Tommy Smalls - Remembering NY's Dr. Jive©2001JCMarion


It was the spring of 1956 and Elvis-mania was everywhere. Moondog Freed had been the king of R & B radio in New York ever since his arrival in September of 1954 at WINS radio and those of us "in the know" had been loyal listeners. But by that spring things had been changing. The vocal group sounds that had been so much a part of all of our lives were now being shunted aside in favor of all of these so called "rock-a-billies". In that most prolific year for the R & B vocal group sound, where every neighborhood had at least one bunch of harmonizers, it was getting harder to hear the new records because of the glut of Gene Vincent, Mac Curtis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, etc. We were even having to get through pale mainstream pop efforts trying to be rock 'n roll hip back in 1956. Alan Freed's radio persona had even gone through a big change. Gone was the phone book stomping, cowbell ringing, manic rock 'n roller shouting miked over comments during the record. What we had now was a more subdued "adult" commercial pitchman, and with so many irons in the fire (network radio, motion pictures, in person shows, etc.) the loss of enthusiasm was showing. But - he was still "our" guy, defender of the music, and number one. However, we began to look for the sound we wanted in other places.
In the process we discovered Mr. Red Eye, Jack "Pear Shape" Walker, and Hal Jackson in "The House That Jack Built" on WLIB, George Hudson, Pat The Cat, and Danny "Cat Man" Stiles on Newark's WNJR, George "Hound Dog" Lorenz on WKBW in Buffalo, and if the night was right we could pick up "Hoss" Allen, Gene Nobles, and John R from Nashville's WLAC. Of course we had Jocko then on WOV, but his jivey personality revealed a similar playlist to that of Alan Freed. But there was one place to hear all the neighborhood vocal groups and all the new records from those tiny storefront record labels. This was the Doctor Jive show on every weekday afternoon at three (or more precisely 3:05 to handle their slogan three-oh-five to five-three-oh). It was here that any vocal group fan found the treasure trove that they had been looking for. Sure the doctor (real name Tommy Smalls) played some solo and blues artists, and had a regular Latin beat segment, but this was the place to catch up on all the budding vocalists for sure. Now the good doctor had been broadcasting on WWRL since late 1952 with a nightime get together, but it took us suburban kids a little while to find his program. For awhile he was on live from Harlem's Club Shalimar, then moved to his own bistro called the Club Bohemia in Greenwich Village.
In early 1955 Tommy Smalls began to present in person R & B revues a la Moondog. He began in Harlem with shows at the Rockland Palace and the Apollo Theater, three times during 1955. Late in November Doctor Jive makes music and television history when he mc's a twelve minute segment on the national number one TV show, Ed Sullivan. He presents Bo Diddley, LaVern Baker, the Five Keys, and Willis "Gator Tail" Jackson & his combo. Sullivan commits a Freudian slip by calling Smalls show at the Apollo Theater a Rhythm and Color revue. Right Ed ! By the end of the year the Brooklyn Paramount is the location for the Doctor Jive R & B Holiday Show while Alan Freed holds his show at the NY Academy of Music. At about this time Smalls goes big time and buys longtime Harlem landmark Smalls Paradise (no relation to original owner Ed Smalls). He plans to feature live broadcasts from the club. For the next two years Doctor Jive would become a radio fixture in the afternoons and with his program transcend the real or perceived boundaries of race, class, national origin, and economic status with that proven equalizer, rock 'n roll !
From the opening theme by Dean Barlowe ("Listen to Dr. Jive") to Tommy Edwards closing of "So Long, Farewell, Goodbye", this was two and a half hours of radio heaven. The radio station was a little AM located in Woodside, Queens all the way at the top of the dial past the 1600 mark. They used to call their location cleverly "the high spot on your radio dial" and they weren't kidding. They talk about the revolutionary idea of cross cultural identity today with suburban kids listening to rap music ? How about 45 years ago, White suburban kids listening to Dr. Jive with constant commercials for hair straighteners, bleaching creams, the Amsterdam News, etc. We knew what was going on ! One thing about the Doctor Jive show - no matter how new or unknown the group was, when their record first came on the show it was always the "New big one from . . . . .. . ." which did wonders for the ego of the artists. This show was the reason I could discover records like "Don't Fall In Love" by The Sequins, Joan & Joy's "You're My Prescription", "Moonlight" by the Young Lads, or "Blueberry Sweet" by The Chandeliers. Tommy Smalls gave a shot to all the little record labels in the metropolitan area and really developed the feel of a "New York sound".
The Doctor Jive show was also a place for the listener to get involved via the dedication and request route. Sure others had done it, even Alan Freed did for a time. But Smalls and the WWRL staff never let up and fostered the development of something that I never recall on any other radio program. These were the fanclubs dedicated to a particular group, and they were constantly featured to champion the fame of their guys. The better remembered ones were the Cleftone Sweethearts, Channel Jivealeers, Paragon Angels, and my all time favorite, the non aligned Jovial Delinquents. This further fostered a spirit of community and oneness with the music not found on other programs. We had our own neighborhood groups out on Long Island's Suffolk County in the mid fifties believe it or not, and we got them played on the Doctor Jive show (we actually never considered Freed by then) and hearing them ( "Get Yourself Another Fool" by The Tempotones, and "Walking The Streets Alone" by The Loveletters both on Acme Records) was like a boost of self esteem for our part of the world. By the time the Tempotones young brother Richard Lanham recorded the very Frankie Lymonish "On Your Radio", even Freed took notice. But it was the Doctor Jive show on WWRL that was the door opener.
Tommy Smalls kept at it under the shadow of both Alan Freed and Jocko (Doug Henderson) in New York City until the world crashed around all of us. In 1958 after relentless investigation by the NY District Attorney's office, both Alan Freed and Tommy Smalls were arrested and charged in the payola scandal. They had been accused of taking bribes to play records on their radio shows, and peddling their influence on which records to "push". Freed was the big fish but Tommy Smalls got swept along. Both of their careers were basically over. The authorities thought now that Freed was gone along with the others, that teenagers would go back to listening to Patti Page and Eddie Fisher. But you know the answer - "you can't stop rock 'n roll ! "
The Doctor Jive show was now a memory but the beat goes on. New radio personalities arose (such as Hot Rod on WWRL in Tommy Smalls old spot) but it was just not the same. Time does indeed march on, but left behind are a lot of great memories, and among them there is always Tommy Smalls, the one and only Doctor Jive, the New York area's neighborhood R & B radio program where everybody was a part of the fun and music.

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