Jade Sphinx readers know of my deep love and respect for what has come to be known as The Great American Songbook. This is the truly classic American sound, created at the apex of what was the American Century. Such brilliant creative artists as Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Yip Harburg and Arthur Freed created the songs America sang for nearly 40 years. Equally brilliant interpretative artists, such as Bing Crosby, Russ Columbo, Rudy Vallee, the Boswell Sisters and Judy Garland gave voice to these immortal tunes.
This sophisticated sound defined an age sadly gone. The impact of this loss upon our culture has been incalculable. The sense of fun, of elegance, of poetry and romance, of melodic complexity, let alone of yearning or idealism, are missing completely from contemporary music. The cultural missteps of America have been many, but few as bewildering or destructive as the closing of the American Songbook.
Fortunately, once discovered, this music is usually savored. One such connoisseur is Rich Conaty, host of The Big Broadcast, heard every Sunday on WFUV.FM (90.7 on the dial). The Big Broadcast also streams, and boasts audience members as far as Australia. Conaty has been a staple of the radio dial for more than 30 years, and his program is a fresh, fun and smart as ever.
The Big Broadcast focuses on my favorite era of the music – the sound of the 1930s. This decade is perhaps the high water mark for American popular culture; a time when music, film and radio created the American Voice and defined the Everyman. Listening to the Big Broadcast on Sundays is a chance to visit this mythic and vanished era.
Mr. Conaty will also be appearing at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention on Friday, October 21st, at the Holiday Inn North at Newark International Airport. Mr. Conaty took time from his busy broadcast schedule to speak with us.
Please first tell us a little about your background?
I was born in Astoria, New York on November 30, 1954. I was glued to the TV growing up, and got my Mom to take me to Howdy Doody, Johnny Jellybean and The Sandy Becker Show.
You are a young man – surely you would’ve grown up listening to The Beatles and the Rolling Stones. How did you detour into 1920s and 30s music?
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of the people I play where still performing: Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, the Mills Brothers, and Joe Venuti were all working. I was introduced to the music through Mark Adler's Genesis of a Record program on the Hofstra University station. But I was also a fan of Ed Beach on WRVR, Joe Franklin and Danny Stiles.
What were some of the first vintage records you bought?
The first 78 I remember finding was "Who Dat up Dere?" by Woody Herman, a record "too new" for me to play on The Big Broadcast. Genesis of a Record and the rest got me interested in even earlier things. I bought a Victrola at a shop near the 59th Street Bridge, and then started picked up 78s at Merit Music on West 46th.
The Big Broadcast has had quite a history. I remember listening to it in college on WNEW, when they had a Great American Songbook format. Can you tell us a little about traveling around the dial?
I was a staff announcer at Hofstra's WVHC in the summer of 1971, between Junior and Senior year of high school. I picked Fordham because of its radio station, and started at WFUV in late 1972. The first Big Broadcast was the following January. Jim Lowe gave me my first paying job at WNEW-AM in 1983. Not a bad place to start! I followed the format, and continued doing The Big Broadcast on WFUV. In 1992, I moved the show to WQEW, where I worked for almost five years. The Big Broadcast has been on every Sunday since January 1973, almost two thousand weeks.
While a show like The Big Broadcast seems unique now, I remember there was a huge ‘nostalgia craze’ in the 60s and 70s, when the likes of Crosby or the Marx Brothers had as much cultural currency as contemporary artists. Why do you think this happened?
I think partly it was demographics. Forty years ago there were still plenty of people who remembered the music first-hand. And younger audiences were being introduced to it through the Busby Berkeley musicals, Our Gang comedies and all the rest on TV. Plus the cartoons! I think our continued love for animated cartoons from this period has done a lot to keep the music alive.
Tell us a little about your current audience. Are most of your listeners New Yorkers, or is most of your listenership from streaming audio?
The online audience is growing, but the majority listen the "old fashioned" way. But the archived shows give even the locals a chance to catch up.
The Big Broadcast really focuses on the 20s and 30s, hardly ever touching on the 40s or 50s (or even 60s, when Sinatra and Streisand, for example, were still carrying this musical banner). Why focus on this period?
That's just how the show has evolved. There's no shortage of great stuff to play from the 20s and 30s. With a few exceptions, I don't think the newer stuff fits with it. It's difficult to make a "soft landing" going from then even to the 1940s. It’s a different and unique sound.
What is your take on the subculture that has recently evolved around this era and its music? Things like the Governor’s Island Jazz Party and young people dressing like Art Deco dandies?
I think it's wonderful. Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks have done more than anybody to get this music in front of the public. I look at the fans of my show on Facebook -- almost 1400 people, and the grey heads, like me, are in the minority.
If you had to define this unique sound in just a few words, what would you say?
I don't know. Classic Pop & Jazz, Hot Dance Music. I'm even okay with "cartoon music" nowadays.
Who are some of your favorite artists? Favorite songs?
I was always a Bing Crosby fan. I dig the Dorsey Brothers, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Cliff Edwards, Al Bowlly, Connie Boswell. I like a solid dance band, like Bert Lown. And the British bands are great. No real specific song favorites, but like the music or Harold Arlen and Walter Donaldson. Ray Noble's "Love Locked Out" is lovely.
I understand you were involved in someway with the creation of the Nighthawks….
In the early days of the show, I tried forming a Big Broadcast Band, but it didn't go anywhere until Vince got involved. He ran with it, to say the least! Now, he supplies the music for Boardwalk Empire!
What do you think this music has to say to us today?
It's very direct and literate. We could all benefit from its polish and enthusiasm.
Many thanks, Rich Conaty!