Monday, April 22, 2013

Al Mann and the Soul of a DJ

"Now when you're feelin' low and the fish won't bite
You need a little bit o' soul to put you right
You gotta make like you wanna kneel and pray
And then a little bit of soul will come your way"

"A Little Bit of Soul" recorded by The Music Explosion (1967)
Original by The Little Darlings (Carter, Lewis 1965)

The year was 1967 and music rocked the airwaves. Radio fed the hungry ears of the youth a vibrant diet of fresh, diverse rock, and, soon, the beat had become synonymous with the marrow of American culture. Recorded music, in all its various forms, was lifeblood for new expression and necessary change.

Thanks to the recent British Invasion and the avalanche of garage bands, rock and roll had become the staple of DJ's everywhere. For you young folk, let me explain the birth and the role of the DJ.

Hey Kids, DJ's Used To "Groove"

In 1935, American radio commentator Walter Winchell coined the term "disc jockey" (the combination of disc, referring to the disc records, and jockey, which is an operator of a machine)

A disc jockey, also known as DJ, became commonly known a person who played recorded music for an audience. Originally, "disc" referred to phonograph records. Radio DJs introduced and played music that was broadcast on AM and FM radio stations. Many also offered their services for parties, dances, and other social events. DJ's were important musical "pipelines" as they introduced American audiences to popular songs, artists, and dances.

After World War II, came the rise of the radio disc jockey as a celebrity separate from the radio station, also known as a "radio personality." In the days before station-controlled playlists, the DJ often followed their personal tastes in music selection. DJs also played a role in exposing rock and roll artists to large, national audiences.

For example, DJ Alan Freed, known on WJW (850 AM) in Cleveland as "Moondog," is commonly referred to as the "father of rock and roll" due to his promotion of the music and his introduction of the phrase "rock and roll" on radio in the early 1950s. Freed also made a practice of presenting music by African-American artists rather than playing cover versions by white artists on his radio program.

Other notable DJ's include Bill Randle at WERE (1300 AM) in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the first to introduce Elvis Presley to radio audiences in the northeastern US,  Robert Weston Smith ("Wolfman Jack"), and Casey Kasem.

Also, beginning in the 1950s, American radio DJs would appear live at "sock hops" and "platter parties" and assume the role of a human jukebox. They would usually play 45-rpm records, featuring hit singles on one turntable while talking between songs. Then, it wasn't long before "sock hop" DJ's brought the popular two-turntable system to dances.

"Now when your girl is gone and you're broke in two
You need a little bit o' soul to see you through
And when you raise the roof with your rock'n'roll
You'll get a lot more kicks with a little bit o' soul"
It isn't hard to understand how the voice of the DJ became the inseparable companion of rocking teens. Choosing the content of their musical programs and airing the hits, DJ's lent their playful personalities to the youthful musical environment of the times. They became the source of the songs that "spoke" to young lives -- they played the melodies that spurred young hearts to live and to love. And, as they took to the road to play school dances and teen clubs, they provided the on-scene beat that soothed juveniles' restless feet and ignited their minds with rock and roll dreams.

Al Mann

In my small, rural high school of 400 students, no one had the love of '60's youth more than "the Man," DJ Al Mann. To say he represented staple music to our student body is an understatement. Al, with his popular radio program and his incomparable mobile DJing, was a legend. We all knew Al, and we all knew he could keep us in touch with our music, which, to us, was nothing short of magical. He was our trusted connection to places like Liverpool, London, the Motor City, and San Francisco.

Known as the master of class, Al Mann was our conduit to everything "cool." When my school was fortunate enough to have Al as the DJ for our after-game dance, our entire high school was deemed to be the worthy palace of "groove" on that particular Friday. His presence -- our communion with Mann and his music --translated to instantaneous good times and turf "tuffness."

Al's sound system setup was primitive by today's standards -- some 45 records, a turntable, a speaker or two, and a microphone -- no expensive light show or technical sound wizardry. He didn't need it. He was simply "the man" with "the music." He was a professional DJ who rocked music and adorned it with his great chatter. Al did his show, and we listened, danced, and thrilled.

Al was a musical good-will ambassador with a legendary rapport with teens. His love for young people was very transparent as he lifted the spirits of everyone at his shows. As with most who truly love and totally immerse themselves in their work, Al was never pretentious, and he most likely never realized how his pleasant personality and even demeanor positively affected all those in local schools.

Al didn't just spin records. He also loved to promote and produce local live music. If a fledgling garage band sounded decent enough with their three-chord renditions of covers and originals, Al  invited them to play at the local Steelworkers Hall for a live Saturday radio show and even record them in his studio. This "Al Fang" treatment meant the band had "made it" and assured them wide recognition. Al did everything he could to fuel the growing local live music scene of the time. He quickly became the young musician's best friend and best mentor.

Al's Legacy

"And when your party falls 'cause ain't nobody groovin'
A little bit o' soul and it really starts movin', yeah"

Music has become such an important part of my life and the key to my emotional and spiritual health. Now that I am 62 years old and have time to consider how music became my life-long friend and drug of choice, I realize that Al Mann was one of the first to ignite my passion for recorded music and provide me with amazing pathways to peace of mind. His tunes, his personality, his professionalism -- however the osmosis occurred, it certainly worked wonders for me.

When Al dropped the stylus on those 45's, he did much more than make recorded noise come through the sound system that he lugged into the venues of my community. You see, by doing so, he actually passed his critical understanding of the value of "a little bit of soul" to me and my friends.

The songs and chatter reverberated in our gyms and all-purpose rooms and became part of our history. The sweet soul of Al's music came to rest in our minds. Then, music became us, and we became the souls living the music. In this manner, it eventually helped positively transform our young lives.

Al, I want to thank you for being a wonderful part of my young life. When I dream about the dances you played, I flashback to more innocent and loving times -- a time when a DJ with a simple setup could make magic for his fans, a time when people, not technology or glitz, gave the music its irresistible soul. You may not know it, but you doctored many an ill.

"And when you're in a mess and you feel like cryin'
Just remember this little song of mine
And as you go through life tryin' to reach your goal
Just remember what I said about a little bit o'soul

A little bit o' soul, yeah (a little bit o' soul)"

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