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Remembering the golden days of AM radio

Larry French, Community Voices • Mar 9, 2019 at 8:00 AM

Long before iPods, MP3 downloads, SiriusXM satellite radio, CDs and Bose speaker systems, there was AM radio.

Before graphic equalizers, wall-shaking bass woofers, subwoofers, horns, tweeters, wireless surround sound and home theater systems, there was AM radio, vinyl records, “The Reiner Sound” and RCA’s “ultimate audiophile sound quality of Living Stereo.”

And, before AM radio dismally became nothing more than an endless barrage of mind-numbing talking heads with nothing to say, there was the dulcet voice of Jay Andres, the mystical voice of Clyde Clifford, and yes, while not entirely euphonious, the unmistakable voice of Wolfman Jack.

It was the era of clear channel radio, from dusk to dawn, from WBBM Chicago, KAAY Little Rock and KRLA Los Angeles to WWL New Orleans, WSM Nashville and XERB Tijuana.

From classical to rock ’n’ roll to true country, from north to south and east to west, and everywhere in between, AM radio had something for everyone’s listening pleasure.

And, yes, there was even XELO, Chihuahua, Mexico’s clear channel radio, 150,000 watts strong which offered non-stop, voltage-charged, “Elmer-Gantry-like” religious broadcasts for those in need of salvation.

But, it was Jay Andres, the host of “Music ’til Dawn,” presented by American Airlines and originating from Chicago’s clear channel 780, WBBM, that became the staple for late night connoisseurs of classical, jazz, show tunes and soft pop.

Andres, who set the standard for elegance in broadcasting with his deep, velvet-like “radio voice,” filled the airwaves for more than two decades during the Cold War, and allowed listeners to forget the madness of the world around them — if only for a few short hours. This was AM radio during its finest hour.

The 1960s AM radio age also gave us the “border-buster” station XERB, originating from Tijuana, Mexico, with Wolfman Jack, who allowed us some unadulterated pleasures of listening to the complete, unabridged recordings of The Doors “Light My Fire,” Iron Butterfly’s ungodly 17-minute version of “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” and The Moody Blues famous recording of “Nights in White Satin,” complete with Graeme Edge’s haunting poem, “Late Lament.”

Lord, a body could travel U. S. Route 66 from Albuquerque to Flagstaff and never come down from its musical high.

Clyde Clifford’s “Beaker Street,” broadcasting from clear channel 1090, KAAY (pronounced K-double-A-Y) in Little Rock, introduced listeners to the “Underground Music” era with names like Pink Floyd and Big Brother and the Holding Company.

During the late 1960s and early 70s, Clifford helped to fill the void of those monotonous drives along U. S. Route 70 between Memphis and Little Rock, where nothing but rice paddies and cotton fields existed, and as Bill Medley sang “Peace Brother Peace,” and Edwin Starr sang “War,” ironically, another senseless war raged on in rice paddies 10,000 miles away.

Sadly though, as Mary Hopkin so eloquently sang in 1968, “Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end,” the golden era of AM radio came to a close. And, without much fanfare or warning, AM radio slipped into what has become known today as — with apologies to T. S. Eliot — “a wasteland.”

Gone are the days of AM radio voices. Sorrowfully replaced by FM hollowness, an invasion of our privacy with its pre-recorded, continuous and repetitious excuses for music, along with those monotone and ambiguous mutterers who unsuccessfully seek to pass their voices off as radio voices, all the while telling their listeners nothing.

In large part though, AM radio owes all of its illustrious era to the law of physics and what is called ionospheric reflection. Simply stated, on a clear night, you could hear — forever.

Yes, long before pollution when a person could sit in the desert Southwest and gaze toward the heavens and witness “every star,” there was AM radio.

Imagine, if you will, the thrill of sitting alone on a moonless and cloudless night somewhere in Arizona during the late 1960s, with a large, one-speaker portable radio, tuned to a clear channel station and powered by nine Eveready D cell batteries, as Fritz Reiner conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in his legendary RCA Living Stereo LP recording of Ottorino Respighi’s soul-stirring finale from the tone poem “Pines of Rome,” and you will have unequivocally imagined — forever — the epoch of AM radio.

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, the Society of Professional Journalists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University. You may reach him at [email protected]

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