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Fourth Street Nights: The Golden Age Of Louisville Top 40 Radio

Courier-Journal columnist David Inman has written a book called: "Fourth Street Nights: The Golden Age of Louisville Top 40 Radio." Our thanks to David for allowing us to publish the first chapter. The book can be purchased as a PDF file here.

CHAPTER 1: FROM WGRC TO WAKY

July 7, 1958 was a Monday. 

In Madison, Indiana they were getting the town ready to appear in the movies. The cast and crew for "Some Came Running" including Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine would soon spend several weeks filming there.

At Cape Canaveral, the Air Force was preparing for the first intercontinental flight of a U.S. ballistic weapon. The launch would be Wednesday and the passenger in the nose cone would be a mouse.

Players from baseball's American and National leagues were gathering in Baltimore for the 25th annual All-Star Game. Casey Stengel and Fred Haney were the respective coaches players included Warren Spahn, Nellie Fox, Stan Musial and Harvey Kuenn.

Although it would be exposed as a fraud in about a year, the NBC-TV quiz show "Twenty-One" and its winners were still making headlines. That evening Elfrida von Nardoff ended a 21-week reign as champion on the show, winning $220,500.

In Louisville, that morning's edition of The Courier-Journal included ads for Hit Parade cigarettes, the Royal Bank, Fizzies soft-drink tablets and the Edsel. Elvis Presley's "King Creole" was showing at the Kentucky Theatre, Andy Griffith's "No Time for Sergeants" was at the Mary Anderson, and "Secrets of a Nature Club" was at Savoy Burlesk Theatre.

On the radio that morning, if you tuned to 790 on the AM dial, you would hear the novelty song "Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor."

Anytime that morning.

You'd hear the same thing on 790 that afternoon. And evening. And after midnight.

For 24 hours straight, Louisville heard "Purple People Eater Meets the Witch Doctor" on 790 AM.

And when it was done, a new radio station was born.

It was WAKY, Louisville's first station to play all "Top 40" music songs that made your feet move and your spirit soar.

Top 40 radio was radio based on the rock 'n' roll charts, radio with fast-talking deejays, radio with goofy commercials, radio with songs meant to be played with the volume cranked up and the windows rolled down as you cruised Fourth Street or the curb-service area of Frisch's or Ranch House.

To put this cataclysmic change in perspective, consider the radio landscape at the time. The medium was largely live music programs, often performed by staff musicians. WHAS radio was still featuring local talent, including daily shows with Randy Atcher and Tiny Thomale. CBS radio network shows that had been running for years were still on the schedule as well, including "Amos 'n' Andy," "Ma Perkins," "The Second Mrs. Burton" and "Mary Noble, Backstage Wife."

WAVE radio was still carrying NBC radio network shows like "People Are Funny," "One Man's Family" and "Woman in My House." WINN offered middle-of-the-road music Sinatra, Patti Page, Jo Stafford, Mantovani. WLOU was part religion, part rhythm and blues with deejay Cliff Butler, shows like "Gospel Train" and "Hive of Jive," and a signoff at sundown. WKLO featured a bit of rock and roll, some country music and deejays Wilson Hatcher and Paul Cowley.

But until that day, no Louisville station exclusively presented the hottest radio-programming format in the country, the platters that mattered, the stacks of hot wax, the rock that rolled.

It was so hot because Top 40 radio wasn't only about music. It was also about being young. Being a teenager, specifically a Brylcreemed, bouffanted, Clearasiled high schooler with time on your hands, the opposite sex on your mind and cash in your pocket.

More affluent than the teenagers of a generation before, the middle-class adolescents of the 1950s were raised by parents who'd lived through a depression and a World War and were now enjoying a period of peace and prosperity. That their children would never know poverty was a huge source of pride for them. And in 1960, the baby-boom kids ones born from 1947 on began turning into teenagers. They were the first wave in a 17-year-long demographic bulge of teens, moving through American society like a rabbit swallowed by a python.

This well-fed, well-scrubbed economic force had money on hand from a job, from the folks, or both. It was a river of revenue, and Elvis Presley was the first phenomenon to successfully tap into it. Teenagers bought Presley records, souvenirs, lipstick, record players, hair tonic, anything endorsed by the King. They turned his debut film, "Love Me Tender," into one of 1956's biggest hits and gave record ratings to "The Ed Sullivan Show" when it featured Presley. They gave the same warm welcome to Elvis' contemporaries Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Bill Haley, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry and to the more clean-cut idols who followed, such as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Paul Anka. They were watching Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" each afternoon and Boone and Nelson on their weekly TV shows.

Rock 'n' roll represented youth, fun, freedom, possibilities. It was a reaction to the saccharine ballads and smarmy instrumentals so popular in the earlier 1950s to teenagers, Frankie Laine singing "I Believe" was no match for Little Richard shouting "A-whomp-bomp-a-loo-bomp a womp-bam-boom" in the intro to "Tutti Frutti."

No, by 1958 rock 'n' roll was here to stay, and the money was following along behind. No one understood this better than Gordon McLendon, co-owner of radio station KLIF in Dallas. By the mid-1950s, deejays like Alan Freed at WINS in New York were making a name for themselves playing rock 'n' roll, but by then McLendon had already built an entire station around it.

By 1954, KLIF was the highest-rated metropolitan radio station in the country. It got that way through a structured format of the latest music, urgent-sounding newscasts and what one trade journal called "razzle-dazzle promotion." Like Elvis' manager Colonel Tom Parker, McLendon was part genius, part flim-flam man. (He was also a ham actor in the late 1950s he produced two low-budget horror movies, "The Killer Shrews" and "The Giant Gila Monster," and had a starring role in the latter.)

The KLIF logo was a cartoon parrot because a real parrot had been trained to say the station's call letters on the air. To boost interest in KLIF news coverage, McLendon placed ads in Dallas newspapers that "apologized" for the raw language accidentally included in the station's live coverage of breaking news events. In late 1956, the "Great KLIF Treasure Hunt" sent listeners scrambling all over Dallas to find a $50,000 check inside a buried bottle. In the KLIF "Money Drop Giveaway," dollar bills were tied to balloons and thrown out the window of a Dallas hotel to waiting teens below. A KLIF school spirit contest in which students signed petitions disrupted so many classrooms that the promotion was dropped. Listeners were asked to identify KLIF "Mystery" voices, students, locations and telephone numbers. One promotion gave away a live baby pig. In a 1959 contest, tickets to the moon were prizes, redeemable on March 15, 1987. (Some winners actually showed up at the station that day, though the era of McLendon's ownership had long passed.)

In between the contests one running seamlessly into another, so that those crazies at KLIF always seemed to be up to something there were incessant musical identifications with the call letters sung and shouted.  

Clearly, this profit machine fueled by goofy stunts, the clatter of the latest platter and the faint, only-slightly-better-than-the-lottery possibility of winning cash just for listening was a template that would work on other stations in other cities. So McLendon began gathering them in Milwaukee, San Antonio, Atlanta and Shreveport.

And Louisville.

At 790 on the AM dial, WGRC was an unassuming little station, the home of Gabriel Heatter's national news and such nightly programs as "Back to the Bible" and "The Voice of China." Randy Atcher had a show on the station in the late 1940s and so did singer-songwriter Jimmie Osborne. It was at sixth place in a seven-station town.

McLendon set his sights on WGRC, and offered so much money for the station that the owners didn't think twice.

He began running spots on WGRC telling folks that on July 7, Louisville would go "wacky." He brought in deejays from other McLendon stations in Texas and Louisiana people like Jack Sanders, Ricky Ware and Al Dunaway who sounded like carnival barkers on espresso. He ran an "apology" ad in the local papers for the station's rough-sounding live news. A WAKY "robot" began appearing around town.

In July 1958, the station had five percent of the listening audience.

By August 1958, it had forty.

For the next quarter-century, WAKY would survive The Cowsills, The Crewcuts, The Crandells and Crushed Velvet. It would survive the arrest (and dismissal) of a couple of deejays on morals charges. Another would end up as Louisville's long-time U.S. Congressman and have a major expressway named for him. The station would be referred to as Seven-Nine-Oh, The Big 79, Super 79, Fun Luvin' WAKY, and The Station You Grew Up With. It would lose deejays and gain deejays sometimes the same deejays, who left for larger markets and came back to where the living was easier.

It was a different station in a different town in a different time. And the story of its success as well as that of its closest competitor, WKLO mirrors the rise of Top 40 radio in the 1950s and 60s, and the fall of AM radio in the 1970s, brought about by the rise of FM stations like WLRS.

The story of Louisville radio of that time also includes WHAS and WAVE. One evolved and changed with its audience, and cemented its reputation for news coverage when a tornado hit Louisville on April 3, 1974. The other didn't, but deserves mention for its distinctive personalities and style.

Three of those four stations are gone only the frequencies remain. Gone also are WINN and WKYW. Today the FM band is where you find the new music, the silly stunts, the fast talkers. The deejays can say a lot more on the air, but it sounds like less. Local ownership has gone the way of the dodo bird, and formats and deejays change like the seasons. Some stations play Much More Muzak, begging to be your innocuous office choice with bland ballads and plastic personalities. Others get in your face, exuding testosterone from your speakers, further inundating a world that's already drowning in it.

One thing's for sure just as there are no more Edsels or Fizzies, there's no Top 40 radio as it was known during its glory days.

So there's nothing else to do but look back. 

David Inman. All rights reserved.

Like what you've read so far? Purchase the whole book in PDF format here.