Blasts from the Past Baltimore's last radio station devoted to obscure oldies will switch to a religious format July 1


"Oh-oh-oh baby, don't try to get away from me, (repeat)

"I'm yours pretty baby, and I guess I'll always be...

G; Oh-oh-oh baby, I have got to make love to you, (repeat)

If you leave me baby, all I got's eternity...

, "Oh Baby," The Jesters, 1958

The tiny door of the priest's confessional slid open slowly, not unlike the sound of a rising guillotine over the condemned.

His shadowy figure hunched toward the confessor, prepared to hear the teen-ager's worst transgressions against society, the Roman Catholic church and the fine citizens of Belair Road.

"Bless me father, for I have sinned; it has been three weeks since my last confession," I whispered with a gulp. "Father, I had impure thoughts and did impure acts."

"But," I added quickly, "The Five Satins made me do it."

Later, the blame would shift from the singers of "In the Still of the Night" to the Jive Five, Danleers and Chantels. They were, after all, the groups who provided the temptation to invite young ladies to slow dance at Baltimore teen centers and basement parties in the mid-1950s and early '60s.

But the velvet harmony of the groups wasn't confined to my little world -- it was sweeping the country as a major segment of rock 'n' roll.

Elvis swiveled. Brenda Lee crooned. But for us, and to the great alarm of our parents, it was doo wop. Buddy Deane brought the music alive on local television but the radio offered such a succulent buffet of sound ranging from rockabilly and soul to pop and the harmony groups.

After July 1, Baltimore will no longer regularly enjoy the musical nuggets that used four- and five-part harmony to capture the innocence and beauty of an era.

WITH-AM, the only radio station in Baltimore that plays doo-wop, a cappella, rockabilly and other distinctive sounds full time from the golden age of rock 'n' roll, has been sold to California-based Salem Communications Corp. The station, which now plays oldies full time, will convert to a religious format.

Doo-wop has a rich heritage influenced by the blues nerve centers in Mississippi, Memphis and New Orleans; churches of the Deep South, and the street corners of the nation's cities like New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Chicago. Some music historians say it evolved from the vocal stylings of the Mills Brothers and the Ink Spots, popular groups of the 1940s. Back in the 1950s, many white fans were unaware of the music's roots.

My first 45 rpm record was "I'm Walkin' " by Fats Domino, purchased on Monument Street. My first album was Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions, eventually lost at a red-light-in-the-basement party.

But that was not the style of the times.

"Many black groups did not put their pictures on their album covers for fear it would turn off the white buyers," said Jonathan Compton, who for 35 years was Sir Johnny O on Baltimore radio.

"In those days, there were better writers, full orchestration, musical groups backing people like James Brown and Otis Redding," Compton said. "I certainly hope someone finds it in their heart, and pocketbook, to buy a local station and keep the music going."

Doo-wop and rhythm and blues. It became the basic foundation of most recorded American music. Today's head-banging sound unappealing to my ear. Contemporary black tunes still carry the hard, throbbing beats or shadows of recycled '60s and '70s hits.

But romance has been replaced by explicit lyrics in rap music. Boyz II Men in contemporary R & B and the Oak Ridge Boys in country and western are two of the rare groups that still rely on harmony and gentle lyrics.

When WITH changes its format, the last jive-talking black disc jockey, Moon Man, will leave the air -- the last in a cavalcade of musical radio pioneers, led by Baltimore's high priest, Paul "Fat Daddy" Johnson who died in 1978.

In real life, Moon Man is Willie Bacote, a veteran of 30 years as a disc jockey in Washington and Baltimore, who works the night shift at WITH and at another talk radio station during the day.

"Hey, baby cakes," Moon Man cooed on the airwaves one recent night on WITH, "lemme put some soul in your bowl. Hey mommy-o and daddy-o, let me hit you with the Marcels, baby. Here they come!"

On another evening, he offered one of his regular listeners a little healing: "Hey Barbara, I hear you're out there, baby, and you ain't feelin' good. Now Moon Man don't give no pills. All you have to do is put your hand on the radio, and you'll get the Moon Man's cure. Barbara, Barbara!"

Off the air, a more reserved Bacote said, "Doo-wop is real music, singing that really didn't need much instrumentation. The songs also told stories, ones we could relate to. Today, music is watched more than listened to.

"Music from the early days of rock 'n' roll brought blacks and whites together. I have found all sorts of people enjoying my show on WITH, low- to high-income people. Perhaps another station will pick up the slack because there is a market for it in Baltimore."

Bob Mathers, former sales manager at WITH who started the station's format a year ago, said the era's music captured a time when "values were more defined and innocent, music a lot more positive.

"You can listen to a favorite song, and it reminds you of someone you loved, or wanted to," Mathers said. "The touch of a girl's hand would send electricity up your spine."

Frances Quickley, a teen-ager who "worshiped" Fat Daddy Johnson in the early '60s and worked for him in his studio after school, said, "It's truly sad to see WITH go," adding:

"Doo wop had such a vitality and energy to it, and Fat Daddy plugged into that. When he played the music, did his commercials, he went into his own zone. He would be floating in that studio -- out there. Groups like the Volumes would come on, and he'd go crazy."

When Johnson, all 270 pounds of him, would host shows at the Royal Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue, he would walk onto the stage wearing a gold lame cape with white fake-fur trim, a crown and carrying a scepter. His audience would include some white faces, energized by power you couldn't find at Peach Bottom's nuclear plant.

"He did what the music did -- got blacks and whites together," said Quickley. "Major Lance, The Crests, we're losing the history that even today's music is based on. You just don't hear that on other stations anymore."

Remaining is WQSR-FM, which bills itself as Baltimore's top-rated oldies station. Their early morning team of Rouse and Co. entertains us with jokes and sultry presentations of the weather, but the station's music is sanitized to target focus groups.

"WITH was no factor in the Arbitron ratings," said Steve Rouse, the WQSR personality. "Sentiment takes a back seat in business because you're in business to make money."

Alan Lee, a true purist who hosts WQSR's popular Sunday night show, who is known around town as a DJ with a deep knowledge of the musical past.

"It's a sad fact of life but research shows stations attract mass audiences by playing mass market music," said Lee, a native of Philadelphia, "It's the Righteous Brothers with 'Unchained Melody' and the Tokens with 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' three times a day."

Adds Kenny Schreiber, who DJ's "Echos of the Past" at Towson University's station: "WQSR is obnoxious. They have a limited play list reflecting their marketing research. Everybody knows Michael Jackson but who knows Frankie Lymon?"

Other stations at Morgan State University, Harford Community College and a show beamed out of a Kent County high school offer doo wop shows, but that's it. But each is only several hours in length, once a week.

What is considered the golden age of rock 'n' roll -- 1955 through 1964 -- was "killed by the Beatles," said Jack Edwards, a WITH disc jockey who has been in Baltimore radio for 41 years.

I agree. The Fab Four freely admitted that they were heavily influenced by early rock 'n' roll, but they caused a massive market shift away from the original American tunes. Motown would reclaim some of those losses.

"White stations were forced to play black music because it was so strong," Edwards said. "Patti Page and Perry Como were dead, and America's teen-agers were looking for a new beat. Much to the chagrin of their nervous parents, Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were turning up in homes all across America."

But the finer ears of the nation's young were cocked to the lyrical simplicity and melodic repetitiveness of the doo-wop sound, like Pookie Hudson and the Spaniels and Skyliners. Most doo-wop groups had no formal musical training, could not read music and came and went in a year.

They developed their style by singing it in high school bathrooms (great acoustics), on street corners and in church basements, where the Five Satins recorded their classic "In The Still of the Night."

In the cities, singing groups would travel from neighborhood to neighborhood and engage in "singing rumbles" -- contests of harmonic voice instead of semiautomatic weapons.

Baltimore was no different as groups like Sonny Til and the ZTC Orioles, the Cardinals and Swallows sang and recorded from the late 1940s and through the '80s. Jointly, they recorded 125 records -- the Orioles' recording "Too Soon to Know" considered a model of the age.

"They were our heroes," remembered Eddie Lee Warren, 68, lead singer of the Cardinals, an East Baltimore group that had 16 records on the Atlantic label.

At the time Warren and the other three members of the group were recording for Atlantic, they were meeting others who would become giants -- Ruth Brown, Clyde McPhatter, LaVern Baker, Joe Turner, the Drifters and a young arranger named Quincy Jones.

"As kids, we went around to other neighborhoods and sang on street corners, East Side vs. the West Side," remembered Donald "Jack" Johnson, 64, the group's baritone. The two other members of the group, Leon Hardy and Meredith Brothers, died several years ago.

"Nobody at the time wanted to say it, but the Ink Spots and Mills Brothers, who were great talents, were more acceptable to white audiences and sold lots of records," Warren said. "When we started putting a guitar and some boom-boom rhythm in our songs, it scared people."

While the Cardinals worked the black theater circuit -- the Apollo in New York, Royal in Baltimore, Howard in Washington, Chicago's Regal and Earle in Philadelphia -- they never made enough money to make a living. Jackson worked in a local shipyard dry dock; Warren was a longshoreman.

"Today's kids can have their rap and head-banging music," Warren said. "Everything changes.

"But I'll accept my place in musical history even though I didn't make a million dollars," he said. "When we did that doo-wop sound, we were original, like the first people going out west. Harmony was a beautiful thing in singing voices and on the streets outside."

After July 1, even fewer people will understand and appreciate the significance of that contribution.

Joe Nawrozki, a reporter for The Sun, entertained dreams of singing lead for The Temptations as a teen-ager. These days, he can be heard in the shower or in his car.

Pub Date: 6/15/97

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