They didn't just play records--they whooped and howled and pounded on telephone books and sang along with the records they played. They were as much performance artists as disc jockeys. It was nothing but a house party on the soul stations 24/7.
Any reference to this era of finger-poppin' cool has to include words about the Yon Teenage Leader. Jerry Blavat was his own phenomenon. He bought time on radio stations (as opposed to drawing a salary) and sold his own commercials. That allowed him to play whatever he wanted.
And so the Geator created his own sound--equal parts doo-wop, soul, dance and grind music. He'd flip a record to the B-side and make it a hit on his say-so alone. He created line dances--the Wagner Walk was the biggest--and thousands of Philly kids would trek to his record hops to test their moves. A helicopter would take him from dance to dance. He had hit TV shows--one, The Discophonic Scene, was a must-see. The Saturday Evening Post showcased him in a feature spread.
Ironically, Blavat is today experiencing the biggest celebrity of his career. Through perseverance and fierce independence, he is now acknowledged as one of rock 'n' roll's seminal figures. He was recently featured in Vanity Fair and has a host of projects in production.
Ultimately, WIBG changed its format to disco.
For a long time after that, there seemed little reason to live.
It was the Summer of Love, a time of Vietnam and Nixon and Hendrix, and as rock music made its first tentative steps to the formerly all-classical FM band, everything began to change.
On April 29, 1968, underground radio was born in Philadelphia. On that day, two radio stations simultaneously launched a whole new brand of rock programming in the city. The good-time jocks of the '50s and early '60s disappeared behind a puff of smoke and a Phil Spector wall of sound, and a stoned-out generation of music freaks prepared to take their place.
On WMMR, a disc jockey from Asbury Park took to the airwaves with a show he called The Marconi Experiment. Dave Herman had a deep, mellow voice and always sounded stoned. He'd play whole albums, and the long versions of songs--like the Chambers Brothers' Time Has Come Today, a big Philadelphia favorite. He'd go hours without playing commercials. His on-air style was casual, almost familial. He sounded like he was right there in the same room with you, passing the bong your way.
At the same time, a DJ named Steve Leon took to the air on WDAS. Leon called himself "My Father's Son" (his father, Max Leon, owned the station). Leon's program quickly became the most surreal in Philadelphia radio history.
Not as laid-back as Herman, My Father's Son said whatever Philadelphia's counter-culture was thinking at the time. He'd talk for 20 minutes about the evils of the war and big government. He would rail against Rizzo. He'd announce Philadelphia street prices for pot and hash.
Once, during the lottery that would determine which 18-year-olds would be drafted to go to Vietnam, he read the numbers on the air with machine gunfire playing in the background. Leon was suspended from WDAS many times for crossing the line of good taste, which was part of the fun of listening to him.
It was a brand of rock radio that had never been heard before. Songs segued into each other without interruption; commercials were bunched up so they wouldn't interrupt the flow of the music; several of the broadcasters even refused to play certain commercials, either because they didn't think the product was beneficial to their audience or they didn't like the way it sounded. There was often dead air, either because the DJ fell asleep or was too stoned to notice the record had stopped playing.
Before long, based on changing times and the street buzz of these early innovators, underground--or "free-form"--radio began to take hold in Philadelphia. Stations like WMMR, WDAS, WIOQ and WYSP began hiring personalities with unique broadcasting styles and musical knowledge. Ed Sciaky, who would later become the radio personality to introduce Springsteen to Philadelphia, found a longtime home at WMMR after being fired at WDAS four times for insubordination and other infractions.
Michael Tearson, another early WMMR jock, became an instant cult favorite by playing esoteric cuts and albums that couldn't be heard anywhere else. Carol Miller, one of the few female broadcasters of that era, became one of the city's most recognized voices.
Through the '60s and into the early '70s, the sound of these stations morphed and changed with the times. But the spirit of the era remained intact on the dial.
You listened because the people behind the consoles were playing the music they liked. Artists would drop by the station unannounced, and the DJs would tell you all about the concert that night at the Factory.
But by the mid- to late-'70s, the audience for FM had grown to the point where radio station owners could see there was big money to be made. Researchers and consultants were brought in, formats were tightened, specific niches carved out.
PW's 2015 Gift Guide
Dinner with Luke Palladino