“How in the world do you get these gigs?” was the text I received from my brother living in San Francisco after I returned home from Martha’s Vineyard.
When I grew up in the Boston area listening to radio disc jockeys like Arnie (“Woo Woo”) Ginsberg playing the Top 40 on WMEX, 1510 on the AM dial, and later Charles Laquidara playing a new style of freeform programming capturing the sound of the counterculture on WBCN, 104.1 on the FM dial, I marveled at the words they would choose to captivate your imagination, and I cherished the music they uncovered for me day after day. In our college days we would travel up to the penthouse floor of the Prudential Tower, known as the Top of the Hub, to gaze through the WBCN studio windows, mesmerized by DJs Mississippi Fats, Maxanne, and J.J. Jackson as they crafted their magic. Broadcasting from the top of the Pru, 52 stories up, the tallest building in Boston at the time, seemed like the ultimate location for these gods of the airwaves — unimpeachable and unattainable.
So I recently had my chance to sit down in front of a radio console at the WMVY studios in Martha’s Vineyard, where I spoke into the microphone and heard myself delivering these words to a worldwide streaming audience: “Good evening and welcome to the WMVY ‘Hot Seat.’” That was the moment when I finally felt in touch with the visceral thrill that disc jockeys, past and present, must experience when that red light stares them down.
But before I proceed, a little background seems fitting into how the stars aligned in my favor for the chance to be broadcasting at such a premier radio station. WMVY has been my source of musical enjoyment on Cape Cod for more than 25 years, dating back to those pre-streaming ages. On my way to the Cape, I would listen to the crackling frequency on my car radio in anticipation of that miraculous mile marker when clarity would emerge. There were even certain rooms in my cottage where I would linger because of the higher quality of the reception. But as their website states today, “Martha’s Vineyard’s MVY Radio is one of the leading progressive rock internet radio stations in the world.” It has always been a noncommercial, community-based radio station, and as such is dependent on viewer donations to exist. I have been donating to the station for years, prompted by an uncanny incident I witnessed that defies the description of merely a coincidence. I was teaching in Boston. My wife was at our cottage on the Cape for a couple of days to work on her gardens, a time that coincided with her birthday. Our plans were to celebrate on the weekend when we were together. But instead, I decided to surprise her. I drove down after school on the day of her birthday and took her out to dinner that night. When driving back to Boston afterward, I was listening to WMVY and heard the disc jockey say, ‘We would really like to thank Tom from West Roxbury for his donation last week.” I almost drove off the road. The host of conditions that had to line up for me to hear that response at that exact time seemed incalculable. I have donated to the station ever since, and my donation this year allowed me to sit in as a guest DJ on its listener-generated show, the “Hot Seat.”
When I decided that this was something I might like to pursue, I was put in touch with Amy Vanneman, one of the regular disc jockeys, and “Hot Seat” producer at WMVY. We exchanged emails, and she provided me with a general outline of instructions like this:
“There is an intro of yourself and the show (about 90 sec), and usually two breaks to talk about the music, and a short outro.
So, you speak four times. Unless you have a different idea about what you want to do.
The show is a total of 60 minutes with music and voice.
Also important is to bring a typed or neatly written playlist with:
Artist name, song name, song length, record label for each of your songs.
I must turn this in for artists’ song rights.
Please let me know roughly when you were thinking we might record, and I will check the schedule.”
It all seemed pretty straightforward. But when I started to prepare for the broadcast, I found it a little too constraining to give proper justice to my lifelong experiences with music. I read her email again and one line caught my attention, “Unless you have a different idea about what you want to do.”
So I decided to keep the theme simple and focus on one area — all the artists and groups I chose to highlight, either my wife or I must have seen live in concert at some point.
Not totally convinced that my “different idea” was something Amy would endorse, I decided to email her my script for approval. I received my answer quickly and definitively:
This is AWESOME!!
What you will be saying about each song is personal, and fantastic!
With my final edited script in hand, it was time to board the Hy-Line in Hyannis for the one-hour boat ride to Oak Bluffs in Martha’s Vineyard. Always up for an adventure, my sister-in-law, Jan, was quick to volunteer to join me for the experience. Our scheduled Your Taxi cab was waiting for us as we disembarked, to transport us to West Tisbury in plenty of time for our 12:30 pm appointment at the radio studio.
Amy met Jan and me at the studio and provided us with a comprehensive tour of its new, strikingly appealing, state-of-the-art residence. We were introduced to all the employees working at the station as we made our way to the “Hot Seat” studio. Amy went through the ground rules with us — where to sit; how to speak into the microphone; don’t ruffle the papers, or else the sound will get picked up; I will tap you slightly on the shoulder when you are to speak again after the song ends; and one that came in particularly helpful that she had noted in one of her earlier emails: “If you stumble on a word, or decide that you want to rephrase something, all you need to do is stop, count to 2 and say it again. I’ll edit out the part we don’t want.”
This guideline was utilized very early on in the proceedings when, mysteriously, Page 2 of my script disappeared after a flawless recitation of Page 1. It eventually reappeared from the middle of my script pile after I had violated just about every previously mentioned ground rule in the first 30 seconds of my broadcast. Soon thereafter I got the first light tap on my shoulder from Amy, encouraging me to repeat a sentence I had just spoken, in which I inadvertently created a new music group in my introduction called Buffalo Springsteen.
After my initial introduction on the air and my Page 2 gaffe behind me, I made it official: “Let’s get started.”
I began the show with a story about Janis Joplin, the lead singer for Big Brother and the Holding Company, and how her Monterey Pop Festival appearance in 1967 stole the show. I saw her perform at the Ridge Arena in Braintree one year later. Amy mentioned it was a very good leadoff story, and how “Piece of My Heart” was the perfect song to begin with because it would grab the audience’s attention.
Tom Rush followed, talking about his experiences on the Festival Express, a barnstorming weeklong train tour through Canada — with Janis Joplin, the Grateful Dead, and the Band — that he recalled as “the best party I’ve ever been to — HANDS DOWN.”
A short history of the Boston Tea Party, a concert venue in Boston in the late 1960s, would follow. For $3 you could see acts like the Grateful Dead, Neil Young, Rod Stewart, the Allman Brothers, Joe Cocker, Elton John, Van Morrison, the Velvet Underground, and on and on. In late 1968, Lou Reed said onstage, “This is our favorite place to play in the whole COUNTRY.”
Then I continued my theme with Tea Party regulars such as the J. Geils Band singing the most memorable song I ever witnessed in concert; B.B. King with his beloved “Lucille,” always looking for the best perspective in the darkest of times: “Nobody loves me BUT my mother … and she could be jivin’ me too”; the remarkable lyrics of Ray Davies of the Kinks and the incomparable poster I received at their concert one night, the best I ever hung on my wall; and the ultimate Bob Dylan cover band of all time, the Byrds. (Amy told us that she felt the Byrds were the quintessential 1960s band.)
After that came the story of the Rolling Stones concert in 1972 that almost never happened. Without the intervention of the mayor of Boston, Kevin White, negotiating the release of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards from jail in Rhode Island, a packed Boston Garden crowd would have gone home only having heard “one of the longest sets in history,” as the opening act that night, Stevie Wonder, recalled. (Amy was fascinated by Kevin White’s political acumen.)
James Taylor has always held a special place in my musical heart, but when one of my former students invited me on stage to sing “Carolina in My Mind” with him at a school function, it was unimaginable to foresee where that might lead. The video ended up on his social media posts, and he invited my wife and me to be his guests at his band’s preshow sound check and his July Fourth concert at Tanglewood. When I played the video recording for Amy that he sent, congratulating me on my retirement, she summed it up very succinctly. “I’m flabbergasted,” “That’s phenomenal,” and “That’s never been topped on a ‘Hot Seat.’” Not too much dispute about James’ last two words on the video, referring to my choice of songs: “Good idea.”
A bucket list item for me in high school was to some day visit trumpeter Al Hirt’s nightclub on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans. During his career he recorded 55 albums and won a Grammy; he played in the first Super Bowl halftime show; he played “Ave Maria” for the Pope when he visited New Orleans; and he was a minority owner of the New Orleans Saints when they joined the NFL in 1967. His dexterity and tone were on full display as he performed the National Anthem at a Saints football game.
In 1966, my wife’s sister asked her one of the most memorable questions your older sister could ever ask you: ”How would you like to go to the Suffolk Downs racetrack in East Boston to see the Beatles in concert?” As Ed Sullivan would say, “Ladies and gentlemen — the BEATles.” I’ve wanted to say that my whole life. (Amy was reasonably impressed by my Ed Sullivan impersonation.)
I’ve probably seen Jimmy Buffett perform live more than any other musician. I was conflicted when I tried to determine which song Jimmy would choose to best define his aura. But when I read the liner notes in his “Take the Weather with You” album — “the closing days of a Martha’s Vineyard summer sitting off the jetty of Menemsha Pond” — the only reasonable choice to play seemed like this one, “Nothing But a Breeze.”
As a tribute to my cousin in Ireland, I knew I would have to somehow make mention of our ancestral land of County Galway. The Irish rock band Saw Doctors provided me with the perfect entry. When I saw them perform on Cape Cod years ago, one of the songs they sang that night, “I’ll Be on My Way,” inspired me to sing it at my own retirement party. I felt it would also afford me with the ideal segue to sign off my broadcast.
Thanks to everyone at WMVY for giving me …
Not so fast.
The recorded broadcast ended up totaling over 10 minutes longer than my 60-minute session allotment. Was I going to have to eliminate one or two artists from the broadcast? Should I just misplace Page 2 again? Do I just talk faster at some points? I was out of options but, luckily, Amy was not. She moved into the “Hot Seat” chair and began to unleash her editing prowess. The speed and precision that she displayed in tackling the necessary cuts was breathtaking. As Jan and I both attentively scrutinized the recording screen, we miraculously saw the deletion of my multiple missteps; the emergence of rearrangements and compressions of certain vocal segments; and the elimination of just the exact amount of the song tail ends. We were spellbound until the number that appeared on the console indicating the time length of the recording displayed 62. Amy explained that with detailed editing later, our broadcast time would be well within our projected target. Everything could remain, including Page 2. As a retired math teacher, I fully appreciated Amy’s observation that math and music go together very well. She also relayed to me that she could tell I was a teacher because of the stories I told.
It was now time to reverse our steps and head back to Oak Bluffs, and then off to the mainland. But as the Hy-Line set sail from the dock, I took a moment to look back at the harbor and, as I thought of the unique opportunity that Amy and the entire MVY crew had provided us, I was reminded of the refrain from my final Saw Doctors song, “We’ll meet again, I hope and pray.”
A postscript to this story is the delightful email I received from Amy shortly after my “Hot Seat” appearance:
Thank YOU for such a fantastic ‘Hot Seat’!
Your setup for each song was interesting and engaging!
I am still blown away by your personal James Taylor congratulatory video!
That was THE best intro to a song choice, EVER!! 😀
I will get an MP3 copy to you when it airs.
Thanks again Tom. Hello to Jan!