BILL GARDNER IS STILL SPINNING IN 2005
Long Beach Seniors (March 2005)
By Kate Karp
"Good evening ladies and gentlemen. For the next hour and a half, 'Rhapsody In Black' will be on the air."
Wednesday nights at 10:30 p.m. on KPFK-FM, the tinkly piano introduction to "Blues for the Red Boy" comes out of the ether, and Todd Rhodes' saxophone weaves itself in a smoky blat under disc jockey Bill Gardner's soft raspy voice. It's kickback time - 90 minutes of reminiscing over four decades of black musical history, and getting educated about songs that tried to climb the musical charts years before some of the listeners were born.
"The music of my time is very important," Gardner said. "I - and you, if you remember these songs - came of age at an historical time, musically speaking: the beginning of rock and roll. The music came along with the integration of the races in America, and played a very important part in the acceptance of things black. What a marvelous time to have grown up in - an age of discovery for both black and white people."
Gardner is a retired Los Angeles County social worker who has been spinning the licorice for more than 20 years, 16 of them while he was still working. Gardner puts as much heart into what he insists on calling a "hobby" as he did in his career. Music, according to Gardner, is invaluable therapy.
"I investigated child abuse [in the social services department] for over 30 years," Garnder said. "The show was the perfect outlet for maintaining my sanity."
"Rhapsody In Black" features the classic rhythm and blues that was known as "race music" when radio stations were as segregated as an Alabama restroom in 1954. If you can keep your eyes open for an all-too-brief hour and a half, you'll hear the legitimate daddies and mommies of rock and roll: Little Esther, Fats Domino, Wynonie Harris, Clyde McPhatter, Dinah Washington, Bullmoose Jackson, and every Drifters song that was recorded long before "Under the Boardwalk." Some of the artists who have not passed on appear on the program to talk about how it was to record songs and in many cases, stand in the shadows of American pop music.
"When I was in high school, I took up journalism," Gardner said. "I wanted to write a sportscolumn, but my class was doing music. So I took the most popular category - rock and roll. In those days, black music was called 'the devil's music,' and the stations were pressured not to play it. Songs like 'Honey Love' and 'Work With Me, Annie" [two popular songs of the 50s whose lyrics more than suggested sexual activity] were actually banned. In my column, I wrote how stupid it was to repress good music."
Gardner grew up listening to his mother's huge collection of a lot of good music, all on 78 rpm thick, breakable discs.
"All the West Coast artists of the 40s and 50s were in that collection," Gardner said. "We played them all the time on an old Victrola, stacked 12 inches high to the spindle."
The first 78 in Gardner's own collection was a rendition of the story of David and Goliath, which he would recite from memory everywhere his adults in his family took him. He graduated to the less-breakable 45 when he was a teenager.
"I had a copy of Earth Kitt's 'Santa Baby,' and my little sister sat on it before I had a chance to play it," Gardner said. "So I went out and got it on 45."
Gardner graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in South Central Los Angeles. Several high-profile notables, such as Ralph Bunche, Alvin Ailey and Dorothy Dandridge, graduated Jeff High. Several names that may be less-recognizable to the general public also attended the school: Richard Berry, who wrote "Louie Louie," among scores of other songs; Jesse Belvin, who sang in many of the popular vocal groups and was, along with Gaynell Hodge, and uncredited writer of "Earth Angel"; and Eugene Maye and his brother Arthur Lee. Arthur Lee enjoyed a baseball career with the Milwaukee Braves, Houston Astros, Cleveland Indians, Washington Senators and Chicago White Sox, as well as recording music.
Gardner wanted to play baseball, too. He played in teams against Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, and even got to play a bit part in the film Damn Yankees. But he was disappointed in his efforts, and had other obligations, as well.
"It's like Redd Foxx's routine about poor families," Gardner said. "When I was born, I was 17 years old, so I had to go to work right away."
Gardner collected a degree in social work and began his career in 1968, the year Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. He married shortly after and started a family. Around this time, he read a book that would lead to a major turning point in his life.
"It was by Steve Propes, about record collecting," Gardner said. "I looked at the bio information and found that Steve was also a social worker in Compton. I called him and started talking about music. He was completely bored until I told him I had a collection of 300 45-rpm records. Then he said, 'I be right over.'"
Besides writing books about vocal groups and record collecting, he also had a radio show, "Rock and Roll and Rhythm and Blues," on KLON-FM 88.1 (now KKJZ).
"I visited his show and got hooked," Gardner said. "I figured that I could do it myself, and give the show a new spin, being black and having grown up with the music. Steve told me to go see Johnny Otis at KPFK."
Otis, famous for "Willie and the Hand Jive" and a number of other recordings and personal appearances, gave Gardner a year's apprenticeship doing research on his show. In 1983, Gardner heard that KPCC-FM in Pasadena was looking for an R&B disc jockey. Gardner interviewed with program director Gary Nestle, who hosted a jump blues show on the station.
"I told him what I wanted to do," Gardner said. "He told me, 'You'll never play rhythm and blues on this station. If anyone does, it's me.'"
Gardner was not discouraged.
"I dragged a huge box of LPs into the station manager's office," Gardner said. "This is what I have,' I told him, 'unscratched R&B records.' He went through the box and found Bobby Darin - he loved Bobby Darin. Lucky for me, he was one of the white artists who made the black charts."
Gardner did six hours on late-night radio for the next 16 years. He later reduced the schedule to three hours when the schedule became too grueling.
"I couldn't do 6 no more!" Gardner said, quoting from a recording by the Du-Droppers that was in the naughty records cabinet in the early 1950s.
When KPCC went to an all-talk format in 2000, KPFK clamored after Gardner and he joins the show's ranks. He opened his first show with Little Richard's boistrous "Rip It Up."
Gardner's vinyl collection is now large enough to have its own room in the house he shares with his wife Paulette. Since their two grown children have married and moved out, there's even more space for them.
"Actually, I play more CDs than vinyl nowadays," Gardner said. "I completely converted my collection to digital. I miss going to the record swaps and holding those jackets and reading the information, and the CD sound is more sterile than vinyl. But I used to haul these huge boxes of vinyl down to my shows, and these little discs make more sense for someone of my age."
Gardner sticks to a format of playing only the original artists, except for pledge night when he torments his listeners with covers of turntable favorites by Pat Boone and the Crew Cuts. He will not play rap, disco, Whitney Houston or Earth, Wind and Fire. An occasional Motown may slip in, but the artists featured on Gardner's show are the founders of R&B.
"I don't play any Elvis either, not out of dislike, but to avoid an artist you can hear on other stations," Gardner said. "I consider Elvis a great artist who didn't do insipid covers, like Pat Boone, but interpreted them."
Thanks in part to "Rhapsody In Black," scores of artists have received long-denied recognition. Gardner plays their records and interviews them. Besides his Jeff High alumni, Gardner has hosted legendary disc jockey Hunter Hancock; Hank Ballard, who wrote and recorded the original version of "The Twist;" and R&B queen Laverne Baker, who had hits with "Jim Dandy" and "Tweedle Dee." His one regret is missing out on Ray Charles.
Gardner is philosophical about the music showing its age.
"It's depressing - so many people I play are dead and dying off," Gardner said. "I thought of playing more of the 70s than just Al Green to encourage young kids to listen, but I find they call in to ask for the old stuff. One kid said my show is the best yet - it makes me very happy."
"I intend to keep playing this music as long as I'm moving', as Ruth Brown said."