In the halcyon sixties, WNEW ruled the airwaves in New York with its classy stable of disc jockeys including the great William B. Williams, who presided over the “Make-Believe Ballroom”; Klavan & Finch; Ted Brown; Pete Myers; Big Wilson; Art Ford; Dick Sheppard; Bob Haymes; Lonnie Starr; and Jack Lazare, host of the “Milkman’s Matinee.” And one more. The gifted songwriter Jim Lowe, author of the novelty megahit “Green Door,” was a member in good standing of that august group. Today all but one of those marvelous voices are silent. Only Jim Lowe remains on the radio. The delightful old song-and-dance man has cobbled together a small network of stations that still play classic American popular songs. In the New York area the “Jim Lowe Show” can be heard on WVOX and WRTN.
William O’Shaughnessy: Once upon a time, there was a radio station called WNEW. Variety called it “the best sound coming out of radio in America today.” That was so many years ago. Most of those WNEW voices have been stilled and are long silent. All but one. And he’s with us and still making beautiful music: the legendary Jim Lowe.
Jim Lowe: Gee, after that buildup, I was hoping it would be me! Thank you, you old spotted dog! Good to be with you again, O’Shaughnessy.
WO: Jim Lowe, I have been a fan of yours since the day you left WNBC. You were doing weekends there and came to the mighty WNEW of sainted memory, and, as I recall, I ran into John Van Buren Sullivan’s big corner office and I said, “My God, isn’t he sensational?!?”
JL: An unsolicited testimonial there—even then you knew! I had been doing one to four in the afternoon, Monday through Friday on WNBC, now the FAN. And then “Monitor” on the weekends on NBC Radio. So I came to WNEW in 1964.
WO: Do you remember John Van Buren Sullivan? He lived right down the road apiece, in Larchmont.
JL: Oh, God, yes. As a matter of fact, he was very instrumental in my coming to WNEW.
WO: What was it like then at WNEW, in the glory days?
JL: Bill, I’ve always said I think the four most important radio stations in the country, in the big days, were WNEW, WGN in Chicago, KMOX in St. Louis, and WSM, Nashville.
WO: You mentioned WGN. I just got a note the other day from Ward Quaal. Now there’s a legend! He had five secretaries and he ran this big Mid-west radio station which had its own official sign on a federal highway indicating their studios!
JL: I worked in Chicago radio for four years, but not there. I was at WBBM (CBS) and at NBC, WMAQ.
WO: Jim Lowe, your big record was—
JL: Green Door.
WO: You’re still making money on that, aren’t you?
JL: I am temporarily between hits, Bill!
WO: You’re nice to visit with us in the Golden Apple, in Westchester. You live like a baron out in East Hampton, I’m told.
JL: Well, maybe a baronet! I love it out there. I’ve had my house for thirty years. First it was weekends and then when I left WNEW I moved out full time.
WO: Neal Travis, of the Post, and Jim Brady, all the great writers, say you maintain a salon of all the musicians and writers who come by your place.
JL: Well, there are a lot of people in the same boat I’m in, sort of semiretired people in the media. You know most of them: in communications, Jack Whitaker, the sportscaster, is a dear friend; and ex-movie directors like Anthony Harvey, who directed The Lion in Winter; Shana Alexander, and a whole passel of widows like Gloria Jones, James Jones’s widow; and Tee Adams, with whom I spoke last night, Charles Adams’s widow. As a matter of fact, I call my car the Widow Wagon!
WO: Jim Lowe, didn’t you just have somebody get knocked off out there in the fancy Hamptons?
JL: People keep saying, “Did you ever meet him?” I had never heard of the guy before. But boy, he’s all over every paper now, and radio station, too. Never met him—
WO: But the fancy folks in the Hamptons say, “It never happens here, dear boy.”
JL: Well, to my knowledge it’s the first murder that ever occurred out there. And the many years I’ve been out there we’ve had a few, oh, little “scenes” and “vignettes” here and there, but nothing like this.
WO: Jim Lowe, you don’t have to answer this, but I am dying to know how old you are.
JL: Well, let’s put it this way: I’m thirty-seven. But I am playing the back nine now! And if I were on the back nine, I’d be about, say, on the fourteenth hole!
WO: You are still on the radio. We’re proud that WRTN and WVOX carry “The Jim Lowe Show,” a weekly program, and you’ve cobbled together your own mini network. How many stations have you got “The Jim Lowe Show” on?
JL: Thirty-eight, Bill, maybe forty by now. We are in quite a few stations in the New York area. By the way, your station has a great signal. I get you going back out to East Hampton, all the way well into Suffolk County.
WO: Are you in Springfield, Missouri, your old hometown?
JL: Yes, I am! I am happy to say that I am in the “Paris of the Ozarks,” on the “Gentle Giant,” KTXR, and they play me at eleven on Sunday morning and eleven on Sunday night. As a matter of fact, I was home for an illness in the family, and it was about ten-forty-five at night. I couldn’t get to sleep, and I thought, Wait a minute, I think I’m on the air at eleven o’clock here in my hometown. And I turned the radio on and there I was babbling, away.
WO: A lot of musical greats came from that damn place, Missouri. Hugh Shannon came from De Soto. What is it about the water out there?
JL: Well, there’s something in the water, I guess. When I left the station at home, KWTO—“Keep Watching the Ozarks”—Chet Atkins and the Carter family were coming in, and Red Foley came in a year or so after that. It was a big not only country but pop station, too, back in the live days of radio.
WO: You used to call your hometown, your home heath, “the Paris of the Ozarks.” And what did you call your friends? You old—
JL: Spotted dog! I don’t know why I hit upon that, it just had a friendly sound to it, a spotted dog!
WO: Say it again. You old—
JL: You old spotted dog!
WO: Jim Lowe, who are some of the great singers around today? We lost the great Sinatra, we’ve lost Fred Astaire and Nat Cole.
JL: Well, we can’t afford to lose too many more, Bill. Of those still out there, I love Ray Charles. Jack Jones is still around. A lot of younger singers are coming up, like John Pizzarelli, a great stylist, and there are still purveyors of our kind of music. I think it’s very important, and I salute you here at WVOX and WRTN for keeping our music alive. It’s my contention, Bill, that thirty years from now you’ll hear more of what I lovingly call our kind of music.
WO: Jim, there are disc jockeys who are just disc jockeys, but you’re also a musician and a composer as well. Tell me what made Sinatra great, and Astaire, and Nat Cole. Why do we still love their music?
JL: Well, I was listening on your station, WRTN, a little while ago, to a Sinatra performance at Las Vegas, and it hit me anew. Here was a guy who was not only the great singer of our time but also a wonderful raconteur. He had a great rapport with the audience. It transcended singing. He was a spirit, a persona, I guess.
WO: Was he a nice man? Did you know Sinatra?
JL: Yes, I did know him. As a matter of fact, he called me on my birthday at WNEW—this must have been 1981-’82—and he said, “Hey, Jim. Sinatra here. Happy Birthday.” I said, “Hold it. Hold it. Would you do that on the air?” He said, “Sure.” So I punched him up and he sang it to me. And guess what? I lost the tape! Yes, I did know him. As everybody, I guess, knows, he had two sides. He was on the one hand a wonderful, wonderful human being—warm, caring, he took care of a lot of people, like Mabel Mercer, and he helped take care of Bob Eberly, who was a great singer. He was with Jimmy Dorsey. He did “Tangerine,” all those things. As a matter of fact, Sinatra left the Tommy Dorsey Band in ’42, earlier than he wanted to, because he had heard that Bob Eberly was leaving Jimmy Dorsey. That’s how popular Bob Eberly was. Sinatra helped take care of Bob Eberly. And Bob told me the most astounding thing. He said, “I never met him.” I said, “I can’t believe this,” because they were like running 1 and 2, 2 and 1, back in those days. But then I got to thinking, in those days maybe Jimmy Dorsey was up here at Glen Island Casino, maybe Tommy was at the Astor Roof, so I guess it’s possible. Bob said it was true. But anyway, Sinatra helped take care of him.
WO: Reminiscing with Jim Lowe, who hails from Springfield, Missouri, the “Paris of the Ozarks,” and we’re talking about the old days at WNEW of halcyon memory. Your new show, “The Jim Lowe Show,” appropriately named, comes each week from the Museum of Broadcasting, right down near CBS in Manhattan. You pack them in there!
JL: Well, because of the guests we have. And I think the most prominent guest—granted, he’s not a singer or musician—you brought to us personally, and that, of course, was Mario Cuomo. You even came down there that day, Bill, for a cameo.
WO: He’s a singer. Don’t let Cuomo fool you. He’ll get your head crazy. Can he carry a tune?
JL: Can he carry a tune? I hope so, because he sure knows a lot about our kind of music.
WO: You and Mario Cuomo were talking about favorite songs, and I remember he mentioned “Stranger in Paradise” and “Polka Dots and Moonbeams.” What’s your favorite song? When you sit out there in the Hamptons and go over to that record player, what do you put on?
JL: One time about fifteen, twenty years ago, on WNEW, I said, “Tomorrow I am going to devote the entire four hours to my forty favorite songs of all time.” And I knew I was doing ten an hour. I got off the air and said, “Oh, my God, I left out ‘Sophisticated Lady!’” So I really can’t name one song. I could name a composer, Jerome Kern, as my favorite. He wrote, I think, the greatest of all American popular songs: “All the Things You Are.” He also wrote “Showboat” and “Roberta.” But my favorite lyricist was a guy that he worked with only once, Johnny Mercer. They did a movie together in 1942 called You Were Never Lovelier.
WO: How does that go? Do you remember?
JL: “You were never lovelier. You were never so fair.” It’s early in the morning for my voice, O’Shaughnessy.
WO: So Mercer was the greatest lyricist.
JL: Yes, I think he was, because he could do it all. He could do great ballads. He could do rhythm songs. His lyrics had a great sense of humor. And, speaking of characters, there was a character! Fabulous human being. Unfortunately he had a little problem when he was drinking. Not that drinking itself is a problem. But John tended to be a Jekyll and Hyde.
WO: Didn’t he run Capitol Records?
JL: Yes. There is a case to be made that he is the “Florentine” man of all American popular music, because not only was he this great lyricist, he could also be a composer, as in the case of “Dream” “That’s the thing to do.” But he started Capitol Records with Buddy DeSilva, and also, during and after the Second World War, he was a prominent vocalist, a record-seller himself. He had a lot of big hits.
WO: You play the piano. When you sit astride that Steinway, what songs do you like to play? What are some great melodies, Jim Lowe?
JL: Well, I like the stuff that Jimmy Van Heusen wrote. Things that move along in sort of a swingy style. I like Van Heusen, Kern. And I like all the giants: Gershwin, Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Cole Porter. Oh, Cole Porter you could talk about for the rest of your life!
WO: What’s your favorite Cole Porter song?
JL: I think probably “Night and Day.” It was his best song. As a matter of fact, he always said it was.
WO: “Night and Day” goes.
JL: “Night and day, you are the one. Only you, beneath the moon and under the sun.” But he always said that song really ruined him, because it came so early in his career, in 1931, and he realized he could never top it. He wrote some great, great songs after that, of course, but it’s just almost the perfect song.
WO: How about “I Get a Kick out of You”?
JL: Oh, I love it, too.
WO: Or “I’ve Got You Under My Skin”?
JL: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” is sensational. In the lyrics of one of his songs, he says, “Under an August moon, burning above.” Any other writer would have said “shining above.” But he says, “Under an August moon, burning above, you’d be so nice to come home to.” That phrase is the song.
WO: Bobby Short is still around, still at the Carlyle, playing wonderful songs.
JL: And making a fortune! He deserves all of it!
WO: Tell me about that song that made you a fortune. How did that go? “The Green Door”?
JL: “Midnight. One more night without sleepin’. Boom, boom boom, boom.” As I said, I am temporarily between hits. That was 1956!
WO: How the hell did you ever write that song?
JL: Well, actually, you know something, I didn’t write it. I had the hit record, the only record, and it’s associated with me, and I’m happy about that. But Charlie Greon, he was a songwriter himself. He was my manager and a publisher. He and Joe Seeda were my mentors. And Charlie hated the thing, “Get out of here with the ‘Boom, boom,’ and don’t come back again!” A guy by the name of Bob Davie brought this melody in and we fell in love with the melody. And Charlie and I took it home to our respective houses and tried to write lyrics and nothing happened. But then a guy by the name of Marvin Moore came in and Charlie and I looked at his lyrics and we said, “Oh, that’s it!” We went into the recording studio that night and boom! Pun intended!
WO: How many records did you sell?
JL: Close to 3 million. But it’s still selling.
WO: Still get a check every month?
JL: Yeah, it’s kind of a nice little annuity. And it’s recently been in several big compendiums of the 1950s.
WO: Were you a musician and a singer before you became a legendary disc jockey?
JL: No, that came late in my career, as a matter of fact. My grandfather had this big music store in my hometown. It was the biggest music store in that part of the country, three floors. The first floor was a forest of sheet music and records and musical instruments. The second floor was pianos. And the third floor was where my drinking uncle, Uncle George, started the first radio station in that part of the country. It was before the FCC, so you could just turn it on anytime, day or night. He would turn it on late at night when he had been drinking. And one night he brought the chimes up that they were trying to sell from the first floor. And the paper that afternoon, the Springfield Leader and Press, said, “Late tuners-in in the Ozarks heard ‘Big Ben’ chiming at three o’clock.” Well, it was Uncle George with the chimes!
WO: Do you still have kin back there in Springfield, the “Paris of the Ozarks”?
JL: Yes, but they are dwindling. I lost my beloved sister-in-law just this last summer. She and my brother had been married since I was a kid. I was really closer to her than to my brother, actually. I still have my brother, and two nieces, a great nephew—in addition to being a good guy, he is a great nephew, but my grandnephew is what I am trying to say.
WO: Jim Lowe, you’ve made a living in recent years, a very good living, playing wonderful great American popular songs. You talked about Mercer, you talked about the great composers. Anybody writing stuff today? Anybody like a Matt Dennis around, writing sweet things?
JL: When rock ’n’ roll first came in, in the middle fifties, we thought it was a phenom that would be up, over, and out in two or three years. Of course, it has lasted longer now than even the “Golden Era.”
JL: Bill, I don’t know. I think there are a lot of factors involved. That’s a very interesting question. I think a couple of things happened. When rock ’n’ roll came along: the would-have-been Cole Porters and George Gershwins did one of two things. They either quit writing or they tried to keep on writing. But they just couldn’t write in that genre.
WO: So, do people just not like to hear the words anymore?
JL: I guess. I mean, what words? When you can understand them, you wish you hadn’t! Particularly with rap, whatever that is! But the Cole Porters, the Ira Gershwins, the Johnny Mercers, can make their point without getting “blue.” And it was actually more, obviously much more sophisticated because of that, but more meaningful, more on target.
WO: Do you sit at your piano in East Hampton and try to write?
JL: No, I gave up trying to write a long time ago. As a matter of fact, I didn’t even start singing until I was in Chicago. I wrote a song called “Gambler’s Guitar.” It was the first song I ever wrote. And in order to get it recorded, I recorded it myself, on Mercury Records. So I was 1 for 1. I thought all you have to do to write a hit song was sit down and write a song. I came to the Brill Building in New York and found out differently.
WO: You’re walking along the beach in East Hampton, it’s a perfectly splendid day in the fall; what song is in your head, Jim Lowe?
JL: Oh, it depends on the time! I tell time by songs. If it’s fall, then my favorite song is “Indian Summer,” or maybe “September Song.” If it’s winter, it’s Irving Berlin’s “I’ve Got My Love to Keep Me Warm.” If it’s spring, “It’s spring again, and birds on the wing again, start to sing again, love’s old melody.” If it’s summer, “Summertime,” by Gershwin. So I guess what I like at the moment is what’s happening with the weather at that moment.
WO: Jim Lowe, we love you. Thank you.
JL: Bill O’Shaughnessy, I love you, too. I have since we first met at WNEW. May I give away the year?
WO: You were awful nice to a young Irish kid.
JL: 1964. And you and I struck up a conversation in the hall the first day I was there, and you were always very generous to me, and have remained so to this very day.
WO: I ran in John Van Buren Sullivan’s office, the general manager, and he was sitting there with a cigar and I said, “This new guy, Jim Lowe, is unbelievable.” He said, “What’s so great about him?” And I said, “He called me an old spotted dog!”
JL: On first meeting, O’Shaughnessy!
November 6, 2001
William O’Shaughnessy, a former president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, was chairman of Public Affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. He has been a point man and advocate for the broadcasters of America on First Amendment and Free Speech issues, and is presently chairman of the Guardian Fund of the Broadcasters Foundation of America, the national charitable organization. He is also a longtime director and member of the Executive Committee of the Foundation. He has operated WVOX and WVIP, two of the last independent stations in the New York area, for 56 years as president and editorial director.
He is the author of “AirWAVES” (1999) … “It All Comes Back to Me Now” (2001) … “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” (2004) … and “VOX POPULI: The O’Shaughnessy Files,” released in January, 2011. He is currently working on his fifth book for Fordham University Press, another anthology which will include this talk at the Dutch Treat Club. He has also completed “Mario Cuomo: Remembrances of a Remarkable Man,” a tribute to his late friend Governor Mario M. Cuomo which has just been published.
This Jim Lowe interview was in “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” …