••• The International Writers Magazine:Last Post for Rock Radio
Rock and Roll Is Here to Stay
“Good evening girls and boys, ladies and gentlemen, and whoever else might be listening. This is the Shep Stevens Saturday Night Rock ‘n Roll Show. Are you ready for the top forty hits of May 29th, 1957? OK then, coming in at number forty, here’s Guy Mitchell “Singing the Blues.”
For those of you who may not be regular listeners, I’ve been playing fifties and sixties rock ‘n roll songs for thirty-eight years. It’s been a great run, but all good things must come to an end. It’s not that I’m too old to do this anymore – I’m only seventy-five – but as the nice folks running this station have kindly pointed out, the show is no longer making a profit. In fact, it’s been losing money. Let’s face facts, folks: The audience for the music I play is dying – in more ways than one – and there’s zero chance it will ever revive.
So we’ll be doing our last show one week from tonight, and then it’s lights out. Hell, I’ve had a damned good run, and seventy-five is not such a bad age at which to retire.
Moving right along, here’s number thirty-nine on May 29th, 1957.”
We have a pretty set format – I play two songs, take a phone call from a listener, play another couple of songs, and then go to a commercial break. I repeat the pattern once or twice and then do a short monologue that is usually about a particular artist or a group. And then, before we know it, it’s time to say good night.
“Next week we have a great show lined up. We’re going to be playing the songs that topped the charts on June 5, 1958. Would you believe that that was sixty years ago?
Until then, this is Shep Stevens signing off.”
I was still sitting in front of the mike when I saw my producer signaling me to pick up the phone. In recent months, I’d rarely gotten any calls at midnight, when I went off the air.
“Shep, we are so sorry that you’re losing your program. We listen to you every week.”
“Well, thank you, sir. I truly appreciate your kind words.”
“Look Shep, we know you never heard of us, but we’re a retro rock n’ roll group. We call ourselves ‘The Originals.’ My name’s Bobby.”
“So what’s your gimmick, Bobby?”
“Only that we really have the fifties sound. We’ve played at nearly every senior’s center in Brooklyn and Queens and we killed.”
“I hope you didn’t mean that literally.”
“So, do you do remakes of the oldies?”
“We do a lot of instrumentals, like, Silhouettes, Hushabye, and Love Me Tender. But mainly, we write our own stuff. I can play something for you right now.”
“Sure, why not?”
So, I’m waiting, not really knowing what to expect. Then I hear a keyboard, sax, trumpet, trombone, guitar, and a bass. And then this guy whose singing voice instantly reminds me of Frankie Avalon when he was just starting out. There were no amps. Just the guy’s voice and the combo. It was a ballad, the kind we used to slow-dance to.
God, it took me back. And yet, I knew I had never heard this song before. I’m no spring chicken, but if you play the first three notes of virtually any fifties or sixties song, I can name it. But this one? It sounded something like maybe, Earth Angel, the same languorous pace, the same simplistic lyrics, except that it was completely new to me.
When the song ended, I didn’t say anything. I could hear the guy breathing, not wanting to say a word, waiting until I told him what I thought about the song.
“Hey, how would you and your group like to be on my show next Saturday night?”
I told my producer about the call, and that I’d have the group on next week for my last show.
“Whatever,” he said over his shoulder as he headed for the door.
What did he care? He still had a job. And I’d soon be just another old guy put out to pasture.
A few days later, I strolled into the Majestic Diner, an old folks’ hangout on Kings Highway, a couple of blocks from Ocean Parkway. I spotted some young guys at a table near the back. They were among the few patrons under seventy. Several people recognized me and I stopped to chat for a few seconds with each of them.
When I got to their table, I noticed that the guys in the group also seemed to know several of the diners. We must travel in the same circles.
Then they really surprised me. They all stood and shook hands with me. Bobby introduced the band. He was indeed their Frankie Avalon, only about six inches taller.
After we ordered, one of the guys placed a CD player on the table and I got to hear three or four of their songs. Each was somewhat familiar, but I’d never heard them before. I was back in the 1950s, hearing these songs for the first time. But I was experiencing this at the age of seventy-five!
After about the fourth song I held up my hand. I looked around the table. These guys seemed to be in their late teens, or maybe early twenties.
“You’re telling me that you guys wrote all of these songs?”
Smiling, they each nodded.
“You get that question a lot?”
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were time travelers.”
They had heard this before. But now it was coming from me. To them I was the crazy old professor who would transport them back to the fifties. Wait! I had it backward: they were taking me back.
The guys had met at LaGuardia High School, which had been immortalized in the movie, Fame. That meant there was a whole lot of talent sitting at this table.
We made plans for Saturday night’s final show. I would play a couple of original songs from their CD and they’d take calls. Then I would play another couple of songs. And so forth.
Would they need any equipment?
No, just two or three mikes.
“No,” one of them answered. “We work without any of that stuff. We don’t want to play so loud that nobody can hear us.”
Wow, I thought. These guys must be mind-readers. They’d love the miniature orange traffic cone I have on my desk. Printed on the base was this message: It’s not that I’m old… Your music really does suck.
I had promised to play the top forty from sixty years ago, so at the beginning of the program, I announced that we would not have time to take calls because we would have a big surprise during the last hour of the show. Everything went smoothly. A lot of people did call in, but I had my producer take messages. I knew that most of them were from old fans who wanted to say goodbye.
Well, I would be going out in a blaze of glory, introducing a new group – and a really good one – on my last show. At 11pm I was ready. I played a couple of songs from the group’s CD and the phones starting ringing off the hook. I had each of the guys field some calls.
My producer passed me a note. The calls were tying up the switchboard. He had never seen anything like this!
I told the guys to mention their website a few times so they could sell some CDs. Most of the callers wanted to know where to buy them.
I suggested that they go digital. They laughed. Of course! Why hadn’t they thought of that?
They hung around for another hour after the show, talking to some their new fans.
I’d like to tell you that I went on to a new career, this time in television. That the group and I would broadcast our program from senior citizen centers throughout the New York area. That I would play the part of a geriatric Dick Clark, and everybody would dance to the music of the Originals.
I’m not saying that we didn’t have credible offers. But I wanted to walk off the stage while I was still on top.
Something else bothered me. If this group was going to lead an old-time rock ‘n roll revival, they needed to reach out to their contemporaries, whose musical taste was, in my frank opinion, complete shit. The group appealed to senior citizens because it made them feel like teenagers. Sadly, today’s young people have never had the teenage experience that we once enjoyed.
The Originals really have the sound, and would make it to the top of the charts without me. It was time for me to step back. In just the last week, I had probably done more to change the history of rock ‘n roll than I had done in my entire thirty-eight-year career.
What I will tell you is that The Originals began to have imitators. Some did remakes of old rock ‘n roll songs, while others wrote their own. When the definitive history of this revival is written, I would like to suggest a title: Rock and roll is here to stay: It will never die.”*
*The first two lines of a very popular song, “Rock and roll is here to stay,” written by David White and sung by Danny and the Juniors in 1958.
© Steve Slavin Nov 2017
Author of: TO THE CITY, WITH LOVE
Steve Slavin: Stories from New York
Martin Sisters Publishing
Steve Slavin has a PhD in economics from New York University, and taught economics for 31 years at New York Institute of Technology, Brooklyn College, and New Jersey’s Union County College. He has written 16 math and economics books. These include a widely used college textbook now in its eleventh edition, and the bestselling All the Math You’ll Ever Need. His short stories have appeared in dozens of literary magazines.