The loss of Milwaukee’s black talk radio stirs memories of Marvin Gaye

News of WMCS-AM (1290) suffering the soul-gutting of a dreaded “format change” stirred one of the most indelible memories of my many years of working in Wisconsin media, which I’ll get to shortly.

In a city that still suffers from some of the worst segregation in the nation, WMCS provided a categorically transcendent voice for the African-American viewpoint that radiated enlightenment on urban life and reality to most corners of the Milwaukee area (given the limits of its AM power/penetration).

Now, one of the oldest black-owned radio stations in the country has its talk-show format snuffed out, under the explanation it had been losing money for a decade.

So maybe it was inevitable in a bottom-line world. But mindful culture can defy the bottom-line mentality, so let’s consider what we’re losing.  Silencing community dialogue it speaks to the perspectives of Milwaukee’s black minority is chilling in the face of pervasiveness of hard right talk radio The tough news was well covered in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Wednesday by TV and radio reporter Duane Dudek and editorial columnist James Causey ( State Sen. Lena Taylor and Ald. Willie Wade also bemoaned the loss, and the station’s morning talk show host Eric Von noted that the impact on Milwaukee’s black listenership is compounded by the effect on “the more progressive community. By and large, we were it in terms of progressive conversations.”

WMCS, formerly known as WAWA, 92.1 has been long sustained by the partnership of Green Bay Packer great Willie Davis , is the talk show branch of the Milwaukee Radio Alliance which also owns WL DB-FM  (93.3) and WLUM FM (102.1).

In an age of iPods, Napster and online song-sharing and other personalized listening modes, some say broadcast radio is dead but I don’t buy it. Milwaukee broadcast culture  thrives with great music from the likes of WMSE (91.7), WY MS (88.9) in WUWM (89.7), our Public radio outlet. I listen to all three and although I once DJ’d on WLUM it and LDB are a notch below the others ( I also DJ’d on MSE), partly because LUM is no longer an urban music-oriented station, having joined the crowded field of pop-rock-indie stations. Of course, “urban” format translates loosely to African-American-oriented broadcasting.

Which brings me to my vivid memory of one Sunday night years ago when I was doing my jazz and blues program on WLUM. I documented this in my hopefully forthcoming book Voices In The River: The Jazz Message To Democracy. This passage is from Chapter 4, titled “What’s Going On? – Milwaukee Starts to Hear Voices.”:

One night changed my understanding of what was happening in the somewhat mysterious realm of radio airwaves, inhabited at the other end by invisible people, attuned to your transmissions like creatures hidden in the hills.

Half way through my show, the AP teletype machine clacked out dire news: “Marvin Gaye has been shot dead. His father is held suspect.” I cut in to read the report and within seconds the phone lines were jammed with wailing women, and men.

“Man you gotta play ‘What’s Goin’ On!’” they all said. I hadn’t brought that record because I didn’t play much R&B on that slot. Being Sunday night, the station library was closed. I riffled frantically through the few hundred records in the current rotation bins.

No Marvin Gaye. “You gotta find a way to bring some lovin’ here today…” How could this happen? Not tonight on my show… “Father father”… I looked under the M’s and the G’s four times each… Brother Brother, there’s far too many of you dying… finally, I found it, dog-eared and precious. Rain-drenched Marvin. I sighed and pulled it out of the sleeve and slipped the small teardrop hole onto the platter. Ohhh, what’s goin’ on, what’s goin’ on?

Marvin Gayeimages

Marvin Gaye. Courtesy

The red phone buttons glowed like fireflies in heat, and my finger clicked up listeners also sighing, in gratitude mingled with grief.

What I realized was that many of these people had been listening to my jazz program, most of them black folks, who supposedly had been lost as a jazz “demographic” (even though the term wasn’t used then). But when I read the news bulletin they knew the night now belonged to Marvin’s “inner city blues.” The emotional receptors had switched to a slightly different frequency, to one that “makes me wanna holler.” I loved being able to make that switch for them.

The music was all one, just colored in many shades of soul and intellect.

Has music changed today? It seems to have, in the way it is so tightly controlled, produced and marketed. Music down loading seems to be a public revolt against that control, as are the vast alt-rock, independent label and roots music movements. I refuse to belief contemporary music has changed in essence. It seemed to make such a difference in society and culture 20 years ago, because musicians reflected and responded to the times. It still can, to the degree that music can free itself from corporate media systems of control and marketing manipulation and co-opting.

Gaye was shot twice following a physical altercation with his father, Marvin Gaye Sr., after the singer-songwriter intervened in an argument between his father and his mother Alberta. The father killed Gaye with the .38 pistol his son had bought him. Fate sometimes has the darkest wit:  Gaye died on April Fool’s Day, 1984.


Marvin Gaye in state. Courtesy www.soulwalking.

The bigger relevant point underlying this tragic event is, of course, gun violence. Despite all the profoundly justified current concern and pending legislation regarding mass murders with assault weapons, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of homicides in America are one-on-one killings with handguns, like Marvin Gaye’s death. His murder by his father was one of the most shockingly dramatic in modern American history because of Gaye’s fame, genius and his pointedly eloquent message.

Craig Werner, UW-Madison Professor of Afro-American Studies, wrote “part of what makes What’s Going On an unquestioned masterpiece is Gaye’s concentration on the social crosscurrents sweeping to the inner cities and the country as a whole.” 1. Werner resonates with station host Eric Von’s point about the “larger progressive community.”

This blog Culture Currents humbly strives to sustain a kind of socio-cultural concentration for current times, part of the reason why Gaye sticks in my consciousness like a beautiful scar.

WLUM’s AM sister station WMCS fought against what Gaye called inner city blues and will leave a void that one only hopes will not be filled with more echoes of gunfire, and insufficient community dialogue and action response.

I left Milwaukee in 1989 to take a job covering the arts for The Capital Times in Madison. When I returned to my hometown a few years ago and started tuning in to local radio, what I found most missing on the local airwaves was something I akin to Madison’s The Mic 92.1. Madison’s progressive talk radio station offers south-central Wisconsin the nationally syndicated voices of Ed Schultz, Thom Hartmann, Stephanie Miller, and, on Sundays,  Robert Kennedy Jr. and Mike Papontonio (co-hosting “Ring of Fire”) and Rev. Jessie Jackson, among others. (Check it out online at>

Now that the progressive-oriented talk forum of WMCS is silenced, more than ever Milwaukee needs a station like The Mic which conscientiously covers our social and political crosscurrents.


  1. Craig Werner, Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, Three Rivers Press, 2004, 163


Did I see yo mammy steal somebody’s Grammy? Kudos and Komplaints

Here’s my two cents worth (and spare change) on the 2012 Grammy Awards. Nope I didn’t hear all the music nominated. How many people did?

But I heard enough to assert my bloggistic opinion, he replied. Here’s an eccentrically broad, personal and biased commentary.

I am glad that the Robert Glasper Experiment won for Best R&B Album. This man showed great creativity, daring, and smart taste. I wrote an article on him for Shepherd Express and as a blog post. The interesting angle was that he played in South Milwaukee, which would’ve been unthinkable for a black artist, borderline suicidal, before the civil rights era.


Here’s that whole story FYI:

What’d I liked about Glasper’s album “Black Radio”? The CD delivers not gangsta rapology, but rather a kind of immersion in supple R&B-groove, chill-out “experimentation for meditation.”

It challenged preconceptions. What can you presuppose about an album that seamlessly combines Erykah Badu singing Mongo Santamaria’s Afro-Latin jazz classic “Afro-Blue,” and  Lalah Hathaway recasting the cool ecstasy of Sade’s “Cherish the Day”? Add to that “The Consequences of Jealousy” by crossover jazz bassist Meshell Ndegeocello (who plays on the album), David Bowie’s “Letter to Hermione” and Kurt Cobain’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Glasper’s originals, aided by Mos Def, Musiq Soulchild and others, help it all meld. Unlike hardcore hip-hop, Black Radio brims with melodic and harmonic sophistication, more like the hybrids of fellow jazzer Jason Moran.

As for Album of the Year, The Black Keys’ El Camino is strong, scratch-your-grunge-itch stuff but a notch below their previous album Brothers. Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange was right there, but he’ll probably get his, in time (He deservedly won Best Contemporary Urban Album). So I’m not shocked that Mumford and Sons nabbed best album, and happy their Americana category won. It’s a breakthrough vernacular win, like jazzman Herbie Hancock’s best album win with River: The Joni Letters was a few years ago.

However, very good as M&S are, they still strike me as derivative of various American roots-rock bands. Could a bunch of Brits be outdoing all American groups at their own genre? Betraying a tinge of Americanism here, I think not, and might’ve awarded Old Crow Medicine Show’s Carry Me Back or The Avett Brothers’ The Carpenter instead. Or say, Chuck Prophet’s un-nominated Temple Beautiful, an unsentimental and lovingly loosey-goosey roots-rock ode to the seemingly perpetual cultural prism called San Francisco.

I’d love to hear from a Brit reader, or two (and Yanks always). I know, Britain has its own profound roots of traditional and eccentric folk music which contributed to America’s. And the Brits got the deepest grip on American blues in what became the Blues Revival of the ‘60s, though the integrated, Chicago-based Paul Butterfield Blues Band led the way.

However, today Americans are much more aware, appreciative of, and creatively responsive to, their cultural roots.

For example, my actual choice for album of the Year would be This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark, a nominee for Best Folk Album. It’s co-produced by Shawn Camp and Tamara Saviano, a Milwaukee native who previously blessed us with the Grammy-nominated Stephen Foster tribute album Beautiful Dreamer.*


Clark’s esteemed peers performed and helped reveal how his song writing has quietly carved a broad swath of insight, peculiarity, tragedy and comedy that epitomizes an essential strain of the American experience. He may be the dean of Texas songwriters, a sun-parched musical bard category that may outshine all others in America. “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Dublin Blues,” “Hemingway’s Whiskey,” “Stuff that Works,”” The Last Gunfighter Ballad,” “Randall Knife” are among many superb Clark songs still underexposed, yet hidden right in the heart of America.  Listen here, to Lyle Lovett, John Prine, Emmylou Harris, Roseanne Cash, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Jerry Jeff Walker, James McMurtry and others.

Along similar lines of preference and argument, the best country album should’ve been Jamey Johnson’s Living for a Song: A Tribute to Hank Cochran, rather than Zac Brown’s Uncaged. Sure Brown’s doing mostly original stuff but he’s got a bit too much rock in his country. My bias is toward traditional or new-trad or alt-country, the latter which Brown is somewhat, but now mainstream country loves him, it seems, the way it now gluts on heavy guitar riffs. Johnson’s curatorial project shed light on one of the most incisively truth-telling songwriters in country history and, like the Clark tribute, had heavyweight acknowledging that with their interpretations, including Nelson, Kristofferson, E. Harris, Merle Haggard, Elvis Costello, Ray Price, Bobby Bare, Allison Krause, George Strait, and Lee Ann Womack etc.

That reminds me of another album, which probably wasn’t nominated because it was released as a combo DVD video as well. That’s We Walked the Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash. I won’t list the all-star lineup but do check it out. It climaxed with, for this listener, perhaps the most moving performance of the year: “Highwayman” with Jamey Johnson singing the final verse — which the late Cash sang in the version of the song which The Highwaymen (Cash, Nelson, Kristofferson and Waylon Jennings) recorded in 1985. It’s one of Jimmy Webb’s most poetic, timeless, transcendent and rootsy songs.

Johnson first really got to me with his brief but powerful solo set at the 25th Farm Aid in Milwaukee in October of 2010. He’s a slightly acquired taste, as is Guy Clark. But Johnson’s foghorn-of-the-soul voice and brave commitment to a tradition is as authentic as they come in country these days, among relatively new performers.

OK, radically shifting directions — Country to Classics — but you should never try to pin down Culture Currents. I like messing with your heads a bit. And vernaculars do speak, in many tongues.

Although I haven’t yet heard Michael Tilson Thomas’s recording of John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Short Ride In A Fast Machine, kudos to the Academy for honoring a living composer, if the most obvious one, for Best Classical Orchestral Recording. The former piece achieves the improbable: merging minimalism with its antithesis, Arnold Schoenberg, thus opening a deep throbbing vein that pulses with dark duende and humanity intensely magnified.

Yet the San Francisco Symphony program seems slight compared to Simon Rattle’s 1994 recording of these works, which also includes “The Chairman Dances” and other Adams pieces (full disclosure: a relative of mine is in the SF orchestra, so I’m avoiding favoritism here.).

And Thomas beat out a strong reading of Mahler’s First Symphony by Ivan Fischer and the Budapest Radio Orchestra. Hearing this ever-mighty Mahler – as he echoes through the vast and haunted crevasse between Romanticism and modernism — reminds one of how minimalism, liberating as it can be, so often is too much of not enough.

I say, Mahler! by a nose, famously aquiline. (Look for a brand-new recording of Mahler’s First by Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra music director Edo du Waart in the 2013 Grammy running, albeit with his other band, The Royal Flemish Philharmonic.)

In Best Opera Recording, James Levine and his Wagnerian horde predictably rolled over the competition with his Der Ring cycle, like the Third Reich steamrolling Poland (a strange role for Levine). But smashed in that blitzkrieg was Alban Berg’s Lulu, an unforgettably entrancing Lulu of a high-modernist opera, bravely led by Michael Boder, and Vladimir Jurowski’s take on Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress.

Best Jazz Vocal Album went to Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society. I still think Ms. Spalding is a better musician and conceptualizer than a singer. She should not have beaten out Kurt Elling’s 619 Broadway: The Brills Building Project (tributing the Gershwins, Kerns, Porters, et al) or Luciana Souza’s The Book of Chet (as in Baker). But Spalding is ambitious and definitely the jazz flavor (dare I say sweetheart?) of the year. And she’s got game and I do love her world-class ‘fro.

I’d also say that Arturo Sandoval’s admirable For Diz: Every Day I Think of You won Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album with more flash than my choice. The Gil Evans Project proved that nothing can replace modern jazz’s greatest arranger, but leader Ryan Truesdell’s magnificent effort on Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, unearthed glittering new treasures from the late Evans’ legacy. And although The Evans Project album’s How About You achieves a splendid swing, it hardly should’ve won Best Instrumental Arrangement over the same album’s endlessly beguiling Barbara Song or the transporting Pubjab, neither of which was nominated. A very retro — borderline moldy fig — choice for arrangement. I blogged on this album, too.


I also would have put vibes player Joe Locke and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin right in the running for Best Improvised Jazz Solo on Centennial‘s “Waltz/Variation on the Misery/So Long.” Locke delivers gleaming substance on several of the album’s major pieces. Chick Corea and Gary Burton, who have closets full of awards and accolades, won for Hot House, vintage bebop updated. That’s perpetually hip, but also comparatively retro.

Somebody please swivel around the Academy jazz voters, so they face forward. Do you question that assertion, given my promoting of various tribute albums of, say, trad country?

“Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” Well, Walt Whitman did. Culture Currents tries to. You go where the best music takes you.

Speaking of philosophical assertions, for a broad-brush but insightful commentary on the Grammys, I recommend editor Kim Reuhl’s recent ruminations. Noting the Grammies are a sort of Music Industry/Recording Marketing love fest, she says that, even if they have no vote, the worldwide community of listeners is ultimately what counts. Listeners and the role music plays in life:

“Here’s the thing. Music is so important. Next to painting, storytelling, and dance, it’s one of the best vehicles we have for destroying fear, for confronting our best and worst selves, for letting love blow us wide open. At its best, music is where we interact with the most vulnerable bits of our humanity. It’s where we admit everything to each other, to strangers, to ourselves, in a way that is safe and embracing, and promising, and full of hope. At the end of a song, we can close the figurative container and go back to Life, renewed.”

Rave on, Kim Reuhl, rave on.
Here’s the URL to her whole piece:

A graphic version of T. Monk (but not Bud Powell) getting unfairly busted by racist cops…


Bud P. may have unwittingly framed Monk (in a moment of fear) but at least Diz still loved him… image courtesy

This great FB posting by the superb jazz historian and critic Ted Gioia (The Imperfect Art, The History of Jazz, etc.) gassed me enough to do a quickie post.

You’ll find on the link a sardonic, truth-telling cartoon strip detailing the infamous arrest of Thelonious Monk which led to his unjust imprisonment at Riker’s Island and loss of his New York cabaret card… A serious dent in his career at the time.

It’s apparently something conceived/written by the late John Wilcock and illustrated by artists Ethan Persoff and Scott Marshall.

The strip is in full color, to massage your eyeballs. I also love that the two artists collaborate with Persoff living in Austin, Texas and Marshall in New York.

Wilcock recounts seeing Monk perform at The Five Spot in New York for the first time after the reinstatement of his cabaret card. He describes how Monk almost magically appears without announcement on the stage, sits down and plays and, when he’s done, gets up and disappears again.

Now I think I know how Monk influenced the phenomenal pianist-composer Cecil Taylor in one way. Taylor, also a swiftly athletic dancer, does a similar sort of phantom-like appearance, perform-and-disappear routine, as a sort of performance-art aspect of his concerts. At least he did the last couple of times I last saw him live, a number of years ago (too long!).

This ‘toon about Monk is a serious piece of American cultural history, and will help you discover a cool, offbeat and politically aware website/ blog site Boing-Boing…

Apparently these co-blogger-artists enjoy watching the crazily bouncing repercussions of cultural events, great and small, bounding their sometimes predictable but as-often unpredictable ways.

As Milwaukee philosopher/saxophonist/sports-geek-homer Art Kumbalek sez, what a world, ain’a?

Thanks to Ted G, for the connection and turn on,


btw, read about the sorry incident in greater detail (and everything you wanted to know about Monk’s amazing life and music) in Robin DG Kelley’s magnum opus biography Thelonious Monk: the Life and Times of an American Original.