'Blues at Sunrise' and 'Blues in the Night': An Interview with Art Dwyer
Thirty years after KDHX first went on the air in 1987, five of KDHX's first generation of blues DJs have been inducted into the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame: Art Dwyer of Blues in the Night, Ron Edwards of Nothin' but the Blues, Denny Clancy and John McHenry of Blursday and Tom 'Papa' Ray of Soul Selector. The ceremony was be held April 15 at St. Louis City Center Hotel. In honor of the event, Gettin' Down to It host Sean Smothers sat down with Art to talk about the early days of the station and to trace the roots KDHX laid down in the community. Look for interviews with all the honorees, including Ronnie Wisdom's interview with Ron Edwards, and help KDHX begin to celebrate its 30th anniversary as Art and Ron, along with DJs Steve Pick and Pablo Meshugi, remember the station's beginnings at the Stories from the Tower event at The Stage on May 11.
Sean: I been looking forward to this for a long time. So it's 1987, it's 30 years ago and obviously a little bit different, can you paint a picture of what the station looked back then?
Art: There was construction to be done. They had to build a 500-plus-foot tower and a shack; the Soulard Blues Band had played a fundraiser or two for KDHX. All we knew was that it was the next radio station in line after KDNA [1969-1972], which was subversive, kind of underground, all these terms that gave it a little mystique. I got a call from Michael Donahue, one of the guys involved in pulling people in for this project and we didn't know each other very well -- he knew me from the music. He said, "You want to go down to this place? It's where they're building the radio station. And bring your tools and bring some records." That's a funny combination; I never forgot that: "Bring your tools and bring some records." Long story short I didn't use my tools, which was probably better for the tower and better for everybody. So I got in the car, drove down Highway 55 -- about a 75 mile round trip -- got off the highway at Richardson Road, got on the asphalt for a short drive, followed these dirt roads and got to the top of the hill. The road had all kinds of gouges in it and at the top is this little tin shack with a 500-foot tower next to it. That was the beginning.
We never knew each other or who was doing what because it was so far to go and there was no place to gather. You only knew what was going on because you listened to the other radio shows; otherwise you didn't know who was doing what because I never went down there any other time. It was so far to go. I'd make my lunch and go. I was going Monday and Friday afternoons from 2-5 or 2-6 or 2-7, anywhere around there. We did that for 18 months. There's a lot of interesting stories, but nobody took enough pictures of that place. It was a small, corrugated shack...
Sean: I was going to say, Are you talking reach-wall-to-wall small?
Art: It was smaller than this broadcast room where we're talking right now. And the broadcasting area looked like a cheap sci-fi movie; the board had four of five pots on it...
Sean: Hot enough to fry a cheese sandwich, that kind of thing?
Art: [Laughs] Yeah, it was always fun making that run down to the tower. At the time, I had a '74 Sedan DeVille and if the roads were a little slick, I had to back down this hill and get a run, go around this corner and go a little faster to make it up the hill without stalling out. As I said, there were deep ruts on both sides of the road and I was talking to someone the other day who mentioned that there's still deep ruts on the side of the road so that's good to know. In the summertime, it was cookin', it was boiling in there, and in the wintertime it was cold. Early winter wasn't too bad because all the heat coming off the equipment helped a little bit. So 18 months worth, two days a week, sometimes three hours, sometimes five.
For a while, Lee Roth was on the air right before me and I loved his show. He had a real cool jazz show and he would recite poetry. And when the door would open and I'd look in, he was in this crouched position, always like he was ready to spring forward or hit the roof, spring right through the window -- he was ready to move, man. He was tense like that but he'd be soundin' so cool and relaxed over the radio. So when I saw him, I thought, well, that's kind of interesting. He was a musician and a pretty good poet and that's one of the things that carried through this radio station; it's been a magnet for a lot of people with lots of records, musicians, people loving music. Speaking of that, when I listen to your show, I'm thinking, "This guy knows his music, this guy knows his research."
Sean: I appreciate that. Take me back to your show and what you were doing during that period. So you were doing five to eight hours a week -- were you playing the same kind of stuff you're playing today?
Art: Today I've got more records! Always had a lot of records, there's always been record stores in town where you could get 'em for $5. I've always played a lot of rhythm 'n' blues. For maybe ten years, I opened the show with this big band arrangement of "Blues in the Night" by Ray Charles and now I can't find this particular cut anywhere. The hundred best records got lifted out of the car somewhere back there. Tough break, you know. But always played a lot of R&B, never got too deep into jazz. I would play John Coltrane but I wouldn't play Arthur Blythe or something like that. I would play Herbie Hancock but I wouldn't play a lot of Cecil Taylor. Some guys were more familiar to me than others and when I started digging in deeper I would dig deeper into the R&B and into the blues instead of the jazz, but all of them have come along.
Sean: Well, I heard you playing Dizzy earlier tonight.
Art: Oh man! That was so much fun -- Dizzy, 1957 Newport Jazz Festival, and his orchestra is just loaded...
Sean: Oh yeah, Wynton Kelly...
Art: Yeah, all those guys, and they were so spot on, ready to play -- and I think that thing there is 160 beats per, that thing was flyin', man, and I just thought, "We gotta play Dizzy today... I'll be back next week to play some more blues but this is blues too. It's Dizzy's blues."
Sean: That speaks to the creative freedom of the station that was instilled early on and remains to this day. I'm sure you've probably gotten the callers that ask, "Hey are you getting direction from folks, are you changing your sound, is something happening? Did somebody tell you to play that?" It's usually around when someone like Chuck Berry dies and we're just playing Chuck Berry tunes because he passed and we want to pay respects. So that creative freedom is still here.
Art: People do ask -- not much -- and my response is that I been doing this however many years and years and nobody yet has told me what to play. I mean what kind of freedom is that -- holy cow.
Sean: Yeah, it's unheard of.... So let's speak about the other four guys who are on the bill with you going in with you to the St. Louis Media Hall of Fame.
Art: I knew them all a few years before. Tom 'Papa' Ray, we met when he was selling records out of a sack down down in Soulard Market -- he didn't have a record store yet. Ron and I met through playing music. Dennis Clancy, we knew each other way early. We might have been in some athletic program shooting nine ball. You know, sports. And John McHenry and I met through another friend years ago. I always like to say we were out in front of Pastori's tavern one night talking about music and he goes "Hey, we oughta get a blues band." And I'm telling you that was a great idea!
Sean: So talking a little bit about the Soulard Blues Band, you've had the long-standing Monday nights at the Broadway Oyster Bar, a reputation in this town that goes back further than the station. So I'm curious when you get on the microphone in the studio versus when you're on stage performing for an audience, is that different, is it the same, what are some of the trade-offs?
Art: You know the stage and music aren't necessarily one and the same. When you're on the stage you are performing, you are entertaining. Whenever you've got a guitar or you're singing, perhaps that's your stage right there wherever that is. But the stage at the club with the people in the audience...there's a big difference. The music, for me, being an ensemble player -- all the way up to eleven with three singers and that sort of thing -- you know, I'm in the rhythm section, part of the engine. I'm sure you know, it's more solo-involved doing a radio show. While the intensity can be the same, where it's coming from is different and what makes the intensity grow, wax and wane. It might be you're on a roll with your records. I can tell you do that with your records... I'm listening and Sean's got three or four in a row here, he's rollin' -- if he gets another one he's going to go through the roof! All programmers who get that rhythm going, listeners will get that feeling like there were no mistakes, like there shouldn't have been anything else played but what they played.
Sean: I can feel that energy from you in the studio and that's something that has been consistent for your program for 30 years and I would say that of the other four on this list.
Art: I would too say so too. Thank you.
Sean: I'm curious, what do you think it is that keeps you so excited to come into the studio each time? Is there a moment that you can point to and say, "This is when I felt at home," or was that feeling instantly instilled?
Art: It's an ongoing labor of love. Things come and go in your life. You add things and you get rid of things, and in this thirty-year progression so far -- and hopefully another 30, 60 -- KDHX always has a "What's around the corner? What's to look forward to?" There's a little mystery. It's all here with this radio station. When we left the tower up there on the hill, we went over to Magnolia Avenue, which was once a bakery, and that's when we got to know each other. That's when the family started to coalesce. We all got to know each other better because there were meetings -- I mean we couldn't go out on that hill by that little shack -- and now when we would have our pledge drives, people would come in and volunteer, shows were overlapping and you got to see the rhythm of how things went with the coming and going, with people showing up to do their show, people leaving, and people upstairs making sure everything's in order, always keeping the electricity on, whatever it took. To watch that and to be able to share ideas and listen, to help each other out on pledge drives -- in all of this, music is one of the common denominators, but all of the respect that everybody was bringing, all of the creativity, the music that was being played -- none of this was the kind of music you would hear with any regularity anyplace else. It was all there, so that took it a little bit farther, including all the people coming in for interviews. My first interview was Michael Doucet from BeauSoleil and it was fantastic, he made me look like a pro, just rattled off all the answers and said everything I was thinking. As this was occurring, there was a face being developed, something to see, something to feel. Before you could only listen and feel it and now there was a face, so that was added when we got over to Magnolia and we were reaching out into the community. The five guys -- me, McHenry and Clancy and Tom and Ron -- we got a band together, the KDHX Blues Band and played at Midwest Mayhem and other events. KDHX added talk programs, Literature for the Halibut, Earthworms, later Collateral Damage and others...nothing like them anywhere. There's a lot more to say, I'm only highlighting, but there's always something to look forward to.
Sean: So let's talk a little bit about being a musician on the other side. It's not a normal thing to be able to walk into a radio station and drop off your record to have it played, but we've always had that connection to St. Louis and St. Louis musicians in particular. Could you talk about how some St. Louis musicians reacted to the station early on?
Art: What you're talking about is very important: how the radio station reached out to the community. One of the things KDHX would do was beam live broadcasts from clubs -- and we still do with The Stage.
When my father was alive, the band was playing way down deep on South Grand and it was a Saturday night and I didn't know my father was listening. He was with all of his buddies from work. He was retired by then, so these guys are all gathering for a BBQ at the house and they're in their mid-70s, late-70s and my mother told me your father was so happy that he could say, "Yeah, that's my boy." So that's on a personal level, and each and every musician experiences some bit of that. Not only that, the bands come in to record, and get interviewed, and all of this is more than lip service. Last year this radio station paid more than 400 local musicians to play music, that's saying something. So when Tommy Halloran comes over and plays downstairs or when you play the Blues Society's 16 in 16 CD -- I play it, I know you play it -- we're massaging the relationship that has grown stronger through the years. Maybe the music has raised up the radio station; maybe the radio station has raised up the music, but nobody tries to big-shot anyone else. It's a good balance of respectability and input and what it takes to make it organic, and we're becoming less and less dependent on big bucks rather than more and more dependent. So hats off to everyone upstairs for that and everyone who's part of the radio station.
Sean: I'm sure you've seen cyclical things in the music industry, what have you noticed in your time on the air and playing in the band watching musicians come and go. What are you seeing?
Art: You know, if I was from Europe I would say, "Well, St. Louis has some of the best musicians and makes some of the best music, especially the blues, the world over." But since I'm from St. Louis, I say "Well, St. Louis makes some of the best music and the best blues the world over."
Sean: [Laughs] So what keeps this train going? What keeps KDHX going on a day-to-day?
Art: There's a lot of volunteers -- hundreds -- and everyone does their share with thoughtful execution; they get to their show on time. You can tell there's a lot of musicians who have shows over here and bring their expertise and their deep knowledge; you can tell all of these things and the way it gets shared is so open, so accessible that it truly is a musical institution where you can learn more about music probably than any library in town. I mean I don't want to start a fight with any other radio station because it's just not necessary. We've got something going on here no one else does and sometimes I have to listen to other radio stations and see what's going on and when I do, I know I'm in the right place. Right now the music scene is better than it's ever been and why shouldn't KDHX be part of that because KDHX helped open the doors to that and allowed it to grow and expand and be heard. You know there's young cats who were thirteen years old, twelve years old coming down to the Oyster Bar to play, who are now 30, 35, 40 and they went on the journey and now they're back in town and they're back for a reason. The music is really something here. Albert King always said, "This is a great place for musicians, maybe not so good to make money, but a great place for musicians."
Sean: So let me change gears and ask you the desert island question -- I gotta ask. Just off the top of your head, if the house was on fire and you're running back in...
Art: Blues at Sunrise. And the guitar. Grab the guitar first and then Albert King's Blues at Sunrise. That's a better way of putting it rather than a desert island, If your house is on fire, what are you gonna do?! [Laughs] Ok, second, anything by Miles Davis. I love Miles -- I don't care if it's the first one or the last one or anything in between. I like Tribute to Jake Johnson, I like Bitches Brew, I like Kind of Blue -- I like them all, man.
Sean: You ever meet? You ever talk?
Art: No, no, but you know what, he's got a twin....or a younger brother that looks an awful lot like him.
Sean: I didn't know that! He does?! Seriously?
Art: Yeah, he does. You know one of the things musicians used to do here in St. Louis in the '90s, '80s probably too, was to go over to the Celebrity Lounge in East St. Louis from 2-6 in the morning. Billy Gayles, Jimmy Merrity, Dave Black, Eric Foreman, Kenny Rice, Roland Clark, so many guys played over there, and I'm back in the back of the club, it's 2 o'clock or maybe 3 o'clock and cats are walking in like they just walked out of their house. They are so clean and so pressed, lookin' like a million bucks, dressed to the nines, natty as heck. So I got there late one time and no seats, had to ease my way back and I'm standing next to this guy and I take a look and take another look and I do a triple take thinking to myself, Is this Miles Davis?! And somebody tells me "No man, that's Miles Davis' little brother, man."
Sean: No kiddin'! Did you walk up? Did you talk any?
Art: Naw, I was too shy. You know I saw the great bass player Ray Brown over in Paris and I was too shy to talk to him too. You know we're riding the underground -- the subway -- and I'm with one of the guys in the band and right there I say, "That's Ray Brown, I know it, that's him, that's him!" So back in the hotel room that night, the TV is on and there's Ray Brown, a live performance with Nina Simone. But I was too shy.
Sean: I find that hard to believe! Ok, I'll wrap up with this question. To that point, let's talk about some of the characters that have walked through the door at KDHX and some of the most interesting folks that you've met. Who blew your mind?
Sean: Or maybe Who left an indelible impression on you?
Art: That's a hard question to answer, I feel like it's the whole body of us, all of us together. When you turn on the radio to 88.1 and you hear something you've never heard before, you not only ask yourself who was that but who's putting that on -- so those are two primary questions to the situation. But as time goes by, you might forget some of that, but you won't forget that you heard it on 88.1. The indelible mark is left by the fact that this radio station is here. What will remain in the long run is the fact that it was the radio station 88.1 KDHX.