Working in radio, the invisible medium, they could tell but they could not show, their deep, velvety timbre conveying an intimacy that no television emcee could ever match. But more than just spinning the Chiffons and Wilson Pickett and Patsy Cline, or counting down the Top 40 as listeners huddled around their transistors, they also wrapped coded messages in soft, Southern drawls, sending thousands of demonstrators into the streets of segregated cities or tapping into Middle America’s resentment of the counterculture.
Southern DJs, in Georgia and elsewhere, were a behind-the-scenes force in liberating the black sound from the quarantine of “race music,” as it was called because of its raw sexuality, the ease with which it could be danced to and its church-like spirituality. Furiously working the turntables, they helped forge a new musical style from elements of gospel, swing, rhythm and blues and jazz that came to be called soul.
What came to be called country, however, evolved far differently. Its disc jockeys, exempt from the pressures of the civil rights movement, took their cues from a shrine called The Grand Ole Opry, which had an iron-fisted effect on what got played and what didn’t. And rural listeners, experiencing radio differently than African-Americans in the big city, didn’t want their DJs making political points, just good music.
Even a giant like Hank Williams couldn’t afford to get on the Opry’s wrong side, even if some DJs still thought he resonated with the conservative masses.
“Dragged down by drinking, drugs, illness and divorce . . . The Opry banned him for his sins,” writes Greil Marcus, author of Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ’N’ Roll Music.
In Something In The Air: Radio and the Revolution That Shaped A Generation, Marc Fisher traces the influence of radio and disc jockeys on post-World War II America, saying it was the glue of social unity. Even Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, whose anthems fell on opposite sides of the Vietnam War divide, “were actually good friends,” says Red Jones, the venerable WKNG Tallapoosa DJ. The power of radio easily outstripped their differences,
“We grew up dancing and dreaming to the same soundtrack, and we were therefore somehow united,” Fisher writes. At least through the late 1960s and early ’70s, “this shared pop culture was a meeting ground for our nation, a commons.”
DJs were more than just unifiers. Take Del Ward, a one-time darling of late-night radio. A southerner by birth, Ward eased the monotony of lonely hearts and nocturnal shift workers with her soothing delivery and penchant for romantic, feel-good ditties. Ward was once what radio was all about.
The advent of television, which could have rendered DJs obsolete, actually proved a boon to the profession. By the time Hamp Swain, the dean of Georgia’s African-American disc jockeys, began giving black artists airtime in the late ’50s, there were twice as many locally-owned stations as there had been after the war. The national networks, which had dominated radio since the ’20s, had shed stations in favor of news, comedy, soap operas and variety shows.
Swain was known by the handle “King Bee.” (Two of his female counterparts on the airwaves, Palmira Braswell and Bernice Cotton, were known, respectively, as “Honey Bee” and “Queen Bee.” “Those bee names were a Macon thing,” says Sam & Dave horn player Newton Collier. “I don’t know how it got started, but it stuck.”)
Swain was the first DJ to play “Please, Please, Please”—an importunate, blues-drenched tune by The Flames, whose lead singer was an obscure but fast-rising and self-possessed showman named James Brown—on Macon’s WBML.
“It was simple, just a guitar and the voices around one microphone,” he recalls today. “Our audience liked it. At the time, though, we weren’t thinking this was the beginning of anything.”
Of course it was, a tiny but significant move forward in the evolution of a genre and the propelling of careers—Brown’s and many others. “King Bee” was mentioned reverently in Ray, the biopic about Ray Charles. It’s hard to imagine—especially in the midst of the digital, mp3 revolution—a single radio outlet in the Deep South and one of its on-air personalities wielding enough power to change music forever, but that is what Swain did, even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
Whether stacking the turntables with soul or country or some other musical idiom, Georgia’s old-time DJs were tastemakers and trendsetters. (“Yes, there was the whole payola thing,” Swain concedes. “That was part of the business, but I tried to avoid it. I just liked the music.”)
In any case, when radio was king, so were the DJs.
Unfortunately, disc jockeys and their contributions to the advance of music and social change have been on the wane since the beginning of the digital age, with satellite and Internet broadcasting having written off the importance of their role in the medium.
Many stations are now using focus groups to pick their playlists. It makes you wonder if these groups would have realized the potential of James Brown?
Even with his stations’ faint signals, getting a record onto Hamp Swain’s playlist meant life-changing exposure. This was common knowledge when he broke in at WBML in 1954 (he was middle Georgia’s first African-American deejay) and three years later when he switched to competitor WIBB. Swain, who hosted the shows “Ebony Bandstand” and “The Night Rider,” simply had to like what he heard, whether or not the tune had commercial appeal.
“Today’s DJs don’t have the connection with musicians that we did,” he says in Street Singers, Soul Shakers, Rebels Without A Cause: Music From Macon by Candice Dyer. “Then, DJs played the in-between person between the artists and the audience, so promoters courted DJs. If the artist got airplay, record sales followed, along with a demand for personal appearances. I was in the right place at the right time.”
What Swain doesn’t say is that he was a musician himself (a saxophonist), which gave him a natural rapport with those in the business, who seemed to recognize his instinct for the extent of their gifts. He couldn’t explain in words why he fancied a demo, but he knew talent when he heard it.
Cool and modulated, Swain downplays his role in James Brown’s ascendancy, as if he lacked the pull to make or break. He prefers to chalk it up to destiny.
Swain was present when Brown and his band recorded a largely a cappella version of “Please, Please, Please” in the basement of but another Macon station—WIBB. He then gave it airtime even though he admits, somewhat paradoxically, that “truthfully, I wasn’t all that impressed with the song itself, but I was open-minded, and I just wanted to help these local guys get some work.”
Referring to Clint Brantley, a wily Macon promoter and talent scout, he adds, “Clint was a friend of mine, and I did it mostly as a favor to him. But then it became the most requested song, and everybody took notice. They really took notice.”
On a visit to Atlanta, where black radio had picked up the recording, Ralph Bass, a producer for King/Federal Studios, instantly recognized it as a breakout smash. “I didn’t know who the group was, or the lead singer. But I knew I had to have it,” he recalls.
Here, the record business’ ruthless streak, made seamier by a secret rendezvous and racial paranoia, entered the narrative. Evidently, Bass was vying for the rights with rival Chess Records, so he immediately drove all night to Macon to bind Brown and his song to his label.
Swain was not the sort to engage in such intrigue, but Brantley was.
“Brantley didn’t want anyone else to know he was dealing with an out-of-town white cat, so I got instructions over the phone to go to this barbershop and watch the blinds from across the street,” Bass recalls. “He told me that at eight o’clock, when the blinds go up and down, that would be the signal to go in. Sure enough, eight on the button and there went the blinds. So I went in.”
As Brown became a national sensation, Swain contined to immerse himself in the niche sounds he found at home, playing an occasional gig with “Little Richard” Penniman, another Macon native and a former vocalist with Swain’s group, The Hamptones.
Swain has long been associated with downtown Macon’s Douglass Theatre, considered the city’s ground zero for up-and-coming African-American acts and young people interested in cultivating a musical sensibility. More than a half-century ago, Swain introduced the Douglass’ Saturday morning live broadcast and talent show “The Teenage Party,” one of whose most famous participants was Otis Redding.
Swain says he has yet to gravitate to rap or to hip-hop culture in general.
“I don’t listen as much as I should because I don’t like what I’ve been hearing. So I’ve gotten away from my music,” he says. Rap’s pioneers, Swain goes on in a courtly manner, “muddied the waters for me” by “downgrading our ladies.”
With the exception of LL Cool J, he cannot name offhand a rap performer he admires.
For his contributions to the state’s rich musical history, Swain was inducted in 2008 into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame.
“Sashay ’round to the next number,” Del Ward would say, in a flirty Middle Georgia drawl, pronouncing the last word like “numbah,” before putting the needle in the groove for some Sinatra.
Then those night-shift workers and other nocturnal listeners would melt like, well, buttah.
Ward, who grew up in Macon, was the first woman in the country to work as host of an all-night radio show, “Del from Dixie,” for 50,000-watt powerhouse WGN in Chicago in the late 1940s and ’50s. In an early, memoir-style essay she penned, “My Life Story as a Girl Disc Jockey,” Ward wrote, “The familiar nursery rhymes didn’t move me. I wanted to learn all the popular grown-up songs.”
She quickly learned to keep up a stream of engaging, girl-next-door patter between sets of Glenn Miller, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Snow, and eventually this new, more energetic kind of music by artists such as Bill Haley. Ward was perched happily at the microphone for the arrival of rock ’n’ roll.
“I always loved all kinds of music—country, rock, easy listening for those wee hours when things slowed down and got mellow,” she says. “I was working up north at the time, and as strange as it might sound, I really didn’t fully comprehend how much music was being made right here in my hometown by artists like Little Richard—until I came back home.”
Ward was a petite redhead with twinkly features that old-school news copy always described as “pert,” and in that “Mad Men” era, station managers were quick to circulate the cheesecake-like visuals behind the peachy voice, inviting listeners to “Make a Double-Date with New Loveliness, Del Ward.”
“I don’t know what they were thinking,” she says, slapping her thigh and laughing. “But I was always very popular with prisoners. I got lots of fan mail from jail.”
In fact, the inmates of Indiana voted her “Miss Hacksaw of 1952.” “They said listening to me transported them out of their enclosed world, so I was like a hacksaw to them,” she says.
At the time, Variety magazine observed: “Miss Ward, equipped with a pleasant voice embroidered with a slight southern accent, wisely keeps a check-rein on any temptations to groove her gab along ‘Lonesome Gal’ lines. She does, however, strive for a degree of intimacy that gives her sessions a note of individuality.”
Ward, who eventually made the transition into television as a broadcast journalist, was one of the medium’s most popular on-air pioneers. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame, and she was a founding member of American Women in Radio and TV. In 1986, the Georgia Department of Industry and Trade named her “Broadcaster of the Year.”
Now in her 80s, she lives in Macon, where she continues to work as a television broadcaster for WMAZ.
“I’ve been so lucky to have found such a wonderful and fulfilling outlet for my curiosity,” she says.
In 1948, the year Red Jones left high school for his debut as a country-and-western disc jockey, broadcasting experts predicted that the advent of television would kill off radio.
“A lot of people thought that radio had had it, that television’s going to take it out,” he says.
Yet radio survived, as did Jones, who, at 79, is in his 10th year as one of the morning voices on Tallapoosa’s WKNG, a traditional country format, the dominant west Georgia station of its kind. It would be a challenge to find a member of the WKNG audience who lives within reach of its 50,000-watt signal (Atlanta to Birmingham, Rome to Columbus) who would not recognize Jones’ clear, bourbon-smooth diction.
“We play the traditional country of the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s,” he says. “Ray Price, Roy Clark. Alan Jackson. That kind of stuff.”
When Jones took the mic for the first time, his playlist fell under the unreconstructed rubric “hillbilly,” the music locked in the insular, east Tennessee hills until Nashville studios realized they could make a buck out of it. For the most part, Jones says the DJs of the time mimicked, to ungainly effect, the mountain patois on the records.
“Then bluegrass came along,” he says, but the ‘hillbilly’ label stuck.
From his booth at stations throughout the South, including those in LaGrange,Carrollton and Houston, Texas, Jones kept an eye on the development of other musical forms.
Unlike the black music of the time, which had fanned out to studios in Memphis, Detroit and New York, Jones asserts that rural, white music became consolidated in Nashville’s
Music Row. Once Music City christened it all “country,” the disc jockeys and their employers accepted the all-encompassing canon.
“Country music has always been about storytelling,” Jones says. “Anything that Hank Williams has ever composed was autobiographical. He lived what he sang.”
One aspect of the country music devotee that hasn’t changed, Jones says, is a core social conservatism and an abiding faith.
“If a Christian says, ‘I really like Hank Williams,’ it doesn’t mean you want to drink and run around on your wife,” Jones says, somewhat defensively. “It doesn’t mean you want to live like Hank did, only that you enjoy his singing.”
And that you recognize the simple power of “three chords and the truth,” as Williams described country music.
To learn more about Georgia’s radio pioneers, visit the Georgia Radio Hall of Fame online.