My best friend, Bryan Blakely was always a step ahead of me when it came to music. Even at the age of eight or nine, he liked his music to be harder. We called it “hard rock” and I wasn’t a fan. At that time, I still liked the sappy love/pop songs of the era. The Archie’s, “Sugar, Sugar” and “Dizzy” by Tommy Roe was about as “hard” as I liked my music. As a matter of fact, I knew the music catalog of The Monkee’s better than that of The Beatles.
For my eighth birthday in 1969, my mom gave me a portable AM transistor radio. I was thrilled. Everyone I knew wanted one. My radio was six inches by three inches or so, ran on a 9-volt battery, came with a brown leather carrying case, and most important, a white bakelite single earphone. I wish I could remember the brand. There were days when I carried my radio with me everywhere I went outside of school hours, and that earphone was in my ear from the time I got up until I left for school, and after I arrived home from school until I fell asleep at night.
So many times, when we think of our childhood memories, we think of friends, family and the events that surrounded us. It might have been playing baseball, swimming at the lake, going to Cedar Point or just hanging out with your friends in the neighborhood.
For me, many of my childhood memories were filled with sound. When I hear these “sounds” today, I am instantly taken back in my mind to the 1960s and 70s. I can remember memories and I can go back to where I was when I first heard it. I can smell the chlorine in Teagarden’s pool or the smell the freshly mowed grass of the field all my friends and I played on. These special sounds… were the sounds of Motown Music.
In those days, long before FM Stereo, the only radio station that was of importance was CKLW out of Detroit / Windsor, Ontario, Canada. “The BIG 8” as it was called back then. It was a loud, glitzy noise-making radio. Everything was shouted — even the news. The 50,000-watt AM radio giant spewed rock and roll and hyped-news across 28 states and mid-Canada. It broadcast from across the Detroit River in Windsor, Ontario, but it was Detroit’s station. I will never forget the tagline that the DJ’s would say, “C-K-L-W, The Motor Cit-eeeee.” The capital of the music world was not Nashville, nor was it Los Angeles. Back then, it was Detroit, Michigan.
The style… the sound… the hits.
It was Motown. It was everywhere, and it was ours.
I have clear memories of long summer nights spent listening to music. I carry that Motown sound in my musical tastes even to this day. All I do is put some music on from that era, close my eyes, and suddenly I am drawn back to the times when all of us listened to music on our dime-store AM transistor radios.
We had not yet experienced the stereo sound of FM channels. That would come in the coming years, but back then, we were content to have our musical tastes defined by AM radio stations. There were only a handful of AM stations that you could tune in to during the day and most of those stations went off the air when the sun went down. When we would tire of CKLW, we would try to get channels that you couldn’t tune in during the day and if the weather was right and the wind blew in the right direction, sometimes you could bring in other stations. If you had a transistor radio, you knew that there was a special niche in getting your favorite station to come in. Sometimes you had to hold it just at the right angle and maybe above your head to hear your favorite channel.
One summer day, Bryan and I were riding our bikes around the neighborhood when he said that we should put in our earphone and tune into the same station. That way we could listen to music as we rode around. It was brilliant! I had no idea why we had not thought of it before. So, that is what we did. We put in our earphone and soon all our buddies were doing the same thing.
All of us riding our bikes around town with the mono earphone blasting in our ear. If the music sounded tinny on the main speaker of the radio, the headphone earpiece was much worse, but we felt cool and we would listen to the same music as we rode around town. It was like living our own version of a music video.
One day, I guess the sheer fear of the potential “gang” violence coming from a group of adolescent bicycle riders wearing an earphone in town caught the attention of the police of our small town. The “gang” of five from our neighborhood was riding in the unfamiliar territory of Erie and Portage Streets. As far as we were concerned, it could have been as far away as Toledo to us. The corner of Erie and Portage was not a place where we would frequent. But there was a feeling of strength in numbers and all five us rode with no fear of attack from a rival “gang.”
We were just passing time, trying to escape the boredom of a hot sunny day. Our parents would have been upset at us for being so far from our block. I am not sure exactly why we were over there; it was probably because of a girl. That was usually the motivation for much of the things we would do. We were riding in circles and just hanging out on a street corner that wasn’t familiar to us.
No mischief, nor ill will towards anyone.
Then we saw the police car coming down the street towards us. All of us, for some reason, knew that they were coming to ask us what we were doing so far away from our own turf.
Back then, our small town had just a few police officers. Most kids only knew the name of the chief and one other officer. That officer was Larry St. Clair. Larry seemed to know everyone and always had the reputation of being “cool” and fair whenever he had to deal with something.
I looked at Bryan and said, “I hope it’s Larry St. Clair.”
It was the police chief, Bill Paulsen.
Now by all accounts, Bill Paulsen was a wonderful man, a good man. Someone who dedicated his entire life to protecting the small-town of Oak Harbor, Ohio. I’m sure he knew all of us by name and knew we were not going to be the cause of any trouble. However, this was the late 1960s, and there was a certain aptitude for standing up against authority figures. So, we fought the immediate urge to flee and sat defiantly on the banana seats of our stingray bikes, waiting to hear what “the man” had to say.
He had a job to do and he pulled up next to us and said, “What’s going on boys?”
Boys!?! Did he just call us boys? While the fact remains that we were, in fact, “boys,” we were at the point that anything that came out of his mouth we would have found something wrong with it. Even though we thought ourselves to be bad and rebellious, we would never show outward disrespect.
We simply responded, “nutin” to his question.
“What brings you to this side of town?” he asked inquisitively.
Bryan responded with clarity, “Nothing… just riding our bikes.”
Chief Paulsen paused for a moment to look at us and make a mental picture of who was lined up in our “gang.”
“Well, boys, behave yourself,” he replied as he started to pull away.
He suddenly stopped his car and said that maybe riding around town with our earphone in one ear wasn’t safe, so it was a good idea to put it away while we were riding our bikes.
Bryan defiantly rolled his eyes as Chief Paulsen continued his safety lecture. The rest of us all disconnected the wire, wrapped it around the radio and stuffed it in our pockets. Bryan was the last to comply.
Chief Paulsen waited until all of us put our radios away. Bryan waited all of 10 seconds after the Chief drove away to put his back on. He was always a rebel when it came to those sorts of things. We quickly followed his lead. We pulled our radios from our pockets and one-by-one, turned the AM radio on and put the earphone back in our ear. We all looked each other in the eye like we were the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang. We knew that the police never bothered us on our own turf. We gave each other a head nod, never spoke a word and took off again on our bicycle journey. Our unspoken quest was to ride across town, back to the confines of the safe zone of our neighborhood without getting caught by the “fuzz” or Chief Paulsen.
In reality, Chief Paulsen wasn’t chasing us. He probably never gave us a second thought after he pulled his car away. But, fueled by our active imagination and an attempt to create some drama to kill the boredom, we now had a quest and a story we would talk about for years.
Each of us was on our own to find any way possible to get back to “home” base.
Suddenly, we split up and each one of us was zipping down separate alleys and sidewalks… riding our bikes through backyards and boulevards, all in the quest to get home.
Bryan was the first to arrive back at our home base in the alley between Walnut and Washington Streets. I was the second gang member to get there and we waited patiently for the others to return. It was like waiting for soldiers to return from the battlefield, hoping they would report to the command center, but knowing it did not end well for them if they didn’t show up soon.
I remember whooping and hollering as a group when everyone made it back. We defied “the man” and we weren’t just boys on bikes that could be bossed around. We leapt off our bikes and were jumping around like we just won the World Series. We patted each other on the back, gave each other hugs and looked each other in the eye with the acknowledgment that we were forever tied together by this single act of defiance.
No longer boys… but men.
We were hardcore.
We were a gang.
We were rebels… rebels without a clue.
That was how that summer progressed. We were no longer bound to the alley between Walnut and Washington Streets. We were gaining some independence and our music was changing too.
On one of the many sleepovers that summer, we were down in Bryan’s basement discussing music. We would always have music playing and we would sometimes act as if we were the artist singing. This night we were talking about the song, “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and The Shondells. Bryan was trying to explain to me how the song was made and all the benefits of the sound of stereo music.
As we grew older, Bryan would be the one to introduce me to stereo FM music. He was the first of my friends to have a record player that played stereo music and had an FM radio receiver attached to it. Suddenly, music was about listening to albums. I was introduced to bands like Aerosmith, KISS, The Edgar Winter Group, The Doobie Brothers, Black Sabbath, Jethro Tull, Grand Funk, Bad Company and Deep Purple. In front of Bryan, I always told him I liked the music he was exposing me to, but deep down when I would turn on my transistor radio, I would always turn on CKLW and listen to Motown and the sappy pop songs on AM radio.
I am a child of a time when AM radio was king.
No offense to anyone reading this… but if you never listened to AM radio on a transistor radio you probably will not understand the significance of this period of history. It’s not your fault, you just don’t know that you were cheated out of a great time period in music history.
For me, it was always wrapped up in the music. Saturday mornings were spent watching cartoons and the afternoons were spent watching American Bandstand so you could see the latest dance moves and possibly your favorite singer or band.
It was the decade of The Beatles, Dylan, Aretha, The Beach Boys, The Rolling Stones, and Zeppelin. But that’s not all it was. The 1960s also included The Monkee’s, The Kinks, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Jackson Five. While my sister was enamored with Donnie Osmond and my brother was into Steppenwolf, I was all about The Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, The Supremes and Stevie Wonder just to name a few.
It was a single-oriented era—a startlingly inventive period following the initial explosion of rock‘n’roll but before the album became dominant—when entire new genres seemed to bubble up every few months. The 1960s marked a time when pop music became more than a teenage fad. Music was turning into an important art form as it sound tracked the civil rights movement, the hippie heyday, and the Vietnam War.
I’ve wondered what it must look like to the younger generations who didn’t live through the 60s. Are they awe-struck by the moon landing? Is teetering on the verge of nuclear war just the start of a good sci-fi movie? Are the assassinations of political and human right leaders just names and dates to memorize for a history exam? Were the hippies, flower power, Woodstock, the Vietnam War, women’s lib, civil rights, the space race, the Cold War, the British Invasion, TANG, miniskirts, Charles Chips, bell bottoms, lava lamps, tie dyed t-shirts, Green Stamps, Evel Knievel – and who could forget the Manson murders – just evidence of a random decade? I think not. The list could go on and on.
It’s inevitable that all of us would see when AM radio was king through our own personal lens. The 60’s and 70’s were like an epic blockbuster that involved music, clothes, politics, social unrest and social change. There really hasn’t been anything like it since. So many historic events happened in that period.
But that doesn’t mean that I want to go back.
History has a knack for showing the flaws of a generation that planted the seeds to produce it.
That’s what all historians do; they look back and see things that were planted and the results of which may not be seen for years. While I love to look back and remember, it’s important that we don’t forget that many of the seeds that were planted all those years ago are the reasons we now see major political, social, and cultural changes in our society. We wonder how this generation of young people can be the way they are, and truth be told it is because of the seeds that were planted in the 60’s and 70’s.
We have made the mistake of ignoring the seeds that we planted. In many ways we don’t like the results, yet we are the ones to blame. Our children pay the price of not having the freedom we had to play outside and have the run of the town. We now dare not let our young children out of our sight for fear that they may one day have their picture on a milk carton. We thought we had it under control, yet we act as if the change itself remains unexpected, invisible, even unimaginable to most people. We should never forget how surprisingly fast these changes can happen.
Nevertheless, looking back at the seeds planted when AM radio was king is very important, because it can help us pay more attention to seeds that are growing underground right now. Of course, we can’t predict which seeds will connect with which other ones to create significant change, and certainly not when or how it will happen. But history can teach us to watch more closely and optimistically for signs of change that might be coming surprisingly soon.
The seeds of change. I can fully appreciate how malleable history is and how its perspective changes with time. I imagine 40 years of perspective on any decade we’ve lived through would be interesting. Forty years from now, I’m confident that the Obama and Trump years will also look much different through the lens of history. I really regret that I probably won’t be around to read it.
I enjoy U.S. History more than most, but in the years that have passed, I’ve forgotten more names and dates than I remember. Our history is complicated and imperfect. There are facets of it I don’t fully understand.
It was all filtered by growing up in a small town. It was easy to find people who sneeringly complained about how trapped they felt there as a teenager. I was no different from most kids growing up there… I began making plans of escape early on, but I still got to experience the life of living in a small town when AM radio was king.
Oak Harbor held on to those days longer than most and that makes me smile even after all these years. But once the seeds of change are planted it is hard to ever go back to the way it used to be.
The history that was built for me was wrapped up in what we had when AM radio was king. It’s gone now, and we will never get it back. We have future generations that will never fully understand what it was like back in those days.
That makes me incredibly sad and I will forever miss the days when A.M. radio was king.