A native of St. Louis (South St. Louis, Spring and Dunnica to be exact), Becker was born December 12, 1944. When not on air, he works with online sales for Euclid Records and is active in non-profits. He cooks for Food Outreach every week and also contributes significantly to its fundraisers. "Helping people makes me feel good," he says.
In conversation, Becker is as opinionated and passionate as he is on air. KDHX salutes Al and thanks him for his many years of great programming.
Roy Kasten: What was your neighborhood like growing up in the '50s?
Al Becker: Oh it was lovely. Every lawn was mowed perfectly. You wouldn't find a piece of paper or a cup in the street. The alleys were clean. You had ash pits in those days, everything was burned. And trash was picked up on a regular basis. Nobody thought of writing on a wall or a garage door. It just did not happen. People who weren't living in that time don't realize how different it was. My mother was ill, she had polio when I was a year and a half, and someone had to stay in the house to take care of her, and they were always women of color. And many a time coming back from the grocery store, every third corner had a little store, the police would pull up to the curb and ask them what they were doing walking down the street. And today we're thinking about doing that in Arizona. Isn't it funny how things come around?
But it was a lovely area. It had gotten kind a bad, and you always want to go back to where you were born and raised and drive around. But it's starting to pick up again, which is nice to see.
I was in St. Louis until 7th grade, then I moved to Memphis, Tennessee, and went to junior high and high school in Memphis. I'd spent all my summers in Memphis, that's where my mother was from. I came back to St. Louis and I was in the second freshman class at UMSL. It had been open just 2 years when I went there.
What did you study?
I didn't have the faintest idea, and I decided after I took Sociology that I'd become a Sociology major. I never used it. That's not true, I did use it in my career. You take what you learn and you apply it to whatever you're doing.
But because I spent my years in Memphis, growing up, I had a cousin who I became very close to later in life. People would not believe it, but white high school kids in the '50s did not listen to white music on the radio. They listened to black music on the radio. There was WDAI when Rufus Thomas was a DJ down there, and of course Dewey Philips, the first white DJ to play black music on a white station. I'd be back in my cousin's room and she'd be playing all these black records. So the fact that I like black music, jazz and R&B and blues, should come as no surprise to anybody. That's what I heard. When I got back home, I'd be out in the back, and the woman who would come over would have her radio on, playing KATZ. That's what I was brought up on. So it's not because I'm a total liberal or anything. It's what I heard!
It's interesting. A lot of people listen to radio, but they don't have a life that, to a large extent, revolves around music.
For me it became a hobby. Jazz became something for me in about the 10th grade. Friends would come over and I'd have a record on and they'd say, "Does that woman have a chicken bone in her throat?" One of my best friends, that was his comment. They weren't phrasing or singing true melody or whatever. They didn't understand what I was listening to.
What was the first jazz album you owned?
Chris Connor's first album on Atlantic. Atlantic 1228 as we call it. One of the greatest albums ever made. I didn't get in to Dinah Washington until 1963 or 1964. Dakota Staton was one of my very firsts. I also listened to a lot of instrumental jazz early. Today I don't. I just listen to vocal music. If you listen to the show you're going to hear ballads, but you're also going to hear stuff that's gritty, that has a beat to it, a little bluesy, kind of an overlapping thing. That's what I grew up on, that's what I like.
Did you become a record collector early on?
Early on, early on. Probably when I was in college, though I had albums when I was in high school. But when they started closing out the mono albums you could buy them for a dollar or 3 for a dollar. I have albums that I've sold for $50 or $60 that I paid 33 cents for. Had I known what the rare record business would become I would have gotten a storage unit and cleared the stores out years ago. But who knew.
What was your first jazz concert?
That would have been in St. Louis, before I moved to Chicago. I'm guessing it was Nina Simone at Kiel Auditorium. But when you say "jazz concert" you have to remove that from all the clubs in Gaslight Square. I lived in Gaslight Square for a year. So, probably Nina Simone. Bill Cosby opened up. She was about an hour late and nobody seemed to care.
Were you involved in KDNA?
No. It was down there in Gaslight Square. But I did not own a radio. The only radio I had was in the car. I played records at home. I did not listen to the radio. I knew what KDNA was, but I didn't know what it was all about, and if I had, I wouldn't have cared.
How did you get involved in KDHX?
I moved back to St. Louis, I was living in Boston for a while, my father became very ill. I moved back in August, and I was reading the Post-Dispatch, I think I still have the issue at home, and the story said the station was moving into a building at 3504 Magnolia and they were looking for volunteers, blah blah blah.
I had been away for 16 years, I didn't know anybody, and I figured it was a good way to meet people. I came over and the floor wasn't even in downstairs. You'd walk between planks on concrete. I cleaned out the basement and painted with spray paint. They asked me if I'd like to be on the air. I had never even thought about it in a million years. Never crossed my mind. They said, "Oh come on, what can you do?" I had been around long enough to know that you had to be a little edgy, much more so than now. I said, OK, how about an all female jazz vocal program? Which it was. I played no male vocals for the first 4 years I was on the air. All the women at the meeting screamed and yelled! They probably thought I was going to do some political jazz, which I wasn't. I went on air in November. November 10, 1987. So take away the 4 years in New York, we're taking 18 years [on air at KDHX]. Now you know why I'm tired. Plus I was three years on the Board of Directors, two years as VP of Radio, and 4 and half years on the Program Committee.
One of the things I've always liked about your show is the historical perspective, but you're also passionate about new releases and artists.
I love music. I try to play new things. A lot of the stuff coming out today is crap. I've had stuff sent to my mailbox that I would never put on the air. My interviews for the last 3 years have not been on people in St. Louis. I've had people on the West Coast and New York who listen and are in the business, and they've connected me with the interviews and the CDs.
If someone was wanting to discover great contemporary jazz vocals, where should they start?
When you say contemporary you have to remember that a lot of these singers are close to 50. Tierney Sutton is one, she was at the Sheldon in October. It's the third time they've had her, and the third time I've missed her. Jane Monheit I thought was going to go somewhere, but her CDs are really poppy and romantic, not really jazzy. Nina Freeland, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, who's very bluesy. Dianne Reeves, but she made her mark in '94 or '95, she's almost 50 now. There's Bettye LaVette. She's been around forever, but she's only gotten hot in the last 6 years. She should have been as big as Aretha Franklin.
What I get now in my mailbox…I wouldn't say it in public…but oh god. You can't carry a tune from one room to the next. But you're pretty, you're singing the American songbook, and you have saxophones and flutes behind you. But that does not make you a jazz singer. You do not understand improvisation, singing before or after the beat. If you look at the great jazz singers, they paid their dues. They were out there scrounging around for years before they made it. You have to suffer to get big.
See I don't consider Frank Sinatra a jazz singer. He is a jazz-influenced pop singer. So is Tony Bennett. Can they sing jazz? Yes, but I would not call them jazz singers. I don't really call Nina Simone a jazz singer. She called herself a folk singer. She said, "I sing songs of the people. If I sing gospel, if I sing blues, if I sing political songs, it's of the people. I am a folk singer." Not in the terms of Peter, Paul and Mary. Esther Phillips and Dinah Washington didn't want that title. They were singers. Give them material and watch what they do with it.
There's no training today. A lot of the great singers had big band training. Anita O'Day, Chris Connor, Bing Crosby. People say Billie Holiday didn't, but excuse me, she sang with Benny Goodman. You don't call that a big band? That's how they learned their trade. There is nowhere to do that today. You are created by a studio soundman, unless you have this inward knowledge of music that you've gotten by listening or absorbing.
Note: This post was edited on November 22, 2010.