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Friday, December 16, 2011

Remembering WNEW... and My Grandfather

About a month ago, I got to thinking a lot about WNEW-AM, the legendary New York radio station that in many ways spawned my love for the great American standards. This month marked 19 years that the station has been off the air, since being unceremoniously replaced by Bloomberg Radio right around the time I started college. I was largely exposed to it because of my grandfather, Tony Salica, who had listened to it pretty much every day of his life from when it first went on the air in 1934. And so I got to planning a tribute to WNEW for Standard of the Day.

Less than two weeks ago, my grandfather passed away. Thus, what I had originally envisioned as an ode to a great radio station now becomes an ode to the man who shared it with me.

He was a man who rubbed shoulders with Frank Sinatra and Muhammad Ali. Who received toys from Babe Ruth as a kid. Who saw Billie Holiday in concert at the Apollo Theater. And speaking of Sinatra, my grandfather idolized the man, and his music will always remind me of him because of that. In fact, WNEW was known for years as the "station of Sinatra", which is a big part of why my grandfather loved it so much.

My grandfather's love of Sinatra was legendary within my family. He worshiped him with a level of adoration that's impossible to overstate--an admiration that bordered on filial love. And beyond Sinatra, he had a passion for his kind of music--the big bands of the '40s and the vocal pop that dominated "grown-up music" from the post-war era right up to the British Invasion. To say his love of that music rubbed off on me would be quite an understatement--it permeated my childhood, becoming a soothing background soundtrack to my life. I moved away from it as a teenager, gravitating toward alternative and classic rock, but came back to my roots as a mature adult.

My grandfather was a man who loved his family more than anything in the world. There was nothing that brought him greater delight than watching my sister and I grow up, and later his great-grandchildren Layla and Jack, who quite literally meant the world to him. For me, he was like a second father. He taught me how to be a man, and making him proud is one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. Today, I cherish the sounds that he passed on to me, and happily pass them on to my own children.

The main conduit my grandfather had for his kind of music was, of course, WNEW. From 1934, it was the New York City radio station, listened to on a daily basis by him and the rest of the Depression/World War II generation. It remained the dominant station in the city for a good 30 years, until the youth culture of the 1960s changed the course of popular music, forcing WNEW to become a "nostalgia" station, catering more and more to a niche listenership of aging New Yorkers.

My grandparents happened to be among those aging New Yorkers, and not a day went by that they didn't listen to WNEW in their car, or on the little transistor radio my grandfather carried around with him everywhere. As kids, my sister and I would ride around with them on regular weekend excursions, meaning we were exposed to the sounds of WNEW all the time.

I look back fondly on those trips now, as a formative part of my life. We'd usually head over the Verrazano Bridge to Staten Island, visiting our Aunt Stella, the Staten Island Mall, Richmondtown Restoration (which we called "The Birds and the Bees"), or a combination of the three. And as we did so, WNEW would be heard in the background, the thrilling voices of Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Dean Martin, Judy Garland, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme and so many others accompanying us as my grandfather got inevitably lost driving around those idyllic suburban Staten Island backroads.

There was the Make-Believe Ballroom, hosted by William B. Williams. Also, my grandfather's personal favorite show, hosted by the great Jonathan Schwartz. My grandfather loved listening to him talk, even if he didn't always understand what the hell he was talking about. And who could forget that classic station jingle... "Double-You..En-Ee-Double-You...Eleven-Three-Oh in New Yooork..."

But most of all there was Sinatra. His warm, cello-like voice filling that Persian blue 1976 Buick Century like a cool, refreshing breeze. My grandfather would revel in the Sinatra A-Z, a days-long celebration playing every single recording the man ever made. He had this uncanny ability to name a Sinatra song within the first couple notes of the arrangement, and he always knew every word.

Like Sinatra, I think we all just thought he would live forever. That’s why Sunday night, December 4 was still a shock, even though we knew he was very sick with ALS. He had been unconscious for a few hours when my mom called me to come down and see him. And ten minutes after I got there, he passed gently and quietly in his sleep. I can’t help but think he was waiting for me. As he lay there peacefully, I put my cellphone on his pillow and played Sinatra's "Put Your Dreams Away" on YouTube. I know he would've considered that the perfect sendoff, even if he never quite understood why I carried that stupid thing around with me all the time.

Through it all, the music was still intertwined with my grandfather, in death as in life. When the funeral parlor asked me to select some songs to use for a DVD montage of my grandfather's old photographs, let's just say I had no trouble at all. I wish he could watch that DVD with me, just like I wish he could've seen his great-granddaughter sing "Pennies from Heaven" at his service--verse and all. I suppose, however, that he's still been watching us after all, as is evidenced by the pennies we've been finding everywhere for the past couple of weeks.

My grandfather left me with a great many things, but most pertinent to this website, and to what I'm writing about today, he left me with a rich, deep love for the greatest American music ever made. It was the only type of music he ever took seriously, and although I try to be a bit more broad-minded in my own tastes, I will confess to a healthy dose of the musical snobbery he proudly engendered in me.

I can remember his profound sense of loss when WNEW-AM went off the air on December 11, 1992, after many years of dwindling ratings (ironically, the very years during which I was discovering the station.) Much of the staff and management immediately started up their own independent station, 1560 WQEW, but it only lasted for six years, going under mere months after Sinatra's own death--a telling sign of the times if ever there was one. It was the end of an era, and these days the sounds of the great American songbook are no longer heard on New York City airwaves.

My grandfather lived long enough to see his music get shifted into the "Easy Listening" bin and moved aside to make way for the amateur screeches and flimsy compositions of angry young boys in their parents' garages. He watched it fade, just as I watched him fade over the past few years. And now, my grandfather, like WNEW, is gone. But also like WNEW, it is only his physical presence that is truly gone, as the memories of both are kept alive in my heart, in my memories, and in Standard of the Day.

Because without Tony Salica and WNEW, this website would not exist. I never got the chance to show it to him, but I'm sure he would've loved my own little "Make-Believe Ballroom"...


Pete Emslie said...

A beautiful tribute that I enjoyed reading very much! Your grandfather sounds a lot like my own father, from whom I similarly developed my taste in music. My dad loved Bing and Louis Armstrong, as well as the Dixieland stylings of clarinetist, Pete Fountain. Oddly, I came to appreciate Sinatra more on my own, as my dad didn't have any of Frank's records.

By the way, I've been quietly enjoying your blog and the songs you post about for some time now. This lovely tribute made me feel compelled to post a comment to let you know that your efforts are greatly appreciated!

B-Sol said...

Thanks a million, Pete. Yes, your dad was probably a lot like my grandfather. Aren't we fortunate to have had these people in our lives to share this wonderful?

Please keep reading, and feel free to comment as often as you like!

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Lee Shin

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