I got a call from a jazz-loving friend the other day, and in the course of conversation, we discovered that we were both weaned in our jazz love by a commercial jazz station, KBCA 105.1, back in the 1960’s. It’s hard to believe that there was once a jazz station that would use John Coltrane’s song “Spiritual” as a morning drive-time theme, but it’s true. I listened every morning on my way to class at USC. In fact, I installed a Delco FM radio in my VW just to hear this station. During the summer of 1965–when I was working my first year as a lifeguard at Cabrillo Beach in San Pedro–I would listen to KBCA on my commute to work as well as in the lifeguard tower. (Click for a closer look at the playlist above from July 29, 1967.)
This was all before NPR and radio frequency becoming valuable real estate. Radio stations became much more expensive to buy, resulting in more commercial formats that contracted the playlists into just one type of music usually.
The KBCA deejays were my and my friends’ heroes: Tommy Bee in the afternoon, with “Miles Ahead” as his theme and fill music. There was Kogyo Sayama, who I recall had a hell of a time doing the voiceover ad for Mr. Jim’s Barbeque: “You need no teeth to eat Mr. Jim’s beef.” Mr. Jim’s was located at 102nd and Avalon in Compton, and though it’s been closed for many years, there are still people who crave the BBQ sauce and the ribs there. There was Tolley Strode, who asked listeners to change lanes on the freeways when he segued cuts. Jai Rich, “Rosita’s Little Boy Jay,” the Jammin’ Jay Rich, was the morning host from what he called “the lion’s den.” He used Oscar Brown’s classic “Mr. Kicks” as his theme, and Coltrane’s “Spiritual” as his fill music in between cuts. Finally, the late, great bandleader/educator Gerald Wilson had a noontime show called “Jazz Capsule.” He always referred to musicians as “fine young men” regardless of their ages.
I used to visit the original KBCA location with a jazz-nut friend. We went at night and caught deejay Rick Holmes, working like a busy short-order cook at the Miracle Mile location, juggling vinyl, ad carts, reel-to-reel tapes. We were blown away and it ignited in us a desire to be a deejay someday. I was lucky; my dream came true.
The advertisers who sponsored KBCA programs weren’t big car dealerships or national brands, but rather small local businesses, similar to what you encounter on late night TV when ad buys are cheaper and not nearly as slick. Chambers Shine Parlor was one, with the slogan, “Where you get a shine so bright, you have to wear shades to see them in the sunlight.” I think Chambers is still around, on South Central Avenue near Florence and Firestone.
Saul Levine, the veteran owner of KBCA since 1959, founded the station fresh out of law school. He almost had to build it all himself, way up atop Mount Wilson, where the transmitter and antenna were located. KBCA started as a classical station, but since L.A. already had a big classical station, KFAC, Levine decided to switch formats to jazz. This was the dawn of the FM dial, which promised better, quieter sound than the numerous noisy AM stations that populated the radio dial back then. Much of FM in the early days, however, consisted of MUZAK-formatted stations that aired relaxing but numbing sounds that became known as MOR—“middle of the road.”
KBCA later became KKGO in the 1970’s; the ad accounts got bigger and increased income, but the format changed. Jazz deejays were squeezed out and the station played more of what came to be called smooth jazz: The Crusaders, Spyro Gyra, Randy Crawford, Earl Klugh, Chuck Mangione, Bernard Igner, and others. Less Coltrane, Miles, and Blue Note. Around 10 years ago KKGO changed formats again and became a country music station. Saul Levine still runs KKGO as well as KJZZ in Long Beach 88.1 FM.
I started listening to KCRW around 1974 while working as a part-time lifeguard. I could hear great noncommercial jazz nightly with guys like Gary Vercelli and Billy Corrigan, who played plenty of Coltrane, Miles, Billy Harper, Music Inc. on the great Strata East label, and other tasty fare that helped balance the jazz radio scale. Today, Bo Leibowitz hosts the remaining dedicated jazz program on KCRW called “Strictly Jazz,” on Saturday mornings from 3-6 a.m. Because of his time slot, Bo is popular in Europe, Japan, and other areas of the world where it’s convenient to hear him live. Of course, you can also check out his podcasts on demand anytime you want.
It was KBCA, however, that really turned me onto my favorite music and started a lifetime jazz journey. Thank you KBCA for that. And thanks and gratitude also to my jazz deejay heroes on KBCA: Jai Rich, Rick Holmes, Tommy Bee, Kogio Sayama, Tolly Strode, Chuck “Bebop” Niles, Les Carter, Bob Gresham, Bill Hancock, Jim Gosa, Bob Summers, Sam Fields. Forgive me if I have missed a few of KBCA’s musical personalities.
Remarkably, my longtime production assistant when I was on-air on Saturdays and Sundays (1993-2013) Bob Werne found an air-check of a February 1976 program, with Jim Gosa, host. The third air-check features Sam Fields as host. I was in France then, so this is the first time I’ve heard this show. There’s music from Oscar Brown Junior “Thank God it’s Friday”, Bill Withers, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Gil Scott-Heron; news headlines about Patty Hearst and F. Lee Bailey, and ads for the Herald Examiner, a car dealership selling a 1974 Triumph TR-6, a haberdashery selling leisure suits, doctors strikes, quadrophonic stereo ads, defunct record stores like Jazz City Records and Tapes, Woodland Stereo Center, plus local venues long gone: the Cocoanut Grove at the Ambassador Hotel is just one of them. It’s a true time capsule: no area codes, vinyl surface noise, artists who’ve died since, clubs that shut their doors decades ago.
But wait, there’s more: Thanks to Anthony Velasquez, we now have an aircheck of KBCA’s Sunday Night Latin jazz program, Jazz Al Estilo Latino. Thanks Anthony for this. Glad we had cassette tapes then!