Playing the blues on R&B radio.
The beginning was inauspicious. Thimes was sitting in the barracks at Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa when the captain came in looking for a volunteer disc jockey to play black music on the base radio station. Things went well on the air, and the experience paid off when he returned to civilian life in St. Louis.
He started out playing gospel music on Saturdays at KATZ in 1958. "I guess I had a good enough voice," he says, "because soon they took me off the gospel show and had me playing rhythm and blues."
The setup of the studios back then was very different from what most people may have envisioned. The announcer sat at a table with a microphone on it. In another room, behind soundproof glass, an engineer took care of the technical work, playing the records and commercials and keeping audio at the proper level.
And it was up to each disc jockey to pick his own music. "That was before owners decided they could choose music," Thimes said.
During the week, the other jocks on the air were Dave Dixon, Robert BQ and Doug Eason. They also played R&B and gospel.
Soon another local owner came calling. Richard Miller offered Fatha more money to jump to KXLW, the market's other R&B station.
The KXLW studios, located on Bompart Avenue at the station's tower site, were smaller and the studio operation was different. The DJs had to operate their own control boards and the only engineer Thimes remembers was Jimmy Mitchell, whom he says was always tinkering with the transmitter.
At first, working for a local owner was no different than working at a station whose owner lived in another city. "We were trying to beat KATZ, so Richard left us alone at that time. Later, he decided he knew music."
Like most of his fellow deejays, Thimes had gigs on the side to make money. He pursued his comedy career with partner John Smith in a team known as "Lou and Blue," in various clubs around town. This sideline gave him a perfect opportunity to cross paths with some well-known musicians, who would later end up as guests on his radio program--people like Dinah Washington, Louis Jordan and Otis Redding.
Other disc jockeys were also moonlighting. Dave Dixon and Roscoe McCrary would produce talent shows at the YMCA at Sarah and Page. They'd bring in people like Smokey Robinson and Gladys Knight.
KXLW also opened the door for announcers to pick up lucrative contracts.
"I remember when Anheuser Busch bought my show on KXLW. They had my picture, along with the station's call letters, on every black tavern's juke box.
"There was a gentleman at the brewery, Mr. Porter, who didn't like blues. He almost killed some of those contracts. When he asked me what kind of music I played, I'd tell him it was requested music.
"A-B had salesmen on the street, and the disc jockeys would travel with the salesmen to different taverns and buy beer for people in the taverns. I couldn't go anywhere without somebody yelling 'Hey, Lou. Let's have a beer!'"
Thimes says he was surprised when he found out white kids were listening to his show "A white kid called me one day and asked what I was doing working at that black radio station. They thought I was white!"
When the music changed and management began telling the announcers what they had to play, Thimes knew it was time to hang it up. "I only knew blues and that's all I wanted to do.
"I would like to do another blues show on the radio but nobody's playing that music on the air. How can you not play the blues?"
Frank Absher is a St. Louis radio historian. St. Louis radio history is available online at www.stlradio.com
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|Title Annotation:||Radio History; rhythm and blues|
|Publication:||St. Louis Journalism Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2010|
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