The induction of five of KDHX's first generation of blues DJs into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame happily comes as KDHX looks towards its 30th anniversary. Among those honored at the ceremony this past April were Art Dwyer, Ron Edwards, Denny Clancy and John McHenry and the one and only Tom 'Papa' Ray aka The Soul Selector. Adding to interviews with Ron and Art by Ronnie Wisdom and Sean Smothers, Andy Coco of The Rhythm Section sat down to talk with Tom about the earlier days of St. Louis radio and what goes into being a DJ.
Andy: So I'm curious about the early days can you tell me a little about your involvement, would you talk a little about St. Louis radio at the time and describe what appealed to you about getting involved with KDHX?
Tom: Simply the fact that KDHX literally provided the alternative to the status quo of commercial radio. St. Louis radio was very, very profitable for its owners in the 1980s and they certainly didn't wish to rock the boat in any way. At the time, the only programming you had for a historical look at blues and historical look at reggae was Leroy Pierson who had a show at KWMU in the early '80s. Those were very well-produced shows but eventually a new station manager managed to get that programming off KWMU. So until KDHX came on the air there was nobody playing the kind of undiluted blues programming that you were suddenly able to have when KDHX went on the air.
Andy: Am I mistaken in assuming that that was a substantial portion of the programming at the time, being that all of you who were recently inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame were all primarily about soul, R&B and Blues? Was that a significant percentage of early programming?
Tom: I think that would be fair to say, but also that a percentage of programming at the station got transformed as more and more personalities were brought on air to do more and more different kinds of shows. For example when KDHX had its morning shows, two DJs in question were throwing blues artists into the mix, especially local blues artists. So I think that if not the agenda of management, it certainly was of the DJs doing it.
Andy: Was there a lack of that programming in the '80s following the heyday of race radio, clearly segregated...
Tom: Well, in the '80s you started seeing the beginning of the larger corporate radio companies acquiring more signals. For many years St. Louis had KATZ, an AM station, as well as WESL in East St. Louis, and although their signals were modest they tended to be very, very well placed in relation to the urban area of St. Louis where their listenership was. And those were very influential stations, especially KATZ — KATZ literally introduced an entire generation to hip-hop in the late '70s.
Andy: Can you talk a little bit about the people who were on the air at the time?
Tom: Well, let me begin by saying I always enjoyed listening to appropriate personalities to the music on radio, whether it was rock, whether it was blues, whether it was jazz, whether it was reggae, whether it was country-western. I liked hearing a DJ who you could tell had an interest and a knowledge and hopefully a passion for what they were doing and conveyed that over the air and by doing so created a sense of community. DJs like Jim Gates, Fatha Thines and Dr. Jockenstein really did that in the St. Louis black community. Those were very much household names and trusted qualities for an enormous amount of listeners.
Andy: I'm told we use the word "community" broadly here at KDHX. But I think what you're speaking to is a genre fan-base — there's someone out there who likes what I like.
Tom: Sure, sure. For example, if you go into the office of Joe Edwards — one of the first things you're going to see is a large photo of a very happy Joe Edwards at the age of 16 sitting at a radio board with a microphone standing there with his idol Lou "Fatha" Thines.
Andy: ...who did a program at KDHX for quite some time too. I was lucky to be around when he was on the air for a few years; he was really cool.
Tom: Compared to some people who called themselves old school, they are elementary in comparison.
Andy: So the Soul Selector, the man, Tom Ray, owner of longstanding St. Louis record store Vintage Vinyl — it seems like you've always been a record collector, but what about the record store business — how did you get started in that?
Tom: I was offered a job as a jazz buyer for the Peaches store that was opened on Hampton in 1975. Instead of finishing my college hours, I decided I wanted to be in the music business. So I took that offer, and within 11 months of that I was living in Manhattan and working in the music business there. I did that for a little over three years.
Andy: Were you record collecting before that?
Tom: I was record collecting as soon as I could scrounge money. I hated mowing yards as a kid but I'd mow a yard to buy a new record.
Andy: [Laughter] What were some of the first records you bought? And were they 45s or LPs.
Tom: Probably the first 45 I ever actually bought was "Good Lovin'" by The Young Rascals, but before that I'd bought soul and blues LPs. I remember my first blues LP by B.B. King was The Jungle. I bought that at a hardware store because the hardware store in that part of NE Florida had a rack of budget records. That's where I got my first Howling Wolf & John Lee Hooker LP, too. I guess I was probably about 12 years old.
Andy: Musical household?
Tom: Not at all — actually that's not true. I was very fortunate to grow up in a home in the 1950s where there were no Patty Page records, no Frank Sinatra records. There was none of that what I call non-rock '50s pop music. It was all pretty much country honky-tonk, and when I say that I mean Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams. That's what my father liked and my mother liked it too.
Andy: So you had a turntable?
Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah...
Andy: So does that career you built in the music business ever interfere with your DJ identity as the Soul Selector at all or does it just enhance it?
Tom: Often it enhances it, but I think there's a separation in your head, the musical equivalent of the separation of church and state — of course, KDHX is the church.
Andy: I would think that the wealth of knowledge gives you so much to choose from that you realize the depths of the water...
Tom: Oh yeah. That's why I think it's important for people who are music-obsessive to try to have a life outside music.
Andy: [Laughter] So your on-air presence has a almost a commercial or slick style to it, and I mean commercial in the sense of race radio. How did you come to that style?
Tom: I think a lot of the cadence I use is Southern in origin. You used the word "slick" — I've got no problem with that word, but I never want to sound like an NPR announcer. I think the kind of music I play behooves the DJ to be economic and have a certain rhythm and stroke that is a segue from one song to the next...
Andy: That's the positive use of the word "slick" — greasin' the wheels a little bit.
Tom: And the fact is commercial radio often despite itself was the launching pad for the most astonishing kind of DJs on the radio. And it's long been my contention that St. Louis absolutely punched above its weight when you consider how many really good DJs were on the air at one time. And that was spread over a number of genres. It wasn't like I thought there was anyone in particular in St. Louis that I wanted to copy or imitate but there were all these radio DJs and club DJs who indicated the possibilities.
Andy: The club DJ versus Radio DJ thing has me thinking a little bit. I've seen you do club DJing and you have a real enthusiasm for it — and I think there's something really interesting about how the crowd reacts to what you'll play next. How would you describe the different feelings you get from being a performer on the radio versus a performer on stage?
Tom: It's just the difference between being in a room of kindred souls. And it's just much more of an immediate social setting. It makes you want to connect with your listeners and have a call and response. Again, when I came to St. Louis and started getting into clubs and seeing the older guys at their sets and how perfect they were at being the master of ceremonies in an evening using music as well as the people in the room as the gist of their performance — guys like Jules Carlos, who was a very popular club MC and personality who made his living in St. Louis for over 50 years doing that and being a promoter and this and that. It's an art. Then also seeing the close relationship of camaraderie between radio personalities and the visiting artists. On any number of levels, both parties want to bond to each other — the DJs are drawn to the people whose records they're playing and the visiting artist is looking at the DJ as his homeboy — "This is my solid sender here in St. Louis." It's like Solomon Burke telling me that when he came to St. Louis he didn't know anyone and it was Lou Thimes who took him around in a brand new Lincoln and, as he put it, "played my records before anyone else did and introduced me to all the people that I needed to know."
Andy: How do you get yourself pumped up to do your radio show — do you visualize an audience?
Tom: No, I get in the air room as soon as I'm allowed and go from there.
Andy: Is it all internal or do you draw from your audience?
Tom: I think about the audience and also about in the context of being here in St. Louis. Trying to make it a mix of old and new. Certain records can put brackets around or signify or reflect on something that's happened that day or that week. Then, if you take phone calls, that's sort of like the I Ching as far as what you're going to play that day, because chances are somebody will suggest something that you hadn't immediately thought of, would not have thought of, but when you thought about it you said, "Yeah, I'll do that here and then I can play this."
Andy: It's the "Yes, and...." Just switching gears here a bit — tell me what it means to you to be inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame this year?
Tom: A real, real life honor to me, 'cause it puts me in the company of people I thought were just magicians on the air waves. And I think when I'm really hitting on all fours, I do some spell-casting.
Andy: There's been a couple of instances, I recall, when you've left the air room and you had to share with somebody, "I think today was a good day." I always enjoy hearing that. What do you think about the other guys [Art, Ron, Denny and John]?
Tom: They're dedicated. They know their stuff. Each of us has a different take and view and rhythm. There's no carbon copies, everybody's one of a kind.
Andy: Did you and those other blues jocks at some point along the way step back and realize that you would be carrying a torch of a kind? Was there any kind of agreements among the group about who'd do what and how you'd do it?
Tom: No, I think the music gives you marching orders, if you're so tuned.
Andy: There's a real significance in this city to what you've all accomplished. You mentioned earlier that there wasn't necessarily a written guide to embracing St. Louis's blues heritage in the early days, but it was exemplified: people there and that's what was coming out. When I think of similar stations such as OZ in New Orleans, I think there there was a definite stated intention towards elevating the historical significance of the creative talent of that city. Was that just implied or ever stated here?
Tom: I think that given that everyone involved, for the most part, are musicians and musicians whose work to a greater or lesser if not exclusive extent had them playing in a blues context — I think that helped enhance the drive and dedication and desire. I mean it's a great, great feeling to me to play a record that you might have heard 20, 25, 30 years before you went on the air, and that record still sounds great to you. Especially when it's one of those records where if you wanted to you could wear yourself out playing other recorded variations of what this person did in two-and-a-half minutes in 1957.
Andy: Any concern about the art form — about the blues' resonance and lasting-power?
Tom: It's so deep in the DNA of the collective American music that I don't think it's going away. It will obviously change because the people change — and that the person in 2020 that will be making that music almost certainly did not pick cotton, almost certainly did not come up in the same historical conditions that spawned blues musics. When that music first came up — if you think about it — there certainly were cities, but a much larger part of the population still lived in a rural setting. So that's changed. Sometimes when I'm on the air, I say that I'm playing blues for the twenty-first century. I don't want to do something I consider archival. If I didn't think it was relevant to today at 4 p.m., I don't think it would be nearly as attractive to me to do, and I seriously doubt I would have done it for 30 years. To that end, I do think that these days the secret to having a 30 year career in radio is to do it pro-bono.
Andy: Did you ever do any commercial work?
Tom: I did a couple of commercials, but if you think of the '80s, corporate was so buttoned-down that — no fucking way, no way. It's not as buttoned-down now, only because of the fact that it's been stripped of so much of its power. I don't know if I ever told you this about one of the DJs I know who left St. Louis for a while after having a nice five-year-plus career on a major local corporate station. When he had his show in the '90s, you went in, there were two interns, a producer, and an engineer. Definite support team. He comes back a few years later. I remember going on the air with him around then — no interns, no producer, same morning slot. He's the only person there. He told me that when he came back, he was offered exactly the same job, same everything for a third less than what he had been making before. So that's it in a nutshell.
Andy: What does that mean to KDHX?
Tom: What was that billboard? "We're all that's left." People in commercial radio, I think they all view themselves as walking on thin ice unless they're engineers and even they have to. You certainly don't see commercial radio supporting the tried-and-true radio personalities that they've had for years. You don't see them getting a bigger contract, and in a lot of cases you don't even see them being offered another contract 'cause management's looking for a way to save 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars by putting in someone who's green, they'll do that. They're doing it already. You've been over to one of these media mega-corporations, right? Man, what a plantation — it's all there. Right-wing talk radio: you got it. You want country: you got it. You want "real" rock radio: you got it. In one sales staff. I often think back there was a certain point that I realized what had changed in radio. It used to be that if you had a career in radio as a program manager or an engineer or the head of sales, nine times out of ten you had been on the mic, even if it was the graveyard shift, you had done radio. And when they started promoting sales to management — you got hired first in sales and then got promoted to management — I think that was a big change.
Just passed the halfway mark of 2017, we take a look back at the new albums and EPs heard most this year on KDHX. The ever-popular annual St. Louis Blues Society compilation '16 in 16' stands tall by a huge margin featuring St. Louis' latest and hottest blues acts like Gene Jackson, Tommy Halloran, David Dee, Little Rachel, Tom Hall, The Fab Foehners, Sweetie & The Toothaches and plenty of others. Fresh albums from longstanding KDHX staples Chuck Prophet and The New Pornographers tie as the second most-spun records with St. Louis' Beth Bombara close behind. The list goes on with plenty of KDHX staples and new surprises of 2017 keeping the St. Louis airwaves lively. Also be sure to check out all of the DJ-selected Top Tens of 2017 (so far) for more great new releases KDHX DJs are excited to share.
|113||Various Artists||16 in 16||St. Louis Blues Society|
|60||Chuck Prophet||Bobby Fuller Died for Your Sins||Yep Roc|
|60||The New Pornographers||Whiteout Conditions||Concord|
|58||Beth Bombara||Map & No Direction||Lemp Electric|
|52||Robyn Hitchcock||Robyn Hitchcock||Yep Roc|
|49||Aimee Mann||Mental Illness||Superego|
|42||Soul Scratch||Pushing Fire||Colemine|
|37||Finn's Motel||Jupiter Rex||Victory Over Gravity|
|37||Son Volt||Notes of Blue||Transmit Sound|
|36||The XX||I See You||Young Turks|
|35||Ha Ha Tonka||Heart-Shaped Mountain||Bloodshot|
|34||Other People||Other Songs by Other People||self-released|
|34||Tennis||Yours Conditionally||Mutually Detrimental|
|32||Alison Krauss||Windy City||Capitol|
|32||Hurray for the Riff Raff||The Navigator||ATO|
|32||Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit||The Nashville Sound||Southeastern|
|32||The Black Angels||Death Song||Partisan|
|32||The Jesus and Mary Chain||Damage and Joy||Artificial Plastic|
|31||Grandaddy||Last Place||30th Century|
|31||Tanika Charles||Soul Run||Record Kicks|
|31||Valerie June||The Order of Time||Concord|
|30||Laura Marling||Semper Femina||More Alarming|
|30||Nikki Lane||Highway Queen||New West|
|30||Pokey LaFarge||Manic Revelations||Rounder|
|30||The Afghan Whigs||In Spades||Sub Pop|
|28||Chicano Batman||Freedom Is Free||ATO|
|28||The Magnetic Fields||50 Song Memoir||Nonesuch|
|27||Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears||Backlash||self-released|
|27||Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever||The French Press EP||Sub Pop|
|26||Gene Jackson||1963||Blue Lotus|
|26||King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard||Flying Microtonal Banana||ATO/Flightless|
|26||Ron Gallo||Heavy Meta||New West|
|26||The Shins||Heartworms||Columbia/Aural Apothecary|
|25||Cloud Nothings||Life without Sound||Carpark|
|25||Diesel Island||Diesal Island||Euclid|
|25||Guided by Voices||August by Cake||self-released|
|25||Marty Stuart & His Fabulous Superlatives||Way Out West||Superlatone|
|25||Rhiannon Giddens||Freedom Highway||Nonesuch|
|25||Rodney Crowell||Close Ties||New West|
|25||The Grooveliner||Toby's Basement||self-released|
|25||The Orwells||Terrible Human Beings||Atlantic/Canvasback|
|25||Tim O'Brien||Where the River Meets the Road||Howdy Skies|
|25||Japandroids||Near to the Wild Heart of Life||Anti-|
|24||Jens Lekman||Life Will See You Now||Secretly Canadian|
|24||Ryan Adams||Prisoner||Blue Note|
|24||The Feelies||In Between||Bar/None|
|23||Ibibio Sound Machine||Uyai||Merge|
|23||Little Dragon||Season High||Loma Vista|
|23||Substantial||The Past Is Always Present in the Future||HiPNOTT|
|23||The Gibson Brothers||In the Ground||Rounder|
|23||Various Artists||Resistance Radio: The Man in the High Castle||30th Century/Columbia|
|23||White Reaper||The World's Best American Band||Polyvinyl|
|22||Adam Hucke's Music for Nerds||Madam, I'm Adam||self-released|
|22||Craig Finn||We All Want the Same Things||Partisan|
|22||Land of Talk||Life after Youth||Saddle Creek|
|22||Sylvan Esso||What Now||Loma Vista|
|22||Tift Merritt||Stitch of the World||Yep Roc|
|22||Bash & Pop||Anything Could Happen||Fat Possum|
|21||Big Thief||Capacity||Saddle Creek|
|21||Magic City||La Vie est Cheré||Record Kicks|
|21||Real Estate||In Mind||Domino|
|20||Caroline Spence||Spades and Roses||self-released|
|20||Father John Misty||Pure Comedy||Sub Pop|
|20||Flo Morrissey & Matthew E. White||Gentlewoman, Ruby Man||Glassnote|
|20||Parlor Walls||Opposites||Northern Spy|
|20||Sacred Paws||Strike a Match||Rock Action|
|20||Strand of Oaks||Hard Love||Dead Oceans|
|20||The Como Mamas||Move Upstairs||Daptone|
Highlighting new music of various genres, The Future Is Now with Chris Sanley is the latest show in the KDHX lineup airing from 4-7 p.m. on Thursdays. Longtime KDHX listener and supporter, Chris has served as a KDHX intern and volunteer for several years, starting when she was a student at St. Louis University. Not long ago, her passion for music and radio led her to New York to work in the music industry where she found herself working with some breakout acts of the past few years. A native of Omaha, Chris continues working in music promotion since her return to St. Louis and KDHX. As she looked forward to the first time on air as host of The Future is Now, I interviewed our ecstatic new DJ about her longtime obsession with music, what to look for on The Future Is Now and what KDHX has meant to her.
Nick: I have to say I'm really excited to hear the new show! I know that you have a massive interest in so much music and have an enormous collection of records. Since you first applied for a show on KDHX, you've filled in for various shows including mine, The Space Parlour, as well as Wax Lyrical, The Rhythm Section and even Folks of the World. What can listeners expect when they tune into The Future Is Now?
Chris: I'm constantly seeking out new, exciting music spanning across various genres. I couldn't be more excited to share this journey of musical discovery with KDHX listeners during The Future Is Now. My plan is to highlight a lot of singles from recent releases and forthcoming albums, which is where the title of the show comes from: playing music from future releases now. Folks will hear rock, pop, soul, hip hop and more.
Nick: How did your interest in music start -- has it changed over the years?
Chris: My interest in music first began with my discovery of the piano, immediately after which I begged my mother to let me take lessons. From there my interest and taste in music has changed pretty dramatically. In my younger days, I primarily listened to classical, oldies, Motown, and what I heard on mainstream radio -- we didn't have many options in Omaha. I'll always have a soft spot for Mariah Carey -- but my taste definitely leaned more alternative to acts like Nirvana and Weezer. Then during high school, I became aware of Saddle Creek and the music scene that they helped foster in the area, and that's when a light really went off for me. I became obsessed with seeking out new emerging talent more in the indie rock/pop world, college radio scene.
Nick: How did you first become aware of KDHX?
Chris: I moved to St. Louis in 2004 for college and started working at KSLU. From my involvement there I was introduced to the magical world of KDHX and knew I wanted to be involved in any way I could. So I started interning in the music department there, volunteering at events, and just lending a helping hand whenever I could. And of course I dreamed of having a show on the station one day. I'm still pinching myself.
Nick: Do you have any specific memories of being at the old building on Magnolia?
Chris: Oh boy, I spent a lot of time in that space, where I ripped and filed probably thousands of CDs. I didn't really sleep much in those days, so I'd often man the phones during the graveyard shift of fund drive, slugging coffee and working on my studies -- it was always so great to receive calls from listeners in those early hours, relaying how much they loved the station. Once during a more normal hour, John Goodman called to donate, so that was pretty cool.
Nick: Since having a show at KSLU and serving an internship at KDHX from 2005-2008, you moved to New York and you've worked in the music industry for several Triple A and college radio promotion companies and with many notable artists and labels ranging indie rock, pop, punk, soul, R&B, Americana, hip hop, electronic, R&B, World and jazz. Are there artists you've gotten to see move from being a little-known band that would get some airplay on a station like KDHX to blossoming into household names?
Chris: I've had the privilege to work with so many amazing artists over the years. Some I've seen grow into bigger names would be Sylvan Esso, Ra Ra Riot, Danny Brown, Laura Marling, Deer Tick, Phantogram, Esperanza Spalding, and of course, Sharon Jones, may she rest in peace.
Nick: So how do you decide what songs go into an episode of The Future Is Now?
Chris: I mean there's a lot that goes into it, from who is touring through St. Louis soon to what just dropped. But so much of it is also just gut -- what I'm vibing with, which songs are going to work into one another, and making sure I'm showcasing a wide variety of artists and styles. I hope to keep folks pleasantly surprised with what's coming, while still having everything flow smoothly throughout the program. Also since I work in the music industry, to avoid any conflict of interest, there's a two-song cap on the amount of songs I'm allowed to play from an artist I'm working with. So that gives both me and the station some peace of mind on that aspect without cutting off new music I’m excited about.
Nick: Your job requires you to stay on top of the latest music trends. How do you feel the sounds being made in 2017 have changed over the last ten years?
Chris: There has certainly been a lot of change in the last decade. What's most exciting to me is the diversity of what's being released. I feel like ten years ago, especially with what was played in the college and non-commercial radio world -- it was so rock-oriented. Whereas today, there's a much more diverse landscape. There's certainly still plenty of great rock music coming out, but we also have some really interesting more electronic leaning pop music, super cool neo-soul, R&B and hip-hop artists bubbling up -- along with artists that are fusing together some really unique styles, creating entirely new soundscapes. There is such a high volume of quality music releasing each week now, it's a really exciting time.
Nick: There are more platforms to hear music than there's ever been as well. What do you feel is non-commercial and community radio's role in all of it?
Chris: I hear that! With the volume of new music being higher than it's ever been and having so many different ways to access it, radio's role is really more important than ever. There's such an important curation process that radio has the ability to do in a way that an algorithm never could. DJs can get super creative with how they pivot from one song to the next and program their show specifically to their region and their listeners. Radio is such an important tool to help point the audience to new, exciting music, helping them navigate the waters of new releases these days.
Nick: Any local artists or newer artists that you're itching to play on the show?
Chris: Of course! Bruiser Queen, So Many Dynamos, Black Spade, Pokey LaFarge, Middle Class Fashion, Sleepy Kitty, CaveswordS, Whoa Thunder...
Nick: Sounds great, how about artists that would sum up your show, what would they be?
Chris: That is a tough one since I'm hoping to showcase mostly different new music each week. But I'm a fan of Angel Olsen, Grizzly Bear, Perfume Genius, LCD Soundsystem and Woods, so I can see them making frequent appearances.
Nick: Favorite legacy artists?
Chris: If I had to name a few I'd go with David Bowie, Patti Smith, Neil Young, Otis Redding and Beck, which you'll probably hear during the Throwback Thursday five o'clock block I have planned.
Nick: New music...future music?
Chris: Looking ahead I'm really excited for new music to come from Waxahatchee, Algiers, Courtney Barnett, Shabazz Palaces and Charles Bradley (who just announced his first shows in a while) looks like he's got a lot of tour dates which is promising, hopefully he makes it through St. Louis again soon, too.
If you missed the debut of The Future Is Now, you can catch up by checking out the show through our streaming archives.
The new albums that receive the most attention on KDHX will rarely, if ever, be heard on frequencies further up the dial, because KDHX DJs are never told what to play or when to play it. Few community stations even match KDHX in the diversity of taste indicated by these lists, which include almost too many genres to name — blues, country, rock, indie rock, folk, bluegrass, hip-hop, old time, R&B, rap, punk, soul, metal, psych, prog, techno and more. Looking back on the year so far, here are our DJs' top ten album picks. For an idea of the consensus building around the year's most tried-and-true albums, check out our KDHX top spins list as well, charting a number of homegrown artists among the most played on the station thus far.
The Back Country with Jeff Corbin
Backroads with Stacy
Bittersweet Melody with Allen
Boogie on Down with Hound Dog Brown
Cure for Pain with Nathaniel Farrell
Down Yonder with Keith Dudding
Elevated Rhymestate with Wil Wander
Emotional Rescue with Cat Pick
Feel Like Going Home with Roy Kasten
Freaker's Ball wth DJ Swan
The Future Is Now with Chris
Gettin' Down to It with Sean Smothers
Gold Soundz with Chris Bay
Hindsight with Matt
Hip City with Chris Lawyer
Juxtaposition with Rob Levy
Latin Hemispheres with Carlos G. Charles
Mid-Day Jamboree with Fred Gumaer
The Mixtape with Jason
Music at Work with Curt
Mystery Train with Tim
Pop! The Beat Bubble Burst with Rich Reese
Rhythm Highways with East Side Slim
Rocket 88 with Darren Snow
Rolling Thunder with Ryan Cain
Songwriter's Showcase with Ed
Sound Salvation with Steve Pick
The Space Parlour with Nick Acquisto
Steam-Powered Radio with Kelly Wells
Time Warp Radio with Mark Hyken
Trip Inside This House with Valis
Uncontrollable Urge with BobEE Sweet
Universal Default with Brian
Wax Lyrical with Caron
As KDHX celebrates its 30th anniversary, the station also celebrates the induction of 88.1's first generation of blues DJs into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame: Art Dwyer of Blues in the Night, Ron Edwards of Nothin' but the Blues, Denny Clancy and John McHenry of Blursday and Tom 'Papa' Ray of Soul Selector. Ronnie Wisdom of Shake 'Em on Down, the newest blues program at KDHX, sat down with Ron Edwards to talk about the early days of the station, the many firsts over the years, and the deep service of KDHX's volunteer community. Look for Andy Coco's interview with Tom Ray coming soon, as well as an interview with the Blursday boys. And if you missed it, check out Sean Smothers' interview with Art Dwyer.
Ronnie: So, Ron, you are one of the original three blues DJs at KDHX among the five just recently inducted inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame. Congratulations.
Ron: Thank you, I think all of us are really thrilled to be part of this. We have some dear friends at the station here who have been so honored. Gabriel is in. And the late Lou Thimes who used to be on in front of me for a year is part of this. Gentleman Jim Gates used to be on Monday drive time, and our good friend Bernie Hayes who actually has filled in for Art Dwyer, Tom Ray and myself may have done the Blursday show too. So we now have nine individuals who have broadcast for this station who are in this hall of fame. It's really thrilling because it's such a legitimate award. And you generally see it for people who are in a different form of media. They are in commercial media or are known for different presentations. It's incredibly rare for people to have survived the way we have outside commercial radio with its different companies changing format over time, you simply can't find people around for thirty years doing the same thing with the exception of KMOX [AM 1120] who do mostly speaking programs. But in terms of people who broadcast music, particularly in blues, we've held the record for ten of fifteen years now [of multiple long-running blues DJs on the air], but it is so nice to find this kind of recognition because St. Louis has understood the importance of 88.1 as the community radio station: the people that are on are the people who live here and they bring you the entertainment that you're looking for — all of the types of things that aren't on the radio anywhere else.
Ronnie: So Ron, you've been with KDHX since the beginning 30 years ago. How did you get involved?
Ron: Well, I had a couple of friends — Susan Littlefield and Brian Costello — who I had gone to school with and then I worked with Susan and they had both been down in Memphis at WEVL and had some experience on the radio. But they got involved in this project, in fact I first heard about it at Susan's house during the 7th game of the World Series in 1982. And she was talking about how she was working with the Double Helix Corporation and that they were fighting to have a radio station and they felt it was possible and they were going to do it. Now that was five years before we went on the air. Brian came in and was the original engineer who oversaw the construction, and I kept up with it through them. They talked about how they had found a great site down in Arnold, real high up, and they were going to put a big tower up there. So in 1986, I went and played the very first concert fundraiser for the station itself. We thought it was getting pretty close but it ended up that we came down within the wire, they were actually going to lose the site permit within a day of going on the air, so they understood that they were gonna have to go on live from the tower itself. It's funny how I heard about it because I've known Art Dwyer and Tom Ray since long before the station, 15 years 17 years before. Anyway, one afternoon Tom calls me up and says, "Hey Ron, what are you going to do on your show this Sunday?" and I said, "What show? What are you talking about?" He said you're on right in front of me at KDHX." I said, "Nobody's called me — I'll get back with ya?" And then Brian called right after that and said, "Look, we've set you up on this." He had asked me whether I'd come in and do blues and maybe work with the other programs and I'd said, "Let me know." So l asked him to let me hold off for a couple of weeks so I could develop a specific format that would be complimentary because Art was doing Monday and Friday afternoons, drive times, and Tom was doing a show called Night Train behind me and I wanted to be very specific about what I was doing in relationship to them. And also, I thought it would be something really worth doing because I was one of the founding members of the St. Louis Blues Society and on the board of directors, and we'd had so much difficulty trying to promote blues artists here in St. Louis. There was practically nothing you could do to get it on the airwaves unless people would do favors for you. Otherwise you'd have to pay for it, and for a nonprofit that was terrible. But I thought about it: "Wait a minute, this station is the perfect vehicle to support the St. Louis blues musicians. You could talk about them; you could play their music — it would be the best thing on earth to do with the blues community." Ultimately, I spent about ten years with the Blues Society but I had to give that up because this was really more worthwhile, I thought, in the long term. And that's the way it's been since the beginning. This station has been full of musicians and has also played St. Louis artists absolutely from day one. Before most people knew we were on the air, the musicians caught on, and you'd go down to a bar or something and they'd be talking about it.
Ronnie: Ron, I've heard you reference "going out to the country," tell me what was it like out there in the tower...
Ron: Well, it's not something anyone thought we were going to do. When Brian first told me about it, he said we gotta do this because we got on the air. And I said, "Well, how long are we gonna do this?" and he said maybe about six months — that was the plan but it turned out to be a year and a half. By that point he had us all convinced that we can't quit because we gotta get into a building somewhere. I remember getting the directions to the tower and I realized it was 65 miles round trip from my house. I was on Sunday nights, the only space I knew I didn't have a conflict with because my schedule working at the University of Missouri. I vividly remember going there the first night. The instructions were really elaborate, turn down this road, turn down that particular road I got to the point where I thought I'm in somebody's driveway and I'm going to end up in their back yard. But it was this little gravel road that went past this person's house and the instructions were "Turn left in the break in the weeds," and I turned left in this break in the weeds and came up over this hill and there was the transmitter shack. You could see it from a tremendous distance. You could see it from Highway 55 because this tower is 500 feet tall. But you weren't sure that you could find how to actually get there. There was no fence. There was just this wooden building with a 100-watt lightbulb stuck over the door. There was a porta john right next to it and plenty of parking — no problem — open fields all around, so at night the sky was deep black and you could see the Milky Way and all the stars and the lights on the tower above you which was always a little frightening because that 500 feet of metal would have come down right on top of your head, but it was wired up well. You would knock on the door and the person in front of you would come out and open it because we always kept the door locked. [Laughs] I always joked, "It could have been a bear." But you'd walk in and you were in the transmitter room — you could hear it humming. Off to the right was a small six by eight room in which there were two chairs, a very small mixing board, and behind you there was a small shelf of LPs, so you basically brought your own. In those days, we used two turntables and a cassette player. CDs weren't around yet. We did announcements strictly by reading them — that's before all the pre-recording at the station itself. And the wonderful part was that the only way we could monitor ourselves was a little transistor-style radio plugged in and we would turn that off before we talked otherwise we would feedback and as soon as we turned the microphone off, you then turned that up because that was your monitor and at some point you'd have to take a reading off the transmitter with a clipboard and read the little dials and so on, but you would always keep the door closed because otherwise it would be humming and you could actually hear it out on the air. Whatever the elements were, you were out there. It was a phenomenal experience. People did remarkable things there. I know Ed Vigil broadcast for eight or ten hours on Christmas Day, that first Christmas that we had there. People just went there and went on the air without any publicity or knowing whether people could pick you up or who you were. There were 35 programs hosted by a unique group of autodidacts. There was little to no training for these individuals — we all learned by doing live radio.
Ronnie: So with 30 years under your belt, you've been involved with a lot of firsts here at the station...
Ron: Somehow that's all worked out — we figured that out a little bit later. About the send week I'd been on the air I took my old, early '30s National and when I went in that night I opened the program with a tune that I played. And because it was so small, the man in front of me —a large man, Al Mothershead — he had to lean over me to adjust the dials. Meanwhile I had a mic leaning into the wall, my head was almost touching it so he could get to the actual board itself. That gives you an idea of how much space was in this room, so I ended up playing that. Then, remarkably, when we went to Magnolia, first week I was in there I took that guitar and played a similar piece of music, and then out of a complete coincidence when we moved in to the studios here in Grand Center, it was on a Sunday — and that had to do with Larry Weir [former co-host of Songwriter's Showcase], our old friend, who was the one that really was involved with the station before we went on the air. He was here the longest of anybody at the station. At times, he was the only staff person we had, so we all knew him and we all appreciate that this place is named after him because he was a dear friend who really did a great deal for the station. But that night, I called Paul Stamler, [aka Pablo Meshugi, host of the Sunday afternoon program No Time to Tarry Here], who's also from '87, and asked him "Are you going to play live music?" and he said, "Nooo, I don't think I am." I said, "Fantastic." I had already set up a program in which I asked the Class of 1987, all the ones who could come, the ones who were still involved who had broadcast from the tower and had never left. We did a remote by phone for Paul and then Ed Vigil could not come, but I had Susan Littlefield who was here talk about the early days. I also had Chuck Lavazzi who went back to that time and Art Dwyer and Tom Ray and so I had each of 'em bring music to program part of the show, and we did it as a celebration to help people understand that all of us had come from this little place in the country and how much we appreciated the space, these studios — the way everything was brand new and could function because we had used some of the most primitive things that you could imagine, so people could get a feeling of what it meant to us — as a thank you to the community, really. We dedicated the program as a remembrance to all of our friends at the station who had passed away. At the end of the program Tom sang and played harmonica, and I took the very same guitar that I had used at other the other locations and played and Art clapped his hands together or a tambourine and the three of us performed at the end. It was kind of like completing a full circle. But somehow over the years, I always seem to be in a certain place. I played the first live music at the Magnolia Cafe. I gave the first lecture at the Stage and Tom was there so we played the first blues duet here at the station. But it's been a remarkable thing to believe that this has lasted so long, that people have dedicated themselves, because it's been something that's been really worth doing, but all through the years I've thought that there's nothing like live music, and I'm not talking about going into the studio back there, I'm talking about stickin' it in front of a mic and crankin' up a guitar.
Ronnie: So you also play live regularly for the pledge drives, have you always done that?
Ron: Starting with our first which was done from the tower in May of 1988. I thought what would be interesting to do would be to take the guitar out, and since it was nice weather I decided to do it outside on the gravel driveway. I took some equipment from work. I took a little mixer and whole bunch of mic chords and a couple of microphones — I thought, "This should work," but we'd never done it before. So I plugged it up, ran it all the way outside, got one of the chairs and sat there. Susan had called up the man whose land we were on, who we'd been renting the space from, and they came over with their grandkids. And so they sat right in front of me. And I had arranged that the man who was on the air in the previous hour would give me the signal. I said, "Just point at me," because I had no headphones, no monitors and no way of even knowing I was on the air — he was going to adjust it on the inside. So I had a little amp and my little guitar and he comes runnin' out the door, points at me and I start talking. Later on I heard a tape of it: you could hear birds chirping in the background. An amazing thing. I told stories of [Fred McDowell] and musicians I'd known and played examples of their kind of music, since I would have killed the station immediately if I'd tried to sing. [Laughs] But I did that for 20 minutes or 25 and was gettin' ready to switch because I had already worked it out with Tom Ray to do a couple tunes together. He was going to play harmonica and sing but because it was getting dark, I needed to get over by the 100-watt light bulb — this is a true story. Tom was running behind. He had this old Cadillac. He came up over the top of that hill at full speed, shootin' gravel all over the place. We looked like deer in headlights. I thought, "Oh my god, he's going to run us over! This is the end of KDHX." And that's what he thought too. Fortunately, he broke, jumped out, and we got ourselves set up, and I remember him distinctly saying, "They told Ron and I that if you donate you'll get us out of this one-room country shack." And then we played, I think, "It Hurts Me Too," kind of in the Elmore style, not Tampa.
Tom and I go way back with those kind of things. We used offer all kind of things during pledge drives. I would have people come and I would give them the full experience. I would say, If you pledge this amount I will have you come and you will be a co-host. You're not just coming in here, we're going to work up a theme together, I'm going to rehearse you, we'll set up all the music. I'll bring you in ahead of time. We'll get you relaxed and so on, and you'll be my co-host for the evening and I'll take pictures of you in the studio. I wanted this to be the experience of a lifetime for them. That's how Rich Barta got his start at the station. So we did that, and every once in a while we'd offer people crazy stuff: "We'll come wash your car"; "We'll come burp your baby," or "We'll walk your dog." I was there with Tom — it was right before he goes off the air and he says, "I'll tell you what. If you donate so and so, Ron and I'll come to your house and play a show." And I thought, "Tom, we don't really have an act together! What are you talkin' about?" I thought, "Ah well, nobody's going to get it." Right at the last minute, this guy called up, he donates the money, and it turns out he lives way over in Illinois somewhere. So I ended up having to get my buddy Bob Case and Dave MacKenzie, we threw a little act together — the four of us actually went over to the man's house and played. We don't make those promises anymore, but throughout the years, one thing I've always tried to do, and been grandfathered into, is to bring the guitar because my concept of a pledge drive is more of what they used to call a house rent party. Occasionally I'd have somebody — Rondo [Leewright] or Leroy Pierson or some friend — come by and I'd do a little bit with them, where we'd do a couple tunes or with a piano player or somebody else as part of the pledge drive to kind of break it up, instead of, as I say, begging and moaning for money. I've ended up keeping the tradition: now I've had Fred Gumaer come with a snare drum and we've done some McDowell stuff where he plays on the drum. The last time he's come with a guitar we've played a couple rhythm pieces. So we're stretching the boundaries so it's not the same thing, but one thing I do say is that we close the book — so we're not going to tell you anything you've heard, we'll replace it with some live music and hopefully that'll give you a reason to donate to the station.
Ronnie: So you're a bottleneck guitarist?
Ron: Yes, some people call it slide guitar, I play with a piece of glass which is slid up and down the strings, and it's not like the white country artists who play on their laps — I play upright. I remember Fred McDowell telling me that the bottleneck is the voice and it's meant to replicate what is sung because it has the same abilities to do that because you can play notes in between the frets. It's really what B.B. King and the people who bend the strings were trying to get. King always wanted to be a slide player but he couldn't grasp it somehow, so he would bend the strings to get those notes that were in between to imitate his vocals. It's a style that goes way back to the turn of the century. It had some Hawaiian influences and really got around to America — there was sort of a craze to it. But you hear the older blues artists playing it, some from Mississippi particularly in the Atlanta group, the 12-stringers there, they were the ones that were the great players at slide. So sometimes it's used strictly as a solo accompaniment and other times it's used in a bigger sense when you're playing in an ensemble. But I'm what you'd call a bottleneck specialist. I play all night long slide guitar because it's been the one interest I've had that's the deepest in music. I've been playing it since the late 1960s before you could even find books or anything on on it, both in open tunings and then in standard. But my guitar is tuned in what you'd call "Sebastopol" or D-tuning. I used to take a couple guitars but I got tired of lugging everything. So now I play in a single-tuning. Throughout life, it's really been an avocation but not a vocation. I've been able to do it and to have the great experience of music without having to make a living of it because I've always had a profession. And that way you can play the places you want to play and play the material that you're interested in.
I was originally taught by Furry Lewis and Bukka White and a great man named Houston Stackhouse who taught Robert Nighthawk how to play guitar to begin with and then Nighthawk taught him how to play side and he taught me how to play like Nighthawk. And a dear friend J.B. Hutto. Slide guitar was a significant part of their act and they were all very accomplished at it. J.B. was a tremendous performer. One of my oldest and dearest friends is Bob Case and he used to be J.B.'s bass player, but Bob had a terrible accident and really couldn't go on the road anymore and my good friend Keith Doder, who was a great harp player said, "Let's get Bob up on his feet again." So we put a trio together with the idea that we'll get Bob up and he'll get going, and then we just had too much fun with it so that went on for a period of time. But for the most part I spent 22 years with Henry Townsend who was St. Louis' patriarch, a man who goes back to the '20s who was here in the time frame that he knew all those artists Big Joe Williams, John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson, worked with Walter Davis, worked with Roosevelt Sykes and worked with the Spark Brothers, and worked with Nighthawk himself. I began playing with him. It was he and Henry's wife Vernell and myself. I began working with him and never quit because I had an understanding of his vintage of music, which is '30s city blues. It was not a country blues style. It was rooted here in the St. Louis urban area here in St. Louis in the '30s. So that became an experience that was really substantial and very difficult because you're not playing in a twelve-bar format, you're sometimes a little longer or a little shorter according to how the lyrics were and he'd make them up on the spot so that everything was absolutely brand new at the moment and you'd play to that. So you really develop the ability to listen and also to be in the exact moment. We only did a few tunes ever that we basically knew. I loved it when Nell got up because I knew her songs. But in between Henry'd work on a certain theme and sometimes the lyrics would be brilliant but none of us could remember which is the sad part.
But my friend John May, who was with the St. Louis Blues Society since the beginning, became the bass player, and we worked toward the end of Henry's life mostly as a trio. And we were the one's who kept it here. He had other friends and close people that he knew who also worked occasionally with Leroy, and sometimes Scott Schuman would come and we'd do some things together. At the time I began playing with Rudy 'Silver Cloud' Coleman back in 1986 when Henry had his first birthday party and it became the biggest event in this town — everyone wanted to be in it. I managed somehow to play every single one of them, but the first one was at the Allen Avenue restaurant down in Soulard and it consisted of Henry and his wife Vernell, myself and Silver Cloud who's a deep blues piano player, best ever in the style of Memphis Slim. It was just the four of us and we played the whole night. I got into playing with him because the instruments that have really moved me the most were the harmonica, the piano and the bottleneck guitar, because my forte is the style of the great Tampa Red of the '20s and '30s. it's based upon a super-clean, sweet kind-of style; there's no raspyness, sometimes people think stuff is really authentic when it's actually just sloppy. [Laughs] You may be sloppy drunk or you may be a sloppy player but they don't necessarily understand the classical thing. And Silver Cloud is a great classical player — he played the '40s-'50s styles and I would play the '20s up into the '50s styles, so for a period of time it was the last of the duets and St. Louis was built primarily on piano-guitar duets, so it was kind of like Tampa Red meets Memphis Slim when you hear the musical part of it. I always enjoyed that and did that on the side while I worked with Henry, and then would play special events which is pretty much what I do now — I also worked with piano man David Krull and extensively with outstanding harp-man Jon Erblich. For a number of years I've also been part of the KDHX Blues Band which started with Art, Tom and myself and then we got John McHenry who plays drums, sometimes we'll grab somebody else. We had John Logan on the last one who is also a programmer — but what we decided, even though we knew each other well, was that we'd never have this combination except for the benefit of KDHX. Even if I were retired I'd come out and do that, but I think being a "musicianer," as Henry used to say, has an impact on how you present music. There are so many musicians on this station and you are guaranteed that if you hear someone like Andy Coco, he's a bass player, he's going to have a solid bass part, or Art, there's not going to be any sloppy bass parts. These are people who could really play. Roy Helwig, who used to be in front of me, used to be a sax player and he always had the best sax solos in the records he was playing because you have a certain level you don't want to go below. I don't play any mediocre or lousy bottleneck players. I want to hear someone who can play in pitch, that's clean, that is expressing themselves in some way. And I think that all of the musicians on the station are like that and it's one of the real secrets of the foundation of why KDHX has been accepted. Not only do we support the musicians in this community seriously by playing their music, but for people being musicians they are deciding upon which cuts to play based on the quality of those. Perhaps we don't like everything we hear on the station but I'm sure even the youngster in the middle of the night is putting the best piece of music in their opinion on the air for our listeners. One of the most rewarding experiences is the camaraderie that you develop with those in front and behind you on the air. You mark the passage of time in your life seeing them each week.
Ronnie: The one thing that I didn't realize 'til I got involved as a programmer myself here was how much goes on behind the scenes at KDHX.
Ron: That's been something that's always been true from the very beginning, when people went out and laid the concrete pad, worked on the transmitter shack, volunteered for everything imaginable over the years. It's something I've tried to make mention of and tell the audience how much we rely on volunteers behind the scenes. You know who we are because we are on the air but for each of us there are many, many others, who over the years have shown up and volunteered their time and done something significant. It wouldn't be possible if it hadn't been for all of these people coming from the community and their willingness to do things. I have a wonderful volunteer, Jill Garvey, who saves me hours every week by taking my playlist and entering it in the computer.
I have mentioned before the only reason we were on Magnolia was because that building was going to be condemned. And Brian put out the call: "We need volunteers. If we could put a roof on this building, we could save it we could buy it or at least we could get in it and out of that transmitter." And that's what happened. Forty people showed up over a weekend, and they put a roof on that building, saved the building. And every weekend, people came and cleaned and knocked the walls out of that old bakery. None of this would have been possible without them. I think it's important for people to understand that it's a joint effort, that we are the St. Louis area community, and that we're your friends, we're your neighbors and our friends and neighbors have come here and been a part of this. It is freedom radio — there's never been anything like KDHX. I've put 25,000 cuts or more cut on the air, 1,500 programs — I've never been told once what to play or not to play. We're radio programmers; we program on our own and we answer the phone because we are part of the community. We do not have traditional radio voices but we have great content. I always say my program is education under the guise of entertainment; it is highly specialized and it would only be possible to present this style of programming on community radio. I try to present those consistently forgotten artists such as Big Bill Broonzy, Lonnie Johnson, John Lee 'Sonny Boy' Williamson and artists like them, who have been part of the great foundation of the history of the blues and who've left a profound influence on the way blues sounds today — artists who might be forgotten without being put in the proper context. I always state the year the cut was recorded because through time, I hope people will learn what blues sounded like in those specific eras. When people call up and ask about an artist such as Blind Willie McTell who they hadn't heard before, I feel like I've been successful. [Laughs] The shows are all thematic and each cut relates to the theme — so I don't take requests unless they're two hours long. But this is a tremendous ongoing learning experience for all of us. And I know from the beginning it wouldn't be possible without all these great volunteers who aren't on the air but who make KDHX what it is.