Has Elvis left the building?
By Joel Beck, North Shore Sunday, Massachusetts
July 3, 2005
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Everyone loves an oldie but goodie. Pop culture tells us there’s no denying that.
For proof, look no further than the marquee at your local movie megaplex. There’s not a whole lot of originality going on there.
“Batman Begins.” “Herbie Fully Loaded.” “Bewitched.” “Star Wars.” “War of the Worlds.” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” “The Bad News Bears.” “The Longest Yard.” “The Dukes of Hazzard.” It all seems vaguely familiar doesn’t it?
Yes, the strategy employed by the movie industry is clear: it may require a new spin, but in the grand scheme people are always looking for oldies. Sure, we all found out that Darth Vader was Luke’s father back in 1980, but what’s wrong with shelling out another $9.50 just to find out again?
Theoretically, that strategy would work just as well when it comes to the music industry, but by all indications, the same rules don’t necessarily apply. That became abundantly clear last month when legendary New York-based oldies radio station CBS-FM abruptly changed its format after more than 30 years of exclusively playing hit songs from the 1950s and ’60s. With a new JACK-FM format playing a variety of rock from the last 30 years, longtime CBS-FM listeners who were tuning in to hear a little Buddy Holly or Fabian were certainly shocked when the new station debuted with the Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right to Party.”
Where have you gone, Shelley Fabares?
Locally, the oldies are just as difficult to find on the dial. With WODS Oldies 103.3 having long abandoned music from the ’50s and ’60s in favor of the “Greatest Hits of the ’60s and ’70s,” (some days, you can even hear tunes from the, gasp, ’80s) the number of places baby boomers can find the music from their era are steadily dwindling.
“The CBS thing was a shock,” says Walter DeVenne, who was best known as the longtime host of “Little Walter’s Time Machine” for years on WODS and is now syndicated on the North Shore’s 104.9 WBOQ. “But I can’t tell you how many times this music was dead. I’ve lived through at least four reincarnations.”
That may be true, but there are those who believe the oldies of the ’50s and ’60s are on life-support. Ironically, Beverly-based WBOQ is one of the few local stations that still includes music from the ’50s on its playlists, though admittedly not nearly as much as the likes of CBS-FM in its heyday.
WBOQ’s program director Charlie Curtis says even if there’s still an audience for the rock and doo-wop of the 1950s, most radio stations are sure to steer clear of it.
“There is no tradition in radio other than making money,” says Curtis. “That’s the thing that people find hard to understand. Radio is a business just like any other. You can play all polka all the time and you’ll have a small group of very happy, loyal listeners. But you won’t make any money and you’ll be out of business.”
If that’s the case, then what does the future hold for true oldies music, which DeVenne and others readily describe as the root of authentic American rock ’n’ roll? If Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry and, yes, Elvis Presley are slowly but surely being squeezed out of the American music scene, where can the baby boomers turn?
Well, they could always go see “Herbie Fully Loaded.”
“I think it’s always going to be there for people,” says DeVenne. “When they stop listening, I’ll go off the air.”
Business as usual
Thankfully for the fans of 1950s doo-wop, radio isn’t the only place to hear music of that era. If it were, chances are it would have died out a long time ago.
“In my opinion, places like Oldies 103 never had a great affinity for the music to begin with,” says Harvey Robbins, who produces local doo-wop concerts and will be bringing The Royalty of Doo Wop featuring several 1950s artists to the North Shore Music Theatre this October. “They’d play country music in a heartbeat as long as it meant money was coming in. They’ve never shown any true devotion to the oldies other than its commercial benefit.”
The sad reality for fans of music from the ’50s and ’60s is that radio is indeed a business and as the years march on, older music becomes far less marketable. Even if there is a sizable audience for the genre — and people such as DeVenne and Robbins both insist that there is — it doesn’t necessarily mean that radio stations have plans to dust off their collection of old 45s.
Also, as radio executives get younger and younger, they don’t exactly identify with music from 50 years ago. DeVenne says in the early days of oldies radio, the format was designed to introduce the music to the younger audience. The concept didn’t have much of a shelf life.
“If the younger executives want to keep their job, they’ve either got to learn the oldies or they’ve got to adjust the oldies stations to what they know,” says DeVenne. “They’re picking the latter.”
It’s especially true when money is always the bottom line.
“Traditionally, older audiences have much less interest to advertisers,” says WBOQ’s Curtis. “Once you get past age 55, you’re perceived as being very brand loyal. It’s difficult to get them to try new things and it’s difficult to get them to spend money.
“You can have a very big audience, but if your listeners aren’t going to patronize your advertisers, you’re not converting them,” adds Curtis. “You can have the number one station in the market and still not be making any money.”
Obviously, that’s bad news for anyone hoping to catch The Big Bopper on the radio, but DeVenne says the music of the 1950s simply refuses to die. He says even places like Wal-Mart and Friendly’s are known for playing ’50s background music. That might not exactly be what Elvis had envisioned as the future of his music, but it’s better than nothing.
“You go through different periods when different fads of music come in,” says Robbins. “You’ll always have these kinds of challenges, but this artform has endured over time. It’s timeless music.”
Back to the future
Curtis knew that the future of oldies music was in trouble a few years ago, when CBS-FM started playing “future oldies.” A “future oldie” was essentially a new song that, simply by nature, would eventually become a conventional oldie.
It was a gimmick, Curtis says. And no one bought into it.
“That was a bit of a stretch,” he says. “They pretty much managed to annoy their audience all the way down the line.”
As far as airplay goes, Curtis believes it’s a mistake for radio stations to shy away from oldies when there’s still music from that era that could be considered marketable. At WBOQ, Curtis says he tries to carefully balance songs from the 1950s with songs even as recent as the 1980s, as long as they represent a similar genre.
“Some stations seem to have simply drawn a line on the calendar and said, ‘OK, we won’t play anything before 1964,’” says Curtis. “They do it without deciding which of the older songs still work. There are oldies that are oldies and there are oldies that blend just fine. That way, you can at least please some of the folks who are looking for older songs.”
Often, the trouble is trying to define the word “oldie.” Depending on whom you ask, a song from 1995 could be considered an oldie — sorry, Hootie and the Blowfish fans — while Bing Crosby and even Beethoven certainly have some mileage. The question becomes, what exactly is an oldie?
“There really is no definition for this music,” says DeVenne. “On the air, I call it original, authentic American rock ’n’ roll, because that’s what it is. But we need the definition. If you call it oldies, that could be misunderstood. If you call it rock ’n’ roll, that could be misunderstood. It just doesn’t have a name.”
For now, maybe it could just be called old.
Every time he looks toward the audience at one of his 1950s doo-wop shows, Robbins is amazed at the number of young faces he sees. Not only is he surprised that they’re even there, he’s even more dumbfounded to see many of them singing along.
It’s a particularly refreshing sight for the 64-year-old Robbins, who says he just can envision seeing the same thing with some of today’s music.
“When the Belmonts sing ‘Teenager in Love,’ they’ll sing ‘why must I be’ and the young people in the audience will fill in the rest,” says Robbins. “Across the board, everybody knows those words. I just don’t think you’d see that with some of the music that came after doo-wop. I just can’t imagine an audience 20 years from now singing about how good it is to load up guns and shoot up the neighborhood.”
Not that we can expect a shooting-up-the-neighborhood format to sweep the airwaves anytime soon, but it’s easy to understand Robbins’ point that the music from the 1950s has broad, long-lasting appeal.
For that reason, he sees a significant future for the music he grew up worshipping, even when he’s no longer around to introduce it to younger audiences.
“I’ll just have to keep doing calisthenics to continue to produce these shows,” he says with a laugh. “When it comes to concerts, I don’t feel threatened. As long as there’s someone to produce these shows, the music will be there.”
While the radio industry may be losing interest in it, DeVenne says the general public isn’t. He hosted 1950s record hops at various establishment on Route 1 in Saugus for more than 20 years and says he’s constantly being asked by record companies to help re-master various oldies collections.
“If they’re asking me to do them, somebody must be buying them,” says DeVenne. “They’re not paying me to do charity work.”
Beyond that, DeVenne says 1950s-style shows at casinos such as Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut are almost always guaranteed sell-outs, meaning people aren’t quite ready to let go of that music just yet.
Just don’t expect poodle skirts to come back into style any time soon. Then again, you never know.
“I think the people of the ’50s and ’60s were from a pretty rebellious era to begin with,” says Robbins. “They’re not going to let their music go. They’re too proud of it.”
E-mail reporter Joel Beck at firstname.lastname@example.org