My morning routine involves rising early, between 5:30 and 6:00 and “easing into the day”. Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Probably influenced by my Dad’s farm boy upbringing, I have never at any point in my life slept in, not even in high school when many of my friends would take great pride in sleeping until the “crack of noon” on Saturdays or in college when the night before and the time to rise and shine got perilously close together.
I have the fondest of memories of my Dad’s start to his day. He would sit at the table in our little kitchen reading the Roanoke Times and listening to Louis “Rooster” Kanode on our local radio station, WBCR (standing for Blacksburg, Christiansburg, and Radford, and later changing its call letters to WJJJ, standing for nothing that I knew of.)
The other morning I was thinking of those long-ago early mornings and how my Dad would listen to Rooster on his transistor radio. It “dawned”(pun intended) on me that it might make for an interesting column to write about how the devices I listen to music and sports and news on have evolved over the years.
My first memories of the “device” (what we call them these days) on which I listened (we “stream” these days) to music and talk was a combination of a radio, a turntable and a piece of furniture. It had a radio dial across the front and a hinged door which pulled down and held a “phonograph” player which folded out to play records: 33’s, 45’s and 78’s. These numbers stood for the number of revolutions per minute (thus, rpm’s) that the vinyl spun on the turntable.
I vaguely recall a fourth version, the 16 rpm, the movement of which must have been barely perceptible to the naked eye. I don’t recall ever seeing one in action (such as it was).
I remember three of these “cabinet radios,” one in each of the houses I grew up in: my parents’ house, my Aunt Maggie and grandmother Weaver’s house, and my Aunt Mary Alma’s house. They were prominent fixtures in each house, predating, and then co-existing with the television age I grew up in. My memories of listening to radio or playing records on these devices are limited but warm.
I also remember that as we moved into the mid-60’s, my folks bought a “console” from Kyle Jennings at the Music House. It was a more impressive cabinet radio with table legs and a sliding top that covered the turntable and radio dial. It produced terrible sound, but my Dad said it was “stereo,” and it was one of the Rents’ proudest possessions.
I remember a 78 album of Gene Autry doing “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer” and of Bing Crosby doing White Christmas, and putting a spindle in a 45 record to make it fit in order to listen to “Big Bad John” and “Going to Kansas City” and 33 and 1/3 albums galore”: Perry Como, South Pacific and Bill Cosby (I’m thankful my parents never learned of his downfall). I also remember listening to the broadcasts of college football games, particularly play-by-play guy Frank Soden saying, “The Gobblers have the ball on their own 20, first and 10, moving from left to right on your radio dial”. How did Frank know that?
One remembrance of that age is the mini-liquor cabinet I eventually made from the cabinet radio in my Aunt Maggie’s house. I’m pretty sure I got the idea from my Cousin Bobby, who had done the same with the radio from his Mom’s house. Mine is still in my attic somewhere.
The next device I remember was a simple childlike record player in my bedroom. As I recall, it only played 45’s, and the records usually had three songs on each side. I remember listening to “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “Hang Down your Head Tom Dooley” on my little phonograph player.
As I grew older, and more “sophisticated” in my tastes, I moved into the fairly short-lived era of “eight tracks.” These things were large cartridges encasing magnetic tapes that played the music after you slid them into the eight-track player. These players were known to occasionally “eat” the tape, ending the lifespan of that cartridge. If you were lucky, the eight track player didn’t completely swallow the tape and you were able to extract it so that the player could live again. This was during my high school era and I listened to artists like Grand Funk Railroad and Jimi Hendrix and the soundtrack from Woodstock played very loudly on my eight-track player. I am pretty sure I remember hearing my Dad say to my Mom once when a tape had snapped in the player, “I hope he can’t fix the damn thing this time.”
I played my collection of eight-track albums in a large player in my bedroom (behind closed doors) and in another one that I installed in our second family car, which I usually had access to during my junior and senior years of high school. I have vivid memories of Friday afternoons before going to the gym at CHS to dress for our football games. In an effort to “psych myself up” and get “reckless, I would get on the old “Mud Pike” (a frontage road between Christiansburg and Radford) and drive very rapidly and listen to Sly and the Family Stone or Canned Heat doing “Going up the Country” at a very high volume. No doubt a contributor to my current hearing issues, but fun at the time.
At some point later, the “eight-track years” evolved into the cassette phase. These were smaller and the era lasted longer. The cassettes also suffered from the malaise of snapping and getting wrapped around the internal organs of the machines that played them. I had a bunch.
I can’t leave this era of my high school years without mentioning the “four-track player.” I am not positive of their history, but I believe four-tracks lived less than one “phone year” and were quickly replaced by the eight-track. I wouldn’t even bother with referring to this device but for the fact that the only one I ever saw was owned by Dave White. Dave graduated from Emory & Henry my sophomore year of high school and came to Christiansburg High as an assistant football coach the next fall. He was the coolest guy in town. He drove a white convertible, always had an attractive date seated next to him, and had a four-track player. The four-track was the only uncool thing Coach White ever did to my knowledge.
The next step in my progression through devices that played music and talked to us was during my college years. Two of the “cool kids” in my suite my first year – surfer dudes turned hippies from Virginia Beach – had something called a “reel-to-reel” player. All I recall is that these things were beyond my price range and I wasn’t sure where you would get the reels. I was told they were for people who “were more serious about music” than I apparently was.
Eventually, after college and in the early days of married life and having been awarded a credit card by the bank I was working for, my wife and I had a few beers after work one Friday and used said credit card at a place called Sound City to purchase a Garrard turntable and AKL speakers and a device that connected the two. The total purchase price was around $400, significant when your salary was $8,000 a year. We also had to buy some albums (33’s dominated this period) to play. I mainly remember Fleetwood Mac and the Allman Brothers. I also recall discussions with the salesperson about woofers and tweeters, components which impacted the cost of the speakers and made them about the same size as the refrigerator in our tiny apartment in Radford. After a few beers on a Friday afternoon, we wanted NICE woofers and tweeters!
The next phase was the “CD” era, which dominated much of my post-college life until the computer age. They didn’t break off in the machine like tapes and they didn’t get scratched like records (or rarely, like maybe when a reveler in your house fell on the CD player). I had more CD’s than Carter had liver pills like my grandmother used to say. Over the last several years I have pretty much given away my impressive collection to charity auctions at my church or at my office. As I will explain, I now listen to my music and my games on nothing that I can hold or feel.
In other words, I am a convert to “Spotify.” For $9.99 per month I can use my phone to listen to any song ever recorded. I can make my own “playlists,” and I don’t have to do anything unlike when the record or CD had run its course. As the Grateful Dead said so well, “The music never stops”. I can also use my phone to listen to sports talk radio on Sirius XM. I can even actually call people on my phone and talk to them! But I digress.
I would love to have a conversation with my Dad someday about how my music comes “from the cloud.” It might take a while to explain, not that I could. He would probably just ask me to turn it down a little.
Evans “Buddy” King is a proud native of Christiansburg, CHS Class of 1971. He resides in Clarksburg, W.Va., where he has practiced law with the firm of Steptoe & Johnson, PLLC, since 1980. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.