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The Year We Invented Rock N Roll

“I’m going to buy a hippopotamus and join the circus.”

Hippopotamus

Nobody knew what a submarine-race watcher was.

Charles Scott King and I leaned on the bar, lost in the wonder of frozen lemonade dished out by Red Margolis, bartender at Martin’s Bar, 59th and Broadway, as a substitute for whiskey sour and collins mixers. At work, across the street, Central Park was spotted with fall reds and slick, sickly silver and gray: native maples and sycamores. The year was 1962 and we all worked at the same radio station.

If you accepted as an operating premise that anything west of the Hudson was camping out, the RealLemon Red Margolis concocted his whiskey sours with had made it in stages from the Caribbean to Jersey and thence Manhattan by a kind of reverse osmosis. It was important for the habitués of Martin’s Bar that people who didn’t live in Manhattan have something constructive to do with their lives; packing concentrated citrus fluids seemed worthwhile. Where stuff came from was not on today’s agenda: Lemons grew in New Jersey. Cows munched their mulch out back at Grestede’s. Food and drink arrived via pipeline under the Hudson River, said pipeline placed there that we might thrive. For us that was enough. We perched precariously on our barstools, at the pinnacle of human endeavor.

We were the staff of WINS—1010 Wins New York—where we could swing open our center-pivot studio windows and lean out over Central Park West to watch the test inflations of the balloons for the Macy’s parade. We were frequently drunk but never fell out. I was the engineer and, since a certain rectitude was expected from the technical staff, I drank whiskey boilermakers—Fleischmann’s and Rheingold. It was the year I went to work for the King of the Submarine Race Watchers, Murray the K, and I did not drink above my social station.

Murray Kaufman had been a waist gunner in a B-29 for endless missions over Germany. Murray was nuts and, for those of us who liked him in spite of his psychotic outbursts, being a Jewish kid who spent the war 20,000 feet in the air strapped upside down in a glass bubble with a 50-caliber machine gun between his knees while passing Nazis shot at him excused a whole lot of strange behavior.

Jay Fontana joined us for a beer and pastrami sandwich. Across the street and down the hall from the radio station, he worked putting together the Brooklyn Fox Theater shows—Little Anthony and the Imperials, the Shangri-Las, Dion and the Belmonts—for Murray.

Jay hated his job and did it very well.

“It’s because I’m Italian,” said Jay. He was talking about his job with Murray who, in addition to his regular duties, had set Jay to hyping the latest recording by Jackie Hayes, Murray’s wife. “Everybody thinks I’ve got uncles in the mob.” We had heard this before. We had all heard each other’s stories before at the bar. Jay’s uncles were all Jesuits. “I’m going to buy a hippopotamus and join the circus.”

We had not heard that before. Jay’s eyes shone with the light of new love.

“Not bad, Red,” said Charley King, priming himself for the evening after the 4:30 news. “Run out of RealLemon and sugar, have we? Forget the hippo, Jay. I know—I’m from Philadelphia.”

Red reached over the bar and decanted the last few drops from his wire strainer into Charley’s glass. I was 22, Charley was 32—a role model and news announcer. It was all right that he should come to work with sugar and lemon on his breath; he had been vetted from WIP in Philly to the big-time in New York City. Most of the other news staff were moonlighting from the local copy desk at the New York Daily News.

Our radio station, WINS, occupied all available interior space in a Gothic chapel that William Randolph Hearst had disassembled and trucked over from Normandy, numbers on every stone, to plop on top of the 59th Street subway station. This happened just before the Crash of ’29. Hearst did it for Marion Davies, his main squeeze, who had religious inclinations.

We were #1 in New York City in the days of pre-Beatles rock and roll. Next year we were #3. Then Westinghouse moved the station to Park Ave. I moved to pre-Public Radio [listener-supported WBAI] where I bought a three-piece suit, smoked a pipe and put my feet on a desk. I wouldn’t see Charley again for almost two decades. In 1979 I asked him to recreate the 1969 World Series for a multimedia theater in a Miami shopping complex. He did it from memory, a high-action play-by-play that he compressed into less than eight minutes.

Murray went to CHUM in Montreal, across the Hudson and somewhere north of 72nd Street, where nobody knew what a submarine-race watcher was. I do, ask me sometime. We’ll meet at Martin’s Bar. Jackie Hayes never had a hit record; Gulf and Western tore down the church and built a soulless office tower which would in its own time be torn down in turn. They still blow up the Bullwinkle balloon for the Macy’s parade at the foot of the now Trump International Hotel and Tower, where ancient astronauts once homed in on the Gothic chapel where we played radio. I would expect no less from a rubber moose.

So, call it the year we invented Rock N Roll. And the year before Jay Fontana bought his hippopotamus and a 40-foot trailer and went off to tour with a carnival. We were a hell of a bunch of guys, and at the top of our trade. We knew it was the top because we were there. We drank to discover just what it was that we were so good at. Most of us were getting divorced at the time and wondering What the Hell It Was All About.

REFERENCES:

Reel Radio.com: The Murray the K Collection
Bullwinkle and Underdog: The Macy’s Parade
The Story: The Year They Invented Frozen Lemonade

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