I'm currently listening to old clips of The Famous Coachman and The Electrifying Mojo, and remembering that radio can be something special when people with passion, intensity, and a coherent vision are given free reign over the playlist and microphone. I used to hear these guys do live broadcasts, back when I was a young whippersnapper.
I'm also very grateful that someone wrote a beautiful article about them, as well as a Detroit radio personality I'm too young to remember: Ernie Durham.
Three Legends of Detroit Black Radio
January 28, 2008 by Tom Sanders
Flint, Michigan wasn't a pretty place. Detroit was bigger, but that doesn't always equal nicer. Fortunately, there was radio to soften the tough personas of these two cities.
Everyday life, even that far north, in the Sixties, was still to some extent segregated. There were the white, and black, parts of town; boundaries defined by certain streets and factories and the Flint River; places you simply didn't go if you weren't the right color. On the radio dial, there were black stations and white stations. Flint's, and Detroit's, large black populations meant that those playing current singles dipped deeper into the jazz and rhythm and blues charts. There were also stations that played "good music" (as opposed to the stuff I listened to), whose positioners implied that the music their competitors played was something other than good. The distinction was still black vs. white.
To a kid who grew up out in the country, Flint seemed like it was on the other side of the world. Detroit may as well have been in the next galaxy. Radio waves shortened those distances. Three legends of black radio, the equals of any deejays in any PBS documentary, shattered the boundaries.
ERNIE DURHAM - WBBC Flint / WJLB - WDET Detroit
. . . ooo-wee, it's Frantic Ernie D for thee! My darlin' my dears, please lend me your ears, and dig these sounds that go around, sounds so neat, sounds oh so sweet, sounds to rock ya, roll ya, satisfy your soul, ya hear?
Author, poet, and Sixties activist John Sinclair, who grew up in Davison -- right outside Flint -- tells the story of how, when the call came to play baseball in the sandlot down the street, he would sometimes tell his friends no, he had to stay in and listen to Ernie D count down the week's top ten records.
Ernie Durham started on Booth Broadcasting's WBBC. The bosses at WJLB -- for owner James L. Booth -- decided that anyone with a following the size of his, who could sell that much of his sponsors' products, belonged in Detroit. For a while, he worked at both stations, before freeways, when the 100 mile round trip commute was all on surface streets.
WJLB, although purchased from white owners, was America's first black-owned radio station. It played whatever black music was called at the time -- jump, jive, rhythm and blues, soul -- in the daytime, and at night aired programs for Detroit's Greek, Polish, and Hungarian communities.
Through the Sixties, Ernie Durham had the key afternoon shift, when it seemed like everyone in Detroit was on the road. Drivers crawling on Woodward, and on the Lodge, the Edsel Ford, and on the Chrysler Freeway around Nine Mile where it still backs up like clockwork around five every afternoon, would hear something like this:
. . . twenty minutes past five is the time, in the land of rhyme, on TigerRadio 14 WJLB, with Ernie D for thee . . . Jun-ior Walk-er and his crew, now, to sing for you . . . hear what I mean, Mama Queen - what does it take? To win your love . . . great googa-mooga shooga-rooga!
Shakespeare, Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Kerouac, in one package. It made sitting in traffic bearable. You'd wish it was published, so you could have it to hold and read, or at least that you could get it on tape, just Ernie's raps, like the Charlie Parker fan who followed Bird from show to show just to record his solos.
If you met Ernie D off the air and started a casual conversation, he'd speak in rhyme. He couldn't help it. He came from a time when the star on every black station was the cat with the crazy name who rhymed everything.
Ernie Durham left radio for advertising, but in 1992 returned to Motor City airwaves on Wayne State University's WDET. He sounded ever so grand on the FM band.
THE FAMOUS COACHMAN - WDET
. . . at this time I would like to ask you - are you ready for some blues? . . . Plenty of blues . . . many, many blues . . . that you've never heard before . . . and some you may never hear again . . . and some you may not have heard in a long, long time . . . let's do it like this now! Bo - Bo Jenkins! Let's shake 'em on down! Look out, Detroit and neighboring cities! This is the blues this morning!
Bobo Jenkins owned the Big Star Recording Studio, on Detroit's west side, and played blues guitar. His music was as rough as a gravel road.
By the mid-1970s, soul had gone Vegas, and disco had become America's urban music. Very few radio stations played blues. No station in Detroit played any. Bobo Jenkins decided the time had come for a local blues show, and that the Coachman would be its host.
Every station they tried said no. Finally, WDET said yes.
If you could stay awake until two AM on Saturday night -- actually Sunday morning -- you would hear, as the Coachman promised, many, many blues that, unless you had a large record collection, you had never heard before.
I thought "Famous Coachman" was an air name, like Wolfman Jack, since even he called himself "THE Famous Coachman." I pictured a sharp-looking man in uniform, in charge of a team of horses pulling a fancy coach; a streetwise dude who came across on the air as the guy you didn't question when the subject was blues.
Coachman was his real last name, and Famous, more common in the South than up north, was his given first name. He owned a tiny shop, Coachman's Radio And Records, on East Charlevoix Avenue, that was stuffed with blues 45s and albums and autographed pictures, and tubes, and radios and TV sets in various states of repair. An often told story was that John Lee Hooker, when he lived in Detroit and needed a TV repairman, called on the Coachman.
On "Blues After Hours," records skipped. Scratchy records were played. Songs would be introduced, buttons pushed, and nothing would happen. The Coachman talked over instrumental breaks, and over whole records. He'd sing along. ("Hey! Hey! The blues is all right!") Dead air would be followed by several minutes of rambling, in a throaty growl that made the listener think a lion had slipped on headphones and opened the mike. The show sounded like me and my friends did when, with an old turntable and Dixie cups for mikes, we pretended we were on the radio.
Perfection often becomes dull.
Actresses whose looks give the impression that God used one of the six days just on them can appear ho-hum when compared with a slightly flawed girl. Too thin, nose too big, a mole where the world can see it. Skinny legs. Superficial flaws. But they give the less-than-perfect actress whatever "it" is that endears her to the public, skinny legs and all.
The Coachman's "it" was his on-air sound. "It" was how I had imagined radio sounding down South, fifty years before, while wishing I had been there.