Saturday, October 3, 2009

Harry Abraham: The Best of All Possible Worlds

Recently on my Facebook page, I mentioned a disc jockey out of Rochester, NY that had a profound influence over my interest in jazz. His name was Harry Abraham and he worked the graveyard shift (Midnight to 5 am) on WHAM, a clear channel powerhouse on 1180 AM. The show was called “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” and although I haven’t heard his voice in 31 years, I still remember his friendly, dulcet tones.

Listen to the intro to "The Best of All Possible Worlds."

ROUND MIDNIGHT

In the mid to late 70s, I was doing a quite a bit of overnight driving between Eastern Kentucky where I was attending college to my hometown in Western Pennsylvania. It was normally a six hour trip and became longer when the energy crisis forced the imposition of the 55 mph speed limit in the US.

Typically, I travelled Ohio State Route 7 along the Ohio River for a portion of this journey. One of the pleasantries of this route was the signal of WHAM that boomed down the Ohio River valley. During these trips, WHAM’s signal was clearer than other 50 KW stations that I frequented during that era such as Chicago's WLS & WCFL, New York's WABC, Ft. Wayne's WOWO, Pittsburgh's KDKA, Windsor/Detroit's CKLW, and Boston's WBZ.



THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME

Abraham was a mastermind at finding the best jazz – usually, he played recently issued progressive jazz and fusion selections interspersed with an occasional recording from the previous decade. Harry Abraham introduced me to the likes of Chick Corea, Jean Luc Ponty, George Benson, Wes Montgomery, Weather Report, Jan Hammer, Jimmy Smith, Gary Burton, Mose Allison, Brian Auger, Theolonius Monk, Pat Matheny, Mahavishnu John McLaughlin, George Duke, and countless others.

Prior to this period, I had never listened to jazz.   I really liked the music I heard on “The Best of All Possible Worlds” and I frequently pulled off the highway and jotted down notes from Harry’s playlist. Back on campus, I began hosting a weekly hour long jazz show on WKCC. Much of the music I played from 1975 to 1978 was inspired by what I heard on these late night jaunts. Not being as creative as Harry, I named my show the “Surrealistic Nocturnal Experiment.” Oh well, I was young then.

WHAT IS THERE TO SAY?

Not only was Harry's musical choice inspiring, he also provided a wealth of information. His voice echoed beyond the confines of midnight to five and the phenomenon of a medium wave signal bouncing off the ionosphere. Dissatisfied with the direction of Downbeat, Harry started a competing publication in 1973 named Different Drummer and served as its editor. His deep convictions concerning the quality of jazz that was being produced resulted in these opinions being verbalized. As he was secured to provide numerous album liner notes, he was brutally honest with at least one release.

On Ronnie Foster's "Sweet Revival," Abraham admits, "Let me begin by saying that this is not the greatest jazz album you've ever heard." He additionally assessed the recording by opining that it was "a commercial album that could have just as easily been titled 'Ronnie Foster Plays the Top 40 hits of the Seventies With Horns, Strings and Voices.'"

Reacting to the ever present commercialization of the jazz industry, he kept the musical integrity of his show. Not even a decade old friendship could sway him otherwise. When Maynard Ferguson visited WHAM's studios on May 12, 1977, he was hoping that his old friend would play some tunes from the soundtrack to "Rocky."

When Harry refused, Ferguson began to hurl insults: "You've got terrible taste most of the time, Harry . . . In fact, you're one of the worst disc jockeys I've ever met in my life." Ferguson finished his tirade by calling Harry something obscene to which he followed by exiting the studio — all captured live. After several moments of dead air, Harry composed himself and replied, "Well, I guess I've been told."

Attempting to clear his reputation, Abraham filed a defamation of character lawsuit against Ferguson that was eventually thrown out of court. While there is an urban legend that the episode cost Harry his job at WHAM, his eventual dismissal had nothing to do with his conduct and convictions and everything to do with ratings and revenues.

SONNY SIDE UP

During my final undergrad year at Kentucky Christian, I was also worked the breakfast shift at McDonalds in South Point, Ohio. Being that the store was located an hour away, I needed to rise by 4 am to get ready for work. At the time, I awakened every morning to the final hour of Harry’s show as I readied myself for hawking Egg McMuffins, pancakes, and hash browns.

I awoke one morning in 1978 to the strains of an uncharacteristic country record. To my dismay, I learned that WHAM had switched formats. Gone was the jazz in the middle of the night that I had grown to love. While Waylon Jennings and Freddy Fender could be heard on numerous stations in the Tri-State area where I lived — jazz was not an option. WHAM’s programming alteration became “The Worst of All Possible Worlds.” As part of the fallout, Harry Abraham was out of work – a frequent occurrence in the broadcasting industry that accompanies format changes. Unfortunately, it proved to be Harry’s last radio gig.

SOMETHIN’ ELSE

Abraham tried a variety of careers, but none were successful. He was the general manager the defunct Rochester Lancers soccer franchise, sold insurance, worked as a clerk in a news store, sold advertising specialties to broadcast stations, and co-owned a submarine sandwich shop. Although his friends and family indicated there was no appearance of financial problems, Harry apparently believed there was reason to worry. He began to contemplate solutions for his financial condition. A conversation about a recent drug store robbery in Rochester sparked Abraham with the possibility of robbing a bank.

IDLE MOMENTS

On October 12, 1982, he drove to Syracuse where he could not be easily identified and entered the first bank he saw – the main branch of the Syracuse Savings Bank. Handing a note demanding money to a teller, Abraham indicated that he was accompanied by a friend armed with grenades. As he exited the bank with $2,400, the teller followed and recorded Abraham’s license plate number and vehicle description.

Within an hour, New York State Troopers arrested Abraham at a New York Thruway service area. He had no accomplice and no weapon, but was apprehended with the money from the robbery. During the time between his arrest and sentencing, his wife Lynne began divorce proceedings and ended their marriage. Although he made some interesting comments upon his arrest, he never denied the fact that he was guilty. Due to a plea bargain arrangement, his sentence was commuted from 15 years to four and one-half years to be served at the Auburn (NY) Correctional Facility.

SPIRITUAL UNITY

Prison provided Abraham the opportunity to reflect upon his life and he turned to spiritual matters. He embraced Judaism, the religion of his forebears. Apparently he was not reared in a religious environment, as he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah on September 28, 1984 at the age of 39 – three times the age when this rite of passage into manhood normally occurs.

TIME OUT

Following the payment of his debt to society, Harry settled in Philadelphia where he worked in a variety of professions and eventually honed his skill as a professional photographer. His talent is evident and it appears that he finally landed on a profession where he could explore his creative voice as much as he did at WHAM.

POINT OF DEPARTURE

Born on March 12, 1945, Harold Norman Abraham breathed his last on May 7, 2009. He was survived by a fiancé and two children. According to his wishes, his remains were cremated. Hopefully, Harry will be remembered for more than that one unfortunate, desperate act in Syracuse. In the jazz universe, Harry Abraham’s name should be among the brightest of stars. Long live the influence of Harry Abraham; “we have entered the era of silent radio.”

“Old broadcasters never die, they’re just potted down,” Jim Owston, August 1983.

15 comments:

  1. Thanks so much for this piece on Harry Abraham. I live in Rochester and back in the 70's I too read the "Different Drummer" and listened to "The Best of All Possible Worlds" as much as I could manage while working around the inconvenience of gainful employment. I've inquired among local radio people who knew him (there aren't many left), but no one seems to have heard from him for many years.

    It's good to know that someone else appreciated him and missed him as much as I did.

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  2. I appreciate your comments Marian. Harry influenced my taste in music that continues to this day.

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  3. I was watching a film - the music reminded me of Harry. I did an on-line search and much to my sad dismay discovered he's "shuffled (or more aptly, bebopped) off this mortal coil."

    I met Harry in the winter of 1969, newly separated, a night owl, I listened to "The Best of All Possible Worlds" and on occasion would call in a request. Harry was originally from Long (very hard G) elided to Island, I from Jersey, close enough for a sense of kinship. We 'sort of' dated for a while, more like friends, he gave me my first copy of Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land" as well as Donleavy's "The Ginger Man." I still have the Gerald Wilson "California Soul' LP he gave me. In addition to just being an utterly fascinating man to talk with, he was a good man.

    Thank you for the wonderful summary of his work and life. It took my breath away to read that he'd actually attempted a bank robbery, but then he had a slightly oblique approach to life and problem solving.

    We went to the race track in Toronto one sunny summer day, Harry drove a red two seater sports car (don't remember the make) coming back (keep in mind this was 1970, lots of dope coming in from Canada, and Harry's fro was hardly a conventional look) into the US we pulled up at the border, the border guard took in Harry's appearance, sort of puffed up preparing to challenge us, asked, "What was the purpose of your visit to Canada?"

    Without missing a beat, Harry replied, "Solving the balance of payments problem."

    The border guard looked confused and started to ask what the hell that meant, Harry said we'd been to the track where he'd won a good deal of currency and was bringing it back home to the states. The border guard laughed and sent us on our way. Evidently race-track gamblers didn't fit the profile for potheads.

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  4. Thanks for the personal memories of Harry. He was an inspiration to many of us (musical - not felonious). I appreciate your comments. I really had fun researching and writing this entry. It remains my favorite.

    Jim

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  5. Harry was such a great DJ and I loved his choice of music. I first heard him in 1971 or so, and living in NH, the signals from WHAM were decent most every night.The only station on AM that is sometimes tolerable is Zoomer Radio up in Toronto on 740. May Harry be in a better place now.

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  6. I grew up in the Hudson Valley and Harry was part of my early Jazz education in 1976-77along with Uncle Ed Beach on WRVR in NYC. Like the writer of this blog I used to listen to the show late at night while driving home from work in my VW Bug and also rigged an external AM antenna on my stereo so I could receive the show in Suffern, NY at night on my receiver.
    I have reflected on and spoken kindly about his shows throughout the years. RIP Harry.

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  7. WA1UFO & Stierman1 thanks for your comments on one of the best and original jazz radio announcers.

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  8. In 1970, I was stationed in Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Maryland, after a tour in Vietnam... My radio station choices, sadly, were severely limited, both in content and duration... But every so often when either the moon, stars, or what have you, aligned themselves just right, I could prop my radio atop several folded blankets stacked carefully on the edge of my footlocker, and just make out the faint sounds of a show called The Best of All Possible Worlds... And this voice, this very distinctive voice, would educate, inspire and entertain, in between some of the most diverse and unique sounds, I'd ever heard... Because of the reception, it took some time before I knew it belonged to Harry Abraham, from Rochester, NY... I live in Phila, Pa, where the likes of Butterball, Jimmy Bishop and Georgie Woods, are legend... But all of them together then, nor any I've heard since, hold a candle to Sir Harry... He never knew me, or I him, but because of those few precious late night moments, I came to think of him as more than just a DJ, I thought of him as my friend... I will miss my friend...

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  9. When Harry was working at WHAM, I was a few feet away on WHFM-99. The station was semi-automated (I had to plug in some back sells, weather, etc), so Harry and I would share a Chess board while he was playing album sides. He was a very kind and funny guy. I know he came across as the mellow jazz announcer (which he was). But he also had a great sense of humor and was a good person. Hopefully, he'll be remembered for his great jazz knowledge and not one unfortunate incident that happened. I believe Harry can rest in peace. He did more good than bad.

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  10. Thank you for writing such a great piece on one of the giants of Jazz radio. We had Harry on a number of times on our station WGMC JAZZ 90.1 and almost had him back on the air for a weekly show before his final illness took him. It was going to be called "The Sins of Old Age"
    Serenity,
    Derrick Lucas
    WGMC JAZZ 90.1
    .

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    1. Glad you liked it Derek. That would have been great to have had him back on the air. Wish I could have gotten to know him personally.

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  11. The Mug was one dimensional. He never played Pops, Bunk, Teagarden, Tatum, Waller....on the promo copies that came in to the station. Pretty useless Dildo. He's in a better place now. Maybe he and Maynard Ferguson can duke it out. Harry was a sissy who pontificated on a subject about which he virtually knew NOTHING.

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  12. As I am watching a TV bio of Gil Scott Heron I am thinking of WHAM radio at night and Abraham playing his tracks.

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  13. Just another promo copy that arrived at the station. All he did was read liner notes and make like he knew the artists personally. What a phony he was. Total fake.
    He was so stupid he couldn't even get away with robbing a banK. He got on the NY State Thruway with the money in the front seat. At least he could have taken a State road instead of the Thruway. What a complete Dunce. I bet the "boys at Attica" had a complete field day with him..or should I say "ON HIM"!!

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  14. During the early '70s while Harry was doing BOAPW on WHAM, I was working at a competing station in the Rochester market. When I finished my gig at 1am I would often wander down the street to spend an hour or two with my friend, Harry. RIP, my brother

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