Connecting Neil & Nichelle to the History of Great Radio in NYC!

Dr. Tyson, Nichelle Nichols and Ivor Dawson at Hayden Planetarium in NYC

One of the things that make my work with Traveling Space Museum a lot of fun is being what author, Malcolm Gladwell calls 'a connector'  -one who has many acquaintances and can put people together.  Such was the case of my friend, the legendary Nichelle Nichols and the famed astrophysicist, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York. I had never met Dr. Tyson but was a big fan of his work with the Rose Pavilion at the American Museum of Natural History and it's wonderful Earth Science exhibit. Both are multi-talented and I thought it would be cool to put these two giants of space science together! Only later did I find out that Dr. Tyson was a big fan of hers and was dying to meet her!  A mutual friend, aerospace executive consultant Diane Murphy made a call and a meeting was planned.

I thought that Tyson's radio show; Star Talk would be a perfect platform for her. Radio, unlike TV, would afford Ms. Nichols the time she needed to get into topics in depth -something that the usual TV interview would rarely allow. Neil was the perfect host and the interviews turned out great.

The interview took place in his office - a depository for scores of space themed chotskies, collectables and gifts given to him over the years! A fabulous lunch was served complete with a selection of fine wines favored by Tyson - a noted gastronome!  The homey atmosphere made for great conversation.  Tyson was amazed at Nichelle's varied talents and expansive career. They discovered that they share a love of dancing and I discovered that Tyson and I had much in common. Turns out that he grew up in the Castle Hill Housing Projects in the Bronx --just across the street from me when I was a kid. He attended the Bronx High School of Science- the school I tested for but failed to get in.    

A planned 30-minute interview with Nichelle sailed on past 90 minutes, which caused Tyson a sudden distress. He wasn't sure how he could edit the interview down to 30 minutes. I suggested that he edit the piece the same way that Ray Charles would edit his 7 1/2 minute hit single, "What'd I Say!"  I suggested that he "first do Part One on the "A" side and Part Two on the "B" side!" Surprisingly, Tyson agreed! Click on the link below and Click on "Nichelle Nichols" to hear both parts. It's pure magic! Not to give anything away but at one point, Nichelle makes Neil cry! To be there was a great honor.

As a radio host, Dr. Tyson is as smooth as silk. He’s a warm and witty wordsmith --part of a great tradition of New York talk radio hosts and deejays. I guess I was always a fan of radio or, perhaps, what radio use to be! I was fortunate to meet many of my New York radio heroes including Arthur Godfrey, Murray “the K” Kaufman, Dick Clark and his mentor, John Zacherley—the hippest of all rock deejays who just turned 93! Trust me--for a good time Google John Zacherley!

While most three year olds were glued to glowing TV sets, I was drawn to a glowing radio! In 1954, before I was old enough to go to school, I would be absorbed in my mom's favorite morning radio show:  Martin Block's "Make Believe Ballroom."  Because he was one of the first to play records on the radio, Martin Block is the first person to be called a disk jockey - a derisive term coined by columnist and broadcaster, Walter Winchell. Winchell and Block were colleagues on the radio; both covered the original “Trail of the Century”—The Lindbergh baby-kidnapping trail in 1934. Winchell offered titillating commentary while Block played records during recess.

Dawson on Dick Clark’s “Challengers.” Courtesy of Dick Clark Productions.

Walter Winchell hated the idea of playing recorded music on the radio but the public disagreed. Everybody loved Block’s show—especially recording artists. The great Glenn Miller composed Block’s theme song: Its Make Believe Ballroom Time “as a musical thank you.

Block was an elegant hipster who often did his radio show in a tuxedo. He put linoleum on the floor of his huge radio studio so it resembled a ballroom. He would write his own ad copy that made the commercials a part of the classy presentation. Many called him ‘gimmicky’ but soon all deejays were copying Block with catchy show names, zany ‘handles and their own theme music.

In 1951, Alan Freed modeled the world’s first rock and roll radio show after Block but Freed would often cut corners and had ulterior motives. Martin Block was referenced in a lawsuit brought against Freed by a blind New York street musician named ‘Moondog’ who I got to know. In 1954, Moondog won a $6,000 judgment against Freed for using his name and playing his music without permission. Moondog’s attorney accused Freed of coping Martin Block’s catchy themes by applying the name Moondog to Freed’s radio show and concerts. Freed even called himself “Moondog Freed” on the radio for years.

Deep in the transcripts of the Moondog trial are the facts that Freed was also ripping off a group that he was managing known as the Moonglows. Under oath, Freed claimed authorship of the song Sincerely that was actually penned by Harvey Fuqua the lead singer of the group. When asked about his connection with the Moonglows Freed forgets that he had signed the Moonglows to his own record label in 1951 and was also their music publisher. Freed dissolved his record company before Sincerely was released but Sincerely sold well on Chess Records mainly because Freed played the record frequently on his radio show —an obvious conflict of interest that was not that uncommon in the 1950’s!

Using the pseudonym “Al Lance,” Freed put his name on other Fuqua songs before and after Sincerely! That was his pattern. And by adding his name to the copyright as well as being the publisher, Freed received 75% of the royalties--a lion’s share of cash in perpetuity. Freed really hit pay dirt when the McGuire Sisters covered Sincerely and made it a number one hit on the pop charts for weeks. As their manager, Freed ‘oversaw’ all of the Moonglow’s money!

In 1956, a naïve Chuck Berry also fell victim to Freed’s greed. Unbeknownst to Berry, Freed made a deal with Berry’s record label to get his name on the copyright of Berry’s classic song Maybellene in exchange for heavy airplay. When Berry discovered the scam he became his own manager and he finally recovered his stolen royalties in 1986. That outcome was rare but the swindling of black artists by their own managers was very common and rarely discovered.

In 1959, Dick Clark admitted to taking money from record labels to promote artists (payola) and promised to stop—but not Freed. The despicable Freed refused to sign a pledge against payola and was immediately fired from his radio gig. It was Dick Clark’s honesty that helped to save his!

I met Dick Clark as a contestant on Challengers --one of his many TV game shows in 1991. He told me that after 30+ years on TV, I was the only one who ever went on a game show in order to hand him a demo tape of original music! Even after beating out 50 others in a trivia test, it was the demo ploy that actually got me on the show! It was the chutzpah of it that really freaked them out the most!

Dick Clark was smart to copy Martin Block’s well-tailored look (on and off the air) and was beloved by the public. Walter Winchell was just the opposite. Winchell often did his broadcasts in a hat and wrinkled trench coat and was loathed by many! When he died only his daughter attended his funeral---and she did so reluctantly!

Winchell was the first to do celebrity gossip on the air--punctuating his rapid-fire patter by tapping on a telegraph key. Winchell enjoyed spreading rumors about celebrities on the air --- often without evidence or concern. If he were alive today he’d be the king of cable! Often, the names of Winchell’s victims were fed to him by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover. Winchell even accused the queen of comedy, Lucille Ball of being a communist during the height of her popularity in the 1950’s. Back then; everyone loved Lucy--except Winchell. Lucy is traumatized when she goes before the McCarthy Hearings but, luckily for her, the accusations don’t stick. Many believe it’s because J. Edgar was a fan and really did love I Love Lucy! Fate would bring Winchell and Lucy together again but not in New York. That story is one that could only have happened in Hollywood!

After the success of I Love Lucy, Desi and Lucy’s new studio called Desilu was looking to develop a drama series for TV like Dragnet. Desilu purchases a crime series concept based on the life of —you guessed it –a disgraced and very broke Walter Winchell! The Walter Winchell Files was based on real crimes that Winchell covered as a reporter in New York. His on-air presence as a narrator added authenticity to the show, which is why Desilu would hire him again as the narrator of another property called The Untouchables! The Untouchables becomes a huge hit –in large part, because of Walter Winchell.

Lucy buys out Desi’s share of Desilu in 1962 and becomes the first female head of a major Hollywood studio. Some have written that Lucy hated Winchell and that Desi hired him to agitate Lucy during their troubled marriage. Those writers have never explained why Walter Winchell is featured in the debut episode of The Lucy Show in 1966 when she had complete control of Desilu! No, Lucy was too smart to hold grudges—especially if it was bad for business!

Good karma follows Lucy as she picks one winner after another like The Andy Griffith Show, The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mission: Impossible. Before selling Desilu to Paramount Studios in 1967, Lucille Ball would ‘green light’ another promising TV concept called Star Trek! (You were wondering where all of this was going, weren’t you?)

And as you might expect, Nichelle Nichols and Lucille Ball would became fast friends. Only Nichelle was allowed to eat at Lucy’s table in the Desilu commissary!

Like the Roman god, Janus, I love looking back and forward at the same time! Maybe it's because I'm an Aquarian, born in January. Being a native New Yorker and steeped in local radio lore was an additional blessing to which I am truly thankful.