When Little Bands Were Big

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It may seem incredible now, but there really was a time when radio stations featured live programming almost all the time, albeit that was nearly a half century ago. The term “disc jockey” had not yet entered the lexicon, let alone the studios. Instead, stations in those days had “announcers,” and, true to the title, their duty was simply to announce the next number, then stand aside.

Such a personage greeted ten jittery young musicians who entered the broadcasting studio of Station WCAH in downtown Columbus, Ohio, one spring evening in the late 1920’s. He seemed genial, sophisticated, and suave, and the suggestion of a mustache decorated his upper lip, while a bright boutonnière sprouted from the lapel of his double-breasted suit. He may also have served as the program director, possibly even the station manager. At least no one else was in the studio that night, save for an engineer, seated in a glassed-in booth, who was surrounded by an awesome array of dials, switches, and flashing lights.

“Come in and make yourselves at home, fellas,” our dapper host greeted us cheerily as we hesitated at the entrance, weighted down with instruments, music stands, and packets of music. “You got plenty of time before you go on the air, so take your time to get set up.”

We found ourselves in a carpeted, windowless area about the size of a large living room. The only furnishings were a piano and a microphone surmounted by the station’s call letters and perched atop a pedestal. A speaker above the engineer’s lair softly relayed a network broadcast that was going over the air.

“My daughter says you guys have the best band in her high school,” our newfound friend assured us. “Ever been on radio before?”

“No,” I confessed, warily eyeing the impressive microphone.

“Nothing to it,” he assured me. “Not nearly as bad as playing for a dance with all that noise and confusion. Got your program ready?”

I handed him a paper with the titles of ten selections written on it—ample, as we had worked it out in feverish rehearsals, for a half-hour broadcast.

“Fine!” he said, and left to confer with the engineer in his glass cocoon The hands on the clock above his booth read 7:40. Twenty minutes to go.

Working intensely, we set up folding chairs, uncased instruments, spread arrangements on music stands, and tuned up, accomplishing all this in what for us was record time. But it was really a waste of energy. Vor now the clock read 7:48—which left twelve minutes still to go.

We stared at the mike around which we were grouped, and it stared back impassively at us. We were dressed in our Sunday finest for such a historic occasion, but soon the room seemed unbearably hot. I could feel beads of perspiration dribbling down my sides, and my collar was choking me. We tried a little small talk with each other, but the badinage that rippled back and forth so easily at rehearsals now died away in distressed mumbles. Our eyes swung back and forth, from the microphone to the relentless clock. All thoughts were on the unseen audience out there glued to their Atwater Rents. Hundreds? Thousands? Millions? The very surmise only energized our sweat glands.

The twelve minutes passed in what seemed an hour or so, and our friend the announcer rejoined us. Above the engineer a red light proclaimed “ ON AIR .” The announcer was speaking easily into the mike:

”…so we’re happy to bring you one of the best new bands in Columbus. And now for their first number—‘Coquette.’ ”

I tapped out the beat, and our first radio broadcast was under way. “Coquette” was one of our favorite numbers (although I’ve never heard it since without a shudder), a great showpiece for our first trumpet, Tubby Metcalf. Tubby always did tend to blush easily, but now his face was scarlet. Beads of sweat speckled his forehead, and he played now flat, now sharp, now bubbles of air.

Ah, well. The sax section led the next chorus, and we could always rely on good old Harold Hecker, a tall young man with blond curls ever in immaculate order. But Harold was all atremble. What came out of his saxophone sounded like the wails of the damned. And Vie Ballinger missed his drum break at the end of the chorus. But we all wavered into the final coda, then sat back, faces trickling sweat, hands shaking.

The announcer was on us like a cat.

“For crissakes, tune up!” he hissed. “I’ll put on a record while you get straightened out.”

Eddie Riggs gave us an A from the piano, but it was unnecessary. We all were in perfect tune. That was the least of our troubles.

The record finished, and, eyeing us dubiously, the announcer introduced the next number—“Persian Market.”

Somehow we all managed to arrive at the final note on the same beat, but in between was pure chaos. By now we were drenched, our self-confidence shattered, every nerve tingling. Even so, I felt we had improved a bit by the time we got into the final chorus. I’d heard of mike fright, but maybe we were over it by now. The rest of the program should go better.

The announcer was back at the mike again, his voice as suave as ever. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he purred, “you have just heard the concluding number of a concert by Earl Clark’s Orchestra.” He signalled to the engineer, and the ON AIR light flicked off. Then he whirled on us.