Jeff Kallman's excellent The Easy Ace: A Journal of Classic Radio
is a wonderful place to spend hours on end, rediscovering the Golden Age of Radio
as it's meant to be discovered and celebrated. Article after article
is filled with a wonderful new vignette about Golden Age Radio History.
---The Digital Deli Online.

[I]n his matchless on-this-day approach to chronicling “yesteryear,”
he easily aces out a less organized mind like mine,
which promptly lapsed into a more idiosyncratic mode of relating the past.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

He Designated the Chairman

If you're my age, you grew up in or around New York City, and the radio was one of your parents' frequent companions, William B. Williams was your daily houseguest.

If you forgave him his wary view of rock and roll, Williams was the one easy listening radio host you could handle in the age of the Beatles. You might even tell yourself it was okay if Mother and Dad had control of the car radio while he was on.

For one thing, he didn't seem to mind playing the Beatles once in awhile. For another thing, he didn't seem to care who thought it was too much to play Frank Sinatra at least once an hour and maybe more. And, for a third thing, he was the smoothest sound aboard the late WNEW-AM in that time and place. Five minutes in The Make-Believe Ballroom was worth five hours anyplace else when it came to taking a break from rock and the blues.

Williams could make you tolerate the sappiest music on earth if it happened to be him playing it next. Patti Page asking how much was that doggie in the window sounded one hell of a lot less insulting upon human intelligence when William B. introduced and backsold it than when anyone else did.

And when he introduced something with meat---say, Count Basie's "April in Paris," or Duke Ellington's "Take The A Train," or Benny Goodman's "Jersey Bounce," or Bunny Berigan's "I Can't Get Started"---he did it with a delivery so pleasant you could practically see him nodding you toward that rather charming and lonely young lady by the rolling bar who'd rather be dancing with you than kissing a glass of wine.

Martin Block merely invented both the disc jockey and The Make-Believe Ballroom, a few years after he got the clever idea of playing records during breaks in coverage of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Once Williams was handed the show after Art Ford was dismissed in 1958, he turned it into a necessity. Especially for Frank Sinatra.

When Mitch Miller wasn't jamming barking dogs down Sinatra's ailing throat, Sinatra's voice itself was cracking toward delayed maturity, and Williams was insisting that Sinatra transcended fad and phenomenon. And, since Benny Goodman was the King of Swing, and Messrs. Ellington and Basie had their own regal titles, such a Sinatra required a title in his own right.

And, Williams gave him one. To the day Williams left the air there was no such thing as a show without at least one and at most three or four playings of the Chairman of the Board. Say what you will about Frank Sinatra but loyalty was in his eternal top five. If Williams wanted to name him the Chairman of the Board, you'd better not let Sinatra hear you call Williams a mere disc jockey. Never mind that William B. didn't mind.

Call it opposites attracting. Sinatra, subtle as a trainwreck, and Williams, about as boisterous as a midnight breeze across a ballroom balcony. "On the air at WNEW, he would sometimes stand behind the microphone with his hands in his pockets," the critic David Hinckley has written, "leading some regular listeners to say they could hear him jingling coins in his pocket as he spoke."

My parents would have him on in the afternoon when I was growing up, and at the drop of "April in Paris" I could picture a mellow fellow in an alpaca sweater with a pipe in one hand and the other waving as if conducting the Count and his men.

This was a man who got fired from WNEW in the 1940s for being, allegedly, too aggressive as a union shop steward, but got himself re-hired in 1953, after station-hopping that is said to have included a comedy show on WOR. "Hello, world!" was his breezy sign-on, and if you could lose count of the kernels of corn bouncing off those three syllables as the years went by you'd have wondered what was wrong if he'd ever surrendered it.

They gave him a gala for his 40th anniversary on the air and Frank Sinatra re-arranged his schedule to host it. Two years later, leukemia compounded by colon cancer silenced him on this island earth forever. Sinatra couldn't rearrange his schedule to be at his funeral, but about seven hundred others were there---including Tony Bennett, Lena Horne, Woody Herman, Arthur Prysock, and Duke Ellington's sister. But the Chairman sent a letter along to be read. It mentioned Williams's inability to say no to a benefit. Far as the Chairman was concerned, he was the most charitable man he ever knew.

Five years after William B. went to his reward WNEW went into Bloomberg Radio's possession and signed off the air forever, in favour of WBBR, which is all business and don't mean a thing because it ain't got that swing.

They've just elected William B. to the Radio Hall of Fame, with Douglas Edwards (once a signature of CBS News, from his reporting days on the World War II edition of The World Today to his longtime anchoring of CBS Radio's The World Tonight), Christopher Glenn (Edwards' successor on The World Tonight before taking the morning CBS World News Roundup), and Scott Shannon (give him the blame for the morning zoo style).

There'll be two things missing at the 4 November induction ceremony. One is Williams, and two is Sinatra. It would have been worth every record Williams ever introduced on the air, every syllable of patter from smooth to sugary, if both men had been granted to this island earth long enough that the Chairman of the Board could have inducted the chairman of The Make Believe Ballroom.


Blogger Mike Hobart said...

What a great memoir. It makes me sorry that I was born in the wrong time and the wrong country to ever hear this show.

2:13 AM  
Blogger Jeff Kallman said...

And what kind words to greet me this morning, Mike---thank you so much. Perhaps somewhere Out There in cyberspace there might turn up a sound file or two of some of William B. Williams's shows one of these years. A consummation devoutly to be wished.

10:31 AM  

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