[Edited slightly on July 20, 2007 to correct some factual errors and add detail.]
I had a breakthrough recently, of a sort. I found something so special I have to share it. Let me set this up a bit.
I was born in 1963. The 1960s were one of the most turbulent and troubled periods in American history. Change was the prevailing theme, and sometimes that change was violent. For the first time, Americans saw real people die, right on their television screens. There were assassinations, there was racial turmoil, and there was an unpopular war fought not only in a remote country called Vietnam, but also right here at home. Anti-war activists and men serving their country with honor were on opposite sides of a terrible conflict, which pitted brother against brother in a way not seen since our Civil War.
The 1970s, the decade in which I did most of my growing up, were more upbeat. Boeing rolled out the 747. Disco was born. The US space program flourished. Personality radio was pioneered by people like Larry Lujack, Doug “The Greaseman” Tracht, Henry Boggan, Kasey Kasem, Dick Bartley, and even a great, unrecognized genius named Dick Mountjoy.
In Los Angeles, a man named Tom Clague (simplified on the air to “Tom Clay”) had recently moved to the west coast from Detroit. Clay’s motor city radio career had been stellar, but in 1959 when government officials cracked down on the once-widespread practice called “payola,” Clay was fired in disgrace. After a five-year stint at CKLW in Canada, he eventually had returned to Detroit and rebuilt his career, but by 1971 he was ready for a change.
Clay had just begun to make his mark on the L.A. radio scene. The famed “Boss Radio” craze had just struck, an age when music radio was at its zenith. Clay’s show on KDAY, called “Words and Music”, was a grand experiment in combining creative editing, the spoken word, and other audio from newsbites and the like into a cohesive medium. His shows were like collages for the ear, scrapbooks from your radio. He was a storyteller with modern tools. Some of his work was an acquired taste. Other efforts were true masterpieces, especially given the tools available at the time — primitive audio consoles, 1/4″ tape, razor blades, “carts”. He had a strong, recognizable, distinctive voice. The show was very popular, and the technique followed Clay through several radio jobs.
During a brief fill-in appearance on KGBS, Clay assembled a piece that caught the attention of Motown’s Berry Gordy. Gordy thought it was well produced, not least because it used his own fast-rising session singers The Blackberries singing lines and background vocals from “What The World Needs Now” and “Abraham, Martin and John.”
In 1971, MoWest (the west coast division of the legendary Motown label) released a 12-inch LP* called “What The World Needs Now Is Love”, by Tom Clay. On it were his highlights; the very best bits he’d done for his shows, further cleaned up and made as presentable as a 1971 release could be. The featured single was popular and received significant airplay, but the album didn’t sell; spoken word albums often didn’t, alongside the popular music of the day. In 1975, I found it in a discount bin at K-Mart and bought it. I remember listening to the title track, side 1, cut 1, and being completely overwhelmed. The audio montage recalled with startling clarity the four most galvanizing events of the 1960s; the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, and the Vietnam war.
Life marched on, the seventies gave way to the eighties, and somehow that vinyl record disappeared. For twenty years, I’ve been trying to find it again. I rarely pass a used record store without wandering through for a brief search. I’ve scoured the internet over the years, too, hoping to find an MP3, but I’d mostly given up.
Two days ago, I heard the Burt Bacharach / Elvis Costello version of “What The World Needs Now Is Love”. In my mind, I couldn’t hear Burt over the deafening memory of The Blackberries’ voices in the Tom Clay montage. I decided to have another look. In fact, I spent far more time than I should have on a busy day, poking about with Google. I found lots of references to the record and the LP; it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who appreciated it. Finally, something promising led me to a web site containing not a word of English save for the title I was looking for. Breathlessly I clicked the link, and seconds later, I was listening to Tom Clay’s magnum opus again, my heart in my throat, feeling the same impact as when I heard it for the first time.
Now you can listen too. I’m posting three versions, and if you can’t play any of these, e-mail me and I’ll send it to you in any form necessary. It’s that good.
The recording is surprisingly clean for a transfer from vinyl. In particular, appreciate the wonderfully exaggerated stereo image that is a trademark of popular music in the late sixties and early seventies. Yes, the cuts are rough and the audio clips are of very low fidelity; there are wow-ins, clicks, and pops. Welcome to the early 1970s radio industry. Look past that and let yourself get involved with the content, though, and you’ll go on quite a journey as you listen to this.
A few explanatory notes for my loyal readers in other, more civilized countries:
The combination of distorted, clipped audio and American accents may make some of the actualities difficult to understand. Also, all of the online transcripts I can find are wrong. So, I’ve transcribed the recording very carefuly and accurately myself. [Edited July 18, 2007 to correct some errors and improve formatting.] Here is the transcript.
The voice reporting from the Dallas Trade Mart, where JFK’s motorcade was headed, is Ron Jenkins of KBOX Radio, Dallas, Texas.
The voice reporting the president’s death is a young David Brinkley. Many people remember a similar line delivered by Walter Cronkite; Cronkite actually lost his composure for a few seconds, later commenting that “Anchormen shouldn’t cry.”
The speaker who has been to the mountaintop is the civil rights icon of the sixties, Dr. Martin Luther King.
The voice saying “No one can know…” is Senator Robert Kennedy.
Andrew West of station KRKD, Los Angeles, is the reporter who was interviewing Robert Kennedy when he was shot. He mentions olympic gold-medalist decathlete Rafer Johnson, who along with football star Rosey Grier, wrestled assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the floor and disarmed him. Clay used only a short section of a very long audio clip … even these few seconds are difficult to listen to. West’s reactions seem very genuine. Sirhan’s revolver discharged eight rounds, one of which nearly hit West himself. “We don’t want another Oswald!” refers to Lee Harvey Oswald, who shot President John F. Kennedy and who was shot to death by Jack Ruby while in police custody in 1963.
The voice eulogizing Robert Kennedy is his brother, Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy.
Tom Clay passed away in 1995 after a battle with cancer, at the age of 66. Except among those who record and study the history of broadcast radio, he is largely forgotten. That’s a pity. He was a great talent.
* That was like a big CD, except it was made of black vinyl with grooves on both sides, and was played on a primitive machine called a “phonograph”.