If you’ve still got a reunion ahead of you, whether high school or college, it’s important to play the right music, OUR music! You know, all that stuff we used to dance to. And who better to suggest some songs than a former DJ like baby boomer Doug Bradley. Also an Army veteran, Doug now teaches a course at the University of Wisconsin on the effects of popular music during the era of the Vietnam War. And as a contributing writer for our friends at NextAvenue.org, Doug reveals his secret to creating the perfect playlist.
When I graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School outside Pittsburgh in June 1965, it was the end of my “career” as in-house disc jockey. I had “played the platters” and “spun the discs” at sock hops, mixers and dances throughout high school. Now it was time to head to college and say goodbye to TJ and being a DJ.
Or so I thought.
My 50th high school class reunion has given me the chance to give deejaying another spin. The reunion planning committee accepted my offer to disc jockey at the event faster than you could say Louie, Louie. Now it was time for some Fun, Fun, Fun.
But how to assemble the perfect playlist? Easier said than done.
Then it occurred to me that I should just ask my class of 1965 classmates for their requests. With one catch. If they wanted me to play the song, it had to be accompanied by an anecdote, story or memory that made the song meaningful.
This wasn’t the first time I’d employed this tactic. For more than a decade, my colleague Craig Werner and I have been collecting the music-based memories of hundreds of Vietnam veterans for our upcoming book, We Gotta Get Out of This Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, and the results have been nothing short of astonishing.
Still, would this approach be successful with the 125 68-year-olds on the reunion guest list, most of whom hadn’t set foot back in their Pittsburgh-area high school for five decades? Vietnam, The Beatles, Watts, Civil Rights, mini-skirts and more had consumed us back then, but would they have any meaning or resonance now?
Well, the response was mixed. Most attendees just wanted to hear a slow song that reminded them of being 18 and in love and holding onto someone they had a crush on. But a dozen or so class of ’65 folks came through with memories. Here are highlights from our reunion dance:
Marsha remembered a group of us danced to this song and fell in love with The Beatles after one of our favorite teachers brought the first Beatles album back with him from New York.
There was an amazing DJ on Pittsburgh radio when we were in high school. His name was Porky Chedwick, but he usually called himself “the daddio of the raddio,” your “platter pushin’ papa” or “Pork the Tork.” The guy loved rhyming. He’d say things like, “I’m not a Spaniard. I’m not from Spain. I’m Pork the Tork and I’ll fry your brain. I’ve got more lines than Bell telephone. I’ve got more jams than Smucker’s. I’ve got more moves than Allied Vans …” But more than any other local DJ, he gave airtime to music by black artists, when no one else did. This classic tune by The Flamingos was one of his staples. And a favorite of Elaine and Paul, too!
Two of our classmates, Steve and Jackie, were known for imitating the dance moves of The Larks to this song throughout senior year. The best thing was that Steve was black and Jackie was white. That was sure a hopeful sign back then.
Norleen requested this song by Rosie and The Originals for her husband Charlie because it’s been “their song” since 1960. They’re still together.
Another Jackie (how many were there in our class?) recalled three classmates — Linda, Gwen and Lorraine — imitating The Supremes at lunchtime in the school cafeteria.
Jimmy Beaumont and The Skyliners were from Pittsburgh, and we couldn’t get enough of their music, especially this classic oldie. Sandy gave me a big “thumbs up” when I played this one.
Jerry wanted all The Beach Boys songs he could get. He looked a little like a Beach Boy himself, which was explanation enough.
Dave recalled a time when he and Mickey and another guy named Dave were motoring down Route 51 to the billiards hall just past Brownsville Road in Whitehall. “We were in Dave’s parents’ ‘58 white Chevy sedan,” he said, “and it was a spring day, after school. The Beatles’ wave had broken across America the previous Thanksgiving. So, on this day, when She Loves You came on KQV, we had to sing along, screaming the ‘yeah, yeah, yeahs’ and the falsetto ‘ooohhh’ with our heads out the car windows. The poignant postscript was that the other Dave, whose parents’ car they were in, later died in Vietnam.
Bill, who was on a trip to Tibet and couldn’t make the event, sent an email with a moving story about how he’d missed graduation night because his father had fallen down the stairs and he had to get him to the hospital. Not sure what this song had to do with it, but he requested this hit from Sam the Sham & The Pharaohs.
Barb reminded me that there was another great local DJ named Terry Lee who had a late show on Saturday nights he called Music for Young Lovers. Lee played High on a Hill by Scott English and everything slow by The Moonglows, Dubs and Five Satins, as we parked our cars at China Wall in South Park and made out with our dates in the front (or back) seat. Terry Lee always closed his show with this song by Lou Johnson, and when it came on, you knew you had to head home ASAP. I always found this song terribly sad, and signed off the night of the reunion with it.
Luckily, my disc jockey duties didn’t prevent me from getting on the dance floor and “twisting the night away” with my old female classmates (my wife wasn’t able to join me!). I’m not nearly as flexible as I used to be, and the night was bittersweet. But the music transported me back to Senior Day in May 1965 when I played the Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself over and over and over again, and we members of the Class of 1965 danced and danced and danced in the high school cafeteria as if there was no tomorrow.
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