Rock ‘n’ roll came roaring into the Twin Cities like a full force gale on February 6, 1956, when WDGY, 1130 AM, became a Storz station. Todd Storz had purchased this storied station, whose roots went back to 1923, and patterned it after his other rock ‘n’ roll stations in New Orleans, Kansas City, and St. Louis. Herb Oscar Anderson was the first disk jockey on the air with the new “Top 40” rock ‘n’ roll format that morning, and the jocks and the new sounds boosted the station from a tepid Number 4 to second place behind behemoth WCCO. You can hear some of Herb’s patter from September 7, 1956, on Tom Gavaras’s RadioTapes Web site: radiotapes.com/WDGY.html. Other early ‘DGY personalities were Bill Armstrong, Jack Thayer, Bill Bennett, Don Loughnane, and Stanley Mack.
But was this the first opportunity that Twin Citians had to hear what came to be known as rock ‘n’ roll on the radio? When did they first hear this new music that some loved, some hated, some called “just a fad,” but few could ignore? Here are some possibilities:
THE LABOR TEMPLE
Rock ‘n’ roll’s roots lie in pop, country, and most important, rhythm and blues. R&B existed right here in the Twin Cities, but was apparently a well-kept secret. As far back as 1950 promoters Rufus Webster and D.P. Black brought major R&B acts to the Labor Temple on 4th Street SE in Minneapolis. The list of performers runs the gamut of the important influences on rock ‘n’ roll; Bullmoose Jackson, LaVern Baker, Ruth Brown, Earl Bostic, Dinah Washington, Wynonie Harris, Johnny Otis, James Moody, Louis Jordan, the Clovers, Amos Milburn, Percy Mayfield, Johnny Ace, the Orioles, the Ravens, B.B. King, and the Spaniels are perhaps the best known.
The concerts were advertised in the Minneapolis Spokesman, the city’s African-American newspaper, but rarely in the mainstream dailies. Unlike most metropolitan areas of our size, the Twin Cities did not have a black radio station until December 1964 when KUXL changed its format from jazz to R&B. The simple fact was that the black population was so small (less than one percent of the state’s population through 1970) that the community wasn’t able to support one. But late at night, if the conditions were right, Minnesotans could hear all kinds of music through the airwaves from all parts of the United States – country blues from Arkansas, R&B from WLAC in Nashville, and maybe even some doo-wop from back East.
As for our own radio stations, there were about nine to choose from – the mighty WCCO (which had nothing remotely like rock ‘n’ roll) and those listed below. We have no airchecks, but ratings books from 1953 to 1955 do give us the names of programs that give hints as to what they were playing:
KEYD was primarily a country station, with shows by Slim Jim and the Vagabond Kid and programs called Record Rodeo and Random Ranch. But we also know that the Key Room program featured live performances by Augie Garcia, the Godfather of Twin Cities Rock ‘n’ Roll, performing jump blues in 1954-55 from the River Road Club in Mendota.
KSTP had some country shows as well, such as Dude Ranch Jamboree, but some of the other programs leave room for speculation that they may have played something hot: Rhythm at Random, Saturday Juke Box, Young Ideas, and Record Rack. By 1957 KSTP was squarely on the rock ‘n’ roll bandwagon, but got off pretty quickly.
WCOW, owned by the Tedesco brothers, was definitely a country – make that a hillbilly – station, with DJs named Sidesaddle Sore Sam (Sabean), Denver Don Doty, Buffalo Bob Montgomery, and Pecos Paul (Denault). They also played some Whoopie John and Frankie Yankovic for the polka crowd. But Sam Sabean [Sam Sherwood] reports on this very important development:
Joe Zingale called himself “Mr. Rhythm.” Here was a country station, WCOW, and on Saturday afternoon and evening, along came Mr. Rhythm [in 1955] and played the real soul of rhythm and blues. You can’t imagine how his popularity took off. When he was on the air, there were hundreds and hundreds of people around the radio station just hanging out and listening to the music. Joe then took it a step further and booked the St. Paul Auditorium for a rhythm and blues show with great locals such as Augie Garcia. Joe came from Cleveland, Ohio, and was a time salesman for WCOW and he just got this wild idea about playing that music. It was an overnight smash.
Zingale urged the Tedescos to change the station’s format to all R&B, and they considered it, but since they were only a 1,000 watt daytimer, they figured that a more powerful station would just steal the format and leave them hanging. Ironically, WCOW eventually morphed into rock ‘n’ roll station KDWB in 1959.
In the meantime, it was Zingale who arranged for Augie Garcia to open for Elvis when the King came to town in May 1956. Garcia was so good that Colonel Parker pulled him off early so he wouldn’t upstage Presley.
In 1956 or ’57 Zingale went to New York as an account executive and, with two others, bought a White Plains radio station. He made a ton of money, eventually owning part of the Cleveland Nets World Tennis Team, Cleveland Indians, and Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team.
WDGY: Dick Driscoll remembers trying to sneak in some peppier tunes in the mid- 1950s, to his boss’s chagrin. By 1955 the station was starting to play covers of rock ‘n’ roll in with Perry Como and Doris Day. Scripts saved all these years by DJ John Evans list songs such as:
- “Sincerely” by the McGuire Sisters. Out on the East Coast listeners heard the original version by the Moonglows. The Sisters’ version sold six times better.
- “Tweedle Dee,” not by LaVern Baker or even Georgia Gibbs, but by someone named Vicky Young.
- “Bo Diddley” by (are you ready?) the Harmonicats“
- Glory of Love” by the Four Knights. This was best done by the Five Keys in 1951, but the song was written in 1936, so who’s to complain.
- In July the McGuire Sisters were back with a song called “Rhythm and Blues” Somehow even they heard about it.
- Perry Como actually sort of rocked with a great tune called “Tina ”
- The year closes out with the Fontane Sisters back with “Seventeen,” a pretty good song if done by Boyd Bennett and His Rockets, a rockabilly band.
WLOL had lots of shows with tantalizing names, such as Top Tunes, Roy’s Record Shop, Today’s Hits, Top Ten, Hit Parade, and Off the Record.
In 1954 and ’55 Bob Bradley and Jerry Cunning played R&B tunes.
By 1956 WLOL was squarely in the rock ‘n’ roll camp and stayed there until at least 1959, although WLOL-FM featured classical music.
WMIN had several shows that might have included some jump tunes. While there were clearly some country/western shows – Saturday Hoedown and Western Favorites – and perhaps some old-time songs – Tin Pan Allan was on a lot – there were others with intriguing names: Ralph (Smith) and His Records, Top Tunes, (Judy’s) Juke Box, and Your Rhythm Review.
Most important, WMIN had some powerhouse disk jockeys:
- Bill Diehl worked at WMIN from 1948 to ’49 and from 1951 to ’55. His shows were variously called Diehl ‘n Music, Diehl’s Caravan, and It’s Your Diehl.
- Steve Cannon was at WMIN from 1949 to ’54. In a column dated January 24, 1954, Will Jones of the Trib called Cannon a “hep talking radio disk jockey.”
- Merle Edwards was at WMIN from 1949 to ’55 and had shows like Merle Edwards’ Caravan and Merle’s Mad House.
Bill Diehl tells the story about a car dealership called Slawik Motors that wanted to sponsor a show, but insisted that the DJ call himself “Hub Cap.” The station approached Diehl, but he thought the idea was ridiculous – he was a columnist for the St. Paul Pioneer Press after all. So they convinced Edwards to do it and he became Merle “Hub Cap” Edwards.
David Hersk, founder of North Minneapolis recording company Gaity Records, remembered that Edwards had a late night show where he called himself “Uncle Merle” and played plenty of R&B and rock ‘n’ roll in 1954-’55. “I remember recording ‘Rock Around the Clock’ from a WMIN broadcast on my Wilcox- Gay recorder. Merle introduced me when I called in, and gave me five seconds of dead air to start my home recorder at 78 rpm.”
WPBC: No, that’s not a mistake. The venerable family station bowed to pressure in 1954 and ’55 and started playing rock ‘n’ roll. Radio was going through a fearful period in the face of the TV monster, and Bill Stewart and his co-owner wife, Becky Ann, urgently called their staff together.
We asked them what WPBC should be playing and it was almost unanimous that we should play the Top 40, rock and roll … I remember that the No. 1 tune was Ernie Ford singing “Mule Train,” and can you imagine me calling from home on the phone that we weren’t playing “Mule Train” often enough? … The turning point came one night around [January 1956] when we tuned in the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Show on TV and they had on Elvis Presley … They predicted that he and his music would be the wave of the future, and when we heard what he sang and how he sang it, we began to be concerned. My wife and I had long discussions late into the evening. If we had to play junky music with morally degrading lyrics, we’d get out of the business.
WTCN was the home of Jack Thayer and Bill Diehl (before they moved over to WDGY) and had a lot of music shows with ambiguous titles. Reportedly one of them was a one hour program playing rockabilly and R&B – perhaps the first in the area. I’d like to think that 8 Steps Down was some kind of cool jazz program with some Brubeck, some Mingus, etc., but there’s no way to know unless someone out there remembers!
There were other ways for Twin Citians to hear pre-WDGY rock ‘n’ roll, of course: Records from Melodee Record Shop in Downtown Minneapolis, movies like Blackboard Jungle, and live performances of pop, jazz, and country acts. I asked a black friend of mine how her father heard his music in the ’40s and ’50s, and he said that Pullman porter friends of his would bring them in on the train from Chicago.
But the advent of WDGY was the quantifiable arrival of the genre that influenced lifestyles, attitudes, fashion, language, and of course, radio formats for generations to come.