'Blues for the Twenty-First Century': An Interview with Tom 'Papa' Ray
The induction of five of KDHX's first generation of blues DJs into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame happily comes as KDHX looks towards its 30th anniversary. Among those honored at the ceremony this past April were Art Dwyer, Ron Edwards, Denny Clancy and John McHenry and the one and only Tom 'Papa' Ray aka The Soul Selector. Adding to interviews with Ron and Art by Ronnie Wisdom and Sean Smothers, Andy Coco of The Rhythm Section sat down to talk with Tom about the earlier days of St. Louis radio and what goes into being a DJ.
Andy: So I'm curious about the early days can you tell me a little about your involvement, would you talk a little about St. Louis radio at the time and describe what appealed to you about getting involved with KDHX?
Tom: Simply the fact that KDHX literally provided the alternative to the status quo of commercial radio. St. Louis radio was very, very profitable for its owners in the 1980s and they certainly didn't wish to rock the boat in any way. At the time, the only programming you had for a historical look at blues and historical look at reggae was Leroy Pierson who had a show at KWMU in the early '80s. Those were very well-produced shows but eventually a new station manager managed to get that programming off KWMU. So until KDHX came on the air there was nobody playing the kind of undiluted blues programming that you were suddenly able to have when KDHX went on the air.
Andy: Am I mistaken in assuming that that was a substantial portion of the programming at the time, being that all of you who were recently inducted into the St. Louis Radio Hall of Fame were all primarily about soul, R&B and Blues? Was that a significant percentage of early programming?
Tom: I think that would be fair to say, but also that a percentage of programming at the station got transformed as more and more personalities were brought on air to do more and more different kinds of shows. For example when KDHX had its morning shows, two DJs in question were throwing blues artists into the mix, especially local blues artists. So I think that if not the agenda of management, it certainly was of the DJs doing it.
Andy: Was there a lack of that programming in the '80s following the heyday of race radio, clearly segregated...
Tom: Well, in the '80s you started seeing the beginning of the larger corporate radio companies acquiring more signals. For many years St. Louis had KATZ, an AM station, as well as WESL in East St. Louis, and although their signals were modest they tended to be very, very well placed in relation to the urban area of St. Louis where their listenership was. And those were very influential stations, especially KATZ — KATZ literally introduced an entire generation to hip-hop in the late '70s.
Andy: Can you talk a little bit about the people who were on the air at the time?
Tom: Well, let me begin by saying I always enjoyed listening to appropriate personalities to the music on radio, whether it was rock, whether it was blues, whether it was jazz, whether it was reggae, whether it was country-western. I liked hearing a DJ who you could tell had an interest and a knowledge and hopefully a passion for what they were doing and conveyed that over the air and by doing so created a sense of community. DJs like Jim Gates, Fatha Thines and Dr. Jockenstein really did that in the St. Louis black community. Those were very much household names and trusted qualities for an enormous amount of listeners.
Andy: I'm told we use the word "community" broadly here at KDHX. But I think what you're speaking to is a genre fan-base — there's someone out there who likes what I like.
Tom: Sure, sure. For example, if you go into the office of Joe Edwards — one of the first things you're going to see is a large photo of a very happy Joe Edwards at the age of 16 sitting at a radio board with a microphone standing there with his idol Lou "Fatha" Thines.
Andy: ...who did a program at KDHX for quite some time too. I was lucky to be around when he was on the air for a few years; he was really cool.
Tom: Compared to some people who called themselves old school, they are elementary in comparison.
Andy: So the Soul Selector, the man, Tom Ray, owner of longstanding St. Louis record store Vintage Vinyl — it seems like you've always been a record collector, but what about the record store business — how did you get started in that?
Tom: I was offered a job as a jazz buyer for the Peaches store that was opened on Hampton in 1975. Instead of finishing my college hours, I decided I wanted to be in the music business. So I took that offer, and within 11 months of that I was living in Manhattan and working in the music business there. I did that for a little over three years.
Andy: Were you record collecting before that?
Tom: I was record collecting as soon as I could scrounge money. I hated mowing yards as a kid but I'd mow a yard to buy a new record.
Andy: [Laughter] What were some of the first records you bought? And were they 45s or LPs.
Tom: Probably the first 45 I ever actually bought was "Good Lovin'" by The Young Rascals, but before that I'd bought soul and blues LPs. I remember my first blues LP by B.B. King was The Jungle. I bought that at a hardware store because the hardware store in that part of NE Florida had a rack of budget records. That's where I got my first Howling Wolf & John Lee Hooker LP, too. I guess I was probably about 12 years old.
Andy: Musical household?
Tom: Not at all — actually that's not true. I was very fortunate to grow up in a home in the 1950s where there were no Patty Page records, no Frank Sinatra records. There was none of that what I call non-rock '50s pop music. It was all pretty much country honky-tonk, and when I say that I mean Webb Pierce, Lefty Frizzell, Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams. That's what my father liked and my mother liked it too.
Andy: So you had a turntable?
Tom: Oh, yeah, yeah...
Andy: So does that career you built in the music business ever interfere with your DJ identity as the Soul Selector at all or does it just enhance it?
Tom: Often it enhances it, but I think there's a separation in your head, the musical equivalent of the separation of church and state — of course, KDHX is the church.
Andy: I would think that the wealth of knowledge gives you so much to choose from that you realize the depths of the water...
Tom: Oh yeah. That's why I think it's important for people who are music-obsessive to try to have a life outside music.
Andy: [Laughter] So your on-air presence has a almost a commercial or slick style to it, and I mean commercial in the sense of race radio. How did you come to that style?
Tom: I think a lot of the cadence I use is Southern in origin. You used the word "slick" — I've got no problem with that word, but I never want to sound like an NPR announcer. I think the kind of music I play behooves the DJ to be economic and have a certain rhythm and stroke that is a segue from one song to the next...
Andy: That's the positive use of the word "slick" — greasin' the wheels a little bit.
Tom: And the fact is commercial radio often despite itself was the launching pad for the most astonishing kind of DJs on the radio. And it's long been my contention that St. Louis absolutely punched above its weight when you consider how many really good DJs were on the air at one time. And that was spread over a number of genres. It wasn't like I thought there was anyone in particular in St. Louis that I wanted to copy or imitate but there were all these radio DJs and club DJs who indicated the possibilities.
Andy: The club DJ versus Radio DJ thing has me thinking a little bit. I've seen you do club DJing and you have a real enthusiasm for it — and I think there's something really interesting about how the crowd reacts to what you'll play next. How would you describe the different feelings you get from being a performer on the radio versus a performer on stage?
Tom: It's just the difference between being in a room of kindred souls. And it's just much more of an immediate social setting. It makes you want to connect with your listeners and have a call and response. Again, when I came to St. Louis and started getting into clubs and seeing the older guys at their sets and how perfect they were at being the master of ceremonies in an evening using music as well as the people in the room as the gist of their performance — guys like Jules Carlos, who was a very popular club MC and personality who made his living in St. Louis for over 50 years doing that and being a promoter and this and that. It's an art. Then also seeing the close relationship of camaraderie between radio personalities and the visiting artists. On any number of levels, both parties want to bond to each other — the DJs are drawn to the people whose records they're playing and the visiting artist is looking at the DJ as his homeboy — "This is my solid sender here in St. Louis." It's like Solomon Burke telling me that when he came to St. Louis he didn't know anyone and it was Lou Thimes who took him around in a brand new Lincoln and, as he put it, "played my records before anyone else did and introduced me to all the people that I needed to know."
Andy: How do you get yourself pumped up to do your radio show — do you visualize an audience?
Tom: No, I get in the air room as soon as I'm allowed and go from there.
Andy: Is it all internal or do you draw from your audience?
Tom: I think about the audience and also about in the context of being here in St. Louis. Trying to make it a mix of old and new. Certain records can put brackets around or signify or reflect on something that's happened that day or that week. Then, if you take phone calls, that's sort of like the I Ching as far as what you're going to play that day, because chances are somebody will suggest something that you hadn't immediately thought of, would not have thought of, but when you thought about it you said, "Yeah, I'll do that here and then I can play this."
Andy: It's the "Yes, and...." Just switching gears here a bit — tell me what it means to you to be inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame this year?
Tom: A real, real life honor to me, 'cause it puts me in the company of people I thought were just magicians on the air waves. And I think when I'm really hitting on all fours, I do some spell-casting.
Andy: There's been a couple of instances, I recall, when you've left the air room and you had to share with somebody, "I think today was a good day." I always enjoy hearing that. What do you think about the other guys [Art, Ron, Denny and John]?
Tom: They're dedicated. They know their stuff. Each of us has a different take and view and rhythm. There's no carbon copies, everybody's one of a kind.
Andy: Did you and those other blues jocks at some point along the way step back and realize that you would be carrying a torch of a kind? Was there any kind of agreements among the group about who'd do what and how you'd do it?
Tom: No, I think the music gives you marching orders, if you're so tuned.
Andy: There's a real significance in this city to what you've all accomplished. You mentioned earlier that there wasn't necessarily a written guide to embracing St. Louis's blues heritage in the early days, but it was exemplified: people there and that's what was coming out. When I think of similar stations such as OZ in New Orleans, I think there there was a definite stated intention towards elevating the historical significance of the creative talent of that city. Was that just implied or ever stated here?
Tom: I think that given that everyone involved, for the most part, are musicians and musicians whose work to a greater or lesser if not exclusive extent had them playing in a blues context — I think that helped enhance the drive and dedication and desire. I mean it's a great, great feeling to me to play a record that you might have heard 20, 25, 30 years before you went on the air, and that record still sounds great to you. Especially when it's one of those records where if you wanted to you could wear yourself out playing other recorded variations of what this person did in two-and-a-half minutes in 1957.
Andy: Any concern about the art form — about the blues' resonance and lasting-power?
Tom: It's so deep in the DNA of the collective American music that I don't think it's going away. It will obviously change because the people change — and that the person in 2020 that will be making that music almost certainly did not pick cotton, almost certainly did not come up in the same historical conditions that spawned blues musics. When that music first came up — if you think about it — there certainly were cities, but a much larger part of the population still lived in a rural setting. So that's changed. Sometimes when I'm on the air, I say that I'm playing blues for the twenty-first century. I don't want to do something I consider archival. If I didn't think it was relevant to today at 4 p.m., I don't think it would be nearly as attractive to me to do, and I seriously doubt I would have done it for 30 years. To that end, I do think that these days the secret to having a 30 year career in radio is to do it pro-bono.
Andy: Did you ever do any commercial work?
Tom: I did a couple of commercials, but if you think of the '80s, corporate was so buttoned-down that — no fucking way, no way. It's not as buttoned-down now, only because of the fact that it's been stripped of so much of its power. I don't know if I ever told you this about one of the DJs I know who left St. Louis for a while after having a nice five-year-plus career on a major local corporate station. When he had his show in the '90s, you went in, there were two interns, a producer, and an engineer. Definite support team. He comes back a few years later. I remember going on the air with him around then — no interns, no producer, same morning slot. He's the only person there. He told me that when he came back, he was offered exactly the same job, same everything for a third less than what he had been making before. So that's it in a nutshell.
Andy: What does that mean to KDHX?
Tom: What was that billboard? "We're all that's left." People in commercial radio, I think they all view themselves as walking on thin ice unless they're engineers and even they have to. You certainly don't see commercial radio supporting the tried-and-true radio personalities that they've had for years. You don't see them getting a bigger contract, and in a lot of cases you don't even see them being offered another contract 'cause management's looking for a way to save 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars by putting in someone who's green, they'll do that. They're doing it already. You've been over to one of these media mega-corporations, right? Man, what a plantation — it's all there. Right-wing talk radio: you got it. You want country: you got it. You want "real" rock radio: you got it. In one sales staff. I often think back there was a certain point that I realized what had changed in radio. It used to be that if you had a career in radio as a program manager or an engineer or the head of sales, nine times out of ten you had been on the mic, even if it was the graveyard shift, you had done radio. And when they started promoting sales to management — you got hired first in sales and then got promoted to management — I think that was a big change.