MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
If you work out to Miguel, cruise to work with Frank Ocean and relax with Mary J. Blidge, then it might be hard to imagine a time when R&B wasn't played on mainstream radio stations. But a new audio documentary takes us back to that era. It's called "Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio." The documentary highlights stations like the legendary WDAS in Philadelphia that gave a voice to black artists at a time when mainstream or predominantly white stations refused to play songs like this one from the Godfather of soul, James Brown.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY IT LOUD")
MARTIN: The documentary also talks about what these stations meant during the 1950's, '60s and '70s when African-Americans were fighting for their rights in this country. Here to tell us more about going black is Kenneth Gamble. That is a name that you know. He is a legendary music producer himself. He's in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and he is the narrator of "Going Black." And he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
KENNETH GAMBLE: Hey. Thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.
MARTIN: And everybody knows your name, of course, who follows music at all because you are half of the legendary Gamble and Huff team. You've worked with a possible who's who of R&B - the O'Jays, Teddy Pendergass, the Jacksons. And you're also from Philadelphia and grew up listening to WDAS. And I just wanted to ask if you have - I don't know - an early memory that you could share with us about what that station meant to you.
GAMBLE: Well, I'll tell you this. You know, just listening to that record you played a moment ago with James Brown, I think that kind of like, sums it all. The world of the African-American community revolved around WDAS AM, and with the disc jockeys that were there like, Georgie Woods and Jaco and Jimmy Bishop and a host of others. And each city, you know, from my recollection, had a group like that. And black radio here in Philadelphia was no different.
Maybe just a little more community-oriented because WDAS was the leader of the African-American community. That's where you got all of your information from and your entertainment. So, you know, Kay Williams early in the morning, ringing the bell, telling people to get up out of bed and go get that bread and all that kind of stuff. I mean, it was unbelievable show business on the radio. It wasn't stiff like it is today.
MARTIN: Well, I was going to say, take me back for a minute. Part of the point of the documentary is that people think this is just the way it's always been. The documentary makes the point that black radio stations weren't always around. So what happened in the '50s and '60s that caused station managers to go black as it were?
GAMBLE: In Philadelphia, and I can speak pretty good about Philadelphia, it was all business. It was all business for the Caucasian stations because the African-American community was an underserved community. And the potential in the African-American community for music, for entertainment - I mean, there was - you're going back to the Jim Crow days.
You're going back to the days when black people had to go in different doors than white people. You're going back to the days where you couldn't drink out of the same water fountain. I mean, this was unbelievable the mentality that existed during that time.
MARTIN: Well, speaking of segregation, I mean, one of the points that the documentary makes is that in the early days of black radio, these stations were the only ones that played music by African-American artists in some parts of the country.
There were artists who - white artists who would rerecord songs by black artists and they would be played on the white stations. But the black artists' music would not be played. Like, for example, people are familiar - I'm sure most people are familiar with Little Richard's "Tutti-Frutti." But Pat Boone also recorded a version...
MARTIN: ...That was played on the white stations. So I just want to play a clip of both versions. First, you're going to hear Pat Boone and then we'll hear Little Richard. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TUTTI-FRUTTI")
MARTIN: So do you remember this yourself?
GAMBLE: Oh yeah.
MARTIN: Do you remember this like, that you...
GAMBLE: Yeah I definitely remember that. I remember listening to Pat Boone's single and we fell out. We fell on the floor laughing. We said these people are crazy, you know. But the whole bottom line of it was is that they did not want to promote African-American culture. The wanted to take from it.
MARTIN: Can ask about the whole AM - you made a point of saying that these were AM stations, like, this documentary focuses in particular on WDAS, which was in Philadelphia. Why the AM stations? Was it that the signals were not that strong and so therefore it was - they figured it was kind of left over signals so the black folks could have it? Do you know why?
GAMBLE: I mean, they didn't have much of a wattage, you know, by if you reached the African-American community. And eventually they went to FM, which really helped to promote black music to what it is today because the FM stations had 50,000 watts. They could compete with the white stations. And the black radio stations, the wattage they had was nowhere near the wattage that the white stations had. They had a station here in Philadelphia called WFIL.
And we used to have to argue and fuss and fight with them about playing about playing our music. And it's not so much that we wanted them to play the records because they were a white station. We needed that wattage because you can reach more people, you could sell more records on a pop station. But thankful - being thankful that when they went FM, you didn't need the white stations as much.
MARTIN: I wanted to go back to something you said earlier. And if you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Kenny Gamble. He's the legendary music producer - half of Gamble and Huff. He is the narrator of "Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio." You were telling us that one of the other things that made these stations successful was that they had these larger-than-life personalities. That the radio jocks - they made the stations popular and the people really connected with them. I just want to play just a few of their voices. Here it is.
( SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED RADIO HOST: Musically speaking, if you do insist that fascinating sound out of the ground that weighs a pound when we put it down is called simply the twist. You can pick it up one...
GEORGIE WOODS: In the meantime, this will be me. Works the bad with the good, it's the boss with the hot sauce. The king of rock and roll making tracks and getting wax saying peace on Earth and goodwill to women. So long everybody.
RADIO HOST: ...That's me. Too tall to get over, too wide to get around. Laying down the pipe son...
GAMBLE: Hey listen. Georgie Woods was funny. He said peace on Earth to all men and goodwill to all women. So these guys were funny, they were the most popular people in our community. This was not just all business. This was friendship for life, you know. And Jimmy Bishop and Butterball - and Butterball who was a Caucasians.
He was a white guy - Italian guy. People loved him. There was so many white acts - recording artists that were very popular in the black community like The Magnificent Men, you know, the Average White Band, and, you know, the Mello-Kings, the Hall & Oats. All of these guys were - they're rhythm and blues stars. So when it comes to music, there is no color.
MARTIN: You know, the stations weren't just about music, though. I mean, one of the points you made earlier in this conversation was thaat these stations were really important in the community. And people looked to them for their information about what was going on. They did play a role in the civil rights movement in that they showcased, sometimes, interviews with figures who, perhaps, did not have a forum someplace else. For example, I just want to plan a clip of an interview with Malcolm X in 1964 when he appeared on Joe Rainey's show.
(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LISTENING POST")
MALCOM X: My feeling is that as long as Africa as a continent is weak, is not recognized or respected, people of African origin, African blood or African ancestry, wherever they are, they won't be...
JOE RAINEY: Mississippi or otherwise.
X: They won't be respected either.
MARTIN: You know, I - one of the things I learned in the documentary is that when he visited the station, that they received death threats.
MARTIN: And, in fact, the police sent sharpshooters there to keep things under control or whatever, you know, as a precaution. Why did they - why do you think these guys took the risk? They could've just stuck to the music, you know. Why do you think they didn't?
GAMBLE: Well, I think WDAS, what they were known for is supporting the freedom movement, you know. And they used to have shows called the freedom shows in Philadelphia where they would bring all the major artists in. Freedom shows for the NAACP, and they would try to alert the community that there was a struggle going on.
MARTIN: Is that anybody who you think embodies the spirit of that era of black radio? I mean, these days, you've got, you know, figures like Tom Joyner or national personalities. I mean, he's heard all over the country, you know. Steve Harvey's heard all over the country. He's even got a TV show now. Is their anybody who kind of embodies that spirit of kind of both being really important to the community and really - you know, and active just in the middle of everything?
GAMBLE: Well, I think Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, they do the best that they can, you know. But it's like, corporate America now, you know, because when you have syndication, you know, you have one person that's all over the country. And you don't build communities, you know. Butt Tom Joyner and Steve Harvey, they giveaway scholarships. They do a lot of good things, but I think it was better in the days when you had a guy like Georgie Woods on WDAS or Kay Williams or Jimmy Bishop. These guys were the guys who interacted with communities at large. So this documentary, it goes into all of that 'cause when you speak of WDAS, you're speaking about the whole country. It really is something about an era, a time when radio was really black, when radio was really for the people.
MARTIN: Kenny Gamble of the legendary producing and songwriting team Gamble and Huff is the narrator of "Going Black: The Legacy of Philly Soul Radio." He was kind enough to join us from member station WXPN in Philadelphia. Mr. Gamble, thank you so much for speaking with us.
GAMBLE: OK, thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.