by Doug Carpenter
And just as vividly as we remember those hits that just kept on comin’, we recall the names and, even more clearly, the voices that came out of our trusty palm-sized transistor radios. The energizing, impossible-to-ignore personalities who introduced us to the music that became the soundtrack of our lives.
I guess you could call them the Founding Fathers of a generation of rock and roll fans. While the musicians, armed with their electric guitars and “long” hair, waged that cultural revolution on the front lines, the disc jockeys — that’s DJs to the cool — were back at base camp holding down the fort… and handing out the ammunition. The music.
You’d think, of course, that once the war was won, the victorious generals would, as a famous 5-star named MacArthur put it, “just fade away.” But then, MacArthur probably never did The Peppermint Twist. And if rock and roll was here to stay, so were they.
Good thing, too. Who better to keep the flame of our passion for music alive than the ones who started the fire and have tended it so faithfully for years? Guys who we could quite fittingly describe as Founding Fathers of local broadcasting. Guys like Bill Lacy, Harv Moore and Tom Shannon … whose careers span what have arguably been the greatest decades of Buffalo radio.
What’s It Like
At 54, 104.1 WHTT-FM’s Bill Lacy is the youngest of this trio of local music mainstays. That means that as the station’s morning man alongside co-host Gail Ann Huber, he gets paid today to play the same music that he paid to listen to while growing up. Music that shaped, changed and empowered both him and a generation of radio-loving Boomers.
“Because of that music,” Lacy says, “a lot of people from the ’60s and ’70s had a voice. Before that, I don’t think that radio and TV had that kind of reach.” But with the unique and potent music that came out of that time, he adds, “the media was able to make them icons, and change the culture forever.”
Indeed, the culture was never the same. Using “their” music not just as a source of entertainment but as a tool… even a weapon… for change, the teenagers of the day made the most of rock and roll.
Want to annoy the folks? Crank up the volume on the stereo. Want to send a message to “the establishment?” Put it in a song. It’s a time-honored tradition, one that runs in families… just like the gift for making music.
Message song master Bob Dylan’s son Jacob has his own musical voice, and record contract, today. John Lennon’s kids followed him into the family business, too. And Ravi Shankar, the man who injected Indian sitar music into the transcendental sound of the ’60s also contributed, generationally, to today’s jazz and soft rock scene, in the form of his multiple Grammy-winning daughter Norah Jones.
It Runs in the Family.
So it comes as no surprise that the Lacy lineage also has a bent with a beat. The youngest of his two children is, at 24, an accomplished musician, playing piano from age four and self-taught on both guitar and drums, which he beats for a band in his college town of Boston.
Like any good Dad, of course, Lacy modestly declines to take credit for his offsprings’ talents or tastes. Speaking with obvious pride of his son, the drummer, he notes with satisfaction that the fact that he loves music, from show tunes to rap to WHTT-style oldies, means that he’s developed appreciation for a broad spectrum of sounds.
He also confides that his older son frequently “borrows” …for extended periods… his prized copy of Frank Sinatra’s hits from his cream-of-the-crop years recording for Reprise Records. The trick is getting it back, he admits, because “I like to listen to Sinatra, too… even if it is a little before my time.”
Spoken like a true member of yet the latest “sandwich generation.” That’s “sandwich” as in “sandwiched between your parents and your kids.” This refers, of course, to the phenomenon that casts each generation in the role of the bridge that connects the one before with the one that follows.
“There Are Places
It’s why today’s Boomers are as uncannily familiar with both the music that charmed their parents’ generation… Glenn Miller’s In the Mood, for example… and the not-quite-as-melodic Head Like a Hole by grunge rockers Nine Inch Nails… as they are with See You in September, either the 1959 original by The Tokens or The Happenings’ remake from ’66.
That song, by the way, always reminds Lacy of the Summer trips he took to Allegheny State Park in his youth. That power, Lacy observes, the magical way a favorite song has of literally “taking you back” to moments you wouldn’t ever want to forget, may be what gives the music of the ’60s and ’70s its amazing hold over us.
“I truly hope the music our kids are listening to gives them the same kind of good memories our songs gave us.” It’s one of the reasons he considers himself “blessed” to have the greatest gig a music-loving Boomer could ask for.
“There are a lot of other things I’m interested in,” he concedes. “But given my druthers, this would still be at the top of my list. Hey, it beats working for a living!”
Nice Work If You
When self-proclaimed “music junkie” Harv Moore announced that he wanted to be a DJ, his father gave it to him straight. "Of all the careers you could’ve chosen, you’ve picked the one field I can’t help you with. If you’re going to make it in radio, you’re going to have to do it on your own.”
And of course, he did.
Not that his interest in radio was unexpected. For a drum-, guitar-, piano- and accordion-playing young man who had Disc Jockey equipment set-up in his bedroom and started collecting records when he was 10 years old, a future spinning the hits was pretty much a sealed deal. By the time he got to Boston University, all he needed was a break. So he made his own, starting a radio station right in his dorm room.
Ironically, Moore made his way to the Buffalo broadcast market by following its radio signal. Because that’s exactly what he listened to while growing up in Pelham, New York, just east of the Bronx. Buffalo radio.
With a little help from the atmospheric, AM radio signals can bounce their way hundreds and even thousands of miles from their point of origin. Thanks to this phenomenon, many a young New York nightowl like Moore spent hours tuned in to Buffalo radio legends like George “Hound Dog” Lorenz, the same way upstate teens were glued to their transistors listening to Big Apple jocks like “Cousin Brucie” Morrow on New York City’s legendary 77 WABC.
John, Paul, George,
If Moore ending up here was predestined, it wasn’t meant to be without a few historic career stops along the way. And for a DJ in the 1960s, it couldn’t have involved anybody much more historic than The Beatles.
It was February of 1964, and happenin’ Harv was doing mornings at WPGC in Washington, D.C., where the Fab 4 made their very first U.S. concert appearance. And who shared the stage at that landmark performance? Well, a very young pair of Righteous Brothers… and the very clean-cut Jay and the Americans… and a no-doubt-extremely envied DJ named Harv Moore. The rest, as they say, was rock and roll history.
How do you follow an act like that? With a 40-year career in radio, the better part of the last 30 of them spent right here in Buffalo. He’s manned the mic for the midday shift at WHTT since 1979 and, like Buffalo, it fits him like his favorite old pair of jeans.
“When I was a kid growing up in New York, I was weaned on Buffalo radio. I remember when they built the Thruway,” he recalls, “and when I saw the sign that said ‘Buffalo: 425 miles,’ I said to my father, ‘That’s like the end of the Earth.’ and he said ‘No, but you can see it from there.’ And where do I end up? Here in Buffalo, and it’s the greatest place I’ve ever lived.”
It turns out the city has grown rather fond of him, too, as has the record industry in which he’s played such a pivotal role. The gold records on his wall attest to that… many of them awarded for his part in “breaking” new songs and introducing up-and-coming artists to his listeners over the years.
And while he was “breaking” those records, he managed to break a few rules along the way, as well. Or at least bend them. Anyone who remembers his 10-year team-up with Robert Taylor at the old WPHD surely recalls listening to their gutsy tales from “the land of Fa” …and of course its king… and thinking “Man. These guys are just asking for trouble!”
“You know, the amazing thing is that we never, ever got one single complaint over those bits,” admits a probably relieved Moore. “I mean, we did some other things that kind of pushed the line, but we never crossed it.” At least not the way today’s “shock jocks” do, he adds. “It was always the ‘double entendre’ to be funny. Today, they go for the single and it’s not.”
So for Moore, it was always radio he wouldn’t mind his kids listening to. Which was a good thing, considering that he has five, plus four grandkids, all of whom he says help keep him clued in on the ever-changing music scene. But has it changed for the better?
All You Needed Was a
Keep in mind that those golden years from 1960 to 1980 were a far cry from the contemporary music environment. Back then, you had a whopping three TV channels to watch. Four if you sprang for the UHF converter and that silly little curved antenna. No cable. No PlayStation. No World Wide Web. In short, little if any competition enter-tainmentwise.
Still, Moore has an undeniably special place in his heart for what his current employer modestly calls (…drumroll, please…) “The Greatest Hits of All Time!” And besides, he cautions, you can’t deny that the business of music has changed, and changed the music with it. Having himself been a music producer in the ’60s for groups that recorded on labels like United Artists and Buddha, he speaks from personal experience.
“In those days, you could produce a demo record for 500 bucks. Today, it can cost tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the even bigger difference was that, back then, there were so many record companies that, if you were a band or a singer, you still had a shot at making it.”
Gone, it would seem, are the days when an Elvis Presley could walk in the door of Sun Records carrying his guitar and walk out having been discovered. And they’ve been replaced by…?
“Where are the new stars coming from? American Idol. My wife’s a big fan of that show. She bought Clay Aiken’s CD.” Yet as a testing ground for talent, Moore gives the show its due. “They start out with I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of contestants and whittle it down to 12 finalists,” philosophically adding, “but they all obviously had to have something to get that far. They deserve a shot as much as anybody.”
"I’m into all kinds of music,” he says, in that insightful way Dads have of seeing the big picture. “It keeps me young.” Of course, regardless of what style dominates the music world, he’s sure there’ll never be a shortage of “one-hit wonders,” who make a single big splash on the charts and then expire… along with their proverbial 15 minutes of fame.
Apparently no one told Harv about the 15-minute limit 40+ years ago. But then, even if they’d tried, he probably wouldn’t have heard them anyway. He’d have been too busy listening to the music.
One of the things that make the songs of the ’60s and ’70s so timeless is the stories they tell. They’re unforgettable… at least if Tom Shannon has anything to say about it.
As one of the most recognizable names and voices in Buffalo radio, he’s lived and loved this music for nearly 50 years, and proudly says that every bit of the experience is still a part of him. “Every song we played. Every note. Every nuance. I saved it all.”
That’s a lot to save and a long time to hang on to it, considering that he started quite literally at the dawn of one of the great eras of Buffalo radio. Not surprisingly, he remembers it to the exact date. July 4, 1958, the day management at the old WKBW Radio “cleared the slate,” wiping away its longtime block-schedule mixture of religious and ethnic programming to make the bold leap to a personality-driven, 24-hour Top 40 format.
Along for the wild ride from Day One was a young, homegrown talent named Tommy Shannon. In that magic moment, Shannon, previously a humble, part-time news reader, was elevated to the lofty position of radio DJ, in which capacity his name and face would soon become known to every Western New York teenager with the slightest hope of being hip.
“You really don’t think you can be a success in your home town,” he recalls. “You figure people a going to say things like ‘Yeah, I went to school with the guy. He’s a bum!’ But it turns out Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home.”
And the Tommy Shannon Show was where they tuned to hear it. But they didn’t just listen to this music. They immersed themselves and their lifestyle in it. Soaking it up until it became a part of them.
The same passion for the music that gave that first show its spark still energizes his familiar on-air presence a host of the latest Tom Shannon Show, heard weekday afternoons on WHTT. It’s understandable, then, that a guy with Shannon’s commitment to preserving the heart and soul of this music would become something of a generational treasure.
“I’ve always remembered not only the song’s lyrics but what went into making it.” It’s one of the reasons Founding Fathers like Shannon are inseparable from the music they play. Like that music, he and his on-air contemporaries spoke directly to a generation, giving radio an intimacy and relevance that made it irresistible.
In fact, the music’s “intimate” quality has frequently demonstrated itself in remarkably literal ways. Romantic ballad legend Johnny Mathis has commented that, if what so many fans have told him over the years is true, he shouldn’t have to worry too much about his future popularity… at least based on the apparently staggering number of babies that were conceived with his records playing in the background.
Although Shannon doesn’t say whether he was a big Mathis fan, he does have three children, ranging in age from 20 to 28. And when he is inevitably exposed to the music they listen to, he can’t help but wonder if their favorite songs will stand the test of time the way the music he’s built his life and career around has.
“I’ve heard it asked so many times: ‘Is this stuff going to last?’ Well, they said that about pop the same way they did about rock and roll. And it did. And it is. It’s still going strong.” And so is Tom Shannon.
If we’re lucky, some things don’t change.
© 2004 Doug Carpenter
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