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My Amazing, Early-80s, Old School Washington DC Funk and Soul Party!! Wooo!!!

Updated on June 18, 2013
Me on the air in Washington in 1981.
Me on the air in Washington in 1981. | Source
In the 1970s, Washington DC became known as "Chocolate City."
In the 1970s, Washington DC became known as "Chocolate City." | Source

As an 18-year old, I was working at my second job out of high school-- doing the 10 a.m to 3 p.m. mid day show at an Album Rock radio station in Charlottesville, Virginia-- when I got a call that changed my life. “The Big Time” was calling. I got an offer to do two weekend on air shifts and be the regular fill-in “talent” (that’s what they called the on air people at major radio stations —“talent!”) for the full time announcers at the #1 Album Rock station in Washington, DC.

I’d be part of the union, The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and I’d make the then-astounding sum of approximately $18,000 a year. I’d also be eligible to do personal appearances at record stores, events, remote broadcasts, and advertiser tie-ins for $125 a pop to supplement that income. And there were free concerts, free records, occasional backstage passes, an almost lifetime supply of radio station t-shirts, and a lot of other freebies.

Of course, I jumped at the chance. Who in their right mind wouldn’t? For a couple of weeks I did my regular mid day show in Charlottesville, and then on Friday night I’d drive about 100 miles up to DC to do an overnight Friday and Saturday show. I soon turned in my notice to the station in Charlottesville, and relocated to DC-- just about the time I was promoted to do four regular air shifts per week.

The music I was playing on the air every night was a steady diet of mostly hard rock and classic rock—the staples of Album Rock radio at the time. It was Styx, AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Foreigner, The Eagles, Journey, The Police, Black Sabbath, Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith, The Beatles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Rolling Stones, etc. What more could a soon-to-be 19-year old want?

Yet even a dream scenario can be too much of a good thing. Be careful what you wish for--six hours a night of hearing the same style of music droning into my head over and over again, plus listening to our competition to find out what they were doing began to take a toll.

Discovering Funk and Soul Music

One morning after getting off the air, I started tuning around the dial to find out what stations playing other music formats were doing. Driving through the streets of DC, I found myself listening more and more to soul and funk stations—it just seemed like the “soundtrack” to what was often referred to at the time as “Chocolate City.” And after a couple of years of deep immersion to the Album Rock format, I was glad to hear some music with a profoundly different attitude.

After only a couple of months in DC, WKYS became my favorite station—not just for the soul music they played, but because they had an incredibly polished sound, with amazingly professional disc jockeys. WKYS featured Donnie Simpson in the mornings, who was also their program director and later became one of the first on air hosts at BET. Candy Shannon did nights, and was one of the greats in Washington radio. The NBC owned and operated station featured union board operators, which was a flashback to an earlier age of big time radio, and you could hear the professionalism in every element of their presentation.

Before long, I could name the artists and titles of songs after just a few notes, without having much of a background in what is now termed “urban contemporary music.” And it was truly a fantastic time in soul music—maybe the pinnacle of R&B music artistry-- with bands and emerging artists like Kool & The Gang, Luther Vandross, Earth Wind and Fire, Patti Labelle, Deniece Williams, Prince, Rick James, Stevie Wonder, Evelyn King, Gap Band, and George Benson at their peak.

Edgier Funk artists like Steve Arrington, D Train, Skyy, Con Funk Shun, and Sylvester made appearances. British soul and funk was heavily represented by Imagination, Junior, Hot Chocolate, and Central Line. And in a nod to Blue-Eyed Soul, tunes like Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That” and Teena Marie’s “Square Biz” and “Portuguese Love” were in hot rotation. (A few years later I found out that Teena Marie was six years ahead of me at my high school in California.)

I took full advantage of the restaurants and culture in DC. I lived on Capitol Hill (before it was gentrified), ate at ethnic restaurants in Adams Morgan (before it was gentrified), and took the Metro all over town. I went to film festivals at the Kennedy Center, and interviewed local historians for Sunday morning public affairs broadcasts. I drove to Philadelphia and Baltimore for sporting events. I developed a friendship with then-local broadcaster Larry King, mostly over our mutual love for baseball. Several times I walked the six blocks to the Capitol to watch the U.S. Senate in session or talk to the cameramen and reporters from a new outfit called “CNN.”

Part of my DC experience included soccer. I had the station’s press pass to the Washington Diplomats NASL games, where I met Danish soccer legend Johann Cruyff and hob-nobbed with the journalists covering soccer. I also got to play in a media exhibition game on the RFK Stadium pitch.

Almost every day during my two summers in DC, I drove to a field behind a large apartment complex across the river in Arlington, where I played soccer for hours in pick-up games with mostly Latin American, African, and Asian immigrants. I didn’t have a whole lot of flashy dribbling skills, but I was in amazing shape, and had very good field vision and strategic skills. More often than not, the Latin American players would side up on one team and leave me with the Asians, Africans, and a few stray fellow Americans. Most of the time, we held our own, and a few times we staged some improbable upsets.

About the time I started getting into soul and funk music, the Album Rock station I was working at hired a new morning show host named Howard Stern. I did the overnight show, so I saw him every morning. Pretty soon I was doing character voices and improv skits with him on the air. After a while, I was coming up with ideas for comedy bits and recording pieces for later broadcast. I even filled in doing the news for Robin Quivers a dozen times or so when she was sick or on vacation.

It was a great time for me, and it changed my life. I was an 18-19-20 year old, independent in a big city, doing a job I loved, broadening my horizons, and learning a lot about the world and all the people in it. When I tested-out of high school at 16, I thought I’d probably go to college some day. It didn’t happen until I turned 28, but I eventually got a Master’s Degree in Urban Planning. When I hear some of those great old songs now, it takes me back in an instant, especially when I haven’t heard them for a while. But even so, I recall the feeling of invincibility and unlimited possibilities I had then, when everything was new and exciting and I truly believed I had the capacity to do just anything I set my mind to. It’s my hope that everybody has a time like that in their lives.


Submit a Comment

  • e-five profile imageAUTHOR

    John C Thomas 

    5 years ago from Chicago, Illinois, USA

    Thanks, spartucusjones. Before the 90s, the gap between R&B and Rock was a much more distinct separation. It seems silly now, but back then it was a line that was hard to cross.

  • spartucusjones profile image

    CJ Baker 

    5 years ago from Parts Unknown

    Great hub, thanks for sharing your experiences! It really does sound like a dream job. Definitely a job I would of loved to have when I was 18 (even though being a teen in the 90's I was more alternative rock).


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