Regular readers of my column recognize my keen interest in phonograph records – particularly, rhythm and blues (R&B) vocal group recordings from the 1950s.
Like many collectors of records, my initial interest came from those listening devices that existed, back then. It grew as I paid more and more attention to those vocal groups that stood on many of the street corners blending sweet a cappella harmony.
My intense interest and love for this music remains today.
Groups like The Castelles, The Dreamers, The Capris, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, Sonny Gordon and the Angels, The Dreams, The Turbans, Yvonne Baker and the Sensations, The Silhouettes and other groups had their start singing on street corners here in the city of Philadelphia.
In 1956, I became involved in a group with four young men and we became known as The Ambassadors. Not the ’60s soul group by the same name, but a group that also sang on street corners and participated in talent shows in the Philadelphia area in 1957 and 1958.
Our adoption of a style similar to The Heartbeats made us good enough to be invited to New York to record for GEE records.
The day we were scheduled to go to New York was the same day my parents ushered me off to college.
Still, the group went to New York, but my replacement did not do well and the group returned to Philadelphia with no recording.
However, the lead singer, Herb Johnson, eventually went on to record, as a single artist, some of the songs our group had created.
A CD featuring Herb Johnson was released in 2010 and included several unreleased songs of our group, The Ambassadors. These unreleased songs were originally recorded on a home Web core, reel-to-reel tape recorder on which we taped many of our practice sessions during our heyday.
I often think about my experiences with The Ambassadors, which plays a significant role in driving me to stores, thrift shops, record conventions, flea markets and yard sales looking for records.
Not long ago, I was at a flea market looking through boxes of record albums when a lady stopped to look at the records along with her daughter. Her daughter asked, “What are they?” Her mother responded, telling her that they are records that are played on a record player. Of course, the young girl wanted to know about record players. This innocent discussion caused me to reflect back in time to the days when there were no compact disks, no iPhones and no computers to download music for music lovers to enjoy. So, what devices were used to listen to music, back in the day?
The radio was the basic source of music for most of us, back in the day. If you are from my era, then you remember the cathedral type AM radios. Then again, you may recall the floor models, stand alone radios.
These radios became an important part of the lives of many of us in the mid-50s as they were usually the only entertainment in our homes.
Do you recall how you had to wait until the radio “warmed up” before there was a sound?
Then you would turn the knob and hear the static coming through the speakers as you searched for your favorite station.
Back then, if you wanted to hear R&B music, the choices were between WHAT and WDAS.
On these stations you would find Georgie Woods or Douglas “Jocko” Henderson.
You could occasionally hear Black-oriented music on WPEN. Whatever the radio station or the number on the dial, radios were the early sources for enjoying music but there were limited FM stations, back then, and none that I know of that had a Black format.
As for listening to music on the automobile radio, forget about this mode; dealers charged extra fees to install radios in cars. For this reason, many automobiles did not have radios, back in the day.
Exposure to music, for many of us, required putting a nickel into the jukebox at the neighborhood restaurant.
You must have memories of gathering with friends around the jukebox, watching the record move from the record tray to the turntable.
While we may have heard some of our favorite songs on the radio, the jukebox, if it contained some of our favorite records was a way that we would be guaranteed hearing any particular song over and over again. Well, this was possible so long as the record was not removed from the jukebox by the serviceman that changed the jukebox record stock.
While it was clearly problematic in terms of the child rearing process, the jukebox also enabled teenagers to listen to songs that their parents would not allow on their home radios. Yes, in case you forgot, there were such songs; there was “Work with Me Annie,” “Annie Had a Baby” and “Sixty Minute Man.” These were all songs with sexually explicit phrases even in the innocent world of the 1950s. My memories of listening to my favorite records, on a jukebox, drove me to secure one that plays 78 RPM records and another that plays 45 RPM records. These jukeboxes permit me to enjoy my R&B songs today, just as I used to do, in neighborhood restaurants, back in the day.
As you think back to your family’s first black and white 12” Zenith television and the television dance shows of the 1950s, I suspect that American Bandstand will come to mind. This show, hosted by Bob Horn, grew in popularity under Dick Clark.
For those of us in the Black community, however, there was the Mitch Thomas Show that debuted on August 13, 1955, on WPFH, an unaffiliated television show that broadcasted here in Philadelphia and the Delaware Valley from Wilmington, Del.
With a format similar to “American Bandstand,” this Saturday morning show captured our interest as we watched Black teenagers dance and experienced the talents of some of the biggest names in the entertainment world. While this show had a life span of just three years, it provided another opportunity for many of us to listen to our favorite tunes. About ten years later, Kae Williams, another Black radio personality, spent time on television showcasing Black talent. Again, while his show lasted but a year, it was another venue for many of us to appreciate our music, back in the day.
Even if you have never used a record player, you might know something about record players that many of us referred to as components. This system included at a minimum a turntable, separate amplifier and speakers. Now this is not what I remember as a teenager.
In fact, I was not acquainted with a component type of record system until my freshman year in college when one of my classmates showed up with one for his dormitory room.
What I knew as a record player was the RCA Victor record player that was the size of a small.
You must remember this model; the type where records were stacked on a spindle and would drop down, one at a time, onto the turntable to play.
You may also recall graduating to the automatic record players that played all speeds and played more than one record as the records were stacked and automatically dropped to the turntable once the previous record had completely played.
Some of you played your records on a record player that was part of a console that included a television and radio. So, what other devices did we turn to in addition to listening to our record players in order to enjoy our music?
Did any of you have a reel-to-reel tape recorder?
These machines existed as far back as the 1930s and were popular for home use in the 1940s and 1950s.
Quite often, these machines were difficult to use because of the need to thread the tape through the heads, some of us, including yours truly, loved the reel-to-reel tape recorder and still listen to “oldies” on my tape recorder. In the past, I would connect it to my radio and tape an entire radio show.
I would then selectively transfer some content onto a cassette tape. Now, you must recall the cassette tape player and cassette tapes. I suspect that some of you today are still using cassette tapes especially in order model automobiles. The cassette tape player was a significant upgrade from the reel-to-reel tape recorder and remained popular and widely used well into the 1980s.
Like many of you, some of my favorite songs are on cassette tapes that I recorded from radios and records. Every so often, I pull out some of these cassette tapes and experience the same type of melancholy feelings that I recall from playing them, back in the day.
Some of you might recall eight track players that were popular in the mid-’60s through the late ’70s.
While some of us had eight-track players in our homes, these players were associated more with the automobile industry as eight-tracks were popular for listening to music in automobiles. What I did not know, however, was that eight-tracks were not developed by the automobile industry but for use by the Learjet Corporation.
I have boxes of eight-track tapes, as well as several eight-track players. I cannot imagine anyone falling in love with listening to music on an eight-track player. They indeed were problematic as the tapes were constantly damaged. I have not listened to an eight-track in years. They are clearly not practical today and were not even practical back in the day.
The next time you listen to one of your favorite CD, iPod, iPhone or online websites, remember that some time in the future, they too will be obsolete, just as the technology that we “old school folk” used for enjoying our music, back in the day.