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‘I know you wanna leave me, But I refuse to let you go. If I have to beg and plead for your sympathy, I don’t mind because you mean that much to me.’
“Join me in prayer as we come to the end this Sunday’s program, won’t you folks?” Reverend Jim would be drenched in sweat by the end of his twenty-six minutes. Shirt collar yanked open, tie loosened during an especially molten bit from--almost always--the Book of Revelation, his spittle flew against the slanted glass wall separating the studio from my post at the board. Reverend Jim always tried to capture my gaze and preach directly to me.
Every Sunday. A long twenty minutes of a young guy’s life. He seemed to feel that I was included as part of the half-hour buy for a four month schedule, half an hour on Sundays. At seven a.m. Paid in cash. Upfront.
“Kneel along with me by your radio set, won’t you?” He remained standing, one hand caressing the microphone stand, the other armed with a well-worn tambourine. “If you’re in your automobile, why not pull to the roadside and pray along with us?” “Lord Jesus, Lamb of God, relieve us of our afflictions, cleanse us of our sins as we face a
new week in which to follow your word. And help us, too, won’t you?”. He began softly shaking the tambourine. “To bring succor to God’s children? A few of your hand-earned dollars propel our mission to serve the Lord.” “Many people say Satan works every day.” He gasped and rattled the wooden ring with jangles a--bang!--against his hip. “Even Sundays.” “Here’s a plea from Margaret in Mount Clemens. Her husband needs the Lord’s help” . . . to walk or talk again or not get the cancer and be polio free and beat a case of TB and diseases of the eye.
I soon tired of the Rev’s thunder every week and worked out a schedule to more enjoy my Sundays.
“Be sure to listen to Reverend Jim every Sunday, here on on WPON, 1460 on your AM dial, from the Riker Buiding in downtown Pontiac.”
Station ID duties duly performed, I’d dash down the gray-veined marble stairs, hands sliding along the bronze handrail. Flying from our top floor offices and studios to the lobby and across the street to the donut shop for six assorted and a large black. Back at the station offices, I’d monitor Reverend Jim’s show and savor my breakfast at the reception desk deep into the six pages of funnies in the Sunday Detroit Free Press. Finishing my snack, I’d wave so-long to the Reverend for a week, do the on-the-hour station I.D. and switch to a remote broadcasts from the many thunder and hell-fire churches in the Detroit Metropolitan area. Each ran a full hour and so gave me time to repair to the
men’s room to enjoy a private stall in which to do my business and enjoy a Salem.
“This is WPON,” I’d intone in my best baritone. This was the part I liked the best; hearing my own voice on the air. “1460 a.m., Pontiac, Michigan. The time is seven o’clock. And, now, the news.” Newsman Dave stood about five feet, two and looked to weigh about a hundred pounds. He had his own style in his oversize Oxford button downs and his straw colored hair. Good hair. Almost over his ears, the bangs tossed casually across his furrowed forehead in a nod to the times. Contrasted with a deep back, thick-lensed pair of spectacles.
“Emergency news just in.” He looked more serious than I thought possible of him. Newsman Dave had a remarkably deep and sonorous voice, keeping his timbre adjusted perfectly by smoking Pall Malls everywhere, all the time; especially during his news broadcasts. “Detroit Police warn there is a continuing civil disturbance at Twelfth Street near Clairmount Avenue and advise drivers to avoid the area. Reports of street disruptions, nearing riot levels, are crossing our desk in great numbers.“ The news came from a short pile of tearoffs from the UPI teletype.
This cacophonous machine, housed in its own glassed-in closet to muffle the non-stop keystroke clattering, delivered the newest news from Bureaus and reporters around the world; calling for our special attention to important stories with a ringing red bell. Newsman Dave would assemble a stack of tear-offs to read on air, then turn to the next report as he dropped the previous page silently to the carpeted floor. The last cigarette butt would be silently extinguished in a puddle of water in his ashtray. His voice lost a certain conviction as he wrapped up the newscast with a human interest item. Ownership liked a happy ending
to the news. A kitten saved from a well, something along those lines. Dave did all of the above while writing a note in large letters and holding it up against the studio glass so that I could read: ‘Do Emergency News Teaser. NOW!’ I grabbed the Operations Manual from the shelve over the board and found the approved announcement, checked that the board mic was on, quickly turning the volume so that the needle in the meter stood straight up, just bordering the red zone, “Please stay tuned,” I solemnly announced, “for more breaking news.”
Black Day in July ‘Black day in July
Black day in July In the streets of Motor City is a deadly silent sound And the body of a dead youth lies stretched upon the ground Upon the filthy pavement No reason can be found.’
Until we signed off at midnight, I’d dial dials, flip switches, check remotely on our antenna and do my best to understand what was wrong in my immediate world. I would have had a better understanding if I had found time between my donuts and coffee and bathroom runs and comic reading and Salem smoking to have listened to the day’s many sermons by many pastors pleading with their people and the police to stop the looting and the burning and the shooting and the deaths. All on the air, straight from WPON.
From right here in the Riker Building, about twenty two miles from the epicenter of the rioting, just about fifteen minutes down a very wide and flat Detroit Expressway.
"Today we stand amidst the ashes of our hopes." -- Detroit Mayor Jerome Cavanaugh, July 1967
In the early morning hours of that Sunday, July 23, 1967, the Tenth Precinct “cleanup squad” consisting of a Sergeant and three patrolmen was cruising along Twelfth Street. The cleanup squad was the precinct equivalent of the headquarters vice squad, housed in the Main Station in the more
prestigious “downtown.” The vice and cleanup squads were directed to combat, prostitution, illegal liquor and gambling activities, and to raid and close after-hours, unlicensed “blind pigs.” Officers on the detail were expected to close down a certain number of blind pigs every month. They knew that if they didn’t, they would be returned to a regular beat. Violators who were arrested were fined one hundred dollars, and the next week would be back in business. It was simply part of the dues of living the life. That Saturday had been a real Michigan Summer. It started out warm, quickly became jungle-humid, and finally thick with smog in the Detroit night air. Clouds of mosquitoes
attended to any parts of your body not yet miserable. By midnight, as usual, Twelfth Street was swarming with miniskirted prostitutes jivetalking with dope pushers, loan sharks attending to their accounts and felons with pockets of cash looking for a private place to shoot some craps, all joining in the sweltering, sauntering parade. At the corner of Twelfth Street and Clairmount stood an old commercial building housing the Economy Printing Company on the first floor, and above it the United Civic League for Community Action.
The police had known the United Civic League premises to be a front for a blind pig ever since it had opened a year and a half before. The Tenth Precinct cleanup squad raided it the first time in February, 1966. Their later, repeated attempts to bust the place had failed. The rival vice squad, however, upstaged them with a successful raid, on June 3, 1967, less then two months previously. At 3:34 A.M. on Sunday, the 23rd, the clean-up squad observed that vigilance at the blind pig had become less vigilant and a plainclothesman was able to walk in behind three women.
Ten minutes after the undercover man had gone inside—time enough to have bought a drink—the Sergeant radioed for a Tenth Precinct cruiser. Two police cars responded. The Sergeant then ordered the door of the blind pig smashed open with a sledgehammer. Once inside, the police discovered the place was being used to hold a party for servicemen, two of whom had recently returned from Vietnam. The Sergeant had expected to find a score of people at most, but instead he discovered eighty-two. Yet, he decided to arrest everyone and called for a paddy wagon to take them all to the station.
Over an hour and four paddy wagon trips were eventually required to remove everyone. It didn’t go unnoticed. In the balmy Sunday early hours, there was still an observant audience on the stoops, in the streets. Folks came out from all-night cafes and restaurants. They stared from upper floor apartment windows. Others came out from their apartments to the street. About two hundred spectators joined together. They were observing the newest police action on their street, a common occurrence and one that didn’t provoke hostility on the crowd’s part. Usually. As people were herded into the paddy wagon, many were pushed by the police. A
rumor spread that the cops had manhandled a woman. As the last police car left the scene at five o’clock Sunday morning, an empty bottle smashed against its rear window. Rocks were thrown. In a few minutes the police returned to the area. A lieutenant was struck by a brick. It was the beginning of the forever destruction of Detroit. In the remaining months of 1967, 68,000 people moved from the city. In 1968, the figure was 80,000, in ’69, 46,000 people ‘out-migrated’. The city still shrinks today. By six thirty that morning, the Tactical Mobile Unit, the first formed in the country for just such an emergency, mobilized its eighty
men. The night shift was held over, and the day shift for all of the West Side precincts was called to duty an hour and a half early. Looting and fires spread through the Northwest side of Detroit, then crossed over to the East Side. Within 48 hours, the National Guard was mobilized, to be followed by the 82nd airborne on the riot’s fourth day. As police and military troops sought to regain control of the city, violence escalated. At the conclusion of 5 days of rioting, 43 people lay dead, 1189 injured and over 7000 people had been arrested. The Detroit riot ignited similar problems elsewhere. National Guardsmen or state police were deployed in
four other Michigan cities: Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids and Pontiac. The July Sunday morning that began for me with Reverend Jim’s preaching would hence be known as The Day of the Blind Pig. At a black power rally in Detroit just weeks before the Riot, H. Rap Brown forecast the course of future events, stating that if “Motown” didn’t come around, “we are going to burn you down”.
The Ugly Duckling Radio spoke to me since I was a small boy and my Mother would tune in a bedroom set at night for my brother and me to doze off to. To me, radio was a world apart. Born with a speech impediment, the art of enchanting listeners with the tones of your voice seemed pure hypnotism to me. And I was all for such endeavors in illusion. My mother set me up for my first job in radio. She had five kids, two jobs and no support. She steered me to the job. You have
to look out for your own. And I needed some attention. A husky kid with a flat-top and baggy pants to compliment my never-ending acne and constantly frustrating speech impediment, I worked after school at a ‘Retirement Center’ where any friendly old client of the day before would often be laid out in a sack on a gurney when I reported to work. Almost one died every day and I had to help roll them out. I was coming home depressed. Mom thought a High School guy needed something with more panache and promise and fun. My nightly reports of the death/s of the day were driving everyone in my family nuts. She also told me I needed a girlfriend. My Mom.
Looking back, though, I had also been writing a great deal of depressed and depressing poetry during that period. Leaving my Poe inspired ditties here and there throughout the house, further creeping my siblings out. Fifteen is a tough time for a young guy. At that age, we most need a Dad to go to. Many of us are denied that and can’t help but look elsewhere. You are becoming a man, for God’s sake, you can’t ask Mom everything. Plus, you could really use some encouragement that you were okay, from a Dad’s voice. Mom was a close social friend of the owner of the station. I had met him twice at parties
my mother held at our house. He wore his hair in a razor cut, an always tan (impossible in Michigan), Country Club Republican in a snappy blazer and white slacks and shiny, shiny shoes. About these parties, I’d like to explain. Five kids are five gotta-be-fed kids. We’re talking groceries. We were resourceful and my older brother and I worked always after school. Still, we’d go broke occasionally and things could get depressing around our house. These were the times at which my mother would invariably decide to throw a party. And her whole fun crowd would come. Once divorced and free to be herself, Mom was a magnet for new friends and interested men.
She was also one original progressive Liberal, and so the circle of people open to her friendship was very wide. This means she had friends who were Black and Jewish and creative and interesting and all-in-all one very witty group of people. Including the owner of WPON. The guy probably never had a chance. He explained the requirement of an FCC license for even the lowliest radio station job and I listened. I wrote a letter to the F.C.C. and received the necessary forms and applications and test dates in the Detroit Federal Building. I sent away for the study guide. I took the test and got the license. And called Mister Owner for an interview.
Closely inspecting my freshly printed, official FCC license, he smiled. “Well,” he said, “it looks like we have to find you a job here.” To this day I’m not entirely sure the license requirement wasn’t meant as a kind brush-off. I was the only fifteen and a half year old on the payroll. This is the job where I also fell in love with the concept of a regular paycheck. Every two weeks. Amazing. I was put to work as a Boardman Third Class; in charge of technical tasks as such as reading the antenna power levels and actually turning the station ‘on’ every Sunday morning at five a.m. for the first of many religious broadcasts.
Things were starting to work out well for me. The Chief Engineer was a nice old guy who would cover my mistakes while showing me the right way to do things. Dave The Newsman and I got along as well as anybody got along with him. There was the Afternoon Jock, though. In between playing ‘Wichita Lineman’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby by the Montavani Strings’, the jerk would point out that I didn’t have much of a future in the industry due to my ‘problem with speaking’. It drove me mad. I was fine reading any lines or book put before me, but called upon to extemporize I came across as a stuttering idiot. It was also a problem with girls.
It was surprising when I was called from home on an August afternoon to come meet with The Owner at the station. He was up from Florida for the day. “I’m going to need to change your schedule, Rick.” You could see all of downtown Pontiac from his office. “Um. I hope I’m not disappointing you, sir.” “How could you be disappointing me, Rick?” “Well, Reverend Jim doesn’t seem to like it at times when I’m not paying close attention during his preaching.” “Hell, I’m just amazed you can stand to be in the same building with him. And for two-fifty an hour.” He shot me a brilliant white smile as
I smiled back, recalling my many escapes for donuts and smokes during the Reverend’s shows. “No, I’m going to need you at nights, Monday through Friday, six to sign-off.” ”Okay,” I said. The time slot was filled with our Sunset Serenade featuring ‘Jackie Gleason’s Music For Lovers’ or an occasional uptempo thing like the soundtrack to ‘Sound of Music’, perfect for our older audience to nod off to. Those who were still with us. At six p.m., our signal dropped from 1000 watts to 750. There were virtually no commercials, simply a ton of pre-recorded Public Service Announcements. This was through no sense of altruism but simply a reflection of the fact that
seven to midnight on an A.M. station firing 750 watts is utterly worthless for any advertiser. Still, it meant no more Reverends or Pastors or Ministers or Healers every Sunday at ungodly hours. “May I ask why the change?” I was hoping it was some sort of promotion. Director of the P.S.A. Program, perhaps? “You ever hear of the Ugly Duckling?” “You mean the folktale?” I was hoping he wasn’t about deliver some sort of confidence building talk to me. “That’s funny,” he truly laughed. “I guess he is a sort of folktale.”
Larry Dixon, the Ugly Duckling of Detroit radio, was coming to do a weeknight show on WPON. And he needed a Boardman to spin the records, run the spots on time, run out to his car for a package or fetch some great BBQ from places in parts of town I’d never seen before. Pontiac had always been a divided town. If you stood outside Central High at final bell, you would see all the colored kids go in one direction and all the white kids walk in the opposite. Pontiac was home to GM Truck’s offices, plants and suppliers. The industry was a well-paying magnet to Southern poor white and colored people. Each group gravitated to its special part of town, keeping the racial
ethics from Mississippi and Alabama and all points in the backward South. Like it was natural. WPON was about to have a divided character as well. “We have a chance to make a difference here, Rick.” “We do?” “That riot last month has torn this town apart. I’m going to air Larry Dixon. He has a loyal listenership, attracts solid sponsors by I don’t know what means and has some connection with someone that gets him all this great, what R&B? Soul? It used to be called Race Music. Can you imagine?” “The Motown Sound,” I tried.
“That may become what its called.” I liked this man. “Anyway, our measly 750 needs a following, because it sure isn’t generating a buck the way we’re going.” “Makes sense.” This was my first ever executive meeting and I was basking in the moment. “And you’ll be surprised, Larry Dixon is very popular with both Caucasian and AfroAmerican kids. It’s dance music.”
I loved working for Larry Dixon from Night One. He was the first adult I ever met who was truly ‘his own man’. Proudly, I let people know that I was the Boardman for The Larry Dixon Show. ‘The Ugly Duckling’ himself. Mister Soul to any soul brother anywhere. The real deal, pomaded, scented, dressed in suits of fabulous designs, arriving oddly early or late almost every night, smiling like a prize-fighter; he arrived. And the phones lit up. Anyone who loved Motown Music and beyond tuned in, every
night, for the full five hours. The requests would flood in, keeping me on the telephone between cuing up records, running spots and talking with Larry. The Ugly Ducking would play as many requests that got through. He had some neat tricks. He would gang up a list of girls names phoned in by their boyfriends. “Mary, sweet lady, and Yvonne, you know who I’m talking for. And this is also for you Tammy and Belinda. Listen close now.” He’d nod and I would spin ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’ and you could sense some young hearts melting.
Other times, he’d stand and do a smooth soul dance performed mostly with his hands and expressive eyes. Or turn on his mic during ‘My Girl’ and talksing the lyrics along with The Temptations; ‘I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day When it’s cold outside I’ve got the month of May. I’d guess you’d say What can make me feel this way? My girl (my girl, my girl) Talkin’ ‘bout my girl (my girl). Hey. hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey. Oooh.
The Ugly Duckling specially reserved the last hour of his show for requests from ‘the ladies’ only. By ‘requests’ I don’t mean Larry let listeners select the song to be played. It meant he’d mention their first name in front of a song he selected. When it became known at my High School that I was ‘Ricardo, my right hand man here, Ducklings’, I became rather popular with the please play my request crowd of girls. They really liked ‘You Cheated’, I recall. Where’s he get this stuff, I was asked by others at the station. Larry often ‘broke’ new records that went immediately to the Top Ten. Hi secret was simply that he searched out local talent and had an uncanny ear. Period.
And he shared it with me over two and a half years. And told me to buy a certain sort of face scrub that had always worked for him. And taught me that clothes can make the man, as long as you don’t talk too much. And take your time talking with a girl. Take a breath. Smiling is always good. The whole reason to chase them is because it’s fun. Sooo . . . have fun. And this place has no future for you, My Main Man. It’s Vietnam or the Plant, and we know both are dying propositions. Looks like San Francisco is where it is all gonna be happenin’, Rick.
Hey, run on down to Bagley-Wesson BBQ. I’m about to do them an ad as a favor, so they’ll have two platters for us. And stay cool, Brother. Stay cool. He’d slap my palm after I drove him home some nights. Now, go straight home, promise? And I did.
The Ugly Duckling and I made a horrible duet, singing along off-mic to the Motown greats in the privacy of the studio. In spite of my race and later, and eager, participation in the peace and pot culture of my times, Motown music became the theme song to my life.
“Ricardo, you are a very well-spoken fellow now. But, man, you cannot sing. Just so you know not to try and make a living that way if you run off to San Fran.” It was my turn to migrate. I was eighteen and needed to make a life for myself, somewhere peaceful, somewhere with promise, somewhere far away from the Motor City. And the time came and I left for California.
The Detroit News DJ Larry Dixon Dies
Larry Dixon, the smooth voice of Detroit’s R & B powerhouse radio stations died after a long battle with cancer on June 4th. He was 78 years old. Many Detroit radio personalities had a part in Motown Records’ success back when AM radio was king. But Dixon was truly crucial. In 1959, he tipped off United Artists in New York about a hot local hit, Marv Johnson’s ‘Come To Me‘ put out on Tamla Records by Berry Gordy, Jr. United Artists did more then pick up ‘Come To Me’ for distribution, they bought out Johnson’s contract altogether, allowing Gordy to come
home with $25,000 in his pocket to get his fledgling Motown Records off the ground. The sultry-voiced Dixon was known for dedicating the last hour of his show to ‘ladies only’ requests, with many steamed girlfriends having ‘You Cheated’ played for their errant beaus. A memorial concert, ‘Larry Dixon’s Last Dance’ is in the works for sometime in August. “So many entertainers want to come by and do the song my Dad broke for them,” son Ed Dixon said. “Whenever they were coming to town, they always wanted to know where Larry Dixon’s record hop was, because that’s where the black kids, the whites and the Latinos would all be. My Dad was a bridge to bring everybody together.”
I stayed true to Larry’s original suggestion and have called San Francisco home for forty-one years. During that time,
I’ve experienced--voluntarily or not--the widest possible range of music of this past halfcentury. Now, I’m sort of an aging hipster, nearly sixty years of age with the required silver hair and matching convertible. Be careful as to who you make fun of when you are young, you may very well become just that fellow But still, sometimes, when the road is smooth ahead, the air sweet with Spring, the wind enveloping me, my arm on the door-warm in the sun, the car’s engine a soft humming, the dashboard radio will surprise me with the music the Ugly Duckling introduced to me. Like Martha and the Vandellas. ‘Callin’ out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer’s here and the time is right For dancin’ in the streets There’ll be laughin’, singin’, and music swingin’ And dancin’ in the streets Philadelphia, P.A. (Philadelphia P.A.) Baltimore and DC now (Baltimore and DC now) Yeah, don’t forget the Motor City (can’t forget the Motor City)’ And for a quickly passing magical moment in my life, I’m Motown Man. Can’t forget the Motor City. . . .
Cover design: ryanhumphries.com ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg’; lyrics by Norman Whitfield; Edward Holland, Jr. ‘My Girl’; lyrics by Smokey Robinson ‘Dancing in the Street’; lyrics by Marvin Gaye; Ivy Jo Hunter; William Stevenson Copyright, Motown Records ‘Black Day in July’; lyrics by Gordon Lightfoot, Copyright Gordon Lightfoot
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