Whether or not you engage with mainstream pop culture or not, there is little to no chance that at some point you have been aware of ‘the music charts’. In many ways they have defined generations over the past 60 odd years, with hits of the day dominating the airwaves. The advent of commercial radio in the last century makes this a relatively modern phenomenon, up until that point in history music was a localised experience for people, not something so freely available or pumped in to generations as a soundtrack to the ages.
In July of 1940, Billboard produced the first music popularity chart, and for the most part those results were consolidated from record sales and radio plays. The ‘Top 40 Chart’ that dictated which popular songs would receive the most airplay, was actually implemented by a rather unlikely but somewhat unsurprising source all together. It remains a mainstay of modern music pop culture, across all genres. The person who implemented this particular format was a man called John Elroy McCaw.
In 1941, McCaw was running a radio station called KELA in Centralia Chehalis. He recruited a then budding radio broadcaster Les Keiter who, at the time was working in Spokane. After a meeting and a stay at the Lewis and Clarke Hotel, which McCaw also owned, a deal was struck and Keiter was to start as assistant sports director from September 1, 1941. In his autobiography, Keiter states how he was just beginning to learn the ‘real ropes’ of the business when on December 7th of the same year, Pearl Harbour was attacked. Keiter went off to join and serve in the US Navy Reserves. McCaw went to join the Army, but in a special branch, namely the Office of Strategic Services or ‘The OSS’, commonly known and understood to be the precursor to the CIA. They would later reconnect post war, and work together once again.
During his time at the OSS, McCaw was engaged in operations in Japan and according to his son Bruce, was engaged in something called Operation Javaman, which would target the Kanmon railway tunnel connecting Kyushu and Honatu with missiles from Javaman ships. This would have devastated the logistics of transport between the regions and isolated the most south westerly island, where the allied forces intended to land and launch an attack. The attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki rendered the project unnecessary. McCaw had been serving in the OSS with John Shaheen, the architect of Javaman.
According to the writings of Roger Hall in his book ‘You’re Stepping on my Cloak and Dagger’, during his time in the O.S.S, Commander Shaheen was also put in charge of ‘The Reports Declassification Section’. This was a unit with a purview on furnishing American journalists with selected information to promote the deeds of the O.S.S during the war in an attempt to justify the spending on all of the operations they had engaged in. Naturally these were heavily sanitised versions of cherry picked minor events and wins, leaving out the more salacious materials for a number of researchers to put together years later. Hall writes “Most of it went one of two ways; It was either written in our offices and released to the press, or the writers came in, were given access to the material, and then wrote stories which had to be cleared by the section. Whenever possible pictures were furnished to illustrate the copy. Which is where I came in. My assignment entailed seeing all the hitherto top-secret O.S.S motion pictures and deciding what could be clipped out and used for still shots in newspaper and magazine articles. ‘Deadline Johnny’ Shaheen ran the place as though it were straight out of The Front Page.” Shaheen was also an advisor on the film ‘O.S.S’ directed by Irving Pichel, a Jewish Communist who was later part of the ‘Hollywood Nineteen’, blacklisted from working by the House Un-American Activities committee for refusing to name Communist conspirators in the industry, and was then later found to be a bona-fide member of the Communist Party.
In later years, John Shaheen would attempt to start a newspaper called ‘The New York Press’, but was unsuccessful in his attempts. Where he was successful, however, was in retaining his government contacts, one of which was a lawyer he once employed who would later go on to become the President of the United States; Richard Nixon. He was a contributor to his campaign and was later appointed a ‘Special Ambassador to Columbia’ by him, and from their became one of Bill Casey’s ‘Hardy Boys’ spy network as a financier of sorts, going so far as to set up the ‘Hong Kong Deposit and Guaranty Bank’ years later in 1981. Cohorts in this little ‘financial endeavour’ included Herminio Disini, then purported ‘bag-man’ of Phillipine President Ferdinand Marcos. Ghanim Al Mazrui; a cousin of Adnan Khashoggi, who owned 10% of the BCCI was another director of the bank. Ghanim was also an advisor to former chief of Saudi Intelligence Kamal Adham. Linked to another Hong Kong based, BCCI connected bank Tetra Finance Ltd. The purpose of these banks was to attract petro dollars from Arab oil interests. For an example of this you can read an excerpt from a 1985 court documents from the case Hong Kong Deposit & Guaranty Co. v. Hibdon, here. Clearly Shaheen was engaged as the shady finance wing of some of the darker elements of the US government and beyond, the above is a lovely example of just how the money shifts around. He made an absolute fortune in oil ventures, and from the banks and colleagues he had, it is very easy to see how and why. Back in the 1950’s however, he worked with former OSS cohort John Elroy McCaw when McCaw decided to go back into radio after the war. McCaw had set up an organisation called ‘The Gotham Broadcasting Company’ which he used to purchase the radio station WINS where, according to author Bruce Wasserstein;
“He converted New York station WINS to the country’s first rock station in the middle 1950s, and within 9 years flipped the station for twenty times more than he had paid. At his height, Elroy McCaw owned interests in dozens of radio, television and cable television companies.” During this time McCaw was still very much involved in government activities, serving on the National Security Council advisory board, and the sale of WINS would later fall to Westinghouse, but not before he had made a massive success out of it.
Notorious Jewish gangster Morris Levy, owner of the famed Jazz Club ‘Birdland’ and other endeavours didn’t pass up the chance to get involved with the hustle and success that was WINS. This is yet another one of many examples when the intelligence agencies would be in bed with organised crime. Levy even had a show in the namesake of his club ‘Birdland’ where they would broadcast gigs to give the authentic feel of the music coming live from a jazz club, straight to your car, bar or living room. This was fantastic advertising for the club, and indeed the records that were released under his label.
As the phenomenon television grew during the early 1950’s, the need for content on the radio to become more attractive to listeners in competition resulted in radio stations being dominated by music, rather than the previous fanfare of actors reading stories for a show. The major networks such as ABC, NBC and CBS made the transition to television, which allowed the new more local stations to thrive, sometimes resulting in local disk jockeys becoming minor celebrities. One such disc jockey was Alan Freed, who today is known as the father of Rock’n’Roll, allegedly having coined the term. Freed had become interested in radio at university, and when serving in WW2 he worked as a disc jockey for the armed forces, and also as a photographer for the Army Signal Corps. He had developed chronic sinusitis and left after only 8 months. He looked for further work in radio and found it at a radio station in New Castle, Pennsylvania called WKST where he played classical music. Later in life he moved to Cleveland where he met the owner of a record store; Leo Mintz. Freed had already been playing what was then known as ‘Race Records’ on his shows with increasing enthusiasm. Mintz had noticed that local teenagers were interested in the new raucous music that was coming from a lot of newly formed record labels and bands. There is some dispute on the coining of the term Rock’n’Roll, where according to several sources including the Cleveland Jewish News article entitled “Mintz and Moondog Made Rock’n’Roll; ‘Alan Freed turned to Mintz and said, “Leo, this music is so exciting, we’ve got to call it something.” Mintz replied, “Alan, you are rolling tonight…you’re rocking and rolling…call it ‘rock and roll!”’ Mintz and Freed had caused an absolute storm by staging the first ‘Rock and Roll’ concert known as the ‘Moondog Coronation Ball’ on March 21st of 1952 where according to BBC reports an estimated 20,000 people turned up to a venue which could hold only half of that. People were breaking the windows just to enter the venue, and those with tickets could not get in for the overcrowding. Soon a riot erupted and the musicians only played a few songs. A man was stabbed in the melee of the chaos and riot police, along with fire trucks and hoses dispersed the crowd. The son of the venues owner, one Mr. Sutphin recalls entering the arena the next morning to find it strewn with whisky bottles. According to Terry Steward, the president of the Cleveland Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; “These songs were filled with double entendres, lyrics like, ‘she just loved my 10-inch record of the blues’… Many of the churchgoing black families were just as upset as the white families with this music being played for their children.” This event served as a tipping point of sorts for the genre of music, and whilst the FBI would put Freed under surveillance for his mischievous efforts, others were paying attention in a more advantageous way…
Both Morris Levy and John Elroy McCaw recognised this phenomenon, and especially the success of Freed in regards to his overtly charismatic, and highly successful music promotion. Levy invited Freed to New York in 1954 where he employed him at his record company ‘Gee Records’, which he had founded with record promoter George Goldner, they would later form Roulette Records which turned out to be in fact a front for a heroin smuggling operation. They had specifically set up the Gee label not only to attract Freed, but to get an early start in the Rock and Roll market, peddling bands such as Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. Levy was purportedly not that trusting of Freed, and was allegedly coerced in to selling his portion of the record label back to Levy in one drunken misstep of an evening. Freed was then employed by McCaw for WINS, where he peddled the mobster’s records, along with many of his own he had brought from his days with Mintz. From a small operation in a record store, Freed how had a vehicle to turn early adopters of this rambunctious new trend into the ‘early majority’ of trendsetters.
‘The Chasm’ represents the hurdle from having a product become niche and innovative to opening up to a wider audience. Today in culture, Instagram influencers and celebrities of all stripes are used as an accelerating tool to bring a product or an idea to a wider audience. They are simply the delivery system. So too was the radio, when this music was now widespread, prevalent and pumped in to institutions it could be rather hard to escape from. Much like today’s tech or cultural innovations, the youth of the populous is always targeted for such changes. There was initial pushback, of course. Conservative Americans in the 1950’s would be considered ‘Far-Right Extremists’ by today’s standards for their moral convictions and deeply conservative views. Parents and Preachers would rail against the music and the potential damage it was going to do to their children, steering the vigour and energy of the youth to a lifestyle which was deeply antithetical to the values they had tried to instil in their children.
One Reverend Jimmy Snow declared; “These men come down here from New York and Florida to find out my reasons on Rock and Roll music and why I preach against it, and I find that it is a contributing factor to our juvenile delinquency today, I 100% believe that. Why I believe that is that I know how it feels when you sing it, I know what it does to you, and I know the evil feeling you feel when you sing it. I know the lost position that you get in to and THE BEAT. Well, if you talk to the average teenager today and you ask them what it is about Rock and Roll music that they like, they will say it is The Beat! The Beat! The Beat!” No wonder there are now headphones marketed with that title as the selling point, today…
Freed’s endeavours proved to be enormously fruitful, not hampered by the fact that he would expand his media outreach in to several motion pictures such as ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘Rock, Rock, Rock’, ‘Mister Rock and Roll’, (one might start to notice a pattern, here…), ‘Don’t Knock the Rock’ and ‘Go, Johnny Go!’. In 1956 Freed was hosting “Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party” on the CBS Radio network. The president of CBS at the time was one William S. Paley, a man who got his chops serving in the Psychological Warfare Division of the Office of War Information during WW2. Freed was also awarded a weekly prime time series on ABC called ‘The Big Beat’ which was promptly cancelled after singer Frankie Lymon danced with a white girl from the studio audience, which according to reports angered both the public and ABC’s advertising network affiliates. ABC Television would also run the more ‘family friendly’ program ‘American Bandstand’, which was the visual version of the ‘Top 40’ format of music programming invented by John Elroy McCaw. The show not only made a star out of the host Dick Clarke, but served as a major national launching pad for many musicians in the decades to follow, so many that one would be hard pressed to think of a wildly popular music group who didn’t perform on the roster.
According to the History Engine; “One of the leading historians of American Bandstand, Matthew Delmont, in his book ‘The Nicest Kids in Town’, claimed, “American Bandstand’s daily images encouraged teenagers to imagine themselves as a part of a national audience enjoying the same music and dances at the same time.” Delmont also explained: “by representing the show’s teenagers consuming all of these products, American Bandstand constructed a national youth culture centred on simultaneous consumption” that imitated the larger consumer culture of America in 1957.”
Dick Clarke managed to stay on television, but thanks to his antics of pushing the boundaries too far too soon, Freed mostly stuck to radio. This, however did not stop him from engaging in more antics, namely of the more profitable kind which would once again put him on the radar of the FBI. This was known as ‘The Payola Scandal’, whereby record companies would pay off DJs in order to have their music receive more airtime, overriding the seemingly ‘organic’ audience fuelled popularity of many songs. Funnily enough, Dick Clarke actually was tangled up in a scandal of this sort in his very early career, but he co-operated with authorities, gave up his stakes in the record companies, ‘played his cards right’ and upgraded from radio to television. Freed, however took it further, going so far as to have his name put on records as a songwriter in order to receive royalty credits. According to former record executive and powerhouse Henry (David Epstein) Stone;
“Alan Freed saw me and called me in, and in those days you had to pay him $1000-$5000 to get a record played…And I always had a good relationship with him. All the other guys looked around like…”Motherfucker. What the hell, man?” All these powers sittin’ there and Henry Stone walks in and Alan Freed goes like this, waves his hand, and says “C’mon in,” and he takes my record and puts it right on. “Mexico Bound,” pa pa padda pa. It wasn’t that big, but it was a doo wop and he put it right on the air. For nothin’. So people can say what they want about Alan Freed, but as far as I’m concerned he was a pretty good guy. Actually, I know for a fact, ’cause Leonard Chess told me himself that they put Freed’s name down on “Goodnight My Love” by the Moonglows as a songwriter. Leonard was very close with Alan Freed, and helped him to get into NYC from Cleveland. Songwriter credit is an old perk, but Allen Freed never had nothing to do with writing “Good Night My Love.”
Stone would go on to be a driving force in other genres in the years to come including Disco, and also worked with Morris Levy first as a distributor for his operation with Goldner, and later on labels such as Sunnyview. As for Freed, the Payola scandal was one too many, and much akin to the chewed up and spat out nature of most who engage with ‘The Beast’ that is talent in the world of entertainment, Freed ended up dying penniless and alone.
During the 1950s Les Keiter had re-connected with John Elroy McCaw and served as sports director at WINS–AM in New York until to 1963, mainly hosting the pre- and postgame shows for Yankees broadcasts. He later went on to call famous boxing fights featuring Muhammad Ali in 1964, and moving first to Philadelphia then Hawaii. Also in 1964, the ownership of the New York Yankees changed hands and the team was purchased by William S. Paley’s CBS umbrella. The company appointed another OSS veteran; Edmund Michael Burke who’s time in the O.S.S had seen him carrying out one of John Shaheen’s wartime schemes; namely “The MacGregor Mission” which involved kidnapping an Italian Vice Admiral Eugenio Minisini in order to acquisition a vital piece of technology that would help the Americans with detonating their torpedoes. After the war, Burke had worked as a Hollywood Advisor on O.S.S methods, then went back to the newest iteration of the O.S.S; the CIA working in both Albania and Germany. Following the CIA (in an official capacity) he reconnected with another alumnus of John Shaheen’s ‘MacGregor Mission’ Henry Ringling North and his brother John to work with their travelling circus; ‘The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus’, commonly referred to at the time as ‘The greatest show on earth’. Here he would rub up against hassle from Jimmy Hoffa’s Teamster Union before his career with CBS, the Yankees and later owning them with George Steinbrenner and further serving as the president of the Madison Square Garden Corporation until his resignation at age 65.
It’s a small world, after all.
As for John Elroy McCaw, he continued to be quite the airtime magnate, and in 1968 he went on to be the chairman of Rand Development, a global policy think-tank that had been created in 1948 and since its inception has hired over 30 Nobel laureates. During the 1960’s it had employed Paul Baran and several others who were working on the systems which would later become the World Wide Web. This gave McCaw and his family insights way ahead of the public for what was to come in the realms of technology. For his efforts in music, Rock and Roll had ‘evolved’ from the governmental ‘cultural think-tank’ and drug den that was the ‘Laurel Canyon Scene’ and thus the throngs of ‘Hippiedom’ was now well on its way to dominating American music culture. There was an underground press covering this ‘counter-culture’, but it was heavily legitimized by the efforts of Rolling Stone magazine, started by Ralph J. Gleason in 1967 who, just like William S. Paley of CBS, had hardened his ‘propaganda chops’ in Psychological Warfare for the Office of War Information during the war. Unfortunately for McCaw, he did not live to see the full fruits of what his ‘Top 40’ Rock and Roll investments had wrought, when he died the year following his appointment at RAND in 1969. His widow Marion faced near bankruptcy, for all of John’s success he had accrued mountains worth of lawsuits leveled at him, and with the help of none other than William Henry Gates Sr she managed to settle most debts and continue the family business, including her arts philanthropy that mostly dealt with the Seattle opera. Her sons Bruce, Keith, Craig and John continued the family business, going on to form ‘McCaw Cablevision’. Craig McCaw followed his father’s footsteps in terms of dominating the airwaves; his focus was on cellular communications which he acquired by entering an FCC held lottery on cellular licenses, and then buying up the rest that others had purchased. In its infancy, cellular communications were rolled out first by the military. ‘Mobile Subscriber’ Equipment was the adopted moniker of the tech, and it was first rolled out in Operation Desert Storm to cover an area spanning nearly 29,000 square miles. That initial MSE tech has since been replaced with the far upgraded and secure network known as Warfighter Information Network-Tactical or (WIN-T). The brothers sold McCaw Cellular to AT&T for $11.5 billion in 1994, after which they moved on to wireless technologies. In the 1990’s, they went on to work with the progeny of Gates Sr; Bill Henry Gates III, initially on a project called Teledisic, which had a purview on installing a vast number of low orbit satellites to form a large communication web. Despite costing an estimated $9Bn in investment capital; it was ultimately scrapped. Their company ICO Communications later became Pendrell, based in Seattle and have been buying up a serious amount of technology patents. According to Geekwire; “Pendrell, a Kirkland company formerly known as ICO Global Communications and led by telecommunications billionaire Craig McCaw, announced today that it recently purchased 1,300 U.S. and foreign patents. The patents are tied to a number of technologies, from wireless handsets to video streaming to security to e-commerce software.”
With the advent of wireless devices and especially smartphones, these vast cellular networks built on the legacy of the man who introduced the top-40 are now the vehicle from which more music than ever is spread and pumped directly in to the minds of the youth of today. Like father like sons, this family has come to dominate the airwaves, but in a way that would not only make their father propound, but has collectively put them at number 65 on the Forbes Rich List.
As for the ramifications of having this music so readily and directly available, believe it or not the Top 40 format still thrives, even when people have absolute freedom to decide whatever they want to listen to on their personal systems. As for publically, in shops, public workspaces and more the radio stations still use the format dictated by the record companies in one form or another. Scandals akin to Payola in the 60’s keep appearing, with the most recent accusation coming, from of all places, ‘rapper’ ‘Takeshi 69’, when fresh from confessing to a slew of criminal charges including armed assault, conspiracy to murder and racketeering has recently accused Billboard of engaging in its very own ‘pay for play’ scandal.
Repetition of music can also be a fantastic weapon. In fact, in more recent years it has been, recent stories have broken citing the use of the likes of Britney Spears and Bruce Springsteen, played ad nauseum to detainees of facilities such as Guantanamo Bay. By no means is that one of the worst forms of torture that the US government has engaged in. The line between an aversion to liking something new and having it become unbearable was a phenomenon studied by Wilhelm Wundt back in the late 1800’s where he observed a clear curve in someone’s propensity to grow to like something with further exposure to it, and when that sensation is repeated to a point where the subject develops a deep aversion to it. It would appear that McCaw hit the sweet spot with his ‘Top 40’ formula, but at what point does the music do damage to the fabric of a nation? On the positive side it can provide a soundtrack to an era, and bring people closer together from all walks of life with a common and mutual understanding in the form of musical tastes. At worst it strips the identity and potential creativity of a generation had they been left to develop their own cultures and music, rather than have had it pumped in to the public consciousness at every turn.
At what point does it stop short of torture? Just enough that it becomes a mainstay of the public consciousness. For all of the books written on the rebellious nature of Rock’n’Roll in its many forms, and how much these artists were (and still are, across genres) ‘sticking it to the man’, The ‘Man’ was actually heavily endorsing them, and still does to this day. Rather funny when you think about it…