Radio Virgins: Bill King Tracks Musicians' First Times

During a recent screening of the documentary Mavis, a film about gospel and soul singer Mavis Staples and the Staples Singers, I was touched by a scene where Mavis describes the first time she heard herself played on radio. It was one of those “pull off the road and stop the car” moments and just listen. Mavis said it was one of the most exhilarating interludes in her celebrated life. I thought about what she said and then, on Wednesday night, Ringo Starr appeared for a sit down with The National’s Peter Mansbridge and shared the same loving recollection when first hearing the Beatles on the BBC – another “pull to the curb” moment and just savor. 

Radio and music in the car is a potent mix; the car being a natural amphitheatre. I thought, 'Why not ask a wide range of artists – jazz, blues, gospel, pop, reggae, blues, soul etc — their thoughts on first hearing themselves on radio?' Here’s what they had to say.

Karen Burke (Gospel): Hearing any gospel music on radio in Canada is a shock, let alone your own! One of the first times we heard Toronto Mass Choir’s music on radio was compliments of ‘The Gospel Music Machine’ at CIUT 89.5FM, one of the longest running gospel radio programmes in Canada, hosted by Courtney Williams and his team. This early Sunday morning show continues to be one of the few ways that gospel lovers in Toronto can get their gospel music 'fix’ for over 20+ years.

It is wonderful to sing gospel music and to experience a live audience reaction. It is quite another to know that your music is going out over the airwaves to thousands of listeners. There are no words to describe the sound of your ‘baby’ on the radio for the first time. Thank God for campus radio!

Wendy Lands (Pop): Well, I was alone in the back seat of a taxi heading north on Avenue Rd. in Toronto. I heard the familiar chords and intro to my song and my whole body started to shake with excitement. I tried to contain it – giggling to myself – smiling from ear to ear. A voice left my body and sounded quite hysterical —'That’s meeeeeee, that’s meeee,” I blurted to the taxi driver! He was just as excited as I was. He turned it up and we listened together in silence. Suddenly, we bonded for life. 

Ammoye (Reggae): Morning Bill! My reaction to hearing my music played on the radio is always one of elation, satisfaction, awe and celebration. The first time I heard my song on the radio I was in the car we were on our way back home on the highway. It was such an unexpected surprise that I literally screamed out with joy, almost deafening my partner who was driving, lol! We turned the radio full blast, wind down the windows and laughed, danced while sitting and sang to the lyrics of my song. Such an exciting moment. I still to this day get the butterflies and goosebumps sometimes when I hear my music on the radio. An accomplishment for me it is indeed and I never take it for granted. I am always sincerely appreciative and filled with gratitude as it is so encouraging to know people are feeling my music that wanna share it with their audiences. For me it is always a time to celebrate and be thankful.

Fern Lindzon (Jazz): I remember that moment so clearly. Katie Malloch sent me a note telling me she was planning to play something from my CD, Moments Like These that evening to start off the second hour of her show. This was my very first CD and I can’t tell you how excited I was.

I decided that I wanted to experience that moment by myself behind the wheel of my car just driving along and listening to the radio and just be “surprised'.  I loved Katie’s show, The Jazz Beat. So there it was. She said something about the beautiful duets with Don Thompson on vibes, Reg Schwager on guitar and George Koller on bass and decided to play one of my duets with Don – ‘NeverNever Land’. 

I heard it as though I had never heard it before. I remember feeling that the song and arrangement were kind of familiar, but was that really me? It was pretty unreal. I still get goose bumps hearing Don’s gorgeous vibraphone playing on that CD.

Chris Birkett (Rock): I was walking down a street in Notting Hill Gate, London when I heard a familiar beat coming from an approaching car. As the car got closer the beat became louder and I realized it was one of my songs, a club anthem I wrote called Afro Dizzi Act. It was a great satisfying moment to see other people I didn't know enjoying my music.

David Clayton-Thomas: The first time I heard my own record on radio I was driving my ’49 Dodge listening to CHUM Radio and “Boom Boom” came on. I drove around for the rest of the day until I was almost out of gas waiting to hear it again. Finally, late in the evening I heard it again and the realization came to me that my very first venture into the recording studio was being heard all over Toronto. What a moment… this little 45 RPM record that we had made for $200 was actually on the radio. Wow!

Paul Novotny (Jazz): I believe the effect of hearing your music on radio can be a stimulating personal experience. For me, the first reaction immediately conjures a slightly heady feeling of success, since public performance on the curated main stage of radio is how singers and songwriters have accelerated their careers for decades. However, as that quickly fades it's the lingering feeling of joining together in a chorus of cultural contributors that stimulates me. I'm acutely aware of how important it is for Canadian artists to create new work since, (if done well) each offering strengthens our unique Canadian cultural diversity on the global stage. Upon hearing my music played on the radio,my first reaction is to think about how to create more.

Danny Marks (Blues/Pop): I have no memory of the moment, I was 18 years old or so. I remember seeing the press we got and the crowd reaction.  As important as radio is to us, I have no recall of that first moment in the car, pulling off the road a la Brian Wilson, or anything like that! My memory's generally good, but this one is lost to the sands of time.

Michael Dunston (Soul): I remember vividly I was coming up the 401 in 1986. I was with Atlantic Records and my song, “Walking into Spring Time” was playing. I started screaming in my car. I had no cellphone to tell anyone. I just suffered with all that joy by myself.  WBLK Buffalo was the station and I still have the 45, EP & cassette.

Orin Isaacs (All): I remember the first time I heard my music on the radio. I was driving an old Pontiac Acadian (with a hole on the passenger side floor board) down Oakwood Ave when ‘That’s a Friend’ from Devon came on. I couldn't believe it, I was so excited. I turned it up and rolled down my windows to let everybody hear it as I passed by. I'll never forget that feeling because it hasn't happened since, LOL.

Amanda Martinez (Latin): When I first heard my music on the radio I couldn't believe it. I had my first song played back in 2006 just before the release of my first album, Sola. I must have called my parents and sister immediately screaming to them to switch on the radio. It felt so surreal to me tha tall those listeners of CBC radio were listening to me on Metro Morning - then hosted by Andy Barrie.

At the time I was hosting Cafe Latino on JAZZFM91 and was used to hearing my speaking voice on air but not my own music! Almost 10 years later I still get just as excited when I hear my music come on the radio and know that my song is reaching lots of people whether in their car, home or at work! Radio is still such a blessing for all of us musicians as you never know who that song is reaching and how it may be changing someone's mood!

K.C. Roberts(Funk/Soul): I don’t remember the first time I heard my music on the radio; at home by chance, but I remember being on a radio show for the first time. I remember that first feeling and realization that what I was saying, and then my song being spun, was being instantly transmitted into the cars, radios, and computers of all kinds of people I'd never met. Even in today’s digital age, that's a pretty special thing. Maybe more special because if someone’s listening to the radio they are waiting for something to happen, and putting trust in the station they are listening to. I remember thinking 'Am I really allowed to have my music in these airwaves? Have I pulled some kind of trick on the system?' It was pretty exciting. 

Alexis Baro (Jazz/Latin): Sure, it was a while ago (around 10yrs) but I still can remember! It was of course on JAZZ FM 91.1 and I remember that I was in the car with my now wife, listening to the station as usual, and then the song started. A feeling of excitement and accomplishment comes over me as every song that I write and record is my baby ... and being considered good enough to get played on the local Jazz radio station was a privilege, more so 'cause I wasn't really expecting it at the time. I felt then that was the very beginning of my solo career....!

Selena Evangeline (Soul/Jazz): When I first heard myself on the radio it was in 2004 and I was driving in my car.  The feeling I had was pure joy and excitement; it was something that I had to share with anyone who would listen. I pulled up to the stoplight with my window down. I could hear that the car next to me was listening to the same station so I looked over and got the driver’s attention and asked him to roll down his window. I looked at him and shouted across, “That’s me on the radio!!” He had this surprised look on his face and he said, “For Real? Congratulations!” I don’t care who you are — when you hear yourself on the radio for the first time, there’s no way to even pretend to be cool about it.

Kirby Sewell (Blues): I remember the first time I heard myself on radio vividly, being so excited as it was an interview, and just hearing all your ideas come to light and come through the airwaves was exhilarating.  It made me feel proud and at the same time humbled that it was me singing, and my gift could be shared that way, and be experienced by others. I am actually doing a radio interview today in New Jersey, and this question is timely.  It’s not something you should take for granted.  I am super thankful for all the radio personalities that play independent music.

Brooke Blackburn (Soul/Funk): I was in my car with my brother driving back home and I heard previously that we were being played on the radio but I never had the opportunity to listen and when I did I remember the feeling of accomplishment and warmth that what we created finally was somewhat accepted and was being heard by people who might enjoy our contribution to the airways. I think it was in '96 and it was Energy 108 out of Hamilton and the song was “Africa” off our first release Soul Searching.

Robi Botos: (Jazz): Well...I remember being very excited when Kalman took me to you. It felt like things are happening for me. I was very excited to meet you and play for you. I'll never forget that beginning :)

Carol Welsman  (Jazz):The first time I heard my music on the radio, I almost drove off the road! It was back in 1995 after the release of Lucky to Be Me, my first album. I guess because of radio compression, it sounded so clear and seemed livelier than hearing the album in your living room. I was elated. It still happens here in Los Angeles to me after many years. I heard “Brazasia” while driving into my driveway. Needless to say, it was a pleasure to sit and listen to the DJ Bubba Jackson comment on the song. I do still feel lucky to be me.

Jay Douglas (Reggae/Ska): My first reaction when I heard my music for the first time on the radio was a feeling of happiness and joy. The name of that first song is “I Wish It Would Rain” by The Cougars featuring Jackie Richardson. I phoned everyone on this planet telling them my record is playing on the radio.

Treasa Levasseur (Blues/Soul): The very, very first time was my secret record from 2002 and I wrote a hand drawn card to Bill Richardson of Richardson's Round Up telling him I thought he was the only radio person at CBC with the balls to play my song, Hey Slim- a feminist response to Eminem on the air.  He read the card, and played the tune, and I was drenched in sweat but so thrilled to hear it, also in that moment I realized the value of good mastering, something that I had'nt grasped with that first record :)

Jack de Keyzer (Blues): First of all I'm pretty sure I'm always driving (like a good travelling musician!) when I hear my music on the radio. It's usually exhilarating, a moment of disbelief, followed by happiness, a little self criticism and then more happiness! In the case of low quality, highly compressed MP3’s however, my attitude changes to how did we go from Vinyl to CD to this? Backwards technology!

Kevin Breit (All): This just happened to me about a three weeks ago at a friend’s house in the country. They love their CBC, and one of my songs came on during our lunch together. I was horrified, firstly because I thought they might say, not knowing it was me, that the CBC had sunk to new lows and that our beloved coast to coast, cultural bear hug, indeed was clearly in trouble. I remained silent.

Sherry Edwards (Soul/Blues): I recorded my version of the Betty Everett song "You're No Good" in 1970, the back-up band was The Gentrys’ ("Keep On Dancin'"). It started getting a little regional play and kind of fizzled. The local station at the time that played it most was WLOU (primarily black music) until they realized I was a white girl (Ha)!! WKLO played it, as well. As far as how I felt when I heard my own voice on the radio, I would say 'critical' - I am never satisfied with what I hear.....having said that, there must have been some redeeming factors to that recording because Linda Ronstadt's people came out with her version very similar in 1973. Hers had much more production behind it, of course. I am somewhat more forgiving of my recorded voice now. With age comes seasoning.

Neil Chapman (Rock/Blues): I was in a band called the Pukka Orchestra in the 80s and I remember sitting on Queen Street listening to a car radio on Q107 and hearing 'Might As Well Be On Mars' come on. I was speechless! I'll never forget it.  I called everyone I knew to find out if they'd heard it or not. I felt like I owned the world!

Bob Segarini (Rock): That scene in 'That Thing You Do', when The Oneders’ record comes on in their van? That exactly. 'Prince of Dreams' by the Family Tree, on the Mira label. Same label as The Leaves and 'Hey Joe'. We went nuts in the van. Honking the horn, yelling out the window we were on the radio to any and all passersby and cars. And you know what?

It's STILL a rush to hear your stuff on the radio, or internet, or any other publicly accessible medium. The other moment that is a rush? Seeing your first album in a record store...especially if it had its own placard and bin. We thought we had made it! Ha!

Mike Levine (Rock): circa 1976: Triumph's first record is released...there are only two radio stations in TO that could play an album track. CHUM-FM...They would only play hit artists....and CFNY-FM—broadcast out of a shack in Brampton —with a low power signal which did come into Toronto loud and clear. Sunday nights were hosted by Nick Misetic, AKA Big Nick — limo driver, bouncer — Rik's personal roadie / Triumph's bodyguard and protector...Known to most of us in the Biz as the Gentle Giant. Who sadly passed away way too early........ :(

Nick played a 9 minute track entitled "The Blinding Light Show". I was riveted to the radio in my car; it sounded incredible. Was I a touch biased?? But of course....Nevertheless I don't think there could be anything more special than those nine minutes....and Nick's back-sell…. OMG...We probably sold 100 records at Sam's and A&A's the next day.

When I think back, I would rather have Nick still with us, instead of having him be the first to play Triumph in TO. God bless him for his loyalty and friendship....and great taste in music! I will always remember Nick and those nine special minutes!!!!!!

Greg Godovitz (Rock): Of course it was a huge thrill hearing the first Fludd hit, "Turned 21", on CHUM back in the day, but what always got me the most was being sandwiched in between artists like The Beatles and The Stones and so many others. They were the reason we got in the music business in the first place, and sharing air time with them was always a thrill. And seeing it in print on the CHUM Chart was just as good!

Suzie Vinnick (Folk/Blues): The first time I heard myself on the radio was in my hometown of Saskatoon when I was 18 or so. I had a song on a compilation CD put together by one or our local radio stations, C95. I was working early mornings as a baker and one day my song from the compilation came on the radio — I was so excited! Unfortunately, I was working alone in the kitchen that day so couldn't share my excitement. However, when the song was aired other times I started getting calls from family and friends that they'd heard me on the radio. It was pretty sweet as I spent a lot of time in my teens singing my tunes to our basement rumpus room walls — it felt pretty rewarding to have my music played on the radio station I spent hours listening to. Even now, so many years later, there have been occasions where I've been driving while on tour, after a gig, etc.  and one of my songs will come on the radio. I still feel the same excitement I felt the first time, it's like a little sonic pat on the back that I have followed the right path in pursuing music.


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