Transformative Music and the Power of Radio

The first time I paid for a piece of music was back in 1972 which means I was either 12 years old or would, at some point in that year, be 12 years old. The music I bought was a 45 RPM record, a single, by one Sammy Davis Jr. The song, which I’d heard many times on the radio, was “The Candy Man”, and I still remember going to the store and handing over my hard-earned 99 cents to pay for it. I can’t remember the store but I do remember the experience. It was exciting in ways that are hard to describe. A short time later, back at home, I would put my very first, very own record, down on the turntable, and I would listen to it.

Over and over and over again. I listened until I knew every word and thought, surely, that I could do a pretty good Sammy Davis Jr. rendition of the song if anyone ever asked me to do so.

As the years went by, I turned to another type of music. I don’t remember exactly why, but I started listening to classical music, mostly from records I took out from the public library. Most of my choices were largely instrumental recordings by famous orchestras of the greats; Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Chopin. I tended to listen to a lot of music from the baroque period, so there was a lot of Bach in there, along with Vivaldi, Purcell, Pachelbel, and others I would pick up to listen to for the first and last time as I wound my way through my library’s musical section.

Oddly enough, that baroque period seemed to slip nicely into some modern instrumental, and experimental, works of electronic music. Eventually, I would gorge on anything Tangerine Dream and Mike Oldfield’s amazing “Tubular Bells”. In this, my personal musical exploration, I more or less forgot, or ignored, anything that might qualify as popular music. My record player played my music.

Then, one day in 1977, my sister, Christine, walked in with an album of her own which she insisted I listen to. She probably worried about her older brother’s strange fascination with dead composers and the idea that I was somehow ignoring all that was great with the music of the day. And I was totally a nerdy geek, too, so she was probably looking to help there as well.

The album was, “The Grand Illusion”, by Styx. As skeptically and dismissively as I could, I put on the album and listened. To say that the experience of listening to the songs on that album was transformative might be an understatement. I was completely blown away, so much so that I no doubt missed the triumphant look that had to be on my sister’s face.

Ye Gods! What had I been missing all these years?

As you might expect, I went on to play that album over and over again, much like my first single, but I also started playing tons of other music. Perhaps most importantly, I started listening to the radio again, tuning in to stations late at night, to catch distant stations in the US, their signal carried on the ‘skip’, as I did my best to hear everything that was being played on popular radio. I even made it a point to call in to some of my favorite stations or talk to the DJs or request songs. I called enough that I got to know a few of those on air personalities and even talked shop a little. Don’t get me wrong; I was still geeky as hell, and I still engaged in my other obsessions, which meant devouring science fiction, experimenting with electronic projects, playing with my science equipment (I had my own lab in the basement — another story), reading and reading, tracking science and space exploration news, CB radios, computers, you name it . . .

Popular music, however, became the soundtrack of my life and everything else that happened in my life. I even started going to concerts. On the radio, I followed my favorite artists, of which there were many, and paid real attention when the DJ would share some fascinating bit of trivia about those artists. I also recorded songs on my cassette recorder. As me about my early mix tapes sometime.

And still, the music played on. So much wonderful music.

Then, little more than a year after I first listened to “The Grand Illusion”, I went for an interview at the local radio station, 1570 CHLO. It was for a part-time job and they were looking for somebody to help out around the station. The idea that I could get a part time job working in a radio station, where music was being played, was just too cool. I didn’t even know what form “helping out” would take, but it didn’t matter.

I went for the interview. To make a long story short, the interview went on for much longer than made sense. We talked about what I enjoyed, about radio, and about music. Eventually, my interviewer pulled in the program director who also chatted with me. Two, or maybe three hours later into this weird interview, he leaned over to me and said, “What if I told you that you’ve got the job?”

I beamed. “Fantastic!” I said, not even knowing what the job was. Who cared? It meant working at a radio station!

“What if I told you that I wanted you to be on air starting two weeks from now on Friday evening?” he asked with a smile.

And so, two weeks later, at 9:00 pm on a Friday, after a little over a week and a half of training with one of the other on air DJs, I addressed the world and spun my first of many records, on air, as Marc Richards. That’s the beginning of another, much longer, story than I’ve written here.

If there’s a useful postscript to this reflection, it might simply be that music has the power to completely transform a life, sending souls in strange and wonderful new directions. You just have to listen.

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