It was about four in the morning on June 30th, 1965 that Dave Lambert came to the WBAI studio on East 39th Street, carrying several reels of tape. WBAI was the non-commercial listener-sponsored radio station that I had worked at, and I had recently been appointed its manager, inheriting a debt that required us to raise $25,000 or risk going out of business.
The day before, I had lunch with our News Director, Joanne Grant, whom I had hired a couple of weeks earlier. My predecessor was a man of independent wealth who vacationed in Europe at the time when the stationed needed him the most. Summer was always the slowest month for donations and it was the manager's job to raise it. As Joan and I discussed the problem, it occurred to me that, since our unorthodox, eclectic programming and total absence of commercials was the reason why people sent us money, we should underscore the seriousness of our situation by taking it all off the air until we have the $25,000. By the time we had finished our dessert and coffee, we had a loosely formulated plan. I would break into the middle of Joan's 6 PM newscast and make the announcement: no more regular programs until we have $25,000 in pledges, and if we don't get it, there's a very good chance that we will have to go off the air and somebody else will be heard playing bubblegum music. Our phones started ringing immediately.
A couple of hours earlier, we made some calls to people who might help us pitch for money, and the response was fantastic. When pianists Herbie Hancock and Roger Kellaway said they'd be there, we had a major problem: no piano. John Corigliano, our Music Director (and subsequent Oscar winner) ran home a picked up his electric keyboard—it would have to do until the real thing came along. Bear in mind that electric pianos were not taken very seriously in 1965, for good reason, and this one was strictly for working at home—no frills. That day, Herbie had his first experience with a plugged-in keyboard, and Roger Kellaway did quite well accompanying Joe Williams on it. The following day, a real upright would be delivered, with a lot of help from a friendly piano dealer.
L to r: Dave, bassist John Simmons, Chubby Jackson, George Handy
and Dizzy Gillespie(photo by William Gottlieb
Back to Dave Lambert. He heard what we were doing and came in to help. As you will hear, we played some of his tapes, featuring airchecks of Lambert, Hendricks & Bavan (Annie Ross had left) and other Lambert groups—Dave was always assembling interesting vocal groups. At one point, he spotted the keyboard in the studio and tried it out—that will give you a good idea of its limitations, but Dave had fun with it.
Chaotic and spontaneous though it was, the fundraising marathon was a huge success. We returned to normal programming as soon as our goal was reached in pledges, and we actually received far more money that pledged. Our parent foundation was so impressed that they asked me to repeat the experiment at our two California stations, and the practice has, unfortunately, since become a regular part of the network's fundraising. I bemoan the fact, because it has been abused to a point where it is playing a significant part in the imminent demise of WBAI.
Our efforts were spirited, collective, honest, and limited to one annual event of a few days' duration. Elsewhere in this blog, you will find several musical performances from the first and second marathons. Here are direct links to two of them:
Shortly after his visit, Dave accepted my invitation to conduct a one-hour weekly show on WBAI. He was coming in to tape a segment in October, 1967, when he was fatally struck by a car while changing a tire on the Connecticut Turnpike—he was only 49. These recordings of his marathon visit were recently recovered from—would you believe—the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen. How they got there is another story; that they were retrieved (along with other tapes that you will be hearing here soon) is something we can thank my old friend, Storyville Records' Mona Granager, and engineer Jørgen Vad for.