PORKY CHEDWICK: RADIO'S IGNORED PIONEER
- By Ed Weigle
"Any entertainer of my era who says they don't know who Porky Chedwick is, they're damn lyin'! That's the cat that played the records. I know." –Bo Diddley
"Porky Chedwick?! Now you're taking me back! --Dick Clark
"Porky Chedwick is a legend!" --Charlie Thomas, The Drifters
I've finally had enough of so-called music and radio "historians" who believe they've told all the important stories there are to tell. The last straw for me came on February 4, 2001, when I phoned my dear friend and mentor back home in Pittsburgh, Porky Chedwick, to wish him a happy 83rd birthday. He's been "The Daddio of the Raddio" and "The Founder and Creator of the Oldies" to all of Pittsburgh for most of his 54 years on radio. For me, he's been a beloved member of my family, ever since he kindly offered me guidance as I embarked on my own broadcasting career at age 13. His recommendation of my Steel City alma mater, Point Park College, years later, even led to my first national gig, voicing promos for HBO, Cinemax and other television networks. This great friend, second only to my parents as my primary career influence, has helped launch a few notable music and broadcasting careers, since he first manned the "air chair" in 1948. Still, the millions of people—like you, perhaps-- who may have never met him or heard his name, are the true beneficiaries of his unique legacy.
Our conversation that wintery day was uncommonly brief. Porky was bundled up and scrambling to catch his ride to WLSW-FM, a suburban Pittsburgh station where he hosted a Sunday oldies show. Later that evening, he added another record hop to his current total of more than 7,000 he's hosted since the late 1940s. While much younger men are retired or passing out lollipops to children in department stores, "The Platter Pushin' Pappa" has no intention of ever stowing away his 45s. "Spinner Sanctum" will remain open for business in The Oldies Capitol of the World as long as he has a breath. I've often said that Porky would never consider retirement because he can't find a rhyme for it!
"The Bossman," Porky Chedwick has remained as familiar as Pirates, Steelers, Penguins, Iron City Beer and Heinz Ketchup to four generations of Pittsburgh's. For two consecutive years, beginning with his Golden Anniversary in radio in 1998, our city honored Porky with the annual "Porkstock" summer oldies festival-- the only such tribute given a disc jockey, living or dead. It was quite an affair, while it lasted, showcasing day-long concerts by scores of rock and roll pioneers, including Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Johnnie & Joe, The Skyliners, The Marcels and many others, whose early careers Porky helped boost. A local bakery even took to the airwaves to sell "Porky Pies." Sadly, the implosion of Three Rivers Stadium also ended what could have become a great yearly city tradition. To their credit, WQED-TV's T.J. Lubinsky (grandson of the founder of Savoy Records) and concert promoter Henry DeLuca have featured Porky on their nationally popular PBS R&B/doo wop television specials, taped at The Benedum Center.
Craig "Porky" Chedwick, from Homestead, Pennsylvania, blazed a dual trail on the east coast, by establishing a foundation for what another Caucasian and fellow Pennsylvanian, Alan Freed, called "rock and roll" some four years later. Simultaneously, by airing all "dusty discs," Porky also pioneered oldies radio and the associated billion-dollar industry, which keeps record labels like Rhino (headed by Pittsburgher Richard Foos) thriving today. Porky's extreme importance to the history of radio-- and to music as we know it-- is undeniable, given the voluminous documentation that exists and countless fans who witnessed his milestones personally. Still, for reasons unknown, the history books have completely overlooked him. Even the fact that Porky was recognized for his accomplishments by Congressman Ron Klink on the floor of the US Congress on October 5, 1998 hasn't enticed scholars to look more closely at this man we call "The Founder and Creator of the Oldies." Our friend, the late composer and Skyliners vocal group founder/manager, Joe Rock, observed to me once, "Alexander Graham Bell did invent the telephone, but he never owned a piece of AT&T. It's the same with Porky and oldies."
Porky Chedwick was anything but a shrewd businessman, who sought to become fabulously wealthy at the expense of the artists whose music he played. He remains a simple man, who merely looked to our industry to make an honest living, doing something he enjoyed. Although he was the first to perpetuate this music, Porky's lack of business savvy and reputation for being too kind, virtually assured that he'd never be able to fully capitalize on that fact. Money has never mattered much to Porky-- I've seen him giving a homeless man his last bus fare and then walking home, miles away. I believe he would simply like to finally be given his due credit, among all the other DJ luminaries who, in fact, came after him. By ignoring the very important part Porky played in both the radio and music industries, no account of the roots of rock and roll can be complete. Hopefully, this article will help to correct this inexcusable historical oversight, before still another birthday goes by for him.
Visitors to Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame can find Porky Chedwick among other radio icons—the only Pittsburgher so honored-- whose airchecks (on-air recordings) and biographies have been preserved for posterity. No known early transcriptions of his radio shows exist, so his "aircheck" is actually a 1993 re-creation done for the "Cruisin'" record series. The recording features a portion of his most famous theme, "Bongo Blues," by The Dee Williams Sextette and vintage jingles by The Platters and The Skyliners. Also included is his early-'60s theme, "Here Comes Bossman Porky," by an un-credited Ruby & The Romantics, rescued and re-mastered by me from the original studio acetate Porky used to carry to sock hops in a giant satchel of sleeveless 45s (I've recently learned that a former radio station owner, with whom Porky had dealings in the '80s, refused to give this and other original jingles back to him.. I'd like to see Kurt Angle unleashed on him some night on WWE Smackdown!). Unfortunately, the biography in the exhibit fails to tell how, days after his radio debut on August 1, 1948, Porky pioneered the oldies radio format and became the first white disc jockey on the east coast to present a program of exclusively black R&B, gospel and jazz. Unlike most white R&B disc jockeys who followed his lead in the overnights, Porky's broadcasts were in broad daylight (For the record, Los Angeles DJ, Hunter Hancock, now in his late 80s, preceded Porky by less than a year as the first white disc jockey to play all contemporary R&B. Porky and Hunter are both the first and the last surviving DJ pioneers of their respective coasts).
Fifty-four years ago, Munhall High School graduate Craig Chedwick-- known as 'Porky' for amusing, if not enviable reasons-- was already a well-known public address announcer at local athletic events and a sports "stringer" for the Homestead newspaper. One day he read that a small daytime-only radio station, soon to debut in the suburb, was looking for announcers. WHOD AM 860 would provide ethnic and foreign language programming for Pittsburgh's vast immigrant blue-collar. Porky's local popularity was well known to the station owners and he was instantly granted a five-minute Saturday afternoon sports commentary program. Days later, the show, sponsored by Toohey Motors auto dealership, was expanded to include music from Porky's own collection of 78s. The tunes Porky featured were so well received, the sports portion was dropped and his "Masterful Rhythm, Blues and Jazz Show" became a half-hour program. Station management had no idea that the records Porky played were at least several years old. As more sponsors signed on, the show was expanded to five hours, seven days a week and finally occupied the noon-to-five weekday slot as "The Porky Chedwick Show." During the summer months, when FCC regulations allowed WHOD to broadcast as late as 8:45 PM, Porky was allowed to fill the hours the station couldn't sell. With only 250 watts of power, the signal was more than sufficient to garner Porky a large following-- so much so that his show eventually became a thorn in the side of 50,000-watt monster KDKA and even competed for listeners with Pirates baseball broadcasts! "The Porky Chedwick Show" remains a fixture on WAMO AM 860 today, every Saturday afternoon, where it first originated.
The records Porky aired on WHOD were ones he had collected over the years and had been playing at social gatherings around Pittsburgh's racially integrated suburbs, using a single turntable and a borrowed guitar amp. In Porky's own impoverished steel-working neighborhood-- described by him as being like a "secluded island" of about 60 homes "with yards infested with children in torn clothes"-- a white man playing Negro music was nothing extraordinary. Poverty, he told me, had a way of uniting his entire community into one extended family, where skin color was inconsequential. As the second of ten children, Porky's parents relied on him to keep his younger siblings entertained and out of trouble. One of his many nicknames, "The Pied Piper of Platter," may have been inspired by his taking all local kids under his wing and offering them refuge through his music. "I was mainly looking for the gospel sound and down-home rhythm and blues," remembers Porky, "The songs which spoke of the problems of poor people. That was my music." In the '30s and '40s, "race" or "sepia" records were banished to a record store's back shelves or bargain bins, since few were sold. Many, from Sunny Mann's Record Store in Homestead, were simply given to Porky. "I used to have to blow the dust off them before I could play them, " remembers Porky, "(Later), on the air I called them 'dusty discs' and the Porky Chedwick sound was born!"
Porky's "sound" established the immense R&B-based repertoire of uniquely Pittsburgh oldies, most of which never felt the regular kiss of a turntable stylus anywhere else on the planet. Scores of these records may have remained in obscurity, had he not featured them prominently, because they were released only on fragile macerate 78 r.p.m. discs. By the time radio began to embrace black records, 78s were being phased out in favor of much more durable 45s. Porky's practice of playing old records became a novelty, picked up by disc jockeys across America. Radio stations like New York's WCBS-FM and K-Earth in Los Angeles would maintain oldies formats for decades. Record labels emerged, dedicated to meeting the increasing demand for rock and roll nostalgia. When promoter Richard Nader conceived his first major "rock and roll revival" concerts—essentially the catalyst for the '50s music revival of the 1970s—he cited his influence as none other than his hometown hero, Porky Chedwick.
By 1949, record promoters with long-overlooked black independent labels had learned of Porky's groundbreaking efforts with oldies on WHOD, so they inundated him with contemporary R&B. He happily accepted new material and helped launch many recording careers. Still, oldies would always dominate his playlist. Nothing could ever make Porky play a record that he didn't believe his "movers and groovers" would "dig." He never took a dime for playing a record, insisting that music belonged to everyone-- a fact that satisfied payola investigators, when they came knocking on his door in 1960. From the WHOD studios, situated in the back of a candy store on the bank of the Ohio River, the sounds of Roy Brown, Wynonie Harris, The Dominoes, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters and The Drifters— and their often provocative lyrics— first reached young, Caucasian ears in a major east coast market. Joe Rock, a one-time A&R man himself, recalled, "Porky could get away with playing records that would come closer to causing hell with the FCC than anyone." Often, Porky would astound visiting record label reps by taking a 45 out of their hand and "banging" the B-side, instead of the "plug" side. Porky knew what his dedicated legions wanted and was responsible for putting Pittsburgh on the cutting edge of music in the 1960s, making it a major testing ground for R&B through the '70s. He revealed his reason for the music's popularity to Billboard Magazine in 1966: "It's a good interpretation of basic emotions. I've got kids brainwashed. They like the groove stuff."
"The Station of Nations," WHOD, abandoned their ethnic manifest in 1956, when they became the property of Dynamic Broadcasting. The new owners re-christened the station WHAM, an acronym for the rivers Allegheny, Monongehela and Ohio. WAMO's format became country and western, with "The Porky Chedwick Show" the only exception to the twang! By then, rock and roll had begun to capture a national audience and record companies— not just black interests— were beating a path to Porky's studio door. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis Presley's manager, was one such caller, but Porky felt Elvis was (ironically) "too country." For years, the only "Hound Dog" heard on his show was the 1953 original, by "Big Mama" Willie Mae Thornton (It's amusing to note that at the first "Porkstock" in 1998, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame officials presented Porky with a large framed momento, heralding the museum's new "Elvis Is In the Building" exhibit! When Porky returned from the stage after accepting the award, he looked a bit puzzled. I said to him, "So what the hell else could they give you? A tie?" The folks from Cleveland obviously didn't realize the irony of their kind gesture). In 1958, WAMO underwent its most revolutionary change, when it switched from "hillbilly" to an all-R&B format, with an all-black air staff. All except for Porky, that is.
Although Porky's show was decidedly black (in fact, most people thought he was black), he would occasionally feature white acts. Most were local and sounded anything but white. One such artist was the late singer/songwriter, Johnny Jack (Greco), whose parents were Sicilian. His first national release at age 19 in 1959 was "Smack Madame," inspired by Porky's rhyming on-air patter. "We took the record to Clark Race at KDKA and he refused to play it," recalled John, "He said the lyric 'smack Madame mammy jammy get it all' was filthy. But the real reason he wouldn't play it was printed right on the label-- 'As originated on The Porky Chedwick Show!' Even the big stations were afraid of Porky!"
Porky was one of the first DJs to openly and vigorously promote a Christian lifestyle, free of alcohol, drugs and tobacco (By his own admission, Porky's only vice was girls, although I've known him long enough to confidently add coconut crème pie!). Ironically, while Porky was being lambasted by the vanilla establishment for corrupting (white) youngsters with his "evil music," his private crusade against juvenile delinquency—which included having young boys from juvenile court placed in his custody—was earning the accolades of Sen. Estes Kefauver, then the voice of American Morality. Porky established youth baseball leagues, outfitting his teams and supplying them with baseballs sent to him by his brother in the Army. The kids loved Porky, in spite of what their parents thought. Joe Rock remembered, "When I'd listen to Porky on the radio, my father used to say, 'Turn that damn thing off!' Of course, my father and he became friends years later, because by then, the music Porky played represented the good old days."
Porky's youthful audience responded to their "Pied Piper of Platter" with such fierce loyalty, one can only look back in wonder. The fact that he didn't even have 1,000 watts behind his signal until 1960 makes it all the more extraordinary. "Porky's Pulling Power," as WAMO sales literature of the time called it, was so monumental that when Porky would open the microphone and shout over the record, "Blow your horn!" during a wailing sax solo, the entire city would respond with a cacophony of car horn blasts! Once, while excitedly "breaking" a new song, he proclaimed, "This is on fire!" Within minutes, sirens blaring, the Homestead fire brigade stormed the studio, responding to hundreds of phone calls from listeners insisting the station was burning down! The police weren't amused, either, the time Porky suggested his audience stop whatever they were doing and start dancing. The resulting traffic tie-ups from teens getting out of their cars to dance in tunnels and on parkways created gridlock for miles. At a remote broadcast he did under the marquee of the Stanley Theater downtown Pittsburgh in 1961, more than 10,000 kids crowded the streets. Police estimated that there were another 50,000 in transit, causing such a traffic jam that Mayor Joseph M. Barr personally came down to request an end to the broadcast. "Kids were packed so tightly, you could literally stand on the shoulders of the people and walk for blocks," remembers Porky.
Porky's rock and roll shows were late on the timeline, considering much earlier ones presented by other DJs, like Alan Freed. Still, they were no less grand. "The Porky Chedwick Groove Spectacular" on May 11, 1962, at the newly-built Pittsburgh Civic Arena, is still perhaps the largest multi-bill rock and roll concert the city has ever seen. Variety reported the show grossed more than $35,000-- an amazing sum for its time. More than 13,000 kids packed the arena, while some of the more than 3,000 outside, who had to be turned away, vented their anger by lobbing rocks and bottles at the arena dome. Jackie Wilson headlined the day-long affair, with 21 other acts, including Bo Diddley, The Flamingos, The Marvellettes, The Five Satins, Jerry Butler, Ketty Lester, Johnny Jack, The Skyliners, Patti LaBelle and the BlueBelles, The Castells, Bobby Vinton, The Drifters, The Debonaires (a local group, whose record, "The Holly Lind," paid tribute to the street where Porky lived), Gene Pitney and The Coasters— all for a ticket price of $1 to $4! A few of the artists did the show for free, as a way of thanking Porky for his support. Porky's generosity with free promotion made local artists just as popular with teenagers as the national acts. Johnny Jack remembered how Porky rushed backstage at that show to tell him that there was a young man outside the arena who was claiming to be Johnny Jack. John didn't care, but his Sicilian mother, Angeline, insisted on going out to see the imposter, who apparently could have been John's twin. "There he was, signing my autograph!" said John. "My mother walked up to him and said, 'You Johnny Jeck?' He gave her a big smile and said, Why, yes!' She shook his hand and said, 'I'm-a please-a to meet you— I'm-a you mama!'" (John was a great friend of ours, who went on to pen and record many local hits, including "Comes Love," for The Skyliners— on which he also sang baritone— and "Born Poor," the B-side of "The Rapper," a Top 5 national hit for The Jaggerz in 1970. His 1962 cover of "Need You" remains a top Pittsburgh favorite. Lou Christie gives both John and Porky credit for helping to launch his career. Sadly, we lost John to cancer seven years ago).
In 1964, WAMO left behind the drab yellow-brick building at the end of the Homestead High Level Bridge for a more prestigious address—and another drab yellow building-- at 1811 Boulevard of the Allies, downtown Pittsburgh. A year later, when Porky was named "Pittsburgh's Favorite DJ" by Esquire Magazine, station promotional flyers were already calling Porky "a legend in his own time." He remained the top advertising draw at WAMO through the end of the decade. Record stores had trouble keeping in stock the many oldies compilation albums to which Porky had lent his name and picture. Unfortunately, his lack of business acumen kept him continually at the mercy of charlatans who absconded with most of the profits. Porky told me once, "I made a million dollars, but I never saw it. I don't think God wants me to have money because he knows I can't handle it." He never enjoyed the comforts of a six-digit salary, like his more famous contemporaries, nor did he even make union scale for most of his career. In the early '90s, Porky declared personal bankruptcy. He continues to live, basically, from sock hop to sock hop.
Porky's private life could itself have been culled from a blues lyric. Although he raised two sons, Paul and Michael, to successful adulthood, the cards seemed stacked against him where family was concerned. He experienced the grief of losing two sisters as a youth, two infant daughters of his own and a 16-year-old son who bore his name. An accidental misfire of a neighbor's slingshot when he was just eight eventually cost him his right eye. As time went by, his trademark golden eyeglasses functioned mostly to protect his usable eye. Still, he maintained a feverish nightclub appearance schedule, once allegedly hosting a string of 110 consecutive nightly sock hops in the mid-1960s.
Porky's presence on Pittsburgh radio remained constant for most of his first 40 years. In 1972, he even hosted a pre-recorded overnight weekend show on legendary 1410 KQV. In spite of many offers to move elsewhere for more money, Porky could never leave the people and the city he loved. He only left Pittsburgh once—for one week, in the early 80's. As it happened, a Denver DJ mentioned "The Daddio of the Raddio" and was surprised to find a multitude of transplanted Pittsburghers living there. While Joe Rock filled in at WAMO, the Denver station flew Porky out to do an airshift and one of his famous record hops. Soon, changing times would cause a rift between Porky and the radio station he essentially put on the map.
By the dark days of the mid-1980s, when the "Less Talk, More Music and NO Personality" doctrine pervaded radio, Porky was viewed as somewhat an anachronism. Most of the "boss jocks" of the bygone era had become frustrated with super-programmed radio and retired shortly after music deserted the AM band. Oldies that weren't in the national mainstream were discouraged by WAMO's new program director. Unfortunately, those non-traditional oldies made Porky's show what it was! When he was forced to begin playing vanilla, stock-pop pap that he wouldn't have touched in his prime, his friends all knew that a break from WAMO was eminent. His failing eyesight was also making it increasingly difficult for him to cue records and he's sometimes start a record mid-song (The number of songs in his repertoire would have made recording his records on broadcast tape cartridges far too expensive and time consuming). Porky held out until 1984, when the station honored him for his years of service—then promptly sacked him! He returned to the air about a year later, following a phone call I made to an enthusiastic John James, the general manager of WEDO in McKeesport. For the next several years, "Pork the Tork" had an afternoon show and a producer to cue the records, which Porky alone selected. WAMO would not ask him back until 1992.
During this temporary decline, I was Porky's self-appointed chauffeur. A near-miss with a city bus as he crossed a street one afternoon to shake someone's hand almost cost him his life. We established our own "rat pack" social group, with Johnny Jack, Fred Johnson—the inimitable bassman of The Marcels—and Prof. Joan Williams of Point Park College's journalism department. Each Wednesday we'd meet downtown at Kason's or Costanzo's supper club. Several successful ideas were conceived at these meetings, including a cable TV mini-series I hosted with Porky and Fred, directed by Joan. One day, two of Porky's admirers, Jim Sanders and Skip Smith (cousin of Skyliner Jack Taylor), joined us at Kason's to discuss starting an oldies club, which would stage concerts by early doo wop artists. Today, The Pittsburgh Oldies Record Collectors Club-- whose acronym, P.O.R.C.C., was no accident-- is famous for doing just that. In 1989, we finally convinced Freddie to re-unite with his cousins, "Nini" Harp and "Bingo" Mundy, to perform and record together for the first time in nearly 30 years. The resulting a capella tracks recorded in my basement studio led to "Starlight Serenade, Vol. 4" on Starlight Discs, which Porky broke in Pittsburgh and Don K. Reed featured on WCBS-FM's "Doo Wop Shop" in New York. As a teenage radio personality and a rock and roll history buff, I was perhaps never so much in my element as I was with these great friends.
On Porky's birthday in1989, he debuted as host of a short-lived radio program, which was syndicated to several stations around the tri-state area from 1080 WEEP in Pittsburgh. It was called "Porkytown"-- a trainwreck of '50s doo wop and '80s pop, back to back. I think Porky even did the show for free. Fortunately for his ever-floundering finances, Porky's personal appearance dates kept coming fast and furious. We even worked together as club DJs for the first time at The Linden Grove, a newly refurbished historical landmark where Porky originally appeared in the 1950s. The throngs of Porky's fans who packed the giant dance hall caused fits each week for the Castle Shannon fire marshal. Two hours before he would take the DJ booth on Thursday nights, the parking lots—both the size of a football field—were already packed!
It has been suggested that Porky's excellent physical condition (excluding his eyesight and diminished hearing) today may be partly due to the many times he had to regularly resort to walking to his record hop engagements. Many nights he's walk for miles, lugging a heavy satchel of records, when he couldn't secure motor transportation. His physical fitness most certainly played a part in his swift recovery from brain surgery in 1990. When he was diagnosed with a large, benign tumor, it sent a shock throughout Pittsburgh and a national community of pioneer artists who still feel in his debt. Friends including Little Anthony, Hank Ballard, Lou Christie, Wolfman Jack, Johnnie and Joe, Bobby Comstock, The Marcels, The Vogues and Bo Diddley organized a benefit concert to help shoulder his huge medical bill. His recovery actually rivaled the Gulf War as a point of interest (beyond classic rock) on my WRRK Pittsburgh radio program, with listeners calling daily for a progress report. Porky received more than 5,000 get-well cards while in the hospital-- some just addressed to "The Bossman," care of West Penn Hospital. His wife of just several months, Jeannie, was a godsend to him. She quickly became very unpopular with many of the opportunists, who preyed on Porky's kindness. She continues to manage his business affairs admirably and I believe is entirely responsible for him doing as well as he is.
When Porky called me in1996 to tell me about his inclusion in the Cleveland disc jockey exhibit, Fred Johnson and I had the first and only gold record created for our friend. The inscription says it all:
"To the Founder and Creator of the Oldies: You'll live forever in the hearts of every artist whose name and music you brought before the public; every person who tunes to a radio station dedicated to the "Dusty Disc" and every aspiring broadcaster to whom you offered friendship, advice and inspiration. Congratulations on your recognition in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."
I'm hopeful that someone—perhaps an historian or a screenwriter—may soon take a closer look at this under-appreciated broadcaster. Far too few people understand what Porky Chedwick's trailblazing achievements helped make possible. Whether you know him or not, it simply is not right that a man who truly was one of the earliest pioneers of the rock and roll era will be the last to be given credit, when-- if-- that definitive history of rock and roll is finally written.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
ED WEIGLE has remained one of the most prolific voiceover artists in America since 1980. Born in Pittsburgh and raised in the Greensburg-Latrobe area, he began his broadcasting career at age 13. After an on-air stint in Chicago in 1994, he left the "air chair" to concentrate on production and voiceovers, exclusively. He currently works for Nick Sommers Productions in Engelwood, Florida—One of the nation's three major radio and TV production facilities, specializing in live event tour commercials. Ed creates, voices and produces all radio spots for World Wrestling Entertainment and their various brands, including Smackdown!, Raw!, Tour of Defiance, King of the Ring, Summerslam and Wrestlemania. Although he vows his on-air association with radio will never again go beyond 60- and 30-second increments, he often waxes nostalgic for bygone days, when radio was still an honored tradition, not just a pastime for corporate accountants.. A time when personalities like Porky Chedwick could shine, as they never will again.
Contact him at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org