In the late 50s and early 60s the big thing to do on the weekends was going to record hops. Today they remember them as “Sock Hops”. Back then I never even heard the term. They were called record hops. And they were everywhere every weekend. Grade schools, high schools, dance clubs, special dances. It’s got to sound bizarre now for today’s generation right? “Hops”. What pictures does that conjure up? People hopping around. Bouncing up and down. What kind of brainless fun would that be?
Understand that even though the public thought all of us on the air were millionaires, the fact is there were only a very few making enough to survive. The rest had to have another way to earn more money. That was the reason so many got caught in the payola purge. Stations not paying anything. Using the glamor of being on the air and the local celebrity it brought as their excuse not to pay enough. DJs just found other ways. One of them was the Record Hop.
If a school was going to have a Hop, someone would call the station and book a DJ to appear and run it for them. The DJs had all the latest records, would line up a local band to play, and would actually come to the school and MC the whole thing. And here’s where the music business came in.
Recording artists were always on promotional tours to promote their records. Those hard working music Promo Guys in town needed to get airplay so those artists, big and small were brought around to all the Record Hops at no charge to anyone! And they all came. Think of it. A small school dance might have The Supremes, Temptations, Stevie Wonder, Rolling Stones, and others appearing at their “Hop”. No charge. The acts were brought to dance and most times would “lip Synch” their records. You know what that means right? The DJ would play the record and the artist would just mouth the words. If the sound system was good it looked and sounded great.
I never did many "Record Hops". Couldn’t. I was on the air at night. But there were opportunities.
Once in late 1960 I was approached by three policemen from Redford Township, Michigan. They had been holding Record Hops at the local UAW 182 Union Hall. They were planning something bigger and wanted me to promote it on the air and MC the event. I said no. They kept after me. I decided to give them a price they would have to refuse. “Six hundred dollars”, I said. They agreed. “Six Hundred it is”.
The dance was to be held at the Riverside Roller Arena in Plymouth Michigan in a few weeks and they wanted to know could I get a night off from the station and do it? I needed the six hundred and besides I had never done this before. I agreed. Instead of paying me more money the station had already agreed to allow me a little slack now and then. I did the dance.
Riverside Arena could hold about two thousand people for a dance. I promoted it for about three weeks. I said it was a big dance, there would be bands etc., and of course I would be there in person. Understand now that I had never appeared at any of these things.
I mean I had been on the air at WJBK and now WKMH for a couple of years, but I was not a household name. I was a crazy man on the air to be sure. Blowing horns, throwing things at the studio walls, breaking records on the air. Turning the turntables off, letting them freewheel and slowly run down until they sounded like a low growl o the air. Pulling needles across records. All wild and nuts! The ratings were showing that I was beating WXYZ Radio that was the big station, but I thought sure that was a fluke.
The dance started at 7PM on a Saturday night. There were no special big name acts in town so it was going to be some local bands, records, and me. That’s it. I convinced the three police to hire another guy to actually spin the records so I could to my act without having to stand there and physically play the music. The record spinner was a friend of mine who also worked at the station. He started at 7PM when the place opened. I arrived at 7:30 and couldn’t believe my eyes.
First off, I couldn’t get any closer to Riverside than about two blocks. Traffic was backed up everywhere. Stopped. The people knew they weren’t going anywhere so they were all standing outside their cars in the middle of the streets laughing, talking, and waiting for a miracle to clear the way. I parked where I could and schlepped my way to the dance. People were lined up 8 deep trying to get in. Inside the first thing I saw was a total mob. A sea of people trying to dance but when one moved they all had to move the same way. They were stacked next to each other like dominoes. If one falls they all go. Standing next to the door was a man in uniform. His shirt said: “Fire Marshall”. I wanted nothing to do with that so I worked my way around the edge of the floor to the stage. The music was loud and despite the crush everyone was having a ball. Literally!
Pretty soon I was recognized by one and then all. There were loud screams and applause. As I got up on the makeshift stage people were yelling; “LEE – LEE – LEE – LEE”. “Hey Lee, where’s your Horn. Hey Lee”. You couldn’t hear the music anymore, just the people. I soon realized that all this commotion was for me. And that was the first time I ever looked into their eyes. My listener’s eyes.
I had never seen more than one or two of them at a time. In a store, on the street somewhere. Never like this. They weren’t just yelling. There was love in that room. I could feel it and I could see it. They hugged me, shook my hand, wanted me to say some of the things that I’d been saying on the air. They hung on every word. Where did all these people come from and why were they so excited about seeing me? That night I realized the power of radio and what happens when you love your audience and they know it. And I did love them, then and now.
The night was a blur. First thing I knew the dance was over. I played the last song, a slow dance so they could all hold each other and let it end. Before they left I was mobbed. Nicely mobbed. Hugged, patted on the back, touched. It was new and thrilling to me.
I didn’t know a soul in the room except for the policeman with the money and no one was talking to me, not even acknowledging my presence. I guessed that the others were police too. There was something strange going on here. For the last three hours hundreds of people were lined up just to talk with me. In this room, except for the big guy behind the desk I could have been invisible. Next to the big guy were neat stacks of money from the night’s box office and a large gun.
I thought the gun was because of all the money. I said, ‘OK. Everything was good and thank you very much.” And he gave me $100. “A hundred dollars? Our deal was $600. What’s going on here.” I said. He put his hand on that gun and said, “You better take the hundred and leave. These guys here will help you to your car. Wouldn’t want anyone to take it away from you.” And he put his hand on the gun and just let it move toward him a little. I decided that I had no friends in this room and left. Fast.
That dance and those hoodlums disguised as legitimate police would come back to haunt me almost preventing me from ever working at WXYZ..... And that's another story....
Regards - Lee Alan
Regards - Lee Alan