Warren Olney is one of the most important voices in Los Angeles and will soon be transitioning from a daily radio show to host a weekly To The Point podcast. We were thrilled he took on the Guest DJ Project challenge. He tells personal stories about growing up in Washington DC, his affinity for jazz and, not surprisingly, picks some artists who make political commentary part of their poetry. (Hosted by Eric J. Lawrence)
1. Duke Ellington - “Caravan”
2. Chuck Berry - “Johnny B. Goode”
3. Bob Dylan - “The Times They Are A'Changing”
4. Leonard Cohen - “Everybody Knows”
5. Bob Seger - “Night Moves”
6. John Coltrane - "A Love Supreme"
Eric J. Lawrence: Hi, I’m Eric J. Lawrence. Warren Olney is one of the most respected voices on KCRW’s airwaves. He’s hosted KCRW’s Which Way LA? for 24 years, and another 17 years at the helm of To The Point. Tack on to this an extensive career as a television broadcaster and a print journalist, it all makes Warren a true legend in his field, a quintessential part of KCRW, and someone I am truly honored to claim as a colleague. But today, we turn the tables on Warren, and I get to ask the questions as Warren joins us to talk about some of the music that has inspired him throughout his life.
And we’re doing this just as Warren starts the newest chapter in his storied career. This week, he transitions from radio to host the weekly To The Point podcast. Warren, thanks for joining us.
Warren Olney: Thank you! And it’s a great pleasure to be a colleague of yours.
EJL: Well, thank you. So, how did you enjoy this exercise of trying to summarize your life in five songs?
WO: Well, it was kind of fun, actually, and it made me think of various eras in my life and music that I enjoyed at a particular time. It’s a very eclectic choice of pieces, I think, and I hope people enjoy it.
EJL:OK. Well, what’s the first track you’ve got for us?
WO: Well, the first one is called “Caravan”. It is by Juan Tizol. He is a magnificent trombonist and he’s playing with Duke Ellington. I love Duke Ellington and that’s how I discovered it. But the reason I wanted to play it was because I started playing trombone, myself, when I was in elementary school. The difference being that I played the slide trombone; Juan Tizol plays the valve trombone. The other difference being that he really knew how to play his and I didn’t really know how to play mine. But I just think it’s magnificent; the round, rich sound that he gets out of that horn is amazing.
EJL: What brought you to that instrument specifically?
WO: My mother said that it was because the slide trombonists were the ones who walked in front when the band came down the street. And that’s as good an explanation as I can give.
*Song: Duke Ellington - Caravan*
EJL: That was Duke Ellington with the track “Caravan”, featuring the valve trombonist Juan Tizol. What’s the next track you’ve got for us?
WO: Well, the next one is “Johnny B. Goode” with Chuck Berry and it’s sort of a generic choice because he made the transition from rhythm and blues to rock and roll. I love both of those forms of music. “Johnny B. Goode” came a little bit late, but when I first went to Washington, D.C., I moved there from California, and I was a white kid living in the Pacific Northwest part of town, going to prep school there. The place was very segregated, more even than it is now, I think. So we all felt somewhat adventurous in going down to various clubs that were in the inner city, and everybody was always very nice to us. We had a great time.
At one point, we went to the Rocket Room, which was on on New York Avenue. And they’d give us a little beer when we were there, the age limit was not all that important.
What I thought was sort of amusing about it was this: We were at the Rocket Room one time, a friend of mine and I, and we came out and it was a beautiful summer night. We decided to walk down New York Avenue. You don’t have to go very far before you run into the White House. When we got to the White House, we both realized we had that beer and we really felt like we needed to... get rid of it.
So here was the White House and we sort of walked around the fence and out towards the ellipse and then it was just too much, we couldn’t find any place. So we walked up to the fence and we peed on the White House lawn.
And what’s funny about it is that my father was the assistant attorney general in charge of the criminal division at the time and my friend’s father was the legal advisor to the president of the United States. So that tells you about youthful rebellion, something about the nature of security -- I don’t think you can get near the place now without getting electrocuted. And I just thought it was fun.
*Song: Chuck Berry - Johnny B. Goode*
EJL: That was the late, great Chuck Berry with the track “Johnny B. Goode”. A little bit of nostalgia there for our guest, Warren Olney. What’s the next track you’ve got for us?
WO: How could I not choose Bob Dylan? As a person who covered both the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests, Bob Dylan was just an extraordinarily important voice.
I just have to read a couple lines from the song I have chosen: “Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call, don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall.” It’s so applicable now, the kind of change that he was talking about when he talked about the times a-changing that it seems to me it’s just as relevant now as it was then.
EJL: How was music an inspiration for you in terms of thinking about journalism?
WO: As I say, when Bob Dylan wrote those lines and talked so specifically as he did about our political life, and how irrelevant it was somehow to what was really going on in the street, and as a reporter, you want to catch what’s really going on on the street, and contrast it if you can. In Washington that’s very, very difficult to do because the news is so completely dominated by politicians. And I think it’s one of the unfortunate things that’s happened over the years is that there are fewer and fewer people now out around the country covering people, real people, and it seems to me that’s one of the reasons we kind of miss the fact that were so many people outraged at government, and who made it possible I think for President Trump to get elected.
EJL: Do you find music today kind of gives you that same sort of perspective or was it really of its time?
WO: I don’t have as much time to listen to music today as I used to. I know there’s a lot of it, and I hear music that I think is wonderful. It doesn’t have the direct relevance that it did for me at that time, I think probably because I was in the midst of a reporting career and I found it so directly relevant, as I said music from the past still is.
*Song: Bob Dylan - The Times, They Are A-Changin*
EJL: That was Bob Dylan, with the powerful “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Next up is another important voice in music -- Leonard Cohen, with his track “Everybody Knows”. Did this song also inspire your journalism career?
WO: Well, I wouldn’t call it an inspiration. I think what it does is capture the mood sometimes that you feel after you’ve covered a story so many times, and the outcome of it is so similar to what it was before and so here we have… “Everybody Knows that the boat is leaking, everybody knows that the captain lied, everybody knows this broken feeling like their father or their dog just died.”
And I have to say that I come home sometimes...I have come home as a reporter sometimes and felt as if my dog just died, simply because I’ve been so depressed by the way that things are going. And other times, quite the reverse -- I have been elated by the way things are going. I just love the irony and the dark nature of that particular Leonard Cohen song, so that’s why I chose it. It’s not my ongoing mood, I wouldn’t say. I’m not a depressant. But I just love the way it’s phrased and that’s what I love about Bob Dylan too. I like the words and the poetry and the way people put those things together.
*Song: Leonard Cohen - Everybody Knows*
EJL: That was Leonard Cohen with the darkly comedic song “Everybody Knows”. So Warren, what’s your final music choice.
WO: Well, the final track is Bob Seger, and my wife Marsha introduced me to Bob Seger relatively late in my life, although Bob Seger had been going for a long time. And in fact, we actually went to a Bob Seger concert in Michigan because we thought it was gonna be his last concert. And we have since seen two Bob Seger concerts, so he’s one of those guys who’s having a lot of last concerts. But I love this song, “Night Moves”.
EJL: “When we were just young and restless and bored,” takes me back, and he refers to that later in this song. He says, “I awoke last night to the sound of thunder, how far off I sat and wondered, started humming a song from 1962.” It has a nostalgia about it about youth and, again, I was young and at that stage, when I was in Washington, D.C. in high school, a little later as well, and it just takes me back. I just love it. I love the vitality of Bob Seger, and he’s got great musicians playing with him. It’s really fun to go to his concerts.
*Song: Bob Seger - Night Moves*
EJL: That was Bob Seger with “Night Moves”, as selected by our guest, Warren Olney. One final question: music has been used often as a theme song to news programs. I think of John Williams’ score for the NBC News. I think even the ABC local station here used Lalo Schifrin’s soundtrack to Cool Hand Luke as sort of a theme that they used for their show. And, of course, Which Way LA? is so strongly associated with that John Coltrane riff. How did that come about?
*Song: John Coltrane - Love Supreme*
WO: That’s “Love Supreme”. Or a portion of “Love Supreme” and one of the most magnificent pieces of music I think that I’ve ever heard. And of course that saxophone riff is only a part of it because there’s much more to it, it has movement after movement and it’s interesting...the reaction to it’s been interesting. Every so often we get a message from somebody who says thanks so much for playing that, I never get a chance to hear it. And other times we get someone saying this is sacrilegious when you play just a fragment of John Coltrane.
It came about here in the studio as you indicated of course this is a place where music is all around us. And it wasn’t my original idea and I hadn’t heard it before, but the moment I heard it, I said “Okay! Let’s go with that one.”
EJL: It’s legendarily associated with the show and only appropriate in that you are really one of the great legends of KCRW. Thank you so much for sharing some of your musical selections with us.
WO: Well, thank you! I had a lot of fun.
EJL: For a complete track listing and to find these songs online, go to KCRW.com/guestdjproject and subscribe to the podcast through itunes.