When I answered the studio request line the other day the excited and somewhat nervous voice on the other end of the phone asked if I could play a request for them. Sure, I said, what do you wanna hear? Well, I don’t know who it is by but the name of the song is “We’re Caught In A Trap.” Luckily, I knew that the song was “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley. And it was easy to look it up on my player’s database and slide it into the queue for play in a few minutes.
But that got me to thinking about how many times this happens. It’s more often that one would think; usually once or twice a show. And that’s nothing new it has been going on forever, and is quite a challenge for the DJ doing a request driven radio show or doing a wedding reception in a big dance hall. If there was a boogey man hiding in the closet for a DJ, it is not being able to figure a song out from a part of the lyrics.
Covers of songs are another thing; “Hey Mr. DJ, play “This Magic Moment!” Easy smeasy! Grab the Drifter’s record, slap it down on the turntable and let it rip on the air. Sure enough the phone rings and the listener says, “No I wanted the hit version, by Jay & The Americans.” I gently explain that there were at least three hit versions, the last by Rick James which was released in 1989. But the bottom line is that the listener is disappointed.
Sometimes it works out that there was a version of the song that the DJ hasn’t even heard yet. You get a hint of that in the request; “Will you play the new song “Sound of Silence!” Sure, the original release was acoustic, but nearly a year later a remix of the track, with overdubbing electric instrumentation with the same musicians who backed Bob Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" came out. Naturally I thought of this one and mentioned that this one was much better than the original. “Oh No, I don’t mean by Simon and Garfunkel, I want the one by “Disturbed.” “Huh”, I said, “Who is Distrubed?” It turns out that Disturbed is an American heavy metal band from Chicago, Illinois. Disturbed front man David Draiman delivers a gritty, emotion filled performance that, in my humble opinion, gives the song a dimension that it has long needed. Don’t believe me, Google it on YouTube! By the way, I hear that Art Garfunkel prefers the original acoustic version so I doubt that he would agree with me.
Another one of these is when I get a request for “Mony Mony.” My first reaction is to grab the version by Tommy James and the Shondells which is fine if I am doing my oldies show on WUSC-FM, but a bit risky on one of my shows on other stations where they might be asking for Billy Idol’s version.
Covering a long slash of musical history brings a richness of memories that is fun to share with other DJs when we sit down to talk about our business. I have a radio DJ friend named Erica who is a child of the ‘80s down in Florida. She sent me a message after I played “Can I Change My Mind” by Tyrone Davis one night. She said that she thought the original was by Boz Scaggs. Upon investigation we discovered versions by Johnny Rivers, Beach music adaptations Bill Deal and the Rhondells and others. There was even a version by Peggy Lee, although her’s is significantly different than the others. That chance encounter has enriched my playlist, and we both learned something new that day.
Writing about this reminds me of the way music found its way to the charts back in the day. There were three main methods; the first was the record salesmen who came by the studios once or twice a month with an armful of 45’s they were hyping. This was long after the “Payola” Scandal of 1959 so there was no money involved. If the Program Director or Music director didn’t like the song, it was out. The second was input from the local record stores as to what was selling. The third and probably the most important was the sharing of new songs peer to peer by DJs in nearby cities. Often when traveling, I would hear a new song on a station in Charlotte, Augusta or Jacksonville on trips home. I’d bring a copy to our program director with the information that this song was hot over there. If he liked it, he would add it to our playlist and more often than not it would do well here too. This is how the indie artists of the day would make it. That record salesman would ask the local DJ if there was anything new they were playing. He would take that information back to the record companies and they would go out and sign the artists to recording contracts.
DJs in radio stations these days have a bit of modern technology to assist when faced with a lyrics segment and either the incorrect artist or no artists in a request. Simply Googleing the lyric segment will often yield the correct name and artist so we can enter that information into the music database and get the correct results. Then we grab the search results and drag it into the queue and we are good to go. That’s not as satisfying as pulling it out of the hallways of our memories, but it helps in a tight spot. There! I’ve said it; there IS something good with computers in radio stations. Oh MY!