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Arnie Woo Woo Ginsburg
Arnie Woo Woo Ginsburg

History of Boston Rock
History of Boston Rock & Roll - Chapter 1 - The Deejays

"Rock's most pervasive minority-to-majority connection has been to act out the tug-of-war between black and white culture in America. 'If I could find a white man who had the Negro sound and the Negro feel,' said Sam Phillips, who discovered Elvis Presley, 'I could make a billion dollars.' Rock has continually crisscrossed the color line, as each side has borrowed the other's secrets and added a few tricks of its own, a constant process of thievery and homage and inexact imitation."

Jon Pareles
The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll

In the very early 1950's, an undercurrent began rumbling in most major American cities, a move toward integration considered highly dangerous by many parents. White pop aficionados were beginning en masse to buy what were then called "race records," rhythm and blues records by black artists who had blossomed out of jazz.

The uproar of white parents calling for an immediate halt to this trend soon threatened to curb it. Fearing for the well-being of their children, not only because of racial differences between the white listeners and the black performers, but also the threatening sexual references, some veiled and some not so, within R&B lyrics, parents began lobbying for a boycott by teenagers and disc-jockeys of the "new" music. It was as if these records were being unleashed by Satan himself.

But Boston, a city that for the most part totally resisted giving blacks cultural and political clout, remained unscathed by this musical revolution. Boston's mainstream managed to remain "lily white" in taste for another 8 to 10 years, and only hard core music fanatics, beatniks, and other cultural liberals were exceptions to the resistance. It was sad but true that by the time "race records" reached the mass radio airwaves in Boston, the songs had been re-recorded, repackaged and homogenized by major labels: enter the white teen idol, Elvis, Pat Boone, Frankie Avalon, Fabian...

To help kindle your imagination, Bob Clayton, a d.j. on a mainstream Boston station, was playing the strictly white format: Pat Boone's Tutti Frutti rather than Little Richard's version, or better, Steve Lawrence (without Edie Gorme) singing Speedo rather than the Cadillacs.

Nationally, the most significant story of the era, was that of Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who was implored to see white teens "rocking and rolling" around the listening booths of Leo Mintz's downtown Cleveland record store.


Boston's David Bieber, WBCN's Creative Services Director, lived in Cleveland once upon a time and was a buddy of Leo Mintz' son Stuart when they were 8 and 9 years old, respectively. "Leo owned a record store Called Record Rendezvous, one of the first freestanding store retailers in the area," Bieber recalls. Mintz and his family lived a block away from the Biebers, and one of David and Stuart's favorite activities was to go up to the Mintz third floor, armed with promo copies of newly released 45's supplied to Leo for his retail buying consideration and sail them out the window at passing cars.

"We didn't really know what they were; we thought they were garbage! The kids that listened to them were teenagers; they were older than us. We weren't part of that yet. And to think I could have thrown Elvis on Sun Records out the window!" (Bieber is the owner/curator of Bieber Archives, which contains, among thousands of other pop culture items, one of the most complete record collections in the U.S.)

And the same thing was happening in record stores in Boston, If not among mainstream radio fans. Smiling Jacks (named after its owner, Smiling Jack Leminson) sat on the borderline between two neighborhoods, one black and one white, between the Boston Arena and Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. Jack carried the most extensive line of R&B records in the city and he, like Leo Mintz, had a complete setup of listening booths. These booths and the concurrent excitement over new music made record stores much more of a social gathering spot than is true today, but due to the convenience (and accompanying temptation) of being alone in a booth with store merchandise, they unfortunately went the way of dinosaurs.

The real catalysts of the cult-to-mainstream crossover of rhythm and blues in Boston were the disc jockeys, beloved to a fanatic extent by teenagers who were gripped by the miracle of hearing usually sedate adults wax wild and wacky on the radio (remember AM?) while playing the new rock 'n roll.

Symphony Sid
Symphony Sid - William Gottlieb Collection

The groundbreaker was New York City refugee Symphony Sid, who arrived in Boston in the early 1950's and anchored his mike at a popular jazz-oriented station, WBMS. Though very little seems at this point to be remembered about him, he was very influential and Big John, owner of Cambridge's Cheapo Records, remembers admiring his musical selections. He also reports that Art Tacker predated Sid on WBMS but that "as soon as Sid began doing his show, he took the wind away from Tacker."

Sid, although his true love was Latin music (featured on The Limbo Hour show), began slipping race records" into his jazz show. He often broadcast live from the Hi-Hat on Columbus Avenue, whose clientele was 90 per cent black.

"It was very borderline - jazz, R&B and pop. All his songs seemed to be a combination of these. It's hard to explain, but it was the blend of those three that turned into rock on' roll," says Boston musicologist Little Walter, now of WFNX. Standing in Sid's shadow was fellow WBMS disc jockey Kenny Malden, who leaned a little more heavily toward R&B/pop combinations.

The next evolutionary link was Joe Smith who took to the airwaves in 1954. Joe borrowed heavily from Symphony Sid but began to blend more pop music into the recipe, bringing such artists as Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley to Bostonians' attention. Joe also leaned toward the mainstream when he began spinning the likes of Fabian, Ricky Nelson and other pasteurized white acts. He avoided the hardcore adult mainstream, however, which relied heavily on the mundane "pleasant" hits of Gail Storm, Patti Paige, Perry Como and Pat Boone. Joe Smith, incidentally, went on to Burbank to become co-chairman of Warner Brothers Records in the 1970's. He is currently vice-president of ABC's Sports Division.

In 1956, rock 'n' roll made its big crossover onto the pop charts, symbolized most widely by the ascent of Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" to the year's Top Ten. And the man most remembered as Boston's favorite disc jockey of the 1950s? Someone who never intended to get behind the mike and abandon his role as a radio engineer but was forced to when a disc jockey never showed up for his shift one night.

Arnie Ginsburg came to work at WBOS in early 1956 and became known as the best engineer in the city, a genius in his field. On that night in '56 when the evening slot d.j. was missing in action, Arnie "grabbed a stack of records and went crazy," Little Walter told us.

He didn't have what was known as an announcer's voice (a successful promoter of the era went so far as to compare it to a chicken cackling), and his sense of humor was known as off color (some considered it "the worst jokes in the world.")

But teenagers LOVED him. He rang bells and blew whistles, told odd jokes. And he played the latest, hot mainstream records (e.g. Elvis). "Everyone was whispering about Arnie at my Catholic high school," Little Walter recalled. " 'Did you hear that lunatic on the radio?' they'd say - and they would go crazy when he told what was to them off color jokes," he explained.

Arnie was shaking them up in non-Catholic prep schools, too. One ex-preppie told us: "He was, in a sense, Boston's first Charles Laquidara. He was totally mad. When you dealt with adults all day, from parents to teachers, and then could go home and find an adult figure who could be as goofy as the kids, it was very refreshing. All of us as kids could relate to him, and he also played great music."

Arnie had been familiar with R&B records for some time, although he wasn't as progressive in his playlists as Symphony Sid, because he'd opened his own record store in 1955 as competition for Smiling Jack's, called Jazz Unlimited and located on the site that became Skippy White's.

He attributes what he calls "the year of the crossover" to the overwhelming success of Elvis Presley, who combined rhythm and blues with country and western. But the new rock did not completely wipe out the old patterns, of course, right away, Ginsburg said. "The teens started to come up with their own music and rock began to dominate but there were still a lot of pretty records, most of which were instrumentals since people like Perry Como were not big with the kids."

As the History of Rock and Roll continues, it will be obvious that Arnie has had an ongoing impact during several years since 1956. Even now, he is very important to the Boston music scene as a participant in the ownership of the new Channel 66 Music station and WXKS AM and FM (KISS 108).


In Medford at this time, a fun little station popped up in Wellington Circle captured the mood of the time, WHIL. "It didn't have much power and they only broadcast during the day, but, boy, did they make noise!"

Little Walter was working as a gofor at WHIL in 1956 and 1957 in a building that was no more than a shack back then but became the KISS 108 building later on. Among the resident lunatics there was a man named George Fennell.

"George was the typical example of craziness in disc jockeys - he'd burn the news as the guy read it off the teletype machine - 'til the fire would catch up to the newscaster as he read it. They used to broadcast in front of a window so that the kids could watch.

"One day George was playing Little Richard's Tutti-Frutti and an important looking gentleman entered the booth and told him to 'get that shit off the air.' George locked himself in and played it for the rest of the day.


(ED. NOTE: Special thanks to Big John, Little Walter, David Bieber, Barry Marshall, Frank Borsa, Fred Petty, Arnie "WooWoo" Ginsburg, Fred Lewis, Roland Pease, and some fans that prefer to remain anonymous. COMING NEXT MONTH: Sock hops, bands of the era, Bob Clayton's Boston Ballroom, Alan Freed Riot, Freddie Cannon, the MIT Kresge car smashing riot and more...)

This article originally appeared in The Beat on 2/01/85
(c) Charles William White III

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