Thursday, May 2, 2019

May 2nd, 1960

The other day you mentioned that coming up on May 2nd is the date that WLS switched over to rock and roll. I am not sure, but I believe I heard, read or saw somewhere that the day that WLS switched over to rock and roll, the song SHORTNIN' BREAD by Paul Chaplain was #1 on the survey. Is that true?
I don't believe the record was played all that often here in OKC even though I have a copy of it. There were other versions of that tune with the Bell Notes and Blisters to name a few coming at different times of the years. FYI, here in OKC on May 2,1960, the #1 record was GREENFIELDS by the Brothers Four.
Larry Neal

You’ve got part of your facts right … they’re just a little jumbled up … so let me see if I can clarify.

Established by retail giant Sears Roebuck (from which it took its call letters … WLS … World’s Largest Store), the radio station first signed on the airwaves in 1924 with a paltry 500 watts.  It was beefed up to 5000 watts the following year.

It was purchased by the Prairie Farmer news magazine in 1928 who, recognizing the potential of a radio station catering particularly to rural America, beefed up that signal again in 1931 to a clear-channel powerhouse whopping 50,000 watts.

WLS first reached national attention (and made radio history) in 1937 when, while broadcasting what was supposed to be a routine landing, The Hindenburg caught fire and burst into flames.  This legendary live broadcast account by WLS newscasters Herbert Morrison and Charles Nehlsen was picked up by NBC, who then aired the broadcast on over 120 affiliate stations over the next 48 hours.  (WLS still airs this broadcast as part of every nostalgic look back at the station’s history … it literally put the station on the map.)

During this era, beginning in 1932 and running through 1957, WLS broadcast The Barn Dance, a program broadcast live from the old Eighth Street Theater in Downtown Chicago.  (It is reported that during that 25 year run two and a half million customers purchased tickets to this event.)

The idea of owning a 50,000 watt radio station powerhouse appealed to ABC, The American Broadcasting Company, who were having some success with other stations around the country by programming the exciting new sounds of rock and roll to a much younger audience, so they purchased the station in 1959 and quickly put together the necessary pieces to see if they could duplicate that success here in Chicago. 

On May 2nd, 1960, WLS flipped to a Top 40 / Rock And Roll format … and Chicago radio was never the same again!  Today marks the 59th anniversary of that revolutionary move.

To launch the new format, WLS came up with a creative idea …
The legend (urban legend?) goes that in order to generate some buzz and attention, they would play one of the most popular songs in the country at the time, “Alley Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles … a novelty hit that would eventually go to #1 … but one that many found to be just as annoying as hell.

So rather than just play it once to serve notice that “Things are about to change here in a VERY big way) … they played it again … and again … and AGAIN … for 24 hours straight until the message was abundantly clear … 890 AM was NOT the same Farm Network radio station your parents grew up listening to.  This was now a station for the kids … and it was an immediate success with the younger generation.

(The reason I have always questioned whether this story was fact or fiction is because “Alley Oop” by The Hollywood Argyles did not chart for the first time on the national scene until May 23rd … and that was in Music Vendor only … Billboard and Cash Box added the track to their charts a week later, on May 30th.)

That means that WLS was playing this song literally right out of the box … BRAND NEW … with virtually NO audience familiarity … if they aired it for 24 straight hours on May 2nd to announce their switch.  (The single wouldn’t officially hit #1 on a national level until the week of July 4th … some two months AFTER WLS first played the hit.)

While I have absolutely ZERO doubt that “Alley Oop” was the track that launched the station, I’ve just never been able to find anything to document conclusively that it played the track for 24 hours in a row.

I mentioned this little bit of trivia to Clark Weber and then asked him point blank … Fact or Fiction?

And Clark replied …

Hi Kent,
Sam Holman was the Program Director the day they began to rock and yes, Alley Oop ran for 24 hours straight.

Now the fact of the matter is, little six year old kk was not listening to WLS on May 2nd, 1960 ... I didn't even know what WLS was back then (although I would purchase my very first 45 just a few months later after hearing "Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini" on what I can only presume was The Howard Miller Show on WIND, the station my mom listened to when we got up and ready for school each morning) so I cannot weigh in on this topic as an ear-witness.  (I wouldn't discover WLS until four years later when I heard Dex Card counting down The Silver Dollar Survey after coming home from school one day ... and I was immediately hooked.  It was at the very peak of The British Invasion, which remains my favorite era of music to this day ... but I digress!)

I can also clearly remember when WDAI (aka “Disco DAI” or, in the case of Steve Dahl, “Disco DIE”) converted over to WLS-FM / Top 40 and Oldies Radio in 1978, they played Donna Summer’s current hit “Last Dance” for 24 straight hours because I remember being transfixed listening to it … WHAT ARE THEY DOING?!?!? ... it was enough to drive even the most die-hard fan crazy.  Yet all of this madness was designed to help build up the dramatic effect of ripping that record off the turn-table when it came time to start their new format.

But “Alley Oop” in 1960??? I’m not so sure WLS was QUITE that clever back then.  As I stated earlier, I have NO doubt whatsoever that it was the very first record they ever played to announce the switch … I’m just not convinced it was the ONLY record they played for the first 24 hours!  (kk)

Ironically, Scott Childers, who built the History Of WLS Radio Website (and a FINE site it is!!!), doesn’t mention this fact at all in his coverage of “opening day.”  

Here’s the way Scott Childers honors Day One of the WLS Mission …

May 2nd, 1960 …
To some, radio history was made that day, while others would argue  that's the day that radio took a turn for the worst.
After 36 years of broadcasting farm information, various "polite" entertainment, country music and the National Barn Dance, the sounds of "Alley Oop" by The Hollywood Argyles crackled out of radios tuned to AM 890 that spring morning. WLS was transformed from the old, creaky Prairie Farmer outlet into a hip, urban-minded contemporary-hit station. Sam Holman and Ralph Beaudin were brought in by ABC to transform the Prairie Farmer into a rocker. The first day on the air, WLS scored a major news scoop.  That day, the WGN traffic helicopter crashed, killing reporter Len Baldy.  Harvey Wittenberg, a news writer and reporter at WLS remembers that they had it on-the-air right away.  The story went on to become the station's "News Tip Of The Week."  They actually had the story on-the-air before WGN Radio!
[The fact that the station was already doing news and presumably, weather and running advertisements leads me to believe again that they weren’t simply airing “Alley Oop” for 24 straight hours. – kk]

Sam Holman, WLS' first program director of the "rock era," brought a new package of jingles to WLS, sung by the Anita Kerr singers ("... wonderful double-youuu elllll esssssss, in Chicago!") and a band of young disc jockeys ready to take the Windy City by storm. Bob Hale, Gene Taylor, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar and a hotshot named Dick Biondi, whose screaming and singing "On Top Of A Pizza" made him an instant success in Chicago. Prior to these five being hired, it was rumored in the Chicago Tribune's "Tower Ticker" column that Howard Miller and John Doremus were being considered, but that they were under contracts elsewhere. A Prairie Farmer holdover, Ed Grennan stayed on as a disk jockey after the format switch, as well as newsmen Jerry Golden, Harvey Wittenberg and Jerry Mitchell.

You can read a WHOLE lot more about the history of WLS Radio here:

In the foreword to the book “Chicago’s Personality Radio: The WLS Disc Jockeys of the Early 1960’s”, written by Stew Salowitz, one of those five original disc jockeys, Bob Hale writes 

May 2, 1960 – 6:00 am – A recorded jingle with the Anita Kerr Singers announces the birth of a new era … ‘W … L … S … in … Chi … caaaa … goo!”  Then, Mort Crowley:  “Good morning, Chicago, and welcome to the New WLS!”
And then the song “Alley Oop.”

No mention of any more air plays than that … just the one to launch the station … so like I said, probably more folklore than fact.

(By the way, that Stew Salowitz book is a treasured and priceless possession … and long out of print.  In it, he interviews one-on-one a virtual Who’s Who of WLS Disc Jockeys:  Bernie Allen, Ralph Beaudin, Dick Biondi, Dex Card, Mort Crowley, Jim Dunbar, Ed Grennan, Bob Hale, Don Phillips, Ron Riley, Art Roberts, John Rook Gene Taylor and Clark Weber.”  Written in 1993, I remember picking up my copy at the radio station MANY moons ago!  By the way, NOWHERE in his interview does Mort Crowley, the first voice heard on the station, make any mention of playing “Alley Oop” around the clock that first day.)

In his book “Chicago’s WLS Radio,” Scott Childers (also quoted above) describes Day One this way:

In 1960, The American Broadcasting Company / Paramount Theatres took full control of WLS.  It was on a mission to modernize.  The first song played after WLS changed format from farm programming to Contemporary music was the one-hit wonder “Alley Oop by The Hollywood Argyles.  Was there any special reason that this song was picked to air first on the new station?  Probably not.  It was already on the charts on May 2nd and reached the number one spot on July 11, 1960. 
(All of this prior to WLS releasing their first printed chart … but again, absolutely NO mention of “Alley Oop” being given more than the single play to launch the station.)

Meanwhile, to answer Larry’s question, no, “Shortnin’ Bread” by Paul Chaplain was NOT the very first record that WLS played.  It WAS, however, the very first #1 Record on The WLS Silver Dollar Survey, released on October 14, 1960.  Showing no “Last Week’s Position” on the chart (because it was brand new) WLS made a very clear point right from the start that they were going to be different.  It didn’t matter how well these records charted nationally (“Shortnin’ Bread,” for example, never got any higher than #82 in Billboard … and peaked at #50 in Music Vendor, the precursor to Record World) ... OUR chart was going to reflect the relative popularity of this music in The Windy CIty ... and here in Chicago, it was “top dog” on the chart.  (The previous benchmark prior to the WLS Silver Dollar Survey for record popularity was a list called “The Top Tunes Of Greater Chicago,” also distributed for free each week in local record stores, having replaced the old WJJD Top 40 Charts when that station flipped to country music, leaving the field wide open for WLS to come in and capture the hearts of Teenage America … or at least The Midwest … with their powerful 50,000 watt station.)

“Shortnin’ Bread’ had also topped the Top Tunes Chart for a week, wedging its way between Larry Verne’s novelty hit “Mr. Custer” and Maurice Williams’ timeless classic “Stay.”

Two weeks later it was another obscure hit that sat at #1 on both of these Chicagoland charts … the timeless classic (huh???) “Ruby Duby Du” by Tobin Williams, (who was actually a local guy from Calumet City).  He held down the #1 spot for three straight weeks despite only a #27 national showing.

Today AM 890 is all talk … a recent anniversary “celebration” fell flat on its face when no effort appeared to have been made to contact many of the jocks still around to participate.  It’s a shame.

WLS was regarded one of the top Top 40 stations in the nation … accessible in 40+ states on a clear night.  It deserves a better legacy than its been given.  (kk)