almost from infancy and clearly remember asking my mother if she'd show me the little people.

"What little people?" she asked.

"The ones making all the sounds," I said.

Then I pointed at the back of the radio, because, mere poppet that I was, I knew the radio's noises had to be made by tiny people who lived inside it.

My mother explained that the sounds came from real people who lived far away. It was a reasonable explanation - and a disappointing one as well.

That radio provided all the entertainment a family could wish for - music, comedy, drama, quiz shows - you name it, but I remember only three programs from those tender years: "The Nelson Family," "Gangbusters" and, weirdly enough, the Shine Senate hearings.

Once we got TV when I was in second grade, the radio became something to put photos on rather than our main source of entertainment. But we still listened to radio for our local news. And of course it got turned on when we heard the fire alarm. The alarm honked in a numerical code, telling which street had the fire. Everyone had a chart with the code on it (courtesy, ironically, of one of the local insurance agencies) and while the siren was still wailing, the announcer interrupted the program to give the exact numerical address.

Seeking empathy, I always listened to WNBZ in the mornings before school. The show was hosted by Johnny Garwood, who, by the sound of him, hated to be awake and functional at that ungodly hour almost as much as I did.

Beyond that, though, radio was pretty much irrelevant, but through no fault of its own. See, back in those ante-diluvium days, the only way to receive a distant radio station ("distant" meaning farther than 20 miles) was to have a good antenna for your radio. We didn't, so we could only get WNBZ. No slander intended, but WNBZ was a station for old fogies. Certainly it didn't have anything to take care of a young rocker like yours truly.

Maybe the rest of the U.S. was shakin' they groove thangs to the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Elvis and the rest, but the WNBZ music scene was a tad more sedate, featuring such rhythm freaks as the Lennon Sisters, the Mills Brothers, Teresa Brewer, Vaughn Monroe, Xavier Cougat, et. al.

And even if I wanted to listen to WNBZ, I couldn't do it a lot since it went off the air at dusk.

A no-longer-local yokel

In my pre-adolescence, the radio station to listen to was WPTR in Albany. It played nothing but the devil's music, and as befit the music's darkness, the station played the whole night through, every night through.

I remember going to kids' houses just to listen to PTR. Today it seems like something that only took place in Norman Rockwell paintings, but it's the God's honest: There we were, in someone's living room, in a trance, snapping our fingers, bopping our heads, totally stoned on the sheer joy of hearing all the latest hits - something city kids took for granted, but to us hicks it was like scarfing a treeful of forbidden fruit.

A few years later, another 24-hour rock station became the favorite - WKBW in Buffalo ("Fifty-thousand Watts of Rock and Roll!"). And what made it better than PTR, since all the music played was the same? The disc jockeys, of course.

It was totally different back then because the programs weren't syndicated, so unlike today, we weren't being force-fed a bunch of colorless pap by a bunch of colorless robots. Instead, each station had its stable of DJs, and each DJ had a distinct personality, and thus a devoted fan base.

KB had a bunch of hotshot DJs, among them Dick Biondi, Tom Shannon, Jack Armstrong and Dan Neaverth, but my favorite was Joey Reynolds. He referred to himself as "the Fat Man," but whether he was or not was a moot point, since we never saw a picture of him. Nor did we care to - he came alive to us only through the radio, and that was more than enough.

The Fat Man was a trip. He was fast, funky and frolicsome and, for those days, quite a bit on the risque side. Of course, compared to today's broadcast swine, he was a priss, if not a virtual Puritan, but at the time, he was always pushing the propriety envelope. He and Neaverth put out a song called "Rats in my Room," the poverty of its lyrics outdone only by the poverty of its music and singing. To us, of course, it was an anthem.

He also introduced me to the faux-serial "Chicken Man," with its signature, "Squawk, squawk, squawk, SQWAK!" rallying call and its ridiculous patter.

Then on weekend nights he'd announce the start of "the submarine races" at some isolated location, which reduced my boon companion Ralph Carlson and me to hysterics.

"Yeah, yeah, the submarine races," we'd say, and give each other an insider's wink, followed by what we thought were salacious leers.

"Watching the submarine races" was the teens' code (though not a very cryptic one, I now realize) for making out in cars. It was not only a taboo activity but a taboo topic of discussion as well - but not for the Fat Man.

Upon reflection, I'd say Joey Reynolds' appeal was about as basic - and rare - as it got: He understood teenagers. He understood their humor, their hassles, their sensitivities, even their secrets. And maybe we mostly liked him so much because we felt that, beyond understanding us, he actually liked us.

As for him being an adult? For all we knew he was in his mid-20s, but to us that made him as much an adult as Dwight D. himself.

We who laugh

Nineteen-sixty-two was a golden year for me. My Uncle Irving gave me one of his old radios. It was a turquoise and white, GE "portable" that was as big and heavy as a foundation block. But it could be plugged into an outlet, and best of all, it could receive AM stations throughout the Northeast. I listened to them all: WABC in New York (with Cousin Brucie and Murray the K), WMEX in Boston (with Arnie "Woo-Woo" Ginsburg and the Night Train Show) and of course WADO (with Jocko, the ace from outer space, whose Rocket Machine show would make your liver quiver!).

But the Fat Man was still my rave fave. And he stayed it until sometime in the mid-'60s, when he suddenly disappeared from WKBW.

According to the usual unreliable sources, he was fired for saying something obscene on the air. But since there were dozens of versions of what he'd said, and no two were the same, I figured no one knew the real reason. And they didn't. But I do.

He did indeed get fired, but not for any on-air obscenity. Instead, he didn't show up at a charity event sponsored by the radio station, so he got canned.

But here's the kicker: After he got fired, he nailed his shoes to the program director's door, with a note that said, "Fill these!"

He then went on to a great career in radio.

As I could have told them, WKBW never found a DJ who even came close to replacing him. So not only did this warm the cockles of my heart, but in perfect fashion, it gave the Fat Man a much-deserved last laugh.



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