Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ronnie Cook: Goo Goo Muck

As a kid, I was a radio junkie. It didn’t matter the format, I listened to most anything that was on the AM, FM, and Shortwave bands. At night, I DXed distant stations from New York, Chicago, Detroit, Fort Wayne, and places in-between. The term DX came from telegraphic shorthand for "distant" and "distance."

I kept up this hobby on an infrequent basis though 1980 and logged medium wave (AM) stations from across the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Cuba, and the Netherlands Antilles. Shortwave listening brought in broadcasts from across the globe. I found many of these on the crowded 31 meter shortwave band. My SW and AM listening distance listening increased exponentially when I moved the old AM/LW/SW radio from the garage into the basement.

The garage was extremely cold in the winter, but winter proved to be the best time to take in long distance stations, as the nights were longer and the cooled ionosphere increased the ability to hear bounced AM stations from far away places. The benefits of the basement were not only heat related; being proactive, my father had run a connection from our television antenna on the roof to basement when he installed it in the late 1950s. It was probably the only time this connection was ever used.

The radio in question was given to me by my future step-father about two months before marrying my mother. Built in 1940 and named the Presidential Model in honor of the election that year, it had one long wave band, two short wave bands, and the medium wave or AM band. The Music Trade Review for July 1940 describes it as follows:
The ten-tube Presidential, Model 110K, embodies full 12-inch, high efficiency, dynamic loudspeaker, magnetic core I-F transformers, shielded power transformer, rubber mounted chassis, push-pull audio system, six station electric tuning, air trimmer condensers, four point tone control, stage of radio frequency amplification, Victrola and television plug-in connections, built-in loop antenna for domestic broadcast reception and special built-in short wave antenna.
See a picture of this radio.

Although my step-father had also lent me his FM radio during the same period, my daytime listening primarily consisted of local AM stations, as most of the Pittsburgh FMs in 1966 were playing “beautiful music,” classical programming, or simulcasting their AM counterparts. I just realized that my eldest daughter's extensive computer experience is very similar to how I took to radio. I had no idea that all of this radio listening was preparing me for a 20-year interesting career in radio, six additional years of producing commercials and radio and television programs for my current employer, and my position as a board member of the Friends of West Virginia Public Broadcasting since 2004.

During most of this preparatory period, I listened to every AM station in the district from one end of the dial with Canonsburg’s 250 watt WARO at 540 (the lowest position on the US AM band) to Carnegie’s WZUM at the other end of the dial at 1590 (then the next to the last frequency on the AM Band).

WARO’s lower frequency allowed its signal to be carried far beyond what one would expect of a 250 watt station. In the 1970s, I remember taking this station’s signal from Pittsburgh to beyond Clarksburg, WV – about 100 miles with very little static.

During the late 70s, I was working for Mortenson Broadcasting’s WEMM in Huntington, WV. In 1978, Mortenson was negotiating a purchase of WARO – which I hoped would come to fruition as I had expressed interest in transferring to WARO if the deal was consummated. It never was because the sale was contingent upon Mortenson continuing the ethnic programming (in Pittsburgh this is Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian, and etc.) that was popular in the region. Mortenson has a chain of religious stations and continues to be very successful in this endeavor. When the deal fell through, the company purchased another AM in the Baltimore market.

Sandwiched in between, WARO and WZUM were dozens of stations that I would listen to on occasion. These included the following:
  • Uniontown’s WMBS at 590 AM
  • Greensburg’s WHBJ at 620 AM
  • Pittsburgh’s WPIT at 730 (I believe they ran easy listening during this period).
  • McKeesport’s WEDO (810) and whose tower is located in North Versailles (the only station I could pick up with a crystal radio that I had).
  • Pittsburgh’s R & B WAMO at 860 AM.
  • Pittsburgh’s WWSW at 970 AM.
  • Pittsburgh’s KDKA at 1020 – the first licensed commercial radio station in the US.
  • Pittsburgh’s WEEP at 1080 – the only country station in the area at the time.
  • Pittsburgh’s WTAE at 1250 – adult contemporary.
  • Pittsburgh’s WJAS (and later known as WKTQ – 13Q in the 70s) – adult contemporary and talk in the 60s.
  • McKeesport’s WMCK (and later WIXZ) at 1360 AM.
  • Pittsburgh’s Top-40 KQV at 1410.
  • Braddock’s easy listening WLOA at 1510.
  • Monroeville’s WPSL at 1550.
Of these stations, I primarily listened to KQV and WMCK/WIXZ. To a lesser extent, I also tuned into WTAE, WEDO, KDKA, WWSW, and WJAS on a semi-frequent basis. There were other suburban stations on the dial that I logged; however, I never listened to any of these on a regular basis.

There was no shortage of great radio talent either. Probably the best known air personality of the region was Porky Chedwick, the “Platter Pushing Papa,” who in his heyday gigged on WAMO 860. Over on the Top-40 giant KQV (1410), Chuck Brinkman was one of their better known jocks. Even in the suburbs, the airwaves were blessed to have some of the best talent around. In my home area of McKeesport, Terry Lee hosted shows called “The TL Sound” and “Music for Young Lovers” on WMCK, later renamed as WIXZ. At the dial’s end, Carnegie’s WZUM had one of the legends of AM radio Michael Metrovich – better known as Mad Mike Metro.

WZUM, because its higher frequency and 1,000 watts of power, was a daytimer that’s signal was at time difficult to receive in much of the region. The station also had a connection with the Pittsburgh based National Record Mart chain. For years, NRM's blue bags used in the Pittsburgh market had ads for “WZUM Sweet 16 on the AM Dial.” I wish I had one of these today, as I spent a lot of cash at NRMs all over Pittsburgh, but primarily at the now defunct Eastland Shopping Center in North Versailles.

The connection between Mad Mike and National Record Mart was further secured with the release of numerous albums pressed for the NRM label under the banner of Mad Mike’s Moldies. Mad Mike was among a number of record hop DJs that would go through the cutout bins of National Record Mart and the local 5 and dime record departments to find unusual songs to add to their shows. Some of these translated to local radio hits, and at least in two occasions, Pittsburgh radio influenced national releases of singles.

The first of these was the Shondells’ “Hanky Panky,” which was found by local DJ Bob Livorio and quickly picked up by Mad Mike Metro. The record had generated some regional interest in the Midwest when it was released in 1963, but never garnered any national attention. When Clark Race began playing it on 50,000 watt KDKA, National Record Mart and other retailers were flooded for requests for the single.

With the 45 long out of print and the Shondells disbanded, a local entrepreneur taped the song off the air and pressed a bootlegged version of the tune which sold approximately 80 thousand copies. Eventually, Roulette Records purchased the rights to the recording and used one of the original Snap label 45s as the master for the national release. The rest is history. According to Bob Shannon and John Javna in Behind the Hits, this accidental hit “went from trash to the turntable.” Mad Mike was also responsible for Tommy Jackson of Niles, Michigan coming to Pittsburgh, and with the help of a local band, the Raconteurs, both were rechristened as Tommy James and the Shondells and began a career in music with a string of hits.

Mad Mike’s Moldies were records like “Hanky Panky” that were bargain basement rejects that sometimes created a minor sensation in the Steel City. That brings me to today’s feature – being that it is Halloween, it is fitting that I chose a recording that appeared on Volume 5 of Mad Mike’s Moldies: Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads’ “Goo Goo Muck.” The Cramps later covered this tune in 1981.

It is also fitting that I feature a Mad Mike tune today, as on October 31, 2000, Mad Mike Metrovich went to that great control room in the sky. It was said that Halloween was his favorite holiday and he died of a heart attack a few hours after doing his annual Halloween show. Mike had only returned to WZUM in July 2000 after a 28 year hiatus from the station. He left “Sweet 16” when it changed to an album rock format in 1972 and worked at a variety of stations in the area until 2000.

Michael J. Metrovich, November 6, 1936 – October 31, 2000 – Rest in Peace.

1 comment:

  1. Norton Records has isued three lavish volumes of Mad Mike's monsters, gatefold LPs with extensive bio notes. Three are out, two more in the works. The last word in Mad Mike madness.