Vinyl, Frankie Crocker and NYC Back in the Day
Memories of the Old Days
I sold most of my record collection a few years ago when I hit one of the cash flow droughts endemic to the freelance life. This was before vinyl became cool again and high quality re-issues and inexpensive turntables were being sold as home accessories at Urban Outfitters. Digital downloading had destroyed the music business I’d grown up obsessed about. In the back room of my Brooklyn apartment were scores of milk crates filled with records that, in some cases, dated back to the early ‘60s. Some of the 45s were inscribed with the signature “Property of Arizona George.” My mother had been a true soul music fan back in the ‘60s when, as a super cute single mom, she’d regularly attend shows at the Breevoort Theater (Brooklyn’s Apollo) and she purchased a constant stream of Motown, Atlantic and Stax singles. Over time I’d “liberated” most of the good ones, mixing them in with the records I’d acquired as a music journalist in the 1980s.
I was awaiting a record collector I’d contacted on line. He was eager to peruse the collection of “Nelson George,” which to him was a music brand that gave my dusties a bit more cache . As I was waiting I picked up a few records: Shalamar’s ‘Greatest Hits’ which reminded me of judging a rigged competition to replace Jody Watley and Jeffrey Daniels in Shalamar; B.B. King ‘Live at the Regal’ brought me back to seeing him at Radio City Music Hall; a 45rpm single of “Pop Life” by Prince & the Revolution with a great picture sleeve. I even found a test pressing of a Billy Joel single which I had no idea how I’d acquired (though ‘The Stranger’ had been a defining album of my college years.)
The collector was white, middle aged, and stocky in khaki shorts, a black Stax t-shirt, dingy running shoes and the stubble from a sleepless night. He worked at a record shop in deepest unhip Brooklyn. He was anxious, judgmental and exacting as he voiced his disappointment in my haphazard organization of the records and the fact that most of the sleeves and vinyl were not in the pristine order of the true vinyl junkie.
Yes, I loved music, but I had never kept them in plastic, wrote down the order numbers or organized them by genre or label. I mean if I wanted to listen to Earth, Wind & Fire’s ‘Gratitude’ or Miles Davis’ ‘Sketches of Spain’ I had a general idea of where it was. But, by the standards of this vinyl geek, I was a slacker. Truth be told most of this vinyl had been collecting dust at least since the CD explosion of the 1990s and had been truly out of sight and mind after Napster’s shocking, game shifting arrival at the turn of the century.
Still the vinyl connoisseur, despite my deplorable “system,” took a healthy hunk of my funk, R&B, jazz and blues. After a couple of trips to his car and handing me several hundred dollars, the collector escaped back into a more orderly world of vinyl worship leaving me to ponder what was left.
I’d set aside three milk crates of vinyl, each filled with recordings that I’d held onto because their sentimental and/or historical value: 12 inch singles, 45rpm singles, albums, cassettes and a gang of orphaned and unsexy CDs, a format with all the nostalgic appeal of well worn underwear. In file cabinets next to the milk crates were tons of yellowing clips and vintage interviews, scattered photographs, ripped in half ticket stubs and invitations to parties dating back to the early ‘80s.
There were a lot of untold stories in this room, stories that parallel the journey of black music in America over the last few decades. While I have written several music histories over the years there were so many personal moments between myself and artists that hadn’t fit into those previous books, but were just as telling as anything I’d written before. I remembered how innocent the origins of hip-hop were, how sad the decline of R&B felt and the curious twists and turns of funk’s history.
Stuffed in a milk crate along with a stack of singles were several yellow folders that I hadn’t opened in years. Inside one of them was a copy of Record World magazine, a long defunct trade publication where I had my first 9 to 5 writing gig. Inside that issue was a tribute to WBLS DJ and program director, Frankie Crocker: aka Hollywood, aka the Chief Rocker, aka Fast Freddie, aka the Love Man.
Decades before rappers ruled on vinyl and R&B radio was confined to the internet , black radio disk jockeys were at the cutting edge of our musical culture. In the ‘70s, Crocker’s daily drive-time broadcast was the number one radio show in New York. WBLS was the first black owned station to be number one in the nation’s biggest market.
When Crocker signed off his theme song was James Moody’s “Moody’s Mode for Love.” Though Crocker programed everything from Barry White’s “Love’s Theme” to Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” this 195_ jazz chestnut became identified with the DJ, projecting a kind of classic cool in the mist of the city’s chaotic ‘70s. The lyrics begin, “There I go, there I go, there I go again,” and flows into a reverie for a great love.
Finding this package of interviews, articles, and photos from Frankie Crocker’s New York radio reign brought me back to that crazy, exciting time when New York was told to “Drop Dead” and did not.
In the New York of my youth I knew very few “white people.” I knew lots of Jews and Italians, and the occasional Irish kid. All were very specific ethnic folk, who looked and sounded very different from the mainstream Americans who populated network TV’s three channels.
In the New York of my youth, a time often referred to as “the bad old days” by bloggers and new residents, r racial tension was a compelling narrative, but class was a powerful through-line.
In the New York of my youth my first white friend was named Bruce Gelman. We bonded, as so many New Yorkers did, over the Knickerbockers of the early ‘70s. Walt ‘Clyde’ Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, Willis Reed, Bill Bradley and Dick Barnet were a multi-racial unit that epitomized the eternal verities of basketball: passing, player movement, team defense. In that less technologically advanced era Knicks home games were blacked out in New York, so much of our connection to that squad came via the city’s three newspapers and the golden voice of the play-by-play announcer (and Brooklyn native), Marv Albert.
In the New York of my youth Bruce and I used #2 pencils as microphones as we wound our way up and down Meyer Levin Junior High School’s stairs and hallways doing imaginary Knicks’ broadcasts. “Frazier brings it up the left sideline. Passes cross court to DeBusschere, hands off to Bradley who passes to Barnett. Barnett drives to the right baseline, passes out to Reed at the top if the key. He stops. He pops. Yes! Knicks up by ten and Philadelphia calls a time out.” There was a wonderful nasal rhythm to Allen’s call that dechoed the city’s melting pop .
Just as the Knicks’ championships of 1970 and 1973 united a splintering city, the sound of Albert’s voice – urgent, sardonic, colloquial, distinctive – brought us together as well. In Marv’s voice were multitudes of smart-ass, funny, knowledgeable people who could have been Puerto Rican or Jewish or black or some combustible combination of them all. It was the sharp-edged voice of the city at mid-century, a timbre that I’d hear a decade a later in the voices of many young MCs.
In the New York of my youth you didn’t have to be a VIP to get a seat in a club. There was no bottle service aimed at Wall Street brokers, Euro-trash travelers or entitled rap moguls. You got into a club, you bought a drink and you could commandeer a table or a booth. The real challenge was actually getting inside and it wasn’t always about money. Did you look interesting? Did you have style? Did the lady with the clipboard think you were cool? At the bougie black clubs like Leviticus and Bentley’s, jackets, dress shoes, and Harvey’s Bristol Cream got you inside. These crowds were as aspirational as the Ashford & Simpson and Kashif records they danced to. These shiny happy black people wanted to appear white collar even if they were bus drivers by day. If you wore sneakers or seemed “ghetto” you didn’t get into Leviticus or Bentley’s. Otherwise you sucked your teeth, cursed at the bouncer and danced somewhere else.
In the New York of my youth the musical link between the posh discos and the city’s schoolyard jocks was a track called “Love Is the Message” by MFSB. Though the musicians and producers/writers were from down I-95 in Philadelphia, “Love is the Message” was a long multi-faceted record that connected the divergent aspects of the city’s musical culture. I heard the record at block parties in East New York. I heard it at midtown clubs were I drank Rolling Rock beer. Frankie ‘Hollywood’ Crocker made it part of the sonic fabric of WBLS. The track was labeled disco. The breaks were hip-hop building blocks. But before either of those phrases entered the popular lexicon, “Love is the Message” was a universal jam, soon to become a classic.
In the New York of my youth the music of the city poured out of handheld devices with long antennae called transistor radios, of component sets positioned near tenement windows and record store sidewalk speakers designed to woo passersby with the latest jam. Radio stations were sonic temples where you displayed your devotion by turning your dial. The playlists of programmers filled the air, like morning prayers for Allah. Radio DJs were not just heroes, but links between ordinary life and the rarified world of music. Like hearing Hector Lavoe sing “El Cantante” through my Puerto Rican neighbor’s wall, the voices of the disk jockeys penetrated your consciousness.
In the New York of my youth you lived in constant wariness. Awareness was essential and paranoia proper etiquette. Junkies lurked in project staircases after breaking public housing elevators. Wolf packs of teens burst into subway cars, grabbing necklaces and wallets, while pummeling anyone who fought back. Before uzis weighed a ton, revolvers called Saturday Night Specials were as popular as Italian ices, spitting bullets across all five boroughs. The police were uncertain support, often indifferent and sometimes corrupt, when they weren’t “cooping” (sitting in patrol cars having Chinese food on side streets).
In the New York of my youth sex was available, easy and often tawdry. In the decades before AIDs and herpes, the city had a hedonistic edge which it has never quite recovered. Times Square, with its peep shows, massage parlors and garish neon signage, was the epicenter of sin, but far from the city’s sole site of licentiousness. The hippie spirit of free love, plus the proliferation of female contraceptives (the diagram, IUD, the pill) liberated women and emboldened men. My first one-night stand happened at a Chelsea club called Le Mouche. I was skinny and 21. She was big hipped and 32. We had non-condom sex on a silver bean bag aided by a sperm-killing foam and the anxious enthusiasm of suddenly intimate strangers.
In the New York of my youth the smell of marijuana (aka pot aka herb aka smoke aka ganja aka weed aka grass aka Mary Jane aka reefer aka Buddha aka cheeba aka sess) wafted through the last cars of subways, balconies of movie theaters, high school staircases and public parks. Using thin Bamboo brand wrapping paper from the local bodega and carefully applied spit, a trey bag became a magic carpet ride (if you’d properly separated out the seeds on an LP cover.) I received my first blessing in a Brownsville public housing staircase with more experienced friends. After an embarrassing coughing fit, plus lots of tears, I went home and spent hours gazing at the family Christmas tree.
In the New York of my youth bureaucratic lassitude, slum lord real estate owners, and the red-lining policies of the banks forced people to squat in abandoned buildings. These urban pioneers brought life to desolate areas and opened spaces where all manner of artists – some who’d become legendary – could make a home.
In the New York of my youth libraries were sacred places where the accumulated wisdom of the ages was stacked from floor to ceiling. To venture into the 42nd Street library on Fifth Avenue or Brooklyn’s main branch at Grand Army Plaza was, for this aspiring writer, a intense, almost sensual experience. I dreamed that stacks would fall atop me and, by osmosis, all that collected information would flow deep inside me. In keeping with the larcenous tenor of my hometown I felt notorious because I failed to return so many overdue library books. I hope I’ve repaid the NYPL system back by filling them with books ripe for 21st century thieves.
In the New York of my youth I ran into other city kids, children of working class families, who ran the city’s streets, finding in the administrative chaos and aggressive culture clashes, the inspiration for a loud, cantankerous, confrontational, vulgar, beautiful, transgressive, unexpected, unwanted, funny, sexual and undeniable culture that impacted painting, poetry, performance, cinema, dance, language and music, one where new genres seemed to pop out of the asphalt.
The New York of my youth is gone. It’s history, just like the New York of Jay Gatsby and Duke Ellington, not to mention Holden Caulfield, Thelonious Monk, Leonard Bernstein, Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Jim Jarmusch, Patti Smith, Edwidge Danticat and Christopher Wallace. It’s been remade, re-zoned and re-imagined. It’s been given over to real estate developers, condo creators, hip hotel makers, bottle service purveyors, Silicon Alley hustlers and other beneficiaries of Bloomberg’s three indulgent mayoral termse.
The New York of my youth is long gone, but I still glimpse it when I hear the records that Frankie Crocker played.