The Kid Who Listened To Felix Grant

April 15, 2018

Bedtime began with prayers with my Dad: the "Our Father," the "Hail Mary" and the Lesser Doxology (aka the "Glory Be"). Then out went the lights and on went an early plastic art-deco radio, Amplitude Modulation only, with a clock-like dial that glowed. From it emitted the soothing voice of WMAL's Felix Grant, "on hand" with his "album sound 'til Midnight" and various renditions of his theme, Tenderly.

How in the Age of The Beatles, The Stones, a 7-10-year-old kid listened to a very grown-up disc jockey playing progressive and Brazilian jazz I can only speculate. Both parents occasionally read me bedtime stories, but my father burlesqued them, separating and combining sentences until we were both hysterical. My Mom usually preceded me in slumber, succumbing during Perry Mason. The literary sendoff to dreamland devolved upon my live-in grandmother. However, as recorded in How Green Was My NIH, she worked until 11 p.m. and could only perform that loving service on weekends.

Around 1990 I suffered from insomnia, but the blessing was I was able to hear a lot of the great Mayhugh during his last couple years on WMAL.

The youth culture of the 60s was also kept at bay. I had no older siblings to bring bad baby boomer tastes, habits and immaturity into our house. Recorded music at 5210 was played on a 1940s phonograph with a felt-covered turntable. This cherrywood-clad machine surmounted a sturdy cabinet of matching wood containing mostly 45s and 78s going back to The Ten Freshmen and Charlie Fry's Million Dollar Pier Orchestra. When I was given a serious stereo in 1978, I used its 78-speed setting to play more Ten Freshmen, moving on to Ted Wallace and His Campus Boys and Irving Aaronson And His Commanders.

A Lotta Mas Que Nada

My speculation is that I've always been one who needs periods of soothing sounds. The mellow, focused Felix Grant filled that bill. Grant never talked about himself. He spoke in a virtual monotone only about the albums he was playing and their performers, once in a while interjecting an obligatory remark about the weather. I never developed a taste for the kind of jazz that Grant played, but I remember him talking a lot about Mose Allison, the messed-up 19th-century French composer Erik Satie, whose work accidentally sounded jazzy, and Sergio Mendes' Brazil 66. Grant and other WMAL jocks spun Mas Que Nada quite a bit. The other track I remember is some quartet's (Dave Brubeck?) rendition of Wang Wang Blues.

WGAY World Building Silver Spring

World Building in Silver Spring proclaims WGAY's tenancy ca. 1975.

One night the neat old art deco radio showed signs of going up in flames and was discarded. My Dad, who was a buff of radio mechanics from his youth when he built crystal sets, bought me a $100 Sony shortwave from Rodman's, the D.C. drug/liquor store that seems to sell everything. I could have listened to stations from all over the world, but I kept the Sony tuned to AM 630.

I occasionally heard the legendary Joy Boys (Ed Walker and Willard Scott) on WRC if we were driving on weekday evenings to the hardware store or Montgomery Mall. Otherwise WMAL was my radio companion all through the day. Listening to the news -- national from the ABC network at the "top of the hour," local at the "bottom." -- became a habit in my childhood. As I played with my cars and trucks on the carpet, the ABC Information guys -- all, it seemed, named Bob -- broadcast about Alexander Dubcek in Prague, then about Chappaquiddick, then about Charles Manson, then about Watergate.

WMAL's morning hosts were another legendary and inimitable duo, Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver. At first I thought there really was an old lady -- one of Weaver's many voices -- at the mike. For almost three decades Harden & Weaver managed to broadcast a fun and informative program, free of put-downs, griping, raunch and politics, unless you include The Senator, another of Weaver's voices who introduced the daily march at 7:25 a.m. They also had a time-slot for a daily hymn.

In those days before all-news radio, WMAL was the go-to station for traffic, weather and, when DC was menaced by its nemesis, the dreaded snowflake, school closings. With more stay-at-home moms and staff and students living close to their schools, the systems preferred to stare down rather than shut down. It's laughable now; it was maddening then. Sometimes it would be 8 a.m. My Mom would be cursing at having to drive me through four inches of snow and Montgomery County, which Catholic schools followed, would not have announced yet. I think we were in the car once when the blessed reprieve came. We went back inside to relax and laugh at Frank and Jack announcing that the Rinky-Dinky Day School was closed, not because of the snow, but because of a bartenders' strike.

At 10:00 a.m. started a 4-hour shift by Tom Gauger who began his show with The National Anthem. Gauger often played Broadway tunes, especially from the early 70s revivals of old shows.

Harden Weaver Sonny Jergensen WMAL

Sonny Jurgensen, Frank Harden, Jackson Weaver, Sam Huff at KenCen in 1985

WMAL was one of those stations that branded itself for grown-ups, i.e., no rock'n'roll. The music it played was what was then-called pop-standards or adult contemporary. The playlist included Simon & Garfunckel, Judy Collins, Helen Reddy, The Carpenters and a few who would be anachronistic in any other time but the early 1970s: "Hurricane" Smith, Bobby Vinton, Tony Orlando and Dawn. Tie a Yellow Ribbon 'Round the Ole Oak Tree was played incessantly in 1973-74. Another one was Kenny Rogers' huge late 70s hit, The Gambler. My Mom covered this frequently for the benefit of my poker-playing father.

Tom Gauger was followed by Bill Trumbull. Trumbull, who covered the late afternoon and early evening, was eventually paired with Chris Core, making up, at first, "Two For The Road" and then the "Trumbull & Core Show." If Trumbull and Core was supposed to be an evening rush-hour Harden & Weaver, they weren't. They were good radio company, but they ventured into airing pet peeves. Core is the only personality from those great days who is (in 2018) still employed in DC radio as a commentator.

Felix Grant's jazz program was, in its heyday, from 7 p.m. until Midnight. Occasionally I was awake long enough -- not a good thing for a 9-year-old who had to get up for school -- or up early enough to hear the all-night man, Bill Mayhugh. My Mom, early to rise as she was early to bed, listened to Bill a lot as she slumped at the kitchen table with her coffee and cigarettes. She said that Mayhugh always sounded like he was going to burst out crying.

Around 1990 I suffered from insomnia, but the blessing was I was able to hear a lot of the great Mayhugh during his last couple years on WMAL. Like Grant, he played albums, but it was Tony Bennett and the kind of music that should be played at 3 a.m. when, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, it's always a dark night of the soul.

I met Bill one night when a date and I attended a concert in Georgetown that Bill was emceeing. He pulled into the parking space next to us. When I told him I used to listen to him when I couldn't sleep, he exclaimed, "You're the one!" I introduced him to the lady friend as a "radio legend" and he told her, "That means I'm old." He later sent me a tape of some of his on-air interviews with music legends.

WMAL's substitute and weekend personality was John Lyon. When John's two daughters, Kate and Sheila, disappeared near Wheaton PLaza on Good Friday 1975, WMAL and its owner, then The Evening Star, kept The Lyon Sisters in their news for over a year afterward, until The Star sold the station to ABC.

Ken Beatrice WMAL Sports Talk

WMAL began its decline by pushing Felix Grant out with Ken Beatrice in 1977.

One of the leads the news team repeated was that a man in a brown suit with a tape recorder had been interviewing children, including the Lyon Sisters, at the plaza that day. As it turned out, the tape-recorder man story was fiction that originated with Lloyd Lee Welch, who pled guilty to abduction charges almost 43 years after the girls vanished.

For some reason I was always keyed up on Sunday nights, likely because I had no time to relax on the day of rest. My Mom insisted that we go out for a drive every Sabbath. We left late and came home late. I had to eat restaurant food that I did not like. I did not begin to enjoy these all-day excursions until flea markets were included on the itinerary. Also as I hated school, Sunday nights were like the night before facing a firing squad.

WMAL Harden & Weaver Felix Grant 1964

The WMAL crew in 1964. Dave McConnell, seated second from right, is in 2018 WTOP's Capitol Hill reporter.

Nine p.m. found me in bed trying to fall asleep to a radio rebroadcast of ABC's Issues and Answers. This was one of the first generation of Sunday shows on which politicians faced journalists.

Also on Sunday night was a half-hour program conducted by a priest. Even at ten years old, I thought it was odd that a Catholic priest would play Simon & Garfunckel and Judy Collins for a half hour and never say a prayer, never utter a word about God and Jesus. After playing a track, the radio priest would say stuff such in the pattern of this parody: Sometimes we all wish that clowns would be sent in, don't we? And when they don't come we're disappointed. Perhaps we're really wishing for something deeper....

The priest's order was notorious for producing media that omitted references to the Almighty. As an adult I met the radio priest in my career. He was a very nasty man and none of the other priests in his order liked him. No surprise because most of the priests in that order didn't like anyone, including each other. Likely out of jealousy, the head-nasty-priest shipped the radio priest out to the midlands, forcing him to give up his broadcasting career and his Redskins tickets.

Mantovani and Matinee at One

On those detested Sunday drives we had on the car radio a type of station the format of which is as far removed from 21st-Century radio audiences' tastes as "Hurricane" Smith and Tony Orlando. It was called "Beautiful Music," "Easy Listening" and disparagingly, "elevator music."

Beautiful Music was favored mostly by listeners born around 1930. I don't think that many others not of that generation could appreciate it. The popular tunes covered by orchestras heavy on strings, were played in 15-minute blocks. There was no jock jabber, no news, nor traffic, nor weather. The disc jockeys spoke only to identify the four or five tracks they had just played. There was maybe one commercial per hour, read by the announcer. Typical fare was exemplified by A Summer Place (Percy Faith) and Love Me With All Your Heart (Mantovani). Sometimes they really rocked it with Percy Faith's wall-of-sound I Will Follow You.

The principal purveyor of Beautiful Music was WGAY, broadcasting at 50,000 watts from The World Building in downtown Silver Spring. Not to be confused with a current D.C. enterprise using the same call letters, WGAY was named for its founder, a guy named Connie B. Gay. In the 1970s, when stereo was still a novelty, WGAY broadcast in the failed Quadraphonic format for a while. And then it didn't. Believe it or not, in the mid 1980s, WGAY was the No. 1 station in DC-area ratings, dethroning even WMAL.

John Lyon Lyon Sisters

March 1985: John Lyon ten years after his daughters Kate and Sheila disappeared.

The personality associated with WGAY was Bob Chandler, who not only spoke in a near-whisper, but also otherwise ran the station. I can still remember Chandler's cool voice breezing through the Chrysler with the air-conditioning as we rolled through the shimmering fields of Maryland or Virginia countryside on a hot summer day. On Sunday afternoons was Matinee at One, during which a cast album of a musical such as Oliver or Fiddler On The Roof was played, while, in between tracks, the announcer recounted the libretto.

Where WGAY faded out, there was WLIF in Baltimore and WFMD in Frederick. WGAY's easy-listening competitor in the DC market was the short-lived WJMD, the call leters of which are now used by a midwest Gospel Station "Where Jesus Makes The Difference." The JMD of 5530 Wisconsin Ave., Chevy Chase came from the first initials of the Diener Brothers who ran a DC-area carpet store.

A little bit of obscure and forgotten DC radio lore is that for a short time in the late 70s, the morning man on WJMD was none other than Johnny Holliday. Easy Listening was not about yak-yak and I don't think Johnny's fake Tattoo Arms Hotel commercials went with the format. Johnny was never my cup of tea, but he's a very nice guy and has donated his talent to Catholic media.

Sic transit gloria

We take good things for granted, think they will go on forever, but they slip away, often without our notice. I wasn't paying much attention when the evaporation of my radio world began.

In March 1985, I went to Harden & Weaver's 25th Anniversary celebration at The Kennedy Center, but by that milestone, the duo were spending all their airtime reading commercials. Weaver's comic voices and their skits were seldom heard. Because some sponsors had complained, Frank and Jack had to play straight with the commercials they read and keep to the 60 seconds paid for. This brought the humor level close to zero.

My college years found me listening to a big-band station out of Baltimore (Can't remember the call letters) and to classical station WGMS where mornings where hosted by the pleasant Dennis Owens. Every classical station has its fad pieces, its Tie A Yellow Ribbons. The fixation in the mid 1980s was Pachelbel's Canon. By the end of that decade, I also often had the dial set to all-news WTOP.

The decline of WMAL began around 1977. When my parents and I spent the summer of 1970 in Boston, Mom and Dad could not resist listening to a sports call-in show hosted by a guy with a real annoying Boston accent. Several years later that guy, Ken Beatrice turned up on WMAL in the evenings, cutting into Felix Grant's time. Whatever Beatrice's character -- He may have been the nicest guy in the world -- he was like a local radio Howard Cosell. Many, including sports reporters, detested him. What I found annoying about him, and what pushed me to WTOP, was that he ignored weather emergencies that people tuned to WMAL to hear about. There could be tornadoes ripping through the area and Beatrice would just keep blabbing about the NFL or obscure college athletes.

One nice addition to the WMAL line-up of the late 70s was former Joy Boy, Ed Walker. Walker played old records on Sunday mornings and also from 2-3 p.m. on weekday afternoons. Ed always had a proclivity for playing real cornball stuff, Arthur Godfrey, Jimmy Dean, but he got me interested in vintage recordings. I think of Ed every time I hear Ben Pollack's 1929 rendition of Louise.

In 1979, WMAL attempted to give its listeners more Ken Beatrice and take away Felix Grant. There was such a hullabaloo from Grant's fans that the legendary jock was given a five-year reprieve. After WMAL ended Grant's three+ decades stint in 1984, he continued his program on other stations for a few years and passed away in 1993.

The bottom falls out

The last gasps of a great radio age in Washington, DC were breathed around 1991. My Mom started recapping the wit of various hosts who yacked on air all night. Dr. Gabe Mirkin this; Dr. Gabe Mirkin that. The age of talk radio was coming. DC was also turning into a market that must be one of a kind in the world: where the most-listened-to radio station plays no music, broadcasts only news, traffic and weather.

Bill Mayhugh with a box of onion donuts from Montgomery Donuts

Bill Mayhugh with a box of onion donuts from Montgomery Donuts

Jackson Weaver died in 1992. The station paired Frank Harden with a couple of duds until he finally retired. Tom Gauger had gone to work for the ABC network. Shoehorned between Trumbull and Core's seats was a third party: a woman from Germany with an American accent. She was one of those wild and crazy types. Adding her was like augmenting the hosts of the PBS News Hour with Charo. Whether the exuberant shtick was projected or authentic, she was uber-annoying and I believe, truly evil.

As I wrote above, insomnia enabled me to catch the last of Bill Mayhugh. Then one night he was no more, replaced by Larry King, I think.

The avenues lined with brightly lit one-story shops and restaurants that have lasted decades. The quiet walks down tree-green streets (Now everyone is angry and on the streets one feels that a brawl is about to break out). The times, the audience, the personalities. It just isn't coming back.

For Further Reading

About Neal J. Conway

How Green Was My NIH

Baltimore Saturdays

"I Don't Want to Dance With You, Now or Ever": Reminiscences of a Perverted Catholic Singles Club

Parallel Churches and The Benedict Option My Experience With Cult-like Institutes in Washington, DC