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Adventures of an eclectic disk jockey

By Robert O’Connor.


[This is part of a series on the complete works of Studs Terkel. The last one was his book Hope Dies Last.]

When The Spectator came out, Studs said he was working on a trilogy of interviews on the arts – The Spectator on theater, one called The Listener on music, and The Reader on books. The Reader met an unknown fate, but The Listener would be retitled And They All Sang.

In some ways, the two books are a return for Studs. His first jobs were as an actor on both the stage and radio, and in 1945 his first show, ‘Wax Museum’, was an eclectic music show. He bounced between radio, television and the stage before WFMT offered him a job he couldn’t refuse – an hour-long show every weekday in which he could do anything he wanted. Music, interviews, documentaries, anything. Studs took the offer and stayed at it for 45 years.

When the Studs Terkel Program ended in 1997, Studs donated its entire archive to the Chicago History Museum, and he went back a few years later to create The Spectator, which unlike his previous books of interviews is comprised of “celebrated people,” and most of them came from interviews done on the radio.

For most of his books, Studs would take a leave of absence from his radio show and interview the people in the books exclusively for the books. Sometimes he would travel the country looking for them, other times they were his friends right in his hometown. In both The Spectator and And They All Sang the interviews came from interviews he had done over the years on his radio show, with a few interviews done after the show ended.

And They All Sang has fewer interviews and fewer sections than The Spectator.It may have fewer interviews than any of his books. Another thing that’s different is that the first three sections are structured exactly the same way: First, interviews with the musicians, and then with an impresario of the genre.

The first section is with classical musicians, the second with jazz, and the third with blues and folk. The prelude to these sections is an interview with John Jacob Niles, sort of a combination of the three.

The classical section is the longest of the three, which makes sense since WFMT was, and is, a classical music station. And most of the interviews in it are with singers. These are the most interesting ones, since they talk about not only the musical aspects of what they do, but the theatrical aspects. How they relate to characters, convey emotions, and so forth.

They occasionally talk about other things like Marian Anderson – an African-American contralto – who tells of how her unique voice opened doors, but racism in many cases closed some of them. Her manager, Sol Hurok (who is also interviewed in the book) tried booking her at Constitution Hall, managed by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The hall had a “white performers only” policy and refused to book her. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in protest and the organization later changed its mind.

Instrumentalists like Ravi Shankar are also interviewed. Shankar talks briefly about the Beatles and his collaboration with Sanjayit Ray for the score of the Apu trilogy (an interview with Ray appears in The Spectator.). In the foreword, Studs has an anecdote about the American pianist Garrick Ohlsson that doesn’t appear in his interview. Ohlsson won the 1970 International Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw and his winning performance was broadcast on Polish state radio. When he was returning to his hotel, he was critiqued in fine detail by the hotel maid and said it was the most intimidating review he had ever encountered.

Virgil Thompson and Aaron Copeland, the great contemporary American composers talk about their friendship with each other and their learning music under the tutelage of Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

This section also brings some things full circle all the way back to Giants of Jazz. Reprinted in this section are interviews with Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie where they talk about various things, but also about their admiration for their fellow musicians Joe Oliver and Charlie Parker, respectively. Material from these interviews, along with one he did with Earl Hines, made their way into Giants of Jazz.

Earl Hines talks about Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and how bebop was invented in his band. Dizzy Gillespie says that he and Parker were both in awe of each other. Armstrong’s wife Lillian is also interviewed, and says that when the two of them got married, she told Louis (who up until then had been in King Oliver’s band) could no longer play second trumpet to anyone. He had to be first. Two weeks after they got married, he got a job at the Dreamland Theater on the south side. Fletcher Henderson noticed Armstrong afterwards and the rest is history.

The jazz section ends with an interview of Joe Hammond, the great producer and critic who discovered innumerable artists like Billie Holiday. Specifically, in his interview he tells of how he discovered Count Basie – he was listening to WMAQ (Chicago’s NBC affiliate) and he heard an exciting pianist he had never heard of. It couldn’t have been Earl Hines, who was out on tour, so he called his friend Lloyd Lewis at the Daily News (who owned the station at the time) and asked him who it was.

The last section includes a piece on Mahalia Jackson that originally appeared in Talking To Myself telling about her and their relationship. Thomas A. Dorsey, the father of Gospel music is also interviewed, crediting Studs with discovering Jackson. Studs feels the need to clarify that he was the first white DJ to play her for a white audience, but the truth was that by that point Jackson was well known among black audiences. She could fill stadiums by the time he played her on his show, but the audience was entirely black.

There’s a piece on Big Bill Broonzy, another good friend and colleague of Studs, that originally appeared in the first issue of Jazz: A Quarterly on American Music, which was edited by Ralph Gleason a decade before he co-founded Rolling Stone.

In the third section, on folk musicians, there’s a piece on Woody Guthrie that’s taken from the introduction Studs wrote for the book Ramblin’ Man, the Life And Times of Woody Guthrie by Ed Cray. It also includes a 1963 interview with Bob Dylan (one of his earliest) where he tells his ever changing origin story and how he came up with the song ‘A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall’.

Pete Seeger appears again and talks about his entry into the music world by way of his father, a musicologist at Harvard. Seeger appeared in Hope Dies Last and in the cassette series ‘Studs Terkel: Four Decades of Interviewing.’

And so ends the last of Studs’ oral histories. His next two works would be looking back on his own life, and the impact he’s had.

[Coming up: Studs revisits his life again in Touch and Go]


profileRobert O’Connor is a journalist, writer, adventurer and a few dozen other things (including a Co-Editor of 3:AM). His stuff has appeared in the Twin Cities Daily Planet, Hot Press, KFAI and a few other places. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, May 11th, 2012.