The experience that turned me into a radio ne’er-do-well happened when I was about 7 years old. Sony Walkmans were the hottest electronics item anyone could have. For my birthday, my grandparents … didn’t get me one. (A real Walkman wouldn’t have been an appropriate gift for a 7 year old anyway.)
Instead, they got me a tiny AM radio disguised as a Walkman, complete with headphones. My grandmother probably got it from Murphy’s Mart or Woolworth for $10 or $15.
I say it was probably from one of those stores, because if I remember correctly, it didn’t even have a brand-name. If it did, it was something like “Randix” or “Yorx.” (Amazon didn’t invent the practice of making up brand names from random combination of letters.)
The first night I had the radio, I tuned around the dial and to my astonishment, picked up CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. A radio that could tune Canada! From Pittsburgh! Then, I picked up KMOX in St. Louis! Another miracle! And WLS in Chicago!
A few notes on “Dear Hearts & Gentle People,” and not-so-dear-hearts or gentle people.
Tuesday morning get-up-and-get-motivated song:
Canonsburg’s Perry Como is rightfully known for his laid-back, almost somnolent stage presence — memorably parodied by Eugene Levy on “SCTV” — but for my money, his relaxed style was really outstanding when he sang against an uptempo arrangement like this one.
From his 1959 album, “Como Swings,” this version of the song was arranged by Joe Lipman. The orchestra is conducted by Mitchell Ayres, Como’s longtime bandleader, who also worked with Connie Francis, Frank Sinatra and others become becoming the music director on ABC’s “Hollywood Palace” until his untimely death in 1969.
“Dear Hearts & Gentle People,” written by Sammy Fain and Bob Hilliard, has a Pittsburgh connection beyond Como’s recordings of the song. It’s based on the last words of Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster.
This scrap of paper was found in his wallet when he died in January 1864 and researchers speculated it was an idea for a song:
I don’t know that Foster ever envisioned Fain and Hilliard’s jaunty lyrics or a swinging RCA Victor Living Stereo recording.
Trivia Question: Which artist featured on the soundtrack of “Pulp Fiction” covered “Dear Hearts & Gentle People” in 1961? Answer at the end.
A bug crawled across my arm at 4:57 this morning. Roger Bannister in 1954 couldn’t have gotten across the bedroom any faster. I must have looked like a paunchy, pasty, Saturn V rocket.
Try getting back to sleep after that.
Anyway, with the help of a lot of coffee and refined sugar, I’ll be doing a show today from 12 to 3 p.m. Eastern on our flagship station, WRCT (88.3) and Tube City Online Radio at www.tubecityonline.com/radio.
Don’t forget, WRCT is Carnegie Mellon University’s station, and this is CMU Spring Carnival weekend, so the start of the show may be a little bit delayed due to CMU’s Sweepstakes races — more commonly known as “buggy” — through Schenley Park.
Buggy started out in the 1920s as a fun, “anything goes” race between fraternities and sororities, but the motto of Carnegie Tech has always been “nothing succeeds like excess” and it’s since become a deadly serious competition, with pages and pages of rules, long training sessions for judges, vicious disputes over alleged infractions, and bitter recriminations for years afterwards.
(Sorry about the lack of posts last week. It was a week with five Mondays.)
I changed jobs in 2022, which means I’m working in Oakland again for the first time since 2016. One of the first things I did when I moved into my new office was to bring in my “smart books.”
“Smart books” is a phrase I borrowed from the late Doug Hoerth, who used to talk about the reference works he kept in the studio to answer questions from listeners.
In the pre-Internet age, listeners would call Hoerth’s show on WTKN, then WTAE and finally WPTT, trying to get the answers to questions like “who was that one actor who starred in that movie?” or “what was the one-hit wonder that recorded that oldie?”
If Hoerth didn’t know the answer, he’d throw the question out to his audience (“the smartest audience in the world,” he said) or he’d look it up in one of his “smart books.”
I may not have as many listeners as Doug Hoerth, but at least I have my smart books. They include three dictionaries, three news-writing style manuals, and two New York Public Library desk references.
Beware The Ides of March! Although they released seven singles from 1969 to 1971, “Vehicle” was the group’s only record to make it into the top 10, let alone the top 50, making them a true one-hit wonder, though one of their members would go onto much bigger success, as we’ll soon see.
Formed by a group of kids from Berwyn, Ill. (all together now: BERWYN?), the band was originally called The Shondells Unlimited — named in honor of singer Troy Shondell, himself a one-hit wonder with the song “This Time” in 1961, and no relation to the later Tommy James-fronted group also known as the Shondells. Some of the members of Shondells Unlimited had known each other since Cub Scouts and elementary school, and two supposedly were born in the same hospital on the same day.
About the name: “Ides” merely means a “division,” as in the half-way point of a month. In ancient Rome, the Ides of March (generally on the 13th or 15th) was the first full moon of the year on the Roman calendar and the day was marked by religious observances and the public settling of debts to be paid. Notoriously, the emperor Julius Caesar was murdered on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., setting off a two-year-long civil war.
The Conversationasks, “How do you vaccinate a honeybee?”
Little tiny needles, I guess. The hardest part is afterward, trying to make them stay still for 15 minutes in the waiting room.
I took this picture in a university’s student union the other day and posted it on Facebook, “Kids, next semester, sign up for Uncle Jay’s three-credit course and he’ll teach you how to use these mysterious objects.”
I can remember not that long ago, when there was a pay phone practically everywhere. I even had a calling-card, issued by Westinghouse Communications, which allowed me to call anywhere in the country and charge it to my home phone. Then, I can remember the desperate search to find a pay phone (especially while I worked for a place that issued us company-owned beepers but not cell phones), and then the current state of affairs, where pay phone booths or poles still occasionally exist, but the phones are long gone.
I could see a need for payphones on a university campus, especially for international students who may need to call overseas to a country where the infrastructure doesn’t support Skype or Zoom calls. But I do wonder how often they get used for anything other than someone looking to get out of the hallway and use their cell phone.
Trivia question: Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876. The first telephone networks and exchanges — allowing users to call other users — debuted one year later. How long before the first coin-operated payphone appeared? Answer at the end.
I was reading a story in The New Yorker about the pending threat of a strike against United Parcel Service by their Teamsters drivers, and this paragraph brought me up short:
Twenty-six years ago, the sort of friendly rapport that he and many UPS drivers have with their customers helped fuel public support for UPS’s workers when they went on strike with their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
I thought, well, wait a minute, that can’t be right. I covered the last UPS strike, and it couldn’t have been 26 years ago. I was working at the McKeesport Daily News and photographer Wade Massie and I went out to take photos of scab drivers crossing a picket line in Pitcairn.
If you subscribe to the newsletter feed of this website, you probably got something like 14 messages yesterday from me. My apologies … I uploaded a bunch of old cartoons to the site and had no idea WordPress would send them all out individually until my phone blew up and I saw that I had 14 emails … from myself.
I’m very sorry if you were spammed, and I’ll try to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
The big news is the announcement that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette is buying the region’s alternative weekly, Pittsburgh City Paper, from the owners of the Butler Eagle in Butler County. (The two companies have already been friendly. Butler Eagle has been printing the Post-Gazette during the Post-Gazette’s ongoing strike, and tried to stop City Paper from reporting it, which led City Paper’s then-editor, Lisa Cunningham, to resign in protest in October 2022.)
The Butler Eagle is a conservative paper, both in its editorial outlook and business operations. So the idea of them owning City Paper — which had long been a champion of progressive causes, including police oversight, government accountability, social services and racial and LGBTQ equality — always seemed odd, even back when it was announced in 2016.
The comic strip “Funky Winkerbean” is ending a remarkable 50-year run this week. I’ll admit, I never paid much attention to the strip during its heyday in the ’80s, mostly because it didn’t run in any of the newspapers we received.
In fact, the first time I heard of it was as a punchline in Berke Breathed’s “Bloom County” in which one of the characters (Opus, I think) snorted newspaper ink and began hallucinating “giant, fanged Funky Winkerbeans” and I didn’t actually realize a “Funky Winkerbean” was a real thing.
The first time I actually saw it was in the Greensburg Tribune-Review (I think). I then began reading “Funky” regularly in the 2000s, when the McKeesport Daily News picked it up; and, of course, syndicated comic strips became easy to find online at around the same time.
“Funky,” created by northern Ohio artist Tom Batiuk, spent the first 20 years or so of its existence as a standard gag-a-day newspaper comic strip about life in a small-town Ohio high school. Batiuk, who started the strip while working as a high school teacher, based the characters and settings on people he knew around Akron, Kent and other northern Ohio towns, not far from Pittsburgh.