As soon as Nick Spitzer, folklorist and host of American Public Radio’s American Routes, gets on the phone, we’re talking about the golden days of vinyl-digging in Philly. From his reminisces of the old Discmakers plant here where they used to press up Folkways records to Matty “The Humdinger” Singer, a fella who used to plug records back when WMMR was an “underground” rock ‘n’ roll station, it’s clear that Spitzer has an abiding love for Philly. Spitzer cut his teeth working in Philly radio in the 1970s, first as program director at WXPN (back when it was still student-run) and later at WMMR. That background has served Spitzer well for this week’s edition of American Routes, which parses Philly sounds — with the emphasis on the plural. For this episode, Spitzer has assembled an amazing array of Philly music, and it’s not just the usual Gamble & Huff stuff: Along the way, Spitzer goes deep with Bobby Rydell, legendary Sun Ra sideman Marshall Allen, the Budesa Brothers & Lucky Thompson and even finds a way to sneak in “Can’t Get to Heaven on the Frankford El.” And all told, the Philly episode of American Routes is one of the best explorations of Philly music — and a wide span of it at that — that we’ve ever heard. If we had our druthers, we’d make sure it was played to every classroom in the city. After the jump, we chew the fat with Spitzer.
How long had you been thinking about doing a show about Philly?
Honestly, I think I’d been thinking about since I left there in 1974. When I was program director at ‘XPN back when the students ran it, we played a lot of Philly music, obviously: Coltrane and Pat Martino, Todd Rundgren, Rufus Harley — all manner of things. So when we got a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to do this “Routes To Recovery” project [ten two-hour radio programs featured on American Routes that explore how a variety of communities use musical traditions to recover after economic downturns] to what we could do to use the mixing of music on public radio to boost spirits, we just felt like there was endless value to be had in Philly.
There’s a lot of culture here, and like a lot of northern cities, some of the music is shared but it’s hard to hear all of it — the neighborhoods seem a little isolated from one another sometimes. Also, I don’t know if the vernacular culture of the city is always put across the right way, without irony. So this is us just putting a couple of hours of radio into the ether, hopefully articulating what’s really distinctive about the city.
What all goes in to a program like this, where you basically show up in a town that has so much history and so many different threads of music, and you’re honor-bound to where you just have to get it right?
It has been easier to do New Orleans, because that’s where we come from. But you know, the recovery from catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina seemed to be our abiding metaphor for a while, but it’s now one about the recession. We’ve also done New York — less embedded with neighborhood music, though it has it;
Los Angeles — which was a lot of fun; and we’re going to do Detroit soon.
You go through various processes with shows like this. In this case, I lived in Philly for six years, I still come back a lot, and I genuinely like Philly — its neighborhoods, the down-hom-ness of it, and even the negative stuff that’s often attributed to Philly. Given that it has a grand tradition in jazz and this history of soul and R&B, we definitely wanted to frame some things around that, of course. But there’s also the rock stuff — when I was at WMMR, it was still a pretty far out station, but it also welcomed big shows and did a lot to break people like Bonnie Raitt and Bruce Springsteen. Meanwhile, at 50th and Locust, you could go and see Coltrane’s old bandmates.
It was always a good town for music and eclecticity: For the episode, I tried to get closer to Gamble & Huff, of course, but for me, Philly soul had been more about the Philly doo wop groups that would sing at the Penn mixers when I was there. I have a nostalgia for that era, but you have to move on, too: Every one of these shows is like a painting. You just gotta follow the threads.
What was the biggest surprise or favorite moment in your research for the Philly show?
There were a few things. I’m always amazed by how historic and futuristic the Sun Ra house is, which we visited with Marshall Allen. When we were interviewing the Budessa Brothers — these Croatian brothers who play organ and guitar — and Lucky Thompson — a vet of the old Philly organ trios, we asked him about the old days and how most of those organ trios were African-American, he rattled off a list of white players on that scene, winding up that the most important quality in all them was “…And you bring it.” I liked that a lot. “And you bring it.”
I think that as a folklorist, you operate with some ideas going in, and you’re happy with what goes according to those, and you’re happy with the things that don’t, too. Even Bobby Rydell, I thought was fresh. He has a profound feeling for South Philly, and black and white relations, and how he addresses still singing songs from his teens well after that. You can’t do what I do and not love these narratives that you have here in Philly. The music, too, is rough and gritty, but with all this joy embedded in. Many people in America strive to feel part of a community and place, and Philly has that. This could have been a 13-episode series.
American Routes’ “Philadelphia Sounds” airs this weekend on 90.9 WHYY, Saturday at 2PM and Sunday at 6PM. You can also stream the show anytime here.